chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

14. Put Out

We all ate leftover pizza for breakfast and then sat down to plan our day. We were waiting for Ramezia to reply to Jerad, but he checked the messages on his computer and swore she hadn't sent him one yet. "She's normally not this hard to reach, sorry, " he apologized anyway.

Marle voiced some concern over Magus and Mishu's whereabouts, and I reminded her that going on a hunt for the former would be pointless, since Magus was like a damn cat and tended to come and go whenever he pleased. I was going to add that he wouldn't go too far without the Gate Key, but then I realized something: once Mishu showed him how she had been activating the gate rings, he wouldn't need it anymore. And if he didn't need the Gate Key, then he didn't need any of us, and he could tear off through the gates on his own pursuits.

I wasn't sure whether that prospect was worth worrying about--Jerad was still our best lead to Ramezia, after all--so I decided not to mention it.

Around the same time, Marle had a revelation of her own. "Hey guys? I just noticed, we're almost out of jerky and biscuits."

"Methinks it prudent to restock our provisions, then," Frog suggested the obvious.

"I guess we can buy some food in town?" Marle supplied hopefully.

I had to be the downer to point out, "But we don't have any money."

Crono reached into his pocket and withdrew a handful of coins that couldn't have bought a cup of coffee, even if they were current. "None we can use," I amended.

"Hmm..." Marle studied the floor for a moment, and then bounced up. "Okay, we'll just go out and make some!"

Not to be critical, but... "Just like that? In a weird town we know nothing about? What exactly do you plan to do?"

"Don't think so much about it!" she cheerfully declared. I was starting to believe that was Marle's motto. "Just leave it to me. I'll find something. Want to come with me, Ayla?"

Ayla threw herself feet-first over the sofa, springing upright and ready. "Ayla go! Get boring here."

Frog rose as well, tucking his sword covertly behind his cloak. "I shall accompany thee."

Marle nodded, gladly accepting company. "Great! It'll be like sightseeing! This is going to be fun."

Crono got up too, of course, and that made a party. He asked if I was following in a glance, but I stayed on the couch. "Eh... I'll pass, guys."

"You sure?" Marle pried, and I waved her off.

"Yeah, sure. I've got some things I can do here." Like keeping an eye out for Magus, and looking through that book he found while I was at it.

"Okay, then..." she said with a touch of disappointment that plucked a hidden nerve.

"You guys will be back later, then? I'll keep the place open for you," Jerad offered.

Crono nodded thanks and then waved Marle and the others out. Ladies first.

"Okay! Bye Lucca! Have fun with Jerad." Marle winked at me and then slipped away.

I squinted at the closing door, slightly miffed. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Maybe the lack of sleep was making me moody, but I didn't want to waste my strength running circles around the block when there were other things on my mind. I didn't have the princess's inexhaustible energy.

Jerad leaned over the back of the sofa and peered at me like some skittish bird. "I, uh, think we have a lot to talk about."

"Heh..." I could only imagine. We never really answered any of his questions about the gates and what we were doing with them. "No kidding. Well? Where should we start?"

I can't remember where we started. He was way too shy and stuttered a lot--not the confrontational type, I could tell. Once I started asking the right questions about his projects--and showed that I knew what the hell he was talking about--Jerad finally loosened up and spilled everything. It was supposed to be all business, but we sidetracked a lot--hey, it's not like I get a chance every day to discuss relativity, quantum jump theory and time compression with a fellow scientist.

We talked about the Network, the modern government and Free Bandwidth. We talked about history, both written and experienced. We talked about Jerad's old university, and books I would never see in my day, and stories forgotten in his day. We talked about artificial intelligence--and joked about natural stupidity. I wish I could list everything we talked about, but it was all such a rambling whirl I can barely recall it; ninety percent was total nerd jargon, anyway. I had never connected intellectually with someone as well as I did with Jerad, and it was really refreshing, even if he was only interested in speaking with me because I had traveled through time--through the gate rings he helped build, in particular.

Eventually, somehow, hours later, we got to the point. "So, how do you all know Ramezia?"

I shrugged. "We've only just heard of her. Ever since my friends and I discovered those gate rings, we've been looking for the person behind them. Someone mentioned her name when we were asking around, but that person didn't know anything about who she was or where she came from."

Jerad adjusted his glasses, looking thoughtful. "I see... So you don't know her any better than we do."

"Afraid not."

"So, how did you discover the gates?"

Without saying too much... "Honestly? Completely by chance. Out of all of us, it was Magus who had our first encounter with one. The rest of us kinda followed suit." True on all counts, relatively speaking, even considering Lavos. Damn, I'm good.

"Then where did you get that Gate Key?"

"You really want to know?"

"I'm dying to," he said emphatically, eyes bright with enquiry.

I couldn't help myself. I grinned impishly. "You said Dr. LEA invented it, right? And that you found he--his research on the Network?"

Jerad nodded, and I sat up and pointed a look at his computer console. "Show me."

I stood over his shoulder and watched as he sat at the desk and keyed in the access address to "The University of Porre Archives." Pages blurred across the screen as he fumbled over a search function. "Almost everything is scanned into their database," he explained as he typed. "It's supposed to only be open to students and faculty, but there's a crack here..."

Before we got any further, a scream broke the air. It sounded like a girl's, and it came from outside--somewhere really close. Jerad and I exchanged one quick, bewildered look and then bolted to the kitchen window. The street looked clear at first glance, and I had to crawl across a barren flower box (Jerad wasn't much a home gardener, apparently--so now the tree stump remover made even less sense) before I could discern the trouble. There was a gang of people at the threshold of the alley next to the building, mostly guys--five, maybe six of them--and one of them was holding a struggling lady.

"Let me--go, you--creep!" she choked while thrashing around the one-armed grip of the leader. He was a young-looking ruffian sporting carrot-red, shaggy hair and a green bandana. There was a knife in his free hand, I noticed.

Jerad nearly pushed me out the window as he threw himself towards that voice. "Allie!?"

The lady gasped and threw a stretching look up to us. "Jerad!!"

The leader followed her gaze and cocked a humored grin. "Oh, hey there, Jerad!" he shouted with mock congeniality, brandishing his captive. "This yours?"

Jerad was fuming. "Chuck!! Let Allie go!"

He laughed. "What? I was just showing her a little South Street hospitality!"

Right then another figure bounded up the sidewalk, and I couldn't mistake that green cape and leaping gait within a hundred miles. "Frog?!"

If he heard me, he didn't spare a second to acknowledge it. Frog arrowed towards the group, planted his feet squarely on the pavement and fixed his quicksilver-amber eyes on Chuck. The gang shrank a notch at his impetuous arrival, but then dropped their guard as snickers broke out.

"What the-?"
"Who the hell are you?"
"Heheh, nice costume."

Frog's gaze never flickered. "Dost this rabble harass thee, madam?"

"I--it--" Allie stammered, before Chuck jerked her back and away, tightening his hold. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?" he fired at Frog, whose steely look only narrowed as the Masamune rang out of its hidden sheath.

"I'rt afraid I must ask thee to step aside."

The other guys balked, as amused as they were amazed. "Haha, is this for real?"
"Geez, is that a real sword?"

"I wouldst unhand that maiden, before I art compelled to use it."

I knew Frog wasn't kidding when he used that tone. Too bad the other guys weren't so intuitive--their laughter cracked across the bricks in brash echoes.

"Hahaha!"
"Holy hell, are you serious? Get a load of this freak."
"What're you supposed to be, some kind of frog knight?"
"Get lost, froggy boy. Why don't you go back to whatever toadstool you came from and mind your own business?"

On that note, seeing what was coming, I squirmed back out of the window, sprinted out the door and down the stairs, racing to the action. Not that Frog needed it, but I was going to give him a little back-up. I totally wasn't hurrying to watch him beat the crap out of a bunch of thug losers, really. Jerad was two beats behind me, and while we missed the initial clash, the second round of the scuffle was about to begin by the time we caught up.

"What the--?!"
"What're you guys waiting for?" Chuck's voice was blaring, commanding, "Fuck him up!!"

Frog didn't even need to use his sword. The first guy was rammed into the wall with a crunchy wail, the next was flipped over Frog's shoulder after a poorly swung punch, the third took a solid fist to the gut, the fourth was dropped by the weight of the third, and the fifth had the good sense to flee, dragging the others with him. In less than thirty seconds Chuck was left on his own, clinging to his captive and staring down the cold blade of the Masamune.

"I am not one with whom thou wouldst wish to fuck," Frog said simply, dangerously. Chuck's hold on Allie slackened as he backed away, struck with a mix of outrage and fear. "You... you fuckin' freak!" he yelled while running away.

Allie stood breathless, in awe of what just transpired. Jerad jumped straight to her, gripping her shoulders and nearly hollering in unchecked panic, "Allie!? Are you okay?"

"Jerad! Oh my gosh! That frog person saved me!" She blinked, her senses returning with a rush of gratitude. "Um, thank you, Mister Frog!"

I stepped forward, making a point to congratulate him. "Now see, Frog, that was badass."

I hoped that odd croak he made was him accepting a compliment and not nausea, because he looked like he was going to throw up and with frogs it's kinda hard to tell. "I couldst not bear to see a lady in such peril," was all he said.

Jerad shook his head, aghast. "Allie, I'm so sorry. Chuck and those guys, they're just assholes. You sure you're alright?"

Allie nodded quickly. "Um, yeah..." I got my first good look at her: curly black hair, long nose, high heels, bright pink leather vest with spangles, low-cut jeans and runny mascara. Something about her bearings and high, vacuous voice was awfully familiar. Then with a wide, wary look at me and Frog, she asked, "Jerad, who are these people?"

"Hey Frog, what are you doing back here anyway?" I asked at the same time. "I thought you were out with the others."

Frog nodded. "Aye, I..."

"Heeeeeey!"

Speaking of the devils, we looked down the street and there they were, jogging to meet us. Crono was toting a bag of what I guessed were provisions, and Marle was waving her arm as if to flag us down. She stopped short of our odd gathering, sensed something amiss and asked, "Whoa, what's going on? Is everybody all right?"

"All is well," Frog assured.

"Ayla smell piss and fear," she noted blandly as she sniffed around the corner.

"Yeah, that was those guys crapping their pants while Frog sent them packing," I explained, garnering several strange looks from the fresh arrivals.

Marle regarded Allie brightly. "Oh, hi there! My name is Marle, and..." Round three.

"At least everyone's all right," Jerad determined, looking around with a flush of relief. "Let's head back up, okay?"

We exchanged stories on the way back upstairs. It seemed acquiring money was no problem once Marle discovered a flyer offering a reward for a missing dog. Ayla used her superhuman tracking skills to hunt it down, and Marle used her royal negotiating skills to convince Ayla not to slaughter the poor thing ("What? Marle say 'hunt'! That what hunt means!") With the dog brought back in one piece to its rightful owner, the group shopped to their heart's content. I could tell Crono had been placed in charge of the food, because most of the rations looked to be cheese sticks and jerky. I couldn't complain.

Just as we regrouped in Jerad's apartment, Allie yanked Jerad aside, and I overheard her whisper harshly, "Can we talk...?"

"Um, sure, of course..." Jerad yielded, and he excused the pair as they stepped into the outside hall. We were treated almost immediately to the escalating volume of an argument, heard plain as day through the wall. Our party, being the epitome of ethics, sat still and listened to the unfolding drama.

("Jerad! Who are all these freaks in your apartment??")
("They're just people, I, uh--")
("And that girl! I don't see you in four days and you let some weird girl--")
("H-Hey, what--")
("Oh my GAWD I can't believe I almost got mugged by those guys and you're just hanging out with some strange weirdos--")

"Wow. Awk-ward," Marle sang in a low key.

("No no, it's just--")
("You don't even call or text me and Kitty is so mean--")
("They're just--the project--")
("--you only care about that stupid project and you promised to take me shopping at DeVan's last week but Ryan says you're not even getting paid!")
("Wait, Kitty doesn't--")
("You weren't really at Death Peak, were you?")
("Ryan--what?? Allie, I--")

Their quarrel--and by 'quarrel' I mean Allie ranting and raving while Jerad pitched lame, delayed half-sentences--carried on for several minutes. Many of Allie's lines struck a chord, that painfully familiar one, until one in particular tipped me off.

("Why didn't you just save me the trouble and let that guy stab me right in the BACK--")

I gaped in horror as the key memory dropped like a penny into a piggybank. "Oh my God. Crono," I said sharply, getting his attention, and after a second he met me with a duly mortified expression--he knew what I was going to say. "Stacy didn't breed; she reincarnated."

Time out. Let me tell you about Stacy.

Never get me wrong; I like Marle. She's kind, energetic, cheerful, assertive, athletic, and always has your back in a fight. She's not always the brightest bulb, but she has her clever moments. (She also speaks three languages--not too well, but it's more than I can pull off. Unless empirical formulae and pig latin count as languages.) I'm glad she's Crono's girlfriend, because she's a bloody saint compared to Crono's last one.

Stacy. was. an. idiot. I don't mean she was the sweet kind of girl who means well but just doesn't make good marks. Crono made straight D's his whole life in history class (D's! In damn history. The irony is astounding) but I still put up with the lug. No, Stacy had that very special brand of stupidity that should be illegal. If I were in charge of things, I would have people like Stacy locked up before they do society more harm than good. I said so at one point, while they were dating (not even serious!) and Crono got defensive, telling me to quit judging people based on intelligence. We almost got into a fight.

I'm not exaggerating, though. Since we went to school together, I had plenty of opportunities to bask in Stacy's sheer stupidity.

She's so dumb she thought a veterinarian was a doctor who treats war veterans. She once told the class she was 'illegitimate' because she couldn't read well. She thought "socialists" were people who liked to party. She tried to return a jigsaw puzzle, claiming it was broken because the pieces didn't fit (they were turned over.) She once climbed a chain-link fence to see if her football was on the other side (it wasn't, as we all could see.) She thought that ice fishing was what people did to get the ice that's put in the fish buckets in the market.
Back in the third grade she broke her hand in a closing door and tried to get herself excused from math lessons the next day by saying she couldn't count to ten anymore--so okay, I give her points for trying, there, but unfortunately her ingenuity peaked at the age of nine. Another time she tried to get into the adult section of the bookstore with two of her (also underage) friends by pointing at the "Under 17 Not Admitted" sign and saying, "It's okay, we just need fourteen more people!"

It's not as if she was a helpless child, either; the girl was fifteen, and her parents had more money than Crono's and mine combined. She was just dangerously dumb.

And yet, I could forgive Stacy all that--kind of like how I forgive Marle for sniggering, "Hehe, butts..." every time we pass an imp (Crono called one a 'butthead' and she never quit finding that funny.) However, Stacy wasn't just stupid; she was a controlling, paranoid bitch as well. I avoided Crono's house for a couple of miserable months because I couldn't stand to see her, and then she had the gall to accuse me of sabotaging their relationship (except she kept pronouncing 'sabotage' like, 'stabbobage, in the back,' so it was hard to keep a straight face that whole time.) Which was completely absurd, but I didn't knock her teeth out right there out of respect for Crono (it had nothing to do with the fact that she was five-foot-nine and captain of our school's football team--not cheerleader, captain. Really.)

Anyway, I let it all slide for a while, until I was running into town one day to pick up some tools and spotted Stacy mackin' on some other guy in broad daylight. Stupid whore. (Okay, so they weren't smack in the middle of the street or anything, but I was taking a shortcut through this neighborhood I knew and almost bumped into them.) I ran to tell Crono about it, and he told me in no kind words to grow up, so I told him to go screw.

I was unbelievably hurt--I never, ever fought with Crono. Over anything. Yelled at him for being an idiot, sure, but never actually fought. That's when I decided that bitch had to go, so okay, yes, I became a stabbobage. Since Stacy was dumb enough to do her whoring in public, it was easy to set a trap that all concerned parties could stumble across. I did feel a sliver of guilt as I watched the carnage unfold, but only enough to not tell Crono 'I told you so.'

I remember sitting on a park bench after it was all over--looking too smug for my own good, perhaps--when Crono found me. One look at the devastated betrayal written all over him was enough to wipe my smirk off like a slap to the face.

At least he was direct. You were the one behind this, weren't you?

"Maybe..." I hedged, suddenly a lot less pleased with myself. He gave me that look, the one that always breaks my equivocations, and I buckled. "Okay yes. Guilty as charged."

Crono threw out his arm, exasperated. You set all this up and let me walk right into it??

"Only because you didn't believe me the first time!" I fired back, on the brink of tears. I hated fighting with Crono--it made me sick.

He didn't even have the strength of nerve to yell at me. He just sat down on the other end of the bench, utterly defeated. I was torn between running away and saying something stupidly honest--or honestly stupid. Either way, I couldn't stand seeing him like that. "I'm sorry. I was trying to look out for you. I thought you'd find out eventually--better sooner than later."

After a heavy pause, he nodded, his gaze cemented to the ground. ...I know.

I didn't feel like the good guy--if anything, I felt worse. I wanted to say something comforting--'You're better off,' 'She didn't deserve you,' 'It'll be okay in time'--but none of that sounded natural. It was just a bunch of hokey crap.

Instead I ended up saying, because my people skills are freaking brilliant, "Stupid whore. Why'd you put up with her for so long?"

Crono laughed a flat, mirthless note, and then admitted dully--because he didn't have a sign for it and I sure as hell didn't want to learn one, "She put out."

I snorted. "Yeah, so I noticed. Damn, Crono... You are not some big ugly chud. You can get any girl to put out that you want. Hell, I would've put out if it would've gotten you to dump that bitch sooner."

He snapped up, giving me a long, funny look.

"I wasn't serious, geez. Get real."

He huffed, shaking his head, but then smiled. It was a slight thing, barely noticeable, but it was the first one I got to see from him in two long months, and it almost made everything better. At length he said in a well-used string of gestures, You wanna go down to the ranch?

I smiled back. "They close their gate at six, silly."

He thumped his chest and made a running circle sign. Like that's ever stopped us before.

"Heh. I think we've shot out all their windows by now."

Crono held an arrow sign over his head, and then stood and waved for me to follow. Nah, there's still that weathervane. Let's check it out.

We snuck into the ranch on the outskirts of town where there's an abandoned, derelict storehouse and took out every single last damn window in the place with slingshot and rocks. It was wonderfully cathartic. That's the night I knew a girl would never get between our friendship again.

Anyway, I digress. I was talking about Jerad's girlfriend? That must have been why I blurted out, "Why do nice guys always go for dumb-as-brick girls??"

"Hey, that's not true..." Marle mildly objected, as if something I said hit close to home. Before I could make a defense, Crono gave the same answer he did the last time I asked that (God forbid, rhetorical) question.

"Because they put out."

Marle gasped and punched his arm. "Crono!" Her scandalized look quickly gave out to giggles. "That wasn't nice."

"Yeah, looks like that makes you two exempt," I jibed.

"Hah, yep!" It took her a minute. "...Hey!"

---

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