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

7. The Booger Brigade

The diablos didn't feed us any false information as far as the gate was concerned, and we all arrived in Truce Canyon in one piece. It was just the same as we left it, stormy weather and all--which was actually more disconcerting than reassuring. Another day of rainfall had filled the canyon's trenches with mud that gushed like deadly rapids.

"Geez, does it ever stop?" I asked the sky, though the heavens' only response was to drench me. Frog blinked heavily under the onslaught, and Ayla perched on a grassy knoll, looking over the water-ravaged landscape with interest.

"Nasty weather! Been rain long time?"

"Over two days straight, now," I noted. Crono frowned into a churning ravine and stepped back from its slippery ledge. I looked over my shoulder at Magus, who was staring back into the cave we just left like a hawk into a mouse's burrow.

"What is it?" I called to him. "Do you see something?"

After a protracted moment, he whipped back around and answered curtly, "No."

I briefly wondered if Magus was going to offer another teleportation spell to get us to the castle instantly, but I knew better than to expect a miracle, and so did Crono. He headed out towards Leene Square, waving for us to follow. It was going to be a long trek in the rain, but I took consolation with the opportunity to ask some important questions.

"Ayla, when the Mystics came to your village last night, did anyone get hurt or killed?"

Ayla scanned the clouds thoughtfully as she walked. "No, no one hurt. Good thing, yes?"

"Huh." I mulled that over. "I wonder if someone was being careful..."

"What you mean?"

"You wonder if this villain didn't wish to upset the history of man?"

I liked Frog; he was always on top of things. "Bingo. I think whoever's behind this was worried about creating a paradox."

"'Twould certainly indicate we'rt dealing with more than a mere rabble of Mystics," he said sombrely.

Magus harrumphed at the back of the line. "Mystics, humans--they're all like sheep. They won't act without a leader."

I rolled my eyes. "Somebody's cynical..."

Frog tipped his head with a shrug. "There be a point, though. If we put a stop to this Heckran, these aggressions might cease."

It made enough sense to me. "And find out where these gates came from, hopefully."

Leene Square was deserted, and with good reason. The gutters and fountains were overflowing, and every corner was absolutely flooded. We were treading at least an inch of water at all times, and the stone steps dividing the plaza ran like miniature waterfalls. Eventually we hit the cobbled streets of Truce, where most people were going about their business as usual in the freak weather. Tarp-covered carts and the occasional buggy would rattle by, the horses busily shaking the raindrops off their brows. Every once in a while thunder would spark a chorus of neighs and dog barks across town.

We were plodding through the business district when we spotted her. She was standing alone on the sidewalk with an obviously lost bearing, wearing a white hooded parka trimmed with pink triangles. Her searching eyes flew around the intersection before landing on our party. "Crono!?"

Crono lit up like a foxhound and sprinted across the road, meeting her in the middle. The girl jumped into his arms and swung around with a giddy squeal, her hood slipping down to reveal a strawberry blonde ponytail and a familiar, exuberant smile. "Eeee! Crono! I was looking all over for you!"

I skipped over to share the welcome. "Marle! You're all right!"

The happy relief on Crono's face said it all. Marle pounced on me next--I got a whiff of some washed-out orange perfume. "Lucca! I'm so glad I found you guys!"

The others caught up with us then, and Marle went through an almost comical chain of reactions, from shock to joy to confusion. "Ohmygosh! Frog?! Ayla! Magus too! I can't believe it! What're you all doing here??"

Magus kept his cold and casual distance, Frog bowed before her with a formal flair and quirky, amphibious grin, and the taller blonde scooped her great-great-great-great descendant into the grandmother of all bear hugs. Marle squealed again, reveling in all the friendly attention.

"Marle! Ayla happy see safe! Still so small, though." When Ayla finally let her loose, Marle was bouncing on her toes.

"Haha, no way! Seriously though, what's going on? How'd you all get here?"

Crono scratched his head with an addled grimace and Frog gave a non-committal croak. I spoke up. "It's kinda a long story. We came back because we heard Guardia Castle might be under attack!"

Once reminded of home, her hands flew to her mouth with a gasp of horror. "Oh, you guys! It was awful!"

Crono snapped to her side in a heartbeat, fretting over the watery crease on the princess's face. "So it's true?!" I pressed. "Is everyone okay? What about your dad?"

"Daddy's all right, thank goodness, but Alsten..." She sniffed and wiped the corners of her eyes.

"Captain Alsten?" I recognized the name. Alsten was the castle's most stalwart defender, and a pretty nice guy in general, from my few impressions. I knew he was dedicated to Princess Nadia's protection, and Crono had a lot of respect for his swordsmanship--even if they never agreed on the princess's curfew. "What happened?"

Marle then lashed out, arms slashing through the air at long-past foes. "It was terrible! They killed him! He was trying to stop them from storming into the castle, and they just killed him in cold blood!"

Crono started. What?! "You can't be serious!" I exclaimed.

Frog stepped forward, broad lips and wide brow grimly set. "'Twas the Mystics?"

Marle was taken aback. "How did you know??"

"Yeah, about that long story..." I began, but Frog had a better idea. "Perhaps we should sit down someplace dry to discuss matters?"

"Oh!" Marle lightened with the notion. "Can we go eat lunch at Rick's? I ran all this way, and I didn't even stop for breakfast!"

I was hungry, that's for sure, and Crono and Ayla were the last two people on the planet to need persuasion to stop and eat. "That sounds like a great idea, no joke," I said.

"Lunch? Ayla like! Try good tomorrow food! Ayla suddenly want oranges."

We walked and talked some more, although it was tough to get over the loss of Alsten. Him and ten other guards fell that night, allegedly. We all wanted to hear more, but Marle wasn't ready to recount everything just yet, so we gave her a little space as we made our way down to Rick's Cafe on the pier.

At one point, she peered at Crono and said guilelessly, "I hope I didn't get you into trouble. When I went to your house to see if you were there, your mom said you were supposed to be with me at the castle."

Crono simply shrugged. She'll deal with it. Hell, we were eighteen years old, for crap's sake. What was Crono's mom going to do for catching him in a fib, ground him? We weren't kids anymore.

Of course, a princess's leash was supposed to be a little shorter, so I had to ask, "How did you get out of the castle, anyway? I wouldn't think your dad would want you to leave after what happened."

Marle flicked her wrist and huffed, "Of course not! Daddy never wants me to go out when we aren't under attack. I snuck out the same way I always do. It was a little harder this time since there were guards outside my door, but once I was in the courtyard it was easy."

I was impressed, but not really surprised. Marle was always crafty in a very reckless, impetuous way that must have endeared her to Crono all the more. "You're quite the escape artist, aren't you, princess?" I ribbed, and Crono confirmed my suspicion by grinning with perverse pride. That's my girl.

"Hehe, yep! I think my physical education instructor would be proud."

Rick's wasn't the nicest diner in town, but it was a good place to grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee, or to just chill out for a while. Apparently we weren't the only ones with that idea, and as we neared the shoddy wooden storefront, Marle pointed out the four young men slouching against the wall by the dumpster. "Hey Crono, aren't those your friends?"

Oh, hell.

It was Haru, Charlie, Gary and Liquel, a regular pack of shiftless bums and dumbasses who had taken to dealing drugs on the street because... I've mentally blocked the reason out, it was that stupid (it made even less sense for Haru and Charlie, since their dad was the chief of police.) We all went through grade school together--these guys, Crono and I--and while their antics were often hilarious, I couldn't stand them, and the feeling was mutual. Half of my bad rap around Truce was owed to these losers, and the only reason I was civil towards them--and vice-versa--was because of Crono.

I must have made some disgruntled noise that Crono overheard, because he gave me a patronizing pat on the head before approaching them. Be good.

"Whatever..." I grumbled, blinking back a rush of dizziness, and followed into their circle. Ayla immediately broke away to chase a flock of seagulls.

Liquel was a little guy with too much spunk for his own good. He had a clipped accent from the east side of Choras that made him sound at turns exotic and ridiculous, especially when he swore--which was practically every fifth word out of his mouth. He wheeled out from under the store's eaves with an exaggerated stride and started pitching, "Hey mofos, what'chyou--"

Haru sharply reeled him back. "It's not a customer, stupid, it's Crono." He tipped a nod towards us, lazy yet affable. "'sup, man."

Crono passed him a low-five. 'sup.

Charlie noticed Crono's fairer companion right away. He winked, trying to act smooth and failing miserably. "Hey Marle."

Sometime I'm glad I'm not attractive; I wouldn't know how to put up with crap like that. Marle seemed to take it all in stride, almost like she enjoyed it. I guess it would be kind of flattering, in a really obnoxious way. Marle leaned suggestively on Crono's arm--her little foot stuck up in the air, all cute and everything--and returned the gesture with the most sultry voice she could muster. "Hey, Charlie." Then, as if she couldn't hold the joke in any longer, she broke into giggles. Charlie turned red and Crono rolled his eyes.

Gary sneered at me and steepled his hands to make a broken 'time out.' "Hey Booger, crash any more attics lately?" The others cracked up in snickers.

Gary was a punk. Half of everything he said was punctuated with lame, misplaced and over-the-top hand signs. He kept saying it made him look 'street,' whatever that means (I think it's code for 'moronic'.) I'm sure he picked up the habit from Crono, except Crono knows how to be artful and concise about it, and Gary just leaves people guessing, like watching an epileptic rapper play charades.

At any rate, I normally didn't care about their jeering, but it was a little embarrassing in front of Marle and the others. "Damnit guys, my name isn't Booger," I said petulantly.

Gary wouldn't let it drop. "So did Mister Varg shit a brick when he saw his new skylight? I bet your old man's gonna be paying for that 'til Pumpkinfest."

Crono threw them a placating shrug. Lay off, it was an accident.

Sort of. I swear I didn't think a fifty-pound wagon outfitted with sled runners would be able to achieve lift with only five bottles of hydraulic propulsion. It must've been the damn rock salt. It was supposed to go forward, not up. Mister Varg's roof just happened to be in the falling trajectory.

"Hey hey, don't defend her, Crono," Haru peevishly jumped in, banding against me as usual. For the record, it was Crono's idea to tie the bottles to the runners. He never lands the blame for these things, the lucky bastard.

Gary looked over our rag-tag group with bemusement. "Yeah geez, what is this anyway, the Booger Brigade? What's with the frog costume?" He pointed a look at Magus, who was staring out past the docks and doubtlessly pretending we didn't exist. "And what's he supposed to be, some kind of vampire?"

"'Tis not a..." Frog started to speak, plucking at the brim of his cloak, but then changed his mind. Sometimes it was wiser not to correct people. "...Ne'er mind."

Gary bumped his knuckles together and clucked, "Whatever. So you guys hear about the shit that hit the fan last night?"

Crono shook his head, uncertain and unwilling to say too much. No, what?

"Shit man," Liquel reproached him. "What're you, deaf now, too? That's what you'd have to be to not've heard."

"Guardia Castle was attacked last night," Charlie put it bluntly.

"Yeah yeah man," Liquel parroted with a little more excitement than was tasteful. "I heard it was Mystics."

As a credit to Marle's acting skills, she seemed appropriately oblivious. "Wow, news travels fast, doesn't it?"

Haru smirked. "That's what you hear on the street. The castle's all shut up about it, like always."

Liquel shuffled in place anxiously. "So you mofos buyin' today or what? I got the shittin' rain dance over here."

I threw him a dirty look. "Why haven't you morons been caught yet?"

Charlie rolled his shoulders against the wall and grinned roguishly. "Because we're just that cool. It's all about the image, man. If we look like we're chillin' here, it's not hurtin' nobody."

"Loitering is a crime too, you know," I quipped.

Gary flashed some absurdly aggressive thumb-jerk. "Hey Booger, who has two thumbs and doesn't give a fuck?"

"What?" I gaped at his nonsense. These guys were the most ludicrous wannabe gangsters ever.

Haru followed up Gary's weird and vague threat. "Yeah, what're you gonna do? Call the Munic down on us?"

"The Munic couldn't come down on a toilet if he had the shits," Liquel remarked.

Frog's curiosity evidently made him bold enough to enter the circle. "I'rt afraid I don't understand. What are thine wares?"

"Wares?" With a strangled, bird-like caw Ayla dropped in from the roof, as if she had just hitched a ride on one of those gulls. We all recoiled with soft curses at her frenzied appearance. "What those, things for eat? Ayla want try!"

While the others were just recovering, Liquel took a cue. "Hey chicka, what'chyou need? I got--"

Crono barred both Ayla and Frog with an arm and shook his head insistently. You don't want any.

Charlie tried out his routine on Ayla, next. "Hey chicka."

Ayla merely blinked at him. "What you say? Chick? Like bird? For eat?" Marle tried to mask another giggle with her hand.

"Anyway..." Gary stuck a thumb at Charlie. "We were just talking about how pool boy here knocked up his mom."

Charlie flushed again, sputtering. "I did not!"

Haru explained for everyone's, uh, benefit, "He rubbed one out in our swimming pool right before mom got in."

Liquel shook his head with disgust. "You sick fuck."

Charlie's face fell into his hands. "Geez, why did I ever tell you guys about that?"

"That's what I've been wondering for the longest time, man," Gary said.

I couldn't believe my ears. "You did what? In your pool? In front of your mom? Geez, that's really classy."

"Too classy for you, Booger Lane," Gary didn't miss a beat. "I bet if you saw Charlie's mom you'd be lapping up her pool water like a dog at the toilet." He crudely wagged his tongue at me to illustrate.

I glared back, remembering exactly why I couldn't stand these jokers--the bisexual jabs were getting really old. I am plenty straight, thanks.

Marle cringed slightly once she caught the drift. "Ewww... What is wrong with you guys?"

Liquel shrank away from the group in some last-ditch attempt to preserve his shame. "Fuck you guys, don't lump me in this queer rim job pool party!"

Haru likewise pleaded innocent. "Yeah, I wasn't the one who jerked it in mom's pool!"

"She wasn't there!!" Charlie desperately wailed.

"No, she just walked in right after!" Haru riposted. Charlie swatted at his little brother. "You're not helping, man!"

I sighed. "Please. And you think your mom magically got impregnated by pool water?"

Gary held up one hand in defense of the argument. "I was just saying, it's possible! I read in a book that sperm can survive for like, an hour if it's not dried out. If the jizz is fresh, and it's in a body of water--"

"No, no no no!" Charlie panicked, and Haru started cackling, delighting in his own family's incestuous misery.

"No it isn't, you huge gaping retard," I snapped. I couldn't believe I was entertaining this conversation. Something about these guys always made me stoop to their level. "You are aware there are muscles down there, right? Not that any of you sad sacks have ever been close enough to an actual woman to know, but it takes penetrating force to get semen into the vagina, and then it takes the neutralizing chemical found in semen--which would dissolve instantly in a sixteen-thousand gallon swimming pool, by the way--to keep the acidic properties of the vaginal wall from killing any sperm cells that made it that far. And that's not even talking about whatever the hell kinds of salt and chemicals you put into your pool to keep it clean to start with, so even if your mom jumped into the pool after your nasty spunk with a damn funnel shoved up her cooter, she'd have a better chance of hitting a duck on the moon with birdshot than of getting pregnant."

The gang gawked at me with a funny mix of indignation and bewilderment. Frog's eyes went wide, though void of comment, and Ayla's face was screwed up with mild confusion that ended in a shrug--she was used to things I say going over her head. At least Marle looked tickled, with her cheeks bunched up, her eyes twinkling and her lips pursed with barely-suppressed mirth. Meanwhile Crono was looking at me with this strangely abashed expression, like I was the one who just knocked up Charlie's mom in the pool--or didn't, rather. What did he have to be ashamed about?

Charlie deflated with relief and punched Gary in the arm. "See? Man! I told you guys."

Haru shook his head, miffed. "Damnit, Booger, whys you always have to ruin everything?"

That's the Power of Science: ruining everyone's fun since the dawn of history--everyone else's fun, that is (hah!) I could have said so, but then Gary flung his arms in a small tantrum that rounded off with flipping me the finger. "Yeah shut up Booger, nobody even asked you!"

Liquel sniggered. "Haha yeah, big surprise a mechanodyke like Booger's an expert on cooters, am I right?"

This won a high-five from Gary. "Yeah Boogs, yours is probably wound up so tight you could pop a cork off in it."

I caught Marle stifling a sob of laughter and turned away, muttering bitterly, "Whatever. Are we going to eat lunch or what, Crono?"

As we filed into the diner, Crono smacked me gently upside the head. I thought I told you to be good. I turned to counter with something along the lines of, 'those guys were the stupid jerks first,' but then I saw him biting back a grin of his own. I wouldn't get him to admit it because he liked to act cool with those guys, but secretly I think he approved.

The most satisfaction I got out of the encounter was overhearing Liquel whisper fearfully as we left, "...There's really no such thing as hoochie acid, is there?"

The barkeep waved us in, recognizing Crono and Marle, and we took up a table and booth in the corner of the diner. We had to lure Ayla away from the fish tank by the window ("What? Those not for eat, either?") and Magus refused to part from the doorpost, but otherwise we were situated comfortably and waiting for a round of sandwiches when Frog enquired, wholly out of the blue and with the most innocent intentions, "Pardon my asking, but... what did that boy mean, to 'shit a brick'?"

That's when Marle lost it. It was that awful, lung-sucking, contagious sort of laughter, too, so pretty soon each one of us was infected. Even Frog started chuckling at the situation, once Marle apologized between gasping fits. Magus was the only one who didn't partake of our insanity, and for the disdainful look he was shooting us from the door, I wanted to laugh in his face and tell him to go to hell.

Eventually Marle composed herself, more-or-less, and finished with a titter. "Hehe, those guys are always so funny."

Ayla agreed. "All you tomorrow people funny! Good people, Ayla like."

Marle then looked at me with a horribly amused expression. "So why do they call you Booger, anyway?"

There's a good story behind that. And I'm taking it to my grave. I was about to take to Crono's grave as well, once he beamed maliciously and began to gesticulate. Because--

I snared his wrist in a vice-grip and said in the most lethal tone I could muster, "Tell them and I'll break your damn arm."

Marle might've laughed herself to death if the sandwiches didn't show up. Once we had our fill, she sighed and said sincerely, "Thanks guys, really, for taking me to lunch. I needed to clear my head, after everything that's happened."

Crono nodded sympathetically. Of course. And to think, he was the one paying the tab. (What? I was broke. You think inventing is a lucrative business?)

It was Ayla who turned serious and got to the heart of it, first. "So what happen?"

The princess drew a deep breath, folded her hands in her lap and began. "Like I said, the Mystics came last night. There weren't a whole lot of them, but a big group tried to break down the front gates by force. Alsten and his guards started to fight them off, but it turns out it was just a diversion. I was with my dad in the throne room when I heard that another group of Mystics had broken into the vault. That's when I took off downstairs, trying to stop them. Daddy was yelling at me to stay back, but I couldn't sit around and do nothing, right?"

"Did you make it into the vault?" I wondered, intrigued.

Marle nodded. "You wouldn't believe it--they were coming out of a huge hole in the floor!"

"A hole? In the floor?" I was incredulous.

"That must have taken quite the time and effort," Frog postulated.

"I know, right? Daddy thinks it must've taken weeks to dig that tunnel, because it leads all the way into the moat. I mean, half of it was filled with water--there's no way we would have noticed it before."

"How many were there?"

Marle's gaze floated among the flies on the ceiling as she counted in her head. "There was a really big blue guy with a bird guy, and about six henches. The henches were all carrying the Rainbow Shell out through the tunnel! The big blue guy was their leader, I could tell, because he was shouting orders."

I started making the connection. "Was this big blue guy a heckran?"

She snapped her fingers with a spark of recognition. "Yes! That's right, a heckran. I couldn't remember. Anyway, once they saw me barge in they all stopped. Since there were so many, I was going to use my magic to freeze them, but before I could get the spell off, that bird man threw a smoke bomb at me. Like some kind of... ninja!" She frowned severely at her napkin. "I didn't like his tone at all. He said something like, 'our regards from the lady.' I wanted to chase them but I couldn't see anything from all the smoke. Then there was a huge crash, like an explosion or something, and by the time everything cleared up, they were gone. They collapsed the tunnel behind them so we couldn't follow."

"And the Rainbow Shell wast taken?" Frog asked.

Marle nodded, her head bowed and her countenance brimming with remorse. "I'm sorry, guys... I tried my best to stop them, but..."

Crono patted her arm consolingly while Ayla piped up, "Is okay. Marle try hard, do good! Mystics bad guys, steal from Ioka and Guardia."

"Yeah, I can't believe they orchestrated something this elaborate through the gates," I concurred. "Magus is right; it can't just be the Mystics. There's something big behind this--someone who really knows what they're doing."

"Ramezia, mayhaps?" Frog suggested. He glanced to Marle. "Didst not one of them mention a lady?"

Marle nodded. "I believe so. Why, does it help?"

I scratched my head, puzzled. "Not really... We still don't know enough. I actually can't stop thinking about what happened in Ayla's village. It's like, the same person who ordered the attack on the castle in our time and killed all those guards didn't want to hurt a single soul from Ioka. I mean sure, it could just be to prevent some kind of backlash in history, but what if it's something more? What if the human race was preserved intentionally? Perhaps this person is even a human himself."

"A human in charge of Mystics attacking other humans?" Marle echoed, and in tandem so precise it was almost hilarious, we all looked at Magus.

The dark wizard stepped off the doorframe, shoulders squared and sharp nose lowered dangerously. "...Am I being accused of something?"

"Well..." Frog drawled, his point lingering thickly on his tongue. If I can say anything about Frog, it's that he's a saint for ever putting up with Magus at all. If any one man bore the brunt of Magus's crimes against humanity, it was poor Glenn, and he had every reason to settle the score with Magus at the first opportunity.

Strangely enough, that's not what happened--instead the two developed a threadbare truce over the duration of our quest to stop Lavos, and then went their separate ways, Frog playing the merciful knight card. I'm not entirely sure what kept them from going at each other's throats now, unless there was a particular code of chivalry and/or evil wizardry that I was missing. Maybe Magus was too lazy--maybe Frog honestly didn't have a vindictive bone in his (somewhat rubbery) body--or maybe they were only waiting for the perfect moment.

All I could do was stall that moment as long as possible; we needed both of them intact to move on with our new adventure. "No," I hastily corrected. "You just illustrate the point that anything's possible."

Magus snorted. "I didn't have anything to do with this. Like I even care."

"Then why art thou here?" Frog asked scathingly.

There was a ponderous silence, and before Magus could shoot lasers out of his eyes or something, Marle picked up my slack, speaking quickly, "Anyway I don't know, Lucca. I think whoever was behind this was just being careful. Why create a paradox, like you said, if you can avoid it? Whoever this is wants the present intact, just the way it is."

"I guess..." I sighed, leaning over the table and onto my elbows. "I hate that it's all happening like this. I keep feeling like we just missed the boat. ...I'm really sorry about Captain Alsten, Marle," I added, for what my impotent condolences were worth.

"Ayla sorry, too." She banged a fist on the countertop, making a saucer jump. "Ayla make Mystics pay for Marle!"

Marle shook her head gently, and then said with her own strange, benevolent brand of insight, "It's okay. We shouldn't hate the Mystics. Not all of them are bad, you know? I just want to figure out what's going on, like you guys." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, soft eyes alight with a stray thought. "You know what else is really weird, though? Down in the vault, before they noticed me there, I overheard one of them say they got the Sun Stone." She gave a witless shrug. "I didn't even know we had it at the castle. I thought it was at your house, Lucca?"

The memory of Magus poking into a sunlight chest darted through my mind. Yes, it was. In the attic. In my house. And the Mystics had found it. Mystics--real "death to all humans," old-school, warmongering Mystics--in my attic, in my house.

With my parents.

Everything ran cold. Magus just stared at me, almost daring to smirk. He knew, and Crono knew too, because there was a wide flash of panic in his eyes that couldn't mean anything but Oh, shit.

I didn't even stop to think--I got up and ran.

---

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