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Mona listened carefully, like she thought she might be learning some deep, dark secret. She didn’t, but even still, she let out a delighted snicker and nodded. “Oh, honey, I hear you. I run almost every last inch of this show, but sometimes I feel like the producers have got me on the world’s smallest leash, like I’m some kinda yip-dog. Business,” she made a disgusted sound and waved her hand dismissively.

Her eyes softened somewhat, and she brought her own voice a bit lower, too. “Oh, and just so you know, we won’t be bringing up any of that uh…well, that whole situation. ‘Course, you have my deepest condolences, I just don’t want you to worry about our talk turning into the tragedy hour. Like I said, we have fun, here.”

“I usually like to keep things open-ended, but when I was your age I hated being thrown into something blind. You know, when lil’ Deelie came through here, I let her pick almost all the things we talked about ahead of time.” Mona sat back, a wistful smile on her face. “She was such a sweetheart, too. Would love to catch up with her again. But anyway—figured you might feel the same way, so, anything in particular you want to talk about? Anything you wanna avoid? Don’t let the wrinkles fool you, I’m a nimble thing, I can adapt.”

Someone off-set held up their hand, fingers splayed. Mona gave a thumbs-up back. “Dinner’s about five minutes out. Bessy really talked this guy up, said you love this salmon. I don’t eat a lot of Tohoken food but that smell is divine.”
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Quinn sat back, silently proud of herself for actually telling a joke, and having it actually work as a joke. She nodded slightly as Mona quietly mentioned Hovvi again, how she wasn't going to talk about it, and said a quick thank you.

And then there it was. The things not to talk about. She did her best to gather everything in her that was brave, everything in her that was Roaki and Dahlia and Besca, everything that wanted to say, don't talk about my family. But...she wasn't Roaki. She wasn't Dahlia. And she definitely wasn't Besca. The words died in her throat before they could even be born.

"I—" The smile blew out like a candle in a sudden squall. "I don't—" It was hard to get the thought out. It was so hard to get it out.

It was impossible to get it out.

Without really knowing it, she grew quieter, withdrew slightly. And no matter how she tried...it just wouldn't come. So eventually, she just mumbled out, "N...no. Nothing."

Calm down. Calm down. Three deep breaths. The intense self-loathing receded some, hiding underneath the floorboards, and she managed to relight the candle and force the smile back on her face. The breathing always seemed to work. Still, only five minutes. It felt at once much, much longer, and like no time at all, and her nerves were already fraying. She let her eye flicker sideways, searching for Besca. It seemed that she hadn't come out of the kitchen yet. Still figuring out everything with the chef.

At the thought, the smile's hard edges softened and it felt a little more natural again, though it was quite a bit more subdued than it had been before. And as soon as Mona spoke again, she latched onto the new idea and did her best to forget about her...her par—about her last thoughts.

"It's really, really good. And I ate it right before the duel, so now it's lucky too."
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As the minutes counted down, the crew shuffled around with purpose. Someone produced a pair of small microphones over, unobtrusively clipping them to both Quinn and Mona’s collars. Napkins and cutlery were brought out to the table next, along with a pitcher of water, and glass of wine, which Mona immediately sipped from. A thirty-second countdown started, and with only fifteen seconds left the food was served piping hot. From behind the counter, chef Akihiro gave Quinn an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Besca made her way around the set, to Mona’s back, where she’d be in full sight of Quinn. She waved, smiled. Her look said: “You got this.” But like Quinn, she was undeniably still nervous. Mona was about as good a draw as they could have gotten for the first interview, but a million things could still go wrong. They had just this morning, and while Besca had tried to be as comforting and supportive as possible, in the back of her mind she knew it was ridiculous to expect Quinn to have a complete hold of herself after a nap and a few sincere words.

A beep sounded, and red lights blinked to life on the cameras. A brief musical cue played as Mona waved to the centermost camera, and then there was relative silence.

“Good evening, Runa, and welcome to dinner!” Mona said. Her voice seemed much bolder now, more projected, almost like a stage actress. “Tonight’s show is a bit shorter, but it’s very special. That’s right. I’m sure some of you watching right now are asking yourselves: who is this beautiful young lady? and to those first-time viewers—hello, I’m flattered.” She giggled to herself, as if in-time to the laughter of some unseen audience. “But no, no, really! A lot of you probably have no idea who this is joining me tonight, and I don’t blame you! But we’re very honored to have her here tonight, and—you know what, I’m gonna let her do the honors.”

Mona smiled to her, gesturing to the center camera. “Honey, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself? Tell’em why I’m so excited to have you here tonight!”
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Deep breaths. Deep breaths. More than three this time; just 'however many she could fit before the clock ticked down.' Deep breaths. Bury what was left of the panic so deep down it couldn't find her. Quinn was glad Besca was there. Mona was nice, she really was, but this place was still so foreign to her. Besca was like a grounding wire, keeping her from spinning out of control.

She really wanted to start eating. Desperately. Chef Akihiro had come all the way down her to make this for her, and wow if it didn't look and smell just as good as always. But she restrained herself; it seemed like eating before the show started wouldn't be a good idea. And she really, really didn't want Mona to be angry with her.

As the beep of the camera sounded, Quinn jerked slightly, taken aback. Oh wow. It was starting. She was...she was on TV! Some of that anxiety leaked out of her, and it was replaced with a kind of nervous energy. She smiled a lopsided smile as she looked at the big center camera that Mona had gestured to. She'd never talked in front of a camera before. So she took one more deep breath, reminded herself that Besca was right there cheering her on, and waved like Mona had, trying as hard as she possibly could to draw out that cheer that she'd lost.

She could already feel that nervous energy and anxiety balling up in her stomach like a chunk of lead, but she kept the enthusiasm on as best she could. So many people were watching, and Deelie was definitely watching, and Doctor Follen was probably watching too. So, pulling up everything she had, she let her voice go.

"Hey, I'm Quinnlash Loughvein, buuuut you can just call me Quinn! I'm the brand new pilot for RISC, and I'm super excited to be here!"

She was almost surprised at how...happy she sounded, and how natural it all seemed to feel, despite being so alien an experience.

Was this what she'd been like before?
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Mona grinned, clapping excitedly. Behind her, Besca was almost slack-jawed at how bright and giddy Quinn sounded—how enthusiastic, how normal. She’d heard her happy in the lulls between personal apocalypses, but this was so much…different. She hardly recognized her voice.

“That’s right, folks!” Mona said. “Quinnlash Loughvein is here with us tonight, and I could not be happier, let me tell you. But first things first—the entre to our entre. We had another guest join us earlier, a chef from the Aerie Station, mister Akihiro—am I saying that right? Akihiro? Well he came down and whipped up this salmon for us tonight and, folks, if I could just…”

She brought the plate up to her face and took an exaggerated whiff. “Oh, my gawsh. I don’t know a whole lot about Tohoken cuisine, but if this doesn’t just smell like heaven, then nothing does. Quinn, honey, I know you’re the star here tonight but I am almost as excited to dig into this as I am to talk to you, and it’s your favorite dish so I can only imagine how you’re feeling. So why don’t we kick things off here with a few bites, hm?”

Mona twirled her fork between her fingers and speared a small chunk of fish up. She popped it into her mouth, and her other hand came up over her lips while she chewed.

“Good god,” she mumbled, swallowing and turning briefly around to Besca. “He cooks up there for you all? Are you hiring? Oh, I don’t think I ever need to ask another Runan why they want to be a pilot again.”

She took a few more bites, and whatever idea Quinn might have had that the questions were coming soon and rapidly would quickly melt away. Mona hadn’t been lying, she seemed just as interested in the dinner than she was with her.

Eventually she did manage a question, unceremoniously covering her mouth to speak while she chewed. “So, Quinn, I gotta know—what do you do with that beautiful braid while you’re all set up in the cockpit? You know, when you’re running and jumping and blasting and all that, is it in there flapping around? Does it, like, smack you at all? I’ve heard it’s hard to snap a pilot out of the zone, but that thing looks hefty. I mean, it’s so cramped in there, isn’t it? And I wake up if I turn the wrong way at night. I couldn’t imagine having a flail come at me in the dark.”
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Quinn kept that smile as she settled back down. It felt...weird. It felt weird, and off, and not quite real, like it was more part of a mask than it was her real face. But, she knew, she needed to keep that mask on in front of the camera. This was important. The Board was already upset with her, she just knew it. She didn't even want to think about what they'd do if she messed up her first ever interview. So she needed to try really, really hard.

Of course, it wasn't entirely an artifice, and it grew even less so as she took a bite of that salmon that she loved so much. She closed her eye rapturously for a few seconds as the flavors exploded in her mouth, and it took all of her self control to not destroy half of it in two bites. "You know," she said offhandedly, "they've got yuzu soda up there. I don't really know what a yuzu is, but it goes super good with the salmon!"

A moment more of chewing and then another question came at her. She couldn't help it; she laughed a little at how unexpected it was. Not the kind of laugh that she'd affect if she'd had the choice; it was underscored with tension, with the same worry and pain that tended to lie beneath her voice most of the time. She cut herself off quickly, hoping it wasn't too obvious. Still, what a question. She'd expected a bunch of questions, but never one about the hair. So she took another bite, looking up at the ceiling as she thought.

"You know, I've...never actually thought about it." She reached around behind her head and tapped on the topmost plug. "I need to pull it out of the way so I can plug myself in, so I usually just..." She picked up the braid and lifted it over her head a few inches before it fell backwards again, "Pull it up so it falls over the back of the chair like this." Leaning back, she made a show of thinking before going on. "But I guess it must flop around when I'm connected, huh?"

She laughed again. This time she covered all the messy stuff up. People didn't want to hear that. It sounded a little strained, but nobody would notice, right? "Guess it's lucky that it's never come undone up there, huh? It'd get everywhere!"
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Mona laughed along with Quinn, it seemed, sincerely. She leaned back in her seat, daintily yet expertly picking out pieces of the salmon with her fork. The wine glass had taken up permanent residence in her other hand, swirled gently around when it wasn’t brought to her lips. If she noticed the change in Quinn’s voice, she didn’t show it.

Besca did notice though. She was used to the frayed nature of Quinn’s laugh, never quite right, like she didn’t really know how to keep the other emotions out of it. This was much different. It was clean, happy, almost curated. On the one hand it was elating to see her in such control of herself. On the other, it was so blatantly unnatural—at least to her ears, though no one else seemed to notice—that it almost didn’t sound like Quinn at all.

“So, honey,” Mona went on between bites. “You know I’m so curious—before RISC popped up, I talked to all sorts of pilots, from all over. Now, some of those programs run things pretty strict, pretty hard. When I had little Dahlia on her she said things were definitely a little high-energy for her. And that I get, you know, she’s the Dragon and all that—but what’s it like for you? What do you do all day up there? Do you like it? It’s gotta but such a jarring change of pace for you, I’m sure. I mean, compared to what life must have been like before. I guess—what's the biggest difference been, joining RISC, becoming a pilot? Me personally, I get anxious whenever I have to change hairdressers. I couldn't imagine upending my whole life like that, it must have taken a little getting used to, hm?”
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I mean, compared to what life must have been like before.

Quinn's smile froze on her face like brittle ice. "I—"

Compared to what life must have been like before.

Her voice hitched a bit, and she carefully put the fork down on the plate. "It was—"

What life must have been like before.

She started to feel a little heat building around her eye. No. No no no. She couldn't. She needed to...she needed to focus on the good things. She closed her eye for a moment, taking a long, deep breath. When she spoke, her voice had changed. Reverted. Not fully, but the almost...vacant quality to her voice tapered off. That chaotic emotion was bleeding through her now, and she couldn't quite hold it back anymore. "After—well, after—after what happened...it definitely took a long time for me to get used to life up there."

"It was...really really different. Back..." She swallowed heavily, carefully picking and choosing her words. "Back...home, I mostly just...stayed inside. Being a pilot is waaaaay different." She tried to push some of that enthusiasm back into her voice, but it was only barely effective. She let out a heavy breath that she didn't know she'd been holding and relaxed the hands that she suddenly realized had been incredibly tense. That was the hard part. The hard part was over.

"It's—it's busy up there, you know? I can't really train on the ground with Deelie—Dahlia," she hastily amended. "We both phase so fast that by the time we got going we'd have to stop again. So it's a lot of sparring hand to hand in the gym, and man it's a lot of sim training!"

"Still, it's not bad. The people on the Aerie are all really nice, especially Besca and Dahlia. It's..." She hesitated. She knew that Besca was supposed to show professionalism, and she probably shouldn't jeopardize that. But she was important to Quinn. She was going to say it!

"...It's like having a whole new family, you know?"
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Oh no…

Besca saw the shift instantly, in the look on Quinn’s face, and how her hands clenched frightfully, and her voice quivered as she stumbled over her words. She’d been worried about this—god, why hadn’t she said anything to Mona beforehand? It would have been so easy to pull her aside and ask politely that she not mention Quinn’s homelife. Sure, it would have tipped the woman off that something was amiss, but she trusted Mona at least more than she trusted most other hosts.

This was a mistake, and while she normally would have relished the chance to throw the Board’s own detached idiocy back in their face, the whole world did not need to see Quinn break down. She stepped forward and the crew around her all shot her looks of shock, like the idea that she might even consider intervening was inconceivable. Someone moved like they might have tried to bar her way—and she would have wished them good luck with that—but before she could step into the camera, Quinn…

Well, she didn’t do anything, really. She didn’t curl up, she didn’t stutter herself quiet, and she didn’t cry. In fact, what she did do was pivot expertly, even if there was still a shakiness to her voice. Besca blinked, pride held back by that same implacable uneasiness from before. She stood stone-still as Quinn talked about training with Deelie, and how pointless it was even in sims, and the sparring, and she did it in a way that probably seemed easy but that Besca knew was taking a toll on the girl.

...It's like having a whole new family, you know?

The hesitant barrier crumbled, and Besca was filled with warm joy. She nodded to herself, smiling, and felt herself relax. Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and a brief glance showed it was R&D back on the station. She declined the call—she’d made it clear that nothing short of an emergency would warrant interrupting this, and this wasn’t from the urgent line.

Once again, Mona dodged whatever uncomfortableness might have been apparent, nodding along and humming appreciatively as she continued to eat. Leaning in, there was an amused gleam in her eyes.

“You know, honey, I gotta tell you—and don’t take this the wrong way,” she began, one hand up in mock-surrender. “But when I first heard those audio leaks from the duel, I thought you were gonna be a little firecracker, if you get what I mean. I woke up this morning a little bit afraid you were gonna come in here and run me over! But you know what? You are really just the sweetest thing in the world—really, you remind me so much of lil’ Dahlia when she was on. You’re so polite!”

She took another long sip from her glass and set it down. “But—okay, I’m so sorry, I gotta ask. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is dying to know about your duel in Casoban against Roaki Tormont. Honey, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, I just could not believe how well you did! You were so calm, so in control. Usually you’re used to seeing people panic. I mean, that happened in the duels just before yours, and it cost two Casobani pilots their lives—god rest their souls, ‘course. But you came in there and it was like you were reading off a script it was so clean! Really, Quinnlash, so much respect for how well you did.

“But what I’m dying to know—and I’m sure I’m not alone in all this. What was the deal with how you chose to…you know, finish things up? What made you wanna walk away at the end, there? Not judging, mind you—far be it from me to throw stones at pilot—but I’m so curious. And then, we’ve been seeing some videos going around that she’s still up there? What’s the deal with that?”
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Quinn had been so worried about being asked about the duel during the interview that she'd talked to Deelie about what to say. And it was still enough to make her twitch, certainly. But after the last line of questioning, it was...almost a relief. She clenched and unclenched her hands a few times, took a deep breath. She was proud of the fact that her hands were only slightly shaking. She opened her mouth and...

...And her mind went blank.

What was it she had talked about with Deelie? What had she said? How had she responded? She realized that the silence was starting to drag out, and she filled it as much as she could by picking up her fork again, taking a bite of the salmon. It turned to ash in her mouth. What was it? What had she said?

"I..." Her tongue was quite thoroughly tied. She had no idea what she'd say. Something about...? She didn't—her breathing started to accelerate as she fought to figure out what to say. Oh god, oh god, her mind had gone completely dead. What would she—

A memory came unbidden to her mind, then:

Oi, deadgirl. The fuck is Ablaze supposed to mean?

I'll tell you later.

"I..." She swallowed heavily, looking intently at Mona. Her voice shook like a leaf, but she managed to string words together, at least. "I guess I should explain what Ablaze means, huh?"

She closed her eye tight, trying to focus on keeping her voice contained as the previous exchange kept its hooks digging into her mind, steadily pulling it apart. "When I—during the duel—or, before the duel—I was thinking about the kind of pilot I wanted to be." Unlike when she'd spoken with Deelie before, her voice didn't stabilize as she went on. If anything, it worsened. "I want to—to protect people. I want to k—keep everyone safe around me." She pulled in a harsh, shuddering breath. Her self-control was loosening more and more as time went on. "Like...like a torch. I want to be a torch and—and pull light along after me. And—"

She opened her eye finally, looking straight into Mona's. There were definite tears that were threatening to come out; too subtle to come out on screen, but more than enough to see in person. She could only keep the eye contact for a moment before she dropped her eye again. "So that's...that's why I didn't p—pull the trigger. I want to keep people safe. I learned to f—fight to h—help people. Not to hurt them."

She looked down at her lap, voice dropping low. "So it just...would've been wrong."

She leaned back up, pressing her hands briefly into her face as she tried to get her thoughts in order, only just barely succeeding. "After that..." Her voice was muffled through her hands "Roaki got—she got—" Her voice broke off and she dropped her hands from her face, leaving her staring at the ceiling.

"S—sorry. Just...just give me—give me a second. P—please."
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This was a nightmare. Besca stood there, watching as Quinn collapsed into the beginnings of a breakdown. The hard swallowing, closing her eye, the way her voice shook and how she palmed at her face like her mind was wet clay that wouldn’t stay in form. The emptiness.

Her phone buzzed. She declined the call.

God, and she’d managed to swerve the question about her life in Hovvi so well, too. She’d managed to do everything so well, so far, considering how badly things had gone for her this morning. Besca wasn’t sure if it was the question about the duel itself that had done her in, or if that was just the last straw. Maybe it was a bit of both. It didn’t really matter.

Another call. It took a sincere effort not to hurl her phone into the wall.

“Of course, honey, of course,” Mona said gently, and turned to the cameras. “Folks we’re gonna take a quick commercial break now, and we’ll be back with you in a moment. Stay tuned for the rest of the interview!”

She gave a brief wave before there was another beep. The crew scattered, though there was a certain awkwardness to their shuffling as they went about preparing for the end of the break.

Besca hurried to the set, ready to grab Quinn up and bolt for the exit. Fuck this. Fuck the interview, fuck the Board’s ridiculous demands, and fuck everyone who was going to see what just happened and judge Quinn for it. But she couldn’t. Not only because she’d never get away with it, but because her god damned phone rang again.

Incensed, Besca whirled around and pulled the phone from her pocket. Through gritted teeth, in a whisper strangled with anger, she answered: “Someone better be dead.

Back at the table, Mona refilled Quinn’s glass. “Everything alright, sweetheart?” She asked, and surprisingly her voice was absent any frustration or annoyance. She seemed genuinely concerned, if a bit confused. “Did I say something wrong? You didn’t mention not wanting to talk about the duel so I just figured it’d be alright. Are you feeling sick? Do you have a headache? We can probably push the break an extra few minutes if you need.”
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Staring up at the ceiling, Quinn tried her best to breathe steadily. She was met with...middling success. It wasn't as bad. But it was still pretty bad.

"N—no, It's...not the duel," she bit out, doing her best to force her voice to come out evenly. She picked up the glass of water, swirling it momentarily before—

Have some water instead. How's that sound, sweetie?

—Before her arm jerked and she rammed it none-too-gently back onto the table where the rest of the salmon lay forgotten, staring wide-eyed at it like she'd seen a ghost. The water that had spilled over in her haste soaked into the tablecloth, and her already pale face went white as a sheet as she shrank back. "Just—I—you—they—"

She didn't know quite what to make of what was happening. Disoriented, confused, and hurting, she could only reach her hand up again to swipe the burgeoning tears out before they could spill over. How did she explain this? How could she possibly explain this? She didn't know. All she knew was that she was ruining it. She forced herself to uncoil, sitting back down in a normal posture, though she was obviously very tense. She was messing it all up. But for some reason Mona wasn't—wasn't mad at her. She didn't know why, but it made her just comfortable enough to find her voice.

"I mean—sorry. I'm s—sorry." Another heavy swallow, trying to choke back the lump. "It was—it was home."

An honest-to-goodness shiver passed through her body when she said the word, and she closed her eye again for a moment, like she couldn't bear to look. She was ruining it. She was ruining everything. Like she always did. She looked down at her hand. It was shaking. Her whole body was shaking, in a way it hadn't in weeks. "They—I don't—please" Then she dropped to a dead whisper, barely enough for Mona to hear, let alone anybody else. "...Please. Don't—don't talk about—about home, or about—about—my—my fam—my parents. Please. Don't. Please. I didn't—I couldn't say—I'm sorry!"

As hard as she tried, a thin trickle of tears was threading its way down from her eye. She hated it. She hated herself for it. All she had to do was not do that, and she was messing it up. The taut tension started leaking from her voice, and she picked up a napkin from the table, dabbing her eye with it in a futile attempt to look like she wasn't one frayed thread from snapping.

"Just...please. Don't."
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Mona sat quietly as Quinn explained herself—or, did her best. There still wasn’t any judgement behind those glasses, and as far as could be assumed she didn’t seem like a particularly hard woman to read. There was obvious pity there, perhaps more so than would be found on an average stranger, but still muted compared to, say, Besca or Dahlia.

As Quinn finished, and dabbed at her eye, Mona reached over with her own napkin and began to dab up some of the spilled water. A few assistants started to approach, but she waved them off.

“Ahah,” she said, raspy voice low. While she was leaned over, she tapped a small button on Quinn’s mic and shut it off, then did the same to her own. “So that’s how it is.”

Done, she sat back in her chair and took another long drink from her glass. She took her time, then let out a contemplative sigh before she offered Quinn a small smile. The pity in her eyes shifted slowly to a knowing gleam.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that, honey. We won’t go anywhere near it. Trust me, for what it’s worth, you’re not the first one to have, ah, touchy subjects. Not even the first one to have a thing with their parents.” Her tone, will a bit more serious, was still light enough to be conversational. “You take ten minutes to really think about the whole thing—piloting, you know—there’s not a lot of room for happy childhoods.”

One last drought finished her glass, and her smile widened. “Oh gawsh, the stories I could tell you. The stories I’ve been told, and not even by the people they happened to! All the way from here to Tohoki the whole scene is just rife with family troubles. Not everyone, of course; lil’ Dahlia did alright, and I knew this one kid from Eusero who grew up with the sweetest grandma—ah, sorry, I’m rambling! Hah, I swear, sometimes it’s like the cameras are never off! But you know what I mean. Heck, you’re brand spanking new to this and you ran into a pretty bad case already. The Tormonts, oof. Helburke doesn’t do a lot of interviews outside its own walls, but the things you hear about those Great Houses…”

“What I’m trying to say—and you’d think I’d be better at this considering, you know, talk show and all—is that you’re not alone. I’m not sure how much of a comfort it is, knowing that, but…there you go. Anyway, like I said, don’t worry about a thing—we’ll focus on other things. Plenty of good stuff to talk about. You like sports? Oh! How about music? You got a favorite band? If they’re Runan, we could maybe pull some strings, get’em to—”

WHAT?

The whole studio froze, and then collectively turned as Besca hurried up to the set, stuffing her phone back in her pocket. Mona looked absolutely bewildered, but before she could speak, Besca blurted out frantically:

We have to go. Now.

Mona blinked. Silence fell upon the crew as dire implications gave birth to dire speculations. Even Besca seemed to realize, through her urgency, how bad that had sounded.

There’s no singularity,” she added quickly. “No one’s in danger, but this is important. Quinn, come on, we’re leaving.

“But—”

I’m really sorry, Miss Dunway, but this isn’t negotiable. We’ll reschedule as soon as we can, I promise,” she said, and was already starting for the exit. The soldiers they’d come with formed up and followed. “Quinn, let’s go!

Everyone else—Mona, the crew—turned to Quinn, confused and perhaps just a bit afraid.
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Everything suddenly happened so fast.

She was just barely starting to recover from her near-catatonia as Mona calmly, quietly talked her through it. It was a little like talking to Besca, the way her eyes the way she looked. No anger, no frustration, no judgement. She wasn't quite as sweet as Besca—little more jokey—but that was okay too. Her tense muscles started to slowly unbind themselves, and though she still trembled, it was no longer nearly as bad. She didn't respond, didn't want to interrupt, didn't want to hear her voice shaking anymore. But maybe she should've, because right as she was finally about to—

"WHAT?"

She jerked along with the cast and Mona, eye immediately wide with worry again as Besca nearly ran up to the set, then just as quickly started out. What? What was going on? There wasn't a singularity, nobody was in danger, but...then what was so urgent that Besca would pull her out. She looked at Mona and mumbled a quiet "I'm sorry," before following after.

It took her a moment to catch up; Besca wasn't moving slowly, and she certainly wasn't waiting. The trembling returned, and she slid her hands into her jacket pockets and clenched them into tight white fists.

"Besca," she asked softly as they approached the door, "What's going on? What's wrong?" And even though Besca had already said that nobody was in danger, she couldn't help but follow it with a shaky "Is everyone okay?"
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Besca was silent until they were outside, and the soldiers had formed around them. They mirrored her tension, shuffling hurriedly to keep up with her. The crowd was still outside, behind the barricade, and their cheering took on a confused twinge when it was clear that Quinn was leaving in a hurry.

I don’t know,” Besca muttered, and then realized how poor of an answer that was. “I mean—no, no one’s hurt. Everyone’s okay. I just…I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.

As they made their way onto the elevator, and the hard light barrier sprung back to life, Besca scooped her phone back out. They began to ascend.

Hey,” she snapped. “Get Dahlia up to the briefing room. And get ahold of Caster—double the guards in the medical ward. No, no one moves Tormont. Just the guards. Have the info prepped and I want the room clear when we arrive, got it? Good.

Stuffing the phone away again, Besca suddenly realized they were out of the public eye again. As if by reflex, she snatched Quinn into a tight hug. “Forget what happened down there,” she said, burying her face into Quinn’s hair. “I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you, and that’s not gonna change.

Eventually she did let go, but for the rest of the ride up, she held Quinn’s hand. The pastel world blurred below, and the evening sky darkened to a cold, black void as they finally docked back in the Aerie.

The railing lowered. Still holding Quinn’s hand, Besca waved off the approaching crewmen and hurried for the lift. Eyes followed them, as did the confused whispers. The TV screens about the station were mainly tuned to Mona’s show, where the woman was now explaining that something had come up and the interview would be delayed for later. “Everything is fine,” she said. “No one is in danger.”

The briefing room was empty, just as Besca ordered, save for Dahlia, who jolted at the sight of them.

Hey! she squeaked, and bolted over. She threw her arms around Quinn, then hugged Besca. “What’s going on? No one told me anything—why are you back so early?

Besca didn’t answer her right away. She went to the center table and checked something, stared for a long time. Eventually she snapped up, and brought an image up on one of the larger screens.

It was a man, perhaps in his thirties. He had swept black hair and a short beard, which was parted down one cheek by a long scar that trailed up to split his eyebrow as well. There was growth scarring on his neck, trailing down beneath the collar of his dark uniform, beneath which was the tip of a pilot's undersuit. The picture was clearly old, and had been taken of him while he was on the move, half turned away. His eyes were earthen but bright, like gold under a thin layer of dirt. He did not look pleased.

Quinn,” Besca said, staring at the picture. “Do you know this man? Have you ever seen him before?
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Quinn had to actively fight to stop herself from shrinking away from the stares of the—of her fans. She didn't want to think about it. She couldn't think about it. So instead of waving like before she dropped her head slightly, whimpering oh-so-quietly, inaudible over the noise. But it didn't last long. The creeping fear and panic that she'd felt back in the interview room was falling away, to be replaced by the burning worry of the uncertain fate that awaited her.

As they boarded the elevator, Quinn counted the moments until they could ascend and get out of the stares. As she did, though, she heard something that quickly disrupted that count.

Tormont? Double the guards? Was something happening with Roaki?

No. Besca said everyone was fine and nobody was in danger, and she believed her. But that little nugget of unease buried itself deep inside of her and took root.

The rushed ride back up the elevator was blurred, disoriented. Quinn had ping-ponged back and forth between emotions so many times today—good, bad, good, bad, fear, pride, guilt—that her nerves were absolutely shot, and this wasn't helping matters. But what was in focus was the way Besca held her, the words that she whispered into her hair. She was proud. Even after all that, she was still proud of her. And suddenly the world felt a little bit less unfriendly.

Quinn hugged her back, just as tight, and buried her face into Besca's shoulder. There was a sob in her voice when she responded with a muffled "thank you," but it didn't go any further than that; she managed to hold back the tears that wanted to spill out so desperately, forcing them to stop until the urge abated.

When the finally arrived back in the hangar, she made a beeline—though never getting far from Besca—straight towards the briefing room, relishing the hug from Deelie. She'd only been away from her for a moment, but she'd been so worried and so stressed that it felt like years, and now everything in the world felt right, if only just for the barest fraction of a fraction of a second.

But unfortunately, it was not to last. As the two of them separated, the image of a man popped up on the big screen. At Besca's question, Quinn tried to think back. But nothing came to her. And perhaps not surprising, considering her upbringing. She she only shrugged helplessly.

"N—no," she responded. "Should I have?"
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Besca paused, something like restrained relief passing through her, before she shook her head. “No, no you shouldn’t,” she said. “He’s been dead for two hundred years.

She brought up another picture of him, this one much more in focus. He stood in a group of seven, five men and two women. He and the young man beside him seemed to be close in age, and looked quite similar to each other, though the other man had longer hair, and was the only one in the photo smiling, aside from one of the other older men.

Eain iofkin Aridea. He was heir to the empire before Aridea broke the Illun Accord. That’s his father, his mother, his uncles, his aunt, and his brother,” she said. “Shortly after the empire glassed Kestren, Eain turned on them. He killed one of his uncles and fled with his wife—who was the head of House Tormont. That got the Helburkan resistance going, and, really, it’s what ended the war.

Another picture, this one of Eain shaking hands with a man who bore the Euseran flag on his uniform. They stood in the ruins of some large town. The hills burned behind them, and just at the edge of the screen was the massive foot of a Savior rising out of frame.

Helburke and Eusero pushed Aridea back to its capital on two fronts. The day the empire fell, half a dozen singularities opened up, and Modir came pouring out—nearly broke the assault. Eain pushed in and faced down his brother, Lauthric, right on the steps of the Aridean Palace. There’s not a lot of footage left from back then, but reports say he and Lauthric dealt mortal blows to each other, and Eain hurled them both into a singularity before it closed.

Helburke likes to rest most of the glory on House Wolghast, for bringing the largest force to the resistance, and the country doesn’t tend to look fondly on traitors no matter the intention. But history remembers Eain as a hero, if you dig deep enough.

She looked back down to the table, frowning sharply.

This was his Savior, Dammerung.

A final picture appeared of a Modir. Tall, slim. Its mottled gray-and-black body was striated with modium along the arms, and about the chest as if to mimic a ribcage. Its flayed grin was sharp and clamped tight. Its red eyes stared ahead like it could see all of them. In its hand was a long blade with a sharp crossguard, and a fuller filled with bright, white fire.

Dahlia gasped like she'd been struck in the gut. Besca's frown curled into a grimace.

It was the swordsman.
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Quinn could feel it. Quinnlash could feel it too, she just knew it. Something really, really important was coming. Why else would Besca talk about this man from hundreds of years ago? Why else would it have interrupted a major interview, her first interview? Whatever it was, it needed to be big.

She hadn't learned that much about Aridea, all told. She hadn't even heard of it before she left her own personal hell, and she hadn't had much time to study up about it afterwards. She knew a little, but not nearly as much as Besca was telling her. But...why? Why was it so crucial that she—they, Dahlia was there too—know the story of a long-dead prince of a long-dead empire? It just didn't make any—

And then it did.

Quinn's perception narrowed down to the tiniest point as the image of Dammerung appeared in front of her. She could feel her heart beating within her chest like mad. Every other sound was muted, and her eye was wide with barely-restrained horror. A sound like choking burst from her as she struggled to fix her eye on what she was seeing, and her pupil shrank to a pinprick. The last time she had seen the swordsman—could she still call it Dammerung? She didn't know—it had been pulling back a fist to crush Dahlia like a bug. It had nearly killed her. It had nearly killed Roaki. It had nearly killed Quinn. And the images of that horrifying day flared before her eye as she stared.

She was paralyzed again, brain barely firing as it refused to accept what was right in front of her. She was silent, staring, and without realizing it, she dug her fingernails into the barrier of the jacket sleeves on her upper arms.

All that came from her mouth was a strangled "what?"
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It was a fair question, and Besca didn’t have a good answer for it. She stared up at the picture, at Dammerung, and all she could see was it carving through Grauritter and Magnifique in the Hovvi quarry. She saw it emerging miraculously from the singularity in Casoban, saw it standing over Dragon, ready to take Deelie away if Quinn hadn’t stopped him. It.

Deep within Quinn, something sunk down, small and terrified. It left her alone and cold. Then, Dahlia moved to her side, peeled one of her hands free to squeeze tight, and she was only cold. Her sister’s eyes were fixed to the picture, her expression confused and distinctly fearful.

This,” Besca started, only to pause to collect herself. “This isn’t…unheard of, necessarily. It happens—happened, really—that when a pilot completes the circuit, or a Savior gets dragged into a singularity, they come back…reverted, into Modir. You don’t really see it nowadays, but especially early into the programs, it was a thing.

Dammerung disappeared after the war with Aridea, so it was probably only a matter of time before we saw it reemerge as a Modir again. The problem is…well, you said it spoke to you, Quinn. And I believe you, but now we need to absolutely certain, so…” she tapped on the table, and an audio file popped up on the screen. “Is this the voice you heard?

She hit play. For a moment there was nothing—an off-white noise as someone rustled around on the other side of two hundred years.

Then: “It cannot stand,” a voice said, so clear and familiar in Quinn’s ears, she might have been forgive for thinking herself back on those Casobani hills. “What they’re doing…what my family does…they wouldn’t see just Illun kneel. They will bend the wills of gods and devils to put all of creation beneath their boot. That…that thing, it will be the end of us. It is the bane of man and monster alike. So yes, captain. Yes, you have blade. Until Aridea falls, and Illun’s will is its own again to unite against our common enemy, we are of a purpose.
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Quinn shivered as Besca went on, Dahlia's hand in her own a comfort, but still not enough to dispel this horror, not nearly. Quinnlash's retreat left her with a strange feeling of absence that she had trouble explaining; like even when she was alone she hadn't really been alone, but now she was and it hurt. She squeezed Dahlia's hand tighter.

She didn't like it, the idea of people being turned into Modir by completing the circuit. It filled her mind with images of Dahlia in Dragon and Roaki in Blotklau and even of Safie in Jubilee, pulled into the dark wherever through the singularities and then coming back and all she could do was fight them and kill them. It hurt. It hurt really bad, deep down in her chest, a throbbing, pounding pain that came from the furthest reaches of her heart. She didn't want to think about it anymore, but she just...couldn't stop herself. She closed her eye for a moment in an attempt to compose herself that was met with dubious success.

As soon as Besca mentioned him—it—Dammerung?—it talking to her, she knew exactly where things were headed. So she had time to tense, squeeze Dahlia's hand tighter, and brace herself before the voice poured from the speakers.

"It cannot stand..."

Despite the bracing, Quinn couldn't help it; she let out a terrified little squeak and shrank backwards into Dahlia, like she could find some way to run or hide from the voice as it filled the small room.

She didn't move or speak until the voice finally fell silent and the audio file closed, when—if her reaction hadn't been answer enough—she said quietly and oh-so-tremulously, still holding tight to Dahlia's side,

"Y—yeah. That's...that's him—it."
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