Hey, Sander. Long time no talk-- you still interested in training?
Hey. Sure. Training would be nice.
Tonight after curfew. Can you meet me in Ground Zero?
I'll get you a pass. dw. Can you make it?
What time, exactly?
Ye I'll swing by and pick you up. They won't let you out of the dorm without a pass
I'll see you, then.
Make sure you get some extra rest, okay? I need you at 100
You'll have me.
As promised, Callan arrived on time that night. Not at all late, which was nothing short of a miracle. But she'd be hard pressed to fudge this up when sparing with Sander had been on her mind ever since their last match-- and especially this last week. She texted a quick "I'm here" to Sander's phone, not wanting to disturb any who might be sleeping-- or arouse any suspiscion.
Immediately, the door swung open, as if Sander had been standing right there waiting for her. He had dressed nicely, crisp shirt and jeans, more suitable for an evening out rather than a sparring match. But it was what he felt comfortable in, so the choice was easy.
" -The blood mage greeted her with an easy smile -"Let's go.
Startled, Callan leaned back slightly when the door flew open. She was almost tempted to make a joke about it, but her eyes were quickly drawn to Sander's attire. She'd almost forgotten... but she'd already given him a hard time about what he considered to be proper training gear in the past. So for now there was only one thing left to do.
"You look like you just got back from a date,
" she teased as they began walking, happy to be talking with Sander again. He was still a weirdo, but it was nice knowing all her friendships hadn't completely dissolved during her reclusive episode at the estate. Not only that, but something about him seemed almost a little bit cheerier. And she thought she could guess why.
" -Sander raised an eyebrow, hauling the cooler of blood after him. Still, the smile lingered on the corners of lips, unlike the last time they did this -"I had no dates.
Oblivious as ever. "Nothing, nevermind,
" she laughed incredulously, stopping mid-chortle when her nose suddenly caught a whiff of... was that cologne?
Shaking her head to herself, Callan decided to change the subject.
"Got enough blood?
" she asked, just trying to make conversation as she eyed the cooler.
"We will see.
" -Sander only shrugged. He did carry far more than he needed, but with the new limits of his power, he imagined his surge of power would last as long as Cal needed.
" she said simply. Not much to go off of, but it was fine. After almost a month of not speaking to Sander, she couldn't exactly say she was used to it., but the silence that followed left her feeling a little less desperate to fill it. Her mind drifted back to the last time she'd even seen him. Not since the helicopter ride back from the island. Before that was the water... and then the fight with that shadow monster mage. Head filled with thoughts, she didn't even realize she'd been staring at him.
Sander stared back, an eyebrow arched.
Callan blinked up at him, surprised to suddenly notice Sander staring right back. She quickly looked away, "Nothing,
" she laughed nervously, "Just, uh....
" Sander was really good looking.
"How've you been?
" -Another smile stretched Sander's lips, as if he found something amusing -"Best I have been in a while, though.
"How about you?
It was nice to see Sander doing so well.
" she grinned, "Been training all week is all.
" There was a clear relief in the words. She hadn't gotten the chance to talk about it with anyone, afraid they might ask too many questions. Best to get it all out now.
"Training? So what are we doing today?
" Callan hummed, "I was hoping we could try some stuff with Misery tonight. Since that's what I've been working on. But we don't have to-- we can save it for another time if you're not comfortable.
" -Sander thought back to their first spar, and how that ended quite horribly. Well, he was weaker then. Things had changed -"We can do anything you want.
"Alright, then. Cool,
" she said, her tone a little less enthused. Had part of her hoped he'd say no? It wasn't as if she was still too terrified to summon Misery. Especially not after the week she'd had. But the idea of Sander potentially being hurt was still an uncomfortable possibility.
" Callan chirped, trying to lighten the mood. She flashed him a somewhat mischevious smile, "You and Christmas look like you've gotten pretty close. It's been a while since we talked, so... I expect a full report.
"What do you want to know?
" -The sudden nickname made Sander raise an eyebrow, but he did not comment on it.
" she shifted the bag over her shoulder, "Are you guys dating now?
" -Sander admited easily, though it was clear he was gauging her reactions.
Her eyes lit up, smile widening. "Congrats!
" Callan playfully shoved him in the shoulder, a little too rough. "Whoops. Sorry, forgot you aren't charged up yet,
" she patted his sleeve gently, like the dead arm that resulted could be brushed off as easily as a bit of dust.
"But hey, seriously. I'm really happy for you!
" -Sander forced a smile, kneading at the ache on his arm.
Callan grimaced. It would be a few minutes before they reached ground zero. "You need an ice pack? I brought some.
"An ice pack for?
"For your shoulder,
" she answered flatly.
"My shoulder is fine.
-Sander shrugged -"I think I told you before? Don't have to worry about me.
" Callan clicked her tongue. Now she remembered, "I know you self heal and all, but if it hurts, you can tell me.
Letting the subject go for now, Callan sighed. "How's your boyfriend doing, by the way?
"He's fine. Do you want to see him?
A nervous chuckle. What kind of question was that? "Did you want me to see him?
"It's up to you.
A nervous laugh. What did he mean by that? "Okay... yeah... m-maybe later.
The rest of the walk to Ground Zero went by with similiar gaps of awkward silence and Callan's occassional attempt at conversing. Sander's shirt came from a store. An expensive
store. Sander still didn't know how to swim. No, he'd never been to The Whistle Sip. No, he didn't know what bubble tea was.
With a defeated sigh as they finally reached what Callan had so far proclaimed her official training grounds, she set the duffel bag and first aid kid on a nearby bench and began stretching. Her body was still sore. Not as bad as two days ago... but it was a fair price to pay. Nothing that would severely hinder her training with Sander tonight. She glanced at the lights of the diner on the other side of the large park, a distant look in her eye as she remembered the turmoil of her first night.
Meanwhile, Sander was preparing silently. He already knew what the Change entailed, so he was quite confident that he could stay in full control. Yet, nerves pulled at his thoughts. Old habits died hard, after all. So he pressed a cannister against his lips and took a swig. The familiar metallic taste filled his mouth quickly; the blood was gasoline and his power was a spark. Power exploded in the rapid beats of his heart, and strength surged through his system. All familiar sensations, yet Sander could easily tell what was different. His power used to be a fearsome beast; it raved at his restrains and let loose his deepest, darkest desires. Now, it felt little more than a trained dog. It would snap and bark and snarl only at his behest. He could still feel the murderous intents and dark cravings, though, lurking beneath, but the feelings were so faint and weak that Sander believed it would take far more than his will to invoke.
By the time he finished most of his blood cache, red smoke was wisping up from his torso and his eyes were glowing a bright red. He stood still though, arms lax at his sides as he waited for Callan. He didn't have to wait long. Callan slid out of her hoodie and left it by the bag-- safe from the impending fight. Turning to face Sander, she quietly took in his appearance.
"You've gotten stronger, right? Since the last time,
" she guessed, remembering the conversation she had with Emma. All of her improvements so far had been for Misery. Not that she wasn't happy to have the reigns or for the weapons she was able to summon now (even if they were ridiculously heavy), but... giving it the ability to fly had seemed more like a cruel joke.
"Yes. I think.
" -Sander smiled, reaching up to unbutton his shirt -"What do you want do?
Callan looked unsure for a brief moment before heading towards the park's center. "First person to get pinned wins. Sound fair?
"So...do you want to win?
"Only if you do,
" Callan smirked at him over her shoulder, "I mean it-- don't go easy on me this time!
" -Sander nodded, shrugging off his shirt and folding it neatly, before putting it in a safe spot with the cooler -"Go all out. It'll be fine.
"You don't have to tell me that!
" Callan called.
A moment later, and Callan stood across from Sander, crouched as she counted down. Sander kept a neutral stance though, and suddenly, both him and Callan was glowing red, the aura draping over them like a warm cloak. Callan looked down at her hands in surprise. She hadn't even thought to use Sander's invincibility for sparring-- it was a good idea considering what happened last time. She nodded in thanks, "Two... one... go!
She'd tried to use her spare time to look up fighting techniques online, but somehow they all felt a little lacking. Obviously not designed for people who could dig craters into the ground just by jumping or running a littletoo hard, but... better than nothing. Even if, until now, she'd had no way to apply them on an actual opponent. Fists up, Callan's shoes dug into the dirt as she aimed a kick at his side. Sander only grinned as he caught the leg and lunged forward, intending to knock Callan out of balance. Her eyes widened in surprise. She couldn't keep up! The remaining leg lost contact with the ground and she slipped backwards, grunting as she hit the ground. With the assurance of his power around both of them, Sander allowed himself to use his full strength. With one arm hooked around the back of Callan's knee, his other hand gripped her shoulder to keep her pin down.
" -The blood mage grinned, though he still hadn't loosened his grip one bit.
Callan stared up at him, her expression quickly melting from shock to irritation, "Yeah, yeah. Now get off. Let's go again.
The matches continued. One after the other in quick succession. Callan lost more than she would've liked and the victories she did claim didn't feel exactly right. Sander had gotten stronger, but as they fought, she didn't get the impression he was any more so than herself. Just half a foot taller, give or take.
Almost an hour later, she found herself pinned in the exact same position. Staring up at the exact same smirk. "Ugh,
" breathing heavily, she gave him a weak shove, "Okay, I think that's enough for now. Let's take a break.
" -The blood mage straightened up then, offering a hand to Callan, though he had yet to wiped the smile off his face. He had just never allowed himself to fight with such deliberation and excitement. It was exhilirating.
Callan stared at his hand for a moment. Almost petty enough not to take it. "Thanks,
" she sighed, still trying to catch her breath. She made her way quickly over to the bench, sitting down heavily and grabbing her bag, fishing around inside for a much needed drink or two. Sander just took a seat right on the packed dirt, traces of a smile were still lingering on his expression, but when he turned to address Callan, his eyes were serious. He was once again gauging her reactions closely.
"So...was it okay?
Unscrewing the top off a luke warm sports drink, Callan tiredly sighed again, resting it in her lap. She peeked at him sideways, noticing the look on his face. Real proud of himself, wasn't he? She inwardly groaned, always the sore loser. No use getting bent up over it. Baby steps, she tried to remind herself.
"Heh... Yeah, you did good,
" she admitted, smiling, "Not a single biting incident and you won a lot. Beat me fair and square.
" She held the drink towards him, already reaching into her bag for a second.
Sander paled slightly at the mention of 'biting incidents', but he recovered soon enough, lips stretching into another smile.
" -He inched closer to grab the offered bottle, though he did not drink.
It wasn't nearly as refreshing warm. Taking modest sip, she thought about bringing a cooler of her own next time-- wasn't like it'd be too heavy to carry. Her eyes fell on Sander's untouched drink as she finished. "Not thirsty?
" she quipped.
" -Sander said, but he took a sip then, seemingly to placate Callan -"But...yeah this tastes nice.
"You don't have to drink it if you don't want to,
" she smirked.
"But you want me to, right?
Callan laughed, "Dude, I don't care. I just thought you might want one after all that fighting.... Then again, I guess you don't look very tired...
"I only get tired...after.
She quirked an eyebrow in surprise, "Oh.
" Her eyes flickered from the mark to his glowing red irises, "That explains a lot.
" She quietly took another sip of her drink. Certainly explained why he was beating her so easily those last few rounds....
"Well, you can save it for later if you want. I just need a few more minutes....
" she more hurriedly took another drink, not wanting to make Sander wait too long.
" -Sander looked at her with a bit of concern now -"Take your time.
Already in the middle of downing the last bit, Callan crushed the hard plastic bottle in her hand and leaned against the back of the bench. She stared up at the sky, letting her breaths even out. She wiped some sweat off of her temple with the back of her hand, expression darkening as her thoughts turned towards thier next task. That only worried Sander more. He left his bottle on the ground before walking closer to where Callan was, watching her intently.
"Are you okay?
Callan shook her head lightly, "Yeah.
" She frowned, quiet for the a moment as if she might not say anything more.
"Sorry, I'm just... I'm having some second thoughts... about Misery,
" she smiled apologetically, "Maybe we should just stick to what we've been doing, you know?
" -Sander raised an eyebrow, recalling his previous encounter with the monstrous shadow. It had hurt him, and it was stronger than him then. But he was positive he could beat it if he used his full strength. And he would.
"I'll be fine. We can do whatever you want.
She further crushed the bottle in her hands, staring past him at the diner. "How can you be so sure?
" She looked back at him, "There's a reason I don't tell anybody about this thing. I don't want to have to race you over to Christmas in a bucket, Sander.
"It won't come to that.
" -Sander assured Callan once more, nothing but sincerity in his eyes. He genuinely believed in his own progress -"I got better at controlling.
"It's not your control I'm concerned about,
" she muttered. The risks were all there. Excruciatingly there. The answer should be simple. But... she wanted so badly to know. To see if Sander could beat Misery into submission. Maybe even....
After a moment, she finally stood up, "Let's just... keep sparring....
Sander tilted his head, looking like he was about to protest. But in the end, he only nodded.
"If that's what you want.
They carried on with their sparring, though this time around, Callan seemed far distracted. It felt like she was simply going through the motions, barely reacted even when Sander pinned her down several times in a row. Eventually, Sander noticed Callan's stamina was reaching its limit; she could barely keep up with him anymore.
"Maybe...we should call it a day?
" -He asked, looking down at Callan who was once again on her back, knocked down into the dirt.
She could barely breathe, let alone talk. Nonetheless, Callan forced out a short "'Kay
" in agreeance, simply waiting for Sander to get off instead of making any attempt to move him herself. Her skin was clammy with sweat, the salty taste of it stinging her eyes and invading her mouth as she gulped down air like it was going out of style. Once Sander had stood himself up, she held out her hand first, anticipating the help since they'd gone through this motion so many times already. As expected, Sander grabbed her hand and helped her up, frowning slightly.
"Are you okay? Hurt anywhere?
" -There was no open wound as far as he knew, but broken bones or fracture ribs could still be a possibility. Though when he thought back to this later, he felt silly. His power had protected them both.
Callan shook her head, forcing herself not to lean over and grab her knees the moment she was back on her feet. "'M fine,
" she mumbled, sounding dissappointed. "Need a drink...
" Callan made walked back to the bench, legs feeling heavy and sluggish. She felt like she could lay down and immediately sleep, but that wasn't an option. Sander followed Callan after a moment, offering his drink bottle to her.
Callan paused, panting loudly as her gaze darted between Sander and the beverage. Right. He wasn't tired. An irrational jealousy briefly flared, but she brushed it off, gratefully accepting the drink but too tired to say thanks. She heavily planted herself on the bench and drained the container of its contents quickly before rummaging around in her bag for a small towel and a bag of trail mix. Sander remained silent though, simply taking a seat nearby and watching Callan closely. Despite the obvious absence of his Stigma, the concern for his friend was still there, and he could help but worried. Callan had been acting a bit different, after all.
It took a while before Callan cooled down and finally noticed the concerned look Sander was giving her. "I'm alright,
" she smiled reassuringly, wiping the last bit of sweat off her cheek.
" -Sander didn't look entirely convinced.
" she emphasized, "Now stop looking at me like that. It's just... been a while since I pushed myself that hard. That's all.
" She flippantly ripped open the bag of trail mix, offering it to Sander more out of habit that anything. "You gotta try this one,
" she smirked, "It's my new favorite.
The offer prompted Sander to accept a handful of trailmix, which he picked at.
Callan frowned, "Ah, no. You're eating it all wrong. You gotta eat the whole handful at once.
" She reached into the bag and pulled out a small assortment of her own, quickly demonstrating. "Like that,
" she mumbled, covering her mouth.
"Uh...But that's just too much.
" -Sander squinted, but he followed suit, shoving the whole handful down his throat. It turned out to be a bit too much, after all, and Sander ended up swallowing a few whole. He coughed and choked in the aftermath, winded. He turned to Callan with a hurt look in his eyes, as if she had betrayed him.
Callan sat up a little straighter, still chewing as her expression of alarm morphed into concern before running blank at the look he was giving her. She couldn't help it. A subdued laugh through her nose quickly erupted into a series of short giggles, lacing every word she tried to say behind her hand. "Jesus, how big was your handful?" she laughed, struggling not to choke on her own mouthful of trail mix, "N-next time try a little less.
"You had more than me.
" -Sander almost grumbled, still coughing the residuals away.
Another laugh, "Well, clearly you need more practice.
" She held the bag out again, daring him to try-- even if it was just for her own sick entertainment.
Sander just stared for a while, before dropping his gaze -"You can have this round, Callan.
" she pulled the bag back triumphantly, "Alright, but I'm sending you home with a bag.
" Callan leaned back agains the bench again, tossing another handful into her mouth and seeming a little cheerier. The silence between them stretched for a few moments, Callan occupied with her snack while Sander stared at a wisp of red smoke rising from his arm, distracted. Eventually, he turned to Callan.
"Do you have anyone you like?
" -The question was dropped in a casual tone, like they were just talking about the weather.
She gave him a sideways glance, taking a quick gulp of her drink before answering. "I like a lot of people,
" she smiled, teasing a bit. She knew what he was asking.
" she nodded, failing miserably at pretending to be serious, "As friends.
" Her smiled widened.
" -Sander just made the same sound, his shoulders dropping.
Callan chuckled at him, "Oh, did you mean something else?
"I mean...do you like someone...uh...romantically?
"Ohh, why didn't you just say so?
" she cooed mockingly. Her smiled faltered a little, but she was sure to look away before Sander could spot it. Callan thought for a moment.
"Yeah... I guess I do,
" she said.
"So what do you do to...have them?
She looked back at him suddenly, not expecting such a question as follow up. "What do I... have to do?
" she repeated slowly, legitimately stumped.
"To have their person you like.
Callan frowned, furrowing her brow for a moment. An uncertain smile pulled at her lips, though her eyes seemed like they held a resigned sort of dejection, "That's not a very easy question, Sandy.
" -Sander was serious though, as there was far more than idle curiosity in his question. He didn't explain much, however -"I just...want to know.
She frowned again, combing her fingers through her bangs uncomfortably. "I...,
" she thought of Marcus and Emma. Riley's warning came to mind. But after that-- nothing but static.
Callan look increasingly troubled, "I can't really....
" She quickly smiled again, flustered by how much she knew she was revealing with just her face alone. "It's not one of those situations where I can do anything.
" -Sander nodded, noting the look of distress on Callan's face -"Sorry.
"No, it's fine,
" she hid behind another sip of her drink, "I'm fine, really. Fish in the sea and all that, right?
Sander tilted his head, confused.
Callan smirked, Shoul've known better. "'There are always more fish in the sea'-- it's an expression. Mostly just something people tell you when you can't be with the person you want to be with. When that happens, you gotta just move on. Find somebody else. That sort of thing.
"You don't...fight for the one you love?
"...Not when they choose somebody else.
" -Sander seemed taken aback. The thought simply had never crossed his mind. What if Christmas had wanted someone else? He did know what he would do, if that was the case.
"That's...very sad, then.
Callan shrugged, tossing another small handful of trail mix into her mouth. "Could be worse.
" She pushed herself to her feet, reaching for her hoodie and packing up her bag. Sander didn't say anything for a while, just watched as Callan slowly getting ready to leave. Then his eyes caught the ruined skyscraper in the distance, and it gave him an idea.
"Hey Callan, wanna see something?
Pulling her head through her hoodie, Callan shot him a quizzical glance. "Uh... sure? What is it?
" she asked, shouldering her bag.
"I can show you something.
" -Sander stepped closer and placed a tentative arm her waist -"May I?
She stiffened at the touch, looking mildly alarmed. "S-sure,
" Callan stammered hesitantly. He still hadn't put his shirt back on. With permission, Sander hooked an arm around Callan's waist, and in a flood in strength, he leapted up, carrying both of them into the air. As they reached the crest of the leap though, instead of falling back down with the pull of gravity, they remained airborne, floating in the murky sky of GZ.
Callan gasped, not realizing what Sander was planning to do before it was too late, "Okay, wai--!
" Her voice was lost in the in the sudden rush of wind, breathe catching in her throat as her fingers dug into Sander's warm skin. She squeezed him tightly, only daring to open one eye when they didn't immediately fall. Still petrified, however, her grip on his torso remained the same.
"Y-you can fly?
" she asked, staring at the twinkling and broken city of GZ below. Her face flushed, in equal parts due to exasperation and the undeniably half-naked Sander currently holding on to her.
" -Sander kept his eyes trained on the city below, still looked mildly surprised, as if he half-expected it to not work at all -"Floating is more accurate, I guess.
" she mumbled, grip tightening. Floating meant you eventually fell, right? "Th-that's pretty cool,
" she shivered, anxiety clear in her voice.
As if he was able to read her mind, Sander only grinned as they began to float upward, slowing every so often to dodge the suspended debris that littered GZ's sky -"Don't worry. We won't fall.
" she said, doing her best to believe him. She cringed at every impending chunck of debris, noting how Sander was able to control his floating somewhat. She was quiet after that, fully aware of how fast her heart was still beating as she tried to 'enjoy the ride'. She'd never been great with heights. Even knowing that she'd easily survive a fall from this high up, however, she couldn't shake the nerves. Having Sander there was a small comfort, though a small part of herself couldn't stop internally grumbling about this all being his fault.
Slowly but surely, she started to calm down. Her blood had stopped pounding in her ears at least. Sander gave her an odd look then, before mumbling -"Sorry. I just thought...I just want to cheer you up.
She looked up at him. "O-oh! That's... it's okay! This is really cool!
" she lied, trying to be polite, "I'm just, uh... n-not really used to being up this high without a s-seatbelt or something....
Helicopters were okay. Buildings were fine. But this feeling of being completely unrestrained?
"We can keep going,
" she offered with a nervous grin, "J-just don't drop me.
"Oh. That's good.
" -Sander gave a faint smile in return, nodding as he ascended further up into the wide expanse. Slowly, he was moving them both out of GZ and back into the dormitory areas -"It's just...you told me before, remember? You said it will get better. You're right. So I think it will get better for you, too.
A small laugh forced its way out. Her dumb advice was being thrown back at her now of all times? Coming from Sander? She couldn't explain why she thought it was so funny. "Well, I hope you're right,
" she chuckled, resolving not to look down anymore. Instead, she fixed her eyes on the sleeping school beyond GZ.
She thought for a moment about her classmates. All the new friends she'd made. "I hope it gets better for everyone else, too.
"I think so, yeah. Don't worry.
" -Sander reassured her with another smile. They made small talk on their way back, passing by the window of his own room briefly, where he noticed Christmas' blue eyes looking right at him. He waved with a light smile. Eventually, Sander dropped the Arbiter off at her dorm room. Unexpectedly though, she turned and gave him a hug, in which the blood mage froze momentarily, before patting her awkwardly on the back. She still adamantly pressed a bag of trail mix into his hands though, which Sander took with him after a bit of convincing. After that, he quickly returned to his room, thin wisps of red were still clinging to his body.