Siena hadn't noticed that she'd left her phone in her rush, hadn't even stopped her incessant wandering for long enough to realize it until she was certain that it was too late to retrieve it from the cafeteria.
'You fucked up.' The thought kept replaying in her head, along with everything else that had just taken place. She shouldn't have done that...ah, but it was too late.
Gingerly, the girl rubbed her now-damaged hand, abrasions singing their praises for her less-than-professional need for some sort of release. A mistake, considering that she was still under the full assault of too many emotions. Anger, remorse, guilt--she shouldn't have been so harsh. A bigger mistake, considering her last vestige of sanctuary did not include any names that would heal her, only names that might have prevented the damage to begin with, had she bothered to remember. Despite all the sentimentality she carried for the booklet she'd looked through, Siena had tossed it aside near her bag, the pages open and splayed haphazardly over the sheathed blades. Absentmindedly, the Arbiter continued to run her fingertips over the abrasions--she'd have to find a healer to fix that later.
Shouldn't have left her phone. Damn it.
'I should apologize.' Was that really the wisest course of action? Her stomach lurched at the idea of heading back to the dorm. It would be easier to apologize--it had really been her fault, right? For pushing so hard for an answer, even when Marcus hadn't wanted to give one. Her fault for not keeping herself in check when she should have been able to. Another mistake.
...at least she still had a few hours of peace.
"Yo, 'ena, catch."
A beat later, a thin, rectangular object hurtled through the air towards the preoccupied literary girl.
One hand shot up, the phone hitting her knuckles, earning a slight wince at the impact. The second hand moved to correct the mistake, managing to catch the device by pinning it against her torso. It took a few moments for the identity of the object to fully register in her head, grey eyes retracing the trajectory to its source.
She failed to offer the weary smile she wanted to give, instead only managing a weary tone.
"Nice catch," Brent replied, stepping out from the shadows, "Where you headed?"
"Does it really look like I'm heading somewhere?" Too sharp. Siena grimaced faintly at the tone. "...sorry."
Brent ignored the unexpected sharpness in her tone, rolling his shoulders instead. "If you don't have anywhere to go, wanna do some sparring? Haven't gone over my kickboxing routine in a while."
Sparring...an uneasy part of her warned her to tread lightly, but a firmer part stamped the queasy feeling away. It wasn't like she had to worry about controlling another name.
"...yeah, sure." Pocketing her phone, the girl ignored the stinging protests that came alight across her knuckles. It was a welcome distraction, she told herself.
"Training grounds then," he nodded, before departing.
Past evening, the amount of people present in the place was even less than before, making it ideal for having a fight without getting into too much trouble. The subnaturals in USARILN East probably had better things to do than gossip about who's brawling with who, right? Right. Stepping onto the empty field and enjoying how open the entire place was, after the almost claustrophobic cafeteria, Brent breathed deeply. His eyes flickered back to Siena, up and down, before he asked, "Don't mind grass stains?"
"Probably the least of my concerns." Siena replied, finding a sense of relief at how empty the space seemed. Fewer people meant less to think about, didn't it? Less to consider in case the small pocks of starlight started to flicker out into flesh one by--goddamn it. Masking the momentary lapse of thought with a reflexive motion to brush stray locks of hair out of the way, Siena sent her gaze over Brent, not exactly looking at him, but close enough. Pulling her bag from her shoulder, the mage moved to drop it out of the way, the contents clattering against each other as the bag hit the floor. "Probably won't need these either."
"Entering a fist fight with a bag o knives would be pretty cheap, yeah," Brent replied, before tapping fists with Siena. "Let's have a fair fight." Fair as it was, it still only worked out as exercise. Brent had stuck to the basics, no real effort made to rush Siena down, while the storm eyed girl seemed to be drifting off on her own. No conversation, no kiai, only a silent exchange of fists, elbows, kicks, knees, strikes without the intent to maul either party. Almost rhythmic, an ebb and flow of combat many times less frenetic than their last physical encounter. For really training their individual fighting skills, it was lacking, but for getting the blood flowing? For casting troublesome thoughts away with motion and muscle memory?
Suited that purpose well.
Wiping sweat off his brow, Brent let out a sigh, breath misting in the cold, night air. Above, a purple night sky dappled by clouds. Around, fluorescent lamps shining searingly bright light.
"Guess we can call it a day."
"Sounds like a plan." Regaining her breath had been easy, but regulating her temperature was a task that might have been more easily completed if it had ever occurred to shed her coat. As it were, grass stains were the least of her concerns, heat trapped against her, a light coat of sweat clinging to her skin. The movement wasn't quite as distracting as she'd hoped--at least, it hadn't been until the first time she'd hit the floor rather unceremoniously--but it had been enough, for the time being.
Part of her wished that it had been more, but a greater part understood why. If she wanted to be honest about it, the temptation was enough to make her stomach squirm in discomfort. Would they count? If she allowed just a little bit of that hunger course through her veins, would it have sated her long enough? Again, she imagined scarlet welling up over skin, of how quickly the unrelenting heat might pull back if she just indulged one time.
And she knew the only reason it kept coming to mind was because it was getting harder to believe that light would shine with a pristine white on anyone.
"Thanks for the sparring practice." It was nice to stop thinking for a bit. "It's nice to get some air."
"No prob," Brent waved, "Looking forward to seeing you punch out a DC monster now."
"You mean the ones that look human?"
"Pretty sure you've already done that," he replied, always so light, "Gotta move on to CQC against Black Dogs now."
"I think I need more protection than a Burberry coat before I try that." Only half-joking, she realized, but casual was...easier, right? She tried to stoke the usual flame. Easier, even if the expression felt forced. "Contrary to popular belief, I want to keep my arm intact."
"Tsk tsk, that's the problem, 'ena, you think instead of do," Brent laughed. "And really, your arm will be fine if you just don't get hit."
Terrible logic, of course, but everything lead somewhere.
"How are you feeling though, after Marcus?"
She faltered. Of course.
"I don't know." Liar. "It's...a lot to take in at once." Liar.
He peered into her eyes, through her eyes.
"That's the general response, yeah."
Out of habit, Siena turned her gaze away. It had been worth a shot.
"I'll take a wild guess and say that's not cutting it for you."
"Thought I cleared that up before. If you don't wanna answer, just say so, instead of bullshitting."
A smile crossed his features.
"Pegged you as someone who would know more times that not, anyways."
"You'd be surprised." Siena made no attempt to hide the faint, bitter tint in her voice, one hand jammed into her pocket, tracing the edges of her phone again. Comfort or courage. She didn't know which one it provided then.
But she did know what she was feeling then. Too many things that she had to compartmentalize. Too many things to know which one was taking the lead at that point.
"I want to be angry." Because anger felt good. Better than the other emotions it usually came coupled with. "..but I'm honestly just...disappointed." Not disappointed. Hurt. Aching. Disappointed was just an easier emotion to express because there was only one form of it. Again, her fingers traced the edges of her phone. Comfort or courage. She didn't know which one she wanted more.
"Suppose I'm the same," he said, glancing skywards, at the stars that have yet to fall, at the invisible veil that Dreamcatcher enshrouded the world in. "Though to a lesser extent. Had a long time to let my thoughts on it settle and numb."
She couldn't suppress a bitter fascimile of a smile.
"So did he."
"Gonna be pretty awk rooming with him after, huh?"
"Understatement of the hour, really."
"Well, if you don't have a doghouse to banish him to, you could always chill at my place. Doubt Grant minds."
It was a tempting offer. More time to put her thoughts together, more time to pull everything in and get the worst of the backlash under control, and most importantly, less time to let the storm get the better of her. It might be the wiser move--there would be no need to try and explain to Callan if the girl saw anything wrong either.
"If...if you're sure," Siena started the carefully formulated reply. "It's...probably better if I make myself scarce around my dorm for now."
She was the most expendible one there, after all.
"Cool, let's call it a sleepover then. Haven't had one of those before, have you?"
"Unless recent lodgings count, no." It took more effort than it should have for her to piece together the smile she needed. "No bodyguards to try and eviscerate you here for the suggestion either."
The administrative office was a long way's away, and it had been a long ass day as well, but Brent didn't show it as he strode down the dark asphalt towards the imposing building in the distance. Already, the afternoon was fading into evening, purple hues painting the skyscape. A chilly breeze chastised him for taking only a nylon windbreaker, but he took comfort in the fact that his pants weren't soaking with seawater and piss. It could always be worse, after all. Without Lily's healing, he'd probably be wheelchair bound instead. He clicked his tongue and picked up the pace. With as many as encounters as they had been getting throughout the last weeks, the arbiter wouldn't even be surprised if an interdimensional rift tore into the scenery, demons from some nightmare realm pouring out to wreck havoc upon the already damaged campus.
More reason to pick up the pace then. A handful of minutes later, he stepped through the automatic doors of the administrative building into gloriously room temperature warmth, before flashing a smile at the receptionist. There was a bit of a queue, but Brent was a patient man, occasionally greeting a familiar face within the line. Before he knew it, he was first place!
If only everything else was this easy...except it wasn't.
Fuck, he missed the check-in system.
After repeating the process, this time with an actual ticket in hand, Brent walked up to the counter, sliding over the ticket with the suaveness of someone heading off to the movies. "Hey there...Marcie! Would I be able to find a 'Rosa Schur' in this building? Need to chat with her about some stuff."
Marcie, a dark-haired woman, glanced up. The bags under her eyes had been expertly buffered out beneath a layer of makeup.
"Yes, her office is located here. But I'm afraid that you'll have to make an appointment, which might be booked back for two weeks at least. Ms. Schur is a very busy woman and--"
"Heck yeah, I am!"
Rosa popped her head out from further back the offices, startling a worker next to her. After handing the stack of papers she was fetching to a stone-faced soldier, she walked over to Marcie's area and leaned on the desk. "But I can make time for a TV celebrity. How's it going?"
The receptionist leaned away, beckoning for the next student to approach while the pair talked.
"I'm fine," Brent replied, glad that two weeks of waiting wasn't necessary after all, "Less busy than you, at least. I'll cut to the chase though: turns out I can never have enough guns cause they have a bad habit of vaporizing in my hands Is permission to grab stuff from the armory still out of question?"
Rosa hissed through her teeth, cringing and looking apologetic.
"Ooh, not sure there. Armory is more Kardy or even Grumpy's jurisdiction and, well, to be frank," she frowned deeply, "I wouldn't be optimistic. Especially when they know that any equipment you take is almost definitely gonna end up looking like modern art. I don't know if you've noticed but the Institute's kind of in a frizz right now. Budget's so out of wack that I can't even keep the art department's printers maintained. Imagine what the military expenditures are right now, especially after the D.C. Catastrophe."
The staff mage breathed.
"So I'm gonna have to apologise. The armory's kind of a big ask at the moment."
"And I suppose the modern art market is pretty dead these days," Brent replied, hiding his disappointment with a joke. A part of him wanted to point out how he could do much more with a gun than any of those other fodder soldiers, but such vindictive reasoning was pointless, and well...
"Suppose I always was the most expensive sub though. If not total access to the armory, do you think they'd be more willing to part with ammunition, by itself? 50 cal HE rounds, if I were to be greedy here?" A pause, an extra moment of consideration. "I was thinking of circumventing the need of a gun, Rosa, with my power. See how it goes and all."
"Yes, that's definitely possible. Obviously I can't promise an endless supply but I'll personally arrange a delivery soon."
As she spoke, her powers flared to life, white lines beginning to shine around her eyes as she stared at Brent. Beside her, the Regular secretary flinched visibly.
"Hm. That's interesting." The lines dimmed once more. "Anyway, I'd suggest you hang onto more reusable items. Batons, knives, and the like. Hell, I'm sure there are BB guns you can pick up in town that could help too."
"Mm," Brent nodded, "Generally figured to leave the close range stuff to people who can actually manage it, but I'll definitely look into the Way of the Sword, Rosa. Thanks, by the way. You were always the coolest staff dude in the East, even if Steven's more dapper."
His lips quirked upwards, pleased enough with this small victory that he could crack a joke.
"You think they sell katanas in Crimen Culpae?"
"Steven's the dapper one? Oh boy, don't let Freddy catch you saying that. And puh-lease."
She leaned in closer.
"There's an antique store on Warner Street. I've got no idea how he managed to get so many collector items, but he's got a pretty impressive stash."
And with one last friendly wink, Rosa turned to leave the front desk area.
Brent | Siena
Siena stared at a plate of food taken from the cafeteri. A small portion as per her usual, but even then the brunette did little more with what she had than push it listlessly around the surface. Things were spread out thinner, making it seem as though she'd made at least some effort in clearing her plate, but the brunette knew better than to think the level had gone down at all. It was a tactic that rarely worked with her usual company--well, what used to be her usual company, but it wasn't as though there was anyone with her to make any complaints.
She wasn't entirely certain that was a good thing.
'I guess I don't have to finish it...' She'd been there for long enough, aimlessly pushing edibles around on her plate when it was clear that she lacked the appetite to do more than that. Besides, she had other things to think about, and...well, she could provide justification until the hours went by, but that wouldn't change anything. Shaking her head to clear it, the brunette set her utensils down, pushing herself to her feet in preparation to clear out her place at the table. Things to do and things to look into, after all.
"So much for trying to get normal meals," the girl muttered to herself in a mixture of mild frustration and even milder disappointment. With everything that had happened, she supposed not being hungry was a natural consequence, but that didn't make acepting a fruitless effort any easier.
Gah, his hand still throbbed. Even with all those safety measures (read: none) in place, it still hurt to do so, huh? There went his original plan of dual wielding for a faster fire rate. Wincing as he juggled a full tray with one hand, Brent looked around the cafeteria for a spare seat, and found them all few and far inbetween, filled with strangers that he once would have loved to sit down and meet, but whom he was now too tired to bother with. There was something in his bones that told him what he felt now wasn't even close to the exertion of the fourth, but that didn't mean he couldn't mentally complain about it.
After another couple minutes of walking about, a spot was finally present, alongside a familiar face. Siena, going for seconds when no one prompted her to? Or Siena, about to dump a tray of food and go back to her air-only diet? It was an oasis within the cafeteria, a shitty, tempermental, and psychotic oasis, but still an oasis. A few steps and some careful maneveuring of his hands later, and he found himself over, a grin on his face as he waved at her with swollen fingers.
"Hey-o, 'ena, going for seconds?"
It was like the universe was trying to scold her for finally deciding that she didn't have to finish what she didn't think she could stomach.
"Oh, no, I was j--what's wrong with your hand?" Grey eyes snapped to the fingers that definitely did not look like they were the same size as the last time she'd seen Brent. No, they were certainly not the same size. Instinctively, the plate went back to the table with a faint clatter--Maya would have given her a look of disapproval for that ungraceful showing--freeing a hand to reach for her phone as she continued the thought. "Did you drop a brick on your fingers or something? Geeze..."
"And were you just doing some avant-garde painting with your food or something?" Brent shot back, waving off her concern. "Just had a bit of a mishap. Nothing that won't heal on its own time."
"At least my painting stays on the plate, which is more than I can say for yours if you try to use a fork with fingers that look like sausages." Siena returned fire, an uncomfortable sense of familiarity sinking into her at how naturally the response had come. Uncomfortable? Something like that. She couldn't quite put a finger on a proper descriptor. "But if you want to try that challenge, be my guest."
"Oh, that a real challenge, 'ena?" Brent grinned wolfishly, plopping his own tray on the table, before gingerly picking up the fork with his swollen hand. Thank god he hadn't brought chopsticks this time. That would have been the true hell, right there. "Just you watch. The ingenuity and tenacity of humanity shall never bend to mere swollen fingers."
With that, he steeled his expression to be perfectly unpained as he grasped the fork in his fist and began to dig away. Swallowing a spicy meatball, the arbiter said, victoriously, "See? Easy-peasy. Now finish your peas, 'ena. Can't always cook you corndogs."
To say that it wasn't at least mildly entertaining to watch Brent's valiant efforts against his meal would have been a lie. The ordeal wasn't nearly as much of a disaster as it could have been, at least. Relenting with a shake of her head, Siena seated herself again, though she still slid her phone from her pocket, setting it beside her plate with no intention of hiding the option for a faster fix.
"I see you've gotten nowhere on the 'playing tough' front." Again, the disturbance wriggled in her chest. Uncomfortable, but not painful. The word repeated itself again in the back of her head--familiar. The brunette pushed the thoughts aside, deciding in the moment that she could categorize it later. Instead, she covered with a mock sigh of exasperation followed by a weak attempt of a smile.
Lying broken in a storm, her fault. Should have been more careful. Should have stopped it to begin with.
"Are you still trying to--what's that turn of phrase again? Fatten me up?"
"Of course. Betting that if you had it your way, you'd just become weightless and get blown into outerspace by a deflating balloon," Brent said, carefully spooling spaghetti around his fork, "I'd prefer if you stayed on earth with the rest of us peasants myself."
There it was again, a familiar twinge that brought with it one too many emotions. Try as she might, Siena couldn't quite conjure a reason for the sensation. Once more, she pushed it aside, watched Brent's movements out of the corner of her eye, wondered if she should just heal the minor injury and be done with it, but...refrained. For the moment, at least.
"If I had it my way, I wouldn't have to eat so much to gain weight." True enough, she supposed. After all, trying to follow a normal meal schedule had evidently done nothing but make her realize how little appetite she had to begin with. It was hard to remember whether that had always been the case. Absentmindedly, the girl pushed a pile of food with her spoon, not really making the effort to eat, but with any luck, her mealtime companion would be preoccupied with not getting spaghetti and meatballs on everything in a five foot radius to notice. "Besides, I thought getting here at a normal hour was an improvement."
Wrong words, Too late to change them or their meaning, so she didn't try to.
"Eat so much'?" Brent chortled, before he almost choked. Snatching his glass of orange juice and downing half of it in a single gulp, he let out a long, lung-emptying sigh. "'ena, please, you can talk about 'so much' once you actually have something that's more than a light snack on your tray."
The pain was more or less numbing now, and he dexterously speared another spicy meatball, before pointing it at the much-too-light arbiter.
"Definitely is an improvement though, arriving on time for the dinner rush, so here, this is on me."
"Wow, you don't have to die laughing at me," Siena claimed with a mock pout. Despite the superficial reaction, she felt her muscles tense, as though prepared to take action. Had she always been so jumpy? Even with concentrated thought, Siena wasn't certain she would have come to a conclusion, so she focused on the present, and--
'Now he's just making fun of me.'
She paid the thought no mind.
"On you? And here I thought..." The words trailed off as the brunette finally took notice beyond the isolation of their table. A few stares, a few poorly disguised whispers, and the reality of the situation came crashing back into the girl at full speed. Right. Recognizable. The smile faltered, the natural fluidity of her reactions suddenly seeming like a mistake in hindsight. "...er...nevermind." Way to kill the mood.
"Hm?" The meatball lowered. "What's wrong?"
Ah, and the hesitation returned in full force. Sending a surreptitious glance from one group of students to another, Siena lowered her voice. Soft enough not to carry far, though she hoped she hadn't overdone it. "Forgot about the entire...staring thing."
"Mmm...well, after Washington, I guess we are famous," Brent said, making it clear he was aware, and clear that he didn't care. "First time on the spotlight, 'ena?"
"I didn't go to high school. Or any school," Siena reminded, a faint grimace crossing her face as she finished the thought. "And I never got formally introduced, so the spotlight was usually a bad thing to have."
"Well, we've certainly got it now, so hey, might as well e-"
Splat!(tered across the pavement)
In the breadth of a second, Brent dropped the fork back onto his plate, plucked the meatball from her skirt with his uninjured left, popped it in his mouth, while his right snatched the paper napkin out from beneath his plate, stamping down onto the tomatoe-y stain.
The moment could not have lasted for more than two seconds, but the world seemed to slow each instant to an eternity, and Siena was helpless to do anything against it as movement in her peripheral vision alerted her to something catastrophic about to occur. A sphere of meat separated from its spear, and Siena swore she could count each millisecond as it made its journey through the air, its trajectory clearly headed straight for her--the splat surely couldn't have been audible, but it sounded off like a cannon in Siena's mind when she felt the contact.
A meatball, she could have lived with, but the fiasco continued from there as the meatball disappeared, snatched before it could roll from its place, and a napkin pressed over the stain. Firmly pressed over the stain on her thigh.
"I-I can--you don't have t--I'll take care of that," Siena managed the final phrase in a single breath, her hands going for the napkin on instinct. Except instinct didn't wait for other hands to clear, which really resulted only in two pairs of hands pressing on a napkin, which was really just more of a disaster than before--and other students were still staring?!--which effectively led to Siena making a too hasty attempt to stand up, which almost led to another disaster when she felt the elastic in her waistband start to stretch for a fraction of a second. With equal haste, the girl planted herself back down, clamped both hands before her, and was absolutely unsure of what to do.
The entire affair couldn't have lasted for more than two seconds, she was certain. Heat rose to her cheeks--unfortunately for Siena's relatively fair skin, that only meant a noticeable red flush coming to life. So much for not being in the spotlight. A small voice was the best that she could muster.
"...I can handle that."
"No, don't worry about it, I'll just ov-" Brent stopped midsentence, realizing that, yeah, with all eyes somehow drawn to them, there was definitely no way in hell that he'd survive doing something like that, even if it WAS the best way to remove a stain. And with the brakes pressed on his long string of actions, the arbiter had the time to realize that somewhere along the way, Siena's fair face had become a tomato.
Ah, if only she had green hair.
More brakes were applied, this time on his sudden need to laugh his fucking lungs out. His lips pressed into a tight line, his eyes narrowed, and his cheeks clamped down, solid, unmoving, as the amethyst eyed youth stood up, took the tray in his left hand, Siena's hand in his right, and managed to squeeze out, "Yup, let's bounce."
'Great showing, Siena. Really. Good job.' Needless to say, each thought was drenched in noxious sarcasm as the girl in question lightly adjusted the waistband of her skirt, regretting her outfit for the day, wishing she'd picked a skirt that didn't have a simple waistband, or god forbid, pants. Between the unfortunate display of embarrassment on her face, her less than graceful attempt to remedy the blunder, and the situation at hand in its entirety, Siena was relieved for even the slightest chance of escape. Stiffly nodding her head, the girl got to her feet, this time with a slower, deliberate speed that prevented any potential mishaps.
One hand gingerly lifted her phone from its place before promptly gripping it until her knuckles paled. Unwilling to trust her voice at the exact moment, Siena tried, tried, to save what little dignity she had left by decidedly not bolting at top speed from the cafeteria.
It probably wasn't as bad as it seemed, the logical part of her chimed. The series of events had been relatively quiet, and bar for the eyes already on the duo, Siena was certain there hadn't been that much of an audience. Cool logic kept trying to parse through the information, presenting conclusions that made complete sense, yet her mind seemed unwilling to accept such a simple answer. That had been a disaster, and that was the only explanation that it was willing to take.
She didn't trust herself to speak again until she was was fairly certain they were out of earshot of any other students.
"I think I'm about ready to not come back here for about one lifetime."
The night air was good for cooling off. October had a cold bite to it, but it was nothing he wasn't already dressed for, and the chilliness was pleasant, really. With his veins icing over, perhaps the arbiter could calm himself, could relax and finally, fully extinguish the laughter broiling in his stomach.
Nope. That wasn't happening at all.
Only barely managing to place his tray of assorted food hijinks somewhere stable, Brent burst out in laughter, genuine and not mean-spirited despite the subject matter. Oh hell, to think that a monster could make such a hilariously cute face. To think that the Santana girl could melt that far! Her flushed, embarrassed expression flashed through his memories again, and nitrogen was added to his laughter-fuel tank, as Brent continued on until his lungs were hurting more than his fingers.
After a short eternity, the youth finally stopped, wiping tears out of his eyes as he laid flat on the grassy mound neighboring the cafe. Picnic spaces in summer, but just shitty cold hills in fall.
"Oh man," he gasped, "Haven't laughed like that since forever!"
Siena wasn't sure if Brent's reaction was better or worse than pointless platitudes that wouldn't have meant anything. Glancing from the boy to their surroundings didn't give her much by way of an answer either. Actually, it made giving a definite answer harder, but more than that, it did just about nothing to help calm the warmth on her face, the faint tint lingering even after the boy had finally stopped. Siena felt her fingers wrapping tigher around her phone, though she made no effort to seek a source. It wouldn't do anything to help her short of removing her ability to feel, and that wasn't something she wanted to sort through a second time in only a few days.
...it wasn't, was it?
"Well I'm glad someone got a laugh out of that fiasco." The tone implied anything but that. Once more, that familiar spark, but it was hard to care about it when her mind was focused on a more immediate calamity. Again, logic tried to step in to direct her reaction. There was no reason to feel frustrated about it, it wasn't like the entire thing had been a calculated sabotage, and, as that reasonable part of her kept trying to point out, it probably wasn't as bad as she thought it was. Still Siena's mind flagrantly refused all forms of reasoning. "Really, so glad."
Ah, she was angry, wasn't she? The sort of irritated, displeased anger that didn't lead to anything but a decade of cold shoulders, rather than the explosive fist fight ones that Brent personally preferred. "Real sorry about that," the arbiter said, even if he was unable to wipe that big grin off his face, "But hey, on the bright side, now you don't have to push food around more while pretending to eat AND you don't have to further endure the existence being in the spotlight as a lady that has yet to be formally introduced to East Society, right?"
Shit, he was gonna la- no. Got it under control this time.
"Serious about it though. Just didn't think you could make that sort of expression, yah know? Curveballed me into infinity, 'ena. Wasn't all that bad either." A quick pause, more to catch his breath than to reconsider his thoughts. "Pretty cute, even."
Yup, definitely not actually reconsidering his thoughts here.
'Pretty cu--what?' He was making fun of her. He was absolutely making fun of her. Short of the rare jabs from her caretakers and distant memories that she wasn't entirely certain of, Siena generally didn't become the target of...of...whatever the hell this was. Thoughts failed to formulate in their usual eloquent fashion, instead trying for the barrage of countless words and responses that didn't fit, a handful that did, but probably weren't exactly appropriate, and the one that actually managed to break through.
"I-it's a--" The words "normal human response" came to mind, but didn't escape, clogging in the overflow of reactions that wanted to break free. It was replaced by another, this one accompanied by a tone that finally fit her age. It felt out of place to be able to express it without someone immediately telling her that she was doing it wrong. A mutter that didn't fit into the category of "angry", but she couldn't quite identify where it belonged. "I almost preferred it when you were laughing at me."
Besides which, being flustered wasn't cute in most crowds, and being embarrassed certainly didn't feel like a cute thing. Cute was reserved for things like Tater Tot when he wanted belly rubs or Nessie the Plessie perched faithfully in her place in the corner of Siena's bed. In a bid to push the storm of thoughts into submission, Siena hastily tried to put her thoughts onto something else--she failed.
"Well, I guess 'not eating at the cafeteria' gives me a reason to look through town this week."
A blunt segue into something else? Well, after that unexpected 'gift' he received, Brent was fairly willing to play along.
"Doesn't mean you get to starve yourself tonight though," he chimed, pushing the tray of still-warm food over to Siena, "May as well help me finish this. No painting this time, eh?"
"You're really relentless on that." Siena claimed, relieved that she'd finally calmed down enough to feel the heat leave her face. Brushing a few stray locks over her shoulder and out of her eyes in a feeble attempt to pull herself together--no, not working, but she still tried for the attempt. A strained smile, and-- "Girls don't like persistent guys, you know."
'Of everything you could have said, you choose Maya's stupid catchphrase?!' She wasn't sure if that was her own thought or one that she remembered Gerwulf saying in vivid detail. Too late. She didn't have much choice but to roll with it.
"At least, that's what I've been told."
"But does that apply to you?"
That was...not an expected response to the words. The Arbiter tried to be more careful selecting her own reply, only in part because of what it might entail. Siena was acutely aware that she didn't know the answer--when it came to people, what she liked and disliked about a person came secondary, perhaps even tertiary, to how she approached them.
"There are worse qualities to have." Not an actual answer, she told herself, but she didn't give more.
"Between a yes and a no, which one is it?" He wasn't letting her off that easily.
"Out to prove my point, are you?" Another evasion, but a feeble one at best. "Besides, I think we've established that I'm a poor frame of reference."
"You know it," Brent winked, "And your viewpoint's the one I'm interested in, 'ena. So hey, persistence: virtue or vice?"
The implications of the claim were not entirely lost on the bookish mage. Entirely being the key word in that sentence. Somehow it seemed like she had already gone through this before. Hadn't she been more sardonic last time? Or were those memories wrong too?
"I should point out that this is an answer given under duress." Making certain to keep any notes that could be taken as defensive from her tone, Siena gave a small shrug of her shoulders. "But if I had to choose, closer to virtue."
"Cool," Brent grinned toothily, offering her his fork, "Now dig in. Gotta fatten up for winter."
"And what are you going to eat with, your hands?" Too quick to accept the change of subject, Siena realized too late. Not her best performance. "I'll be fine. I'm sure I'll be hungry later."
"I'm the barbaric male apeman here," he replied, spreading his hands out, "And c'mon, 'ena, you'll never fix your living cycle if you keep dinnering at weird times."
"I think 'dinnering at weird times' is the least of our worries as far as maintaining a routine living cycle is concerned." Especially if they were going to be sent into combat at any odd hour of the day, but she kept that part to herself. "And please, use a fork or let me get out of the splash zone."
Dunno," he shrugged, "Feel like to me that regular meals at decent times is pretty high up on my concerns list. But hey, sure, let's be civilized and take turns with the fork."
A teasing grin surfaced, mischief and levity clear.
"So, yeah, still waiting on you to actually start eating. Go on, stock up on dem carbs, 'ena."
"Alright, alright, geeze." Siena raised her hands slightly in mock surrender, the smile somewhere between amused and exasperated. Another repetition of the whispered word in the back of her head. Familiar. But...not quite the same. A foggy recollection came to mind, voices distorted, faces blurred--Maya once said that was a telltale sign of her memory and her heart playing tricks on her after the white mark had appeared. "You really are persistent."
Her stomach gave a light churn in protest, reminding the girl that she was not, in fact, hungry, but Siena sincerely doubted the effectiveness of that claim.
"And you're a hella picky eater," Brent remarked, watching her nibble away at the small hill. "Where I can from, we ate everything on our plates and asked for seconds if there were any."
Well, at least she was eating. Better something than nothing. Maybe he should make some custom corn dogs for her after all.
"But hey, on the topic of never showing up in the cafeteria again after that fiasco, what's your plans anyways? Gonna camp out at McD's? Dunk donuts every morning?"
McD's, she could at least assume was McDonald's--ah, what unwelcome memories. Too many faces from that time gone now--but Brent brought up a fair point.
"Haven't thought that far ahead yet," Siena admitted. She wasn't exactly confident in her ability to navigate and find a restaurant, given her limited attempts to do so prior had been on the basis of pointing in a direction and hoping for the best. "I'm usually not out looking for new restaurants."
"None of the ones in Crimen Culpae up to snuff?"
"Other way around," Siena claimed with a slight wince. Most restaurants she had ever stepped into had a dress code, and the girl wasn't entirely fond of fumbling through another ordering fiasco. "Restaurant events didn't happen much where I came from."
"You mean you've never just bursted into a diner, flashed your black credit card, and got their most expensive B-gourmet meal?" Brent clicked his tongue. "Missed opportunities everywhere, huh?"
"You could say that." A distant smile at the thought of such an exploit. Maya would have thrown a fit--that had been a stopping factor in many things, hadn't it? Something uncomfortable writhed in the pit of her stomach again, this one not a sense of familiarity like before. Longing? Regret? Something between the two, Siena was certain. The distant smile turned wry as Siena reminded herself that her circumstances weren't the norm, even among high society. "Opportunities didn't exactly present themselves."
"Well," Brent said matter-of-factly, motioning her to eat moar, "They do now. Dunno about the other places in Crimen Culpae, but my offer for glorious all-you-can-eat fish-on-rice still stands, 'ena. You in or you in?"
"It's almost like there was another option hidden in there," Siena shot back with all due amounts of cheekiness. "I guess it beats wandering until I find something. I'm in."
"Awesome. Tomorrow evening then?"
"Sounds like a plan," Siena started, paused for a moment to consider said plan. "Most of one, at least. I'll make the optimistic assumption that you'll know directions."
"Google does," he said, flashing his phone, "What's your number? I'll text you the deets if you somehow end up on the opposite side of CC."
"Remind me to give you etiquette lessons on extending invitations," the girl replied before tapping the screen of her phone to life, reciting a series of numbers with enough time between each grouping for appropriate recording. It was a pleasant surprise that she hadn't fumbled any of the digits for the number that wouldn't go to her phone.
"Will that be before or after the ballroom dance lessons?"
"That depends on how many left feet you have."
"Well, according to some, I always at least one foot in my mouth, so..."
"As impressive as ballroom dancing with one foot in your mouth would be, before." A mischievous smile accompanied the words as Siena tried to return the fork. "Maybe then you can get food in your mouth instead of on my clothes."
"Well, as persistence is a virtue instead of a vice, I suppose I can always try again."
Matching her smile, Brent took the fork, speared the meatball, and once again offered it to Siena.
"Round two, let's see how it goes."
Like One of Your French Girls
Brent | Siena | Kusari
Kusari ran through Ground Zero, her long hair trailing behind her as she leapt over debris and dashed past the strange inhabitants of the ruined town. She'd been spending a lot of time training, but the one thing she wasn't sure how to improve was her dexterity. She figured running through a complicated landscape would help somewhat. Though really she was starting to feel a little silly.
As she jumped from the roof of a building she tumbled as she hit the ground, though it seemed it wasn't enough to stop her right tibia from cracking. As she sat there to let it heal she noticed that she had landed next to two of her classmates. Brent and Siena. She suddenly remembered that she had planned to go shopping with Brent in DC. But of course that plan ran into a few complications. As for Siena, she had hardly talked to the girl. The last time they talked was when she barged into her room to find Callan. "Oh, uh, hey guys." She must have looked like an idiot.
As her leg got better she stood to her feet and brushed her skirt off. Once again she was wearing one of the custom school uniforms she had ordered.
"You here to train too? I've been uhh." Kusari looked up towards the roof she had just jumped from and squinted her eyes in realization. "...Doing Parkour apparently."
A weird day for chance encounters, huh? First, it had been Siena, turning the corner and almost getting shot, and now, Kusari had landed from god knows where, a horrifying 'crack' of a bone announcing her arrival. Looked like the albino's pain tolerance was getting places, at least, if she didn't even let out a bit of a scream from that. What a badass. May as well call her the Terminator at this point, even if she was more flesh than steel.
"Don't think parkour's supposed to be bone-breaking," Brent remarked with a dry smile, "You alright?"
Siena hadn't exactly expected to be alone, per say, in Ground Zero, but to say that she had been expected to almost be shot and then see one of her peers land apparently from a rooftop onto the ground would have been a lie so grand that even Maya wouldn't have been able to sell it. The brunette blinked in surprise at how casual Kusari was with her injury--even if it could be healed quickly, surely the pain was still present. Siena had gotten used to watching her own injuries heal, but that didn't mean she wanted to be injured to begin with.
"I...think I'm inclined to agree with Brent on that front." Siena responded with careful words. She'd never spoken in depth with the pale regenerator before, but there were unpleasant memories that came to surface. Siena let her eyes trail up toward the roof that Kusari looked at, her brow furrowing slightly in concern. "Did you just...fall from there?"
"Jumped actually." Kusari responded quickly in a matter of fact tone, rotating her leg to make sure it had healed fully. She had heard it so many times that it almost didn't register, but they were of course expressing concern. "I've literally died and come back, I'm fine, I'm fine." She said. At this point a few broken bones was about as annoying as stepping on a lego. "I will try to avoid jumping from that height from now on though. At least when I've got these legs on." She patted her thighs as if they were simple articles of clothing.
She felt she was rather done here, at least for now. She hadn't interacted with many of her classmates, and against her better judgment she wanted to get to know them better.
"You guys wanna go grab something to eat?" She said suddenly. "Or maybe go out and spend some of our government mandated cash?"
"I'm always down for food," Brent replied, slightly surprised at the sudden offer, "How 'bout you, 'ena? Do some pre-sushi dining?"
If it wouldn't have been a major act of hypocrisy, Siena might have said something about how flippant Kusari was with her physical wellbeing, but as it were, Siena doubted she could have changed any outlooks. Instead, she paused, thought about the past several minutes, and gave a gesture of relent at the notion of food.
"I guess literally avoiding a bullet is something I could eat to." A sly, almost playful glance toward the gunman in question insert itself here, the surreptitious look wiped clean with a casual shrug of the shoulders. "It certainly worked better than coffee on waking me up."
Kusari snapped her finger. "Alright then, let's go. I heard about this place that serves chicken and waffles, at the same time!" She was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, but she felt she needed to enjoy herself for as long as she could. These peaceful days wouldn't last forever after all.
Woah, who was this person and what did they do to Kusari? Considering how broody and aggressive the immortal arbiter usually looked, this enthusiastic, peppy Kusari definitely wasn't something that Brent was used to at all. What happened to the suffering artist or the psychotic self-harmer? But then again, this sort of unrestrained happiness was something that he only saw in people who were forcing themselves to enjoy the present or who were off their rocker, so hey. He'd play along.
"Lead the way then, Kusari. Let's see what your taste is," Brent said, pocketing his training gear, "And gee, 'ena, if almost getting shot is what you need to eat a proper meal, I'll be happy to deliver a bullet in your direction three times a day." Bells jingled as Kusari pushed the door to her chosen restaurant. the sign outside read 'Buck's Chicken and Waffles' and judging from the aroma that hit her as she walked inside she could see why. She walked up to the greeting counter, ignoring the man behind the counter's glances at the cuff around her neck as she requested a table for three. She slid into her seat and quickly picked up a menu. In spite of the sign outside the menu was fairly varied, offering different drinks, meats and salads. A fidgety lanky young man soon came to their table, standing a bit farther than one would imagine a waiter should.
"W-what would you li-"
"The chicken and waffles fuckboy" Kusari said, still examining the menu. The young man looked down at his name tag, as if it was the problem.
"Wha? My name is Fra-"
"What are you guys thinking of getting?" Kusari lowed the menu, looking to Brent and Siena.
Following Kusari into the dining facility had been...interesting, to say the least. With paler girl sporting a cuff around her neck instead of her ankle, there had naturally been a few stares, but that meant relatively little in the wake of being stared at, pointed at, and presumably whispered about behind a few hands. Siena couldn't help but be relieved that people probably weren't looking at her.
It was much to her surprise, of course, that the menu didn't feature only variations of chicken paired with waffles--a combination that sounded bizarre in the brunette's head, but she'd also thought the same thing about cornbread and sausages, and that hadn't turned out to be too much of a disaster. Though the menu had been a quick read--and by quick, she really meant obscenely quick--coming to a decision was an arduous task.
For one thing, what the hell was meatloaf?
Glancing up at the server, then to Kusari, then to the menu again, Siena felt herself in quandary. Well...maybe it was best to go for what was popular? One didn't name their establishment after a dish for no reason.
"I'll...have the same?"
"Didn't see that coming," Brent grinned, both at Kusari's prickly attitude and Siena's indecisiveness. "I'll take the chef's recommendation."
The arbiter coughed, summoning a moer aristocratic tone, one that was all posh and authoritative.
"Chef's recommendation, boy. Get to it." He snapped his fingers, before crossing one leg over the other and taking a...oh, no complimentary water. Definitely not a high end establishment for fine, gourmet dining, huh? Of course, a part of him knew that he'd much rather just take the goddamn chicken and waffles, maybe with some sausage on the side to terrorize Siena with, but on the other hand...
This sort of pretense was fine as well. Been a while, after all.
Kusari let out an amused puff of air. Between Siena looking at the menu as if she'd just discovered the dead sea scrolls, and Brent doing an imitation of a posh aristocrat she was in danger of letting out a chuckle. The waiter quickly acknowledged their orders and walked away, clearly in a hurry to get away from them.
"Don't be mad if he comes back with something weird." She said to Brent. She adjusted her seat, relaxing and letting herself lean back. "So..." She said, addressing the both of them. "You two seem to hang out a lot, you dating?" She asked, zero regret, zero awareness.
Glancing at Brent with an expression that was somewhere between amusement and exasperation, Siena was prepared, absolutely, to give him grief for his poor performance of class. She was absolutely not prepared for the question that Kusari posed. The brunette paused for a moment, as though uncertain about what she'd just heard as her mind tried to process the words. Dating.
Not a concept she was entirely familiar with. Not one that she was certain that she was entirely eager to become familiar with. Given what she had seen, it was more complicated than she really wanted to try and balance on top of their already chaotic lives.
It occurred to Siena that she'd stayed silent for a fraction of a second too long.
"Naw. Not yet."
"Oh. Oh wow." Kusari leaned forward and raised her hands on an apologetic manner. "Sounds like I just stepped on a landmine there." Her mouth was an issue, she really needed to learn some tact. But that was about as likely as her getting the cuff around her neck off.
"Naw," Brent laughed, waving it off, "It's more of a small lego brick than a landmine. Though I do love Siena."
A beat later, his grin became toothier.
"As a friend, if nothing else."
It took most of Siena's self-control not to grimace, maintaining her prior expression with a professional ease, even if she was torn between wanting to groan in embarrassment and wanting to smack Brent upside the head for exacerbating the situation. The fact that she did neither of those things was a testament to something, she was sure.
"I'm amazed as many people inflict themselves with his 'friendship' as it is," Siena retorted as soon as she found the appropriate words. She gave a half shrug to mark the next statement, offering an exasperated smile to Kusari as a means of communicating the lack of malice behind the words. "But somehow it persists."
Kusari was relieved to know she hadn't just tanked the mood, she relaxed again, easing into her seat. "Yeah, I know what you mean, sounds pretty... familiar." She said, thinking about Callan. She wasn't the easiest person around to like.
"Hmm." She looked at Brent for a moment, feeling as if she were forgetting something. "Oh right, we were supposed to go shopping weren't we? I've already bought some art supplies, would you mind if I drew you?" She put her hand to her chin and examined Brent further. "Now that I think about it you're pretty in shape. I could use some practice drawing muscle definition like yours."
"Well, my persistence IS world-class," Brent chimed with a winning grin, "Though I guess you'd prefer 'obstinate', 'ena."
As Kusari segued into painting, however, mentioning the shopping date that he had no idea she was actually down for, the amethyst eyed arbiter gave the offer a false amount of consideration, before smiling. Wasn't like this was the first time someone asked him to model, but it was definitely a first as a subnatural. "Why not?" was his final answer. "Draw me like a Greek God, and maybe we can get rich off Proteus merch."
Siena gave a playful roll of her eyes at Brent's mannerisms.
"I can't believe you're encouraging this behavior," the brunette shot to Kusari. Dropping the joking tone from her voice, Siena felt a small spark of curiosity come to life. A gentle tide this time, far from the usual fire that consumed her when something was just beyond her grasp. "I didn't know you drew though. I guess you learn something new every day."
"Proteus?" Kusari repeated the name, not sure what Brent meant. "Oh, is that the slave name the public gave you?" She said with a chuckle. "Thank god they haven't given me one." She was never fond of the nicknames people gave Subnaturals, it was as if they thought their lives were some game for their amusement. Who they really were didn't matter, all they cared about was what power they had.
Kusari's eyes widened for a moment at Siena's comment. "Hah... Yeah it's basically the only thing I'm good at. Really good mind you." She said that, but she hadn't had much motivation lately, for obvious reasons. It was then that their waiter came back with their orders. The chicken and waffles were a fried breast on top of two thick waffles. There was maple syrup at each table to go along with the restaurant's signature dish. Brent's dish was...
"Is that, is that poutine?" She said mildly surprised, looking at the baked fries covered in cheese and gravy. She turned to face the waiter, but he had already walked off. He was so not getting a tip.
"Oof, slave name? I think it's quite endearing myself," Brent replied airily, "Rather be a Proteus than a Private Roless, and hey, least I'm not stuck with something like Time Scar."
Before they could continue further on the topic of superhero names, however, the food had arrived, practically dropped onto the table before the waiter strutted off, apparently too nervous in the presence of celebrities to even ask for an autograph. He pitied the good fellow, but at the very least, the food presented looked pretty good. Compliments to the chef on that. And poutine?
"Not sure of it's authenticity, but it does look good," he concluded, "Let's dig in, eh? Last person to finish has to foot the bill?"
A part of him wondered, in that moment, if Angelic had also gone here before, ordering the same appetizer before him now.
A small part.
Odd. Slave name was an interesting way to take the popular nickname front--Siena couldn't say that it was entirely surprising that someone thought of it like that. Thankfully, the topic didn't get far with the arrival of...
Did the chef throw up on Brent's plate or something? Kusari and Brent both seemed unphased by the fact that he'd been brought a pile of brown goop though, and apparently it looked good. Perhaps it was an acquired taste--heavens knew that caviar looked atrocious the first time she'd seen that too.
Well, that might have been different. Caviar still tasted atrocious, but Siena had learned to tolerate it.
"I think I'll have to admit a preemptive defeat," Her eyes lingered over the size of the portion on her plate. Not that Siena was ever one to worry too vigorously over the healthiness of her meals, but she was certain that she wouldn't be able to finish. Awkwardly, Siena tried to envision how to start her own plate--probably by putting the chicken between the two patterned pieces of bread. "I thought the portions would be a bit smaller.
As Kusari wondered if Brent had added that eh just to mess with them she noticed Siena out of the corner of her eye. The girl was pondering over her food as if it were an ancient sphinx riddle. Surely she wasn't this sheltered? She must at least know what waffles were. When Siena finally spoke Kusari let out a chuckle, feeling silly for thinking so poorly of her.
"Oh, is that what that look on your face is about? For a second there I thought you didn't know how to eat waffles or something. You could always save it for later if you can't finish it." She said. Speaking of waffles she turned her attention to her own food. She did what she considered the most important step first and poured a not so healthy coating of syrup onto the waffles, lifting one up with her fork to get them both. She cut a piece off and popped it into her mouth. She squinted at the chicken as she chewed, then taking a piece of it as well. "Hmmm." She chewed with a critical expression.
"This chicken clearly isn't greasy enough, but other than that it's pretty good."
While the two girls talked about frilly bullshit, Brent had already started on his self-made challenge, forkfuls of gravy, potatoe, and melted cheese launched into his maw. Mmm, it was good. Compliments to the chef indeed, if a chicken and waffle place actually specialized in poutine. Looked like he had unlocked the secret menu, hmm?
"Oho, a trained taste tester as well?" he joked between mouthfuls of poutine, "Never thought you were so talented, Kusari. I just know if I like it or not myself. And gee, 'ena, what happened to that post-near-death appetite? Maybe today's the day you'll break your limits?"
"Celebrate a near miss with a lethal shot?" Siena murmured while doing her best to sandwich the piece of fried chicken between the waffles. Unlike Kusari, the brunette didn't make a move to drizzle any of the syrup on her own serving, utilizing the available silverware to split the meal into easier to consume portions. Her eyes drifted between the two with her, attention once again drifting over the pile of unpleasant-looking slurry that Brent apparently took to with gusto. Despite her best efforts, Siena gave a slight roll of her eyes again.
"You can't sell the artistocratic attitude if that's the most you can do." Siena claimed while starting on her own meal. Nothing too offensive--though she didn't usually make much effort to find things to offend her when she'd eat it all the same. "And here I thought you might almost hold your own with the high society crowd."
"Please, I just know what tastes good." Kusari said, digging once more into her food. She listened to Siena, raising a brow as she realized why her behavior seemed so off. She really had been a sheltered rich kid. "You really haven't had waffles before, have you? Jeez what other foods have you never seen before?" She glanced at the menu of food, wondering what items on it would be new to the girl. "Hey, why don't you come when I draw Brent? I'll bring a bunch of food you can try." She said, putting on as friendly a smile someone with a face like hers could. Was she coming on too strong? She wasn't used to being this forward in trying to make friends.
"I'm grateful for the offer, but apparently my stomach is about half the size of a normal person's." A small, sheepish motion of the hand accompanied the claim, followed by a brief, hesitant smile in return to the one that Kusari gave. The expression didn't sit as "natural", but... "Though if you don't mind, I'd like to observe for a while."
"What she's saying," Brent amended, taking another scoop of the surprisingly well-made poutine, "Is that the food you offer up to this literary goddess should only be the size of supermarket samples, Kusari. And please, 'ena, unlike some, I don't make the aristocracy the entirety of my life. I'm cool enough to hang out with high society AND low society. You're talking to the student council secretary of a high end private school, after all~!"
Of course, that wasn't really a strong point, but the arbiter wasn't here to debate his ability to act well-mannered within hoity-toity society. He was here to finish his food before it got cold. Slurping in a long strand of cheese, he clenched his fist underneath the table in a small show of celebration, before remarking, "By the way, something good happen today, Kusari? Feel like you're way cheerier than normal."
"Something good?" Kusari repeated, blinking her eyes at Brent. She really was overdoing it, even someone that hardly knew her could tell. "Not really, I can have days where I'm in a good mood too you know." She said. That must have been the biggest lie she'd told in a while.
"So you'll come Siena? Like Brent said I can just bring samples." She said, going back to her food.
"I may have to excuse myself a bit early, but I'd like to come." Her mind wandered to the rest of her day's schedule--still a few hours before she needed to make herself scarce.
"Alright, let's go as soon as possible then." Kusari said. She wondered what plans Siena could have already, but frankly it wasn't any of her business. After finishing her food and paying for the three of them Kusari left the establishment with a quickened pace. She felt the sides of her cheeks rise, was this an actual genuine smile? She was smiling, and for once dark thoughts weren't attempting to rain down on her, telling her how wrong everything could go. Ah, now she was about to cry. She sure had turned into a crybaby over the past few days.
After taking the bus and a short walk she reached her dorm room. She wasted no time going in and taking out a few of her art supplies. She set a large sketchbook on a cheap looking easel, and then picked a few different pencils from a backpack that was under her bed. Her room usually looked borderline barren, but with the easel and two other people here it didn't seem quite as depressing. "Oh, I don't have a chair you can use..." She realized as she looked around. "Eh, whatever, you're fine with standing right?" She said to Brent. "I'll leave the pose up to you."
"Got it, boss."
Taking a few steps around Kusari's room to get a feel for the amount of space he had, Brent considered his options for a moment. He could, of course, take the easy way out and just do a generic standing pose, much like Michelangelo's iconic David. Nice and easy on the body, with no need for an air chair that the Thinker would. But at the same time...if they've already gone such lengths, and under the assumption that Kusari's writing days are numbered by whatever other hellish catastrophe there would be...
Yeah, two birds, one stone.
His face turned stony as Brent tossed off his shirt, revealing the musculature beneath. The first motion was a lunge, dropping his body as his front leg to a ninety degree angle whilst his other pressed against the floor. Back arcing so that his elbow rested against the front knee, the quite-possibly-insane arbiter turned his wrist and did his best to visualize gripping a legendary two-hander in that hand, while his free hand was splayed against the side of his back thigh. He took one deep breath, before he flexed.
The Warrior Philosopher pose.
Then, out of curiousity, he turned his head and checked out Siena's reaction to this madness.
Siena had made a few observations about the room--how surprisingly empty it was, considering Kusari was an Arbiter, and considering the extent to which her own room was furnished came to mind.
Most of those observations were effectively smashed into oblivion when Brent struck a pose, so to speak.
'Should he really be throwing his cl--' The thought never had a chance to finish when her attention turned back to the owner of said discarded shirt. What in the hell was he--?! It took a few moments longer for her to comprehend the pose in its entirety, but that--where was she supposed to--was he going to hold the pose for--what?
She tried her best to mask the storm of uncertainties and questions stirring in her head. This wasn't normal, right? This absolutely wasn't normal.
"Er..." Should she ask...? Uncertain of where to turn her gaze, Siena turned her attention to the artist in the room. "Is he going to have to stay like that the entire time?"
If either Brent or Siena were to look at Kusari at the moment, they might have seen a gleam in Kusari's eyes as Brent took his shirt off and posed. Brent was even more toned than she thought, her hands twitched with impatience. He was acting rather silly, but Kusari was taking it very seriously. She'd finally felt inspired after so long after all. "Yes! Hold that pose." Kusari said, pointing to him with her pencil before beginning to sketch Brent's form. Soon enough she was fully engrossed, so much so that she hardly noticed as ten minutes passed. As she leaned back to take a look at her rough outline she looked to Siena. "Oh yeah, I was supposed to be feeding you peasant foods. Look in my fridge and cabinets." She said before resuming.
Inside her mini-fridge was what might look like a rather odd selection of food. Greek yogurt Protein shakes Baked chicken Iceberg Salad and Spinach Eggs
In the cabinets was a long large bag of Funyuns, with a post it on it that read "Not until you earn it bitch."
Kusari had recently been... getting into shape. Her change in diet was something that somehow slipped her mind.
Isometric excerise was great, and Kusari's 'inspired' expression, full of dramatic focus, was a treat for the eyes as well. Alternating between tensing and relaxing in fifteen second cycles, Brent maintained his posture with a resolve that was slowly becoming real as his body rebelled against his iron will.
Definitely great, definitely tiring. Maybe this wasn't the best pose for a painting after all?
NO. NO REGRETS.
"You should try it too, 'ena!" A pause. "Getting a painting done of you and all."
Watching the progress of a few lines that resembled a shape becoming more than a vague representation was fascinating. She'd never really been around the artistic while they were at their craft, and the experience was certainly one that she didn't regret coming along for. The brunette had obliged, at some point, in taking a quick browse of the food located in the fridge and the cupboards--she didn't ask about the sticky note on the Funyuns--but had reserved herself to a protein shake, though even that had been more to prevent any feelings of unfulfilled obligation than anything else.
Of course, holding a position for so long, especially one like that, probably wasn't--
"Urghk--pgk!" Siena nearly choked on the small sip of the shake she'd been taking at Brent's suggestion. Clearing her throat with a few coughs, the girl winced slightly before she responded. "I'm not sure I could keep a pose for that long. 'n I'm pretty sure my clothes're more interesting than I am."
Kusari continued drawing, as she was aware of how uncomfortable the pose must have been for Brent she tried to quicken her pace as much as she could without compromising quality. That said, she stopped when she heard the back and forth between him and Siena. She looked over to the girl, framing her mentally. "You're selling yourself short Siena, you don't have to do that." She said, going back to drawing. It seemed like she'd be finished soon.
"And I'm pretty sure most people would think that you're more interesting than your clothes, 'ena," Brent chimed in, a reflexive smile bursting to life. There was a part of him that wanted to add that the gray eyed arbiter would probably draw more attention without clothes than with, but...that was a ditch he wasn't willing to dig yet.
"While Kusari's fired up, you might as well get something drawn of you, eh? Some good ol Slyph fanart?"
It was hard to keep back the slight grimace at her new media name, but Siena somehow managed it. Somehow.
"You can rest assured that I'm terrible at standing still." That seemed to be the easier excuse to follow, given the reactions of her temporary companions. She'd rarely even stayed still long enough for a good picture, must less a portrait. "Much less standing still in a posture like...that."
Kusari leaned back and took a look at her drawing of Brent. She thought it could use more shading, but she always thought something needed more shading. "You can relax now Brent." She said, picking up the sketchbook and turning it around so the two of them could see it. Brent was clearly portrayed, with not a single important detail left out, if she had an entire day she was sure it'd be close to photo realistic. The only difference from reality was the shading, which was exaggerated enough to leave intense dark shadows on the piece. "So what do you think?" She asked, a hint of a smug smirk on her face. She turned to Siena. "Still on the fence? I'd love to capture those eyes of yours Siena."
It was impressive, really, how effectively Kusari had managed to illustrate Brent, and Siena didn't have to have a critical eye for art to be able to see that. It was almost...disheartening to see the skill. It must have been a shame to come to a facility then be thrown into battle instead of being able to hone a talent.
"My eyes...?" You've got your dad's eyes, kid. Siena blinked in surprise. "They're a little...bland, aren't they? Grey's not exactly an outstanding color."
Kusari's lips flatlined as she looked to Siena. She sat her sketch book onto her bed and walked up to the girl. "You don't really believe that, do you?" She said, looking her right in the eyes she seemed to believe were bland. "Your eyes are special Siena, they stand out. Even more than mine do if you ask me." She said, pointing to her crimson eyes. Kusari used to hate the way she looked, she was teased for her pale skin and red eyes in grade school. Eventually that pale skin grew thick, her red eyes became sharp ruby daggers, and the coarse words of people she realized she didn't even care about turned into pathetic, ignorant ramblings in her mind. To see Siena speaking about herself like this irritated her, it reminded her of how she used to see herself.
"Gray may seem bland, yet when it is pushed to the forefront in a place where it is rarely seen it is transformed into a striking color." Kusari realized that she was being a bit too passionate, and was only a few inches away from Siena's face. She took a step back and let out a mock cough. "A-anyway, it's not something you should feel bad about, alright?"
"Yeah," Brent said, "What Kusari said. She's the artist here, and I'm sure that a fashionista like you would know how to bring out your eyes anyways. Gray's only a sheen away from silver, after all."
Well, he said all that, but ultimately, the arbiter was happy enough checking out the painting of himself, hyperrealistic and accentuated by non-existent shadows. Damn, that was talent and passion and inspiration right there, the thing that sparked others brilliantly. A flash of pain crossed his expression in that moment, smothered swiftly by his 'surprise' at how great it looked. So much talent, and now it was gone.
For all the flak he mentally gave Sav, she still had musical aspirations.
Despite knowing she was a hell of a rockstar, Brent only got to experience Angelic's nation-class talent a couple of times.
And even though he was so goddamn accessible...he had never, ever questioned what sort of new zany hobby Gregory had picked up.
A low whistle passed through his teeth.
"Real sweet art you did here though," the arbiter said after a pause, "Like, damn, I'd hang this up in my room, Kusari. Maybe over Grant's bed. With an alarm clock hidden behind it."
Siena felt her defenses attempt to rise.
Why aren't you breaking eye contact?
Uncomfortable, shouted the first emotion on the field. Afraid, whispered the second.
"I--um...r-ri...right." The brunette took a step back herself, though the distance wasn't necessary at that point, gaze darting elsewhere several moments too late, catching a familiar flicker. She filed it away--not a topic for that moment. Taking a careful breath, the Arbiter regained herself though a significant part of her felt the need to retreat. Run. It had been easier when there were crowds she could dive through, escaping into another topic because she knew they wouldn't care.
It was rare for her to miss the events where people whispered and suspected, wasn't it?
"Behind it? Not a small one in the frame?" It was too fast a reaction, Siena knew, to cling to the nearest topic, but it was easier. "Or a normal clock on a nightstand?"
Kusari crossed her arms and let out a prideful huff at Brent's complement. "I'm glad you like it, thanks for modeling for me." She said with a grin. She looked over to his clothes, he could put them on anytime now, though she wasn't in a hurry to point that out. "If you do hang it up it better be framed. Kusari Bloodworth doesn't make cheap posters FYI."
She heard Siena speak and almost felt bad. It was pretty obvious she was trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. It took her a second to remember who Grant was. As much of an impression his powers left he himself seemed to be deliberately avoiding standing out. She couldn't say why, but she could understand the desire to distance one's self from everything that was happening.
"You had somewhere to go, right Siena? I don't want you to miss something important because of me." She tapped her drawing of Brent and looked to him. "How about you, doing anything later?"
"Nothing soon, if you want me to try out a more risque pose," Brent said with a wink, "But I do have a sushi date to get going to soon, so don't monopolize me too much, Kusari~"
"Aaaand that's my cue to leave." Siena claimed with a half exasperated laugh. "Thanks for letting me observe, and for the protein shake."
"No problem, see you later." Kusari waved to Siena as she left, then setting her sights back onto Brent. "More risque huh?" She put a hand to her chin and examined him with the sort of grin you see on mad scientists. "So, just how flexible are you, Brent?"
"Let's find out."
"EAT THIS!" "NEVER!"
Brent | Siena
Having spent most of her day digging through stacks of of articles or otherwise scouring the internet for Zoe's requests, Siena had found herself losing track of time. With the cuff holding even her passive abilities in check, the bookish mage had found herself hindered in terms of processing speed. Still faster, she was aware, than she imagined most humans would ever be able to match, but it was like trying to listen to the orchestra with cotton in her ears--not ideal. The entire ordeal had been frustrating, and though it had been tempting for the girl to abandon her studies and return to Ground Zero, the brunette held herself steady. This wasn't just for her.
Even if she was starting to get irritated with something that usually calmed her, that didn't give her the right to stop.
She'd agreed to this, and she was going to see it through.
"Ugh...alright, just...a little break for my eyes..." And her head. Even if she could process the words and understand them as though they were being read to her in a language she'd known from the moment she was born, the Arbiter couldn't deny that parsing through the information wasn't giving her a headache. She'd slowed her speed down, choosing to break down whatever she could in part and parcel, but she was reaching her limits. Rubbing her temples lightly, the brunette felt a dull throbbing behind her eyelids, regretting not taking the time to pace herself...but still, there was another title that might have brought her somewhere.
Fortunately, before the girl could get it in her head to start another set, her phone buzzed, notifying her of a text message.
Hai domo, Burento Roressu desu! Meet me outside the lobby and let's get going!
...was it that time already? Quickly pulling herself out of her chair, Siena straightened the stack of books, pocketing the leafs of stationary paper she'd been taking notes on, ensuring that they were safely nestled in the cover of her e-reader. Shortly after putting everything back to its proper place, the brunette was moving out of the library, the temptation to use a teleporter to speed her pace along tempting, but not convincing as her feet took her to the appropriate location, her hands smoothing out the slight wrinkles in her blouse as she walked, only ceasing the nervous action every so often to brush a stray lock of hair out of her face and behind her ear.
Well, it was as good a break as any, she supposed.
Leaning against the two-seater bicycle that he had rented from a fellow student for the night, Brent crossed his arms to fend off the autumnal cold as he waited for Siena. As far as transportation was concerned, this wasn't nearly as ritzy as the limos and horse drawn carriages that Siena must be accustomed to, but as far as new experiences went...she probably never had the displeasure of riding one of these bad boys, eh?
"Yo, 'ena," he called as she strode out, tossing bike helmet in her direction, "Ready to get going?"
She caught the bike helmet without issue. That did not make the bicycle before her any easier to believe.
"Um, sure...?" Siena did not remove her gaze from the odd shape of what she assumed would be their transportation, her mind wandering back to her last experience with a bike. That had been embarrassing enough, and it wasn't as though she'd had the chance to relearn how to ride a normal bike, much less one that probably required actual teamwork. "Are we...using that?"
"Why else is it here?" Brent asked, hopping onto the front. "C'mon, light exercise is the best appetizer. Cause where we're going, we won't have appetizers!"
"Sure, this can't end badly." Siena grimaced faintly, distinctly under the impression that it would do nothing but end badly. Securing the helmet in place, Siena approached the bike, having to perform a few impressive manipulations of her skirt to actually get on the bike without showing a bit more than she wanted.
She really had to start wearing pants.
Though he was curious as to how Siena was going to position herself whilst wearing a skirt, Brent's decency won out over his curiousity, the arbiter waiting for the sounds of fabric behind him to stop shifting before saying, "Alright, let's go!"
Well oiled chains rattled briefly before the gears spun, sending the two down the road out of USARILN. It was colder, now that the night breeze blew against him, but Brent toughed it out regardless. His head bobbed to a nameless song as his heart beat comfortably, the last rays of sun giving away to fluorescent streetlights.
Thankfully, taking the back seat hadn't been as stressful as Siena had initially assumed, though it would have been hard to see that with the start of the ride. Thoughts alternated between regrets over not telling Brent that she was far from the best at riding a bike to deciding that it wasn't so bad as long as she kept pedaling because she wasn't the one steering. It had taken a moment for the girl to grow comfortable with the balance, though that hadn't made the ride much easier with her eyes constantly trailing briefly to her unfortunate choice in attire.
For the second time in as many days, Siena regretted her wardrobe choice.
Though there were various hijinks such as the CC Motorcycle Gang's monthly road race (dodged, thankfully) and Brent's suggestion of trying out some tandem bike acrobatics (denied), as well as a high speed footchase featuring a shoestore mascot and a granny on a scooter (wild world out there), the duo reached the restaurant with little fanfare. Part of a larger building, King's Way Sushi looked like the usual Americanized sushi joint, its name written in outdated 'Eastern' font, while the waiter that 'greeted' them as they entered looked more like a Mongolian than Japanese.
But who went to AYCE for an authentic dining experience anyways? Punks, that's who.
With a comfortable table that was only a few feet away from the men's washroom, and a small vial of soy sauce to share between the two of them, Brent settled in with a sigh. No one in their right minds would steal a tandem bike that had a USARILN East sticker on it, right? Especially when the couples around them were already picking up their eating pace, scarfing down fish and rice in order to leave before two psychotic arbiters blew up this joint.
He paid them no heed, and offered Siena one of the laminated lists carrying food item choices.
"Pick whatever you want, however many you want, ye?"
The trip was without incident, that was a plus.
That was about where the positives had decided to end, and Siena was reminded once again that as far as the rest of the world knew, she and Brent were unwelcome monsters in their midst, waiting for a chance to snap. She did her best not to notice the changes in behavior around them, eyes glued to the laminated menu, the sauce bottles, things that pulled her attention away.
"Roger." Weak. She blinked away the stupor and painted the expression she had come to expect from herself with Brent's company. It was harder with her head still buzzing with unsorted information--she doubted any of it would be useful. Somehow that thought frustrated her more than anything else at the moment. Clearing her throat as though it was a good cover for the imperfect response, the girl bolstered the smile with another masking remark.
"I'd ask for recommendations, but you'd probably suggest half the menu and I'd be left holding the bag."
Distracted. Considering the lack of back and forth between the two as they had their totally peaceful, definitely not life-threatening ride through town, Brent could tell that something was amiss. A bit of strain, perhaps, some stress. Looked like it was the 'church' effect all over again, the literary girl affected by the gazes of others within the restaurant. Weird, wasn't it? Didn't they punch each other apart back in Bald Eagle Island because she wanted to be treated as a monster?
Guess the commitment wasn't there after all. He'll wrestle with this after the food comes.
"Hey now," he said, putting his hands up in a show of innocence, "That's totally a valid tactic though. Order one of everything and see which ones you like. Personal suggestions would be California and Alaska rolls though. Imitation crab is a real miracle of culinary technology, I feel."
"Imitation crab? Using what?" A flicker of curiosity was quickly fed by musings of possibilities. Tofu, perhaps, to provide a vegetarian option? Something that bordered on pain fired a pulse through the back of her head, reminding the girl that trying to sort out more wasn't going to be a pleasant endeavor. Trying her best to keep the impulsive barrage of thoughts to a minimum, Siena took a breath. No better way to learn than to experience.
'There's an idea...' The thought filed itself away for later as Siena gave a helpless shrug.
"Well, it'll be a new experience. I guess I can take a chance."
"What I like to hear, 'ena! Bring on all the food!" Fifteen minutes later, the table for two was filled to the brim with a variety of small, colorful plates, featuring everything from raw beef tongues to fried octopus. He hadn't been lying about the amount of variety there, after all, and, leaning back to take a picture of the glorious display, Brent snapped a shot before getting to work. Expertly wielding chopsticks, he filled a small bowl with soy sauce, before mixing in horseradish, occasionally tasting the mixture.
Definitely flavorful enough.
"Righto," the arbiter said, "What's been on your mind today anyways, 'ena?"
Siena was significantly less dextrous with the chopsticks provided than Brent, her motions slower and more deliberate to maintain what felt like a delicate balance. Asian cuisine had rarely ever been a theme, and though she had become passable in the use of chopsticks, the brunette certainly lacked much experience. That aside, she glanced at Brent's own routine every so often. Her prior experiences with sushi had largely kept it from sauces, but she was quickly learning she was sorely lacking in basic knowledge on how to enjoy most meals.
Of course, she did not create the swampy concoction that Brent did.
"Hm?" Ah, and her attention was stolen away from its original focus. It took her a moment to long to recall and process the words properly. "Oh, nothing mu--well, that's not very accurate. Just checked through a lot of sources, that's all."
That was certainly not all.
"They're only as useful as I make them and all."
"Always so hardworking, huh?"
Brent pushed a plate of beef sashimi over, offering it to the aristocratic bookworm, before he popped a California roll in his own mouth. It wasn't as if it was particularly delicious or mind-blowing, but it was familiar, and it was tasty. No surprises, compared to how much other shit spun out of control.
"Woulda thought you had enough sources though, considering all your bookmarks," the arbiter continued, "Who's the new crew you're looking at?"
With as much caution as required with her less-than-pristine control of her chopsticks, Siena made a few selections of her own, a few familiar ones, a few unfamiliar ones, plated with minimal regard for appearance for her own pacing needs. It gave her enough time to give a slight shrug of her shoulders to Brent's inquiry.
"Trying to keep myself up to date on more options." Half a lie. "Found a master illusionist and a pretty impressive lockpick. And a lov--uh...aura manipulator." Complete lie. Those names had been in her arsenal for months. "And a few better options for some of my fallbacks."
She fumbled a piece of fish back onto her plate, wincing a little at the miss.
"The illusionist is probably the most useful one out of the new names though."
"A master illusionist, an aura manipulator, and a lockpick?" The item enhancer laughed. "One certainly doesn't belong, though I'm sorta surprised that you didn't grab an illusionist earlier. Or is the dude just straight up better than your last pick?"
"I have another illusionist, and she's certainly stronger in most regards, but..." Her mind filled with thoughts of her arm swathed in crimson, envy that bordered onto desperation. Of magic that required sacrifice before it would do a damn thing. "She's not quite as convenient. Besides, if I can figure out how Bi'ul works, I can make the illusionist into a summoner. Kind of."
"Heh, and become budget Emma? Or are we talking summons as in creation?"
"Illusions are limited only by imagination and tangibility. If you could remove the second limitation..."
"...wait...was that how you made the stone cart?"
"Not really..." Thoughts of the island were far from welcome memories, but she allowed them to be dredged up all the same. Setting her chopsticks down so she could bare a wrist, she traced a vein with her finger as she spoke again. "That was more or less the love child between a druid and a blood mage. I asked the land for some of its magic, and it provided. All it needed was some blood. Would have worked a little better if it were--" She paused, uncertainty taking the words from her for a moment. If it were...where? "Home...? I guess."
"Well, certainly would be useful if you could make objects without bleeding all over the place." A light remark, glazing over that tense statement about 'home'. Thank God his own power was that finicky, even if it did come with much more irritating limitations. "With infinite versatility comes endless headaches, eh?"
"Everyone has their own limits." Siena claimed, offering a small gesture of nonchalance as though it might brush away any implications that might have hadded. "So I have to memorize a few more than other people. It could be worse."
"'s long as you don't get it into your head to try memorizing everyone," Brent replied, noticing that she had stopped eating. "And as long as you don't spend all your time getting new names, eh? Dunno if you've got godly processing ability as well as super-reading powers, but too many options might just hamper your performance futurely. Ya know what I'm saying?"
"I like having the options open." More ways to retreat if she felt the need, but that wasn't something she was keen on bringing up. Grateful for the moment of reprieve, Siena did her best not to stray too close to topics that weren't up for discussion. "It's been giving me something to focus on too. Better than sitting around doing nothing and all."
"Tsk tsk," Brent grinned, wagging his index finger, "Shouldn't decry the benefits of meditation, 'ena. Filling up your free time with hard work would just lead to negative effects in the near future."
"Ouch, coming from you, that's gotta mean something."
"Eyup," he fingergunned, "You know the advice is solid when it comes from the workhorse himself."
"A workhorse is a terrible thing to compare yourself to." Siena murmured. "They don't know when to stop, y'know."
"Accurate though," Brent replied, taking a slice of teriyaki chicken and offering it to Siena, "That's why I got you and Team SAP."
"Flattering, but somehow I have doubts about how lo--ah, damn." Splat! The poultry performed an impressive flip as Siena's less-than-expert manipulations of her wooden utensils fumbled it into the middle of the table. "This is hard enough with a stable surface."
Brent flinched, involuntarily, as the bread-coated, sauce-drenched chicken dove into her soy sauce dish, black drops splattering every which direction. Wisely (for he was truly a wise and well-adjusted subnatural), he didn't instinctively reach with a napkin to smother and soak up the stain, instead opting to hand a sheet over like a normal person.
"Should I ask for a fork? Or would that bruise your pride too much, 'ena?" the arbiter said, a cheery smile forming.
"I think I'll stay with the chopsticks. I'll probably get better at it, right?" Siena returned the smile with one of her own, though between rampant thoughts and the faint, irritating pulse in the back of her head, it was hard to maintain. Thankfully, trying to clear off the small spattering of stains was something to focus on, a perfectly plausible excuse to change her expression. "You know, it kind of seems like you only get that cheerful expression at my expense."
"I only feel like that when I'm with you," Brent corrected with a wink, "Though I'm curious. Have I seemed weirdly upbeat recently?"
"When you're with me or when you're making fun of me?" Siena shot back. Her gaze returned to the boy as she formulated a response to the question. Oddly upbeat? It was an oddly specific question, but everyone had seemed to be in...surprisingly high spirits, considering their recent losses. It had been easy to play along with the facade--easier than it should have been. "I think everyone's been oddly upbeat, given--" ...well, she didn't really want to bring that up, she supposed. "--recent events."
"I'm not 'everyone'," Brent replied, no real irritation or aggression in his tone as he popped a roll in his mouth.
Not 'everyone'--a fair enough point.
"Persistent as always." Ah, damn, not enough in the words. "But you certainly have seemed a little more...upbeat, to steal a turn of phrase."
Not that she was exactly a great judge at that moment.
"Granted, this is based on 'almost laughed to death' and 'almost shot you', so..."
"So I can basically be confirmed as someone with some real big issues?" Brent replied, eyebrows lifting. "Great, I love confirmations of the eldritch madness that plagues my mind."
"Now, really, what's in yours?"
"Not exactly what I meant, but if that's how you want to take it..." She let the tone remain casual. Of course, she should have figured that wasn't the end of the matter. Siena was somehow not entirely surprised that it circled back to their first topic, though it didn't prevent the faint, writhing discomfort in the pit of her stomach. The Arbiter still gave the expected half-exasperated smile in response. "Didn't we just have this conversation?"
"Wow, so sassy," Brent grinned, leaning back, "Guess I couldn't pull a fast one over you after all."
Siena had said that he was a little more upbeat than normal. Perhaps he'll do better to maintain this 'upbeatness' then. No need to start a fight over this. No need to get in her face and no need to cause any trouble. A part of him knew, of course, that he was giving up on this far too easily. That if it had been a month or so back, he would have jumped at the chance to 'win'. But not now.
He didn't have to turn an enjoyable time into a 'meaningful' time, after all.
"Well, just let me know if you'd rather not answer questions next time, instead of giving me half-baked shit, yeah? Thought we cleared out all the bullshit after our romp in the library, but I guess these things never come easy."
"Right, sorry..." Offering an apologetic smile that felt more helpless than it should have, Siena reminded herself that she was supposed to be working on being honest. It was harder when there were actual secrets to keep--for everyone else's benefits, she told herself. Bolstering the smile as best she could, the bookworm did her best to explain.
"Force of habit. Gotta have an answer if you don't want the question asked again." Uncomfortable again, this time not because it was familiar, but because it felt as though she had to pull a defense away. Again, Siena tried to trivialize the matter. "All that high society stuff is hard to override."
"Yeah, I can understand that."
It wasn't an answer yet, for the question he had posed himself, but it was an...explanation. That was fine. He could accept that, if only to clear the air around the two.
"Though my personal technique used to be just to make vague comments until they connect the dots themselves. Used to be a pretty subtle guy, yah know? None of the shoe-mouth battering-ram hijinks these days."
"How long ago was 'used to be'?" And there's that bad habit again. "Subtlety doesn't seem like something you drop overnight."
"Gee, asking that sort of question when I can't even tell if I'm more upbeat than usual? Who knows?"
"Oof, I might have had that one coming." It was a little disappointing, but not an entire loss. "For what it's worth, I think the foot-in-mouth straightforwardness is kind of charming."
He stopped for a moment, before taking a long sip of now-lukewarm water.
"Prefer sushi-in-mouth myself instead," Brent said, pointing at all 80% of the dishes on the table that remained untouched due to their incessant need to talk instead of chew. "Better chop-chop with your jaw, 'ena, or we're gonna get kicked out and slapped with a waste food fine."
"Alright, alright." Maybe it had been a bad idea to give Brent free reign over how much they were ordering. Siena had been comfortably full after they'd managed to clear the table the first time. Of course, Brent had ordered twice more afterwards, which served as a reminder that apparently overeating became a near tradition whenever arrangements were made for them to share a meal.
With a piece of half-eaten mochi still on her plate from the ordeal, Siena released a breath.
"How in the world do you eat so much?"
"Eating's part of training too," Brent replied, enjoying the warmth of miso soup after crunching down on two thick, greasy portions of karaage, "Don't worry, 'ena, you'll get used to it sooner or later. Just gotta keep it up, you know?"
"Get used to feeling my stomach about to rupture? I'm not sure this is 'training' I want to undergo." She glanced at the half-eaten portion of dessert on her plate, her stomach performing a very impressive lurch at the idea of having to pack more into it.
"Consider it an exercise in pain tolerance and willpower," he suggested unhelpfully, "Thought all girls had room for dessert though."
"At what point did I fall into the category of 'all girls'?"
"Ah, apologies, 'ena. You're my one and only."
"Always one extreme or the other with you, huh?" She attempted, with little success, to split the mochi still on her plate without fully giving the action her attention. Another distant smile rose reflexively as her mind wandered to less pleasant thoughts, as though the action made anything easier. "Though I really shouldn't be surprised at this point."
"You know it," Brent laughed, "All in, all out. I'm many things, but being complex isn't one of them."
Reaching over with his own chopsticks, he pinned one half of the mochi, anchoring it to the plate.
"That's absolutely believable. Really." Her smile grew a fraction closer to genuine for a moment, her attention pulled away by the sudden aid as the dessert split. Another unpleasant memory, and the expression faded. Complex or not...
"How have you been? Honestly."
"Fine," he replied, "But you know why, right?"
The arbiter paused, before drinking down his portion of mango pudding.
"Been working on aiming bullets with my hands, so I can bypass the usage of a gun unless I really need the extra punch. Been cooking less recently, or at least, experimenting with it recently. I guess a part of me wants to talk to Grant, but another part doesn't want to bother anymore, so I haven't been inside my room much at all. Also talked to Emma for the first time in a hell of a long time, and we have plans on knocking on DC's cocoon to have a chat. Honestly, it's pretty weird, you know?"
His chopsticks stopped snapping away.
"We just lost two classmates, and yet, the fallout is hardly there. Everyone IS too upbeat, and I'm not sure if constant death of those I was close to is something I want to adjust to. Almost feel like Chris's rampaging makes more sense than whatever the fuck I'm doing these days. Hell, Allison looked fine, and she was in a relationship with Angelic."
There was only one cup of almond pudding on the table, and he slid it over to Siena.
"But what are your thoughts on this?"
Too many thoughts. That was the accurate answer. Siena had been quick to notice how off it felt with the others. Nobody wanted to bring up the island. Nobody thought twice about Gregory--you didn't even try to save him--or Angel. Brent was right. Everyone seemed to be...fine. On the surface, as long as nothing dredged up the unpleasant thoughts. Everything about their situation was fragile, and the slightest gust of wind threatened toppling the picturesque palace of glass.
She knew that already. Understood it, and didn't go against it.
"I want to give the benefit of the doubt. They're responding like humans do." Her attention fell to the almond pudding, not feeling any hunger, but grateful to have something else to keep her gaze on. "Denial is an easier emotion to deal with than guilt, remorse, or acceptance. At least...I prefer that explanation over the alternative that yo--we've lost enough to grow desensitized." Or the explanation further than that--that nobody cared to begin with.
"I doubt anyone is really 'fine'." More than that, Siena didn't know if she wanted anyone to be fine. A selfish, helpless wish because if they were, she wouldn't know what to do.
No, that was another cover, but she pressed everything down.
"Which brings us back to you. Are you really 'fine'?"
"Use your own judgment there. Didn't we go over how emotionally out of touch I am?"
"But you have an opinion, right? Do you think you're actually 'fine' or not?"
"I...don't want to be fine," he said after a short consideration, "But there was neither fire nor fury, like it was with Sav."
His expression twisted. How easy loss became for a nobody like himself.
"Not every loss has to be met with fire." She knew that. Why...? Not important. "Ice is worse."
Because fire devoured, left ash behind. Ice did not give that luxury, left behind a wasteland where nothing would grow, but where nothing would die. Not properly, at least.
Should have stopped it before it started, but she could have tried harder.
"I guess you're not 'fine'."
"Hah." Brent scratched the back of his head ruefully. "If you put it that way, I guess you're right. Yourself?"
Not in the least.
"I have to be." She offered a cautious smile, making a small motion toward her phone. "It comes with the territory."
"I'll take that as a 'not fine' then," he replied, flicking her lightly on the forehead.
"Hey!" Siena gave a slight wince in response to the flick. Rubbing the point of impact out of reflex, the girl gave a weak laugh. "Not after that, geeze."
"Hey now, I should be entitled to this much entertainment at least, while we both wallow in differing amounts of not fine-ness."
"Oh, great, I've been demoted to entertainment now." She kept the smile firm despite the false roll of the eyes. "What a momentous occasion."
"I guess if I have to be 'not fine' around anyone though, I could be stuck with worse."
"Promotion, actually," Brent grinned. "Court Jester of House Roless is a very illustrious role, Siena. Pays in corndogs and sushi too."
He took a long sip as the second line hit. Thought for a while. Let it sink in.
"Gee, I'm neither worst nor best? Guess I'll put more effort in becoming the best 'non-fine' dude around next time."
"So-rry~" Siena laughed softly. "You've got your work cut out for you if you wanna beat Emi--"
She choked on the name.
Siena cleared her throat, giving a half-hearted grin in response.
"Wow, gonna just rob me of my point of comparison? Harsh, Siena, that is harsh." Brent grinned. "Almost sounds like you don't want me to ascend to best-dom."
"Here I thought you liked a challenge." The girl shot back, keeping the mask firmly set in place. Not important. It wasn't wrong, she supposed. Far from honest, but not a lie.
"I also like to know who my rivals are," he replied, "But sure, can totally understand that you wanna keep your friends from my corrupting influence."
"Well, you are a terrible influence," Siena grinned, sly and playful through no small effort on her own part. "But like I said, not important."
"Oof, you're quite a cruel mistress, Siena," Brent remarked, "Now finish your goddamned pudding."
Catching the Dream
Brent | Emma
Emma wasn't sure what lead her to Ground Zero now. Ever since that dream her stigma has practically been gone, like she was a whole new her... but still, she'd never actually come here besides that 'training' session they did as a class, and she was curious. A place for 'stress-relief' for the Aberrations. Maybe something she should've used, not like it mattered now.
She'd walked around a bit, scoping out the confines of the area, until by chance she spotted a familiar face. Lying down on a piece of rubble, staring at his phone, seemingly muttering to himself. Under normal circumstances she might've avoided him, but... there was actually something on her mind that he might've been able to help with.
”Brent!” she called out, waving.
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakn-
As a familiar, yet surprising voice sounded, pulling Brent out of his reading, the arbiter closed his phone and slipped it into his back pocket smoothly, turning with slightly upraised eyebrows at the dark haired aberration. A surprise indeed, but not an unwelcome one. Standing up, he patted the dust from his pants before smiling tentatively.
"Don't see you often 'round here," he said, "What's up?"
”I was just looking around, but I'm actually glad I ran into you. There were some things that I wanted to talk to you about...” Emma's expression darkened a little, ”About that night under the medical building.”
”Well, there are a couple things, but I guess the first thing I'm concerned about... you saw Miranda, right? Dominating the CC1 skyline? Do you think... I dunno, what do ya' make of that?”
A careful shrug. "Musta ate a lot."
”Yeah, I guess...” Emma sighed. After seeing Padma and Savannah again... ”Makes me sick to think about. But, uh, that's not all... you've been having the dreams, right? The ones that change your power?”
"Improve," he replied, a smile quirking up, "Not change. Don't have guns speaking to me yet."
”Right, well, either way the important part is that everyone in our class is having them. But not just us. Hector and Clark too. Remember, crocodile face and the psychopath kid? Isn't that... interesting?”
"Everyone in our class? Or every subnatural out there?"
”Nope, pretty sure it's not every sub. Someone from our class scoped it out on Death and Taxes – not an every sub thing, at least, that's what the administration thinks. It's everyone in our class, Hector, and Clark, maybe more. Before I just thought it was us, but if Hector and Clark have them too, they're probably more in the loop about it than we are.”
"More in the loop regarding..." It was certainly interesting, but after everything that had gone by in the past couple of weeks, was something like a dream really that important? Or was there perhaps a way to just immediately grab the power within that garden? He decided to voice those thoughts. "It's interesting, but to what end, Emma? What's your goal here?"
”I mean, there's obviously something more at work. They've singled us out, made us their B-team to the Precursors within a week of being here. We're strong and getting strong. We're obviously... different. Don't you want to know why? The dreams have gotta be connected.”
He smiled, and then chuckled.
"Well, I guess the worst thing that can happen is us getting electrocuted and then Freddy shittalking us again," Brent said, as pleasantly surprised as he was when Emma first showed, "Another trip to the creepy underground place? Or do you have a better plan this time around?"
”I dunno. Clark wasn't that hard to meet the first time around, right? You're more the planning type than me, aren't you? We've got all kinds of new powers, either way it shouldn't be as much of a hassle this time, right?”
"Well, I suppose some of us do have a couple achievements in our belts now," Brent said. Some things never changed, huh? "Why not just ask Freddy or Rosa about seeing the dude?"
”The direct approach? I mean, that's an idea, but something gives me the feeling they won't want us messing around with them. We can certainly try, though.”
"You saw how these cuffs are, right?" Brent lifted up his foot, indicating the white-silver band around his ankle. "They're probably already listening in and shit. No real point in going cloak and dagger...and 's long as we're there for a friendly chat instead of snooping around for East's dark secrets..."
He trailed off from there.
”Shit, y'think they're listening all the time? I mean, we got in last time and they didn't stop us, but... I guess you're right.” Emma glanced at the cuff nervously, ”Well, if we're going to ask I think we should go for Rosa. She seems... nicer. Plus, Freddy caught us last time and didn't seem to like what we were doing.”
"Definitely know a hell lot of peeps here that didn't like Freddy much," Brent laughed, "Must be Rosa's rad attitude that's grabbing all her fans."
”Yeah, well, rad relative to the fact that the administration here is-” Emma cut herself off, glancing at her cuff, ”Absolutely lovely. When do you wanna do this?”
"Don't got any guy dates lined up with Marcus, so how 'bout now? Or should we put on some formalwear first?"
”Uh, I think we'll be fine with what we're wearing. Shall we, then?”
"We shall." A majestic dip of his head, a chivalrous offer of an arm, which Emma readily ignored, and the two were off. Well, it certainly went to shit since last time he was there.
Sliding into the administration building with his super best buddie Emma, Brent was surprised to see just how busy the entire place had become. Yellow tape cordoned off the check-in system that laid with a cracked screen, while a crowd of students formed a disorderly line as a poor attendant went through hell ripping off handwritten tickets and issuing them to the magical rabble. Poor dude, really.
"Looks like a long line," he said, cocking his head in Emma's direction. "You ate yet?"
Emma sighed. This certainly wasn't what she expected. Knowing how busy their 'teachers' were she had no doubt the wait for Rosa would be... very, very, long. She turned towards Brent, ”No, I haven't. Why?”
He produced an energy bar from his pockets. "Don't want you to get hangry enough to have Determination start tossing kiddos out of the way."
Emma simply stared at the energy bar for a moment before accepting. ”Thanks. Always prepared, huh?” she thought about mentioning Determination, but decided against it, instead moving to take a spot in line.
Thirty-five minutes of nightmarish bureaucracy later, the pair finally reached the front desk.
"What can I help you with today?" A practiced smile graced Marcie's face as she looked between the two.
”We're here to see Rosa, please.” Emma said simply, confidently. It was like the DMV – you just had to sound like you knew what you were doing and talk loudly if they say no. Simple.
The receptionist released an almost imperceptible sigh as she reached for a bright yellow walkie talkie on her desk. It had most definitely not been there at the start of the week.
"Ms. Schur..." the receptionist looked like she had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes, "there are students asking for you. Again."
"Hmmyeah?" Slightly crackly but remarkably bright. Rosa's voice, no doubt. "Who is it?"
"Brent and Emma from Unit B."
"Whew, you kids must be my biggest fans. This is, what, the fourth visit this week?"
”What can I say, Rosa? You're just waaaay too cool for us to pass up.” Emma said, sounding 100% sincere.
"Emma's being sarcastic here, but don't worry," Brent added, "She'll come around to the Church of Rosa Schur eventually."
"Sarcastic? Me? Not a chance, Brent, I'd wager I'm the number one Rosa fan on the block."
"Oookay, that's enough." She sounded a bit miffed. "If I wanted my ego stroked I would've lurked by the water fountain until Greten showed up. What do you kids need today?"
”Answers. About Clark, Hector, and the dreams we've all been having.” no point in prolonging it, Emma figured. Either Rosa would tell them what they wanted to know, or they'd find it out the hard way.
"Apparently, Clark and Hector have the same dreams as us, preceding a growth in our powers. Is there an explanation here?"
A very noticeable pause crackled through the walkie talkie.
"Yes, Ms. Schur?" the receptionist replied blandly.
"I'm gonna have to ask you to hand the Little Quacker to these kids here."
With a sigh, Marcie handed the yellow walkie talkie to Emma.
"Let's talk somewhere quiet," Rosa said.
”Perfect.” Emma said, grabbing the walkie. Where exactly was somewhere quiet? ”Errrrrr...” Emma grabbed Brent, moving away from the lines, away from the waiting people, and then outside towards a secluded corner of the administration building's courtyard. ”Alright, quiet spot acquired.”
"Cool. Here's the dealio, see. It's not super clear to me either, the dreams and the wacky powers. I tried bringing it up with Claudia but she gave me her usual daziness before getting pulled back into class. Even afterwards, we couldn't figure out much. My theory is that DC's a lot closer to some mages than others...or the other way around. You've probably figured out by now that your powers aren't meant to be changing like this."
A sigh on the other end.
"That's pretty much it. Hector only gives me information when he's in a good mood and Clark is...Clark. Trust me, if I had more to tell you, I would."
”Huh... that's... a little disappointing. I was hoping that you guys would have everything figured out by now. Guess DC is still a big mystery... er, who's Claudia, though? Don't think that's a name I recognize, how exactly does she play into this?”
"Oh, she's one of the students. She can go and swim around in other people's dreams or something like that. Sometimes a bit overzealous with her explorations but she's a lovely girl overall."
”Huh...” hey wait, that sounded a lot like... ”Uh, is there a way I could talk to Claudia? Any deets you can toss me? Maybe she'll be a little more forthcoming with another student.”
Rosa hissed through her teeth.
"IIIIII...doubt that. Claudia's a private gal. Likes her space. You wouldn't guess that from her hobby, right?"
The sound of some sort of cabinet rung out before Rosa plopped back into her chair.
"Building A, Suite 324. You can always give it a go but personally, I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you."
"Mmmm. Thanks for the info, I think that's about it." Emma feigned, "Oh, wait, actually... one more thing, since I've gotchya and we're talking about all the people that you guys don't like to talk about. What... what the hell is Miranda?"
"Eh." She was probably shrugging behind the walkie talkie. "Something Hector made."
”I don't suppose you're going to explain that, are you?”
The laughing went on for a lot longer than it should have.
"Heh, I don't suppose that either."
”Fantastic. You guys sure love your secrets, dontcha? I guess we're done in that case, unless Brent's got any followup.” Emma said, holding the walkie up for the boy.
"Yeah, I do," Brent said, having been focused more on internalizing the information himself. It wasn't much, and what little they were willing to share was disappointing, but...
"Hector, Clark, and all the members of Unit B share this...connection to Dreamcatcher, yes?" A pause. "No one else within East does?"
"Not as far as we know. And we know a lot, so."
Clearly not enough to know what was actually going on.
"Thanks anyways," Brent said, "Guess I'll leave you back to work, Rosa. How's that mountain of paperwork going?"
"Urgh, terribly. Freddy won't even help me anymore cos he's got so much of his own work to deal with."
"My prayers will be with you," Brent said solemnly, "Here's to hoping you don't develop carpal tunnel and hunchback after this. Don't forget to stretch, Rosa!"
A hearty laugh echoed through the channel before it was switched off.
Emma switched off their own walkie, sighing. "That... really didn't tell us a whole lot, did it? I'd suggest we follow up on Claudia, but truth is I've already talked to her and I'm not sure she knows a whole lot more than Rosa let on. Which means... I dunno, I doubt Clark or Hector can tell us more either. You got any ideas? Think it's worth checking out or are we dead-ended?"
"Well, seeing how Rosa doesn't know and Claudia doesn't know, and how we don't know, despite having these dreams ourselves..."
He scratched his chin, looking skywards.
"Seems like this is one of the great mysteries that won't be solved simply by chatting with people and asking questions. Gonna have to do wetwork ourselves, eh?"
"How exactly do you suggest we do that? Go up and have nice chat with Dreamcatcher?"
"Wow," Brent remarked, genuinely surprised she caught on so fast, "You're sharp. With infinite range, a talking Determination, and a fair idea of where the big antler boy is cocooned in, isn't that worth a try?"
"That..." Emma looked up towards the sky too, "I was joking. Don't think that's possible anyways, unless you've got some kind of beefy telescope up your sleeve. I can only summon my tulpas to places I can see."
"Oh, what? Huh, always thought you just had infinite range for summoning, 's long as you didn't mind not being able to issue orders. That another change?"
Emma let out a slight groan, ”Nooooo, not exactly. Let's just call that a misconception on my part. I think I did say that the range was infinite a while ago, but... that was when I was still figuring out how shit worked.” Emma let out a nervous laugh. That was some bad info to get wrong, huh? ”Some good news, though, the earshot thing isn't an issue anymore. I can communicate with Determination mentally now, and she can order around the others.”
"Hm...so basically, what you're saying is...we request a good telescope, Google Dreamcatcher's general location, overclocking said scope until you can see it, and THEN your tulpas have their heart-to-heart with DC?"
Emma shrugged, ”I guess? Never tried to spot the dude's cocoon before, not sure how hard that'd be. Plus I don't really know the rules with my power telescopes, but then again, don't really see why it wouldn't work. If you think you can do it we could always try.”
"Won't know if we don't try...but this is probably gonna be a long-term deal anyways," Brent admitted, "I can get the telescope, if you do some good ol research on where the hell that cocoon is, Emma. Sounds good?"
"Sounds good." Emma said, still looking skyward.
Saints and Dragons
Brent | Chris
Running out of time, but also running out of bullets, huh?
Orange light burned against the cold pavement, so warm and yet so heatless, as the amethyst eyed youth stood in the central plaza where the first round of Flag and Seek had started. Like always, he wore his gas mask over his face, combat helmet and infrared night vision goggles the last remnants of the equipment he had once carried with him into Wisford. The Desert Eagle was gone. The machete was gone. All that lethality, reduced to just a handful of bullets that he never actually got to use.
Brent sighed through his nose, fiddling with the high caliber slugs, his black wrist braces snug against bare flesh. A new acquisition, relatively, but an important one. Simple enough that the destructive growth of his overclocks didn't strain it that much, but potent enough that his wrist no longer creaked.
Well, after all that training, they were still sore, regardless.
Wiping the sweat off his brow, the arbiter slowly rotated his wrists, before turning to head on to one of Ground Zero's more prominent landmarks, in search of Ernie. It was still a bit early, really, but...ammunition was precious, and he more or less understood the concept now. It'll do. For now, it'll do.
Chris had already transformed within the city limits of ground zero, as the arbiter had planned to test out and hopefully expand his abilities. Strength was needed, he was not strong enough to save Angel, and if he didn't force himself to evolve he'd eventually lose everything once again. Just as he flew into the air to observe the enviorment, his ears picked up distant gun shots from the distance. With use of his forked tongue, he picked up the scent of Brent. Immediately the burning anger he felt when Siena last touched his mind triggered along feral rage, unstable emotions that were still stirred from the loss of Angelique. Upon flying to his direction, he discovered he was alone, and now was the perfect chance to take a swift vengeance.
He wasn't so far gone as to kill him, he only wanted to teach that bastard a lesson. By his instincts, that rage was fueled by territorial motivation, Brent was invading on his Territory, for what he thought he had done to Siena. Whatever side of his conscience that was still human deemed this time necessary to practice restraint of his own powers. The 'people' of Ground Zero were insignificant bait, Brent was an ally, an ally he'd rather not have, but an ally none the less. If he could keep his own rage from mortally wounding Brent, then surely he has mastered his own instinct. It was that flawed logic mixed with boiling and unstable emotion and instinct that caused the dragon to dive straight down and land abruptly infront of Brent with a briefer version of the roar he had shouted before on their little 'dispute' from the aftermath of that battle. That roar was the only announcement he gave, a challenge by his definition, and without any other warnings he began his attack by standing upright and swinging the end of his tail towards Brent like a club, though he made sure not to swing it too fast or too hard to give the rodent a chance.
The whumpf whumpf of draconic wingbeats gave it away, but Brent was still slightly surprised when Chris divebombed from the air, gusts billowing outwards as the pavement cracked against the scaled beast's mass. A roar, so much shorter but so much more vicious, blasted dragon spit in the amethyst eyed arbiter's face once more, before Chris almost immediately launched into action. A three hundred pound whip barreled towards Brent from the side, barely evaded as he leapt backwards. There was still surprise there, that such an attack would be launched out of the blue.
Did he finally snap? Or was this just an accumulation of weeks worth of grudges? Who fucking knew, there was a dragon on his ass!
Clamping down on speculation, Brent clenched his fists, eyes locking onto that upright scaley lizard shit. Oh hell, if he had just decided to go raze the earth with a flamethrower, Brent would have definitely been fucked huh? So this was more of...playing. Great. Awesome.
"Sup dude," the arbiter said, a big grin on his face even as he took a few more steps back. "Whatcha here for? Work? Or pleasure?"
As he spoke, silver circuitry raced down his forearms, his wrist brace dissassembling and reassembling into a shiny, black carapace. Protective gear. Times like these were times where Brent wished he had come with literally everything he had.
The dragon had lowered back to a four legged position, but rather then some kind of feral stance, he stood highly with his eyes glaring down at his fellow arbiter; As if he were some mere insect that held no threat, a stance of arrogant pride where his lack of initiative was only spared out of 'courtesy' to give Brent some small chance that his twisted instinct deemed 'fair'. That stance didn't change as Brent spoke to him, only prividing a snort of smoke that would be typical of a cartoonish bull. In the moment he braced himself with a protective plate, Chris took the challenge. He raised one of his front claws and slammed it directly over his guard to see if his strength was superior to his make-shift shield. A mighty roar followed his attack.
Eyes, nose, mouth. Without a proper gun to give him that extra boost, those were the only options available.
But thankfully, those options were fair targets when his opponent was as large as he was. In his clenched fist was the bullet he had been steadily overclocking while his wrist brace served as a fair distraction, and while Chris postured, Brent only continued to maintain his distance. A vertical claw slam wasn't something he had any intention of trying to withstand. Legs coiled, he shuffled hopped back further, taking the fighting posture that Angelic had drilled into him day after day until everything fell apart.
Kicks and punches and knees and elbows weren't going to do anything here.
But the footwork was still important.
As the ground shook and Chris's mouth opened once again, rows upon rows of teeth separating to unveil the fleshy maw within, Brent opened his clenched fist as well, a silver bullet gently pulsating with a myriad of blue hues.
The first to fire.
The second to aim.
The third to destroy.
A blue flash cut through the air, diving for the back of the dragon's mouth.
Without looking at the result of his shot, Brent turned and booked it, fist clenching over the second bullet.
The sudden bitterness of acid filled the beast's mouth as he recoiled in disgust. In a clumsy matter he retreated from Brent by a few feet as he stood upright and screamed into the air at his discomfort. The acid didn't seem to burn his gums by any visual cue, but it definitely did trigger some kind of pain. Abrupting his own scream a jet of intense, steel melting, flames ripped out of his throat in an attempt to vaporize the acid that sizzled his taste buds. Fortunately for Brent, this fire was aimed upwards instead of towards him. The fire towered above the dragon into the sky like a 12 meter geyser.
By the time he ceased his breathe Brent had already gained some good distance, but that little stunt only made Chris angrier. The dragon whose mouth was still writhing in pain sprinted forward after Brent, quickly gaining speed as he charged up on two legs, a sprint that resembled a prehistoric theropod only with long front limbs that were ready to pin Brent down once he caught up to him. In the first few seconds of his charge he was already close to 40 mph, but his rapidly increasing momentum and method of movement made it obvious that this charge wasn't very good at direction changing on a dime.
At the sound of the scream, Brent immediately dove to the side, flattening himself against the ground as he felt the heat radiate all around. But there was no hot flash, no searing pain, just the prominence of dragonfire erupting skywards. Good god, the third, aimed at a vital, unprotected part, wasn't enough to take him down?
There really was a difference between having a gun and not, huh?
As the bullet writhed beneath his grasp, the arbiter forced himself back up, picking up the pace again. How long until the next jet of flame? How long until he ran out of bullets? How much more lethal should he be? Was this escalation already too far? More questions that he clamped down on, as the rampaging beast chased after him, gathering up momentum at a much too frightening pace. Oh, the adrenaline was pumping now, his heart hammering and his mind scrambling. This is why he wanted a goddamn shotgun. This is why he wanted a goddamn rocket launcher. This was why he wanted a goddamn assault rifle.
Eyes? Nose? Head? Ears? Throat?
Rubber soles scraped against the ground as Brent leapt out to the side, tumbling against the ground before rolling onto his knees. Same set up. Same dance. But the destructive variable had turned into a particle laser instead, perfect for an accurate strike.
Brilliance spilled from the black carapace as a second ray shot for the dragon's front knee, aiming to cave it inwards. Momentum would do the rest, if a flying magical monster's knees functioned the same way as a human's.
The beam didn't pierce his scales, but the force was definitely enough to knock the beast off of its path. The dragon shouted in surprise as he fell to the side, his body tumbling a bit due to how fast he had been moving. Rolling onto his back there was a brief pause,a break, before the audible outrage of a dragon roaring filled the field. Once he had gotten back up it was clear he was uninjured and his attack had only managed to slow him down.
Chris darted forward, but instead of his previous charge he merely started to gallop. Three long steps with four feet jotting off the ground before the beast took flight and into the air. He soared upward in a u-shaped formation. His speed in the air dwarved that of his previous land-based charge, and at first it seemed like he was flying away from Brent. After gaining a great distance away from him, the dragon arbiter suddenly steered back towards Brent and downwards, gaining massive velocity. Flames began to trail out of the lips of his closed maw, and just as he flew overhead of Brent, he released that jet of flames about 10 meters infront of him, cutting Brent's path off. In a loop motion he swiftly landed upon the burning earth, his mere rapid descent almost quenching the flames. As he stood back in that arrogant stance, the flames only contrasted his monstrous form more so, crimson reptilian eyes gleaming through the silhoutte of his form that the fire and smoke created.
Wait, so was this...a fight or not? Having fully expected an actual charge, or at least some sort of offensive action, Brent instead found himself with flames behind him and a shitty dragon in front of him, no longer moving in a particularly aggressive way. A test then? Some sort of...exchange? Fuck if he knew.
"Right..." the arbiter began carefully, brushing off the dust from his legs, clenching his fist so that his hand wouldn't shake, "How bout we call it quits from here? I'm not even fully armed, yah know? And I really don't want to draw out my full power here anyways, cause god knows what'll happen if I did that, so..."
He spread his hands out to the side.
"...let's just be nice and say it's a draw, Chris."
As the beast stood there, it only looked angrier at his words. As if it were being mocked. A draw?! He was far from going to accept some kind of, meaningless 'draw' to this conflict. He wanted to make sure Brent knew where he belong, under his goddamn foot. The more he dwelled on it in his draconic form, fully exposed to his primordial instincts, the further it poisoned his nature with arrogance and pride. He leaped out of the flames and once he landed, lashed his tail in an arc, in a motion where he could wrap it around Brent's neck.
But the bullet struck first, released with the simple motion of opening up Brent's hand. Arcing upwards, it dug into the dragon's right nostril, before the arbiter was on the move once more, flattening himself as a tail arced over him, before pushing himself back up and running like all hell.
The bullet released its acid into his nostril, which immediately caused the beast to recoil in pain as it flooded his naval cavity. This time there was no fire to burn away the liquid, causing him to thrash about blindly in a fit of uncontrolled rage and pain. The writhing beast tore through dirt blindly as it tried to force the acid out of his nostril, all the while shouting in a fit of beastial anger.
How many of these had he fired at this point? Wheeling around at the roar, Brent took a split second to aim, casting another empowered energy bullet down the throat of the beast. In another time, he'd be amazed at the pain tolerance of the dragon, but for now...
...he'll slap Chris on the back for this later. The plaza was plenty open and the arbiter had a hell lot of ground to cover. Silver circuitry sparked up and down his arm as his legs pulled him further and further away.
Before the dragon could even recover from the acid that irritated his naval cavity, a precision beam pierced straight through his soft gums. The sudden kinetic force and new source of pain knocked the dragon onto his back. Toxic blood spewed from the deep blunt wound the beam had caused as Chris struggled to get up.
He reminded himself that Chris healed fully after transforming to his human form.
So Brent clamped down on that pity as well, more silver blood pumping out of his veins as the black carapace rattled, absorbing the recoil of consecutive firing, slivers of light smashing into both eyes. He didn't have the fire power to take out a limb, not with this current set up, not if he wanted to give up on escape.
So it would be the eyes. The senses. Enough to cripple the beast's ability to give chase.
The remaining bullets within the box rattled. He was definitely dealing with single digits now. But, somewhere within, Brent couldn't help that feeling of joy. Must have been what Angelic felt, huh? Overcoming that great beast, the inferior copy of the monsters that razed China. But that elation lasted only a moment, before Brent turned and ran off, towards the taller buildings that ringed the plaza, towards some semblance of safety and cover. Behind him, the roars sounded again and again, but there was no longer any focus, no longer any crystal clear killing intent. Slowly, the adrenaline left, replaced by the steady rhythm of his running pace instead, as the arbiter dove into the maze like buildings.
A moment of consideration later, and Brent said, rather flatly, "Cuff transmit. Hey guys, protip: don't go to GZ right now. Peace. End transmission."
Welp, that was that. Good exercise, training, and a sense of his own limitations.
Already down, two well placed shots caused both eyes to burst into a display of gore. The bleeding, empty eye sockets of the reptilian monster caused him to thrash about violently. He could no longer see, and with his tongue disrupted by the acid and the smell of his own blood in his mouth, there was no way he could track Brent's scent accurately enough to compensate his lack of vision.
I can't see! I can't see! Damnit it all he blinded me, that insect, that filthy rodent!"
His inner rage was quelled, the vulnerable he felt now slowly drowned out his initial rage. It was in that darkness that he was reminded of time and time again, his lack of power, his inability to save Angelique, and more terrors. Instinct and adrenaline were taking over conscience thought, and his hatred for Brent only fueled the fire of the beast's instincts.
From what he could smell from his forked tongue, beyond the writhing pain and defeaning sound of his own pained roars, was human flesh. Not just Brent's, if he was even sane enough now to even still reckognize who Brent was, but the people of 'illusions' of Ground Zero. This was bad, perhaps even worse his rampage on the island. The loss of Angelique still in his mind, his hatred for Brent, intensive negative emotion prayed on his conscious like maggots over bread. All that remained on the surface of his mind was the instincts of a monster. What started out as a toying revenge transformed into a blind rampage.
That smell of flesh, among his maddened state, transcended his pain. He needed to feed. Feed on the insignificant worms that plagued these lands. Chris, if you could still call him that being so far gone to his own natural drive, rose from his writhing state; still in pain, but with anger beyond measure. Another roar was released from his maw as recovered from the pain, it was different in tone from his previous shouts, perhaps even angrier then his roars directed at Brent.
The dragon had followed Brent to the ringed plaza. At least, to his general location. The people there occupied his attention, as if he had forgotten of Brent entirely. Flames flied to incinerate civilians, others spared from the flames were crunched and swallowed by maw, or crushed underfoot by claw or tail by a blind, angry, and hungry beast. Walls and houses didn't shelter anyone from his wrath, whatever wasn't burned to the ground in his path was merely trampled through by force of his body.
A rampage that continued for hours.
Brent | Siena
Hope you managed to get out of Ground Zero in one piece.
I almost don't want to ask, but what was attacking?
Oh, Chris was just being Chris. Nothing big.
Nothing big usually doesn't lead to 'don't come here'
I mean, dude's having some intense stress relief sessions. Noticed that myself, so thought the others woulda liked a warning.
Intense stress relief sessions?
What does that even mean?
Rage filled rampaging on people and buildings alike.
Sounds pretty bad. You didn't get caught up in it?
Oh, I did. Convinced him that he had easier fish to fry tho.
Somehow I'm the one that's not convinced here. You ARE in one piece, right?
Of course. What, you're worried?
I've seen what it's like in his head. It was hard enough keeping him in check with interference.
Would you rather I shrug off that you might be missing half your limbs?
Naw. Thanks for the concern. Appreciate it, really.
Dragon's got nothing on des guns tho. :muscle:
:woof: at least your ego doesn't seem hurt.
and my ego's my charm point. No way ragetard!Chris would dent it. :diamond:
Be nice. I don't think he's always in control.
Doesn't feel like it, anyways.
It was bad last time. I don't know if it's getting worse.
Ye, not holding any grudges on my side anyways.
Hope he comes to his senses sooner or later. You know if Doc still does counseling?
He does counseling? That's news to me.
Heard from some others outside the class, at least.
Hmm, he might? Someone would have to ask.
Don't tell me you're gonna suggest it to Chris.
After what happened? He'd probably spit more fire at me. :rolf:
What DID happen? Not that "angry rampage" isn't a great explanation.
Oh, dude dropped from the skies and tail-swiped me. Thought he was just playing till he tried flattening me afterwards.
So after some hijinks, I booked it and he got salty.
Wait he actually went after you?
Last time he was focused on revenge, but he could still tell 'ally' from 'enemy'
No idea what he was thinking. Dude was already dragon when he dropped. What revenge tho?
...It's hard to say. It took drastic measures to keep him from charging for the Amigos alone.
I guess everything, at that point.
Well shit. Guess GZ is off limits for a while.
Probably a good plan, just in case. I'm not sure why it would have gotten worse out of the blue like that.
Glad you're okay though. Charbroiled Arbiter isn't something you want on your resume.
Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow.
Guess we better move it from GZ to training fields, huh?
The scene that greeted him above was one of devastation, the stench of the sea so much weaker than it was in the claustrophobic tunnels and the might of the Amigos so much clearer in the light of day. Seaweed clung to one side of the lighthouse, which had stood strong despite the spiderweb fractures that indicated something larger had been smashed against its sides. The forest had been all but demolished, flame, rot, and tidal waves clearing it all away.
It was just soil now, soaked with sea salt and brine, an unfortunate fish flapping about. Poor things, caught up in a conflict greater than what their piscine minds could comprehend. Brent wondered where those flippity floppity bastards were when he had gone fishing, but ultimately, he kicked the resilient bastard back into the waters. It survived whatever the hell the Amigos did, after all. Would be a shame to die of suffocation after that. Musing over pointless trash like that, the arbiter flicked out his phone and laughed at the results. Angelic, still DISCONNECTED on the other side of the island. Gregory, still DISCONNECTED only a short distance away from the estate. And everyone else moving on and on and…
Christ, he didn’t give a fuck.
Once the adrenaline had faded, once the immediate threat of death had gone, once no one he knew was in the process of getting horribly mauled to death, once the storm had stopped hammering down on the world before, the only thing left was the lingering aftertaste of disappointment. He looked at his hands, closed it, and grasped nothing. He looked around him, blinked, and saw nothing. And with nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing he wanted to think, Brent naturally turned towards Siena.
His mouth opened and then closed.
And Brent smiled instead, turning and walking off into the devastated remains of the forest, towards the direction of the estate that had been such a waste of time those past weeks.
Ernie and Christmas had already gone on ahead, the coast declared clear by the rope-slinging aberration. Emma, Marcus, Lily, and Sophia, despite being as wet as they all were, appeared to be in relatively good shape as well, but as for the birdcage the seer brought with her...that soaked bundle of feathers didn't look all too good. A wince, instinctive, but then Brent realized that he didn't even know whose bird it was. Did the brunette have a bird? Or was that just one of many pets were brought along for the ride?
Still, no one looked as if the flood had killed them immediately, and slowly, the waters were draining out, deeper into the tunnels. His boots squelched against the path, turned a quagmire by the seawater. The stench was still ever present, but it masked or washed away more unpleasant odors and soon, he was walking towards the only person who remained standing, remained silent. Siena, sporting unnaturally blue eyes, that of a painting rather than a photo of the sky.
In her own little world already, eh? Complete with sighs and gestures and all that stuff.
"Yo," Brent said, slapping her on the back, "Don't space out now, 'ena. Still don't have any sort of confirmation regarding the mansion group."
The connection faded out before the name, an odd sensation of knowing that it was still there, but still the girl remained in place, took a moment to regain herself. Heat still burning dimly beneath the surface, the same and yet entirely different from the one she'd harbored before being doused in seawater. Not hers. At least that much, she knew. Siena took another soft breath to try and soothe it, only ended up feeling another shiver creep through her--cold this time, not fear--and told herself that she needed to start thinking of what to do next. Absentmindedly, her thumb swiped across the screen of her phone, scrolling through selections despite her eyes being focused on something not there.
'Hopefully Chris will get back t---WHA?!'
Had she been in a state further from frozen to the ground, her reaction might have been more violent, more combat oriented, but between the chill and her draining stamina, Siena did the next best thing in her repertoire. Her body stiffened, back straightening at the impact, eyes snapping up--it was like watching an animal learn how to play dead while standing compressed into a split second. The remainder of the name escaped all at once, blue eyes swallowed once more by grey as her heart remembered how to beat again.
"J-Jesus Christ, Brent," the girl breathed while slowly allowing herself to relax as much as she usually would, a strained, hollow weary shadow of a smile crossing her lips out of instinct. "Glad you didn't do that ten seconds ago, I guess."
She really must have been out of it if she figuratively leapt up into the air with surprise. Taking a small step back, Brent managed a not-really grin as well. "What, were you gonna sucker punch me like Marcus?"
"Ten degrees prevented that, n-not ten seconds." Despite her best efforts, the girl couldn't keep another shiver from marring the words. Taking a deep breath and wringing at the bottom of her slip with one hand, the brunette glanced up, her attention somewhere beyond the "ceiling" above them. "Chris should be regrouping with the others. Hopefully we'll be in one group again soon."
Her gaze dropped from the ceiling, and she wondered if it would be less draining to allow the division to stay in place.
"How high do you think the chances are that the group at the estate has been eliminated already?"
That mind link technique then. Useful stuff, if it could let her communicate with people whose locations were unknown. Well, if Chris of all people were moving about on the surface, it was a good indication of the states of Callan and Sander, at least. Kusari was functionally invincible as well, which left only...Allison and Zoe. He clicked his tongue, glancing over at Siena's soaked form as well, before making a snap decision. The dragon wasn't in combat anymore, and perhaps that great flood was simply the Amigos' last warning for Unit B not to pursue. So now...
"Let's get upstairs first," Brent said, shrugging off his parka, "If the estate group can evade gunfire from Zhang's guards for an extended period of time, I'm fairly certain they're still alive and kicking. Probably knew to run when things got bad. We have a better chance in broad daylight though."
Least they'd be able to see the laser beamer coming, considering how the neighboring forest had been all but razed by flame and rot.
"You got dunked during the flash flood, right? Take your clothes off and put this on before you freeze to death."
Siena blinked once in surprise at the suggestion, attention falling on the offered parka as the words rewound, sounded off in her head, and--nope. The reaction was still something along the lines of what the hell?
"U-Um...?" Eyebrows rose in a mixture of surprise, confusion, and...that was about all that managed to reach through the stifling. It took a moment longer before the logic of the statement started to settle in, thought coming to mind in efficient, quick bursts. Like bullet points more than real thoughts. Freeze to death. Hypothermia. Right, she was practically freezing. It wouldn't do much good to put on a jacket over wet clothing. It made much more sense when she thought about it.
'No, it doesn't?!'
"Thanks, but uh..." A pause. "You want me to what?"
Was it really that strange? Surely she had read those winter survival stories before, where it was the water chill, not the wind chill, that killed people? Reciprocating her 'what the hell' with his own equally baffled expression, Brent said, a little defensively, "What? Doesn't that make more sense than mutual nudity followed by body heat sharing?"
Another blink, and had the division been smaller, Siena was certain the reaction would have been stronger. For a moment, she was left with a vocabulary that consisted of a few confused sounds, the word "what", and very little else. The fact that Siena doubted that there was anything beyond some form of concern didn't make the concept less startling. Her fingers dug deeper against the fabric of her slip, pulling the thin fabric against her skin, peach tones peeking through the areas where the clothing was pulled taut.
"I...uh, I don't th--" Siena cut herself off, a nagging feeling in the back of her head telling her that she probably didn't want to know how much worse that particular topic could get. Somewhere, she imagined, Gerwulf was throwing a fit--no, he wasn't.. "I...suppose that's fair enough."
...was she actually about to comply...?
Gingerly, she reached for the parka, another shiver running through her at the slight distance between her arm and her core. It didn't alleviate the cold, only making her more aware of the fact that water was still dripping off her hair, still soaking through her now-pointless coat, and clinging to her skin.
"Mhm," Brent nodded, handing it over. "Dunno what a safe place would be to change, but..."
Awkwardly turning around and using his own body to form some shitty human-shaped curtain between Siena and the others, the amethyst eyed arbiter shrugged lopsidedly. "I guess...go ahead?"
For a moment, Siena wondered how wise it would be to dart as far down the tunnels as she could to try and find an appropriate place to change. Not very. God forbid she came across another hostile...maybe she should have used a name to provide herself the privacy? No...that was petty in and of itself, and what would she have done that didn't attract more attention? Throw up walls? Turn invisible--that was a good one.
...but it would be a waste of her quickly diminishing reserves, said the cool, level-headed part of her. Only one way to go about it then, really.
Slipping her phone into the pocket of the dry article of clothing, Siena held it carefully with one hand, awkwardly undoing what buttons remained of her coat, shrugging off one shoulder at a time until it fell--it was so cold!--from its place, hitting the floor with a heavier thump than she'd hoped for. Grimacing, the brunette did the best she could to make quick work of the slip, peeling it off her skin where it stuck, shivering again when her hair started clinging to her, dribbling water on every available surface.
At least, she thought, there was nothing to really stare at.
With as much speed as she could muster, the brunette pulled the parka over her, secured it, and deftly pulled the hood up, bowing her head slightly as though it might aid in hiding her face.
...at least she was a little warmer.
"Wow, definitely brings out a different side to the outfit."
Heat, this type far removed from what she was used to, spread across the girl's face, quickly masked by the action of turning her face down and away.
"Wh-what's that supposed to mean?"
Brent grinned teasingly. "Indeed, what is that supposed to mean?"
Too lax though. They weren't out of it yet. The smile was removed once more, and he turned around a second time.
"Give me a sleeve, 'ena. Dry clothes probably won't be enough."
"Um...okay...?" While she'd seen what Brent was capable of, Siena hadn't considered the idea of enhancing clothing. What exactly was he going to do? Make it...even more dry? A burning curiosity started to catch, gnawing and chewing at the corner of her mind. It would be an interesting experience. As she stretched an arm toward the boy, her mind caught on to a different anomaly. "You...probably don't need to be turned around?"
"For your sake rather than mine," Brent said. "I'd recommend closing your own eyes too. Just saying."
Well, now that he told her that, the arbiter was dead certain Siena was going to keep her eyes opened the entire time. Feeling for her arm, his fingertips grazed her own, before sliding up and catching the cuff of the puffy parka. A connection was formed and from there, silver circuitry raced down his arm, flowed into the waterproof apparel, fused with the puffy down beneath, and filled the parka entirely until it was sheer silver light.
Then, it exploded, silvery threads and cloud-like feather down bursting outwards before reforming, becoming a coat that made her look much less like the Michelin Man. White with silver accents, the N0 NAME 'brand' was emblazoned on the back of the overclocked parka, while a faint, almost inaudible whining could be heard from that same area. Heating wires, powered by magic, suffused the coat with a comfortable warmth.
"Not a fashion designer," the arbiter smiled, "So I'll apologize for my lacking design sense. But hey, this should warm you up better than a mug of hot choco."
For her sake? And closing her eyes? Siena tried to rack her mind for signs of Brent's ability, but it occurred to the girl then that she'd never been able to focus entirely on its activation. The results spoke for themselves, but if there were averse effects, was it really wise for Brent to work his magic while she was wearing the item? Had he enhanced the goggles before or after he'd had them on Lily? She didn't remember in time to raise any protests before the parka shone with a silver light. Maybe that was why he'd suggested closing he--
'WHAT THE FUCK?!'
IT EXPLODED. Siena felt her heart stop in place for a second, eyes wide, voice and breath catching full stop in her throat as her body stiffened again, every muscle tensing until she was practically frozen in place. Raucous swearing and panic continued to deafen her ears as she remained frozen in place after the clothing had reformed, and Siena wasn't certain whether there had actually been any effect or whether the warmth was from a well blended concoction of mortified embarrassment.
"I--that--it ju--" Words were failing her, but then again so were thoughts at that exact moment. Evidently so was moving because still Siena remained rooted in place, looking much akin to a deer in the lights of an oncoming bus.
"Uh..." Wow, was he just accidentally triggering all her childhood trauma today? "Surprise?"
Surprise? Had the division not been firmly set in place, Siena was certain that she would have done more than pause long enough to take a careful breath to calm the rampant thoughts in her head.
"I'd say so, yeah." The words carried more than before, but it still wasn't quite enough for the situation, she supposed. The brunette thought back, again. Didn't he have to remain in contact to maintain the enhancement? That hardly seemed convenient or practical.
...but damn, if she wasn't feeling warmer already.
"But uh...thanks..." A pause. "This doesn't really seem like the most convenient way to move though..."
Brent pulled on the cuff until the fabric stretched over Siena's hand, before holding it there.
"Well, by the time it becomes wholly inconvenient, you'll be warmed up enough that the regular parka would do." A pause, and then a smile. "Better get up to the lighthouse before Christmas starts powerbombing Ernie, eh?"
Odd. It was undeniably odd that Siena didn't feel an instinctive need to try and pull her hand back. The thoughts that told her as much were disturbingly level and calm, as though reciting facts from an encyclopedia rather than really having input on the matter. Usually, that chilling part of her claimed, she would have tried. Had never really liked having unplanned contact, even if she did initiate it. Always the faintest brushes, just enough to elicit an appropriate response, not more. Never more.
The thoughts, she understood in equal measure, were simply covering for the guilt that was bubbling up in the pit of her stomach. Thick and dark, like tar that stuck to anything it touched, and covering everything with a generous coat as though it understood anything less would never make it past the chasm. Powerbombing--she'd know a lot about that, wouldn't she?
Such comprehension was tucked neatly away behind a half empty return of a smile. Equal measure. Equal return. There, but not entirely. Drained of what might have made it seem more genuine because she was just as drained. "Fair enough on both counts." She tried, to no avail, to put more into the words. Into the reflexive smile. Too tired, too weary, and Siena wasn't entirely certain that was only a physical exhaustion. How many more times would she have to...no. Better not to finish that thought, so instead, she filled the space with action. An awkward forward step to test the range of movement--it was about what she had expected. Not much practicality in moving if Brent wasn't too--not unless she intended to push him along. Her free hand slipped into her pocket, fingers tracing her phone for comfort as she spoke again. "I guess I'll follow your lead here."
"Then allow your loyal knight, Hathaway of Amaryllis, to escort you off this dreadful underground prison," Brent replied whimisically, walking off slowly, "Though the light at the end of this harrowing journey may merely be moonlight, a reflection of transient hope, it is this unworthy vassal's desire to see his charge attain a more tranquil state of mind. The darkness before daybreak has been a tiring time after all, Lady Maria, and if you do not wish to entertain this foolhardy knight's tittle-tattling, I beseech thee to rest thy razor tongue and thy beauteous countenance. From the vanguard, I benefit little from both, after all."
There was no need to turn around and no need to await any further response at that point. Brent had shot himself enough times in the heart for that little speech, after all. It really was weird, how he still wasn't tired even after all this crap. Maybe he really was better off as a human battery after all. Or a human bullshit spewer.
'What the hell?' It wasn't an exasperated thought, nor was it one of legitimate confusion. The words, though of little importance in and of themselves, Siena could grasp the idea of. A flicker of a smile, closer to real, closer to crossing the gouges, crossed her expression as she followed behind, her pace matching. He really did put everything he had into everything, didn't he? How unnervingly familiar.
"You...don't have to do that." The words were as sincere as she could make them, but they were soft, quiet enough to carry little more than the small distance between them. Because even if, through the thick, suffocating blanket that she relied on so heavily, she appreciated the gesture, Siena didn't doubt for a moment that whatever payoff she could give wasn't worth it. "I'll be fine." Later, at least, when she had enough time to put up the walls again, to pick apart what deserved to stay and what didn't before compartmentalizing the rest as not her. Unvoiced thoughts that she pushed back because why the hell would she ever voice those out loud?
And despite it all, at least those words were real.
There was more to it. He did want to say more, after all. Want to be more direct. Want to be a little more honest. But Brent bit down on the tip of his tongue and decided against such self-satisfaction. Her gratitude was enough, and ultimately...he didn't have to tear apart her shell every time they talked. So the amethyst eyed youth chose to enjoy that small spot of warmth felt through the heated parka instead, the two of them trudging along in comfortable silence. A comfortable silence that became a little more tense as they arrived at the final obstacle, the ladder, once more.
"So...we doing this ladies first deal again?" Brent asked, turning around to get a look at Siena's complexion. "Or shall I take the initiative here and clear the path of any ruffians that may block your way?"
It felt like every time she saw this very ladder, there was something to prevent an easy climb. Grey eyes trailed up the rungs until their ending point before quickly coming back to a level position. At least this time, the obstacle wasn't something as severe as each of them having two limbs incapacitated. A fascimile of a nervous upward tic of the mouth, an imitation of the memory of a real one, appeared on command, the action made more to convince anyone around them than either participant in their conversation. Her fingers trailed once more over the screen of the phone in her pocket.
Without the imminent and overpowering need and desperation to reach the surface...
"I...believe I'll take the rear this time." Another strained imitation of a smile as she finally removed her hand from her safety blanket, motioning at the bare skin below the hem of the parka. "Given the circumstances."
"Makes sense," Brent replied, before that same teasing grin emerged once more, "Make sure you watch your back, eh? Emma might poke Marcus's eyes out if he gets an eyeful."
With those parting shots, the mega ultra smooth operator ascended three rungs at a time to avoid any sort of wrath Siena might bring down upon him.
Callan running out to try to save others, Brent could understand. It was noble, even, something that was completely in character for an arbiter whose superpower made her Supergirl. Between letting her stay and letting her go, he would have sided with Callan against Siena, and would have even been willing to help coordinate her from underground. As long as the enemy remained ‘retreating’, the turquoise haired arbiter should be fine.
Zoe and Kusari riding on top of Chris before Kusari is dropped onto the enemy while infected by the black plague and unleashing a viral explosion to decimate the enemy? Brent could understand that as well, how effective it was for there to be someone capable of ‘carrying’ Zoe’s power to an enemy. It was smart, and if they didn’t see it coming, it was going to be an instantly fatal maneuver. But the root of it, the root of that plan was absolutely, totally, mind blowing. Angelic, being alive? After these Amigos have done their best to kill them? A sandstorm potent enough to rip through flesh, a wooden army that even Zoe could chew through fast enough, a shadow monster that almost killed Hazel with a single attack? Not to mention the laughing she-demon that terrorized the estate, bisecting dozens and dozens? Were they really going to endanger the team for someone who, unlike the operation to scout out Gregory, were absolutely, totally, irrevocably FUCKED?
“Alli- fuck, cuff transmit. Allison, what th-”
And then all hell broke loose.
It was the rumbling first, and then the roar that sounded above, the sound of a heavy force slamming into the lighthouse. Ernie, either because he saw it or just instinctively knew, scrambled to close the manhole of the tunnel, but it was already too late. Even with the lid sealed, a waterfall bore down into the tunnels, a stark realization of what was happening hitting Brent as hard as the waist-high wave of seawater. Those bastards weren’t leaving. They just had a hydromancer who, with prep time, was going to flush them all out.
Bounding over to the stone cart, Brent leapt in right as the waves struck with enough force to push that weighty object down and down and down. Seconds at best, but that would be enough. He tore open the backpack, pulled out his dual-filter gas mask, and slapped it on while the cart continue to wobble, on the brink of toppling. Silver circuitry remade the mask into a set of artificial gills, and Brent stood, ready to dive into the quickly filling tunnel…but then the flow weakened, stopped, and…
It wasn’t a murder attempt then.
Not trusting the lull of peaceful silence, his respirator continued to hiss as he hopped out of the cart, sloshing waist deep in chilling seawater, the waterproof nature of his pants meaningless when submerged.
“Roll call,” he said down the tunnel, “Who's still kicking? End Transmission.”
A flood was still a flood, and he doubted those top-side were looking peachy, but for now...there was so little he could do. Stick with those he could reach. Cut his losses today, at least.
Horror and dread slackened the Aberration's jaw as he caught sight of the mobile forest, their incomprehensible numbers rendered into mere shadows as the dust storm broiled towards the lighthouse. Visibility had been bad before, with the steaming wall and storm and darkness and whatnot, but now?
Too many angles. Too many openings.
What if the lighthouse was already surrounded? How many of them were out there? It didn't matter. They needed to get away, all of them. As long as they were away it was fine. The disadvantages were overwhelming and they needed to leave now but that wasn't possible with their strongest three too wounded to move.
As Ernie forcibly lowered Siena, Lily and Brent back into the tunnels with the rope, he shouted into the communicator, unable to keep the panic from sharpening his tone.
"Fucking Christ, Emma, hurry!"
Emma was racing behind Marcus down the steps, Determination still at the top but doubtlessly not far behind. Ernie was yelling at her through the communicator, but as she rounded the last set of stairs she caught sight of him hovering by the trapdoor, ”We’re here, what the hell’s going on?!” she yelled, the panic in his voice raising her own.
Marcus was very careful not to let his own panic add to the quickly growing mix. The fact that he wasn't immediately using his stasis as the dark monster ripped through his friends meant things were better than he'd expected, and the watered down puddle of blood that was quickly forming around the torso of a man he didn't know most likely meant one of the Amigos was down.
It was a start at least, but irrelevant if they weren't prepared for the next.
Brent tumbled down into the tunnel, starbursts of pain reminding that his upper half was functional at least. What he had seen in 'broad daylight' was enough to alarm him, as even the small victory of three members of Unit B being able to take down the shadow beast with a combined assault didn't mean all that much compared to the accelerated ferocity of the sandstorm or the unending hoard of tree monsters. Wrenching the night vision goggles off his helmet, the arbiter blinked at how dim the tunnels looked, before offering it towards Lily.
"Put these on," he said, a silver jolt causing it to disassemble, reassemble, twist and screech. If his strange intuition was correct, it could now see through objects, filtering them out at the wearer's mental command. "You'll be able to see through all the dirt if you will it. Guide your chains to where Hazel is, Lily. Tell us when you've made the connection."
He wanted to say more, so much more, but Brent took in a deep breath instead, looking down the long, long path back to the estate. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Fuck, it would suck if the goggles brought down now.
"Emma, we're going to heal Hazel and the others from here to avoid being seen. Siena, prep the pain-jammer."
"Ernie still has my phone." Concise. Clear. It was the best that Siena could do in the wake of everything. Fear and fury twisted into each other, an intimate dance that Siena didn't want to be familiar with. Didn't want to think would become a regular thing because she'd tried so hard not to let it. 'Just like before, Siena.' Hold everything down until the words came out right. Wrong? No, right. That was the correct turn of phrase. Faint pulses of pain trickled through the mental wall, no longer blinding, but still present. Not enough to ground her. "Lost my other source at the estate." Along with a plethora of others. Grey eyes trailed from the self-induced slice in her bad arm to the crimson ink that still stained the skin, an easy distraction from the chaotic buzzing in the back of her head, spilling into each crevice like the boiling sea.
Hot, cold, hurt, pain, heat. There it was. That was the word. Heat.
Fury and fear twisted again, and Siena tried, to no avail, to separate her heart--still hers? It didn't feel right--and her head. The fingers of her good arm found comfort in picking at the injury, another fresh coating of discomfort and vermilion accompanying the action. Another swell of both hurt and pain to dampen the heat. Hers. Not hers. She didn't know anymore. "...might be able to manage it without the phone, but I'd rather be sure."
The phone dropped by Siena's feet that instant, unceremoniously.
"Just get a tulpa down there with them. We've got a lot of people who need healing," Ernie's gaze remained on the swirling sandstorm outside. "Then we're leaving."
"How bad is it?" Marcus whispered, leaning in close to Ernie. He'd only managed to see a little bit from his perch atop the lighthouse, and he was painfully aware of how much worse the situation could get in the short time in took for him to run down the stairs. The rational part of his mind desperately feared the answer he'd get; Ernie's stern tone and quick barking of orders was pretty much all he needed.
"We're probably surrounded by nightmare trees but at least Cal still has her arms."
"Siena, Emma," Brent called sharply, "Tell me when you're ready."
The clatter had barely reached Siena's ears before she was moving, snatching the phone from the ground like a lifeline, droplets of blood coming off her fingers and onto the battle scarred screen like small rubies. Relief came as a violent, crashing wave to calm the panic that had threatened her, only to remind her then that the heat was still there. A careful breath, a sudden focus on the screen and the words to pull herself away. Not hers. Not her. A few taps brought up a familiar page, a familiar setting, and the process started again as Vale's name placed itself once more onto her neck.
All at once, it was too much. Everywhere, further than her eyes could see, further than she could have reached with his ability to weave agony into the nerves, it struck her. Pain. Everywhere. Before her, above her, around her, too much. Too much! Jagged gashes, rent flesh, broken people. Taking the pain away blindly would have been a stupid move, said the cool logic that Victor brought with him. She would never be able to distinguish between friend and foe if she couldn't see. That had been what she'd craved from Victor, hadn't it? The distinct division between what made one human and what made them more less.
She hid as much as she could with a carefully measured, if uneven, breath.
"I'm ready." The words were clipped, she could tell. Her eyes fell to Lily, a muted sense of concern and pity digging at the gap left behind. One that would at least slow the fire, came the selfish thought. "Not all at once."
Emma gritted her teeth. She couldn’t. She can’t. She had to. They were all as good as dead without Lily’s healing… but Determination wouldn’t like this, she knew. He had said so in no uncertain terms: She had to stop using the Tulpas as sacrifices.
But could she just watch her friends die? Worry about the lives of her Tulpas while real peop-
No, no, that wasn’t fair. She couldn’t not think of Determination as a person, not after the week they’d spent at Zhang’s manor, and she also had to accept the very real possibility that her other Tulpas were just the same as him. It was such a fucked situation. A zero-sum game between Tulpas and people, or so it seemed if Ernie was correct about how dire their situation is.
She wanted to tell herself it was a dilemma, but it only took a few seconds to make the decision. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Brent no. She had to get tougher. She had to get harder. She’d decided that, and it was time to follow through. No one dies, no matter what.
”Ready.” she said, no uncertainness in her voice. It was Devotion, she decided. The Tulpa appeared by Siena, Brent, and Lily, ”You guys need healing first, right?”
Not Determination. Probably felt bad about it, huh? WIth the pieces in place, all Brent could do was wait, his hand over the goggles as Lily looked about, her mouth slightly ajar with surprise and then amusement. What the hell was she doing, undressing everyone with her mind? A tinge of annoyance emerged, his 'blindness' irritating when so much was going on, but soon, those black threads shot out, one racing through the dirt wall of the tunnel while another linked to the unspeaking tulpa that Emma had manifested. Sucking in a breath, Brent made eye contact with Siena, nodding once.
"Cuff transmit," he spoke, "Lawrence, cover Hazel's body with your own. Lily's going for a heal, so make sure it's not obvious. Once it's mostly done, drag her back into the lighthouse. Right abo-"
And that was when the injury was transferring, the iron stench of blood striking his senses like a sledgehammer, Lily's expression contorting viciously as a foreign pain invaded her body. She keeled over, thick, crimson ichor seeping through her clothes, and just as quickly, Devotion was eviscerated by the transfer. Amethyst eyes flickered from one to the other. The arbiter shouldn't have to say anymore from here, right? They should be used to this unpleasant method of healing by now.
As the process began, Siena let her focus linger on the events, took her mind far away from the distant feeling of...what was it? Lingering just beneath the surface of the heat, hiding itself as though it didn't want to be acknowledged again. The brunette didn't have time to try and identify it, instead sensing the sharp feeling of pain, not on her. Around her. Near her again. How would they react if she told them how it translated with Victor's name? Though there was a subtle desire to keep it anchored, the brunette knew what she was there for. The agony was silenced, pulled away with speed far greater when she wasn't carefully plucking apart the different strands of pain and sensation. She silenced both, and when the flash of agony appeared again on the shadowy creature before her--
...it felt pain?
For a moment, Siena's brow furrowed, her gaze flicking from the creature to its summoner. Her senses weren't lying to her, but it felt oddly out of place. Taking a quiet breath, the girl muted the pain from the creature too, her hands once more finding solace in picking at her own injury.
"Be careful, Lily. The injuries you take won't feel like anything from this point, but they're still going to be there."
As he spoke, he looked back to the communicator. Too many dots still outside. With an impatient click of his tongue, he hit the 'All Channels' option. "Pull back. We're retreating back to the tunnels."
"How many of us are still out there?" Marcus asked, his eyes scanning through the sandstorm for Callan's telltale beacon of aquamarine.
A pause as he caught sight of Chris' icon roaming around, too fast to be human.
"Seven," Ernie raised the phone to his mouth again, "Chris, get out of the storm. If you can't turn back human, just retreat in any direction but the mansion. There are probably still Amigos there."
"Do we have a plan? Because we're about to end up in the world's worst kind of sandwich." Marcus said, trying in vain to hide the cold fear that snuck through his voice. For all he knew, these were his last moments; he was finding it hard to remain composed given the situation.
Ernie blinked, clearly caught off guard by the question. Had they ever had a plan in the first place?
Always running. He'd never stopped.
"The maids should know about the tunnel's other exits. Get everyone in here, block off everything behind so no one follows. Best case scenario, there's another safehouse on the island where we can hide out until the Amigos leave."
"Short and simple. I like it." Marcus said, eyes darting back outside. Truthfully, he hated that plan; if only because of how many times he'd done it already. But there was nothing else that could be done - they were basically outgunned at every available turn. All they could do was run away and regroup, as shitty as it was.
"Got a cart over there to push those that are KO'd," Brent spoke up as Lily continued to transfer, this time lacerations emerging on her body. Painless, she picked at her wounds while the arbiter looked away. "Who else are we missing?"
Emma chewed on her lip, thinking over the plan. Another Devotion appeared in the last one’s place. ”We should hurry up. The longer we wait the worse it’ll get.”
"Zoe, Kusari," Ernie recounted as he ushered Sophia, Christmas and Grant towards the tunnels, "Allison, Chris, Lawrence and our big three. Hurrying is a very good idea."
As he briefly snapped at Sophia and her birdcage, he could see Sander and Cal moving back already. Good.
That was a lot of people. As the black threads retracted from the dirt, moving instead to the people present in the tunnel, Brent realized that he could feel his lower half again. From the tips of his toes to his pelvis to the fact that...yeah, he figured that was the case. Bouncing up to his feet and deciding that he was definitely going to have to make Lily donuts again, the arbiter brought his x-ray goggles to his own eyes, an amethyst light radiating from its lenses. The map was useful, but only for tracking allies. Their enemies, however...
Filter out the dirt. Filter out the sand. Filter out the rain. Filter out the walls. Filt-
Too far still. It was no longer the limitation of the x-ray capabilities of his equipment, but more a matter of range. Clicking his tongue, the arbiter decided not to burn through it and lifted it down. Just silhouettes, uncountable and getting farther away. A breath of...relief? or disappointment?
"Looks like they're booking it too," Brent reported, ignoring the dampness in his nether regions. "Just gotta watch out for the group that attacked the mansion now."
It was too late for Siena to protest by the time she'd realized that the quickly dampening sense of pain included her own. The cut that she'd been picking at absentmindedly had healed, her ankle no longer throbbing, her shoulder no longer tender. She would have said something, should have, but there were too many other things to focus on. Things like people that weren't present, hostiles that weren't accounted for, hostiles that were. Brent's mention of the group at the estate sent another mixture of fire and ice through Siena's spine, sapping another portion of self-control to keep from turning Vale's abilities against anyone. Fury and fear, something in between. She could still sense pain, but it was distant and fuzzy. Too far away to make out more than a presence, like watching the horizon.
"How likely is it that we'll actually get everyone back?" Despite her best efforts, the words came out flat, quieter than she'd wanted them to. Not enough behind them to cross the border of hollow--or maybe it was because she knew they were. Siena didn't have time to linger on the thought, her focus redirected to crafting the next words with careful precision. How many are acceptable sacrifices? No...she couldn't say it like that. Her fingers picked more violently at a wound that wasn't there, pinching skin to no avail. "I don't think everyone out there is prone to listening to reason. I doubt it's wise to wait until they will."
”Doesn’t matter. If they don’t want to retreat we’ll make them. We’re outmatched.” Emma sighed, tousling her hair, ”If we’re getting out there for the injured we should do it now. Before the other group decides to show up.” Emma said, turning towards the lighthouse door. The form of Determination grew next to her, ”You ready?” she asked both him and the others.
For once, it seemed, the Tulpa didn’t respond, offering only a curt nod.
"And how do you propose convincing a dragon to retreat?" Siena questioned, the concern legitimate despite the not-quite-there intonation. Not that Chris was the only one that applied to--if it came down to it, Siena had her doubts on whether Zoe or Kusari would retreat. There was an emphasis on the former, the latter a concern if only because Siena's experiences with the regenerating Arbiter had been rocky, at best. She might be willing to back down, but memories of their disaster of a rescue attempt refused to let the bookish mage believe it would be an entirely simple task. "Going out there blindly will probably only get you hurt. It won't prevent anyone else from burning."
Quietly, without hesitation, Siena let her eyes trail back down to her phone, emotion trying to wage war on reason, but crippled by the presence of someone that struggled to feel far too many things. Not quite whole. Not quite there. A pause as she considered the next words. "I don't feel many significant injuries remaining, but there is a constant static of pain on who I assume are our teammates. Going out without a solid location or escape plan will only increase the number of people that will have to be carried back through other means."
His student was full of all sorts of surprises today. Ernie kept track of the discussion with an anxious ear. He'd been thinking the same thing of course, but it was Siena who managed to voice them. Something he probably wouldn't have had the guts to do.
"The ones out there know the consequences of staying," Ernie started cautiously, thinking of Zoe's words, "And that's their choice. They wouldn't want us getting ourselves fucked up from going out there and trying to give them help they never wanted."
Emma gritted her teeth. She wasn’t going to win this argument, maybe Siena could be swayed, maybe, but Ernie? Plus, she had no doubt Brent wouldn’t be interested in batting for her side. She couldn’t do anything by herself, could she?
Instead of continuing, Emma stood silently. A sharp ”Fine.” was what she finally offered. It looked like she wasn’t so courageous after all.
The cart continued to squeak and creak as its momentum built up, Brent's arms pumping up and down. It had been hard work at first, but once they reached a fair speed, the arbiter allowed himself to relax, maintaining rather than accelerating. They had been going forward for too long, and there had been no response to his own message. With both hands occupied, he couldn't check the phone either to confirm the location of his classmates, nor did he feel particularly inclined to. They should be fine. If it was just a matter of speed, Hazel, Callan and Sander were wonderful transporters, and Emma's shadow-creatures could deal with whatever they couldn't carry, not to mention the creative application of Grant's own power.
No need to confirm. No need to pursue. Pedalling the combined weight of the cart, himself, and Siena without being able to leverage his bodyweight was enough work, and he had enough to think about. So Brent continued, burying his thoughts and his scorn with the push and the pull, the rise and the fall, until a ladder revealed itself in the distance, marking an end to the tunnel. Releasing his grip on the bars, the cart shifted back to its stone form, warm but not fractured. Uneven wheels caused the two subnaturals to bounce about, and the slightly misaligned direction caused the cart to bump, and then scrape against the wall of the emergency escape route, but it decelerated, stopping a couple feet away from the ladder.
Back to the grind, huh?
"Let's go, 'ena."
It was hard to resist the urge to take names when they weren't needed. As they progressed, Siena had considered too many. A scanner to ensure that there was nobody following, a barrier user that could keep them safe, a name that might conceal them, a name that might speed things up--the options were countless, but the girl knew taking the names, though less taxing than utilizing the abilities, would only serve to wear her down. It would be too late to use them if something came barreling down the tunnels, but if she ran out of energy before they arrived at the end...Thoughts of arriving in the middle of a battle with nothing to defend herself with crept to mind, and Siena couldn't help but tighten her grip on the machete, joints turning white with the sudden pressure. With one arm out of commission and one ankle refusing to support her weight, the Arbiter was aware that without her abilities, nothing would prevent an untimely and grisly demise if they were confronted with hostiles.
Perhaps that was why she'd felt a minor sense of panic rush to greet her when the cart suddenly seemed to shift. The movements suddenly became jagged and harsh, enough to jerk Siena out of her momentary stupor, teeth clenching and body twisting to try and get a visual on what had caused it--well, that was the plan, at least.
What actually happened was her turn being interrupted by the cart hitting the wall, the impact not severe, but enough to knock Siena's already precarious position just far enough. The machete clattered against the stone surface of the cart as her good arm moved out to try and stabilize her, failed, and then the bad arm went out, a grinding, bitter pain shooting through the nerves. Thousands and thousands of individual spires that coalesced into a single, bone-white lance through her vision. Another three when she regained her balance at the cost of twisting just a little further. Vision white. Mind just as blank.
The curse tore through, loud enough that Siena could hear it over the cacophany of demands to keep it back, to suck it up and deal with the pain because it should have been nothing. Righting herself immediately, Siena resisted the urge to try and soothe the injury by haphazardly applying pressure, instead turning her focus on reclaiming the machete from its place before the din in her head quieted itself enough to register the words and the situation at hand.
"R-right." It took more effort than it should have to steady the words, and though she'd given an affirmative, the brunette couldn't help but feel they weren't suited for the task in their current conditions. Two limbs down each...not exactly comforting. "...any bright ideas?"
He heard Siena's cry of pain, a question about to escape his mouth before Brent shut it, quickly. Of course she wasn't fine. Wasted breath and wasted time. Instead, the arbiter climbed out of the stone cart, doing his best not to land face-first and yet landing in a heap regardless, tumbling down unceremoniously. More bruises and soft pains to think about tomorrow. For now though, Brent was just happy that his face was still intact.
"Elevator," the amethyst-eyed youth grunted, crawling the last few feet towards the ladder. It didn't go up nearly as high as he though, but at the same time, they didn't have as much space as he'd like. It'll do though. They were always going to have to make do, when Siena's energy reserves were too precious to waste and his own power was too limited to complain about. Bringing a hand on the side of the ladder, he opened the dam once more, silver circuitry bursting into the ladder. Suffused in white light, the ladder disassembled and reassembled, turning into what almost looked to be a conveyor belt, rungs attached to the belt while a steel frame kept it upright. Similar to the stone cart, it had gears and pedals that Brent grabbed, before he motioned towards Siena.
"Grab on," the arbiter said flatly, giving the contraption an experimental turn, "Between air, water, and corndogs, where are you right now?"
Grin and bear it.
Clambering out of the cart, Siena was careful not to agitate the injured ankle more than necessary. Her movements were uneven despite her best efforts to ignore the limp, but it was enough to reach the newly constructed ladder, a flicker of concern over the energy it must have taken to enhance two relatively large pieces of equipment. The cart, the goggles, and now the ladder--was it wise? Again, the voice mocked her. She should have stopped it before it got that far--didn't she know that it was a suicide mission? It took more effort than it should have to push the thoughts away, even as she set her phone in one pocket, machete shifted to the injured arm if only to leave the good one open to grip the rungs of the ladder.
"Ask'n a girl her weight, geeze." Where are you right now? Somewhere, out in the countless worlds she might have escaped to, the answer was home. Home with no mark and no need to regret decisions she didn't make. 'Do you really have time to play that game?'' No. So instead, she gave a half-hearted attempt at a weary smile, reflex instead of any real show of emotion as she adjusted her position faintly, using the ladder to support more of her weight, mind buzzing with acknowledgement of the fact that one arm might not be enough to support her. "Let's hope air."
"Was hoping for water," Brent replied tersely, talking to get his mind off other thoughts while he transitioned between actions. The only strain was in his muscles, but that burning sensation was welcome as it scorched away more complex ideas. Up and down. Push and pull. Rise and fall. His magical reserves weren't shot yet. They never were, really. Unlike the others, he had yet to see the bottom of the well. Chains and gears creaked as he cranked, the vertical conveyor belt sending Siena up and up, stopping only when the lid was half a foot away from her head.
"Need a second for stability?"
'Could use a little more than that.' Siena didn't voice the thought, gave the best attempt at a strained smile that she could, and readjusted her grip on the rungs. With her feet in place, it was easier to keep balance, but the brunette was aware that there wasn't a pleasant way through their situation.
"I'm fine." No, she wasn't, but that wasn't something she was going to admit. At the least, their exit was in sight. Sucking in a breath to brace herself, Siena forced her arm to raise, grimaced when the resistance was pain, and managed, with significant effort, to reach the trapdoor. Pain shot down through her, made her grip tighten until her knuckles turned white as her vision started to pulse, but pain could be worse.
Blindly pushing forward against the trapdoor, the brunette hissed, swallowed her voice, and kept pushing until she felt a chill, a few droplets, and her mind acknowledged that the air that rushed over her was from outside. Hesitation gripped her then--outside. Where a hostile might be waiting, where she might manage to peek out with only enough time to realize that she'd doomed herself. Should have scanned, should have tried to find a radar, should have... "Door's not blocked."
It certainly wasn't. A few seconds after Siena's initial push the door was hastily swung open, revealing a glowing Ernie with a scalpel in his tight fist. Relief seemed to ease the expression on his tense face but he still looked conflicted.
"You're late," he said and offered his free hand towards Siena.
'Holy shit!' Siena gasped as the door as opened to the storm above her, flinching at the sudden motion, good arm gripping tighter when she almost lost her grip on the ladder, bad arm jerking to grip the rung as her bad foot slid slightly. White overtook her vision again, blurring the figure, only giving her a glimpse of the scalpel before her vision snapped in and out of focus for a moment. It took a moment for the Arbiter to fully register the owner of the voice.
"Sorry." Readjusting her position on the rungs, Siena blinked away the spots in her eyes, gave a weak shake of the head to the offered hand, a strained fascimile of a smile--it lacked any semblance of joy. Only a reflex when there was nothing else to put forth. "I'm fine, but Brent will need some help up."
Understatement of the century, the thought came, while the brunette struggled to make her way up and out of the path.
"We messed up."
Something resembling pity crossed his face as he took in the words, the sight of her mangled shoulder. But he didn't respond to the statement. He merely nodded and moved out of her way, flinching sharply as a cuff alarm started screeching behind him. Unbridled fury flared in his eyes before he took a deep breath.
"I can help with Brent," Ernie demonstrated with his rope as the end of it slithered down the hatch, "How'd you get hurt?"
A screech sounded, and Siena grimaced at the ringing in her ears. If her attention had been more focused, she might have caught the flash of emotion, but between the haze of pain and the chaos, it was too hard to catch what she normally would have. Adjusting her position, the brunette watched the rope move--would she be able to help there?
"Hostiles were already at the estate." A pulse of discomfort fired through her arm and ankle, drawing a faint grimace followed by a wry expression. "Something took the roof out from under us before the jump finished." She should have stopped it before it got that far. She kept the thought quiet, and instead glanced at the rope. "...can I help with that?"
"it's fine, 'ena," Brent called from below, oddly happy to see that Ernie hadn't met some grisly demise as well. Or, well, maybe he was just happy that it wasn't Zoe waiting for the two of them there. "My arms are still working. What's the situation up top?"
It was clearly nothing good, judging by all the sounds that were now flowing into the tunnel, from heavy impacts to roars to the screeching of more alarms, but for the time being, Brent grasped onto the rope, pulling himself up one hand at a time. Whether or not they were better off up on the surface or inside the tunnel was a subject to be discussed later.
Ernie hesitated as Siena recounted their failure, cut off her offer with a sharp "It's fine." Stupid of him. They were hurt, he wasn't supposed to be pissed off at them. But there was an unmistakable harshness in his frown now, an irritation he couldn't control because what the actual fuck was going through their heads?
"They're being held off. We're okay for now. What do you mean your arms still work?" The rope coiled itself around Brent's wrist, levitating him up to the lighthouse in a second and sitting him against the wall.
"Arms still work," Brent repeated, "Legs don't."
Unmistakable, but understandable--that was the only way that Siena could label Ernie's reaction to her own words, but the response to the situation at hand... Siena released a breath. Hostile on this side too. With Brent out of commission, it was doubtful that he'd do anything reckless like charge in, but there were so few by the trap door, and the sounds of impending--no...already ongoing? It was hard to focus on her hearing when the other senses demanded attention--combat already starting to tune themselves into a steady, white noise.
"Everyone else is engaging?" That didn't sound like the wisest idea, nor did it sound like one that the more reasonable members of their team would have gone along with had there been a choice in the matter. "...do we even know how many there are?"
A spine injury and dislocated shoulder on the two most versatile teammates. How much worse could things get?
"It's...hard to tell. Things look under control here, at least."
A slight cringe as more searing flames and white light flashed against the window. The enraged roars and ever-screeching alarm didn't exactly help get his clumsy reassurance across either.
"We need to get you two patched up first. Neither of you can move properly with those injuries."
Under control? Pushing himself sideways with a grunt, Brent peered out the lighthouse, overclocked goggles relaying to him the horrific details of the fight in stark daylight. Chris, setting an entire forest of monstrous plant creatures aflame, unable to decisively destroy them. Callan and Sander, tangoing with a shadow-creature that actually managed to hold its ground against their combined assault. A great wall that only grew taller as time passed, no doubt shielding the rest of their foes so they could continue to safely cast their magic. Hazel, critically injured and held in Lawrence's arms. It was like Wisford again. No weapons, no chances. Only words.
"Hazel first. She'll actually die soon," Brent said, knowing full well that he wasn't doing this out of concern for the unhinged aberration's health, "Where's the healers? Might be best to have them take shelter in the tunnel. If that shadow creature's knocking around Callan and Sander, a lighthouse would be just as easy to topple."
"Hazel will--" The rest of the sentence finished in Siena's head somewhere between incredulous and agitated. So...no, not really under control. Thoughts of Wisford came to mind, of Hazel's ability then to handle a combat situation. The difference was almost unreal, such a wide gap between a hopeful situation and reality that Siena had to take a moment to replay the information in her head. If Hazel was critically injured, then it was safe to assume that it wasn't a situation they wanted their actual healers at.
...well, she supposed it was a good thing she wasn't a healer then.
'In this condition? You'll probably just get in the way.' But Siena batted the doubts aside with the acknowledgement that she could provide options. If not a quick transport, if she was willing to burn a little more, then a way to stabilize her injured peer, even if it was only a temporary solution.
"How far is she?" Siena questioned, readjusting her position, shoulder still out of place and pulsing with every slight motion. She should have reduced it earlier, but everything else had seemed more important. Get to safety. Get to the others. Keep doing things to ignore the fact that it was starting to ache with more severity the longer she ignored it. Now didn't that seem familiar? "If it's just a matter of transportation..."
Transportation was out of the question. As Siena reached for a source the rope snapped to attention once again, floating freely of its own, or rather Ernie's, accord. A new trick. Harder to fiddle with than his previous ones. By his hip, his wrist jerked up, emulating the motion he wanted the rope to complete. Break down the movement, follow it with his gaze. Grab, then pull. One end yanked the girl's roaming wrist above her head while the other searched for her phone in her pocket, ultimately depositing it in Ernie's open hand.
"What are you doing?" his voice was cold.
'Wh-what the fuck?' Was about the only appropriate thought that came to mind when Siena felt her wrist jerked away from her phone, held above her head by prehensile magic rope. Even without the very real consequence of a peer's death, it was not a situation that Siena had been prepared to acknowledge the possibility of, much less react to.
It wasn't until too late that she realized what else the restraint was doing.
'No, nononono!' Panic seared the surface of her conscious thoughts, burning away logic and reasonable action in a flash fire. Her shoulder sent another lance of agony through Siena's senses as the girl tried, to no avail, to move the arm enough to stop the inevitable. The phone was neatly placed in Ernie's waiting hand, and icy dread twisted her stomach into a knot before pinning it in place with a well placed spear. Defenseless again. Fear set off too many alarms, opened too many floodgates, and though the reaction wasn't as severe as in D.C., the Arbiter couldn't deny that it was there.
'Give it back!'
"I--we can't just..." A shuddering breath that she couldn't restrain as she pushed her panic down as best she could. No sources. No guides. No safety. "I can get her back here if..." Between the surges of fear, a cold thought came to mind. Could she? Hadn't she said the same thing about Gregory? Even if she hadn't believed it then, she'd been confident that she could get herself and Brent to safety without injury. The words stopped there, further ones failing to come to replace them.
Ernie didn't move. Didn't react. "Get her back...like you did with Gregory. Is that it?"
Even through every panic-painted thought, Siena couldn't prevent the barest showing of a flinch. Eyes down for an instant, a tensing of the body to seem just a fraction smaller that lasted for less than an instant. You didn't even go to help him. But there had still been that faint, optimistic desire to, hadn't there? "I..." Couldn't think. Couldn't come up with the right end to that sentence, not with Brent there, not with her source away, not with everything happening around them. "It's n--I didn't..."
Didn't have a damn way to argue against that, but she had to do something.
"It's not a blind run this time. If we know where she is, I can reach her."
And with that, the buzzcut Aberration stopped bothering.
They were going to die here. He'd come to terms with that as soon as he witnessed Sander getting thrown around like a ragdoll. Zoe thought she could do something. Callan and Hazel were putting up a good fight. But none of them knew like he did. This class was full of suicidal idiots. It just wasn't fair. He didn't give a shit about most of them but when he did he was forced to treat them like this. Restraining them and chastising them like a stupid child. Letting cruelty bleed freely into his words.
Because the truth of it was that even with their impending deaths roaring and steaming and flaming mere yards from this temporary shelter, they did have some agency in this situation. There were smart and stupid ways to die. He just wanted to give his friends the dignity of the former, even if it meant being the poisonous shithead he always was.
"No," he scoffed at her desperation, "No, actually, you can't reach her. I've taken your phone. And if you try reaching for any spares, I'm going to take those too."
Brent glanced back and forth, recognizing both of the emotions that flared between his two...friends. Siena's panic, bubbling up behind the mask, the same sort of nervous energy that he had seen when he first caught her walking in circles around Zhang's estate. Ernie's exasperation and bluntness, a reflection of his own, when things had to be done and feelings couldn't be tread around delicately. The abberation's rope manipulation was a distant fourth in his list of priorities at the moment. He should have been more precise. Should have mentioned a more important fact that would stifle Siena's reason for jumping into the thick of it again whilst missing half her limbs.
"Lawrence is there already," Brent continued to relay, "Not carrying her back though, probably due to the intensity of the injury. Transportation isn't going to work out, Siena. It's going to have to be..."
He narrowed his eyes beneath the pulsating visor. Its time was going to be up soon, but for now, he could still see everything in gruesome, bloody detail. Sander impaled while Kusari rushed towards the quickly-sealing hole in the wall. This was a hell of a mess.
"Lily for ranged healing. Christmas to ensure she doesn't die from the wounds that she incurs...where the hell is literally everyone else?"
A frown twisted his expressions, before Brent reminded himself again. Reel it back in. Narrow it further. Use all the pieces. Stop acting. Just think.
"Siena, save your strength for something no one else can do."
The words were different from what she was used to hearing from Ernie. No, not the words, the tone? The...something. Far beyond the reaches of the gradual ebbing of the initial rush of panic and adrenaline, a calm, collected voice recited observations back. Not quite unexpected, right? There'd been something in the back of her head, constantly, warning her about most of her classmates after seeing firsthand what they were willing to do to each other for a training exercise. It was only a blithe eagerness that had let Siena turn a blind eye for as long as she had. Why she had managed to function as though largely unphased despite what she'd written on the evaluation documents.
It was hard to connect the boy that had taught her getaway driving and the one before her.
Harder still to listen to the blunt acceptance on Brent's end. Reason told her that they were probably right, and even if they weren't, with her arm held in place, she didn't have much choice but to accept that they were. Reason told her that no matter how quickly she managed to move Hazel out of danger, that didn't make healing her any easier to do without Lily or Christmas. Reason told her that the only reason she wanted to rush in at all was because it was something else to focus on. Something to pull her attention away from the dark feeling in the pit of her stomach, the cold one that gripped at her with such ferocity that it was only with growing difficulty that Siena was able to continue to push it aside into its proper place.
"You mean sit here until there's no choice but to do something." The words came out blunt, harder than she meant for them to, but it was so hard to keep herself grounded. Too hard to keep herself level when security was out of her hands and when her heart was pounding heavy against her ribs. A steady pace. Do good. Do more. Do more. It took almost all her self control to push a sudden swell of heat back down. Shit. It was the same feeling from Wisford...no, not entirely. It was climbing, not falling, reaching up, breaking through, and louder than it had been then. Louder because the only names she'd taken hadn't done enough to drive a division between what Siena wanted to become and what she was then.
Who deserves to pay?
The fact that it had managed to punch through the fear was more terrifying than the lack of security.
"...fine. At least let me reduce my shoulder."
Despite the clear suspicion he held for her words, Ernie flinched, distracted from Brent's plan for the moment. "You're gonna put your own shoulder into place?"
"That or break the entire arm. It's not like I do this frequently." A pause as Siena realized that wasn't the best way to make an argument. "I know how to reduce it, at least."
Frequently? More confusion from the boy before he regained his composure. "I know too. Maybe I should..."
"...as long as it doesn't make it worse."
"Heh. No pressure or anything, right?"
Ernie moved forward to grip the wrist of her bad arm, dropping the phone a safe distance away on the ground. Truth was, he'd only done this...maybe twice? He hadn't taken a formal class on it, that's for sure. After recalling the rotations that needed to be done, he took a deep breath and just went for it.
Siena should have expected it. Well, no, she had expected it, but that didn't stop the feeling of her arm being pushed back into place any more pleasant. Colors in her vision, good arm tensing in response to the pain, fingers curling into a tight fist until the knuckles turned white. Had the arm not been held in place, the brunette was almost certain that it would have lashed out in an attempt at stopping the entire process. Her breath came short for a moment, tearing away the ability to tell Ernie to stop, that it wasn't going to work, but all at once things seemed to pop into place. Literally.
The sound was loud, obvious, and anything but pleasant, but immediately the pain seemed to relieve itself, no longer sending new waves like electric currents through mineral water, only letting the ripples of torment ride out their journey. As her vision cleared, the brunette released her breath, felt another spike of heat try to drive through her, and barely managed to hold it back.
"Doesn't seem to be broken." The words were strained, and Siena couldn't identify if it was from the receding pain or the rising need for release. She didn't unclench either fist. "Thanks."
An easy smile graced his face. "It's no problem."
At least they could all die with their arms intact now. A glance out the window sent shockwaves through Ernie as brutal claws skewered through Sander. Fuck, they were gonna get taken out one by one. And yet, he remained standing. Hard to frighten what was already petrified. Grief had long made its way into acceptance. The smile turned mournful and Ernie regarded Siena once more.
"Can I let you go now? You won't do anything stupid?" he asked, the phone in his hand making its way to his back pocket.
"She'll probably punch you in the face," Brent remarked drily, eyes focused outside, where the battle continued to rage. The shadow-creature didn't appear to be regenerating from the heavy wounds it received from Callan, but that didn't matter when three of Unit B's powerhouses had gotten themselves shredded dealing with just that one bastard. From some miracle, Lawrence hadn't gotten himself caught in the crossfire yet, but the steadily increasing wall still worried him. What exactly was it for? Were they going to raise it up and then flatten it? Were they stalling for time while one of their more fragile mages worked on a nuke? Were they really so cautious of this group of semi-powerful fuck ups that they played defensively even while their shadow-boy held down two of the more famous members of Unit B? He still recalled the flaming whips and the scorching beams, killing soldiers by the dozens. Why did this feel so much....less?
No, if the Amigos were holding back, this was a boon. Reel it back. Focus. Get to work. Angelic was already dead. Gregory was most likely dead. But Hazel...
"Hazel still needs healing," Brent repeated, emphasized, "Where are Lily and Christmas, Ernie?"
A hollow gaze. It always came down to this, didn't it? How selfish or smart his actions were.
"The moment we reveal that we have a healer is the moment all their priorities change," Ernie spoke bluntly, "The lighthouse comes crashing down and one or both of them get kidnapped while the rest of us get crushed to pieces."
"Lily's got a ranged heal, and Hazel's wound is hidden by Lawrence's first aid," Brent replied, "If she hides that black string underground, and Lawrence covers the rest with his body, we can mask that."
A flash of inspiration, quickly squashed to itty-bitty pieces by the fact that their communicator, Angelic, wasn't there. Pissed him off, when every piece couldn't fit the puzzle. When all the versatility in the world didn't allow him to work around something as simple as this.
"Callan's a bloody mess too, and Sander..." Why the fuck wasn't Sander invincible? "You know them, Ernie. Are the Amigos going to not kill us all if we don't reveal our healers?"
They killed anyone who got in their way. As long as he--shit--they were out of sight, there was still that chance to keep the shadow demon from doing a full sweep of the class. Why couldn't Brent see that?
Ernie had to admit that the underground string was a good idea, though it didn't completely sway his stance. A clench of the jaw as he scanned the combat phone. Emma would be here soon.
"We're not going to use Christmas," the Aberration remained steadfast, "Wait for Emma to show up with her tulpas."
Poor Determination. A grim smile creased Brent's features.
"I can squeeze out an x-ray effect on these," the arbiter tapped his visor, "Slap 'em on Lily, and she can do her work from the tunnels. Gonna need your pain negation though, 'ena."
"Pain negate won't fix blood loss."
"It'll keep Lily from passing out during the transfer."
A reluctant nod. Personally, Ernie wouldn't have cared about momentary pain on Lily's part. But she needed to stay awake so... "Fair."
His gaze returned to the phone as he barked into Emma's channel. "Hurry down faster. We need tulpas for healing."
Everything fell apart before they had fully materialized, two bodies tumbling and striking the smoking, sizzling floor the instant the effects of teleportation had worn off. Underprepared. Always underprepared. Like toy soldiers they tumbled down, bouncing against objects, flashes of pain sprouting as arms instinctively raised, head naturally tucking inwards until the backbone struck the corner of the table. Sunburst and starburst, agony that numbed too quickly like a firework that disappeared, scorching a thoughtless afterimage as cowardly words drowned themselves in the echoing aftermath. And then the boom-boom of his heart, drowning out the numbing rain splattering against his helmet. Waterproof. Goggles were waterproof and floated too. A miniature Ark when God drowned out the world, unleashing the reservoirs of the deep. Gotta prepare. A pair. No, just George. He envisioned moving, abdominal muscles pulling himself upwards, fresh numbness like too much aesthetic causing him no pain and only regrets. Wisdom teeth were still there, digging into the baby molars torn out. He wanted to taste them. No. His legs had to go first. Focus. The big toe. Twitch the big toe. But it was more sandy numbness, nothing working like it was supposed to. Should have prepared better. Shouldn’t have wasted his time. Not with relationships. Requests forms. He kept forgetting, kept putting it off, but if they could move things from DC to Balled Island, then they could do it with the USA of East. Brent rolled his eyes. More regrets, piling up like a town of twitching corpses. This was better than that. He still had his upper body. Could crawl? But would crawling let him dodge? Just crawl anyways. Worms and humans alike crawled. People who didn’t prepare for everything ahead of time, who didn’t even come to a dangerous place armed to the teeth, could just crawl. Silver lightning ran down his legs, sparking uselessly when he lost focus an instant later. Invertebrate. That’s what he was. That’s what you’ll always be. Pushing shit in and pushing shit out at the same steady rate, the slightest tinge of moistness dying his lower torso as a wonderfully personal stench erupted. He was losing control. He never had control. Just impulses that he followed without meeting the proper criteria. DPS check? Not high enough. Rarity check? Not high enough. Heal check? Not high enough. All that versatility meant nothing if he didn’t have plans upon plans, if it was ruined just with an injury like this. All those skills, wasted with a singular, shitty suggestion. Ah, good time to give up, right? Suicide missions all around, and Marco and Emerson and Chloe and Danielle and Maria and Jesse and Eun and and and. Disconnected and discovered and this illusion. He laughed and he got sent seven feet down the smooth hallway like an amusement park ride he didn’t know he signed up for and everything span and spun and spoon while hiccups hiccupped his cup. Dishes were still there. Clean the sink as well. Sink? No, ink everywhere, a soggy mess jammed down his throat as colors span and chest compressed. Depressed. Unpressed? Not a word. Not a privilege. Right. It was not a right. Everything was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong crosses and xes and red marks everywhere, bludgeoning him with imperfections as it continued to decay, stale cookies mixing into a slurry of milk and crumbs. Something had to be done and he could do nothing. Only chatterboxes infected with opinions and memes, regurgitating the virus and swallowing the infection. He was there to save someone. But that someone didn’t matter. He was there to kill someone. But that someone didn’t matter. So if it wasn’t save, and it wasn’t kill, then what was it? It was… Sour drops for rewards, cyanide drops for punishments, when they masticated both and spat out both because they didn’t want either, since the elusive third was universally better and molecularly worse and yet they never got it at all when spirits flew at the speed of light but clouds were standstill guardians that consumed it all with vaporous stomachs that only grew and grew until they spewed everything out in transparent music notes over broken ceilings so they could shower.
The unkind delusion was still missing pieces, a feverish morning daze in light that was still more like night, amethyst eyes boring intensely upon fleshy appendages that were better off amputated.