SHOT THROUGH THE HEART, AND YOU'RE TO BLAME
a voice called out over the din of the Practice course.
The students had all begun running the obstacle course that Rowan had pioneered and Jer had improved. The Gold Stripe sat back, watching the various students intently, only occasionally dipping his head down to look at clipboards featuring past scores or the Scroll running timers that sat atop it. Occasionally he would hand out praise or criticism - "4:22, Gratia. Good."
or "5:13. Have you ever considered a career in the library, Fallson? It's more fulfilling than this, and you won't ever have to jump."
- but mostly he was silent, choosing to observe on his first day and then direct people into what it seemed like they enjoyed, be it the practice range, Semblance training, or just screwing around on the course again for fun. That third category would have been where he sat. He would have been alone in that.
Only one student seemed to be exempt from the free period, however. As Bianca Nuit finished up her time - 4:30 - Jericho whistled for her and waved the Scroll and clipboard at her, finally standing up to his full height and walking towards her as she moved towards him. He read her the time and then looked down at the heiress, cocking his head slightly to the right. When he did, his hair, matted down by sweat minutes before, fell over the end of his eyebrows in layers. He pushed it back and wrapped a band around it, revealing his forehead. "4:30. Not bad."
My chest rose and fell I was eight seconds over Gratia’s time and not the best in the class, but I was also only days out of the infirmary and my wings accounted for at least a bit of resistance, even when they were folded. Even though it pained me to do so, I jogged over to Jericho as he waved me over. His status as a Teaching Assistant not doing much to dissuade my eyes from appreciating his station as a Golden Stripe, secret agent and absolute looker. “4:30?”
I called back as we approached one another, I finally stopped placing my hands on my knees for only a second taking a quick breath, before standing back straight. “I could’ve done better.”
I said, staring back out at the course, my chest rising and falling fast enough that I couldn’t speak too much.
I probably couldn’t have done much better. Granted, I had been in a pretty large scale fight during Grimm Studies and Survival wasn’t much of a rest, I had given my all during the course. I straightened out my crop top and glanced down at my shoes to make sure the laces hadn’t budged all that much before looking back up to Jericho with a big smile. “I don’t suppose you’d be able to help me out at all this period, as the teaching assistant?”
Had life been a cartoon there would’ve been a glint in my eyes and a shimmer to my smile as I stared up at the young man so below his pay grade it was almost leaving a visible physical effect on him.“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I have something to show you before you break off into independent study.”
That could be taken the wrong way. This girl isn’t well.
Jer reached down to the chest holsters he’d left resting beside his perch and pulled loose one of the Manticores. He inspected it for a second, cocking his head fondly at it, and then turned his stare to Bianca.“Beryl Harken tells me you have bad luck with guns,”
he explained. “I have a trick for you. Basic defensive discipline where I’m from, but it’d probably be black magic to most of the wheat farmers in this country. Here, hold this. Don’t touch the trigger until I tell you. My dad and I designed these to blow the limbs off a Grimm and the supports out of a skyscraper. I don’t need it going off through my palm.”
My smile faded a little bit as I took the gun in my hand. I looked at Jer and for only a second, I felt like I was falling out of my own body. His voice snapped me back out of it. My hand was tightly gripped around the stock of the weapon, so tightly that I felt my nails dig into my hand just a little bit. I shook somewhat but I tried my best to ignore it. “Yeah don’t worry I won’t touch the trigger – though I doubt the thing is even loaded.”
I said quietly looking at the weapon. My hands had generally stopped shaking but I couldn’t help but be over-aware of where I was pointing the weapon. It was fixed on a spot with nothing around it. “Okay so what’d you want me to do with this thing?”
I couldn’t believe I was so rigid. The usual Bianca would’ve been better. No I want to be the usual Bianca! “And next time feel free to skip over Beryl and come right to the source of the info!”
I said readopting my warm smile and allowing myself to breathe a little easier. I felt my heart slow down a little bit as I reminded myself where I was.
Not in Mistral, not in that van. With Jericho, in Vale.
I took a deep breath in through my nostrils and out of my mouth. I was ready to learn.“Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Easy, Stallone. You should never take this thing being loaded or not for granted.”
Jericho lifted the other pistol up with his gloved hand and eyeballed the distance between the end of the barrel and the shooting range. “The original design for this was something to go on the heavy-duty variants of the Atlesian Knights. My dad and I worked for half a semester to try and make a mockup that could even be fired safely by something with human limbs. My teammate was screwing around with it while I was making dinner one night and broke his arm in two places. This shoots down family trees, Bianca. Always practice gun safety, but always practice this gun safely.”
…“Oh my God,”
Bianca said, “was your teammate okay?”
…“What the hell are you talking about? Bright? He was fine, he laughed about it eventually. To hell with Bright. Do you want to learn or not?”
For a split second, I was taken aback by Jer’s attitude about it all. Bright was fine? He laughed about breaking his arm with a gun?
Atlas was terrifying sometimes. All I could imagine were people driving down the streets, firing off guns… Wait, it’s just like that movie Luke was watching! What was it?? Less than content Tom?
It didn’t matter.“Yeah, of course I want to learn!”
It was at that moment that it was decided. I had to impress Jericho with my learning capabilities. I had to become the best student he had ever taught. And that started with not mentioning the movie I couldn’t come up with. “Okay, I’m listening, please continue!” “Alright. Good.”
Jericho eyed Bianca skeptically for a second before placing the gun he held down on the bench again. That left the gun in Bianca’s hand, which he nudged up to about his chest level before nodding and taking a step back. “You seem like you’re more specialized for fighting Grimm than me. I’ve spent most of my school life fighting other things with guns. Guess I’m a people person. Still-goddamn it, hang on. Laurent, 4:09! Good run!”
His Scroll had dinged, notifying him of another student successfully finishing the course. This girl was one of the last few to start the course, and now she looped around, black hair clinging to her forehead and hanging over her eyes. Her panting was wild and angry, her stare smoldering at the young man who had belted out her score.“Uh huh,”
she said, in an accent laced with venom. "Merci.”“Go Viv!”
The Scroll dinged again. Sparr, 4:11.“Go VIVE!”
I felt a warmth spread to my cheeks at the compliment as I watched Jer call out to the other students. It was something of a rarity to get a compliment like that from him - you knew it was genuine, he always was. “Yeah, well I’ve trained in that regard for a while I guess. So I’m happy to learn something…”
I trailed off for a second, looking at the gun. I looked back up to Jer with bright eyes and a calm temperament. “I’m always happy to learn something that will help me protect others and myself.”
I continued to hold the weapon steadily facing away from everyone and at the ground. I could see the safety was on, but I wanted to be sure. I wanted to get this right.“You’re laying it on too thick. But fine. Don’t point the gun there, point it here.”
Jericho held the weapon back up to his sternum again with one hand, fingers of his ungloved hand wrapped around the barrel. “So, with all that in mind that I told you about this gun, what do you think happens if you pull this trigger right now and I’m holding the barrel?”“You-”
I stopped for a second. Just breathe. He knows what he is doing.“The firing mechanism would activate, the bullet launched, it would go throw your sternum and potentially kill you.”
I said, taking little pauses in between words to allow myself room to keep my breathing even and steady. I felt the breeze pass through me and it was only then that I remembered where I was, in class pointing a gun at my…
Another deep breath. “The gun would kill you if I pull the trigger.”“Hmmph. Yeah. Okay. Think fast.”
Jericho’s free hand reached around the space between them and flicked the safety off. The Manticore rang out like a small rocket launch, like a spacecraft attempting a doomed escape from the earth. Bianca visibly jolted, but Jer appeared unfazed. If anything he looked more mischievous. His eyes were twinkling playfully, and when he looked at the startled heiress again one of his eyes quickly closed and opened.“You think you can kill me with bullets? I take your fucking bullets. C’mon.”
He pulled the gun away from Bianca’s trembling hands with little effort, displaying it with it pointed towards the ground. “Relax, Bianca, it’s alright. I’m about to teach you something that’ll save your life. Catch your breath and look at the gun when you’re ready.”
It took every modicum of control to stop me from just screaming for a split second. I felt all the adrenaline in my body rise up to the tip of my tongue in an instant. “Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”
I felt my lips move without permission as I crouched down for a second only to return up in another. I felt eyes on us but I couldn’t even consider the social ramifications of my actions I just allowed the energy to leave my body.
In those few seconds I felt my heart rate start to return to normal and I looked at Jericho, my cheeks blazing hot. I thought about slapping him, but at this point I was pretty sure that would just further fuel his antics. His wink and the sound of a gunshot was scorched into my mind. Okay, think we’re good.
Then I heard it again in my head, the gunshot and the wink. “Shiiiiiiiiit, Jericho.”
I waved my hand like it was burning hot and took a step back to let myself calm down away from him for a second. What the fuck was this class.
Okay. Okay you’re good.“Alright what am I supposed to see here?”
I said walking back towards him with an unsteadiness about me that was as plain as day. I looked at the gun the way someone looked at the ground who was afraid of heights. Just barely letting it enter my peripheral.
Jer could sympathize, however slightly, with a girl having no idea how guns worked. But honestly, Bianca quoted mob movies enough that he would have thought she could handle the merest sound of a close range gunshot. He would hate to see how she would respond if she had to remember how to choose between a gun and a cannoli.“You see this? Here I have my fingers completely around the barrel, pinky near the ejector. But how far has it gone back? Not at all, right? Watch this.”
Jericho leveled the pistol over Bianca’s shoulder, in the air towards one of the drones. When he pulled the trigger, it just clicked. Click. Click click.“Nothing, right? This is a ten round mag, but it didn’t recycle once. It’s stopped up. Now the triggerman needs to fix the gun manually to be able to fire again. Giving you time to swing the Hermes from hell that you bring everywhere and take him down. And see? My hand wasn’t ripped off, my Aura took whatever force the hit actually had. It’s fine. I’m fine. And now you never have to worry about a gun again. Nobody’s gonna know what the hell to do when you just rush up and grab it. Nobody really knows how it works except us. And now you.”Us.“Y-yeah.”
It was hard to rationalize everything that was happening to me these days. Some days were kind of gloomy and overcast, others were a bit better. But, today was different. “You’re fine.”
My eyes darted around where any wounds might’ve appeared. I was ready for the blood to start staining his shirt, but, it never did. He stood there, a confident look about him holding the gun in front of me so I could see it. I examined his hands holding the weapon. They were worn much more than most Mistralian’s would have been. It was always something they were proud of - something to show off how delicate and beautiful they were.
Jer was different in that way. He didn’t have to try and flaunt some pre-described beauty. He just sort of exuded a knowing that was in itself, beautiful. “Well, thank you for teaching me that. Today I just feel like I’m learning a lot.”
I said, adjusting my posture, grasping my wrists behind my back and shifting my hair out of my face a little bit. “Seriously, I know you’re busy you don’t have to spend more time with me if you don’t want…”
I trailed off looking at the surroundings.
It was such a pretty day outside. “Besides think of what the other students will say! Private lessons, it’s just ripe with scandal.”
My eyes twinkled a familiar way and I smiled upwards at him leaning towards him a little. “Shut up. We’re going to work on your Semblance next.”
Jericho’s hair was pushed back by the band, but he fingered it anyway, eyes scanning over the rest of the students as though he was searching for a glimmer of potential. “What would you rather have me do? Sand is from Atlas, she’ll be fine. If I worked with Grat the next place I’d be holding a gun is to my tonsils. I could wear lead-lined sneakers and body armor and have a higher vertical than Robert Fallson. I was throwing kids like him off the monkey bars when I was nine years old. In a more enlightened time in a real combat school we would have expelled him out of mercy. I would only ask him for help on a mission if that mission was getting lunch money.”
He shrugged and turned back to Bianca, face expressionless again.“You’re in the middle of the two extremes. You toe a line between a lot of potential and terrible at everything. I can work in that zone. Semblance. Chop chop.”
Hmmm… I can’t tell if I should be offended or feel like I’m being courted but I definitely think it is one of those two possibilities. “Well… Now that you mention it, I did do something, different a little bit today.”
I said dropping my handbag on the ground with a incredibly loud thud. Like dropping a massive boulder. The dirt descended just a little underneath the weight of the bag. “So I’m not really sure how it works but I flew really fast, way faster than I usually can, and I think I… Glowed a little?”
I tried to recall the moment it happened. It wasn’t necessarily my semblance, but when it happened I lost control of my spear. Which made me think it probably affected my semblance.“Yeah, so, I don’t know if that’s worth looking into but it is definitely something I don’t really get.”
I tried to explain.
Jer deadpanned caustically, “god damn it. That sounds straight out of anime."
He exhaled, eyes closing together tightly and then opening with the dull acceptance of a man who knew that death would be a private victory against the torture.“Okay, fine. Let’s make you a Saiyan. God damn it, Bianca.”