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Thread: Pokémon Revolution: Maverick Heart

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    Default Chapter 26: The Red Park Bench

    Chapter 26: The Red Park Bench

    September 24, PA 2019
    Victoria Inn – Esterland City

    A furry rug tickled the sole of Lucas’s feet as they emerged from the tile-floored inside of the shower to the outside. It felt good in its own way, and at least the rug kept his feet off the tile floor outside. Bathroom tile, Lucas knew for a fact, was not exactly friendly to wet, unshod feet. There was always friction in the relationship – or, more appropriately, there was a complete lack of it. Lucas didn’t much feel like falling and cracking his skull open, anyway. As he reached the mirror, he blinked awkwardly; a few strands of his sopping wet, wavy hair had fallen into his eyes. He slicked his hair back with his hand to get a better look at himself. His slightly tan chest was bare, still glistening with water from the shower than ran down into the towel covering his lower half. Somehow, without remembering exactly what he had looked like in the early summer, he could tell that he had put on a few pounds. Not many – just enough to notice.

    The one thing he was observing more than anything, however, was his hair. It had been years since he had seen it this long. It was still a darker red in most places, flecked with bright red and black. The wavy curls, released from their usual headdress prison, threatened his ears on the sides, flirted with his shoulders in the back, and danced against his eyebrows in the front.

    He reached behind himself and tried to grip a handful of his hair. He felt his hand bunch it together. In the mirror, he saw his own face change to a look of slight disappointment. He’d always said to himself that he’d band it back the next time it got this long…except it wasn’t quite long enough.

    “Balls,” he murmured to himself, ruffling it instead and watching it spread out around his face. He took his skullcap and fitted it over his head. “Maybe in another month…”


    In a matter of minutes, Lucas was dressed and headed toward the suite’s living room. He flopped onto the couch, then decided to stretch out. He stared at the lamp hanging from the ceiling for a while. He wasn’t sure what time it was exactly; he only knew that it was morning. Judging by the fact that he seemed to be the only one awake, it was probably somewhat early in the morning.

    Right as he thought that and his eyes started to close, a single word broke him out of his serene, little world of solitude.

    “Hey.”

    Lucas opened one eye, letting out a long sigh and he looked up and to his left.

    “Decided to start talking to me again?” he asked tiredly.

    Nalani put her hands on her hips. “I never said I wasn’t talking to you.”

    “Well, you sure didn’t say **** to me at dinner yesterday,” Lucas deadpanned.

    “Did you say anything to me? Hell, do you ever say anything to me unless you’re answering something I said?” she asked.

    “Oh…**** me, you’re nagging,” groaned Lucas, trying to cover his ears with his forearms.

    “I am notnaaaaaaagging,” she intoned, drawling in an exaggerated fashion to mock Lucas. “I was just asking you a question. I thought about it last night and…I start every conversation.”

    “I thought we established this already. You’re the chatty one, and I’m –”

    “The grim, quiet one with no people skills. Yes, I know,” sighed Nalani wearily. “I’m bored.”

    Lucas looked up at her. “So……?”

    “Let’s go to the park,” she said briskly. “Wheels let me borrow her key card.”

    “‘Park’?” repeated Lucas, confused.

    “It’s the next block over from this building,” she replied. “We can all get some exercise.”

    Lucas eyed the hallway where his and Wil’s room was. Wil, when Lucas last checked, was still fast asleep. “Wil might get pissed if we go sneaking off without letting him know.”

    “Who cares?” questioned Nalani flippantly. “Doesn’t his ‘mother hen’ act get on your nerves just a little bit?”

    Hate to admit it, but she’s got a point.

    We’re supposed to be full-fledged mercenaries. In the four months I’ve been here, I’ve taken a gang beating, been attacked by feral Pokémon, had guns pointed at my head, gotten two cracked ribs, a concussion, a crapload of other bumps, bruises, and injuries…

    So a walk in the park should be…well, a walk in the park.


    Lucas sat up.


    As it turned out, the park was appropriately called the Victoria Gardens. Lucas glimpsed a bush somewhat off the cobblestone path that he and Nalani were walking. Something appeared to be moving inside it. A little blue weed on legs stumbled out a second later.

    “Odd-ish-odd,” it squeaked before bounding away again.

    The sun was barely up, and the September morning air had a bit of chill to it. Nalani, nevertheless, had on her normal tank top and shorts. Lucas took one, then two, then three glances at her before finally saying something.

    “You’re not cold in that?”

    Nalani turned to him. “Are you serious? This is summer weather in Ëdelbourg. Part of my training was to stand outside in clothes like this when it was below freezing.”

    Lucas’s jaw unhinged a little bit. “You’re joking. Your uncle made you do that?”

    “Not directly,” Nalani said. “He just went out and found the most hard-*** martial arts master in Carona for me to learn under.”

    “I’m not sure if I mentioned this before…” he said casually. “But your uncle sounds like a real jerk–”

    You watch your mouth.” It was like Lucas had flipped a switch. Nalani’s stare had become hard as stone, and her vaguely smiling face had morphed into an angry scowl. Lucas just stared at her, flabbergasted. She seemed to come back to herself after a few seconds. Her head dropped, and she said, barely above a whisper, “Sorry…but, you know…he’s literally the only family I have. Just him. Nobody else. You understand, right?”

    And she looked up at him. There was an uncommon sheen in her blue eyes.

    “I thought you didn’t want to be around him,” Lucas said somewhat sheepishly.

    “That’s not it…” she trailed off with a sigh. “I lived in Ëdelbourg all my life. I want to travel the world – see new things. He promised me we would, as soon as…it was safe.”

    She closed her eyes.

    “What about Hoenn?” she mused a bit breathlessly. “I hear the weather’s beautiful down there, and they hardly get any snow. God knows I’ve seen enough snow to last me a lifetime.”

    “Sounds nice,” Lucas said.

    “Maybe we’ll go to the Orange Islands,” she went on. “Sun, waves, beautiful beaches…”

    And Shiro. Not that Nalani would know or care who Shiro was, but he was most certainly there. At least, he was most of the year. Maybe, after everything was done, Lucas would swing through and visit his older brother…

    Nalani opened her eyes and cast a sly look at Lucas. “You’re picturing me in a swimsuit right now, aren’t you?”

    “Seriously? Come on.” Lucas rolled his eyes.

    Nalani tilted her head. “You don’t get all embarrassed like you used to.”

    “That’s because I’m not shocked by anything you do anymore,” Lucas replied with a sort of resignation, folding his arms across himself.

    “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Nalani immediately asked. Lucas couldn’t look her in the eye for some reason, so he stared down at his shoes.

    “Dunno.”

    They didn’t walk much longer before they found an empty patch of grass. A strong, proud, and old tree ruled over the otherwise clear field. Ratty, gray-winged Starly seemed to be gathered around the isolated wooden bench, pecking away at the ground. Nalani saw them first, shot Lucas a mischievous smirk, and gave chase. She flapped her arms in what looked to be a cheap imitation of the bird Pokémon, who scattered in unison, beating their wings around her as she covered her head and laughed wildly. She whirled around and a second later Lucas saw a sphere flying through the air. It hovered and pulled in a beam of red light while the rest of the Starly scattered. As Lucas finally approached (covering his head in case one of the feathered flock decided to drop a parting gift), he saw the sphere fall to the ground. It rattled once, then twice…

    Then stopped. Lucas and Nalani both approached the dormant Pokéball at the same time, both with similar wide-eyed expressions as they observed it.

    “Wow.” Nalani blinked a couple of times. “That actually worked.”

    “How did…” Lucas muttered. “Do you plan this stuff out?”

    “It’s like I said,” she commented, picking up the ball. “I don’t have the patience to plan.”

    She looked at Lucas. There was a hint of a fox in her mischievous, glinting, blue eyes.

    “I feel like giving it a test drive,” she said.

    “W-what?” Lucas stammered. “Well, I don’t. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, would it? I’ve had Apollo almost a year, and Blink – who’s an Electric-type, by the way – for a couple of months. You’ve had that Starly…”

    “Manu,” Nalani corrected him.

    “…Manu?” repeated Lucas, a somewhat stuck look on his face. Nalani nodded.

    “Manu.”

    “When did you decide that?” Lucas asked.

    “Just now,” she replied.

    “Okay, fine,” Lucas sighed. “Still doesn’t change my point. You’ve had him for all of thirty seconds. Or ‘her’. You don’t even know, do you?”

    Nalani’s enthusiasm was starting to wane. She looked at the Pokéball containing her new Starly and turned it over in her hand. “I guess you’re right.”

    “I mean, how’d you like to come to a new place, and the first thing you realize is that everyone’s trying to kick your ***?” Lucas said, his arms folded. “Pokémon have feelings just like people do.”

    “I know that,” rebutted Nalani tersely. “This coming from the guy that never lets his Pokémon out of their Pokéballs except to battle?”

    “Apollo’s not what you’d call a sweet, peaceful Pokémon,” Lucas answered. “You know what my family told me? Right after he came out of his egg, a couple of the other Charmander were standing over him while he was sleeping. He opened his eyes, saw one of his own brothers getting too close, and damn near gouged his eye out. And ever since he evolved....”

    “He also enjoys hanging around Ahi,” interjected Nalani. “Did you notice that, too?”

    Lucas’s next thought got lost on the way to his mouth.

    “That’s what I thought,” Nalani said, sounding exasperated.

    “Sure. Y’know what? Screw this. I’m going back.” Lucas threw up his hands and began to walk away.

    “STOP!”

    The scream was louder and more shrill than Lucas ever thought possible. At the same time, he felt his entire arm wrenched backward hard. It took all of Lucas’s effort to curb his instinct, which was to backhand the person grabbing him. Even so, he whirled around so quickly that she nearly stumbled to the ground. Nalani took a breath – one slow, deep, unsteady breath.

    “Nalani,” he murmured. She was looking straight at her shoes.

    “We should go,” she said sullenly.

    “Go?” repeated Lucas. “Go where?”

    “Away,” she replied cryptically. “Away from Maverick Heart, away from everything…wasn’t it more fun when it was just us two?”

    Lucas didn’t answer. The truth was, he didn’t know how.

    “Well…” he said, a slight hitch in his voice. “Where would we go if we left the guild? How would we put food in our mouths?”

    “I don’t know – I don’t care!” she suddenly clenched her hands into fists and started yelling. “I just…”

    Silence.

    Lucas sighed through his nose. “You’re being stupid.”

    Nalani appeared to swallow. “I know.”

    Lucas trudged over to the bench and sat down on it. She sat down next to him a few seconds later. They started a couple of feet apart, but it was like putting two opposing magnets down next to each other. Sooner or later, they always snap together and stick. From his shoulder, she stared straight into the blue sky, her blue eyes following a flock of airborne Starly. Lucas stared in the same general direction. The feel of her violet strands tickling his face wasn’t nearly as foreign the second time around. She felt her push against him somewhat as her body expanded in a couple of deep breaths. Part of him wondered wildly whether she was doing that on purpose.

    “Hey…Lucas?” she uttered in a small voice that fit the serene setting.

    “Yeah?” he answered just as calmly, looking down at his shoulder. He was no longer looking at the crown of her head, but her blue eyes.

    “You know you’re my best friend, right?” she asked.

    “Uh…yeah, I guess,” Lucas murmured, still sounding bemused.

    “Well…you remember the conversation we had?” she asked, saying the sentence very quickly, as if a moment’s hesitation would have caused her to lose heart and abandon the topic entirely.

    Lucas’s brow furrowed in confusion. “We’ve been around each other almost every waking hour for four months. We’ve had a lot of conversations.”

    “I mean that conversation,” she said, this time a bit more insistently. Lucas frowned. She wasn’t being helpful at all. “We were on the beach, remember?”

    Lucas didn’t answer.

    “You’re thinking of me in a swimsuit again, aren’t you?” she asked, a knowing smirk crossing her face. However, her head stayed locked against Lucas’s right shoulder, and her voice remained small and almost demure.

    “We were at the beach. Everybody was in swimsuits,” answered Lucas. “Kind of hard not to. But which beach are we talking about?”

    “Cadlamere,” Nalani sighed, sounding somewhat frustrated. “Don’t you remember? It was after we went looking for that treasure.”

    “You mean, the ruins?” Lucas said sourly. He’d had a few pleasant memories since coming to Carona. That mission was not one of them – mainly because he couldn’t remember much of anything. “How the hell do you expect me to remember any details from right after that?”

    “This was after you’d…gotten better. We went to the beach,” Nalani said, trying hard and failing in her attempt not to smile. “And we had a conversation…”

    “Well, sure, I guess,” Lucas answered. “I can’t remember what we talked about, though.”

    “I asked you if you’d kissed a girl before.”

    “Wh-what?” A sudden impulse to separate himself from Nalani and jump away from her disappeared as quickly as it came – leaving Lucas to wonder where the hell it went. “We never talked about that.”

    “Of course we did. I remember things, Luc,” she said tersely, as if angered. “And the last thing I asked you was if you ever wanted to.”

    “Wh-y-yeah,” Lucas stammered, looking away from her and down at the ground. “I mean…I guess I will, someday…b-but what’s that got to do with anyth—”

    He was in the middle of the sentence when the realization hit him like a ton of bricks. He pulled back a bit.

    That tree’s shadow looks like it’s about to grab something. Long, skinny, skeleton hands. They look like bones. It’s creepy as all hell. And the Starly flapping around it make it look even worse. I know they’re Starly, but if I just look at the shadows, they look like Zubat or something. Zubat are irritating. Starly are only slightly less irritating.

    I hope I don’t get **** on by a Starly. I wonder if Starly like coffee? I don’t like coffee, but if I gave it to a Starly, I wonder if it would drink it? How does it like its coffee? Black, like Wil does?

    Oh, ****. Wil’s probably just realizing that I’m gone. I wonder if Wheels is getting yelled at for letting Nalani take the key.

    Nalani…hold on…


    “Lucas?” Nalani slid away from him, looking concerned. “A-are you okay?”

    “W-w-wait a sec…” he stuttered. “You don’t mean…”

    There was silence between them for a long moment.

    “I…” Lucas tried to gather himself.

    Starly ****.

    SHUT UP!


    “Are you asking…” Lucas tried to put words together. “You don’t mean…”

    “Just…just to try it,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “I’m curious – that’s all.”

    “I just don’t understand, Nalani,” Lucas said seriously. “I mean…here? Now? Me?

    “You have a better idea?” she asked, a curt snippiness in her voice. “Just pull aside some random guy and plant one on him? I’m sure that’ll go over great.”

    They went silent again. Nalani started to look at her shoes, and stared at them for what seemed like days. Then, all in a moment, her head snapped up.

    “One second,” she said. “We just touch for one second. Nothing weird, like they do on TV. And we don’t say anything about it later – to anybody.

    “Wha-hold on,” Lucas fumbled. “Who said that I was agreeing to this?”

    “…At least do yourself a favor. Maybe one day…” Nalani’s eyes brightened for a brief moment, then disappeared behind her bangs. “Maybe one day you’ll find a girl you really like. You don’t want to be all nervous if she wants you to kiss her. It’ll make you look bad.”

    Lucas tried to think of another argument – something, anything that he could say that would perhaps stall or stop this from happening. But then the little voice in his head started running its mouth…

    How bad could it be? Your lips touch for a second – two, tops.

    And, come on, let’s be honest. She
    is good-looking. You said so yourself.

    She took a very deep breath, almost as if she needed to steady herself, and leaned in closer. Lucas gasped. He never knew that it was possible for a heartbeat to accelerate that quickly.

    Maybe it wasn’t possible. Maybe his heart had exploded and he was already dead. Maybe heaven and hell did exist, and he was in one or the other. Maybe both. No…that didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense in this moment. All he knew was that he felt himself trembling. He’d been in some pretty hairy situations before, but he could never remember quaking in place like this. His stomach was doing cartwheels in his belly and his heart was beating his chest like a drum.

    Nalani stopped.

    “You’re scared, aren’t you?” she asked. Lucas didn’t trust himself to speak, although he did hear himself exhale unevenly. Nalani swallowed hard. Her blue eyes bored straight into him, and her voice dropped to the very quietest of whispers.

    “…Me, too.”

    From this distance, Lucas could not only see each one of her long eyelashes; he could almost feel them bristling against his face. Their heads started to tilt. One of them guessed wrong and they went in same direction, bumping noses awkwardly. They each tried to correct their mistake at the same time, and just wound up repeating it. A final cry of reason erupted from somewhere in the back of Lucas’s brain, and he fleetingly thought of backing away – but Nalani was having none of it. She immediately turned her head, knocking his nose away with her own…

    A second later, their lips found each other.

    Their mouths were closed, their lips almost stiffly tight. As Lucas sat there under the sunlight, the breath of her nostrils and the autumn morning breeze cradling his face, he found that his mind was not racing the way he thought it should have been. In fact, it was as if time itself had slowed to a crawl. But he did keep his eyes open. They stared right into her orbs of blue.

    This had to be the longest second ever. Lucas wondered wildly for a moment whether the birds overhead were flying in slow motion. He watched the blue orbs widen, as if the gravity of the situation was starting to hit her. Maybe it was from the angle of a stray ray of sunlight somewhere, but they seemed to have an extra luster to them – a shine that built upon them as the seconds passed until, finally, they started to close. It felt awkward staring at someone who wasn’t looking back (was that a tear on one of her eyelashes?), so he shut his eyes, too.

    Lucas literally felt the moment where everything changed. A vulnerable sound escaped her – half a giggle, half a moan. Her entire body seemed to slacken, and getting an arm around his neck might have been the only thing that stopped her from falling to the ground. The businesslike handshake of their lips had turned into a beautiful slow dance with fingers entwined. Lucas’s brain was in a haze – or the opposite of a haze. The few images sent from his brain to the inside of his eyelids seemed sharper, every sound louder and clearer.

    Then, all at once, it was over. He felt a cool on his lips that seemed almost foreign now. She had pulled back slowly, catching him with a second peck that was just enough for him to notice. Her teeth were clamped down almost dangerously hard on her bottom lip now. She was a small child, caught red-handed after eating one too many sweets from the candy jar. That is, the expression of feigned innocence on her face couldn’t quite overpower the satisfaction that glimmered in her blue eyes.

    He sat there for a couple of moments, pondering what had happened. Meanwhile, Nalani slid to the far end of the bench, looking out at nothing in particular. Small giggles escaped her every now and then, and even from this, the worst possible angle to see her face, Lucas could still tell that she had gone very red. Of course, Lucas was one to talk. He felt his face burning and was prepared to bet that he had gone just as red as she was.

    It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. It had been clinical at first – as close to ‘all business’ as an act that inherently intimate could be. A thought danced wildly to the front of Lucas’s brain, like an early childhood memory, waiting deep in the recesses of his mind for the perfect trigger to bring it to the forefront.

    I don’t have anything else that I can compare that kiss to. Of course it’s the best kiss I’ve ever had. That’s kind of by default. It’s the only one I’ve ever had.

    Sometimes, though, when Nalani does things, I get the feeling she’s trying to send me messages. Maybe that’s the part of my brain that believes that sending messages is just what girls do. But, for a long time, I’ve been wondering…wondering if there was something that Nalani’s wanted to tell me.

    Something that she can’t say with words…maybe because she can’t say it with words.

    Maybe because she doesn’t know how.


    Lucas took a deep breath.

    Either way this goes, it could be the worst mistake of my life.

    So why am I still going through with it?


    “Nalani—”

    “You remember what we said, right?” she interrupted, turning to him. “What happened here…we leave it.”

    The flighty, whimsical spring in her voice was gone; she was talking to him like they were in the middle of a mission. Her face was stony. Not angry so much as completely unreadable – a blank slate.

    “So, as soon as we stand up,” she said, sounding like she was measuring her words carefully, “this never happened.”

    She seemed to take a deep breath, reared back, and made to stand. She had gone about halfway to her feet before something stopped her – she slumped back onto the red bench.

    “I…” she said, shaking her head quickly. “I need to be alone for a minute.”

    “Wh-no,” Lucas answered, surprising himself at his own forcefulness. But the truth was, Nalani never said things like that. She was every bit as social as he was aloof, and then some. Solitude was never something she needed. In fact, it was something she feared, maybe more than anything else. “Something’s wrong with you.”

    “I wasn’t asking you, Lucas,” she said. Now she did sound angry. “I’ll catch up with you later. Just don’t leave the park without me.”

    Lucas stood; truth be told, he couldn’t wholeheartedly protest having some time with his own thoughts after what had just happened. He didn’t know what possessed him to do it, but he laid a hand on Nalani’s shoulder as he got to his feet and walked away, leaving her to watch his back. He turned around and took a long, hard look at the bench, and at the surrounding area. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to make sure he remembered this otherwise nondescript place perfectly.

    Nalani watched him disappear and, as soon as he was out of sight, stretched herself prone over the bench. She shut her eyes tightly as she pressed her face to the rust-red wooden slats.

    Plain and simple, it was true.

    “Damn it,” she whimpered, as if responding to a voice in her head. “What am I doing…?”


    Lucas was still waiting for everything to stop glowing. The world around him was a television screen with the contrast turned up a bit too high. Yet, it was not overbearing – not like the sort of brightness that assaults the eyes after hours in a dark room.

    …Only that violent sort of shine ebbs away after a few moments.

    A stiff breeze ruffled the hairs in the back of his head. He hadn’t noticed how windy it had been.

    He shut his eyes tightly for a few moments, then let out a strained groan.

    “I can’t believe you!” Lucas opened one eye and turned his head in the direction of the yelling. It sounded like a girl or young woman, and she sounded tearful. He whirled around, all the while thinking about how stupid he probably looked doing so. In his state of mind, he wasn’t even sure if the voice was real. Nevertheless, he found the vague location of where the girl was still yelling, and took the concrete path he was on in that direction.

    “I feel like I don’t have a choice, babe,” a young man’s voice answered. “Look, everything’s gone straight to hell in the last couple of months. First I lose my title, then the guild folds. I’m starting to think it’s time for me to move on.”

    “Move on, then! Go somewhere else!” the girl snarled hysterically. Lucas rounded a bush on the path he was walking, and finally found the source of the commotion. A taller, young man with very dark hair that seemed to be spiked upward somewhat was talking to a blonde girl a head shorter, who looked like she might have been pretty if not for the splotched makeup and full-out sob face. “Go find some **** in some other city! See if I care!”

    “You don’t get it, do you?” the young man seemed to be losing his cool. “I have – nowhere – to live. If I’m lucky, this next job will get me set up with another guild.”

    The girl responded with a sob. She whirled around and began to walk away from the black-haired boy.

    “Hey, if you really want…” he said, “I could maybe come back for you later–”

    “Don’t bother!!” the girl screamed, whipping her head around toward him again before breaking out into a sprint. Lucas felt himself jostled as the girl, who might have been about his height, slammed into him. He took the blow somewhat stoically – he wasn’t in a condition to care much at the moment. As he approached the young man, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just witnessed a breakup, and a nasty one, at that. Lucas was just beginning to ponder how ironic that was when the young man laid eyes on him.

    “Watched that whole thing, huh?” Lucas could hear a tinge of bitterness in the young man’s voice.

    “Well…” She was only screaming like she was getting murdered. Kind of hard to just ignore that.

    “You’re not some kid who wants my autograph or something, are you?” the young man asked wearily. Up close, Lucas was able to get a better look at him. His dark brown eyes were oddly narrow, and his hair, even where it was not gelled, looked to be very straight and stiff.

    “Autograph?” Lucas repeated in bewilderment. “That’s a good one. I have no idea who you are.”

    “Oh…good,” the youth answered, looking relieved. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his acid-wash jeans. “Don’t mind me. I gotta go blow off steam someplace I won’t get arrested for it.”

    Slowly, he trudged off, down the concrete path and out of sight.

    Lucas shut his eyes again.

    Forget it?

    You can’t try to forget something. To try to forget, you have to remember what you’re trying to forget. Kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Of course, when you want to remember something, it’s damn near impossible. Our brains hate us like that.

    It’s nuts to ask anyone to forget something like this. It’s almost enough to make me mad at her.

    No matter how hard I try, though, I can’t do that, either.

    Wil said once that he thinks Nalani has ‘feelings’ for me. I don’t know if she completely meant to, but there were definitely some ‘feelings’ involved. She seemed…well, enthusiastic for one. It was almost like she’d been waiting for it a long time.

    Then again, I really didn’t stop her from doing anything she did. It was a half-assed try at best. I know that deep down. But then again, most guys in my situation wouldn’t have turned it down, either, would they?

    Lucas, don’t be stupid. She’s just the first girl your age you’ve ever been around. Yes, she’s pretty, but so are a lot of other girls.

    They’re not her, though.

    Would I have done that if it had been some other girl? One that wasn’t Nalani?

    No. I don’t think I would.

    Does that mean…does that mean I have ‘feelings’ for her, too?

    What kind of question is that? Of course I have ‘feelings’ for her. It’s just a question of whether those feelings are what everyone thinks they are.

    …What I’m starting to think they are.


    It wasn’t long before Lucas found himself going back the way he came. He recognized a couple of well-placed signs and landmarks that his brain had somehow taken note of in its fuzzy haze. Those were what kept him from being hopelessly lost. At least, physically speaking. Lucas’s feet were starting to tire just a bit as he reached the top of a familiar hill. From there, he saw a full view of the field where the bench had been. It was such a simple place, now that Lucas got a good, long look at it. It seemed not to want to be remembered. To Lucas, though, it could not and perhaps would not be forgotten. There was a part of Lucas that had thought – or maybe hoped – that he would return to find his personal ghost already gone, departed to some other small adventure of her choosing. But, alas, to his – something…maybe it was delight, maybe disappointment, maybe chagrin…he didn’t know what the hell to feel anymore. In any case, to whatever emotion he was having at the time, she was there – not sitting, but standing…and not alone, either.

    A bright red, small dragon was staggering to her feet in front of Nalani, looking like it had been on the wrong end of one hell of a pounding. The teenage boy’s eyes lingered on Nalani for a moment. She looked flustered at best. Her lips were pursed in a stony expression…her blue eyes were focused hard on something or someone a few feet away from her. Lucas followed Nalani’s gaze, and what he saw shocked him.

    A tall young man stood there, wearing a black t-shirt with some aggressive-looking graphics and a pair of acid wash blue jeans. His eyes were vaguely narrow as well.

    Lucas would remember eyes like that. They weren’t something you came across very often. Not to mention, he had just seen them about fifteen minutes back.

    At the young man’s command was a short, slightly pudgy, rodent-like creature. Its fur was bright orange, except for right around its belly, which was close to white. Its large ears flared upward alertly. The tail, which was as long as the creature was tall, lashed eagerly behind it. Two small, yellow cheek markings on its face appeared to crackle with excitement.

    “Rai, rai…” it said in a slightly high rasp.

    “Keep focused, Tenchu, it’s not over yet,” the young man said somewhat sternly. “Use Quick Attack!”

    “Raiii…chu!” the small, orange rodent quickened to a pace that belied its somewhat stout appearance.

    “Ahi, watch out~!” Nalani took a step backward. Rarely had Lucas ever seen her that rattled, especially in the face of an opponent. Her hesitation cost her, and cost Ahi worse. The Kaegon went flying into the air as the Raichu skidded to a stop a few feet away from where Ahi had been. Tenchu’s eyes flashed and its rodentlike mouth curled into an unmistakable smirk. The tall, black-haired boy cocked his head.

    “Pull. …Thunderbolt!” the young man yelled. Lucas watched Ahi sail through the air, taking seemingly forever to come down. Tenchu started to spark wildly. Lucas smirked as a hilarious thought entered his brain:

    That might explain why his hair stands straight up all the time.

    The humorous moment quickly and abruptly ended as Lucas watched Ahi sniped out of the air by a flying bolt of lightning. The small dragoness let out a screech of surprise and pain as she went limp in midair. She hit the grass with a soft flump and crumpled. Lucas winced; it was hard to watch.

    Nalani was taking deep breaths. Her face was locked in an expression of shock.

    “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” the young man remarked, returning the Raichu to its Pokéball. “You couldn’t have known. You did well to last as long as you did.”

    Almost immediately, Lucas felt a hot surge of anger well up within him. No wonder this guy’s girlfriend left him – he was a patronizing *******. However, the very stealthy way he had told Nalani that she was basically out of her league seemed to be lost on her. She was too busy staring down at the grass at her feet. Finally, she did look up. Up and to her left.

    Straight at him.

    For one wild second, Lucas thought that maybe the fact that she noticed him would take her attention off having just been curbstomped in a Pokémon battle by a stranger. Instead, Nalani’s blank facial expression changed to one of horror. Her eyes went down to her feet a second time, and her hands, already in fists, clenched even tighter.

    She was just returning Kaegon as Lucas approached. He had no idea if she even acknowledged his presence. He turned instead toward the other boy.

    “You, too?” the latter sounded annoyed. “Listen, I don’t mind playing with you two, but I can’t do it right now. I’ve got somewhere to be.”

    He started to walk and went right past Lucas and Nalani. He was about a step or two behind them when he stopped.

    “Nothing personal…but maybe it’ll be a lesson about picking your fights a little bit more carefully,” he said.

    “You’re pretty sure of yourself,” Lucas said, looking at the other young man through the corner of his eye. “Who the hell are you, anyway? …Forget it. Doesn’t matter. Keep one thing in mind, huh?”

    “And what’s that?”

    “I’m not from around here,” answered Lucas. “So if we ever meet again, your ‘reputation’ doesn’t mean **** to me.”

    The black-haired teenager took a long look at his red-haired counterpart through the corner of his somewhat slanted eyes. His lips turned upward into a smile. “For a kid whose balls have barely dropped…you’ve sure got a set of big ones.”

    He glanced at Nalani as well, before turning his head toward Lucas. His smile widened.

    Aha,” he commented. “I think I see what’s happening here. Well, all I can say is…good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”

    And he stalked off further, taking about four more strides before stopping.

    “Now what?” snarled Lucas, annoyed. “If you’re gonna leave, leave. Stop being so dramatic about it.”

    “Cassius Minamoto. That’s my name,” the young man said. “Remember it. Or don’t. Your call.”

    Finally, he trudged out of sight, hands in his pockets the entire time.

    “Arrogant son of a *****,” Lucas growled. He turned to Nalani, who was still staring at her shoes with her fists clenched. “You okay?”

    As soon as he said it, and her head snapped up, a small voice in his head told him that he’d said something wrong. That, and the punch that Nalani was trying to throw at his head. Lucas’s reaction was almost quicker than thought, and the next sound he became aware of was the enemy going over his back and landing on its own, right in front of him. He clenched a fist, aimed at the assailant’s throat, and started to drive.

    The blue of the eyes caused something to click in his brain, and he stopped dead.

    “Go ahead,” she whispered. Her face betrayed no sign of pain. “I’m not weak like Demitra. I can take it.”

    “The **** is your problem?!” snarled Lucas, struggling against the sudden lump in his throat. He threw Nalani’s arm away from him and stood, turning away from her. He was looking down at his hands, which were trembling. “****…****, I’m shaking…why the **** would you do that, huh?”

    “Lucas…” Nalani started.

    “What the **** is wrong with you?!” Lucas continued to swear and rant. “When I go to that place, I…I-I can’t control it. You know that…you ****ing know that!”

    “Then why? Why do you bother?” Nalani asked. Lucas rounded on her.

    “What the hell kind of ******* question is that?” he asked. “You think I want to kill you?”

    Lucas made a sudden movement with his hand, and put up one finger right in front of her face. She didn’t flinch.

    “There’s one person I’m after, Nalani – one. One man I need to kill,” he said with an unnerving but tremulous calm in his voice. Often times, his voice tended to crack under stress. This time, though, it didn’t. Nalani took note of it and how it made him sound years upon years older. “To protect the people I love, I have to be a murderer. There’s no getting around that. But I will not be a monster. If you see it start to happen, you need to ****ing end me. That’s what I want – get it?”

    “Don’t ask me to do that, Lucas,” Nalani answered. Conversely, her voice started breaking as soon as she hit his name. She shut her eyes tight and shook her head quickly. “I can’t. I know I can’t.”

    “You could,” Lucas said. “I know how strong you are.”

    “Not strong enough for that,” she said. “Anyone else, maybe…but not…”

    Nalani buried her head into the thing that was closest – Lucas’s shirt. He staggered backward in shock, until it occurred to him that she’d fall on her face without his support. He instinctively caught her. He was waiting to hear the sounds of sobbing, but they never came.

    Typical Nalani.

    “If you really knew, you’d never ask me to do that,” she said.

    “Knew? Knew what?” Lucas asked.

    “You guys are damned lucky,” a loud voice from somewhere behind Lucas caused him to whirl around. Wil was striding down the path toward them. “Lucky Wheels made a really good guess about where you’d be. Otherwise, I’d have gone looking all around town for your asses and I’d be really pissed.”

    Lucas’s arms were still vaguely around Nalani’s back. She looked up and separated herself from him, her face quickly going red. Wil arrived in front of them, wearing a smirk. Lucas grimaced. He already knew what Wil was thinking.

    “It’s like Wheels said, though…you two really do make the cutest couple.”

    The two teenagers briefly looked at each other…then turned away. Lucas glanced at the red park bench.

    We’re not a couple…

    Are we?


    END

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    BTW, if anyone can figure out the meta reference in this chapter, you get free imaginary cookies. AD, you don't count because you already got a HUGE hint. :P

    Hope you enjoyed. I'll be back to respond to your reviews as always, and you can expect to see the fallout from this chapter sometime in the middle part of March.

    Later!

    - EM1

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  2. #127
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    Aww... me wants cookies.

    Well, let's get this party rolling then... time to cover the logical quizzical parts, plot holes and could-be-better writing... :P

    Huh. The writing is pretty good this time. I find no real fault per se.

    I dunno, but looking at the chapter title brought a Fairy Tail opening theme to mind... weird. So it happens at last, eh? For a moment I thought it wasn't going to... man, did you sucker us or what? :P

    So, Lucas is considering doing a Travis with his hair, Manu joins the flock (I still didn't see that coming until she picked up the Pokeball) and a new "rival" appears... this is getting interesting. (And I'm not counting how many kids one of a certain "couple" have had in their lives... :P ) And with the appearance of Wil, things are gonna snowball. Fast.

    Funnily enough (before I go), I had actually forgotten Lucas's Trainer philosophy being ironically close to Team Plasma's. Guess that explains QUITE a bit.

    Time to float on outta here for now. Man, did I enjoy this one!

    L@er!
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  3. #128
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    Default

    We wouldn't want to miss this chapter? Well I don't see why that would be the case, I mean it's only a new chapter, righ-

    A second later, their lips found each other.
    Holy crap, what!? *dies*

    Okay, firstly I have to congratulate you on this particular part of that scene

    That tree’s shadow looks like it’s about to grab something. Long, skinny, skeleton hands. They look like bones. It’s creepy as all hell. And the Starly flapping around it make it look even worse. I know they’re Starly, but if I just look at the shadows, they look like Zubat or something. Zubat are irritating. Starly are only slightly less irritating.

    I hope I don’t get **** on by a Starly. I wonder if Starly like coffee? I don’t like coffee, but if I gave it to a Starly, I wonder if it would drink it? How does it like its coffee? Black, like Wil does?

    Oh, ****. Wil’s probably just realizing that I’m gone. I wonder if Wheels is getting yelled at for letting Nalani take the key.

    Nalani…hold on…
    I think that it pretty much perfectly portrays the awkwardness of Lucas in this type of situation, his brain is so hyped up by the adrenaline and he's so completely scared that he just starts blabbering to himself in his own head. He's determinedly trying to distract himself from what's going on in front of him yet doing nothing to stop it because, quite frankly, I don't think he could move in that moment. As the kiss shows, it seems rather business-like at first which I imagine was just the awkwardness and Lucas' paralysis. Luckily for the whole Lucas/Nalani relationship, Lucas applies a Paralyz Heal to his brain and gets into the action.

    Good show, sport. *pats Lucas' head condescendingly*

    I can't say that I spotted a meta reference, although it probably just passed under my eyes without me realising that was what it was supposed to be... no cookies for me D:

    Another scene that I particularly enjoyed was where Nalani went to hit Lucas and he went into automatic counter-attack mode. I think it really showed that whilst Nalani does have your average female emotional mindset, she can be a total badass when she wants to be. That's why she's awesome.

    Honourable mention

    Starly ****.

    SHUT UP!
    Yeah, Starly, Shut up!
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

    Author's Profile

  4. #129
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    Default Chapter 26 Review Responses

    Well, it's that time again!

    Air Dragon:

    Aww... me wants cookies.
    No cookies for you......problem? (insert trollface here)


    Huh. The writing is pretty good this time. I find no real fault per se.

    I dunno, but looking at the chapter title brought a Fairy Tail opening theme to mind... weird. So it happens at last, eh? For a moment I thought it wasn't going to... man, did you sucker us or what? :P
    Trust me, I'm just as surprised as you are. Suffice to say, I think this works better than my original idea.


    So, Lucas is considering doing a Travis with his hair, Manu joins the flock (I still didn't see that coming until she picked up the Pokeball) and a new "rival" appears... this is getting interesting. (And I'm not counting how many kids one of a certain "couple" have had in their lives... :P ) And with the appearance of Wil, things are gonna snowball. Fast.
    As a writer, I'm sure you know this, but stories have the tendency to mutate. You start out with a semblance of a plan, and at the end of the day, only about a fraction of that plan ever gets put into action because a huge chunk of it morphs into something completely different. It's almost to the point where you feel like you need to grab the story by the metaphorical balls and yank it in the direction you want it to go - that is, if you don't want it to grow extra arms, extra legs, and extra heads, and wind up looking like a Hydra that's been through a vat of radioactive waste and suddenly pops up able to shoot lasers out of its every orifice, and I mean every orifice, and that metaphor ended in a completely different place from where it started. Anyway...my point is that Cassius as a character wasn't in my plans as of...I dunno, Chapter 25.


    Funnily enough (before I go), I had actually forgotten Lucas's Trainer philosophy being ironically close to Team Plasma's. Guess that explains QUITE a bit.
    [SPOILER]Yeah, that's gonna come back to bite him in the *** later. I'll say that much.[/SPOILER]



    Diddy:

    Holy crap, what!? *dies*
    Holy crap, what!? Charging...CLEAR! **pfftt**

    Which means...he did the rest of this review as a zombie. Oh god... (shudder)


    Okay, firstly I have to congratulate you on this particular part of that scene

    That tree’s shadow looks like it’s about to grab something. Long, skinny, skeleton hands. They look like bones. It’s creepy as all hell. And the Starly flapping around it make it look even worse. I know they’re Starly, but if I just look at the shadows, they look like Zubat or something. Zubat are irritating. Starly are only slightly less irritating.

    I hope I don’t get **** on by a Starly. I wonder if Starly like coffee? I don’t like coffee, but if I gave it to a Starly, I wonder if it would drink it? How does it like its coffee? Black, like Wil does?

    Oh, ****. Wil’s probably just realizing that I’m gone. I wonder if Wheels is getting yelled at for letting Nalani take the key.

    Nalani…hold on…
    I think that it pretty much perfectly portrays the awkwardness of Lucas in this type of situation, his brain is so hyped up by the adrenaline and he's so completely scared that he just starts blabbering to himself in his own head. He's determinedly trying to distract himself from what's going on in front of him yet doing nothing to stop it because, quite frankly, I don't think he could move in that moment. As the kiss shows, it seems rather business-like at first which I imagine was just the awkwardness and Lucas' paralysis. Luckily for the whole Lucas/Nalani relationship, Lucas applies a Paralyz Heal to his brain and gets into the action.
    Methinks you nailed it right on the head. Except for perhaps an implication that Lucas was the one steering through this whole thing. He wasn't.


    Another scene that I particularly enjoyed was where Nalani went to hit Lucas and he went into automatic counter-attack mode. I think it really showed that whilst Nalani does have your average female emotional mindset, she can be a total badass when she wants to be. That's why she's awesome.
    I'm still having trouble balancing her out, to be honest. It seems like the two sides of her personality are both so extreme. At her core, she's very feminine and I don't want her to be the kick-*** Dark Action Girl the whole time.


    Well, thanks for your reviews. I'd post the chapter but unfortunately my eyes refuse to stay open any longer...until tomorrow then. I'm off to hit the hay.

    - EM1

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  5. #130
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    Post Chapter 27 - Curious?

    Chapter 27: Curious?

    September 24, PA 2019
    Victoria Inn – Esterland City


    “I’m telling you, it wasn’t what it looked like.”

    Lucas didn’t even look at Wil as he repeated the phrase for what had to have been the fifteenth time that day. This time around, he was lying on his bed, looking at the ceiling. He had gotten hold of a round, plump orange, but wasn’t quite as interested in eating it as he was at tossing it up into the air, watching it come down, and catching it.

    “Yeah, yeah, sure,” Wil said disbelievingly. “You tell me what it was, then.”

    “It was…” Lucas said. He closed his eyes on impulse. Naturally, the first thing to come to mind was that moment on the little red park bench – the moment his lips felt another’s for the very first time… “We just kissed. Nothing else happened.” Like Wil didn’t already have enough ammo against me as it was. There really was no explanation that wouldn’t get me in deeper **** than I was already in. “We’d had an argument. I was trying to make up with her.”

    There. Not only is that a perfectly airtight excuse, it’s not even completely untrue.

    “Make ‘up’ with her? Or make ‘out’ with her?” Wil tossed off his casual response. Lucas might have pulled every muscle in his face trying to keep it completely straight.

    “How the hell do you expect to get any straight answers from me if you’re going to make fun of me all the time?” he asked. Wil laughed. Lucas finally turned his head to glance at the young cell captain. The problem was that he’d done so after throwing the orange into the air and thus wasn’t paying attention. The large piece of fruit came down from several feet up and cracked him right on the bridge of the nose. The boy sat bolt upright, both hands over his nose. “Ow! ****!”

    Wil’s understated laughter turned into a belly-busting, bed-banging uproar. Snarling a long string of words best left unprinted, Lucas made for the door.

    His first instinct should have been to locate the nearest bathroom. Instead, he wound up in the kitchen, catching an ice cube out of the refrigerator’s ice maker and applying it directly to his face.

    “You okay?”

    Lucas immediately dropped the ice cube, which hit the tile floor and split in half with a loud crack! She had a somewhat furtive expression on her face, which stood out more because she had her hair drawn back in a ponytail. It put extra focus on her bangs, which fell straight to her eyebrows except for the gentle part at the middle of her forehead.

    “A-are you okay?” she repeated.

    “Got in a food fight,” he muttered, kneeling down and focusing himself on picking up the ice cubes in an effort to look anywhere but her face…her eyes, her lips. “Food won.”

    A ringing laugh escaped her. “Smooth. Hey, listen…”

    “Yeah?” Lucas asked. Even though he had pulled the two largest chunks of ice from the floor and was now dropping them into the nearby sink, he still hadn’t looked at her.

    “Could you at least look at me?” she asked, sounding a bit frustrated. “I feel like I’m talking to a wall here.”

    He set his eyes upon her again. Two royal-blue tunnels awaited him – tunnels from which, once you were in, there was no escape.

    “I don’t want it to be awkward anymore,” she said. “You know…between us. It gets really exhausting.”

    “Exhausting, huh?” Lucas repeated. “You want to talk about ‘exhausting’? I don’t know who you are. That’s ‘exhausting.’”

    He didn’t know why he’d gotten angry – not to mention the words made even less sense coming out of his mouth than they did in his head. Nalani swallowed hard.

    “I’m me, Lucas,” she said. “I’m just…me.”

    “Stop trying to be so deep,” Lucas muttered, fiddling with the sprinkler attachment near the sink. “You’re no good at it.”

    PSSSHHT.

    “Eek!” Nalani squealed as the tiny shower head sprayed water right down her front and face. The look on her dripping face was priceless – utter shock. At the same time, she was trying hard not to laugh. Lucas casually set the sprinkler back into its mooring as if nothing had happened.

    Practical jokes aren’t my thing. I think my brother got the humor gene.

    At least she’s smiling now, in any case.


    “Okay, can you not practice your Screech while I’m on the phone?” Wil had come out of the guys’ room, looking concerned. Lucas looked over Nalani’s shoulder and saw Wheels emerge as well, wearing what looked like a sports bra and sweats. Apparently there was some sort of gym somewhere in the Victoria, and Wheels looked set to go. Everyone stood frozen. Wil looked at Nalani first. “Why the hell are you so…wet?”

    Wordlessly, Nalani semi-glared at Lucas. Wil’s face trembled for a second and then he buried his head, snorting audibly as if privy to the punch line of a joke that nobody else heard.

    “Thanks a lot. Now I’ve gotta go change,” she said, flicking her hands and looking down at her damp white tank top. Lucas kept his eyes focused squarely on her face, and he could have sworn that he saw a hint of a smile.

    “You could just stay like that for a while,” Wheels piped in. “I’m sure Lucas wouldn’t mind. Would you, Lucas?”

    Lucas, fresh out of patience with the taunting, used his hand to show Wheels who was “number one.” Wil threw his head back in laughter and shouted after Nalani (who was heading toward her and Wheels’ room), “Come back as soon as you’re ready. We need to chat.”

    No wonder those two get along so well.

    They both get a sick pleasure out of tormenting me.


    “Well, what’s up?” Wheels finally asked, making her way over toward where Lucas was standing.

    “Looks like we got to the bottom of this whole thing,” commented Wil.

    “So it is Argenti or Gregerson? Who’s our client?” she asked.

    “Both,” Wil answered simply. Seeing Wheels’ and Lucas’s confused faces, he added, “I’ll explain in a second.”

    “Doesn’t take that long to find a shirt, Nalani!” Lucas yelled impatiently after a few moments’ silence.

    “Shove it, Lucas!” was the shouted reply from somewhere inside the room.

    “You could help her out if you’re in such a hurry,” came a voice from Lucas’s right.

    “Shove it, Wil,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. Immediately afterward, Nalani emerged from the girls’ room, wearing a black tank top instead of a white one. She had also tied her hair up into some sort of bun, leaving a few fringes to hang down over her eyes and jawline. “Where’d you get that from?”

    “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Nalani asked, walking past Lucas, around the back of the sofa, and flopping down onto it. Looking over her shoulder she said, “I stole one of yours and dyed it.”

    “WHAT?!” Lucas shouted.

    Nalani laughed. Wheels laughed louder.

    “You should see your face right now,” the latter remarked. If Lucas could have seen his own face at the moment, he would have seen the eyes rolling around the top of his skull. With a groan, he took a seat on the couch as well, but something wasn’t right.

    Ow,” Nalani whined. A second later, Lucas felt a bare foot planted in the side of his ribs. “Bastard.”

    “Well, put your feet somewhere they won’t get crushed,” Lucas retorted. Nalani drew her knees to her chest, bending her knees and pulling her somewhat long legs out of the way. Lucas sat down on the couch and soon found those long legs draped across his own. “That’s not what I meant.”

    Nalani, however, didn’t seem like she had any intention of moving. Lucas gave up.

    “So, what’s the story?” he asked.

    “Sal Argenti’s the guy that set us up in here,” Wil explained. “He’s a painter by trade.”

    “Really?” Wheels looked around. “So much for the idea of the ‘starving artist’…”

    “He probably does some work on the side,” Wil reasoned. “This is Esterland, after all…”

    “Okay, so who’s Gregerson?” Lucas queried.

    “Gregerson’s an art collector back in Cadlamere. He’s the one that paid for us. I guess he’s the ‘client’, according to the books…but we’re helping Argenti out by being here, too,” Wil said. Lucas was about to open his mouth and tell Wil what a sorry excuse for an explanation this was, until the latter went on. “Ennis Gregerson commissioned a painting by Argenti, and there’s the rub. Argenti’s gotten burned before trying to send paintings to other cities. He always watermarks them as proof that they’re authentic. But when other people know that they’re authentic, they try to rip them off in transit and sell ‘em on the black market for shitloads of easy cash.”

    “So it’s our job to make sure Argenti’s painting gets to Gregerson safely, right?” asked Lucas calmly.

    “Sounds so easy when you say it like that,” Wil replied, scratching an itch on his scalp through his dark brown hair. “This might be a good time to mention that we’re not taking the public airline back to Cadlamere. Too much risk to the people.”

    “All this for a painting? Seems a little bit ridiculous,” Wheels remarked.

    “You haven’t seen an Argenti painting, then,” chuckled Wil. “They’re like the gold standard for Caronan art. A lot of artists aren’t appreciated until after they’re dead. Argenti’s one of the exceptions.”

    “Fine, fine. Argenti’s this awesome artist and his paintings are worth a lot. Whatever,” groaned Lucas. “Am I too worried about the obvious problem here? You haven’t come out and said it, but once we get our hands on this painting, someone’s gonna try to take it by force. Do you have any info on any of those guys?”

    “Nothing I can trust a hundred percent,” Wil asked, raising his eyebrows for a moment as if impressed by something. “But Gregerson did give a couple of descriptions of people we’re to be on the lookout for – mercs he thinks one of his rivals might have hired.”

    “Well, are you gonna tell us?” Wheels asked. “That’s kind of good info to know, right?”

    “The first guy’s a big dude…” Wil said. “Probably bigger than me, by the way Gregerson was describing him. He’s got a whole lot of bright blond hair.”

    Lucas and Nalani looked at each other and shook their heads.

    “Bigger than you?” Wheels uttered, slack-jawed. “Where in the hell do guilds find these guys? Or do they grow ‘em in labs, or something?”

    “You’d be surprised,” Wil muttered darkly. “Anyway…the other two…”

    Wil turned straight toward Lucas and Nalani.

    “The second one was a girl, about your height, with silver hair,” Wil said, glancing at Nalani in particular. Setting his eyes on Lucas now, he said, “The third was a boy with sort of bluish-green kind of hair.”

    “Niko and Bella…” Lucas murmured.

    “Hmph,” Nalani swung her legs out of Lucas’s lap and stood up. “Polaris must not be taking this too seriously if they sent that squad.”

    “What do you mean?” Wil asked.

    “Well…” Nalani chuckled to herself. Lucas thought that he could hear a trace of blue-blood snootiness in her voice. “They might as well be working with a cell of two. Niko’s not bad, and I don’t know much about the other guy…but Bella? Pretty much useless.”

    Lucas raised an eyebrow.

    “Useless?” he repeated. “Didn’t she beat you in a battle once?”

    “It was a draw,” replied Nalani, her smirk gone. “And, for your information, Ahi got knocked out by Dragon Rage exploding too close – not anything Bella’s Pokémon did.”

    “Fine…” Lucas rolled his eyes. “God…defensive…”

    “You think I can’t beat Bella?” Nalani snapped, her nostrils flaring. “You think she’s better than me? I hope she crosses us – then I’ll get to show you how wrong you are.”

    “Don’t get bent out of shape,” Lucas groaned. “This isn’t about Bella or Niko. This is about doing our job.”

    “Fine, fine,” Nalani sighed, slumping back down to the couch. “But if she gets in the way of us doing ‘our job,’ she’s gonna get my foot in her ***.”

    Wheels laughed semi-appreciatively. Meanwhile, Lucas leaned on the armrest and looked at Wil. “So, what’s the plan?”

    “We’re going to go watch some baseball,” Wil answered. Lucas’s face fell. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We’ll make sure nobody uses your ribcage as batting practice.”

    “That’s comforting,” Lucas deadpanned. “But why couldn’t it be a Ch’arad match?”

    “Because Argenti doesn’t like Ch’arad,” Wil replied, rolling his eyes as if Lucas should have known that already. “Just like you don’t like baseball. But since he’s writing our paycheck, we have to meet where he says.”

    “I don’t like the idea of meeting in a public place, period,” Wheels interjected. “Too many eyes.”

    “So many that it’s hard to really spy on somebody,” Wil said. “What was it that he said? ‘It’s so overt, it’s covert.’

    “Wonder how long he practiced that one?” scoffed Lucas. “Sounds like he got it out of a movie or something.”

    “In any case,” sighed Wil, “unless you’ve gone around making enemies like you like to do…we should be just fine.”


    Lucas had no idea how he’d ended up on the beach, but there he was. Sand, sun, waves, annoying Wingull cawing cacophonously overhead (he hoped they didn’t see his dark form and decide upon him as a target for their waste products)…more sand.

    Sand was horrible. Dealing with sand was a no-win situation. If it was sunny, sand was much too hot to walk on barefoot – at least not with a lot of pain and discomfort. But if you wore shoes, the grit got everywhere and it was hell to clean out.

    …Which begged the question, why was he on the beach – wearing not just shoes, but his full outfit? He didn’t remember walking here. He didn’t remember anyone driving him here. Not to mention that there was a little voice in his head telling him that the beach wasn’t supposed to be here.

    What kind of sense did that make? Beaches don’t just pick up and move, do they? Lucas kept walking. He tried to wipe his brow and noticed it was blocked by the skullcap he always wore. Lucas yanked it off uncomfortably, letting his wavy hair fly free – or as free as it could, matted down by sweat.

    It was hot as hell, which didn’t make a bit of sense, either – wasn’t it the beginning of fall, and not mid-July? This felt like mid-July. Lucas ran a hand back through his hair again.

    “Lucas?” He heard the voice – a voice of a girl. Immediately, he whirled around. It occurred to him how stupid he must have looked. Good thing there was nobody at all in sight.

    Then, where the hell did that voice come from?

    “Lucas!” the voice shouted this time, and then a peculiar thing happen. The ground started to tremble. He fell to his backside in surprise, still looking around for the voice.

    “Where are you?” he yelled. That voice sounded so familiar. He felt the ground rustle and rumble underneath him again, this time more powerfully than before. His neck and head whipped to and fro for several violent seconds until…

    SNAP.

    Everything went black.

    Lucas’s eyes snapped open.

    “Ow…!” he groaned, his hands immediately going to his neck. There were people all around him, all in very similar-looking hard, brownish chairs. They were all elevated, apparently several hundred feet in the air, and for the most part, everyone was looking down at the mostly green field below them. The large expanse of grass was adorned with a couple of obvious patches of dirt and people that looked for all the world like insects from this height.

    He tried to settle back into the chair, but his neck was still bothering him horribly. He swore to himself.

    “Are you okay?” he heard a familiar voice ask.

    “No, I’m not okay,” he grunted, as some of his ill temper started to return. “You caused an earthquake and damn near broke my neck.”

    “What are you talking about?” a face drifted into his still-focusing view, looking dumbfounded. Lucas couldn’t quite put into words what seeing the face made him feel, but it did something. Maybe ‘warmth’ was the closest word that did it justice. Lucas looked to his right, feeling his face start to heat up, and noticed two empty seats.

    “Where’d Wheels and Wil go?” he asked.

    “Wheels wanted popcorn, and Wil didn’t want to let her go by herself,” she said, leaning against her chair in a mock-restful position that couldn’t have possibly been comfortable. After all, these chairs were mass-produced, not cushioned, and made of some hard, synthetic…something.

    “How noble,” Lucas answered somewhat listlessly. “Must be that ‘big brother’ instinct kicking in.”

    “Hmm?” she uttered, tilting her head. A smile crossed her face. “You two have talked about it.”

    “We talk about a lot of things,” Lucas said offhandedly.

    “Really?” she asked. “That’s funny. I can’t get two words out of you half the time. What’s that about?”

    “…I dunno,” he answered a bit dimly.

    “It’s frustrating,” she answered – but she didn’t sound frustrated. She sounded rather chipper and hopped up on too much sugar, actually. “I think I said once that you could tell me everything…but you don’t tell me anything. Like, what’s going through your head right now?”

    “…I dunno,” Lucas answered – honestly, he thought. Things hadn’t been at all the same since that morning. He knew they were supposed to carry on like nothing had happened. But something had happened. He felt like he was on that red park bench again, waiting for her to close the distance, his body unable and perhaps unwilling to move or provide any sort of resistance.

    Nalani slapped her hands against her knees, staring straight ahead.

    “**** you, Lucas,” she muttered.

    “…What?” he groaned. “What’d I do?”

    “God…” she whispered as she shook her head. “What didn’t you do? Your existence is like…have you ever had chicken pox?”

    “What.” Lucas uttered very flatly, his brain scrambled for a second by the sheer absurdity of Nalani’s statement – or question. Could it have possibly been both?

    “Well…have you?” she repeated, sounding alarmingly like a small child.

    “Wh…yeah, but what’s that gotta do with –” Lucas replied haltingly. Yes, he’d had the chicken pox. Never understood just what the hell it had to do with chicken, either. It happened when he was nine, and was one of the most unpleasant weeks of his short life. Everyone would have treated him as if he had the plague anyway, but it was his bad luck that Diamond had just been born mere months before. Naturally, he was quarantined in his room with little to no social contact for about seven or eight days. In other words, life went on as normal – except that he had a bunch of blisters and scabs that itched like all hell. It felt like such a relief to scratch the itch…even when he knew he wasn’t supposed to. But why would Nalani compare his very existence to that, of all things? “…You’re not making any sense.”

    “None of this makes any sense,” she sighed mournfully. “Not to me.”

    Lucas grimaced briefly. “What inning is it?”

    “Do you really care?” Nalani asked. Lucas glanced at her through the corner of his eye and saw her smiling warmly at him. He looked straight ahead.

    “No.”

    “Maybe if you give it time, it’ll grow on you a little bit,” she answered.

    Lucas leaned back in his chair. “Maybe…”

    “Probably not, right?” She turned forward again, punctuating her comment with a wry scoff.

    “Nope,” he replied just as wryly.

    “You guys have fun without us?” Lucas turned to his right. Wheels and Wil were edging into the row again, the latter carrying a rather large tub of popcorn. Wheels sat right next to him, glanced at him, then glanced briefly at Nalani. “Okay, so you don’t kiss and tell. I can respect that.”

    Lucas’s face got very hot, very quickly. It felt like someone had shoved his head near an open flame with no warning. That had to be a coincidence…right? A good guess – an extremely good guess. After all, they had kissed, and they hadn’t told anyone.

    “That hurts, Wheels,” Nalani whimpered from somewhere behind him. The young brunette craned her head around Lucas, who was trying to catch Wil’s eye and ask him a question. “I thought we were friends. You don’t think I would have told you if something like that had happened?”

    Lucas felt a lurch in his stomach. Wheels tilted her head.

    “Maybe you’re right,” she said, leaning back in her seat and then squirming. “God, this thing’s hard.” She glanced at Wil. “Yeah, I know. ‘That’s what she said.’”

    Wil was in the middle of sipping on a soda…and he nearly snorted that soda right through his nose. Yanking himself off the straw, he turned and gave Wheels a look of stunned surprise. She just laughed.

    Say what you want about my so-called ‘situation’, Wil, but you’re just being a ****ing idiot.

    “Cute…” muttered Lucas. Wheels shot him a dagger. He ignored her. “Hey, Wil…seriously, how long do we have to wait around here?”

    “Has anyone ever told you that you act like a forty-year-old in a kid’s body?” Wheels asked him. “It’s not a good look on you. Relax. Enjoy life a little.”

    “We’ve got a job to do, don’t we?” Lucas asked.

    “We will – eventually…but my philosophy? Enjoy living until it happens,” Wheels said. “After all…”

    She glanced at Wil.

    “We could all be dead tomorrow.”

    Wil squirmed uncomfortably. “Don’t talk like that, Adele…”

    “I can’t help it,” she said, becoming somber for a second. “It was Michela’s credo…mine, too.”

    Michela? Who is –

    Just as his brain started to ask the question, Lucas saw the tattoo on her back. Maybe it was a coincidence…but maybe not.

    “Hey, Wheels,” Lucas muttered, looking ahead and trying to sound casual.

    “What’s up?” she asked.

    “Isn’t your birthday coming up?” he queried.

    Wheels raised her eyebrows. Lucas noticed; apparently he’d made a very good guess. “In a few weeks. The twelfth.”

    “You’re right. That’s pretty close now,” uttered Lucas, still trying to sound as casual as possible. “You’re turning…twenty-one, right?”

    “If you’re going to guess a woman’s age, don’t overestimate,” Wheels answered, a deadpan look on her face. “It’s a quick way to get *****-slapped.”

    “I’ll keep that in mind.”

    “You weren’t that far off, though…just a year. So I’ll let it slide this time,” she chuckled.

    So I’m probably right…at the same time, I feel really bad about it.

    Ain’t that just a *****?




    “I can’t believe Argenti never showed up,” groaned Lucas about an hour and a half later, as the group of four made their way down the sidewalk flanking North 7th Street, the road where the Victoria stood. Lucas and Nalani were a few steps behind, the former wearing an expression on his face that was even more sour than usual. “What the hell did he say to you?”

    “He said he’d meet with us after the game,” Wil said, shrugging. “So, naturally, I assumed he meant at the stadium.”

    “You made an *** out of everybody, pretty much,” the red-haired boy deadpanned.

    “Oh, come on, don’t be like that.” Wheels looked over her shoulder.

    “No, no…he’s right, actually,” Wil admitted with a sheepish chuckle. “That’s one of the first things I taught him about field work. Guess, but never ‘assume.’ ‘Assume’ makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘you’ and ‘me.’ I’ll be damned. Guess you do listen, huh, kid?”

    Lucas folded his arms and had a snappy comeback already cocked and loaded, but pulled up short. His eyes caught a sign and an archway and locked onto them.

    VICTORIA GARDENS

    Come on…get real.

    It was just once, right? An experiment, the way she said it. You were a lab rat. Hell,
    she was a lab rat. It was a fair trade-off.

    At the same time, it felt different.

    Different from what? Different from any other kiss I’ve had in my life? How can I say that?

    Because I was there. I know what it felt like at first. Then something happened.

    Of course something happened. I kissed a girl. Doesn’t matter if it meant anything or not – it didn’t – but it happened. Why didn’t I move? I could have moved if I really wanted to. Doesn’t that mean that I didn’t really want to?

    It’s…curiosity. That’s all. Any guy in my shoes would have done the same thing.

    …Kiss back, too?

    How do you
    not kiss back? Was I supposed to sit there and let her just…eat my face or something? That’s not how it works, is it? Besides, she would have been able to tell. Not even she’s that naïve. I never would have heard the end of it.

    Then again, I wouldn’t even be in this situation if I’d just said that I didn’t want to do it. Of course, she probably would have been disappointed.

    Disappointed? Try ‘devastated.’

    ‘Devastated’? Yeah, right. I’m not even that good-looking. Not to mention I’m kind of a dick, honestly. Everyone else around me sure thinks so.

    Does she think so?


    “What’s wrong with you?” Lucas turned his head to find her standing in front of him. “Why’d you stop?”

    Lucas’s face twitched, almost involuntarily.

    “I…” he stammered, trailing off and letting loose a shuddering breath. His brain had waited until right after he started talking to decide what he was going to say to her – the question he was going to ask. It seemed an easy enough question to ask. Yet, Lucas was at a loss for exactly how to ask it – what tone to use, what words to say.

    That should have spoken volumes right there. Usually he said what was on his mind and thought about the consequences later. The dialect of tact was a foreign language of which he had no grasp – not because he could not learn, but he cared not to. Honesty, even blunt and brutal honesty, was always best to him. And if people got hurt? Well, that was their fault for being far too sensitive.

    But he didn’t want to hurt her, though.

    And that spoke volumes.

    “Come on,” she groaned, pulling his arm in exasperation. “Wil and Wheels are probably up to the room by now.”

    “No,” he answered simply. She stopped pulling almost instantly, but her hands did not let go of his arm. “This morning, when…was it because you wanted to know what a kiss felt like?”

    Nalani’s long, dark eyelashes fluttered for a moment. “Well…yeah. That’s what I told you, right?”

    “Just kissing, period – that’s all, right?” questioned Lucas. “You didn’t want to know what…what kissing me felt like?”

    This question hung in the air for about two seconds – which, in Lucas’s book, was about three seconds too long. Nalani finally let go of his arm and turned away from him. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about it anymore.”

    “Then maybe you should have kissed a stranger instead,” Lucas bit back, his patience wearing thin. He tried to steady himself once he realized how harsh his voice was getting. Still, it didn’t stop him from talking extremely fast. “But, you know what? You didn’t. You chose me…and now I need to know something.”

    “What’s that?” Nalani asked.

    “What’s going through your head right now?” he asked. Nalani’s expression changed when it became clear that she’d heard herself asking him that same question only a couple of hours ago. “You’re looking at me – what are you thinking about? Do you see a friend? A ‘best friend’, like you put it? Or do you see…do you see something else?”

    He tried to slow his breathing down. Saying that much at once seemed to be an effort for him. He was used to communicating by way of pointed, often terse, sometimes sarcastic one-liners.

    But that was before she came along.

    She looked him over for a moment. Then her face contorted horribly. A pang of horror hit Lucas dead center in the chest as he observed her turn away from him. Her shoulders heaved as she tried to steady her own breathing. “I-I’m sorry, Luc.”

    Lucas felt his stomach do a sickening lurch inside him. She turned around and looked toward him. Her blue eyes were shining.

    “I can’t…” she said softly. “If I had an answer, I’d give it to you, but…but I don’t know.”

    This seemed like such a strange answer – and yet Lucas knew it to be true as soon as she said it. He didn’t think it was just a stray gut feeling, either. She hadn’t known the answer to his question since she’d met him. He thought back on so many of the things she did, especially when they had first met. So much of it could have been flirting – and a lot of it probably was. Yet, they had a friendship that had survived even through bitter arguments…arguments that sometimes ended with one of them trying to kill the other. Clearly they had a strong bond. Lucas didn’t believe in fate…never had. Yet, the normal rules simply didn’t apply when it came to them. Something was holding them together – and tightly together, at that.

    Either that, or they were simply addicted to each other and needed an intervention.

    Nalani had her back turned on him and was hunched over a bit, her face buried in her hands. Lucas walked up alongside her just as she emerged slightly from her palms. Her blue eyes – all he could see of her face now – were not streaming with tears as she thought, but that seemed to be taking Nalani a lot of effort.

    “I’m…” she whispered, shaking her head. “I’m so ****ed up.”

    “I know you are,” Lucas answered immediately – but the way it came out surprised even him. It wasn’t meant as an insult – just an acknowledgement of something true. It was simply statement of fact, like, “the clear sky is blue”, or “the current month is September.” He felt a mighty crashing somewhere within him – like a huge, strong wall tumbling to the ground.

    He felt her draw in a breath of surprise as he put his arms around her.

    “Yeah…you are,” he repeated. “But you know what? …I’m pretty ****ed up, too.”

    She straightened. The cynical, ironic smile crept back onto Lucas’s face.

    “Maybe that’s why we understand each other so well,” he said, barely above a murmur. She was still frozen for a second in pure shock at what was happening. After a while, though, her arms silently reached around his back.

    “Maybe,” she said, leaning against him for a moment before pulling back. “Maybe…”

    She took a couple of steps away.

    “I’m really sorry I…” she said, almost to herself. He shook his head.

    “Don’t worry about it.”

    He started walking, putting his hands in his pockets. Nalani fell into stride right next to him, mocking him by putting her hands in the pockets of her shorts. She walked into his shoulder and tried to force him sideways. He looked over at her. In her smile, her lips parted just a bit, but it was as if someone had shone a light on him. There are some people about whom one could say, “Her smile lights up a room.” But this was different. Lucas found himself thinking that it would take a large room indeed to contain this. It took him a second, but he realized that he, too, was smiling. It didn’t take that long for her to realize it, though. Her blue eyes lit up with delight and a sort of wonder, like she’d just seen a blue moon or a shooting star. Lucas supposed he shouldn’t have been too surprised. After all, it had been months since he had smiled a true smile. Her teeth pinched on her bottom lip.

    Meanwhile, the thought danced around in his head. She was still a murderer-in-training, much like him. At her worst, she was cold, cruel, calculating, selfish, and probably even sociopathic. That was her at her worst.

    But another thought danced in his head as well – and that was that, at her best, she was quite possibly the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. And there was no use denying himself that thought any longer.

    It wasn’t worth the effort.

    …From behind the gate, another girl emerged. Her hair of a shimmering silver twisted down against her shoulder in a braid while her even, thin bangs danced against her eyebrows. As a breeze stirred up the autumn air, she pulled a knitted indigo surcoat more tightly around herself. The white dress she wore under it flared a bit at the waist and gave no aid to her budding form. She smiled warmly as she looked at the other teenagers. Meanwhile, a quite large man lumbered into view right behind her. The vest he wore was a wild, tattered-looking thing that was mostly black, but lined with white fur and tiger-like stripes. It exposed his heavily tanned barrel chest and accentuated his tattooed arms and shoulders, which were frankly horrifying enough without being given the extra attention. It seemed as if he’d found ways to tone muscles in his arms that most men didn’t know existed.

    This was to say nothing at all of his hair. It was the golden shade of the edge of a flame, and flapped around wildly in the wind as he stood behind this girl that looked to be a fraction of his size. However, his presence did not cow her in the slightest; in fact, she looked up at him warmly, almost like a young girl would gaze upon a strong, protective elder brother.

    “I’ve seen those two before…” she remarked. A slight smile crossed her thin lips. “When I saw them at first, I guessed they may be in love.”

    “It’d be a pretty safe guess, I think,” the man said, his voice every bit as rough and gruff as his exterior would indicate.

    “What do you think, Niko?” she turned around to look at the gate. Leaning against the wall of the archway was a tall, thin young man with very fine strands of teal-blue hair covering his head – strands that seemed to reach his neck and flip outward a bit with length. At his hip was the obvious scabbard to a sword – yet the weapon sheathed inside it had a handle more befitting a firearm.

    “I don’t get it,” he said simply.

    “Yes,” the girl answered, her smile never leaving her face, but perhaps taking a different context. There was a notable chill in her voice as she added, “I know you don’t.”

    “Must be nice for you guys,” Niko muttered, distractedly observing a flock of Starly overhead.

    “Oh…” the girl sighed, shaking her head. “Don’t start, Niko.”

    “Bella’s right,” the huge man seconded. “You’ll have time to contemplate your navel when this is all over.”

    Niko sighed, shutting his eyes. “This guy’s late. Unbelievable…”

    “He’s not late, we’re early,” the man answered quickly and gruffly.

    “Hm? What time is it, Ferron?” Niko asked. The large man pulled a watch out of his pocket. “It’s quarter-to-si—well, son of a *****. He is late.”

    “Shit…****…I’m sorry.” Suddenly, the trio heard a lot of panting and a lot of swearing. Ferron looked up first. Crossing the street and coming toward them (as a yellow taxicab sped away from the scene) was a tall, young man with short, almost bone-straight black hair. Ironically, with his relatively normal clothes (a graphic tee and acid wash jeans), he looked the most out of place among this motley crew.

    “What the hell happened?” grunted Ferron slowly, folding his quite massive arms in the newcomer’s clear view. “We’re trying to set you up with a gig and your *** shows up late? Hell of a way to say ‘thanks.’ So what’s your excuse?”

    “Honestly, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the young man said wearily.

    “You realize who you’re talking to?” Ferron grunted. “The weird **** we see on a daily basis? Try me.”

    “It’s been a shitty day,” the young man intoned matter-of-factly. “Got kicked out of my lodging and broke up with my girl…so naturally, I ended up at the bar.”

    “Bar? I’m not judging, but…” Ferron started.

    “Yes, I can get into a bar. I’m not a child,” the youth interrupted, his voice toneless and deadpan. “Anyway, one of the strip—sorry, ‘serving ladies’…recognized me – from my run, I guess. God…never get famous in this city…anyway, I had one drink. One. Somebody spiked it. And I woke up chained to a bed in somebody’s basem—it’s a really long story. Just…take my word for it. It’s been a bad day, and I’m broke and hungry.”

    “Hungry, huh?” Ferron asked, a smirk crossing his somewhat grizzled face. “Maybe we can do something about that. C’mon, guys.”

    And they started back up North 7th Street, away from the Victoria.

    “Where are we going?” Bella asked. “Someplace nice, right?”

    “On the budget your old man gave us?” scoffed Ferron. “I think he’d be pissed if we didn’t…hey, kid, what’d you say your name was again?”

    “I didn’t…but it’s Cassius.”



    The two teenagers crossed the doorway to the inside of the Victoria. The same middle-aged woman who had been there to greet them upon their arrival to the hotel was again at the front desk. She looked up from her computer when she heard their footsteps.

    “Your friends just came through here,” she said. “Don’t run.”

    They went by her, with Lucas’s nod as their only acknowledgment of anything she said. Nalani lagged a couple of steps behind for a moment then quickly caught up when they were out of earshot.

    “What do we look like, five-year-olds? Almost makes me want to start running, just to piss her off,” Nalani whispered to him. He chuckled.

    “I’m glad you didn’t,” he replied. “I’m sure it would have been interesting, but Wil’s already had enough headaches today.”

    “Wil needs to wise up,” Nalani said, almost sourly. “I don’t know how the hell he can turn down Wheels for some cop.”

    For the first time in probably several moments, Lucas was a little bit uncomfortable. It may have had something to do with Nalani switching the conversation to romance – albeit someone else’s romance that really wasn’t a romance, but romance nonetheless.

    “It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?” he answered, his hands behind his head as he walked. “I mean…I guess you wouldn’t know, would you?”

    “Know what?” she asked. Lucas thought he heard a hint of the small child in her curious voice again. “Tell me.”

    “Wil and Jen have known each other since they were, like, our age,” he said. “She was…”

    He couldn’t quite meet Nalani’s eyes as he finished the sentence, so he looked at the ceiling above him instead. He could see himself in its mirrored reflection, and he vaguely perceived the sharp ding that rang as the elevator doors shut, closing their conversation off from the rest of the world.

    “She was his first kiss, too.”

    The violet-haired girl went silent. Lucas glanced at her, wondering what she was thinking…wondering if it was much like what he was thinking. Her eyes shut tight in an almost pained expression.

    “Damn it,” she whispered to herself. “I always thought you could just forget. What the hell was I thinking…?”

    She took a breath.

    “I…I…I shouldn’t have asked you to do that,” she said.

    “No use crying over it now,” Lucas answered. “You did sorta have a point…”

    PING. The doors slid open.

    She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “For me, maybe…but…what about Demi?”

    A very short but very acute pang hit Lucas somewhere in the chest area. He had forgotten about her – that she was back at the compound, no doubt waiting on pins and needles for their safe return – or at least some news of their whereabouts. Lucas had no idea where he stood with Nalani – maybe they were friends. Hell, maybe they were something more than friends and just weren’t calling it by a particular name.

    Not giving it a label…yep, that would have been right down his alley.

    In any case, it wasn’t like that with Demitra. They hadn’t had a conversation about it, there had been no confession, public or otherwise, but he knew. He knew because she acted like that one girl whose parents tried to arrange their engagement behind his back. Somewhat giggly, blushy (was that even a word? It made sense to Lucas in context, and anybody who went inside his head and didn’t like it could get bent), and more nervous than usual…and for Demitra, that was saying a lot. She’d gotten to the point where she could talk normally with Wil, or Nadia – who she occasionally helped with computer issues. Apparently, she was good at that kind of thing. Put her alone in a room with Lucas, though, and all bets were off. That said, she was very pretty. Even if she’d confused the hell out of him by changing her hair from ash blonde to a dark brunette that reminded him a bit of his sister-in-law…she was still pretty. But he dared not ever tell her that aloud, for fear of turning her into an incoherent, red-faced mess that could barely function.

    Apparently, there were more than a few parallels between being in love and being ****-faced drunk. Who knew?

    “Lucas!” Nalani suddenly exclaimed. Lucas’s stream of consciousness hit a dam as he realized that the door to the elevator was closing with him still inside. He jumped out at the last second and saw it slide shut behind him.

    “To answer your question…” Lucas muttered.

    “You would. I know you would,” Nalani interrupted. “If she did the exact same thing I did, you wouldn’t turn her down, right?”

    “Wh—” Lucas tried to answer this question in a way that wouldn’t get him in trouble. “Come on…you honestly think she’d have the guts to do that?”

    It was the best he could offer. He sure hadn’t wanted to make it sound so…demeaning – even if it was the truth. Despite that (or maybe because of it) Nalani gave him a smirk. “So you like girls who take charge?”

    “…Timid and I don’t mix too well,” Lucas answered simply, once he’d gotten over his astonishment at Nalani actually asking that question. Basically, she’d just asked him what his ‘type’ was. How the hell was he supposed to know about ‘type’? He’d never had a girlfriend before…at least, not by his own count.

    “OH, GOD!”

    Nalani and Lucas both jumped. The latter looked at the former. “Was that Wheels?”

    “I think so,” she answered breathlessly. “Can we run now?”

    “Good call,” replied Lucas, and the two jogged down the carpeted hallway toward their hotel room.

    The door was cracked, so they entered quickly.

    They were not at all prepared for what they saw.

    END

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~



    What in the hell just happened?

    You’re going to have to find out next chapter. Because I’m evil like that. MWAHAHAHAHA.

    - EM1

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  6. #131
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    I know I wanted to hold off until someone (other than Diddy) did this, but... first post is first post.

    You know the MO, buddy... let the fury begin!

    Ooh! Cliffhanger! Now I REALLY wonder what's behind Door #1!

    So, Lucas and Nalani get more and more confusing (I can see Demi's reaction, and it doesn't look good), Polaris come out to play (that always ends well), and Cassius seems to be taking his break up well... Now to see if my hypothesis for the surprises in store are right...

    L@er!
    Last edited by Air Dragon; 18th March 2012 at 10:04 AM.
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  7. #132
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    I totally could have got first post, but then I started playing Mass Effect 1 and I kinda forgot about it xD

    I'm going to go whole hog on my guess for the ending. And that guess is that Wheels just walked in on Wil naked, whether she did it by accident or on purpose is still up the air, but that's definitely what happened... according to me anyway :P

    Also, I got the weirdest vibe from Bella when reading that small section, forgetting about the inclusion of Cassius into the folds of the no doubt twist-filled hyper action of the upcoming chapters. I just pictured her as Lili from Tekken, what with her speech, her manner, her rich father, the clothing etc. The image just makes sense in my head. As for Ferron and Niko, I've not really gotten any feelings like that, but I'm interested to see what they're up to nonetheless and what does Cassius have to do with all of this? (Nice to see that he got some commuppence xD)

    Also, all that stuff about Wheels' birthday? There might have been something I could relay to that mentioned in the past, but at the moment I'm drawing blanks. At least Lucas knows what it is (for once), so we'll find out about it sooner rather than later, it sounded somewhat important.

    Either way, I really enjoyed reading this chapter, the story is moving along nicely, as well as Lucas and Nalani's relationship. Onwards to victory!
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

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  8. #133
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    Don't know why I didn't get here sooner...I suppose I'm something of a lazy bastard. I gotta work on being a lazy bastard... :P

    Air Dragon:

    Ooh! Cliffhanger! Now I REALLY wonder what's behind Door #1!
    Do you really? Okay, then.

    So, Lucas and Nalani get more and more confusing (I can see Demi's reaction, and it doesn't look good), Polaris come out to play (that always ends well), and Cassius seems to be taking his break up well... Now to see if my hypothesis for the surprises in store are right...
    Well, break-up, got kicked out of his apartment, TRIED to drown his sorrows but even that didn't work as he was...um...aggressively propositioned by one or more women that may or may not have been carrying diseases. Handcuffs got involved... He's had a really, really bad day. If a guy was acting like an ******* and then came out with a day like this as his explanation, I might be tempted to forgive him. Of course, if he's still acting like an ******* the next morning I might be tempted to punch him in the face...but if you've had a day this bad, I think you have a bit of license to not be your normal cheery self. :P


    Diddy:

    I totally could have got first post, but then I started playing Mass Effect 1 and I kinda forgot about it xD
    You too? Except it happens to me more often with Skyrim. That's part of the reason I don't play Skyrim as much as I used to anymore. It's hard to play that game for only a few minutes. And on the same note, I did just get Mass Effect 1 in the last couple of weeks...but I'm not quite finding it as addictive as you are. I'll reserve judgment, though...I've only got about an hour of PT under my belt.


    I'm going to go whole hog on my guess for the ending. And that guess is that Wheels just walked in on Wil naked, whether she did it by accident or on purpose is still up the air, but that's definitely what happened... according to me anyway :P
    Would that really require a cliffhanger? It's like you don't know me at all. Although, that being the payoff for a cliffhanger would be pretty freaking hilarious, come to think of it...


    Also, I got the weirdest vibe from Bella when reading that small section, forgetting about the inclusion of Cassius into the folds of the no doubt twist-filled hyper action of the upcoming chapters. I just pictured her as Lili from Tekken, what with her speech, her manner, her rich father, the clothing etc.
    Lili? I wasn't thinking of Lili when I created Bella's character, but I certainly see the resemblance.


    As for Ferron and Niko, I've not really gotten any feelings like that, but I'm interested to see what they're up to nonetheless and what does Cassius have to do with all of this? (Nice to see that he got some commuppence xD)
    Ferron is...basically, what would happen if Alder and Broly in his LSSJ form had a love child, and said love child was nursed on lots of human growth hormone. I was actually thinking of this guy in terms of appearance.

    Niko is...parts Seifer, Hallelujah Haptism, Sephiroth, and Darris Klein all thrown into a blender on its highest setting. That probably doesn't make any sense now, but it will - maybe as soon as next chapter.

    As for Cassius, don't overcomplicate things in trying to guess his motivations because his motivations actually aren't all that complicated.


    Also, all that stuff about Wheels' birthday? There might have been something I could relay to that mentioned in the past, but at the moment I'm drawing blanks. At least Lucas knows what it is (for once), so we'll find out about it sooner rather than later, it sounded somewhat important.
    Peeling away the onion of Wheels' backstory, layer by layer...would you believe I originally intended her to be just a supporting character that showed up every so often? This is all you guys' fault. The reader reaction to her was so positive that it changed my plans a bit. I underestimated your power. B-)

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  9. #134
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    Default Chapter 28 - Damaged In Transit

    Chapter 28: Damaged In Transit

    September 24, PA 2019
    Victoria Inn – Esterland City

    They entered the room to find Wheels alive and well. That was fortunate. Strangely enough, though, she was shading her eyes, almost as if she’d been forced to look right into the sun. Lucas’s curiosity got the better of him. He just had to crane his neck around her to see what was going on.

    He couldn’t see too much without moving from where he was – not with Wil’s massive form, blocking the way. What was the big deal about a pasty-looking guy in a beret?

    Lucas took a step to the right of Wheels’ shoulder and immediately wished he hadn’t. The fact that this guy had somehow made his way into the suite without any of them being there was certainly no good, but that was now a secondary problem.

    Wil was trying very hard to look at the hat-wearing man in the eyes. As androgynously attractive as he seemed to appear from the neck up, it was on display for all to see that this person was very…very obviously male.

    “So…” he said. Lucas couldn’t believe how calm he was being, given the situation. “Come here often?”

    “Often enough,” the man answered in a maddeningly conversational tone. Obviously, he didn’t think there was a damn thing wrong with this arrangement. “This is my property, after all.”

    “Okay, then,” Lucas could have sworn he saw Wil crack a smile. “I thought you were a burglar. That would have been awkward on a number of levels.”

    “Maybe we’re just glossing over the obvious elephant in the room here,” Wheels said, still pointedly not looking at either of the two men. “…But why do you not have any clothes on?”

    Indeed, other than the dark-colored beret set jauntily on his head, the man was as naked as the day he was born.

    “Forgive me, miss, but it’s my right,” the man answered in somewhat of a pompous tone. “This is, after all, my private property, which means I’m perfectly at liberty to wear as much or as little as I please.”

    Wheels grimaced. As awkward as this was, he was right.

    “It’s strange…I took you all for a tougher lot,” sighed the beret-wearing nudist. “If I’d known my couriers were going to be mostly women and children, I would have chosen a different guild.”

    “Hey, watch it,” Wil said. Lucas noticed how similar the tone was to the one he used anytime he heard Trent being insulted. “My team may be young, but they’re more than capable.”

    “Be that as it may,” the other man replied. “I could not in good conscience allow them to risk their lives on such a potentially dangerous—”

    “It’s sort of what we do,” interrupted Wil, talking quickly. “You get paid to paint pictures. We get paid to put our lives at risk – now…” He took a deep breath. “All respect to your right to streak inside your own suite, but could you please put some clothes on? If we’re going to have a business conversation, then it’s gonna be a little distracting with, uh… ‘Sal, junior’ hanging around, don’t you think?”

    “You think so?” Argenti put his hands on his hips. Wil gave a sigh and looked pointedly toward the windows (which were mercifully curtained). “I’ve always heard it said that great men have nothing to hide from each other. But…for the sake of our mixed company, I will do as you ask.”

    He retreated into another room (one that had notably been locked for the duration of their time there), and shut the door. There was a long, long silence afterward.

    “Is it gone?” Wheels asked, as if talking about some sort of monster.

    “Yep,” Wil answered. Wheels finally took her hand down from her face, breathing a sigh of relief. Wil gave an awkward laugh. “‘Elephant in the room,’ huh, Wheels? I’d say that’s pretty much dead-on.”

    “You’re awfully casual about this,” Wheels commented.

    “Quit acting so innocent,” chuckled Wil. “You act like you’ve never seen a guy naked before.”

    “Just ‘cause I’ve done something once doesn’t mean I want to do it again,” Wheels snapped back, sounding a bit flustered. “Ever ridden the Doom Drop? I have. Once. Will I do it again? Hell, no.”

    She folded her arms as Lucas walked over to the countertop in the kitchen. “Guy’s kind of a prick,” he commented. (Wheels let out a light squeak and palmed her face for some reason.)

    “It’s a good thing he wasn’t excited,” Wil mentioned in an aside to Wheels. “That could have gotten dangerous.”

    “You’re making it worse, Wil,” Wheels said – but even she had the shadow of a smirk on her face.

    “I know I am. Alright, guys, sit down…” Wil said, gesturing to the couches. Everyone stayed put. “What’s the problem?”

    “You’re kidding me, right?” Lucas blurted out first. “I don’t know if he’s put his junk on any of that stuff.”

    “I take exception to that, young man.” Everybody whirled around. Argenti was standing there, fully clothed…in a manner of speaking. He was wearing a loose-fitting v-neck that was very low cut and a pair of loose-fitting slacks. They seemed like just the type of clothes to be worn by somebody that so obviously didn’t like clothes. As he approached Lucas, the latter got a better look at his face. He had a long, narrow nose, but with his bright blue eyes and the short, blond curls that came out from under his beret, it was easy to see why he might have been called handsome. “Calling any part of the human body ‘junk’ is demeaning. It is a beautiful creation – every part of it. Then again, you’re just a child, so I wouldn’t expect you to have an appreciation for things like that. Not raised in this society, anyway, with all its prudish norms...”

    “Can we argue philosophy later?” Wil cut in, sounding a bit irritated. “You’re obviously here to discuss our employment. We’re here to discuss our employment. So why don’t we get on that?”

    “If that’s what you prefer,” Argenti said, his head whipping around in Wil’s direction as he backed away from Lucas. “Just know that my message won’t be silenced forever!”

    This guy’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. I wonder if mercenaries ever deal with normal people?


    They sat down on the couches once assured that the furniture had not come into contact with any… “distinguishing parts”, as Argenti so tactfully put it. Maybe Lucas was crazy for not wanting to sit where some guy’s unclothed man-package potentially had been a few minutes before.

    If that was that case…then Lucas would deal with being crazy.

    He sat on the left side of the couch, while Nalani sat next to him, and Wheels sat on the right. Argenti got a single large chair to himself, while Wil seemed content to pace back and forth.

    “So, what’s your situation?” Wil asked.

    “I need a portrait I was commissioned delivered to its buyer in Cadlamere,” Argenti replied. “I thought I explained that to your guild master in the letter.”

    “You can’t just ship it off?” Wil asked. “It’d be cheaper.”

    “Of course I can’t just ‘ship it off’,” Argenti snarled, seemingly losing his patience. “Do you think you would be here if I could?”

    “I’m just making sure,” Wil said nonchalantly. “That way, you could catch yourself from making a stupid hire and wasting everybody’s time. It’s my way of keeping honest.”

    “Honest?” chuckled Argenti, as if Wil had just told a mildly funny joke. “People have called me a fool, but I’m no idiot. I know how you people work. That’s why I hired you.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” Lucas cut in.

    “It means that my work is in danger from people like yourselves. That’s why I need you to protect it,” Argenti replied.

    “People like ourselves.” Wil folded his arms and paced. “You wanna elaborate a little bit more?”

    “I can’t give you names,” Argenti answered. “Because I don’t know them. I just know that Boehr is out to sabotage me.”

    “Boehr?” repeated Lucas.

    “Hold it, hold it, hold – it,” Wil interrupted, gesturing emphatically. “You can’t just drop names on us without explaining who the hell they are. We’ve already been confused enough as is. Frankly, I don’t even know who the hell hired us in the first place.”

    “Gregerson’s the one that put the call in,” Argenti answered. “On my suggestion. I let him know Boehr’s been trying to intercept some of my paintings and put me out of business ever since he and I had…well, a bit of a falling out.”

    “Let me guess,” Wheels cut in. “You knocked boots with his girlfriend or something?”

    Lucas stared blankly at Wheels for a second, not able to decide which was more shocking – the fact that she had gone out on such a limb, or her blunt way of explaining the situation.

    “Isn’t that kind of a hasty judgment—” Wil started nervously.

    “It’s actually a really good guess,” interrupted Argenti, chuckling mirthlessly. Wil turned to look at him, his mouth slightly agape. Meanwhile, Argenti was looking somewhat wistful. “She and I actually had a lot more in common. We did make some beautiful music together…”

    Wheels looked down suspiciously at the couch. “You two didn’t, uh…do a duet on this couch, did you?”

    A snorting sound came from somewhere in Wil’s direction. Lucas looked up and the cell leader had his head turned toward the curtained windows, coughing unconvincingly.

    “No, no…hell, no,” Argenti laughed derisively. “We went to Riúlta, of course.”

    “Riúlta?” Wheels asked. “What’s so great about Riúlta…except maybe their baseball team?”

    In true tomboy fashion, Wheels kept up with the sports world as much (if not more) than the men in Maverick Heart. Although, the more she talked, the more Lucas started to see that she wasn’t quite as experienced as Wil was.

    “You’ve never been to Riúlta?” Argenti seemed surprised. “I thought you mercenaries were all well-traveled.”

    “Some more than others,” Wheels muttered, as if she took a bit of issue with the painter’s comment.

    “Well,” Argenti chuckled and smiled, showing a large portion of his teeth. Lucas only took note then of their straightness and near-pristine ivory color. It only confirmed what Lucas was starting to figure out already; this guy was a charmer, and both aware and proud of it. “You should make it a point to go one day. It’s a very beautiful place.”

    “Hmm,” Wheels was a bit stone-faced.

    “If it’s not too off-putting coming from me, you’re very pretty as well,” Argenti said quickly, as if he had been waiting for a chance to throw that into the conversation.

    Wheels smirked. “Trust me, I’m not your type.”

    Argenti gave another one of his laughs. “Oh, don’t be so quick to pass judgment. I think you’d find my tastes to be…refreshingly eclectic.”

    Getting back to the task at hand…” Wil interrupted, putting a bit more force on every single one of the words. Lucas, who had been staring more or less at his shoes, looked up at Wil, who was presently removing his face from his palm. He seemed annoyed…and that was putting it mildly. “Okay. So you and Boehr were involved in a little love triangle, Boehr got the short end of the stick and now he’s made it his business to screw you over at every opportunity. Do I have all that?”

    “That’s the meat of the situation,” Argenti answered casually. He didn’t seem aware of what he’d done. Wheels shuddered slightly.

    “Mmf…horrible choice of words…” she muttered. Looking up at Wil, she raised her eyebrows and said. “Go on.”

    “Boehr and I were old dormmates at the Excelsior Academy of the Arts,” Argenti said, his voice suddenly growing about ten times more pompous than it was before as he invoked the name of his alma mater. Lucas was waiting for some sort of obliquely snobbish classical piece to kick in as he did it, but it never materialized. “I knew him fairly well. Except for the fact that he had guild connections.”

    “Well, this is Esterland. Doesn’t everybody have guild connections?” Wil asked.

    “No, well…his are on another different level entirely. He’s got a fairly close relative – I want to say it’s a first cousin of his – that managed to get himself on board with one of the guilds in Cadlamere,” Argenti explained.

    A pall came over the room at that moment.

    “Do you know this guild’s name?” Lucas asked. Argenti looked at the young teen and said one word:

    “Polaris.”

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    A pair of coughs rang through the air of the small, dubious-looking shop. A middle-aged man followed them, working his way through the visible cloud of dust that seemed to permeate everything inside. Even in this dusty room, the top of his brown-skinned head shone with lights from above. He grunted with effort as he bore a long box on his shoulders and set it into one of the many shelves that lined the room. He let out a groan as he stretched himself to full height again, wiping sweat from his brow and coughing again.

    “Dammit,” he grunted to himself. “Where the hell does all this dust come from…?”

    THUMP.

    THUMP.

    The aging man’s glinting eyes flicked upward toward the door, which buzzed as someone on the other side hit it – obviously very hard. He noticed that the window was obscured by something or someone very large. With a low growl of annoyance, he trudged over to the door and turned the handle…

    This ‘someone’ showed himself in, and he was very large, indeed. In fact, he very nearly had to duck under the door frame as he entered, nearly filling what little space there was in the small shop with his presence alone. The middle-aged man looked him over. He had to have been well over six feet tall – possibly seven…and to say that he was muscular would not have done him justice. On the torso exposed in the middle of his fur-lined vest, he had to have been boasting at least an eight-pack. His arms looked like legs, his legs looked like tree trunks…everything on him was big. Even his hair was big – a shock of eye-catching blond that flared out around his head and went halfway down his back, recalling a lion’s mane.

    “Korel Bergen, is it?” the man asked.

    “Yes – what do you want?” Bergen replied in a clipped, businesslike tone.

    “A favor.” A young man walked in, catching Bergen’s attention. As if a man of the other’s girth deserved a polar opposite, here was a youth – no, a boy. Bergen thought the boy must have been his son’s age, if that. The boy was tall and trim, and had very fine, straight, teal-blue hair. He’d known people to dye their hair strange colors, but this was abnormal even by that standard. This boy stood in front of the large man.

    “You need me to send a package?” Bergen grunted. Pointing to the desk, where a file folder held a stack of papers, he said, “Paperwork’s over there.”

    “Not exactly,” the boy answered in a noticeably raspy voice. “It would probably be more accurate to say that we need something to not be sent.”

    “Ah…we got a problem, then,” Bergen replied. “I send things. That’s what I do. But you’re asking me to make sure something doesn’t get sent. That’s the opposite of what I do. Still…depending on how much you’re willing to part with, we may be able to arrange for an ‘unfortunate accident’ during shipping.”

    “Ten thousand. Take it or leave it,” the boy said. Bergen’s lip curled. How arrogant.

    “Ten .thousand? I can hardly keep the lights on in here for a month for ten thousand,” he said. “Try again.”

    “You seem to be unaware of your situation,” the boy answered calmly.

    “Niko,” the large man grunted. The boy put up a hand.

    “You see this guy behind me? This is Mr. Ferron Krist,” Niko answered, a smile crossing his face. “He’s six-foot-nine, two hundred eighty-two pounds of pure muscle.”

    “Two ninety-two,” Ferron corrected him in a short but insistent grunt.

    “I think he gets the point,” Niko said, smirking.

    “He’s big and probably takes steroids. I don’t need you to explain that to me – I can see it for myself,” said Bergen curtly, his dark eyes glinting behind their spectacles as he eyed Ferron with suspicion.

    “Well, hopefully you don’t need me to explain what’s likely to happen to you if you make him unhappy,” Niko answered solemnly, almost as if the thought repulsed him. “And if you don’t intercept this particular parcel for us…we stand to lose a lot of money. And Mr. Krist here won’t be very happy.”

    Bergen’s nostrils flared.

    “You come into my shop…demand services I don’t give for next to nothing…and then threaten me on top of it all?” he snarled slowly. “Who in the hell do you think you are?”

    Niko said nothing. Instead, he opened his jacket so Bergen could see the inside lining. The grizzled shop owner took a step back, his small spark of courage suddenly extinguished. A devilish smile crossed Niko’s boyish face. “Yes. Rings a bell, doesn’t it? Now that you know who you’re dealing with…has it changed your tune at all?”

    “Who’s to say the people you’re screwing over ain’t more dangerous than you?” Bergen asked slowly. “No deal – not unless you can guarantee I’ll be protected.”

    “Hiring us as your bodyguards? That’ll cost extra,” Niko said, looking back at Ferron, who nodded.

    “Your bargaining skills need work, kid,” Bergen finally sighed, going back over to sit at his desk. Adjusting his glasses, he added, “Good luck finding some other courier that’s fool enough to take that one-sided an offer.”

    Ferron took a breath. “We will. Thanks for your time.”

    He and Niko took a few steps through the door.

    “Don’t worry,” Ferron growled. “We’ll be sure to give Kanvar our greetings on the way as well.”

    Instantly, blood started to pound in Bergen’s ears and his heart shot into overdrive. Almost quicker than thought, he opened a drawer next to his desk. He didn’t see the third person walk into the shop…

    “Niko?”

    “DON’T GO NEAR MY SON, YOU BASTARDS!” Bergen was up and aiming wildly. By the time he fired, Niko had gone diving through his field of vision.

    “BELLA, DOWN!!!”

    There was a shriek as another form in white quickly disappeared under Niko’s weight. Bergen ran around the desk to aim his gun again, but Niko was already up and charging. Bergen just barely perceived the flash of a blade as the boy rushed him, letting out an inhuman bellow of rage…

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~


    “You’ve reached Bergen’s Courier Service – the alternative shipping company where we deliver your packages, no questions asked. We’re not available to take your call right now, but if you could leave us your name and a brief message, we’ll be sure to get back with you…”

    “Bergen? This is Wil Connor,” Wil said quickly, his panic rising as he left yet another message – the fourth or fifth, by Lucas’s count. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but call back whenever you get a second.”

    He snapped his cellphone shut and with a flick of his wrist, chucked it into the floor of the taxi.

    “Damn it!” he swore, kneading his face. “Something’s gone wrong. This isn’t like him.”

    “Don’t be so paranoid, Wil,” Wheels commented from the back seat. Lucas, sitting near the left window and right behind the slightly harried-looking driver, turned to look at her. “He’s probably on the can or something.”

    “For two hours?” Wil answered quickly. “If he’s been in the bathroom for two hours, something has gone wrong. Hey, driver –” He turned to the driver of the cab, whose baseball cap did nothing to hide the fact that he was balding, and seemed to be losing more and more of his black hair with each passing moment he spent in this overly crowded vehicle. “You sure there isn’t a different route to take that’d get us there quicker?”

    The man shook his head. He spoke, using a thick accent that suggested that he may not have been from the country. “This way fastest.”

    “Urrgh…” Wil leaned back in his seat.

    “We should have gotten a rental,” Lucas muttered out of the window. “Then Wheels could’ve driven us, and we wouldn’t have this problem.”

    “We’re smuggling, Lucas,” Wil replied impatiently. “Not the illegal type of smuggling, but still smuggling. And we’re leaving with our cargo.”

    “Nalani – dammit!” Lucas threw his hand up to knock away Nalani’s rod, which was leaning up dangerously close to his face. “Put that thing on the ground before somebody loses an eye.”

    “No ********,” Wheels added. “You remember what happened last time.”

    “Sorry, sorry…” Nalani muttered, doing as asked. She let out a heavy sigh and leaned over onto Wheels’ shoulder. Lucas felt a strange but fleeting pang as he watched – sort of like a stomach cramp in the chest. “Can mercenaries ever keep the same clothes for more than a month?”

    They’d had to leave in such a hurry and travel so lightly that, once again, they found themselves with no extra outfits. Here was hoping they had this whole thing wrapped up and they were back in Cadlamere by at least tomorrow morning. Lucas wasn’t keen on having to wear the same pair of boxers two or three days in a row.

    “I don’t know,” Wheels sighed, distractedly playing with Nalani’s hair. Lucas understood some things about women – like the fact that they were, for the most part, naturally more affectionate with their same-sex friends than men were. He just never remembered Nalani and Wheels ever getting that close.

    “It’ll be time for another shopping trip when we get back to Cadlamere,” Nalani said. “You’re coming this time.”

    “You’re starting to sound like Nadia,” Wheels said a bit wearily.

    “I’m serious,” Nalani intoned. “Last time I was out, I found this skirt –”

    “Stop it right there.” Wheels looked down at her. “You know I don’t do dresses.”

    “I know that,” repeated Nalani. “But I looked at it and thought, ‘Even Wheels would like this.’”

    The young woman reared her head back and laughed.

    “Okay, I’ll call your bluff,” she said.

    “Seriously, guys?” Wil muttered from the front. “You guys are talking about fashion right now?”

    “That’s not me,” Lucas answered. “That’s just those two.”

    “Well, maybe you can buy something for her – since you’re so kick-*** at the Arena and all,” Wheels answered with a slight laugh. As reluctant as Lucas had been to start battling on Cadlamere’s amateur Arena circuit in the first place, he’d been rather successful. Or at least, he’d been winning quite a bit more than he’d been losing – which meant that he had cash on hand, more often than not. But, except for when they would eat out (which was, admittedly, fairly often), Lucas was thrifty. After all, he had much, much bigger plans with that money…

    None of them involved buying anything for Nalani, either.

    “Why would I do that?” he asked. He wished it hadn’t come out so…dickish. He was just curious.

    “Well, usually, when a guy has a girlfriend…” Wheels started.

    “Stop it.” Lucas put his hand up. “Do I have to drill it into your head with a jackhammer or something? Nalani and I aren’t…”

    “I’m right here, you know,” Nalani piped in.

    “W-well, yeah. Sure, you are,” Lucas uttered. “Let’s hear it straight from you, then. Nalani – are you my g—my…girlfriend?”

    Why in the ever-loving **** did I just do that?

    “N-no,” Nalani answered, punctuating it with a slight giggle. “ ‘Course not. We’re just friends, right?”

    “Yeah,” Lucas said. “Just friends.”

    And he leaned back in his seat.

    Glad we cleared that up.

    So why do I feel like someone just socked me in the gut all of a sudden?

    It can’t be because part of me was hoping that she’d say she
    was my girlfriend…was it?

    Of course not. After all, I don’t want a girlfriend. I can’t afford to. Not in a line of work where I could die tomorrow – or, hell, later today. I wouldn’t want to put anyone through that. It’s not fair. It’s bad enough I’ve got family back home worrying about me. I’m not about to bring anyone else in on that action. Nalani deserves better.

    And so does Demi, for that matter.


    Lucas watched distractedly as Wil picked his cellphone up from the floor and began dialing another number. He waited for a couple of seconds. “Dammit, c’mon, not you, too—Sarge? Yeah, this is Wil. Hey, uh, listen…we’ve got a little bit of a situation with the Gregerson mission and we might need a quick evac out of Esterla…what do you mean, ‘they’re already gone’? I thought we…oh. Oh, okay. How long ago was that? …Really? Do they know where Bergen’s is? Send ‘em there. We’ll be waiting…hopefully.”

    There was a pause – evidently Trent was speaking on the other end.

    “Yeah. Of course I will,” Wil answered, suddenly becoming a bit stern. “Right. Thanks a lot.”

    He hung up.

    “Hey, Wheels…” he muttered.

    “Hm? What’s up?” she looked up toward the back of his seat and spoke in a voice much softer than normal.

    “You didn’t happen to call back to the guild earlier, did you?” Wil asked.

    “Well…yeah,” Wheels admitted. “I called Diego’s cell once we met with Argenti – asked him if he could come give us a lift out of the city if things went wrong. I figured…he wouldn’t refuse me a favor, you know…”

    Wil couldn’t help but chuckle. “Since you know he likes you, right? I’m not gonna lie…that’s kinda ****ed up.”

    “I may let him take me out to dinner to make up for it,” Wheels mused, looking out of the window. “Who knows? I might even enjoy myself.”

    “Really?” Wil asked in half-mocking incredulity.

    Maybe,” Wheels chuckled. “And maybe you could finally muster up the balls to actually ask Jen out, too. We could make it a double date or whatever.”

    Wil laughed a very uncomfortable, nervous laugh. “Not a chance in hell. Jen doesn’t like being seen with me. You think she’d be itching to go to Cam’s with me and two other mercs?”

    There was something disquieting to Lucas about all of the small talk. It was like they were trying their level best to tiptoe their way around the proverbial Snorlax in the room – well, several of them, actually. Nalani was still on Wheels’ shoulder and appeared to have (somehow) fallen asleep. Lucas observed her for a second or two. Then her eyes opened…not much, just enough for Lucas to see them looking straight at him.

    Where’s the fear coming from?

    It’s just a portrait…a bit of cash either way, right? This isn’t like the last big one where someone important dies if we screw up. We just lose a bit of money. That’s not good, but it’s not…death.

    So why does it feel like we’re like animals headed to slaughter?


    They were well on the outskirts of town by now. The buildings had shrunk in size and number while the distance between them seemed to grow. Lucas marveled somewhat at Wil having been able to find his way from the airport out here and then back to the Victoria in such a short amount of time. Even by car, it seemed to take forever.

    “Bergen Courier Service, quarter-mile,” the driver said again, using his clipped grammar. Wil took a deep breath.

    “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”

    The taxi screeched to a stop.

    “You serious?” Wheels and Lucas chorused.

    “You serious?” the foreign driver followed humorously afterward.

    “Bergen’s a little paranoid,” explained Wil. “He doesn’t like cars driving right up to his front door.”

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    Slowly, Wil pushed the cracked door open. Lucas, in right behind him, instantly knew something was wrong. He’d never even been here before, but he could tell that something was out of order. First of all, if Bergen was the somewhat paranoid ex-merc that Wil described, why wouldn’t he lock his door? Packages lay undisturbed on shelves to the left. The right, however, was a complete different story. A couple of boxes and packages lay scattered on the ground near the shelves. One of them appeared to have broken, and tiny shards of glass littered a corner of the floor like a sudden snowdrift. A light flickered on and off overhead, illuminating and darkening the dusty room.

    “What the hell happened here?” Wheels muttered, stepping out from behind Lucas and Wil. She went around the desk, toward the open chain link gate (who the hell puts a gate in the middle of a building?) and stepped back. “Oh, g—”

    “What? What is it?!” Wil pushed past Lucas to approach the spot. He looked down at the ground, then gasped, then let off a couple of swearwords. Without explaining anything, he and Wheels took off through the gate and down some sort of hallway. Lucas followed slowly behind them. He looked down underneath his feet. Near the gate there started a trail of something red, sticky, and slightly –

    “Blood,” Nalani’s voice whispered shakily behind him. “I-i-it’s blood. Something really bad’s happened here.”

    “No ****,” muttered Lucas. He stood at the gate for a second, pondering what to do. He didn’t get very far in the process before a sharp intake of breath interrupted him. He whirled around to see the violet-haired girl jumping up from a crouch and minimizing a Pokéball. She walked toward him, her staff in her hand.

    “Found a Pokéball?” he asked.

    “Already had a spare,” she didn’t explain. Lucas wasn’t in the mood to press the issue, and there wasn’t time. “You don’t think Wil wants us to stay here?”

    “You think he wouldn’t have said so?” Lucas grunted back. “Come on.”

    He stepped through the gate, with Nalani a step or two behind him. They went down the dimly lit hallway in silence. Lucas noticed a trail of blood all the way down this hallway.

    “Stay close.”

    No…that sounds like. I dunno. Like I’m trying to protect her.

    Well, sure, I’m trying to protect her.

    But she can protect herself, can’t she?

    “Don’t go running off.”

    Sounds like I’m her dad or something…or worse. I sound like Wil.

    “Just don’t die.”

    Kind of obvious, right? That sounds so stupid.


    “EEK!”

    “DAMN! BERGEN!”

    A scream and a bellowed oath followed. Lucas broke into a full sprint immediately. He could feel his heartbeat starting to accelerate, the adrenaline starting to flow through his veins. The blood trail was getting thicker and more pronounced against the hard concrete floor until –

    He stopped. (A clacking of footsteps came to a quick halt right behind him as Nalani pulled up as well.) Wheels and Wil were crouching around a dark-skinned, bald man. The man was slumped up against another chain link fence. Lucas quickly took note of the fact that they were in a warehouse of sorts where the fences now served as barriers between them and shelves similar to the ones that had been seen in the shop’s foyer. The ceiling was very high, allowing for a few of iron-wrought scaffolds that looked to be fifteen or twenty feet high. A chill ran down Lucas’s spine as he was reminded strongly of the weapons storeroom at the Armand mansion.

    What Lucas saw next nearly made his blood run cold. Speaking of blood, it was running from in between his feet, smearing along the ground straight toward the unknown man.

    Wil and Wheels were silent. She was looking at him, her eyes already shining with tears, whilst he looked back stoically. Lucas approached, somewhat in shock.

    “What the **** happened to him?” he whispered.

    “Bergen!!” Wil shouted, his voice echoing in the cavernous warehouse. “Bergen!!”

    The aging man opened his eyes.

    “…It’s not William, is it?” he looked at Wil and asked. The young man shook his head.

    “Just Wil,” he said. “Who—what…did this to you?”

    Bergen sighed, looking down and away from Wil.

    “You shouldn’t be here…” he said in a strangled whisper. “It’s…I just right ****ed myself, didn’t I—ough!

    He snarled. Dried blood had already been running in a trail from his lips down his cheek, and now a fresh fountain emerged as a coughing fit overtook him.

    “What did he look like?” Wil asked desperately.

    “Wil, we’ve gotta stop the bleeding, we—” Wheels said, in such a small whimper of a voice that if Lucas hadn’t seen her mouth moving, he wouldn’t have known was her. She stopped dead, though, when she got a look at Wil.

    He looked at her…and slowly shook his head. She clapped her hands to her mouth. He took a couple of seconds, a couple of deep breaths, and said, “Adele, close your eyes.”

    “I –” she started in protest.

    “Just do it!!” Wil shouted at her. She turned away and shut her eyes. “Lucas, Nalani –”

    “No,” Lucas cut him off. He took a couple of deep breaths of his own.

    Is this what it looks like when somebody dies a violent death? If it is…

    I’m going to make myself watch. So I know what I’m dealing with. So I know what I’m trying to keep from happening.

    I don’t have a choice.


    Wil lifted up Bergen’s bloodied shirt from the bottom. What awaited (to Lucas’s complete lack of surprise) was…rather gruesome to say the least.

    “For ****’s sake, Bergen,” Wil grunted. “What the hell kind of wounds are these??”

    “S-sword…” Bergen coughed.

    “Who the hell uses a sword nowadays?” Wil muttered.

    “You’d be surprised,” muttered Lucas, thinking of several people at once.

    “These aren’t sword wounds…” Wil murmured.

    “…Sn-sn…” Bergen grunted. It was obvious he was losing what little strength he had. “Sne…”

    “Sneeze?” Wil asked.

    “Claws…Sne…” Bergen coughed up more blood.

    Something clicked in Lucas’s brain. He jumped up in front of Bergen’s view.

    “Sneasel?” he asked loudly. “Was it a Sneasel?!”

    “Lucas, don’t yell at him, dammit, you’re not helping!” Wil snapped.

    Bergen wore a pained expression before trying to turn into a smile. “Sneasel…that’s it…Pokémon…weren’t ever my strong suit…”

    Lucas staggered backward, his brain going numb.

    He barely perceived what was going on in front of him, as if everything was coming through white noise. He saw Bergen attempt to talk to Wil, then go limp. Wil’s head fell for a second or two. He watched as Wil went over toward Wheels, guided her around by the shoulders, then hugged her close to his chest.

    Wil, meanwhile, was not paying much attention to Lucas’s near-catatonia. He was too busy trying to comfort Wheels, who was crying into his shirt. For his part, he had been conditioned to accept death. Not like it, necessarily. But accept it. In his line (or lines) of work, death was part of the game. You saw it as a soldier. You saw it as a mercenary.

    Lots and lots of death.

    Wheels? Yes, she had about three years of experience, but not the same kind of experience. Trent had tried to protect her. He gave her a specialized role in the guild to take advantage of her strengths while not overexposing her. The last time Wheels had seen this much blood, seen a person die, was…

    Wil heard footsteps. He looked up and, suddenly, it clicked.

    “No, no – Lucas, NO!!!”

    But the boy had already taken off down the hallway.


    A quick impact with the ground snapped Lucas out of his rage-fueled daze. He’d stumbled to the floor. He looked up and behind him. A gate was swinging open. His shoulder hurt like hell. He put two and two together. Somehow, he’d managed to force his way into one of the fenced-off areas. He stood to his feet and let out a shout.

    “NIKO!” He started through a maze of boxes and crates. Just how the hell had Bergen run this place by himself? It seemed too big to be crewed by a dozen men – let alone one. Then again, given the situation, maybe it was a mercy that there were no other workers. His weapon drawn, he slowed his pace to a deliberate trudge, looking around him. He was between two large scaffolds that seemed to have been made for larger items. “Come on out, you bastard – I know you’re here!!”

    He heard his own footsteps, and then a bunch of other approaching footsteps.

    “He must have gone through here,” he heard a girl’s voice. “Lucas!”

    “Lucas!!” a man’s yell followed.

    “****,” Lucas cursed to himself once he realized what he’d done.

    Then again, if I can take out the guy that murdered Bergen, maybe I can get off with a slap on the wrist…

    Just as he thought that, someone emerged from behind one of the scaffolds. A large man indeed, Lucas wondered how the hell anything at all managed to hide him. He was walking toward Lucas slowly, arms folded across his massive barrel chest.

    “Hold on a second…I think I recognize you,” he growled. Lucas was strongly reminded of the growl and bark of a dog. For his age, Lucas was no shrimp, but as the man approached, Lucas found out just how massive the guy was. He was bigger than Wil – by a lot. As his encroaching form snuffed out the hanging light bulbs one by one, the light shone on the back of his huge head of blonde hair. He looked like some sort of flame-wreathed devil from this distance. And then there were the muscles. Holy ****, were there muscles. Lucas had seen fully-grown Machamp with fewer muscles. “You’re that kid from back this summer. Beat Niko in the arena, right? He wasn’t too happy afterwards. Damn near tore up the whole apartment.”

    “Where’s Niko?” Lucas replied recklessly, still burning rage-fuel like a diesel engine of pure fury.

    “Trust me, you don’t want any part of Niko right now,” the giant, blond musclehead growled. “Bergen was fool enough to fire his nine off too close to precious Bella, and Niko’s in a foul mood.”

    “You’re mercs, right?” chuckled Lucas mirthlessly. “You’re not used to getting shot at?”

    “That’s not the point. You saw what happened to Bergen, right?” the giant seemed to be trying to be somewhat diplomatic. “I’m guessing he’s finally bled out by now…”

    Lucas’s face trembled as he went for his weapon. “Shut up.”

    “Small bites, kid. Small bites,” the giant said. “Otherwise, you’ll bite off more than you can chew and wind up getting choked to death. Cass?”

    Cass?

    Lucas heard footsteps behind him and whirled around. A familiar-looking young man of about twenty stood before him, wearing a graphic t-shirt (albeit a different one) and jeans. He stared at Lucas through vaguely slanted eyes and tilted his head as he, too, recognized a familiar face.

    “Got a playmate for ya,” Lucas heard the giant man’s voice, then the giant man’s footsteps. Damn, could he ever move for being such a mammoth of a human being.

    “Cassius…” Lucas uttered breathlessly. “Cassius Minamoto.”

    “So you did remember,” Cassius answered with something of a smirk.

    This only made Lucas angrier. “Unbelievable. You’re in with these guys?”

    “Don’t be a hypocrite,” Cassius replied, snatching a Pokéball from his waist and enlarging it in his hand. “You’ve thrown in your lot with a guild, too.”

    “It’s not the same thing,” Lucas snarled.

    “Of course it’s the same thing…wait. What are you going to say? ‘But we fight on the side of right!’ ********!” exclaimed Cassius. “A thief with honor is still a thief…and there’s no honor among thieves. You wanna know why? Because thieves that try to keep their honor don’t eat.”

    “I eat just fine, thanks,” replied Lucas.

    “Really? How much are you getting? Ten thousand? Twenty?” Cassius asked quickly.

    “A hundred,” Lucas replied.

    “A hundred.” Cassius nodded, a smirk crossing his face. “Good job. A hundred thousand keys! Holy ****, you’re playin’ in the big leagues now, aren’tcha? But it’s like sharing a pack of gum. Once one person gets a stick, everybody else wants a stick, and before you know it, you’re down to a third of what you had in the first place, and that’s if you’re lucky! What about you?”

    “Our cell gets…”

    “**** your cell. What about you? How much goes into your pocket?” Cassius interrupted. He slowed his breathing and delivered a nasty smirk. “Me? Polaris gets a mil if we bring this puppy in – but I get ten percent right off the top! There’s your hundred thousand – in my pocket. That’s enough to live on for a month or two, if you’re smart.”

    “…I’m not in it for the money, though,” Lucas said slowly.

    “That’s a good one. I guess it’s the girl, then?” Cassius answered. “Well, unlike you, I literally can’t afford to act the role of the romantic mercenary. You want a reason why I’m here – why I’m with Polaris?”

    “I want to know how in the hell you can watch a guy get murdered in cold blood,” Lucas replied, his teeth gnashing against each other. “How can you work with these people?”

    “The world’s a shitty place. Shitty people do shitty things for even shittier reasons. You don’t have to like it…you learn to deal, though,” Cassius muttered, looking down at the ground. “But my reason’s pretty simple…I don’t want to starve!!

    With that, he threw his Pokéball into the air. From it burst a familiar-looking creature – a pudgy, orange mouse with golden-yellow cheeks and a tail that looked like a lightning bolt.

    “Rai…” His cheeks crackled as he smiled a menacing smile that didn’t seem to belong on a face that naturally docile.

    That’s the Raichu he used to take out Ahi a couple of days ago. Better be careful.

    “Niko’s the one I want,” Lucas said. “You’re in the way.”

    With that, he threw his sphere into the air. The red-scaled reptilian form of a Charmeleon assumed shape in front of him three seconds later. The Flame Pokémon turned around and looked at Lucas. “<Long time no see.>”

    The scar on Apollo’s eye (Lucas remembered with a surge of anger that it was Niko’s Sneasel that gave him that scar) never fully healed. Lucas at one point ponied up a bit of cash to get it looked at by a professional at one of Cadlamere’s Pokémon Centers. Apparently, if a Pokémon evolves with an open wound, the scar stays. It was no big deal. In fact, Apollo kind of liked it. He said it made him look more fearsome. And, for Lucas’s part, at least he’d be able to pick Apollo out of a lineup of Charmeleon if the situation ever called for it—

    “Tenchu, use Thundershock!” Cassius’s shout snapped Lucas back to attention. The stout little Raichu started to spark furiously. Lucas was taken too off guard to tell Apollo to dodge. He jumped backward as the Charmeleon caught several small, arcing bolts of lightning head-on. The reptilian creature winced under the electric assault but held his ground.

    “You’re not gonna have it that easy,” Lucas snapped back. “Apollo, use Ember!”

    Apollo’s tail lashed against the ground like a cracking whip. He opened his maw wide and coughed forth a small ball of sparks at his opponent, who danced to the left. Cassius jumped right.

    “Tenchu, get up the scaffold!!” he ordered. The Raichu sprang into action, scrambling up a scaffold to his right. It caught Lucas a bit off guard; he didn’t know Raichu could climb. But Tenchu was a sitting duck up there.

    “Ember, Apollo!” Lucas shouted. Apollo reared back and fired a salvo of sparks in Tenchu’s direction. Unfortunately, the Raichu had the wherewithal to swing around the scaffold’s iron support beam and use it as cover. The sparks hit the iron and fizzled. Tenchu swung forward again, running along one of the shelves as Embers flew by him like flaming bullets. He leapt, turning head over heels over tail as he somersaulted through the air.

    “Iron Tail!!” ordered Cassius. The body part in question started to glow a bright white as the mouse Pokémon started to rotate even faster, turning into a wheel of light descending right on Apollo’s head. The Charmeleon dug in with a feral growl and held his ground.

    “Use Metal Claw!”

    Apollo’s razor-sharp claws shone with a similar white light. His blue eyes snapped upward and saw his approaching opponent. With quick hands and a strong grip, he reached high. A resounding clang echoed around the warehouse as the two Steel-type attacks hit each other. Tenchu was stopped in his tracks, an expression of shock and confusion visible on his mousy face for a second. It quickly turned into a snarl as he tried to force his attack through Apollo’s defense…but the Flame Pokémon was having none of it. His claws made it around the tail…and grabbed.

    Cassius’s eyes widened.

    “<Game over,>” the Charmeleon snarled…then, with a quick twist of his body, swung Tenchu over his shoulder. The Raichu bounced off the hard concrete, letting out a squeal of pain. But Apollo was not done. He turned on his heel with a growl. Tenchu’s tail trailed around like a rope, a second before his back slammed into one of the scaffold’s iron supports. With one more mighty tug, Tenchu came flying toward Apollo, who already had a claw free and ready.

    One Scratch attack later, Tenchu was flying back at Cassius, bouncing off the concrete like a skipping stone.

    “From the bright lights of the stadium to battling little boys in warehouses,” Cassius chuckled ironically. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen…”

    Tenchu struggled to his feet. “R-r-rai…”

    “Still not down yet?” muttered Lucas.

    “It’s been fun, kid…” Cassius stood up straight. “But playtime’s over. Tenchu, use Thunder.”

    “Rai…” A menacing look seized the Raichu’s face as his yellow cheeks began to spark wildly. The ground began to quake slightly under him as static bolts flew in every direction, ripping up the concrete, bouncing off the rusted iron supports of the scaffolds, catching cloth hangings and setting them ablaze…

    Lucas barely perceived a bright, orange light approaching from somewhere to the right of Tenchu, who wasn’t looking. Cassius turned to his left and his eyes widened.

    “TENCHU, MOVE!!” Cassius shouted and hit the deck.

    Lucas, transfixed in surprise, had just enough time to see the fireball coming in before the entire area went up…

    END

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
    Last edited by EonMaster One; 28th March 2012 at 6:03 PM. Reason: Editing out some errors...

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  10. #135
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    OK, time for El Review... let's get down to business.

    Well, Niko sounds simply bubbly. Glad humans aren't allowed in the ring during battles, or Niko would possibly own Red himself, no questions asked. Meeting Argenti could have happened in much more friendlier circumstances, and I think Wheels can do without the "protein-gags'... :P

    Me see errors! Me see errors!

    [CENTER]“EEK!”

    “DAMN! BERGEN!”[CENTER]
    Don’t you just hate tag errors? :/

    “Bergen was fool enough to fire his nine off too close to precious Bella, and Niko’s in a foulmood.
    foul mood Love your space bar.

    “<TENCHU, MOVE!!>”
    I’m confused here… who’s speaking again?

    Well, Tenchu's up against a much more aggressive enemy than Ahi this time, and his and Cass's performance thus far doesn't say much for the Esterland circuit, does it? Pretty black-and-white though, isn't he? Shame the same can't be said about Maverick Heart...

    Well, I've been frowsy enough, and there is work to be done. Guess I'll drop out here and catch you next time!

    L@er!
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  11. #136
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    You mad, Niko?

    He mad.

    And I was half right about the naked thing. I remember writing something similar, except everyone was female and there were much less puns. Speaking of which, SO MANY PUNS! I can only imagine that you had a ton of fun writing those in.

    You saying that Niko is like Darris Klein got me all wary. That guy was all kinds of crazy (and hailed from Corona I seem to remember) so I can't wait to see how this little tidbit of information slots into the story. He seems almost as fiercely protective of Bella as Lucas is with Nalani, except psychotically so. Why does poor Sneasel always get tarred with the villain brush? D:

    Don't worry Sneasel, I love you. Even before you got a Gen 4 evolution.

    Also, speaking of people being mad, judging by the ending there, I think Nalani may be slipping into badass mode. At least I hope so, I love badass Nalani.
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

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  12. #137
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    Wow...that was quick. Usually, when I post in the middle of the week like this, I don't really expect any reviews to be done until the weekend. So I guess it's only fair that I'm quick about my responses as well, instead of waiting until the next chapter...that's become a bad habit of mine.


    Air Dragon:

    Well, Niko sounds simply bubbly. Glad humans aren't allowed in the ring during battles, or Niko would possibly own Red himself, no questions asked. Meeting Argenti could have happened in much more friendlier circumstances, and I think Wheels can do without the "protein-gags'... :P
    Protein...gags?

    Never mind. I just don't have a lot to add to this.


    Me see errors! Me see errors!
    Oh, well, that's good...well, not good, but...hey, don't you think it's a tiny bit hypocritical to indicate grammatical or syntax errors by typing in Hulk-speak? Just saying.

    But I did go back and fix everything...except the space bar error, which doesn't seem to exist. That's strange. And it's not the first time it's happened, either. Maybe italicizing a word right next to a non-italicized word gives it the appearance of the two words not having space between them. Although I'm glad you caught the Poke-speak tags. A bit of mental flatulence on my part. I don't know what the hell they were doing there, but it should be clear who's speaking now.


    Well, Tenchu's up against a much more aggressive enemy than Ahi this time, and his and Cass's performance thus far doesn't say much for the Esterland circuit, does it? Pretty black-and-white though, isn't he? Shame the same can't be said about Maverick Heart...
    Sometimes trainers get into a slump. Although, given Cass's actions at the end of the battle, you could make the argument that he underestimated Lucas at first and therefore wasn't using all of Tenchu's strongest attacks. Or maybe he didn't want the battle finished quickly. Maybe he was just stalling for time.

    It's also worth noting that I altered Ahi's typing. Originally, she was Fire/Dragon, but that would have pushed her into Uber territory, so now she's Fire/Flying - and therefore weak to Electricity. I don't know if that counts as a retcon since I don't remember explicitly remember mentioning her as a Dragon-type (Gyarados is considered in-universe to be a 'dragon' for obvious reasons, but is - inexplicably - not a Dragon-type at all, but Water/Flying. Worst. Decision. EVER. [/rant]). But, yeah. She's Fire/Flying, so weak to Tenchu's electric attacks, which provides some explanation for why Cass mopped the floor with her but had such trouble with Apollo.

    Well, that, and the fact that Apollo's further along in evolution and a more experienced battler that's got a mean streak a mile wide, as you alluded to.



    Diddy:


    You mad, Niko?

    He mad.
    A trollface (which is what I always envision whenever I see "You mad?") seems in such poor taste, given the situation... o_O


    And I was half right about the naked thing. I remember writing something similar, except everyone was female and there were much less puns. Speaking of which, SO MANY PUNS! I can only imagine that you had a ton of fun writing those in.
    Well, there aren't as many puns for...well, the corresponding female anatomy - at least, not as many puns that can come off as humorous and not sexual. And, for some reason, exposed guy parts are inherently funnier. Maybe it's the fact that they sort of hang awkwardly...never mind. But yes, I had a lot of fun writing those in. I did think of having Argenti conduct the whole scene in his birthday suit, but that might have induced a bit of Mood Whiplash once Argenti name-dropped Polaris.

        Spoiler:- Not for kiddies!:


    Although it would have made the scene where he openly flirts with Wheels (and Wil's corresponding reaction) a hundred times funnier.


    You saying that Niko is like Darris Klein got me all wary. That guy was all kinds of crazy (and hailed from Corona I seem to remember) so I can't wait to see how this little tidbit of information slots into the story. He seems almost as fiercely protective of Bella as Lucas is with Nalani, except psychotically so. Why does poor Sneasel always get tarred with the villain brush? D:
    Maybe I'm the only one who ever watched Gundam 00, but if it took that long for you to figure out that Niko's perhaps not all there, then clearly you haven't played Final Fantasy VII, either. Usually, when you see someone compared to Sephiroth in any sort of way, that's a red flag. I dispute your claim, though, that Darris was 'crazy.' He was actually not unlike Travis in a lot of ways. I actually postulate that Darris was more sane than Travis was at points. I'm not sure how comforting a notion that is, but I digress.

    What Niko and Darris have in common is a singleminded, almost fanatical devotion to a sister figure (that doesn't return sister-like feelings, unbeknownst to them). They also have some other things in common, but we'll get into that much later. Niko and Bella aren't exactly a foil to Lucas and Nalani, either. Certainly not as "couples", if you wanted to call them that. Niko and Nalani, though? Actually very similar. Just like Nalani, Niko seems perfectly calm and even a bit childish. Threaten someone he cares about, though, and...well, Bergen could tell you what happens, and dead men tell no tales.

    As for Sneasel...well, being a Dark-type could have something to do with it. Not to mention it looks overall a bit sinister. Then again, it was obvious back in its introductory chapter that this Sneasel (a female, of all things) is...a bit Ax Crazy - maybe more so than her trainer.


    Don't worry Sneasel, I love you. Even before you got a Gen 4 evolution.

    Also, speaking of people being mad, judging by the ending there, I think Nalani may be slipping into badass mode. At least I hope so, I love badass Nalani.
    Well, we shall see. We shall see...


    - EM1
    Last edited by EonMaster One; 28th March 2012 at 10:04 PM.

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  13. #138
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    Quote Originally Posted by EonMaster One View Post
    Wow...that was quick. Usually, when I post in the middle of the week like this, I don't really expect any reviews to be done until the weekend. So I guess it's only fair that I'm quick about my responses as well, instead of waiting until the next chapter...that's become a bad habit of mine.
    I got here just as it was posted and thought I'd read and then comment because I'd be pretty much guaranteed first post. Guess I didn't read fast enough xD


    It's also worth noting that I altered Ahi's typing. Originally, she was Fire/Dragon, but that would have pushed her into Uber territory, so now she's Fire/Flying - and therefore weak to Electricity. I don't know if that counts as a retcon since I don't remember explicitly remember mentioning her as a Dragon-type (Gyarados is considered in-universe to be a 'dragon' for obvious reasons, but is - inexplicably - not a Dragon-type at all, but Water/Flying. Worst. Decision. EVER. [/rant]). But, yeah. She's Fire/Flying, so weak to Tenchu's electric attacks, which provides some explanation for why Cass mopped the floor with her but had such trouble with Apollo.
    So Gyarados have no weaknesses AT ALL was a bad thing? Sableye, Spiritomb and Eelektross can pull it off because they have *** stats. Gyarados on the other hand? He's a monster, he'd have been as broken as Mewtwo.

    A trollface (which is what I always envision whenever I see "You mad?") seems in such poor taste, given the situation... o_O
    In fairness, it is rather uncalled for, but you have to admit, that guy is the slightest bit enraged.

    Well, there aren't as many puns for...well, the corresponding female anatomy - at least, not as many puns that can come off as humorous and not sexual. And, for some reason, exposed guy parts are inherently funnier. Maybe it's the fact that they sort of hang awkwardly...never mind. But yes, I had a lot of fun writing those in. I did think of having Argenti conduct the whole scene in his birthday suit, but that might have induced a bit of Mood Whiplash once Argenti name-dropped Polaris.

        Spoiler:- Not for kiddies!:


    Although it would have made the scene where he openly flirts with Wheels (and Wil's corresponding reaction) a hundred times funnier.
    I picked up the implication you mentioned after someone mentions "the elephant in the room".

    I was like, no way he means what I think he means... does he..? Nah, it can't be... Surely.

    Maybe I'm the only one who ever watched Gundam 00, but if it took that long for you to figure out that Niko's perhaps not all there, then clearly you haven't played Final Fantasy VII, either. Usually, when you see someone compared to Sephiroth in any sort of way, that's a red flag. I dispute your claim, though, that Darris was 'crazy.' He was actually not unlike Travis in a lot of ways. I actually postulate that Darris was more sane than Travis was at points. I'm not sure how comforting a notion that is, but I digress.

    What Niko and Darris have in common is a singleminded, almost fanatical devotion to a sister figure (that doesn't return sister-like feelings, unbeknownst to them). They also have some other things in common, but we'll get into that much later. Niko and Bella aren't exactly a foil to Lucas and Nalani, either. Certainly not as "couples", if you wanted to call them that. Niko and Nalani, though? Actually very similar. Just like Nalani, Niko seems perfectly calm and even a bit childish. Threaten someone he cares about, though, and...well, Bergen could tell you what happens, and dead men tell no tales.

    As for Sneasel...well, being a Dark-type could have something to do with it. Not to mention it looks overall a bit sinister. Then again, it was obvious back in its introductory chapter that this Sneasel (a female, of all things) is...a bit Ax Crazy - maybe more so than her trainer.
    That's me, I've never played a Final Fantasy game. I've tried, believe me I've tried, but I can't get into them. I didn't mean that Darris was insane in some way, I probably should have used a better word, I just meant that he was this guy who was all stuff and such. It's hard to explain xD.

    Your explanation is very good, I'll make sure to keep it mind when reading the upcoming chapters.

    As for Sneasel, yeah, I suppose... I'm the kind of guy who turns a Gallade into a killer instead of a Scizor or a Weavile. The idea that this gallant, noble creature has gone bad creates a much more impactful image. That's just my view though, I would like to see more of psycho Sneasel though, if you haven't guessed, I'm a fan of crazy females.
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

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  14. #139
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    Default

    You've never played Final Fantasy? BLASPHEMY. D-:

    Aaaaaanyways, a Gallade as a killer, huh? If I were going to go that route, I'd take it a step further and make it a cute little Kirlia...except not so cute and more batsh!t insane. You think you're relatively safe, then...BOOM! You go flying across the room and start getting impaled on nearby sharp objects. Brings a whole new level of horror to what would happen if Pokemon made a habit of attacking humans directly. >.>

    As for your question about Gyarados...I just feel like that type combination is a screw-over. Of course, anyone with half a brain would keep Gyarados far, far away from Electric attack, but I just feel like making it part Flying-type weakened it, especially since it doesn't freaking make sense. How often, if at all, have you seen a Gyarados flying? How many Flying-type attacks can it learn (and therefore get STAB)? ONE. And it's not Fly. Nope, that'd be too useful, and having one in your party late-game would make travel a snap, if nothing else, instead of having one surfer and one flier...[/rant]

    Another note on Gyarados...I could never spell or pronounce its name correctly as a kid... -.- Anyway, moving on.

    As for Jason-Kun, whose post appeared then mysteriously disappeared...well, I spaced. Plain and simple. It does me good to know you still care enough to ask, though. :-)

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  15. #140
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    Default Chapter 29: The Expendable Man

    Warning! Warning! Long chapter ahead!

    Warning! Warning! Long chapter ahead!

    I tried to trim the fat where I could, but it still managed to bleed over into a second post. I suppose it's not long by my standards, but it's one of those where you'll probably want to grab a light snack and settle in. Enjoy!


    Chapter 29: The Expendable Man

    September 24, PA 2019
    Bergen’s Courier Service – Outskirts of Esterland City

    Lucas’s ears were ringing. His mouth was open and he felt himself heaving uncomfortably. He recognized the feeling – the sudden contraction of the muscles in his chest and stomach, the quick, slightly painful bursts of air issuing from around his vocal cords. He was coughing. But his coughs were silent…or at least drowned out by the constant high-pitch squeal. He became aware of a cold, hard sensation on his face. His lips were pressed against something solid, unforgiving, and (he opened his eyes) grey. His hands, his face, his chest…they were all on the ground. Slowly, he pushed himself up onto his knees. The room spun around him for a moment and he swayed dangerously. His ochre eyes, once they had finally focused enough, turned themselves on the sight ahead.

    Dust obscured much of the area, rising in brownish-gray billows from where Cassius Minamoto and his Raichu had once been standing. A pang of horror hit Lucas in the chest, and his pounding hard skipped a beat. Both trainer and Pokémon had been caught in that blast…

    “<What happened?>” a snarling voice grunted. To Lucas’s great relief, Apollo was staggering to his feet off to the boy’s left.

    “Some sort of explosion,” muttered Lucas. He was finally finding his voice again, but his ears were still ringing a bit.

    “<You think so?>” In the near year they had been together, Apollo had picked up his trainer’s gift for sarcasm.

    Lucas sighed heavily through his nose. “How, though…?”

    “<No idea, but that Raichu may be in chunks now…>” the Charmeleon remarked somewhat casually.

    “That’s not funny, Apollo.” Lucas had called on his own Pokémon to defend himself. He couldn’t very well fight a creature that could electrocute him at will. Still, though…the idea of a Pokémon dying at his or anyone else’s hand was abhorrent to him.

    “<I wasn’t joking,>” Apollo answered, his tone growing grim. “<Huh?>”

    Right at that moment, a golden bolt of lightning came zigzagging out of the dust cloud. Neither Lucas nor Apollo was quick enough to react. The latter screamed and snarled in agony as several thousand volts coursed through his reptilian body. The Charmeleon crumpled to the ground as a white, fast-moving shape emerged from the plume of smoke and debris. Lucas barely caught side of the lashing lightning-bolt tail…

    “Apollo, watch out!” he yelled in a slight panic. “Use Ember!!”

    Apollo gathered himself again and let loose a fireball. The approaching shape jumped to the left, avoiding it. A second sphere of pure flame tore through the air. The creature leapt to the right…

    BOOM.

    Apollo had braced for impact, but it never came. Instead, something came screaming in from behind him, cutting off the Raichu’s path and stopping it cold. A nasty crack split the air as the small mammalian’s ribcage shattered. Tenchu went careening backwards through the air, sliding nastily across the ground until a man appeared, putting his hands down to stop the Electric Pokémon’s painful skid.

    Meanwhile, a small, red dragon had appeared next to the astounded Apollo. It was tottering around dangerously, as if the impact had made it dizzy. It lurched one last time before being stopped by Apollo’s arms.

    “<What the…>” Apollo snarled. “<Ahi?>”

    “<Just…made it…>” the Kaegon uttered breathlessly.

    “You coward!” Lucas looked up. Tenchu had apparently been returned to its ball, but Cassius was standing there, looking livid. “Two on one isn’t fai—“

    Cassius stopped mid-sentence. He slowly turned around.

    “What’s the matter?” Lucas heard a girl’s voice, although he could not see her. “Never fought without rules before?”

    “What’s – GAH!” Something hit Cassius right in the jaw. He crumpled in a heap, knocked out before he hit the ground. Nalani, holding her staff, stood over his lifeless form.

    “This isn’t the arena, *****,” she spat at him. “Your rules don’t apply here.”

    She stood, whipping her head around to look at Lucas. She approached him at a brisk pace. He felt his lips turn upward into a smile moments before it was wiped away. Instantly. Forcefully. By the back of Nalani’s hand.

    SMACK! The sharp sound echoed in the roomy warehouse, and Lucas was left clutching his cheek, feeling like his whole face burn.

    “You…you…you jackass!” she snarled, sounding like she was beside herself. She grabbed a handful of Lucas’s shirt and hitched it up. Lucas felt his body tighten. Never before had he looked so intently into those blue, now shimmering eyes…trying to remind himself who this was, trying to remind his reacting body that this was not the enemy. She repeated her yell. “You jackass! You’re gonna get yourself killed, and then what?!”

    “That’s my line, right?” Lucas looked around Nalani’s shoulder. Wil was approaching from that direction as well, bringing a deflated-looking Wheels with him. “You can’t just go running off and – holy ****.”

    He had just seen Cassius on the floor. He took a step back.

    “The hell did you do to him?” he asked. “He’s out cold.”

    The girl turned around and looked Cassius over. Her lip curled a bit. “He got in the way.”

    Wil raised both eyebrows and then glanced at each of the iron scaffolds. He adjusted the cylinder on his shoulder.

    “Well, we’ve got the portrait, so as soon as our ride gets here, we can –”

    Wil stopped mid-sentence and turned his head, looking at someone Lucas couldn’t see.

    “So it’s you, then,” a voice growled from that direction.

    “Ferron Krist,” Wil answered calmly. “I was wondering when I’d be seeing your ugly mug around here.”

    “Ugly? Hah! That’s rich,” growled Ferron, stepping into view. “I see they’ve got you babysitting now.”

    “I’ve finally joined your exclusive club, I guess,” answered Wil wryly. Lucas and Nalani ran to his side. “Where are yours?”

    “That’s a good question,” echoed Lucas. “Where is Niko, huh? Where’s the butcher?”

    “You’re an arrogant little snot, you know that?” Ferron grunted, folding his arms across his massive chest. He looked up at Wil again. “I’d really hate to be forced to hurt these little kids. But business is business. If you don’t hand Matilda over…”

    Matilda?

    “Why does it matter so much?” Wil asked.

    “Why does it ever matter to our type, huh?” Ferron replied, stepping forward. “I’ve got money riding on it. I’m getting paid to make sure she doesn’t get where she’s going.”

    “That’s fair enough, I guess,” Wil said, slinging the cylinder off his back. “But what would your client want with a picture of Gregerson’s little eight-year-old? Sounds a little creepy, if you ask me.”

    “It’s not in my job description to ask those kinds of questions,” Ferron replied, his face stony. “Real mercenaries just do the job given to them. You think the Stahl family turned Polaris Guild into the juggernaut it is today by questioning everything? Hell, no. We get **** done – plain and simple. That’s why everyone turns to us…and why you crusader wannabes get left eating the scraps from our table.”

    “You know, that’s exactly why I turned you guys down and went with Trent,” Wil replied coolly. “You honestly think Conrad gives a **** if you live or die? It’s whatever lines his pockets, right?”

    “If I did ever die in the field,” Ferron chuckled, “I’m sure he’d find a replacement eventually. But let’s be honest. You don’t find men like me on every other street corner.”

    “Someone’s got a high opinion of himself,” Wil answered with a smirk.

    “I’m just stating facts.” The blond-haired behemoth shrugged his massive shoulders.

    It was true, Lucas thought. Here he was, coming up on four months in Carona, and he had yet to see a man quite this large and muscular.

    “But you can’t afford to die, can you?” Wil answered, a knowing smile across her face. “Not in the field. Not while you’ve got Conrad’s little girl tagging along with you…well, I guess she’s not exactly ‘little’ anymore, huh? How old is she now? About fifteen? Still as impossibly adorable as ever, I bet.”

    “Miss Bella is going to be the next Guildmistress of Polaris,” Ferron growled. “So I’d advise you to show her the proper respect.”

    “Next Guildmistress, huh?” Nalani piped in from behind Lucas. “I guess your days as a power in Cadlamere are numbered. She doesn’t have what it takes.”

    “What in the hell would you know about it?” snarled Ferron. Lucas’s jaw tightened. Was she trying to get under his skin and piss him off on purpose?

    “I know…something,” Nalani said slowly.

    “Ehh…” Ferron rolled his eyes. “Your opinion don’t mean **** anyway. Now, about that portrait…”

    “No sale,” Wil interrupted.

    “I wasn’t asking,” Ferron growled…and he charged.

    Wil turned his head. “Guys, get outta here, I’ll catch u—”

    He never got the full sentence out. Ferron plowed into him, bringing his near-three-hundred-pound frame to bear as Wil tried his level best to hold him off. Lucas ducked underneath and grabbed hold of the cylinder as the two large bodies went flying past him.

    “Go, GO!” Lucas motioned to Nalani and Wheels, who went running between the scaffolds as Lucas trailed behind them, the cylinder slung over his back.

    Lucas ran from the sounds of struggle, resisting the urge to turn and fight.

    Am I being a coward?

    No.

    I’m being a good little soldier, right? Doing what’s asked. Following orders.

    Besides…Ferron may be big, but he’s not who worries me. Sooner or later we’re going to run into Niko, and then –


    “GET YOUR *** BACK HERE, BOY!”

    Balls.

    “Nalani!” Lucas yelled. She turned. He threw the cylinder off his back and hurled it toward her. She caught it in stride, still looking back at him as she followed Wheels in the other direction. “Don’t turn and look, just go!”

    He whipped his head around and yanked his weapon back into the open.

    “Alright, you son of a *****,” he snarled, trying to keep his pounding heart under control. “Come and get me!”

    Ferron covered the distance in five impossibly large strides. Fortunately for Lucas, this was one stride too slow, and he was able to avoid Ferron’s incoming, ham-like fist by jumping to the side. He staggered back into one of the scaffolds and only then realized how little space he had to work with. Another punch by Ferron missed. His fist smashed into one of the metal beams. Despite Ferron’s strength, the cast iron was that much stronger. Ferron pulled back, trying to flick the pain out of his obviously injured hand. Lucas took that opportunity to strike. He lashed his rod against Ferron’s ribs. Ferron grunted, obviously feeling it, but didn’t seem to be affected all that much.

    “Damn it,” Lucas cursed as Ferron charged again. This time, to Lucas’s great surprise and panic, one of Ferron’s feet left the ground. Lucas ducked under a very well-executed roundhouse kick.

    Someone actually taught this monster martial arts? This day just keeps getting better and better.

    Ferron swung around with an open palm.

    The pain was staggering. It was like a small bomb had gone off right next to Lucas’s ear, setting that entire half of his face ablaze. He fell to the ground, his pain-addled brain only capable of one thought in that moment: Don’t drop your weapon.

    “That’s right,” Ferron growled. Any trace of good-natured humor that Lucas had thought to be part of his personality was now completely gone. “On your knees, boy. Pray.”

    Lucas’s ears were ringing. Nevertheless, he staggered to his feet. “Never been one for religion.”

    “That’s a shame,” Ferron said. “You’ll have nobody to beg to before I end you.”

    “Thought you said you didn’t hurt kids,” muttered Lucas, a wry smirk crossing his face.

    “But you ain’t no kid, are you?” Ferron studied the boy’s ochre eyes. “You’re a mercenary.”

    “Guess you’re right,” Lucas said. “But I got some bad news for you. I can’t die here.”

    Ferron smirked. “You’re pretty green. You think I haven’t heard that line before? ‘Oh, I can’t die here. I can’t die before I finish –’ tell it to somebody who gives a ****. Here’s the ugly truth. People with goals and dreams don’t go into this line of work. We’re the walking dead, just waiting for the moment when our hearts stop beating. And for you…”

    He rotated his wrist.

    “That moment’s pretty soon.”

    He lunged at Lucas. Pain shot through the boy’s nose as a giant palm smashed against it. He let out a muffled yell as fingers worked their way around his face. Next, another set of long, strong fingers found his neck, choking, squeezing the life out of him. He felt himself being driven backward against his will, his feet dragging against the ground before leaving it entirely. He snarled as his back hit the hard, unforgiving concrete floor. He rolled a couple of times before finally coming to a halt, once again on his face.

    He tried to rise. As quickly as he staggered to his feet, he was struck down once again. He fell with a whimper.

    “Stay down!” snarled Ferron.

    The next moment, Lucas felt a hard impact into his back. He felt his chest forced violently against the floor. He felt a familiar but horrifying pain shoot through his torso. It happened too quickly for his brain to contemplate his own dignity. A scream escaped him, foreign-sounding even to his own ears as his voice echoed through the warehouse. The next thing he knew, he was flailing, kicking his legs like a toddler throwing a tantrum as he rolled around, his arms locked tightly over the sharp pain in his chest. After facing upward for a brief moment offered no relief, he turned back toward the ground, burying his face in it and kicking the floor with his feet. Snarls and small yells leaked forth from his throat as his eyes began to water.


    Nalani and Wheels passed aisle after aisle, glancing down each for any signs of trouble. No longer sprinting, they were walking at a brisk clip, not knowing exactly where they were going…just knowing it was as far away from the fight as possible. Nalani had the cylinder with the portrait slung over her shoulder. With every step they took, the uneasy feeling in Nalani’s chest grew.

    “You’re going to go back, aren’t you?” Wheels suddenly piped up.

    “I…” Nalani stammered for a half-second. “I can’t. Someone has to keep the cylinder.”

    “I’ll carry it,” Wheels said, not sounding quite confident herself.

    “And run into Niko alone? Hell, no,” Nalani replied vehemently.

    “YEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGG GGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!”

    Nalani froze. It was as if her very blood had suddenly run cold in her body. She knew that scream. Or rather, she knew the voice. She had never heard him scream like that before. That was only one thing:

    Pain – agony the amount of which her suddenly scrambled brain could not hope to fathom. After all, his threshold for pain was tremendous by most standards. And even if something hurt him, he did not often let it on. He’d been nicked, bruised, scraped and sometimes worse more times than she cared to count. But so often, he treated those injuries as mere trifles, as if he dealt with them every day. That’s what made him so hard to beat in a fight – not so much because he could hit hard like Wil, or move quickly like her, but because he was the type that did not quit as long as he was still conscious. His mind simply did not default to surrender, or to agonized screams like the one she had just heard. He kept all of his pain as close to the vest as possible; that was one of his most admirable – and irritating – qualities.

    So, to get this kind of reaction, he must have been…

    No.

    She shook her head quickly; they had to keep going.

    She heard the scream again. Her hand clenched over her staff. She snarled, angry at herself as she shook her head harder.

    “****!” she swore. “What’s wrong with me…?”

    She took a step forward just in time to notice the hand flying through the air.

    The palm caught her smartly on the cheek; the sound echoed against the walls once and in her ear once more. She staggered on the spot, and her blue eyes flashed as they came to rest on the one whose hand was to blame for the stinging pain throbbing in her jaw…

    “Don’t be a damn fool!” Wheels stood before her, her fists clenched. “What twisted parallel universe do you come from?! Why don’t you get it? There’s nothing wrong with .you…except that, well…”

    She trailed off.

    “Except what?” Nalani snarled, looking behind her as she heard Lucas yell again.

    “Except that you’re in love with him.”

    Nalani’s eyes glossed over for a moment.

    “Take that back.”

    “What?” Wheels seemed surprised by Nalani’s reaction. “Why should I?”

    Nalani heard Lucas yell out in pain again.

    “Hurry up!” Wheels exclaimed. “What the hell are you standing here for?”

    “I…” Nalani uttered tremulously.

    “If we don’t get paid, we don’t get paid,” Wheels interrupted. “Like you care much about the mission anyway. You’re just trying to distract yourself. I hope you’ll still feel like it was worth it if Lucas ends up dead!”

    Wheels took one look at Nalani’s face and realized that she may have gone too far. A blank look seized the girl’s eyes as they narrowed inside her skull. She shook her head quickly, appearing to be in some sort of panic.

    “No…” she repeated breathlessly. She started to mutter to herself. “No…he won’t die. He can’t…”

    Letting out a strangled cry, she turned on her heel and broke into a full sprint.


    “That’ll teach you to…disrespect me! This is my house!”

    “Ow! Wil, help!”

    “GET AWAY FROM HIM, YOU WORTHLESS DRUNK!!”

    Ferron heard the shout and turned his attention from the downed boy at his feet. A curtain of dark brown hair completely covered the face of a young man that was rising unsteadily to his feet. He staggered on the spot and smoothed his hair back behind his head. He looked unbalanced, unstable…and not just physically.
    .
    “Just a dream…” he muttered to himself, smoothing his hair back again and grasping his face with his palm. Ferron stared at him, one of his lips curling as he let out a low growl of disdain. Slowly, though, the youth’s eyes (or at least the one that Ferron could see) focused squarely on him. The young man was hunched over for a moment, arms dangling limply at his sides as he moved with the look of something not quite human. After a few seconds, he straightened a bit. His limp arms stiffened and the hands clenched into fists. Every muscle in the youth’s ample biceps and triceps seemed to tauten with this action. The young man’s head snapped up again. Long, disheveled brown hair covered only one of his eyes. The second had a manic glint as he stared Ferron down.

    “You…back…the hell off.”

    “Or what?” Ferron snarled.

    Wil charged.

    “Head on again?” the behemoth mercenary cracked his massive neck from side to side. “You’re a damn fool, know that?”

    Wil arrived and swung. Ferron’s halfhearted block wasn’t nearly enough, and he took the fist full on in the face. He let out a grunt of shock as he felt his nose skew and break. He staggered backward just in time to see Wil rearing back with another fist. This time, Ferron was ready. He grabbed Wil’s head with his hand, drove a knee into his ribcage, and threw him aside to the ground. A low growl escaped him as he looked Wil over. The latter appeared unable to move for the moment.

    “Good for you,” Ferron said. “You just really pissed me off.”

    Lucas watched Ferron’s large legs and feet coming closer and closer.

    ****…I can’t move. My ribs…

    “People like you are the reason I can’t afford to be nice,” Ferron said, arriving at Lucas’s side. “I should have squashed your head like a grape when I had the chance.”

    Lucas tried to move, but every small motion was agony on his ribs. This was clearly worse than the last time.

    “No use squirming now.” Ferron seemed to be taunting him. “If you stay still, I promise I’ll make it as quick as possible.”

    Lucas watched as his own head fell into the shadow of Ferron’s massive foot. He was wearing boots. This was going to be bad. He didn’t know if it was possible to crush someone’s head by simply stomping on it, but he knew Ferron was going to try.

    That’s it, then…

    I can’t even be angry right now. It’s what I deserve. I didn’t have enough strength.

    I never got to ask if any Blackthorns ever died on their journey. Then again, I’ve only got half Blackthorn genes. The other half were my old man’s. I guess that was the problem.

    Demitra…who’s going to take care of her?

    I hope Nalani’s safe…but I wish I’d had the chance to ask her…to ask her if, well…

    …If she meant it or not…


    “Don’t you take another step.”

    Lucas heard the voice and reacted instantly. Even though it felt like death to his ribs, he could not help but start yelling in his panic. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?! WHY THE **** DID YOU COME BACK?!”

    “Now what?” Ferron snapped, clearly frustrated, as he turned around. “This is turning into a joke. You seriously think you’re going to hurt me, little girl?”

    Thirty feet away stood Nalani Clement. Her blue eyes expressionless, she held her staff at her side, her shoulders rising and falling with every breath as she tried, at least for a few more moments, to keep control of the fury that was beginning to bubble over inside her.

    “I’m only going to tell you once,” she said breathlessly, her voice sounding panicky and scared more than anything – as if she was barely keeping control of herself…as if she was afraid of what would happen when that control finally broke. “Get away from him.”

    “No,” Ferron answered bluntly. “You’re a little girl with a not-so-little stick…you think you scare me? Let me show you exactly what happens when people try to pick a fight with me. Watch and learn.”

    Before Lucas could even think to react, Ferron was stepping on his chest again. He let out a scream. It felt like his entire ribcage would give way soon.

    “STOP IT!” In his pain-induced haze, Lucas had just enough awareness to recognize the direction of the yell. Since there was only one person in that direction, he knew who it was…but it sounded so unlike anything his ears had ever heard. It was a high-pitched scream and a low-pitched growl at the same time – like it had come from some sort of hell spawn. Stop it…get away…

    But Nalani, of course, did not hear Lucas’s thoughts – and even if she did, nothing could have stopped her. She charged, brandishing her staff, her eyes wide with madness, her teeth gnashing with blind fury. Ferron stood stoically, confident he could handle anything this latest child opponent threw at him. She struck him on the shoulder when she arrived. He felt the impact, but no pain. She leapt into the air – much higher than Ferron anticipated. He took a half-step back and looked up at her curiously. He caught her incoming foot. Then she raked her hand across his face…

    He cried out loudly as something sharp and extremely painful made its way into his eyeball. He lost his grip on Nalani, who landed on her feet. She looked down at her bleeding hand. Some of the skin had been ripped away, and fragments of crushed glass were still in her palm. She clenched it into a fist as she looked up at Ferron, who was still staggering. Her staff was still in her hand. She looked briefly at Lucas, who was still lying on the ground, barely conscious.

    She slammed the butt end of her staff against the floor. The weapon morphed. The top end began to peel away like the petals of a blooming flower. At their center was a blade – folded steel, four inches long. Somehow, it was almost beautiful in its construction. One might even say…its beauty was to die for.

    Nalani pointing the spear forward and at Ferron. “I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL!!”

    She took several paces and lunged, throwing all her weight and power behind the spear tip.

    “GUARGH~”

    Ferron caught it, but too late. Blood spurted forth from the new wound in his torso. He looked down at the spear for a moment, then staggered backward clumsily. Nalani got a good look at Ferron’s face as well. It was contorted in pain, and blood ran from a half-closed left eye and down his cheek. Ferron pushed the spear out of his belly, then tried to wrest it from Nalani’s grip. She failed to let go and went flying as Ferron swung the weapon around. Lucas saw her slam into the ground, right next to him. Her back hit first, and much to Lucas’s horror, her head hit immediately afterward. Her blue eyes shone as they found his. She was still conscious, but clearly hurt. She crawled, dragged herself closer to him.

    “****…” Ferron grunted, lumbering around. Nalani continued to crawl, staring at Ferron and clawing at the ground to drag herself just a few more inches. Ferron looked at the weapon in his hand…and drove its shaft around his knee. The spear bent double before Ferron tossed it away into the shadows. He himself doubled over right after, growling like a wounded beast. Meanwhile, Nalani continued to drag herself. The next thing she did, Lucas could not understand, and he wished she had not done it. With one final lunge, she stretched herself out over his injured chest, before going limp with most of her body weight right on top of his injured ribs.

    “Ferron.”

    Lucas heard a raspy voice, and immediately a hot surge of rage built up inside of him. Too bad that, between his obviously broken ribs and Nalani’s dead weight on his chest, he couldn’t move. Then his body fell into shadow.

    “Stay back.” He heard Wil’s tired, beleaguered voice come from the large figure. “Don’t hurt them anymore. Take the portrait and go.”

    “You’re ********tin’ me,” Ferron growled.

    “Ferron!” Niko’s voice shouted. “You’re hurt and we’ve gotten what we came for. There’s no use pressing this any farther. Not to mention the police will be here soon. Our ark is waiting.”

    “Police?” Ferron repeated. “That’s your own damn fault for being too hotheaded.”

    “You’re probably right, but…he nearly shot Bella,” Niko answered. “It’s my job to protect her – my only job, actually. I’d much rather have his blood on my hands than hers.”

    “Hmph.” Ferron seemed amused of all things. “And how do you think Miss Bella feels about all this?”

    “I’m sure she appreciates the risks I take to keep her safe,” Niko answered.

    “I think she more than ‘appreciates’,” Ferron chuckled, grunting soon after – probably due to the rather sizable hole in his gut.

    “I don’t know what you mean.” Niko sounded very matter-of-fact…

    “Of course you don’t.” …And Ferron seemed to be taunting him a bit.

    I don’t, either…

    The lights above Lucas began to swim. They bled together until, finally, all he could see was white.

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    He opened his eyes. He felt something tickling his face.

    He inhaled deeply.

    Grass?

    His golden-brown eyes looked left, then right. Indeed, he was face-up in a field of long but fine grass. He sat up slowly, looking himself over. His skin, though a little bit tanner than normal (he made a note of the clear, blue sky and the bright sun shining down on him), was cleaner than he had perhaps ever seen it in his life. A gentle breeze blew as he looked around himself. Small flowers dotted this peaceful meadow. He was atop a hill, and he could just glimpse some crisp, clean-looking water in the distance. It seemed to be a lake or a pond of some sort, so immaculate that it reflected the blue of the clear, high sky. Lucas was confused.

    Where am I?

    How’d I get here?


    “Hey, you!” a little kid’s voice shouted – a bit rudely, Lucas thought. He looked up and around for the small person. Not seeing anyone, he stood. A second later, something bowled into him. Completely unprepared, he lost his balance and toppled. The next thing he knew, he was rolling down the hill with something – or someone – attached to him and screaming wildly. With a thud and a slight breathless feeling that went away in a couple of seconds, he hit his back at the nadir of the hill. A new form arrived right next to him, draped in white. It let out a squeal of delight and its belly rose and fell with deep breaths. It turned over and stretched itself out right on top of Lucas’s chest.

    She was a little girl…well, not quite ‘little’. She was probably older than Diamond – maybe seven or eight. Her hair was long, dark plum, and a bit shiny. Her eyes were a striking blue that seemed so dazzling, and yet so familiar…

    “Um…hi,” Lucas murmured, a bit bewildered. He tried to give the little girl a smile – but not nearly one as big as the one she was giving him. That would have made his face hurt. “What’s your name?”

    The little girl’s smile melted off her face. She looked sad. “I thought you knew my name.”

    “You…you look like somebody I know,” Lucas said. “But you can’t be her…you’re not old enough.”

    “You know me...silly,” the little girl said. She finally stood to her feet. Lucas had stood to her feet. “Come on, get up! You have to take a bath.”

    I’m all for hygiene, but…who does she think she is? My mom or something?

    “What are you talking about?” Lucas had allowed the little girl to lead him to the side of the lake. He stood there for a second, then looked at her.

    “What are you doing?” the violet-haired girl asked, pointing to the pristine lake. “Get in!”

    “Not while you’re standing here,” Lucas uttered defensively. “Go away.”

    The little girl folded her arms. “You’re being mean this morning.”

    Lucas groaned. “I’m sorry, it’s just…it’s kind of weird if you stand there and watch me take a bath, isn’t it?”

    “Watch?” the little girl repeated. “I’m not watching, silly. I’m going to get in with you.”

    Lucas looked at her and took a step back. “That’s even weirder.”

    “You’re being weird,” she said. “We get in the water together every morning. We’re friends, remember?”

    How do I get it across to this little girl that it’s…well, kind of awkward for boys and girls to take baths together?

    Okay…calm down. You’ve had this conversation once before.

    No, I haven’t. I just kind of looked at Diamond like she was nuts until Aunt Marcia bailed me out.


    Lucas never got far in his thought process because, a second later, he was in the water. He surfaced, spluttering for a moment and treading water in surprise. Another moment and a big splash later, the violet-haired little girl emerged in front of him. Lucas’s first instinct was to yell at her for being so childish, but seeing her smile, so serene, so peaceful, like everything in her little world was right at this very moment…he didn’t have the heart to say otherwise.

    She smiled, her eyes closed as she faced up toward the sun. She opened them again and floated almost impossibly close before clinging to him with a many-limbed, almost spider-like embrace. Her head was right next to his, so he heard every word as she whispered right into his ear.

    “I have a secret. You promise not to tell anybody?”

    “Uh…sure,” Lucas uttered, growing more and more bewildered by the moment.

    “Okay. Tee-hee!” the little girl giggled. Then she squeezed him with near bone-crunching force. After a couple seconds of this sudden pain, Lucas felt that he could actually feel bones crunching. His eyes rolled back, focused straight on the sun…


    “Ow!” Lucas snarled, sitting upright and feeling for his ribs. His brain immediately flashed back to that first time… Talk about some serious déjà vu.

    Except, this time, the walls weren’t white. He looked around. If he didn’t know any better, he’d have thought that he was inside…an airship?

    “Rise and shine, *****,” a somewhat-familiar voice laughed.

    “C’mon, Ricky, don’t tease him,” Lucas heard Wheels interject. “He’s had a rough day.”

    I can’t believe I’m thinking this, but I wish I could go back to when a ‘rough day’ meant I was getting harassed by my neighbors for not having my shirt tucked in. Less than a year ago, that was a ‘rough day’…not getting beaten half to death by a guy five times my size.

    “Are we on…the Eliza?” Lucas grunted.

    “That’s a roger,” Ricky looked back from the controls, all the way at the front. Lucas could see Ricky’s brother, Diego, up there as well. The two may have been brothers, but they were polar opposites. Diego was somewhat shy, even though he seemed nice enough. Ricky wasn’t bad either, but he was…well, a loudmouth. Wheels, on the other hand, had stood up and walked over to him.

    “You okay?” she asked.

    “The hell kind of question is that?” Lucas groaned, unable to control his irritation. “I think all thirty of my ribs are broken.”

    “Thirty?” Wheels repeated quizzically. “I’m no medical expert, but, uh…I don’t think we have thirty ribs.”

    “That’s just my point,” Lucas muttered, holding his gut.

    “You and those ribs, man…” Ricky grunted. “What’s wrong with your ribcage, bro? Is it made outta glass or something?”

    “Get bent,” retorted Lucas flatly. “People just like pounding it for some reason.”

    “That’s what she said,” Wil walked in to the cabin through a sliding door. Lucas tried to sigh and immediately regretted it. He looked up at Wil. Wil might have read his mind, because his very next sentence was, “Yeah, she’s alive. Got her bell rung pretty good, though.”

    As if driven by some sort of outside compulsion, Lucas grabbed onto a piping on the airship’s inner wall, beginning to try to pull himself up to his feet. Almost instantly, Wheels and Wil both began to move to stop it.

    “Yo!” Wil shouted.

    “Hey, stay down – relax,” Wheels attempted to grab Lucas’s arm. Despite paying for it later with hardly bearable pain, Lucas shrugged her off – rather forcefully.

    “Get off!” he said loudly as he finally got his feet under him and started to walk. This new, strange instinct drove him toward the door in the back of the cabin, to where he knew the sleeping room was.

    As he went through, Wheels turned to Wil.

    “This could be good,” she commented, a mischievous smile on her face. “We should film it.”

    “Nah…” Wil sighed, hunched over a bit because of his own injuries. For his part, he was just glad Wheels was back to her normal self. “Let ‘em have their moment.”

    The door slid open to reveal a very small room. A grown man could not have stretched himself out much more than once in any direction. White cots lined two of the walls, between them was an aisle that ended with a small chair. In the cot directly at his right side was a girl, staring somewhat blankly into the ceiling. Her violet hair was down, like a sheet separating her neck, shoulders, and back from the mattress itself. Lucas dragged himself over to the chair and spun into it.

    A clock ticked somewhere in the room, ticking away several seconds of silence.

    Until, finally, Lucas could take no more. The image of her stretching herself over him, using what could have been her last few seconds of consciousness to guard him from danger…it was burned into his brain. “Why did you do it?”

    She responded by turning her head to look at him. She then turned her head toward the wall.

    “I felt like…like I couldn’t lose you,” she said. Lucas could tell by the tone that this was not a statement of endearment. In fact, it felt as cold as cold could be – almost as if she was using that fact as an insult. Maybe it was an insult to him.

    Maybe it was an insult to herself.

    “I…” Lucas felt something inside his throat, choking him. He went silent. It had been a long time – years, in fact – since something had made him feel this much of whatever it was. “I…There’s something…”

    “Get out.”

    Lucas stared at Nalani for a second, dumbfounded.

    “Wh…Lani…”

    Get – out.” She repeated herself. Lucas, still stunned, took one of the two or three steps it took to cross the room….stopped halfway, and then whirled around.

    “I can’t,” he answered defiantly. “I have something to tell you.”

    “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.”

    Lucas felt a pain start to swell inside his chest – a pain that he wasn’t sure had anything to do with his ribs.

    “What…why?” he could only murmur in disbelief. “I don’t understand…”

    She didn’t explain. She didn’t say another word. In fact, she didn’t even look him in the eye. It was then that Lucas realized (with a terrible sinking feeling) that this was a lost cause. He stood and silently trudged out.

    …continue…

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  16. #141
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    Default Chapter 29-2

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    “Yep, a couple of them are broken for sure. You’re in for about a six-to-eight-week recovery period. It’s not my job to ask what you were doing, but I’d probably advise you to not do it for at least that long. You’re lucky you’re young and not my age, or else it’d be longer. Even luckier that you didn’t puncture a lung.”

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
    September 25, PA 2019
    Davison-Fleetwood Memorial Hospital, Cadlamere City
    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~


    Aided by Wil and Wheels, Nalani crawled into the guild van. Lucas, who arguably needed more help, went in after her. Every tweak, every motion he made with his body brought a new, fresh pain to his chest. Finally, he managed to get his belt on. By this time, Wheels had climbed back into the driver’s seat and started the van, and Wil was in the passenger’s seat right next to her. The young cell captain let out a sigh.

    “God, what a mess…” he groaned. “Between your ribs and her concussion, it looks like Cell Five is gonna be out of commission for a while.”

    “No…” Lucas murmured, clutching his ribs. He took a deep breath. “I’ll be back in a month.”

    “Don’t do that,” Wil sighed. “There’s no use trying to push yourself. That’s not gonna make it heal any faster.”

    “We didn’t even get the job done…” Lucas grunted, watching the city pass him by outside of his window. “It’s all my fault.”

    “Don’t beat yourself up, man,” Wil answered. “I’m the one that decided to surrender so you two wouldn’t get hurt any worse. And you know what? If I had to do it all over, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

    “Don’t say that to me,” Lucas snarled. “I’m supposed to be expendable…the guy nobody was going to miss…”

    “…Well, I know one person that misses you,” Wil said. Lucas couldn’t tell if Wil was teasing him or not. “She’s been waiting on pins and needles for you to come back.”

    Lucas sat back in his seat, glancing toward Nalani to see her reaction.

    There was none.


    “You three get out here and go on in. I’ll take the van down to park it.”

    By the time Wheels let them out at the front of the Compound, Lucas’s brain was a mess. He’d had his chest stomped on literally, metaphorically, physically, emotionally…any way he could have possibly been hurt, he was hurt. He was also confused. He wasn’t supposed to matter to these people, was he? But they all risked their lives to try to keep him safe, and it hadn’t been the first time. He had thought it so easy…the prospect of killing himself (or at least a part of himself) to save those he cared for most. Because people could live without him. He was an obnoxious brat at home – no matter how much his family liked to sugarcoat it with words like “strong-willed” and “independent” and other ******** like that. And to the guild? He was the green new kid that by most accounts didn’t really belong there. He wasn’t supposed to matter. He wasn’t supposed to be missed.

    The doors slid open. Nadia was working on the computer. Chad was there, sitting on the desk somewhat casually. Then, he jumped to his feet and walked over to Wil. They clutched each other’s hands and clapped each other’s backs before Chad walked out without saying a word.

    “He was really worried about you guys,” Nadia commented with a small smile. “Don’t make fun of him too much for it.”

    “Wouldn’t dream of it,” Wil answered with a smirk.

    Lucas caught a glimpse of Nalani, walking away from the others and toward the elevator, completely by herself. Just as she got there, a loud PING sounded in the lobby and the door opened. Another girl about the same age stepped out. Her hair was a flaming vermilion, not unlike Nadia’s. But the pale face (which seemed even paler in her surprise) and the eyes were unmistakable.

    “Luc,” she said in the smallest of whispers.

    Either she did not know that Lucas had a couple of broken ribs, or she simply did not care, for her next action was to run full speed and literally throw herself at him. Her head slammed into his injured chest, making him stagger backward. He let out a groan and resisted a sudden and alarming urge to throw her to the ground.

    “Oh, god…” she whispered. “I heard you had to go to the hospital and I thought…”

    He shook his head, a surge of anger bubbling just underneath the surface of his expression. “You don’t get it. Nobody ****ing gets it.”

    Lucas finally guided her away from him and set off toward the elevator without another word.


    That seemed like it had been forever ago. It was now midday; clouds had gathered in the sky and a shower looked to be imminent. But Lucas stayed put where he was, on the bench on the balcony of their fifth-floor apartment. He’d be protected by the awning overhead. Even if that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t matter much. Lucas couldn’t bring himself to move from his place. He would have simply been wet.

    Finally, the sound of a door sliding open got his attention. Wil was standing right outside the door, looking somber. He walked over to where Lucas was sitting on the bench and sat right next to him.

    It was so dumb. And the worst part about it? The one person he felt he could have talked to about it…was the source of the problem. But he had no one else to talk to, and it was like the words just came out. Wil had apparently decided to start speaking, too. “Lucas –”

    “I don’t understand,” he said blankly. “I mean…how can you risk your life for someone one moment…and then you don’t want to talk to them the next? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

    “A lot of things people do don’t make sense,” Wil answered. Lucas grimaced in frustration; that was really the best he had? The young man took a deep breath. “You probably would have noticed anyway, but I thought I should tell you…Nalani’s not with us anymore.”

    Lucas went slightly slack-jawed as he turned his head to Wil for a moment. He turned forward again, and Wil noticed a fire appear to leave his eyes. Not since the first day they met had he seen the boy look so defeated, so pathetic.

    “Not with us, huh?” murmured Lucas, trying and failing to sit up straight.

    “She just…moved out. Didn’t say much to me about where she was going. Then I talked to Annette,” Wil said.

    “What’s Annette gotta do with anything?” Lucas asked.

    “Annette said Nalani asked to be taken on as a trainee in her cell,” Wil explained. Lucas made a bewildered face.

    “What? So, she’s still with the guild, but she’s just…gone? Like that?”

    There was a long silence, during which Lucas tried to let this sink in.

    “What did you say to her in that room?” Wil asked.

    “I never got it out,” Lucas answered, a bit of savagery coloring his voice.

    “Well…what were you going to say to her?” Wil questioned.

    Lucas took a deep breath. “It…it doesn’t matter now.”

    “Of course it matters,” Wil answered, trying to sound calm. “You’re obviously hurt–”

    “I said it doesn’t matter,” repeated Lucas tersely. “She’s going to do what she’s going to do. If there’s anything I still know about her, it’s that. What about us, though? Us two…Trent can’t expect us to run missions if it’s just the two of us, can he?”

    “It’s kind of a moot point, isn’t it?” Wil asked. “You’re probably out of commission until November – unless you get well enough to do a couple of matches at the Arena or something. We’ll find a way to replace her…oh, ****, that came out wrong. I’m –”

    “I know what you meant,” the younger boy said heavily. Suddenly, Wil clapped him on the shoulder, and Lucas immediately wished he hadn’t. Wil, with his strong hands, had hit him so hard that he felt the impact around his ribs.

    “I’m just glad you’re in one piece. Or at least few enough pieces that the doctors could put you back together again,” Wil answered. He let out a sigh. “You know, we’ve been roommates about four months now, and I still never told you why you stood out to me back then.”

    Lucas had always wondered about that. Wil, being a fighter himself, knew strength when he saw it. Though Lucas was certainly strong by the standards of a thirteen-year-old boy, he was sure he wasn’t the strongest fighter in Carona. He had no experience with…anything, really. So why? Why didn’t Wil pick someone a bit older, a bit more polished in the mercenary craft?

    “You remind me of someone,” Wil said. He took a deep breath. “My little brother.”

    Lucas had heard Wil mention his family in passing once or twice, but that was it. As seemed to be the theme in mercenary circles, he didn’t talk much about anything that was a part of his life before he joined the guild – except maybe Jen.

    “Yeah…when I joined the guild, he was about the same age as you are now,” Wil looked intently at the horizon. The skies seemed to be darkening with every passing moment. “He had a strong will but he was mad at the world... Really, he was mad at our dad for taking off and leaving us when we were little…mad at our mom for hooking up with an alcoholic. Mad at himself, too. He thought, maybe if he’d been born different, our dad would have stayed around…just…he was just…pissed off at everything.”

    Lucas eyed Wil a bit dubiously. He didn’t carry that much anger around, did he?

    “But it’s like I said,” Wil said. “Everything that should have broken him just hardened him more. By the time he hit his teens, I barely recognized him. He wasn’t just driven…he was obsessed. Obsessed with being the best at what he did, to prove to our father that he was a son worth staying around for. And you have that same obsession. You’re consumed with…something. What is it?”

    “Why do you want to know?” asked Lucas with a guarded done.

    “So I can help my friend,” Wil answered. These words made Lucas snap.

    “I’m not your friend!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet.

    “Why not?”

    “Because I don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Lucas replied slowly, slumping down again. “I’m not supposed to matter. I’m supposed to be extra…expendable. My whole purpose in life…”

    He clenched his fists.

    “It depends on me being the guy that nobody’s going to miss. And if I can’t be that…I can’t do what I came here to do.”

    Wil eyed him for a moment…then stood and walked toward the door. “You really want to be a loner, huh?”

    “I have to be,” Lucas answered. Wil sighed and shook his head.

    “There’s **** you’ve gotta do,” he said. “You don’t have to be anything.”

    As Wil slipped inside, Lucas watched the rain start to fall. It gave little warning to its weight as it shifted from mere drizzle to torrent in what seemed like a matter of seconds.

    “I don’t have to be…” Lucas repeated to himself. It didn’t make any sense.

    “L-Lucas?”

    “That doesn’t make…” By this time, Lucas was tapping his forehead against the brick wall. He whirled around in a rage. “THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE AT ALL!”

    Demitra was standing a couple of steps in front of him, looking a bit bemused. Red-haired, white-faced, she started mumbling again.

    “L-Lucas?”

    “Go away, I’m trying to think,” the boy snarled tersely, plopping himself town with almost tailbone-crunching force on the nearby bench.

    “I was…I was just wondering…wondering if…” she murmured, barely audible above the torrential downpour.

    “What?” Lucas looked up. His jaw tightened as he looked away from her and into the rain again.

    “You make me sick.”

    Demitra let out a gasp that was louder than anything she’d tried to say so far. “Wh-what do you mean by…”

    “JUST SPIT IT OUT, GODDAMMIT!” Lucas jumped to his feet. He was already about a head taller than Demitra, but in his rage, he seemed like a giant to her insect. The girl, instantly frightened, tearful, and pale as death itself, shrank into the nearest wall, sobbing and whimpering as Lucas backed her down. “TELL ME WHAT THE **** IS ON YOUR MIND! STOP BEATING AROUND THE BUSH LIKE A DAMN COWARD! WHAT THE **** IS HOLDING YOU BACK, HUH? I CAN’T ****ING HANDLE IT? IS THAT WHAT YOU THINK? I’M NOT WEAK! I – AM NOT – ****ING – WEAK!! I’M A MAN!!! I CAN TAKE WHATEVER THE **** YOU OR ANYBODY ELSE THROWS AT ME! I CAN – I can…”

    He backed away. He had run out of coherent words to scream, and it was just then that he got a look at the target of all of his fury. Her face was contorted with anguish. She was sobbing so hard that she could no longer form words, either. It seemed to take all of her effort to open the door and scamper back inside, taking just enough time to slide the door closed before putting distance between herself and Lucas as quickly as humanly possible.

    Lucas staggered to the balcony and stuck his head out over the railing. Instantly his hair and face were drenched. He shut his eyes tight for a few seconds, allowed the torrents of water to wash over him…

    He slumped back onto the bench, groping at his eyes, which were still dripping water. He took a couple of ragged breaths and clumsily pawed away at his face again.

    “It’s just the rain…that’s all…”

    END

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  17. #142
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    What a way to set off to a meeting with: a chapter in the reading and a evening with God. How can it get better than this?

    First post? Aww, you shouldn't have! XD

    Well, this took a while to get back to, leaving Diddy to basically sum the whole chapter up. Glad I'm not the only one who feels Demitra is owed an apology. And to add to that Nalani needs a reality check, and fast. She should be the last person on the cast running away from anything, given her Ax Crazy tendencies.

    So another (and possibly final) fail for Cell Five, and with Nalani leaving the Cell, will Wil and Lucas ever get another. The ruddy suspense mounts. :P

    L@er!
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  18. #143
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    Well... that was all kinds of intense.

    First of all, we had the fight scene in the warehouse with Ferron proving how strong he actually is. Cell 5 just couldn't get anything started and he was just bowling them over like nothing. I think if Nalani hadn't have done what little damage she did, he wouldn't have any reason not to stick around and finish the job. I think this was good for the story though, it proves the strength of the antagonists and it proves the fallability of the protagonists. It's also set up some nice little drama/conflict between the members of Cell 5, what with Nalani leaving the Cell and all. It also gave Lucas a lot to think about and it gives him a reason to better himself (and apologise to Demitra for being a mean, grumpy meanie-pants)

    Although I don't think I can blame him for being a little confused, Nalani isn't exactly acting in the most straight-forward of manners.

    Also, at first glance, I thought the chapter was called, The Expandable Man. Which would have been oddly hilarious. ANWAY, I had lots of fun reading this chapter and eagerly await the next installment. Things are setting up to be lots of fun.
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

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  19. #144
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    *snore* zzzzZZZZZzzzz....

    *snore* zzzzZZZZZzzz-

    Hm-? Oh, did AD finally post? Okay, then, let's get this party started!

    Air Dragon:

    Well, this took a while to get back to, leaving Diddy to basically sum the whole chapter up. Glad I'm not the only one who feels Demitra is owed an apology. And to add to that Nalani needs a reality check, and fast. She should be the last person on the cast running away from anything, given her Ax Crazy tendencies.
    Early Pidgey gets the Wurmple, buddy. Wait, have those two ever been in the same region~? Never mind. -_-

    Poor Demitra has the knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps it's the right place at the wrong time. And she managed to catch Lucas on the worst possible day - or maybe it's the best possible day. His cell just failed a mission, he got literally curbstomped by a giant, he's essentially headed to injured reserve for about two months...oh, and the girl that may or may not have been on the verge of being his first girlfriend just decided that she no longer wants anything to do with him. Like I said, horrible timing in one sense. Then again, if she could, say, weather the storm, Lucas is perhaps as lonely and as vulnerable as he'll ever be. So as f@$ked up as it sounds, there's an opportunity there...

    As for Nalani? Well, I intentionally avoid writing things from her point of view most of the time so that the audience is right there along with Lucas in not knowing what she's thinking.

        Spoiler:- ....:




    Diddy:

    See AD's review response for most of my responses to what you said, although I do want to highlight a few of your quotables.

    [Cell 5's failure] also gave Lucas a lot to think about and it gives him a reason to better himself (and apologise to Demitra for being a mean, grumpy meanie-pants)
    "Mean, grumpy meanie-pants?" That's being diplomatic. Lucas is more often than not something of a jerk, but that jerkishness comes more in the variety of being aloof and somewhat caustic. He can be very tender with people he cares for, though. So in that sense, this was a very out-of-character moment for Lucas. The unfortunate mental picture I was visualizing when I wrote that tirade pretty much had Lucas in the role of an abusive husband/boyfriend. But why could Lucas talk to Wil somewhat normally, and then when Demi shows up, he suddenly flips out?

    Well, I could tell you the answer, but that would spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that it's really kind of sad.


    Also, at first glance, I thought the chapter was called, The Expandable Man. Which would have been oddly hilarious.
    I lol'd so hard at this. Why? Because, as soon as I saw "Expandable Man" I thought of Choji from Naruto. :P

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  20. #145
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    Default Chapter 30: The Winds of Change

    Chapter 30: The Winds of Change

    October 13, PA 2019
    Maverick Heart Compound – Cadlamere City

    Lucas stared straight up at the metal frame of the top bunk. It wasn’t much of a view, he thought; but it was better than having to climb up and down night after night and morning after morning, bad ribs and all. It was good of Wil to switch bunks with him, even though Wil preferred not to sleep up top. His head very nearly scraped the ceiling when he sat up.

    It was something of a moot point, though. It wasn’t like Lucas had been sleeping peacefully these days. His injuries – not all of them physical – made it awfully difficult. The nightmares, which had disappeared for a while, had begun to come back. His dreams were like a slaughterhouse for anybody significant. Just about everyone he knew had died at least once. He’d died maybe three or four times in the last week. Waking up in cold sweats wasn’t all that uncommon. Of course, the fact that he was just getting over a cold didn’t help. Between the changing weather and the fact that he spent most of his time holed up in the apartment, getting sick was all too easy. In fact, yesterday – Wheels’ twentieth birthday – was the first time he’d spent much time away from the Compound for a while.

    It was also incredibly awkward.

    He and Nalani would pass each other in the halls on some occasions, but they never talked. In fact, if Lucas didn’t know any better, he would have said that she was making a point to try to avoid him.

    Everyone else was eating pizza and having a good time. Nearly everyone who could drink had a drink or two. (Except Wil, of course.) Well, in Ricardo’s case, it was probably more than two. He got louder than usual and started flirting with one of the waitresses before Wil and Diego had to drag him off. By all accounts, sober or otherwise, it should have been a fun time.

    Except that Annette – a tall blonde in her twenties with perfectly plucked, severe-looking eyebrows that made her look like she was permanently scowling – had shown up with her cell, too. Naturally that meant Nalani was with them. Camarillo’s Pizzeria was not nearly big enough for two people who wanted to avoid each other not to cross paths…

    Let alone three. Since she (understandably) did not want to be left at the Compound by herself, Demitra tagged along, too.

    The result was a long game of glance tag, and likely the most uncomfortable night Lucas had ever experienced. Even through that, though, Lucas got information. He was always gathering information. Because information had the potential for value, and it was always better to have a lot and have the option to discard some, than to have no information at all. The way Nalani interacted with Annette was completely different than the way she had bonded with Wheels. Nalani and Wheels were more like sisters, or best girlfriends. Nalani followed Annette around, but they didn’t talk much. There was certainly very little visible affection. That didn’t surprise Lucas much; Annette didn’t strike him as somebody that was affectionate or even friendly by nature. From the little he had seen of her, she was actually not so different from him. She seemed a bit out of place in social settings, and very much at home either working out or hitting something.

    Her younger brother, Daven, was a bit more outgoing. He actually walked over to Lucas and Wil at one point and struck up a conversation. Wil mentioned that Daven was about his age. Lucas wasn’t seeing it. With his curly blond hair, clean-shaven face, and gray eyes, he looked much closer to Lucas’s thirteen than he did Wil’s twenty-one.

    Then there was a guy named Simon. Simon was the third member of Cell Two. He was tall, black-haired, and so aloof that he made Annette look like a social butterfly by comparison. He didn’t seem to care much that he was at a birthday party. He seemed very intent on not socializing. On top of that, Lucas could have sworn that the one glance Simon gave them during the evening was a very dirty one directed at Wil. Wil didn’t seem to know or care much, but Lucas did wonder what the deal was with that.

    One wouldn’t have known that Simon was at the party, in fact, until a bit later in the evening when one of the other male patrons (maybe another mercenary judging by the style of dress) came over to ‘talk’ with Annette – ‘talking’ in this context meaning ‘flirting.’ The next thing Lucas knew, Simon was in the guy’s face reaming him, with Daven trying to pull Simon back. Eventually, those three and Nalani just left, allowing the others to have their fun.

    As Lucas sat there watching them, he couldn’t help thinking that the small guild of no more than fifteen was sort of like…well, sort of like a family.

    “You see, the thing about us…we don’t really have any one else we can count on but the people in that Compound.”

    Lucas remembered Wil saying that to him once. It was because of that, Wil said, that they had banded together and become a surrogate family to each other. It was only recently that Lucas had started to see the clear difference between Maverick Heart and other mercenaries. Maverick Heart were the only ones he knew that had any souls left. Among them, there was the presence of conscience, if not outright honor; and personal loyalty was not simply important. It was perhaps more important than anything else.

    He was starting to wonder if he’d made a mistake.

    In his estimation, relationships with people were getting to be more trouble than they were worth. As ruthless and as heartless as the members of Polaris Guild were, they could kill with little to no hesitation, and at the end of the day, that was what Lucas needed, wasn’t it? He had tossed the idea around in his head once or twice, but at the end of the day, it was just something that his conscience would not let him do. Who knew how many innocent people met their end, just because Polaris had a job to do and considered their success more important than people’s lives?

    Was that what was required to be strong – in this or any other world?

    BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

    A loud blaring noise made Lucas jump slightly. He knew what it was – heard it about five or six times a week, in fact – but he could never get used to it. That was the whole point, he supposed. The sound of an alarm clock was supposed to be jarring; otherwise, one would sleep right through it.

    At the same time, there were few things on earth he considered worse than hearing that sound and knowing full well that he had no intention of getting out of bed.

    “It’s Sunday, innit?” A murmur came from somewhere above him. “Turn that **** off.”

    Lucas did so, then laid back and closed his eyes, trying to go back to sleep. After a while, he gave up. He had been fortunate today; between the physical pain from his injuries and everything that had been on his mind, proper nighttime sleep eluded him a lot these days.

    He felt like an outsider – like he no longer belonged. There were so many strangers around him.

    As he approached the mirror in the bathroom (he made note of the warmth and humidity; someone had been in there right before him.) he came upon the strangest of the strangers. His hair, usually somewhat messy, was now simply a mess; not only was it longer than he ever remembered having it, but he hadn’t been too concerned with keeping it up other than washing it. He simply let it grow all over the place. Bags were under his eyes, and not just little wrinkles, either. These were the grocery bags, the huge burlap sacs of flesh that form after not getting sleep for a full day…or three. On top of that, far from losing his summer tan, his skin looked even more pale than usual.

    He looked like a zombie.

    He still had enough wherewithal to actually wash when he got into the shower. But out of the thirty or so minutes he spent in there (who gave a damn? No one else was awake) roughly twenty-seven of them were spent simply letting the water run down his back and neck. He always fiddled with the dials, too; for a little while he’d turn the water up to its scalding hottest, just to see how much pain he could handle. After – sometimes immediately after – he’d make it freezing cold. That spelt relief for five seconds and some sort of twisted, inverse Hell for the next thirty. He couldn’t quite say that he had fallen in love with the pain, but it was nice to know that he could feel something other than busted ribs and a broken heart.

    A broken heart… How strange these days were. There was a time not too long ago where he was convinced that he was above such things. Still, coming to terms with his humanity should have been a relief. Anything more or less than a human was either a god or a monster…

    He dressed again and went back into the room, lying down on the bed without pulling the covers onto himself.

    He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a monster…but how does one become calloused enough to kill a human being otherwise – even if for a good cause?

    “Hey…Wil?” He didn’t know what prompted him to do it. He just thought…maybe Wil would know. On the other hand, he was half hoping Wil was fast asleep and didn’t hear him.

    “What’s up?” No such luck.

    “You’ve been doing this a little while now, right?” Lucas asked. “This mercenary thing?”

    “About four, four and a half years,” Wil answered after a couple of seconds.

    “I bet you’ve been in some pretty dangerous situations, right?” Lucas said. “I mean…the stuff we’ve done must seem pretty tame to you.”

    “I dunno…that whole deal with the Armands got really ugly, really quick,” Wil remarked. “But I’ve seen worse, yeah.”

    “Have you ever had to kill someone?” Lucas sort of blurted the question out – otherwise, he would have lost his nerve and stumbled over it. “I mean…you know…not a hit, but…you were on the mission and things went wrong…”

    Lucas could hear Wil sigh very heavily. “Do you honestly think I want to talk about something like that?”

    Lucas was silent. It was almost like another one of those déjà vu moments. In his childish curiosity, he had once inquired about his Uncle Lorca’s battle wound. He had a very visible scar on his knee, and every now and again it would start barking on him and he’d walk with a little bit of a limp that day. Lorca told him that he had gotten the wound in “the war.” Between his history lessons and the context, Lucas knew which war Lorca was talking about. After all, Lorca was still young, and there had only been one war in his time. But Lucas, then about ten years old and without scope of the gravity of the situation, childishly asked the question, “Did you get to kill anybody?”

    “Killing isn’t a privilege for good men,” Lucas muttered the words Lorca had said to them back then.

    “Hmm?” Wil uttered curiously.

    “Nothing…just something someone told me, that’s all,” Lucas said.

    “Well, whoever said it…they’re right,” remarked Wil somberly.

    Lucas grimaced. “Yeah. I know.”

    “And to answer your question…yes, I’ve killed someone before,” Wil added heavily. “It’s not something I meant to do the first time, either. I haven’t been the same since. I see his face in my dreams every other night. Not just his face, but his parents’ faces, his baby brother and sister. That’s why I don’t kill if I can avoid it. Even though I can. I know lots of ways to make a heart stop beating. I have that power. I could snap a grown man’s neck if I wanted to, or I could put a dozen bullets right in your heart across three Ch’arad pitches if you gave me the right gun. Is that power to you?”

    “Power…” repeated Lucas. “That sure sounds like power.”

    “Power’s gotta be controlled, though. Back when I asked you why you wanted to join Maverick Heart, you pretty much said that you were looking for power,” Wil explained. “Nalani was after the same thing, even though she didn’t say it. You say you need more power. You don’t need more power. You’re not ready for more power.”

    Lucas’s lip tightened. “Look, if this is about what happened last time…”

    “That wasn’t anybody’s fault,” Wil interrupted. “Shit just…went wrong. Sometimes you play the game right and still lose. But your problem isn’t that you’re weak. Your problem is you can’t control and focus the power you already have.”

    Lucas rolled his eyes. “You sound like my old teacher.”

    “Well, maybe he had a point,” Wil said. “Why the hell do you feel the need to act like a hardass to everyone?”

    “I’m in a world full of people twice, three times my age,” the red-haired boy replied, thoroughly exasperated. “How the **** is anybody supposed to take me seriously?”

    “Who gives a damn if people take you ‘seriously’? Listen, you’re a talented fighter, and you’re tough as nails,” Wil replied. “You give it time, and your abilities will speak for themselves. A real man’s secure enough in his manhood that he doesn’t feel the need to prove it to people every time he opens his mouth.”

    “You’re talking in code,” Lucas grunted.

    “Don’t play stupid, Lucas,” Wil interjected, and he sounded as stern as Lucas had ever heard him. “You think I’m a fool? I noticed you and Demitra haven’t said three words to each other for about three weeks now. So I asked her what the problem was.”

    “You talked to her?” Lucas said.

    “Yes, and she talked back,” answered Wil almost sardonically. “Yeah, I was surprised, too. Even more surprised at what she told me. I almost didn’t want to believe it. I mean, I know you weren’t in the best mood at the time, and she probably would have been better off waiting for you to cool your heels, but…you threatened to hit her? Really?

    “Okay, stop,” Lucas snapped, jumping out of the bed and onto his feet. He backed away so he could look Wil in the eye as best he could. The cell captain was still lying down, but had his head turned toward Lucas. “That’s ********. I never put my hands on her, and if you think I would, then both of you can go straight to Hell.”

    “She doesn’t know that,” Wil answered.

    “Of course she knows that,” said Lucas dismissively.

    “Does she?” Wil sat up.

    “Yeah.”

    “Does she?” Wil asked again.

    Yes.

    He leapt off the bunk bed, and before Lucas could react, he had closed the distance between them in two strides and slammed the boy back-first into the door. His eyes were glinting, and his teeth were bared.

    “WHAT ABOUT NOW, HUH?” Lucas had never seen Wil like this before. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, his brown hair disheveled, and every bit of facial growth quivering with rage along with his jaw. It was a truly fearsome sight to behold. Lucas tried to look away. “No, you look at me, kid. LOOK AT ME! LOOK ME IN THE EYES AND TELL ME I WON’T RIP YOUR MOTHER****ING HEAD OFF!!”

    Lucas was shaking. He tried to control it; he couldn’t. The sight of 230 pounds of muscle bearing down on him in full-blown rage mode proved too much for his stoic veneer to handle.

    “Imagine you’re just like this, pinned up against a wall with a guy damn near twice your size in front of you,” Wil said, his each and every word quiet, but deadly intense. “His mouth is right in your face and as he’s yelling, you can smell the alcohol on his breath. You want so badly to fight back, to just pop him one in the face, but you value your life too much and you don’t have any ****ing idea of what he’s capable of, wasted on liquid courage. Now, imagine you’re about five-two, about a hundred pounds, and female. That’s probably close to Demi’s size, come to think of it…”

    Lucas finally mustered the courage to speak, and the words came out in a strangled growl. “I’m not drunk.”

    “YOU THINK THAT MAKES IT ANY BETTER?!” Wil had started screaming again. “AT LEAST MY STEPFATHER HAD AN EXCUSE!”

    Wil finally stepped back. Lucas propped himself up against the door. His knees – hell, he didn’t even feel like he had knees. It was like both of his legs had just been de-boned…kind of like what happened to that kid’s arm in that book he used to like so much. There was no structure – they were just there, like noodles about to collapse under him.

    “You feel that?” Wil answered. “Doesn’t feel very good, does it? And I’d say you’re a pretty tough guy. But it’s like I said…if you don’t control yourself, your power explodes and hurts people you don’t want it to hurt.”

    Wil staggered backward, looking away from Lucas.

    “I wouldn’t call my stepfather a good man by any means. And I still can’t forgive him for the other **** he did…but at least he got clean,” the young man sighed. “He cleaned himself up, and he never was a violent guy off the bottle. He came back from rehab, begged for forgiveness…and my needy doormat of a mother gave it to him.”

    Lucas frowned.

    “You’re no good to anyone out of control. You’re better than that, Lucas,” Wil said. “I’ve seen it.”

    There was a knock at the door. Lucas stepped out of the way to allow Wil past. He opened it, and there she stood, eyes downcast a bit.

    “Is everything okay?” she asked. “I…I heard a lot of yelling.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Wil answered. “Excuse me. I’m headed for the shower.”

    She stepped aside to allow Wil past, and then returned into the doorway. Her hair was a flaming ginger-red. She hadn’t changed it in the last several weeks. Her eyes were still brown, and right now they were a little bit wide. She looked like a Stantler caught in headlights. She went to turn and walk away…

    “Wait…”

    She stopped.

    “I’m sorry,” Lucas blurted out. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. I…”

    “Did it hurt you that much?” she asked. “When…when she left?”

    Lucas looked away from her. “I don’t feel like talking about that, Demi.”

    “Why not?” she asked.

    “Because…” he muttered, trying to figure out a way to say what was on his mind without being…well, mean. “That’s me and her. You don’t need to worry about it.”

    “I already am,” she said. “I mean…that wasn’t like you.”

    Lucas frowned. “How do you know that?”

    “Because I know you,” she said with an almost childish confidence. “You’re…you’re…you’re kind, gentle…”

    Lucas couldn’t help but scoff. “And you’re funny. You don’t know me at all.”

    “Not well,” she said, looking down at her feet as she shuffled them. Predictably, she was barefoot. Lucas hardly ever saw her wearing shoes unless they went out somewhere. He got the feeling she didn’t like them for whatever reason. “Not as well as I’d like…”

    Lucas smiled ironically. “You don’t want to. Trust me.”

    “B-but…” Demitra muttered, hiding her lips with her hand.

    Lucas shook his head. He walked toward the door. She was blocking it. Predictably, though, she backed down and allowed him through. He hung a hard right into the living room, intent on hopping onto the couch and turning on the television. Surely nothing good was on this early on a Sunday…but it was better than focusing on his own thoughts.

    “I do, though…”

    He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “You know how everybody always says there’s some stuff you’re better off not knowing? …They’re right.”

    “Like why my family turned into criminals? Is that something I’m better off not knowing?” she asked. She didn’t stammer, and there was more than a hint of pain and perhaps even anger in her voice. Lucas shut his eyes tight.

    “Demi…” he sighed. “Knowing hurts sometimes.”

    “Not knowing hurts worse,” she said. Her face contorted at the end of the statement, and she clenched her fists. That face she was making as she tried to resist the urge to cry…it was so unnatural. It was actually…ugly. How was that even possible? Her ginger hair flew about her as she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so…so selfish…”

    She shook her head swiftly and tore away from him and toward her room, where she tried and failed to slam the door shut. Lucas gradually walked toward the door and pried it open. She was doubled over on the bed, her body shaking every couple of seconds, either sucking or biting her thumb as she rocked back and forth.

    She looked downright pathetic.

    Lucas felt a temptation to back out, to leave her to her anguish, but…that didn’t seem right to him somehow. It bothered him to see her like this. He trudged around to the bed and crouched right in front of her. She didn’t seem to notice he was even there. He tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up. Her eyes were red. Large, fat tears were running down her cheeks even as she tried to blink them back. She took a couple of deep breaths and tried to steady herself. She swallowed hard and an uneven breath escaped her. Slowly, she put her hands on his shoulders, then somewhat around his neck. He tensed up a bit. He wasn’t used to being handled that…well, tenderly, he guessed. But it was if something that had been screaming inside him for a long time suddenly quieted. Her lips twitched a couple of times, and a couple of frightening thoughts came to the boy’s mind.

    He had seen that facial movement before…

    “You’re scared, aren’t you?”

    The scary part was…he wasn’t sure he was going to stop her.

    He didn’t think he wanted to stop her.

    In a couple of seconds, though, it was moot. Her face trembled and she lost the nerve to even look him in the eye, let alone lean in…

    “I must look so weak to you,” she said mournfully.

    “I…” Lucas lost his words. He struggled to find some, struggled against the growing knot in his throat. Eventually he just slumped down to the floor, sitting with his back against the bed, her legs dangling near his ear. “…I don’t even know what the **** ‘strong’ is…”

    She followed him to the ground, while Lucas gestured blankly, looking for more…words.

    “I…I train and I fight and I fight and I train and I fight some more,” he uttered bitterly. He felt so dirty, so much like a failure in that moment. He had been trying to avoid this for weeks. If he was going to dump his issues onto anyone, it sure wasn’t going to be her…because she had her own demons to deal with – demons she could barely handle. But the dam had broken, and everything except the tears had come flooding out. “I don’t know what the hell I’m fighting anymore. My enemies? Myself? Everything I do just feels…empty.”

    “No…” she groaned in response, shaking her head. “Don’t…don’t say that. I…you…you saved my life. Was that…empty, too?”

    Her eyes had widened somewhat. He tore himself away from them, looking down at his knees. Then he heard Demitra say a word he thought would never and should never come out of her mouth.

    “I hate her.”

    She didn’t sound like she was joking in the slightest. In fact, her voice changed when she said it – lowered…became more forceful. When Lucas looked at her, she was looking straight ahead, a blank expression etched on her tear-stained face.

    “She’s the one that did this to you,” the girl went on. “I…I hate her.”

    Lucas didn’t want Demitra to hate. It sounded so naïve, but most of him wanted her to remain that cute, innocent girl that he had met so many months before, before it all went wrong…

    “She did what was best for her – that’s all,” he finally said. She shut her eyes tightly and shook her head.

    Lucas put an arm around her. There was a look of shock on her face as the color left it. Tentatively, almost fearfully, she looked at the hand on her shoulder, then up at Lucas. When she finally understood what was happening, she seemed to take it as an invitation. She shifted close to him. When he didn’t protest, she put her arms around him gingerly…but drew back when she got a sharp hiss in return.

    Her jaw unhinged for a moment.

    “No…it’s fine. Just hurts a little,” he muttered grimly. “But don’t…I mean…it’s okay.”

    Demitra nodded hazily and embraced him again, leaning her head up against his collarbone. They stayed that way for a while. Lucas’s legs were out straight on the floor, and it should not have been the most comfortable position by any means. Still, though…he didn’t want to move. Not now. He had just come up for air, rose from a watery abyss to break the surface and feel the sun and wind on his face.

    “Demi…?” He didn’t know how much time had passed. She shifted a bit.

    “Huh?” she uttered.

    “…Why don’t you ever wear shoes?” he asked. (Her pale, bare toes were flexing in his line of sight.) “I always wondered…”

    Demitra raised her eyebrows for a second. “I, um…I guess I was raised to not like them, I guess…”

    She stood up, detaching herself physically from Lucas. He pulled himself up to his feet, too.

    “I feel more connected with something if…I can…touch it,” she said, trying and failing to avoid finishing the sentence. She didn’t look him in the eye, and Lucas noticed that her cheeks were starting to redden. “Well, that and…”

    She looked down at her feet, scraping them against the carpet.

    “When I was little, I had really bad eyesight. I probably would have gone blind. But my…my father…”

    There was a tension in the words as she said it. Lucas never had to deal with it, but he imagined it must have been tough. Even though Percival Armand had exposed himself to the public as something of a heartless monster, he was still her daddy, and somewhere in a corner of her broken heart, she still loved him.

    “He paid for surgery to fix my eyes,” she explained. “Even after that, though, I still touched things to remember what they were. I think I was scared that I’d lose my sight again one day.”

    “Not being able to see…I couldn’t imagine…” Lucas murmured. He wasn’t completely right – one of the many training exercises his martial arts teachers had given him involved hitting targets with his staff blindfolded. Even though his technique was sound and he always did well, the first time he tried it, it was scary as all hell.

    His nose started to tickle. It twitched involuntarily, giving Lucas just enough warning to know what was coming and turn his head just seconds before a sneeze exploded from his nostrils. He hissed through gnashed teeth as his ribcage screamed in protest. Favoring the area, he muttered, “Damn.”

    “How is it?” she asked, approaching him. He tried to straighten himself.

    “Slow…” he replied. “I’ll be fine sometime this year…”

    THUMP. THUMP.

    “Breakfast!” a call followed two sharp knocks on the door. Lucas made his way toward the door and opened it. He looked over his shoulder for a brief moment. A half-smile broke over the girl’s face.


    Wil, standing in front of a tray of eggs, must have heard Lucas coming before he got there, because he started talking before Lucas was even on the stool. “So…did you two kiss and make up?”

    “We made up,” Lucas answered very deliberately.

    Wil scoffed. “You’re no fun. Hey, but at least she’s easier…”

    Lucas stared at him wordlessly.

    “Okay…that didn’t sound as dirty in my head,” Wil went back to the tray.

    “Sure, it didn’t,” Lucas deadpanned. He heard the sound of a door shutting and turned in the direction of the noise. Demitra had come out. She had changed from her nightgown into a burgundy skirt over what looked like white leggings or tights. She sat down on the stool next to him. A weak smile flashed across her face.

    “Anyway…oh, hey. When’d you get here?” Wil had turned around to see Demitra sitting right in front of him.

    “Just now,” she answered.

    “Hear the weather’s supposed to be pretty good today,” Wil remarked as he prepared the plates. He set one in front of each of them, with eggs and a toasted ham sandwich. “Thought about maybe going over to see the Comets play. They’re probably gonna get their asses kicked as usual…it’d be an excuse to get outta here, though. You feeling up for it?”

    “Uh…” Lucas uttered uncertainly. “Yeah, I guess. Is Wheels coming with us?”

    There was a glass of orange juice next to him. He started to take a swig.

    “Nah,” Wil replied. “She and Diego…”

    Lucas nearly spit out his drink. He looked at Wil, his mouth a little bit agape. “No…”

    “Yep,” he replied, a light smile crossing his face. “I mean…they’re not together, but they’re…kind of how like you and…never mind.”

    “That didn’t make any sense,” commented Lucas.

    “They’re…headed that way. I guess that’s the way to put it,” Wil remarked. He grabbed a plate for himself and plopped himself on a stool on the opposite of Demitra. “I’m happy for her, though. Things haven’t been as awkward. We can actually talk like normal human beings now.”

    “Good for you,” Lucas said, pushing his eggs around on his plate and suddenly feeling a bit deflated.

    Wil let out a sigh. “Things are changing around here, Lucas. But you don’t need me to tell you that, right?”

    Lucas looked around Demitra and at Wil. And then at Demitra again. His eyes went back down to his food.

    “Guess not.”

    They ate quietly for a few minutes, until Wil stopped about halfway through his meal, then jumped to his feet and moved quickly toward his room.

    “What’s going on?” Demitra asked. Lucas shrugged his shoulders.

    A few moments later, Wil emerged with a cellphone, looking somber.

    “Wow, uh…” he uttered. “I’m…I’m really sorry.”

    There was some more talking from the person on the other end.

    “Oh. Well, I’m glad you thought enough of me to…” he uttered. The other person seemed to have interrupted him. “Yeah, I understand.”

    More talking from the other caller. Wil’s expression changed.

    “Actually, I was going to the Comets game. Yeah, yeah, I know…but I haven’t gone to one in a while, it’s Sunday, and the weather’s nice…” he said. His expression changed again – this time, to one of shock. “I…really? No, no, I mean…that’d be great. Do you need a ride? …Okay. Which entrance? …Okay. See you there…yeah. Bye.”

    He hung up and sat down at his stool again. He went to take a bite of the last of his egg, but then put the fork down, as if he couldn’t concentrate.

    “What just happened?” Lucas asked. “Who was that?”

    Wil took a couple of deep breaths. Lucas took an uncomfortable glance at Demitra. The last time he had seen Wil this rattled was…

    “That was Jen,” he finally said. “Jen Hamilton.”

    “There’s only one ‘Jen’,” Lucas replied wryly. “I know who you’re talking about. What about her?”

    “Well…she lost one of her unit this week,” Wil said, a bit too quickly, Lucas thought, for information that solemn.

    “Oh…” Lucas didn’t quite know what to make of it. “Well…that sucks.”

    “Yeah…” Wil agreed. “She was friends with the guy in Academy…actually, you might have seen him once. You remember our first big job, when we went to rescue that little girl? Van der Beek? Van der…something. Shit…I can’t remember…”

    “Yeah, I know who you’re talking about,” Lucas answered. “Dead, huh? In the line of duty, I’m guessing?”

    Wil nodded.

    “She just got promoted right before you got here,” he explained. “So she’s never gone through this before. She wanted…well, she needed to get away from everything and clear her head. So she’s taking a couple of days off, and…”

    He nodded for no good reason this time, and to no one in particular.

    “We’re going to go over early. And she’s gonna meet us there.”

    I didn’t know what to think about that. It’s probably none of my business what Wil does. If anything, I should feel happy for him, I guess, but for some reason…

    I just can’t do it.


    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
    Cadlamere Coliseum, 6:30 P.M.
    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    This line was moving extremely slowly toward the ticket booth. Lucas (wearing a camo zip-up hoodie he’d bought for the cooling weather a week back) craned his neck around Wil. There were probably about a dozen people ahead of them.

    “We should’ve gotten here way earlier,” he commented.

    “Not our fault the subway was behind schedule,” Wil remarked, shrugging his shoulders slightly. A scream came from the front of the line. Lucas gave a start and craned his neck around Wil again. A mother was dragging her crying toddler son away from the ticket booth. He was desperately resisting, literally kicking and screaming as he reached back behind himself. On the ground appeared to be a half-eaten ice cream cone, splattered all over the concrete.

    Lucas grimaced, his ears harassed by the little boy’s continued shrieks. Moments like this made him think that, if he were never to have children in his life…that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

    “Who’s that?” Demi asked all of a sudden. Lucas looked at her briefly, then looked to his right. A somewhat trim figure was coming toward them. It appeared to be a young woman. Somewhat spiky, dark teal hair flared out from a flat cap she was wearing. She was also wearing a long-sleeved black shirt – at least, that was what Lucas thought before she approached a bit closer. Her short had short sleeves that cut off at mid-bicep, but arm warmers covered everything else to the wrist – ‘covered’ being used liberally. They were full of holes and rips, and it was pretty obvious that they were more for fashion than actually keeping her forearms warm. It was right about when she approached that closely that he realized that she was walking right toward them.

    “Wil…Wil?” Lucas reached up to tap the young man on the shoulder. Wil was looking at something or someone in the opposite direction. He whirled around, and by that time, he and the young woman were only a couple of feet away from each other.

    Crowds were murmuring around them, but as far as Lucas was concerned, it might as well have been completely silent.

    “You’re late,” Wil finally said. “That’s not like you.”

    “You’re kidding, right?” the young woman replied. “Off-duty’s the only place I can be late without something really bad happening.”

    Wil seemed to forget that Lucas or anyone else was there. “Jen…”

    She took a deep breath and smirked wryly. “I’m gonna regret this.”

    “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you don’t,” Wil winked at her.

    Jen rolled her eyes. “Still cocky as always.”

    “Maybe so, but I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t, right?” Wil laughed.

    It took some doing, but Jen finally showed her teeth for a split-second. “Nope. Guess not.”

    She looked over at Lucas.

    “I suppose Wil’s told you all about me, then?” she asked.

    Lucas raised his eyebrows smugly. “Nope. Hasn’t talked about you at all.”

    To Lucas’s surprise, this elicited a giggle from Demitra and to his greater surprise, Jen gave an appreciative chuckle. She looked to Wil.

    “He gets sarcasm. I like him.” She turned toward Demitra. “Hi.”

    Demitra didn’t respond. She seemed very reluctant to look Jen in the eye.

    “This isn’t the same girl I usually see with you,” Jen commented to Wil, who shook his head. She turned back to Lucas and Demitra. “You look a little bit familiar…I don’t know why, though.”

    “Maybe…I have one of those faces? I don’t know…” Demi answered a bit nervously. Jen smiled, looking satisfied.

    “Yeah, that’s probably it.”


    Lucas thought he’d be more engrossed in the first Ch’arad match he saw in person. After all, he’d found it interesting on the television. But this wasn’t television. Wil hadn’t gotten them the best seats in the world – or rather, he got what he could. Maybe next time, he wouldn’t buy the tickets within a half-hour of when the game was to start. They weren’t particularly high up, but they were way too far toward one side of the stadium – ergo, when the action went to the opposite end, they couldn’t see much of anything. Demi was sitting to his right, at the end of a row. She wasn’t saying much. Wil certainly wasn’t talking to her – or to Lucas, for that matter. In fact, if not for a glance every now and then, Lucas was pretty sure Wil wouldn’t have known that he and Demi were there. Lucas had always approached the subject of love with a guarded curiosity. It was interesting, and at the same time, frightening, how just being around one person could cause another to change so drastically. As nervous as Wil had been when he first took Jen’s call, he seemed just as confident now, and was perhaps even a bit more uninhibited than Lucas had ever seen him. If this was a date (was it a date?), Wil never got the memo. He seemed almost impossibly comfortable and at ease. It was as if he was simply talking to a very good friend.

    Well…they were good friends, weren’t they? Good friends with a hint of romantic tension that had grown apart and hadn’t been speaking much to each other…

    The crowd roared. The guy right in front of Lucas – not a small man by any means – jumped to his feet and put his hands in the air. He was dressed in the hometown royal blue and white, though where he found a jersey to fit his frame was anybody’s guess.

    “Frankly, I’m surprised you guys even have the balls to show up in public.” The comment was so carefully tossed off that it got both Lucas’ and Demi’s attention. Jen, sitting on the other side of Wil, explained.

    “What do you mean by that?” asked Wil, sounding a bit wrong-footed.

    “Well…after that massacre back in August, there are a bunch of elements in the force that want to bring the entire mercenary network down,” Jen replied. There was a pang in Lucas’s heart as she said this. Wil, however, looked undeterred.

    “Isn’t that a normal day at the office?” he chuckled.

    “No, I mean…it’s bad, Wil. It’s really bad,” she sighed. “Of course, my father has the final say, and he’s not eager to start a citywide war – not with real criminals still on the loose.”

    “If he’s waiting for the war on crime to end before the police start a war on the mercs…” Wil said, looking forward. “He’s probably going to be waiting a little while.”

    “At the same time, though, gang members have been dying left and right,” Jen said.

    “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” commented Wil, bewildered.

    “Well…they’re still human beings,” Jen muttered, almost as if she was somewhat ashamed at her belief.

    “Surprised to hear you say that,” Wil raised his eyebrow. “I thought, after what happened with Lex, you of all people…”

    “That’s what I thought, too. I’m surprised father ever encouraged me to join the force…I told him when we were younger that I thought prison was way better than a lot of criminals deserved. But…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “Some of those gang members…I’ve had to arrest a kid about his age. He was fourteen, Wilhelm. You remember how you were when we were that age, right?”

    “I prefer not to think about it,” Wil uttered, smiling mirthlessly. “If you hadn’t ratted me out in the convenience store that day…”

    “You’re not a bad guy, though…never were,” Jen interrupted. “You were just troubled. You needed a little guidance. What if you never had that second chance at life because some…vigilante mercenary thought you were less than human?”

    Wil was silent. Lucas stood; it was probably time to go. To his surprise, Demi stood up at the same time. Both of them silently walked up the long flight of stairs toward the concourse, leaving Wil and Jen alone.

    “Whoever this person is, he’s got some sort of vendetta,” she went on. “He’s turning the gangs against each other and then picking off the survivors from the fights. You know how many mothers’ doors I’ve had to knock on and…”

    She trailed off. Wil put an arm around her while she took a deep breath. She seemed to be willing herself to not break down, but tears were nonetheless forming at the corners of her amber eyes.

    “That’s how it happened,” she said. “We went down around Delarosa to respond to another shooting. It was all out war. More of Armand’s weapons…he’ll be lucky to get multiple life sentences at this rate. But Elliott got caught in the crossfire and…”

    Wil frowned.

    “I can’t talk to anyone on duty about it,” she said. “They already think I’m where I am because of my father, and if I look weak to them…”

    She heaved a sigh and swallowed hard.

    “You could leave the force, you know…” Wil murmured seriously. “You don’t have to be there.”

    “And do what, join you?” Jen answered, a cynical amusement in her voice. “You think your people would trust an ex-cop? Never mind that my dad’s career would be sunk. All the hard work he’s done to help clean up the city…I’m not about to be selfish and mess that all up for him.”

    “Selfish?” Wil repeated. “So, you’ve thought about it.”

    “I’ve thought,” she said, sitting up straight. “And I’ve thought some more.”

    “That’s your problem,” Wil said. “You think too much.”

    He leaned toward her. She pulled back. “What are you doing?”

    “What does it look like I’m doing?” Wil asked.

    “Kiss…kiss…kiss…kiss…KISS! KISS! KISS! KISS!”

    Wil and Jen looked around. Wil set his eyes on the huge tron screen at one end of the arena. It was focused on him…and her. They were on screen, in the midst of a dark border with huge hearts and lipstick marks scattered over three sides. In huge bubble letters on the bottom were the words:

    KISS CAM

    Wil’s jaw dropped for a brief second. “Okay, I swear I had nothing to do with this.”

    Jen was alarmingly calm. It was almost as if she was resigned to whatever was going to happen next.

    “Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked, her expression almost solemn. “You’re not going to chicken out in front of thirty thousand people, are you?”

    Wil heaved a sigh and leaned in to kiss her. He stroked her face gently. He didn’t hear the crowd reaction. He didn’t know there was a crowd. When he finally drew back, there was a look of slight surprise on Jen’s face.

    “…Wow,” she said. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were actually in love with me or something.”

    Wil grimaced as he leaned back in his chair. “Jen…you don’t need me to tell you how dangerous our lives are, right?”

    “Are you kidding me?” she replied. “Me in law enforcement, you with your risky mercenary business…either one of us could die tomorrow. That’s why, even though it embarrasses me sometimes, I don’t mind that my dad tells me he loves me any time we see each other. I get it. He doesn’t know if he’s going to get another chance.”

    “Hmm…me, neither,” Wil said. He took a deep breath and just came out with it. “Jenica, I love you.”

    Jen smiled and let out a small laugh. “That’s sweet. I love you, t—”

    She stopped mid-sentence when she got a look at Wil’s face.

    “Oh, my God,” she said breathlessly, her smile now replaced by a somewhat stunned facial expression. “You’re not joking, are you?”

    “Does it look like I’m joking?” Wil asked.

    “Wha…” Jen shook her head. “Damn…damn you, Wilhelm…you know this can’t work…”

    “No, I don’t,” Wil answered, a tiny bit of defiance in his voice. “And you don’t, either.”

    “But…you left,” she said. “All that time with the Junior Militia, and then you didn’t even come home. You took off to God-knows-where, ended up here in Cadlamere…now you’re a mercenary, I’m a cop, and…”

    “I can’t see ‘police officer’ when I look at you – I just can’t,” Wil admitted. “Maybe that’s disrespectful, but I can’t do it. You were my best friend – you…When I was with the JM, almost all the other boys in my unit had brought pictures of their families and hung ‘em up in the wall of our quarters. I didn’t take mine. I took a picture of you. All the other boys called you ‘Willie’s girl from back home’…”

    Jen scoffed and rolled her eyes. “God, Wil…”

    “Some stuff happened, okay?” he said. “Some…something happened at the JM, and I ended up leaving. Your dad was the one that put in a good word for me…I didn’t feel like I could face you guys after that, but…”

    “Wil…” Jen muttered. She seemed to be at a loss for words. “Damn it, Wil. You should have said something earlier. I was half-assing it just now. I think…”

    A smile creased her face.

    “I think I’m going to need a do-over on that kiss.”

    Wil couldn’t keep from beaming. “As many as you want.”


    “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs heeeerree!” a shout came from Lucas’s left. One of the concession workers was advertising – loudly – from the large booth in that direction. Given the huge line that already existed in front of him, Lucas couldn’t help thinking that it was sort of overkill. Maybe these guys were getting paid commission or something. “Five hundred for one, seven-fifty for two, one thousand for three! Cheap, delicious hot dogs…”

    “That sounds good right about now,” commented Lucas nonetheless. “I’m really hungry – like, Snorlax hungry.”

    Demi giggled. Lucas didn’t think much of it – she giggled at practically everything he said.

    “Glad to see you’re feeling better,” he remarked. She looked back at him, puzzled.

    “What do you mean by that?” she asked.

    “Well…you were kind of down about Jen mentioning…” Lucas trailed off. He was hoping she would get the hint and he wouldn’t have to actually say it. Maybe he was wrong, but he had the feeling that the ‘massacre’ Jen was referencing was the one in which he and Demi were actually involved.

    “Hm? Oh…no…it’s fine,” she said. Suddenly, her eyes dropped toward her shoes. “Well…not ‘fine’, but…I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. I…”

    “Listen…we don’t have to talk about it anymore,” Lucas interrupted gently. “Do you…do you want some food? Maybe a soda or something? Or do you want to go back?”

    “I’m okay.” Demi shook her head. “We should give those two some time alone, don’t you think?”

    Lucas tilted his head. Maybe she was right…but he almost wondered how much of her rationale was to give Wil some time alone with Jen, and how much of it was for her to have some time alone with him. He thought about it and almost had to laugh at himself for thinking something so stupid. After all, this was Demi he was talking about. She didn’t think along those lines, did she?

    “Maybe you’re right,” he finally responded.

    He looked around Demitra to see a dark-skinned figure in a hooded vest leaning up against the pillars. As they walked by, he noticed the figure following them. He took a deep breath. “Can you stay put for a second? I need to go check something.”

    “Luc—” she started.

    “Just stay there,” he said, his voice more urgent. He kept eye contact with her for as long as he possibly could. Then he approached the hooded figure across the concourse.

    “Can I help you with something?” he asked, trying his best to keep his tone diplomatic. Inside, though, he had the feeling the guy was bad news.

    “That depends,” the hooded figure – a man – answered. “You a member of the Maverick Heart Guild?”

    “What if I am?” Lucas asked, this time more confrontationally.

    “You have any pull with the Guild Master? Trent Mathias?” the young man asked. Lucas didn’t know how to answer that. Everyone had some sort of pull with Trent. Not only was he accessible by nature, but the guild was tiny.

    “I don’t think that’s any of your business, to be honest,” he finally answered.

    “I think you’re a little bit off there, little boy,” the young man snarled. “You see, I’ve got it on good authority that a certain crime boss’s missing daughter was last seen with a kid matching your description. It wouldn’t happen to be that cute little ginger girl you’ve been walking around with, would it?”

    Lucas smirked. “Are you seriously threatening me with Percival Armand? We took him down months ago. Try again.”

    “Oh, I know that…but I wonder how the police would react if they got an anonymous tip that a sweet little girl was being held captive by a mercenary guild?”

    Lucas’s lip tightened. “We’re not holding her captive.”

    “I know that, too, but the Department doesn’t…and I doubt they’d care,” the young man explained. A nasty smile could be seen under his hood. “You’re just a kid, probably pretty green…but I bet you know the score already, don’t you? They don’t like our kind.”

    Lucas swallowed hard. “What do you want?”

    “Not much – I just need you to deliver Trent Mathias a message,” the young man answered, leaning his mouth down creepily close to Lucas’s ear.

    “Tell Mr. Mathias that Kanvar Bergen is in the market for employment.”

    END

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  21. #146
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    "Did someone say it's 'PARTY TIME!'? Do you really have to ask?"

    Here I come... ready or not. XD

    Great... Kanvar Bergen. A name that's not only too 'familiar', but never spells good news. At least not to my gut.

    So couples are beginning to take form once again, hunh? Interesting the way you're playing it, mate. Lucas and Demitra are 'on the mend' too. That's good news. Though I guess Cell Five's next "mission" will put that to the test. Sorely.

    Some parts during Lucas's opening soliloquy were a bit hard on the reading, but we got there in the end. Kudos on the first Wil and Luc scene. Very masterful, the way you show Wil is not to be messed with. At. All.

    Good read, and despite ANOTHER fire alarm interrupting my half way through (damn, I can hear it in my mind again. I need help) I thoroughly enjoyed this. Keep them coming, buddy!

    L@er!
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  22. #147
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    Okay, yesterday was a stupidly busy day for me and today my stomach is halfway between sore and violently painful, so I'll keep my comments short. Just showing my continued support.

    That Harry Potter reference during the "Wil shows Lucas how scary he can be" scene was pretty hilarious. It just came out of nowhere xD. I'm glad that it at least gave Lucas some frame of reference so he could patch things up with Demi, their relationship has always been a little one-sided, but now that Nalani is out of the picture (for now, I imagine) Lucas can't just go throwing away the relationships he still has left. I'm starting the enjoy her character more as of late, and it has nothing to do with my fondness for ginger-haired girls for a change.

    More insight into Maverick Hearts members was nice as well, we haven't really heard much about Annette's Cell have we? That Simon guy sounds like a guy I can hate, I need a new one ever since Chad became epic xD

    Keep up the good work, I can't contain a smile whenever I see a new chapter of this.
    Skogsrå

    Gardenia never liked the Old Chateau, but what if the Old Chateau liked her?

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  23. #148
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    *static*

    Houston, we have reviewers...

    Air Dragon:

    Great... Kanvar Bergen. A name that's not only too 'familiar', but never spells good news. At least not to my gut.
    Maybe it's good news, maybe it isn't... ;-)


    So couples are beginning to take form once again, hunh? Interesting the way you're playing it, mate. Lucas and Demitra are 'on the mend' too. That's good news. Though I guess Cell Five's next "mission" will put that to the test. Sorely.
    Hmm...you think so? Someone's going to get tested, that's for sure.


    Some parts during Lucas's opening soliloquy were a bit hard on the reading, but we got there in the end. Kudos on the first Wil and Luc scene. Very masterful, the way you show Wil is not to be messed with. At. All.
    You're probably right. It got really stream-of-consciousness-y in the beginning. I've tried not to do that - or at least substitute Lucas's inner monologues. It's a damn shame. I was trying to bring across the fact that Lucas had sort of hit rock bottom emotionally. Never mind the obvious romantic tension - but how would you feel if the first really good friend you ever had in your entire life just suddenly decided they wanted nothing more to do with you...and worse, you can't figure out for the life of you what the hell happened? And he was certainly feeling guilty about what he'd done to Demitra - even before Wil completely reamed him. Not to mention he feels like he let the cell down in his last mission because of the fact that he got his butt handed to him by Ferron, to the point where Wil had to give up the mission-essential item to save him. So he's trying to punish himself and it's a real mess, basically.

    So, yeah...apologies to all for some subpar writing there. I went back and edited the chapter for length (wouldn't have fit into one post otherwise). That part probably could have done with a bit more editing...if not a complete overhaul.



    Diddy:

    Okay, yesterday was a stupidly busy day for me and today my stomach is halfway between sore and violently painful, so I'll keep my comments short. Just showing my continued support.
    Really? When are you due?

    Sorry, couldn't help it. :-P Hope you're better by now.


    That Harry Potter reference during the "Wil shows Lucas how scary he can be" scene was pretty hilarious. It just came out of nowhere xD. I'm glad that it at least gave Lucas some frame of reference so he could patch things up with Demi, their relationship has always been a little one-sided, but now that Nalani is out of the picture (for now, I imagine) Lucas can't just go throwing away the relationships he still has left. I'm starting the enjoy her character more as of late, and it has nothing to do with my fondness for ginger-haired girls for a change.
    Yay, somebody caught the Harry Potter reference XD

    I wouldn't call the relationship between Lucas and Demi one-sided. It's not like Lucas consistently ignores her. He just frames it differently than he did his relationship with Nalani. That'll be expanded upon next chapter.

    I'm glad the fact that you like Demitra doesn't have anything to do with her hair color. Seeing as she seems to like to change it every week or two. Lessee, she had black with lilac bangs as her natural color, and has gone through ash blonde, then dark brown, then ginger. In any case, ginger seems to have gotten Lucas's attention :P ...although she may change it later. Again.


    More insight into Maverick Hearts members was nice as well, we haven't really heard much about Annette's Cell have we? That Simon guy sounds like a guy I can hate, I need a new one ever since Chad became epic xD
    If I was a betting man, I'd put money down on getting you to hate Chad again. ;-) And Simon's not a jerk so much as he just doesn't like Wil and is very protective of Annette. Maybe I'll touch on the reasons for that...but you're reasonably smart. If you put two and two and two together, maybe you'll figure it out.


    Well, what do you know? I actually got through Chapter 31 really quickly. Should be up within the day, so stay tuned!!

    - EM1

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  24. #149
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    Default Chapter 31 - Clarity and Gravity

    Just as promised...Chapter 31! Here we go!


    Chapter 31: Clarity and Gravity

    October 13, PA 2019
    Maverick Heart Compound

    Chad leaned against the wall of the Guild Master’s office, while the Guild Master himself drummed his somewhat thick fingers against the mahogany desk.

    “You know, Sarge,” Chad muttered after about a minute straight of this, “that’s really irritating.”

    “Sorry,” grunted Trent, staring at his computer screen. “I’m trying to think. See, Oliver used to handle all of this logistical ****. I wish he was still here…”

    “Yeah…” murmured Chad solemnly, looking down at his shoes. “Me, too.”

    “No disrespect to you, obviously,” Trent said. “You’ve done a damn good job as my second-in-command. I made the right decision.”

    This seemed to throw Chad for a loop. “I…”

    “Hmm?” Trent looked up from his screen.

    The young man swallowed hard. “Thanks, Sarge. I appreciate it.”

    “Heh,” the blond-haired Guild Master gave a chuckle. “You’re no good at taking compliments, are you?”

    “No, sir,” Chad answered with surprising politeness. “I didn’t get a lot of them at home.”

    “Yeah, I know,” Trent replied. He’d probably heard Chad’s story – or what little Chad told of it – about a thousand times in the last few years. He could probably recite it word for word in his sleep. “So, uh…how are you and Nadia doing?”

    Trent would often ask somewhat prying questions like this of the core members of the guild.

    “Why don’t you ask her that?” replied Chad casually. “Like I’ve ever been in a relationship before. How the hell am I supposed to know if I’m doing it wrong?”

    “Trust me, women have ways of letting you know,” commented Trent. “But I don’t worry about you. You’ll be fine, I think.”

    Trent worked in silence for a few more moments, typing furiously on his computer.

    “ ‘Net’s slow as hell,” he grunted. “Guess it serves my *** right for tryin’ to get work done on a Sunday evening, right? I bet everyone else but us is out having fun.”

    “You’re not that far off, probably,” Chad replied. “Wheels and Diego went to see a movie, Ricky went to Cam’s…probably to chat up that waitress. Wil went to see the Comets play, I think…shouldn’t that game be over by now?”

    “Knowing the Comets? Probably,” Trent chuckled derisively. “Frankly, I think they’re tanking now so they can cash in on draft day.”

    “That’d be comforting, wouldn’t it?” snarked Chad. “It’s either that or they suck so badly that they’re trying to win games and just can’t.”

    “I wonder if Wil took the kids with him?” Trent asked.

    “What are we going to do with them?” Chad finally found an opening to ask a question that had been burning away at his insides for a while.

    “What do you mean?” questioned Trent.

    Chad groaned. “I mean…they failed their last mission and then Cell Five essentially split up. There’s no way in hell they can run a cell with one-and-a-half members.”

    “What do you have against that boy?” Trent asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “He’s done everything that can be expected and then some for his age. Frankly, I had no idea he’d be as good as he’s been.”

    “I’ll give you that…but right now, he’s hurt – again,” Chad answered. “It’s starting to become a pattern for him. I’ve never seen a mercenary get so many injuries.”

    “For God’s sake, Chad,” Trent groaned. “The kid had to take on Ferron Krist one-on-one. You’ve seen that guy in person, right? He’s a monster.

    Chad started to pace to the other side of the room. “There’s a thin line between ‘brave’ and ‘stupid’ – and you can’t deny that he toes it. A lot.

    “Don’t we all, though?” Trent queried, punctuating his rhetorical question with a loud laugh. “But I wouldn’t count him out. Think about if he stays. By the time he’s your age, he’ll have about seven, eight years in this business…if he doesn’t run himself into the ground first. At the rate both of you are going, you’ll be gray by twenty-five.”

    “Sir?” uttered Chad, bewildered.

    “Why didn’t you go out to enjoy yourself?” questioned Trent.

    “I enjoyed myself at the party yesterday,” Chad replied.

    THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

    “Who could that be?” muttered Trent. Then, raising his voice toward the door, he shouted, “Come in!!”

    About fifteen seconds later a somewhat gangly teenage boy with red hair made his way up the few stairs and into sight.

    “Lucas?” Chad seemed surprised. “What are you doing here?”

    “I live here,” Lucas answered.

    “Don’t get snippy, kid. I’m asking a valid question,” Chad sighed. “Shouldn’t you be in bed, or cuddled up somewhere with one of your two girlfriends?”

    “That’s not funny,” Lucas snapped. “I’m actually here with some info…for the Guild Master’s ears only.”

    “Anything he needs to hear, I need to hear,” Chad answered stubbornly.

    “He’s right,” Trent commented. “After all, if I snuff it tomorrow–”

    That’s not funny,” Chad interrupted, looking uncomfortable. “Seriously. Don’t joke like that.”

    “I’m not joking. If something happens to me, somebody had better know everything I know so they can act on it if necessary,” Trent said. “It’s a pretty simple chain-of-command concept.”

    “Right,” Chad turned to Lucas. “So you’d better not be wasting our time.”

    Lucas sighed and rolled his eyes. “God, you’re impossible. Okay – you remember when Wil gave you the report from our last mission?”

    “You mean the one you guys totally botched?” Chad piped in.

    “Lay off, Chad,” Trent growled.

    “No, he’s right,” Lucas muttered. “A guy named Bergen was murdered…I didn’t know him, but Wil says you did. Well, when we were at the stadium tonight, I ran into a guy calling himself Kanvar Bergen.”

    Trent, who was trying to listen and type at the same time, stopped typing and looked up from the computer.

    What?

    “Yeah,” Lucas uttered a bit uncertainly. “I’m not sure who he is – if they’re maybe related or something like that – but he said he was looking for work. He…insisted that I tell you.”

    “Insisted?” repeated Chad. “Care to elaborate?”

    “Not really.” Lucas had already decided that the whole bit about Kanvar threatening to expose Demi was none of the guild’s business. Chad had never been on board with Demi staying in the Compound, and would have loved to have an excuse to hand her off to the state (as was the original plan) – probably to stick it to Lucas if nothing else.

    “Why are you coming to us with this?” Chad asked. “Where’s Wil?”

    I’m the one that saw him,” Lucas replied sharply. “And Wil’s occupied at the moment. He…he doesn’t know about it.”

    “I see. Thanks for the heads up,” Trent said, typing something into his computer. “How are those ribs coming along?”

    Lucas grimaced and shook his head. As if he had made his first point well enough without words, he added, “…But I’m good to walk around. I’ll probably see if I can make some cash at the arena tomorrow.”

    “Starting to like it, huh?” Chad asked. Lucas thought he saw a strange, almost manic glimmer in the young man’s eyes as he started to speak. “The rush – the feeling of thousands of people cheering, everybody’s eyes watching your every move…”

    “I could care less about that ****,” Lucas scoffed. He was just being honest, but seeing Chad’s face melt was extra-satisfying. “But it’s easy money, and easy money’s always good.”

    “Hard to argue with that,” Trent chuckled. “If that’s all, you can go. Thanks again.”

    “Yeah,” Lucas answered, stalking out of the office with his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

    “He’s got an attitude problem,” Chad grunted. “ ‘Wil’s occupied at the moment.’ Wonder what the hell he could be doing?”


    Wil sat on the couch in the middle of the apartment’s living room. He glanced at the television, and then at the back of Demitra, who was standing outside on the balcony, leaning over it, looking at the moon.

    “I hope you know how much this scares me,” he heard through the receiver of his cellphone. It was the voice of a young woman. “You know we can’t, you know…meet in any of our usual spots. If one of your people or one of the other officers caught us together, then –”

    “You don’t have to worry about that on my end, Jen,” Wil interrupted firmly. “It’s none of the guild’s business who I choose to hang out with outside of the Compound.”

    “Maybe so, but…” Jen’s voice came over the line again, sounding apprehensive. “You honestly think if they knew who I was…what I did…”

    “Listen to me, Jen,” Wil said, even more firmly. “I don’t care. If I cared, I never would have said anything to you. I care about you too much to put you in extra danger like that.”

    “Extra danger? I round up criminals for a living, Wil,” Jen replied. “It’s hard to get more dangerous than that.”

    “Why are you so scared, then?” Wil asked. “Yeah, I wish we could all go back to ’13, too. It was a hell of a lot simpler back then. But…we’re here – and you know what? If we can make it work here and now, we can make it work anywhere.”

    “That’s so cheesy, Wil,” Jen laughed. Wil chuckled nervously in return. “Still, though…makes me feel better. I…”

    “What?”

    “I can’t believe I’m going to be your girlfriend.” Jen laughed a little bit. “I mean…it’s…not a bad thing, but…it’s weird. All those dinners at home, the fact that we did everything together…it was almost like you were part of the family. Then you left and it hit me that…I didn’t see you like family. But I thought, you know, after all those years…I kinda thought…we’d missed our chance.”

    “That makes two of us,” answered Wil, smiling. He heard a creak at the door and looked over his shoulder to see Lucas walking in.

    “Well…I gotta go. Early shift tomorrow,” Jen said.

    “What time?” Wil asked.

    “Five-thirty.”

    “Brutal,” groaned Wil, looking appalled. “Yeah…better get to bed then. Sleep tight.”

    “Good night… … …love you.”

    Lucas looked over his shoulder. He couldn’t hear the conversation, but he did see Wil smiling from ear to ear.

    “Love you, too.”

    Wil hung up. Then, seemingly to try to distract himself from the silence, he turned on the television. Lucas took a quick glance at the screen and quickly figured out that Wil had happened upon the late night news.

    “And in other world news, celebrations around Hoenn today as the royal family welcomed its newest member. A spokesperson for the royal family announced that the queen gave birth in the wee hours of the morning to a healthy baby boy. Valander Soran is the second child born to the king and queen, and their first son. Reports from Sootopolis say that both the queen and the newborn prince are healthy and resting, and that young Princess Mindi was excited to meet her baby brother for the first time.”

    “Who gives a damn about the Hoenn royal family?” groaned Wil in annoyance. “Where’s the sports section?”

    “Maybe somebody wanted to hear about the Hoenn royal family,” Lucas piped in, walking around the couch to sit down. “They gotta cover all their bases, I guess.”

    “What? Did you want to hear about the Hoenn royal family?” Wil looked at Lucas, raising an eyebrow.

    “…It’s interesting information,” Lucas finally answered, somewhat defensively. “That kid’s probably going to be the king of Hoenn one day.”

    “I guess, when you put it that way…” Wil muttered. “I still like my sports better.”

    “Yeah, I bet,” Lucas chuckled. “I bet you’d like it even more if the Comets didn’t ruin your date by playing like ****.”

    “Hey, hey – you had a date at that game, too,” responded Wil.

    “Get bent,” Lucas snarked. “Me and Demitra aren’t…well…you and Jen.”

    “What are you, then?” Wil asked.

    “We’re not…anything,” the red-haired boy replied a bit haltingly. “We’re…we’re friends.”

    Wil chuckled. “That’s where it starts, at least. Listen, we need to talk…”

    “I’m not seven years old, Wil,” Lucas interrupted, rolling his eyes. “I know you and Jen are together now, so save your breath.”

    “That’s not it, though,” Wil said. “You know Jen’s a…well, her job…”

    “She’s a cop,” Lucas finished flatly. “And cops as a rule don’t like mercenaries. But she really likes you. So…you’ve got a conflict of interest…or a conflict because of being interested…or something like that.”

    “Well…yeah,” uttered Wil dimly, seemingly surprised that Lucas could explain their situation better than Wil himself could do it. Undaunted, he went on, “But this sort of **** isn’t done, kid. Mercs and cops usually don’t like to talk to each other, let alone…well, date. So she won’t be coming here, and I won’t be going anywhere near her neighborhood. We’re gonna be meeting at neutral locations, so I’m probably gonna be gone a lot. I need to know that I can trust you with that info – that you’re not gonna go exposing our asses.”

    “I’m not interested in ***-exposing—did you have to say it like that?” Lucas stopped himself mid-sentence and gave Wil an incredulous look as he asked the question. The boy shook his head and heaved a sigh. “Never mind. But it’s like I said. If that makes you happy, do who you want…”

    There was a long silence. Wil was staring at Lucas, somewhat slack-jawed. His lips were curling upward and his face had actually gone a bit pink. “‘Do who you want’, Lucas? Did you seriously just say that?”

    Lucas’s face fell once the gravity of what he had just said hit him. “Ah, ****. What I meant was… ‘do what you want’, ‘date who you want’…one of those. I was just thinking both at the same time and…”

    Wil burst into laughter.

    “Shut it!” Lucas snapped – but by this point, Wil had his head thrown back toward the ceiling and was slapping his knee. Lucas shook his head, but still couldn’t help but smirk. “*******.”

    “What’s going on?” Demitra’s voice came from the balcony.

    “Oh, nothing. Lucas was showing me a new trick,” Wil answered wryly. “He can actually be funny every once in a while. Go ahead, kid – show her.”

    Lucas showed something, all right – but it was to Wil, and that something was a hand gesture…

    Demitra giggled and then tried to muffle it, apparently feeling a bit guilty.

    “So where’d you walk?” she asked.

    “Oh…places,” Lucas muttered. “I just kind of walked around the Compound. I had to do something.”

    “Yeah, between the stadium and the subway over and back…” Wil remarked. “That’s a lot of hard-*** seats…or a lot of seats that are hard on the ***.”

    “You seem really interested in everybody’s…*** lately,” snarked Lucas. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

    “Did I come back in at a bad time?” Demitra asked Lucas. Lucas glanced out of the corner of his eye. Wil’s face was contorting –

    “Shu-up,” Lucas tried to say in one syllable as he pointed vaguely in Wil’s direction without looking at him.

    Wil jumped to his feet and laughed again. “Holy ****. I’m gonna try to get some sleep. You two lovebirds try not to make too much noise – if you get my drift.”

    And he made his way toward his and Lucas’s room, shutting the door.

    “What did he mean by—” Demitra asked. She seemed to figure it out mid-sentence. Her face went red.

    “God, he’s gonna be a nightmare for the next week or two…” groaned Lucas, burying his face in both of his palms for a moment. “Then again, he’s always like that when…”

    He trailed off. …when he thinks a girl and I like each other.

    “I guess I can understand,” Demitra said perceptively. Sitting down next to Lucas, she added, “At least we have the couch to ourselves now.”

    Lucas’s jaw dropped. He was about to say something, but thought better of it.

    “Anything you want to watch?” she asked, casually grabbing the remote from where Wil had been sitting a few moments ago.

    “Is there anything to watch on a Sunday night?” scoffed Lucas.

    She flipped through a few channels, then shut the TV off as she gave up. “Not really.”

    Me. Her. Silence.

    Something’s going to happen. I can feel it in my bones.





    …Holy crap, would Wil have had a field day with that statement.


    “So, um…” she seemed hesitant. “Have you ever…you know…have you ever had a girlfriend before?”

    There it goes.

    It’s actually a small miracle we got through two months without her asking this question.


    “No,” Lucas murmured.

    “Not before…” she trailed off. Lucas knew what she meant – or who she meant.

    He heaved a sigh. “She isn’t…wasn’t…my girlfriend. I thought I told you that.”

    “…Should I stop…talking about her?” she asked. “I feel like…like it depresses you.”

    Lucas didn’t know how to react to that statement at first. Was he that easy to read? On the other hand, though…the fact that she seemed to care that much…it messed with his head a bit.

    “No, it’s fine,” he muttered, shaking his head.

    Demi frowned. “You look like you’re worried about something.”

    “I’m fine,” Lucas repeated. Demi put her hand to her mouth. “Sorry. What about you? How are you holding up?”

    “I…” Demi seemed wrong-footed by the question, as if she hadn’t been thinking of herself much lately. “I saw on the news where my father…his trial’s finally starting.”

    “…I’m sorry,” murmured Lucas.

    “You don’t have anything to apologize for…so don’t,” Demi answered. Nonetheless, there was a bit of hollowness in her eyes as she said it. Lucas began digging in his mind for something, anything, he could find to distract her.

    “Didn’t you say you had something to show me when we got back?”

    She didn’t respond for a couple of seconds, but when she did, the change was instant. Her eyes went wide. The sparkle reappeared inside them, and her mouth rounded. “Oh!”

    She took off into her room. Lucas watched, bewildered by the girl’s sudden urgency. He found a bit more clarity in her actions, though, when she reappeared, holding a sheet of paper. Clearly, she had gone to retrieve something…but what was it? She was almost at a run as she leapt around the couch and threw herself onto it, right next to Lucas. She was holding the paper close to her chest, almost as if there was something on it that she didn’t want Lucas to see – at least not immediately.

    “Before I show you, you have to promise me you won’t laugh,” she said breathlessly.

    “Why would I laugh?” Lucas was now completely confused.

    “Because it’s not that good, okay? Even though I’ve been working on it for almost two weeks now…” Demitra snapped. Yes, that was about as ‘snappy’ as she ever got.

    “Okay. I won’t laugh,” Lucas said to humor her. “I promise.”

    “Okay…” She took a couple of deep breaths, seemingly trying to calm herself down. After the third one, she held the paper out in Lucas’s direction. “Here goes.”

    Lucas took it gingerly and turned it around toward himself. It was a drawing – a very well-done drawing – of a familiar-looking feline friend. The tuft of hair, the huge, yellow eyes, the swishing tail…she had even gotten the detail of the blue paws right.

    Hell, it looked like it could jump out of the paper and pounce at any moment.

    “Is this…is this Blink?” he asked, almost at a loss for words.

    “Supposed to be, yeah…” she muttered. “I’d have done a better one, but you know, I haven’t seen her that many times, and the few times I have, she’s tried to attack me. She doesn’t like me for some reason…”

    “She gets like that with any of my friends who are girls…but that’s beside the point,” Lucas uttered. “Demi…this is amazing. I didn’t know you could draw like this.”

    Lucas instantly thought back to one of his earliest meetings of her. She had mentioned that day that she liked to sketch things, but couldn’t think of anything to sketch. While his mind was in flashback mode, he didn’t notice that Demi seemed to be short-circuiting right next to him. She had curled up into a ball on the couch and let out a short, high-pitched squeak. She had her arms around her knees, which were hugged up to her face, which had gone redder than a Krabby’s claw in about an instant.

    “I…” she clearly couldn’t figure out what to say in response, either, and when she finally did speak, her voice came out a lot higher than Lucas was used to hearing – and that was saying something. “Thank you…that’s nice of you. You can have it…if you want.”

    Lucas looked down at it, still hardly daring to believe that the shy young girl he’d rescued so many weeks ago had this level of talent in her. And that wasn’t all – she’d had a spark in her eye…almost like Chad when Chad started talking about the arena. It was such a weird comparison, but a fair one. It was the look that Wil got in his eye whenever he starting talking about the sport of Ch’arad. It was the look he’d seen on Wheels’ face on more than one occasion when the conversation turned to driving or racing.

    It was the look of someone doing something that they really loved.

    From day one…from the first day I met her, I always, always felt like Demi deserved my protection. She did nothing to ask for all of the disasters that happened to her. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time – probably born to the wrong family. It seemed sometimes like the world was out to get her. So I took a stand. I think a part of me decided even back then that I wouldn’t let that keep happening. She was too good, too gentle, and too sweet for the world to just take her and have its way with her like it does with so many other people.

    So I decided I’d do my best to protect her – and if that means taking on the world, then so be it.

    In a strange sort of way, I sold her short. I never saw her as an equal – because the one doing the protecting is stronger than the one being protected. Why would I need to protect someone stronger than me? I didn’t believe she had my strength. That’s why I trusted her so much. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe that she would hurt me, as that I didn’t believe she could even if she tried.

    I still don’t believe that she would hurt me…but that’s not because she’s weak.

    She’s not weak.

    No weaker than I am.

    She just has a different kind of strength – a strength I wasn’t used to. As a kid, I always measured strength by how well you could fight, how hard you could hit, how many opponents you could beat.

    Then I got my *** kicked. I had a day where I got my *** kicked by anything, everything, and then Life itself – just like her. I get it now.

    Strength isn’t how hard you can hit – not all of it. A lot of it’s how many times you can get your *** kicked by Life itself and still not break.

    In that sense…she may be stronger than anyone ever gave her credit for. I still feel like I want to protect her. But now it’s different. I don’t want to be her knight in shining armor anymore. I just want to be me. Just Lucas. Except I’m not sure that’s good enough. I guess what I’m saying is…

    I think I’m starting to have feelings for this girl.


    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
    October 19, PA 2019
    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~


    “Pepper, watch out!”

    Nadia’s yell echoed across the field as her gray-and-white exotic feline Pokémon shook off the cobwebs and looked up. Another catlike creature – this one with a coat of black and electric blue – bore down on Nadia’s companion, her ring-like golden eyes narrowed in concentration. The Mogshex leapt aside; the Shinx snarled in frustration before turning around.

    How had Lucas gotten into this situation? After all, he and Nadia barely talked much. She was an ally, but neither a close friend nor an enemy. Yes, it was fully possible for someone to be an ally and an enemy at the same time. From a professional standpoint – if one could call being a mercenary ‘professional’ – he and Chad were on the same side. From a personal standpoint…well, he couldn’t stand the guy, and he had the sneaking suspicion that the feeling was mutual.

    He had gotten here because Demitra was bored. It was Saturday and Wil was apparently out helping Diego’s cell accomplish an important delivery mission. Naturally, with Lucas still injured, they’d gone without him…which probably meant, the boy thought cynically, that their job would go off without a hitch. Chad had said once that Lucas seemed to invite a lot of trouble.

    With the way his last several big missions had gone…Lucas was starting to agree.

    Lucas gave a start as Blink slid on her back toward him. The grass, usually somewhat soft, was starting to die off, leaving the Shinx skidding on hard ground.

    “You okay?” he asked, a bit surprised.

    “<That hurt,>” she groaned rather obviously. Lucas mentally slapped himself; he had to pay attention, not daydream about the day’s events.

    “Come on, Blink!” a girl yelled enthusiastically from the sidelines. “Get up!”

    Blink rolled over to her feet, her teeth bared. “<Mind your business! I don’t need you telling me what to do, you little –>” Lucas blinked bewilderedly. He didn’t know Pokémon even had a word like that in their language.

    “Hey, Blink, let’s try to focus here—”

    “Pepper, use Shadow Ball!” Nadia yelled.

    “Balls.”

    Blink darted out of the way just as a sphere of dark energy slammed into the ground, kicking up grass and dust. Pepper came charging, her feline teeth bared in aggression. Blink dug in.

    “Blink, use Spark!” Lucas shouted out. Thin, blue static bolts started to work their way around Blink’s small form. She sprang forward, meeting Pepper head-on. The latter skidded backward, appearing barely hurt by the attack. Her fur was standing on end and she was struggling against something invisible.

    “Pepper, come on!” Nadia pleaded. “Move!!”

    It didn’t appear to be for lack of effort, but the Mogshex could not obey her Trainer’s command.

    “I’m done,” Lucas muttered, sticking his hands in his pockets. “She’s paralyzed. I’m not going to keep telling Blink to attack her in that state.”

    Nadia deflated.

    “What the hell’s going on here?” Lucas looked over his shoulder. Chad was striding toward them, in full power-walk mode and wearing dark sunglasses. The young boy’s jaw tightened. He had a sense of what this probably looked like from Chad’s point of view. Even worse, he was pretty sure Chad wouldn’t hear anything different. Nonetheless, he started on his defense.

    “This isn’t what it looks like,” he said. He cursed himself out mentally. Usually, that particular phrase is a clear signal that something is exactly what it looks like.

    “Really?” Chad stood right next to him. As he wasn’t extremely tall and Lucas was quite tall for his age, there wasn’t much size difference. “What is it, then?”

    “She challenged me,” Lucas said. “Demi put her up to it, I think.”

    Chad sucked his teeth and groaned. “That girl’s nothing but trouble.”

    “Hey, watch it,” Lucas snarled through his teeth.

    “Down, Romeo,” Chad answered casually. “I’m actually here to deliver you a little bit of news. Some inside information. Bet you’d like some inside information, huh? It’ll make you feel important for once.”

    “Just get to the point,” Lucas muttered. He and Chad both watched as Nadia walked over to her paralyzed Mogshex, picked her up and nuzzled her.

    “A week from Friday, there’s an amateur tournament at Coliseum Two,” he replied. “Sixty-four entrants. The guild needs you in.”

    “To make money?” Lucas asked. “Isn’t that why they have you?”

    “Note that I said ‘amateur’ tournament. I can’t participate,” Chad answered. “They do this a couple of times a year, and usually when they do it, mercenary Trainers start coming out of the woodwork. You can get a good feel for the landscape sometimes – who’s strong, who isn’t…and there’s always the occasional newcomer. Don’t worry, you’re not going solo. Daven from Two is in. Your ex was really, really eager to throw her hat in, too–”

    “She’s not my ex,” Lucas grunted.

    “…And then there’s you.” Chad seemed to have ignored what Lucas was saying.

    “So, this is guild business…is there a payment?” Lucas asked.

    “That warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from being a team player,” Chad said, patronizingly tapping Lucas on the shoulder as he walked off. Lucas’s lip curled. Just when Lucas started to see the back of Chad and feel relieved that he was gone, the young man turned around. “Oh, and if by some off chance you get to the finals, there’s fifty grand for second place and double that for the winner.”

    He popped his eyebrows for a second and started to walk. Nadia must have just noticed Chad’s presence. “Chad! Chad, wait!!”

    She darted past Lucas and fell into stride with Chad, who put an arm around her waist as the two walked back toward the Compound’s main building.

    Not for nothing, but…what the hell does she see in him anyway?

    His nostrils flared and he took a deep breath. The fall weather was cool, but not quite chilly. Demitra was sitting in the grass, looking up into the sky. She was wearing a long, brownish dress that made her already ginger hair look even redder in comparison. A pair of sandals was discarded off to her left. Lucas walked over to her right and threw himself down next to her. She jumped slightly.

    “Are you okay?” she asked.

    “Yeah, I’m fine,” replied Lucas, a bit thrown by the question. They sat there in silence for a while.

    “What was that about?” Demi asked after a few moments.

    “Oh…” Lucas murmured. “Chad was just telling me about some tournament that’s going on a couple of weeks from now. I’ll be battling there.”

    Demi frowned. “So soon? You know the doctor told you –”

    “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he replied with a bit of exasperation. “Unless there’s a bunch of guys with baseball bats at this arena, too, I should be fine…”

    “Baseball bats?” Demitra repeated. She seemed completely lost.

    “I didn’t tell you ab—never mind,” he said flatly. “You’re better off not knowing.”

    “…Still, though…” she said uncertainly. “Should you be…?”

    Lucas let out a sigh and lay down on his back in the grass, looking up at the occasional puffy clouds passing overhead, obscuring the sun every so often. A half-smile crossed his lips. “Demi, you worry about me too much.”

    “It’s only because…” she trailed off, hiding her reddening face in her knees for a second. She mumbled something that Lucas couldn’t hear.

    “Hm? Get your face out of your dress. I can’t hear you,” Lucas said, wondering immediately if he’d been a bit too harsh. She did as asked, though.

    “…It’s because…I care about you.”

    And just like that, her mouth was in her knees again. Lucas grimaced. He watched Blink roll around and play in the grass for a moment. The Shinx turned her eyes toward the two teenagers and then, with an obviously sour expression on her face, turned away.

    “I’m not a great Trainer…” Lucas muttered.

    Demi slid down to her back, turning her red-haired head toward Lucas.

    “At least I know what I’m doing, though,” he continued. “I never know what’s going on anymore…I just started to get familiar with the way things went around here, and now everything’s all…scrambled.”

    “You mean with Nalani leaving?” Demitra queried, clearly afraid to ask the question.

    “I…mean…everything, really,” admitted Lucas. “She’s not around, our cell’s not even really a cell, Wil’s dating this new girl and going out on missions while I’m stuck here, sitting on my *** because my body won’t stay in one piece…”

    “Lucas…” she murmured sadly.

    “I’ve been working with Pokémon since I was seven years old,” Lucas said. “I know my way around them a little bit.”

    “So…almost seven years now?” Demitra asked. Lucas nodded. “When is your birthday? It hasn’t already gone, has it?”

    Lucas shook his head. “November. The twentieth of November.”

    She breathed what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Okay. That’s good. I didn’t miss it.”

    “Hm?” Lucas uttered.

    “I was…I was gonna get you something,” Demi said quietly, picking at the grass. “If that’s okay with you…”

    “What? Oh…no, you don’t have to…” Lucas replied. “I didn’t get you anything…”

    “I wouldn’t have had a birthday...if it wasn’t for you,” Demi interrupted, sitting up. They stared at each other for a couple of moments. She turned and leaned over him, her ginger hair flaming in the sunlight behind her. She almost looked like she was in a trance – like she had lost control of herself as she leaned down toward him. Lucas lay there in shock. Somewhere, at the back of his brain, he knew exactly what she was going to do, and he wasn’t about to stop her, but still…this wasn’t like her at all. Where had that shy, timid, mouse of a girl gone?

    Something was shaking him.

    “Lucas? Lucas?”

    He opened his eyes all the way. That had been a horrible mistake. It was nearly noon, judging by the sun, which was shining straight down into his pupils and aching like all hell. So he shut his eyes tight and tried again. He turned his head. Demitra was not quite up to a sitting position, leaning on one of her arms as he watched him. She was still pretty; her hair, still ginger; her eyes and dress, still brown, and her skin, still smooth and milky pale.

    “Were you having a bad dream?” she asked.

    “Was I dreaming?” he asked in reply.

    “Well…your eyes were closed,” she answered. “I think you dozed off.”

    “I figured…you wouldn’t do that,” he murmured. Unfortunately, Demi heard him.

    “Do what?”

    Just throw yourself at me. What do you think? You’re brave in a lot of areas, but that’s not one of them.

    Yeah, but what about you? You think you like her, and you know she likes you. And you won’t even lean in. Maybe she’s not brave, but what does that make you?

    I dunno, a gentleman? Besides…it would be her first kiss, and I don’t want to mess it up for her…

    How would she know you messed it up if she’s never been kissed before?

    Why the hell am I having this discussion with you?

    You’re having this discussion with you.

    Go screw yourself.

    You just told yourself to ‘go screw yourself.’

    Ugggghh….shut up…


    “I’m sorry?” Demitra squeaked, blinking and wearing a mixture of shock and horror on her face.

    “What?” Lucas muttered. Then it hit him what had happened. He buried his face in his hands. “I think I’m going crazy.”

    “Please don’t,” Demi said morosely, flopping backward. “If you go crazy, I’m all by myself.”

    Lucas, thinking that this was a rare joke from Demitra, burst into laughter.

    “It’s not funny!” she cried. “I’m…I’m serious.”

    The smile came off Lucas face. “Demi…”

    “I’m serious…” she repeated sadly. “I don’t have anybody else. No friends, no family…nobody.”

    Lucas stared at the passing clouds for a few moments of silence.

    “…I’ll win.”

    “Hmm?” she uttered.

    The cloud didn’t look anything like her, but being inside one’s own head can do some strange things to reality. He started to see Nalani’s face in the clouds and with it, the awareness hit him that he’d have to go through her or Daven or any other of the sixty-one participants to accomplish his goal. He didn’t really know if she was better than him; he had never tried testing her.

    It didn’t matter, though.

    He shook his head.

    “…I’ll win.”

    END

    ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~

    Dalton Gregg was a mostly-ordinary university student from the region once called Johto.
    Then a fateful encounter set him on a quest to change history.




  25. #150
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
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    Behind you...
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    Poop, you're quick... Very quick. :O

    Jumping head first into this now!

    So the next arc is on... Poor Lucas. Even injuries can't give him a break... :P And it's a tournament, hunh? And Nalani's in too... this can NOT end well... :/ Blood battle!!! XD

    Lucas finds the gentleman within and makes a promise that will be exciting to see if he can keep... Now I'm totally psyched!

    Lucas getting misinterpreted by Wil rocked! Still laughing!

    “I’m not interested in ***-exposing—did you have to say it like that?” Lucas stopped himself mid-sentence and gave Wil an incredulous look as he asked the question. The boy shook his head and heaved a sigh. “Never mind. But it’s like I said. If that makes you happy, do who you want…”

    There was a long silence. Wil was staring at Lucas, somewhat slack-jawed. His lips were curling upward and his face had actually gone a bit pink. “‘Do who you want’, Lucas? Did you seriously just say that?”

    Lucas’s face fell once the gravity of what he had just said hit him. “Ah, ****. What I meant was… ‘do what you want’, ‘date who you want’…one of those. I was just thinking both at the same time and…”

    Wil burst into laughter.

    “Shut it!” Lucas snapped – but by this point, Wil had his head thrown back toward the ceiling and was slapping his knee. Lucas shook his head, but still couldn’t help but smirk. “*******.”

    “What’s going on?” Demitra’s voice came from the balcony.

    “Oh, nothing. Lucas was showing me a new trick,” Wil answered wryly. “He can actually be funny every once in a while. Go ahead, kid – show her.”

    Lucas showed something, all right – but it was to Wil, and that something was a hand gesture…

    Demitra giggled and then tried to muffle it, apparently feeling a bit guilty.
    Keep the gold coming, mate!

    L@er!
    Last edited by Air Dragon; 11th May 2012 at 9:56 PM.
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