Chapter 78 – Friends and Acquaintances

Chapter 78 – Friends and Acquaintances

The Next Day

“It fucking happened again. I can’t believe it!”

“That’s an awfully passive way of putting it.”

“Shut the hell up, dude. You don’t know what it’s like to be rejected this frequently.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man,” Conrad replied dismissively, holding his arm over his eyes to shield them from the bright sun overhead while he laid down on one of the benches in WCU’s courtyard. Standing just off to the side was Pierce, whose arms were crossed as he glared down at Conrad in annoyance.

“Are you really going to take a nap, right now?” Pierce questioned incredulously.

“Lunchtime is a great time for naps,” Conrad replied, all without moving his arm from his eyes. “And if you start complaining about your dating life in the way that you usually do, then I’ll be able to nod off in no time.”

“…Hmph. Should’ve figured talking to you would be a waste of time…”

Tentatively, Conrad moved his arm to allow him to look up at Pierce — who at that moment was busy restlessly sweeping his gaze across the courtyard, as if in search of something to distract himself with. He looks more stressed out than usual, Conrad thought to himself, he’s been like that ever since our last night on Sikalia, in fact. I bet something went down between him and Austin — if so, he probably deserved it, but man, it’s still really weird seeing Pierce like this… With a resigned sigh, Conrad lethargically pulled himself up into a sitting position. “Alright, alright… I’ll hear you out. This have something to do with what happened on Sikalia?”

“What?” Pierce snapped his attention back to Conrad. “Who the fuck said anything about Sikalia?”

“Well, you’ve just seemed a little stressed out since we got back. If something happened—”

“Nothing happened,” Pierce insisted, though Conrad noticed his eyes diverting as he did. “…I was complaining about something else entirely, anyways,” Pierce continued with a scowl, “this and that aren’t related at all.”

“If you say so…” Conrad deadpanned. At a surface level, he’s probably right. But I bet all of his problems have more in common than he thinks… “Well,” Conrad said, keeping his thoughts to himself, “what’s happened, then?”

“I had a date with this cute chick last night, right? I think you saw me go out. Things were going pretty well, we even spent the night together. And it was a great time, let me tell you.”

“Please don’t.”

“Oh shut up. Anyways, when we got up this morning, I tried asking when she might be open for a second date, you know? And she told me she wasn’t interested!”

“I guess it just goes that way, sometimes, huh?”

“If it really was just ‘sometimes’ then I could deal with it, but it’s not! It’s almost every time!” Pierce huffed in frustration. “It’s like they all assume I’m only after a one-night stand… I’m not that shallow, c’mon!”

“Says the guy who’s dating chicks just as part of a competition,” Conrad deadpanned.

“Shut the hell up, dude,” Pierce snapped. “This isn’t just because of that stupid competition, now. I just want a girlfriend, really, I do!”

“Something you’re doing must be giving the wrong impression, then,” Conrad suggested. “Or maybe you just haven’t met the right person, yet.”

“Bullshit. The idea of ‘the right person’ is a myth.”

“…And you wonder why women don’t want to go farther than one date with you.”

“It’s the truth, you asshole. ‘The one’ is a naively romantic concept that has no basis in reality. Real, lasting relationships are built on a foundation of getting to know each other, and accepting the other person for who they are. If you hold out, waiting for that one, ideal person, then you’ll never get laid your whole fucking life!”

“That was almost deep, until you started talking about sex again.”

“Sex is part of a healthy relationship, and it’s asinine to think otherwise. …Unless you’re ace, I guess, but I’m definitely not.”

“How understanding of you,” Conrad deadpanned, and then sighed. “But, Pierce, after having said all that… you still always have sex on the first date, somehow. That’s pretty fucking fast, dude. Are you sure these women actually want to sleep with you?”

“What the fuck, dude? Of course I get consent. I’m not a fucking rapist. Hell, I’m not even the one who initiates, half the time. Nimalian women especially are surprisingly forward…”

“Alright, alright. Well, are you sure the women you date actually know you’re after something long-term, then? Maybe they really do think you’re after a one-night fling.”

“I mean, I don’t always have sex on the first date, so that can’t be it,” Pierce refuted. “It’s just… sometimes. …Most of the time, I guess. Look, you can’t just say that you want a long-term relationship on the first fucking date, man. That’s a good way to make yourself look like an overly attached loser.”

“Uh huh. Right.”

“Hmph. Why the hell am I even talking to you about this? You haven’t had a date in years.” Pierce held a hand to his forehead as he released a frustrated sigh. “Damn… I have to think of something, fast. I feel like I’ve already gone through half the dating pool, here…”

“What?!” Conrad replied incredulously. “Aren’t there, like, 300 students, here?!”

“If you count everybody, yeah,” Pierce answered, “but unlike you, I don’t swing both ways. So cut that in half, or so. And then, to break it down further — there’s 6 years’ worth of students here, and each year has about the same number of students, so that’s about 25 women per year. And since the lower two years are underage, you have to throw 50 out, leaving only 100 women.”

“’Only’ 100, he says.”

“I’m not done, asshole. Look, remember how Karísah said that most Nimalians our age are already in a long-term relationship? Well, she was more right than I expected. If you account for that, and for all the chicks who aren’t into dudes, then there’s only a couple dozen left that are available. That’s nothing!”

“A ‘couple dozen’ still sounds like plenty, to me.”

“That only shows how little you know.”

“Sure, sure. What about the town? Have you tried your luck there?”

“There’s a language barrier, dude. Only the students and a handful of other people in this city have translation implants. You can’t very well date someone you can’t talk to. I mean, I could understand them, so I could at least listen, I suppose…”

“And we all know that you’re great at that.”

“Please, I’m a fantastic listener. You have to be if you want to get anywhere while dating. Women love it when you listen to them, after all. If you can prove that you’re actually paying attention when they talk, they eat that right up!”

“…Dude, everyone likes it when you listen to them.”

“And women are a subset of ‘everyone’, so I’m still right.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Conrad replied dismissively. “I think I see where you’re going wrong, Pierce, and it probably has more in common with what happened on Sikalia than you’d think.”

“What the hell?” Pierce glared at Conrad. “What the fuck does Sikalia have to do with this?”

“Did something happen on Sikalia?”

Pierce and Conrad both looked up and to the side, in the direction of the third voice coming from a young woman with tan skin and a prominent scar stretching from just above her mouth to down past her collar. “…Oh. Liask,” Pierce commented, forcing a smile as he did.

“Hey, Pierce,” Liask replied, approaching the bench on which Conrad was sitting and stopping to talk. With her were two faces that Pierce thought he recognized: one belonging to a dark-skinned young man with a strong jawline and a buzz cut, and another belonging to a fair-skinned young woman with a short stature and long, unkempt hair that partially obscured half her face.

“Oh, hey,” Conrad greeted, casually nodding toward the trio. “We’ve met, right? Liask, and, uh…?”

“Minilas,” the young woman replied, her tone flat.

“And this is Obra,” Liask declared as she gestured toward the man.

“…Hmph,” Obra snorted dismissively.

“…Well, it’s been a little bit since we last saw each other, huh?” Pierce commented, pointedly ignoring Obra as he addressed Liask. “Did you need something?”

“We’re just out here for a break, that’s all,” Liask replied. “Today’s been so… hard…”

“Hard?” Conrad echoed cluelessly.

“We have finals,” Minilas explained, and then adopted a small smirk as she nodded toward Liask. “Meatheads like her always have a hard time.”

“I am not a ‘meathead’!” Liask countered. “Those tests are just—! They’re too hard! Davídrius and Ralak’s especially, why are they so hard?!”

“I offered to study with you,” Obra declared, his arms crossed as he looked down at Liask. “You said ‘no’, and went off to train, instead. You have only yourself to blame.”

“…You don’t have to say it like that…” Liask muttered dejectedly.

“Heh… I guess finals really are the same wherever you go, huh?” Conrad observed with an amused smile.

“I heard you all don’t have to take ‘em, though,” Minilas replied, deadpan.

“Lucky bastards,” Obra said.

“Look, we didn’t make that decision,” Pierce replied.

“That doesn’t change the fact that—“

“Hey, look, guys, our break only lasts for so long,” Liask interjected as she physically interposed herself between Pierce and Obra. “Let’s talk about something else, okay?”

“That’s fine by me,” Pierce remarked while side-eying Obra — who responded only by scowling and looking away.

“Well, what do you want to talk about, then?” Conrad questioned.

“Liask wanted to hear about Sikalia,” Minilas commented, and then slowly smirked as she threw Obra a glance. “But maybe we should wait until a certain bitter someone isn’t around to talk about that.”

“Wha—! Minilas!” Obra exclaimed in flustered irritation.

“…You really are blunt, huh?” Pierce said, looking warily at Minilas.

She responded with a casual shrug. “Am I wrong?”

Conrad chuckled. “Heh. I think I like you.”

Pierce shook his head and sighed in exasperation. “Figures that the two irreverent assholes would get along. Well, if Sikalia and your finals are out, then… oh!” His face lit up for a moment before he turned toward Liask. “I haven’t heard much talk about the ACT, despite sign-ups opening at the beginning of the week. What’s up with that?”

“Everyone’s still focused on finals,” Liask replied. “Can’t really afford to focus on anythin’ else…”

“Only when you haven’t studied,” Obra interjected.

“And you have?” Minilas questioned, glancing up at the dark-skinned Barriertechnic. He responded by scowling at her and then turning away in a huff.

“…We’ll still have a few days before the qualifiers to train up,” Liask said, bringing the conversation back around as she looked over at Pierce. “You’ll see a lot more trainin’ and talkin’ about the ACT this weekend, for sure.”

“Good,” Pierce remarked, a confident smirk spreading across his face. “I was worried the competition around here wouldn’t be up to snuff!”

“What?” Obra’s gaze snapped to Pierce. “Are you signin’ up?!”

“For better or for worse…” Conrad replied, and then sighed in resignation.

“You can’t be serious.” Obra’s already perpetually-furrowed brow creased even further as he glared directly at Pierce. “You’re that arrogant, huh? Gonna try and steal a spot from a rightful Tresédian?”

“Rightful Tresédian?!” Pierce echoed incredulously, and then shrugged. “Look, dude, it’s a competition. If you can’t earn your spot, then what’s even the point of taking part?”

“Actually, Pierce… he might have a point,” Conrad pointed out, glancing warily between Obra and Pierce. “There’s a limited number of spots in the tournament, right? If we made it in, then we really would be taking the spot of a Nimalian team…”

“Weren’t you paying attention on Sikalia? Kaoné told us that there are exhibition slots in the tournament bracket. We wouldn’t be displacing anybody,” Pierce insisted. “But even if we were — at the end of the day, that’s just how competition works. If the Nimalians want to think that they’re better than us, then they had better fucking prove it! That’s the whole point of a competition!”

“Wow. What a one-track mind,” Minilas deadpanned.

“Nothing I said was wrong,” Pierce countered. “This is just an interschool tournament, anyways. Why take it so seriously?”

“Says the guy who’s the star of his track team back home,” Conrad commented.

“Well…” Liask spoke up, drawing Pierce and Conrad’s attention to her. “…I agree that you have to earn your spot on the tournament bracket, but the ACT has more meanin’ to us Tresédians than just bein’ a tournament. It’s one of the only ways we can legally leave Treséd, and see the world outside.”

“…What?” Pierce stared at Liask in disbelief. “Wait, really? No way.”

Minilas nodded. “It’s true. Still too much of a pain, in my opinion, but it’s true.”

“Yeah. Unlike y’all, we Tresédians don’t get to just leave the country on a whim,” Obra declared. “You’ve already gone on more trips in your one month here than most of us 3rd-years have in the three years we’ve been here. And now you wanna rob even more Tresédians of that opportunity by joinin’ the ACT?”

“That isn’t my fault, now, is it?” Pierce countered irately. “Besides, we aren’t even displacing any Tresédians in the first place! If you still want something to blame, then blame the system. The Deans are the ones who designed this whole thing, right? Go complain to them, not us.”

“Tch. Maybe I will. It’d sure as hell beat wastin’ time talkin’ to you damn outsiders,” Obra snarled. He then whipped around and stormed off toward the dormitory, leaving the remaining four to stare after him.

“…I’m really sorry about him,” Liask apologized, turning back toward Pierce and bowing her head slightly. “It’s just, you know…”

“He does have a point, though,” Conrad remarked with a sigh. “We’re the outsiders here, trying to push our way in on your own traditions and events…”

“It’s not like we chose to come here,” Pierce argued. “It was the Nimalians who put us here! Why the hell shouldn’t we take advantage of the opportunities that they’ve given us?”

“C’mon, dude, you know that Pallan guy isn’t affiliated with Treséd.”

“It was still the Deans who put us here after listening to him. If anyone’s at fault, it’s them.”

“Just blaming everyone but yourself, huh?” Minilas replied flatly.

Pierce shot her an annoyed glare. “And what’s it to you? I’m not wrong.”

“…Eh.” She shrugged. “Whatever. I never liked the ACT much, anyways.”

“I mean, your Chaotic ability is literally just summoning food out of thin air, right?” Conrad remarked. “Kinda hard to win a combat tournament with something like that, I’d think.”

“Yup.” Minilas offered a single nod of affirmation, and then fabricated a green stick into her hand that she immediately took a bite out of. “…Still,” she spoke in between chewing, “Liask is different.”

“’Different’ is puttin’ it kinda strangely…” Liask replied with a sheepish laugh.

“I take it you’re signing up, then?” Pierce asked.

“Yeah. I always have. I haven’t made it in yet, though, and I doubt I will this year, really. Maybe one day…” Liask sighed, and then shrugged. “Well, the ACT isn’t even in Nimaliaka this year, so it’s no big deal.”

“Did you want to visit Nimaliaka?” Conrad questioned.

“…It’s a little embarassin’ to say,” Liask commented, adopting a bashful smile as she continued, “but my namesake is in Nimaliaka. Mount Liask, the tallest mountain on the planet… I always wanted to visit.”

“A real romantic,” Minilas remarked with a smirk.

“I mean, I’ve heard far worse reasons to want to go out and see the world,” Pierce replied. “I’m more of a plains and hills kind of guy, but mountains and mountain climbing are pretty cool, too.”

“Yeah!” Liask grinned in response, only to look away again as her expression relaxed into a sad smile. “…Too bad I’ll have to go alone…”

“Ah…” Pierce’s own expression hardened in response to her words, and he found himself suddenly unable to look her in the eye.

Conrad and Minilas glanced between their two friends, watching as Pierce and Liask fell into an awkward silence. Eventually, a sly smirk appeared on Minilas’s face; poking Liask’s arm with her half-eaten stick, she commented, “if you want someone to go with, you can always take the playboy, here.”

“What—?!” Pierce exclaimed, his attention immediately shifting to Minilas. “Playboy? What?!”

“Rumor is, you’ve slept with a dozen women over the past month,” Minilas said.

“A dozen? Ha! If only I were actually that good. Try, uh…” Pierce paused for a moment to count out on his fingers. “…Six or seven? I guess seven…”

Conrad whistled. “Over a single month? Damn, dude. And we haven’t even been here the whole time!”

“Now if only any of them were up for a second date…” Pierce muttered. A second later, his eyes widened with realization and he snapped his attention back to Minilas. “Wait! Rumors? What fucking rumors?!”

“Ha ha! You didn’t know?” Liask grinned. “Everyone’s been talkin’ about the two outsiders who’re tryin’ to sleep their way through the whole school. It’s some kinda competition, right?”

“What?!” Pierce stared at her disbelief. “That’s…! Who fucking told everyone there was a competition? Was it Phoenix? I bet it was Phoenix, wasn’t it!”

“Maybe it was just your weird behavior,” Minilas deadpanned.

“Aw, man… well it’s no fucking wonder no one wants a second date with me, then. They all think I’m just in some lame competition!”

“I mean… you are,” Conrad pointed out.

“Hmph. Well, now that I know this, at least I can adapt my strategy, somehow…” Pierce crossed his arms and began stroking his chin, his eyes directed downward in thought. “Hmm… maybe I should… no, well… hmm…”

“Oh boy,” Conrad commented flatly, eying Pierce for a moment before glancing toward Liask and Minilas. “He’ll be like this for a while.”

“Always the same with those competitive types,” Minilas said.

“It’s about time we left, anyways,” Liask remarked. “Our break is only so long…”

“Ah, yeah. I know how tough finals can be,” Conrad replied. “Good luck with those.”

“Thanks.” Liask nodded in acknowledgment, at which point she and Minilas turned toward the school building. Just before she left, however, Liask glanced back at Pierce, who was still absorbed in his thoughts. “Good luck with that competition!” she remarked.

“—Huh? Uh, right, thanks…” Pierce muttered, looking up just long enough to meet Liask’s gaze and acknowledge her comment.

Conrad glanced between the two of them, watching Liask’s gaze linger for a second on Pierce before she turned to follow Minilas back into the building. Once the two women were out of earshot, Conrad elbowed Pierce in the side. “Hey.”

“What?” Pierce perked up, only to pass Conrad an annoyed look. “What do you want? I’m thinking, here.”

“You said you just want a relationship, right?” Conrad remarked, and then nodded toward the school building entrance that Liask had just disappeared into. “Maybe you’re just thinking too hard.”

“Huh…?” Pierce followed Conrad’s gaze for a moment, his expression filled with confusion while the cogs turned in his head — only to arrive at a realization a second later. As soon as he did, however, Pierce fixed Conrad with a serious look. “There’s no way.”

“Really? …Is it her scar? It is pretty big. Must’ve really hurt when she got it.”

“No, you dumbass, I’m not that shallow. To be honest, even with the scar, I think she’s kinda cute. It’s just… there’s just no way she’d want me.”

“You sure, dude? Seems to me like she’s going out of her way to talk to you.”

A moment of silence passed as Pierce continued staring at Conrad, his expression unchanging. Eventually, he looked away and sighed. “…You don’t know the full story, do you? Of how Liask and I know each other.”

Conrad shrugged. “I kinda thought that she was just one of your failed dates, but it sounds like you haven’t even tried with her.”

“Of course not.” Pierce sighed again, running his hand through his hair as he idly looked around, as if searching for an answer to something.

Upon seeing Pierce’s distressed state, Conrad’s own expression softened. He stiffened up his posture and adopted a serious look, commenting, “hey, man… if something’s wrong…”

“…I should probably tell you eventually, might as well do it now…” Pierce muttered. “You know how Phoenix and I went to a different planet over the summer? And how we told you about how we spent most of it hanging out with our mentor and our Nimalian Liaison?”

“Yeah, I remember. Brikén and Trenon, right?”

Pierce nodded. “Right. And we told you about how we got stuck on Ainminthalus during the Chaos Quake.”

“Yeah. Sounded like a real pain in the ass.”

“It was. But… we left something out of the story. See, on the night the Quake started, Phoenix and I were having dinner with Brikén and Trenon. But then, right before the Quake actually started, some Chaotic went berserk in the city.”

Conrad opened his mouth to comment, only to think better of it and remain silent as Pierce himself paused, his expression growing darker.

“…Trenon was a Chaotic, you see,” Pierce eventually continued. “A Velocitechnic, like me. So he went off to help stop the berserk Chaotic. Only…” A deep scowl formed on Pierce’s face, but he didn’t seem to be directing it at anything external. “…I didn’t get out of the way in time. And Trenon had to come save my useless ass, and got hurt in the process. So hurt, in fact, that when he actually went to stop the berserk Chaotic, he… died.”

Silence dominated the air after that final word left Pierce’s mouth. At a loss for words, Conrad simply looked away — though in the corner of his eye, he noticed Pierce grasping the side of his torso. “…That… kinda explains a lot, I guess,” Conrad spoke up a moment later, in an effort to break up the silence.

Pierce nodded absentmindedly. “Yeah…”

“Though… I still don’t really get what this has to do with Liask…?”

“Oh. Right. Well… Trenon’s full name was Trenon Rakos.”

“Rakos? …Rakos… wait, isn’t that Liask’s—?”

“Yeah. Liask shares his name, because he was her older brother.”

“Ah…” Conrad nodded slowly in understanding. “…Right. Huh. I guess that does make things a little complicated, huh…?”

Pierce passed Conrad a bitter smile. “Just a little.” He then looked down at his left hand, while his right remained clutching the side of his torso. “…At the end of the day, I’m the reason Liask’s brother is dead, and she knows it. Any kind of relationship between us has no chance, because of that.”

Conrad simply nodded along, completely lost for a response to any of Pierce’s claims. While he had plenty of experience with hearing out Pierce’s concerns, no matter how superficial or serious they were, this was the first time Pierce had brought up the subject of death — and what’s more, a death that he clearly blamed himself for. …Knowing Pierce, for him to actually take that kind of blame… Conrad eyed Pierce warily. …Whatever happened must have been… rough. Too rough for me to help him with, probably. I bet what he needs right now is a distraction.

With that, Conrad finally climbed to his feet, abandoning the warm bench to stand next to Pierce. “Hey, man,” Conrad remarked, placing his hand on Pierce’s shoulder as he looked his friend in the eye. “Let’s go do something.”

Pierce returned Conrad’s look, though with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. “What…?”

“Yeah. How about some training for the ACT, huh? The qualifiers are supposed to start next week, right?”

“…Right…” Pierce responded hollowly, and then shook his head vigorously and pounded his chest. “Yeah, that’s right,” he exclaimed with renewed vigor. “Fuck, what are we even doing here? Let’s go get ready to kick some ass!”

“Heh. There we go…” Conrad smiled to himself as he watched Pierce march off toward the practice fields. He then released a weary sigh as he began following in Pierce’s footsteps, muttering to himself the whole way. “Oof, I just had to go and volunteer myself for physical activity, huh? You better thank me for this one day, Pierce…”