Chapter 28 – Realizations
“What the—!” Austin exclaimed in surprise, reflexively shielding his face with his arms as his sight filled with a bright white light. An intense ringing dominated his hearing; his eyes and ears only began to recover a few seconds later, slowly allowing him to survey his environment. The first thing he noticed was Spike standing nearby, a massive tower shield in hand as he stood in between Austin, Twy, and Sky — and a newly smoking crater just in front of them. In the center of the plaza were another three craters where the Bleeders had once laid; nothing remained of them, as far as Austin could see.
“Is anyone hurt?” Spike questioned loudly as he began to lower his shield.
“…Ow…” Conrad muttered, slowly sitting up from his position on the floor. Based on where he currently laid several meters back from the plaza, as well as Kestrel’s presence at his side, Austin guessed that Kestrel had managed to yank both of them away from the plaza with her aerial abilities. “…I’ll be fine,” Conrad eventually continued, and then glanced up at Kestrel. “Give me a little warning next time, huh?”
Kestrel responded by shaking her head and turning toward Pierce, who just arrived on the edge of the plaza with Phoenix in his arms.
“What the…?” She stared up at him incredulously. “What are you—? Put me down!”
“Relax,” Pierce insisted, though he nonetheless obliged. “If not for me, that explosion would’ve fried you.”
“Explosions, though…” Twy muttered, just as Davídrius arrived at the edge of the plaza with Relia in tow. “They… did they seriously just… blow themselves up?”
A brief moment of wary silence fell over the plaza as everyone stared at the newly formed craters, only now grasping what had just transpired.
“…At least everyone looks fine,” Karísah commented, as she looked over the group.
“Do the Bleeders usually, uh… do this?” Sky questioned, turning toward Davídrius as she did.
“No,” the Dean replied with a scowl. “This is new.”
“It’s the ultimate sore loser move,” Pierce declared. “They realized they couldn’t win, so they tried to take us down with them. And they couldn’t even do that right! Ha!”
“This is no laughing matter,” Phoenix countered. “This level of desperation is always dangerous.”
“No… it ain’t desperation,” Davídrius commented, while glaring at one of the craters. “…There ain’t a single trace of those Bleeders left. That includes the armor they were wearin’.”
“Oh, I see…” Twy nodded in understanding. “They wanted to prevent us from getting a hold of their armor.”
“Powered armor exists all over the galaxy, though, doesn’t it?” Austin questioned, “why’s it so important that we don’t get theirs?”
“If we were able to recover the armor, we could’ve figured out the manufacturer,” Davídrius explained. “Hell, with a serial number, we probably could’ve traced the sales and figured out just how the Bleeders got their shitty little hands on ‘em. But now…”
“Now, we have nothing…” Phoenix muttered.
“Aye…” The Dean passed Phoenix a glance. “You seemed to see this comin’. How?”
“…I don’t know,” she replied warily. “I just sensed… danger. I can’t really explain it.”
“You’ve done that a couple times, now,” Conrad remarked. “Once just before EA kidnapped us, then just before he attacked us with that big robot of his… is that a Chaostechnic thing?”
“No,” Relia stated. “No Chaostechnic I know of has any kind of, uh… danger sense.”
“I ain’t ever heard of it, either,” Davídrius declared. “But we’ll have to figure out just what’s goin’ on later. We got more pressin’ concerns to worry about. These Bleeders… not only were they able to get powered armor, they also had the foresight to install self-destruct devices to scuttle the armor. That’s a level of plannin’ and organization that I ain’t seen from ‘em in a long while…”
“What do we do, then?” Karísah questioned.
“For now… hmm…” The Dean glanced over at Relia. “…When you first got here, was there a woman Chaotic who made explosions? Maybe the others called her ‘Feral’?”
“A feral Chaotic?” Relia echoed in confusion. “Like a berserker?”
“No, like it’s a name, or a title. Feral. I’ll take that as a no…” Davídrius sighed in frustration. “…Accordin’ to the one survivor we found, the Bleeders have some new, powerful Chaotic with ‘em. They call her Feral, supposedly. Can do something with explosions.”
“I see… I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Can you watch here, too? Just stay the night, see if any other Bleeders show up?”
“I’d have done so even if you didn’t ask,” Relia replied.
“What about us?” Pierce asked. “We can help!”
“No, y’all are goin’ back to Tresnon,” Davídrius countered. “We don’t know what the Bleeders are up to, or if any more are comin’. That makes this place dangerous, all the moreso for novices.”
“Again, we aren’t—!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Look. Y’all will get your time, eventually, but now ain’t it.” Davídrius then glanced over at Karísah. “Make sure they actually make it back, will you? As for me, I’m gonna head back to Tresnon ahead of y’all and get the news out about what happened here. Selind will definitely want to know this… suppose I’ll take that one bartender with me, while I’m at it.”
“If you’re running back, then let me come with you!” Pierce insisted.
“For fuck’s sake, we’ve been over this,” the Dean responded irately. “I’m faster than you. You can’t keep up. Just stay with the fuckin’ group!”
“…Now, we’ve had a long day, so let’s all get goin’ already,” Davídrius commented as he turned to the rest of the group. “Karísah, I’ll see you back in Tresnon.” After that, he disappeared in a cloud of dust, no where to be seen.
“…Well,” Spike began, drawing the group’s attention to himself. “Guess we should get goin’, huh?”
“And I’ll go look out for more arrivals,” Relia commented. Just as she turned to walk off, however, Karísah rushed to her side.
“Relia, wait!” the Forcetechnic exclaimed, “…you’re really just gonna leave without a good-bye?”
“You should know already that I don’t do good-byes,” Relia replied flatly.
“Ah ha, I guess that’s true… still. After tonight… how about you come back to Tresnon? It’s been a while since you were home.”
“Talkin’ about home again…”
“Did you… have a falling out with someone? Is that why you won’t come back more than once or twice a year…?”
“No, it’s… nothing like that. But you know how my mother is. The moment I return, she’ll try her damnedest to make sure I stay. And, especially after what happened here… I just can’t do that.”
“I guess…” Karísah glanced down forlornly. “…So it’ll be a while before I see you again, huh?”
“Sorry,” Relia replied with a sheepish smile. “That’s just how I am. Can’t stay in one place for long.”
“Ha… I guess so. Still… you’re always welcome in Tresnon, alright?”
“I know. And I’ll be back… eventually. But for now, I need to look out for the Bleeders.” Relia glanced to the west, where the sun was now low to the horizon, before looking back to Karísah. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah…” Karísah responded quietly as Relia turned around and began walking off. “…It was nice seein’ you again!” Karísah shouted a couple moments later, to which Relia responded with a wave — but kept walking.
“…She always like this?” Sky questioned as Karísah turned back to the group.
“Yeah,” the Forcetechnic replied with a forlorn smile. “She wanders Treséd, doin’ odd jobs here and there, helpin’ out people and fightin’ the Bleeders as she goes. Never stoppin’ in one place for long…”
“The Bleeders did call her ‘Wanderer’,” Austin pointed out. “I guess she’s well known for that, huh?”
“Still…” Phoenix sidled up next to Karísah with a cheeky grin and elbowed her playfully. “Are you really going to let her go like that?”
“I-I’m not sure what you mean,” Karísah responded.
“So it’s like that, huh?” Pierce smirked in amusement as he threw his arm around Karísah’s shoulders. “Why don’t you just stick around here for the night, and we’ll take that truck back to Tresnon. We’ll just tell Davídrius that you, uh, found some Bleeders to fight.”
“I somehow doubt he’d accept that excuse from you,” Phoenix retorted.
“Hey, shut up, I’m trying to wingman here.”
“I’m really not sure what the two of you are tryin’ to get at,” Karísah commented, though her cheeks had turned a rosy pink. “I, uh, I couldn’t just lie to Davídrius like that, anyways…”
“Sure, but you said yourself that you don’t know when you’ll next see Relia. You should really make the most of this moment,” Phoenix insisted.
“If you have to have a practical reason, then just say that having two people around to watch for the Bleeders is better than one,” Pierce suggested. “Boom! Easy solution.”
“I don’t want to spend time with Relia that badly…” Karísah responded uneasily.
“Ah, but you do want to spend time with her?” Phoenix questioned cheekily. “…Though, honestly, what Pierce said actually sounds like a legitimate reason for you to stay behind.”
“Oi, oi, leave the poor woman alone,” Spike interjected. “She said she’s fine, that means she’s fine.”
Phoenix shot Spike an annoyed glance. “Can’t you read the room?”
“You’d make a pretty shitty wingman with an attitude like that,” Pierce remarked, and then sneered at Austin. “Probably why you’re still single, huh?”
“What—!” Austin exclaimed incredulously, and then glared back at Pierce. “Are you even in a relationship yourself?”
“We’re not talking about me, here.”
“Earthians have some, um, interesting priorities, huh…” Karísah commented as she began walking across the plaza, toward the distant gate they had used to first enter the compound. “What does ‘wingman’ mean here, anyways…?”
“Ah, forget about it…” Phoenix shook her head and sighed warily, following Karísah across the plaza with the rest of the group. “The moment’s gone.”
“I wonder how that happened,” Conrad deadpanned as he shot Pierce a glance.
“…Shut up, you,” Pierce snapped back. “We’re all single, here.”
“We’re not!” Sky exclaimed as she slapped Spike on the back. “Spike and I have been together for years!”
“I’ve been in relationships, too,” Pierce countered. “I’m just not… currently in one. But I could find a girl easily.”
“You always say that,” Phoenix remarked as she rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you actually prove it one day?”
“Hey, I’ll have you know—”
“So most of you are still single, huh?” Karísah commented, glancing around at the group. “…Is that common, for Earthians?”
“Well… that depends,” Phoenix started, a pained expression on her face — only to be interrupted as Conrad released an amused chuckle.
“She really got you guys, huh?” he questioned with a grin as he glanced between Pierce and Phoenix.
“What are you bringing me into this, for?” Phoenix shot back irately. “I can find guys just fine.”
“Sounds like what Pierce just said.”
“Well, yes, but the difference is that I can actually back up my claim.”
“Oh can you, now,” Pierce deadpanned, and then turned back to Karísah. “What’s dating like for Nimalians?”
“Um… well, I’ve never actually dated anyone, myself…” she responded uneasily. “I’ve heard that most Nimalians are actually in long-term relationships by my age, but, uh… well, Treséd’s a little different.”
“What does that mean?” Phoenix questioned.
“We don’t, uh, form relationships as easily, or something… I guess…”
“So what I’m hearing is that most of the students at WCU are single,” Pierce replied with a smirk.
“It would figure that that’s what you get out of this,” Phoenix said incredulously.
“Oh c’mon, like you weren’t thinking that either,” Pierce shot back. “We’re supposed to be here for at least a year or so, right? That’s a lot of time to… get to know the people, if you know what I mean.”
“‘Get to know them’ my ass, like any of them would be willing to sleep with you.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong. Think about it: foreigners always have that sort of mysterious appeal, and right now, we’re the foreigners.”
“Did you not just hear the Bleeders talk about ‘outsiders’ like we’re some kind of cancer?”
“Yeah, but they’re violent gang members. I’m not talking about them. Or are you just afraid that I’d do better than you?”
“Oh boy, here we go…” Conrad muttered, exchanging a tired glance with Kestrel as Phoenix turned to pass a haughty look toward Pierce.
“Only in your dreams, Pierce,” she countered, and then looked him over head to toe. “I mean, look at you. ‘Foreigner’ appeal is about all you can rely on.”
“Well now you’re just talking out of your ass. Plenty of women love the runner’s physique,” Pierce replied. “Lean and athletic, but not too muscular or bulky. It’s the perfect sweet spot. Not to mention that I’m tall, handsome, and my hair and hygiene are all well-kept. You, though… well, your ass is about all you have going for you.”
“Damn straight I have a fine ass, but it would figure that’s all you focus on, you lecherous prick.”
“Wow, this is, uh…” Karísah laughed uneasily as she glanced between Pierce and Phoenix. “Is this, uh, normal? For you two?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Conrad replied.
“Pierce just can’t accept that he doesn’t have modern appeal, sometimes,” Phoenix asserted.
“And you just can’t accept that some women actually like me,” Pierce replied. “I bet I could score a date here just fine. Faster than you could, for sure.”
“Ooooh, I know that’s bait, but I can’t just let it stand, either! I’ll show you. I’m infinitely more dateable than you could ever be.”
“Bull-fucking-shit. I remember this one time back in high school when—”
“Hey, that was four years ago, it doesn’t count! Besides, weren’t you the one who…!”
Behind Pierce and Phoenix walked Spike and Sky, who eavesdropped on the ongoing argument with amusement. And farther behind them, in the back of the group, walked Austin and Twy, both of them observing the ongoing conversations with incredulity.
“…What an asshole,” Austin muttered.
“Yeah…” Twy sighed warily. “Doesn’t really help that Phoenix keeps indulging him…”
“It isn’t just that, though.” Austin glanced behind himself, at the damaged and dusty plaza they were leaving behind. “After everything we just saw, here… how can they be like this? Arguin’ and jokin’ like we’re in some lounge somewhere!”
“It’s just how some people relieve stress, I think.”
“But so soon? We haven’t even left the town!”
Twy remained silent for a second as she swept her gaze over the surrounding town and the approaching wall, everything now bathed in the soft orange light of sunset. “…Well,” she eventually said, “do you remember a few days ago, when we first learned about going Berserk? Pierce and Phoenix reacted like they had seen it before, and that it wasn’t pretty. They might’ve seen something like what happened here… in which case, we shouldn’t be judging them. Not judging the timing of their conversation, at least. The content and everything else, though…”
“I guess…” Austin muttered in reply. “Damn… everything sucks.”
“There are some things going for us,” Twy refuted. “We’re learning from one of the people who saved the galaxy, once — you brought that up yourself, you know. You even seemed a little excited about being, uh, ‘chosen ones’ and learning from Hero Machina, until just recently.”
“That was before I’d heard about a fuckin’ violent gang that threatened the safety of where we’re stayin’. We were told that the threat was minimal, but after what happened here? I dunno, man.”
“I agree that the Bleeders are more of a threat than I expected, or hoped… but we are in a position to do something about it, aren’t we? As much as I dislike agreeing with Pierce, he does kinda have a point. We can help. We just need to learn how.”
“And then put myself in lethal danger? No thanks. I like living.”
Twy passed Austin a confused glance. “…You know, if this attack hadn’t happened, but we still trained and went on to fulfill our roles as ‘Keys’, as Pallan said — the risk of lethal danger would’ve still been there. Using our Chaotic abilities in combat would have always been dangerous. Why were you willing to accept that then, but not now?”
“That…” Austin trailed off and looked down at the ground. “…I… don’t know…”
“…Hey,” Twy commented softly when she noticed his furrowed brow. She reached up to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention as she said, “that wasn’t meant to be an accusation, or anything like that. I’m trying to come to terms with all of this, too. It’s… confusing, trying to figure out if I like it here or not, if I like having these powers we have or not, if I can even accept the responsibility that’s been forced on us… or if it’s even fair. Uh, well, it’s not fair, but… my point is that, you aren’t the only one troubled by all this. We’re all in this together.”
Austin stared at her for a couple moments, at a loss for words. He then took a deep breath as a resigned smile crossed his face. “Yeah… I guess so, huh?”
“Besides… you might make a better Chaotic than you think. Copying that one Geotechnic’s powers to get away from him was a smart move.”
“Ah… it wasn’t that impressive. If I was better, he never would’ve gotten a hold of me in the first place. In that regard, you’re a lot better than me. None of the Bleeders even touched you.”
“Only because it’s easier for me to stay in the back with my powers.”
“True. Maybe I should just learn to stick with you and copy your water moves all the time.”
“Heh. I guess that would be easier than trying to read an enemy and then copy what they do, huh?”
“Exactly what I was thinkin’—”
“Hey, you slowpokes!” Sky shouted from farther ahead, her sudden interruption causing both Austin and Twy to jump in surprise. “What’s takin’ so long? Let’s go!”
“…Oops.” Twy laughed uneasily as she noticed how far behind the group she and Austin had lagged. “Talking can be really distracting, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess it can be,” Austin replied, and then glanced behind himself once more at the quiet, empty, battle-scarred plaza. After a second, he shook his head and turned his attention forward again. “But Sky’s right. We’ve spent more than enough time in this town… let’s get out of here.”