The city of Armonia, located in the Outer Region county of Chrous, was alive with activity. Not that that was particularly surprising. There really had never been a time since moving here that Lavernius Tucker hadn’t seen it in such a state.
Armonia was the capital of Chorus itself, which was one of the largest Outer Region kingdoms save for the Orcish Territories that it shared borders with. It was also the home of not only the Guild, an organization which helped register all Magic Users within the Outer Regions and which also had a pretty big presence throughout all of the countries that recognized it, but also the embassy for the Unsc Empire.
“Embassy” had been its title in name only, as most considered the highly militarized presence more of an outright fort to best keep the Unsc’s vested interests in the Outer Regions protected. Still, that had unexpectedly changed with the current General Ambassador’s, Donald Doyle’s, willingness to improve diplomatic relations whenever and wherever possible instead of oh-so-subtly reminding everyone just who had the largest weapons.
Now most of the military’s cautious eyes tended to roam outwards to the Orcish Territories they were still not allowed to traverse in, despite the continued negotiations between the two rather impressively sized kingdoms sandwiching in a myriad collective of smaller ones.
Tucker supposed that there was reason for that still. While a tentative peace of sorts had eventually been reached between the rest of the Outer Regions and both of its more shut-off neighbors, the same hadn’t been true of either other realm. About the only things that had kept them from outright trying to blow the other off the face of the map was The Boundary that the Unsc had set up around its borders since you had to go through all sorts of songs and dances to breach The Boundary.
There was also the fact that the Outer Regions stood directly in-between the two kingdoms, making full-force militarized maneuvers more of a political headache to attempt unless shit really got out of control. Not to mention the lingering reminders of what had happened when the Elven Genocide occurred in the multitude of forms that the murderous Plague Beasts took who roamed the land, combined with those who had magic flowing through their blood and the Relics and Remnants that were still sought after for their magical, energy-giving properties to this very day.
To say that things had always been a bit tenuous was something of a fucking understatement, and that was before any of them had really put together all of the power struggles and shadow government conspiracy bullshit that was apparently going on behind the scenes within the high and utterly-fool-of-themselves Unsc. Seriously, it was just so much fucking bullshit. Plus, there was always some kind of trouble brewing in the Outer Regions that they would then have to fucking deal with.
Tucker couldn’t even be bothered at this point to really give a fuck regarding the currently odd silence in the Orcish Territories like how some of his other friends were on account of everything that had happened in the wake of a Unsc shadow group attempting to kidnap Magic Users here in Chorus.
Truth be told, he kind of didn’t want to really be thinking of that at all at the moment either, his mind’s helpful penchant for recapping notwithstanding. Fucking figured.
Tucker sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched a shower of brightly colored sparks dance in the air over his young son’s head. He couldn’t even enjoy some well-deserved time off with Junior as a result of all that shit.
Tucker watched on as Theta, an apprentice Guild member only a few years older than Junior was as well as a relative of three of Tucker’s friends in an overly complicated magic kind-of-way that always caused a shitload of headaches to try and explain to anyone, conversed with his son.
“Hmm, but what if that distraction didn’t work?” The dark-haired, purple-eyed Theta asked his playmate in a considering fashion.
Junior frowned at the idea, gripping his wooden training sword tightly. Like fuck was Tucker letting him near the real sharp and pointy ones yet. The two boys were playing at a make believe mental training session on the outskirts of the city right by the large gates so as to not get in the way of townsfolk going about their business while Tucker and Theta’s self-appointed guardian or partner or whatever North Dakota sat on some nearby crates to observe and catch a bit of a breather themselves.
“Plague Beasts don’t like distractions?” Junior asked at length.
Theta tapped his chin thoughtfully, “They’ll work on them just fine, but timing is important too. If they figure out that you were trying to get them away from a Relic to steal it, you’re going to have a fight on your hands.”
Junior puffed out his chest proudly, “Then I’ll just have to fight them!” He declared.
Tucker grinned and clapped his hands, “Fuck yeah, that’s how we do it!”
The pale blond-haired man called North sitting next to Tucker simply raised his eyebrows in a bemused fashion, mouth quirking upwards as the other young boy was quick to counter Junior’s suggestion.
“Okay, but what if the cave is too small for fighting? If the monster is tough or you’re outnumbered?” The usually meek child’s voice grew louder as Theta really started getting into the scenario he had concocted, “The Relic has to get taken to the village no matter what!”
Junior’s eyes widened at the newfound urgency of his pretend predicament, spinning his head to and fro as he looked around the area. Suddenly, his small feline tail, so much like his father’s save in length, was swishing eagerly behind him, “Th—that’s easy!” He declared, using fake bolster to cover up whatever doubt he might have been feeling, “I just have to find somewhere to hide where they can’t reach!”
Junior’s somewhat rounder than Tucker’s own furry ears twitched atop his head as the child found a small space between two nearby buildings that was just wide enough for tinier beings to enter, “Like there!” He cried out in a more confident tone, grabbing Theta’s hand to pull the other boy over to the space in question.
Theta nodded his head approvingly, “Not bad.” He admitted before his eyes lit up mischievously, “But what if they could still follow you?”
“No fair!” Junior’s pout would have been apparent in his voice even if he had been facing away, “You can’t change their sizes!”
“But I never said they were all huge.” Theta pointed out smugly, “Plague Beasts do vary and caves can have lots of secret routes…”
As Theta’s voice trailed off the further into their hiding spot the boys went, Junior’s adamant protests only apparent in his indignant expression following, Tucker couldn’t suppress the cold shiver that Theta’s words had unintentionally caused. A frown momentarily crossed over his face as his hands pressed down on the sides of his stomach.
It had just been an innocent coincidence, to be sure, but what Theta had said brought back to mind the rather unsettling circumstances behind Junior’s birth far too much.
Don’t get Tucker wrong: having Junior was by far one of the single greatest things to have ever happened to him. He loved his kid to death, and being responsible for another living being had ultimately helped him get his fucking life together. But just how it had happened? That still gave him pause.
As far as anyone else knew, Tucker had knocked up the daughter of a traveling merchant passing through his middle of nowhere village. She had stayed long enough to have the baby, but her human family were the asshole sort who weren’t too keen on having half-Beast Folk kin with a Magic User no less, so they dumped the baby on his father’s doorstep and left. Soon after, Tucker managed to arrange for travel to Armonia for himself and Junior, where he started doing jobs for the Guild. He had kept to only the area around Armonia until Junior was older.
But that was total bullshit.
Grif and Kai knew that because their towns weren’t too far apart from one another. They had both known Tucker back when he had been an awesome albeit completely magic-less feline Beast Folk. So, his suddenly being able to form a blade of sheer energy right after having a kid was enough for them to know something was up even if they never pried.
The only people to know the full truth were Church, Tex, and Kimball. Church on account of one time the two friends got drunk off their asses to the point where Tucker really liked talking about himself, and then the inebriated asshole in cobalt immediately decided he had to pay his girlfriend that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut around a fucking visit which explained Tex knowing too, though both agreed to keep his secret since they were so well-versed in their own.
As for Vanessa Kimball, the brown and ice-skinned Seas who was the current leader of the Guild? Well, in order to avoid his family getting into a whole fuckton of trouble, he kind of had to tell her in order to explain how he hadn’t been registered earlier with the Guild as a Magic User. But, she knew how to keep such manners discreet, both for his sake as well as Junior’s.
So, long story short, Tucker had been even cockier in the past and, yeah, there had been a really hot chick in a traveling merchant caravan that he had maybe wanted to impress. So when he had heard about a recently unearthed cave nearby that was bound to have a Relic or two, he figured he could sneak in and out without much problem. After all, none of the roaming Plague Beasts in the area had ever come close to catching him.
Tucker had underestimated the difference between roaming monsters and their counterparts who were often strengthened by mystical energies hardly anyone really understood when safely in their home territories, and that had nearly gotten him torn limb from limb by a type of Plague Beast he had never seen before: one that was almost humanoid, but with a towering upright body that also resembled some kind of distorted lizard or dragon.
Thank fuck there had been only one, but it had injured him good before he had somehow managed to hit its weak spot with a rock and make his way into a side-tunnel. He had thought he was safe then, since there was no way for it to follow. It was a good thing too, because he was bleeding badly and he was fairly certain the Plague Beast used poison or venom because he was getting pretty out of it. If he could just wait he could hopefully sneak out…
Only that didn’t happen either because when he passed out in a feverish state a minute or two later, he had woken up to the thing right in front of his fucking face.
Tucker did not, thankfully, remember much of anything after it had grabbed him by the shoulders a second time. He had been quite certain he was going to die though, so he was pretty fucking floored when he woke up fully who knew when later on with his big, nasty injury all healed and the Plague Beast nowhere to be found.
He was still sick as all get-out, but the dark-skinned man had somehow managed to drag himself back to his home, the way oddly devoid of its usual potential terrors.
Tucker had given birth unexpectedly to Junior the day his fever broke a short time later. The birth had been excruciating and difficult given how his body wasn’t exactly equipped for that sort of thing, but the local healer had finally figured out what was going on and performed a c-section.
Tucker also found himself suddenly able to call forth a magical blade at will, and he had an infant who was very likely half of something he wasn’t quite sure what. He didn’t care though. Tucker loved Junior all the same the second he was able to hold his tiny albeit still grossly sticky form in his arms.
His mother and the healer had come up with the merchant’s daughter rumor to protect both father and son, but Tucker knew his time at his hometown was over if he wanted to keep Junior safe, so he left for Armonia as soon as he was capable of travel.
Weirdly enough, that cave seemed to have vanished just as quickly as it had been discovered according to later reports. No one in the Outer Regions had ever seen a Plague Monster like the one that had stalked (taken care of? Impregnated?) Tucker since.
If he hadn’t heard from Carolina and the other Freelancers now hanging around the Guild that they had actually fought some of the same Plague Beasts in the past, he would have possibly doubted his own story and recollection.
Not that it fucking mattered.
He had power to actually do shit now and even help people, and he had a healthy, bright-eyed and bushy tailed son who he would always be proud of and dote on. All in all, Tucker didn’t regret what had happened.
Still, when he caught North looking at him inquisitively out of the corner of his eye due to his reaction to Theta’s comment, Tucker couldn’t help but feel rather nervous.
North was a decent all-around guy, and given how Theta came to be he doubted he would be a judgmental prick, but Tucker didn’t want to take any chances when it came to Junior’s wellbeing. So, that meant letting as little people as possible know of his true origins.
“Something wrong, Tucker?” North asked him, ice blue eyes looking concerned.
Tucker steeled himself and smiled, focusing on another truth instead, “It’s nothing, dude.” He assured him, eyes landing on the two kids again, “It’s just that they grow up so fucking fast, you know?”
“Ah.” Understanding suffused North’s features, his gaze landing on an exuberant Theta, “Yeah, I get that.”
Now that this thread of conversation had gotten started, Tucker figured he should just fucking roll with it. After all, it wasn’t like he could talk with anyone else here about parental concerns and have them fucking get it, you know?
“I mean, Junior’s going to be fucking awesome at pretty much anything he does because he’s my kid and all that,” the teal-wearing man continued, though he slightly shivered all the same despite the proud inflection in his voice, “But a large part of me is scared shitless at the thought of him wanting to train at the Guild when he’s old enough.”
Shit, had Tucker just really been way too badass and amazing, making his exploits something any eager young child might want to have too? He couldn’t help how fucking awesome he was!
North turned his full attention onto the Beast Folk, a knowing smile on his face, “It sounds to me like you’re simply doing your due diligence as a parent, Tucker.”
Tucker shrugged his shoulders, feline ears twitching slightly at a breeze blowing by, “I guess so.” He bit his lower lip uncertainly before raising an eyebrow questioningly the taller man’s way, “What made you feel like Theta was ready for it?”
The question seemed to throw the violet-wearing man off-guard momentarily, as North blinked with widened eyes before tearing his gaze away. Both his expression and voice were rather distant when he spoke up at length, “I’m not entirely sure how much you know of his particular situation, Tucker,” he informed him, “But Theta was unfortunately born into this type of life.”
That may or may not be so eerily different from Junior’s own actual circumstances, Tucker couldn’t help but think wryly. He pushed that thought away to nod slightly in regards to what North said, “I don’t know all the dirty details, but I know it was a shitty situation.” Tucker offered as a reply.
“That might be putting it mildly.” North agreed, his gaze once again finding the two boys as a sad, sort-of smile formed on his face.
Tucker let out an awkward cough, definitely not the best with this feelings shit but deciding he had to at least try since he had brought the whole thing up, “Hey, for what little it probably is fucking worth, I think you’ve done a great job looking after Theta.”
“Thank you, Tucker. That actually means more than you think.” North’s smile became more open, “I can say the same to you in regards to Junior.”
Tucker grinned at the compliment, “Thanks, dude.” He said before frowning as Junior came racing by swinging his wooden sword at a laughing Theta, “Though I think it’s going to be a really long time before I’m okay with the idea of him adventuring.”
North returned his earlier grin easily enough, “Believe me when I say that is completely natural.”
Tucker opened his mouth to let out a good-natured wise crack, but he quickly snapped his jaws shut at the sight of three familiar figures walking through the city gates of Armonia.
It looked like Sarge, Lopez, and Doc were returning. All three were dressed in their customary traveling garb, a thin layer of dirt covering their equipment. They apparently hadn’t stopped too frequently on their way back to the city from their patrol.
Not too surprising considering that one of them was Sarge, who had always been something of a workaholic when it came to what he felt were his Guild duties. If the older man wasn’t tinkering around with some new invention he was convinced would make a difference out on the field, then he was always eagerly signing up for assignments that would surely have him testing his often very much ill-conceived battle strategies on something or someone. Tucker was convinced that was why Sarge and Grey got along so well, given her tendencies to go overboard when it came to her work too.
Sarge never went anywhere without his trusty, artificially-made companion Lopez, something that the often exasperated red-eyed man elaborated on in great detail to his sweetheart, Sheila, whenever he was able to be at the crystalline woman’s side given how she was one of the only people who somehow understood the golem.
Tucker swore that Sarge had managed to convince Kimball to double their workload, which she had only reluctantly done due to Doc deciding that he wanted to tag along too in case Sarge did in fact collapse from sheer exhaustion somewhere along the way. Grey had said in a very obvious and pointed huff that was a strong possibility if the red-wearing man kept pushing himself. Tucker wasn’t going to step into that minefield though. He preferred letting the crazy sort out their own relationship issues, instead of getting his brain broken.
A lot of Guild members were doubling down on missions now, largely as a direct result of what had happened with those Charon fuckers. He had lost count of how many times he had seen Church, Carolina, Tex, and Caboose off now. Hell, the only reason Tucker was able to chill out in Armonia with his kid recently was because York had asked to trade bodyguard duties with him for a while so that he and Delta could do some kind of scouting mission in another Outer Region territory.
Everyone was understandably on edge given what had happened and due to the subtle signs that something was still happening all around them, something that they so frustratingly didn’t know the whole story on. And that fell in line with…
“Hey,” Tucker called out to the three weary travelers, “How did this last intel hunt go?”
It was hard to believe that someone with his obvious “kill first, maybe prioritize asking questions as a solid fourth down the list later” mentality as Sarge would be good at information gathering, but Sarge was an older soldier with a lot of surprises under his belt. With one of the Guild members he had personally trained missing and two other close associates along with him, Sarge had been volunteering to try to find the person they had the best chance of possibly tracking down currently at a breakneck pace.
Though whether that was due to Sarge trying to distract himself, out of actual concern, or because he wanted to shoot the missing Guildsman down himself was anyone’s guess. Personally, Tucker tended to veer towards a combination of the later two himself these days.
After all, Dexter Grif was the missing Guildsman.
Lopez’s exasperated, oddly stiff sigh pretty much said it all before the darkened grimace that crossed over Sarge’s features had even properly set. The golem didn’t say a word as he trudged past them, stopping only to share a few words with Theta and Junior once they spotted him and waved him over. Lopez was always a hit with kids for some reason, even though no one could understand him.
Frank “Doc” DuFresne looked away as if working on putting on a brave face and just not yet comfortable with making eye contact. Even his flower crown seemed to be drooping.
“Fuck.” Tucker winced at their reactions, “Sorry I asked.”
The older Magic User in red was quick to shake his head, “It was a longshot at best and we all knew it.” Sarge informed the Beast Folk, “Grif might be a lazy good-fer-nothin’ most of the time, but he’s always been an expert at making himself scarce.”
“You’re telling me.” Tucker had experienced that particular skill of his heavyset friend far too much while trying to track him down for help on missions and those times had just been when Grif hadn’t wanted to deal with a hassle. Now that he was really upset, finding Grif when he didn’t want to be found was going to be damn near impossible.
“And the increased Unsc patrols to help protect their allies from potential Charon attacks aren’t helping matters any either.” Doc added into the conversation.
“It’s been six months since the last kidnapping attempt,” Tucker noted with a sigh, “You’d think they would have gotten tired of that excuse to make everyone nervous by now.”
“Believe me, Tucker. I know.” Doc muttered in a voice that was uncharacteristically dark for his usual happy self.
Tucker frowned, not sure of what to say. The Unsc’s continued increase in activity at the borders, combined with the total lack of communication from Donut, was making them all nervous. No wonder the healer had decided to occupy his time with helping Sarge and Lopez.
The upset body language that Doc was displaying faded a second later, however, as he shook his head and shrugged, “Sorry. It’s been a long walk.” He quickly apologized with a sheepish smile before he glanced over at the two boys still conversing with Lopez. His smile turned larger as he trotted over to them with a wave, no doubt wanting to share some medicinal-based souvenir with the kids he sometimes babysat.
The three remaining men watched him go in terse silence, broken only by Tucker scowling at the ground in frustration, “It’s not like the fat-ass to just up and leave like that without saying something first,” he finally got out, “Especially to his sister.”
Ever since he had known the pair, the Grif siblings had been quite close despite driving one another crazy. It was only natural considering that they had looked out for each other growing up.
But, then again, Grif had started getting extremely close to someone else too. And while Grif had obviously liked the kiss-ass, it wouldn’t have shocked Tucker if getting that close had scared the shit out of him also. The whole thing with Kai getting taken and Simmons sacrificing himself to go along with Donut’s crazy ass scheme must have hit home to the Orc just how much caring about someone could fucking hurt when you might lose them.
The fucking moron would just be the type to try and push people away first in order to prevent that from happening, not realizing what a mistake that was until much later when it might be damn near impossible to correct. Fucking Grif.
Sarge let out a small harrumph in response, “This whole thing hasn’t smelled right to me from the get-go.” He admitted as he crossed his arms over his chest, “Just like all that sudden treaty talk with the Orcs and the empire.”
Tucker couldn’t help but smile somewhat. In a way, that was what had gotten Grif to this point in the first place.
“There are a lot of pressing issues right now.” North agreed rather bleakly himself.
Tucker sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat, “Yeah, well, I should probably go and give Kai the news.” His ears drooped down on top of his dark head of hair while his suddenly limp tail nearly touched the ground, “Not that she’s gonna take it well.”
The two humans nodded their heads, shooting Tucker sympathetic looks but in no way volunteering to take the proverbial bullet this time themselves.
North frowned slightly, turning his head in the direction of the training grounds, “Speaking of sisters…”
“That,” South Dakota declared with finality, arms crossed over her chest, “Was fucking pathetic.”
There was an assorted heap of bodies gasping for breath on the ground in front of her, the apprentice Guildsmen all the worse for wear for having survived her training course.
“Oh boy, I think I’m dying!” Charles Palomo managed to spat out as he rolled over onto his back and stared upwards with a large amount of effort, “I see a bright light!”
Still struggling for breath herself but clamoring shakily onto her feet, Katie Jensen looked down at Palomo with awkward, bemused fondness as she gripped her knees to remain standing, “Um, Charlie? You’re staring up at the sun.”
Palomo let out a wheezing laugh as he blocked the intruding sunlight with his dark-skinned forearm, “I guess that would explain it then!” He joked, “Still kind of feel like dying though.”
“We all do.” Antoine Bitters replied tersely as he hauled himself up off the ground, “No wonder you’ve been stuck in training this whole time.”
“More training just means I’m going to be flawless!” Palomo shot back just as cheerily as always, causing Bitters to roll his eyes and groan.
“Hey, just because you’re still mad that you have to be here with the rest of us despite being a hired goon for who knows how long doesn’t mean you have to be an angry jerk all the time.” Volleyball told Bitters succinctly as she helped pull her former only other Guild trainee up with Jensen’s help.
“Yeah, we’re going to be out dealing with dicks soon enough without you being one.” Kaikaina Grif was quick to throw her hat into the ring too, though she sniffed disinterestedly a moment later, “Though I’d much rather be sucking dick or taking dick or having someone else doing the same with my dick, if you know what I mean.”
“Whatever.” Bitters rolled his eyes before the half-Orc’s last sentence caught up to his brain, “Wait. What?”
There was a groan from the figure with gray and yellow-tinged skin at South’s side, “That wasn’t even remotely subtle!” David Washington said in annoyance.
“Oh, subtlety can go shove it for all I care!” Kai informed the exasperated man before fixing Bitters with a challenging glare, “You heard me, bitch.”
Wisely, the human decided not to respond for once, opting instead to offer his hand begrudgingly down to the still collapsed Matthews, the younger Seas accepting the gesture gratefully while Bitters tried acting like he didn’t care at all and continued failing miserably at appearing apathetic.
“The flaming logs we had to dodge were quite impressive.” John Elizabeth Andersmith said in an aside to Jensen as he batted his hand over a still smoking patch of singed clothing on his arm, “It was a truly excellent way to test our reaction times!”
“Too bad we kept getting hit by them.” His adopted charge smiled back at the older trainee with a self-deprecating smile.
The reminder didn’t seem to daunt Andersmith in the slightest as he continued beaming with a thoughtful look in his blue eyes, “Yes, but with our abilities we could handle that while the others could not. It was a practice in strategy to help ensure that we all got through the course together.”
From where he was standing and observing their conversation, Washington cast a dubious look South’s way, “Was that true?” He asked out of genuine curiosity.
South’s face remained impassive as she shrugged her shoulders in response, “Hey, if he wants to give me that much fucking credit, I’m not about to stop him.”
Washington continued to side-eye her, clearly not buying it. South just liked to make things as incredibly difficult and challenging as possible so that she could gloat in victory over being able to circumvent such trials with ease while others struggled.
“Whoa.” Palomo said while looking at Andersmith with something akin to awe before leaning over to whisper at Jensen, “He’s totally a glass half full kind of guy, huh?”
Jensen giggled, a rather proud look crossing over her tan and freckled face as she whispered back, “You don’t know the half of it.”
Things had certainly become rather lively over at the Guild ever since Charon’s kidnapping attempt. The fact that so many new members had signed up being one large factor of that. Several of the new recruits had active combat experience, so they were put to work right away largely because one of them, namely South, would have not accepted anything else.
Only Four Seven Niner and Filss weren’t back in Armonia on Guild business as of yet, Kimball deciding after the dwarven woman’s sales pitch that having eyes and ears in the sky so to speak at the moment was a good idea due to how things were developing back on the ground. The pilot had surprised everyone by offering to let Filss tag along now that she was losing her star mechanic, figuring that the diamond woman who had spent so much of her life as an unwilling captive of the Unsc and Charon’s “Magic User Control Policy” might want to get a good, long look at what freedom for an airship pilot might truly mean while seeing the rest of the world. The true shock had been at how readily Filss had accepted the offer.
The number of apprentice Guildsmen had also increased. Jensen, said star mechanic on board Four Seven Niner’s airship previously, had been one of the first to volunteer upon learning of her boss’ new involvement with the group which had led to Andersmith signing up as well in light of their recent family reunion. Both were immensely grateful to the Guild for helping them and had wanted to do the same for others in need. Though he was older, Andersmith wished to also go through the training regimen himself due to what he felt was a lack of active experience in the types of matters that the Guild dealt with.
Matthews, despite his still rather extreme levels of temerity, had wholeheartedly signed on instead of tracking down his family for much the same reasoning. He also very much wanted to assist in finding the missing Grif given how the Orc had saved his life during that fight in the dungeon below the town of Rat’s Nest and due to how Kai and the other captives had tried looking out for him in his shocked and overwhelmed state back then too.
Bitters had quickly said he might as well sign up too after Matthews’ shaky declaration, noting that he didn’t have too many options since he was now officially a traitor to his former employers and his home life was pretty much nonexistent. Bitters acted like it was a huge ordeal, and he was very much pissed off at getting stuck in the training regimen with the others given his past, but that aggravation seemed to lessen somewhat when a rather relieved Matthews earnestly told the young man that he was glad they were still stuck together.
Kai pretty much pushed her way in without heeding any word of argument or protest, determined to use the Guild’s resources to help track down her big brother and somehow help him figure out a way to save his “nerd lover.” She had only barely agreed to at least finish some of the training beforehand at Tucker’s concerned behest.
Of course, more recruits meant more of a focus on training, which led to the here and now.
Washington surveyed the still clearly exhausted apprentices as they got their bearings again before turning to the pale blonde also doing the same rather impatiently with a heavy sigh, “They aren’t going to be able to become accomplished Guild members if they don’t actually survive the training, you know.” He tried in vain to inform South yet again.
Ice blue eyes landed squarely on the Seas and South sneered, “What are you, their fucking mother or something?”
Washington couldn’t help but sigh again at her mocking jab, mentally counting backwards from ten. He wondered once more just how it was that he had gotten stuck on training duty with South of all people since she had even less patience for it than he did, and that was truly saying something.
Perhaps what the Seas had been thinking just then was more readable on his face than he would have liked, because South stared at him a moment longer with furrowed brows as if he had personally challenged her before she turned back to face the still struggling to stay upright trainees.
“I suppose,” South began to amend her initial assessment of their efforts, “I can give you guys some credit seeing as how you actually managed to finish the course at all.”
It was as close to praise as anyone was likely to get from the abrasive, orchid-wearing swordswoman and they all gaped accordingly. South wasn’t through yet, turning her magnanimous and downright smug gaze back over at Washington in a way that let him know he was about to dread having spoken up at all: “Seeing as how a certain grey-gilled asshole had trouble even getting through the second part way back when.”
Washington felt his face heat up in direct response to that reminder of his rather epic failings as a rookie Freelancer when he heard a disbelieving Palomo mutter “No fucking way!” right before Volleyball elbowed him to get him to shut up.
He cast his eyes to the ground, his verbal response an embarrassed mumble, “I still don’t know how you got ahold of Plague Beast piranhas.” Washington muttered.
South was grinning triumphantly from ear to ear, “Aren’t you part fish, Washy? Surely you should be man enough to handle angry cousins.”
He knew the skin on his face was darkening even more in a blush at her taunting, but whatever probably very much ill-advised retort he was about to counter her with died on his tongue when he caught sight of both C.T. and Tucker approaching over her shoulder.
His suddenly preoccupied expression had South turning around to catch what had so caught his gaze, a scowl quickly forming on her face when she caught on to how his attention was so thoroughly taken by the dark-skinned Beast Folk in particular. Her annoyed mood only lessened when she caught the brown-armored woman smiling slightly at her two former Freelancer teammates, offering them a small wave in greeting.
“Okay,” South turned back to the trainees with another roll of her eyes at Washington’s antics, “We’re fucking done here. C.T. will be handing out your assignments for the day, same as last time.” She narrowed her eyes pointedly, “And I don’t want to hear any bitching about them this time, you hear me?” She huffed, “I don’t fucking care even if it’s something stupid like getting a squirrel out of a goddamned tree!”
“Question!” it was no surprise that Palomo’s hand shot up then, his arm covered with tan with aqua-trim clothing obvious over the heads of the others, “What if you’re allergic? Can you complain then?”
Bitters shook his head from where he was standing behind the oblivious dark-skinned young man with Matthews, “Goddamn it, Palomo.” He muttered under his breath, clearly exasperated.
South’s eyes narrowed to near slits, “Shut the fuck up, Palomo.”
The round of questioning apparently over with, South promptly stalked over to where C.T. had stopped several meters away from the group so as to not interrupt anything, arms crossed over her chest once more as she started speaking to the brunette in a low voice.
The trainees began filing past Washington and the approaching Tucker to join her at C.T.’s side, all save for Kai. The Orc and Beast Folk hybrid stayed back to speak with her friend. Her action was not lost on Volleyball, who tentatively stayed on the outlier of the trainee group gathered around the two older females to get their assignments, glancing over at Kai with visible concern.
Both Kai and Washington asked at the same time, causing them to regard one another for a moment before turning their regard back to Tucker, who was slightly startled by their abruptness.
Washington had been asking mostly out of the hope that perhaps Tucker’s worry could be alleviated by some sort of news at least. Why that mattered so much to him, he wasn’t sure yet. He knew that paled in comparison to the worry and fear that Kai must be going through. After all, on top of a good friend going away, her sole family had vanished at around the same time without so much as a word. It was almost frightening how many past experiences the Seas had that helped him relate.
Tucker frowned and bit his lower lip, shaking his head with regret.
The hopeful, earnest look that always crossed over Kai’s yellow-marked features at the possibility of finding out something fell in a single moment and Washington fought the urge to look away as her butterfly wings, so deceptively fragile-looking compared to her actual person, drooped alongside her slumped shoulders.
But her disappointment only lasted a moment, as she was quick to put on a brave face and Washington was once again in awe of her continued displays of resilience.
“Well, it doesn’t matter really. I’m sure that the flashy teleporter guy and Simmons are going to be fine, and my big bro is tough.” Kai stated out loud as though to reassure herself, a flash of anger hitting her briefly as she added, “I’m just going to have to kick Dex’s ass for making me worry the minute he gets back.”
Tucker grinned in the face of her stubbornness, “Hell yeah, that’s the spirit!”
The two high-fived, a slight smile forming on Washington’s face at the encouraging sight before he tilted his head in the direction of the still lingering Volleyball and the others, “You should probably go and get your assignment, Kai.” He said.
Kai immediately turned to Washington and shot him a distrustful glare, “Don’t tell me what to do, cop.” She told him defiantly even as she stormed off in the direction of C.T. and the rest regardless.
Washington watched as she reached Volleyball, the blonde resting an unsure hand on the other young woman’s shoulder. Kai leaned into the consoling gesture before slinging her arm around the human’s shoulders as they walked side-by-side into the fray. He was never winning that particular fight with her.
Tucker watched him observing the trainees with an exasperated sort-of fondness, his smirk growing at the sight, “Seems like the training’s going well.”
Washington blushed at having been caught being foolishly sentimental by the surprisingly keen-eyed Guildsman, turning back around to face Tucker. He nodded in response, though he couldn’t help frowning all the same, “I’m still surprised that South initially volunteered to help with it though.”
“Eh, she probably just did it to freak out her brother.” Tucker said quickly, though a sly look lit up his brown eyes and his tail swished from side to side as he regarded the platinum blonde in question bending over to say something to her friend as C.T.’s attention was diverted amongst the crowding around apprentices, “Though I would fucking bet that C.T. being in charge of handing out training missions played a huge role too.”
Washington regarded Tucker in surprise at that remark, “What do you mean?” He asked, genuinely curious.
Immediately, a black eyebrow rose up, “Fucking seriously?” Tucker joked incredulously, shaking his head, “Learn to read the room, dude.”
Washington’s gray eyes widened slightly in realization, and he glanced over at his two teammates before turning back to Tucker to ask in a low voice, to avoid getting his ass kicked if overheard, if he was indeed implying what he thought he was.
Tucker, however, spoke up first and Washington was caught off-guard by the speculative look thrown his way, “I’m more surprised that you decided to stick around once things had settled down.” He admitted, “Weren’t you just helping us out because Caboose’s pilot sister was a friend of yours? I mean, you seemed pretty fucking stressed with all the other Freelancers around originally.”
The admission from Tucker that he had been especially curious about Washington’s decision to officially join up with the Guild caused his gills and lungs to work double time for a moment, though Washington wasn’t sure why the often aggravating Beast Folk seemed to have that type of effect on him these days.
Washington looked at the ground, “I haven’t exactly had a lot going for me in the wake of Freelancer.” He muttered softly, “And with Charon still in operation,” he shrugged before looking up at Tucker’s face once more, “I figured staying with the Guild was the right call.”
Tucker grinned, “You could just admit that you liked hanging out with us more than you thought you would, you know.”
His smug remark had the heat rushing all across the Seas’ body again and he glanced away, “No comment.” Washington mumbled out.
By this time, the trainees had all scattered in different directions to go about the rest of the day, South and C.T. nowhere to be seen as well. Tucker looked over at the spot that they had been gathered around before rather thoughtfully.
“Our ranks have definitely increased since that cluster fuck at Rat’s Nest.” Tucker stated at length before an odd sort-of smile settled over his features, “Though I bet you ten to one that Grif’s going to be fucking pissed when he finds out that Kai joined up.”
Washington picked up on how Tucker’s expression darkened then, “Are you still worried about your friends?” He asked cautiously.
It was a foolish question, one that he already knew the answer to well enough, but he wasn’t sure of what else to say. His expressing too much sympathy might be wholly inappropriate to their current dynamic.
Tucker grimaced at the question, “After six months of no fucking contact, who wouldn’t be?” He asked as if the answer should be obvious.
Washington wasn’t sure how to respond, but he frowned slightly and reached out a hand to briefly grasp the younger man’s shoulder.
“Hey, you two assholes!”
South and C.T. were back, the orchid-wearing woman’s shout causing both men to jump. She had her hands circled around her mouth to call out again, while C.T. watched their reactions with an amused, way too knowing look in her eyes that had Washington thinking he might want to avoid bringing up Tucker around her anytime soon.
“Move it or we’re leaving you the fuck behind for real this time!” South shouted again.
Tucker rolled his eyes in obvious exaggeration but started to comply regardless, Washington moving to walk in place beside him.
A sudden thought crossed Tucker’s mind, his demeanor changing instantly as he turned towards Washington once more, “Dude, you’ll never believe what Junior said to Theta earlier!” He said giddily.
Washington started at the proud, excited energy now coursing through the other man at the chance to recollect his son’s antics and he couldn’t help but smile himself in response, “Yeah?” He asked Tucker, indicating for the Beast Folk to continue.
“Yeah! So, they were playing and—”
For just one brief, utterly selfish moment, the current issues and problems that the Guild and the Outer Regions faced faded from Washington’s mind entirely.
The cold, metal floor slammed painfully against the palms of his hands and knees as his falling form made contact with it. Richard “Dick” Simmons couldn’t suppress a wince as he closed his eyes tightly against the sudden onslaught of blindingly bright blurriness that had so thoroughly overwhelmed his eyesight.
The redhead’s entire lanky form shook and he spent several agonizing moments trying to collect himself on the ground, droplets of sweat dripping into a tiny puddle beneath his face from his sopping wet hair.
It was a struggle to keep his limbs from giving out completely, and his whole body convulsed with the effort it took to draw in enough breath.
Hovering above him the whole time, however, was the sudden all-encompassing warmth of yet another restored Relic.
Simmons gazed upwards at it shakily once he could manage to open his eyes, trying to focus on the soothing warmth despite his current discomfort, on how the warmth timed with the pulsating blue light the magic in the stone was giving off now was much better than the sheer cold void that had nearly swallowed him whole when he had first approached the Relic.
He still found it nearly impossible to believe that he could activate such hidden wells of power, that he could somehow coax life back out of something so damaged that only close inspection could reveal its stark difference from any other rock, its connection to the Elves and to their deaths.
Simmons shuddered, glad that the split-second mental vision he had gotten this time was simply of the sky turning red overhead for a moment before fading to black. A fractured glimpse into a nightmarish past that contained no other deeper, hidden meanings or truths to it.
He could deal with that. It was the longer memory glimpses, the ones that showed people and creatures in their last panicked, desperate moments, the ones that contained emotions along with the story they told that left him devastated for a good long while.
The Magic User bit his lower lip and, with what felt like a monumental effort given how sluggish he felt now all over, groggily stood up. He was proud of only staggering a little as he wiped a freckled forearm over his head to get rid of some of the sweat there, grimacing distastefully at the sensation of his red hair and maroon clothes sticking to his skin.
A mocking slow clap started up as the door to the observation chamber opened, a smirking Felix waltzing into the space with his partner Locus along with Aiden Price right behind them.
Locus never took off his full body armor, so Simmons was never sure about his expressions or appearance beyond the fact that he was fucking tall, whatever species he was. But Felix always made it a point to at least remove his helmet even if he didn’t dress in more casual garb for this endless string of tests. He seemed to thrive on the uneasiness that Simmons was radiating and wanted the redhead to get a good look at his gloating smirk. His pointy ears, far too similar to Simmons’ own before he had butchered them to try and reassure his mother that he would turn out normal despite them, always seemed to taunt Simmons too.
“Not bad, not bad,” the shorter of the two mercenaries stated as Felix sauntered further into the room, amusement clear as day on his face when Simmons took a fearful step back and nearly backed right into the artifact he had so painstakingly restored only a short time ago, “But this kind of Relic is small fry compared to the ones we’re going to the Outer Regions for.”
Simmons swallowed, his throat painfully dry as he tried not to think about his friends just then. About Grif…
Price was writing something down as usual after yet another successful test run, though his brown eyes flickered upwards indifferently all the same, “Indeed,” he agreed with Felix before adding, “However, testing Simmons’ endurance levels with these trials is still quite paramount.” He smiled thinly, the gesture always failing to reach the rest of his face, “You’ll find that healing Remnants out on the field will not be nearly as trying as they might otherwise be as a result, Richard.”
Simmons opened his mouth slightly, unable to do anything more than gape disbelievingly at the man who had once been his uncle’s right hand, who had helped to torture him as a child in ways he only ever thankfully recalled now as distant memories, who had assisted in tearing his cousin Church apart and nearly killed his other cousin Carolina, who had hurt and killed so many people…
All while his own father had known and done nothing. Only to then require Price’s assistance in doing the exact same thing on his own son.
And for what, exactly? More power than the sheer staggering amount he already had at his disposal?
Simmons still wasn’t able to wrap his brain around it. And Price acting like any of this was being done to somehow help him, it was so blatantly false that he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry. He wanted to do both, hopelessly enough these days.
Felix gauged Simmons’ reaction with an increasing smirk, “Personally, I just think Control’s a bit of a slave driver!” He remarked, eyes gleaming with sadistic mirth, “Even with his own fucking kid!”
“Felix,” Locus’ gruff voice spoke out a warning from where he was standing as still as a statue off to the side, “That’s enough.”
Felix turned his way with a careless shrug, “What? It’s the truth.”
“Would you rather be assisting Sharkface in his scouting efforts?” Price asked him cordially.
The brown-haired mercenary made a face at the suggestion, “Ugh, pass.” He made no effort to hide his disdain for the other Charon operative, “Though I do admit I’m kind of impressed that he hasn’t burned down anything that’s sure to be missed yet.” He raised an eyebrow speculatively, “Maybe he has more self-control than I thought?”
“You would do well to attempt the same.”
Simmons stiffened at the all too familiar voice as Malcolm Hargrove had not visited this particular Magic Division facility (prison) for weeks.
Locus and Price both straightened their postures at his presence while Felix simply crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at the comment that had been thrown his way so haughtily, “I wouldn’t fucking be here if you didn’t need me.” He reminded the Unsc representative and leader of Charon smugly, “And I’m pretty sure that you pay me the big amounts specifically for when I do lose control.”
“Yet there’s no telling when those circumstances will change.” Hargrove told Felix evenly, “I’d be mindful of that.”
“Whatever you say.” Felix was quick to turn around and leave the room with Locus, though not before he turned in the doorway and gave Hargrove’s back the middle finger when he was sure that only Simmons could see the gesture, knowing that Simmons would be too terrified to tattle on him.
“Let’s go, Richard.” Hargrove was staring at Simmons as dismissively as always, “Price has preparations to make.”
The eerily calm man in question bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement, “Of course, sir.” Price said before getting back to his report.
Despite how drained he still was, Simmons struggled to keep up with his father’s pace. It was very apparent that the old man wasn’t going to deign to slow down to wait for his exhausted son.
The corridors they were walking through were the ones that lead back to Simmons’ room. He knew them by heart at this point as they were his only path through the facility since he was only ever called upon to perform tests of his Healing Aura.
Simmons would have been naïve to think that Malcolm Hargrove would allow him any further freedoms considering how quickly he had cast him into the care of the Magic Division when his abilities had first appeared despite their being flesh and blood. The extreme circumstances of whatever Charon was up to now only further cemented that.
For a long while, only an uncomfortable silence filled the air between father and son. Simmons stared down at his fidgeting hands, noting how he used to always long for walks with his father after having been abandoned by him such a long time ago. Now, staring at Hargrove’s cold, stern features, he honestly couldn’t think of why he had ever desired that of a man incapable of giving any sort of affection whatsoever to those he felt were beneath him.
“It seems as if whatever foolish inclination you had towards leaving is gone now.” Hargrove finally spoke up, though his eyes resolutely stared ahead.
Simmons frowned, deciding that pointing out how he had been whisked away to a secure Magic Division facility who-knew-where in the Unsc immediately upon their return with two murderous mercenaries and who knew how many other secret Charon operatives keeping him under lock and key when he wasn’t being called on for experimental tests kind of did that particular trick for him.
But Simmons knew that the staunch politician and businessman before him didn’t appreciate sarcasm in the slightest, so he simply nodded his head and said, “Yes, Father.” as he had been trained to do since birth.
“Our methods are undoubtedly harsh,” Hargrove continued after hearing that supposed affirmation of his initial assessment since he would never see Simmons as having enough of a will to deceive him intentionally, “But you will come to understand Charon’s goals soon enough.”
Simmons decided to say nothing in response because what he had already gathered about their coup goals he very much hated.
“You playing such a pivotal role in all of this is something to be truly proud of, Richard.”
Simmons wondered if his uncle had said much the same to Church and Carolina before he had destroyed everything they cared for. He felt sick as he nodded his head again, simply to dispel the lingering fuzziness from his brain.
His father, self-absorbed asshole that he was, took it as a twisted sign of meek acceptance, “The prince has been asking about you again.” He said, like one talking about something trivial.
That reveal gave Simmons pause, and he glanced over towards his father. The man had a grimace of distaste on his face, as he always did whenever he mentioned Donut or the royal family at large.
“Can I speak with him?” Simmons asked hopefully, despite knowing full well what the answer to his request would be.
He had to ask though since he hadn’t seen Franklin Delano Donut since they had been brought back to the Unsc Empire. Donut had been taken away to meet his family in order to avoid a massive political fallout that wouldn’t do any potential usurpers any good at present and hopefully to gain potential intel on Charon’s activities while Simmons was returned to his father’s “loving” arms.
Simmons hadn’t even been able to see his mother again. Did she even know that he was still alive? He honestly wouldn’t put it past an uncaring Hargrove to tell his wife that her only child had died to avoid further complications and entanglements to future goals. The thought made him even sicker.
He had never regretted a decision as badly as this one. Fuck, he just sucked at making them in general.
No wonder Grif hadn’t even been able to look him in the eye back then when he had decided to help Donut, let alone say goodbye later on. He had been an idiot!
Hargrove shot Simmons a pointed look for the first time since this painful conversation had begun, “I don’t believe there is much wisdom in that idea, Richard.” He stated mockingly, “Do you?”
Simmons’ face flushed and he swallowed nervously, looking down at his feet as he quickly shook his head no.
They were approaching his room now, “Felix and Locus will be here to retrieve you for the mission tomorrow morning.” Hargrove informed him matter of fact.
Simmons was surprised by how quickly things seemed to be progressing now, given how methodically the tests had been handled. He briefly wondered if maybe Hargrove felt pressured by someone or something to tip his hand earlier than he had planned.
“Where exactly in the Outer Regions will we be going?” Simmons asked nervously.
If it was close to a Guild branch, maybe he could run away and get into contact with someone. Fuck, if he could even get a message back to Doyle somehow!
They probably hadn’t bothered telling him yet for those very thoughts suddenly swirling through his mind. His dad and Price were practical men, after all. Then again, for all that he supposedly mattered to their goals, they seemed awfully fond of keeping him out of the fucking loop in general.
“You don’t need to know.”
Case in fucking point. He wasn’t terribly surprised or bothered by Hargrove’s response at this point, so used as he was to that kind of treatment.
With that, Simmons was left alone without so much as a parting word from the man who had at least played a barely minimal effort in bringing him into this world. The lock clicked into its customary place as his exhausted body sank onto the mattress of his sparsely decorated room.
Prison cell, really. It reminded him of an only slightly nicer painted version of the ruins where Charon (his father) had been keeping Kai and the other Magic Users imprisoned.
He hoped that they wouldn’t try going after any of them again at least. With all the people on his payroll, and all the Magic Users “enslaved” for their own protection by the Unsc that Hargrove as the Magic Division’s head had access to, he already had more than enough people at his disposal to form a veritable army.
So, why the extra effort then? Simmons frowned up at the ceiling, not wanting to know and yet definitely not liking not knowing the bigger picture all the same. He closed his eyes and took in a few deep breaths to try and calm his nerves, feeling worse at failing to do so.
Still, the redhead tried reaching out in vain yet again to someone he desperately, desperately needed to talk to right now. He could picture him too: his voice, his laugh, orange swirling marks on tanned skin and black, curly hair, with brown eyes that he could just sink into. The warmth that always seemed to exude from his very being, which seemed to flow right into Simmons and just made him feel like, no matter what, he wasn’t fucking alone anymore.
He hadn’t realized just how much he had been constantly craving and seeking that connection out, how much he had come to value and cherish it until he found himself denied it.
Whatever strange magical bond connected him and the lazy Orc known as Dexter Grif, what Grif had always referred to as Linking Magic in their private conversations on the subject with a barely concealed glimmer of excitement and contentment at the thought, Simmons felt only a strong sense of coldness and a longing ache at it now somehow being blocked.
It was definitely not him causing the block either, as he was certainly trying his hardest now despite not being nearly as frustratingly adept or at ease with the whole ancient magic spirit connection thing as Grif always seemed to be.
Which meant what, exactly?
Only one of them or the other could mentally force themselves to temporarily block the connection, and with great effort and exertion at that. He at least knew that little bit about the lore behind the almost completely lost art.
Grif was finally putting effort into something, and that realization felt like it would rip his heart out of his chest even more thoroughly than any of the shit his father put him through. The Orc must truly fucking hate him to do that.
Simmons curled in on himself in a tight ball atop his rumpled blankets, truly feeling alone again for the very first time since he had left Valhalla with Grif.
He was both angry and sad all at once, his chest aching as he tried to breathe in calm, even breaths (he was failing at that too) and he tried not to rub too much at his suddenly stinging, blurry eyes. He tried not to focus on the void that he was sure was going to swallow him whole at any fucking second.
But all Simmons could remember instead was how Grif hadn’t looked him in the eye. How he hadn’t even said goodbye.
He couldn’t stop himself from wondering what the fat-ass had been doing since then, and he hated himself even more than usual for it.