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A Helping Hand

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Dust settles like a red mist over the hard-packed training grounds. The cool, hard bricks press into Twelve's back to keep him bolted to reality. His thoughts and the echoes of his comrade's pleas for him to understand his own worth coalesce into the insidious seeds of self-doubt once again. Out of the corner of his eye, Twelve catches movement: A man raises a broad, weathered hand to wipe sweat off his brow, and Twelve remembers that those echoes are recent, and he isn't alone here yet. The other fifteen may have long since retreated into the building across the field, but here these two remain; Twelve tries to muster up some flowery metaphor about lost time.

“Why did you sign up?”

"What?" Twelve mutters, yanked from his internal monologue. Of course the other man couldn't stay quiet for very long.

“Come on man, there had to be a reason," the taller man chides, "Why did you join the Knights? Surely you had a life before all this.”

Twelve blinks, and after a moment, responds quietly, “It sounded like a good story.”

Seven bursts into laughter and throws his hands up. “Damn, you sound just like me when you say that. You know I can’t tell if you’re lying or not, but I really hope it turns out how you wanted.” Clapping Twelve on the shoulder, Seven flashes a dazzling smile and jerks his chin toward the waiting showers in a clear question. Twelve forces a smirk and nods. A swagger slowly returns to his steps as the two of them wander off to go clean up from training, and prepare for whatever their night might hold.

 

The settling clay dust of the training ground fizzles and changes into actual mist, flung up from the bubbling water of a campfire cauldron. Callahan’s reminiscence has been interrupted by the softly approaching crunch of Eliza’s boots over the forest debris. Callahan looks up and smiles wryly at her. She returns the silent greeting around arms overflowing with dry twigs and leaves. Callahan scrunches his eyes closed for a second, trying to push through the urge to hesitate.

“Have you ever had to sneeze, but it doesn’t happen?” Callahan asks. Eliza lets the firewood fall to the ground as it wishes. It’s his problem now, she thinks, along with whatever he’s apparently been mulling over while I was out. She furrows her brow in his direction, and waits for more context.

“Like, you’re ready for it,” he continues, “but then it gets caught somewhere. Your chest tightens up, and your throat narrows, & it’s hard to breathe for a few seconds?” Eliza shrugs noncommittally, unsure of where this is going. “That feeling, of choking on the air that was supposed to bring a release, that’s... what it feels like to try to stop the panic once it starts.”

Eliza stands up a little straighter, dusts her hands off, and crosses the few dozen feet between them to sit next to Callahan on the log, next to their fire in the middle of camp. He scoots over a few inches to make room for her, but Eliza pointedly adjusts her position so their thighs brush against one another. Callahan glances over to give her a short-lived half smile, and gets caught there as she tosses her unruly curls back over one shoulder and tilts her head at him, absorbing that idea. Eliza glances down and realizes he’s holding a tattered-looking book she’s never seen before, passing it from one hand to the other and back, his slender fingers hovering on the treated-leather cover. It must be an important book, Eliza thinks, for even Callahan to have kept it for this long.

He sees where her attention has been drawn and clears his throat, pressing the book between his palms. He cranes his head up to look at the sky, barely peeking in amongst the treetops.

“I used to get these panic attacks after training,” Callahan admits, “Like I was always convinced that I would forget everything before the next session — or, even worse, I would remember it until the very moment I actually needed to use it. My best friend would sit with me and talk me through it. Sorta like you do now, but with a bit less sexual tension.” Callahan hazards another glance, and winks. Eliza cracks a smile in spite of herself. “He used to tell me, ‘This may be a mind problem, Boxcar, but it sure as hell isn’t all in your head.’ He said it, over and over, even though once was probably enough. He really had a...a knack, for giving advice. At one point, self-help quotes were plastered all over the inside of my skull," Callahan chuckled, "but it eventually helped though. It... really helped.”

Callahan opens the book and begins flipping through pages randomly, and Eliza blinks when she recognizes it as a notebook. A mixture of sketches and text and carefully tucked-in scraps of other paper lies haphazardly within. A lot of it is in Callahan’s scrawling, cramped handwriting. The scraps aren’t. They’re in a precise, clear script, and what she can see of them seems to be covered with reminders or cheerful daily commentary, all signed, “Sev”. Callahan has mentioned his old friend a few times in passing. Most of what Eliza knows about him is that he was boisterous, loved to tell stories, they’d hooked up once with no real significance, and… he didn’t show up when it came time to put all the Knights’ training into action at the tragic and bloody Battle of Iron Hill. She’s interested to finally hear more, so she can hopefully make sense of some of those things in conjunction with the rest.

“A knack is maybe putting it lightly, actually. He could have been truly powerful, almost as powerful as Delta, I’d wager. Seven didn’t like to use his tricks on anybody unless it was for a good reason, though, which was nothing like Delta." At the mention of his old squad leader, Callahan's eyes darkened. He brightened them again by staring into the coals beneath the still-bubbling cauldron. "Seven mostly helped folks study and train, and of course he always loved to tell his stories, and it came in handy there. But he got real mad at me one day — well, I say mad, and I say at me, but I don’t mean it like that, really? — he got enormously frustrated with me beating myself up, is what it was. Either way, he lost his temper a bit, and he went on a little tirade that lodged in here,” Callahan points to his temple and proudly announces, “just how awe-inspiring I am.”

Eliza squints to avoid rolling her eyes at his aggressively sarcastic tone. Oddly enough, she can't tell if he's being pompous or self-deprecating. Callahan sighs deeply.

“He didn’t keep it going, of course. Mumbled something about personal responsibility and not screwing with people’s self-perception. But the weight of his belief in me wound up sticking for a different reason: He was my friend.”

Eliza places her open palm on her knee in an unspoken offer, and Callahan takes it in his without hesitation. He smiles and shakes his head, snapping the scrapbook closed with his free hand.

“In a weird, rambling, roundabout way, I guess I mean thank you, buttercup. I can imagine the type of person I would be if I’d never stumbled into your shop, half-drunk on my own mischief, out of people to believe in, and on the run from demons inside and out. Thanks for helping me remember that I’m someone worth fighting for, and alongside. Turns out I am pretty great, aren’t I?”