AEGIS was…not happy. She flitted back and forth between screaming at me about my stupid carelessness and how I was never going to leave the house again, to crying and wailing about how if I’d died, she’d be all alone, to earnestly confiding in me how much I meant to her and how much my death would impact her, to seriously condemning all Exhumans (myself mostly excluded, of course) for their dangerous and irresponsible behavior.
“And, the worst of it all is that this was so easily predicted.” She had had her hands on her slender hips and had her body cocked sideways, talking down at me as I sat on the floor enduring her lecture. “If you’d just listened to me–“
“Are we at ‘I told you so’ already?” I asked.
She frowned. “This is entirely too important an issue for ‘I told you so’, but yes, if you’d listen to me more, I think you’d be braindead less often. Once is more than enough, don’t you think?”
“She said I only had a concussion.”
“She said you probably wouldn’t be waking up.”
“She’s not the most reliable or credible witness.”
“Then don’t tell me she diagnosed you with only a concussion!”
“There you go, got to be the smartest person in the room, as always.”
“Well, somebody’s got to do it, and it certainly isn’t going to be the idiot who blew himself up!”
I was willing to accept that I’d screwed up, but that didn’t give AEGIS a free ticket to lord her correctness all over me. As soon as I opened my mouth to argue back, I knew it was going to get ugly. So I was shocked when suddenly she stopped responding and shushed me.
“Is this…the weirdest silent treatment ever?”
“No, shush, seriously.” She practically dove to her terminal and started hammering keys. Angry as I was, I was still able to recognize urgency in her when I saw it and waited for her analysis. “Uh, I think we have a visitor,” she said.
“Wynn and Tate?”
“Nobody so pleasant. I’m sorry, I was distracted and not watching. She’s…right outside.”
“I hope I’m not intruding,” I heard Karu’s voice from outside, her voice, empty of its usual harsh conviction instead carried the tone of a new neighbor introducing herself.
“Um. Karu?” I had to ask, though it couldn’t be anyone else.
“Yes, it is I. I am…here to request another duel, would you choose to have it.”
AEGIS and I just looked at each other, neither sure what to make of the situation, and all our previous animosity vanished.
“Uh. Why?” I called out.
“May I come in? I find this practice of yelling through a doorway distasteful.”
Again, AEGIS and I exchanged the blankest of stares. “Uh. Go ahead, I guess?” I finally called.
“I thank you,” she said, appearing in the doorway, visor under one arm like a helmet. “I saw that your door was open, but did not wish to assume and intrude. Especially given that we have had previous…hostilities. I did not think it would do to suddenly appear in your domicile, particularly considering that you seemed…otherwise engaged.”
She blushed and looked at her feet. It would have been cute on any other girl in any other situation, but here it just added to the creeping horror of the bizarro-universe situation.
“I um, do not believe we have been introduced,” she said raising a hand in greeting to AEGIS on the holo. “I was not aware that Ashton had a girlfriend–“
“She’s not my girlfriend–!”
“I’m not his girlfriend–!”
“Uh. So I see. How is it that you have managed to make a holo call out here, if I may ask? I was under the impression you were to be removed from all human contact, and do not know who would deign to break that condition of your exile by giving you access to the ‘net.”
Again, AEGIS and I had nothing to do but exchange glances.
“Uh, AEGIS is actually a prisoner somewhere. I have no idea where.”
“You have volunteered for a prisoner correspondence program?”
“No…wow this is hard to explain.”
“Yeah, and I’m not entirely convinced that we should,” AEGIS added.
“Oh. My apologies, I did not intend to pry. I had assumed that Ashton had been living in a hole in the ground in his own squalor all this time, but it seems he has quite a comfortable setup instead. I am yet again impressed by his resourcefulness and craft.”
“Oh, give me a –“
“You said you were here to fight, Karu?” I interrupted AEGIS. “So what’s up with all of this? You normally fall out of the sky, give some damning proclamations, and then we tear it up. Not that I mind the change in routine, but…well, this is pretty weird.”
“Yes, it is uncomfortable for me as well. But as I believe I made clear last time, I am no longer certain that I am a righteous being and you are an evil one to be purged. Therefore, it only makes sense to treat the situation with more tact than I had previously. Were I, hypothetically, the evil and corrupt individual in this scenario, it would be very improper for me to disrupt your just and peaceful lifestyle demanding combat at my whims.”
“Isn’t the whole point of being evil that you don’t care about propriety?”
“Hmm. Perhaps you are right. I perhaps should have merely assailed you as typical.”
“Uh, no, let’s not jump to that conclusion,” AEGIS added. “And let’s not tempt Karu into any other conclusions that involve a fight breaking out, shall we?”
“Yeah, maybe not,” I mused. “Still curious exactly what’s going on here though.”
“As am I, but you can find out without provoking the girl.”
“I am…still standing right here, and can hear both of you conversing clearly.”
“Right. Maybe we should take this outside so if or invariably when a fight starts, AEGIS isn’t caught in the middle of it?”
Karu frowned. “I am in no rush to engage in battle. If you are otherwise preoccupied, I do not mind waiting.
“Uh,” I turned to AEGIS again, and realized that Karu had been more than patient in having a conversation with the two of us contributing nothing but bewildered looks at each other. “I mean, it wouldn’t be polite to keep our guest waiting after her flight in.”
“And he is obviously very concerned with politeness because he is obviously a very moral person who should not be attacked,” AEGIS added.
“Yes, obviously.” I gave Karu a small smile.
“I do not find your mockery of my moral values appropriate behavior given the courtesies I have shown you,” she said with a small frown. “Regardless, on the off chance that you were not employing sarcasm, I will acquiesce to your desires and we may ‘take this outside’ as it were.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, and gestured her towards the door.
“Athan, before you go, a word?” AEGIS said. I nodded to Karu to indicate I’d be with her in a second. “Athan, be careful,” she whispered. “She might be nicer than normal but…she’s still a paid killer, and she’s after you. Don’t let your guard down just because she’s being all…creepy.”
“I know,” I hissed back. “Truth be told, this is making me way more nervous than her usual antics.”
“And…be safe out there. Go kick some ass, okay?”
“I think I will follow your advice this time,” I said with a wink and jogged off to catch up. Karu was waiting patiently outside, her white armor glinting in the evening sun.
Man, fighting with all three girls in one day, what a nightmare.
“Shall we take a walk?” I said. She nodded and fell in next to me.
We walked in silence for a while, heading south to the river and then west randomly, my feet taking me to where I’d fought with Luminary before. We didn’t stop but just kept walking at random, beginning to trace a large circle around the ruins in silence together.
“So um,” she said. Uh oh, small talk. “Your home is surprisingly decent. I can admire the care with which you have made repairs.”
“It is not in the greatest of locations but…t-the…c-commute must be good.”
“The commute? To where?”
“T-to h-here.” She blushed and fixed her eyes on her feet.
Was that a joke? Did Karu just try to make a joke? I wasn’t sure if I’d offend her more by laughing or not.
“Um, I guess.”
“It is most of two hours flying for me.”
“Sounds pretty annoying. You should probably change jobs…”
She shot me an angry glare, and frowned, stopping in her tracks. It wasn’t exactly what I’d said that was offensive. I mean, of course the implication that she shouldn’t kill me but I thought we were a little past that at this point. Maybe her pride as a hunter? But her reaction still seemed a little over the top.
She sighed and put a smile back on. “The worst part is the chafing, I think.”
“The worst part of my commute. For two hours am I strapped into this thing, and what do you suppose those harnesses are doing the entire time? A flightsuit only protects you so much,” she sighed.
I tried very hard not to imagine the angry red lines on her tanned and toned breasts and thighs.
“Uh, maybe you should remote in or something. Kill me over the holo or something.”
“Would that I could.” She smiled and I gave a small laugh.
“A little more seriously, why do you come out here for all this?” I asked. She frowned like I’d just asked her a question she’d been avoiding.
“I…hmm.” She paused and we stood staring at each other for a few moments. Without her goggles on, it was very hard not to get lost in how attractive she really was, even if the little undercut punk hairdo really didn’t do it for me.
“Perhaps it would be best if I answered your question with a recent anecdote?” she asked, though I wasn’t sure why it was a question. “A few days ago the individual who posted the kill order threatened to remove the bounty, citing a lack of success as evidence that there was no merit in persisting.”
“Woah. That’s pretty exciting. You’re saying if I keep kicking your butt, eventually people will stop trying to kill me?” She frowned angrily at me again.
“I suppose you could see it that way. At the time that I heard the news, I realized I was surprisingly quite saddened by the news, though I did not understand why. You see, there are many bounties out there I could be hunting, so why would yours matter to me in any capacity?”
“I have little use for such a thing. It is my righteousness which guides me through my hunts.”
“Uh, easy money?”
“You have proven to be far from easy.”
“No. I realized, that in the course of combating you, and especially in the moral quandaries you have forced me to face…to face within myself, I have grown an emotional attachment to you.”
“It is true. It is an uncomfortable truth, one which I may have turned my back on just a few short months ago, but thanks to the growth you have provided me, I am now capable of facing and admitting.”
“K-Karu!” I was yelling for no reason. “A-are you confessing…l-l-love?”
She laughed, her full-bodied wholesome laugh. The laugh of a righteous woman, not of a paid killer. A heavy blush crept onto her tanned cheeks and she did nothing to hide it.
“In a way, I suppose, though love is not the term I would use. I see it as more of a veneration. You have proven to me that one can be both mighty and merciful, wronged and yet willing to do right. Time and again, you have given me your assistance, unbidden, even unwanted, and yet you still have not shied from doing that which is righteous.”
“Uh. This is a lot to take in. I’ve never had a girl say anything like any of this before.”
“I do tend to be straightforward with my convictions,” she sighed.
“Yeah, no shit.”
“When my client said he was closing your contract, I was afraid for the first time in my dealing with you. I was afraid of losing you, and in seeing that fear within myself, I chased it and realized its source. That is why I had to come out here to continue fighting you.”
“Wait, after all that, you’re still gonna fight me?”
“Of course. It was only in the course of fighting you that I was able to witness your character to begin with. I feel it is only logical that only by continuing to fight you that I may continue to grow.”
“You are–and I’m worried what this says about me that you’re the first girl who’s ever said they liked me–completely and utterly fucked in the head, you know that Karu?”
“I agree my methods are unorthodox compared to others, but I believe my basis and conclusion are both sound.”
“You want to try to kill me because it’s helped you grow as a person.”
“I would not put it so bluntly, but in essence yes.”
“You flew two hours out here enduring chafing in your…” I stole a glance down at the harness straps pulled taught around her thighs. “God-knows where, join me in a nice stroll and chat, confess your love for me, and then want to kill me anyway?”
“No, I think I see where you misunderstand.”
“Okay. What did I miss?”
“I do not want to kill you. I want to try to kill you. Your death earns me nothing but a paycheck at this point.”
“My death earned you nothing but a paycheck at any point!”
“Yes, but your life has increasingly grown in value to me.”
“If my life is so valuable, leave it alive!”
“That would remove its value.”
“You’re saying my life has no intrinsic value? After all that stuff about how I’m righteous and wronged and stuff?”
“Hmm. I am certain you probably have some value, though I am not entirely certain what. Certainly less than the value of your bounty.”
“The first girl who likes me only wants me for my death.”
“Again, you misunderstand. I want you only for the pursuit of your death.”
“And in this pursuit of my death, you’re going to learn a bunch of important exciting new things?”
“I do not know. I can only extrapolate from the things I have already learned.”
“Well, let me save you a few steps and just tell you what you’re going to ultimately figure out. Final lesson, okay? Open your ears.”
“I am listening.”
“KILLING ME IS BAD. STOP IT.”
She laughed again and sat down where we stood.
“Make no mistake, I understand your situation. But I am not certain you fully appreciate mine. I am a hunter,” she said, wrapping her arms around her knees in front of her, white armor of her arms overlapping the white armor on her legs. She held her visor in both hands in front of her and looked wistfully at it.
“This is not something I do lightly, or have ever done before, or think I will ever do again. You are special to me, in a way I cannot describe, which is why I do not hesitate when you repeatedly call it love. I have never been in love, but I imagine it is not a feeling very different from what I am experiencing now. All hours of the day, I found myself distracted in thinking about you, how last we fought, how well you evaded my attacks, how you respond to my threats with sarcasm and wit instead of violence.”
She was fully blushing again as she smiled at her visor. “Your kindness, your strength, your mercy. Where once I took these actions to be foolishness or weakness, you showed me I was wrong and the more I dwelled upon them, the more I realized how just and right you were.”
She sprawled onto her back, spread-eagle, her green eyes matching the grass around her head. “I know not when it happened but only that it did.”
I sighed, honestly moved by her words, insane though she may be. I laid on the grass next to her.
“Look, Karu, you know I don’t want to fight you. And if we’re friends…and I would hope after all this we’re at least that?” She nodded. “I don’t think I can fight you at all. Trying to kill my friends isn’t something I can do.”
She frowned. “I suppose the obvious conclusion is then that we cannot be friends.”
“I think the obvious conclusion is that we shouldn’t try to kill each other.”
“I am not certain I can agree to those terms.”
“Friendship isn’t based on terms, Karu. It’s what happens between two people who have shared experiences together. You have had friends before, haven’t you?”
“Look, let’s compromise. You don’t try to kill me, and we’ll still spend time together and you can learn…other things from me…without the killing.”
“I feel as though there are lecherous insinuations implicit in your statement. I refuse.”
“No! I didn’t mean that. Just like, if you do think I’m a morally just person and all that, why can’t you observe and learn from that without all the killing?”
“Hmm. A valid postulate. I have a counter-proposal.”
“Indulge me in, say, five more combats, and then I shall be satisfied and we can continue on as you described.”
“Five? We’ve only had, what, four so far? You want to drag this on for twice what it’s already been?”
“Fine. Four then.”
“That’s still twice what it’s been. I think you get one more.”
“Not nearly sufficient for my needs. Three times at the minimum.”
“Can we meet at two?”
“No. Three times is the minimum as I believe I just stated.”
“This is insane. You can’t honestly expect me to fight you at all, after all I just said about not killing my friends.”
“Any merit you had in an argument of that nature was lost when you attempted to negotiate me down to merely attempting to kill you twice.”
“Three times it is, final offer.” She rolled onto her side, facing me. I noticed that her chest armor attached to her breasts followed gravity’s pull a lot more than the armor lower on her torso.
“Three times it is,” I sighed.
“Excellent,” she said standing up and brushing off grass. She bent down and retrieved her helmet. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to redeem one of my attempts at killing you.” She donned her helmet, banishing the brilliant green eyes beneath the ominous glowing metal scars of the visor.