068. 2251, Present Day. North American exclusion zone. Athan.

Karu had bid us all a bittersweet goodbye and left to collect her gear and fly away. Lia had been considerate enough to move it all inside The Bunker so it wasn’t sitting out in the snow, but said it had taken her three trips. I had to marvel at what kind of superwoman Karu was, hauling all that stuff around constantly.

That was a couple days ago. I had hardly slept since then, every time I closed my eyes, I saw the Exhuman’s broken body staring at me with dead eyes. I was doing my best not to shuffle through days like a zombie, but that was where I was. Thankfully, AEGIS also didn’t need to sleep, and kept me company during my long nights.

Mostly we were blithe in our exchanges, keeping it casual and light. I could tell she was worried about me, but…something about our dynamic had changed slightly. She seemed less constantly fretting.

So I asked about it, one late night or early morning.

“Yo, AEGIS.”

“Yo, Athan.”

“Ever since I got back, you’ve seemed…less worried. Just like, happier. I was wondering if something happened. You and Lia bonding or something?”

“No, but she’s great. I’m just happy to see you got rocked.”

“…really? That terrible a joke?”

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure you had the stones to come back.”

“…”

“Not that I approve of you getting your rocks off with some girl you just met…”

“This is the worst conversation in the history of conversations.”

“Wait, one more!” She was giggling so hard she was holding onto her console for support. Her contagious laughter and being sleep-drunk made it impossible for me not to join in.

“No more.”

“I’m just glad that even after flying around with Karu in her panties, you haven’t asked her out.”

She paused with a dopey grin on her face. Maybe I missed something. “That wasn’t a pun at all.”

“No? I just thought after that experience you might be a little boulder.” She sputtered out the last word as her ability to hold her laughter broke, and practically spit all over her holo, wailing shrieks of laughter.

I grinned and rolled my eyes. “You are completely full of shist. Stop though, you’re going to wake up Lia.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. “I crack myself up.”

“I’m glad someone appreciates your humor.”

“Oh, you laughed too.”

I didn’t deny it. I gave her a few moments to catch her breath.

“Hoo. Anyway, sorry. You asked why I was happier after you came back. Nothing happened, that I know of. I’m happy you’re back?”

“It seems like more than that to me.”

“Hmm, well…I am kind of relieved, but it’s not going to sound good.”

“Your puns make you not sound good already.”

“My puns are fantastic, screw you. But I mean…you probably won’t like what I have to say. Honestly.”

“Just say it.”

She rocked back and forth on her heels for a second and considered grabbing at one of her pigtails but resisted the urge.

“I guess…I’m happy you killed that Exhuman.”

“What? How could you say that. Even I’m not happy I did it, and I’m the one who did it.”

“I know. And I know it was traumatic for you, and I’m trying to make an effort to be here for you through it. But at the same time…I’m relieved, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“You’re such a good person, Athan. Karu tried to kill you, how many times now? And you never once tried to kill her back. You even saved her life…I guess a couple times now. I’ve always worried that if the XPCA come knocking or something, you’d just roll over on me. Like, you have all this power and capacity to fight, but you don’t want to, so you wouldn’t.”

She pushed her glasses up her nose and looked at me frankly through them. “The fact that you have it in you to fight when you need to…that you can make your own decisions when to fight and when to show compassion…well…it takes a lot of worries off my mind.”

She paused and then added, “Also, every girl secretly wants a man who will fight for her. That shit is hot. WTB.”

“You dick,” I said rolling my eyes. “I was serious.”

“And so was I. Ignore the last bit if you want, but it’s all true. I worry about you, but I worry less when you show me that you can take care of yourself. Also, you beat a fucking bear, so that’s pretty amazing.”

“That bear was literally nothing next to the Exhuman.”

“Just saying. You asked, and I answered.”

“And I appreciate that.”

We chatted for a bit longer and then I tried to get some sleep. I was so tired that I thought I might pull it off, but when I closed my eyes, the Exhuman was there waiting for me. I tried to push her out of my mind by thinking of AEGIS laughing her ass off, but only with limited success. Eventually I must have dozed off because I found myself awake the next day.

Other than sleep, things were falling back into their normal rhythm. Over a delicious nutrient paste breakfast, spinach-mushroom quiche for me, Lia brought up something she touched on before I got yanked off before.

“So, my crawler is still sitting out there. Can we go rescue it?”

“Why didn’t you get it while I was gone?” I asked, surprised. She just stared at me, eyes blank, face pale.

“Um, bears?” AEGIS said, like, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Lia nodded slowly, unblinkingly. I wondered how much the bear had traumatized her.

“You think there are more like the one which came after you?”

“There would only need to be one more for me to die.” She was taking this very seriously. So was AEGIS. I mean, it was kind of scary and we’d only just scraped by, but it was only a bear.

“Uh, I guess I can come with. Didn’t know travelling around here was such an issue. Do you run into bears often with your DOG-Es, AEGIS?”

“No, not one yet. But that’s how they get you.”

“You two are insane.”

They looked at me like I was insane. Like I’d just proposed we hold a seance in an abandoned sanatorium built on an indian burial ground, at midnight on Halloween.

“For the record, Athan, when I said I thought you were brave and competent last night, that wasn’t code for ‘you should volunteer to do stupid things’.” AEGIS said flatly.

“Whatever. I can handle a bear. Want to go after we eat, sis?”

She looked pale. Pale and frozen. A snow woman, with dead eyes made of coal.

“Uh, maybe I can get it myself. Don’t know how to ride it though, never rode a crawler.”

“We’d walk it back anyway. The sound attracts bears,” Lia said. AEGIS nodded sagely.

“What the heck is the point of going to get it if you won’t even ride it afterwards?”

“I’d ride it! Just…not…for a while.”

“…”

“Are you going to help me or not, stupid big brother?”

“Very nice way of asking. Definitely convincing me. Look, you’re not AEGIS, you can’t spend the rest of your life living in a box being afraid of bears.”

“Har, har,” AEGIS intoned. I ignored her.

“We’ll go out and get your crawler and we’ll ride it back. Okay?”

“Okay. But if there’s a bear–“

“There won’t be a bear.”

“But if there is, I’m leaving you behind.”

“Fine by me. There won’t be a bear.”

“Alright. AEGIS, you heard the plan, we’re heading out.”

“GL, HF, DD. Come back safe. Also watch out for bears,” she said, totally helpful.

We headed out, morale high considering that this was apparently a suicide mission fraught with bears. We headed to The Bunker first, and then Lia took the lead, apparently able to track her crawler from the holo on her wrist.

Conversation was fun and light for the first leg of the trip, and even as we headed out east, into woods I never really explored, we were still talking and joking about things. We were south of Saga, but heading northeast.

“Hey, are we going north from here?” I asked, she and I walking mostly side-by-side, occasionally losing each other when a tree passed between us. The woods were thick enough here that there wasn’t any snow on the ground, just a thick crunchy layer of pine needles. It smelled good.

“Yeah, ultimately,” she said, tapping away at her holo.

“Why don’t we swing north now and we can say high to Saga. I haven’t seen her in forever.”

“Not a good idea,” she said, and flashed the holo at me. It had a map of our current position, and a big red circle north of us. “Got this map from Taglock, he says there’s something super dangerous up there and to stay out of the red zone at all costs.”

“Hmm.” I grabbed her wrist and studied the map carefully.

“Your hands are warm,” she said, laughing a little. “My slipskin decided to adjust a little to keep your heat out.”

“I’m always hot, remember? This red circle, that’s where Saga is. I wonder if she’s the trouble Taglock ran into. I could see her giving him some problems, but it’ll be fine for us.”

“I’d still rather not,” she said, withdrawing her wrist and tapping at the holo nervously. “He made it very clear that what was in there was super duper dangerous.”

“She is. Can’t deny that, but she’s also a friend. Let’s swing by…you don’t have to go in if you don’t want to.”

“Okay. Some other time, when we’re less afraid of bear attacks.”

“I’m never afraid of bear attacks?”

“You don’t have to lie to put on a brave face for me, brother. I know you saw the same bear I did.”

“Yeah, what the heck was up with that bear. He was brutal and cunning.”

“That was really not an invitation to start a conversation,” she said, and shuddered involuntarily. Jesus, just how traumatized was she?

“Okay…well…I think for the record that you’re still crazy, but we can wait for another time for you to meet Saga anyway, if that helps. We can go up and skirt her range.”

In less than an hour, we were there. I was going first, since I didn’t know the exact extent of her range out in these woods, but it wasn’t long before I took a step and felt the subtle feeling wash over my brain. I gestured for Lia to stop.

“‘Sup?” I said.

[ATHAN!] I braced and flinched as she yelled at me. [Sorry, sorry. It’s been forever. I thought you got eaten by a bear.]

“Why does everyone talk about nothing but bears nowadays?”

“She’s talking about bears? Is there a bear nearby?” Lia said, looking around nervously.

“No, she thought the last one got us.”

[Who are you…(never mind)] I felt Saga scan my brain, to my annoyance. [Oh, hi there Athan’s sister who is standing just outside my range.]

“Saga says hi. Sure you don’t want to come in and say hello?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Isn’t it creepy, having someone in your head like that?”

“Yeah, pretty much super creepy.”

[You think this is creepy, I’m the one who can see all your perverted thoughts. Jesus, you fought and killed an Exhuman? With Karu’s fat titties slapping you in the back the whole time?]

“Karu’s titties–” I stopped. Lia looked at me very strangely. “Really? That’s what you got out of my last few days?”

[No. That’s what I made fun of you for over the last few days. Damn son, you been busy. Shot in the face by a sniper, first time in a regenerator, killed an Exhuman. Hoo, baby.]

“Hoo, baby indeed.”

“Are you still talking about Karu’s chest?” Lia said, her eyes dead.

“No.” I laughed as I put together my last few sentences. “No, Saga’s just catching up on everything that’s happened since last time I was here. She’s kind of locked up at the bottom of a mine, so I try to bring her exciting news every once in a while.”

[Don’t forget all the steamy sexual satisfaction you give me.]

“I give you what now?”

[Didn’t I tell you? I go through your thoughts and relive all your fantasies about me? It’s practically all I do when you’re not around.]

I swallowed hard as I tried to think of everything sexual I’d ever thought about Saga to figure out what was the most embarrassing, incriminating thing she was referencing.

[Oh wow. (Stop, please. I think.) I was only kidding around to see if I could get you to blurt out anything else in front of your sister, but thanks for all this. Super flattering. (My bust is not that big though, asshole.)]

“Okay well, it’s been great seeing you, Saga!” I said, turning to flee before embarrassment killed me. Lia looked very concerned, and I had no idea how I was going to explain this one. Lying probably.

[Wait, before you go,] Saga said.

“…yes?”

[For the record, I’m hairless from the neck down. Part of my powers. For improved accuracy in your future fantasies.]

“YEP. FUCK. BYE!”

[Ha, ha, ha. I’m only kidding (Well, I’m not, it’s true), that wasn’t what I was going to say.]

“Please no more fucking with me?”

[Sure. Thanks for stopping by. Glad you’re not dead. I thought Apotheosis might have had you for sure.]

“Who’s Apotheis…Apo…”

[A-poth-e-o-sis. Means deification, or the means by which something becomes a god.]

“And…what was named Apotheosis?”

[The uh, bear. He was kind of my bad.]

I jolted and tried to hide my shock from Lia, dropping to a low whisper. “That was your bear?”

[Haha, yeah. My bad.]

“I think you need to explain a little more than that. You’re not cute enough to get off with a laugh and a ‘my bad’.”

[Is that so? I seemed plenty cute in your fantasies. Especially when I was putting–]

“YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.”

“Are…you okay, dude?” Lia asked. “Do you want me to step in?”

“Please do not do that. Please, please, please. I am fine.”

[Woah, please tell her to step in. I have so much to tell her right now. This is gonna be friggin’ hilarious.]

“Saga, bad. Explain the be–explain Apotheosis.”

Saga explained briefly how she thought Lia was Taglock, the previous figure in black slinking around, and how she’d worked on ‘improving’ Apotheosis over the years, before siccing him on her.

“Saga, in what universe was that a good idea?”

[It was pretty amusing from here.]

“You have seriously got to stop trying to kill people. It makes it very hard to justify trying to break you out.”

“She was trying to kill someone?” Lia asked in alarm.

“No, just us, so it’s fine.”

“Do you have any friends who aren’t trying to kill you?”

“It was just an accident. And Saga is very sorry and will never do it again, right?

[Eh, heh, yeah, my bad. Still, if that were an XPCA or assassin or something, wouldn’t you be happy I put a bear on him?]

“No. I don’t approve of murder.”

[Yet you do it yourself to an innocent Exhuman, hmm? I smell hypocrisy.]

“She was the furthest thing from innocent and you know that. And for the record, if you ever become that Exhuman, I’d do the same thing to you. So stop trying to murder people.”

[You wouldn’t. I’m too cute. Also, I’d totally kick your ass.]

“Maybe. But can we agree that you should not get to that point, please?”

[Fine, fine. You’re no fun.]

“And your idea of fun is completely sick.”

[Funny you should say that after imagining both of us locked in my coffin, turning and fighting to get out, even as our clothes gradually fell off–]

“BYE SAGA.”

[Talk to you later.] I could sense the world’s biggest, most absolutely-unbearable grin on her lips. [Bring food next time!]

I took a step back and she was gone.

“Well that was…something,” Lia said. “Care to fill me in on what I missed there?”

“You know how I always keep saying I’ll tell you later?”

“Yeah?” her expression fell.

“I am not telling you later. Saga is a dick.”

“HA! Was it embarrassing stuff? I want to talk to her now!”

“Nope!” I blocked her bodily, my feet unmoving as she pushed against me with all her weight.

“No fair! You’re such a fatty! I can’t move you!”

“I am like, 99% skin and bones at this point.”

“FATTY.” She tried to go around but I blocked her at every turn. “No fair, dude.”

“Life’s not fair. Now keep your voice down or you’ll attract more bears.”

Her eyes went wide and she froze in fear. After a few seconds of her barely breathing I was worried I’d taken it too far.

“Um, I have news from her about the bear. She says that was her bad and apologized. She thought she was protecting me from someone sneaking around and sent that bear to attack you.”

“What? She’s got attack bears?”

“Just the one, un-slash-fortunately. She also can sense everything in these woods in her range, and Apotheosis…the bear…he was the only one who roamed this area. So we’re officially bear-free.”

“Until another one moves in because of the power vacuum,” she said darkly.

“Wow, you seriously need to chill on the bears.”

“Does THIS look like I need to chill?” she said, pulling aside her cloak and flashing me her hip, where there were still three parallel tears in her slipskin showing off the skin on the side of her butt and outer thigh. There were still stitches over the thin red lines where the bear had opened her up.

“Unfortunately, yes. I know it was scary and traumatic, but out here, you always have to chill. If you get worked up into a panic about things, you’re just asking to hurt yourself, or waste so much energy flailing around that you’re way behind on calories and burning through your food. It sucks, I know, and I’m sorry. But you do need to chill.”

She looked at me seriously for a few moments and then closed her cloak again. I bet her leg was cold. “I understand. I can be chill. And you said there are no more bears here, right?”

“Right.”

“Then no worries!” And just like that, she brightened up and started leading us back towards her crawler.

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