• H.C. Mills

Chapter 31: I'd catch a grenade (for ya)

Turns out harvesting jicca nuts is a two-man job.

Or, well, two-women I guess.

Kaitlynn and I are up in a jicca tree; she’s carrying a long stick, which she uses to knock the baby’s-head-sized cones off the thin side-branches above us, which I then catch in a canvas bag where they, ‘go off’.

It’s this cool mechanism the tree has developed to spread its nuts; when a cone is ripe enough, it loosens until it drops, and when the cone hits the ground, it bursts open, firing jicca nuts all over the place. There’s actually quite a bit of force behind it, but the nuts are rather soft, so a good bag—lined on the inside with scraps of bark—is able to contain it.

My bag’s actually getting pretty full. I toss out another emptied cone and casually snack a jicca nut. They really are quite tasty, but man am I getting tired of them.

At least the training has been going well; we’ve all made some decent progress, though it soon became clear that with each stat up, the next raise in that stat becomes that much harder to obtain. Which means the training is becoming less and less fruitful... at some point I’ll have to call it quits and focus our energies elsewhere, but I feel we’re not there yet.

Anyway, we’re not in any hurry to go back, as this is also our break from training, so we decide to take a stroll by the stream, maybe pick some birberries from the underwater plants they grow on.

Or ‘underhydrum’, I guess. Sounds weird though.

We’ve been chatting the whole time, about anything and everything—I commented on the scent of Kaitlynn’s hair, and she offered to wash my hair later!—and this is the first time a real silence falls. It feels pretty comfortable though.

“Tell me something,” Kaitlynn demands eventually.

“What do you wanna know?”

“How about...” she uses her free hand to gesture at my uniform, “why sell hotdogs?”

I purse my lips thoughtfully.

“Well... I could tell you... but you have to promise to keep it a secret.”

Her eyes go wide and she mimes locking her mouth and flicking the key over her shoulder.

I glance around and lower my voice conspiratorially. “Tell you the truth... I’ve always dreamt of winning an eating contest.”

She slaps my shoulder, cracking a smile. “Shut up.”

“No, really,” I continue straight-faced. “Whenever the boss-man went for a bathroom break or something, I’d stuff myself. Just wet buns and cold sausages, straight down the hatch, no chewing, not even a topping.”

“Shut up!” she laughs, slapping me again. “Tell me.”

“Well, which is it?” I ask, petulantly rubbing my shoulder. “I can hardly do both.”

She narrows her eyes and raises her stick at me, mock-threateningly. “Tell me; for real.”

“Hmm. Fine.” I shrug. “Why do people ever work? I needed the money. The free dogs were just a nice bonus.”

She raises a brow at me, a teasing glint in her eyes. “What’d you need it for? Saving up for your own comedy bar so nobody could drag you off the stage for doing poor stand-up all the time?”

I smile wryly. “Poor, yes, stand-up, no. I work... worked weekends, so I could afford to put myself through college.”

Kaitlynn looks stricken. “What did you study?”

“Electrical Engineering. Figured I’d get a good job, break the cycle, you know? Didn’t want to lend too much... what about you?”

“Oh...” she blushes. I kid you not. “I was in art school. Which sounds kinda lame now, by comparison...”

“No, that’s cool! Were you passionate about it?”

A smile lights up her face. “Very. I always doodled, always loved to draw, I really want...ed, to become a cartoonist. I even started my own little webcomic... guess my readers will be disappointed.” Her smile turns sad.

“And your parents, they supported you?”

Oh yeah, no great job, Emma, bring up the parent’s she’ll never see again; that’ll cheer her up.

“Yeah, they’re great. Well, I mean...” she rolls her eyes, “they’re parents, but, other than that... I got no complaints. And... yours?”

Right, now I get to share too. Joy.

“Mine aren’t so bad either,” I admit. “To be honest, mom’s my rock. She’s worked two jobs almost all her life, just to put me and my little brother and sister through school.”

“And...?” Kaitlynn asks hesitantly.

I sigh. “And my dad’s an alcoholic. Though it’s not his fault, really... his back was injured in a factory incident, so he can’t work. Bastards hardly compensated him. He likes to yell at the tv. Guess it beats him taking it out on—on them.”

Kaitlynn touches my wrist, her remaining, big blue eye full of pity. “Emma...”

I squeeze her hand for a moment. “Look, it’s fine; they’ll be fine. Let’s talk about something more fun, yeah?”

Kaitlynn hesitantly retracts her hand. “Okay... Ooh! How about... your love life?”

I groan and Kaitlynn laughs in response.

“Why do you want to know so much about me?” I complain.

“I don’t know, just... trying to understand you, I guess. So, are you going to tell me?”

I sigh. “Look, let’s just say the guys I grew up around weren’t exactly boyfriend material. They were great if you needed help stealing a bike or selling some drugs, but that was about it.”

“No cute guys in college?”

“Let’s just say there wasn’t anyone I was interested in, and leave it at that. At least I got a lot of good game recommendations out of them, so that’s something.”

“Really?” Kaitlynn narrows her eyes at me. “None of them caught your eye?”

“All right, there was one guy,” I admit.

I try to leave it at that, but Kaitlynn stares me down insistently.

I sigh. “His name was Maxwell,” I start reluctantly. “Don’t laugh, but yes—as you can tell from his name, we were from different worlds. His parents were so stiff—oh man—they hated me, just straight up wished me dead, no joke. I think they thought I was dating him for their money or something; jokes on them, I never accepted a cent from him. We even went Dutch on all of our dates. Still, it didn’t last. He was kind of a spoiled prick, though that devil-may-care attitude was probably also what I found attractive about him in the first place. Either way, dating wasn’t high on my list of priorities.”

And at the end, there was Josh... sort of. But I’d rather not dwell on what might have been.

Finished with my tale of woe, I look over at Kaitlynn expectantly.

She blinks. “Oh, me? Right... well, I had a boyfriend in high school, but... he turned out to be not so nice. Kept pressuring me to—well, you get it. And people in art school were very nice, but also pretty out there, and I never really felt like I fit in. Plus, most guys were gay, so... not much happened.”

I nod. I feel like I should say something comforting, but I’m kinda drawing a blank. Sorry guys can be jerks?

Kaitlynn chuckles. “Well, I guess it’s better to be single when you wind up here. Give thanks for small blessings, right? Poor Dave... can’t imagine what he’s going through.”

I clear my throat. “Yeah, I guess so. Although—”

A large blue blur passes over our heads, and lands on the other side of the stream. It turns to stare at us for a split-second, revealing its lizard like head with and the small, green gem, snugly centred between the three horns on its forehead.

I feel a hot glow on my face and turn to see Kaitlynn charging up her beam. However, just before she releases, the creature is startled by a lanky figure with a club that charges from the underbrush, and it jumps onto a nearby tree trunk.

At the last second, I manage to push aside Kaitlynn’s hand. The orange beam of super-heated Aether goes astray, barely missing another guy as he bursts through the bushes. He freezes on the spot, looking like he just saw his life flash before his eyes.

Actually, I recognize that guy... that’s Emo-kid!

Two more guys run down the tree trunk on our right, and I recognize them as Weasel and Sherlock.

They jump into the stream and wade to the other side, barely even sparing us a glance.

Since the minions have all assembled, then where is Meathead?

As if summoned by the mere thought of his bulging biceps, Meathead comes running down the trunk the Trigot jumped onto, forcing it to drop back to the ground with a wild swing of his club. It lands halfway on its back, and while it scrambles to get back up, the minions move to surround it and proceed to... beat it to death.

Watching it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know we have little choice but to hunt them, but... can’t they at least get some more effective weapons than clubs?

After they finish, Meathead—breathing hard and stained in a yellow goop I assume is a kind of blood—steps up to the edge of the stream. “I guess it’s a small world after all.”

I shake my head. “Disney, Bruce? I hate to say it, but that really doesn’t fit your image.”

He laughs. “It’s always sarcasm with you, isn’t it... Emma.”

Guess he’s been asking around. Yikes.

His smile drops as he points a finger at Kaitlynn. “You owe me a Lavi Crystal, little girl.”

“I owe you nothing!” she seethes. “You slimy son of a—”

I put my hand on her shoulder and she closes her mouth with a snap.

I clear my throat. “We’re all just trying to survive here, Bruce, no need to get nasty with each other.” Pro’bly wise not too piss him off too much.

He smirks and throws a meaningful glance at his minions, who take the hint and come swaggering over towards him.

Guess I’d better not show weakness either. I pull a conspicuously glowing bottle from my front hip pocket. “But if you insist... don’t expect to walk away from here.”

Meathead’s face darkens and his minions stop in their tracks.

He spits on the ground. “This ain’t over... Let’s go, boys.”

They saunter off, hooting and laughing about their successful hunt. The mangled corpse of the Trigot staying behind, sans crystal.

“Ugh, what an asswipe,” Kaitlynn says. “Wish I’d saved my Qi to blast that smug grin off his face.”

“Hey, none of that,” I say, turning towards her. “I meant what I said. If we could resolve our differences, that’d honestly be best. This place is bad enough without survivors trying to kill each other.”

She sighs and looks down, kicking at something. “I know, I know; I just... they piss me off.”

I smile and brush back a strand of her hair, getting her to look up again. “I hear ya, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned at my many odd jobs, it’s that you can’t let assholes get to you. You’re just giving them power.”

She stares back at me for a second.

I smirk. “Besides,” I say, stepping back. “Meathead and company may have taken the prize, but they left us something pretty sweet.”

She cocks her head at me in confusion.

“Do you think that’s white meat, or red?” I say, indicating the mangled Trigot.

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