Episode 91

A rolling wave of overhead thunder echoes through and reverberates under the old, dilapidated overpass. Dretphi stands observant and searches through the rainy haze to the specks of activity in the distance. Watching the subdued chaos of nearby civilian gatherings and Perimeter Defense Force encampments, she eases out a stressed sigh under her visor and blinks the fatigue from her stare. Minutes later, she sweeps her gaze along the horizon, pauses briefly, and turns away. Navigating around piles of old rumble, she walks towards the humvee parked near the retainer wall, underneath the overpass. She glances over to Sotalia standing idly and waits a moment. Sotalia meets Dretphi’s inquisitive gaze, twists her mouth uncertainly, and concentrates her concern to Aristespha sitting on a fallen concentrate pillar with Sebastian’s ethereal visage nearby. Dretphi nods understandingly, softens her pace as she approaches the humvee, and slides off her helmet.

Cideeda’s emerald green eyes gaze upon her aetherphone, while her furry ears constantly flick and sift through the ambient noises. She resettles herself quietly onto the edge of the humvee cab floor, stretches her legs out the rear passenger door, and props her feet on the removed seat upon the ground. Her attention shifts over towards Dretphi, and she smirks weakly with a soft tone. “Anything happening from the evacuee camps?”

Dretphi shakes her head with a frown, and then shifts a worried gaze to a large pile of blankets laying down the middle aisle of the humvee next to Cideeda. “How is he?”

Gently lifting her long, furry tail away from the bundled up figure, Cideeda carefully pulls some covers down from Bach’s hidden face, and sighs. “Sleeping right now. Vitals are still good on the monitor. But, he’s just in and out of sleep.”

She smiles to Dretphi with hint of relief upon her face. “He not complaining about his head hurting anymore. Just seems tired and loopy.”

Dretphi eases her the tension out of her shoulders, lowers herself down into the removed seated next to the humvee, and places her helmet to the side. “Good. I will watch him.”

Cideeda nods appreciatively, slides out silently, and stretches her back. “Thanks. I’m going to walk around a bit, and clear a spot for tents. I don’t think we’re getting into town tomorrow- Today?”

She glances down at her aetherphone and reads the very early morning time as her weariness swells. “Today. Hopefully, just today. Gods...”

Turning around, she gently pulls the corner of a blanket up to cover Bach’s ear as he sleeps on his side, and combs back some stray brown hairs out of his face with her claw tips. Dretphi nods to Cideeda as she steps away. Slowly she eases off her boots and pulls off her gauntlets, and flexes her digits in the storm stirred air under the overpass. Cautiously eyeing the surrounding areas with tinges of suspicion, she leans back into the seat, breathes out her stress, and closes her steely gray eyes. In the minutes of relative quiet, a bright flash strikes down in the distant sea horizon. Seconds later, a muffled crack of thunder rolls overhead. Stirring under the blankets, Bach’s blue eyes crack open, and he weakly peers out and groggily looks in front of him. The dazed, aimless search drives a growing tension, until his drained gaze settles upon the platinum blonde braids of Dretphi. With slow breaths, he grimaces briefly and visibly concentrates. “Dretphi?”

Dretphi opens her eyes, pivots her head around, and catches Bach’s faint smile from under the shadowy sheets. “Bach. How do you feel?”

Bach pauses in thought, and sighs meekly. “Headache is gone. But... Still... Swimming... Um... Hazy? It’s... weird...”

He flexes the fingers in his hand out upon the humvee cab floor, and draws in a deep breath. “Feeling better... Each time I wake up.”

A warm smile hides the worry on Dretphi’s face, and she nods. “Good. Anything you need? Want?”

Briefly closing his eyes, Bach smirks weakly. “No. Not right now.”

In the idle moments, his stare drifts off into his mind and he settles an apologetic expression upon Dretphi. “Sorry... I froze up.”

Dretphi cocks her head to the side, and puzzles as she furrows her brow. “Froze up?”

Bach averts his eyes, sighs uncomfortably, and twists his mouth. “When you shot those Red Gears on the ATV. I should have fired at them, too. Backed you up.”

Widening her steely gray eyes briefly, Dretphi reaches her hand and rests it upon the top of Bach’s head with a comforting smile. “You did back me up.”

Hazy confusion swells into on Bach’s face, and he searches Dretphi for an answer. “But... That one tried to shoot you... We were lucky Sebastian spotted him... Otherwise... I don’t know. Maybe if I had shot him, too... He wouldn’t have gotten the chance...”

Gently stroking the white streak of hair on Bach's head, Dretphi smiles calmly. “That was not your fault. You followed Sebastian’s plan with what you knew.”

Bach groggily searches his mind, and frowns slightly with an unconvinced tone. “Still... I... After you started shooting, I hesitated. I froze. I shouldn’t have thought...”

Drawing in a long breath, a warm smile appears on Dretphi face and she meets Bach’s eyes. “You did not hesitate when it mattered. Brave to arm wrestle a Red Gear.”

Witnessing the indecision upon Bach’s darkened face, she releases a long sigh, frowns slightly, and averts her gaze. “I acted upon my experiences. I followed my house’s lessons. I choose the option I felt was safest for those I care for. Was it right?”

She shakes her head, visibly contemplates, and exhales. “I do not know.”

Glancing out to Cideeda, Sotalia, Aristespha, Sebastian, and the evacuee camp through the haze of the rain, she stares stares out stoically. “I can accept the results.”

Leaning her head closer, she warmly smiles at Bach. “I am happy you have restraint. Think about your actions. Try to navigate the situation with care.”

Settling back into her seat, a grimace of past pain trickles into her expression, and she breathes out a uneasy breath. “My previous group stopped showing hesitation. Restraint faded. Put into situations to make choices I did not want to. Their actions disturbed me.”

Bach gazes to the faint winces upon Dretphi’s tan face, and he wrestles a surge guilt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up anything bad. Ungh... I’m sorry. My has mind keeps racing one minute... and then blanks the next... So tired... and... not at the same time.”

Patting Bach on the head, Dretphi smiles with a brighter, reassuring tone. “Sleep then. We will watch over you.”

Searching his mind, Bach slowly nods, sighs out his stress, and eases his blue eyes close. “Yeah... I don’t know why I’m fighting to stay awake. Just feeling so weird right now. Thanks...”

Dretphi watches Bach drift off, and lifts her hand away from his hair. A muffled chorus of thunder rumbles around the area. Bach stirs, and his open hand trembles slightly. Dretphi gently places her hand in Bach’s, and softly grips. Moments later, a flicker of lightning light reflects off the sky, and Dretphi feels a slight tightening of Bach hand.

Nearby upon the fallen concrete pillar, a violet glow in Aristespha’s eyes fades as she removes her hands from the bandage and gauze around her neck. Sebastian’s ethereal form crouches down, and he cranes his head to gaze into Aristespha’s distant stare. “How are you doing, dear?”

Aristespha blinks between wandering glances in her mind, and fights off nervous facial twitches between uneasy breaths. “Bach’s vitals are good and have been. I should have plenty of doses of sedatives and Sotalia has few potions that should calm him if he needed. My neck wound is stable and I’ve applied the next stage of healing. No immediate or near future issues. I will need to see a doctor to verify everything is healing properly and to check for any other tissue damage. And... Um...”

Stepping closer to Aristespha, Sebastian focuses his concern upon Aristespha’s frantic expression on her ivory face, and meets her darting gaze. “That’s good. Aristespha. How are YOU doing?”

Mustering up a smiling facade, Aristespha winces when her head tilts to side and draws in a wavering breath. “Fine, Sebastian. Bach did a wonderful job sealing up the artery and closing up other tissues...”

Sebastian frowns as he maintains his worried gaze at Aristespha. Meeting Sebastian’s eyes fully, the front upon Aristespha’s face crumbles. Tears form in the corners of her eyes, her mouth quivers, and her hands tremble through her attempts to hide them. She slowly bows her head down, shrinks as she wraps arms around herself, and squelches a sob sneaking out with her exhale. Aristespha’s stray strands silvery blue hair drift over her face, and she fights against every impulse to cry with an awkward grimace. Witnessing the surge of pain and fears upon Aristespha, Sebastian unconsciously attempts to brush the stray hair out of her face. The hands of his visage pass through effortlessly without disturbing a strand. When his hand drifts pass Aristespha’s shoulder as he tries to hold onto it, a wave of despair shatters the strong front, and he frowns painfully. Summoning up his strength, he briefly glances away to salvage his composure from the emotional devastation.

Standing meters away, Sotalia’s mood sinks witnessing the loss upon Sebastian and watching the shaking form of Aristespha. Hearing the sobs of Aristespha within the surrounding, ambient drone of rain, Sotalia steps quickly up to Aristespha and Sebastian. She promptly sits down next to Aristespha on the fallen concrete pillar, wraps an arm around her, and grasps hold of her trembling hands with her free hand. Feeling the tensing of Aristespha’s form, Sotalia whispers softly, rubs her shoulder comfortingly, and pulls her close. “Come here, girl. It’s okay. We’re all here for you.”

Putting up a fleeting resistance against Sotalia, Aristespha attempts to muster a stoic front, and then cries. She follows the gentle guidance of Sotalia, and leans upon her shoulder. Sotalia picks up some of her heavy cloak, and drapes over Aristespha, and rubs her back. “Let it out. You’ve held it in long enough.”

A slight wave of ease washes over Sebastian’s form, and he thankfully gazes at Sotalia’s golden eyes and nods appreciatively. In the sad minutes, Sebastian struggles to keep a strong smile before Aristespha, and averts his gaze in lulls of will. After sneaking out a depressed sigh, Sebastian eyes widen in brief surprise when he senses a hand upon his face. He slowly pivots his head, and meets the weak smile of Aristespha and her dimly violet glowing eyes. Noticing the faint magical flow of upon her ivory hand, he smirks with a loving chuckle and ethereally sighs with hints of hope.

Fluttering open his eyes, Bach awakens awkwardly into consciousness. Idly staring above to a drywall ceiling, his conscious mind begins to crave answers, and he stirs under the sheets of a single bed. Slowly tilting his head to the side, he squints his blue eyes, and studies the common motel furnishings of the room. Drifting of into his mind, he sorts through memories upon his face, and hears advertising peak the volume from the room television. Faintly under her breath, Aristespha slips out a few evuukian curses and mutters while aiming the remote at the display. “...accursed loud ads...”

Rolling his head over to the other side, Bach gazes up to Aristespha sitting in a chair next to the bed, and cracks a tired smirk. “It’s okay. I’m awake... I think.”

Setting the remote immediately down on the other bed, Aristespha quickly turns her head and smiles to Bach. “Well, good morning. How are you feeling right now?”

Bach slips out his arms from under the covers, rests them upon the top of sheets, and ponders. “Uh... Tired. But... Clear? My brain isn’t racing through every thought in the world anymore. And, it’s not hazy. Still piecing together my memory for the day-”

He briefly pivots his head towards the bright morning coming in through the window blinds, pauses with a puzzling grimace, and inquires uncertainly. “What day is it?”

Aristespha grits her teeth briefly, and plainly explains. “Friday. You were out for most of Thursday.”

Bach flits his eyes wide, settles his astonished stare towards the ceiling above, and sighs. “Oh, shit. That explains why I feel a big gap in my memory.”

Aiming a comforting smile to Bach, Aristespha shrugs with a chuckle. “Well, and I gave you a blend of medications to keep you sleeping through the storms yesterday. You were going back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness too much for it to do you any good. So, I hope it helped.”

Nodding his head, Bach draws in a long breath, and rubs the sleep out from the dark circles under his eyes. “Yeah. It did. The bits I remember... I just remember feeling scared. It wasn’t all that fun. Thanks for saving me from a lot more of that.”

Aristespha cracks a humored smirk, lifts an amused brow, and laughs lightly. “Your welcome. But, I should be the thankful one here.”

Bach narrows his eyes momentarily, and opens them wide when memories spring up to the front of his mind. Shifting his arms to his side, he pulls himself up to seat on the bed, and stretches his back out. He assures Aristespha with wave when she reaches out to assist, and smiles with tinges of embarrassment. “Thanks. I’m fine. Just want to sit up. Think I’ve laid down enough for a while.”

He focuses upon Aristespha’s neck, and awkwardly stumbles to the subject. “Um... Is everything okay with you neck? Well... I guess I didn’t do too shitty of a job, since you’re here and all. But... Uh... Sorry about the rush job?”

Perking a stern brow, Aristespha sneaks a smirk through a very clinical explanation. “Truthfully, it was a little on the sloppy side, but serviceable. The severed artery was appropriately sealed, and surrounding tissues were brought back together. I was able to stabilize it properly after we had reached a safe area. Yesterday, a PDF field doctor was able to get the critical repair work finished.”

Bach nods his head, and bows forward in relief with a sigh. “Good. I didn’t completely fuck it up.”

Aristespha reaches out, places her hand on Bach’s arm, and leans close. When Bach turns his head, she gazes into his eyes, and smiles appreciatively. “With limited training, you manufactured incredibly difficult magical materials, applied them appropriately in a combat situation, and mended an injury that would have killed me in under five minutes.”

Blinking out welling tears in her violet eyes, Aristespha sniffs, and praises proudly. “You did absolutely. Fucking. Amazing. And, I am still here, because of you. So, thank you so much. And, NEVER discount what you did.”

Averting his eyes awkwardly away from the intense compliment, Bach nervously chuckles and shrugs his shoulders. “Well, uh, your welcome. Just couldn’t sit there and not try.”

Glancing around the room, he furrows his brow and puzzles. “Where is everyone else?”

Aristespha settles back in her chair, and motions outside with a wave of her hand. “They all went out to get food. Probably hitting up the Pancake Shed, since not much stops them from opening.”

Noticing the Sword of the Spirit Realm in its scabbard on the other bed, he points to the sword and gestures around the area. “Where’s my brother?”

Aristespha glances upwards briefly, and smiles with a long inhale. “Sebastian is keeping watch up on the roof of the building. He’s been on self-imposed lookout duty since yesterday. Everything happening has put him on edge. But, he should be down soon to check on you.”

Nodding at the answer, Bach halts in thought, mulls over an idea, and poses a query to Aristespha. “So... Can I ask you personal question?”

Aristespha crosses her arms, lifts an intrigued brow, and awaits in anticipation. “Certainly.”

Bach narrows an examining stare with a slight smirk at Aristespha, and cocks his head to the side. “Why my brother? I mean, what do you see in him?”

Lifting her head back, Aristespha searches her mind, bites her lower lip, and fends out flits of embarrassment as she smiles. “Well... He’s confident, but not ridiculously so. He does have honest talent. He’s bold when it is time to get things done, and is really encouraging. And, genuinely cares...”

Focusing his inquisitive gaze, Bach presents another inquiry. “So, when did you... Know he was the one for you?”

Aristespha flits her violet eyes wide, twists her mouth, and glances away. Wrestling the embarrassment on her face, she fights down a flush of red in her ivory, and gray, blue hinted face. She nervously strokes one of her very long, pointed ears back. “Well... Uh...”

Feeling the calculating stare upon her from Bach, Aristespha rolls her eyes at herself with a sigh, and idly combs her fingers through her long silvery blue hair. “I will warn you, it is a bit of a story.”

She pulls in a large breath, and explains. “We had tracked Noxian down to an old observation post built into a steep mountain side. After a drawn out confrontation, the foundation started to give away and the structure began to collapse. In the chaos, he escaped and we ran for our lives. Running down the main walkway, I was lagging behind because the sword sheath I had broke and kept coming loose.”

Grimacing through the past tension on her face, she shakes her head. “The main part of the building broke free, and toppled down the mountain. It ripped most the support cables for the walkway out and damaged the anchors. Everyone else had just gotten clear, and it was just Sebastian and I left. The platform dropped out from under me, but I grabbed hold the next section’s ledge. And... Sebastian immediately dropped down and grabbed hold of my arm.”

Wincing through a surge of embarrassment, she grits her teeth and buries her face in her hands. “Oh gods, it hurts to remember how gullible I was, and how much I fell for the whole chosen one and magic sword bit.”

She mutters a few evuukian curses to herself under her breath, musters back up her composure, and continues awkwardly. “But... During the fight, Sebastian and I had swapped swords around to confuse Noxian. So... I had THE sword... Dangling at my side... Slowly sliding free off my belt. Of course, I kept a hand on it to secure it.”

Her violet eyes stare into her memories, and a reminiscent smirk graces her face. “Sebastian was arguing with my stupid, stubborn self. With the destruction happening so quickly and my ideological tunnel vision, I hadn’t realized how weak the remaining walkway was. I kept focusing on getting the sword to him more than anything else, but he was focused on my safety. Of course, he proposed having me take his hand, so he could get a better grip with the other, and allow me to safely retrieve the sword.”

She gazes over to the humored Bach with an amused smile, and rolls her eyes at herself while tossing her long silvery blue hair back. “And, of course, that was one of his ploys. The moment I agreed and grabbed hold of his hand, he yanked me right up into his arms, and ran as fast as he could off the walkway.”

Glancing over to the bed with the sword, she grits her teeth, shrugs her shoulders, and laughs. “The sword slipped right off, dropped down the mountain side into a mess of rubble, and was buried under a few tons of rock and collapsed building.”

Eying over to Bach, she tightly smiles and averts her gaze guiltily. “So you know, that’s not the original scabbard. And... I have yet to inform the Grand Library officials the original has been lost. We’ve been avoiding that detail.”

Bach slowly nods, lifts a brow at the sword, and smirks. “I mean... It’s a magical sword. Who know what it could do to its scabbard? It just may have disappears one day, or transmuted into that one. Crazy old magic, you know?”

Aristespha cracks a small sly, appreciative grin. Shifting his attention to Aristespha, Bach crosses his arms and tilts his head to the side. “So... How pissed off and angry were you at my brother?”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Aristespha groans at her past and resumes her tale. “After the initial shock of seeing just where we were seconds ago tumble into a valley... Somewhere between absolute rage and psychotic conniption fits. I am so glad he did not understand much evuukian then, and that Sotalia hasn’t told half of what she understood.”

Straightening up her posture, she chuckles and carefully shakes her head slightly with a faint wince. “So silly now, but that experience opened my eyes to a lot. We eventually found and retrieved the sword with significant help from Dretphi’s scouting, Cideeda's senses, and Sotalia's telekinesis magic. It took a week. But, it gave me a lot of time to think things out... And, really see Sebastian... for Sebastian.”

Pondering the story, Bach gradually nods and smiles at Aristespha. “That’s a good story to know. Thanks for sharing it.”

Aristespha shrugs her shoulders and sighs. “Well, it was the starting point. A lot more embarrassment and awkwardness happened after that.”

Seconds of calm silence later, Sebastian’s ethereal form re-materializes next to Aristespha and he whispers softly to her. “So, how’s he holding up, dear-”

He snaps head towards Bach, and smiles in a flood of joy and relief. “Bro... Oh man, it’s good to see you up. How are feeling?”

Bach darts his eyes around, and gauges his mood. “Among the living? I'm feeling normal enough now. But, it’s been a really strange experience all around.”

A playful grin cracks out from the corner of Sebastian’s mouth, and he holds up a few fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Rolling his blue eyes, Bach snorts and shakes his head. “Not quite enough to put up your ass.”

Sebastian laughs into a relaxing sigh, and slowly nods. “Yeah, you’re doing okay. But... Seriously...”

With a tremor in his voice, Sebastian gazes upon his brother proudly and thankfully. “I’m so glad your okay... And... Thank you for saving Aristespha’s life. I mean, I don’t know what more to say. I’d totally hug you if I was a bit more tangible, bro. Really.”

Aristespha smiles lovingly to Sebastian, and turns her attention to Bach. “I’ll handle that.”

Leaning out, Aristespha wraps her arms around Bach tightly, and embraces him with pat on his back. “Thank you again.”

Bach returns the hug and sniffs. “Well... I just couldn’t let you two end like that. Especially, not after all we’ve done.”

After the quiet moment, Aristespha glances over to the side of her thoughts, and sighs through flits of guilt. “Oh... While I’m thinking about it, let me apologize for ALL the times I’ve been a total bitch.”

Bach chuckles and smiles. “It’s fine. I wasn’t exact a shining example at times either.”

Sebastian laughs with an ethereal reverb, and shrugs his shoulders with tinges of regret. “Yeah... Yeah... Count me in there, too. A lot.”

Aristespha releases Bach, settles back in her seat, and firmly grasps Bach shoulders tightly. She narrows a hard glare right into his eyes, and directs a stern voice at him. “That said... DO NOT DO THAT AGAIN. Please. That was... SO dangerous for you to do.”

She brushes tangled strands of Bach’s white streak out of his face, and smiles. “Please, don’t fry your brain on my account in the future. We want you around and able.”

Bach blinks and grits his teeth into grimace with an awkward laugh. “I wasn’t trying the first time, and I certainly won’t be trying anytime soon after this whole experience. Gods, can’t believe it’s Friday.”

The motel door opens up slowly, and the golden eye gaze of Sotalia peers in with a hushed tone. “Hey Aristespha...”

Spotting Bach sitting up in bed, Sotalia swings open the door with a renewed excitement, and approaches with take out boxes eagerly. “Hey, Bach! You hungry?”

Bach ponders a moment, and nods quickly. “Yeah. Actually, yes. Now that I’m thinking about it, I definitely could eat.”

Gleefully, Sotalia takes a seat on the bed, slides up next to Bach, and hands him the bigger take out box. “Good! I got your usual, and it’s fresh and warm. We made sure to order right before we left.”

As Dretphi and Cideeda peek in and notice the awake Bach, he waves over to them and opens the container for inspection. His eyes scan over the contents, and counts the correct number of bacon strips. Cideeda lifts an inquisitive brow, and grins warmly. “Feeling closer to normal?”

Bach shifts his attention to Cideeda and struggles against a long yawns “Yeah. Still a little tired. But, definitely feeling like my usual self. So, anything new in town? We’re still in, or near Yazoo, right?”

Dretphi nods as she closes the door to the outside. “Yes. It is quiet. Still tense. Clean up is happening. People are attempting to resume life. Pancake Shed was open. A good sign overall.”

Sotalia cracks a sly smirk, nudges her shoulder against Bach’s, and presents the smaller take out box to him. “Oh, and our new favorite Pancake Shed employee, Lucida, gave us all a little extra with our meals for free.”

She aims a humored lift of the brow to Cideeda. “Thanks to someone working your efforts a little.”

Cideeda rolls her emerald eyes, twists her mouth, and snorts dismissively. “Please. It was a light exaggeration. She was exceptionally thankful for Aristespha keeping her Ralthie alive, anyway. So, it wasn’t much of even a hint to have her work her employee discount.”

Dretphi steps through the gathering, places a large take box out onto Aristespha’s lap, and holds out a huge insulated paper cup. “No cost. She remembered your order.”

Aristespha opens the lid of the cardboard container, and surveys the excess of food in awe. “Wow. I think she doubled everything.”

Bach shifts his attention to the take out box from Sotalia, lifts the bulging flap, and studies the pile of bacon crammed inside. “Gods. There’s a few sides orders of bacon in here.”

Sotalia swiftly pulls in the tail end of a bacon strip into her mouth, attempts to stealthily munch on it, and nods in agreement. “Oh yeah, she had the cook working that grill.”

Finding a plastic fork in the larger box, Bach picks it up, rests the package of bacon down, and shifts his attention to his meal. “This looks so good and smells amazing.”

He hovers his fork over the bacon part of his main dish, halts, and puzzles as he recounts. His eyes slide suspiciously over to Sotalia, and cracks an amused smirk. Cideeda crosses her arms, stares at Sotalia, and shakes her head. Sotalia glances between the two of them, and dismissively deflects with an innocent tone. “What?”

Crews angle recording equipment around the entryways into a large living room, while Samantha stands by with clipboard at the ready. Gerald hoists up his camera, sets up his shot of the Flames of the Phoenix team sitting on couches around a coffee table. Chad stands up from a chair, moves in front of the team, and picks up some papers off the table. He arranges the paperwork in his hands, clears his throat, and surveys the surrounding crews. Drawing a long breath, he glances over Trakenthin, Tassilda, Deedri, Modoran, and eventually Veevi. He straightens his posture and addresses the assembled team. “I’m sure we’ve all enjoyed the rest and break from the last mission, but we need to get back to adventuring. After reviewing a few presented options, I’ve chosen a series of smaller, simpler quests to enact the annual inspections of old ruins. I figured it would be a welcomed change of pace.”

Gesturing to the coffee table, he points out four packets of documents in front of Trakenthin, Tassilda, Deedri, and Modoran. “I’ve printed out copies of the information provided by the guild about the different locations for you to review and discuss.”

Veevi tosses back her pink hair, flicks her long, short-haired tail, and furrows her puzzled brow at the empty space in front her upon the coffee table. She stretches her legs, crosses her tan, brown striped arms impatiently, and narrows an expecting glare upon Chad. The rest of the team each reaches out for the packets, begin to inspect them, and start discussions between themselves. Veevi frowns her growing annoyance, flexes her sharp nailed fingers, and perks her fuzzy ears back. Chad pulls calming air into his lungs, exhales slowly, and pivots his attention towards Veevi. Eying the papers in Chad’s possession, Veevi holds out her hand and awaits with a petulant sneer. Chad glances down at Veevi’s anticipating motions, frowns sternly, and sighs. “You won’t be needing an information packet, Veevi.”

Veevi blinks her pink pupil eyes, lowers her dark pink eyebrows, and cocks her head to side. Chad stiffens his upper lip, and reprimands in a firm tone. “Veevi, as the leader of the Flames of the Phoenix, I believe you need to sit out these missions.”

Veevi’s eyes flit wide, her fuzzy ears flick back, and her tan face twitches. Chad crosses his arms, straightens his posture, and chills his stern voice. “I have NOT been happy with the behavior you have demonstrated lately. You consistently have shown a disregard for other team members, and refuse to properly work with the team. And make no mistake, this has been demonstrated between multiple missions and many occasions outside of missions.”

Veevi’s mean glare forms harsher shades of contempt, and her lips pull back to a grit of sharp teeth. As Chad mains his ground and focuses his brown eyes upon the visibly shaking Veevi, the surrounding record crew exchange bewildered expressions. Samantha blinks to full awareness of the situation, squints in disbelief, and tilts her head to the side with whisper. “What. The. Fuck... is going on here?!”

An amused grin splits wide from the corners of Gerald mouth, and he aims his camera expectantly with a quiet chuckle. “Oh... Just a spine growing three sizes...”

Chad slightly bows his head down, narrows his stern stare upon Veevi, and calmly explains. “I believe you need to take some time to think. Take some much needed time to review what you can do to work better with the team. Think about whether you really want to be part of this team.”

A pressuring silence absorbs all other noises in the room. Trakenthin, Tassilda, Deedri, Modoran, and Chad keep their full attention upon the reddening face of Veevi. Seconds of louder pants end in a furious snort, and Veevi springs up to her feet with her full ire aimed at Chad. After an enraged growl, Veevi points accusingly at Chad. “THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”

Veevi summons up her vitriol in an angry hiss and screams as the fur on her tail poofs out. “YOU! YOU! Are you trying to put ME in TIME OUT?! You’ve GOT to be FUCKING KIDDING ME! I want to be part of this team?! You don’t have a team without ME! No one gave a damn about this team until I arrived! YOU traitorous, worthless sack of shit! How dare you even consider putting ME to the side line. You are a complete dumbass if you think this is going to fly with the producers!”

Shakily flexing her fingers of sharp nails, Veevi glares a face full of twitching hatred upon Chad, and huffs out infuriated hisses as the hair on her body raises. Tassilda rolls her eyes in absolute disgust, leans forward from her seat, and points to Veevi. “SIT. DOWN. For gods sake! Calm down, and stop acting like a childish drama queen. Do you even think that this might be ONE of the MANY reasons you are in this situation right now?! It’s just for one set of boring missions anyway. Get over it.”

Chad glances over his shoulder, grimaces uneasily, and motions with his hand for Tassilda to hold off a bit. Seizing the opening, Veevi swiftly rears back her arm, and tenses her muscles to guide her sharp nails towards Chad. Trakenthin flits his eyes wide open, lunges out swiftly, and launches his long reach towards Chad. He grips tightly around Chad’s belt, and firmly yanks him back. Veevi’s flurry of clawing swipes slice through the air left behind as Chad’s body shifts sharply backwards. Recovering from the misses Veevi regains her footing, hisses out an incoherent mess of insults, and steps toward Chad. Just as Chad raises his arms up to shield from the next attack, a couch pillow flies solidly in to Veevi’s face.

The mass and power behind the cushion impacts the side of Veevi’s head, tilts her firmly off balance, and sends her stumbling backwards and to the side. A few cameras trace back the flight path of the pillow, and Modoran nonchalantly resettles into his seat upon the couch, obscuring the empty spot between other couch back cushions. Veevi balances herself back out, feverishly whips her tail side to side, and tenses her thin form defiantly. Chad cautiously stands back, while the crews keep recording. Noticing the attention around her, the Veevi pants out her rage, hisses out her disgust, and steps forward. She fails to find an easy target and settles upon dramatically flipping the coffee table over with growl. She promptly pivots around, storms up the stairwell, and disappears upstairs. After a loud slam of a door, muffled screams of rage echo out, and a group of recording crew rush up.

Chad regathers his composure, shakes his head, and steps to the middle of the group. Deedri springs up, and inspects his face carefully. “Chad, are you okay? It looked like she got real close to you.”

With an appreciative nod, Chad smiles thankfully to Deedri. “She missed me...”

He turns to Trakenthin and bows slightly. “Thank you, Trakenthin.”

Trakenthin nods simply. Tassilda covers her mouth and fights through the guilt and regret. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t think she’d do THAT.”

Trakenthin shakes his head and sighs. “Not your fault. She was looking for an opportunity.”

Chad smiles in agreement and eases Tassilda’s concern. “Don’t worry, I’m a bit surprised myself.”

He shifts his attention over to Modoran, and cracks a humored smirk. “Nice shot.”

Modoran shrugs his shoulders, and laughs. “Well, I was trying to be nice. I didn’t think kicking her legs out was warranted... yet.”

Sighing out his tension, Chad scratches the back of his brown, coiffed head of hair, slowly shakes his head as he processes the events, and chuckles with tinges of sarcasm. “Well, that actually went a little better than I expected. I mean, it could have gone worse.”

Tassilda twists her mouth uncomfortably and crosses her arms. “At least she doesn’t have that laser pistol anymore.”

Chad flits his eyes wide briefly when mind processes the thought, and grits his teeth. “Oh, gods... Glad I remedied that mistake.”

He gazes over his team, smiles humbly, and sighs. “And, I hope to fix more as I am able.”

Mera adjusts the pillow on her single motel bed, slides up against the headboard, and stretches her legs out. Easing out a long breath, she glances around the outdated, dingy room, and frowns briefly. Turning her attention to a battered and worn aetherphone, she taps through a number of menus and slows down to scroll through lists of apartments and rental houses. She stops at one listing, and shifts her gaze over to a piles of bills and coins upon the bed next to her. Sorting through the money, her crimson eyes search her mind, and she eventually nods at the possibility. Finishing up through the current selection, she rests her aetherphone upon the nightstand next to the bed. Pausing a moment, her hand drifts over and picks up a piece of paper off a loose stack. Holding the page in front her, a happy smile emerges and she gazes upon the crayon drawing of three black eared figures and one with longer ivory ears. After enjoying the art, she rolls over and props it up against the desk lamp.

Grabbing the remote, Mera turns on the older television on the opposite wall, and flips through a number of channels. She fights back a yawn, stretches her arms out, and continues surveying the entertainment landscape. Stopping upon one channel, she idly watches the commercials play out and the main programming resumes.

“Last time on the Next Adventurers of Nexus...”

Mera lifts a mildly amused brow, sets the remote off to the side, and settles up against the bed pillow. Clips of the prior show episode flip up on the screen. A segment shows Modoran lifting up an elaborately decorated bow. Mera crimson eyes widen as she remains still. Modoran draws back the bow, takes aim, and expertly releases an arrow to a target. Meredosia’s stare narrows, and focuses upon the details. Her full attention notices the faint traces of magical energy, flowing in a familiar way. Her breathing quickens as her body tenses. The clip disappears under a swipe cut to another segment about Veevi. During the distant, disconnected stare, Meredosia’s ivory face twitches as she begin to angrily grit her teeth.

With a sharp wince, Mera covers her face with both hands, gasps for air frantically, and curls up painfully on the bed. Panting through the surge of remorse and guilt, she shakes her head hard, and opens her frantic eyed gaze. She nervously grips her very long ears, squeezes the tears from her eyes, and rolls over to her side. Cringing through memories crashing to the front of her mind, and she clenches her jaw and hisses strained breaths through her teeth. Seconds of struggling, she reopens her eyes and settles her panicked stare upon the crayon drawing.

Mera reaches out for the artwork, gently runs a finger across the page, and sniffs up the tears. With each slowing breath, she gradually reassembles a semblance of calm.

A large blue all terrain vehicles rolls up into a gravel lot, and parks between crudely painted lines in the noon sun. Isaac opens his door, locks it, and closes it. Stepping around the vehicle, he glances out at the open town center between a mix of different buildings. Slowly surveying the land, he pauses his examining stare at wooden and tin roof fronts, concrete block bunkers, brick and metal sheeting structures, and a few weathered aluminum sided buildings. He narrows his curious gaze towards the middle of the area, and walks out into the patch of grass and a few older trees. Searching down long gravel roadways branching away, he squints down the dusty rough passages, and reads off signs to himself. He eventually notices a larger two story structure, and studies the name on the sign, “Precipice Inn & Tavern”. Shrugging his shoulders, he steps forward towards the building.

Opening large wooden door, Isaac slips into a large, noisy main room, and stands to observe. Slowly scanning the room, he shifts his focus between numerous tables surrounded by an eclectic mishmash of chairs and filled with a diverse collection of patrons. Conversations in many different languages collide together in the tall air space to form an ambient background drone. Isaac darts his intrigued stare between tables of rough characters in complicated survival suits, mercenaries in heavy plated armor, local merchants in plain clothing, common workers in dingy uniforms, and few younger adventurous types. Isaac’s curiosity follows an animated robotic humanoid in worn protective gear, and the machine’s enthusiastic attempts to pawn off a number of different maps. When the pitch fails, it still hangs out and eagerly chats about news and events.

Shaking out of the fascinated trance, Isaac pivots around, spots the long wooden bar, and walks over. He brushes off a cracked leather seat, checks down either side of the bar, and lifts a hand towards the bar tender. The rough, middle aged woman goes down the line of other patrons, checks on them, and finally arrives in front of Isaac with a smile. “Hey there, what can I get for you?”

Isaac surveys the collection of alcohol upon a variety of shelves behind the woman, contemplates while rocking his head side to side, and smirks kindly. “Well. I’ll definitely start with a beer to cool down, first. And, we’ll see where that leads.”

Lifting an amused brow, the bar tender nods, side steps over to a chest fridge, and pulls out a brown, unlabeled bottle. With deft handling of bottle opener, the cap pops right off, and she places the beverage in front of Isaac. “So, sweetie, you hungry? The kitchen is open for lunch right now. We got a few good specials you might like.”

Searching his mind, Isaac smiles, grasps hold of his beer, and hums thoughtfully. “I think I could be convinced to eat. But, actually, first... I’m looking for someone.”

The bar woman cocks her head to the side, leans in, and glances around. “Who are you looking for?”

Pouring back the beer, Isaac gulps down the drink, sets the bottle back down, and uncertainly replies. “Mavian?”

Rolling her eyes, the woman snorts, shakes her head, and grins. “OH! Yeah, I’ll be right back with him. Probably not answering his phone, right?”

Issac blinks, nods in agreement, and grimaces politely. “I mean, if he’s busy, I don’t want to be rude or anything.”

The bar tender laughs, waves down Isaac’s concerns, and walks towards a flight of stairs. “Oh, sweetie, it’s a not problem at for me. Gods know he needs to wake up and work some decent jobs to keep paying me rent.”

With an awkward, thankful nod, Isaac lifts his beer back up, sips the beverage, and gazes over the activity in the main room. Minutes later, a man in a green scarf sit down on the stool next to Isaac, and starts rubbing the sleep out of his faintly glowing eyes. “The hell, Aggie? Scared the shit out me.”

Aggie steps back behind the bar, shakes her head, and rolls her eyes. “Should have answered your door the first few times.”

Isaac pivots around in his seat, glances over Mavian, and politely extends his hand to shake. “Good afternoon, Mavian.”

Mavian shakes Isaac’s hand, narrows his examining gaze, and blinks as recognition fumbles back into his head. “It’s... Ian- No. Um... Ivan- No... Isaac! Yes. Sorry, it was a long night.”

Waving off the trouble, Isaac smirks and shrugs his shoulders. “Perfectly fine. I was a little worried when you didn’t answer your phone.”

Twisting his mouth uncomfortably, Mavian rolls his faintly glowing green eyes, and sighs. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I was up really late with some couple wanting an Adventure Tour of the Zone. They were really into it, so I took them to a few places for them to collect some of the more colorful, harmless, but totally useless artifacts.”

Isaac lifts a humored brow, and tilts his head. “I hope they tipped you well.”

Mavian give an entrepreneurial smirk and nods satisfied. “That they did. They were nice.”

Gritting his teeth briefly, and Isaac pulls in a guilty breath. “Before we talk much further, let me apologize for being a week late. Getting out of Perimeter and traveling the roads was filled with some unexpected delays. Quite a different experience from other zones I’ve been in, to be perfectly honest.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Mavian picks up a beer that Aggie drops off in front of him, pours some into his mouth, and nonchalantly explains. “Don’t worry about. Not a problem, really. Anyway, the fact you are here means you are serious about finding your friend.”

He smirks slyly, and adjusts his green scarf. “In fact, your timing is not that bad. Been asking around about your friend Malkav. It turns out he was here over a month ago to load up on supplies. Now, I haven’t found out much more yet, like where he is. He seems to be vague about where he’s been going.”

An eager grin emerges upon Isaac’s face. He sits up straight on the bar stool, and tosses back his white, wispy hair. “I actually have some maps and info that might help narrow that down... With your help and expertise, of course.”

Nodding slowly, Mavian chuckles. “Of course. Lunch first?”

Isaac smiles. “Of course.”