“Life, measured in seasons and cycles,
Seizures and eclipses, sees nothing.
Oblivious to its oblivion, fueled by loathing.
Longing to love, formless yet centered,
The gate closes beyond the horizon,
Trumpets blare and seagulls flock.
What this means I know not.”
Hales entered the bar, the only place open late enough to get all the talking she needed done. Deo casually waved her down, as if trying not to be seen by anyone beside the person he signaled. Hales lit up when she took notice of the boy, sitting quietly at a table in the corner of the tightly packed building. Hales weaved through the idle drinkers conversing louder than necessary in order to hear themselves talk over the next closest group.
Hales wasn’t especially fond of the bar scene, but like most things, it’s a culture one acquires the taste for and in this case the taste was for cheap liquor. Hales would never participate she decided.
A man bumped into her, in a display of alcohol induced clumsiness, let out an obnoxious belch and was about to apologize until he scrutinized Hales to the point he felt against saying sorry. He hadn’t noticed her wince from the collision, her ribs still sore and healing. Instead he gave a crooked smile and spoke, barely keeping from slurring the words.
“Buy you a drink, girl?” He ended the question with a sip of his own. Hales forced a pained smile, knowing any response was sure to spark further conversation that she wished to avoid at all costs. She ignored him and made to walk by. The man stood forty or so centimeters above her and he blocked her path with his arm, more forcefully than he intended, or perhaps just as forcefully as he intended.
“Oh c’mon, don’t be rude! Just a drink than you can be on your merry way.” Hales was rather vexed at his demanding tone, switching from asking to telling. Hales found it humorous that she could just as easily burn him with a sun, that would sober him up at least. That thought helped Hales keep her cool.
“Sorry, I’m meeting a friend.” She tried to forget he had touched her twice already, and masked irritation with politeness.
“Your friend can wait, I want some company.” He smiled again and attempted to grab hold of Hales’ hand, ready to lead her to the bar counter.
Instead a hand grabbed the shoulder of the drunk man, shock contorting his expression.
“Now now don’t be pushy. No one likes a rude drunk.” The voice sounded friendly, yet edged with cold steel. Hales thought at first it was Deo, but the voice didn’t match and a quick glance to the side confirmed that he was still at the table, absorbed on his phone, paying no attention.
Hales realized as well that it would be far out of his personality to get into the middle of things like this.
The drunkard spun around with anger flashing across his face, a few drops of his drink splashed to the ground. He was about to speak when the stranger tilted his head slightly in beratement, or possibly warning. They held each other’s gaze for a moment but the drunk looked away first and muttered something along the lines of “damn kids” and walked away sour. Hales saw that the stranger really was a kid, though to bar-goers she herself was probably considered a kid. It took a split second longer than she would have liked but the headphones really gave it away, she did know this ‘kid’. It was Josua, the Zone Aspect of all people here in the bar. He spoke first.
“Hales Ailor, we need to talk.” His voice was set and somewhat urgent sounding. Hales sighed, she merely wanted to sit down and relax.
Josua read the brief flicker of annoyance on her face and quickly added, “If this wasn’t absolutely important I wouldn’t bother you.”
Hales nodded. “Here, I have a table.” She led the way to Deo’s table. He would likely be upset at a third person joining but what could she do?
“Hello Deo.” Hales greeted, cringing at the awkward moment that was bound to happen.
“Welcome to my table.” Deo said with a smirk, addressing both Hales and Josua. Josua needed only a fleeting glance in Deo’s direction to gather all the information necessary. Everyone took their seats.
Hales mouthed the word ‘sorry’. Deo raised an eyebrow. Josua spoke first.
“I’ll cut straight to the chase. Hales, you managed to attract a pretty large target to yourself.”
Hales was caught off guard and she jerked her head back in surprise, “What! How?”
“Your performance during the tournament made you more than a few enemies. Powerful enemies at that.” Josua noted with a serious chuckle.
“I didn’t break any rules.” Hales said defensively, innocently.
“You’re more dense than I would have guessed.” Josua observed. Deo smirked and Hales glared at him. He was enjoying this.
“With who then?” Hales asked.
“The first specter you fought, Darrin, was the son of a wealthy stockbroker, the man who registered all of us at the front desk.” Hales felt the irritation at remembering the masked man. He had been slow and pedantic for no reason, almost costing her to miss the tournament altogether.
Josua continued. “Darrin received extremely bad third degree burns as well a collapsed lung and fractures all over his body. He’s practically a cripple now. As you can imagine his father has placed you on his hunting list. And before you ask, the rules are simply a pretense, no one with wealth has any problems getting around them.” A waitress came by to take drink orders before Hales could respond. She ordered an iced tea and Deo got a refill on his red wine. Josua deferred from ordering.
Hales thought about Darrin. She hadn’t thought the injuries were that serious but she felt bad, somewhat. He had annoyed her so it was his fault for playing with fire.
“There’s more people gunning for me isn’t there?” Hales pressed.
“You upset a lot of match-ups, people place big investments on those fights. There are consequences for winning, how could there not be?” Hales hadn’t thought of it like it.
“Okay…” Hales started slowly, “So why tell me? Shouldn’t you be looking to even the score too?” She challenged.
“My intentions at the tournament were more for reconnaissance and training. Keep an eye on everyone, keep track of new specters, things of that sort.” Josua stayed purposefully vague.
“Your results?” Hales asked.
“I don’t want you getting killed because you’re dense and I don’t want you falling in the wrong hands either, you’re too valuable.” Josua stated matter of factly. Hales knew Aspects were considered commodities in this world but she never thought of herself as being a valuable one.
“I think I can handle myself.” Hales replied nonchalantly. Josua made a thoughtful expression.
“That may be true,” He conceded. Hales could sense the ‘but’ before Josua said it. “but you’re never as good as you think. That’s true for us all.” Josua eyed Hales.
“I can agree with that. I’m unsure of your motive though.” Hales glanced at Deo. His face was stoic, unreadable.
“My job is to protect this city. I really don’t want you as an enemy, consider this a favor.” Josua was talking intently without any hesitation, he clearly had an agenda.
“I’m really not liking your smug superiority.” Hales said, her patience waning, at least that was the front she wanted to put out. If she could get under his skin he might reveal something…
Josua switched subjects, catching Hales off guard. He was good. “Do you know why you won our match-up?”
Hales paused a second too long before answering. “Yes… My plan was to overwhelm your heightened senses, take advantage of your ability and use it against you. You’d be bound to slip up eventually so all I had to do was stall until the right moment. It worked.” Hales shrugged after her explanation. Josua rubbed his chin.
“Not a bad plan, I figured you would try something like that. I suppose used in that way you believe your Aspect is a natural counter to mine?” Deo barely suppressed a smile at Josua’s question.
“It seems that way…” Hales was less sure now, going off of their reactions.
“That’s wrong. Your Aspect doesn’t counter mine, at least conventionally. Few do to be honest. What happened was not something I took into account, and neither did you apparently.” Hales rolled her eyes.
“Enlighten me,” She said with a touch of attitude.
“Stars emit solar flares containing radiation. One of them happened to knock out the connection of my headphones, fried the battery. It shut off my Aspect, essentially blinding me.” Hales froze, turning red from guilt and embarrassment from her own ignorance and behavior.
“I never even thought of that.” Hales whispered to herself. Josua continued, ignoring her.
“I’m glad it happened in that scenario, working out all the potential issues is part of the game. I’m developing more advanced headphones to withstand anything that could wipe out or fry normal circuitry. I don’t plan on leaving anything to luck. Normally you’d never beat me.” He stated things so factually, so confidently that Hales couldn’t disagree. She really hadn’t deserved to reach the finals and before that she had the help of Veron’s Jinx. The guilt she had come to terms with since the conclusion of the tournament only renewed with vigor. Winning had been a sham against Josua and how many others that day? A victory of luck felt the same as cheating. So what it had been her Aspect that caused a malfunction in his headphones? It wasn’t her plan, wasn’t purposefully done, that would leave her as good as dead in a real scenario.
Hales sulked and crossed her arms abashed.
“Hales, don’t join Rabio. Garghent’s military is corrupt but it has the potential to change. The likes of Rabio can’t. I know he offered to hire you but you would disagree with his agenda. As I said earlier, you’re too deadly to fall into the wrong hands. Remember that.” Josua took advantage of moment to add his final pitch. It came as no surprise to Hales at this point that the kid knew about Rabio. He knew everything it appeared. Hales nodded absently, her mind wandering.
“I know you will go to his interview regardless, but I’ve said what I could. I just hope we don’t have to meet as enemies ever.” Josua stood ready to leave but turned to Deo, almost as an afterthought. “I assume you have a good reason for remaining unregistered. Stay out of trouble and I will let it slide.” Josua’s voice was very nearly threatening. Hales had been curious why Josua openly discussed things in front of a stranger, he was far too careful a person to be so reckless. Josua knew, probably from the moment he saw Deo, he knew he was a specter.
Deo’s eyes narrowed a fraction. The air stilled. “Ah, but I was beginning to like you.” Deo sounded unfortunate though his voice was more aggressive than regretful.
“How could you tell?” Hales blurted out, attempting to diffuse the tension. Josua smiled, recognizing her effort.
“It’s obvious. A mixture of his body language and the fact he is acquaintanced with you. I could tell he knew of me in some way and that he has an Aspect.” Hales was impressed, not for the first time by Josua, the Zone Aspect, of which he hadn’t activated the whole night. The headphone hung unused around his neck. Josua certainly was more than his Aspect, a whole lot more…
“This is my city,” Josua declared. “Very little escapes my notice and even less escapes my justice. Don’t get caught doing anything… foolish, Deo.” Josua very clearly did not trust Deo. Hales thought it might be instinct. Hales’ own instincts told her Deo was harmless, just a mysterious boy in a strange world.
“Threaten me again, boy, and I’ll kill you.” Hales shivered, maybe not completely harmless.
Josua ignored Deo and faced Hales, “Good luck, Hales.” He left the bar, already moving with a purpose and task.
Deo took a long sip of his wine, draining the last of the glass. Hales rubbed her finger on the condescension building around her iced tea, wiping random lines and shapes into the drink.
“He’s impressive.” Hales finally broke the silence. Deo smiled, his dark mood disappearing.
“An expert at psychoanalysis.” He mock toasted with his empty glass. An action that their waitress misinterpreted as being a call for another round. He accepted it anyways when she brought the refill, too addled and shy to correct the situation. Hales laughed at the awkwardness. Deo scowled at her.
“Want to know my advice?” Deo asked, eager to move on from the refill incident.
“Sure.” Hales said still smiling.
“Don’t take this Rabio guy’s job and don’t join the military.”
“I have a contract with the military and people like Rabio are the only ones that could realistically get around it.”
“The military is corrupt. Josua was right about that.” Deo said it plainly as if it were a simple immutable fact of life.
“I don’t necessarily agree with that. Even if it is maybe I can change it.” Hales realized that could potentially be her purpose. The system called society isn’t perfect, perhaps it merely needs a helpful nudge in the right direction.
“You would have to change the whole world. Not just the military, not just Garghent.” His gaze locked itself on hers.
“Maybe I will change the world.” She spoke softly.
“Humans don’t possess that power. Set in our ways forever.”
“Maybe we can attain that power.” Hales stared at her nearly empty glass of tea and saw the distorted image of her reflection staring back.
Deo nursed his wine a little more before speaking. “It might be a lot of work for a single person, got any room for another?” Deo looked up grinning like a mad man. The smile was so infectious Hales had to join in.
“Deo, tell me this. How strong are you?” Hales was dying to know more about his power. Deo’s dark violet eyes twinkled with mischief.
“What good is a secret that’s no longer kept secret?”
“I’m assuming that it’s no longer a secret at that point.” She answered his rhetorical question with dry sarcasm.
“That’s kind of the point.” Deo replied.
“Yeah, that’s my point too!” Hales countered.
“Tell you what. Let’s hash out more details about our plan to change the world sometime soon and I’ll show you my power.”
“Deal!” Hales said excitedly. Something about him made her feel different, less alone in the world. She couldn’t explain it and couldn’t totally agree with the feelings. It was irrational.
“You think the world can really be changed?” Hales asked almost too desperately.
“No, I don’t think so. But I’ve never really tried or seen anyone that has tried.” It was a strangely honest answer.
“Can we go for a walk? I want some air.” Deo agreed and Hales placed some cash on the table. Finally out of the stuffy bar, Hales took a deep breath and looked up into the night sky. There were a few visible stars, the bog of the metropolis clouding the natural view.
“The mountain’s were so much prettier. The stars there felt close enough to touch.” Hales rambled on. “Even my stars are nothing compared to what’s really up there, you know? We have these amazing abilities, unprecedented potential for achieving the improbable. Yet we have reduced it to mere ‘commodities’ and weapons and tools for gain and conquest.”
“You are quite the day-dreamer, aren’t you?” Deo spoke admirably, rather than mockingly. It was respectful and Hales felt that she was close to reaching a more personal side of him. Hales only smiled in response, urging him to talk his mind. He did just that.
“Look at all these buildings, everything our species creates… It’s as if our architecture and agriculture is desperately shouting into the universe ‘notice me, I exist’. We are a fearfully fleeting race. Dying and birthing and dying and building.” They were walking on a sidewalk to nowhere in particular as they talked. “But what good is it, to live selfishly wholly independent and utterly uncomplacent with ourselves. We are out of touch with reality, with nature…” He trailed off.
“You sound like a poet.”
Deo shrugged. “I think words should be expressed in the most beautiful or vicious way, whatever is right for the moment. All we are is loosely connected moments. It’s up to us to fill in the details.”
Hales felt a wave of inexplicable sadness ripple through her core. “We are stardust, arranged in patterns and shapes.” She reddened after saying, embarrassed to speak like Deo. He laughed and the sound, to Hales, was like a chord strummed by the most beautiful and lonely instrument. She felt his pain hidden behind the noise associated with joy and humor.
“Well said.” Deo complimented, her statement sticking with him more than she thought it would. She reddened further. But oddly the color drained in an instant.
“We have the same eyes, Deo.”
His eyebrows furrowed, “How do you mean?”
She pointed to her own. “Inside, our eyes are the same.” She repeated, adding little detail. “Hell.”
Deo smiled ruefully. “Too true…”
The pair walked and talked long through the night. Covering many blocks and crossing over streets, following the path of whatever sidewalk their legs carried them to. They found a bench and Hales took a much needed seat, her body sore though the exercise and cool night air had felt incredibly relieving. More than that, her company of Deo felt even better, so much better.
The first streaks of red-orange crept their way over the horizon. The sun inexorably crested upward, always onward, never halting.
Hales felt a tear well in her eye. She quelled it, blinking back the water. Perhaps it was the sun’s rays stinging her eyes. Perhaps the majesty of the dawn and the total calmness the night wrought into her and the exhaustion of sleeplessness played into her emotions… She didn’t know.
This day could have been the last day of her life and she would have died content.
“This is going to be our spot.” Hales said the first to talk since the sun started rising. The bench was located near a park, behind a small lake with a bridge going over and geese playing in the water and frogs croaking near the shore.
“Okay, I like it.” Deo said admiring the view with a new perspective.
“I’ve never been here before, I wonder where it is.”
“We will find it again.” Deo assured her. Hales smiled slowly, her body too at peace to make any sudden movements. She enjoyed every cell of that smile, under the light of the rising sun, bouncing off the clear lake, smelling the wet dew of the morning…
They left a little later, saying goodbye, each understanding the other’s need for solitude. Walking separate ways Hales and Deo went home.