Eliya always broke under pressure. But she always rebuilt, too fast for anyone to notice.
Earlier this week, her arms had been chopped off. Samuel, her squadmate, was the one who had done it, egged on by a malicious Whisper specialist.
Eliya had accepted the pain, lost it in her room on the Brin estate for a good fifteen minutes. After, though, she moved on to better things, worked to keep from breaking again. She broke in stolen moments, and she rebuilt a moment after they ended. It was fragile building, but it held off the pressures for a time.
Today, though, it didn't look like there was going to be any pressure.
It was supposed to be a hard match. Everyone had come to watch the #1 and #2 second-year squads battling. The two teams with early platinum-rank projectors. But neither Chimera nor Golem Squad were living up to the hype.
She maintained the water dome Samuel and Nell's replacement huddled in. It wasn't smart- her orbs and his steel wires were best close-up.
She idly tossed a brief memory of a panic attack at Golem's Naruhiko. He was trying to wrest control of the water from her. She wouldn't allow that.
Eliya strolled through a well-worn battlefield, but it wasn't the same as she remembered. There was no longer a projector on Chimera equal to Lorne's Vocation, so he couldn't wield it. Paragon had kept him from using it against anyone but fellow platinum-ranks, but now that Eliya's friend was gone, Lorne was the only one in the year. So the fight was already a joke.
There was more, though. Nell's replacement (never Nell), had been accepted! Samuel jumped at her every command- disappointing, but not surprising. But Leizu even now ran about to catch Golem Squad's flag on the replacement's orders. She was supposed to be Nell's friend! We'd trusted her with everything we could. Everything except the Ousting plot. But I supposed avoiding deportation to Shenti was more important than friendship.
Chimera had pulled together, while Golem had been crippled. There was no pressure here. Nothing to break the impostor with. Nothing to rebuild the team without her. But there would be.
Eliya met eyes with Lorne, floating on a throne of metal shards. He was well behind the rest of his team. A relic of a time when Nell shot him out of the sky while he was directly above them. At this point, with Nell gone, it was superfluous. But say whatever you wanted about Lorne- he never forgot a loss. And right now, he too had experienced Eliya's loss. A different type, but one no less painful for either of them. Eliya shot her eyes at the impostor. Lorne's followed, and immediately, he nodded.
When Lorne shot a portion of his throne at the water dome, Eliya blocked it easily. But she blocked in a foolhardy way, pulling up the water on the bottom of the dome to thicken it at the metal's point of impact. She knew exactly what would happen. And indeed, just as predicted, Deon rushed forward. He tapped the grass next to the dome, turning it to coal dust with his Vocation. A spark jumped from the air onto the dust, setting Samuel, the replacement, and myself aflame.
Why had I thought this would be a good idea!? the flame burned at me, burned everything in its reach. I'd need a body transfer after this! I needed relief. I diverted all the dome's water onto me. Samuel and the replacement could burn to ash for all I cared! I only wished it would last longer for them. Deon was no longer there to feed it, rushing off after one of Naruhiko's waves had unexpectedly collapsed over by his flag. Still, this would be enough.
The flame on me was doused. My whole body still ached as blackened flesh cracked in open air. I watched as the impostor flailed blindly, her orbs unable to affect the flames. Even knowing it would expose my burns, I cracked a smile at the sight. That hurt! Samuel composed himself, and the flames on him guttered out, but the impostor kept screaming. Kaplen Ingolf, the final Golem squad member, rushed forward.
Yes! I thought. Grab our flag, humble that pale facsimile of Nell! But he didn't. Instead, Kaplen projected into the air around the pretender, starving the fire out just as Samuel had I could feel Lorne glower at him from my place on the ground, but it didn't matter. This was merely a delay in our victory. As soon as Deon returned to here rather than defending the flag with Naruhiko, we would lose. The faker would be humiliated.
But that didn't happen! Instead, I heard the referee's whistle blow, and Chimera Squad had won its first squad match under the leadership of the new Nell Ebbridge.
There were no cheers from the stands, the ones filled with first year students eager to see the legendary matchup at work. A slow roll of applause started, but the majority was mocking, and even the applause which wasn't seemed halfhearted. I'd humiliated myself for nothing. I'd shown a flaw for nothing! But my expression remained stuck, locked into that crooked smile I'd cracked. The expressions of the others weren't exactly better, though. Even the unburnt ones on both sides had frozen their faces lest they give their distaste away.
As the crowds trickled away, the sportsmanship we were exhibiting during the match- all blank expressions and silence- faded away. In its place, body replacement staff flowed in, and before I knew it, the three of us who had burned were transferred. Now, our true emotions shone through.
Lorne silently glared at Kaplen. His 'throne' set him down, falling into pieces of mere scrap metal. His team would fall hard in the rankings for such an avoidable defeat. As Lorne called Kaplen over with a cruel shout, I winced. I didn't know what Lorne would put him through, but I didn't want to know.
Lorne's minions, Naruhiko and Deon, stood by his sides. They usually didn't participate in Lorne's admonishments, but I suppose this was a step too far for Ingolf.
Ingolf himself merely winced, his already simpering expression only made worse by the cringe. Green cat fur lingered on the back of his combat (why play with your pet in your combat suit!?), and as he rushed past me to Lorne, I shifted away to avoid some falling on me.
Even as I watched that, I had drifted towards my fellow 'winners'. Chimera Squad huddled on their side of the field, circled up in the burnt dirt. The impostor lead us, vaunting, "Okay, that was good. We can definitely do better, but that was good for the first time. Leizu, you did amazing there. But next time, I want to see you stay closer to the rest of the team." That was how we won! She must have been wary of future incidents like that fire. No worries there- Leizu's Joining wouldn't help the impostor unless they somehow worked out how to share a body. "We won, but only by the skin of our teeth." No, we won by the skin of Kaplen's idiocy. "Eliya, next time, draw water from a less vulnerable portion of the shield. Clear?"
I stay silent. No reason to humor her.
Samuel jumped in to protect his new fiancé. "Eliya, just say something. We miss her too, but you can't let that decide how you act around us."
Yes, I could. I showed him that, sending over a memory of walking in on one of his many dalliances. I expected him to freeze, a deer in highlights rather than his pretentious nickname- 'The Steel Bull'. Well, he certainly uses steel, but he's hardly a bull. Bulls are bold, possessive, unafraid, and powerful- all antonyms to how I'd describe Samuel. No, a frozen deer was accurate. Samuel is a coward, a person unattached to anyone who can't help him. His fear overwhelms him much like me, but unlike me, he refuses to admit it. I mentally begged Samuel to prove me right, to stand still and make the impostor wonder what he could be seeing.
Instead, Samuel sputters like I did when Nell brought up the idea of me encouraging her to marry him. I enjoyed the sight of him choking on his own spit for a moment. I was starting to get why Lorne's internal conflict was so funny to Nell. Watching pain in people you dislike gives me a wonderful feeling. Still, it wasn't what I'd hoped for. Then, my eyes met Leizu's heavy gaze. She nodded at me, some unspoken communication like I had done with Lorne. The only difference here was, I neither knew nor cared what it meant.
It was time to leave these pricks. But first, I needed to sow the seeds of conflict. I walked away, cruelly calling over my shoulder while I shielded my eyes from the noonday sun, "This time, we scraped by. Not by skill or karma, but by luck. Next time, you won't be so lucky. Have fun with your knockoff Nell, Samuel! Make sure to check that all its parts work before you play with it!"
As I left, I heard a muffled squeak as Samuel finally froze like I'd wanted. Leizu was forced to step in, making calming gestures as she uttered, "Look, we won. We don't need to worry about our performance at the moment. I'll admit that everyone here could improve, including myself, but that need not come today. Our ranking is secure for another day. Go enjoy that fact."
Even despite the speech, I could feel the tension which had formed. Fake-Nell wasn't happy with Samuel. Trouble in Paradise? Oh, for shame. I headed back, not to the squad dorm, but to my room on the Brin estate. The pressure had been exerted, and while it had done its job, now I needed to break.
I screamed at the gilded walls, my breath coming in short bursts. Salty tears trickled down my beautiful cheeks, my perfectly-manufactured heart beating irregularly. I had everything, but my closest friend had nothing. My hands were clenched tight now, razor-sharp nails digging into artificially durable skin. The scars from my previous body were gone, the tiny half-moon crests abandoning me just like Nell. Now another was coming in to take her place.
But I wouldn't let her! My eyesight blurred by tears, but my mind's eye could see the burns, feel the joy at punishing her for what she did. I wouldn't relent. I would push her- the thoughts led me to what had preceded them, to that horrible flame of Deon's. My skin felt flushed, my chest paining me all the more. I rocked back onto my rear, unfolding from the fetal position even as my stomach churned. I gave a sickly smile, trying to call back that flash of joy, but nothing.
Nobody would help me or Nell. I'd asked Dad for help in a moment of despair, but he hadn't responded, and I worried he never would. My squad mates had abandoned me, Nell's mother had planned this, where could I get help!? Even my throwing the match, that petty, stupid vengeance, had failed.
But... Lorne hadn't betrayed me. He was reliable in his planning. So long as he won, he would go along with any plan. I... I could work with that. I was no Nell in the planning department, but I could work with that.
The night was cold as I made a beeline for Golem Squad's dorms, but the stars glimmered in the distance like the million suns they were. The dorm was locked, its lights off, but I used the small bit of metal projection I had learned first year, and it jangled open. The locks were just for show- there was no such thing as privacy in Paragon unless you were smart enough to make yourself some. Lorne hadn't cared to.
As I swung the door open, I froze, as a frightening tableau had entered my field of view. Kaplen Ingolf stood on his mattress, a chef's knife set against the fleshy opening that led straight to his brainstem. As it wobbled there, Ingolf projecting into it with all he had, there was a dull ringing in my ears. Focusing on it, I found Ingolf was talking, babbling really, all presumably to me. "You know, I considered just jumping off. Doing the long plummet from Paragon to the ground, you know the idea. There aren't any body replacement services down there. It would be certain death." As he babbled, the knife's wobbling slowly steadied. He was getting ready to do it. "But I guess I'm too much of a coward to even kill myself correctly. I guess Lorne was right. I am useless. I- I- I-"
As he gasped for breath, hyperventilating at the thought, I eyed the knife. But it was still steady, still right there at his brainstem. Instead I finally managed to find my voice. "Ingo- Kaplen, you're not useless. You care, even about people like that shrew taking Nell's place. And you care even when people hate you for it." I don't know what I'm saying- I'm one of the ones who hate him for it. But the words spill out, like when I break, except this time I'm not the one breaking.
"No, no you're wrong. I'm useless in almost everything. But my own body? I know that. I know this will kill me instantly if I do it right, so don't stop me. You may think 'Oh, he did it so obviously, out in the open, he wants someone to stop him!', but I don't! Just let me get some peace!"
For a second, just one, the knife wobbled away from Kaplen's skin, presumably right before it would drive itself in. I couldn't fight for control of the knife, not in this timeframe. But while he babbled, I'd come up with a stopgap. My Pith straining, blue lightning spiraling from every pore, I froze the air around the knife, encasing it in ice. A moment later, I projected into the ice. The knife flew to my hand, and I snatched it up.
For some reason, I didn't just walk out of there with the knife. Instead, I strode up to Kaplen, pressing my finger into his chest as I gave my demands. "Now, here's how this goes. You are going to explain why this happened in detail. You are going to show me where you got this, so I can keep them from you. And we are going to deal with this."
I pulled him out the door, tugging on his arm as he stood there frozen. "Let's go."
We strolled down the stony paths of Paragon. How funny, I thought. Two mental wrecks beside each other- one only a bit less obvious. The perfect couple!
Kaplen seemed uncomfortable with the silence. He rocked his weight from side to side. He lasted onoy a few minutes before he broke. "I lied, you know. I wanted someone to save me. I just wanted to die more."
I didn't know how to respond to that. Instead, I prompted him for more. "Why?"
Kaplen didn't babble like before. Instead, his words came out haltingly. Like a toddler testing the waters. "Every time I fail, every time we lose, Lorne blames me. He tells me to kill myself, to leave Paragon, to leave his squad. And usually, I can take it. I can think 'How can I compete with that!' after I've seen Lorne, and the old Nell, and you, and Naruhiko on such powerful levels. I haven't even discovered my Vocation, I'll think. Maybe once I discover that, I'll be just as good as them. It's not true but it's enough."
Here, I still had nothing. He paused, firms his feet as we stop in the walk and the halting delivery gives way to smoother speech. "But there, everything went right. I had the perfect chance. And I blew it, to help somone who hasn't even thanked me."
I remained silent, unsure of what to share. "You know, she's on patrol tonight. She may just not have gotten around to it." Even as I said it, I could feel how flimsy the lie was.
Kaplen apparently saw the same, giving me a gimlet eye. "Yeah, right. No, she won't thank me, and soon I'll be out of everyone's hair. Lorne was planning to invite me to a party today, where I could network and connect enough for next year's tuition. That didn't happen, unfortuantely. You know, 'go kill yourself' and all."
That, I could respond to. "Lorne's pathetic. He's strong, but he needs to back it up by having weaklings to look down on. As long as you stay with him, he'll keep you weak and controllable."
Kaplen smiled at that. "Thanks, Eliya."
Then, I saw what he was doing here. "Now, let's see where you got those knives."
Kaplen's face pulled into a guilty plea. "Not the best idea, Eliya."
"Well, where was it from?" I'm not letting this go.
Kaplen sighed, evidently exasperated with my persistence. "It's a chef's knife, Eliya. It's from the kitchen. And I don't care what you say- you can't get rid of every knife in Paragon. Just let it rest."
I rolled my eyes, somehow relaxed in a way I hadn't been since the night before Nell's Oust. "Fine. But I'm not just letting this go. I'll check in on you tomorrow."
As I made my way towards the Brin home, his meek tones paused me. "Can I just ask one question?"
I avoided the obvious joke. We'd fallen back into seriousness.
"Why do you care?"
It stumped me for a second, before I decided to simply tell him the truth. "I don't know yet. But I do care, for some inane reason. Just remember that- someone cares. It helps."
I fled the scene, sure I had left a confused yet better-off person behind. It was true, though. It did help. But it also hurt so very badly when they left. Just look at what I was doing for the person who cared about me.