But Randidly never made it to the stall he was aiming for, ran by a balding man that honestly reminded Randidly of Sam. Instead, he froze, halfway through the crowd, his eyes widening.
The word came out as a whisper, because Randidly couldn’t believe his eyes. When he first saw, he almost thought he was wrong, because… because it had been so long, because his friend looked so different, leaning up against the wide bar, flirting shamelessly with the pretty bartender who poured his drink…
But no. That was Ace, the same easy confidence. The same muscular body, although he was even wider and more toned now, after the System had exacted its toll. His hair was short, but turning blonde, likely from exposure to the sun. His eyes were dark and full of laughter, as he smiled at the young woman, her face going quickly red.
He wasn’t in armor, unlike most of the people around him, which was strange, but from his build he clearly was used to it. In fact, a lot of people were giving Ace strange looks. But Randidly didn’t doubt that he was strong, just that now was… a casual time, where he tried to sleep with a bartender. Typical.
Randidly was moving, and he didn’t even remember starting to move. He was moving too quickly, Randidly knew, so much so that some people had to stumble out of his way, shocked by the force and speed of his advance.
Then he was next to them, behind Ace, who was saying coyly. “...no but really! Look at me. Is it that hard to believe I have the strength of a four star warrior? I bet your boyfriend isn’t that strong.”
The woman’s smile widened, just a fraction. “...I actually don’t have a boyfriend right now.”
Again, Randidly felt that familiar compulsion. No one could make him leave his shell in which he lived, avoiding awkward situations and overmuch interaction, but somehow around Ace, Randidly always found himself doing these sort of things in spite of himself.
So Randidly found himself stepping forward and saying. “Oh, you’re single? Can I throw my hat in the ring?”
Both of them froze, shocked to be interrupted now. Ace spun around, his face very even, but a hard glint in his eye. But then, he too froze, because he turned around to find Randidly standing there, a goofy and awkward grin on his face.
“Holy shit.” Ace said. Then he just stared at Randidly for a few seconds, slack jawed, before saying again, and louder. “HOLY SHIT.”
“Hey…” Randidly said, unable to think of anything else to say, and the two just stood there for a while, staring at each other. The bartender looked at both of them for a second, before muttering.
“Sorta ruins my joke, but I actually have a girlfriend who I am very loyal to, so…. I’ll just leave you two to it…” She proceeded to walk away down the bar.
They continued to stare at each other, even as Ace’s face flitted from one emotion to another. Shock, happiness, sadness, confusion, hurt, glee….
Randidly extended a hand. “I…. really missed you. When the System hit, I thought-”
Ace stepped forward, wrapping him in a huge hug, squeezing him with the strength that could probably throw a car. Which, to Randidly, was oddly comfortable.
“Seriously man, after all this time? I thought you got hit by a two-headed rhino and died,” Ace said, mumbling into his shoulder. Randidly felt strange. He remembered being a size with Ace, when they were together, and even a bit smaller, because he slouched most of his life. To now find himself a bit larger…
Randidly supposed the body growth from the Soul Skill was actually a thing.
“I’m sorry.” Randidly said slowly, a great icy sadness in his heart.
Ace pulled back, looking him up and down. “No worries man, you made it. You’re here, and now we-”
“Not about this. About… before. About Sydney. About never telling you, about acting like I was able to hide something that big from you. I…”
Ace’s face fell, and Randidly trailed off. But instead of getting angry, Ace just sighed, and then smiled in a small way. “...Don’t worry about it. I was mad for a bit, but… I had a strange dream, and… Well, anyway. I’m over it, none of us handled it well. It was a hard thing. Let’s forget it, eh?”
Randidly felt so strange. Relief flooded his chest, but also confusion. After all this time, all this hurt, all that fear and weakness he had felt… was it really this easy….? Did communication really solve everything….?
But as Ace stepped back and smiled at him, his face twisting into that old, ‘let's-get-into-trouble’ grin, Randidly suddenly sensed it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t just that they communicated, it was something larger, and older.
It was because they were best friends.
“So.” Ace said turning once more back to the bar. “Want to celebrate by getting wasted?”
Ace looked in awe as Randidly drank down another beer, seemingly heedless of the amount of alcohol that he was imbibing. And this was the hard stuff! The most cringey, nail polish removing, vicious swill they could find! They had to to make drinks like this, sense the System arrived. Anything else would dissipate harmlessly when it hit somebody’s system.
Randidly lowered the glass and burped, a dumb smile on his face, a slight flush to his features. Not even drunk then, just tipsy…?
Ace studied his friend. They were sitting in a bar area of the nicest restaurant in town, where there were a dozen or so men and women who had came back from monster hunting, looking for some time to relax. In fact, everyone was watching Randidly now. His ability to drink that fucking rot gut without any outward reaction was so impressive that everyone noticed it.
Ace couldn’t believe that Randidly looked this… capable. His body, which used to be gangly and innocent, now was tightly wound, filled with corded muscle. He was nowhere near a bodybuilder, but definitely a…. Swimmer, or a gymnast, or something stretchy and athletic.
Almost instinctively, Ace scanned the crowd, noticing the way that some of the female’s eyes were studying Randidly. It wasn’t jealousy he felt, necessarily, but possessiveness over those eyes. But Ace shook that feeling off.
His best friend was back. And almost instantly, they clicked again. Well, not the same, but…
The fear in Randidly’s eyes, the lack of confidence, that was gone. Now, he continued to follow Ace’s lead, but that might just be out of habit-
Ace shook his head, doing his best to clear away his thoughts. Now wasn’t the time for threat assessment. Better to just enjoy the moment.
“So how did you survive?” Ace asked, moving to a subject that he was curious about, but unwilling to bring up easily. After all, if Randidly would explain his story, Ace might need to explain his…
“Uh…” Randidly seemed to think about it very hard for a few seconds. Then he shrugged. “...it was weird, by some twist, I was in the underground walkway, right? And so I spawned directly in a dungeon. Trained next to a safe zone for a month, a person from another world came and taught me to use the spear, and then together, we beat the dungeon boss. What was really difficult was that we were stuck in the dungeon until then, so I didn’t have a class.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Ace said with a laugh. “What level are you now?”
“I still don’t have a class,” Randidly said, his face that peculiar brand of serious that he always got.
“Hahahahahaha! Stop fucking with me! What’s your class man? Mine’s super cool, its-” But then Ace trailed off, because Randidly continued to give him that solemn look.
Oh shit. He was being serious.
“You…. don’t have a Class?” Ace said slowly. “Then… how did you get into the Refuge? I mean non-Classers can be strong, but…”
Randidly just shrugged, gesturing for another drink. The bartender looked between the two of them, and then at the dozens of empty shot glasses on the table between them. Ace could see the waiter doing some calculations about the amount of liquor both of them had imbibed, and how high that made their Physical stats.
Apparently everyone else was doing the same thing, because they gave the two of them a wide berth. Ace leaned back, enjoying it, the edge of fear. The confusion in their eyes, as the people wondered how strong they were. It was clear they were both super powerful, but… the fact they couldn’t see how much just made that gap between them and the crowd seem so much larger…
Ace’s happy thoughts were abruptly cut short, as he leaned forward. Randidly had drank more than him. Without a Class…?
“Oh thank god, I found you.” Ace turned, happy for the distraction, but a little less happy that Rose was pushing her way through the crowd. Not only because she would undoubtedly say something extremely boring about running a city, but also because she possessed NONE of the bearing of a super villain. How was their powerful mystique supposed to survive if she insisted on looking like a librarian all of the time, but…
Ace supposed he couldn’t be too annoyed. He, after all, hadn’t worn his armor of helmet out, but…
“Earlier today, someone came into the Refuge. Powerful enough to defeat Brute in a physical contest. Within seconds.” Rose eyes were serious, locked onto Ace.
Ace leaned back, his fun, old persona falling away, the implacable will of Dauntless rising to the surface. “Interesting.”
Not that the strength was the interesting thing, although it was curious that this stranger was so strong, but was really most interesting to Ace was that Rose would tell him. Because she must know that he would then immediately seek that person out. Why would she tell him…?
Ah, Ace saw it, and a deep, buried fear and pain reared its ugly head. She doubted him. Doubted him as their leader. Doubted that he would be able to find and overcome this threat, like he had all other before it. Which made Ace wonder how exactly a single person could intimidate her like this. With her skill, shouldn’t seeing through that be easy…? Or at least seeing through enough to know whether victory was impossible.
After all, she never would have come if victory was out of reach. This ambiguity was… disturbing.
“Well, after I finish here, let’s pay this individual a visit, shall we?” Ace said slowly, leaning back to the bar.
“Ah, no need.” Randidly said, turning to them both from where he had been finishing his shot. “It’s me, she’s talking about me.”
Rose opened her mouth. Opened her eyes wider. Then she shut her mouth.