The Geller residence was high in one of the famous garden towers of Vitesse. During monster surges, the residence welcomed many guests, from the team members of family members to various allies. Humphrey Geller’s team, along with Gary, were no exception and were housed in a small suite, befitting their status as silver-rankers. The bronze-rankers were in what amounted to dormitories on the lower floors.
The suite was not large for a half-dozen people, at least by the normal kind of luxury that silver-rankers were used to. The residence was crowded, even with its expansive size, but no one complained. The Gellers didn't make friends with adventurers unwilling to rough it and the breakfast buffet being communal wasn't that rough.
The suite seemed even smaller since Clive had filled it with blackboard stands, currently covered in complex notes and diagrams. He had been working on them non-stop, Belinda resuming her old role as assistant. Her originally patchwork understanding of magical theory had been thoroughly shored-up since becoming an adventurer and the pair sounded like they were speaking another language to the rest of the team.
Even those with basic training in ritual magic, like Humphrey, Neil and Gary, were unable to follow the discussion the pair were having as they scribbled away on blackboards. The rest of the team prepared for the upcoming mission by going over maps and notes about the dam and what they knew of its defences.
Humphrey was growing increasingly anxious at the close quarters. His problem wasn’t being stuck with his friends but the inability to snatch a private moment. He didn’t like airing his private, personal business in front of people, even if they kept sticking their heads in. That being said, he knew that circumstances wouldn’t be changing any time soon.
Humphrey stood up from the couch he was sitting on, putting down the notebook he was reviewing of his own observations made while scouting out the target site. He looked at Sophie, sitting at a table and going over sketches of the dam while absently sharing a sandwich with the puppy sitting in her lap. Humphrey walked over to her.
“Can we take a walk?” he asked quietly.
The rest of the team pretended not to be listening in. Sophie looked up, her eyes flicking to Belinda, who gave her an urging nod.
“Alright,” she said. She sat the remains of her sandwich on the table and got up. Puppy Stash pounced at the sandwich, bouncing off the magical bubble that suddenly appeared around it.
“Boo!” the puppy jeered at the laughing Neil, who had used one of his shield powers on the snack. Sophie and Humphrey left the room as Stash turned into a brightly kaleidoscopic tropical bird, flapping across the room to attack Neil.
The halls of the Geller residence were busy and there was no shortage of people looking to greet Humphrey. He walked next to Sophie, neither of them talking to the other.
"Roof garden?" she suggested finally breaking the silence as they searched for a private spot.
“It’s been reserved for gold-rankers,” he said.
In the end, they found a balcony that was just as crowded as everywhere else and jumped off. They both had flight permits from when they had been operating out of Vitesse with Clive. Humphrey called out his dragon wings while Sophie floated on the wind and they glided down to a nearby public park. They were not hard to find in the City of Flowers. Contrary to the Geller residence, the park was mostly empty; monster surges weren't a popular time for family fun days.
The pair found a park bench and sat next to each other in awkward silence. This was their first time truly alone since learning of Jason's resurrection.
“You wanted to say something?” Sophie finally asked.
“This isn’t easy,” he said. “So many things could go wrong if I mess this up.”
“You don’t have to–”
“No!” he almost yelled, cutting her off. He then deflated like a balloon. “I just… for a long time, it was you, me and Clive, and Clive, well, you know.”
“He’ll probably marry a research paper on the benefits of a stable domestic life.”
“Something like that. What I’m saying is that for a lot of the last couple of years, it’s really been you and me.”
“That’s changing,” Sophie said. “In a big way.”
“And I’m glad the team is coming back together,” Humphrey said. “A lot of teams don’t survive losing a member and we haven’t worked together since Jason died. His being back is the best thing I could ask for.”
“Everything is a mess right now. The team coming together and Jason coming back while a monster surge and an invasion is going on? Things aren’t going to calm down once we find Jason, either.”
“He’s not exactly the calm things down type,” Sophie agreed. “It’s bad enough when it’s just him, but now there’s Dawn and you just know he’ll be up to his neck in the Builder invasion.”
“Exactly,” Humphrey said. “I don’t see a lot of time for just you and me in all this.”
Sophie’s face fell.
“That I’m not willing to give that up,” Humphrey said, determination shining through the nervousness on his face. “I’m not ready for there not to be any time for just you and me. I’m not giving it up. Not for the monster surge, not for the team and not… not for Jason. The only person who can make me give up on you and me is you. So, if you don’t want–”
Sophie cut him off with a kiss, gently cupping his face in her hand. She felt him go tense, then his whole body relaxed as he slipped his large arm around her.
On a skyship flying high over the Sea of Storms, a crew member was fetching supplies from one of the lower decks. After the aura blast they all felt, the captain ordered the ship made ready for a monster attack. The gold-rank adventurer had assured the captain it was fine but she took no chances and ordered her crew to make ready.
The crewman spotted movement in a dark corner. Shifting the crate he was holding to one arm, he rested a hand on the hilt of his knife and peered into the shadows. A man in a bright pink shirt, shorts and sandals emerged, holding a sandwich.
The crewman relaxed.
“You’re one of the adventurers,” he said.
“That’s me. Dashing heroics at reasonable prices. Well, semi-reasonable. Can I give you a hand?”
“If you want to carry one of these crates, I won’t say no.”
“No worries, mate.”
It wasn’t hard with Jason’s silver-rank strength and he followed the crewman to the top deck with a crate tucked under his arm as he ate his sandwich. The adventurers were all at the ready, aside from Trenchant Moore. The gold-ranker didn’t seem to have moved from where he stood when Jason had left the ship, standing at the stern with his hands clasped behind his back.
The rest of the adventurers were lining the sides of the ship, their auras agitated and fearful. Jason helped the crewman with the crate, which contained mana storage batteries for the ship’s deck turrets. Normally the turrets were retracted into the ship but the captain had the ship on alert. After dropping off the crate, he moved over to the closest adventurer.
“Everyone seems a bit excitable,” Jason said. “What’s going on?”
“Did you not feel that blast of aura?”
“Oh, that, yeah. Almost dropped my sandwich. Still, it’s just some adventurer, right?”
“How was that an adventurer? Only silver-rank, but that strong? And the way it felt; merciless, tyrannical.”
“That’s a little harsh,” Jason muttered. “I don’t think it was that bad. Slightly domineering, maybe.”
“Slightly? That was the aura of something without pity or compassion, as if it were tired of the things it met still being alive.”
“Now you’re definitely exaggerating.”
“It felt like a hand grabbing you and just squeezing until you ooze out between its fingers.”
“This is starting to get hurtful.”
Jason wandered over to where Autumn was standing next to her frog, currently ballooned up to be taller than Autumn herself. She felt Jason’s aura approach and turned around.
“Jason! They said you went over the side.”
“Dropped my lunch,” he said, waving the sandwich in his hand. “Got it back, then took a look around the boat. It’s my first airship, so I’m pretty excited.”
She looked at him suspiciously.
“You’re alight then?”
“Surprisingly,” he said. “I’m usually in some kind of trouble.”
His eyes flickered to Trenchant standing impassively at the rear of the ship.
“Make that always.”
Someone called out, having spotted the trails of rainbow smoke below and behind the ship. Trenchant looked put upon as the adventurers, Autumn included, swamped the stern. He wandered over to Jason who was leaning on the ship’s railing, letting the air wash over him. Trenchant stood next to him, also looking out. He tapped a brooch on his chest and Jason felt a subtle magic surround them.
“Privacy magic?” he asked.
“You lack subtlety, Mr Asano.”
“It’s a personal failing, I’ll admit. In my defence, this was my first chance to cut loose since getting back.”
“You’ve been to our kingdom before?”
“I’ve been to your world before. First time visiting the Sea of Storms.”
Trenchant turned to look at Jason, about to ask more when they both felt attention on them from the stern of the ship. The more ambitious adventurers had been paying close attention to Trenchant and the distraction of the rainbow smoke only lasted so long before they spotted him with Jason once again. Trenchant tapped his brooch, dissolving the screen shielding their words from eavesdropping.
“Do try to keep a hold of your sandwich next time, Mr Asano.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Fascinated by the flying ship, Jason started befriending the crew, assisted by some barbecued meat. It was leftover from his barbecue, kept hot and fresh in his inventory. He was listening to a sailor explain the operation of the skyship’s weapons on the gun deck when the first mate called the crewman away.
“Thanks,” Jason said as the crewman departed. Then he stood with a sad smile on his face.
“I’m worried that if you keep staring at the back of my head like that, you’ll burn a hole in it,” Jason said. “The problem with magic is that’s a valid concern.”
He turned around to where Autumn was leaning against a bulkhead, Neil the frog perched on her shoulder.
“You’re not one of us, are you?” she asked.
"There's only a handful of adventurers on this ship and we're all ordinary except for the Siege Sword. And for you."
“The Siege Sword?”
"You've heard of him, then."
“He’s a famous adventurer. Which leaves me wondering what he’s doing watching over a bunch of no-name people on a nothing run.”
“It’s not a nothing run,” Jason said. “People need what we’re bringing them. Desperately, from what I'm told.”
“Sure,” Autumn said. “That doesn't make it important to the royal family, though. Which makes me wonder what such a powerful member of the Sapphire Crown is doing here.”
“Is that a guild?”
“It’s the guild the royal guard belong to. Are you going to play ignorant about every little thing?”
“I’m not local. Really, really not local. I come by my ignorance honestly.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t owe you answers, Autumn.”
“But I don’t think you want me looking for them anywhere else, do you? That’s why you’re pretending to be some no-name adventurer.”
“I’m not pretending to be on a mission. I’m on one. And don’t go looking for answers elsewhere. It would be an annoyance to me but a danger to you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No,” Jason said, his voice weary. “It’s a warning.”
“Why should I believe anything you’ve said to me. You’ve been lying since we met.”
Jason slumped against the wall, looking tired. It wasn’t from the fight.
“You asked me what I am,” he told her. “I’m an outworlder. Heard of them?”
“It means I don’t come from Pallimustus.”
“What does that even mean?”
“That I’m from a place so far away that just coming here changes you forever.”
“Is that why Moore is on this boat? Because you’re from some strange place?”
"I doubt it. My kind may be rare but we aren't unique. I've heard there are astral magic specialists who like to study us but fresh astral magic has been easy to come by, lately. I doubt I'm worth the effort."
“Then why is he here?”
“I don’t know. I’d never even heard of him until I met him. While standing next to you.”
“But he’s here for you.”
“Is he protecting you?”
“Testing me, I think. I doubt he even knows why. I think the person who sent him is deciding whether or not to kill me.”
“Why would someone want to kill you?”
“People always come up with something. In this case, it’ll be political expediency.”
“If you warrant Trenchant Moore following you around, why are you running around pretending to be unimportant?”
“If a prince stumbles on a pebble, that doesn’t make the pebble important.”
“You said that someone sent the Siege Sword on this mission.”
“You’re better off not knowing.”
“There aren’t many people who can send him anywhere. Is this something to do with princesses?”
“Don’t go putting stock in the things I’ve told you now. I’ve been lying since we met, remember?”
“I think you’re right. I am better off not knowing.”
“You’re wiser than I ever was. If you can’t afford trouble, you shouldn’t borrow it. If you don’t trust anything else I have to say, trust me on that.”
“I’m not looking for trouble. Just the opposite. I don’t want to be caught under the feet of giants.”
“I’m not a giant, Autumn.”
“No,” Jason said. “I’m the one caught underfoot.”