7 Deadly Sins – Pride

Xavior Ericksson stood to attention as his commanding officer paced back and forth in front of him. The man did not look at all pleased, as evidenced by the frown that currently graced his lips, and the way his brows knit together above his dark blue eyes.

They were in his office, a place where no one in the Division wanted to be called when the boss was in a bad mood. Despite that, and his situation, he held his head high. He didn’t honestly believe he needed to be here but, even so, at the moment the space didn’t feel quite large enough with the way Domerin Lorcasf was moving. The man had somehow perfected the menacing loom down to an art. He could practically exuded authority when he wanted to.

“I still cannot believe you disobeyed my orders and moved in before we were ready.”

“Commander, I don’t understand. We were still able to complete our objective, and in addition were able to secure another target before they even realized we were there. We would not have captured him at all were it not for my actions. He would have gone away and hurt others before we could track him down again.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Domerin’s tone was dismissive, making him chafe under the implication.

“I give the orders I do for a reason, and capturing an extra scrumbag doesn’t give you license to forget that you disobeyed the chain of command. You could have gotten someone killed, pulling a stunt like that, and that is something you cannot ever take back. You acted only for yourself.”

“But I did not act only for myself! Think of all those who will avoid suffering because he is no longer free.”

“That isn’t the point. You did what you did because you were sure you knew best. That stubborn pride in your own skill blinds you. Whatever good might have come out of catching him is overshadowed by your actions. I cannot, and will not, have someone on my team who puts that ahead of the well being of their fellows and the integrity of the mission. If I didn’t think there was potential in you, I’d have had you off the team already.”

That certainly got his attention, and he deflated a little bit. He wanted to believe the other man wouldn’t be rid of him, but he wasn’t the sort who played around either.

“What are you going to do?”

“You will be disciplined. I will have a schedule for you and, for the moment, that starts with taking you off active duty.”

“But you need-”

“I don’t need you, Xavior. Haven’t you been listning?” Domerin’s gaze was like ice for a few moments, before it melted a bit. “Not like this, at any rate. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it my way, understand?”

This time Xavior held his tongue, and just gave a slight nod.

Domerin considered him a few long moments before nodding.

“As I was saying, you’re off active duty for at least two weeks. You will perform whatever assignments I give you. Instead of missions you will be placed on a special detail, from which I expect not to hear a single complaint, is that clear?”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Good, now let’s go over what you’re going to be doing.”

He’d been shown down into the basement, where he would be spending his special detail. Guard duty should have been exciting, but given how secure this place already was, he doubted he’d be seeing any action. He’d readied himself for boredom, considering this below him. He had no other choice, however. Domerin Lorcasf wasn’t a man to be trifled with, and he really didn’t want to lose his place on the team, knowing Domerin would follow through if he didn’t obey.

It was chilly down in the basement, enough so that he’d been forced to bring along a jacket. It was for the machines that ran the Faenet, he’d been told. The minute they arrived he already didn’t like it. The hum of the machinery drowned out natural sound, and everything felt fake to him; a temple of metal and glass.

He was a man who thrived in nature, under the sky. Down here, the outside world might as well not have existed.

How was he supposed to sit down here all night for weeks?

Despite his feelings he held his head high, not allowing him to show any hint of what was inside. Besides that, he had the distinct feeling he was being watched. He hadn’t appreciated his guide’s tone when she’d wished him good night, either. She might as well have said ‘good luck’.

His post, if it could be called that, was a room that might as well have been a closet. He wouldn’t even be properly patrolling the rooms down here, for fear of something being broken. Instead he’d be monitoring from the claustrophobic closet, sat in a hard metal chair, in front of a bank of monitors fed continual security camera feeds. He’d really only be needed if something went wrong.

Give it to his commander, he knew how to pick the worst punishment possible.

A cursory scan of the room turned up nothing particularly special, though there was a small control panel that let him manually switch between cameras, a small computer for taking logs, and a radio.

He rolled his eyes and pulled a pen and paper out of his jacket pocket, planning to log the old fashioned way. He was well known for being uncomfortable around technology, as he and computers did not get on well, but he’d be damned if he let it get the better of him. He could do this, surely. They were just a bunch of machines.

Experimentally, he flicked one of the buttons that controlled the camera monitors. A loud buzzing sound broke the quiet and he scrambled to shut it off, fumbling for a moment in a not very graceful way.

At least no one had seen-

A disembodied chuckle echoed in the air around him.

“Are you lost?” The voice of a woman spoke, carried over a speaker system set into the ceiling.

It sent a shiver down his spine, but his guide had warned him about this. It was no ghost haunting the halls, but the woman who ran the Faenet. Mainframe, as she called herself. His guide had avoided going past her, but had cautioned him that she was best ignored. He’d had no intentions of engaging her, but it seemed she had other ideas.

“I asked you a question.” The voice came again, when he didn’t immediately answer.

“I’m not lost, no. I am Xavior Ericksson, and I have been assigned as your security for the evening.” He felt a bit stupid, talking to the air, but she responded immediately.

“My custodian, you mean. What did you do?”

Xavior instantly bristled, the self-assured tone of the voice setting him off. He had no doubt what she was asking him and he didn’t appreciate her forwardness.

“I am a member of the Division, not some sort of janitor. And, for your information, I have done nothing wrong. It is unwise to make such assumptions.”

A laugh echoed over the system.

“They only give this job out as a punishment. No one wants to be down here with me.”

Oddly, he thought she sounded almost proud of that.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Miss Mainframe, I have committed no such offense.”

There was silence, long enough for him to wonder if she’d iven up, but his hope was soon dashed.

“Xavior Ericksson, Division Private, personnel number 13612-A5. Currently on disciplinary probation for disobeying orders under the command of Dom-”

“Stop!” He drew to his feet, looking around wildly for a moment, but of course there was no face to glare at. It was hardly fair, sticking him in here with someone he couldn’t properly see. “My personal details are none of your business.”

“So touchy,” she tutted, without a hint of apology. “I hardly think someone on probation has any right to protest. I have a right to know who’s guarding me, don’t I?”

He was sure he heard mocking in his voice, and he narrowed his eyes at the monitor in front of him labeled ‘Main Tank’, even if it gave him no edge. He didn’t appreciate being made a fool of.

“Everything digital is my business.” Came the voice of Mainframe, matter-of-factly. “It all flows right through my head. I could read every email you’ve ever sent, if I wanted to.”

“So what? Is that supposed to impress me?” He hoped his tone carried his disdain. He cared little for the digital, really only using it when he had no other option. He would have filed paper reports if the Division allowed it. “Digital isn’t even that important. We could live without all that guff.”

Not important!? Do you live under a rock? Nothing would get done.”

He took some pleasure in that she finally sounded something other than totally assured.

“Life got on for a long time without the digital. It’s not even tangible. Not like this desk, or you or I. You can’t touch it, tasted, it or smell it.” He lifted his chin, as if daring her to challenge him.

“I touch it every day, Xavior Ericksson. As surely as you touch a sword. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real. Now I really am convinced you live under a rock.”

Xavior refused to answer, instead sitting back down in his chair, in the little room that was starting to feel more and more like a prison with each passing moment. He cared little about her words. Besides, it wasn’t as if she could-

“Judging by the horrendous typing in your reports I’m guessing you’re not very good with computers. Good thing they don’t let you lot mess with any of my systems. With my luck you’d end up crash the entire Faenet.”

He bristled again, but held his tongue against further retort. He wasn’t going to spend the next two weeks letting himself be goaded by the mysterious Mainframe. Domerin had said no complaints.

“If you really do run the entire Faenet, I’m sure you must have many more important things to be doing right now than going through my files.”

“Oh no doubt, but this is fun, isn’t it?”

No wonder his guide had told him to ignore her. He got the feeling she did this to everyone assigned down here, and he would not let his professional pride be shattered or made a mockery of. He was better than this. Instead of answering he leaned over his pad, and started to write.

“So, how long are you assigned to me?” Her voice broke into his thoughts, sounding from a speaker just to the left of the bank of monitors. She might as well have been sitting right in front of him, and he wasn’t sure he appreciated the unsettling intimacy.

“That is none of your business.” He got the feeling she didn’t care. It hadn’t stopped her from making it her business thus far.

Silence reigned long enough that Xavior thought, perhaps, he’d finally get some consideration, but then her voice returned, dripping with malevolent glee.

“Two weeks. Oh we’re going to have so much fun together, aren’t we Xavior? I can’t wait.”

Xavior grunted softly, and tried his best to focus. This might just end up being the longest two weeks in his entire life.


Check out what my writing partner did with this prompt: The Shadow Creature’s Mark; A Tale of Pride.

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Lilianna & Xavior – The Visit

This is what I dreaded

“And I certainly don’t think he knows a lick of what he’s talking about. I might as well be teaching the class for all the good it’s doing me. It would certainly be less boring.”

Silence answered the statement.

Lilianna looked up, fingers pausing over the keys of her beloved laptop, mid-word.

“You alive over there?”

“Hmm?”

Xavior was sitting nearby, in his usual spot on the floor, back resting against the bed, with a book cradled against one leg. She’d thought he’d thought he’d been reading, but he was staring at the far wall instead of the page.

“Well, I can see you’re really interested.”

“Sorry,” he said, tone apologetic. He looked over at her and his eyes focused a bit more. “What were you saying?”

Lilianna frowned a bit. It wasn’t like Xavior to daydream, but at his prompting she repeated her story about the latest object of her ire. Xavior was usually the perfect person to share these things with. He understood her dislike of people she considered incompetent, and had a similar expectation of others.

Somewhere along the way, though, his eyes had unfocused again, like he was a million miles away.

“Hey. Are you listening to me?”

No answer.

“Camping is boring, and no one likes the outdoors.”

When not even that summoned a response a stab of worry propelled her forward. She laid Argus aside and slid carefully to the floor, kneeling in front of her companion.

She lightly poked a finger into his thick bicep.

Xavior shifted. He’d clearly felt it, but he didn’t really look at her. She’d expected at least a sharp glance or a withering glare. That would have been normal.

That sense of worry was growing but, before she could say anything else, Xavior finally spoke, with a voice softer than she thought she’d ever heard him use.

“My father is returning.”

“Oh.”

That would explain his strange behavior. Xavior had never seemed particularly keen to talk about his truant father, outside of his gruff assertions that the man knew what was right, and had raised him well.

Right now, he didn’t sound so sure of that.

“When is he coming?”

“In two weeks. Major Barrow called me into his office to tell me yesterday.”

“Well, it’s just for a visit, right? You won’t have to worry about him for very long.”

“I do not know that.” Xavior looked over at her. He was usually so confident about everything, sometimes too much so, but for perhaps the first time Lilianna saw fear and insecurity in his eyes. Xavior hated not always having a ready answer for everything.

It was his next words that really struck her, though.

“What if he wishes me to return home with him?”

Lilianna stared, dumbfounded for a few moments. Up until that moment, she’d never thought there might be a chance Xavior would leave. He was home, as far as she was concerned, and the thought of his father taking him away caused an uncomfortable twist in her stomach.

What would she do without Xavior here? What would Xavior do without her?

Lilianna moved to sit down next to Xavior, close enough that their arms pressed against each other. The top of her head only just reached the curve of his shoulder, but she never felt small next to him.

“He brought you here for a reason, didn’t he? Surely he wouldn’t take you away. You haven’t even been here that long.”

“I cannot say how my father may think. He- never really talks to me about his reasonings. I… have been dreading this eventuality.” He admitted, his voice hesitant.

She didn’t know how, but Lilianna thought he almost looked fragile in those moments.

She reached over and laid her hand on his arm, needing to touch him as much as she felt he needed to be touched. It might not have taken away the worry, but it was a reminder of their connection, and she felt Xavior’s arm relax slightly.

“I understand,” she said, very softy. “I didn’t know what to think about this place at first either, but it’s home now. It’s ours.”

“It is ours.” He echoed. “And I do not want to leave.”

She understood, perhaps better than anyone else, how Xavior was feeling. They’d both come here through unusual means, both had trouble fitting in, and finding their places. But she’d learned, as she was sure Xavior had, that there was a safety here too, which had been nearly non-existent in her life before now.

“If he wants you to go, can’t you just say no? I’ll bet Major Barrow and Major Lorcasf would stick up for you staying, and the know what they’re doing.”

Xavior seemed to be considering it.

“I have never said no to my father before. I do not know if I would have the strength.”

“Well, I just happen to know that you do. You can do anything you set your mind to. And if you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”

“Anything?” He asked, arching a brow. “Even writing programming?”

She shot him a look, though it softened after a moment. Normally she would have been up for the verbal spar, but right now she knew he was off center.

“Yes, even writing programming. With a good teacher like me, of course.”

Xavior was silent, but after a moment the hint of a smile touched his lips.

“You are, as always, correct. It is good advice, and I am grateful. I will- think on it.”

They both went quiet, sitting in silence together for a time. Despite the moments of levity, Lilianna could feel the edges of a dark cloud hanging over her.

“Does it trouble you, that I might leave?” Xavior said, his voice drawing her out of her thoughts.

“Of course it does. You’d have to be daft to think otherwise.” She didn’t think she’d miss anyone else. Not the way she’d miss Xavior, anyway.

Her fingers played over his arm a bit nervously, and she sighed, glancing over at him.

“I’m dreading it too. I’d miss you if you weren’t here taking up all my space, and forcing me to go camping with you.”

To most, her words would have seemed harsh, some kind of a backhanded compliment, but they teased a smile from Xavior. That was just the way things were between them. He always understood, and she was loath to lose that. There was no one else like him.

Xavior shifted, pulling his arm out from under her hand. Before she could question why, she suddenly found herself wrapped up in warmth, as his arms went around her. He’d never struck her as the hugging type, but he held her close, without reservation, and it didn’t feel wrong to be there.

After the moments of shock passed she slipped her arms around him in return, clinging lightly to his shirt, as if she could hold him there forever.

Neither of them said anything, but no words were really needed. They would have just messed everything up anyway.

After while, Lilianna shifted, though part of her didn’t want to let go.

“All right you big lug, you’re squishing me.”

Xavior let her go, and they settled back down next to each other. For once, Lilianna wasn’t in a rush to return to her computer.

“Of course, you know if there’s a chance in hell you’re leaving in two weeks we’re going to tear this place up, right?”

Lilianna wouldn’t let him go without a fight, and two weeks of fun to remember.

Xavior laughed softly, his dark mood lifting for the moment.

“I dread to think what the Major will do to us but I would not have it any other way.”

The Nightmare Scenario

A nightmare

“I do not think I can do this.”

Xavior shifted, every part of him uncomfortable, from his clothes, to his surroundings. The shoulders of his borrowed suit jacket were a little too tight, and made him feel claustrophobic.

At least he wasn’t alone in his misery.

“It’s not like we have a choice. You remember what he said.” Lilianna was standing next to him. She was also wearing borrowed clothes, her’s a simple green and black dress that she’d been complaining about since she’d put it on.

Xavior didn’t have the courage to tell her he actually thought it looked good on her.

Lilianna went on, her voice shifting to a surprisingly good, though exaggerated, expression of Major Barrow. “‘Unfortunately you two are all we’ve got, so don’t mess this up, or else.'”

The ‘or else’ had been the worst part. It meant he could come up with any punishment he saw fit if they caused trouble.

“It is just our luck the rest of the team would be called away. Oleksander and Selene should really be the ones handling this.”

“No shit,” Lilianna muttered, mostly under her breath.

The pair of them stood side by side, neither seeming to know quite what to do.

“I suppose we must go in.”

Lilianna only made a soft grunt, but there was no putting it off.

Xavior opened the doors for them. Inside the large ballroom the gala spread out in front of them.

There were so many people, all dressed in suits and dresses of every color and hue.Tiny, dainty foods were laid out on a table, waiters wandered through with champagne, and a band played at a tasteful level in one corner.

The team had social obligations too, but usually he and Lilianna were kept far away from this sort of thing. They were ill suited to socializing with everyday people, let alone the rich. With everyone else gone, though, they were the only options.

They both hesitated in the doorway.

Lilianna sighed. “This is a nightmare. We are literally walking into my nightmare.”

“Mine too. Stay close to me. I do not want to get separated.”

Together, they walked inside.

They’d practically slunk along the wall after stepping through, and parked themselves in an unobtrusive corner, half hidden behind the hor’dourves table. They were probably supposed to be mingling, but would both rather be shot at than talk to any one here. Soft chatter, laughs, and the clinking of champagne glasses formed an unfamiliar background hum that neither were used to.

Xavior liked the quiet, and he’d always appreciated that Lilianna felt the same. Sometimes, they’d just hang out at one of their dorms, each doing what they pleased. Lilianna was often lost in her computer, while he preferred to read. There was no pressure to talk, and he felt more at ease with her than he did with anyone else. He might have hated being here, but he was glad he was here with her.

Despite their best attempts at baleful looks, the attendees didn’t seem all that put off and their first visitor finally approached, not ten minutes after they’d entered. A man with a sort of swagger Xavior didn’t particularly like made his way purposfully over. His perfect blonde hair was swept back in a way that hardly looked natural. Xavior could feel his own shoulders squaring, as if expecting a confrontation.

“Hello, you must be the representatives from the team.” He said with a smile, his voice smooth as honey. “It’s marvelous to meet you. I’m Senator Victor Davis. I’ve been following your work with great interest.”

They both gave a somewhat lackluster version of a hello, and introduced themselves.

“It is good to meet you, sir.” Xavior was wary. Great interest in anything could be dangerous.

“I don’t think I’ve seen either of you much in the media. You’re not camera-shy are you?” He laughed.

Xavior tried not to roll his eyes, and beside him Lilianna’s eye twitched. She had just about as much patience for this sort of thing as he did. Neither of them said anything for several, rather uncomfortable, seconds.

Xavior only spoke when it seemed like the man expected something.

“We are a bit newer, and are still learning.”

“Of course, of course. Can’t send the new recruits out on the dangerous missions. And what about you, young lady? What is it that you do on the team?”

“Does it matter?”

The man blinked at her, his smile fading a bit.

The imagine of Major Barrow yelling at them flashed in front of Xavior’s eyes, and he tried to step in. He wasn’t fast enough.

“Well, I should certainly think so! With all those people you help we need you at your very best.”

“I always give my best when I’m working. I wish I was working right now, actually.”

Xavior could hear the edge in Lilianna’s voice, but apparently the senator hadn’t.

“And what is it that you do? Lilianna, was it?”

Xavior braced himself.

“See these wires?” She pointed at the wires that fell from the base of her skull. “I do lots of fancy things with computers through them that you probably wouldn’t understand, and that I really don’t feel like trying to explain to you.”

The senator blinked, looking offended, but quickly plastered a very fake smile on his lips.

“Well, I guess as long as you do your jobs, your attitude doesn’t really matter. Enjoy your corner.”

As the man walked away, Lilianna grimaced.

“What a moron. Xavior, pinch me and wake me up, okay? Please tell me I’m having a horrible dream right now.”

It had been awful, but Xavior was having a hard time not laughing. He tried to school his expression, but must have failed rather miserably.

“What’s so funny?”

“My apologies, it was just somewhat humorous to see you trying to speak with him.” He already felt a bit bad for it. “We must be good though, or the Major will have our hides.”

She shot him a glare that would have withered anyone else.

“Well, I’d like to see you do better, Xavior Ericksson. I bet you’d crash and burn.” She was silent a few moments, perhaps brooding, but then her brows shot up and a devious look touched her face.

“That’s it!”

“What is it?”

“I’ll bet you that I can handle these people better than you can. We’ll talk to them. We’ll even be nice to them,” she almost spat the word ‘nice’, “but the first one who laughs, or tells someone off,  or gets mad, loses. If I win you have to take that computer class I told you about.”

Xavior was intrigued. Hadn’t his father always told him that one way of dealing with a nightmare was to turn it back on itself? Maybe they could manage if they turned this into a challenge.

“I will take that bet. If I win you must go out camping with me. For three days.”

Lilianna looked horrified, but it was just as bad as him taking a computer class.

“Deal,” she said, finally grinning.

They mutually decided if they were going to do this, they needed to move. Both of them appreciated a challenge and so they relocated just to the side of the food table. It was an easily approachable place, no one had to walk around the table, but it didn’t put them in the center of everything either.

They also agreed to try and tone down their looks, though that wasn’t always quite as easy.

Despite the changes it took a little while for anyone else to approach after the senator had stalked away, leaving Xavior worried they’d driven everyone off.

Eventually, though a couple approached the table for food, and when they noticed the pair they made a point to stop and talk.

Their introduction was far less condescending than the senator’s had been, and for the moment they seemed to focus on him. Glancing over, he caught a satisfied little smirk quirk across Lilianna’s lips. No doubt she was eager to see how he fared. She’d been trying to talk him into that computer class for weeks now.

The husband and wife were wealthy donors to the institute, and were nice enough. Xavior did his best to be polite, but as the conversation went on he found himself increasingly uncomfortable. The woman clung to her husband, as if velcroed, and they both seemed intent on touching each other here and there as they talked, in little lingering ways. It was nothing outwardly inappropriate, but it did make him very uncomfortable. He didn’t know if they were even aware they were doing it.

Xavior was having a hard time not staring. He glanced over at Lilianna, but her face was surprisingly open and polite looking, even though he knew she must have seen it too. His lips drew into a thin line, not sure how she did it. He wanted, more than anything, to tell these people to stop and go away.

“It’s just wonderful to see such dedicated young people, isn’t it darling?” Her hand slid down his arm.

“Yes, dearest, it is. We are so very glad to see that our money is supporting such a worthy cause. We follow all the news stories with you youngsters in it. It’s so fascinating to read about.” He slid his arm around her waist and drew her in close, causing her to giggle.

“We are very grateful for all the support you give,” Xavior managed, swallowing down his base instincts. “All of the members of the team are very dedicated to working to make the world a better place. If people with our skills do not step up, who will?” He’d heard the Major say that once, at a press conference, and it was easier to repeat than it was to try and think too much right now.

“You two must work really well together,” the woman said. Her eyes sparked. “The pair of you look so sweet together. Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?”

It took everything in him not to sputter and turn and walk away from them right then and there. He felt like he was being made fun of, and he hated that.

Beside him Lilianna’s jaw had clenched, but he thought it was out of trying not to laugh in these people’s faces.

“Aw, how sweet, did the cat get your tongue? It’s all right. Kids your age should be free to be happy, even if they’re out there saving the world. There’s nothing wrong with it if you are.”

Xavior stared at her. He was panicking a bit, and knew he’d have to say something soon or he would lose. He drew in a breath, and focused all his attention into keeping his voice level.

“I am afraid we are not… dating, Mrs. Lee. While I agree that everyone should have the right to pursue their happiness, we are quite happy being friends, and teammates. Perhaps, I could tell you a bit more about how we train together?”

The woman looked disappointed for a moment, but took the bait and Xavior moved them on to the far safer topic of training, pointedly ignoring the couple’s roaming hands until they’d finally gone.

Once they were far enough away, Lilianna broke out into a small fit of laughter.

“So gross, right? Pawing all over each other in public. I can’t stand people who do that stuff. I’m glad they’re gone.”

Xavior let out a breath.

“You did not look bothered at all.”

“That’s the point, silly. I don’t want to go camping more than I wanted to laugh at them. You’d better step up your game, Xavior.”

She shot him a playful grin, and he knew she was right.

They waited for their next visitor, and it wouldn’t take long this time, as a bubbly woman in a yellow dress came over. She seemed fixated on Lilianna, and was about her opposite in every way.

“Why don’t you smile? I bet you’d be so pretty if you smiled.” The woman’s voice was light, almost sing-song.

Xavior could see the corner of Lilianna’s mouth twitching, and her jaw clench with the effort of not telling the woman off. She smiled only when she wanted to, and he doubted she would have even if the Major threatened her with a week of camping.

“Thank you for saying so.” Lilianna returned, sounding what could only be described as… chipper.

“I didn’t want to overly dazzle anyone in the room. You’re clearly doing that quite well yourself.” Lilianna even flashed a smile to complete the look, in a way anyone who really knew her would see as completely fake.

The woman seemed delighted, practically cooing over his friend. He had to hand it to her, she must really not have wanted to go camping. He never would have thought she’d be so skilled at this, and he had to admit it was impressive.

“How very sweet of you. You’ve a very charming young lady. I can see why they chose you, and your handsome friend over there to be here tonight. Senator Davis said you were both rather crass, but he must have been mistaken.”

“Well, we’re both a bit new at this.I don’t think he took the time to really get to know us. He seems like such a lovely man.”

Xavior had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

“I do think sometimes he can be a poor judge of character. It’s been so nice to talk to you. I hope we’ll have a chance to speak again sometime.”

As the woman turned away, Lilianna lightly elbowed him in the ribs, a devilish grin on her lips. If this was her nightmare, she was certainly teaching it who was boss.

“I do not know how you are doing this,” he whispered to her when they had a moment alone. “I thought for sure you would taken her head off for telling you to smile. You would rival Oleksander, where he here.”

If it had come from anyone else, he felt sure Lilianna would have deemed it sarcasm, but he was always frank with her, and she seemed pleased with the praise.

“None of these people can crack me.” She said, giving a little laugh. “Are you sure you don’t want to forfeit now? I can have you signed up for that class by the end of the night.”

“Not a chance, McDougal.”

They had more visitors as the hour wore on. They tried to switch out who would engage each time, to keep it fair, though it wasn’t always possible when someone fixated on one or the other of them. More often than not, that fixation was on Lilianna, he was sure much to her chagrin.

Even so, she was proving to be a formidable opponent. Xavior was only just managing to keep on his toes, though at this point he was almost more interested in watching his friend than in competing. She’d deftly handled a man who’d asked why she’d been chosen, and weathered a woman who’d decided to give her fashion tips. She’d even remained stalwart in the face of a woman who’d dared to question her computer skills, though Xavior thought that one had been close to breaking her composure.

She had more fortitude than he though he’d ever have, which only served to impress him more than he already was by her.

The evening was starting to wear down, and their visitors were slowing quite a bit, and they still had no clear winner.

Their old friend, Senator Davis, had been hovering nearby for awhile now. He likely thought he was being sly, but Xavior had been watching him flit from group to group, coming ever closer. Each time the man had seemed to have a different glass in hand, and each time he seemed to be laughing just a bit more loudly.

Lilianna had just sent an ambassador away with a smile, when the senator took his chance to strike.

His gate was a bit slow as he approached, some of that earlier swagger gone, and Xavior couldn’t help but notice there was a slight sheen to his eyes as he smiled at them.

“I’m rather glad to see that I was wrong about the two of you. Everyone’s been buzzing about how polite and well-spoken you are. With all the money we pump into this place, I like to think it’s going somewhere useful.”

Lilianna’s smile grew just a bit wider, in a way that Xavior could tell meant she was on edge. He only pressed his lips into a firmer line. He didn’t think she liked him any more than he did. Given how well she’d been doing so far, though, he was sure she had this one in the bag.

He could smell the alcohol on the senator, and they were just kids to him. He didn’t think the man would have spoken like this otherwise.

“I must admit, I thought it was a poor idea to host this program here, but I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong about something.” He gave them both a wink, and lifted his champagne glass toward Lilianna.

“You’re a credit, young lady, though your companion is,” he glanced over at Xavior, as if appraising him, “in need of some work, I think.”

Xavior kept his expression neutral. On a scale of insults he’d received in his time, this one ranked pretty low. The senator would have to do better than that to rile him up.

To his surprise, though, when he looked over at Lilianna, her eyes were narrowed dangerously at the man, and she looked on the edge of pouncing.

“I’ve had just about enough of you, pal,” she said, her voice dripping the venom Xavior knew so well. She stared down the man, who must have been at least a whole head taller than she was.

Xavior stared at her, this change so sudden after they’d agreed to their bet. She’d been doing so well, weathered every insult and condescending word tossed her way. And here she was, breaking the facade because someone had come after him.

He felt a realization, and a warmth, slowly flood through his body. She was doing this for him, and she was still doing it.

“I don’t care if you’re the president of the United States. You don’t speak to him that way. You think you can just go around and do whatever you want with all that money and swagger, but it doesn’t mean anything. You’re just some drunk old guy complaining to a pair of kids”

The senator was staring too, his eyes wide, mouth hanging open. He hadn’t expected this turn either. Before he could even respond, Lilianna pushed on, her tone just as biting.

“Run along now, before I really lose my temper and I show you just where your money is going.”

The senator’s face turned stormy, but instead of saying anything he turned tail and stalked away, this time out of the room completely.

Xavior knew there was no way they weren’t going to be hearing from the Major, very likely by morning, if not tonight.

“You did not have to do that,” he said softly, once they were alone again. That warmth was still inside of him. It meant a lot to him that Lilianna had stood up for him, that she’d put herself out there, despite being tough as nails.

Lilianna looked angry and upset in turns.

“Yes I did, and you know it.” She shot him a sharp look.

He smiled at her gently, and her expression softened just a bit.

“I guess I should get ready for that camping trip.” Her shoulders heaved with a sigh.

No matter the reason, that had technically been a loss, and she couldn’t debate that. The two of them could be sticklers for things like that, when they came up. This time, though, Xavior had a different idea.

“And I will be preparing for my computer class.”

Lilianna’s eyes went wide. “But-”

“No ‘buts’,” he quickly, but gently countered. “I would be blind to not see your skill, Lilianna. In fact, I think you are far better at this than I am.” He offered her a rare smile. “You only lost because you were protecting me. That means a great deal to me, and I would not see you lose because of that. It is fair this way.”

Lilianna was silent a few moments, thinking.

“You really think I’m better than you at this?”

“Yes, I do.”

She looked touched, a rare enough expression on her face, and she quickly turned her back to the room so that only he could see it. That made him happy, too, since she was sharing something that was just for him.

Her little grin returned and, along with it, some of her humor.

“Well, I suppose that’s all right then, if you really insist. I actually had fun, except for that last part.”

She grimaced in the direction the senator had gone.

“As did I, but believe me, I will not soon forget the look on his face, and the way you sent him running. It was masterful. And, you can consider me duly protected.”

Lilianna smiled, and again gently elbowed him in the side.

“Oh, come off it, now you’re just buttering me up.”

Xavior laughed.

“Me? I would not dream of it.”

“Speaking of dreams, I’m just glad this one’ll end soon. At least we don’t have to be nice anymore.” There really wasn’t that much of a point, though at least they had each other while they waited for the Major to call them in.

“I guess it wasn’t so much of nightmare after all. At least if we’re together.”

She looked up at him, and he smiled fondly back at her.

“And together we shall remain.”

Float

“As if this was actually going to work.”

“I must be crazy. I still can’t believe you’re making me do this.” Lilianna McDougal stood at the edge of the swimming pool, eyes fixed on the water. It might as well have been lava, given how she was looking at it.

“Making you?” Her companion finally stood up, the water coming up to his hips where he stood in the shallow end. Xavior crossed over to where she was and looked up at her. “You are free to go, but the Major will make you do this when he finds out.”

Lilianna shot him an acid glare, but couldn’t deny it. His friend couldn’t swim, a detail that had somehow eluded their common guardian. The minute she’d told him, Xavior had to rectify that. Better with him than with Major Barrows.

“It’s not fair. I’m never going to have to swim around.”

“You do not know that. Now come, I am starting to become wrinkly.” He hadn’t wanted to push Lilianna, as stubborn as she was. He’d chosen a late hour for them to meet at the pool, so they were alone and there was no rush. She’d taken every inch he’d given, and had been standing at the edge of the pool for nearly twenty minutes now, finding every excuse to stall.

They were both wearing Institute supplied bodysuits made specifically for swimming. They covered quite a bit more than a normal swimsuit, but Lilianna had still seemed uncomfortable in hers. She let out a frustrated sound, but seemed to realize he wasn’t going to let up and finally made her way hesitantly down the pool stairs and into the water. At least it was warm, though she moved through it as if she were walking through pudding.

The water lapped at her mid-waist, and she held her arms up to keep them dry.. Almost instantly her hands went to her head, smoothing over a silvery cloth covered protrusion at the back of her head.

“I swear to god, Xavior Erickson, if my wires get wet I’m going to kick your butt from here to California.”

“They will be fine,” he tried to assure, wading over to where she was, thinking she might want something to cling on to in a minute. “Did you not say the wrap was watertight?”

“In the shower!” She shot back, her lips curling into a scowl. “I’ve never tested it in a pool before. What if it comes off? I might as well go stick my hand in a blender with as safe as I am right now.”

Xavior stepped in and laid a hand on her shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You are going to be fine, Lilianna. We are not going to be doing anything strenuous. You will not even have to put your head completely under the water. Today we are only going to be learning how to float. I will be next to you every moment. If something should happen I will lift you out of the water. Does that sound all right?”

Lilianna still looked tense, fixing him with a look that indicated there were likely many sharp retorts forming in her mind. There was one thing she knew, though, and that was that he would keep his word to make sure he was safe. Eventually she eased just a bit as he spoke. “Fine. But if I drown I’m going to haunt you every night from the great beyond, you hear me?”

“I hear you,” he returned, trying not to smile at her tone. He indicated for her to wade a little ways from the steps, at first merely letting her get used to the water. He kept them in the shallow end, making sure the water never rose above her chest, and keeping them relatively near the side of the pool just in case. When she seemed at ease enough being in the water he stopped her. “Now I will show you how to float. It is the basis of all swimming and if for some reason you do ever end up in the water this will help immensely.”

He took a few steps away from her and pushed himself up off the floor of the pool, the water cradling his weight. Using his arms he steered his body straight and relaxed, letting himself hover just at the top of the water. Turning his head he saw Lilianna watching him, with eyes that shifted from horror to interest and back again.

“You see how I do it? Humans are buoyant, so if you relax your body and spread yourself out you will float on the top of the water. This is important so you do not flail if your feet cannot touch the bottom.”

He’d learned how to do this at a very young age. His father had insisted on it. Lilianna closed the space and gave his arm a poke, watching with critical eyes as he drifted a little ways from her. He grinned up at her, unable to help himself. “You can do it too.”

“More likely I’ll sink to the bottom.”

Xavior let his legs sink down and righted himself, moving to stand up again. “I will not let you Lilianna. Trust me. Now, it is your turn to try. Your body wants to float, so when you begin try to keep still, and relax. It will happen naturally.”

Lilianna looked skeptical, but he wouldn’t let her go until she’d at least tried it. He offered her his arm as a grip, letting her hold onto it while she experimented with taking her feet off the bottom and treading water. It took some time for her to be comfortable enough to try floating, but he was patient, never rushing her.

Eventually he had her try to float, letting her hold onto his arm as she got into position. She seemed to be all right as she clutched his arm, but the moment she let go she began to kick and flail, her head bobbing under the water. She came up sputtering, mechanically checking the wrap keeping her hair and wires dry.

“As if this was actually going to work.” Lilianna’s voice cut sharply through the air, echoing slightly in the wide space. The naked derision in her voice might have sent another’s eyes to rolling, but Xavior was accustomed to her moods. Her displeasure didn’t bother him.

“Lilianna, just try to relax. You will make it work”

“You try to relax! I swear if we didn’t need it to live I’d never touch water again.” Instead of the petulance and complaint most would have heard, Xavior caught the undertone of unease in her voice.

“I know a better way. You won’t go under again.” She looked unsure, but eventually lifted her feet off the bottom. He lowered himself and cradled her much smaller form in his arms, letting her slightly rest of them as a kind of float. Even with the help she was tense, as if she could force the water into submission under her.

“Close your eyes.”

What? You can’t be serious. It’s bad enough being in the water, you want me to be blind too?”

“I will not let you go. Trust me.” She frowned, but after a few moments complied. Xavior held her steady, just letting her feel the water around her.”You always tell me when you are in the computer it feels as if you are floating through it, does it not? Imagine you are there now.” Xavior was, perhaps, the most technologically illiterate person in the institute, but he’d picked up quite a lot from listening to his friend talk about her experiences. “Imagine you have left your body, and are flowing through through the webs. It is all around you, holding you.”

Lilianna drew in a few deep breaths. Xavior quieted, letting her take over. Her frown slowly faded, the tightness in her face following suit. As the moments went on her body began to relax, though he didn’t yet remove his arms from under her. It was only when she’d been relaxed for several minutes that he very slowly began to lower his arms away from her, doing so incrementally to be safe. Eventually she was floating all on her own.

After awhile Lilianna’s eyes opened, and she looked up at him. He lifted his hands, showing he wasn’t supporting her anymore. Her eyes widened and she flailed a bit, losing her balance again. Even so, he couldn’t help but smile. “I knew you would make it work.”

“Fine, I’ll admit I can do it. Just don’t expect me to ever get in the deep end.” He thought he noted a hit of pleasure in her voice, and knew she was happier with herself than she was letting on.

“We will work our way up to that one.”

Lilianna shot him a look, but laughed after a moment. “Come on, let’s try off. Now I’m turning into a prune.”