The Huntress Chapter 5
Herle arrived in the evening. Or rather, the two arrived in Herle at that time. Despite Ashton's predictions that it would likely take a second day to reach, their unusually fast pace of walking had seemingly ruined his calculations for the better.
Opera could already smell the salt water before the village came into view. As with most large bodies of water, this one seemed to be salty in nature. Which meant that it was big enough that it didn't drain into any other body of water, yet had plenty of coastline from which to dissolve minerals. Hardly surprising for what was apparently a harbor town.
"We are here," Ashton announced rhetorically. "But I do not believe the ferry will depart until tomorrow."
"That's fine. I want to ask around about Ernest first."
Ashton glanced towards the horizon. "There is still some time before the sun sets. Perhaps we should split up and ask around as much as possible."
"Sounds good. Catch up with you later on."
"_How_ many eyes?"
"Three. Just like me, see? Have you seen him?"
"Heck no. You're the first one I seen like _that_."
Opera frowned. "Right. You know anybody else around here who's been around?"
The man shrugged. "Talk with Zand's men if you want, miss. They're nasty, but Zand has good information contacts."
"Which ones are they?"
The answer was somewhat obvious, as the center of the bar had a small group of men laughing, drinking and generally making a loud scene of themselves. And the owner was making no move to try and throw them out. The rather rough-edged nature of the men might be one reason for that. There was a minimum ten foot buffer between them and anyone else in the bar.
"Thanks," she said by way of departure. She was already feeling more at home.
The closest of "Zand's" men was her first target. "Hey," she greeted casually.
He drunkenly turned to face her. "What the hell y'want?"
"I'm looking for someone. His name is Ernest, and he's got three eyes, just like I do. Have you seen him?"
By this time, the other three men were looking at her too, none looking particularly impressed _or_ sober.
"Sure..." the first man agreed, "had a whole boat-load of em come in this morning! HA!!!" The others burst into laughter at this as well.
Then the first man discovered two things about Tetragenes. Firstly, they tended to be very strong to begin with. Secondly, they were even stronger when walking around in only half the gravity they had grown up in.
The man hit the far wall still airborne, cracking the plaster and slumping to the ground, already unconscious from the impact.
"Anybody else want to give me that kind of shit?" Opera demanded diplomatically. "I asked a question. I want an answer! NOW!!!"
The men were already giving her a diplomatic answer, in the form of standing up and pulling large knives from their clothing. "You'll pay for that!"
"Nobody treats Zand's men like that and lives!"
A 10% shot from the Kaleidoscope knocked the first man into unconsciousness. The other two came too fast to be shot down. Fortunately, Opera was able to knock the second into dreamland with a well-placed swing from the electrically-charged barrel of her weapon. The third stabbed his dagger into her side...
...and was promptly kneed in the stomach hard enough to make him drop his knife and begin throwing up the last hour's worth of alcohol onto the floor. The man recovered with what might have been practiced ease, already planning to deal with his wounded opponent...
...And was kicked down to the floor again by Opera, who wasn't the least bit harmed. One of the many advantages of wearing a bullet-proof jacket.
Collaring the man, she lifted him up to eye-level. "Well? I asked a question. I want an answer, see?"
"Never seen... nothin'!" the man gasped, still trying to recover his breath.
"Are you sure? I do nasty things to people who lie to me. _Really_ nasty things."
"I... swear it! Nothing-aaarrrggghhh..." *THUD*.
Opera glanced around at the various faces of the other patrons of the bar, now looking at her like she was the devil incarnate. She glanced at the two cracked portions of the wall. She glanced at the four would-be-attackers, now dead to the world.
"Geez, how cliche."
No one else in the bar had seen another three-eyed person, it turned out. Somehow, Opera got the impression that they never wanted to see another three-eyed person again in their life. Not that she could blame them, of course. But that guy had picked a _bad_ time to crack that joke.
One of the problems that was quickly becoming apparent to her was the significant differences between hers and Ernest's approaches to underdeveloped civilizations. The Tetragene race as a whole was independent of the Galactic Federation, which also extended to their laws. Therefore, she and every other Tetragene in the galaxy didn't have to pay any heed to laws such as the Weaponry Acquisition Restriction Treaty (Widely referred to as WART by weapons collectors everywhere) or the Underdeveloped Planet Treaty. Opera generally felt free to break either of those rules any time it was convenient. The automatic pistol she had stashed away was proof of that. As was the way she conversed freely with anyone on this planet.
Ernest on the other hand... was an archaeologist. Which led him to pay considerably more than just lip-service to the second rule. Actually, he'd follow some version of the rule even without the existence of the Federation. He would probably be carrying out his expedition here with as little contact with the inhabitants as possible. He might well have stayed away from any town altogether. In which case, she would have a much better chance at finding Ernest by heading towards the nearest set of ruins and exploring them.
Regrettably, she was rather under-equipped for the task. The Kaleidoscope only seemed effective against the smaller lifeforms on this planet. She only had enough solid ammunition for one more two-headed demon dragon and no working sensor equipment. Ashton had said that things were getting more and more dangerous by the day... she wasn't sure if she was up for many more rounds of demon fighting. If she'd known what things were like on this planet, she would have taken along an assault rifle too. Maybe a few grenades.
Flagging down another passer-byer, she asked the young lady the now-familiar question.
"You're the first I've seen like _that_!"
Opera sighed at the now familiar answer. "Thanks anyway. Say, you seen a guy around here? Brown hair, two swords..."
A slightly dreamy look appeared on the lady's face as she nodded. "He went over to that house... are you his girlfriend?"
"No, just traveling with him right now. Thanks."
The lady had pointed towards a house in the village. Presumably, Ashton had entered the house. That suggested that either he'd found something interesting, or some strong-willed girl had actually dragged him inside after regular flirting hadn't worked. The second option would probably do him a lot of good, actually...
Knocking on the door, a middle-aged woman answered it, mostly eliminating the second option. "Yes?"
"There a guy named Ashton here?"
"Why yes, he's just upstairs with Eleanor right now."
Perhaps the second option was a possibility after all. "Can I... talk with him right now?"
"Of course! You're welcome to stay as long as you want. Eleanor loves it when visitors come around."
Fair enough. "Sure. By the way, if he didn't ask you already, have you seen another three-eyed person around lately? Like me?"
The Lady shook her head regretfully. "He asked me that too. You would be his fiancee?"
_Fiancee_? "Uh... not exactly. He's just... um... my boyfriend. Ashton's upstairs?"
"That's right. I'm preparing supper right now, but you can go on up. He's telling her stories right now."
"I'll go talk with him," Opera agreed, ascending the steps somewhat faster than she normally would have. _Fiancee_?!?
As she reached the top, Ashton's voice was already audible, drifting around the corner with the inevitability of all good eavesdropping locations. Well... no harm in taking advantage of it...
"...and from her pouch, she pulled out _another_ weapon! This was small, yet incredibly powerful! I can not begin to imagine how it worked, but it let out a deafening roar, felling the demon instantly!!!"
From behind the wall, Opera smirked as she realized exactly what story Ashton was telling at the moment.
"Wow!!! She must be a really powerful magician!!!"
"I am not sure, actually. She claims one of her weapons is heraldic... but she is extremely unlike any heraldic magic user I have ever met. She is violent, profane, opinionated, a gluttonous eater and drinker, and did I mention violent? I do not think they normally train people like that..."
Opera's smile faded in sync with Ashton's description, even as she started into the room.
"She sounds scary!!!"
"Do not worry," Ashton soothed. "She is a good person, fortunately. She is presently trying to find her boyfriend. She has traveled... I am not sure how far she traveled, but she says that where she comes from, it's normal to have _three_ eyes, so I am certain it is quite far. Further than I have ever traveled, I can say."
"Can I meet her?"
"I do not know. She is asking around in the village at the moment."
"I hope she's careful. A guy named Zand is in charge right now, and he's real mean! That's what the last guy who talked to me said."
Ashton's voice took on a worried tone. "That is bad. I suppose that it is too late to warn his men now... ACK!!!"
By this time, Opera had forced Ashton into a headlock. "And what about _me_?" she demanded.
"Oh no," Ashton gasped, reality quickly sinking in.
"Ah...(urk)... highly (ouch) expressive... and (argh) outgoing?"
She released him. "That's better. Telling stories?"
Ashton gingerly massaged his neck as he sat back down next to the bed. "This is Eleanor. Eleanor, this is Opera, who I have been traveling with recently."
To say that the child's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates might have been a figure of speech. But not by much. "WOW!!! You have THREE eyes!!!" vDespite the irritation she was beginning to feel over constantly hearing that particular observation, Opera had to smile at the innocence behind the comment. "Yeah, I'm from _really_ far away."
"Are they real?"
Opera blinked and rolled her eyes in various directions to prove the point. "All of em are 100% real, kid. So did Ashton tell you any other lies about me?"
"He said that you're trying to find a friend?"
"Yeah... a friend of mine is somewhere around here."
Ashton raised an eyebrow. "I thought that he was your-"
"-Fiancé?" she filled in disgustedly. "I never told you _that_!"
"But it is the same thing, is it not?" Ashton inquired. "You _did_ say that he was your boyfriend, and you are going to incredible lengths to find him-"
"Just forget it," she interrupted, turning back to Eleanor. "So how come you're in bed? You get sick?"
"I've been in bed my whole life," Eleanor replied matter-of-factly. "Mommy's asked lots of doctors to make me better, but they can't."
"That sucks," Opera agreed slowly. "So what's wrong with you?"
"The doctors don't know."
"That really sucks."
"She rarely even leaves the house," Ashton clarified, "on account of dreadful disease that she has had the terrible misfortune to contract-OUCH!!!"
Opera withdrew her elbow from his stomach. "I suppose it somehow has something to do with _your_ bad luck?"
Ashton briefly shot her a dark look. "At any rate, I was entertaining her with stories of various adventures that I have had. You were no doubt eavesdropping as I told her our recent experience in Salva."
"I could hear you at the bottom of the steps," Opera replied by way of excuse. "So you didn't happen to catch any clue about Ernest either?"
"I am afraid not. Your... friend... does not seem to have come through this city."
"Well... there's still Hilton and Lacour to check up on. We're leaving tomorrow?"
Ashton nodded. "The ferry leaves in the morning, so we will want to get some sleep soon."
"I'm fine for awhile," she assured him. "Tetragenes don't need to sleep very often."
"In that case, perhaps I should retire at the inn. I am rather tired after traveling all day today. But perhaps you could tell Eleanor some stories?"
Opera recoiled somewhat. "_Me?_"
"You are a well-traveled individual. Surely you would have some adventures to tell?"
"Well... sure, but... tell stories? I've never really-"
Ashton pulled her away from Eleanor, lowering his voice to a whisper. "She is going to be sick for the rest of her life. She will never be able to experience life as we can. All she can ever hope to do is hear about the world. Because there isn't any cure for her disease-"
"There's a cure," Eleanor interrupted.
Ashton blinked, evidently realizing that he hadn't been whispering quietly enough. Then he realized what she had said. "There _is_ a cure?"
"They don't know the cure yet," Eleanor clarified.. "But they'll find it! Mommy says they will! So I'm just gonna wait until they do. And then I'll go see everything!"
Ashton nodded slowly. "But you must not get your hopes up too much, because-OOF!!!"
"Shut up, you moron! You tryin' to kick a kid when she's down?" Putting a smile on her face, Opera turned back to the little girl. "Don't listen to him, Eleanor. You're absolutely right. There's lots of people looking for cures for all kinds of stuff! It's just a matter of time before they figure out how to cure your problem, right?"
The issue settled, Opera sat down next to the bed. "Now... Ashton's kind of tired. I mean, just listen to all the shit he's saying. So we'll let him get some rest now. Instead, _I'll_ tell you some stories, okay?"
Eleanor was still smiling. "Okay!"
Ashton moved towards the exit with some prodding. "Now get some rest, buddy. I'll make sure this kid gets some entertainment and encouragement, okay? You really suck with kids, you know that?"
His reply was cut off as Opera continued to prod. She couldn't believe he had actually been to so thoughtless as to cut the kid down like that!
Once Ashton was out of the room, Opera returned to the seat next to Eleanor. "Just ignore him, okay? He's a good guy, but he's got some funny ideas about life. No matter what anybody tells you, the most important thing is to never give up! Sometimes life hands you shit, but you have to keep trying until things improve, right?"
"So anyway... let me think of a story to tell..."
It was at about that point that Opera remembered why she hadn't been too enthusiastic about telling stories in the first place. All things considered... she tended to hate kids. They were necessary in order to make grown-ups, she'd been one herself, but... they tended to be a royal pain in the ass. On their good days.
"Where are you from?" Eleanor wanted to know.
She sighed, feeling the cute little claws beginning to dig into her skin. Might as well make the best of it. "Where? Well... it's a _really_ far-away place..."
"...and so I was kind of stuck for a job. I needed some money, and I wasn't really known for anything besides a bit of a bounty-hunting. But then I happened to be passing through the Tetragenes University, and saw a job offer posted up. Do you know what an archaeologist does?"
"He looks at ruins!"
Opera nodded approvingly. Whatever else could be said about Eleanor, she was a darn smart kid. The kid probably had a lot of time to read. "Right. Well, this job offer was from an archaeologist who wanted to check out some ruins. But they were really dangerous ruins, too dangerous for him to explore alone. So he wanted to hire somebody to keep him safe while he checked them out. Guess who that archaeologist was?"
"It was Ernest!"
Opera nodded again. She wasn't entirely sure how she had gotten to telling _this_ story, but Eleanor had seemed absolutely fascinated by the idea that she was so far away from home trying to find him. Since the first three stories had all happened to have Ernest in them, it hadn't taken too long before the girl had wanted to know how they had first met. So...
"...Right. So Ernest and I talked things over, and after a lot of arguing, we came to an agreement on payment. It was actually a pretty stupid thing for both of us. Ernest kept forgetting to look for traps, and he kept getting angry at me for wrecking stuff before he could look it over. He's _really_ touchy about not messing anything up in ruins. So he looked everything over, I made sure he was safe, we left, and he paid me. Pretty good money, too."
"And then he kissed you?"
"Nonono! Nothing like that! We still didn't really get along, see. But life went on, and a little while later, he got in touch with me again. He wanted to check out another ruin, and was having trouble finding anybody who would go with him. He offered some good money, so I accepted."
"And _then_ he kissed you?"
Opera sighed. "Look here, kid. No kissing happens, okay? Zip, zero, zilch. Nothing like that has _ever_ happened. Forget what Ashton told you about me. Ernest is just... a good friend, okay? We're not actually like that. It's just that we've ben working together for a long time, so a lot of people assume things like that. We sometimes play along when the other person isn't around, because it's easier than always trying to explain things, but..."
Opera's face screwed up in thought. She'd heard Ernest call her his girlfriend' before, when he thought she wasn't around. She'd never actually confronted him on it. And she'd called him her boyfriend' on occasion. But he'd never overheard her, had he?
"Uh... sorry about that. Just spaced out for a minute. Anyway, there's not really anything between us. We're just really good friends and business partners. I'm just trying to find him because he's my ride home right now, see? Otherwise I could be stuck here for a _really_ long time."
"Anyway... like I was saying, Ernest paid me to keep him alive through another set of ruins. Same story. Lots of nasty stuff, but I think we only fought about half as much. And half of that was over what kind of magazines we read. I think Ernest liked doing it because he was a professor, and they don't get out much normally."
"So what next?"
"Next? Um... well, it was just a little bit later that Ernest tried to hire me again. Except that he was running into a problem. He couldn't afford to keep paying me what he was. And I wouldn't work for cheaper. So we struck a deal. I'd work for really cheap, but he'd arrange to make some money off of anything we recovered from the ruins. And he'd give me half of the profit. I was sort hard-up for money at the time, so I took a chance and agreed."
Opera rolled her eyes. "_No_ kissing. But the stuff we got from the trip was worth a lot of money. I had never known that sort of thing could be worth so much money, and wanted to keep doing it. Trouble was, I didn't actually know anything about ancient relics and stuff. So I couldn't really do anything by myself. Ernest liked it too, but he didn't know anything about keeping himself alive."
"So you work together?"
"Right. It was sort of messy, but eventually we worked out the system that we've used ever since. I kept us from getting killed, he makes sure we find all the important stuff without wrecking everything, and then we split the profits. Pretty good system, all in all."
"How long until you kiss?"
Opera sighed and began looking around the room for something to change the subject. Eleanor must have been exposed to too many fairy tales. True to expectation, her eyes quickly fell upon a shelf full of stories that seemed to fit that description. "You like those kind of stories?"
Fortunately, Eleanor had the typical attention span of a typical kid. "Yes!!!"
"I betcha I know a few that you haven't heard before. I could tell you a few of those. If you want, that is."
"Okay, this one is called The Three Little Pigs'..."
"And then the big bad wolf came up to the brick house."
Opera smiled thinly. It seemed that her skimming through a few translated Terran fairy tales that Ernest had kept on hand for cultural study was paying off now. Aside from having to be told what pigs' and wolves' were, Eleanor loved the story. "So he stomped up to the house and said... guess what he said?"
Did Eleanor _ever_ love the story. "He said LITTLE PIG, LITTLE PIG, LET ME PASS!!!'"
"Right! Do you think the pigs opened the door for him?"
"That's right. They didn't open the door, because they would have gotten eaten up, right? So what do you think they said?"
"They said BIG BAD WOLF, YOU CAN KISS MY ASS!!!'"
"Right! So the big bad wolf said Then I'll huff and I'll puff and blow your house down!'"
"Did he eat all the pigs?"
"Well... the wolf blew and blew and blew... but he couldn't blow the house down! The brick house that the third pig made was too strong for the wolf to blow down!"
"What did the wolf do?"
"Well, the wolf was getting _really_ hungry, and he knew that there were three yummy pigs in that house. So he climbed the house and tried to go down the chimney! But the pigs quickly put a great big pot of boiling water at the bottom of the chimney. The big bad wolf dropped down the chimney and landed in the pot of boiling water! He got boiled to death, and the three pigs all ate some nice wolf stew for supper that night and lived happily ever after. The end."
Eleanor clapped happily. "Tell me another one!"
"Hmm... shouldn't you be getting to bed now?"
"I'm not tired!"
Opera _was_ getting tired. Trying to remember every single fairy tale she'd ever heard was getting to her. She couldn't even be sure that she had gotten the stories right. And Eleanor wasn't showing any signs of getting tired. Maybe...
"Hey, I have an idea. I have to go soon, but what if I sing you a song before I go?"
"Sure. My parents had me taught by the best. That's how I got my name in the first place, you know. I haven't taken any lessons for a long time, but I think I could probably manage a song or two. I could even try a love song if you wanted."
Eleanor was nodding up and down fast enough to give her whiplash. She obviously approved of the idea.
"Okay then. Let me give it my best shot..." It had been a little while since she'd done any singing, but fortunately she wasn't trying for volume this time. But singing always put the kids to sleep in the movies, right? No reason why it shouldn't work here too...
o/ Like a million little doorways...
All the choices we made...
All the stages we passed through...
All the roles we played
So many different directions...
Our separate paths might have turned...
With every door that we opened...
Every bridge that we burned
o/ Somehow we find each other
Through all that masquerade
Somehow we found each other
Somehow we have stayed...
...In a state of grace
o/ I don't believe in destiny...
...Or the guiding hand of fate
I don't believe in forever...
...Or love as a mystical state
I don't believe in the stars or the planets...
...Or angels watching from above
But I believe there's a ghost of a chance...
...We can find someone to love...
...And make it last... o/
Opera didn't know who had actually written the song, but she had heard it somewhere a long time ago. It was surprisingly well suited to being sung softly without accompanying instruments, a fact which was useful at this time. Even as she sang through the song a second time, she was unable to help but recall a few fond memories.
Despite having given up on her music lessons, she still reserved the right to sing whenever no one else was around to hear her. Even after teaming up with Ernest, she hadn't changed the habit, only regulated it to when he wasn't around. What she hadn't counted on was Ernest's somewhat quirky sense of humor deciding to plant a sound recorder, then secretly sending the audio-track to a studio. Opera had found out about it after getting an offer for a recording contract from the studio. Ernest had been conspicuously absent for the next few days after...
o/ I don't believe in destiny...
...Or the guiding hand of fate
I don't believe in forever...
...Or love as a mystical state
I don't believe in the stars or the planets...
...Or angels watching from above
But I believe there's a ghost of a chance...
...We can find someone to love...
...And make it last... o/
Looking down, Opera noted with satisfaction that Eleanor was now sleeping soundly. It was hard not to like a kid like her. Dealt a bad hand in life, but she was still sticking it out with a cheerful face...
Quietly shouldering her gun, Opera crept out of the room, leaving the door open a crack before turning to face Eleanor's mother. "Oh... hi. She's sleeping now."
The mother smiled. "Thank-you very much."
Opera flushed. "Uh... no problem. The kid seemed to like the stories a lot."
"She loves to hear about the outside world. I'm still hoping that a cure will be found for her. I was talking with a doctor today who thinks he might have something, but it's too early to tell."
"Well, I hope it works out in the end."
"I'm hoping too. Your friend went back to the inn earlier."
"Yeah, I think I'll get some sleep too."
Nodding, Opera moved sideways to let the mother quietly enter Eleanor's room.
"...mommy?" Eleanor could be heard to whisper sleepily.
"What is it, dear?" the mother whispered back, just as quietly.
Opera ran back to the inn.
She slowed to a quiet walk by the time she reached the room that the hotel's night receptionist pointed out for her. Displaying a proper degree of frugality that marked him as an experienced traveler, he had only booked one room for the two of them, although it seemed that he'd been smart enough to make sure it had separate beds.
Removing her pin-heels before attempting to creep into the room, she even showed the foresight to power down the Kaleidoscope outside the door. So all things considered, she nearly jumped out of her skin when the silence was disturbed.
"You are back, I see."
"Geez!" Opera hissed, her heart-rate returning to normal. "I thought you were asleep!"
Ashton's voice could be heard to be somewhat subdued. "I... do not seem to be able to fall asleep. Did you just finish telling stories to Eleanor?"
Opera took a seat on the empty bed, un-shouldering her pack and leaning her weapon up again the bedpost. "Yeah. That kid sucks everything in like a Hurricane 5000 vacuum cleaner."
"Never mind. She likes stories."
"You do not like telling stories?"
"Ashton, I _hate_ kids, you know that? The only reason I agreed was because the poor kid deserved a break. Especially after you encouraging her like that."
"Eleanor is... quite spirited."
"I guess you could say that. I really hope she's not one of those kids who repeat everything she hears."
"Why do you say that?"
"I think I taught her a few swear words."
Ashton sighed. "And you had the nerve to say that _I_ was bad with children."
"Alright, alright. So we both suck with the brats. So how come you're not sleeping? You looked tired before."
In response to the question, Ashton remained silent.
Finally deciding that the reason was probably none of her business in the first place, Opera diverted her own attention by taking off her sensor-equipped headgear and popping off the maintenance panel. She knew it was broken; she just didn't know why it was broken. But not for long...
"Have I given up?"
"Have I given up?"
"I heard that part. What d'you mean? Given up on what?"
"How do you give up on yourself?"
"I cannot understand Eleanor. My entire life has been plagued with bad luck and misfortune, so my complaining about it is naturally understandable. Yet Eleanor... is perhaps even unluckier than myself. I can at least go where I choose and fend for myself. She will perhaps never leave her room and cannot even expect to live out a full life. Yet she is still hopeful. She believes that a cure will be found, and still finds joy in what life has given her. Is she just young, or have I given up?"
"..." Opera replied.
"Her mother is still hopeful as well. After I left, she told me that a doctor from the town of Linga believes that he may have identified a cure for her disease."
"So what's the problem?" she asked, somewhat happy to see the conversation return to a more practical level.
"The cure lies in the healing powers of a plant known as Metox'. It is believed that the plant will cure almost anything. But the plant is extremely rare, growing only in one known place."
"The best conjunction is that the location is in a mountain to the west of Cross Castle. It is an extremely dangerous area, with many dangerous monsters and demons present. Needless to say, no scientists have attempted to obtain it."
"You're leading up to something, I can tell"
"I am not a scientist. I am a sword-for-hire, and a good one at that. I might stand a chance of surviving the monsters and obtaining the plant."
"And what's stopping you? Aside from the fact that you might get yourself killed and that the cure is only a possibility?"
"What if my bad luck were to interfere? I would only make the problem worse and accomplish nothing in return."
Opera set her headgear aside, laying back on her bed. Somehow, hitting Ashton didn't seem like the solution right now. "Ashton... you know I don't believe in luck."
"Perhaps, but _I_ do."
"Maybe a better way of describing it would be to say that... if there _is_ such a thing as luck, I don't believe you can do anything to change it. Maybe you really _do_ have bad luck. But I don't think you can do anything about that. No charms or magic or secret words are going to change anything. But if this bad luck' throws shit at you, you _can_ fight it and make something better happen instead."
"So what does that mean right now?"
Opera smiled thinly. "Maybe it means that your bad luck arranged for the cure to be in some frickin' dangerous place. But if you want to, you've got the ability to fight it and go get the cure anyway."
"I do not know for certain," Ashton admitted. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"With weapons such as yours, you would no doubt have little trouble obtaining the cure."
"These weapons aren't as convenient as you probably think they are. And I've got to find Ernest before he leaves again. If I take a few days off to chase after some plant, I might be stranded here for the rest of my life. And Tetragenes can live for two or three hundred years. That's a little too long for my liking, y'know?
"Besides, I'm not like that. I look out for myself. Maybe someone else if I've got a real good reason to. But I'm not one of those selfless heroic type. People who risk everything for no gain... probably don't have much to loose in the first place."
"Were you not concerned about... losing your boyfriend? Was that not why you came in the first place? And why you were such a rush that led to disaster for your ship?"
Opera sighed. "Ernest and I have been working together for... about five years now. We're not a romantic couple, but we're still... really good friends, okay?"
"You sound like you are always reminding yourself of that fact."
Ouch. "I don't know, alright? I know how to take care of myself and stay alive. I've gotten really good at that over the years. You can relate to that, right? But I'm not a relationship person. Ernest and I are just business partners who know each other really well. That's it, okay? The boyfriend/girlfriend thing is something we do when the other person isn't around. Makes things simpler around inquiring minds."
"It is simpler to _pretend_ to be a couple around other people, while avoiding being overheard by the other person that you are pretending to be a couple with?"
"That sounds absolutely ludicrous."
"It doesn't have to make sense."
"For someone has never stopped ridiculing _me_ about foolishly' believing in luck..."
"Go to sleep, Ashton."
If insomnia was a disease, it was a contagious one.
Several hours later, even as Ashton slept peacefully, Opera was still staring up at the ceiling. Although it was easy enough to blame that on her Tetragene physiology, she knew that she could usually sleep on demand when the opportunity presented itself.
Maybe her head was getting completely screwed up. Or at least partially so. It was bad enough that she had caught herself thinking happy thoughts around Eleanor. Now she was starting to think entirely too much about was between her and Ernest. Whatever the hell _that_ was.
Did she care about Ernest? Of course she did. You didn't partner up with someone for five years without getting a little attached to them. The two of them worked well as a team, and they had plenty of exploits - not to mention profits - to back that up. And why shouldn't they? Their areas of expertise complemented each other perfectly, and they had a common interest in their profession. They were different enough that they didn't get sick of each other, but not so much that they disliked each other. Things hadn't always been perfect between them, but they had hashed out any problems sooner or later.
But romantically attached? Of course not. They were just... partners. If some people thought otherwise, it was simpler to just agree for the moment, then ignore it afterwards. And if someone mentioned when they were both together... they could loudly protest and deny it vehemently in unison. They felt no compunctions about going out for dinner at a classy restaurant, even walking arm-in-arm if the place offered discounts to couples. But they still owned separate spaceships and would probably take turns throttling any hotel clerk who tried to set them up in a one-bed room.
Okay, so it _was_ a little pathetic. But realistically, was she even looking for romance? More specifically, from Ernest? And was Ernest even looking for romance? More specifically, from her?
If for some reason it happened, she supposed that she probably wouldn't fight it. Ernest would be considered a decent catch by anyone's standards, and an excellent one by her own. Intelligent, highly learned, patient, rather handsome, a sense of humor, and despite being a self-assured individual, he wasn't prone to idiotic displays of machismo.
But nothing had happened in five years, so perhaps it just wasn't meant to be. Ernest had never so much as hinted at anything romantic, although he was certainly as single and unclaimed as she was. The fact that he was ten years older than her was somewhat negligible, as age differences larger than that weren't uncommon among Tetragenes. By the time you were one or two hundred years old, it didn't really matter anyway.
She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. She was _never_ this sappy under normal circumstances. This planet must be doing strange things to her head or something. These kind of thoughts certainly weren't going to help her get to sleep any time soon. She could worry about that kind of stuff another day. Like after she was back in space and sleeping in her own bed again.
Breakfast the next morning was a silent event. For her part, Opera hadn't slept particularly well last night. The reason had basically boiled to her thinking entirely too much about the situation between herself and Ernest, despite the latter's absence at the moment. It was one thing to have a situation out in deep space. Trying to explain it to Ashton last night had proven to be a good way to make it sound _incredibly_ stupid.
Especially considering the fact that upon learning that Ernest had left without her, she'd thrown common sense out the airlock, locked engines on overdrive, decided that she didn't have time to fill up at a service station before heading out into the Frontier regions of space and was now still thinking nice things about him?
_SHE_ was incredibly stupid. Exactly _why_ remained to be decided.
Opera returned her attention to the matter at hand. Breakfast, as well as the fact that Ashton had finally broken the silence between them. "Yeah?"
"I have some unfortunate news for you."
"I will not be going to Lacour with you."
Somehow, Opera thought she knew what was coming next. "How come?"
"I have decided to look for the plant that Eleanor needs to be cured. Perhaps I will not succeed, or perhaps it will not work. But I intend to try."
Opera swallowed a mouthful of egg. "Okay. So how come?"
Ashton took a bite of his own food before answering. "I... have thought over the various things that you have said. Perhaps you are partially right. Perhaps I have allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that my life is entirely ruled by my bad luck. Or perhaps not."
He took another bite of his breakfast before continuing. "But Eleanor still has hope. She believes that her life will improve, that she will be cured, and that she will live a happy life still. If it is possible, I would at least like to give her the chance."
It was Opera's turn to take a bite before replying. "Well... okay. I guess the kid deserves a break. So what if everything works out?"
"That is a good thing."
"Sure. But what about you? After this all works out nicely and the kid is all better, are you still going to be whining and bitching about your bad luck all the time?"
Ashton slowly nodded in response. "As you say, perhaps I may even find proof enough to convince myself that my life is not entirely ruled by bad luck."
"That's the spirit. You're gonna miss that fighting tournament, you know."
"It occurs every year. If I survive this, I will fight in it next year."
"Nothing doing, buddy. You gotta have a better attitude than that. Try _when_ you survive it."
"I am still not convinced you are right."
"Hey, how old are you?"
"So? Twenty years hasn't killed you. Why should that change any time soon?"
"Maybe... you are right. I will... try to think like that. But I think you should also reconsider how you are thinking."
"What about it?"
"About your... about Ernest. I still think your explanation is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard in my life."
Opera cleaned the last of the food from her plate. "Nothing's perfect."
"But you have stated that you believe in working to change things for the better. You do not seem completely happy with that... explanation. So why are you not trying to change it?"
"I suck at that kind of stuff, okay? Completely and utterly. Without exception. I don't even read romance novels. Are you getting the picture yet?"
"Are you done?" the waitress inquired to Opera.
Nodding, she started to hand the plate to her. "Just ignore that part. Get the picture?"
"I think so. I still think that you are being a coward."
Opera promptly snapped her plate in half. "I am NOT a coward!!!"
"You just broke the plate," Ashton pointed out.
"Eh... it must have been a defective one."
"I can't believe I had to pay for that plate too."
"You were the one who broke it."
Opera rolled her eyes. When all was said and done, the fact remained that Ashton had made a change of plans. She, on the other hand, had not. Thus, they were about to head in opposite directions. "So you're positive that this map has everything on it?"
"Quite certain," Ashton agreed. "The roads in Lacour are very well kept. Once you arrive in Hilton, you need only follow the road until you reach the castle. With a weapon such as yours, the monsters should not be any danger. I am hopeful that you will find some trace of Ernest in the process."
"I sure hope so. Take care of yourself, okay? That plant isn't going to do the kid any good unless you get back alive with it."
"I will do my best. I am confident that I stand a chance at being able to help Eleanor out. I still think you should attempt to... work something else out between you and Ernest. At the very least, consider it."
"I'll... consider it," she reluctantly agreed, starting up the gangplank to the ferry. "I still think you should try and get a refund for your ticket."
"I will manage without it," Ashton assured her.
"If you say so. Oh yeah, make sure you tell Eleanor not to say any of those words I taught her, okay?"
"I will... apologize to her mother on your behalf," Ashton agreed with a thin smile.
"Thanks. Catch you around, okay? Once I find Ernest, we're probably going to come back for a proper exploration trip. I'll look you up if I get the chance. After all this, you're going to have to meet him sometime."
"I look forward to it."
It was with a sigh that Opera watched the port of Herlie slowly disappear over the horizon. It had been an interesting few days traveling with Ashton, but his presence had been a helpful one, to say the least. All in all, despite few eccentricities, a good guy. If they met again, she'd have to find some girl to get him hitched with.
And he might be right about the whole thing between her and Ernest. Perhaps she should consider... reevaluating what was between them. Maybe it couldn't hurt to try and be a little more realistic about the whole business?
But in the meantime, she had some questioning to do.
The man turned to face her and the photograph. "What?"
"I'm looking for someone. This is his picture here. You seen anyone?"
"Three eyes? Who the heck is he?"
"He's a longtime friend and close business partner who I'm trying to find."
The man looked blankly at her.
On second thought, _screw it_. "He's my boyfriend."
Yes, I know what you're all saying about now (Aside from the ones who are saying Screw this fic and put more work on [Insert fic title here] instead!'). You're saying, Where the hell is everybody else in the game?' Don't sweat it. Next chapter is going to be marking the beginning of her actual appearance in the game. In the meantime, I'm just having fun setting things up for the rest of the story. Later.
Comments and criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org
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