by Tristan C.K.
“We must save those whom we can,” she turns away, outlined by the fire of a distant caravan burning. “So that we can level it out against those we must watch burn.”
With Team SHDE reunited I feel as though I should be relieved, especially seeing as I've been assigned a real bed. But, after Dragon finishes his story, I find myself looking anxiously through the windows, scanning rooftops, windows, and alleyways for any sign of movement beside the odd rodent or villager searching for survivors. This incident, Brisk and this Tawny, they're all related and part of something big. Now I see why Atlas and the White Fang are so tense. For Atlas these people, whoever they are, pose a serious risk with their training and equipment. As well as their use of the Grimm to take settlements of the map. And the repercussions of such a high profile attack on a Kingdom for the faunus could set the White Fang back decades in trying to foster any sort of coexistence with humans.
“You're awfully quiet, miss.” Smiles tells me, breaking a long silence I hadn't noticed.
“Smiles… this is worst case scenario kind of stuff. Whatever this organization is it used the ‘Grimm’ to attack a village. Those tactics haven't been used since the desperate times during the Great War. And even then they only siked them on enemy troops, not villages. Even militarized villages like Tao were alright as long as they stayed neutral.” I can't seem to focus as my mind whizzes through so many different ways this could go down. All of which end badly for everyone. “And, with a faunus group doing this, it could start another Great War.”
“Coria, you make it sound as though we've already lost.” Smiles remarks with his usual swagger. He throws his legs over the side of his bed and begin rolling his arms, the servos whirring and the taut muscle on his chest flexing.
“Smiles, your wounds.” I warn, making a move to push him back down onto the bed.
He grabs my wrist, raising a hand up to say he's fine. “Coria, it’s only a little burn.” He chimes, his voice quaking almost unnoticeably under his usual swagger.
“Bullocks,” I insist, trying to shove him back onto the bed, making sure to avoid his bandages.
“Again, miss mother hen, I think I can manage to sit up on my own bed.”
“Stretching is a bit excessive though, Smiles.” Elzi adds. “I've been hit with the feedback before,” she massages her left shoulder. “It's not something you can just shrug off. Only reason you two are...” She trails off, her eyes flooding with guilt.
Smiles flips over to the other side of the bed, now facing Elzi. He folds his hands in front of himself and leans towards her. “Elzi,” she doesn't look at him. “Elzaphan Jormungand, look at me. Look into where my eyes are supposed to be.”
She chuckles weakly, but does as she's told.
“All you, and your brother for that matter, are is a little rusty with team work. And this,” he taps on his bandaged back, “is just an incentive to get better. To improve.” He looks over his shoulder at me. “And you, mother hen, need to act your age. I mean, why am I of all people, the one who needs to be an adult. Being an adult at my age is quite dreary.” He drones. “I'd much rather just shoot and club my way through another horde… do we have another one of those by the way?”
“No. But we’ll have an ample sum of chances to find another, I assure you.” Dragon remarks dryly, drumming his fingers anxiously against his collapsed shield.
Smiles sniggers underneath his mask. “Dry humor fits you, Dragon.”
“Our present circumstances are a little dire for joke, team leader.” I mention.
“Team leader? So we're a team again, huh?” Smiles asks, lying back down on the bed and giving up on looking at us all together. “No more ‘grilling’ the team leader than. And,” he makes a point of looking at me, “no more attacking team mates. Save that aggression for our new guests. Or sparring if you feel too vindictive.”
My ears perk up at his choice of words. “Guests?”
“Oh, my!” Smiles replies in mock disconcertion. “Where are my manors. Tawny, I presume, would you be a dear,” in one smooth motion he draws one of his Fangs from his bedside holster and fires a round through the curtain, “and stop skulking about.” The round misses but rips the curtain away from the metal rings it's bound to. Behind where the curtain once hung stands a young faunus girl with a messy tuft of golden brown hair surrounding a pair of similarly colored coyote ears. She also wore a long, sleeveless zip up hoodie with a ridiculous amount of bandoliers underneath, just as Dragon had described. Her bright yellow eyes shone with a kind of childish glee, even as her lips dipped into a pout.
“I didn't even get to use one of my lines.” She wines, twirling a thin, bright red, cylinder in her right hand.
“Sorry, miss, but I'm a tad spent for any more theatrics other than my own.”
“Sorry to hear that, kitty. Theatrics are sort of my thing though.” Tawny replies with a shrug.
There's a sudden hiss of metal on metal. We all, Tawny included, look to see Elzi now hefting her sword in the faunus girl’s direction.
“Do you ‘really’ want to fight here of all places?” Tawny asks in a mocking tone.
“Hey, to my people, a promise is a promise. Last time we saw each other I told you I'd turn you into an ink spot.” She gets into a sturdy fighting stance. “I'm sure they'll understand.”
I draw my own weapon and use it to push Elzi's absurdly sized weapon to the floor. She gives me a look of confusion. “We've made up, alright. So don't go messing it up by doing something brash, as per the usual.”
I give Tawny another once over. From everything I can take at face value about the girl, which is only a smig, I can tell the girl’s skilled. Under the childlike gleam in her eye dwells the sharp, calculating, gaze of an experienced fighter. She’s also in a seemingly casual stance, most likely to make an opening for Elzi to attack. And I'm not particularly fond of the idea of fighting an explosives expert in close quarters. Especially with Smiles’s vulnerability to fire and his wounds still healing.
I eye him as well. Sweat gleams down his unbandaged flesh. Although he's able to mask his ragged breathing I can tell that his wounds are causing him pain. The only reason I can guess why he's putting up such a facade is to make Tawny think he can still move unhindered, to make her think he's still a threat.
She's not fooled. If she were she wouldn't still be here. Instead her faunus senses pick out what he can't help. The smell of sweat and any viscous fluids that might be leaking from his ugly burn. She might even be able to hear his heart eating faster than usual in response to the pain. She knows he's no threat. At least he isn't at the moment. If, when, she attacks he’ll most likely be her first target.
I move in between the two faunus in anticipation of such a move. “Let's not fight here. Our friend is gravely injured... “
“Miss,” Smiles warns.
“Smiles, she already knows. I'm guessing with your coyote traits that your sense of smell, hearing, etcetera, is more finely tuned than my feline friend here.” Tawny gives me a fiendish grin, showing off one of her unnaturally sharpened canines. “If, that is indeed the case, then I would wager it wouldn't be too far fetched of me to assume you can ‘hear’ all of the rifles and knives on the belt of every man, woman, and child in this lavish building. Most of whom are warriors. Some of whom are veterans of the Great War.”
Tawny looks around the building, her ears twitching all the while. “I suppose you have a point. And my small team is a little beat up after their scuffle with the twins.” She stops playing with the explosive. “Fine, I won't fight you ‘here’. But we will fight. And, when we do, it'll be on my terms.” She slides the explosive back into one of the bandoliers and turns on her heel. Before she gets too far she stops and says, without looking at us. “And don't get any bright ideas about waiting us out. I mean, who knows, another horde might find its way to this village. Maybe I have reinforcements on their way here now that the oh-so-fearsome Team SHDE is reunited… Congrats, by the way.” She walks away, blending into the shadows. “Later, kitten.”
After I'm sure she's gone I let the tension leave my body. I don't know ‘how’ that bluff worked? Sure every villager is trained and armed to the teeth but they all would've been more liabilities than help especially in such a confined space. So she is either a fool or...something else.
“So what now?” Smiles asks, looking at me now.
“We have to leave before her troops heal up or she gets her ‘hypothetical’ reinforcements.”
“What about the villagers?” Elzi asks, her brow furrowed in anger over letting the girl go.
“We take them with us to Vacuo. The village is lost anyway so I doubt it'll be very hard to persuade them.” I reply. “After that we’ll look for Team RNGR and whatever White Fang forces they have at their disposal and do what we do best.” I look Dragon in the eyes, an intense feeling of concentration burning through my mind. “Dragon, get the villagers ready to move out. Tell them to pack essentials only.”
“Roger,” he replies. He rises, throwing his shield into his back, and walks away from us already shouting orders.
“Elzi,” she snaps to mock attention, “grab a couple snipers and make watch points throughout the village. Then get to the highest point in the village and act as overwatch as the villagers and the rest of us make our way out. After we’re far enough away rendezvous with the rest of us.” I tell her. “We’ll slow down if you think you'd need us to.” I add with a playful smirk.
She returns the grin with her own. “No need.”
“How ‘bout me then, miss.” Smiles asks from his bed.
“Rest. You're no good to us if your burns get infected or some other nonsense I'm sure you'd get yourself into.” I kneel by his bedside. “Just do me a favor and sit this one out Smiles. I'll take over, until you're all healed up.”
He seems to consider my words before nodding. “I'll leave the evacuation to you then, lil’miss.”
“I'll wound you even more if you call me ‘lil’ anything again, dear.” I warn him with a warm smile on my face.
By the time we get far enough from what remains of the village to be no more than a distant speck the sun has long set. Overhead the imperfect surface of the moon now lights our path as we work our way down the rough road to Vacuo.
Besides Elzi, who trails our caravan, Coria, who's on the side opposite to me, and I anyone not guiding the horses down the path are all tucked away in their covered wagons. From the faint lights I see flicker on and off throughout the column I can tell that few can sleep even though we're all exhausted from packing away essential and moving the wounded. Not to mention nearly being wiped out by Tawny’s horde of Grimm. Or, more accurately, the Grimm of whoever Tawny’s working for.
I let out a heavy sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. To be honest I'm exhausted to, finally burnt out from fighting Tawny's goons and Grimm. Then again I guarantee that the rest of my team feels the same, especially Coria, who’s notorious for being easily exhaustible. Even Smiles, currently ‘resting’ in a wagon among the other wounded, is most likely guarding his fellow patients.
“Something smell, ‘sir’ Dragon?” Chimes an all too familiar voice from beside me.
I look to see, currently dressed in all of her combat gear, Auburn guiding the wagon next to me. Her large eyes seem tired against her sleek face, which is covered in a combination of dirt and flecks of blood now darker then her wine red colored hair. She's a welcome, albeit grim, sight since I'd been wondering what'd happened to her during the fight.
“Am I grimacing that much?” I ask her playfully.
“More than usual, I'd say.” Auburn replies.
The two of us let out weak, weary sounding, laughter. We go quiet for a bit, with only the sound of wooden wheels crunching against the packed earth of the road.
“How'd your job go?” Auburn asks.
“Well enough. Although it took longer than Elzi or I thought it would have.”
“Yeah? How long ‘were’ you two gone? Uhm, two, no, three three months wasn't it?”
“Yeah. I was really looking forward to getting a good night's rest at home, for once.”
“Yeah, well.” Auburn shrugs, her red staring off into the distance. She frowns and looks at me. “It's good to have you back, Dragon. Even if…even if the village is out of commission.”
“Yeah, it’s good to be back.” My eyes trace through the line of wagons, all full of my fellow displaced villagers. Their home, our home, a place I had sworn to protect now in shambles and nigh uninhabitable. “Even if the village is gone.”
“The village ain't gone, Dragon.” I look at her. “Most of us are still alive and that's all that matters. Our homes may be gone but we can just build a new one.” I give her a smile which she takes my smile in for a moment before she looks ahead again. “Not too cheesy?”
“No, just cheesy enough.” I assure her. “Stay safe, soldier.”
She curtly nods her response before guiding her wagon past me. “You stay safe to, warrior.” She calls over her shoulder.
I watch her go as her wagon blends in with the rest of the wagons. I apparently watch long enough for another wagon to get in pace with me. I don't really notice until I hear a sharp rip of fabric and look just in time to see a stark white mask with a cartoonish grin pop out through a fresh tear in wagon’s side.
“Howdy ‘warrior’,” Smiles chimes mockingly. “You didn't tell me you have a girlfriend.”
“I don't, boss. You're hearing things.”
“No, no, no. These ears of mine never lead me astray.” Smiles replies, playfully wiggling his feline ears.
“She's just a good friend, Smiles.”
“Just ‘how’ good we talking?”
I sigh, feeling exasperated from Smiles’s near legendary ability to pester information out of people. “We live in the same village, for one. And Elzi and I went to the same combat school as her before we learned she couldn't be a Huntress.”
“Why not? She seems capable.”
“She is.” I tell him curtly. I stay silent for a while, hoping he'll drop the subject, before I look at him staring at me with his blank face. “Auburn topped our class in everything from tactical maneuvers to hand to hand combat. She even broke a few records at Cloud and would've seemed like an elite Huntress in training except for one detail.” I grab the back of my neck, attempting to relieve a sudden knot. “Her aura is weak. Weaker than an average person let alone a Huntsman or a Huntress. And, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get her semblance to manifest.”
Smiles is quiet for a bit as, I'm guessing, he mulls over what I'd just told him. I would never have told anyone about Auburn’s handicap but Smiles, even if they had pestered me as twice as much as he did. Auburn might even kill me for mentioning this to someone without her direct consent.
“Well,” Smiles begins, breaking me out of my train of thought. “That's a load of crap. She seems to be making the most out of it though.”
“It's what she known for. Excelling beyond what anyone expects of her.”
Smiles is quiet for a second before he pulls his head back into the wagon. “Dragon,” he starts, his voice slightly muffled, “I don't want to sound preachy but realize what's important to you and protect it with everything you've got.” He's quiet long enough for me to think that he's fallen asleep before he says. “Because, if you lose something that important, it'll leaving a scar that will never heal. You know?”
He's obviously bringing up the past as an example. And, thinking about what he had lost, brings with it heavy feeling of guilt and the sharp edge of sadness. “Yeah I know, Smiles.” I look to where his head was a moment ago. “Don't worry about it, man.” He's quiet. “Smiles?”
I hear the flap in the back of the wagon burst open and the sudden crunch of feet against the dirt road. I look back to see Smiles, shirtless with the entire top half of his body covered in fresh, now blooming red, bandages, throwing on his holsters with one mechanical hand and the other holding one of his Fangs at the ready.
“Grimm!” He bellows, the mixing with the sudden sound of snarls and guttural howls that seem to surround us and a thunderous gunshot from the rear of the caravan.
I pull back the bolt, the spent casing flying past my face, and throw another in as I search for another tight cluster of Grimm. I hadn't seen the beasts until a pack of Creepers burst through the sand around me, now all lying in two pieces at my feet. Although now they're almost all I can see as the remainder of the horde tear their way towards the caravan.
In the distance I can hear sounds of gunfire that encircle the entirety of us all in a defensive perimeter. Most likely either the Defense Commander or Auburn’s doing. Intermingled in the constant roar I can also hear the sound of Corie and even Smiles’s weapons. I don't need any gunshot to figure out where Dragon is with the thunderous grinding noise of earth tearing apart. I trust the three of them to defend the rest of the caravan and know they trust me as well, even after my recent failure. Now is the time to regain any trust I may have lost.
I fire another round into a group of distant Grimm, the shot sailing through them like a comet. I continue this, letting myself fall into a trance of destruction aimed at the Grimm, and quickly cut down any single Grimm that are able to make it to me.
Only when Auburn, clutching a submachine gun in one hand and a dagger in the other, and a group of soldiers dressed in DF uniforms come from behind me do I break myself out of the trance. Auburn runs up to me, firing a couple quick bursts into a Creeper that had dug its way past me.
“Elzi, get to the front of the caravan.” Auburn orders, yelling over the sound of gunfire and the Grimms’ feral noises. “The rest of your team is on their way to.”
“Why? What's at the front?”
“Four high class combatants. It seems,” a Creeper bursts from the ground only for Auburn to plunge her dagger into the side of its head. “It seems our enemy has Huntsmen. Now go!”