Chapter 8:

A Moment's Courtesy

ATLAS: Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero

If there was an upside to working as a hero, it wasn't the hours.

Every day since his unfortunate meeting with the company president, Genesis had found himself clocking in before the sun had crested the horizon. And, more often than not, by the time he shambled back to his apartment and fell into bed, it was already well past dark.

From morning to night, day in, day out, it was always the same. Report to the top-secret testing facility underneath Sky Canopy, transform, then train until he keeled over.

...Well, apart from that last bit, I doubt anybody would sympathize with that kind of complaint.

A secret base, legendary technology most common workers couldn't even dream of -- it all sounded cool and glamorous... on paper. But in practice, all it amounted to was fumbling his way through obstacle courses to force him to acclimate to moving in his armor, practicing falling without breaking his own neck, and occasionally, on particularly bad days, getting blasted across the room by his fellow hero in a series of at least slightly less one-sided spars.

Yesterday had been a bad day, and his whole body still felt sore. The only saving grace was that his apartment was at the very end of the hall on the top floor of the complex, the room below him was a storage closet, and the neighboring suite on his own floor was as quiet as ever, allowing him to at least get a bit of uninterrupted sleep before he had to wake back up and do it all over again.

To be honest, he wasn't even sure if the room next door was occupied. He'd never seen his neighbor face to face, and he seldom heard any sounds coming from the other side of the wall. Hell, most of the time when he looked up at the building from the street, their lights weren't even on. District Security had swept the place once, though, so somebody must have lived there at some point. Maybe they just kept strange hours?

At any rate, he already felt exhausted by the time he even reached the tower. The sun had only just risen, but it was already unbearably hot. He could see ripples beginning to form in the air over the pavement, the heat haze flowing like waves in the shoreless ocean - an apt comparison, actually, considering how the moisture in the air seemed to stick to his face as he walked.

He wasn't the only one suffering, at least. All of the groundskeepers were already sprawled out under the shade, hiding from the sunlight. Well, most of them, anyway; on a second look, there was a lone figure slowly making her way down the line, pulling weeds and watering the flowers with an almost mechanical dedication. Clad in her dirty overalls and tugging periodically at the frayed brim of her old straw hat, one girl sat alone in defiance of the sun that bore down upon her.

Something about the sight gave him a new appreciation for his situation. Maybe it was just schadenfreude, but, well... things always could have been worse, he supposed. He might have been getting the crap kicked out of him on the daily, but at least he was doing it in an air-conditioned room.

...Or at least, he'd thought that was the case.

"We're gonna do things a bit differently today," Kouji had said suddenly, stopping after only a couple hours of practice. He'd only whacked Genesis around once or twice, and had even remembered to pull his punches this time. Saying they were going to do things differently seemed too good to be true!

"Today, I'm gonna show you the ropes of going out on patrol!"

In his armor. In the summer heat. Outside. Yup, that sounded more like his kind of luck. Before he'd even had time to appreciate it, that brief flicker of optimism was gone again.

He realized he'd forgotten the Armor Key for his transformation bracelet in the training room only after they'd reached the lobby. Having to input the password, use his access badge, get his fingerprint scanned, and then ride the lift all the way back down to the 17th subfloor just to retrieve it was just icing on the cake. He was in a bad mood by the time he made it all the way back to the surface, and he marched out the front door with certainty in his mind that nothing could make him feel better about the terrible day he was having.

...It was probably weird to get encouraged twice just by knowing that the same person was having a worse day than you. Did that make him a bad person? It probably made him a bad person.

At any rate, seeing the gardener who was still hard at work -- and still doing everything by herself, no less -- crash headlong into Kouji and promptly get yelled at definitely came as a surprise -- for more reasons than one.

 Kouji was a bit rough around the edges, but he was generally a pretty nice guy. And even if she was on the taller side, there wasn't any way someone like him would get hurt just by getting walked into. He wasn't even the one who fell over, so why was he so mad about--

Oh. That was why. The woman realized what had happened and hastily scrambled for her hat, but by that point it was far too late. Her appearance was already shabby, and kind of sketchy, but with silver hair on top of that...

It definitely was strange to see a Stratan working in a place like this, and it wasn't uncommon for those who came from the lower city to jump at the first chance they got to snag some valuables before retreating back down to the lower levels where District Security couldn't find them. With conditions getting worse down in the Substrata, purse snatchers and pickpockets were all too common nowadays.

Even so, she'd been doing her job diligently all this time, right? Somebody dedicated enough to work so hard out in this sweltering heat probably wouldn't throw all that hard work away for a little pocket change, would she? Kouji was probably just overreacting.

Maybe just to be sure, using that just a little bit couldn't hurt. Kouji was making a scene, and if this kept up things might get dangerous for the girl, who probably hadn't done anything wrong. Of course, that was only a hypothetical. There was no way this situation could turn dangerous enough to make his power activate. It wasn't nearly such a convenient tool as --


...Wait, what?

Was the woman really in that much danger? Surely, Kouji wouldn't attack her just because she was a Stratan, would he?



Before he knew it, the next several moments were flashing before his mind's eye. The Stratan would taunt Kouji, Kouji would become furious and yell something back at her, the girl would lose her temper, insult him again and try to get up and walk away... Then he would grab hold of her wrist to stop her, and she would immediately retaliate by drawing back her foot and kicking him viciously right in the --



Right, yeah, that made sense. Rather, he could hardly blame her for reacting that way if she was going to be grabbed by such a shallow-looking guy.

At any rate, as a hero-to-be, it was his solemn duty to protect Kouji from enduring the most agonizing and ignominious pain known to men, so, since he had foreseen the whole incident and his power hadn't seen fit to warn him of any danger the girl might pose beyond her... formidable defensive instincts, he felt reasonably confident she'd done nothing wrong. So, just as his angry mentor was about to say something stupid and place his precious little friend in mortal peril, he strode in between them and interrupted him.

"Knock it off, Kouji. She just happened to bump into you -- that's all."

"So you finally showed up, Genesis? Whatever." Evidently embarrassed to be seen acting out, he made a big show of indifference, and quickly did his best to change the subject. "What took you so long, anyway? We've got work to do."

"Sorry to keep you waiting." Genesis apologized through gritted teeth. Kouji knew damn well how slow that crappy elevator was! "I left my -- uh, something important at my desk and had to run back to get it." He only barely managed to check himself before he outed himself in public, but even with his last-minute substitution, Kouji still stared at him as though he was looking at the very pinnacle of idiocy.

"Seriously?! There's a limit to being careless, you know!"

Right, right. Thinking about it rationally, the bracelet now tucked under his suit sleeve could, with the right Armor Key, turn anybody who wore it into a nearly-impervious juggernaut with superhuman strength -- discounting all that talk about the armor supposedly choosing its wearer, anyway, which he still wasn't sure he believed.

Plus, even without the bracelet, the Armor Key contained both the structural data of his entire hero form, and all of the coordinate data needed to retrieve it from Metaspace. If somebody took the Key, even if they didn't have the bracelet to go with it, they could still potentially decode it and access the power within.

Still, couldn't Kouji cut him some slack here? He was still new to all this, and it wasn't like he'd left it out in the open or anything. Of all the places to forget your superweapon, a sealed, secure laboratory nobody but you and your boss could access wasn't that bad.

Maybe that was why Kouji had reacted so defensively towards this girl, though. If she had tried to pick his pocket and found his Armor Key... forget just losing the ability to transform. His secret identity as a famous hero could be leaked, his power could be stolen, and his life could be in danger. Though, Genesis was pretty sure the woman had said something just a moment ago about Kouji showing her the contents of his pockets when he checked to make sure nothing had been taken from them, which meant...

Doesn't it defeat the point of keeping it hidden if your first instinct is to check it's still there anyway?

At any rate, he didn't only step in for the sake of Kouji's future children, and his other reason definitely wasn't to defend his present pride, either. He could deal with his senior later. For right now, there was still the matter of the young woman still sitting awkwardly on the ground, who was...

Staring up at him with a look of mild disbelief, actually. Seeing how shocked she looked that somebody had actually taken her side made him feel guilty for waiting so long to step in. Right... anybody would feel outraged at being berated over such an insignificant accident, and she was already having a pretty rough day. It was only natural that she'd be angry, and it wasn't like he could blame her even for what she was going to have done.

At times like this, a little kindness was easy to give, and meant a lot to receive. A simple friendly gesture could make someone's entire day. So, he put on his best customer service smile, and held out his hand. She reached up her own after a moment's hesitation, and took it.

"Are you alright, miss?"

In hindsight, this random encounter was far more important to his future than he possibly could have guessed at the time, and later, thinking back, he'd try to remember what his first impression of the young woman he had met that day had been.

There had been a lot to take in, and frankly, he'd been rather preoccupied. Even so, he remembered a lot of little details about her. Her messy silvery hair and wide-brimmed hat hadn't quite been able to conceal her unusual golden eyes, which almost seemed to stare right through him when their gazes met.

It put him a little on edge, actually, though it wasn't any fault of her own. He just had some recent trauma he was still working through regarding a certain person, and with that bastard's smug sneer still fresh in his memory, it was hard for him not to flinch.

As his gaze wandered away from her face, however, he also noticed that she was wearing a bracelet on her wrist, and instinctively adjusted his sleeve to make sure his own wasn't showing. She didn't seem to have noticed it at any rate, so he was probably safe.

Hers didn't seem like a particularly fancy accessory, and, in fact, looked to be homemade -- some braided cords woven through a few shiny baubles and bits of metal. It was frayed and scratched in more than a few places, and looked rather worse for wear. Was it some kind of religious ornament? Maybe a good luck charm? At any rate, it was none of his business.

But though there were a lot of little things he remembered from that day, he would later come to regret all the things he didn't realize sooner, when he first had the chance -- as though he could have gleaned some sort of deep and profound understanding of her character from just a few insignificant moments.

He wished he had noticed the fiery temper that lay beneath her outward mask of calm.

He wished that he had realized that she was someone skilled at hiding her true feelings, and that even if she did get hurt, she was stubborn and would sooner endure that pain herself than share it with others.

He wished he could have recognized her high pride, and the way she'd fight to defend it, no matter who became her enemy.

But he didn't think about any of that, either. He just helped her to her feet, and though he was still worried about the way she was limping, she insisted she was fine. So, with nothing else he could do for her, he let her go on her way. After all, it wasn't as though he was likely to ever see her again. To think of their chance meeting as some kind of fateful encounter would just be weird.

She was just a stranger -- one to whom he had simply showed a moment's courtesy. And, just like that, the day went on -- Kouji hypocritically lecturing him for his carelessness all the while.

It hadn't been a good day, by any means. But perhaps it wasn't so bad, either. At the very least, he hoped he had managed to make somebody else's day a little better; and, in so thinking, he also improved his own. It was probably too much to hope for anything more than that, but...

Maybe -- just maybe -- tomorrow would be better for both of them.