ATLAS: Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero
“Give it back, you filching grey freak!”
It was ironic that he held Stratans in such contempt. After all, Calli's assailant wouldn't have been at all out of place in the Substrata himself, if only he were slightly less tanned. His clothes were shabby and frayed, his thinning hair and faded beard tangled and unkempt – and his breath reeked of tobacco every time he opened his mouth to yell at her.
Though he did a good job of feigning outrage when he spoke, the slimy little sneer on his face gave him away for what he really was. Obviously, she hadn't robbed him – but just as obviously, he hadn't been robbed in the first place. He must have just been waiting until he saw an easy mark to set upon, snatch something from, claim they stole it, and then run away before anybody could question him, or District Security arrived.
...Well, he could skip that last step, now. If he said Calli's bag belonged to him, then it wasn't as if anyone would believe otherwise. Even if security did show up, they'd probably just hand him her keys and her wallet, too. She could already hear mutterings from nearby benches and tables, and though the exact words spoken were drowned out by the constant tirade of slurs, insults, and demands that the balding swindler was screeching at her, not a one of them seemed like they could be bothered to intervene.
Tch. At least the thieves back home have the decency not to insult you while they pick your pocket.
It didn't seem like pleading her innocence was getting her anywhere, so she tried threatening him instead. That just made him start yelling about calling security – and at least some of the onlookers seemed like they might do just that. Calli grimaced. She couldn't ditch her bag – that was where her paycheck was, not even to mention her ATLAS badge. If a security officer showed up, no doubt they'd want to search her, and if – no, when they found that...
No choice, then. She needed to escape before things got any worse, regardless of what she'd have to do to pull it off. The first step would be breaking his hold. Though he might be a professional at stealing other people's possessions, he was an amateur when it came to restraining his marks. She just needed to tug at his grip a little, wind her hand up around his wrist, and then –
“Let her go.”
A voice that was clearly trying very hard to sound stern and commanding cut in. The swindler stopped screaming at her, and she stopped trying to bend his hand around backwards as both of them turned to see...
“Who the hell are you?” The swindler asked.
“Her friend,” the ginger-haired young man replied, fighting tooth and nail against his own boyish face to muster the most threatening glare he could. She had to give him credit; for an upper city kid, he wasn't terrible at it. With eyes like that, he might even be able to scare a puppy, or a particularly timid infant.
The hustler, unfortunately, was neither.
“Yeah?” He hissed. “Well, your friend here snatched my bag, so either make her give it back, or piss off!” Seeing what looked like an opening, he gave her bag (and her arm) another tug, but this time, it wasn't just Calli who stopped him. The stranger grabbed his wrist and, unexpectedly, pried it off her, allowing Calli to quickly disentangle her bag and step back.
Even if his attempt at intimidation had failed, and even though she hadn't the faintest clue who he was, this guy seemed to be actually... trying to help her? No doubt, there would be some kind of strings attached, but for now, it couldn't hurt anything but her pride to play along...
- - -
Who the heck is – Oh, wait, is 'Arthur' supposed to be me?
The Stratan girl was nothing if not adaptable. The moment Genesis gave her an opening, she hastily scrambled out of the man's reach, taking particular care to put him between her bag and her assailant. She seemed like she was trying to take advantage of the situation to act like she was scared and garner sympathy from the crowd, but in his humble opinion those doe eyes really didn't suit somebody who had just been moments away from crippling a man.
Still, it's not her fault. She didn't do anything this time either... probably. But I can worry about that later. Right now, I just need to defuse this situation before anyone gets hurt.
“It's alright, uh...” Shit. Even though he recognized her, he'd never actually gotten her name. He'd never been good with such things, either – wasn't it a little much, expecting him to come up with something on the spot? Let's see...
“It's alright, Bianca.”
Ugh... That's way too on the nose. Why is that the first thing that came to mind? She's not gonna slap me, is she?
If the girl did recognize the name's meaning, however, she didn't show it. So, since she wasn't acting as if anything was unusual, all he could do was keep going. “I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding,” Genesis said, turning back to the fuming man in front of him.
“A misunderstanding? That sewer rat has my bag!” Huh. He had wanted to remain neutral and talk this out, but with each insult and accusation, he felt more and more inclined to believe her side of the story.
“Sir, are you absolutely certain you don't have the wrong person?”
“The wrong person? Bullshit! If that ain't mine, then you prove it!” The man demanded. The smirk beneath his beard suggested that he had already seen through their little act – not a difficult feat, mind you, but inconvenient nonetheless. After all, they were complete strangers. There wasn't any way for Genesis to prove that bag was hers when he had never seen –
Oh, but he had seen it. Not the bag itself, but rather...
“If this is supposed to be yours, then you have strange tastes in accessories.” He motioned behind him, pointing at the strap of the bag... where the very same bracelet Genesis had seen her wearing yesterday was tied to the strap. He had wanted to believe from the start that she hadn't stolen anything, but now he was certain. This guy was no more than a common thief, and he had the gall to accuse her of that very same crime while committing it himself!
“What are you talking about? What does it matter to you what I put on my bag?”
And there it was – a mistake in the heat of the moment. The man seemed to realize it too, the moment the words were out of his mouth, but by then it was far too late to switch to a less incriminating lie.
“It matters a great deal to me. After all, that's her bracelet,” He said pointedly, making sure his voice was loud enough for everyone watching to hear, too. That much was the truth, but it would hardly seem convincing without any feeling behind it. If that was the case, then perhaps it would be best to take a page out of the hustler's own playbook. So, leaning into his assumed role as the girl's acquaintance...
“I would know, since I'm the one who gave it to her!” He lied. "And I don't much appreciate you trying to steal it!"
“I – She's the one who stole from me!” The swindler desperately repeated, to little avail. The crowd's perception of the scene had changed completely. Realizing that the tables were turned, he awkwardly began to shift backwards, making to run – but after what he had said, Genesis wasn't in a mood to let him go so easily. Reaching out, he tried to take hold of the thief's shoulder and restrain him, but at that moment his instincts suddenly kicked in.
As far as ways to end a losing argument went, a sucker punch was definitely a good choice. Unfortunately, it didn't work quite as well when your opponent was precognitive. Genesis instinctively shifted his whole body out of the way and made to retaliate, but around that time received a sudden and painful reminder that the vast majority of his body was still covered in bruises, and several of his muscles had been pulled and strained during a certain little incident where a train had fallen on him.
What should have been a graceful dodge thus ended up as more of an awkward, cringing sidestep, the culmination of which was his knee locking up, the front of his foot stubbing itself into the pavement, and his whole body promptly tumbling to the ground, which, of course, did wonders for his many wounds.
Ugh... It probably would have hurt less to just let him hit me.
The distant sound of footfalls suggested that the robber had taken this opportunity to make a break for it. Much to his surprise, though, the girl didn't seem interested in giving chase. Rather, a pale hand suddenly descended right in front of his eyes, and his gaze swiftly followed it up to where two yellow-gold eyes were giving him a bemused stare.
- - -
“Are you alright?”
“Physically? Yes.” The man who probably wasn't named Arthur answered with a groan. Calli gave a laugh that was half amusement and half sympathy, then held out her hand a little further, inviting him once again to take it.
“Well, let's get you up then,” She chided with a smile. “Wouldn't want to get that shining armor of yours dirty, eh?”
“Huh? A-armor? How'd – Oh.” He did a double-take, not seeming to understand her joke for a moment – then gave a forced laugh, as though that would convince her that he'd gotten it all along.
Regardless, he took her hand, and she hauled him back to his feet, helping to dust off his jacket. All around them, the various bystanders all seemed to have gone back to their own business now that the excitement was over, which probably meant it was fine to drop the act. But with that out of the way... what exactly was she supposed to say now?
“Uh... Sorry.” He at last broke the silence, scratching awkwardly at the back of his neck.
“What are you apologizing for?” She asked, cocking her head to the side.
“Well... For barging in like that, I guess. I probably made things really awkward for you, and ended up making a fool of myself to boot.”
Calli just shrugged. Sure, the whole 'damsel in distress' scenario wouldn't have been her first choice – or her second, or her third – but it had worked, and that was certainly better than not helping at all.
“I was being robbed. Trust me, 'really awkward' is still an improvement.”
“Ah. Right. Uh, of course. I'm glad I was able to help, then.” He still seemed... rather embarrassed about the whole thing, though whether that was on account of his cringeworthy attempt at acting or his clumsiness at the end, she couldn't say for sure. Still, either way, it made her want to tease him a bit.
“Well, you still need to work on your hero routine, though,” She added slyly. He grimaced and looked away just a little too late to hide the blush forming in his cheeks.
“I promise, I don't usually end up tripping over my own feet,” He protested weakly.
“Usually?” Her grin curled impishly. “You mean you do this often?”
“Eh?” Once again, he seemed strangely perturbed by her accusations of heroism. “Ah, no, I... uh... I just happened to... You know.”
“Well, you didn't do too bad, for a first-timer,” She patted him on the back in a manner that was meant to be reassuring, only for him to wince sharply at the gesture. Maybe he had hurt himself worse than she thought. She opened her mouth to apologize, but he cut her off with a forced smile.
“You seem awfully experienced. Do you do this often?” He'd probably been trying to get another laugh, but all Calli could muster was a shake of her head, a shrug and a sigh.
“Far more than I'd like,” She lamented. “This makes twice in as many days! I can't so much as bump into someone without being called a thief, it seems.”
“Oh, right... Sorry, that joke was in poor taste, considering...” He answered unexpectedly. This time it was her turn to do a double-take, and she looked him over more closely. The more she looked at him, the more she couldn't shake the feeling that he was somehow familiar...
“Hm? Wait, do I actually know you?”
“Ah... uh, kind of?” He answered noncommittally, fumbling for a way to explain himself. “We met yesterday. You bumped into my, uh... coworker.” At this, he could probably see the little light bulb turning on above her head. At the very least, he perked up at her expression, suddenly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the thought that he'd made an impression.
In retrospect, he had probably expected a thanks, or some kind of positive recognition for helping her back then, too. Unfortunately for him, the only thing that she could think of was...
“You're that guy with the weird name!” She exclaimed.
If he'd been “bushy-tailed” before, then that metaphorical tail was now definitely drooping dejectedly, like a disobedient pup who had been scolded.
“I... umm... Yeah... I guess so? It is a little unusual...”
It wasn't like she couldn't relate to the burden of being saddled with an... excessive name, and although it had been quite fun ruffling his feathers, after he'd been so kind as to help her twice, the last thing she wanted to do was actually insult him. She scrambled to try to rectify the situation – but it took her another several seconds of mumbling to herself to remember what his name even was, and when she did, her first attempt at a joke only made things worse.
“Haha... I guess it's lucky I didn't remember you at first, then. If I had called you 'Genesis,' he definitely wouldn't have bought it for a second!”
“I'm glad you remembered it, at least...” His tone was anything but glad, and Calli mentally slapped herself for her insensitivity. Quickly, she needed to change the subject – something, anything!
“So, uh – why'd you call me 'Bianca?'” And now she was questioning even his taste in other people's names. God, it had been so long since she'd had a normal conversation that she just kept putting her foot in her mouth every time she opened it.
“Erm... What I mean is, that's a bit of a fancy name for someone like me, wouldn't you say? Pretty sure that's from a Golden Age language...” Leaving aside the hypocrisy involved in such a statement, that hastily-made addition seemed to detract a little bit from the force of her words, at the very least; and as such, prompted a slightly less gloomy response.
“Mm. Yeah. It comes from some old European tongue... Italian, I think it was called? It's been a while since I studied that period, though.”
“Ah... right. Well, most folks from down under usually have really simple names, so it just kind of struck me as a bit of an odd choice, is all.” Right, the situation was improving again. She just had to not accidentally say anything else stupid or hurt his feelings. “What made you think of it? Does it mean something in particular?”
He unexpectedly blushed and averted his eyes again, seeming ashamed of his lack of creativity when prompted to answer. When he did speak, it was just one word.
...Normally, Calli hated it when people focused on her hair. Everyone in the upper city seemed to do it to some degree or another. They'd stare as she passed, or move away if she happened to get too close. And like the man who'd just accosted her, they'd usually call her all manner of colorful epithets pertaining to it if she gave them even the slightest cause. “Hag” or “ghost” or “white rat” – she'd heard them all before.
But this... this felt different, somehow. The first thing he had noticed was the same, and yet, the way he had gone about expressing that showed that his intent couldn't have been more different. Among the well-to-do, a pretty name in an old world language was supposed to bring good fortune to its bearer – or so she'd been told. The fact that he'd deigned to give her such a name, even just on the spur of the moment, was almost... sweet. Yeah. It was really, really sweet.
And so, she laughed – surprising herself almost as much as him in the process. “Well,” She chuckled. “That is a simple name, after all!”
“Eh? Glad you liked it, I guess.” He didn't seem to entirely get her amusement, but smiled nonetheless. That smile, however, turned into a frown a moment later as he suddenly realized something.
“Say, I don't think you ever gave me your actual name.”
“Eh? I didn't? Oh, uh... I'm Calli.” She pointed to herself and gave a cheerful smile. “Nice to meet you, and all that.”
“'Calli?'” He blinked. “Is that short for something?”
...Never before had such an innocuous question caused so much heat to rise to her face so quickly. Now it was her turn to avert her gaze, nervously scratching at her cheek.
“Yeah. It's... um... short for 'Calypso,'” She answered in an uncharacteristically small voice.
...He stared at her with a look of abject disbelief – a look which slowly morphed into one of comically exaggerated anger.
“What did you make fun of me for, then!? At least my name is an actual word!”