Chapter 16:

A Bad Day, Two Liars, and a Pizza

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

“Just because my name is also stupid doesn't mean yours isn't, too,” the young woman in front of him fumed.

Genesis couldn't help but crack a grin. Now it made sense why his own name had made such a strong impression. Surely, she must have been thinking something like “Oh, finally, someone with a name as weird as mine!” 

“Wait,” Genesis thought aloud, coming to a sudden realization. “Why'd you say 'Bianca' was too fancy, then? 'Calypso' is even farther out there, wouldn't you say?”

“Well, duh.” Calli folded her arms in a posture of mock-annoyance. Or... maybe a little bit of actual annoyance, but she couldn't quite hide her smile, either, so it was probably alright to joke about this. “But my name's still the exception rather than the rule. Generally, you get people with names like 'Mari' or 'Roy.' But, then again...” She gave a shrug. “I guess I did also meet a 'Roland' recently, so there's probably a few more people out there who are exceptions, too.”

“And how did you end up with such an exceptional name, anyway?” Oh. Maybe a question like that was going too far. Her smile vanished again, and when she answered, her voice was so forcefully casual it could only be seen as serious.

“Who knows? My dad had weird tastes.”

Had. The word carried with it an air of bitter finality with which Genesis was all too well acquainted. What was he supposed to say in response to that sudden weight? Should he give his condolences? No, that would be strange, coming from somebody she had only just met. The best he could do was just nod and give a halfhearted “I see” and then hope to change the subject.

...To what, though? They might have had a similar sense of humor, but what did they actually have to talk about? If he didn't think of something to keep this conversation going, then... Wait, actually, why was he even trying to drag out the conversation anyway? He supposed that it had helped lighten his mood after a rough day, but wasn't he just wasting this woman's time? And after she'd just been nearly robbed, no less. Surely, she wanted nothing more than to go home and –

A disgracefully loud, gurgling rumble suddenly erupted from the vicinity of his stomach.

Oh. Right. I skipped lunch today to go on patrol. And then I skipped dinner, too, just so I could sit through that bastard's lecture. I wonder if there's anything left in the fridge at home? Should I stop by the convenience store on the way back? Or maybe I'll just –

“You've had a long day too, huh?”

The girl's sly smile returned in full force. Wait, did she hear that? It wasn't like being hungry was anything to be ashamed of, logically speaking, but having that fact broadcast so loudly was still embarrassing to him.

“Ah... yeah, I guess. I started a new job recently, and, uh... I'm still not very good at it.” He gave a forced laugh, scratching at the back of his neck just to keep himself doing something, because to stand still and meet her gaze directly suddenly seemed far too demanding a task.

“Want to grab a bite?”

“Huh?” Scratch that, he found himself looking right at her to make sure that he hadn't misheard. Sure enough, she was pointing to one of the nearby food trucks, which, from a cursory glance seemed to be serving...

Noodles... pizza... sandwiches... burgers... BBQ ribs... Tacos... Wait, is there anything this place doesn't sell?

“My treat,” Calli added, pointing back confidently to herself. “I also just started a new job, and as it happens, I just got my first paycheck today. Thanks to your help, I even got to keep it, so why not let me return the favor?”

“I appreciate it,” Genesis began, but stopped himself. He was a Corporate Hero. She was a Stratan girl struggling to make a living in the big city. Surely, she needed the money far more than he did.

“I appreciate it, but --” he began again, only to be stopped by a click of her tongue and a wag of her finger.

“No buts,” She interrupted all-too-cheerfully. “I hate owing people for anything, whether it's a favor, a loan, or just a random fluke. You've helped me out twice now; I'd seem pretty ungrateful if I didn't at least do something in return, wouldn't I?” She was still keeping up that devil-may-care attitude, but he could tell that behind her playful tone she was completely serious. This was a matter of pride for her, clearly; but it was also a matter of pride for him, too.

“Even so, I couldn't ask you to waste your money on me when you've only just earned it. I'd be more than happy to keep you company, but I've --” He stopped himself quite suddenly as, midway through reaching into his pocket. the temperature of his face rose quite sharply.

“You've what?” She prodded, raising an eyebrow.

“–I've forgotten my wallet,” He finished lamely. Calli flashed a victorious grin, and cocked her head back in a way that gave the distinctive impression of looking down upon a defeated foe... despite the fact that she was a good half a head shorter than him.

“My offer's still on the table, if you're willing to reconsider~,” She teased in a sing-song voice. Genesis nodded, and hung his head in defeat.

“...I'd be much obliged.”

- - -

So it was that Calli found herself sitting across from her still-embarrassed savior, munching on a slice of the pizza positioned haphazardly in the no-man's-land at the center of the table.

When eating with somebody whose tastes you didn't know, pizza was always a safe bet. It was cheap, it was simple, it was tasty, and you could get it just about anywhere. And really, was there even anyone alive who didn't like pizza? Granted, even this much was still practically gourmet by Stratan standards, so it wasn't as if most of her acquaintances could have afforded to be picky in the first place. Still, she'd never met someone who couldn't appreciate a good pizza.

“So... uh...” Genesis awkwardly began, fishing for some kind of topic to keep the conversation going. Right, she'd been a bit too preoccupied with eating, hadn't she? She'd skipped lunch and dinner just so she could go fall off a train and argue with a self-righteous coward, so filling the empty void in her stomach had been her foremost concern.

“You come here often?” When all else failed, the young man fell back on the most harmless and generic question he could think of. Calli nodded absentmindedly, nibbling at the leftover crust in her hand.

“Mhm. I've tried a few of the other vendors around here, too – but this place is the best by far,” She answered. It was meaningless small talk, but... that was nice, in its own way. How often had she gotten the chance to talk about something as simple as what food she liked, or what her hobbies were, since coming to the Orbital District?

“Which is weird if you think about it. Normally, the more things a shop sells, the worse you'd expect each one to be, right?”

Genesis blinked, and then nodded, casting a glance as he did so over towards the truck itself, encrusted as it was with item listings and promotional offers that had long since spilled off the vehicle's attached signage, expired, and subsequently been painted over with new ones.

“Yeah, now that you mention it, the menu here is... uh... pretty overwhelming.”

“I know, right?” Calli chuckled, taking another bite. “I've been going here ever since I moved to the upper city, and I still don't think I've tried even half of it.”

A rare meeting with someone who was willing to talk with her normally, good food she didn't often have an excuse or the money to indulge in, and a beautiful night sky overhead; these things couldn't quite make up for the miserable day she had already gone through, but this chance encounter was still definitely a step in the right direction.

No matter what the conversation might turn to, Calli was just enjoying the fact that she could even have a conversation to begin with. And if any problems arose, well... She could worry about that when it happened.

“So, uh... What sort of work do you do?”

...Or I could worry about it right now, apparently.

In hindsight, she probably shouldn't have brought up the topic of her job to begin with, but it was already far too late to do anything about that. She could just come up with some sort of plausible-sounding lie, but, then again, he'd already seen her at work once; maybe something closer to the truth would be best.

“Oh, uh... I... Well, you already saw me yesterday, right?” She forced a smile and a laugh, scrambling for some way to explain without digging herself deeper.

“Ah, right, now that you mention it. Though... there's not much demand for gardeners in the Orbital District, is there?”

...Right. Of course. Too specific. If she was just a gardener, she'd probably only be able to find work in the hydroponics farms out on the Horizon Strand – unless she worked for the Arboretum or as a permanent hand at the Sky Canopy Tower, anyway. But this guy worked for Orbital, and might be able to disprove such a lie if she claimed to be an employee of the company. So, once again, she leaned closer to the truth.

“Well, I don't just do gardening. I work with – I guess you could call it an odd jobs firm?” Technically not a lie, but it also sounded kind of pathetic, so she hastily continued making things up until it sounded like a real job that definitely existed. “I started as a temporary hire, but my manager liked my work, I guess. Now I'm working as... his assistant.” Yeah, that sounded... reasonably plausible. And really, wasn't that... sort of what had actually happened, in the vaguest possible sense? Genesis didn't seem to be suspicious of her, either, so she just kept going. “It's full time, so the pay's a lot better, and I don't have to worry about whether I can or can't get any hours in.”

“So what else do you do as an assistant, then?” ...And once again, in trying to cover for herself, she'd only opened herself up to more questions! She fished around for any sort of useful excuse, and latched upon something she remembered having to deal with once before. They'd been cleaning a secure Neuron warehouse, which had meant...

“Oh, uh... contract work with the Four Enterprises, mostly. Can't talk about it much, though. They usually make us sign all kinds of nondisclosure agreements. Don't want us leaking info or trade secrets to their competitors, and all that.” It might have only happened once, but that proved that it could happen, so he... probably wouldn't pry any further, right?

“Oh... right. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

He didn't seem surprised by her answer in the slightest, actually. Calli got a sneaking suspicion he was probably familiar enough with plenty of such secrets himself. He had been accompanying that flashy-looking man at the tower, after all, so it wasn't that far-fetched to assume he associated with the company's higher ranks. Plus, he had an unusually fancy name, which often was a sign of a prestigious family history.

Wait. Hm? Is this guy actually someone pretty important?

...So, partly to change the subject away from her own secrets, and partly just because she was curious, she returned his questioning in kind.

“How about you? You mentioned a new job, too.”

- - -

Genesis had been so busy trying to make small talk that he had almost forgotten that he was a terrible liar, and that effort was required to keep a secret identity secret.

“Eh? Ah. Um... right. That. Yeah. Er...” What was he even supposed to do in this situation? She knew that he worked for Orbital, so it wasn't like he could make up just anything. Maybe if he just told the truth but left the details vague...

“Right. It's... sort of a long story. I used to work for a subsidiary of Orbital, but after an incident happened –” He froze. He wasn't even a sentence in, and already, that sounded way too suspicious. The girl across from him... didn't seem to mind, though. She just gave a reassuring nod.

“You probably aren't supposed to talk about it, right? It's fine if you don't.”

“Ah, no... well, yes I'm not supposed to talk about it, but the incident itself isn't really the point so it's... probably fine.” Somehow or another, he fumbled his way through it. His roundabout answer was probably already setting off red flags, but it would only seem more shady if he stopped now, so all he could do is keep going. “Basically, how I handled things got noticed by the higher-ups, and they offered me a promotion and a job with the main company.”

“Well, good for you!” If Calli was suspicious of him, she didn't show it, simply giving him an earnest congratulation.

“Well...” He really shouldn't talk about it. He knew that, but... How could he get shoved around and blackmailed and threatened and lectured when he'd done nothing wrong, and still be expected to just keep all that frustration bottled up inside himself? It was petty, and it would probably only make her think of him as a pathetic man, but the words spilled out before he even knew it.

“...That's what I thought at first, but...” He sighed.

“Hm?” Calli frowned. “Was the new job not what you expected, then?”

Genesis hesitated for just a moment longer, but, having said this much already... Oh, hell with it.

“Yeah. It's terrible.”