ATLAS: Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero
“Want to talk about it?”
The young man sitting across from her seemed to think about her offer for quite some time. Given his oblique mentions of an “incident,” and how quickly he'd bought into her own excuses, Genesis surely had his own circumstances. Even if he wanted to vent, there probably wasn't much he could say.
Still, something seemed to be bothering him, and so the least she could do in exchange for his company was hear him out – however much or little he was both willing and able to share.
“...Yeah, I want to, it's just... you know.” He sighed heavily, absentmindedly flicking at the edge of the grease-stained paper plate in front of him, bouncing it up against the side of the empty pizza box.
“NDAs and trade secrets, right?” She gave a knowing nod, pretending to be an expert on the subject, too busy maintaining her own lie to catch him in his.
“...Basically. Although... I can't really share specifics, but giving you the gist of it is probably fine.” Evidently coming to some sort of decision, he shifted awkwardly in his seat, clearing his throat. Calli just nodded along, wanting to show that she was listening even if this was probably none of her business. Still, she was a little curious. What was it like working for Orbital? Had her own fortunes been better, she might have been in this man's shoes, after all.
“So,” he began, then trailed off.
“So?” She prompted.
“Well, uh... like I said, there was an incident. Or, rather, an accident. It happened on my shift, and so I took care of it to the best of my ability, but some... equipment got damaged.”
“So they blamed you for it?”
“Yeah, basically. Even though it wasn't my fault, my manager... uh... he acted like he was helping me and... recommended me for a promotion. But I think he just wanted to get rid of me.”
Get rid of him? She'd thought it was just a simple matter of his new job itself being bad, but maybe there was actually some kind of deep-seated personal vendetta at work here.
“What sort of promotion?” She asked. “What job did he recommend you for?”
He suddenly clammed up at this, and hastily looked away, seeming to fumble for some kind of answer before at last just shaking his head.
“I... uh... can't say.”
…“Get rid of” just meant this manager had wanted him transferred, right? He hadn't been recommended for some kind of dangerous experimental testing job in the hopes of getting rid of him permanently, had he?
“Ehem.” Genesis cleared his throat again and tried quickly to continue, doing nothing to allay Calli's growing worries for him in the process. “So basically, they rushed me through a couple weeks of training by having me study under... uh, a co-worker.”
“That guy I bumped into, you mean?”
“Ah, yeah. Him.” Genesis nodded. She frowned, and he seemed to detect her lingering resentment, as he quickly set about defending the man in question. “Look, uh... you caught him on a bad day. He's a bit of a handful, but he was actually a pretty good teacher, all things considered.”
Wait a second.
“...That damn manager took the first excuse he could to sack him, so now I'm stuck doing both our jobs despite barely knowing enough to do mine.”
Calli gaped. That was just plain harassment, wasn't it? What was this manager's problem? And just what kind of connections did he have that he could pull so many strings, anyway?
“That's crazy! You should report that guy to HR!”
“Eh? Why not?”
Genesis awkwardly scratched at the back of his neck, obviously pondering again what was and wasn't safe for him to say. “Because the reports would have to go through him first... probably.”
“What kind of insane system is that? If he can get away with that, what's the point of even having HR in the first place?”
“Well, uh... it's complicated. Anyway...”
“Unfortunately,” Genesis sighed. “I got assigned to my first project today, and I... uh... I happened to notice something wrong with it. So, somehow or another, I ended up fixing it myself. The others didn't seem to mind, but, uh... when I submitted it, the manager was furious with me.”
“Why? You fixed it, didn't you? Did you make some kind of new error or something?”
“No, that's just the thing!” His tone went from hesitant to angry in an instant, and for her part, Calli concurred with the feeling entirely. “I did everything right,” he insisted. “He was just mad that I was the one who did it! Said I overstepped my role, or something. That was when he fired my co-worker, too, because he blamed him for letting me do my damn job.”
“That's...” Calli didn't even know where to begin with what she was hearing. She knew that the Four Great Enterprises could be demanding on their employees – or, well, she'd heard as much from other freelancers when she'd been job hunting – but this was so far beyond the level of anything she had thought possible that it defied all reason.
“Ah, geez, but what am I saying?” Genesis mumbled, rubbing at his forehead and shaking his head. “I shouldn't force you to listen to my complaining.”
“Hey, don't say that! I was the one who asked,” Calli interjected, leaning over the table towards him. “Besides, you have every right to complain! None of what's happened is even your fault, and that manager's making you suffer for it!”
“Well, yeah, but...”
“No buts!” She repeated. “If you can't let yourself get mad even when somebody's doing this much just to hurt you, then when can you be mad? Anyone would be angry in that sort of situation!”
“Well, yeah, but it's not like getting angry about it will change anything,” Genesis sighed. His momentary burst of anger had already given way to despondency, and he went back to poking at his empty plate again. “So, since it doesn't make a difference either way, I guess I'd rather just... I don't know.”
“Ah... yeah, I get you.” Calli suddenly understood why she felt so outraged on his behalf. Really, what he was describing wasn't all that different from her own situation. Through no fault of his own, all sorts of unreasonable expectations were foisted upon him, and regardless of whether he lashed out or bore them without complaint, the end result would be the same.
In the end, all the little folks like them could do was put up with it.
“...If that's what it's like, I'm glad Orbital didn't hire me,” She muttered, not quite realizing she was thinking out loud until the words had already left her mouth.
“Oh, uh... I've been kind of... between jobs. For a while now, actually.” Right. It was probably better to change the subject. Though, it wasn't like she had much particularly good news to share, either...
“I tried applying for Orbital – a few of its subsidiaries, too,” She explained. “None of them would have me, though.”
“Eh? Why not?” Genesis exclaimed, eyes wide with unexpected incredulity. “We were understaffed at Stargazer for ages! And you're such a hard worker – there's no way they should have overlooked you.”
Calli flushed at the sudden compliment. She couldn't help but sink back into her seat a little, as if distancing herself from the source of the heat in her cheeks would cool them down more quickly. Apparently, she'd left a better first impression than she had thought – though how, she couldn't even begin to guess. Had he been watching her, maybe? For how long?
“I'm... flattered that you think so.”
“Ah... well, I mean, it's true.” His awkward insistence did little to ease her embarrassment, so she just decided to move on.
“Well, I can't say their reasons. All I know is that I didn't make the cut.” That wasn't entirely true. She did have a theory. But if she said as much, it would only seem like a convenient excuse.
Not that Genesis needed an excuse. The sour look on his face suggested he'd already thought back to the man who had accosted her earlier, and reached much the same conclusion himself.
“They shouldn't have,” he said.
“Well, I'm certainly not complaining now,” Calli shrugged, giving a wry smile. There wasn't much of a bright side, but she, too, preferred to look for one anyway. “Like I said; after hearing your side of the story, I'm kind of glad about it. Not like my current job's great either, but at least I think I have it better than you.”
“Huh?” Genesis' frown shifted slightly as his eyebrow slowly rose. “Do you not like your new job, then, either?”
“Well, I didn't take the job because I expected to like it,” Calli quipped, stalling for time until she could remind herself of what she could and couldn't say. She didn't think he'd be suspicious of her now, after all he had said... but still, she'd rather not risk slipping up, either. “But, well... Yeah. It kinda sucks.”
“Why?” Genesis asked. He seemed strangely eager to hear her out now that she'd started complaining, too. Was he seeking to commiserate with her as a comrade in arms? She appreciated the gesture, but all things considered, she'd prefer him to be a little less invested.
“Well, my manager's a decent guy.” True, Argus was more manipulative than she had ever guessed, and weirdly melodramatic – but he had also looked out for her for a long time, and despite everything, she was still grateful to him for that. “He helps out when I'm in over my head, keeps the other hires from getting too uppity with me, but, well... they do sometimes, anyway, and that's sort of the problem.”
And with that, she had her story straight. It was a simple lie. She just needed to blend the new into the old, and she'd have no shortage of ways to express her thoughts about her new infuriating co-workers, too.
“We have to... uh, work for some unpleasant clients sometimes, right? Angry, hostile, noisy, yell-in-your-face-if-it's-not-perfect types.” That was a pretty mild euphemism for having to fight a superhero to the death on top of a train, but in light of his own story, the lie seemed convincing enough. Sure enough, Genesis nodded immediately and emphatically – he did know the type, and quite well at that.
“Well, as my manager's... assistant, it turns out I need to interact with those clients directly when he can't,” She continued, trying not to make it too obvious how she was dancing around the issue. “And, see, I was warned something like this might happen, but I was told I'd have help to deal with it. I wasn't told it would happen right on my first day, or that the senior assistant would cut and run the moment trouble started.”
To be honest, it didn't really help her mood much having to undersell the fact that she and Roy had both nearly died – but it did make things a little better when Genesis gave a look of outrage and disbelief at her mostly fake but technically true story.
“You mean they just pushed everything on you?”
“More or less.” Drunk on the rare feeling of another person's sympathy, she couldn't stop herself. “And then, sure enough, when things started going wrong, suddenly he comes back and starts acting smug, like it's all my fault.”
“That's pathetic! So because he can't do his job properly, he makes you out as his scapegoat?” Genesis actually seemed angrier on her behalf than he had been on his own, and he crumpled the paper plate he'd been fidgeting with almost without even realizing it. “So what did you do then?” He asked.
“I punched him in the face, obviously.”
Genesis froze. Seeing this, Calli also froze, realizing her mistake. Her complaints were all couched in normal workplace squabbles, and that was several orders of magnitude removed from the severity of what Roland had actually done. Saying she'd hit him so bluntly would only make him think she was some kind of maniac.
...Unless, of course, he already thought as much of her anyway.
“Right. I probably should have expected that.” Genesis gave a slight chuckle. Calli's face shifted involuntarily between regret, embarrassment, disbelief, and then finally anger.
“Oi! Just what do you mean by that?!” She exclaimed.
“Well, I mean... you were about to break that guy's wrist back there, right?” Genesis observed. “And you looked like you wanted to hit Kouji for insulting you, too.”
“So you think I'm just some kind of brute, then?” She crossed her arms and sank down in her seat until she was practically level with the table, glaring at him from behind the upturned pizza box.
“Well, not exactly, but... I guess I'm sort of used to your temper?”
“That's not something you should get used to! And don't say it like that!” She scowled, before at last breaking her death glare and looking away. In the silence that followed, Genesis occupied himself with gathering up their plates and the empty box, and tossing them into a nearby dumpster. She followed him with her eyes all the while. Really, she couldn't understand this guy. Why was he so unfazed by her, anyway? Why was he...
“If that's how you see me, why'd you even help, anyway?”
“Well... because you didn't do anything wrong, right?” He said it as casually as if he was just saying that the sky was blue, or that the sea was deep. Like he was certain somehow that she was a good person. She, who had just derailed a train and caused untold harm, all in the name of money. The fact that he could say that with such confidence despite not knowing anything about her actually made her feel a little... angry? No, actually, it was more like... guilt.
- - -
“How do you know that, though?”
Genesis had really hoped that question wouldn't get asked.
How was he supposed to answer? The reason for his conviction wasn't because of any kindness or compassion on his own part. It wasn't as though he was any different from those who had stood by and done nothing. He had seen her, and assumed exactly the same thing, all because she just so happened to be Stratan. At best, he had taken slight pity for her misfortune – but even that had also come with a certain level of amusement.
And were it not for his powers, he would have gone on thinking that way. The fact that he was sitting here now, laughing and teasing and joking with her, was nothing but hypocrisy.
But he couldn't say that. So instead, he did as he had already done, and kept on lying.
“The first time, I saw you working and... I guess I just didn't think that somebody who took her job so seriously would stoop to stealing.” That much was sort of true, at the very least. “This time, I happened to recognize your bracelet, so I knew that he was lying.”
“I could have stolen his bag and tied my bracelet on it, though,” She pointed out.
“Maybe,” He reasoned. “But why would you expect someone to recognize your bracelet?"
She lapsed into silence at this, standing up and making a great show of stretching herself out like a cat waking from a long nap, as though the distraction would buy her time to think of some way to refute him. No such method appeared, however, so he continued.
“And as for when we first met, I saw the whole thing happen. You never had time to pick his pocket in the first place.”
“Well, of course not,” She answered dismissively, as if stating the obvious. “Even if I had wanted to rob him, faking an accident only works as a diversion if the other person actually tries to help you.”
...It was only after the words had left her mouth that she realized what she had just implied, and suddenly tensed up under his gaze, seeming very inclined to inspect a nearby hedge rather than meet his eyes.
Had he maybe misjudged her? But if she really had been an unscrupulous pickpocket trying to rob them, then that would have put their secret identities in jeopardy. Surely, Genesis would have sensed the danger she presented if that were the case... right?
“You, uh... do that often?” He'd wanted to make a joke, but the way it came out sounded more like an accusation. Whatever Calli thought his intentions were, though, she didn't seem to care enough to dispute them.
“Not since I left the Strata.” She turned back to face him quite suddenly, staring directly at him as if in some kind of challenge. He... wasn't entirely sure how to react to that information, but, knowing what he knew from his powers, he would have felt guilty if he changed his mind about her now. So, he just nodded matter-of-factly, and tried his best not to let his surprise show on his face.
“Well, just because someone may have done bad things before doesn't mean that they have to keep doing them,” he tried. His words must have been too wishy-washy, or his hesitation must have crept into his voice, though, because rather than seeming satisfied, that just seemed to make her more upset. She suddenly uncrossed her arms, and began walking towards him slowly – deliberately.
“Maybe so, but they often do anyway.” She took another step forward, and was almost uncomfortably close now, staring expressionlessly up at him with those brilliant gold eyes. The way she was prodding at him for an explanation he couldn't give almost reminded him of a certain interview he'd had before – like she had figured him out somehow.
Unlike Oz, though, he couldn't even blame her. To someone used to being scorned and suspected, seemingly unconditional trust must have seemed... well, unnatural.
He might not be able to give her a straight answer, but even if he couldn't explain his reasoning, and even if he lied about the source of his trust, Genesis still firmly believed that she wasn't in the wrong.
“I don't think you're that sort of person.”
She stared at him for what felt like forever, and he felt as though her gaze was practically burning a hole in his face.
Then, without warning, Calli laughed.
“I like you! You're an interesting guy, Genesis. You really are.” She folded her arms and took a half-step, half-hop back, giving a strangely sly grin all the while. His blush deepened, and he struggled valiantly to meet her gaze. Was she... flirting with him? Why, all of a sudden?
“I don't know why you trust me, to be perfectly honest. But since you do, let me at least give you a better reason for it than just because I'm a hard worker or said I was turning over a new leaf or whatever.” She clapped and waved her hands about theatrically, as if she was about to perform a magic trick. “That reason being, if I had actually tried to rob either your co-worker or that man from before, well – even if I am a little rusty, I'm still good enough that nobody would have ever noticed.”
Embarrassment gave way to sudden dread as Genesis only then noticed
something – or rather, the absence of something. The reason for her strange, distracting behavior became abundantly clear all too late.
“See?” She said, pulling a hand out of her jacket's sleeve with a triumphant grin. “I got your watch –”
She was halfway through holding up the object in question in front of her when her voice trailed off as she, too, realized her mistake. It wasn't a watch she had stolen at all.
The object missing from his wrist – the object she'd snatched while he'd been distracted – the object she was now holding right in front of her face...
...was his transformation bracelet.