Chapter 12:

Burden of the Coward (2/2)

Spirit Containment Team 1201

The Edriin had managed to take off most of Drake's right arm, but the arm's previous owner seemed less than interested in the seemingly grievous injury, sighing and turning to the beast before sending a silent blast of energy straight into it.

The thing didn't have a chance, its body blasted into thousands of tiny piece, which showered Drake in a hail of shards.

Hibiki had fallen back at seeing Drake lose his arm, Valeria had dropped her hammer, letting it clatter to the floor. Xeria's eyes were wide with a mixture of shock and terror, and she had rid herself of the staff.

It seemed as though Colette were the only student with a measure of composure, although Drake wondered if that could be attributed to her understanding of his abilities.

He gave a sharp whistle, bringing each of the girls back to reality.

"It's alright, everyone! Well, Colette seems okay. I can grow it back!" He shouted.

Xeria calmed first, her eyes still entirely focused on his blood drenched arm.

Valeria bent down to retrieve the hammer, failing, due to the shaking in her hands.

Hibiki's scream had descended into a fit of sobbing, her face coated with thick streaks of tears.

Drake grunted, placing his only hand on her shoulder, shaking her softly.

"Just take a look, you don't need to freak out." He grinned.

He removed his left hand from her shoulder, his eyes flitting along the lower half of the mall, searching quietly before being interrupted.

"I've found one, dear." Came Gaia's calm, soothing voice.

"Ah! Then, Gaia, Equalizer: Earthborn!" He said.

The sound of breaking ceramic echoed from a nearby store, followed shortly by a thick trail of dirt that streamed through the air, making its way straight to Drake.

"I don't think there's enough... do you mind if I use the plant, as well?" Gaia asked.

"Go ahead." He said, although the grimace on his face told the girls that he wasn't exactly keen on the request.

Still, the dirt slowly began to form a mold of his missing arm, and turned flesh colored after a moment of stillness. A thick fern that likely had been housed inside the dirt came towards them as well. It shredded itself as it approached, wrapping itself around the stump of arm the dirt had become, the slowly stretching out to for a wrist, hand, then finally, his fingers.

He flexed his arm a few times, seeing if it worked properly, then, satisfied, he pressed his new hand to Hibiki's cheek. She gazed at it, then up at him, her eyes wild with wonder.

She instinctively nuzzled her face against his hand, feeling relief when she finally accepted that the dirt and plant had actually become his own flesh and blood.

"That's amazing!" She said. "Can you rebuild yourself as much as you want?" She asked incredulously.

"Well... it's more or less dependent on whether or not there's earth or plants around when I use it. Gaia's power already makes me incredibly strong, so I designed an Equalizer that had more utility to it." He explained.

Both Valeria and Xeria seemed understandably impressed, their eyes locked onto his new arm, although they made no move to feel it as Hibiki had.

"I think that's everything girls. We should fill Takemiya in, then head back." He said.

They exited the mall only to be greeted with the loud, excited barrage of the Non-Gifted humans standing behind the barrier.

"Yeah yeah... it's over, you can all go home till tomorrow. But you'll probably need a janitor or something to clean up the mess of crystals we left behind." He said, obviously annoyed by the attention.

Takemiya came bustling through the people trying to get a look inside, a satisfied look present on her face.

"Yeah... that's what I thought! You haven't even been an hour." She said happily.

Drake poked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the back of the mall.

"There's an old man in a store back there... doesn't seem injured, but I imagine he doesn't want to be cooped up in his shop for much longer." He said.

Takemiya nodded, then turned to o a few of her subordinates.

"Let's get in there and scrub the place! We need to have it Energy-free by sundown!" She commanded.

They made the short trip back across the street to the teleporter pad, Drake explaining that they'd have to return one by one.

"Alright! Return trip is a hell of a lot easier, so who's going first?" He asked eagerly.

Valeria skipped onto the pad, grinning at him and waving to the others.

Drake tapped a button on the control panel, receiving a joyful beep.

Valeria disappeared quietly, leaving the pad empty and ready for the next one.

Xeria gave a curt nod, then stepped up onto the pad.

She disappeared instantly as well, the pad left empty once again.

Colette went next, stepping quietly onto the pad, then waving her assent, disappeared.

Drake tapped the panel once more, but Hibiki still seemed nervous after the mission, despite her relief at seeing that Drake was okay.

He looked at her for a moment, then, with a smile, offered her his hand. She looked startled, but slightly more relaxed.

"I thought we had to go one by one." She said.

"The operator gets a plus one." Drake explained. "So you can either take my hand, or I'll pick you up and carry you." He said, grinning.

She pretended to consider her options, then took his outstretched hand, wrapping his fingers with hers.

"Attagirl, let's get going, then." He said, guiding her to the pad.

The moment their feet were planted, their bodies lurched forward, although much less violently than the first time. Hibiki could feel Drake squeeze her hand as they moved, and the uncomfortable feeling that accompanied teleportation seemed much less intense.

Their bodies came to a halt, the feeling draining slowly from her head as it began to spin.

"Off you go to your dorms, you four. I have to give a report to Allicity." He sighed.

He moved away before they could respond. Valeria spun around to the others, a mischievous look on her face.

"We should follow him." She said. "I want to hear what he has to say about our first mission."

The girls agreed, waiting to see Drake close the main building's front door. They made their way inside after him, following at a distance behind him as he trudged up the staircase to the fifth floor.

They had only just managed to reach the fourth floor when they could hear Allicity's office door shut, breaking the near silence of the almost empty building.

"Ah! You're back already! I suppose I'm hardly shocked, considering that you went along. How'd it go?" Allicity asked as the girls edged towards her door.

"Quite well, if I'm honest. Valeria, Colette, and Xeria all act as competent as Second Years. Hibiki seems a little apprehensive, but I'll chalk that up to nerves, it was likely her first time ever in the presence of a Spirit." He explained. "They all have Avatars, though, which tells me all I really need to know about their potential."

Allicity could be heard tapping away at her computer keyboard.

"Anything remarkable happen?" She asked.

"Well... yeah. I noticed an Edriin in a store as we walked by, but ignored it to get an idea of how well the girls could feel the Energy from Spirits. As we finished up the last of them, I had Gaia shake the ground near it so it would come out towards us. I was hoping one of them would notice it before it got to me... and Hibiki did, but she screamed instead of doing something, and it ended up tearing my arm right off."

They could hear him laughing, but Hibiki's heart dropped into her stomach. She hadn't realized his intentions, and was caught completely unawares. Part of her felt responsible for his injury, as unimportant as it may be.

"It's fine though! I'm not expecting her to have being a Support figured out, not so quickly." Drake said.

"So... your Support is... less than effective... seems like the easiest job out of them all, staying behind and out of harms way... maybe she's worthless?" Allicity said, a cold edge to her voice.

A soft click filled the still air outside of the office, and when the girls turned to look for the source, Hibiki was gone.

The door slammed open, and Cthulhu, followed by the Goddesses, filtered out into the hall. Cthulhu gave them a sly look, but said nothing as he and the Goddesses disappeared.

Colette guessed quite quickly what was about to happen.

"Uh oh." Colette said, cringing as she prepared herself.

Valeria and Xeria turned to her, about to ask what she was preparing for, but Drake's voice startled them into silence.



There was silence, then Drake spoke again.

"You're the headmistress of the school... you need to be objective, focused on the facts... Hibiki is fifteen years old... and she's only known that she's Gifted for a few months. She can ALREADY summon an Avatar! Don't you understand how incredible that is?" He said, his voice strangely desperate compared to his previous tone.

"And worst of all... her parents all but forced her out of their home, all so they could accomplish their selfish wish to have another child. They didn't want her to try and do something amazing... they probably don't even care that she's likely to be an amazing Spirit Hunter as she gets older. They just wanted her out of their house." He said.

His voice had gone from angry to desperate and finally to saddened.

"I'm going to... I'm going to make her into the best she can be... even if it's just to spite them." He said.

He gave a cough, then continued to the end of his speech.

"I know that it could be said that Hibiki's failure to act caused my injury... but even if that were true... I don't blame her for panicking. I especially don't want you taking my own overestimation out on her." Drake said quietly.

Silence, once more. Then, Allicity's voice broke the still air.

"You remind me of Yui... she chewed me out like that after I got upset that you wandered off during your first mission. Said you saved a little boy from the Arunia that had split off from the main group. I didn't know what to say... and I feel the same now... I don't know what to say... but... if you think she's still worth your time... I won't argue." She said.

"Very good, now... let's talk about my stipend." Drake said, his voice now back to normal.

"Now... that's more like you." Allicity said, happy to be on a different topic.

A soft beeping sound filled the air, and Drake gave a grunt of appreciation as he spoke.

"One hundred thousand credits. Quite a nice sum of cash for a hours worth of work." He said.

"You thinking of paying your girls?" She asked.

It was clear from the silence that he was either thinking, or, staring at her.

"I... wouldn't be against it... but the Oversight Board would. Besides, they get a hundred thousand for their own use each year, I can hardly imagine that they'll need more, at least for now." He said.

Allicity giggled.

"I suppose you're right. Now... I think that's everything, isn't it? I guess you should move along now, lunch will be in about two hours." She said.

"Yeah... I think I will, I don't think they've had anything to eat either." Drake said, his footsteps coming towards the office door.

The door opened, Drake immediately turning to face the girls.

"Have you three had breakfast yet?" He asked.

The girls, stuck between surprise and fear, shook their heads quietly.

"I see... head back to your dorms and ask your dorm head for a menu, you can order something from there." He said. "I'll go look for Hibiki." He added.

Grateful that he was rather unfazed by their eavesdropping, they immediately retreated to their dorms, Xeria and Valeria promising to send Drake a message if Hibiki was in theirs.

He walked Colette back to their dorm, then, after checking his tablet to find that Xeria had informed him of Hibiki's continued absence, he left.

He trotted along the grounds of the school quietly, his head filled with the desire to speak with Hibiki as soon as he could.

His face bloomed with a blush when a group of First Year girls pointed to him and giggled amongst themselves, reminding him that he had left every single one of his Goddesses, and Cthulhu, back at his dorm. He contemplated returning, but his own mouth instinctively demanded otherwise.

"Answer the coward... as a coward." He said, his own words forcing his eyes wide with shock.

He searched the grounds for a further half hour, before an idea popped into his head:

"If I wanted to be alone, I'd go to where no one would ever need to be." He said.

He traveled, for the second time in two days, to the site of the auditorium. As he approached, his heart began to beat a little faster, and his head began to swim with possible outcomes, most of them negative.

He pushed the door open, immediately glad he had chosen the auditorium, as he spied Hibiki sitting on the stage, sobbing silently.

He moved closer to her, racking his brain for something to say. He didn't have a chance, as Hibiki noticed him as he got closer.

"Oh... I'm worthless aren't I?" She cried, her eyes red and swollen.

He sighed, although his emotions were torn between exasperation and sympathy.

"She was... completely off base." He said. "There's nothing wrong with you!" He added, his voice rising an octave.

She looked at him, her body trembling in time with her silent sobs.

"You lost an arm!" She cried.

"I got it back!" He said, waving his right arm up, despite her having been present for its replacement.

"I should have just stopped time! You could have dealt with it on your own... but you were testing me... and I failed!"

Her sobs had doubled in frequency, forcing her to stop and draw breath between what seemed like every other word.

"I was testing ALL of you... you ALL failed! But it's not like I was expecting you to get it right!" He said.

Hibiki devolved into a heap of sobs, her body shivering even more intensely.

He felt lost, this event was almost entirely emotional, and Drake had never been great with emotions, especially others.

Despite this, he did the only thing he could think of: he jumped up onto the stage, and wrapped himself tightly around her.

Her body seemed to shake a significant amount less, as though she had simply been cold, and the presence of his own warmth was enough to calm her.

She gave a long sniffle, a few of her tears dripping from her chin onto Drake's arm. He tightened his grip a little, pulling her head into his chest.

Her sobbing began to trail off, and after a few minutes, she was leaning her head against his chest, bobbing ever so slightly in rhythm with this heartbeat.

"That's a really useful trick, I'll have to thank Yui." He whispered. "Have you calmed down, sweetie?" He asked.

She nodded, pulling herself away from him, showing him her tear-stricken face. He moved his fingers across her cheeks, wiping the slick trails away.

"Looks like you and I need to have a talk." He said. "I'll be doing all of the talking, though."

"There's absolutely no reason to feel ashamed about how you did today, Hibiki... you did better than most do their first time. You'll see a lot of proof next week when the other teams start getting their first missions." He said.

She nodded her head, her face already brightened by his words.

"Try to understand that my little test for you girls was a spur of the moment thing, and in no way does it prove that you're some sort of failure." He explained.

He pulled her back against him, stroking her head gently as he continued.

"From this point on, I don't want to hear a word about your progress if isn't you quoting me directly. I'm judging you girls with a different standard than the one the school sets for you, and believe me when I say, my standards are much higher than theirs, so when I say you girls have impressed me, I mean it." He assured her.

She wasn't sure she had ever been quite so grateful to know someone. She was sure that he would have left her alone for a while to work up her own nerves. But here he was, comforting her in light of her cowardice, rather than chastising her for it.

"I thought that Gullveig said you got nervous around others." She giggle, giving him an appreciative squeeze.

He took her hand, then placed it against his chest. She could feel his heart hammering beneath his skin.

"I'm incredibly nervous, as you can see. But... if I were unwilling to put my fear aside to be here for you... I'd certainly be a poor excuse for a teacher, wouldn't I?" He asked.

"How can you be so nervous with your Goddesses with you?" She asked in return.

"They aren't here, I sent them off so I could tell off Allicity, then forgot to get them when I stopped by the dorm." He explained with a grin.

"Could... could you teach me how to do that? Push my fear aside, I mean. I don't think I'd make a good Support if I'm cowering behind you all the time like a coward." She said.

"And what's wrong with being a coward?" He asked.

"Well if I'm a coward I'll be-"

"You'll be what? Willing to fight like a maniac so you don't die? Terrified of losing your teammates or friends? Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that a source of a drive for you to improve yourself?" He asked.

"Well maybe, but-" She began.

"You're a coward! Act like it! There's nothing wrong with being overwhelmed with fear! Those things have the potential to rip you limb from limb... what person wouldn't be genuinely afraid of them? It's okay to cower behind your team, it's okay to cower behind ME. That's what I'm here for! I might be your instructor, but first and foremost, I'm your team leader. I will never let anything happen to you... so be afraid!"

He ran out of breath partway through, and had to stop before finishing his thought.

"I'll give you one bit of advice... be a coward..." He said.

She stared at him in confusion.

"...Be the coward who only fights because she's terrified of seeing her loved ones die. Be the coward who fights because she's scared of losing everything she's worked for. Be the coward who fights to survive, uncaring towards the accolades or fame. There's nothing wrong with fear, the only fault comes in losing yourself to it and letting it use you, rather than you it. But make no mistake, I'd feel safer with a coward like you at my back than a hundred battle-loving fools like myself. Don't let your feelings make you forget just how valuable you are." He said.

At this, he reached out and grabbed her up in a hug once again, whispering softly to her.

"If, after the end of next week, I can't prove to you that you're incredibly strong, I have an idea that may help you out." He said.

She made to ask him what his idea was, but he cut her off.

"Also... I know that your mother and father may have pushed you a little hard down this path, but don't worry too much about them... their choices stemmed from their own greed, they traded you away for their desires... but since they don't seem to want anything to do with you... I'll be your family in their stead." He proclaimed.

Her face lit up with surprise, her eyes preparing a fresh batch of tears, only to be halted as she wrapped herself around him, burying her face into his chest once more.

"Thank you... I didn't know how to tell people that... I really never wanted to be a Spirit Hunter... but now that I'm here... now that I'm with you... I'm gonna do it." She grinned to him.

"Attagirl. I'll be teaching you all best I can from now on... it's not going to be easy, but I think you four will manage... now, I think we're done here... let's head back."

Without warning, he swept her up into his arms.

"I'll be carrying you back to your dorm. Let's call it my reward for being such a good teacher." Drake said with a grin.

"Fine... I suppose I don't have a complaint." Hibiki giggled.

He carried her swiftly towards the door, only for it to open as they neared it.

"Instructor?!" Came Xeria's startled voice as she realized that he and Hibiki were both in front of her.

Colette and Valeria poked her heads around the doorframe of the building, trying to see Drake. It seemed that they had been worried about Hibiki, and wanted to help him search for her.

"Hey! Nothing to worry about! She just needed a pep talk." He explained, holding out Hibiki for them to see.

The girls stared at them, silent, then:

"Are you... feeling better, Hibiki?" Colette asked tentatively.

"I'm alright, Drake has been quite wonderful to me." She said, her face turning a shade of pink.

Drake's own cheeks had begun to blush as he thought about the scene he and Hibiki likely made.

"Umm... alright, I'm going to take her back to the dorm, then go and get lunch. You girls have the rest of the day to yourselves... enjoy it, it'll be the last break you get for a while." He smiled.

He carried Hibiki past them, taking her straight up to her dorm room and tucking her into bed, much to her embarrassment. Despite her protests that she wasn't tired, she promptly fell asleep. He lingered for a moment, watching her silently, then moved to leave.

As he neared the door, a sharp spasm shot through his neck, nearly flooring him in an instant. His hands clutched at his throat, trying to administer some of Gaia's energy to his pain, but remembered that he had left her in his room.

To his relief, she seemed to realize anyway, having already arrived at his side.

"Easy... easy. Is it an Aevator?" She asked, careful to speak quietly to avoid waking Hibiki.

"Yeah... it's getting closer now... should be here in about two weeks, maybe a little less time." He murmured, his face twisted in pain.

Gaia pressed her hands to his neck, a greenish white light radiating onto his neck. They stood motionless for a moment, then, feeling much better, he lifted himself up with the help of Gaia.

It took them quite some time to get back to his own dorm, with Gaia supporting him on her shoulders most of the way. Finally, he opened the door, greeted with a smile by Colette.

"Good afternoon, Instructor, how is Hibiki? Oh... dear me, you look unwell." She noted worriedly.

"I'm alright... just had a bit of a reminder that an Aevator is on its way." He said.

"Oh... well. I don't feel as though I should be relieved by that, but at least you're okay." She said.

Drake nodded, moving to his bed and taking a seat.

"Fuck. I. AM. STARVING!" He groaned.

"Um, sir... could I ask you some questions after you've had lunch?"

He looked at her, then smiled.

"Sure! But not a moment sooner."

Poynt Fury