All's Fair in Penacony - dubonpied - 崩坏:星穹铁道 (2024)

Chapter 1: I Missed the Moment Before the Fall

Chapter Text

Should I follow him?

Stelle watched silently as Aventurine stepped away, every step he took echoing through the empty hall as he walked up the stairs and disappeared from view. Her own feet were anchored in place, as though someone had nailed them to the ground. Her skin felt clammy, the fire Sam had blasted her way had left her face red, and scorched its way up one of her legs. By all accounts she was a complete mess, but her head hurt a lot more than any physical wounds.

Should I follow him? She repeated to herself once more, her eyes briefly hovering in the direction he had stepped in before settling back towards Black Swan.

The older woman was hovering near a pillar, one of her legs folded over the other as a selection of cards spun a lazy circle around her. She seemed the picture of calm, her sunset eyes looking through the room as though she was somewhere far away.

Talk to her, Stelle forced one step forward, find out why she did that.

The Memokeeper’s eyes opened as she walked up to her, the cards flitted out of existence and Black Swan lowered herself to the ground.

“You made a deal with Aventurine,” Stelle’s voice sounded robotic, “Why?”

Black swan smiled, “When considering who to work with, one should always consider who most aligns with their own goals, my dear. Aventurine and I agree on how things should play out here.”

“And what would that be?”

“My, my,” Black Swan’s voice had a velvety quality to it, it made Stelle feel sleepy. “You look like a small wounded animal, rest assured, I did make a deal with that gentleman to bring you to him but this is a safe place.”

Stelle tightened her fist, forcing her head on straight, she was done with being treated like a child. “What goal do you share?”

“To reclaim Penacony,” she answered, “to ensure that this dream doesn’t end in a nightmare. That gentleman has immense potential and will help me claim some... precious memories.”

“That’s too vague...” Stelle lowered her head, why did everyone speak in riddles in this place, why did they all play games? She just wanted one person to be upfront with her, just one.

“It will come together in time. He needs you, my dear, you can count on that.” Black swan reached a hand towards her, “He is a gambler always willing to take risks but only when he knows he has a chance of coming out on top. Be careful with him, scrutinize every deal he offers you. But, ultimately, you can count on his word when he gives it to you.”

“I should just walk away,” Stelle muttered, only half listening, “this is insanity, take me to Himeko and March, we’re leaving.”

“Think carefully before making a decision.”

Stelle felt her mind get yanked backwards, the dreamy air was replaced with stagnant suffocation and an empty feeling in her chest. There was a woman in front of her, the only person she knew, the only person who mattered in the wide universe. When she spoke, Stelle always listened and this time she said...

“When there is the chance to make a choice, make one that you know you won't regret...” Stelle said aloud as she was pulled back to her own senses.

“Will you be satisfied with leaving things as is.” Black Swan nodded assuredly, Stelle hated her for it, for being right.

“Fine,” She snapped her heel against the floor as she spun back to the stairs, “fine, fine.”

“Stelle,” Black swan spoke as she walked away, “Everyone on Penacony is lying, that includes me. I’m not asking for your forgiveness but know this... I believe in your potential as well.”

“Who doesn’t.” Stelle shot back, too angry to think of a more eloquent response. Her own tongue felt laden with lead around all these smooth talkers.

Aventurine was waiting for her idly, a coin flipping around his knuckles as he leaned against a wall.

He pushed as she approached, “Excellent. I knew you’d come.” His face curved into a smile. Did that Memokeeper... Never mind, I won’t press the issue.”

“Well,” Stelle raised her arms to the side, “what do you have that’s so important to show me.”

“Before that,” the coin vanished from his hand, “feel free to liaise with your companions, try to deceive me or throw me to the wolves, it’ll make this more fun and I’ll embrace it as a sign of your... potential.”

Stelle scoffed, “I thought you wanted to work together, are you sure you aren’t a masked fool in disguise.”

That seemed to displease him, his pretty mask twisted for a moment before snapping back on. “Now, now, Friend, I don’t play more than one camp at a time, it makes the game too complicated. I’m only saying, I never make deals where I am on the losing end, so you won’t disappoint me.”

“Right...” Stelle whispered to herself as Aventurine turned towards the corridor.

“Now, right this way.” He said as he walked away from her, she followed cautiously, her hand ready to summon her bat at a moment's notice. “Ah, I remember mentioning something else... Right, a familiar hallway, a familiar room. This is where we met last time, do you remember?”

He stopped in front of a half-ajar door with an ominous red glow pushing past it. Stelle could feel a slight shiver running down her spine, there was a sense of doom behind that door.

“This is it. Just beyond the door.” He was standing close to her, she could almost feel the ghost of his words against her neck. “Take a deep breath and get ready.”

Aventurine pushed the door open, the red glow diminished as the familiar view came into sight. “We played a game last time, did we not?” He crushed one of the dream bubbles under his foot as he stepped up to the dreampool. “This is all eerily familiar, don’t you think? Hah, I remember now, what I told you at that time...”

He brought his hand up and pushed the amalgamation of dream bubbles surrounding them to the side. “The game has already begun. Allow me to make you an offer, one you can’t refuse.”

Stelle stepped next to him and felt her breath get yanked out of her throat as she stifled a scream. Robin. That young woman who had greeted them so kindly at the reception, who had gone to see her after her unfortunate entry into the dreamscape. All the color had been leached out of her face, the wings framing her face were still against her shoulder and the halo over her head had faded to a stale gray. Most evident was the gruesome slice through her chest, it was crooked and glowing a strange violet. It felt out of place.

Stelle could feel her breath getting faint as Aventurine kept going, “No reason to choose otherwise and no other options.”

Stelle’s knees collapsed from underneath her, she barely felt the impact of the floor as she clutched at her heart. Her vision was getting hazy, all of the events of the last few hours rushing through her head at a frightening speed. The muddled arrival to penacony. The strange delight of Golden hour that had been so swiftly replaced by the horror of the memory zone. Being yanked back to reality before immediately returning to the memory zone before she had time to process anything that had happened to her. Firefly. Firefly. She felt her heart seize as she pictured the terror on her face once more.

Why did she apologize, what was she sorry about?

The stellaron’s hunter's appearance and connection to Firefly revealed shortly before Black Swan had whisked her away.

Why did I trust her, Stelle asked herself even though she already knew the answer. Black Swan’s demeanor, the tone of her voice, it was all so painfully familiar.

She reminded you of Kafka, she scolded herself, so you threw all caution to the wind.

“I’ll give you a moment.” Stelle heard Aventurine shift beside her, she had almost forgotten that he was there. “Come find me once you’ve pulled yourself together.”

She pushed herself back onto her feet, grasping the edge of the tub and dipping her fingers into the milky liquid. Robin had vanished just as Firefly had, only this time it was in the form of a collection of memory bubbles evaporating and leaving no trace of the person behind.

The organizers had said that death in the dreamscape was not possible, that you would simply return to consciousness. So why did this feel so final?

“I’m sorry,” Stelle spoke quietly, “I’ll find out who’s responsible for this, I- I promise, I’ll find them. I’m... sorry, I couldn't do more for you.”

\\\|||///

Aventurine stretched out his neck as he walked back towards the lobby, he had spent too much time waiting for them to show up. Towards the end he had started to wonder if he had been played but then the stellaron girl had appeared in front of him, scorched and confused, just as promised.

Stelle, he reminded himself as he stepped behind the bar, best to remember that name at least.

“How did she take it?” The Memokeeper was sitting at the bar, she had moved across the room rather quickly. “I imagine it must’ve been hard on the poor girl.”

The bar only had a few pristine bottles of Soulglad, their obnoxious packaging winking back at him ostentatiously. He removed a few glasses, swiftly using the side of his palm to knock the top of the Soulglad bottle off. He didn’t answer the Memokeeper as he poured out three glasses consecutively, not letting a single drop roll off the side of the bottle.

She had been completely shell-shocked, a disappointing reaction to say the least. Aventurine would’ve welcomed anger, fury, rage. Any sign that Miss Stellaron could be moved to action easily. Instead she had collapsed, her legs folding in silent resignation. Disappointing.

“Not well.” He finally answered as he pushed the first glass towards Black Swan. “Are you sure about her?”

Black Swan gave that cryptic smile she seemed so fond of, “I am, give her time, you will see her true strength shine.”

He heard the sound of something metal hitting the ground, he looked up slowly, keeping his face still. Stelle was walking slowly towards them. She periodically flipped her bat forward, letting it strike the ground and bounce back into her hand. Her brow was furrowed, mouth pulled into a straight line. He was pleased to see the absence of any tear tracks on her face.

Now that’s more like it, he affirmed to himself, she has the face of a fighter.

Stelle tossed the bat behind her as she reached the bar, it evaporated in the air gone from sight instantly. He could feel Black Swan’s gaze alternating between the two of them as Stelle reached forward and yanked the glass he was holding out of his hand. He scoffed as he watched her tilt her head back and down it in one go.

“So,” Stelle reached forward and pulled the last glass of Soulglad towards her, “which one of you is actually going to tell me what’s going on here.”

Aventurine motioned for Black Swan to explain as Stelle kept the tip of her finger on the rim of the glass and spinned it around.

“Well dear, it’s simple.” The Memokeeper summoned three cards in her hand and laid them out on the table. “The tables have turned against Penacony.”

The first card depicted a young silver haired man with spiked wings, a large shadow loomed over him.

“The people in charge are losing control, the dreamscape was never meant to be tamed by anyone.” Black swan said as she lifted the first card, “they’re desperately trying to maintain the illusion of Harmony and putting everyone here at jeopardy in the process.”

The second card depicted a bunch of twisted creatures with bodies made of broken mirrors, they climbed above each other to form a mass.

“Memetic creatures are slipping through the cracks, one of them.” Black Swan tapped the card and it changed, revealing a creature with red eyes carved into it. “ is known as Death, a most unpleasant creature but not one that is acting on its own.”

The third card was, well... them. A simplified version of him and the Stellaron girl. They were standing back to back, a strange fiery lance in the girl's hand while he held a familiar turquoise gem.

He crisped his fist under the bar, he was still vulnerable as long as the cornerstones remained in the family's hand. Priority number one was stealing them back from under Sunday’s nose. He’d get her to do it, treat it as a test of her abilities.

“Through an allegiance,” the two other cards vanished as the Memokeeper lifted the final one, “we can help restore the dreamscape and prevent the advance of the memory zone.”

“You’re saying...” The Stellaron girl hesitated, “this Death is responsible for-”

She seemed unable to continue, her face becoming downcast once more.

“Yes, my dear,” Black Swan rested a hand on Stelle’s shoulder, “death is hunting the guests of Penacony, those two will not be the last of its victims. You must both be vigilant.”

“Is there a way to bring them back?”

“It is a spiritual death, Stelle.” Black Swan shook her head, “it reaches beyond my understanding of the memory zone. I only know that in a few hours the staff of the hotel will realize a few of their guests are not waking up.”

“Well!” Aventurine clapped his hands together, startling them both. “Not that this conversation is not fascinating but we ought to get a move on, friends. There are a lot of preparations to account for before we can reveal the truth about Penacony’s claims of safety to everyone.”

Black swan floated away from the bar, “I will go find Miss Himeko and Miss March. The two of you know the way back, I presume.”

“We’ll meet you in reality,” Aventurine smiled placidly, “I have a few words to share with my friend here first.”

The Memokeeper was there for a moment and then she was not. Aventurine would never get used to the way she could simply erase herself from existence. The perks of transcending your body, I guess.

Friend,” he gestured towards Stelle who was still staring off to where Black Swan had vanished, “let’s walk and talk, we have so much to plan.”

That seemed to pull her out of her trance, her unsettling eyes settled on him as he walked around the bar. Her pupil was a darker gold with arcs coming off of it like an explosion within her eye. A manifestation of the Stellaron perhaps.

“I’m in a bit of a difficult spot you see,” He explained as they walked towards one of the corridors leading away from the lobby. “We stonehearts are given a little boost by our boss but I’ve misplaced mine.”

“A boost?” She blinked at him as he held the door to the corridor open for her, “I don’t follow.”

“The power of the amber lord, distilled and placed into our hands in the form of the stoneheart cornerstones.”

“You’re an emanator as well?”

“No.” He shook his head, that would make everything much easier, “I am borrowing the power of one.”

“I see.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t reveal this to anyone but trust is required for a successful partnership,” He mirrored the words Ratio had thrown in his face only a day ago. “The family snatched them during baggage processing, I need them back.”

“And you want me to steal them for you.”

“Correct, you’re good at this game.”

“I’m used to running errands.” She huffed, “I’m still not sure I actually want to collaborate with someone like you, you know.”

“Well, friend, what can I do to convince you otherwise?”

She stopped, stepping in front of him and leaning closer to his face, he only had about half-an-inch on her height.

“Tell me what you actually want?”

“Not convinced I’m trying to save Penacony like you?”

“Why would I be? You IPC types never help anyone unless your corporation benefits from it.”

“Touchy, touchy, already put us in a box, have you, Miss Stellaron?”

“It’s hard not to with what I’ve seen from you.”

“Then be assured by the fact that you do know what we want. There won’t be much to reclaim from Penacony if it falls into pieces.”

“No, there won’t.”

“Then we are in agreement once more.” He smiled at her, before side-stepping her and continuing on.

“I’ll help you stop this but I’m not helping you deliver Penacony to the IPC.”

“That’s fine, I can handle that part without you.”

Righteous types were always easy to place in a box, clinging to their principles and swearing blindly to stop any malfeasance. They were the easiest types to bet on which meant he always kept a few chips aside for them. She would be useful in stopping chaos from unfolding around them and once she stopped being useful... he’d toss her into the betting pool and be done with it.

The door to her room- Well still their room technically, it was still on his tab - was left partially ajar. He pushed the door open with his foot, and paused as he took in the interior.

Gone was the plush red couch and the extravagant pot of flowers set on a coffee table made of exquisite maroon wood. Gone was the television set surrounded by bright orange throw pillows. More importantly, gone was the centerpiece of the room, the dreampool had been replaced with a large television set.

“What the-” He frowned as he stepped up to it, “don’t tell me we have the wrong room.”

He was about to say something else when the t.v set lit up and a garbled voice spoke, “Welcome guests to the start of the long awaited Charmony festival...”

///|||\\\

Stelle instinctively took a step back as the tv set came to life, an animated version of Clockie swung onto the scene. She watched with bewilderment as it launched into another welcome and the screen transitioned from the dull gray and black to a full array of color.

“Well, well, dear guests, isn’t this just a jolly good day.” Clockie tapped the heel of its feet on the screen, “as my friend the announcer just said, the Charmony Festival is beginning shortly. Let’s give three cheers for our wonderful organizers.”

“That can’t be right.” She heard Aventurine mutter next to her, “we’re supposed to have another week at least.”

“Now I’ve been told by the Family to remind you all that the festival’s exciting activities will be spread throughout the Dreamscape. So make sure you don’t miss out on anything.” The screen behind Clockie lit up to reveal a clock with twelve faces, all indicating the moments of the day that formed Penacony’s dreamscape. “Now I’ll be spending my time in the Clock studios theme park, so make sure you swing by for a visit.”

Stelle crouched down, hugging her knees as the animated character kept going on and explaining the events that would be taking place at each moment. It was hard to feel excited for any of it. All Stelle could manage was an overwhelming amount of dread filling up the pit of her stomach.

“And before I go, be sure to remember to pick your dance partner.” Clockie jumped up excitedly, “let that lucky gal, guy or other know that you’ve chosen them as a partner and link your dreamscape passes to one another so you don’t lose track of each other. Things can get exciting during the Charmony festival and we wouldn’t want to let you two star crossed souls get separated.”

Clockie skipped off the screen, an off-beat tune filling the air before the tv snapped shut on its own.

“That was unexpected.” Aventurine said as the silence settled, “so the Family has decided to kick the Charmony Festival into high gear, that’s certainly a strategy. Way to make people feel like something might be going wrong.”

“Are they trying to distract from the Dreamscape unraveling by distracting everyone with the Charmony festival.”

“Who knows.” He shrugged before motioning for her to get up, “let’s find a different room, we need to rally the troops so to speak.”

They entered the room right next to theirs and found a room with a large four-poster bed and a collection of portraits with their eyes scratched out. The one after that was filled to the brim with potted plants of various shapes and sizes. The room after was empty while the next one over had a large collection of mirrors laid out on its floor.

“Stop,” Aventurine said as she went to open the sixth door, “this is getting us nowhere.”

“Aren’t you curious?” Stelle turned the handle, “maybe this one is the one.”

“Listen,” he placed a hand on her wrist, “I’m the last person to tell someone to stop gambling but it’s evident something is wrong.”

Stelle shook off his touch and opened the door anyway revealing a large portrait hanging on a series of strings. It depicted a smiling woman with her hand crossed over her lap as she looked softly up to a man with his hands on her shoulders. The young woman had steel gray hair while the man had mesmerizing two-coloured- She slammed the door shut.

“Huh,” Aventurine seemed to contemplate as she marched down the hallway, “that one wasn’t bad actually.”

The lobby was as they left it, half-filled glasses of soul glad still abandoned on the bar. Stelle hopped on top of it and removed her phone from her pocket, if they couldn’t use the dreampool to escape they might as well call the cavalry.

She scrolled through her extensive list of contacts before stopping at Black Swan and sending her a quick, ‘we are stuck, please send help’ text in her direction.

“Trying to make yourself taller?” Aventurine asked as he stopped in front of her and leaned over the bar.

She looked down at him, “don’t need to around you.”

“Haha, how charming.” He tapped his fingers near her foot, “Any luck with our Memokeeper friend?”

She jumped down, landing on one foot as she flipped her phone into her hand once more. The message had failed to send.

She showed the screen to Aventurine who clicked his teeth before removing his own phone and typing something on it.

“If it didn’t work for me, it won’t work for you.” Stelle pointed out as the sound of a message failing to be sent rang out.

“I know, I know, I was just trying to see if we could still contact people outside the dreamscape.” He slipped the device back into his pocket, “seems we're out of luck, friend.”

He kept trying anyway for some reason, Stelle left him in favor of wandering the hallways. Black Swan did say he was a gambler, maybe he was trying to strike out. The hotel was mostly identical in every direction, the halls seemed to circle back on each other. She’d step through a door and be met with the same room she had stepped into just a few moments ago. She avoided any doors that might lead to the main lobby where Archeron and Sam were no doubt still fighting. Sometimes she could hear the sound of metal clashes and she would swiftly pivot her feet to head the other direction.

By the time she stumbled back into the lobby Aventurine had dragged out a large tv set from somewhere and was busy trying to plug it into the wall. He seemed to be having trouble as some of the sets of sockets had been distorted, the slots being pulled apart and twisted.

Black Swan had also said that the memory zone was only a copy of reality, it had a tendency to overcompensate when it didn’t know something.

She didn’t try to help him, instead slumping against one of the couches and kicking her feet onto it. The curved shape of it made it hard for her to lie down comfortably but she didn’t mind. Lying down like this she could almost hear the thrum of the Stellaron in her chest, a constant string of distorted noise. March had once said that it was so loud it overpowered the sound of her heart.

The good news was that she had heard no resonance from the Stellaron so far. There had been a moment in the beginning when they were still trying to get her a room where she thought she might’ve felt something. It had been when... She frowned and massaged the side of her temple, she couldn’t remember. Either way, for once that didn't seem to be the source of the problem.

It can’t always be a Stellaron, she sighed to herself, which is too bad because I know how to deal with that at least.

She heard Aventurine let out a victorious whistle and the sound of the tv snapping open. For a moment there was only static as he seemed to flit through all the empty stations. Then she heard that similar garbled voice from the beginning of Clockie's announcement.

“I repeat once more in case some of our guests missed it,” The voice spoke hurriedly, “we are currently experiencing technical difficulties, it will be hard for guests to leave or move from one part of the dreamscape to another. Please sit still while our dream architects work to fix the issue.”

The voice paused for a moment before continuing on in full force, “this announcement is sponsored by Soulglad. Grab a bottle and-”

The tv set shut off.

“That’s just great.” Aventurine muttered as she heard the sounds of his feet striking the marble floor and walking towards where the bar was. “Are you planning on just lying down there the whole time?”

“What else do you expect me to do?” She pushed herself up by her elbows to look at him, “we’re stuck here, this whole place is a maze, all the corridors just end up where they started.”

“Did you run into our two friends?”

“You mean Sam and Acheron?” She shook her head, “I heard them though... Or, I think that was them.”

“Not good.” He clicked his teeth, “don’t stray so far next time.”

“You seemed busy.” Stelle rolled her eyes, she didn’t like being restricted, especially not by him.

“If we lose track of each other... Hold on.” He said as she watched him rummage through his pockets. He freed the dream ticket from his right coat pocket and waved it almost dramatically in the air.

Stelle shifted off the couch as he stepped up to her and got onto one knee. He extended the dream ticket towards her, an amused smile plastered onto his face.

“Well, Miss Stellaron, will you be my dance partner?”

“You didn’t have to get on one knee.” She deadpanned as she removed her own dream ticket from its hiding spot.

“Where’s your sense of ceremony?” He was definitely teasing her, normally she would’ve played along. But she was far from in the mood for it today.

She swiped through the thin, vaguely transparent screen, until she reached the page that said ‘invite your dream partner’. They swapped screens, Stelle resisted the urge to snoop as she typed her name into the screen and selected the profile with her face.

When she was given back her dream ticket it was a-glow with a green color, a victorious message on the screen read out: Congratulations on finding your match, Aventurine of the Stratagems is your dream partner.

“Of the Stratagems...” She echoed while giving him an incredulous look.

“Hey,” he raised his hands, “you can’t judge, friend, who puts Galactic Baseballer down as a last name.”

She had forgotten about that, she winced to herself, it had meant to stay as an inside joke between her and March.

Aventurine hopped to his feet, extending a hand down to her once more. “Well Partner, shall we find a way out of this place?”

Stelle ignored the hand, sliding off the couch and pushing past his shoulder. “What’s the point, the whole place is on lockdown.”

“This is the dreamscape, the only certain thing is that nothing is certain. Besides, the Family’s grasp on the dreamscape is not as good as it used to be. There’s got to be a way to break through, so to speak.”

“If there is, you won’t be the one to do it.” Stelle sighed, “not without those cornerstones or whatever. Why didn’t you keep them on you instead of shoving them into a suitcase?”

“I did.” Aventurine taped the turquoise stone in the center of his chest, “but one is far from enough.”

She dipped her head towards it, frowning and trying to discern what was so special about it.

“What are you doing?” She heard Aventurine draw-out as she reached a finger forward to touch it.

She withdrew her hand, “Nothing.” It looked like a regular old gem to her, but then again looks could be very deceiving at times.

She reached forward and summoned her bat into her hand, she closed her eyes and concentrated. Pulling any kind of power from the Stellaron outside of the usual amount it gave to her automatically was often a precarious task, one Mr. Yang had counseled her against doing unless she was desperate. This probably counted as one such moment.

She felt a thrum in her hand as energy coursed down the side of the bat, she swung it to the side and clasped it in two hands.

“Hold on-” Aventurine started saying but she was far from listening. She took a running start towards the bar, slamming the bat into the side of it and smiling as she felt the energy pulse out violently from the hit. She could feel the surface of the stone cracking, and she braced herself for the blowback.

Only it never came.

Instead she was knocked off her feet and onto one of the memory bubbles. It shattered and cushioned her fall as the energy she had painstakingly accumulated evaporated.

“What-” She winced as her head clipped against the ground, “what the hell.”

“My dear,” She heard Black Swan say as she extended a hand down to her, “didn’t I tell you to leave manipulating the memory zone to me.”

Stelle ignored it again, what was with people and assuming she couldn't get up on her own. She brushed some imaginary dirt off her skirt and tried her best to recover from the humiliation of getting knocked on her ass.

To be fair, I was acting completely on a whim.

“You’re back, perfect.” Aventurine exclaimed, he seemed to be ignoring her mishap which was a blessing in disguise. “Get us out of here.”

Black Swan seemed to glitch out for a moment, her form collapsed into a selection of purple crystals before converging together once again.

“I don’t have much time.” She summoned a card into her hand as Stelle asked, “Is everything all right?”

“You need to leave the memory zone and head back to the dreamscape. I’m sorry, I can’t get you back to reality. Something is-” She zipped out once more before extending her half-collapsed arm and throwing the card. “Interfering. Go, now!”

The card slipped out of existence before a hole was opened where it was. It tore through the air, thrumming a strange purple color that seemed to oscillate between shades. Stelle didn’t wait, taking off running and jumping through the portal. She felt her stomach get flipped in on itself as her form was pressed down and thrown out the other side.

She lost her footing, rolling for a bit before slamming into the side of what felt like a wall. She winced as she reached up to grasp the ledge of whatever she had hit, a giant unsettling clock face stared down at her.

They were back in the Golden hour.

Chapter 2: In that Projection of Reality

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Aventurine slid his foot against the ground to bring himself to slow as he almost slammed into her, she seemed to have a penchant for falling. Spinning on his heel he took in the new, unfamiliar environment. Large skyscrapers, strange vehicles flying by without care and an oversized statue of Penacony’s mascot. The golden hour, most likely.

“Zero points.” He almost jumped out of his skin as he heard the familiar voice say.

“Ratio?” He spun to look at the doctor.

“Hmm, do you want to earn more demerit points?” His partner was dressed strangely. The overly intricate robes, and ostentatious golden bracers had been replaced by a straight-fitted dark purple suit. “Isn’t it your duty to help your spouse back to her feet.”

He almost choked, “I’m sorry? My what?”

Ratio sighed before stepping past him, “Stelle, are you quite alright. You need to watch your footing more.”

“Dr. Ratio?” Stelle seemed equally confused, her clothes had been swapped in favor of a flowing strapless gray dress. It looked nice on her, he could admit that much.

Ratio grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet as Aventurine looked down and cursed under his breath. He had also had his clothes swiped, he was wearing a black suit with a embroidered green dress shirt. A hat had been tossed over his head and an expensive looking watch fastened to one of his wrists.

“I don’t have time to correct all your misdemeanors, Aventurine.” Ratio said as he released Stelle, “watch over her properly next time.”

“Hold on, Ratio-” Aventurine's voice failed as the doctor’s back vanished into the assembled crowd. “Seriously, what is going on?”

“Isn’t he always like that?” Stelle said as she brushed her hand over the fabric of the dress. “What did he mean by spouse?”

“I have no idea.” He answered before pausing, “wait, you know Ratio.”

She nodded, “We stopped Duke Ifrit’s attack on Herta’s Space Station together. How do you know him?”

“Old acquaintance. We were both assigned to the Penacony mission.” it seemed Ratio had concealed the fact that he had known the Nameless prior to Penacony, so much for trust.

“Oh.” For some reason that seemed to disappoint her, her face fell ever so slightly. “This is the Golden hour but-”

“There you two are... geeze, don’t you know it’s rude to keep friends waiting?”

That was Topaz’s voice, Aventurine turned his head towards the sound and was greeted by the sight of his co-worker wearing a smart looking gray and red suit. It was also impossible for her to be here considering she was supposed to be on standby near Penacony after having refused to work directly with him. Which was when Ratio had been hoisted onto him but that was besides the point.

“Uh hello, Topaz to the lovebirds? Are you two shell shocked or something?” Topaz snapped her fingers together, “come on, you can’t keep Serval waiting?”

“Serval?” Stelle frowned, “what do you mean Topaz, Serval is-”

“Right, Dinner!” Aventurine jumped in as his instincts to play along until something made sense kicked in, “how could we forget!”

“Well come on.” Topaz gestured forward, “you two seem lost so I’ll lead the way.”

“Let’s go, love.” He grabbed Stelle’s hand, leaning in to whisper, “best to play along for now, It would seem that Black Swan made a mistake.”

Stelle didn’t say anything, she kept her body as far from him as she could while still holding his hand as they followed Topaz. He didn’t take it personally.

“I’m guessing you know this Serval?” He said under his breath as they kept following Topaz through the thick crowd.

“She’s from Belobog, I don’t know if Topaz has ever even met her.” Stelle said back as Topaz led them to a larger glass building with the words, ‘Golden Hour’s Golden Moment’ scrawled in an equally golden paint at the front.

“Oh,” Topaz said as the waiter led them past a collection of round tables with golden embroidered tablecloths. They had picked a theme and stuck to it, that was all he could comment on. “I forgot to say but Ruan Mei and Luocha said they’d be running late, stuck in traffic if you can believe it.”

“At this hour, I can. I think we're both grateful to have chosen to walk. Aren’t we, Love?” Aventurine said a whole bunch of nothing before stealing a glance at Stelle who was openly gawking, she ignored his question.

“I know Ruan Mei,” He asked as she blinked slowly while Topaz greeted a rather tall blonde woman. “Who’s Luocha?”

“A merchant from the IPC, shouldn’t you know him?”

“Do you have any idea how big the corporation is, how would I be expected to-”

He cut himself off as the blonde woman, who he assumed was Serval, threw herself into a hug with Stelle.

“There you are!” Serval exclaimed as she pinched both of Stelle’s cheeks, “it’s been too long!” The woman turned her eyes towards him, “I know she’s your wife, but you should learn to share a bit, Aventurine.”

He didn’t comment on the last part, simply pulling out a chair for himself and sitting down. The two women had already ordered a veritable feast, food seemed to be almost overflowing from the table. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Stelle greeted two other approaching figures. The first he recognized from the data bank, Diamond liked to keep an eye on the more active members of the genius society. Ruan Mei had a sort of aloof beauty to her. Her blue eyes seemed to be carefully considering everyone in the room as though looking for some kind of unspoken worth. He assumed the man next to her was Luocha, he was tall with long, flowing blonde hair tied loosely behind his head. Handsome enough but with a rather stony but inviting look on his face. It was a rather odd paradox but he could find no other explanation for it.

Stelle hopped up to him, sliding into her chair and resting a hand on his shoulder to whisper, “Don’t eat anything Ruan Mei gives you.”

“Why?”

“She drugged me last time.” Stelle shrugged before leaning towards Topaz who started shoveling food towards her.

“Eat up, Stelle!” Topaz smiled as she dumped what looked like a large broccoli onto Stelle’s plate. “I know you have quite the appetite.”

“Has Aventurine been keeping you well fed?” Ruan Mei said as she settled into the chair in front of him.

“She’s not a pet.” He replied, “she can take care of herself.”

The conversation devolved into the strange mundane, Topaz argued with him about some kind of project they had involving an investment gone wrong. Only he was familiar with neither that name of the investor (Oleg) nor the company (Wildfire). He tried to piece together as much information as he could through the conversation. Ruan Mei worked for Ratio at a biotech firm, something which sounded completely off as he knew that Ratio had always been slightly envious of those in the genius society. If anything, it should probably be the other way around. Serval was a musical instrument designer who worked with Luocha to deliver her products all through Penacony. Only this explanation changed half-way through and all of a sudden she was an architect responsible for designing space stations. And Luocha would ship those stations to nearby floats, whatever that meant.

When Aventurine would point out those inconsistencies he was met with blank stares from all of them before one of them shook themselves out of it and said he must’ve misunderstood them. They would then proceed to completely change their tale. When he pointed out that it was strange that Ruan Mei worked for Ratio considering her qualifications, she said that they actually pulled straws to determine who was boss for the day.

“Seriously?” He looked incredulously at the genius, “you draw straws...”

“It is the most random and unbiased approach.” She nodded with an air of confidence, “perfectly scientific. We used dice before but they had a mind of their own and always ended in a tie.”

There was also the issue of the environment around them. The waiter's face changed slightly every time they visited their table. Their eyes had passed from blue to gray to pink and they had an increasing amount of freckles every time they swung by to ask them if their food was to taste. The guests around them also seemed to oscillate, as though the dreamscape couldn’t keep up with the details. Had things deteriorated that badly in Penacony already? Surely not.

Stelle was not paying attention to any of this, his wife had spent most of the dinner with her face shoved into her plate. She certainly had an appetite.

“Is the food really that good, you’ve barely looked up from your plate all night.” He muttered as he watched her slice a large chunk of steak and tear into it.

“Actually,” Stelle answered while chewing, “It all tastes off, some of it is pretty gross too. Here, try it.”

She extended her fork to him and he became cognizant of the eyes shifting to him as he bit the piece of steak off of it. He almost spit it out. The not-steak had the texture and look of a regular prime roast but not the taste. It was sweet and acrid, like biting into an orange slice.

“That’s foul.” He coughed as he reached for the glass of wine in front of him. “Why the hell do you keep eating it?”

“It’s fascinating.” Stelle had an almost dreamy look in her eyes as she grabbed his hand and pulled it away from the wine. “Don’t drink that, it tastes like spoiled salad dressing. You know, like when you keep it in the fridge for too long and then the moment you decide to have a salad for the first time in months it decides to go bad on you at that moment.”

He made a face and reached for a napkin instead.

“So tell us Stelle,” Topaz said as she leaned in front of him to look at Stelle, “when can we expect some good news from you and Aventurine?”

“Good news?” Stelle blinked while he felt tempted to reach for the wine once more. If the conversation took that turn, he’d stab himself in the hand with a fork to pull it off course.

“Yes.” Topaz’s face was stretched into a crooked smile, “we’re all waiting for that Stellaron in your chest to detonate. So when will it happen?”

“How exciting.” Ruan Mei jumped in, “to witness the final exodus of life would be marvelous.”

He watched Stelle’s face morph into one of confusion and slight terror. He was about to interject when the supposed merchant from the IPC spoke.

“And you Aventurine?” Luocha's eyes widened with barely hidden glee. “When will you bend your head and let the Amber Lord strike you down?”

He felt something get stuck in his throat as he almost reached for the brand on his neck. He didn’t think, grabbing the wine glass in front of him and chugging it in one go. It was like swallowing a dirty rag, the liquid was viscous and oily. He retched slightly, slamming his fist into the table and exaggerating his coughing fit.

Their companions at the table didn’t react, their eyes still kept fixed blankly on his wheezing form. Stelle, luckily, seemed to get the basis of his plan.

She jumped up, placing her hand on his back and rubbing a circle as she spoke, “Oh dear, looks like that was too much for him. I better get him home.”

“You don’t have to leave yet, Akivili.” Ruan Mei spoke quietly, “you didn’t answer our question.”

“Maybe next week, who knows!” Stelle exclaimed as she hauled him off his chair and dragged him towards the exit, “See you later.”

She dropped him off on a curb, rushing off to who knows where as he tried to clear his throat. He probably should’ve thought things through more carefully beforehand, not let his emotions show so clearly. He rubbed the brand on his side, scratching at it, even in the dreamscape he couldn’t escape it.

Stelle reapered at his side carrying two identical cones of mint green ice cream, she handed one off to him.

“I hope it's good.” She said before licking hers, making a face and then sighing. “Never mind, it’s like biting into a lemon seed.”

Aventurine made no effort to stop her as she swiped the cone from his hand and ran off to throw it into a nearby trash can. He then watched in mute silence as she proceeded to reach into said trash can and pull out what looked like a soggy newspaper.

“Look at these headlines,” She stretched the newspaper in front of his face.

It read: A-Ha shares ten tricks to make the snow fall up. In the opinion section today, is it alright to turn your mother-in-law into a walrus, random toddlers named Jeremy weigh in.

He groaned, covering his face with his hands. “This whole place is completely nonsensical.”

“Can I turn your Mother into a walrus?”

“My Mother is dead.” He answered.

“Oh.” She sat next to him. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be, it was a long time ago.” He drew a finger over the inside of his palm, he never thought about his parents, it was better that way. “Besides, we aren’t really married.”

“I know, I was just joking.” Stelle shrugged, “I don’t even know what a walrus is.”

“Like an ugly, wrinkly whale with tusks.” He described, “I don’t suppose you have a Mother I can turn into one so I can show you.”

“I don’t have parents.”

That felt like a strange answer, “guess we’ll have to settle for a picture.”

He went to reach for his phone when he noticed Ratio walking through traffic towards them.

“You must be cold in this weather, Stelle.” Ratio said as he gave a pointed look in his direction, “Take my coat.”

“Oh you don’t need to-” She protested as Ratio dropped his purple suit jacket over her shoulder. She grabbed the edges of it and pulled it close, “thanks.”

“It’s snowing, one should take proper measures to protect themselves from it.” Ratio said as snowflakes started forming on the sidewalk.

They coalesced into crystals and then lifted gently off the ground, Aventurine looked up and noticed the underside of the buildings was already accumulating a thin layer of snow. Snow falling up, he remembered the headline Stelle had shown him. He extended in his hand, catching some of the snow before turning his palm up and watching as it kept going up.

“Hey Doctor,” Stelle said, “do you know how we can get back? It’s getting cold and we need to get home.”

“Sometimes the most obvious answer is the one right in front of you.” Ratio stepped back onto the curb, “Zero points for not figuring it out earlier.”

Aventurine watched in silence as he walked into a nearby building and vanished. Even this strange version of his partner was vaguely unhelpful in his advice. Ratio had always believed in letting people figure it out for themselves, he would say that it led to a more profound learning experience. But Aventurine liked taking the easy way out and thus they had found themselves butting heads often.

“We’re in a dream!” Stelle leaped to her feet.

“Obviously.”

“No, no, we’re in a dream within the dreamscape.” She shook her head, “It’s like that movie I watched with March once. What was it called...”

“Is that even possible?” He said as he considered the strange actions of their companions, the food tasting off, the vaguely defined backdrop. It was like the whole world had been tilted slightly on its axis. “Actually, I think you’re right.”

“Well, even if we’d figured it out, what do we do?” Stelle crossed her arms, “We need to get out of here.”

Aventurine looked at the traffic speeding past them, larger and smaller vehicles equally raced past with little care.

“There’s one sure way to end a dream.” He stood up and extended his hand to her, “Dance with me, will you.”

She stared at his hand for a bit before gently pressing the tip of her fingers to his palm. He swept his foot next to hers, bringing an arm around her waist and interlacing their hands. Without saying a word, he waltzed them right into the open road.

///|||\\\

“Alright, alright,” Stelle heard a slightly familiar voice say, “everybody give them some space now. I think they’re waking up.”

She rubbed her eyes as she pulled her knees forward and tried to sit up.

“Carefull,” She heard the same voice say, “don’t force yourself, Miss, how do you feel.”

“Is this real?” She managed to ask as she took in the familiar sight of the Golden Hour once more.

“Depends on your definition of real.” She recognized the man now, with his unruly hair and five o'clock shadow. Gallagher, that security guard she had run into with Firefly earlier. “You’re in the Golden hour, the two of you came crashing in and then collapsed. Stirred up quite a crowd.”

“Oh.” She looked around at the worried faces surrounding them, Aventurine had already pulled himself to his feet and was adjusting the cuff of his sleeve. Stelle pushed up against the edge of the statue, and stretched out her arm. She felt strangely sore, what had they been doing right before? Right, dancing right into their death. She could remember flashing lights and the feel of something pressing into her and shattering her form.

“Back up, I said.” Gallagher turned towards the crowd and motioned for them to get away.

“Are we sure we’re not dreaming?” Aventurine rubbed his head, “I’ve never seen so many people in the dreamscape.”

“I can hit you, if you’d like.” She teased while reaching into the air and summoning her baseball bat.

“Haha,” he deadpanned, “put the bat down friend.”

“Right,” Gallagher walked back to them, “I don’t suppose you two have an explanation for what happened.”

“We ran into a memokeeper-” Aventurine explained while Stelle said, “our coaster at Clock Studios Theme Park went off the rails and we ended up here.”

“So which one is it?”

“The Memokeeper.” Stelle sighed with disappointment, it was such a boring explanation.

“To be honest, this would usually require a full investigation. We don’t really want guests breaking through the boundaries of the dreamscape. But things have been weird so I’ll let it slide for now.” Gallagher said, Stelle noticed the deep bags under his eyes for the first time, “we’re overwhelmed and don’t have time, off you go.”

“Hold on,” Aventurine stopped him, “is it true we can’t leave? What explanation did the Family provide for this? I have some important meetings to get to in the hotel, the kind that don’t wait.”

“I’m sorry sir, we don’t know.” Gallagher sighed as he left, “the only thing I can say is people are coming in but no one is leaving. We think some miscommunication is happening between the hotel and the dreamscape.”

“Is the family trying to cram as many people in here as they can...” She heard Aventurine musing as she looked around for any other familiar face.

She tiptoed away from him, making her way to the base of Clockie’s tower and leaning down. The strange animated figure had spoken to her once before, maybe it would show up again.

“Clockie.” She whispered, “are you here?”

She waited for a moment, looking around in anticipation. If Clockie was linked to the dreamscape, then it must have some idea of what was happening. Maybe it could take her to Misha, there was something strange about the bellboy. She hadn’t had the time to think it through but within the dreamscape it was like people looked through him. Neither Firefly nor Archeron had acknowledged him at that time and besides...

“What are you doing?” Aventurine was standing over her with his arms crossed.

“Just tying my shoelaces.”

“Your shoes don’t have laces.” He said as she stood up.

“What’s the plan?” She deflected, she wasn’t sure how to explain that she was looking for a magical animated figure that only people with child-like imagination could see.

“Let’s just find somewhere to sit and chat.” He sighed, “this whole day has gone poorly enough as it is.”

“Are you still upset about what Luocha said?” She asked as they walked through the crowd. There really were people everywhere, she could feel the confusion in the air. More than a few of the guests kept pulling out their dream pass, looking at it and then sighing in exasperation.

“What?” He huffed, “that bit of nonsense? why would I be?”

“It’s just-”

“There.” He cut her off as he pointed to one of the many restaurants lined up against the street, “that place looks fine.”

She received a message from March just as Aventurine went to hunt down one of the waiters to get a table.

March: Stelle

March: Stellllleeee, where are you?

March: I’m with Himeko in the moment of Scorched Sun. Text us!

March: Stelle? Ugh, hurry up and answer, Black Swan told us you were fine.

She felt a small breath of relief as she read the messages, so they were fine after all. She quickly typed a message back as she noticed Aventurine waving her over.

You: In the Golden Hour with Aventurine.

You: Sorry for not staying in touch, things have been weird, I’ll tell you later.

The restaurant itself was very busy, Stelle noticed more than a few people sitting without tables as she took her seat in front of Aventurine. They had extended out a portion of the table area and most of the furniture around them was mismatched as though it had been dragged out at the last second. There was also a notable buzz of conversation, people arguing, fretting and generally discontent. It was clear no one knew what was happening and that they were starting to get worried.

“Messages work again.” She informed him as she took a look at the menu. Most of the items on it had been crossed out with a black line, the words ‘out of stock’ written next to them.

“I know, Ratio is going to be joining us.” He said with a peeved expression, “I made the mistake of telling him we were in the golden hour.”

“Why would that be a mistake?” She asked as she considered her options. A chicken sandwich sounded kind of stale but she didn’t really want to find out what ‘the tavern’s special mystery stew’ was. “Aren’t you two like... working together?”

“Ratio is simply hard to deal with at times. Anyways, when he does show up, just play along with me. Alright, friend?”

“Fine.” She shrugged as she settled for the fried calamari rings with a refreshing salad. “Don’t they have anything to drink that isn’t Soulglad.”

“Welcome to Penacony.”

They ordered quickly, managing to grab the attention of one very nervous looking waiter. They were clearly overwhelmed with plates of food zipping around them and customers continuously raising their hands. Aventurine asked them to add a chair to the table while Stelle tried asking if they could just have a pitcher of water for the table. The first request was granted, the second one was not.

They didn’t talk as they waited, Aventurine seemed to be receiving an avalanche of messages on his phone. So Stelle simply pulled out her own device and opened up that Gacha game she had been playing as of late. She swapped tabs as she noticed a message from March pop up at the top.

March: Aventurine!? That weird, rude guy from the IPC? What are you doing with him?

March: Also did you hear the Charmony festival had started, they’re setting up these huge stages around us.

You: We meet up in the Memory zone, long story but he’s working with Black Swan.

You: And yeah, we heard the announcement.

You: You heard that no one can leave, right?

March: Ugh, how strange. Also, also, we can’t reach out to Mr. Yang.

March: or Dan Heng for that matter, it’s like we’ve been cut out from the outside.

March: This vacation is starting to look more and more like a mistake.

Aventurine seemed to be trying to get her attention. She looked to the side and noticed Dr. Ratio pushing past the other tables on the terrace to get to them.

You: Gotta go, I’ll keep you posted.

March: Himeko says not to do anything dumb. New goal is to get out of here and back on the express.

She sent a thumbs up Pom-Pom emoji and set her phone face down on the table as Dr. Ratio took a seat next to her.

“Do you enjoy playing the disappearing game, Aventurine?” Dr. Ratio said accusingly, “the higher ups do not, I’ve been fending off messages from them all day. Be thankful, I didn’t immediately rat you out.”

“Geez, I can’t even go for a walk without you people getting all upset, can I?” Aventurine scoffed, “in case you didn’t notice Ratio, things haven’t exactly been going as planned.”

“I only ask that you be more considerate. I can’t help you if I don’t know what you are doing. We are supposed to be working on this together.”

“Really, because the last time I wanted to ask you for help, you vanished into thin air.”

“You had already made me wait for long enough and it didn’t sound like you had anything illuminating to say.” Dr. Ratio said as he pulled his dreampass out of somewhere, “Here, make me your dance partner. A sign of trust.”

“I can’t,” Aventurine shook his head, “I’ve already asked the young miss next to us for the honor.”

“So you saw fit to ignore my warning then, as expected.”

“Hah, what did you-”

“The food’s here!” Stelle cut in as she reached over the table and pushed the utensils to the side to make space for the plate. “Sorry, doctor, I didn’t know what you would want so I didn’t order anything for you.”

Dr. Ratio stared at Aventurine for a few more moments before turning to her, “that’s alright, Stelle, I’m not feeling peckish.”

“Feel free to steal some from my plate if you do get hungry, I think this is too much for one person.” She smiled as pushed some of the salad to the side and grabbed a smaller calamari ring.

“I’ll return to the matter at hand.” Dr. Ratio crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, “What is your plan?”

“Wing it?” Aventurine shrugged.

“Wing it...” The doctor repeated with an unamused glare, “are you going to tell that to Diamond? Shall I write him an email telling him that his fool of a Stoneheart is planning on improvising.”

“Oh come on, Ratio, carefully laid out plans are always doomed to fail. Sometimes it’s best to see where things go.”

“Do you agree with this?” Dr. Ratio asked her suddenly as she shoved a large piece of lettuce into her mouth.

“Uh,” she chewed quickly, “I don’t know, I think we should at least have an outline.”

“Here’s the outline,” Aventurine interrupted, “we find evidence of Penacony’s mismanagement by the Family. We share this information with the public and the shareholder. We sit back and watch it fall to pieces. Then, we swoop in to claim the remains. There, Ratio, Happy?”

“No,” Dr. Ratio shook, “that is just an idea, it is not an outline. How do you plan to prove there is any fault within the Family or the dreamscape itself?”

“Well actually-” Stelle started before getting interrupted, “We’ll find something. These kinds of shiny places always have an ugly underbelly.”

“That’s not always the case.”

“It is in this case, Ratio.” Aventurine huffed, “I mean, have you listened to half the stuff Sunday says-”

“And what would that be? He might be a bit magnetic, and overly pedantic but that is no proof of any fault.”

“You see, Doctor-” Stelle tried again before Aventurine cut her off once more, “trust me, that guy has something very wrong with him. I’ll dig it out.”

“I have a hard time believing that considering-”

“We’ve already found something!” Stelle jumped up and slammed her hands on the table, “do you two ever listen to anyone else but yourselves talk?”

“We haven’t found anything yet, Stelle.” Her name sounded like acid in Aventurine’s mouth. He was fixing her with a look that screamed ‘Stop. Right now’.

She ignored him.

“The dreamscape is falling to pieces and the Family is trying to cover it up by quick-starting the charmony festival.”

“Do you have proof of this?” Dr. Ratio turned his attention to her fully.

“Sort of,” she shrugged off the daggers Aventurine was glaring at her head. “The reason we’ve been missing is because we went into the Revelry. You know, the hotel within the dreamscape. It’s a complete mess.”

“That’s all we have for now,” Aventurine said, “we haven’t had the time to explore that thread completely, friend. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“I take it you were not planning on sharing this with me.” Dr. Ratio sighed, “as expected. If you are not willing to trust me, I don’t see how this partnership is meant to go on.”

They started going at it again, Stelle was starting to think that they enjoyed it somehow. She focused on her food, enjoying the contrast between the fresh salad and greasy calamari. It was much better than what she had eaten in the dream. She heard her phone buzz and reached for it absent-mindedly.

Silver Wolf: You up?

Silver Wolf: Kidding, I know you are, I saw your active status on Genshin. Did you roll for Furina like you said you would???

She quickly tucked her phone into her pocket, and leaped to her feet. She told them she needed to go to the restroom before making a run for the inside of the restaurant. She doubted that openly texting a Stellaron Hunter in front of two members of the IPC was a good idea considering the bounty they had accumulated.

You: Not yet, don’t have enough for a guarantee.

You: What do you want?

Silver Wolf: Just checking in, Sam said he lost track of you.

Silver Wolf: He didn’t scare you, did he?

Stelle debated the option of tossing her phone into a nearby trash can or launching a series of profanities at the gamer.

You: Takes more than that to scare me, but he’s a bit intense tbh.

You: Wdyw?

Silver Wolf: Like I said, just checking in.

Silver Wolf: Sam was supposed to grab you but he failed so now we have to improvise.

Silver Wolf: Where are you now?

You: Not telling you.

Silver Wolf: Don’t be like that...

Silver Wolf: Would you tell me if I said Kafka was looking for you.

You: She’s not.

Stelle answered when a nearby patron bumped into her shoulder, she quickly apologized and stole a seat next to the bar.

Silver Wolf: Wave hi for the camera

Silver Wolf has sent an attachment.

Silver Wolf: Hey, do you know you’re near that gambler from the IPC? He’s one of the ten stonehearts, watch out.

Silver wolf had sent her a picture of herself crouched over the bar, Stelle quickly looked up and noticed the camera-shaped eye looking down at her. She turned off her phone, shoving it back into her pocket as she marched back to the table.

Aventurine was sitting on his own, a familiar coin flipping between his fingers, he had a distinctly bored look on his face.

“Where did Dr. Ratio go?” She asked as took her seat once more.

“He got mad and left, said to come find him when I came to my senses.” Aventurine shrugged, “good riddance, what were you up to?”

“Bathroom.” She lied, she’d keep an eye out for Sam now that she knew he was after her. She doubted the Stellaron Hunter wanted to harm her considering how important she supposedly was to their plans. But that didn’t mean she wanted to take her chances with him. After all, he has something to do with... She cut that thought off at its root.

“Now that you’re back, we can talk properly... Didn’t I tell you to follow my lead?”

“You did.” Stelle huffed, “I never agreed to it though. What reason could you possibly have for refusing to tell Dr. Ratio the full truth. He’s meant to be on our side.”

“He is not on our side, he’s-”

“Let me guess how this speech ends.” Stelle interrupted, “you’re the only one I can trust, that’s what you’ll say, right?”

“That’s not-” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, “obviously, you can trust the rest of your crew and Black Swan to a certain extent. And don’t trust me, please, we’re both means to an end for each other.”

“If I can’t trust you then why would I follow along with what you want me to do.” Stelle pointed out, “the only reason I’m even cooperating is to keep an eye on you.”

“And yet you so readily tell Ratio everything. He works for the corporation too, you know.”

“I told you, I know him, I’ve worked with him.” Stelle half-rolled her eyes, “His methods might be a bit... I don’t know, but he truly did help the people of Herta’s space station out. That place is like a second home to me.”

“Because it was in his best interest, Herta’s space station is important to the corporation.”

“That’s true but he didn’t need to-”

“I’ll cut you off there, Stellaron girl, you don’t know him like I do.” Aventurine raised a hand, a king of hearts card between his fingers. “When Ratio has a plan, he always sees it through to the end. Right now, he wants to deliver the planet to the IPC so he can go back to parading around as an educator. He is most steadfast in that goal.”

“And you aren’t?”

“Oh sure, but I’m more flexible you see.” Aventurine flipped the card behind his hand and made it vanish. “And my... perception of the corporation isn’t as crystal clear as his.”

Stelle leaned forward, “are you saying you can be persuaded to switch sides.”

“Aren’t we on the same side here, friend.” He smiled almost cryptically, “we both just want to know what’s behind the Family’s facade. And if it all comes crumbling down, isn’t it better if the IPC comes in to help clean up the mess.”

“The fate of Penacony should be left up to its people.”

“People need a leader.”

Stelle could see that the conversation was going to keep spinning in circles with Aventurine more than happy to keep dragging her along. All these smooth talkers, she grumbled to herself as she ate the last of her calamari rings. Why is it they always poked holes in even your most certain convictions?

Maybe I’m just too easy to sway, she considered as Aventurine leaned back with a satisfied smile. Looks like he’s convinced he won.

The waiters kicked them out as nicely as they could, explaining furtively that they needed the space for other customers.

“We can’t do anything until we’re free to move around the dreamscape once more.” Aventurine said as they walked, “I have some investors I need to meet up with nearby. You can do what you want, I’ll send you a message once I need you.”

“What, you’re just going to leave?” Stelle watched in mute shock as he jogged up the flight of stairs in front of them and ran off into the crowd.

She stood in the middle of the crowd for a few moments before digging through her pockets and pulling out a few Aideen tokens. Might as well try to kill some time, she thought to herself as she walked in the direction of Aideen park.

Notes:

And that's 2! I'll update probably once a week with some occasional longer breaks when I need to catch up on my backlog. I like to write in advance so I have time to properly edit and make changes it something doesn't sit well in my head. Thanks for reading!

Chapter 3: Enter Agents of Ill Fantasy

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“I can assure you,” Aventurine repeated for the umpteenth time, “the company didn’t plan for this. We are all as equally as confused as you, and hoping the Family has a good explanation for this. It’s bad PR if anything else.”

“Is that really all you can say,” one of the investors replied, “I mean, we all expected more assurance on your part. What of all the credits we put into the Charmony festival? People are already talking about refunding their tickets and the show hasn’t even started.”

“Rumors, that’s all.” Aventurine placated, “this situation will be resolved. Though if I must be honest with you, the Family has not communicated with us at all through all of this. It really is quite strange.”

“What could be the reason-”

Aventurine tuned out the rest of the conversation as the investors started arguing amongst each other. All you needed was a little bait and they tended to take care of each other so to speak. Soon they’d be interrogating one another on who was withholding information from who.

He went to reach for another drink when he felt a stabbing pain in his knee. He stopped himself from doubling over, keeping his breath steady as the pain intensified and then dulled. Pressing his hand towards his knee, he noticed red starting to dot the outside of his pants.

What.

He felt a buzz on his side, he reached into his pocket and removed the dreamscape pass from it. A large announcement was plastered in front of it, it read:

Congratulation Distinguished guest,

You have unlocked a feature unique to the invitees of the Watchmaker. You and your dance partner have been linked through the power of the Harmony. Enjoy this unique and daunting feeling of unity. Revel in this new common understanding.

Aventurine swiped to the screen showing Stelle's location, she was somewhere near Aideen park. He pushed his chair back, using the table to steady himself as he concentrated on ignoring the pain in his leg. It was something he was used to.

“Apologies, something sudden just came up.” He didn’t wait to see if they had heard him, sprinting back outside the establishment. This was a consequence he had not anticipated when he made her the offer. How many times are they going to change the rules of the game?

He pushed past people with little care, he could sense a panic spreading through the crowd as he got closer to the park. Soon enough people seemed to be running away instead of standing around in confusion. He double checked her location once more, she had moved to the northern entrance of the park.

He felt a slight shiver run down his spine as he crossed under one of the overarching glass archways. His vision was pulled to his left, a woman was running alongside him. Purple hair, a long flowing coat, and more importantly a Katana that seemed much too big to wield comfortably.

sh*t, he placed his hand on the cornerstone, pulling its power towards him. He snapped his finger and sent a spur of energy in her direction. It pulled her attention away for a moment and he aimed for the supporting pillar of the archway above them, it crumbled and fell. He jumped ahead and wincing as his injured knee pulsed, he could see the entrance.

Half of the park was on fire, a blaze had torn through most of the arcade machines leaving behind smoldering remains. The people who hadn’t fled were cuddling in corners hiding behind the still intact bar to his left. He quickly scanned the area for the threat and most importantly Miss Stellaron herself.

It was a tall mechanical humanoid, Aventurine watched as it sent a spray of flames down onto the makeshift stage. Sam, he concluded as he spotted Stelle running out from the side of said stage. He noticed the robot extending an arm towards her as it swooped down. Acting without thinking, he snapped his fingers and extended a shield in her direction. She seemed to take advantage of the momentary protection to spin on her feet and slam her bat into the side of the mecha. He could almost feel the impact move through his body, a strange energy coursing and pulsing in his chest. Sam flew back, hitting the pipes floating above the stage and leaving a considerable dent in them.

The Stellaron? Was that what he had felt? He shook the thought away, he could contemplate their new situation once the danger had passed. He made note of the rubble behind him shifting and made a run in her direction.

Stelle seemed ready to throw herself at the Stellaron Hunter again, her bat clasped tightly between two hands. He caught up to her, grabbing one of her wrist and tugging it down.

“Hold on,” She protested, “I can win.”

“Against an emanator?” He jerked her attention towards Acheron who had freed herself from his trap.

“She followed him.” Stelle murmured, “sh*t.”

Acheron seemed to be busying herself brushing the dust off her coat, a nonchalant expression on her face. She was toying with them, like a predator would with their prey. The Hunt, he concluded, no other explanation.

He pulled Stelle to the side, running into the alleyway to the right of the park. She followed without a fight. The alley curved around a building leading them to the lower levels of the Golden hour. There was a vent near the side of one of the buildings, Stelle slid towards it and yanked it open.

“Come on,” She said as she crouched down and walked into it. He followed suit, grabbing the cover on the way in and closing the vent behind them. He could only hope the emanator had been too arrogant and taken too much time to go after them.

They crawled through the vents for quite some time, Aventurine focused on the sound of his breathing, ignoring the acute pain in his knee that throbbed with each contact with the cool metal. After what felt like a small infinity, they reached a ladder leading up to a manhole cover. He let her go first, taking note of the large gash on the side of her knee, the source of both of their pain.

They emerged in a starlight skyscape that hung on the edge of night and day, they were standing on top of some kind of large skyscraper that seemed impossibly high. This is the place that fool had wanted him to disappear into before.

“I know a spot.” Stelle nudged her head further along, “follow me.”

“You’ve ruined my pants.” He scoffed as she led them up a pair of stairs.

“Huh?” She gave him a puzzled look.

“Open your dreampass.”

He enjoyed watching the confused expression on her face shift into one of sudden understanding as her hands tightened around the screen.

“Wait, wait, this means...”

“Your fate is my fate, so to speak.” He chuckled, “either way, it’s certainly an interesting way to raise the stakes.”

The whole place had a sleepy quality to it, dimly lit lamps lighting their path as Stelle kept leading him up and up. After some experimentation with the rather odd technology used by the dream makers, they made it to their supposed destination. A solemn rooftop which gave room to a view of the entire dreamscape stretching out beneath them.

Aventurine took a moment to lean against the barrier and take it all in. Between the sun just barely breaking over the horizon, to the stars falling into the buildings beyond. He could admit the organizers of Penacony had done a good job with this one. He stole a glance back to his companion, she was looking through a small med pack removing a miniature spray from it before tucking the thing back into her coat.

“Want some?” She shook the bottle in the air.

“I don’t see how you propose to get to my wound.” The pants he was wearing were stiff, not the kind he could roll up with ease. Still, she grabbed the medpack once more and brandished a small silver pair of scissors in the air.

He shook his head, “No.”

“You can get a new pair easily.”

“Not happening.” He walked towards her, “try something, use that spray on yourself and let’s see what happens to me.”

She shook the spray once, tucking her hair out of the way as she leaned in and covered the wound in a cobweb-like substance. It hardened and crumpled off with a brush of her hand, revealing a freshly scarred wound. In the same instance, Aventurine felt the pain in his own leg fade as though it was nothing but a glitch in the dream.

“Hah,” He ran a hand down his face, “looks like it works both ways.”

“Like with that shield you used on me.” She nodded pensively, “did you mean to put one on yourself at the same time.”

He hadn’t. He snapped his finger towards her and watched as the similar golden shimmer covered his form as well. Now this, he smiled to himself, this could be useful.

Each cornerstone had a limit for the amount of power it could borrow from Diamond. The more he had on hand, the more he could use. With only one, this amount was vastly reduced. A way to shield himself and Stelle at the same time while expanding the same amount of energy as he would for a single person freed up the rest of the output for other uses.

There was something else that was bothering him, a strange noise emanating from his chest that he could no longer ignore. It sounded almost like a discordant song, tantalizing and yet repulsive at the same time. Perhaps the link extended past simply doing to one what happened to the other.

He noticed that Stelle was rubbing her hand on the side of her left wrist, a look of mild displeasure on her face.

“I have a weakness in my wrist.” He admitted. It was an old injury that had never healed right.

“What?”

“Your wrist stings right?” He nudged his head towards it, “I broke it when I was young, it was never quite the same.”

“Huh?” She blinked, “how do you-”

“Ignore it mostly,” he shrugged, “follow-up, what does it feel like? Having a Stellaron in your chest?”

She tilted her head, pushing up to her feet and taking one step towards him, “Can you feel it?”

“I don’t know-” His voice cut off as she stepped up to him and pressed her ear against his chest. “What are you?” He fought to keep his voice composed as her eyes met his as she pulled away. They really did remind him of a sunburst, the golden arcs almost radiating as her pupil moved to meet his.

“I can hear it.” She nodded pensively, “how strange... I tend to resonate with nearby Stellarons. It’s hard to explain but I can tell when another Stellaron is near me. I can hear it so to speak. Maybe by being linked, this resonance has spread to you.”

“Like a cancer.” He huffed, “as long as I don’t start growing a third eye...”

“I’ve had this thing for about a year now and I’m still relatively normal.”

“How does one end up with a Stellaron in their chest anyways?”

“Hold on,” She grabbed the edge of his coat and tugged it lightly, “you never told me how you found out about it.”

“Your friend, the pink-haired one.” He answered, “I overheard the two of you talking back in the hotel.”

He had mostly intended to mind his own business, content to wait in the lobby for Sunday while scrolling through the dozen messages he had received since setting foot on Penacony. The Nameless’ arrival had been notable but it hadn’t truly drawn his attention until he overheard the pink-haired girl mention something about nabbing a Stellaron from inside Stelle’s chest.

“Dammit March,” Stelle muttered as he said, “time for you to answer my question.”

“Sure,” she sighed, “the Stellaron hunters were the ones who... put it inside of me so to speak.”

“How are you still alive?” That was the one puzzling bit, the missing piece so to speak. Stellarons were deadly for ordinary humans to even be near so how could one unremarkable girl have one inside her while being harmless to stand around.

“I-” She started before changing her mind, he could see it in the wince at the very corner of her eye, “I don’t know.”

She was lying but that was an issue he would press on another day.

“You’ve had encounters with the Stellaron Hunters before then? I don’t know anything about them apart from what’s on their wanted poster, a nasty collection of individuals.”

“They’re really not that bad once you get to know them...”

“Really? You’re defending them. They aren’t worth billions in wanted fees just because they had a bit too much fun.”

She puffed her cheeks, “yeah, yeah. You just don’t know them like I do.”

“Oh, do tell.” He leaned his head closer to her, “I can’t wait to hear how you’d rather befriend interastrally regarded terrorists over an honest IPC employee like me.”

She shifted her eyes, “that’s complicated.”

“How?”

“I-” She seemed to bite back her own words once more, “I play mobile games with Silver Wolf, so I’ve gotten to know her pretty well.”

“Wha-What?”

She shoved her phone into his face, revealing an overly complicated interface of what looked like a friends list for some kind of Gacha game. On the very top of the list was someone named: SilverWOlfXOX.

“Are you sure you’re not getting catfished?” He asked as he read the account’s bio, it read: A game is a game, contact me for raids anytime.

“We’ve talked about it.” Stelle frowned, “sometimes she hacks into the express as this hologram thing, we played some board games once too. Uh but don’t tell Himeko or Mr. Yang, haha, they don’t know about it.”

“I’m sorry, I feel like I’m not hearing you well, friend. You play Gacha games with someone on the IPC’s most wanted list. Someone’s whose friend just tried to kill you.”

“Well when you say it like that... It’s just-”

“I’m not scolding you or anything.” He chuckled, “that takes guts, if anything, It's made me like you more.”

“Hah well hold on to that thought, there’s a second part to this.” She snatched her phone away from his face, scrolling through something before handing it back to him. It was a recent exchange between her and the Stellaron hunter.

“You lead them straight to us.” He huffed, “impressive, I didn’t think you were that foolish.”

She whipped the phone out of his hand, “I didn’t think-”

“That’s evident.” He laughed as she glared, “do me a favor, Miss Stellaron, block that number.”

“I’m not, that won’t stop her and besides Sam would’ve found me anyways.” She protested, “this way, I know what to expect.”

“Oh second part,” He continued, “don’t withhold information like this from me next time. It involves both of us since we’re linked now.”

“That goes both ways.”

He smirked, “naturally, I’ve been nothing but open to you since the start.”

“Yeah right.” He heard her scoff as he turned his attention to the slight buzzing he could hear from somewhere beyond them.

He felt himself get roughly shoved back, as Stelle stepped in front of him and summoned a fiery lance into her hands. The Stellaron hunter flew up from the side of the building, a set of fiery green wings affixed to his back.

“Found you.” Sam rasped as Aventurine felt a wave of heat on his face, it seemed there was no escaping him.

///|||\\\

Stelle felt the Stellaron whizzing wildly in her chest as she lifted the lance toward the Mecha. It tended to respond to her emotions, turning into a drain and sucking her strength when she was down, fluttering when she was excited. but when she wanted to fight, that was when it spoke back to her. Destruction was its purpose and those were the only moments when she fulfilled it. She felt an arc of heat lancing up her arm, she shifted her foot back preparing to tank the blow when a golden shield wrapped tightly around her.

Aventurine brought his hand past her head, snapping loudly and sending a barrage of coins in Sam’s direction.

“We’re running.” The gambler shouted into her ear before spinning on his feet and darting off.

Stelle hesitated, watching as the wall of coins was melting with impressive speed. She wanted to fight. Wanted to throw herself head first into conflict and forget everything that had happened. But her life was not just hers anymore. She might not be fond of Aventurine but she also wasn't going to let him get hurt on her account.

She fired the lance down to her feet, propelling herself forward and catching up to Aventurine in no time. He was scrambling to get the dreamscape tool to work.

“No time for that.” Stelle tucked her hand around his waist and pulled him towards her, “hold on.”

“What are you-”

Stelle swung the lance behind her and shot them up towards the sky. She’d done it a few times with March to kill time, an incredibly dangerous but fun way to get around. Aventurine clung to her immediately, his arms wrapping around her face as the wind whipped past them.

“I can’t see!” She yelled as he shouted back, “Brace!”

She somehow managed to get her feet underneath her as she slammed into the roof. Aventurine had used her as a propelling pad, pushing off of her and landing rather comfortably.

“Well that was fun, friend.” He said as he adjusted the cuff of his sleeves. “Next time a quick; I’m about to do something incredibly reckless and launch the both of us into the high heavens, would be appreciated.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Stelle answered as they started running down the long flight of stairs.

“We’re running out of places to hide.” Aventurine said as they skidded around a corner, Stelle could hear the sound of Sam rocketing through the sky above them.

“What are you suggesting?” She half-shouted as they ducked under an exhaust pipe and scrambled down a narrow alley. “You’re the one who keeps saying we should run. I say, we fight.”

“There’s a time for that.” He answered frustratingly, “it’s not now.”

“I thought you liked taking risks.”

“There’s a time.” He had pulled out his phone, Stelle looked over his shoulder and noticed he was scrolling through an expansive list of contacts.

“I’m sending our location to Black Swan.” He explained as they climbed over a series of boxes and jumped a fence. “Do you think your gamer friend used your phone to find us?”

Stelle shook her head, “I turned it off but-”

Black Swan had mentioned she thought Firefly and Sam were linked somehow, could it mean- She ripped that thought out of her head, not the time .

A series of crystallized hands tore the street in front of them, revealing a veiled woman standing in a busy alleyway. Stelle kicked fire into her feet, dashing ahead and almost slamming into Black Swan at the same time.

“You two seem like you’ve had quite the adventure.” Black Swan said as Aventurine nonchalantly walked through the portal as it shut once more.

“Just a bit of fun between friends.” He answered as Stelle took in the shocked expressions on the faces of the people around them. They seemed to be standing in the middle of a long line of cafes, a strong aroma of coffee and pastries filled the air.

“Stelle!” She felt her head get shoved down as March appeared out of thin air and pulled her into a hug. “There you are, we were so worried.”

“March,” she tugged on her friend's sleeve, “I can’t breathe...”

“Sorry,” March moved back with a laugh, “I got ahead of myself.”

“Miss March 7th,” Black Swan asked, “is Miss Himeko nearby?”

“Yeah, we have a spot at one of the coffee shops back there.” March pointed back with her thumb before noticing Aventurine, “oh, you’re here too.”

“Surprise.” He smiled blandly, “what a wonderful reunion between friends.”

It was strange how venomous he could make that word sound at times, Stelle remarked as March pulled her by the arm to where Himeko was.

The express navigator had somehow nabbed a full table for them. It was laid out with an intricate array of pastries that made Stelle’s tongue melt. Naturally, Himoko had a cup of ink black coffee in front of her.

“Stelle.” Himeko waved, “I’m glad you’re alright. And I see our new friend from the IPC has joined you. Nice to see you again, Mister Aventurine.”

“Please, we don’t need to be so formal.” Aventurine stole the chair from under March and sat next to Stelle. “I’ve been getting well acquainted with Miss Stellaron here, I assume you’ve all heard of the chaos that has engulfed Penacony.”

“You sound excited about it.” March’s voice had an accusatory tone that Stelle was used to. March was always overly suspicious of people though in this case it was probably a bit deserved.

“Why not, it’s always more fun when things don’t go exactly as planned.”

“I think we would’ve all preferred it if our vacation went off without a hitch.” Himeko said as she took a sip of her coffee. “But such is the life of a trailblazer. I believe, Black Swan, that you have some more information to reveal to us.”

“Oh wait wait,” March cut in, “Stelle, let’s be Dance partners!”

“Uhh,” Stelle started as Aventurine said, “Sorry, she’s already with me.”

“Huh, why!”

“It just sort of worked out like that...” Stelle rubbed the back of her head, shying away as Aventurine threw an overly familiar arm over her shoulder, “We just get along so well, it was love at first sight so to speak.”

“Sure.” Stelle conceded while frowning at his choice of words, “Sorry March, things have been so weird.”

“That would be a nice segway for me.” Black Swan smiled, “I believe this concept of partners, so to speak, is crucial to the Watchmaker's invitation. I too had been hoping to make Miss Stelle my partner.”

“Well, aren't you popular?” Aventurine chuckled, “guess I’m lucky I got there first.”

“How vital?” Himeko, who was always on business, asked, “and March why don’t we be partners instead.”

“The trial is some sort of play on the concept of Harmony,” the Memokeeper said as she picked up a small eclair from the table, “when you become someone's partner in the dreamscape, your souls become intertwined. You harmonize so to speak.”

“Wait, what does that even mean?” March frowned as she snapped a picture of the busy street before turning the camera lenses towards Stelle who quickly forced a smile.

“It means that what happens to you happens to them and vice versa.” Aventurine explained, he didn’t seem to pay any mind to March shoving a camera in his face. “We learned that the hard way, your friends the Stellaron Hunters don’t mess around.”

“They’re only Stelle’s friends.” March rolled her eyes, “the rest of us have more sense.”

“You played codenames with Silver Wolf too.” Stelle pointed out.

“Only because you begged me to!” March protested, “anyways, what do you mean by trial?”

“As I was saying, the key to the Watchmaker's invitation is his legacy. The device which allows one to control the dreamscape.”

Aventurine visibly perked up at this, the hand around her shoulder quickly retracting.

“And said Legacy is currently being dragged further into the memory zone to which I come back to the concept of dance partners.” Black Swan continued, “the memory zone is very difficult to traverse even for an experience memokeeper. But by being linked to someone else, you are essentially stabilized. The combined experience of your own memories can help you sort out the real from the imagined and help you force a path deeper into the memory zone. This is all provided you do not go too far from one another and that others are not involved in your traversal.”

“You’re saying that in order to find the watchkeeper’s legacy,” Himeko set her cup down, “we need to split up again.”

Black Swan nodded, “in essence, yes. You need to be prepared to dive into the memory zone in groups of two.”

“But that means Stelle will have to...” March looked at her slight pity.

“I can always sit this one out.” She shrugged as she poured herself a heavy cup of hot chocolate.

“No you can’t.” Aventurine clicked his teeth, “don’t tell me you hate my company that much.”

“I’m afraid Aventurine is right.” Himeko said, “we need as many hands on this as possible. Black Swan, can you confirm that this Watchmaker’s legacy is being used to confine us to the dreamscape.”

“Correct.” She nodded, “this was the force interfering with my abilities before. I am not certain who is currently wielding it.”

“Then the way forward is clear for the first time since we got here,” Himeko nodded confidently, “we need to find the Watchmaker’s legacy in order to leave this place, there aren’t many other options.”

“On that much,” Aventurine raised his glass toward her, “we agree. May the best dreamer win.”

“I will continue assisting you from the background,” Black Swan explained, “I suggest you catch some sleep before starting. You might be in the dreamscape but your mind still needs rest. I will come find you once more to depart in nine system hours.”

“There’s a nice inn nearby,” Himeko smiled, “I take it you can take care of it for us, Mister Aventurine?”

“Sure, sure.” He huffed, “how could I refuse my new friends from the express.”

They followed Himeko through the packed streets; unlike the slightly nervous buzz of the Golden hour the energy in the Scorched Sun felt electric. Under normal circ*mstances Stelle could see how she could get lost in such a place. Spending her time wandering from bar to bar, talking to the eclectic collection of patrons and making some new friends. Stelle liked talking to strangers, there was so much to unpack in a person’s head, so much history to unveil. It was the reason her friend list had gotten so big in only a year.

She leaned against March’s shoulder as Aventurine approached the main lobby of the large inn Himeko had pointed out. He leaned out the counter and spoke confidently, “fine sir, I’d like to treat my friends here to something special. I’ll take the whole floor.”

“Sorry sir,” the attendant blinked nervously, “we don’t have that kind of arrangement at the moment. I can offer you our best suite though, it has two individual rooms and a private lounge.”

“Well,” March giggled in her ear, “guess even the top brass at the IPC can’t bypass the busiest night of the year.”

“Sold!” Aventurine slapped his hand on the desk, “I’ll take it, put it on the account under Dr. Veritas Ratio, ID code is 400366450 and the password is ‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ no spaces.”

“Perfect,” the attendant nodded, “I have it here on record.”

Stelle felt her mouth fall open as Aventurine snatched the key from the attendant and turned back to them with a wink.

“You really have no shame, do you?” She said as they climbed up the main stairs.

“Well Ratio did say he wanted to help.” Aventurine shrugged, “besides, he won’t even notice it.”

“How did you even get his account information?”

“I have my ways, let’s say I made a very expensive bet.”

To be fair, the room was lovely. A backward flowing fountain was laid out against the wall with a collection of glittery lotus flowers lying in the pool around it. Velvety red couches with lion-claw shaped feet had been laid out in a square around a fireplace which burned different colors. There was even a table plated with various snacks, crab legs, croissants, pickled eggs and fluffy cotton candy. A truly strange choice of dishes to set out next to each other but she wasn’t about to start complaining.

Stelle sat back eating one of the croissants with a drizzle of chocolate on top as the others argued about the rooms.

“You should let Himeko have a room,” March pointed at Aventurine, “aren’t we your guests?”

“No, can do,” Aventurine shook his head, “I paid, so I’ll take a room for myself. You can figure out the rest.”

He vanished with that, pushing past one of the gilded doors and locking it.

“Can you believe this guy...” March crossed her arms.

“That’s alright, March.” Himeko laughed, “he does have a point. You and Stelle take the room, I don’t mind the couch, it looks quite cozy.”

March had protested a bit more but Stelle didn’t need to be told twice, quickly running into the room and swinging the door open.

There were clock-like designs carved into the ceiling and walls, a large vanity set up on one end of the room while a huge four-poster bed with silky curtains took up most of the space. March relented after catching a glimpse at the room and Himeko left them to get ready for bed.

Stelle laid stomach first on the bed, playing a series of games on her phone as March brushed her hair out in front of the vanity. They didn’t have any change of clothes so Stelle had ditched most of hers in favor of hanging out in her black tank top and boxer shorts.

“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” March asked as Stelle kicked her feet in the air.

“Huh,” she looked up from the screen, “you mean with Aventurine, I think so.”

March slumped down next to her, “I’m just worried because you can be a bit gullible at times.”

“What do you mean?” Stelle said as she watched one of her character’s on screen get downed, they always went for her healer in these games. She figured it was fine to turn her phone back on since Sam wasn’t meant to be able to follow them through the Dreamscape. But then again he had made it away from the Reverie somehow... She shut it off with a sigh.

“Come on, you always dive head first into every scam we run into, Stelle.”

“I do that on purpose,” Stelle laughed, “it’s fun to see how they play out.”

“Oh yeah, you asked Asta for more details about the site to meet a hot, older foxian woman on because you wanted to unravel the details of how the scam worked.”

Stelle winced as she tossed her phone onto the nightside table, “definitely.”

The duvet of the bed had a wonderfully silk-like texture that felt great on her skin. Stelle ran a hand over it as March tucked the blanket around them and shut off the lights with a snap of her finger.

“You know,” She could just vaguely see the outline of March’s face thanks to the backlight window. “I feel like our trailblazing expeditions have just gotten crazier since meeting you.”

“That’s a compliment, right?” Stelle winked.

“Definitely,” March giggled, “I just this one ends as well as the other two.”

“Hmm, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Belobog or the Luofu. I feel like we always end up getting dragged back to those places.”

“Don’t get too attached to the spots we visit, Stelle.” March warned, “the path of a trailblazer is to move forwards and never look back. Or at least, that’s what Himeko always says.”

“I don’t know about that, we have a final stop after all. And the train goes through the path again once it reaches it. If anything, we’re just spinning in circles and seeing what changes everytime we come back.”

“Think we’ll get to Pegana?”

The sound of Akivili’s home world always filled her chest with a strange feeling of longing, “the journey won’t be done until we do. Do you ever feel like that’s the place we’ll finally get all the answers in.”

“To be honest,” March dipped her voice low as though she was scared of being overheard, “I hope we never make it. I don’t want to say goodbye to you guys.”

Stelle reached her hand forward, tucking one of March’s hair strands behind her ear. “We don’t need to say goodbye just because we’ve reached the end. We can simply start the journey all over again. I mean, the express is the only home the two of us have ever known and I don’t see Himeko abandoning it any time soon.”

“You’re sure you won’t want to go back to Kafka’s side once you get your memories back?”

“What about you?” Stelle deflected, “what if it turns out you do have family waiting for you somewhere.”

“I can have two families.” March shrugged, “but really, Stelle, answer the question.”

“I don’t know, I don’t see why I can’t just have both like you.”

“Because the Stellaron Hunters are dangerous wanted criminals.”

“So was Dan Heng, technically, and the express still took him in.”

“That was different, Dan Heng didn’t do anything wrong.”

“From our perspective, yes.” Stelle pointed out, “but there were a lot of Vidyadhara that did not feel the same.”

“Ugh,” She felt March flick her forehead, “you’re so pig-headed sometimes.”

“I can have more than one important person in my life, March. You’re going to have to accept that Kafka is one of them eventually.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She heard her friend huff as she turned around to face the wall. “Have a goodnight, Stelle.”

She didn’t dream of Kafka, or of some nonsensical scenario on the express as she usually did that night. Instead, she found herself trying to hide in some long concrete corridor with dozens of prisoners around her. It was incredibly cold with the only source of warmth being a painful burn at the side of her neck. She watched as people she recognized were dragged away one by one until she was all alone.

Notes:

Did not have Boothill on my bucket list for 2.2 but then again it felt too soon for Sam. Hope you enjoy this one!

Chapter 4: And So I’m Drawn Ever Deeper

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Aventurine woke up to the sound of someone banging on his door, he let out a groan and buried his head further into his pillow.

“Wake up!” He heard a female voice shout, “Come on, we’re eating breakfast and then leaving, Black Swan is already there.”

He rolled out of the bed, grabbing his dress shirt and slipping it back on as he tried to remember the details of his dream. He had been running through some kind of space station, trying to stack these dessert shaped cats in his arm to bring them... somewhere. It had certainly been strange but he wasn’t going to complain about the lack of nightmares.

He checked his reflection in the vanity, brushing back his hair and popping a few mints in his mouth pushing open his door to head into the lounge. The pink-haired girl was standing in front of it with her arms crossed and a glare painted on her face. Her name was... April, no, March.

“Good morning to you, March 10th.” He faked a yawn, “is this how everyone on the express gets woken up. How lovely.”

“It’s March 7th,” she grumbled as he walked over to the table where Stelle and Himeko were sitting. Stelle had a large stack of pancakes in front of her, there was a mustache on her face on account of the heap of purple whipped cream she was digging her way through. Himeko on the other hand seemed to be content with just a black coffee and bagel.

He went over to the dining table, picking out a sandwich and pouring himself a cup of coffee before sitting next to Stelle.

“I like the new style,” he said to her as he dropped two cubes of sugar into his coffee, “a mustache is a dashing look.”

She shrugged before cutting a large piece of pancake and shoving it in her mouth.

“Did you have a good night's sleep, Mister Aventurine?” Himeko smiled politely.

“It was fine,” He shrugged as he finally spotted Black Swan, the older woman was floating near the fountain, one hand dipping down to brush the lotus flowers. “I hope the couch wasn’t too hard on your back.”

“Well with my age...” Himeko stretched her arm up, “I’m kidding, it was fine. I don’t think I could’ve slept poorly if I tried.

March settled next to Himeko with a large plate full of various pastries and a pink-coloured milkshake.

“Stelle, don’t you think you went overboard with the whipped cream.” March said as she grabbed a croissant and ripped it in half, “it’s all over your face.”

“What is with you guys?” Stelle groaned as she grabbed a napkin and wiped her face, “let me eat my last meal in peace.”

“Don’t overdramatize Stelle,” Himeko laughed, “this is just a trailblaze exhibition like any other. We help Penacony the best we can and then back on the express for the next adventure.”

“I know, I know.” Stelle waved in the air, “but don’t you think this one feels different, Himeko?”

“Not really.” She shrugged, “when you’ve reached my age and seen what I’ve seen, it takes a lot to surprise you. But I do know one thing, I have absolute faith in the two of you. Both you and March, I’d include Dan Heng but he isn’t here, have proven yourselves to be skilled members of the Nameless on numerous occasions.”

“That’s right, Stelle!” March hopped in, “we’re awesome. Everything's going to go great, think of all the stuff we’ll have to tell Dan Heng once we're done. He’ll be so jealous.”

“If you say so.” Stelle didn’t seem convinced, “have we still not gotten through to Mr. Yang.”

“Radio silence.” Himeko answered, “but don’t worry, I’m sure he’s fine.”

Aventurine listened to them chatter away as he scrolled through his messages, most were from concerned operatives within the dreamscape but Ratio had a few choice words for him too.

Ratio: Pulling a disappearing act again is a sign of petty immaturity on your part.

Ratio: Feel free to get back in touch once you’ve gotten over your own ego.

There was a two hour difference between that message and the newest one.

Ratio: Continuing to ignore me when I am just trying to help is foolish to say the least.

Ratio: I told you I am willing to help so long as there is trust between us.

Ratio: Get back to me.

He sighed and rubbed his brow as he tried to think up a response, did the guy never sleep?

You: Sorry partner, something came up.

You: Afraid the disappearing act is going to continue, Stelle and I are going to vanish a bit to investigate the dreamscape.

You: Won’t be able to keep in touch, tell the company for me.

He started scrolling through his emails when he felt Stelle’s gaze over his shoulder.

“It’s rude to snoop.” He said as he shut his phone off.

“You didn’t tell Dr. Ratio where we’d gone.” She scolded lightly, “that’s a bit unfair don’t you think?”

“What is it with you and Ratio? I told you, butt out and let me deal with it.”

“He’s visited the express before, he’s a friend.”

“He is not your friend.” Aventurine scoffed, “I doubt he has friends.”

“Are we talking about Veritas Ratio?” Himeko cut in, “are you familiar with him, Aventurine. He’s been a visitor on the express a few times.”

He restrained himself from grabbing his plate and throwing it across the room, “Haha, am I ever. We’re working together on this little project.”

“And yet you asked Stelle to be your partner, an interesting choice.”

“Well at the time I didn’t know it was all that important.” He said as he finished his coffee, “Black Swan, can we go?”

“If you are ready, we can depart.” The Memokeeper answered, “but I think Miss March is still eating.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said the girl as she shoved two cannelé’s in her mouth, “hold on.”

Black Swan had Stelle move most of the furniture out of the way, pushing the couches up against the wall and rolling up the large carpet. She was certainly very strong, Aventurine considered as he watched her drag the couch back with one arm. He had never been much of a fighter, solving his problems with words was a preferable path. But he could appreciate the need for a bit more force at times, that was when the cornerstones came in handy.

Black Swan laid out a series of cards on the floor, forming two separate circles.

“Both groups, stand in your circle, back to back.”

“Wait, wait,” March jumped in before leaping at Stelle and hugging her tightly, “be careful.”

“I will, worry about yourself, March.” Stelle smiled gently before going to hug Himeko. The older woman patted her head as they parted, repeating March’s words about showing caution.

It was easy to tell that this was a group of people that cared for each other very deeply. Aventurine wasn’t sure if he envied them or felt sorry for them, having those kinds of ties ultimately made you more vulnerable.

But what would you do to see her one more time, that cursed part of his head whispered, to tell her that you didn’t mean any of it.

He jaunted up to one of the circles, facing the fountain as he watched Stelle walk around him and press her back to his.

“You might feel a bit disoriented at first,” the circles started glowing as the Memokeeper spoke, “remember the memory zone is only copying your memories, and the way up is down, the way out is further in.”

There was a flash of light, the sound of glass breaking and the floor vanishing under his feet. Aventurine reached back, grabbing hold of Stelle’s wrist as they plummeted into the darkness. He felt his stomach get pushed up as they started falling towards the side as though being sucked in by a giant vacuum cleaner. The sound of a door opening rang out and they were shunted towards it. It shut behind them as they collided into the ground and rolled to a stop.

“Ugh,” he heard Stelle say from beneath him, they had landed one on top of each other “can’t we ever have a normal entry for once.”

He rolled off of her quickly, pushing up to his feet and looking around the strange room, it looked like an infirmary. There were askew beds with yellowed sheets, crates used as tables pressed to the side and half-ripped curtains barely giving any privacy to the patients.

“We’re in Belobog.” Stelle said as she stood up, “this is Natasha’s infirmary.”

“So it really is pulling information from our memories,” he mused as he went to grab a stray clipboard from one of the crates. It was a list of medical supplies missing from the infirmary, it was extensive. “Considering the state of this place, I can’t believe they refused the IPC’s deal.”

But then again, he could also perfectly understand. His own people had never wanted anything to do with the corporation, he had often been cautioned against their false promises. So much for that.

“It’s gotten better since we sealed the Stellaron,” Stelle shrugged, “you underestimate how resilient people can be.”

“Hah,” he laughed despite himself, “No. That's not something I’ll ever underestimate.”

The streets of the underworld - as Stelle had called it- were in a similar decrepit state. Most of the buildings were covered in rusted sheet metal as a poor attempt to cover up the holes that had been weathered through them. The cobblestone was damp and there was a slight stink of heavy metals and general human waste in the air. It was almost unbearably hot, with large furnaces beaming hot red all throughout the town.

“Are we supposed to just keep walking around?” Stelle asked as they entered what looked like a market square.

“You’re the one who knows this place.” He answered, they still hadn’t seen any signs of life, “she could’ve given us more of a clue as to what we were supposed to do.”

“Before you woke up, Black Swan said that Penacony was fracturing and sinking into the memory zone. She said there was no point in rushing, or trying to force the Memory zone to comply with our wishes. We had to move through it at its rhythm, not our own. Or we’d risk... I don’t remember, something not great.”

“Sounds dire.” He said half-seriously as he lifted a tarp that had been pinned to the ground revealing a collection of machine parts.

“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell when something is actually bad with her.” Stelle skipped through a hop-scotch pattern that had been drawn with chalk on the cobblestone. “But she did say we also needed to watch out for the others who had been invited by the watchmaker. That we’d most likely run into them too.”

“Oh great, all this information she chose to withhold from me.”

“She told me.”

He sighed, “let’s just keep moving.”

The streets didn’t change much but Stelle seemed to have some kind of destination in mind. This place was almost like Sigonia-IV. Add a clouded sky that never broke for the dawn, significantly more dust and houses with squat roofs to protect from the intense winds and it felt the same. There was the same tinge of desperation, the same hope that someday things would get better.

Only we never had a group of outsiders show up to save us.

“Are we going into the mine?” He asked as they entered a low tunnel dimly lit by furnaces.

“I’m trying to figure out what the limit of the memory is,” Stelle explained as they continued on in the tunnel, “it recreated Boulder Town pretty well but it must have some kind of limit. Like in a video game, there are some parts it just can’t render, that aren’t defined in its map.”

“Interesting plan. What if it doesn’t work?”

“Then it’s your turn to come up with something.” She answered dryly, “but look, this tunnel wasn’t nearly as long in real life. I think it’s... Let’s run.”

The walls stretched as they broke into a run, he laughed as the lights became distorted and the detail in the rock smoothed out. The way ahead darkened as flecks of the world seemed to fall apart, the walls were pulled away and the floor fell out from underneath them once more. Stelle spun to face him as they headed into the void once more, there was a smile on her face. She seemed to find this fun despite everything, she stretched her arms forward as though welcoming him to join her as they fell.

///|||\\\

Stelle winced as her head slammed back into the ground, she pushed up on her elbows and rubbed it slightly. Aventurine had somehow landed on his feet, she probably should’ve made a small effort to catch her fall. The room they were in was dimly lit with black marble floors, it was empty except for a single door with an exit sign.

She kicked her feet up and leapt to her feet, Black Swan had mentioned that they would essentially be alternating between the memory zone and the dreamscape. She had urged that they think of it like a sinking ship, sometimes you had to go through the water, other times you were on the ship. But they weren’t trying to escape, they were going down with the ship. She sighed as she tried to remember everything she had said. She should’ve taken notes.

“I think we're back in the dreamscape.” Stelle said as Aventurine ran a hand across the wall.

“That’s-” He frowned, “hold on, how much did Black Swan tell you before we left.”

Stelle did her best to recount the lightning fast conversation that had occurred between Black Swan and Himeko as they ate breakfast. Aventurine’s frown only deepened as she stumbled over her words, trying to fill in the details she forgot with an approximation.

“You couldn’t have woken me up during the briefing.” He sighed while running a hand through his hair, “really, friend, what happened to being on the same team.”

“Sorry, I thought I could remember it better.” She smiled apologetically though she didn’t really mean it, they had left him out on purpose. Himeko had said something about not giving him an edge over her. Stelle had understood that her goal was still to keep the legacy out of Aventurine’s and in turn the IPC’s hands.

“Let’s just keep moving forward.”

They left through the only door in the room, entering a wide hallway with disco balls hanging over their heads sending specks of light all over the place. Their footsteps rang out clearly as they walked, Stelle summoned her bat and used it to nudge the disco balls as they walked, watching as the lights shifted.

“This must be one of the decommissioned areas abandoned by the dreamscapers.” Aventurine said as they kept moving through the endless tunnel, “I got a look at their plans before I left, they went through a lot of variations of this place before they settled on the twelve moments.”

“And they just left them like this?” Stelle jumped up, pushing the disco ball to the side and watching the lights spin around them. “That seems a bit-”

“Irresponsible,” Aventurine interrupted, “you bet it was. Considering how unstable this place is, they took a serious gamble. And looks like it didn’t pay off.”

The corridor broke off into a larger room with a vaulted ceiling and even more disco balls though this time they varied in size. Stelle was starting to wonder if they had gotten stuck on a theme and realized it didn’t work. There was some kind of skating rink in the middle but instead of being filled with ice like she had seen in Belobog, it was some kind of smooth wooden floor.

“A roller skating ring.” Aventurine said as she leaned over the edge of the rink. “Hah, we had a company event once where they dragged us to a place like this. One of my colleagues ended up in the hospital at the end, cracked his head open.”

“Is it that dangerous?”

“Only if you’re bad at it.” He shrugged, “and we had foregone helmets.”

They walked around the rink, half of the room had been outfitted with low benches. There was a stall at the end of the room with a glowing sign reading ‘rent your skates here’. The only exit from the room was the one they had come in from. Stelle paced around looking for any vents they could crawl through or any kind of hidden exit while Aventurine was busy doing something behind the counter.

She pushed the door to the rink open and stepped into it. The floor had an almost waxy texture to it, the lights from the disco balls reflected off of it. She slid her foot against the ground, trying to match the pattern she had seen people in Belobog do when they skated.

Stelle jumped slightly as the lights ahead of her lit up into different colors, the disco balls started spinning and semi-soft techno-pop music started playing through the speakers.

“What’s your shoe size?” She heard Aventurine shout from behind the counter.

She yelled it back and leaped over the board, walking up to the bench when Aventurine was busy undoing the laces on two pairs of shoes with large wheels underneath them.

“Aren’t we here on a mission?” She tilted her head down.

“Don’t take it so seriously,” He chuckled, “don’t tell me the trailblazer is going to scold me for indulging in a bit of fun.”

“We’re technically in a race against time.”

“Oh really, aren’t you supposed to be slowing me down so Himeko and March get the legacy first.” He smiled up at her. He had figured it out, she couldn’t say she was surprised. “Besides, we need to move at the Memory Zone's pace, you’re the one who said that. Maybe it wants us to roller skate a bit. Need help putting these on?”

“I can manage.” She huffed as she plopped down on the bench, yanked the skates towards her and quickly laced them up.

She tested the skates on the bench first, rolling her feet back and forth on the ground before bracing her hands against her sides and pushing herself up. She felt her legs wobble a bit as she got used to the instability of being on something that moved.

Stelle steadied herself, bringing her arms up to her side to improve her balance and taking a step forward. She took small steps forward to reach the board before holding onto it for dear life and rolling herself towards the entrance.

She took a deep breath as she stepped onto the rink, she dragged her foot forward before deciding she was much safer on the edge.

“Come on, Miss Stellaron.” Aventurine shot onto the rink, spinning on his feet and skating backwards with a grin on his face. “I thought you were a trailblazer, don’t tell me you’re scared of falling.”

She puffed her cheeks, before pushing off the board and immediately regretting it. Stelle had done her fairshare of ice skating with March but the rollerskates felt off for some reason. She couldn’t keep her balance, she felt her skates slip underneath her feet and braced for a hard fall. It never came. Instead Aventurine swooped in and grabbed a hold of her arm to steady her. She clung to him slightly, digging her fingers into his sleeve as he moved in front of her.

“Well, well, looks like I get to teach you something.” He laughed as he skated back, dragging her along with him. “Loosen up a bit.”

“Ugh, how does anyone do this?” Stelle complained as he moved them in a slow circle around the rink.

“You’re standing too stiffly, widen your legs and bend your knees a bit.” He started explaining as they kept going. Stelle did her best to follow his explanations, trying to imitate a duck walk like he explained and making her strides longer as they went along.

“See you got it.” He said before letting go of her arms and gently spinning off of her.

For a moment, Stelle felt her brain drop away from her as she took in the fact that she had nothing to hold on to. Her body caught on faster, her feet pushing off evenly as she started gliding across the rink.

She wasn’t as fast as Aventurine who lapped her a few times as she made her way around the rink but she managed. It was sort of freeing, she felt all of the stress of the past days fall through her as she enjoyed the steady beat of the music. She wished March was here, her friend would love this place.

Aventurine slowed down next to her, flipping around and skating backwards again. She wasn’t sure how he was doing it, just going forward was proving hard for her.

“See, this was a good idea.” He said as the lights changed color once more, sending flecks of red and purple across the room. “You need to learn to have fun even in dire times. Or else, what’s the point of life?”

“Is that something you have a lot of experience with?”

He shrugged, “in a sense, it’s more like a lesson I had to learn.”

They kept skating for a while, Aventurine tried to teach her a few tricks most of which ended up with her tripping over her own feet and falling onto him. He didn’t really seem to mind it, if anything he seemed to be going out of his way to stop her from falling.

Right, she remembered as he slipped in beside her and caught her around the waist before she could bowl over. If I fall, it’ll hurt him too. Still, there was no denying he was more fun like this. The tension she usually heard in his voice seemed to bleed away as the hours went by.

“Does the IPC often have events like this?” She asked as they took a break on the edge of the rink.

“Oh, team building is very important to them. For better or for worse.” He answered, “when I was a lower rank I got dragged to these kinds of things often. Now though... Diamond's idea of team building is a bit different, let's leave it at that.”

“Are you close with them?” Stelle kept digging, she noticed Aventurine never told her anything about himself and yet he seemed close to knowing everything about her. Well, not everything but she wasn’t in the habit of telling anyone about the Stellaron or the Stellaron Hunters so it felt like a lot.

“Not really,” he flipped a coin through his hand, “Diamond likes to say we're one huge, happy family but I can’t stand half of them. Oh I’ll work with them, no problem with that. But the only ones I can enjoy spending time with are Topaz and Jade. The others are too... intense, serious, boring. A combination of those three”

Things probably would’ve been easier for them if Topaz had been assigned to Penacony. She might work for the IPC but she had been reasonable and was generally fun to be around. Besides, she had really stuck her neck out for Belobog, they owed her for that.

The colors shifted to a light blue and pink, it really was a place that March would’ve adored. Stelle hoped that she was at least seeing some fun stuff with Himeko. She knew her friend was disappointed by the turn their so-called vacation had taken.

“You’re thinking about how you wish Topaz was here instead of me.”

Stelle jumped, “How did you-”

“I have a good eye.” He cut in, “don’t worry, Topaz is working on this mission from the outside. We might run into her towards the end, assuming we make it out.”

“Actually,” Stelle said, “I was thinking that March would really like this place.”

“Missing her already, it’s barely been four hours.”

“It’s not that.” She shook her head, “I just don’t know when I’ll be seeing them again. I guess it makes me nervous.”

She needed to move, thinking about it made her feel restless again. Stelle pushed herself back off the board, trying to match the movements she’d seen him do before to move backwards. It felt awkward, the edge of her wheels catching the floor and sending her off in the wrong direction.

“Stelle.” He called to her, “like this.”

He came closer to her, extending one arm to catch her around her waist, his other hand grabbing her own. She looked down at her feet, trying to ignore the strange pattern the Stellaron had taken up. It seemed to be beating, as though trying to imitate the sound of a heart only the beats were frantic and oddly timed. She mirrored his own steps, letting him guide her as they picked up speed. It was easy to follow, their feet would kick up instead of striking forward in order to propel themselves backwards.

He spun her out of his arms, his hand still holding hers as she kept the pattern going on her own. She let go of his hand, increasing her speed with added confidence as she felt wind striking the back of her neck. She didn’t check her trajectory, slamming hard into the board and feeling the breath get knocked out of her.

“You’re not careful, are you?” Aventurine skated up to her, his arms bracing on either side of her.

She could feel his breath on her face as he leaned in closer, his eyes really were hypnotizing. She could probably look at them for hours and not get bored. But there was something else in them, a lack of light and a heaviness.

“You’re too close,” she whispered.

“Am I?”

Stelle brought her hand up to his chest and pushed.

He adapted quickly, leaning back on his skates with a laugh, “Alright, alright, Miss Stellaron. Have you noticed anything different about the room we are in?”

Swiftly turning her gaze back, Stelle saw a wooden door adorned with flaking green paint that had not been there previously.

“We're on a sinking ship,” He repeated her words, which were really Black Swan’s words, “sometimes you just need to wait a bit for the water to breach.”

Notes:

I've never been roller skating so if anything is completely off, my bad. Also had a serious Mandela effect moment where I realized that 'Belobog' is not spelt Belebog... will go fix that quickly :|

2.1 will be out by the time I update this again so good luck to anyone going for Acheron!

Chapter 5: But Will You Take the Blame?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

His throat was filled with dust. He retched, clawing at it with disgust as a familiar feeling of terror started encroaching on his mind. Was he back there? Had the Memory Zone finally decided to dig up what it shouldn’t.

“Stelle.” He heard a voice say from somewhere next to him. It sounded achingly warm, he could feel his heart reaching out in some terrible feeling of longing. “Give yourself a moment, the storm has passed.”

He blinked a few times as his eyes teared up and forced clear the sand stuck in his eyes. It was sand, nothing like the soft and fragile texture of the dust motes of his home.

“Is she alright?” He heard another voice, a man this time, say from somewhere to his left.

“She’s fine, Bladie.” The first voice answered, “she didn't pin her tent down properly so some sand got in.”

Were they talking to him or...He wiped the last of the sand from his eyes and opened them to the best of his ability. The woman standing in front of him was wearing a thick gray scarf over her dark pink hair, her eyes were twisted in a comforting but amused look.

Kafka, he realized at once as he took in the sheathed katana hanging at her side, the de-facto leader of the Stellaron hunters. The man standing next to her with amber eyes and bandages wrapped tightly around his torso and forearms was Blade.

“Stelle?” Kafka tilted her head while looking at him, “are you still there? Or have you finally decided to zone out and leave us for whatever fantasy is playing out in your head? We do have work to do.”

He tentatively looked down at his own body, he still looked like himself, though his clothing was covered in a significant amount of sand. He could feel it scratching uncomfortably at his skin as he pulled himself up to his knees. One thing was becoming clear, if this was Stelle’s memory then she had vastly understated her relationship with the Stellaron Hunters.

“I’m fine,” he tried speaking and could faintly hear Stelle’s voice over his own, “just taking in... everything.”

“Impressive, right?” Kafka chuckled as she stood up, “take your time if you need to, barely anyone gets to travel this far into the Agaya desert. We might be the last ones who ever do once this is done.”

He racked his head for where he heard that name before, it came rather easily as though the information was just sitting on the brim of his mind. The Agaya desert, a creation of a Stellaron disaster on the planet Corranthium-II. The planet used to be IPC property, mainly due to its impressive waterfalls that had been converted into giant hydro energy centers. The Stellaron had dried up its water reserves making most of the planet unusable so the IPC had abandoned it and its people. It had ended badly. No doubt the corporation had liquidized any useful assets and left the rest behind.

But what interest did the Stellaron Hunters have in such a desolate place?

“Come on,” Kafka nudged his side gently, “we don’t have time to sit and wait, the legion is on our tail.”

He was stuck in Stelle’s memory. That much was obvious but if he was here then where was she? Black Swan had said they would need to depend on each other to tell real from fake and escape the memories. If she wasn’t here then that task became all the more difficult.

He played along, saying as little as he could as he followed the Stellaron Hunters deeper into the desert. The sun was beaming down on them intensely and Aventurine found himself wishing he had some kind of hat to protect himself from its rays. He never thought he’d see the day where he would feel the need to complain about a little sunshine. Kafka was the chattiest out of the two with Blade never initiating a conversation himself. Though he seemed more than happy to keep talking once she’d started. The atmosphere had a lightness and familiarity to him. There was a feeling deep in his heart that he could trust these people with everything.

Or was that Stelle’s feeling. Probably, considering they’d never met and the only things he knew about them were what he’d read off their bounties.

“Don’t you think it would’ve been nice to come here before the Stellaron brought it to ruin.” Kafka said as they slid down a particularly tall dune.

“Why?” Blade answered, “it was all water and now it’s all sand, it hasn’t changed that much.”

“Oh very clever, Bladie.” She answered dryly with a humorous roll of her eyes.

“It wasn’t that nice of a place.” Aventurine cut in, he needed to start testing the boundaries of the memory more. “The IPC didn’t make life easy for the people here.”

“Tourists don’t care about how nice the place is to live, only that it looks pretty in pictures.” Blade said while kicking aside a rock buried in one of the sand dunes.

“Well it hardly matters now.” Kafka added, “the IPC got the bang for their buck and now they’re gone. Our friends in the corporation always know how to spin something to their benefit.”

That much was true, he kicked some of the sand up as he landed at the bottom of the dune. He could still remember that burning heat on his side as they had dug through what was left of his people, of his family. He had been lucky to survive, they had said, lucky that he was of some worth. They had known nothing, he hadn’t been the lucky one. He had been left behind. No doubt the IPC had done the same as them here, dug through whatever was still of worth in the carcass of this world before moving on. Scavengers paid no mind to the wishes of the dead.

“We’re close.” Blade was holding some kind of device with a long antenna in his hands.

“Why don’t you walk ahead a bit, Bladie.” Kafka grabbed Aventurine’s arm and pulled him back, “I want to talk to Stelle about what we discussed earlier.”

He nodded and started walking along towards the bottom of the dune. Aventurine felt the palm of his hands get clammy. He couldn’t tell if it was the heat or Kafka’s presence that made him so nervous. Stelle’s emotions were completely overriding his own. Kafka was nothing to him, but she clearly meant a lot to Stelle.

He went to ask Kafka what she wanted to talk about when he felt his body get pushed out of itself as he was propelled into the sand. He instinctively slammed his arm to the side to stop himself from rolling further down the dune. When he looked back towards Kafka, Stelle was standing in front of her.

“Stelle. I’m afraid this is a serious conversation.” Kafka said softly as he pulled himself back to his feet, “you know this might be our last mission all together. Are you certain about this path?”

“What do you mean?” Stelle huffed, her voice sounded tired and terribly uncertain. “How could I not be? Elio said it was my destiny, has he ever been wrong?”

“No, he hasn’t.” Kafka shook her head, “but that doesn’t mean you have to go through with it. Knowing the end also means knowing what to do to avoid it. We aren’t tied to the path he’s set us on.”

“This is about what Elio said, isn’t it.” Stelle crossed her arms, Aventurine walked to her side to get a look at her face. She looked almost identical except for her eyes, they had no pupils and were a dull gray color. “I’m not scared, Kafka. I don’t care if I die or get hurt or anything worse. Nanook needs to be stopped, I mean, look at this place.”

“I just want you to be aware of the odds, you-”

“I know them.” Stelle cut her off, “ninety percent chance I die. Fifty-five percent chance that Nanook wins and we all die. Thirty-five percent chance Nanook loses but I still die. Ten percent chance that we win and I get to live. I know the odds. Aeons, I’ve been spinning them around in my head since he told me and I don’t care. This needs to be done, it needs to end and I am our best shot.”

Nanook... He repeated in his head, that was their end? To stop the legion and Nanook? The IPC’s data bank only said that the Stellaron Hunter’s were a bunch of maniacs claiming to be chasing destiny. It mentioned nothing about their true goal. He doubted the IPC even cared. So long as the Stellaron Hunters kept targeting corporation assets, they would keep chasing them to the ends of the universe.

“Do you think I can’t do it?” Stelle continued, “do you have so little faith in me?”

“Of course not, you’re our ten percent.” Kafka shook her head as she placed her hand on Stelle’s shoulder. “I just want you to know that we have your back. You decide what you want and we will help you. Even if that means stepping away from the plan.”

“Does Blade agree with that?”

“Why do you think I sent him away?”

“So he doesn’t” Stelle’s voice sounded dejected, “I’ve disappointed him, I know.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it, Bladie’s just bad at expressing how he feels.” Kafka laughed gently, “I sent him away because he already wants to grab you and run, he’s decided that this is too dangerous for you. I managed to convince him that you should have the final say.”

“He-”

“Is scared for you, whatever that means.” Kafka interrupted.

“No.” Stelle shook her head, “he has no faith in me.”

“Stelle,” Kafka tutted, “Blade was the one to first put a sword in your hand, he and I know how skilled you are, better than anyone else. But he is a man who has suffered too much loss in too long a time for a mortal. He’s running from that possibility happening again.”

“And you?”

“Well, I’ve always been different.” Kafka smiled, “we are each other's destiny. You go and I will follow. Whether that is following Elio’s plan or trailing a path of our own. I will follow.”

“If we don’t go after the Legion, then neither you, nor Blade, nor Silver Wolf or Sam will get your wishes. Whatever they might be” Stelle half-whispered, “so I’m- I’m seeing this through to the end.”

“As long as it’s your choice, we’ll be happy.” Kafka said before suddenly turning to him. “Now I think it’s time for our uninvited guest to make his own way.”

Aventurine jumped back as Stelle vanished, her form crumpling into a thousand specks of light. Kafka walked slowly towards him, a long red-bladed katana drawn in her hand.

“Now hold on,” He placed his hands up in half-surrender, half-warning, “let’s not do anything you’ll regret.”

“Now, now, gambler, do you want to make a bet?” She brought her blade up to her palm, turning it once before pointing it ahead. “Who do you think will get to you first, me or her?”

He snapped his head to the side, he could see a form making its way through the desert sands. A woman with long matte purple hair and a passive expression on her face.

sh*t, he tried to draw on the power of the cornerstone and felt nothing in return, she’s like the grim reaper.

“I can send you back to Stelle and put her off your trail.” Kafka lifted her sword towards his throat.

“You’re not really here.”

“Aren’t I?” She laughed, “what’s real in a dream? I’ll make it quick, painless. I’m good at that.”

Acheron was getting closer, her blade striking deep into the sand as she walked slowly towards him.

He saw little choice, he closed his eyes and let his arms fall to the side. He felt no pain, only a warm embrace and a cold feeling in his stomach.

///|||\\\

Stelle massaged her throat as she slumped over on the floor, her head was still buzzing from the lack of oxygen. Aventurine’s memory had been discordant and terrifying, shadows had haunted her at every corner, hounding her in the direction of that man.

I’m out, she brushed her fingers on the smooth marble floor, I made it out.

“Miss Stellaron,” she felt a foot nudge her side, “you have a lot of explaining to do.”

Aventurine looked displeased to say the least. If she had been in his memory then was it probably safe to assume he had been in hers. If so, what had he seen?

“That might be true.” She pushed herself up to her feet before adding, “but in that case you do too.”

She looked around the room they were in, it was brightly lit with marble pedestals holding up various clocklike structures. There were two doors in opposite directions and a single floor-to-wall window giving a view of the night sky. They were high above Penacony, she could see the similar nightscape present in Golden Hour.

“You’re a lot closer to the Stellaron Hunters than you claimed.” He said at the same time as she asked, “what the hell is Opal’s problem?”

“Ah, so you met the worst of my coworkers.” He huffed, a glare still fixed on his face. He didn’t seem to make much of an effort in masking his emotions around her anymore.

“Worst is an understatement.”

“Was it our first or second meeting?”

Stelle wracked her brain, “first, I think.”

“Tough luck. Opal is the stoneheart that Diamond sends in when our peaceful options have run out. You should be grateful, he was almost assigned Penacony instead of me.” He chuckled dryly before hardening his face again, “your turn. What is this plan the Stellaron Hunters have in relation to Nanook.”

“I don’t know.” She still wasn’t sure what he’d seen, maybe that time she’d run off to help Kafka get off the Xianzhou. She’d never told anyone on the Express about that, they were always cautioning her away from the Stellaron Hunters. She’d know they would’ve been disappointed and it wasn’t like she could blame them.

“Bullsh*t.” Aventurine hissed, “let's not start lying, friend.”

“I don’t.” She insisted, “I can’t remember anything from past a year ago when the Astral Express crew found me on Herta’s space station.”

“What?”

“My memory was wiped, the only person I remember is-”

“Kafka.” He guessed correctly.

She felt a slight tear in her heart, “Yeah, Kafka.”

“Ever been to a place called Corranthium-II.”

The name was unfamiliar to her but nothing more, “No.”

“Well, you have,” he extended his arms to the side, “right before they dropped you off at Herta’s station if I had to take a guess.”

“Hold on,” she stopped him, he couldn’t be saying that he had seen a memory Kafka had taken from her. That shouldn’t be possible. “You’re saying you were in a memory from back when I was still with Kafka.”

“Correct, friend.” He nodded, “her companion Blade was there too. The three of you seemed close, do you really not remember anything?”

“Nothing at all except for her.”

That made him pause for a moment, “well, no matter, we need to keep moving forward.”

“Hold on,” she tried to stop him as he walked towards the door, “I still have more questions, what were-”

“Later.” He stopped her, “we’re on a tight deadline, remember?”

She slammed her foot against the ground as he slipped through the door, seemingly not caring if she followed him or not. Stelle gave herself a moment alone in the room, leaning her head back and taking a few deep breaths.

You’re still feeling overwhelmed by what you saw, she reminded herself. Aventurine had brushed off Opal like he was nothing more than an ordinary colleague but their relationship was fraught to say the least.

Opal had treated Aventurine like he was no better than the dirt beneath his foot, toying with him like prey and leaving without another word. She had no idea how he could still call Opal nothing more than a coworker after all that. If someone had treated her like that, well, she wasn’t sure what she would’ve done but it wouldn't have been nice. But then again, she couldn’t be too harsh on Aventurine, he probably hadn’t had many options considering what she’d seen.

She pushed the door open, revealing yet another endless corridor and Aventurine nowhere to be found. She slipped her dreampass into her hand and noticed that his dot was not far from hers. He had turned at a corner further down the hallway and looked to be in a larger room. The fact that a map was even showing up meant she was back in the regular Penacony dreamscape.

She fell into a quick jog, turning at the first corner she saw and slamming open the gold-gilded double doors. Aventurine was standing in the center of a low pedestal, he was looking up at someone on a balcony hanging over the room. Stelle shielded her face from the dazzling chandelier lights and followed his gaze to recognize Robin’s brother.

“Oh look, another trespasser.” Sunday’s voice echoed through the room, “Aventurine, I have warned you. We confiscated your cornerstone with good reason, encroaching on our territory will not make us give them back to you. Your transgressions are already severe.”

“Mister Sunday.” Aventurine extended his arms, “be reasonable here, I only ask for a little security for myself and my companion. Surely you can recognize that the dreamscape is not as it used to be.”

“There is no issue with the dreamscape.” Sunday sounded like he was reading off a script. “I would appreciate it if you would stop spreading these lies and worrying our guests. They have yet to decide your fate, do not make me hasten that decision.”

“Are you really going to ignore all that’s happening? This is bad business-”

“Well then it’s a good thing we aren’t corporation goons like you, only interested in good stock value and profit. Penacony’s purpose exceeds that of a business.” Sunday raised his hand up, “it seems a bit of force is needed to get my point across.”

Stelle summoned her bat as the doors surrounding the room opened and a surge of security guards rushed in. She readied herself to jump in when she heard Aventurine shout back to her, “I’ll deal with them. Go after Sunday, he has the cornerstones.”

Sunday had already cleared out from the balcony, the door slamming shut behind him. Stelle took another look at the security guards, there were a lot of them but if Aventurine said he could handle it then who was she to complain. She swapped to her lance, sending a spray of fire at her feet and propelling herself into the air. Grabbing a hold of the railing, she jumped over it and ran through the doors.

She could see Sunday’s back further down a hallway, he turned sharply left into a room and she followed.

“Wait!” She shouted as he continued on down another corridor. He paid no mind to her, continuing to stroll at the same pace. He swung left into a room, looking back to glance at her once before leaving the door half-open. Stelle kept her lance to her side as she nudged it open with her foot and walked in.

The room was a small half-moon shaped alcove surrounded with head-to-wall windows on the outer curve. Sunday had crossed his arms behind his back, his face pointed to the starry view of the rest of Penacony.

“Don’t you think it’s impressive what we did here, Little Star.” He spoke softly, “before we got here Penacony was a scene of desperation, prisoners trying in vain to fix holes left by the Enigmata in the Memory zone.”

Little star, she was slightly puzzled about the nickname, did he think he was talking to someone else? Or did he know, somehow.

“Yeah, sure. It’s real impressive.” She answered as she walked slightly to his side trying to get a glimpse at his face, “But Mister Sunday, things aren’t going well right now. We are just trying to help so I need those cornerstones.”

“Hah, I can’t give those to you.” He sighed, “you see Aventurine has made himself an enemy of the Harmony. He seeks to break this union and bring Penacony back to the hands of the IPC.”

“I know and we don’t intend to let that come to pass. But I still need those stones, Aventurine has his uses.”

“Hmm, no convincing you, huh Little Star.” He looked at her over his shoulder, his golden eyes blinking slowly. “The Charmony Festival is in full swing and my sister is performing after having come home for the first time in years. I can't afford any mishaps from the IPC, do you understand?”

Does he not know, Stelle felt a bucket of ice-cold water get poured on his head, do I tell him?

“Sunday, can I call you that?”

“Naturally, Little Star.”

“Sunday, listen to me, I don’t say this with the wrong intentions but something is wrong with the dreamscape. You need to stall the Charmony Festival and let people leave the time it takes to solve it. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I could ask but will I?” He shook his head, “there is no need to postpone anything, the Festival is already going off without a hitch. Doing anything to prevent their ascendency would be foolish. Now, Little Star, I have a question for you.”

“No, listen to me-”

“Did you really meet both the Destruction and the Preservation? That Stellaron in your chest seems to have a gift for drawing the gaze of Aeons.”

Stelle felt her feet get frozen in place, “How do you... Know about that.”

“A new ally told me.” He fully turned, taking a few steps towards her and bending his head down. “It’s incredible truly, you could be the key we were waiting for. What do you say?”

“I don’t even know what you're asking.” She felt a slight tinge of pain in her left wrist, she needed to get the cornerstones and get back to Aventurine. Everything about Sunday screamed danger for some reason. She felt like she was being cornered by a predator. She felt watched.

“As overseer of the Festival, I have the power to ask for changes to the rules. I can break, with your permission, the link between you and Aventurine. Then instead of him, the two of us can join forces and find the Legacy together. Or rather, we can assist the one who has it. They plan on making this great dream true.”

“You want to team up?”

“You have an attractive quality to Aeons, I am sure Xipe will feel drawn to you as others have.”

“I don’t-”

“Of course, I was going to ask Robin first but that’s been- Well, those responsible will pay the price in time.”

“Sunday,” she said carefully, “so you already know about Robin. Then you know that Death is hunting guests within the dreamscape. You need to let people leave before more get hurt.”

“How do you know about that?” His gaze shifted from calm and enticing to incredibly cold.

“Well- Aventurine showed me.” She could feel alarm bells ringing in her head, “we found her body, I’m very sorry, It’s awful-.”

“Ah, I see now, so we cannot join forces after all.” He stepped back from her, “as you have aided that gambler in killing my sister.”

What? Stelle felt taken aback as she took in his words. Aventurine might seem like someone willing to do anything to achieve his goals but something told her that random murder was not part of that.

“We didn’t-” She scrambled to find the right words, “we had nothing to do with that. We found her after Death got to her. Please, why would we want to hurt your sister?”

“A convenient excuse.” He withdrew further. “But I can see it now, your treachery.”

Stelle felt a ring in her chest, something so familiar and so willing to come to her aid only it wasn’t the Stellaron. Her gaze was drawn to Sunday’s right pocket, she could feel something there calling to her, asking to be summoned.

The cornerstones? She questioned as she reached out to it and felt a familiar warm amber light. Could she feel them because of the link with Aventurine.

She didn't think twice, rushing forward and slamming into him. She grabbed a hold of the arm trying to push her back and dug her hand into the pocket. She felt three cold stones on the tip of her finger and managed to get a hold of two of them before she was slammed back harshly. She was in free fall for a moment before colliding with the back wall.

Sunday had changed, his eyes a-glow and back surrounded by an array of six wings as he hovered slightly above the ground.

“Don’t worry.” He didn’t seem to be speaking to her, “I will set the traitors alight.”

She hadn’t fallen off the wall, instead she noticed a gilded golden arrow in the air above her pointing down. It was like her field of gravity had shifted, treating the wall as the floor. She could feel an overwhelming amount of energy coming from Sunday, a strange music filling the air and making her sleepy.

Is he? She shook her head, biting her lip hard to force herself awake. The arrow was starting to shift. Without thinking Stelle used her foot to push herself up with momentum and jump down through the open doorway. As she fell, she noticed her speed start to slow and quickly brought her lance behind her to shoot off a spur of fire beneath her and hasten her fall. It propelled her up and up as gravity started fighting her to send her back down. She felt something pass over her as her climb shifted down to the proper floor once more and she landed with a roll back onto the marble floor.

He must have some kind of limit to his ability, she considered as she broke into a run back towards Aventurine.

Aventurine was playing the defensive from what she could tell, deflecting blows and sending a wave of coins when someone got too close. He seemed to be stalling if anything or maybe he was accounting for the fact that he wasn’t at full strength. Either way, Stelle decided to move things along. She leapt up onto the railing, jumping down to the ground and sending a burst of fire at her feet to slow her fall as she landed in a crouch.

“Aventurine!” She shouted as she tossed the two cornerstones in his direction. “I think you were looking for these.”

He grabbed them in one hand, flipping them into the air and raising his arms up in victory as they redirected their trajectory and landed on either side of his shoulder. She shielded her face as the energy coursing around him buffeted a few times before stabilizing.

“Only two?” He shot her a questioning look as he dragged his arm across the air, summoning a wall of tightly knit coins.

“Hey, he only had three on him and I was lucky to get those two.” She protested, “you didn’t tell me he had freaky gravity powers.”

“Does he?” Aventurine hopped up towards her, “we don’t have much intel on Sunday past his involvement as the Family’s head.”

“He grew a bunch of wings and threw me into a wall.” She shrugged as she sent a spray of fire off one of the sides of the wall where one of the security guards was trying to poke their head. “Also he thinks you killed his sister... Well, he thinks we both killed her.”

“I know,” Aventurine sighed, “what can one do? Seems we both come off as untrustworthy, friend.”

“Pretty sure that’s more you than me. If anything I’m just falling victim of our association.”

Aventurine seemed to be ready to say something in reply when the wall of coins shattered. One of the security guards had some kind of grenade launcher that they were busy reloading.

“Let’s continue this conversation after.” Aventurine said as he snapped and created a burst of coins near the guard’s face.

The guards were trying to encircle them so Stelle focused on breaking through any attempt they made to back the two of them into a corner. They weren’t getting far, Stelle wasn’t fighting at full force out of fear of causing any serious injuries. These people were just doing their job after all. She sidestepped a large net being tossed in her direction, swapping to her bat and sending a wave of energy at their feet.

Their only escape route was the balcony and the doors the guards were currently blocking. They could probably keep them away for a good while longer but the more time they spent in the room, the more time reinforcements had to arrive. Stelle racked her brain for any plan that didn’t involve her fully charging her lance and breaking through their ranks. That would be sure to leave casualties.

She focused in on the Stellaron, pulling on its discordant rhythm and trying to force her own soul to resonate. She lifted her bat to the sky, watching as energy ripped through it sending arcs towards the ceiling.

“What are you doing?!” She heard Aventurine shout back to her as she slammed the bat into the ground and shattered the floor.

Stelle let out a victorious laugh as they fell into freefall, she reached out grabbing Aventurine’s coattail and holding on as they plummeted with increasing speed.

“Dammit,” she heard him shout, “can’t you warn me beforehand.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” She shouted back before maneuvering the best she could to get closer to him and wrap an arm under his shoulders.

It was like they had fallen into the cracks between the dreamscape, she could see various trails of light around them.

“There.” Aventurine pointed to what looked like a larger portal to their right. “Can you get us there?”

She summoned her lance, angling it off to the left and sending out continued bursts to alter their trajectory. Their fall slowed as they reached the portal, Aventurine snapped his fingers, summoning a floor of coins to cushion their fall as they ran into it.

Notes:

Hope everyone has been enjoying 2.1, I told myself I would skip Acheron since I already have too many DPS characters but caved and went for her anyway, still have enough for Aventurine so all is good. I won't say too much about the story since I'm still playing through it and so are many others, but I've been loving it so far! It's still managing to surprise me despite all the leaks I read which is nice. Thanks for reading :)

Chapter 6: Polaris in a Web of Hypocrisy

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“You know,” he said as he massaged the side of his leg, his knee had twisted during the landing. Or maybe Stelle’s had? Either way it was painful and unpleasant. “I was not kidding when I said I needed a heads up when you want to try something insane. We’re supposed to match each other’s energy in moments like these, Miss Stellaron.”

“That wasn’t insane.” Stelle closed her eyes and pointed her head up like an obstinate child. “It was a rational calculation based on our current circ*mstances and wanted outcome.”

“No. It wasn’t.” He pushed the screen door open to reveal a very familiar place. It was a small break room, a kitchen counter curved around the end with two microwaves and a fridge that was never cold enough next to it. There was a tall wooden table with arbitrary stools set around it and a series of motivational posters hung up on the wall. “Don’t try and make me believe you knew the outcome of your decision.”

Stelle didn’t answer, instead making a beeline for the fridge, ducking her head inside of it and removing a cup of yogurt.

“I had an inkling that it would work out.” She said as she dug through the cabinets.

“Bottom left.” He pointed out as he sat on one of the stools.

“Oh.” She removed a small spoon from the drawer, “is this your memory?”

“Welcome to the humble breakroom of the Pier Point division of the Stratagems team.” Aventurine extended his arms to show off the posters. “This was before I took over, of course. One of the first things I changed was to give this place a major upgrade. The previous Aventurine liked the humble feeling of it, said it was meant to keep our egos in check. He made all of his divisions in our vast universe match each other so to speak.”

He had been endlessly frustrated when Jade had assigned him to work as a mere underling for former Aventurine. All those gambles, all those risks, only to end up with the most jaded member of the Ten Stonehearts who had not a strand of ambition. He hadn’t realized that at the time she was positioning him to replace the former.

“What happened to this previous Aventurine?” Stelle ripped the top of her yogurt cup off, “did you kill him and take his place?”

She was teasing but he still felt a flash of annoyance, “he retired with honors and a good pension.”

“And then what?”

“And then, I made the ultimate gamble to take his place.” Aventurine scoffed as old memories threatened to break through his carefully constructed shield. “Let’s return to the present, what happened with Sunday?”

“Well, I tried to convince him we were trying to help. He didn't believe me.”

“Obviously.”

“Then he started getting... weird I guess.” Stelle rubbed the side of her head, “he said that he could break the bond between us, and wanted me to team up with him.”

“To what end?” He tapped his finger on the table, “you’re certainly popular, Miss Stellaron.”

“Somehow, he knew that I had drawn both Nanook’s and Qlipoth’s gaze in the past. He wanted to use me to get Xipe’s attention.” Stelle’s expression shifted to one of perturbation. “I have no idea where he got that information, we haven’t shared it with anyone.”

“Back up, you drew the attention of both the Destruction and the Preservation?” He said as he pictured her method of fighting once more. A baseball bat with incredible destructive power and a fiery lance that drew the aggression of everyone around it. “Well, friend, are you sure you’re not an emanator yourself.”

She wasn’t but it was still a rather strange phenomenon. There was clearly a well of power within the girl but it was not one that matched the overwhelming rush of force he felt from the cornerstones. It was different, more potent and with a strangely ancient quality to it.

“Not really,” Stelle shrugged, “at least that’s what Mr. Yang says. It’s more like the Stellaron can mimic the power of the Aeons whose gaze I’ve drawn. I’m an... Emulator! You know, like when you want to play a game that’s bound to a console you don’t have. I can emulate the power of an emanator but I’m not actually drawing upon the power of said Aeon.”

“That is the dullest yet cleverest thing I have heard come out of your mouth.”

“Thank you...” she furrowed her brow, “I think?”

“Back to the matter at hand,” Aventurine snapped his fingers, “you think he wants to use you to get the Harmony’s attention. Did he say to what end?”

“Nope, and he switched up on me rather fast. Guess I’m not really a vital part of whatever his plan is. Also, he mentioned that he was working for someone else. He didn't’ say who though but I think they might be the ones who actually have the Legacy.”

“Well great, at least this confirms that the Family- '' He cut himself off as he heard the break room door open and a taller, lanky old man let himself in.

It was Gilbert, his old manager from when he’d first joined the Stratagems department. He was a mirror of the former Aventurine, stagnant and content with the way things were. Aventurine had felt like he was drowning when he first joined the team. There was no excitement, no thrilling gambles to be made, no stakes raised. Just a bunch of normal salarymen content to go about their days and go home to their families once the work was done.

“Ah Kakavasha,” Gilbert smiled, “taking your break early, as usual.”

He felt his blood chill. How does he know that name? Was the dreamscape messing with his head again.

“Just trying to avoid the crowd.” He answered as Stelle openly stared at his manager while scooping the fruit-filled yogurt into her mouth with abandon.

“And who’s this?” the older man pointed to Stelle, “you know, I think that is Luci’s yogurt you are eating young miss.”

“Is it?” Stelle smiled shyly, “whoops, Aventurine told me I could have it.”

“Aventurine?” Gilbert looked around swiftly, “he was here?”

“She means me, sir.” Aventurine sighed, “we were just talking about my ambitions to take the title once he retires. She’s been calling me that as a joke.”

“Ah, I see.” Gilbert walked up to the fridge and removed a cup of fruit, “I am glad you are starting to have goals within the company, Kakavasha. I’ve always been worried that you were like a kite without a string. Do you work for another department, young miss?”

A kite without a string, he repeated in his head, how strange. Aventurine had never hidden his ambitions for greater heights from anyone, least of all those who might put him there. Of course, this had been back when the goal was still to repay the people who had helped him. Back before he had realized that that would turn out to be impossible.

“Debt collection under Topaz.” Stelle answered quickly as she finished the yogurt and tossed it into a nearby trash can.

“I see, I see.” He grabbed a spoon and headed to the door, “I’m happy to see you’ve made a friend Kakavasha. And one who encourages you too, that is important. I was so worried, so worried indeed.”

“I can make friends, sir.” Aventurine protested with annoyance. Gilbert had certainly never shown him an ounce of concern, only mute condescension. Is this what this dream thinks I want, what a joke.

“Yes, I know. But I’ve been worried that you’ve been taking what the others say about you to heart. They don’t know any better, they will learn with time to trust you in spite of... well, it need not be said.”

He left without saying another word, leaving him with a Stelle who clearly had more questions for him that was good for her. He sighed and met her eyes, she had clasped her hands on the table, an almost nervous jitter in her body.

“Just ask.” He said as he slid off his chair to pop a coffee capsule into the machine.

“Your real name is Kakavasha?” She said as he removed a mug from the cupboard, “what did he mean when he said people would learn to trust you?”

“My name is Aventurine.” He clarified, “it’s what you should keep calling me. As for the second part, I’m an Avgin so people tend to be wary around me.”

He expected the reaction he normally received, a moment of clarity and then an immediate mix of repulsion, fear and pity. Instead when he met Stelle’s eyes all he found was a blank and confused stare.

“Okay...” She tapped her fingers on the table before smiling awkwardly, “what’s an Avgin?”

He waited for the coffee to pour, adding two cubes of sugar before going to sit in front of her.

“You’ve never heard of Sigonia?” He asked as he blew on the top of his mug to try and cool it down.

“I haven’t heard of a lot of things.” Stelle tapped the side of her head, “Memory loss, remember?”

“And that applies to basic facts?”

“Yeah...” Stelle laughed awkwardly, “I sort of only remember arbitrary information, my pop-culture references are off the charts. But for the rest, Dan Heng has been helping me get up to speed so to speak but I have a bit to go. So please, what is an Avgin?”

“My People are called the Avgin.” He could feel the mark burn as he spoke, it always felt like that when he reminisced. “One of the many clans that made up the planet of Signonia-IV. We don’t have the best reputation interastrally.”

“You said made up, as in formerly?”

He hid a wince, “Yes, Miss Stellaron, my clan was killed in a massacre ages ago.”

That upset her. Her brow furrowed and lips downturned, there was a tension in her face. Anger. Guilt. Fear. About a dozen emotions dancing across her face, she was much more expressive than she led on. Aventurine could count on one hand the amount of people upset about his clan’s fate outside of basic sympathy. No one had come to their aid despite what his sister had claimed. His people had very few friends across the universe.

“That’s-”

“You don’t need to say anything.” He interrupted, “what’s done is done. There’s nothing to be changed about it.

“Alright.” She left it at that to his relief.

“As I was saying due to the actions of a few of our own, our reputation is- was shot to sh*t. I’ve gotten used to being treated with caution to outright hostility over the years.” He shrugged, “it’s not fair but what is there to do? Hold on, if you didn’t know about any of this then what was the reason for your rancor at the beginning, friend.”

“You were coming on way too strong. With all that talk about friends and deals.” She answered, “it just seemed suspicious. Besides, I’ve learned not to trust the IPC.”

“So it was distaste for the IPC, not me.” He leaned closer to her, “and now, friend, do you still dislike me?”

“I never really did.” She didn’t move away, “well not really, you have your moments. Honestly, if you weren’t so... overbearing, I could almost say you were charming.”

“You think I’m charming?”

“I said you could be,” she retorted, “sometimes, I wonder if you do it on purpose. Tell me, Aventurine, are you trying to push people away.”

He kept his face in place, a smile fixed perfectly. “Why would I? When I so like having friends?”

She huffed, grabbing the edge of his coat and tugging him forward. “Do you? Every time you say that word it sounds like you’re choking on it.”

“You’re very close, Miss Stellaron.”

“Then move away.” Her hand dropped back down to the table. He didn’t move.

“Mind telling me when I was charming?”

“When we were roller skating.” She said before pressing her brow to his, he almost shivered from the touch, it felt so strange, so distant. “It almost felt like we were friends at that moment.”

“Aren’t we?” He couldn’t shift his eyes away from her face, those golden pools were drawing him further in. Like the sun, like the desert, like everything he had run from in his past.

“I don’t think so.” She sighed and he felt it on his face like a gentle breeze. “In order for us to be friends, you’d have to trust me.”

“Hah,” he chuckled, “isn’t it the other way around?”

He reached for the strap hanging of her shoulder, rubbing it between two fingers before tangling his hand in it.

“I trust you, Miss Stellaron. You brought my cornerstones to me, just as I asked. You didn’t take Sunday up on his offer when you could’ve. I trust you.”

“Liar.”

“It’s hard to convince you, isn’t it?” he brought a hand up to her cheek, tracing the side of her jaw. “You have my life in your hands, I have to trust you.”

“You’re still not getting my point.” Her fingers dug into the bottom of the fur collar on his coat, “I work well with March and Dan Heng because they trust me. Implicitly. They know I won’t do anything to put them in danger and how to cover my moves when I need them too. If we're going to work well together, it needs to be the same between us. We have each other's lives in hand, it’s mutual.”

“Are you suggesting we test it out? Do a little trust fall?”

“No.”

“Then what, Stelle? I’m struggling to see the point in this conversation.”

She moved away first, pulling his hand off her shoulder and brushing away the one on her cheek. There was a gap left where she had left and in a small moment of weakness Aventurine wanted to reach out and pull her back in.

“I don’t know.” She said, “I don’t understand you. You’re so passive with people who look down on you. I mean, your manager, he sounded incredibly condescending and yet you just take it? And with Opal, you didn’t try to stop him at all.”

“I don’t have the luxury of beating back against people just because they dislike or distrust me.” He spat, feeling a slight surge of anger. “Unlike you, friend, I don’t have powerful friends willing to throw it all away for me. The IPC is a dog eat dog world, and I already have a collar around my neck.”

“You mean that brand.” She tilted her head, “I can feel it burn when you’re angry. Are you working for the IPC against your will?”

“What business is it yours?”

“None, really.” She answered, “but if you are, and if you want out. I’ll help.”

“You’ll help...” He dragged the word out, letting it roll off his tongue before he started laughing. He crouched down on himself, “you’re funny, Miss Stellaron, very funny indeed. Tell me how one doomed girl is going to go up against the most powerful corporation in the world.”

“The Stellaron Hunters have been running circles around the IPC from the start. And besides, we were able to stop a hostile takeover of Belobog.” She slid off her chair and walked around the table to stand in front of him. “You shouldn’t underestimate us.”

“Right, you’re the girl who's going to kill an Aeon.” He faced her, “doesn't that mean you have better things to do than trying to save someone like me?”

“Sure but who cares.” She said with another shrug. “I’ve decided I’m going to help you.”

“You’re rather presumptuous.” He got up, turning his back to her. “ I’ve lived on the chopping block my entire life, I’m used to it. Besides, if you really want to save me then you need to help me claim Penacony for the IPC. The stakes of this mission are as follows; if I fail to deliver Penacony, I face execution. This is the grandest bet of all for me, Miss Stellaron, and I can’t live any other way. There’s a certain thrill in betting with your own life and I’d be bored without it. So really, save your time and energy for someone who wants to be spared.”

When he looked over his shoulder, he felt a slight glimmer of disbelief as he took in her expression. Her face was a mask of calm but beneath that there was a simmering of determination and exaltation. He saw the truth of it at last, she had seen something in his memory that had convinced her about the quality of his character or something else. He hadn’t deterred her with his words, if anything, he had taken up a hammer and hardened her resolve.

“Now, let's focus on the issue at hand.” He walked up to the cupboard at the very top and slid it open. “Breaks over and we need to get out of here.”

It was sitting there just as expected, a pristine bottle of red wine with a gilded label. It was Gilbert’s pride and joy, forever sitting in a place of honor and waiting for an important event to be opened. In the past, that event had been the promotion of one of his coworkers, they had waited for him to leave the office to open the bottle and share it. When he had confronted his manager about it, Gilbert had deflected by saying they had forgotten about him. He hadn’t really cared at the time but that didn’t mean a little retribution wouldn’t feel nice. It was a matter of principle.

He grabbed the bottle by the neck, sliding it in front of Stelle before removing two mugs and bringing those too.

“Have a drink with me, why don’t you.” He peeled the metal off the top of the cap before tilting the edge of the bottle and popping off the cork with the side of his hand.

“I hate wine.” Stelle complained as he poured her a glass.

“You have to like this one.” He answered as grabbed his own glass and raised it to her. “It has been aged for three hundred amber eras or so. One of the only three-thousand bottles of wine made by Winemaster Camilla Hevtar before her planet crashed into the sun. Gilbert shelled out a lot to buy it back in the day, he kept it in that cupboard to keep us motivated.”

“How does that end?”

“I never got a taste naturally.” He mockingly bowed, “want to help me? Drink up.”

She huffed before kicking her head back and downing it all in one shot, slamming her mug back on the table.

“It’s wine, not ale.” He took a sip and felt a slight tinge of disappointment. It tasted like any ordinary wine he might find at an IPC company event. He had never actually had a taste of it so the Dreamscape couldn’t reproduce the taste. Still, the real satisfaction came from elsewhere.

“Kakavasha-” He heard a voice stutter from behind him, his old manager's face was turning a new shade of red. “What- what are you doing?!”

“Sir!” He exclaimed while raising his cup, “Stelle and I decided to celebrate my future victory.”

“That wine-” The old man’s face was gaping like a fish, “do you have any idea how much I spent on that. How dare you!”

“Did you, I didn’t notice honestly.” He took another swill and made a face, “takes like any ordinary bottle, if you ask me.”

“You- what, what are you saying? It’s-”

“Oh dear,” Stelle stood up, she was holding the bottle with both hands. “I didn't realize it was important to you sir, Aventurine insisted it would be alright. Why don’t I pour you a cup so you can enjoy it with us.”

She stepped to the side, bumping with purpose into the table and tripping forward. The wine bottle dropped out of her hands, hitting the ground and shattering. Aventurine watched as his old manager's face shifted from disbelief, to anger, to sorrow in but a few moments. He let out a laugh as the walls crystallized around them and shattered like the bottle as they were shunted from the memory.

///|||\\\

They wandered through the dreamscape, jumping from memory to memory, from dreamscape to dreamscape. They sludged through a marsh, pushing aside dead logs and hopping from stone to stone while trying to stay one step ahead of the acid rains behind them. They scaled an unending spiral staircase, taking breaks to try and catch their breath and find a way to escape. They wandered into a bowling alley floating on clouds, they spent a few hours playing before grabbing a milkshake and jumping off. They biked along a long winding path following a trail of stars. Aventurine taught her how to play blackjack as they waited for their train to reach its destination on the other side of a flat and sandy island.

It was only once they finished fighting Ruan Mei’s Skaracabaz that Stelle considered it might be a good time to take a break. She was half-covered in insect guts, she had used her lance to pierce a hole into the fake emanator’s thorax while Aventurine shielded her from its offspring's attacks. She leaned against her lance as she watched him shed away at the insect's body with coin tosses to reveal a staircase heading down.

“Aventurine.” She tried to grab his attention before he started down the stairs. “I need to take five, we’ve been going at it for hours.”

“What?” He laughed, “not used to pulling all nighters?”

“This is more like a multiple day binge. We need sleep, remember what Black Swan said.”

“Fine, fine.” He waved her down, “one more and we take a break.”

She groaned and followed him, watching as the blood and gore got pulled off of her as she stepped further down the staircase.

They walked into a room with high vaulted ceilings and to her ever growing relief a large collection of couches, beds and other soft things to lie on. She let out a small shout of victory, the dreamscape was still capable of doling out gifts. She ran into a large four-poster bed, burying her head into a pillow and letting out a pleased sigh. Her brief moment of relaxation was shattered by the feeling of the mattress sinking to one side as Aventurine laid down next to her.

“Really?” She groaned into the pillow, “there’s like a gazillion beds to choose from.”

“I like this one.”

Stelle rolled over, kicking her legs up to squeeze herself under the blanket. The exhaustion of the day was finally hitting her, a heavy weight settling down on her eyelids. She could hear Aventurine shuffling around beside her, she opened one eye to watch him as he grabbed one of the cornerstones on his shoulder and tossed it into the air. It flew up to the ceiling before settling and projecting a golden field that covered the whole room.

“Just something that’ll warn us if anyone gets too close.” He explained as he met her questioning gaze.

Stelle tucked the blanket under her chin, “I snore by the way.”

“Do you?”

“Very loudly. And very frequently. March complains about it.”

“Funny how she didn’t mention that when you two slept in the same room.”

She rolled her eyes and turned away from him, grabbing hold of one of the throw pillows and hugging it to her chest.

“If you really want me to leave, I’ll go somewhere else.”

“It’s fine.” She sighed, “do you kick when you sleep? March does that.”

“You won’t even notice I’m here.” He answered, she could hear him pull something out of his pocket. Judging by the sound of tapping on a screen, it was either his phone or his dreampass.

“You really should sleep, Aventurine.” Stelle scolded as she resisted the itch to take her own phone out and play a few rounds, “messages still aren’t getting through so there’s no point in trying.”

“Yeah, yeah, just finishing something.” She felt the blanket get pulled up as he settled down next to her. “Want me to put a pillow between us?”

“Will that even do anything?” She answered as she forced her eyes to stay shut, “I want to sleep, hush.”

Sleep ended up hitting her like an anchor, grabbing her by the head and pulling her down the moment her breath settled. Sometimes when she slept she could feel the Stellaron’s influence acutely, it was like a harsh, shrieking light. Blinding and dizzying her for an agonizing moment before leaving her in the dark once more. This time was different, she was floating near it, watching as it pulsed angrily and furtively, trying to reach her and tear her in two. But it couldn’t. There was a slight golden light around her, it felt bright and lonely, the Stellaron’s anger was dampened by its stillness.

Stelle reached her hand out to touch it, it was like a feather, soft on her fingers. She’d never seen anything like it, she tried to reach for it, to grab it and pull it closer. But it was unmovable, staying close but never touching her. Always staying slightly out of reach.

She could feel something warm next to her as she was roughly grabbed and shaken awake. She let out a soft groan, squeezing her arms around whatever it was she was holding in protest. Aventurine was sitting up next to her, the thing she was holding ended up being one of his thighs and her face was pressed to his waist. She quickly pushed herself up as he made a sign for her to keep quiet.

He pointed towards one of the open entrances and she made out the sound of footsteps and murmurs.

Without saying a word, she slid off the bed. Stelle summoned her bat, crouching low as she went to hide behind a couch with a tall back. She pressed her back to it, peeking around the side as Aventurine hopped off the bed and faced the entrance. Was he planning on confronting them, she considered as she adjusted her grip on her bat. It was his funeral, she just hoped she would be quick enough to react if something bad came his way.

She felt her worry get tossed out the window as she noticed two familiar shapes walk through the open doorway.

“Aventurine,” Dr. Ratio was holding himself with the same confident stance, “seems I’ve finally managed to track you down.”

Stelle was surprised to see Ruan Mei step out from behind him, as far as she knew they had never officially met. The Genius wasn’t looking at either of the two men, her gaze sweeping across the room with cold calculation.

“Ratio,” Aventurine greeted coldly, she couldn’t make out his expression. “And I see you’ve brought the esteemed Ruan Mei with you. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Hmm? Likewise.” That seemed to shake Ruan Mei out of her daze, “Veritas, he is meant to be with Stelle. Where is she?”

“Well...” Dr. Ratio tilted his head, “what did you do with your new partner, Aventurine? Don’t tell me you-”

“Boo!” She half-shouted as she popped her head out from behind the couch. None of them reacted. She sighed and kicked her feet against the ground as she stepped towards them.

“Stelle,” Ruan Mei met her half-way, her hand coming up to Stelle’s chin and tilting it. “Hmm, that’s good. Your vitals haven’t changed since we first met, it would seem the Stellaron is still stable.”

“Uh, any reason why it wouldn’t be.” Stelle blinked at her, “should I be worried or something.”

“I was only curious about the effect the Harmony’s link would have on you.” She answered, “I wondered if this shift in presence would cause the Stellaron’s stability within your own body to erode rapidly. Or if it would be able to harmonize with the other person.”

Stelle felt her smile shift into a grimace, Ruan Mei was never reassuring. “Uh, that’s- I mean, I feel fine so... It’s probably fine, right?”

“Hmm.” Ruan Mei lowered her hand, her gaze shifting towards Aventurine who was watching the whole exchange with a skeptical look. “I must examine you both, there must be something at work to allow this exchange to happen so flawlessly. A Stellaron should not be so accommodating to such a change.”

“Do as you must.” Dr. Ratio spoke, “I need to exchange a few words with Aventurine first.”

Stelle watched as Aventurine straightened his shoulders and walked towards a corner of the room with Dr. Ratio. They hunched close to each other, their lips moving quickly as they seemed to fall into one of their familiar arguments.

“You feel concerned.” Stelle jumped as she heard Ruan Mei speak.

“Dr. Ratio and Aventurine tend to argue a lot.” Stelle answered as she rubbed the back of her head, “Just keeping an eye out in case one of them decides to start throwing punches.”

“Sit with me.” Ruan Mei took a seat on one of the many couches. “You deserve a reward for making it this far.”

She raised a hand in protest as she took a seat next to her, “that’s fine. No offense but I’d rather keep control of my faculties this time.”

“Hmm,” Ruan Mei lowered the small plum cake she had been holding up, “this is only to give myself the surety I need to speak to you honestly.”

“Sorry but I’m not doing that again. You’ll just have to trust I won’t speak out of line.”

Ruan Mei gave her a blank stare before setting the plum cake on the couch's arm. “Do you feel any general discomfort? Any changes since you linked with him.”

Stelle shrugged, she hadn’t really paid any mind to it. “Not really, apart from the whole sharing injuries and such. Oh! He does resonate with the Stellaron which is weird, I can hear it in his chest.”

“You heard it...” Ruan Mei tilted her head, “hmm, and what does a Stellaron sound like.”

Stelle went to answer when Ruan Mei dipped her head down and pressed it against Stelle’s chest. She felt her breath catch as Ruan Mei grabbed a hold of her arm at the same time and pressed a finger against her pulse point. Stelle didn’t move, she focused her attention on Aventurine who was wildly moving his arm to the side as he seemed to be countering something Dr. Ratio had said.

“Breathe in for me.” Stelle heard Ruan Mei say as she pressed a hand to her stomach. Stelle complied, sucking in as much as she could while trying to ignore the strands of brown hair tickling her neck. “And out...”

Ruan Mei pulled away, letting Stelle’s wrist fall as she said, “how magnificent, I’ve never heard such a song before. It’s thrumming with life, it reminds me of another lifeform I previously tried to cultivate. Starsongs, they were called, I found that their existence was ephemeral; they could not maintain shape outside of the galaxy they called home. They were impossible to nurture properly, no matter how many times I tinkered with them.”

“Ah sure.” Stelle was never quite sure what to say when Ruan Mei started talking about her research, it all sounded a bit out there.

“In essence, a Stellaron is the closest form we have of the power of an Aeon distilled into a usable form. Different from the kind an emanator wields but fascinating nonetheless. So it is always interesting to see how it interacts with the powers of the Aeons.” Ruan Mei picked up the plum cake and popped it into her mouth. “Exquisite, you should’ve tried it when I offered Stelle. As for the other part of my questioning, I need to wait for those two to be done.”

“You think my link with Aventurine had an effect on the Stellaron?”

“It is more the effect it didn’t have that interests me.” Ruan Mei answered, “I was not expecting to find you alive.”

Oh great, Stelle thought as Aventurine finally made his way back to them, that’s always wonderful to hear.

“Well, Miss Genius.” Aventurine crossed his arms, “Ratio says you need to examine me, make it quick, we have business to get to.”

“You don’t.” Dr. Ratio said as he walked up behind him, “please take your time, Ruan Mei, this is a question that interests me too.”

Ruan Mei had Aventurine sit next to her, she went through a much more clinical procedure than she had with Stelle. Measuring his pulse and borrowing a stethoscope from Dr. Ratio to capture measurements around his chest. Stelle could tell his patience was wearing thin all throughout the process, his brow twitching ever so slightly as Ruan Mei pressed two fingers under his chin.

“Hmm,” Ruan Mei leaned in to look at one of the cornerstones on his shoulder, “this is imbued with the power of the Preservation.”

“Ah, so you did manage to retrieve some of the stones after all.” Dr. Ratio said with a nod, “well done. You could’ve mentioned that before, do fix your habit for withholding information.”

“I can’t take full credit for that.” Aventurine muttered before pointing towards her, “she helped.”

Ruan Mei grabbed both of their wrists, pressing her fingers against their pulse point before saying, “It is curious, your heartbeats are in sync almost perfectly and what’s more, I can feel the Stellaron’s resonance from within you both. And yet, you remain intact.”

“Is there any reason we shouldn’t be?” Aventurine asked as Stelle reached for her chest, her fingers digging into where she knew the scar was.

“I theorized that this link would destabilize whatever is within Stelle that maintains the Stellaron in a semi-dormant state.” Ruan Mei explained, “when I met up with Veritas, I warned that we may be walking into the site of a Stellaron blast and should prepare accordingly.”

“That’s just wonderful.” She heard Aventurine say under his breath as she pushed herself further in between the couches cushions.

“But it hasn’t? How odd.” Ruan Mei hummed, “of course, there is a rational explanation. My new theory is that the power that Aventurine gains from the cornerstone is acting as a stabilizer for the Stellaron. I can feel a second form of resonance between you two emerging from those stones.”

“So you’re saying, what? That I’m keeping her stable.”

“The power you are borrowing from that Emanator is acting as a counter-balance for the Stellaron. Preventing it from igniting itself and starting a second Stellaron crisis on Penacony.”

That pulled her mind out of its slump, “wait, wait, wait. Second?”

“Oh yes, I was able to determine without a shadow of a doubt that there is a Stellaron residing at the core of Penacony. That is probably the source of the collapse we are currently witnessing and the issue with guests not waking up in the Hotel.”

“But, I haven’t...” Stelle started before leaning forward and resting her chin on her hand. She had felt something in the hotel lobby, a similar tug and pull. It had been so fleeting that she had quickly dismissed it as the Stellaron being weird. But if it wasn’t random, that would mean their trip had taken on a dire but predictable course.

“Let’s back up a bit,” Aventurine said, “if anyone else had tried to make Stelle their dance partner she would’ve what? Imploded?”

“The Stellaron in her chest would’ve burst, ripping through her and probably killing her in the process. This would’ve been done by-”

“Okay!” Stelle interrupted before Ruan Mei could keep describing her gory death, “I would’ve died terribly and made everything way worse. Can we go back to the second part, how are you sure there is a Stellaron here?”

To Stelle’s surprise, Ruan Mei turned her attention to Dr. Ratio and looked at him expectantly.

“Right.” He said before pausing for an overly long amount of time, “Because I am the one who brought the Stellaron to Penacony.”

Notes:

Finally finished the story quest and man was it good! Counting down the days to 2.2

Chapter 7: What Seeds are Sown?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Stelle felt her ears pop, a low buzz filling her head as Aventurine leaped to his feet.

“What?” He shouted, “what the f*ck are you talking about Ratio?!”

“Exactly as I said, under orders of both Diamond and Taravan. I delivered a Stellaron to Penacony.”

“You-” Stelle heard Aventurine take a long breath, pinching the bridge of his nose before he continued, “to what end? Why the hell wasn’t I told about this?”

“Diamond wanted a contingency plan in case yours didn’t work out.” Dr. Ratio’s voice sounded strangely still, “it was determined that it was best you be kept out of the loop to protect your position as an ambassador of the IPC by giving you plausible deniability.”

“And yet you’re telling me now.”

“Yes. Things have changed. It is evident that the Stellaron has made whatever was happening in Penacony worse.”

“Oh this is just great.” Aventurine ran a hand through his hair before laughing, “no, really, it’s perfect. Way to screw everything up. Doesn’t the corporation want to recover Penacony in one piece, what were they thinking? All this has done is put everything in jeopardy.”

“I agree.” Dr. Ratio said pointedly, “this is why I am telling you Aventurine. The corporation miscalculated.”

“So this was all some attempt to manufacture a crisis on Penacony and give us an excuse to swoop in?”

“That was the plan.”

“Great, great. You see that was also my plan but I never intend to push things to this scale.” Aventurine sighed as he sat back down next to her, “now, we're no longer just facing the dreamscape falling apart but an extinction level event. Miss Ruan Mei, you know a lot about Stellarons, do you not? How bad is this?”

“I’m not an expert.” Ruan Mei had been watching everything with the same cold and detached look. “But I don’t need to be in order to tell you that the Stellaron is accelerating the deterioration of the dreamscape. If we do not find and seal it soon, it may be too late. If the barrier around Penacony collapses, we and everyone here will be plunged into the Memory Zone. There is probably no coming back from that.”

“Where is it?” Stelle found she could control her own voice once again.

“The person I handed it to, so to speak, was meant to bring it to Clock’s studio’s theme park.” Dr. Ratio answered while not meeting her gaze. Stelle wasn’t sure if it was out of guilt or something else. Dr. Ratio had never been easy to read.

Stelle buried her face in her hands, “we don’t even know how to navigate the dreamscape. How are we ever going to make it there?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, dear assistant.” Ruan Mei hummed, “you are going to lead us straight to it.”

“Am I?”

“Both you and Aventurine should be able to tell in which direction, so to speak, the Stellaron will be in.” She continued, “of course, this will be more complicated for Veritas and I but we will do our best to follow you.”

“So we just what?” Aventurine asked, “feel around for it. Take our best guess.”

“Stelle knows what to do.”

Do I? Stelle met Ruan Mei’s gaze, people always put way too much faith in me.

“Even if we find it,” Stelle said while turning her eyes back to the floor, “I don’t know the first thing about sealing a Stellaron, that’s usually Himeko’s or Mr. Yang’s job.”

“You can leave that to me.” Dr. Ratio said, “I’ve attended a few seminars on the nature of Stellarons and how to deal with them. I am well equipped to manage sealing it.”

“No offense, partner,” Aventurine answered, “but you’re part of the reason we are in this mess in the first place. I don’t love the idea of relying on you to fix it.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“No but-” Aventurine pinched his nose again, “let’s just hope we run into the rest of the express crew before we make it to the theme park.”

“I can acknowledge I made a bad call, Aventurine. But I can also promise that I intend to do my best to fix it. I understand if it takes time for the two of you to trust me again but do not let it get in the way of taking the steps needed to stop this.”

“Well sorry for not immediately taking your word for it. So much for trust huh. I guess being honest about our plans only applies to me, huh, Ratio?”

“Stelle.” She jumped as she felt Ruan Mei shake her shoulder, “those two need to air some things out... again. I had something else I needed to discuss with you, privately.”

She was going to say that it didn’t seem like they had anymore to say to one another considering that Ratio was staring off at a wall while Aventurine scrolled through his phone angrily. But she relented and followed the Genius to a corner of the room.

Ruan Mei removed a small key from her pocket, she extended her hand towards Stelle. “Give me your dream pass.”

“Why?” She asked while handing it over. Ruan Mei inserted the key into the side of it and tapped on the screen a few times.

“This portal is the main thing controlling the link between the two of you. We created a key to bypass its rules so to speak. This was done by Herta in case you had managed to overcome the destabilization of the Stellaron and were still alive.” She handed the screen back to her, there was a new icon at the bottom left of the screen. It was a miniature version of the Stellaron with a text that read: Emergency override.

“The link is stable between the two of you but just in case it isn’t.” Ruan Mei kept explaining, “this will put the burden of the connection fully on you. Do be careful with this, there may be unintended consequences that come with this.”

“Did you test it or anything?” Her finger hovered over the button before she removed it and slipped the dreampass back into her pocket.

“Do you doubt Herta’s abilities?”

“Uh no.” Stelle answered, “it’s just that my life is technically on the line with this so I’d rather be safe. I didn’t know Herta was also here, is she helping out with the whole deteriorating dreamscape thing?”

“She’s not, Screwllum is. He is the one who contacted her about the issues with the dreamscape and when she heard that you were here, she got worried.” Ruan Mei said, “she’s the one who recommended I enter the dreamscape to ensure your safety and if you had passed on, to retrieve the Stellaron and bring it back to the space station. It is still technically her property.”

“Slow down, you’re saying that Herta is aware of what is happening in the dreamscape. I thought the connection between the real world and us had been cut off.”

“Oh that, we solved that ages ago.” Ruan Mei waved dismissively, “a simple bypass of the dreamscape system, the Family is purposefully blocking communication.”

“Then could you get a message to Mr. Yang and the express.” She asked hurriedly, “just let them know what’s happening, they’re probably worried.”

“Hmm, I suppose so. I’ll ask Herta to pass along a message.”

“Thank you.” Stelle said, “I know this is probably nothing but one big distraction for you.”

“It will set back some of my planned research by a few days but it is of no worry. I am curious enough about the effect the dreamscape will have on you to sate myself. You truly are one fascinating specimen, your very existence defies what we know about Stellarons and their capabilities.”

She wasn’t sure how she felt about being called a specimen but she also knew that Ruan Mei probably considered it a compliment. She noticed Aventurine making his way back towards them, a golden coin flipping in between his fingers.

“I should probably go see what he wants with me.” Stelle pointed to him, “I’ll see you in the theme park, I hope.”

“We will try to follow,” Ruan Mei nodded before stopping her shortly with a touch on her arm, “before you go. Exercise caution, there are a lot of factions at play right now. Don’t forget about the override.”

“I won’t.” She shook off her hand. “Good luck on your end, keep an eye on Dr. Ratio.”

“So...” Aventurine said as he stopped in front of her, “going to admit that I was right.”

“About what?” Stelle crossed her arms.

“Your dear friend, Doctor Ratio.”

“You’re never going to let that go, are you?”

“I just want to hear you say it.”

“Fine.” She admitted, “you were right, but not fully.”

“Oh?”

“I believe him when he says he regrets it, we all make bad calls sometimes.” Stelle hadn’t given herself the time to process any of it. With the amount of twists and turns that had occurred recently, she wasn’t entirely surprised that yet another person she thought she could trust had semi-betrayed her.

“This is a bit more than a bad call.”

“If they had asked you to do it, would you have?”

She saw him hesitate, his eyes darting from side to side, a brief bite on his bottom lip.

“Alright, alright.” He sighed, “yes, I probably would have.”

“Hah,” she huffed with disappointment, “see, you IPC types are all the same after all.”

“You- never mind, I can give you that much at least. But it’s different for me, Miss Stellaron, I don’t have a choice.”

Her eyes fell on the brand on his neck, “because of that?”

She felt a burn on the side of her own neck, his hand twitched upwards before settling at his side once more.

“Yes. but enough of that, we need to get a move on. There’s a door that Ratio can’t see, I think-”

“What is it between the two of you?” She finally asked.

“What?”

“Why are you so hostile to him, it’s more than just ordinary caution. Something happened between you two, I can tell.”

“I told you to stop digging around where you aren’t wanted.” He warned, “sometimes people simply get off on the wrong foot, that’s all there is to it.”

“Liar.” Stelle muttered under her breath as she watched him stride towards an open doorway.

She’d get him to open up to her, pry whatever he was burying out with all her strength. It might take a million years or all her strength but she’d do it somehow. Try as she had she couldn’t get that reflection she had seen back when she was stuck in his memory. The fear and uncertainty that had been shown on his face to her had cut deep. Stelle had the crew of the Astral Express, she had made friends on all the places the train had set foot on. She had a feeling he had no one in his corner, or if he did, that he pushed them away with all his strength. She’d met too many people content to live their lives that way to just let him be.

Sorry Aventurine, she thought to herself as she followed him through the doorway. You’ve met a professional meddler and I’m not going to let go just yet.

///|||\\\

He kept unclenching and clenching his fist as he walked. He didn’t look behind him, not particularly caring if she decided to follow or not. Aventurine needed to clear his head. He had stepped into an icy passageway that stretched out in front of him for miles, there were icicles hanging precariously over his head. He could see his breath as he walked but couldn’t feel any chill in his bones.

They didn't trust him.

He couldn’t say he was surprised, he had always been acutely aware that he was just another tool for the corporation to use as it pleased. Easily replaceable if he ever stopped performing to their standards. But Diamond had commuted his sentence and raised him higher than he could’ve ever hoped to be. He was meant to be different.

Only he wasn't, big surprise. And for Ratio to have been the one to deliver the knife when he was meant to be- He shook his head, there was no use dwelling on it.

I can only keep moving forward, he reminded himself, I've never gained anything from looking back.

“Aventurine.” So she had followed him after all, “wait up.”

He ignored her, keeping a steady pace forward as the path started slowly curving to the left. He could hear her steps echoing behind him, matching his own perfectly. They walked for an hour, maybe two. He wasn’t really keeping track of time, only the sound of their steps and the shape of his breath. He went to grab his phone and check the time when he noticed he couldn’t hear her anymore.

He quickly wiped his head around to look behind him, she was standing just a few paces back from him.

“Made you look.” She said as he went to ask her what she was doing.

“Really.” He groaned, “stop messing around.”

“Weren’t you the one scolding me for taking it too seriously. Loosen up a bit.”

“You realize we're facing crisis upon crisis, don’t you.”

“Yeah but I thought about it and I realized it doesn't matter.”

“What are you talking about?” He ran a hand over his face, she wasn’t making any sense. Just a moment ago she had been shell shocked on the sofa and now she was acting like this.

“I think I’ve just been taking all of this too seriously, we are in a dream.” Stelle nodded as she stepped up to him. “And besides, there’s still so much we don’t know.”

“We could die, didn’t you hear what Ruan Mei said? This isn’t some game.”

“We can always die.” Stelle shrugged, “that’s never not been a possibility. You could make it out of this place then slip on your way out of the dreampool, crack open your head and die.”

“Yes but-”

“No,” She placed a finger over his mouth, “listen, gambler, aren’t you supposed to be good in moments like this. Everything is at stake, our lives, the future of Penacony and all the people who live here. Isn’t it meant to be exciting?”

He grabbed her hand and pulled it down, leaning forward on his feet to try and tower over her. “Sure, it’s fun, it’s great. Everything I planned has fallen to pieces and the moment I start getting my bearings the floor gets pulled out from under me. But sure, I’m having fun.”

“Exactly.” She didn’t seem to be listening or she was mishearing him on purpose, “it’s the ultimate gamble. Lose and we die. Win and we take it all.”

“Is this your idea of a pep talk?”

“Hey,” she leaned in closer, her brow almost touching his, “you’re talking to the woman who saved Aurum Alley from being gutted by the IPC and restored the Belobog’s History and Culture Museum to its former glory. I’ve faced a bunch of impossible tasks, this one doesn’t seem that different. A Stellaron is a Stellaron, it hasn’t even been here for long.”

“You’re impossible...” He sighed, maybe he was falling into old habits of despair. But this time felt different, he could feel the sting of the blade on his neck. Penacony was the largest project that had ever been entrusted to him. Succeed and he’d finally be raised to rank p46 and have his sentence removed once and for all. Fail and the execution date would be moved up whether Diamond tried to stop it or not. Besides, this had meant to be something different for him but even that was moving further and further from view.

When has that ever changed anything? He slid back on his foot, stepping away to get a better look on her face. There was a fire in her eyes, it was matched by the thrumming he could feel deep in his chest.

“Fine, I concede.” He turned back to the open tunnel, “you’re right, I’m probably overthinking all of this.”

“Not overthinking.” Stelle walked shoulder to shoulder with him, “just unusually serious.”

“Right, right, too serious for the tastes of Miss Stellaron.” He chuckled as the tunnel opened into a wider cave. “I’ll lighten up.”

There was an empty camping site set up near the mouth of the cavern. A weathered tent had been pinned on one side of the ice with a fire pit dug into the floor. A steaming moka pot had been abandoned and two camping chairs were set up at either side of the site. The walls of the cavern were reflective creating an infinite mirror effect all around them. The only strange thing was that he could see neither his nor Stelle’s reflection in the ice.

“Come on, Sam.” He heard Stelle say, he looked back towards her and noticed a confused expression on her face.

“Don’t you think we should go find her.” It was her voice again but her lips weren’t moving.

“What’s happening?” Stelle looked around furtively, “I’m not saying that.”

He followed her gaze and settled on the reflection of the campsite. There were two individuals, both familiar, a tall automaton and Stelle. This version of her was wearing a black winter coat with a generous fur collar, her hair was trimmed to the bottom of her chin. She was seated on one of the camping chairs while Sam peered over the moka pot.

“Huh?” The Stelle next to him exclaimed, “that’s me! And Sam... Is this another memory?”

“Elio script says that we wait here for Kafka to return.” The reflection of Sam spoke, its voice echoed through the cavern. “You know what happens when you go off script, Stelle.”

“If you can’t remember it.” Aventurine said as he walked towards the campsite, “it probably is. Weird, why is it manifesting like this?”

“I know but-” The other Stelle stomped her foot sending a cracking sound bouncing over the walls. “It never takes her this long, what if something went wrong? What if she fell down a crevasse or something. I read someone died on Gideon-II like that last year. Besides, why did she have to go alone in the first place?”

“Just sit and have some coffee Stelle.” The automaton’s voice was a lot kinder than it had been when it had attacked them back in the Golden hour, “you’ll feel better once you’ve regained some warmth.”

“Ugh,” the other Stelle slumped back into her chair as Sam handed her a mug, “fine.”

“You haven’t changed.” He remarked as he watched Stelle take hesitant steps towards her reflection and said, “Do I look better with shorter hair?”

“Is that really what you’re focusing on? You look fine.”

“I can tell what’s really wrong, you know.” Sam spoke again, “you’re worried you're running out of time.”

“I’m not.” the reflection retorted, “I just don’t get the point of all of this.”

“You are.” Sam insisted, “there’s only a year until we seal the Stellaron in your chest and Elio’s been sending us on missions more and more distant from one another. It’s upsetting you.”

“I really was close to them.” Stelle whispered as her reflection’s face darkened slightly.

“I just-” The reflection buried her hands into her hair and tugged, “I don’t get him. I don't know why he’s pushing us away. I just want one last night with all of us together, one last supper so to speak. I haven’t even seen Blade in months and Silver Wolf hasn’t gotten back to us in over a week.”

“Elio is just trying to prepare you-”

“I won’t even remember any of this!” the reflection leaped to its feet, Stelle hopped back in surprise bumping into him in the process, her legs weakening. He caught her around the waist, trying to steady her as the sound of the Stellaron beat into his head. “So what’s the point, really?! Why split us up? Why make us go on all these pointless errands? Why is he being so cruel!”

“Elio always has his reasons,” Sam spoke quietly, “even if it seems unfair to you, you know he’s never been wrong.”

“I know, I know, I’m just-”

“If you’re worried we’ll forget you, don’t.” Sam stood up, his form towered over Stelle. “Besides, from the intel Silver Wolf managed to get back for us, the express crew seem like a fine group of people. I’m sure you’ll get close to them just like you did us.”

“But Sam...”The reflection sounded tearful, he felt Stelle shift, her arms wrapping back towards his. “You don’t have any time. What if by the time i remember you-”

“Don’t dwell on that,” the automaton brought a hand up to the reflection’s cheek, cradling it. “What will happen, will happen. We’ll be there for you, even if you don’t remember us. Even if you resent us, nothing will change.”

“Sam, I-” The reflection’s voice faded as she looked somewhere past Sam, “she’s back.”

“See, I told you.”

The reflections faded, their forms dissipating as a veil fell over the ice and fixed the reflection. Stelle stayed still for a few more moments before she pushed his arms off of her and walked up to the ice wall where they had been. She placed a hand on the ice and stayed standing in front of it for a while.

He let her have her moment, walking a circle around the cavern to look for any other hidden exit before settling near the campsite and looking closer at what was set around it. He found a few packs inside the tent which mostly had standard camping gear. Portable heaters, spare sets of clothes, tightly packaged dried food. There was also a set of playing cards which he pocketed and a small figurine in the shape of a canary.

He removed a set of camping mugs from the pack and went to check on the inside of the Moka pot to see if it had anything drinkable. Their sleep had been interrupted and he still hadn’t quite shaken off the tiredness of being woken suddenly. He could smell a strong aroma of rich coffee, he quickly poured out two cups and set them on the floor before pulling out the deck of cards.

It was a standard set you could find at any convenience or game store. He shuffled the cards, separating the deck and twisting various cards around his fingers.

“What are you doing?” Stelle had moved quietly, she had taken a seat in front of him.

“Giving you a moment,” He answered as he split the deck in the air and let it fall back together. “You looked like you needed it, Stelle.”

“Yeah, I guess I did.” She huffed, “I knew that I was probably...”

“Close to them?” He guessed.

“I thought it was just Kafka, that the others were of little consequence to me.” She nodded, “but that’s not true and I don’t know how to... deal with it.”

“What does it change for you?”

“Huh?”

“I mean,” he clarified, “what difference does it make? The Stellaron Hunters were once your friend and it sort of seems like they still are. I mean, except for whatever that Sam has going on. You don’t seem particularly hostile to them, not like the rest of your crew is.”

“I guess you have a point.” She lowered her head, “I just- I’m trying to understand why I choose this path, why it was necessary that I lose all my memories in order to follow his plan.”

“You’d probably have to ask Destiny’s slave himself for that information, you know, we don’t even know what he looks like.”

“I know, I looked him up on your wanted board. The instructions about him are weird though...”

“The IPC usually has its reasons.” He shrugged as he tossed a card in the air, tilted the deck and caught it in the middle. “There’s no exit from this place, either you know how to break the memory or we wait it out again.”

Stelle bunched up her hair in her hands, “I have no idea, I could try hitting the walls with my bat but I can’t promise that’ll do anything.”

“Feeling anything from the Stellaron?”

“Nothing.” She shook her head, “can’t you tell.”

He could, it was sitting quietly occasionally thrumming to remind him of its presence. He flipped a few cards into his hands, the King of Spades, the Ace of Diamonds, the Queen of Spades, the Ace of Hearts. The cards didn’t have much wear and tear, something told him the Stellaron Hunters didn’t spend a lot of time sitting and playing.

“Do you want to play or something?” Stelle pointed at the cards shifting between his hands.

He shook his head, “I’m just thinking, doing something like this helps me clear my thoughts. Tell me, what does a Nameless like you do when you’re faced with a problem without a clear answer?”

“Depends on where I am.” Stelle answered, “usually just go for a walk to find something to hit. So you play with cards?”

“I think-”

“Oh brilliant, I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“Let me finish, Miss Stellaron.” He flipped the ace of hearts card towards her, landing it in her lap. “That’s you.”

“Huh?” She picked it up and scrutinized it. “Okay... what do you mean?”

“Depending on who you ask, cards in a deck can have different meanings. The ace of hearts represents love, family and new beginnings. I’ll assign a card to a different person, it helps me think through what I’ll do next.”

“So I’m the Ace of Hearts because I-”

“Value your crew and friends more than anyone else, I’m not wrong, am I?” He interrupted, “I give each suite of cards my own definition, hearts are those who are moral and upright, the kind that would hesitate at doing things considered untowards. Then the rank in the cards is how important the person is so to speak. Your entire crew fits into the suite of hearts.”

Stelle spun the card around her fingers, “why are you telling me this?”

“To make conversation, because we both have way too much on our minds to make sense of anything.” He flipped a series of cards onto the ground, the Ace of Spades, the King of Spades, The Queen of Clubs. “It’s a visual aid so to speak, it gives structure to my thoughts.”

“So.” She looked down at the cards, “let me guess, you're the King, Diamond is the Ace and... Topaz is the Club.”

“Wrong.” He smiled, “Diamond is the Ace of Diamonds, those in the corporation I don’t consider close allies fit there. I’m the Ace, the most important person in relation to me is well, me. The King is Ratio, and the Queen is Ruan Mei.”

She gave him a very pointed look, “you put Dr. Ratio in the same suite as you, instead of with Diamond.”

It was time for a little honesty, she’d been biting for it so he would throw her a bone to toss her off course. “How astutely observed of you.”

She crossed her arms, her brow slightly raised as she kept her eyes fixed on him.

“Fine, friend, you wanted the story.” He raised his hands to the side, “I’ll give you a part of it.”

“I’m listening.”

He grabbed the bottom of his seat, dragging it over ice so he was sitting right in front of her, knee to knee. She tilted her head to the side, the Ace of Hearts card still held between two fingers. He extended his left hand to her, a slight twinge of pain arching as he stretched his wrist out. She placed the card in his hand before settling back on her camping chair and crossing one leg over the other. He spun the card back into the deck before producing the Ace and King of Spades once more.

“Ratio is- was probably the only friend I had when I first started climbing the ranks of the IPC.” He started explaining while shifting the two cards between his hands, “our first meeting was pretty rough by all standards, I played a game of Russian roulette with him, not something he appreciated at the time.”

She wasn’t saying anything, just keeping those upsettingly golden eyes on him. There was something strange about them, like he was staring into the vastness of a star. They had been gray in the reflection, gray in the dream he had explored. The Stellaron had changed her.

“This was shortly after I was moved out of the Stratagems department to work more directly with Jade in Pier Point. We were both newcomers to the higher ranks of the IPC, with him joining the council of mundanites, I needed allies and he didn’t hold the same preconception as the others. It seemed an easy alliance at the time.” Aventurine said as he spun out the queen of spades card. “My only other ally was another stoneheart by the name of Jade. She was my mentor so to speak, and the one pushing me to become one of the Ten Stonehearts. Apart from the two of them... I had no one on my side.”

She still didn’t say anything, only slightly shifting her leg up and moving one of her hands off the arm of the chair.

“That’s to say, I valued his friendship and companionship greatly at the time. He was condescending, arrogant and prone to ignoring me when I displeased him but nonetheless. A friend was a friend.” Aventurine almost smiled at the memory of Ratio finding him after a particularly bad binge, his old friend had not been amused. “We were close, I started relying on him more and more. You’ve already guessed but my life is held within the palms of the IPC. Due in part to some misfortune and bad judgment, I’ve been convicted with a death sentence. My execution is moved back each year as long as I continue to follow the IPC’s wishes and live up to their expectations. Ratio knows this.”

That finally pulled a reaction out of her, a frown bloomed onto her face. She was upset for him, he would almost find it amusing were it not for the fact that it was also deeply embarrassing.

She has her own sentence hanging over her neck, he recalled what Kafka had said, and she has no idea. A part of him felt slightly cruel for withholding that from her but if it was something that could pull her away from the Stellaron Hunters if a conflict of interest ever occurred... He would keep it close to his chest.

“So what happened?” Her voice sounded small.

“He deceived me, went against my wishes.” He kept the details curt, cutting out anything that might pull sympathy in Ratio’s direction. “Informed the company about some of my side deals and earned me a punishment.”

He was only trying to help you, that cursed part of him whispered, you always hurt the ones who try and save you. He was no different.

“Side deal?”

“The details aren’t really important but well... I guess I had hoped he would be different for once.” He sighed, placing the cards back into the deck and removing each one belonging to the suite of hearts. He tucked the deck back into his pocket before grabbing her hand, turning it so her palm faced up and pressing the cards into it. “Help me out here, if you had to place the people close to you into a suite of cards, which ones would you pick.”

He watched as she hummed while looking through each card, “I guess that’s a bit difficult, there are a lot of people in my life I consider important but... above all would be the members of the Astral express.”

She laid out five cards on her lap, the Ace, the King, the Queen, the Jack and the Ten of Hearts. “If I’m the Ace, then March is the Queen and Dan Heng is the king... No, that’s no good, I can’t see Himeko as a Jack or a Ten. Then maybe Himeko is the King, Mr. Yang is the Queen.”

He watched as she let out a long sigh, “that’s not right either, maybe the problem is me. I’m not the Ace of the group, that’s Himeko. Which makes Mr. Yang the King, March the Queen, Dan Heng the Jack and me, the Ten.”

“You’ve put yourself at the lowest rung.” He pointed out.

She shrugged, “I’m just the newcomer, besides without me there wouldn't be a royal flush... Wait! I forgot the conductor. Does that mean Pom-Pom is the Ten, then what role do I-”

“Alright,” he stopped her, “see it’s useful, in a sense.”

“Your turn.” She pushed the cards towards him, “royal flush.”

“Can I use you?”

“You mean as part of your set, don’t you have someone else.”

“Were you listening?” He tilted his head as he swapped the suite in favor of the spades.

“Oh fine,” she huffed, “We’ve known each other long enough to be friends.”

He flipped out the cards belonging to the Royal Flush, “I’m the Ace, naturally. But things are different if I only have five cards to pick from. Jade would be the King, Ratio the Ten, Topaz the Queen and you... the Jack.”

He held all the cards in his hand, their faces turned towards Stelle. She leaned forward on her hands, her face coming up close to them.

“Do you disagree, Miss Stellaron.”

“No,” she shook her head, “I’m just surprised that someone like you who espoused the value of friends would have so little at your side.”

“Hah, I’ve just not had much luck you see. There are friends and then there are friends.” He slipped the cards back into the deck, “I'm very good at preserving my own life but when it comes to forming personal connections... well that’s just the way it is sometimes.”

“Well at least you have a few.” Stelle shrugged before standing up, “I’ve met some people who really had no one, that was pretty sad.”

“Did you pour your heart out and decided to help them?”

“Not always.” She answered as she summoned the lance into her hands, “some people just don’t want to be helped, no matter how much you want to.”

She walked towards the wall of the cavern the reflections had looked towards, raising the lance and sending a burst of sustained fire towards it. The ice faded quickly revealing an opulent door with jeweled handles that had been hidden from view.

Notes:

Can't believe one of the only times I'm out of the country in the last four years there's a total solar eclipse where I live (: I will get get over this in like a week but for now I'm scrolling through the pics my friends sent me with grief. In other news, more than 200 kudos! That's amazing, thank you to everyone whose taken time out of their day to read this :D

Chapter 8: Fading in as Children Play Twilight Games

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Stelle shielded her eyes as the bright lights from the chandeliers hanging above them blinded her, they were standing on a balcony above a huge room. There were a pair of stairs heading down at either side of them with a velvety red carpet adorning the floor. Stelle hung back as Aventurine surged forward and grabbed a hold of the railing to hang over the room. It was filled with people mingling around various upraised tables, a strong smell of perfume and tobacco filtering through the air. They were in some kind of Casino, Stelle could see rounds of cards being dealt and make out the sound of chips hitting tables and wheels rolling.

“Now this!” She heard Aventurine laugh, “this is a lot more like it.”

She removed her dreampass from her pocket, making note of the map that drew itself out in front of her once she opened it. They were back in proper Penacony, not just slipping in between the cracks like they had before. That also meant that she could most likely send out messages again. She scrolled through the ones she had missed while in the memory zone, a few scams she would deal with, a couple messages from Dr. Ratio asking where she was and one from Ruan Mei. To her relief there were a few messages from March dating back a couple hours to let her know that they were fine.

She sent out a quick message telling March that she was also fine and updating her about the situation with Stellaron when her attention was pulled by a young man with a shock of red hair wandering up the stairs.

“Mister Aventurine?” The young man asked, “So it is you, we were worried something might’ve happened when we couldn’t hear back from you.”

“Ah Gregory!” Aventurine greeted.

“Tom, sir.”

“Tom, right, are the investors from the Material logistics department here.” Aventurine spoke quickly as he flipped his phone into his hand. “I remember promising to play a few rounds with them.”

“I can find them sir, I believe they were somewhere here.” Tom replied, “Shall I tell Valerie to get your private room ready, you may want to freshen up.”

“Do I look that bad?” Aventurine chuckled, “yes, get me a fresh suit. And also something for the young miss here with me. Tell me Stelle, are you more of a dress or pantsuit sort of person?”

Stelle blinked, “I don’t know.” She hadn’t dressed up much since that one time she’d gone to a party planned by Herta’s space station to celebrate a large grant they had received. She’d borrowed one of Himeko’s dresses, a silky red dress with a slit along the side.

“A dress, something gold to match her eyes or black.” Aventurine instructed, “make sure it’s very flattering, Tom. She’ll be joining me on the floor.”

“Uh right away, sir.” He stumbled back down the stairs, walking normally before breaking into a full sprint when he reached the bottom.

“Are your employees scared of you or something?” She watched the red-head push his way through the crowd.

“Lots of nasty rumors about me,” Aventurine shrugged, “It can be helpful at times so I lean into it. But no, he’s been gunning for a promotion for quite some time.”

“Also, I don’t need a change of clothes. Go gamble, I’ll wait in the room.”

“Don’t be like that, friend.” Aventurine placed a hand on the small of her back and led her down the stairs. “I want to show you what I’m like when I'm in my element. Besides, don’t you want to save me from the big bad guys in the IPC. Most of Taravan’s employees are greedy pricks who take advantage of anything that moves and breathes.”

Stelle let him take her around the room, he swiftly pulled them out of the way of a waiter holding up a large tray of champagne glasses. His hand shifted to being around her waist, letting him lean close to her as though they were... Stelle shook her head lightly, not the time.

“I just don’t see why I can’t pretend to be your bodyguard or something instead of...” She shivered away from using the word arm candy, it sounded strange on her tongue.

“Hmm, that’s not allowed.” He smiled as he waved to a patron he seemed to know, “besides, you are stunning, Miss Stellaron. Aren’t I allowed to show off my dream partner?”

She felt herself blush despite herself, he had clearly decided to fall back on his old persona.

“Yeah, whatever...” She muttered as he led her through a curtained area and past doors with various names written in front of them. They stopped in front of the one with ‘Aventurine of the Stratagems’ written in front.

There was a woman with thickly framed glasses and a neat up-do waiting for them in the room. She was running a flint catcher over an identical copy of the suit Aventurine was wearing. The room had a cozy feeling to it, a large table was pressed against the wall with a mirror running along it. There was a couch on the opposite side and a rack filled with clothing next to it.

Stelle slumped down onto the couch as Aventurine swiped the suit and went to change in the small adjacent room. She ignored the fact that Valerie, as she remembered the woman being called, was looking her up and down curiously.

“Something the matter?” She asked finally as she set her phone back to the side.

“Nothing, sorry.” Valeria answered, “Mister Aventurine just so rarely brings back... companions with him.”

“We're just working together, nothing like that.”

“Of course,” she slightly bowed her head, “I apologize again.”

“That’s fine.” Stelle always felt awkward when people were overly polite to her, “have you worked for Aventurine long?”

“Just over three months.” She answered, “Mister Aventurine’s staff tends to change a lot.”

“Oh, is it-” Stelle was interrupted by the sound of Aventurine exiting the small room with an added pep in his step.

“Valerie,” he had donned his sunglasses, “can you go check on what Tom is doing? I sent him to find a dress.”

Valerie exited the room quietly, Stelle leaned her head back against the couch as Aventurine seemed to be fussing with his appearance in the mirror. He removed a small perfume bottle from his pocket and sprayed his neck.

“Does the IPC have a high turnover rate?” She asked as her boredom got the better of her.

“Not really, why’d you ask?”

“Just something Valerie said.”

“Ah, that.” Aventurine flipped one of the chairs around to face her, “the higher ups don’t like keeping my staff regular in case any of them get too close to me so to speak. I am still technically property so...”

“Oh that’s-”

“A bit annoying.” He didn’t let her finish, “honestly, I gave up on memorizing all their names years ago.”

“How old are you anyway?” She asked as Aventurine adjusted his glove and slipped a few golden rings back onto his hand.

“About twenty-four,” He answered.

It was a few years younger than she had expected, Stelle had simply assumed he had the kind of face that always looked young.

“Tell me,” He said, “do you know how old you are?”

She lifted her head to look at him, “Herta measured it, approximately twenty-one though that was about a half-a-year ago so it’s probably changed. Were you very young when you started working for the IPC?”

“I was sixteen.” He answered with a sigh, “hah, time sure flies by, doesn’t it.”

“I didn’t know the IPC hired so young.”

He shrugged, “they’ve hired younger, the corporation doesn’t really care so long as you have your uses.”

The door opened and Tom wandered back carrying two dresses over his arm. One of them was a silky golden dress with thin straps, the other was made of a thicker black fabric and ended in a turtleneck with the shoulders left bare. Aventurine had Tom lay out the two dresses in front of each chair as he spent time alternating between the two.

She wasn't sure why he put so much time into it but she passed the time scrolling through her various gossip feeds. They still weren’t capturing anything from outside the dreamscape so she was mostly reading over stuff she had missed. Some rumors about Herta’s whereabouts had exploded on the ‘Herta's greatest fans’ group chat. Apparently one of them had grabbed a pic of the genius in the hotel lobby. Stelle decided to fan the flames a bit and texted that she’d run into Ruan Mei in the dreamscape who had confirmed Herta’s presence. She’d be sure to get some reactions once messages were working once more.

“Stelle.” Aventurine called her attention, she slid off the sofa and walked up to him. “The gold one I think, go try it on.”

She did as he said, shuffling into the small changing room and leaving her clothes in a pile near the floor as she shucked the dress on. It did look nice on her, the color matched her eyes nicely and the cut was flattering on her. It was showing a lot more skin then she was used to, exposing the star-like scar that started at her chest and carved up to her shoulders in golden tendrils.

Stelle felt slightly embarrassed as she walked back out the changing room. Aventurine was looking through a box of jewelry, when he saw her, a smile bloomed on his face.

“Hah see,” he whistled slightly, “I was right, don’t you think it suits her, Tom?”

Tom nodded furtively, “very much Sir.”

“Well, it’s perfect.” Aventurine clapped his hands once, “you’re dismissed for the day and you can tell Valerie that too. Go enjoy what Penacony has to offer.”

The young man left with a quick nod of his head, seeming almost relieved to be left off the hook.

“Can we go?” Stelle asked as Aventurine removed a matching set of earring with green stones hanging off of them before seemingly noticing her ears were not pierced and tossing them back in.

“That scar is impressive,” he said as he removed a golden bracer with a set of emeralds embedded in it. “A side effect of the Stellaron?”

She nodded, her hand instinctively going to it. “Nanook’s fault, his gaze ignited the Stellaron so to speak. Pretty sure I’d be toast if not for Mr. Yang’s intervention. Why do I have to change but you get to wear the same old suit.”

“This is premium tailoring.” He laughed as he grabbed her arm and slipped the bracer onto it. “It was also created with the intention of making easy spots for the cornerstones to hang on to.”

She hung back as he fixed his suit one more time before looping his arm through hers and pulling them back out of the dressing room. They pushed their way through the crowds of people, there was a palpable energy in the room. People crowded around lower tables, shouting pieces of advice as chips were piled onto tables. The higher stake games were played atop raised stages with large curtains dressed from a dais above them.

Aventurine led them to a larger stage near the center of the room, there was a buzzing crowd around it as various people presented their dreampasses to the game master and stepped inside.

What drew Stelle’s gaze was what was not meant to be there. A young woman with silver hair, she was wearing a short white and purple dress with an elegant fur mantle wrapped around her. Robin, with rosy cheeks and wings swaying slowly around her head. An impossible sight considering the last time Stelle had seen her she had been splayed out in a dreampool with a large gash across her chest.

Stelle stopped in her tracks, staring listlessly at the singer before Aventurine’s arm went around her lower back and pushed her towards Robin.

“Well, well.” Aventurine smiled as his arm tightened around her, Stelle felt herself drawing back on instinct, pushing up against his chest in an attempt to get further from the young woman. Something felt off, it made her skin squirm. “If it isn’t the charming Miss Robin, to what do we owe the pleasure.”

“Mister Aventurine,” Robin smiled, her voice was smooth, “I was told you were the one to speak to if I wanted into the game.”

“You’re here to play poker with us!” Aventurine sounded surprised, “If I’d known you were a fellow fan of the game, I would’ve tried to get to know you sooner.”

“Not a fan yet, just something I’ve always wanted to try.”

“This is a high stakes game, Miss Robin. Not the best place for a beginner.”

“I can afford it.” The singer smiled and Stelle felt a slight shiver down her spine as Robin’s gaze fell on her, “Miss Stelle, are you alright, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Uh-” Stelle started before Aventurine cut in, “she’s just a bit tired, we’ve both had long days. Well, come on, I’ll let you into the game provided you can buy in.”

The dealer didn’t check Aventurine’s identity, simply bowing her head before accepting a transfer from Robin. A collection of five velvet seats had been set up around a round table with a nook on one side. A sixth chair was added as Stelle took in the other people already sitting in place. There was a taller woman with a long green braid and coy smile on her face, a young woman with a short pixie cut and low-cut dress hung to her arm. Two older men with identical faces, low browed and thick-jawed, were sitting opposite from one another. The last man towered over the rest, with barrel-like arms and a handlebar mustache.

“Aventurine,” the woman greeted with a smile, “we can always count on you to bring us a surprise. The biggest star in the galaxy sitting at our table, what an honor.”

“You flatter me,” Robin smiled shyly as she sat across from where they were standing, “I’m grateful to you all for indulging an inexperienced player such as myself.”

“This is a difficult table to start at,” the man with the mustache said, “let us be kind to Miss Robin. I am Giorno, head of the senior management team of the lower echelon of the building material logistics department. The woman next to me who forgot to introduce herself is Clarafina, my supervisor.”

“Oh I was getting to that,” Clarafina laughed as she waved her hands towards the twins, “Milan and Sylas, the twins, as we call them, are some of our head engineers in the department and poker enthusiasts. And the beautiful woman at my side is Angelie, a member of the Iris family.”

“An honor to meet you all.” Angelie smiled, “I’m just here to watch so don’t mind me.”

The twins nodded as Aventurine laughed, “wonderful, do I need to introduce myself?”

“Oh we all know who you are, Mister Aventurine.” Giorno said, “though your companion is unknown to us.”

“How could I forget,” Aventurine sat on the free seat across from Robin, indicating that Stelle should join him. “This is Miss Stelle from the Astral Express, an esteemed adventurer and newer member of the Nameless.”

“The Express, how exciting.” Clarafina nodded, “I had heard they were here. Shall we pull up an additional chair so Miss Stelle can play.”

“I’m afraid I’m only here to watch like Miss Angelie.” Stelle answered before Aventurine could, taking a seat next to him and crossing her legs. “The buy-in is vastly above my paygrade.”

The dealer went over the basic rules for the table, they’d be playing a classic game of poker with no extra cards or rules. Stelle started tuning it out when she started detailing the nitty-gritty details and orders of play. Her eyes scanned the ceiling above, there was a small hovering eye that floated from one person to the next. Was the game being recorded, Stelle wondered as the dealer started handing out the cards for the first round.

They went through rounds quickly, a new deck being continuously shuffled as the round was played. Stelle found herself drawn in despite her separation from the game, watching as bets were raised and battles won. Aventurine was good. More than good it was like he could always tell when someone was bluffing. He knew when to throw it all in and when to show some restraint. She saw him make calls she never would’ve in a million years and win them anyway.

He was clearly having fun, his posture was relaxed as he kept an eye on the game while making conversation with the others at the table. His tone was light and teasing, he was in his element and the others knew it.

Robin was betting like she had no limit, continuously raising the stakes until the dealer reminded her of the upper limit of the bets. She had an almost giddy look on her face as she called one of the other players bluffs and raised the bet for the round forcing one of the twins to quit. She and Aventurine were dancing around each other, backing off when the other pushed too hard as though they were avoiding a direct toss-up.

Stelle stole a champagne flute as a server walked behind her to bring an entrée to Giorno. It was an alcoholic version of Soulglad, she sipped it lightly as Aventurine carefully considered his cards next to her. From the angle where she was sitting, she could only look at his card, the room had no doubt been set up to prevent cheating. Even if she could grab a glance of the nearby cards, she doubted Aventurine would want to know. He seemed to delight in trouncing his opponents with only his own skill to show for.

The Soulglad made her face feel hot and her head buzz slightly. She leaned to the side, resting her head on Aventurine’s shoulder and wrapping her arms around his. It was probably a bit bold but considering the assumptions the others at the table seemed to hold about them it wouldn’t draw any questions.

“Bored?” He asked as he shifted his cards to hold them in one hand and intertwine their fingers with his free hand.

She shook her head, “what’s up with Robin? I mean, that’s not her, right?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Aventurine chuckled, “but you already have a clue, don’t you.”

The dealer revealed the next card, and Aventurine let out a victorious whistle, he had a full house. Stelle chewed on the side of her cheek as she thought. Her mind was pulled back to before everything seemed to start going so wrong. When they’d run into Sampo back when she was simply running through the dreamscape with a pretty girl. He had been acting strangely to say the least. Not using his full name to introduce himself, mistaking Firefly for March. And then there had been that whole moment with the memory zone, he had been the one to send them there.

The more she considered it, the less it made sense. Sampo was from Belobog and as far as she knew no one had made it off-world apart from occasional visits to the express. So for him to show up unannounced in Penacony of all places which was known for its expensive rooms and exclusivity. It seemed impossible. And in that moment, before being sent to the Memory zone, she could’ve sworn she had seen someone else in Sampo’s place. A short woman with a grin on her face and a sickly sweet voice.

“There’s someone on Penacony who can change their appearance.” She huffed as Aventurine tossed a few chips onto the table.

“So you haven’t met her officially? Interesting, I would've thought she would’ve introduced herself.”

“So you do know who it is?” Stelle nudged his side, “stop messing around and tell me.”

“Ever heard of the Masked fools?”

“Sure.”

“There’s a young woman amongst them called Sparkle,” Aventurine picked up the cards the dealer placed in front of him. “She’s got the unique ability to turn into anyone she’s met once. It seems that Mister Sunday has asked her to imitate his sister to cover up for her disappearance.”

“That’s so-” Stelle wasn’t sure how to phrase it, “ugh, it’s just weird. Why would she agree to that plan anyways, I thought the Masked fools liked creating chaos.”

“Maybe she just likes the attention of being the world's biggest pop star.”

“Are you two conferring amongst yourselves?” One of the twins, Stelle had no clue which, spoke up. “Mister Aventurine should focus on the game, not spending his time flirting.”

“Aren’t you serious?” Aventurine chuckled, “sorry for making it feel like I wasn't giving you all of my attention. But maybe, you should try posing more of a challenge.”

“And the sh*t talking starts!” Giorno laughed, “don’t tell me we are boring you, Aventurine? Though If I had such a pretty lady at my side, I doubt I’d be able to focus on anything else either.”

“I think you should focus on your game and not my companion, Giorno.” Aventurine warned, “I’m not the sharing type and besides, she’s much too young for you.”

There was a flash of annoyance in Giorno’s eyes as one of his fists tightened. Stelle raised her head off of his shoulder, looking towards Robin who was watching the whole interaction with an unsettling smile. She let go of Aventurine’s hand, wrapping her arms around his arm instead and shifting her legs onto the sofa so she was half-leaning against him. Better for these people to think of her as some clueless girl than anyone who could actually pose a threat. There was something uneasy about all of them, a cold appraisal behind their eyes that never left Aventurine.

“If Mister Aventurine is getting bored.” Robin stood up, “might I suggest we raise the stakes even more.”

“Oh?” Aventurine huffed with a grin, “and how do you propose we do that, Miss Robin.”

“Let’s bet with something that has a little more worth to you, gambler.”

With that, Robin reached into her purse and deposited three aventurine cornerstones onto the table.

///|||\\\

Aventurine still remembered the first time he had picked up a pair of dice to play a game. The stakes hadn’t been very high, a few pieces of cheap candy and an eraser but something about the moment had been electric. He had won, he could still feel that tantalizing moment when the dice hit the dusty ground and spun a few times. A single moment that would decide his fate, it had seemed to hang in the air. Gambling on Signonia was frequent, people gathered around tents in the various settlements nestled deep in the desert to play card games, dice and other games of chance. Everyone dreamed of making it big, he had been no exception.

He had learned quickly that he liked games that set him against others, the kind that required layers upon layers of bluffing and lies. Lying on Signonia was impossible, people would catch you before the words had left your mouth. He had mastered controlling his emotions in the eyes of his people, appearing ecstatic when he had a terrible hand and dejected when he knew he was going to win. The Avgin had the best eye in the universe, to get past them you needed absolute control.

When he’d finally reached the bigger tables where the stakes were your life or your entire fortune, all the time spent watching the adults crouched over low light candles, tossing dice and cursing at each other had paid off.

The stones stumbled onto the table, hitting a pile of chips and landing in the center. He could feel them singing to him, calling to be claimed and wielded. Sparkles face was one of fanatical enthusiasm, she twisted Robins featured awkwardly giving rise to something that should not appear on the singer's face. Whether Sunday had given her the cornerstone or she had stolen them, it didn’t matter. Now, he had a reason to play seriously.

Stelle surged forward, her legs kicking off the sofa and arm reaching forward. He caught her around the waist, pulling her back into him and interlocking his hands to trap her. She turned in his arms, a questioning look in her eyes as one of her hands lifted to toy with his fur collar.

“Those stones are nice, aren’t they?” He spoke loud enough for the others to hear, “shall I win them for you?”

“What are you doing?” She whispered, “I’ll just take them and run. These guys can’t keep up with me.”

“Have some faith in me, Miss Stellaron.” He said in a hushed tone before raising his voice. “An interesting set of items indeed, Miss Robin. I won’t ask you where you got them but I do accept the bet. Let’s all follow her lead.”

“Are those cornerstones?” One of the engineers blinked while Clarafina removed a pearl earring, tossed it onto the table and said with a laugh, “I do wonder what you will do to get them back if I win, Aventurine. To think you would misplace something so important.”

“More like it was seized by the Family’s watchful Bloodhound family.” He didn’t let any of it bother him, the sharks had smelt blood and circled in. He focused on trying to get a better read on Sparkle, she was the important one here. Her face was ever shifting in the slightest way, not enough for anyone but him to notice but enough to throw him off. “I wasn’t aware Penacony was so careless with their guests' things.”

“Oh.” Sparkle's face was one of mock surprises. “Do these belong to you? My brother gave them to me as a gift. He promised they would draw in the most interesting people. And he was right I think, I now have yours and Stelle undivided attention, don’t I?”

Giorno dropped a silver watch onto the table, “all of our attention, I would say. Tell me, Aventurine, can we use the cornerstones ourselves.”

There was a way for someone not linked to Diamond to use a cornerstone but he wasn’t about to reveal that tidbit. “They're only useful to me, I’m afraid.”

“Still, a favor from a stoneheart is valuable in itself.” One of the twins said as he placed two diamond cufflinks onto the table. “Especially one such as Aventurine who is so desperate at heart.”

“Stelle.” He let his free hand fall onto her hip as he lifted the wrist with a gem studded bracelet towards her. “Help me out, would you?”

She unclasped the bracelet, walking over to the gambling table and raising it so everyone could see before dropping the item. She walked back to him, crossing her legs as he threw an arm over her shoulder. Sparkle was watching the two of them very curiously, from what he could decipher she didn’t know what to make of them. Good.

The second twin made his opening bet, a model ship made of pure silver and encrusted with rubies, and the dealer declared the start of the next round. An Ace of Clubs was burned and cards were distributed. Aventurine smiled as a Queen and Nine of Spades landed in his hands. It wasn’t the best hand but he could still hope for a straight flush or four of a kind if he was very lucky. Stelle was keeping her eye on Sparkle, one hand tapping on her knee and the other intertwined with the tassel on his suit.

The dealer revealed three cards, a Jack of Spades and Hearts as well as a Seven of Clubs. The round was started by Robin who bet ten chips, Clairafina added the same amount before Giorno raised it by five chips.

He could tell immediately that both Giorno and one of the twins were very pleased with their hand while Clarafina was clearly hoping things would turn around for her. He was running at a disadvantage, everyone at the table probably understood how much the cornerstones meant to him despite the fact that he tried to downplay it. This all meant that the next round was about to get very expensive for him. His best hope was to try and scare them off by betting very highly.

The others matched the bet as the round got to his turn, he leaned into Stelle’s ear. “Add twenty-two chips for me.”

Stelle did as he said, grabbing another glass of Soulglad as she settled back into her place.

One of the twins folded while the others matched his bet, the dealer revealed the next card. It was a Seven of Spades, he kept his face still as he watched Giorno curse to himself openly. Sparkled raised the bet by ten chips for the next round, doing a slight spin as she dropped each chip on top of the other. Clarafina matched the bet and Giorno folded as Aventurine thought he would. The remaining twin raised the bet by two chips.

Aventurine had Stelle raise the bet by ten chips as he watched Sparkle’s face closely. She was still inscrutable, when their eyes met she grinned and let out a chuckle.

“Something wrong?” Stelle asked as she settled back by his side.

“I can’t figure our fool friend out.” He whispered back, “I can usually tell if someone has a good hand but she’s a bit...”

“I can walk around and take a look if you’d like.” Stelle shrugged.

“That’s hardly allowed, Miss Stellaron.” He chuckled, “do you want to start a fight or worse get us disqualified.”

“I don’t even see why you’re indulging this.” She answered as she gave her empty glass of Soulglad back to one of the passing waiters. “We can just grab the cornerstones and leave, I don’t think these people are strong enough to stop us.”

"I wouldn’t underestimate Sparkle.” He answered as the dealer burnt a Two of Spades and revealed the last card, a Six of Spades. “I think I just won.”

He watched as the last twin stomped his fist in anger while a look of dismay bloomed on Clarafina’s face. Sparkle remained unchanged, her cards held neatly in one hand as she started the last round of betting with five chips. Clarafina folded with a sigh and Aventurine matched the bet. The last twin did the same as Clarafina, grumbling about a missed chance at the same time.

He felt his heartbeat rise as the Dealer confirmed that Sparkle would reveal her cards first, followed by him and that it would be the final round in the game.

“Well, I think I have this one.” Sparkle smiled, jumping to her feet with a spin and raising the hand carrying the cards high above her head. “It was a nice game though little peaco*ck, thank you for indulging me.”

“Just show us your cards, Miss Robin.” Aventurine clicked his teeth, “we are busy people.”

His high crashed and burnt as Sparkle flipped her cards onto the table revealing the two missing Jacks. He felt Stelle stiffen next to him, as he took in the winning hand.

Four of a kind, he dragged his hand over his face with a laugh, of all days for my luck to run out.

He didn’t wait for the dealer, tossing his hand onto the table with a sigh.

“A flush.” Sparkled shrieked discordantly, “you were so close.”

Aventurine ignored her, his attention drawn to Giorno who was suddenly looking over to the side with a guilty look. He felt ashamed of something, his gaze alternating between Sparkle and the cornerstones on the table.

Or maybe, Aventurine, considered as the Dealer had the bets pooled and handed off to be added to Robin’s account. Luck wasn’t the issue at all.

Sparkle scooped the cornerstone and his bracelet, snapping the latter onto her wrist and sighing as she looked at it. He felt a flash of annoyance as the rest of the players started standing to confer with each other and address the crowd that had been drawn on the outskirts of the curtains. Stelle pushed off of him, walking over to where Giorno was to seemingly make conversation. Aventurine was going to follow her to tell her they should leave and find a way to follow Sparkle when Clarafina stopped him.

“Does Diamond know you misplaced the cornerstones?” The older woman asked with a grin, “it seems like a major oversight.”

“Hah, these things happen.” He answered, “it hasn’t changed anything. I still have most of them.”

“It hasn’t?” Clarafina tilted her head, “I wonder. When they told me you were the one assigned to this project I got worried. I honestly thought it was a mistake to assign something as precarious as Penacony to someone like you.”

“And why would that be?”

“Because you’re desperate, Aventurine.”

He clenched his teeth, “desperate. Do you think I would’ve spent a few precious moments indulging you if I was desperate. Do you think I would have the time? You’d do well not to underestimate me.”

“I don’t mean offense, but everyone knows you have a guillotine hanging over your head.” Clairafina sighed, toying with her braid. “The threat of death makes people irrational. I would’ve preferred if Opal had been assigned to this job.”

“Then you should bring it up with Diamond.”

“I did.”

“Then what is the point of this conversation? Trying to remind me of something I know better than anyone, Clarafina. I’ll remind you that I’ve never failed in delivering a project, no matter how complicated.”

“Nothing, your friend was interesting.” The older woman shrugged, “it almost seemed like she liked you. Though she seems to have decided to leave without you after all.”

“What do you-” He quickly looked over her shoulder and around the stage to realize that Stelle was nowhere to be found. Robin was also gone which meant... Stelle had gone after her.

Notes:

Did not realize how fitting this chapter was for Aventurine's release. In good news, I did win the 50/50 so I still have plenty of pulls for next patch!

Also a note for the cornerstones, when I started writing this the only information I had on them was what we had in game (2.0 version) and a few leaks. So I based myself on that to decide how they worked. Ratio mentioned that Aventurine had lost many cornerstones which I assumed at the time meant that each stoneheart had more than one. Then there was a leak that said they had too be crushed to be used (which was just because Aventurine happened to crush his...) So I thought that cornerstone were like consumable items... Now the way they work in this story is that the more cornerstones on hand, the more power one can draw from Diamond. If the user choose to destroy one, they can get a bit of a boost (i.e Boss Aventurine). This is not canon but it is how they work here.

See you in the next one and good luck on your pulls :D

Chapter 9: To Recognize I Had a Voice

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Aventurine bumped into a server as he turned a corner sharply, sending a tray of Soulglad glasses shattering to the ground, he muttered an apology under his breath and kept running. Stelle had made her way into the V.I.P lounge of the casino, an area cordoned off from the general public. He could picture her stern face in his mind as she no doubt either bullied or bull-rushed her way past security. Removing his pass as he approached the entrance, he went to throw it in the guard's face and continue on before she stepped in front of him.

“Family business.” The woman wearing a set of dark sunglasses spoke sternly, “no guest past this point for the next hour.”

“I know, I’m here for that business.” He bluffed as he tried to look past her shoulder to the corridor leading to the lounge.

“No, you’re not.” The woman scoffed, “I’m going to have to ask you to clear out.”

“You want to tell Mr. Sunday that you turned away one of his valued guests.”

“You don’t-”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” he snapped, there was no time for this. “Do you want to hedge your bet on being wrong? Let me through and I won’t say anything either way and I’ll add in a little extra for you, what do you say?.”

“I-” She frowned, crossing her arms for a moment. Aventurine took advantage of her hesitation to force his way past her shoulder and make a sprint down the corridor. He heard a shout from behind him but she didn’t make any efforts to follow to his relief.

Slamming the lounge doors open with his shoulder with the intent on drawing the attention of anyone who was within him. He took in the scene as quickly as he could. Sunday was there, standing in the middle with his arms crossed and a displeased expression on his face. Sparkle, still disguised as Robin, was leaning against a side table with a grin on her face. Stelle had her back to him, her fists clenched to her side and head raised high.

“Mr. Sunday,” Aventurine spoke loudly as Sunday’s golden eyes met his. He had the look of a man who had gone through hell in the last few days. The gentle light that had been in his gaze when they’d first met had been replaced by a harshness. “What a relief it is to find you. I wanted to apologize for how rude my partner and I were last time we met. I didn’t mean for things to get so out of hand.”

“Did you?” Sunday’s head ticked to the side, his expression unmovable. “My dear sister tells me you played a nice game and she won. Yet you sent Miss Stelle to steal what was rightfully hers.”

He looked down and noticed that Stelle was clutching his bracelet in her hand, she still hadn’t turned to look at him.

“Stelle was just trying to do me a good turn, she misunderstood me. I would never dream of stealing from the Family.” Aventurine took a careful step forward, “but really, Mr. Sunday, let’s not dance around the truth here.”

“Hah, whatever could you be talking about.” Sunday chuckled coldly, “the truth within Penacony is what I and the rest of the Family decide it is. This is the way it has always been. You have displeased me greatly, gambler.”

“I can understand that.” He took another step forward, stopping next to Stelle. “No one likes people snooping through their things, least of all me.”

There was an arrow pointed at Stelle’s throat, a ray of golden energy spurred off of it as he felt the sharp edge kiss his skin. She shot him a slightly panicked yet all at once calm look, it would explain her sudden stiffness.

“You can’t expect anyone to have a conversation like this, Mr. Sunday.” He gestured towards Stelle as he spoke, “why don’t you lower the arrow and we can talk.”

“I wonder who you’re more concerned for?” Sunday ignored him, “her or you. You strike me as someone with a strong sense of self-preservation.”

Aventurine almost laughed in his face, he was still unsure how people got that one so wrong, so often.

“Listen, Mr. Sunday, if you don’t want to lower the arrow, that’s fine. Anything that makes you feel more secure.” He said, “but since it comes down the same, why don’t you put it on me instead.”

“Trying to take advantage of the moment?”

“Not at all, like I said I want to talk.” Aventurine raised his arms to the side, “but this is hardly fair to Stelle. I’m the one who got her into this mess. So put the arrow on me.”

“And you Little Star,” Sunday ignored him, “I gave you a chance and still you crawl back to this swindler's side. I am not with infinite patience.”

“That was not a chance, that-” Stelle snapped before withdrawing as the arrow snipped at her throat. Aventurine felt a slight bite of pain as blood bloomed at her throat.

“Sunday!” He shouted, “put the arrow on me!”

“So aggressive.” Sunday snapped his finger and the arrow shifted and landed against his heart. “Is this how you convince your clients?”

Aventurine watched as Stelle’s posture relaxed and her concerned gaze shifted towards him instantly.

“Only when I need to show them how I play the game.” The arrow had a strange weight to it, he could feel it pressing against his chest. “You should understand, Mr. Sunday, I am always willing to put it all on the table.”

“I see.” Sunday said, “would you agree with that assessment, Robin?”

“I think so, brother.” Sparkle answered as Aventurine said, “I think we all need to face the music here. That is not your sister.”

“Do not sadden me, Aventurine.” Sunday’s voice took on a cold edge, “Robin spent some of her precious time with you and now you send accusations her way.”

He’s lost it, Aventurine considered as he looked back towards Stelle, there’s no use conversing with him, we need to leave.

“We must deal with the two of you accordingly.” Sunday hummed before he started speaking strangely, “I have need of the girl so she shall be spared but him... Yes, the Watchmaker is right. We must eliminate any obstacles in our progress towards unity.”

Friend,” Aventurine tried to pull Sunday’s attention back to him, “you’re speaking dangerously. The last thing the IPC wants is for things to go poorly on Penacony, we don’t need to be on opposing sides here. Something is wrong with this place and you need to stop this before more people get hurt. Harming me will only give the IPC the excuse it needs to act.”

“This is a dream, people do not get hurt in dreams unless it is our wish.” Sunday raised his hands, tilting his head back. “And it is our wish, gambler, that you do not see the light of the sun again. An execution, divine judgment shall be rendered.”

He felt a spark of familiar fear roll through his heart, the press of the arrow becoming more poignant. His vision spun slightly as the pressure against his chest accentuated, he didn’t dare look down. Keeping his gaze firmly on Sunday’s cold appraisal, he clenched a fist to force blood back to his head.

“Kill him,” that was Stelle’s voice, wasn’t it? “And I die too.”

“That can be remedied, Little Star.” Sunday’s voice took on a fake cheer, “you do not need to worry about being embroiled in his sins.”

“No.” She spoke sternly, “we’re a package deal, kill him and I’ll- I’ll ignite the Stellaron in my chest.”

“Don’t start speaking foolishly,” Sunday chided, “what is this man to you but someone who has tried to use and deceive you from the start.”

“As far as I see you’re trying to do the same, at least Aventurine is honest. And besides, I don’t care, I got into this mess with him and I’ll be leaving it with him too. But please, try me, see how serious I am.”

“Seriously?!” Sparkle laughed, causing Sunday’s brow to twitch slightly. “Seriously, seriously, you’ve known this guy for so little time and you’re going to die for him. Now that’s hilarious, really, listen to yourself.”

“Enough, sister.” Sunday said harshly, “let us not speak out of turn. Little Star, do not be irrational.”

“I think we’re all several steps ahead of where this conversation needs to be.” Aventurine found his voice again, “Sunday, there’s a Stellaron on Penacony. We have the means to seal it, if we cooperate we can make this whole mess go away. Then we can go back to meetings and talk things out like regular people, no more idle threats.”

Yes, a Stellaron that you brought.” Sunday turned his gaze back onto him, it felt like the heat of a thousand suns. “Or am I wrong? Was it not your partner who gave it to Misha?”

Misha? He pondered before continuing, “I had nothing to do with that decision. It was a mistake, let me make it right.”

“Hmm, no, no, you are done.” Sunday shook his head, “it has been decreed, their sword has been sharpened and a head must be bowed before them. It must be you and if it is not you then it must be the Little Star.”

“No.” Aventurine spoke quickly, unusual panic filling his throat. “Listen, leave her out of this. Didn’t you hear me, I dragged her into this mess so...”

He took a breath, he was letting events from the past confuse him. I need to focus, nothing has changed.

“I have no way to convince you, that much is clear.” He said as he raised his hands up in surrender. Time to edge at least a bit of truth out of him. “But this I say earnestly, we are not to blame for the misfortune that has befallen Penacony and your sister. And if you keep concealing it, more people are going to get hurt. You have the legacy, don’t you? You need to let people leave.”

“Hahaha,” Sunday chuckled with a shake of his head, “no, I don’t have it. If I did, this conversation would not be happening. But it is in good hands, far from your reach.”

“Then who does?” Stelle jumped in, “how can you just-”

“Someone I will introduce you to, Little Star.” Sunday cut her off, “provided you make your choice.”

“That’s right.” Sparkle sang, “pick, pick, pick. You or him, her or you. We let one of you leave this room, the other gets to meet the Harmony early.”

“Sister, I told you not to interject-”

“You’re making this so boring Sunday,” Sparkle sighed, her face twisting awkwardly, “I mean torment them a bit more, twist their feelings, make them fall in love with each other. You can do that, can’t you? It’ll make the moment truly hit.”

“An inelegant method.” Sunday clicked his teeth, “the Little Star will make the right choice.”

“Or better yet, make them both fall in love with you. Wouldn’t it be funny if they just followed us around like blind fools.” Sparkle giggled, “they say you’ll do anything for love.”

“Enough, this is a serious matter.”

“Nothing in life is serious.”

A cracking sound rang out through the room as glass hands tore through the air.

Stelle reacted quicker than he did, summoning her bat and bringing it up into an arc to slam down onto the arrow. There was a spark of light as it collided with the arrow, she struggled for a moment as Aventurine stepped away its trajectory. Just as he did, the arrow gave in smashing into the ground and dissipating.

He noticed Sunday raising his hand towards them, a glow emerging from his palm. Not thinking twice, he leaped towards the side, grabbing Stelle around the waist and pushing them both into the portal.

He ate a mouthful of snow as they collided with an icy terrain, wind wiping at their backs as he heard glass shattering in on itself. Pushing himself off Stelle, who was still holding her bat limply in her hand, he wiped snow off his face.

Black Swan was floating ahead, her feet just barely touching the snow as she regarded them with a soft smile.

“You’re very good at timely rescues.” He remarked as he stood to face her, “that’s the second time you’ve saved us.”

“You noticed it, did you not?” Black Swan said.

“Yeah, I did.”

“Noticed what?” Stelle asked as she wrapped her hands around her arms and shivered.

“Our friend, Sunday, is an emanator.”

“Ugh,” Stelle groaned, “not another one, how can you even tell?”

“I just can, let me keep some of my secrets, friend.” He turned back to Black Swan, “he’s also completely lost it, but we got one thing out of the interaction. Sunday definitely isn’t the one with the Legacy.”

“Oh,” Black Swan said, “that’s surprising.”

“Guess this means that the Family’s officially lost control.”

“I don’t know If I’d say that.” Stelle used her bat to push herself to her feet. “Pretty sure Sunday said they were working together.”

“Or,” Black Swan cut in, “someone is using the Legacy to control him, this is an ability it has. It could be twisting his perspective to see something else.”

“Oh wait, March and Himeko!” Stelle exclaimed, “are they alright?”

Black Swan nodded, “I checked in on them just an hour ago. They had a bit of a run in with your Stellaron Hunter friend, the silver-haired one.”

“Silver Wolf?”

“I am unsure how that girl managed to make it into the dreamscape without the use of a dreampool. But such is the ability of a reality hacker.” Black Swan summoned a flurry of cards, laying them in front of both of them. “I was able to confirm that their objective is to retrieve you, Stelle, and remove you from the Dreamscape.”

A card showing a silver-haired girl holding up a pistol and a familiar automaton standing at her back flitted in front of him.

“I have been busy chasing spare threads.” Black Swan said, “namely, the matter of Miss Acheron and her identity. I was able to ascertain that Mister Aventurine was correct in his assessment of her being an Emanator.”

“Of course I was,” he rolled his eyes slightly, “did you manage to find out of who?”

“I am hesitating between two paths, they push and pull evenly.”

“The Hunt?” He guessed.

“No,” she shook her head, “Either the Finality or the Nihility.”

The second one was unexpected, very little was understood about IX. An Aeon that didn’t mean to become an Aeon. Its very nature meant very few people looked into the sleepy galaxy.

“I was also able to ascertain that her intentions pertain to Miss Stelle as well. Though it is unclear to me if they are good or bad. This also tethers back and forth.”

“She can join the line.” Stelle said dryly.

“Not used to being so popular.” He asked.

“Not really,” she shrugged, “I just don’t get why I’m getting all this attention now of all times.”

“You should probably cast your blame upon Miss Herta and her associates.” Black Swan answered.

“Huh, why?”

“They recently published a paper about your true nature. It was only meant to circulate in the upper echelons of the Genius society but it was leaked into the hands of a few in the intelligentsia guild and as such has been passed around quite a lot.” Black Swan explained as she flicked a card showing a circle of people standing around in a hushed conference. “You were not explicitly named, it was only stated that you moved amongst the crew of the Astral Express. Unfortunately, I do believe it is obvious who the paper refers to upon meeting you.”

“Huh.” Aventurine hummed, “If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say Ratio was the one who leaked it. He’s never been one for hiding knowledge.”

“That would be my conclusion as well.”

“Great.” Stelle grumbled, “just what I needed right now. Guess it explains why Sunday suddenly knows. Still... Can you tell if anything is, I don't know, wrong with him? He’s just acting so unpredictably. You said the Legacy could do that?”

“Only a speculation, Miss Stelle.” Black swan twirled her finger and showed off a card with a familiar purple haired woman wielding a large katana. “My primary concerns are somewhere else right now. I would like to bring the subject of Acheron back to the table, I do not believe that we need be foes. I propose that we reach out and offer a partnership.”

“You just said you don't know what her intentions are? Isn’t that a bit risky.” Stelle protested, “We’ve got enough on our hands as is.”

“Having an emanator on our side would greatly turn the tables in our favor though.” Aventurine considered, “are you certain there is a chance she can be convinced?”

“Nothing is certain, Mister Aventurine.” Black Swan smiled, “But I believe that I will find decent fortune in trying. You do not need to worry, I will ensure she poses no threat to Miss Stelle before bringing her along.”

“Then I approve.” He nodded, that was good enough for him, they could always use more chips.

Stelle looked slightly dejected, she was picking at a few stands of her dress that had come loose during the fighting. He watched as Black Swan extended a hand down to her, before tossing a card her way in a wave of energy. His hand twitched at his side until he noticed that it was simply a move to swap Stelle’s outfit back to the clothes she had been wearing before.

“Oh.” Stelle picked at her white shirt, “thanks.”

“You still have a long journey ahead, best to do it in comfort.” Black Swan said, “all the paths are converging on Clock Studio’s theme park. The Family is planning a large event there and it is also the site of the Stellaron. If there was a place to break the illusion of the dream, that would be my choice.”

“Hold on, won’t that cause mass panic?” Stelle said, as she brushed snow off her skirt. “Wouldn’t it be better to deal with things in the background, if people start realizing that something is wrong...”

“They’ll put pressure on the Family.” Aventurine interrupted, “Sunday can act as he is now precisely because no one has realized anything is wrong. They’re all completely blinded by the glitz and glamor of Penacony, the moment that changes...”

“They won’t be able to maintain the illusion of harmony.” Black Swan finished for him, so they were on the same page after all. “They will have no choice but to concede and bring this dance to a stop. But what to do to convince the guests that Penacony is not as safe as it seems? I will leave that for you to figure out, Mister Aventurine.”

“We should keep moving.” Aventurine grabbed Stelle’s arm and gently urged her to her feet. “Race against time and all of that. Black Swan, can you keep an eye on Ratio and Ruan Mei as well. They’re technically working with us too.”

“I already have been.” The Memokeeper nodded, “I will see you again in Clock Studio’s theme park with Acheron, hopefully, at my side.”

He let Stelle take the lead, forcing their way through a rather thick blanket of snow as he took in their surroundings for the first time. Black Swan had said they simply needed to keep forging forward until the path revealed itself to them once more. They’d already been walking for an hour and there was no sign of end to the snowy plains. Strangely, he didn't feel cold, only the sensation of a heat deep in his chest pulsing with the beat of his heart. The Stellaron? Or the blessing she had received from the Preservation.

“I’m pretty sure we're in the outskirts of Belobog.” Stelle spoke as they climbed a low cliff, “this looks just like it.”

“You certainly have a lot of memories pertaining to that place.”

“I’ve technically only ever visited like five places so it’s sort of expected.” Stelle said before stopping and spinning to face him. “Wait! I almost forgot. Give me your wrist.”

He did as she said, watching as she fastened his bracelet back on before turning his palm and dropping the three missing cornerstones into it.

“You-” He couldn’t find his voice all of a sudden.

“I managed to grab them before Sunday intervened,” she smiled, “that means you’ve almost got a full set.”

“You know, I technically still have this bracelet.”

“I know, I know, but it was a matter of principle.” Stelle shrugged, “I didn't want her to have it.”

“Hah,” he chuckled, resisting the urge to brush his hand on the side of her jaw, “thank you, friend.”

He let the cornerstones float up and enter their respective spots on his suit, enjoying the brief rush of power that floated back to him. They walked shoulder to shoulder, the snow getting lighter as Stelle told him about her first venture to Belobog and all the perils she had found there. There was something about her, he just couldn't put his finger on it.

///|||\\\

To say that things turned completely nonsensical as soon as they left the snowy plains outside of Belobog would be an understatement.

They stumbled into a room filled entirely with various sized balloons, Stelle had fun kicking them around while Aventurine worked on getting a nearby lift to work. The lift carried them over a collection of pink clouds. When Stelle had reached out to grab one and found that she could pull it away like cotton candy. She ate it, which prompted a laugh from Aventurine who asked if she had a habit of just shoving anything she wanted into her mouth. It tasted soft and sweet. She failed to convince him to give it a try as their lift reached their destination.

They reached an open amphitheater that amplified their voice impressively as they spoke. A collection of instruments had been left in the center of it; a bass guitar, a piano, a bongo drum, a trombone and two acoustic guitars. Stelle tried and failed to squeeze any noise out of the trombone prompting a second burst of laughter from Aventurine. They ended up sitting face to face, Stelle tapping out a simple beat on the drum while Aventurine’s elegant fingers danced across the guitar. A cheer burst out of the amphitheater as the floor split open and shunted them to the next dreamscape.

They ended up in a dewy forest, pine trees stretching far above their heads as they wandered on a mossy trail. Stelle caught Aventurine wistfully stretching his hand out to catch strands of sun, a strange look of longing on his face. The forest gave way to a harsh coast with gusts of wind almost pulling them off their feet as they ran over an uneven stone path to reach a golden door.

The door led to a maze made of transparent glass walls, they both took turns smashing head first into the walls as they tried to navigate it. It was only after the fourth time that he smacked into a wall that Aventurine turned to ask her to stop messing around and bust the walls down with her bat. Stelle tried a few times only to find that they were near impossible, her blows bouncing off ineffectively. They ended up making it out by having her walk in front while wildly swinging her bat back and forth to catch any hidden walls.

They stumbled through hallways that climbed up and up and took wild turns. They jumped from swing to swing as they made their way over a plunging canyon. Ducked underneath large swings equipped with mountable chainsaws. Played a game of ping pong against a pair of overenthusiastic and yet silent mimes. Spent the better part of a day attempting to solve the world’s worst crossword puzzle, the clues for each words were a selection of sticker’s.

They took a nap in a treehouse with a view on the most gorgeous chains of mountains Stelle had ever seen. They curved up into the sky like claws, their rock reflecting the sun off in dazzling rainbows.

When she’d asked Aventurine if he knew where they were he had simply answered, “Pegasus-IX, one of the worlds the IPC laid claim to and ruined. Those mountains have a dozen different kinds of the most valuable gems in the world. The Building’s logistics department wanted it. I tried saving a part of it because Topaz asked me to. Tried arguing that it was a natural heritage but they didn’t really care. Guess it can only exist in a dream now...”

Stelle snapped a picture of Aventurine against the backdrop of the mountains when he wasn't looking. She wasn’t as good a photographer as March but it was a nice shot.

They found themselves back on Herta’s space station, Stelle showed him around the simulated universe before an invisible force yanked them into an empty office room with a stack of blank papers. They made paper airplanes out of them, tossing them back and forth before the room itself turns pliable and the walls tear themselves down.

They stumbled upon an arcade that turned into a mild annoyance for both of them in different ways. Stelle spent an hour trying to convince Aventurine to step away from the giant slot machine as he insisted he’d definitely win something in the next round. He seemed completely enthralled by his lack of luck. He ended up winning a miniature key chain in the shape of a small lion holding a heart between its paws which he tossed in her direction with a grin. Stelle clipped it to the bottom of her coat, it was kind of cute. They almost make it to the exit before the biggest high striker game Stelle has ever seen caught her eye. It was Aventurine’s turn to complain as she spent half-an-hour trying to strike the stone all the way to the eye at the top. When she finally won she gave him the prize as a compensation. A cheap golden ring with a silver star glued onto it, he put it on to make her happy. Or so he said, she caught him staring at it pensively a few times.

Time was weird in the Memory zone, the clock jumped up suddenly or sometimes even seemed to retract itself. It was part of the reason they were in a rush but also not at all. The memory zone imposed its own idea of time, they couldn't force it to go any faster so they learned to move at its rhythm.

Sometimes that meant speeding down a series of rapids in a barely held-together raft while pushing off rocks with a large paddle. Other times it meant lounging on a large hammock playing a round of blackjack as a clock slowly ticks open to reveal a door.

They end up in a large summer villa, Stelle marveled at the large pool in the backyard that overlooks a view on the ocean. Their clothes had been swapped up with bathing suits in similar color schemes. She doesn’t waste a moment, jumping onto the inflatable swan on the water and floating to the center of the pool. Dipping her hand into the water as she paddled around, she shielded her face from the sun with one hand. Aventurine didn’t join her, choosing to sit on one of the beach chairs and throwing his hat over his face.

Swimming around a bit, she decided to toss a look at her companion. She was surprised to see that there were some signs of muscles on his otherwise thin frame. He was not buff by any means but he clearly kept himself in good shape. He looked like those fairytale princes in the romance books she read with March. Stelle knew that she was sometimes blinded by pretty people and Aventurine was no exception. But they’d been so busy that she hadn’t really had time to think about it. But now... She traced the outline of his bicep, the curve of his neck, the silvery scars wrapping around his back. He was probably one of the most beautiful people she’d ever spent time with.

Which is high praise, she thought, considering some of them.

March had been the one who had told her she was much too gullible when she liked someone or found them attractive. She hadn’t even been able to speak to Dan Heng the first time she’d seen him in his high elder form. Then there had been that first time she’d run into Ruan Mei at the space station... She’d been slightly awestruck in front of the genius and had trailed after her without much of a complaint.

It was probably a good thing that Aventurine had been overt to the point of ticking her off when they’d first met. If he had been as he was now, teasing and surprisingly generous, she probably would’ve been eating out of the palm of his hand.

“What are you looking at?” Aventurine asked as he raised his hat off his face.

She averted her gaze before meeting it once more, don’t act weird. “Nothing. This place is nice.”

“It’s a villa of one of the upper management folks in the IPC, I was invited to-” He paused as his brow furrowed “never mind, it’s not important.”

He looked slightly upset, gnawing on the side of his lip as he often did when he was thinking about something that displeased him.

“We can try to speed things along if you hate it here.” Stelle slipped off the floatable and swam up to him. The water was the perfect temperature, sliding off her skin with ease as she leaned her head onto the edge of the pool.

“The shore is rising up to meet us.” He stood up, walking over to her and crouching down, “pretty sure we have to wait this one out, friend.”

“You’re saying that nicely now.”

“Huh?”

“Friend, I mean, you don’t sound so upset about it.”

“Friends are the tools of the Avgins.” He kneeled closer to her, “why would I be upset about having one.”

“I don’t know,” Stelle shrugged as she lifted her arms onto the side of the pool, “everything you’ve told me up till now.”

“You didn’t deny that we were friends.”

“Was I supposed to?”

He leaned in closer, “No, I guess I’m just glad.”

“Are you?”

“You’ve been reliable,” he laughed, “the stocks I put in you have paid off, to say the very least.”

“Is that it, I’m useful to you?”

That seemed to make him pause, his pretty eyes scrunching up slightly as he scrutinized her. “Do you want to be something more?”

The thoughts that had been floating in her head before came slamming back into her. She huffed before reaching up with one arm, wrapping it around his neck and pulling him into the water with her. She felt Aventurine grab a hold of her shoulder in slight panic as it wrapped around them, his legs wrapping around her waist. She sank down, dropping her feet to the floor and standing up.

Aventurine didn’t let go of her, his fingers digging into her shoulder and legs locking behind hers.

“What are you doing?” Stelle asked.

“What are you doing?!” He repeated strongly, “I can’t swim!”

“I’m touching the floor, it’s not that deep.”

“Oh.” She felt his legs drop down but his arms stayed around her shoulders as if the floor was in danger of dropping out from under them.

“Sorry,” she laughed awkwardly, “I wouldn’t have done that if I had known.”

“Well, now harm done friend. I can take a small prank.” He said, “did our conversation start taking the wrong turn for you?”

“You seriously can’t swim though.” She changed the subject, “isn’t it like a vital life skill to have?”

“And yet I’ve lived all of my twenty-four years without it.” He retorted, “if it was that important, it would’ve come up. Besides, there were no large bodies of water where I grew up so it never came up as a vital skill to have. Why should I be afraid of a bit of water?”

“Okay.” She nodded before saying, “then stop holding on to me.”

“Ah, that’s besides the point. Maybe I just like holding on to you, you’re very...” He seemed to be choosing his words carefully, “strong.”

“Uh huh,” She fought down a smirk, “why don’t I teach you how to swim.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on,” Stelle insisted, “you showed me how to roller skate, I want to return the favor.”

“I’m good, Miss Stellaron, just carry me back to shore.”

“You should at least know the basics,” she kept insisting, “what if you get into a situation one day where you need to swim and I’m not there to help.”

“Are you implying we're going to keep seeing each other outside of Penacony?”

“I mean...” She had thought they would, Stelle’s official role on the astral was the liaison officer. She was charged with maintaining a strong connection with everyone the Astral Express had met along their way. Whether that was sending texts to Clara and Hook to check in; doing a run at Natasha’s clinic to help her restock; meeting up with General Jing Yuan and Yanqing for a sparring session or helping Arlan out with security issues around the space station. Keeping the friendships the astral express had made along the way was a vital part of their journey. “Sort of. Do you not want to see me after?”

“That’s not what I said.” He shook his head, “I’m just surprised.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” She said, “didn’t I tell you I wanted to help you.”

“Not that again...” Aventurine sighed, his head dropping onto hers. “You don’t have much of a problem with personal space, do you?”

“You’re the one holding on, remember.” Her arms were still firmly at her side, “you can leave at any time.”

“It wasn’t a complaint, just an observation.” she could feel one of his hands tugging on a strand of her hair, “at the casino, you were very touchy feely. I didn’t mind. Who am I to complain if Miss Stellaron was feeling cuddly. I was just surprised, you seem so standoffish sometimes and most people tend to stay away from me.”

“I was just imitating that other woman in front of me.” She said as she ignored the way his eyes carefully followed her every expression. Stelle was always affectionate with her friends, snuggling up to March when they watched a movie, tugging Dan Heng’s arm to drag him as they walked. It was just how she showed that she cared about them. Besides, Aventurine looked like he hadn’t been given a proper hug in forever.

Still, a quiet part of her whispered, it felt different with him.

“Is that it?”

“Well, no...” Stelle felt a blush blooming onto her face, he really was quite close. “Where are you going with this? Do you want me to get closer?”

She could turn the tables on him. She lifted one of her hands, brushing it against his ribs before settling it on the small of his back.

“Maybe I do.” He smiled, his hand picking up a strand of her hair and brushing it along her face. “Teach me how to swim, Miss Stellaron.”

He leaned back in her arms, falling back into the water slowly as Stelle kept a hand on his back to keep him afloat.

“Hold on,” she was practically carrying him, her other arm going around his waist. “You need to let yourself relax more.”

He had an amused look on his face as she pushed up on his back to get him to arch it so he would float more comfortably. He was straining his head above the water, trying to avoid letting any of it hit his face.

“Lay your head back and spread out your limbs.” She instructed, “and breathe more slowly, you’re overthinking it.”

“Have you ever done this? Taught someone like this I mean.”

“Uhh not really?” She said, “this is just how I do it.”

“And who taught you?”

“Eh, who knows? Kafka, probably.”

It was only once she noticed that he was floating without issue, his limbs swaying slightly at his side that she considered he might be lying to her. She slid her arm out from underneath him and pushed, sending him flying out into the water. He flayed once before slipping back into standing position and treading water back in her direction.

“You liar!” She shouted as she splashed some water in his direction, “you can swim.”

“Hahaha, sorry. I couldn’t help it.” He laughed as he stood up in front of her, “I’m just surprised you actually bought it. That’s what you get for getting my hair wet.”

She threw water up in his face for that one. He surged forward, grabbing her by the waist and lifting her into the air over his shoulder, his arm wrapping around the back of her thighs. Stelle flayed around for a bit as she half-tried to break out of his grasp before she swung her weight down and dragged him back into the water with her. He managed to keep his hold on her, shifting her around so they were squeezed together chest to chest.

“Got you!” He shouted victorious as he pinned her arms to her side. Stelle managed to wriggle an arm free and tossed a few throws of water into his face. Closing his eyes as he laughed warmly, he adjusted his grip once more. “You keep playing dirty, Miss Stellaron. But I’m not letting go.”

She blew a raspberry at him before accepting her fate, resting her free hand over his shoulder as she caught her breath. Stelle could break out of his grasp very easily if she wanted to but there was a strength there she hadn’t expected. Aventurine was nice when he was like this, his face slightly flushed with an easy smile on his lips. She didn’t want to move away, he was like a blackhole pulling her into himself.

He loosened his grip on her, one of his arms coming around the back of her thighs to lift her slightly above the water.

“Something on your mind?” He asked as Stelle grabbed onto his shoulders for balance.

“You’re stronger than you look.”

“Hah,” he chuckled, “well, I did eventually have to learn to fend for myself since no one else would. It’s not my preferred method but... when it works, it works.”

“No.” She shook her head, “I didn’t mean in terms of fighting. I meant physically, I didn’t think you’d be able to lift me.”

“Really? You’re not that heavy.”

“March can’t.” Stelle shrugged, “it's the Stellaron, it tends to make my weight artificially fluctuate. Or so Mr. Yang says, I don't really get it.”

“So you're telling me I won’t be able to do this once we get back to reality?” He hoisted her up further.

“Well, I don’t know.” She answered, “Dan Heng can still do it so maybe if you do some weightlifting.”

“Weightlifting?” He smiled, “sure, I’ll ask Ratio for some tips. He knows how to build a good physique. I have to ask, Miss Stelle, is he more your type?”

“Huh?” Stelle blinked.

“I wouldn’t blame you, he is quite handsome.” Aventurine laughed, “quite the heartbreaker too. So tell me.”

“It sounds more like you’re the one who likes him.”

“Decidedly not, that’s all in the past for me. Tell me, pretty please?”

“I don’t even know if I have a type.”

“Who have you liked in the past?”

“Oh well,” she shifted in his arms, trying to sit more comfortably. “A lot of people. I don’t think I’m that picky. There was Nat, uh, Natasha, she was a doctor in the underground. Um... Oh, Argenti was very charming. He was a knight of Beauty who crashed into the Express. Then there’s Ruan Mei but honestly I don’t think she even sees me as a person so I let go of it pretty quick. Then more recently there was-”

“So many people.” He interrupted her and she felt a smidgen of gratitude for it. Even thinking about her was hard at the moment, let alone saying her name. “and you’ve never acted on any of it?”

“Why would I?”

“That’s what people do when they like someone, they act on it.”

“Have you ever?”

He blinked before letting her slide out of his arms and back into the water.

“No, I suppose I haven’t.” His voice had a dull tone to it, the playfulness evading it once more. “But look, Miss Stellaron, the water has caught up to us.”

Notes:

Totally forgot drip marketing was happening this week, not surprised to see Jade considering the leaks but I was holding out for Sunday a bit... Still, I am now once again completely clueless on who I want to go for next. To complete the Stellaron Hunters or go for a much needed support unit, that is the question.

Hope you guys like this chapter and see you in the next one!

Chapter 10: For Evil Holds You in Its Arms

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Aventurine pressed a hand against the grass beneath their feet, it had a tough texture and each strand was of an equal length. The whole place had an artificially perfect look, the leaves on the tree around them were all perfectly shaped with nary a hole or change in color to be seen. There was none of the disarray you would expect to see in a regular forest, no signs of life growing as it pleased.

“We’re back in proper Penacony.” Stelle said as she showed him her dreampass, there was a map drawn onto it. The top read: the Origami Garden.

He tugged on one of the stands of grass, ripping it free and finding creases where the paper had been folded.

“That explains why this whole place looks off.” He let the paper flit back to the ground before pulling out his phone. “Time to touch base. You should probably avoid using your phone now that we know your friend Silver Wolf is here and looking for you. What’s March and Himeko’s phone number? I'll send them an update.”

She told him, hovering over his shoulder as he typed out a quick message to them explaining where they were and what they’d done so far. Ratio had also sent him an update claiming that he and Ruan Mei had stumbled their way into the moment of Dewlight.

“Anyone else we should contact?” He asked as they walked further around the garden, he could hear the sound of other guests but they hadn’t run into any of them so far. Stelle seemed distracted, checking behind trees and lifting some of the larger leaves hanging near the ground as though she was looking for something.

“Oh.” She shook her head quickly, “I don’t know, maybe Black Swan.”

“Already done.” He lifted his phone towards her, “she’s made contact with Acheron, apparently it went relatively well.”

“That’s good.” Stelle hopped behind a larger rock and crouched for a moment before standing with a huff.

“Okay.” He paused, “what are you doing?”

“Uhh,” she scratched the back of her head with a smile, “it’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Try.”

“Back when I was with-” She seemed to bite back the word but Aventurine had an idea of who she was talking about. “It’s not important, the point is. You know all those creatures from that Clockie show? They exist as real entities within the dreamscape, I’ve met a few of them. I figured since we're here, maybe I can ask them for help.”

He scrutinized her face, detecting the hints of seriousness behind those dazzling eyes of hers.

Really, her? He sent a silent plea towards Gaithara, it had to be her? He knew when he was in too deep and this situation was dangerously turning into one.

“And they’re going to help us how?”

“Well, we are looking for Clock Studio’s theme park, his friends probably know how to get there right.” Stelle shrugged as she kept walking.

“Sure, fine.” He conceded, “do as you please, it’s not like I have a better plan.”

He followed as she walked circles around the garden, the whole place had been designed to resemble a loosely defined maze. It was also clearly meant for children, there were monkey bars, slides and various other fun yet safe ways to traverse the place.

He watched as Stelle scaled a rock climbing wall before hauling herself up to a pass that led into a small treehouse. She was clearly too tall for it, needing to crouch down and crawl to get in. He leaned against a paper rock, scrolling through the messages he’d received while they were offline to kill time. He received a text from Ratio as he scrolled:

Ratio: You might want to keep a low profile.

Ratio: I don’t know what you did but the Family has quietly put out a notice for your capture.

You: Whoops.

Ratio: ...

Ratio: Is that really all you can say?

You: Nothing too terrible. Sunday’s flipped his lid.

You: He’s having that masked fool pretend to be his sister.

His attention was pulled away by a middle aged woman holding a younger boy's hand while trying to get his attention. He looked up in the direction she was pointing and noticed that Stelle had crawled out of the window of the tree house and was standing on its roof.

“Are you with her?” The woman asked.

“Unfortunately.” He muttered as Ratio sent a follow-up message.

Ratio: I take it you failed to convince her to help us.

Ratio: No matter, this changes nothing.

Ratio: Be careful, I don’t want to have to explain any of this to the corporation.

Aventurine: Pretty sure we’re both going to have a lot to explain...

Aventurine: gotta go, I’ll keep in touch when I can.

“Does she know this space is for children?” The woman crossed her arms.

“She’s a child at heart.” He answered as he slipped his phone back into his pocket and shouted up at Stelle. “Hey! Get down there for a moment. You’re being a bad example.”

Stelle looked down sharply at him before grimacing when she noticed the Mother and her son. Aventurine watched as she deftly slid down the side of the treehouse, landing in a crouch and jaunting up to him. The woman shot Stelle a short glare before steering her son towards the climbing wall.

“What’s her problem?” Stelle said as he asked, “find anything?”

“Nope, maybe they’re hiding from me.” She stretched her arm, “who were you texting?”

“Ratio, the Family’s put out a hit for me.”

“Just you? Well, I can’t say it was unexpected.”

They walked around some more, stopping near a drink fountain that spilled out a more syrupy version of Soulglad. Stelle drank some of it before making a face and complaining about the lack of options.

“I don’t care if it’s good marketing.” She sighed as he went over the business meeting he had had about syrupism and Penacony before leaving. “I just want to drink water, doesn’t this place cater to kids? I thought we were meant to discourage them from drinking overly sugary things.”

“It’s a dream, who cares?” He shrugged, they’d crossed a few other people as they wandered around. The message about leaving the dreamscape being impossible was still being broadcast regularly yet no one seemed to be in a state of panic. It might’ve just been parents putting on a brave face in front of their kids but Aventurine suspected most people didn’t care about a sudden free extension to their vacation.

They ended up sitting on a bench in the middle of a rather busy plaza, Stelle’s shoulder pressed up to his in a way that made his chest buzz oddly. People were taking turns posing for a picture in front of a large origami statue depicting all the characters from Clockie’s cartoon series.

“This whole place is a piece of marketing genius.” Aventurine said as he watched kids walk by carrying large, living balloons depicting Clockie that waved as they crossed people. “I mean we’re pretty much living within their product.”

“It's exhausting.” Stelle’s head dropped onto his shoulder, “we’re surrounded by ads, don’t you think it’s nice to see something... I don’t know, real, every once in a while. I mean, some of the parts we visited were really nice but everything about this is just painfully artificial.”

“Nothing here is real, Miss Stellaron.” He pointed out while trying to tame the sudden beat his heart had taken up. “By design, if I might point out. So you can’t see yourself living here long term, I take it.”

“No way,” she sighed, “my home is the Express. Besides, it’s all a bit much for me.”

“I’ll probably be stuck here for a while assuming things go my way.” He said as he watched a couple kiss in front of one of elegant origami trees with long purple petals dotting it. “Will you come visit me?”

“Probably.” She answered, shifting her head off his shoulder. “I’m supposed to make sure we keep in good contact with the people we meet so...”

“Ah, so you’ll come to visit out of a sense of duty. How noble.”

“Not just that.” She protested lightly, “you’re- I don’t know, you’re a lot nicer than you give yourself the chance to be.”

“What does that even mean?”

She didn’t answer, leaping to her feet and sprinting off to the side of a statue.

“What- Hold on.” He sighed as he took off after her.

She circled around the statue before sliding to a stop and crouching down. He looked over her shoulder and noticed a small red origami bird sitting in the grass with its eyes closed. She pokes the side of the bird's cheek, the small creature shakes once before jumping up and looking around frantically before settling its eyes on Stelle.

“Oh, oh!” The bird spoke in a high tone, “it’s you!”

“Hey,” Stelle waved, “I’m looking for Clockie, have you seen him?”

“Oh, oh.” The bird repeats, “Clockie’s busy, very busy. Haven’t you heard? There’s going to be a show.”

“I know, that’s why I want to see him.” Stelle answered, “we want to help.”

“We?” The bird looks up at him, “Oh, oh, he shouldn’t be able to see me.”

“I shouldn’t?” Aventurine tilted his head, “why not?”

“You don’t have a childlike innocence.” Stelle said at the same time as the bird cried, “those eyes have seen too much.”

He felt his brow twitch as Stelle leaned in to whisper something in the bird’s ear before saying, “so you see, we really do need to see Clockie.”

“I can’t take you to him, I don’t know where he is.” The bird shook its whole body before jumping, “but I can take you to Misha! I saw him just now.”

“Sure.” Stelle stood up, “lead the way.”

“Misha?” He said as they followed the bird to the southern entrance of the plaza and retraced their path through the garden. “That’s the name Sunday used when referring to the person Ratio gave the Stellaron to.”

“Oh right.” Stelle said, “I almost forgot about that.”

“You know who he is?”

“Sure, he’s the bellhop of the hotel. He’s also friends with Clockie so if anyone knows a secret passage to get to the park. It would probably be him.”

“You’re still holding on to that huh?” Aventurine sighed as they squeezed through a tree trunk with a hole cut through it. Still, if Ratio really had handed off the Stellaron to the bellhop, then it was definitely a path they should follow.

He shot a text to Ratio as they crossed a clearing and pushed aside a thicket to reach a thin path.

You: Hey, did you give the Stellaron to a boy named Misha?”

*Message failed to send.

He had probably already moved on from the Moment of Dewlight. For that matter, they had already spent far too much time in this place. Especially with a hit out for him, it was probably best to stick to the cracks of the Dreamscape.

There was a young boy standing in the center of the path, he had a mess of light blue hair with a circular hat affixed to the center of it. He kept checking a round clock as he looked around frantically. The origami bird landed on a branch in front of the boy and started chirping loudly. He looked up quickly as Stelle waved and stepped up to him.

“Oh! Trailblazer.” The boy said, “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Hi Misha.” Stelle said as leaned against a nearby tree. “How’ve you been?”

“Alright, I guess. Things have gotten really crazy here.”

“I bet.” Stelle chuckled, “the guests haven’t been giving you a hard time, have they? I know this is probably out of your hands but did your employers say anything about the situation?”

“Uh.” Misha hesitated, “not really, only that there were some technical difficulties and we should do our best to keep the guests happy.”

Aventurine did his best to get a read on him, his face was open and honest. He looked like an overwhelmed employee just trying to do his best. But there was something more, a hint of... He wasn’t sure. It didn’t look like mischief, it simply felt out of place.

“Well, listen,” Stelle continued, “my friend and I need a bit of a hand.”

“Sure, If I can help, I will!” Misha said quickly, “uh, who is he though?”

“Aventurine.” He introduced himself, “a humble servant of the IPC’s strategic investment department, the hotel was kind enough to send me an invitation to the Charmony festival, so naturally I had to attend.”

“That’s right.” Stelle said, “Listen, we heard there’s going to be some kind of huge event at Clock Studio’s theme park and we really want to go. The problem is that with the dreamscape’s moments are still sealed off, we can’t figure out how we were supposed to make it there.”

“They told us that they’ll be opening up the different moments again soon.” Misha smiled, “so you won’t have any issues when the time comes.”

“You see, friend.” He stepped closer to Stelle and threw an arm around her shoulder. “Stelle and I want to get some nice seats, so we were hoping to get there a little early. You really can’t help with that?”

“Well, I-”

“It’s fine if you can’t.” Stelle insisted, “I just thought asking wouldn’t hurt.”

“No, no, I can help but uh-” The boy’s gaze shifted, those keyhole eyes of his darkening. Something was very off. “Why do you really want to go there?”

“Like Aventurine said,” Stelle continued, seemingly ignorant of the danger he could feel ringing through his head. “We just want to have a better view of the show.”

“I really don’t like it when you lie to me, Trailblaze.”

Time seemed to slow, the origami’s feathers stopped fluttering and the slight shifts present in the world stopped. Stelle was frozen in place, her hand folded over her chest and eyes half-opened. His own movements felt sluggish, he reached out trying to pull Stelle away from Misha. The young boy's features shifted, his face growing older and younger all at once.

He forced power out from the cornerstone building up a shield around himself as Misha’s hand extended. He met his eyes and noticed a flash of surprise go through them.

“How are you still moving?” Misha whispered as the young boy touched his hand to Stelle’s shoulder.

It felt like he was trying to move through a thick film, every step forward was delayed. He managed to grab Stelle’s wrist, tugging her back as the shield finally slammed down around him. The burst of energy from it shot out strangely, sending the two of them flying back from Misha.

Aventurine did his best to slow their fall, wrapping his arm around her head to shield it as they slammed and rolled against the ground.

“Hmm.” Misha’s form kept twisting as he walked towards them, his limbs growing long and short, his neck snapping awkwardly to the side. “How strange. Could it be that Emanator is protecting you... I told Sunday to confiscate those cornerstones for a reason. Did he really dare to fail me?”

Aventurine shook Stelle’s shoulders, she still wasn’t moving.

“Guess he must’ve gotten sloppy, lucky me!” Aventurine shouted as he snapped his finger and sent a shotput of coins towards him. They came to a slow around the thing, parting as it walked through them.

“Hand over the girl now and I’ll consider rescinding the death order I had him put on you.” The thing’s voice was hopping up and down an octave as though it couldn’t quite settle on one.

Aventurine hauled Stelle over his shoulder, forcing his legs up as he walked backwards away from the thing.

“I said.” It repeated slowly, “hand her over.”

“Yeah, dream on, asshole.” He muttered as he looked around for any sign of an exit he could bolt towards. The shield seemed to be doing its work, sparks of blue energy flashing against it as the-thing-called-Misha kept approaching slowly.

He spotted a clearing in the thick leaves encroaching on them, if he could just... Aventurine brought up his free arm and snapped, sending a wave of coins onto the boy's head before shifting right and making a run for it.

Everything had been frozen. From the people sitting on a nearby bench enjoying a cup of ice cream to the couple following their pair of screaming children through the park. Aventurine felt his heart rate spike as he took in unfolding origami around him. The trees tore themselves apart, the streets flaking away like dried paint. Misha was undoing the very fabric of the dreamscape itself.

He tried to still his heart as he looked around for a door, a sound of crashing glass, anything to indicate a way out. Stelle was still unconscious but he could feel the Stellaron in his chest, it was singing.

She was able to break through the Memory zone before, he considered as he noticed a head of blue hair approaching from his right. Maybe, I can do it too.

It had been like watching a star collapse, she had raised her bat high and sent a course of energy sailing through the marbled floors plummeting them into the void. He didn’t have any weapons on him, nothing that could channel the power of the Stellaron. Gently depositing Stelle onto the ground, he looked around before reaching out and wrenching a branch from a nearby tree. It unfolded in his hands, paper scattering everywhere as Misha stepped closer and closer.

“Don’t run.” The boy’s voice was pitched low, “don’t you know it's pointless. Just give me the girl and you can go.”

“That’s not happening.” He answered as he picked Stelle up once more, lifting her in his arms as he prepared to run. Paper unfolded near his feet, he tried to jump back but it wrapped around his legs like a vise, pinning him in place.

“This is really annoying.” It blinked, “I’m not supposed to kill you. Not when its blade has been sharpened for your neck. Sunday really made a mess of it all. I shouldn’t have let him act so freely.”

Aventurine tried to pull his legs free, his arms were taken up by Stelle and dropping her was not an option.

“What did you do to her?” He half-shouted as Misha took another step forward before stopping.

“I just put her to sleep.” It spoke innocently, “tell me, did you figure out the answer yet.”

“What?”

“Why does life slumber?” It repeated, “do you have an answer for me, Gambler.”

Oh. He thought as the paper clawed further up its leg. He’s the Watchmaker.

///|||\\\

One moment she was talking to Misha, the very next she was chained to an interrogation table. Stelle pulled back on the chains wrapped around her wrist, digging her feet into the ground as she yanked upwards. Her strength had been sapped, any attempts she made seemed futile. She slammed her hands back onto the table, looking around the room with a sigh.

The walls were made out of a slate gray with bright neon lights screwed onto the ceiling above her. When Stelle looked to her right she noticed a large window cut into the side of the room. Aventurine was seated next to her, his hands chained to a table just like hers. He was staring ahead with an intense look, his fingers tapping the table repeatedly.

She tried to call out to him but her voice was stuck in her throat. No matter how much she attempted to force a sound out nothing would happen. She settled for lifting and striking the side of her chains onto the counter a few times. He didn’t react.

Maybe there’s something blocking the sound, she contemplated, or he can’t see me.

The wall in front of her slid open as a half-shadowed figure stepped out from it. Its body was made of amorphous shapes, clouds of void-like dust collapsing and reforming to vaguely outline a human body. Stelle felt a surge of fear leap into her heart as it slammed a thick pile of documents onto the table.

“Well, well.” Its voice sounded faraway, like it was speaking through a pipe. “What are we going to do with you, Kakavasha?”

Huh?

Stelle looked back to where Aventurine was, he was rolling back his shoulders with an annoyed look on his face. He looked younger, and more tellingly, the brand on his neck was a bright red color instead of a matte black.

Am I back in his memories? It didn’t make any sense, she’d done nothing to leave the dreamscape.

“Nothing to say?”

“What do you want me to say?” The voice sounded like it was coming from right behind her but Aventurine’s mouth was the one that moved.

“Well it’s very simple.” The thing kept talking, bringing a vaguely shaped arm into the air. “Just say, ‘I’m very sorry for stealing from and deceiving the higher echelons of the IPC. I’ll pay back the debt I owe them and accept my punishment gladly’. Do you follow?”

“I didn’t-”

“I’ll stop you right there.” The interrogator shushed him, “no one has that kind of luck, not even you. So tell me how you did it and then we can move forward. Taravan has promised to be lenient.”

“I didn’t cheat, and I didn’t lie.” Aventurine snapped, “It’s not my fault their luck was sh*t that night.”

“Do I need to remind you of the amount of credits you somehow managed to win. Of the stocks that were put onto the table. No one gets that lucky.”

“No one, except for me.”

“We’ve tolerated a lot from you, Sigonian.” The interrogator tutted, “but this is just about the last straw.”

“Tolerated... you’ve never tolerated anything, since I got here I-”

“Enough.” A second figure walked out from behind the first one. It was in the shape of a man, he had skin and hair made of diamond. “I’ll be taking it from here.”

“Sir, I-” the shadowy figure started before shutting up as the man raised a hand.

“I told Taravan I would be handling this case, Kakavasha works for my department. You’ve interfered enough already.”

“But-”

“I said get out.”

Her heartbeat was spurring in and out as the man looked down at her, she could barely make out the details of his face through the glittering on his skin.

“You don’t make things easy for yourself, do you?”

“Hah.” Aventurine’s voice said, “it doesn’t matter anyway. Whether I keep my head down or stick my neck out, I get the same from you people.”

“That’s fair. Now tell me. Did you steal from those executives?”

Aventurine laughed, Stelle watched as his expression in the reflection shifted to one of hysteria and disbelief.

“Kakavasha, I don’t think you understand-”

“No.” His laugh ceased instantly, “No. I won. I won and they couldn’t stand it.”

“I see.” The man said, “I believe you.”

Aventurine scoffed, “no, you don’t.”

“Think what you want, but I recognize a gem when I see one. You’re clever and you know your own reputation. But you should’ve realized it would catch up to you, you let your greed overcome your sense.”

“Why shouldn’t I be greedy.” Aventurine said, “why should I not use the only skills Gaithara- That I have to climb to the top. Why shouldn’t I take what I want, when I want. It’s what everyone else here does, is it only wrong when I do it?”

“Because there is such a thing as over reaching.” The man clicked his teeth, “Those executives are out for blood. Yours.”

“Let them try,” Stelle watched as Aventurine’s eyes became downcast, “I don’t have much left to give anyway.”

“Hmm, I don’t think that’s true. I’m missing a Stoneheart, Kakavasha. I think someone with your determination and... hunger would probably be the right match. This was your true goal, was it not? It takes a lot to draw my eye, but even I would discourage acts of desperation. Still, it was an impressive play. You put yourself up there for the whole world to see. Now everyone's watching to see if you’ll walk out with your head still on your shoulders.”

Aventurine didn’t answer but Stelle saw the barest smile grace his lips.

“You just might, the problem is how to placate those who feel wronged by you.” The man continued, “there is no logic behind their feelings but those types always cling onto whatever justifications they can use for their own failures. In this case, you being an Avgin.”

“I don’t-” Aventurine started before seemingly changing course, “if I could be allowed to take the stand at my trial, I’m sure I could clear up any misconceptions in the public's eye.”

“That won’t be possible for they have already held your trial.”

Stelle felt a force yank her to her feet, as the reflection stood up and slammed both of his hands into the table.

“That’s- I had a right to attend my own trial!”

“Ah no.” The man shook his head, “citizens of Pier Point have that right. You are not one.”

“But-”

“Do you want to hear the sentence?” The man didn’t wait for an answer. “Execution.”

The fight left her bones, fleeing as quickly as it had arrived. She stayed standing as Aventurine’s reflection collapsed back into his chair. It took all her strength.

“This reaction was to be expected.” the man said at the same time as Aventurine’s head bowed with a sigh, “seems my luck has finally run dry.”

“Kakavasha.” The man started.

“Just leave me.” Aventurine cut him off, “it’s done so just leave me. I want to spend my last moments alone, Supervisor Diamond.”

So that’s who that was, Stelle tilted her head, so why couldn't she see his face.

“Hold on, young man.” Diamond said, “why don’t you hear me out first. You don’t have to be done.”

“If the IPC has spoken-”

“I haven’t yet.” Diamond interrupted, “and I speak with the will of Preservation. I cannot undo the sentence but I can delay it.”

“How?”

“You will go with Jade. You will accomplish a task of most importance to me. This is a task I should give to someone more experienced but I will give it to you instead. You will succeed or it shall not be the hand of the Amber Lord that will strike you down.”

“What task?” Aventurine’s voice had a distinctly dead feeling to it.

“Jade will tell you.” Diamond answered, “when you succeed, you will become Aventurine of Stratagems. Your sentence will be delayed and will continue to be delayed so long as you do not fail. To be honest, I was still hesitant on taking you on. You can thank Jade for this possibility being handed to you. She was the one who tried defending you at the trial and also asked that I show you some form of mercy. She spoke of your skill and the strength of your will. Be thankful you have earned the benevolence of one Stoneheart.”

“Oh, I already had my chance to thank her, I take it she was disappointed.”

“No,” Diamond shook his head, “she was astonishingly proud.”

Aventurine chuckled, “So that’s it, I’ll belong to the IPC?”

“In more ways than one.” Diamond said, “I’m sorry I cannot give you better. But through the IPC you will attain all the wealth and power you desired. Who cares if it comes at the expense of your freedom.”

“I care. Hah, I guess it doesn’t matter either. This is not the extract outcome I wanted but-”

“You can always face your execution. There is freedom in death.”

Aventurine shook his head, “I’ll die on my terms, I accept. Where is Jade?”

“First, there is a small matter.” Diamond said sternly, “Taravan wanted assurance that you would not repeat your mistake, I am sorry for this. The Preservation will be bound to you and you will have to act in its benefit. It will probably hurt more than a little.”

Stelle felt a shock of heat against her neck, pain exploded through her chest as she clawed down into the chains and doubled over. Her heart seized at the scream she heard ripped out of Aventurine. A red hot flash of anger tore through her limbs as she felt the Stellaron sing to her, she tore power from it willingly. She disintegrated Diamond with one outstretched hand, specks of silvery dust flying around her. Wrenching her chains free, she sent heat lancing up the sides of the room as she leapt towards Aventurine’s reflection.

He was looking at her, really looking at her. His eyes were filled with a mist-like quality, a dejected smile on his face.

“Stelle.” The brand on his neck was bleeding, “are you the dawn I was waiting for?”

Stelle shattered the glass and reached out to him.

Notes:

Wow, I was very flattered by the outpouring of comments last chapter, thank you everyone! Hope you enjoy this one :)

Chapter 11: If Only I Could Save You From the Pain

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Stelle was floating, something was cradling her, lifting her higher and higher into the sky. She brushed a hand over her eyes, trying to clear the murk that was in front of them. She was about thirty feet in the sky above the origami garden and something was pulling further up. It was holding her by her legs, Stelle winced as the paper hands sliced into her skin. She tried to twist, to pull one leg free as it grabbed on harder.

What happened?

She looked down and noticed Aventurine, he was fighting back against two-dozen paper soldiers. Sending waves of glittering coins as they tried to back him into a corner. His gaze momentarily shifted up towards her as he snapped a shot-put of dice towards the hands holding her.

The hands momentarily lost their shape, plummeting her downwards before reforming around her once more. Stelle shook the sleepiness from her eyes and summoned her lance, starting a spark of fire down her legs and into the paper holding her. The hands burned for a moment before collapsing and sending her plummeting to the ground.

She tried to flip in midair to ensure she wasn’t about to land on her head. She noticed the paper hands flitting back into form and diving down towards her. She was going to send another burst of fire, accelerating her meeting with the ground when a wall of golden coins shattered them.

Aventurine slid into her trajectory, catching her in his arms and slowing her fall as they both collapsed into the ground.

“Got you.” He laughed as Stelle quickly jumped off of him and fired off a burst of flames towards the paper soldiers.

“What the hell happened?” Stelle asked as Aventurine said, “Did you enjoy your beauty sleep? Your friend Misha is not who he says he is.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look up.” Aventurine tugged the side of her sleeve.

Misha was floating above it all, standing on long tendrils of black paper and extending his limbs from side to side to dispel more and more of the garden. A flurry of multicolored paper surrounded the sky, pulled from various structures and reshaped. His stature was gainly and wrong, as though the inside of his body was too big for his skin. He wore an expression of barely hidden glee on his face. Stelle looked around, the guests they had crossed in the garden were frozen in place. A mother hugging her two children, a couple taking a picture, a father getting dragged around by his daughter. Their forms were covered by a thin veil of gold, Aventurine was protecting them.

The paper soldiers formed a tighter rank around them, Stelle walked around Aventurine so their backs were pressed to each other. She tightened her grip on her lance as the soldiers formed a circle around them, paper spears pointed at their throats.

“I don’t think taking these guys down is going to do anything to stop Misha.” Aventurine said as he slammed a barrage of coins down onto their heads.

The paper hands descended on them, sending whirls of paper into the sky to cover it with blue and black sheets.

Stelle lifted her lance into the sky, “Duck!” She shouted as she launched a blast of fire into the sky, incinerating them in one blast. She swung the lance down, bringing the pillar of fire down into the crowd of soldiers and punching a hole through them. They broke into a run, Aventurine bringing up a wall of coins around them to prevent the soldiers from closing in on them. She looked up again, Misha was nonchalantly weaving his way towards them, black tendrils shooting out and striking the ground randomly.

She noticed one heading onto Aventurine, moving quickly, she pushed him out of the way lifting her lance to catch the tendril. She was slammed down into a crouch, holding back the impressive force as Aventurine fired out a shot of coins and collapsed it above her.

Misha was staying far out of her reach, even if she used the lance to shoot herself towards him she probably wouldn’t make it. As it stood, their best chance was probably just to make a run for it and hope for the best.

“Can you buy me some time?” Stelle shouted as the origami trees around them came to life, their branches slamming down in intervals.

“Going to do what you did before?” He said as he shielded them quickly and sent a coin through some of the branches.

“Don’t have many other choices.” She answered as she dismissed her lance in favor of her bat.

She focused inward, hearing the song of the Stellaron as it promised destruction to her. She forced the energy through her chest into her arms and to the bat. It shook in her hands as she brought it to the side and swung it wildly. It tore through the dreamscape, igniting the paper and revealing the same starry night sky and shining beacons of lights that had been revealed to them last time she’d tried something like this.

The ground collapsed under their feet as the void almost seemed to reach out to greet them like old friends.

Aventurine wrapped his arms around her stomach as they plummeted, the garden falling further and further from sight. Stelle felt a familiar ringing towards her right, the Stellaron wanted them to head towards a gilded doorway. She summoned her lance, sending them spinning in that direction.

They pushed through the door, Stelle landed on top of Aventurine as it slammed behind them once more and dissipated. She took a moment to catch her breath, not really caring how uncomfortable their position was.

“-Alright?” She missed the first part of what he said, her mind pulled to the feeling of his fingers carding through her hair.

“Sorry?” She huffed, she was kneeling between his legs, both of her hands on either side of his hips and her face half-pressed against his chest.

“I said, are you feeling alright, friend?” He repeated softly, “you look a bit-”

“Ah sorry.” She pushed away from him, landing on her backside. “I was just catching my breath. That was... a lot.”

“You can say that again.” He said while standing up, he extended a hand down to her and she took it willingly. Her feet still felt unsteady from the fall, both the one that pulled her from the dream and their most recent one.

She quickly took a look at their surroundings as she focused on steadying herself, slightly pushing against the hand clasped around hers. Orange and gold maple trees, low hanging lanterns and a strong smell of spices and grilled meat. They were in Aurum Alley. There were no people around them but she noticed a pan being shaked on its own in a nearby stall as though it was being manned by a ghost.

“Any idea where we are?” Aventurine asked as he peered over into another stall selling rice cakes. “Looks like the Xianzhou but-”

“The Xianzhou Luofu specifically.” Stelle answered, “We’re in Aurum Alley. I’ve spent a lot of time here so I know it pretty well.”

“Aurum Alley...” He repeated, “right, the place the materiel’s logistics department wanted to turn into a shipping hub. I remember there was some kind of breakdown of operations there, someone threw a wrench in the operations.”

“Courtesy of yours truly.” Stelle bowed with a smile, “I helped the merchants in the area come up with a plan to stop the sale of the Alley.”

“Ah and here I thought you didn't have any business sense.”

“Well, I don’t really.” Stelle shrugged, “They just needed a bit of a boost and I thought it was a shame to lose all this good food to a bunch of containers.”

“Hold on, we're detracting here.” Aventurine said as he twisted his wrist, Stelle felt a bite of pain run through her own hand as he did so. His old injury only ever pulled at her when Aventurine acknowledged it. “We need to talk about what just happened.”

“Yeah...” Her mind was pulled back to the memory she had seen, “why don’t we grab a bite to eat first. I can’t talk on an empty stomach.”

She grabbed food from the tall auntie’s stall, a collection of songlotus cakes, tuskpir cakes and a few skewers of berrypheasant. She giggled as Aventurine visibly recoiled upon hearing the soft laugh the songlotus cake let out when you bit into it. Part of her was still rolling with anxiety, she could only hope whatever Misha had turned into had decided to leave the guests alone once they’d departed from the scene.

“So,” Aventurine said as he quickly downed the bottle of puffer goat milk like she told him. “Ugh.” He made a face, “remind me why you like this stuff.”

Stelle touched her hand to the bottom of the bottle, “it’s already cold, you waited too long.”

“You have a very strange taste, Miss Stellaron.” He clicked his teeth, “don’t you want to take the time to enjoy your food.”

“It’s fun this way, keeps you on your toes.” She shrugged, “have you ever tried mung bean soda, it’s really-”

“You aren’t going to get me with that one.”

“Dammit.” She sighed, “right, back on task.”

“Oh so you didn’t forget.”

“What happened while I was gone?”

“Well, two important things. One. Either you have very poor taste in friends or he was being impersonated by someone else. Two. Whoever it was, that was definitely the Watchmaker’s Legacy at work.” Aventurine said, “he was able to stop time within the dreamscape and could freely manipulate it. Seems like something only the Legacy could do.”

She nodded, “sounds right but then... I guess we shouldn’t have hit the bricks.”

“Hah, we were completely outmatched.” He laughed, “though I guess I admire your boldness in thinking we could’ve pulled it off.”

“Sure we could’ve.” She insisted, “Well whatever, at least we know who has it now... or not really.”

“That’s the last part I wanted to mention, I think that that was the Watchmaker.”

“What? How’s that even possible.”

“Who knows, but there have been stranger things.”

“Hmm,” Stelle tried to recall what she had heard about him, “you know, I think he might’ve been a Nameless before getting to Penacony.”

“Really?”

“Just something I heard from a friend.” She said, “if he was then the conductor would definitely know more...”

“What happened while you were unconscious?” He asked as he ripped one of the songlotus cakes in half and took another bite, ignoring the laughter.

“I was in a memory.” She looked for the right words, “uh, your memory, I think.”

He leaned forward, scrutinizing her for a moment before saying, “not a good one it would seem.”

“No,” she admitted as she pointed at the brand on his neck. “It was when you got... Well, that. I mean not the brand but when Diamond bonded you to Qlippoth or something.”

“Ah this.” He grabbed her hand, pulling it forward to place her palm over it. “This small thing, is that all?”

He was downplaying it, she could tell with the low tone his voice took on and the slight tremor in his hand. Aventurine hated it when people saw him while he was vulnerable, it hadn’t taken long for Stelle to figure that out.

“Do you understand why this is so important to me now?” He continued, still holding her hand. “If I succeed here, I’m free. I’ll be promoted to rank P46 and I can kiss goodbye to my sentence. So do you see why I need this, Miss- Stelle?”

She couldn’t look away, even though she wanted to. Even though she couldn’t stand to see the naked desperation in his eyes. “Will you stay with the IPC once your sentence is removed?”

“I’ll be free of death, not the IPC.”

“But. How can you? How can you stand to work with those people?” She brought her free hand up to the side of his face, lightly touching his cheek. “I don’t get it. I just don’t.”

He leaned his face into her hand with a hum, his eyes closing. “Because it is all I have. There is no running from them.”

“That’s not-”

“You’ve had luck, Stelle.” He cut her off, one of his eyes opening. “You ran into a group of well meaning explorers who wanted nothing more than to bring you along for their adventures. If the IPC had found you first, if they had beheld the power you so obviously have. You would understand why there is no running from the Amber Lord and his lunatics.”

“What more could they possibly want from you.”

“Everything.” He sighed, lifting her hand up from the brand to cup his other cheek. “I am an Avgin. My eyes see through any lies, deception or even emotions people might want to hide. It’s why I can always tell what you’re thinking. It’s also why I am so useful to Diamond and the IPC.”

She brings her face closer, brushing a strand of blonde hair out of the way, taking her time to look at his eyes. The ring of blue almost seems to pull her in, she always knew there was something different about them but never... Never anything like that.

“Looking for something?”

“I don’t know.” She whispers, “I guess I still don’t understand you. Are you really free just because the IPC will remove their foot from your neck? You’ll still have to work for them, to do what they tell you.”

“I won’t have to watch my back as much.” He answers, “and I can actually keep the wealth I make for them. That’s freedom. Or it’s the best kind of freedom I can ever get my hands on.”

“What if you just left?”

“And do what?” He laughed, “live the rest of my life on the run.”

“The Nameless have taken on fugitives before.”

“Hah, you are still surprisingly naïve at times. Do you think your friends would really risk antagonizing the IPC for someone like me?”

“If I asked them to, they would.”

“You put a lot more faith in them than you should.”

“It’s faith that they’ve earned, Aventurine.” She lightly pinched the side of his cheek before letting go and crossing her arms. “You should let people help you more.”

“Ow.” He rubbed his cheek and then smiled, “you really are something, Miss Stellaron.”

“I’m just me.”

“That’s true. But really,” he frowned, “you should worry about yourself, Stelle. Don’t you know what the Stellaron Hunters have planned for you.”

“What do you mean?” She tilted her head. “If I knew, I doubt I’d be in this mess. Wait, wait, that memory you saw. You never told me what really happened in it.”

“You were with Kafka and Blade, on Corranthium-II, it was your last mission together.” He recited with a calm voice, “I don’t know what you were doing there. You and Kafka got into, I don’t know if I’d call it an argument but you had a rather serious discussion.”

“About what?” He was being too vague. Stelle could also tell it was all an attempt to pull the conversation away from him.

“Your fate.”

She waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t, crossing his arms and looking at her expectantly.

“Trying to read my mind?” She said as she picked up the last of the tuskpir cake and shoved it into her mouth.

“I don’t need to and that’s not how it works.”

“Going to elaborate?”

“I don’t think I should.” His voice dipped low, “sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“I’m the one who brought it up.” She wiped crumbs off her mouth, “tell me, I want to know.”

“It’s not anything good, Stelle.” He shook his head.

“You don’t get to keep this from me.” She huffed, “it’s my life, you can’t just decide to withhold something from me because it-”

“Might hurt you.” He cut her off, “fine, your life. There’s a chance that you don’t survive whatever plan the Stellaron Hunters have for you. Kafka was asking you if you wanted to quit, she said that if you wanted out, she would help you.”

Oh. Her eyes widened as she considered the weight of his words. Kafka who had always seemed so steadfast in fulfilling Elio’s goals. Kafka who had assured her that everything was going to work out one way or another. Stelle didn’t think it was possible for a woman like her to have any doubts.

“I-” She tightened her fist, “what did I answer?”

He gave her a long look, “that you didn’t care.”

“Hah,” She ran a hand through her hair, “so I got myself into this mess.”

“Not upset about the first part?”

“Somehow, the second part feels worse.” Stelle sighed, “Kafka’s always- I don’t know, made it seem like there had never been any doubt in the path I had to take. So hearing that she was willing to help me step away is a bit- I don’t know, I guess I just can’t believe it. Tell me, how bad are my odds?”

“They’re fine.” He said, Stelle could tell he was lying, there was the slightest wince in his voice.

“Okay.” She stood up, “I’m going to go hit something. Be right back.”

She didn’t wait for an answer or a reaction. Grasping her bat tightly in her hands, she walked up to a nearby set of crates. She smashed through them, reveling in the feeling of the wood splintering to reveal what was inside them. In the few moments where she’d ever been truly angry, she usually went looking for a fight. It was a bad habit but it felt ingrained in her. When she was lucky, Dan Heng was there to be her sparring partner and make sure she got her frustration out in a safe way. When he wasn't, she usually went for a walk into the fragmentum or into the restricted section of Herta’s Space Station.

She smashed through the crates, reveling in the feeling of the wood splintering to reveal what was inside them.

It was a series of vases, she took a moment to line them up against a nearby fence before taking turns to swing and send them flying into the abyss. She picked up a few of them, tossing them into the air and shattering them in one hit. Ceramics shards flew around her, a few of them nicked her fingers as she hit another crate. This one has a bunch of mechanical parts, wires and screen stacked on top of one another. She brought her bat down again and again until her hands hurt and there was nothing but glass shards and bent metal at her feet.

She stopped, leaning forward on her bat as her breath came in fast waves. She could feel her head spin, her knees buckling as she almost fell into the sharp glass. Aventurine took that moment to appear at her side, his arms going around her shoulders to haul her back to her feet.

“Done?” He asked as he pulled her closer, one arm going around her stomach.

“Yeah,” she sighed, “yeah, I think I’m done.”

“Let’s get you cleaned up.”

He didn't say a word as he sat her down on a nearby staircase, removing her own med pack from her coat to grab the healing spray. Stelle ruminated silently as he tugged her half-torn gloves off and sprayed the small cuts that dotted them.

“See, this is why I didn’t want to tell you.” He said as he placed the spray back into the med pack.

“No, no, this is good. I’m glad I know.” she chuckled half-heartedly, “so I’m going to die fighting Nanook, that’s great.”

“It’s not a done deal.”

“Why do you have a number or something?”

“Thirty-percent chance.”

“That I live?”

“That you die.” He clarified, “those aren’t bad odds, I would take them.”

Oh. That wasn’t as terrible as she thought it would be. She got the slightest feeling that he was still lying to her but it didn’t matter. It was most likely going to happen in the distant future anyway, there was no use dwelling in it.

“You’re lucky, you know.” He said as he turned her palm, running a hand over the calluses under her knuckles. “They seemed to really care about you.”

“Yeah,” she remembered the memory in the cave, the gentleness with which Sam had treated her. It had been a stark contrast to what they were like now, sending bursts of fire at each other's heads. “I guess I must’ve been.”

“You’re still lucky, Miss Stellaron.” He smiled, “or does the express crew care so little about you?”

“That’s true.” She scratched at the side of her arm as Aventurine sat next to her.

He shuffled through his pockets for a bit before removing his phone. She watched through the side of her eye as he scrolled through his photo album. It was mostly pictures taken from presentations slides, or of impressive looking sunsets. She noticed that Topaz was in a few of them, usually making a face. He stopped at a grainy picture of a young woman and a young boy. The colors on it were faded but the individuals on the picture both had the same light blonde hair and pink-purple tint in their eyes. The woman had her hands on the boy's shoulders, a wide smile on her face and a large brimmed hat sitting behind her head. Their clothing was made of large swathes of bright colors that had long faded due to sun exposure.

“Is that you?” She asked as she leaned closer to him.

“My and my sister,” he answered with a distant smile, “she saved up for a whole month so we could go to a professional photo booth. This is the only picture I have of her.”

Aventurine’s eyes looked a lot warmer, his lips were slit into a toothy grin revealing a gap where he had recently lost his tooth. He was wearing a snug hat and holding what looked like a wooden lion tightly in his hands.

“You were a cute kid.”

“I was a complete nightmare.” He chuckled, “I don’t know how she did it.”

“Really?” Stelle said, “What did you do that was so bad?”

“All sorts of stuff really,” he turned his phone off, “we didn’t really have school or any sort of place to go as kids so mostly we were left to run around the streets of the settlements. We used to have these huge battle royals with everyone in the neighborhood, we’d use rotten desert fruit as artillery and make up fake allegiances and kingdoms. Of course, once you were old enough you were expected to work but... My sister tried to ward that off as long as she could. Then there was that time I made a bet against my life to retrieve a necklace that was stolen from her. She was not a fan of that one...”

“You sound very fond of her.” Stelle could hear the lightness in his voice when he mentioned her, covered in a film of grief. “She must’ve taken good care of you.”

“She tried.” He shrugged, “until the very end, she- Hah, I guess there’s no use thinking about that anymore. I can only hope she wouldn’t be too disappointed in me.”

“I’m sure she’d be happy to hear you made it out, that you’re doing... well, relatively well.”

“A kind way to put it, friend.” He scooched closer to her, “and you, I’m guessing Kafka erased any signs of your childhood too.”

“I don’t know if I even had one. Maybe I came out like this, all fully formed.” She said, resting her shoulder to his. “I know Kafka was the one who trained me, taught me everything I know. I can sense, I guess, that she’s very important to me.”

“She sounded like she cared.” Aventurine said while grabbing her hand.

“I think she does but I also think she’s too wrapped up in the script at this point to help me.” Stelle watched as he ran a thumb over her palm, it sent ghost-like shivers down her spine. “And besides, I have March and Dan Heng and Himeko and Mr. Yang and Pom-Pom and all those dozen other friends I’ve made. I can hardly say I’m lonely but-”

“Sometimes all you really want is that one person and it doesn’t matter how many other people are around you because they aren’t them.”

“Yeah.” She let her head fall onto his shoulder. There was a slight chill in the air that had been mounting since they landed in Aureum alley and he was warm.

“Kafka’s still alive.” He said, “you haven’t missed your chance quite yet, you know.”

“I know, I’m just worried I won’t have sorted out everything I feel about her before it’s... too late I guess.”

“I’m all that’s left of my people.” He said it so calmly that Stelle was unsure she’d heard him properly. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing anyone could say so casually. “I taught myself how to read when I was twelve. I would steal scraps of paper from the streets and try to get some of the other... slaves to tell me what they meant. It was a painfully agonizing process, I thought I’d give up a dozen times. But I held on because I felt like it was what I owed them. People have said hundreds of untruths about us and our way of life. I thought that as the last survivor, I would have to be the one to write our history. My clan kept most of our history in the form of the spoken word, our stories were recorded on these wax tubes and kept in caverns to protect them from exposure to the elements. Most of it was lost after the massacre but I always had these fantasies of finding them somehow.

“That’s a noble goal.”

“It didn’t end up happening, as you can tell.” He shook his head, “I got distracted by my own needs. Security, food, wealth. I think the scope of it all scared me.”

“You tried, that’s more than what most people would’ve done.”

“You’re giving me more grace than I would.” He brushed a strand of her hair to the side, tucking it behind her ear. “I guess I had a point with all of this... Right, I realized that no matter how much I tried to recall and write about the Avgin, it would never really replace what I’d lost. What I regretted most was how much I left unsaid. I don’t think I ever told her once how much she meant to me. How much I appreciated all the sacrifices she made for our sake. I thought I had time and I didn’t. So do better than me, Stelle.”

March had always warned her that she became attached too quickly. She’d taken to telling her that after Stelle had admitted to doing a midnight run to grab medication for Natasha in Belebog and then continued on warning her about it from that point on. The worst had been when she’d spent a whole night chasing down one of Ruan Mei’s creatures through the space station. She had stumbled back onto the express with scraped knees, a bad cut along the side of her arm and exhaustion plain on her face. March had spent a good hour yelling to her about being irresponsible and reckless. She’d also prepared a cup of warm tea for her and wrapped her up in a warm blanket but the lecture had felt more pressing.

She was self-aware of it, this sort of bleeding heart she had when it came to other people. But she couldn’t really help it, people were so wonderful and interesting and full of a million possibilities and stories. Stelle had so little of that herself that she felt the need to bask in the presence of others. To absorb all the little quirks in their character built by years of living that she lacked.

Aventurine was more interesting than most people she’d met. For someone so young, she felt like he’d lived a life worth four lifetimes. More importantly, she found that she just liked being with him. She liked watching the quirks in his face when he was struggling not to laugh, liked the feeling his hands ghosting over her, like the various intonations his voice would take when he was trying to be convincing. She liked that he didn’t take himself too seriously, enjoyed watching how meticulous he was with his own appearance. Loved the kindness baked into him that he fought hard to suppress but that always poked its head out in the end.

And right now, she liked the feeling of his side pressed to hers, the soft caress in his hands and the melancholic happiness shining in his eyes.

“I’m sure she knew.” Stelle said finally, “but you’re right, I should say more... I’ll start with you.”

“You have something to tell me, Miss Stellaron?”

“I do.” She nodded, shifting over to grab both of his hands and hold them in her lap. “I think that once this is all over, you should tell Himeko and Mr. Yang what you told me about the IPC.”

“You’re still going on about that. To what end, Miss Stellaron?”

“To the end of helping you get out.”

“Hah, Stelle.” He freed one hand to run it down his face.

“Listen,” She pulled it away. “They’re a lot more experienced with this stuff than me but I know for a fact that the Nameless have helped others get away from the IPC’s eye in the past. And besides, there’s no love lost between them and Himeko. I know she’ll help you and if she helps you then so will the rest of the crew. My solution might only amount to taking a bat to whoever is threatening you but they’re clever. They’ll know how to get around it better than me.”

“I don’t think-”

“Just tell me you’ll consider it.” She interrupted, “please, friend.”

“Fine.” He said with slight reluctance in his voice, “I will consider pouring my heart out for your Nameless friends in hope they’ll take pity on me and risk the wrath of the IPC for my sake.”

“They’ve risked it before.”

“For people with much more integrity and worth than me.” He stood up, loosely grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet.

“You have all of that.”

“Aren’t I lucky that such a pretty girl thinks so highly of me.” He chuckled, “now, I spy a door that wasn’t here before, don’t you think it’s time we moved on.”

Notes:

Early chapter today since I have a train to catch tomorrow and won't have my computer for the next week. Will resume with the same schedule next week. So in advance, have fun with update 2.2 and good luck to anyone going for Topaz or Robin!

All's Fair in Penacony - dubonpied - 崩坏:星穹铁道 (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Chrissy Homenick

Last Updated:

Views: 6488

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Chrissy Homenick

Birthday: 2001-10-22

Address: 611 Kuhn Oval, Feltonbury, NY 02783-3818

Phone: +96619177651654

Job: Mining Representative

Hobby: amateur radio, Sculling, Knife making, Gardening, Watching movies, Gunsmithing, Video gaming

Introduction: My name is Chrissy Homenick, I am a tender, funny, determined, tender, glorious, fancy, enthusiastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.