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Don't Stop Me Now (please stop me later)

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I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This piece of shit Caveling had used Shiro and I to get back their stupid worthless treasures? I could’ve used that reward staff! Shiro had to revive me so many times, and for nothing? They totally scammed us! I faintly heard Bag saying something about how the Collector’s Rules meant we couldn’t attack NPCs, but I didn’t care. My grip tightened on my staff as I clenched my fists angrily, the cool metal slipping in my sweaty palms. Dammit, the only reason I’m a Collector in the first place is because Shiro got lucky and found that card, so really that just means she’s the real Collector here! I’m just… a party member… which means I’m not bound by their rules, probably? That obnoxious laughter rang out again, echoing around the damp stone walls, grating on my nerves. Bag growled at me to go, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I shifted my grip on the staff, holding it like the iron sword I used to use.

 

What happened next surprised even me, the ferocity of the attack catching me off guard. “Woah kid, what the ‘ell! I’m not a monster, remember? You can’t attack me! Collector’s Rules!” yelped the Caveling (whose name I hadn’t bothered remembering). I bared my teeth and growled, swinging again.

 

“Do I look like I care, shitstain?! You scammed us! We waded through poison and monsters and who knows how many puzzles to find that useless shit, then you turn around and say that you found it?!” I snarled, dimly registering this was probably the first time I’d spoken since leaving the town for Tai Ming. Shiro and I were rarely apart, so she tended to do more of the talking.

 

“Tyler, it’s not worth it. Let’s just go, we can find cooler stuff later.” Shiro said, sounding…..frightened? Worried? Can’t be, Shiro’s too cool of a customer for that. She faced down that hydra thing without batting an eye, why would she be scared of some fight with a stupid Caveling? I turned my glare on her, feeling heat and tingling magic building in my fists.

 

“Stay out of my way, Shiro.” I snarled, before turning back to the Caveling. They had pressed themself against the wall and was now sweating nervously, eyeing my red-lit hands with unease. I grinned darkly, savoring the fear on their face.

 

“H-Hey, kid, no need t’be rash now. W-We can work this out, I-I’ll give you the stuff, just quit it with the creepy magic thing!” stuttered the Caveling, smiling nervously and holding their hands up like they wanted to ward me off.

 

“THIS ISN’T ABOUT THE LOOT ANYMORE!” I screamed, releasing my rage in a powerful inferno. The fireball shot out of my outstretched hands towards the Caveling, my hate and rage fuelling it to greater heights. They screamed, scrunching in on themself, but it petered off when they didn’t immediately fry. As for me? Well, I was pissed.

 

Taking advantage of the friendly fire rule, Shiro had stepped in front of the Caveling and blocked their quivering form with her shield, deflecting my fireball with its icy surface. I scowled, shoulders trembling. “Shiro, what the fuck?!” I snapped, shoulders trembling with fury as I recovered enough to start building another blast.

 

“Come on Tyler, be the bigger man here! ...literally and metaphorically.” She shook her shield towards the Caveling’s general direction, not dropping her guard in fear of more fireballs.

 

Did she just…? “Are you seriously siding with a con artist we just met half an hour ago over me?! You were just as mad as I was not even five minutes ago! Hell, you were ready to bust heads when you saw that two-hander, what gives?” I snapped, dropping the blast in favor of building up lightning instead. Despite her insistence that the world didn’t work like Pokemon, I knew that a dripping ice shield plus some electricity wasn't exactly pleasant, friendly fire be damned.

 

“Tyler, I'm going to speak slowly… You don't want to do this.” Shiro enunciated every syllable painfully slowly, while setting the shield on the floor. “I'm not the one you want to fight.” She kicked the shield, sliding it across the room.

 

I grit my teeth, wincing when I felt my jaw pop. “You’re right, I don’t have any beef with you. So get out of the fucking way so I can fry that little bastard you’re protecting!” I growled. Stray hairs from my ponytail were standing on end, the static buildup in the air almost tangible. Some vain part of me wondered if I looked cool.

 

Shiro, the calmest person I’d ever met, was fidgeting a little, almost as if she was unnerved. “You know I won't move unless you moved me, and I know you don't want to do that.” A hand slid into her bag, almost invisibly, and plucked out the one-handed sword that she had stolen- er, “borrowed” from the Collector’s test. “I also know you're too fast for a two-handed weapon to even get close, so I won’t use it. Just don't make me use this one.”

 

I felt something shift in my chest area with those words, almost like a vague change in my soul. I checked my own stats list quickly and sure enough, right there on the enchanted parchment, it said I wasn’t in a party. Did her threat of fighting me break the party contract? I wasn’t sure, nobody had ever explained how it worked officially. I glared at her, stuffing away the paper in my own bag. “Like you’d even be able to touch me. I know you, Shiro, and I know how you fight.” I sneered, taking a step back out of her reach. Truth be told, I was a little nervous. She could kick my ass in melee, and her magic wasn’t half bad either, despite me being the one with a greater inclination towards it. If I got into a direct battle with her, I knew I’d lose. Unfortunately, I also knew she wouldn’t kill me, instead opting to keep me alive in case I “changed my mind” or whatever. I tapped the back of my earrings carefully, making sure they wouldn’t fall out if I did happen to get into a battle. Just in case, I didn’t want to lose the health boost.

 

“I know when you're lying, I can almost feel your nerves.” She wasn't even holding her sword up anymore, it was down to her side. How cocky.

 

I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t fucking patronize me, Shiro! If you’re gonna fight me, then don’t be a coward! Do it! Fucking kill me, don’t just stand there talking shit!” I yelled, loosing the lighting blast and following up with a tiny fireball.

 

Shit. Shit shit shit. The thrusting move. She jumped back, the fireball disappeared as she glowed blue for a split second, then all I could see was a silver glint flying towards my face. I thought I was dead, but I just felt a hard metal sheet against my face. “Come on Tyler, be more mature than this.” She had slapped me… WITH A SWORD!

 

My brain had shut down for a second. The stinging pain where her sword had hit me brought me back to reality, and I cautiously poked it. My fingers came away bloody from where the sharp edges had dug into my face when the flat side hit me. I wasn’t sure how to react. Do I get angry? Do I surrender? What the fuck are you supposed to do when someone bitchslaps you with a sword?!

 

“Sorry about the cuts, better than the tip, right?” She chuckled. How dare she laugh at me, after slapping me. With. A. Sword! I started shaking, seething with anger. Her laughter echoed in the small cavern, worming its way into every crevice of my brain. How dare she?! How dare she mock me, laugh in my face after humiliating me like that?! I wouldn’t forgive her. No, I couldn’t forgive her.

 

“......shut up.” I muttered through clenched teeth, fighting down the urge to punch her square in the nose. If I got any closer, she’d have an even easier time hitting me. I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

 

“Huh?” She stepped closer, “What was that?” In my rage, I clearly mistook genuine confusion for mockery. Sword at her side once again, she took a few more steps, closing the distance between us to less than 3 feet.

 

“I said SHUT UP!” I screamed, accidentally losing my grip over my magic. It was only for a second, but it was long enough for flames to roar up behind me, casting her face into stark relief. I glared into her eyes, hair whipping around my face as my hat fell to the ground behind me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?! You have no right to act like you’re better than me, like I’m somehow less of a person than you just because we don’t follow the same damn rules!” I raged, swinging my slightly melted staff at her with all the force I could muster.

 

“I wasn't mocking you, I just didn't hear yo- this is no use… he's snapped. Guess we’ll be be fighting then?” Shiro sighed, parrying the swing. Due to the staff being gold, and Shiro’s raw power, the staff sliced cleanly in half. “Uh… whoops.”

 

My eyes widened, and I could feel the drop on my reserves almost immediately. That had been my only weapon. I sold the rest to get money to buy the stuff I needed to make her a better shield. At that point, mercy was the last thing on my mind. Hell, even the Caveling that started this whole shitstorm was shoved out of my thoughts. I dropped the useless metal on the ground, growling low in my throat. I hope she didn’t want a fair fight, because I’m not about to hold back. Every dirty trick and weakness I learned while sparring with her in preparation for the exam was coming into play. I wouldn’t go easy on her.

 

--

 

“Look, Tyler, I’m sorry. It was an accident.” I choked out. I've never seen him this… crazy? I started to back away from him, I needed my shield, it’s probably melted by now. “I-I can get you a new staff! A better one!” I couldn't stay calm, as hard as a tried. I was silently preparing to fight him.

 

Gone was the quiet, kinda wimpy kid he had started as. In his place stood...this. No wonder Dad always said meddling in magic was dangerous, because hell if he didn’t look scary right now. I wiped my palms on my leggings, shifting my grip on my sword. I doubt there’s any way to get out of this without a fight, at this point. “Oh, are you scared now? You gonna run away back to Evergrind, tell your Daddy I lost it?” he asked, voice sickly sweet and crooning. It didn’t match at all with the murderous smile he was wearing.

 

“Tyler…” I kept repeating his name, even though it didn't even fit anymore. “Don't do anything you'll regret.” I was almost able to reach my shield, almost. Suddenly a whip made of fire shot past me and smacked my shield to the other side of the cave. “Damn… guess I’ll be going without, huh?”

 

He laughed cruelly, smirking down at me. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want your shield? Don’t you remember that you never needed it before? When we tested it back in that temple? Don’t tell me we both consider the party over!” he gasped, clapping his hands to his face and pouting, the searing heat filling the room and making the slime on the walls evaporate.

 

“The party was over when you lost it…” I muttered, holding my sword up. “Let's get it over with then, of you're gonna attack me.” I bounced slightly, preparing my legs to dodge. “I'm not taking the first strike.”

 

He sneered at me, clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white, a sharp contrast to his normally tanned skin. “The party was over when you defended that Caveling, or did you not bother checking the Stat List? Oh wait, that’s right. You were too busy drawing another weapon, huh?” he snapped, particles of magic starting to swirl around his fists as he started to glow an angry red.

 

“Defending the caveling, when you lost it, what's the difference?” I was practically jumping at this point, I didn't know how this… thing was gonna attack, so I had to be ready for anything. Two handed or not, I was faster than him. At least, faster than he was.

 

“The difference, Shiro, is that one of those times was NOT MY FAULT!” he screamed, letting loose with a stream of fire. The hatred he injected into my name… I didn’t realize one word could cause my heart to crack.

 

I barely had time to roll out of the way, that fire definitely would have hurt, if not worse. Taking the near dodge as an opening, I ran in and hit him on the head with the hilt of my sword. I don't want to kill him, but he’ll surely kill me if I don't do something. I knew immediately after, that wasn't a good idea. He rubbed the spot where I slammed my sword, then glared at me. I made him angrier. “Look, you don't have to do this. When you stop, I'll stop.”

 

At least the flames had died down… Maybe the shock of all his wounds was finally getting through to him. “Quit trying to make this out to be my fault, dammit… Why couldn’t you just let me get the Caveling, what’s so different from them and all the other monsters we fight?” he asked quietly. That wasn’t the surprising part, though. No… What really surprised me were the tears welling up in his eyes as he said it. Had I...been wrong?

 

“The cavelings, as annoying and shitty as they are, have feelings.” I sighed, lowering my sword, “He might have used us, but that's part of being a Collector… kinda.” I walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder, “You just ignore the rude people and keep collecting.”

 

Normally, this kind of pep talk would result in a small smile, maybe a watery chuckle before we both kept on going. This time, though… This time, I forgot one very, very important detail.

 

His rage.

 

His hand shot up to grip my wrist, but his head didn’t move an inch. “Shiro… You forgot something…” he mumbled. His grip tightened and his head tilted up, a creepy smile marring his features as shadows danced across his face. “I’m not a Collector. Those rules and ideas don’t apply to me. You’re the one who found the card, remember?” he said sweetly, nearly crushing my wrist bones in his hand.

 

In fear for my wrist’s health, I delivered a swift kick to his ribs, causing him to stagger backwards. This staggering gave me enough of a chance to grab his arm and flip him onto his back. “I found the card, but I wouldn't have been able to of not for your help, you dork!” I half shouted in his face.

 

He struggled to get out from under me, but he’d always sucked at grappling. “Not true! You’re so much better than me in fighting… In everything! You solved the puzzles, I just messed them up! With that swing of yours, my attacks are practically as dangerous as throwing fucking dandelions at someone! You’re better than me, Shiro, and everyone knows it! I just wanted to do something for you for once, and I thought that maybe if I could get those things for you that you'd finally respect me! That you’d finally recognize me as your equal, instead of a wimpy little shrimp who’s only good for soul shields!” he argued, trying to free a hand to spark another fireball.

 

“I'm not better than you at everything! You're way better than me at magic and that stuff. I don't have the slightest clue how to make half of that stuff you do happen. All I can do is summon that snowman.” I regrabbed his hands so he couldn't shoot me in the face with fire or lightning. “I can't fish either, or do anything besides melee fighting and strategy.”

 

“Magic isn’t something you’d do anyway, not with how your dad is… I’m sure that if you grew up in a house like mine, you’d welcome the chance to use it. It’s… addicting. Powerful. Without preconceived notions of what it is and isn’t, you’d probably take to it like a fish to water. Which is why…. I can’t let you try it. I’m better than you at one thing and I refuse to have you take it from me!” he snarled, snapping out of his calm daze. He bit his lip, a look of intense concentration spreading over his face. His skin started superheating, causing me to grit my teeth through the blistering pain. He smiled darkly. “If you ever want to hold a sword again, I’d recommend letting go.” he threatened.

 

I’d have to let go before my hands melted, but I noticed his clothes were still cool. In the swiftest motion I could manage with burnt hands, I folded a hand over his chest, pulled his shirt over my knee, and pinned his arm to his chest. Unfortunately, I forgot about his second hand. He lifted his hand to my face and summoned a fireball. I realized my mistake and the fact that I couldn't dodge this one, so I turned my head and prepared for the worst.

 

“Nice try. Reeeeeeal clever. But even you’re just human.” he said coldly, the heat getting closer and closer to my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut and bit my lip, tensing for pain when his hand landed on my cheek. Oddly enough, all I felt was a small shock. I heard him cursing under his breath, something about the Stat Sheet, but I couldn’t make it all out.

 

“What?” I stood up and pulled out the Stat Sheet, and started to laugh. “Well would you look at that?” Smiling, I put a hand out to pull him up.

 

He batted it away, grumbling. He looked like a grumpy kitten, all pouty and bedraggled. His hair had fallen out of his ponytail, the dark blue locks sticking to his face. “I’m still mad at you.” he grumbled, but at least there was a little less heat behind it.

 

“Oh come on, you're too dorky to be an ultra badass.” I laughed harder, walking to get my shield. “Leave that to the boys, alright?” I whipped around and gave him a concerned look, “I was joking. That was a joke.”

 

--

 

I felt my face flush, embarrassment rolling over me in waves. I can’t believe I let it go that far… I nearly killed her, just for something stupid like revenge. “Please don’t tell your dad...You know how he feels about my magic, and...what he said he’d have to do if it ever got out of control…” I whispered, the guilt eating away at me.

 

I expected her to be mad, but she was still laughing. “Seriously? I might be rude, but I'm not a total bitch. Why would I tell him if I handled it? ...for the most part.” Suddenly, two pieces of a staff, my staff, landed at my feet. “I’ll pay for the blacksmith to fix it, it’s too good to leave here.”

 

I blinked in surprise, before picking it up. “T-thanks…” I said, smiling slightly and ducking my head. I considered the pieces for a minute, before looking up. “Hey… If I were to patch these together and put them in Snowman Dan to cool, d’you think he’d attack me?” I asked, slightly nervous. That snow golem was waaay more bloodthirsty than any creature his size had any right to be.

 

“Probably, but I can do it for you.” she sighed, “One more thing…” Oh no. Here it comes… The after-battle awkwardness where everyone tries to figure out the new dynamic. Did she not trust me anymore? Did she not want to fix it yet, at least not until we were back on neutral ground? Was...Was she still scared of me…?

 

She practically teleported in front of me, grabbed my collar and pulled me close to her face. “Attack me again, and I won't use the flat parts of my sword. Got it?” I nodded frantically, before she let go of me, “Good! Then let's go, we have items to collect!” She said all of this with a smile, what was she, a monster? A demon? My sister?!

 

Definitely some kind of demon, I decided. Nobody can bounce back from a threat like that to pretending nothing happened in the span of a second. I sighed silently, drooping as she turned, and watched her walk away through the door the Caveling was guarding.

 

She never saw me glare at them, a few orange sparks dancing threateningly between my fingers.

 

“C-COLLECTOR LADY!! YER FRIEND!” the Caveling screeched, running straight into Shiro and grabbing onto her waist.

 

Shiro looked at the Caveling, trying to pry it off with her two handed Lamp thing. “Ew, get off of me, he’s chilled out now.” She got sick of it grappling on to her waist, so she started kicking. I snickered, closing my hand to douse the sparks before going to help her pry off the hooded gremlin. “TYLER! THIS LIVING BOOGER WON'T LET ME GO!”

 

“Chill, Shiro! I’m coming!” I laughed, clapping my hands together to spark the shield around us before tapping the Caveling on the shoulder. Stooping down to look it in the eye, I smiled pleasantly. “You know NPCs aren’t supposed to attack Collectors right? Why, I’m pretty sure that only mobs do that.” I said, voice just as pleasant, but hiding a sharp edge.

 

The Caveling’s eyes were perfect circles, it clearly understood the threat and ran back to where it was. “Wow Tyler, you managed to scare something. Good job, you've levelled up from girl to slightly less girl. Maybe even woman!” Shiro jabbed a finger into my ribs, as much as I knew she was joking, I wanted to punch her again.

 

I ended up blushing and shoving her, covering my face with my hands. “Shirooooooo…..” I whined, embarrassed. “Not all of us can be mega-scary badasses like you!” I added, peeking out through my fingers at her.

 

“Was that a comeback or are you hitting on me?” She laughed. She doesn't quit, my life of mockery will be permanent. I'm gonna punch her.

 

I punched her. Lightly, but it was still a punch. “Cut it out, Shiro! You’re embarrassing me!” I said, electing to ignore the “hitting on me” part. I stalked off through the open door, blushing pink to the tips of my ears.

 

“Tyler! I was jooooking!!!” She jogged after me, trying not to laugh, “I know you wouldn't hit on me, you like Luuuuke too much.” she jabbed my shoulder, “Just tell him how you feel, I already know he’s into you.”

 

My eyes widened, and even as my blush deepened into shades of red nobody’s ever seen before, I turned to face her. “He is? Did he tell you something? C’mon Shiro, please you can’t just say something like that and then clam up it’s not faaaaiiirrrrr…..” I begged, looking up at her with my best puppy eyes.

 

“I can’t, I’ve said too much.” she laughed, poking my tomato-cherry-ruby red cheeks. “I totally didn't know you actually liked him! That's adorable!”

 

I pouted, looking away. “You’re mean.” I whined, shivering as her icy hands poked my cheeks. A thought occurred to me, and I turned to her with wide eyes. Yep, exactly as I thought. A devious smirk crossed her face, the one she dubbed her “I Have a Plan” face. Unfortunately, it was usually “I Have a Plan to Embarrass Tyler” face. “Shiro, no. You can’t tell him, please. I know he’s dumber than a box of rocks but seriously even Luke won’t think you’re joking if you tell him directly.” I begged.

 

Oh no, the smirk has turned into a full on grin, the kind insane people do. “I’m gonna tell him.” she did her best rich lady ohoho laugh, “or maybe I'll tell him I like him, he iiiiis kinda cute.”

 

“Shiro no please if you love me at all please don't.” I pleaded, face getting redder by the second. I was practically hanging off her scarf now, pouting up at her.

 

“Don’t tell him I like him? Or maybe you don’t want your feelings to be known?” She ohoho’d even harder, basically trying to drive me insane. “You better act quickly, I hear Richy McMoney is trying to make moves on Luke.”

 

My eyes narrowed and I growled angrily. “Not if I have anything to say about it. Shiro, get your stuff, Tai Ming can wait. We need to go back to Evergrind right now.” I said, already pulling out my map and opening a portal.

 

“Woah man, I didn’t think you’d be that motivated!” She laughed, hopping into the portal, “Let’s go get your boyfriend back from the clutches of money.”

Chapter Text

BACK IN OLD EVERGRIND

 

We stepped out of the portal, the tear barely having time to close behind Shiro before I was off looking for Luke. “Tyler, wait! You don’t even know where he is!” Shiro called, running to catch up with me. I looked back and grinned, beckoning her through the arch.

 

“I have a pretty good idea, so just go with it!” I said. I squashed down all my nerves and opened the door to the Collector HQ, and sure enough he was still standing by the notice board. And, just my luck, Marino was there with him. He had this stupid lovestruck look on his face, like he was hanging onto every word that came out of Luke’s mouth. The worst part is that my idiot crush didn’t notice a thing. Maybe “dumber than a box of rocks” was underestimating him.

 

I swallowed my nerves again, shoving my hat back onto my head and settling my features into grim determination. I marched up to Luke, spun him around, stood up on my tiptoes and planted a kiss right on his mouth.

 

….or I would have, if I hadn’t turned tail at the door. I’m so pathetic.

 

“NOPE NOPE NOPE! GET YER ASS IN THERE!” Shiro literally yelled, shoving me back inside, “GO AND KISS HIM ON THE FACE- LUKE! KISS HIM ON THE FACE! RIGHT ON THE FACE!

 

“shiro nooooooo…” I whined quietly, collapsing in the doorway.

“What? Oh, hey Shiro! Kiss who?” That stupid, lovable, adorable idiot! No please don’t come over here oh god I think my face is gonna burst into flames. I peeked up at Shiro, giving her the best glare I could under the circumstances.

 

“Shiro don’t do it I swear to god.” I warned, voice edging on the verge of panic.

 

“This nerd! Right here!” She screeched, pointing at me, Shiro why?! I was too afraid to look up. “He likes you, and he almost turned around and ran away because he was too afraid to tell you.” She stomped her foot and crossed her arms, “NOW K-”

 

I jumped up and covered her mouth before she could spill anything else. I turned to face Luke, a wild, hysterical smile stretching across my face. “Noooo don’t listen to her she’s spewing lies hahaha you know Shiro such a joker we’ll just be going now bye!” I said quickly, nearly bursting out into hysterical giggling. Oh god I think I’m gonna die of embarrassment somebody call my mother.

 

Unfortunately, Shiro is better than me at melee fighting and grappling… grappling . She grabbed my arm, spun me around, pinned my arm to my back, and shoved my body into Luke’s. “Now kiss.”

Luke shrugged, smiling that accommodating smile of his. The one he uses when he’s trying to avoid making a scene or a conflict. That was probably the worst part about all of this. I didn’t want my first kiss to be a pity number. “Y-you don’t have to if you don’t want to Shiro’s just being mean again y’know aaaahahahhahaha…” I stuttered nervously, looking up at him.

 

“Huh? Man, are you bein’ serious right now? Of course I’ll kiss you!” Luke smiled, tilting my face up. My eyes widened and I blushed heavily. I barely had time to get a word out before he was laying a simple, chaste kiss on my lips. I just about exploded with happiness. He pulled away and beamed sunnily at me. “So, was that like a bet or a dare or something? I’m always willing to help out a friend, no need to get so worked up over it!” he said, oblivious to my crushing disappointment.

 

“No, Luke, this was not a dare or a bet. It was love.” Shiro stated bluntly, as if it wasn’t related to emotion at all. “Cause this gir- I mean, boy right here likes you. And I know for a fact that you like guys, so,” she shoved me into him again, “love him.”

 

“SHIRO I SWEAR!” I yelled, pushing away from Luke to tackle her. “I’m gonna kick your ass again, don’t make me do it!” I cried, beating my fists uselessly onto her chest as she just laughed at me. I tried my best to look threatening, buuuut the effect was probably ruined by the fact that my face was bright red and my hair was sticking up everywhere.

 

“Oh, well I didn’t realize.” Of course you didn’t Luke, you cute sack of potatoes. “Obviously I like you, you’re a great guy! You might even be my best friend.” He smiled his dumb smile.

 

F-Friend…? Is… Is that all…?

 

My shock and anguish must have showed on my face, but lucky for me Shiro was the only one to see the tears in my eyes. Just...a friend...It’s probably Marino, huh? I knew that rich bastard was up to something!

 

“Well… u-uuh, who else is your “best friend”?” Shiro pretty much dropped me and leaned into Luke’s face. “Am I a “best friend”?” She was steadily getting more disgruntled by the second.

 

I kind of tried to tune it out, not wanting my heart to break any more than it already had. I curled up by the banister, burying my face in my knees. I spared a peek over to the message board, where I had last seen Marino. He was still there, but his expression was different. He looked...smug. Like he knew this would be the outcome. I wanted to smack that stupid smirk right off his poncey mug.

 

--

 

“I would say so, yeah!” Luke chuckled, putting a hand on my shoulder. I slid it off with an offended look. “I have a lot of best friends.”

 

“Do you even know what “best friend” means Luke? I don’t think you do!” I shoved his shoulder, but stopped when I noticed Tyler giving Marino the death glare. I know we all dislike him, but since the festival we had all been alright… right?

 

--

 

When Luke broke away from our conversation to see who was at the door, I had been unpleasantly jolted back to reality. When he ended up kissing one of those grimy adventurers, I nearly snapped the plant next to me in half in a fit of irrational jealousy. What did he have that I didn’t?! Thankfully, Luke put a stop to any delusions of love he may be having….in probably one of the cruelest ways possible. Bravo, Luke. I’m so proud of you.

 

Shiro looked at me, and mouthed the words run for your sad, miserable life , but I only caught run. “Why should I run? I’m very much enjoying the show!” I laughed, like that shrimp would be able to do anything.

 

--

 

That’s it. He’s fucking dead . I surged to my feet, angrily building up a lightning attack. “I knew it, you bastard!” I snarled, launching myself towards his face with my sparking hands. This time, I knew it’d hurt. I’m not in a party with this motherfucker, that’s for damn sure.

 

“Nice try, but you’ll have to be fa-” I grabbed his face mid-taunt, I don’t have the patience nor the care to wait for his stupid annoying voice to finish. I let out the entirety of my charged up electricity, and fried his face beyond recognition. It felt… good. It felt really good!

 

“How’s THAT for a nice try?! You idiot, you were too busy taunting and being cocky to even see where I was!” I laughed hysterically, and turned back to Shiro and Luke.”Did you see that guys?! I took down Ma-” My friends ran towards me with cheerful expressions.

 

Or at least… I thought that’s what would happen… I’m so pathetic.

 

They didn’t run to me, they ran past me. They knelt down to Marino and looked back at me in shock and pure terror. “W-What did you do?!” Shiro’s dad yelled from the top floor.

 

I stared down at Marino with wide eyes, the smile still spread painfully wide across my cheeks. “I...I took down Marino…” I whispered, looking down at my hands. Electricity was still jumping between my trembling fingertips, the power still simmering just beneath my skin. “I’m not useless anymore, am I? I mean… I can’t be! All I did was rid the world of another monster.” I said, a bit louder this time. Heavy footfalls registered on the edge of my consciousness, but I paid them no mind. I was too busy reveling in my new levels. He sure did have a lot of EXP...

 

“Shiro, I told you magic was dangerous…” Shiro’s dad said, almost pushing me out of the way. “Why didn’t you listen to me when I told you not to play around with magic?!” He nearly lifted Shiro off of the floor, “This isn’t something you can undo, not even with magic!”

 

“B-But Dad! It wasn’t…” She sputtered, trying to wiggle her feet back to the floor. “Tyler did it, I was just trying to talk to Luke!”

 

He dropped her nearly immediately, turning sharply to face me. The loud thump jolted me back to my senses, and I looked up from my hands (which had stopped sparking at this point). The look he gave me… It’s almost as if he was… expecting this from me. I’m not sure what hurt worse; the look of resignation and disapproval in his eyes, or the fact that he was acting like I was some sort of timebomb. “Tyler… Did you do this? Tell me the truth. Now isn’t the time for your stupid word games or jokes.” he growled, barely restraining his anger.

 

“Jeez, old man, is it really so shocking? I’m sure I don’t know watt you’re talking about.” I replied, the puns instinctual. I couldn’t help it, he looked so scary! It was a panic response. I guess you could say I was... pun icking.

 

In an completely unexpected twist of events, Shiro’s dad punched me in the face. “I told you not to joke right now! This is serious!” He shouted, as I lied on the floor in pain, holding my face.

 

“Dad… you didn’t have to punch him…” Shiro muttered, shuffling her feet. “I agree what he did was totally wrong, but you’re like 3 people compared to him!” Shiro’s dad looked down at her and sighed.

 

“I guess you have a point.” He put his hand out towards me. “Let me help you up.”

 

I raised an eyebrow. “Thanks.” I said, rubbing my jaw with one hand as I took his with the other. Sparks, probably accidentally, raced up his arm and singed his coat. My eyes widened and I covered my mouth as a few giggles tried to escape. “Sorry, sorry! I guess I just have an electrifying personality!” I laughed, ducking the punch from Shiro that came from my other side. “Oh come on Shiro, that was hilarious! No need to be so negative! ” I whined, turning to face her.

 

“Well I’m positive that you’re being an ass!” She yelled, throwing a full force kick into my side. “Apologize for nearly frying my dad!”

 

“Oh please, he survived a dragon attack! You sure you shouldn’t focus on the dead guy down there?” I asked, motioning one newly-sparking hand towards Marino. That bastard deserved what he got. “Although personally, I think he looks better all charred and crispy. Not so smug anymore, huh?” I added, grinning.

 

“Are you implying something you don’t want to imply?” Shiro’s dad loomed over me, having let go of my hand. “Because if you are, you’re going to regret it.” His eyes flaming, almost literally. Or actually literally holy shit...

 

“Aaaaahahahaha, jeez, don’t get so fired up , old man! Don’t wanna overstock the barbeque, now do ya?” I laughed, eyes locked on the flames. Oh god. Oooooooh shit. This is veeeery not good. This is the exact opposite of good. Why the fuck didn’t anyone tell me he had magic?!

 

It was his hand now, his whole hand was on fire, I can’t do that, how can he do that?! “Apologize.” Shit. Shit shit shitshitshit. He’s angry. I don’t quite know how to respond, but self, whatever you do. Don’t make another damn pun you moron!

 

“Oh come on, you sure you wanna bring the corpse counter up to three? Might wanna chill out before you do something else you’ll regret.” I said, smirking. Dammit. What the fuck. Why. Am I seriously that much of a glutton for punishment? I bit my lip and stealthily raised my shield, bracing for pain.

 

Shiro’s dad snapped, and sparks flew from his fingers. A circle of flames surrounded me. Well shit… “You’ve made quite the mistake, haven’t you?” He had been looking slightly down towards his feet, but he looked up at me. If we can recall back, I had the exact same look when I snapped mentally, but he was completely calm. He snapped again, and waved his hand in this strange pattern, and a flame bolt shot into my back. Another snap, another bolt. “Good luck punning your way out of this one!” He shouted as an ultra forceful front kick was delved deep into my skull.

 

I fell backwards, landing hard in that plant pot. The stem was broken for some reason. Weird. Ooooh ow… Fucking leather boots…. owwww….. “Jeez, ow! What the hell! Do you get a kick out of hurting teenagers?!” I yelped, pushing myself up off the plant pot.

 

He laughed, “No, but I sure as hell enjoy watching you skid across the floor after that.” This was a new emotion from him, I’m sure even Shiro hadn’t seen this… this maniacal expression, this insane look, this… genuinely terrifying person replacing Shiro’s dad. He started tapping his foot, “So you seem to like lightning hmm? How about I show you a thing about-” Suddenly, an aged but wise beyond his years somehow voice called down.

 

“Tanaka! What the hell are you doing?!” I looked up, meeting the eyes of the Collector HQ Head himself, Quintin. Relief washed through my system, and my smile became a touch more genuine. If Quintin was here, then at least I wouldn’t die painfully. Maybe I’d even get a trial first.

 

I think everyone simultaneously looked up, in fear, respect, or a little of both. “I-I was teaching this young Collector a lesson sir!” He snapped into a military posture, saluting the authoritative man. “He crossed the line and I assessed that it was in my jurisdiction to put him back behind the line.”

 

“The ‘line’, what line?! And how the hell is torture supposed to put me back behind this so-called ‘line’?!” I yelped, finally struggling out of the planter. I dusted off the back of my tunic, scowling. “Where do you get off trying to burn me alive? At least the Ponce over there died near-instantly…” I muttered under my breath.

 

“The line of insulting me and my family.” He shouted, reeling back to punch me again, until he realized Mr. Head of the Collector’s HQ was still there. “Hmm, I still believe I was veritably within my rights as a man of high position here.”

 

“High position? High position?! You’re only a researcher! And a shitty one too, me and Shiro do all the fucking work!” I snapped incredulously, windmilling my arms about. What the actual fuck?!

 

“That’s enough! You were both very clearly in the wrong.” Quintin stated forcefully, as old as he was, he was much scarier than even Shiro’s dad. “You will both be heavily punished for this, Tyler for his crime, and Tanaka for his. That is final.” Nobody questioned him, and nobody uttered another sound.




Chapter Text

I knew I was guilty, and I knew at least two other people knew as well. If I had the choice to go back and change this, I wouldn’t take it. Because no matter what, Luke deserves better than pond scum like Marino. He was probably taking advantage of Luke’s obliviousness, manipulating him into a relationship. He probably masterminded the whole thing, laughing behind closed doors about a plan to break my heart.

 

Although, in hindsight? This situation is probably the exact reason teenagers with magic as strong as mine aren’t usually trusted very much.

 

I still don’t regret it.

 

“Tyler, how do you wish to explain your actions?” I still don’t get why Shiro’s dad got to question me, sure, Quintin makes sense, but him ? The guy that beat me senseless gets a say in this?!

 

I glared down at my clenched fists, still trying to hide behind a smile. “He deserves better than pond scum…” I muttered darkly. “Marino was laughing and making fun of me and he wouldn’t shut up but I made him shut up. The levels were just a nice bonus…” I added, smile growing a tad wider as pride rushed through me at the memory.

 

“That doesn’t qualify as an explanation, Tyler. That would make your actions childish and would only make things worse for you, are you sure that’s what you’re going with?” Quintin asked, masking his disappointment with a faux calm, fatherly tone.

 

“Are you calling me a liar?” I asked coldly, clenching my fists tighter. “I’ve been itching for a fight all day, old man. When Marino started laughing at me, laughing when I just had my heart crushed beneath someone’s boot , I couldn’t take it anymore! He’s been a little shit to me all week, ever since that stupid test that I barely passed. I thought he’d changed, but nooo! No, I was wrong again! He’s like a snake in the grass, just lying low, waiting for the moment to strike. And believe me, if I hadn’t been the one to take him down then it just would’ve been someone else. I finally did something… I’m not useless anymore!” I explained disjointedly, voice going high and broken towards the end. I’m not useless… I took down the biggest monster of them all! With barely a scratch!

 

“So, would you say that this is an act, fueled by love?” Shiro’s dad paced in front of me, I didn’t like it. “Because if so, that’s not necessarily a reason to murder someone. This is a very serious situation and I don’t think you realized the consequences for this Tyler. Not only was it murder, but It cannot be proven, and there’s no evidence anyone but you was involved, so we can’t say that it was self defense. Even though, clearly, you’ve said yourself that it wasn’t, correct?”

 

I laughed, clutching my stomach and gasping for air. “Self-defense? Hell fucking no! D’you think I’d let that shitstain anywhere near me with that weakass fencing bullshit he does?! There’s no way to dress this up, Pops. Murder’s murder, and you’re lucky the party system kicked in when it did or you might’ve had two corpses on your hands! Man, ain’t that a plot twist?!” I snickered, forcing the words out between gasps of air. God, self-defense?! Didn’t I already say I did it? Shiro refuses to use magic, and Luke’s too dumb to learn it, poor thing. No… Only I have this kind of power… It’s… intoxicating.

 

“Well, if you’re sure. We can give you a sentence now.” He said, putting a hand on the large table in the room. Quintin gave me a look, then looked at Shiro’s dad. W-what have I gotten myself into?

 

“Public execution.” Quintin said, looking down. “I’m sorry to say it, but there’s no negotiation in this decision.”

 

Part of me wanted to run screaming, or fight back. The rest of me? Well… The rest of me just wanted recognition. Attention. Any sort would do. A thought occurred to me, and I started snickering again. Shiro’s dad glared at me. “What? What’s so damn funny?” he demanded, forcing my head back so I was looking up at him.

 

“Oh, nothing. Just thinking about how I should’ve let Shiro run me through in that cave after all.” I replied, hiding my grimace as he tightened his grip on my loose hair. Where had the tie gone? Did I lose it in the portal?

 

Shiro basically fell through the door. She had been eavesdropping. “D-dad, you can’t be serious? Public execution?! He killed someone, but does that mean he should die?!” She grabbed his hand and pulled it off of my head, thank god. That man has a tight grip… and warm hands.

 

I tilted my head, looking at her questioningly. Why is she defending me? “Shiro, don’t you remember? I almost killed you in that cave in Mount Bloom. Shouldn’t you be the one leading the pack for my punishment?” I asked, still smiling. I don’t know how to deal with this… With any of this.

 

“That was me though! This is your life, I had a better chance making it away from you alive than you have surviving execution, and that’s because you won’t! 100%!” She was almost screaming. “Dad, you have to be able to do something, anything?”

 

“Shiro… Just let me die. I… I’m just human garbage. You seriously didn’t notice? All the times I tried to pick a fight with anyone who looked stronger than me, every time I asked to spar ‘just one more time!’ when I was clearly exhausted… Me begging you in that cave. I’m a glutton for punishment, you know? I deserve to hurt, I’ll just keep hurting others if I stay here.” I said, before my smile turned sharp and cold. “How many more people do I have to kill before you’ll finally leave me?” I asked rhetorically, narrowing my eyes at her. I idly tugged on the cuffs holding my hands together. Weak chain… Could probably melt it if I wanted. Should I? Oh, it’d be worth the hassle just to see the surprise and fear one more time…

 

Shiro’s hand suddenly whipped back and slapped across my face. “Don’t say that you idiot! It doesn’t matter how many people you kill, you shouldn’t kill anyone, but I’m not gonna hate you because of it. We’re friends, so why should I hate you for doing the wrong things sometimes?!” Her dad grabbed her hand, turning her to face him

 

“Shiro, this isn’t your fight anymore. He’s already admitted to doing it for a seemingly invalid reason. He’s due to be executed in 3 hours.”

 

I smiled nastily at her. “See? I told you to give up on me.” I sneered, twitching slightly when the first drop of molten iron hit my leg. Bingo. “Wish I could give you a hug, but….Oh wait! I can!” I said, faking surprise as I pulled the cuffs apart. I shook out my hands, flexing them and running through some of my stronger spells. Nothing. Maybe they weren’t as stupid as I thought, and actually remembered to use some sort of magic-dampener ward, probably on the room. Weaker spells worked though, as I discovered when a small jet of flame swirled up in my palms. Sweet. Let’s go out with a bang, shall we?

 

Before I could move, I looked up and a sword was pointed directly at my face. Shiro. “Don’t, you’re already in deep enough, I won’t hesitate to actually use the blade this time…” She said coldly, clearly intending to use her sword this time. “Sit there and let what happens happen Tyler.”

 

I decided to test my luck, shooting a few sparks at her. Nearly immediately, the blade of her sword was pinning my hands to the table, the sharp edge digging into my overlapped wrists. “Ow, ok, I get the message!” I hissed, freezing for fear of chopping my hands off. Kiiiinda need those.

 

She lifted the sword off of my hands, but didn’t lower the blade. “Good, remember it.” This is the most serious I’ve ever seen her, how delicious. I doubt she’ll expect a physical attack, she never would. I dipped left and threw a punch at her face. I expected to either hit her, or be stopped by one of the adult men in the room, but she did this weird move with the sword, threw my arm to the left, and kicked my legs out from under me. My face hit the table and I slinked onto the floor, half in shame, half in pain. “Nice try Tyler, but I wouldn’t fall for it that easily, I would have Marino teach you that move, but he can’t now.” She deadpanned, lifting me off of the floor. “Sit.”

 

“Why should I?” I challenged, rubbing the new bruise and spitting out a bit of blood from where I bit my tongue. Like hell I’m going down easy, this is way too much fun! “C’mon Shi. Tell me why I shouldn’t melt the rest of these useless cuffs off and go down swinging?” I added, smirking at her. She hates that nickname, something about bad luck. She knows I know that, and I end up with a hard shove towards the chair for my troubles. I scowled. “Jeeez… You’re one tough nut to crack, Shi.” I complained, taking my sweet time sitting down.

 

My cockiness got me scowls from Shiro’s dad and Quintin, and a head shove from Shiro. “Stay there, move again and I’ll use the sword, and do not call me Shi.” She said, keeping that sword she seems rather attached to pointed at my throat. Of course, I’m set to die anyway, so why not go out my own way?! All this time, I had been melting any metal on my body, waiting for the optimal time to strike.

 

Which was now! I swung my leg with a metallic snap, nailing Shiro in the shin. “Looks like the great Shiro has fallen!” I shouted in pure excitement as I drove my best front kick into her stomach. “HAHAHAHA! Look who’s winning now!” I screeched, bringing the axe kick I had been practicing down into the back of her neck. As she fell to the floor, probably unconscious, I looked up to Quintin and Tanaka. “Come on guys! Gonna let your favorite little Collector get beaten down over here?!” They remained still, just making me feel more agitated. “WHY AREN’T YOU DOING ANY-” Before I could get my sentence out, I felt a sharp pain in my ankle. Shiro wasn’t knocked out at all, she was fully awake and ready.

 

And my foot was missing…

 

“I’m sorry Tyler, but I warned you” She muttered, coughing a small amount of blood onto the floor from the kicks.

 

Too shocked to even scream, I just collapsed onto the floor as I lost my balance. “Y-You just… My foot… Kh...Khyahahahahhahaa! Oh man, you’re just as bad as me!” I gasped out, clutching my ankle desperately, instinctively trying to cut off the bloodflow as I coughed out my hacking laughter. She did it! Looks like it’s my move now. I grit my teeth, squeezing my eyes shut through the pain as I rolled up the pants leg and grabbed the wound. “Oooooh, this is so unsanitary…” I muttered, wincing as I heated my hands enough to cauterize the wound. That time… I did scream. It felt like I was melting my skin off, each damaged nerve crying out in agony.

 

Shiro tried to lift herself off of the floor, panting. “Dad… take him somewhere… I’m done with trying to get through to him through words or force…” That… I’ll be honest that hurt a little, deep in my soul. Very deep, not enough to show, but I felt it. Shiro was my first friend, after all. It’s not like I could just cut her out immediately or something. Crazy I may be, but heartless? No.

 

I’m far from heartless. I care so much that it hurts . Wish cutting out friends was as easy as chopping off a foot apparently was. Life would probably be a whole lot simpler...

 

“Come on Tyler, we’re taking you to a place so you can be held until it’s… that time.” Shiro’s dad, a man I used to consider my own father, told me. He was sentencing me to death, and I trusted him with my life. Ain’t that irony.

 

I swallowed my hurt, shoving it away in a deep, dark corner of my mind, and rolled my eyes, determined to keep up my nonchalant facade for as long as I could. “God, you’re a grown-ass man and you can’t even say execution? How boring. You look like you just got hit by a despair truck or something! What, it finally catching on what you did?” I sneered, barely fighting as new leather cuffs were secured around my wrists, pinning them behind my back.

 

“Hardly, I just don’t enjoy putting people I considered family to death. I guess it is too late for emotions isn’t it, Tyler?” He shoved me, “Go on, face your execution .” I didn’t appreciate the way he stressed every part of execution, it stung worst of all, like the reality of it all was finally setting in.

 

Maybe… maybe I was the one who got hit by the despair truck. I finally got what I’ve wanted for years, I was finally about to get all the attention and punishment I’ve ever wanted, all at the same time! I was finally getting what I deserved... so why did I feel so….empty?

 

“Not moving? Come on now, start walking- or should I say hopping. It’s time for your execution Tyler. Isn’t this what you wanted?” Shiro said. Of all people, Shiro was saying this to me… This is the one that really stung. Tanaka was replaceable, I didn’t care about Quintin, but Shiro was my first and closest friend, and now she hated me.

 

It is… It is what I wanted… That’s right. No more shows, no more games. Just me and the sweet release of death. Finally… After so long… “Keep your pants on, Shi. If you wanted me to move faster, maybe you should’ve let me keep my foot.” I snarked, with a pointed glance in the direction of said appendage. It still had my boot on it. Somehow, the sight struck me as funny. It looked more like a slipper now…   

 

“Hurry, I don’t have all day.” She hissed, shoving me forwards. Wait… what does she…?

 

“What do you mean you don’t have all day?”

 

“You moron. I’m the one doing it…” I hadn’t realized... Shiro is the most accurate and powerful with most weapons, of course she’d do this… one swing is all she’d need.

 

My eyes widened, and I absently hopped to the door as I let out that weird, raspy chuckle again. “Really? Man, I kinda assumed it’d be like a hangman thing, to be honest. You gonna make it quick? Or are you gonna make me suffer? ” I asked, tilting my head back to grin at her. Felt more like baring my teeth, but whatever. A smile’s a smile, right?

 

She grabbed my hair and pulled me backwards. “I can do it now, nice and slow if you want.” The young Collector turned executioner grumbled, thrusting my head forward. “Now keep moving, I don’t need you holding people up.” Everything she added made the reality of the situation sting just a little more. I couldn’t show it, but I was nearly ready to break down and cry.

 

So of course, I reached for the tried and true humor to lean on. I just don’t know when to quit… “Oh come on, you can always go on a- head , can’t ya? Don’t worry, I’ll catch up. Otherwise, you might get hopping mad.” I teased, fighting back tears. God, is this what Marino felt? Or that Caveling? The terror of knowing your death is right in front of you, but not knowing when it’s going to hit… It was almost worse than the actual deed.

 

Shiro sighed, “Just cry already, I can hear it in your voice, and I know you pun when you’re panicking.” Damn, she knows me too well… I was truly tempted to take her offer and break down right there. I mean, I’m dead anyway, why not leave my dignity in a pool on the floor…?

 

I sniffled, trying to wipe my eyes on my shoulder. I don’t want her last memories of me to be some scared little kid who can’t even back up his trashtalk. I acted so high and mighty this last hour, I kinda want her to remember me as someone cool, not this… Not this useless wimp. Hell, even if she remembers me as the crazy asshole I’ve been today, at least that’d be better than a girly dork who cries at a papercut. I felt dampness on my cheeks, and realized the point was moot anyway; I’d already started crying without noticing. Well… There went all my plans of hopefully being remembered as someone who’s as cool as Shiro...

 

“Alright, go on out and face your audience. They’re excited to see your performance.” She said coldly, while also mocking me. I never knew she could be so… like me. If it weren’t my execution I was facing, I’d almost be… proud?

 

I took a second to wipe my eyes and compose my face, settling on the wide grin everyone probably expected. I lifted my head high, hopping my way out to the courtyard, where a large stage had been set up. There was a surprising turnout of people baying for my blood, but at the front of the crowd was the last person I expected. Luke stood across the stage from me, glaring at me. I shoved down the pain and shot him a cheeky wink, dying a little more inside when he flipped me off with red-rimmed eyes.

 

“Go stand center stage, I’ll be there in a second. And don’t try to run. Oh wait.” She snickered, walking towards Luke.

 

Before she got too far out of hearing range, I figured out a comeback. “Wow Shi, never realized you could be such a bitch. Guess I rubbed off on you a little too much, huh?” I called sweetly, still smiling innocently as I tried to figure out a way to get to the little table thing in the middle without falling flat on my face.

 

After what seemed like too long, she hugged Luke and walked towards me with a new expression, like a controlled version of the one I had in the cave… I’ve made a mistake. “It’s time Tyler, I won’t lie, this might hurt like hell.” She grabbed her sword, of all weapons, that sword that’s slapped me so many times felt like an insult.

 

I threw back my head and laughed, like she’d just told a hilarious joke. “Good! Make me suffer.” I said carelessly. My heart felt like a shriveled date, all gross and hard. Well… Who the hell needs sadness anyway? I’ve got about five minutes anyway, might as well get what I deserve without bitching about it, right?

 

“Good, keep your head that way.” She muttered, I could feel her sword press against my neck lightly, then lift up and move back. This time, the swing wasn’t gonna be the flat of the sword, this time I can feel just how hard Shiro can really swing that thing… and I was scared. “This should only take one swing.”

 

Trembling, I tried to think of any last things I wanted to say to her. Suddenly, I remembered what I gained earlier, when I lost everything else. I looked her in the eyes and smirked, tensing as I watched the blade. “Enjoy all this EXP, Shiro. You’ve earned it for defeating the boss.” I said, closing my eyes as she started to swing. Finally I know what it’s like on the other end of the blade…

 

Fucking terrifying.