Ocean's Seven: Chapter Three
“Wake up. Psssst. Wake up. You’re drooling on my ear.” Chris jerked awake with a start when he felt Satin’s breath on his face, his eyes snapping open and his mouth snapping closed. He stared bleary-eyed and confused at the charming little Spellbun for a moment, her eyes wide and searching his face.
“You’ve been drooling on my ear.” Satin’s lips curled into a smile as she poked him in the chest.
Chris swallowed, suddenly wide awake as he reached up to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, horrified at the wetness he found there before he rolled over and sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he tried to get his bearings. Vague memories of Pallas getting up not too long after Satin and Chris had joined her in bed flashed through his mind, along with a half-recollection of Caramel kissing him goodbye before she, Pallas and Gwen went shopping again. “What time is it?”
“Seven. In the morning.” Chris looked up to see Caramel adjusting the straps on her spaghetti-strap top, un-twisting them before picking up a patterned blouse and slipping it on over the undershirt.
“It feels much earlier.”
“That’s surprising, since you and Satin went to bed at six in the afternoon. You even slept through dinner.” Caramel opened one of the shopping bags they had acquired the day before, pulling out three belts and then holding them up to her waist, trying to decide what to wear.
Chris looked at Satin, who only nodded. He grimaced as he saw her right ear, the soft fur on its’ back matted and wet. “Sorry about that.”
“It means you were relaxed. If you’re already comfortable enough to be relaxed around me, then I don’t mind.”
Chris took a deep breath and rolled over onto his hands and knees, patting Satin on the hip as she slid out of bed herself. “I don’t deserve you, you know.”
The nearly-nude rabbit girl smirked. “I know.”
Chris crawled to the edge of the bed and slid his legs out to rest on the floor, rubbing his eyes again. “Okay. I’m going to get in the shower. Does anyone need to use the restroom before I do?”
“Pallas is already in there. And you don’t have time for a shower, not anymore. You’re going to have to spend the morning smelling like the Spellbun you cuddled with all night.” Caramel looked at his reflection in the mirror on the wall, smiling.
Chris almost looked crestfallen about the loss of his showertime, but shrugged. “I’d prefer to spend the time waking up in the shower, but I don’t mind the smell. I happen to like Satin’s choice of perfume.”
Satin padded over to stand next to Caramel, and he watched the thong-clad young woman bend over next to her fully dressed best friend, digging through bags and boxes for something to wear. “It’s a custom vanilla and mahogany blend.” Satin pulled her head out of the bag she was searching for and smiled at him, her face framed between her legs as she bent over. “I’m glad you like it.” She grinned and pointed at his morning erection, tenting his boxers.
“Satin’s always been big on perfumes. And if we weren’t in a rush, we’d be drawing straws to determine which one of us got to take care of your morning wood.” Caramel watched her adopted sister digging through the bags, and then pointed across the room at a stack of clothes someone had folded sometime last night. “If you’re looking for the outfit we bought, it’s over there.” The Spellbun’s ears perked up, and she quickly crossed the room and began digging through the folded clothes in search of one particular item.
Chris watched her go and contemplated Caramel’s comment for a moment, before he took another deep breath and then stood up, moving to his backpack where it had been dumped in a corner by the dresser. He pulled out a fresh pair of underwear and a new t-shirt, grabbing his jeans from yesterday where they were still draped over the back of a chair. He gathered all his clothing under his arm and then dug out his toothbrush and toothpaste, heading to the pair of sinks beside the bathroom door.
Caramel donned the jacket she had decided to wear for the day, and then picked up her tamer’s pokedex and slipped it into her pocket before moving to the counter beside him to put in her new earrings. Chris looked at her reflection as he brushed his teeth, brow furrowing in a frown. “Ah hot Wen asn’n ayin phor oolreh?”
Caramel looked at him like he was a crazy person, and he leaned down to fill his mouth with water from the sink tap, rinsing and then spitting. “Sorry. I thought we agreed that Gwen wasn’t going to pay for any jewelry, remember?”
“She didn’t pay for jewelry. These are Emeralds.”
Chris frowned and rinsed his toothbrush off in the sink. “Aren’t emeralds a gemstone? Usually used in jewelry? Like the earrings you’re putting on?”
Caramel grinned, snapping shut the little felt lined case the earrings had come packaged in. “Emeralds with a capital ‘E’. They’re normal emeralds, with a lowercase ‘e’ that have been magically treated to boost the power of normal-type pokegirl techniques. Seeing as I’m a normal type pokegirl, Gwen bought them for me. Sort of as a gift to say “sorry that I abducted your tamer and gave him a lot of emotional trauma that he’s still working through”.”
“I’m not traumatized.” He looked over his shoulder and gestured at Satin. “I’m relaxed! I drooled on her ear. Really!”
Caramel grinned and leaned over to kiss him. “Her words, not mine. Besides, she bought something similar for all three of us. Emeralds for me, Wands for Satin, and Diamonds for Pallas. Strengthening normal, magic, and fighting-type techniques, respectively.”
Chris looked at her for a long moment, before turning back to the mirror and grumbling as he pulled on his shirt.
“You might not see it as a gift, but I do.” He looked at her, lifting a hand to her ear and gently admiring the glittering, green oval stone set in silver. “And I should have been the one to give them to you.”
Caramel’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “No, no, it’s not like that. I… damn.”
“Yep. I guess we’re both on the same page about eating out of Gwen’s hand now, huh?”
Caramel pursed her lips. “The sooner we have our own source of income, the better.”
“You said you were working on ideas for that, right?”
Caramel nodded. “I have exactly two. One is going to be much easier than the other, though physically risky and more short term, really. The other idea right now is less physically risky, but less of a sure thing, and banks on us actually settling down somewhere for a good long while.”
Chris looked around, realizing that he didn’t really have to be concerned about being nude around Caramel and Satin. “And those are?” He stripped out of his old boxers, kicking them under the sink with the growing pile of dirty clothes they were starting to accumulate and then unfolding his clean pair.
“Catching ferals, or me setting up a boutique shop somewhere and going into business leveraging my skills.” Caramel grabbed his cock with one hand, giving his still stiff morning erection a quick squeeze and leaning in to kiss him. “Both have their risks, and benefits.”
At that moment, the bathroom door opened and Pallas emerged to the sight of Caramel holding Chris’s dick in her hand, and him holding his boxers up across his chest like he had just been caught peeking in the cookie jar. “Oh. Um. Good morning.”
Chris immediately blushed as Caramel stepped around him while he began struggling to get his boxers on. The Seamstress’s hands started moving over Pallas’s body, and Chris took just enough time out of his embarrassment to realize that Pallas was wearing bits and pieces of armor atop a brand-new outfit. By the time he got his boxers on, Caramel was tightening straps and double-checking buckles on her new ‘sisters’ armor.
“Good morning, Pallas. I uh… I hope you slept well?” Chris started to pull his jeans on, trying to avoid looking into the redhead’s face as Caramel, satisfied that everything on Pallas’s outfit was in order, moved away to help Satin into what looked like a complicated one-piece bodysuit that the Spellbun was struggling to get into without causing herself to topple over.
“I did, thank you.” The green-eyed amazon smiled, and then held out her hands at her hips. “What do you think?”
Chris looked her over. She had on a pair of short-heeled thigh-high leather boots that were armored with some sort of bronze metal from the shins up, then a double layered armored skirt, the first layer being leather that had been split into feathers, long strips that allowed Pallas to bend and move without undue restriction. Atop of that was a second layer arranged much like the first, except the leather had been replaced with more of the bronze metal, each individual strip made up of three interlocking segments that offered even more flexibility. Her chest and torso were covered by a leather bustier plated with more bronze, and on her right arm she wore a leather armguard that covered her from her wrist to her elbow. “I think you look like something out of a History Channel documentary. Or maybe a History Channel porn parody.”
Pallas frowned. “What?”
“It’s a compliment, believe it or not.” He looked up at her. “You look the part of a Roman soldier. But a very, very pretty one. Though I guess really you’re Greek, not Roman.”
Pallas looked thoughtful. “You think I look like a sexy version of a hoplite?”
Chris nodded slowly. “Yes.” He looked suddenly apprehensive. “I mean that in only the best way possible. I mean, personally I would think you’d need even more armor, what with your shoulders and neck not being very well protected, not to mention your head. But all in all, yes. Very impressive, all around.”
Pallas grinned. “I have a helmet, too!”
Chris nodded and held out his hand, relieved when she took it. “You’re not mad I compared your outfit to a porn parody?”
“No. But I might be if you keep bringing it up.” Chris wisely shut his mouth to prevent himself from saying anything else. “You think I look both sexy and fierce, yes?” He nodded, and Pallas grinned. “Then that is good enough for me.” She let go of his hand and walked away from the sink, armored skirt clanking softly as she moved to collect a jewelry box that was on the dresser beneath the TV. “Will you help me put this on?” She handed him the long, slender box, and he walked over to her and took it. He opened the lid and whistled at the finery contained inside. On a slender gold chain, a single translucent diamond hung embedded in a gold setting, and he bit the inside of his cheek. Gwen was showing him up, and she probably didn’t even mean to.
He looked up at her, motioning for her to spin around so that he could put the necklace around her neck. He looked up at Caramel as Pallas gathered her hair up in her hands, lifting it away from her neck. “Gwen doesn’t buy any of you any more jewelry. That’s my job. If she has to buy you something, please insist on it being ugly. Or at least utilitarian in design. She’s making me feel like I’m underperforming, and she’s not the one hogging all the sheets at night.”
Satin giggled from the floor where she was slipping on a pair of black knee-high boots lined with silver buckles. “I’ve already convinced Caramel that we need a bigger bed and more sheets. Or more beds.”
Chris nodded with a sigh, carefully working the clasp on Pallas’s necklace. “How’s that?”
Pallas brought one hand from her hair down to her neckline, adjusting the small diamond until it rested above her cleavage at an acceptable height. “Perfect. Thank you.” She let go of her hair, turning around and taking his hands before leaning in to kiss him. “I’ll make sure to turn down any jewelry that isn’t from you.” She smirked. “But I plan on one day buying a very large jewelry cabinet.”
Chris looked at her with a playfully horrified face. “Thanks for warning me now. I’ll be sure to start looking for pieces that will look good on you.” Pallas grinned, then sat down at the table and pulled open another shopping bag.
Chris looked over at Caramel, who was sitting on the edge of the bed now with his pokedex in hand. As he stared at the beautiful young Seamstress, something Satin had said the night before stuck in his mind. “Caramel, do you know how much getting an additional pokedex would cost us? Or getting more than one?”
Her eyes snapped up to look at him, confusion in her features. “They’re pretty expensive, actually. But why would we need more than one?”
“Well, one for you, for starters. Then one for Satin and for Pallas. I’m sure they’ll want one once you’ve got one, right?” He looked at Pallas, who simply shrugged as she pulled her aforementioned helmet out of the bag at her feet, looking the slim, Greco-Roman styled head armor over with a critical eye.
“I want one if Cara has one.” Satin was struggling to get one of her oversized sweaters over her head, her arm slipping through the neck opening as she frowned and blew hair out of her face.
Chris raised an eyebrow. “Cara? Since when did you start going by a nickname?”
“Only Satin has ever used them. Cara and Mel, I mean.”
Caramel grinned. “You’re going to call me Ma’am before you ever get to call me Cara, or Mel.”
Chris grinned right back. “Yes Ma’am, Cara. So, do you want a pokedex of your own, Mel?”
Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared as she pouted playfully, before standing up and sticking his pokedex in her pocket. “I would like that, yes. But I’m keeping this one for the rest of the day, as punishment for that joke.”
Chris laughed as she headed towards the door. “Hey, don’t go joking about punishments like that. Gwen might actually let you borrow her riding crop.”
Caramel laughed as she stepped out of the hotel room. “I’ll be in the lobby, getting us breakfast to go.”
Chris shook his head as she left, and then began looking around for his boots. He eventually found them behind Satin, and he sat down on the ground next to her to pull them on. “This room is already a mess.”
“There’s four people living in it.”
“Very true.” He began lacing up one boot as he looked the Spellbun over. Aside from her now usual sweater and the knee-high black boots, she seemed to be wearing very little else aside from an almost spandex-like bodysuit. “Do one-piece bodysuits fall under your idea of comfortable, then?”
Satin looked up at him, a bobby pin in her mouth as she flipped her hair back. “No. But it was the only thing that would work on short notice.”
Chris frowned. “There were two entire floors of women’s clothes. Everything from lingerie and catsuits to heavy parkas and overalls and everything in between. What do you mean it was the only thing that would work?”
Satin suddenly blushed, and then looked back over her shoulder at Pallas. Once she was convinced that the armored Amazon wasn’t paying attention, more engrossed in polishing her helmet, the Spellbun lifted the front of her pale green sweater to flash him.
“What are those?” Satin dropped her sweater back down as he enquired about the twin metal rods that were sewn into the fabric of her bodysuit, right above her nipples.
“Wands. Cara has the Emeralds, Pallas has a Diamond, and I have wands. They’re enchanted amber capped with white gold on each end. The jewelry enhancers were out of stock, so I had to settle for something that was already integrated into clothing.”
“They look like piercings.” Satin looked at him blankly. “You know. For your nipples?” Understanding bloomed over Satin’s face and she blushed furiously, turning to face away from him as she finished pinning her bangs back. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t really want piercings, I think.”
“Then you don’t have to get any. I wasn’t trying to say that you should. The first chance we get, we’ll get some… Wands, right? We’ll get some Wands that are earrings or a necklace, or maybe one that’s shaped like a bracelet or a ring or something. You don’t have to have piercings if you don’t want them.”
Satin nodded, shifting up onto her knees and reaching out for a canvas messenger bag that he had noticed her filling with odds and ends the day before. “Do you… like piercings? Like that? In… you know, a girl’s…?”
Chris shrugged. “I’m not opposed to them. They can be fun, sometimes, but they’re not, you know, required for any fun to happen.” Satin nodded and rose, seemingly satisfied that she wouldn’t have to have her nipples pierced for anyone’s enjoyment but her own.
“Are we ready to go?” Chris finished tying his other boot as Pallas spoke, and he turned to face her. She was now wearing her helmet, stylized wings etched into the coppery metal at her temples. She had a small shield in her left hand, and had buckled a sword belt around her hips, her right palm resting on the pommel of a short sword.
“Yes. And if I might be so bold as to say so, you look positively dangerous.”
Pallas tilted her head slightly and smiled. “Good. That’s the point.”
Satin slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder and brushed past him and Pallas both, grabbing the door’s handle and throwing it open. “Come on, we’re going to be late!”
Chris grabbed his jacket and his wallet before following Pallas out the door. “Late for what, exactly?”
“Again!” Caramel barked out, loudly and clearly over the racket of the public training ground. Gwen had met them in the lobby, and everyone had quickly been given a muffin and a bottle of orange juice, they had headed to the edge of the city where they found themselves now. After Caramel had signed them in using Chris’s pokedex, they had been directed to one corner of the massive training area. The entire complex looked to be nine or ten times the size of a normal football field from Chris’ estimate, and was a mix of grassy areas, concrete slabs about half the size of a basketball court, and dirt patches, with a small pond near the center of the entire area. The entire training ground was ringed with tall, thick metal polls with arched tops, reminding Chris of light posts lining the side of a highway or illuminating a parking lot. Except these poles seemed to be generating, or perhaps sustaining some sort of forcefield that kept anything the half-dozen or so groups of people scattered about the area could muster contained to the training ground itself. In fact, Gwen had been levitating chunks of concrete near the boundary line that marked one of the forcefield segments, providing targets for Satin to practice throwing fireballs at. Though her aim was improving, the novice Spellbun had slammed several large balls of flame into the forcefield, causing everyone to stop to watch the light show as the energy was absorbed in a kaleidoscoping rainbow of light.
For the past half hour, Caramel had been running Pallas through her paces, trying to suss out where the redheaded Amazon’s limits lay. Throughout, Caramel had also been quietly instructing Chris on everything she knew about being a tamer, from the complicated web of interlocking strengths and weaknesses of each pokegirl type and the lesser known interplay of relationships between the different breeds of more animalistic pokegirls, to how best to avoid being caught flatfooted by ferals while traveling through the wilderness.
“Chi Blast!” Caramel shouted an order to Pallas, and the teenage warrior danced through the ruined columns of earth and concrete that Gwen had created when they arrived, her magic having had extended dozens of the tree trunk sized pillars into the air high above their heads. As she approached one of the few pillars that were still intact, Pallas deftly sheathed her blade and leapt into the air in one smooth motion, the fist that had just a second before been holding her sword glowing red before she brought it down on the side of the pillar, cracking the earthen surface and burying her arm up to the elbow in loose dirt. She frowned and began trying to tug her hand free, eventually resorting to bashing at the dirt around the impact crater with her shield to try and loosen more of the dirt. “Thankfully that sort of thing won’t happen when she’s actually punching someone. Unless they’re really, really squishy. Or made of goo.” Caramel looked down at Chris’s pokedex and frowned.
Chris looked at her, and decided now was probably the best time to broach the subject Satin had raised the night before. “You were going to be a tamer, weren’t you? Before you… thresholded?”
Caramel looked over at him, eyes curious, but then flicked her attention back to the pokedex’s screen. “Yes. What about it?”
“You had to give up your dream just because… because the world decided you weren’t really human anymore?”
Caramel looked up at him again, tapping the side of the pokedex with her forefinger before handing it to him. “I wasn’t going to be a tamer. I wasn’t allowed.”
“But Satin said…”
“What Satin meant was that I was going to be a Watcher. They’re a type of Tamer. Not really allowed to do all of the things that a Tamer does, but still undergoing virtually all of the same training. More intensified, specialized training too, really.” She sighed and watched Pallas as she finally freed her hand, shaking the dirt off of her arm. “Take a break, Pallas!” The Amazon raised her hand in thanks, and then promptly turned around and sat down beside the pillar, leaning back against it to catch her breath.
“Human women in Ocean aren’t allowed to become Tamers. We’re… they’re considered too precious a resource to waste sending off into the deep wilds alone, or to risk as militia troops during times of crisis. The most dangerous position they’re allowed to take up is that of a Watcher. Specialized tamers who are exempt from virtually all of the combat regulations and requirements that normal tamers have, but still have the training to match, really. Watchers are regulated through the Ocean Ecological Administration. They’re paired with a research group, which is really just a bodyguard detail, honestly. Two normal tamers to each watcher, each with a full group of pokegirls. They go out into the wilderness to map feral populations and migration patterns, determine if more focus needs to be put on one area of the nation to control or eradicate encroaching ferals. They also do land surveys, ecological testing, and all sorts of other specialized tasks.”
“It sounds like an important position.”
“It is. Watchers are well respected. More-so than the normal tamer. Most eventually parlay their research commission into a career or further education. Some of the most famous pokegirl researchers and scientists started out as WAPL watchers.”
“What’s the WAPL?”
Caramel looked at him. “I know this was in the Taming for Dummies book. Did you even read it?”
Chris looked confused. “You said it was worthless, that the information in it got more people killed than it helped!”
Caramel rolled her eyes. “But it’s still worth reading, at least for the absolute basics!” She shook her head and put her hands on her hips. “The WAPL is the World Alliance of Pokegirl Leagues. It’s a group of most, but not all of the nations around the world that has its headquarters in the Capitol League. The WAPL regulates everything from international commerce to international law. If one league has a grievance against the other, they sue them though the WAPL’s court system. They’re the main body that coordinates responses to the really big menaces in our world, like the international criminal teams, Widow attacks, stuff like that.”
“Teams and Widows?”
“Teams are the public face of organized crime. Dopey uniforms and poorly concocted scams are the calling card of most teams, but the real big ones are involved in everything from weapon and pokegirl smuggling, extortions and international thefts to assassinations, illegal research on pokegirls and banned weaponry and even the kidnap or enslavement of humans.” Caramel sniffed and stepped two paces to her right so that she could watch Satin spinning in a circle under Gwen’s watchful eye, wind whipping up around the novice spellcaster as she created little dust devils around her feet as a cloud of water vapor formed over her head. “Widows are the deadliest threat to anything alive on the face of the planet. Humans, pokegirls, wildlife, even the environment. Think giant, insane feral spider with an insatiable appetite, attacks strong enough to decimate an entire army of tamers and with venom that can melt through solid rock. They’re one of the main reasons most leagues have a standing army of professionally trained soldiers. Aside from the usual human tendency of coveting what your neighbor has, of course.” Caramel’s eyes widened as the cloud that had formed over Satin’s head suddenly opened up with a deluge of rain, soaking the poor Spellbun as Gwen clapped a hand over her mouth and turned around, stifling a laugh.
“Huh. Can you still become a Watcher, even though you’re a pokegirl now? I mean, you’ve undergone most if not all of the training, right?”
Caramel turned to look at him, sadness and not just a bit of anger tinging her expression. “What do you think?”
Chris sensed the frustration, could hear it in her voice. He moved to stand behind her. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly as she sighed. “Then they’ve lost someone with the potential to be one of the greats, I think. It’s their loss.”
Caramel placed her hands over his, inhaling deeply. “Thanks. Really. But we should go check on Pallas. She’s good, but I’ve got one or two critiques. I just hope she’s not too proud to listen to advice from me.”
Chris let her out of his arms, instead opting to hold her hand as they walked towards Pallas. She saw them coming, rising to her feet and removing her helmet. When they were close enough, she tucked it under her arm. “The helmet’s no good! It’s hindering my peripheral vision too much!”
Chris and Caramel came to a stop beside her, Caramel releasing his hand then then gesturing for Pallas to hand her the helmet. As Chris examined the hole the Amazon’s fist had left in the earthen pillar, Caramel slipped Pallas’ helmet on. “I can see what you mean. This won’t work at all.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to fight without it. Though I was excited at the idea of having it, the practicality of it leaves much to be desired, and I’ve never really trained with a helmet before.”
“It’s not up to me. If Chris says you need the helmet, you need the helmet.” Caramel jerked her thumb at him, and Pallas’s head followed the motion, her emerald eyes hopeful.
Chris frowned. “I’ve been watching you, and the other people out here in the training ground with us. If someone really wanted to hurt you, is that helmet really going to stop them if they’re already stronger than you?”
“No. I think it puts me in more danger than it does protect me. My shield is a better option for defending myself. And it can be easily reinforced with either my Chi or with conventional metalwork to strengthen it.”
Chris nodded. “I prefer you to be able to keep yourself as safe as possible if something bad happens. If you honestly think that the helmet makes things worse, then don’t wear it. I trust your judgement on this sort of thing.”
Pallas beamed as she looked at Caramel, who removed the helmet from her head and handed it back. “It’ll make a pretty paperweight, at least.” Pallas shrugged as Caramel frowned. “I’ve got a couple of things I want to go over with you. Places where I think you can improve. Are you willing to listen to my advice?”
Pallas looked at her for a moment, before nodding slowly. “If the advice makes sense, yes. But I do recognize that I am a fighting type pokegirl, whereas you are not. I know my body and skillset better perhaps than you might ever be able to. That being said, I will take all the help I can get if it will help me keep our tamer safe.”
Chris looked over at Pallas. “You can say my name. It’s Chris, and I’m standing right here. No need to be so formal.” He smiled as Pallas inhaled sharply and bowed her head.
“Yes Sir, I’m sorry. Sorry. Chris, I’m sorry.”
His eyes narrowed, and he approached her, lifting her chin with the back of his thumb. “You apologize way too much, you know that?” He kissed her suddenly, and Pallas obviously wasn’t expecting it as she dropped her helmet in surprise. Chris jumped out of the way, laughing. “Okay, that you can apologize for, ‘cause you almost got my foot.” He pointed at her. “But no calling me Sir, okay? Sir is my father’s name. Maybe you’ll meet him someday.”
“Sorry!” Her face changed from one of apology to one of confusion as Chris mentioned his father, striding away towards Gwen and Satin before she could ask any questions of him.
Instead she turned to Caramel. “I thought he was from another world? How would we meet his father?”
Caramel shook her head. “We probably won’t. But he won’t ever say never, so I won’t either.” Together they watched him approach Satin, who was soaked head to toe and trying to wring water out of her hair.
“So, what happened here?” Chris was trying not to laugh as he approached the sodden Spellbun, and she shot him a glare.
“I’m still learning!”
“I see that. In fact, the last thing I saw was you with several little miniature tornadoes swirling around your feet, and then the next thing I knew there was an adorable, albeit very wet bunny fuming while her teacher tried not to laugh.” He looked over at Gwen with a grin, who was trying very hard not to let her emotions betray her. But he could see the way the corners of her eyes lifted slightly as she tried not to smile. “I take it that wasn’t supposed to happen?”
“No!” Satin began peeling her soaked sweater off, bundling it up and then throwing it at him. Too slow to dodge, he was forced to catch the sodden jumble of green wool, carefully unfolding it and holding it up by the shoulders.
“We’ll set this out so it will dry.”
“No need.” Gwen gestured towards first Satin, then the sweater in Chris’s outstretched hands. Both garment and Spellbun began to gently steam as the excess water evaporated off of them, and Satin gave a little squeal and danced in place.
“That tickles!” Chris couldn’t help but admire the brunette as she spun in place as if she had been born in her high heels, never seeming to stumble as she wrapped one arm around her breasts.
Chris raised an eyebrow. “You mean it tickles… in a good way?”
Satin shot him a look and then stomped over to snatch her sweater from him, slipping it back over her head. Chris let it go without a fuss as she turned her back on him. “Sorry, that was rude.”
Satin spun back around, leaning in to kiss him quickly on the cheek. “Yes, it was. But I also like the way you were looking at me. I’ll have to find another bodysuit that doesn’t have the wands in it, to see if it makes you stare in the same way.”
“Well, far be it for me to tell you how to dress. But if you’re going to insist upon it, then I certainly won’t complain.”
Satin smiled and cupped his cheeks, kissing him again, this time on the lips. “I didn’t think so.”
“You know, despite us having sex almost immediately after we first met, I’ve never pegged you as someone who’s particularly… I don’t know, outgoing in that regard? I mean, the pokedex is rife with comments about bunny-types being sexually promiscuous or nymphomatic, but you don’t strike me as either of those. Your comments just now notwithstanding.”
Satin arched an eyebrow, and he was struck by just how often her mannerisms took after Caramel. He had seen the Seamstress give him that same look several times now. It said to him ‘You’re not as smart as you think you are’. “Caramel thought the same way, once. And you’re right, I’m not exactly like other bunnies. I’m smarter and less clumsy, always have been, and I take a kind of quiet pride in that fact.” She winked. “It just takes me a bit to warm up to someone new. So yes, there’s a slut beneath the sweater. Most people just don’t get to meet her.” Satin released his cheeks after another quick kiss, and then looked at Gwen. When Gwen nodded and collapsed her wand, Satin gave her a little curtsey and then began to hurry towards Caramel and Pallas, Chris and Gwen watching her go.
Something had either definitely changed with her evolution, or Chris had totally misjudged her when they first met. There were hidden layers to Satin’s personality that he was pretty sure were going to be equally parts fun and complicated to learn. Chris looked at Gwen.
“Her impromptu shower aside, how did she do?”
Gwen sheathed her wand in the holster on her thigh as she approached. “Quite well, actually. Of course, she’ll never be able to stand up against a more preeminent magic user like an Archmage or a Demon-Goddess, but I believe with training and experience she’ll be able to more than hold her own against anyone else. It’s just her aggression we might need to work on. She’s timid, just as you might expect a rabbit-type to be. She starts small with her attacks and then works up. There will be times when doing so will prove more detrimental, and dangerous than she realizes. Ferals won’t give her time to determine how much punch she needs to pack in her attacks to neutralize them.”
“So she needs to start big and then work her way down, is what you’re saying?”
“Yes, and no. I’d prefer she start big and end the fight immediately. Her magical reserves aren’t yet large enough to allow her to sustain a large number of attacks at maximum power. We’ll work on it, but the type of magic she uses has a theoretically finite limit to the amount of power she can muster.”
“What does that mean?”
Gwen turned to look at Caramel, Satin and Pallas as they talked among themselves among the ruined pillars, and Chris turned with her so that they were shoulder-to-shoulder. Gwen folded her arms under her breasts and sighed. “Magic, and the practice thereof, theoretically has an infinite number of permutations and modes of application. Different sources and schools, in laymen’s terms. For me, I utilize two sources of magic, one internal and one external. Internally, my body processes nutrients to create a well of magic within the cells of my body, much like it does with the normal biological energy that everyone’s body produces. Externally, my main source of magic is the environment in which I find myself. I draw power from the magic saturating my surroundings. In theory and in practical application, my internal reserves are limited. Continual use will exhaust them. Just like you might exhaust yourself with strenuous physical activity, I will exhaust myself with continual magic use.” Gwen pushed her glasses back up on the bridge of her nose with her forefinger. “It is for that reason that I mainly utilize the magic drawn in from my environment to fuel my spells. Though you can build up your internal reserves much like you can any muscle, it is much, much, much harder to drain all of the magic from your surroundings than it is to use up all your own. Still possible, but orders of magnitude harder.”
“So, you’re saying that Satin only has those internal reserves?”
“Can she learn to use magic like you do? Harvesting it from her surroundings?”
“I believe so, though it will take time for her to learn if it is possible. There have been studies done on Spellbuns in particular to determine if they can absorb magic from the light reflected off of the moon. I’ll have to pull the relevant files.”
Chris chewed the inside of his lower lip, pondering his next question, and if he really wanted to ask it. “Alright, I’ll bite. If she can, will you teach her?”
“I certainly intend to.”
Chris shook his head. “No, I mean will you teach her if we ask you to?”
Gwen looked at him, puzzled. “I’m not sure what you mean. I just said that I would.”
Chris sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want you to do it for free. This isn’t part of the whole protecting your investment shtick.” He looked back at her. “We’re already feeling the sting from you paying for everything.” He frowned. “Did you really have to go and buy them all jewelry?” He pursed his lips. “Not that I or they are complaining given that it is primarily meant to increase their capabilities… but you’ve kind of shown me up here.”
“I didn’t think you to be so vain as to be offended by that.”
Chris scoffed and nodded, before turning to look back at the trio of women across the training field. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be. But I am. I’m an old-soul sort. The kind that holds the door for someone and pulls out the chair for his date. Where I come from jewelry, no matter the sort, is usually considered an expression of affection when given from one person to another. In my mind you’ve kicked my legs out from under me a bit here.”
Gwen looked at him as he watched Satin try on Pallas’s helmet, her ears flattening against the back of her head and sticking out down along her shoulder-blades. “I wasn’t aware that you were such a student of the chivalric virtues.”
“I’m not. I just try to be a good person. A good man.”
Gwen nodded and followed his gaze, silently pleased though she would be loathe for him to know it. “Then I apologize for making you look bad in front of your girlfriends. I’ll be mindful not to do it again.”
“They’re not my girlfriends.” Chris paused. “Actually, I guess they are. I’ve been so focused on trying to understand the unique dynamic of having three different women in my bed, splitting my attention between them that I didn’t stop to think in those sorts of terms. That and the fact that such a thing is pretty much unheard of where I’m from. It doesn’t seem possible so I didn’t label them that way.”
“How did you label them, then?”
“As crazy. Crazy for agreeing to be with me at all, let alone share me. They shouldn’t be forced into a relationship with anyone, really. Having to share a partner with other people? I still can’t fully wrap my head around that.” He sighed and gestured at the three. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m out of my league with any single one of them, let alone all three.”
“You’re referring to your looks, or your attitude? Or perhaps previous experience in the dating pool?”
Chris shrugged. “All three?”
Gwen frowned, looking back at him. “You don’t have a very high opinion of yourself, do you?”
“Oh no, I do. Just not that high, I think. I know I’m a good guy, yeah. At least when it comes to the way I interact with people and treat others. The golden rule, you know, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So I try to treat everyone fairly, and I bend over backwards to help people when I can, even if it has bitten me in the ass before. And before you say it, yes, I know my nose is slightly crooked, and one eye socket is higher than the other by just a hair. You’d never see it at a glance, but the asymmetry is there. Plus there are a couple of pretty unflattering scars from childhood injuries.”
Gwen blinked. “You do realize the scars are gone? Unless you’ve gained new ones in the past month when I wasn’t looking? And your nose is fine. The underlying issues with the cartilage were fixed. Though I do have to ask about if you hit your face as a child, seeing as there were hairline misalignments caused by what I can only assume was blunt force impact.”
“Car accident as a kid. Wasn’t buckled in properly in the backseat. Apparently, I’m lucky to be alive. And yeah, I know you healed all those things. But the underlying issues with self-confidence are still there, even if the cause for them is gone now.”
“You’re smart enough to realize these things and yet you still think you lack confidence in yourself?”
“Oh no, I know what I’m capable of. I’m just no longer in a world where that means much. I mean…” He gestured to the field of broken pillars. “How can any man feel adequate when he sees the women he’s sleeping with doing stuff like that? Pallas could snap me in half without breaking a sweat. How am I to compete, how do I hold her interest or prove myself worthy of her time when she can do so much better?”
Gwen laid her hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at her. “I’m afraid you’re thinking about this the wrong way. Sure, you can beat yourself up all day about being an average person, but at the end of the day most people are just that. Average.”
“Gee, thanks for the pep talk. Tell that to all the superheroines we’ve passed on the street in the past two days.”
Gwen looked down, ordering her thoughts, and then continued. “At the risk of inflating your ego, I’m going to tell you that you are a much better man than you are giving yourself credit for. There might be men in this world who can match what Pallas did to those pillars. But they are few and far between. And most women, in my experience, would prefer to have a tamer who takes the time to be interested in her and her abilities, interests, and personality than someone who shows off his physical strength or mental prowess, or is interested in them only because of what they are capable of in the bedroom.” The corner of Gwen’s lips twitched as she inhaled deeply. “I once had a tamer. In truth, I’ve had several tamers over my long lifespan, but that is not the point. I once had a tamer who was a great mage. He was admired by his peers for his intellect and his ability. But at the end of the day, he could never match my own abilities. And that rankled him. Deeply. It drove a wedge between us, because he always strove to try and beat me at what I was born to do.”
“And? I sense an and coming. Or a but.”
“And I left him. Because the divide between us became so deep, so… dark. He envied me in the worst possible way. He became abusive, first verbally, then emotionally, then physically. Because he would never be my equal when it came to what he was capable of magically. Instead of being able to accept that, to… love me, for what and who I am, he ended up hating me. Instead of being able to be happy for me, to encourage me to be the best possible version of myself, he dragged us both down until I couldn’t recognize the man I had fallen in love with, and I couldn’t see the person I had once been, so low was my own self-worth by that point.”
Chris looked at her, and then the hand on his shoulder. Tentatively, he reached up and laid his fingers across hers. “I’m sorry to hear that, I really am, Gwen. You, and anyone else, really, should never have had to have gone through something like that.”
Gwen sighed deeply, and then removed her hand from his shoulder. “My point being, Christopher, is that instead of spending time doubting yourself, you should be celebrating them.” She gestured towards the trio of women smiling and laughing together around the pillar. “Life is too short and too beautiful to be bitter and spiteful, towards yourself or others. Love them for who they are, not who they could be or who they were in the past. And do the same for yourself.”
Chris looked away, clearing his throat and setting his shoulders. “Well. You certainly do have a way with words.
Gwen laughed, and despite himself, Chris smiled at the sound. “I’ve been inside of your head, remember? Quite literally. For a month you and I sat across a table from one another while you came to grips with the world in which you now live. And I’ll admit, it was more of a one-way street, since my own mental barriers are so much stronger than your own, but you know me well enough by now to know that I wouldn’t lie to you about something like this. This world is strange and wonderful and terrifying all at once. There are horrible people in this world. I do not see you becoming one. You’re a good man who strives to do good. And here, more often than not, that is good enough.”
Chris shook his head, chuckling. “And if I don’t think it’s enough?”
Gwen smiled broadly. “Then be exceptional. Just don’t ask me how, because despite previous evidence to the contrary, I don’t have all of the answers.”
“Did she explain why she wanted us to dress up?”
Caramel looked at Chris’s reflection in the mirror as she applied her make-up with a skilled hand. “Gwen wants us to meet someone, and she says it’s important. She broadly hinted that it would help solve our money problems, and in a way in which you would be most comfortable with.” Beside her, Pallas was teasing out her hair with a brush, the green-eyed redhead dressed in a gorgeous ruby red gown. The dress had a deep V-neckline, halter straps and a high front slit that showed off her right leg up to the top of her thigh, and her left leg up to the knee. Her arms, shoulders and upper back were left bare by the silk gown, showing off the Amazon’s impressive musculature beneath its body-hugging outline.
“And it’s important enough for everyone to be in formal wear? We look like we’re going to prom. Or rather, you’re going to prom and I’m trying to relive my glory days.” Chris frowned. “If I actually remembered any of them.”
Caramel arched her eyebrow in the mirror as she began applying her lipstick. Her gown for the evening was a silken coral-pink mini dress with a halter-tie, plunging cowl neckline and a side-tie skirt. “She insisted upon it. And it’s been a while since I’ve had an opportunity to get dressed up like this, so I’m taking it. Besides, we look more like we’re going to a club, not a school dance.” Caramel laughed. “I highly doubt Gwen will want to be considered a chaperone for the bunch of us.”
Pallas looked at Caramel as she adjusted her necklace. “You have experience wearing these sorts of dresses?” The Amazon, as good as Chris thought she looked, also seemed rather uncomfortable in the figure-hugging evening dress, as if she would rather be back in the armor she had been wearing that morning at the training ground.
“My father is the head a major pharmaceutical company here in Ocean.” Caramel looked back at Pallas. “Lindor Pharmaceuticals?” When Pallas shook her head, Caramel shrugged. “I didn’t think you would have heard of it. Despite being a big producer domestically, it doesn’t do much business overseas. They have a big business mass producing licensed products. Most of the healing salves and injectors you’ll find here come from one of my father’s factories. More recently they’ve started moving into luxury goods like make-up, perfumes, and body-mods like single dose applications of bloom and anti-bloom. There always seemed like there was some party or a formal dinner every month, wooing investors or celebrating a new product launch. I started going to them when I was sixteen, up until I thresholded seven months ago.” Caramel checked her lipstick in the mirror, assuring herself it was to her liking, and then turned around. “Where’s Satin?”
Chris frowned. “Isn’t she in the bathroom?”
As Caramel leaned about to knock on the door, Satin’s voice came out from behind the door, shrill and laced with frustration. “Arruugh! I’m in here! And I don’t like this dress!” The door swung open, and revealed the truly beautiful Spellbun wrapped tightly in a form-fitting minidress with a high neck, a vertical oval bust cut-out that showed off her cleavage, and long sleeves. The smooth velvety texture coupled with the deep navy-blue color complemented her silver eyes.
“You loved it when we got it. What’s wrong now?” Caramel placed her hands on her best friend’s shoulders as the rabbit-eared young woman rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet.
“That’s because I didn’t think I would ever really need to wear it. Or if I did, you’d be the only ones to see me in it!” Satin was well and truly fretting now, ears swiveling anxiously as if she were expecting danger to pop out of the very walls around them.
“Satin. The bodysuit you wore to the training ground was every bit as sexy, flattering, and tempting to the eye as this dress. It’s the same thing. You did fine this morning, why is this such a problem now?”
“I…” Flummoxed, Satin stalked over to the bed and sat down beside Chris, resting her head on his shoulder and hugging him.
“What’s wrong? You look beautiful, everyone agrees, right?” He looked up at Pallas and Caramel for help, and they both nodded as Satin tugged on one of her long ears.
“I guess, but still. I’d rather wear my sweater.”
Chris wrapped his arms around Satin and held her tightly. “You can’t always fly with the Sweater as a safety blanket, you know. You’re strong, your smart, and your sexy. You can do this. Besides, we’ll all be right beside you the whole time, right?” He kissed Satin on the forehead, causing her to blush profusely as she burrowed her face into his neck, trying to crawl into his lap. “And what was that line earlier today, about buying more bodysuits? Huh? What about that?”
“That was just for you! I only want to wear them for you.” Satin peeked out at Caramel. “And also for Mel. Because you both like when I wear them.”
Chris nodded. “Aha. So you don’t want anyone other than us to think you’re sexy, huh?”
Pallas stepped up beside Caramel. “I’ve never known a bunnygirl to be so timid when it comes to flaunting her body. Most I’ve known do so gladly, always pushing the envelope, either intentionally or without a care otherwise.”
Caramel sighed and folded her arms across her chest. “That’s our Satin. Even before she evolved, she wasn’t normal for her breed. Timid, yes. But also smart, sassy, and loyal to a fault.” She smiled. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”
“Can I wear the sweater?”
Chris cradled Satin in his arms, and kissed her between her ears. “Of course you can. And if anyone gives you any grief about it, you can just dump a raincloud on their head.” Satin grumbled and jabbed her tamer in the ribs with her fingertips, making him grunt and double over before rolling back onto the bed, tugging her with him. “I’m joking… ah, damn. I’m joking.” He squeezed her tightly for a few moments, before giving her a little pat on the ass. “Okay. We’ve got to finish getting ready.”
Reluctantly, Satin crawled out of Chris’s lap to find her shoes and sweater as Pallas offered him her hand, hauling him to his feet as well. “Where’s your jacket?”
“Oh, uh. In the closet, I think.” Caramel opened the door opposite the bathroom and reached into the small closet the hotel room came equipped with. She withdrew a black blazer, brushing off a stray piece of lint and then taking it off of the hangar. As Satin slipped her high heels on, Caramel helped Chris into his jacket, settling it on his shoulders and then buttoning one of the front buttons.
“There. I knew it would look good on you. I did pick it out after all. The only way it could be better is if I made it.”
Chris chuckled and took her hands. “Do such things as portable sewing machines exist in this world?” Caramel’s eyes lit up with excitement, and she nodded eagerly. “Then it will be the first thing we buy. With our own money.” He inhaled deeply. “Is everyone ready, finally?”
Satin popped up from her seat on the floor, smoothing the skirt of her dress, and then the black sweater she had slipped on over it. “All ready now!”
“And feeling much better with the sweater, I see.” Satin grinned and nodded, ears and hair bouncing.
“Pallas?” The Amazonian redhead smiled and nodded.
“Here.” Caramel slipped all three of their pokeballs into the inner pocket of Chris’s jacket, along with his pokedex. “We’re ready now.” She smoothed his jacket one more time before leading the way out of the door, and into the elevator.
As everyone piled in, he looked around. “The last time I was in this cramped of a space with three beautiful women dressed like we are I pretty much made a fool of myself.” He laughed softly as Satin took his hand in hers. “Or maybe it was more of a missed opportunity. In was in the city for my sister’s wedding. Hotel elevator, just like this one. They started flirting, wanted to know what I was in town for, and the second I opened my mouth, the piece of gum I had been chewing fell out.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how it happened. It was like… my body just betrayed me. The rest of the elevator ride was complete silence. I was embarrassed, and quite frankly I think they were embarrassed for me. First impressions aren’t my forte. First anythings, really. Writing a proposal or a paper for work or class, the beginning is always the hardest. Meeting someone for the first time. First kisses, first dates. I wrecked my first car within a month of being handed the keys. Completely totaled it. Rolled five or six times down into a ditch.” Chris sighed and squeezed Satin’s hands. “I guess I’m trying to say thanks, really. For sticking with me, even if I do feel like I’m fumbling through things here.”
Caramel leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re getting into your own head. You’re doing perfect so far.”
Chris laughed. “Don’t tell me there aren’t things you don’t want me to do differently. I’m not that perfect.”
Pallas laughed along with him. “No, you’re not perfect, all right. You snore rather loudly. I’m surprised that you didn’t wake poor Satin up last night. Caramel and I both woke up at different points in the night. And you twist and turn, too.”
Caramel giggled. “It’s because Satin’s as heavy a sleeper as he is. They’re perfect for each other.”
Chris hung his head slightly as Satin leaned against him. “He snuggles good. That’s my favorite part.”
Caramel threw her head back, grabbing the wall for support as she broke into a fit of giggles. Pallas and Chris both looked at her, alarmed and confused as to how such a simple comment from Satin could set Caramel off like that. For her part, Satin was blushing furiously, hiding her face slightly behind Chris’s shoulder. Chris looked over his shoulder at the brunette bunny. “Why is Caramel laughing like that?”
Before Satin could answer, Caramel was able to calm her fit of giggles, fanning herself. “She… she, oh goddess, she used to grade my stuffed animals based on how good she felt they were at snuggling.” Caramel reached into her clutch, plucking out a handkerchief and dabbing at the corners of her eyes.
“So… where do I rank compared to the Teddy Bears?”
Satin was blushing furiously, eyes shooting daggers at Caramel as the Seamstress covered her mouth, trying to hold back another round of giggles. “Better than the Teddy Bears, definitely.”
“Satin! I can’t believe you’d betray Mr. Fluffbutt like that!”
“Car-a-mel!” Satin enunciated each syllable of Caramel’s name, her ears standing on end.
Chris looked at Caramel, then back to Satin. “Uh…”
“It’s cute, Satin. Tell him. If you don’t, I will. Orange ice cream, remember?”
Pallas looked at Chris for some hint of an explanation, and he smiled. “Orange ice cream is a reference to them not being afraid to try new things.” He wrapped an arm around Satin’s waist and hugged her. “Now, what’s going on? It’s not just about stuffed animals, I think.”
Caramel shook her head. “It’s all about stuffed animals. One in particular.” The Seamstress paused and cocked her head to side as the elevator reached the lobby and they all exited. “But that’s a story for in private, when you can tease her and love her and ‘snuggle’ her till she’s reminded of just how damnably cute she is.”
Satin pouted as they walked towards the bar. Chris looked around. “Anyone see Gwen?”
“I… I think that’s her? At the bar.” Everyone looked where Pallas was gesturing. Seated at the bar was a woman that could be Gwen, but then that dress revealed a bit too much leg for what they had seen of Gwen’s tastes. And she certainly hadn’t let her hair down around them yet, so while the cornsilk tresses tumbling down the woman’s back might be the same color as Gwen’s, was her hair really that long?
Together, and looking slightly comical as they bunched up, the foursome approached the bar, and Chris tried and failed to look casual as he leaned on the bartop a few stools down from the woman. “Ahem.” Chris cleared his throat as Caramel sidled up beside him, almost protectively.
“Well, it certainly took you long enough.” The woman set her drink down, and sure enough, it was Gwen tucking several locks of hair back behind her ear as she turned to face her charges.
“Uhm. Sorry.” All four of them stared at Gwen as she rose, gesturing towards the bartender. When the short brunette tending the bar approached, she leaned in and slipped the girl a small roll of bills to pay for her drinks.
“It’s fine. I’ve only had three cocktails while waiting for you three.” And that was evident, given the blush that was suffusing the mature blonde woman’s face and the way she gripped the bar to keep herself from stumbling as she set her feet on the floor. Caramel instantly wondered if this was a good idea, if the very woman who had invited them out, ostensibly to meet a contact, was tipsy before the evening began.
“I’m fine. Stop worrying.” Gwen could sense the hesitation in Carmel’s expression, and the way that Chris and Pallas were eyeing her carefully said they too were worried about her. “I’m not someone you have to worry about after a few drinks.” Gwen smoothed her dress, and Caramel took a moment to admire the sheer white textured lace overlaying a body-hugging bodice and skirt. Her pale skin was visible from the cleavage up and the crotch downward, even if she was technically covered by the sheer lace.
“Okay. I’m just concerned that we haven’t met your friend, and you’re already drinking…”
“She’s not my friend. That’s why I’m drinking.” Gwen picked up her purse, slinging the strap of the small clutch over her shoulder and heading towards the door. “Come on.”
As they approached the nondescript building in the city’s port district on foot after catching a taxi to take them most of the way, Gwen turned to her charges. “As you might have already guessed from the way you’re all dressed, we’re walking into a club. A party, and probably a wild one.” She eyed each of them. “Anyone have any experience with that type of social setting?”
Pallas and Satin shook their heads in the negative while Chris shrugged. “I’ve been to a few. It’s been a while, though. There weren’t any good ones near where I was going to college.”
Caramel looked up at the three-story building, and recognition flashed across her face briefly. “I’ve been here before. Is this still the Blossom?”
Gwen looked at her. “So you’ve actually been here? That’s good. It’s your job to keep your tamer out of trouble then.” The splice frowned. “Actually, keep Pallas with you too. And Satin. Or better yet, just stick close to me. All of you. The security is good, but men are always highly sought after in clubs like this were the alcohol flows freely and the majority of club-goers are pokegirls.”
“Is that why you put another spell on him?” Satin looked at her tamer, clutching his hand tightly. Her eyes were focused on the center of his chest, where she could see a bright green mist clinging tightly to his torso.
Gwen blinked, having momentarily forgotten that yes indeed, there was another spellcaster in the growing group. One that could visibly see the magic fueling the spells she had cast on her tamer. “Yes. It’s a more advanced tracing spell to go with the previous one. Just in case.” Satin stared at the mist she saw, frowning slightly before tugging Chris to a brief stop and leaning up to kiss his cheek. In addition to leaving a lipstick impression of her lips on his skin, Gwen was also surprised to realize that the Spellbun had just cast a spell as well. “What was that?”
Chris frowned as Pallas and Caramel adopted expressions of confusion as Gwen stepped forward, grabbing Chris’s chin and inspecting the imprint of Satin’s lips. “What are you doing?” Chris’s eyebrows were raised and he lifted his free hand to grab Gwen’s wrist, and she slowly withdrew her hand as he gently pushed her away.
“How did you do that?” Gwen turned to Satin.
“I looked at your spell and made my own. Now I know where he is too, without having to look at him.” The long-legged, lithe bunnygirl looked supremely pleased with herself, clutching Chris’s free hand and rewetting her lips with her tongue.
Gwen stared at her. “You’re already creating your own spells.” She turned back to Chris, shaking her wrist free of his grip. “I’m sorry. She just surprised me. Greatly. She may have an intuitive aptitude for magic just as I have, but I didn’t expect her to start creating new spells wholesale a day after her evolution. Even if it was by using mine as a template.”
Caramel looked up and down the street. “Can we get going? It’s rather cold out, and the line to get into the actual club probably isn’t getting any shorter.”
Gwen looked at Caramel, as if suddenly sizing her up before nodding. “Of course. But we have a tamer. I mean you have a tamer. That’s a ticket to the front of the line, if you’re arriving with a man. But you also have me, and I have a direct invitation.” Gwen fell into place beside Caramel as they continued walking.
“Who exactly are we meeting here? And why?” The short brunette looked up at the much taller blonde as they kept pace with one another, with Chris and Satin next, and then Pallas bringing up the rear. Gwen was silently glad to note that the Amazon was already slipping into the bodyguard role well, if the way she kept her head on a swivel and the three knives she had concealed against her thigh beneath the dress were to be believed. They would have to go before they entered the club, but Gwen admired the sensibility of not wanting to go someplace strange and new without being armed in some capacity.
“We’re meeting a Celestial. Her name is Katrina, and she and I have a history of supporting each other’s endeavors indirectly when we can, and when our interests align. The four of you are one such endeavor where she can take the opportunity to repay me for some aid I gave her in the past.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” They had reached the entrance to the building, and a massive, four-armed woman in black slacks and a shirt with “Security” emblazoned across the front in bold letters. Chris stared at her in awe, wondering what exactly she was capable of doing with the four arms and plentiful muscles she was flaunting.
“You’ll see.” Gwen stepped up to the security guard and held out her palm, face-up. “My name is Gwendolyn. I have an appointment with Mrs. Rostov.”
The Amachamp guarding the door raised an eyebrow, and then produced a palm-scanner from her back pocket. Gwen placed her hand face down on the device, and when it lit up green, the guard nodded and then moved to open a door that Chris hadn’t realized was even there. In fact, it had been flush against the wall, with no door handle, and only the scanner’s confirmation that Gwen was who she said she was had caused it to kick out from the wall slightly so that the Amachamp could grip it and pull it open. She ushered all five of them inside before shutting the door behind them.
“What was that?” Caramel was looking back at the door they had entered from. “I’ve been here before, and never knew that door existed.”
“That’s sort of the point, ma’am. Our VIPs like at least a little bit of discretion. And it certainly cuts down on them having to wade through the crowd in the main entrance lobby to reach the bouncers.” Caramel whirled around to see that there was a scantily dressed woman holding a pokedex waiting for them halfway across the little entry room they found themselves in. “Welcome, Madame Gwendolyn, back to our establishment. Might I enquire as to the names of your companions?”
Chris couldn’t help but notice that the woman’s gaze kept being drawn back to him, almost compulsively, until Pallas suddenly stepped in front of him, blocking her view. Gwen cleared her throat and nodded. “My charges. Not my tamer, but one that I am working closely with at the moment. He is the main reason I’m here, to introduce him to Miss Rostov.” The hostess nodded. “With him are his pokegirls. Caramel, a Seamstress.” Caramel nodded, and the hostess tapped something on her tablet before ushering her forward and towards what looked like a metal detector that Caramel stepped through quickly. When no lights or sounds went off, she nodded to herself and then stepped to the side to wait patiently.
Gwen waved to Pallas. “This is Pallas, an Amazon.” The hostess made another notation, gesturing for Pallas to step through the metal detector. The elegantly dressed redhead hesitated, and Gwen held out her hand. “I know about the knives. And while I am impressed, and I’m sure that your tamer is appreciative of your desire not to go unarmed into a strange situation, you are all safe here. I’ll keep your weaponry safe until we leave.”
Pallas grumbled under her breath as she hiked up her dress and crouched slightly, the crotch of her red thong exposed as she withdrew all three knives she had hidden along her thigh and handed them to Gwen. The hostess’s eyes were large as she watched Pallas hand them over, her thumb hovering over a physical panic button on the edge of her tablet computer. When Gwen took the weapons and then squeezed their hilts tightly, they vanished in a puff of smoke and the Hostess visibly relaxed as Pallas looked on in shock. “Don’t worry, you’ll get them back. I just sent them to my hotel room. I can summon them back the moment we leave the building, along with the rest of your gear if need be.” Gwen gestured towards Caramel, and Pallas sheepishly stepped through the metal detector.
“Their tamer, Christopher Wallace.” Next was Chris, and he stepped through to take his place between Caramel and Pallas without incident.
“Satin, his Spellbun.” At that, the hostess held up her hand, indicating that Satin had to wait before crossing the threshold of the metal detector.
“Here, she’ll need one of these.” The hostess produced a paper wristband and motioned for Satin to hold out her wrist. Cautiously the Spellbun did so, and soon enough was sporting a new bracelet. When Satin looked up at her curiously, the hostess explained. “It’s just a precaution. Our security can handle anything physical a rowdy customer might try to dish out, but it’s harder to tell the spellcasters from the normal pokegirls like Ingenues and Bimbos. It won’t stop you from doing magic, but if you do cast a spell, the white paper will turn a bright orange, so we know you’re the one at fault.”
Gwen gestured for Satin to step through the metal detector. “You won’t have any trouble from us, I think.” The Archmage splice got a wristband as well, before following Satin through the detector. “This way, everyone.”
Gwen led them around the corner and up a darkened stairwell to the second floor. Chris could feel the thrumming bass beat of music in the air and walls around them, even if he couldn’t hear anything distinct yet. It wasn’t until Gwen led them to a door at the end of a short hallway and pushed it open that the fact that they were in a nightclub really sank in. Music assaulted their ears, loud and deep, making Satin fold her ears back and Pallas’s skin prickle with goosebumps. Caramel took Chris’s other hand, and then Pallas’s with her other so that all four of them were linked together, Satin still clinging to Chris’s other hand herself. The Seamstress stayed close behind Gwen as she pushed her way through the crowd, pulling the rest of her family with her.
Chris pulled Satin close to him as they threaded their way after Caramel and Pallas, the Spellbun plastered to his side as Gwen approached a roped off area and yet another bouncer standing at the head of a group of people who were apparently pleading their case to be let into the VIP area, as the door behind the velvet rope clearly declared itself. Gwen raised her hand to the bouncer, who appeared to be some sort of knight in full armor. “We’re expected.”
“Yes, Miss Gwendolyn.” The voice behind the imposing mask of the armor was surprisingly light and feminine, and the bouncer moved to push the crowd of people back as they loudly complained about Gwen and the rest cutting in line. One young woman made a move to plaster herself to Chris’s back, trying to blend in with them, but Satin put an end to it with a quickly and quietly placed step of her stiletto heels, the point of her shoe grinding down on the woman’s toe and making her jump back, howling and cursing.
Gwen gave Satin an approving look and a nod as she ushered them through the door and up a second flight of steps to the balconies overlooking the main dance floor. “Over here.” The white-clad blonde led them to a bank of couches, and everyone collapsed gratefully. The music was slightly less overbearing up here, and there were much fewer people than the gyrating mass of dancers and party-goers downstairs. As they took their places on the couches, a young woman in a sleek black cocktail dress approached with a pad of paper and a pencil. “Hello, everyone.” She smiled at Gwen. “Welcome back Miss Gwendolyn. Miss Rostov should be with you shortly. But right now… can I get you anything? A bottle of the Emerald Blue that you ordered last time, perhaps?”
Gwen nodded. “That will do nicely, thank you.” The waitress nodded, scribbling something on her notepad before smiling to them and turning to go fetch Gwen’s order. Gwen turned to Caramel and Chris, who were seated side by side. Satin was on Caramel’s other side, between the Seamstress and Gwen, while Pallas had positioned herself hip-to-hip with Chris on the side opposite Caramel. “As I said, Katrina is a Celestial. A Megami, in point-of-fact.”
“I don’t like that you led us into a meeting with a Celestial blind, Gwen.” Caramel’s voice carried an annoyed edge to it over the backbeat of the music.
“And I understand why. But I have no intention of letting her send you off on some fool errand or supposedly gallant quest in exchange for her services. This is a business introduction only. Working with her can help solve your money problems in an expedient method, and in a way that Christopher is likely to find the least objectionable.”
“And what does that mean, exactly?” Chris was leaning forward to hear Gwen over the sounds drifting up from the dance floor.
“It means that I am a woman of my word, and that I prefer to deal with individuals who have certain… standards that aren’t always found in the wide world of business.” Everyone looked up to find a beautiful black-haired woman standing at their table, dressed in a gown that was risqué even by a nymphomaniac’s standards. It consisted mostly of long strips of white and gold fabric cinched by a corded belt of gold around her waist. There didn’t seem to be any standard arrangement or way to keep the strips of wide fabric from slipping off of various portions of her anatomy, and the woman didn’t seem to pay attention that it billowed out around her, leaving no need for imagination about the shape of her voluptuous body as she sat down next to Gwen.
“Everyone, meet Katrina Rostov.” Gwen gestured to the group. “Katrina, this is Christopher Wallace, Satin, Caramel, and Pallas.” She introduced each of them in turn, and Katrina nodded graciously before reaching out to pluck a cocktail glass from a passing server and beginning to sip on the stolen drink. The server started to say something, noticed who it was had taken her normal customer’s drink from her, and then seemed to think better of commenting on the theft.
Caramel blinked owlishly, opening her mouth slightly before a look of realization dawned on her face. “That Katrina Rostov? The Megami Madame of Oslo?” Satin shot Caramel a look of surprise.
“The one and only. And you must be young Miss Lindor, yes? I had wondered where you might end up. I had even considered reaching out to your father to offer my services in locating you. And here is fate, one step ahead of me once again.”
“My father is looking for me?”
“Yes, of course he is. A man of his stature, his nature, it is only right for him to be concerned about his only child. Rumor has it that he was on the verge of buying you back from the League when you hadn’t been adopted out of the starter pokegirl pool for beginning tamers. But I see that he was too late. You and your bunnygirl companion have already found a new home.”
“Satin is a Spellbun now, actually.” Chris had one hand protectively resting on Caramel’s knee.
“That I can see. I suppose that evolution is thanks to Gwen’s influence? She always was drawn to other spellcasters.” Katrina looked at Gwen. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve noticed that you seem more at ease around other magic-type pokegirls. It is, perhaps, were you are most in your element, being half Archmage and all.”
Gwen scoffed. “Any other Archmage holds my being a splice against me, as if it were by choice or design.” She shook her head as their server returned with a bright blue-green bottle chilling in a bucket of ice in one hand, and a tray of glasses balanced in her opposite palm. Gwen waited until glasses had been filled and the server had stepped away before continuing. “Straight to business, now that the introductions are out of the way?”
Katrina arched an eyebrow, her golden eyes roving over Gwen’s face. “You were always like that, I remember now.” The scandalously dressed Megami finished off her drink confidently and then leaned forward, causing Chris to avert his eyes until Katrina seemed to take notice and adjusted the strips of her dress to hide her breasts. “One would think you’ve never seen a strange woman naked before, Mr. Wallace.”
Chris tilted his head to the side and shrugged. “That’s only been a situation I’ve found myself in lately, with these three.” He indicated Caramel, Satin, and Pallas.
Katrina arched an eyebrow curiously, but turned back to Gwen. “You wanted to introduce me to them, and they are now so introduced. What would you have our business be?”
Gwen crossed her legs and sipped her drink, steeling herself for the favor she was about to ask. Though if she thought about it, she was doing a favor for Katrina as well, truthfully. “Christopher is not native to the Leagues.”
Katrina’s eyes instantly snapped back to Chris, and she sat up a bit straighter, carefully arranging her dress. “Then I apologize for flashing you, Mr. Wallace. I’ve perhaps grown too casual in my surroundings, too comfortable. Of course, my cohorts in the Alliance might point out that any sense of propriety is lost when one works out of an establishment such as this, but then they miss the point and the fact that this club is a façade for much more important business deals. Deals that benefit the Celestial Alliance as well as the world at large.” She inhaled deeply. “Might I enquire as to how you came to be here…?”
Chris paused, and then pointed at Gwen. “That’s probably a better question to ask her. I don’t understand the details, really. I just know that I’m here, and I’m in over my head in pretty much every aspect of things.”
Katrina looked at Gwen. “Am I to understand that you are bringing him to me to put him under my care, then?” Chris could feel Caramel and Pallas tense next to him, but he tried to keep himself from reacting as Gwen nearly spit her drink across the low table they were gathered around.
“No, goddess, no. I merely thought that since he has a natural aversion to the way things work in this world, that he might be interested in becoming one of your… suppliers.”
Jaden nodded slowly in understanding. “Ah. That certainly makes more sense. You aren’t known for letting go of your toys once you’ve begun to tailor them to your liking.”
“Chris is not Gwen’s… toy!” It was Satin’s turn to look uncomfortable, her face drawn in a dangerous glower as she shifted her gaze from Katrina to Gwen and back again. It was only when Chris reached over and lifted her off the couch to cradle her in his lap that she relaxed, and Caramel shook her head at the Spellbun’s sudden protective streak.
“Ah. My apologies again. I really am on the back foot tonight. I was simply, and incorrectly speaking from my own past experiences, it seems. I didn’t mean to infer something that was not actually happening.”
“It’s not happening, Katrina. And after the way we met I don’t think it will ever.” Caramel looked at Gwen as she denied Katrina’s suggestion that she had plans to essentially join their family, noting that the splice hadn’t outright denied that she was interested, only that the possibility of it happening was small. “We’re here because he rightly thinks that the idea of selling people into slavery is wrong on every level, fundamental to high concept and everything in between.”
“It became the standard on this world thanks to the prejudice and fear that gripped humanity after the war.” Katrina leaned forward and poured herself a drink from the bottle, sighing softly. “I have worked every day since the inception of the Leagues and the economic system they were built upon, the gross enslavement of pokegirls, to enact change. It is slow going. And there have been more setbacks than anyone would care to admit. The entire sect of the Alliance that I belong to have struggled for nearly three hundred years to make this world a better place after the war that ended human civilization. We have failed. Spectacularly in some places, quietly in others.” Katrina took a sip of her drink. “I won’t bore you with the details, but our most recent endeavors focus less on breaking the system than overwriting it.” She looked at Caramel, Chris, Satin and Pallas. “By what main method does a Tamer makes money?”
Caramel’s response was instant. “Selling the ferals he captures to the league or to other tamers.”
“Precisely.” Katrina leaned in. “What if we short circuited that system? Diverted it?”
“What do you mean?”
Katrina smiled at Caramel’s confusion. “You yourself recently faced the reality of becoming a pokegirl, just like millions of other young women who threshold every year. Do you honestly feel that you are inferior now to the human you were?”
“No.” Caramel shook her head quickly, assuredly.
“It’s because you’re not. Pokegirls are just humans by a different name, with a few extra genes, maybe an extra limb or two or three.” Katrina smiled. “And by some extent, we can now say that humans are pokegirls, given the nature and the increasing frequency of bloodtraits inherited from pokegirl biology.”
“You’re talking about Biological Parity.” Pallas was suddenly in the conversation, and Katrina nodded.
“It is, perhaps, a lesser subset of the idea of Parity that the Celestial Alliance writ large preaches. It’s also much more scientific, and much more of a realistic goal than some fantasy where we all sit around the communal fire and sing Kumbaya.” Everyone except for Gwen and Chris looked confused, and he smiled.
“I got that reference.”
Katrina laughed, setting her drink down and holding out her palms. Instantly, a column of light about six inches tall appeared in each, slowly resolving into what Chris recognized as a double helix model of DNA. “In my right hand is a representation of the DNA of a particularly bloodgifted human man. In my left, the DNA of his biological sister, right before she thresholded. What do you see?”
Everyone studied the two pillars of DNA for a moment, until Satin spoke up. “They look almost the same.”
“Because they are. Aside from the genetic markers that decided that one of them became male, and the other female, they were almost identical. Twins. With the same blood traits, the same proclivity to certain diseases, the same skin tone, eye color, hair color, etc. Only traits directly related to their gender are different. Why did one threshold into a pokegirl, and one not?”
“Because one was female, while the other was not.” Pallas was confused by the question. During her time in school, science had never been her strongest subject, though she had always had consistently high marks across her schoolwork.
“So the secrets to pokegirl biology must naturally be determined by something found in the genetic markers related to gender, yes?”
Chris nodded. “Sure, I guess. Though I know that genetics is a whole lot more complicated than that.”
“Of course, but I try to keep these demonstrations as simple as possible.”
“What does this have to do with tamer’s making money by selling ferals to the league?”
Katrina paused, and then smiled. “I see that the actual demonstration was wasted on you. You don’t need convincing that pokegirls deserve to be treated equally to humans, I assume?”
“No? I mean, you don’t need to convince us. At least, not me…” Chris looked to his left and right at Pallas, Caramel, and Satin. “But it seems to me that you’re making an argument that it’s possible for what I guess you might call pokeboys to exist, right?”
Katrina blinked, and then quickly closed her fingers on her palms, the light in her hands disappearing. “I wasn’t. But that, I think, is a discussion for another day, and a much less public place.” She snatched up her drink and took a very un-ladylike swig. “Ahem. Back to business. I mentioned diverting the revenue stream the leagues receive from the transactions regarding buying and selling pokegirls, feral or aware, yes?”
“I have been doing that diverting. I, among others. We buy ferals at the same rates that the league might offer, only we don’t sell them on into slavery afterwards. We free their minds, then educate and train them, just as you would do to a human who was brought in out of the cold of the mindless wilderness. They become productive members of our society, living as free as we can help them to be.”
“They still have to be tamed, though.” Caramel looked almost incredulous at Katrina’s admission. Surely a strategy like that couldn’t work, right?
“We have a rotating group of men and human women drawn from the ranks of retired Celestial tamers who provide all the taming they might need. We’re careful to monitor each individual, to help them avoid forming bonds if they so choose. They’re never asked to tame with the same pokegirl twice in a month-long period, in fact. That way we can minimize the risk of accidental bond formation.”
“Some pokegirls will still form bonds on the first go around though, won’t they?” Caramel gestured to herself and Satin, and then looked at Pallas, who nodded in affirmation. “We all did with Chris.”
“Then we carefully monitor those situations, and fall back on any previous statements that the pokegirl in question has made to counselors and enclave staff for guidance as to her original wishes. We also keep them separated for a full month from the tamer in question. If, after that time period and a standard evaluation, they still wish to tame with that particular tamer again, or if both submit a request for the woman in question to join the tamer’s harem or family, we allow that to proceed.” Katrina leaned back on the couch and smiled, crossing her legs. “We’ve put a lot of thought into it, don’t worry. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and we make constant adjustments and updates to the process. And of course, it seems that once every few years we get a major wrench thrown into the proceedings by a couple of individuals undergoing Recognition with each other.”
“Recognition?” Chris looked puzzled as yet another unfamiliar term was thrown out casually into conversation.
“You don’t know yet?” Chris shook his head at Katrina’s question, and she continued. “Recognition is essentially love at first sight. Imagine locking eyes with a random person on the street, and instantly falling madly, hopelessly in love with them. Enough to give up everything you have, or to take everything from someone else just to be with that person. That is Recognition. Two souls finding each other in the otherwise teeming masses, and joining as one. It is exceedingly rare, but happens often enough around the world for it to be well documented and studied.”
“Huh.” Chris shrugged. “I much prefer getting to know someone before spending my whole life with them. It should be a mutual decision, not just random fate.”
“I believe many would agree with you, myself and Gwen here included.” Katrina sighed. “Now, are you interested in such an arrangement between us? My purchasing the pokegirls you capture in the wild, and taking care of them and placing them into environments where they are to the best of our ability to allow them, able to make their own decisions? Their own choices, their own lives?”
“If it works like you say it does, then yes.” Chris was skeptical, perhaps naturally. “Nothing I’ve seen in this world so far seems to work anything close to that.” He rubbed his hands on his knees. “I’d rather like to consider myself to be saving people than selling them into slavery.”
“I can certainly provide examples, and introduce you to individuals who have come into our program and now live healthy, productive, and free lives. Or you can ask Gwen. She has visited a number of our enclaves, and briefly served on the board of one of them.”
Everyone looked at Gwen, and she nodded in affirmation. “I can vouch for everything that Katrina has told you. If that is not enough, though, I’m sure she’d be willing to arrange for you to visit an enclave, though I wouldn’t expect that to occur in a very timely manner.”
Katrina sniffed slightly, swirling her drink in her glass. “True, our security has many layers. The leagues likely wouldn’t approve of the leeway we give other pokegirls if they knew what was going on inside our enclaves. It would take time to arrange a visit. But that aside, what do you say, Mr. Wallace? We could always use more sympathetic tamers out in the world, sending back individuals to free their minds and grow our enclaves.”
Chris opened his mouth to agree, and then paused. “What happens if the leagues find the enclaves? Do you evacuate? Fight back?”
“We evacuate. We are nowhere near strong enough to repel organized armies. And to do so would not be to our benefit. We simply scrap the enclave and relocate all of its citizens to a new location. We’re not ready to fight, and we won’t force a fight if we have to.”
“And if some among you were spoiling for a fight?”
Katrina looked at him for a long moment. “You’re worried that we would force the pokegirls who we have rescued to fight our battles, aren’t you? That we could convince them to take the fall for us?”
“That is precisely my worry.”
“And it’s not one you should concern yourself with, for two reasons. First, we would not force anyone to fight on the Alliance’s behalf. We would welcome the assistance, but never will we coerce it. It runs against the very ideal the enclaves are trying to reach. And secondly, we wouldn’t be short of volunteers. You might be against the idea of fighting what you perceive as a loosing battle, but for someone who’s only alternative to life in the enclave might be one of enslavement? If you were faced with loosing your freedom, control over your body and mind, what would you do? Would you stand idle or would you fight? Those who prefer to run, to hide, we will accommodate. Not everyone is ready or able to fight. But we won’t force anyone to fight. We will have plenty of volunteers when the time does eventually come.”
“Since when have you been contemplating armed revolution, Katrina?” Gwen’s face was placid, but the rest of her body language conveyed concern. She had put her glass down, and her fingers were tightly balled into fists.
“Since the day we started, Gwen. It is one of many possible outcomes of the enclave program. We are pushing towards peaceful resolutions every day, but we will fight if we must.”
Gwen relaxed back into the couch slightly. She was not totally convinced, but not perturbed enough to yet pursue a more thorough answer.
“What do you say, Mr. Wallace?” Katrina looked at him expectantly, leaning in to hear his response over the music pumping below.
Chris looked at Caramel, trying to gauge her reaction. She looked at him, and then nodded curtly, without hesitation. He looked to Satin next, held tightly in his lap. The Spellbun was currently tapping her toes to the beat of the music reverberating through the club, and he wondered for a moment how it must sound through ears like hers. She noticed him looking at her and smiled, nodding her agreement. He turned last to Pallas, who was watching Katrina closely. He noticed that every time he had looked over at her, the redheaded Amazon had been watching the black-haired Megami like a hawk. When Chris laid his hand on her bare knee, she nearly jumped, grabbing his hand and squeezing tightly. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s too good to be true.”
Chris looked back at Katrina for a moment. “Maybe. But if Gwen vouches for her.” He watched as Pallas flicked her eyes towards Gwen and then back to him, and he could almost sense the question running through her mind. How much trust did Gwen herself warrant?
“Let’s do it.” Pallas turned his hand over on her knee so that she was holding it, scooting closer to him as she agreed to the plan.
Chris looked back at Katrina and Gwen. “What do we need to do?”
Katrina leaned forward and held out her hand. “Gwen already vouches for you, so you don’t get to have me poking around in your head. I’ve already read your aura, and to me it looks as pure as any of the other tamers I work with. Righteous, even. Though Gwen didn’t describe you to me in that kind of light. If you hand me your pokedex, I’m going to input three com codes that are direct lines to agents who can facilitate the transfer of any ferals you catch to me, and any payment from me to you.”
Chris nudged Satin forward slightly so that he could fish his pokedex out of the inner pocket of his blazer, and then handed it over to the Megami. She quickly began inputting the com codes into his register as he had a thought. “What if we somehow end up with someone who’s not feral? Do we send them to you?”
Katrina looked up. “In that case, I’d suggest letting Gwen scan them before contacting me. She knows what to look for in case they are acting in bad faith. Other than that, we’ll deal with them almost the same way we deal with feral cases, they’ll just be easier to explain things to.” She handed his pokedex back, and he looked down at it briefly to examine the numbers before shutting the device off and slipping it back in his pocket. “Now. Our business is concluded, and I have other guests to attend to. Please, make yourself at home in my establishment. Drinks and stimulants are on the house, just remember that if you cause a scene, you will be asked to leave. And if you are asked to leave, I’m much more likely to rescind my offer of help.”
“I thought we were helping you?” Caramel looked confused as the Megami stood up.
“Oh, you are. But I have many agents in the wilds collecting ferals to send to the enclaves. To lose one because of his own bad actions would not bother me. Now, if he were in trouble because of his work with us, that’s one thing. But I cannot protect people from their own stupidity.” And with that, Katrina turned on her heel and strode off into the sparse crowd of people in the VIP lounge.
Gwen leaned forward to refill her glass. “Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t think she is telling us the whole truth.” Pallas was still staring after the retreating Megami.
“Of course she’s not! I’m surprised she said as much as she did.” Gwen leaned back and sipped at her drink.
“And you don’t have problems with her keeping secrets?”
Gwen snorted. “We all have secrets, Pallas. All of us. I just trust her enough to let us know if those secrets will affect us. Otherwise they are not my concern.”
“And why is it you trust her this much?” Chris hadn’t touched his drink, and as Caramel drained hers, she picked his up instead of refilling her own. He looked up at Gwen as she contemplated his question.
“I told you about one of my previous tamers while we were at the training grounds this morning.” Chris pursed his lips and nodded, remembering the details of the conversation and knowing they probably weren’t appropriate to speak aloud in a public setting, or in front of Caramel, Satin and Pallas. What he had been told, he assumed he had been told in confidence. “Katrina and her family were the ones who helped me out of that situation. I owe my life and my sanity to her.”
Pallas, even though sensing the subject was delicate, did not let up. “So it’s because you owe her a debt? Is that why you trust her?”
Gwen inhaled deeply, and Chris knew instantly that Pallas had hit a nerve without realizing it. But Gwen didn’t take the bait, instead sweeping a long lock of cornsilk blonde hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. “No, that debt has long since been repaid. I don’t owe Katrina anything. But I trust her because I know who she is. We have a long history, and I respect and understand her because of it.”
Pallas leaned back in her seat, squeezing Chris’s hand and nodding. “I’m sorry if I offended, Gwen. I just thought that we needed to be sure. For our own sake.”
“No, I understand. You… you won’t always have me with you. I’ll leave you to your own devices, one day.”
“Not soon?” Everyone looked at Satin as she spoke, her own drink cupped gently in her hands as she sipped at it. “I like learning from you.”
Chris looked from Satin to Gwen, and realized that she was just as surprised as everyone else at Satin’s admission. “I think she’s starting to warm up to you finally.”
Satin grinned and then slipped from Chris’s lap to wedge herself between he and Caramel. Gwen smiled back at the adorable Spellbun. “Maybe so.” She looked around, and then stood up. “Our business is concluded.”
Caramel pulled her drink away from her mouth with a start. “We’re leaving?”
Gwen genuinely began laughing, to everyone’s surprise. The normally closed off Splice seemed to be freer with her emotions when she had a few drinks in her. “Goddess, no. I’m going to get something stiffer to drink. You all performed well today in training. It’s time to relax and have some fun.”
As Gwen moved away through the VIP crowd in the direction of the bar, Chris looked at Caramel. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never...” He frowned. “Partied with any of my teachers. This isn’t normal, right?”
“I don’t think so. But then again, nothing is normal anymore. I have a new tamer, a new family, and apparently we now work, in some form or fashion, for the Celestial Alliance.” Caramel looked at the bottle on the table for a long moment, and then reached for it. “We’re going to need a couple more of these.”
Nearly three hours later, Chris was carrying a thoroughly drunk and dozing Satin in his arms as the group exited the club. They had made it all of a city block before Caramel had dashed towards the edge of the sidewalk and puked up a large portion of the alcohol she had consumed that night, with Pallas comforting her gently. The redhead, like her tamer, had abstained from drinking. He had learned from her that her father had been an alcoholic for a large portion of her childhood before getting clean, and as such she had more experience with alcohol than she ever wanted to have. As for himself, Chris had never really had more than a few beers throughout his entire life, his dislike of alcohol coming more from the taste and bad experiences at a couple of parties early into his college career than anything else. So he and Pallas were left to shepherd Satin, Caramel, and even Gwen home.
On Pallas’s suggestion, they were heading towards the pokecenter to run Caramel and Satin through a healing cycle, and soon enough Caramel was returned to her pokeball to prevent her from having to deal with throwing up again. Satin was sleeping soundly, and eventually her dead weight was passed off to Pallas’s stronger arms while Chris supported Gwen with an arm around her back. Without her usual high heeled boots, she was the same height as Chris, her short-heeled sandals putting them on a more even playing field.
“Almost there. I can see the sign in the distance.” Chris nudged Gwen gently and she groaned, before looking up. When she saw the neon lit pokeball sign in the distance, she suddenly ground to a halt, pulling Chris up short with her.
“You… you three go. Go on ahead. I’ve… got something else to do.” She looked at Chris and seemed to suddenly become aware of how close their faces were to one another, quickly drawing back and dropping her arm from his shoulder. When she immediately stumbled, Chris reached out to steady her, holding her upper arms for a brief moment before she jerked her arms away. “No, no. I need to…”
“What’s wrong, Gwen?” Chris kept trying to get her to make eye-contact, but she was avoiding him, mumbling to herself as Pallas pulled to a stop a few yards in front of them, her dress hiked up as she carried Satin bridal style.
“Go, it’s fine. I…” She suddenly looked up at him and swallowed hard. “I’ll see you back at the hotel in the morning.” When Chris immediately opened his mouth to ask a question, she disappeared without a trace. One second she was there, and by the time his eyes had finished blinking she was gone. Chris stood there, dumbfounded.
“What the hell?” He turned to Pallas, who looked equally stunned.
“Perhaps she didn’t want us to see her drunk. It’s not like we can put her in a pokeball and run her through a cycle, after all. Maybe she went home, wherever that is.” Chris looked at Pallas, still confused by what had happened as the Amazon lifted Satin a little bit higher and continued walking on.
He hurried to catch up with her, reaching out and plucking Satin’s high heels from her feet, adding them to the two other pairs he was already carrying from Pallas and Caramel. It didn’t take them much longer to reach the pokecenter, traveling in silence. Chris pondered what could have caused Gwen to have abandoned them so swiftly and unexpectedly, while Pallas’s head was on a swivel, slipping easily into the role of bodyguard. She would have much preferred to have been armed, rather than carrying a snoring Spellbun, but they reached the entrance to the Pokecenter without incident. It was a simple matter then to convince Satin to return to her pokeball when the bright lights were otherwise interrupting her sleep.
As they waited in line, only two other tamers waiting for the pokecenter attendant, Chris wrapped an arm around Pallas’s waist, and she took her heels back from him as she rested her head on his shoulder. “Well. We’ve had a night. I’m not sure what kind of night, but we’ve had one.”
Pallas smiled and sighed, her free hand going around Chris’s waist. “I enjoyed it, even if it’s mostly a blur.”
Chris chuckled, and then turned to kiss her on the forehead. “I did too.” Pallas lifted her head to face him, and soon enough they were kissing softly.
“Is Taylor home?”
Jocelyn Merck sighed as she found Gwen standing on the front step of her family home, looking for all the world like she had just stepped out of some night club, what with her dress rumpled and her heels clutched in one hand. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“I just need to see Taylor, Jocelyn.”
“He’s not going to be happy about being woken up at this hour of the night, Gwen.”
Gwen growled menacingly. “I don’t care. I need to see him, and I need to see him now.”
Jocelyn stared at Gwen for a long moment, before rolling her eyes and sighing again. “He’s your problem if he wakes up grumpy, then. Come on.” She waved Gwen inside and directed her to a couch in the living room. Gwen shoved a child’s doll aside and sat down with all the grace of, what else, a drunkard.
Jocelyn disappeared further into the house, and Gwen’s magically enhanced hearing could pick up the floorboards above her head creaking as she went to wake up her tamer and husband. As she waited, Gwen swallowed back the need to vomit, closing her eyes tightly and twisting her fingers into the required motion to perform a spell to subdue her nausea. She felt better for a second afterwards, sitting quietly, before jumping up and making a mad dash for the bathroom. As she passed through the kitchen, a short woman with jet black hair and an equally black nightgown spun around. “What the hell? Gwen?” Gwen ignored the other woman, rounding the corner into the bathroom and lunging for the toilet.
It was there that ‘Taylor’ found her. He was a good-looking man in his late thirties, blonde haired, bare chested, and with a pair of pajama bottoms stained with baby food as his only clothing. “Haven’t seen you in a while, Gwen. Care to come up for air and explain what this visit is about?”
Gwen held up her palm to keep him from talking any further as she vomited into the toilet. Taylor pursed his lips and shook his head, entering the bathroom and gathering her hair up into a ponytail, holding it for her as she emptied her stomach. A few minutes later, Gwen leaned back and flushed the toilet, Taylor dropping her hair as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and struggled to her feet woozily. “I… I need you to tame me.”
Taylor snorted and shook his head. “No. Not happening.”
“But I need…”
“What you need is a cold shower, a new set of clothes, and lots of electrolytes. And a toothbrush.” He looked back over his shoulder at the bathroom cabinet above the sink. “Speaking of which.” He opened the cabinet, swinging the mirrored door outwards as he began rummaging through it. Gwen grimaced as she was confronted with her reflection, subtly moving her fingers in a well-practiced motion. When Taylor shut the cabinet door, Gwen’s face was spotless, her make-up no longer smudged, her hair perfect and her breath immaculate. Taylor paused, blinking. “Right. I forgot about you being able to do that.”
“What about now? Better?”
Taylor held the toothbrush out to her. “No. You’re still drunk. Here, your toothbrush. I think it’s the last thing of yours that I still have.”
Gwen reached out and took the toothbrush gingerly. “What… are you doing?” Her confusion was evident, or perhaps it was an unwillingness to accept what Taylor returning her toothbrush might mean.
Taylor wiggled the toothbrush. “I’m returning your toothbrush.” He shook his head slowly. “I’m not taming you, Gwen. No one here is. We haven’t seen you for nearly five months.” He sighed slowly. “I’m not your tamer. I never really was. I was just someone you took a liking to, who respected the fact that I had a family and didn’t want you as my own.”
“Go home, Gwen. You’re drunk.”
Gwen frowned, at a loss for words as she breathed deeply, something akin to panic setting in. “I need you to tame me, you don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure that I do. I’ve never seen you drunk. Hell, I didn’t think you could get drunk. Never once was I ever able to drink you under the table, though you certainly encouraged me to try.”
“Yes, Gwen, you are. And I have a family. Daughters. Three wives. I’m not going to tame you, not anymore.” Taylor shook his head again and grabbed her wrist, lifting her hand up and placing the toothbrush in her hand. “I thought you had just forgot about me, about Jocelyn. She liked you, Gwen. She really did. She even considered asking you to actually join our family, did you know that?”
Gwen looked blankly at Taylor, uncomprehending.
“You disappeared, Gwen. You were there, around almost every day. And then you were gone. No words, just off in a rush to save the world, or whatever it is you claimed you do.” He leaned back against the sink, gripping the sides tightly in his hands, muscles bunching under the skin of his arms. “I’m not sure you were ever serious about this. I didn’t think you were, but I hoped, you know. It may have started simply enough. No strings, just a night or two together here and there. But my family got to know you. We accepted you, and you kind of just threw it back in our faces.” He looked up at Gwen, seeing the way her expression had sagged. “Hey, look at me.”
When she did, Taylor could see that she was crying, however silently. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and he sighed and held out his hands. She fell into his arms, and he stroked her back and head gently. “Hey, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay. You’re strong, I know that. You’ve got the whole world to play with.” He leaned back and tilted her chin up with his thumb. “I know I’m not the only man you were going to for taming, either. If you need a place to stay tonight, you can stay here. But no taming.”
Gwen looked at him, eyes welling up, and she placed her hands on his bare chest, tapping her fingers slowly against his pronounced muscles. “No. No no no. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t do this.”
“Can’t do what, Gwen?”
“I need to be tamed, Taylor. It’s my time.” Gwen sniffed. “I’ve been putting it off for too long. I just...”
Taylor looked at her, real concern starting to show in his face. He wasn’t sure if she was actually that close to going feral, or if it was the alcohol in her system, but he wasn’t going to allow her to take that chance. “Then we’ll go to the pokecenter. There are staff members there trained to do this kind of thing, no strings attached and no questions asked.”
Gwen curled her hands into fists on his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Taylor smiled softly. “I always knew your heart wasn’t really here, with me, with us.” When Gwen looked up, apologetic, he knew he was correct in his assumption. “It’s okay. It’s okay. For as old as you are, because yes, even though you never told me your age, I’m damned sure you’re at least twice my age, if not more.”
“More. Much more.”
“Much more. For as old as you are, I knew you weren’t ready to settle down.”
“I think I’m reaching that point.”
Taylor sighed and shook his head again, clenching his teeth. “I can’t, Gwen. We can’t. That bridge is already burned.”
“No, no. No. Not you. Someone else. Someone new.” Gwen inhaled deeply as she admitted it to herself as much as to Taylor.
“Someone new? Then why aren’t you in his arms right now, instead?”
“It’s not like that. Not…”
“In her arms, then?” Taylor looked at her questioningly.
“No. No, he’s just…. New. Very new. New enough that I haven’t even asked him about even taming me. Didn’t want to ask him. Didn’t even think I would, until right now.”
“Then maybe you should go to him and tell him, you think?”
Gwen quickly shook her head, stepping back from Taylor, clutching her toothbrush. “No, no, goddess no, I can’t do that.” She inhaled deeply. “I…”
“I think he secretly hates me.” Gwen swallowed and looked up at Taylor. “Or at least resents me. I… we, me and my… sisters. We did something horrible to him. And I’ve been trying to make up for it.”
“And what? You got too close, is that it?”
“But you think he hates you. Because why?”
“I can’t say. I…”
“It’s one of those saving the world… saving the world things.” Gwen swallowed and leaned back, resting her back against the closet door behind her.
“Ah. Secret Archmage things.” Gwen nodded. “Well, think of it like this.” Taylor sighed. “You have to tell him. Either way. Unless you’re willing to just keep on going on and on without telling him?” He smiled softly. “I’ve done that sort of thing before Gwen. Gone along forever without telling someone how much I care for them.” Gwen looked up at him. “And because I didn’t tell her, I lost her, Gwen. I lost her forever. I lost someone that I cared deeply and truly about. And I think about her, and I regret it every day of my life. I hate myself for it. Jocelyn is the only one who knows. She’s tried to help me through it, but we’ve both starting thinking that it’s best for me, and for the family if I go to some sort of specialist to get those memories literally removed. That’s how bad it hurts me. And it shouldn’t, because I have children now, for gods’ sake. They are the light of my life, my everything. And still in the back of my mind is this nagging doubt. What could have been if I had simply told this woman how I felt before the opportunity to do so faded away?”
“Don’t be me.” He reached out and pulled her back into a brief hug before releasing her and stooping down to pick up the high heels she had dropped, handing them to her. "Don’t be me, Gwen.”
Tamer: Christopher Wallace
Seamstress: Caramel Lindor
Spellbun: Satin Lindor