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  1. "Hm?" She hummed lightly when her name was called, gaze drifting over to Shield while he sleepily spoke. His exhaustion came as a bit of a surprise, though she couldn't say she didn't share in the feeling. As she watched him finish his thought and was left to wonder whether he'd really fallen asleep so quickly, a small smile grew on her lips the longer he lay still. She looked at him fondly even after Lilith had made her way back over and settled herself on his avatar, letting out a sigh and carefully repositioning herself on the grassy field. She scooted just a bit closer, leaning back onto her hands and looking back up to the starry sky now that the orange glow of sunset had given way to the deep blue of night. "What a day..." She muttered to herself. "What do you think we should do now, Dani?" She spoke quietly, dipping her chin back down to glance to her own familiar as she felt him crawling up onto her lap. His head raised, and beady black eyes looked back up at her for a second before his mouth opened into a wide yawn. "Okay, but after that." She chuckled softly with a shake of her head. "I guess... We get back to it, huh? I'm not exactly frontliner material, though." The more she dwelled on the thought of big monsters and boss fights, the tighter the knot growing in her stomach became. Five minutes turned to ten, then twenty. When Callie finally felt her head lull forward with the heaviness of her own eyelids, she conceded the fight and turned to Shield beside her. She hesitated at first, but went on to gently prod his arm. "Shield? Hey, wake up, we should really get back to town or something." She said, fighting back a yawn.
  2. Callie nodded along, following and agreeing with his understanding. As he continued and she kept her eyes focused on the shifts in color on the horizon as the sun disappeared from view altogether, her expression changed first into a frown. Assuming they made it out of here alive, Shield's battle would be far from over. Each and every survivor would likely need months of physical therapy, if not more than that. Minors will have lost what could be years of coming into the world, set back on their studies and unable to enter most job markets. The world itself will have changed, and they'll struggle to catch up and secure a grip back on the normalcies of life. It was depressing, and demoralizing. Callie pursed her lips, trying to put together the right words to say when he started again and she felt his eyes on her. She looked over and briefly met them, catching the look on his face. It was unfair to say that Shield never smiled, but it was not wrong to say that it was rare to find him in a position of exchanging heartfelt sentiments. She found herself smiling back, unaware at first and quickly facing back forward and lowering her gaze while the upturned corners of her mouth held their position. She felt almost bashful for a moment with the short exchange, but found her senses quickly enough and shifted herself slightly, pressing her open palms into the grass behind her and leaning her weight back. It took a second, but she found the courage more quickly than she would have thought. "Yeah... I can't say there's anyone else I've met here that, well, I wouldn't mind seeing again when it's all over with."
  3. She embraced the quiet during their short journey back to the open fields, for there was not nearly as much tension looming in the air as there had been before. As Shield bent his legs and took a seat in the grass, Callie followed suit. She left an arm's length between them and pulled her knees loosely inward while she brought her hands to rest over bare shins. With all the movement Danesh finally abandoned his post at the top of her head and climbed down her shoulder to hop to the earth below. He circled in place a couple of times, curling up for a short nap at Callie's side while the two recovered from the day's ordeals. Her lips pursed slightly, a tightness that meant that she wanted to say something meaningful, but couldn't. It was such an unproductive feeling; the extension of another person's sadness, and the small ripple of helplessness at not being able to ease the pain. "Me too. I mean, I'm glad you were there to talk some sense into me." She at least acknowledged her own gratitude out loud. A minute or two of quiet passed them by, a soft breeze rolling through the little hills and ruffling the grass as well as their hair. The sunlight was starting to disappear, and the colors in the sky very gradually shifted from hues of orange and pink to muted grays before the darkness of night would take over. "It was about eight years before this game, I think. So I've had a while to get used to it, but... Relationships were never easy. I got into games and online communities because I could connect with people without that barrier." Talking felt nice. It was a needless explanation, throwing bits of her life beyond Aincrad out into the air, but that didn't matter. If he would listen, opening up on her own terms was comforting. "I haven't wanted to leave the game for a while. It wasn't until I was threatened that I felt any sense of urgency to level up--pad my numbers so I could survive--and that's about when we met. But I always figured, if and when we got out of here, it's all going to be shut down. VR games might still be a thing, but any this full-dive stuff probably lost any hope of funding the day after we all got stuck in here. That's all I was thinking about, anyway. "It was selfish, and I'm both sorry and not sorry." A short pause, and she wasn't sure how to continue. It felt as though there was nothing else for her to say, and yet she didn't want to fall silent just there. She gave another quick clear of her throat to clear away the hint of awkwardness, though it only really served to point it out. "But thank you, for listening. It's making the whole, internal conflict thing a little bit easier."
  4. Callie jumped, almost as surprised by Shield's sudden exclamation as the man himself, and turned to catch him shifting uncomfortably while his familiar made herself comfortable. In a short moment of comic relief she chuckled, welcoming the viper's distraction from the heavy hearts that the memory chambers had left them with. "Aww, cute. Speaking of--" She had just turned her head to survey the area for her own animal companion when Danesh reached her. Having snaked through the air at her waist, the half-dragon's paws landed on her clothing and tiny claws dug into her to serve as his holds while he scurried around, up her back, across her shoulders, and even up her seafoam hair to perch most of his long body atop her head. The sensation of the squirrelly creature scampering over her and the little pricks of his nails caused Callie to squirm, turning a full circle in place while she tried to catch Danesh with her eyes. "Hey--Dani! Gah, what's gotten into you?" Once still, he held his head high at alert while his beady onyx eyes stared intently at Shield's avatar. It wasn't until he must have spotted the flick of Lilith's tongue whipping through the air between the cuff of his sleeve that Danesh relaxed, laying his head down and nestling into the crook of his own half-curled body. Callie let out a huff of air, shoulders dropping in slight relaxation. She gave half a smirk in Shield's direction. "Okay, I deserved that." A hand reached up to lazily stroke the tail that spilled down along the back of her head. As glad as she was that both Danesh and Lilith were fine and back in their possession, she took a moment to realize that she was equally glad they hadn't been accompanied to whatever rooms and hallways covered in strange mirrors down there. A melancholy hung over her, and she wasn't sure if she should embrace the reflection of the whole ordeal or push it away. A quick, almost nervous glance in Shield's direction and she was hit with a pang of guilt that told her she had already been doing the latter for long enough. Callie gave a quick clear of her throat, in part to commit to getting words out after. "Well, should we head back to town? We might even catch the sunset on the way back. Maybe take a minute to unwind." She suggested in half-sentences, attention focused on the spaces between the trees to their side rather than Shield himself.
  5. Her eyes glanced to the side once when she felt the sudden contact, but paid it no mind. Hers was elsewhere, reflecting on his response. "I understand. A little bit, at least." She smiled wryly after his sentence hung in the air. There were only two years between her brother and herself, but she had often puffed out her chest as she took on the role of 'big sister'. More often than not her protective habits, nagging, and advice were surely more of an annoyance to the pre-teen boy that was just trying to grow up on his own, but there were fonder memories scattered forward and back that brought a smile to her face: smearing disinfectant on a scraped knee, and even his bright-red cheeks when she grilled him about his first date. They had grown up together, but nothing was stranger than realizing she couldn't lift him up on her back anymore and she'd never have to drive him to school again. They came to a stop and when Shield presented his photograph to the soft glow of the double-doors Callie's eyes widened slightly. Her hand moved to a pouch at her belt where she had tucked the item away and retrieved her own memento. For a minute she didn't want to hold it forward. She stared back at her brother's stupid, grinning face and feared that the mechanism would [censored] the image away from her, and so she studied it, etching his features back into her immediate memory. Still, knowing that their progress was halted, she urged herself to extend her arm and held the photo up to her respective 'keyhole' of sorts. The mostly-obscured lights pulsed once and the stone slabs in front of the shuddered. The color dimmed and the earth slowly dragged itself to either side, audibly scraping against the rest of what held it in place as the stairway was revealed to them once again. Much to her relief, Cardinal seemed to want nothing else from their pictures other than proof that they'd been obtained. The lighted squares disappeared before the rest of the stone doors slid into the tunnel beside them, and the pair was left alone with their prizes. Callie released a breath and started to climb back to the floor's surface. The distant sky, which had shone bright blue with traces of pluming white clouds, was colored a beautiful muted orange that signaled the approach of sunset. The trees of the forest that surrounded them were still thick enough to prevent much of a view, but the thick, eerie fog that had hugged their trunks had thinned considerably since their descent. "Guess we were gone for a while." She thought out loud, absentmindedly fidgeting with the corner of her photograph before carefully tucking it away again.
  6. Callie's brows were still turned up when she came to a stop beside Shield. She peered over his shoulder with half-interest at first while he automatically pulled the spoils from the lone chest. Of course the slip of cardstock still sitting at the bottom caught both of their eyes, and she stood in apprehensive silence until Shield came forward with small, strained words. Callie fixated on the photograph for a short time, and though her expression still bore plenty of concern after the whole emotional ordeal, the corners of her mouth pulled up into a soft smile at the sight of Shield happily posing with the two girls. Her eyes were of course drawn to what was left of the fourth person standing in frame, but after his short explanation she settled back onto the smaller girl's grinning face. "Yeah," She started in understanding. "I never really, resented my parents," She had paused for half a second in order to pick out a suitable word, "But my brother was always like my best friend, especially after we were all grown up." She had to resist the urge to pull up her inventory and retrieve the image of her own family. There would be plenty of time to reminisce later, she told herself. "They're adorable, by the way." She shifted the topic, still studying the smiling faces in the picture while her own grew a bit more genuine. She turned and shot a glance up to Shield and then gave a small nod of her head in the other direction to start herself walking again. She led the way this time but kept a relaxed pace now that the memory chambers no longer tortured them. The silence was still stiff, their reflections bouncing back and forth off of the mirrors standing the length of each wall beside them as they worked down the long tunnel that Callie hoped would lead them back to the staircase to the misty forest. "What's the hardest part, do you think? Of being a parent." She wondered aloud to keep the quiet from overtaking them.
  7. Her slight smile was forced, but Shield wasn't looking at it either way. Callie's brows were still turned up, her face displaying her desire to help--that strange but genuine want to ease a pain that she could hardly comprehend--but also her own misdirection. They had separated, and she was content to kneel in silence while Shield took the time he needed to compose himself before they thought about moving again. Somehow managing to slip from her mind, the yelling rang out again and spurred her partner to action. She flinched, though she couldn't tell if it was from the echoing memory jumping back to its beginning or Shield's sudden movement to put himself elsewhere. He moved past her, quite possibly on autopilot back down the long hallway of mirrors, and Callie hurried to rise back to her feet and take wide strides to keep up. She opened her mouth to call out for him, perhaps ask him to wait or slow down, but she stopped herself before any sound escaped. Luckily it didn't take long for the sounds from the large chamber to fade away, but the stifling silence that they were left in was hardly any more desirable. Their footsteps were loud, that and their breathing the only thing to fill the eerie void. A glance to her left and Callie could see several copies of them hurrying down the long passageway. The dream-like visions of their past selves no longer populated the walls, and so the mirrors simply bounced their reflections back and forth. Her mouth tightened as she tried to catch sight of even half of his expression, watching the back of his head nervously when the attempt failed. Finally, after picking up into a jog for just a couple of paces, she spoke up. "I'm sorry." She hated those words, but she struggled to force anything else out at first. For a tortuously long moment all she felt was frustration. She always thought she was garbage at empathizing or emotionally connecting with others. She had preferred staying aloof. Knowing everyone on the surface was always good enough. But now that she had delved deeper, words failed. "I, uhm," She tried anyway. "I understand if it's, something you didn't want to share. But, well, what you said earlier..." She felt the tightness of her throat as she swallowed, and her eyes dropped to focus on the smooth stone floor between them as she had to actively fight back the tells that the emotional stability she had forced back together earlier was growing shaky. "I feel the same way. I mean, it doesn't change anything."
  8. "Hmm, alright." Callie had just swapped out her clothing when Hestia's reply arrived, storing away her beach-friendly attire for the basic combat gear that she had available. Fitted earthy-brown pants were cinched with a leather belt, from which two small bags were fastened. While other players might have supplies like potions or crystals stowed away for quick use, Callie's pockets only contained a haphazard combination of semi-useful quest rewards and a couple of wrapped food items to snack on. Behind the basic leather chestguard, her claymore in its sheathe was strapped to her back, and she was working to tie her long cerulean hair over her shoulder with the bare fingers that poked out from their gloves as she walked. She kept a brisk pace, nearly leaving Danesh behind as she hurried back to the main city and teleport plaza therein on the sixteenth floor. The detour was relaxing enough, but had grown a bit lonely. Hestia's invitation couldn't have been more welcome of a distraction. Having estimated the walk would take her about fifteen minutes, her avatar arrived in a flash of light and a little out of breath in just under ten. "Okay now, Hestia..." Callie mumbled the name to herself, golden eyes running over the throng of players in front of her while she tried to recall the woman's appearance and watch for her in the crowd.
  9. Having lost track of time long ago, Callie's breaths were heavy and steady. Her cheek pressed up against an arm that was crossed over her knees, and her shoulders bobbed lightly up and down like the waves that rolled in on the beach. It was the sound of a new message, the familiar notification that chimed in her ears, that roused her from sleep. Callie's eyes fluttered open and she let out a soft mumble, only now realizing that she must have dozed off on the warm sands of the beach. "Mm? What's up?" She muttered, still coming to consciousness before she realized there was nobody else in sight. She looked around, blinking past the sunlight, and rubbed at one eye with the back of her hand while her other stumbled through her menus to pull up the message that Cardinal had notified her of. It took her a moment, but she realized the sender's name was familiar and from exactly where. Both glad to have gotten a response and surprised that it was from an acquaintance of hers, Callie typed up a brief reply while a yawn worked its way up from her chest. As the message was sent off, Callie reluctantly picked herself up from the ocean's edge, raising her arms above her head in a long stretch.
  10. Callie blinked in surprise. She shouldn't have, but the reaction escaped her. She kept her hold on Shield's hand, almost instinctively, as his frame fell closer to the floor. A silly, ineffective attempt to keep him steady on his feet. The full weight of everything only now began to press down on her shoulders while it threatened to crush Shield across from her, and the only thing she could think to do was to press the palm of her hand against the back of the gauntlet that covered his. She bit on the inside of her bottom lip, eyebrows knit together and turned upwards while her eyes rested on him. He had always been stoic. Not cold, but usually closed off. Not detached, but sometimes distant. Keeping all of this baggage to himself for so long, it was a wonder that he was still sane. That is, until these memory mirrors worked to dredge up all the unwanted scenes of his past. Maybe subconsciously, she had wanted to forget about her old life, and maybe Shield had tried to block out some of his. But the pictures of those two little girls were left running through her mind--the brief scenes of his younger face filled with joy and love when he was with them that she had never seen before. He'd lost them twice now. She could always tell that physical expressions of comfort or support were not something that Shield was very comfortable with. Even his initiative to take her by the hand and guide her away from her own set of haunting mirrors came as a bit of a surprise. But as the words she had mustered out had little to no impact, she felt lost for options. Now wasn't the time to worry about crossing boundaries, she thought. Callie dropped herself to a knee. She slipped her hands away from his, severing their connection for just a second while she moved her arms past his shoulders. Leaning forward, she carefully pulled him a bit closer to meet halfway. She stopped herself from gnawing on the skin of her lip while her chin rested on his armored shoulder. She stayed there, hands pressing lightly against his back, content to ride out the waves of emotion.
  11. The waves rolled in, coating the sand in seafoam that quickly fizzled away with each repetition. "You're probably not much of a swimming person either, huh?" She cast a sideways glance at Danesh over the edges of her knuckles, eyebrows raised as she watched the napping dragon for a few seconds. Her earlier frown persisted, and golden eyes turned back forward. "Yeah, same." She said with a huff of air. She was bored, but what else was there to do? Quests were always an option to kill time, and most of the hooks that NPCs offered promised an entertaining story or fantastic scenery that she would normally take in a heartbeat. But since she refused to go solo, and her most regular adventuring partner was being stubbornly held at arm's reach as of late, she had little choice but waiting around. Hopefully something actually came of her posted request, and she wouldn't have to take further measures to find a decent party. "Oh God, I hope he doesn't find it." The thought struck her, and her fingers uncurled from her cheek to press against the corner of her eye and the bridge of her nose. Of course she wouldn't expect Shield to confront her about something so trivial, but there was always the chance that he might take her choice of looking elsewhere personally, right? Would she be put-off, if their roles were reversed in that scenario? Her lips pursed, cheeks filling with air before it spilled out of her in a stream to tousle her bangs.
  12. Callie hadn't even realized she was holding her breath until she felt the puff of air hitting her fingers again. Her hand had traveled back up to her mouth, trying to hide how it hung slightly agape at the scenes that played out before them. All kinds of regret and guilt and empathy twisted around to form a knot in her stomach that held her attention up until Shield's grip on her hand tightened. Not so much a gesture to her, or a request for support as a reaction to keep himself from crumbling. Callie's expression was first troubled, her brows turned up as she caught a glimpse of Shield's head hanging down beside her. Her head turned. Just like the first chamber, this labyrinth didn't show them any obvious means to exit, so trying to pull off the band-aid in a hurry wasn't likely. And really, she'd had enough of running away and avoiding things by now. Thinking back to their passage from the first memory chamber to this second, Callie did the only thing she could think of by mirroring Shield's earlier action. She kept a firm grip on his hand as she turned back towards the more narrow tunnel of mirrors they had emerged from, pulling him along to the mouth of the room. Of course the sounds of the scenes that played on repeat behind them weren't entirely gone, but the distance helped them to fade into something more like background noise as Callie turned to face him again. She wanted to say something, but for a second decided against it. Instead she paused, gathering her thoughts until she forced them outwards, her eyes pointed at the blank space on the edge of a mirror beside them. "I'm sorry for being so hard on you. I never said it out loud, but I always wanted to groan or complain when I'd see how focused on the game you were. Everything was about stats and numbers. The only reason I haven't been so worried about you being on the frontlines is because I've never seen more than a scratch on you." The corner of her mouth picked up into something like a fond, reminiscent smile as her eyes briefly turned his way before she continued. "I was trying to forget about the real world, but you," Without thinking, her other hand reached forward to take his as well, and she found the courage to continue facing him. "You have something that you're fighting for, and that's incredible."
  13. Across Callie's other shoulder, Danesh flicked his tail, almost defiantly. "What, really? We haven't even been." She pouted at the familiar as she drew closer to the plaza that held the teleport gate. "Come on, at least try it before you start complaining. I bet you don't even know what a beach is." About an hour later, and long after their one-sided bickering died down, Callie was sitting upon the warm sands of a Greecian coast, eyes closed as the cool, salty breeze brushed against her cheeks. A short distance to her side, Danesh lay half-buried, his head laying comfortably against a small hill of sand while he slept. Callie flashed a half-smile his way before turning her attention back to the sparkling waters. "I suppose it might have been better with company, though..." She mumbled to herself. Her memories took her to the edge of a pier, when she had mentioned a trip to Shield. Not only had she not gotten an agreement out of him, but there was a clear tension between them as of late, the remembrance of which caused her to frown. "Ugh, what is it with him?" She scowled, pressing the heel of her palm into her cheek.
  14. "There, what do you think of that?" Callie titled her head to one side as she stepped backwards to look at the bulletin board standing in front of her. The hub of requests, advertisements, and recruitment was busier than most on the first floor, but since it was the most befitting for her purposes, Callie shrugged it off and simply hoped that her posting wouldn't be lost too quickly. "Worst case, I don't hear anything back and we find a different way to get help." Her lips pursed and pushed to the side, clearly dissatisfied with that hypothetical turn of events. Turning her back and moving on to stroll through the massive, sprawling city, Callie's hand pulled up to gently scratch at Danesh's head. The dragon hybrid was as docile and reclusive as ever in the middle of such a big cityscape, and for a moment she contemplated heading outside somewhere to calm his nerves. "I guess we could always go somewhere else to wait around. How does...sixteen sound?" She asked with a faint smile, the thought of sun and sand creeping into her mind.
  15. The piercing sound caused Callie to flinch, and her hand thoughtlessly squeezed his back. Her eyes, a bit tired but now dry, widened in fear that slowly turned into realization, and her brows turned up in the concern that followed. The knot in her stomach told her that she knew what was going to happen. She knew that down that hall their roles were going to be reversed. She felt like an intruder, walking in on someone's life. Was Shield leading her down this way because he was giving her permission? Or had he already surmised that there would be no other way out of this place, and so the choice wasn't his after all? She gnawed gently at the skin of her bottom lip, stealing glances at the memories that they passed by. For her, it was hard not to look. But when they'd gone back far enough, she felt even more unsure about whether or not she should have. Shield was a dad. Everyone had a life that they'd left behind, but his included two little girls...and a wife? The woman only appeared briefly so far, but this certainly wasn't the time nor place to wonder any such things aloud. Callie felt a small lump in her throat as she swallowed when she heard him speak. It all made sense now. The reason why she always thought he was too focused on the game, too much of a stickler for buffs and builds and mechanics, too determined to push the frontlines and get out of this place. It was because he hadn't lost sight of what was important to him back home. She'd felt selfish for not wanting to clear the game before, but the pang in her chest now was stronger than ever. "Shield, I..." She never was good with words when it came to sensitive topics. It seemed that, up until now, Shield was always the one who was comforting her, on the few occasions that she needed it. And while she knew that he wasn't the type to take to physical reassurance, she took advantage of their hands still holding on to one another to give his a small squeeze. "I'm sorry. I never even thought--" She stopped herself, unsure of where the words were going to end up. She exhaled, and spoke again softly. "Of course I wouldn't tell anyone." She assured, addressing the matter of secrecy as the only thing he had made comment on himself.