"My sword is bright. My arm is strong. My grip is true."
"And my patience with your pre-battle affirmations is wearing thin."
Alice's sparkling green eyes narrowed as she parried my first swing. At least she had gotten that down. "Oh, shut up, Otto. You know that verbal self-assurance is the only way I get anything done."
With a light laugh, I easily avoided her depressing attempt at a jab to my midriff. "Yes, Alice, I know. It's actually somewhat endearing." Of course, everything about her is endearing, especially the faces she made while trying to concentrate on swordplay. "This really isn't your talent, is it?"
"I've just started!" she protested, blinking as I whacked her between the eyes with the stick I was wielding. "A-and not everyone can be a talented war god like you, you know."
"Your sarcasm scalds me," I joked, kicking her legs out from under her and then offering her my hand. Though she accepted it, she simultaneously swung her stick around as if to stab me in the back. I blocked it effortlessly, of course, but I was impressed nonetheless. "Nice try, doormat."
"Your nicknames get more demeaning all the time," she sighed, ducking under my next swing, "but I think 'doormat' takes the cake."
I'd never give her the satisfaction of knowing this, but I had to let that idiom roll around in my head for a moment before I recalled its meaning. "Well, you do let me step all over you. When you're a good swordsman, you'll get a good nickname."
She hissed sharply as I hit her across the knuckles, causing her to release her own stick. A split-second later, I had her in a half-nelson. "Can we take a break?" she choked out.
I pretended to consider it for a long, savory moment that was enhanced by her tiny, frustrated noises and attempts to struggle free. "I don't know. We just took a break an hour and a half ago..."
"Argument...invalid," she protested, kicking at my legs weakly. "Dream time...weird."
Smiling at her vague diction and strained tone, I released her and allowed her body to tumble into the dry soil. "Ten minutes, doormat."
Her reply was both hoarse and offensive.
"Language," I chastised hypocritically. I couldn't help but enjoy observing her struggle to conjure a container of water; she went through at least three different brands of laundry soap before succeeding. "You sure that's not lighter fluid or something?"
Rolling her eyes, she took a swig of it despite my comment. Concluding that she wouldn't be back up for a while, I sat down in the dirt beside her.
Before I knew what was going on, she had me pinned to the ground. "Ha, who's the doormat now?" she smirked.
"What did you just..." I blinked up at her in confusion. "Wait, was this whole break a trap?"
"Yep," she replied proudly, socking me in the jaw with such force that I didn't hear what she said next.
"Hekk!" I cursed, my already impaired vision blurring. I'd say my eyes crossed, but I'm not even sure what that would mean for me. "Alright, alright, you got me! You can get off n-" My voice cracked as she punched me again, this time in the eye. (Yes, the functional one.) "Alice!"
"Don't call me doormat anymore," she demanded in a civil tone, as if we were sitting at a table and calmly negotiating. She also sounded like she was crossing her arms, but I couldn't exactly look at the moment. "And we're done sparring for the night."
"Fine! Fine!" I agreed readily, trying unsuccessfully to buck her off. "You win! Just get off!"
I felt the pressure of her knees on my arms release, but rather than sitting up, I just lay there and caught my breath. "You know, you're stronger than you look."
"And don't you forget it," she threatened, her triumphant grin blurring into focus as I managed to pry open my eye.
"I can't believe you punched a half-blind person in his only working eye," I remarked, a smile assuming command of my rapidly bruising face. "That was good!"
"Really?" she asked excitedly, her face lighting up. "I'm so bad at most of this..."
"You just need practice," I assured her. I conjured an ice pack and pressed it into my face, trying not to groan. "You may be clumsy, but you're also very formidable. I can see that you're going to be a powerful swordsman rather than a dexterous one."
"And what are you?" she asked curiously. I felt her helpfully pull some of my hair out from under the ice-pack.
I considered this for a moment. "Both, I suppose. My fighting style is sort of in the middle."
She opened her mouth to ask another question, but it wasn't meant to be as long as I held the element of surprise. Estimating where her neck was and reaching out for it, I pushed her into the ground beside me and rolled onto her.
"Traitor! You said-we could stop-sparring!" she choked out, struggling against me.
"And you said we were taking a water break," I reminded her with a bright smile. "Now come on, treat this like a real situation. What would you do if someone had you pinned down like this?"
"Conjure-bear trap," she spat. Amazing, how snarky she still managed to sound while barely being able to speak. (Wait, 'snarky' is a human word, right?)
"Well, that's good tactical thinking," I admitted, slightly tightening my grip both to increase the false pretense of urgency for training purposes and because I was honestly enjoying this a bit too much. "Do you reeaaaaaaally think you could do that successfully, though?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Wanna-find out?"
"No," I dismissed quickly. "Keep thinking."
Her fair face was starting to change colors, but I could still recognize its concentrated expression; she bit the side of her lip and closed her eyes, and before I could even blink, she had conjured an actual, sharp, uniquely crafted, full-length sword.
My grip must have slackened along with my jaw because she shoved me away within a millisecond. I heard the sword clatter on the ground and I turned, staring in awe at her creation. Even for a crude, roughly-conjured thing, it was beautiful, with a star-encrusted hilt and some sort of yellow jewel serving as the pommel. The blade itself was long and broad, with a milky white finish glossing over its flawless silver metal.
"How did you-" I stuttered, "H-how-"
She was still coughing, and rather than admiring the art she had seemingly accidentally formed, she seized the opportunity to punch me in the stomach in the name of vengeance.
Blinking the spots out of my vision, I gingerly wrapped my hands around the weapon as if it had been touched by angels and was far more precious than any earthly object. "Alice, this...this is the most intricate thing I've ever...that you've ever..."
"You're a jerk and I hate you," she announced hoarsely, shifting so that she could more closely observe the sword. "Wow, that's...wow."
"Yeah," I agreed, running a finger along the blade. Jumping to my feet, I swung it around as if fighting off an army of pirate skeletons. "It's very balanced," I informed her, a grin stretching out my face. "And it's light for a broadsword. How did you even know that a broadsword would best accommodate your fighting style?!"
"Hekk, you're such a nerd," she scoffed, gently kicking me in the back of the leg.
"You know that censoring yourself with other curse words doesn't work, right?" I countered, continuing to combat my imaginary foes.
"No, but it makes what I say more offensive to you and less offensive to...oh, I dunno...real people."
"Hurtful!" I gasped, falling to my knees as if impaled by either her sharp retort or an invisible pirate sword. She swiped her sword from my hand and kicked my corpse, causing me to fall flat on my face as she stepped on my back. "You just aren't going to let that 'doormat' thing go, are you?" I asked, my voice muffled.
She laughed a little, removing her foot and allowing me to stand. "But seriously-and don't cater to me-is this a good start for a sword?"
"For a dreamer, that would be a good finish!" I exclaimed, though I was unsure of what the word 'cater' meant. "Out of the ten percent of dreamers who actually have to be trained like this, you are already conjuring the best sword. I mean, most of them start with the kind of thing that you fought all of those clones with, and they don't just skip to-to the Mona Lisa, here!"
Alice chuckled, rolling her eyes. "Did I mention that you're a nerd? You know, I think I'll keep that. 'Mona'. That's a good name for a sword, right?"
"Yeah, sure, although I really don't see the appeal that ugly painting has to all of you humans," I jeered playfully. "The broadsword, on the other hand..."
"Does yours have a name?" she asked curiously, her dark eyebrows rising.
As I looked away, I felt a slight blush tinge my face. I cleared my throat. "Erm...yes..."
"Ha!" she laughed, poking me in the chest. "It's the name of your first girlfriend or something, isn't it?"
"No!" I sputtered, conjuring my sword and examining it lovingly. "It's just...it's personal."
"Come on, you can tell me," she cajoled, choking on a laugh. "Otto, you're looking at it like it is your first girlfriend."
I shrugged. "It's certainly prettier..."
"Stop avoiding the question, heartthrob," she teased, poking at my weapon carefully. "The handle-part is purple. Is it 'Violet' or something?"
I stared at her.
Her pale green gaze drifted up the clean, white blade she'd been scrutinizing to my face. "What? I guessed it? It's actually Violet?"
"Yes," I replied quietly, shocked to my core, "but not because of the 'handle-part'." I looked down at it again, watching the light bounce off of the engravings on each of the curved twin blades that joined together in the deep purple hilt. "It's a story for another time."
"Oh," she said softly, clearing her throat. "Sorry. I guess I just picked that out of your head or something...?"
"Of nothing," I murmured distractedly, allowing my sword to vaporize. I shook my head with the intentions of clearing troubling memories from my consciousness.
"You're welcome?" she replied, inspiring perplexity in my mind. Did I miss something? "No, I mean, 'of nothing' is what you say for 'you're welcome'."
I blinked at this realization. "I guess I never really thought about that. Catchers have homonyms, too, Alice. Besides, 'of nothing' makes sense in both of those contexts. 'Thanks.' 'No problem.' 'Sorry.' 'No problem.'"
"Yeah, I guess you're right," she admitted grudgingly, half of her mouth upturned in a sort of subconscious smirk. "Do you have idioms and puns too? Because I still think it's hilarious that you don't have synonyms."
"Yeah, yeah. We have wordplay," I informed her, sneaking yet another glance at Mona. "So how did you know to make a broadsword again?"
"I didn't," she explained simply, chuckling a little at how enthralled I was. "Careful, Otto. Your lady sword might get jealous."
"You're so mean," I laughed lightly. "But do you know how special of a creation this is for someone of your skill level?"
She shook her head, a strange, rare expression overtaking her face; it was almost like deja-vu, or whatever your people call it, but it was different, somehow, like she was seeing the future rather than the past. "You keep saying things like that. I've never been connected with 'special' before."
"Oh, but that's hardly true," I corrected dismissively, my eager eye flitting back down to the blade. "You've always sat alone in class, drawing stars on your history notes while other girls talked about their boring lives. You've always hummed songs you've never heard and chosen fruit over candy. You've always questioned the weirdest things and yet accepted the paranormal as normal. You've always been special, Alice. The question is, why hasn't anyone besides me ever taken the time to notice?"
My intention hadn't been for that to be meaningful; in fact, it was mostly just distracted rambling, bits and pieces of her that I'd grown to know and love spilling out in an accidentally poetic fashion. As you might imagine, I was a bit confused when her sword disappeared and she pulled me into a tight embrace.
"Thought you hated me," I teased quietly.
"Funny," she replied. "I could gut you right now, you know."
"I know," I whispered, smiling ever so slightly.
She pulled away enough to look at me quizzically, remnants of that bizarre, philosophical expression still dancing in her eyes. "You know everything about me, don't you?"
"I know many things," I murmured, my gaze drifting off into space as I mulled over her question. "Before I began to visit your dreams, I spent hours reading through every piece of data that had ever been collected about you. Beyond that, I know only what I've observed in your dreams and what you have told me." I paused as I realized something odd. "I wonder why there wasn't anything on file about your siblings..."
She looked at the ground. "Me too. But anyways, I know that all of that is part of your job, but I've realized that I don't know much about you."
I blinked. "You want to talk about me?" This was certainly not where I expected this conversation to turn.
She let go of me, taking a step back. "Yeah. That seems reasonable, right? You're the one training me. We're emotionally linked, for goodness' sake! I want to know who you are."
I scratched my head nervously. "Yes, that's reasonable. Um, you already know that I don't have a family. Do you have any particular questions?"
She squinted. "Why do you dress like you're homeless?"
Gasping in offense, I looked down at my outfit. "I do not! There is nothing wrong with my attire!"
"Oh, come on," she drawled, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Your jeans look like they've been torn to shreds and then sewed back together, your combat boots are probably survivors of World War II, and don't even get me started on your ratty army jacket."
"It isn't ratty, it's trusty!" I corrected, pulling it around me a little tighter. "And it isn't army, either! We don't even have an army."
"It's army green," she clarified, pulling at one of the silver patches on the side. "Look at it, Otto. The fabric is worn, the edges are fringed, it's been patched several times..."
"That's not how it works. I earned those patches," I informed her, nostalgia flooding my senses as I looked down at them. "That's why they're all the same shape and size. The silver ones are for heroic acts, and the black ones are for sacrifices."
As her mouth drifted ajar, her intrigued eyes shifted from the jacket to my face and back again. "That's actually pretty amazing." She poked the silver one over my heart. "What about this one? Why is it a four-pointed star instead of an oval like the rest?"
I cleared my throat, careful to keep my voice steady. "A star is different. It represents loss."
"Then wouldn't it make more sense for it to be black?" she inquired.
Despite the painful story that she was prodding at, I couldn't help but to smile at her quick wit. "Clever observation. It's, um...it's meant specifically to commemorate the bravery demonstrated in the line of duty even when that bravery fails. It congratulates the complete disregard of one's own life for the sake of attempting to save another, even when such a pursuit is clearly futile."
She stared at me for a long, long time, her spring green eyes boring into me like I was a sudoku puzzle that she was on the very verge of solving; I felt as if they were ripping open my skull and sorting through every memory carefully tucked into my mind, all within the eternity of an instant.
"You've had more than one previous dreamer."
My eye clenched shut as a sharp pain split through my brain. "Did you just-did you just mentally interrogate me?!"
"I don't think so," she replied frantically. "Oh, no. I'm sorry if I did! I was just-I was thinking to myself, I thought. But what if the thoughts I thought I was thinking were really the thoughts you were thinking?!"
"Alice, it's okay," I promised, opening my eye and resting my hands on her shoulders reassuringly. "It's okay. It means our bond is strengthening. And, well, that you're ridiculously powerful."
"I didn't mean to invade your privacy!" she insisted, guilt contorting her face in the same way it had when she'd accidentally...you know what, never mind. I don't even want to think about the glass box.
"I know you didn't!" I assured her, grabbing her by the shoulders and forcing her to make eye contact with me. "Hey. It's alright. Though, if it's okay with you, I'd really rather not talk about the star right now."
"Yeah, of course," she sighed, unable to keep the slightest tinge of disappointment out of her voice. I had no idea she was so interested in my previous exploits. Her expression shifting back to one of pure, innocent curiosity, she lightly tugged on another one of my patches. "So where'd this one come from? Black is for sacrifice, right?"
"That was for my eye, actually," I recalled, chuckling slightly at the memory. "What a night. You never really understand pain until an imaginary werewolf rips your eye out of its socket."
She grimaced. "Yikes. Do all of these black patches represent such gory occurrences?"
"No," I answered, glancing down at myself and pointing to the one on my shoulder. "This one, for example, was simply for sacrificing time. My second dreamer was an insomniac."
"And the other one?" she queried.
"Well, that one's for my vision," I explained. "It's separate from the other. That one revolves more around the injury, around the pain that I experienced and the scar that it left. This one is for the permanent...disability."
She seemed to notice the contempt with which I had uttered that last word. "For how it altered your lifestyle," she substituted. "Anyways, what about the five silver ones?"
"Come on," I drawled, rolling my eye. "Those are boring. They're just for putting my life at risk to protect my charges. That's what catchers are supposed to do."
"What are they like?" she asked, something sparking in that beautiful mind of hers. "Other catchers, I mean. Are they like you? Do they all have scars and fluffy hair?"
"Of course they don't!" I laughed. "Okay, a lot of them have scars. Other than that, they're pretty much like humans, except with a much broader variety of natural hair and eye colors. Oh, and we don't have TV. We think TV is pointless."
"But TV is so good!" she protested, waving her arms around subconsciously. "What do you do in your free time!?"
"Well, I study," I answered with mock pride. "Others read, or draw, or write. All my roommate ever seems to do is eat my food and try to win the favor of different girls."
She covered her mouth as she laughed. "Does he succeed?"
I shrugged. "Usually, I think. You know, I wonder if it's the girls eating my food and not Gimz?"
Smiling up at me, she shook her head and sighed softly. As I watched the mirth mingle with the intrigue in her pale eyes, a hint of a hazardous emotion attempted to infiltrate my heart, and I quickly swept it away like dust on a picture frame. I frowned, staring into the ground venomously. That emotion was not who I am, not what I wanted. It was most unwelcome, and truthfully very, very dangerous.
"Otto?" she inquired softly, causing me to jump.
I blinked, rubbing the back of my neck and clearing my throat. "Y-yeah?"
My dreamer looked at me with concern, whatever she'd had to say dissolving in the face of my jumpy behavior. "Um...are you okay?"
I was going to reassure her that I was fine, but she cut me off with a gasp and pointed past me. "Otto, behind you!
Immediately whirling around, I drew my sword, which had vanished some time ago in the midst of conversation. I lowered it, however, when I saw that the perpetrator was just a girl, perhaps even a few years younger than Alice.
"Where did she come from?" inquired Alice, peeking over my shoulder at the newcomer.
"You must have subconsciously conjured her...?" I supposed perplexed, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "I have no idea what prompted you to do so, and you aren't really great and conjuring background characters for your dreams, but there isn't another explanation."
The oddly silent girl seemed to size us up and then turned away, approaching a giant tree I swear hadn't been there before. Gazing up into the branches, she tilted her head to the side. The movement sent her strawberry blonde hair cascading over her shoulders.
"Hmm," she mused, then grinned. The girl promptly clambered up into the tree and cloaked herself in the bright green leaves.
Cautiously, I inched closer to the enormous tree and peered upwards, just as the girl had done; I could feel Alice hovering behind me with bated breath.
I bit back a strangled noise when the girl's face swung down in front of me, her arms crossed and her grin unnervingly wide. She stared back at me with large, round amber eyes.
I made a face, glancing back to Alice. She shrugged, and we kept eye contact for a second more before I turned back to examine the quiet intruder more intently, though I got the odd, distinct impression that somehow I was the one under examination.
For a tearse moment, the girl before us continued to hang upside down from a branch by her knees. Then, with a small wave and an almost creepy giggle, she disappeared with an audible pop.
"That wasn't weird?" Alice asked hesitantly after a moment of shocked silence, staring up into the bountiful tree. "Because I feel like that was weird."
"It was a bit weird," I admitted, scanning the leaves for any sign of the strange, vanishing girl. "But everything about you is a bit weird, so I'm hardly shocked."
She shoved me lightly and I laughed, ruffling her hair affectionately and pulling her away from the tree with one last backwards glance. We both jumped as an ear-shattering chime split through the air, signaling the final seconds of her dreamtime.
"I feel like we made good progress tonight, doormat," I assured her quickly.
"Yeah, yeah," she muttered, punching my arm lightly. "I got a few good hits in on you, though."
My retort was cut off by another jarring chime, and before I could start again, she pulled me into a hug and vanished, much like our mysterious background character from earlier. This time, though, the dream collapsed around me as it suffered the loss of her energy, and before I could even blink, I was back in the station.