10. Also known as the Time She Flirts with Him
A motion near the warlock woke her. She wasn't really asleep, so much. Zoned out, off in her own thoughts. Aydin was passed out on her lap still, so peaceful she couldn't bring herself to wake him.
Not that she had to. The motion was Verz, it's eye flickering brighter and rising off its guardian's chest. The ghost spun in the air for a moment, then looked down at its guardian. It made a soft noise that could have been a word in another language but could have been a purr too.
Aydin jolted awake, sitting up in a rush. His hair was mussed still from her massage and he looked around with such confusion Nicole couldn't help the giggle that escaped her. Aydin must've forgotten she was there; he spun in his seat, looking at her with such surprise, she felt bad for startling him.
"Foxwell? What happened? I thought you left. Did I fall asleep?"
She nodded, giving him a gentle smile, trying to ignore the odd feeling that shook her when he said her last name. It wasn't a good feeling and she wondered why.
"How long was I out?"
"Two hours," Verz answered before her ghost could. "But your head feels better."
He nodded, turning more so he wasn't so twisted to look at her, his feet back on the ground. He rubbed his forehead for a moment, Verz floating in front of him with an almost expectant air. The exchange between warlock and his ghost started suddenly, was short and clipped and mostly unintelligible, and ended very abruptly. Again, it was that part mindspeak, part english, and part bits of languages that Nicole couldn't believe were even human in origin. The most she could get out of it was they were going to have a conversation with someone. Her ghost helped with that translation, noting that every word spoke was a different language (as well as some grumbles about weird warlocks being too damn smart).
He suddenly looked at her again, and she felt the urge to jump out of her skin. She felt guilty for some awful reason for trying to listen to a conversation happening right beside her.
"We should go talk to the Vanguard. If all goes… well, if you and I are still, y'know, g-good…" his face started to turn red and immediately Nicole felt more comfortable. She would almost think he did that on purpose but she couldn't imagine anyone being able to blush on command. Besides, his stutter felt far too natural and accidental to be something he was doing on purpose.
She nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Aydin. Our report will be mostly positive." Her ghost replied.
"Mostly?" Verz asked, sounding almost offended.
"Well, I'm sorry to say, but your skill as a combatant is a bit, uh…"
"Lacking?" Aydin finished for the ghost when he began to falter.
"I was hoping to be a little less blunt, but yes."
Aydin laughed. "Don't worry about it, I worked with a striker titan for almost a month. There's nothing sharp about them. I don't mind a little bluntness. I appreciate the honesty. I know I'm not good at much."
"You're a decent tactician. And I think with proper training, you will be a force to reckoned with."
Aydin laughed again, this time a not quite able to keep the almost sarcasm out. "A force to be reckoned with," he echoed, shaking his head. "And you still want to provide the proper training."
"You don't have to. As Tarios will no doubt testify, and well, literally everyone I've worked with, I'm not exactly a fun project."
"Oh don't get me wrong, we hated you when we first met you. You talked way too much, said a lot of stupid things, did a lot of stupid things. You were infuriating."
Aydin looked over at the ghost like he had just began doubling in size.
"What? You said you liked honesty."
"Yeah, I know. Just wasn't expecting you to be… well actually honest."
"You seem to have had a few bad experiences with people, or you have some post-mortem issues from your last life. We plan to help you work out this unnecessary paranoia."
"Unnecessary…" Both Aydin and his ghost echoed at the same time, sparing a glance for each other. Aydin looked away first, suddenly looking very ashamed. Not his usual shame either, his face wasn't red, he didn't look panicked. It was almost as if a weight had fallen on him.
Nicole frowned, but Aydin gave her no chance to react beyond that. He snapped back to normal in an instant. "Alright Professor, I dutifully await your instructions," he laughed but it felt a little forced.
He would tell her when he was ready. She had to have a little faith. So she returned his smile, and watched him relax a little. Trust would come with time. She had made it this far, gotten through a lot of his annoying exterior. It was a patience game. Nicole was a hunter, she was very good at waiting.
Aydin was nervous. At least that's what Nicole assumed was the reason behind his fidgeting. They'd only been waiting for ten minutes, but she could have sworn he had adjusted his armor about five times already. He played with his lapels, fluffed his collar, fiddled with a flap near his knee, readjusted the belt across his chest, smoothed down his collar, flicked dirt off the lapels, fiddled again with the belt.
"Would you stop? You're acting dreadful," Verz chastised him, mimicking it's guardian's accent accidentally.
"Hush, you. I'm not doing anything."
They proceeded to half another short, clipped conversation in their partial mind-speak. Nicole didn't bother trying to understand it this time. That was their deal, and she knew they didn't do it on purpose. Everyone was a little different when it came to how fast you figured out mindspeaking with your ghost. Nicole got it fairly quickly but it wasn't exactly uncommon for warlocks to take a little longer than the other classes in that aspect. They had a lot going on in their heads. Just like hunters took a long time adjusting to regular sleeping places and schedules, and titans had harder times acclimating to different environments when they'd been in one for too long.
Whatever the outcome or purpose of the argument, it looked like Verz won. Aydin appeared to pout for a few minutes, but at least he was still.
Ikora finally called them over, guiding them into a side room that Nicole realized with a start that it as her private office of sorts. It looked very warlockish. She'd been in Cayde's office. It was pretty much empty save for the trophies on the walls and the knives. Cayde had a lot of knives. She had never had a reason to be in the warlock vanguard's personal space like this and felt almost lived in. Odd touches here and there, object she had no clue origin or purpose, books that looked older than her ghost. An odd little timepiece clicked and whirred on the desk in the center, glittering in the light coming through the window. She felt watched, like there were eyes hiding in the bookshelves, or it was the books themselves watching her. She shook off the feeling of oddness that tried to cling to her. Aydin seemed hardly perturbed about being here, sparing the room hardly a glance.
"Sit," Ikora said shortly, moving around her desk and sitting down herself. She shuffled some papers around, surfacing a folder that Nicole assumed was their collective work together. "Alright Foxwell, again for the record, your assessment of the accusation put against warlock Aydin Rest."
Her ghost appeared at her shoulder in a puff of light. "Aydin appears to be innocent of the accusation put against him."
She watched him deflate from the corner of her eye. Ikora too, flicked her gaze to him briefly. She almost felt bad for how relieved he was. He really didn't trust her with this? After everything they had been through?
"Go on," Ikora prompted after a long moment of silence.
"Aydin Rest was accused of working with the Fallen enemy. We have found this to be a false accusation or a terrible misunderstanding. His place of 'hiding' that the titan and vanguard are both curious over turned out to be no more than a salvage yard. Odd for warlock to salvage, but considering the lack of training, combat mission are proving to be difficult. Especially if we to attempt to gain on his own. The Fallen in question is an individual we have dubbed Harpoon Guy."
Aydin twitched beside her, a barely imperceptable movement that Nicole hardly noticed. Neither Ikora nor her ghost seemed to notice him. She glanced over quietly, her hackles rising. She couldn't quite understand what the look on his face meant but it was not a kind expression. It was like she had just ventured into sacred land and she had better tread carefully.
The looks that he gave her when he was being kind and sweet, the gentle benevolent intelligence that always seemed to stun her and left her wanting more; and the look he was giving her now was the same intensity, the same intelligence narrows into a single focus. But it was not kind or warm. It was cutting and malevolent. It the look you gave people you hated, didn't trust, and it frightened her to be the focus of it.
Then it was gone, and Aydin was staring at his knees. His face was pale as a ghost and he was ringing his hands together nervously. "Harpoon guy is just a Fallen jerk that keeps stalking me. I…" he took a breath, shaken and frightening. "I did save his life from Tarios."
Nicole wasn't quite sure what was happening. The look he had given her left her numb and blind. She didn't know how to react. What had it meant? Was she not supposed to mention it? That Fallen bastard was who got him in trouble in the first place, why was he so frightening of Ikora's reaction to it.
The warlock vanguard waited out the pause, her gaze on Aydin like an anchor keeping him in his seat. She didn't have to prompt him, he continued on his own after the pause. "He's been following me around for three months now. Sometimes he appears real close, other times he's off on some ridge miles away. He's tried to kill me a few times but I've always managed to escape or be revived. He's old and clever, and I'm weak and young and he gives me the run around but I can't kill him. My weapons aren't powerful enough and my Light isn't bright enough. But I want…" He sighed again, chewing his lip. "I want-t-t-t…" Swallow, take a breath. "T-t-t-t…"
"He wants to beat him on his own," her ghost finally interjected after watching the warlock struggle long enough. "The thing's by itself, far as we know. No other known Fallen activity aside from Devils in the north. It wasn't affiliated, as far as we could tell. An outlier. Harmless for a few months. And a good goal for Aydin to work toward. He save its life because the titan threatened to destroy a self imposed goal."
The silence that followed almost felt suffocating. Aydin was stock still; he didn't even dare fidget. Ikora watched the other warlock like a snake, waiting to strike. Then she sat back, and a collective breath was taken in the room.
"I'm giving you four months to kill it. After that and I'll send another team to dispatch it."
"F-four months?" Aydin whispered, his face still bloodless. "Th-that's not very much t-t-time."
"Four months," she repeated. "Otherwise, congratulations, Rest. Your innocence has been vouched for and the probation has been lifted. You are free to leave the Tower whenever you desire, with or without an escort. Of course, any further interactions between you two are encouraged. Foxwell will make a good companion, Rest, try not to sabotage it this time." Her voice took on an almost gentle tone, slightly amused.
Aydin and Nicole stood, saluted, and left the office together. It wasn't until they were back in the plaza that Aydin seemed to deflate a little bit. He seemed scared suddenly, and Nicole wondered at what. If it was the Fallen he would have to kill, she couldn't imagine it being that scary. Four months was a decent amount of time to kill one Fallen. Unless there were many more that he knew about and he wasn't telling her.
She shook the thought. He was innocent. That had been proven. She was sure there was another reason why he had such an issue killing a single Fallen, and it would come eventually, but whatever it was, it couldn't be that bad. Verz stayed by his side, and that had to count for something. Besides, Aydin wasn't that bad of a person once you got past all the annoying bits. He had told her he meant no harm, and she had faith in him.
"We should start training soon. How about this afternoon?" Her ghost appeared at her shoulder, following his Guardian's desire to break the pensive look from the warlock. Whatever he was so worried about, she would help him work it out.
He wasn't looking at her, having walked all the way down to the rail overlooking the City and the Traveler in the distance. He shook his head almost absently. "No, I have too much to do."
Verz was at his shoulder, looking as concerned as a ghost could manage. It flicked it's gaze to Nicole then. "We must go to Mercury and deliver our report." It turned back to it's guardian, looking almost flustered, fluttering its shell in agitation. "We should go now, shouldn't we." It wasn't a question.
Aydin looked back at Nicole for a moment. "Thank you, Foxwell, but Verz is right. We have to deal with this now. We'll be back in a few days and we can get to training then." He was almost absent-minded in the way he spoke to her, as if she wasn't really there.
She tried to ignore the sudden gut-punch feeling she got when he said her name. Foxwell… Her last name, impersonal, distant. Why did that bug her, of all things?
She smiled through it, nodding. She wasn't really sure he saw it, to be honest. He breezed past her, headed back to the hangar. She watched him go, unsure of her own emotions. Disappointed at what he still called her, confused by his behavior and her own discomfort, concerned about him. Concerned about herself. Maybe she was getting too attached. A few days to herself would be good. Remember the comforts of solitude.
She geared up at the vaults, mostly to kill time for Aydin to leave, then followed his path to the hangar. She set out for Venus, hoping for some peace and quiet among the Vex ruins.
Nicole spent the next day relaxing as much as an active duty guardian was capable. She slept long, not leaving the Tower until well past noon. She picked up a few bounties for some minotaurs on Mars and cleared out a good chunk of a partially collapsed subway tunnel in the process.
She returned to the Tower late and enjoyed a few drinks in the smoke dense hunter bar beneath the hangar. She always enjoyed listening to other hunters swap stories of their adventures. One of the younger hunters there that night had just returned from a six month journey out exploring a string of abandoned cities on Ganymede. No survivors of course, the ice buried them long ago, but he told of the man-made tunnels, the ones not completely flooded, covered in shimmering shining silicate crystals that glowed in the ghost-light like diamonds.
Nicole's heart soared at the idea of taking such a journey. Davion always promised her a trip somewhere far away, like to Europa or Io. It filled her with such wonder to think about going to these places, stepping foot where man had not tread in centuries. But without him, she couldn't muster the courage to go alone. That kind of solitude terrified her.
She sated herself with the stories. She had missions to complete here, and a City with thousands of living, innocent people to protect. One day the City would not need her, and she would find the courage to explore the old lands made new by ruin. Tonight, she enjoyed the story and tried not to miss her friends so much.
She was surprised to find someone waiting for her at her apartment. A titan, if his size was any indication. Tall, dark purple and black metal faceplates and deep red optics made him an imposing face to match the intimidating figure he cut in the stark white-lit hallway. The idea that he could have been waiting for someone else was impossible. He was leaning almost casually against her door, watching her as she she approached.
"You vouched for him?" He said as she got closer.
Her gate faltered but she figured quickly who he was talking about. She couldn't remember his name, but this was the titan that had accused Aydin in the first place. Even out of his armor, he was wider and taller than her by fair amounts. She would have been intimidated if she were a lesser guardian.
Her ghost appeared at her shoulder, but not without giving her an unhappy little ping. This titan was here to cause a stink and neither ghost nor guardian were looking forward to it. Nicole was warm with drink and tired after a long day. She wasn't in the mood to deal with a guardian angry over decisions already made.
"We did. He proved his innocence to us-"
"Proved," the titan snorted. "Proved? How did he prove himself to you?"
"First of all the Fallen-"
"Harpoon Guy? Did he tell you about the cat and mouse game they play? Did he also tell you how they protect each other like real buds," he spat.
She frowned. "He admitted to protecting it."
"Her. Aydin's real buddy buddy with her. Knows her name I bet. Knows a lot about her that he's not saying. They're not enemies, hunter. They're friends. He protects her. Wouldn't be surprised if he tried jumping in bed with her. Would explain a whole lot about him."
Nicole snorted in disgust. How could this titan even make such a disgusting assumption was beyond her comprehension. "He wants to prove that he can kill it by himself. He saved its life from you because you would ruin that goal."
The titan snorted. "Amazing. He's really got you enraptured. He used the 'looks into your eyes and makes you listen' trick, hasn't he. Yeah well, it works on everyone. Until you realize how fake it is."
Something inside her turned cold.
"Have you seen him do the opposite? When he looks into your eyes and makes you afraid of him? Doesn't work on me, but I've seen him do that to other people. I've seen him act like he actually feels. I've bore witness to how cruel he is. Up close and personal. So tell me hunter, has he invited you in for tea yet?" He gave her an exo smile, but it was cold and humorless. "Bitter in morning, sweet in the afternoon, right?"
The cold was spreading, turning her stomach sour. The feeling quickly turned to anger in her gut; she scowled at him. "You sound like a jealous lover," her ghost snarked, almost without her consent, feeding off her anger.
"He makes you think you're special, that you mean something to him. It's all a ruse to get at you. Once he learns what he wants from you, once he gets his way, or realizes he never will, he will drop you like a bad habit. And he'll make sure to ruin your life in the process." The titan kept going like he hadn't heard the ghost but Nicole saw him twitch and turn away slightly. Perhaps not a direct hit, but the titan was emotionally compromised. Emotional titans were never good.
"You are jealous!" Her ghost laughed at him. "You were the one who accused him, remember? You let him down."
"You don't know anything. He figured out I was watching him a long time before I saw him protect his fallen tramp. He sabotaged my crucible leaderboard scores, cleaned me out of glimmer without me realizing it, stole my exotic rifle and Traveler only knows what happened to it. That's on top of the multiple times he left me dangling in the wind on missions and in crucible matches. Bastard just wouldn't show up. And it wasn't always like that. When we first started working together, shit was good. We were good. We were like you two are. Hopeful, right? You just wait, hunter. Just wait. He'll betray you too, and when he does, you'll realize I was right."
The titan was already walking away, but he stopped at her insult, turning back with an odd look on his face. "You think so? Keep an eye on Harpoon Guy, will you? See how he reacts to her. See how delusional I am." It was a challenge and the titan left her with it.
The sour feeling was back. There was bad blood between the warlock and titan. Nicole was going to have to deal with that eventually. She just hoped the titan was wrong.
Aydin was back three days later. Verz had pinged her ghost with the information of their arrival late at night, so Nicole didn't get the news until she woke up the next morning. He left her a message to come see him when she woke up, so she dressed quickly and headed down to his block.
Verz let her in, surprisingly. What didn't shock her was the fact that the warlock was passed out on his desk, still dressed in mud smeared armor. He smelled faintly of incense and wood smoke and looked like he'd been out camping. Even his hair had mud clinging to it, even where he had tied it back in an attempt to keep it out of his face. It still managed to be a wild mess regardless.
She touched his shoulder, shaking him gently. He swatted at her, mumbling in Traveler knew what language. Suddenly he sat up, spinning in his seat. He blinked the sleep from his eyes rapidly. "I brought you something."
"Good morning to you, too," her ghost greeted for both of them.
He was already rummaging across his desk, scattering papers and pieces that she assumed he had salvaged at his ship. The topography of the desk had changed so much since the last she had been there. New paper and junk probably long buried the stuff she'd seen the last time she'd been in here. Warlocks were such a funny bunch. And she never knew one to have a decent sense of organization. Even Ikora's office had that sense of chaos to it.
Suddenly he started handing her things. First something small, what looked like a gear to something. Then next thing he handed her was about the same size but several times heavier. She nearly dropped it but Aydin hardly noticed.
He was talking, spouting nonsense technobabble at her about the pieces he had handed her, still scouring the desk for something else.
"I see it wasn't just a trip to Mercury." Nicole noticed the probing tone in her ghost, but if the warlock was made nervous by it, he had no tells.
"Ah yeah, little low on glimglams."
"So we went to get some tradable pieces." He pointed to a satchel on the other side of the room, bulging with treasure and about as muddy as the warlock.
She picked absently at a piece of his hair, crushing the dirt clinging to it. "You also look like you've gone wrestling with pigs."
Aydin laughed. "Does wrestling with ancient engine pieces count?"
"Go take a shower. We can wait."
He grinned at her, stood, and saluted cheekily. "Yes Professor."
I hope he doesn't intend to call me that all the time.
Her ghost pinged amusement back at her, and the niggling thought that Aydin probably did.
Aydin disappeared in the dark hallway. A moment later Nicole heard the water come on. Verz was buzzing absently around the kitchen, making little noises to itself. Nicole examined the pieces he brought her for a moment. One she could identify, and it was worth a few hundred glimmer. The other she had no idea. She wondered briefly if Holliday would want them. She had no idea who else to sell it too.
The warlock returned fifteen minutes later, freshly showered and in a clean set of armor. Water still dripped off his hair but he looked significantly more awake. Verz's puttering in the kitchen suddenly bore fruit in the form of two steaming cups of tea. Aydin griped for about two seconds about how the ghost wasn't supposed to touch his teapot, but he seemed grateful. Nicole was a little more wary this time around, doctoring the tea with sugar first.
They enjoyed the tea in silence for several minutes. This was comfortable, amiable. The titan's words from the other night suddenly surfaced. Has he invited you in for tea yet?
What was that even supposed to mean? It obviously had some ulterior motive the titan was hinting at. What could be so harmful about sharing a cup of tea? She looked down into the umber liquid still at the bottom of her cup and sighed.
She looked up at him, realizing she had baited him into asking without really meaning to. She was still glad he asked.
"What's the titan's name you used to work with?" Her ghost asked for her.
Aydin's face instantly soured. "Tarios. What about him?"
"He caught up to us the other night. Had some not so nice things to say. What happened-"
"I really don't want to talk about him please. I thought we were friends and he d-didn't want to be, so whatever. It's whatever." He shrugged. "That's over now. I'd like to t-try and forget about him." He said this all in an odd little rush, spitting out an explanation in attempt to deter her. She was hardly phased by it, and it only served to peak her curiosity more.
"Funny 'cause he made it seem like he wanted to be your friend and you didn't want to reciprocate."
Aydin paused for a second, an odd mix of emotions crossing his face. Verz said something in another language from the kitchen. It sounded like a warning.
"I d-don't want to t-talk about him."
"You two act like fighting lovers not willing to admit your feelings."
Aydin laughed. She was expecting him to blush, or get flustered. With the stutter and the fact that it was what usually happened when she asked him a question like that. But he just laughed. "Tarios was a good guy and all, when he wasn't trying to manipulate me. But he and I would have never worked like that. I'm not his type."
He paused, the mirth draining out of him. He chewed his lip for a moment, and Nicole waited for him to continue. "We clicked well at first, okay. We g-got along… had similar interests outside of guardianship, made a good team. Not just in the field. Brains and brawn combo, we destroyed in the crucible." He shrugged again, looking up to meet her gaze instead of staring into his cup. "He was spying on me. I tried to- tried to drop him. He hung on. The harder I tried, the tighter he clung. I got mad, got low. I ruined his dream of joining 'star dream fireteam'." He waved his free hand for emphasis. "After that he had it out for me. Then that day in Jersey happened and you know the rest."
"The heavily abbreviated version of things?"
"I still don't want to talk about him."
"I thought you hated the Crucible?"
"Because of Tarios?"
He shook his head. "Other reasons."
"Then why play with him?"
"How many times do I have to say it, hunter? I don't want to talk about him. I'm starting to get annoyed." His demeanor changed suddenly. Harmless idiot warlock with a soft intelligent interior no more. This wasn't the sharp anger she'd seen in Ikora's office either. This was something else.
Nicole backed off, not at all liking his tone. She didn't want to admit it, not even to herself, but it was almost like he broke character in a moment of actual irritation. It gave her more to think about. And annoyingly, it made her doubt him again. She was getting really tired of doubting him. She just wanted to trust her own judgement of him and be done with it.
She put her hands up in surrender and he calmed down. He'd puffed himself up to be taller than her, and with her surrender he deflated. She was hardly frightened of him, but she didn't want to start an argument either.
"We're just curious."
"I know. I'm sorry." He fidgeted, ducking his head in apparent shame. "It's still a sore spot. C-can we just go, please."
He was putting her back in control after he'd wrenched it from her accidentally. She sighed and patted his shoulder. He looked honestly a little ashamed. He wasn't looking at her now, his shoulders bunched up, making him seem hunched.
She touched his chin with a finger, making him look at her. His eyes glanced to her's and she offered him a reassuring smile.
His eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, the rest of him turned beet red. "Uh, yup. We're going!"
She hadn't realized how close they'd been standing until he was rushing away, leaving behind a cold breeze with his quick departure.
"What do you mean, 'what'?" her ghost commented from her shoulder. "That was very blatant flirting."
It was not!
"It totally was."
"That was definitely flirting." Verz said from the other shoulder, eye rotated toward the door Aydin had left open behind him. "Flirting scares him."
Nicole glanced between both ghosts for a second. What is this? Gang up on the hunter or something?
Verz couldn't heard her, floating oblivious at her shoulder still. Her ghost pinged amusement back at her jab.
"The downside to all this flirting is that I think Aydin actually likes the attention." Verz carried on, unaware of the other exchange that had just happened. "Either that, or he likes you." And with that it floated away, following its guardian out the door.
She felt faintly insulted. Downside?
Afterword: Oh hey look I managed to get ten out before the end of the year. I'm sorry I'm a slow person.
FusRoDerp (fantastic name btw), stanwhiches, oozak, yvelt (i'm abbreviating sorry, but damn what a username): Thank you all for the kind words, you guys are awesome and I'm glad you're enjoying the story thus far.
Jayfeather and Amberstar: You guys continue to crack me up. Good luck with your future writing endeavors, and I'm glad you are enjoying mine. I'll eventually pop over and take a gander at your work (if i ever find time *sigh*), I promise.
Lazypersons: Ah yes tea time. And lap naps. There will be arguing. Lots and lots of arguing. :)
F1REST4R: Your FACE is amazing! I'm glad you're enjoying it, and thank you!
PerfectlyUseless: I'm not much of a baker, but you can have a burnt crisp if you'd like. Glad you're enjoying it. :)
Dragon: Dedicated reader! I'm so glad you enjoy it so much, I will try my best to live up!
And Thank you so much to everyone who commented, fave'd and subbed. It all gives me the strength to keep going, even when I have HUGE doubts about this story. Happy Holidays and I'll see y'all next year!