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“…and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be guarding or how long I’m going to be assigned here,” Great Girl complained. “My phone doesn’t even work and even though I know I’m not supposed to use it during work I kind of wish it would after because they’re making me sleep here and I’m bored. And I missed my D&- I missed a thing hanging out with my friends.” She frowned, “It’s weird my phone worked for that but at least my message got through.”
“Yes, that is weird and not at all due to anything I am involved with,” I said naturally.
“Look, just because we don’t hang out outside of work doesn’t mean we aren’t friends,” Great Girl said. “I’m just embarrassed about- I mean, I take my civilian identity seriously. And I guess you don’t.”
I folded my arms in front of me. “I refuse to not be an orc except when specifically disguised.”
“That’s… fair. It just seems like it makes things difficult, if people find out. At least you haven’t been attacked again, right?”
“I don’t mind fighting,” I said so I wouldn’t have to directly lie. Though I was finding it difficult to do so anyway. Why was she still allowed to talk to me when I was the most likely to give away the thing we were keeping from her? Well, it would probably be more suspicious if one of us was kept out of the common areas of the Power Brigade. A message freed me from the awkwardness of avoiding a topic. “Ah, Handface is no longer in Doctor Doomsday’s custody.”
“That’s… bad, right?”
“Yes. That means Doctor Doomsday likely has a version of a power scanner now.”
“And also Deimos might try to kill you.”
I frowned, “That is a bit of an issue. Keeping up Stoneskin all day is going to slow the growth of my ivory and gemstone fund.”
I tilted my head, “What was funny?”
“That’s a weird thing to call a savings account.”
“Ivory is very expensive right now and I’m not willing to risk synthetic gemstones on such a large project. Plus I have to hire someone to carve it.”
“You’re serious? What would you need something like that for?” Great Girl frowned, “Contingency?”
“Correct. Mana usage in combat is one of my most frustrating bottlenecks still, so being able to prepare something ahead of time would be optimal. Though I’m uncertain if Stoneskin or Physical Freedom would be more advantageous. The latter is less generally relevant and more useful in response to something, but determining how it would be triggered is the issue. I’d likely need to know what I was going to deal with ahead of time.”
“Yeah, probably. Couldn’t you just make it some kind of word, though?”
“That works against anything that lets me speak still,” I nodded. “Which is probably good enough. Not that I even have the capability of doing that yet, since I have neither the free points nor the magical focus required.”
“Fair enough. Wanna hit the gym?”
“I think my muscles are fine for the moment. I don’t intend to be primarily engaged in melee combat or anything.”
She looked at me, but I couldn’t tell what her face meant. “It wouldn’t hurt though, right? I’m bored but I can’t get into a serious spar right now so I have to deal with something I’ll recover from quickly.”
“Your muscles recover quickly?”
“I do have a strength based power, after all,” Great Girl shrugged. “Depends on how serious I got, though.”
“I suppose if we can’t spar, joining you in the gym would be fine.” Providing companionship for Great Girl so that she wouldn’t think there was something to pry into and then go get herself in trouble was probably good, and being strong wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t very… magely.
We went to the gym, currently not being used for any group conditioning sessions. It was still occupied, but we had room to be more by ourselves and just… hang out. The sounds of the exercise machines were both new and familiar, and after straining my muscles sufficiently I couldn’t help but observe my friend.
“Don’t your powers make you stronger proportionate to your size?”
“So?” Great Girl said between breaths of exertion as she performed the ‘bench press’. “I could make this easy, but then there would be no point.”
“Then exercising while larger is less effective?” I asked.
“That’s-” she raised the barbell once more, “Right.”
“So it would be most effective if you were the smallest size possible,” I continued my train of thought.
Great Girl didn’t say much as she finished her reps, then she sat up to face me. “… and so? You got magic that will make me smaller or something?”
“Would that even help since it’s outside of your own power?”
“Probably not,” she admitted.
“Then,” I said. “It’s probably best if you just choose to be your minimum size possible.”
Our eyes simply stared into each other, but in an extremely uncomfortable manner. Great Girl gestured to herself, “Am I eight or ten feet tall right now? What do you think I’m doing?”
Being inefficient. But before I actually said that, I realized that she was still taking the position that her natural height was six feet tall instead of five feet… and also that she was not a nerd. Even though she recognized Contingency merely from its focus when there was no way she could absorb that by simply hearing things from friends. “Sitting on a bench,” I said finally. “I hope you will be free to spar again soon.” That was the truth, but not just because I wanted more experience. I also wanted all this garbage with Stargirl to be over. I wondered when they would let her hear the news, or how they would flatten out her reaction… because she couldn’t be kept here indefinitely. But it wasn’t my job to deal with that stuff. It was my job to wander around looking for lunatics with robotic rats and arm lasers.
The internet seemed to think that I was a jeweler. That was the impression I got when it started offering me uncut gemstones and related paraphernalia. Perhaps it was because of my continued searching for gemstones of various quality and my regular orders of diamond dust.
I was aware the prices flagrantly offered to me would not be the best available, otherwise nobody would have paid for advertisements to display them. However, I would not be bothered unless it started offering black onyx to me. Though I suppose they would be unaware of its meaning.
… but what if other people became aware of what they might do with black onyx? Surely some with portal powers should have discovered the significant overlap between certain fictions and the reality of my world’s magic. Then again, people dying or dead bodies going missing would be quite obvious and people would take note of that regardless. And this world seemed remarkably well equipped to handle a few undead if it came down to that. Portal powers were just one more way people could cause trouble.
Keeping Stoneskin constantly active was not fun, chipping away at my mana throughout the day. At least I didn’t have to use Translation, and Force Armor was basically a one-time expense at the beginning of the day. If I had to use Translation as well, halfway through the day I’d be at an uncomfortably low level of mana.
One time I didn’t have to worry about Stoneskin was when I was in Disguise, but I didn’t want to constantly remain someone else. But when it was for a mission- even one I assigned to myself- it was fine. Thus it was that Midnight, Ceira, and I prepared ourselves.
“Okay, so… Midnight will cast the Disguise spell on me, and then you’ll cast it on both of you?” Ceira asked.
“Correct. It’s most efficient that way and would allow us both to recover mana. Since you’re not even able to transform into a tree-”
“Hey! I was just testing things!”
“Since you are not yet able to transform yourself, a proper disguise will require magic we have.”
“And then,” Midnight said, “The two of us will have Translation going as well. Since we’re after some dirty Bunvorixian.”
Ceira shrugged, “Or so you say. I’d still say that Shooting Star has a dog. I know she’s got it out for Mage but still…”
“I know what I’ve seen,” Midnight said. “There’s more than one of them around here… and one of them is with her.” He seemed quite sure of that, despite previously having discarded the idea of her dog being a Bunvorixian. I wondered what had changed.
“Fine, so, we do the magic and disguise ourselves. Then who are we?”
“At the risk of making myself look distasteful, I believe it would be optimal for me to be disguised as one of the small, yappy Bunvorixians.”
“Like a chihuahua?”
“Sure. It will help explain why I speak their language. And Turlough will be able to overhear what I’m talking about.”
“Fine. Then the other two of us look like different people. That’s not hard, but… who are we?”
“… a mercenary and some sort of internet person,” I said.
“I know that!” Ceira rolled her eyes. “Like, our cover story, in case anyone asks. We need names and like… an identity. Brother and sister, boyfriend and girlfriend, business associates-”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Like, I don’t know. Reporters or something.”
“I know what business is. Boyfriend and girlfriend sounds like the longest way to say ‘friends’. So I assumed it was different.”
“Well, yeah. It’s different. Boyfriend and girlfriend is like…”
“Lovers,” Midnight declared.
Ceira blushed, “It’s not just that! It can be a lot of things while people try to figure out if they like each other!”
“I understand,” I nodded. “But I will have to strike that possibility from the list entirely.”
Ceira blinked, “Wow. I apparently wasn’t ready to fake blatant rejection at being a fake girlfriend today.”
“I’m sure you’d be fine. I’d just be a really terrible fake boyfriend since I haven’t done any… lover related stuff.”
“We wouldn’t be actually doing anything,” Ceira emphasized. “And it was just one of the possible suggestions to pretend to be on a date.”
“I still have to turn it down because I would have no idea how to act on a ‘date’.”
“I mean, we’d have to make it all up anyway. I haven’t either. Probably because I’ve been inside most of my life.”
“That is the same for me,” I nodded.
Ceira sighed, “Well, at least we’re all the same there.”
“Not me,” We both looked down at Midnight. “… What? I’m not saying I went on a ton of dates, but I’m not a shut-in like you two.”
Ceira’s arms dangled lifelessly at her side as she slumped forward, “… A cat has more dating experience than me.”
“… An alien that looks like a cat has more dating experience than me…” Ceira said despondently.
“Much better. Now let’s get going so I can begin and therefore end looking like a dog as soon as possible.”
In the end, friends from work was the easiest thing for Ceira and me to pretend to be, because that was what we were… just not from the same work. The optimal thing would be if nobody spoke to us at all while Midnight did all the talking. Which was maybe going to be difficult as we were heading to a place with a lot of people. Like a whole lot of them. But that was the only way we were going to be able to actually find Stargirl.
On the surface it appeared to be a happy gathering, but I soon realized that it was a gathering of villains. Because these were the exact same people that had been attacking me recently. Alright, maybe not the exact same ones. The manner of dress was quite similar, though, with Stargirl’s face plastered all over them. The actual individuals were mostly smaller and had fewer lead pipes and chains. And louder. So many people shouting incoherently while they crowded around a place that Stargirl was going to appear.
As I was beginning to think she was not going to arrive for this event, someone even louder announced she was on the way and then one section of the sky got extra bright before Stargirl flew in, landing on the stage set up for her. Light spewed out from all around her in a blatant waste of power.
Man, it was a good thing that she didn’t have a big nemesis or something who would attack this gathering, because it would be really easy to find her and cause trouble. But Great Girl was still back at HQ so things would probably be fine.