Between Two Beaches
The First Beach
Some people’s lives did not revolve around someone else. Khun, my love, Shibisu wanted to say but didn’t, life did not begin or end on that beach.
Most thought of Khun as the head of their team going up from the second floor. He was certainly in charge of their strategies and battles, but when it came to taking care of the people involved, turned out ruthless supergeniuses didn’t make the best candidates. (Neither did sadistic princesses of Jahad.) So it fell to Shibisu.
Even from the beginning, Khun hadn’t been in the mood. He was grieving, he was lost in a world the rest of them felt but could not share, and it wasn’t Khun who took up that mantle.
“Do… you… mean that… the turtle’s… dead?”
Rak’s voice had coincided with the moment everything changed—for all of them, for all it seemed for a moment that it changed the most for Khun.
“I’m sorry, but… I’m not in the mood to understand anyone else.” Khun’s voice had sounded dead as they waited in the tension after the final test of the second floor.
Shibisu couldn’t leave the feeling sitting there, growing until it consumed them. “Stop, both of you. Now’s not the time to go after each other.” Don’t hit each other while you’re down. “What’s important is the future. So let’s think about what we’ll do going forward.”
It should have been Hatz that ended up leading them in the wake of that beach. Even if they went back further to the side of a wall of shinsu, it should’ve been him. Hatz was more measured and thoughtful than Anaak. He accepted Shibisu first and was strong enough to hold Anaak’s respect. After Bam, it was Hatz who wanted to believe he was alive. It was Hatz, not Khun, who decided to carry Rachel up the Tower and Shibisu who’d seconded him.
But in the end, it was Khun who shouldered that job alone and Shibisu left to hold together all the pieces.
After the Workshop
After everything that’s happened, they deserve a few days to breathe. Of course, the floor test is coming up soon, so they don’t get many, but Anaak and Hatz take some time to break in Hatz’s new weapon (and possibly work out some Ran-induced frustration for one of them) while Shibisu gets to know all the newbies surrounding their lost team members.
Shibisu likes Bam’s and Khun’s new teams. The chaos of it feels familiar, the little enemyships and rivalries that feel more like friendships and the few pairs that stick together without bothering to deny it. He likes the golden-haired Wangnan with his unreasonable recovery and cheerful self-proclaimed royal status. This team will be good for Bam and good for Khun too, if they stick together. (He already knows Khun isn’t really likely to do anything of the sort. And no, he’s not bitter. Despite having had to tell Rak what was up.)
“Take good care of Bam for me.” He smiles, even as Wangnan blinks at him uncertainly. But Shibisu’s team are D-rank and they can’t go together anymore. Khun had his reasons for moving at a different pace, even if those reasons have finally completely changed. There’s no point asking Khun to take care of Bam. Khun’s… Shibisu knows better than to do more than nag at Khun towards healthy mental coping mechanisms, since he’s never going to actually attempt to let go of anything he’s decided to cling to or hold on to anything he’s decided to let go. Stubborn.
Shibisu attracts stubborn people.
In the other room is the core of his own team. He cares about all of them, helps all of them, but at the end of the day, there’s so many times the three of them settle on the same couch together, Hatz to one side, serious and determined, and Anaak on the other, fierce and defiant—the equal fighters Shibisu has to serve as reconciliation and strategist between.
They’re in the gym now, he knows, and he feels the weight of responsibility from their very first meeting, their first time passing through a shinsu wall and the crown game together, and it’s far too heavy to stop now—even for Bam.
It was Hatz that had been convinced Bam could survive that fall. And Khun… Well, Shibisu is glad for him that the nightmare he’d been living is finally at an end.
Anaak fights mercilessly, primarily with shinsu strength and her own body. No weapon was ever the same after she lost the Green April, though she’s picked up weapons since. This is about Hatz’s weapon, trying a new sword. It doesn’t handle the same, it isn’t the same, so he needs this time to make it feel more like his own.
They’re breathing hard in minutes. She wields her own weapon against him when she must, because shinsu will only work his blade so hard; they bite blood from each other’s bodies with sharp edges, then finally collapse against opposite walls to rest.
Hatz doesn’t say anything for a long time, staring forward with something hard and determined behind his eyes. Anaak feels no need to speak either. They’ve always been like this. An ungrudging respect sprung up between them from their first duel on Evankhell’s floor. They don’t need to speak to let silent camaraderie fill the space.
“Ah, there you are!” Shibisu suddenly announces, grinning broadly.
They look up, a respect he’s earned since the days of the crown game when they didn’t.
Shibisu’s practically glowing… This isn’t a good sign, Anaak thinks with a small frown.
“What do you think? A festival? Or the beach?”
Hatz blinks. He exchanges glances with Anaak.
In the end, it’s Endorsi bursting in behind them all who decides. “Get ready, all of you! Before we leave for the test, we’re going to the beach!” She announces it with a quick punch into the air and a fierce expression on her face that promises she has plans for this beach trip.
“I wanted to go to the festival!” Shibisu protests. “They have all the food stalls and the soju—”
“Binge drinking isn’t good for you,” Hatz reminds him dryly.
Anaak clambers slowly to her feet, body still aching from their session. Hatz slips his hand under her arm and boosts her the rest of the way to her surprise. She doesn’t react. Her reflexes aren’t sure how to.
But his hands are already back in his pockets as they trail after their bickering teammates out of the gym.
The beach, huh? Anaak ponders. It might be fun.
They don’t make it there that afternoon. Too many injuries to keep an eye on, stitches to not get wet, much to Wangnan’s chagrin, and too many loose ends to tie up in general. They have three days. Shibisu’s not worried.
He plays card games with Team Sweet and Sour and cultivates the relationships he’ll need to keep an eye on things when they move on. After all, the constant calls to Khun weren’t just out of the cold calculating strategicness of Shibisu’s heart. He’s no Khun. He fully intends to keep an eye on Wangnan and company too.
It takes long enough to secure their beach reservations (everything’s so expensive as they climb higher in the Tower, and Endorsi’s famous enough he wants to keep her and Jyu Viole Grace and Anaak from all being caught in public together) that they have another uneasy guest by the time they do: Hwaryun.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” he admits as they pass each other in the hall, his beach bag slung over his shoulder.
The red witch looks up at him with a small smile, the patch over her eye familiar and disconcerting. She’s a guide, not a regular climbing the Tower like the rest of them. She can go anywhere, do anything, and apparently was intimately wound up in everything that happened to Bam. He knows why Khun let her out of the White Heavenly Mirror, but he’s not feeling exactly warm about it and puts on his most severe expression. Shibisu is more than just comic relief, no matter how much he passes himself off as just that.
Her smile widens slightly. “I’m glad you’re well,” she says simply. Her gaze shifts, follows the loud progress of a certain trio towards the departing group. Bam almost looks normal again, his hair tied up behind his head for the beach making it seem much shorter than it is. “My god has returned to his friends.”
Shibisu stares at her for a long moment. It’s creepy, hearing her call Bam a god. He shakes it off. “Don’t ever hurt them,” he says, a half a dozen threats of consequences dancing through his brain.
She returns her gaze to him and nods a little. “Of course.”
He doesn’t believe her, but he doesn’t try to stop her from joining them at the beach. He glances around only once for the member that always needs tracking down, but Hatz has Laure ready to drag along and so that’s that.
Cries of pleasure break out throughout their overly large group. Prince and Miseng run down toward the water, like they’re on a mission, and everyone shudders under the sudden tidal wave splash as an overly large octopus practically leaps into the water.
Endorsi shakes a fist in the creature’s direction.
They’re wet but happy as they set up beach towels and chairs and umbrellas and spread out over the long stretch of sand. Ehwa and Wangnan are running around after seashells, and the strongest team has decided to start a water fight, in which shinsu is apparently an acceptable way of shoving water around when Rak’s at full size and taking advantage of it.
Shibisu laughs at the lot of them. It’s delightful. He stretches and leans back to survey them all. The laughter. The chaos. They’re friends again. They’re all right again. They have Bam, dear Bam with his bright smiling golden eyes that never knew friendship before he found them. Somehow it feels like they never knew it either until they found him.
It wasn’t just Bam. It was how he tied them together, showed them a little bit of how to be selfless and how to stand up for each other for no other reason than that they cared.
Hwaryun catches his eye, her red hair glowing a little in the light. She’s got an ice cream cone in one hand and is dutifully licking at it while she eyes the shaded form of Laure in his blanket under the largest beach umbrella. There’s a great big mound of sand beside her, and Shibisu suddenly realizes this isn’t going anywhere good.
Before he gets a chance to do anything about it though, he finds himself drenched again, cold water washing over him in a rush instead of a wave, and he shouts and runs before looking back to see… Endorsi? Anaak? They both have monstrous water guns and are advancing on him with unholy glee.
“Huh?” Hatz looks up, puzzled, from the beach ball he’d been picking out of their equipment.
Shibisu does not stop, bother to explain, or otherwise stand upon the order. “Save me!” He grabs Hatz around the shoulders and swings himself behind the teammate most likely to actually do so, putting a human shield between him and the two princesses.
Endorsi grins. “You sure you want to get between us?” she asks Hatz with a ferocious gleam in her eye.
Anaak’s tail swishes once, almost predatory, and she raises the massive water gun in her hands, clearly fully prepared to soak them both.
Hatz sighs, exasperated already. “Shibisu,” he growls low in his throat.
“Don’t blame me!” he squeaks back. “This wasn’t my idea!”
Of course it was. He’d wanted to go to the beach.
The first blast of freezing water doesn’t catch him off guard at all. Nope. It’s cold! And that’s the only reason Shibisu howls and drags Hatz back with him like a shield.
“Isu—” Khun’s shout is worried for all of a second before laughter creeps in and cuts off the name.
In the corner of his eye, Shibisu is glad to see at least Bam has a heart and looks more concerned than amused. They must have come back in from the surf for a bit.
Hwaryun is diligently building a sandcastle over Laure’s poor sleeping body, and Shibisu doesn’t have a moment to deal with it before Hatz has slammed a water gun in his arms, picked up his own with a determined expression on his face, and declared war with a blast of his own.
“All right!” Endorsi crows delight and lets loose a seeming never-ending blast of water.
Shibisu does what he does best. It’s a tactical retreat, okay, not running for his life as if the hounds of hell are after him.
“Hey.” Anaak leans over Shibisu’s face as she pokes him hard in the ribs. “Wake up.”
Shibisu startles awake and flails his arms wildly. “What? Anaak?”
Hatz knocks his ankle with the hilt of his new sword, a lightly given indicator of his presence.
“You don’t ambush sleeping people!” Shibisu huffs and sits up in bed to turn on the light.
“Should we leave them?” Hatz asks quietly.
It doesn’t surprise him that Hatz is here, asking that, but it does surprise him a little to see Anaak—until he realizes Endorsi is leaning against the doorframe, acting as if she’s not invested in this at all. Because of course.
“We’re D-class,” he starts to say—again. It warrants repeating.
Hatz crosses his arms and says shortly, “Should we leave them?”
Shibisu quiets. A lot happened between two beaches, but at the beginning at least, they were all one team with one purpose. Finally, he answers, “They left us.” It’s true, as far as it goes. “Khun is going to help Bam, so they may catch up, but we can’t just stop.”
Endorsi makes a small sound of annoyance. None of them deny it though.
“We all climb the Tower for a reason, right,” Shibisu goes on. He’s not really asking, just explaining calmly. “And the reason we were together then… Bam’s fine now. He’s safe. You were right, Hatz.”
Hatz looks at him, frowning slightly, but not protesting.
Anaak still wants her revenge. Endorsi is a Princess of Jahad who needs to climb to ever reach the goals that go with that. Hatz has his honor.
And Shibisu has all of them. It’s not why he’d started this journey, but he’s here now, and the weight of that is heavy in a way he never wants to let go.
“We’re in this together,” he says. “We’re a team. We have to keep climbing.”
They don’t. They could stop. They could wait. But it’s not who any of them are.
Slowly, Anaak nods. She leaves first, without a backward glance.
Endorsi follows her, as if Anaak is the living proof of something Endorsi wants to have. They get under each other’s skin, but they’re family.
And then there’s Hatz.
Some people’s lives did not revolve around someone else. Shibisu doesn’t admit out loud that his isn’t one of them.
“It was your idea to climb with Rachel.”
Hatz doesn’t disagree. He watches the princesses leave, then keeps watching, as if he can still see them, for long moments after. “You talk to them.”
“Of course. I’ll keep an eye on them.” Shibisu grins. “Khun and company need full-time minders after all. And Rak will be here!”
Hatz ponders that for a moment before he finally nods and leaves to go back to his own room for the night. They leave in the morning, but it’d be good to catch a few hours’ sleep.
Shibisu leans back in the bed and doesn’t make it back to sleep at all. This is what leadership feels like, and he wonders for a moment what things would be like if Khun hadn’t left and taken Rachel. Considering Rachel, they might all be dead.
He sighs. It’s time to close that chapter altogether. They’ll be together again someday, but right now, he has to do what he can to help them all succeed.
The fight for the Nest is finally over. They’re exhausted, in pain, some injured, some still reeling from the weight of what they had done…
Some might think that Khun should rally them, but Khun is with Bam, where he should be, and it has always been Shibisu’s job to mediate.
Shibisu slings his arm around Khun’s shoulder and grins, speaking for them all, whether they realize it or not. “We deserve a break. Let’s go to the beach.”0