Chapter 23: Making a Bet

Energia: Titans of Verità
Table of Contents (For Catching Up)

As the days went by, Anna found herself falling into a routine. Wake up, go to basic training, get her teeth knocked in, eat breakfast through a straw, go back to basic training and get knocked around some more, spend a few hours with free time and lunch, endure one last round of beatings, then eat dinner, lay about for a few hours, then go to bed. At first, it seemed a slow and repetitive process, with each day dragging on for far too long. But as the days turned into weeks, the routine began to speed by more quickly. By the end of week two, her training seemed to be going by in a blur.

Not that Anna had much to show for it. She still couldn’t overcome the wall. Each time she came close, the entire surface would twist into a massive fist and send her reeling.  Still, even as the number of her bruises continued to increase and the taste of blood in her mouth became common, she persevered. You beat the law to get here, she’d tell herself, you can beat a god damn wall!

The other new recruits had more luck than she did. Within two weeks, Sal had gotten fast enough to clear the wall consistently, though his approach was more like a rampaging rhinoceros. He could manage to climb about halfway up the rope before being thrown off. But he would always get back up and try it again. For a while, Anna wondered if he was indestructible. But when he was ordered to sit out on a few days of training to avoid spinal damage, those fears were dissuaded.

No one else managed to get past the first obstacle. However, their progress was plain to see. Both Tommy and Cara managed to double the number of attacks they could avoid before getting knocked down. Eitan’s progress was even more impressive, as he came the closest out of all of them to pass the wall without getting hit. His only downfall was his nerves; each time he came close to success, he’d seize up, take a hit, and go back down.

Much to Anna’s frustration, Alex’s improvement wasn’t just clear. It was immense. By the end of their second week, he had managed to climb up to the top of the rope and move on to the Path of Pain, which none of them had seen. When they asked him about it, Melcroft ordered him into silence. But given the visible bruises, and the fact that he still hadn’t cleared it after four weeks of training, it must have been appropriately named.

In between basic training sessions, Anna did all that she could to improve her speed. In the morning, she ran laps around Order HQ and timing herself. After lunch, she’d crumple a number of tissues into balls and juggle them, adding more whenever the exercise became too easy. Then, in the latter end of the day, when there were as few prying eyes as possible, she combined the two exercises, juggling her make-shift balls as she ran around HQ. There was no doubt that she looked ridiculous, but she could live with that. She’d bear the embarrassment so long as it meant finally getting into the field.

“You need to relax, Annie!” Cara told her one evening between swigs from a brown bottle. The two were sat in the girl’s dorms, licking their wounds from the day’s training. “Practicin for a circus routine ain’t gonna get you anywhere here! Unless…” she let out a loud, exaggerated gasp. “Are you gonna-”

“No, I’m not going to join the circus.” Anna cut her off as she caught two falling balls in one hand and tossed another two from her other.

Cara deflated. “Shame. You’d make a great clown!”

“Should I be complimented or insulted?”

“Bit of both.” She shrugged, a mischievous smile on her face. A few weeks ago, Anna would have been infuriated by the sight of it. But she’d been around her long enough at that point to know when she was messing with her. “Seriously though, you should really relax! Beds are made for restin, not jugglin! Take a load off!”

Anna rolled her eyes. She had come to like Cara, despite her loud voice and pension for hard liquor. Still, she wished that she’d mind her own business every once in a while. Aside from a few drunken episodes, wherein she forgot what language was, she was always bothering Anna about something or other. Whenever she asked too personal a question, Anna always remained tight-lipped, which seemed to infuriate Cara to no end. Not that she ever showed it. As animated as she was, the woman could be surprisingly secretive when it came to her true emotions.

“Sleep will do ya good, ya know!” Cara continued. “It’s just as important for the reflexes as trainin! Body can’t do much if the brain is laggin behind!”

“It’s nine-thirty, Earth time. Do you always go to bed this early?”

“Nah. But this is usually when I pass out!” giggling, she took a long swig from her bottle. “Y’know, ’cause I’ve been-”

“Yeah, I get it.” Anna sighed, catching all of her makeshift juggling balls and tossing them into her desk drawer. She was getting tired of training anyway. “Have you ever considered laying off the booze? I can smell it from here like I was bathing in it.”

“I’m Irish, Annie!” She giggled. “That’s what we do. You may’s well be askin a fish not to swim! Or a bird not to fly! Or… uh…”

“For an idiot to stop talking?” offered a familiar, tired voice.

Anna started as the Shinobi made her way over to the bed beside hers. In the last four weeks, she had only seen her there the day she first arrived. She had stayed up late once to see if she’d come back late. But she never returned.

The Shinobi sat on her bed, kicking off her boots and lying back without changing out of her dress. She let out a long, exhausted sigh. Had she been out on a mission? Anna made a note to check the records later. It shouldn’t be hard once she had access to them. All she had to do was look up her name and-

Her name. Anna realized that she still didn’t know the Shinobi’s name. She’d been so focused on the basic training that she forgot to get the name at the foot of her bed translated. Not knowing her name would make record searching a problem. She wondered if Shinobi would be a viable search term.

“Well, would you look at that!” Cara said, waving at the Shinobi with the bottle. “The mystery roomie finally appears! Nice to finally meetcha! That there’s Annie Steelrunner!” she jabbed a thumb in Anna’s direction.

“Anna Ironchase.” She corrected through grit teeth.

“I’m Cara!” she continued, ignoring her. “But if we’re gonna be friends, you can call me Boss or-”

“Do you repeat that crap every time?” Anna asked.

“Only if we’re gonna be friends!” she turned back to the Shinobi. “What’s your name, stranger?”

The Shinobi eyed both Cara and Anna with a cold, wary gaze. “Hinata.” She said after a long silence. “Hinata Kurosaki.”

Kurosaki? Anna paused. Why does that name sound familiar?

Hinata eyed her. “You look different.” She said in a dry voice. “Tired. But certainly different.”

A confident smirk pulled at the corner of Anna’s lips. “I took your advice.” She smirked. “I’ve gotten a hell of a lot faster!”

“Yeah.” Cara snorted. “Faster at falling!” She then fell back in her bed, nearly dropped her booze all over the carpet, and descended into a cavalcade of mad laughter. Not a moment later, she was snoring gently while clinging to the liquor like a baby.

I hope you get a hangover. Anna thought spitefully.

Hinata cocked an eyebrow. “Faster at falling?”

“Just ignore her.”

“I find that difficult. She makes quite the presence. Though I could say the same about you.”

“I am not-”

“-as obnoxious? I agree. But you certainly stand out.” her lips twisted into a small smirk. The expression betrayed the tone of her voice, which was as cold and joyless as steel. “I’ve never seen someone try so hard only to consistently fail. In such a ridiculous manner, I might add. It’s rather entertaining.”

Heat rose in Anna’s face. “Entertaining?” she echoed through grit teeth. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re having trouble climbing a wall,” Hinata said plainly. “So, to improve your reflexes, you’ve been running laps and juggling balls of napkins. Doesn’t that sound just the least bit funny to you?”

The temperature in Anna’s face escalated further as embarrassment twisted her heart. How did she know about that? “H-hey, don’t sell that short.” She stammered. “Sometimes the odd solutions are the best ones!”

“Maybe,” Hinata admitted, leaning back into her bed. “But given your current results, I highly doubt it.”

“Oh yeah?” Anna felt her rage building up within her. She leaned over to face her, putting a confident, but fake, smile on her face. “What happens when you’re wrong? Say I clear the wall tomorrow! What then?”

Hinata shrugged casually. “Then I am wrong. It is quite simple.”

As they spoke, the bunks around them slowly began to fill in. Their eyes slowly drifted over to them as they prepared for bed. Some of them paid them no mind and crawled beneath their sheets. But the majority stared at the pair and whispered among themselves. Seeing this, Anna was tempted to let the topic drop. To go roll over and sleep through her frustration.

Then an idea came to her.

“Oh, but isn’t that boring?” Anna continued loudly. “What do you say we make it more interesting? How about we make a bet?”

Later, when Anna had time to think back on this conversation, she would wonder what it was she had been thinking. Between the anger, frustration, and embarrassment, it was likely that she wasn’t thinking at all. But she knew that this was a golden opportunity. This woman sitting before her had access to some of Order’s most classified data logs, at least if the rumors were true. If that were true… it would make her goal so much easier.

“How does this sound?” Anna continued, her heart hammering against her chest. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to try the obstacle course again. If I can clear the wall, you’ll do something to help me out.”

“For God’s sake.” Hinata groaned, closing her eyes. After a long, silent pause, she spoke again. “Fine. I’ll humor you. But if I win, then you’ll do something to help me out.”

Anna paused. It almost seemed like a joke. What could the Shinobi of Order possibly want from her? “You want me to do you a favor? Why?”

“Because I don’t want to do it myself.” Hinata shrugged. “Besides, it isn’t exactly safe. Depending on the circumstances, it could end with you lying face down in the street covered in blood.” Her expression twisted into a deep, dark scowl. She spoke in a low, almost horrified voice. “At best, you’ll walk away unharmed and confused. At worst, you’ll wake up the next morning with your life and career forever in shambles.”

A few bunks away, a small group of girls couldn’t contain their giggles. Anna couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying, but she had an idea of what it was. They probably saw it as a joke. As far as they were concerned, all that was happening was a veteran hazing a newbie.

But Anna knew that her request was no laughing matter. She had said them all with such cold conviction that there was no possible way it was. Whatever her request was, it could end Anna’s time in Order. If she agreed and failed, she might never be able to step into her own E-Suit. Never leave Unity to fight the monsters of Verità. But most terrifying of all: she’d lose the only remaining lead she had.

Every rational part of her told her not to do it. To just shrug it off, force a laugh, and go to bed. But the idea made her sick. She had already thrown down the gauntlet; to retreat now would make her seem weak. No. She knew she could do it. She had to do it. It was reckless, she was painfully aware of that. But her confidence hadn’t failed her yet. “You’re on!” Anna declared. “Just you watch! I’ll win, first thing in the morning!”

“How exciting,” Hinata said with a yawn. “I was dreading this for a while now. It’s a relief knowing that you’ll take care of it for me.”

“As if! There’s no way I’ll lose!”

“Oh really?” a smile crept across Hinata’s face. For the first time, her eyes seemed to light up with a menacing glee. “Then how about we raise the stakes? I’ll do you your favor if, and only if, you clear the obstacle course. Not just the wall. The entire course.

Anna felt her jaw trying to drop. The entire course? A pit of panic opened in her stomach. That’s too much. The rational part of her brain told her. We should back down. There’s no way we can- “You’re on.” She said quickly to silence her growing doubts. “I’ll clear the whole thing, no problem!”

Hinata gave a quiet grunt and rolled over in her sheets. “We’ll see.”

Outside, a shroud of darkness slowly fell over the sky. Inside, the flowing lines of blue energy running through the floor, wall, and ceiling all dimmed before going black. Night had fallen over Unity.

With this, the commotion in the dorms started to die down. The onlookers all climbed into their beds and quickly fell asleep. Anna, feeling drained, stressed, and determined all at once, struggled to stay awake. After quickly changing into her pajamas, she laid her head back to sleep. Through the corner of her eye, she watched the still body of Hinata Kurosaki. As she fell into the gentle embrace of darkness, she noticed that she was still wearing her dress.

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