and discovering other peoples' weaknesses.
Scrambling to push through her grogginess, Mercury instinctively reached for Mercy only to find the gunblade missing. In fact, all of her pouches and gear had been removed from her and placed on the table on the other side of the room. Instantly switching tactics, Mercury swung a leg up to try and kick him in the face, which Khelben dodged by carefully stepping backward. Instead, she used the momentum to roll herself to her feet, her movements more slow than usual thanks to the lingering effects of whatever he had doped her with. Khelben easily dumped her back on her ass, hard, leaving her gasping for breath while he loomed over her, arms crossed.
“It took you far too long to catch on to me,” the Xocili told her in their native tongue, his tone stoic and lacking the typical playfulness and flirty undertones it typically held. “I’m not impressed.”[/color]
Emerald eyes flashed up at him in a dark glare. “Yeah? Well I’m not trying to fucking impress you, so why don’t you go choke on the disappointment?”
This was bad. This was really bad. Mercury had been playing reckless for quite a while on Earthland, and she had always known they would send someone for her eventually, but this was much sooner than she had expected. She thought she’d have more time. A sense of dread was quickly washing over her as she wondered just how much Khelben had managed to pick up since his arrival to the planet. She was fairly certain that he hadn’t caught on to anything too important, if only because she trusted her own skills at covering her tracks and not leaking too much information about herself, but if Khelben was who she thought he was then his skills likely exceeded her own.
“I think you could stand to show a little more concern about what impression you give me. Or do you not understand the gravity of the situation you have placed us both in?”
“Don’t patronize me, Khelben. I know why you’re here.”
"Then you admit that you have been slacking?”
“Excuse me?!” Fury shook through her as she pushed herself to her feet, her head becoming more clear with each passing second as the effects of the drug wore off. “You think I’ve been sitting around filing my nails this whole time? You have no idea how much work I’ve been putting into this mission.”
“Of course I don’t! How am I expected to know anything when you have been failing so spectacularly at sending in your reports? If you know why I am here, then you know you haven’t been doing your job.”
Mercury growled low, pointing a finger at him. “Fuck you! You’ve been here long enough to see what this place is like. The magic here alone is more than enough to interfere with my ability to compile and send accurate reports.”
“Oh, don’t even try that with me! I’ve been here for months and I’ve yet to run into anything that has caused too much interfe--”
“Yeah, because you’ve been sitting on your ass playing with toys and spying on me!” Mercury interrupted him before he could get too far, her anger and fear continuing to rise. “Don’t you dare try to compare yourself to me. You couldn’t even begin to comprehend the shit I’ve gotten involved in just to gather research. I joined Silver Wolf for their endless resources and gained enough of their trust to be placed second in command of the entire guild. I got a job with the continent’s leading most provider of advanced technology so I could gather information about the technological limits of this planet. I’ve made allies out of royalty and leaders of entire nations, earning their trust while they know next to nothing about me. I’ve stolen entire databanks of information from organizations that no one knows exists. I’ve made deals with demons, and put my life on the line fighting gods.”
She glared daggers at him, her body practically shaking. “You want to know why my reports have been inconsistent? It’s because I’m doing my fucking job.”
Khelben stared at her for a long, silent moment. Eventually, he sighed. “Mercury… do you think I want to be here? Do you think I enjoy any part of having to stalk one of my own people?”
Mercury felt indignation swell up within her as she opened her mouth to rail at him. But somehow, her better judgement kicked in. With a low growl she finally lowered her tone. “No. I know you don’t want to be here.” Sitting back down on the bed, she rubbed her face wearily. As upset as she was, Mercury couldn’t believe that Khelben had any desire to be a part of all this. He had been forced into his role as much as she had been forced into her own. “So what now?”
“Now, I will be observing you more personally from here on out. Whatever work you do will be done as a team with me. You will be under my constant supervision, and it will be my job to evaluate if you are still fit to be doing field work or if you need to be brought back to the flotilla for retraining.”
She looked up at him with a confused look in her eyes. “Retraining? We were always told that any insubordination would result in immediate termination of the rest of the Xocili… Why would they want to go through the hassle of retraining me?”
“Termination would be true for most of the scouts, but unfortunately… you’re different. I read up on your file on my way here, and it seems they have placed you above the rest of the scouts for a number of reasons. The first is your history of success. You have scouted seven planets over the last decade and of those seven five of them were ultimately wiped out by the Nazru. That’s more than double what the other scouts have managed to… accomplish.” Khelben chose the word carefully, his tone conveying his understanding that it was an accomplishment to the Nazru, not so much to either of them… thought for her part, Mercury’s face barely flinched at the acknowledgement of just how much death and destruction she was responsible for. “The other reason you seem to stand out to them is because you… have a scar.”
He looked at her curiously and for a moment she was able to hold his gaze defiantly before turning away with a look of shame. “So you do have one.. How is that even possible?”
“I don’t know, okay? I just do.”
“May I see it..?”
Mercury shot him a glare but ultimately turned around to let her back face him. Pulling her hair up from her neck, she revealed the thin, surgical scar on the back of her neck, the blemish barely visible upon her skin. Khelben had to stand and lean over her to truly see it. Once he’d gotten a good look, he sat back down and Mercury straightened herself out, her cheeks red with embarrassment. “Thank you,” he told her quietly.
“Whatever. Listen, here’s the thing. I get that you have your own job to do, but it’s simply not possible for you to be with me everywhere I go. First of all, you’re not an ace with this guild and I don’t have the power to make you one, so I won’t be able to get you into any classified guild meetings with Leona. Second of all, there’s no way that your sudden appearance isn’t going to be a red flag to a lot of people. I told you, I’ve gotten in good and earn the trust of a lot of high ranking, powerful people on this planet. They’re intelligent people, and fooling them hasn’t always been easy. If I start bringing you around with me everywhere, they are going to get suspicious. So I’m sorry, but you simply can’t just start tagging along. Your presence would jeopardize everything that I’ve worked to set up.”
Khelben nodded. “That is reasonable. Thankfully, I don’t always need to be there physically. I can observe you digitally when necessary… but one way or another, I will be present at all times.”
Well, there went her sex life… among other things. Mercury’s shoulders drooped sadly as resignation settled over her. She’d been having fun for a while, but the vacation was over and real life had come swinging, just like she’d always known it would. What an idiot she had been for allowing herself to live in this fairy tail she’d crafted in her mind where she could feel safe and comfortable.
“However, I am going to require that I meet your partner, Vandrad.”
Her gaze snapped up at him. “What? Why?”
“Because as far as I can tell, you have formed more of an attachment to him than you should have, and I need to verify for myself that your relationship with him isn’t interfering with your work.”
“That is not a good idea.”
“Then your attachment to him is compromising.”
“No, he’s not just a fucking idiot. Do you know how long it took me to work him and gain his trust? He is constantly suspicious of nearly everyone around him, and I will not compromise my efforts in getting close to him just because you want to evaluate him.”
“Don’t forget that I have already been observing you for quite some time, Mercury. I’ve seen the way you look at him and I’ve seen how you behave around him.”
“Great merciful void.. Yes, because I’m using him. You think I could get away with half the shit I’ve done if I didn’t look authentic?”
Khelben paused briefly, though his eyes were still narrowed on her. “I admit that you are a good actress. If I hadn’t already known who you were when we first met, I would have been fooled by a number of your actions. But my gut is telling me I must insist on this, so like it or not I will meet him… either with or without you.”
“He’ll sooner kill you than give you the time of day. I’m telling you, my relationship with Vandard is not what you’re accusing it to be.” But it was. Mercury knew it was. She had known for some time, she’d just hoped to draw her time with him out as long as possible before her inevitable departure. Finally, she growled in frustration and resignation. “Fine. I will take you on one mission with us. Vandrad knows that I occasionally have to run jobs with other Scholar members, so I should be able to sell it, but it will only be the one mission. And that’s to protect my cover and avoid raising his suspicions. Got it?”
Khelben watched her briefly, meeting her even gaze with one of his own until he finally nodded. “That will be acceptable. For now.”
She’d had enough of this for one night. “Fine. If that’s the case, then I need to go prepare and find a suitable job to get everything arranged.”
“Very well. I just need to integrate my processors with yours, and then you may go.” WIth reluctant submission, Mercury accepted the wireless invitation he sent and soon he was linked with her monitoring systems, able to see with her eyes and hear with her ears as though her body was his own. She wouldn’t even be able to send a message to Vandrad without Khelben being able to intercept and read it himself. Once he was satisfied, she stormed out of the room and back up to her own.
And the only thing that prevented her from breaking down into tears was the knowledge that Khelben would witness it.
Two days later, Mercury sent a text out to Vandrad letting him know that she wanted his help on a mission that one of her members at Silver Wolf had picked up and asked for assistance on. She informed the prince that they’d meet him at Fairy Tail. Since Khelben was able to read all the messages she sent and received, she didn’t include anything that might tip Vandrad off to the fact that she was in trouble, but the truth was that she knew he would figure it out. Mercury was petrified trying to figure out how she was going to mediate this interaction without everything going to shit. All she could do was trust that Vandrad wouldn’t tip either of their hands.
Once Khelben was ready to go the morning of the mission, Mercury grumpily let him in her room -- which he’d inspected thoroughly the day after their confrontation. Bandit must have been able to sense that Mercury was stressed because it was vehemently clear that he did not like Khelben, the crow more irritable and ornery than usual as he constantly took excuses to scream, peck at, or even swoop down at the man if he got too close to Mercury. As soon as Khelben walked into the room, Bandit hopped from his perch down to Mercury’s shoulder and squawked loudly at the man in protest. “Bandit, knock it off, would you?” Her heart wasn’t in the chastisement, however. She wanted to yell at the man herself. “You ready?”
He glared at Bandit briefly before turning back toward Mercury. “I am.”
“Alright, follow me, then.” Fiddling with the dials on her translocation ray, she opened a portal and stepped through it, Khelben right behind her. It was obvious that he hadn’t ever used something like that before as he looked around in bewilderment and wonder for a moment at their new surroundings, his internal sensors likely scrambling to catch up with how far they had moved in a single step. But, he quickly covered it up. As Mercury slipped the ray into her pouch, she told him, “Alright, remember what I told you. Vandrad is not easy to fool, so I’m trusting you to be on your best game. I’m not going to sacrifice the work I’ve put in if you prove to be a novice.”
In an instant, he smiled down at her. Up until that point he had not been behaving like the charismatic flirt he’d acted like before his true identity had been revealed, but now his own mask was back on and fortunately -- or maybe unfortunately -- it was as good as her own. “Relax. I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve even been alive.”
Rolling her eyes, Mercury shook her head and strolled in the door, though her demeanor was noticeably quieter than it usually was when she visited her partner’s guild. There was no bluster or pomp, rather she simply walked inside with a casual gait, searched the room until she found Vandrad, and wandered over. “Morning, killer. This is Khelben Cox, one of my scholars. Khelben, allow me to introduce you to the one and only Prince Vandrad du Wolff.” She gave the prince her trademark cheeky grin that she usually had in place when she was purposefully doing something to annoy him for her own entertainment, such as acknowledging his title as a prince when she knew damn well that he hated the formalities. “I know you like to be all rough and surly, but try not to break this one too much today, would ya? He’s got promise, and I don’t want to fill out any more paperwork than I have to later.”
She looked, spoke, and carried herself like she would on any other day, her eyes carrying a glint of mischief as she crossed her arms over her chest and smirked at him. But she was absolutely radiating with trepidation and anxiety, even sadness. It was so strong that the prince had probably felt it before they’d even walked in the door.
Khelben stepped forward and offered Vandrad a hand shake, an easy and handsome smile on his face. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord Vandrad. Mercury’s mentioned you a couple of times. I appreciate your willingness to help us out today.”
Mercury would give them a moment to sort themselves out, however that wound up going down, before jumping right into things, handing him a folded up flyer from her pocket. “I’m going to be honest, you’re probably going to have mixed feelings about this job, and given your status with Bellum we’re probably going to have to be a bit careful. We picked up a request for assistance from a small town in Pergrande that’s openly looking for help from any willing mages. It seems they’ve got a haunted mansion of some kind. Very few people that have entered the mansion ever come back out, and those who do are supposedly different from how they were before going inside. I guess it’s gotten so bad that they are throwing caution to the wind and defying the most basic laws of their country to get help. They suspect magic is involved somehow, and as such none of them are equipped to handle it themselves.”