Father. Friend.

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Illustration by Hui
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     "What... did you..." Bragg wheezed. He couldn't tell which of the six, spinning Quincys were real. By the time he refocused his vision, his foe had rearmed with both hooked blades. Bragg's eyes swept the sand. On his right was a six-foot blade made from his own marrow. On his left, a tiny steel chip shimmered in a clumping red stain. It'd kept bullets from piercing his skull. It'd kept blades from skewering his heart. It'd kept him from his son. One stumble at a time, he learned to walk on his suddenly old legs. Bragg left his Augment in the sand, and took his bone-blade in both hands. "One last time..." he straightened up.

     "Throw it down, Bragg," said Quincy, his blades loose, but ready.

     "One last time..." Bragg went pale, save for the ruby line down his collar bone. Everything about him had changed. His sorrow was plain, without the coating of bitterness that corroded him from the outside in, for years. As much as he was pained, he had the look of a man free from chains. "Levi... didn't teach you how to finish it, did he?" Bragg arched, and swung. His remaining strength caught Quincy by surprise, who met the strike rather than hooking it away. He stopped the bone inches from his face, then shoved Bragg away.

     "How we finish it is up to you," said Quincy, even as another tired, bony strike came at him. He turned to let it splash sand by his feet. Quincy shoved him uphill. Bragg stabbed the grainy hill for support.

     "Then... this one you'll learn from me," Bragg coughed, "At least I could teach you this one thing."

     "Don't," pleaded Quincy, but Bragg drew his blade up at his side like a knight before his queen. "Phinneas." He steadied his heavy breaths.

     "I used to be good... at my job... to people... even when they cast me down. Even when I found out your dad died... it was so gradual, unnoticeable, but I rotted. I couldn't blame it on this place or that chip in my neck. All I could do was hold my nose, so I wouldn't smell it..." Bragg's eyes opened, lucid and honest, "One last time... I can be who I'm supposed to be. Finish it." Quincy couldn't stare into those eyes, those noble eyes that didn't belong to what that body had become. Not without saying,

     "General Bragg," Quincy readied his blades.

     "The Terrible Blackstar," Bragg smirked, and charged.

     Quincy clenched bony strikes in his hooks. He felt Bragg's fatigue with each shove backwards, up the dune. A unit of twenty men watched, mortified, as their invincible General was forced from foot to peak of the sands by his scraggly, cloaked adversary. At the apex,  Quincy and Bragg clashed as exhausted but relentless, Unfit equals. Whether it was blood loss, his quickly encroaching age, or deliberate Quincy didn't know, but  Bragg lugged his blade sideways, sloppy. Quincy seized it mid-swing. With the yank of two steel hooks, Bragg's fingers unraveled. His arms froze outwards, empty. Quincy dropped one blade to take the other in both hands. He drove it straight through Bragg's chest. The Beacon glinted red off the steel showing through his back.

     He hung there, upright, watching his petrified men over Quincy's shoulder. They'd seen, and that was enough. When Quincy pushed, Bragg fell flat on his back, His somber smile settled on the service walks. He was a man Quincy never thought he'd meet, brought to life from his sketchbook, only to be erased. Phinneas Bragg. Quincy fell on his knees beside him. Blood fled from his blade to the sand, forced by the clear rain of his eyes.

     Quincy knelt on top of that dune, foes and friends frozen on either side, to think. He thought about Bragg's lesson. He thought, even enemies could pass the fire at certain crossings. He thought about the things that's gotten him there- from best laid plans to hapless coincidence. He thought about the girl on the other side of the metal sky above, and how surprised he'd be if even a whisper of this had reached her.

     Quincy snapped his blades shut. He had a Summit to rejoin, and they had a desert to flee as soon as this unlikeliest Guardian to the Seeress ended his lockdown.

-

     What Secretary Bregun could see that Quincy couldn't was a recruitment opportunity. When Blackstar had been a small-town vandal, his Rangers' failure was an embarrassment. Now the Terra Defense Department needed all the support they could get, to keep Blackstar the Terrorist from bringing hell topside. News of General Bragg's defeat reached everyone differently.

     The Summit saw it themselves, frozen in lockdown below the dune. Corman spat out his whiskey for the first time in ten years when they returned with the news. Percy was eating lunch in the power plant cafeteria when he saw the headline. Though he wasn't entirely sure it was his missing nephew, he saved the paper. Leon was in an Academy auditorium on Firelight Tour when images of people they called 'the Reachers' bore Blackstar's fear-brand mask on screen. His fists curled white. Elly laid a calming hand on his shoulder, but couldn't shake the butterflies from her chest. She hid a smirk behind an idle hand. Jess, Corel- anyone who'd met him sensed the inexplicable echo of Quincy Famino, oddly at home in whispers of an uprising.

-                             

     "I can't tell you how happy I am to hear your voice," Charlotte whispered into her radio, at the railing of her dorm balcony. In a small cage beside her, Aldin ruffled his blue feathers in the Beacon's morning aura. It was only a few miles away, the infernal hanging orb.

     "You thought I'd risk my life for these lunatics?" Quincy laughed.

     "Course not," Charlotte chuckled. She turned a flash of violet eyes over the Venter gardens below, "Sometimes, I forget whose on the other side of this box." Radio static was the sound of contentment they shared, for about five seconds. Then Quincy's mind wandered inevitably to what was next.

     "Elly... she's starting her Firelight Tour soon, isn't she?" He made it real by saying it. She'd hit one metropolitan hub after another across the Terra Layer, for the next year, if Quincy's rusty studies served him right. After that, he hated to think: the Igniting. Charlotte took long enough to respond that he thought she might have gone. In truth, she bit her lip in attempt to squeeze out the answer.

     "She's already begun."

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