Human Resources 6: Croesus at Delphi

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Too...Too early for it to be morning. Feel like taking it up with the sun, see if I can talk it out of this. ...Bet there's some kind of sparkler who can pull it off. Not one of ours, though. Walking into work feeling half dead, but at least I'm in good company for that, around here.

Sometimes I think I'm not quite cut out for this kind of work. I mean, take yesterday's order, for one. Picked out a squad of three to go and walk into a barrier. Pretty much some teenager's personal hell with, near as I can tell, a little helping hand from her best friend Salvador Dali. Send them in to kill every little monster that gets in their way, and bring back a piece of an apparently-invisible magical sniper who's been spending her days shooting out every soul gem she can find. All this so we can send out another force to hunt down and kill her. That's me, calling a hit. I even sent someone with the Katayamas pretty much just so she could be a human shield.

Goes past that, too. I've got a little army of... well, pretty much super soldiers here, not to mention all the other resources an officio comes with. Most of them would follow me to hell and back again, and if the mood took me, I'd just have to click my fingers to make someone disappear. Sure, I don't run the show; that honour goes to the weird little alien who runs every other decision by me first. It adds up to a lot, is what I'm getting at here.

I don't know, I guess I just feel like I should've gone mad with power somewhere back there. Maybe even just a little cackle. Never really registered, though, or mattered to me all that much. I guess I don't really care as long as I've got a stage.

Taniguchi's in the hospital wing, no surprise there. Just like you'd expect after she got ripped apart a bunch of times in one night and, from what I heard, hugged the sun or something. Of course, knowing her, she's not lying in bed or anything; no, give her a couple minutes plus a shower of grief seeds and she'll shake it right off. Rather, she's here to treat all those banged up sparklers who don't just grow right back, same as usual.

Girl scares me a bit, to be honest. I mean, look at her. Stands head and shoulders over me, some kind of huge overgrown mess. Patches of scales and... shell, I think, all over her. I've seen what she can do if she doesn't keep her power in line. Everything's suddenly got a life of its own, flying around like it can't get away fast enough. Saw her turn someone into... something like a big blob of meat, once. Didn't die for hours, I heard. Couldn't. Too full of life, anything that died kept regenerating. Yeah, sure, feed me the whole 'gentle giant' story all you like while she walks around the hospital. She still frightens me.

And here she is, just moping around all day. Looked at a witch and thought a little too much about what she was seeing, or something like that. Honestly, I've seen entire forests less green than her. I've never been inside a barrier, and even I know you don't go out of your way to empathise with the murderous ball of despair you're there to kill off. Just don't, or you'll end up like this, assuming you even live. This is basic stuff, I don't know how she'd miss out on it: Go in, put a witch six feet under and leave. It's not that complicated, and given that I'm in a building full of crazy magical murderers, you'd think I can trust them to act the part and go kill something.

But no, she has to think about it too hard and act all depressed the next day. If you want something done right... well, no, I'm not going there.

Ended up giving her a long hug as soon as I get there, telling her I heard all about what she did, what she went through. Was a nice surprise when I came away with all my ribs in one piece. Told her it was alright, she did what she could. No need to worry, now. Anyone would be upset after what she went through.

"...You don't have to do this, you know. I can ask Sanbey to give you a bit of time to rest, if you like. No more missions for a while, and you won't need to do your rounds here either-" Didn't quite catch what she was saying over all the stammering, but she couldn't cut me off fast enough, the moment I bundled it up with taking all the weight of her hospital trips off her shoulders. Nothing if not predictable, I'll say that. Stupid offer, and I knew it; she needs her visits here as much as her patients do, if only for a regular vent for her power, same reason I catch her shooting herself once every few hours, that sort of thing. Doesn't matter, though. All she sees is that I did my best - that I'd go well out of my way for her - and that's all it takes to get her to perk right up, at least for now.

Gets her to volunteer for whatever's coming next, too, so that's a plus.

Mizuki's right there, too; should've guessed, but she's the sort that tries to hide unless someone needs her. Usually pairing up with her sister, who's missing right now. Something about getting worked up over not being able to do enough back in that barrier, and heading off to practice. Bit of a mixed bag, these two; real big mistake of mine, if I'm being honest. They pick some new kid and settle on her, with Mitsuko being about as blunt and harsh as you please when it comes to everything their new pet project's doing wrong. All prickly and full of insults. Once they're broken down, Mizuki steps in with the spoonful of sugar, so to speak. Pull them up again and put them back together. Rinse and repeat until their latest subject's perfect and, surprising no one, a complete wreck who just about lives for their approval.

Good news is, they're great for training, and they net us a lot of witches. Bad news? They net us a lot of witches. Really, it's all down to timing; far as Mitsuko's concerned, she hasn't trained anyone well enough yet, with the way they keep dying to witches eventually. At least, they think all these other magical girls die to witches; can't go telling them about any transformations.

Never could figure out if they mean to do any of this.

I put a hand on her shoulder, and make a pretty good effort with the giant next to me, and tell them first how glad I am to see them back in one piece - not that it's a surprise, of course, I know they can handle themselves - and how well they did, all the people they've saved by bringing us one step closer. Gets them beaming from all the praise, knowing that at the end of the day, whatever they went through and might think about it all, it was a job well done.

"You two must be starving," I announce after a bit of back and forth, concerned with just a bit of disapproval for not looking after themselves. "Why don't I make something for you both? And don't forget to call Mitsuko, too. I'll meet you downstairs!" Looks like that was a nice surprise for both of them, they're pretty much all over anything I'd make.

Funny story about that, actually. I'd never bother cooking anything for myself - either it's cereal, or I dial a number and delivery food comes out - but I'd say I make some pretty fantastic food if I want to. It's a prop, really. No, I can't be bothered, but it's part of the image. Harumi Ryouno of the third-from-the-left apartment complex isn't having any of that, but Harumi Ryouno, guardian angel of the Third Officio? Well, yeah, you can bet she walks in with a basket of cookies for the hardest-working magical girls now and then, and probably flies in on an umbrella while singing about something or the other.

Today, it's pancakes, since that seems to be everyone's favourite. Worked out a recipe for that one a while ago, and people just about go crazy over it, so I've kept it a sort of joking secret ever since. Maybe I'll tell someone or the other how to make it, one of these days.


Takes a while, but eventually, when all that's over with, I swing by towards the River of Tales. Still not quite used to it. They got a scrap of her costume last night, apparently, from a sword Taniguchi threw. Chucking a sword? Really? Even I know that's not something that works. Maybe it stops being a problem once you've got enough soul-charged freak strength behind the throw? I don't really care, but I guess it's good to know at least one of the Eversors here is good enough to fake whatever she wants even if she somehow has less of a clue about fighting than I do.

The piece of cloth's been delivered way before I woke up, so that's a bit of a head start right there. Pretty late at night, from what the text I got tells me - still weirds me out that Sanbey can type those - but it's not like Hitomi sleeps all that much, so she got around to it pretty quick. Always liked scrying over sifting through the river; something about how focusing tends to keep her visions to things she doesn't mind seeing much.

She's sitting there by the River, same as always, with a half-finished bag of chips on the ground next to her. Turns as white as a sheet - the fresh, clean kind that no one's slept on or spilled stuff on, like you get in similes and pretty much nowhere else - the moment she sees me. Tries to play it off like it's nothing a second later, and really, that's probably what it is. She does this now and then, and I guess the whole seen-a-ghost look is something everyone learns to expect from an oracle eventually. I can ask her about it later.

"I've been looking at the cloth," she starts out before I even settle in, eager to tell me everything she can. "I can't seem to focus on her for long, and she moves too much. I've talked to Penny, though, and I think we came up with something."

Always 'Penny', even for someone who's as formal as Hitomi. Not 'Penelope' or 'Miss Baines' or anything like that. She'll correct you once, and then there's hell to pay past that if you get it wrong.

"If we tie it to a compass and a little display screen - I think she said she took it from a calculator - we'll have a machine anyone can carry around that points to her all the time, and even gives the distance. It's... not perfect, but it should be more or less right."

"That's good, but... you know we don't have to glue bits of salvage together, right? You can use anything you need." A small, nervous laugh then, like she doesn't really get it either.

"She said this was more fun. I wasn't going to argue." ...Yeah, fair enough. She gets that way. All this peerless alien technology at her disposal, and nine times out of ten, she'd rather work with whatever she can dig out of a landfill. Venenums, haven't found a sane one yet. Guess that's pretty typical for most ranks, though.

Gotta hand it to her, though, this is a pretty neat trick.

"Thank you, Hitomi; we're all very lucky that you're here to help us. ...I think you need to rest now, though. You've been at this all night, haven't you?" A little nod, like this is nothing, and maybe that's true for sparkles. I wouldn't know. Looks a bit embarrassed about the whole thing, somehow. Doesn't surprise me, though. She told me before that she didn't really care for sleeping if she could help it. Something about one prophetic dream too many.

"Just... try to relax for now. I don't want you to push yourself too hard." She's not easy to replace, after all. Better to have her slacking on company time than witching out early. "Here," I add, showing her some of what I packed from the batch I made earlier, "I kept some for you."

"Aren't you having any?"

"Oh, I already ate. If there's any left, I'll just take it to Sanbey."

"He eats?"

"No, no," I tell her with a practiced little giggle. "He always says something about how he doesn't need a 'vice' like this, so then I have it instead. I'm a Callidus, I can get away with having a bit more than I should."

"Every time? Then wouldn't it be quicker to just-"

"Oh, let me have my fun. I get to see him flustered over the silliest things, wouldn't you do it if you could?"

'Course she would. Who doesn't want to see a bit of panicked rabbit moralising? Oh, sure, he tries to sound all serious, but the little guy looks ridiculous the whole way. We have a good laugh over that and a couple other things for a while.

Once it's all over and done with, that's when she flips like some kind of switch. Doesn't even say a word, just looks at the river, and before you know it she's sobbing against my shoulder, hanging onto it like she expects it to... I don't know. Come right off and fly her off to Disneyland, maybe.

Yeah, sure, this is what I needed in my life. More hysterical teenagers. Well, nothing for it, better calm her down.

Not hard to guess why, either, and I do pretty much have to guess with how few words I'm getting out of her. She's lost a couple friends to Yumishita, same as anyone. Difference here is that she gets to see it over and over while she's digging around in the river for a trail. You look for a story, and you get all the bits you'd rather forget, too.

Gave her a little pat on the back, told her it's okay to cry, not that she was exactly waiting for my permission. There, there. It'll be alright.

"I know it hurts, but... it's going to be okay now, Hitomi. We can stop this. She won't have a chance to do this to any of us again."

"It's not... not just that," she manages eventually, sounding like she's about to choke. "I saw something in the River." Well duh, that's how half your problems start. I don't know how I'm supposed to sound surprised by that.

"What was it?"

"I saw... I think I saw you dying, Miss Ry- Harumi."

Oh, well, is that all? I thought it was something serious. ...No, really. She sees this stuff for all sorts of people, all the time. Not the first for me either, though it's only happened about twice before. You get used to it; must be what had her looking so scared earlier. She acts like the world's ending every time, though, so it's usually a good idea to hear her out. Still, at the end of the day, that's just how it works. The River's not the most reliable thing out there, and the future can change - in other words, the reason it's worth having her on the payroll at all is the same reason you need to take everything she says with a grain of salt.

"Don't worry so much, I'll be okay. What did you see, though?"

"There was a witch," she tells me, going into the same sort of droning monotone she slides towards whenever she's going over one of her visions. "You were trapped in its barrier, I think." Oh, that's rich. Me! In a witch's barrier! When all's said and done, she doesn't even know me. She thinks I'm a Callidus, and that's going to mix up anything she sees, I'll bet. Of course, I'm dead serious while she's talking, all the same. Got to play along.

"Sanbey was there." Sanbey in a barrier? Really? "And he was... holding a pistol, I think, or at least trying to." Haven't had to try that hard to stop myself from laughing in... oh, a while. Come on, this is ridiculous; the look on her face tells me that even she thinks it's pretty weird, but she's still scared. Now personally, I would've thought this would be a nice break, getting something this goofy out of the river, but apparently not. Maybe it's some... symbolic thing? I 'died' to work with Sanbey, and we went off to stop - or sometimes make - witches? Does the River even do metaphors? I'm trying to give this at least a little credit, but it's hard.

I'm not sure what she expects, but I feel like I'm supposed to start dropping coins in a bowl to make her put the crystal ball away or something.

"I'm sure I'll be fine, Hitomi, but I'll do my best to stay away from any barriers for a while. Does that help?" She looks a bit less panicky then, and gives me a little nod. Easiest promise of my life. She looks up at me like she's got something else to say, though it takes her a good while. Guess it's no wonder she's scared; lost enough people already, lately. Probably thinks it's her fault, too. You'd think they'd learn to stop jumping over every little death, with how often it comes up in this line of work. Probably going to take her a while longer to get there, at this rate.

"Please, promise me something," she asks eventually. Never heard her sounding quite that desperate before. "Promise me you're here to stay." Heard that one more times than I can count, and you know what? I stuck with it. I smile and nod at her, stopping just short of telling her I'll probably be here longer than she ever will, just like with most of the others who asked what she did. ...Veteran Callidus, after all. Just that good. Can't believe they still buy it, sometimes.


She cheers up a bit after that, and I stay around until she's calmed down. Feels nice, actually, getting her to lighten up like that. Nothing sappy, don't get me wrong - I'm not going to get all mushy over this - just the pride of a job well done. Same as any other time I pull the wool over someone's eyes.

Not that I'm planning on dying, so that one's all true. I mean, "don't get shot by Sanbey in a barrier" is just about the easiest request I've had before. Just the sort of thing you need to do to keep someone like this from coming apart.

Funny, really. She'll never know she was trying to see a stranger's future.