"You're ignoring your date."
He snapped the disc back in Sanaro's direction, careful not to overcompensate and give his friend an opening. "I'm not ignoring anyone."
The disc clicked against Sanaro's reflector as he sent it careening back across the table. "You are aware that she left the room several games ago, yes?"
"So?" He barely managed to retaliate in time.
"So for someone who was obsessed with getting her here, you're not paying that much attention to what she does."
"I wasn't obsessed with getting her here." This time he wasn't fast enough, and the disc tumbled off his edge of the table. He sighed, bending down to retrieve it. "I was obsessed with seeing her at all."
Sanaro gave him a bemused look. "Which you're not doing, because you're ignoring her."
"She's ignoring me," he corrected, setting the disc back on the table and eyeing the other end of the table. It would only take one more point for Sanaro to make this his third win in a row.
"If she is--" Sanaro returned his opening shot without effort. "She's doing it after you ignored her first."
"Maybe I'm ignoring her because she's the type of person to ignore me if I ignore her." He bounced the disc off the single guard on Sanaro's side of the table, somewhat satisfied to see his friend having to scramble to catch it in time.
"That's a bit childish," Sanaro observed a moment later.
"Really?" The disc bounced off his reflector before he could get it into position, sliding back toward Sanaro at a speed that was distinctly less than what he'd been aiming for. "I'm not even sure what I said."
"Game," Sanaro announced, straightening up as his return sent the disc over the edge of the table again. "Not that you're the best player on the planet, Delphinius, but losing three times in a row is excessive even for you."
"I think I've just been insulted."
"I think so too," Sanaro agreed. "Are you going to go talk to her, or do you feel like losing another game?"
He hesitated, turning the game disc over and over in his hand. In truth, the more appealing of those options was obvious. But Sanaro had caught up with him the moment they set foot on board, and she had been with Aura's friends for almost as long--should he take the hint?
"You haven't even told her she's on our tag team," Sanaro reminded him. "She might appreciate knowing that before they call her name over the speakers, you know."
He smiled ruefully, for the reminder only served to illustrate that "taking the hint" had never been something he was particularly good at. "True enough," he said at last, tossing the disc to his friend. "I'll see what I can do."
"Keep the nose up," Aura said over her shoulder, leaning closer as Cen's simulated wake made her "flit" bob uncontrollably. "Don't let go of the controls. Look farther ahead; don't try to correct for every little thing."
"Easy for you to say," she muttered. She was struggling just to keep up with the simulator, let alone to force her phantom "flit" to obey her commands.
She had already crashed twice, prompting "game over" to appear on both her screen and Cen's. The sim tanks were designed to let flitters "race" as recklessly as they wanted to, but Aura and Cen had taken over these two for the sole purpose of teaching her to pilot one. At the rate she was going, she thought she might have to be content with only a diver license for a while longer.
"You're doing great, Ci," Aura said, putting her hands on her shoulders encouragingly. "It's not real; you can crash as many times as you want before you get the hang of it."
"Even after you get the hang of it," Cen added dryly. He had turned toward them, barely watching his controls as he added his sometimes helpful comments to Aura's. "That's what the tanks are for, after all."
"Teaching flitters to ignore rules?" another voice suggested. "Is there a diver lane simulation in there anywhere?"
"Watch the rocks," Cen said, ignoring the remark.
Aura, however, did not. "If such a simulation exists," she answered, not turning around, "it would be perfectly safe. I can think of only one person blind enough to be a threat to flits in the diver lanes."
The mimicked control board beeped at her, indicating a shallow bottom, and she froze. She'd never managed to make it this far out from the game's starting point, and she had absolutely no idea what to do about the alarm. "Cen?" she asked, a little nervously.
"Just watch the rocks," he repeated. "You're doing fine."
"A flit can manage in any kind of water," Delphinius' voice offered, seeming to understand her question where Cen had not. "Shallow or deep, it doesn't matter as long as you don't hit anything."
As the first obstacles showed up on her echo readout, she slowed down as much as she dared. She just wasn't quick enough to maneuver, even at the reduced pace Cen had been setting. She did wish briefly that it was Delphinius' hands on her shoulders instead of Aura's, but then she pushed the embarrassing thought aside in favor of concentrating.
"Where did you hear that?" Aura was asking. "Modern Tech class?"
"Just because I don't flit illegally doesn't mean I don't know how to do it at all," Delphinius informed her. "I've had a flit license for three years."
"Are you any good?" Aura asked, her tone one of politely feigned interest rather than actual curiosity. It was condescending enough to be irritating, even when the question was directed at someone else entirely.
"Race me and find out," Delphinius offered, just as blandly.
Cen was so far ahead of her at this point that she wasn't even sure where his flit was, but she didn't have much spare attention to put into wondering. She could feel the drag on her controls as she didn't manage to completely avoid one of the rock outcroppings, and she swore as her disabled flit broadsided another and "game over" flashed across the screen.
"Done that," Cen said amiably, ignoring Aura and Delphinius behind them.
"Delphinius has probably done it out on the ocean," Aura added over her shoulder. "He has a hard time seeing things that are right in front of him."
She knew Aura meant it more as an insult to Delphinius than as a slight to her, but she couldn't tell if that made her feel better or not. Just then, though, the speakers near the ceiling came to life, and Delphinius held his silence as the announcement came on. It didn't take her long to figure out why.
"Teams 34 and 35, report to the laser arena," the speakers announced. "Team 34: Leis, Delphinius, Sanaro, Cetaci. Team 35: Maricut, Haley, Marino and Corusca. Teams 34 and 35, please report to the laser arena."
She heard Delphinius clear his throat, and she turned around in surprise. "Did I just hear my name?" she demanded when the message didn't repeat again.
"I heard your name," Cen replied. He didn't take his eyes off the sim tank in front of him as the game reset.
"That's what I was coming to tell you," Delphinius said, looking a little sheepish. "We kind of signed you up. I hope you don't mind."
"We?" she repeated. Sanaro's name was the only other one she had even recognized.
"Well, I signed you up," he admitted. "I would have asked you first, but the line was already pretty long and they can't always fit everyone in..."
She couldn't help smiling, and his hesitance melted away so quickly she wondered if it had been an act. "Come on, then," he said, self-confidence back in place as he gestured to her. "Let's go show them how it's done."
"I hope he shoots better than he flies," Aura muttered to Cen as she took Cetaci's place at the sim tank. She spoke just loudly enough that it was obvious she intended them to overhear, and Delphinius paused.
"Was that a challenge?" he inquired mildly.
"It did sound like one, didn't it," Aura agreed.
"I just wanted to make sure." Delphinius considered her back for a moment, then added, "If I had nothing better to do, I'd even take you up on it. But since I do--perhaps another time."
She didn't wait for Aura to reply, for the situation was already degenerating and this time Delphinius' friend wasn't here to smooth things over. "Would you like me to meet you at the arena?" she asked pointedly, hoping Aura wouldn't make things worse by trying to get the last word.
He flashed a smile in her direction and she was hard-pressed not to roll her eyes. Was that supposed to make up for him insulting her friend? She told herself firmly that it did not, no matter that she found herself smiling back.
"I'm with you," he said simply, surprising her by holding out his arm. She slid her hand through his arm tentatively, and she was relieved when neither Aura nor Cen said anything else as they walked away.
Delphinius paid no attention as one of the student volunteers recited safety instructions in a bored tone of voice. Only when he saw Cetaci struggling with her vest did it occur to him to ask if she'd ever played before, and when she said "no" he had to grin.
"You'll be good at it," he told her, tugging the clips into place on her vest. "I bet you have great aim."
She shook her head. "Not really," she admitted. "I mean, I've never been in a shooting gallery, but I don't throw very well if that's anything to go by."
He looked at her in surprise. "It isn't, really," he said at last. He was so used to firearms training that he forgot sometimes that it wasn't something most students went through. "It's a different kind of coordination. I should know," he added wryly. "I can throw, but my shooting is... less than excellent."
She actually laughed at that. "I'm surprised to hear you admit that," she said, her tone distinctly teasing. "I didn't think Delphinius of the Kith squadron did anything less than excellently."
Somewhat disconcerted that she knew his squadron affiliation, he gave her a mock-reproving look. "Now, that's not fair. You already know more about me than I know about you, and you didn't even ask."
"Neither did you," she pointed out. Her expression was smug as she caught and held his gaze, and he couldn't help noticing that her eyes seemed deeper somehow.
Then someone clapped his shoulder, and he blinked as Leis motioned for them to hurry up. Sanaro had already disappeared into the darkened arena, and Cetaci moved to follow him. Leis was right behind her, and Delphinius hesitated only a moment before stepping into the weightless and somewhat unpredictable environment.
Gravity vanished the moment he entered, and his sight went with it the moment the door behind him swung closed. He heard his "gun" chime as soon as the sim went online, and he put out one hand to find the wall. The sound of static and a high-pitched cascade of notes told him someone had fired, and abruptly the tiny arena was full of sound.
He pushed off, catching the glint of someone's vest as his eyes started to adjust, and his gun went dead just as he pulled the trigger. He tried to turn, but without the accustomed drag of water in weightlessness he overcompensated. He heard someone laugh, but over the sound of shouting and repeated fire he couldn't tell if it was directed at him or not.
Someone grabbed his wrist, startling him enough that he brought his gun to bear instinctively. It was still dead, and he saw blue glitter catch the meager light as his rescuer pulled him toward a handhold. "I see what you mean about your shooting!" she called loudly as she pushed off in another direction.
His eyes widened at the unfairness of that remark, and he turned his weapon on her as she slid away. It surprised him to pull the trigger and hear something, and she would be the first person he hit. He tried to hide a grin when he heard her exclaim as her gun went dead, and he pushed off in what he thought was a "downward" direction before she could figure out who had hit her.
For as long as he had played this game, he had never been able to figure out why it was so much fun. It was too dark to definitively identify anyone, so all any of them had to go on was flickers of motion and the sparkle of light as their guns flashed. With no way to know who was who and nowhere to hide, firing was as much an instinctive reaction as anything. There was no strategy in the chaos, little control over motion in the weightlessness, and frankly, not much motivation to keep yourself from getting shot.
Maybe it was that lack of control that made it fun, he thought, holding the trigger down as he tracked a tumbling shadow. His gun suddenly shut down again, and someone careened into him from behind. "What, it wasn't enough to shoot me?" he demanded loudly, not sure the person who had tackled him would even hear.
"Sorry!" He didn't recognize the voice that spoke, but suddenly the wall slammed into his side. He fumbled automatically for a handhold, just catching himself before he would have rebounded away.
Even as he gathered himself to push off, his gun chimed and someone else's fired, shutting his down the instant it came back online. "Hey!" A too-close laugh left no doubt in his mind about who had managed that one.
He reached out, grabbing for her wrist as she shot by and catching her hand instead. He almost let go, but in the darkness she couldn't see his expression and he could almost pretend that he hadn't realized. He pulled her closer, ignoring her indignant exclamation.
It wasn't the lack of control, he decided then, feeling her catch a nearby handhold to steady herself. It was the utter lack of consequences that made the game so exhilarating. "No shooting members of your own team," he informed her, letting his fingers trail across the inside of her wrist and over her palm.
He couldn't tell if she was more startled by the comment or the caress, but he wasn't going to wait to find out. He pushed away from the wall, twisting to avoid someone who hadn't been there a moment before only to find himself tumbling uncontrollably. He fired anyway, hearing someone's trigger sound cease abruptly as he found a target almost by accident. He kept shooting, losing himself in the adrenaline of twist, duck, and fire until his shoulder encountered another solid surface.
He groped for a handhold and missed, only just managing to push in a likely direction as the wall went away again. He no longer had any recollection of which way had been "up" or "down" before the sim began, but it didn't matter. Everything was a wall until the gravity came back.
As though the thought had been a summons, his gun went dead again. At first he thought someone had hit him, but then a hint of light infiltrated the darkness and he realized that everyone else's weapons had fallen silent as well. As the lights brightened, he felt a gentle tug coming from somewhere "above" him and the resurgence of gravity was as disorienting as ever.
He put his hands out as the "ceiling" drew him closer, and as the gravity strengthened everyone awkwardly tried to reorient themselves. He managed to flip, less than gracefully, he suspected, and suddenly the ceiling had become the floor again as his feet found something solid underneath them.
He was careful not to move too quickly in the still below normal gravity, and by the time he made it to the door most of his team had already left. He followed Maricut out, bracing himself as he stepped warily through the door.
The lightness went out of his step immediately, and it was suddenly that much harder to walk. He forced himself to move anyway, to make room for whoever was behind him, and it got easier with every step. He started to tug his vest off even as his eyes scanned the other students, looking for blonde hair and blue sparkles among those gathered by the door.
She already had her vest off and was handing it to one of the volunteers--a volunteer who wasn't quite as bored looking as he had been before. He smiled at Cetaci, saying something to her that wasn't quite loud enough to be distinguishable over the hum of voices. She shook her head, but she was smiling too as she glanced over her shoulder.
She caught his eye for just a moment, her smile fading, and he wasn't sure he liked the thoughtful expression that flitted across her face. He looked away quickly, trying to pretend he hadn't been staring.
"Subtle," Sanaro's voice commented from behind him. "Very subtle. You really do like her, don't you."
It wasn't a question, but his friend seemed to be waiting for a reply nonetheless. "Sure," he said, trying to keep his voice light. "She's cute." He knew he was staring again as she turned to speak with Corusca, but the memory of her fingers brushing against his was magnetic.
"Come on," Sanaro said, shaking his head. He handed off his vest to one of the volunteers and added, "Let's go get something to eat."
"What happened to me not ignoring her?" he protested, wincing at the plaintive note in his voice. He barely noticed as Sanaro took his vest from his hands.
"If you'd been listening," Sanaro informed him, "you would have heard Corusca say the same thing to her just a moment ago. You can either follow her around for the rest of the night, or you can pay attention and just happen to be where she is."
"Which is obviously very different from 'following her'," he said, amused by his friend's distinction. "Right. Thanks."
"That's what friends are for."