It was suddenly imperative that, prior to breaking their watches as agreed, Scarlette had to find Lee.
No doubt Lee had brought along a strong cast of characters, and scrolling mentally through ARC-OS' database of competitor data confirmed that Aras was indeed among that cast. She had to meet him. Not only that, she had to see Bellasseau meet him.
Without even thinking, she slid into ARC-OS form, pounding down the corridors at an incredible pace, mapping the compound as she went. It didn't matter that she had no idea where Lee was, only that she had to find her, even if it meant systematically combing through the entire Facility.
It was hard to argue with someone already disappearing down the stairs back into the depths of the Facility. Ireny threw her paws up and could only explain to a confused Jay and Leafy that they had better follow Scarlette before the lot of them got separated again.
"What's so urgent?" Leafy asked, changing back into Cutie to assist the weasel in keeping up with Scarlette. "Of course we're going to warn them, but why now?"
Jay had reluctantly taken the opportunity to part ways in order to warn everyone in the medical ward, so it was just a weasel and a plush dog flying after an android.
"It's...complicated," Ireny replied. "Scarlette's kinda got a crush on one of Lee's characters."
"Seriously? We're taking a detour for that? She can see him after we destroy our watches."
Ireny chewed a paw. "Well, there's also Scarlette's character who's kinda got an awkward past with the same character of Lee's. I don't know why it's so important, but do you think we even come close to stopping her right now?"
She tore her eyes from her blood-stained hands and forced herself to straighten. Even if Kit and Andy had already left her far behind, she was sure the Sundog could track them and lead them to the medical ward.
"Where's Ivy?" she asked, aware of the tense silence.
Aras' neutral expression twitched slightly. "We were discovered. She sent me to help you while she led the thing away."
Lee winced with every step as they turned the corner at a snail's pace. She thought conversation would distract her from the pain. It wasn't quite working as she had hoped. Aras' composure despite their shared injuries was something she deeply envied.
He didn't get the chance to answer. The Sundog snarled first, and then suddenly the sound of heavy footfalls reached Lee's ears. They halted, dog teeth bared, handgun raised, bow loaded.
A man skidded around the turn, tall, unfamiliar, wide-eyed. Something about his expression tugged at Lee's memory and she hesitated.
Aras had no such qualms. He fired three shots in quick succession. The air around the intruder shimmered and the bullets bounced off some sort of invisible shield, clattering to the ground.
"Wait!" the stranger called, and suddenly it wasn't a man in front of them at all but Scarlette, hair frizzing out her braid and scrubs rumpled, chest heaving with the effort of apparently having run a marathon.
Far behind her, a weasel and a stuffed dog flying on a carpet were struggling to catch up.
"Scarlette?" Lee asked, stupefied. "How did you find us?"
Lee might have anticipated what happened next. After all, hadn't they spent way too many nights talking about this instead of studying? They had even started the Aras Duval fan club as a half-serious joke given how many female characters swooned at his feet, and Scarlette had none-too-subtly declared herself a member of said club.
And so despite the most recent attempt on her life and the handgun currently pointed in her direction, Scarlette could only stare open-mouthed at her fantasy brought to very real existence.
Apparently it was too much. The color drained from Scarlette's face and her eyes lost focus. If Lee was anything but her current state, she would be running forward to catch her friend before Scarlette passed out completely.
As it were, she didn't hit the ground. Her knees buckled and then instantly straightened as a stocky old man took her place.
This time, Lee's mouth fell open. She didn't know very many old men with a square face wearing suspenders and a hairstyle reminiscent of a deaf composer. How could it be anyone but Nichol Bellasseau?
By this time, he'd had plenty of time to contemplate the existence of god.
Purposefully or not, Scarlette didn't hide her secrets. He was well aware that he not only was a fictional creation from her perspective, but also had been transplanted in and out of stories as if passing through a multiverse. He was every one of them and yet none of them at all. Bellasseau of Panem. Bellasseau of Keis. Rense Howe. Roger Sanderson. Even his name didn't belong to him.
He had never believed in god, but the proof was hard to argue with. And he was terribly alone in his musings. ARC-OS, a machine who by all logic had to have been created by someone, was not at all perturbed about meeting said creator. Jia the octopus could not comprehend abstract thoughts outside of fantasies of food. At least while he sat in the mental backseat twiddling his thumbs, Bellasseau could only debate the implications of being a fictional character by himself.
But by fate or coincidence, Scarlette's friends had also fallen into this Facility, bringing along their creations. Although ARC-OS had provided all available information about their competitors for free access, Scarlette had not bothered to inspect the list for friendly faces. And so it was Bellasseau alone who suspected that at some point he would find himself face-to-face with his protege once again.
If Duval was surprised, he didn't show it. He lowered his weapon and raised a salute. "Sorry I'm late for work."
Beside him, the woman Shanghai Lee was doing little to hide her confusing mixture of awe, incredulity, and curiosity.
Out here in his physical manifestation, it was harder for Bellasseau to sort out his own various histories. Overwhelmingly, the angst-ridden emotions from his Panem universe pressed for his attention, demanding resolution. But who was this version of Aras Duval? And would he even understand?"
"Duval," he began, and then he realized he didn't know what to say.
He had to admit, the several seconds Scarlette spent staring at him were some of the most uncomfortable seconds of his life. It wasn't just awe in her expression, but also a desire not unlike the craving plaguing a hungry child staring at a cupcake. In her eyes, he was clearly an object to be claimed and owned and consumed.
So it was quite a relief when it became apparent she didn't have the gumption to follow through on that emotion and simply lost consciousness.
What he didn't expect was the image of this random Asian girl transforming into his boss. Aras was going to have a difficult time getting rid of that mental image. Beside him, Lee barely suppressed a gasp.
He should have expected as much. It was less than an hour ago that he'd clicked on her file and found out that Bellasseau had been caught up in this mess as well. But this Bellasseau standing in front of him was somehow different, not quite the commanding figure he remembered from back home. The air around him felt tense, anxious, and uncertain.
Aras lowered his gun and lifted a hand to his forehead. "Sorry I'm late for work."
Bellasseau didn't acknowledge his greeting. The silent seconds ticked by.
"Duval," he said finally, glancing at nothing in particular and then up at the ceiling. "Where was I expecting you to be?"
Confusion. Was this a trick question? Bellasseau rarely dealt in trick questions. "At the office, sir."
"On 40th? East side?"
"Ah, that office." And his boss lapsed into silence again.
"Is something wrong?" Aras began to suspect this was not Bellasseau of Keis as he was Aras of Keis. He thought back to what he'd skimmed in those computer files about that 'Hunger Games OCT,' the only other alternate storyline where Bellasseau's name came up. "If this is about whatever happened in that, that place where the children were killing each other, the Capitol I think, I don't remember it."
Lee choked, or was it a laugh she was suppressing?
A flash of relief, chased by disappointment, flitted across Bellasseau's expression. His boss was strangely readable today. Aras racked his brain for something more. "And I'm sure that 'me' would have forgiven you," he added hastily.
Bellasseau harrumphed gently and looked down at his shoes for a moment. "Thank you, Duval," he said at last, his old steely composure regained. "But we have bigger things to worry about right now. I'm guessing you were looking for the medical ward."
Without another word, he took hold of both their arms, and the weight Lee and Aras had been struggling to keep upright despite the pain and pull of gravity vanished into pleasant nothingness.