It was a largely typical day in the surrounding regions of Sanctum Academy in the Kingdom of Mistral. Bright, warm, slightly humid and just the slightest salty tang on the air from the nearby coastline. People bustling up and down the streets throughout the rather large port town of Alexandrios.
It was always a rather lively town, but around this particular part of the year the activity tended to kick into overdrive. The Kingdom of Mistral had been made infamous for several unique characteristics. Among them were many innovations in all matters oceanic and maritime, due in no small part to the number of converging and intersecting marine currents around their northern and western regions. Alexandrios in particular was in a very fortuitous position. Due to the towns position along the stretch of coast commonly referred to as The Dragons Spine, it practically stared out at the vast expanse of ocean between Vale, Atlas, and Mistral itself.
Looking back on the Kingdoms history, the typical observer would probably be quite surprised to hear that this peaceful town used to be a naval port. A staging ground for launching offensives againts the enemies of the Mistrali people. Or, more often than not, offensives launched against against the people of Mistral themselves.
It wasn't a popular subject, the long period of violent conflicts, called the Mistrali Purges. The long war that laid the foundation of what would eventually become the Kingdom of Mistral itself. A vicious string of small wars and battles between the smaller Republics and city-states that used to make up the old Kingdom's territories. Fighting over things like money, power, resources, or even just some warlords ego.
But in those conflicts, heroes rose. Living legends of their own era who fought and cowed whole armies, leading people to victory after victory, leaving behind achievements that passed into inspiring myth.
And in the wake of that long conflict, with their lust for battle finally gone, their heroes buried, Mistral moved on. The people moved on to an era of cooperation and peace. Cities that used to be bastions of military oppression became beacons of hope and protection, cities that used to centers of war material production became centers of trade, and the people and cities gradually came to reflect the new age.
Alexandrios, commonly referred to as the 'Gem of the Coast', was one such port town. What used to be warships became vessels of trade and maritime harvesting, enriching it in ways war never could.
Around this time every year, the fishing boats came in rich with various samples of marine wealth. Marine coral that showed every color of the rainbow, pearls extracted from clams from deep beneath the sea, rare fish and marine life potentially worth fortunes on their own. This place truly was a peerless example of maritime trade.
A fact one Pyrrha Nikos was becoming very aware of.
Pyrrha loved her hometown. Really, she did. The scent of the sea hanging on the air, the smells from the countless vendors cooking fresh food mingling on the breeze, the unobscured sunlight shining down in warming rays, the distant and not-so-distant lapping of waves on the shore. She grew up here for her whole life, it had become so familiar to her over the year that she knew the layout like the back of her hand.
But there was just so many people! So many people crowding the streets she could just barely walk without bumping into each other. So many people talking she could barely hear her own thoughts.
So many people that there was no doubt in her mind that somebody would recognize her. After which he or she would start making a fuss and then everybody in town would suddenly know who she was, and this one day where she could get away from her fame would be completely wasted.
Fortunately, she had the foresight to prepare for the crowds by wearing a completely different outfit than her standard attire. With a simple pair of blue jeans, a white t-shirt, light brown leather vest, and a pair of white sneakers, the only traits of her appearance that stood out would have been her long red hair and green eyes.
Fortunately, she had prepared for the most noticeable characteristics of her appearance as well. Hiding her eyes was as simple as putting on a pair of shades, and her red hair was hidden away under a woven-straw sunhat.
Not exactly the most truly comprehensive of disguises, but it would hold up effectively against anything short of focused observation. With so many people bustling around her, their focus spread out over so many things, Pyrrha was confident she could spend the day without any concerns about being discovered.
Pyrrha's attention drifted to the comfort of her familiar surroundings as she calmly walked down the street, letting her memories guide her path. She had walked through these streets so many times she practically knew every vendor and shop along them by heart.
She didn't really have any particular destination in mind, it was just nice to be back in familiar surroundings again. She spent so much time training in Sanctum, preparing for tournaments, and participating in various publicity stunts for her several sponsors that she rarely had any real time for herself. As a result, she rarely had any real measure of time to simply have for herself, so Pyrrha had every intention of relaxing today. No fame, no fans, no applause, none of it.
Her line of thought on that matter was rudely interrupted, however, by the slight growling of her own stomach.
'Well, well', she thought humorously. 'Apparently famous people can get hungry too'.
That thought in mind, the young champion headed down yet another familiar street to one of her favorite restaurants, a small seafood diner over by the southern shore, called the Mariner's Rest. It was a rather laid back little place, remembered for its friendly atmosphere, inviting décor, and slightly simple but delicious food.
Quite contrary to popular opinion, Pyrrha wasn't really fond of higher class cuisine. She never really managed to wrap her mind around why some people were so obsessive over solely eating the most pointlessly extravagant dishes, it seemed like nothing more than a pointless display of opulence to her.
She also happened to be on friendly terms with the owners, having known them quite well since before she even left to attend Sanctum. It helped that they were also quite aware of how she liked to escape her stardom, so they never revealed to anyone that she was a semi-regular customer of theirs, also demanding their other employees to share the courtesy.
After taking a moment to say a quick hello, she took a seat on a bench on the small pier outside, afforded a wonderful view of the sun slowly falling down into the waterline in the distance. For a few minutes, she simply browsed over the menu, wondering what she would be ordering today. The menus at the Mariner's Rest weren't held by hand, but a single, large sheet of paper held between two clear panes of plastic, bound down to the table with a screw in each of the four corners. It all just looked SO good, it was a little difficult to decide, and before she knew it she was completely occupied with just trying to decide between three particularly good looking dishes.
So occupied in fact, that she didn't notice someone had just walked to the opposite side of the bench she was currently seated at.
With a slight blush at being so easily caught by surprise, Pyrrha pulled her eyes from her menu to glance up at the source of the voice.
It was a young man, perhaps somewhere in his early thirties. Slightly wild blond hair, white T-shirt, blue jeans, a watch on his right wrist, black and white sneakers, and a pair of shades over his eyes.
All in all, he seemed just like any other person who happened to live in Alexandrios.
So….. Why did Pyrrha get the distinct feeling he wasn't?
"Umm", he nervously mumbled. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but all the other places are pretty crowded right now. So, I don't suppose I could sit here?"
He took a moment to sweep his hand to the surrounding benches and tables for emphasis, and, indeed, the seating areas of the Mariner's Rest had become quite crowded. For a moment, Pyrrha just looked around, surprised at how packed it had become.
"Wha….?" Pyrrha thought, confused and more than a little shocked. "How did this happen?"
In a few moments however, Pyrrha realized the man across from her was still awaiting a response. So, with another slightly brighter blush of embarrassment, she nodded in the affirmative. "Certainly," she replied, doing her best to salvage what remained of her situational dignity with an inviting tone and a calm smile.
With a grateful smile of his own, the man opposite of her took his seat, looking down at his own menu to ponder over what he would order.
As a few minutes passed however, Pyrrha noticed her erstwhile companion was sneaking glances at her. Nothing untoward, simply curious, as if she were a puzzle or question he was trying to solve. After a while, Pyrrha was starting to get a little curious as to why, and so she couldn't help but voice her curiosity.
"Is something on your mind?" she asked, looking up from her menu to gauge her mysterious companion's reaction to her question.
Caught in the act, his face took on a slight note of embarrassment. Taking a moment to re-compose himself, he cleared his throat and prepared to speak to her.
"Have we..." He gave a long pause, as if searching for the proper words, before deciding on what to say. "Have we ever met before?"
Pyrrha's head tilts slightly in confusion at the question. Had they met before? Alexandrios was quite large, but not especially so. Certainly not when compared to some of the larger cities of the Four Kingdoms. It could be possible that they had met at some point only to forget the moment later.
But, somehow, Pyrrha didn't quite think that was the case. She didn't know why, but for some reason Pyrrha was pretty sure she would remember meeting this man. There was something about him that simply refused to be forgotten, however brief a meeting with him might be. And, not to be boastful, but Pyrrha doubted he could've forgotten meeting her either. Her physical appearance had enough unique traits that it would be hard to forget her or-
… Oh. Oh no.
He didn't recognize Her. He recognized Pyrrha Nikos! He disguise would conceal her identity from cursory inspection, but this man was sitting right in front of her. Not to mention he had been shooting a number of glances at her, suspicious glances that were comparing what he saw in front of him to the celebrity the whole world knew.
Dammit! If he spoke out everybody else would know too, and her peaceful day away from the spotlight would go up in smoke. She had to salvage this somehow, convince him she was nobody important, someone beneath scrutiny. QUICKLY!
"Have we? She responded, doing her best to sound confused at his question. "I'm afraid you must be mistaken,"
Unfortunately, he didn't seem very convinced.
"No, I'm pretty sure I've seen you somewhere before." His face took on a pondering expression, staring her over. "You just look familiar somehow, like….is that red hair?"
The moment the thought became clear in her mind, Pyrrha quickly took out her compact mirror from her left pocket. With a distinct urgency, she flipped it open and checked around the inner rim of her sunhat, looking for any- THERE!
It was just a few locks dipping out from the front right side near her eye. Not much, barely noticeable on its own but she was sitting in a position where the setting sun was practically shining on it.
"And green eyes."
She froze. Dammit, she pulled her shades down while checking her hair with her compact mirror. He had a full view of two of her most obvious and memorable features.
He noticed her shock, unfortunately, because then his glances became much sharper. Measuring and comparing her to the famous Mistral celebrity she was just trying to escape from today.
"It's over", she thought. Now that he knew what to look for it would only be seconds until he revealed her identity to everyone here at the restaurant. All this effort for one, quiet day off would be for nothing.
Then, right when Pyrrha was so sure he would expose her, she got what was perhaps her greatest surprise yet today.
"No," he said, with a brief shake of his head, and a distinct tone of disappointment. "My mistake. I thought you were somebody else"
"Mistake", she thought. He'd mistaken her for somebody else. Who? Had she really gotten so worried over-
His sly look and mischievous wink immediately halted her thoughts. Silently, he mouthed "Don't worry," and casually went back to reading his menu.
Pyrrha sat frozen for a minute that felt more like an hour. Just staring at the man in front of her. Not a word. Not a sound.
And then she laughed.
Well, not really a laugh. More like a deep chuckle. As if there was some grand joke going on right in front of her and nobody else even realized it. On the other hand, that was probably a more accurate description than one would expect for a comparison.
Then her new acquaintance glanced at her smiling face for a moment. Her relieved, smiling face on the verge of breaking into laughter…. And let out a chuckle of his own.
In seconds the chuckles shared between them devolved into light, playful laughter. As if they were both in on the joke.
The moment quickly passed, however, and they finally managed to regain their composure to place their orders. Pyrrha ordering a Seared Halibut filet, with a side of steamed greens and spiced potatoes, and her companion ordering a bowl of Cioppino.
The rest of the evening meal passed relatively quietly. They both spoke only a little, simply eating in a comfortable silence.
"That was delicious." Pyrrha sighed out, content and happy after finishing her food. The guest at her table seemed to share the sentiment, if his own slow and satisfied nod was any indication.
"No arguments here," he sighed out in turn. "Now, just have to pay the bill."
That said, he immediately brought his wallet out from his right pocket, and opened it up to sift through the Lien bills at his disposal.
"Oh," Pyrrha began, "that really isn't necessary, I'll pay."
His right brow rose up in challenge. "For both our orders? I don't think so. I should at least pay for my own food."
And so, their dinner itself ended in a small debate. On the one hand, the man wanted to pay for at least his own meal, considering it only polite and correct to do so. Having her pay for both would just be imposing. Pyrrha on the other hand certainly had the money for it, and, for better or worse, she thought she could at least do him this small favor. After all, he did her a favor by not revealing her identity in the middle of a crowd. He chose to respect her secrecy, and the least she could do was pay for just one more dinner than she'd planned.
Eventually, they managed to reach a compromise. They would pool the whole bill and each pay half the total, with Pyrrha also paying the tip.
The Mistral Huntress-in-Training couldn't suppress her smile at the end. Her new friend's face after they reached their agreement was so similar to that of a disappointed child. Like a mischievous little boy that was told he couldn't have the cookie he snuck out of the jar until he ate his vegetables. Pyrrha had never seen someone so disappointed at NOT being allowed to pay their own bill.
After paying their collective bill at the counter, they both exited the Mariner's Rest and walked along the streets together. Simply talking about small things, their interests, dreams, likes and dislikes. Things any normal person or pair of friends would talk about while walking along from place to place.
It was nice. Pyrrha honestly couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so….normal. Like she wasn't some sort of celebrity or star athlete, just a normal 17 year old teenage girl.
Yet as those thoughts flew through her mind, she couldn't help but wonder. This man beside her knew who she was, Pyrrha was sure of it. He'd seen through her disguise, there was no mistaking it, so why didn't he reveal her presence? It would have been, if nothing else, a possible blackmail situation, but he did nothing of the sort. He hadn't even asked for her autograph or anything.
All of a sudden, she stopped walking, standing uncomfortably still on the quiet sidewalk in the middle of the night. Her halt was so immediate her companion kept walking for a few more steps before he and turned around, his face questioning.
"Why?" she whispered, the words almost slipping out of their own accord.
He blinked, "What was that?"
Pyrrha hesitated, briefly wondering how to phrase her next words. "You know who I really am." It wasn't a question.
He raised an eyebrow, "You're Pyrrha Nikos. Four time champion of the Mistral Regional Tournament. And the current poster-girl for Pumpkin Pete's Marshmallow Cereal." The right half of his mouth formed a wry smile. "Unless you picked up some other accomplishment in something else while the world wasn't looking?"
The last phrase was obviously a joke, some attempt at lightening the situation, but it still made Pyrrha flinch slightly regardless. Yet another accomplishment? More like just some extra mortar for the pedestal everyone had been putting her on for over four years.
It was funny, in a painfully ironic way. Pyrrha had been so eager to excel, to push her abilities and limits and simply be all she could be. Yes, it sounded like something out of a cheap self-help ad, but it was true. She always believed, even hoped, that pushing herself to be her best would help her have a full and fulfilling life.
It really didn't help at the beginning.
Contrary to popular opinion, being more intelligent or skilled at something didn't tend to make people want to be your friend. It just made them jealous, often bitter about how someone else was doing so easily what would otherwise be hard for the rest of them, especially if they were under the impression that you were showing off.
As a result, Pyrrha wasn't exactly popular back in her early years at Sanctum. The fact that she was also noted to have good looks even back then, actually made it worse. So, she trained even harder, day in and day out. Hoping that someone, anyone would at least acknowledge her.
And when the Mistral Tournament came around late in her first year, she leapt at her chance. Perhaps if she performed well, everyone would see just how dedicated she was, how she wasn't just trying to show off.
Or at least it could help her gain some real friends. People always wanted to hang out with the popular ones, right? So she'd become popular and she wouldn't feel so alone.
Then, against all expectations she WON. And with that victory came so much publicity. She had become the face of the next generation of Hunters in Mistral
But if anything, all that fame, all that status had only made things worse. The only people at Sanctum who wanted to hang out with her were simply interested in knowing the star athlete. The masses only wanted to know the flawless Huntress-in-Training. All those rich and famous people at the celebrations wanted to know the most recent celebrity.
Nobody wanted to know Pyrrha Nikos.
So immersed was Pyrrha in the memories of her own past, that she almost jumped in shock when she felt a hand on her shoulder, then looked up into the face of the strange man who had pushed her down that very line of thought.
"Not as great as it's all cracked up to be, huh?" His right brow quirked, again, in that expression of friendly curiosity. "Fame can be a real pain. Believe me, I know."
"Do you?" She asked, her head downturned, the slightest hint of bitterness in her tone.
She couldn't see his expression, but she could still feel his hand on her shoulder. Steady, reassuring. It was a nice feeling, one she hadn't felt for quite a while.
"I'll admit," he began, comfortingly, "I might not have it quite as bad as you. I mean, my face isn't so well known that I can't walk down the streets without a disguise. But, mostly, I just learned how to deal with it."
Pyrrha's face turned up, staring up at him with questioning green eyes. His hand left her shoulder, slowly rising to the rim of the sunhat on her head, lifting it off to let her red hair cascade down like a fiery waterfall. She didn't try to stop him, didn't protest. She just wanted to know.
He smiled. "You're worried that nobody knows you, right? That everyone sees Pyrrha Nikos the celebrity, instead of just Pyrrha Nikos. That nobody can relate to you, because they're so busy putting you on a pedestal. That you can never have any friends because they're too busy idolizing you to form a meaningful relationship. That you can't ever build a friendship with anyone, because they're too star-struck to see the real you. That you'll just die one day, alone, with nobody knowing the real you."
Pyrrha's head took another downturn. He was right. He had just listed off all of her fears in less than a full minute. And in that moment, Pyrrha felt something she hadn't experienced ever before.
She felt vulnerable.
"What do I do?" she whispered, tone cracking. Desperate for an answer.
"You stop waiting for someone else to come to you."
Her head turned up, confusion etched onto her features.
"All this time, you've been waiting for somebody else to make the first move. You've been waiting for someone else to do the work, but the world doesn't work like that. You want friends? Then YOU need to work for it too."
He smiled. "Good things don't always come to those who wait. Sometimes you just have to get up and do it yourself."
"But how?" she began, "I've tried, but everyone in Mistral knows who I am, and put me on a pedestal. Everyone here thinks I'm just too good for them to even bother with"
A shrug. "Who says it has to be in Mistral? There's three other kingdoms full of people. If you can't find someone here, look somewhere else for a while."
'Somewhere else?' Could it really be that simple? Granted, he had a point, but Mistral was still her home. Leaving her home wasn't a choice she wanted to make lightly. But maybe…..
"Beacon," she whispered, an epiphany. "I could go to Beacon Academy."
It was one of the most Prestigious Hunter Academies in Remnant. With her record, she could almost certainly get in. The Academy also boasted an extremely varied student body, applicants from the Four Kingdoms and otherwise. All united by their mutual desire to better their skills.
And Beacon in particular accepted nothing but the best. Perhaps it was there where she could finally fit in. A place where she wouldn't just be standing alone in the crowds.
The man smiled. "I know that look. You've just come up with something, haven't you?"
Pyrrha couldn't help but smile back. After all those worries, all those doubts, it was all becoming clear.
She knew what she had to do.
"Yes," she responded, an audible hint of energetic cheer. "I'm sorry but I have to get going."
Immediately jumping to the side, she ran off. Ready to go home for the night and fill out an application for Beacon Academy. For the soon to be newest chapter of her life.
But after only a few running steps, she noticed something off. The wind blowing by, sifting through her long red hair. She had left her sunhat behind.
Her cheeks gaining a light pink hue she made to turn around. "I'm sorry, I've forgotten my-"
He was gone. Not walking away, not going down an alley, just gone. Not even a trace, beside her sunhat lying on the ground. Mysteriously undisturbed, despite the wind blowing.
Slowly, like a deer walking up to a hand holding out some food, she walked towards her hat on the ground, wondering where he had gone. For a moment she almost expected him to jump out of one of the alleys, in some sort of prank, but nothing happened. Not even when she reached down to pick up the sunhat she'd nearly left behind.
Taking a moment to look her hat over, she spotted something tucked into the rim inside. Pulling it out, she realized it was a card of some kind, saying:
Monyreak "Monty" Oum
Web Animation Artist
If you ever need an ear to talk to, use this card to contact me.
You're friend, Monty
For a few minutes, she just stood in the dark, re-reading those words, looking over the contact information. The words on the card had practically frozen her in place. None more-so than the last.
Then, with a bright, grateful smile, she pocketed the card, and walked off, sunhat in her left hand. She had an application to fill out, plans to make, and things to pack. She was going to have a busy week, no doubt. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
Walking off, her right hand drifted down into her pocket, running along the edge of the card in her hand, her memories of the day and her new friend filling her mind.
'Thank you, Monty.'