I hate having to do missions on school days. I’m usually a pretty good student, but when I have a mission to think about, especially one as big as Fort McCord, it’s hard to keep my focus on anything else. Around lunchtime, I figure that being in class isn’t going to be productive, so I may as well get some rest so I’m fresh for tonight.
I go back to my room and change out of my uniform into small black shorts and a thin black tank top. I lay in my bed and try my best to get some rest with the early-afternoon sunlight still creeping in through my blinds. Eventually, I manage to get a few hours of sleep, but they’re often disturbed and far more restless than I’d hoped. At about six in the evening, I decide to get up and prepare. I’m tired of being in my room, I feel like it could be bugged, or like Exodus could come barging in at any minute, now that I’m sure she knows who I am. I’m getting paranoid, I need to get out.
I need a place to think, the library is usually the best place for that. I should be able to get a bit of peace there, maybe even get my thoughts sorted out. I’ve come to a decision, it’s one I’ve been mulling over for days, and it’s one that I don’t make lightly. I’m going to show Dragon who I am. If we’re going down, if this is really how it’s about to end for us, I’m not about to let it end without her knowing who I am. I don’t know how she’ll react, I don’t know if she’ll be disappointed, or if she’ll even like the person I am under the mask, but I have to show her, and I have to show her on my own terms. I’d much rather show her tonight in private than I would have her take the mask off my corpse, or see me stripped of my mask in a prison. I’m going to show her, and I’m going to tell her how I feel. I’m going to do it tonight, as soon as we finish the job.
I’ve been into Dragon for a while. To be honest, I’ve kind of had a thing for her since we started working together. She’s everything I’m not and everything I wish I could be. She’s brilliant, she’s cool-headed, she’s a natural leader. I don’t know what she looks like, I’ve only ever seen glimpses of her frame around her cloak and mask, but whenever we make brief skin contact, it’s electric.
If I’m honest, I’m lonely. Phoenix has more friends than Rachel and I want someone to know me as I am. I want them to know and accept the parts of me that are Phoenix, as well as the parts that are Rachel. I know Dragon and I fight, a lot, I know we’ve both said things we regret, but when it comes down to it, there’s nobody in the world that I trust more than her. When I briefly considered leaving, it had nothing to do with our fight and my mind just kept drifting back to her. She’s our leader, she’s the person in the world that I’m closest to, by a long shot, and she was always going to be the person I was going to show my face to first. It might not be perfect, but I want to be with her so badly. Even if it’s just a close friendship.
I quickly put on jeans, a grey tee shirt, and an old leather jacket. I put my glasses on and brush my hair down over where my stitches were, Dragon took them out this morning. I could set it back to where it was, dead center in my back, but I’ve gotten used to wearing it over to one side. I kind of like it. Before I head out, I check my burner phone and open the group chat.
Me: How’s it going? How’s Chimera? What haul did we get from the truck?
Almost half an hour goes by before I hear a ding in response.
Chimera: Hey Phoenix, I would just have Dragon explain, but she’s out grabbing food right now. I’ll try my best to explain what she told me. First of all, I’m fine. My shoulder still hurts like hell and I’ve got a wicked headache, but I’m fine. Tomorrow I’m going to feel like hot garbage, but when I transcend I should feel almost all better. Secondly, I talked to the other Chimera’s, they informed me that when the Spirit feels their host is at risk, they will take control of the Chimera’s body and use their full arsenal of powers in an attempt to save them. There is no way to trigger it willingly as far as any of them know. It’s all up to the spirit. The spirit and I are bonded, whatever’s in the dart isn’t strong enough to separate us. But, it startled the hell out of the spirit and made them panic. Our relationship is a lot more symbiotic than the ones you have with your spirits. Lastly, the truck, we found more dart guns. That means Dragon can improve the counter to the darts serum and it takes some of these weapons out of their hands. We also found some strange purple crystals. They are almost unbreakable and look similar to what the Archduke can make. It makes sense they would be his, but we’re at a loss as to why they would be transporting the crystal around. Dragon has a theory that they’re being used for either testing the crystal strength or they have some sort of “storage” capability? I don’t know, Dragon didn’t explain that clearly. We’ll keep you updated. See you tonight. 🙂
The message comes as seven individual texts, but Chimera clearly typed it as one long message, as the texts break awkwardly in the middle of sentences. In contrast to her sisters short and choppy messages, Chimera’s are often wordy and always typed out as one text. The poor quality of our burner phones means that parts of the message often arrive out of order and I have to play detective to piece them together. It’s only marginally less annoying having to wait twenty minutes for her to compose her mini-novel than it is trying to play twenty questions with Dragon. Maybe if Dragon and Chimera tried to compose a text together it would be the perfect balance, or maybe they’d kill each other. Probably the latter.
Why would they be transporting crystals? This is weird, but trying to understand the Archduke is a difficult task at the best of times. Kitsune and Dragon are better at figuring out this type of thing, so I’m sure one of them will have a decent idea. Maybe the fort will shed more light on it if nothing else.
I tuck my cloak and mask into my small backpack, the one I only use as Phoenix and leave it under my bed. I grab my school backpack, tuck my burner into the hidden compartment in it, and make my way out of the door. On my way out, I glance down the hallway. This is the senior girls’ dormitory. Could Dragon’s room be in the same building mine is? Could we be on the same floor? My chest fills with a mix of hope and anxiety that I could know by tonight.
I head down the stairs and across the courtyard to the library, as usual, it’s empty. There isn’t even a librarian in here, I guess they trust us to police ourselves after school hours. I walk through the empty library, weaving between bookshelves and glancing at tables. I just want a place I can be as far removed from people as possible, and the second floor of the library seems just the place. I finally decide to settle down in a chair at the end of a line of chairs, a small counter that can be used as a desk sits in front of them. This area of the library overlooks the first floor and has an unobstructed view of the window. I can easily look out over a vast stretch of Oru. Some parts of it are dark, but most of the city has some light on. The massive Crystal Castle is almost never still and dark. Oru is beautiful, even I can’t deny that, but it represents a structure that killed my family, and ended true freedom. Old town, we used to call it Boston but that word has been “removed” from our maps and history, was a beautiful city as well, and at least there we could be free from tyrannical dictators.
I read over the same page in my English textbook for the third time, and I still can’t absorb any of the words. My eyes still feel heavy, I keep finding parts of my body shaking, and I’m still suffering from a concussion, so my focus isn’t exactly on my school work. Tonight’s the night I tell Dragon. It barely even seems real to me. Plus, tonight we’re cracking Fort McCord. Our endgame got moved up so fast, but it may have been exactly the push we needed. Things are going to be different.
There it is again, hope. Hope that five teenage girls are going to do what a whole legion of superheroes couldn’t. Hope that this doesn’t just end with Exodus turning us all to dust. Hope that we aren’t going to be in the Wall by the end of tonight. I don’t know why I still let hope enter my mind. I should have abandoned it years ago. I mean, what kind of fool can still find hope in this world.
“Uh, hi Rachel,” Sarah says, shaking me out of my thoughts. Ah yes, that kind of fool.
I turn my head slightly to look at Sarah, she’s still dressed in her school uniform and has a small brown leather backpack on. I shake my head slightly and go back to futilely looking at my textbook.
“Hey,” I say in a monotone voice.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be in here,” Sarah says, her voice trailing off.
“Are you asking me to leave?”
“No! Oh no! Of course not! I’m just saying I’m surprised is all!”
“Couldn’t study in my room, thought a change of scenery would help. So far, it hasn’t.”
“I understand. I was trying to go for a walk to clear my head and I didn’t want to go back to my room yet. I like to come here and read sometimes. I don’t love the book selection here, but it’s better than reading the three books I have in my room for the millionth time.”
Alright, she said she wanted to be a superhero, let’s see how well she holds up to some scrutiny. I’m not gonna interrogate the poor girl, just try to trap her in her own words.
“What’s on your mind?” I ask, not looking up from my book.
“A lot of things. May I sit down?”
“Is there anything you’ve wanted for a really long time, all your life maybe?”
“Well, what would you do if you got that thing you wanted out of nowhere?”
“I’d probably be thrilled.”
“You’d think so. But what if that thing wasn’t everything you wanted it to be?”
“Then I’d say my expectations were probably too high.”
“Yeah, I-I guess. It’s just, ever since I was a little girl, I thought something like this would be magical and fun. But, it’s a lot more depressing and scary than I thought.”
Magical and fun? She thought being a superhero would be magical and fun? Was it magical and fun when I had to recover from my burns for over a year? Was it magical and fun when I had to defend Oru’s people alone for two years? Was it magical and fun when I watched my friends and family die? I clench my fists and take three deep breaths, I’m testing her, the last thing I need is her discovering who Phoenix is.
“You have an innocence to you, Sarah, almost like a child.” I say, still focusing intensely on a random spot in my book.
“Is that a bad thing?” She asks, her voice dropping slightly.
“Yes, and no. Innocence can lead to discovery, usually does, and then that discovery can either lead to death or something beautiful, it depends entirely on what you do with that innocence.”
“I see. It’s just that a few days ago, my life changed forever, and now I feel like everything’s going so fast. This is something I wanted so bad…”
Seriously? You just talked to me last week about how you admired the vigilantes. You can’t be this oblivious.
“It’s not at all like I thought it would be, and I feel so useless half the time. I can’t help but wonder if this is a big mistake.”
Careful dumbass, if I’m not Phoenix, you’re basically admitting to treason.
“But at the same time, I feel like I need to stick it out. I wanted it for a reason. I know it sounds silly, but I wanted it so bad that I even prayed for it.”
I stand up like a shot and stare at Sarah, my face twisted and my mouth agape. Praying for something like this, praying for powers, is a huge risk. When someone prays, they open their mind to the whole pantheon. A child praying for a pony is something that is largely harmless, but someone praying for powers is inviting the most fucked up and wicked spirits in the pantheon to bond with them. Dragon and Chimera got choices, they could have said no if something truly awful came for them, but I doubt Sarah got one, and anything could have given her powers. Oh, what the fuck Sarah? How could you be that stupid?
“What? Rachel? Is everything okay?” She asks, she’s stammering and sweating a little bit now.
“What did you pray for? What did you get?”
“I’m not allowed to say.”
Fuck this, I’m gonna be blunt.
“Did you get powers? Are you a spirit-touched?”
“Wh-what? You think I’m a spirit-touched? No. I wouldn’t still be here if I was. Look, I just came into some money from my parents. More than what they usually send me, but now I’m worried something bad happened to them, and worse yet, the paperwork to use it legally has been so time-consuming. It’s cutting into my schoolwork and sleep.”
She’s not bad. If she delivered it a bit less shakily I might have believed her for a few seconds.
“Sorry to jump all over you then, I just got concerned for your safety. We need a class president and all that.” I say, sitting back down.
“No problem. On that subject though, can I ask you something?” Sarah gets close to me and speaks in a hushed tone.
“Rachel, just your temperament, your height, your posture. Are you Phoenix? I wouldn’t tell anybody if you were.”
Fuck me. My pulse quickens for the briefest moment before I force myself to stay composed. Phoenix is roughly my height and build, so are a lot of girls. She’s heard Phoenix talk, a lot, and the mask and transcendence only do so much to distort my voice. She doesn’t know, she’s asking. I can do this.
“No. I’m not Phoenix, I’m not a spirit-touched, if I were, I wouldn’t be here, just like you said.”
“I… I’m sorry to assume things of you, you’re not really angry like she is. I’m looking for things that aren’t there. I don’t know why I… I’m sorry. I guess I’m nervous. I don’t know. It feels like the time of heroes may well and truly be ending. I want to know them, I want to thank them. Honestly, I need them, I need a reason for hope. That reason has been superheroes. If they go, then I think hope goes with them.”
“Don’t put your hope in superheroes, Sarah. Hope, real hope, has to come from within. You need to find your own reason to hope. Your own reason to keep going. Understand? Nobody can give you that.”
“But I’m so weak, and some people think that they, especially Chimera, are supposed to save us and I-”
“The rest of the world’s not waiting on superheroes to save them anymore. Most of us are just trying to survive. If Chimera is as strong as you think, and she and her team can bring down the Archduke, great, but I’m not holding my breath, neither should you.”
Some of the world, very few parts of it, but some, still see Chimera as a savior in their time of need, a chosen one. I don’t really buy into it, but the girl is powerful and if anyone is going to stop the Archduke it’s going to be her. I doubt she can, and if she does, I doubt I’d live to see it, but some people still hold out hope for the “chosen one” and those people see Chimera as exactly that.
“Right. Well, thanks Rachel. You’re an honest person, and I appreciate that, even if I don’t always like your answers. I guess I have a lot to think about. I forgot I made some plans and I really need to eat before then. Have a good night.”
“Oh, I almost forgot! Rachel? Happy birthday!”
Sarah hands me a small red box, I pull it open and find a black cupcake with dark red frosting.
“Thank you, but, how did yo-”
“I got a class roster and put everyone’s birthday on my calendar at the beginning of the school year. I am class president after all.”
“Right. Well, thank you. That’s a very sweet gesture.”
Sarah leaves after a quick goodbye and I’m left alone in the library. She’s innocent, ignorant even, but there’s as much beauty in that as there is danger. Chimera was our happy-go-lucky teammate before Sarah joined, and before Chimera, Dragon and I were both pretty cynical. Maybe people like Chimera and Sarah are what this world needs more of, or maybe that’s just hope trying to set me up for disappointment again. I check my phone and see it’s barely half-past seven. I still have a bit before I have to be at the hideout, but there’s no way I’m getting any studying done tonight. I may as well get there early, but first, I suppose there’s no harm in having a cupcake.