Guardians of Dawn: Volume 1
“So that’s why you’ve got an issue with camping.”
“Yeah. After all the times my brother refused to take me on hunts with him, I just kind of grew to hate it. Sorry. I know I shouldn’t take it out on you guys.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Ryan groaned. “It’s fine.”
Matt and Ryan were walking back to the campsite. The sun had set and the fire was burning bright. But just as the tents came into sight Matt slammed into something invisible.
“What the fuck?!” Matt rubbed his nose and stood up, shocked. He could feel a wall in front of him, even though he couldn’t see anything.
“Oh come on…” Ryan ran his hand along the wall and shook his head. He pounded on it. “Come on, Serena! Very funny!”
Serena rose from her folding chair and ambled over to them, a playful grin on her face. “Hey boys. Problem?”
“What is this?” Matt asked. He was more curious than annoyed. She was holding a remote control in her hand, and he assumed that had something to do with this.
“It’s a Barrier Orica Chain,” Ryan explained. “And it’s annoying! Let us in Serena!”
“Mmm… nah, you boys can sleep out there.” Serena’s playful grin said she was kidding. At least Matt hoped she was.
Serena made a thoughtful face like she was thinking it over. “Hmmmm… tell you what! Ryan, say ‘Serena, you’re the cutest and sweetest girl in the Guardians’ and I’ll let you in!”
Matt couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They were supposed to be on a job, and they were playing around like this?
“Serena, you’re the cutest and sweetest girl in the Guardians.”
“Nuh-uh. Like you mean it. I wanna feel like I’m the cutest and sweetest.”
“Oh, come on!”
“And throw in a foot massage.”
Matt glanced over Serena’s shoulder. Emi was watching them and trying not to laugh. At least one of them was having fun.
“Serena, you are the most talented and beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on. If only I was a bolder man I would worship you like the goddess you are.” Ryan’s smile was the fakest Matt had ever seen from him.
“Aww, Ryan, you’re such a sweetheart!” Serena cooed. She pressed a button on her remote. Matt could walk through the barrier now.
“So what are these Barrier Orica Chains?” Matt asked.
“Orica Chains are like normal Orica,” Serena explained, leading him over to a spot on the field. Matt saw a metal disc lying in the grass with a yellow crystal in the center. “But they link to other Orica. A normal Barrier Orica can create an energy shield, right? But if you have three or more of these special-made ones, they chain together to make a big barrier.
She flipped the switch again. The Orica flashed, and tracing a square of light around the perimeter of the campsite. The barrier was back up.
“They’re standard for camping out in the Wildlands. Emergents can’t emerge inside the barrier and not a lot can get through it. So we won’t end up getting eaten in our sleep.”
That was a relief.
“It’s getting late, guys,” Ryan called from the jeep. “Let’s have dinner, then we’re gonna have to pack it in for the night. We’re leaving at dawn.”
After dinner the boys unloaded their sleeping bags while Serena helped Emi deal with the fire. She was concerned by how nervous the other girl was.
“Is everything okay, Emi?” The way she flinched was answer enough.
“I guess… just tired…” Emi wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Serena didn’t push the issue. Tiredness could be part of it, but she figured Emi was just worried about the Emergents. It had been a stressful day.
A smile was what she needed. “Let’s get packed up!”
They wished the boys goodnight and headed into the tent. It was a little cramped, but there was room. Serena changed into her pajamas while Emi eyed her enviously.
“Aren’t you going to change?” Serena asked. “You’re gonna roast with that cloak on in this heat.”
Emi scooted back a little. She’d been dreading this. Sleeping with her wings bound was uncomfortable, but showing Serena was terrifying.
The blonde’s warm hand on her cheek was a comfort.
“Hey. Are you okay?” Serena had hoped that getting Emi alone would help her unwind, but she looked even more uncomfortable.
Emi could feel Serena’s worried gaze, her eyes were so kind. She reminded Emi of her big sisters back home.
It… It would be okay, right? Serena was a girl, and she was so pretty, she wouldn’t be jealous or mean like all those other girls.
She was gonna do it. She was. Emi squeezed her eyes shut and tried to be brave. When Matt saw her wings, she’d thought it was the end of the world. But he hadn’t treated her any differently after that. He didn’t look at her the way other boys had.
Serena was even nicer than Matt. Emi could do this.
“Can I tell you a secret?” She squeaked out.
“Of course!” Serena was caught off-guard by that, but she was always willing to listen to a friend who needed her. “I promise it won’t leave the tent.”
That soothed her nerves. Emi let out a sigh of relief and shed her coat. She unbuttoned her shirt and unlatched the harness underneath, shrugging those off, too.
It was such a relief to let her wings finally breathe. She opened them and relished in the touch of the air against her sweat-matted feathers.
Not hearing any gasps of disgust or outrage, Emi cautiously opened her eyes. Serena’s wide-eyed face showed surprise, but not rejection.
“You’re a Venti?” She whispered.
Emi nodded. “You can’t tell anyone, please.”
Serena hand reached out instinctively but she pulled it back. Emi didn’t mind, people naturally felt the urge to touch her feathers.
“Does anyone else know?”
“The boss does. And Matt. But nobody else! And you can’t tell ‘em either! Please!”
“I already promised, I won’t.” Serena’s smile soothed Emi’s worries. “But I can’t imagine why you’d want to hide something like this! Your wings are beautiful, Emi! Why, if I had wings like you I’d be showing them off to everyone!”
A cringe of terror shot through Emi as she imagined that. “N-No, I… I could never.” She hugged her knees to her chest.
“…Well, there’s nothing wrong with being shy. I’m glad you thought you could share your secret with me, though.”
“I… thought that if it was you, it would be okay…” Emi wasn’t naïve enough to believe she could hide her wings from the others forever. She showed Serena first because Serena was so nice, she would definitely accept Emi being a Venti. And so far it looked like she did.
A coy smile crossed Serena’s lips. “…But you already showed Matt? Oooh, tell me what that was like!”
Emi’s face twisted in shock. She felt a little queasy. “NO!” She hissed, quickly pulling her cloak up over her chest. “I-I didn’t… I didn’t show him! He just saw me on accident! …And dressed! Very dressed! There were mountains of dressing involved!”
Oh, why was her face this hot?! Serena’s giggling didn’t make it any easier. She WAS just like Emi’s big sisters!
“…And besides, he has a girlfriend anyway.” Emi stared at the floor of the tent until she realized she’d said that last part out loud. Her eyes shot up to Serena’s, seeing the amazed look on her face.
There is was, the look of realization.
“Emi, do you-“
Oh no. No no no no, no, this was bad, this was-
“Do you like Matt?”
“No! Shut up! I do not!” Emi practically flew at Serena to try and get her to shut up.
“You’re the one shouting!” Serena hissed at her. Emi realized that their tent wasn’t far from the boys’. Her voice died in her throat and she felt like dying too.
Emi fell off Serena and curled into a ball. She could feel the outburst coming and she braced for it. She was crashing, HARD. Raw emotion was rolling over the horizon like a tidal wave, and it slammed into her.
“Emi?!” Serena rushed to her side and helped her up.
“It’s not fair…” Emi wailed. “It’s not…”
“Oh, come here, don’t cry,” Serena crooned, wiping the tears from her eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with liking a boy, Emi, it’s natural! I think it’s sweet!”
“He has a girlfriend!” Emi had to keep her voice down. If Matt heard how she felt, that was it. She would really end things then.
“…Well, yes, he does,” Serena admitted. “And I know that must be hard.”
“I hate feeling this way. I hate it! Stupid, stupid!”
Serena was stunned by Emi’s transformation. She’d been an ocean of smiles all day, the brightest Serena had ever seen her. And now she was like a puddle of misery.
“Emi, you haven’t even known him a week,” Serena gently reminded her. “I know it stings, but-“
“It’s not about that!” She sobbed.
Emi knew that her feelings for Matt weren’t normal. That made it even worse. She pulled away from Serena and sat up, wiping her nose.
“I’m a Venti… even if he didn’t have a girlfriend, I’m still…”
Serena could understand being upset that your crush had a girlfriend, but she couldn’t understand Emi’s tears. She wanted to give her a big hug, but she was afraid it would set her off even worse.
“When I was in school, do you know what the other girls called me? Do you know how the boys looked at me?”
Emi searched desperately for understanding. Serena was a gorgeous woman, someone that lovely must have had her share of troubles like this.
A shadow crossed Serena’s face. “Slut. Whore. Bitch. Loose woman. Tramp.” She wasn’t looking at Emi when she said them. She wasn’t looking at anything. “…They’re just words, Emi.”
“Well, when you know that’s all people think of you as, they’re a lot worse than just words,” she muttered.
“But no one here would ever call you that! And as for boys, no one would ever look at you that way just because you’re a Venti!”
Serena was far from ignorant to the pain of slutshaming. And it must have been a thousand times worse to be thought of that way just because of your race.
She wanted to help the girl, but she wasn’t sure what words she could offer to console her.
“Emi, you’re a beautiful girl. Matt knows you’re a Venti, doesn’t he? And he doesn’t think that about you, right?”
Emi sniffled and shook her head.
Matt was kind. He saw her as just another girl. Not a Venti. It was wonderful and sweet, and for Emi, that might have been enough to develop feelings for him.
But that wasn’t what she felt.
“Have you ever… been with someone before?”
Well. Of all the hard questions, Serena hadn’t expected that one. “I… I have, why?”
“Is it… good?”
Normally Serena would be fine gently leading Emi through a course on sex ed. But the tension in the air gave her pause.
“What’s this about, Emi?”
“People… a lot of people… they think Venti are sluts, and say we spread our legs for anyone.” Serena didn’t like the self-loathing she heard in Emi’s voice.
“But I don’t think that. And a lot of people-“
“I want to have sex with Matt.”
A feather could have knocked Serena over after hearing THAT one. Shy little Emi, a girl Serena was CERTAIN had never known the touch of a man before, had just admitted to wanting to have sex with Matt?
“W-Well, Emi, that’s-“
“But I don’t want to!” She cried. “I-I mean… I do, but…”
Emi clutched her stomach, just under her bellybutton.
“Matt… is a great guy… he’s the nicest any human guy has ever been to me. And… even though I know it’s wrong, even though he has a girlfriend, whenever he smiles at me, or gets close to me, I just get all warm right here, and I… I want to…”
Emi would have never admitted any of this if she were in her right mind. But she wasn’t. Self-control had gone on vacation a long time ago and her emotions were throwing a party in its absence. She felt like if she didn’t get this out to someone NOW it would stay bottled up until she did something she couldn’t take back.
“Emi, those thoughts… I mean, fantasies about boys, that’s normal, especially for a teenager,” Serena tried to comfort her. “You shouldn’t feel bad about something like that.”
Serena didn’t get it. She was a human. It was different for Venti.
“Venti aren’t… like that. When we… when we’re… attracted to someone, we… even if we don’t want to, sometimes…” She couldn’t say it. It was sick. She was sick. Sick and twisted and horrible. She didn’t deserve Matt’s kindness. If he saw the way she really thought about him, even though she knew about his girlfriend, he would be disgusted with her.
It made her want to laugh.
“Emi?” Serena was starting to worry.
“Did you know… I have a beautiful singing voice?” Emi asked, wiping her eyes. She couldn’t even look at Serena right now. She was too disgusted with herself. “I mean… all Venti do, but me… mine was beautiful. My mom told me every day how lovely my songs were. I loved to sing for her when I was little. But now I… I haven’t sung for anyone in years. Because if a guy hears my song then he’d…”
Serena’s heart ached. She couldn’t imagine what it was like.
“Emi…” All she could do was uselessly say her name.
“I’ve been alone with Matt a few times, and I knew. Looking into his eyes I could feel it, all it would take was one song. Just a few notes and he would be mine. I could do all the things with him my body is SCREAMING at me to do! And when that feeling comes… I want to die. Because I know I’m a filthy, disgusting person for even thinking that.”
Serena didn’t have any words to comfort her. All she could was hug the sobbing Venti and give her a shoulder to cry on.
“I don’t WANT to be like this! I want to like a guy normally! I want to fall in love with someone, not have my body screaming at me to… to… that the minute I see him! It’s not fair!”
Her voice finally broke. She whimpered and snorted into Serena’s nightshirt.
“…Why does it have to be me?”