Guardians of Dawn: Volume 1
Ryan felt like he was home underwater. He could stay down there for hours. But he had other things to do once he finished his daily laps.
He kicked off the bottom of the pool and shot up towards the surface.
Ryan’s room was larger than most of the other private quarters in Strayhaven. It was also located on the first floor.
The reason for those two things was because Ryan’s room had a large swimming pool built into it. Like Willow’s greenhouse, it was an attachment he’d had added to practice his Naturia.
“How’s it feel? No headaches?” Serena asked. She lazily kicked her legs through the water as he swam up next to her.
Ryan pulled himself out of the pool and took the towel she offered, wiping himself off. As his scales dried off, they reverted back into flesh, and his gills disappeared into his neck.
“Not a problem!” Ryan grinned, running the towel through his hair. It was the one thing that didn’t change when he transformed.
“Don’t see why you bother,” Serena grinned. “You’re a lot more handsome without it.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. He’d heard plenty of jokes made at his expense thanks to his Naturia. Aqua Scale wasn’t exactly powerful. All it did was cover his skin with scales whenever it touched water. Sure, there were other perks, like being able to breathe underwater, as well as enhancing his strength and speed underwater, but that didn’t amount to much.
Even in a harbor city like Goldia, “only works underwater” wasn’t a great tagline for your Naturia.
Ryan got a change of clothes out of the closet and turned to Serena. She smiled innocently at him.
“I need to change.”
“Yeah, feel free. I don’t mind.” Serena wiggled her eyebrows at him, getting another eye roll.
She was quickly escorted out of the door.
Ryan came out a minute later, changed out of his swimming trunks.
“Done preserving your modesty?” She asked, cracking another grin. They headed to the common room.
“One of us has to,” he shot back. “Oh, and thanks for all your help this past week.”
“Hey, any time. It’s the least I can do for a hero like you,” she teased, punching him in the shoulder.
Serena pouted. “Ryan, you are a hero. You got hurt fighting that Emergent too.”
“Nah. Let Matt have his time in the sun.” Ryan didn’t mind that the others were giving Matt all the acclaim. He had certainly earned it. Ryan was happy just doing his job.
“You both did a great job,” she agreed.
“How’s he doing, by the way?” Ryan had essentially been on house arrest since his concussion.
“He’s getting better every day.” Serena was relieved that both boys were healing up okay. “Still, he’s in pretty rough shape.”
“Well, maybe you can take a day off babysitting me and go fuss over him,” Ryan suggested.
She sighed. “We are NOT having this discussion again.”
Since Ryan’s concussion, Serena had been his shadow. Waking him up in the mornings, monitoring him while he trained his Naturia, hand-preparing every bite of food that passed his lips, she’d done everything short of sleeping in his bedroom to take care of him.
He knew Serena was a bit of a mom, but this level of clinginess was starting to get suffocating.
“Serena, I’m fine, trust me.”
“So you just don’t enjoy my company, is that it?” She flashed a pouty smile his way.
Ryan knew there was no right answer to that question, so he kept his mouth shut.
Luckily for him, when they got to the common room there was something else to catch her attention.
Willow had returned from her hospital trip, and had brought Emi and Chloe back with her. Nick was probably off at a bar. Or he’d finally pushed Willow too far and was at the bottom of the ocean.
Willow headed to the Guild Master’s office, while Chloe collapsed on her favorite couch. Ryan wasn’t sure if she’d even seen the inside of her room yet.
Emi looked even more dead than Chloe did. There was no light in her eyes. She threw herself into Serena’s arms, trembling.
“Emi, c… come on, let’s…” Serena could tell that Emi needed to talk. But she couldn’t leave Ryan. She glanced at him.
“You can go talk,” he assured her. “I’m not gonna have a brain hemorrhage if you leave me alone for an hour.”
Serena led Emi to another room to ask what was wrong, while Ryan flopped down in an easy chair and turned on the TV.
He felt a tug on his collar. It was Chloe.
“Oh, hey Chloe, what’s up?” It was rare to see her up and about.
“Ryan…?” She rubbed her eyes and squinted.
“…Yeah, it’s me,” Ryan said.
She yawned back. “…Hum. Matt… okay… you head?”
Her words were barely above a whisper. Ryan wasn’t sure what she had asked at first, so he took his best guess.
“…Yeah, my head’s fine, thanks,” he said, pointing at faint scar over his temple.
A thin smile spread across Chloe’s lips. “…Yay.”
She yawned and returned to her couch.
Ryan was surprised. It was the longest conversation he’d had with the girl. She was a strange one, but her heart was certainly in the right place.
“Hey Emi, what’s wrong?” Serena asked. Emi was barely standing. Serena practically had to carry her to a bench in the hall they could sit on.
“Matt…” She finally managed to choke out.
Serena leapt into panic mode. “Is everything okay? There aren’t any complications with his recovery, are there?”
Emi gasped and shook her head. “N-No,” she sputtered. “Matt’s fine! It’s just… he…”
Cynthia’s face flashed before her eyes.
“…He has a girlfriend,” she mumbled.
Serena raised her eyebrow. “…Yeah. He does. This is news?”
“Yes! I mean… no, it’s just…” Emi didn’t know how to describe her feelings. It was like a rock was pressing down on her heart. “…I met her today.”
Serena gasped. “Wait, Matt’s girlfriend? She’s here? In town?”
Emi nodded glumly.
“She came to the hospital,” she admitted.
“You saw her… that… wow, that must have been tough.” It was pretty clear why Emi was in her current state. “So… how was it?”
“She… wasn’t like I imagined,” Emi said. “She was cute… pretty… but also kind of like a boy?”
Wait, why was she saying all that?! That wasn’t important!
“Sorry, that’s not what I…” Emi hung her head and sighed. “It was just… different. Seeing her like that, standing there, hugging him… before then, I didn’t feel this awful.”
Oh boy, this is a tough one… The guilt was coming off of Emi in waves, and Serena wasn’t sure how to push it back. So she placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder to comfort her.
“I always felt bad about the fantasies… but I didn’t ever think about the girlfriend… Cynthia. It was like… she wasn’t real. Because she wasn’t here, I could pretend like she didn’t exist. But… she does exist. And they’re in love. And I… I don’t have any part in that.” Emi wiped her eyes. She was awful. A terrible person, fantasizing about Matt the way she had been.
She gazed into Serena’s eyes. They were so warm.
“How could I do something so terrible?”
Serena couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She shook her head and pulled Emi into her chest, running her fingers through her hair. “Oh, sweetie… don’t think that way.”
“But… But I have all these… all these thoughts, and feelings, and I just… it’s wrong, Serena! It’s so, so wrong!” Emi sobbed, guilt pounding through her heart.
Serena sighed and kissed the top of Emi’s head. “Emi… thoughts are just thoughts. I should have told you this before, but there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing about a boy.”
Emi looked up at her. “B-But…”
“Hey, I mean, it’s just fantasizing, right?” Serena smiled, trying to laugh it off. “Some girls think about cute guys with girlfriends, some fantasize about their coworkers, some fantasize about movie stars. Look, if thinking about Matt… like that makes you feel good, there’s nothing bad about it.”
But Emi didn’t feel good. She felt awful. Like she was hurting them.
“Emi, no one was ever hurt by someone just fantasizing,” Serena assured her. “It’s perfectly normal, and pretty much everyone does it.”
Serena’s words were meant to sound encouraging. But to Emi they were like a dagger through her heart.
“So… just like how boys were always fantasizing about me.”
Serena gasped. “W-Wait, Emi, that’s not what I…” It made so much more sense now. “You’re not… it’s different, because-“
“They fantasized about me,” Emi reminded her. “Looking at me with those eyes… thinking about me like I was just some sort of… because I was a Venti. And I fantasized about Matt. So… if it’s okay for me to think about him like that… then was it okay for them?”
Ooookay, this was not good. Serena needed to walk this back real fast, or else all those walls of trust she had built up with Emi would come crashing down.
“Emi… it was different with you,” Serena said. “They weren’t looking at you and seeing ‘you’. They were fantasizing about you because you were a Venti. It’s wrong and prejudiced. But you, fantasizing about Matt? That’s healthy. And sweet.”
Emi wasn’t sure she could see the difference. And honestly, Serena’s words sounded kind of hollow to her own ears.
But it was enough to assuage Emi’s feelings of guilt, so that would have to be enough for now.
Willow finished updating Sarah on Matt’s condition, leaving the Guild Master alone with her thoughts.
Well, her thoughts and Lori. And another mountain of paperwork.
“You’re making great progress,” Lori complimented her. She gave him a dirty look.
“I need to get this done,” she said, grabbing the next sheet in the stack. “By Wednesday.”
Lori raised his eyebrow. “So it’s official?”
“I got the message today,” she grumbled, nodding. “News of events has reached the king himself. He’s called an audience.”
“That’s going to be trouble.” Lori could already imagine how the other guilds would respond to this information. And the king wasn’t likely to listen either. “Good luck.”
Sarah didn’t need luck. She needed a miracle. “If it goes well, they might just think I’m an idiot.”
She sighed. Her thoughts turned to Matt, and she stroked her chin. “Although it does present an opportunity…”