Chapter 22:

Chapter 22: Fantasies and Guilt

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. Bookmark here

He kicked off the bottom of the pool and shot up towards the surface.Bookmark here

Ryan’s room was larger than most of the other private quarters in Strayhaven. It was also located on the first floor.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“How’s it feel? No headaches?” Serena asked. She lazily kicked her legs through the water as he swam up next to her.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Not a problem!” Ryan grinned, running the towel through his hair. It was the one thing that didn’t change when he transformed.Bookmark here

“Don’t see why you bother,” Serena grinned. “You’re a lot more handsome without it.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Even in a harbor city like Goldia, “only works underwater” wasn’t a great tagline for your Naturia.Bookmark here

Ryan got a change of clothes out of the closet and turned to Serena. She smiled innocently at him.Bookmark here

“Hmmm?”Bookmark here

“I need to change.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, feel free. I don’t mind.” Serena wiggled her eyebrows at him, getting another eye roll.Bookmark here

She was quickly escorted out of the door.Bookmark here

Ryan came out a minute later, changed out of his swimming trunks.Bookmark here

“Done preserving your modesty?” She asked, cracking another grin. They headed to the common room.Bookmark here

“One of us has to,” he shot back. “Oh, and thanks for all your help this past week.”Bookmark here

“Hey, any time. It’s the least I can do for a hero like you,” she teased, punching him in the shoulder.Bookmark here

“More jokes.”Bookmark here

Serena pouted. “Ryan, you are a hero. You got hurt fighting that Emergent too.”Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“You both did a great job,” she agreed.Bookmark here

“How’s he doing, by the way?” Ryan had essentially been on house arrest since his concussion.Bookmark here

“He’s getting better every day.” Serena was relieved that both boys were healing up okay. “Still, he’s in pretty rough shape.”Bookmark here

“Well, maybe you can take a day off babysitting me and go fuss over him,” Ryan suggested.Bookmark here

She sighed. “We are NOT having this discussion again.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

He knew Serena was a bit of a mom, but this level of clinginess was starting to get suffocating.Bookmark here

“Serena, I’m fine, trust me.”Bookmark here

“So you just don’t enjoy my company, is that it?” She flashed a pouty smile his way.Bookmark here

Ryan knew there was no right answer to that question, so he kept his mouth shut.Bookmark here

Luckily for him, when they got to the common room there was something else to catch her attention.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Emi looked even more dead than Chloe did. There was no light in her eyes. She threw herself into Serena’s arms, trembling.Bookmark here

“Emi, c… come on, let’s…” Serena could tell that Emi needed to talk. But she couldn’t leave Ryan. She glanced at him.Bookmark here

“You can go talk,” he assured her. “I’m not gonna have a brain hemorrhage if you leave me alone for an hour.”Bookmark here

Serena led Emi to another room to ask what was wrong, while Ryan flopped down in an easy chair and turned on the TV.Bookmark here

He felt a tug on his collar. It was Chloe.Bookmark here

“Oh, hey Chloe, what’s up?” It was rare to see her up and about.Bookmark here

“Ryan…?” She rubbed her eyes and squinted.Bookmark here

“…Yeah, it’s me,” Ryan said.Bookmark here

She yawned back. “…Hum. Matt… okay… you head?”Bookmark here

Her words were barely above a whisper. Ryan wasn’t sure what she had asked at first, so he took his best guess.Bookmark here

“…Yeah, my head’s fine, thanks,” he said, pointing at faint scar over his temple.Bookmark here

A thin smile spread across Chloe’s lips. “…Yay.”Bookmark here

She yawned and returned to her couch.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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“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.Bookmark here

“Matt…” She finally managed to choke out.Bookmark here

Serena leapt into panic mode. “Is everything okay? There aren’t any complications with his recovery, are there?”Bookmark here

Emi gasped and shook her head. “N-No,” she sputtered. “Matt’s fine! It’s just… he…”Bookmark here

Cynthia’s face flashed before her eyes.Bookmark here

“…He has a girlfriend,” she mumbled.Bookmark here

Serena raised her eyebrow. “…Yeah. He does. This is news?”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Serena gasped. “Wait, Matt’s girlfriend? She’s here? In town?”Bookmark here

Emi nodded glumly.Bookmark here

“She came to the hospital,” she admitted.Bookmark here

“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?”Bookmark here

“She… wasn’t like I imagined,” Emi said. “She was cute… pretty… but also kind of like a boy?”Bookmark here

Wait, why was she saying all that?! That wasn’t important!Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

She gazed into Serena’s eyes. They were so warm.Bookmark here

“How could I do something so terrible?”Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

Emi looked up at her. “B-But…”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

But Emi didn’t feel good. She felt awful. Like she was hurting them.Bookmark here

“B-But…”Bookmark here

“Emi, no one was ever hurt by someone just fantasizing,” Serena assured her. “It’s perfectly normal, and pretty much everyone does it.”Bookmark here

Serena’s words were meant to sound encouraging. But to Emi they were like a dagger through her heart.Bookmark here

“So… just like how boys were always fantasizing about me.”Bookmark here

Serena gasped. “W-Wait, Emi, that’s not what I…” It made so much more sense now. “You’re not… it’s different, because-“Bookmark here

“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?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Emi wasn’t sure she could see the difference. And honestly, Serena’s words sounded kind of hollow to her own ears.Bookmark here

But it was enough to assuage Emi’s feelings of guilt, so that would have to be enough for now.Bookmark here

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Willow finished updating Sarah on Matt’s condition, leaving the Guild Master alone with her thoughts.Bookmark here

Well, her thoughts and Lori. And another mountain of paperwork.Bookmark here

“You’re making great progress,” Lori complimented her. She gave him a dirty look.Bookmark here

“I need to get this done,” she said, grabbing the next sheet in the stack. “By Wednesday.”Bookmark here

Lori raised his eyebrow. “So it’s official?”Bookmark here

“I got the message today,” she grumbled, nodding. “News of events has reached the king himself. He’s called an audience.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Sarah didn’t need luck. She needed a miracle. “If it goes well, they might just think I’m an idiot.”Bookmark here

She sighed. Her thoughts turned to Matt, and she stroked her chin. “Although it does present an opportunity…”Bookmark here

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