Chapter 10: Anxiety

August thirtieth had come along a lot faster than I had anticipated. The majority of my time between now, and when we’d fought off that brute with what I had jokingly named the B Team, had been spent helping them learn how to fight and honing my own skills up here. That, and developing a little addition to my suit. Even though I was incredibly confident with the strength and durability of TS Armour, I wasn’t exactly fond of the completely unbroken texture and black color of the suit. Picky and ultimately unimportant, yes, but I’d made a lot of design choices in the past like that, and they’d never been a detriment. So it was no surprise when I walked into my room to find a cardboard box sat on my desk. I sat down at my desk chair, lightly pushing a pile of scrap papers out of my way. I pulled it open to find exactly what I expected. Four pieces of incredibly hard metal, two of which were smaller than the others and painted in a dark green, the other two were long and black, and just a little bit more flexible. There were also a few spots for some small round things, they looked sort of similar to nails without the pointed ends, to attach to them. I could only assume that was how they were meant to attach to the Armour. I re-packaged the box, carefully piling the metal back in with the packaging. I lifted up the box with one arm, and tucked it underneath my arm. I walked out of my room, and down the hall to the hold where our suits were stored.

Unsurprisingly, when I walked in, I found Lake and May pulling their suits off of the mannequins. May was fumbling with the zip on the back of her suit, and Lake had to help her pull it off the mannequin. The duo ignored me as I walked in, and dropped the box down next to my suit. I’d had the ends of my sleeves detailed with a new strip of green running around them, just to add that little extra.

I pulled the mannequin over onto its side, and pulled one of the green pieces of metal out of the box. It was a shoulder pad, and when I placed it over the shoulder of the suit, I was pleased to see it fit perfectly. I pulled out four of the small metal circles, and placed them onto each of the four corners of the pad, at which point they began to whir, until they suddenly sparked and popped off. I jiggled the shoulder pad slightly, just to check and see what had happened, and apparently, it had attached. As I moved on to the next shoulder, Iris and Penelope also walked in to take their suits away, and I realized that May and Lake had left. That meant four costumes were gone, and all that was left in here was mine, Riley’s and Alan’s.

As I placed the second shoulder pad on, they walked out, and Alan walked in, leaving almost as quickly as he had entered and taking his suit with him. Another four of these circular devices popped off, and I checked the shoulder pad again. I couldn’t be too careful. I moved the mannequin so I could grab the legs of my suit, and heard an audible clacking as my helmet hit the ground of the hold. I attached the two black pieces of metal, which were armor meant for my thighs, to the suit in the same fashion. Carefully placing it on, using four of the little metal circles, and waiting for them to spark and fall off. In total, it probably only took a minute to do, and surprisingly, no-one else came in to grab a suit. It didn’t matter. We weren’t due at the drop-ship for another ten minutes or so, so I pulled my own suit off of the mannequin, slowly and carefully so as to not accidentally mess up my new additions, and walked out of the hold, and back into my room to get changed.

*

The deck of the Sandman was a sight to behold. Sitting up above the clouds was a ludicrous amount of metal, floating atop sixteen high power engines and a utilizing some form of floating device that even I was unable to fully comprehend. Unsurprisingly, this was another idea by Harold Lucas, and I didn’t doubt that the Walsh corporation had a hand in building it. The Walsh corporation, owned by my adoptive father, and Iris’s father. I was thirteen when I’d lost my real father, and that was also when Riley and May had dropped contact with me. But dwelling on the past wasn’t going to help our current situation. I could figure old mysteries out later, my focus had to be on here and now. I walked over to where the team was gathered, standing by a drop-ship near the edge of the deck. There was a guard rail here and behind pretty much every jet, no matter the purpose, that sat on the deck of the Sandman. Of course, there was a short runway for some of the fighter jets, but astonishingly, Shade had managed to procure a lot of VTOL aircraft, which included the drop-ship. The drop-ship was kind of like a helicopter in shape, except it had two wings attached to the top of its hull, rather than a rotor. I wasn’t very well versed in aircraft technology, so all I could really determine was that the engines seemed to rotate to allow a vertical take-off, and then gradually moved into a horizontal position as it picked up speed. Our drop-ship would be one of three headed to the ashes today, two of which would be manned by Shade soldiers, Fire-team Clarent and Fire-team Merlin. I didn’t really know why Walter had chosen those names, or what the deal was with the whole King Arthur motif, but it wasn’t my job to criticize him. He’d called us Fire-team Excalibur. He’d even given us a ring as our logo, something to do with the round table, I suppose. My approach was met with concern, as the entire team was gathered outside of the drop-ship, except for Thunderbolt. Miracle was obviously worried, and it was annoying that I could tell that. She was wearing a blindfold. I waved as I walked up to them, trying to subtly test the flexibility I had in my shoulder, which thankfully was a lot.
“Have you seen Riley?” Miracle asked. Yep, definitely worried. She was normally the one to correct others when they slipped up and used the wrong name while in costume, and the fact that she’d just done so was a pretty good tell.
“No. I assumed she’d be up here with you,” I heard the engines begin to whir as Tempest started to prepare for take-off. We had to leave soon.
“Hold on Tempest, we can’t leave without her!” Miracle shouted, but Tempest did nothing. He had orders, and so did we. We had to leave soon, or this entire operation would be a failure.
“Get on board now. I’ll go find Thunderbolt,” I turned away, ready to head back down below the deck, when Miracle caught my arm.
“I’ll go with you,” She said warily. I got why she was worried, if Thunderbolt didn’t turn up it could mean she was having a panic attack, which would be very, very bad now, and she wouldn’t want to leave her sister in that situation. But unfortunately, we couldn’t afford having her stay either.
“Get on board. Thunderbolt and I will meet you there,” She squeezed my arm, trying as hard as she could to stop me from leaving.
“We can wait, we-,” I yanked my arm out of her grip, cutting her off.
“There’s no time for that. You need to go. Now,” I commanded. She opened her mouth to complain again, but I walked off, and Cherufe held her back. I walked down the stairwell to head back below the deck, and watched as the drop-ship took off.

*

“Riley!” I called out as I walked through into the secure part of the Sandman that comprised out living area. It felt eerily empty, and annoyingly, absolutely silent. I could hear my footsteps clanging against the cold metal floor, and bouncing off of the walls. I felt like I was walking a lot slower than normal, and spun to look behind me whenever I heard a noise. It was rarely ever anything, probably just my imagination, and I couldn’t place why I was feeling so jumpy. I walked up to the door to the Doughnut, and placed my hand against the lock panel, waiting a second for it to slide open. I quickly scanned the room, looking for Riley, possibly hidden under the table at the center of the room, or behind one of the shelves along the left wall. I had no idea what to expect, but she wasn’t in the Doughnut. I moved next door, to the diner, once again placing my hand against the lock pad, and waiting for the door to slide open. I walked in, and I didn’t immediately see anything. There were three booths along the wall, and I checked each of them first. Riley wasn’t hidden at any of them, so I moved behind the counter. I didn’t see her, so I headed into the kitchen.

It was a mess. Pots and pans had been thrown all over the floor, and cutlery was strewn among them. I heard metal bump and scrape together as I tried to make my way through the kitchen, among the mess of cookware and cutlery. I checked each of the already open cupboards as I walked through, remembering times she’d hidden there before. She’d been like this for as long as I could remember, always nervous, and the smallest thing could set off a panic attack. I was surprised I’d encountered so few since I’d gotten here, honestly. I’d even mentally mapped out potential hiding places, just in case. I didn’t find anything in my search through the kitchen, other than a surprising lack of food. I guess we’d gone through a lot of it. I walked out, planning on dealing with the mess in here later, and then I heard someone walk into the diner, quickly followed by a very loud thump. I walked out, pulling off my helmet as I did, and looked Riley in the eyes as she struggled to pull herself up off of the ground.
“Need a hand?” I asked, extending my hand to her, and she took it. She didn’t look like getting ready for this had even crossed her mind. She was still wearing a skirt, for god’s sake. She was crying, no shock there, and she tried to wipe the tears from her eyes as she stood, but instead she just palmed her cheeks.
“What happened to your contacts?” I asked, and she sulked. Nothing good then.
“I kind of broke them,” She said. Okay, I didn’t know how that could even happen.
“How’d you managed that?” I asked. She was still clutching onto my hand as we walked out of the diner, probably just to stop herself from falling over again. From the way she’d explained it, without her contacts or her glasses, the world was a very blurry place. Apparently, she could see me as a vaguely human, incredibly blurry, almost-blob, with color changes at certain parts of my body, like the green lights on my suit. The finger test that most people used to test blindness also worked on her apparently, well, kind of. She could tell one finger and five fingers, but anything in between seemed like a slightly larger or smaller blob. So, obviously, she needed a lot of help seeing, and couple that with her nerves, and, yeah. Not good. I think she wore contacts most of the time because she didn’t like how she looked with glasses, and I’d even asked about it in regards to her suit. I’d recommended that she put lenses in her mask to make sure she could see, but May had told her not to. She was wearing contacts anyway, so why bother, right? Yeah, right.

“So, why aren’t you wearing your spares?” I asked. I knew she’d have to have some.
“Those were my spares,” She said. Oh. Her face was bright red with embarrassment, but this did actually present a problem for the Streamline operation. Her mask didn’t have lenses, and it wouldn’t fit over her glasses.
“We need to get you your glasses, then,” She nodded, but was still violently blushing.
“I can’t find them,” that explained why she’d been in the diner, but that didn’t exactly seem like somewhere she’d leave her glasses. I walked her back to her room, and she pressed her hand to the lock, letting the door slide open. I could barely make out what was inside, and I doubted she wanted me to, so I turned away while she rummaged through her belongings. I heard a pile of books topple to the ground, and a soft groan as one of them probably bounced off of her head.

Riley put her hand on my shoulder, and I turned to face her right as the door to her room slid shut. She had her glasses on now, thick and round things with a black rim. She was still blushing, embarrassed by her glasses.
“You still need to get changed. The rest of the team’s probably landed by now,” I said. The color drained from her face as she realized what had happened, and she fell to the ground and curled up into a ball. She leaned against her bedroom door and pulled her legs in tight, trying to hold herself to avoid thinking about the upcoming fight. I could see her starting to cry again, and I didn’t really know what to do. I was never very good with people. I sat down next to Riley, and put my helmet down, and removed the mask still lingering over my eyes. She didn’t really take note of me, and instead just sat there. I was rarely ever the one that managed to pull her out of one of these things, normally that would be up to May, or her father. But neither of those two were here right now, so I guess it was up to me.
“Listen, I kind of promised May that we’d meet them there. They’re going to be heading into the Ashes soon, and you know what that means,” She nodded weakly. She was a wreck. I guess everything had finally reached the point where she’d break.
“So I need to make sure you’re okay. Can you manage coming with me, or are you going to have to stay here?” I asked. Her arms tensed as she tightened her grip on herself. She didn’t want to be left alone, obviously, but I couldn’t think of a good solution. I put my mask back on, and extended my hand to her once again.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked. Her cheeks suddenly flared up, and she sat down normally. Tears were still running down her cheeks, but I couldn’t really do anything about that.

“I’m,” She wiped away her tears, “I’m going to need a mask,” She said. I didn’t actually have a good idea for that. A bad idea, maybe. I put my helmet back on, carefully clipping my neck armor back up onto it, and I looked at Riley.
“Pass me your glasses,” I said. Reluctantly, she handed them to me, and I raised my helmet’s screen. I put her glasses on, and suddenly, my bad idea became a solution. I handed her glasses back to her, and she pushed them back on, obviously confused. She didn’t see what I did.
“Let’s go grab your suit,” I said, and stood up. She was still confused, embarrassed, nervous and looked like she could start crying again any second, but for now, that would do. As she stood up, she hugged me, and blushed. I didn’t exactly mind, she was my friend after all, and she held my hand as I we walked back down to the hold.