Panic...Clawing...Fingernails chipped, broken, and ripped away...
Silence, except for the frantic beating of my heart and my harsh gasps for air...
Ankle, on fire...
A harsh sob from a throat already sore and torn...
Ancestors, get me out of here!
“’Fei, you all right?”
I opened my eyes, the dream still holding me in its tight grasp. I could feel my mind beginning to crumble and break, but I hardened it. Now was not the time to become a weak, blubbering fool. Not when there was a mission to complete.
“Fine, Maxwell,” I snapped instead, taking the hostilities I felt towards myself and my weakness out on the nearest available target. Unfortunately, he didn’t deserve it, nor did he have a clue as to why I was treating him so harshly.
Nor would he ever know. Not if I had any say in the matter.
A hurt silence followed. I sighed inwardly. It just wasn’t fair to force my perpetually bad mood on Maxwell. He had done nothing to deserve it except—
I shut those thoughts down fast before they threatened to undo me. Closing my eyes briefly, I struggled to find my center, but it eluded me. I was such an emotional wreck lately. So much so that a mere dream was enough to shake me to the core. Even that dream. Before, I wouldn’t have bothered to bat an eyelash at it. “Go back to sleep, Maxwell. We will have to move quickly tomorrow, and I won’t have you holding us back.”
I could hear his grin in his voice. “I wouldn’t dream of it, ‘Fei. See you in a few hours.” And just like that, he was asleep again, softly snoring. He had no idea how I envied him. I could barely manage an hour or two without those damn pills, which, of course, I was too stubborn to take.
Waiting a little while to make sure Maxwell was really asleep, I crawled out of bed, pulling on my gloves and heading for the balcony without turning any lights on. Didn’t need to let anyone know of my late night star gazing. The stars seemed to give peace to my inner turmoil as little else did these days. Not since...but I’d come out here not to think about that, and so I wouldn’t.
You might be wondering what I was doing on a mission with Maxwell of all people. Well, it certainly hadn’t been my choice. My choice would have been to go it alone, of course. Une, knowing my preferences, normally let me do as I pleased. But she’d put her foot down this time. It was Maxwell’s mission, she claimed, and I was just going to make sure that everything went smoothly. Or that’s what she told Maxwell. In reality, I had a little side trip to take. A select three individuals had earned themselves a trip to hell on the edge of my blade. And I was the perfect one to do it. Cold, emotionless Chang on his endless quest for justice.
If that’s what they still thought of me, they were sadly mistaken. Justice was the furthest thing from my mind. As was peace. Peace. Ha! Whoever thought this was peace was not only a fool but a blind fool. Peace was a snow globe just waiting for the Preventers to drop the ball. That’s all it would take to make it shatter. One moment of inattention. And the politicians, the old fools, didn’t understand that, always cutting our funding and blocking our every attempt to do more. I’d heard it all from Une. She saw no reason to keep anything from me anymore. What was the point? I’d proven my loyalty a thousand, no a million, times over. I was probably the only one in the Preventers equal to her in information. She let me do as I pleased. I thought it a fair exchange for the suicidal missions I went on. None more suicidal then—
But I wasn’t going to think about that. Instead, I watched the sky, letting myself empty. Or maybe walling everything off. I didn’t really know, nor did I particularly care. All I knew was that it gave me some form of peace.
Before I knew it, the stars were gone. Dawn was turning the sky pale pink, yellow, and orange. And though I wanted to lie there and enjoy it, duty called.
And what a pushy bastard it was.
Stiff from lying on the cold floor of the balcony for hours, I rose and stretched out, going through a few of my simpler forms to smooth my movements out and warm up my muscles. I made sure to keep it simple and relaxed.
I couldn’t do the harder, more taxing ones anymore. Not before a mission I needed my mobility on.
Time to wake Maxwell. I dreaded it. I would have left him behind if I were in charge of this mission. But I had to follow procedure. At least until the whole thing went to hell. Then I could once again do as I pleased. I had planned on leaving Maxwell behind while on my side trip. Hopefully, he would cooperate.
I doubted it.
I called room service for some tea, coffee, and food that I had no intention of eating. Not before a mission. Then I woke Maxwell. He emerged from under the covers like some angry beast, moaning and snarling and making other strange noises, heading with a stagger to the bathroom. Listening to the sound of running water, I sat on the bed honing my katana. I would need it by the end.
When Maxwell exited, he looked human, but his eyes were still that of a beast. I sighed. Some people never changed. I remembered safe houses during the war when he woke up at noon and was still like this. After a cup of coffee and half a chocolate donut, he was almost human. Another cup and two and a half donuts later, and he was his normal, hyperactive, chatterbox self.
And, yes, the tea was horrible, but I drank it anyway.
Unfortunately, Maxwell noticed my lack of interest in food and of course he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “You’re not gonna eat anything?”
Something that was so obvious didn’t deserve an answer, so I remained quiet, sipping my sewer-water tea.
“Come on, ‘Fei, you gotta eat something. How are you gonna keep up with me when you have no energy to burn?”
Shooting him a scathing glance, I said, “I’m sure I’ll manage somehow, Maxwell.” I’m still alive, after all.
He switched subjects quickly enough. I was just glad that he’d dropped it instead of beating it to death. “So what have you been up to lately?”
“Nothing? How can you do nothing all day?”
If he wanted to know what I did, I’d sure as hell tell him! “Paperwork, missions, training.”
Grinning, he said wryly, “You sure haven’t changed.”
But I had changed. A great deal. It’s just that no one knew me well enough to notice. I worked hard to keep it that way. They were better off. Why bring everyone else down with me?
Just as I was taking a sip of tea, he said, “Date anyone recently?”
I almost choked, carefully swallowing instead and restraining myself from an intense urge to throw my tea cup at him. “I’m not going to discuss my personal life with you while we’re on a mission.” My nonexistent personal life, that is.
“But we’re not technically on the actual ‘mission’ part yet,” he whined.
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “Close enough.” I stood, putting our dirty dishes back on the trolley. “It’s time to get ready, anyway.” I strapped on my equipment, never removing my gloves. Sword sheath on my back, gun at my hip, various daggers slipped into hiding places. Maxwell was watching me curiously. Should have done this in the bathroom. But I just didn’t want to face that tiny room. No windows. No space. No air.
I shut down those thoughts fast. They just kept popping up, usually at the most inconvenient times. No matter. I began the process of shutting down everything in my mind that wasn’t necessary for the mission. To Maxwell, it probably looked like I was just meditating. How surprised would he be to know that I hadn’t been able to truly clear my mind in months?
My eyes opened. Time to perform my duty. “Let’s go.”