Disclaimer: All TSW characters and situations belong to Square. No profit is being made from their use.
Author's Note: This is the short fic I spoke of a long while ago, the three-parter taking place after "Out of the Ashes" and before its sequel. Assuming I can get off my rear and start a bloody sequel… Maybe I will this summer; lately, I've been feeling slightly more motivated than usual. I'm going to do my best to finish this fic over summer. I must say, though, that I'm a bit irritated that the movie X3 used the Phoenix; now, whenever I use the name, that's the first thing I think of. Don't associate my Phoenix with that Phoenix! This is a bit of a short chapter, really; the next two chapters might end up being longer. Or maybe it can remain short; not all of my 'short' fics have to end up as long as "Heaven's Fall," right?
One – Dealing With Dragons
"These powers continue to develop at an astonishing rate. Already, many of the gifted exhibit control over their abilities, even as their powers continue to manifest in strange new ways." The muted glow of the holographic images played over Aki's face, alternately shadowing and illuminating her haggard features. "As you can see, these so-called 'mages' wield a staggering variety of abilities, from offensive magics like fire," a flick of her fingers brought up behind her an image of a young man igniting a heap of debris before him, "and ice," another corresponding image was displayed behind her, "to incredible defensive capabilities that can weaken or even completely block physical blows, or even other magics. Classification of these abilities continues, currently into two distinct categories: 'white magic,' or defensive spells, and 'black magic,' or offensive."
Aki paused to clear her throat, then continued. "I have been scorned for my use of words like 'magic' and 'spell' to describe these changes, but I think you'll agree these 'metaphysical manifestations,' as my detractors call them, seem to be nothing short of magic."
Her fingers worked the controls before her, and suddenly the screens around her showed images of creatures that shouldn't exist in reality: a massive fire creature that seemed to be a cross of both dog and man; a sapphire serpent, with blubbery flesh beaded with water; and a beast of electricity that most closely resembled a unicorn of legend. "Our world is changing; behind me are the most striking pieces of evidence that it will never be the same again. These are the Duos. I have heard them referred to as 'monster summoners,' but that isn't accurate. These monsters are, in fact, human in soul, if no longer in body. Each one shares the body of a human host, and despite the fact that many of the Duos have gone mad from this sharing, many are now developing a symbiotic relationship that will be beneficial in the war against the Phantoms.
"These people aren't aberrations of nature, as many of my colleagues have suggested. They are struggling to gain control of their gifts to give us the edge we need against the Phantoms. Keeping them confined to New York would be a big mistake. Their abilities are a gift from Gaia, and it is a crime not to use them. Consider this carefully; do not waste such a valuable resource."
With a wave of her hand, the recorder stopped, and the holograms went dark. Could she have phrased that last part better? Sighing, she rubbed the back of her hand over her eyes. Damn them all for not listening to me in the first place…
"It's human nature to fear what they don't understand."
Aki jumped, her heart racing. She whirled at the unexpected intrusion, poised for flight even though she'd recognized the voice as one she could trust. "I told you never to sneak up on me." There was an edge of fear to her voice, and the other held up his hands as if to fend off an attack.
"I'm sorry, Doc," Corporal Neil Fleming said, his voice apologetic. "But I couldn't say anything while you were recording." He hesitated. "You know, the Council might be more willing to listen if you would take the argument to them in person. Without you there to refute the other scientists, they've been able to gain more influence." His tone was distinctly uncomfortable as he continued. "Your refusal to appear in public may even be hurting our cause. They think you're going mad, Doc, and they think it has something to do with an instability brought on by your powers. I've tried to defend you as best as I can, but I'm only a lowly technician."
She'd heard the argument before. She regretted putting all this on Neil's shoulders; even with General Hein's keen mind to back him, this was still too much for one person to handle. Really, he shouldn't have been her liaison with the Council at all, but he was one of the only people she allowed to come in contact with her. She turned her back to him, ejecting the disk with her recording and handing it to him. "You know I can't," was all she said. All those people…watching me… judging me… pitying me… They'd all be so close, even if there was no physical contact. She'd be able to feel their presence closing in on her, smothering her… She shivered at the thought, wrapping her arms around herself protectively.
Neil sighed. "I won't push you, Doc," he said. She couldn't see his face in the dim light, but his disappointment was clear. He held the disk in front of his face. "I'll take this straight to Councilwoman Hee. With any luck, she won't make me present it again." He laughed weakly. When Aki didn't respond, he slumped and turned away. "See you later, Doc."
She watched him go, feeling guilty that she made him carry such a burden. But the last time she had been able to force herself to attend on of the Council meetings, she'd broken under the pressure, collapsing in the middle of a stammered explanation. She'd woken screaming in the hospital and had refused to let any of the medical staff approach her. No; she was in no condition to come into contact with any but her most trusted peers – and even that had mixed results. Were it not for the need for a scientist who understood – even if that understanding was limited – what was happening to the world around them, Aki would have taken herself away from Houston, away from humanity all together. She knew she wasn't healthy, but she didn't care; no doctor could mend the scars upon her psyche.
(You could be healed,) a voice whispered into her mind.
Aki highly doubted it.
(If you would just accept my help, together we can work through this.)
Aki ignored the voice, as she had been more and more wont to do lately. It was hard enough for her to make minimal contact with others; to have another so intimately entwined with her mind, to reside inside of her, was the greatest horror of all. That this Other wanted to help her meant nothing; Aki clung feverishly to the hope that if she ignored the creature that called itself the Phoenix, it would go away.
She heard a soft sigh echo through her mind, and then the presence vanished into whatever recesses of her mind it roosted in. It wasn't permanent, but at least the Other would leave Aki alone for the time being.
Her task complete, Aki knew no one would bother her for some time. After double-checking the door to her quarters to make certain it was locked and no one could enter without her permission, Aki curled up on her bed, knees drawn up to her chin, and stared off into nothingness.
(She's losing it. We won't be able to rely on her much longer.) The matter-of-fact voice echoed through Neil's mind, and he gritted his teeth in annoyance. Bad enough that his mind was like an open book to the other that shared his body, but the fact that the speaker had once been his superior officer – and still acted that way despite having lost any right to that rank – made it a difficult partnership. General Hein hadn't been an easy person to work with, but now he was impossible. Neil refused to let that anger show as he passed the disk to Councilwoman Hee, who accepted it gravely. "Will my services be required?" he asked hopefully. He hated Council meetings, hated how the members stared down at him, making him very aware that he was no longer like them, that he was different. They didn't know the details, but they knew enough.
Hee eyed the disk, brow furrowing in thought. "I don't think there's much more that you can do," she said at last. "Dr. Ross needs to speak for herself; the Council needs reassurances, not confirmation that those who have been… changed are different and need to be handled with kid gloves."
Neil smiled wanly. He appreciated Hee's delicacy with the subject, but he could tell that she was as nervous as the rest of them. Maybe if Aki was willing to talk to her, to actually show her that these powers could be used for good… Neil's own ability wouldn't assuage anyone's fears; there was something about summoning a big-ass dragon that seemed to intimidate people. And summoning Hein made it more difficult to conceal the dragon's true identity. No one had caught on yet, but that wouldn't last forever. Neil tried to delay the inevitable as long as he could by keeping the dragon confined to his head, and by referring to him by a name Neil recalled from his HMA days, when he'd played Dungeons and Dragons with some of his roommates. 'Bahamut' was a good dragon name in Neil's opinion, and even Hein had given it his grudging approval.
Speaking of which… Hein had been pestering Neil all week for a flight, and the tech couldn't put it off much longer. He couldn't blame Hein; who wanted to be caged when you could have the freedom of the sky? So he left Hee as quickly as politeness permitted and made his way to the USMF's garage. There was no way Hein could fly within the city; most would find the dragon's presence as alarming as a Phantom's. And with the barrier reactivated, it would just be exchanging one prison for another. He went through the tedious process of signing out a Quattro, the only land-bound vehicles permitted to leave the sheltered city, and drove to the nearest of the city gates.
Leaving the barrier cities was both easier and harder than it had been before the Phantoms regained their corporeal forms. Easier, because now there was no chance they could slip through the gates unnoticed, and were now easier to locate evade. Harder, because barriers were no longer so effective. While a Quattro had a shielded cockpit, the solid Phantoms could now attack the vehicles rather than pass through them. The human race was just as confined to barrier cities as they had been before Aki and Gray had 'destroyed' the Phantoms. Only special permission from Houston's highest ranking officers let Neil – and every other Duo with the same idea – leave the city with a minimum of fuss.
He drove to a point a mile distant, close enough that he could see the green glow of the new barrier on the horizon. The sensors in the Quattro weren't picking up any life forms except for himself, so he parked beside an outcropping of rock and took a seat in the shade it cast, atop the hard-packed earth. Once he'd made himself comfortable, he closed his eyes and concentrated.
The air had been dead only moments before, but now a slight breeze stirred the dust in front of him, ruffling his hair and clothing. Neil ignored it, forming an image in his mind of a green mist, detaching itself from his body to come to rest before him. The mist flowed, its shape becoming more solid, more defined. The green surface hardened, darkened, becoming glossy black scales, leathery wings, and spiraling horn. Neil opened his eyes to see the creature of imagination had become reality, its muscular forelegs tipped with dagger-like claws resting on either side of the tech and its head angled so Neil could see the look of bemusement on its angular face.
The dragon that had once been General Hein backed away from Neil, fanning his wings experimentally and raising enough dust to make Neil cough. "It's been too long," Hein snorted, his voice deeper than it had been when he was human but still utterly recognizable. "I'm not sure I remember how to use these." Neil ignored the dragon's bitter tone. He'd done all he could; it wasn't his fault that he didn't have the free time to sneak off more often. Hein took a few moments to stretch, re-accustoming himself to having physical form. And what a form it was; even knowing who the dragon really was, inside, Neil had to admit that he was a magnificent creature. He didn't have the serpentine look of the dragons often seen in fantasy illustrations; his proportions had more in common with a greyhound, from the lean, long-limbed body to the short neck with its long muzzled face. He moved with the fluidity of a cat, surprising in a creature so large. A pair of horns spiraled back from behind his eyes, and a flexible ruff ran from between his horns to the base of his shoulders. What fascinated Neil most, however, were his front feet. Not the shape; they were human in shape, with four fingers and an opposable thumb, each tipped with curved claws. It was the scars. Both feet were furrowed with pale scars, creating misshapen ridges in his skin. Neil often wondered if they were part of Hein's transformation, or if they'd been the result of something that had happened when he'd been human. He hadn't had the courage to ask.
Hein stared at him with slitted blue eyes that glittered coldly. "Do you have any need for me?" he asked, tail lashing like an angry cat's.
"Go," Neil said. "I'll be fine."
The dragon needed no further coaxing; he spread his wings, and with a mighty lunge together with downward sweep of those massive pinions, he was airborn. In moments, he was a dark speck in the sky, following the thermals until he was out of sight. Neil leaned back against the rock and shut his eyes; it would be hours before Hein returned to him.
A sudden downdraft awoke him just as Hein landed in front of him, close enough that his forefeet were almost cradling Neil. The summoner refused to be startled by Hein's tactics; the dragon-man had been pushing the limits of their unwelcome relationship, struggling to exert authority over a mere corporal. It was a battle of wills that was doomed to get worse, Neil knew with grim certainty. He hoped it didn't happen in front of the Council; they were nervous enough around him already.
"See anything out there?" Neil asked.
The dragon gave a snort. "A few humanoid Phantoms. I took care of them." Hein raked his claws in the cracked earth for emphasis, leaving deep furrows. Hein seemed to relish the ability to take on the Phantoms in a physical fight; they'd killed his family, and he still had a lot of rage towards the invaders. It was disturbing, the unholy glee with which Hein tore apart the now-physical aliens, and it was part of the reason Neil didn't like going on flights with the dragon.
Neil closed his eyes and reached out mental 'fingers' towards the green shape that was how the dragon manifested behind his closed eyelids. At his touch, it began to unravel, becoming insubstantial until there was nothing left but a breath of wind that marked the dragon's dissolution. He opened his eyes again and got up, stretching the kinks from his joints. He was stiffer than he'd expected to be; how long had Hein been gone? The sun was low over the horizon, and Neil frowned. Hein was staying out longer and longer, another sign that the dragon was taking control.
At least he still allowed the dissolution without protest. Neil wasn't certain if it was because he didn't want too many to see him in his draconic form, or if he just couldn't remain corporeal for long. Either way, Neil was glad for this small bit of control it offered. He didn't know how much longer he could hold on to it…
The drive back to Houston went quickly, and Neil checked the Quattro back in without a fuss. It was still early in the evening, and Neil wondered what to do now. His duties were minimal; he'd been attached to Aki as her military liaison, and didn't have any other duties, beyond the occasional maintenance problem. It left him with far more free time than he liked, and Neil was one of those people who was dangerous when bored. He'd often been in the doghouse with his family as a child when he'd been left unattended and took apart something to see how it worked. He knew better now than to just pull apart his military-issue equipment, but still…
Neil flopped onto his bed and stared up at the ceiling, debating his options. Unable to think of anything better to do, he decided to check his backlog of electronic communiqués stored on his computer. He hadn't checked it in over a week, afraid of what he'd see. Or wouldn't see, rather; he'd been hoping that Jane would contact him from her posting in New York with Ryan, but she hadn't sent more than a handful of short, impersonal reports on what was going on in the city. Nothing about how she was coping. No saying that she missed him as much as he missed her.
Most of it was junk, as he'd expected, and he deleted it without giving it a further glance. One of them, however, caught his attention, and he forgot the rest of the mail. It was from a contact of his in one of the small orbital space stations, a tech that Neil had gone to school with. He'd sent the man a request a month ago, but it had slipped his mind as the weeks passed with no response beyond the man's agreement to look into it – though he'd have to do it in secret.
Neil opened the message, noticing there was a file attached. There was a short message: "This is the only thing I could find that matched what you described. I hope it's what you're looking for."
He opened the file, a slow grin crossing his face as he examined the photo taken with a satellite scanning array. It was a cluster of green spirits, where none should exist, with a set of coordinates beneath the picture.
Neil crowed in triumph. Finally, he could contribute something useful to Aki's cause! And he may have just found the way to lure Aki out of her protected, private world and back into the real world.
(Does that mean what I think it means?) Hein asked.
"Yes… we found the lost children."
Aki's expression remained impassive as she reviewed the information Neil provided. "You're right," she said quietly. "It has to be the children – the only other place with a concentration of green spirits that great is New York. And I've never heard of any base in Montana. It's too far from any of the barrier cities to be a practical location for the military or research."
The children. Aki and Neil had been running a search for them ever since their return to Houston. General Ryder had confessed before his death that he'd intentionally dropped the barriers of several cities, leaving them vulnerable to Phantom incursion. He'd sacrificed thousands of lives for the handful of unborn children within each city; children whose developing spirits were uniquely vulnerable to the Phantoms, merging with the invasive energies rather than being eaten away by them. The end result was the green-spirited children, who presumably had the same abilities as the gifted citizens of New York. Even more so, perhaps; the one man Aki had met who was one of the born green-spirits had proven to be very powerful indeed. Presumably, Ryder had wanted to use these children as 'ultimate soldiers.' Now that Ryder and his puppet-master, Boyer, were dead, it had been Aki's hope to locate the project and liberate the children.
"So, when do we go?" Neil asked. There was eagerness in his voice, which surprised Aki. For the first time, she realized that he must have been spoiling for some action; he was a soldier, after all, and it must have galled him to serve as her assistant, a role that was relatively sedate.
Once, she, too, would have chafed at being kept out of the action, where she could do something.
"Go?" Aki repeated blankly.
"Yes, go." Neil waved his hands around emphatically, but still managed to keep far enough away that he didn't startle her. "You know. To rescue the children from the military's evil experiments!"
Never mind that he was military; clearly, Neil had no qualms believing the people he served could be involved in conspiracies. Had he always been this paranoid, or had his encounter with the unscrupulous General Ryder changed him? Aki raised an eyebrow. "We'll have to take it up with the Council," she said, grimacing at the prospect. This would require her to appear in person. Or could she contact Hee, and have the woman act on their behalf? "They can send a squad-"
Neil's elation dimmed. "I mean us," he said. "You and me." There was something strangely insistent about his tone.
"We're just two people," Aki pointed out. Fear twisted her stomach; did Neil really mean for her to leave her sanctuary? "We can't-"
"We're two people, a dragon, and a phoenix," Neil said. "I'm guessing the last two will be better than anything the military could come up with."
"Neil-" she began, but Neil continued on hurriedly.
"We don't have to storm the base," he said in a wheedling tone. "We don't even know for certain it's the correct place, right? What if we just fly in, get a look around, and then fly out? You know, a reconnaissance mission, so we have something to report to the Council. You know they won't want to send in the military without proof, anyway."
"A reconnaissance?" Aki repeated uncertainly. It sounded safe enough – so long as they didn't leave their ship. They'd be safe from Phantom attack… and strangers. Aki considered. Her instinct was to say 'no,' but Neil had a point. And she couldn't just send him out alone; Neil pretended that everything was all right with him, but she'd caught his expression when he thought she wasn't looking, as though he were have as difficult a time with his own unwanted 'guest' as she herself was. So, ignoring the frightened voice in her head that wanted to run away and curl up somewhere alone, she made her decision.
"All right… but recon only," Aki said, swallowing her nervousness. She couldn't remember the last time she'd left the confines of the lab and her adjacent apartment. (I won't let harm come to you,) the invasive voice said reassuringly. Aki ignored it; she didn't plan to leave the confines of the ship and put herself in a situation where she'd need the Other's help. "Just a quick flyover, and then we'll report to the Council."
Neil flashed a triumphant grin, and Aki wondered just what she was getting herself into.
To be continued…