We’re in some random bedroom somewhere in Motokawa’s place of business, given a box of military-grade armor and weapons and about ten minutes to change into our new outfits.
Just me and Karina, alone in a bedroom, minutes before we’re going off to a mission that might kill us both…
But I’m certainly not thinking about whatever’s going through your awful mind right now. I’m much more focused on the possibility of imminent death.
Karina has been staring at me ever since the big war room meeting. She has barely spoken a word.
Neither have I, though. I should probably try to ease the tension.
I take off my long-past-ruined shirt and pants and toss them aside, stripping down to just my underwear. “Guess we’ll have to go shopping for clothes again after this, huh?”
The box has all sorts of lightweight armor, but I’m not sure what of it I’ll actually need. Just a little bit of extra weight will be enough slowdown to get me whacked in the face a few more times than I would like, so I have to be careful.
Karina, on the other hand, would probably do best wearing a full outfit, so I set aside a vest and helmet and… Well, gun straps if she really wants to go to that level.
I take off my tanktop and I catch Karina darting her eyes away before I put on a tight-fitting compression shirt to cover myself. “Karina…” I want to say something, but it comes out mostly as a mumble.
I’ve taken her here, all the way into a life she was never meant to lead. And she’s now in a situation so far removed from everyday life that it seems downright criminal to keep her along. I don’t deserve to have a friend like her. She doesn’t deserve to be here.
“Morgan, can I say something?” Karina asks.
“Actually, I wanted to ask you if…”
We both pause for a moment to let the other go first. But then, when it looks like we aren’t going to say anything, we both blurt out:
“Can you please stay behind?”
“I don’t want you to do this mission.”
Karina goes first. “I’m not staying behind,” she says. “If this is about my trip to Japan, I’m not going until I know R8PR and Jones are safe.”
“That’s not what–Wait, you want ME to stay behind?”
“…Yeah,” Karina says. “Um, can you turn around?”
“I’m going to strip.”
“What? When do you ever care about…”
“Okay.” I turn around and try not to peek. I stare at the wall and continue our conversation. “Me? Why do you want me not to rescue our friends and stop the bad guys?”
“Because you’re special,” she says.
“I’m not special. I wish people would stop saying that…”
I do. Karina is already dressed up in full combat gear, adjusted to her size and height. Everything but the weapons. I guess she prefers hand-to-hand, after all. “That was fast,” I say.
“Gym class in middle school teaches you a lot,” she says. “I’m surprised you don’t remember.”
“I was in the symphonic band.”
She shrugs. “And what of this are you going to wear?”
“I don’t know. What’s good, you think?”
“Well, pants, for one.” Oh yeah, I’m still in my boxers. She tosses a pair my way and it hits me in the face before I catch it. “But… Since we have to be ninety percent honest with each other, I’ll say it: I don’t want you to go because I think you’re more important than this mission.”
“Huh? Completely false.”
“We all look up to you. Amy, Lamar, R8PR, Jones, me… If you get captured or killed, even if everyone else is saved… I think it’s just as bad as if the rest of us were gone. You’re the superhero, Morgan. We’re just your sidekicks.”
“I think we’ve firmly established that you’re the superhero, Karina. I don’t even know how you hold your weekly schedule together and still have time to help me out.”
“You know what I mean. Atlanta needs you.”
“Maybe we should lower the honesty threshold to eighty-five percent,” I say. “Can you throw me those straps?” She does. I put the straps on around my pants and insert the magi-knives I’ve kept with me since I went to the church ruins. These are Jones’s, and if I find her, she’s going to need them. But even if I don’t find her… Well, they’re good insurance. “Thanks. I just don’t know what you’re going on about with this hero business. We both know I don’t have what it takes.”
“The fact you keep insisting that is the reason you are one.” Karina holds up different body armor vests and compares them. Then she sets them both down. “I think you’re good to go without armor. It’ll slow you down too much. Just don’t get shot.”
“So you’re letting me go without a fuss?” I ask.
“You won’t listen to me either way,” she says.
“Same with you and me. There’s nothing that’ll convince you to wait for me, is there?”
“Not a chance.”
“Then we’ll go together,” I say. “But, if anything happens to you…”
“I’ve got lots of armor on, don’t worry.” Karina hugs me and nestles up to my chest. It’s brief, but it fills my heart with warmth. Almost literally, in fact. “Morgan, I love–”
“Don’t finish that sentence, please,” I say. “Wait until tomorrow.”
“Alright.” She lets go of me and raises her hand. “Let’s go.”
The satisfying clap of a high-five.
And the trade of smiles between best friends.
We leave the bedroom and go back into the main hall, where most everyone is already gathered. Lamar and Amy, as well as all of the Holos Amy brought along, are dressed up in the same black armor as Motokawa’s men. Our motley crew is really starting to look like a professional army, believe it or not.
Lamar greets me with a raised eyebrow. “No armor?”
“I heal fast. Don’t need it,” I say, trying really hard to continue hiding the fact that I still have a couple cracked ribs from my fight with Dragon.
“Well, good luck out there. You’ve helped me a lot these past couple months, Morgan. You’re a good friend.”
“Don’t talk like this is a wake, all of a sudden…”
“I’m only saying.”
“Well, the only thing you should be saying is, ‘Gosh, Gee whiz, Morgan is so cool. I wish I could be like Morgan Harding, Savior of the Waking City.’ Alright?”
“No thanks.” That gets a smile out of him.
And then I say, “Lamar, thanks for helping me out, too. You’re welcome to step aside if you think things are–”
“No thanks,” he repeats.
Then I turn to Amy. She’s looking more chipper than ever. Does she really think she is going to enjoy going into what will probably be a battlefield?
“Amy, you’ve been a good… Uh… Well, it’s been interesting knowing you so far,” I say. “I really don’t think you or your Holo friends should–”
“We talked about this like twenty minutes ago. Not discussing it again,” Amy says.
I separate from the crowd of armored soldiers and punks and weirdos and meet with Yuri Motokawa, looking handsome and dashing as you’d ever expect from someone referred to as the Mercenary Prince. I can’t even think to imagine what she might have looked like before the war. It would have sent me head over heels. “We’re ready.”
“Understood,” Motokawa says. “The operation begins now.”