Sunny was enjoying a hot shower. After their short conversation, Master Jet had sent him to clean himself, saying that he "reeked of Nightmare". The unnatural slumber of the Spell would slow down the body's metabolism, and the medical apparatus he had been strapped into was supposed to take care of the rest, but he was still asleep for three whole days.
Even if only psychological, the scent of bloodshed and despair lingered around him.
'Ah, I'm in heaven,' Sunny thought, willing himself to temporarily forget about the looming disaster of the Flaw.
He was alone in the police station's showers, relaxing under the streams of hot water. After a bit of time had passed, Sunny reluctantly turned the tap off and walked over to the towel rack. Coincidentally, he saw himself reflecting in the mirror.
The changes in his physique were subtle, but noticeable. His pale skin seemed a little healthier, his muscles a bit more pronounced. He looked slender and lean instead of emaciated and frail, as he did before. There was a slight luster to his dark hair and a shine to his eyes.
However, he was still rather diminutive. Not exactly a picture of masculine handsomeness, to say the least.
'Flower boy, huh?' Sunny thought, full of bitterness.
Then he suddenly froze, noticing something strange. As he was looking at himself in the mirror, the reflection of his shadow seemed to move. It was as though the shadow lowered its head and quietly facepalmed.
Sunny quickly turned around, piercing his shadow with a nervous look. However, everything seemed normal. The shadow was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, repeating his every motion.
"I clearly saw you move," he said, feeling a bit strange. "You have just moved on your own, right?!"
Sunny glared at the shadow, which obediently glared back.
"Did you move or not?"
The shadow enthusiastically shook its head.
"What do you mean, "no"?! You've just moved your head! Do you think I'm a fool?"
The shadow seemed to think for a bit and then shrugged.
Sunny was left with his mouth agape.
"Your shadow is more independent than most. It is an invaluable helper," he muttered finally.
Right. This was how the Spell had described his Aspect Ability.
But what exactly could his shadow do?
He decided to experiment a little.
"Hey, you. Tell me what you can do."
The shadow was silent and motionless.
'Right. It doesn't have vocal cords.'
As though that made any sense! Shadows were not supposed to have muscles either, and yet it knew how to move.
"Uh… show me?"
No reaction. It seems the shadow was content pretending to be an ordinary, lifeless blob of darkness.
'I'm doing this wrong.'
Independent or not, the shadow was still a part of him. It was a manifestation of his Aspect Ability. So instead of asking the shadow, he really should have been asking himself.
"Not going to talk, are you?"
Sunny closed his eyes and directed his perception within, exploring himself for the first time since returning to the real world. He felt the beating of his heart, the steady rising of his chest, the slight chill of the shower room. He heard droplets of water falling on the tiled floor. Felt the movement of filtered air against his skin.
And there, on the verge of his consciousness, something new.
A completely new sense.
Sunny concentrated on it, and suddenly a whole other world opened to him. It was hard to describe with words, just like one would have trouble explaining how hearing or touch feels.
It was as though he could communicate with vast forms that crowded around him and receive an understanding of both their own shape and the surrounding space, guided by the different degrees of pressure they exerted on his mind and each other.
That understanding came naturally and instantaneously, like an instinct.
These forms were shadows. And among them, one — not the largest one, but the deepest — didn't feel like an external entity. It was like a part of his soul.
Once Sunny grasped the feeling of it, he could sense the shadow just like he sensed his limbs. The only thing was that his limbs were made out of flesh, and the shadow was made from the absence of light.
Sunny opened his eyes and looked at the shadow. Then, with a thought, he willed it to raise an arm.
The shadow raised an arm.
He willed it to sit, stand, turn around, kick. Then he willed it to change shape, turning into a circle, then a line, then a monster. And finally, back to his own silhouette. The shadow was mercurial and fluid, like water. The only constant was its size.
"Ha! How about that?"
The shadow pouted, then reluctantly raised its thumbs.
"But how are you useful?"
He willed the shadow to strike the towel rack. It obediently moved and delivered a powerful kick. Of course, since it was just a shadow, its leg passed over the towels harmlessly, not even causing them to sway a little.
"Is that… all you can do?"
In his mind, the image of shadow tentacles tearing the mighty tyrant into little pieces cracked and shattered mercilessly. It seemed he would not be competing with Shadow God any time soon.
The shadow looked at him with disdain. Then it shrugged and stopped moving altogether, clearly offended.
Sunny sighed and took a towel off the rack.
"Alright. I will explore it later."
A few minutes after that, he was wearing a clean police-issued tracksuit and heading for the cafeteria. Master Jet was waiting for him at one of the tables, with two trays full of steaming synthetic food in front of her.
Sunny glanced at the cheap gruel, which was not so different from the stuff he used to consume in the outskirts, and sighed. Somehow, he had expected his first meal after becoming a Sleeper to be more lavish.
Still, it was food.
He sat down and began to wolf down the gruel ravenously. He was very, very hungry.
In the process, his thoughts began to wander. Sunny stole a glance at Jet and wondered. The Spell told him to find a master, and the next thing he knew there was a woman calling herself Master right in front of him. He tried to imagine being an obedient slave to someone like her.
Weird thoughts started to appear in his mind…
'You know what, Sunny,' he thought with dark irony. 'Knowing your luck, this would be a perfect moment for her to ask…'
"What are you thinking about?"
Sunny choked on the gruel. He felt his mouth beginning to open, and put all of his will into staying silent. A second passed without him saying anything. Then a weird pressure appeared in his mind, which soon turned into blinding pain. He endured it for a couple more seconds before giving up.
"I was thinking that it would be a perfect moment for you to ask me about what I am thinking," he finally said.
Jet gave him a weird look.
"Alright. Are you almost finished with your food?"
"Then I'll begin. As per protocol, I am obligated to inform you of a few things. It is mostly a formality. First of all, concerning your Nightmare…"
She glanced at him and sighed.
"You are entitled to receive free psychological counseling. No matter what traumatic experience you have encountered, there is no shame in asking for help. Your mind is as important as your body — it's only right to keep it healthy. Are you interested?"
Sunny shook his head. Jet shrugged and continued:
"As you wish. You can also talk to me. Was it very hard?"
How could he answer?
"It was simultaneously much worse than I expected and exactly as bad as I expected."
She nodded, satisfied with that explanation.
"That's a good attitude. I won't pry any further. Us outskirt rats are way more resilient than people think."
Sunny looked at her in surprise.
"Master Jet… you grew up in the outskirts?"
"What? You can't tell because of my exquisite manners and polished exterior?"
He blinked a couple of times, surprised.
"I couldn't tell at all."
After thinking for a while, he added:
"Are there a lot of people like us among the Awakened?"
Jet's smile disappeared.
"No. There's not. In fact, they can be counted on one hand."
As expected. Odds were really stacked against people like them. That made the three stars on Jet's insignia even more exceptional.
'One day, I'll be a Master too.'
If she can do it, why can't I?
"So… what happens now? What else are you obligated to tell me?"
Sunny had no idea what he was supposed to do after leaving the police station. The winter solstice was just several weeks away.
Jet leaned back and answered:
"That's basically it. There are some additional hoops to jump through, mostly having to do with your family, but… well. I've read your file, so I know it doesn't apply. The only thing left is to decide how you will be preparing for your first journey into the Dream Realm."
She looked at her communicator and grimaced.
"I must stay, your luck is exceptionally bad. There's not a lot of time at all. First of all: you are free to do what you want. No one is forcing you to make a certain decision. That is to say, you can choose to prepare on your own, or not prepare at all. Party until the lights go out."
Sunny was not very well versed in partying.
"However, I would advise against that. As a Sleeper, you are also entitled to enroll in the Awakened Academy. You'll be provided with food, lodging and a wide choice of preparatory classes. This late into the year, you won't be able to learn a lot. But it's better than nothing."
She was silent for a few seconds, then added:
"More importantly, you will get acquainted with most of the people who will enter the Dream Realm with you. Some of them might become your companions for life."
'And some may end up trying to end that life once we're inside the Spell,' Sunny added, reading between the lines of what Master Jet had said.
"So, what do you say? Do you want me to take you to the Academy?"
Sunny thought about it. Strangely, his Flaw was silent, not forcing him to answer one way or the other.
'Is it because I haven't made up my mind yet?'
Finally, he looked down, at his empty tray, and made a decision.
Free lodging and food, you say?
"Yeah. I want to go to the Academy."