Episode Seven: Training
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Description of dysphoria.

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I was disarmed, my back against a wall; my sword was lying in the street, several metres away, out of my reach.

I looked up. Emerald Scarab was standing over me, sword raised; for a moment, her expressionless face morphed into Clyde’s.

“I expected more from Mark’s brother,” he said. “You’re weak. Pathetic.”

And then he was gone, Scarab taking his place again.

“Pathetic,” she repeated.

The sword fell.

I woke with a start, and jumped to my feet, eyes darting around, adrenaline pumping through my veins; it was a few moments before I realised where I was: my room at the Defender Project base.

I sighed, and flopped back down onto the bed. The nightmares weren’t disappearing; if nothing else, they seemed to be growing worse – no doubt thanks in part to the treatment Clyde had subjected me the previous day. I wondered if they would ever go away completely.

I glanced around the room. Mark probably slept in a room much like this one… Before his death. I sighed again; I would never be able to take his place. No matter how much I applied myself, I would always be second to him.

My eyes came to rest on the box containing Mark’s personal effects. I’d ignored it before falling asleep, but I should probably check it out.

I stood up, walked to the desk, and opened the box. There wasn’t much inside it: clothes, some toiletries, stationery… And a black notebook. I opened it up, and started reading – it was a journal, apparently. I had no idea Mark journaled; the first entries dated to a bit over a year before, right after he’d come back from his leave.

I wondered: should I read it? After all, those were my brother’s most intimate thoughts. What right did I have to just pry into them?

As I was holding the journal in my hands, an envelope fell out of it; I picked it up, and saw that it was sealed, and addressed to me: it was probably the last letter Mark had written, but he hadn’t gotten around to posting it before… Before.

That, I was definitely within my rights to read.

I was about to rip open the envelope, when there was a knock at my door. “Hold on a second!” I called; I put the journal and the letter in the desk’s drawer, walked to the door, and opened it.

Amelia was standing on the other side.

Her being there brought back memories of what had happened the previous day, and I averted my eyes in shame; she didn’t seem to notice, however.

“Breakfast is ready,” she simply said. “I’m here to bring you to the cafeteria. You probably don’t know where it is.”

I nodded, still not meeting her eyes. “Give me a minute,” I said. She nodded in return, and shut the door.

I made a quick visit to the en-suite bathroom – I never would’ve thought a military base would have such luxuries – where I washed my face, brushed my hair until it didn’t look like a tangled mess, and put on a bit of make-up. Then I changed my clothes, since I’d slept in the ones I was wearing. Overall it took me less than five minutes, my parents, and my dad especially, had taught me to quickly get ready in the morning. It had something to do with minute-men; I’d never really cared enough to remember exactly what that meant.

“Ready,” I said, opening the door. Amelia simply nodded, and started walking away; I followed her, closing my room’s door behind me. In short order we reached the cafeteria. It was… A completely normal and unremarkable school cafeteria: that was apparently one of the rooms they’d left unchanged when they’d converted the school into Defender Base.

Following Amelia’s lead, I picked up a tray, placed a plate on it, and filled it up with various foods that were available in the buffet section; there was also a private who was on duty as a cook, and I asked him for some eggs, sunny side up, which he quickly prepared and slid on a plate, which he handed to me. Amelia and I sat at a table and started eating our breakfast, still without speaking.

“Can we sit here?” asked a familiar voice. I looked up, and saw Maelyn and Megan, each with a tray in their hands, looking at me. I shrugged, but didn’t otherwise reply; they sat down, Megan by my side, and Maelyn opposite me, next to Amelia.

We ate in silence for a few minutes, and then Megan broke the ice.

“Amelia told us what happened yesterday.”

I looked at Amelia, who had a blank expression on her face; she shrugged.

“Stephanie, while we don’t approve of you using your morpher against Clyde, we fully understand why you did it,” Mae said. “Just remember… Don’t let it happen again. If Amelia hadn’t stopped you, you might have killed him.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“You have nothing to apologise for,” she replied, shaking her head. “Rather, I should’ve warned you properly. I knew he would try to get a rise out of you, he’s just like that; I should’ve explicitly told you to keep your cool, no matter what he said to you.”

“I probably still would’ve done it,” I said. “I… These past days have been hard. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, ever since…” I paused, and gulped. “Ever since Emerald Scarab almost killed me.”

Meg put her arm around me and drew me in a hug; I was grateful, I sorely needed the physical contact. “Wanna talk about it?” she asked.

I hesitated, but I did want to talk about it.

“It’s just… So hard,” I whispered. “Everyone expects me to just step up and take Mark’s place, but I just can’t. I’m not him. I lack the training, the spirit, the discipline. As much as I wished I were like him, I’m just not.”

I felt my eyes moistening up, and blinked away the tears.

“Do you want to take a break for today?” Mae said. “I’m sure if we ask General Ryder--”

“No,” I cut her off, shaking my head. “It’s difficult, yes. I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I must. The Repulsoids might attack at any moment, right? I need to use every moment I have to train, so if someone dies at least it won’t be my fault for slacking off. You know what I mean?”

The three of them nodded. “We know,” Meg said. “Been there, done that. Sometimes, at night, I still see the faces of the people I couldn’t save, even though I’ve always done my best.”

“The same goes for me,” Amelia said. I looked at her: her face still didn’t betray any emotion.

“What I don’t get, though, is why Clyde is being so hard on me,” I said. “I mean, he has to understand I’m not my brother, right?”

I saw Meg and Mae exchanging glances. “What? Do you know something?” I asked.

“Stephanie…” Mae said. “Clyde… Well… He blames himself for Mark’s death.”

My eyebrows rose towards the ceiling. “He does? Why?”

“He and your brother were very close,” she replied. “Mark was the best fighter in the squadron, and Clyde was the only one who could even come close to him. They trained together almost every day. After…” She paused, and sighed. “After Mark was killed, Clyde was inconsolable. He kept going back to that day, saying that if he had been faster, if he had been stronger, he could’ve reached your brother before Ruby Scorpion struck the final blow on him. And when we heard that General Ryder was searching for Mark’s twin, he immediately began making plans to train you. He was… More than a bit upset when you turned out to be a girl.”

She reached across the table, and squeezed my hand. “He’s hard on you because he wants you to become stronger. Because he doesn’t want to lose you the way he did Mark.”

I stared at her, processing what she’d just said, turning it over in my mind, for a good half minute.

“This is complete and utter bullshit,” I said.

“What is?” Megan asked.

“This whole thing. With Clyde.” I slammed a fist down on the table; several people turned around to look at us. “He’s angry with himself because my brother died, and he takes it out on me? What the hell! That’s not even remotely fair!”

“It’s not,” Meg conceded. “But…”

“No buts,” I snapped. “Ever since I got that damned phone call everything has always been about someone else. My parents, who lost their son. The Defenders, who lost a team member. Clyde, who lost his friend. What about me? Huh?” I took a deep breath, that was halfway a sob. “Mark was my brother. Am I not allowed to feel sad that he died without having to think about everyone else first?”

Suddenly I realised I was crying; tears were streaming down my face. I raised my arm to wipe them off, but then I remembered I was wearing make-up, so I pulled out a tissue and dabbed at my eyes to dry them. Megan kept hugging me, and Mae squeezed my hand harder, waiting until I calmed down, which took a few minutes.

“Do you want us to talk to Clyde?” Maelyn asked, when my tears had stopped flowing.

“No,” I shook my head. “He doesn’t deserve that. At all. And I know his type: if he realised I’ve seen through his motivations, he would only redouble his efforts to try and humiliate me further.” I’ve lived with someone like him for most of my life, I added mentally.

“So what are you going to do?” Megan said.

I sighed deeply. “Ignore him. Keep training. Get stronger. That’s the only thing I can do,” I replied. “Speaking of which, I think it’s about time I head to the training room, to get some exercise in.

Mae nodded. “We have other duties this morning,” she said. “Clyde will probably be there, but the training session with him is planned for this afternoon, so you have the rest of the morning to train on your own.”

“Alright,” I said. I got up from my seat, placed my tray on a cart near the cafeteria’s doors, and left through them.

I looked left, then right; I realised I had no idea where I was exactly. I would need to go exploring the base on my time off, to begin to get my bearings, at least a little bit.

“This way,” Amelia said from behind me; I was a bit startled, since I hadn’t realised she’d followed me. She started walking along the corridor and I followed her, and soon we found ourselves at the training room.

As Mae had said, Clyde was there: he was sitting in a rowing machine, pumping away. When I entered he briefly glanced up at me, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge my presence, and I bristled a bit: would it hurt him to at least say hello?

I paced around the room, taking in the various machines, the weight racks, and everything: it was a full-fledged gym, every kind of exercise was possible there. I briefly wondered if the base also had a swimming pool, but I pushed the thought out of my brain for the moment – I didn’t feel confident enough to put on a swimsuit yet.

I ran my eyes along the racks, picked up a dumbbell, felt its weight. I’d never trained in a gym before in my life, so I had no idea how to go about it: all the training I’d ever done – all the training my father had forced me to do – had been either cardio or martial arts.

I heard a shuffle behind me, and turned around to see Amelia root around inside a small backpack; she pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to me without a word. I looked at it:

Biceps curls, 3 x 15 reps

Hammer curls, 3 x 15 reps

Bench press, 3 x 12 reps

And so on: there were at least twenty lines written down on the paper, in a neat and precise handwriting. “What’s this?” I asked, looking up at Amelia.

“Exercise plan, to get stronger,” she replied.

I looked at her in puzzlement. “Why would I need to do that?”

“The suit is a power amplifier,” she explained. “The stronger you are, the stronger Defender Red will be.” Then she handed me the backpack, and continued: “Exercise clothes. Should fit you. Changing room is over there.” She jerked her thumb at a door in the far wall. “Get changed, and then we will begin.”

I blinked. “We will begin?”

She shrugged. “I know how to do this stuff better than anyone else on base. So I’ll be your coach.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

She didn’t acknowledge my reply, but just sat down on a bench and began exercising. I stood there for a couple seconds, then made my way to the changing room. Amelia had a good eye, the clothes she’d given me fit my frame perfectly: they were much easier to move in than the street clothes I’d been wearing, and they even flattered my shape a bit – as I looked in the mirror, I could just barely see traces of my former self. It was a nice feeling.

“Ready,” I said, emerging from the changing room. Amelia stood up from her bench and walked over to me.

“Do you mind if I touch you?” she asked.

I was a bit puzzled. “…No?” I replied.

She nodded, and started feeling up my arms, legs, and abs, running her hands over them to get a feel for what muscles were there, and their shape and size. Then she nodded again. “Better than I thought, but there’s still room for improvement. Now, look carefully, I’ll show you how to do the exercises I’ve written down, and how to maintain proper form.”

Starting from there, we spent the rest of the morning training: first she would demonstrate a movement, and then I’d try to replicate it, with her making small and gentle corrections. I was grateful to her for looking after me. By the time we were done, though, my muscles were very sore – I hadn’t trained that hard in my entire life.

“Good,” Amelia said. “We’ll keep building from here, and I’m sure you’ll get stronger in no time.” She paused. “Rest. I’ll get some food from the cafeteria for you, you can eat here and then it’s time for combat training.”

I nodded, and she walked to the door; as she passed Clyde by, she patted his shoulder, and stage-whispered: “See how it’s done?”

He didn’t reply, but glared at her back as she left the room.

I took a deep breath, and massaged my muscles for a bit. Then I pulled out my morpher, and pressed the two buttons.

Welcome. Standby.

Clyde gave me a puzzled stare; I ignored him, and flicked the lever.

Power Up!

As soon as the momentary dizziness of transformation was gone, I fell into a relaxed stance, and moved my limbs a bit. They seemed lighter and hurt less, I noted: it was probably the strengthening effect of the Defender suit I was now wearing. But that was not why I had morphed.

I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly exhaled. I repeated this a few times, just concentrating on the movement of the air in and out of my lungs. In and out. In and out.

Slowly, I started to let the sensation expand, concentrating on every part of my body. The suit felt like it was a part of me… And it felt distinctly male.

I pushed down the wave of dysphoria that had begun to rise up in the back of my brain; I needed to learn to do this, to ignore the sensations I was getting from the suit, to avoid getting distracted in the middle of combat. The first time I’d morphed it had almost made me faint, and I definitely couldn’t afford that; the other two times, I’d been too distracted to notice. Now, the fourth time, I was paying close attention to every feeling, to every sensation I was experiencing.

This is not you. This body is not you. What matters is inside.

That had been a trick my therapist had taught me: not to dissociate, but instead to acknowledge my body, to know that the physicality I was experiencing was real, but that it didn’t really matter. This way, I could avoid feeling so dysphoric. It was something I’d often used in the very early stages of transition, when I’d despaired at how slowly the hormones seemed to be acting, and I still resorted to it sometimes. So I thought, why wouldn’t it work for the ‘temporary body’ the morpher granted me, too? Maelyn had told me there was no way to change it, so I had to come up with ways to hold back my dysphoria, and this certainly fit the bill.

This is not you. This body is not you. What matters--

Clyde’s voice cut through my thoughts like a hot knife through butter: “What are you doing?”

I snapped back to reality; the dysphoria that had been in the back of my brain surged, but I managed to push it down and not let it affect me.

“I’m trying to centre myself, if you don’t mind,” I snapped at him. “And you talking to me in the middle of it isn’t helping.”

He blinked. “Okay, okay,” he replied. “It’s just… I’d seen Mark do the same thing several times, especially over the past six months or so, so I was wondering what it was.”

Mark had been doing it, too? While it was true that I’d discussed the technique with him in letters, I didn’t think it could be applied to anything beside dysphoria. So why would Mark use it?

Or maybe I was wrong, and it could be used for something else, too. Guess I’d never know for sure, since I couldn’t ask Mark.

“It’s a way of acknowledging your feelings and sensations,” I replied. “To tell yourself that they’re real, but don’t matter: this way, you can concentrate on something else, and not let them affect you.”

Clyde nodded, but didn’t otherwise reply.

I took another deep breath, and was about to resume my mental exercise, when the door opened and Amelia walked in with a tray of food in her hand. She paused when she saw I was morphed, and glanced from me to Clyde and back again.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

I pushed the lever of my morpher back to the original position, and demorphed. “Yes, everything is fine,” I replied.

“Good,” she nodded.

We ate our meal in silence – Amelia had brought some for Clyde, too – and then I stood up and stretched, to drive away the kinks from my muscles; Clyde did the same, then grabbed a training sword and moved to the sparring area.

“Alright. From yesterday’s match, I think I know what your level is, more or less,” he said. “So we can start from there, and work our way up. But keep in mind that I won’t go easy on you.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I answered, grabbing a sword and walking over.

He nodded in acknowledgement. “Ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

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