A/N: Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Stay safe and stay happy!
Chapter 19: C.H.E.R.Y.L.
I blink, she blinks, and we both blink in unison. I open my mouth, but close it abruptly once she opened her mouth too.
"I-I'm Shirley." I say finally. "As in, past you?"
She gives me another confused, shocked look. She glances in the direction of one of the bathroom mirrors and I follow her gaze. Even though the mirror was cloudy and needed cleaning we could both see each other's reflections perfectly. Our cheeks were both round, our eyes both wide with awe (although hers was aqua and rimmed with eyeliner), our noses both slightly curved and rounded at the tip.
The girl, presumably Cheryl, stifles a scream. "P-Past me?! What the hell?"
"Don't you remember? You've been stalking me for the past few months." I explain slowly. She didn't seem like she understood me so I raise my voice. "Shirley? Shirley Fox. I'm you, you're me. Kinda."
She started hyperventilating. "N-No, you're wrong! You're mistaking me for someone else. I'm not…I'm not who you think I am."
I raise my eyebrows. "Are you serious? Do you seriously want me to believe you just…You're not Cheryl?"
We lock eyes for a moment and I feel a chill go down my spine.
"Stop calling me that!" She yells. "My name is Shirley."
Someone comes into the restroom, throwing open the door noisily. "Shirs? We have to board the train soon. You coming?"
"Miranda. Just give me a minute." I lie. She supposedly doesn't notice the girl looking almost exactly like me standing a few feet away from her.
"Kay…Don't take too long."
The door closes and I turn back to my twin.
"What year is this?" She suddenly asks.
She swallows. "Look, I'm not this 'Cheryl' you're talking about. I'm basically just a part of her. Understand? I don't belong to this time."
"What?" I blurt.
She takes a deep breath in and steadies herself against the row of sinks. It seemed like it was hard for her just to breath. "You touched me just now, didn't you? Oh, God. That wasn't supposed to happen."
"I don't understand. What are you talking about? You are Cheryl, aren't you?" I ask as evenly as I can but there was still a shred of uncertainty in my voice that I hope she didn't hear.
She started panting loudly. "M-My na-name is Shirley!" She exclaims. "I…I'm not…I'm not the Cheryl you're looking for, okay? Just leave me alone."
She tries to walk pass me but I grab her by her wrist again. Her skin was so icy cold that I flinch away.
"You're lying. I can tell."
She turns around again, her breathing starting to even out. "Excuse me?"
"You're lying! I know, because you're me." I say confidently. "When I'm nervous I start gasping for air, I stammer and my hands get cold. Now tell me the truth."
The girl in front of me gives me a meaningful look and her expression softens a tad. "I'm only Stage 2. I'm incomplete." She whispers.
"Could you just give me the full explanation? You of all people should know I don't understand." I ask, growing slightly impatient.
She shakes her head. "Aren't you supposed to be heading to Orbis 'bout now?"
I glance at the door. They were probably waiting for me. I turn back to the Shirley in front of me and sigh. This was going to get complicated.
"Come with me."
Naomi eyes Older Shirley through her thick mascara coated lashes and crosses her legs in her seat. Her older sister - the one with more social graces - Miranda Grayson, had her reading spectacles on, and was scanning through a thick book on magic spells she complied. She was trying to understand how there was a twin of me sitting awkwardly next to her.
"What the shit are you?!" Naomi blurts out.
"I'm a Cheryl." She says carefully.
"A Cheryl. Codename Cheryl, as in C.H.E.R.Y.L, which stands for Controlled Hegemony Echelon Response group, Yeoman to the Law-enforcement team."
I raise my eyebrows. "Yeoman?"
"Hey, wasn't my idea. It was yours, actually." She says drily.
"Okay, I don't understand what the hell is going on here." Naomi snaps.
"Neither do I." Miranda pipes up.
"You guys can see me?"
Naomi huffs. "Of course, bitch."
"Naomi, mind your tone."
"Shut up, sis. I'm the damn guild master and you know damn well I could whoop your ass right now."
I clear my throat and Naomi and Miranda glares at me. I exchange a look with Older Shirley.
"Basically, I'm a droid. A Stage 2 one, to be exact." She explains. "I was sent from the future to observe, uhm, research I mean, the current guild Ariel."
"Stage 2?" I ask.
"Well, there are basically four stages," She holds up four fingers. "Stage 1 is what we call 'Shadows', because they literally just lurk around in the shadows and have close to zero interaction capabilities, and are used for determining the state of the subject. They are actually used quite often."
I nod. "Like that creepy thing from Orbis Tower."
Naomi's jaw drops slightly. "What…What the F-"
"Continue," Her sister interrupts.
"Stage 2 droids takes the form of…well, you." She continues, pointing a wary finger at me. "Years from now, you three actually create the C.H.E.R.Y.L. system, and sixteen year old Shirley Fox models the droids after herself."
"I created them?!" I accidentally yell.
Naomi takes the opportunity to punch me in the arm. "C.H.E.R.Y.L. has to be like the worst freaking acronym ever. Thanks a lot, Shirs." She snarls.
Miranda clears her throat loudly. "So what you're saying is that," She starts in a hysterical voice. "You're some kind of 'droid' from the future which we created?!"
Older Shirley shook her head. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's true." She raised a hand, which seemed suddenly translucent. "I'm going to get deleted soon, because Stage 2 droids aren't allowed to touch subjects directly."
"Wait, you haven't explained about Stage 2 to 4 yet. And why we…why we created you and the system!"
She gives me a sad smile. "I'm sorry…I can't explain right now. You'll have to figure it out yourself." She says, standing up from her seat and brushing imaginary dust off her skirt. "Just know that…Summoning 'us' isn't that hard. We are always watching, always helping, even if you don't see us."
I nod slowly, trying to process what was happening. She was slowly fading away, being 'deleted', and soon she'd be nothing at all.
I try to grab her wrist again but I just go through her.
"Bye, Shirley." She whispers as she disappears completely. The words seem to echo around me.
"We are always watching, always helping, even if you don't see us."
"Shirley…You have a load of explaining to do." Miranda murmurs, still in a daze from watching Older Shirley fade away.
I open my mouth but decide to close it at the last moment. The train, which only passengers were the three (three and a half?) of us, comes to a slow stop and I stand up and start dragging my suitcase.
We sit in silence in the taxi, Naomi's left foot jingling around like crazy in its red stiletto. She starts tapping a long fingernail against her phone, and I could almost see smoke sprouting out of her ears.
I had promised that I would explain the whole Cheryl thing once we got back to Ariel, and so far no one has brought it up yet. Thank God. I'm just wishing they forget it.
Naomi's phone starts ringing – the ringtone being her favorite trashy clash-y nu metal song – startling Miranda who was engrossed in another brown file.
(We were scheduled for another mission a couple days from now, and she and Naomi were apparently booked for the rest of the week because they had to fix the leaking roof in the dining hall, not to mention the meetings with potential sponsors. In a nutshell, we apparently have money problems. Naomi suggested robbing a bank, Miranda suggested imposing reasonable tax rates among guild members – you can guess whose idea was approved.
And no, I'm not the only one who feels Miranda would be a more suitable guild master.)
"Yes?" Naomi barks into the phone. She pauses for a few seconds before swearing under her breath. "What the hell did I tell you…No, you do not touch the freaking furnace. I don't care that everyone in the dorms are freezing cold! Tell them not to be such pussies. Heat costs money! Luke – Fine, Uncle Luke. I swear to God, if I get back there and see someone touching the goddamn radiators, I'll be slitting someone's thro – Yes, I'm very serious. Please get Hannah to send up the meals now."
She hangs up abruptly and huffs, punching in more numbers into the phone. Miranda raises her eyebrows slightly before going back to her paperwork.
Even though Naomi was a lot more…abrasive, you had to admit she got the job done. She was probably the most no nonsense (other than her own nonsense, of course) person I knew.
The taxi comes to an abrupt stop and Naomi just storms out, phone plastered to the side of her face and Miranda follows in tow without looking up from her book. They grab all the suitcases and wait for me outside.
I sigh and turn towards the driver, whose hand was extended out expectantly. I rummage through my bag and hand him a few short stacks of dollar bills and run for it before he can ask me why I've only paid him a few hundred mesos.
As Miranda puts it, 'money problems'.
A breeze of wind blows, whipping my hair again. Leafre was pretty cold this time of year and as always, I was a little underdressed. A little.
We walk up to the wrought iron gates and the guild building itself overlooks us in all its glory and slightly chipped pink walls. Behind the gates, a guard lolls forward in his sleep in his little guard house.
"It's locked." I say, pointing out the obvious. The gates were all motorized now and were activated by switches.
Naomi whips a few Ilbi stars out and throws them at him between the bars of the gate, breaking the glass of the window and nearly hitting him. He just continues sleeping.
"Goddammit. He's getting fired next." She mumbles under her breath and Flash Jumps over the gate.
"Are we…Are we allowed to do that?" I yell from the other side.
Naomi shrugs, throwing a bag over her shoulder before jumping right up to the entrance and walking in.
I glance at Miranda and she's still reading. Useless.
I had to admit I wasn't very confident with my Flash Jumping. Even though I've technically already mastered it I haven't exactly…applied it very well. Last time I tried, I was alone, and I landed on my face.
I run a hand along the bars and it freezing cold and slippery. I wasn't very good at climbing either.
I turn towards Miranda again and she's finally stuffing her files into her tote bag and acknowledging the problem.
"Follow me," She grins, grabbing me by the wrist and leading me towards an unruly looking bush next to the gate, in front of the reinforced brick walls. She shoves the small of my back and I fall in.
At first it was all darkness but I blink again and find myself in the guild's conference room.
"Woah," I breathe, struggling to my feet and pulling my bag closer to me.
Miranda emerges shortly after. "Awesome, right?" She says chirpily.
I nod slowly. The room was just how we left it, wood stools around a giant table.
"How did that work?" I ask, trying to push the doors open. It was locked. "And how are we gonna get out of here?"
She dangles a bunch of keys in front of my nose. "I may not have all these fancy skills that Naomi does, but I do have some of my own resources. This place is filled of portals, like that one outside. No one knows except me and my sister. And you now, I suppose. We used to sneak in at night as kids."
I wave her goodbye and walk over to the block of dorm buildings. I trudge up to the room, still limping slightly from the burns. The whole place seemed eerily quiet, almost deserted.
I shove the key to my room into the keyhole and open the door.
Cheryl – or at least, one of the Cheryl's – was draped over my bed, acting like she was Rose from freaking Titanic or something.
I open my mouth and close it like a goldfish. "C-Cheryl?"
"Well, duh." She said, sitting up and crossing her legs. She was wearing a silk nightgown even though it was only dinner time.
Stage 1, Shadow. Stage 2, Droids.
"What stage are you?" I blurt.
"What. Stage. Are. You." I repeat, leaving the bag by the opened door and walking slowly towards her. "Stage 2? 3?"
She looked surprised and confused at the same time.
"Who…Who told you about that?" She asks, her voice sounding tense again.
"You did." I answer automatically. "Stage 2 you, before she got deleted."
I heard her swear under her breath.
"You weren't supposed to know." She says eventually, standing up from the bed. "I'm sorry…But I'll have to delete you now."
"W-What?!" I exclaim. "Delete…Delete me?"
She nods and smiles sadly and stands up, grabbing me by the shoulder. Her touch was icy cold.
I feel my heart in my throat. Fear and anxiety well up in me. She must be joking, right? I turn my head slightly. The door's still open. If only I could…If only I could run…
"I'm sorry, Shirs." She whispers, placing her right thumb on my forehead and pulling it down to my nose bridge.
I feel the floor quake and everything - the cream walls, my purple bed, the slightly dusty floors – starts to disperse. The world goes white for a second before fading to shades of gray and black. It was completely silent, and my heart starts pounding even harder in my chest. My throat constricts and for some reason I feel like I can't breathe anymore.
I try to move around but I feel like I'm stuck in place, just floating in an endless sky of black. I open my mouth to scream but my lips feel too heavy to move.
My eyelids grow heavy too and even though I fight hard to blink myself awake I start fading away.
Info: This is the last chapter of Ariel, everyone! I just thought it's been dragged on for too long. I'll be doing a prequel next, hopefully a more well written one, about Arraine Grayson. After that I might continue this, not really sure. Thanks for reading all this way. :')
Till next time.