“When I got home with my dad, Ammon was gone,” I finished giving my story a couple hours later. “I checked the house he was staying in with Rose, but there was no sign of him or where he went.”
The room I was telling my story in was the same one that I had been interviewed by Runner Kine in after the peridle situation. Kine himself was even one of the people sitting across the wooden table from me listening intently to every word I said, though he wasn’t alone this time. Sitting on either side of the very tall, almost skeletal-thin man were Professor Dare and Professor Kohaku, the former of whom had seemed to be in a pretty good mood ever since I met up with her again after spending the hour with Miranda. I didn’t know what she and Hisao had talked about, but the blonde woman’s unconscious smile had only dimmed once I progressed enough in my explanation of what happened.
It wasn’t just me mechanically reciting the events, either. Each of the three adults had taken turns asking questions about not only the important parts of the story, but also seemingly inconsequential details like what color shirt Ammon had been wearing, or what kind of pizza we’d had.
The suspicious part of me figured they were trying to trip me up and see if I was leaving anything out, which I was, of course. The optimistic part (and the fact that I still had an optimistic part of myself after everything that had happened over the weekend was kind of a thrilling discovery, believe me) figured that it was meant to prompt more relevant and important details to come to mind as I focused.
Practical me figured it was a bit of both, and told the other two sides to be quiet.
“To reiterate and make certain we have this correct,” Tribald Kine spoke up after the three of them had exchanged glances. “You arrived home and interacted with a young boy named Ammon who had been living in the next door house for several weeks. Your Heretical Sense did not warn you that he wasn’t human, but you believe now that he attempted to use some sort of mind control ability on you, which failed. At some point, you left the house to visit with old friends and to walk around your hometown. When you returned, your father and the bystander woman this Ammon boy had been living with made an excuse to leave for the evening, citing medical issues with the woman’s father. They left you and Ammon in the house alone. At a certain point post-midnight, you entered the living room of the house and were attacked by mind-controlled bystanders who had been your coworkers at your previous job.”
The man fell silent then, looking up and waiting until I gave a quick nod. His eyes ran over me searchingly for another moment before he continued, his tone more thoughtful now. “During this time, the boy boasted to you that your father would shortly be murdering the bystander woman, going so far as to tell you the exact location in an attempt to torment you with the knowledge that you would not be able to stop what was going to happen. He then ordered the bystanders to hurt you. Fortunately, before they could fulfill this command, you managed to kick and squirm your way free and escape the house.”
Again, I nodded, and Runner Kine went on. “From there, you… borrowed the car of a friend and drove to the motel, arriving just in time to render your father unconscious before he could fulfill his orders. Ammon then used your phone, which you had lost in the process of all this, to call your father’s phone. He informed you that he would be ordering the local police force to murder innocent civilians as punishment for your escape and rescue of your father and the bystander woman. To prevent this, you drove to the police station and engaged with Ammon in an attempt to retrieve your phone in order to summon Heretic-assistance. In the process, however, your phone was destroyed and Ammon escaped.”
“Yes, sir,” I confirmed, glancing from the man to the other two to avoid making a suspicious amount of eye contact (which itself makes lying as obvious as avoiding all eye contract does) “That’s right.”
We went over more of it. I told them I didn’t know why Ammon’s power didn’t work on me, why he targeted me, or why he was immune to my Stranger sense. I asked about other Strangers being immune, thinking of Twister, and was told that it happened occasionally, for reasons that I’d learn in time.
When that was done, Professor Kohaku spoke up. “I do have one more question, Miss Chambers. While the deaths of the civilian bystanders are very tragic, the fact of the matter is that there were not nearly as many as there could have been. Looking at the number of people who were killed and comparing it to the number of deputies who simply woke up within their own vehicles with no memory of what had happened, the death toll should have been much higher than it was. Yet from your depiction of events, you had no contact with these deputies and did nothing to stop them. Which leads me to ask, who did?”
Looking that way, I forced myself to blink with as blank an expression as I could manage. “Well, I sort of thought it was you guys at first. Heretics who didn’t know who I was, or something. If it wasn’t you, maybe it was people from Eden’s Garden? I mean, we saw–”
In mid-sentence, I noticed two things. First and most obvious, the word ‘stop’ appeared in glowing, three foot tall letters in the middle of the table. The word pulsed once to grab my attention. Yet no one else reacted to it. Their eyes remained focused on me, as if the big glowing word wasn’t even there.
The second thing I noticed was Professor Dare. Her hands were clasped in front of her on her side of the table. Her left hand covered her right, blocking it from the view of the other two adults, but I could see her right index finger tracing along the wood as though she was writing something out.
“Miss Chambers? Are you all right?” Runner Kine asked gently. “What did you see, exactly?”
Professor Dare finished tracing with her finger, and the word ‘stop’ was replaced by ‘do not mention our meeting.’ She then met my gaze directly, her earlier smile gone as she simply nodded.
I took a second. When I’d met up with the professor again after leaving Miranda, we hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. A couple of other Runners were already there, waiting to investigate the situation, so we didn’t have any privacy. After we went through the portal to come back to school, Professor Kohaku had been waiting nearby to escort me up to this debriefing with Runner Kine. There hadn’t been an opportunity for Professor Dare to say anything private to me, like the fact that she didn’t want me to say anything about meeting up with a couple people from Eden’s Garden for some reason.
Right, some reason. Don’t be dumb, Flick. You know exactly why she didn’t want them to know. The rivalry between this place and Eden’s Garden was obviously so bad that finding out we’d had a pretty peaceful meeting with a couple of them would probably look pretty bad to certain people. Hell, for all I knew, it might even put Professor Dare’s job at risk. I didn’t know how seriously they took this stuff.
Besides, if it meant not having to argue with people about renewing my friendship with Miranda, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d been a little bit worried about just how that was going to go down.
In the end, I just shook my head. “Sorry, I was just gonna say that we saw how quickly you guys sent people in as soon as you found out what happened, and you were swamped all weekend with emergencies. Maybe Eden’s Garden was just quicker or—err, you know, they happened to send in a Heretic or two while it was happening.” It was a little bit of a lame correction, I had to admit, but hopefully it was good enough to pass. I was hoping that my awkward pause would be chalked up to being uncomfortable or worried about implying that Eden’s Garden was faster than Crossroads.
The three of them exchanged a short series of silent glances with one another before Runner Kine stood up a little abruptly, plucking his notebook up to put in his pocket. “I think that’s about it for now. I’ll go over what you’ve said and if I have any more questions, I know where to find you.”
Quickly, I raised my hand. “Actually, uh, Runner Kine? I had a couple things I wanted to ask you about. I mean, not related to this, but a private thing?” It was my chance to get more information out of the man, considering he’d been the one that directed me to that picture of my mother to begin with.
He paused, glancing at me before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to send me an e-mail with your questions. I’m sure you understand how busy we’ve been with everything. It’s lucky that I had time to stop by here at all. If it’s about anything that I can answer, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
He and Professor Kohaku were out the door a few seconds later, discussing something about revising the security and safety measures for any more students that left the school for any reason.
That left me with Professor Dare, who remained silent until the door had closed, then straightened up. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I would prefer that our interaction with Hisao and your friend remain off of the official record. While there is nothing outright forbidden about it, some would be concerned.”
I was pretty okay with that, considering how little I felt like being interrogated about my loyalties toward Miranda. “That’s okay,” I assured the woman. “But what did you and Hisao talk about?”
Professor Dare’s mouth opened, then shut. I saw the slightest hint of a blush touch her cheeks before she stood from the chair. “Nothing of particular relevance. He had no new information.”
Before I could ask anything else, she changed the subject. “On a serious note, Miss Chambers, you have been through a very traumatic experience. Even if your father does not remember what he almost did, you remember it all. So I want you to visit Klassin Roe for a few weeks. He’s our school therapist, who specializes in talking about this sort of thing with our students, bystander-kin in particular.”
“You’re sending me to a shrink?” I asked a bit blankly. “But you’re part of the great big secret magic school full of adventure and mystery. Are you even narratively allowed to know what therapy is?”
That earned me a smile as the woman shook her head. “I’ll set up your first appointment for Thursday evening, Miss Chambers. You and Mr. Roe can discuss the best time for further meetings there. For now, I suggest you meet up with the rest of your team and talk about what happened. I’m sure they’ll want to know.”
Nodding while straightening up, I asked, “So if you and Hisao didn’t really exchange much information, what did you guys do while you were waiting for Miranda and me to finish?”
Pivoting on her heel, Professor Dare strode to the nearby door. “As I said, nothing of importance. Now if you’ll excuse me, the headmistress will want to have a discussion about the situation.”
“But what did you guys–” I started, only to find myself speaking to a closed door.
“Boy,” I remarked to the suddenly empty room. “For people who wanted to ask me so many questions, they sure disappeared pretty damn fast as soon as I had a few of my own.”
“Hey, there she is!” Sean waved easily at me from where he was lying on a towel on the beach a few minutes later. “How was your trip, Flick? Get any decent birthday presents?”
Sue me, I took a second to appreciate his toned form before answering. The guy was wearing little more than a pair of green swim trunks, and the way he was stretched out on the towel was… distracting.
Snapping myself out of it with a physical shake of my head, I managed, “Not exactly a real vacation.”
“What happened?” The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find a distraction on the other end of the spectrum. As good as Sean looked in his suit, Avalon in a bikini almost made me wonder if I had lesbian tendencies, because god damn. Between the two of them, they could probably effectively capture the attention of anyone, no matter where they were on the Kinsey scale.
Not that they were alone in that. Even then, I could see Sands and Columbus emerging from the water. Though neither completely filled out their respective suits quite as well as Avalon and Sean did (Sands would have had to pack in a couple extra cantaloupes in her case, considering her petite size extended there as well), they weren’t exactly slouches either.
It probably helped that, while none of the rest of the team had received quite as much of a stamina upgrade as I had for the death of the amarok, killing those chamrosh had given a bit of a boost. Enough that everyone had more energy during morning exercises, and were less wiped during breakfast.
“Flick!” Sands jumped over to embrace me. “You’re back! Did ya have fun? Get anything good?”
I returned the embrace briefly, knowing that what I had to ask her about might end up taking her out of the hugging mood considering the opinion she had expressed before about Eden’s Garden.
Then I laughed and pushed the girl away. “Ew! You just wanted to get my clothes all wet.” Raising a finger to point at Columbus, I warned, “You don’t even think about it. Sands already got me wet enoaaaaaahhh…. I’m not even gonna finish that statement because I just realized what I was saying.”
Both boys looked briefly disappointed while Avalon rolled her eyes. Columbus lamented, “I would’ve treasured that sentence for a long time.”
Sands, meanwhile, simply cackled with amusement before dropping onto the empty towel next to Sean. “Maybe you should just change and join us. The water’s great today and we’ve got nothing else to do.”
“Actually, I kind of need to talk about what happened while I was home,” I announced while trying not to fidget too much. “It’s important, but we should have everyone. Where’s Scout?”
“Library,” Sands replied. “I can shoot her a text if you want. But what’s wrong, are you okay?” she asked while already picking up her phone from the nearby pile of supplies, tapping at the buttons on it quickly.
I pushed back the doubt and insecurity I had. They were my team, my friends. It had been a long time since I really understood what that meant. But Miranda’s instant acceptance of my story and willingness to put herself into danger to find out anything she could, her desire to help me find my mother, had reminded me. If I wanted them to ever trust me, I needed to take the plunge and trust them first, even with something as important as this.
“Like I said,” I replied, “we should really talk about it with everyone here. But trust me, you guys need to hear this.”
“It’s about time I told you everything about what’s been going on this year.”