“Do you really think Sands’ll be okay?” I asked a little bit later as Avalon stepped into our room after a post-ocean shower. I had been sitting on my bed, entertaining myself by playing with Herbie, tossing the little guy up and down from one hand to the other while thinking about everything that happened.
The other girl paused, then walked over to her side of the room to get dressed, a process that would have left even the absolute straightest of girls bending a bit because yeesh. “Mason’s pretty into the Strangers are evil, Crossroads Heretics are saints, rah rah, go team paragon stuff. But she’s also really close to her sister. Right now, I’m pretty sure she’s trying to figure out how to reconcile both of those.”
Biting my lip, I straightened a bit on the bed while setting my pet rock down, mindful of his little sword. “Do you think I did the wrong thing by telling everyone about what happened?”
Her eyes rolled and she moved over to sit on her own bed, drawing her legs up beneath her. “I’m not gonna play backseat driver with you, Chambers. It was your call to make, because it’s your mom. It’s your family, your choice. You wanna know if I would’ve made the same choice? No, probably not. But that’s me. That’s my choice, my family, my deal. No way to know if either of us would be right until it plays out. And even then, different situations. Different people. You and me, we’re very different.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” I pointed out while sliding across the bed to sit straight across from her. “Peanut butter and jelly are different too, and they go perfectly together.”
“Chambers,” the brunette started with a raised eyebrow. “Are you trying to hit on me?”
“Wh-what?” I squeaked, eyes widening in spite of myself. Avalon was smirking, and I cleared my throat with a blush. “No. I mean, that’s not what I—no, listen. I meant that we can work together pretty well as a team. As part of a team. As partners. As, whatever, you know what I mean. It’s not a bad thing to be different. If we were both the same, we wouldn’t bring anything new to the team.”
“You’re not wrong,” she admitted. Then Avalon fell briefly silent. Her face twisted a little like she was going to ask something but kept stopping herself before finally managing, “Seller’s your ancestor.”
I nodded, watching her face. “Yeah. I was kind of wondering when you were going to ask about that. You guys were pretty close, weren’t you? You said he was the one that picked you up from your old house and got you out of Eden’s Garden after all that stuff went down.”
Once again, she rolled her eyes. “After I killed the guy that tried to rape me, Chambers. Don’t be coy about it, just say what you mean. I’m not some fragile little glass bird that’ll shatter. Yeah, we’re close. I trust Seller more than pretty much anyone else in the world. He practically raised me after all that. He’s the one that taught me how to take care of myself, how to care about what I look like. He taught me to improve myself for me, not anybody else. He’s even the one that taught me how to groom myself. Pretty much everything I have, everything I am, is because of him. So yeah, we’re close. And now you’re related to him. Wonder if Gaia knew about that when she set us up.”
“I wouldn’t be that surprised at this point,” I mumbled toward the bed before blinking up at her. “Actually, that reminds me. That note from my mom in the scrapbook, she said I could trust Gaia. Do you… think we should tell her everything too? I mean, everything about what we know?”
The other girl thought about that for a moment, clearly torn. She obviously cared a lot about her adopted mother, which was understandable considering what her home life had been like before Gaia came along. Even if they had spent years apart, there was a strong connection between them.
“Yes,” she finally answered a bit slowly. “But not yet. Let me think about how to approach her, how much to—what we should say. Give me a little time to work it out, all right?”
I nodded to her, holding up my fist. “Sure, what are super-teammates for?”
Her eyes dropped to my fist, then back up to my face before she stood. “You,” she announced, “are a dork, Chambers.”
“At some point, you are going to call me by my first name,” I reminded her of my earlier vow. “Before the semester’s over, you’ll call me Flick. This I swear.”
“Keep dreaming, Chambers,” she replied while walking toward the door to leave the room.
I smiled sweetly then while retorting, “To be fair, it’s probably the most innocent dream involving you that anyone in this school has had since the semester started.”
Then, just before she managed to close the door after herself, I crowed, “Hah! Made you blush! I so win!”
“So, why did you choose the goggles, anyway?”
It was the next morning, and I was sitting across from Columbus at the breakfast table. Sean had some kind of security track project he was finishing, while Avalon was spending a little time with her mother. And the twins, well, Sands still wasn’t ready to talk to us just yet, and Scout was staying with her.
Which left the two of us sitting at the table, eating our food. Pancakes and sausage in my case, biscuits and gravy with a side of toast in his. I still wasn’t used to this kind of breakfast, after years of cereal. But hell if I was going to complain. The kind of work they put us through most days obviously necessitated a slightly more elaborate and filling meal than what Captain Crunch could provide.
“What do you mean?” Columbus asked while pouring himself another glass of juice from the pitcher.
I took the pitcher from him when he was done. “I mean, they had all kinds of weapons in those trunks. Guns, swords, battleaxes, everything. What made you choose the goggles? Did they just… feel right?” I was curious about how the weapon choosing thing had gone for other people, especially bystander-kin.
Columbus paused with the glass halfway to his mouth, clearly considering the question before he shrugged. “Yeah, I guess they did. Sort of. Plus after Professor Katarin said what they were, I wanted them because uhhh…” He trailed off, looking a little embarrassed before mumbling under his breath.
Intrigued, I raised an eyebrow, putting a hand to my ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
Yeah, his face was definitely flushed a little bit. Clearing his throat, Columbus spoke a little louder, just enough to be audible. “I thought they’d make me be like Cyclops from the X-Men.”
“Cyclo—ohh, the laser beam eyes,” I realized with a smile as I took another bite of my pancakes.
That earned me a sharp look and a shake of his head. “They’re not laser beams. They’re concussive force, on both counts. Concussive force, well, concusses. It’s physical force in light form, not a laser.”
Chuckling, I raised a hand in surrender and acknowledgment. “Right, got it. Definitely not laser eyes.” After finishing up the last of my sausage, I added, “So you wanted to be like Cyclops, huh?”
Columbus shrugged. “Yeah, he’s sort of always been my favorite X-Man. Hell, favorite comic character period, really. It’s like, uhhh, I dunno. Maybe it’s dumb, but I guess I always felt kind of close to him.”
“Close to him?” Blinking at that, I asked, “Why, did you also marry a hot red head that dies a lot?”
He snorted before shaking his head. “No, it’s just that, you know… his parents died in a plane crash. Well, okay, no they didn’t. They were actually abducted by aliens and his father became a space pirate after his mother died when the—look, comic books are really fucking weird sometimes, okay? The point is, they were believed to have died in a plane crash. That’s what everyone thought, anyway.”
Realizing what that implied, my eyes widened a little. “Wait, does that mean that your parents–”
“Yeah,” he interrupted with a little nod. “They went on this trip to Egypt for a week. My dad had some kind of business meeting there, so I was staying with my buddy Max that lived next door. They were on the way back and uhh, well, their plane went down in the middle of the ocean. No survivors.”
“Oh god, Columbus, I’m sorry.” I straightened a little, unsure of what to say to him just then.
“It was a long time ago,” he replied, his voice a little quiet. “And you’ve got more problems than I do right now anyway. Don’t worry about me. Max’s parents couldn’t keep taking care of me, so I had to go into the system. Got bounced around a bit, but then I was adopted by the Porters the same year as Shiori. We’ve been pretty tight ever since.” He gestured to the table where the other girl was sitting.
When Shiori noticed his attention, she raised a hand in what looked like an automatic response before quickly looking away. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she looked pretty stressed about something. There were dark circles under her eyes that I could see even from where I was sitting, and when one of her teammates tapped her on the shoulder, the poor girl physically jumped as if she’d been shot.
“Uh,” I leaned closer to Columbus. “Is Shiori okay? She seems kind of… not very calm.”
I could see the worry in the boy’s expression as he shook his head. “I dunno. I tried to talk to her about it, but she just keeps saying she’s fine. I think she’s having really bad nightmares about this whole monster hunting thing, cuz she’s obviously not sleeping much. And unlike you, she actually needs it.”
Biting my lip, I hesitated before asking, “Do you think she should see the counselor about it? I mean, about whatever’s keeping her up. Professor Dare did say he specializes in talking to Bystander-kin.”
“Ehhh,” Columbus looked doubtful. “Lemme talk to her again, see if there’s anything she wants to get off her chest. I don’t wanna go running to teachers and make them think she can’t handle stuff here.”
“It’s not about not being able to handle stuff here,” I corrected him. “It’s about the fact that the crap we have to deal with here can be really nasty. We’re being taught how to kill monsters, Columbus. They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill things. Evil things that look human an awful lot of the time. If they didn’t realize that we might need to talk to someone about that stuff, they’d be the worst teachers ever.”
Sighing, the boy gave a little nod. “Okay, okay. You’re right, but I still wanna talk to her about it first.”
“You got it.” I took the last bite of my breakfast. “Just try to convince her to talk to someone, even if it’s not you. Whatever’s really bothering her that much, she should get it off her chest.”
Columbus nodded in agreement once more. “Anyway, I was sort of a geek when I was a kid. Tall for my age, really thin and lanky. Wasn’t really good at any sports and I was really into comic books, cartoons, everything superheroes and shit like that. Seriously, you would’ve called me a nerd.”
I coughed at that, denying his words with a shake of my head. “I would not have called you a nerd.”
“Mother Theresa would have called me a nerd,” he insisted. “And might’ve given me a swirlie.”
Shrugging, I replied, “Well, maybe. She was pretty into that whole suffering builds character thing. Actually, Mother Theresa was kind of a bitch when you actually look into the stuff she did.”
He just gave me a strange look then before clearing his throat. “The point is, I was a geek. Massive, enormous geek.”
“I kind of find that hard to believe,” I informed him while gesturing up and down. “Trust me, geeks and nerds do not look like… well, that.” Sure, he wasn’t quite as overtly jaw dropping as either Avalon or Sean, but geek? Hell no. “I bet those weren’t bullies chasing you around, they were people trying to get your phone number.”
He laughed and insisted. “Total nerd, I swear. Well, for a long time, anyway. Freshman year I went out for track and got really into that. Running was something my lanky ass long legs could actually do. But yeah, complete geek. And my biggest geek thing was Cyclops, cuz his parents went down in a plane crash like mine. I guess I sort of started hoping that maybe… you know, my parents might’ve been abducted by aliens too and I’d see them again. I had a few dreams about my dad being a space pirate.” Straightening, he shook his head and blinked a few times, clearly forcing back his emotions. “Like I said, just dumb kid things.”
“Hey,” I reached across the table, catching his hand briefly. “Trust me, it’s not dumb.”
He looked embarrassed, taking his hand away after a second before lowering his voice to a whisper. “What about your thing? You got any idea how you’re gonna break into that security office?”
I winced, letting out a long, low breath. “Not really. I need to find the office first and then figure out how to break into it while nobody’s there. I don’t even know what kind of alarms they’ve got.”
“Well,” Columbus replied, “Whenever you figure it out, I’ll try to help. Not sure how, but I’ll be there.”
Smiling at that, I nodded. “Thanks, Columbus. I’m glad, uhh, I’m glad that I told you guys the truth.” Most of it, anyway. I had left out the fact that Asenath was staying with my father, and I left out Twister’s existence entirely. Maybe it was a bad idea, but I didn’t think either of them would appreciate me blabbing about their exact location to people when I’d had no idea how they might react.
“Me too.” The boy stood, taking his own tray and mine. “Guess we should get to class now.”
“Yeah…” I stood slowly, managing a little smile. “Let’s go learn our Heretical History.”
A short while later, Professor Erica Ross stood at the front of the classroom, gazing out at us. The woman looked like one of those amazing Amazon warriors if they happened to live to be about ninety. Seriously, she looked really old, but somehow simultaneously amazingly powerful and strong too. Her face was incredibly lined from her age, yet her eyes were sharp as they looked around the room.
One thing that Crossroads had taught me was that it was completely impossible to tell a person’s age by how old they looked. Gaia and Seller were probably the oldest human beings I had met, yet they still looked like they were in the prime of their lives. Meanwhile, Professor Ross looked quite old, yet as far as I had been able to find out, wasn’t as old as the other two. The same went for Professor Pericles before he’d died. It all depended on what kind of powers they inherited, and how much they managed to kill. It was just completely impossible to judge based on appearance. Part of me wondered how that had affected personal prejudices when it came to Heretic society, and I made a mental note to look it up in the library.
“How many of you,” Professor Ross began, “can tell me who it was that created the Crossroads Heretical Edge and subsequently founded this particular school and our entire organization?”
Several people raised their hands, including (big surprise) Vanessa. My hand was up too, remembering what Professor Dare had said. Professor Ross, however, pointed toward one of Shiori’s teammates. I was pretty sure her name was Rebecca. She was a tiny girl, even smaller than Sands and Scout at less than five feet.
“Yes, Miss Jameson?” the teacher prompted.
“Hieronymus Bosch,” she promptly answered. “He’s the guy that created the Edge. The Bystanders know him for being this really important painter. But he was a lot more than that. He made this place. He made the lighthouse. Well–” she amended, “He made the light that was eventually turned into the lighthouse, I mean. Before it was in a building down here and they just took people into the room that they wanted to turn into Heretics.”
“Very good,” Professor Ross commended. “But how many of you know how Hieronymus became our founder? After all, there are others who are older than he was and are still alive today, such as our very own headmistress. Obviously there were other Heretics before. So what is it about him that made him different?”
This time, only Vanessa’s hand was up. When the professor nodded to her, the blonde girl answered, “Heretics were mostly accidents before, the very, very rare person who gained Heretic-like abilities through some other supernatural means. There were only a few in the world at a time. Hieronymus was the first one to create a way of mass producing Heretics on demand. It’s still not perfect and it can only make so many each year, but it was the first opportunity to let Heretics have an actual civilization.”
Professor Ross smiled broadly at that. “Excellent, Miss Moon. Yes. Now, who can tell me anything about how Hieronymus was able to build this light and subsequently change the world?”
This time, every hand stayed down.
“Very well,” the older woman gave a single nod. “Then I suppose none of you will be bored by our field trip today.”
“Field trip?” Aylen, the Native American girl who was also on Shiori’s team, raised her hand. “Where are we going?”
Professor Ross raised an eyebrow at her. “Why, to see the spot where Hieronymus became a Heretic, of course. It’s time that we visit the place where the formation of our organization truly began.
“You all deserve to know where we come from, and what our true legacy is.”