“Koren!” I blurted in spite of myself. As worn out (not so much tired as… emotionally and mentally exhausted) as I was after the events of the past half hour, my anger shot to the surface. “You can’t do that. Don’t you get it? That piece of shit knows how to get past the shield. Everyone but us is vulnerable. You can’t just leave everyone else in danger by withholding crucial information like that.”
A guilty flush crossed the girl’s face before she retorted, “I—of course I know that! But my parents—what do you think I’m supposed to do when you people are keeping secrets from me that have to do with some mind controlling psychopath that might go after my parents? Seeing what that piece of shit did when he went in the lighthouse, it’s the only thing I’ve got to make you tell me the fucking truth!”
I realized what she was doing then. She was scared. Koren was terrified, and doing the only thing she could think of to try to keep her family safe, with her usual… personality. What I’d reflexively thought was a callous threat to get gossip out of the situation was actually her fear-fueled desperation talking. She hadn’t thought through the threat at all. She’d just seen that she had information we wanted, and were withholding information about the danger her family was in. She wasn’t that callous, just scared.
Still, I half-expected Gaia to chew her out. This wasn’t the right situation to withhold information like that, or even to threaten to do so. Yes, Koren had reason to be angry and frightened about what was going on, and why it involved her family somehow. But threatening the safety of the school was wrong.
Not that, to be fair, I had a lot of room to talk. I couldn’t begin to guess how I would react in the same situation. Hell, was I that different? I already knew I’d place finding my mother over obeying Crossroads rules. Maybe I shouldn’t judge so quickly. Especially when it came to something like this.
Instead of disciplining her, however, the headmistress just spoke her name quietly. “Koren.” When the girl reluctantly looked at her, Gaia continued. “You are correct. We ask too much of you to turn around and hide something this important. The danger that we put you in even at the best of times is too much for us to keep secrets from you that pertain to your family. If you can be trusted to put your life in danger to protect others, then you can certainly be trusted to know the truth about those closest to you. So I will tell you. I give you my word on that. But first, you must explain what you saw in there.”
Given that promise and the opportunity to back down without losing face, Koren swallowed hard. “I—okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably easier if I show you. He did, um, something with the light thing.”
I started to step that way, to go to the lighthouse with her. But the headmistress raised a hand to stop me. “Felicity,” she said quietly. “There will be an investigation. You cannot be seen as part of it.”
My eyes widened at that, and I blurted, “What—but–what are you talking about? He was here for–”
“I know,” she interrupted, her voice soft, yet regretful. “And I will share everything that I can with you, as soon as possible. You have my word on that. But our security personnel already contacted the BSR as soon as they realized something was wrong and that they had been deliberately sent away by Professor Kohaku. They are on their way, and the investigators they send will not see things as you and I do. You are witnesses and intended victims. The Runners will insist on thoroughly debriefing you. Which means that you and Shiori should take this time to rest, recover, and… organize your thoughts.”
Right, she didn’t want the Runners coming in and finding their ‘witness’ investigating the same thing they were. If that ended up on the report that made it to Ruthers’ desk, and he was given any kind of proof that I actually knew what was going on, that I knew this was about my mother’s true history and all the hidden secrets that entailed… well, it’d give him even more ammunition to use against Gaia.
Flinching, I glanced toward the other girl. Shiori was still shivering in spite of the temperature shield, her eyes open, yet downcast. I could see something in her gaze, obvious horror at her complete inability to stop herself from following Ammon’s orders. Her eyes were haunted and wet from unshed tears.
Gaia went on. “Go to the underclassmen lounge. I already sent Columbus there with fresh clothes and blankets for you both. Mr. Gerardo,” she added toward Sean. “Would you please accompany them, then visit the kitchens for some hot chocolate?” Finally, she added, “Once I finish speaking with Miss Fellows, I will send her along so that you may have your own conversation. She can tell you everything that she shows me. There will be no secrets from you, I promise. Not when it comes to this situation.”
I didn’t like it, but for Shiori’s sake, I nodded. Taking the other girl by the hand, I started to walk that way with Sean on my other side. Vulcan trotted next to the other girl, letting her rest a hand on his back for support. We walked, and I looked toward the boy once we were halfway to the other building. “How’d you know what was going on? I mean, you sent Vulcan ahead, so you knew it was Ammon.”
He nodded. “Yeah, Columbus was working on this telescope… thing. Trust me, it’s better if he shows you. Anyway, we sort of snuck out to get up to the roof so we could test it and saw you come running out of the other dorm. Figured out who the kid you were chasing had to be from what happened with Koren. So I sent Vulcan out there after you while Columbus and I went to make sure Avalon was okay. The headmistress was there, having this… let’s just say pissing off her or Kohaku is a really god damn bad idea, okay? I’m talking, given the choice between going mano a mano with another Amarok or fighting one of those two, bring on the big bad wolf.” Belatedly, he added, “Oh, and your uh, room is gonna need to be rebuilt. And, uh, several other rooms. And the hallway. And the… It’s a real mess.”
“But Avalon’s okay?” The question didn’t come from me, but from Shiori. Her head had snapped up at that. “Nothing… bad happened to her, right? And… what about Rebecca?” Her expression was guilty again, as if her not being in the room might have had anything to do with her roommate possibly getting hurt.
Even hearing the question made me want to go sprinting off to check for myself. The memory of Avalon… Avalon of all people being under Ammon’s control, of the fact that he had been alone with her, that they’d had a conversation (one in which she had apparently been ‘rude’ to him), made me sick. It made me want to scream, made me want to go after Ammon again and just… just beat the evil little piece of shit into the ground for everything he’d done. I wanted to make him pay for everyone he hurt.
In the end, only two things stopped me from going off to find Avalon to make sure she was safe for myself. The first was the fact that I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if I showed up there and any of the girls woke up and weren’t cleared of Ammon’s mind control. Yeah, it seemed to clear up after people were unconscious, but testing it right then seemed like a bad idea. And the second thing stopping me from leaving was that Avalon was asleep, while Shiori was awake. After what Ammon had done to her, what he almost made her do, leaving Shiori alone was probably the absolute worst idea.
“Oh yeah, they’re all fine,” Sean assured her. “Gaia was holding off Professor Kohaku, and protecting all the girls. While, you know, making sure they didn’t leave the building. They were looking for you, Flick. Being really damn insistent about it too. The baroness, she uh, she was pretty amazing. Kept switching her attention between protecting and containing everyone else, and dealing with Kohaku.”
We reached the lounge by then, and I went in with Shiori while Sean moved on to pick up the hot chocolate. As soon as we entered, Columbus turned away from the television and stepped over quickly. “Shiori!” he blurted, sounding terrified. “What the hell happened? I went to look for you, but you weren’t in the hall with the others. I thought—I didn’t know what—I mean… what—how–” The poor guy was trying to ask so many questions all at once that they kept getting jammed up on one another.
“She’s okay,” I told him. “Physically anyway. There’s no—it’s a long story. Ammon told her to drown herself. We had a little incident in the ocean. But she’s okay. You’re okay, Shiori. He’s gone now.”
“Drown herself?” For a moment, I thought the boy was actually going to storm out of the building and go after Ammon himself somehow. His face contorted in anger, and he made a few frustrated noises before turning around and lashing out to punch the nearby wall with his closed fist. “Son of a bitch!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he seemed to realize what he’d said and flushed guiltily. “I mean–” He cringed a bit, head shaking rapidly. “Sorry. Sorry. That was a really bad choice of words.”
“It’s okay,” I managed a bit weakly, my throat painfully dry as I fought to find the right words, words that would make him feel even a little bit better. “I know what you meant. Trust me, I’m pissed off too.”
Together, Columbus and I led Shiori past the enormous tropical fish tank that took up most of one of the walls. On the way, I glanced toward the occupants, thinking about the sharks that had saved our lives. I’d promised to go back soon and visit them. And I would, as soon as I had the chance. Something about the way they had all acted more like loyal puppies than perfectly evolved killing machines made me feel not quite as scared of them as I had been before. They were almost cute, in a really deadly way.
And to be fair, as a Heretic, my house was made of a bit too much glass for me to start throwing stones when it came to things that were supposed to be perfect killing machines. At least they did it to eat.
We sat down on one of the couches, and I let the other girl slump against me. Yeah, we were still soaked through. But at that point, I didn’t really care about getting the couch wet. It would dry. Or they could replace it. Or use magic. Whatever. After everything that had happened, they could spare a couch.
A few seconds of silence passed before Shiori spoke up quietly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice shook as she repeated herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. If I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t given him a target to use against you, you could’ve stopped him. You almost had him. I didn’t know what was going on, and he… he was there. He… I’m sorry.” Her voice broke, cracking a bit as she shook her head. “I screwed up, and he escaped because you were too busy saving me to stop him. He got away because of me.”
Flinching, I glanced to Columbus before looking back to her. “Shiori, look at me. I don’t care. I’d let a thousand Ammons walk away before I’d abandon you. Ammon will show up somewhere again. He can’t help himself. There will be other chances to stop him, to catch him. But there’s only one Shiori.”
The two of us locked eyes then, and in that exact moment I remembered what had happened under the water. She had been close to gone, no air and no chance to get more in time. I’d panicked, desperately needing to give her oxygen. And then I’d… my face turned pink at almost the same time as hers.
“Clothes!” Columbus abruptly blurted, straightening to move to a nearby table where a bundle sat. “Gaia had me bring over dry clothes for you guys. I—huh. I wonder how she knew you’d be so wet.”
He brought over our clothes, as well as a few towels, then stepped out of the room for a couple of minutes while the two of us hurriedly dried off and changed. Being in dry clothes actually helped me feel a lot better. Even it was technically just a little thing, the fact that I wasn’t wearing stuff that was soaked through in ocean water made me feel like that whole horrible situation really was over.
Once we were changed, I looked toward Shiori. “I meant what I said before. I know you feel guilty, that you feel bad now. But don’t. Because the fact that I have people that I care about, people like you? That’s what makes me different from Ammon. Empathy. Friends. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Her mouth opened and shut again before she managed, “But everyone he hurts now, everyone he kills because I was in the way… because I let him use me as a hostage so he could escape, that’s all my–”
“Don’t.” I warned her, stepping that way. “It’s not your fault. If Ammon hurts anyone else, that’s his fault. His and his father’s, not yours. You can’t try to shoulder that burden, Shiori. I won’t let you.”
Before the other girl could say anything else, the door opened, and Columbus came back in. He held the door open for Sean, who came through with a tray of not just mugs full of piping hot deliciousness, but also what looked like little cinnamon rolls. “Thought you guys might be hungry after your… swim.”
Taking one of the mugs, I blew on it like the little wuss I was before taking a sip. The hot liquid felt unbelievably good just then, and I shuddered a little. Then I focused on the boys. “When you guys were over there, did you see the twins? Sands and Scout, the… she was shooting, and I sort of sent Koren in to make her stop before she did anything too bad. I hope she didn’t—I mean, Scout’s okay, right?”
“Uh, yeah. I hope so.” Columbus looked guilty. “It wasn’t Koren that stopped her. I did. I mean, she was working on it, but I sort of shot them both with these things.” He gestured to the goggles. “It was the fastest way to stop them before they did something they’d regret. Then the headmistress did something to make them stay down, and I made sure they were comfortable. I just hope they’re back to themselves when they wake up, because I do not want those two pissed at me for blasting them.”
“Anyway,” he finished, “Koren took off as soon as Scout wasn’t shooting at anyone anymore.”
Sean nodded. “I guess that’s how she had time to catch up with Ammon and see what he did in the lighthouse.” When Columbus started to demand to know what that meant, the boy shook his head in mock resignation. “I’m sorry, man. But if you hang out in the game room all day, you’ll miss stuff.”
That left Columbus sputtering about Gaia and towels and clean clothes for a moment. And, I noticed, had the obviously intended effect of making Shiori smile just a little bit. It looked adorable, as she held the hot chocolate against her mouth and smiled with her front teeth slightly biting the lip of the mug.
I gave the Hispanic boy a quick smile of my own before clearing my throat. “I hope Koren gets here soon. I uh, I guess I get to tell her she’s my niece now? That’s gonna be an interesting conversation.”
The door opened then, and I thought it was pretty good timing on Koren’s part at first. Instead, however, the man who stood in the doorway was one of the staff that I didn’t have much experience with. He was just under six feet, a man with a face that was handsome and rugged in sort of a distinguished middle aged sort of way. The guy looked like Liam Neeson in those Taken movies.
I had to think for a minute before remembering his name. Peterson. Peterson Neal, the head of ‘student affairs’, whatever that meant. I’d never seen the man do anything other than stand around, and occasionally take a phone call or tell a student to hurry up and get to class. He wasn’t a conversationalist.
“Chambers,” he addressed me directly. “They’re ready to talk to you.” Beckoning with two fingers, he pivoted and left the room again, letting the door shut behind him.
Shit. I sighed, then looked to the others. “When Koren gets here, just… promise her I’ll explain when I get back. And wish me luck?”
Shiori caught my hand. “Thanks,” she murmured. “Thanks for saving me. I… I know what it cost you.”
After bracing myself to explain to the Runners what had happened, without telling them more than I had to, I made my way into the hall. “So who am I meeting this time? Is it Runner Kine again?”
Peterson just shook his head, gesturing the other way while another voice spoke. “No, Miss Chambers. I thought I’d get my information straight from the source this time.”
I looked that way, and found myself looking at a face I’d seen in several pictures already, a face that made me freeze up, quips disappearing.
“So I thought we could chat,” Gabriel Ruthers announced. “Just you and me.
“One on one.”