Apparently Flick Rolled Really Well On Her Diplomacy But Critically Fumbled Her Spot Check.

The Next Step 8-03

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This was totally unfair. I had just revealed that a vampire was my friend. By all rights, Shiori should be the one staring at me with her mouth open in shock. Instead, I was the one catching flies as I gaped at the other girl. A noise that was mostly incoherent confusion gradually morphed into, “Wh-what?”

Shiori, who had been watching me with a guarded expression, finally lowered her eyes and looked away. Her voice was quiet, and full of so much despair it was almost palpable. “You heard what I said.”

“You–” Still reeling, I sat back, staring at her. My mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out. I couldn’t even think. And with every passing second, I could see the other girl shrink more into herself. There was utter misery on what I could see of her face, an expression of surrender, like she just knew that I was going to turn her in and she would be killed for being a monster. It was seeing that expression, that look on the face of a completely innocent girl who had done absolutely nothing wrong, that made me realize once and for all the kind of damage that the Heretic teachings were doing.

Shiori wasn’t a monster. She wasn’t evil. I knew that there were good Strangers out there. I knew it, but it still hadn’t quite sunk in exactly what the Heretic teachings did, until I saw the look of anguish on this innocent girl’s face. A girl who had done nothing wrong would be murdered by the same people that I was now living with. These people, my classmates, were being taught to go out and kill. Some of the beings they would be sent to kill would, obviously, be evil. But what about the others? What about the innocent beings who were just trying to survive and live in peace? What about the ones like Asenath who actively helped people, but would still be brutally murdered by a Heretic for the crime of existing?

Fuck. Oh god. Heretics… we were the monsters for Alters. We were the things they were afraid of. They probably warned their children about us. Alter parents probably taught their children who had never done anything wrong to watch out for us, to always be careful in case a Heretic spotted them.

Our teachers taught us to kill on first sight because a Stranger would attack us as soon as we were recognized. But how many of them attacked first because they knew we would if they didn’t? How many Alters had leapt to attack a Heretic because they were trying to protect themselves? How many would still be alive today on both sides if anyone, anywhere, just fucking talked to each other?

Through the silence that had stretched on as realization and actual understanding finally dawned on me, Shiori had continually shrunk further and further into herself, clearly trying to disappear as she sat there. Her legs were pulled so tightly to her chest that I was afraid she was going to break something.

Finally, I let out a long breath and reached out. My hand settled on the other girl’s arm. She flinched at the contact, but I kept it there while speaking quietly. “Shiori, look at me, please.” I kept my voice as firm, yet gentle as possible, and waited until she hesitantly raised her gaze, eyes glistening with tears.

Seeing that, I didn’t say another word. Instead, I scooted over beside the other girl. Before she could react, I wrapped both arms around the girl and pulled her against me, embracing her tightly. She struggled reflexively, making a noise that sounded like a choked sob, but I refused to let her go.

“You are not a monster,” I said firmly while holding Shiori’s balled up form against me. “You’re not evil.” Keeping one arm around her back, I raised the other hand to the girl’s hair and gently stroked it.

She remained stiff with resistance at first, her shoulders bunched up. When my hand found her hair, the girl gave another noise that sounded like a limp protest, eventually managing a weak, “I…. I….”

For a few moments as we sat there, I didn’t have the right words. I honestly had no idea what to say just then, if there were even words in existence that could have helped. All I could do, all I managed, was to sit there and stroke the girl’s hair, holding her to me. Eventually, her shoulders relaxed marginally, just enough that she was able to turn slightly in my direction. Her head lowered until her face was against my shoulder, though she kept her arms wrapped around her own legs tightly. A moment later, I felt the dampness from her tears start to soak through the simple red tee-shirt that I’d been wearing since classes had ended and I didn’t have to walk around in full uniform anymore. Her own shoulders shook heavily with each ragged breath she took, and it was obvious that she was crying without restraint.

We sat there in the sand for a couple minutes in relative silence, Shiori continuing to hug her knees to her chest while her quiet tears left my shirt wet. She made no other noise, and a disturbed part of me wondered just how much practice she’d had lately at crying quietly so that no one else would notice.

When the other girl finally spoke, her voice was a wet, miserable sound. “I don’t wanna be a monster.”

I tightened my grip around her, wincing inwardly before repeating my earlier words. “You are not a monster, Shiori. It doesn’t matter how you were born. If you don’t want to be evil, then don’t be.”

Her head shook against my shoulder, tears renewing themselves. “You don’t know,” she protested. “You don’t know what I saw, what—what the Edge showed me.” Her voice was almost a wail.

The Edge? I was confused about what that had to do with Asenath, unless… had the vampire been in her vision? “What about the Edge? Tell me what it showed you, Shiori. It’s okay. You can tell me.”

She resisted at first, and I could tell she was still terrified to say it out loud, even after what we’d both already said. But slowly, over the next few minutes, the other girl gave a quiet, halting explanation.

I felt sick in my stomach. This girl had been tearing herself up inside for months, terrified that her friends, her own brother were being taught to kill her. Worse, she was being taught that she should kill her own mother and sister, her own family. And with each passing day, she’d felt even more alone and more convinced that if anyone found out her secret, she’d be murdered where she stood. And the worst part was, sitting there, I couldn’t even say that she’d be wrong about that assumption in most cases.

“Shiori,” I finally spoke a few moments after she had finished. “Hey, look at me for a second, okay?”

Her head lifted a bit, her bloodshot eyes staring at me. Her tears had stopped, though obviously not through any raised spirits, but because she was physically incapable of crying anymore. “Wh-what?”

I let out a breath, meeting her tired, drained gaze. I had to say the right thing, I had to make her understand that she wasn’t evil. “If I told you that Hitler was a good person, would you believe me?”

Her eyes clouded a bit with obvious confusion while she shook her head quickly. “What? No.”

“What if we had a class that was all about how Hitler was a hero and how right he was?” I pressed. “Would that make everything he did suddenly be good, just because we had a class saying it was?”

Again, her head shook a bit warily. “No.” Her voice was very soft, an almost inaudible whisper.

I moved my hand to the side of her face, using my thumb to gently brush the last tear away from her eye. My response came slowly, a bit haltingly as I fought to find just the right words. “Just because you say that someone is good when they’re obviously evil doesn’t make them good. Just like saying someone is an evil monster when they haven’t done anything wrong doesn’t make that true either.”

“But… but my mother…” Shiori gave an emotional shudder. “She’s a—a vampire. They eat people.”

“Well,” I managed a weak little shrug. “Drink their blood more than eat, but… listen, remember what I said about Asenath being my friend? I meant that. You know why she’s my friend? Because she saved my father’s life, Shiori. He was in trouble and she saved him and another woman just because it was the right thing to do. And she saved me too. She saved us because she’s a good person. She’s a good person who just happens to be a vampire, just like Hitler was a monster who just happened to be a human.”

Shiori didn’t say anything for a few seconds. I could see her working that through in her head. Her eyes still looked sad and lost, like she was too afraid and broken to actually hope that I was right. It would take more than a few pretty words to fix the damage that had been done over the past couple of months. Saying something nice wasn’t going to suddenly make the girl turn around and feel perfectly fine again. I guess this kind of thing didn’t work that way. She might feel a little better, she might have a chance, but she wasn’t magically fixed. A few words, no matter how well I meant them, weren’t enough.

“Shiori,” I spoke again after the silence had pressed on. “Do you want to hurt me?” Reaching down, I caught her hand and lifted it to my neck. Her arm was stiff and I saw the protest in her eyes and on her lips as I pushed her hand around my throat. Holding it there, I met her gaze. “Do you wanna squeeze? Do you feel like jamming your nails into my throat and choking me? Do you want to hurt me?”

The girl’s head shook violently. “No!” She all but shouted at me, her emotions suddenly flaring up. “I don’t want to hurt you! That’s my whole point! I don’t want to hurt anyone, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t!”

Waiting until she had stopped talking, I replied in a quiet voice. “Then you’re not evil. To be evil, you have to do something evil, Shiori. If a human being can be evil or good, then so can anyone else.”

“But they said—but I don’t…” Trailing off, the other girl shook her head. She still looked pretty miserable, but there was at least something in her eyes that wasn’t total surrender. As I’d already known, it was going to take more than a few words, probably a lot more, to make her actually feel better.

“Let me tell you about your sister,” I said quietly, watching her gaze. “Let me tell you what happened when I went home, and how I met her. Then you can tell me if you still think she has to be evil.”

Shiori didn’t protest. She didn’t speak at all. Her voice was silent, her eyes locked on me as she waited.

So I told her. I took the time to explain everything, starting with the fact that I’d already arranged to meet someone from Eden’s Garden. That took a bit of a side explanation, but I wanted to tell the girl the truth about it all. The last thing I wanted was to fall into the cliche trap of leaving out something that important, then having the fact that I’d met with Seller somehow come up later at the worst time and make Shiori suddenly decide that keeping that secret meant I’d been dishonest about the rest of it.

Instead, I told her everything. I was honest. I told her about finding my mother’s picture and why that had sent me looking for more answers, and what I’d found out since then. I gave her all of the context, and then I explained what had happened when I got home. I told her about Ammon, about Fossor, and what I now knew about my mother’s disappearance. But most importantly, I told her about Asenath.

By the time I finished, Shiori was openly staring at me. She’d sat back a bit, gradually lowering her legs as she watched me in wordless shock. When she spoke, her voice was cracked and hesitant. “You… I… but you’re really… I didn’t…” Taking a breath and then letting it out again, she shook her head. “Wow.”

“I know, right?” Smiling in spite of myself, I reached out to take the girl’s hand, interlacing our fingers for a moment. “Listen, Shiori, the most important part of all this is… you’re not alone. Asenath, she was like you once. She was the daughter of a vampire—two vampires really, and she still chose what she wanted to be. She chose to become a vampire too, and then she chose to keep helping people. And her friend, that doctor guy, he chose not to be a vampire. He could have been, but he chose not to. If that doesn’t prove that you have a choice, nothing will. Being a vampire didn’t make her evil, and being the daughter of a vampire doesn’t make you evil either. It’s your choice. It always has been. If it’s not, if you’re just evil because you were born, then being ‘evil’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. The second you make ‘evil’ a condition of birth with no choice, the term becomes completely meaningless.”

“I… I don’t know,” Shiori responded hesitantly, her voice uncertain. “I need to think. I want to believe you. I do. But they said—I mean, everything they teach us… they’ve been around for a long time.”

“People can be around for a long time, and even do a lot of really good things, and still be wrong,” I assured her. “They learn the same things that we’ve been taught, going back… god knows how long. They learn about Strangers being evil, and then those people teach it to the next people, and so on. They teach us that Strangers attack on sight, but what if Strangers attack on sight because they know that we’ll attack them? Who actually started this war?” I shook my head. “I’m not saying there aren’t evil Strangers. There are. But that doesn’t make them all evil. Especially your sister. Especially you.”

Again, Shiori was quiet for a few moments. She looked away briefly, biting her lip before turning back to me. “Can I talk to her?” she asked quietly, her voice trembling a little bit. “Asenath, I mean.”

I wanted to say yes, dial Senny immediately, and hand her the phone. I almost did just that. But common sense stopped me. “Yes,” I replied. “I swear, we’ll find a way for you to talk to her. But if you do it over the phone, the faculty might find out. They monitor that sort of thing to make sure that students, especially first year Bystander-kin like us, aren’t saying too much to our friends or families.”

Her face fell a little bit at that. Which… actually I took as a good sign. If she wanted to talk to Asenath badly enough that not talking to her immediately made her feel bad, it meant she was at least listening.

I tightened my grip on her hand, squeezing to get her attention. “Listen, Shiori, I will find a way for you to talk to her in person. I promise. I swear, I will get you to her. I’ll put in a request for a weekend trip and ask if you can come with. Maybe I’ll invite you and your brother just to make it look less strange. Ask if my own teammate can come to my house over the weekend to meet my dad shouldn’t look that weird, and inviting his sister too is just polite.”

“C-columbus?” Shiori flinched at that. “We can’t tell him. Please, please, promise you won’t tell Columbus about me, about wh-what happened.” Her expression looked miserable and panicked again, the fears that she’d let build up over the last few months boiling over once more at the thought of Columbus finding out the truth.

This, above everything else, was proof that helping Shiori was going to take time. Even after what I’d said, her first instinct was to hide things. She panicked at the thought of Columbus, her own brother, knowing who and what her mother was. This was the kind of damage that Crossroads was doing.

No wonder my mother had apparently spearheaded a fucking revolution against this place.

“Shiori, look at me.” I used a hand to gently but firmly tilt her chin up. “No. That… that lying, that keeping secrets, that not trusting people you love is what makes these things worse. If we keep this secret, he’ll just find out later, there’ll be some big misunderstanding, and everything will just get worse because none of us actually talked to each other. Columbus is your brother. He loves you. He believed me about Asenath, so he’ll believe that you aren’t evil.”

At some point, I was really going to have to remind myself about this whole resolution to avoid the keeping secrets from everyone thing and actually talk to people when the subject of telling Gaia what was going on came up again. Because seriously, it was past time to talk to her.

Shiori’s mouth opened and then shut again, a look of tremulous fear crossing her face still before the girl gave a tiny nod. “I—okay. Okay. We can tell him.”

Standing up, I extended a hand down to help the other girl to her feet before looking off toward the water. Or… where the water should’ve been. There was sand… sand… and more sand. Somehow, I’d missed the sound of birds and monkeys in the background completely fading out. How long had the air been silent aside from our voices?

“Errr… where… did the ocean go?” I asked, confused.

“B-better question,” Shiori replied, her own voice full of shock. As I turned, I saw that the sand stretched on that way in every direction as well, even as the other girl finished speaking.

“Where did the school go?”

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