“Tell me something. When exactly did you decide to turn traitor and destroy our entire civilization?”
Rebecca Jameson, all less than five feet of her, stared with wide eyes at the figure looming over her. Which, to be honest, was really only possible because of her own diminutive form. Wyatt’s (of course it was Wyatt) scrawny figure didn’t really tend to do much in the way of looming most of the time.
“No answer, huh?” the enthusiastic security guard that happened to be my half-brother pushed on in the face of the girl’s utterly bewildered stare. “Didn’t expect old Wyatt to catch onto you so quick, did ya?”
It was the end of dinner that evening. Columbus, Shiori, and Sean were all sitting with me on one side of the cafeteria, finishing up dessert. All of us were watching the action going on two tables away.
“Should we uhh, do something?” Shiori whispered under her breath while leaning a little closer to me.
I tried not to be too distracted by the warmth of the other girl’s body leaning so close. Really, I did. But in the end, Columbus spoke up before I could. “What’re we supposed to do, throw something at him?”
Meanwhile, Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested earnestly.
“A likely story, knave!” Wyatt retorted. Yeah, he said knave. Seriously. “You weren’t expecting me to notice your chicanery,” he continued dramatically. “But my eyes are always watching.” He pointed two fingers toward his face, then gestured around the room. “They’re everywhere. Watching you. Seeing you. You can’t hide from the gaze of justice, girl. The gaze of justice sees everything. Everything.”
The others were all looking at me pointedly by then, and I waved them off before sliding to my feet to move that way. “Okay, okay, okay. Before this accidentally gets too close to something that might make Chris Hansen start paying attention, maybe you could explain what you think Rebecca did? Uh, sir.”
Wyatt looked to me, then back to Rebecca, his gaze narrowing even further. “You wanna know what she did, Miss Chambers? Oh, I’ll do better than tell you. I’ll show you.” The scrawny man straightened to his most imposing height (which basically put him about an inch taller than I was) before commanding, “Jameson, are you going to empty your pockets right now, or do we have to make you?”
Obviously still confused, Rebecca echoed, “Empty my pockets?” When the man’s mouth opened to bellow again, she hurriedly complied. “Fine, fine. Here, look.” Straightening, the tiny girl started to dig random junk out of her pants. I saw a half-used pack of gum, an unopened thing of Tic Tacs, a wallet with a pink flower on the side, a white cell phone, and a set of keys that included the same kind of red key as the one I had to get into my own dorm. Finally, she produced one final object: a butter knife.
Wyatt grabbed the knife. “Aha! You thought you were gonna sneak this right on out of here, didn’t you? Who were you planning to take out with this, huh? Roommate, teacher, maybe a really perceptive security guard?” He was holding the knife like it was a machete. “Gonna try gutting a classmate?”
Rebecca just stared at him. It took her a second to find her voice (which meant she was doing better than I was on that front). “It’s just a butter knife, sir. My mom sent me crackers and peanut butter, but I don’t have any way to spread it. I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. I’m not—I wasn’t trying to—I mean…”
Before Wyatt or I could respond, there was another voice that spoke up. This one sounded harsh and guttural, with a deep Russian accent. “Vhat iz problem here? Vhy all still in my stolovaya? Is closed.”
Looking up, I found Chef Escalan, the squat, rather rotund man with stringy straw-yellow hair sticking out of his flat chef’s hat. The man was standing there looking at us all with an expectant, annoyed glare.
Coughing, I quickly spoke up. “Uh, Chef Escalan, is it okay if Rebecca borrows one of your butter knives for awhile?” I indicated the utensil that Wyatt was still holding. “She needs it for some peanut-”
“Pah,” the man interrupted dismissively. “I am not caring vhat she is using for, only dzat she is returning eet vhen finished.” His hand lashed out so fast I barely saw him move before he had the utensil. “Is knife for butter, not chainsaw. Vhy need steal little knife for killing when have big guns?”
He had a point there. Rebecca’s weapon was a backpack that turned into a massive mounted cannon. If she wanted to do damage to someone, that would’ve been a hell of a lot easier than a butter knife.
“So, I can take it?” the other girl asked rather hesitantly, looking back and forth between the two men.
In response, the chef produced a small notebook with an attached pen from his pocket, flipping it open before turning the thing around to present to her. “You vill sign out knife, dzhen return vhen finished.”
Rebecca promptly took the pen and signed her name into the notebook, along with the fact that she was borrowing a butter knife. “Is, um, is that it?” she asked with a confused glance toward me.
“Is all,” Escalan confirmed before snapping the notebook shut. He presented the butter knife to her.
“Yeah, that’s all, for now.” Wyatt informed her. “You get off easy this time. But I’m watching. Always-”
Clearing my throat to interrupt, I quickly stepped between them. “Hey, uh, Mr. Rendell. I had some questions about the, um…” I thought fast. “About taking a hike through the jungle. Where do we sign up for it? And do I need to buy insect repellent, or is there some kind of spell that we can do for that?”
Rebecca used the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat, while Escalan muttered something about getting the hell out of his dining room so it could be cleaned. Then he was gone too, back into the kitchen.
Wyatt was staring at me then, eyes narrowed as if trying to figure out whether I was a secret spy or not. And, as usual, he was clearly leaning toward the former. “You’re that one that was late to start school.”
“Uh, yup.” I let my head bob up and down quickly. “That’s me, Flick Chambers. So how about that sign-up list? I sort of just found out about it and I’d really like to get in on one of those jungle hikes.”
As quick as the man was to accuse people of something nefarious, he shifted gears equally fast. “Hikes!” Wyatt blurted, fingers snapping. “Yes, come on then. I’ll show you where the sign-in sheet is.” He started walking to the exit quickly, forcing me into a near-jog to keep up. His words came as fast as his steps. “The next group excursion is Saturday. That’s when they take everyone who wants to go on a guided tour. Or you can look at the list to find one of the approved escorts and ask them to sign you up for a special trip any day that you don’t have anything else going on. That’s either for you or a small group. I,” he added proudly, “am one of those approved guides. Of course, as busy as my days are, I don’t get a chance to run too many hikes. Still, if you insist on it, I suppose I might be able to squeeze–”
“Sure,” I blurted quickly, before I could think too much about it. When the man looked back at me with a confused expression, I clarified, “I mean go ahead and sign me up to go out on a hike with you. When’s a good time? I’ve got detention on Saturday, but maybe after? Or Sunday. Whenever works.”
Poor Wyatt was staring at me like I’d just grown two heads. “You want to sign up for–” he started with a baffled tone before covering it, straightening proudly. “Well. Of course you do. Let’s see… I’ll have to clear some time, look over my schedule. You understand how it is. But maybe… yes. I think I can squeeze in a little hike somewhere. I’ll give it a look, call off a few other plans, and let you know.”
“Let you know what?” The voice, coming from almost directly behind me, drew a yelp as I turned.
Deveron stood there, giving me that lazy, casual smirk. Like there was some kind of joke that only he was in on. Like the whole world was just one big game that he could ignore or just sleep through. “Hey there, Chambers,” he drawled easily while giving me a quick two fingered salute. “You getting in trouble with security again? Figured you would’ve learned your lesson after all the zombies.”
The words made me squint at him suspiciously. “How did you know about that?” Sure, there’d been zombies everywhere, but most of the students had been safe in their dorms, not fighting. Plus, there was the way he said it as if our being around zombies had something to do with breaking the rules.
He just smiled, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “Got a little talk from Kohaku. Apparently I’m such a terrible mentor that you had to find out if I had blackmail material or something to keep my position?”
Flushing slightly at the reminder of what Sands had used for our cover story, I lifted my chin. “Well, you’re definitely not winning any awards. When was the last time you actually helped train us? Actually, scratch that. When was the first time you helped train us? Because I can’t remember any.”
Before Deveron could say anything, Wyatt had a finger in his face. “Hey! Is that true? You’re a mentor who doesn’t mentor? What’s that about? Do you have any idea how much of an honor it is to be selected as a team mentor? Any idea at all? You’re supposed to be the best. You’re supposed to help them. These kids are learning to fight for their lives out there! If you can’t help them, if you can’t be there, if you can’t do your job, then you quit and let someone else do it. If you don’t help, they’ll get hurt. They’ll die, and that’s on you. You understand me, pretty boy?”
He went on before the other boy could respond, and while I was still doing a double-take. “I’ve got eyes on you. My eyes on you. Eyes. You. One of these kids gets hurt, just one gets a hair on their head hurt and I find out it’s because you weren’t training them, I will be on your ass. You can smile, you can laugh it off now, but if they die because you were too lazy to teach them, I will make it my life’s work to pin you for it. That is my promise to you. If something happens to your team because you didn’t teach them, you won’t just get drubbed out of this school faster than you can make one of those stupid smirks, I’ll make sure your cocky little ass ends up serving time. You understand me, Adams? I said, do you understand me?”
For a second, Deveron didn’t respond. His eyes moved from the security guard to me and back again before he gave a slight nod. “Actually, you’re right. Why don’t we make that jungle hike a group thing? We can get all three of us out there, really hash out just how we should fix this whole team thing.”
Shit. My mouth opened to say something about how he wasn’t invited. Unfortunately, before I could get the words out, Wyatt gave an excited nod. Just like that, his mood shifted again. “That’s a great idea! Then you can see how to be a good—no, a great role model. Fantastic initiative, Adams. Truly a turn-around. You keep that up.” Eyes narrowing again, he pointed. “But don’t think you’re getting off easy. I will be watching. You do your job with this team of yours. You teach them, you pay attention, you work. If I think you’re slacking off again…” His voice trailed off threateningly.
Deveron made a quick little bowing motion. “Absolutely. I’ll be there… Sunday? That good for you?”
“Sunday!” Cheerfully, Wyatt pointed at both of us. “Sunday, jungle tour. Be in the cafeteria at nine in the morning. No, make it eight so we have time to go over your survival packs. Bring anyone else that wants to come, we’ll make a whole day of it! Believe me, you’re going to learn so much! It’ll be great!”
With that, he walked off, whistling happily. The man was clearly giddy about the whole concept of taking us out on a jungle hike, and I took a second to picture him bringing the same level of enthusiasm to that as he normally brought to being a security guard. Wow. Just… wow.
Then my eyes moved back to Deveron, and I found the older boy gazing after Wyatt with a weird expression. It wasn’t his usual cocky smirk or disinterested gaze. It looked like he was… sad? What? Had Wyatt’s threat to expel him or whatever else he’d gone on about actually hit home for him or something? That didn’t sound right, didn’t feel right. Not with that kind of look. The expression on his face, I couldn’t really understand it, but it reminded me of something else. Something familiar.
It was my look, I realized a second later. It was the look I had when I thought about my mom. Deveron was thinking about someone he lost, someone who wasn’t there anymore. He was missing someone.
The doors to the cafeteria opened then, and Shiori, Columbus, and Sean emerged with Escalan shouting after them that the place wasn’t a lounge to lay around in. The second they appeared, that look vanished from Deveron’s face. He turned, giving me a quick, casual wink. “Well, guess I got told off, huh? See you tomorrow, little Flickster and friends.”
“Wait, tomorrow?” Columbus asked, looking just as confused as I felt.
“Sure,” the boy gave us a thumbs up before turning to walk away. “You wanted to train. We’ll train. Let’s call it five o’clock, soon as the gym opens in the morning. That’ll give us the whole two hours. Tell the others! I’ll expect to see all of you there. Wouldn’t wanna piss off Captain Security, would we?”
Then he was gone, wandering off through the halls while whistling casually. Columbus looked at me. “What just happened?”
“And,” Shiori put in while rubbing Vulcan’s head fondly. “Does he realize I’m not actually a part of your team?”
All I could do was give a helpless shrug of confusion. “You know what, at this point, I don’t even know anymore. But I’m pretty sure I’m going on the world’s most awkward jungle hike this week.”
Sean slung an arm around my shoulders. “Hey, don’t feel bad. It can’t be any worse than what you’re doing tonight.”
Shuddering in spite of myself, I gave him a fake-sweet smile. “Sure you don’t want to come with and keep me company?”
He just smirked back at me, snapping his fingers in mock disappointment. “Damn, you know, I just don’t have any kind of power that’ll let me get in there. Shoot.”
“I do,” Shiori put in, waving a hand a little shyly.
Blinking back at her, I found myself blushing pink. “Oh, I wasn’t serious. It’s okay, you don’t have to go through this with me. It’s… not gonna be fun. Plus, I mean, don’t you have enhanced senses? That’d really suck.”
“That’s okay,” the other girl assured me. “You really shouldn’t go in all by yourself.
“And besides, if you can put up with the smell, I don’t mind it either.”
“Oh. Oh god, I changed my mind,” Shiori groaned a couple hours later while holding her nose. “That is nasty. I know you said it was gonna be bad, but not that bad. Gaaaah.” she made a weak little retching noise.
We were out behind the faculty building, mostly hidden by some trees and bushes. It was my whole team, plus Shiori. The seven of us had gradually made our way out here one or two at a time until all of us made it by the time the sun had set. I could hear other students running around and calling to each other over on the main part of the grounds, but we were alone here.
Sands and Scout were each holding the source of the overpowering stench that Shiori was complaining about (and I couldn’t blame her). It was a large bucket full of what looked like water balloons. But from the look of the sludge inside, not to mention the smell, they weren’t filled with water.
“Don’t worry,” I assured the other girl. “You don’t have to come in with me. It’s okay.”
Still, she shook her head a bit stubbornly. “No, it’s all right. I can deal. I’m coming with you. You should have someone watching your back, helping you search, keeping an eye out. You can’t do all of it.”
Avalon stood behind me, her gaze on the building. “You sure these things are going to be enough, Mason?”
Sands just grinned, reaching in to take one of the balloons into her hand. “Oh, it’ll be enough.” Cringing at the smell of the thing, she turned her head away while holding it out. “Wanna get a better sniff?”
“I’m fine,” Avalon retorted dryly. “I just want to make sure it’s enough to drive them out of the building. A lot of the faculty have powers that could detect someone going through Tangle’s apartment. This stuff has to make sure they all leave and explain any alarms that go off.”
“Trust us, Avalon,” Sands pressed. “You may be the goddess of combat and aloof snark, but Scout and I know how to prank people. It’s simple. See those open windows? Those are the halls. We opened them this morning. So the two of us and the boys spread out and throw the balloons in through the windows. Hit every floor that you can. The balloons pop, spread their stench everywhere and sets off the alarms. It pisses off the faculty, they come out to catch us. We try to run, we get caught, we get lectured, we get punished. No big deal, happens all the time. Just kids being kids.”
“Meanwhile,” I added, “Shiori, Avalon, and I go to the other side of the building, right under Tangle’s apartment. Avalon turns it into wood so I can use my power to get inside, while Shiori turns into sand and follows me through the vent.”
“And when you two are done,” Avalon confirmed, “Shiori comes out to let me know so I can I turn the wall wood again and let you out, Chambers.”
“Like I said,” Sands put in then, “That smell is gonna be everywhere. That’s the whole point. If it doesn’t get into the rooms, it won’t get the staff out of there. You think it’s bad now, it’s gonna be worse when the stuff is out of the balloons.”
“Yeah,” Sean snorted. “You two have fun with that. We’ll just be over here getting more detention.”
I flinched. “Sorry guys. Look, if there’s a way to do this without anyone getting in trouble… Maybe you throw them and then run? You should be able to–”
“No,” Sands shook her head. “They need someone to lecture. Trust me, we know adults. Let them lecture us and they’ll stay way more distracted. It’s cool, Flick. We’ve been in trouble for much less important things than this. It’s just detention.”
“She’s right,” Columbus agreed. “You need to get in there and see if there’s anything in Tangle’s place.”
“Stop second guessing it, Chambers,” Avalon instructed, taking me by the arm. “Let’s get busy.”
On the opposite side, Shiori attached her own hand to my other arm. “Yeah, before someone notices us over here.”
So I went on toward the building, Avalon on one side and Shiori on the other. Behind me, I heard Sean whisper toward Columbus.
“Why do I get the feeling that, stink or no stink, she’s making out like a freaking bandit right now?”