For most people, opening their eyes upon waking up was a natural response, the first thing they did even before their minds were fully conscious. It was an entirely instinctive action as the brain woke.
Wyatt Rendell was not most people, and he had long since trained himself to keep his eyes closed while waking. That had required some elaborate conditions. Specifically, he had, as a teenager, positioned an enchanted mirror in front of his face at night before going to sleep. If his eyes opened and the mirror caught sight of them, it would trigger an electric shock. It wasn’t too bad, just a reminder to keep his eyes firmly closed until he had worked his way up to cover the mirror with the nearby blanket.
It wasn’t like a mild little shock was the worst thing he’d ever woken up to, after all. Not in his family. Better to give himself just a little bit of pain and than risk letting his parents realize he was awake.
After all, his parents not realizing he was awake was the only reason he ever overheard enough of their conversation to realize that they truly didn’t care if he lived or died. Which was, while upsetting at the time, incredibly useful information to have. It brought sense to their punishments and erased any thought the boy had that if he just did the right thing long enough, his parents would love him.
Realizing that his parents, the people who raised him, were only doing so because some unknown third party that they reported to had ordered them to do it was almost liberating in a way. Once he stopped crying, of course. His parents (though they weren’t really that, another revelation his secret eavesdropping had uncovered) were ready and willing to kill him if they were ordered to. And since his young self had had no idea who they were reporting to, there were no authorities for him to seek help from. It made him constantly afraid of anyone who came to the house. But it also freed him from having to care about what his supposed parents thought of him. He no longer worried about their disapproval or punishments for the most minor of transgressions. He only worried about staying alive.
By this point, many years after he had left home, the enchanted mirror wasn’t necessary. The man never gave a single indication that he had woken up until he was absolutely certain that the room was empty.
Fully awake, but with his eyes still closed, the man first took a few seconds to simply listen. Sometimes that was enough to reveal an unwanted visitor. Throughout the many different jobs he’d held (he never stayed in one place long, lest the mysterious figure whom his parents had reported to stick more spies and potential assassins around him, or simply corrupt those that were already there) he had learned to hear a person’s breathing and subconscious fidgeting even while they were doing their best to be quiet. His hearing was enhanced enough from the Strangers he had killed to pick out most such people.
That very simple trick had been enough to reveal someone spying on him more than once. After which simply searching their room or locker while they were otherwise distracted usually revealed a journal or some other method they had been using to take note of his actions and report them to their superior.
This time, he heard nothing. Not that that by itself was proof that he was actually alone, of course. That was simply the second layer of his multi-step security verification process after keeping his eyes shut.
Once the man was sure that he couldn’t hear anything, and that any potential spy or assassin wasn’t the type to make noise on their own, he began the next step. Shifting his weight as subtly as possible, just enough to be interpreted as normal unconscious movement, he moved his feet together. Pressing each of his big toes against one another through the obnoxiously bright yellow socks that he wore, the man focused on the enchantment he had renewed on them before going to sleep, just as he always did.
As the spell on his socks activated, it sent out an invisible, undetectable pulse through the room to seek out one simple thing: heartbeats. After about three seconds, Wyatt felt his socks vibrate a single time before stopping. One vibration meant one heartbeat, his own. His was the only heartbeat in the room.
Most would have taken that as proof that they were alone and that everything was safe. Wyatt, on the other hand, knew that nothing was ever completely safe, and that there were ways to trick that measure. So he moved on to his final layer of security by shifting his hand under the pillow. Pressing his palm up against the underside, the man activated the spell there, the other one he renewed before sleeping.
As soon as the enchantment was activated, Wyatt experienced a brief twisting sensation. Then he was standing upright, catching himself easily. Finally, the man opened his eyes. He was standing in a small, closet-sized space. Directly ahead of him was a window into the room beyond where he had been sleeping. From the other side, the window appeared to be a painting of dogs playing poker. He liked those paintings. On the bed, his escape spell had replaced him with an extremely life-like mannequin.
For a few seconds, Wyatt studied the room. The mirror was enchanted to expose people who were invisible or in shapes other than their own. Still, there was nothing to see. Even checking how many times his door had been opened revealed that it had remained closed since he had gone to bed.
Wyatt still wasn’t sure he completely trusted it, considering how many other times his security had been compromised by someone he made the mistake of trusting for awhile, only to find out they were secretly reporting on him. But this was the best he could do. After giving his room one final once-over, he pressed a hidden button recessed in the wall. The window-painting and part of the wall it was attached to popped open, and he stepped out before allowing it to close behind him. At the same time, his mannequin in the bed disappeared, returning to where it had been in the hidden space before Wyatt had swapped places with it. The room was returned to its normal state, ready for the next morning.
Whistling to himself, the man began to get dressed. No spies so far. Maybe this job would actually last the whole year before he had to disappear and cut everyone out of his life yet again. He hoped so. He liked this job. The Headmistress was kind to him, and so far he had no reason to think she was a spy.
“Wyatt, calm down.” Risa Kohaku insisted a short time later, after the man discovered what took place the night before, while he was sleeping. “Listen, it’s all right. It wasn’t your fault. You were asleep.”
“Exactly!” he blurted, feeling that paranoia creeping its way into his brain like a spider. Wyatt knew he had problems, he knew that he didn’t always act right. But there was a difference between understanding that his reactions and thoughts were… to most people, strange or off-putting, and actually doing something about it. Most of the time, he couldn’t help it. Despite every effort he made and all the time he took to tell himself to act ‘normal,’ he inevitably ended up acting like a crazy person.
“I was asleep,” he went on, trying to stop himself from shaking. “I wasn’t doing my job. I should’ve done my job. I should have found a way to stop that boy from controlling anyone. Someone could have died, you could have died, all because I wasn’t doing my job. You and the headmistress hired me because of my security enchantments, but what good were they last night? What good were they?!”
Kohaku’s hands moved to catch him by the shoulders, and the man belatedly realized that he was doing that ‘hysterical’ thing again. “Wyatt,” she spoke firmly while squeezing his shoulders. “Calm down.”
He tried to do so, repeating his three step mantra to himself. Breathe, think, focus. Breathe, think, focus. He took in a breath, let it out, and thought about what he was doing before focusing on what was going on around him. Listen to what someone else said when his paranoia was clearly getting the best of him. Even that was often hard because of how many people had turned out to be working, knowingly or not, with whoever the people calling themselves his parents had been reporting to. He constantly doubted what he was thinking, unable to tell if his distrust was legitimate or brought on by paranoia.
Still, he found himself trusting Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire. And she trusted Risa Kohaku. So Wyatt focused on forcing back his instinctive feelings of doubt and suspicion. Trust Kohaku. Listen to what she said. She wasn’t a traitor. She wasn’t a spy. She wasn’t compromised. She didn’t want to hurt him.
Once he had stopped fidgeting and got his breath under control, the woman slowly released him. She went on without breaking his gaze. “The Headmistress wants to talk to you about how the boy broke in. She has some ideas about what can be done to stop it from happening in the future. But I want you to calm down and take a little walk around the grounds before you report to her office. Get your head on straight, do a quick patrol to clear your mind, then go and see her. Don’t rush, Wyatt. She’s busy right now anyway, so you don’t need to hurry. Meet her in her office in forty-five minutes, all right?”
Wyatt nodded once. “Yes,” he confirmed as sharply and confidently as possible. Stay strong, he told himself. Don’t let her know how scared you are that you’ll lose this job and have to move on again.
It would happen eventually, of course. It always did. Inevitably, the man who had been sending spies after him his entire life, who had corrupted the people calling themselves his parents and made them into Wyatt’s wardens and possible executioners would manage to insert another threat into his life.
“I will do my patrol,” he informed his superior as carefully and firmly as he could. “I won’t let you down this time, Professor. I promise.” At the last, he gave his best approximation of a smart salute.
Kohaku sighed, long and slow. “I told you not to do that anymore, Wyatt. We don’t salute. And call me Risa. You’re not a student, we’re co-workers. I’d like to be friends.” Before he could say anything to that, she held up a hand. “I know. I know how you feel about that. It’s okay. Just… try to take it easy.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d had the same conversation or a similar one, and it wouldn’t be the last. Still, Wyatt nodded, telling himself to just try harder to control his impulses. He knew he was weird, he knew his reactions put people off. But by the time he realized what he was doing, it was often too late.
“Thank you, Wyatt,” Kohaku gave him a slight smile. “Take your patrol, let me know if you find anything. And don’t forget to stop by the cafeteria to get something to eat before you get too involved.”
Wyatt agreed, properly resisting the urge to salute that time before pivoting to walk out of the security office. On the way, he passed Reid Rucker, Kohaku’s second-in-command, along with a couple of the other security guards who were waiting to talk to their boss. Most looked away as Wyatt passed, but Rucker gave him a quick wave to get his attention. “Hey, Wyatt,” the man spoke up. “If you’re heading out on patrol, could you give that spot in the north-east corner of the gym a quick once-over? I think some of the juniors were messing with it again, trying to make a blind spot for their little games.”
Wyatt, for his part, did his best not to notice how attractive Rucker was. The man looked young and fit, with broad shoulders and an equally broad smile. He was competent, quick, and charismatic. And he got along with everyone, making friends equally among both the staff and the students. Normally, that would have brought Wyatt’s hackles up as being too good to be true. But in spite of himself and everything he kept insisting to himself, he just couldn’t help but develop a little bit of a crush.
Not that anything would ever come of it. Rucker was simply everything that Wyatt wished he could be. He had to take a moment to breathe out, reminding himself not to salute (and barely remembering not to remind himself out loud). “Yes, sir,” he confirmed sharply, to prove he could stay on task without allowing himself to get distracted. “I’ll check that spot and make sure those traitors don’t know what-”
“Not traitors, Wyatt,” Rucker reminded him. “Just teenagers trying to be teenagers. No need to do anything too nasty to them. Just make sure their spells don’t stop us from doing our job, all right?” Belatedly, the man added with a casual smile that seemed to light up the room. “And it’s Reid, not sir.”
Once again reminding himself not to salute, Wyatt made his way as quickly as possible away from the security office. He tried to tell himself that this security breach had nothing to do with him or the mysterious man who had been in the background of his entire life, but the voice in the back of his head just kept repeating that he needed to be ready to leave. He had to be prepared for the inevitable time when he was going to have to take off and find a new job once again. As much as he loved this position, as much as he respected the headmistress and his superiors, it couldn’t last. It wouldn’t last. Good things never did. His boogieman always always found another way to infiltrate his life. Maybe it had already happened. Every new student, every co-worker, every visitor, all of them made Wyatt wonder if they were the one who would start reporting on his every action. Every person he met made him question if they were stalking him, writing down everything he did, every conversation he had. No one could be fully and completely trusted. He’d learned that the hard way when he was a child, and the lesson had been hammered home over and over again. Whenever he started to settle too much into one place, whenever he let himself start to think that this time would be different, he was inevitably proven wrong. Don’t get accustomed to places. Don’t get too attached to anyone. It was the only way to be safe.
Making his way to the cafeteria to grab something to eat while doing his rounds, Wyatt had just picked up a bagel and started to spread cream cheese on top of it when a voice from behind called his name.
Pivoting, the man blinked at the sight of two girls standing there. One of them he knew by name. “Chambers,” he spoke aloud to the blonde. “Today isn’t the hike,” Wyatt reminded her. “That’s tomorrow.”
Chambers nodded before gesturing to the girl beside her. “I know. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve got another member. Koren wants to go too. Right, Koren?”
The other girl (Koren Fellows, he reminded himself), shrugged and muttered something under her breath before looking up at him. “Yeah,” she said while meeting his gaze with a squint. There was something else there, something behind her stare that he couldn’t interpret. Another spy, maybe?
If she was, he’d figure it out. He always did. “Aha!” he blurted, going for enthusiasm to hide his suspicion. “Of course, of course, everyone’s welcome to go on our little jungle hike. As long as you come on time and ready to learn.”
“I’ve gone on the hike before,” Fellows muttered. The other girl kicked her foot, and she gave him an obviously forced smile. “I mean, I can’t wait to learn what you know. Eight o’clock, you said?” When he nodded, the girl gave him a thumbs up. “Perfect. See you then.” She turned, looking at Chambers for a moment then before starting off.
“Don’t worry,” Chambers said to him quietly. “She really does want to go. Koren’s just… not really good at the whole ‘talking to people and being personable’ thing. You kind of get used to it.”
Well, he knew how that was. Wyatt finished spreading the cream cheese on his bagel before giving a short, sharp nod. “Just be on time, Chambers. I’m a busy man. Lots to do. Come ready to hike. No whining about being too hot or scared of the Caipora.”
The blonde had just started to nod when one of the other girls came running up. It was that Porter girl, the Asian one. She gave Wyatt a quick look before focusing on Chambers. “Flick,” she called while grabbing the girl’s sleeve. “I really, really need to show you something.”
“Something bad?” Wyatt interrupted sharply. “Something dangerous? Something like–”
“It’s just a little project,” Chambers assured him. “I promise, everything’s fine.” She gave him a reassuring smile, then took the other girl’s hand before leading her away.
He watched them go before taking a bite of his breakfast. There was something going on there. Some reason the Chambers girl had suddenly volunteered to go on a jungle hike with him, and had somehow convinced Koren Fellows to do the same. He didn’t know what it was yet, exactly. But he would get to the bottom of it. If they were traitors or spies, he would figure it out. He’d catch them in the act.
He always did.