Whoever Asked If I Would Ever Reuse Joke Tags – There You Are.

The Next Step 8-02

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“You seem a little distracted, Flick.”

The words made me want to laugh out loud, though I was afraid it would sound more hysterical than amused. Distracted? Gee, Mister Therapist sir, I can’t imagine why I’d be distracted. I’m just sitting inside a literal magical school full of monster hunters and hunters-in-training, trying to figure out who keeps trying to kill my roommate, who succeeded at killing one of the most powerful teachers here, why my team mentor went from Captain America overachiever to someone so lazy he’d make Garfield look active and also happens to have been a student here almost a hundred years ago, who was involved in banishing my mother from this world and why she was banished to begin with, who my newfound older half-siblings are and if they know about me, how to save my mother from the evil son of a bitch necromancer she sacrificed herself to in order to save me, how to save myself from the same evil son of a bitch when he comes looking for me again, what to do about an evil younger half-brother, and now why my teammate’s adopted sister is doing the full ‘all work and no play’ over the name of the vampire that I currently have babysitting my father just in case the evil necromancer or my psychotic little brother pay another visit. So no, I have no idea why you’d think I’m distracted, no idea at all.

The sad part was, I was probably still forgetting something in that mental spiel.

“Sorry, sir,” I spoke aloud with a shrug while forcing myself to look at the man from where I was sitting in that armchair. He’d said from the beginning of our first session that I could sit anywhere I wanted, but the chair felt better than the couch for this situation, “I guess I’m just worried about Shiori.” That much was true enough, and I hardly had to explain why I would be.

“Are you?” the man asked, putting an immediate lie to my assumption. He said nothing else, prompted nothing. He didn’t move on, he didn’t actually press for that much clarification. He definitely didn’t ask inane questions like how Shiori’s actions made me feel. He simply spoke those two words and waited.

I took a moment, looking away while gathering my thoughts. I hadn’t blurted out anything about the name on the paper to Columbus. Instead, I’d just tucked the paper back into the notebook, made sure it was secure, and handed it to him. Part of me had wanted to keep it, but I was afraid of what Shiori would do if she found it missing and had some kind of panic attack. Considering the state I’d seen in her in last, I definitely didn’t want to give her any reason to freak out again before I could talk to her.

As for why I didn’t tell Columbus… well, I thought it would be safer if I talked to her first. Columbus was her brother, but she, for whatever reason, hadn’t said anything to him about it yet. Considering the secrets I was keeping, I kind of wanted to respect that enough to not blab about it right off the bat.

I had absolutely no idea why she would have Asenath’s name, or even if it was the same Asenath. I couldn’t figure out why they’d know each other. But considering how stressed the girl had been and how… crazy my life had become, I wasn’t going to rule it out. It was a pretty unique name, as far as I knew. The odds that there was no relation whatsoever between my Asenath and hers were pretty slim.

Obviously, I couldn’t say any of that. Instead, I nodded. “Columbus is her brother. I mean, adopted, but… they’re pretty much the same thing at this point. He’s my teammate, she’s his sister. He’s worried about her. She hasn’t been sleeping, she’s always tired, she’s stressed and… jumpy. Really jumpy. Columbus thinks that all this monster talk is getting to her. You guys run into that problem a lot, don’t you? Students who freak out about the monsters, and the whole… idea that they’re everywhere.”

Klassin gave a slight nod. “We do. Obviously we try to tailor our choices of bystander-kin recruits to people we believe can handle the stress, but that’s not a one hundred percent thing. When we do run into problems, every case is handled individually. Usually the person can be helped through it, and they grow into being a perfectly upstanding Heretic. Sometimes, we have to put them into less combat intensive environments. Not every Heretic is a front-line fighter, after all. Some go their whole lives without seeing an actual wild Stranger outside of controlled conditions once they leave this school.”

“What about Shiori?” I asked with a frown. “She’s been, umm, doing really well in Professor Katarin’s class.” That was an understatement. The man consistently praised how well the Asian girl seemed to be taking to combat, and aside from Avalon, she was clearly the best overall combatant in the class, and possibly even in our grade. Yet every time Katarin mentioned how well she was doing, Shiori didn’t look happy about it. Instead, she tended to either ignore it or look even more stressed than usual. Once, Columbus asked if she had any tips, and she had literally burst into tears before leaving the room.

“Yup,” Klassin confirmed. “She could end up being a phenomenal hunter. And from what I hear,” he added then, pointed to me with one hand, “you aren’t exactly far behind. How many zombies was it?”

I flushed a little. “Not as many as you’ve heard. Besides, I would’ve been dead without the others. And Nevada. If she didn’t show up, they’d still be scrubbing bits of us out of the Little Zombie’s Room.”

“If you had to do it again,” the man started before holding up a hand. “Ignoring the rules and everything else, for some reason you have to do the same thing again and end up in the same situation, what do you think you’d do different? How would you prepare to face something like that again?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it before coughing. “I was gonna make a crack about bringing a minigun, but we actually have one of those.” Shrugging then, I added, “I guess I’d want to have some kind of distraction ready, something that could keep the zombies off us long enough for Sands to set up a good defense from one side right away. Then all four of us could have focused on dealing with the zombies on one side together before focusing on the other side. Maybe Sands could even make up some kind of corridor thing out of multiple walls. That way instead of the zombies just all pounding against the wall until it collapsed, they’d funnel down one opening in a single file line so we could deal with them that way. If I’d had time to think about it, or if… if I hadn’t freaked out so much…”

“Hindsight can be a curse, or a gift,” Klassin replied. “If you use it to lament what you didn’t do, it’s a curse. But if you use it to prepare for the future, then it’s probably one of the most potent gifts you can possibly have. It’s definitely one of our biggest assets. We live so long and have such powerful healing abilities that we can learn from our mistakes in ways that Bystanders rarely have the chance to.”

“Yeah…” I started slowly before letting out a long breath. “Well, if these past couple of months have been any indication, I’m gonna have a lot of chances to exercise that gift.”

******

About an hour later, I was standing out on the grass, trying to think through what I needed to do next. My first instinct was to find Shiori and try to talk to her, yet there was something else I could do first.

With that in mind, I tugged the phone from my pocket, considering it briefly before glancing up. It was late enough that the sun would definitely be down over there, so Asenath should be awake.

Wait. Wait just a damn minute. My mouth opened and then shut again as I looked back to the sky. Night time. It had been morning when I left the island for my birthday, and relatively the same time of day when I arrived in Wyoming, within an hour or two. But Wyoming was pretty much as far away from either ocean as you could possibly get. And as far as I knew, Crossroads Island (or whatever they called it) wasn’t anywhere near the mainland anyway. We were clear out in the middle of the ocean, as far from everything as possible. So why, exactly, was the island still operating on United States time? And it wasn’t just a matter of them making the clocks follow a certain schedule. How the hell was the sun where it was? If I left in the morning here, I should have arrived in Wyoming at like… mid-afternoon or something. I wasn’t exactly sure since I didn’t know where in the ocean we were supposed to be (or even which ocean it was). But I knew for sure that there should have been more than a one or two hour difference. Yet as far as I could tell, the island and the mainland were pretty much in sync.

Just… how? And why hadn’t it occurred to me to wonder about that before? Because seriously, that seemed like a pretty obvious thing to have not even thought about. Was it part of the magic that protected this place? I already knew for a fact that Heretics played fast and loose with memory spells.

Yet another thing I needed to look for answers to. Shaking my head, I hit the button on the phone and raised it to my ear. It rang about seven times before I heard Asenath’s voice on the other end. “Yeah.”

We knew from the start that we’d have to be careful about any conversations we had. I didn’t know how closely my outward calls and e-mails were being monitored, but I wasn’t going to risk saying too much.

“Hey, Sarah,” I started. We’d decided that the incredibly common Sarah was a better name for anyone to overhear than Asenath or Senny. “I had a question. This is probably gonna sound pretty weird, but do you happen to know anyone named Shiori Porter? It’s just that I swear I heard her say your name. Might be a coincidence, but I thought I’d check. You know, small world and all that.”

“Shiori Porter?” Asenath replied, sounding thoughtful. “No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Do you have a picture or anything? That might help. Did she say anything about how she might know me?”

“Nope,” I tried to keep my voice sounding as casual as possible. No reason to let anyone who heard this conversation think it was anything but idle curiosity that made me call. “It’s probably a whole lot of nothing.” That was a code we’d come up with that meant this was probably very important. “But I’ll see if I can get a picture and send it to you. Maybe you guys met at summer camp one year or something.”

I could hear the amusement in Senny’s voice. “I bet that’s it. I swear I’ve met so many people at those things. That’s probably how she knows me. So get a picture and I’ll let you know if she looks familiar.”

I promised to do that, and we chatted about a few inconsequential things just to throw of anyone that might listen to the conversation. I could tell there was something else that the vampire wanted to talk about, but she apparently wasn’t willing to risk being overheard. Obviously, we were going to have to find some other way to communicate. Maybe I could get back home and we could work out an actual code the same way Miranda and I had. Or maybe there was some actually secure method of communication. That would be nice. I really needed a bird that could carry letters for me or something.

Eventually, I disconnected and made a face. I’d really been hoping that Asenath would immediately know who Shiori was. Even if she couldn’t have given me too much information, anything at all would have been nice. As it stood, I was right back where I’d started. All I knew was that Shiori was freaking out and that she was obviously obsessed with someone named Asenath. Anything else was guesswork.

Well. I may not have been able to get a lot of answers to the questions that kept piling up, but this one I could deal with right now. No lying, now subterfuge, no guesswork. I was going to deal with this now.

******

It was easier said than done, of course. Actually finding Shiori turned out to be harder than I’d thought it would be. Especially since I didn’t want to tell Columbus why I wanted to talk to her so much. Part of me felt guilty about that. After all, he wasn’t just my teammate and friend, he was also her brother. But Shiori deserved the benefit of the doubt. There had to be a reason she hadn’t confided in her brother about whatever was bothering her, to the point of not even saying Asenath’s name despite how much she was obsessing over it. If she’d mentioned it, he would have said something as soon as I told the team about Asenath saving my dad. So there was no way she’d ever said the name in his presence.

In the end, I walked all the way around the school ground at least twice. I checked the dorms, the library, the rec room, the hallways, a few different classrooms, and more. It was getting pretty close to the time that I’d need to meet up with the twins to head for track training by the time I finally found Shiori. She was on the beach, which I’d checked once before, but the second time I went that way, I finally spotted the other girl a hundred yards down the beach, throwing rocks against the waves.

H’okay. Here went nothing. Bracing myself, I looked over my shoulder to make sure we were alone, then walked that way. Mentally rehearsing and throwing away possible things that I could say, I walked all the way down the beach without ever coming up with anything good. I should’ve practiced earlier.

She saw me coming, glanced my way, then turned back to the water to throw another rock. I saw her ears pink a little. “Columbus isn’t here,” she stated flatly as soon as I was within easy earshot.

A sarcastic quip jumped to mind, but I shut it aside. There were probably worse times to make jokes, but this was definitely pretty far up the list. “I didn’t come to find Columbus. I was looking for you.”

A guarded look crossed the girl’s face, and I didn’t miss the way she turned slightly to put me more in her view, without actually opening herself up at all. “Why?” Her voice was as suspicious as her gaze.

“Asenath,” I said quietly. “I saw it on your notebook. The paper fell out.”

My words were like a physical blow to the girl. I saw her cringe, the guilt obvious in her eyes. For a second, she looked completely lost, like a scared little girl who didn’t know what to do. “I… don’t…”

Swallowing hard, I looked over my shoulder again before turning back to her. This was it. There was absolutely no turning back after this point. If I was wrong… well, then things could get real bad, real fast. But I had to trust Shiori. I had to reach out to her. She was just… having such a hard time. If that had anything to do with Asenath, and there was anything I could do to help… well, I had to try. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

When I spoke, my voice was as quiet as I could make it while letting her still hear me. “She’s a vampire. Asenath is a vampire.”

The words had barely left my mouth before Shiori was on me. Her foot kicked my legs out from under me, and I hit the sand on my back a second before the other girl landed top of me. Her voice was a loud cry right next to my ear. “I am not a vampire!” She blurted, sounding hysterical as she repeated herself. “I’m not a vampire!” Her hands grabbed at my face and arm, clearly desperate. She wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t sure she even realized that she was attacking me. She was just… panicked.

“Shiori!” I struggled, but even in a blind panic, the other girl was easily able to stop me from extricating myself. “Listen to me! Lis–”

Okay, enough was enough. I headbutted her. Which I immediately regretted as soon as the moment of blinding pain shot through my own temple. But at least the impact stunned the girl enough to make her stop for a minute.

Before it could wear off, I managed to speak again. “I don’t think you’re a vampire. Why would you think I think that? I said Asenath is a vampire, not you.”

“Oh god, you’re going to tell.” She rolled off me, tucked her legs to her body, and sat there shaking heavily. “I’m sorry.” She murmured as tears coursed down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I hesitated, then scooted up behind the girl, shaking my head. “Hey, hey, look, I’m not… I’m not telling anyone. That’s why I’m here by myself. I didn’t even bring Columbus, Shiori. But… I need to talk to you. I swear, everything we say is private. You’re scared that I’m going tell them something bad about you? Well let me give you your own ammunition to use against me. I need you to trust me, Shiori. But I know you have no reason to. So… look, you want to know how I know that Asenath is a vampire? Because she’s my friend. She’s a vampire and she’s my friend. And if you told any of the teachers here that, I’d be in a hell of a lot of trouble. So calm down. I’m not turning you in for… for whatever you think I’m turning you in. We’re on the same side.”

Shiori looked thoroughly shocked and even more confused. “Wha… what about… what?”

Moving around in front of the girl, I met her frightened gaze. “Asenath is a vampire,” I repeated, “And she’s my friend. She saved my father’s life. I don’t know why you were recording her name in your notebook, what you think she did to you, or anything else. But I know her name was driving you crazy, and you can’t live like that. So I had to tell you. I had to try. But… why would you think that I thought you were a vampire? What does Asenath being a vampire have to do with you?”

For a long minute, there was no response at all aside from those fearful eyes staring at me. I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. Finally, however, Shiori spoke in a very quiet and slow voice. So quiet, in fact, that I had to lean closer to hear her.

“I… I think… she’s my… sister.”

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