Natalie, Seth and Jehane sat in the pumpkin courtyard to eat their lunch. It was smaller than the courtyards in the residential wing, and planted with gourds and squash of all varieties, not just pumpkins. There were also beans and flowers and fruit trees trained against the wall. Bees buzzed in and out of holes in the courtyard wall. Unlike the residential courtyard, it felt quiet and isolated.
After they were settled on wooden benches, Jehane cautiously volunteered, “Ajax, he seemed very irritable? Did he not want to come to the school?”
Seth said, “He was expecting a war, not books. Looking for trouble, not education. His lumination was pretty exciting.” His smile widened. “The lucky thing about trouble is you can always make it yourself.” He laughed and stuffed his pickle and cheese sandwich into his mouth.
Natalie said, “He’s had it hard, Jehane. Somebody died yesterday, and his father kicked him out. That takes time to cope with. And people who don’t laugh at you.” She glared at Seth.
Seth snorted. “You’re too nice, Natalie. An attitude like his isn’t the result of a single bad night. It takes years of careful cultivation to develop that kind of chip on your shoulder. Nah, I’m pretty sure he’s going to flame out soon, and as long as he does it without hurting anybody else, I’m going enjoy the show.”
“Then why did you luminate him, if you think he’s a bad bet just like everyone else?” demanded Natalie.
His mouth full, Seth inclined his head to Natalie. When he’d swallowed he said, “Because you asked me to. I’m an obedient younger brother.” He grinned and dodged the crust she threw at him.
Jehane said, “How can he flame out without hurting anybody else?”
“Oh, it’s easy—” began Seth, then took a look at Jehane’s serious face and caught himself. “Well, realistically? I expect he’ll slip out to Earth without backup before he’s ready, take on an Awakened and end up dead. But he’s really got lots of options. He was drunk when we fought the Cambion. He didn’t do anything in class today. It’s hard to fail out of Kwan’s class but he could manage it.”
“Oh.” Jehane looked down at her lunch. “You’re so cold about it.”
“You care too much,” Seth countered, looking at Natalie.
Nettled, she said, “That Cambion was after him for a reason. He’s special.”
“Yes, he has a very big…” Seth paused, and waited for Jehane’s blush before he continued, “anima. And easy on the eyes, too, eh?”
With dignity, Natalie stood up and put the remains of her lunch in the trash, then headed for the sliding glass door that led to the Tower interior. It opened as she approached, and Rohan and Elian, two boys from class appeared.
Rohan held out a small paper bag to Natalie, grinning at her. “Cookies from Belgium.” He’d recently hit a growth spurt and now loomed over almost everybody else in the class. Natalie wasn’t used to having to tilt her head to look up at him.
She dredged up a smile as she accepted the bag. “Thanks. Being grounded kind of sucks.”
“Yeah. I really hope this Ajax guy is worth it. I wasn’t impressed today, you know?”
Natalie’s smile flickered off. She turned to Elian, who still seemed as skinny and undernourished as he had when he first came to the Tower four years before. “You came from outside. Do you think he’s as bad as everybody else seems to?”
Elian stepped backward, as if Natalie was threatening him. “More antisocial, yeah? Like Jehane used to be. Except I never thought Jehane would slug me as soon as look at me. The new guy gave me such a look today…” He shook his head.
In the background, Seth said, “We have to work on that, Jehane. Let’s practice your evil look. Study Ajax closely, while you have the chance.”
Natalie said loudly, “You could all make a little more of an effort. So he’s a bit older and bigger than most new kids. So what?”
Nobody answered at first. But Rohan’s grin faded, until he said, “Don’t get stuck on him, Natalie. I promise, he isn’t worth it.” After a long, searching look, he said, “Come on, Elian. Enjoy the cookies, Natalie.” He turned and stalked away, Elian trailing after him.
Natalie stared after him. “What was that about?”
Seth appeared beside her, and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “I think he thinks he likes you.”
“Oh.” Natalie relaxed. “I don’t have time for that.” It was an automatic reaction.
Seth widened his eyes. “Shock!”
Natalie ignored him. Seth always seemed to have plenty of time to flirt, but she had enough to do with her schoolwork, and her Nightlight duties, and her role as a teacher’s assistant, and helping at home with the younger kids, and especially keeping Seth out of trouble… And now there was Ajax. Her thoughts ran ahead to the class ahead.
“I’m going to go prep for the afternoon session. That’s more like what you think Ajax was expecting, so maybe he’ll be more accessible.”
“Are you kidding? That’s when I expect him to finally lash out at somebody!”
Natalie slid the door shut in Seth’s face, and went to class.