After dinner and the dishes were done, Natalie sat at the dining room table with her head in her hands, staring at the homework on her tablet, seeing nothing of it. She barely heard the noise of the rest of the household either, until Seth chased the younger children into the dining room and over the table.
Then she announced, “I don’t know how anybody gets any work done around here. Dad was right to hide from you punks,” snatched up her tablet, and stomped off to her father’s tiny study.
He looked up from the three tablets and piles of typed and handwritten reports scattered over his ancient desk. “Natalie.” He gave her a thoughtful look. “Have a seat.”
Natalie threw herself into the armchair in the corner of the room, which was just far enough away from her father’s desk that she couldn’t put her feet up on it like Seth liked to do.
“I’ve been thinking about Ajax,” she blurted.
The corner of Jake’s mouth quirked up. “Of course.”
“Shut up, Dad. I’ve been thinking, maybe he could be a Prowler. Like, apprenticed as one. Then he wouldn’t—”
Natalie’s father put down his stylus and rubbed between his eyes. “We’re not turning loose a boy suffering from pretty serious transition shock on an alien world. And I’m certainly not saddling a Prowler with his attitude. He needs time to settle down.”
Natalie scrunched down in the chair, staring at her father, trying to figure out how to convince him.
He sighed. “Don’t give me that wounded look, Natalie. You need to settle down, too. You’re always in such a hurry to fix things.”
“Somebody has to,” she snapped, and tried to put her feet on his desk. If she stretched her toes, she could just reach, but it wasn’t very satisfying.
Jake looked at her feet. “That hurry to fix things is why you’re always in trouble for what Seth does, you know. People are always going to give responsibility to those who want it, because most people don’t.”
“Don’t you think I know that by now? I’ve been Seth’s big sister for a long time.”
“Yes, and Seth takes advantage of that.” He gave her a long, meaningful look. “But in this case, didn’t Ajax tell you to get out of his business?”
Furious, Natalie said, “Seth has a big mouth and I’m going to go close it for him.” She’d come home from her walk with Ajax, nearly blinded by tears. When Seth hadn’t pestered her for more than a basic explanation, she should have known he was off tattling to her parents.
“Sit down, Natalie. He was worried about you.”
Fuming, Natalie sank back into the chair again. “I owe Ajax, Dad. I’m not going to give up on him just because he’s… just because he’s kind of a jerk.”
“It’s not your problem, kiddo, it’s his. You did your best, but you can’t fix everything. Sometimes you just have to wait and see. You’d be out looking for this Echthros right now if we’d let you, too, but that’s not the right way to go about that.”
“Yes, what are you doing about that?”
Her father gave her a look, then looked pointedly at his desk. “Reports. Check-ins. Cross-referencing.” Natalie looked away and he sighed again. “My dear one, please don’t think you deserve his cruelty. And don’t set yourself up—”
Valeria, Natalie’s mother, appeared at the study door, drawn out of her eavesdropping. “Our eldest is nearly grown, Jake. Past the age of lectures, I think.”
Jake raised his eyebrows at Valeria. “Not past the age of protective fathers, surely?”
Valeria laughed. “Those who love Natalie will always want to protect her.” She looked at Natalie thoughtfully. “We could punish him in our own way. Kentigern would help.”
Natalie wanted to cover her ears with her hands, but hugged her knees to her chest instead. “I don’t need to be protected. I’m not going to get hurt! I’m just trying to fix a problem.” She realized she was almost yelling, and took a deep breath to try one more time. “Look, he’s very powerful, right? Surely you can see it.”
A troubled look passed over Jake’s face. “Yes. That’s part of the problem. If we let him go, as Kentigern tells us he’s requested, there’s a very solid chance he’ll become an Echthros”
Natalie faltered. “Even without a weapon summon?”
“He’s very powerful.” As Natalie brightened, her father continued. “That makes him dangerous. And power isn’t everything, Natalie. It’s a lot, but it’s not everything. So for now, we’re going to wait and watch and observe him. If he can settle down, he has a future here. If he can’t…” Jake glanced at one of his tablets. “Well, it’s up to him.”
“Fine,” snapped Natalie. She rose to her feet and stalked past her mother, out to the living room. All three of her siblings were on the carpet, the two little ones, Kaylee and Logan, trying to hold Seth down as he tickled them. They all paused, staring up at her.
Glaring at Seth, Natalie walked over and stomped on his outstretched hand. She was in her bare feet, so it probably didn’t hurt as much as she thought it should, but it was the thought that counted. “That’s for telling Dad what Ajax said, asshole.”
“Ouch,” he said, grinning up at her. For a moment she ached to wipe that grin off his face. Then he said to the little ones, “How about all three of us get her?” and she ran to her room instead, slamming the door behind her.