“No lunch again? Are you sure? I can bring you something if you want,” Jehane asked Ajax as he settled against a wall in the Portalry.
He shook his head. “If I were hungry I’d get food myself.” He hesitated, then said, “Thanks for the offer, though.” He busily ignored almost everybody else in the school, their strange conversations and half-familiar jokes and their curious stares, or worse, their pitying looks. But he couldn’t do that to Jehane; it felt too much like kicking a puppy.
No sooner than she had left the Portalry for the dining hall, then Kwan appeared from the far end of the room.
“She’s right. You don’t eat enough,” Kwan said. “Well, depression is a normal reaction in your situation.”
“I’m eating plenty,” snapped Ajax. “And I’m not depressed. Look, why can’t I go out? I’m pretty sure Kentigern’s spiel about not being cleared for a return device is bullshit.”
“It’s disingenuous, at least.” A smile flashed across Kwan’s face.
“I mean, are all new students prisoners? I bet their parents love that.”
Kwan studied him. “No, they aren’t. They’re also not the target of a Cambion.”
“Uh-huh. Except Natalie killed that thing.”
“But who made it? Why did it want you?”
Ajax scrutinized Kwan’s face for a moment. “Yeah, right. I don’t think this is just protective custody, is it?”
“Natalie has put us all in an unfamiliar situation,” said Kwan calmly. “An older recruit, inadequately prepared, from a broken home, involved with a troubling enemy, and absolutely churning with uncontrolled anima. You’re dangerous.”
Ajax opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again. Finally, he said, “Wouldn’t it be better to just get rid of me, then?”
“What, because you’re trouble? Now I know you haven’t been paying attention to your classmates.”
“Maybe I’ve been too distracted by being trapped on an alien world where it never gets dark!” Ajax paced away, then back again. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Now, the kids born here are different,” said Kwan, as if continuing a different conversation. “Something about the Tower means they never have to be luminated, and their anima is strong enough that nearly all of them are capable of being Nightlights. But the kids from Earth… only a few, proportionally, have what it takes. And those few don’t come from good places. We take them anyhow, because we need them. And they need us. And it does get dark here, sometimes. Very dark.”
Ajax narrowed his eyes. “Where did you come from?”
Kwan gave him an inscrutable look. “I came from New York. I was a runaway.”
“Running away from what?” Ajax demanded.
“Why does it matter? This isn’t a motivational story about how I settled down, shaped up and became a valuable member of society. “
Ajax snickered despite himself. “What is it, then?”
Kwan spread his hands. “We’re not letting you out because you’re in danger, and dangerous. We’re not throwing you out because we need all the Guardians we can get. And the kids around you are people. Give them a chance. They want to be your friends.”
Ajax looked away. “What makes you think I want friends?”
“Oh, please. You want to learn to use your anima productively. Every day in class, you practice alone—”
“And get nowhere! God, I don’t know why you don’t throw me out. That excuse about needing all the Guardians you can get is a joke. I can’t do anything.”
Kwan waited a moment, then went on. “You want a weapon. Friends make it easier to control your anima, which is what gives you your weapon.”
“Maybe so, but it’s documented all the same. Why do you think we send student Nightlights out in pairs and groups?”
“It’s not mentioned in any of the exercises you gave me,” Ajax accused. “Those are all about meditation and relaxation and visualization.”
“Maybe they took the desire to make friends for granted,” said Kwan dryly. Hatherly walked into the Portalry, and Kwan raised a hand to him in greeting as he strolled down the hall.
Ajax eyed Hatherly, then shook his head. “It’s not worth it. If you think somebody’s your friend, you do stupid things for them. You open yourself to them, even if they don’t want that. You hand them a knife.”
Kwan gave him a skeptical look. “Are you really that worried about getting hurt?”
Ajax returned the look from under drawn eyebrows. “I’m not worried about me getting hurt. I know myself better than you do.”
“Fair enough. But you might consider trying for what could be rather than what you’ve experienced.”
Hatherly hesitated just outside conversational range, then joined them. “It’s true. Things can change. Each of us have the ability to make the world better than how we found it. Some might even say we have a responsibility to do so.”
Ajax looked Hatherly up and down, recalling his lesson the other day. Then he shrugged. “Believe me, I’m doing that by not making friends. I’m making the world a better place.” But he found himself wondering, all the same, which of his fellow students had come from Earth.