Illumination 2.5: Make Me Real

Jehane stepped through the portal. The air in the Tower was sweet, the shadow music comforting. A moment after Natalie stepped through behind her, the portal closed. The Councillor waiting, whom Jehane did not know by name, raised his eyebrows. “Where are the others?”

Natalie announced, “Since we were in the middle of a patrol, I asked Seth to finish up.” It was the sort of thing she said, even though Jehane knew she’d done no such thing.

“Is Ajax Holdren with him?” asked the Councillor, frowning. His leitmotif was all deep brassy notes and steady rhythms.

Natalie sighed. “Yes. I thought since he was so eager to get himself into trouble, he’d better follow along with Seth and see how a patrol goes. Elian is helping out.” Jehane was fascinated. Natalie lied so much better to people outside her usual circle. Perhaps it was that her family knew what to expect.

The Councillor peered over little glasses at Natalie. “All right. We’ll need them back soon, but for now you’ll do. Come along to the Council chamber.” His gaze ran over Jehane, cool and measuring. It was a familiar look.

Deep inside Jehane, panic started to bloom.

In the Council chamber, Tanist Kiley said, “I see. Thank you, Taki. Everybody, please take a seat.” A ghastly smile flickered across her face, the sort of smile that Jehane was very used to from adults trying to be kind. “You too, Jehane, Natalie.” The Council chamber’s shadow music rippled with excited trills and deep, throbbing foreboding.

When Jehane, stiff with nerves, perched on the edge of the plush chair, the Tanist went on. “Now, Jehane. You’ve been training with Natalie and Seth for some time now, because of your special gifts. We’d like to put that training to work dealing with the Echthros. Kentigern?”

The screen over the table displayed a staged group shot. “Malachi Kasparian’s graduating class,” said Kentigern. The image zoomed in to Malachi, standing on the edge of the group. He was an expressionless young man with dark brown hair and eyes shadowed by his heavy brows, standing straight with his hands loose at his side. The photograph dissolved into a video clip: Malachi standing in almost the exact same position, while a young woman with an auburn ponytail hung on him, laughing. “Malachi with his partner, Emily.” Right before the clip ended, Malachi’s eyes slid sideways to look at Emily, and one side of his mouth crooked up.

Jehane felt sick. The Tanist said, “Did you ever meet him, Jehane? He only moved out of the Tower two years ago, around the time you decided to start school, but the two of you arrived at the Tower near the same time.”

“N-no. We never met.”

She lied. She couldn’t lie like Natalie or Seth, but the truth could not be explained. She was too afraid of what they’d do with the truth.

She remembered him. Malachi. The first time she’d seen him, he’d been escorted by a nurse down the hall of her ward. He was a scrawny boy with snarled hair and dirty hands, and his shadow music was a whisper of wind across dark water. She thought he couldn’t see the horrors that haunted the hospital any more than the doctors and nurses. But he seemed to see something, his gaze combing the common area and the open doors, looking near the monsters even if he never looked at them. His eyes lingered on her as she sat curled up in her open door frame.

Three days later, he’d walked back down the hall again. This time he was alone; it was only Jehane who noticed him. He’d paused and looked at her, meeting her eyes for a long moment before he raised his finger to his lips. Then he’d walked out of the ward like a ghost, quietly passing through the door behind a nurse who never saw him.

He’d looked at her like she was real. He’d looked at her like they were the only two real people, in a world of monsters. They’d never spoken— he never spoke to anybody— but the three days he was in the ward stretched as long as the previous year. He’d made the loneliness and frustration of her life fade away with a look, a touch of his hand as he passed her a cup. He was real, and he made her real too.

It seemed like only a few days later when the Guardians came for her, spilling into the ward in the middle of the night. They came through a portal opened by a teenager who’d checked in that day. First, they’d found her where she hid, and bundled her into the care of Jake and Doctor Pepperman. Then the three Nightlights and the teenager began to clear the ward of every single monster that lived there, even the ones she’d befriended. It was awful and wonderful and horrifying. The shadow music that had accompanied the Nightlights was an overwhelming orchestra, as far removed from the nightmare songs of the ward as she could have dreamt.

She’d seen Malachi again, once she’d been established in her private room at the Tower. It was only in a private room that she felt comfortable, although they’d tried to foster her with various Tower families. But while she needed the privacy and the silence, she still liked to leave her door open sometimes and watch the empty hall outside. Once, when she opened her door, Malachi was there, leaning against the opposite wall. His hair was combed, and he wasn’t nearly as scrawny, but his music was still the whisper of wind across water. He met her eyes first, expressionless, silent, before looking her down and up. When he’d returned to her face, he’d raised his already-heavy eyebrows.

Nine years old, and she knew she shouldn’t suck her thumb. But she’d wanted to. Instead she’d clasped her hands tightly together and raised her own eyebrows. He’d nodded once, and walked away.

She remembered. “I-I can’t track him based on pictures, if that’s what you want.”

Tanist Kiley said, “That’s all right. We know where he is. We’ve got a recent report of him in Vancouver, just as expected. He’s not raving, but he also wouldn’t declare himself unfallen.” She frowned. “The reporting Nightlight said he had some kind of stealth ability. I’m not sure what that’s about, but you’re our best anti-stealth measure. I’d like you to go to Vancouver, along with Seth and Natalie, and help track him down. There will be signs you can detect, movements of Awakened and so on, just as you have before. Can you do that?”

Jehane shook her head wildly. “I can’t, ma’am!” She wouldn’t. The memory of his eyes meeting hers still seared her. He’d changed her whole world, shown her she wasn’t alone, with nothing but a look. He’d seen her, not a case, not a burden, not a mystery.

Natalie squeezed Jehane’s hand. “It’s okay, Jehane. It’ll be just like practicing with Seth, just like what we do on patrol. You can do it.”

Jehane dragged in a ragged breath. She could get out of it. All she had to do was break down into sobs and demonstrate she too broken to be useful. She hadn’t been able to stop doing that for years after her rescue.

But the Council was treating her like something more than a fragile child for the first time. Or at least Kiley was; the expressions of many of the other Councillors made it clear they considered this a waste of time. If she did break down, she’d lose everything she’d gained in the past two years.

She curled up in the chair, leaned her head against Natalie’s arm, squeezed her eyes shut, and nodded her head.

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