Kwan sat halfway down the Portalry, at one of the monitoring stations. He looked like he’d been transferred from the set of a family sitcom, sagging armchair, worn carpet, newspapers and all.
He lowered the paper as Natalie and Seth approached. He’d asked them to meet him there an hour after class finished, when they’d normally have gone on patrol.
“The thing is,” he said, as if continuing a conversation, “Something’s definitely happening out there. There’s been a surge of Awakened in various cities, judging from the spike in violence both self- and other-directed.” He waved the newspaper he was reading.
Seth stuck his hands in his pocket. “I’d love to help, man, but the Tanist canceled all the student patrols and you’re right here, guarding the exits. Gotta keep us kids safe, you know.”
Kwan eyed Seth. “Yes. As I was saying, something’s going on. I’d like to use Jehane to confirm what’s going on but I’ve been having trouble running her down.” He scowled. “She keeps skipping class.”
Dubiously, Natalie said, “I haven’t seen her much either the last couple of days. I think she’s pretty upset about Elian. Speaking of which…”
“Yes, well. Elian hasn’t been much use at finding her either.”
“Rubik’s cube,” sang out Elian. “Inside out, upside down. Besides, helping you make a teenage girl cry more can’t possibly be what you want me to prioritize.”
Kwan pushed his fingers against his head as if Elian gave him a headache, and Elian added, “I said you’d have to learn to deal with me now.”
“Yes, yes. I’m quite aware. You and Jehane and the Tanist, and believe me, we’re going to deal.”
Natalie felt a rush of sympathy for her teacher. “What can we do to help?”
“I’m sending out patrols to the portal cities where the biggest surges are occurring,” said Kwan flatly. “The Tanist wants to turtle. She thinks normal operations are laughable until we’ve worked out how to handle Tower Di, and until Elian has worked out how to encrypt the signals. But I think— and I’m convincing her of this— that if we hide, they’ve already won. So you’re going out, and you’re going to be careful.”
Seth cracked his knuckles. “Careful. I’m good at that.” The scratch on his face was healing awkwardly, distorted by his constant grin. Natalie was pretty sure that, for reasons only he could understand, that he was hoping for a scar.
Kwan tossed the newspaper aside and stood up. “Where are we going?” Natalie asked quickly.
“My god,” said Natalie, appalled. “Just us?”
“I can’t send out all the student patrols at once, and you’re some of my finest,” Kwan said shortly. “Do your best. Even a marginal cull of the Awakened will help.”
Seth bumped Natalie with his shoulder. “We’ll be fine. It’ll be just like going out for lunch.”
Kwan continued. “It isn’t impossible you’re going to come across an Echthros or signs of its passage, given that you’re using the same emergence points and going to the zones where they’ve apparently been active. If you do, do not engage it. I’m serious.” His dark gaze swept across both Seth and Natalie. “Returning with intel is better than not returning here at all. And we need every scrap of information we can get on whatever they’re doing.”
Natalie said, “Understood. I’ll get us both back no matter what.” She flashed a wry grin. “I did last time.”
With a pained look, Kwan said, “And please, don’t bring any more puppies home. If you find a likely candidate, follow proper procedure— but honestly, I’d rather you not find anyone. The Tanist isn’t real enthusiastic about anything new right now.”
Casually, Natalie said, “Where is Ajax anyhow? He took off right after class.” She suspected she and Ajax were caught in some kind of ridiculous game, where actually talking to each other lost points. And whoever could look at the other the longest without being noticed won.
She was pretty sure he was winning, but only because more people wanted her attention in class. And just grabbing him and shaking him would probably make everything implode.
Seth gave her a look that told her she hadn’t been casual enough, but Kwan didn’t seem to notice. “I’m talking to Ajax later. He had some stupid idea about going out alone. He can’t seem to come to terms with the idea that he’s not going to be useful until he starts making friends.”
“Oh, I think he’s been making… friends,” said Seth, and snickered.
“I agree,” said Kwan, oblivious. “But he’s got to realize it. But I’ll worry about Ajax. You worry about Awakened. Off you go.”
Natalie turned toward the gate, then turned back again as Seth lingered. He said, “Kwan, did you really convince the Tanist? She didn’t say anything about this when I talked to her earlier. And my dad was pretty clear that we’re not sending any student patrols out.”
Kwan hesitated. “I will convince her, by the time you get back. We have a charter, and keeping up traditions is important to her.”
Seth’s faint smile flickered. “Be careful, man. She’s afraid.”
“I’ll take care of it. You two do what you’ve been trained to do, and I’ll do what I’ve been trained to do. Kiley and I have known each other for a long time. Get a move on.”
“Before we get caught. I understand all,” said Seth, and saluted Kwan with two fingers. “Natalie, let’s roll out.”
Behind them, the portal to Shanghai activated.