Illumination 4.11: Sticks and Stones

“Why do I get the impression,” said Seth, leaning on the door to the gymnasium, “that you’d be happy if we had school seven days a week?”

Ajax dropped to the ground from the pull-up bar he’d been using. “It’d be something to do. This place is like the dullest small town ever imagined.”

“Without being able to use the portals that’s absolutely true.” Seth grinned. “I always thought it was kind of funny that boredom is the penultimate modern disciplinary technique.”

“It works, though. Why are you bothering me, anyhow?”

Seth darted past Ajax. “I’m not bothering you. I’m entertaining you. We can spar. Some manly fighting practice. It’s right up your alley.”

Ajax hesitated, then brought out his stage 2 weapon. “Why not?” Without further warning, he lunged at Seth, who sidestepped. Ajax reached out for Seth with his free hand as he passed but Seth patted his arm before bounding to the other side of a vaulting horse.

And it was fun. It felt good. Ajax was careful in class, paired against other students by the teachers. He didn’t really understand his own power, and he didn’t want to hurt people because of his own lack of grace. But he was absolutely confident that right now, today, there was no way he was going to hurt Seth.

At least, not badly.

He chased Seth around the room for ten minutes, using every dirty trick he’d learned in street brawls. When he finally managed to sweep Seth off-balance, Seth laughed, picked up a practice sword and stopped fooling around.

After another quarter of an hour, they took a break. Swallowing a mouthful of water from a fountain, Ajax said, “How did you learn this stuff? Class is just sparring, not that crazy gymnastic stuff you do.”

“I had to, didn’t I? My weapons aren’t exactly good for a stand-up fight.” He made a long-bladed knife appear, the glyph that meant Delight glinting on the blade. A twist of his hand and it vanished.

“Uh-huh. Not what I asked though.”

Seth grinned. “I picked it up here and there. Bits and pieces of various martial arts from the masters in the Tower and the Prowlers. And a lot of practice. And trampolines,” he added thoughtfully. “Trampolines are useful. How about yourself? You’re better than I would have expected an American kid to be.”

Ajax laughed. “I got into a lot of fights. Obviously your way is better.”

“Well, you know, a PE class full of combat drills counts for a lot. And you’ve got all this potential.” Seth smirked at Ajax. “But is it potential? Or something else?”

Ajax rolled his eyes. “Is this about being a spy again?”

Seth laughed, but Ajax thought he seemed surprised. “Natalie must really like you if she warned you about that.” His smile faded and he scrutinized Ajax. “That could be a problem.”

Ajax shifted his weight, then pushed his hair out of his face. He was an utter idiot where Natalie was concerned; he’d already demonstrated that. At last, he said, “Yeah. She should stay away from me.”

Seth’s smile returned like the sun behind a cloud. “You say that, but you like her too. Subtle, you ain’t, big guy. She’s practically all you look at when she’s in the room.”

“She’s a nice girl, she saved my life, and you are her brother. I’m not talking about this with you.”

“Brother, best friend, partner.” Seth’s tone was light, but his eyes glinted under brows drawn together. “Who better?”

“Shut up about her and tell me if you think I’m a spy or not.”

Seth flopped on his back, suddenly boneless. “Nah. Not like Kiley thinks, anyhow. I think Malachi’s been talking to someone we don’t know about, but it ain’t you. I don’t think you can pretend to be as dumb as you are. No offense.”

Mildly, Ajax said, “I am kind of dumb.” Then, as if to prove it, he returned to the previous subject like a tongue seeking out a sore tooth. “Were you trying to tell me to step off your sister a minute ago? Because if so, I just want to–”

“Would I do that? That’s totally between you and her. But I do think if you’re trying to avoid her, you might want to, you know, actually avoid her. Seek out other company. This is not something you would have a problem with if you made a little effort.” Seth stared upward and smiled.

Ajax followed his gaze and realized that Natalie was on the gallery, watching them. When she realized she’d been noticed, she moved to the stairs.

Seth muttered, “Oh, boy.”

Ajax watched her come down the stairs, her every movement as controlled as a dancer, and her eyes intent upon his own. He suddenly felt awkward and clumsy and unwashed, and like he wanted to put his arms around her and not let go.

Seth said, “I’m just going to go… sort the wooden practice swords. Yes. Into the ones that need sharpening and the ones that don’t.” He took all of six steps away, then stopped. Yet Ajax was glad Seth was there to stop him from doing something stupid.

“Hi,” she said, and something cold unfolded inside Ajax. “All right, so.” She took a deep breath. “You know how you said I was the reason you were still here, I was the reason that you could be trusted? Well, you’re powerful. You could be really useful, or really dangerous. And I don’t want the responsibility for your good behavior. So, leave if you’re going to. I’m not going to be what you stay for.”

Ajax’s breath hissed between his teeth, then words tumbled out, even before his brain had engaged. “Hey, wow, that’d be a real gut punch. If, you know, I cared. But you’re right, that’s for the best. Sorry to have burdened you with my little confession earlier.”

Natalie looked surprised, then nodded sharply and walked stiffly out the door of the gymnasium. Ajax stared at nothing.

This was what he’d wanted. If it hurt, that was for the best, too. God knows, he deserved it after the way he treated Meredith and other girls. And maybe this time he’d finally learn—

Seth intercepted his line of vision and interrupted his thoughts. “Wow. Natalie refusing responsibility for something? She must really like you. So, leaving? I bet Elian wouldn’t stop you.”

Ajax dragged his attention away from the emptiness and focused on Seth. His stage 2 weapon appeared in his hand. “I am going to stay here long enough to learn how to kick your ass.”

 

*

By the way, my publisher is giving away 3 copies of Matchbox Girls on Goodreads. It’s almost like it’s a real book.

 

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