Ajax slouched along the corridor, head low. If anybody had noticed him slipping out of the infirmary, they hadn’t tried to stop him. Hopefully they’d put the bed to better use.
“Elian, where’s Seth?” Elian didn’t answer for long enough that Ajax realized he was deciding what to answer rather than finding the answer. He sighed. “Fine. I’ll just head over to his place.”
“He’s not there,” Elian said quickly. “He left.”
“That’s all right. I want to see her parents, too.”
Ajax rolled his eyes at the wall. “They seemed pretty fond of her. I mean, my dad, he doesn’t miss me, just my pizza rolls. But I hear decent parents give a shit when their kids are kidnapped.”
“Yes.” Elian’s voice was subdued. “Yes, they care very much. Please, don’t make it worse for them?”
Ajax frowned. “What does that mean?”
But Elian didn’t answer.
In the residential hall, he found Jake striding down the hall. As the man approached, he nodded absently at Ajax. “Good afternoon.”
“Sir!” said Ajax, and Jake stopped, staring at him as he pulled his thoughts back to the present. “Where are you going?”
“Oh. I thought I’d head over to the office. Can’t let work pile up.” He blinked rapidly.
“Uh, I kind of wanted to talk to you. About Natalie.”
Jake looked down. “Nobody makes it to Nightlight retirement without losing somebody. When you’re a kid, it’s just a game. As a parent, letting your child go out there and fight monsters everyday… That takes commitment.” His hand made a fist. “I’ve got to get to work, Ajax. Talk to Valeria. She’ll like that.” He nodded briefly, and rushed past Ajax before Ajax could figure out what to say.
Slowly, Ajax walked on. “Is that true, Elian?”
“That Nightlights die? Yeah. It’s dangerous fighting Awakened. That’s one of the reasons we— they— are partnered up for as long as possible.”
“And that’s why everybody’s just writing Natalie off,” said Ajax grimly. “But this wasn’t a battle against Awakened.” He stopped outside her family door and pounded on it, harder than he intended.
Savannah opened the door, saying sharply, “What?” She, too, bore the scabs and bandages of the day before. “Why are you banging on the door?”
Ajax looked past her and saw Valeria sitting on the couch, holding a cup of tea. “Let him in, Savannah. Both of you, come and sit down.”
Savannah scowled at Ajax and stood aside. Ajax sat on the edge of a chair, suddenly aware of the awkwardness of his position. He was a teenage boy, and Valeria was the mother of the girl he was interested in. He’d never been good at talking to mothers.
Valeria gave him a small, sad smile, which made the whole thing worse. “I heard you saved Jehane.”
“Uh, yeah, but—” Words fled him. Valeria looked a lot like an older, dark-haired version of Natalie.
She tilted her head. “My daughter was— is very brave.”
Hope sprang to life at her wording switch. Quickly, Ajax said, “Elian says another tower has lit up. They have to be there.” He looked at Savannah. “Couldn’t we just go and get her?”
Savannah shook her head. “I know the tower. It’s days away, even by vehicle, because there aren’t any roads. And by the time we get there, the odds are good they’ll have moved on again.” She chewed her lip, and added, “I’m not saying we won’t go, but it doesn’t make a good rescue plan.”
Ajax frowned. “Why can’t you just open a portal, Elian?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way,” said Elian, sullenly. “Go ask a Reader to explain it to you, they’ve been researching that kind of thing for decades.”
Savannah said, “I am thinking we should summon all of the Prowlers home, though. If we do that, it would dramatically increase our ability to investigate a number of towers simultaneously.”
“No!” said Valeria sharply, her tea sloshing up the side of her cup as she set it down. “No. Leave them out there. They’re safe out there.” Savannah gave her a look and she revised her statement, “Safe as they ever are. Bringing them home is putting all our eggs in one basket.”
Ajax stared at Valeria, his brow furrowed. “But doing that— we could rescue Natalie. You said— you said she is brave, not was. You don’t think she’s lost.”
Valeria picked up her tea again and gulped it. “Find another way. She is very brave, and very strong. And dedicated. My beautiful daughter….” But she shook her head. “But we’ve been here a thousand years. We’ve weathered a lot. Having some of us all over this rock is a safety net and I don’t think Natalie would want us risking that. She cared about the Nightlights mission. She was dedicated. It even said so on her weapon.” She raised her eyebrows at Ajax. “What are you dedicated to?”