The gym was almost empty at this time of day. Jehane waited in a corner, unnoticed, until the last of the adults taking their exercise had returned to work. Then she moved to the practice mats, picking up a practice sword along the way. She looked at it steadily for a long moment, then made the glow of a stage 1 weapon engulf it. It was easy. She could do it whenever she wanted. All the time.
Almost all the time.
But everybody had bad days, right? And she was very tired.
She threw the wooden sword away and summoned the stage 2 version of her weapon. It came at once, and she moved it through some of the exercises Natalie had taught her, to train her body even when her mind was filled with fear. She moved through them twice, then stopped, staring at the glowing shape in her hand. She wondered what it would be when she finally mastered it. What shape and what glyph would define it?
The glowing shape flickered out. She shook her hand like she was shaking out a match, and summoned it again. This time, she pushed herself through three sets of exercises before getting distracted by the light in her hand. She pushed at it, and tried to mold her anima into something real, something made of glinting soul-metal rather than a narrow field of light.
It went out.
She wasn’t tired enough. She summoned it again, and pushed herself through five sets of exercises. Then, drenched with sweat, her muscles trembling, she looked at the blade of light again. Ajax had summoned a stage 3 weapon the day before. He’d barely been training a couple of months. Maybe he was gifted, but she was gifted too. Special, gifted, unique.
She couldn’t help Seth. She couldn’t get useful information out of Hatherly. He’d made her uncomfortable before, but how was she to tell the discomfort of a secret creep from the discomfort of a stranger? They’d told her and told her, all her teachers, that she needed to relax around people more. She of all people couldn’t trust her instincts. Her instincts had made her want to let Malachi touch her, to find behind his unspoken threats and odd behavior a source of nourishment for a hunger she’d never felt before.
She’d been planning on asking Natalie about that, Jehane remembered.
The weapon dissolved to darkness, and she summoned it again.
Seven times, and her legs collapsed beneath her on the 8th iteration. She pushed herself to her feet, and realized Ajax stood at the door of the gymnasium, watching her. Shame flooded through her, and she didn’t know why. He already knew she was weak. He’d had to save her life.
“This isn’t where I expected to find you.” A crooked smile flashed over Ajax’s face. “I suppose that makes this the best place to hide. Or it would if Elian was in the mood to let you hide.” He scowled at the wall.
“I hide a lot,” mumbled Jehane. She went to get a drink of water.
He followed her. “Why?”
She whirled around. “Because I screw things up.” She turned back to the fountain and splashed water on her face and down her throat. When she was drenched, she looked up again. He was still watching her thoughtfully. “Aren’t you angry at me?”
He looked baffled. “Why would I be?”
“Seth said you like Natalie, and if you hadn’t saved me, Natalie wouldn’t have been taken.”
Ajax’s expression hardened. “Seth is an asshole.” His eyes focused on something far away, and he shook his head. “No. I can’t think of it that way. The best I can do is wish I’d been stronger. It makes a lot more sense to blame myself for being too weak to beat him.”
Jehane goggled at Ajax. “He’s a Nightlight with decades of fighting experience. You’re insane if you think you could have won.”
Stubbornly, Ajax said, “That just means he’s old. Slow.”
Jehane remembered how Hatherly had moved. “Not slow.”
Ajax’s jaw jutted out. “He’s got something else going on. Some other kind of crutch or machine. He resisted what took down his own people.” He shook his head. “Still. I should have beaten him. You can blame me for that. So can Seth.”
Jehane’s voice came out as an astonished squeak. “Seth has more experience than you, too. And he’s really good.”
Ajax gave her a gentle, haunted smile. “Here’s the trick, though. The only part of that clusterfuck I could control was myself. It happens again, I can still only control myself. So I blame myself, because that’s the only thing I can influence. The only control I have. The only way I have of making sure next time is different.” He smacked a fist into his other hand. “I have to get stronger.” Then he raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that what you’re doing, too?”
Jehane stared at him, dumbfounded. He waited, patiently. Finally, she said, “I guess so. I never thought of it that way.”
“You’re still a kid. No reason why you should have. But I did want to talk to you about Natalie, if you can stand to do so without trying to knock yourself out…”
“I think I can, but…” Jehane looked up at the staircase that Kwan was descending. “He wants to talk to you first.”