Illumination 6.9: Did She Love You?

Ajax gave Kwan a narrow-eyed, hostile look, but an expression that would have made all the boys at his high school back off had no effect on the teacher.

Kwan’s eyes crinkled at the corners instead. “How are you feeling, Jehane?”

Ajax’s irritation eased. He’d wondered how Jehane knew that Kwan was coming to talk to him, and he was irrationally pleased to see she was wrong.

“Very tired, sir,” said Jehane, her voice tiny.

“I can see you’ve been working hard. Why don’t you take a shower and get some rest?”

“Yes, sir.” Jehane threw a told-you-so look at Ajax and escaped, pattering out the door as fast as Ajax had ever seen her move. She ran like a rabbit.

Kwan watched her go then turned his attention to Ajax.

“That’s right, just dismiss Jehane,” Ajax said. “She’s not interesting and useful at all. You know, I was in the middle of talking to her.”

Kwan looked astonished. “Are you saying she should be in handcuffs, too? Speaking of which, I can’t help but notice that you seem to have escaped yours without damaging them or the bed.”

“I’m a talented guy. Are you here to put me back? It’s going to take more than just you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I said we never intended for you to be a prisoner, and I meant it. You’re free to trot around the Tower to your heart’s content.” Kwan paused, his point clear, and Ajax wanted to snarl at him. “However, we’ve decided what we’d like to do with you.”

“We? Or the Tanist?”

Kwan hesitated. “Let’s say: the Council. The Tanist wants things to go back to normal, at least for now. Until we know more about what Hatherly is doing now. So Nightlight patrols as usual, with extra care to avoid the authorities, and we avoid the locations where Hatherly’s people show up.”

“And what do you want with me?”

“Well. Somehow the powers that be have been convinced that your… independent nature is because you haven’t been trained enough. So you need to come to school properly, everyday. I know you’ve been skipping it now and then, but now not only will you show up bright and early with a shining morning face, but you’re going to have extra lessons to make up for the years you missed.”

“You want me to sit around and do homework while Natalie is being tortured.” His voice, so calm and reasonable, broke into a snarl at the end.

Kwan inspected him. “Why do you care? I seem to recall you saying you didn’t have or need friends because you’d just hurt them. Yes? So why? What’s your angle, Mr. I Use People?”

What are you dedicated to?

“It turns out I take more after my idiot mother than I thought,” Ajax said.

“Yeah? You think about that some.”

“What does that mean?”

Kwan, in the process of turning away, swung back sharply toward him. “You think it’s right, do you, that you walk around calling your mother an idiot because she had the grace to give a damn?”

“Well, it killed her, so yeah. Why the hell do you care?”

Kwan’s hand clenched into a fist and Ajax fell back a step, watching him warily. He didn’t understand why the teacher cared if he badmouthed his mother, especially since he’d already admitted he was imitating her.

“And did she love you? Did she wash your face, make you sandwiches, hold your hand as you crossed the street? Did she smile when you came home from school and tidy your hair in the mornings?”

“Shut up!” Ajax snapped. “Yes, she did. And she loved my father, too, she rubbed his shoulders and kissed him and kept his dinner warm and washed his clothes and bought him ties, and she died.

Kwan stared at him for a long moment. Then he shook out his fist. “It sounds like she deserves better than she’s getting now. You aiming to one up your mother, kid? Drive off everybody so nobody cares when you die?”

Ajax clicked his tongue. “Tsk tsk. It’ll be such a waste. Look, all I want is to get Natalie out of a bad situation.”

“So you can go back to ignoring her? Badly?”

It was Ajax’s turn to clench his fist. He wanted very much to smash it into the teacher’s face. “She’s the one who rejected me.”

Kwan coughed and raised his hands. “More than I wanted to know. Sorry I asked. Going back to your earlier, utterly rhetorical question, yeah, I expect you to do homework. You gotta pay for any opportunities you get.”

“Yeah, right. I’m not going to get any opportunities I don’t make myself. You guys have already written Natalie off as unrecoverable or dead.” Ajax turned away.

“Our own variety of idiocy, I suppose. Maybe one of us will learn our mistake.”

Ajax looked over his shoulder, eyes blazing, and met Kwan’s cool, steady gaze. It was more than he wanted to see, and it drove him the rest of the way out of the gymnasium.

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