“Hey, look at these shoes!”
Jehane wasn’t the only novice out on patrol with Rose and Kotone. Jolie, a classmate, was along, too. She acted more like it was a shopping trip.
Rose walked back to the window Jolie had her nose pressed against. “Those straps are useless.”
Jehane goggled at the spikes. “Where would you wear shoes like that?”
Rose laughed at Jehane’s expression. “Not on patrol.”
Kotone said thoughtfully, “I’d wear those,” and pointed at a pair of open-toed lace-up heeled boots.
The other two girls admired the boots, and Jehane stared at them in amazement. Natalie and Seth had never, ever stopped to look at shoes while on patrol.
It wasn’t as if the girls were slackers, either. As soon as they’d come through the emergence point, Rose and Kotone had headed to an Awakened feeding point and dispatched the monster there with cool competence.
Rose smiled at Jehane. “Natalie’s still pretty intense, right? She always takes everything so seriously. She did that even when she was our novice.”
“Took,” said Kotone, soberly. She started drifting back down the patrol route again.
“Probably still ‘takes’,” said Rose, reasonably. “None of those bastards seem to have much of a sense of humor.”
Kotone shrugged, and crossed the street to look at a dress store.
Jolie fell into step beside Jehane. “Everybody copes in their own way, I guess. Speaking of which… how’s Ajax doing? You two are friends, right? Just friends?”
Startled, Jehane said, “Um, friends, yes, I think?”
“Was he close to Natalie? There were rumors for a while…” Jolie’s eyes gleamed as she watched Jehane. “Does he need… comforting?”
Jehane wasn’t sure what to say. Ajax was determined to rescue Natalie, but she didn’t really have a strong grasp on why. It seemed, though, that she ought to keep Jolie out of his way, if she could. “He doesn’t seem to need much comforting.”
A slow smile curved over Jolie’s face. “I’ll take that as a good sign, then.”
“Um…” The shadow music surged, interrupting Jehane’s thought. She turned her head, triangulating, then called to the others. “A cluster of Awakened is fighting in that direction.”
Kotone tilted her head, listening. “I can barely hear it.” She looked at Jehane like she was a nice pair of boots. “You are useful, aren’t you?”
An unexpected rush of pleasure passed over Jehane at the praise, and she sternly told herself, Not a dog. Not shoes! But it didn’t matter. Being appreciated just as she was, without pressure to become something else, was nice.
They approached the cluster together, until the older girls told Jehane and Jolie to stay back and safe. Then, they moved in to clean up the mess. Jehane watched their technique intently, until she realized Jolie was busy looking at her cellphone rather than watching the fight. “Is something wrong?”
Jolie shook her head. “Just downloading some updates while we’re out here.”
Jehane glanced back at the fight, now concluding. It seemed to have gone well, but what if it hadn’t? She wanted to say something, but as usual, words failed her.
Rose jogged over. “Did you get all your updates, Jolie?” Her voice was sharp and nasty.
Jolie laughed. “Still loading. Besides, you didn’t want me involved, did you? What good would watching have done?”
“You might have learned something.”
Jolie grinned, unstung by Rose’s tone. “Nah, not me.”
Jehane frowned at Jolie, irritated by her attitude. Seth went the devil-may-care route, too, but Seth was good at what he did. As far as Jehane could tell, Jolie was only moderately skilled, a perfectly average novice.
But then Rose laughed at Jolie, and snatched her cellphone away.
“Hey!” Jolie grabbed after it, too slow.
“Get faster.” Rose flashed her teeth and ran down the street. “You can have it at the end of the patrol. Or when you take it!”
Jolie pouted elaborately, then sighed and gave Jehane a rueful grin. “I’m not going to win that challenge yet.”
Jehane had the oddest feeling, like she was wearing a costume that made her look like a normal girl. She wasn’t a freak, or a problem, or a prodigy, or somebody’s project. She was an accessory in Jolie’s life. It was a stunning, liberating realization, and she responded to Jolie’s grin with a tremulous smile of her own.
“There you go,” said Jolie. “Let’s catch up!” She caught up Jehane’s hand and pulled her into a run.
Three steps into their dash, the rechanneling field activated. Their legs tangled together and they fell, rolling hard on the pavement. Half-healed bruises screamed in pain that then faded under the rushing current of the rechanneling field feeding strength into them. The field that Natalie and Seth had fought so hard to destroy, only a week or so ago.
“No!” shrieked Rose. “Dammit, no!”
Jehane looked up. Kotone stood over them, her face hard and grim. “Get up.” Jehane and Jolie scrambled to their feet. “We’re going home.”
“Kotone, no—” began Rose.
“We’re not fighting them again, Rose. Not alone, not like this.”
Jehane whispered, “But what about Natalie?”
“What about her?” Kotone gave her a swift look. “Can you sense her?”
The field was already fading, as if the creature that generated it was moving away. Jehane shook her head. “Not this far away.” She stepped backward.
“Kotone, we can’t just let this start up again,” said Rose.
Kotone turned to Rose, a hand on her hip. “Getting ourselves killed or captured is just going to make it worse.”
“Send Jolie back,” said Rose, stubbornly.
Jolie raised a hand cautiously. “I’m okay with that plan.” Jehane took another step backwards, towards the direction the field had moved.
Rose tossed Jolie her phone. Kotone grabbed Rose’s arm and shook her. “We are going home. I am not losing you and I am not losing me. Jolie, don’t let Jehane take another step backward.”
Jolie’s fingers closed over Jehane’s, and she gave Jehane an apologetic look.
Rose’s shoulders slumped, and she moved in the direction Kotone pushed. Jolie tugged Jehane after them.
“Think of it this way,” said Kotone, her voice brittle. “The less we know about what happened to Natalie, the more hope you can have.”
Jehane stopped, staring after Kotone until Jolie pulled her forward again. She thought of Malachi and his twisted set of priorities. They were twisted, but she almost understood him. And she realized she believed that if Natalie was alive, no matter what her state of mind, there was always hope.
Unfortunately, she was pretty sure she was the only person in the Tower to feel that way.