They were escorted to a military-looking building on the other side of the city from the devastated colonia: the headquarters of the defense operation. They were escorted by Martin, and by a number of other soldiers from other countries who were all very polite, and very insistent, and they were put into a room with a table and a water cooler and a television and four guards outside.
Ajax didn’t care. He kept looking at Natalie. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to get enough of looking at her, but when he glanced away, there was Jehane. And somewhere in this vast building was Seth. For the first time since he was a child, he felt like he was somewhere he belonged again. It felt like — family. The world had tried to tear his new family apart and he’d gone and gotten it back again, and it wasn’t what it was but people grew and changed all the time.
She had scars and open injuries both. They’d both been tended by medics, but they couldn’t do much for the ones inside. He’d noticed how she’d tensed subtly once they’d been gently herded into the conference room. She was familiar with small spaces, with captivity. He gave her space, until she came over and leaned on him. “Don’t let me go,” she whispered. “Don’t leave me alone here.” So he wrapped his arms around her instead, and she relaxed against him.
He dropped his nose to her hair and breathed in her scent and looked at the others. Jehane sat at the table with her chin on her arms, her eyes closed. Sometimes they flickered open, and she looked at the others. Malachi, leaning against the wall under the television, never looked at any of them. His gaze stayed on the door, but there was a tension between him and Jehane, as if every time she moved, his weight shifted toward her and back again.
Ajax understood that.
Time passed. The news was full of the curious speculating about what had caused the Hellgate to vanish, and what was next for the wounded city. A scientist speculated about what the data gathered from studying the gate would mean for the world. Ajax didn’t pay much attention. Everything they said would be meaningless once the military started to question them. Ajax’s mind started to wander down uncomfortable pathways, wondering what would happen to them after that. They’d saved the world, but now what? Would they be imprisoned? Studied? They certainly weren’t going to let them go.
Natalie slipped out of his arms and moved to the television, pausing before it to exchange another look with Malachi. “I’m going to change the channel.” Malachi frowned, but said nothing, so she reached up past him to push some buttons on the TV. She settled, finally, on a cartoon channel.
Jehane opened her eyes to watch the cartoons as Natalie returned to Ajax.
After a while, Jehane said, “The thing about cambions is that everybody always makes them when they’re… hurting so badly that cutting off their own arm would hardly hurt in comparison. So they do cut off their arm, kind of. Metaphorically. It doesn’t take a whole lot to bring a cambion to life. Just a tiny part of a soul, and a certain state of mind. And the seed grows into its own soul, eventually, and your own soul grows back, if you don’t keep picking at the wound.” She transferred her gaze to Natalie. “Hatherly learned how to parcel his soul out in tiny seeds, but he still did it too much, too quickly.” She sighed. “I think what grows back isn’t what was there originally, but it does grow back. I’m pretty sure.”
Natalie said, “Surge had his own soul, so you’re probably right.”
Ajax said, “Do you think he’s there, in the ruins of the tower, like Elian? Or did he get destroyed?”
Jehane said, “I don’t think it matters. He’ll be something new, no matter what.” She sighed, and put her head back on the table.
But after only a few moments, she turned her head toward the door, her eyes widening. Two minutes later, the door opened, and Seth, sitting in a wheelchair, was pushed in by one of the guards.
The guard released the wheelchair and backed out of the room, closing the door quickly. Ajax had only an instant to take in his friend’s appearance before Seth was engulfed by Jehane. He was in scrubs of some sort, with a bandage over one eye and half his face, and bandages emerging from his sleeves on both sides.
He grinned weakly over Jehane’s shoulder. “Hey, careful. I’m already pretty beat up.”
Jehane carefully disengaged herself and wiped her eyes. “Yeah. You suck.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. His gaze went to Natalie, who hadn’t moved from Ajax’s arms. In the same soft voice, he said, “Are we good?”
Natalie moved away from Ajax to crouch in front of Seth’s wheelchair. She reached out for his hand, curled in his lap, then hesitated. He finished the movement, grasping her hand. “Still my sister?”
“Yes,” she said. “We’re good that way. Thank you for— thank you.”
“Hey,” he said. “No need. That’s what I’m here for.” His grin twisted and straightened out again as he looked first at Malachi, and then at Ajax. “You two look a lot better than I do.”
“I couldn’t ever fight him directly,” said Malachi, unexpectedly. “Well done.”
Ajax said, “Seth, man, you’ll never know how glad I am to see you alive, but what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in a hospital bed somewhere?”
Jehane said, “Seth’s always talking his way out of hospital beds.”
Seth raised his free hand. “Wasn’t me this time. Not that I didn’t try, but they were pumping a lot of painkillers into me… Then suddenly they came in, got me dressed, turned down the dosage and hustled me over here. I’ve got no idea what’s going on.”
“They’re going to keep us together,” ventured Natalie. “A lot, rather than splitting us up among the countries who helped out here.”
“Oh. Right,” said Ajax glumly. “They’re fighting over us. Monster’s banished, gotta split the loot. Why wouldn’t they split us up? Something for everybody.”
Nobody said anything, until Jehane turned toward the door again, eyebrows furrowing.
“Who is it this time?” Ajax asked.
“Your military friend,” she said absently. “But I thought I heard—”
The door opened and Martin slipped in, fresh from the shower and in a clean uniform. Another soldier came in behind him, pushing a tray with snacks and drinks over to the table and departing again.
Martin surveyed them. “How are you kids doing? Too cold? Too hot? Anybody need to use the bathroom? Eat something, already.” To Seth he said solicitously, “Any spontaneous bleeding I can press on? I was almost a combat medic, you know.”
Ajax said flatly, “Very cute. What’s going on?”
Martin looked at him. “Tell me something, Ajax. Do you have any interest in going back to your dad?”
“Hell, no. I wish I could stop him from profiting off me, too.” Ajax shook his head, as if shaking off a fly.
The soldier transferred his gaze to Jehane. “Seeds of souls, eh? Weird stuff.” When she didn’t say anything, he went on. “Apparently you’re a ward of the state in France. They’re fighting pretty hard to get you returned to their custody.”
Jehane’s spine went so straight she quivered, and that invisible thread Ajax had noticed earlier twanged. Malachi flowed across the room to stand behind her, hand resting lightly on her shoulder.
Martin seemed unfazed. “As for you… well, you were never caught on camera like your friends, and eyewitness testimony has been a bit hard to come by, but you’ve been claimed, too.” A smile quirked across his face, odd and amused.
Natalie said, “Have you guys found Aya? The other girl?”
Martin shook his head. “No sign of her. It’s a big city, though.” He quirked an eyebrow. “How dangerous is she, would you say?”
“Um… I don’t know. With Hatherly and Tainter dead… I don’t know. Not as bad as she was.”
Jehane volunteered, “She wants to heal, I think. I talked to her earlier.”
Malachi said, “Treat her gently if you find her, and she might.” He watched Martin closely.
Martin shrugged, and turned his attention to Natalie and Seth. “Now, the two of you seem to be natives. That turns out to be problematic for us, but good for you.”
Sharply, Natalie said, “What do you mean?”
Martin grinned again. “Well, your leader has turned up. Marched up to the building and demanded we treat her as the leader of a sovereign nation. Insisted we release the children of her nation into her custody, and graciously offered to demonstrate some technology for us in exchange.”
Ajax’s mouth dropped open. “Her? You mean Tanist Kiley?”
“That’s the lady. And I don’t mind saying, I hope they come to some kind of a deal, because she’s even scarier than this guy here.” He nodded at Malachi.
“Tanist Kiley?” repeated Ajax. “What the hell?”
“Now, the real problem is that she insists that all of you, even El Diablo there, qualify as ‘children of her nation’. Apparently you’re a naturalized citizen, Ajax? And a ward of the state there?” Martin raised his eyebrows again.
Ajax tried to find his footing. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Even took an oath of loyalty.” He was pretty sure kissing Natalie counted.
Seth laughed. “Ajax, you’re so surprised.”
“I didn’t think she had it in her.” He shook his head. “She hates me.”
“She gets very angry when her people are threatened. Hadn’t you noticed?”
Martin said, “She did say something about us ‘regretting it’ if we didn’t take her up on her offer.”
“Here she comes,” squeaked Jehane, standing up so fast her chair banged into Malachi.
The door opened again, and the Tanist stood there. Ajax had half-expected to see Kwan or Jake or even Valeria beside her, but she was all alone, except for the escort of soldiers in office uniforms with rather a lot of bars and stars. “Hi, kids,” she said, and smiled tiredly. “I’ll be staying here for a while, but you guys are going home. All of you. Together.”