There was a knock on the door.
“Ling? I’m coming in.”
I didn’t move. Didn’t open my eyes or come out from under the covers. I didn’t make any sign that I was in the room at all.
I heard the sound of the door opening and closing quietly. I really should have known that wouldn’t fool Akane for a second.
Soft footfalls pattered over to my bed. “Ling, get up.”
I didn’t react, even when she started shaking me gently. Maybe if I didn’t move, she’d eventually give up.
For future reference, here’s a tip: ‘Giving up’ is not a trait Derek Huntsman encourages.
It was over in less than the blink of an eye. One second I was nestled under my covers, the next the mattress was completely bare, and Akane had all my sheets and so on gathered up in her arms.
She cocked her head. “Why are you naked?”
I curled up into a ball and growled. “I’m more comfortable like this.”
“Hm. Well, cover up. People will get the wrong idea.”
I tensed, and eyed her warily. “And what would the wrong idea be?”
She looked at me oddly. “Uh…that you’re loose? This isn’t complicated.”
Of course. There would be no reason for her to suspect…that. I had destroyed all traces of that past. Now the only ones who knew were my orphanmates, and they were not the type to share secrets.
Especially now that they were all dead.
Dark spots appeared on my mattress. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the source was my own tears.
My powerful Matron, harsh and uncompromising but fair as a ruler, dead.
Helena, one of the few friends who had been at my side during my darker times, and always ready with a smile, dead.
Teresa, the fallen angel. Quiet and reserved, but with a sharp tongue once you got her going.
Drake, the little vampire boy and his gang of miscreants. Thieves to a man, but loyal and reliable. Dead.
Of the forty-six orphans I had grown up with, only one was still alive. Mitchel St. John. The one who had set fire to the orphanage at twilight, when a maximum number of people would be asleep. The one who had barred the doors, trapping the only family I had ever known, and watched as they burned to death.
I would kill him. I would tackle him to the ground, bind him with concrete, then slowly crush the life from him.
He was a murderer, and he needed to die. I would do it. I could see it every time I closed my eyes.
What I saw terrified me.
This was just the last straw. I was still getting over my realization that the screamers were still people, victims. Fighting the renegades was worse—I had never even seen someone die before, let alone helped perform the deed.
And then, last night, I found out about the orphanage.
Apparently, Akane had already known for a week or more, she had just assumed I knew too, so didn’t mention it. It seemed like everyone had come to that same conclusion.
Which is why I only found out when I decided to stop by for a visit, and found nothing but a smoldering ruin.
Akane sat down on the bed gently, careful not to bounce me around too much. “This about your first kill? Or the orphanage?”
“I didn’t kill anyone,” I insisted sullenly.
She nodded sagely. “Of course. So, you’re crying for your family.”
I turned my back on her. “Don’t pretend to understand.” Harsh, yes, but I wasn’t in any mood to be polite.
To my surprise, instead of arguing or leaving, she slipped onto the mattress and pulled my back to her.
I stiffened. It had been a long time since I had been this close to anyone. Three years? No, two. Forgot about Alexander.
When it became clear she wasn’t going to let go, my face reddened involuntarily. “A-Akane, what are you doing?”
“My dad died when I was seven years old,” she whispered, so quietly I could barely hear her. “On my birthday, no less. My second-oldest sister died a year and a half before that. My oldest sister died December, about nine months before my father. And my youngest sister—but still older than me—died about five months later.”
I didn’t say anything. What was there to say?
“My mother…” she paused. “Was not supportive. My grandfather was worse.” She nestled closer.
Oh. So that was it.
She wasn’t trying to comfort me. My jabs had dug deeper than I had intended, dredged up bad memories I hadn’t known she had.
She needed a little human contact right now. The fact that it might make me feel better was just a bonus—if she had thought of it at all.
“A few people helped me survive my childhood. Derek, of course. His mom and dad—Victor, I mean. And Miss Arrow, and Obould a little bit too. Lily and MC were always friendly, but then they’re friendly to everyone…” She trailed off.
The silence stretched.
“I…don’t want to kill anyone,” I said quietly. “The screamers are one thing, I can deal with that. But someone who is talking to me, who has hopes and feelings, I can’t—”
She shushed me gently. “None of that, little one.”
I tensed. “Why are you being so nice? You’re the loyal soldier. Shouldn’t you be shouting at me about how fighting the Composer is my duty or whatever?”
I felt her shake her head. “Of course not.”
“Because the point of fighting is to protect those who won’t fight.” She released me slowly, and I heard her slide off the bed. “I thought you were like me or Derek. A protector. Or maybe even like Adam—a killer who happened to be on the right side.” The young samurai patted my head. “It seems I was wrong.”
I felt my muscles tense, and a scowl cross my face. “Screw—”
“Haven’t you been listening? There is nothing wrong with not being a soldier. Nothing wrong at all.” There was a slight pause, in which I could imagine her staring out the window and smiling. “So you do whatever you want, Ling. Fight with us, don’t, either way is fine. Just don’t let this war break you.”
I turned to look at her. “What about you?”
She smiled at me warmly. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. If I sat on the sidelines, I’d go insane. I have to fight.” She walked towards the door.
I sat up, a little worried. “Akane?”
“Take a few days off, Ling,” she advised. “Go on a trip. Catch up with that Turgay boy. We have the time, with Elizabeth captured.” She shook her head a little sadly. “We all have things we need to sort out.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 139)
Merry Christmas, everyone.