Saturday morning found Conrad wandering aimlessly in the grotto, after Mabina's well-meaning scolding had gotten to be too much. He felt touchy, on edge lately, and she kept poking at him as if nothing should be wrong. But god forbid he blow up at her - Cassidy had ripped him a new one for even thinking about it. So here he was, because if he went to Kai's old room to mope, Mabina or Vlad would find him.
His wandering took him into a grove of man-height ferns, where memory suggested there might be a bench. A faint glow was coming from the area, however, like a miniature sun. It didn't look like Ofir's golden radiance, and he didn't know of anyone else who had a power like that. Was it magic? Whose, and why? He crept closer to find out.
Sitting in an awkward lotus - the rabbit feet seemed to get in the way - on the bench, her eyes closed, glowing brightly, was the blonde Fifth Cohort girl, Shahin's friend. Ayla. What was she doing? On the one hand, it seemed wrong to interrupt her, but he had to admit to a powerful curiosity. He stepped a bit closer, into the radius of her glow.
Her eyes opened. They weren't the blue he expected, but solid white, as bright as the rest of her.
"Ayla?" he asked hesitantly. She smiled beatifically at him.
"It's me," she agreed. At least she sounded like herself. "Conrad, right? Kailani's… friend." Her light flickered and dimmed for a moment.
"That's right... what are you doing, there? It's... really a bit breathtaking."
"Meditating." She took a breath, and the brilliance dimmed and seemed to mellow. "Hey, is everything all right?"
"All right? Yeah, I guess? Why?"
"It seems like something's off in your, um," she blushed, as if embarrassed to use the word, "aura."
"My aura?" He tilted his head slightly and blinked once. "Is that what you're doing, then? But if it is, I guess I'm not that surprised. Kai's gone." That was really all the explanation it took. He idly wondered if it would be any different, if he wasn't Kept.
"You miss her?" Ayla nodded. "That makes sense." She patted the bench next to her, unfolding to make room. "What else?"
He sat beside her; it seemed right, somehow, although it felt a bit strange at first. "Well, it's just so much harder, this year. I mean, last year wasn't easy. But I got through it pretty much unscathed. Now, suddenly, I have... a lot more responsibility, I guess."
"Responsibility," she mm'd. The glow slowly expanded over him again. "Being, what is it called? Owned? Kept?" She looked as if she might be teasing him.
"Either of those, and other things besides. But it's not just that. I really care about her. And, she's got me thinking more about everyone else, too."
"Like their project?" she lowered her voice to a whisper.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I mean, last year, it was all well and good to just look out for myself. But now... I feel like I should do something, y'know?"
She nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm beginning to."
"And Kai..." He sighed, setting his palms down on the cool bench and leaning back a little. "She's got so much energy, and she's using it all the time, to learn and grow and make people better. I can barely keep up with her, and I want to."
At that, the blonde girl smiled sympathetically. "Well, you do what you can, right?"
"I should, at least. I'm not sure if I do."
"Not sure?" She tilted one big rabbit ear at him inquisitively.
"Well... how much is reasonable, to do? People need help, yeah. But does that mean we should be battering down doors to take out the bad guys? That's not right, either."
"It might be fun," she admitted, "and certainly satisfying, someone like Ardell." Her shining light dimmed and flickered again. "But likely not effective in the end."
"Not effective," he echoed. "That's how I've felt, lately, I guess. I even set out from the beginning to try to keep Kai safe, and... yeah. And now she's off on her own."
"Not on her own," she corrected gently.
"Maybe not completely alone, but I'm not there with her, and I should be. For all kinds of reasons."
"Because you're hers. To keep her safe?" she guessed.
"That, too. But I'm going to be a father - it's time I started acting like one."
|There's always more to read: tear off the wrapper on some B-side stories!|
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