THE PROFESSOR EYES US—ME in particular, I think guiltily—with an expression of disappointment. “You really can’t work together?” She asks again.
“East needs something different from what I can give her,” Ash repeats patiently.
She looks at me. I squirm under her scrutiny, remembering again the way she’d asked me to forgive him. “Well, alright, then,” she says finally, though still looking unhappy. “I’ll ask if Callia would do it.”
“Great,” I say out loud, in case she changes her mind. “That’s great. So, we’ll start…”
“As soon as possible,” the Professor says.
“Is it…” I hesitate, then glance at Ash, then continue. “Professor, Ash mentioned something about it being dangerous if I’m not ‘activated’ soon?”
“Oh, that.” The Professor looks at Ash, too, but she shrugs. “It’s not that big of a deal, but there have been one or two instances of fire-born whose powers did not develop in their teens, and…”
“And they were incinerated,” Ash finishes.
“Spontaneous combustion,” the Professor clarifies quickly. “My theory is that the fire was repressed for too long, and, unable to be free, it essentially fought to release itself, with disastrous consequences for the person it had chosen to live within.”
“And these people, they were… In their late teens?”
“No, early twenties,” the Professor says. “So you still have plenty of time, don’t worry.”
Ash snorts softly, the action so uncharacteristic that I look at him in surprise; but his expression is plain, his stance relaxed, nothing to suggest that he had even made the sound in the first place.
“In any case,” the Professor says, drawing my attention back to her. “I’ve had a long trip. I’m going to go lie down for a little bit, then I’ll talk to Callia for you. Ash, why don’t you show her around the grounds?”
“That’s fine,” I say quickly. “I can do it myself. Or—hey, Parker!”
Parker, who’d just come out of his room at the top of the stairs, starts at the sound of him, turns a full circle before he sees me, and waves hesitantly.
“Parker can show me around, right?”
“Uh, I was just going to take Maggie downstairs to play ping-pong…”
“Great! Mind if I tag along?”
And I smile brightly at the Professor, who smiles back at me but shakes her head as she heads upstairs to the third floor, and I don’t even notice when Ash slips soundlessly out of the house.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The downstairs basement is not much bigger than the living room, but the walls have been painted yellow and orange to give it an open, spacious feeling. Small windows up near the ceiling have paper snowflakes glued to them—paper snowflakes that are yellow at the ages. I wonder how long they’ve been there.
“So, you know how to play?” Parker asks awkwardly.
‘Yeah,” I say. “Sorry, I’ll just… Read, or something. I just wanted to get away from Ash.”
Parker raises his eyebrows, but in an amused sort of way. “Happy to help, I guess.” He picks Maggie up so that she can reach the top cabinet, from where she takes out three ping-pong paddles. “Just two, Mags,” he tells her, and Maggie points at me, and he shakes his head. “East doesn’t want to play.”
“You have to!” Maggie pouts.
“I’m fine, really…”
“No.” Maggie shakes her head, curls bouncing. “I won’t play unless you do! I want to play with you!”
Parker smirks at me. “She won’t stop until you agree,” he says gleefully.
I make a face at him. “Fine. I’ll play.”
Maggie shouts, “Yay!” as he puts her on the ground, and she climbs up the piano bench that someone had cleverly positioned in front of the ping-pong table. So that’s where that had gone.
I take the paddle, and stand across from her. Maggie serves. To my surprise it bounces off the table perfectly and she hits it hard—hard enough that I miss entirely, and I gape at her as Parker cheers loudly and Maggie gives me an adorable grin.
“Well, crap,” I mutter, and when Parker puts his hands around Maggie’s ears and frowns at me, I wince. “Oops.”
I haven’t played ping-pong in years. Maggie, on the other hand, is a master. By the time I finally surrender, she’s dissolved into giggles, while I’m wiping sweat off the back of my neck. “Parker, will you play with me now?” She asks sweetly, and Parker nods. “Of course.”
“You knew she was going to do that,” I say accusingly as I hand him the paddle.
He smiles innocently. “Maybe, maybe not.”
I find myself grinning back at his expression, feeling lighthearted for the first time in days. That headache, however, still hasn’t abated. I go over to the couch and plop down on the cushions, rubbing my temples as I watch the two of them playing, laughing at the way Maggie has Parker running circles around his side of the table.
And then I remember the way Jem used to do that, with me, and my happiness fades away. I sigh, closing my eyes. Don’t think about that. The pounding in my head grows stronger and I wince, rubbing harder. Suddenly I feel hot—too hot. “I think I’ll go take a shower,” I hear myself saying.
I miss their reply in my haste to get out of the basement, but before I can even climb the second flight of the stairs a torrent of coughs wrack my body, until I’m bend over there in the entryway, clutching at my throat.
“Geez, what’s up with you?”
“W-W-What?” I choke out.
A hand thrusts a glass of water to my face. I take it, feeling a sense of déjà vu—except, I realize when I look up, the hand is connected not to Andrew, but Callia.
“Thanks,” I say after gulping down the entire glass. She watches me with her lips curled into a half-sneer.
“Yeah, whatever,” she says. She jerks her head at the door. “The Prof wants me to teach you fire. Let’s go.”
I look up the stairs longingly, but the Professor’s voice pops into my head. Spontaneous combustion. Right, then.
Callia leads me roughly to the same spot Ash had taken me the day before, where she turns around to face me, arms crossed and legs spread. “Let’s go,” she says again, impatiently. “Show me what you can do.”
I spread my hands.
“I can’t do anything,” I say in a bored tone. This girl—with her red hair, her blue eyes, and that haughty expression—she annoys me. I didn’t like her at the grocery store, and I still don’t like her now.
Callia gives a loud, exaggerated sigh, and makes a show of stomping over to me. “Fine. Let’s start with something basic.”
She flicks her wrist in that same motion she’d used on Ash that first evening when I woke up here, and that same shower of sparks erupt again from her fingertips. I try to copy the movement, but her sleeve is too long, blocking her wrist. “Can you…” I gesture to her forearm.
“No. Just do what I did.”
I bite back a caustic comment on the quality of her teaching, shake my head uselessly to clear the headache, and try it again. Nothing happens. “They said my fire hasn’t activated yet,” I say with frustration.
“Cool.” Her tone says that it’s anything but. “Do it with your other hand. And think about burning.”
Very. Helpful. I shake out my other hand anyway, and when I do, the silver bracelet falls out from the sleeve of my jacket and clinks noisily. She frowns. “Take that off,” she says.
I pause. I know I shouldn’t feel attached, but…
Callia huffs, and flicks her wrist again. I jerk my arm back, barely avoiding the shower of sparks she shoots at me. “Take it off,” she says again. “It’ll only interfere with your fire.”
“It’s a bracelet,” I say incredulously. “You wear them!”
“Yeah, well, I’m good with my fire,” she retorts. “Take. It. Off.”
I glare at her, but…There have been one or two instances of fire-born whose powers did not develop in their teens…
I take the bracelet off and put it into the pocket of my jacket. I’ll take pride over incineration any day.
But the smug smile on Callia’s face is enough to make me almost regret that decision, though she at least has the grace not to say anything. “Do it again,” she repeats, and I do it again.
Twenty minutes later, I finally snap. “Stop making me do the same thing over and over and fucking over,” I say angrily. “It’s not working—don’t you have some other method?”
“How am I supposed to know?” I throw my hands up, and then put them back down with a wince when even that motion is enough to worsen the pangs in the back of my skull. “Ash made me touch a fire, at least. We’ve just been doing this one thing—”
“What, his own fire?” Callia interrupts.
I pause. “Er, he lighted it by himself, so… Yes?”
Callia growls. “Well, if you liked his teaching that much, why didn’t you stick with it?”
“Because I don’t like him,” I growl right back at her, and then rub my face. “Look, I don’t want to fight,” I say again, a little more calmly. “I’m just—I have this huge headache, and I don’t want spontaneously combust and hurt Andrew and Maggie and Parker and… The rest of you. I don’t know what I ever did to make you hate me, but all I want to do is… To not die.”
She looks at me moodily, lips still pursed. “I don’t hate you,” she says finally. “I loathe you.”
I blink. “Well, okay.”
“And you’re not such a saint, either,” she adds. “Yet for whatever reason, Her Majesty wants you to stay, and I don’t feel like dying thanks to your incompetence, so yes, I’ll teach you. But don’t expect me to be nice to you.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I roll my eyes.
“Good.” Suddenly she takes off her jacket, showing me her arms. Like I’d guessed, bracelets of all sizes and colours line both of her wrists. “We’ll still practice this motion. It’s the easiest possible one to do. I’m not going to let you walk my fire, because that’s private, and Ash is a dumbass. Let’s go.”
Before I can even process to what she said about walking fires, she’s shooting sparks at me again, and I bite my lip in concentration and do as she says.
Despite her words, Callia teaches me a series of other hand motions—“drills,” she calls them—and even makes me run laps with her, up and down the road just outside the gates. I look around as much as I can when we do, trying to catch a glimpse of the edge of the forest, or a town, anything, but there’s nothing. We are well and truly in the middle of nowhere.
“How—is—this—supposed—to—help,” I wheeze, rubbing my chest. The headache had lightened up slightly when we’d first started to run, since I was so focused on not tripping over thin air, but now it’s back in full force. I stop, clutch my head in my hands, and moan.
“Stop whining,” Callia says. “Running builds endurance, and you need endurance to work your fire. Do you think it’s easy to light things up?”
“No—but—aren’t you all—magical—or something—”
“Why do you always say ‘you’?” Callia asks suddenly. She jogs back to me and stands there, arms crossed yet again. “You’re one of us, East. Even if you want to deny it, you are obviously—” She sends another shower of sparks at my face, but I’m too tired to even flinch. “—one of us.”
I don’t reply, gritting my teeth instead against the pulsing beat inside my skull. I force myself to stand up straight, to look her in the eye. “Didn’t you say—we weren’t—stopping—yet?”
She looks at me with surprise, and then she smiles. It’s the first genuine smile I’ve seen from her, and it makes me satisfied. She raises her arm in a flourish. “Go ahead,” she says, slightly less mockingly then usual, and I pick myself up and run.