IT ISN’T JUST a cough, or a cold. I’m sick. Flu-sick. Even though there’s no flu going around, since there isn’t anyone around. The headache has returned with a vengeance and refuses to go away, and I can’t stop sneezing.
“Oh, come on,” Callia mutters when I have to stop by the side of the path again, letting off a chain of sneezes. “That’s disgusting.”
“I-I don’t like it that much, eith-th-ther.” I pinch my nose, successfully holding back #11. “Okay, let’s g-go.”
I can almost run Callia’s “lap” (ten rounds of the front yard, between the walls and the house) successfully now—that is, without feeling like I would throw up if I take one more step. But today, she seems determined to push me as hard as possible.
“Sit,” she snaps, finally, when I’ve sweated through my shirt despite the winter day and she still looks pristine as ever.
I drop to the ground gratefully, ignoring the leaves and twigs that dig into my butt. “Now what?” I pant.
“Now,” she says, a hard set to her mouth. “Now, we are going to activate your fire.”
“Isn’t that what—we’ve been—trying to do?”
Callia’s lips twist into a smirk. “Oh, sure,” she says nonchalantly. “We’ll just kick it up a notch, that’s all.”
I eye her wearily, but she sits down across from me, legs crossed with a serene smile on her face. “Okay,” she says. “Close your eyes.”
I cross my legs and close my eyes.
“Fully, East,” she says.
“How do I know you won’t burn me to the ground?” I mutter.
“Well, Asher is watching you from the window, and Andrew is out on the porch, so I’d say there are too many witnesses for that,” Callia answers.
I crack open an eyelid. Her expression gives nothing away.
I sigh, and close my eyes again. Fully, this time, like she’d asked.
“Now, try to relax,” she starts to say, sounding every bit as monotonous as Ash. “Relax your body. Start from the top of your head, to your neck, to your shoulders… Imagine your body is a series of chains and links. Unwind every chain. Unbind every link. Feel the dirt beneath your legs, the air on your palms…”
But I can’t relax. Asher is watching you from the window. I wish she hadn’t mentioned that, because now I feel his eyes, boring into my back, stone-cold yet—somehow—I just know it—full of suspicion.
My eyes snap open. “Huh?”
Callia’s glaring at me as though she wishes I was the size of an ant, so that she can stomp me into a pile of bloody mush. “You weren’t focusing. If you don’t focus, you won’t get it right. If you don’t get it right, you won’t activate. If you don’t activate, you’ll turn into the very fucking fire you hate so much, and set this house on fire, and me, Andrew, Parker, Maggie, and—”
“Okay, okay, I get the point,” I interrupt. “I’m sorry. I’ll try again.”
She watches me for another moment.
“What?” I demand.
“You know,” she says, a small smile on her lips. “I was lying about Asher. He’s making lunch for Maggie.”
I blink, and resist the urge to blush, or turn around and verify her words. “I don’t care,” I say. I know he’s in the house somewhere, anyway. Just as the Professor had asked, I’ve been keeping an eye on him, but it’s only been a day and I’ve still yet to catch him sneaking off to anywhere.
Callia raises a supercilious eyebrow. “If you say so…” She lets her voice trail off suggestively.
“Am I going to learn how not to set you all on fire or not?” I say impatiently.
She huffs, but nods. “Close your eyes,” she says again. “We’ll try it again.”
I try to do as she says, this time. I imagine the cells of blood flowing through my veins, the skin and tissue and muscle and fat in my arms. I see it all in sections. Parts. I pretend my body is a waterfall, all the water gathering at the top, full of momentum, powerful and striking—and then flying off over the edge, going down, down, down, relaxing, dropping, opening to a million tiny droplets and melting back together…
“Stay relaxed,” Callia is saying, still in that low, even voice. “Now, whatever image you’ve created in your mind… Imagine it burning.”
…a pool of fire springs to life, red and orange and gold flickering under a night sky, flames reaching greedily to swallow the grass and hedges and rose bushes around them… The rose bushes…
I gasp, and it turns into a choking sneeze, and Callia says, “Keep your eyes closed! Think!”
And I squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and I try to breathe, and I think… I see the rose bushes… I see the two pear trees in the backyard… I see treetops, from the top of a hill, as I stand in front of a blue door… The glimpse of silken ocean waves murmuring under moonlight… I breathe and I imagine the whole world on fire… And I feel something hot in the back of my mind—a small spot, at first, that then grows, expands, until there’s a pain in my chest, and then my head, and then…
Callia sighs. “Stop.”
I open my eyes, and realize my cheeks are wet. “Crap,” I say, scrubbing my face, sniffling. “What… What happened? I thought I felt…”
“You went too deep.” Callia is frowning, but not in an angry way, at least not at me. She’s thinking. “I let you go too far.”
I spread my hands. “So… Now what?”
A glint enters her eyes. “Don’t fret. I’ve got something else.”
“Stand up,” she says, putting her palms on the ground and springing up herself.
I do as she says, and copy Callia’s stance. Feet together, hands at my sides, head up. That’s when I realize that I’m actually taller than her.
“You know,” Callia murmurs, as she fidgets with something in her hands. “You’re actually the worst lighter I’ve ever worked with.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, rolling my eyes. “You’ve said it all—”
“Like, sure, some of them just don’t try—fine. But their fire activates regardless. That’s not a matter of trying. It’s a part of who they are.”
“Maybe I’m repressed,” I deadpan.
She keeps going, as if I hadn’t spoken. “And usually, the ones who active later are exceptionally powerful. Take Asher, for example. He’s the first gold to be born in decades. But then there’s you. Not only do you not take the drills seriously, your fire won’t even activate.”
“What? I do take—”
“I’ve tried all sorts of things, but I think you’re just fucked up.” Callia’s looking me in the face now, looking utterly bored to death. “I think you’re so afraid of yourself, of your fire, that you’d rather burn and burn others with you, than even try to get over your fears so that you can help protect the very people who are trying to save your life.”
I suck in a breath. “You don’t know me,” I say through clenched teeth.
“Oh, I think I do.” She acknowledges me for the first time. “I know you’re a pathetic little girl who’s scared of her past, scared of the people around her, scared of what she might do in the future, just fucking scared of everything. I know your friends abandoned you, and shun you, because they believe you’re cursed. I know your brothers believe it, too. I know they kicked you out of your own home. I know they hate you.”
She takes a step closer, eyes glinting. My heart stops. “I think they’re right. I think you think they’re right, too—I think you know they’re right, and that’s why you’re afraid. You’re afraid you’ll be punished for all those things that you’ve done. And you know what?”
She’s so close I can see every freckle across her cheeks, every shard of ice in her unrelenting blue eyes. “You will be punished,” she hisses, “for everyone you’ve ever hurt, or killed.”
A surge of heat rushes up my spine, through my skull, down to my throat and I scream.
Fire bursts from me—torrents of sparks, flames, embers that explode out from my body, my skin, and scorch the ground around us, and wrap us in a vortex of bright gold fire. I scream and scream and scream, and the flames rise, twirling, dragons and phoenixes and lions shimmering around us—suddenly their eyes seem to glow even brighter, razor-clawed eagles swooping down from the top of the vortex and hissing cobras rising out of the ground, all circling me, circling Callia—Callia cries out—no, she’s laughing—
And I feel the heat rushing over me, the fire pounding on my chest, at the base of my skull. And when I curl my fingers the vortex of flames grow; and one launches itself particularly close to me, and some snake themselves around my ankles, and others dance over my arm to caress the skin at the inside of my wrist; and when I open my palms, all of a sudden, and twist my wrist and throw my hands out, the way Callia had taught me, the fires suddenly turn bright white and spin themselves into a single blade, aimed right at her heart.
A wave of gold washes over us—seizes the white, soaks it up—and suddenly it’s all gone.
My lungs are out of air—I cough and cough and sneeze—pain pulses at the base of my skull—I touch my hand there, and yelp when it comes away with a spot of ash. But I don’t have much time to react, because then Ash has caught my wrists in an iron grip and when he pulls me up, I find myself looking into eyes almost as light and bright as the fire I had just created.
“You—you—what were you thinking!?” He spins around, suddenly, rounding on Callia. “Why would you do that? Fuck, she almost killed you—”
“Got her fire to come out, though, didn’t I,” Callia says breathily sounding dazed. “Told you I could do it. And aren’t you glad I did? It’s gold—she’s fucking gold! And that trick there at the end, she could be…”
“Wait a second.” I cough again, feeling like I’d never expel the smoke from my lungs. “You… You goaded me on purpose? You were trying to make me mad on purpose?”
“Well, duh.” Callia rolls her eyes. “I wasn’t going to wait for you to torch the grounds, thank you. You know how long it takes me to trim the grass every summer?” She tries to take a step, and falls. Ash is at her side immediately, taking her by the arms—much more gently than he had with me, I notice sullenly—and returning her to her feet.
“Callia,” he says firmly, shaking her a little. “You need to go lie down. You saw too much of that.”
“Nah,” she says, rolling her eyes, and swaying on her feet. “I’m fine. Congrats, East,” she grins.
Any other time, and seeing that expression would make me drop dead with shock. But I’m shaking—with anger, rage, and, yes, fear—that blade, it couldn’t have come from me, could it? How much does she know? I remember how I’d bumped into her at the grocery store that first time, how she’d looked at me that way—the Professor had explained that she had been there to find me because they knew I might be a lighter, but that look, those words she’d said, was because of the rumours? “You had no right to do that!” I shout at her. “You—I can’t believe you—why did you say all that?”
“To piss you off.”
“Why—Why would you suggest—”
“Oh, just shut it,” Callia says, sounding suddenly much more lucid. She shakes off Ash’s proffered hand and instead steps right up to me. “Everything I said was true, and you know it. You need to get your head out of your ass, because guess what? There’s a murderer on the loose, a serial killer, and you just might be the only one who can stop him. He’s powerful, you know that?” She takes another step, now barely inches away from my face. “To have come so close to the safe house and not set off any alarms? That means he knows what he’s doing. He’s skilled, for lack of a better word.” She sneers.
“But you—you’re a gold, and you’re the first person in over a hundred years to cross the barriers of this house and live to whine about it. I don’t care what you did in the past—those accusations they love to whisper back at your little town can be true, for all I know; you can be a murderer or what the fuck ever, but if it ever turns out you had the power to stop him but you didn’t because you were ‘terrified of fire’, I will strangle you with my bare hands and gut you myself.”
I stare at her in shock, heart pounding, hardly able to believe what I’m hearing. “You—but you—”
“Me—but me—” Callia mocks harshly. “No—fuck you, and fuck off, and don’t come back until you’re ready to put that power of yours to some good use.”
Clap. Clap. Clap.
We all turn our heads at the same time. Standing there is a man I’ve never seen before, a man with white skin and hazel green eyes and light brown hair. He brings his hands together again, clapping sarcastically. “Eloquent as ever, I see,” he calls.
A piercing shriek threatens to destroy my eardrums—“Ian! When the hell did you get back?”
The man—Ian—grins at her. “Oh, a few minutes before that wonderfully poetic and romantic speech of yours,” he drawls, “and just in time to watch that spectacular fireworks display your friend there put on.”
“Shut up and get over here,” Callia says, and Ian swaggers up to her and draws her into a tight hug.
She hugs him back. And then she pulls away, and slaps him across the face.
“I’m only getting started,” she snaps at him. “Why haven’t you been in touch with Ash? Did the Prof find you?”
“Slow down, slow down,” Ian says, backing up a few paces when she looks like she’s about to slap him again for daring to say those words. “I’ve been, er, visiting family. Why were you trying to get to me? I—ow!”
“Don’t lie to me,” Callia spits at him.
“Okay, fine!” He throws his hands up. “But I shouldn’t really be spilling my secrets out here, should I? Besides, who’s Fireworks over there?” He turns his grin on me.
“This is East,” Ash says before I can answer. “East Winters… From Edgecliff.”
His voice changes when he says Edgecliff and I spare him a curious glance, then look at Ian again, just in time to catch the look of astonishment he throws at Ash. “E-East!” He says, stammering a little. “Uh—East from Edgecliff! Well, hello! I can’t believe I’m finally seeing you in person.”
“Well, I know your name.” Ian shakes my hand, then holds it. “Asher over there has been notoriously tight-lipped about his secret—”
“Enough, Ian,” Ash says, but there’s no sting to his words. In fact, it’s dry and, if I didn’t know better, I’d say he even sounds amused. “Come on. Let’s talk in the living room—not you, East,” he adds coldly when I move towards the house. “You won’t be any help.”
Callia’s eyes widen, and Ian raises his eyebrows. “I was just going to go to my room,” I say, flushing with resentment. I nod, a jerky, unsteady motion that I hate myself for, at Ian. “It’s nice to meet you, even if I’ve never heard your name up until yesterday.”
“Well,” he says good-naturedly, though not before throwing Ash another look. “Now, I take that as a compliment.” Ian leans in close, as if to share a secret, and winks at me. “You see,” he whispers, “I’m the Prof’s official spymaster.”