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“Oh, what will you do?”
Amber’s laugh rang out, and Kami saw the pieces of glass actually moving in the water now, like tiny transparent sharks. She was braced, but it was still a shock when it happened: the blast knocked her off her feet. Amber concentrated the cold air from the broken skylight between her palms and aimed it at Kami’s chest.
Kami fell backward, lying gasping amid the water and broken glass. Amber’s face above her was a haze of red with a pale center. “There’s nothing you can do,” Amber explained, very softly, and left.
As soon as she could move, Kami got up and retrieved Amber’s lip gloss from the sink.
* * *
Kami had already missed her first class by quite a lot, so she figured there was no harm in slinking up to her headquarters. She could sit with her back against the radiator and dry off, and nobody would see her and get upset.
It was a good, solid plan. It was a shame that it immediately collapsed when she opened the door and Jared looked up from his desk. The only thing to do was brazen this out.
“Oi,” Kami said. “Did the orders not get passed down to you? Everyone with a free class has to be photocopying the paper. I wish I could get our staff to work more like a well-oiled machine.”
Jared said nothing. He just got up from the desk, chair crashing to the floor behind him.
“I see you’ve spotted that there’s something off,” Kami observed. “Well, good. I want you all to be honing your observational skills.”
He was advancing on her. Kami tried to retreat toward the security of her own desk.
“Uh, but verbal skills are important too,” Kami suggested. “So please say something.”
“What,” Jared demanded, “happened to you?”
“Small contretemps with a sorcerer,” Kami admitted. She backed up until she hit her desk, at which point Jared was right there. “Very small,” she said, looking up into his still face. “Tiny.”
Jared touched her then, the back of his fingers light against her face, just below where she had been cut. “You’re bleeding.” Then his hand fell away.
“There may have been a limited quantity of broken glass involved.”
“Oh God,” said Jared, in what appeared to be furious prayer. “Oh God.” He moved in closer, as close as he could be without touching her. She leaned against the desk and he bowed his head over her shoulder, turned his face into the curve of her neck. She felt his ragged breath run uneven down the skin at her nape, the brush of his wavy hair against her chin.
“Who was it?” Jared asked. “I’ll kill them.”
“You are not inspiring me with a desire to give you a name, Captain Murderface of the good ship Unbalanced,” said Kami. “It was nothing new, just a sorcerer trying to scare me. I can handle myself.”
What she’d said to Amber worked in reverse as well. She couldn’t imagine hurting someone she’d gone to school with.
Jared seemed to realize she was serious. He took a deep breath, and asked no more questions.
“You can’t ask me not to do dangerous stuff,” she warned him. His hands were braced on the desk, arms surrounding her but not around her.
“I know that,” he said, words falling on her neck like kisses. “It would be like asking you not to be you. But I’m not with you, and I was always with you before. I keep thinking about something happening to you when I’m not there, when I won’t even know about it.”
Kami lifted her hand, intending to stroke his hair, but somehow she couldn’t quite do it. Her fingers curled, almost touching him. “Sometimes I think about that too,” she whispered. She had almost been too late at the Crying Pools.
“I wish,” Jared began, and stopped, breathing in. “Do you remember how you used to believe I wasn’t real? Sometimes I wish that was true. If I was just a thought in the back of your mind, then I’d be with you, and I’d be better.”
In the back of her mind, Kami was aware that what Jared said was irredeemably crazy. But that didn’t disturb her like it should have: the only thing that upset her was the thought of how he must feel about himself.
“I’d miss you if you weren’t real,” she said. “I wouldn’t like that. Do you never think about me?”
To her embarrassment, it came out almost like a plea.
Jared moved and the muscles in Kami’s stomach jumped as he did so, his breath traveling up the line of her neck, warm and light on the sensitive skin.
He said into her ear, “I think about you all the time.”
Maybe, Kami thought, maybe if she turned her face into that whisper, he would kiss her.
Maybe he would if he thought that was what she wanted. But he had been with Holly yesterday, because that was what he wanted. She wondered with a sinking feeling if he had kissed her, Kami, in the Water Rising because he’d thought that she wanted him to. If that was why he had done it in the dark. He could need her without wanting her: he could want the link back and nothing more.
Kami did not turn her face toward him. Her fingers stayed hovering over his hair until their breath reached a mutual rhythm but their skin did not touch at any point. “I was thinking about what you said yesterday,” Kami said at last. “About me taking pity on you, about making a clean break. And I was thinking—what on earth were you talking about?”
“You told me I was too dependent on you.”
“I said we were too dependent,” Kami said. “I never said you, I was never talking about you, I was talking about the link and what I worried it was doing to both of us. That we were all twisted up, like two linked trees that had grown together into weird shapes.”
“Too different from other people,” Jared said, as if he was agreeing with her but also as if he was aching to go back. Kami caught her breath. “Strange,” Jared murmured. “Sick.”
“Yes,” Kami said, and had to continue quickly because somehow it came out as if she was agreeing to that note of yearning in his voice. “I wanted to know that we could both be independent people. I wanted to know who we would be if the link was cut. But that doesn’t mean I wanted you gone. You know how I feel about you.” She’d told him, the last thing she had ever said to him, in their own private language, mind to mind: I love you.
The thought of how she had said that, how she had come running to the Water Rising last night to find him with Holly, made her insides curdle with humiliation. She didn’t want to be that girl, who made a fool of herself over a guy.
They were both so messed up because of the link. What she felt could be because of the link and because they had lost it. What she knew was that losing him was not a bearable option.
Kami pushed gently at his shoulders, palms against the material of his T-shirt and not his skin, and gave herself the space to slide away and slip behind her desk.
When she allowed herself to look back at him, he was looking at the wall and not at her, the line of his jaw tight. “And what do you think of who I am, now the link is cut?”
“I wish you were happier,” Kami said. “But all in all, I think you’re okay.”
“I’d like to be better,” Jared said abruptly. “I’d like to be better, to you. I want to make things better for you.”
“That would be nice,” said Kami. “However, you could not have faced down the sorcerer with me today.”
“Why not?” Jared asked, and looked at her under his lashes. “As long as I was with you, and I hadn’t run off to do something suicidal on my own. As long as we were together, wouldn’t that be better?”
“Usually yes, today no,” Kami told him. “Because it was in a ladies’ bathroom, and that would be scandalous.”
Jared laughed, and it was on that note that Ash walked in. He looked startled by the sound of Jared’s laugh, and a whole lot more startled by the company he had just walked into. “I was just going to get the paper and photocopy it,” he said.
“You are a god among men,” Kami told him. “And it is excellent to see you, because I have to talk to you.”
The necessity to defeat evil trumped social embarrassment. She went around the desk and toward Ash, who was by the door.
“Kami, what happened to you?” he asked.
“That’s not important right now,” Kami said, waving it off grandly. “What’s important is that I was talking to a sorcerer today, and she let something very interesting slip. She mentioned Matthew Cooper. Do you have any records from his time in Aurimere? I remembered he was from sometime in the 1480s; I checked the base of his statue, which says he died in 1485. Elinor Lynburn was the heir in Aurimere then: she was the one who hid the gold bell from the Aurimere bell tower in the Sorrier River, remember?” She glanced back at Jared.
“I remember,” Jared said.
“We need to know who the other Lynburns living at the time were,” Kami said. “In fact, I want to know everything there is to know about Matthew Cooper.”
* * *
After school, and seven trips to the photocopier to print out more papers, Kami paid a visit to the Montgomerys’ house. It was still light outside, the awful glass and steel additions to the white house catching the sun as it sank through the sky. Kami slipped through the gate at the side into the back garden and saw no movement in the windows as she went. She was a little worried that nobody was home.
When she tried the back door, though, it was open, and Rusty was standing in the kitchen with his head in the fridge. He emerged with a packet full of sliced cheese and blinked sleepy hazel eyes in her direction. “Cambridge,” he said. “Angela isn’t here.”
“Excellent news,” said Kami. “As I came to see you.”
Rusty looked both mildly pleased and mildly alarmed. He closed the fridge and leaned against the granite top of their kitchen island. “Speak on,” he encouraged her. “Cheese?”
“Cheese that comes presliced is like chewy plastic.”
“That’s true,” Rusty said, eating it. “But the alternative is slicing it myself, and that would be a betrayal of my commitment to idleness.” He was wearing a crisp brand-new T-shirt, forming a sharp contrast with his dark hair, which was sticking up all over the place. Considering him objectively, Kami had to admit he was adorable.
It really was possible that Amber just fancied him, but Kami thought she’d test the waters.
“So, you’re dating a sorcerer working for Rob Lynburn,” Kami said. “Just thought you should know.”
Rusty raised his eyebrows. “Once more a good man is led astray by the undeniable sexiness of evil.”
“Come on, Cambridge,” Rusty said. “You know it’s true. There are many examples in film and novels, both the excellent graphic kind and the kind with all the tiring words that you so mysteriously enjoy. You have the valiant hero. And you have the enticing minx trying to lure him to the dark side.”
Kami threw her schoolbag on the kitchen island. Rusty gave her a benevolent look and ambled off down the hall to the Montgomerys’ freakishly white sitting room. Kami followed, hot on his heels.
Even the scary cubist paintings on the white walls were done in ivory and cream. Kami had to resist the temptation to take off her shoes while Rusty sprawled on the pearl-colored sofa and finished eating his cheese.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “Doesn’t matter what naughty vixens they send to assault my manly virtue. My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”
“Rusty, you idiot,” Kami said. “I told you she was an evil sorceress. So you knew all about it and you’re not trying to redeem her with your love or anything, are you?”
Rusty held his hand out flat and tipped it gently from side to side. “Eh. Honestly that sounds like a lot of effort.”