Chapter Sixteen

The next day, Toke woke up and immediately went to his window to check for a note.  There wasn’t one.  A pit formed in his stomach, but he buried it with an indifferent shrug before getting dressed and stepping into the hallway.
 
I should probably do the exercises, he thought, and reluctantly shut the door again.  Even if she had ditched him last night, Zashiel would still know somehow that he’d skipped his workout when they met up in the afternoon.
 
“Smite it,” he muttered, climbing up onto the wall and beginning his pushups.  Even when she wasn’t there, she had him completely under her thumb.
 
Half an hour later, sweaty and shaking with exhaustion, Toke put on a new set of clothes and made his way to the cafeteria.  Boam and Wayli were nowhere to be seen.  Toke figured they must have finished eating while he was exercising.  After getting a plate of biscuits and a bowl of gravy, he sat down and ate alone.
 
Still tired, he thought miserably, stifling a yawn as he went to refill his coffee mug.  He didn’t usually drink the stuff, but today he had a feeling that he’d be snoozing straight through Navras’ class without it.  If his behavior the past few days hadn’t convinced the professor that he’d lost interest in inventing, sleeping in class surely would.
 
“Say something rude to Dranibor today, would you?” Virkhul asked as Toke approached the classroom door.
 
Toke stopped and looked at him.  “What?  Why?”
 
“Because he’s already in a bad mood,” the secretary said without looking up from his paperwork.  “I’d like to see him angry at you, for once.”
 
Toke shook his head.  “Grow up, will you?” Before Virkhul could reply, Toke was in the classroom, shutting the door behind him.
 
Virkhul had been telling the truth, though, it seemed.  Toke could tell by Navras’ stiff posture at the front of the room that something was amiss.  Nodding politely to his teacher, Toke retrieved his equipment and sat down.
 
Right, let’s make some progress today, he thought, focusing on the battery and willing everything else to fade into blackness.  This time the void came easily, and Toke’s hands flew with expert precision as he worked.  He finished coating the inside of the cylinder with rubber and set it out to dry.  Then, while he was waiting, he set to work cutting a cap for the battery.  The cap was made of three sheets of thin metal stacked on top of each other and welded together, but maybe it would be better if he added another layer on top of that.  Or even two, he thought, remembering how easily the last one had come loose.  As he reached for the metal again, a hand touched his shoulder, and he jumped.
 
“It’s good to see you working so diligently again,” Navras said, looking down at him.  “I was beginning to worry about you, Toke.”
 
“Sorry, Professor,” Toke said, setting his tools down and glancing at the clock.  The class had ended fifteen minutes ago.  “I’ve been distracted.”
 
Navras nodded.  “It happens to the best of us.  But you must learn not to let distractions stop you from working.”
 
Even if those distractions include committing high treason? Toke thought.  Or saving the world?
 
Navras couldn’t know about any of that, though.  And besides, his batteries could change the world just as easily as stopping the Gravity Storms, right?  So he just nodded and promised to do better in the future.
 
“Very good,” Navras said, clapping Toke on the shoulder.  “Has the distraction been dealt with, then?”
 
“I don’t know,” Toke admitted.  Zashiel wouldn’t be satisfied with what he’d told her last night, which meant he had more spying to look forward to.  But how far was she expecting him to go?  Once they discovered the secret of the Storms, did she expect him to fight alongside her?  At best, he would just slow her down.
 
“Well, whatever it is,” Navras said, heading back toward his desk, “don’t let it ruin your second chance.  Adal will not give you a third one.”
 
“Yes, sir,” Toke said, gathering up his tools and putting them in his locker.  He glanced back at the professor, and saw him sitting with his back rigid, staring intently at a stack of papers in front of him.
 
“Sir,” he said hesitantly, “is everything all right?”
 
Navras finished signing a paper and looked back up at his pupil.  “May I be honest, Toke?”  He sounded almost relieved that somebody had asked.
 
“Of course, sir.”
 
Navras set his pen down, and sighed.  “My boy, it seems our moment of respite is over.”
 
Toke cocked his head.  “What do you mean?”
 
“I mean that after three months of Jerulkan being almost completely free of Sorakines, we’ve suddenly begun seeing more of them again.”  Navras steepled his fingers.  “It almost seems like they’re up to something.”
 
Toke swallowed hard.  Navras didn’t know about him and Zashiel, did he?  He couldn’t have.  “Why do you say that, sir?”
 
Navras gave Toke a long, thoughtful look before standing up, his black robes rustling.  “You know I was a soldier before I became an inventor, right?”
 
Toke nodded.  “You led Yasmik’s army against Vlangur.”
 
“Yes.  My men and I held the Zetheran Pass alone for five days against the Vlangurtian military.  Had we fallen, it would have let the enemy march right into Jerulkan uncontested.  I don’t mean to sound boastful, but it was because of my men’s dedication and bravery that Yasmik does not belong to Vlangur now.”
 
Toke hung on the professor’s every word.
 
“As I said, the battle lasted five days.”  A dark gleam appeared in Navras’ eyes.  “But it shouldn’t have.  My regiment had less than half the men that Vlangur marched on the Pass with.  It was only because we were so well fortified that we managed to defeat them.  And I…” he paused, and shook his head.  “I told them that help was on the way.  Our own people wouldn’t allow us to fight such a battle on our own.”
 
He looked up at Toke.  “Do you know who I told them was coming?”
 
The emotion in the air was thick enough for Toke to choke on, and he had to take a deep breath before answering.
 
“The Sorakines?”
 
Navras nodded.  “The Sorakines.  Yasmik’s most powerful army.  With their help, the battle would have lasted less than a day.  We could have pushed the Vlangurtians back out of the Pass and forced them to retreat.  That would have been the end of it.  Do you know who never came, Toke?”
 
Toke didn’t have to answer.
 
“Five long days of fighting, Toke,” the professor went on.  “Five days when the two thousand men at my command were cut down to a measly one hundred forty seven.  Those men died with the hope that, at any minute, their salvation would fly in on glowing wings and end the battle.  To those that survived, I was a liar.”
 
Navras stood up, and Toke had to look away when their eyes met.  The Master Inventor turned to look at the clock, his hands clasped behind his back.
 
“Naturally, I asked them why they had ignored my call for aid.  Do you know what they said, Toke?  Nothing.  They gave no excuse.  They merely said that human matters were not theirs to resolve.”
 
They couldn’t come if they wanted to.  Not that any of them do.
 
The tense silence returned, and Toke had to clear his throat to break it before it smothered him.  And then, as if remembering where he was, Navras gave the young man a weak smile.
 
“Oh, but listen to me.  You’ll have to forgive an old man for rambling on about the past.  Perhaps my prejudice against the Sorakines is something best left behind, but I find it hard to forgive them when more than fifteen hundred of my men lost their lives that day.”
 
He sighed and went to sit down at his desk again.  “Truth be told, Toke, I think what they said that day is the best option.  I would be happy if they were to stay in their floating city and let us humans deal with our own problems.”
 
Toke stood where he was, trying to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind.  Anything he said would have fallen flat compared to his teacher’s heartfelt confession.  Eventually, Navras waved his hand.
 
“Go on, now.  I have another class coming in.”
 
His head still reeling with this new revelation, Toke nodded respectfully and left the classroom.
 
Virkhul was gone from his desk again, which was good.  The last thing Toke wanted was for the snarky secretary to distract him.  Well, the second to last thing, he thought.
 
Better get going, then, he thought with a sigh, heading for the door.  Zashiel’s probably going to be even more impatient since I didn’t get to make my report last night.
 
And he was a more than a little impatient to see her too, he realized.  She’d promised to give him answers when he got back from spying, but the other Sorakine’s appearance had kept her from doing so.  Well, he wasn’t going to let her get away like that again.  He’d tie her wings together if he had to, but she wasn’t leaving today without telling him the full story.  He chuckled under his breath.  Maybe he could actually carry that threat out.  He was getting better at fighting, as evidenced by the spar he’d had with Zashiel two days ago.  With a little more practice, he might…
 
Wait, he thought, stopping with his hand on the school’s front door.  I’m forgetting something, aren’t I?
 
He stood there like that for a few seconds, running all the things he could have forgotten through his mind.  Shoes?  Check.  Coin purse?  Check.  What else was there for him to—
 
Oh, right, he thought, snapping his fingers.  The jacket!
 
He’d stuffed the jacket under his bed last night, where, hopefully, nobody would find it by accident.  Backing away from the door, he turned and headed back for his dorm.  Once there, he breathed a sigh of relief when he looked and found the bright white garment undisturbed.
 
“I should probably find a better place to hide it,” he mumbled as he took off his shirt and fit the pouch around him.  What if a janitor had come across it?  Or one of the teachers?  He shivered at the thought and pushed it from his mind.  Folding the jacket up, he put it in the pouch, slipped his shirt back on over it, and headed for the main door again.
 
The sky was mercifully cloudy today, casting cool, dark shadows over Jerulkan as Toke made his way across the city.  The sidewalks and streets were busy as always, and Toke fought to keep from being swept along with the crowds.
 
This is taking too long, he thought in frustration as he was forced to stop to let a small parade of autocarriages pass.  Glancing at the building next to him, it occurred to him how much easier it would be to simply run to the top and use a gravity-weakened jump to get to the other side of the street.  In fact, he could get to his and Zashiel’s hiding place in a fraction of the time if he did that.  Using his powers in public was strictly against Zashiel’s rules, though, so he threw that idea away.  With a sigh of disappointment, Toke stepped out into the road with the other normal people.
 
This is stupid.  Why should I have to hide my powers from everyone else?  It’s not like I’m breaking any laws by walking on the walls, am I?
 
He reached the other side of the street, and immediately had to jump to the side to avoid being run down by a newspaper boy on a bicycle.  With a few grumbled curses, he faced forward again and kept walking.
 
It would probably cause a pretty big disturbance if a human was seen walking on walls and jumping between buildings, he realized.  Zashiel said humans didn’t know about Juryokines, which in itself was strange.  If all it took was a single feather to give a human Sorakine powers, then how was he the only one to ever take advantage of it?
 
Maybe that’s why they keep it a secret, he realized.  Because everyone would want it!
 
That made about as much sense as anything else, Toke decided as he finally rounded the corner into the alleyway.  He stopped short, his heart skipping a beat when he saw what was waiting for him.
 
Or, rather, who wasn’t waiting for him.
 
The pile of garbage that the two of them had always hidden behind had finally been taken away.  What frightened him, though, was that without it, he could see from the entrance that Zashiel wasn’t there.
 
“Calm down,” he told himself in a low voice, glancing left and right, as if she might somehow be hiding in walls.  “If the trash is gone, she just went to find a better hiding place.  That’s all.”
 
It was a good conclusion, and one that his paranoid brain actually chose to listen to.  All he had to do was wander around the area for a little bit and she’d come find him.  But when he turned around to do just that, he found himself face to face with… white.
 
Toke stumbled backwards with a shout, and nearly tripped over his own feet.  For half a second, he thought the Sorakine he’d almost walked into was Zashiel.  But no, this one was taller, and the lower half of his face that Toke could make out was far more angular than hers.  The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds, neither of them saying a word, and Toke couldn’t help but notice how terrified he looked in the reflection of the Sorakine’s visor.
 
“An empty alleyway is not a place where well-meaning young men typically go,” the stoic warrior said, breaking the silence at last.  “What are you doing here?”
 
Just as blunt as Zashiel, Toke thought, but of course he didn’t say that out loud.
 
“I— I made a wrong turn,” he answered.  “I thought this would take me… somewhere else.”
 
The lower half of the Sorakine’s face betrayed no emotion, but his voice was hard when he spoke again.  “Where were you trying to go?”
 
“Um, the, uh…” Toke stuttered, trying to think of a lie— any lie! “Shampfir’s Fine Wears.”
 
The clothing store Zashiel had gotten him kicked out of the day his parents had come to visit.  He resisted the urge to grind his teeth, and settled for telling himself repeatedly how stupid he was inside his head.  What a transparent lie!  There was no way the Sorakine would fall for that.
 
“This is nowhere near Shampfir’s store,” he said, and Toke could hear the suspicion in his voice.
 
Toke nodded, his heart pounding so hard he was sure the Sorakine could hear it.  He was starting to sweat too, but he hoped the Sorakine would just think it was because of the heat.
 
“I’m new in town,” he said, and gave a weak chuckle. “I can’t find anything.”
 
Again, the Sorakine said nothing, and Toke got the feeling that he was doing that with the intention of making Toke feel uncomfortable.  Well, it was working…
 
“Shampfir’s store is in that direction,” he said at last, turning his head to look down the sidewalk.  “I’ll escort you there.”
 
“What?” Toke exclaimed, taking a step backwards.  “Why?”
 
The Sorakine reached out and grabbed Toke by the shoulder, pulling him back out onto the sidewalk with his unnatural strength.
 
“Because I have some questions I’d like to ask you,” he said, directing Toke toward the shop.
 
Oh, smite, Toke thought, his knees growing weak. Oh smite, oh smite, oh smite.
 
“Besides, is a Sorakine escort really so horrible?” he went on.  “I hear this city has a problem with gangs.”
 
Toke swallowed, nodded, and forced himself to start walking.  Luckily, his escort let go of his shoulder and let him walk on his own.  Toke’s palms were sweating, and, surprisingly, he had to fight the urge to anchor himself to the nearest wall and make a run for it.  It’s not like he had any chance of escaping.  With his luck, his escort would choose to kill him rather than catch him.
 
How much does he know? he wondered, suddenly extremely conscious of the tiny bump the jacket made underneath his shirt.  It would look like a wrinkle to anyone not in the know, but… had Zashiel told him?
 
“My name is Sir Klevon,” the Sorakine said at last.  “I’m one of Hashira’s elite Seraphs.  I am here to investigate an alleged sighting of a Juryokine.  Does that word mean anything to you?”
 
Panic shot through Toke’s veins, but he struggled to keep his face neutral.
 
“No, sir,” he said without turning to look at him.
 
“Nor should it,” Klevon replied immediately.  “But there has been an unusual amount of Sorakine activity reported in Jerulkan as of late, so I decided that this would be a good place to begin my investigation.”
 
Toke drew a shaky breath. Smite it, Zashiel.  I thought you were being sneaky about all this!
 
“A female Sorakine, just over twenty years old, has been seen coming and going from this city several times over the past couple of weeks.  I caught her here just last night and brought her back to Hashira.”
 
Klevon paused, and looked at Toke as if he expected the young man to say something.  Toke couldn’t think of anything he could possibly add without incriminating himself, and so just stared timidly at Klevon’s pointed chin.  Eventually, the Sorakine began to speak again.
 
“I found her in the same alleyway you just walked into,” he said, and this time the accusation was evident in his voice.  Toke’s blood turned to ice.  So, Klevon did know he was the Juryokine.  Or, at least he suspected it.  Now that Toke thought about it, if the Seraph had already known, it was unlikely that he would still be alive.  Zashiel hadn’t hesitated to kill that Nail, had she?
 
Again, the interrogation lapsed into silence.  Maybe, Toke theorized, if he played dumb enough, Klevon would give up and look elsewhere.  The two of them continued down the sidewalk, the tension growing between them with every step.  Then, before Toke had time to react, Klevon grabbed him by the elbow and spun him around.
 
“What were you doing there?” he demanded.  His face was as impassive as ever, but Toke could feel the intensity in his words.  “Were you looking for Zashiel?”
 
“Wh— who’s Zashiel?” Toke asked, feeling like he was about to faint under the Sorakine’s eyeless glare.
 
Klevon shook him a little. “Don’t play stupid with me, boy!  The Sorakine girl who has been coming here.  Were you going there to meet her?”
 
“No, I told you,” Toke insisted, “I was just—”
 
“Do you expect me to believe that?  A Juryokine is spotted in Exton a day after a Gravity Storm strikes, a Sorakine is caught trying to investigate the Storms in Jerulkan, and here I find you walking into the alleyway she’s been using as her hiding place.”
 
Klevon’s voice trailed off, letting Toke know exactly where his train of thought had taken him.  “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
 
Toke’s tongue felt like a brick of lead in his mouth as he tried to think of something, anything, he could say.
 
“Um, maybe if I knew what a Juryokine was…” he said, and immediately regretted it.  He cringed, convinced that Klevon was about to take a swing at him, but instead the Sorakine released his grip on Toke’s arm.
 
“A Juryokine is a mutant,” he said, his voice deadly calm.  “An abomination that was never meant to exist.  An invader, and a threat to both humans and Sorakines alike.”
 
Toke’s face went pale, and he managed a weak nod.  “Right.  If I see one, I’ll let you know.”
 
He imagined he could see Klevon’s eyes narrowing behind his visor, and for the first time noticed two spearheads poking over each of his shoulders.  Javelins.  Long enough to throw, but short enough to be used in close quarters combat.  The perfect Sorakine weapon.
 
Maybe I’ll have to run after all, Toke thought, his muscles tensing instinctively.  He probably wouldn’t get far, but at least it would be better than just standing there and letting Klevon skewer him.
 
But instead of reaching for his weapons, the Seraph said, “See that you do.  We’re here.”
 
Hardly able to believe his ears, Toke cautiously turned and saw that they were just across the street from Shampfir’s shop.
 
“Right, okay,” Toke said.  It couldn’t be this easy.  Klevon was plotting something.  He’d be halfway across the street, and then suddenly have a javelin sticking coming out of his chest.  He started to back away, never taking his eyes off the Sorakine.  “Thanks, I, uh, appreciate it.”
 
“I imagine most people would be grateful for a Sorakine escorting them in a dangerous city,” Klevon said before he’d taken three steps.  “What are you so frightened of?”
 
And there it was, Toke realized.  One last attempt to get him to admit to being the Juryokine.
 
“Well,” he said hesitantly, “you could kill me with a flick of your wrist if you wanted.”
 
For the first time, a hint of a smile showed itself on Klevon’s face.  It was more of a smirk than a smile, though— an arrogant smirk.
 
“True,” he admitted.  “But do you think I would do so to you?”
 
Toke shivered, despite the summer heat.  “Maybe not, but you could if you wanted to.”
 
Again, Klevon let the silence stretch out to an uncomfortable length.
 
“Yes, I could.  Don’t do anything that would make me want to.”
 
The Sorakine didn’t move, but Toke got the feeling that he had just been dismissed.  He backed the rest of the way across the street until he bumped into the store’s window.  Then, moving as quickly as he could, he spun around, grabbed the doorknob, threw the door open, and went inside.  He slammed the door behind him, not caring about the noise, and then took a few steps into the store and pretended to look at a shirt that was on display.
 
“Hey!” Shampfir shouted, recognizing him from behind the register.  “I told you not to come back here!”
 
“Is he still there?” Toke asked, resisting the urge to look back outside.
 
The old man gave him a confused look.  “What?  Who?”
 
Taking a deep breath, Toke finally turned around and saw that Klevon was still standing outside, right where he had been when Toke had left.  As he watched, the Sorakine spread his wings, their span even greater than Zashiel’s, and launched himself into the sky.
 
Toke breathed a sigh of relief.  “That was too close.”
 
“I’ve had enough of you and your Sorakine friends,” Shampfir snapped, pointing at the door.  “Out!”
 
“Right,” Toke said, nodding as he made his way to the exit.  “Sorry sir, won’t happen again.”
 
Toke wandered around Jerulkan all day, waiting for Zashiel to show up.  The clouds didn’t take long to blow away, leaving nothing to shield the city from the sun’s merciless rays.  Sweat ran down his neck, into his shirt, soaking the crisp white jacket hidden underneath.  He went as far as the Northern Rise on the other side of town, where Hashira was just visible on the horizon, and sat down on a bench in defeat.  If she hadn’t found him already, she wasn’t coming.
 
“Where is she?” he asked himself, hunching over and staring at his knees.  Klevon outranked her.  Even if Toke didn’t understand Sorakine rankings, that much was obvious.  But Zashiel had gone against orders just by investigating the Storms.  She wouldn’t have stayed put just because a Seraph told her to, which meant that Klevon must have restrained her somehow.
 
Well, that’s better than the alternative, he thought, wryly.  Zashiel had already shown him how Sorakines dealt with criminals.  Would Klevon have simply killed Zashiel for what she’d done?
 
No, that was illogical, Toke’s scholarly side argued.  Not that Sorakines had proven to be logical creatures, but he’d seen Zashiel and Klevon fly away together.  If he’d planned on killing her, Klevon would have done so in the street, like Zashiel had that mugger… right?  Besides, he wouldn’t have killed Zashiel without knowing for sure she was guilty.  And if she’d confessed, Klevon would have killed Toke, too.  The fact that Toke was still alive meant that Zashiel must be too.
 
The thought was more comforting than Toke had expected, and he sat up again, feeling much calmer than he had before.  The peace only lasted a minute, though…
 
A threat to both humans and Sorakines alike.
 
A chill ran down Toke’s spine, and he looked down at his hands.  Not human hands.  Juryokine hands.  He shook his head, trying to banish Klevon’s words from his mind.  He could understand the mutant part.  Juryokines weren’t something that occurred naturally.  One had to be given a Sorakine feather and consume it to become a Juryokine.  In that same sense, he could understand how Klevon could see him as an abomination— even if he strongly disagreed with it.  If he were to use his imagination, he could even see how he could be labeled a threat.  A human with the power to control gravity could be a serious danger to other humans, but it wasn’t like he’d ever have a Sorakine’s strength or speed, which made labeling him a threat illogical.
 
All that made sense to him.  The part that he couldn’t figure out was why Klevon had called him an invader.  Did he mean an invading army, like Vlangur’s?  How could he come to that conclusion?  Was he worried a Juryokine would try to move into Hashira or something?  That, he decided firmly, was downright stupid.  As he got back to his feet and walked away, though, another thought came to him.
 
What if it wasn’t just one Juryokine he was worried about?  What if it was a whole army of them?  He’d speculated just a few hours ago about how everyone would want gravity powers if they knew the secret to getting them.  Could it be that the Sorakines were afraid of the humans raising a Juryokine army against them?  They were a race of warriors, after all, so maybe they were always on guard, seeing enemies in everyone— even their neighbors.  It wasn’t exactly likely that the humans would turn on them just because they’d been given powers, but then again he’d never been a soldier.  He was only just now learning how to fight.  Maybe keeping Juryokines a secret was just to ensure that a second war never broke out in Yasmik.
 
Great, he thought with a frown.  I’m making myself feel like a criminal.
 
What would they do to him if they found out he was a Juryokine, he wondered?  He hadn’t committed any crimes, so he didn’t see why they would try to kill him.  Maybe they would assign a Sorakine to watch him for the rest of his life, making sure he never tried to make more Juryokines.  The whole thing was Zashiel’s fault in the first place, so maybe he could pin it on her.  The thought made him feel guilty for a second, but he pushed it away.  Even if he was starting to feel fond of her, it wasn’t like he was willing to take the fall for this all by himself.  Zashiel hadn’t warned him about her people’s prejudice against Juryokine’s, so maybe that would count for something.
 
As he walked, lost deep in thought, he almost didn’t realize it when he passed by the same alleyway he’d come to earlier.  He half expected to see Zashiel in there, demanding to know why he was so late, but of course it was still empty.  Then, realizing what he was looking at, he snapped his head forward and kept walking.  Klevon was already close to figuring out what was going on.  Toke didn’t need to give him another reason to question him.
 
So, what do I do now? he wondered, putting his hands in his pockets as he walked.  If he believed Klevon, and Toke couldn’t think of why he shouldn’t, then Zashiel wasn’t coming back any time soon.  That left him on his own, with no guidance or further training.  No Sorakine to make all the big, scary decisions.  The question was, did he keep working on his own, or wait for her?  The last order she’d given him was simple enough: spy on the politicians until he found evidence that they were causing the Gravity Storms.  After that, he had no idea what to do.  Report them to the police?  Reveal it to the public?  Assassinate them?  That last thought made his flesh crawl, and he immediately disposed of it.  No, killing bad guys was Zashiel’s hobby.  If that was the course of action she thought was best, she could do that on her own.  If she came back, of course.  If he decided to wait on her, he could be waiting for a long, long time.
 
Toke blew out a long, exasperated breath.  We’re a team, he decided.  We do this together.
 
He would wait on her to break out of prison, or get ungrounded, or whatever, and then proceed with the mission.  She probably wouldn’t be happy that he’d wasted so much time, but… well, she could deal with it.  It wasn’t like she’d been honest about everything, so she wouldn’t have much room to complain, would she?
 
To his surprise, though, that line of thought sounded extraordinarily cowardly.  He shook his head in bemusement.  Since when was he so concerned about cowardice and heroism?  He was turning into smiting Zashiel!  Before he could think about it much, though—
 
“Hey, Toke!”
 
Toke’s head shot up, and he spun around, expecting to see Zashiel flying down towards him.  Instead, he found Wayli jogging down the sidewalk to catch up to him.
 
“I haven’t seen you in days!” she gasped when she finally reached him.  She bent over, putting her hands on her knees to catch her breath.  Toke was instantly struck by how much she resembled him just over a week ago, and had to swallow a laugh.
 
“Sorry,” he said, his hand unconsciously trying to smooth out the wrinkle in his shirt where the jacket poked out.  “Things have been pretty crazy.”
 
“I’ll bet!” she said, finally standing up straight.  “How’s the battery going?”
 
Toke shrugged.  “It’s going.  I’ve been making some changes so that it won’t fall apart so easily, but I can’t do much else until Professor Navras gets a new jido crystal for me.”
 
Wayli frowned at this.  “Be more careful this time, okay?  One of those things could kill you!”
 
So could a lot of things I’m dealing with right now, he thought. “I will.  Hey, where’s Boam?”
 
Wayli snorted and rolled her eyes.  “He’s off on another writing spree.  You know how he gets.”
 
“Oh, yeah!” Toke laughed, nodding.  “Locking his door, telling everyone to go away.  I tried knocking on his window one time, and he just put his mattress up over it.”
 
“So, I was lonely!” she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.  “And I thought, you know, I bet Toke’s lonely too!  All he ever sees anymore is that crusty ol’ goon in inventor’s class!”
 
“Hey, watch it!” Toke snapped, but couldn’t keep himself from smiling.  He wanted to be offended by that, he really did, but it was hard to be mad at Wayli when she smiled like that.
 
“So, you wanna get an ice cream?” she asked.  “If we hurry, we can still get there before it closes!”
 
Toke’s stomach let out a growl, and he remembered how he’d skipped lunch and dinner to look for Zashiel.
 
“Yeah,” he said, “ice cream sounds awesome.  You’re buying.”
 
Wayli gave him a look of mock disgust.  “You are the worst date ever, Cassitoka Gnasher!”
 
Toke laughed as he led the way towards the ice cream shop.  The streets were quickly becoming less crowded as the moon rose higher above the horizon, so Wayli quickly came to walk beside him.
 
“How’s your family doing?” he asked.
 
Wayli sucked in a quick breath, and Toke almost apologized for asking. “They’ve been better.  The rescue crews have big tents set up for all the people whose houses were destroyed.”
 
“Which means just about everybody,” Toke said, finishing the thought for her.
 
She nodded.  “They’re feeding them, and they’ve all got clothes, but we don’t know what we’re going to do now.  The whole city was destroyed, you know?  My dad doesn’t have a job anymore, and our house is gone.  They can’t live off charity forever…”
 
Toke frowned.  “I’m sure they’ll think of something.”  Instantly, he cringed.  Of all the comforting things he could have said, that sounded to him like the worst one.
 
“Yeah, I bet they will.  But still, I…” her voice trailed off, and Toke look at her.
 
“But you what?”
 
Wayli paused and took a deep breath. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stay here.  My parents can’t pay for my classes anymore now, can they?”
 
Toke stopped dead in his tracks, horrified.  “You’re going to drop out?” he demanded, turning on her.  “You can’t drop out!  You know what happens to people who don’t graduate!”
 
“Yes, I know!” she snapped, turning to face him too.  He noticed, now, how red her eyes were.  “But I don’t have much choice, do I?  If I can’t pay tuition, they’re not going to let me stay just because it’s the nice thing to do!”
 
Toke spluttered, trying to think of a comeback, but as his shock faded, it was replaced by shame.
 
“Oh, smite,” he said, slapping his forehead.  “Wayli, I am so sorry!  I didn’t mean to—”
 
“It’s fine,” she interrupted him, sniffling and wiping her eyes.  “I know you’re just worried about me.  But if it’s all the same to you, I don’t want to talk about it.”
 
“Absolutely, no problem,” Toke agreed, holding his hands up in surrender.
 
Wayli took a couple more deep breaths, and then started back in the direction of the ice cream shop.  “That’s why I came to find you, so I could have something else to think about.  With Boam locked in his room, you’re the only other person I can talk to.”
 
Toke chuckled under his breath.  “Don’t hold it against him.  I think he lives in his stories more than he does in the real world.”
 
“I’m not mad at him,” she agreed.  “His birthday’s coming up in three months.  He needs to get that story done so he can graduate.”
 
They kept walking, but even while they were chatting Toke’s thoughts wandered.  Wayli was in danger of being thrown out of school because of the Gravity Storms.  It wasn’t her fault, but it wasn’t like the school could just let students attend for free, either.  He and Zashiel had taken it upon themselves to stop the Storms.  He didn’t fool himself into thinking that they could have worked fast enough to prevent the Exton storm, but what other tragedies could they stop from happening in the future?
 
“Hey, Wayli,” he said, his head still lost in the clouds, “how about I buy the ice cream after all?”
 
“Oh?” Wayli asked, raising her eyebrow. “You mean to tell me you’re a gentleman after all?”
 
Toke shrugged, trying to look coy. “Only when I absolutely can’t avoid it.”
 
They got to the store, and Toke fished the last five coins from his purse to pay for the treat.  They sat at a table by the window, and Wayli chattered the entire time.  She was obviously trying to distract herself, and Toke tried to pay attention, but his mind was somewhere else.  He barely even tasted the ice cream as he licked it.  In the distance, he could see the Capitol standing above the smaller buildings.
 
He knew what he had to do.
 
 
 
NEXT TIME: Looks like Toke’s going to go it alone, guys.  How far will he be able to get without Zashiel, though?  Judging from what Klevon said, she won’t be back any time soon.  Speaking of Klevon, it seems like there’s more to being a Juryokine than Toke thought.  What could he possibly mean by invader?  More importantly, what will happen to Toke if Klevon finds out his secret?

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