Jesse switched off the display screen on his watch and shook his head. What was Tori thinking? And when had she become so reckless? The Slayers stood around Dr. B’s golf cart, their practice momentarily forgotten and their horses making good use of the time to wander off and sample some nearby bushes.
Willow’s gaze circled the group. “Is Tori serious about going by herself?
Rosa sighed. “Probably.”
Jesse scowled. “Definitely.” Tori was putting too much trust in Aaron and her connection with him. The kid was twelve and probably couldn’t tell real information from a set-up. Jesse needed to see her, talk some sense into her. “Even if she can sense a dragon egg in the building, that doesn’t mean the information is legit. Overdrake might be willing to use an egg to bait a trap.”
Kody’s eyebrows dipped as he thought. “You think Overdrake would risk losing an egg?”
“Most definitely,” Dr. B said. He held a tablet in his hands and zoomed in on the picture on his screen, getting a closer look at the building. “After all, he was willing to risk sending his son to camp with Slayers every year in order to trap us. An egg is a small price when he has nine others.”
“But it could be the real deal,” Kody pointed out.
Now it was Lilly’s turn to snort. “We got this information from a dragon lordette, who got it from a dragon lordling, who got it from Overdrake. It’s a trap.”
Ryker leaned forward to get a better view of Dr. B’s screen. “It’s suspiciously similar to the first ruse Overdrake used. He knows we’ll have a hard time resisting the chance to destroy dragon eggs. It’s the lure of an easy kill. Maybe he fed information to Aaron in order to test him. That way he not only finds out if the kid is loyal, he also catches us.”
Jesse nodded. “We have to be careful not just on our account, but Aaron’s too.”
Dr. B closed the site that showed the building. “I’ll take Theo and Booker to Pennsylvania and see what sort of security the building has. We’ll continue this discussion afterward. Meanwhile, I see no reason to delay practice further.” He waved a hand at the Slayers. “Let’s get back to work.”
Jesse whistled for General and waited as the horse cantered over. Tori wouldn’t like having her information called into question, but he would talk to her at school tomorrow and make her see reason. She couldn’t go off half-cocked by herself on a dangerous mission. If Overdrake had the chance, he’d kill Tori. He’d already tried more than once.
For the rest of practice, Jesse’s concentration was off. He couldn’t shake images of Tori being captured, shot, or fed to the dragons.
He would have to convince her not to do anything rash. It was bad enough that he’d lost her to Dirk. Jesse wasn’t about to lose her to Overdrake.
Thursday, on the flight back to Maryland, Tori sat by the window. Since Overdrake’s attack on the Slayer’s jet Halloween night, being in planes had made Tori feel—well, not exactly claustrophobic. What she felt was more of the general variety of panic.
Now whenever Tori traveled with her family, she insisted on a window seat. She felt the compulsive need to look out it every few minutes and search for the dark shapes of incoming dragons.
Overdrake had contacts in the FAA who’d told him which flight the Slayers had been on. Despite Dirk’s assurances that his father would leave her family alone, it was entirely possible that Overdrake might find out her dad’s flight schedule and attack the plane.
She couldn’t explain her fears to her family, just as she couldn’t tell them why she’d acquired the habit of nervously tapping her foot on the floor.
Tori’s mother sat next to her answering emails on her laptop. Her father and Aprilynne were across the aisle. “Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” her mother asked.
Tori’s book was open, but her pencil languished unused on her lap. “It’s too hard to concentrate here.”
What would she do if she heard a dragon in flight, if she felt her powers turn on? Even if she could manage to open a door in time, could she save all of her family? She would have no way of explaining to them that they needed to hold onto her while she leaped from the plane.
It was thinking of those sorts of scenarios that made calculus hard.
“Flying didn’t use to bother you,” her mother said.
“It’s not the flying that bothers me,” Tori said. “It’s the possibility of crashing violently.”
Her mother patted her hand reassuringly. “We’ve got an experienced pilot. We’ll be fine.”
“I know,” Tori said, but perhaps her mother could still sense her nervousness.
Her mother didn’t return her attention to her laptop. Instead, she leaned over and gazed out at the view. “That’s an interesting cloud.” She pointed at a bunchy one that was stretching out at both ends. “What do you think it looks like?” Tori’s mother had played this game with her when she was little. They would lay out on the lawn and find shapes in the clouds. It had been a relaxing way to pass the time.
“A dragon,” Tori said. A dragon with its wings tucked.
Her mother didn’t comment, just gestured to another cloud. “What about that one?”
The cloud was long and mostly shapeless. “A stream of fire, I guess.”
Tori’s mother pointed to another cloud, this one C-shaped. “How about that one?”
“A mouth about to bite something.”
Her mother turned and gave her father an are-you-paying-attention-to-this sort of look. He was paying attention, and the wrinkles around his eyes deepened in worry.
That’s when Tori realized her mother hadn’t been reviving a childhood game to keep her mind off of flying, she’d been giving Tori her own version of the inkblot test. She was checking for some sort of blossoming psychosis, and apparently she thought she’d found it.
Just great. When Aprilynne had said all of that stuff about Tori worrying their parents, Tori hadn’t taken her seriously. But her sister hadn’t been exaggerating.
Tori turned back to the window. “Now that I look at that cloud again, it seems more like a river. A nice river where people picnic. And that cloud over there totally looks like a flower garden. Oh, and that one is a rabbit.”
Her mother turned to her again, speaking in the sympathetic tone parents used when they wanted to show they understood the problem. “Honey, a lot of people experience periods of anxiety. Being a teenager is stressful enough without the national attention on your family. I can understand why you might struggle with things. Sometimes it’s best to talk about your issues with a doctor and learn coping techniques. Why don’t I set up an appointment for you?”
No. Tori was not about to go to a counselor. What would she be able to say that wouldn’t make her sound delusional? She’d have to make up issues just so the counselor wouldn’t think she was holding out.
Not for the first time, Tori considered tracking down the blueprints Ryker had used to build his simulator and showing her parents that she had powers. It would be proof that Slayers were real and she was one of them. As soon as the idea passed through Tori’s mind, she dismissed it, the same way she’d done every time before. If her parents knew the truth, they wouldn’t let her be a Slayer. They wouldn’t let her fight dragons or Overdrake. They would pull her out of the team the same way Bess’s grandfather had. “I’m not crazy, Mom.”
“I know you’re not, sweetheart.”
Her father leaned across the aisle, his voice filled with concern. “Going to a counselor doesn’t make you crazy any more than going to a doctor makes you a hypochondriac.”
“I’m fine, really.” And then because she didn’t think her parents would drop the subject, she added, “I guess I’ve been watching too many shows with plane crashes. They’ve made me a little tense. That’s different than anxiety. A lot of people worry about flying.”
Her mother and father exchanged another look, but they didn’t say more.
Tori forced herself to work on a math assignment after that, or at least pretended that she was. This was one more thing she had to thank Overdrake for, one more way he’d made her life hard. She wouldn’t feel badly about paying him back on Saturday at all.
On Friday morning, Jesse texted Tori that he wanted to talk to her, then went to her locker and waited for her to show up. He needed to convince her not to do anything rash tomorrow. She’d always told him the Slayers were much too willing to fight dragons, that it would be their downfall. Maybe she was right about that. But Tori’s downfall would be fighting Overdrake by herself.
She may have decided that she didn’t need Jesse, but that didn’t mean she didn’t need the rest of the Slayers. And they certainly needed her.
Finding a way to talk to Tori privately would be difficult because girls had a way of migrating toward her and forming little clumps of chatter around her. And then there was Roland, her ex from last year. Whenever he spotted Tori walking in the hallway, he barnacled himself to her side. Jesse had developed a profound dislike of the guy.
Still no sign of Tori among the stream of students drifting by in a sea of plaid and red polos. He kept watching. He knew the exact shade of her brown hair—golden brown with caramel highlights—and could have picked her out of crowd with only a glimpse of it.
After a couple of minutes, Tori appeared through the crowd, strolling down the hall, phone in hand. Alone for once. Her long hair swung around her shoulders and her mint green eyes were trained on her screen. Perhaps reading his text.
Even though she wore the same uniform as every other girl in school, she somehow still managed to make it look better. He wasn’t sure whether he should feel happy or just tormented about seeing her every day. The emotions went hand in hand lately.
She slid her phone into her pocket, glanced up, and noticed him. “Hi.” It wasn’t an overly-friendly “Hi.” Not like the ones she used to give him, full of personal subtext. She was professional, aloof. One more thing he had to live with now.
As she spun her combination, he began his speech. “I appreciate that you want to destroy the eggs. So do I. But we have to weigh the benefits of any mission against the danger. Even if you connect to an egg inside the building, you’ll still have no guarantee that Overdrake hasn’t put an egg nearby to lay a trap for us. If the information is legitimate, then waiting a few more days or even weeks while we investigate won’t matter. We don’t need to rush into anything.”
“I’ve already heard all of the objections.” She opened her locker and slid her backpack from her shoulders.
“Good. Then you’ve had time to think about the merits of caution. Or the merits of teamwork, whichever seems most persuasive.”
She took off her coat and hung it in her locker, hardly listening to him. “Do you think I act like I’m crazy?”
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Are you going to agree with me about Saturday or not?”
She put her backpack inside her locker with an unhappy shove. “I used to think the worst part of being a Slayer was fighting dragons—and okay, it still is, but having to keep a secret identity sucks too.” She pulled her journalism book from her shelf and tucked it under her arm with the air of a martyr. “This is why Batman and Superman don’t live with their parents.”
“What?” Jesse cocked his head. “What’s going on with your parents?”
“They think I have anxiety issues because of the Slayer stuff.”
“Why? Did you tell them you hear voices?”
“No. I don’t explain any of it. That’s the problem.” She took a pen from her backpack and gave her bag a push further into her locker. “If Batman was real, trust me, people would wonder why Bruce Wayne was always talking into his bat-watch and disappearing at odd times.”
“I don’t think he had a bat-watch.”
She shut her locker door with a clang. “Of course he did. He had bat-everything. The point is, the movies never show us the aftermath when Bruce Wayne is giving out lame excuses for his bizarre behavior and everyone is looking at him like he’s had a nervous breakdown.”
Jesse surveyed her silently for a moment. “So you’re going to stay home on Saturday, right?”
Instead of moving down the hallway, Tori leaned against her locker. “My parents will be out of town on Saturday, and Aprilynne won’t care if I’m gone. Those are rare events for me. I have to take advantage of them.”
She wasn’t taking this mission seriously enough. She hadn’t foreseen all of the things that could go wrong: like gunmen shooting her or Overdrake capturing her. “An excuse to be gone isn’t a valid reason for putting your life in jeopardy.”
Tori folded her arms, still clutching her journalism notebook. “This morning at breakfast, my mother told me that there are lots of perfectly safe medications for anxiety.”
Still no reason to act rashly. “We can come up with an excuse for you to make the trip later.”
Tori sighed. “And later the rest of you will change your mind about intel from dragon lords? Why risk the possibility of Overdrake moving the eggs somewhere else when we know where they are right now?” Her green eyes found his. Those eyes, the same color as sunlight on sea glass, were asking for his support. It would have been easy to fall under their spell the way he’d done so many times—give her whatever she wanted just to make her happy. But he couldn’t this time, not when her safety was in question.
“Waiting won’t hurt,” he said. “Not waiting could definitely hurt.”
She arched a meaningful eyebrow at him. “Since when are you so concerned with whether I get hurt or not?”
She wasn’t talking about the mission anymore, but he met the accusation and raised eyebrow without flinching. “Since always.”
She leaned away from the locker, dismissing his words. “Taking no action isn’t always the right decision.” She seemed to be talking about more than Saturday, but before he could be sure of her meaning, the warning bell rang, announcing they had five minutes until class started. As they started toward their class, Tacy and another girl ambled up, putting a quick end to mission talk.
“Are you ready for the game?” Tacy asked Jesse, all smiles.
For a moment, he stared at her, not sure what she meant.
“The game against Maret,” she clarified.
And then he remembered; basketball. The team was playing tonight. When he first enrolled in Veritas, he hadn’t wanted to join. He hadn’t planned to play any sports this year because he knew afterschool practice would end up conflicting with Slayer training. But Jesse’s parents had insisted. His father talked to the coach and told the man that Jesse had started for the varsity team at his last school. His mother went on and on about how colleges were bound to offer scholarship money if they saw him play. His father was already in contact with people from some universities.
Jesse could use scholarship money, although he couldn’t help but think part of his mother’s insistence he play was due to the fact that she wanted to keep him busy with sports so he didn’t have time to hang out with Tori. Ironic. Turned out his mom hadn’t needed to keep them apart at after all.
“Yeah,” Jesse told Tacy. “Should be a good game.”
Technically he shouldn’t have been playing in today’s game since he missed a practice yesterday. He’d faked an illness so he could meet with the other Slayers. But the coach had seen his three-pointer enough times that he was playing him anyway.
That was the thing about being a Slayer. You had better aim, accuracy, and reaction time even when your powers weren’t turned on.
“We’ll be there rooting for you,” Tacy purred, and then seemed to remember that Tori was walking down the hallway too. “Are you going tonight?” she asked.
Tori forced a smile. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Jesse wondered what sort of meaning was behind that smile long after journalism class started.