(Perhaps I should add that this is Chapter 10 at the moment. All of the other chapters you’ve read have changed in one way or another.)
Tori didn’t hear from Jesse over the break, didn’t hear from Dirk either, for that matter. Although she did hear from Bess and Rosa, her closest Slayer friends. Dr. B didn’t like the Slayers to use their watches for personal communications, but Tori ignored this rule and messaged both Bess and Rosa. Whether you agree with what I’ve done or not, please understand I did it to help—because I’m trying to keep us all safe. Don’t be mad.
Back when Tori had agreed to join the Slayers, she’d known she might face death, but she’d never thought about how much her life would change. Not just because of the secrets, but because her knowledge of the danger and dragons set her apart from her family and friends in a way she hadn’t expected. So many things seemed different to her now. She knew of Overdrake’s threat, and had faced and fought him and his men more than once. She’d flown through the sky, rode on dragons, and delved into the mind of one. She wasn’t the same person anymore—was better, deeper, stronger but she couldn’t explain any of it to them. Really, only the other Slayers understood her. A small group. And she couldn’t bear the thought that she’d disappointed them.
Rosa had written back right away. Tori had known she would. Rosa was too sweet, too kind to ignore an apology.
I understand and I’m not angry anymore. But next time talk to us first. You’ve got to learn to trust us.
Bess didn’t reply for a few hours—perhaps she had to think over her response, or perhaps she was out somewhere busy with her social life. Or both.
We’re cool. Either your gamble will pay off and everyone will be forced to agree it was brilliant, or we’ll be dead and it won’t matter. Well played, my friend.
Typical Bess. She refused on principle to take most things seriously.
When Tori walked into journalism class on Monday, Tacy, the class’s residing ultra-blonde cheerleader, was nearly draped over Jesse’s desk. And Jesse didn’t seem to mind. He was chatting happily with her.
Jealousy spiked through Tori. She supposed that was Jesse’s intent. He was showing her how easy it was for him to move on and forget about her.
Tori was so not in the mood for this. She ignored him through class and through lunch too.
Dr. B sent a private message to her watch during last period.
I’ve called a Slayer practice after school. Have your driver drop you off at Jesse’s house to study. Jesse will tell his parents that the two of you are going out on a date and he’ll drive you to the practice grounds. Let me know if you can’t comply.
Dr. B understood Tori’s restrictions well enough to know that her parents were more likely to let her go to a study group than go out with Jesse on a school night. Apparently, Jesse’s parents weren’t as strict.
A few seconds later he texted her Jesse’s address.*(mention that it’s okay for her to know his address?)
Well, that was just what she wanted to do—spend time in a car with Jesse, then face the Slayers. How many of them were still angry at her because she’d helped Aaron go to Overdrake?
But there was no getting around it. She’d already missed too many Slayer practices and she was on probation. Time to face them. She phoned her mother and told her about the study group.
After school, Tori gave Jesse’s address to Lars and he dutifully drove her there.
Jesse lived in an average suburb: narrow streets lined with cars. Homes made of brick and clapboard siding. Yards with bare trees and the occasional forgotten toy laying on the grass, soon to be buried until the spring thaw. *The first thin coating of snow had found the city, but the white covering had been a half-hearted attempt on nature’s part. Just a warning of things to come.
Jesse’s house was a boxy, one-story brick with black shutters and sit-down porch that attempted charm, but didn’t quite manage it. Too sparse. The chairs sitting there looked like an afterthought, as though they hadn’t fit in the kitchen and had therefore been relegated outside.
Lars scanned the area, opened his door, and got out, his hands never straying far from the gun he kept tucked in his holster. He doubled as a bodyguard, making sure she got where she needed to go. “You don’t have to see me to the door,” Tori said.
He headed up the walk anyway, swaggering as if in an attempt to intimidate the surrounding shrubbery. “I take orders from your parents, not you.”
Okay, maybe she had ditched him once too often, but she’d had good reasons. Now he made a habit of giving her curt little lectures or pointedly asked her if she was trying to get him fired. You wouldn’t think a 6’4 war veteran would be so touchy. But yeah, he was.
She walked up to the door with him and rang the bell.
After a few moments, Jesse’s mother answered the door. She was a middle-aged woman with straight dark hair cut in a no-nonsense bob. Her brown eyes were similar to Jesse’s but her other feature seemed to belong only to her. Crisp, professional, unforgivably competent. She was a new teacher at Veritas Academy, Tori’s school. She and Jesse’s father had both started teaching there when Dr. B had found new jobs for the Slayers’ families. Tori had to pretend she didn’t know her real last name was Harris. She went by Richardson now, just as Jesse went by Jonathan.
Mrs. Harris-now-Richardson looked from Lars to Tori with surprise. “Hello,” she said. Tori could tell she meant, “Why are you standing on my doorstep?”
Hadn’t Jesse told her they were going on a date? Then again, maybe that was for the best. Lars thought she’d come for a study group.
“Hi,” Tori said. “I’m here to see Jonathan.”
Mrs. Harris stared at her blankly.
“We’re studying,” Tori added.
Mrs. Harris’s eyes turned to Lars, a question forming on her lips.
“Lars isn’t staying,” Tori said. “He just drives me around and makes sure I’m not kidnapped on the way to people’s doorsteps.” She gestured to her bodyguard. “See, I’m fine. I’ll give you a call when we’re done.”
Jesse had apparently been changing out of his school uniform. He sauntered into the room wearing jeans and pulling a T-shirt over his head. “Hi, Tori.”
The sight of him—that flash of his abs—shouldn’t have made Tori stare. She’d gone swimming with Jesse a dozen times during the summer, and besides, most of the Slayer guys had considered shirts optional at camp. But months had passed since then. Her immunity had worn off.
Mrs. Harris moved out of the way to allow Tori entrance. “Come in.”
Tori’s gaze snapped back to Jesse’s mother. Had she seen Tori gawking at her son? “Thanks.” She walked inside trying not to blush.
Mrs. Harris smiled, but it was decidedly forced and a little bit horrified. She had disliked Tori at first sight. Must have thought she showed too much interest in her son. “The two of you are studying?”
“Yeah,” Jesse said. “We’re going out to eat and we’ll do some studying afterward.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Harris said. “How nice.” To her credit, by the time she said the last sentence, her disapproval was hidden in politeness. “Don’t stay out too late. It’s a school night.”
“Might take a while,” Jesse said. “We’ve got a lot to go over.” He walked to the window and glanced out—no doubt checking to make sure Lars hadn’t stationed himself out front—then motioned for Tori to follow him through the house to the garage.
His home was about what she’d imagined it would be. Worn furniture spread through the rooms, the kind that looked comfortably lived in. A large family picture hung on the wall. Jesse smiled in a way that was more posed than natural. His real smile lit up his eyes, made everything about him seem warm and shining. But even his posed smile looked nice. It was probably hard to take a bad picture of Jesse.
The bookshelves in the living room told her that this family took reading seriously. Bound to happen when both parents were teachers.
It was odd to see this part of Jesse’s life, to see the place where he was just a normal teenager and not a Slayer captain. And it was especially odd to be alone with him after they’d spent the last week ignoring each other.
In the garage, an aging silver Prius waited for them among the stacks of moving boxes. Tori climbed in the passenger side and wished she’d been able to change out of her school uniform. Her fireproof pants and jacket were much more comfortable when worn over jeans.
Jesse got in beside her, opened the garage door, and drove out onto the street. Out in the yards they passed, dead patches of grass poked up through the snow. Bits of brown leaves clumped together at the edges of the street, discoloring the snow there.
The silence that hung between them was thick with all of the things that still needed to be said. “So,” she began as though this were any other conversation, “why didn’t you tell your mom the two of us were going out?”
Jesse’s gaze stayed on the street. “I told her I was going out. I just didn’t specify who with.”
“Does she dislike me because my dad is a Republican or for some other reason?”
“She doesn’t dislike you.” He barely stopped at a stop sign before turning onto another street. “I told her she shouldn’t vote for Senator Ethington. She thinks you’re converting me to the Republican party.”
Tori let out a scoff. “I can’t even get you to listen to my Slayer strategies. I doubt I’d have much luck with politics.”
“I listen to you about Slayer stuff. I just question the dragon lord stuff.”
Ever since Thanksgiving, whenever Tori had thought about Aaron, she’d felt a sense of dread well up inside of her. She wasn’t about to admit to Jesse that Aaron had wanted Overdrake’s approval, that Aaron wanted to please him. “You’re the one who told me that in battle you can’t play it safe. You’ve got to take chances. That’s what I did by sending Aaron in. I took a chance.”
Jesse shook his head, tight jawed. “It’s Dirk who always said you can’t play it safe. I tend to err on the side of caution.”
Jesse was right. It was Dirk who encouraged her to take chances. She’d just heard the advice so often, she thought it had come from Jesse too.
He was still shaking his head. “I can see how you’d get us mixed up, though.”
She didn’t miss the barb in his words. “I kissed Dirk for a strategic advantage. If kissing some girl gave you a strategic advantage against Overdrake, you’d do it, wouldn’t you?”
He didn’t answer. Which meant he knew she had a point. “And I would be more understanding about it,” she added.
“How attractive is the girl in question?”
“Why does that matter?”
“I think it would matter in how understanding you were afterward.”
He was determined to be difficult. “I would be understanding either way. I’d just be less happy if she was hot.”
Jesse tapped his fingers against the steering wheel and put on a contemplative expression. “Tacy might have dragon lord information.”
“You never know.”
Time to change that line of conversation. “The last time we talked, you told me I needed to figure out if I was a Slayer or a dragon lord. But I think I can be both. Our best bet during a fight might be if I’m down on the ground, hidden somewhere, while I try to get control of the dragon. At the very least, I’ll be able distract Overdrake.”
He looked far from convinced. “Distracting Overdrake isn’t enough. We need you in the sky as a flyer. We wouldn’t have killed either of the last dragons without your help.”
“If I can control a dragon, we won’t have to kill it.”
“And if you try to control it, you might not be able to kill it.” Jesse shot her a quick glance. “Dirk obviously thinks that if he turns you into a dragon lord, you’ll switch to his side. How do we know he’s not right?”
She refused to let her mind wander to Dirk’s techniques. “I guess you’ll have to trust me.”
Jesse huffed out a breath, one that mixed with the hum of the tires on the road. They’d come to the highway and the Prius shook slightly while attempting higher speeds. “No one ever thinks they’re vulnerable. But sometimes people aren’t as strong as they imagine.”
She thought of Aaron again, of the pleasure he’d felt on the day he’d learned to fly and he’d earned Overdrake’ approval. Aaron had thought he wouldn’t be vulnerable to his father’s influences, but maybe he was.
Tori wasn’t vulnerable, though. She couldn’t be won over by Ferraris. Or dragon rides. Or Dirk’s kisses. “You’ll have to trust me,” she said again. More quietly she added, “If I wanted to date Dirk, I could. I don’t though. I want you.” She wished she could slip her hand into his and scoot closer to him. Doing that would make everything feel normal again. But he was keeping both hands on the wheel and she was belted in. And besides, things weren’t normal between them.
Jesse’s gaze slid from the road to her, then back again. “Are you going to see Dirk again? Because we both know he’ll be happy to offer you as many chances for that sort of strategic advantage as you’ll take.”
Tori leaned back in her seat with a sigh. Jesse made the issue seem simple, but it wasn’t. “Probably not. I don’t know.”
“Yeah, well as long as you don’t know the answer to that question, we shouldn’t be seeing each other.”
He was giving her an ultimatum. She was just supposed to cut Dirk off. Her heart cracked a little right then, but sadness didn’t seep through the fissures, anger did. “You’re telling me to forget what’s good for the Slayers and the country and put our relationship first?”
“No, I’m telling you I’m not going to sit by while you see Dirk again—not when he’s our enemy and you keep making out with him. Sorry, but I’m not that understanding.”
She looked out of the window, out at the cars on the highway they were passing. “I should have never told you the truth about Dirk, and I’ll think twice about what I tell you from now on.” It was a petty thing to say, but she didn’t care. Her choices had been to break into tears or be petty, and she didn’t feel like crying.
Jesse’s voice softened. “When we’re done fighting Overdrake, things will change.”
Nope. They wouldn’t.
Another petty thought and a stupid one. Of course things would change. Overdrake had four dragons and ten eggs. Even if the Slayers were lucky and managed to kill the next two dragons he attacked with, he would eventually whittle their numbers away.
One of Dirk’s lessons on World War Two came to mind, a joke he’d told her about a German and an American soldier talking after the war. The American said, “I heard that in a battle, one German Tiger Tank was worth ten of our American Sherman Tanks.”
“You heard right,” the German said.
“Then how did we win the war?” The American asked.
“When we had a battle, you always brought eleven tanks.”
Overdrake certainly had enough dragons to kill the Slayers. Flyers were the most vulnerable, the ones that Overdrake targeted first. She and Jesse might not both make it out alive and then the whole dating point would be moot. Jesse must know this, but he still wanted to spend their remaining time together as nothing more than teammates.
He shifted his grip on the steering wheel. “I’m not saying all of this because I don’t care about you. I’m saying it because I care too much.”
How was she supposed to respond to that? Tell him to care about her less? His words were just an easy out. A more noble sounding version of: It’s me, not you. So she didn’t respond at all. She pulled homework from her backpack and worked on it—firmly, stiffly, and without being able to concentrate on it.
Five miles before they reached the practice field, Tori’s powers kicked in—the simulator’s doing. Her senses grew sharp and her energy picked up. She was more resistant to cold now, could leap fifteen feet without effort, and would be able to see in the dark later on when the sun went down. Best of all she could fly. The ability to float and drift in the sky, to glide beneath the stars—it almost made up for the rest of practice.
A few minutes later, Jesse’s car reached the driveway to the old farm where they trained during the school year. An overgrown orchard surrounded the place, hiding it from the main road. It’s once orderly rows had been overrun with unruly trees intent on turning the land back into the forest. Sam, the unknown patron of the Slayers, had bought it a decade ago and surrounded the whole place with a fifteen-foot barbed wire fence. Jesse pulled up to the gate and punched in the code to open the doors.
Then the Prius jiggled down the uneven road and over to the stretch of dirt where the Slayers parked. Before Jesse had even completely turned off his car, Tori opened her door, got out and slammed the door harder than she intended. With her powers turned on, things broke easier. She stormed off toward the stable to get her horse.
Within a few steps, Jesse caught up with her. “Look, I’m sorry.”
Three words that didn’t change anything. They were little stitches that couldn’t hold together the wounds between them. “Yeah, I’m sorry too. The problem is I think we’re sorry about different things.”
“I shouldn’t have laid all of that on you right before practice. We should have waited until afterward to talk.”
“I’m fine,” she said, steeling her voice to make it sound truer. Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe. She headed to the stables so she didn’t have to keep hearing him apologize for not caring about her enough—or for caring about her too much. In the end, it worked out to be the same thing.
She had to get through this practice—no, not get through it. Even though she felt horrible, she had to prove to the other Slayers and Dr. B that she was ready to be a captain again, that she deserved it. She was going to slay her dragons faster and better than she ever had—or at least faster and better than Jesse did.