On Monday, Tori tried to find Jesse before first period so they could talk, so she could apologize to him again. She’d called and texted Jesse yesterday—overtures which he’d completely ignored. Perhaps she deserved his anger, but she also deserved more consideration than he was giving her.
Last Friday night, Tori had agreed to meet Dirk and he’d taken her to see one of the dragons. She still wasn’t sure which had been her biggest mistake: kissing Dirk in order to get information from him or telling Jesse about it.
She’d bought Jesse a stuffed donkey—a politically themed peace offering. On Saturday before she ruined things between them, he’d given her a stuffed elephant.
Jesse wasn’t anywhere in the hallways. No sight of his dark hair or broad shoulders. At 6’2 he was tall enough that he was hard to overlook among the sea of students. She finally had to put the donkey in her locker and go to class.
He came in late for journalism, didn’t ever glance back at her, and then made a bee-line for the door as soon as the bell rang. By the time she followed the crowd out of the room, he’d disappeared in the hallway.
At lunch, he sat at the table with the jocks, ignoring her.
How long was he planning on acting this way? Hours? Days? The school week was short due to Thanksgiving, and she didn’t want to wait until next Monday to work things out.
After school, instead of heading out to meet Lars, her driver, she waited for Jesse by his locker.
He walked over with an air of determined nonchalance, said a curt, “Hello,” then twirled his combination, keeping his attention there.
“I realize you’re angry with me,” she said, “But it would help to know whether you’re angry because of Dirk or because of Aaron.”
“Both,” he said still not looking at her.
“I’d like to remind you, that in both situations, I was doing my best to help the Slayers.”
Jesse huffed in disbelief. “The kid is twelve.”
“You were eleven when you became a Slayer. You still knew what you were doing, didn’t you?”
Jesse opened his locker with more force than the task required. “If Overdrake brainwashes Aaron like he brainwashed Dirk, we’ll be fighting three dragons at the same time. You didn’t think the rest of us deserved a say about that?”
“Aaron won’t join Overdrake. He wants to protect his brother by helping us. I could tell that about him.”
Now Jesse looked at her, his brown eyes hard. “I’m not sure I trust your judgment when it comes to knowing what guys are really like.”
She decided to ignore that jab. “Overdrake has more dragons than we could ever fight. If I can learn to control them, that knowledge could save us. Isn’t that worth taking some risks?”
“And what about the fact that going into a dragon’s mind makes killing them harder?”
Dirk had let her use her dragon lord powers to explore Khan’s mind, encouraged it even. The knowledge had cost her. “Harder doesn’t mean impossible.”
“Even hesitating could cost lives.”
Why couldn’t he at least try and see her point of view? She shifted her books in her arms. “When I made decisions about Aaron and about Dirk, I did what I thought was best. I’m sorry if I was wrong. Really. I am.”
He considered her, eyes still hard. “Do you have feelings for Dirk?”
“He’s my counterpart. Of course I have feelings for him.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “But only counterpart feelings.” Was she blushing? Why did her cheeks suddenly feel hot?
Jesse looked far from convinced. “So you’re saying you didn’t enjoy kissing him?”
“No,” she said too quickly. The answer was a knee-jerk denial.
“No you didn’t enjoy it, or no you can’t tell me you didn’t?”
“I didn’t…” He was looking at her with so much scrutiny that she couldn’t help but flush. “I was . . . it was just. . . I mean . . .” She was speaking gibberish, she knew that, but she was suddenly having flashes of memory—Dirk’s arms around her. And the last time she’d kissed him. She hadn’t needed to do that. Not really. So did that mean she had enjoyed it? “It wasn’t like …it was just, I mean . . .” and now she repeating the gibberish she’d already said.
Jesse folded his arms, his open locker forgotten. “That’s convincing.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It should be.”
The words stung because he was right. She still had feelings for Dirk and she shouldn’t. But that didn’t mean she’d been lying to Jesse about being his girlfriend. It didn’t mean that she’d wanted any of what had happened last Friday to happen. She’d stopped Dirk at first and then only let him kiss her for strategy sake. “Jesse . . .”
He put up a hand to stop her. “Until you figure out what you want—who you want—the two of us should go back to being just teammates.”
“You’re breaking up with me?”
“No, I’m pretty sure you did that when you made out with another guy.”
That wasn’t fair. “You know very well why I kissed him.”
“Yeah because you haven’t decided whether you’re a Slayer or a dragon lord. That’s another thing that you really ought to figure out.”
He turned and strode away, leaving her staring after him, stunned.
He didn’t think she’d decided she was a Slayer? He’d broken up with her, just because she’d been trying to get information from Dirk?
Okay, so maybe she had enjoyed kissing Dirk a little, but she hadn’t kissed him because she wanted to cheat on Jesse. She’d done it to save lives. Could she help it if Dirk was a good kisser? Jesse should be a little bit understanding. She could have kept the whole event a secret, but she was trying to be honest, trying to do the right thing.
She pushed her way through the crowded hall, fast-paced, and angry. She had new plans for the stuffed donkey in her backpack. It was going to become Brindy’s next dog toy.
On Tuesday, Tori didn’t try to talk to Jesse and he didn’t talk to her. On Wednesday she would have talked to him if he’d made any indication that he wanted to talk to her, but he didn’t. In fact, he seemed happy enough to chat with Tacy before journalism. He was smiling as they talked, that smile that usually just belonged to her.
Fine. Let him be that way.
On Thursday, Tori helped her mother make Thanksgiving dinner. A nice leisurely dinner with her family would have been nice—the sort where everyone played a few card games or watched a movie afterward, but Thanksgiving was never that way at her house. A lot of the staffers and interns at her father’s office didn’t have family close by, so her parents always invited at least a dozen people over. And her mother prided herself on providing a home-cooked meal.
The visitors couldn’t all fit at one table, so her parents dragged the kitchen table into the dining room and then Tori and Aprilynne were supposed to play hostess for all the people that hadn’t managed to get seated at her parents’ table. This was never fun because the guests really wanted to sit near her father, so basically, Tori spent the meal trying to make small talk with a bunch of disappointed social climbers.
It wasn’t like she had anything in common with her father’s employees anyway. They saw her as an uninteresting high school kid and usually talked among themselves and ignored her.
This year, since Aprilynne had started working at her father’s office, she was bound to know all their inside jokes and gossip, and Tori would be the only one silently waiting for it to end.
Usually Tori didn’t mind the work that went into Thanksgiving dinner, but right now the last thing she wanted to deal with was hours of cooking, cleaning, and then eating with strangers. Couldn’t her family for once be like all the other families, slobbing around and just being with each other?
When her mother cheerfully called her into the kitchen, Tori stood in the doorway and didn’t take the apron her mother offered. “Please, can we just go to a restaurant, buy the stuff, and pretend we made it? I’ll drive.”
Aprilynne snorted. She was at the far counter turning sweet potatoes into a dish that more closely resembled a brown sugar casserole than an actual vegetable. “Nice try. Like I don’t suggest that every year.”
Tori’s mother strolled over and draped the apron around Tori’s neck. “We need to get the mashed potatoes going.”
“It’s a holiday. We’re supposed to relax.”
“Our guests work very hard for your father. This is the least we can do for them.” Tori’s mother stepped behind her, took hold of the apron strings and tied them. “You’re a Hampton. That should mean something to you.”
“Yeah, it means Thanksgiving dinners always suck.”
Tori’s hefted a bag of potatoes off the counter and handed them to her. “We give our guests our best. The work is part of the gift.”
Tori had heard this before. Sometimes this little truism even convinced her that work wasn’t so bad. Today it just seemed like a trite excuse to make her suffer. “After I go to college,” she announced, “I’m never coming home for Thanksgiving. I’m going to enjoy a peaceful meal in the cafeteria.”
“The peeler is by the sink,” her mother said and breezed off to cut up celery for the stuffing. Her homemade specialty stuffing. Because, obviously, the kind from the box wasn’t good enough.
Tori peeled, cut up, and boiled the potatoes. Maybe her mother would let her pretend she was sick so she could watch a movie in her bedroom. Surely there would be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery going on that hers wouldn’t be needed. But of course she was a Hampton and that meant there could never be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery.
She was draining the potatoes when she heard noises in her mind, a voice in the dragon enclosure. She maximized the sound, letting it grow louder.
“I shouldn’t need to remind you,” Overdrake said, “but I will. You should watch what you say.”
Was he speaking to Tori? Was this some sort of threat?
“I thought Tori only heard what Vesta heard.” Aaron’s voice. She felt herself relax. “Why do I have to watch what I say here?” Aaron continued.
Tori heard what Vesta heard? That was news. And apparently wrong. Which dragon was she listening to now? Khan still? She’d been connected to him when Overdrake had introduced Aaron last Saturday.
“We can’t be certain Tori will always be connected to Vesta,” Overdrake answered. “Do you need a refresher on the necessity of precaution?”
“No.” And then as though Aaron was repeating a motto, added, “If I make a mistake around a dragon, it might be my last.”
“Precisely. Don’t ever treat them like pets. They’re not.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Tori put the drained pot back on the stovetop and went to the fridge for the butter and milk.
A pair of footsteps went very near the dragon and Overdrake murmured, “Here you are, boy. We saved the bones and dark meat for you.”
Ah, even though Khan wasn’t a pet, he still got Thanksgiving leftovers. Tori supposed that was better than feeding the dragon stray dogs. One faint crunch sounded in her mind—the noise of Khan biting into bones. Didn’t take much effort for a dragon to swallow something as small as a turkey.
Tori dropped a cube of butter into the pot, measured out the milk, and waited for Overdrake and Aaron to walk out of the enclosure. Instead, Overdrake spoke again. “I’ve been giving your inability to fly some thought, and the only reason I can see for it is that you need an added incentive.” Words with a cool sharp edge.
“I’m making progress,” Aaron protested. “I can fly twenty feet at a time. Sometimes thirty.”
“That’s not flying, it’s leaping. Perhaps the problem lays in your practice sessions. You haven’t sufficiently felt that you were in danger. There is, of course, an easy way to remedy that.”
“Look, Khan is staring at you and he doesn’t seem pleased.”
“Oh, come on,” Aaron said, his voice picking up anger. “I’m trying to fly. It’s not my fault I always land instead.”
“Your choices are the same as when you were here last. You can throw the boulders—a bad choice. Control the dragon—which won’t happen as long as I’m in his mind. Or fly to that hole in the in the roof.”
Overdrake was setting a dragon on his own son again? Wow, Aaron was having an even worse Thanksgiving than she was. And here she’d thought forcing your kids to cook all day was bad.
The dragon made a low rumbling sound in his throat, a warning.
“I’ll check back in a half an hour and see how you’re doing,” Overdrake said.
“Don’t!” Aaron said. “You can’t—” He didn’t finish, and for a horrible moment Tori wondered if the dragon had killed him. No, Overdrake wouldn’t let it go that far.
Tori stood in front of her pot, the masher gripped in her hand like a weapon and breathlessly waited.
The next thing she heard from Aaron was a stream of swear words. For a twelve-year-old, the kid had a mouth on him. And he had some pretty creative ways to use his swear words. Not necessarily grammatically correct ways, but creative.
Overdrake made a tsking sound. “You’ve already forgotten to watch what you say. I hope my other instructions are more firmly rooted in your mind.”
She heard the door clang closed.
Overdrake had left Aaron alone in the enclosure with Khan.
She felt sick for him, wished she had some way to talk to him. Overdrake told you he had control of the dragon, she wanted to say. That means he won’t really let it kill you.
Of course, that didn’t mean the dragon wouldn’t hurt him. It had probably been instructed to do just that.
“Tori?” Her mother walked by on the way to get a mixing bowl. “Are you all right?”
Tori startled and realized she’d been standing there frozen, the potato masher still lifted like she was going to stab something with it. “Yeah. I’m fine.” She pushed the masher into the potatoes, half stirring them, while she listened for Aaron.
Her mother watched her. “You’ll never get the lumps out that way.”
“Uh huh,” Tori said.
Her mother sighed and went back to seasoning the stuffing.
Aaron had stopped swearing and was panting, taking in deep breaths. “Stay away from me,” he yelled at the dragon. “Stay back!”
Khan roared; the kind that involved fire. Had Aaron managed to jump out of the way? She knew from experience that although fire wouldn’t burn him, the heat was still painful.
“Back off!” Aaron called. He was trying to control the dragon. It wouldn’t work as long as Overdrake had hold of Khan’s mind.
Fly, she thought. Your body knows how. He was probably over thinking it. Flying wasn’t like riding a bike that took coordination, balance, and practice. It was instinctual. You needed to go somewhere high, you leaped up, and you soared there.
A thudding sound in the enclosure made her wince. She’d heard the sound before—a dragon’s tail smacking something. Hopefully the ground and not Aaron.
“If you can hear me,” Aaron said, “I’m saying right now, that my Ferrari had better have a sunroof.”
Ferrari? Tori supposed Aaron wasn’t talking to her. Man, Overdrake was buying him a Ferrari?
“I’ve done everything you asked,” Aaron went on, “and you haven’t let me talk to my mom, you haven’t let me go outside—you haven’t even told me where I am!”
Hold on, maybe Aaron was letting Tori know he didn’t have any information yet.
Another thud. “You know, Child Protective Services would probably have something to say about this!”
A sound like a rock shattering echoed through the enclosure. “Despite what you think, I do remember the stuff you tell me. I know to enter a dragon’s mind, I’m supposed to follow my senses and let them pull me in. After I’m there, I split my focus so I can enter the dragon’s second level of consciousness and find the control center. See, I’ve been listening.”
Aaron was talking to her, passing on Overdrake’s instructions. Tori already knew how to enter a dragon’s mind. And she’d figured out when she was with Dirk that to get to Khan’s control center, she needed to envision herself walking through his mind. What else had Overdrake taught him? She shut her eyes, leaned forward, all her attention focused on the enclosure.
“Once I’m in the control center, I’m supposed to envision the dragon’s will like it’s an actual object and clutch it in my hand. It’s not my fault I can’t do it. You’re always there controlling it first.”
If another dragon lord wasn’t already there, could she envision the dragon’s will as an object and take control that way? Did it matter what object she envisioned? Did it have to be the same object every time?
She couldn’t ask, and it didn’t sound like Overdrake had actually given Aaron the chance to practice it.
The dragon roared again, and the sound of fire crackling filled her ears. She was familiar with that noise, could almost feel the heat creeping along her skin.
Aaron let out a yell that made Tori flinch. Had the dragon done something—swiped him with his claws? Bitten him?
And then the yell turned into a laugh. Aaron wasn’t yelling in pain; he was whooping happily. “Sweet!” he said, still laughing. “Check out this action. This ain’t no leap!” More laughter, joyful and unbridled. “I’m freaking Peter Pan.”
Khan had gone quiet. All Tori heard was the sound of Aaron’s laughter zooming farther and then closer to the dragon. The door opened and then there was the sound of clapping.
“You did it.” Overdrake’s pride was evident. “I knew you would.” He stopped clapping. “However, if I hadn’t commanded Khan to stay on the ground, he would have caught you within two wingbeats. You were supposed to fly to the hole to escape, not circle around the enclosure like a skating rink.”
“Sorry!” Aaron called back. “I couldn’t help it. Flying is awesome. Look—double flip!”
Tori expected Overdrake to be angry or at least give him a reprimand for making mistakes around dragons. Instead he laughed, a deep, affectionate laugh. The sort you expected from fathers.
“You were born to fly,” Overdrake he went on, pride ringing. “You’re my son, after all.”
“How do I stop myself?”
“One of three ways. You run into something, you run out of energy, or you will yourself to stop, just like you willed yourself to fly. I suggest the latter.”
“Willpower isn’t working. But hey, check out this spin.”
Overdrake laughed again. “I’ll keep Khan calm while you practice. Take as long as you’d like. And then we’ll talk about your sunroof.”
Tori minimized the sound so it wasn’t as loud. She had thought listening to Overdrake talk to her was bad. His voice always dripped with disdain if not outright hatred. But listening to this was worse somehow. Hearing Overdrake praise Aaron—hearing him so happy—it was chilling.
Tori mashed the potatoes harder, smashing anything that looked vaguely lumpy.
Aaron . . . what else was happening to him? Her counterpart sense told her that he was exultant, not just because he was flying, but because he had Overdrake’s approval.
Aaron shouldn’t want that. He should be repulsed by Overdrake’s fatherly pride and the suggestion that sports cars could buy his loyalty. But Aaron wasn’t. She could tell he wasn’t.
What had Tori been thinking to send a twelve-year-old to Overdrake? Were twelve-year-olds-brains even done developing yet?
She wished she had a way to remind Aaron that before Overdrake was clapping and talking about Ferrari sunroofs, he’d locked Aaron in the enclosure with a fire-breathing, fifty-ton carnivorous animal. Aaron seemed to have forgotten that fact.
Aprilynne strolled over to their double oven and cast Tori a look. “Are you trying to mash the potatoes or beat them into submission?”
Tori looked down at the pot. Bits of potatoes had splattered over the stovetop, polka-dotting the whole thing.
Tori’s mom swept up to check the potatoes. “I’m sure those are . . .”
“Pulverized,” Aprilynne supplied.
“Done now,” her mother said. She picked up the pot and whisked it away before Tori could do more. “Why don’t you, um, set the tables?”
A task she couldn’t mess up. Really, when had Tori become that child? The difficult one. The one that her parents needed to make allowances for?