EPISODE 49: AFTERSHOCKS

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Hace Matthews. Venday, Taurus 8th, 2348. 8:43 AM. Brookside (Valmont Estate).

Lin led Hace through the crowd which had reached critical mass. The late arrivals had all shown up, the early attendees had yet to leave, and most of those old enough to drink were exuberantly drunk. Normally, Hace loved this atmosphere. But tonight, it couldn’t reach him for more than a moment at a time.

Hace realized he was scowling again and chided himself. This is the best day of your life to date. So why are you miserable? Even if you had lost to Valmont, you still scored Second Deftero, which, out of nearly one-hundred thirty students is still something to be proud of. And what else is there to be mad or sad about?

— Earlier in Taurus | Arroyo —

Ever since the terrorist incident, Hace had not felt comfortable within his own mind. But he also wondered if it had always been like that, and he had never realized it until now. Looking back to earlier memories was no help. It filled him with an odd sort of contempt. He could study as well as he ever could and hanging out with Glem, Drav, and Sen drove away his demons. Moment to moment, he was happy and capable. But whenever he was by himself… something was wrong. Blasphemously wrong. Like he had forgotten his mother’s birthday. Pisces 14th, 2315. Valentine’s Day. Or his own. Leo 9th, 2332.

The most probable explanation was that the hiatus meant he was either falling behind in his studies or missing out on curriculum altogether. He wasn’t frightened by the terrorist attacks, so much as apoplectic with impotence. I want to fucking do something. I wish I was a Keeper already so I could make those bastards pay for what they did to Fitz and the others.

While he was away from the Athenaeum, when he wasn’t working out or training independently, he had stalked Calle Colorado in his aspirant uniform, essentially looking for a fight. Nobody obliged, of course, and the anger began to fester.

But last Lunday, two private school seniors finally took the bait. “Are those the only clothes you own?” Hace smiled like it was Christmas morning, and said “If you’ve got problems with what I’m wearing, let’s settle them outside.” He then gestured insistently for both boys to follow him, as he undid his aspirant licenses. He made a great show of dropping them onto the alley to prove that he could beat them without using his wyrd. Two on one.

They had pretty good timing for a pair of preppy dipshits. They managed to get a hit on his shoulder and his ankle with a solid opening pincer. Then he beat them stupid. He didn’t really remember how. But he remembered taking care to give them the opportunity to run as soon as they wanted to forfeit. Something about hearing a spoiled brat call me a “scatch” as he runs away bleeding is music to my ears.

He glowed as he walked home. It was better than sex. Well. I imagine it’s better than sex. But when I got back to the bookshop, Sera was there. And she knew. She just… knew. They didn’t hit my face. I wasn’t hurt. I was just breathing—clean and easy—and she stared at me.

“What?”

“You’ve got a problem, Hace.”

“What do you mean?”

“You got in a fight.”

Hace tried to lie. Usually, his mind reflexively avoided even considering falsehood. But he wanted to deny Sera’s accusation and gagged on the effort. Sera drew her head back, understanding what happened. Hace cleared his throat and said, clearly:

“I was provoked.”

Sera folded her arms.

“And that makes it okay?”

“No. But it…”

Hace couldn’t think of a way to speak. Everything he had to excuse himself was an outright lie, or felt close enough to lying that he couldn’t tell the difference. He froze up. And then, to his surprise, he started to cry.

“Sweetie, talk to me,” Sera pleaded.

“Can’t. Not right now.” That wasn’t a lie. It was the only thing he could say. He could gesture, emanate, and form words, but he could not communicate worth—

— 8:46 | Brookside (Valmont Estate) —

“Matthews!”

Hace blinked, refocused his eyes and remembered that he was following Lin, and that they had reached Carroll. She stared at him, irate and frantically gestured: “This was your idea.”

“Welcome to the party, Hace,” Carroll said, amused, voice slurring slightly. Is he tipsy? “Congratulations on reaching First Defteros. I know how hard Alinore made you work for it.”

“Actually, Master Carroll, that’s what I—what we—wanted to talk to you about.”

Carroll raised an eyebrow and then deflated with a heavy sigh.

“This is about the kumite, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.” Hace said. “If the margins were as narrow as I suspect, I might not have earned this,” he pointed at his pin. “The kumite usually factors in class rankings, especially among peacekeeping aspirants.”

“We can’t exactly host another school-wide tournament. Gods know we’re behind schedule as it is.”

“We don’t need an audience. Just an officiant.” Lin said.

Carroll laughed.

“It sounds like you’re eloping.”

Hace chuckled weakly and felt himself pinken. He stole a glance at Lin who looked both disgusted and outraged. Not in the “me thinks she protest too much” way either. I figured that’s how she’d react to that. It stung a bit.Having just danced with her, she was… well. No getting around the fact that she’s gorgeous. Not hot, or cute, or pretty. But not-not those things, either. Just gorgeous. And she’s brilliant. Amazing at contract magic. And she can fight like a dragon—

Hace’s head ached sharply. He remembered seeing her fighting somebody on the cafeteria roof, but it was hazy. Like a dream. Yeah, that’s a thing that didn’t happen. But she beat Zaire Aoyama after losing a tooth. That’s pretty damn tough.

“Will you help us argue our case?” Lin asked Carroll.

“No,” Carroll said, just before taking another sip of red wine.

“What? Master—” Lin started to protest.

“What case? Lin, if you win, do you want Hace’s First Defteros pin?” Carroll asked with the barest hint of mockery.

“I’m fine with it,” Hace said.

“No!” Lin said, disgusted again and getting angrier by the word. “It’s just… it would give us both some peace of mind. Closure!”

Carroll finished the rest of his glass, looking between the two of them. He started to say something, sighed, and said something else:

“If you don’t want official recognition, you two can settle this however you see fit, as long as you go about it responsibly. I’d offer to officiate, but I think these things are ghastly and you won’t be satisfied with my ruling. I would have ended those Kumite matches much earlier. Especially Hace’s against…” Carroll squinted, suddenly unable to recall the match in question.

“If you’re talking about my fight with Drav, my ribs are already healed. Pain is fleeting.”

“Oh, so is glory!” Carroll said, annoyed and dismissive in equal measure. “Children, listen to me—”

“Ah! We’re children now.” Lin said, then smiled pleasantly at Hace. “I’m sorry, Matthews. He’s clearly drunk. This was a waste of time.”

Carroll held up a hand to keep her from walking away.

“I apologize. I retract ‘children.’ But these…” He gestured vaguely for the word. “These things! These titles and victories and what-not seem so terribly important now, but their significance is fleeting. Believe me. When you are twenty, if you are looking back on what you achieved in the Athenaeum, Fera and I will have utterly failed you as mentors.”

Hace bowed his head. Can’t argue with that, I guess. Lin stared a couple seconds, and sighed heavily, then bowed as well. The two of them walked away, Lin hanging her head and Hace with his hands thrust in his pockets.

“Look, if you don’t want it written in the records… Carroll did say we could settle it how we see fit. That’s permission from where I’m standing. And if you win, I will give you my pin.”

Lin considered his words, but upon mention of the pin, she looked at him with disgust and rolled her eyes.

“I really don’t care about the fucking pin, Matthews. I just want to know where I stand.”

Why are you getting angry!?

“Me too! Look, if Carroll gave us permission, all we need to do is find a time and place. We can have Glem officiate.”

“He’s your best friend. How is he not biased?”

“Are you kidding? There is nobody on the planet who wants to see me get my ass beat and put in my place more than Glem. And since he is maybe the best Medithurge on campus already, he won’t let either of us go too far.”

Lin tilted her head in consideration. Hace tried to study her expression but ended up being captivated by her face. He wondered what she would look like if she let her hair down. She really is—

A sense of betrayal as intense as lightning shot through Hace, head to heart, to groin on down to his toes. It was physically painful. His nerves ached for several seconds after the surge passed.Mercifully, Lin missed his full body shudder. What the hell is happening to me? Jesus, puberty fucking sucks!

“If you can talk him into it, I accept.” Lin said. “I know a place where we can fight.”

“Great.” Hace agreed. “Where?”

“The roof of the cafeteria. I know the code to get up there.”

A pitchfork jabbed Hace in the face. Images hit him in a feverish storm. The dream where Lin was fighting somebody above the cafeteria. Was I fighting her? No, I was watching her fight somebody else.

Was it the green-haired girl again? She had appeared in some of his dreams lately. One night they had… very vivid sex. And another night they fought, but Hace suspected he was reliving his fight against Drav because it was so similar.

“Matthews?” Lin asked. “Are you feeling alright? Have you been drinking? Did my mother sneak you something?”

“What? No. I’m just getting a headache. Tired, I guess. Or maybe need water.”

Lin looked skeptical. Hace brushed aside the surge of pain and asked:

“Have you ever fought somebody on the roof before?”

Lin hesitated and an odd expression came over her. Like she had to think it over before she could answer, but in the end, she shook her head. Usually, that meant people were lying. But Hace was too tired and too head-sore to bother calling her out on it. Instead he said:

“Sorry, that was a strange thing to ask. Will you be around Lunday morning? We don’t have classes next week.”

“Lunday at nine AM,” Lin said, and extended her hand. “Thank Hughes for me.”

Hace took her hand and shook it.

“I’m sure he’ll get a kick out of it.”

—9:03 PM—

“No! Hace, what the hell is wrong with you?” Glem said in a single breath.

“Do you want an alphabetized list, ‘cause we’ll be here for a hot minute,” Hace said. “Come on, man, it’s important to me. You know she loathes me, and this might ease the bad blood between us.”

Glem eyed Hace suspiciously.

“I thought you weren’t wild about her either?”

Hace opened his mouth, closed it and then said:

“I mean, she’s not so bad.”

Glem stared him dead in the eyes. Hace laughed and sputtered:

“Glem, I feel like a fucking fraud here, man! I want to know if I deserve to have this or not. Lin feels the same. We even got approval from Master Carroll.”

“Somehow,” Glem said, studying Hace’s expression carefully, “I have a feeling this might be one of those ‘technical truths’ that you half-fae are so found of. Call it a hunch.”

Hace quickly gestured ‘racist fuck’ and immediately went back to making pleading gestures.

“We set a date for Lunday morning. I’m gonna show up and tell her that I tried to convince you. Odds are strong that she will agree to fight me anyway. Without a witness. I know you don’t approve. I know you think it’s dumb. But it is important to me. Will you help me?”

Glem looked at Hace with weapons-grade annoyance.

“I am so sick of this shit I have déjà vu. Literally. This feels like it is the thousandth time you’ve asked me to do this.”

“But it’s only the first! And I’ll only ask once!”

“I know broken promises are the only way you can tell lies, Hace, but it’s bad for your wyrd,”

Before Hace could continue begging, Glem gestured a concession. Hace abruptly embraced him, knowing full-well that he hated hugs. He squirmed like a cat and finally pried Hace off by pushing on his face.

“Get off! I hate you.”

“I love you, buddy. You’re the best.”

“I hope she breaks your goddamned legs.”

—9:57 PM—

The party was starting to wind down and Hace was looking to make an exit. His mother and aunt insisted that he attend the ball. According to them, earning First Defteros made him a role model. He enjoyed himself much more than he would have guessed, though. He assumed formal parties would be stuffy and dry, but the conversation was lively, the DJ was good, the food was excellent, and it was amusing to watch the buttoned-up Masters deep in their drinks.

The only damper on the experience were the strange cluster headaches he was getting, though they had receded somewhat since his conversation with Lin.

He sat with Glem, Sen, and Drav at a table on one of several grassy terraces overlooking the Grand Arroyo. Just before he could stand to leave, Jrett approached and Hace realized he was wearing the red robes of an artificer.

Guess he couldn’t make the cut.

“What’s up, no-homo?” Glem asked.

Jrett snickered and lowered his head.

“I deserve that.” He bowed his head, unsure of what to say. “I actually… I wanted to say I’m sorry. Or, thanks, really.”

“Those are two very different things,” Senice observed.

“I was a dick. For our entire first four years. So, yeah. I’m sorry for that. But Drav helped me realize something in our kumite fight. Deep down, I knew I was not… good enough for the peacekeeping force. I actually ended up making the cut, in terms of grades. Barely. But…” He shook his head. “I chose animathurgy. It was a really hard decision, and facing Drav helped me settle it.”

What the fuck. Did Drav literally slap sense into Jrett? Or did Jrett Verre spontaneously develop self-awareness? Both seemed equally plausible, which was to say: beyond the fucking pale. Hace wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Glem’s mouth was literally hanging open.

“Excuse me, I am still learning this language,” Drav lied. “To be clear, you are thanking me for slapping you?”

Again, Jrett snickered.

“Yeah. Guess I am. And Matthews… what I did in the labyrinth was messed up.”

“I mean, yeah. But you, uh, ended up a lot worse off than I did.”

Jrett nodded wincing at the memory. “Another lesson that helped.”

“Well. Uh. Apology accepted,” Glem said, still flabbergasted.

Hace and Drav nodded as well.

“Why animathurgy?” Sen asked.

Jrett grinned sheepishly.

“I’ve always felt that anima, like…” Jrett struggled to find the words. “They have like, a lot of personality. And that’s interesting to me, I guess. It’s also safer than peacekeeping or archivism, but not too safe, you know?”

Christ, that was almost eloquent.

“Makes sense,” Hace said.

“So, uh. Yeah. And congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Hace and Glem said in unison.

Jrett bobbed his head again and walked away.

“Did that just happen?” Glem asked.

Drav stared at his hands.

“I have truly underestimated the good my slaps can do. Hace, come here.”

Hace laughed and jumped off his seat with sorcery. Drav gave chase. Glem and Senice tried to catch him up with telekinesis. After about a minute of generally fucking around, Hace finally tripped up and Drav got him in a headlock.

“This doesn’t count as a slap!” Hace objected.

“It will have to do!” Drav answered.

Hace tapped the grass in surrender. Drav stood and raised both fists in triumph as Senice and Glem applauded. Hace coughed and laughed in the same breath.

“With that, I shall make my ignoble retreat,” Hace said.

“You’re leaving?” Senice asked.

“Yeah. I want to spend some time with my family.”

Glem elbowed her. She shot him a venomous glance, hopped up from her seat and ran toward Hace. She grabbed his arm as he was picking himself off the grass.

“Will you dance with me first? Just one song.”

Hace looked between Drav and Glem who both nodded at him decisively.

“Sure,” Hace said slowly.

She grinned and led him back towards the ballroom, which had now switched exclusively to slower tracks. Holding her was much easier than Valmont. Their wyrds were mutually comfortable together, unlike Valmont’s which affected the energy of a wet cat. But as they started swaying, the pain in his head came back. Like somebody dragging a hot coat-hanger through his brain. This time, he managed to not visibly wince. And it was a good thing too, because she leaned into him.

“There’s an old athenaeum tradition… that you save your last dance for the person you want to dance with the most,” Sen whispered.

The statement caught him completely off-guard. The tradition sounded strangely familiar, but it seemed like the kind of thing he would remember on a night like this and… he had completely forgotten.

“O-oh. Really?” Hace said.

Sen nodded, smiling.

“It’s strange. But I feel like I’ve always been the second girl in your life. And now I’m worried that it was intentional. Maybe you see me like a sibling. Because I see you very differently.”

It was true. Hace had never considered Sen as more than a friend before. But maybe I was just too afraid to look. She’s been my friend from the start. Since assessments. She’s smart. Funny. Pretty too.  A very different kind of pretty than Valmont or… As he tried to think of somebody else to compare her to, his head started to ache again, and he abandoned the tangent. Maybe this was meant to be. Every happy couple I know describes each other as best friends.

“Actually,” Hace said, grinning. “It feels like I’m seeing you for the first time.”

That sounded smoother in my head. But Sen seemed pleased.

“Took you long enough.”

Her eyes, a vibrant shade of green, beckoned. Her teeth were brilliantly white, brighter still against her umber complexion. And her—something clawed the inside of Hace’s head again. He ignored it, determined not to fuck up this moment. He leaned into her, giving her a gentle kiss on the lips. Her hair smelled like spring. Flowers in the rain.

The pain spiked again… and then receded with an epiphany: Maybe this is what I’ve been missing. I’ve been so busy working toward my goal I haven’t paused—or even looked around—to consider any other part of my life.

She kissed him back, harder.

—10:38 PM—

“We should probably, uh, adjourn for the evening,” Sen said, breathless.

Hace grinned at her.

“Adjourn, huh? Tell me you’re a leximancer without telling me you’re a leximancer.”

They were in the backseat of her sedan. Nothing irreversible had happened, but they had left after their first dance and spent the last half hour making out. Hace had no idea what he was doing, or where this excursion was going. But a girl let me touch her boobs for the first time, which is…. Yeah. It was pretty awesome.

Again, he felt a throbbing pain in his head, but it was slower, and duller than the first episodes. Hace still couldn’t discern any pattern between them. His memory didn’t register the pain as serialized phenomena—they were sharp, moment to moment, but faded instantly. His memory barely registered the pain at all.

They shifted positions, intending to leave which seemed like a good enough excuse to kiss again. And when he pulled away, she put her hand on his cheek, and he cupped it against his face.

“I feel like I won,” Senice said, giggling. “Graduation is… it’s great, but. You’re my real prize tonight.”

“Pretty sure I’m the winner here.”

Hace felt dizzy. Between the on-again-off-again aches, the giddy happiness at hearing her words, and the other “chemical reactions” in his body, he could barely see straight, let alone think worth half a damn.

“Do you want a ride home?” Sen asked.

Part of him wanted to run the whole way there. He wanted to shout, leap, and just… celebrate. But he also wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to spend more time with Sen.

“That would be great,” Hace said.

The radio greeted them with a trendy, poppy song that Hace didn’t realize he loved until that moment. He nodded his head in rhythm with the beat, and Sen started swaying and humming along as she drove.

“You don’t think it will be awkward, will it?” Sen asked.

“What?”

“Us. I mean, I don’t want to screw up what we had, but I want this too.”

“I totally understand,” Hace said. “We’ll take it day by day. Season to taste.”

Sen bit her lip.

“What about Glem and Drav?”

“No worries there. They were very much on board when you asked me to dance.”

She chuckled.

“Poor Drav has listened to me whine about you since forever ago. I made him promise not to tell you.”

“Smart. Glem probably would have told me. Withholding that info would be a major bro code violation. As my future attorney, I’m sure you understand.”

Sen laughed hard enough to snort, which Hace found adorable.

“Hate to break it to you buddy, but he totally knew. Always teased me when you weren’t around.  I never told him or went to him for advice, because—as your future attorney—I sensed a conflict of interest.”

“Ah! Very prudent.” Hace nodded. “But that motherfucker. He could have given me a clue!”

Senice shook her head.

“I’m glad I had the courage to tell you myself.”

“Me too. It was kind of perfect.”

They stopped talking to enjoy another song, and then, as they approached Hace’s home, Sen asked:

“How’s your mom doing?”

Hace opened his mouth looking for a palatable truth and gave her wincing smile.

“She’s… fighting hard.”

He was touched that she was concerned, and considerate enough to ask. But I really don’t want to get into it tonight. Everything else has been perfect. Walking in the door is gonna be hard enough. When he came home, and she was… wherever her mind went when things got bad, it wasn’t a homecoming. It was like a preview of the worst possible future. And I don’t need that Christmas Carol shit right now.

Sen read the change in his expression as she brought the car to a stop in front of his house.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No! No. I mean, if I can talk to anybody about this… I’d like to talk to you. I just… I want to focus on the wins tonight, you know?”

“Yeah,” Sen said, comforted. 

Hace smiled and leaned in for one last kiss. Sen obliged.

“Give your mom my best. And Sera too.”

“Thanks. Tell your parents… Actually, maybe don’t tell them anything about me yet.”

He winked and stepped out of the car as she laughed. Then she waved and drove away.

Hace watched her go from the curb. When she was out of sight, he thrust his fist into the air with a current of sorcery, jumped as high as he had ever jumped, and caught himself with a telekinetic cushion as he landed.

When he walked inside, he heard the television running from the den.

“Hace?” Sera called.

“Hey,” he answered.

“Did you walk home?” Sera asked, horrified. “Your mom went to bed a while ago but I’ve been waiting for you to call.”

“Sorry, I should have sent a text. Uh, Sen gave me a ride home.”

Sera leaned in the doorway to the den with a smirk on her face.

“Oh, did she?”

Hace glowed and scratched the back of his head.

“Yeah. She did,” he said. “And a delightful time was had by all.”

“A safe and responsible ‘delightful time,’ I hope?” Sera grinned and thrust a finger at him. “Ha! I can still make him blush! No, sorry. I’m happy for you. I’ve missed that smile.”

“Which smile?”

“Your ‘I just got lucky’ smile, apparently.”

“Oh my god, Aunt Sera, I didn’t—”

“I know, I know,” Sera said and gestured for him to calm down, then stopped and considered herself. “Actually, I don’t know, and I don’t want to. It’s not my business. But I’m happy to see you happy about… something happy.”

“Huh?”

Sera chuckled.

“Your wyrd is light and lively right now. Like a city at night, lit up by fireworks. But when you came home the other day, you were…. Scary. And you were proud of it.”

Hace bowed his head.

“I’ve thought a lot about it since. And believe me, I’m not proud now.”

Sera gestured for him to follow her into the kitchen. He obliged and she filled two glasses of lemonade, passing him one.

“Did you tell mom?” Hace asked.

“No. She doesn’t need to know. And as far as I’m concerned, nobody else needs to either.”

“How did you know?”

Sera shrugged and gestured vaguely.

“Like I said, your wyrd was… red. Nothing but bloodlust, fire, and force. Your smile, your eyes… I know you’re a fighter as much as a lover, Hace. You’re more like your mom than me in that sense. Both of you have this… aggressive grace about handling conflicts. You just keep moving forward, no matter what pops up. No doubts, no hesitation.”

I’ve got plenty of doubts, believe me. But Hace took a drink of lemonade, hoping she’d continue. He knew she was making a point, and he didn’t completely see it yet. Sera swallowed:

“My point is, the world needs fighters. And if you’re gonna fight, it’s better to win than it is to lose. But honey, promise me you won’t use being good at fights as an excuse to become a predator.”

There it is. Hace had known that was the thrust of her point all along, but hearing her spell it out helped. That’s why I felt like shit. Honestly, I was worse than Jrett. And while I may be leading in grades… I have a hell of a long way to go in terms of growing up.

“I promise.”

“Good.”

Sera asked him about the party at Valmont Estate, and he obliged for the next twenty or so minutes. There was a lot to cover. The general spread and splendor. Jrett’s slap-induced epiphany and apology. He considered keeping his dance with Sen to himself, but decided to share it with her, and he was happy he did. She was beyond thrilled.

“So… how does this work? Are we… like, together now? Is she my girlfriend? Or are we just—”

“That’s up to you and Senice, sweetie. But maybe wait before broaching it. Play things cool.”

Hace nodded, and the conversation hit a lull.

“So. I don’t have a graduation gift for you. Yet,” Sera said, and held up a hand when Hace tried to protest. “But I do have some good news.”

“I’d rather have good news anyway,” Hace said.

“We came to an arrangement with Uncle Tibbon.”

“Really? He’s come around to the Westmarque offer?”

“We’re giving him a departure package. Enough for him to start a nest egg, and we’re going to pay him a sort of… soft pension. The more money Matthews’ Books makes, the more money we pass onto him.”

“No bad blood or anything?” Hace asked.

Sera tilted her head to the side.

“He would have preferred we sold the building and gave him more money upfront, but he said he can live with this, and he appreciated all the calculus your mom had to do to make the finances work.”

“That’s the best graduation gift I could ask for.”

As they finished their lemonade, Hace’s symphone twitched in his pocket. He pulled it out to find a text notification from Senice Cole.

“It’s uh, it’s Sen,” Hace said, sheepish.

“You’d better reply then,” Sera warned.

Hace grinned.

“I think I will.”

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