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Toke's axes fell from numb fingers and clattered noisily to the ground.
“Oh, hey Toke!” Boam said. His face was pressed firmly into the floor, so he had to look at him out of the corner of his eye. “I've been looking for—owww!”
“Who sent you?” Zashiel demanded, giving his arm a twist.
“Zashiel!” Toke exclaimed.
Zashiel twisted his arm again. “Where is the hunter?”
“How did you find us?”
“Zashiel, stop!” Toke yelled, grabbing her by the wrist. Beneath her, Boam groaned.
“What?” she snapped. “We have to find out what he knows!”
“He's not our enemy. Get off him!”
Zashiel looked from Toke to the large man pinned beneath her knee. “You know this guy?”
“Yeah. Trust me, we have nothing to be afraid of from him,” he said wryly.
“Oh, thank you very much,” Boam grumbled.
“Let him up.”
Zashiel scowled at him, but obeyed. Letting go of Boam's arm, she took her knee off his back and stood up. When she didn't offer him a hand getting up, Toke rolled his eyes and knelt down to help.
“Sorry about that,” he said once his friend was back on his feet. “Zashiel can be a little protective.”
Boam stretched, working out the kinks in his arm. “I noticed. Lucky dropper.”
The room fell silent for a few seconds, none of them knowing what to say. Then Boam broke out into a manic grin.
“Aw, c'mere and gimme a hug!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Before Toke could react, he was wrapped in the biggest, hairiest bear hug of his life.
“You are one hard guy to find, buddy!” he roared, lifting Toke off the ground.
“Boam!” Toke croaked as his old friend did his best to break his spine. “Can't breathe!”
There was a flash of yellow, and the next thing Toke knew one of Zashiel's chakrams was wedged in between him and Boam.
“Put him down,” she growled slowly.
Boam gulped, but did as she said, dropping Toke back onto the floor.
“Um... I give up?” he said, raising his hands.
“Zashiel, put those away!” Toke snapped, springing back to his feet. “He's not going to hurt us.”
With Zashiel's blade tickling his throat, a trace of uncertainty finally showed on Boam's face. “I'm really not, I promise. Please don't kill me.”
Zashiel's eyes narrowed. “Care to explain how you found us right when we were running from a bounty hunter, then?”
Toke rolled his eyes. “Zashiel, seriously. You're overre—”
“Does it not sound like too much of a coincidence to you, Toke?” she snapped. “I don't trust him.”
Toke sighed, but didn't argue. He didn't believe Boam was hunting him—he wasn't convinced Boam was even capable of something like that. But Zashiel had good reason to be paranoid, he supposed, so the best thing he could do was placate her fears.
“Boam, how did you find us?” he asked.
Boam cracked a smile again. “It wasn't easy. Wayli and I have been...” He froze. “Wayli!”
He turned and sprinted back toward the window.
“Hey!” Zashiel shouted, and she raised her chakram to throw it at him, but Toke grabbed her wrist and increased his weight as much as he could. That didn't stop her from trying to throw it anyway, and Toke was whipped up and over her shoulder to land painfully on his back in front of her. Luckily, the added weight meant that the chakram fell to the floor not much farther away.
Boam stuck his head out the window. “Hey, Wayli, I was right! It's them!”
With a snarl, Zashiel grabbed Boam by the back of his shirt and hurled him across the room. He hit the wall and collapsed in a heap.
“You brought Wayli with you?” Toke demanded, coming to stand over him.
“I'm fine, thanks for asking.”
Toke shook his head. “Boam, what the smite are you doing?”
“We were trying to find our best friend,” Boam said, sitting up. “We were worried about you and wanted to help. Kinda surprised you're not happier to see me, to be honest.”
“It's not that,” Toke said, rubbing his weary eyes. When had he gotten so tired? “It's just.... Boam, I—”
“You found him!” a new voice cut through the quiet like a knife through water. Toke spun around to see another familiar face looking in through the window.
“Don't you do it!” he snapped, and Zashiel, scowling, lowered her chakrams.
“Fine,” she said, giving Wayli venomous looks while she climbed in. “Where do you know these idiots from, anyway?”
“From school,” Toke answered, offering a hand to help Wayli in. “They were my only friends while I was there.” He paused. “Well, before I met you.”
“We heard the reports after the Hashira attack,” Wayli joined in. “They all said you were a terrorist.”
Toke felt what was left of his good spirits fall, and he looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
“But Boam knew it wasn't true.”
He looked back up at her, eyes wide. “You- He what?”
“It was the most obvious thing in the world,” Boam said, rolling his eyes. “You didn't miss Hashira because your aim was bad, you missed because you turned that thing out of the way!” He shoved his hands into his pockets “Can't believe I'm the only one who saw it.”
Toke looked over at Zashiel. Even she seemed a little taken aback by this. Slowly, he raised his hand and pointed at Wayli, and then at Boam. When he spoke, his voice was an almost reverent whisper.
“You two don't think I'm a terrorist?”
Boam sauntered over and slapped Toke on the back, earning him a warning glare from Zashiel.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I'm not even convinced that you're capable of something like that.”
Toke looked up into his larger friend's eyes, saw the unadulterated kindness in them, and felt the prickle of tears in his own... and then he bent over and laughed.
“You haven't changed at all, have you?” he asked once he had calmed down. “You're just as thick skulled as you've always been!”
“And proud!” Boam confirmed, grinning broadly.
On the other side of the room, Wayli stood on her toes and raised her hand. “I haven't changed either, if anyone's wondering.”
“Sorry to butt in,” Zashiel said, not actually sounding sorry at all, “but how the smite did you two find us?”
Toke stopped laughing as a chill ran down his spine. Boam and Wayli looked at each other and shrugged.
“With elbow grease and a little bit of magic? Boam quipped.
Toke shook his head. “No, really. How did you find us?”
“We've been covering our tracks in every way imaginable,” said Zashiel. “If you two were able to find us, that means Toke is in serious danger.”
Toke sighed at her choice of words. On the other side of the room, though, Wayli frowned.
“We didn't find you,” she admitted, “not really. All we did was follow the bounty hunters. Every time they got a lead, we would follow them.”
Toke's mouth fell open a little bit.
“You two spent the last year stalking bounty hunters?” Zashiel asked with hands on her hips. “Well, I can see why you were friends with Toke, then.”
Toke spun around. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“One year ago, you were playing with jido crystals. They follow people around who can kill them without breaking a sweat. Clearly, all three of you are insane.”
Boam puffed out his chest. “And—”
“You've done that one already,” Wayli interrupted him.
Boam let the air out in a sigh.
Zashiel looked the two of them over with a disdainful eye, and then shook her head.
“Whatever. I'm sure Toke was happy to see you, but now,” she grabbed him by the shoulder, “we've got to go. Stop following us.”
She began to drag him back toward the window, but their progress was suddenly halted when Boam grabbed Toke's other arm.
“Now, just hold on a smiting minute!” he yelled, digging his heels into the floor. “We spent a whole year looking for him. You're not going to—whoop!”
Zashiel gave a sharp tug on Toke's shoulder, sending Boam falling flat on his face.
Looking back at him, Toke sighed.
“Zashiel, wait,” he said.
“No,” she snapped back. “We've wasted too much time already.”
“I said...” Toke increased his weight so much that the floor underneath him creaked, and even the Sorakine girl had trouble moving him. “Wait.”
Zashiel looked back at him in shock.
“They're my friends,” he said stubbornly. “They were all I had before I met you. I'm not just going to walk away from them like they're nothing but trash.”
Zashiel glared at him for a few seconds, but then her expression softened a bit. “Toke,” she said more gently this time, “we can't bring them with us. It's too dangerous.”
“I know,” he sighed. “But at least let me explain that to them, okay?”
Zashiel hesitated, and then finally nodded and let go of his shoulder. Toke took a deep breath, braced himself, and then turned to face his friends. Boam was still picking himself up off the floor, while Wayli nervously bounced on her heels on the other side of the room.
“So, um,” he stuttered, scratching his head. Smite it, what was he supposed to say? “It's good to see you guys.”
“It's good to see you too, Toke,” Wayli said, taking a tentative step toward him. She gave Zashiel a wary look, and Toke obliged by taking a couple steps toward them himself, so they wouldn't have to be so close to his fearsome protector.
“You're looking a lot better than the last time I saw you,” he said, cracking a smile.
Wayli laughed. “Not like that's hard. I was still unconscious when you did that... thing you did.”
“I had to push her in a wheelchair the first couple months of our search,” Boam said. His face turned pink and he looked away, uncharacteristically bashful. “Until she was able to walk on her own again.”
“I had to learn fast,” Wayli exclaimed with a laugh. “He pushed it right into a mud pit in the Garsham Swamps!”
“I was motivating you!” Boam shot back. He crossed his arms with a huff.
“Looks like it worked,” Toke noted.
“Because I'm a genius!”
The three of them broke down laughing again. Toke had to put his hands on his knees, his head spinning from all the laughter. He hadn't felt like this since... since the last time he'd been with Wayli and Boam, he realized. He liked Zashiel—no, he loved her. And he loved his parents too. But being with them wasn't the same as being with his best friends. Wayli and Boam had a way of making even the most morbid of situations seem funny.
He wasn't going to enjoy sending them away.
“Listen guys,” he said once the laughter had died down. Boam and Wayli looked at him with expectant eyes. Wide, innocent, expectant eyes.
They haven't seen the things I have, or done the things I've done, he thought. They're still innocent, and they need to stay that way.
He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “It's good to see you. I- I needed a good laugh. Thank you. But…” he paused. “You two need to go home now.”
“What?” they both exclaimed in perfect harmony.
“I'm serious,” he insisted. He made a fist, and his injured hand tingled with the strain. “This isn't a game. You two had to follow a smiting bounty hunter to find me! Zashiel and I are wanted dead or alive by Yasmik and the Sorakines. If you stay with us, they'll come after you too.”
“Well, yeah,” Boam agreed. “So?”
Toke held out his hands. “So? So I'm not going to put you in that kind of danger!”
“We're already in that kind of danger, aren't we?” Wayli pointed from them to him. “You know, just by being here?”
“And I plan on getting you out of it as soon as possible. Zashiel and I are leaving, and you guys can't come with us.”
If Zashiel had plucked one of her feathers during the silence that followed that revelation, Toke swore he could have heard it hit the floor.
“You don't like us anymore,” Boam finally said.
Toke spun around and grabbed two big fistfuls of his hair. “Holy smite, no!” he yelled. “That's not it! I just don't want you two to get killed, all right?
“He knows,” Wayli said disapprovingly, and whacked Boam on the arm again. “He's just jerking your chain.”
Boam looked away. “Y- Yeah...”
“But seriously, we spent a whole year looking for you, Toke. We're not leaving now that we've finally found you!”
Toke looked to Zashiel for help, but the Sorakine girl merely raised her eyebrows challengingly as if to say, “What? Now you want my help?”
He pointed at the window they'd come through. “You two are going to walk away, get back on the first boat to Yasmik, and forget you ever saw me.”
Wayli's eyes widened, but she folded her arms stubbornly. “We're coming with you.”
“No, you're not.”
“Yes, we are,” Boam argued, folding his arms as well.
Toke looked at his friends and, with a sigh, he hung his head. He'd known this wasn't going to be easy. Wayli and Boam were as loyal of friends as anyone could find. In any other circumstances that would have been a good thing, but here, now, all it meant was that forcing them to turn around and go home would be one of the hardest things he'd ever done—with no exaggeration. Clenching his fists, he steeled himself for what he knew he had to do.
“All right, fine.”
Toke's head shot back up in surprise. Those words hadn't come out of his mouth—they'd come out of Zashiel's. Everyone spun around to look at the scowling Sorakine girl.
“Come again?” Toke asked.
“You heard me,” she snapped, suddenly looking very self-conscious now that everyone was staring at her. “They can come.”
Slowly, Toke shook his head. “No, I don't believe I heard you. It sounded like you just said—”
“Smite it, Toke!” Zashiel stomped her foot so hard that the floorboards cracked. “Your friends can come with us!”
Forgetting Wayli and Boam for the minute, Toke stormed over to her, spreading his arms. “Why? You were the first one to say it was too dangerous!”
Zashiel looked at the two interlopers. “Because they'd come after us anyway. Wouldn't you?”
“In a heartbeat!” Boam exclaimed.
Zashiel nodded. “And there's nothing we can say or do to convince them otherwise.” She narrowed her eyes. “Except kill them.”
“Which I'm obviously not going to do!” she said. This was the most aggravated Toke had ever seen her. She paused and closed her eyes. “So we may as well save ourselves the trouble and make them useful.”
She crossed the room, brushing past Toke, to stand in front of Boam. With quick, nimble hands, she reached out and started squeezing arms. Seeing this, Toke was immediately taken back to the day, more than a year ago now, when he'd first met Zashiel. She had done the same thing to him just before asking him to....
Make them useful?
Panic flooded his mind. “Zashiel, no! Absolutely not!”
This time, even Zashiel looked taken aback by his outburst. “What's your problem? I just want to—”
Toke leveled his finger at Zashiel's face. “You are not turning them into Juryokines.”
Zashiel blinked in surprise. “Turn them into what?”
Toke groaned and began drumming his fingers on his skull. “Look,” he finally said, “I'm not mad at your for turning me, okay? You did it for a good reason, and we ended up saving Hashira because of it. But there's no reason to turn Wayli and Boam too. All that would do is give Klevon another target to chase.”
The room fell silent again.
“What just happened?” he heard Boam whisper to Wayli.
“I don't know,” she whispered back. “Shh!”
Zashiel frowned and slowly, defensively, folded her arms in front of her chest again.
“I'm not stupid, Toke,” she said. The look in her eyes was dark. “I know we can't make them Juryokines. I never even wanted to. But if you'll use your head, you might recall that Captain Treyn is only letting us on the Swordfish if we work for him.”
Comprehension dawned on Toke, and he slapped his forehead. “And he won't let them on unless they work too!”
Zashiel nodded brusquely. Suddenly, Toke's head was spinning for a whole different reason. How could he have been so stupid?
“But even so, you really want to bring them?” he asked, collecting himself. “Even with the hunters chasing us? Even with your sister?”
Zashiel went rigid when he mentioned Finch, and then set her face in a grim scowl. “If you want to leave them behind, fine. Tell them.”
Toke stepped back, blinking in surprise.
“You're not going to do that,” Boam said hesitantly from the other side of the room. “Right, Toke?”
Smite you, Zashiel, he thought, deflating with a sign. You know I can't.
“No,” he said out loud, finally turning back to his friends. “You can come.”
Zashiel nodded again. “Good. You take them back to the shop. I'll go tell Treyn he has two more workers.”
A pit formed in Toke's stomach. Her words were coming out too quickly, her movements too stiff. She was still mad at him. Zashiel put one foot out the window, but stopped when Toke dashed over and grabbed her hand.
“Zashiel, wait,” he said softly, leaning in closer to her. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. I just...” he sighed and hung is head. “I don't have an excuse, but I am sorry.”
She frowned at him, and in that frown Toke saw, not irritation, surprisingly, but disappointment.
“I know you didn't mean it,” she said, with one foot on the dock and one still on the floor inside. “But after all we've been through, I can't believe you still don't trust me!”
Toke's face turned a shade redder. “Of course I trust you. I went in smiting exile to save you and your entire race!”
With a quick yank, Zashiel pulled her hand free of Toke's. “And yet, the first thing you assumed when I looked at your friend was that I was going to turn him into a Juryokine.”
“I...” he sighed. “You're right. I'm sorry.” Looking pleadingly into her eyes, he asked, “How can I make it up to you?”
A hint of a smile played on Zashiel's mouth, but then it was gone and she was just as stone faced as ever. “You don't have to make it up to me, Toke. I'm in your debt, and I always will be. You know that.”
Before Toke could protest, tell her that's not what he wanted, she was out the window.
“Take them back to the hideout,” she said, slipping her hair back into her stocking cap. “Keep them safe.”
Looking at her through that window, Toke had to clench his injured fist, making it flair with pain, lest he reach out for her again. With a final nod farewell, Zashiel turned and walked away. She didn't fly, for fear of attracting the attention of her sister, and her wings stayed tucked inside her grimy jacket.
“See you later,” he muttered.
NEXT TIME: Dun dun dun dunnnnn! You found a Wayli and Boam! Good at telling jokes and possibly dying horrible. Target your enemy with the Z button to stun them with a horrible joke.