“We’re trying to control the situation,” said Winters. He sat with his hands folded neatly together on the desk, his face and suit framed by the black leather of his executive chair. “But I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of anger. In the last twenty-four hours, the Academy has received a lot of very… concerned correspondence.”
Jane said nothing. She’d said nothing the entire time she’d been in Winters’ office, her face set and her arms crossed. The empath had sat through enough of these conversations to recognise that her input was not required.
Winters’ grey-blue eyes examined her. “You’ve hardly had a trouble-free time here. And with your record…” He trailed off, as if waiting for Jane to supply a defence or explanation. When none came, he broke off his gaze.
“But then again,” he continued, debating more with himself than her, “Your comportment during recent… field exercises was nothing but satisfactory. And your other incidents, well, they could hardly be said to be outside the ambit of normal Academy activities. And events prior to your attendance, well, they’re less relevant…”
“Am I getting expelled?” interrupted Jane, already knowing the answer and getting sick of Winters’ rambling. She wasn’t, obviously – even if Winters or anyone else wanted her gone, Captain Dawn wanted her here and his word was gospel. The administrator frowned.
“It’s Academy policy never to expel anyone unless they’ve engaged in criminal conduct,” he said.
“And have I?” she demanded.
“No,” Winters conceded, although it didn’t sound like much of a concession, “And I’m glad you haven’t, because expelling you now would benefit no one.”
Jane narrowed her eyes, suspicious at the finely groomed man seemingly being on her side.
“The Legion harbouring an empath is bad publicity,” explained Winters, rolling a pen between his fingers. “The Legion harbouring an empath who then gets expelled is worse. Not only are we made to look fallible, but it then looks like you, in addition to having come here and learnt our secrets, have become too much to handle and gone ‘rogue’.” He used his fingers to put the last word in inverted commas. “To the man on the street that’s practically a template for supervillainy.”
“So if you’re not kicking me out,” growled Jane, “Why are we here?”
Winters paused and pursed his fingers together in front of his lips, his pale eyes contemplating her.
“I want you,” he said finally, lowering his hands, “To be aware of the… delicacies of this situation. The Legion enjoys a privileged place in the court of public opinion – a position we’d like to maintain. Right now the world thinks you’ve managed to trick us into taking you-” Jane bristled at the accusation, but Winters raised a pacifying palm, “-which you haven’t, but which undermines our reputation nonetheless. Our end goal is to develop you into an obvious asset, which removes the doubt from our credibility and reinforces our foresight.” He paused, then said, in a somewhat conciliatory tone, “You handled yourself well in Albania. All we want is more of that.”
Jane strained for a few moments. “So… what? Work hard?” she eventually replied, mentally sifting for meaning through the managerial jargon.
“And keep your head down,” concluded Winters, “The quickest way this story dies is if we give it nothing to work with. All scandals are old news in two weeks.”
He glanced idly down at a stack of papers arranged neatly on his desk. “The Academy will break for Thanksgiving in just under a fortnight, as is tradition, and-”
“Why?” Jane interjected, “Why is it tradition?” Winters looked annoyed at the interruption.
“Captain Dawn’s late wife Caitlin considered it important,” he explained impatiently, “She felt that it was non-denominational enough of a holiday not to alienate the Legion’s many international members. She also just generally liked the idea, and any idea she liked Captain Dawn tended to like too. But the ‘why’ is less relevant-” he added, looking across the desk, “-than the fact that no classes will be held for that period, providing all Acolytes with several days of free time.”
“I don’t get it,” said Jane.
“Then listen,” Winters replied curtly, “And if you stop interrupting, I’ll explain.” He clasped his well-manicured hands in front of his chin. “So called ‘photo-journalists’ have taken up residence outside the grounds – expecting to catch a glimpse of you, presumably, but nevertheless a nuisance for all of us. Captain Dawn has personally expressed his displeasure at their presence and I have, on his behalf, conveyed to the major media outlets that anyone found violating Legion land or airspace forfeits their safety.” He smiled wryly. “Not that they’ll all listen, but it should give the Acolytes new targets for stress relief.”
He raised a finger in warning. “Nevertheless, stay out of sight. The last thing we need is some new photograph of you from which the tabloids can run wild.”
“They’re trying to take photos of me?” balked Jane, appalled at this fresh hell. “Why? What do they expect me to do?”
“It doesn’t matter what they expect,” explained Winters with only a trace of impatience, “And what you actually do will change nothing. Any picture they get will tell a thousand words, and those thousand words will be written by a sensationalist who would claim that cows were cockroaches if they thought it would boost circulation.”
“As most Academy activities are held away from the public eye,” he continued, “I’m not overly concerned about your photographic safety during training. However in the Thanksgiving period I suggest you utilise your free time in an exclusively private capacity. For the remainder of this month, I want you unseen.”
“That might be a problem,” Jane replied dryly, “Considering I may occasionally need to step outside.”
“Cover yourself up.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want me committing crimes,” derided Jane, “Concealing my mark is illegal.”
“That it is,” remarked Winters, staring at her intently through narrowed eyes, “However, as a pyromancer, it is an essential skill that you be able to engulf yourself in flames. Should you choose to practice this skill in an informal setting, say, on your way between classes, the fact that it may – heaven forbid – obscure your identity could only ever be seen as unintentional and in the context, permissible, being incidental to your education.” He paused. “Am I clear?”
“Nobody can see who you are if you’re on fire and it’s not your fault if teacher told you to.”
“More or less.”
“Fine.” She rose to leave. “Anything else?”
“One more thing,” said Winters. He paused, and leant back in his chair. “Captain Dawn has asked me to pass a message onto you personally.”
Jane’s heart leapt at the unexpected news. “What?” she asked, throat suddenly constricted.
“He requests your presence at, quote, ‘the same place as last time, midnight, Thursday after Thanksgiving’,” the administrator repeated. He folded his arms and looked at her with unspoken scepticism. For her part, Jane’s mind was already racing in a dozen different directions, enthralled at the possibilities.
“What…” she stammered, aware of the administrator’s piercing gaze and trying to sound unconcerned, “What did he… did he say why?”
“No,” said Winters, his mouth pursed slightly, “But from what I could gather from our brief conversation, I believe he wants to train you.”
Jane’s pulse was so loud she swore half the mansion could hear it. “Me?”
“Yes you,” said Winters, and even through her excitement Jane could hear the trepidation and displeasure in his voice, “And no, before you ask, I don’t know why.”
Jane didn’t either but she didn’t care. It took every ounce of her restraint not to run skipping from the room. “Is that all sir?”
“For now,” he said. Jane turned to leave, a giddy smile almost hurting her face, but before she could reach the door Winters’ voice rang out. “Miss Walker.”
Jane turned around. “Yes sir?”
Winters stared at her impassively, leaning back in his chair, cool and composed. “If you even so much as think of trying to take his powers, I will kill you myself,” he stated calmly, in the same tone one would use to discuss the weather. Jane recoiled, feeling like she’d been doused with ice water, but Winters did not meet her stunned gaze.
“That is all,” he dismissed, before she could even open her mouth to reply, having already leant forward and returned pen to paperwork.
“I always wanted a nice camera,” crooned Giselle, holding up the brand new, jet-black, top of the line Canon in the light of the Hall, “It’s so pretty. I wonder how fast it can take photos.”
“Probably not as fast as you can press the button,” wagered Wally from the bench beside her, through a mouthful of sausage, “Careful running with it, you’re liable to crack the lens.”
“Duh,” laughed the speedster, “I’m not stupid. It’s the same as a phone.”
“Though substantially cheaper,” said Matt, and the entire table laughed.
Word that the paparazzi lurking around Morningstar’s grounds were fair game had come down from Ashes administration almost as soon as word had got out that there were paparazzi lurking around the grounds to begin with. So far, Giselle was leading the scoreboard with a tally of six cameras, although Ryan Mitchell and his invisibility was a close second. Between spoons of mashed potatoes, Matt was in the middle of setting up an illegal betting pool.
“Winners on the same pick split the winnings,” he explained to Odette Dodecan, who nodded her understanding and made a hasty fluttering of gestures with her hands. Matt gazed at the sign‑language blankly. “Ed?”
“She says ‘when do you decide the winner?’,” answered the stubble-ridden genius beside him, not looking up from the book he was pretending to read while in fact covertly eyeing Giselle.
“Thanks. Sorry,” Matt turned back to Odette, smiling apologetically, “My cousin’s got hyper‑voice, you’d think my ASL would be better.” The cute Greek girl just smiled and shook her head as if to tell him it was okay. “Pot matures once we go a whole week with no one finding any more paparazzi, first-second-third goes sixty-twenty-ten. You want in?”
Odette nodded emphatically and pressed Matt sixty dollars, pointing over the table at the dark shape of a familiar gigantic figure.
“James Conrad?” Matt let out a low whistle and wrote Odette’s wager in his notepad. “Popular bet tonight, popular bet. Well, best of luck to you.”
“Just because he made a ruckus,” Ed grumbled to no one in particular. ‘Ruckus’ was apparently the genius’s preferred term for identifying a group of four photographers nested together in a patch of dense woodland and promptly charging through said woodland, scattering the unfortunate freelancers and the trees around them like a bowling ball through tenpins. Matt for one found it hilarious, and enjoyed seeing the path of arboreal devastation now visible from the Grand Hall and listening to James’s laughter as he pulled pen-sized splinters from his shoulders. Ed seemed to take a dimmer view.
“He could’ve hurt someone,” the genius muttered sourly.
“Ed relax, they’re paparazzi, not people,” replied Matt, feeling the satisfying weight of cash money in his pocket as Odette shuffled back down the benches towards her regular group of friends. Ed looked at him.
“Isn’t this a little unfair?” he commented, indicating Matt’s betting book, “You already know who’s going to win.”
“No I don’t,” Matt replied honestly, then added (less honestly), “My visions are vague. Big ticket items. This is just little stuff. Harmless fun.” When Ed didn’t look particularly convinced, he raised his hands in mock defence. “And anyway, I’m not betting. I’m simply the facilitator. Impartial and unbiased.”
“So no hot tips then?” Ed half-joked.
“Shame on you,” Matt chided him, “I cannot believe you would seek to corrupt my impeccable morality. Now are you going to use that big brain of yours to get in on this sweet, sweet action, or are you too smart to gamble?”
Ed hesitated, then reached into his pocket.
“That’s the spirit,” smiled Matt.
“Twenty on Giselle,” the genius bet, quietly sliding the note along the bench.
“Putting your money where you’d like your mouth to be I see,” Matt teased, low enough so as not to be heard amongst the noise of the Hall but nevertheless causing Ed’s face to turn a delightful shade of pink. He was saved the embarrassment of having to respond by Jane’s arrival, which as usual triggered the customary recoiling and whispers from everyone nearby with whom she wasn’t on first-name terms.
“Ah, the celebrity in our midst,” he said with a smile, ignoring the muttering, “The patron of my industry.” He nodded significantly down at the betting book. “Care to place your own wager?”
“No,” Jane replied. She began helping herself to the dinner rolls on his plate.
“No please, go right ahead, I didn’t even want those,” said Matt. Jane just grunted, her mouth already full of bread. “You sure you don’t want to make a bet?”
“I said no,” she snapped.
“Alright, alright,” said Matt, holding up his hands, trying to be placating, “What’s going on? You seem more irritable than usual.”
Jane swallowed a lump of bread. “Winters won’t let me go outside unless I’m on fire,” she complained, her face taunt and grumpy, before tearing at a fresh roll with her teeth.
“Well see, that’s not so bad, you’re a pyromancer. If he told me that I’d find it significantly more concerning.”
“And I can’t go outside during Thanksgiving,” she continued, ignoring his feeble attempt at humour.
“No classes during Thanksgiving,” Ed answered, chiming in, “I’d guess he wants to keep her away from the paparazzi.”
“You’re not going home?” Matt asked, genuinely shocked, “How’re you not going home?” When Jane only shrugged he shook his head in disbelief. “Man, what the hell. My mom would murder me if I missed Turkey Day.” He paused, waiting for a response, but none came, so he added, “Plus, you know, free food.”
“All the food you eat is free,” said Ed, squinting at him.
“Shush,” shushed Matt.
“Thanksgiving isn’t big in my family,” Jane said, staring straight ahead.
“But you still do, like, dinner and stuff, right?” Matt asked her.
“Nope,” grunted Jane, still just blank-faced and eating buns, “Never.”
Jane shrugged. “Maybe once. A long time ago. I can’t remember.”
Matt shook his head, appalled – and then was suddenly struck by an idea.
“Come to mine!”
This actually made Jane break out of her thousand-yard stare and look at him, albeit as if he was insane. “What?”
“Yeah, come to mine, have Thanksgiving with my family!”
“I-” she started. Matt could already see the reflex rejection forming in her mouth, so he interrupted before she could get it out.
“Come on, I insist. You, your Dad, your-” he paused, suddenly perplexed, “-wait, do you have siblings? You’ve never mentioned any.”
“No,” replied Jane, off-balance, “But I don’t think-”
“Come on then, it’ll be fun! Won’t even be any extra cooking.”
“No, but, I-” Jane stammered, “I couldn’t- no- I mean-”
“What?” said Matt, mildly revelling in her discomfort, “What possible excuse could you have? You already said you’ve got nothing to do for a few days. Come on, what’s the harm? Have a meal, get out of Morningstar, come meet my family, see where it all went wrong.”
“Well- I don’t- your parents might not- uncomfortable- empath-”
“They already know I’m hanging out with an empath,” Matt dismissed with a wave, “They’re fine with it.” Fine-ish, he added mentally.
“I…” Jane’s voice trailed off, leaving behind only a pained expression. For a few seconds she just sat in exasperated silence, eyeing Matt’s unrelenting smile. Then she held her face in her hands. “If I say no,” she despaired, “You’re just going to harass me about this all month, aren’t you?”
“Yup,” Matt replied sunnily.
“Fine,” groaned Jane. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’ll go. But I swear to God, I’m not wearing any goddamn pilgrim’s hat.”
“Pilgrim’s hat…?” Matt murmured, glancing sideways at Ed. The genius just shook his head. “What do you think people do on- you know what, never mind.” He turned to Ed. “You’d be welcome too.”
“Appreciate the offer,” replied the genius, “But I’m going to stay here, try and hammer out a few projects.”
“What about your family?”
“Dad’s in Dubai on business and Mom’s on a cruise. We’ll conference call.”
“Alright,” said Matt, sounding sceptical, “But don’t just stay locked in your lab for four days.”
“I’m serious man, you need fresh air occasionally. Sunlight. I’d hate to think about your Vitamin D levels .”
“I take a supplement,” Ed replied, already turned back to his book.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).