Begley was out of the doctor’s office in an hour, an hour Cúmhaí had spent pacing the waiting room and irritating all of the other nervous or unhappy people who’d filled and over-filled the room. Some she recognized as other new students, others were upperclassmen. One of those, Brontes, leered cheerfully at Cúmhaí and reached out for her, only to find his hand slapped down by an invisible force.
“He’s got ideas,” she faux-apologized. “Whoever he is.”
“That’s all right. If all he has is ideas, I’m sure I could come up with something more interesting.”
“That’s definitely a possibility. But, on the other hand, you’re here because of someone, aren’t you? And it’s probably not your little brother…”
“You’re here because of your brother? On Hell Night?” Brontes’ brow wrinkled. “Seriously? I mean, You’re pretty cute, nobody—”
An invisible clearing throat caught Brontes’ attention. “Oh, you did? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did not. But the young lady here — young woman,” the voice corrected, at an angry glare from Cúmhaí — fought very well, and her brother did as well.”
Cúmhaí’s glare — which was pointed at the sound of the voice, so it did not matter that she could feel the space he took up in the room — lessened only faintly at the praise. “I’m glad you approve.”
“You really were impressive. After four years here, I’ll be interested to see — from a distance, preferably — what you can do.” The voice chuckled. “But I’ll be going now, before Brontes’ slow brains finally figure out who I am, and he gives away the game. Miss Cúmhaí, I assume I will be seeing you, if not the other way around.”
“It’s a small school.” It might not have been the most encouraging reply, but she wasn’t all that sure that she wanted to encourage this guy.
She watched his shape leave the room and gave Brontes a thin smile. “I should go check on my brother. I hope whoever you’ve got here, you’re good to them.” She found her voice growling a bit at the end, but hey, if he’d been chasing people down like she’d been being chased, he deserved it. “They deserve it, if you landed them here.”
Brontes had nothing to say to that, and she had nothing more to say to him.
He might have been the only one with nothing to say to her in the next few days. The first thing she got was angry accusations — why had Begely rescued her, what was her relationship to him, why wasn’t she wearing his collar?
Cúmhaí’s patience was wearing thin. She had barely managed not to punch the last guy who’d asked her about a collar, and she had shown her teeth to several. It seemed to be making them back off, but the questions kept sneaking in, in between classes, during class, in the lunch room. Over half of her Cohort was wearing collars, maybe a quarter of them had a spooked look, some had bruises. And people wanted to ask her what she’d done?
Worse still, they were getting in her way. She could feel all the people filling up space, but when they got too close together, they became one amorphous space-blob. It was like the closer people’s faces got together, the more they faded, until they were one unidentifiable mess.
Her new power, Cúmhaí thought, might not have been the prettiest thing.
“So, what is it with you and this Begely kid?” another unfortunate soul asked. “I hear he helped to rescue you, and you him, on Hell Night?”
Cúmhaí turned to answer with a snarl already twisting her lips. “He’s my brother… oh.”
The man asking was tall, handsome in a slightly-creepy way, with pale skin and black hair, and too well-dressed for a school. He was raising one eyebrow inquisitively at her. “Oh?”
Cúmhaí grinned. She’d checked out the expression in a mirror, and with her new Change, it was pleasantly terrifying. “You know, if you’re trying to be all sneaky and hidden, it helps if you don’t sound like the husband in some gothic novel or something. I mean, nobody else here sounds quite that full of themselves.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He looked, she thought, offended.
She smiled even wider. “So, I’m not sure if I should thank you for the help or yell at you for hurting my brother. ‘Cause I wouldn’t have needed help if you hadn’t attacked me and thrown him across the room — but, on the other hand, everyone was attacking everyone.”
“I heard that you were quite impressive Saturday morning. I — nobody expected you to hold out that long, or to fight that hard. Or to be able to fight an invisible opponent.”
Cúmhaí found herself grinning. He thought she was impressive, did she? She let the teeth show and turned the grin into something more like a snarl. “Something everyone here should know about my family — since we’re talking about rumors and stuff people ‘just heard’ here — we don’t give up and we watch our own. Begely might be a pain in the ass, but he’s my brother, and we watch after each other, no matter what.”
“I am certain everyone will be keeping that in mind,” he answered solemnly. “Especially after his defense of you, especially after the way you reacted when he was attacked in turn.”
Cúmhaí eyed him cautiously. “I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me,” she admitted.
He smirked. “I am not. Generally, that is accompanied by some sort of snicker or chortle.”
“…do you always sound like this? I mean, come on, it’s a school, you’re a student. Unless you’re secretly a professor in disguise? That would explain a lot.”
“What would it explain?” He raised his eyebrows in such a perfect fashion it had to be magic.
“Well, the fact that everyone else was trying to cause damage or put a collar around someone’s neck and you, well, didn’t — you helped us out. Or the way you talk. Or the fact that you’re pretending it’s not you, when I can… smell that it’s you.”
“Smell?” His nostrils flared. “That’s certainly a useful set of Changes you’ve gotten there.”
“Yeah, yeah, dogbird. Call me a puppy and I’ll make sure you need a rabies shot.”
“You know what happens to dogs who bite humans, don’t you?”
“You were much more charming before you started in on the threatening.” Cúmhaí showed her teeth. “Now you’re just like everyone else here.”
“I hate to sound juvenile, but… you did start it.” He didn’t look like he hated it. He looked amused by the whole thing.
“I’m the one with an animal Change. What’s your excuse?”
“My excuse? I have none. I was simply trying to gossip with you about your luck on Hell Night.” His smile looked slightly wrong, too sharp or too big or too thin or maybe all three.
“We both know it wasn’t luck. It was Begely, anger, and you.” It grated on her to credit him, yet, at the same time, he had helped more than a little.
“You keep insisting I was there.”
Cúmhaí growled as she stepped up into his face and grabbed the collar of his shirt with both hands. He was taller than her by almost a whole head, but when she pulled him towards her, it leveled the playing field a bit. “I keep insisting,” she snarled, “because I know it was you. The question is why you keep pretending you weren’t there.”
“Ah.” He looked down at her, eyebrows quirking, and coughed. “Maybe I wanted you to have to work a little harder to find your rescuer. Perhaps I wanted a chance to observe you when you weren’t under stress. It is possible I just like being mysterious.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “And it wasn’t because you were trying to figure out how to get a collar on me without having to permanently incapacitate Begely?”
“Miss Cúmhaí, I am fairly certain that, if I wanted to collar you, incapacitating your brother would only then mean that I would have to incapacitate you as well. No, I — can we speak somewhere more private?”
“About you collaring me? I don’t think so.”
“No.” He cleared his throat and shrugged his shoulders forward. “I was thinking more about talking about not collaring you,” he whispered. “But that’s a conversation that will anger people more than, say, your good relationship with your brother or the way you managed to survive Hell Night free and intact.”
“You seem like the sort of person that can take care of yourself. And I…”
He quirked an eyebrow, seeming to guess what she hadn’t said, and why. “You did, once. With support. Can you handle yourself against a whole crew of upperclassmen intent on putting you and your brother in your places?”
“Can you?” she countered.
“Ah, well, that is the question, isn’t it? And a quite important one for both of us.” He nodded and gestured down the hall. “Shall we talk?”
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