Chapter 22
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Then: As if from afar

Aidri pushed open the great oak doors to the chamber and I followed. For once he did not have an insult for me. He did not speak at all.

Our footsteps were quiet against the stone of the ground, and our feet were bare.

The chamber was tall, but not too large. We could have crossed from one end to the other in ten steps. It was lit only by a candle in each corner, held by the trainer who sat there. Two of the trainers came from our classes. Two I had not seen before. A line of others stood at the side of the wall, shrouded in white, their faces covered. They were here to help, but to me they looked like wraiths, come to watch and to laugh.

I tried to see if Aidri was nervous, but I couldn’t read the line of his shoulders or the curve of his eyebrows. Against my will the movement of his face and the shape of his body had become familiar to me, but he was different here. Maybe we all were, in this candle light, in this room.

The circle on the ground was twice the size of those in the practice rooms, made of big swooping letters. Shadows gathered in its center. I couldn’t fully tell if they came from the candles, or from a different place.

We stopped at the edge of the circle.

The wraiths came up to us. They smeared the two lines of red across Aidri’s cheeks, and across those of the trainer who stood and walked to the center of the circle.

They said his first name, not his last. They told him to walk, and he did, straight forward across the letters until he stood by the trainer in the center of the circle.

There, he knelt. She knelt with him.

I watched from the edge of the circle. Aidri pressed his palms against the floor, and when his eyes closed, the ground turned glass clear. The trainer placed her left hand over his right. No shadows licked up his arms today, but I could imagine them still. The shape and feel of them.

"Make the call," she said.

I watched him, and counted my breaths. He didn’t furrow his brow like Drew, or squeeze his eyes shut tight like Marianne. He was perfectly still. It was hard to believe he’d made a call at all, though he must have. When I reached my third breath, black plumes blossomed out of the ground. They enveloped Aidri and the trainer. In less than the space of breath, I couldn’t see them anymore.

Somehow that brought me no relief. I thought I saw other shadows moving in that fog, thought I heard growling, high-pitched yowls, and a sound closer to a child’s cry than an animal’s.

"Don’t move," the trainer closest to me said. As if I didn’t know better. "It’s going well."

I was insulted, until I saw that I had shifted my weight forward, as if to step into the circle. That was strange. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me.

I didn’t cross that threshold, but I didn’t step back either. I don’t think I could’ve moved.

In front of us, the fog evaporated wisp by wisp. Within that dissipating haze, I saw them. Two of them, gleaming as if touched by the moon. Their fur rippled, brushed by wind I couldn’t feel. Their ears were large and pointed, and their eyes flashed gold.

When the fog was gone, Aidri rose.

"They are yours," the trainer by him said. Her eyes were ghoul-like in the candlelight, liquid large with wonder.

The lines on Aidri's cheeks had settled like blood. He reached out his hands, and touched them. I watched, as if from afar.

 


 

Now: Control him

The CEO waves me over after practice. I hadn’t thought much of it when he showed up, even though he doesn’t often come to watch. I assumed he'd come to check if Nikolai had made good on his promise of teamwork. Apparently, I was wrong.

I feel a stirring of unease. My boss won’t like it if she hears that the CEO’s come to talk to me without her.

He walks me over to an empty meeting room, and closes the door behind us. "Ringo, did you know about this?"

On his phone, not even on the app itself, but on a link to the mobile website version of the app, is Aidri's post with his old teammate. A bland catching up with one of the best captions the post. It sounds nothing like the Aidri in my head.

"I've seen it," I say.

"And you didn't think to tell me?"

"I wouldn't want to waste your time," I say. "Sir," I add belatedly.

"Ringo, Ringo, these matters are important," he says, waving his hands in the air like an orchestra conductor, though he’s got none of the skill, and less of the finesse. "What do you think the reporters would think about him running off to consort with his old teammates?" We don't need to question what the reporters would think. The headlines have already come out. They're better than I expected, but it's not like I can tell Robert that we've staved off a bigger fire.

He's probably seen the most common ones: After a disappointing opening friendly, is Aidri transferring back to SI? and Are SI's Carrie and Carat's Aidri dating? What does this mean for the future of both teams?

"I cannot impress on you enough how important maintaining Aidri's image is to us."

What image? I want to ask, but I am smart enough to keep my comments to myself. Ruthless attacker? Insatiable player? Because I can make both of those work. But if it's a clean-cut play-by-the-book star that Robert wants, Aidri's never been that, and it won’t help any of us to pretend. It's not what he's loved for.

"We already have a statement to deny that they're dating," I say.

"Good."

He makes a casual reach for my shoulder. I take a casual side step—wow, is that something outside the window? So interesting—and the reach misses. He pretends not to notice, and I pretend with him.

"Now, Ringo, I'm not trying to pressure you, understand."

I understand. This is the prelude to pressure.

When I say nothing, he clears his throat. "But you must control him."

I nod. That seems to satisfy him, which is laughable, really.

 


 

Then, but later: I was bleeding

I was bleeding.

The blood was not red. It was black, and it billowed into the air.

It was all I saw.

 


 

Then: The ground beneath our fingers

They called my name, both my first and last. I wasn’t afraid when I walked up, and hardly felt the wet powder they smeared on my cheeks. We were still riding high on the wave of Aidri's success. I thought I’d hate to witness it, but there’s something special about the binding of a spirit. Something more special about this moment, when he’d bound two. Even I couldn’t deny it.

The trainer who stood by me raised his hand toward Aidri. "Come," he said.

I was confused. Aidri was too, from the downturn of his mouth, but he walked over to us. The powder was reapplied to his cheeks.

The trainer led us both into the center of the circle. I felt like a sheep, led to the pen, unlike Aidri who’d been allowed to walk there on his own.

"Kneel," the trainer said.

I did without dignity, and tried to be glad he had no other speech to give.

I heard static once my knees hit the ground, though that should’ve been impossible. Maybe it was part imagined. I was glad I hadn’t taken the pill. It wasn’t a loss, since my chances had been close to nil already. I had repeated this to myself almost enough to believe it.

And already, the static was loud.

I was glad I was on my knees. There they could not see me shake.

Another set of knees descended beside mine. I glanced to the side, expecting to see the trainer, but it was Aidri. The trainer's hand guided him down, and his downturned mouth became a frown.

I pretended he wasn’t there. It was easier than normal, with the static buzzing in my head. They told me to press my hands against the ground, and I did. I didn’t hesitate—I was eager to get it over with.

I don’t remember if the ground was hot or cold, smooth or lined with the whorls of wood. I only remember that the static became so loud I thought it must have started vibrating inside of me.

The trainer took Aidri’s hands and pulled them over mine. "What—" Aidri said.

"Quiet," the trainer said. He covered both of hands with his.

We shared a mute horror, Aidri and I. Me because Aidri could feel me shake, Aidri because he had to touch the taint of my incompetence, and both of us because we knew this was wrong, but didn’t understand why.

"Open the door," the trainer said.

I tried. There was a part of me that still wanted it, then.

I tried to listen to the static, but I heard no voices, I saw no change in the ground beneath my hands. The world before my eyes felt insubstantial. Clearer to me were the little beetles that started spawning under my skin the more I tried to listen to this broken-TV-noise, this nothing-sound. I could see them scuttling around in the space between my flesh and my skin, and though no one would’ve believed me, I was sure they were there. I was sure that only something alive could crawl under my skin like this.

"I can't do this," I said. I didn’t care that the trainer turned aside in disgust. I couldn’t register Aidri's incredulous laugh.

I needed to get away. I needed to escape. I tried to wrench my hands up from the ground, but the trainer’s hands were pressed firmly over Aidri's and mine.

"Open the door, Aidri," the trainer said.

Aidri's head whipped to the side. I'm not sure if he argued—I wasn’t paying much attention to him by then. I think I made another attempt to yank my hands off the ground. It was hard to tell. My arms felt weak, swollen with moving beetle legs.

The beetles would soon make it up into my skull, and I couldn’t understand why the trainer would sit by and let this happen.

I think the trainer might’ve said something else. I either didn’t listen or don’t remember. I do remember that our hands were warm. And that the ground beneath our fingers became clear.

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