Stark’s fingers slid down each time she avoided touching anywhere near the hole in Tameri’s chest. Each of the professor’s pained breaths came before garbled speech and were followed by blood spurts from her chest.
“…eed the che…”
“…eart not go…”
“…eed the chest…”
“…art not go…”
“…the chest in…”
“…art not gone y…”
Stark and Rum, to her surprise, handled her unending pain with resolute desires to see it come to an end. Professor Marmagar, on the contrary, was a mess of emotions. Not only did he have to contend with his wounds from the ordeal against her mother and Victa, but his heart was breaking before her very eyes. He and Professor Tameri were already a couple when Stark joined the faculty. While unconnected in the eyes of the law, their love is something Stark had a high opinion of. Not at all like her parents’ relationship.
The ascent to Tameri’s quarters was ghastly, her cries of pain echoing through the dorm. The sight of her wound will plague the students who peeked into the halls in their nightmares for years to come. The foremost authority and power in their time on campus is dying before them. Even more than the war, this sight will deter most if not all of them from returning.
Tameri became more cognizant as they made it to her quarters. She tried to reach for the door but Rum beat her to it.
Tameri forced herself out of their collective grips and stood on her own, the metal in the professor’s spirit Stark hated to be in awe of at that moment.
“…will repair…wound. Ta…take students…away. Will…take…”
Tameri stumbled and caught herself on the doorframe, though her coughing spell worsened. She held a hand up to deter assistance.
“Will take…hours. Do…not…interfere. No vi…visitors.”
“Stop, Rum,” Stark snapped quietly. “She can handle this.”
“Okay,” Rum answered slowly, not entirely convinced.
Tameri whirled in the doorway and stared at each of them with messages written in her exhausted expressions. Stark refused to accept the message she saw by looking down sharply. When she detected Tameri had moved on, she glimpsed a deep appreciation aimed at Rum, no doubt amazed that he stayed with her until this point.
When her eyes met Marmagar’s, a magnetic force tethered the two, expressions of unconditional love, respect, and a promise to reunite burning within.
Marmagar kissed his fingers then held up his pinky, index finger, and thumb. Tameri wiped the blood from his lip and mimicked the sign before shutting the door behind her. The large man turned away from the door and sat down in the hall. His expression now showed a stubbornness to remain in place. Stark possessed no motivation to test it.
“Let’s go, Rum,” Stark commanded, ushering the young man away begrudgingly. She wished to stay, too, but the uncertain future of their relationship comes after her recuperation.
Stark climbs the Ohaida dorm staircase now, ready to face that if need be. The revelation of Neth’s awakening is news she has to deliver personally. She wasn’t here to share in the professors’ turmoil regarding his attack but she will be part of their celebration of his healing. Unlike the other day, Marmagar guards Tameri’s room with Zathony at his side, both with wounds dressed haphazardly.
Professor Zathony shrugs when he realizes her concern. “He wouldn’t leave. I did the best I could.”
Marmagar grunts to assent the statement.
“You’ll have to seek proper treatment while I’m gone. Headmaster Neth is awake.”
The two men are stunned speechless. Zathony drops his crossed arms while Marmagar stands, both their jaws agape.
“Cwen just called me with the news. Lynald is also out of surgery. I’ll deliver more updates as I receive them. I just wanted to deliver the news in person before I head that way. Any updates here?”
“Not by sight. We know she’s still alive. She responds to Marmagar’s knocking every thirty minutes by tapping the door. It’s been touch and go, however. She’s screamed terribly on occasion, and it took all my might to keep the man from breaking down the door,” Zathony elucidates.
“So, she’s conscious?”
“We believe so. It’s been seventeen minutes and forty-four seconds since his last check-in.”
Marmagar swiftly signs to explain that if not for running the risk of distracting her self-surgery, he’d be knocking every five minutes. Stark points to herself then closes her fists and jams her thumb between her middle and index fingers. Marmagar nods appreciatively. She doesn’t look at his exhausted posture with pity but respect. He’s willing to trust her with the love of his life after all he’s gone through. She wants to hope to find that with Tameri.
She raises her fist to knock when the door cracks open slowly.
The officer and the professors behind brace for every scenario in the second between when the door first creaks to the reveal of their colleague. The realization is scarcely better than what they see. Tameri’s still deathly pale, her eyes stricken with bags. However, the hole in her chest is no more, the outer edge visible beneath her collar. The patch of skin is a shade darker but still rather pale.
When the sickly professor speaks, her voice is hoarse. “Stark. Come…in.” She shuffles to the side, her eyes too heavy to move on their own. “Dear. Zathony. Take…c-care of…yourselves. Please.”
Stark waits in place with a hastened heartbeat. This is the true test of whether or not she’s trusted. She releases a long, shallow breath when the footfalls of the men sound off and fade away in the distance shortly after.
Tameri quits her façade that same moment and collapses onto Stark’s shoulder for support, the officer ready to fulfill that role. The room’s floor is sticky with blood, as are the bedsheets and some of the wall. She helps her to her bed and the professor sits on the section with the least bloodstains. Her breathing is terrible but consistent.
“We…need…to talk,” Tameri says.
Stark stays silent.
“I…owe you…an apology.”
Stark looks down again. The message she wants to hear, that Tameri said before…it’s not what she believes she should hear. Her mother’s first attack shattered the friendship they had. This one should have obliterated it to smithereens. She shouldn’t do this. Not to me.
“We are…alike…you and…I. Look–” The sudden force she gives her tone forces her to cough. When Stark lowers to comfort her, Tameri strikes the officer across the face, then holds it so that their eyes lock. “Look…at…me!”
Stark somehow manages to find some scrap of metal in her spirit and obeys.
“I…mistreated you…for too long. I…I should have seen what…Neth saw. I blinded myself…to shield a…weakness…I had. Only…only to lose…myself…in the process.” Tameri jerks her head weirdly to her left. Stark looks over her shoulder at an open chest beside a matching one that remains closed. “Last year…I let my…fear take control. I hid…my heart…away. In case…your mother…returned. I had…a safety…net. My powers…let me…remove my own heart…safely. Takes hours…to remove and…implant.” Tameri lifts a hand to encourage Stark to help her to her feet again. “I can have my…heart inside…around you…again.” Tameri embraces Stark. “I’m sorry…for how I…treated you.”
Stark wraps her arms around the professor gingerly. “No apology necessary.”
Tameri withdraws from the embrace and shakes her head with soft rebuke. “To be…continued.” She pulls a set of keys from her bra and pinches off the one labeled with a “P”. “Open the…other chest.”
Stark unlocks the chest and as the lid pops apart, cold air shoots through the crack with a soft hiss. Parts of the ice crack and fall to the side as the officer lifts the lid. A clear glass cylinder inside contains two frozen, round bones. A pair of patellae (kneecaps). “I don’t understand.”
“Those belonged…to my parents. I was…born into an…experiment. It ended…the day I…killed them.” Tameri explains the tale to her colleague in brief but grim detail, including how she felt the day she killed them. “In the end…I dumped them…into a…stone quarry. I wanted to…be rid of them…but I went back. Their patellae…were all I…could salvage. Scavengers…made off…with the rest.”
Veins wriggle in Tameri’s forehead as she uses Bond Of The Blade to levitate her spadroon over the chest. “Today…I banish their ghosts…forever.” She slams the spadroon down onto the patellae and shatters them into dust. “The Phantom Slayer…is no more.”
“Is this why you didn’t want to go to the JC hospital?”
“To be…continued. Neth…is waiting…for you. Go.”
“Anything you want me to tell him on your behalf?”
Tameri thinks for a moment and settles on, “Tell him…I’m not…going anywhere.”
Stark nods. “I’ll be back soon as I can. Rest up, Tameri.”
“You’ll…have to make…the tea…for a while.”
Stark laughs, nods once more in salutation, then departs. Her next stop should be the hospital but she has the chance to act after Tameri. A certain fishbowl brings her catharsis via shattering.
Rum strolls toward the triage tent, awkwardly avoiding the officers while simultaneously admiring the soldiers all around. The latter stand guard, heads on a swivel, their various weapons are drawn and ready. The looks of assessment from the soldiers don’t unnerve him as the officers do, their batons reminding him of Darla. That and the news of some of the other JC cops being spies have soured his opinion of those in that position, excluding Stark. Because of Auriel, he has the utmost respect for the soldiers of the 61st regiment, even as they relieve him of his buster sword before allowing him inside the triage tent.
“Please limit your visit to approximately one hour,” says Captain Venesi, the nameplate and decorations over her left breast identifying her as such. Rum studies as he scribbles his name on a sign-in sheet, her youth evident in the delicate features of her face, though her posture and gaze are rigid. A large ring sword in the shape of a snowflake hangs from her shoulders.
She can’t be that much older than me but she’s already a captain.
“Yes, ma…sir,” Rum corrects his speech when she fries him with a heated look. He moves into the triage tent swiftly. Several dozen smaller tents are spread through the interior, each one with its own soldier posted at the front. The intense security helps Rum stay relaxed. He peruses a directory posted at the entrance and discovers Pan is straight ahead and three tents down the left end of the fork. On his way there, he passes the rooms for some of his fellow sophmen.
“–ed you to check my arm.”
“Shut your mouth, Wallace, and let me–”
“–are nothing I can’t handle!” He recognizes Lauron’s voice.
“Should you really be proud of that?”
The next room is empty but he sees white fur on the messy bed. He continues around the corner, following the left fork. His heart pumps faster and faster the closer to Pan’s tent he gets. Even though he knows her wounds weren’t life-threatening since she wasn’t taken to Jupiter Hospital like the headmaster and Professor Lynald, he didn’t get the chance to see her when she was found. He attended to Tameri first. The soldier takes one step to his right to permit entry. Rum doesn’t know what to expect but stops his stalling by yanking the curtain aside on the count of three.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey!” Rum rushes to her side and helps her gently sit back. The bandages wrapped around her torso make him nervous. “Take it easy there.”
Pan scrunches her nose and thumps Rum’s. “How am I su–” She quiets after a voice crack and wipes away her tears. “I thought you were dead.”
Rum smiles wanly. “Sorry that you had to think that. We didn’t have the best cell reception where we were.” Rum grabs her hand. “I couldn’t wait to come see you but they said an uneventful night’s sleep would be best for you. Since it was for my Pan, I obliged.”
Pan flinches. “What did you just say?”
Rum narrows his eyes, her haunted expression from more than just a stomach wound. He decides to move past that and to encourage her by saying, “They’ll have to drag me out of here in an hour. That’s what I said.”
Slowly but surely, her haunted expression dissipates as she smiles. “They’ll have to pull harder than me.”
Rum wants to pull away when she leans forward to kiss him but after witnessing Tameri’s gruesome march, he believes that like the other women in his life, Pan wouldn’t make the attempt if she couldn’t handle it. Besides, he wants it, too. Still, he gets her to lean back during. She sighs appreciatively after.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she says.
“Nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“Ah, so you are in one piece,” Aven says as he steps up to the foot of the bed.
“Are you?” Rum nods at the bandages on his forearms.
Aven shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll live.” He turns to Pan and Rum can gleam guilt. “How’s your stomach, Eagle Eyes?”
Pan slides a hand across her belly. “They said I’d recover quicker if that asshole hadn’t ripped one of the arrows outta me. It’ll heal but they said a month is optimistic.”
“Then stay optimistic,” Aven states. “Or, you know, just win next time.”
Pan’s instantly irked. “Uh-huh. Weren’t you found sleeping on the job?”
“I was unconscious.”
“Excuse me, but I had to fight off a bulky lion-man.”
“Don’t you play sensitive with me!”
Rum watches the back and forth, amazed that none of their taunts are delivered with any angst. Not one shred of malice. For all that they just endured they still shine like the tops of rain clouds bathed in sunlight. He smirks.
“Man, I missed you guys. Glad you both survived.”
The two exchange looks and calm down. Aven huffs and plops down on the other side of Pan’s bed. “Yeah, missed you too, or whatever. So, what kept you guys away so long if they didn’t kill you?”
“Well, it’s not like they didn’t try. You remember that lady cop from the mall?” he directs to Pan.
“Did that bitch hurt you?” Pan’s heated all over again.
“She tried. Shuri and I took care of her but here’s the crazy part. We fought her before that.”
“What are you talking about? We…wait…the woman from the train station?”
“Yeah. She was fired because she attacked us. She wanted to kidnap Shuri and me at this club in Springspell.”
“Kidnap?” Aven asks sharply.
“The woman who attacked Nuria had the same goal.”
“You guys are lucky they failed. The Pure uses kidnapping and torture as an initiation practice.”
“How do you know that?” Rum says, afraid he knows the answer.
Aven looks from Rum to Pan, running a mental calculation in his head. He stands and unbuttons his black, short-sleeved dress shirt. His physical condition is pristine on the front. His back would be the same if not for a scar at the base, in the shape of a crescent moon on its side. His beige skin is darker at the scar, the contours are white. “I wasn’t held long. My father got me out.”
Aven throws his shirt back on hastily.
“This doesn’t leave this room.”
Didn’t think I’d have another of these moments so soon.