Chapter 1 // [November]

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There should be some difficulty in determining what, for a heart in love, was a more trying matter: fleeing from an army unit armed from toe to tooth, or being away from the heart’s beloved.

Despite those matters, at that moment, however, Christopher Hawks was quite content, if somewhat tired. Stepping out into the cold air, he took a deep breath. Freezing wind blew into his throat and he coughed, covering his mouth.

Squinting against the bright blue sky, he smiled: good weather this time of year was a rarity he had learned to appreciate. Someone bumped into him and he moved away from the school entrance, allowing the students behind him to spill out into the campus grounds.

Tearing his eyes away from the sky, Chris glanced at his watch.

There wasn’t any reason to be in a hurry other than the prospect of finishing homework early, but he simply didn’t like being shoved into the walls by the growing crowd just because Daniel hadn’t had the decency to bring Julia out here and talk on their way to the dorms for once…

Something flew past him and he snapped to look. A large icicle was sticking out of the wall beside his left ear, gravity slowly pulling it down until it fell with a low crash. Steadying his breath and ignoring his racing heart, Chris traced the probable source of the icicle to a group of laughing male Witches a few steps away from the entrance, close to where he’d been standing.

Real mature,” Chris mumbled under his breath. Taunting non-magic folk was considered outdated and boring, and Chris had a feeling that these particular students had just wanted to startle him a little. They’d probably just learned that particular trick the same morning.

Move aside, children!”

Daniel’s loud voice came from behind the sniggering group and, yelping, they broke apart to make way.

Using magic outside of class on school grounds, unless the area around is empty, is not allowed, by the way. Better remember that before someone more responsible than me sees you.”

Daniel gave the Witches a conspiring wink and Chris laughed as they scurried off, glaring.

Be nice, Dan. They’re all probably older than you.”

But not you,” retorted his friend with a knowing smile.

Chris shrugged. They made their way down the large steps and turned in the direction of the dormitories.

You looked really out of it over there. Thinking about Winter?”

Chris shook his head. “No, not really.” For once.

Daniel looked like he didn’t believe him. “Can’t you just call her so you can calm down already?”

I told you that I don’t have her phone number or anything like that,” Chris sighed, exasperated, and fixed his shoulder bag. “And I don’t know where she is, either,” he added before Daniel could ask – again. “She graduated last year, so she’s probably back home, if you ask me. If I were you, I’d worry about the Aurorian pop quiz we had today.”

Yeah, but I’m not.” Daniel stretched, his eyes closed. Chris shook his head with a light smile. Of course, Daniel could afford slacking off – he was smart enough without trying. Chris shuddered to think what would happen if his friend wasn’t so lazy. He’d probably be moved up straight to university.

And probably beat Chris at everything, a task not in itself difficult, considering that Chris’s only strong subjects were history and the specific science-theory behind Ice magic (a laughably small portion of biology classes, but he’d made it a point of knowing as much as possible about the latter in particular.)

Thinking back to his friend’s irritated girlfriend, Chris asked, “So how was Julia? Did you have another argument?”

His friend stared at the building blankly. “Just a continuation of yesterday’s. But we’re still going out, if that’s what you’re asking.”

I suppose that qualifies as good?”

Daniel shrugged. “Going to have to be extra careful the next few days, though.”

Extra careful?” Chris raised his eyebrows. “I can’t exactly call you a dragon up ’till now.”

Are you telling me to be more assertive?”

I wasn’t really telling you to be anything.” Assertive wasn’t Daniel’s style, either. “I don’t think Julia would stand for it anyway.”

Daniel shook his head. “Yeah, not her.” He perked up and added, “Well, that’s part of why I like her!”

He gave Chris a look.

You know what I mean, right?”

Chris had the feeling he knew what his friend was referring to. Or, to be exact, whom he was referring to. Tired of having Daniel trying to squeeze out of him anything about Winter, Chris decided to pretend he hadn’t gotten the hint.

Not really.”

Daniel sighed. “Hey, do you have your history notebook? I want to see if I can memorize something before lunch.”

You should really get into the habit of having your things on you. Hold on.”

Chris fumbled around his bag as they walked, turning over the conversation in his mind.

While it was true that Winter was someone who liked to take charge, Chris also knew for a solid fact that for Witches that was normal – female Witches were expected to take over situations and protect others, especially considering they were commonly more powerful when it came to using Ice Magic. So, really, it wasn’t unusual.

But it was, indeed, a quality one could deeply appreciate.

A few minutes later Daniel had buried himself in the requested history notebook, and Chris took the time to breathe in fresh air while he was still outside. The exam period was to start soon, and as he considered his grades, he didn’t think he would have much time to spend outdoors in the coming weeks.

Christopher Hawks, with his common brown hair that sometimes covered even more common matching brown eyes, really had no dazzling abilities to show the world apart from an exceptional level of sucking in his Hunting classes. The only quality he had ever heard that stood out in him was a charming smile – although, as one of his Hunt teachers had pointed out in the past, a good smile may have been good for business but it was no help with grades or hitting a target.

Chris, you listening?” Daniel patted his shoulder.

Hm? What?”

There’s a police car in front of our building.”

Daniel was right: there really was a police car parked in the usually empty spot on the lane. With a feeling of relief, Chris noted that it was not pitch black with a dark purple emblem, which would have meant that the Hunters of Northland had found him, a prospect he didn’t enjoy thinking of.

That’s odd…”

Hey, maybe the seniors have decided to pull one of their pranks again!”

Don’t even joke about that,” Chris chuckled and pushed the double doors open. The main entrance was full of students chattering about, and the air was packed with excitement.

Daniel turned to one of the juniors. “What’s going on?”

A bunch of policemen and this investigator came around, I think they’re looking for someone?”

They were shushed and the chatter died  down. Gradually everyone turned their gazes towards the main stairs where the dorm master, George Framely, was standing. He announced:

We are looking for Christopher Hawks!”

Everyone glanced around anxiously. There were murmurs.

Is he present?” Framely asked, scanning the entrance hall. “Hawks?”

Chris raised his hand, “Here,” as he made his wait to the front, closely followed by Daniel. They were followed by mumbles and giggles as students were parting to give them way.

Come with me, Hawks. No, Souza, you stay here,” Framely stopped Daniel, who gave Chris a half-encouraging, half-worried look when the boy threw him a panicked glance.

Chris was led to the emptied out common room. A man wearing a suit and a tie was sitting at one of the coffee tables, a folder set in front of him. Two police officers were standing behind his chair. They moved to stand outside upon Chris’s arrival.

Officer… Settle,” (the teacher was addressing the man in the suit, Chris supposed), “this is Christopher Hawks.”

Palms starting to sweat, Chris said, “Hello.”

Ah, so this is Christopher!” A smile lit up Settle’s face as he stood up and gave Chris a short, slippery handshake. He sat back down again. “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Adrian Settle, from the local police authorities. I need to have a chat with you; I hope you are not in a hurry. Please, sit.”

Somewhat frazzled by the amount of words Settle had managed to utter in such a short time, Chris sat down, his confusion deepening.

Adrian Settle added, “Come to think of it, I’d like to speak with him in private. Would you mind…?”

Framely’s eyes narrowed. “I would. He is an underage student and it’s out of the question that you would question him without my being present.”

Settle raised his eyebrows. “Out of the question to question him?”

Framley’s face took on a pink tint. “Yes.”

Adrian Settle gave the teacher a long, measuring look, and said:

Very well. But please, stand by the door over there.”

After a minute under Settle’s unwavering eyes, Framely gave him a stiff nod and complied.

Mr. Settle looked Chris in the eye.

So, Christopher. I hope you’re doing well enough to answer some questions.” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “The matter is as follows: we periodically double-check all documents stored in the city’s files, copy them, you know how it is… and yours gave us quite a bit of a headache, Chris.”

I don’t… understand.” He didn’t like the direction of this conversation or the way this man talked down to him like a five year old.

illust+ch1+pt23Adrian Settle opened the folder in front of him, picked out a piece of paper and slid it across the small table over to Chris. He didn’t pick it up, but did examine it. Whatever it was, his name was on it.

I suppose you recognize this. It’s the long form, but I do not believe you haven’t seen at least a copy of a birth certificate before.”

Chris frowned. Now he was confused more than ever.

Uh, I guess?”

Settle looked at Framely standing by the door and lowered his voice. “I do not wish more people than necessary to hear my following words; I will not beat around the bush: we have reason to believe that the original of yours is a fake. Of all your documents, really.”

Chris didn’t think that strange; he was born in Northland and not, as the documentation he generally used stated, in one of the eastern regions of the North Central continent.

The boy decided not to answer Mr. Settle for now.

I need to know if you remember anything from your childhood.” Settle pulled out a small notepad from his inner pocket, equipped with a matching little silver pen. It had a tiny smooth ball on the rear end.

Chris’ reply was short. “No, sorry.”

Settle leaned back. “May I see your ID, please?”

Um…” The request took him by surprise. “My wallet isn’t on me…”

Settle clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Where is it?”

In-in my bag, I left it with a friend of mine, he’s probably outside–”

Mr. Framely!” Adrian Settle summoned the teacher with a wave of his hand. “Would you be so kind as to go and fetch the boy’s belongings from his friend, undoubtedly someone who is waiting for him by the door?”

Mr. Framely growled, but apparently didn’t want to disobey a man of Adrian Settle’s position. After he shuffled out, Chris was rewarded with a bright smile.

That’s better. We can talk more freely now. …Help us out.” After getting silence as an answer, Settle’s smile wore off and he sighed. “Look, your mother is on her way to getting into trouble. So far it seems that someone’s been closing their eyes to all the documents she’s been using,” Settle motioned at the folder, “moreover, they are skillfully forged so we have no real proof, however…well, you understand, do you not?”

The man paused and waited for a response.

I had a normal childhood, officer,” Chris said after a moment. “We moved from another state and I started school, then I came here to finish my education. Who… who remembers much from before they were ten?” The boy tried to put on the best polite expression he could. “I don’t think anything’s forged.”

Would that mean you’ve lived at your current home for… thirteen years? Not more?” Adrian Settle narrowed his eyes, his smile returning with a hint of smugness.

Chris froze. He knew, Adrian Settle knew.

He tried not to let his expression betray his thoughts.

A detail that Chris didn’t usually mention was that he was a Hach – half Witch – and another detail he regarded as unimportant was that he was actually twenty-three. Because of the Hacches’ and Witches’ slow aging, they would all start school at a much later age than humans and by looks and mentality, he was seventeen bordering on eighteen all over. Until now, no one had been able to tell.

I don’t understand–”

I know you are a Hach, Chris. Obviously, your documentation says you’re human and lies about your age; let’s just say I have a sixth sense. The problem here isn’t what you are – the government couldn’t possibly care less even if you were a gnome– but we need the documentation to be genuine, don’t we?”

At this moment, Mr. Framely returned with heavy, echoing steps.

Ah, you’re back… took a little too long, we straightened things out here.” After receiving a dirty glare from the other man, Adrian Settle added, “But thank you, Mr. Framely.”

Chris stood up, at this point not even trying to be polite. He recovered his bag from the dorm master and turned to Adrian Settle.

Officer, uh, Settle, I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you. I have a lot of homework to work on, and I’m already behind, so if you’ll excuse me…”

Ah, yes, yes.” Settle stood up with grace and pulled out a business card from an inner pocket of his jacket. “You have to stay focused on your studies… do contact me if you, hm, remember anything?”

Of course.” Chris took the card and another slippery handshake later, he was out.

Daniel was waiting for him by the main stairs. Most of the students had already scattered, but the ones remaining were looking at him curiously – Chris had a good idea why: people like Mr. Settle didn’t come to the school often. Chris shook his head when Daniel opened his mouth to ask. “Later” Chris mouthed at his friend and they both dragged their feet up to the rooms.

**

More famous and far more expensive than its size should have warranted, perpetually full of either workers from a nearby factory, faces from the neighborhood or tourists clutching a guide for which locales to visit during their stay, The Canary stood on the corner of two streets in a town located in what would be considered the northern part of a town in one of the states of the North Central continent.

The place had the general look of a diner and had everything you would expect: a big neon sign parched right outside, booths and walls in bright colors, a small antique library in one of the corners, a scruffy barkeep, smiling staff, and was filled with the aroma of cinnamon at all times. The radio was usually blasting old rock pieces unless the owner, Nora, decided she was in the mood for classical music. All in all, it was a place where you could find yourself losing a large portion of the contents of your wallet and have no complaints whatsoever.

Currently one of the waitresses was setting down two tea mugs on a table in one of the booths. She was a Witch with long black hair neatly tied back, falling over blue eyes, and was wearing a white apron over her uniform.

The man on the right was just saying, “Them darn Northland Witches think they own the Globe, don’t they, callin’s all the Unfrozen, like we the ones in their blazed way—“

Dad,” a nervous girl across from him started patiently, shooting the waitress a glance, “Northland didn’t force anyone to call ourselves this way, it wasn’t decided by–”

Winter Icetorm – Volpe by documents – put down a piece of cheesecake next to one of the tea mugs, followed by the check.

A country the size of a flea is tryinna lump us all together after infecting us with their magic and Ice Ages! They’re tryinna put me with the same bunch as the Siberians! Northern folk, high and mighty, hah! To the deserts with them, if you ask me.” The man looked as if he was about to spit at the floor. His daughter sent him a warning glance.

As Winter was walking away, she heard the man go on:

Northland is none more than a frozen desert. Snows nine months out of twelve, Felicity! That’s even more than here! And you tryin’ to tell me you’re marryin’ one of them?”

The Witch didn’t hear Felicity’s answer, nor did she care for it. Instead, she held in the urge to go back and freeze the man’s lips together. She distracted herself by going to table seven to take the order from three men, all of whom seemed to be Witches.

illust ch1r

–That clown said that there isn’t anything he can do for me, because apparently Summer Witches’ work was a lot harder than ours.”

That’s preposterous.”

Isn’t it? So then I told him—“

May I take your order?” Winter asked, pen ready.

The third man, who wasn’t a part of the conversation, said:

Ehh… one espresso macchiato… Carl? Siegel?”

We do the same flaming work—oh, black coffee for me, short,” Carl said.

Siegel nodded. “Same.”

Carl turned back to Siegel and continued “We all have to charge clothes, don’t we? Why can’t we get a raise then?”

Thank you.” Winter walked away and reached the counter right as her co-worker Alex was laying out some freshly-baked croissants in the display. She gave Winter a bright smile.

Winter said, “One espresso and two black coffees, and the check for table three.”

Another waitress, Sherry, arrived with a scowl.

I hate Mondays,” she announced, putting a tray of empty cups down.

Alex chirped from behind the counter:

You should be happy for the business, Sherry. Coming right up, Winnie.”

Don’t call me Winnie,” said Winter almost automatically, handing over a list of orders.

Sherry rolled her eyes. “I want to hear you say that when Nora works you like a dog next week, Alex! Oh, and I need one strudel, one hot chocolate with whipped cream and a–”

The sound of a plate shattering made them look at the kitchens behind the cheerful Alex. The noise in the coffee shop died out and customers peeked their way with curious murmurs. A dark male head covered by black mane popped out of the entrance to the kitchen.

Eh, everythin’s a-okay! Just a dropped plate!” he lowered his voice when the puzzled looks receded. “He was conducting his usual experiments…”

Alex laughed, while Winter and the waitress who hated Mondays frowned. Sherry exclaimed, “Third time this week! Hasn’t he learned yet?”

Winter shrugged. Some Hacches truly never learned that being able to use magic certainly didn’t mean they should go around trying.

Someday an inspection will catch him and then what will happen?”

You can’t help some people.” Laying out two cups of coffee on a tray, Alex addressed Sherry, “Hot chocolate, a strudel and?”

And a pretzel.”

On her way back from the table with the three Witches who were unhappy about their wages, Winter got held up by a waiter who was going in the opposite direction.

Winter, Nora said she wants to talk to you.” He pointed up. “And table two needs you when you’re back.”

Wondering what could Nora need her for at such a busy time, Winter thanked her colleague with a frown. She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried upstairs.

Upon entering Nora’s office, Winter couldn’t help take a quick look around: each time she entered Nora’s office, something was different. Nora Volpe’s office was a shrine to antiques, and the werewolf’s hobby was no secret among collectors; more than once the woman got sensational offers for some of the rarer items she possessed. Rumor had it that she’d bought the place for The Canary with the money she’d received for a small jewel. She always did love doing business with just about anyone who could prove their wealth, so things often seemed to disappear from her interior decor, and other strange things came in their place. And sure enough, this time a tall bronze vase was missing from her desk, replaced with what looked like a box that had its legs shaped like a cat’s. Giving it a slight, disturbed look, Winter turned her attention towards her caretaker.

illust ch16Nora herself was tall, with a square sort of face, and as all werewolves, she had silver hair, broad shoulders and four black dots underneath her right eye that indicated her position as a fourth child in the family. Nora liked vintage dresses and heavy jewelry that gave the impression that she had ended up in the wrong era – and today was no exception. Everything she wore had an expensive, luxurious feel to it (including the golden rim of her glasses), something that Winter had learned to accept without question.

Northland had seen stranger attires, anyway.

Nora’s golden eyes traveled over the Witch as she handed her a letter.

This came in for you this morning, pup, but I hadn’t the chance to hand it over until now.”

Winter thought that this was probably because Nora’s curiosity was stronger than her manners and had prompted her to try and read its content through a lamp, but didn’t say really comment. There wasn’t anything she’d keep from the Volpe family, anyway. She sank into a puffy chair by the desk and opened the letter.

When she finished reading, she looked up. “I am leaving again in a while.”

Will he come to pick you up again?”

Yes.”

And you shan’t be back for a long time, I’m supposing. And no talking it over makes any difference with you.”

Winter decided not to answer. Instead, she stood up and said, “Will that be all?”

Nora watched her for a while before nodding.

Yes– oh, no, no, one more thing. That one who fancies himself Boss needs our fridge charged again. Magic’s just about to run out.”

Winter pressed her mouth into a thin line. “I will need a day off, and it’s really busy now.”

I know, pup, some new products arrived from Northland the other day… snow troll milk, you know his tastes, he only trusts you with the magic amount in there. I’ll give you ‘few days off, cross my heart. The rest can handle the rest.”

Winter thought with certain bitterness that the only reason she was about to agree was because of everything the Volpes had done for her over the past twenty years. Feeling her energy sapped already, she nodded.

I’ll finish my shift and get to it.”

Thank you, puppy.”

**

It was late evening and, exhausted, Chris finally slumped back on the pillow. He hadn’t gone to dinner with Daniel and their roommate, opting instead to stay in his room and study in the company of snacks. Too tired didn’t even begin to describe how he felt.

Chris picked up a stone attached to a leather thin black rope and raised it to the level of his eyes.

It was a small object, about the size of a hazelnut and completely smooth – like a stone you’d typically find on a riverbank. It was dark teal, and Chris had been informed that by origin it was a modified hematite gemstone – the usual material that most batteries and energy sources in Northland were made of. Every time Chris touched it, the Stone was cold. It had always been cold. He supposed that this was the result of the magic treatment it had gone through to become of the of Kisow’s Seven Stones.

When the Kisow shattered, this one Stone alone hadn’t shattered with it as opposed to the other six for some unknown reason. Back in September… when that journey had happened.

The boy sighed and put the now useless Stone away back in the small box it usually stayed in at night. A long time ago his mother had told him where it had come from and what it probably was, and she’d advised him to keep it a secret; it’s what Chris had been doing for years now.

Until Winter discovered it.

Chris remembered Winter again, with butterflies in his stomach. She’d told him she didn’t know when she’d come back to get him, and so he’d been on standby since September. She’d asked him to help her gain her crown back even after his fiasco with the sword, which made him indescribably happy. Of course, even if she hadn’t asked, he would have offered to help her.

Now, although he knew that Winter could stand her ground better than most people and that he had no reason to worry, he still found himself wondering where she was and if she was okay. After all, with a whole country’s army on your tail…

Chris and Winter had met in his sixth grade when he’d enrolled into Bluestone. It was not unusual, of course: the Bluestone boarding school and university wasn’t specialized for Witches, humans or Hacches, so everyone was in a big mix; even the dormitories weren’t really divided, though most Witches preferred being sorted in rooms with other Witches, and Hacches were with other Hacches or humans.

Winter Icetorm – Volpe by the school registry – had always been aloof. She looked like she didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that the only students who talked to her were other Witches. She had never tried to make her presence known, and even though she was near brilliant at almost all subjects, Chris hadn’t discovered her to be the bragging type – he guessed that it was probably because she didn’t care, rather than trying to be modest.

She had a long face framed by pitch black hair, her eyes were almond-shaped and bright blue, and every student in the school could swear she had never smiled. Even for a Witch, approaching her seemed… difficult. Certainly none of the human students talked to her much, and if they did, they’d make sure the conversation ended as fast as possible.

Chris grinned to himself upon that thought. He had seen her smile, more than once at that, upon spending over a week in her company. Everything, of course, had gone horribly wrong after that, and Chris was well aware that it was his attempt at chivalry that had messed it all up in the end…

The door of the room flew open and Daniel marched in with a greeting. Chris sat up and accepted a plastic box full of rice and some meat that his friend handed him.

Ooh, thanks! Where’s Furman? And you didn’t bring me a fork.”

Milo Furman was their roommate and the owner of the pet chameleon, carrying the original name Camelot, currently lazing about in a tank by one of the beds.

Still at dinner, trying to chat up some girl from his university building. He has forks in his drawer.”

Chris put the food on his nightstand and fell back on the pillow.

Chris,” Daniel started, sitting behind the desk and turning on his laptop. “I feel like I have to ask… about that whole Kisow business…”

Daniel was of course well-informed about the situation; having known each other since Chris could remember being truly alive, and considering the things Daniel himself had shared, Chris would trust him with his life.

It was an accident, I told you!” Chris cried out. “I slipped, it flew out of my hand, someone froze it mid-air and it shattered into a tree! That thing’s magic only works in the hands of its bearer, and–”

No, no!” Daniel cut him off. “I mean, since it’s shattered, are you still… you know, King or whatever?”

Uh, actually, the term Winter used was ‘Almost-King’,” Chris groaned. “I don’t know… since I unlocked the Kisow’s power, I automatically gained the right to challenge Queen Nephrite to a duel and become King if I win, on theory… but… with things as they are now…”

So, wait, if things hadn’t gone wrong and Winter had unlocked the sword…?”

She would have been able to get her throne back, yeah.” Chris rubbed his eyes.

And now?”

I have no idea. I’m still waiting for her to come get me and tell me the plan.”

Daniel checked his e-mail, then proceeded to try and win a staring contest with Camelot. For a few long minutes there was only silence, until he exclaimed:

That guy! Was he here because of your absence? Does he know anything?”

Ah, no, actually…”

In short, Chris updated Daniel on his conversation with Adrian Settle. The other boy remained serious. Breaking eye contact with the chameleon, he said:

That’s weird.”

What is?”

I don’t know, the way you described him… are police officials that straightforward? Shouldn’t he have gone to your mother first or something? And why did he come here and didn’t call you over to the station?”

I don’t know?”

When Chris thought about it, it did seem strange. But then, everything about that man, from his toothy smile to his faintly ash colored skin, was strange to begin with.

So… you’re an Almost-King with no sword, no princess and no plan, chased by a well-informed detective.”

When you put it like that, Daniel, it makes me want to break my leg so I can go home.”

Look on the bright side.” Daniel threw him a knowing glance. “You still haven’t been discovered by any Hunters or Stareaders from Northland.” He paused. “Do you think there’s any way they’ll find you?”

Chris covered his face and wailed. “How did I end up in this mess?!”

I think the answer is fairly obvious, loverboy…”

Oh, shut up–”

The conversation was interrupted by the low ring of Chris’s cell phone. Anticipating either the panicked voice of a woman who knows what had happened earlier that day or just a clueless check-in call, the boy picked up.

Hey, mom. No, it’s a good time. How’re you?”

*

illust part 5

The MaMEx scores are out!”

The next morning, on their way to breakfast, Daniel dragged Chris by the shoulder to the main entrance, where a commotion seemed to be forming. They pushed their way through the crowd to see the hung up lists.

‘MaMEx’ was a common short name for ‘Magic Training Mock Exams’ – a misrepresentation for what were simply monthly assessments of what the Witches had learned during their training of Ice Magic at the school. The process had gained the name of ‘mock exam’ due to the common belief that all of the small examinations were just warm ups for the Witches’ final at the end of the twelfth grade. The results were always shown on the school’s notice board by the cafeteria, and the non-Witch students often placed bets on which of the examined would get the best score.

Daniel scanned the names until he got to the top ten. 

Man!” he exclaimed. “Scott was ranked first again? This means I owe Nole and Scholer!”

You bet this time?” Chris raised an eyebrow in wonder. It wasn’t that Daniel was stingy; it was just that he didn’t usually like to bet against all odds. “I don’t know why you’re surprised. Winter’s been top of that class since the sixth grade and Scott comes right after. Without her around…”

I know, I know… but things can go wrong sometimes…” Daniel sighed.

As they pulled out of the crowd, Daniel whined. “Seriously though, I won’t be able to stand Scholer’s smug face…”

Wait, do you mean Melody Scholer?”

No, her younger brother, Tommy.”

Isn’t he in the seventh grade?”

Seven and eight graders are always the pushiest about bets. And man, the little brats are right most of the time, too!”

At the breakfast table in the cafeteria, the two were greeted by an enthusiastic Milo Furman.

Oi, the man of the hour!”

He gave Chris a pat on the back. “You know,” he added, piling sausages on his plate, “you’ll be the school’s main topic for a while?”

Only now Chris noticed a large portion of the students were throwing looks at him. He reached for a jug of juice and poured some with one hand while moving a toast to his plate with the other.

What are you talking about?” he asked, giving Milo a raised brow.

Everyone’ll be discussing this for days!”

Milo, a student of Finance and Trade at the school’s university department, a boy of an Inuit descent, had been his and Daniel’s roommate since their first day at Bluestone. In spite of that, Chris had never grown particularly close to him, and Milo’s tendency to never get to the point often gave Chris headaches.

Chris sighed and turned to his other information source – the sitting in front of him, looking around for the bet winners with a nervous expression, Daniel.

What does he mean?”

Ah, well, it’s that detective. Apparently now everyone thinks you’re either a murderer or a fugitive. I forgot you weren’t at dinner last night, so you don’t know.”

Oh.” Chris tried to keep his expression sealed, taking a long sip from his juice. He really didn’t fancy being the school’s hot news.

Don’t worry, we know you’re neither.” The smile Daniel gave him did not make Chris feel any better about it.

Or at least we hope you’re not!” Milo exclaimed. Chris wanted to kick Milo’s smile all the way to the Capital of Northland, but instead he said:

Daniel, if the boy with the crazy hair and the braces is Tommy Scholar, he’s coming right this way. And if my memory regarding faces hasn’t gone already, I think that’s his sister dragging him by the ear.”

Daniel, very carefully, looked up from his plate at the couple approaching. Then, with the calmest possible expression, said, “Oh, look, Julia’s waiting for me right over there! Chris, cover for me, yeah?”

Yeah, yeah.”

A second later Daniel was gone in the direction of a girl with long braided hair, dyed pink, who was tapping her foot with scowl by the entrance.

Milo snickered and went back to talking with an attractive senior who looked like he was about to throw his drink in Milo’s face, while Chris tried to stall Melody Scholar and her temper.

*

Chris was slowly nodding off. It had been a taxing, near-sleepless night, and he had gotten up early the next day to complete homework. Right now, he couldn’t remember why he’d decided it would be a good idea; final school year or not, he thought that perhaps staying up nights on end just to complete work wasn’t going to help him on the long run. Chris closed his eyes and cursed his past self for being what Julia colorfully called a “Lazy bum” up until this point.

Got ‘em!”

What–?”

Someone shoved something under his nose and he looked up. Daniel was grinning down at him.

Tickets to Rio! We have a vacation starting in December and I thought going to a place that’s a bit warmer wouldn’t do us bad. Remember?”

What?” Chris repeated, trying to get his thoughts to move faster. “The S.C.C.?…Us? Ah. Yeah. We did talk about something like that…”

Daniel sighed and pulled a chair from a nearby desk. He sat down.

Yep, and my mom,” he stated, “managed to get three plane tickets to Rio. Julia’s coming too!”

Oh, I dunno, Daniel… a trip with you guys?” Chris struggled not to yawn. “Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Why would it be weird?” Daniel rolled his eyes. He whispered, leaning closer, “Look, you don’t know how Julia is at new places… she’s going to want to shop, which,” he raised his voice, “I’m all for. But, er, me…”

He shrugged indefinitely

Chris groaned. “Are we going to stay at the same place as before? I know it was cheap, but do you remember the–”

I may be well-off, but not that well-off, my friend. We’ll have to deal with the blinking lights and stuff. It’s either that or going to tia Maria’s.”

It’s the insects the size of small dogs that bother me, but if the alternative is your aunt’s….”

Daniel smiled. “Thought you’d say that! By the way, my mom got permission from yours already.”

Oh, right, she mentioned something when she called last night…so I’m coming no matter what.”

Pretty much. You need a good break, man!” Daniel laughed, giving his friend a pat on the shoulder.

Daniel was taller and broader than Chris, his hair styled into dreadlocks was dark and suited tanned skin and dark smiling eyes. Only a few freckles tattooed across his cheeks seemed out of place somehow, but Daniel Souza (human) couldn’t be bothered by – in his own words – “People’s irrelevant opinions”. He was rarely bothered by “People’s irrelevant opinions”, as it seemed after a few hours spent in his company. He had a habit of getting a spur-of-the-moment ideas – such as going to certain regions on the S.C.C. on vacations, in this case the city-state of Rio de Janeiro. Daniel was, as most people would put it, ‘Southern’, and even though the country wasn’t his birthplace, he had an extended family there that he claimed to visit more often than strictly necessary, in Daniel’s opinion. And, of course, he took Chris along almost every time. Sometimes they just went for a vacation; Daniel’s parents seemed to be fine with just about anything their son did as long as he didn’t max out any credit cards.

Despite the fact that Chris tried to show as little enthusiasm as possible, he secretly looked forward to this trip. It was going to be a nice change of scenery and a good break from his usual routine. On the other hand, Chris couldn’t help but sigh over the fact that he was going to spend his holiday with a lovey-dovey couple. The last time he’d gone to the S.C.C – it had been, again, courtesy of Daniel’s mother – Daniel still wasn’t going out with Julia and he and Chris had taken two other boys with them: the laid-back Milo Furman, their current roommate, and a boy of the name Jared Amaryllis (who had been transferred to another school a few months later for unknown reasons and they hadn’t heard from him since). They’d all had a good time even though the hotel had been of a questionable standard.

Chris scrunched his nose. The upcoming holiday was the only one they ever got aside from the summer break. Mixed schools like theirs gave only one vacation around New Year’s due to the insistence that Witches had to study more than the other students. Daniel often moped about it, but Chris wasn’t one to complain: the vacation started on the 3rd of December and continued until the 2nd of January. Chris remembered bitterly that this was going to be his last good break for a while: things for the twelfth grade would look grim from January until their finals in May. The holiday dates seemed more reasonable to him even though he knew that it would all probably end with him and Daniel sitting around in gloom over their final months at the school and the pressure of thinking ahead. None of them was certain of what they wanted to do after high school –  Daniel had expressed a desire go to into a business-oriented university, but didn’t seem to have his heart in the idea. Chris didn’t even have a lead.

But they were probably going to have fun anyway, and Chris would at last have one final break where he’d be allowed not to think about his future.

He heard the teacher enter room and focused his eyes on the board up front. Just a bit more.

**

I don’t know if it was really him,” the man spoke into the phone receiver, massaging his temple. He was sitting in a small coffee shop in the center of town. “He was definitely a Hach with falsified documentation, but I couldn’t get anything out of him directly. A lot of people moved from Northland around the end of the War, so he could have been just some kid from the same period. But if it was him, he’s here. I don’t know if he plans on going anywhere. …Same name, yes.”

Adrian Settle listened to the voice on the other end for a while, his expression hardening.

When it stopped, he said, “No, I couldn’t sense it.”

More talking.

I think it is in the school, but I wouldn’t wager money on that. I’d only be able to tell within close proxi—yes, I realize the trouble you had to go through for me to—yes, of course I’m aware of the possible consequences—”

He huffed as the voice cut him off again.

Look, you paid me to speak to the boy and check him out. I did that. My job is done.”

He wanted to add that, for the love of the stars of Andromeda and Pegasus, they could have hired anyone else and gotten even less results – but he didn’t. A private detective wasn’t allowed to go that far. The police car and the two policemen, as well as the documents, had all been provided by his client, and Mr. Settle only thanked his lucky star, whichever it was, that the boy, nay, the teacher, had never caught on to his small act. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered what could have possibly led someone to believe that a plain boy like that actually owned one of the Stones. He didn’t dwell on that.

Finally, the voice asked about the owed amount. Adrian Settle leaned back on the wall of the booth and voiced it with a suppressed sigh of relief. He was glad to be done with this.

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