I stood in the hallway, heat radiating right through the cardboard sleeve on my cup of tea as I stared at the placard on the door.
KIRSTY SOBOL, it read. WARD LIAISON.
I knocked, heard her call "Come in!"
Kirsty's office was uncluttered, measured as though someone had gone through and picked out furniture and furnishings that seemed calculated for comfort and neutrality; a shelf of action figures on one wall felt like the only real contribution of personalization and colour.
"Taylor." Kirsty looked up from her computer as I came in, smiled at me briefly before turning back to her monitor. She'd pulled her hair up into a sloppy twist that trailed auburn curls down the back of her neck. "Grab a seat, I'm almost done."
I closed the door behind me, lowered myself into one of the chairs facing her desk as she pushed her keyboard away and pulled out a pad and pen.
She looked at me appraisingly, tapping her pen lightly against paper. "Do you have a name you'd prefer to use when we talk like this? Taylor, Ancillary?"
Dry, crisp heat soaked through the cardboard under my fingers; I shifted my grip, walked the pads of my fingers to cooler terrain. "Taylor's okay."
"All right, Taylor. How was your weekend?"
"It was okay. Some of the other Wards stayed the weekend. It was... okay?" I was repeating myself, awkward, uncomfortable, flushed hot like the tea I'm holding.
Kirsty smiled a little. "Not what you expected, huh?"
I thought back to the start of the weekend, sitting with Missy and Carlos and my copy and all their gentle questions. How Missy had smiled at me and talked about how she's still learning stuff about her power and she's been a Ward longer than anyone.
"Really?" Carlos asked, an easy smile on his lips. "Longer than me, or Gallant?"
She sniffed. "I've spent more of my life as a Ward than you have. It totally counts."
How Gallant- no, it was Dean, had dragged Chris out of his workshop and we'd sat in the Wards common area and ate Friday's leftover pizza while Dean told the story about the one time he'd had to pretend to be a tinker for the cameras.
"No," I finally said, an echo of her smile on my lips. "It wasn't what I expected."
"It sounds like you're finding your place," she said. "I'm glad that's working for you." Her pen flicked across her pad as she made a note.
"I wanted to meet with you like this as a way of getting a clean start to the week, get us both up to speed on your situation." She glanced down at her pad. "So, first things first. It's Columbus Day, so you don't have school today- in fact, you don't have school this week: I talked with your father, and he's okay with pulling you out for a few days while we get you through testing and evaluations. It's going to be a planned absence, not a vacation, so you'll still have class assignments to keep you a little busy."
Something curdled inside me when she mentioned Dad, tying cramping knots in my gut. "Oh."
"How are you doing on clothes? I know you had a bag packed, but you're probably starting to run low on things to wear."
"No, Ca-, uh, Aegis showed me the laundry alcove, so I can just wash things as they get dirty."
Kirsty was watching me, her pen motionless. "Still, you packed... what, two, three outfits? Having a wardrobe can be a nice thing." She blinked, looked down at her pad. "Maybe later this afternoon we can swing around to your place and you can pick up some more clothes."
I stared down into my paper cup, into the gently swirling little black flecks that had escaped my teabag.
I looked up, lifting my gaze from cup to desk to pad to pen to Kirsty, looking at me with gentle care, and I found myself asking "...can we go when my dad's at work?"
The look in her eyes shifted, became the kind of soft professional concern that says I know something's wrong.
"...if there's something going on at home, we can help," she finally says.
For a moment, I considered telling her about what had happened: how I'd come home and Dad was there and he got worse and I couldn't handle it, couldn't bear being around him.
But it wasn't bad, I thought. It wasn't abuse, not like she's thinking, and if I mention anything it's just going to cause trouble for everyone when he didn't do anything-
"Getting powers," Kirsty said, "can put a lot of strain on a relationship, especially with your parents." She hesitated, came to some internal decision. "I can't speak as to specifics because of confidentiality, but you might try talking to some of the other Wards about what's going on."
I thought about Missy, how she'd stuck around with me for almost the whole weekend; I thought about how I'd asked about her parents, if they were okay with that.
I thought about how her lips had compressed to a taut line of displeasure when I'd asked.
"We can move on from that, if you like."
Kirsty's words bring me back; lift my gaze from her desk, look into her eyes, warm and brown and quiet and filled with something that felt like understanding.
"I wanted to talk to you about your future." She paused, her eyes searching my face. "Specifically, about your education."
I stared at her; heard the words, one after the other, about-your-education, didn't understand them until I repeated them back under my breath.
I was a Ward.
Wards went to-
A smile pulled at the corners of my mouth, helpless and enthused. "You mean Arcadia."
She smiled slightly. "Eventually, yes."
I felt a frown start to tug at my brow. "Eventually?"
Kirsty looked at me; her smile faded, left her sober, sympathetic, understanding, but still the authority. "Taylor... you're not going to like this, but I think you should stay at Winslow for now."
"Why?" The word erupted from my lips, frustrated and plaintive. "Arcadia's the best school in the city, it's where the Wards go, and you want me to stay at Winslow?"
"Arcadia's the top-rated public school in the district, yes... that means it can be a demanding academic environment, even for a student who's not behind on their coursework."
Unease started to churn inside me as Kirsty looked down at her pad, then back up at me; I saw something in her eyes, and it made my power itch inside me.
"Taylor... I've seen your grades, and I have concerns about how well you'd handle a transfer."
Something inside me twisted, drew tight like a knot drawn in wet cloth; tears pricked at my eyes, and all I could think was it's not my fault, that it was finally going to be over and I was going to be gone and Emma was still holding me back-
"...just concerned with how much further this would disrupt your life: you have powers now, you're a Ward now, there's the ongoing situation with your family situation, with your father-"
God, that was- that was my fault; if I hadn't given up, if I hadn't run away, if I'd just put up with my dad like I had Emma...
...maybe I'd be free.
I opened my mouth; the words didn't come, I couldn't speak, I couldn't breathe-
-and a hand rested on my shoulder, squeezed gently; I looked up, and it was Emma, my Emma, smiling down at me as tears blurred my vision.
There was movement; I heard Emma pull over a chair, sit next to me, the soft-surf sound of a tissue pulled from a box and stuffed into my hand.
I leaned into her, felt the armrest of the chair dig into my ribs as her arm stretched over my shoulders.
"How long were you thinking?" Emma asked, and I felt tension crawl up my spine, the muscles in my neck singing like suspension cables. Emma looked back at me: sympathetic, understanding, her eyes knowing in a way that didn't touch that rawness inside me.
Trust me, she mouthed.
Kirsty hesitated, looked between the two of us. "I'm thinking end of the year. Your school already has tutoring and academic support programs that we can get you enrolled in; that gives you a little over two months to get used to things and improve your academics. Then, when you're in a more stable position, we get you out of Winslow and transferred to Arcadia over the winter break."
She looked over at Emma, then back at me, met my gaze. "Taylor... how does this sound to you?"
"I-" The words choked in my throat and her eyes were on me, waiting for me to respond and I couldn't; Emma's arm tightened around me in wordless sympathy, and I swallowed through a fist of sandpaper.
"I'm asking because this is something that has to be your decision, Taylor." Her gaze flicked to Emma again, came back to me. "You have to be the one to choose, because you're going to be the one with her boots on the ground; you're going to be the one going to school every day, and I can't be with you every step of the way."
Kirsty took a breath. "If you don't feel like you can do this, if you feel like Winslow isn't a good place for you? I will make your transfer to Arcadia happen."
For a moment, I considered it. Thought about looking at Kirsty and saying 'Do it, get me out of there' and riding out of Winslow on a booster rocket made from spite.
My heart pounded, pulse throbbing in tight-clenched fists as nausea twisted in my gut... but the tension of the moment was fading, leaving me sick and sort of empty.
I got to choose. Where I ended up was my decision. Mine.
And... it sucked to admit it, but Kirsty wasn't wrong; it had been less than a week and I already felt like I was running a red queen's race, having to work to tread water before the floodgates had even opened.
Kirsty's logic hurt; part of me didn't want to consider it, didn't want to engage with that brutal pragmatism and evaluate my situation-
But Emma had. My Emma, me, was there with me, was me. Someone who understood, who was in a better place than I was, who was fingers twined with mine and safety I could lean into, a soft voice calling me little owl and a note in my mother's handwriting that was just what I needed.
It was my choice.
I opened my mouth; started to speak, listened to it come out as a strangled, scratchy croak. Emma squeezed my hand, silent, supportive.
"I'll go," I finally managed. "I'll go back. But... I want to be safe."
Kirsty's brow furrowed, lips parted as she started to ask-
I broke in before she can say anything, forcing the words out in staccato. "I'm- I tried to get them to do something and they didn't, so why am I going to be safe going back-"
The words caught in my throat and Emma squeezed my hand, smiled and let it drain from her face.
"You see, there's these three girls," Emma said, her voice metered and cool in a way mine couldn't be. "And they've made it their job to harass me: they've made it difficult to focus in class, they've stolen or destroyed my schoolwork... they've interfered with my education, and I-we're not comfortable with the idea of going back unless that harassment stops."
She had Kirsty's attention; Emma just looked at her, calm and composed even as her fingers tightened around mine.
"If it wasn't for what they did," she said, "I wouldn't be here today."
And for a long moment, Kirsty just looked at the both of us.
"All right," she said finally. "Let's talk about what you would find an acceptable solution, and we can plan out how to present it to Principal Blackwell."