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A Flower With Thorns

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When Zan returned to the kitchen, he found Kaya had brought Nemone an assortment of clean clothes. Nemone picked through them with a listless air, sorting her selections into a pile on the table. "Whose are these?" she asked, holding up a shirt several sizes too large for her tiny frame. 

"There are boxes and boxes full of clothes left over from other foster students in the storeroom," Aren said. 

"Are there more of them now? Fosters, I mean," she asked, with a little quiver of anxiety.

"For now there’s only Adiel," Zan said.

"Oh, that boy," she said, setting the shirt back down. "I don't think he liked me being here. He…he lives here?"

"He does," Zan said. "He's a good kid. Once he understands the details, I'm sure you two will get along just fine. Why don't you go try some of these on, see what fits, and tomorrow we can see about getting you some things of your own. There's a bathroom through there, second door on the right," he said, pointing to the hall door. 

As she was gathering up the clothes from her pile, the door swung open and Adiel poked his head in. "Can I come in now? I saw the guard leave."

"Yes," Zan said. "Say hello to our new foster."

Adiel’s face went slack with surprise. "She's…staying here?"

Nemone stiffened, bristling at him reflexively. "Yeah, so?"

He glanced from her to Zan, eyes round with disbelief. 

"Nemone, this is Adiel Santos," Zan said, with a stern look at the boy over the top of her head. "Adiel, this is Anemone Tancerra. She prefers Nemone. She's been through a great deal recently, so I expect you to look after her and help her get settled here."

"I—uh, yes, of course. It's nice to meet you, Nemone," Adiel said, too shocked by this turn of events to keep his doubt from showing.

The corners of Nemone's lips turned down at the obviously obligatory politeness. "Yeah, same," she mumbled, making a wide arc around him on her way out the door. 

When it had shut behind her, Adiel looked up at Zan in horror. "She tried to steal your wallet!"

"Yes, she did, and that is the last I want to hear about it from you. Any further discussion about that incident will be between her and myself, is that clear?" Zan said. 

"I—yes," Adiel said, flushing a little at the rebuke.

Zan patted him on the shoulder. "Good. Why don't you go upstairs and get one of the empty rooms in the student wing ready for her?"

"Okay," Adiel said, and he left to do that, shoulders hunched.

Which left Zan with Kaya and Aren. Kaya wore a knowing and slightly amused expression, while Aren was clearly annoyed. "I am sorry," Zan said. "I know I ought to have discussed the possibility of taking on another foster with the two of you before making the offer." As Halcyon's bonded, they were equally responsible for any fostered children in the eyes of the law, and Zan half expected Aren to object.

"No one in this room was expecting otherwise, dear," Kaya said. "I am happy to do my part, of course. Personally, I like the idea of having more people here."

Aren scowled. "Of course I've no objection to another foster, but damn it, Zan! Did you have to go and vouch for Seya too? That girl is a train wreck waiting to happen. Has been all her damn life. I think I warned you to stay out of her way."

"You just vouched for her yourself," Zan pointed out.

"I did, but I've known her practically my whole life! What's your excuse?"

"Savior complex," Kaya said.

"I don't have a savior complex," Zan said, frowning at her.

Aren snorted. “Yeah, keeping saying that,” he said, as at the same time Kaya retorted, "You absolutely do.”

Zan furrowed his brow at them briefly, then gave a sigh, glancing toward the back door. "I should go talk to Seya. I'm afraid I've upset her. Again."

"Would you rather I to talked to her?" Kaya asked. "I feel like we have become somewhat friendly over the last few days. More so than some I could name." She cast Aren a mildly reproachful look.

"It's not my fault, she just does that to people!" Aren said. "You should have seen the way she and Jayen would go after each other when they were kids. You'd think they enjoyed shouting at each other."

"What an excuse," Kaya said. "You aren't a child anymore. You should be able to control yourself regardless of how someone else's aura strikes you. I think she's a sweet girl. She can be very charming to people who aren't needling her about her family problems."

Aren rolled his eyes. "She does that to people too," he said. He shot Zan a look. "You should keep that in mind. You're definitely the susceptible type."

"That is not what happened today," Zan protested, but Aren just exhaled loudly, zipped up his healer's kit, and carried it out to the foyer to hang it back up next to the door. 

"That boy is too much like his mother," Kaya said, shaking her head. 

Zan agreed. Winter had never been one to keep an opinion to herself. He went to the sink and started washing Nemone's blood out of Seya’s shirt. It took some minutes and great deal of purifying water energy to remove the traces that remained. That was why most people preferred fire, but Zan felt it was the least he could do.

"I told Nemone I would sleep here tonight in case she needs anything, so I'm going to go put fresh sheets in whatever room is next to hers," Kaya said.

"That will be a huge help, thank you," Zan said, examining his work critically before pulling the dampness out of the threadbare fabric with a sharp gesture. It swirled down the drain, leaving the shirt dry.

"Do you want me to talk to Seya first?"

"No, I should talk to her myself," he said. "I'm not really sure how I keep doing the exact wrong thing. But she seemed so—so hopeless that first time I saw her. I just wanted to help." He gave a deep sigh. "I should have asked if she wanted my help first. I need to apologize, I think."

Kaya patted his arm. "I don't think you've done anything that needs apologizing for. I think she's just…not great at accepting help from people. There's a story there, I'm sure, but so far she's elided all my efforts to bring it up."

"I wouldn't like to pry into something that she doesn't want to share."

"Maybe if she's staying here, she'll open up a little more. I think that would be good for her. If nothing else, Halcyon's magic will be good for the remainder of her recovery. She certainly has lit up the resonances, hasn't she? I wonder if it's just recognition," she mused. 

Zan doubted that himself.

Nemone came back into the kitchen, wearing a clean but slightly rumpled t-shirt and a pair of jeans that fit her well enough, the rest of the clothes she had chosen folded into a rough bundle in her arms.

"Don't you feel better now?" Kaya asked.

"I guess," Nemone said, eyes fixed firmly on the floor. "Um—I didn't know what to do with the stuff that didn't fit?"

"I'll put it back in the storeroom later," Zan said. "Kaya, will you take her upstairs and show her where to put her things?"

"Of course. Come along, dear. You're going to like it here, I promise," Kaya told her, putting a comforting arm around the girl’s shoulders. 

Zan hoped that was true. He gave his new ward one last reassuring smile as Kaya led her out of the kitchen, then headed outside. 

Seya was slumping over the garden wall with her face in her hands. Zan took a spot next to her, a respectful arm's length away, which was the average sense range of a high spiritualist wearing courtesy shields. Hers were much denser than that, but he thought it prudent to set an appropriate boundary on her behalf, considering what he had learned about her magic.

She straightened a little, dropping her hands and folding her arms across the top of the wall, pressing her hands firmly against the stone, though not before Zan caught the way they shook. Her face was set into the stiff expression of someone who was deeply upset and trying not to let it show, her breathing too deep and deliberate to be natural.

"Should I ask one of the healers to come out here for you?" he asked. "Kaya is very good with panic attacks."

"No, it'll pass. It always does." Her voice sounded brittle. 

Zan set her shirt down on the wall next to her. "I thought you might be more comfortable with this."

She gave him an incredulous look, but after a long moment, she picked it up and shrugged it on. "Thanks," she said. 

"I really am very sorry," Zan said. "This is not what I meant to happen when I offered to vouch for you."

She gave a sharp, bitter laugh. "I should hope not. It's tantamount to government sponsored kidnapping."

Zan shifted uncomfortably, looking out over the view from the wall with troubled eyes. "Of course I would not force you to stay here against your will." It was a pained concession, torn between the letter of the law and his own conscience. 

"Yeah, that'd be a great way to repay a man who's done nothing but help me every single time I've met him," she said, hunching her shoulders. 

He glanced at her in surprise. "I don't consider that you owe me anything. I haven't done anything I wouldn't have expected of any other decent person. It's fine—"

"It's not fine," Seya interrupted. "You defied the most powerful man in town on my behalf and then helped save my life, and I was rude and ungrateful, and now I've put myself in a position where I have to either impose myself on your kindness or risk your good name. And I'm sorry. I meant to keep my troubles away from this place, I just—I didn't have anywhere else to bring her."

"There's nothing to forgive," Zan said. "It's all the more understandable now that I know you have good reason to object to the—ah—the intrusion. And I am very glad you brought Nemone here. It bothered me, not knowing what had happened to her. I regretted not going after her myself that day."

Seya studied the wall under her hands. "Understandable, maybe, but I still should have thanked you, at least. So thank you."

"You are quite welcome," Zan said. "But that does not excuse my part in inadvertently trapping you here."

She straightened, rolling her eyes. "Look, Montreides, if anyone's to blame for that, it's me, for being such a damn hellion growing up, and not being able to keep my mouth shut now. I'm sure Aren has already filled your head with tales of my horrible teenage delinquency." 

"He may have told us a few stories," Zan admitted. "And delinquent isn’t the word I’d use to describe you.” She snorted at that. “But still. I have a little influence with the city administration. I'm sure if I went to talk to them tomorrow I could at least persuade them to transfer the restriction to your bond-brother's household."

"No, don't waste any of your goodwill with the city administration on me. I can't just leave this thing with Nemone for someone else to fix, anyway. If I can find out what happened with her family and get this settled, the guard won't have any reason to keep me here."

"I'm sure once Nemone calms down and realizes she's safe here, she'll be able to tell us enough about her problems that the guard will be able to sort it out themselves," Zan said.

Her expression made it very obvious where her opinion of the guard's abilities lay.

"Are you hungry?" Zan asked. "I can make you something."

"Maybe in a little while," she said, her eyes dropping back down to her hands. She fiddled with her shirt cuff, twisting the restriction tie over the thin, faded fabric in an effort to get it off her skin. 

"Is there anything I should do? While you're staying here?"

"Just keep your hands to yourself and you'll be fine," she said. "I told you, I wouldn't—"

"No, I meant for you. To make you more comfortable?"

"You mean other than keeping your hands to yourself? No, not a lot." 

Zan winced. He was acquainted with the experience of getting uncomfortably close to other people's feelings, but he had been a child then. It was an unfortunate part of the territory for people with early onset spiritual magic. He had grown out of that phase fairly quickly himself, but not everyone did. And he had been dwelling rather deeply on his life in Castiverre since he'd first seen her. Those old memories were enough to upset anyone. Of course she wouldn't want to be exposed to them again. "I hope I haven't given you the impression that I routinely put my hands all over new acquaintances as a rule. That was rather an extraordinary set of circumstances."

"No, you're definitely the type who likes to buy them dinner first," she said, with a slight smirk. "Oh, but you did just offer to feed me, though."

He was taken slightly off guard by the change of tone, but only for a moment. "That is true. One more black mark against my trustworthiness, I daresay."

"Two," she said. "You offered to feed me last week too." That made him smile, but then the guarded expression came back to her face. "Please, if there is anything you need—if you don't know your bond brother's dial sigil, I could take a message to him myself."

"No," she sighed. "I don’t want to put you out that way. I'm sure someone will be along directly to check on me. Everyone knows this is the only other place I would come in Starling. Speak of the devil," she said. Zan straightened as he felt the tell-tale shiver of the gate wards opening and closing. Seya's expression went stiff and irritated, and a moment later Adiel came out the kitchen door, and storming along behind him was Jayen. 

"What are you doing here?" she asked as Zan regarded him with bemusement and a little irritation of his own. Jayen's clear lack of restraint with his spiritual magic was already upsetting the resonances.

"I could ask the same thing! Don't take clan business to our rivals, especially not this rundown joke of a school!"

Adiel gave an outraged gasp. Zan's lips quirked into a humorless smile. "I did not realize you considered us as rivals, Mr. Malthusius," he said dryly.

Jayen shot him a flat look before turning back to Seya. "That girl's been linked to the people who are sabotaging us. You should’ve brought her to me. We could have taken care of this business ourselves, without involving the guard."

"Technically, it's the guard's job to do that now," Seya said.

"And they're doing a bang up job, aren't they, letting some small time schoolteacher who was rejected by his own clan look after the only witness!"

Zan regarded him rather coldly at that, but before he could say anything himself, Seya had stormed up to Jayen, fury radiating out from her aura. "Don't you dare talk that way about anyone at Halcyon!" she snapped. 

The two of them glared at each other. Zan observed that they did not have much family resemblance. Aside from the color of their eyes and a certain squarish set to their cheekbones, neither looked enough like their father or each other to be recognized as blood by a casual observer. The similarities were mostly in their personalities: sharp tongues and quick tempers and brick wall stubbornness, and a little clashing spark that lit in their auras as soon as they saw one another. It did not seem like either one would give in, but then Jayen set his jaw and said, in a tone that was not quite civil but at least not outright hostile, "The guard said you were on voluntary restriction, here. Why would you even agree to that? At least get yourself restricted to Vico's place."

"It wasn't anything like voluntary," Seya said. "What do you want?"

Jayen glanced at Zan again with an unfriendly prickling in his aura. "Not in front of him," he snapped. 

Seya rolled her eyes. "What do you think he's going to do? He's a teacher, not some magic-mad petty tyrant!"

"It's clan business!"

"If you prefer privacy I can go inside," Zan said.

"Please," she said, exasperated.

Zan nodded. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything." He went back inside, gesturing for Adiel to come along with him.

 

 

"Arrogant coward," Jayen growled under his breath as the back door shut behind the two of them.

"He's not a coward, and you sure as hell don't have any room to talk about arrogance," Seya retorted. "Tell me what you want or go the fuck away."

"You should have just let us take care of this! I could have cleared this mess up without you getting restricted."

"I don't need anything from Malthusius," she snapped. Then she frowned at him, the thin threads of their fledgling bond flickering in her sense. Was he—worried about her? That couldn't be right. Saving her life was one thing, and the bond still hanging on was another—blood ties did not fade easily—but for him to actually be worried about her was vaguely unsettling. "What do you want?" she asked more calmly.

His eyes narrowed suspiciously at her sudden change of tone. "I came to check on you, obviously. Vico would kick my ass if anything happened to you on my watch."

Of course that was the reason. Seya rolled her eyes at herself for thinking it could be anything else. "I'm fine. They won't let me go back to Vico's place because someone decided he's a person of interest. Apparently my entirely justified loathing of Malthusius makes his harboring me suspect."

"That's fucking ridiculous," Jayen said. "If they know that much, they ought to know about the damn bond."

"They knew," she said. "But it's not an official thing that they can hang a restriction on."

"But they can hang it on Halcyon?"

"Apparently I'm still listed as a student," she said. "You didn't come all the way here just to check on me. What do you really want?"

"What happened? I've only had the report from my people, and that's not much."

"The kid's name is Nemone, and she was staying with some relatives who weren’t treating her very well. She broke a window to escape, got spooked by Rena on the way to Vico's place. Her cousin's husband attacked the place trying to get her back. I brought her here. We got attacked on the way by her cousin."

"Rheta Talles?" he said.

She frowned up any him. "It sounds like you already know more than I do. What have you learned?"

"The man who attacked at Windack is Arton Talles, married to Rheta Talles. Rena used the blood traces you left from cleaning the kid's injuries to find out where they were staying, a rental property on the southeast edge of town. Grungy little hole of a place, according to the people I sent out to check on it. They're from some county up north. My people had him down, but he had allies, someone in a car came tearing up the street, blasted Canto and got away with Talles." 

"Is Canto all right?" Seya asked, with a pang of guilt. 

"They're fine." Jayen said.

"Good." Even if Canto was Malthusius, they didn't deserve to get hurt because she was an idiot who was constitutionally incapable of minding her own business.

"We linked Talles to another open case through the vehicle, so we're officially cooperating with the guard. If you had just stayed put, you might have avoided this whole mess." He waved to indicate the school.

"Yes, being trapped here is so much worse than being trapped in Vico's matchbox of an apartment. What did he say about this?"

"If I had been able to find him before I came here I'd have asked him," Jayen said.

"You couldn't find him?" Seya asked with a spark of alarm. She reached reflexively for their bond, but it was too weak to reach through Halcyon's closed wards, much less across the town to try to find him. "Where could he be? You don't think—"

"He was sent out on a mediation job, according to his department head, but he left his bond sigil in his desk, so no one's been able to ping him. One of these days I'm going to find out how he does that," Jayen said irritably. "No one else can avoid being pulled into the clan bond that way."

"He's good at deflecting. That's what made him such a reliable anchor. Why are you here fussing at me when you could be out finding him?"

Jayen made a bitter face. "I have my people watching for him. But this is my job. I need to speak to the kid. She's the only witness, and I need to know what her family was up to."

"She wouldn't even talk to the guard," Seya said. "She's definitely not going to talk to a Malthusius. She was terrified half to death when she thought your people were after her. Anyway, she's in Halcyon's custody now, so I'm not the one you need to ask."

“Well, fuck,” Jayen muttered.

"Should have been more polite then, shouldn't you," Seya said.

"This is ridiculous. There's no reason to deny a request for an interview."

"No, just a traumatized child whose guardians were smacking her around for months."

He started, some of the color going out of his face, his scowl falling away. "I'll come back tomorrow then."

Seya watched him a moment. "It still bothers you that much?" she asked.

"Of course it bothers me," he snapped, his expression snapping back to its usual glower. "How could it not still bother you?"

"I still have nightmares about it sometimes," she said. "His face—" She couldn't even finish the thought. She had still been unconscious when Winter brought Vico back to Halcyon that day, but she had seen some of the damage his father had inflicted before Dalen was done healing it up, had felt the bone-deep hurt that could only come from a fifteen year old boy absorbing the knowledge that his father really would have beaten him to death. Even being estranged from his father for years at the time, it had not been an easy thing for Vico to deal with. 

They had a moment of silent solidarity, because the fact that Trevin Rhaimes should have been more thoroughly punished for that was the one thing they could agree on unequivocally.

It was a short moment. Jayen made an impatient noise in his throat and said curtly, "There's no damn reason for you to have to stay here. I'll go talk to the guard. If they don't like it, they can have it out with our lawyers in the morning."

"I'm not leaving. This is my responsibility, and I'm not abandoning Nemone until she's secure here, and I'm not accepting anymore Malthusius help, either. If you're done talking, you should go. Maybe apologize to Montreides first, though," Seya said, and she went back inside. 

Zan was standing at the stove, making a pot of herbal tea, the spicy, minty smell of it filling the kitchen. Seya jolted to a halt under a rush of nostalgia it invoked—that particular blend had been Dalen's favorite. "Is everything all right?" he asked, his eyes flicking to the door as Jayen stalked into the kitchen after her, his aura a tangle of strong emotions. Adiel moved to the other side of the room, wary. 

Aren, sitting at the table impressing memory charms for his own records, sat up to scowl at Seya and then Jayen, but before he could say anything, Jayen started in again. "You can't be serious," he said. "Vico is going to be mad as hell if I don't bring you back."

"Vico isn't my mother," Seya snapped, the tension she'd been trying to suppress flaring into genuine anger. "And neither are you—"

"No, your mother wanted to leave you here!" 

Seya felt as if she'd been punched, guilt and grief and raw fury sparking out, slamming through the bond right, staggering him backwards into the counter. Then she hit him, a solid punch to the jaw. Caught completely by surprise by the double blow, he staggered backwards into the cabinets hard enough to rattle the dishes inside. "How dare you even talk about my mother after what the Malthusius did to her, you son of a bitch!"

Jayen's touched his jaw where she had hit him, eyes wide. Even Seya was a bit shocked at herself; she'd never been one for physical attacks, not when magic came so easily to her. Remorse flickered, unbidden, in their bond, but that was not enough to calm her, and he didn't apologize. 

Zan moved between them. "I'm afraid I must ask you to leave, Mr. Malthusius," he said.

"Like I want to be here," Jayen snarled, and shoved past Zan, out of the kitchen. The front door slammed shut behind him.

"I do hope this doesn't cause trouble with the officers outside," Aren said. 

Seya went to the window. There was a Malthusius car out across the road, parked near the patrol vehicle, and Micah was talking to the officers, who did not seem unduly alarmed by the Malthusius presence. 

"I suppose that's to be expected," Zan said with a sigh, shutting the wards back behind Jayen. "The Malthusius still maintain a great deal of influence over local politics."

"He said they were cooperating with the investigation," Seya said, subdued. She sank down onto a chair, rubbing her hand. "Sorry. I shouldn't have lost my temper. Again."

"Would it count as another strike against me if I said I found that a tiny bit satisfying?" Zan asked. "Not that I'm condoning violence," he added, as Adiel and Aren both turned to him in shock. "But he was terribly rude."

"Gods, I've been here what, an hour? And I've already corrupted you to this degree. You should probably kick me out now. I'll go with the guard quietly this time," she sighed, not entirely joking.

"I don't think that will be necessary," Zan said, with the barest hint of a smile. "But I would appreciate it if you refrained from assaulting anyone else while you're here."

"It'll be fine as long as no one else talks about my mother," she said.

"I'll bear that in mind. Shall I go prepare you a room for tonight?" he asked.

She sighed. "I suppose that would be the thing to do. Thank you."

"Think nothing of it," Zan said. "Adiel, if you wouldn't mind helping me."

She watched him leave from the corner of her eye. Aren gave her a hard look. "What?" she said testily.

"Nothing," he said. "Do you want me to look at your shoulder before I go back to my house, or are you enjoying the discomfort?"

"So help me, Aren—"

He raised his hands in a mock-conciliatory gesture and went to pour himself a cup of tea. "Far be it from me to violate my healer's oath by treating an adult who is presumably in her right mind against her will." Seya turned away from him in irritation. 

A few minutes later Kaya returned. "Nemone is settling into her room," she said. "I tried to talk to her, but she still seems a bit reticent to discuss her problems. I was hoping she might be more receptive to someone with a similar background."

"I don't know if she'll talk to me either. She was pretty upset that I brought her here," Seya said, but she went to go try anyway. It was the least she could do, she figured, and she didn't have anything else to do anyway.