Thomas was reaching for his hairbrush when the spasm hit. The brush fell from cramped fingers and clattered on the counter as he fell hard to the floor. Muscles throughout his body seized, and searing pain flashed through him, as if his blood had turned to acid. He could see his hand out of the corner of his eye and the way his fingers twitched as blackened veins pulsed under his skin.
“Thomas?” His sister called through his bedroom door. “Are you all right?”
He could hear the worry in Katherine’s voice and tried to answer, but couldn’t get out more than a slight wheeze. He forced himself to remain calm, focusing on the tiny bit of air that was able to squeeze through his paralyzed vocal cords as he tried to time the spasm.
“Thomas?” She knocked on the door. “Thomas? Should I get help?” She sounded close to tears, and he prayed she didn’t try to come in to help him. He couldn’t let her see him like this.
His vision turned a sickly yellowish green and darkness closed in. He heard the beep of failed door codes and Katherine’s crying, but the sounds distorted and grew distant. He could smell pine needles… his mission to the ice jungles and the first time he saw real, natural snow… Katey would love Zambonia.
Another pain — this one a sharp stab in his chest — and the burning in his veins ebbed away. His muscles relaxed as quickly as they seized, and Thomas gulped for air. Breathing had never felt so good.
“He’s coming out of it.”
His vision was still blurry and Thomas had to blink a few times to make out Rett kneeling next to him. Ken was on his other side, holding Thomas’ emergency injector, a flashing red light indicated it was now empty.
“Kroodles, that one sucked,” Thomas rasped, and the senior paladins both chuckled with relief.
“I’ll let Katherine know he’s all right.” Ken rose and set the injector on the counter before leaving.
“Katey… she has to be worried sick.” Thomas tried to sit up, but Rett pushed him back down.
“Don’t even think of getting up yet,” he ordered. “Katherine is just fine. Evy took her over to stay with Angie and Bet. You look like hell, though, and it will just worry her more if you go over there like this.” He fetched a pillow and placed it under Thomas’ head.
Thomas lifted a hand and watched as the blackened, pulsing veins slowly returned to normal. “All right,” he relented. “By the way… I’m running a little late.”
Rett smirked. “Maybe you should take it easy today.”
“I’m going,” Thomas declared.
“You should be going to the med wing.” Ken had returned and was standing in the doorway.
“They can’t do anything else for me.” Thomas sat up. “Even if they could, I’m still going.”
Ken arched a brow. “I could make it an order.”
“If you were in my place when Rett was released, would you stay here?” Thomas was fully aware of Rett’s fidgeting at his question, but kept his eyes on Ken.
“Nothing would hold me back.” Ken didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Rett’s the one driving, and I have another emergency injector we can take with us. If anything happens, I’ll go directly to the closest med wing.”
“I have your word on it?”
“All right,” Ken relented. “I yield.”
“Is Katey ok?”
Ken grinned. “I told her you’re all right, but she made me pinky promise before she’d stop worrying. She’s fine now.”
Thomas chuckled. “Pinky promises are sacred, so I have no choice but to be all right.” He pushed himself up off the floor. “Thanks, Ken.”
Ken smiled. “I should be going. New acolyte candidates start today, so I need to get ready to make them question all of their life choices. I’ll see you both tonight.” He nodded a farewell and disappeared down the hall.
“Hey there!” Evy stepped into the space Ken vacated and waggled her fingers goodbye. “I know from the pinky promise that you’re ok, so I I’m going to get started on Theis apartment.”
“Thanks for your help, Evy.” Rett smiled. “We’ll see you when we get back.”
Thomas waited until he heard the front door close, then looked to Rett. “Is she all right?”
The older paladin shrugged. “I was hoping you could tell me. She knows your door codes?”
“Neither of us is allowed back to work, so we’ve been helping design Dajo’s memorial.” Thomas looked down at his rumpled clothes and stripped off his torn T-shirt. “That led to us hanging out together — usually here so I’m available if Katey needs me. It made sense to give her my door codes.” He pulled on a fresh shirt. “Something happened a few days ago with R&T, but she doesn’t want to talk about it so I don’t ask. We’ve just been keeping things light.”
“Keeping things light,” Rett repeated.
Thomas paused and looked at Rett. “Nothing’s going on between us, if that’s what you’re asking.” He picked up his hairbrush and continued getting ready. “I’ve never had problems finding recreational partners and I’m not about to ruin multiple friendships by making moves on Evy.” He set down the brush and turned to get his uniform jacket, pausing to adjust the paladin insignia.
Rett nodded, satisfied. “All she’ll tell me is what I already know: her superiors are eager for her to return but the other techs are now refusing to work with her.” He rolled his eyes. “She’s younger than most of them, has more seniority, and can run circles around them in just about any technology you name. They’re just being petty and jealous that she joined R&T on my recommendation instead of going through their formal application process.”
Thomas nodded. “She humiliated them. The other techs gave up on trying to recover information from your smashed monitor, but she was able to recover data that helped lead to your rescue. She’s more deserving of a promotion than I was, and probably would have been made Commander if she were in Operations instead of R&T.”
Rett frowned. “This is my fault. She had already completed Commander training — pretty much blew the rest of her class out of the water. And then I went and suggested she may be happier in R&T than with the Order. She accepted a reduction in rank to be able to work there.”
Thomas shook his head. “It was good advice. If she didn’t enjoy working there, she wouldn’t be so frustrated at not being allowed back. Maybe she’ll be more willing to open up to Theis.” Thomas paused a moment and looked back to Rett. “What about you? Are you sure you’re up for going back to Ananke?”
Rett gave Thomas a sharp look. “You just had your worst seizure since being released from the med center. You aren’t driving. Hell, I should leave you here after that question you asked Ken.”
“He needed to realize where I was coming from, and you needed to hear his answer.” Thomas was utterly unapologetic in his reply. “And you know damn well I’m not asking about driving.”
Rett averted his gaze to glare at the wall, then sighed. “No,” he finally admitted. “But Theis was my protégé for five years. They may have exonerated him, but he’s still got a tough road ahead of him.” He looked over at Thomas. “He needs to know I’m there for him.”
Thomas nodded as he checked himself one last time in the mirror. “I’m sure it will mean a lot to him.” He took a deep breath and forced a smile. “We’d better get going before he starts walking home.”
Rett walked out to the living room and turned back to the younger paladin. “It’s hard to lose a mentor, Thomas. None of us would ever try to take Dajo’s place, but you aren’t alone, either. We’re here for you, too.”
Thomas shifted his gaze to avoid meeting Rett’s eyes, but his lips curved in a wistful smile as he thought of the petite blonde woman with an attitude and vocabulary that would make dock workers blush. “I’m pretty sure none of you are creative enough at swearing to take Dajo’s place. But I understand what you’re saying. Thank you.”
They stopped by Ken’s apartment to assure Katherine that Thomas was all right, then summoned the lift to take them down to the garage. They chatted on the ride down but grew quiet when the lift stopped on another floor and the doors opened to admit a young woman from the Lyceum faculty. Rett noticed her surreptitious glances at Thomas and the small, knowing smile that curved her lips. She scurried out of the lift before the doors fully opened on the main floor.
Rett looked at Thomas, who in turn kept his gaze averted and whistled tunelessly as they continued down to the garage.
The lift doors opened once more when they reached the garage. Their requested car was waiting for them and an attendant stood next to it, holding a command key. On seeing the paladins, the attendant approached Thomas, and Rett noticed the way the man’s fingers lingered for a moment as he handed Thomas the key.
Thomas flashed Rett a grin that stopped just short of being cocky as he passed over the key and climbed into the car. “Told you I didn’t have problems finding partners.”