The fire in his eyes was intense and frightening, but more complex than I had anticipated. I was doing more than ruining a well-laid plan—I was taking away the title by which he defined his life, and I’d expected to see burning hatred. It was there, seething in shivers through his body, but it wasn’t alone. I saw defiance, and a wheedling persuasion, that expert emotion that he’d used to fool me. There was fear, and surprisingly, resignation. The urge to fight was there, but he hadn’t made a move. It had been easy to paralyze him because this was the way things were supposed to be, the natural order completing its cycle at last. When I thought I caught a glimpse of relief, I stopped looking. I couldn’t get past the way his presence made my limbs feel weak, as if all I was capable of was curling into a corner. I wasn’t ready to be objective.
In my peripheral vision I could see Jadin, and I did my best to give him a once-over. His body was a coiled spring, ready to launch itself between The Elder—John—and me if necessary. Still protecting me, even though the dominant emotion on his face was confusion. This time though, I didn’t need protection. It was why I’d insisted that Emily and Eli stay on the other side of the closed door. And they’d listened. Because I was in charge. They’d known I’d meant it when I’d said it wasn’t their place. This was a private matter, a torch-passing ceremony made complicated because I’d had to rip it from John's hands and conduct it myself. Once I was satisfied that Jadin was okay, I let even him fade into the background.
It had been quiet since I’d made my declaration. I’d made the words as simple as possible, trying to fool myself into believing that they were casual so that I could get them past my reluctant lips. I hadn’t been completely convinced they’d work, but I could feel that they had. I felt larger and somehow more solid, weighed down by the responsibility I’d inherited. I knew that when I spoke again, I’d be listened to, and understood implicitly that I had a decision to make: old rules or new ones. Punishment or redemption. The choice was mine.
I stared stolidly ahead, watching John, saving my words, wondering what I was supposed to do next. He still hadn’t walked very far from the large chair in the middle of the room. I felt my muscles tense, even the new ones in my shoulders that controlled my wings. This was a man who had nothing left to lose. Only my declaration that he had no power was holding him back, and that was an uncomfortably fragile prison. I made sure to hold all of my doubt back, using the length of my spine to convey a confidence I didn’t feel.
At last, the liquid emotion in John’s eyes cooled into stone. He smiled condescendingly, as if I were a child who had dared to suggest that their fourth grade math skills would be enough to help their father file taxes. It was a decidedly cruel expression.
“Such a noble gesture,” he said, falling back on cutting words, the only power he had left. He managed to turn the adjective into a curse word.
I shrugged my shoulders and felt that resignation in my own chest. “Not really. It’s why I’m here.”
“Of course,” he sneered. “To help people. To make up for not saving a five-year-old.”
“No,” I said resolutely, refusing to feel shame. I’d made my choice about Katie and wouldn’t let the low blow hurt me. “To help you understand that this can’t last forever.”
He hid his confusion well under contempt, but couldn’t obliterate it. He would never ask, but I explained anyway.
“You could never have kept lying to them forever. Someone, sometime, would have slipped through. I’m just a coincidence.” I breathed deeply, steeling myself, fighting the way the hardness of his eyes made me want to cross my arms protectively. “At some point, the punishment has to end.” New rules it would be then, or new to most. A return to the beginning. A chance to reset and try again.
For a millisecond I saw that unsettling relief again, and then he laughed. “Fine,” he spat. “Take it.” And he moved away from the chair, leaving a path for me as if the choice was his to make. “Tell them the truth. See how long your ideals last when the chaos starts. No one wants to know. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
I nodded in agreement, though I only half believed him. I’d seen the pain in Jadin’s eyes and knew that he’d been longing for a resolution, even if it came with guilt. “Maybe,” I assented. “But that’s step two, John.”
He looked at me with understanding and not a little fear. Jadin made a low noise, and involuntarily, he backed away.
“Step one is me,” John confirmed. “Go ahead. Take your revenge.” He tried for nonchalance, like he was the victim and I was impossible to reason with, but the veneer had cracked. I’d died too quickly to understand his expression: a mixture of dread and pugnacity and hopeless acceptance.
“No,” I repeated, this time in a low and tired voice. He thought that I wanted revenge, and most of me knew that I deserved to get it. If not for me, for that cold feeling in my chest I refused to interpret, then for my friends. For other lives like mine that had borne punishment that wasn’t meant for them. Yet all I saw in front of me was a warped man who should have been bent by the weight of his deeds and wasn’t. I saw the first decision out of thousands I would have to make over and over and over and understood that, eventually, I wouldn’t feel it anymore either.
“I banish you, John,” I said, authority bubbling with unfamiliar resonance in my voice. John closed his eyes, braced against an expected blow. “But it’s not up to me to decide where you go.”
His eyes snapped open to reveal naked revulsion. It was the last emotion, his fallback, and it made me feel sorry for him.
There was a rushing sensation in the room, a force summoned by my authority but far above it. Higher management. I felt the sensation fill the room, building toward a zenith, spiraling toward John.
I turned away with my eyes clenched shut. I understood his fear now, and even his hatred. It would have been easier if I’d judged him. He could have retained his arrogance and left believing that I was silly and would fail. But I couldn’t judge him, not when I felt that same title on my shoulders and understood how easy it was to buckle under it. It wasn’t my place to decide how much weight that excuse carried. He thought that he deserved retribution and I didn’t have the courage to see if he was right.
Finally, I gave in to my desire, curling protectively into myself and covering my ears. The energy in the room grew heavy, tugging until I thought it was coming for me too.
Then it ebbed. Slowly.
I focused on breathing, listening to the muted rasping sound as my knees shook. It felt as if the world might have disappeared while my eyes were closed.
I had nearly convinced myself that it was true until hands touched mine, prying them carefully from my ears.
“Alli,” I heard Jadin say.
I looked up at him awkwardly. He was wearing an expression of awe and respect that I could barely comprehend. All I knew was that it was so much kinder than the loathing that had been focused on me and that gave me the strength to straighten.
I looked around. Just once. John was gone.
Jadin was in front of me and I focused on that. Looking at him made me feel solid again. I took in his clothes, black again, like when I’d first met him. He had coiled them close to his back, but I could see his wings, glowing softly and painfully familiar. I took another deep breath, accepting what I’d done as a new reality while Jadin held my hands.
“Okay,” I told him. “I promised to listen. Talk to me.”