“I’m not going home.” Abednego lifted his chin up and stared at Luke, daring him to tell him differently. “I am never going back there. And if I see Shad or Meesh now, I’m gonna do something I’m not ready to do right.”
“Some students don’t go home,” Luke answered mildly. “You don’t have to. But.”
Abednego tensed. “But, sir?”
“Come with me.”
“Yes, sir.” He followed Luke, noting with some surprise that he was taller than the PE teacher. Had Luke always been that short? Abednego had only gained a couple inches with his Change and he was looking over Luke’s head. “Where are we going?”
“I want you to work with your Mentor and pick an independent study this year. One with her, one other one, and one with me in combat. You should go see Mendosa, too, but I won’t force it.”
“Sir?” More classes?
“Figure out what you want to do. I don’t think you had much time for that this year.” Luke turned around. “Oh, don’t look like that.” He snorted. “It’s not a punishment. It comes with an upside.”
He pulled open a door to the outside that Abednego had never seen before. “Upside?”
“Laurel says you’ve got a nature Change, and that’s pretty obvious, looking at you. So you shouldn’t spend all summer inside.”
His heart sank more. “I could take a job? Working with the green-haired lady who does all the landscaping?”
“Valentina.” Luke grunted in approval. “Not what I meant, though. This way.” He led towards the Village, walking in an easy stride that somehow Abednego had to work to keep up with. “Look. It’s supposed to be a vacation. So pick study subjects that are fun. And don’t put yourself around people that are going to hurt you. That’s why you’re staying here, right?”
“I… yeah.” Abednego cleared his throat. “So um, what are we?”
“Have you seen the Village?”
“Only from a distance. Joff brought me out here a couple times. Mostly to get me away from Rafe, I think.”
“He’s a good kid. He’s gonna have a hard time out there, I think.”
“Joff?” Abednego thought about it. “No. I mean, I get it. He looks like a victim. But he only looks like a victim. He’s tougher than either Eris or Rafe. And he figured out how to make friends. I don’t think either of them have.”
Luke snorted. “Yeah. Guess you got a better look at it than most people. Uh, the Village here,” he shifted the subject with a little cough, “this is where some of the support staff and some of the teachers live, some students that don’t uh, want to leave, one reason or another, and things like that. So there’s a library and a grocery store and a bar, and there’s Maureen’s creche where a lot of the kids live -” He paused and looked at Abednego.
“I know about the kids. I mean, Rafe and Joff have their two and Eris has one she gets all skittish when she goes to see. So I figured out a lot of it before they told me.”
Luke’s wings shifted. “Your brothers’ kids are here, too. Fathers don’t get any parental rights.”
“And I can’t imagine most people my brothers got close to wanting to give them any rights at all.” Abednego shook his head. “No, no, mostly, I bet Meesh didn’t care and Shadrach went along with it. If Meesh wanted to get something from someone he’d Kept the way he Kept people, he wouldn’t have any trouble getting it from them.” He twitched.
“I keep forgetting,” Luke admitted. “You’re not like them at all.”
“I’ve been telling people that for a year. Actually, for my whole life.” Abednego shook himself. “They’re not the tree my apple fell from, all that shit, you know? So where are we going? Not the creche?” Why had he even started talking about his brothers?
“Nah, but it’s good to know where those things are. Your Store money will work in the stores here, too.”
“How much of that is there?”
“If you run out, let me know and I’ll work something out. Down this way.” Luke cleared his throat and looked abashed. “I pulled some strings. I figure — don’t quote me on this — that Addergoole owes you one.”
Abednego squirmed. “Lot of people had it harder than me, sir.” He hadn’t really believed it — Eris, yes, Joff, yes, even Rafe, but he figured Rafe had made up the difference and then some from being Meesh’s little brother with being his Kept. “I mean. I watched who Sheba and that crew were helping.”
“Little late,” Luke grumbled. “Yeah. You might not have been — look. You handled it better than some. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have done something, just because Rafe and Eris had a hard time when they were Kept. This. It’s, uh. It’s not an apology. Because… like you said, lots of people have it bad here. I’m working on making it better.” His wings rustled. “Okay. Right through here.”
He led Abednego between a quaint-looking library and a bar labelled “Maureen’s”, down an alley that managed to be picturesque, and out into a neighborhood that looked just as old fashioned as Main Street. He was quiet, his wings twitching, as he navigated two blocks of cute cottages.
Abednego caught sight of a set of butterfly wings on the back of a petite woman, and, a little further on, a toddler playing with their father’s tail. The whole place had a homey feel that was in stark, painful contrast with the life he’d lived for the last year.
“Easy,” Luke murmured. “There’s a reason for this, I promise.” His hand on Abednego’s back was gentle and yet very firm. “Two more houses.. here.” He walked up to a place that looked like all the others and opened the door. “This is yours.”
Abednego stopped dead. “Say that again?”
“This house is yours. You’ll have to live in the suites like everyone else during the school year, but you can come out here on the weekends, and you can stay here in the summer. It’s yours, forever.”
“Wh – why? I mean, lots of people had it worse than me, lots of people had bad Keepings.”
“Anyone from the school can get a house here in the Village when they graduate. It’s just that we’re giving it to you early.” He gestured. “Because your bad didn’t end when your Keeping did, and it might not for a while, and none of that is your fault.” His wings twitched a bit. “It’s a place away from everything.”
“I-” Abednego cleared his throat. “It’s for me, just for me?”
“Just for you. Just,” Luke went back to gruff in a heartbeat, “keep up with training, take a couple independent studies like I said. And this is all yours.”
I-” Abednego sat down on the small porch. “Thank you.”
“You deserve it.” Luke took a step backwards. “When you’re ready to move stuff, let me know and I’ll give you a hand. I’ll leave you to it.”
Luke walked away, leaving Abednego sitting on the porch of his new house.