My thoughts hung like loose threads, frayed and tangled. It didn’t help that I was exhausted. I leaned my head in my hands, staring at the documents in front of me. The words on the page arranged themselves into an incomprehensible shape as I fought to stay awake, and lost.
IT HAD BEEN OVER A century since I fled London with the professor, and yet he still treated me like a child.
Tonight he was in a particularly sulky mood. The weather was customarily dreary, and his office was cold and damp and in ruins. He warmed himself with a bottle of whiskey, his preferred poison, and scribbled furiously in one of his books. Torn paper and worn books littered the scarred wooden floor. I watched him in silence.
Something had caught his attention recently, focused him in a way I had never before seen. A coming shift, he called it. He thought he might have discovered a way to trigger it. But he refused to share his thoughts with me.
He had cared for me during the fevers as my Gift blossomed inside of me, as my body changed to accommodate it. He forced me to eat when food lost all its taste. He comforted me during my night terrors and caught me, stopped me, the first time I tried to do myself harm.
But I didn’t need him for those things now—I hadn’t in many, many years. I had shed the girl who had fled London in darkness, the one who cried over her husband of one night. I was strong, bold, and I could control myself perfectly. If I wanted to.
I did not want to anymore.
I’d grown tired of pretending to be someone else just so I could be safe for others. I wanted to be who I was. The professor knew me the way no one else did, which was why I wanted to be with him. But no matter how I broached the subject, he dismissed it. Dismissed me. He still wouldn’t even tell me his name.
The sound of shattering glass snapped me to attention. The professor sat stick straight at his desk, staring at nothing.
No. Not nothing. I followed his gaze to a painting of himself that hung on the opposite wall. It had been given to him by a student, he’d said, and though he would not tell me which, I had my suspicions—the style was familiar and distinctive. But the picture glistened with the remains of his drink, making his skin and hair look wet. The fiery scent of spilled whiskey mingled with that of his old books.
“What is it?” I asked gently.
He didn’t answer, so I stepped between his desk and the portrait. He looked right through me, as if I were invisible.
But I would be seen tonight. I would be felt.
I skirted the edge of his desk, until I came to his chair. “What is your name?” I asked him, not gently at all. “Tell me.”
He smiled a little. I’d been asking that question for a very long time. Each time I asked, he would give me a different answer.
But this time, tonight, he reached for a scrap of paper, a torn-out map. My heartbeat quickened. He wrote something on it in a language I’d never learned to read, and showed it to me.
I smoothed my finger over the words. “I am in love with you,” I said.
“I raised you,” he replied, and did not meet my eyes.
“You did not raise me. Sarah Shaw raised me—”
“Until you were eighteen. Then I took you, I taught you—”
I moved over to him, pressed my hand to his cheek. He flinched. I didn’t move. “I know you watched me when I was young. I know you feel responsible for me. But you are not my parent and I am no longer young.”
“This is wrong.” His voice was blank and empty.
I climbed onto his lap. “It doesn’t feel wrong,” I said. There was no sound except for our breath, and the slither of a belt being pulled through its loop. I kissed him below his jaw. He shuddered a breath, and I kissed his lips, just once.
It was enough.
The professor was gone when I woke the following morning. I bore a daughter nine months later. I did not see the professor again for twenty-one years.
Laurelton, Rhode Island
Twenty-one years later
The Professor knocked on the door of my cottage on the morning of Indira’s graduation from Brown. I did not want to open the door for him, but I knew I had no choice. He didn’t look a day older than he had when I’d last seen him. Then again, neither did I.
“I found him,” he said to me, his eyes lit with a childish excitement that was incongruous with the dark, serious suit he wore. He looked like an undertaker.
“What are you doing here?”
“I found the one.”
“Please leave,” I said flatly.
“Don’t you dare say my name. You have no right to say anything to me.”
He closed his eyes. “May I come in?”
I wanted to close the door in his face, but I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t leave even if I did. He would stand there, sleep there, turn up everywhere I went, until he gave me the message he wanted me to hear.
“You left me,” I said, as I let him in. I didn’t have to make it easy.
The professor’s gaze fell to his feet. “I saw what would happen to her if I’d been there. It was for your, and her, protection.”
“That’s so convenient, isn’t it? You can excuse anything that way, can’t you? By saying it couldn’t be otherwise, that you had no choice. So why are you here now? What do you want from me? I want you gone before Indi finds you here.”
“There’s a girl. I need you to befriend her. She’s passionate, hyperintelligent, but skeptical.” His words were rushed—I’d never seen him so excited. “She won’t listen to me. You’re the only one who will be able to persuade her to do what’s necessary to have the child.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because your daughter is pregnant.”
I blinked, stunned. “What?”
“She didn’t want to tell you until after she’d graduated. She’s going to marry her boyfriend. She thought you’d disapprove.”
I sat down, rested my elbows on my knees, my head in my hands.
“It’s recessive, Mara—Her child might be a—”
My head snapped up. “Have you seen anything?”
“The child’s fate is too tightly wound with mine, so I can’t distinguish the threads. But I know that we need the boy Naomi will have. We need a Hero. Just in case Indira’s turns out to be a—”
Shadow. Like me. He didn’t need to say it.
“Your ability will fade as Indira’s child begins to manifest. But if the boy is born of the girl, Naomi, there might be a way—if you die by his hand, you might be able to reverse it. End the cycle completely.”