Tamiko and the Two Janitors – Forthright

While Tami waited for their town’s lone stoplight to tick through its cycle, she bumped up the volume on her car radio. “… encouraging people to check in with their county’s Office of Ingress, where a team of Betweeners will be able to quickly set your mind at ease.” The talk show host cheerfully played devil’s advocate. “Is this assessment an invasive procedure? Because I’m no fan of needles, let alone fangs.” With a polite chuckle, his guest assured, “We may ask a few questions about family history, but identification takes mere moments. All we need is cooperation.” “I’m sure you’ve heard the latest rumors.” “Oh?” “The feeds and forums are plastered with warnings against the very testing you’re promoting, saying that the government is rounding up unregistered reavers for their own good.” He made that last bit sound unnecessarily ominous. Tami found the hype distasteful. The guest, who must be a reaver, patiently explained, “Many people are curious if they have ties to the In-between, and we are able to provide answers.” “For a hefty price?” “No, there’s no charge.” “Can’t argue with that. Maybe you should give us that list of names again.” “Certainly.

In America, the most common surnames that point to a possible kinship to Betweener bloodlines are Reaver, Reaves, Reeve, Eaves, Eaver, Everson, and so on. Or surnames related to specific reaver classifications, like Ward, Warden, Barr, and Battle. A full multilingual, international list can be referenced at any Office of Ingress.” Tami smiled at that. She was freshly returned from an educators conference, and more than once, people had mistaken her for a reaver, based entirely on her nametag. After the commercial break, they spun off into a discussion of the reaver practice of allowing successive generations to choose their own surnames, often based on their specialization, ranking, or birthplace. “That’s more like it,” she informed the radio. Interesting facts would do far more to further the peace process than drumming up suspicions and drowning in sensationalism. Turning into the dinky back parking lot of Landmark Elementary, Tami claimed her usual spot. They didn’t have designated parking, but ever since starting in June, she’d been the first to arrive each morning … with one notable exception.

An old jeep sat in the far corner of the lot. Again. She’d always been the early bird—and a competitive one at that. Tami had left an hour earlier than usual, just to be the first one into the school, only to be edged out by an earlier bird. Clearly, she needed to size up her rival. Tami didn’t know the first thing about cars, but the offending jeep had vintage appeal. Outdated but in good repair, with an open back and sides. Craning her neck, she spotted a couple of plaid blankets that showed signs of a shedding pet, a locked toolbox, a bale of straw, and a fifty-pound bag of sunflower seeds. Which probably added up to a handyman with a dog and several birdfeeders. “Elementary, my dear Landmark.

” Aiming for the entrance, she surmised, “The janitor did it.” The side entrance was already unlocked, and the heavy security door swung smoothly despite its weight. This early, the lights were off, leaving a gray hush in hallways that had been welcoming students for generations. Gleaming terrazzo, glass trophy cases, metal lockers, and thick corkboard. It was like stepping back in time. Tami’s girlhood had been spent in these very halls. Dad and Grandad had attended Landmark Elementary, too. Three generations. And according to her mother, high time for a fourth. She wiped her feet on the mat, and not merely for the benefit of the man coming along the hall toward her, pushing a wide dust mop.

He was taller than average and a bit boxy in his shapeless graygreen coveralls, the kind of guy who’d probably played football in high school. His most distinguishing feature was definitely his hair—long and shaggy and vividly red, gathered into a ponytail at the back of his neck. “Morning, ma’am!” he called amiably. “You’re here earlier than usual.” “So it’s your car I’m always seeing.” She fished for his name. “Wasn’t it … Mr. Kipling?” He grimaced. “Yes, ma’am, but everyone calls me Kip.” “Kip,” she acknowledged.

“Please, just call me Tami.” Brown eyes softened. “If you don’t mind, I’d like that. And yep, Coach is mine.” “Coach?” It took her a moment to catch up. “You named your jeep?” “Seemed the friendly thing to do.” Kip leaned against the broom handle. “And we like to get things squared away before things get busy.” “We?” She’d met most the staff in June, but those were informational meetings in preparation for the big conference, and attendance hadn’t exactly been mandatory. “Who’s the other half of your we? Or are you referring to Coach?” He grinned.

“Nah, I’m talking about me and Ash. We’re about as we as a couple of guys can get. Childhood friends, I guess you’d say.” “Local?” Some days, it seemed like she knew everybody in Archer, but his was a new face. “Close enough. Grew up in Fletching, but now I live up past Nocking.” He waved for her to continue and accompanied her along the hall. “How was the conference?” Tami’s heart skipped with nervous excitement. “Amazing. And intense.

We had classes from morning to night, but they were all so interesting. And I was able to meet real Amaranthine!” “Look at you, snubbing the slang!” “Our first lessons were in etiquette.” Tami shook her head. “Everyone’s always saying Rivven, even on the news. Most of the attendees didn’t even know there was a proper term.” “But they set you straight?” “Kindly.” She patted her satchel. “I brought back so much literature, and some of the information packets are thick as dictionaries. Even if we’re not selected, I’m going to read it all.” Kip propped his broom beside the office door and folded his arms over his chest.

“Seems good. No regrets.” “Not yet.” Tami’s smile wavered. “When I stop to think about it, I get nervous.” “When are you supposed to hear who got picked?” “This week. The reavers said that they’d take their recommendations to the Five, and a decision would be made quickly.” The janitor’s gaze drifted to a point over her shoulder. “And how would that decision be relayed?” “Of icial means—that’s all they said.” “So a herald, yeah?” Kip pointed.

Outside the glass double doors, a uniformed individual stood waiting. “Oh, gosh.” Tami grabbed Kip’s arm. “Oh, wow. Do you think?” “How about we ask the nice herald if he has good news?” Pulling a jangling ring of keys from one of his pockets, Kip unlocked the main door and swung it wide. The person who stepped inside wasn’t human. He was slender and pale, with snow-white hair fluffing around pointed ears. By contrast, his eyes were liquid black and bright. “Tamiko Reaverson, Principal?” he asked in a light voice. “Yes.

That’s me.” She cautiously offered her hands. “And you are?” With a soft smile, the Amaranthine rested his palms on hers. “I am Remill of the Whistledowns, one of the dove clans. We have always worked closely with reavers and are currently attached to the Office of Ingress here in Perch County.” “You’ve always lived here?” “Your home has long been my home,” he assured. “Lovely, is it not?” “It is,” she murmured. Withdrawing a heavy packet from his messenger bag, Remill said, “I am here because a communique arrived for you at our offices. And because I enjoy being the bearer of good news.” Kip whistled between his teeth.

“That’s the real deal, all right.” Tami’s fingers trembled as she prodded at wax-sealed string. The impression was of a striking cat’s paw—Hisoka Twineshaft’s own crest. “Here,” offered Kip, pulling a multi-purpose tool from one of his many pockets and unfolding a slender blade. He worked it under the seal, lifting it away. “That’ll do it.” Hands shaking even worse, she pushed the packet into Kip’s chest. “I can’t. You open it for me.” “If you want.

” He gave her a dubious look. “Isn’t this your big moment.” “This moment’s too big for one person.” Tami flapped a hand at him. “Share it with me.” “Yes, ma’am,” he said with a jaunty salute. “Okay. There’s a cover letter. Signed with a pawprint.” Tami’s brow furrowed, and she leaned in to see.

“You can’t be serious.” “I’m totally kidding.” She cuffed his shoulder. “What does it say?” The janitor straightened up, and with all the grandeur of a presenter at an awards gala, he read off the message. “Principal Tamiko Reaverson, it is with great pleasure that I am able to inform you that Landmark Elementary has been selected for the Twineshaft Initiative, alongside Archer Middle, West Branch High, and Bellwether College.” Her heart leapt. Good news, indeed! Kip winked at her over the top of the page and read on. “My committee members were favorably impressed by your passion and by your group’s ingenuity in proposing an integration program that stretches from kindergarten through graduate school. We are prioritizing a similar strategy in every state, with your schools serving as a flagship for peace. I look forward to meeting you in person.

” Kip tapped the page. “And while there’s no pawprint, it is signed by Spokesperson Twineshaft, on behalf of the Five.” And then she was squealing and bouncing, and Kip was bouncing right along with her. He brought Remill into their celebratory circle, and Tami hugged the herald and kissed his cheek. The dove gave a soft, twittering laugh, so she kissed his other cheek, as well. The blushing herald excused himself with a graceful gesture and the hope of future meetings. Kip asked, “What can I do to help?” Tami impulsively suggested, “Be on my planning team?” He thumped his chest. “I’m there.” She doubted a janitor could contribute much, but Kip’s enthusiasm was contagious. True to her assessment, he caught her hands and spun her into an impromptu waltz.

He was broad in the shoulder and bulky about the middle, but light on his feet. She laughed, and he beamed as if that had been his whole goal. “I hear the door,” he sang out. And then Mrs. Dabrowski was there, hand on her hip. “Kip, you rascal! Unhand Principal Reaverson!” He guided them closer, gave Tami a final spin, then claimed her spluttering secretary for his next partner. Switching to an energetic polka, which Flootie Dabrowski had no trouble matching, he announced, “We’re celebrating.” Mrs. Dabrowski stopped and swung around. “We got it?” she asked Tami.

Tami flung her arms wide. “We got it!” More squeals and hugging, and Tami was surprised by a few tears. She’d worked so hard for this, wanted it so much. And it was actually going to happen. “The Amaranthine are coming here, to our little town. Oh, I hope they like it.” “Why wouldn’t they? This is just as pretty a piece of countryside as you’ll find!” Flootie patted her shoulder and staunchly declared, “We’ll give them what they haven’t always found—a warm welcome.” TWO Elderbough Initiative Frowning at the single, shimmering paper that held Melissa’s assignment, the head of Perch County’s Office of Ingress asked, “What’s all this?” And even though the formidable woman—Reaver Courtney Barr, according to the brass plate on her desk—had the information in front of her, Melissa stiffly explained her sudden arrival. “Under the auspices of the Elderbough Initiative, I’ve come to make an initial evaluation of the Reaverson household in Archer. They’re relatives, and at my biological father’s request, they’ve opened their home to me.

I’ll be staying with them while commuting into Fletching, where I’m enrolling at Bellwether College.” “I can see that.” The stout woman with steel gray hair lifted the sheet and her eyebrows. “But the timestamp suggests a plan made in haste. Why?” “Miss Tamiko Reaverson, age twenty-nine, attended the recent New Saga conference for educators as an applicant for Hisoka Twineshaft’s school revitalization project. While there, she caught the attention of one of the organizers, who flagged her name in the system.” “She’s an unregistered reaver?” “If so, I’ll protect her.” Courtney asked, “Your classification, Reaver Armstrong?” Melissa squared her shoulders. “Battler.” The woman lifted a bony finger, pushed back her chair, and left the room.

Alone again, Melissa dragged in a shallow breath. She wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. It didn’t help that Reaver Barr was such a dour woman, utterly lacking in the usual brand of diplomatic charm. Melissa shifted in her seat and fiddled with her unaccustomed attire. The jeans were all right, but she missed the close fit of her tunic and the weight of her weapons belt. Her training group had been working in light armor for weeks, and she felt naked without it. Worst of all were the sandals. She might be a California girl—born and bred—but reavers did not wear flip-flops. Courtney returned with three sheets of paper. Sliding the first across the desk, she said, “Bellwether has a reaver track.

You won’t need to enroll in any general studies unless they interest you personally.” Melissa scanned the course list with increasing amazement. “I thought Bellwether College was open to the general public.” “It is. The college is one of the earliest academic institutions in America. It is also one of the first enclaves in this region.” With a stern look, she added, “Undisclosed.” Perusing the section of courses and apprenticeships available to battlers, her gaze caught on a single line. “They match Kith to battlers?” “One of the three founding clans of the Bellwether Enclave is the Nightspangle pack. Theirs is the foremost wolf-partnering program in North America.

” A steady look. “You didn’t know?” Melissa could only shake her head. “Nice to know Christopher Armstrong takes his vows seriously.” Courtney Barr slid a second sheet of paper across the desk. “He was born here, raised in the enclave, and he’s kept their secret. Christopher’s Kith partner is a Nightspangle wolf.” “Cove,” she whispered. Partnership between battlers from the mid-ranks was an appealing option for those who wished to distinguish themselves. During her homestays, Melissa always watched her mother train with her partner Magda. The two women had been a formidable team since their academy days, with Mom launching arrows that Magda imbued with crackling energy.

Their fierce combination regularly dominated in reaver tournaments, since their bolts could disrupt sigils, sear through barriers, and detonate on impact. Melissa dreamed of partnership, too, but of a different variety. During her first year at academy, she’d wandered into an area of campus not intended for small children. Four years old and lost in the armory. But the presence of so many weapons hadn’t worried her. The echoing chamber was like her mother’s special closet, but on a much larger scale. Fascinated, she’d explored the various cases, earning a shallow slice on one finger from a dagger and pricking another on a particularly beautiful arrow. She could still remember its fiery fletching, for it had been trimmed with phoenix feathers. Right about then, she’d found herself nose-to-nose with an enormous feline. The Kith must have been some sort of lynx, for Melissa remembered tufted ears and speckled fur.

As well as pale green eyes that shone with intelligence and amusement. Scruffing her like a wayward kitten, the big cat had carried her like a prize back to the correct dormitory, where the teenaged girl assigned to Melissa had breathed a sigh of relief and held her close. Then taught her how to properly thank the Kith. The dye was set. Throughout her schooling, Melissa was most comfortable with her Kith acquaintances or her Amaranthine instructors. Her reserve never confused them. They knew when she was happy or confused or frightened or angry, and they modified their behavior to match her mood. Her awkwardness in expressing herself never mattered. Without a word, she was understood. So she donned a battler’s colors and took her father’s name, all to increase her chances of being matched with a Kith companion.

As far as she was concerned, nothing else mattered. Courtney Barr indicated the second paper. “Christopher Armstrong may not have told you about Bellwether Enclave, but his recommendation has been on file with the Nightspangle pack since your fifth birthday.” “That’s nearly twenty years ago.” “The waiting list for whelped Kith is longer than a founding family’s pedigree.” The woman studied Melissa’s transfer papers again, and her lips pursed. “You’re not contracted?” “No.” Reaver Barr gave up waiting for an explanation. “With your lineage, you can’t be lacking for offers.” Melissa wouldn’t apologize for her decision to prioritize finding a Kith partner over her duty to the In-between.

A husband would only complicate things, and an ill-timed pregnancy could undercut her eligibility if a potential partner became available. Mom and Magda had supported her choice to remain single, even though she’d had to pay a hefty fee on her twenty-third birthday. “I withdrew my name from the register.” Melissa quietly stood her ground. “My age, my lineage, and my whereabouts are currently … undisclosed.” Courtney didn’t bat an eye. “Good for you, honey.” “Th-thank you?” The third sheet of paper crossed the desk. “This is today’s threat advisory. Given the founding principle behind the Elderbough Initiative—pack is pack, care for your own—I suspect this is the real reason Naroo-soh Elderbough hustled you out this way.

” “The rogue.” Melissa nibbled at her lip as she studied the map and its legend. Clusters of red dots spanned three states without any discernable pattern. “The few reports I’ve seen describe him as opportunistic … vicious … and elusive.” “Three of the rogue’s most recent attacks have been blamed on werewolves, which is utterly ridiculous. We’ve had to withdraw more than half of the Elderbough trackers because the sight of wolves in any context sends the public into a panic.” Courtney’s expression darkened. “Surgeons spent most of last night fighting to save the lives of Kith trackers who ran into the path of a citizen’s patrol. Three scraped through. Two died.

Shot by silver bullets.”

.

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