Was there a reason behind it? Even if there was, it didn't matter. Stealing was stealing, and even the best of intentions wouldn't erase the fact it was bad. Malik narrowed his eyes and brought his knees up to his chin. Besides, anyone could try and rationalize bad behavior.

The whelping pool in front of him bubbled and frothed black, spitting up chunky grey bits, though there hadn't been a birthing for a good three or four days. He tried not to think about what those bits were. The scent of blood hung in the air like fragrance, burning his nose. He could have imagined himself anywhere if the blood around him wasn't so damn pungent. Not that he minded. Bloodlust was good right before an initiation. You either walked into one in frenzy, or walked in calm. Damned if you were anywhere in the middle.

Feet squished in the mucky earth behind him. His aura senses tingled and went to analyze the creature approaching him, then returned to report what they learned. She was young, in heat. That wasn't surprising. The mating ritual was soon. Not that he wanted to deal with sexual desire right now. You don't mix it with bloodlust. Everyone knew that. Even a half-blood like him knew it.

Then came the warm sensation of familiarity.

It's Toby, he thought, tensing. He didn't want to talk to her. She looked virtually identical to the one who had caused this whole mess—he'd see his face in hers, and hell would open again. But then he shook his head. Like she could choose her brother! He wouldn't deny part of him wanted her here anyways. If someone could talk sense into my skull, it's her. She knows me, knows how I function.

He grumbled softly, sensing her growing closer. She's probably come to make me reconcile. I want to understand, but I don't want to forgive. Stealing is stealing. The trust was broken. There's no reconciliation in there.

Toby bit her lip, staring at him with huge brown eyes—he could see her out of the corner of his peripheral vision. Maybe I jumped ahead of myself, he thought, Maybe she doesn't want to nag me about Calc. Maybe she wants to cheer me up—though I don't really want it. Do I? I don't know. What do I want?

That seemed simple enough. Get the initiation over. Go back to his cabin afterwards, clean off the blood, dress the wounds, go to sleep. Preferably before Calc returned.

She sat down next to him, watching him for a few moments. He thought about getting up and leaving, but she'd follow. And it wouldn't solve anything anyway. Maybe she'd have some sort of insight.

"Don't you have an initiation today? You're usually locked up in your cabin preparing."

Was that a joke? Malik thought, suppressing a growl. No. Stop it. You can stay calm. "I'm trying for a bloodlust."

"Is it working?" She looked around, opening her mouth slightly to take in the scent better. "Huh. They haven't whelped in a while. Everything's stale."

He stared ahead. The world was blurry around the edges, faded in the center, like looking through a foggy glass pane. There could only be one reason why she was here. What she wanted to do accomplish given that reason, he didn't know. She may surprise him. Might as well be frank about it. Get the topic out there. Talked about. Dropped. Move on. "You came here for a reason, didn't you?"

An awkward silence passed. For a moment, he thought she'd given up and decided to not bother him about Calc. That'd have been nice. But it was very un-Toby. She didn't let things drop. She was like him.

"Calc's sad, you know. Ashamed."

"I imagine he is," Malik said, albeit colder than he expected. Realizing his tone, he added, "but there's nothing I can do."

She glared at him. "What do you mean there's… of course you can do something! You could forgive him!" Her fingers dug into the dirt, making a set of squishing noises that Malik had no choice but listen to.

"Do you even know what he did? He took my kinthas."

"So? You're human. It was bound to happen sooner or later."

He squeezed his hands into fists. "That's not the point. Why the hell would he do something like that on an initiation day? No one does that! Everyone knows better—you don't fuck with someone's initiation!"

She titled her head a bit and sighed. "I know. I don't blame you. If that happened to me, I'd be angry too. I'm not saying what he did was right. But he probably did it for a reason, and knowing him, a good reason. You have to forgive him. He's your friend."

Malik tensed, jaw setting. "Look. If I forgave him—which I'm not going to—that'd teach him that he can knock me around and do whatever he wants. No. These sort of things shouldn't go unpunished." He hooked his hands together again and set his gaze on the ground, studying the way tiny bits of dirt had a dark red hue. Then there were the little gray stones, and…

Toby leaned closer to him. "You're prey in a world of predators. I'd say be glad he only took your kinthas, and it wasn't some other fallen deciding to rob you of your whole soul. But that's not my point. He's sorry. He knows he hurt you. If he's sorry, you should forgive him."

He gave her a cold glare. "Again. I'm teaching him a lesson. Who in their right mind steals the kinthas from their cabin-mate? What idiot wouldn't understand that? Does everything have to be a law? He broke my trust. That's all. There's nothing left to talk about—he acts stupid, he pays the consequences." By the end, his voice had grown in force.

She bristled at his tone, but didn't withdraw. "He'll pay you back, you know. Even if it's not your kinthas. He'll give you one anyway. He's virtuous. He wouldn't have done that without a good reason."

"Stealing is virtuous? When did you become a comedian?" He growled and pressed his hands against his face. "It's not the fact that he took just any kinthas, all right? He took mine. A part of my damn soul. Do you, for some godforsaken reason, think I shouldn't be angry?"

"Don't be an asshole. You know I agree with you. But you're friends, and cabin-mates. You can't go on a vendetta forever. And yelling at me isn't going to help at all."

He took in a slow breath, then looked at her. "You're right. I'm sorry. But considering all of this bullshit…" He sighed. "You know my initiation is in an hour. You know I don't want to talk about this."

"You could resolve it. Then you wouldn't have to worry about it bothering you."

"It's not going to resolve."

"Because you don't want it to."

"No, because—"

But she continued as if she hadn't noticed. "Stubborn, aren't you? Not that I'm criticizing you. I'm just saying, he made a mistake. He understands that. Isn't that the point of being angry at someone for hurting you? Teaching them that they made a mistake and they understand why you're angry?"

"Forgiving him wouldn't solve anything." That wasn't the point, didn't she understand? Forgiving wouldn't change the fact he'd still been betrayed. Forgiving wouldn't bring back that piece of his soul. He stood, brushing the dirt from his pants. It had an unsavory habit of clinging to his hands. His mouth formed a snarl as he tried desperately to get the grime off. Old habits died hard.

"Why not? He's not perfect, you know."

"I don't expect my friends to be perfect. But I do expect them to respect me. And taking the purity of my soul is about the lowest form of disrespect out there."

She sighed. "All right. You know I agree with you. But being angry at him isn't going to fix anything. It won't fix your friendship, and it won't put back your kinthas."

The pool before them coughed up a bubble of gas. Malik moved away from it, fully expecting the girl to follow. But she continued to stand there, kneading the soft ground with her feet. Now she had that far-away look in her eyes. Maybe it was contagious. But whatever, he had an initiation to go to.

I'm an asshole, he sighed, But I'll apologize in full later. I can't let this get in the way of the initiation. I don't want to die, after all.

… but maybe he'd been too harsh. Too rude. Even to Calc. The guy was his friend and cabin-mate. What if he did have a reason for taking the kinthas? He'd like to think that. Maybe it'd make that feeling of nausea go away.

"Malik?" Toby's voice was sharper than he expected. "Can you make me a promise?"

"You know I don't like making promises."

"Then at least hear me out. Can you talk to him? After the initiation? At least let him pay you back. I know it won't replace your own soul's kinthas. But at least it's something." Silence. "I'm only asking you to consider it."

"I will. But I have to concentrate now." Not too long till the initiation now. That feeling of sickness was mixing with fear. He didn't want that. Shit, what if he messed up? What if he died? Losing your kinthas didn't seem so important next to dying. "I'll talk to him, if I live. Thanks for the talk. Even if it was jarring."

She nodded. "Yeah, I know. I won't bother you anymore."

He walked away from the pool, listening to the sound of mud squishing underfoot. Calming, in a way—it let a curtain of darkness fold over his mind. It was go time. Time to concentrate, not worry about emotions and friends and how they'd betrayed you, stripped away the very virginity of your soul. All of that was secondary to survival. The ground became firmer the farther he went, just as her aura became less and less noticeable. It only took a minute of walking before he could no longer sense her.

Two hours later he fumbled with the door, blood caking over his eyes. Every inch of skin ached, but gauging the pain, he assumed he only had three or four broken bones. For all the hell his fallen-blood gave him, at least its ability to make him heal rapidly was useful. The burns were the worst. He couldn't see well, but they were starting to turn a very peculiar dark color. He hoped it was just blood tinting his vision.

The cabin doorknob slipped in his hands. He swore and wrapped the remains of his shirt over his hand, managing enough friction to turn the knob. The lights were on inside. Strange, he thought, coughing heavily before entering, gripping the stained doorframe with slick hands. Red specks splattered the ground—which was better than the floor inside.

He leaned over and snatched two rags hanging from the door, tying one on each foot. Wasn't going to track blood into his cabin again. Only an idiot would do that twice.

The cleansing room was on the other side of the cabin, its path obstructed by various pieces of furniture, and some of Calc's larger tomes. Somehow he managed to get across the floor without tripping. A quick glance behind himself verified that he'd been careful. No blood on the floors. Good. Calc had been pissed off last time he tracked blood in. Not that he disagreed—he just hadn't been in the mood to cave to bitching.

In a systematic way, he cleaned off the blood then prepared to bandage the wounds. After that he'd sleep. Maybe another twenty minutes of bandaging and cleaning. Fifteen, if he was sloppier. The bed isn't far away, he thought, exhaustion dragging his eyelids down. Shit, I hate feeling like this. He cleaned out a gouge in his arm. It stung, but it'd heal fast, just like all the others. In two weeks, all traces of the initiation would be gone.

The door whined open, then closed. Footsteps made the floor creak. Malik stopped his work.

"Your, uh, initiation go well?" the voice outside asked.

He didn't respond. For once, the sting of pain was nice to have. He wrapped the wound tighter, watching a spot of red stain the bandages. It grew tighter as he pulled. At least something still made sense. The pain helped clear his mind. Made it sharp.

"I brought a kinthas for you. Should I float it?"

He considered it. He used to think seeing those hovering pieces of blue soul were creepy in a fascinating way, like watching something horrible in slow motion. But now that his own was hovering somewhere, it made him feel dirty. "Yeah, that's fine. I'll pick it up later."

Pause, longer than normal. "Okay."

He took his time cleaning the remaining wounds, wrapping them, unwrapping them, wrapping them again. Each time he did, it was imperfect. With a snarl he ripped the bandages off, tossed them in the garbage, and began anew. Imperfect. Skewed. He hated it. The edges didn't match. They'd overlap every time. Damn it! He ripped that one off—the cloth burned against his skin, but it was a good pain. Pain and anger mixed so well. Like red and yellow. Made green, or whatever.

An hour later he emerged from the cleansing room, finding his cabin-mate leaning back in his chair, a large tome in his hands. The pureblood's eyes were on him, studying his every movement. Malik strode across the room to his desk and yanked open the cabinet beside it. Now was a good time to fill out post-initiation forms. "How was your initiation?" "I didn't die." Boring. His hands were shaking. He needed something mundane.

"I did it for a reason."

Was it good enough to betray your best friend?

Pause. "It was a mistake. I'm sorry." His voice was softer.

Malik turned his head slightly to get an image of Calc from the corner of his eye. He was staring at some spot on the wall next to Malik like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Maybe he was ashamed.

"Let me ask you a question, Calc."

Hesitation. "That's fine."

"How could you have possibly rationalized that? I really do want to understand." His voice was calm, anger removed, but his hands still shook. At least his voice wasn't shaking. He'd perfected that. As long as he could hide his hands, he could sound as calm as he wanted, fool anyone he wanted, and they'd never know how he really felt.

But he couldn't hide his hands from Calc's sharp eyes. He was watching him too carefully, too aware of his every movement, every twitch. He knew.

Calc shook his head. "I wouldn't have done it if I'd known you'd be so upset. I'm sorry. I should have asked you first. It was a really, really bad call on my part. A part of me still forgets you're human."


"Malik, I'm sorry."

He sounded like it. It wasn't the sort of sorry you scribble on the back of a napkin then toss in the trash as soon as it had served its purpose. All of a sudden Malik was very aware of his wounds burning. He adjusted the bandages, fighting back a wince. They only seemed to get worse. But it wasn't anything new, was it? The pain?

Maybe he'd done it for a reason. Maybe it was a good reason. He could only hope.

The mornings and evenings blended into a blur, much as they always did when Malik began preparing for another trial. It was perpetual: his life consisted of preparing a way to survive, surviving, then moving on to the next danger. It was calming in a way, despite the day-to-day stress. At least he could control his destiny. It was the only thing he could.

Is there a reason out there for me to forgive him? he wondered, rubbing a piece of paper between his fingers. He focused again and let it slip from his fingers.

The pain was still there; each new layer of skin sheared off as soon as it began to heal. But it'd end in the future, just like the initiations. Everything was impermanent; words and actions could shatter pain as powerfully as they could conjure it.

The reason's out there. Floating. Worth waiting for.