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A faint rapping sound reached Bookworm as she sat in the library. Looking toward the window, she saw Beryl standing there, and hurried over. “Is there a back door?” she heard him ask faintly, as he eyed the large pile of coal that was blocking the front door.
Bookworm chuckled and nodded, gesturing toward the back. She, Mariah, Mrs. Pritchard, and Mrs. Sawyer had gone to America for several days to visit Bookworm’s parents. They’d all forgotten about Steam Santa’s usual gift–and the fact that he tended to be mischievous about where the pile was left. They’d hired someone to move the coal around back to a storeroom, but he wasn’t close to finished yet.
Bookworm hurried through the kitchen and opened the back door for Beryl, who slipped inside quickly. With a sidelong glance at Mrs. Sawyer, who was busy at the stove, he quickly trotted through the hallway and went into the library. Bookworm followed, saw him settle down by the fireplace, and smiled a little. “How are you?” she asked.
“I’ve recovered since we last spoke,” he replied.
“You do look better.” And indeed he did–not nearly as tired as he’d been last time. As she settled back down on the sofa, she looked at him keenly, wondering what direction their conversation would go this time.
“I was short with you,” he finally said.
She nodded. “You were. But it’s understandable.”
“Oh, I meant every word,” he replied, stretching out in front of the fire. “I just shouldn’t have said it that way.”
Bookworm reined in her initial reaction, and patiently said, “Beryl, my job is to protect those I can. And that includes you. Whether you wish to view that as part of my job in the militia, or part of my job as a Heroine, is up to you.”
He shot her a hard look. “Part of the militia, never.”
“Yes, well, considering I’ve just been made a lieutenant in the militia, I think I have more control over my job description there.” She grinned slyly.
“I heard the rumor.” Beryl sighed. “I was hoping it wasn’t true.”
“Well, I’m not entirely… happy about it myself,” she admitted.
“You aren’t?” Beryl looked at her skeptically.
“No. But if it’s the only way I can keep an eye on Captain Kuroe, then it’s what I’ll do.”
He stared at her a moment, then began laughing. Bookworm looked at him curiously. “What?”
“Did you know that I started working for Canergak just to ‘keep an eye’ on him?”
Bookworm chuckled. “Great–or is it crazy?–minds think alike.”
“Or fools,” he added wryly. “They get more out of us than we do out of them when we do this. One of the many reasons I remain unemployed now.” He rolled over, stretching again.
“Hmm. You may be right. But if I can learn more than he thinks I’ve learned… I may still come out ahead. Or… I may just get myself into trouble.”
“This is why you’re the Heroine, Bookworm,” he said. As she shrugged, he continued, “But that’s not why I came here. It’s about you, actually… and our talks.” He paused, and she waited patiently, not wanting to push him. “This may be the last time we speak candidly, in your home,” he finally said. “Ever.”
Bookworm raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Why?”
“Your house mates. I do not trust them. Nor do I appreciate eavesdropping,” he added sourly.
With both eyebrows raised now, she replied, “I’ve known them now for a few years. Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Sawyer I have found to be completely trustworthy. And Mariah has been a good friend.”
“You neglected to mention a few of the other housemates on that list.” At her confused look, Beryl continued impatiently, “The dead walk these halls.”
“You’ve seen them here?” Bookworm was surprised. She remembered that he’d seen them when they went to the asylum to talk to Rasend, but she’d assumed they’d deliberately made themselves visible to him.
“I always see and feel them, Book,” he said, suddenly scratching at himself. “Cats generally do.” He stopped scratching, but sent a hard look at the corner.
“Really? How interesting.” Bookworm leaned forward, wanting to ask more about this, but before she could, he continued, “They and Mariah remind me of an unpleasant truth.” He returned his attention to her. “I’d also be lying if I denied your promotion didn’t have something to do with it.”
She sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t view the entire militia as your enemy, on the basis of one person’s letter.”
“You think it was ‘one’ person?” Beryl stare carried his disapproval as he continued. “What about what you did?”
“What I did?”
“I asked you not to get the militia involved,” he replied with anger clear in his voice. “I heard about your intentions from Wisp to mobilize the militia. How can I tell you anything now that you’re more than just a volunteer?”
“We were after the same ends, Beryl.”
“You would have never let me turn myself in, not even as a last resort, knowing I would be followed.”
She replied a little impatiently, “And perhaps, in following another plan, they wouldn’t have been able to revive Dr. Dinosaur.”
“With Kasa’s life on the line, I wasn’t interested and am still not,” Beryl replied curtly.
Bookworm could feel her temper rising, and caught herself, trying to calm down. “Beryl,” she said softly. “You know we often have the same goals. We are going to disagree from time to time on the methods. That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong.”
“Who said anything about right or wrong? I have my means to an end, you have yours. Eventually, these paths are meant to diverge.” He looked up at her, a sort of calm finality in his mismatched eyes. “They are meant to diverge more and more, Bookworm.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but caught it back, and sighed. “I’ve tried what I can. If you won’t trust me, you won’t. I can’t make you.”
“It’s about more than trust, Bookworm. At least my leaving here hasn’t been public. I made a grand show of it at other places.” He paused, then looked down and said softly, “I’m leaving parts of my old life behind, Book. Little by little.”
That caught at her heart, as nothing else in the conversation had. “And what is there left to leave from?” she asked, just as softly. “And more importantly, what is there to go to? Do you know?”
“Yes.” He looked back up, calm now in his countenance. “One day, I may even say goodbye to Babbage. But not now. I have maybe a decade or two in me for that.” He stood up, and Bookworm rose from the couch. “I wish you luck, then,” she said.
He paused in the library doorway, looking back at it. “I will miss these,” he mused. “And your fire.”
She couldn’t help but smile at that. “As will I,” she replied, escorting him to the back door again. He stepped outside, and paused. “If you want to talk elsewhere… seek me out. I may be willing to talk. But maybe not.”
Bookworm nodded. “But please remember–you will always have a friend in me.”
She watched him go, disappearing into the gloom of the late afternoon. Finally, she exhaled a steamy, shaky breath into the frigid air, feeling a cold tear poised on her eyelid. Impatiently, she wiped it away and stepped back into the warmth of the kitchen.