He snorted awake and looked up to see Sonia. Her unruly hair was pulled back into two puffballs at her shoulders.
“Hey,” he croaked, pushing himself up. There was a crick in his neck from slumping in the hard seat.
“What are you doing here?” She smiled, amused that he had been napping in her class. Two other students – a teen boy and girl – stood with her, staring at Bryan in awe. He could practically hear their thoughts. THE Bryan? Woah.
He wanted to slump back down in the chair again.
“I…ah…I’m not sure actually.” He realized they were all looking down at him, so he stood, scratching his head as if confused. “I just needed to go someplace quiet, but not too quiet. You know?”
Her smile turned lopsided. “Not really.”
He looked around at the emptying room. A couple of students were gathered around Ward, clarifying some points. Like this was college.
“So how’s training going?” he asked Sonia.
She shrugged. “It’s still all lectures. But tomorrow we start practice with the demons we caught.” She looked beside her to her silent hangers-on, and back to Bryan. “Hey, you wanna grab a coffee in the break room?”
The break room had been exactly what Bryan was avoiding, but if someone was with him maybe no one else would bother him. And God did he ever want that coffee. He nodded and Sonia told her classmates she’d see them tomorrow.
She put a pile of sugar and cream in her coffee as he took grateful sips of his own, black. People were looking at him and whispering. He tried to ignore them.
“What was it like when you did practical training?” Sonia asked, stirring her creation.
“Didn’t have any,” he said. “There was just a handful of us back then, and even the experienced ones were learning as they went along. We trained in the field.”
Her eyes widened and she said “Oh.” She looked down at her coffee. “I guess it’s pretty silly for me to be scared, then.”
“I’d be more worried if you weren’t scared. This isn’t a thrill ride. It’s not going to be fun.”
“You’re trying to scare me again.”
“Maybe. But anyway there’ll be several Possesseds there to watch you kids if something goes wrong.”
“Yeah, but…will it hurt like that time?”
“Of course it will.” He eyed her over his cup. Her expression changed only slightly, but there was an undercurrent of fear to it. “But you’ll be prepared for it this time.”
“You’re…um. You’re not going to be there, are you?”
He blinked at her. “I haven’t sat in on training in years. Hell, you see what I’m like.”
“Oh,” she said, lowering her eyes again.
There was a silence between them, in which Bryan could hear the voices at the tables surrounding them. He imagined they were all talking about him. “Christ, you want me to be there? I was starting to think you were stronger than that.”
“It’s not that.” She nearly stood up as she spoke. “I just…wouldn’t have to worry if you were there.”
“I’m not your dad. There’s already gonna be several Possesseds there.”
“But you helped me before.”
He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I only told you what to do to capture the demon. To pull it out of you. I told you. You did the action yourself. It’ll be the same tomorrow, whether I’m there or not.”
She seemed to shrink into her chair. “You make it sound so easy. But it wasn’t easy.”
“But you did it.”
She didn’t speak right away. She traced her nails along her cup, leaving trails in the styrofoam. Finally she spoke quietly, without looking up. “Were you scared today?”
He drew in breath sharply. He took a sip of coffee to mask the desire to backhand her and the self-loathing that followed. When he spoke it was through gritted teeth. “I was fucking terrified. But I did it, because it had to be done.”
She still didn’t look up, but she nodded.
He looked at her to say more, but saw Hussein stalking towards the table.
“Bryan,” he shouted for the whole room to hear. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you and your damn phone is off.”
“Did something happen?” Bryan asked.
“No.” Hussein looked a little defeated by the question. “No, we still don’t have a clue. I just didn’t know if you were okay.” He looked to Sonia. “I shouldn’t have interrupted.”
Bryan waved his hand in introductions. “Sonia, this is Hussein Hussein, in charge of Possesseds. Hussein, this is Sonia Reeves. She’s in training.”
“Training?” Hussein said. “I thought they canceled classes today.”
“Mr. Ward said they had talked about it,” Sonia said. But we’re needed soon as possible. So we started late tonight instead. Um, sir.”
“Oh. Good, good. Well, always exciting to see new faces.”
“You don’t have to sugarcoat,” Bryan said. “I’ve been the one to recruit her.”
“Ah, great,” Hussein said. “So you got the ‘Welcome to Hell’ speech instead.”
Sonia grinned in that lopsided way again. “Something like that, sir.”
“Well, it is. It’s also the most important work anyone can do these days. So it is good to see you here.” He put his hand out and she stood to shake it.
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled genuinely at him, and then at Bryan. “Well, I should head home. Thanks, Bryan. I mean, Agent Ivers.” She waved at him and slipped away.
Hussein took the chair she had vacated. “So are you okay?”
“Well, how am I to know?” He threw his hands in the air. “They want me to ask you how many parallel universes there are.”
“How would knowing that help?”
“Not at all. It’s just busy work for me. Have to pretend we’re doing something.”
Bryan shook his head. “I don’t have an answer. Innumerable. They’ve been going from one to the next, just eating every source of life. The gamma’s actually pissed about it, since its their fault it went hungry for so long.”
“But none of these things starve. None of them die.”
“I told you, they’re not human. Not any more.”
Hussein rested his chin in his hands. He looked past Bryan, eyes unfocused. “And they’re coming here.”
Bryan looked away from him, to the other tables. The room was thinning out now, everyone going back to their desk to work the last hours of the night.
“Go home,” Hussein said, standing. “You need the rest.”