Belthor lowered his staff, letting it sit on the floor. He waited for a moment while he heard a surprised exclamation, and then a woman's voice. He took a breath, steeling himself.
The lock worked for a moment. Belthor clutched his staff tightly.
"Bel!" Tori blinked as she took him in. "What's got you out so late?"
"I'm really sorry about this," he started. "There's a...thing with Theron going on."
"Is there?" Tori asked, and by the way her eyebrow went up, she seemed to know exactly what kind of thing Belthor was referring to.
"It's very loud," he said. "And I have some essays to work on before sleeping and..." he shrugged. "Is it a problem if I bunk with you two tonight?"
"No," Tori said, which made Belthor very sad for a moment until she continued. "No, that's no bother at all. Come in." She practically seized his pillow and books from under his arm. "You have excellent timing, Bel!"
"I do?" Belthor followed her into the dorm, waiting as she closed the door. He glanced around at furnishings rife with what he supposed were family pictures...as well as a large worktable and several boxes of tools and parts. His eyes flicked to the couch in the center of the room, and the coffee table strewn with little wires. "Hey, Sam."
"Bel." Sam stood from the couch, offering his hand. Belthor took it.
"Yes, your timing is perfect," Tori said. She stepped over to the kitchen, picked something up, and spun around. "I made a pie!"
"Oh!" Belthor smiled. "I didn't know you baked."
"Do you like pie?"
"I don't want to impose-"
"Eat pie." Tori raised a hand and her staff lanced from a far corner of the room. She pointed it at the steaming, golden treat in her hand, and a slice cut itself, rose and found a plate in about two heartbeats. Another twitch of her staff and a fork joined it all, then the entire thing floated Belthor's way.
"Um...thank you." He leaned his staff against the wall, then took the plate where it hovered around his head. He eased to a seat on the couch by Sam.
"Eat," Tori ordered, very firmly. "We have food-food too, if you're hungry for any of that."
"I...didn't get dinner," Belthor admitted. "But pie is fine-"
"Give me a few minutes." Tori started waving her staff again, and between that and physical work, she started assembling food from nowhere.
"You've made her night," Sam observed. "Tori loves hosting. It's in her blood, I think."
"And you?" Belthor asked. "I'm not-"
"Oh, no." Sam shook his head. "I don't mind at all. I just..." he reached for one of the toolboxes. "I'm going to need your help while Tori's being all domestic back there."
"Excuse me?" Tori demanded over her shoulder. "Domestic?"
"You bake pies and can host a dinner for a friend on two minutes' warning," Sam replied. "I call that winning a domestic housewife gold trophy."
"Shut your mouth before I put something in it."
"Something like pie?" Sam asked. "Because that's not exactly a grave threat." He turned back to Belthor. "Welcome to the World of Sam and Tori. You can run at any time."
"Would you mind helping me with this thing, though?" Sam asked. Belthor almost jumped when he pulled his shirt off.
"Um...sure," he said, staring. Staring in complete surprise. "What...is that?"
"I wondered how you'd react," Sam said. He patted the wires and chemical lines running from a device attached to his back. Belthor traced the lines with his eyes, all the way down Sam's arms to his wrists, and up his spine to the base of his neck...basically everywhere his shirt covered. "This is my Gift."
"...a machine?" Belthor asked. Sam laughed.
"The machine helps me with my Gift. The Gift is innate." He glanced around. "I'd demonstrate, but I don't want to burn the building down."
"Fair enough." Belthor inched closer. "What did you need?"
"There's a red wire, around my shoulder." Sam pointed. "It's a bit out of place. Tori was going to replace it with this red wire-" he held up the item in question "-since I can't reach, but..."
"Sure." Belthor took the old wire. "How do I get it out?"
"Just pull. See where it goes in on both sides? Remember that, since you're putting the new one in."
"Okay." Belthor did as he was told, and the wire came right out. "This device is remarkable."
"It helps me control what I can do," Sam said. He passed the new wire over his shoulder, and Belthor fixed it in. "My father built it when I was young, and he and I have worked on it ever since, tweaking it as necessary."
"And Tori?" Belthor asked.
"And Tori learned about it after we moved in here together," the woman herself said, as she waved drinks and plates off to the table. "Now she helps Sam whenever he breaks it. Eat your pie, Belthor."
"Yes, ma'am." Belthor scooted back, then took the pie and dug in. "It's very good."
"Thanks," Tori said. "How were things with Master Protec?"
Belthor coughed. "Um-"
"We were there, remember?" Tori asked. "We're the ones who fetched Master Kulkas - were we wrong? Was that a bad thing?"
"No! No, you did exactly the right thing." Belthor paused to relate the incident.
"That scheming son of a warlock." Tori's lip curled. "I hope Master Kulkas reads him the riot act."
"Can he?" Belthor asked. "They're both Masters."
"Yeah, but neither you nor Agnete is Master Protec's apprentice. He needs to go through Master Kulkas if he wants to pull you aside like that." Tori took a seat, waving her hand and her staff and calling plates and glasses and pitchers of drink forward like a levitating legion of dinner trappings at her command. "The apprenticeship thing is a bit arcane, but it's important."
"Who's your Master?" Belthor asked.
"Master Vignette, technically," Sam said. "That's why we could get away with challenging her more than you could in staff class."
"Ah." Belthor examined his plate. "There's no meat in this, right?"
"Not a piece. I know how you are. That's basically salad on bread." Tori pulled her long legs up under her and blew bangs out of her face. "Do you really think Master Protec would have expelled you?" She raised an eyebrow. "He doesn't have grounds."
"He acted like he did. Part of it, I'm sure, was a show to intimidate the young new student." Belthor paused to take a few bites and a drink. "He assumed I'd fold under enough pressure."
"Would you have?" Sam asked. "If Master Kulkas hadn't shown up?"
"I..." Belthor hesitated. "I don't know. I was certainly very frightened." He knew he went red when he said that.
"I would have been too," Tori told him, her tone gentle. "A private yelling match with a Master is no student's dream. Master Protec least of all. He's no joke."
"He seemed nice enough on initiation night," Belthor said. "The party."
"He's a legacy," Sam said, pulling his shirt back on. "His father was a Master, and his father, and his father...there's a lot of that here. Hastel and Theron?" He shrugged. "The Greenhavens have been students and masters since they let the School be founded on their land."
"Theron is Master Protec's," Tori pointed out. "Hastel's Master Korin's."
"I thought every Master had one apprentice," Belthor said. "Master Kulkas chose me, and Agnete's a special case."
"Well, usually it's done one or two at a time," Tori admitted. "But each Master can do what they please in the end. Every Master goes through the process of elimination and choosing, like you did, but they also can pick one or two more for special cases, and then there are those like Sam and I who passed the rites but without the oversight of a Master. We get assigned to those who prefer staying here to wandering the world with apprentices. Like Master Vignette."
"I see." Belthor spent a few more minutes eating in silence while his hosts did the same. "Do you think Master Protec can actually-"
"Not with Master Kulkas in opposition, not unless all of the other Masters side with Master Protec." Sam shook his head. "Kicking a student out takes eight of the nine in favor. And I'm fairly sure unless you try to summon a demon army to burn Greenhaven to the ground and install a new world order of ash and shadow, you're maybe going to get five of them at a time to agree on anything."
Belthor snickered. "I hope."
"Don't worry about it." Sam made a face. "This is not hot chocolate, Tori."
"Shut your face." Tori tested her mug. "Well, keep it shut." She held out a hand underneath her mug.
"Whoa!" Belthor jumped when blue flame burst upward from the woman's palm. He blinked as the fire wove back and forth, fueling on nothing but the air over Tori's skin.
"That's what Sam said," Tori replied cheerfully. "That's what everyone says. Don't worry!" Her eyes sparkled. "I'm harmless."
Belthor blinked. "Um."
"You're scaring him, Tori." Sam leaned back with a smirk. "You should see her on days when the heating spells aren't working well. She just sits here with flames rising from her hair and her armpits."
"Yeah, and my friend over here stays about six inches away from me like I'm the human brazier." Tori waved her hand and the fire vanished. She tested her drink. "Much better. Sam, Belthor, shall I?"
"Um. Sure." Belthor offered his mug. "But then...I really should get started on my essays."
"We can work on them together," Tori said. "I love a group homework night! Oh! When we're done, we can pull all the pillows out here and just have a big slumber party! Maybe a pillow fight!"
"Just do what the lady says," Sam suggested. He pulled his own copy of History of Magic from nowhere Belthor could see. "Less chance of getting burned that way."