Chapter 39 — The Day They Learned Her Name
On Wednesday, when a student showed up in the classroom with a note for Natalie, she wasn’t shocked in the slightest. She took it from the nervous kid with barely a second glance, a summons by the principal as she expected. Natalie was surprised in one part, though—that it took three whole days to show up.
Quinn squeezed her hand for luck, but Natalie wasn’t worried anymore. Over the last few days—ever since Friday, when she revealed her whole story to him, confessed to his parents, had her first kiss, and come out okay—Natalie’s confidence seemed to have shot through the roof. Nothing scared her anymore.
And nothing should. You are stronger than everyone. Cinza recognized it, Kendra and Lily recognized it. You can do anything.
I don’t want to do anything though. I’m happy right here.
Be prepared for when that is no longer true.
Natalie got up and followed the student runner out the door. She’d been called to the principal’s office yet again. No doubt Quinn was worried, and Natalie was sympathetic, but she doubted anything was really going to come of this.
Blake had finally made a move. Natalie had expected it sooner. It wouldn’t be public—that just wasn’t Blake’s style. She’d blindside, she’d go behind everyone’s backs, she’d spread snide rumors and cruel jokes, but she’d never come after Natalie head-on in the open. The dodgeball game was a fluke, outside circumstances that forced them into a confrontation.
You came out on top. You won. Claim your victory.
What am I supposed to claim? All I did was scare her off.
This is your territory now. Own it. Show her that this sort of veiled attack has no place in your world.
Natalie shook her head. I don’t own anything. It’s school. The adults are in charge.
Do you truly believe that? Were they in charge during your fight? The teacher was only a dozen feet away, and he did nothing. He could not do anything. You were in control.
She couldn’t deny it. The teacher had done nothing to interrupt their game, even as it spiraled out of control. They might still have been playing by the rules, but Natalie believed anyone with actual authority would have recognized the growing danger and intervened. Like Rachel, or Grey-eyes, or Cinza. People in charge were supposed to be proactive—try to stop problems before they happened, not after.
I had to stop her. Nobody else.
I was the one to punish her afterward. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t enjoy it, but it was my job.
If I hadn’t, worse things would be happening now. She’d be doing something horrible probably.
Precisely. You must take care of your queendom. This is your home, this is your world, and you have the power. Protect yourself, protect your friends, and don’t allow any risk of harm to come close. This is how you survive.
Natalie nodded as the door to the principal’s office swung open.
”Come in, Miss Heshire.”
She hopped off the chair and walked in, head high, eyes clear and open. The principal looked taken aback. Compared to every other time they’d met, Natalie wasn’t on the defensive anymore, elusive and hiding. That wasn’t her anymore.
”Hi,” she said, sitting in one of the chairs for students.
”…Jenny,” she started, “I’ve been hearing some things from students about you.”
”From Blake,” Natalie filled in.
After a few moments, the principal gave a reluctant nod. “From Miss Sinclair, and a few others.”
”Lydia, and probably the other girls who hang out with them, right?”
”If you already know everything I’m about to tell you…” The principal trailed off, irritated.
You are pushing too hard. Let her believe in her own authority. She still holds some power.
”…Sorry,” said Natalie uncomfortably. She sat back a little, waiting for the principal to continue.
The old woman sighed, shaking her head. She looked distinctly exhausted—a common theme lately amongst everyone Natalie seemed to meet who wasn’t under eighteen. Alden, Quinn’s parents, some teachers… Everyone seemed tired and uneasy all the time.
”Well, I guess we don’t have to dance around it anymore. It’s fairly obvious that the special case we’ve been talking about this whole time is that you’re one of the ‘awakened’, and that you came from Rallsburg.” The principal glanced down at her laptop screen. “I can’t imagine anything else that fits everything I’ve learned since I met you in September.”
She knows more about us than she should. This is dangerous. How does she know?
I mean… how hard can it be to guess now? Why else would I hide from the whole world?
This is not safe. You should not admit your identity.
I… I trust her. I know you don’t get that, but she’s been nice to me. She’s helped out a lot. I think she’s okay.
You cannot know how this will—
”…Yes,” she replied, over the voice’s protests. “Nobody can know.”
The principal nodded. “I’m not going to tell. I can’t imagine how dangerous everything is for you.” She sighed again, rubbing at her temples. “I know I promised that we could overlook a lot, but this was too much, Jenny. You attacked another student.”
”I didn’t!” Natalie didn’t mean to raise her voice, but it just came out, before she could stop herself. “It was dodgeball, and Blake was playing rough, and I just… slipped, a little!”
”I wasn’t talking about that,” she replied, shaking her head. “Miss Sinclair informed us of the confrontation in the ladies’ room. You used magic to attack her.”
Natalie shook her head forcefully, her long hair flying everywhere. “I didn’t touch her. She was… she was saying things. Horrible things. I was upset and I kinda scared her a little. I made doors open and I made some fire and lightning. But I didn’t touch her. She was totally fine.”
The principal frowned. “Well… there weren’t any more signs of injury beyond the broken nose. I can’t imagine that Miss Sinclair’s account of your conversation was accurate. We talked to the other students in your gym class, and they overheard her saying some awful things.” She paused. “Would you repeat what she said to you?”
Natalie hesitated. Even though it came from Blake, it still hurt, a lot. She hated thinking about it, especially since she kept replaying it in Blake’s sneering voice over and over.
”She… she called me crazy, and she said my parents were probably both crazy too and that’s why I was.” Natalie winced. And it might be true… “And she said that my scar was ’cause I tried to… tried to, you know…” Her voice caught, and she looked down at the floor.
”Take your own life,” supplied the principal gravely.
”Yeah…” Natalie took a breath before continuing. “And then she said I should finish what I started. Said that if I didn’t, I was gonna come back to school and really hurt somebody. That it’d be my fault, so I should… make sure it couldn’t happen.”
”Good God…” said the Principal, leaning back in her chair.
”And that’s when I got upset,” Natalie finished, very uncomfortable again. Her self-confidence, so strong and unwavering earlier, had faltered in the memory of that confrontation.
”No one else witnessed this, correct?”
Natalie shook her head.
”…Well, I certainly believe you over her,” said the principal.
Natalie’s hopes rose for a split-second, before she recognized the principal’s tone. No…
”But I can’t really punish her. Not without arousing suspicion, or maybe provoking something even worse.”
”But… you heard what she said. You believe me.”
”And her family gives a great deal of money to this school,” said the principal, clearly as uncomfortable as Natalie. “The rest of the student body isn’t aware of your abilities, and I got the impression that Blake will not be informing anyone. Even her friend Lydia didn’t seem to be aware. This can just… go away.”
”Jenny,” said the principal firmly, and Natalie’s protest died in her mouth. “I know you mean well, and I’ve enjoyed having you at my school. But I have to think of all the students, and a private war between yourself and Miss Sinclair could lead to a lot of pain for everyone, not just the two of you. I need this to be over.”
”She’s the one who won’t leave me alone,” said Natalie, a bit of anger rising in her voice. “What am I supposed to do?”
”Avoid her?” The principal sighed. “I know I’m not being much help, Jenny. I’m sorry. But I only have so much power.”
And we have more, Natalie. Much more.
”I could say that you’re being punished,” she offered. “I take it that your… err, your guardian wouldn’t likely ever hear about it?”
”I haven’t seen her in over a month,” said Natalie.
”Where are you staying?” The principal shook her head, before Natalie could answer—not that she ever would. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself. But I need to know: are you living in a real home?”
The principal sighed again. “I need to know where, Jenny. You’re only thirteen. I’m responsible for your wellbeing.”
Being thirteen sure feels like it means whatever anyone else wants it to mean… She hesitated. “I don’t want them to get in trouble.”
”I’m keeping all of this out of the system, and it will stay that way as long as we can keep an understanding.”
”…I’m living with Quinn’s family. They let me use their extra room.”
”Oh! Okay. That’s fine then. And as I said, nobody will know but me. I won’t write it down.”
Natalie nodded. “Thank you.”
”So, since no one would be upset, I could give you non-permanent punishments. Things that won’t appear on your record. That way, Blake would see you’re not getting away with anything.”
She shook her head. “That’s not how Blake works. If she sees that, she knows she’s winning. She starts getting meaner.”
The principal nodded dejectedly. “I thought so. Do you have any ideas? Any suggestions?”
”Nothing you’re gonna do,” said Natalie bitterly.
She looked truly taken aback. “Jenny, I’m sorry—”
”Is it okay if I go now? I don’t want to miss lunch.”
”Jenny…” The principal trailed off. She looked truly upset, but didn’t say anything else. After a few moments of awkward silence, with Natalie fidgeting in her chair, she eventually nodded. Natalie slid off the chair, feeling far worse than she had when she first walked in.
I thought… I thought that would go better.
She is not your ally. She holds to the fading power of her own system. You have something new. Something none of them understand. You must protect yourself and your own.
But she’s been nice to me. She’s helped me. Protected me.
The only one you can truly rely on is you.
The voice didn’t answer, and Natalie walked back into the cafeteria feeling a little better. At least she’d finally won that argument. Quinn was trustworthy. The voice no longer protested their bond. Natalie saw him across the room, in their usual spot at the far wall, and took her spot. Cheerful greetings all around, though Quinn shot her a questioning look.
”Later,” Natalie murmured.
He nodded. Instantly, they were back to normal, as if nothing had happened. As if Natalie were just an ordinary girl, in an ordinary school in an ordinary world where nothing like magic had ever happened.
Except… Natalie now had something else to worry about. There was a much greater danger lurking just out of sight, one Alden had alerted her to without even knowing it.
When she got home to the Kincaids’, Natalie beelined for her room. She’d explained to Quinn how badly the meeting with the principal went. He promised to be on the lookout for Blake, but Natalie knew that another part of her world had just been put at risk. She needed to be ready.
This time it’s not just magic. It’s me. It’s something I did.
You cannot be blamed.
That’s not how the world works. We just saw it at school. They’re all like the principal. I’ll get blamed anyway.
So you must be prepared.
Natalie and the voice were in agreement. It occasionally pushed back on some of her self-doubts, but this action was without question. The world would eventually find out that she had committed those crimes. She had… she had killed. More than once. She didn’t mean to, but she knew that didn’t necessarily protect her from going to jail.
She was terrified of jail. Everything she’d ever seen or heard said it was the worst place she could ever end up. In jail, she’d be trapped. In jail, she’d be cold and alone. She wouldn’t have Percy, she wouldn’t have her friends, she wouldn’t have Scrappy or Gwen. She wouldn’t have Quinn. She wouldn’t be free.
I gotta be able to run again.
But not to the city this time.
Yeah… Not to a city. I’ll be going back home. So I gotta be able to live in a forest. With Gwen and Scrappy. Like you do.
Not like that. You are not an elf. You cannot live as an elf does.
Well… I can still live in a forest.
So Natalie studied. She learned. She went online and found every wilderness survival guide she could. Tyler helped her over chat with getting some of the more hard-to-find books and videos, stuff that was behind paywalls and such since she didn’t have a credit card or anything to pay with. He had no idea what he was getting, but he never asked any questions. Lately, he’d been doing anything Natalie asked, immediately, happily.
It’s kinda weird…
He wants to help you. Don’t feel guilty. He is your friend.
I don’t feel guilty, but still…
Natalie accepted it nonetheless. Her life felt at risk every waking moment again, but not in the same way as when she fled the Laushires. This time, she had people at her back, and a place to stay for the time being. The Kincaids were her friends, even beyond just being Quinn’s parents. They liked her, and she really liked them. Their home was a safe place for her.
But she knew it wouldn’t last. Nothing in her life ever lasted. Rallsburg had been just one more stop on the road, after they’d left Chicago. It was the longest step, but still just one more. Now she was with the Kincaids, and she was happier than she’d been since Rallsburg, but it still felt fleeting, ready to vanish at a moment’s notice.
It wasn’t just normal human survival, either. Natalie had tried to open Cinza’s website on Quinn’s computer, thinking it would be easier to browse and learn from there, but of course it was still down. She’d forgotten Alden told her that already the day before. However, she did still have it open on her phone, a few tabs of hundreds buried deep in her browser. More importantly, some of those happened to be the spell-sharing board, where people posted instructions on casting new forms of magic.
She found the spells to clean and purify water, to cleanse berries and other wild plants of poisons. She found methods to help her catch meat if she needed it, though Natalie had never been a huge fan of eating wild animals. She’d done it a couple times with Gwen, but it hadn’t tasted very good, and she’d felt a little sick afterward.
Most importantly, Natalie still had the methods to hide herself and wherever she might make her home. The invisibility spell still gave her as much trouble as always, but Cinza had also posted the basics of creating misleading paths through the forest, illusions that made people wander in circles without ever actually going forward. They weren’t using those particular versions on the Greywood—even Cinza wasn’t so brazen as to post current defenses on their site for fear of leaks—but it was more than enough to keep out casual passers-by.
Quinn came in a few times to see what she was doing. Natalie told him, though not in great detail. Quinn looked uncertain, nervous. Obviously, he wasn’t as enamored about living out in the wild as she was. Natalie didn’t really get his attitude, but she tried to make light of it for his sake. It’d probably never happen! Maybe they’d just go camping sometime! It’d be super fun!
He’ll come around if he has to. Someday.
You must be prepared if he does not. We may need to live on our own. Without any help.
I’ll always have Gwen. Even you can’t complain about Gwen.
To her surprise, the voice did not. Apparently it drew the line at humans. Natalie shrugged and went back to work. She nearly missed dinner entirely—Quinn had to come back in and wave a hand in front of her face to get her attention, so focused was she on the spell she’d been trying to practice—and was straight back into it afterward.
The Kincaids asked a few concerned questions, but Natalie could tell they were still incredibly nervous around her. Neither wanted to broach the topic of magic or Rallsburg, if they could help it. They stayed out of it, and for the moment, Natalie was just grateful. She didn’t need more pressure. If the Kincaids started asking questions about things she’d done, Natalie wasn’t sure she could lie to them. Not again. She loved them, just like she loved Quinn.
Finally, well past midnight, with Quinn fast asleep on her bed, Natalie felt too exhausted to continue. She’d learned a remarkable amount in such a short span, and mastered more than a few new spells.
For the first time, she actually began to believe Cinza’s claims that she was the most powerful, if only a little. Natalie still doubted she was actually more powerful than the rest—Kendra could do incredible things, Hailey could fly, Hector had once beat Omega all on his own—and she certainly had nothing on Grey-eyes or Alpha. But… Natalie knew she was good at magic. Really good. And she was getting better every day. Learning more. Mastering more.
Natalie let Quinn sleep in her bed. She pulled a loose pillow off onto the ground and wrapped up in a blanket. Natalie wanted to learn to sleep on hard ground. Cinza had done it, back in Seattle, and Natalie hadn’t. If she had to go out on her own again, Natalie needed to be able to sleep. Cinza said it never bothered her.
Natalie couldn’t let it bother her either. She had to be able to survive on her own. She had to be able to protect the people she cared about, especially with how unpredictable the world was now. Magic was the answer, and Natalie was one of the strongest around.
The next morning, her phone rang.
Natalie jerked awake. Her phone ringing was never anything good. The only person she’d ever expect to call these days was Quinn—and he was still sleeping only a few feet away, up on the bed. Gingerly, Natalie summoned her phone off her nightstand and up over Quinn to land neatly in her hand, answering it as quickly as possible without even checking the number. To her relief, Quinn’s breathing didn’t change.
”Hi?” she whispered. Bleary-eyed, she looked up at the clock on the wall. Normally, in the early-morning darkness, she wouldn’t be able to read the hands, but the rituals had improved her eyes drastically. It was five-thirty in the morning. Sunrise was still two hours away.
”Natalie?” It was Ruby, of all people. Natalie and Ruby had barely ever interacted. They certainly weren’t friends. Natalie never really hung out with Cinza’s people, though she ran into them in the forest plenty of times, and she hadn’t even known Ruby’s name until the last days. Why is Ruby calling me? Did… oh god, did Cinza tell her? No, she promised she never would. Not even Ruby.
”I’m sorry if I woke you up.”
Ruby cleared her throat awkwardly. She sounded uncomfortable. It struck Natalie that Ruby was the youngest of the Rallsburg Ghosts besides herself, and the only other one under eighteen. They did have something in common there, at least. “Cinza wanted me to call. Things are happening.”
”I saw her on TV,” Natalie whispered.
”Are you… sorry, are you safe right now?”
”Yes. I’m just… trying not to wake somebody up.”
”Oh!” Ruby paused. “Is it… a boy?”
”…Not like that,” she whispered back, face heating up. “He’s just nearby. Also his parents.”
”Yeah. Sorry.” Ruby paused again. “I’ll try to be fast. Someone betrayed the Greywood. She infiltrated us and took one of us. Cinza and our allies were able to follow them and stop anything from happening, but they learned too much. We had to shut down the site.”
”I saw that.”
”Sorry,” Ruby apologized again. “The point is, this person knows who you are. Where you are, too. I’m so sorry, Natalie.”
”Do I…” Natalie hesitated, glancing up again at Quinn, but he was still fast asleep. Her sharp ears could tell his breathing hadn’t changed at all. “Do I need to run?”
”No, I don’t think so. They aren’t inclined to use their blackmail, and we provided them a lot of incentive not to.” Ruby paused, and it sounded like she was talking to someone else nearby. “Cinza wanted me to send someone out to protect you, though. If anything does happen.”
”I’m okay,” said Natalie quickly. The last thing she wanted was someone from the Greywood coming and setting things off even more. Not now. Everything was so precarious already, and the Greycloaks seemed to make more drama everywhere they went.
”Are you certain? There’s a lot going on—”
”I can take care of myself,” said Natalie firmly, a little louder than she intended. She thought she heard Quinn shift and panicked, turning the volume on her phone down as far as it could go. After nothing happened, she inched it back up to audible again.
”…can’t really spare anyone, to be honest. Rika’s gone now, and a few others have left after Riley betrayed us. They didn’t think it was safe anymore. It is safe,” she added, a little indignant, “but their faith just wasn’t as strong as ours. I can’t leave either, since I’m the only one left with the Nature affinity required to hold our defenses secure. The Greycloaks will keep the Wood, though. If ever you need to come here, say the word.”
”I will,” Natalie promised, fully intending never to do so.
”Okay.” Ruby paused again, with another muttered conversation Natalie couldn’t catch through the phone. “Sorry. I have to go. We have training.”
”Training for what?”
”War,” said Ruby, with an oddly excited voice that made Natalie uncomfortable. “Stay safe, Natalie.”
Ruby hung up. Natalie set her phone down, hand trembling a little. In the cold air of the early morning, she pulled a blanket around her and shivered, but it wasn’t because of the cold. Fear was creeping back in, sinister and subtle.
War. They’re going to war. And the guy running the other side of the war… is my dad. What am I supposed to do?
You protect yourself. You prepare yourself. When the time is right… you hunt.
I… I don’t think I can.
You are a hunter. It is in your soul, and when the time comes, you will be ready.
I just want to stay here. With Quinn, and my friends, and no fighting or war or any of that.
If that were your destiny, you would not keep facing toward this horizon. You cannot escape the call.
I’m not a fighter or a hunter or any of that.
No one is, until the world creates a situation where they must become one.
What do you mean?
In a war, what happens?
Natalie shook her head. She didn’t want to think about what the voice was forcing her to consider, but how could she avoid someone in her own mind? People… people die. My dad. He might die.
You must find him first, if you do not wish for that to happen. You saw the news. Someone has already tried to kill him.
They said he was fine.
This was just the first attempt. The war has not yet begun. Will you risk his death for this home? A home to which you do not belong, with guardians who still fear you?
She couldn’t deny that. Ever since her confession, the Kincaids hadn’t looked at her the same. She still trusted them—they would never reveal her secret, she had no doubt of that. But… they weren’t comfortable around her anymore.
Hesitantly, Natalie finally pulled up a set of notes she’d made, ones she hadn’t looked at in ages—directions and plans for how to get back to Rallsburg.
Just in case.
Natalie didn’t hear anything from Blake that day, or the principal. In fact, Natalie barely saw Blake, as she didn’t take the bus that morning and skipped gym. She knew the other girl was in the building somewhere from the whispers circulating the cafeteria and the girls’ bathroom, but Natalie believed that Blake might actually be avoiding her.
It suited Natalie just fine.
”Where’s Tyler?” asked Mitch, glancing around as they sat down for lunch. Quinn wasn’t there yet either, but he got out of tech class a little late sometimes, so none of them were concerned.
”Steven, too,” said Kelsey. “Getting a bit lonely here.”
”What, we’re not good enough?”
”Jenny is, but you’re a negative so we’re back to zero again.”
Natalie smiled, but she didn’t feel much like laughing after the morning she’d had. Quinn seemed upset too, after she’d told him about the phone call and her backup plans in case something happened. She hoped he’d be willing to leave with her if it came to that, but Natalie couldn’t be sure.
Not that she was ever sure of anything anymore.
Quinn arrived finally with lunch in hand, taking his usual spot next to her. Natalie took his hand under the table and squeezed it, trying to give him some measure of support even though it sent little quivers of discomfort back up through her arm. Quinn smiled and squeezed her back, and she knew it was worth it.
”Steven won’t be here. Home sick.”
”Really?” Mitch frowned. “Sounded totally good last night.”
”What do you mean?”
”We were online last night, playing—”
”Don’t tell him,” said Kelsey with a sigh. “I got a rep to keep here.”
”Yeah, and I still hate myself for playing.”
”Oh come on—”
”Steven sounded okay?” asked Natalie, concerned.
Mitch trailed off, still annoyed, while Kelsey answered instead. “Yeah. Totally fine, and we weren’t up that late either.”
Quinn shrugged. “Maybe he got sick overnight. Or he’s skipping a test in advanced math.”
”Whatever. You see the news this morning?” asked Mitch. “More stuff about the warehouse murders in Seattle. They’re calling it magic for sure. Got evidence and everything.”
Natalie flinched involuntarily, but neither Kelsey or Mitch saw it. Quinn wrapped his fingers between hers under the table.
”Do they have a suspect yet?” asked Quinn casually. Natalie thanked him with a squeeze. She couldn’t have asked it herself with a straight face.
”Nah.” Mitch was trying to talk through a mouthful of fries while also pulling out the story on his phone.
Kelsey snatched it away to muffled protests. “God, chew your food,” she muttered. “Okay. Warehouse murders, possibly drug-related. Four deaths caused by severe electrical burns—magically inflicted—one by gunshot, one by knife. Federal marshals were overheard in Seattle on Tuesday talking about magic and awakened people in connection with the case.” She finally handed the phone back. “They’ve totally got a suspect.”
Natalie winced. They’re in town. Asking about people like me. What if…
You are already preparing. Continue. Make sure you’re ready, and have your allies close at hand.
She stood up suddenly, letting go of Quinn. “Can we go outside?”
”…It’s freezing outside,” said Mitch slowly. “Why do you…” He trailed off, as the other three were already walking away. “Shit, fine, I’m coming!”
Natalie hurried out, Kelsey right next to her with Quinn a few steps behind. As soon as they were out, Natalie turned the corner to the outer wall—the same secluded spot where she’d first met Tyler, first been asked to hang out with Quinn and his gang. She hadn’t really meant to come here, but it worked as well as anywhere. Concentrating, Natalie threw out her mind in a wide net, calling gently for her friend.
A hawk cried out above them. Percy dove out of the sky like a bullet, coming in and landing neatly on her arm.
”…Okay?” asked Mitch, panting as he caught up. “So we’re outside, now what?”
”I just… needed to be out here.”
Natalie sat down and went back to eating, with Percy perched on her shoulder. In her mind, though, her net was still cast, and she was searching. Hunting, for more allies. There was a technique, one she hadn’t used since the forests in Rallsburg, with Alden and Rika beside her. She could call out and an animal would answer her. Not just anything, though—an intelligent animal blessed with life and strength.
She still wasn’t sure how she did it. It was the spell Natalie had learned from the book, and the page had vanished by the same she’d returned to her castle out in the forest. She’d used it three times—to find Scrappy, to find Gwen, and finally to find Percy. Now, she was starting that process again… except, she had learned so much more about magic since then.
After Scrappy, she had been stronger, and had managed to get a much more powerful and beautiful companion in Gwen. In the forests while the town burned, she sought out something that could help them find people, and Percy had answered her. Now, Natalie had much better control. She could start the process without actually following through. Her mind stayed open, listening for the animals around her, ready to call one if she needed it.
It took some effort. She wouldn’t do it always, but now she knew she could. When she called, allies would come. Natalie would never be totally alone.
<We need friends,> she said, handing Percy a little bit of her lunch. He squawked, and she realized she’d given him something he couldn’t actually eat. She sighed and went back to her lunch. Percy needed something to hunt; she didn’t have anything like that in the cafeteria food. <At least you’re out here instead of cooped up all day.>
Percy rubbed against her head, and she stroked him gently. Her friends were getting used to this regular dialogue—Natalie and her animal friends—and didn’t pay much notice anymore. Natalie preferred that. She really hadn’t enjoyed the constant attention about her magic after a little while, and thankfully it had dropped off fast as the rest of the world came into focus. Suddenly, Natalie wasn’t so unique anymore, and she just went back to being their friend again.
”It’s cool to have Percy here?” asked Kelsey uneasily.
Quinn looked just as concerned, but Natalie waved it off. “It’s okay,” she said firmly.
They shrugged and went back to eating. Mitch and Kelsey immediately launched into a spirited argument over who did better in their game the night before, while Quinn sat next to Natalie against the wall. “What’s up?” he asked quietly.
”Nothing,” she murmured back. “I just really needed to see Percy.” Natalie realized the rest of them were shivering, and quickly muttered a spell to warm up their corner. Mitch shot her a grateful look, but Kelsey got his attention again almost instantly and the two were back at it. Quinn and Natalie just sat back and enjoyed the sniping for a while—so much so that none of them noticed Tyler suddenly join them.
”And just ’cause you won the fifth round doesn’t mean you’re actually winni—what’s wrong with you?” Mitch asked, switching in mid-stream as he saw Tyler’s face.
Natalie looked up. She’d been stroking Percy after he came back from hunting down a mouse across the field. Tyler looked like he’d been crying, but he was desperate to hide it from them. He stared at his food, chewing mechanically, with a weak smile on his face despite his red eyes.
”Tyler? What happened?” asked Quinn.
”…Nothing…” he muttered.
”Dude, that’s the least convincing nothing I’ve ever heard,” said Kelsey. She put an arm around his shoulders. “We’ve got your back. What’s going on?”
”Nothing!” Tyler insisted, shaking her loose. His face was getting red, and his eyes watering up again. Kelsey shot Quinn a helpless look—Quinn was the one Tyler respected most, after all, and the leader of the group. But before Quinn could say anything, Natalie realized what had happened.
This was her next move, and it was a brilliant one. Natalie hated her even more for it.
”Did someone do this to you?” asked Quinn.
”…Blake,” whispered Tyler, so low that only Natalie could hear him.
”Quinn, stop,” Natalie quickly jumped in, before Tyler got even worse. She whispered to Percy, and the hawk flew over to land next to Tyler—not on him, Natalie knew better than to risk a clawing talon right now—and rub up against him. Tyler had always loved her magic the most, and here was something she could do right now. On top of that, she extended the warmth in the area to wrap up Tyler most of all with another quick muttered spell.
”What’s going on?” asked Mitch, annoyed at being left out again.
Natalie shook her head. Kelsey looked just as confused, but knew better than to jump in.
”Just drop it,” said Quinn firmly. “Tyler, you need anything?”
Tyler slowly shook his head. He started coughing and pulled out his inhaler. Mitch finally caught on, launching right back into their game discussion again, with a lot less hostility than before. Quinn joined in, even though he hadn’t that whole time, and Kelsey made sure she stayed interested and involved too.
Natalie was the only one left watching Tyler. He looked better, little by little, but Natalie knew—whatever Blake had done, she’d gone right for the jugular, with the best weapons she had. If Blake could drive Natalie into throwing out the secrets she’d kept for so many months, there was no doubt in her mind that Blake could tear Tyler apart with only her words.
He is the weakest among you. She chose her target well.
Tyler’s not weak!
They are all weak compared to you.
So what am I supposed to do about that? I’m not going to cut out Tyler or anything.
Tyler is one of your own. You protect your own. You must attack the source.
Attack… attack Blake? But—
Remind her what you can do.
”No,” Natalie murmured aloud. Quinn looked over briefly, but Natalie didn’t say anything else. He went back to their conversation soon after. Tyler was already looking much better, even joining in a little—but Natalie knew it wouldn’t last.
Blake would go after him again.
Quinn and Natalie escorted Tyler all the way to his bus. She knew he realized what they were doing, but she didn’t care as long as he got home without any more from Blake. The girl wasn’t on their bus either, to Natalie’s surprise. Maybe her parents are giving her rides now or something.
Perhaps you scared her more than you think.
Nothing else big happened for the rest of the day, to Natalie’s relief. She used the time to continue studying, continue planning and preparing for the outdoors, which looked increasingly likely to come to pass—just as the voice had warned.
I’m still not okay with this. I’m staying here.
As long as you are ready.
Sometimes, the voice got a little smug, and Natalie really hated it then. That night, though, they both had something to worry about, and so much more besides. Around five-thirty, just as Natalie was finishing up a ritual that could both keep an area dry and gather up any rainfall to use, Quinn popped his head into her room with a look that sent her heart sinking.
Natalie dropped everything, rushing to join him, clutching her phone like it were a lifeline in case someone called. Both of Quinn’s parents were home, and the national news has just switched over to a special alert, with the new fancy title card they used if the story involved magic or the awakened in any way. Damian looked scared, Annette worried, and Quinn nervously glancing at Natalie every few seconds.
”Breaking now from the capitol: the United States Marshal Service have announced the capture of a suspect related to the warehouse murders in Seattle.”
Natalie blindly found Quinn’s hand on the couch next to her, holding on tight. What? How? Who? I’m sitting right here. Did they… did they capture Cinza? Are they blaming her?
”The suspect is also being linked to the similar electrical deaths caused by magic from Rallsburg on May 15th of this year.”
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.
”We’ve just gotten the official release now: they’ve taken in Rika Nishimura, daughter of the software engineer and billionaire founder of NishiSoft. Nishimura, age twenty-one, is a Canadian citizen born in Kyoto, Japan. She was last seen during the so-called Battle of Lakewood, accompanying Hailey Winscombe in the neighborhoods after the battle had concluded. Nishimura has been arrested on suspicion of thirty-one murders, twenty-nine using magical abilities, which is an unprecedented criminal charge.”
”That’s horrible…” murmured Damian.
”Wasted her life,” said Annette, shaking her head. “That girl could have done anything with that kind of money.”
”Her dad hated her,” said Natalie quietly. “She didn’t really have that much money after her mom died.” Everybody knew her story back then. She never really kept it hidden.
Everyone looked at her, surprised. Annette spoke first, a little cautiously. “You knew her too?”
”…Yeah. She was in Rallsburg a lot.”
Natalie didn’t want to say any more. Even confirming Rika had been there at the end could convince them she was the killer. She got up and left the room, letting the news play out behind her as they started talking about the case in-depth, even though they didn’t really know anything. Quinn followed her after a little bit, waiting to see if anything else happened.
”I don’t know what to do,” said Natalie, as soon as he’d walked in and she’d muffled the room. She sat down on the bed and pulled her knees up to her chin, curling up. “She’s being blamed for what I did.”
”You didn’t mean to do it.”
”But she didn’t do it. They give the death penalty for stuff like this.” Natalie had looked it up once, after magic was revealed to the world. She needed to know what might happen to her. Now she wished she hadn’t. “I… can’t just let her die.”
Quinn shook his head. “They won’t do that. They can’t really prove it, right?”
”I don’t know.” Natalie winced. Quinn sat down on the bed near her, though still the usual distance away. She cursed again the fact they couldn’t be any closer, cursed her own weakness and pain. “I think… I don’t know. I learned how to do electric magic from the same page Rika did.”
”So… they’ll see the magic is the same or something?”
”I don’t know!” Natalie cried. “How does any of this work? I don’t know what to do.”
Quinn tried to answer, but he didn’t come up with anything. Percy, recognizing her distress, flew across the room from his perch and landed on her shoulder. She felt a little better thanks to him, but she was still trying to wrestle her mind around what had just happened.
”I could tell them,” she said slowly. “That it was me. That it was self-defense.”
”But… you said nobody else was really there,” said Quinn slowly. “So nobody can back up your story.”
Natalie shook her head. “…I didn’t tell you, ’cause I’m not supposed to say anything about anyone else.”
”It’s okay,” Quinn hurriedly assured her. “There was someone there?”
”Yeah. Both times. But…” Natalie winced. “One of them’s completely gone. Nobody’s seen from her since Rallsburg. And the other one… did… the other two at the warehouse.”
”So they probably don’t want to involve themselves either,” said Quinn.
”It’d just be me,” whispered Natalie. “Me up against the whole country.”
”You wouldn’t be alone. I’ll be there,” said Quinn, taking her hand. “And my mom’s a defense lawyer. She’d help, I’m sure.”
I don’t know about that… Your parents still seem really scared of me. I feel like Damian asked me to protect you because he’s scared of me…
”I don’t know,” Natalie whispered again. She couldn’t just let Rika take the blame.
She is one of your own.
Rika’s one of my own?
There is more than one layer to a queendom. Rika is one of you. You protect her just as you protect any under your domain.
I mean… I want to. If she were getting attacked and I was nearby, I’d do something. But…
She is under attack right now. You have the power to save her. You must consider how to best wield that power. Do not let her be swallowed alive.
Natalie didn’t end up deciding anything that night. There was too much. She was overwhelmed. They ate dinner, and Natalie went right back to her preparations—with even more urgency than before.
There were more whispers than usual on the bus the next morning. Natalie and Quinn were in their usual seats at the very back, but there were more rows between them and the rest of the kids than normal. Everyone kept shooting them surreptitious looks—Natalie in particular. She tried to ignore it, but she knew Quinn had noticed too.
By the time they got to school, it was really starting to bother her. Natalie marched right up to a girl, someone she vaguely remembered from the beginning of the year as a nice person. To her surprise, the girl squeaked and bolted away before Natalie could get a word in.
”What’s going on…?” Natalie murmured to Quinn as they headed to first period English out in the portables.
”I have no idea…” Quinn whispered back. He pulled out his phone, logging into the social media network most kids at Willford Jenkins used. “I don’t see anything, so we didn’t miss it. Blake?”
”Blake, for sure,” said Natalie with a sinking expression. What had her self-appointed nemesis done now?
It wasn’t just the students, she realized. Their English teacher—somebody she’d liked since nearly the first day—kept giving her the same half-curious, half-nervous glance whenever she walked nearby. Natalie was getting fed up, but she didn’t want to interrupt the class or cause a scene. As first period finally ended, Natalie had Quinn close and guard the door.
”What’s going on?” she asked bluntly, walking up to her teacher.
”I… uhh,” he stuttered, completely off balance.
”Everybody keeps looking at me. I mean, I’m kinda used to that by now, but this is different. What are you all doing?”
”Nothing, Nata—” The teacher’s mouth clamped shut, but it was already out.
Oh my god.
Natalie whirled around to Quinn. He’d heard it too. His eyes were as wide as her own. There was no mistaking what the teacher had been about to say.
They bolted out of the room.
”How did she find out?” Quinn asked as they sprinted across the field to the school.
”I don’t know!”
Natalie intended to find out, though, and she was headed to her suspect’s office right away. Quinn once again stood guard outside, all thoughts of attending class long-gone from their heads. Natalie marched in, ignoring the assistant’s protests, and walked straight into the principal’s office in the middle of a phone call.
”Yes, ma’am,” said the principal, glancing up. She didn’t even look surprised by Natalie’s sudden appearance, gesturing at her to close the door behind her. Natalie did—she was going to anyway—but she didn’t sit down. She was way too angry to stay still. “Yes. Yes, I understand. I’m aware what’s going on. Yes, I saw the news last night. I know what happened. No, I don’t think she’s a danger to the other students.”
Talking about me…
”She’s a perfectly normal eighth grader, ma’am, and I’d really appreciate if you stopped—yes, ma’am.” The principal set the phone down with the most exhausted sigh Natalie had ever heard. “I’m on hold. They’re calling their lawyer.”
”…Who?” Natalie asked nervously.
”The twelfth concerned parent this morning.” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, head tilted up toward the ceiling. “I haven’t started hearing from my superiors yet. They’re probably getting calls too.”
”I’m sorry,” said Natalie, as all suspicion evaporated from her mind.
”…Thank you, by the way,” said the principal unexpectedly.
”For not thinking it was me.” She smiled sadly. “I’ll help you find out who if I can, but I don’t think it really matters anymore.”
”We both know who it was,” said Natalie quietly.
”What happens now?”
”Well, I’ve been worrying about this day ever since I put the pieces together myself.” She opened a drawer and pulled out a thick file folder. “I’ve got a bunch of case precedent for ensuring you can continue to attend school here, even under the protection of the national guard if necessary. You are guaranteed an education at a school within your reasonable power to attend, and you certainly live in right district, so the law’s on our side.”
”We’re going to fight, Natalie,” she said. “…Sorry, is it all right that I use your real name?”
Natalie smiled slightly. “Yes, please.”
The principal smiled too. “I’ll be getting the ACLU for sure, and… oh, I’m sorry, I don’t want to bore you with legal details.”
”It’s okay.” Natalie hesitated. “I think I’m going to need to know a lot of this soon.”
”I’m so sorry this is happening to you, Natalie,” she sighed. “You don’t deserve it. You’ve been a perfectly wonderful presence and an excellent student in this school, even with… well, everything,” she ended abruptly, and Natalie saw her eyes do the tell-tale flick over to her scar.
She nodded. “What do I do now?”
”Well…” The principal hesitated, clearly uncertain. She glanced down at her phone again, but it was still playing tinny-sounding bad pop music. “You could go back to class, if you wanted, but I suppose that’s not going to be the easiest thing.”
Natalie shrugged. “It’s been like that since the first day, though. They always all talk about me. This is just a little more.”
”It’s more than that though,” the principal said. “They’re… well, there’s no easy way to say this,” she said uncomfortably. “Your identity also means that people are connecting who you are with who your father is.”
”…Oh,” said Natalie, as it dawned on her. No wonder her teacher had looked so afraid.
”It’s still all rumor, of course. He’s never been seen. We only have the word of one person, and well… Cinza isn’t exactly the most stable voice in the world.”
Natalie frowned. Cinza was her friend, she didn’t like hearing her insulted like that.
”But it’s enough to scare the parents,” she went on. “Some of them are calling because they believe you might be the daughter of a mass-murderer, and others are calling because they assume you’re awakened and they agree with him. Either way…” The principal hesitated, looking more grim than before. “Things are going to get ugly. Really ugly. I can’t protect you from that.”
”I can protect myself,” said Natalie firmly.
”It’s not that kind of protection.” The principal glanced at the office door, where Quinn’s silhouette waited patiently. “I know your friends are all here, and I know you don’t have any other home to go to, so I want to say it again, to be perfectly clear: if you want to stay at this school, I will do everything in my power to make sure that happens. But…”
”But you think I should leave,” said Natalie, fighting hard to keep emotion from her voice.
”…I located the phone number for your mother,” said the principal carefully.
The floor seemed to fall out from underneath Natalie. “…What?”
”Lori Hendricks. She still lives in Chicago. It’s far enough away that you can disappear, if you so choose. You’d have to change how you look again…” She looked deeply uncomfortable. “I haven’t contacted her, and I won’t unless you tell me to. But I can.”
Mom… We left her behind. She was so weird toward the end… saying weird things, doing weird things. She seemed to be actually crazy. Except… how much of that was dad? Dad’s the one doing… everything now. So what if… what if Mom’s actually okay?
Your mother is not an option.
You can’t just decide that. She’s my mom. She still loves me, doesn’t she?
Love is not the issue. She is an unknown. She is not one of yours. You have responsibilities here. You belong here. Everyone and everything that matters is here.
”Please don’t,” Natalie said quietly, giving in and agreeing with the voice. “Don’t call her.”
The principal nodded. “Then everything else is up to you, Natalie. What do you want to do?”
”I just want to go to school,” she whispered.
”So be it.” The principal glanced at her phone again, checking the time. “In that case, Miss Hendricks, I believe you are severely late for second period. I’ll have to write you up if you stay any longer.”
Natalie managed to crack a smile. The principal did the same. “Thanks.”
”Go be a kid, Natalie. I’ll take care of the adult half.”
Natalie nodded, and quickly left, feeling both better and far worse than she ever had in that room.
When they walked into their second period study hall, every single person in the room froze. The teacher, who’d been grading assignments, openly stared at Natalie as she moved through the room, heading for her desk. The rest of the class was whispering, heads low, sneaking glances as her every few seconds. The instant Natalie looked at anyone, they ducked as if for cover. As if she were going to attack them.
”Well,” said Natalie quietly, “she was right.”
Quinn winced. “It’ll blow over.”
”Not when my dad’s in the news all the time. Not while he’s doing all this stuff.” Natalie pulled out the make-up work they’d gotten from first period, after another uncomfortable encounter. She couldn’t focus on it though. Every few seconds, she could feel a prickling on her neck. People were watching her constantly. Not just the curious looks she’d always get before they got bored again and went back to their own lives.
Now she couldn’t escape it at all.
”—Rallsburg—” someone was whispering a few tables away. Natalie could hear most of them thanks to her ears, but couldn’t focus on any one conversation long enough to really make out anything substantial.
I can’t do this anymore.
This is whispers. This is nothing. Ignore them.
I don’t… I don’t know what to do.
You must endure. You have a goal. Remember your goal. They do not matter.
I don’t anymore though. I’m not doing that. I’m staying with Quinn. That’s my only goal.
That may no longer be an option.
Natalie’s head snapped toward the whisperer, all the way across the room. The boy’s eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. He scooted his chair back as if to run, but it caught on an uneven floor tile and tilted over.
The boy crashed to the floor, silencing the room again.
Everyone looked at Natalie. Not at the boy who’d just fallen to the ground. Nobody made fun of him. The teacher didn’t act exasperated and tell him to stay in his seat. No one helped him back to his chair.
They stared at Natalie. They all stared at Natalie.
”Let’s just go,” said Natalie quietly. Quinn nodded.
She took his hand and stood. Instantly, the room looked away again. As Natalie passed each table, the whispering fell silent—as if she hadn’t just demonstrated she could hear all of them from any distance anyway. They left, and as soon as the door closed behind them, Natalie heard conversation erupt in earnest.
The halls were totally empty. Natalie just wandered for a while, Quinn’s hand in hers, no aim in mind. She called Percy in from above, letting him perch on her shoulder. What did she care anymore? The simple censorship in the book meant nothing. There were only so many kids from Rallsburg, and only one survived. Everyone knew who she was. It wasn’t hard to put together. Somebody was bound to, sooner or later.
”Hey!” shouted Kelsey.
They turned around. Kelsey was jogging down the hall toward them. Someone stuck their head out of a classroom at the noise, saw the trio, and quickly withdrew again.
”Well… how’s your day going?” Kelsey asked, forcing a crooked grin.
Natalie felt her head getting heavy and warm again, as tears started to form in her eyes. “Hi, Kelsey.”
”Hi, Natalie.” She grinned. “I like your real name better anyway,” she added. “Jenny… Jenny was your best friend, right?”
”…Yeah.” Natalie gripped Quinn’s hand tighter. She wished, more than anything, that she could just collapse on him for a while, cry into his shoulder, let everything out.
But she couldn’t. Even besides her own problems, Quinn wasn’t doing so well himself. She could feel it, though he tried to hide it. Her senses gave away so much more than he knew. She felt his heart racing through his grip, saw the sweat beading on his skin, saw the tiny quivers through his whole body, his eyes darting more than usual behind his glasses.
He was scared.
”So I’m gonna kill Blake,” growled Kelsey. “Wanna come?”
”Don’t…” said Natalie weakly.
Kelsey stopped mid-turn. “What?”
”It wouldn’t matter if you did. Everybody knows already.” She took a breath. “The principal told me parents are calling in. Saying I can’t be here or they’ll get mad. Protest and try to shut down the school.”
”That’s bullshit. Don’t they want us in school?”
”What should we do?” asked Quinn hesitantly.
They both looked at him, surprised. Quinn usually deferred to Natalie on anything related to her secrets, but they still rarely heard him sound so confused. Quinn uncertain of what to do was… unsettling.
”Well, screw going back to class,” said Kelsey slowly. “Not like it’s really happening right now anyway. I’m guessing yours was just as screwed up?”
”We had study hall,” said Natalie. “But… yeah.”
”Everybody’s so stupid,” Kelsey growled. “Just get over it already. Where the hell is Mitch?” On cue, Mitch appeared around the corner at the end of the hall. “It’s about time!”
”I couldn’t find you guys,” he shot back.
”We’re standing in the middle of the hallway!”
”Yeah, well, I was on the other side of the building.” He glanced around. “Tyler?”
Natalie winced. “Should we go find him?”
”Yeah, definitely,” said Kelsey uneasily. “If his class is anything like mine… They would not shut up. And they all know we’re friends, so…”
They all paused for a second, looking at each other. Natalie broke into a sprint toward Tyler’s classroom, and the other three followed. When Natalie burst through the door, the whole room looked up in shock. She scanned it quickly, but Tyler was nowhere to be found. The teacher opened his mouth to say something, but Natalie just shut the door again before anyone got a word out.
”No Tyler?” Kelsey asked, just catching up to Natalie. Mitch and Quinn were well behind, both panting already. “Jeez, guys, get in shape.”
”I’m good,” puffed Mitch. “Just can’t run as fast as you two freaks.”
”…Sorry,” Mitch said, seeing her face. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Kelsey slapped him on the back of the head. “Asshole. Today of all days.”
”Bathroom,” said Quinn. “He’ll be in the bathroom or he’ll be outside.”
It ended up being the former. They piled into the boy’s bathroom—Mitch standing watch this time, filling in for Kelsey from their last all-group bathroom meeting. Tyler was in the last stall, head in his hands, sobbing to himself.
”Tyler?” Natalie asked, pushing the door open slightly—just enough to let him know they were there, but letting him open it when he was ready.
”I’m s-sorry, Jenny,” he said, a little muffled through his fingers. “I think it’s all m-my f-fault. They all f-f-found the b-book ’cause I did.”
Natalie shook her head, though of course he couldn’t see her yet. “They would’ve found it anyway, Tyler. You just found it first.”
”I got that link from somebody else like half an hour later,” added Kelsey. “And no way they got it from you.”
”B-but now e-everybody knows who Jenny is.”
”It’s okay, Tyler,” said Natalie quietly. “I can handle it.”
”I screwed up though.”
He kept crying, unconsolable. Natalie looked at Quinn with a pleading look. It was Tyler, after all. Quinn was his hero. Quinn stepped forward, and his voice was admirably steady for how scared and uncomfortable he looked.
”Tyler, it was always going to happen sooner or later. I mean, Blake knew she could do magic, and there’s only one kid from Rallsburg who survived.” Natalie winced again, but she knew that Quinn was doing his best. “Everybody was gonna figure it out sooner or later. Blake just sped it up a bit.”
”She’s a bitch,” added Kelsey. “Don’t let her screw with you like this. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
”We’ve got your back, man!” Mitch called from the doorway.
”Tyler, can I open the door?” asked Natalie quietly.
”…Y-yeah,” he said, and they heard the distinctive puff of his inhaler. Natalie pushed it open. Tyler looked even more of a mess than they’d expected. His eyes were puffy and bright, and tear streaks covered his face, while the top of his shirt was practically soaked.
”Dude, there’s tissues right there,” said Kelsey uncomfortably.
”I-I knew that,” said Tyler.
Quinn shot Kelsey a sharp look, and she recoiled. Too much, Kelsey, Natalie agreed. It was why they’d picked Mitch to stand guard. Tyler wasn’t the kind of guy who could bounce back from something like this through teasing.
”Where’s Steven?” he asked finally through a thick voice.
”Not here again,” said Quinn. “He said he had to stay home for something. Didn’t say what.”
”Oh.” Tyler looked up at Natalie finally, wiping his eyes with his shirt. Kelsey visibly restrained herself as she handed him a few tissues. “Hi, Jenny—err, Natalie.”
”Hi, Tyler,” said Natalie, trying her best to smile. “Nice to meet you.”
That got through to him. Tyler choked out a little laugh. “Y-you girls are in the boys’ room.”
”You got to see ours,” said Kelsey with a smirk. “Only fair we get to see yours.” She glanced around. “I’m super disappointed too. What a surprise.”
Tyler smiled wider. He was feeling better already.
”So now what?” asked Kelsey, turning to Natalie. “Gang’s all here. Class is screwed for the rest of the day anyway. Principal’s on our side, but nobody else in the whole building is. What’s next, captain?”
”Me?” asked Natalie, surprised.
Nobody looked surprised. “Yeah, of course you,” said Mitch, who’d left his post at the door. “You’re the smartest one here and you know the most about what’s going on. That makes you captain.”
”Apparently not in certain games, though,” said Kelsey, with a sideways glare at Mitch.
”You said you’d never played before!”
”Yeah, and I still knew more than you. What does that say about you?”
”I think we should just leave,” said Natalie, interrupting them.
They all hesitated. “You sure?” asked Kelsey finally. “I mean, the rest of us got parents that’ll probably get mad if we just ditch.”
”They’re going to get mad over this anyway, right?”
”Not my parents,” Quinn pointed out with a small smile. “It’s not a surprise to them.”
Mitch shrugged. “My mom probably wouldn’t even think about you. She’d get way more mad about me ditching class. But there’s no class anymore today, so who cares?”
”My parents wouldn’t,” said Tyler with another sniffle. “They’d just be happy I’m hanging out with you guys.”
Everyone looked at Kelsey.
”…I dunno about my moms,” she said slowly. Natalie’s heart fell. Of all her friends, Kelsey was the one she hadn’t expected this from. “I mean, they’re usually pretty cool. But… I dunno on this one.”
”Is it me?” asked Natalie.
”…Kinda,” said Kelsey, her face pinched with embarrassment. “They really don’t like magic in general, and also all the stuff with your dad. They… they went to a meeting,” she trailed off, looking away.
”A meeting of what?” asked Mitch, not following.
”People who want to kill everyone like me,” said Natalie, feeling weight crushing back down on her again.
”I don’t think they were very happy about it!” Kelsey added quickly. “But… well, they didn’t say they weren’t going back. And they love activism and getting involved and all that. So… I don’t know.” She looked really upset, which made Natalie feel a little better, but it was so much worse than what she’d expected.
”It’s okay, Kelsey,” said Natalie. She hated seeing her friend so upset.
”It’s not!” Kelsey snapped. “It’s not your fault! You didn’t do anything. You don’t deserve to get locked up or kicked out or hunted or whatever. This is so stupid. Everything’s so stupid. Why are people so stupid?”
”Why are people so stupid?” echoed Mitch.
For once, Kelsey didn’t take the easy bait. She just leaned back against the nearest sink, still visibly uncomfortable.
”Quinn’s place,” said Natalie finally. “Let’s all go there. Damian’s home, and everybody knows now, so it’s fine. Nothing’s going to happen at school all day with us here anyway. Even without me, you guys were still distracting the whole class, right?”
”Yup,” said Mitch, with a pointed glance at Kelsey, “but that’s pretty normal for me.”
Kelsey cracked a grin, but still didn’t say anything.
”You’re not going to go away, right?” asked Tyler behind her. Natalie turned around. “I don’t want you to go away,” he added quietly.
Natalie shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m your captain now, right?”
”You don’t have glasses,” said Tyler, trying to crack a smile, “…but that’s okay.”
She grinned. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
As they walked out of the school into the bright day, heading for Quinn’s home, Natalie felt the creeping guilt return. She’d promised Tyler, but could she really keep that promise? Kelsey’s words were echoing in her head, over and over, like a bell that wouldn’t stop chiming.
”She didn’t do anything! She doesn’t deserve to get locked up!”
Rika didn’t do anything either. I did those things. She doesn’t deserve to get locked up.
You can’t protect her without failing to protect your own here.
So I should just let her go through the trial?
No. We must find the best course of action. We must find a way to set Rika free without also giving up our own freedom.
How do we do that?
Quinn’s mother is an attorney. Your principal was contacting legal organizations. Cinza may have resources, and you must contact her anyway about what she knows, and if she plans to reveal it.
But what if that doesn’t work? What if I have to turn myself in? What if I get locked up forever? I don’t know if I can do that, even to save Rika.
Only you can make that decision, Natalie.