Chapter 40 — Guilt
Natalie led the way to the nearest bus stop. Quinn stayed close by her side, while Percy flew high above them, keeping watch. After a helpful tip from the voice, she’d realized that the rest of the world wouldn’t recognize her quite so readily, and keeping Percy close made them stand out far too much. Kelsey, Mitch and Tyler lagged behind just a little, which didn’t do much to soothe Natalie’s nerves—or her feelings.
She believed they were her friends, true and loyal, but this new revelation hadn’t had time to set in. Quinn had taken a minute to come around when she’d told him, and that was with her telling him. Who knew exactly what the others had heard? What might they be thinking about Natalie—who she was, who her father was, what had happened in Rallsburg? Natalie couldn’t just let it sit. She had to know for certain… but she didn’t want to go through it more times than she absolutely needed to. Once was bad enough already.
”Quinn…” she murmured.
”We should find Steven. If he’s not actually sick like Mitch said, and something else is going on, we gotta be there for him.”
He nodded, though there was an undercurrent of anxiety to every movement Quinn made now. Natalie couldn’t blame him—her own skin was constantly crawling, begging her to flee, keeping her paranoia sky-high—but she wished he could be a stable rock, somewhere she could roost like Percy might, and take a breath.
You will never be accepted by their world.
Natalie couldn’t disagree. There might be a few exceptions, like Quinn—and her principal, apparently—but the mundane world had shown its colors again and again.
”Hey,” said Quinn into his phone. He’d gotten ahold of Steven. His fingers clutched around hers even tighter as they spoke. “Listen, Steven, we ‘ve got a code re—what?”
They stopped walking. Mitch nearly bowled into the suddenly stock-still Quinn, barely paying attention as he continued the latest heated debate with Kelsey.
”What the heck, dude?”
Quinn ignored him, and so did everybody else. “…This is really big, man,” he murmured.
Another pause. Sweat trickled down the back of Natalie’s neck. A brush of wind rustled her hair. She glanced around the street, certain they were being watched, but nothing stood out. Likewise, Percy—who, for all her insults, was actually quite good at spotting danger—had not called out any warning.
“You…” Quinn’s eyes screwed up in confusion. He glanced at his phone. “…He hung up.”
”Well, that settles it,” said Mitch confidently. “We gotta go get him.”
”We do?” asked Tyler.
”He just texted me,” said Quinn. “Said he’s gotta stay home all day, but nothing about being sick.”
”Sounds like an invitation to me,” said Kelsey.
Natalie nodded. “We’re going there.”
”But what about…” Quinn trailed off, looking at Natalie nervously.
She shrugged. “If his mom’s there, I’ll talk to her. Or we run.”
”We run?” asked Tyler fearfully.
”Yeah, we run, dude,” said Kelsey. “Don’t worry. Natalie and I got your back.”
Natalie smiled. “Right.”
An engine rumbled by, shaking the ground and pressing in on Natalie’s sharp ears. The bus was pulling up to the stop—and they needed to be on it.
”Come on!” Kelsey cried, breaking into a run. Mitch tore after her, Tyler trying desperately to keep up. Natalie started to follow.
Quinn hesitated. She glanced at him. “Quinn?” she asked quietly.
”Nothing.” He started to move.
What’s going on?
You do not have time to worry about it. Hurry!
The voice was right. Natalie sped up, nearly dragging Quinn along behind her as she picked up speed. She slowed down, not wanting to let go of his hand. Natalie had to remember just how fast she could sprint. They made the bus just in time.
Natalie and Quinn flashed their school bus passes on the scanner. As usual, Natalie got the stare from the driver, but to her relief, it was just the typical scar-stare. Nothing to do with her real identity. Quickly, she hurried to the rear seats snatched up by the others.
”How many stops?” asked Natalie quietly. She hadn’t been paying much attention the last time they’d ridden out to Steven’s place, and it was a school bus before.
”Not too many,” said Quinn.
”Here, Jenny,” said Kelsey. Natalie took a split-second to realize why she’d used her old name, before remembering that it still wasn’t totally safe out in public. Better safe than sorry. Thanks, Kelsey. “Come sit back here in the corner on the side seat. So your scar’s facing away from everyone.”
Natalie nodded. “Good idea.”
Quinn couldn’t sit with her in that spot. Natalie squeezed his hand again before breaking away. The release sent a chill through her arm, but it coupled with an incongruent sense of relief that troubled her even more. I thought I was past that…
Every contact you allow puts you further at risk.
Leave me and Quinn alone.
I will never leave you, Natalie.
Somehow, the voice made it sound equally comforting and ominous. Natalie shivered, both from the cold rush of air from the bus speeding up down a hill, and from the voice’s last words.
Natalie knew she was crazy, at least to some degree. People weren’t supposed to hear voices, and definitely weren’t supposed to talk back to them. Sometimes, she chalked it up to magic—after all, people weren’t supposed to be able to talk to animals, or shoot lightning bolts, or fly, or whatever else people like her could do—but the voice felt different. It didn’t come from the fire inside her, the little crackling source of her power and energy. The voice was something else entirely.
It scared her, and it protected her, and Natalie couldn’t decide if it was a bad thing. Every day that went by, she became more comfortable with it floating around in her mind. The voice held no distinct sound—while Natalie liked to attribute it to Linnethea from the game, in truth, she couldn’t tell if it even had a gender of any kind, much less an identity. Natalie had no idea where it came from, why it had awoken, or why it wanted to help her so much. She’d grown to trust it, but that very fact scared her as well.
The voice simply was, no matter how much Natalie might try to deny it. Far worse, she was afraid she’d come to accept it entirely.
Am I going down the same path as Dad?
You do not hold hate in your heart. You are untouched by rage. You act for the good of those you love.
I get mad. I hate.
What about… Seattle?
You could pursue him at any time and claim revenge. You have not. Your father would not have done the same. Hailey would not have done the same. They are avatars of hate and vengeance. You are different.
But what about Blake? I got mad. I hurt her.
You have only ever acted in your own defense.
It was true, and Natalie was slowly coming around to the voice’s side in their ongoing argument. Despite her fears, despite all the weight she carried with her every day, Natalie felt comforted. The deep-seated terror she held, that she might become exactly what everyone feared, had been quashed by the voice. She still didn’t necessarily see herself as good, but she wasn’t going out and hunting people down.
Of course, Natalie.
But… we still might have to turn ourselves in. To protect Rika.
We may, or we may find another path which still sets her free. Our options are not yet so limited.
”We’re here,” Kelsey murmured to Natalie.
She glanced up, and sure enough, the familiar outline of Steven’s apartment building was coming into view ahead. They clambered to their feet, while Quinn pulled the cord to signal for a stop. As they exited, Natalie lifted her eyes to the sky, where Percy still circled high above. She sent a tiny wave of magic up to him, a signal she’d worked out to tell him to perch nearby and watch out. They’d be forewarned if any cars approached the complex, particularly the one belonging to Steven’s mother.
Natalie didn’t want to get surprised again.
Quinn knocked on the door. “Steven?”
No answer. He glanced over at Natalie, worried.
”Should we go in?” asked Kelsey nervously.
”It’s locked, and their building has security.”
Natalie shrugged. “I could open it.”
”I don’t…” Quinn glanced around. The rest of them looked determined, and Natalie certainly wasn’t going to back down. Quinn nodded, and Natalie stepped forward. Her mind reached out, tracing the handle and lock on the other side. A few seconds later, they clicked open.
She grinned. “Easy.”
They trooped in behind Natalie. It seemed an unspoken agreement now that Natalie lead the way into anywhere new. She didn’t mind—she was stronger than the rest of them combined, by far. If it meant she could protect them from something waiting around a corner someday, it was completely worth the bursts of fear she felt every time she walked into a room all alone.
”Hello?” Natalie called out.
”…Jenny?” Steven’s voice echoed out from his room. A moment later, he emerged—and instantly, Natalie could tell something was wrong. Steven was seriously upset. He didn’t exactly show it, but the way he carried himself and his face gave it away.
”Where you been, man?” asked Mitch, who obviously hadn’t noticed a thing.
”You already heard?” asked Quinn, which surprised Natalie a little more. She assumed he’d have noticed, at least. This wasn’t anything to do with her.
”Guys…” Natalie said slowly. “This is something else.”
Steven’s eyes widened a little. “What happened?”
”Well…” Natalie took a breath. “Blake told. Everybody knows.”
”Oh…” To her surprise, the news didn’t seem to strike very hard. Maybe ’cause he wasn’t at school. He didn’t see how crazy it made everybody. He sounded… underwhelmed. “That’s bad.”
”Yeah, no shit it’s bad,” said Kelsey. “Stupid parents are trying to kick Jenny out of school.”
”Natalie,” she murmured.
”Right. Natalie,” said Kelsey, looking embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Steven looked at her, and he seemed to finally be distracted from whatever was really on his mind. “Natalie?”
”That’s my real name.”
”Oh. Okay.” He nodded. “So what happened?”
As a group, they moved over to the living room area while they talked. Natalie took the chair at the end, which was just wide enough for her and Quinn to sit with a bit of space between them. Everyone else piled onto the couch, Mitch snagging a basket of chips as he went. He crunched through them as they spoke, taking turns spelling out the whole day for Steven.
”…and we just left class, since everybody wouldn’t leave us alone anymore,” Kelsey finished up, filling in the gaps Natalie hadn’t known. “Stupid questions about Jenny, over and over and over.” She winced. “Sorry, Natalie.”
Natalie ignored the slip. She knew it would take a while for them to adjust her name in their heads. “What kind of questions?”
”If your mom was a wolf, if you sleep out in the forest, if you drink blood and sacrifice babies or something. Seriously super weird,” said Kelsey.
”They asked me if your family worships the devil,” said Mitch.
”Apparently that’s what witches do.” He shrugged. “I told ’em the devil wishes he could do what you can.”
Natalie frowned. That wasn’t exactly the sort of thing she’d want to hear…
”They…” Tyler sniffed, and had to use his inhaler before continuing. “They asked me if you’ve got magic, why you hadn’t… you know… for me…” He trailed off, but Natalie could fill in the gaps.
“Assholes,” muttered Kelsey. “Tyler, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
”Asthma’s wrong with me,” said Tyler uncomfortably. “They still can’t figure out what kind of medications I’m supposed to take so I don’t need an inhaler anymore.”
”I couldn’t—” Natalie started, but Tyler cut her off.
”I know. Mason’s Law.”
She raised an eyebrow. How does he know about that? Oh… right. The whole diary is out now… which means Tyler has read everything about my dad too.
We need to ask them. We must know what they are thinking.
She took Quinn’s hand, which didn’t really reassure her as much as she’d like, and looked at a vague spot off in the distance. Natalie couldn’t bring herself to see how they’d react. “You guys should know… about my dad.”
”Brian Hendricks,” said Tyler, nodding.
Kelsey’s mouth fell open. “…Huh?”
Mitch rounded on her. “You didn’t figure it out?”
”Nobody mentioned anything about that! I didn’t know her last name.”
Natalie winced. She’d assumed they’d made that connection, at least. “He’s my dad, yeah.”
”Wait, so… the meeting my moms went to…” Kelsey put a hand over her mouth. “Your dad is running the whole ‘let’s kill everybody awakened’ thing?” She shook her head in disbelief. “But… but that’s crazy! You’re awakened!”
”He doesn’t know that,” murmured Natalie. “I never told him.”
”…I was afraid he’d take it away. He got scared by everything back home.” Natalie’s eyes fell to the ground. “We were there four years before Dad let me hang out with Jenny for real. He was just finally starting to feel like home in Rallsburg, and I was thinking I could introduce him to Gwen and Scrappy once Rachel said it was okay, but then… he disappeared.”
”He disappeared?” asked Mitch. “You dad just ditched you?”
”Dad thinks magic is too dangerous for anybody,” said Natalie. “My best friend got killed and he was afraid I might be next.” I think so, anyway. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me…
Mitch looked seriously offended. “My dad would never ditch me like that.”
”He was trying to protect me,” said Natalie, suddenly angry. Her eyes shot up to meet Mitch, while her skin boiled slightly just under the surface. Heat was radiating outward in an instant. Natalie wasn’t sure why, but she felt like she still had to defend her father. “He had good reasons.”
”For trying to kill everybo—“
”It doesn’t matter,” said Steven quietly.
Everybody stopped, looking over at him. He hadn’t spoken since they first walked in. Natalie wasn’t even sure he’d been paying attention, though of course he had been.
”He’s your family, right?” Steven asked, and there was a painful undercurrent to his words. All the defensiveness in Natalie evaporated. “He’s family,” he repeated, more subdued.
”Steven…?” Natalie asked nervously.
He took a deep breath, staring at the papers scattered on the coffee table. Natalie hadn’t even glanced at them, but with Steven’s sudden focus, she decided to take a closer look. Death certificate…? Court papers? Some kind of… I don’t know what these mean. But… who died? Was it… oh my god, Steven’s mom? No…
”Mom’s out doing paperwork,” said Steven, instantly dispelling that fear. “She’s not gonna be home for a while, so you don’t need to worry.”
Natalie nodded. “Percy’s watching out too, just in case.” She hesitated. “Steven… who… who died?”
”What?” asked Mitch, head whipping around to face their friend.
Steven straightened his glasses, which had gone askew at some point. He looked on the verge of breaking down, which was shocking to all of them. Steven was usually the stable, smart one of the Glasses Gang. If he was this upset…
”My brother Logan.”
”Your… that’s your big brother, right?” asked Kelsey. “The one who…” she trailed off, looking embarrassed.
Steven nodded. “He got killed in a drug thing. They came to tell us on Monday. That’s why I was gone all week.”
”I’m so sorry, man,” said Mitch, putting an arm around his shoulders. “That sucks.”
”But—” Tyler started. Kelsey immediately kicked his foot to shut him up.
Even if Logan screwed up really bad, Steven still loved him. They’re family, just like he said.
”How do you do it?” Steven asked, looking to Natalie.
”You’ve lost so much. How do you deal with this? How are you so strong?”
I still don’t know. I don’t think I’m strong at all.
You are strong. We’re strong together.
That doesn’t help Steven though. And it’s not true for me either. You weren’t there when Jenny died, or when Rallsburg blew up.
”I… I had somebody to go after,” said Natalie slowly, unsure if this was what Steven needed, but she didn’t want to lie to him. “I had people to protect, and the guy who killed Jenny was still out there.”
”…They already caught her though,” said Steven. “That’s why they finally told us he died, since they’re supposed to tell the family before it all goes public. They arrested her on Tuesday.”
Wait… Logan. Logan Chau. Where have I heard that before? The prickling on Natalie’s neck was back tenfold. Something was wrong. Really wrong.
”Who?” asked Kelsey.
”That awakened girl all over the news. Rika Nishimura.”
A hammer blow to Natalie’s skull. A feather could have pushed her over in that moment. The room was falling in on her from every direction. The others kept talking, but Natalie fell deadly silent, and Quinn right along with her. Her fingers were gripping Quinn’s so tight, she thought she might break his hand. Her skin was on fire, her heart roaring up through her throat.
He was… oh no. No no no no no no no no no.
I… Steven’s brother was… he was there. He was with them.
Their faces flashed through her mind.
Drugs. Steven said his brother dealt drugs. And Steven knew that gang. Steven’s mom hated that gang especially, and kicked me out ’cause of the scar on my face. So I—
I killed Steven’s brother.
You must not go down this path.
It was me. I killed his brother. It’s my fault.
You were defending yourself.
I killed his brother.
No matter what the voice said, the refrain repeated endlessly in Natalie’s mind. She shrunk back in the chair beside Quinn, and her hand finally left his as she pulled her legs up in front of her. Natalie wanted more than anything to sink away, to turn invisible as Cinza or Jessica could do, fly away like Hailey, make a portal as the Laushires could create, speed away like Omega. She needed to escape, but she had no way out.
Not from herself.
An hour passed. The gang returned to relatively normal conversation. Hunger was getting to them. They’d left school before lunch. Steven and Kelsey started making frozen pizzas while Mitch and Tyler started a game of Conquest. Quinn, after realizing Natalie was deep in her own thoughts, sat down to join them.
I have to tell them.
That is a dangerous course of action.
They’re going to find out anyway. Isn’t it more dangerous for them to find out from the news?
Back and forth, Natalie and the voice argued. It seemed to think her friends could not be trusted, and Natalie couldn’t agree. Quinn most certainly could be, and she’d long-since grown to trust the rest of the Gang. Natalie believed in them. She’d been blindsided by this latest news, but it didn’t change her relationship with her friends.
They have never been tested. You might be wrong.
They got tested today. Any of them could’ve ditched me. They all left class on their own and came to find me.
It is not the same.
It’s good enough.
Natalie pulled out her phone. She wouldn’t bring it up until after lunch. There was no point in ruining the pizzas with terrible news. In the meantime, she needed to check what was going on in the world—if the news about her school had spread, or if there was an update about Rika, or something about her dad, or the Greycloaks, so on.
She had so many things to watch for in the news these days.
A video floated up into her feed, something shared by hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Rika was in the title. Natalie opened her bag and willed it to rotate around to the pockets related to her phone, snatching up her earbuds so she could listen to the video in private.
”Thirty-one murders, and who knows what else besides? There could be more.”
”Murder’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? By all accounts, these sound like self-defense.”
”Maybe in one place, but this is a pattern. People don’t just keep getting into situations where they have to use lethal force to defend themselves. Either she’s incredibly unlucky and dangerously lethal defending herself, or she’s actively seeking these outcomes.”
”Nishimura’s a killer, no doubt about it. Look at her. That’s the face of a murderer.”
”Lock her up, I say.”
Natalie tensed up, watching the angry faces argue back and forth on her tiny phone screen. She didn’t want to be listening to this, but she knew it was too important. Her stomach tied knots around itself as they kept talking, revulsion mixed with fear in unpleasant rumblings throughout her body.
”That’s no good. You heard their big speech in London. Our prisons mean nothing to them. Plus, if this girl’s anything like the Winscombe chick, what’s locking her up gonna do?”
”I thought Winscombe is supposed to be a special case.”
”Like you’re gonna trust their word? We can’t just lock these people up. They’re too dangerous.”
”So what, then?”
”Federal crime. The death penalty’s still around. Dangerous people who can’t be kept under control have to be removed from our society. She fits the bill.”
”If she’s convicted.”
”Oh, duh. Innocent until proven guilty. I’m just sayin’, if they prove it, they better move fast, because you know sure as hell the rest of these ‘awakened’ are gonna try to do somethin’ about it.”
”So kill Nishimura before they can get to her.”
”Exactly. Don’t leave nothin’ to chance.”
Natalie ripped the earbuds out. She was panting like she’d just run the mile again, without her magic—and in fact, her lungs burned and her chest ached as if she really had. Hearing them talk so bluntly, so openly about killing Rika… Would they really do it?
It has been done. It could be again. We can’t let that happen.
”Jen—er, Natalie?” asked Kelsey, just as she slid the first pizza onto the counter. Steven followed a moment later with the second one.
”Let’s eat,” she replied, getting to her feet unsteadily. Quinn rushed toward her, but Natalie quickly waved him off. In her current state, she definitely couldn’t let anyone nearby. They might overwhelm her completely.
Two slices floated off the tray and onto a paper plate, flying in tandem with a can of soda across the room to Natalie. She fell back into her chair again, digging in, trying to distract herself from the rest of the room. The roof of her mouth burned from the hot cheese, and the soda taste barely registered on her tongue even as it fizzed down her throat, but Natalie didn’t care. Just so long as she could get enough time to compose herself.
There’s not enough time anymore. I wanted more time. I just wanted to hang out with my friends.
We must be gone soon. We can’t stay here any longer. Our time in their world is past.
Natalie didn’t want to believe it. She refused to believe it.
”Want to play another round after lunch?” she asked Tyler, between mouthfuls of pizza.
He nodded eagerly. “You think you can beat me yet?”
”…You can’t,” said Steven from the end of the table.
”Huh?” asked Natalie, genuinely confused. Steven usually was on her side in the long-running challenge for the best of the group.
”No, I mean… you guys can’t play a game. After you eat, I think you should leave.”
Another branch torn away from Natalie’s tree. She fell back into her chair, feeling more heartbroken than ever.
”Why?” asked Kelsey, voicing the anger and confusion Natalie couldn’t muster.
”My mom said she might come home after lunch…” Steven glanced at the clock. It was still before noon, but Natalie knew the risk before he even voiced it. “If she sees Jenny… with that,” he added apologetically, “I don’t know what she’ll do. Call the police for sure. Maybe worse.”
”That’s so not fair,” Kelsey snapped.
“Come on, man!” added Mitch, tossing his pizza down on the table dramatically.
Natalie shook her head. She’d had enough. She couldn’t taste her food anymore anyway. It flew off into the open trash can with a soft thump.
”It’s okay, Steven,” she whispered.
He looked like he might start crying. “I’m so sorry…” he murmured.
She couldn’t face him. Natalie knew it wasn’t really his fault, but it didn’t matter. She hurried out of the room, and the rest of the group was quick to follow. Only Quinn lingered behind, finally emerging from the apartment a couple minutes later. None of them spoke a word as they boarded the first bus to arrive. Only a few blocks later did Natalie finally speak up again.
”I want to go home,” she murmured, and though she had spoken softly, all four of them heard her, huddled close in the rear of the bus.
”Yeah,” agreed Quinn. “Back to my place. We’ll go home.”
Natalie’s eyes welled up, and she quickly looked away, because Quinn hadn’t understood her in the slightest. For all the perceptiveness she credited him with, he’d said the exact opposite of what she needed to hear in that moment. Quinn’s home was not her home. Maybe it could have been, but his parents were afraid, just as everyone was afraid.
She leaned back against the seat cushions, laying her head down as best she could. Natalie wanted nothing more than to close her eyes, shut out the world again, but she couldn’t do that. If something happened, her friends couldn’t protect her, or even themselves. She always had to be ready. That was her new life. That was the way of the world now.
As the bus neared the school, Natalie had a sudden thought. There was one person who’d stuck by her, one adult who persisted even with every new piece of horrible information spreading through the world like a virus. Natalie needed to know why. More importantly, she could do with some kind of comforting presence, some reassurance there were still good people in the world right now.
She pulled the stop cord with a quick spell.
”What was that?” Quinn asked. He hadn’t seen the cord move, but he saw her mutter a spell, and he’d heard enough of them now to know what she was doing. Natalie was getting good at casting spells with only the barest whisper of sound, but she still had to say something to pull it off.
”I need something from the principal,” Natalie said quickly, as the bus ground to a halt in front of the school. Natalie hurried off, and her friends barely made it out behind her. The bus doors slammed closed, and a gust of wind seemed to push her forward as it rolled away—but the school was no longer a welcoming place of learning.
A steady stream of people washed in and out of the school like ocean waves, right in front of them. Parents went in, and came back out with their children a few minutes later. Natalie watched, dumbstruck, as they walked right past her without so much as a second glance. Her hair was helping to cover her scar, but still—wasn’t she the reason they were taking their kids away?
I’m right here! Aren’t they going to get mad at me?
They do not fear you. They fear what you represent. They don’t know you.
Natalie shook her head at the insanity of it all. She motioned for her friends to wait behind—she wouldn’t be long, and she wanted to talk to the principal in private. Natalie hurried into the school, past another few scurrying parents with their kids. Some looked excited to be leaving school early, while others shared the same fearful expressions as the adults. Natalie hurried past with her face low and posture forward, doing everything she could to hide her identity.
Raised voices drew her into the principal’s office like a beacon. Natalie walked right up to the door, listening carefully. It didn’t sound like a parent—in fact, it sounded more like the principal was talking to somebody above her. I thought she was in charge of the whole school. So this is like… somebody from the city, I guess?
”…and don’t cite Title IX to me! I ran on Title IX!”
”We both know education board races are practically free.”
”Are you getting snippy with me?”
”I’m twice your age, young woman. I’ll be as snippy as I damn well please. Natalie Hendricks is welcome in this school. There is no legal justification to remove her.”
”Being ‘awakened’ isn’t covered by anti-discrimination law. She’s practically carrying weapons into the school.”
”I guess we’d better outlaw scissors then.”
”You should know that both the Title IX coordinator and the other directors of the Board agree with me.”
”You… You…” The other woman in the room seemed flabbergasted, with an incredulous tone bordering on comical. Natalie wondered what expression was on her face. In another situation, she might have found it funny. “You went behind my back?”
”I like to think I went beside it, personally.”
”We’re practically on the border of the district. I contacted Zachary, and he passed it onto the rest of the Board without my knowledge.” The principal was smug beyond her words, though Natalie had spoken to her enough now to recognize the stress and exhaustion lurking beneath.
”They aren’t the ones dealing with angry voters right now.”
”I’m sure they will be soon enough.”
”This isn’t over.”
”I have no doubt.”
Footsteps toward the door. Natalie stepped to the side, but she wasn’t fast enough. It swung wide, and a harried young woman in a sharp business suit and skirt stared down at her.
Her eyes went wide. “Are you—”
”Yes,” said Natalie, before the principal could respond.
The woman opened and closed her mouth a few times, lost for words. Finally, she hurried out of the room, with several nervous glances back toward Natalie as she left.
”I’m sorry about that, Natalie,” said the principal. “Please, come in.”
”Who was that?” asked Natalie, closing the door and sitting down in the chair.
”The director for our school district. She’s not handling this very well.” The principal sighed, leaning back in her chair and closing her eyes. “I’m sorry, Natalie. I wish I had better news for you right now.”
”I can’t come back,” said Natalie, nodding slowly.
The principal’s eyes snapped open. “No!” she practically shouted. “You are still a member of this school, and you are welcome to attend every class you want. That hasn’t changed.” She shook her head. “I just meant… well, everything else, I suppose. We’re still going to fight though.”
The principal looked taken aback. She didn’t answer, and Natalie realized she hadn’t been very clear.
”Why are you fighting so hard for me?”
The principal sighed again, and it was so drenched in exhaustion Natalie felt like collapsing under the sheer weight of her voice alone. “Because I didn’t last time.”
”I’ve been in the business of running schools for a very long time, Natalie. Forty years, actually, as of September. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened.”
”…Oh,” said Natalie. “But magic didn’t exist before.”
She smiled. “No, and I wish to God that these other children had been given such a gift as you hold. Instead, they were sick with something incurable, and parents were afraid their own might get sick too. It was impossible to get sick just sharing a school with what these kids had, but the parents were too afraid to listen to reason. Something quite similar to today started happening, students pulled out of schools and protests against the system.”
”And you had to fight then too?”
The principal shook her head. “I wish I had. I let it happen. I didn’t protect those students. I caved into pressure. I was on the wrong side.”
”Oh…” Natalie felt like she should be mad, but the principal looked so ashamed and regretful, Natalie knew she didn’t deserve it.
”Bright young kids who just wanted to go to school.” The principal smiled weakly. “Just like you. I’m trying to do better, and that’s why I’m not going to give up. For their sake and for yours, I’m going to keep fighting.”
”I…” Natalie was truly touched, but it only added to the mounting guilt weighing about her shoulders. She’s doing so much for me, and I might not even come back. “Thank you.”
”Now,” said the principal, setting aside her papers. “What can I do for you, Natalie?”
Natalie opened her mouth, but nothing came out. There were things she could ask, like what to do about Rika, or Steven’s mom, or even just advice on where she should go next, but Natalie couldn’t say anything. The world had turned itself inside-out today, and Natalie was only barely hanging on as it was. The principal might be fighting for her, but Natalie wasn’t really like those other kids, as nice as the thought might be. They were sick, she had magic—and worse, she had done things they couldn’t possibly have done. Would the principal think differently of Natalie if she knew the truth?
She has a cause worth fighting for. No matter your feelings, the idea that awakened should be treated the same as the rest is noble. We should not take that from her.
Let her continue the fight. Even if she finds out the truth eventually, she will have set the wheels in motion to protect others.
Natalie finally shook her head. “I just… we were on our way back to Quinn’s, and I wanted to come say thank you.”
The principal looked taken aback once again, overcome with emotion. She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. Natalie felt uncomfortable—adults crying always sent her back to Rallsburg again, or to Jessica’s funeral. “That’s… that’s very kind of you, Natalie.”
”I think you’re a really good principal, Mrs…” Natalie trailed off. “I… I don’t actually know your name,” she added, embarrassed. The principal didn’t keep a nameplate on her desk, and Natalie had never learned her name over her few months at the school—particularly since everyone had always just used the ‘evil queen’ nickname. “Sorry…”
The principal barked out a laugh, and had to dab at her eyes again as she replied. “Well, I didn’t know yours until this week, so it’s only fair.” She smiled. “Frieda Talbot.”
”Natalie Hendricks.” Natalie smiled back. “I promise, I’ll come back to school someday.”
Principal Talbot nodded. “I’ll make sure it’s still here for you.” She waved a hand in the air lazily. “Don’t you have friends waiting? Hurry up, now.”
Another door, but this time, Natalie didn’t bother to knock. This was Quinn’s house, and even if Natalie knew she could never see it as a home, she still felt comfortable walking in unannounced.
”Hello?” called Damian, leaning up from the couch.
”Hi, Dad,” said Quinn, sounding embarrassed.
”…Q, what on earth…” Damian glanced over the whole group, trooping in behind Quinn and Natalie. “Did you start a rebellion?”
”Natalie did,” said Mitch from the back.
”Tons of parents were taking their kids out of school, Mr. Kincaid,” said Kelsey. “Everybody’s freaking out because they think Natalie’s dangerous. Which she’s not,” she added pointedly.
Natalie winced. She wished nobody had even said the word dangerous. The Kincaids were already nervous around her—this certainly wasn’t going to improve their relationship. Still, Damian looked more confused than concerned as his son’s friends rolled into his home in the middle of the afternoon.
”Nobody was gonna have a real class while we were there anyway,” said Mitch, immediately heading into the kitchen and grabbing a bag of chips. “Too busy being obsessed over magic.”
”Oh, like you aren’t too,” said Kelsey.
”Yeah, but not in that way.”
”Natalie, can we talk, please?” said Damian quietly, as Quinn’s friends filtered through the apartment, taking up their usual hang-out spots.
Natalie’s heart sank, but she tried to stay optimistic as she followed him back into Quinn’s room, Quinn right by her side. Damian sat down in the computer chair, while the pair of them took the bed. Damian nodded at the door, and Natalie swung it closed with her mind. Bad move, she realized, as Damian stared far too long before finally turning back to them.
”I didn’t want to say it in front of your friends, Natalie, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading this morning.”
”Who cares who her dad is?” Quinn asked abruptly.
”…Quinn, it matters,” said Damian, and using his full name set them both back on their heels a little. “I’m not saying Natalie’s like her dad, but this is something you should have told us.”
”Why?” Quinn pressed, while Natalie wished he’d stay silent. “There’s a lot of stuff she shouldn’t be telling anybody. It’s not safe stuff to tell.”
”She lives here,” said Damian. “This sort of information puts us all in danger.”
”Because people might come after me,” said Natalie quietly. “Because my dad killed a lot of people and they’ll want revenge.”
Quinn faltered. Damian nodded gravely. “Yes.”
”Nobody knows I live here though,” said Natalie desperately, even though she already knew it was likely futile. The world had shown her, piece by piece, that she wasn’t welcome. This place, like so many others, wasn’t for her. “It’s okay.”
”I’m not saying you have to leave, Natalie,” said Damian, though that was the only thing Natalie really heard. “But…”
Natalie nodded. Damian left the room without finishing his thought, leaving them even more uncomfortable than before. Quinn didn’t say a word, and Natalie couldn’t imagine what was going through his head.
They went back out to join the rest of the Gang, an unspoken agreement between them not to say anything about what had just happened. Mitch and Kelsey were playing a video game, while Tyler immediately challenged Natalie to a round of Conquest. Natalie pulled Linnethea out of her bag and sat down, letting Quinn recover from his own shock.
His parents are disappointing him. You know what he is going through.
I… I guess. I don’t really think it’s the same thing though. At least he gets to talk to them. I don’t even know where my dad is.
”I’ll play Sir Tennenbaur,” said Tyler excitedly, while he set up the territory decks for their draft.
”Sure,” said Natalie absent-mindedly, still watching Quinn watch the other two play their game. I hope he’s okay.
”You gonna play Linnethea again?”
”Yeah.” Natalie leaned in, bringing her mind back into focus. The game would help. She didn’t have anything more to do right now. They weren’t going anywhere else, and Natalie needed some time to relax. She leaned forward and plucked up a forest.
I’m going to win today. I need this right now.
You prepared a strategy. Execute it well.
Yeah. We’ve got this.
”Same thing every time, huh?” said Tyler. He took a moment, then grabbed a wizard tower and a fort.
”Look who’s talking,” murmured Natalie, too quietly for Tyler to hear. She sent her signal out—a gust of wind the hawk would recognize—and Percy shot into the room a moment later through the window at the end of the hall. Natalie held up her arm, and he landed gently, much moreso than usual. Tyler looked suitably impressed and distracted, as she’d hoped. “Two castles.”
This was way outside any strategy she’d ever used with Linnethea—in fact, it didn’t make any sense with an elf draft. She was trying something new, something she hadn’t even read about. It was an idea she’d gotten from the voice. Natalie picked up the cards, staring Tyler down with a small smile. “Your pick.”
”I…” Tyler hesitated. He’s going to go for a fast deck. My castles are going to scare him into thinking I’m trying to play really slow.
We can surprise him.
”A market and a metal mine,” said Tyler finally, grabbing the respective cards.
”Two more castles,” said Natalie without hesitation.
”What are you doing?” he asked nervously.
Protecting my own. “Your pick.”
”Two metal mines,” he said suspiciously.
”Two forests,” Natalie countered immediately. She didn’t actually care what he drafted, but if he went fast, it would likely be easier to pull off. He couldn’t actually burst through what she was planning, no matter how fast he went, and it would leave him vulnerable as soon as her strategy unfolded.
”A farm and a village,” said Tyler, diversifying a little. It slowed him down, but ensured he could play a few more valuable cards later in the game. Natalie wasn’t quite as secure, but she still believed in her strategy.
”Two wizard towers,” she ended, the blindside to her draft. She hadn’t picked up a single food-producing territory, or any upkeep whatsoever. Tyler had expected her to grab farms, or villages at the very least, in her final pick, but Natalie had opted for something entirely different.
Tyler looked seriously concerned. “I don’t get it.”
”Your pick,” Natalie said calmly.
Mitch glanced over, as the round of their fighting game had just ended. “Whoah, what the hell? Natalie, what is that?”
Quinn looked over too. Seeing her strategy, a bit of life returned to his face. He’d been around for when she first came up with the idea, but he didn’t know that she’d actually solved it. She smiled back, while Tyler finally picked up one last territory for himself—a castle. Perfect. Castles are totally useless against this. Wasted final card.
They began to arrange their territories. As expected, Tyler laid out his in a T, with the castle guarding the border while the metal mines waited far in the rear. Since Natalie appeared to have no real forward offense, he actually used the two middle squares as well, leaving only his front corners empty while removing his fort and his village.
Natalie, in return, had played every single territory. Her front line was a wall of castles, while the three forests surrounded the spare castle in the center position. Finally, the wizard towers sat in the rear, twin pillars waiting to unleash their power. Magic. It’s all about magic.
Even Damian stopped by to watch as their game began. Tyler spent his first few turns hunkering down, trying to start the gold-and-cards loop of his metal mines and his market. Still, without any real support due to his confused draft, the engine was slow to kick up. Meanwhile, Natalie had already begun her assault by the second turn.
”Linnethea ambushes,” she said, flipping the card over and including the two bodyguards that accompanied her. “She takes your farm.”
”But… you have no army,” said Tyler, even more confused than before. “What are you supposed to defend with now?”
Natalie just smiled. Quinn broke out laughing up on the couch, which eased her heart to no end. She wasn’t sure he’d actually figured out her strategy, but at least he was cheering up. Kelsey and Mitch were back to their video game, but Mitch was clearly distracted, interested in their unusual duel.
”I…” Tyler looked around the field, then down at his cards, then back up. “I don’t… What are you doing?”
”Attacking your farm,” said Natalie innocently. “I’m done, by the way.”
Tyler threw down cards onto his central market. “I build four knights,” he said nervously. “Sir Tennenbaur moves onto the castle.”
Natalie nodded. “Anything else?”
”Uhh…” Tyler wasn’t used to this at all, and Natalie knew it. She was combining what she’d learned from Quinn’s bluffing, the confidence she’d gained over the last few weeks, the events in Rallsburg, and the advice the voice had given her, coupled with magic itself. This strategy wasn’t something any of them would ever come up with—strange combinations and effects that combined with terrifying potency, but could backfire disastrously. Just like rituals…
He finally shook his head. Natalie nodded. “I create one elf wizard on each forest.”
”Huh?” This set Tyler back yet again. Natalie should have been making troops—the knights were sure to attack as soon as they cleaned up the relatively weak Linnethea.
”Linnethea stays on your farm and pillages it. I use the food on my wizard towers.” Tyler nodded. Natalie turned the towers so they were active, then drew two more cards. “Your turn.”
”That’s… that’s it?” Tyler asked, surprised.
”Oh… okay.” He fumbled a little, glancing over the field again. “My… my knights attack Linnethea.”
”I sacrifice a bodyguard to use her evade,” said Natalie, moving Linnethea and the other bodyguard over to the wizard tower—where, in theory, Tyler shouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway. After all, wizard towers this early were usually unmanned. Natalie just needed to make sure it stayed that way.
”I build two more knights,” he added, placing them on his front line. Natalie didn’t care—her castles should delay them long enough even without any extra guards. “And I buy four more cards.”
Less cards to destroy. Cool. Just one more turn. Natalie drew her cards from her forests, and to her relief, she’d picked up more than enough to pull it off. “I play two more elf wizards and one elf harbinger.”
Tyler raised an eyebrow. The harbinger wasn’t a commonly used card—it could sacrifice itself in a pinch to deal direct damage to a unit or player from any distance, but it was so weak that the effect generally only came into play for countering weak high-power magic users from a distance… or to cast one particular Elven spell.
”Your turn,” Natalie added.
”I attack Linnethea,” said Tyler, moving his four knights again. “And everyone else attacks your front castle.”
Natalie shrugged. “She sacrifices her other bodyguard and evades again,” she said, moving Linnethea immediately to the farm. Since Tyler’s army was too big and the farm was occupied, he couldn’t make any wizards himself. That shouldn’t matter since his army is already so big, but my strategy doesn’t care how big his army is.
”I draw four cards, buy two more and end my turn,” Tyler added.
Natalie drew one card. It didn’t matter what it was, just so long as the math worked out. She grinned at Tyler, while Damian, Mitch, and Quinn watched from the sidelines. Kelsey, meanwhile, had wandered off into the kitchen again to find a snack. Anticipation was thick in the air, everyone waiting for Natalie to make her move.
”I discard everything for Chant of Inspiration using my first wizard tower,” said Natalie.
Tyler frowned, as Natalie dropped her entire hand and drew the same number of cards. She didn’t bother looking at them. “I sacrifice one elf wizard and pillage the forest to cast Renewal,” and picked up every card she’d discarded that turn—which, of course, was all of them.
His mouth fell open. He’d realized her trick.
Natalie repeated the cycle twice more, drawing nearly her whole deck and leaving one spell left on the remaining wizard tower, without a single production territory left on the board. Tyler had no method to block her strike thanks to Linnethea—no wizards of his own, elf or otherwise, no magic on Sir Tennenbaur. He was already doomed.
”I discard my entire hand and sacrifice my wizard,” said Natalie with a flourish, sending the cards fluttering into her pile neatly with magic for extra flair, “to cast Curse of Knowledge. You take one damage for every card I just dropped.”
And, since he was already drawing his deck faster because he played a fast build… Natalie grinned. Tyler looked down at his deck, practically shell-shocked. In a single chained swoop, Natalie had just wiped out both their kingdoms—but Natalie’s still had a few spare cards remaining. Tyler’s was annihilated.
She had won.
Mitch whooped for her victory. Damian and Quinn applauded. Kelsey stuck her head back into the room, saw what had happened, and cheered Natalie on. She smiled, but in truth, she suddenly felt very empty. Sure, she’d finally beaten Tyler for the first time, but…
I had to sacrifice everything to do it. I basically lifted that strategy right out of the ritual from home, when we tried to kill Omega… Is that what it’s gonna be like again? Us losing everything to take them down?
You have learned from the past. You were not a part of those decisions. We can find a better way.
But as Natalie looked around the room, seeing the expression on Damian’s face as Annette walked in the room, the silence that fell and the discomfort flooding through them, she wasn’t so sure anymore.
”Damian, we need to talk,” she whispered, and only Natalie could have heard her. The rest of the group slowly went back to normal conversation, but Quinn’s parents quickly retreated to their room. Reluctantly, while Tyler started raving about her clever strategy, Natalie used her magic to listen in once again, as she had so many times on the Kincaid family—and only to be disappointed one more time.
”I just got a call from Claire, and another from the Lincolns.”
”They say she attacked Blake Sinclair at school. She’s the daughter of that man, Brian Hendricks.”
”Oh…” Damian trailed off, and not in a way that spelled anything good for Natalie.
”What are going to do, Damian?”
”I… I don’t know, Annie,” he murmured.
”She’s living with us.”
”Maybe she’s not like that.” Natalie could hear the doubt in his voice though. She knew where this was going.
”People are going to find out. Even if she doesn’t do anything else. She’s dangerous, and her father’s a mass-murderer. They’re already protesting to the school board. If they find out we’ve been harboring her—”
”We took in a homeless kid and gave her shelter,” said Damian. “Nothing wrong with that.”
”What are they going to say?”
”I don’t like this.”
”I don’t either, but we have to think about Q, and ourselves. I don’t think Natalie’s a bad kid, but she might not be fully in control either. And she’s got that mark.”
”What about it?”
”You know what it means, right?”
”Not… not exactly. She said she got it that night in Seattle, right? When she got lost and ran into some gang.”
”The mark means she’s a member.”
Please, don’t do this, Natalie begged silently, wishing beyond anything she could barge in and get them to stop. But… she’d tried that already, more than once, and they’d still ended up here. If she revealed she’d been listening in, with magic, they’d never trust her again.
”There’s only two gangs crazy enough to mark their members like that, and one of them is the same one Claire’s son joined up with. He’s dead now.”
”I can’t believe she’d join a gang.”
”Maybe they didn’t give her a choice. It doesn’t matter. She’s got the mark, she’s going to attract that kind of attention.”
”…This is getting more insane by the minute.”
”We’ve been saying that every day, Damian.”
”I just want it to all go away, you know?”
”I know.” A rustle of movement. “I love you.”
”I love you too, Annie.”
A tear dropped onto Natalie’s neck. Quinn noticed, but everyone else had gotten deep into Kelsey and Mitch’s latest round. She hurried to her room, and Quinn slipped in before she shut the door. Natalie wasn’t entirely sure whether or not she’d meant to shut him out too, but now she was glad he’d joined her.
She dabbed at her face, remembering Principal Talbot doing the same that afternoon. “I’m gonna have to go, Quinn,” she muttered through her tears. “I’m sorry.”
”Your parents are going to kick me out soon. I don’t know when, but I can’t wait for that to happen.”
”But…” Quinn glanced around. “This is your home too.”
She shook her head sadly. “It never was.”
”My home’s way out there,” said Natalie, gesturing vaguely to the west. “It’s time for me to go back.”
”…Right now?” asked Quinn.
”I hadn’t decided,” said Natalie, but in truth she had. She’d been preparing all week, and far longer if she was honest with herself. She was finally ready to leave. It was time.
”I…” Quinn shook his head. “You can’t leave yet. You gotta say goodbye to everyone first, at least.”
They will not kick you out tonight.
You’re actually telling me to stay?
Leave in the morning. It is safer, and you will be rested. It is the best choice.
I… I guess so. I didn’t expect that from you though.
The voice didn’t answer. Natalie agreed with its logic though. She nodded to Quinn. “We can do that. Tell everybody to meet in here after dinner?”
Quinn nodded. He left, and Natalie immediately set to gathering up her things. Magic made it easier—her bag snapped open, and clothes began to fly off their hangers and neatly fold themselves into their new pockets. Her books followed from the end-table, and her favorite blanket went along with it. Natalie took one pillow too, whispering an apology to the Kincaids for taking it, but it would help to have a spare out on her own—besides the few she’d already gathered, along with the piles of camping supplies and tools buried within her bag. There was so much there, way more than she remembered putting in. The bag seemed endless.
This really is the best gift I ever got, Lily… I wish I’d gotten to know you two better. I wonder what happened to you.
Natalie had never gotten a straight answer—Lily avoided her at the funeral (and it was Lily, though everyone else seemed to think it was Kendra), and they hadn’t messaged each other once since. She knew something must have happened to them—and since Hailey flew off to London, where they were from, Natalie doubted it was anything good.
I’ll find them again someday. After… after I take care of everything else.
”What’s going on?” asked Kelsey, once they’d all walked in after dinner and Natalie sealed the room.
Natalie took a deep breath. “I’m going home tomorrow.”
”No!” said Tyler, before anyone else even had time to react to her statement. Natalie’s anxiety splintered and broke apart at his outburst—she hadn’t expected anything quite so dramatic. “You can’t go now!“
”I have to,” she sighed. “It’s too dangerous for me to stay here.”
”Like it’s not gonna be dangerous there?” asked Kelsey skeptically.
”Less dangerous for me,” Natalie pointed out.
”But… you beat me!” said Tyler desperately. “And I thought the principal’s gonna fight for you! Plus you get to live with your boyfriend!”
Natalie blushed. “That’s not…” she trailed off.
Quinn shook his head, answering for her. “She’s not gonna be able to live here anymore.”
”People are going to find out if they don’t already know, and because of her dad, she can’t live somewhere people know.” Quinn was dancing around his parents’ involvement, and Natalie didn’t begrudge him that. After all, she had her own confused feelings surrounding her relationship with her father. “It’s not safe to stay here.”
”So… back to Rallsburg then,” said Kelsey.
She grinned. “You’re going home to your real best friend, I got it.”
Gwen… Natalie smiled. “You can’t compete with a wolf.”
”Oh just you wait,” said Kelsey. She glanced at Tyler. “You still in?”
”Huh?” Natalie glanced at Quinn, but he seemed just as surprised.
Tyler nodded. “I gave Mitch everything, I think.”
”Hey, don’t drag me into this,” said Mitch. “I still think you two are crazy.”
”What’s going on?” asked Natalie, growing concerned.
”Well duh,” said Kelsey, her grin doubling over, “we’re coming with you, Jenny!”
”Natalie,” Mitch hissed.
”Dammit! Natalie!” Kelsey slapped herself in the face. “Ugh. I totally screwed that up.”
”Are you…” Natalie shook her head. Her heart might be swelling ten times over, but she couldn’t truly believe what they were saying. They were talking like it was some kind of adventure. Natalie was fleeing from getting kicked out of yet another home, being barred from school by angry parents, hunted down by her dad’s people, and possible mass murder charges. “This is going to be really dangerous.”
”No shit,” said Kelsey. She clapped Mitch on the back. “Why do you think he’s not coming?”
”Screw you,” Mitch shot back. “I could totally come along.”
”Money where your mouth is, shorty!”
”All right, I’m in!”
Kelsey looked genuinely surprised. “Wait, you’re serious?”
He smiled sheepishly. “I got all my stuff in too. Changed my mind.”
”Got what in?” Natalie frowned. “What’s going on?”
”Oh… well, Mitch figured it out,” said Kelsey, uncharacteristically deferring to her arch-rival.
Mitch looked embarrassed, shifting back and forth in his spot on the floor. “I… kinda figured out how to open your bag.”
”What?” asked Natalie. “But you’re… you’re not—”
”Nope.” Mitch shrugged. “Guess you don’t gotta be awakened for that bag.”
I never did ask Lily about that… and anyone can use their portals and things without being awakened… so maybe? “What did you do?”
”We all packed our stuff already.” Mitch shrugged. “Quinn wasn’t involved, but we kinda… well, we figured he’d tell you, and then you’d freak out before we got all set to go. Plus, there was no way we weren’t gonna set off from here, so we can just grab his stuff now.” He glanced at Quinn. “We’ve got extras for camping stuff, so you don’t gotta worry about that.”
”We already asked your parents if we could stay the night,” added Tyler. “They said it’s cool.”
Probably for my sake… feeling guilty about making me leave tomorrow. Natalie glanced around, seeing determined faces on all three of them. She felt a weird burst of pride, as if she’d somehow helped them get to this position, though of course they’d done it all on their own.
They will make fine companions.
But… it’s gonna be dangerous. They aren’t awakened.
They must have prepared well, and they can keep secrets. It will be more dangerous if they stay. With us, they are safer. We protect our own.
”It’s getting super late,” added Kelsey. “We’ll see you in the morning, right Natalie?”
”Yeah.” Natalie smiled, making up her mind in that instant. “It’s a long way back to Rallsburg.”
Kelsey beamed at her. Tyler and Mitch grinned. The three of them rolled out, leaving Quinn behind. He started to get up from the bed, but Natalie touched him on the shoulder, turning him back around.
”…You okay?” she asked quietly, sliding the door closed with her mind at the same time.
”I’m really scared,” he whispered.
Natalie nodded. “Me too.”
She shook her head. “Asking that never helps. Trust me.”
Quinn didn’t say anything for a while. Natalie reached forward and took his hand, holding him as close as her body would allow. She tried to smile in a way that might reassure him, though she had no idea what that really meant. How was she supposed to smile in a certain way, anyway? It seemed ridiculous—and yet, the smile definitely helped him, in whatever way she managed.
”You get to meet Gwen,” said Natalie quietly. “And Cinza, and probably a whole lot of other people. It’s a really nice place. I can even show you my castle.”
”You have a castle?”
She giggled. “Kinda. It’s a tree fort me and dad built out in the woods near our house.” She hesitated. “That’s actually where I awakened.”
Quinn looked interested. Natalie laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, and Quinn laid down next to her while she retold the story.
”…and I didn’t really get it until months later, who was shouting and fighting out there. I guess that was Alpha and Omega fighting, and Grey-eyes trying to stop them. But I never saw them, and I found the piece of the book sitting in my fort.”
”I know.” Natalie sighed, leaning closer to Quinn—and for once, the tremors in her skin didn’t feel quite as strong. They’d been laying next to each other for over an hour, and slowly, she was overcoming her reluctance and fear, bit by bit. “So I picked it up and read it, and I just felt everything. All the animals, all the trees and plants in the whole forest around me. It was so cool. And then that night, I met Scrappy.”
”Scrappy is the mountain lion?”
”Yeah. He came right up to my window when I called. I was so scared my Dad might walk in,” she added, giggling.
”Can you tell me more stories?”
”Yeah,” said Natalie. She glanced up at the clock. “Getting kinda late though.”
”Oh…” Quinn started to move, but Natalie squeezed his hand.
”…Do you want to sleep in here tonight?” she asked.
”I don’t…” Natalie hesitated. “I don’t feel it.” She did, but it had subsided so much after laying there for so long. She wasn’t sure exactly why, but she felt like if Quinn left, she might not find her way back to this place. If this was her only opportunity to feel close to someone again, Natalie didn’t want to waste it.
”But—” Quinn glanced toward his parents room with a nervous expression.
”We’re leaving in the morning,” Natalie pointed out. “What are they gonna do? Kick me out?”
Natalie sighed, and before she could stop herself, the emotions started pouring out again—just like they had the first day they met, on her first day of school, or any number of times after with Quinn. The dam burst forth, and her inner thoughts spilled out of her mouth one after another.
”I’m really scared. My dad’s out there trying to convince people to kill everyone like me, and I’m going back to find him and I don’t even know what I’m going to do when I find him. Am I supposed to talk him down or make Gwen attack him or what? I’m just a kid. The whole world’s going crazy, and apparently I’m super powerful or something and one of only eight people in the world with this kind of power, except now there’s six because Jessica’s gone and Omega too, and I’m afraid about who’s gonna be next in that group.
”I miss Gwen. I miss Scrappy. I miss Hector and Jackie and Neffie and Jenny and all the other people I used to hang out with. I even miss Rika. I don’t know what happened to Rachel or why she never tried to find me, and now I feel like I’m breaking my promise and going after him alone, but she never showed up and my dad’s doing horrible things, so I gotta break it.”
Natalie took a breath, trying to let the pressure release from her chest as she forced the words through her mouth.
”Plus now there’s all this other stuff too, like how Rika’s getting blamed for things I did, and she’s in huge trouble when I’m supposed to be the one in trouble, and I don’t know whether or not telling everyone it was me will actually make things better or just make it worse, because every time I tell people things, the whole world seems to change and it scares me. I don’t like it.”
”Well…” said Quinn, as Natalie took another breath, panting from the torrent of confessed feelings. “I don’t know about any of that. But…”
”It’s okay,” said Natalie. She rolled up on her side, lifting up off the bed to look at Quinn. He tried to smile, but he looked just as scared as she felt—and again, in that moment, it was exactly what she needed. She wanted to know she wasn’t crazy, that being scared was right and normal. If Quinn was scared, it was okay for Natalie to be scared too.
She leaned in, scared beyond all reason, and kissed Quinn.
”I really like you,” she whispered as she pulled away.
”I… really like you too,” he whispered back.
Natalie smiled. She laid back down next to him—and for the first time, actually next to him. There was no gap anymore, and though her body was still resistant to the idea, Natalie managed to ignore it. With a quick whispered spell, she summoned a thick blanket from her bag to ward off the chill, and sealed the door once again. The blanket wrapped itself snug around them, and Natalie could feel their bodies warming up the space already.
”Good night, Quinn,” she whispered.
”Night, Natalie,” he whispered back.
She smiled, and with a final spell to click out the light and a wave to Percy, Natalie settled into bed… where endless thoughts awaited her—of Alpha and Omega, of Grey-eyes and magic, of Rika and prison, of angry parents and protest mobs, of her friends and the faceless men who would hunt them, of her dad and Gwen.
Of home, and every impossibly complicated feeling that came with it.