In Plain Sight
Chapter 1 — The First Day of School
On a park bench somewhere in British Columbia, a god and his erstwhile lover were having an argument.
"You don't think they deserve to know?"
"That just seems dangerous without any real benefit. I'm trying to keep everything going, and how am I going to do that if we're still dealing with people?"
"We're just supposed to cut off contact with the whole world?"
"It's safer for us both. We talked about this. Trust me, I know what I'm doing. This is why we put everything in place."
"This isn't something covered by the rules. We could still keep in contact with them."
"That sort of information is dangerous."
"I thought you were totally in favor of freedom of information."
"Freedom of information and actually informing people are completely different things. You wouldn't advocate we reveal state military strategy to a foreign power, would you? After the fact, maybe—but when we're facing real danger, we have to weigh our ideals against the needs of the present. Any information that could lead to the immediate death of people for no real benefit has a time and place to be released. This definitely isn't it."
"Seems like a strawman. We're not a military."
"Is it so different? I'm not invincible. His death should have made that obvious. We're like a foreign state, or at least foreign actors inside their state. If they came for us, it could only end two ways. Either I'd be forced to hurt them, or they'd take us. You know they'll be trying to find us, and there's only so much I can do to protect you."
"Don't make this about me."
"It's about all of us. Information will leak out, like it always does. But it'll be mixed and confused. People will leap on it before they understand what it is they're seeing. Everyone will just think about it from their own perspective. The internet gave us some amazing things, but it amplifies information without regard to its accuracy. We'll be at a dangerous crossroad where the truth may not actually win out without authority. Authority comes from reputation and charisma, and the Awakened have neither. As far as the world's concerned, all of them are complete nobodies."
"They're also presumed dead. Coming back from the dead is authority."
"No, it's suspicion. Unless they're prepared to reveal everything, they can't explain what happened to them in that town. Nothing will ever add up without factoring in magic, something none of us can explain. I agree with their decision. Going into hiding is much safer than getting arrested and sent into a black box."
"So they go public. Go wide with the story, so wide nobody can stamp it out."
"They don't have enough people willing to back them up. A few people claiming something this insane can't make that large of a splash before they'd be found and shut down. They'd need access, which they don't have. If they just post it on the internet themselves, they'll be assumed fake, because again—they have no authority. If they go public, they're dead."
"When did you get so pessimistic?"
"When my entire world exploded around me."
"Don't be melodramatic."
"I'm being realistic. It literally exploded, don't forget that. And it was all for nothing. All that work we did, all the laws we put in place. They're back to square one."
"It wasn't for nothing. The laws still stand."
"I wish I could see things the way you do. I wish I believed that."
"We chose the rules. Now we have to live with them."
"But what if I could change them? The rules are flawed, because we're flawed. We were human. We couldn't account for every scenario. What if I stepped in? I could have saved some of them. Maybe all of them. It didn't have to be this way."
"I know. But—"
"I love you, but you need to stop second-guessing this. It's for the best. They'll figure it out eventually, one way or another. That's what humans do."
Lily fussed over every inch of her, making terse noises of disapproval. Natalie fidgeted in place while Lily cleaned up her face. She sighed. "You look dreadful. How on earth did you get this dirty in half an hour?"
"Percy wanted to show me something out in the woods."
Lily frowned. "You know the rules." She glanced at the clock. "We don't have time for this. We should have left five minutes past. The bus will arrive shortly. Gather your things."
Natalie reluctantly took off her boots and dug her shoes out of the closet. Her battered old pink backpack hung at the back at the closet, but she couldn't take that. That was her kid backpack. She wasn't a kid anymore.
She strapped on her new pack, green as the small forest near their home. Percy fluttered over to sit on her shoulder, rubbing his head against her ear. He wanted to come, but she knew that wouldn't be allowed. No way she could get away with bringing a hawk with her.
<You have to stay, Percy,> she said. Percy fluttered back to his perch by the rear window, eyeing her with disappointment. <I know. I want you to come too. It's gonna be so boring.>
"What was that, dear?" Lily asked, coming back into the room with a packed lunch.
"I'm just talking to Percy."
Lily glanced at the hawk. "How is he?"
"He's sad he can't come along." Before Lily could say anything, Natalie shook her head. Her hair swung around in front of her face, reminding her what they'd changed (or let grow out, in this case). The little things that helped her look different than old photos anyone might dig up. I kinda miss having short hair though. It's so much easier to take care of. "I know, I know. It's not safe."
"It's Kenni's day out. I'll be here after I drop you off," said Lily. "I can keep him company if he wants."
<Do you want to hang out with Lily?> Natalie asked. Percy's head tilted slightly to the side. <She's not that bad.>
If hawks could sigh, Natalie would have sworn he did.
"He's happy to have you around."
"Shouldn't you two be leaving?" asked Kendra, entering the front room with her steaming mug of tea in hand.
"Yes," Lily answered irritably. "Do you have everything?"
"Just a sec."
Natalie reached out with her mind and plucked up her purse by the strap, neatly pulling it off the coat rack and into the air. It swung wide as it flew across the room, nearly clipping Lily before it landed on Natalie's shoulder. She took the sack lunch Lily had prepared and dropped it inside, where it joined a multitude of objects buried inside. At a glance, she saw her gemstone collection, the tuft of Gwen's hair, her mother's locket and her father's old drumsticks on top, and plenty more underneath.
Lily frowned again, which was quickly becoming her default expression around Natalie. "You really should put your lunch in your backpack. How are you going to take it out in front of everyone?"
"I don't want it to get squished," said Natalie. "Everything in here stays perfect."
Kendra sighed. "It'll be fine, Lily. She knows not to withdraw it in public."
Natalie walked to the door and pulled it open, letting the bright sunlight and the sudden harsh sounds of the city assault their senses. When the house was sealed, it was perfectly quiet, but once a door was open there was no stopping it without giving themselves away.
"So are we going or what?"
"Well, this is just really unusual," blustered the principal, an older woman with graying hair.
"The paperwork is all in order, is it not?" Lily asked mildly.
"Our registration was submitted on schedule. Jennifer is here on time and eager to attend classes. She tested into this grade successfully. I simply don't see the issue."
"Your registration details didn't check out, and you registered in August to put her straight into the eighth grade," the woman said exasperatedly.
"It's a non-resident application for a homeschooled student from out of state," Lily pointed out. "I'm not surprised it doesn't quite fit your usual protocol. However, her standardized scores were above average and she has all the necessary qualifications to attend. If you still aren't certain, please phone your superintendent and mention our case. She's currently awaiting your call."
"She's what?" The principal was clearly flummoxed. Natalie felt a tiny burst of glee, but she had to hold it in. She was supposed to be the perfect attentive new student. She distracted herself by flicking around the cord to the blinds behind the woman—anything to keep herself from fidgeting in her seat. The principal started to dial and Natalie flicked the cord a little too hard, smacking it audibly against the wall.
Lily nudged her foot. She let it fall slack and switched to one of her new tricks, murmuring the proper spell under her breath as quietly as she could.
It took Lily a few seconds to notice the change. Natalie's fingernails were shifting through every color of the rainbow in a perfect dissolve. She smiled innocently. Lily seemed too astonished to tell her off. They hadn't seen that particular spell before, and it was outside Natalie's affinity. She'd come up with it on her own, spending the day staring at a rainbow while sitting up in a tree with Percy and thinking about something Hailey Winscombe had described on the forum. It had taken her a while to connect it with the rainbow colors and how they were just a reflection of her own eye, but she'd gotten it eventually.
The first time she'd done it, Percy tried to peck at her fingernail, thinking she was infected somehow before she managed to calm him down.
The principal was still busy on the phone, so Lily took Natalie's hand and brushed her finger against the shifting nail. Lily clearly expected it to change as she blocked the line of sight. She thought it was a light spell—just an illusion like Cinza's. Natalie smiled even wider. She was better than that.
Natalie abruptly released the spell as the principal dropped the phone back on the receiver. The old woman put her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. "I don't know who you people are, but I guess I have no choice."
"Thank you," said Lily gently. "I'm sorry you had to go through that. If it's any consolation, I promise you that really, all we wish is for Jennifer to receive a normal education."
"Is there anything I can do to help that along?" she asked reluctantly. Natalie wondered what sort of pressure Kendra had on the poor principal, even without her real name to lean back on. She knew it had something to do with money. Kendra and Lily were always working, and they made frequent trips out into the city for important meetings. Natalie wasn't sure what they did exactly, but she knew they were powerful people.
She was still getting used to them without red hair though. Kendra and Lily with brown hair was just weird. They looked too pale for it. It matched Natalie's hair, but it wasn't totally convincing. Not to Natalie at least. She wished she could have changed her hair to red instead. That would have been so much more fun, but everyone insisted that she never get involved in any kind of ritual. Permanent hair color changes—the kind that didn't keep pulling at your magic—could only be done with a ritual, and Natalie wasn't allowed to do those, according to Rachel.
"I'm sure Jennifer will be fine as a typical pupil," Lily replied. "I assume you have some sort of program to assist transferring students? Enrolling her in that system would probably be for the best."
"There's something in place, yes. I'll make sure she gets a good guide." The principal turned slightly to face Natalie. "Welcome to the Seattle public school system, Miss Heshire."
Truthfully, Natalie did want to attend school. She was going crazy cooped up in the Laushire's new house. She could go out to the forest whenever she liked, but she missed having at least a couple friends to talk to. The Laushire twins were always so busy, whichever of them stayed home each day—and when they weren't, they were getting on Natalie's case about something. The only people she really talked to anymore were Hailey and Alden, but she never actually got to see them. It was just text, and people always talked different when they were writing stuff on a forum. It didn't ever quite sound like it was actually them on the other side.
She left the principal's office with her new school schedule in hand, said goodbye to Lily and walked to the first classroom on her list. They'd already visited the school once when they were scouting out which to attend, and Natalie remembered the layout well enough to find her room. Or so she'd thought.
A few minutes later, she was already hopelessly lost.
It's a two-story building, and all rooms starting with 2-- are on the second floor, right? And 1-- are on the first. So where's room 310?
She wandered down the first hall and found herself circling back to the second in a few minutes, totally bewildered.
The halls were eerily quiet with every door snapped shut and not another student in sight. It reminded her of a set of lonely streets she'd once wandered through, looking for any signs of life to point her in the right direction. Anything to convince her that the world hadn't just vanished, leaving her hopelessly alone.
Natalie stopped and sat down on a bench near a bank of lockers, taking a deep breath. Everything's fine. I'm okay. I'm in school. I'm in a building full of other kids like me. Okay, not even slightly like me, but you get the idea. I am not alone.
She opened her purse and reached inside, feeling the tuft of Gwen's fur and clasping it tight. She'd very reluctantly taken it from her friend, at Gwen's insistence. Gwen, smart and caring creature that she was, had known Natalie would need something to remember her by. She'd shown her the spot to cut where it would affect her the least, and Natalie had sliced away a fair-sized patch of fur.
Natalie asked about her almost every day, but Cinza never replied. Cinza rarely replied to anyone, as far as she knew. She showed up with an update every couple weeks or so, and Josh posted a lot about the progress they were making, but nothing else.
Natalie snapped her purse shut in shock. She stood up straight and rigid. Her hand naturally went into a gesture that could produce a burst of fire in an instant if she needed it. One that didn't need her to speak, so it was way faster. She was really good with quick fire spells.
It was just a boy. Her age, probably. He was taller than her, though, and it felt a little intimidating. She wondered how Cinza handled it all the time. At least Natalie probably wasn't done growing, or so they kept telling her. The boy had short brown hair and wide, thin hazel eyes behind rimless glasses that watched her every movement. She could feel his eyes trace down her arm to her trembling hand, and she forced it to stop trembling.
"What's your name?"
"Jenny," Natalie replied. They'd drilled it in a thousand times. Natalie answered as readily to Jennifer or Jenny as she did to her real name. For you, Jenny. To keep you alive, just a little bit.
"Are you new this year?"
Natalie smiled weakly. "How'd you figure it out?"
"Well, you look super lost, and you're in the sixth grade area. You don't look like a sixth grader."
"What's a sixth grader look like?"
"Smarter than a seventh grader looks."
Natalie grinned. "What's a seventh grader look like?"
"Smarter than an eighth grader," Quinn replied without missing a beat. "We're the dumbest on the tree for sure."
Natalie laughed. "Okay, dumb Quinn. If I'm a dumb eighth grader, where's my dumb classroom?"
"What's the room number?"
"310." Natalie held out her schedule. She wondered briefly if that was giving away too much information—but that was the paranoid adults in her life talking. She was at school, exactly where she was supposed to be, and that schedule belonged to Jennifer Heshire, not Natalie Hendricks. She knew what needed to stay secret.
"Ahh, you're going to the dreaded outdoors," said Quinn ominously.
Natalie frowned. "What's so bad about that?" Anything outdoors sounded fantastic to her.
"The portables don't have A/C."
She glanced out the nearest window. "It's like sixty-five degrees today."
"Yeah, but it's gonna be ninety on Friday." He shuddered for effect. "If it makes you feel any better, I'll be stuck out there with you."
"Yeah, I have the same class."
"So why aren't you there now?"
Quinn shrugged. "I was supposed to go to the office for something and I took the long way around."
"Why would you need to go to the office?" He didn't seem like the type to get in trouble—Natalie assumed. She'd never actually been in a real public school, so she was going off what she'd seen on TV or read in books.
"Oh, I'm a guide. They snatch me up to help out new students. Ohhhhh," he added, realization finally dawning on him.
"You must be really good at your job," said Natalie with a smile.
"Or really bad, since I didn't catch on until now." Quinn shrugged. "Well, I'm still supposed to go to the office before I actually start guiding you, so… wanna walk back with me?"
They reached the classroom just in time for the bell to ring. Quinn pulled her out of the way to the side as the door swung open and dozens of kids trooped out. Natalie felt a bit overwhelmed already. She'd never seen that many kids her age in the same place in her life, except maybe the time she'd gone to Disneyland with her dad.
The thought of her father, however brief, sent Natalie's chest into a tight knot. She had to force herself to breathe. In and out. In and out. Everything's fine. I am okay. I'm supposed to be here. I'm Jennifer Heshire. Heshire's a stupid name but it's all we could come up with at the time. At least my real name's still kinda there.
"You good?" Quinn asked, noticing her tensing up.
Natalie had to take a second before she could answer. "Totally. I'm just super new."
"Not asthma or anything like that?"
"Nope. I'm good." She lowered her voice slightly, though the rest of the kids were already gone. Only a few had even given her a passing glance standing off to the side of the door. "I was homeschooled until now. I don't like crowds."
"Oh. Well that makes sense," Quinn said thoughtfully. "Especially in a school like this. We're one of the biggest in the state. You're really jumping into the deep end here."
"Come on, we gotta get your stuff." Quinn lead her inside, where the teacher was prepping for her next period. Quinn handled everything smoothly, introducing her and explaining their absence, getting an overview of what she'd missed (a syllabus—she'd never even heard of such a thing), and promising to be on time the next go-round. Natalie only spoke once or twice, letting Quinn handle all the talking. She liked that he was helping her so much without making her feel stupid. She was still getting her bearings, and the teachers were pretty intimidating too.
She wondered why she felt so scared of all these people, even the other kids. She'd been in fights with actual monsters and she'd gone up against the scariest man in the world. She hadn't been afraid for a moment around them, not really. Even now, thinking back to those encounters, Natalie didn't feel anything but a sense of pride and accomplishment. Okay, a little fear, yeah, but she'd done her part. She'd helped beat them and probably saved the world. Or something like that. At least, she'd definitely helped save Rachel and her friends.
She wished Rachel would talk to her again. Lily informed Natalie that it wasn't just her—Rachel had vanished from the map entirely. No one had heard from her in months. But Natalie and Rachel had something special. Rachel should have at least kept in touch with her, if no one else.
Where are you, Rachel?
Natalie breezed through the next two periods with only a few pointers. Switching classrooms every hour was weird, but she liked the variety at least. She mostly sat toward the back and tried not to draw much attention to herself. Quinn seemed to be one of those kids everyone liked, but no one really hung out with. He had a few friends who said hi, but they gravitated away to the popular kids like wolves joining a pack. It gave him plenty of time to talk to Natalie, explaining every little detail about school.
She felt so lucky her cover story hadn't changed from being homeschooled, because she really didn't know how a normal school worked. Quinn had to show her how lockers worked, when to speak up or be quiet in class, where the supplies and things were, how the cafeteria worked, everything. There was just so much to cover. Natalie had never quite understood just how small her hometown was until Quinn pointed out that their grade was about three hundred eighth graders. Three hundred! Just her grade! Natalie's home only had that many people when the college was in session!
Quinn was gone again following third period, as she went to the standard gym class while he had a technology class instead. She'd been warned about the locker room, but she didn't see what the big deal was. She changed and went right out to the floor, and there she really started to have some fun. It had been incredibly difficult for her to sit still through her classes, but she'd managed it through a combination of practicing movement spells on tiny objects under her desk—and a lot of fidgeting. It didn't help that they weren't even learning anything yet, just talking about what they would be learning soon. It seemed like such a waste of time.
In gym, even on the first day—or maybe especially on the first day, since they were dealing with a ton of kids right out of summer vacation—they were sent straight into games out on the field in the middle of the track. It was a full hour of tag, flag football, soccer, or whatever they wanted to do. Some of the girls turned up their noses at the idea and just took to walking around the track.
Natalie found a tight squad of other girls just as eager though, and they faced off against a group of twice as many boys. The gym teacher was about to step in and call for more even teams, but Natalie caught her eye and shook her head emphatically. We can totally win this.
The boys let them have the ball first as a handicap. Natalie grinned. This is gonna be easy.
A much taller girl named Kelsey started them off as the quarterback. Natalie worked up a quick plan with her, volunteering herself as the secret weapon. No one would expect her to be the receiver, right? The short new girl no one knew? Fat chance.
When Kelsey got the ball, Natalie went wide, as wide as she could without leaving the field. Her legs pumped as hard as she could manage, and only one of the boys even tried to cover her. Maybe they underestimated her, since she was new and still pretty short.
She'd show them.
Natalie called out to Kelsey. The girl scanned the field and saw how open she was. Kelsey wasn't stubborn enough to throw only to her friends—she knew an opportunity when she saw it.
Kelsey gave it a full-bodied throw at the last second before a boy lunged for her flags. The ball was sent sailing toward her—but there was a problem. The ball wasn't flying fast enough.
Natalie knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't help it. She flung out her mind, reaching with an invisible magical grip, and nudged the ball upward. It kept flying, unnaturally straight, coming directly at her. The boy behind her didn't keep up, since he expected it to fall short, but Natalie ran to where she'd nudged it. She caught it easily with a loud whoop of success.
Her team cheered her into the endzone, laughing as they went while the boys stared in shock. It was perfect.
They started to reset for the next play. It was the boy's turn. They didn't do a kick-off like Natalie expected, but she guessed they just couldn't really kick it far enough for it to work at their age. She felt a little guilty about the last round, since she'd basically cheated her way into a touchdown, and she resolved not to use her magic in the game again.
The boy they selected as quarterback made his throw, and it was long. Way too long. In fact, it was coming right for Natalie again, while the boy he'd intended to catch it was more than a dozen yards off. Natalie quickly figured out where it was going and sprinted for it.
She caught it, by the tips of her fingers—and without a single nudge of magic at all. Natalie shouted in triumph and began her run to the side, trying to find a way around the mass of boys suddenly charging at her.
The mass of men suddenly charging at her. Twenty of them, maybe even twenty five. They were coming after her. They had torches and weapons, shouting terrible lies about her with her best friend's name on their lips. They wanted to hurt her and Rachel.
They wanted to kill her.
Natalie dropped the ball and fell to a crouch. The first of them, half a dozen paces in front of the rest, reached for her with hands outstretched and blazing hatred in his eyes. Natalie tensed and filled her arms with magic like Ryan Walker had taught her, strengthening herself.
As the snarling man ran headlong into her, Natalie flung him up into the air and over her back. He tumbled head over heels behind her in a heap. She braced for the next one.
The rest of the crowd froze, dumbstruck. Natalie didn't understand why they'd stopped. She looked down slowly. She saw the football next to her in the grass, heard the groaning boy behind her and a sharp blast of a whistle from the other end of the field.
Reality snapped into place. Natalie turned around and saw the boy struggling back to his feet. He didn't look injured, just surprised and a bit frightened. She mouthed an apology. He didn't react, but Natalie's heart was thumping away in her chest and her ears were on fire.
She sprinted away from the onlooking crowd. It was too much. There were too many of them. So many kids watching her. Natalie didn't know how to handle it.
Tears started streaming down her cheeks, startling her. Natalie didn't cry very often. Even back home, with everything that had happened, she'd usually just felt too busy to cry. Or she'd been trying to keep herself together so that other people didn't cry. She'd been someone people relied on, so she felt that responsibility to hold on and show them how to be strong, just like Rachel did.
Now Natalie was alone, with no one to rely on and surrounded by hundreds of new people, and she couldn't stop crying.
The gym teacher let her sit out the rest of the class inside, away from the rest of the students. They'd chalked it up to nerves or something. She didn't really hear the explanation. They told her she wasn't in trouble and that the boy was totally fine, so no harm no foul. Still, Natalie couldn't bring herself to face the whole crowd after that. She went into the locker room to sit alone for a while, then changed back into her school clothes.
She had lunch next. She didn't feel like braving the cafeteria. Instead, she found her way to the nearest bathroom. She double checked every stall, then took the one at the end and closed the door. She sat down on the top of the seat and pulled her legs up so she couldn't be seen.
At least I don't have to worry about anyone seeing my purse. She lifted her perfectly intact lunch out and began eating in silence. Lily had made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As typical as you could get, but Natalie appreciated it. It comforted her more than Lily could know. Natalie finished eating without a single person coming in, and sat there for a while, replaying the incident on the field in her head over and over, mixed in with the memories of home. She shuddered.
Stop it. This isn't helpful. She didn't know what else to do though. Was lunch over yet? She decided to just head to her next class and hope it almost was. Natalie tried to clean her face up before she set off, and when she glanced in the bathroom mirror she thought she'd done pretty well. She could tell she'd just been crying, but she doubted anyone else could. When the bell finally rang, she was already halfway there, just as the first few began to emerge from the cafeteria or outside.
Of course, she was only one minute into the classroom when Quinn strolled right by her desk and stopped suddenly, looking at her face. His eyebrows creased up, and she knew he'd noticed. "I'm okay," she whispered.
"Do you want to go take few minutes? I'm sure it'd be okay. I can explain it to the teacher."
"No, please," Natalie said. Anything but that. I don't want to stand out more than I already do. "I'm good," she added, with the best fake smile she could muster.
His brow stayed creased, but he nodded slowly. He pointed at the chair next to hers. "You cool if I take that seat, then? No assigned seats in this class."
Natalie felt a real smile start to replace the fake one. "All yours."
To her great relief, he didn't ask what had happened. She'd tell him later probably, but she didn't want to relive it right away. But then, maybe he'd hear about it from someone else first. He might be told how she freaked out and flipped a guy over in football. They still had time before the bell, and no one else was sitting very close.
"Hey," she started.
"I kinda… nothing." She chickened out at the last second.
He glanced over, wiggling his eyebrows. "I kinda nothing all the time. It's my specialty."
She laughed. His expression was ridiculous. "Thanks."
"For nothing? Anytime."
A few other kids sat down near them, ending her chance at any more private conversation. She looked down at her notebook and smiled to herself. Quinn seemed like a pretty cool kid. He was nice, and funny, and actually kinda cute too. She was glad she'd met him so soon. Her school life was looking up already.
"No way, you went there?"
A conversation behind them was heating up. Quinn seemed to be preoccupied with something on his calculator. As she glanced over, she realized it was a game. He'd snuck a game in on his calculator to pass the time in math class. She'd have to ask him how. It'd be better fidgeting material than risking more magic or fiddling with things in her purse all day.
"I thought was off limits still!"
"They haven't found shit in four months now. No one really cares anymore. We just walked right in over the border, me and my big brother."
Natalie tensed up again, realizing what they were talking about. Four months ago, closed off area. It could only be one place.
"So is it really full of ghosts?"
"Nah, just a bunch of burned down buildings. That big library is super spooky though."
"Did you go inside it?"
"Were there bodies everywhere?"
"No, idiot, they cleaned those up in the first couple days."
"Aww, that would have been so cool."
Natalie's pencil snapped in half with an audible crack between her index and middle fingers. She froze in panic, not daring to move a muscle. The conversation behind her didn't pause for a second. They hadn't noticed her slip up. She breathed a silent sigh of relief, slowly glancing around again.
Quinn was looking at her with those inquisitive eyes again, half-visible behind the reflected light in his glasses. His brow furrowed up. "Hey Jenny, you okay?" he murmured.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Natalie asked in a low voice, but her tone didn't even convince herself.
Quinn nodded slightly down at the snapped pencil on her desk. "You, uhh, broke your pencil there."
"Oh." Natalie hadn't realized she'd still put some magic into her hands, flickering just underneath her skin like tiny embers. Was it leftover from the football field, or was it a reaction to the conversation about her home? Why didn't she get tired when she did spells like that for so long like everyone else did?
What had Quinn noticed?
The bell rang to start the class, saving her from having to answer him. Natalie stared determinedly at her notebook, while echoes of Kendra and Lily's voices bounced around her head. I have to be normal. I can't be noticed. Being noticed means people paying attention to me, and people paying attention to me means they might find out who we are.
If anyone discovered who she was, Natalie Hendricks was in very big trouble.
She only had one more class before the end of the day, and luckily Quinn wasn't in it. She managed to get through it without another terrifying flashback or magical incident, while the teacher talked excitedly about science and experiments. She didn't even feel the urge to fidget through the entire class, which was a welcome relief from her usual tics.
The day ended and Natalie headed for the street as quickly as she could, while most kids started loading up into the bright yellow school buses. Natalie couldn't take one of those, as she wasn't going anywhere near the district. She'd be taking a city bus again, but for extra safety she'd also be starting from a stop further away from the school. She left the school grounds on her own and started down the sidewalk, as brisk as she could without breaking into a full on run. Running looks suspicious. Running calls attention to me. Walk, don't run.
Of course, since she was only walking, she hadn't gotten far enough away from the school before other kids who lived close had caught up to her. Natalie did her best to ignore them, though a few tried to say hi to the new kid, or pointedly talk about her from a distance and see if she'd respond. They all split off in the end, except for one.
Of course Quinn would be one of the kids who walked home. And of course he would happen to walk home in the same direction as her. Natalie tried to speed up, but Old Man Boris' instructions had been super specific. She did not run, and that gave him all the time in the world to catch up.
She slowed down. Trying to ignore him would only make things worse, when he already suspected something. She put on her smile and waited for him to catch up. "Hi, Quinn."
"You live out this way too?"
"No. I'm just going to the bus stop. Down on uhh… the one with the 7-Eleven. I live on..." she trailed off, not sure how to answer. Luckily, Quinn saved her the effort.
"You just moved, didn't you?" He grinned. Natalie just kinda gazed back at him. In truth, she couldn't remember the name of the street because she didn't live there. That was just where she was supposed to go after school. Their actual house was… somewhere else.
"Yeah, totally did." She looked around, then quickly crossed the street with Quinn at her heels.
"Wanna walk home together then? I actually just live one street over."
"Oh. Sure, I guess." She'd probably be overjoyed, if she didn't have a snapped pencil in her pocket and no actual home address to go to. "Thanks."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, Natalie feeling increasingly uncomfortable. It wasn't that she didn't like spending time with him, but she didn't know how much she could say. She wasn't Old Man Boris. She hadn't lived this life for decades. How was she supposed to just lie about everything to everyone she met? Nobody could keep that up.
"Look," Quinn started, and Natalie snapped.
"A boy was running at me and I kinda flipped him over and hurt him and everyone freaked out. Then I was hearing them talk about Rallsburg and about the bodies and stuff and it was so terrible and I freaked out again. I didn't mean to."
Quinn's mouth was stuck open for a few moments. "Oh."
"Yeah," Natalie said, looking down at the ground.
"Well, I don't know if this makes you feel any better, but the guys want you to join the football team now. Not that you're allowed to," he added hastily. "It's a boys-only thing, even if you could probably beat most of them."
Natalie looked up in surprise. "They weren't freaked out?"
"That you're amazing at sports and can suplex one of the best players?" Quinn grinned. "I think half of them want to ask you out."
Natalie's face flushed with red. She glanced away.
"Was that bad? I'm sorry."
"I just..." Natalie started, but she closed her mouth suddenly. She wondered if Quinn counted himself among that group. "It was my first day at a real school. Ever. Is it always that crazy?"
"Nope. Don't worry, it'll calm down real soon." Quinn sighed exaggeratedly. "You'll be dying of boredom like the rest of us in no time."
They turned the corner and there sat the convenience store she was supposed to go to. She pointed at it. "I'm actually supposed to wait there to be picked up."
"I thought you took the bus?" Quinn asked, surprised.
"I do, but…" Natalie trailed off, realizing what she'd messed up. Today was a special case since she didn't have a bus pass yet, but she doubted Lily would want to run into her new tagalong. As little information as possible. "Lily's taking me out on an errand."
Mom. Not Lily. Why can't I keep things straight around him? "Lily's my mom."
"You call your mom Lily?"
"Yeah. I'm weird," she said abruptly. "Anyway, I should go wait for her over there. I'll see you tomorrow?"
"I mean, if you want, I could wait with you," he said, shrugging.
"You don't need to do that," Natalie said quickly, even though a small part of her mind really did want him to stick around. He couldn't, though. If he knew her, he'd remember Lily better, and he'd know what bus number she took, and all sorts of other information. Natalie doubted Quinn meant her any harm, but Boris had really stressed how important it was to keep as much secret as possible in their circumstances. Quinn couldn't be there.
"I'm really not doing anything else. I don't mind."
Natalie shook her head, her hair whipping her in the face again as she did. "Look, Quinn, I really liked meeting you and hanging out today. I want to again tomorrow. But—"
He held up a hand. "Say no more. I gotcha. I'll see you tomorrow." He smiled. "Same classes, by the way. Only your fourth period will change every day, so you'll have your elective instead of gym tomorrow. What did you pick?"
"I didn't," Natalie said. She opened her purse and dug through quickly for her schedule, making sure Quinn couldn't see inside it. "Oh. It looks like it's the same one as yours?"
He glanced over it again. "Yeah, you're in technology too. Cool. It's way more fun than art or band. Band is for the slackers 'cause all the real band stuff is in an after school thing, and you'd know if you wanted to be in art class."
She shook her head. "Nope, definitely not."
"So yeah, technology's the way to go." He smiled. "Well, see you tomorrow Jenny." Quinn walked away, leaving her alone at the curbside in front of the store.
Natalie watched him go with a twinge of regret. She waited at the curbside of the store, watching the first bus pass by, and the second. The bus system confused her already. The sign had a giant list of numbers on it, which seemed to be the same numbers as the ones on the front of the buses, but why were there so many? What if she got on the wrong one? Would she just be sent off to the opposite side of the city?
Natalie didn't want to get stranded somewhere she couldn't find her way back. She waited, and eventually her bus pulled up, with Lily clearly seated only one window back from the front. Natalie quickly boarded and dropped a pile of quarters into the slot. The bus driver didn't even glance at her.
She glanced at Lily as she walked by, but Lily acted as if she hadn't noticed. Oh right. We don't know each other. Natalie quickly walked back to a seat near the side door and sat down just as the bus lurched underneath her. They were on their way.
It didn't take long for them to reach their stop, almost outside the city proper. Natalie occupied herself watching the variety of people getting on and off at each stop, fascinated by the massive difference between the people she'd grown up around and these strangers. She made sure she always kept Lily in sight though, terrified of missing her stop. As the bus shuddered to a halt and Lily got to her feet, Natalie hurried out the side door as fast as she could.
In front of them sat a boarded up old store, walled off by chain-link fences as forlorn and abandoned as Natalie felt. Lily was watching her carefully, waiting to see if she followed the instructions. Natalie took a deep breath. She checked both directions, making sure no one was watching them, then pulled back the corner of the fence and ducked through.
First step done. Natalie pulled out her phone and sent a text to Kendra.
She walked around the back of the place, where she found a tiny space wedged between a sealed dumpster—which was actually built into the wall itself—and the big fenced off electrical thing that plugged into the wall. The back of the store store lead immediately into a small park thick with trees, so it wasn't visible at all from far away. Someone would have to be standing back there to spot her darting through the gap.
Natalie finished her mental count to twenty she'd started in her head since she'd sent the text. About a second later, the wooden door appeared in the side of the dumpster right in front of her. She pushed through it quickly and closed it as quietly as she could manage. Ten seconds later, it vanished, returning to the rich textured wall of their house. Lily was somehow already inside waiting for her.
"Good job," Lily said, patting her on the shoulder. She headed upstairs. Natalie went into the sitting room, where Percy was waiting for her.
"How was your first day?" Kendra asked, glancing up from her book. Percy fluttered off the couch to perch on Natalie's shoulder.
<Just a sec, Percy. I have to take this stuff off.> He looked annoyed, but hopped off and patiently waited while she put away her school things. The moment she emerged from the closet, he was right back on her shoulder. <You're hopeless, you know that?> she added affectionately, stroking his head.
"I don't speak… whatever that is," Kendra said mildly, sipping her tea.
"I tried to teach you."
"I doubt anyone can ever learn it without the book, sadly," she mused, setting aside her novel. "But did you learn anything today?"
"It was the first day. Nobody ever does anything on the first day," Natalie echoed, copying the whining tone of another kid she'd overheard. She didn't like Kendra asking her right after she got home, like she was checking to make sure Natalie didn't do anything wrong. She could be trusted for a single day alone, right? She'd begged them for a whole month to let her have this. Natalie didn't want everyone to get on her case about it now.
"Shoes, dear," Kendra added, giving her feet a disdainful glance. Natalie kicked them off into a corner. She ran and leapt onto the couch, landing with a thump while Percy fluttered away in alarm. Once she'd settled down, he dropped to the couch next to her and eyed her curiously.
<I'm not getting up for a while, Percy. Go hunt or something.> He made a noise of disappointment and flew away, tapping the small lever that allowed him to open the window near his perch. Natalie pulled out her phone and logged onto the site, checking for any messages.
None from Cinza. One from Hailey and Alden each, asking the same question as Kendra. Natalie scrolled back through her old messages, just in case she'd missed it somehow. When she reached the happy birthday messages from July, she gave up.
Nothing from Rachel.
Natalie knew there wouldn't be anything—but even so, it stung a little. Did Rachel even know she was going to school now?
She set her phone aside and stared up at the ceiling. She liked Lily most of the time—and to a lesser extent Kendra—but they just couldn't measure up to the two most important people in her life. One of those… well, thinking about him was really confusing now. But Rachel was different.
Natalie had first met her in the forest, actually, back when she was learning how to cast spells. She used to hate animals before she found her magic. No matter how smart they might seem, even dogs, she could never really communicate with them. She just didn't get what everyone saw in them. Then, so suddenly, she'd found that piece of paper that showed her how to really talk to them. How they could become just as intelligent as anyone she knew. They could be her close friends and companions, since she didn't really have any. Jenny was her only real friend, and they were close, but they didn't share a whole lot of interests. Plus, she didn't know about magic, and Natalie couldn't tell her.
Rachel, she could tell. Rachel listened, helped her figure things out, and encouraged her to explore it. Rachel was there when no one else was.
Rachel and Natalie joined the Council together, with Rachel making sure Natalie was listened to and accounted for every time. No one else ever gave her much notice since she was so young and small, but Rachel made sure she got her say. Rachel treated her like an equal member, even if she was just a kid. Natalie wasn't sure anymore if she had deserved it, since she whined a lot and didn't really offer much. Thinking back through a lot of those meetings she could still remember, Natalie cringed at how she used to act. She'd gotten a lot more mature since then—not entirely by choice.
Rachel had always treated her right, all the way to the end. Even when Natalie had been horrible to her, resenting Rachel for her dad's disappearance when she had nothing to do with it, Rachel still acted with kindness.
When the time came though, Rachel had walked on alone, sending Natalie away to try and save everyone else. Rachel had changed in those last couple days just like Natalie had. Everyone else seemed to move on, try to forget and live their lives again. Natalie was playing along for now, but she felt like she hadn't moved on at all—and only Rachel could understand why.
Natalie just wished they could talk again, but every time she logged on, Rachel's account was silent. No one knew where she'd gone. Jackie had dropped them off in Seattle, then taken Rachel and Will further north and vanished. No one had heard from the three of them in months. Rachel had sent them a single message with the address of the site they now used to talk in private, but that was it. Totally silent.
She kept it open on her phone every day since Rachel had sent it. Every day, Natalie checked to see if Rachel was back, and every day she didn't reappear. Natalie didn't tell Lily or Kendra about it. She stayed patient, going through the motions, waiting for the day Rachel would come back and keep her promise.
Waiting for the day Rachel and Natalie would finally go back to Rallsburg and find her father.