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Chapter 7 Identity

  The cards scattered across the library table. Quinn was frozen in place, eyes wide. Natalie stood up, pulling her bag over her shoulder.

  "I gotta go."

  She could see Rachel's disappointment in her head. Images of Rallsburg's last days flashed through her mind, memories bubbling up to the surface of her boiling mind, threatening to overwhelm her. It all started after the town had found out about them. Her world ended only a few days later.

  Now she'd been discovered. She'd been noticed. They'd come for her. Natalie felt magic burning through her limbs, preparing for the worst. She had to be ready to move at a moment's notice.

  "Wait!"

  He leapt to his feet, reaching out for her. He managed to snatch her hand just as she started to move away. On instinct, Natalie pushed him back. Hard.

  Quinn flew backward as if he'd been hit by a car, suddenly tossed through the air and rammed into the bookshelf behind him. He fell to the ground in a slump. Books fell off and landed on his head.

  He wasn't moving. His eyes were closed.

  Natalie knew she should leave. She wasn't in view of any cameras. No one had seen her. If she left now, it'd only be Quinn's word about what happened. It'd be easy to dismiss him as crazy or making things up. She could still be safe.

  Seeing Quinn on the ground with books scattered around him, Natalie couldn't bring herself to do it. She liked him. She'd hurt him. She couldn't just leave him.

  Natalie ran to his side, kneeling down next to him and grabbing his wrist. She knew how to check for a pulse, and he had one. He was still breathing too, but that pretty much exhausted her medical knowledge from what she'd seen on TV. All she could do now was call for help.

  Who should she call? The library staff? Nine-one-one? Lily? All of those risked more damage, more problems. All of them would just make everything more complicated.

  Natalie called the only person she could think of.

  "Hello?"

  "Hailey, I did something bad," Natalie whispered. She knelt down by the unconscious Quinn.

  "...Tell me everything, okay? Start at the beginning."

  Natalie breathlessly ran through the entire day's events, starting with the fire in science class. She didn't leave a single detail out, her heart racing as she recounted everything. What would Hailey say? Natalie was in so much trouble and she knew it. She'd broken their most important rule, staying secret. If Rachel ever found out—

  No. Hailey will fix this. Rachel won't ever have to know I screwed up. Quinn’s gonna be okay. He has to be.

  "...and now he's blacked out on the ground and I don't know what to do," she finished, her voice ragged. "What do I do, Hailey?"

  "Okay. Take a deep breath." Hailey took one with her, crackling over the phone a little. "Is anyone else there?"

  "I don't think so." Natalie glanced out of the stacks quickly. "There's a lady pushing a cart at the end of the row, but she's going away from me."

  "Okay. That's good. Keep taking deep breaths." Hailey paused. "There's two ways we can play this. Is he still blacked out?"

  "...Yeah. I think he's really hurt." Natalie choked a little on her words. "I didn't mean to hurt him."

  "I know, Natalie. Don't worry. I'm sure he knows that too." Hailey's voice sounded so self-assured over the phone. Natalie wished she could sound so calm. She felt like her world was crashing down around her. Again. "Is he bleeding?"

  Natalie gingerly felt around Quinn's head, feeling like she was breaking the rules even more. Her hand touched something wet. "He is. Oh god. What do I do?"

  Hailey's voice got more urgent. "Where are you? What library?"

  As Natalie rattled off the address, Quinn stirred. He groaned a little, but didn't move much more than that.

  "Do you have any bandages in your bag?"

  "No… Am I supposed to have them? I didn't think about it."

  "It's okay. You shouldn't have to carry them around." Hailey hesitated again. "Do you have any pads?"

  Natalie's face heated up as she realized what Hailey was suggesting. "As a bandage?"

  "They're made to be clean and absorb blood. It's better than a random piece of cloth. I know it's gross, but it's your best option."

  She dug through her bag, trying to find the specific pocket she'd placed them in. There were so many pockets in the rows contained inside. After ten empty pockets in a row, Natalie got frustrated. She found the tiny tug the bag constantly made on her core and followed it back, willing the bag into giving her what she wanted.

  Her hand suddenly bumped into the correct pocket, where the individually wrapped packages waited. Natalie took one out and unwrapped it, then placed it against the back of Quinn's head where the blood was trickling out. He shifted a little at her touch, but still didn't wake up.

  "Okay. I'm holding it now. I just keep pressure on it, right?"

  "Yeah, exactly. That's good, Natalie." She could hear a loud hissing sound through the phone, like an airplane about to take off.

  "What's that sound?"

  "I'm flying by an airplane right now," Hailey shouted. The sound got so loud that Natalie pulled the phone away from her ear for few seconds. Once it dissipated, she could hear Hailey again. "I'll be there in a minute, Natalie. Just hang on. Is he awake yet?"

  Natalie checked again. Quinn's eyes fluttered a little. He groaned. "Yeah, he is."

  "Okay. That's really good."

  Quinn's eyes were starting to come back into focus. He mumbled a few words Natalie didn't understand.

  "He's starting to talk."

  "Okay, so he can probably understand you too. Don't say my name anymore, okay?"

  "Yeah."

  "I'm sorry, but you gotta decide this right now. Do you want to tell him, or do you want to keep it a secret?"

  "I have to decide?" Natalie asked, shocked.

  "You know him better than I do."

  "I thought we were supposed to keep everything a secret."

  "We're not gonna tell him everything, but if you think you can trust him, it could be good to have someone at school to help you out."

  Natalie's mind was racing, while she continued to try and hold the bandage against Quinn's head.

  "What if I say no?"

  "We tell him the bookcase fell, and you called me for help since you're not supposed to be there."

  "What if he recognizes you?"

  "Then we tell him," Hailey sighed. The wind got louder. Hailey was probably dropping down to the ground. "I can't cover every possibility here."

  "...nnnJenny?"

  Natalie froze, one hand on the phone and the other cupping Quinn's head.

  "Up to you," Hailey repeated. The sound of the wind suddenly cut out. She'd hung up.

  How am I supposed to make a choice like this?

  Natalie had a split second to decide, and no more time to consider. She went with her head, against everything her heart was telling her. Rachel had wanted them to stay secret as long as possible. She'd repeated it at every single Council meeting. Who was Natalie to suddenly go against that? It shouldn't be up to her. She was just a kid.

  "I'm sorry," she whispered.

  "Huh?"

  "I didn't mean to hurt you." Wait. What was that about staying secret…?

  Quinn started to move. Natalie dropped her phone and put her other hand against his chest. She looked away, feeling immensely embarrassed. She'd never been so close to a boy before, but she knew that Quinn moving around probably wasn't a good idea. She had to keep him steady. Luckily, she was a great deal stronger than he was—or anyone else in the building, for that matter.

  "You did what?"

  "Just stay still, okay?" Natalie glanced around, but to her relief there still wasn't anyone around. Their table was so far out of the way that no one was likely to pass by. "Someone's coming to help."

  "Okay." Quinn quit struggling, letting Natalie gratefully move her other hand away. She tried to adjust her sitting position without releasing the makeshift bandage on his head, as her legs were starting to fall asleep.

  "What do you remember?" Natalie asked hesitantly, not sure what she wanted him to say.

  "I was teaching you how to play. I gave you a deck, then… something happened? I dunno."

  Natalie's heart fell. She'd been hoping he'd remembered, so that she wouldn't have to choose herself. Everything would be so much easier.

  She had to go with her head. She'd slipped up before, but she trusted Rachel. She'd keep her secret, as long as she could.

  "I pushed you and then the books started to fall out. One of the big ones hit you really hard." Natalie grimaced. "I'm so sorry."

  "I've never blacked out before." Quinn blinked a few times, like he was trying out his vision for the first time. "Feels weird."

  "Do you feel okay?"

  "I guess? My head hurts a lot."

  "Well, it's uhh… bleeding."

  "Oh. That makes sense." Quinn started to turn his head.

  "Stop moving around," Natalie scolded. "I'm trying to hold your brain in here."

  "I was trying to look at it."

  In spite of everything she was feeling, Natalie laughed. "It's on the back of your head. How are you gonna look at it?"

  "Oh." Quinn grinned sheepishly. "I'm dumb."

  "I'm dumber," Natalie muttered.

  "It's cool. Tyler's done way worse when he's lost games before." Quinn reached down and lifted up the hem of his shirt, pointing at a long narrow line along his side. "He didn't mean to. He's got a problem where he can't really control it unless he takes his pills."

  Natalie looked away, in a mixture of embarrassment and nausea. The only other scars she'd ever seen were the ones on Cinza, and those always made her feel just as sick. Blood didn't bother her at all, but scars reminded her of terrible things happening to people she liked. Why do people who have scars always want to show them off so much?

  A patter of quick footsteps rushed behind them. Hailey had arrived, with a handsome young man in tow that Natalie didn't know. In an instant, he'd dropped to Natalie's side, gently pulling Quinn's head forward a bit so he could look at the wound.

  "It's okay. I'm a nurse." His voice was pleasant and rich, with an accent that soothed Natalie's ears like wrapping up in a warm blanket.

  "In training," Hailey added.

  He sighed. "Could my patient and I have some space, please?"

  Hailey held out her hand to Natalie. She reluctantly got up from the floor and took a few steps away, while the man examined Quinn more thoroughly.

  "What did you decide?" Hailey whispered.

  Natalie hesitated. "He got hit by the bookcase."

  "...Okay."

  "Do you think I chose right?"

  "I don't know. I mean, I chose the opposite way, so I guess we'll find out?" Hailey nodded at her friend.

  "He knows?" Natalie asked, raising her eyebrows.

  "Well I sure hope he does, I just flew him past an airplane to get here."

  "Oh."

  "His name's Rupert. He's a really good guy."

  The way her face lit up, Natalie could tell exactly what kind of good guy Hailey meant. She smiled. "I'm happy you found someone."

  Hailey grinned. "You cheeky little monkey, how'd you figure me out so fast?"

  "Cheeky?"

  "Sorry, I'm hanging out with a British guy too much."

  "Is Quinn gonna be okay?"

  "Like I said, Rupert's a nurse. He knows his stuff. Quinn wasn't unconscious for that long, so he should be totally fine. Might be a bit woozy on his feet for a few days though. Can you help him out?"

  "I think so. We have a lot of classes together."

  "Cool." Hailey hesitated. "Hey, don't tell anyone we came out here though okay?"

  Natalie nodded. "I know, you're not supposed to."

  "I mean, it's up to me, but I did agree to try and keep away so you wouldn't get more attention. I don't think anyone saw us, but I'm flying without Jessica here. I can't go invisible like I usually do."

  "Thank you."

  Hailey smiled. "Any time."

  Rupert glanced up at them. "I think we're done here." He'd wrapped the bandage up around Quinn's head with another one from Hailey's bag. "I'd like to bring the lad back to his folks, if that's all right."

  "Probably a good idea," Hailey agreed, nodding her assent. Rupert lifted Quinn gently off his feet. Hailey raised an eyebrow. "You're gonna carry him the whole way?"

  "It's not far."

  "Hey Quinn?" Natalie spoke up.

  "Hi, Jenny."

  "I'm sorry."

  "It's cool." Quinn winced as Rupert adjusted him to a better position. "I just get to add to my scar collection. I'm gonna look awesome when I grow up."

  "That's the spirit," chipped in Hailey.

  Rupert headed out, leaving them alone in the library. Hailey took a seat at the table, while Natalie nervously took the one opposite. Hailey stretched out her legs underneath, taking a long yawn. "Sorry. I've been staying up way too late."

  "What have you been doing?"

  "Same as always. Running around with Alden trying to keep the world from blowing up." Hailey grinned. "I think we're getting pretty good at it."

  "I'm not."

  "Not what?"

  "Good at this." Natalie's eyes fell to the table, avoiding Hailey's gaze. "I keep screwing up."

  Hailey's smile faded. "Hey, it's okay. You're allowed to screw up. That's totally normal."

  "But everyone's relying on me not to."

  She shook her head firmly. "None of us expect you to be totally perfect. No one's totally perfect."

  "You are."

  Hailey smiled. "That's super sweet of you, but I'm really far from perfect. I've screwed up loads of times, both before and after our little secret."

  "Like when? I've never seen you mess up anything."

  She sighed. "You know how Jessica's got her problem?"

  "...Yeah." It scared Natalie so much that she wasn't even tempted to break the rule about doing rituals. "That was your fault?"

  "Might as well be. I could have stopped it, but I wasn't thinking. I let it happen." Hailey shook her head. "I've screwed up other times too. But we learn from this stuff. We're supposed to screw up, that's how we get better."

  "But every time I screw up, everyone's in danger. It's not just me."

  "Yeah." Hailey nodded. "It's good you remember that. You're a lot more mature than I was at your age. Hell, you're a lot more mature than a lot of adults already." She grinned, but it faded quickly. "But at the same time, if that's all you think about, you're just gonna get stuck. I know it's scary. But just remember, at the end of the day, we've got something they don't. No one can take that away from us, no matter what." She held out a hand.

  Natalie took it. Hailey's fingers were warm and soft from the gloves she'd been wearing, and when Natalie touched her skin, she could feel the magic rushing around just below the surface. They'd talked about how they could share magic. Natalie wasn't a part of the big ritual with the other four, but they'd explained the basics online. This was the first time she'd ever gotten to feel it in person though, and it wasn't anything like she expected.

  It was faint, so distant she might have missed if it she hadn't been actively trying to find it. Just the briefest touch, and yet Natalie felt like she'd connected with Hailey somehow, on a level she didn't fully understand. She knew it was something special though. It felt warm and comforting, like an older sister she'd never had watching out for her. Natalie held on tight, as if Hailey could lift her out of her terrified shell she'd been trapped in ever since they'd left Rallsburg.

  Hailey grinned. "You and me are special," she whispered, low enough to be sure no one else could hear them. "Even above everyone else who's awakened. They wish they were as cool as we are."

  Natalie smiled, but something about Hailey's words seemed off. Her face was nothing but concern for her friend. Natalie knew Hailey wanted nothing but the best for her. At the same time, Natalie just didn't know what she really meant by that. Was it a good thing to be better than everyone else? Wasn't Natalie supposed to stay in the background and stay safe?

  She felt too confused to answer, so she just held onto Hailey's hand as they walked out together, back into the dipping sunlight where she wasn't Natalie anymore. She was Jenny Heshire, a normal girl at a normal school where she had a few kinda-friends, a suspicious principal and an annoying pest who'd declared herself a nemesis.

  Natalie Hendricks wasn't safe, even if she was strong and special. Whatever Hailey might say, she knew that no amount of power would keep her from losing everyone she cared about and everyone around her if she really screwed up. She couldn't be Natalie. Not right now. Maybe not ever again.

  Hailey stayed with her all the way to the boarded up old store, holding her hand on the bus and just sticking with her every minute. While Natalie waited for the door to appear, Hailey took off into the sky out of the small park behind the store, vanishing into the clouds in the blink of an eye. Natalie was left to think, falling back into her shell, worrying about what she'd done, who she was and what on earth she'd say to Quinn at school the next day.

  
  

  ***

  
  

  As it turned out, Natalie didn't have to say a word. Not the next day, or the day after that. In fact, Quinn didn't turn back up for a whole week. He was missing from every class. She didn't spot him at lunch, and without him there, she was too nervous to join his friends at their table. She retreated back to her spot in the girls' bathroom for lunch, and every time she heard the name 'Quinn Kincaid' called in roll, she felt a little bit worse.

  It was a game of cat and mouse all week. Quinn's friends—apparently in the dark themselves—tried to find ways to run into her, but none of them were confrontational enough to manage it. Every time Natalie saw one of them coming, she found a reason to duck into a classroom or a side hall. At lunches, she hid out in the bathroom none of them could enter.

  They tried to camp out the door once, but Natalie could hear them whispering outside. She unlatched the lock on the tiny frosted-glass window at the top of the wall with a spell and boosted herself up. She climbed outside, entering the school from another direction. When they saw her hurrying down the hallway, their jaws dropped.

  She managed to make it through the week without ever talking to any of the Glasses Gang. The entire weekend was dedicated to trying to feel more like herself, after her near-breakdown in the library. Natalie went out into the woods surrounding their house, which was far away from the convenience store but still close enough that the spell to create the doorway wasn't too taxing for Kendra.

  Natalie still wasn't sure where they lived exactly, but it was totally surrounded by forest. She could only see the city if she climbed up high enough in the trees to see the skyscrapers and the Space Needle in the distance. She took Percy with her, along with a pile of snacks and two full water bottles.

  She didn't intend to come back for the whole day, and she ended up staying out all night too. With Percy keeping an eye out from the sky, and a pair of red foxes who wandered in from their den patrolling the forest nearby, Natalie found a nice quiet spot where she could sit down and read, or play on her phone, or do anything she wanted. If anyone got within earshot, her friends would let her know long before.

  But she couldn't focus. She tried, but every time she found something she wanted to do, her mind wandered back to the memory of Quinn's body flying through the air propelled by her own hand. If she tried to drive it away, more memories surfaced alongside it, of blasts of lightning and men falling by the dozen in front of her.

  Natalie kept trying anyway. She pulled out her earbuds and a pillow she'd managed to stuff inside her purse. It practically exploded the moment it emerged from the small opening, and she already dreaded trying to fit it back inside again, but she'd take anything to help her feel more comfortable. A fair-sized stack of her favorite books lay inside another pocket, but Natalie had way too much on her mind to read anything. She laid back on the grass and stared at the clouds drifting across the sky between the branches, letting her phone shuffle between anything it could come up with.

  After the third depressing pop song in a row, she had to stop herself from throwing it at the nearest tree as hard as she could.

  <As hard as I can would probably knock the tree over,> she said to Percy, who had taken up a perch in the lowest branch of the nearest tree. He cocked his head to the side, tapping on the branch with a talon as if to admonish her.

  <Yeah, I know. You'd be ticked off. I promise I won't knock over any trees.> Natalie sighed, picking up her phone again. She turned it on and thumbed through to her messages again. As usual, there still wasn't anything new. Nothing from anyone she cared about, or didn't care about.

  <Percy, why am I the only one stuck out here just… going to school? Why did I even want to go? Shouldn't I be doing something more important with all this?> Natalie asked. Percy didn't understand the question, and he wasn't really smart enough to give her a useful answer. <Why can't you be like Gwen? Actually, why can Gwen be like Gwen? I've never met a dog or anything like her. How is she so smart?>

  Percy still didn't really understand her questions, but he knew who Gwen was. They didn't get along. He bristled at her name.

  <I swear, next time we see her if you even think about pecking her, I'm kicking you out for a week.>

  He hesitated, but meekly nodded his assent.

  <That's what I thought.> Still, her own line of questioning bothered her. Gwen was both smarter and much larger than any of the animals she usually came across—but she hadn't started that way. When Natalie had first come across her, Gwen was actually a relatively small wolf. Natalie had started talking to her, and over the course of a couple weeks, as Natalie had bonded with her like no other animal, Gwen had started to grow.

  If Natalie had to guess, it was something like the magic sharing Cinza always talked about—but Gwen wasn't awakened, was she? Was that even possible? Or was it just Natalie making her so much bigger and stronger, and also smarter somehow?

  <I can make animals smarter but I'm not smart enough myself to figure out how I do it,> Natalie complained aloud. <This is so stupid.>

  Percy just started preening his feathers, apparently realizing he couldn't really contribute to the conversation and that Natalie was just talking to herself. He wasn't totally stupid, after all. Natalie briefly wondered if she could make him even smarter, just like Gwen, but she didn't want to risk it.

  She'd already lost one friendship that week. She wasn't about to push her luck with Percy too.

  Natalie fell asleep as the sun finally dropped below the horizon, light music humming in her ears, wrapped up in a blanket with a resolute owl taking up the watch above her in the trees.

  When she woke up again, bright and early with the sun barely filtering through the trees in brilliant rays, she wasn't alone. She had Percy, and there were the two foxes as well. The owl, which had stood careful vigil throughout the night, gave Natalie what might have been a salute before it disappeared into its nest. They were all there for her, and only her.

  Out here in the wilderness, away from the complicated and stressful world, Natalie finally felt like herself again. She wished she could stay out in the forest forever, but her grumbling stomach and her quickly diminishing supply of snacks put an end to those happy dreams.

  Still, for the brief time she could, Natalie intended to enjoy every minute of it. She pulled the clasp of her purse to keep it secure against her side, tightened her belt and made a beeline for the tallest tree she knew of. Percy glided along around her, occasionally diving away at the potential of a morning meal before returning empty-taloned.

  <How'd you even survive without me?> Natalie giggled. <You're such a bad hunter.> Percy screeched indignantly, making a short dive for her arm and cuffing her with his wing. She ignored him, leaping for the tree and beginning to climb.

  She was being careless, and one odd branch stuck out and tore her jeans, but she kept going heedlessly. She just wanted to see the top, no matter what it took. She climbed fast and easily, with only a little magic to help her breeze past the hard lifts.

  As she reached for another branch, so close to the apex, it was too weak to hold her. It snapped off instantly as she grabbed hold.

  For one brief, terrifying moment, Natalie thought she might fall. She was easily a hundred feet up or more. She was totally alone, no matter how she might feel about Percy and her other friends currently hovering around the tree anxiously. If she got hurt, or worse, they couldn't really help her. They'd be totally useless. Gwen could, but she was far, far away.

  If Natalie fell, she might die.

  I don't want to die.

  The thought rang through her head like a trumpet from the school band. No matter how crazy or stressful her life might be, Natalie definitely didn't want it to end any time soon. She was being reckless and stupid out here. It needed to stop.

  Suddenly divorced from her carefree attitude, Natalie looked down. The ground was so far away, and Natalie didn't see any easy way to climb down. Her arms were scratched up past her shirt sleeves, and the hole in her jeans was only getting wider. She was hungry and tired and there was a huge ache in her side from sleeping on the hard ground.

  What do I do?

  Natalie's first thought was to call for help again. Hailey could probably find her, even though she had no idea where she was. Phones knew how to do that. She reached into her bag, but came up with an empty battery. She'd used it too much, and letting it play music overnight while she slept on infinite shuffle had drained it completely.

  There wasn't any help coming.

  She took an experimental step back down the way she'd come. There was a branch just out of reach below her. She couldn't place her foot on it unless she let go of the one she was currently gripping.

  Percy fluttered by, taking up a perch at the top of a nearby tree. Natalie looked out and realized she had gotten to the top of the tallest tree—or near enough for the important part, anyway. She was higher than the tip of every other tree in the forest, and she could see out across the sea of green that reached out for miles. There, far away, was the Seattle skyline. Her new home, with all its noise and mess.

  That skyline was where she was supposed to be, but not where she belonged. The cool bark surrounding the tree, which she clung to for dear life, felt more like home than anything in the steel and concrete maze of the city. Natalie didn't want to go back, but she didn't have any choice.

  She just had to figure out how to get down first.

  Natalie couldn't fly like Hailey—no one could, really. Under their new 'share everything' policy, Hailey had explained the exact ritual they'd devised to Cinza's people, and one of them had tried it (the Japanese guy, if Natalie remembered right). He'd done it correctly, and he'd apparently felt the same 'wings' that Hailey described, but he couldn't get them to work. It seemed like it was just way too much energy to ever pull it off, unless you were one of the special few like Hailey and Natalie.

  Natalie obviously hadn't ever done the ritual, but she had another trick she could try—one from Alden. She'd never actually done it, but she'd read his explanation and she figured she had a pretty good shot at pulling it off.

  Carefully, Natalie reached for that part of her mind that dealt with movement. Telekinesis, if they wanted to use the big fancy word. Reaching out for objects was familiar, one of her favorite things to practice while bored in class. She knew how to throw things around if she needed to. This time though, she wasn't throwing around pencils or rocks.

  She reversed it, focusing on herself instead of anything else. Her mental grasp enveloped her entire body. It gave her a curious sensation, as if she were actually holding every inch of clothing, holding her own arms and legs, everything. Like she were touching everything at once with her hands, instead of her mind. If she really focused, she could feel the warmth and the textures too, but as if it were someone else. She tried to ignore the weird feeling, focusing on the important element of the spell.

  She began to push herself up against the pull of gravity. Very reluctantly, she released one arm wrapped around the branch. Natalie hung from the other arm, feeling no weight on it at all. Slowly, she lifted it away, while Percy shrieked in fear from across the gap.

  Natalie hovered in midair for a moment, totally free. It wasn't exciting, like Hailey always said about flying. It was terrifying. She wasn't soaring gracefully through the air or gently floating around like the rocks they played with.

  No, she was holding herself up against the force of the entire planet—and she was losing.

  Even with her strength, Natalie could feel her grip fading fast. She didn't use this type of magic very often, and her inexperience was working against her. She tried to weaken her grip just a little, intending to sink slowly to the ground. Instead, her mental grasp simply snapped.

  Natalie plunged down, the ground rushing up to meet her. She flung out her arms desperately.

  Her right arm snagged a thick branch. It felt like she'd been punched in the gut, but Natalie managed to hang on, swinging wildly around on the branch.

  She was still a good fifty feet off the ground, but she saw a path down. If she could get to the branch further around the thick trunk, there was practically a staircase down almost to the ground. She just had to cross a ten foot gap.

  Natalie looked across the way at Percy. He eyed her back with a blank expression. He didn't understand what she was trying to do.

  <I'll show you, you dumb bird. Meet you at the bottom.>

  She focused as hard as she could, once again fighting against the impossibly large pull of gravity. She leapt for the branch. Instead of trying to pull herself up against gravity, she shifted her aim. She pulled herself forward, as hard as she could.

  Natalie launched outward as if she'd been flung from a catapult. The arc was way further than she could possibly have jumped, especially without anything useful to push off of. She landed easily on top of the branch, even though it was higher than where she'd started.

  She burst out laughing. Percy looked stunned, despite what he'd seen her regularly accomplish in other forms of magic. <Yeah, that was awesome. Now get over here.>

  Percy flew across to join her, landing on her shoulder. He used to dig in his talons whenever he did that, but she'd taught him how to land without actually hurting her. Now he could ride pretty easily with just enough grip to hang on, but not so much that she felt like she was getting stabbed in the shoulder.

  She stroked his head gently. <Thanks for watching out for me, Percy.>

  He bumped his little hawk head against her ear, responding in kind.

  Natalie made her way back down to the forest floor with relative ease, with only a short hop down from the final branch to the thick roots of the trunk before she was back on solid ground.

  <Let's not do that again,> she said, and Percy squawked in agreement. As Natalie started to follow him back through the forest, though, she felt uneasy.

  She wasn't Jennifer Heshire, even if she had to be for the real world. She wasn't really Natalie Hendricks either. She was someone else—something else, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that.

  
  

  ***

  
  

  Coming home after so long, Natalie expected a loud dressing-down from Lily. She expected scolding and punishment. She'd been gone since Friday afternoon, and only shown up again after sundown on Saturday. They'd be worried sick, wondering where she'd gone, if she was in trouble, if they had to help her.

  As Natalie walked into the kitchen, with mud caking her pants and scuff marks everywhere, Kendra glanced up from her laptop.

  "You should take a bath."

  Natalie gaped at her. "I—"

  Lily looked over from the teapot she was pouring out into a mug. "Good heavens. I agree. Upstairs, right away."

  Natalie didn't know how to respond to the total lack of judgment. She went with silent compliance, heading upstairs without a word. She dumped her clothes into the hamper and turned on the water. She set her purse atop the counter, where she could still see it and still feed it that tiny trickle of magic to keep it working. Percy fluttered onto the towel bar and latched on, watching her with a great deal of concern. He'd never quite understood how clothes worked, so to see her change appearance so dramatically always sent him into a panic.

  <I'm fine, Percy. Just taking a bath. It's just like preening. Kinda.>

  Percy pointedly licked a few of his feathers, then waved a wing at her arm dismissively.

  <No, I don't have feathers you dingbat. I'm not a bird. I still gotta clean though.>

  Natalie slowly stepped into the steaming water, but quickly recoiled as it stung the cuts on her leg. She sat down and examined her leg carefully. <If I can do magic on myself, can't I do something about this?>

  Percy squawked in confusion, tilting his head to the side again.

  <You're useless.> Natalie reached out mentally again, feeling out the cut on her leg. She could feel how it made a little valley under her skin, but also how the skin had grown over top and was starting to fill it in already. Could she make it go faster somehow?

  No risks. Don't end up screwing up even worse.

  Natalie sighed and gingerly stepped back into the bath, wincing at the sting on her legs. Still, once she got used to it, the bathwater felt amazing on her skin. <Okay Percy, I changed my mind. There's no way I can live out there forever. Can't survive without this.>

  Percy cocked his head to the side again, eyeing the water uneasily.

  <Don't hate what you haven't tried.>

  Natalie luxuriated in the hot bath for a long time, thinking. Truthfully, she knew she couldn't actually live out in the forests all the time. Besides the obvious needs like food and water, which she wasn't totally sure how to get on her own, she was still too tied to the comforts of the real world. She loved baths like any other girl might, she loved the internet and games and TV. She loved lounging on the heater vent whenever it kicked on, and she loved sneaking chocolate while reading her favorite book under her comforter late at night.

  She couldn't give all that up, but that realization only confused her even more. For a brief moment out in the forest, Natalie had felt like she'd finally uncovered a piece of who she really was—but now, back at the Laushire house, she felt all of that fading away again, replaced with the old familiar Natalie she knew.

  <Who am I, Percy?> she asked aloud, though she knew it was totally pointless.

  Percy only looked at her, not understanding the question in the slightest.

  <Dumb bird.>

  
  

  ***

  
  

  To her surprise, the lack of concern from Kendra and Lily continued through the weekend. As Monday rolled around, the only nagging Natalie heard was the usual about finishing her homework or waking up on time. She went to school without a single mention of her excursion into the forest.

  Still, school wasn't exactly somewhere she could relax. Right off the bat in English class, she had to hear his name called again, only a couple after her own, and with still no response. It's been five days now. Where is he?

  She still didn't feel ready to talk to his friends. While she'd finally started feeling comfortable around Quinn, she'd had way more time to spend with him. Steven, Tyler and Mitch were practically unknowns. Tyler was the closest she could get to calling a friend, but that was a stretch. The cat-and-mouse game continued, and she was determined to be the fastest mouse out there.

  The Glasses Gang didn't need speed though. They could outsmart her instead.

  Natalie was back in her usual haunt, the least popular bathroom at lunch. She hadn't had a single person come through, as usual, and she was beginning to realize it was deliberate. Now that apparently the whole grade knew she was a loner trying to hide from everyone, they were happy to oblige and leave her to suffer in the quiet. She took it as a minor victory though, since it left her in relative peace. She still felt as lonely as ever, but at least she didn't have to deal with constant interruptions.

  When the door swung open, Natalie didn't have any particular reason to be concerned. She assumed it was a girl from another grade. She lifted up her feet as usual, chewing as quietly as she could while she waited for the other girl to leave.

  To her surprise, the girl stopped right in front of her stall. Natalie vaguely recognized her bright white tennis shoes, and paired with the dark skin just above the sock made it official. Still, hearing her speak was a shock in itself. No one ever talked in her bathroom anymore.

  "Hey, Jenny."

  Natalie froze, not even daring to chew, even though it was pointless. The girl obviously knew she was in there. Natalie hesitated before answering. "...Hi Kelsey."

  It was Kelsey Lincoln, a girl Natalie actually liked a lot. They'd bonded on the first day in gym, and Natalie had considered trying to make friends with her—right up until she'd accidentally attacked another kid and sprinted for the hills. Since then, they'd spoken a few times, but Natalie had always been a bit afraid to talk to her. Unlike Quinn and his friends, Kelsey had actually witnessed a snippet of her real strength.

  What if she started asking questions that Natalie couldn't answer?

  "You all right?"

  "Yeah. Why?"

  Kelsey walked up and down the set of stalls. "I'm sorry, okay? They wouldn't take no for an answer."

  Natalie shoved her lunch into her bag and threw the door open, just as Kelsey called out an "all clear!"

  Mitch, Tyler and Steven trooped in, while Kelsey moved to the back to guard the door.

  "See? I told you it isn't that different," said Tyler smugly, nudging Steven.

  "Not the time, dude," he muttered back.

  Natalie stood at the door to her stall, facing down the three of them. "What's going on?" she asked, more to Kelsey than to the guys.

  "We're all worried about you," Kelsey said.

  "Seriously, what's up with you?" Mitch added. "Q gets taken to the hospital and you bail on us for the whole week?"

  "He went to the hospital?" asked Natalie, feeling like she'd just had a bucket of ice dumped on her.

  "He's okay though!" Steven said quickly. "He already got out, but his parents wanted him to stay home a couple days and rest up. He'll be back on Wednesday."

  "Which you'd know if you didn't keep bailing on us," Mitch pointed out.

  "Sorry," Natalie said, looking down at the floor.

  "Would you chill?" Kelsey cut in from back by the door. "Stop shitting all over her."

  "We are in a bathroom," Mitch shot back.

  "Don't make me beat you up, shorty."

  "Look, Quinn told us what happened," said Steven. "You pushed him around and you hit way harder than you meant to. It happens."

  "I've beat him up worse than this," Mitch added.

  "That's not a good thing, dude."

  Mitch rolled his eyes. "Point is, he's good and you didn't mean it. Shit happens. So you don't gotta be so uptight."

  "We want you to come back," said Tyler. "Come sit with us at lunch and everything. We can teach you how to play Conquest."

  "Real exciting," said Kelsey sarcastically.

  "Says the girl who plays MMOs twenty-four-seven whenever she's not at practice," Mitch shot back.

  "Screw you, I'm a badass in those."

  “If she played twenty-four-seven she wouldn't be here,” said Tyler.

  "Don't worry, we're not gonna out you as a closet geek." Mitch rounded back on Natalie. "But you gotta come back, before Quinn finds out you've been hiding from us."

  "Yeah, he was already super worried about you being in hiding," Tyler blurted out.

  Everyone froze. Kelsey looked confused, but Mitch and Steven were livid. "Dude, you weren't supposed to tell her that," Steven said slowly.

  "You know?" Natalie asked, color draining from her face.

  "...Yeah," Mitch said, looking embarrassed for the first time since she'd met him.

  "Know what?" Kelsey asked.

  "Nothing," Mitch said unconvincingly.

  Natalie sighed. "It's okay, she can know. I trust her more than you guys."

  Kelsey grinned. "Thanks, sister."

  Steven cleared his throat. "Quinn was on painkillers first day out of the hospital. He was talking all sorts of crazy stuff. Most of it was really dumb and hilarious. We actually recorded that if you wanna hear it later," he added with a grin. "But there was a bit where he kinda let slip that you were in witness protection."

  "So we googled it and… yeah. That's scary stuff," finished Mitch.

  "Were you in a big crime family or something?" Tyler asked excitedly.

  "Dude, she literally can't talk about it," Mitch snapped.

  "Sorry!"

  "Anyway, yeah. We know. So you don't gotta keep that secret from us anymore. You and Quinn can just go on normal dates like normal people instead of going to the library to 'learn a card game'."

  Natalie's face heated up instantly. "You think… we were on a date?"

  "Doesn't he have a huge crush on you?" Tyler asked.

  "Oh…" Mitch said slowly. "Shit."

  Steven clapped a hand to his forehead in exasperation. Natalie shot a dark look at Kelsey, who looked like she was about to double over with laughter. "Okay, I changed my mind, I'm totally joining this gang. You guys are hilarious."

  "Oh good, now we'll have two girls to make fun of us," Mitch grumbled.

  "You were the one that wanted Kesley to join," Tyler pointed out.

  Mitch elbowed him in the ribs. "Would you be quiet, man?" Tyler laughed, then started coughing and had to pull out his inhaler again.

  "Don't worry," Steven said, tapping Tyler on the back. "He won't tell your secret, no matter what this looks like. He's only a blabbermouth around us."

  "So we'll see you at lunch tomorrow, right Jenny?" Mitch demanded, facing Natalie down.

  Natalie nodded, though she still felt uneasy. "I'll be there."

  "Good. Now let's get out of here before someone sees us. Kelsey?"

  Kelsey shrugged. "I think it'll be more funny if you guys get caught sneaking out."

  "Are you kidding me?"

  She grinned. "Okay, fine, give me a sec."

  Kelsey poked her head out, and after waiting for one student to pass by, gave them the all clear. The trio of boys left, leaving them alone. Natalie tapped her on the shoulder, keeping her from leaving.

  "Why'd you help them?"

  Kelsey looked surprised. "You needed help, didn't you? I'm just lookin' out for my friends."

  "We're friends?" Natalie asked, surprised.

  "Sure, why not?" Kelsey shrugged.

  "We've never hung out or even really talked to each other much though."

  "No better time to start." Kelsey held up a hand. "Give me a high five."

  Natalie hesitated, but did it. She held back, not wanting to hurt Kelsey.

  "No, not that shit. Give me a real high five."

  Natalie's eyes narrowed. She focused on Kelsey's waiting hand and slapped it, as hard as she could—while making very sure she wasn't using any magic at the time.

  "That's more like it!" Kelsey grinned. "Don't hold back just because the world thinks you're supposed to be a little girl. Own that shit. Don't ever let them tell you who you're supposed to be. You choose that for yourself."

  "Who told you that?"

  "My moms." Kelsey held out a hand. "Now come on, let's stop hanging out in the bathroom. We've still got a bit of lunch time left, and I want to go outside. You in?"

  Natalie didn't hesitate again. She took Kelsey's hand, and together they marched back out into the open air, where her new friends were waiting for her.

  She still wasn't sure who she was yet, or even who she wanted to be, but Natalie knew one thing at least—she finally had real friends, who cared about her and went out of their way to find her. More than anything, whether that was the forest or the animals or even something silly like a warm bath, those real friends were what she couldn't live without ever again.

  Thanks, Jenny.

  
  

  ***

  
  

  Quinn returned to school on Thursday, one day later than promised. Natalie and Kelsey had joined the Glasses Gang for lunch every day since, and they were beginning to settle into a good pattern. Neither of them wore glasses, to Tyler's great consternation, but they made it work anyway.

  To Natalie's relief, Quinn integrated back into the group without skipping a beat. Natalie helped him catch up on the classwork he'd missed, and he sat down at lunch as if nothing had changed. They gave him a bit of ribbing for getting knocked out by a falling book, but he took it in stride, before quickly changing the subject back to the game.

  They hadn't even looked at Conquest once since he'd left. Tyler brought it up frequently, but Mitch and Steven really only played it casually. Tyler whined a bit about the lack of play, but Mitch and Steven, as well as Kelsey, were just as happy to spend lunch hanging out and talking. Natalie didn't mind either way, so she went with the group majority, leaving poor Tyler in the dust—until Quinn returned.

  As it turned out, Quinn was just as obsessed as Tyler, even if he didn't show it. Quinn hadn't been playing nearly as long, but he'd learned fast, and was gaining on Tyler as the best player in the group. As soon as he sat down, he pulled out the decks and started shuffling.

  "Wow, right back into it huh?" Mitch said with a tinge of regret.

  "We never finished our game," Quinn said with a wicked smile, a twinkle in his eye as he stared down Tyler.

  "Lunch is gonna end too soon," Steven pointed out. "You should save it for tonight."

  Natalie picked up her card again while Quinn began reluctantly putting everything back in his bag. Linnethea gazed back at her from atop her wolf, so self-assured and confident.

  Is that who I want to be?

  Natalie was lost in thought and didn't notice the rest of the group suddenly scattering to the winds, leaving just Quinn behind as he finished packing up. Suddenly alone, as most of the kids in the cafeteria had left for the outside to enjoy the last few days of warm weather, Natalie felt a growing anxiety in her chest. She now had one of Quinn's secrets and didn't like the feeling at all.

  As few secrets as possible, she decided.

  "They uhh…" she started, faltering before she could finish the sentence.

  "Huh?"

  "They told me!" she blurted out.

  "Told you what now?" Quinn stopped packing away the decks, looking confused.

  "They told me you… have a crush on me." Natalie tried to keep her eyes focused somewhere behind him, so he'd think she was looking at him even though she was trying to avoid seeing anything.

  "Oh." He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I do."

  "...I just thought you should know… that I know."

  He nodded. "Thanks, I guess."

  "Okay then." Natalie shifted in her seat awkwardly, not sure what to say next.

  "Do you?" he asked.

  Her face got bright red. "Do I what?"

  "...Like me?"

  I've never even thought about anything like that… Oh god, what do I say? Yes? I don't know? I—

  Quinn shook his head. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. Don't answer."

  "Okay," she said, relieved. I kinda do though… but how do I actually say that?

  "If we're sharing secrets though," he added, and a sinking feeling sapped away the warmth from Natalie's face. "There's something I should tell you."

  Natalie felt a cold chill run down her neck, all the way down her spine. "...Tell me what?"

  "I could hear that other girl on the phone. Your phone speaker was up way too loud." He glanced around with excitement, while fear and dread began to build up pressure in Natalie's ears like an oncoming storm. Quinn dropped his voice to a whisper.

  "I know who you really are, Natalie!"

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Amateur Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, student, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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Etzoli
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Etzoli @Etzoli ago

and the cliffhangers keep on coming. Been nice to see more activity on Discord lately. Thanks to everybody who’s dropped in to say hi!

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ILovePancakes @ILovePancakes ago

RIP'ed yeah, I didn't think it'd pass that easily.