The Last Science

by

Etzoli

B2: Chapter 13 — The Emerald City (Part III)

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Chapter 13 The Emerald City (Part III)

  Cinza fought for breath. The rest of the room was eerily quiet, though the bodies of the guys were still all situated around them. Natalie did her best to avoid looking at any of them. She didn't want to remember what had happened in that room. She just wanted to get away. Her skin was burning, her stomach churning. She felt sick to the point of agony. The sooner they got out of there, the better—but for the moment, Cinza was clearly in no shape to move.

  "It took us a while to determine where you were," Cinza murmured, clutching her side as if she'd just run a mile. "I went to the park, but you weren't there. Nicole had to scry you over the phone."

  "I—" Natalie started, but Cinza held up a hand.

  "I asked around. One of my old… acquaintances told me who you'd been seen with. That park used to be safe… I'm so sorry."

  Natalie's heart stopped. She hadn't wanted anyone to know what had happened to her in that park. "...Tom?" she whispered.

  "He switches names. I knew him as Philip." Cinza shook her head. "I'm disgusted that no one has ever dealt with him."

  "Why didn't you?"

  "Because at the time, I was nothing." Cinza shook her head. "You see me shaped by the life I had forced upon me, through no choice of my own. I couldn't escape, any more than you could escape the fate that befell you in Rallsburg." She paused, looking Natalie in the eye. "These events do not define us. You won't ever forget what happened here. Don't try to. Keep it within you, let it teach you who you will become. You are stronger than they are, and you have a whole life ahead of you yet to live."

  Natalie wanted to believe her, but after the night she'd had, she didn't know how much more she could take. Her face chose that moment to twinge in pain, and she instinctively reached up to touch the bandages.

  Cinza's eyes softened. "What is this?" she asked, pointing at her face.

  "They… they cut me. Initiating. That's what they called it."

  "Ah." Cinza nodded slightly. "I didn't realize you were joining a gang."

  "I didn't!" Natalie said indignantly, then winced as the pain spiked in her face. Her eyes welled up. "I tried to stop them! I didn't want to hurt anyone!"

  "I know. You only wanted to protect yourself. You've never had to deal with something like this before, and you never should have, but it happened." Cinza took her hand, but Natalie slipped away. Something about the touch made her feel nauseous. "I swear to you today, I'll help you find a way to undo their mark."

  Natalie's heart fell. "You don't know how?"

  She shook her head. "I can make illusions of change, but they must be maintained constantly. Others have found ways to change their appearances in permanent ways, but they are all superficial. Colors and pigments. No one has ever managed to actually change the structure of their body beyond the lightest touch upon the surface. A scar this deep is beyond us."

  "I…" Natalie started, her eyes welling up.

  Cinza moved forward, as if to hug Natalie. Natalie leaned into it, wanting to feel comforted by someone, anyone, even someone like Cinza whom she didn't really like—but the moment they made contact, she felt a spike of fear and pain unlike anything she'd ever known.

  Natalie pulled away as if she'd been struck. Cinza looked at her, confused. "Is something wrong?"

  "Don't touch me," she whispered. She backed away fearfully. She turned toward the couch, but it had a dead body. Dead bodies surrounded her. Everything was painful, everything was terrifying, everything wanted to hurt her. Even people she trusted couldn't come near.

  She'd been damaged by them in a way not even Rallsburg had managed, and even though they'd paid dearly for it, she knew she'd feel that pain for the rest of her life. She sat down against the wall while Cinza watched her in pained confusion, and rocked back and forth, trying to comprehend what she'd been through, what she'd done.

  I just want to go home.

  But, of course, Natalie didn't have a real home to go to. Her home had been destroyed, like these men, like her entire life.

  
  


  
  

  They finally exited the building a few minutes later, after Cinza recovered and Natalie calmed down. She pulled the door open with one hand easily enough, with only a little bit of magic.

  "You've gotten taller," Cinza commented.

  Natalie glanced down at her. It was true. The last time they'd seen each other, Natalie had been about an inch shorter than the grey-robed girl. Now, she could claim a good three inches—maybe more if Cinza wasn't wearing such thick boots. "It doesn't mean anything," she mumbled.

  "Oh, it certainly does. It means you can reach things more easily than I can." Cinza smiled weakly. "Not that I'd ever let that stop me."

  "Do you want to be taller?"

  She shook her head. "I am content with exactly who I am. If I wished myself different, I would find a way to achieve it. I may do so anyway, for the sake of our research, but I'd never change a thing about myself."

  "But like you said, it would make some things easier."

  "Perhaps." Cinza shrugged. "But this is the body I was born in, the body I grew to understand. Its flaws and its strengths. We've fought through a lot together."

  Natalie glanced at her. "I'm confused. Are you saying you and your body are different things?"

  "To me, it's always been a very complicated machine keeping my mind awake and alive. It's a source of energy that the mind can use as it sees fit. Magic works in much the same way, but now our minds can access energy from more places than just our body. Do you see what I mean?"

  "...I guess so."

  Cinza smiled. "Philosophy is something we've been trying to master for thousands of years. No one is ever right. We each chip away at a tiny part of the whole and hope someone, eventually, figures out the right way to think."

  "How can you have ways of thinking?"

  She laughed. "Exactly." Which, to Natalie, wasn't answering her question at all, or very funny, but she could tell Cinza was trying to distract her from what had happened. It wasn't really working. As Cinza laughed, her legs got weak again. She tapped Natalie, and they both sat down against the wall to take a quick rest.

  "Did something happen to you?" Natalie asked. Last time she'd seen Cinza was in Rallsburg. She'd been recovering from the big ritual they'd tried to perform, but Natalie only vaguely remembered how badly she'd been doing. Surely this was something else, right?

  "Overexertion of magic, it seems." Cinza took out a water bottle from her bag, drinking deep. She offered it to Natalie, who drank down some as well to clear her dry throat. At the sight of the bag, a new wave of panic burst into her head.

  "My purse and my phone!" she cried. "We need to find them!"

  "It's all right." Cinza finished off the bottle before placing it back in her bag carefully. "We locked your phone remotely. I've also blacklisted its device ID from the website, and temporarily disabled your account. Unless they manage to pull some information from the browser cache, there's no way they can find out any information about it."

  Natalie didn't quite follow all the technical details, but Cinza sounded confident, so she took her word for it. "And my purse?"

  "That… might be difficult," Cinza sighed. "Can you describe the man who took it?"

  "No… I didn't see him. He snuck up behind me. But the guy who took my phone, I saw him!"

  "They were working together?"

  "I think so. He walked up and asked me what time it was. Then when I pulled out my phone to check, he took it, and the other guy took the purse."

  Cinza shook her head. "They're still using that…?" she murmured. "The man you saw, his face looked a bit off? Almost like it were melting?"

  "Oh. Yeah. That sounds right." Cinza withdrew her phone, but Natalie interrupted before she could start dialing. "Please… don't tell anyone what happened?"

  She nodded. "There's no need. You simply got lost downtown. And a sharp piece of metal somewhere accidentally cut your ear," she added, nodding at Natalie's face. "Nothing else happened."

  Natalie cracked a smile, the first time she'd felt anything resembling happiness in hours, but it was still hollow and faint. No matter how reassuring Cinza might sound, she knew she couldn't keep everything hidden forever. The spiral mark on their faces was too distinct, and now it was on her too. Someone was bound to see it eventually, and Natalie doubted she could keep an illusion moving on her face all the time. She'd never even made an illusion before, or any kind of light magic really. The method Cinza had described on the website hadn't worked for her at all.

  Cinza was talking to someone about the two men. She'd named them, but Natalie hadn't heard her, lost in her own thoughts. Natalie stared at her reflection in a nearby puddle, the bandage taped to her face standing out like a sore thumb.

  "I know where they are," Cinza announced with a flourish.

  "How?"

  "An old friend who luckily still had enough minutes on her phone. I'm going to owe her a good lunch for this, at the very least." She dropped the phone into her bag. "I should say, I know where they should be. This may take longer than we'd hope."

  "Why can't you just do the thing… the thing you did to find me?"

  "Scrying?" Cinza supplied. "Well, for one, it takes quite a lot of strength for Nicole to scry even one person, unfortunately. She's gotten better at it, but it was quite taxing to find you."

  "I'm sorry," Natalie mumbled, turning away.

  "No!" Cinza shook her head fervently. She started to lean towards Natalie, but stopped as Natalie involuntarily shrunk away. She didn't want anyone to touch her, or get close to her. She felt like a monster. The bodies of the men were stuck in her mind, burned and twisted, just like the ones back in Rallsburg.

  Cinza continued as if Natalie hadn't reacted, but Natalie saw her face fall a little, and felt even worse. "This is what we're here to do. Nicole will recover in time, don't worry. You've felt tired after using too much magic, right?"

  "...Yeah."

  "But every time, given a break, food and rest, the effects vanish, yes? It's quite the same with her, albeit rather more dramatically. She'll be fine."

  "Okay."

  "Besides that limitation," Cinza continued, getting to her feet, "Nicole has never met these two particular thieves, or had any interaction with them, so they cannot be scryed. She is not familiar with their essence, to use her term."

  "Their essence?"

  "I'm afraid I don't know what it means either," Cinza shook her head sadly. "Knowledge magic eludes me entirely. Nicole is the only member of our family to achieve even the faintest result, though apparently Joshua made some headway with identifying essences."

  Natalie had to take a few moments to follow Cinza's complicated way of talking. "Oh."

  "Shall we, then?" Cinza started back toward the open street.

  Natalie hesitated, glancing down at her reflection in the puddle again. Everything about her face looked wrong. Her hair was too long, her eyes looked red and puffy. The white bandages clinging to the space in front of her right ear were like a patch of dirty snow stuck to her face, with a faint lining of red around the edges from the blood they'd absorbed.

  She hated it. She hated everything about what she'd ended up like. She wanted to go back to her old self, where she felt happy and free, without so many things pressing down on her all the time, screaming at her to stay quiet and stay safe.

  You can never go back.

  
  


  
  

  "Where are we going?" Natalie asked, watching her feet as they walked along the sidewalk. She didn't want to look up at the city. The tall buildings weren't exciting anymore; now they cast shadows that hid terrible things waiting to leap out and hurt her at first chance.

  "To a market."

  "Like the Marketplace?"

  Cinza shook her head. "Kendra's Astral Market was a special one built for us. This is a place of much baser intentions." She stopped, taking another short break. This was one of many they'd taken, every few blocks.

  "Are you really okay?" she asked again tentatively.

  "...I'll be fine," Cinza repeated, but it was even less convincing than the last four times.

  "You don't seem okay. This place is dangerous, right?"

  "Yes." Cinza took a sip of water from her bottle. "You'll have to follow my lead, all right? I'd tell you not to speak to anyone, but unfortunately that just won't be an option. You stand out too much."

  Natalie glanced down at her clothes again. "I hate this stupid dress."

  "Really? I think it looks quite good on you."

  Natalie shook her head, her hand involuntarily going up to touch the bandage on her face again, which she immediately regretted.

  Cinza frowned. "The dress isn't the problem, is it?"

  "Huh?"

  "It's what happened to you while wearing it, right?"

  Natalie didn't answer. She kept staring at the concrete below them, while Cinza leaned up against the nearest wall. She didn't want Cinza to keep talking, but she couldn't bring herself to stop her.

  "I'm sorry, but I have to ask." Cinza paused, and for the first time since Natalie had first met her, showed hesitation. She looked uncertain. "Tell me what happened to you in the park."

  Natalie's eyes fell back to the concrete. She didn't want to think about it—didn't want to remember it at all, but the memory was burned into her brain, every painstaking horrible moment. Most of all, she didn't want anyone else to know. She never wanted anybody to know what she'd been through, what she'd let happen, what he'd almost done. She might not understand it all, but she understood enough. She had an idea of what he'd been trying to do, and it scared her more than anything else she'd been through that night.

  Cinza waited patiently, but after a few minutes it became clear Natalie wasn't going to answer her. Finally, she spoke again, and her voice wasn't echoing anymore. She still had her unusual accent, but it was plain and as comforting as she could manage. Natalie had never heard her normal voice before.

  "...If he touched you, or hurt you in any way, I hope you can tell me someday. I'm here to listen if you need me. But I want you to know something very important. Something I wish I'd been told when I was your age." Cinza reached out and grasped Natalie's hand. She wanted to get away, but Cinza held on firmly and didn't let go. "This is not your fault. You didn't do anything to deserve this. This wretched thing happened, and you aren't ever going to forget it, but you are not to blame."

  Cinza finally let go of her hand, and as she did, Natalie felt her urge to run and hide fall away as well. She still wanted to be alone, wanted to flee deep into the forest as far away from anyone who could hurt her, wanted to never be near another human being again—but for the first time, she felt a vague connection to Cinza, something beyond just a mysterious older girl with weird beliefs and weirder clothes.

  Natalie finally looked back up at Cinza's face, which was soft and full of concern. She continued speaking, in her quiet natural voice. "You can talk to me, anytime, about anything. I will never judge you for anything you've done, or anything that has been done to you. It doesn't need to be now, or ever, but when you're ready, I am here to listen."

  Natalie knew it should have made her feel better, but she still felt raw and beaten—like she was a broken doll that had been tossed out with the trash. Cinza may have found her, but she wasn't whole anymore. She'd lost something, and she didn't know how to find it anymore.

  But Cinza was trying to help, and even that tiny light was enough to give her hope. She still felt awful, but there was something she could move toward.

  As Cinza started walking again and Natalie fell in behind her, she finally spoke up.

  "She hates 'Nicole'."

  "I'm sorry?" Cinza said, falling back a few steps to match her.

  "Nikki hates being called Nicole."

  Cinza looked genuinely surprised. "She told you this?"

  "Kinda. Back when we used to play games at home. Whenever I was on her team, she made sure everybody knew not to call her that. She hates her full name."

  Cinza shook her head in bemusement. "She never said a word to me."

  "...You're kind of scary."

  She looked up at Natalie sharply, which was a new experience all on its own. Natalie was so used to people looking down at her, even at school. Most of the kids were growing faster than her. Cinza was shorter than her though, and Natalie was still growing. It felt strange.

  "I don't mean bad scary," Natalie went on. "I mean… intimidating. That's better, right? Like people are scared to talk to you sometimes."

  "That doesn't seem all that distinct," Cinza murmured.

  "I'm not scared though."

  "Oh?"

  "You never scared me. I just didn't like you."

  The corner of her mouth twitched. "Is that so? Did something change?"

  Natalie felt a tiny bit of mirth as she replied. "No. I still don't like you."

  As she said it though, she reached out and took Cinza's hand, holding tight. She still felt that revulsion, the nausea that she knew had nothing to do with Cinza, and she forced it down. She had to, if she ever wanted to be able to hold someone's hand ever again. Together, they walked through the dark streets, silver robe and green army jacket marking a truly odd sight for the few passersby in the dead of night.

  
  


  
  

  "It's down through that alley," Cinza whispered.

  "Should I wait here?" Natalie had very mixed feelings about the whole idea. She didn't want to go into yet another strange place that night, with even more possibilities of terrible people, but at the same time she didn't want to be left alone. She didn't really want to spend more time with Cinza, but Cinza was the only person who could understand what she was going through. She desperately wanted her bag back, but she didn't want to be the one making the decisions to get it.

  She'd let Cinza decide. The other girl was so much older than her, and smarter and braver. Those were traits Natalie could admire, even if the rest of her was weird and confusing and frequently irritating.

  "I wish it were that simple," Cinza replied, "but I'm not confident in my abilities right now." She lifted an arm, and Natalie could see it shaking as she tried to hold it steady. "I haven't told anyone this. Only Ruby, and now you… I'm very weak. Doing most magic leaves me quite frail. Just that short span in the warehouse felt like it could kill me."

  Natalie was surprised Cinza was taking her into confidence, until Cinza went on. "I'm going to need your help, and I can't keep you invisible to do it, or I'd collapse in minutes. I don't suppose you ever managed to make the reflective wall we described, or manipulate photons?"

  She shook her head. "I tried it at home once, but I didn't understand what you wrote. It was too confusing."

  Cinza sighed. "And we don't have time to practice it now either." She began taking off her robes. "Make sure no one comes upon us, please? I need to change into something less conspicuous." From her bag, she produced a shirt and pants, quite plain compared to the intricately designed and magically enhanced clothes she'd been wearing.

  While she changed, Natalie glanced at her bag. "Do you have any more clothes? We're almost the same size, right?"

  Cinza shook her head, carefully folding her robes and most of her jewelry, placing them gently back into her bag before strapping it over her shoulder. "Only the pair, and I'm afraid my robes would stand out even more than your dress. Keep your jacket on and stay close to me."

  "Okay."

  She still seemed to be wrestling with something in her head, Natalie could tell. Halfway down the alley, Cinza stopped and turned to her. "...We're about to enter a—"

  "Really bad place, I know. I'll be careful."

  "Not just that," Cinza sighed. "This is an old life of mine. I left it years ago, but the players haven't changed. The game never changes. I'll be… quite different than what you know. I need you to pretend you've always known me—that this is totally normal. Stay quiet whenever you can, but if someone asks, you must play along. If anyone tries to get close to you, you can back away, but don't try to hurt them. Can you do that?"

  Natalie was never more aware of how strange Cinza's normal voice sounded, compared to what she was used to. She'd just come to expect the magical echo from the older girl at all times. Hearing Cinza speak so plainly, and knowing she was about to reveal some of her past that no one from town had ever known, made the seriousness of the situation sink in even deeper for Natalie. "...Do I need a new name too?"

  "Jenny will suffice. As long as you do not give away your last name—either of them—we should be fine, but I doubt anyone will ask for it."

  "And what's your name?"

  Cinza hesitated. She looked… embarrassed? Natalie wasn't sure. She'd never seen that expression on her, but it looked like embarrassment. "...Candy."

  "Candy?"

  "They gave it to me, because I was small, and young, and looked like a 'kid in the candy store'." Cinza looked away. "I didn't select it."

  "Well I didn't get to choose my name either," Natalie pointed out. "That's normal, isn't it?"

  "I suppose." Cinza started forward. Natalie followed a step behind, like Cinza had instructed. "Don't worry if you can't talk like we do. You won't be expected to. Just speak normally, all right?"

  "What does that mean?"

  "You'll see."

  They turned the corner, then another. Natalie noticed as they walked that Cinza seemed to change with every few steps. Her steps were a little slower, a little less deliberate. Where she normally walked fast and confident, like someone who always knew where she was going and how fast she needed to get there, now she seemed almost like she were dancing a little. It was small, but Cinza managed to make it look so casual. Her feet moved in a straight line rather than side by side, making her hips sway with every step, and her shoulders and chest moved more than usual, like she were strutting. Even her head moved a little differently. It was like Natalie were following a totally different person.

  "Hold up girl, whatchu lookin' fer?" called out a older male voice as they approached a fenced off alley. He was sitting on a pile of wooden boxes by the gate, with a glowing phone in his hand. "You trickin' or jus' lookin' to score?"

  Cinza answered, and it was like nothing Natalie had heard before. Her voice was completely different, except for her accent, which she'd reduced somehow so it was just a flavor rather than the entire taste of her words. Cinza didn't sound like Cinza anymore. Natalie had to remind herself not to react, not to make a move. This is totally normal.

  "Boy I been trickin' all night, but streets is dead. I got bills to pay and it's time I checked in to the hotel, ya feel?"

  "Hear that, hear that." He raised a grubby eyebrow and held out a tin. "You up front or runnin' a cut?"

  "Cut's still ten on the top, yeah?"

  "Oh, we got an oldie here do we? It's fifteen these days, girly. You migh' get you a discoun' though if you sellin' doubles." He leered at Natalie, who shrunk back involuntarily. His beady eyes made her even more uncomfortable. "Hello cutie. What happened to yo' face?"

  "She's my partner, and she jus' got a new tattoo. Give her that mystery foreign look, feel?" Cinza added quickly, clutching Natalie's hand. Natalie felt a now-familiar spike of revulsion run through her, but forced it down. She had to keep pretending. Cinza knew what she was doing. Natalie had to trust her. "Tag-teamin' boys for double-double special, you know how it is."

  "Economics, baby. I getchu." He shrugged. "Look's a bit under the consent though, don't she?"

  "She good. I know you don't let that shit fly," Cinza replied.

  "Do you now?" He squinted at her. "I know you, sugar?"

  "I dunno, were you workin' sout-end 'bou five year back?"

  He scratched his chin. "Shit girl, that ain't Candy Pop?"

  Cinza dipped into a fake curtsy with an imaginary dress. "One and only."

  "I heard you graduated."

  "Jus' moved on, change of scenery. Keepin' ahead of the game. Whatchu doin' out at the gate, Harley? Figgered you'd be runnin' the square all night."

  "Sometimes I just like the fresh air, and watchin' for in'trestin' people to drop in." He frowned at them. "I los' a lot of business when you jumped, girl. If you back, you back, but I'm gonn' need twenny."

  "Fuck you," Cinza spat.

  Natalie jumped a little. She'd been hearing pretty harsh language all night, to be fair, but from Cinza's mouth it was especially jarring—and it didn't stop there.

  "I ain't payin' no shit twenny cent just to trick in your hotel." Cinza jerked a thumb at Natalie, who shrank away a little. "I'm bringin' fresh meat and service with a fuckin' smile, so you gonna let me in for the standard ten for fuckin'. You know I'm clean, you know I do good business, and you know I never cause shit for drama. So am I gettin' through or you gonna waste more billin' hours pissin' out here in the wind?"

  Cinza took a step toward him. Another guy they hadn't seen pointedly moved into view and casually flashed a pistol. The gate-guy held up a hand. He grinned. "There's the Candy I know and love. You too smart for this game, girl." He waved her forward.

  Cinza sauntered up without hesitating. Natalie was still stunned in place for a few moments, trying to figure out what had just happened, before she remembered she was supposed to stay close. She hurried up next to Cinza as they reached the gate.

  As they passed by the gate guy, Cinza got up on her tip-toes and brushed the man's face with her hand. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Natalie's eyes got even wider at the sight.

  "Dontchu forget me now, Harley baby," Cinza murmured in a husky voice.

  "Damn girl, you got time at the end of the night and you come find me. You ain't never forget again."

  Cinza grinned, then passed through the gate. The guy watched her walk away dreamily, and Natalie hurried to follow her inside.

  
  


  
  

  There was another short, dark stretch beyond the gate. Cinza kept walking, but as Natalie got close, her voice dropped low and the accent returned in full, though the magical echo stayed gone. Natalie was really starting to miss it. "I despise that man."

  "We can talk?" she whispered.

  "For a few moments."

  "What was all that?"

  Cinza hesitated. "I used to work in this market, years ago. I haven't been to this particular spot, since it moves to keep ahead of the police, but I remember how they operate. I spent a long time here."

  "Is this a place for drugs?"

  She shook her head. "Not primarily. They'll trade narcotics, but the main product for sale is… well, girls."

  "What?"

  "You're going to see some things I wish you could avoid," Cinza continued, "but we don't have time. That bag is running out of magic, and I don't think I can get it back alone."

  "What happens when it runs out?" She'd never asked before, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.

  "It collapses." She paused, taking another quick break. She considered leaning up against the wall, but after seeing how grimy and disgusting it was, she seemed to decide against it. Natalie, too, avoided touching anything she possibly could. The entire place had a bad stench about it, too, inescapable and filling everything. "It essentially becomes an ultra-dense object in an instant, with all the expected consequences. Most everything inside will be crushed, then explode outward as it expands the compressed mass."

  Cinza stood back up, resuming her new walk and attitude. She raised her voice a little louder than necessary, slipping back into her casual slippery tone from before in a heartbeat. "Keep up, Jenny. If we don't get in there and start sellin' we gonna be starvin' tonight, so put on your face and smile pretty for the men."

  The alleyway opened up into a space surrounded by tall buildings. Temporary fences walled off every other entrance to the area. A broken fountain stood in the middle, around which sat a half-dozen young women in various stages of undress, lounging about like mermaids without tails in a pool without water. They batted their eyelashes and stretched out as men walked by, trying to catch some attention. Many of the men in turn were moving about between a row of tables, where people were selling things Natalie didn't recognize. Bags of things, sharp needles, spoons, lighters, pills. It was almost like a pharmacy or a doctor's office.

  On the other side, she saw an area full of lounge chairs and couches, where more women and men were standing around, or sitting, or… something. As she watched, one man took a woman by the arm and lead her into the open back door of the nearest building, disappearing into the pale yellow light. No one paid them any mind.

  As soon as Natalie and Cinza walked into the space, a few heads twisted their direction. One man in particular gave them a leer that made Natalie's hands clench involuntarily into fists, but he was already heading into a building with a girl slavishly hanging off his arm. Cinza ignored him entirely, beelining for one of the women lounging alone on the couch. As she approached, the woman glanced up lazily, as if Cinza were no one particularly interesting.

  A second later, the woman made a double take. Natalie noticed that, while Cinza had changed into plain clothes, they were still quite different from what most of the girls wore. Cinza wore her usual practical, clean and simple outfit, but the woman was wearing a dress so sparkly Natalie felt like she'd go blind if any light hit it directly. More importantly, it barely stretched past her waist, and the top was cut impossibly low with straps so thin, it may as well have ended below her shoulders.

  The woman spoke up suddenly in a sultry voice. "You come lookin' for a easy night? I'm down to party."

  "What'll you charge?" Cinza asked. Natalie was confused. From what she'd understood, they were there pretending to work, not buy. Had their story changed now that they were inside?

  "Warm up two girls as pretty as you? Why don't we head upstairs and I'll blow your minds right now." She stood up quickly and started toward the nearest building, throwing them a look over her shoulder, narrow-eyed and smirking. Natalie still had no clue what was going on, but followed Cinza and the woman inside.

  One flight of stairs and a beaten wooden door later, and they were inside an apartment with the door closed. The woman sat down on the edge of the wide double-bed, the only clean piece of furniture Natalie had seen in hours.

  "Jesus Christ, Candy," she muttered. "Where the hell have you been?"

  Cinza rushed forward and hugged her tight. "I missed you, Crystal. I'm glad you're all right."

  Crystal leaned down to wrap up Cinza in her arms. "You doin' okay, girl?"

  "More than okay."

  "Damn, girl, what's up with your voice? You always have that accent?"

  "Yes." Cinza smiled. She'd let her full accent slip back into place, though still without her signature echo. She took a few steps back, returning to Natalie's side. "I'm sorry, but we don't have a whole lot of time."

  "Oh God, don't tell me you're bringin' her in now too?" Crystal looked at Natalie with a worried expression. "She looks even younger than you were when you started. I had a hard enough time keepin' you strong, baby."

  "No."

  Natalie shook her head in agreement. She already knew she wanted nothing to do with this life, from what she'd seen and what Cinza had said.

  "I'm not sayin' I wouldn't," Crystal added hastily, looking at Natalie. "You ever need a place to lay your head for a night, need an escape, I'm here for you."

  "...Thanks?" said Natalie, not certain what she meant.

  "Just don't go tryin' most others, plenty of 'em don't swing that and they get bitchy when you ask. Candy learned that the hard way."

  Cinza shook her head. "Jenny and I will be leaving as soon as possible. We came here to get something of hers that was stolen."

  "You know Harley don't fence. Crews would tear this place up. Keepin' the peace and makin' free trade is how we all live." Crystal glanced out the window, where they could just make out some of the people down in the square.

  "We're searching for Meltyface," said Cinza. "I received a tip he and his partner would be perusing Harley's tonight."

  "There you go, talkin' fancy again," Crystal grinned. She glanced at Natalie. "You know this is the most proper little girl I ever saw workin' a corner? And all that writing. Made my wrists tired just watchin' her. She's a smart one, Jenny. Don't you go losin' her."

  Cinza put an arm around Natalie's shoulders. She felt an urge to push her away, to recoil and get as far away as possible. Why is this all happening? Is it… is it because I killed them? Because I killed people back home? Am I being punished?

  It is not your fault. It is not Cinza's fault either. It's his fault. It's all their faults. Cinza is trying to keep to a story. Just play along.

  "Have you seen them?" Cinza asked. "We're in a bit of a hurry."

  Crystal frowned. "Not in weeks, sorry." As Natalie's face fell, she quickly went on. "But that doesn't mean they ain't here. I had a few early in the night, might have missed 'em walk in. You remember Meltyface's type, dontchu?" she added, glancing at Cinza.

  She nodded. "Unfortunately."

  "Lemme think. Only girl here tonight that fits the build is Kitty. She'll be over in 302, 'cross the way." She pointed at the far building, straight across the square and one to the left. "Not many girls get that building. Gotta be in Niddles' stable. Shouldn't be too hard to find her room. Could be tricky gettin' in though."

  Cinza gave her another quick hug. "Thank you, Crystal."

  "Hold up now," Crystal said, before Cinza could hurry out of the room. "You told 'em you were here to trick, right?" Cinza nodded. "They're tighter than they used to be. Suspicious."

  "That much?"

  "Couple o' near-busts. Pay-offs didn't go as planned or somethin', rumors of a leak, so they tightened up security. If they spot you runnin' out of here and straight into another buildin' without so much as a 'hey there', they gonna bust you. Out on your ass 'fore you can say please." Crystal shook her head. "You gotta warm up, like you said."

  "How soundproof is this room?" Cinza asked hesitantly, glancing around the room.

  She chuckled. "Oh, heavens baby girl, I didn't mean that. I mean, I miss you, but your sweetie's standin' right there!" She shook her head. "I got fake sweat. That and a good fifteen minutes and you'll be good to go."

  Cinza smirked. "Fifteen minutes?"

  "Don't you start," Crystal snapped, getting up to fetch a spray bottle from the bathroom cabinet while Cinza smiled suggestively. "I'll blow your mind in any clock you want, you just say the word."

  While she was busy filling the bottle, Natalie leaned away from Cinza just slightly. Cinza noticed and immediately released her. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

  "It's okay," Natalie replied, but she really didn't feel like it. She'd been incredibly uncomfortable the whole time, with what little she understood of the situation they were in, and the constant waves of revulsion and pain. She wanted to get away, but there was no way she could leave without her bag.

  "It's not. I should have remembered."

  "Crystal seems nice," Natalie said, desperate to change the subject.

  Cinza smiled again. "A rare trait in this life."

  "Is it that bad?"

  "Almost everyone here only ever thinks of themselves. Crystal's one of the few to remember we're all on the same side."

  "And you… did all this too?"

  Cinza took a seat on the bed, taking the opportunity to rest again. "I did."

  Natalie bit her lip slightly, uncertain. "Isn't this… really bad?"

  She hesitated. "...I don't really know. I don't like a lot of what I did, but if I hadn't done it, I would probably be dead. I ended up in this life, and I tried to make the most of it." Cinza gestured to the bed, and Natalie reluctantly took a seat. The bathroom door closed, startling them both. "She's giving us time to talk, it seems."

  "But aren't you supposed to… you know… only with someone you really love?" Natalie couldn't bring herself to say it.

  Cinza looked at her oddly. "I think I was raised very differently from you. I was never taught anything like that. I was never taught at all, in fact. I had to learn in bits and pieces."

  "Oh."

  "I've never thought anything two people might do together is wrong or bad, if they're both choosing to do it," she continued. "I can only trust in my own instincts. I believed that I was in control, and when I felt like I wasn't anymore, I escaped. But even so, everything I did, with whomever, was my choice. I can't see anything wrong with that."

  "Do you mean wrong like how some people think… two girls is wrong?" Natalie asked.

  Cinza smiled. "Exactly. When Ruby and I are together, I don't feel anything wrong. Quite the opposite." She hesitated, and her voice dropped a little. "But when you were in the park, what did you feel?"

  A chill went through Natalie's mind as the painful memory forced itself back to the surface. Suddenly, though, there was a layer between it and her mind. It still hurt, and she still shuddered to think about it, but it wasn't quite so painful that she couldn't talk about it.

  "Like I was trapped," she murmured.

  Cinza nodded. "Because that was wrong. What was happening was monstrous and wrong." She frowned. "The other person won't feel the same way, and sometimes you'll have to make sure they understand. But if you ever feel that feeling, if you are ever in doubt and feel that wrong-ness in your mind, remember this. They are not in control. It's your choice. If they won't listen, then you make them listen."

  "But what if I can't do anything?" Natalie asked, a note of dismay breaking into her voice. "What if I'm really trapped?"

  Cinza glanced at the bathroom door, where the water was still running and the door was still shut tight. There's no way the bottle isn't full by now, Natalie realized. In a low voice, Cinza continued. "I'm sorry, because I think I was part of the reason you felt you could not act. We told you never to use magic, under any circumstances, but I never imagined something like this happening. That's my fault, and I regret my part in it."

  Natalie didn't answer, but she started shaking a little. She felt another wave of emotion crashing in and threatening to pull her under. Cinza reached up to hug her, but stopped a few inches away, and Natalie was torn between wanting to be comforted… and never wanting another human being to touch her ever again.

  The fear won out, and she recoiled away before Cinza even got close.

  
  


  
  

  "So whatchu been up to, Candy-girl?" Crystal asked, swishing up the spray bottle. "It's been ages."

  "I found a new life, far out of the city." Cinza smiled. "I'm legitimate now."

  "No kiddin'?" Crystal whistled. Cinza closed her eyes as she raised the bottle. "I'm happy for you."

  "Thanks. I'm just back for the night with Jenny, but she ran into Meltyface and here we are."

  "You mean you were in Seattle and you weren't gonna look me up?" Crystal made an exaggerated mocking look, spraying Cinza in the face pointedly. Cinza recoiled, and she laughed. "No worries. I wouldn't bring a girlfriend 'round this dump either if I was you."

  She took another long look at Cinza, now soaked with the mixture of water and glycerin she'd prepared. Frowning, she tugged at Cinza's shirt a little, making it lopsided and exposing more skin, particularly around the stomach, then deliberately rumpling it up. She pinched her side with a wink, dancing out of Cinza's reach.

  "Couldn't resist, you're just so sexy when you're mad. Show some more belly, girl, they love it." She turned and rounded on Natalie. "All right, Jenny, I'm guessin' you never done this before, have you?"

  Natalie shook her head, very nervous. Crystal had a very motherly way about her, but Natalie hadn't had the best experience with mothers anyway, and she didn't want Crystal getting anywhere near her. They'd only met ten minutes before, and Natalie really had a bad track record with strangers so far that night.

  "Crystal," Cinza cut in. "Let me." She took the bottle, to Natalie's relief. She knew Cinza. She could stomach being near Cinza for a bit.

  Crystal nodded. "Sorry, Candy-girl. I didn't mean to intrude."

  "It's all right. Jenny's just not one to get close to people." Cinza explained. "Actually, would you mind giving us a minute? For her sake."

  "Actually, why don't I head back out now?" Crystal suggested. "I can watch out for Meltyface, see if he splits, and it'll give you two time to recover." She grinned, leaving the room with a wave. "Next time you're around, you damn well better find me!"

  As soon as she was gone, Natalie breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you," she murmured.

  "Crystal can be a little overwhelming," Cinza agreed. "I assume you didn't want her to get close?"

  "She seems really nice..." Natalie said apologetically, not wanting Cinza to think she hated her. I can't let anyone near me. I can't let them close. Anyone could turn like he did.

  Cinza nodded. "I understand. Do you want to do this yourself?" She held up the spray bottle.

  Natalie thought about it, but wasn't sure she'd do it right. They needed to get across the place without anyone stopping them. She couldn't risk losing her bag, and everything inside it, just for the sake of being a little more comfortable. "...No, you can do it."

  She took off her jacket and laid it on the bed, then her jeans. Only the blue dress, which she'd loved so much only six hours ago, was left. Cinza held up the spray bottle, and a cloud of cold liquid sprayed out, clinging to her skin. It soaked into her dress at specific spots Cinza picked out. A bit too much in some places, and drops were starting to run down her leg, but Cinza never got too close, so Natalie endured it.

  "I don't understand," Natalie said quietly while Cinza very gently adjusted her clothes. Natalie stared at the wall and tried to ignore the pulsing desire to hurl herself away. "Why would they want me?"

  "What?"

  "Tattoo-face and his guys… they thought I was too young. But the guys out here wouldn't care?"

  Cinza shook her head. "People will see what they want to see, and not what's actually in front of their eyes. They wanted someone weak and easy to control. These men want a girl to dote on them and fulfill their every desire."

  "Even though…"

  "Yes, even though you're young."

  Natalie glanced out the window. "Why don't you do anything?"

  Cinza sighed. "There are plenty of evils out here, and until recently I was just one small girl trying to stay alive in the world. I'm not exactly innocent myself."

  Natalie nearly asked what she meant, but hesitated. She didn't really want to know. She didn't like Cinza all that much, and what she'd just said sounded like an excuse. Patting herself on the back and pretending she couldn't have helped.

  But she's helping me now. Maybe that counts for something? Natalie wasn't sure. She wasn't sure of anything anymore. All she wanted was to be far, far away, deep in the forest with just Gwen and the stars. No more cities, no more people.

  As soon as she was done, Natalie braced herself. Cinza reached out and tugged the strap of Natalie's dress down to the side, hanging off her shoulder. She tugged at the hem, making it seem less straight and more rumpled and used. After a moment's inspection, she declared it sufficient.

  Natalie picked up the jacket from the bed, but Cinza shook her head. "You can't put them back on. I'm sorry." The jacket went into Cinza's bag, the thick warm forest-green vanishing into the depths, followed by her jeans. "You can't look like you're cold, either. Did you learn the spell to make yourself warmer?"

  She nodded. Drawing on her magic, Natalie pushed it out through her entire body and warmed herself. She went a bit too hot for the small room, but she knew they'd be heading back out into the night-time chill again in only a few moments.

  Cinza lead the way, slipping back into her sultry swaying walk in an instant. Natalie wondered if she should copy it, but she still felt too nervous and uncomfortable to try. She followed behind as meekly as she could, wishing she were shorter so she could somehow hide behind Cinza as they walked.

  A few men in the sitting area wolf-whistled as they went by. "Had a good time, did'ja?" called one. Natalie ignored them, focusing on the back of Cinza's head, but Cinza turned and gave them a smile as she passed by. They managed to get all the way across the square without anyone trying to talk to them, but on the other side they ran into a problem. The way into 302 was blocked by a man sitting behind a table, with a metal lockbox on one side and a leery expresion.

  "Candy Pop!" he called out. "Been too long, baby!"

  "Shit, is that Niddles?" Cinza strode up, plopping down on his table and leaning in towards him.

  "Damn girl, you pick up seconds on the side?" he asked, leaning around to glance at Natalie. Natalie looked away, trying to make herself smaller and less noticeable, but it didn't help. "Aww, she's so cute and innocent. You just warmed her up, didn't you?"

  Cinza leaned in and kissed Niddles on the cheek. "Can't stick around, Niddles. Got me a young boy wantin' to be a man up in there." She nodded up at the building.

  "You want a real man, you just holler," Niddles said, gesturing downward. "But you see, we gotta charge extra for this buildin' here. Premium rooms, cleanin' service, fuckin' wi-fi and shit, and premium girls. You get my deal, yeah?"

  "So what's it gonna cost a workin' girl to get one of your fancy rooms?" Cinza walked a line up Niddles' chest with her fingers. "I ain't got much, so up front costs are out."

  "It's up front for everyone, CP, can't be changin' that." Niddles glanced at Natalie again. She felt her skin crawling under his gaze. This is wrong. Everything here feels wrong. But I'm in control. Cinza told me I'm in control. If he does anything, I'll stop him. "Betchu we can work somethin' out. Payment options."

  "Whatcha got in mind?"

  "I heard about your double-double special from the other girls." He grinned. "Give me a samplin' and you get the whole week free."

  "Just for you, Niddles," Cinza replied. Niddles leered at Natalie again, and ran his tongue across his lips.

  What? Natalie wasn't sure she'd heard Cinza right. Niddles stood up and lead them to the door of the building, opening it with a key hanging off his belt. Did Cinza just… are we… what's going on?

  Natalie followed them both in, every step feeling like she should bolt from the building. Niddles turned off into the first room just inside the door. The front door to the place locked with a click behind them.

  Stay calm. You're in control. Nothing's going to happen.

  They walked into a bedroom. Almost instantly, Niddles had his arms around Cinza, pressing his face to hers.

  She kissed him back. Natalie felt revolted. What's going on? Why is this happening? Cinza wouldn't… I can't—

  A light appeared in midair, behind Niddles, where no one but Natalie could see it. A pale silver light like a translucent orb, hovering in place. More lights appeared, spelling out a sentence.

  Knock him out please

  Natalie didn't need to be asked twice. She filled her arm with magic, took two steps forward. Niddles was still totally distracted. Natalie ignored everything she saw and heard, and focused entirely on her fist.

  She punched Niddles in the side of the head.

  He tumbled a few feet away, banging his skull into the wall. Cinza got pulled aside as well, but managed to let go before she was dragged along with him. Niddles collapsed to the ground without another sound—out cold.

  Cinza spat on the ground, wiping her mouth with a handkerchief she pulled from her bag. "Thank you."

  "Why did—" Natalie started, but Cinza shook her head.

  "It seemed the quickest way in. We're running out of time, unless you tend to push more magic into your bag than necessary?" Natalie slowly shook her head. "...So by my estimate, it could run out any minute. I'm assuming you've kept some very valuable things in there, haven't you?"

  "Just to me," she whispered, embarrassed. What would Cinza think of all the heirlooms and trinkets, memories and tokens? She didn't want to seem childish, especially not tonight of all nights.

  "Then they are the most valuable things in the world, and we're going to get them back," Cinza said firmly, to Natalie's surprise. "Come on."

  "What about him?" Natalie gestured down at Niddles, who still hadn't moved. "Isn't it bad to be blacked out for a long time?"

  Cinza shook her head. "He'll be fine. He'll wake up in a while with a bad headache and wonder if he dreamed the whole thing."

  Natalie didn't like leaving him alone after having hurt him, but she also couldn't really bring herself to care once she remembered the sort of person he'd been. With a last glance at the motionless guy propped up against the wall, she followed Cinza back out into the hall.

  
  


  
  

  "Crystal said this place didn't have too many rooms. It shouldn't be hard to find them." Cinza took the stairs as fast as she could, Natalie on her heels. The second floor landing they reached had an open door and an empty room, but at the third floor landing, they could hear a faint noise down the hall.

  Cinza held a finger to her lips, beckoning Natalie forward. They crept down the hallway as the noise grew louder, and much more distinct. Natalie tried to ignore the uncomfortable mixture of sounds, reminding herself over and over why she was there and what she needed to find. Cinza needs me. I can't leave. I have to get my bag back. I can't go home without it.

  They were only a few feet away when Cinza stopped, crouching low by the wall. The sounds and voices were getting louder. Natalie moved closer, though she could feel a twisting sensation in her throat as she did, like she were about to throw up but swallowing it back at the same time. She couldn't tell if it were because of what she imagined going on in the room, or because she was so close to Cinza, but she pretended it was the former because she was afraid of the alternative.

  "It's him," Cinza whispered.

  "How do you—"

  "Trust me, I know." Cinza's expression was so grim that Natalie didn't question her. "We can't wait for him to be done. I know you haven't been able to share magic with anyone before, and I can't imagine what you're feeling right now, but I need you to try, Natalie. If you can share your strength with me, I can make us invisible, and we can be in and out with the bag before he notices anything."

  Natalie hesitated. She held out her hands, shaking a little, but she forced herself to imagine the bag imploding and crushing every one of her precious possessions inside. Her mementos of her parents and Gwen, her books and all her things from home, everything she'd managed to save from her life before it all burned down. She couldn't lose them. They were all she had left.

  Her hands stopped shaking. Cinza took hold, and while Natalie felt sick and her instincts screamed at her to pull away, she managed to stay still.

  "Okay," said Cinza, as softly as she could manage. "That's good. Now reach for your magic, however you usually do so."

  "Doesn't everyone do the same thing?" Natalie whispered back.

  "Apparently not, but we don't have time to get into that theory."

  Natalie mentally reached for the magic dancing around her heart. To her, it felt like a glowing fire inside her chest, right next to her beating heart. It was a flame she could take small parts from, and if she tried to take too much, it got smaller until it became embers and coals, but always managed to light back into a dazzling bonfire again if she gave it time.

  The fire was her, powering her entire body and her mind, and the magical part of it was just her learning to use herself in a different way than before. She'd never felt like it was a new or separate part of her, but like it had always been there. She hadn't really recognized it until she'd read from the book, but as soon as she had, it wasn't new. It was a part of her, and always had been.

  "Once you've got it ready, you need to push it out to where my hands are holding yours. Then I'll take it and use it to make us invisible." Cinza interlocked their fingers and squeezed her hands slightly. "I'm right here, don't worry. You can do this."

  "...I don't know how." Natalie said fearfully, while the prospect of sending that was her out to such a remote and vulnerable place send waves of fear through her brain. "It's me, I can't just give it to you."

  "It's… I'm sorry, Natalie. It's just energy. It's okay."

  "No, you don't understand," she whispered, confused that Cinza didn't follow. "The magic is me."

  She tried to push magic out to her hands, like Cinza described. Every time it reached the edges of her hands, right up to the skin, it stopped dead, because to her, the magic filled her hands.

  "I can't just send it out of me, because it is me."

  "It is you?" Cinza whispered, and they both fell silent at a gap in the sounds emanating from the room. They picked up a moment later, letting the conversation resume. "...I don't understand, but I want to." She shook her head, her soft brown hair fluttering wide behind her. "We don't have time. If we can't become invisible though, we'll need another plan."

  Natalie let go of her hands, crouching back against the wall again. "We don't have time," she echoed. "I can't feel my bag from here. If he has it, it's probably almost empty."

  "If we go in there blindly, and he has some kind of weapon…"

  She shook her head. "You said my bag might blow up any minute. We gotta go."

  Cinza frowned. "All right. Give me three minutes, then come in. Count it out, okay? I'll set him up for you.."

  Her face got red. "No, you don't have to—"

  Cinza smiled. She took off her bag and handed it to Natalie. "That's kind of you, but I've no qualms about using every weapon at my disposal. Remember, three minutes."

  Before Natalie could say another word, she turned and opened the door.

  "Who the fu—" The surprised voice was all too familiar to Natalie. It was the man with the melting face, the one who'd started her whole terrible night.

  "On the house from Niddles, just for his best customers," Cinza purred, strutting into the half-lit room. She carefully made sure the door didn't close behind her, so that Natalie could get in without the loud click of the knob again.

  "Is that Candy Pop?" asked the girl, gasping for breath a little. "Get in here! Where you been?"

  Natalie counted under her breath, both trying to ignore the sounds coming from the room and making sure she paid attention so she knew what to expect. Go for the man, before he can react. Knock him out, find your bag, run. It'll be easy.

  If he doesn't go down, you know what to do.

  With only thirty seconds to go, Cinza spoke up more loudly than before. "Melty baby, do us girls a favor and go to the nightstand? Special surprise in the bottom drawer…. No, the one by the door. Yeah, that one."

  Ten seconds. Natalie reached for the flame of magic inside her, letting the bonfire out. It raced along her arms, burning and filling her up with warmth and strength.

  "Keep lookin'," Cinza called.

  Time.

  Natalie burst into the room. Next to the door stood a handsome nightstand, and in front of it stood a naked man, with the same melting face and drooping eyes she'd seen earlier that night. He'd been leaning over the nightstand, but as the door swung open, he stood up quite suddenly. Before Natalie could get to him, he plunged his hand into the top drawer and pulled out a huge knife. In an instant, he snapped his wrist upright, metal flashing.

  Natalie froze. Sharp metal poked into her chest, just enough pressure that it wouldn't cut her dress. Cinza had obviously been trying to keep him near the door so Natalie could take him out, but she hadn't expected the knife.

  What do I do now? Sweat was beading on her neck, real sweat this time. The knife was real, she was sure. It looked sharp, and reflected the pale glow from the lamp atop the nightstand into Natalie's eyes.

  "Whas' goin' on?" asked the other nude girl in the room, rolling over on the bed to look up at them. She looked young and more than a little confused. Cinza had frozen at the sight of the knife, crouched on the bed atop her clothes, watching them both very carefully.

  Meltyface had the point right at Natalie's chest, tracing a circle around the front of her dress. "A freebie's one thing, but two freebies is a fuckin' scam." His eyes screwed up a little. "Don't I know you, cutie?"

  "Melty, just ignore her," called Cinza, sitting up slightly and striking a pose. "She's probably just lost. Come back and let's have some real fun."

  He wasn't taking the bait though, and didn't take an eye off Natalie. The other girl had finally realized what was going on and fallen silent, looking just as worried as Cinza. Neither of them dared move with the knife pressing into Natalie's dress.

  Cinza couldn't send her another message either, not with the other girl in the room. Natalie had to find a way out on her own.

  Do I do what Cinza does? Make him think I'm here for him? I don't think I can do that. I don't know how to.

  "I feel like I seen you before. I definitely seen that pretty dress before…"

  The knife slowly dragged up her dress, though thankfully not cutting it at all. Natalie held very still, as a plan began to form. She could do it. She started gathering magic, letting the flame roar through her and spread up to the skin around her shoulders. Suddenly, she was grateful for her dress, with how it exposed her shoulders so completely.

  Just keep going. Keep moving the knife up.

  The knife halted an inch away from the neckline of her dress. Natalie squirmed in place. No, he isn't supposed to stop. Keep going.

  She couldn't make magic go out without speaking, and if she spoke, he'd probably stab her before she could finish a spell. On the other hand, she could push and change energy through her own body without so much as a whisper, as long as it never left. Just a little bit higher.

  "You look real nice," he murmured, and finally, the knife slipped up past the fabric of her dress. The cold metal actually felt bizarrely nice on her skin for just a moment, throwing her head for a loop.

  You have him. Do it.

  "Where's my bag?" she asked. She didn't wait for an answer.

  Releasing the pent up magic practically boiling underneath her skin, Natalie transformed it all to electricity in an instant, rocketing around on the surface of her skin in the same trick she'd used on the gang members. The electricity would have continued flowing in a loop until it burned out or hit Natalie herself, but it found another route—through the sharp metal touching the skin of her shoulder.

  A bright flash and a whip-crack, and both the knife and Meltyface flew a good dozen feet through the air toward the bed.

  "Holy shit!" screamed the girl, diving out of the way.

  Cinza ducked as he flew over her head, tumbling into a heap on the other side. She hopped off the bed and snatched up the knife, which was smoking slightly but was otherwise intact. Natalie stared dumbfounded. She'd expected it to melt completely, like the other metal things she'd hit with that much lightning.

  "As my friend said," said Cinza, holding it to the twitching man's neck. "Where's the bag?"

  "N-n-not tellin' you shit," he stuttered, still twitching.

  "Candy, it's in the closet," said the girl, moving to grab it. She looked afraid, and stayed well clear of Natalie, but in a few moments she'd dug it out of the dusty unused closet against the wall. The girl took a few steps toward Natalie, then stopped, nervously holding out the purse as far as she could. "This is what you want, right? He had it on him when we came in. Looked too girly for him."

  Natalie could already tell it was the right one as soon as the closet door opened, with the sudden draw of energy as it started to pull on her to keep it working. She plucked it from the girl's hand and strapped it over her shoulder with a huge sigh of relief.

  "What's going on?" asked the girl, glancing between Natalie and Cinza. "Candy?"

  "Retrieving some property," Cinza said calmly, staring down at Meltyface with a disgusted expression. "Could you pass me my bra?"

  As Cinza navigated the task of keeping the man in check while re-dressing herself, Natalie dug through her bag quickly to make sure everything was still there. As soon as she'd found the tuft of Gwen's fur, she finally felt a little bit of herself return, what she'd been missing ever since the sun went down and she'd gotten lost in this horrible city.

  "We should be leaving," Cinza reminded her.

  Natalie nodded. She took a step toward the man still twitching on the floor, but Cinza shook her head. "Leave him." She reached out and plucked her own bag from Natalie's other shoulder, causing her to wince.

  Cinza backed out of the room, and Natalie went with her. The girl on the bed watched them go, just as confused as when Natalie had first walked in. "Candy, what the hell am I supposed to do now? I got bills to pay!"

  Cinza sighed. Digging into her bag, she pulled out a loose stack of cash. "Get out of here, Kitty. Find a new town. I'm sorry." She tossed the cash onto the bed with a shrug. "Or find a new life. I did, and I'm a lot happier, believe me."

  "Fuck you, Candy!" Kitty shouted after them, as Cinza closed the door on the room.

  
  


  
  

  Exiting the market turned out to be much more simple than entering it. They just walked back out the way they came in. Cinza handed a small handful of bills (rumpled and folded a few times "for authenticity") to the new man at the gate, who waved them out with a bored expression. Natalie was finally able to put her jacket back on and stop keeping herself warm with magic, releasing one minor strain on her mind.

  According to Cinza's phone, it was now a little past three in the morning. It still looked just as dark as midnight, but according to Cinza the first buses would start running in an hour or two. Natalie felt like her legs were going to collapse, but she didn't want to complain to Cinza after everything the older girl had done for her that night.

  Cinza, however, seemed just as tired as she was, and found a place for them to rest in no time. It was a makeshift shelter, another area for the homeless set underneath a natural awning created by the intersection of a few balconies and railways far overhead. A few tents were set out in the concrete alley, with small groups of people huddled in sleeping bags around small fires. There were a couple dozen people around them as they walked through, but no one paid them any notice.

  "Hey, Nina. Been a while," mumbled an old, bearded man reclining in a low chair as they walked by.

  "Hey, Bill. Just staying one night," Cinza murmured back. He nodded. As soon as they passed, he went back to a book he was reading, glancing up occasionally to watch for newcomers.

  "Nina?" Natalie asked in a whisper.

  "Another life," she whispered back. "Come on." Cinza lead them to a dark corner where they wouldn't be bothered.

  Cinza pulled out her phone to check for messages, which gave Natalie an idea. "Can we call for a ride or something?"

  "I could send a message, but no one would receive it until they logged in. Our server doesn't support push notifications yet." Cinza sighed. "I could call someone directly, but I don't know what happened last night. I don't want to put anyone at unnecessary risk."

  "Oh." Natalie nodded. "That makes sense."

  "We'll wait until the buses are running and take them home. Is that all right?"

  I want to get out of this city… "...Okay."

  Cinza stifled a yawn as she stretched out, laying back against the concrete with her hands as a makeshift pillow.

  "Isn't that uncomfortable?"

  "You get used to it."

  "How do you do it?"

  One of Cinza's eyes cracked open, looking at Natalie with surprise. "How do I do what?"

  "Keep everything separate. All these different lives. No one knows anything about any of this, do they?"

  "No. Not even Ruby."

  Natalie shook her head. "I wish I could do that. I can't even keep magic a secret."

  "...What do you mean?"

  She hesitated, but Cinza was obviously the best at this sort of thing. And after tonight, Natalie felt like she could tentatively call her a friend. She spilled out the whole story with Quinn, how she'd accidentally revealed magic to him, knocked him out, how he'd found out her real name. She kept Rupert a secret for Hailey, but the rest was as honest as she could manage. Even Quinn's romantic feelings toward her, and her own confused feelings in return. Cinza was smart and knew about this sort of thing. She'd know what to do.

  When she finished, Cinza had sat up against the wall and was gazing into space thoughtfully.

  "I'm so sorry," Natalie said awkwardly. "I screwed everything up, didn't I?"

  "Not necessarily," Cinza said. As Natalie looked confused, Cinza turned to her. "I can't pretend that revealing magic wasn't a mistake, but it need not be a fatal one."

  Natalie blinked a few times. She wasn't sure if she was having trouble understanding because it was Cinza, or because she was so utterly exhausted. "...So what do I do?"

  "It's going to be hard, Jenny. You have to go back to school or you'll draw even more attention to yourself, but the scar on your face will do the same. If you wanted, we could retreat entirely, move you to another place, try another school, but I believe you don't want that. Am I correct?"

  Natalie hesitated, but the faces of her friends popped into her mind. Tyler and Steven, Mitch and Kelsey. Quinn. She didn't want to lose them, start over in a strange place with even more strange kids she didn't know. "I don't want to change schools."

  "And I don't think you should have to. This isn't your fault," Cinza added, pointing at the bandages on Natalie's face. "Remember that."

  "But how am I gonna keep it secret where it came from?"

  "You'll need to compartmentalize."

  "Com… what?"

  "It means to separate your feelings and your memories into specific categories and parts. When you are in one part of your life, act in one way, and when you come to another life, act differently there. You saw me tonight, didn't you?" Cinza gestured out to the city. "Among the homeless, I am Nina, just one of the crowd. Someone who doesn't make drama, who can be relied on as a quiet resident, who can be trusted to make a food run with money while others save a space." She gestured again, in a different direction. "On the corners, I am Candy, and you've already seen that life. In the churches, I am Theresa, and in the circles of high society I am Rose. Each of them has their own hopes and fears, their own friends and foes, but not one spills out of its compartment. Never do these lives touch, and none of them actually declare who I am."

  "I don't think I can do that," Natalie said doubtfully.

  "No, I don't believe you can," agreed Cinza with a sigh. Natalie felt a little indignant, but Cinza went on. "And to be honest, that's probably for the best. My life was such a shattered mess that I lost who was really me at the center. I wore so many faces and names, I nearly forgot my own. I only survived by pure chance. I got on the first train at the station and blindly let it take me away."

  "...To Rallsburg?"

  "Yes. There I shed every skin I'd ever worn and invented myself again, into the woman you see now." Cinza pulled out her robes from her bag, putting them on to keep warm against the night chill. With the soft, almost glowing silver, she finally looked like herself again. "Of course, that woman was insane and nearly got herself killed… but Ruby managed to balance me out eventually, " she added with a smile.

  Natalie felt a bit lost. Cinza was talking too much again. "So what am I supposed to do about Quinn?"

  "It's ultimately your decision, but I think you may risk letting him in." As Natalie's mouth fell open, Cinza nodded thoughtfully. "From how you described him, he seems mature enough to understand. People your age are much more capable than most give them credit, in my opinion."

  "I should tell him everything?"

  "Tell him as much or as little as you wish." Cinza shrugged. "You feel alone, don't you? Isn't that why you came to the city tonight? Because you had no one to turn to?"

  "...I guess."

  "I don't know your life, Jenny. I haven't gone through what you have, and I don't know your friends or your family. All I can tell you is what I've experienced. For me, stranded in a strange town surrounded by strange people and facing impossible things, I would have died had I not someone to share everything with."

  Natalie's face got hot. "You think I should be… like you and Ruby?"

  Cinza smiled. "If you want that, yes, but I mean for you to find a real friend. Someone you can confide in and trust." She laid down and closed her eyes. "Find that person, your own age, who you trust to keep your secrets and your confidence. Most problems in this world cannot be solved by one person alone. It's too big and we are all so small. We need each other. Tell that friend everything, and let them help you. That's the only way you can ever stay sane."

  They lay for a few minutes in silence. Natalie tried to see the stars, but of course with the lights of the city, she couldn't see anything at all in the patch of dark gray sky above them.

  "Why is the world so terrible?" she asked.

  Cinza didn't answer for a minute, and Natalie had to roll over to make sure she was still awake. Her eyes were also staring up at the empty sky.

  "The world isn't terrible, but there are people in it who make it worse than it should be," she finally murmured. "There are also people who make it better. We all strive to belong to the latter group, but I know I've been in the first group a few times. All you can do is try to be better, and hope that enough people around you are thinking the same way."

  Natalie wished she could feel like everyone around her was that way, as she assumed Cinza did, but it just didn't click. The world she'd seen was full of awful people doing horrible things to each other. No one really looked out for each other or helped each other. Even the people she thought she could rely on weren't there when she needed them. She didn't want any part of it, but she didn't see any way out of it either.

  And I'm one of them, just like Cinza. I made the world worse sometimes. I hurt people, I lied, I killed. I… I want to be like she said, but what if I can't?

  With that painful thought, Natalie curled up under her jacket and tried to go to sleep, laying in the corner of the concrete lot underneath an overhanging road, with only a strange girl she would never fully understand—and could only barely call friend—keeping her company through the night.

  You survived. Hold onto that, and never forget.

  
  


  
  

  Natalie watched the sun come up through the small gap of sky. The small homeless camp was quiet. Cars hummed along in every direction nearby as the city kept moving on as it always did, heedless of the drama of the night.

  She was wrapped up in her jacket, laying very close to Cinza, who was still asleep. For a few minutes, Natalie watched her chest rise and fall with every breath. She looked so quiet and peaceful, yet another side of the strange grey-robed girl that Natalie had never known.

  The moment Natalie moved to scratch an itch she just couldn't resist anymore, Cinza's eyes flew open.

  "Hi," Natalie whispered.

  "Good morning." Her voice had returned to its floaty, echoing state. To Natalie, that was a comfort, a step back to the familiar world she wanted so desperately to return to. Cinza sat up and stretched out. "Did you sleep all right?"

  "No," she said. "I kept getting woken up by stuff, and the concrete hurt to lay down on." Not the real reason I couldn't sleep… I kept seeing him. Every time. Waiting. Trying to trap me again. Trying to…

  "Ah." Cinza held out a hand, which Natalie refused. Cinza didn't react, just stood up as if it hadn't happened. "Want some breakfast?"

  A few blocks away, they ate pancakes and bacon from a tiny restaurant that seemed impossibly busy. Natalie and Cinza had to eat out on the curb, but it was a nice day out without a drop of rain coming from the thick puffy white clouds, so they didn't mind.

  "What about my phone?" Natalie asked through a mouthful of pancake.

  "By now, it's totally worthless. If he managed to sell it, he's going to have a very unhappy customer," Cinza smirked. "We laid a few pieces of remote code in our custom ROM. The moment they turn it on, it'll already be gone. It may even melt the battery, if we did it right. Tezofarl quite enjoys tinkering with malware."

  "...Good." She could always get a new one, and she liked the idea of a bit of quiet revenge on the two men that had caused her so much trouble.

  "Did you decide what you're going to do on Monday?"

  Natalie shook her head. "I've got all weekend though right?"

  "I suppose, though if I were you, I'd head it off tomorrow. It'll be much easier to deal with if you don't have to explain in the middle of school, I presume?" Cinza shrugged. "Although, I've never actually been to school..."

  "You haven't?"

  "One of many regrets."

  "...Tomorrow then," Natalie said firmly.

  She nodded. "Whatever you decide, I'm sure it will be the correct decision. Let me know what happens, though?"

  "It'd be easier if you talked more online," Natalie said petulantly.

  "If I… I'm sorry?"

  "You never chat online. I was really surprised you answered me at all. I'm really glad you did," she added quickly. "It's the only way a lot of us have to talk to anyone, you know. It'd be nice if you showed up more."

  Cinza smiled. "You're right. I've been neglecting our extended family. I'm sorry."

  "S'okay," she mumbled, a little embarrassed.

  Their bus pulled up a minute later. It was a long ride. Cinza took the aisle seat, making sure no one would sit near Natalie as she leaned against the window, watching the city blocks pass by one by one. Every single shadowy alleyway reminded her of another nightmare she'd lived through that night, but Natalie had made it.

  She was still alive, even if she wasn't totally intact anymore. Something was missing. She felt like she was still broken. Parts had been fixed, but not the whole thing, and someone had shoved new uneven pieces in that didn't belong. She wasn't sure what it was, and she didn't know if she'd ever find out. Cinza had told her it was just the scar on her face, but Natalie felt like it was more than that.

  As she got home and trudged in the door, she didn't even bother to think about what Lily or Kendra might say—and to her total lack of surprise, they barely noticed her. Lily saw the bandages and made a passing comment about being careful when she went out, but her eyes flicked back to the laptop screen in an instant. Percy was nowhere to be found. His perch was empty and the window open. Natalie assumed he was out hunting.

  She wandered up to her room and shut the door. She threw the blue dress away as if it were on fire, deep in the corner of her closet, and found her favorite pajamas. She pulled them on, desperate for anything that could bring comfort. Leaving her window open for Percy, she curled up on her bed, shut her eyes tight and tried to block out everything.

  But she still couldn't sleep. Horrible images dogged her brain—of Tom and his friend, of the sleepwalking dead-faced people in the park, of Tattoo-face and his gang. Of a voice in her head. Of Meltyface and the girls in the horrible building, of Niddles and Harley. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw one of them, leering at her with sunken eyes and horrible smiles.

  Sunday rolled around, and Natalie had only slept a few hours at most, fits and starts forced upon her by sheer fatigue. She couldn't take it anymore. Even Percy's return was of little comfort. She texted Quinn, using a new phone Cinza had given her. She gave Lily the excuse that she was going out to the library, which wasn't actually a lie.

  As she stared down at the very same library table they'd sat only a few weeks before, hidden from the cameras and deep in the stacks, she waited and stewed through her options. No one else was around. This section of the library wasn't a very popular one, apparently. She had the whole wing of the place to herself. It only took a few more minutes for Quinn to show up.

  Since he walked up from behind her, he didn't see the bandage on her face until after he'd already sat down. He opened his mouth, about to say something—and in that moment she could see.

  Quinn didn't look eager, and he didn't look excited. All the stuff she'd hated about him from the last few days evaporated from his face the instant he saw her in real pain. He looked worried and concerned. It wasn't fun or cool anymore, it was scary. He saw she was hurt, and his first instinct was to try and comfort her, do what he could to help.

  You should not tell him.

  He's a good person. I need that.

  It didn't matter what he was going to say. That was enough. She made her decision, in spite of everything Rachel and Hailey had told her to do.

  "Hi, Quinn."

  "Jenny, are you okay? What happ—"

  Natalie held up her hand, palm flat and upward. A tiny flame burst into life in the center of it. It danced in place in her palm, unmistakable.

  She stared at it, too afraid to look up at his expression.

  "Magic is real," she whispered, as much to herself as to Quinn. Magic is real, and I really hope it can help me out here, because everything in my life is horrible. The world is an awful, evil place, full of scary people, and I might be one of them, and I'm about to introduce you to all sorts of terrible dangerous things because I need you as my friend and I'm too scared to go through all of this alone anymore.

  Please don't hate me.

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

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

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

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