Chapter 16 — Rebirth
"Science class sucks now that Mr. Darwin's not teaching it anymore."
"Yeah, it's so bor… whoah."
"Look at Jenny. What's up with her face?"
"You think she's hiding something under there?"
"I dunno. Maybe she got a tattoo."
"No way. Isn't that like, illegal?"
"I think you can if your parents say okay?"
"But she doesn't have parents, right?"
"Maybe she did it herself then."
"She's so weird. Did you hear she hides out in the bathroom and talks to animals all day?"
"So? You talk to your dog all day."
"Yeah, 'cause he's smarter than you."
"No he's not!"
Natalie walked down the hall, trying to ignore the whispers—if they could even be called whispers. No one seemed reluctant to talk about her right in front of her face. Even more than before, she felt marked. The first few days and weeks she could write off as being silly; she was new and from out of town, of course she felt like everyone was watching her.
Now she really was marked, even if none of them could actually see it yet. She still wore the bandages that Door-guy had put on her, taped to the side of her face. For the first time, she was glad of her long hair, since it helped cover up a large portion, but from the front the pale white cloth still stood out. It was an unsettling growth on her face, forcing more eyes to watch her when all she wanted to do was disappear.
She'd been too afraid to remove them, afraid of what was underneath.
The gossip continued, but unlike her first few weeks, now they were getting to her. They needled at her mind over and over like a pest that wouldn't go away, and she knew exactly why.
Before, they made fun of things she chose, and she didn't care. Who cared if someone thought it was weird she ate alone in the bathroom? She just didn't want to deal with other people for a while. So she talked to animals like they could understand her? Well, for one, they could, but besides that, they were way nicer than other people anyway.
But now they were all talking about something beyond her control. They could all see what had happened to her, right on her face, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. Even with all her supposed power, her amazing abilities that Cinza and the others wouldn't shut up about, Natalie was helpless.
And every single word, every glance and pointed finger, every gesture and mocking tone sent her mind tumbling back into flashes of memory. Painful, horrible memories where she felt overwhelmed and afraid, and was forced to hurt everyone around her to protect herself.
"I bet she just cut herself to get attention like any stupid girl."
Natalie wheeled around, but she couldn't spot who said it. Everyone in the hall was watching her, and this time she wasn't imagining it. Absolutely every single kid, standing at a locker, hanging out with friends, waiting in front of a closed classroom door—every eyeball was locked on her. None of them were familiar, and every last one seemed derisive and cruel.
Ignore them. You're better than them.
She couldn't do it.
Natalie bolted down the hall, nearly barrelling through two kids who just managed to get out of the way. Lucky for them, since Natalie was pretty sure she'd turned on her strength magic without even thinking about it. If they'd been in the way, she didn't honestly know how much they'd get hurt.
She was really good at hurting people, and that realization made her feel even more sick.
"Miss Heshire!" snapped a harsh voice, just as Natalie reached the end of the hall. She came to a stop instinctively, despite herself. The din of conversation in the hall came to an abrupt halt as well. The principal had exactly that sort of authoritative voice that could stop anyone in their tracks.
Natalie didn't answer, staring determinedly at the wall. She could feel the eyes of the rest of the students back in the hall on her neck, as if they were actually pressing down on her.
"My office, please."
Robotically, Natalie complied, following the old woman back into her office, while the conversations in the hall immediately started up again, and though Natalie couldn't hear any of them, she knew every single one of them was talking about her again.
Quinn didn't say anything for a full minute, just staring at the little candle flame floating above Natalie's palm. She glanced around nervously, reassuring herself no one could see them.
"That is so cool," he murmured. He reached out his hand toward the flame, and Natalie saw it coming out of the corner of her eye. She flinched away before he could get close. "Oh, uhh… sorry."
"It's real, if that's what you were wondering." She moved it out to float above the table instead of her hand. He cupped his hand around it, and his eyes lit up as he felt the warmth emanating from the little fire.
"Amazing. This is how the deck of cards floated around, right? Last time we were here."
Natalie glanced up, surprised. "You remembered that?"
He shrugged. "I mean, you have a lot of secrets. I just figured it was something you wanted to keep secret too. So I pretended not to see it."
"Oh." He notices everything…
"It's really cool though."
"It's scary," Natalie said, letting the flame fade away.
"What's scary? Magic?"
"No… everything else."
He didn't answer, and Natalie finally looked up at him again. His expression was thoughtful, almost like when he was thinking over a move in the game. He was planning, and that made her feel a lot better. She wanted someone else to come up with something, an answer to what she should do next. Every time she made a decision it just seemed to go wrong.
"This is why you're in hiding, right?"
"But it's not witness protection? Or like, anything from the government?"
Natalie shook her head. "We have to hide from them too."
Quinn nodded. "They never do anything good with superpowers."
"It's not superpowers."
"I mean, it kind of is…"
She shook her head again. "It isn't. I got to choose."
His eyes lit up. "Does that mean I could…" He trailed off, seeing her expression. "Oh."
"Sorry… it just doesn't really work like that." Even if she had a Scrap he could read from, Natalie wasn't sure anybody else should read from them anymore. Magic sure hadn't seemed to bring much good to the world, despite everything Rachel and Cinza always said. Natalie liked what she could do, and she'd never regret making friends with Gwen, but more people with magic meant more scary people like Julian, or Rika, or… him. The one who'd taken her dad.
Quinn's eyes drifted over to the bandages stuck awkwardly to her face. The gang members had used duct tape to hold the cloth on, and while Cinza had helped adjust them a bit to stick better, Natalie hadn't really touched them since. She'd taken a bath and washed her hair without letting the water get near, and she never touched it to avoid setting off another spike of pain. She just wanted to pretend it wasn't there, but from the way Quinn couldn't take his eyes off it, she knew she had to give up on that hope.
"What happened?" he asked, just as she was opening her mouth to answer. She'd been about to launch into a full recounting, but the moment he spoke, she faltered. Cinza told her to find a real friend, and she'd already trusted Quinn with so much, but she didn't want to tell him. She didn't want to tell anyone. There were only two people in the whole world who knew what she'd done—the kind of things she was really capable of—and that was already two too many.
On the other hand, unless Natalie wanted to lose the only lifeline to the real world she had left, there was no way she could get through school without someone to support her.
"I ran away on Friday. I went downtown and stayed out all night. And I kinda… ended up in the wrong part of town." She took a deep breath. She couldn't tell him everything. Her mind refused to voice the other part of that night. "There was a gang, and I walked into their hideout by accident. And they… they cut me." She winced, as even saying it aloud made her feel nauseous. "They said it was a mark that'd get me killed if I went anywhere I wasn't supposed to."
"Oh man…" Quinn nodded. "Yeah. They weren't lying."
"They weren't?" Natalie whispered. She'd been holding onto that as a vague hope, since it still seemed weird to her. Like, maybe they were just playing some sick joke, or it wasn't as bad as it sounded.
Quinn definitely wasn't joking. "Steven told me all about them. He only moved into our neighborhood like two years ago, so he had to know all that stuff. There were like three or four gangs to know, and all of 'em had a certain mark they put on people. If you had that mark and you went into another gang's turf… well, yeah."
Natalie felt her heart drop into her stomach. "So just because I got lost, they'd kill me if I go anywhere near them?"
"...Yeah, they would. It forces people into working for them, 'cause they don't have anywhere else to go." Quinn glanced at the bandages hiding the scar again. "They're not gonna be happy about this at school either. I know a kid got kicked out for having a gang symbol before. It's a whole zero tolerance thing."
"But I'm not a member. I'd never join a gang."
"They marked you anyway, 'cause they can. I think they force kids to work for them. Steven could explain it better." Quinn shook his head. "It really sucks. I'm sorry."
"How am I supposed to go back to school like this?"
He frowned. "It's not from this area. Maybe they won't know. What did Lily say about it?"
Natalie choked out a bitter laugh. "Nothing. I don't think they even noticed."
"Uhhh…" She trailed off. "Lily has a sister. They both take care of me. Well, they own the house at least." She shrugged. "I got home yesterday looking like this and Lily just told me to be more careful."
Natalie felt a burst of newfound gratitude to Quinn. Finally, someone actually seemed to recognize what she was going through and express some sympathy. Cinza tried her best, but she had so much to deal with already, and she didn't really know the whole story.
Neither did Quinn, but at least he was actually on her level. She felt like she could understand him, and so maybe he could understand her too.
"The principal already told me if there was another incident that we'd have to 'deal with it'," she added. "I think this would count. If they don't already kick me out for burning the desk and ditching school Friday."
"How'd you do that?"
"Ditch school? I just left. It's not like anyone actually tries to stop you."
"No, how did you burn the desk?"
"Oh." Natalie shrugged. "I was making lightning with my hands. I kinda didn't notice though, and then you touched the metal. That made a circuit."
His eyes widened. "You can just make lightning?"
She shifted in her seat uncomfortably. "...Yeah. But that doesn't really help me get back to school."
Quinn's excited expression faded. He shook his head. "Okay, so we gotta figure out how to cover for you." His eyes lit up again, in the same way they always did when he was about to make a clever move in the game. "I got an idea. But we're gonna need the whole gang."
She winced at the word 'gang', and Quinn—ever observant—noticed it right away.
"Sorry. The group. Is that all right?"
"Yes," Natalie replied, without thinking. Wait. Should I tell them all? Is that okay? Rachel wanted us to stay secret. Cinza only said to tell a friend. Are they my friends?
As Quinn pulled out his phone and started texting, Natalie reminded herself that she didn't really know what having friends was like. Or if she did, it was someone like Jenny, the girl from home whose name she'd taken. She had to figure it out for herself if they were all friends, and if they were people she trusted.
Hiding and running's just made things worse. I don't want to hide anymore. Not from my friends.
The principal pressed her hands into her forehead. "Jenny, I need you to explain what happened."
Natalie slowly shook her head, doing her best to stay still despite the oppressive feeling of the room. This was the fourth or fifth time now that she'd been in there alone, and it wasn't getting easier. "I dunno what you mean."
"For heaven's sake, Jenny! You've got a giant bandage taped to your face!" The old woman sat back in her chair, studying Natalie intently. "I'm worried about you."
She got to her feet and walked around the desk to sit in the chair next to Natalie. Despite her best effort, Natalie recoiled a little and inched away. She frowned. "...Jenny, anything you say to me will be totally confidential. Do you know what that means?"
"That you'll keep it secret."
"Yes. No matter what, unless you tell me otherwise, I won't share a word. It's my job to take care of every student in these halls, and you're one of my students." She leaned forward a little, and Natalie shrunk away even further. The principal frowned. "Is someone hurting you, Jenny?"
"No," she said quickly. "This was just an accident."
"Do you remember the last conversation we had?"
Natalie already had an answer ready for that. "Nothing happened to anyone though. Just me. So it's okay, right?"
"...That's not really the point here, Jenny."
"I'm okay, and no one else got hurt, so can't I just go back to class?" It wasn't exactly the truth, but it wasn't really a lie either. No other students got hurt, and Natalie couldn't imagine the principal cared about… them.
"If you're okay, then take off the bandage."
She faltered. She'd been too afraid to look underneath it alone, nevermind in front of the principal. "I don't think I'm supposed to yet," she said, playing for time.
"How long ago did this happen?"
"Have you changed it or taken it off since then?"
The principal shook her head. "You need to check it and make sure it's clean. If you don't, it could become infected."
"I think it's okay." Natalie had actually looked up information on that online, and—with a bit of help from some spell details posted online—cleaned the area herself with a bit of magic. It was a combination of temperature manipulation and using Movement magic to scrape off dirt and gunk, and it seemed to work really well. It was extremely nerve-wracking, since she could slip up and cut herself, but it meant she could clean up without actually removing the bandage. She could even clean herself without actually taking a shower, if she really wanted to, but it sounded like way too much effort to do all the time. Besides, showers and baths felt really nice.
"I'm sorry, but I insist. If you won't take it off, I'll have to call the school nurse, and then it'll become a formal inquiry into how you were injured." She sighed. "I think we want to avoid that, right?"
Natalie nodded. Very slowly, she reached up to the bandages adorning her face. There wasn't any way around it, as much as she'd hoped otherwise. She'd known that they'd probably make her take them off, but she'd kept a vague hope she could keep hiding it right up until that moment.
With a faint gasp of pain, she pulled the tape off and let the bandage fall away.
The principal gasped in turn. "Oh my God…" she murmured. "Jenny, what happened? Who did this to you?"
"I told you, it was an accident."
The old woman shook her head. "No one's going to believe that. Do you know what this looks like?"
Natalie shook her head. The principal reached into her desk and pulled out a hand mirror, holding it up, but she averted her eyes. She was still afraid to look.
"It's better to know than to avoid it forever, Jenny. You'll have to see it sooner or later, unless you've got a few thousand dollars sitting around for laser surgery, and even with treatment it'll never disappear entirely." The old woman's harsh voice softened. "It looks clean though, if that makes you feel better. I think you'll be okay."
Slowly, Natalie lifted her eyes back up to the mirror. There she sat, and Natalie was shocked at how different she looked. She rarely looked at herself even before all of this. In her mind, she was still a little kid back in Rallsburg, straight from a picture she'd taken of her with her dad. Short-haired, round-faced, the cute little kid everyone wanted tagging along on their team because she was loud-mouthed and always excited and driven to win. She'd known who she was back then.
The girl in the mirror was so much older, even just two years later. She'd grown a lot, for one. Her hair covered up a lot of her face like a curtain as it tumbled down to her chest. But besides that, Natalie could see it in her own expression. She looked exhausted and worried, like it were permanently etched into her face between slightly drooping eyes and a tight-lipped mouth. She didn't like anything about how she looked anymore, and that was before her gaze even made it to her left cheek.
The scar glared at back at her—a harsh thick dark line at the edge of her left ear, spun outward in a dizzying spiral, ending when it reached the edge of her eye socket. It was the mark she'd seen on the other members of the gang, though theirs had been rougher and less clean. Hers was almost elegant, in a way—or maybe that was just her imagination. To her surprise, it wasn't as frightening as she'd expected.
It was a record. For the first time, Natalie felt like she understood the obsession everyone else seemed to have with scars. She'd been through something horrific, but she'd survived. They hadn't beaten her. She'd made it home. The scar didn't mean she wanted what had happened to her. It didn't mean she was a crazy thrillseeker. All it meant was a reminder. It was in the past.
Don't let it define you.
She hadn't understood what Cinza had meant at the time, but now she thought she did. It was always going to be a part of her. She'd never forget, but she didn't have to let that scar be the only thing people saw. Her friends had shown her that.
"Man, you gotta drag me out to the library on a Sunday?" Mitch groaned loudly as he walked up.
Kelsey smacked him on the head. "He said it's an emergency, didn't he? Code red or whatever?"
"We've only called a code red twice before," said Steven. "Both of those were pretty serious."
As they rounded the corner of the stacks, Natalie was still staring determinedly at a space on the bookshelf behind Quinn. Since they came from her side, none of them could see the bandage yet.
"So what's going on?" Mitch asked as he slid onto the chair next to Quinn. "You two get in a fiiiiiiiiiioly shit."
"What?" Kelsey asked, coming around to their side of the table. Once glance at Natalie and her mouth fell open too. "Jenny, what happened?"
Natalie shook her head, still unwilling to answer. To her relief, Quinn spoke up. "She got hurt. Huddle up. Steven, make sure no one's nearby."
Steven nodded and went out to check. Kelsey and Mitch gathered in close, sitting three across from her. As soon as Steven returned, he took the last spot on the opposite side.
"Where's Tyler?" Quinn asked.
"He's got some church thing with his parents all day," said Mitch.
"Okay." Quinn glanced at Natalie. "So you guys obviously noticed something happened."
"No shit," said Mitch. "Jenny ditched school Friday and apparently got her face beat in? That's definitely something." He glanced at her apologetically. "Are you okay?"
Natalie nodded. "It doesn't hurt much."
"Yeah but… are you okay?"
She was surprised. Mitch wasn't usually the sensitive type. "I think so," she lied.
"This is the biggest code red we've ever had," Quinn added. "I mean this is serious, really serious. So when we tell you this, it's not a joke. We're not just having fun."
"Dude, I take everything you say seriously."
Steven rolled his eyes. "Mitch, stop talking."
"What's going on? What's a code red?" asked Kelsey.
"Something the whole group's gotta deal with together. A threat to one of our members." Quinn glanced at Mitch. "Last time it was Steven's older brother."
"He's an asshole and wanted Steven to help him with a drug thing," answered Mitch. "We blackmailed him."
"When we've got a code red," Quinn went on, "everything is one hundred percent confidential. Anything we have to do is totally secret for life. Not a word to anyone outside the group." He nodded at Kelsey. "Since we've got two new members, I thought you should know how serious we take this."
"No kiddin'," said Kelsey. "I get it. Totally secret. I swear on my life. Hope to die and yeah."
"Okay." Quinn glanced at Natalie. "Do you want to tell them, or me?"
Natalie shook her head. "I can tell them."
"Is this about you being in witness protection?" asked Steven.
"I'm not in witness protection." Natalie took a deep breath. "Me and Lily are hiding from everyone, including the government. Because we can do magic."
Before any of them could express doubt, she held out her hand in the center of the table, palm up. A flicker of candlelight appeared in midair above it. She watched their reactions. Despite everything, there was always a little trickle of fear in her mind that the day would come when someone found out her secret and reacted like the people of Rallsburg did. That they'd call her a monster and try to kill her.
Steven frowned, almost like he doubted what he was seeing. Mitch just looked surprised. Kelsey was excited, and the first to speak up. "Badass! What else can you do?"
Natalie smiled. She'd really hoped Kelsey would like it. Leaving the fireball in midair, she had it rapidly change colors, before flying it in circles around her head a few times. It returned to the center of the table and vanished in a puff of smoke that she conjured up deliberately. A moment later, just as Kelly opened her mouth to say something else, Natalie picked a book at random off the shelf behind her and floated it onto the table, where it landed with a thump.
"Whoah," Steven murmured.
"There's a lot of other stuff too," Natalie added. If nothing else, she still felt a bit of joy from magic every time she used it.
"So that's how you flipped Bill on the first day of school," said Kelsey. "Can you like, make yourself super strong?"
"Big deal," grumbled Mitch. "I can flip him over too."
"What's the code red part of this?" Steven asked, glancing at Quinn.
"If anyone finds out who she is or what she can do, she's done for," he explained.
"I can't always control it," Natalie muttered. "Sometimes it just gets out."
"So we gotta help cover for her. And before you ask, no, you can't learn how to do it," he added. "It doesn't work like that."
"Aww," said Kelsey, her face falling.
A cat peeked his head around the corner of the stacks to their little alcove, looking at Natalie. The same cat she'd befriended at the school, in fact. She was surprised he'd wandered this far away from his home. He meowed once and jerked his head to the side before wandering away again.
"Someone's coming," she hissed.
"...You can talk to cats?" Mitch asked sarcastically.
Sure enough, the library cart rolled past a moment later, pushed by one of the employees. The young man pushing it didn't give them a second glance, just put a book on the shelf before moving on. As soon as he was out of earshot.
"The principal's already suspicious," Quinn continued in a lower voice. "Jenny's probably gonna get called into the office on Monday since she left school early and burned a desk."
"That was my desk by the way," Kelsey added. "You left a big mark all over my armrest."
She laughed. "Nah, it's not a big deal. They'll probably just throw it out."
"It's our job from here out to help cover for Jenny with the principal and the teachers, whenever anything happens," said Quinn. "So tomorrow, you guys are gonna have to be ready. When Jenny gets called in, we gotta have a story ready to go, and a signal."
"Jenny, you need to tell me how this happened."
Natalie hesitated. Plan A didn't seem to be working, but she wanted to keep trying. The less her friends got involved the better. "It didn't happen at school. So you don't have anything to worry about, right?"
"I'm worried about you. I want to know you're safe."
"I'm okay, really." For once, Natalie actually felt like she meant it. She lifted a hand to her face and touched the scar. It stung, but not as much as she expected. She didn't exactly like it, but it wasn't as terrifying as she'd feared. "I screwed up and I learned from it. It won't happen again."
Next time, no one gets near you, period.
The principal looked taken aback at her tone. Maybe she'd spoken a little too harshly, but it was hard to be anything but cold when thinking about the people who'd done this to her. She took a moment before answering. "If that's all you have to say, then I can't help you. But I can't let you back into the student body without some kind of explanation."
The old woman was too stubborn. Natalie decided to try her own words against her. "I'm a special case, remember?"
"A special case only gets you so far. If I start hearing from parents about students getting maimed..."
Natalie grimaced. She knew what the word meant from books she'd read. "I wasn't maimed. I got hurt, and it left a scar."
"Kids exaggerate, and worried parents exaggerate more." The principal sighed again. "I don't know what to do with you, Jenny."
"Just let me go back to class. Maybe nothing will happen, just like you said."
"Nothing keeps happening a lot, Jenny, and all I have to go on is your word. That won't be enough."
With that, Natalie gave up hope on getting out on her own. She made a tiny flame flicker into life out in the hallway at the spot they'd prearranged. She wished she'd learned how to do light magic by now, since a flame might set off the fire alarm or something, but it was the simplest signal they could think of that she could do, and one she didn't need much to cast. Barely a whisper crossed her lips, less than a word.
A few seconds later, there was a knock on the door. The principal looked up, surprised. "Who…"
"Mrs. Talbot?" said Steven through the glass.
"Mr. Chau, I'm with one of your classmates right now," she called back. "Didn't my secretary—"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Talbot, but I really gotta talk to you—and Jenny. It's… my fault, okay?"
"...All right, come in."
Steven walked in and took the other chair next to Natalie, looking nervous. She wondered how much of that was acting and how much was real. She always felt really nervous sitting in this room across the harsh old woman, and she could do magic.
"This had better be good, Mr. Chau."
Steven nodded. "It's my fault she got hurt," he said firmly.
Natalie winced. She wished they didn't have to do this, but he'd volunteered. He was the best option, the most believable, since Quinn was already out of the state by now. She fiddled with the object in her jacket pocket, grasping it to remind herself of her friends and how far they'd go to help her.
She already missed him and he'd only been gone a day. Is this what having a crush feels like? she wondered.
"It was just a dumb bet. We were pretending. And I made up a symbol to use, or I thought I made it up, and I forgot what it meant." Steven lived in that area so it's kinda plausible. He'd never actually forget what it meant, but it should work for the old lady, right? "We all feel terrible about it. Jenny got hurt and it's our fault. Punish me, don't punish her. She didn't do anything."
The principal glanced between the two of them one after the other, clearly thinking hard. As Steven opened his mouth again, probably to repeat the same couple phrases, she held up a hand. "No need to continue the charade, Mr. Chau."
"Huh?" asked Natalie.
"I don't believe for a second that any of your friends did this to you, Jenny." She shook her head. "But…"
"But it doesn't matter so long as our story's straight," finished Steven, in a much more confident voice. Now that he wasn't feigning guilt, he sounded normal again. Just like the smartest of the group should, though he was echoing someone else's plan. Natalie had given Quinn enough information to figure out a possible way out of their predicament. This was plan C, but it was still a plan. Quinn prepared backups for everything. "You're worried about the reputation of the school right?"
She looked taken aback. "Yes."
"And how something like gang activity would look in the news, especially if it was a kid at your school that got hurt?"
"Yes, again." She adjusted her glasses slightly. "Where are you going with this?"
"Well, it wasn't gang activity, unless you're calling us a gang. There's no real gang activity around here, we all know that. So if we all swear to the same story and we don't spread it, you're not gonna get in trouble. Right?"
"...People will still ask," she replied, sitting back in her chair.
"Nah, they won't. Jenny never comes to anything parents are involved in, and most kids don't care about her."
Natalie shrugged. "And I don't care about them either."
"It'll fade a bit as it heals," Steven said. "I've seen it before. It won't stand out so much." But it'll never go away unless I make it go away. Even then, unless I figure it out with magic, it'll still be there.
"If people ask, I just tell 'em to go away," Natalie continued, channeling a bit of Rika as she did. She'd never liked Rika much, but the older girl's rebellious take-no-shit attitude was pretty attractive right now, she had to admit. "I don't need them."
The principal nodded slowly. "If you're all on board, I suppose I can live with this." She turned to Steven. "If that's everything, Mr. Chau, I think you should return to class. I'll have to give you a minor punishment to fit the story. Lunch detention for a week."
He looked crestfallen, but nodded. "My mom's gonna blow up over that."
The principal broke into a slight smile, which was no less disturbing than the last time Natalie had witnessed it. "I'd be happy to remind her of the number of detentions she served in my school."
"You were the principal there too?" Steven asked, shocked.
"Yes. Getting transferred away was a lifesaver." She frowned. "I'd like to speak with Jenny alone for a bit longer, if that's all right. Please let her teacher know."
"Yeah." He glanced at Natalie. "I'll take notes for you."
As soon as Steven was gone, the principal eyed her curiously. "How much do they know about your… situation?"
"Would I be wrong in assuming that whatever secret life you have is dangerous?"
The principal shook her head. "I don't want to know. Just remember what you might be bringing them into, all right?"
"I do. They don't know everything. Just… enough."
The old woman smiled. "I'm glad you're thinking this through. It's good that you found some real friends, Jenny."
Yeah, it is. "Is that it?"
"Yes, that's it. Go back to class now."
"What do you mean you won't be there?" she asked.
Quinn's face fell. "...My grandpa died. We're flying down to San Diego tonight and we'll be there for two weeks."
"Oh…" Natalie's instincts were pulling her apart. On the one hand, she wanted to give him a hug and try to comfort him, but on the other… she couldn't. The damaged half of her won out, and she just sat there awkwardly. "I'm sorry."
The rest of the group had left, with Mitch promising to fill Tyler in on the details. They all had things to do, leaving Quinn and Natalie alone in the library. Natalie sat there a little uncomfortable, not sure what to say. It wasn't like she were unfamiliar with death—in fact she was painfully familiar—but she'd never known the death of a family member. Just from the way he'd said it, they'd definitely been close.
"I'm sure it'll go okay. Steven can handle adults. He's good at that," Quinn added.
"Are you worried?"
She shrugged, putting on bravado. "What do I got to be worried about? I can do magic."
He grinned. "I don't think you can just magic your way out of the evil queen's office."
"...Why do you guys call her that anyway? She seemed nice to me."
Quinn frowned. "You know, I dunno. I always just heard stuff about her. And the way she looks, you know?"
"Yeah, she looks evil. But she's actually been really cool to me."
"And look at me right?" Natalie struck a pose, like she were holding up a knife. "Do I look like some crazy gang member with magical superpowers to you?"
"Not even a little."
"Uh huh." She could tell she was cheering him up, even if it was just by distracting him a bit.
He smiled. "You're really cool, Natalie."
Hearing it aloud gave them both pause. Natalie's mouth opened a little, but she didn't say anything. She bit her lip, not sure how to respond. It sounded so nice to hear her name, since she never got to hear it anymore, and the way he said it made it sound like the most special name in the world… but he shouldn't even have known it.
Quinn winced. "Sorry. I forgot."
"...No, it's okay," she admitted, as much to herself as to Quinn. "I just… no one calls me that anymore. Not out loud."
"I'll try to remember—"
"I want you to."
Her face got red. "When it's just us, I mean. I want you to call me Natalie. I miss my name."
Her face got even more red. She felt like someone had lit a fire inside her cheeks—warm and embarrassing and pleasant all at once. "Just don't tell any of the gang."
"And break our secret group pact of trust?" Quinn said with a grin. "I tell them everything."
"No you don't," Natalie grinned. "You told me none of them know about how you secretly love all the super girly TV shows."
His eyes widened. "You wouldn't dare."
Natalie smirked. "If anything ever gets out, I'll tell. I know your dark secrets. You shouldn't have told me so much."
"Oh, you don't know my dark secrets," he shot back.
"And you definitely don't know mine."
They both stared at each other, suddenly awkward again. The total silence of the library didn't help much, as the only sound filling the gap was a slight buzz of a lightbulb way above them.
"...Did you bring the decks?" Natalie prompted. Anything to clear her mind of the images that had been flashing through her skull, of things she never wanted Quinn to know.
"Oh." He reached into his backpack, where sure enough he'd brought the whole main set. "You still haven't played a game, have you?"
"I've watched you guys plenty. I think I got this." In truth, Natalie had actually read up on the rules and even a few guides, sitting out in the forest on her phone. It seemed like it could be pretty fun, and she definitely could do with some more fun in her life. The most she got was spending time with Percy and the other animals she'd befriended in the forest around her house.
Quinn set out the territory card stacks, then lined up the generals behind it. Natalie was already trying to get into the mindset of the game. Anything to distract her from the painful twinge on her face that kept reminding her of the weekend she'd made it through. I'm with my friend now. I'm here. Everything happened, and I survived. I'm going to make it through this, and I'm gonna have a good time here hanging out with Quinn.
And I'm going to pick Linnethea and totally annihilate him.
…But what if he expects me to pick her and drafts stuff against her? He could pick zero forests or elflands and I'd lose a lot of options.
I can beat him if I draft against that. I can go with an all-undead plan and then take out his farms with pestilence spells, since he won't have any elves to protect them. And I'll have forests but I won't care about it, 'cause I don't gotta feed my guys anyway.
"Natalie?" he asked, and again it sent a tiny pleasant tingle through her ears.
"Oh! Sorry." She hadn't noticed it was already set up. "Uhh, who picks first?" She knew there was an official way to pick, but she couldn't remember it.
"Normally we just always let whoever lost the last game decide. How about you just choose? You wanna go first or second?"
"...Second." She still wasn't sure if she even had a strategy, so she wanted to just see what he did and figure it out from there.
"Okay." Quinn glanced across the line of sixteen territory cards carefully, then picked up one of the farms. Natalie grabbed two forests, and to her silent delight, Quinn picked up another farm.
Bingo. Gotcha, Quinn.
"So you really beat him in your first game?" Mitch asked.
"Of course she did, she's the smartest in the group," said Kelsey.
"She is?" asked Tyler.
"I don't think so," said Natalie dubiously.
"Nah," said Kelsey. "I saw the report on Mrs. Brackett's computer. She and Steven had the top grades in our whole year."
"Where is Steven, anyway?" asked Mitch, glancing around the cafeteria.
"Detention," Natalie muttered, embarrassed.
"Oh, damn. Is that what he ended up with?"
"Coulda been worse," Kelsey pointed out. "Coulda been a lot worse. This is just for show, right?"
"Pretty much," said Natalie. "She promised that his parents wouldn't even find out if she could help it."
"How'd you guys get the evil queen on your side?" asked Tyler.
Natalie frowned. "She's actually really cool. You shouldn't call her that."
"Forget her, we gotta figure out what to call us," added Kelsey excitedly. "The Glasses Gang is way too tame for the badass we got hidin' out."
"Plus neither of you wear glasses," Tyler pointed out.
"Like that was really the problem," grumbled Mitch.
"Gotta be somethin' to do with magic, right?" Kelsey continued. "Something that says who we are and what we do."
"Kelsey, she's in hiding. This is all supposed to be secret."
"Well yeah, but not forever. I'm talkin' when she starts the real stuff."
"The what?" asked Natalie, confused.
"Well, when you start being a superhero, obviously," said Tyler.
Natalie shook her head. "I'm not a superhero."
"Well duh, not yet," said Kelsey.
"This is where you get your start, and we're your team," added Tyler.
"Guys, lay off," Mitch cut in angrily, to Natalie's relief.
Tyler looked confused, but Kelsey seemed to get it right away. "Sorry."
"I'm not," Natalie repeated, with all three of them watching her. "I'm just me, okay? I can do some cool stuff, but I'm not a hero or anything. I just want to go to school and be normal."
"And we're gonna make sure that happens," said Mitch. "We got this."
"Yeah," Kelsey agreed. Tyler nodded too, after the briefest hesitation.
Natalie smiled. She had real friends, finally, just like Cinza had said. She had people to watch her back. She could actually start living her life again, bit by bit. She'd be safe for the time being, while she continued to wait.
Because she hadn't forgotten. There was still something she had to do, and it was the real reason she'd never be called a superhero.
She decided to show off a bit. It was fun and mostly harmless, so why not? She picked up her purse and opened it, though she hadn't opened the spell that kept the contents inside. She showed it around, seemingly totally empty, then zipped it shut again.
When Lily had given it to her, she'd explained how to control the spells that made it work. Since the bag was actually enchanted, a secret ritual set still only known to very few awakened, Natalie could maintain the spell and even trigger certain things without actually knowing how it worked or how to cast it. In that sense, she could 'open' and 'close' the bag, which made it appear empty until she opened it properly.
She did so, and unzipped it again. The whole group gasped, and Kelsey leaned in for a better look. Natalie played it totally cool, and just plucked her lunch out (which was obviously bigger than the purse itself) before zipping it shut.
"Mostly normal, anyway," she joked, before picking up the sandwich Lily had made that morning and starting to eat. They only had a few minutes left in lunch, and she was starving.
As Quinn packed up the cards after their third game, Natalie dug through her purse for a chocolate bar she knew was hiding in there somewhere. To her relief, it hadn't melted or gotten crushed. She wasn't sure how temperature worked with the bags exactly, but the bar seemed just fine.
She offered a second one to Quinn, but he declined, looking embarrassed.
"Hey, just 'cause I beat you twice—"
"Please don't tell them you won twice," Quinn muttered. "The first one, fine, but if they hear you're already stomping me on your first day, my reputation is finished. I'll never be able to face Tyler again."
"You didn't go easy on me, did you?"
He frowned. "No, 'course not."
"Really. You're good at this."
She shrugged. "I got lucky."
"Nah. You drafted really well. You tricked me completely the first game."
"But you won the second game and that went way faster. The Kobblebomma stuff with the fake metal mines."
"Only 'cause I used a cheap strategy I read online. It's kind of all-or-nothing, but no one expects it if they've never seen it played."
Natalie nodded. "Still counts as a win."
"And so do your two. You won fair and square in the last one for sure."
"Oh man, that took forever. You and your stupid multiplying goblins. Was that two hours?"
"...Yeah." He glanced at his watch. "I should probably get home. We packed this morning but I'm sure Dad's panicking about something already."
Natalie hesitated. Despite having actively avoided him for weeks, then stressing out about every word he spoke, she didn't want to see him go. She knew there wasn't any way he could stick around, obviously, but Quinn represented something in her mind. He wasn't from her old life at all. He was like an escape, a path out of her darkness.
Except… she couldn't leave that darkness. Not yet. Maybe not ever, at this rate.
Quinn, ever observant, noticed her crestfallen face. "Hey, I'm just gonna be gone two weeks. It's not forever."
He grinned. "You know what they're probably saying about us right now, right?"
Natalie rolled her eyes. "That we're on a date."
"...Aren't we, kinda?"
Quinn paused. "I guess? I dunno."
"I don't really know either."
He glanced up from his bag, where he'd been rearranging a few things so they didn't get damaged. "Do you want us to be?"
Natalie didn't know how to answer that, but she could feel a part of her that really wanted to say yes. After everything she'd been through, she decided to go for it. She was done being reluctant and scared all the time in her new life, when she knew she could do way more. It was time for Natalie to start taking over in Jenny's life. This was where it started.
But as Quinn moved toward her, about to give her a hug—a totally innocent hug, no different than thousands she'd had in the past, from Jenny, from her father, from Hailey or anyone else—she recoiled away. The darkness from the night in Seattle loomed up around her again, memories of a park in the middle of the city, and she couldn't do it.
As soon as she saw Quinn's confused expression, her heart sank. "I'm sorry. I just… I can't do that."
"...Okay." He stood back awkwardly. Unsure what to do next, he leaned over and grabbed his bag, strapping it on. "I guess I should probably go home."
"I wish you weren't going," Natalie murmured, in spite of herself.
"You'll be okay. You're way braver than I am. You got this."
"I don't feel brave."
Quinn frowned. He pulled off his bag again and dug through it quickly. In a moment, he'd pulled out a card. It was easy to find since she'd just been using it in the last game. He held it out, face down.
Natalie took it, unsurprised to see Linnethea's bold, strong face staring back at her from atop her wolf. Still, Quinn never took the cards out of the box alone like that. "What?"
"She can be brave for you."
"Well, you two both can do magic, and you both talk to animals. You even kinda look like her."
"...I really don't."
He shrugged. "Okay, maybe not that part. But still, she's always brave. Whenever you're worried, just hold that card and think about her."
"I'm not gonna be playing any games down in California anyway. She's better off with you."
Natalie stared at the card. At Linnethea, the wolven huntress, the proud leader of the Free Elves. She wasn't gentle or kind, she was fierce and brave. She'd never back down from a fight, or be afraid to jump headlong into one. She was a warrior and a general.
Linnethea would never be afraid of the darkness.
Natalie nodded. She wasn't going to be either. Thanks to Quinn and the rest of her friends, she had a life to come back to once she was done. She'd turn herself into Linnethea the Huntress. She'd banish the darkness in the only way she knew how, when it was time. Her friends would help her lay low, as long as she had to. Until she'd set out on her true hunt.
Until she finally found and stopped her father.
Natalie wondered what Quinn and the rest of her friends would think of her then, after she'd fought her mass-murdering father. What would he think now, if he knew that she'd killed before? If they knew that their supposed superhero was a murderer so many times over now that it terrified her?
Only two people knew: Cinza and Rachel. Only two, in the whole wide world, knew what she really was. Natalie never had to tell her friends. When it was done, she could come back to her life. They never needed to know.
"You know, I actually do know a wolf," she added, still looking at the card.
"A big grey wolf named Gwen. We used to run through the forest together. She's my best friend. But I haven't seen her in a while. Not since I moved." She held the card close to her chest as if she were hugging it, then placed it carefully into her purse where she knew it'd be perfectly safe. "I miss her a lot. But I'm gonna find her again someday."
"Can I meet her?"
She laughed. "Yeah, sure. I'll make sure she doesn't eat you."
"...Does she eat people?" he asked nervously.
"Nah. Not unless I tell her to." Natalie grinned. "Thanks, Quinn."
"You're welcome, Natalie." And again, Natalie felt a little thrill go through her when he said her name.
She made a vow to herself while Quinn walked away. If she still hadn't heard from Rachel by the end of the trimester in December—the start of winter vacation—then she'd stop waiting. She'd go back to Rallsburg for Gwen. She'd set out to find her father on her own, whatever it took.
In December, you hunt.