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Chapter 20 Retreat

  "I have found friends, and I have made foes. Never have I known a friend who was perfect in every way, nor foe in whom I could see no redemption. Let them come and define themselves for me, as I do them. In due course will each make clear their own alignment; I take judgment only upon their actions. And if you declare yourself my foe, be wary: I will shield myself with every power at my disposal. Magic is but one of these."

  ~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries



  Tyler glanced down over his cards, eyes narrowed, brow furrowed.

  Come on, come on. Attack it. Natalie could barely keep a straight face. She held up her own cards in front of her mouth to try and hide her excitement. She'd bet a lot on this one forest. Tyler could attack the larger stack at the village, where she'd dumped a bunch of pretty worthless cards… or he could hit the forest, where she'd set up the real trap.

  It's the shorter path to my castle, it has less stuff, and you already scouted it two turns ago. If you don't attack it, I get to make free elves there next turn. It's a no-brainer, Tyler.

  "Nebelf— Nebelt—"

  "Nebeltheim," supplied Steven, sitting next to Tyler and watching the game intently.

  "Nebeltheim casts winter chill," Tyler finished, pointing at her forest.

  Oh. I forgot he could do that. Nebeltheim Eisterben, the Frozen King. I gotta learn the rest of the generals. Natalie nodded. "So none of them can move for a turn, right?"

  "Yeah." Tyler moved the fur-coated, skull-masked Nebeltheim forward to his fort in the middle-front of his kingdom, and tossed two cards onto it from his hand, face-up. "Two berserkers and I end my turn," he added, spending a pile of resources to do it.

  Natalie frowned. Okay, so my turn's kinda wasted. Linnethea's stuck in the winter along with all my best cards. At least she's still hidden. All I can do is… oh, wait. I still have all those cheap cards on the village, and now they're in range. I can do this.

  She drew two cards using her rear territories, which meant her queendom deck was getting scary low, but she got one of the specialist cards she was looking for—the siege engineer she'd bought super cheap early in the game and dumped right into her deck. It'd make her attack that much more effective.

  "Siege engineer on my village and I bombard your fort," she said, tossing it out with a bit of a flourish. She showed off a little, making the card zoom forward in midair and land perfectly where she wanted it to. It was subtle enough that no one else in the cafeteria would notice, so Natalie didn't think much about doing it, but up close it was obviously unnatural.

  Steven grinned. "That's so cool."

  "What's so cool?" asked Mitch, sliding onto the bench next to him. Steven looked around with a shock, as did Natalie. Neither had noticed him walk up.

  "Where were you guys?" Tyler asked, annoyed.

  "Principal grabbed him and I went along with so he wouldn't do something stupid," said Kelsey, taking a seat near Natalie. Not next to her, but one away.

  Never next to her. Natalie sat against the wall, and the seat beside her stayed totally empty. Always.

  "What did she want with you?" she asked, curious.

  "Hey, you're not the only one who gets in trouble," Mitch shot back.

  "You say that like it's a good thing…" Steven muttered.

  "I don't get in trouble," Natalie pointed out, feeling indignant.

  "Yeah, yeah, whatever. It was about you anyway." Mitch thrust a folded slip of paper across the table. "Apparently you got a phone call."

  And our school blocks cell phone service inside… "From who?"

  "I dunno, I didn't read it."

  "You didn't?" asked Tyler.

  "It's for her, moron!"

  Natalie took it, unfolding it curiously, while Tyler and Mitch launched into an argument about whether or not it was okay to read notes from the principal. She wouldn't really have cared if Mitch had read it—she doubted anything important was going to be written in a note sent this publicly. It was handwritten with the principal's name and the school's name printed at the top.

  Call me at once. We need to talk. —Lily

  "So what is it?" asked Mitch as she folded it up.

  "Nothing." Whatever it is can wait til tonight. I'm finally feeling okay again. I'm not gonna ruin that by talking to Lily and Kendra. "It was Lily. Just something for later."

  "You can just ignore a note like that from her?" Mitch whistled. "My mom would be so pissed off."

  "Has your mom ever called the school to send you a note?" asked Steven.

  "Nah. She just comes in herself and yells."

  Natalie giggled at the image. "What, like right in the middle of the hall?"

  "She hasn't done that since like third grade, but yeah. She once just came straight into class and dragged me out by my ear."

  Natalie tried to change the subject, not really wanting to think about the Laushires anymore. She turned back to the game. "I bombard your fort with a siege engineer and two catapults," she repeated. "Four guys, I get to choose two."

  Tyler held them up, and Natalie picked four out. To her dismay, they were all weak normal soldiers. It didn't even matter which two she destroyed. Even worse, the conversation hadn't shifted in the slightest.

  "What did Lily say when she saw that scar, anyway?" asked Kelsey, looking over even though she couldn't actually see it. Natalie was sitting up against the wall so that the her left side faced away from the room. She still hadn't gotten used to it, or the endless stares she got from other kids and even all the adults. Her teachers did their best to treat her normal, but it was pretty clear they were all dying to ask. She assumed the principal told them not to.

  Even her friends couldn't help looking at it over and over. She had to remind herself constantly that it wasn't their fault, and it wasn't her fault either—but every single time someone looked at her, that brief flutter of pity and fear made her heart sink a little more.

  "Nothing really. Just asked what happened."

  "What happened?" asked Tyler.

  Mitch punched him in the arm, reaching over Steven to do it. "Jenny doesn't want to talk about it, remember?"

  "What did you tell her?" said Steven quickly.

  "That I was out in the woods and got cut by some broken glass." Natalie shrugged. "I don't think she bought it but she had some important meeting to get to, so she let it go pretty quick."

  "Yeah, because broken glass is gonna make a crazy spiral," said Mitch, rolling his eyes. "Sorry, Jenny, but you gotta make up a better story than that."

  "Like what?"

  "...I dunno, but something."

  Steven nodded. "We'll figure it out."

  Thanks for not telling them, she said silently. Steven was fully aware of where the scar came from, even if the others weren't. She'd asked him for more advice a few days ago, finally working up the courage since Quinn was still gone in San Diego. Steven had mostly echoed the same advice as Quinn—be careful in Seattle, don't go to certain places, don't ever talk to anyone with face tattoos or other scars like hers or anything else that seemed even a little sketchy. She had a whole list of areas of the city to memorize, but even then, Steven warned they were probably out of date. He didn't live there anymore.

  "I think it looks cool," said Mitch, not for the first time. "Makes you look awesome and scary."

  Is scary supposed to be good? Natalie didn't answer, trying again in vain to go back to the game.

  I can't attack, I didn't do enough damage. Those guys were worthless. My best people are all still stuck in hiding 'cause of the winter. Unless I draw something really good, like an ambush card or a lightning spell. Something that'll completely surprise him. Gotta go for it. "I use my farm to draw an extra card," she said, pointing at one in her back row.

  Tyler looked surprised. Yeah, no kidding. I'm almost out of cards in my deck. Drawing more right now is crazy. A card floated off the top of her deck into her hand a few inches away. Okay, so I'm just doing magic to make myself feel better now. Especially since this card sucks. Stupid potioneers. Why do I keep buying these? "Your turn," she added, frustrated.

  "Did you say something?" asked Kelsey.

  "Huh?"

  "Just now, when that card moved."

  "Oh." Natalie shrugged. "Yeah. That's how I cast spells. Well, sometimes."

  "Magic words?" asked Steven.

  "I guess so. I don't always have to say stuff. I think it depends on what kind of magic it is." Natalie glanced up at Tyler, who was biting his lip looking over his cards. Everyone else complained about how slow his turns were, but she didn't really mind. She was okay with slow. It gave her more time to think, and she hated feeling rushed.

  "So if I said the same thing, would something happen?"

  "No… I don't know why."

  Tyler drew two cards using his own farms. He smiled. Oh no. He only smiles when he's about to win. "I make two more berserkers," he added, putting them onto the same fort as his general and the others. "Then I sacrifice all of them to Nebeltheim. Ice Storm on your forest."

  "Not the village?" she asked, trying to distract him. It made sense, too, since it was the much bigger stack. The storm would do more damage there.

  He shook his head. "Your forest for sure."

  "Hey Jenny, can you make giant icicles fall out of the sky?" asked Mitch.

  "No…" Natalie said, slightly annoyed. "How much does it do?"

  Tyler glanced down at the card, adjusting his glasses slightly to read it better. "Anything two or less dies. Higher than that, flip a coin."

  "Shit," said Mitch. "Seriously?"

  "Yeah, four berserkers divided by two. So two strength."

  "...Everything there is two strength," Natalie muttered.

  "Everything?" Tyler asked, smiling slightly.

  Natalie slid the stack of cards out with a glance and another murmur, flipping them over to lay flat across the table. The only survivor was Linnethea, with a strength of three, but the storm automatically revealed her anyway.

  "That's like… every best elf card in the game," said Mitch.

  "Pretty much," agreed Steven.

  Natalie dropped them into her discard pile, leaving Linnethea alone in the forest, facing down the small army Tyler still had waiting across the divide with only the wolf in her artwork at her side.

  I'm gonna lose…

  The bell rang. Not the end-of-period bell, but the actual end-of-the-day bell. Natalie looked up, confused.

  "Huh?"

  "Oh, it's a half-day today," said Steven.

  "Why's that?"

  He shrugged. "'Cause Sunday's a holiday, maybe? I'm not sure."

  "And since we're third lunch, we just leave from here," added Kelsey. Sure enough, most of the students were already carrying their backpacks in the cafeteria, a detail Natalie somehow missed coming in. They were already milling about, heading toward the buses or out the doors if they walked home.

  "We gonna finish this?" asked Tyler smugly. He knew he was about to win. Natalie had nothing left in her deck that could stop his army, unless she could lure him into some really good ambushes. And even then…

  She was saved by a teacher wandering by, who told them all that they had to leave. The buses would be heading out soon, and everyone except Natalie rode the bus home. If they didn't get moving, they wouldn't have a ride.

  "So Jenny stays undefeated," joked Mitch.

  "Only because we never finish our games," Tyler pointed out, annoyed. "She's never beaten me either."

  "You guys gotta settle this," said Kelsey. "So Tyler knows who the real champ is."

  "Me, right?" said Mitch, elbowing her.

  "Nah, it's me for sure," Kelsey shot back. "I'm totally undefeated against everyone."

  "Because you've never played a single game!" said Tyler in protest.

  "No duh." Mitch rolled his eyes. "Calm down Tyler, we all know you're the best at this."

  "Are we hanging out today?" asked Steven. "We should figure that out before we get on the wrong bus."

  "You guys just get on whatever bus you want?" asked Kelsey, surprised.

  "Yeah. All our parents gave them the okay. As long as we're going to one of our houses."

  "It's your place this time, right?" Mitch asked Steven.

  "Sure. No one's home right now. Should be okay."

  "Steven's place!" said Tyler excitedly. "Let's go!" He started for the buses. Mitch went after him, rolling his eyes and shouting something sarcastic.

  "You two want to come?" he asked, and it was the first time Natalie noticed him actually nervous. He was usually so much calmer than the rest of the group.

  "Sure," said Kelsey. "I gotta call my mom first, but I can be there. I don't have practice today." She pursed her lips. "Actually, if I run, I bet I can get permission to ride the bus with you guys." She sprinted away, prompting a few yells from a teacher about running in the building.

  "Jenny?" Steven asked, turning to her.

  Way better than going back to the house. Percy might get confused… but he'll be fine. I'm having fun. I've got friends now. Plus it's Steven's place. He's cool. "Yeah. I'll come too."

  "I don't think they're gonna let you on the bus though," he added, glancing out the windows toward the front of the school. The buses were just starting to pull up. "They're pretty strict about it."

  Natalie frowned. "You just need permission, right?"

  "Yeah, but—"

  She pulled out the note from Lily, which she'd folded and put into her bag. Her habit of never crumpling up paper, in case she wanted to doodle on it or something later, was finally paying off in a useful way.

  Very carefully, murmuring as quickly as she could, she reached out for the ink on the page with her mind. She'd already been practicing moving tiny things around thanks to cleaning under her bandages, plus the other cleaning she'd started doing with the same basic theory. This was just another version of that.

  The ink began to move around on the page. With the precision she'd learned cleaning out her wound, she could actually pull the stain apart from the paper, leaving it perfectly clean again. Natalie lifted up and removed everything but Lily's name, then pulled out a pen that was about the same color as the original. Doing her best to match the handwriting, she wrote out a new note:

  Jenny is allowed to ride home with Steven Chau. -Lily

  "Look good?" she asked, presenting it.

  He nodded, smiling. "It's on the principal's special paper too, and no rips or anything. Should be fine."

  Natalie grinned. "Let's go."

  
  


  
  

  Tyler and Mitch had claimed the back two rows of the bus. As eighth graders and nearly the oldest in the school, it was pretty much without argument. Kelsey had made it on too, to Natalie's relief. Not that she didn't like the guys, but it was nice to have another girl around. There were some things she just couldn't talk to them about, for obvious reasons.

  The bus driver, a bald man with an infectious smile and a cheerful belly laugh that Natalie had seen around the school a few times, fell silent as soon as she and Steven walked up to the door. Steven said "Hi" and walked right past without a second glance, but the man's smile faded slightly as he saw her.

  Natalie's good mood deflated. "Hi," she said in a muted voice. "I'm Jenny. I… I'm going over to Steven's house today. Okay?" She held out the note.

  His eyes were already making that slight circular motion that meant he was following the scar on her face. Natalie held out the note a little more insistently, and he snapped back into his usual self. He took the note and looked it over carefully. He nodded, adding in an overly chipper tone, "Okie-dokey! Welcome aboard!"

  Natalie quickly followed Steven to the back of the bus, trying to ignore the stares and pointed whispers from every row of seats as she went by. She gratefully fell onto the empty back seat, across from Kelsey and behind Steven and Mitch.

  "Whoah, how'd you get on?" asked Mitch.

  "Got permission," she said, holding up the piece of paper.

  Mitch recognized it immediately. He grinned. "Nice."

  The rest of the group was already talking about something else, some game Kelsey and Steven played online that Natalie didn't know much about. She had a laptop that Lily bought for her, but it wasn't really for gaming. The only games she played were on her phone.

  Speaking of which…

  Her phone had buzzed in her pocket the moment she'd walked out of the building. Pulling it out, she saw a couple messages, both from Lily.

  L: Come home. Something happened.

  L: We need to talk. Call me.

  She's never texted me before… And she called the school. What if it's serious? Natalie's finger hovered over the big L on the screen. They never typed in a full name on phones, just the first letter. Just in case. There were so few people from Rallsburg she kept in contact with, it wasn't hard to remember who was who.

  "Jenny?" Kelsey asked quietly, leaning across the aisle. Mitch and Tyler were arguing about which boss in the game was the hardest. Steven was staring out the window, silent. "What's up?"

  "I dunno." What if… what if it's Dad? Maybe he did something…

  "Is it Lily?"

  "Yeah."

  Of all the group besides Quinn, Kelsey was the one she'd probably talked to the most about Lily and Kendra, and their (lack of) parenting. Natalie didn't want to sound ungrateful, since she knew they didn't have to take her in, or help her get into school, or any of the many other things she did, but she still felt like they were only tolerating her. Like she was an annoying distraction in the way of… well, whatever they did all day.

  "What's she want?"

  "Says I have to come home. That we gotta talk."

  "Do you want to?"

  "...No?"

  Kelsey shrugged. "So don't. I bet it can wait. You're out here with us, Jenny. And you're the one with superpowers. Make your own rules for a bit."

  Natalie shook her head. "I don't have superpowers."

  "Yeah you do. Or whatever you want to call 'em."

  She sighed. "I can't just ignore Lily."

  "Sure you can. I ignore my mom all the time."

  "You do?"

  "She gets mad whenever I stay out late after practice with friends, but it's really not a big deal. Mama always talks her out of it. She just gets super uptight. This is the same thing. Lily wants you home after school." Kelsey shook her head. "You might get yelled at when you go home, but it's totally worth it. She'll forget it in a day or two."

  "Maybe…" Natalie said dubiously.

  "Look," Kelsey continued. "We're already moving, right? So unless you're gonna use those superpowers and jump out of a moving bus, I think you're stuck with us."

  "I guess." Natalie didn't bother to point out that she could always just take any bus back to the doorway point. She wondered if Kendra could actually just open a door anywhere she wanted. It was pretty hard to make them, from what Natalie understood about the spell. It was easy to make them disappear and reappear, but there was a probably a really hard ritual to actually make them in the first place. And of course, no one would ever tell Natalie about rituals. She was pretty sure they even had a secret section on the website that she couldn't see, just to talk about ritual magic.

  She swiped the messages away and clicked her phone off again. Whatever it is can wait. They don't need me to handle this stuff. If they needed my help with whatever they're doing, they would have asked for it forever ago, not totally ignore me all the time.

  Natalie leaned against the window, liking the cool feeling of the glass against her cheek, watching the sidewalk full of people stream by beside them. Kelsey turned away, spouting an angry retort to something Mitch had just said. Steven was watching the scenery through the window too, just in front of her on the next seat.

  "How long til we get to your house?" she asked.

  "It's the last stop." Steven twisted around slightly to look at her through the gap between the seat and the window. His eye briefly flicked down to the scar on her face, then back up again. She winced slightly. Every time. She wondered if she'd ever be used to that feeling. "Hey, when we get there…"

  "What?"

  "Nothing." Steven looked back out the window, quiet again.

  Natalie looked out too, but she couldn't really see anything he might be looking at. She let her eyes drift out of focus, listening to her friends talk. Kelsey and Mitch were arguing about which of them was going to be the better soccer star once they both made pro, and it sent Natalie's mind wandering forward. What was she going to do when she grew up?

  Her old childhood dreams were long-gone, not that she'd ever really settled on anything. One week it was a musician playing on big stages with her dad, the next it was a scientist, and after that a car mechanic (because she'd been hanging out with Joe McKinney's dad in his garage that day). Up until she was eleven, she'd mostly just followed anyone in Rallsburg around, learning what they did. They all knew her, and after the first few years (and making a friend of his own), her dad finally stopped yelling at her for running off through town.

  She really liked the idea of having a store, like Hector did. A place that was all her own. She had no idea what she'd actually sell—food seemed like way too much of a hassle, based on how much Hector had to do every day—but that part didn't really matter. Just so long as it was her place.

  But then Natalie saw a cat in the woods one day at her fort, and everything changed.

  What happened to that cat? she wondered. She got distracted, for obvious reasons, and it disappeared into the forest.

  Thinking about the cat reminded her of Gwen. I hope she's doing okay. No, she's gotta be fine. Scrappy might not be though. He got really hurt in that fight with Jackson… I'm sure Gwen is taking care of him.

  Hey, maybe when I grow up, I should do something with animals.

  It would never have occurred to a younger Natalie. Back then, she hadn't cared about them at all. She didn't really get why people kept pets. Animals were supposed to be out in nature, and people in towns and cities. That was normal. Sometimes they'd visit—she loved visiting nature, actually—but they didn't live there. People who went on and on about how smart their dog was, or how much they loved their cat? She just rolled her eyes. Pets weren't people.

  So why do I love Gwen and Scrappy and Percy so much…?

  They weren't really like people. Gwen was definitely smarter than a lot of people she knew, at least. Totally smarter than stuck-up Blake and Lydia. Plus, she didn't really treat them like pets. Gwen came and went whenever she wanted to, same with Scrappy. Natalie didn't feed them, though she did share some food sometimes if they hadn't had a good hunt. Gwen had actually fed her once, when she'd spent way too long out once. She'd lead Natalie to a few berry bushes that were safe to eat, and a stream where she could refill her water bottle. They'd spend all night out there, before she'd come home.

  That was the night her dad had gone missing.

  I want to go home.

  Tears started to drop down her face. She quickly rubbed them away with the sleeve of her jacket, before any of her friends saw. She missed Rallsburg. It was her town, from the nooks and crannies of Hector's shop to the secret fort she'd built in the woods across from the park, or the many trees dotting the hills that she'd marked as hers, leaving little flags and finding the best ones for climbing, reading and spying. She'd spent almost her whole life there (except for some unpleasant memories of Chicago). Where she'd made fun of the college kids with Jenny, where she'd climbed up on top of the town hall building and spent the afternoon reading in the sun (and getting horrible sunburns). Rallsburg was her home.

  But it was gone.

  She tried to distract herself with the scenery outside, before she completely burst into tears. She reached into her purse and pulled out the little card. It was always right at the top now, with how often she picked it up to remind herself.

  The golden-haired elf woman stared back up at her, a steely glint in her lavender eyes, one hand on the head of her wolf, the other clutching her elegant bow. Natalie held up the card to her chest, as if embracing it, and imagined she were hugging Gwen instead. She tried to remember her soft fur, her scent, the way she nuzzled up to Natalie or curled around her protectively when they slept. Even the little things, like playfully flicking her with her tail.

  It helped. Natalie started to calm down. She opened her eyes, and they weren't so blurry anymore. She wiped her face off with her sleeve, put the card away again and leaned up against the window. They were passing through a thicker part of the city now, on the way to the suburb where Steven lived. As she watched, she realized something she'd never noticed before.

  There were people between each block, stuck into the alleys like they'd grown there. Little camps, just like the one Cinza had taken her to, or just single people sitting up against the wall and staring blank-faced into the street. Dead-eyed, just like the people in the city park. The ones who were so empty they hadn't seen her.

  Natalie shivered, though the bus wasn't cold at all. Were they always here? No, this was a part of the city she'd never been to. It must be the area. This couldn't be what the whole city was like.

  "Hey, Steven?" she asked hesitantly. He lived here, and he was the smartest person she knew.

  "What's up?"

  The other three were still comfortably occupied with yet another argument, as Tyler stubbornly insisted some movie was better than the other two. Natalie hadn't seen any of them, but she didn't really feel like getting into that conversation anyway.

  "Is…" She paused, trying to figure out how to say what she wanted to. He waited for her to speak again, to which she was grateful. "Is Seattle always like this?"

  "Like what?"

  Natalie felt awkward saying it out loud, so she just pointed. They were at a red light, and right outside their window—across the sidewalk and a shadowed alleway—were four or five people. Bundled up in windbreakers and threadbare blankets, one sitting outside a tent in a ray of sunlight that snuck through the tall buildings around, quietly talking or just staring at nothing in particular.

  "Oh." Steven shrugged. "I guess so. I never really thought about it."

  "Why, though?"

  "Why is it like that, you mean?"

  "Yeah."

  "I dunno. It just is. I think there's nothing we can do about it."

  Natalie wanted to ask more, but something else caught her ear. She twisted around. A voice out on the street. Someone had said the word "awakened".

  She looked around frantically, but there were too many people on the sidewalk. It could have been anyone. And they could have been talking about anything. Not magic. Why would they be talking about magic? No one knows about it. That's the whole point.

  "We're getting off soon," Steven added. "Just one more stop, then a pretty short walk and we'll be at my place."

  "Okay." The sooner the better, she thought glumly. I don't want to be out here. I want to go back to the forest. Nobody in sight. Just me and Percy, or me and a book to read, no one else.

  No one who can hurt me.

  
  


  
  

  Steven's apartment wasn't very big.

  Even compared to the apartments her dad used to run, it was pretty tiny. One main room and two other rooms splitting off near the back, both of which were closed. Steven made sure they all took off their shoes right away before they stepped onto the carpet (a bad habit Natalie was frequently guilty of), but soon enough they were sitting on the crescent couch surrounding the small TV.

  Right away, Tyler turned it on and loaded up a game. Natalie watched with interest for a bit, while Mitch and Kelsey kept talking about soccer, but it was clear pretty quickly that Tyler wasn't very good at it. He would die over and over in exactly the same spot, and he never tried anything new. Natalie figured out the trick pretty quickly, even though she'd never played before, but she felt a bit apprehensive about telling him.

  Tyler was her least favorite in the group. He was loud and annoying most of the time, and he had the worst know-it-all voice she'd ever heard. She always felt like he dragged the group down whenever he talked. Sure, he was really good at Conquest and no one could beat him (which he reminded them of frequently), but he wasn't really the best at anything else—not that he knew that. If anyone else told him he was doing something wrong, he'd get mad and assume they were wrong instead. Even when it was obvious.

  Quinn was the only one he'd believe on the first try. So when Natalie saw him screwing up the game, too stubborn to figure out his problem, she didn't say a word. He'd figure it out eventually. She didn't want to jump into that potential fire.

  But he did stand up for you.

  The memory swam through Natalie's mind for a second—an image of Tyler standing in front of Blake and Lydia, telling them to leave her alone. Asking them to stop being mean for no reason.

  Telling her she was cool, before they'd even met.

  He's not that bad.

  Natalie was sitting in the far corner of the couch, while the rest of the group gave her a respectable distance. None of them really knew why she and Quinn had asked them to give her space all the time. Quinn barely knew more than they did. And Natalie was never going to tell them.

  The fact that they did so without a single question made Natalie want to hug them all tight. But she couldn't.

  "You guys want anything to eat?" asked Steven, leaning over the kitchen counter. "We've got chips, some Oreos, soda. Whatever you want."

  The rest of the group scrambled up, Mitch and Kelsey practically racing across the room to get there first. Tyler abandoned his game without even pausing it.

  Natalie stayed right where she was, just watching.

  Steven glanced over while they dug through the fridge. "Jenny? Want anything?"

  "...Do you have any orange soda?" she asked. It had always been her favorite, but her dad didn't buy it very often, and she felt weird asking the Laushires for soda. They definitely didn't approve of the drink.

  "Yeah, one sec." He picked out a can and set it on the counter. She didn't recognize the brand, but it was definitely orange soda. "This good?"

  Natalie nodded. A second later, the soda soared through the air and landed right in her lap. She jumped a little as it hit her legs—it was practically frozen.

  "Yeah, sorry. My fridge is too cold a lot of the time," Steven added apologetically. "Should be mostly melted inside though."

  She reached for the top of the can and tried to open it by the tab, but she couldn't. I don't know how this works… She twisted it around a few times, but nothing happened. The others were coming back to the couch with bags of chips and drinks in hand, and she still hadn't opened it. With anxiety mounting in her chest, Natalie flung her mind at the can in a blind panic and pushed down at the spot where she knew it was supposed to open.

  It burst inward. The pressurized soda sprayed out in a small fountain, soaking into everything.

  "Awesome!" shouted Tyler.

  Steven was already rushing back to the kitchen to grab some towels. Natalie started apologizing as the fountain died off.

  "You're supposed to use the tab to open it, duh. Then you take it off and throw it away," said Kelsey, rolling her eyes. Mitch immediately took offense to this and started arguing with her over whether or not keeping the tab on the can was acceptable, while Steven returned with towels and a spray bottle.

  "Never opened a can before?" asked Steven quietly, while he cleaned up the soda spill.

  "...Yeah." Natalie glanced away, her face getting bright red.

  "Using the tab's important. It's how it loses pressure so it doesn't explode like that." He shrugged. "I watched a video about it. You used magic though, didn't you?"

  "Yes."

  "Don't worry about it. I've spilled stuff here before. Probably won't even notice another stain." Sure enough, the carpet already had several blotches over it. Natalie was surprised; Steven didn't seem like the messy type. He was always so careful.

  "You should drink that while it's still fizzy," he added, nodding at the can. Natalie quickly grabbed it up and took a huge sip, grateful to have something to do besides talk. To her satisfaction, it was just as great as she remembered orange soda being. She sank into it for a bit, staring lazily out the window at the cloudy sky, the rest of the room fading out into a buzz of noise.

  "Could not," said Kelsey.

  "Could too!" Mitch shot back.

  "What's up?" asked Steven, coming back from the kitchen again. Natalie looked up from her phone. She'd been about to log onto the site, for her usual check on Rachel's account. Natalie didn't like visiting the site much anymore, especially with the messages she kept getting. Hailey was the worst, all the empty apologies after the night Natalie had begged for help, and no one responded but Cinza.

  Of course, Natalie knew now that Hailey had been just as trapped, stuck in some bar in Tacoma with guns pointed at her—but it still felt like Natalie had been totally abandoned two weeks ago.

  "They're arguing about Jenny," said Tyler, sounding bored.

  "What?" Natalie asked, confused. She'd tuned out the conversation minutes ago.

  "This moron thinks she can lift the whole couch, with us on it," said Kelsey.

  "I bet you all the Oreos left in this box," said Mitch, "that she could do it one handed."

  "No way. You're crazy."

  "Can you lift it, Jenny?" asked Tyler, looking at her directly. Suddenly, they all were.

  Natalie frowned. "I dunno…" She was feeling uncomfortable. Showing off by floating things around was one thing, but having all her friends ask her up front to do magic was really different.

  She felt like she could do it. She'd learned strengthening herself from Ryan way back in the early days, and she'd even improved on it herself. It was a bit different than how he did it, 'cause her arms were too small to fit that much muscle growth onto, so she enhanced it with some movement magic too. She couldn't actually push people, obviously, but pushing stuff near them usually worked.

  "Come on, you can totally do it!" Mitch added excitedly. "Show them!"

  Well, they're all sitting there anyway. Natalie hopped off the couch, murmuring the spell. Her hand latched around the leg of the couch. She took a breath, then pulled it straight up, moving the leg upward with her mind at the same time.

  The whole half of the couch lifted into the air. A bag of chips began sliding across to the other side.

  Four sets of eyes widened, four jaws dropped.

  Natalie grinned and set it back down again. She made a little wave with her hand before plopping onto the armchair next to the couch, curling up slightly. "I want some of the Oreos," she added.

  Mitch held them up expectantly. She sighed. Another quick muttered spell and the cookies floated into her palm. For good measure, she had one land right in her mouth.

  "That's amazing," said Mitch, totally awestruck.

  She shrugged. "I could probably lift more."

  "Please don't. My mom would get so mad if the furniture was all rearranged," said Steven. Natalie shot him a grateful look. She didn't want to keep demonstrating for them, although she had to admit it was kinda fun to be the cool one of the group for a while.

  There was a squeaking noise from across the room. Natalie looked around. The door to one of the bedrooms had cracked open slightly, and a small tufted face peered out at the group.

  <Hi there,> she called out.

  "...Uhh, what?" asked Mitch.

  <Do you want to come here and sit by me?> Natalie hoped it would accept. She could do with something to pet for a bit.

  "Jenny, are you okay?" asked Kelsey, looking genuinely concerned.

  "She's talking to Tircar! Look at him!" Tyler cut in excitedly. They all whipped around, looking at the cat, who was sitting quite still in the doorway. He hadn't really responded to Natalie though—just kept staring with a blank face.

  "Wait, the talking to animals thing was real?" Kelsey said dubiously. "I thought that was a rumor Blake made up."

  Natalie nodded. "I can, but he doesn't seem to like me," she said, a little crestfallen. Not all animals warmed to her, but this was a new level of passive indifference.

  "It's not your fault," said Steven. "He really doesn't like new people. It's kinda surprising he showed up at all with you girls here."

  "Us girls?" said Kelsey, sounding affronted.

  "He probably likes us better," added Natalie. <Tircar? I'm not scary, I promise. I just want to pet you. It's totally safe in here.>

  "What are you saying?" asked Steven, curious.

  "How are you saying that?" asked Mitch. "That's like, a whole other language."

  Tircar looked like he might finally take a step out of the room, but a thump and the slam of a car door from outside sent him scampering back under the bed.

  "Aww," said Tyler, who'd obviously been hoping for something more interesting to happen.

  "Wait." Steven had just stood up. He looked afraid, which made Natalie afraid. He hurried over to the sliding window door, looking out to the street below. "Oh no."

  "What?" asked Mitch.

  "My mom's home."

  "...So?"

  "It's okay," added Natalie. "I'll be fine."

  "No, it's not that." Steven shook his head. "I'm not supposed to have girls over. Not unless Mom says it's okay."

  "Oh."

  "Uh oh," said Kelsey.

  "Should we leave?" asked Natalie nervously.

  "There's only one staircase. No time." Steven glanced around. "You gotta hide."

  "...Hide where?" Natalie scanned the room. There wasn't really anywhere. No closets. No large objects. The cabinets all had glass fronts and were pretty full anyway.

  "I… I don't—"

  "Steven's closet in his room," Tyler cut in. "In the back behind the hamper under the shelf. My best hide and seek spot."

  "That was your spot?" asked Mitch.

  "Go!" said Steven. They could hear footsteps outside.

  The girls bolted for his room. Kelsey pulled the door shut behind them.

  Natalie had never been in a boy's room before, and she didn't really have time to appreciate the experience either. They could already hear the front door opening, and Steven's mom calling out for help with something. She had a brief impression of a bunch of scattered books, game and movie posters, and a computer on a small desk in the corner, before Kelsey pulled open the closet door.

  Kelsey was already diving deep into the back, where there was a small shadowy space behind the hamper, under a low shelf. Kelsey squeezed herself in, and there was still just enough room for Natalie to fit too. She took a step forward.

  She stopped. She couldn't. It was too close.

  It's Kelsey. My friend Kelsey.

  She couldn't.

  She's been a friend since before I knew her name. All the way back to my first day.

  It was too painful. Her entire body refused to let her get any closer.

  You can only trust yourself.

  Natalie turned and pushed the closet shut from the outside, using magic to make it close completely since she couldn't really pull it from the inside.

  "Jenny?" Kelsey whispered.

  "Right here."

  "If she opens the door…"

  "I'll think of something."

  Natalie was trying, but the closet didn't really have much else to hide behind. There was another shelf, but it would probably just put her at eye-level with Steven's mom. There were a bunch of clothes hanging from a rack above her, and that was it. She was mostly reduced to hoping that Steven's mom just wouldn't open the door. They couldn't hear anything now, since the room and the closet door were both closed.

  Maybe if I… Natalie started murmuring the spell, based on what she could remember from Hailey's notes.

  "Jenny?"

  "Shh," she hissed back. She was trying to concentrate. Change how the air flows. Change how sound bounces. Sound is little vibrations that move through air. More vibrations means louder. Faster vibrations makes thing sound squeaky. I need to make them get to me before they get absorbed by things.

  She felt out the area around her, since she couldn't actually see Steven's mom. She could at least vaguely remember the shape of the room, and a quick visualization of the electrical circuits gave her a better picture. Natalie kept at it, finding the little vibrations and making a sort of current that they could travel on. It weaved under two doors and across the floor of Steven's room, and she had to be careful that nothing caught on the carpet and got absorbed there either.

  By the time she could finally make out a few words, it was almost too late.

  "Why are there five cans?"

  "Mitch was really thirsty," said Steven, but even to Natalie it didn't sound very convincing.

  "And whose shoes are these? Steven, don't mess with me today young man."

  "I—"

  "It's been a crazy day at the office, and now with all this nonsense in the news… I mean, honestly—"

  Tyler started coughing, nearly deafening her with the sudden, massive increase in volume. She cut off the spell.

  "She's not buying it," Natalie murmured.

  "Shit," whispered Kelsey. "What should we do?"

  "I… I don't know."

  Natalie wished she could fly like Hailey. She could probably get out through Steven's window that way, and maybe even take Kelsey with her. There was no way they could get around Steven's mom in the apartment; there wasn't another way out, just straight through the main room again.

  She tried the spell again, only to immediately hear the same gentle squeak she'd heard when Steven's bedroom door closed the first time.

  "She's coming!" Natalie hissed.

  "Shit!"

  Natalie thought desperately. Nowhere I can hide. Unless… but I can't. I have to… What if I could turn invisible?

  Cinza could do it all the time. Ruby could do it too. Why not her?

  Natalie tried to remember the notes Cinza had left, doing her best to explain a technique she'd learned directly from the book itself. It was always hard trying to explain those methods. Natalie understood that too, every time she tried to explain how she could talk and make friends with animals. It just came to her, as normal as breathing or moving her hands.

  But Jessica learned it, and she can't even talk to people. Or read. So there's gotta be a way.

  Maybe if I had more than twenty seconds…

  She tried to manipulate the light, like Cinza talked. Photons. Little bits of light that bounce off things and end up in your eyes. Different forms of… radiation make different colors. I don't really get it. Sound was easier, and Hailey explained it a lot better.

  I gotta try.

  Cinza had described making a "wall of false light", where photons passing through would ignore whatever she told them to, so that people looking at her would just see what was behind her instead. It was hard to do, and even harder to make a shape more complicated than a wall or to make it move, but energy wasn't ever Natalie's problem. She was one of the special ones.

  Doing this kind of spell in the first place though?

  She's getting closer.

  Natalie didn't have time to figure it out, and she had no idea how to tell if it was working or not anyway. The footsteps were getting closer to the closet door. As a shadow appeared in the slit of light along the bottom edge of the door, Natalie gave up.

  She grabbed at her entire body and hurled herself upward. Too far! A thump as she knocked against the ceiling inside the closet, and nearly cried out in pain—but she was above the doors, in the space where the frame came down below the ceiling about half a foot. She was still in darkness, even as the doors creaked open.

  Gravity was already starting to work against her, hard. Natalie was holding herself up in midair with her back pressed against the ceiling, floating above Steven's hawkish mother as she peered into the closet suspiciously. She looked right over Kelsey's hiding spot without blinking.

  I can't breathe.

  Holding up so much weight, coupled with the complicated act of holding herself in mid air, was causing Natalie to choke up. Her head was pounding. She could hear a faint rushing sound in her ears, and it was getting louder.

  Steven spotted her. His mom turned around, and as he looked up at her face, he could see Natalie hiding in the shadows just beyond. His eyes widened slightly, but he hid it well. Tyler and Mitch were nowhere to be seen.

  "See, Mom? Nobody. Just Mitch and Tyler."

  "And where's Quinn?" she asked suspiciously.

  "He's still in San Diego. I think he gets back on Sunday?"

  Oh god, please. Get her to go away, Steven.

  She turned away. "Do you boys want anything? I've got the rest of the afternoon free."

  "No, we're fine. Thanks."

  Natalie's vision was fading. A ring of black was inching inward. She could vaguely see Steven and his mom walking out of the room. Are they gone yet? I… I can't anymore.

  She tried to let go slowly, but it didn't really work like that. Instead of sinking back down to the ground, it was more like an invisible platform she'd been laying on top of just vanished.

  She fell. Hard.

  "Jenny!" Kelsey hissed.

  "...What was that?" asked Steven's mom, starting to turn around.

  Natalie tried to crawl out of sight, but there was nowhere to go. Steven's closet was too clean and empty. The only hiding spot was occupied.

  Reluctantly, she turned around, red-faced and embarrassed, to see a narrow-eyed middle-aged woman glaring down at her.

  "...And who are you?"

  "I… I'm just a friend," she stammered. She sat up. Her shoulders hurt from the way she'd landed. She rubbed at her arms, trying to loosen them up a bit. "You're Steven's mom, right?"

  "What were you doing hiding in his closet?"

  "Playing a game?" she said. Maybe if we pretend he forgot the rules, she'll let him off? I dunno.

  "What sort of game?"

  Wait. What if he didn't know we were here at all? Even better. "I was gonna surprise him. They didn't know I was here."

  "Yeah," Steven agreed. "Where'd you hide, Jenny? I couldn't see you at all."

  "Climbed up to the top."

  "Wow."

  His mother still looked suspicious. "Jenny? Are you Jenny Heshire?"

  "...Yes?"

  Her eyes narrowed even further. Natalie watched her pupils flick over slightly, to her left cheek. She probably knows it too, since Steven does. That's not good.

  "Steven, come with me." She swept from the room, her son right on her heels with just a quick worried glance over his shoulder. As soon as the door shut, Natalie slumped back. She was still sore from the hard landing.

  "Nice save," Kelsey whispered from the dark.

  "I dunno…" she whispered back. "I think she's still mad."

  "She's okay. She's strict but she's not mean."

  "You know her?"

  "Yeah. She used to help out with the team, actually." Kelsey paused. "Thanks for not telling on me. My mom would flip if Steven's mom got mad."

  "What are you gonna do?"

  "Sneak out soon as I can."

  "I think if I do that, it'll just make things worse," Natalie muttered.

  "You sure? I bet we could both make it out. Especially if you do that floating thing again. That was amazing."

  "...Really?"

  "Seriously. That was awesome." She laughed.

  "But I couldn't hold it."

  "So what? You were up there for like two whole minutes! You just got bad luck."

  Natalie didn't really agree. If she'd just held on a few seconds longer, no one would have noticed, or even if she'd just managed to let herself down slowly. She'd screwed up, and now Steven was probably in trouble for it.

  It's not my fault, right? Steven wasn't supposed to invite me over in the first place.

  "What kind of stupid rule is that, no girls over?" Natalie muttered.

  "Everyone's got that kind of rule," said Kelsey. "My moms had the same rule. No boys over if one of 'em wasn't home. And always gotta have the door open if we're in my room, and so on."

  "My dad never had a rule like that."

  "...Your dad?" Kelsey asked.

  Natalie hesitated. She'd never brought up her dad with any of her friends. Or her mom, for that matter. But… talking was good. It made her feel a bit better.

  "Yeah. I mean, at first he just wanted me to stay away from everyone. But after a long time, he finally let up. Then he just let me go wherever I wanted, as long as I was home in time for dinner. I got to have the whole town to explore."

  "Huh. You're from a small town, right? Like, barely any people there?"

  "It's not that small," Natalie said indignantly.

  "How big was it?"

  "I think there was like two hundred people there. It's not a city, but that's a lot, right?"

  Kelsey laughed. "That's so small I wouldn't even call it a town. Mom would call that a pit stop."

  "Oh."

  Tircar peeked out from under the bed, looking at the two of them. Natalie got the impression he wanted them to leave. <I want to leave too. But I can't. If I run then Steven's gonna get in more trouble.>

  "What did you just say?" asked Kelsey.

  "Just talking to Tircar," she whispered back. "He wants us to go away."

  "Stupid cat."

  "Hey, don't say that."

  "I hate cats. They're so boring. Dogs are way better."

  "They're both good." Natalie realized what she should be doing. If Steven's mom was talking about her in the other room… she wanted to know about it.

  "...not about that," his mom said, as Natalie finally figured out where they were. She could vaguely hear some game being played in the main room, while Steven and his mom were in the kitchen area. She was cooking something, if the bubbling sounds and clink of metal were anything to go by.

  "It's not?" asked Steven.

  "What's happening?" asked Kelsey.

  "I'm listening in on them," Natalie whispered. She'd at least figured out how to do directions better, so only Steven, his mom and the kitchen were actually loud. "Shh."

  "...heard about that Heshire girl. She's not the sort of person you should be associating with."

  "Heard from who, mom?"

  "That's not important."

  "If it was Mrs. Sinclair, Blake's been a jerk to Jenny since the first week of school. You shouldn't believe anything she tells you."

  "Steven, did you see what she has on her face? You know what that means!"

  "She… that wasn't her choice. She didn't join."

  "Are you sure? Are you willing to bring that sort of thing back into this house?"

  "Mom—"

  "You remember what happened with your brother. We had to move here to get away from his choices. I won't let you go down the same path."

  "Mom! That's not Jenny!"

  I didn't! Why isn't she listening to him?

  "She thinks I'm dangerous," Natalie murmured.

  "Shit."

  "Steven, I'm sorry, but she has to leave. I'll drive her home, but she can't come back here."

  "Mom, come on—"

  She heard movement. I can't tell her where I live. There's nothing there. She'd get even more mad at Steven. But there's nowhere else to take me…

  You can't be here. Get out.

  "I'm gonna run," she whispered. She dug out her extra shoes in her bag and pulled them on. These are so uncomfortable… Steven can get mine back to me later.

  "What?"

  "I'll see you guys on Monday."

  Kelsey said something in protest, but she didn't hear it. She got up and ran to the window, throwing it open. There was a screen set into it, which Natalie floated out of the frame and out of the way. It was a long drop down three stories to the ground. Good thing I'm not afraid of heights…

  She got up on the windowsill. Luckily, she'd never taken off her bag, so she didn't have to go back into the main room for it. There was a fire escape on the opposite wall. She couldn't jump it if she were normal. She wasn't sure she could jump it with magic.

  Deep breath.

  Natalie leapt for the metal railing, propelling herself with a burst of magic. She hit it hard, sending another spike of pain on the same sore spots she'd already hit earlier, but she clung onto it. She hoisted herself over the railing and started down the stairs, three at a time, while the screen to the window floated back into place and the window quietly swung shut again.

  
  


  
  

  Kelsey: Omg

  Kelsey: That was crazy Very Happy

  Jenny: ya

  Kelsey: I watched you jump

  Jenny: you did???

  Kelsey: Had to see it for myself

  Kelsey: I'm hiding again don't worry :3

  Kelsey: Gonna wait til his mom leaves and ride bus home

  Kelsey: I think she's really mad Sad

  Kelsey: Tyler and mitch left

  Kelsey: Its super quiet :/

  Jenny: you ok?

  Kelsey: Ya

  Kelsey: Just hungry Tongue

  Kelsey: Can you make food appear?

  Jenny: not on chat plz

  Kelsey: Oh sorry D:

  Kelsey: I forgot

  Jenny: and no

  Jenny: cant sorry

  Kelsey: Damn

  Kelsey: You going home?

  Jenny: ya

  Jenny: got right on the bus

  Kelsey: Bad signal too

  Kelsey: I cant even watch anything >Sad

  Jenny: sorry

  Kelsey: Entertain me! Very Happy

  Jenny: with what

  Kelsey: I dunno

  Kelsey: Hows you and quinn going? Wink

  Jenny: me and quinn???

  Kelsey: You guys going out

  Kelsey: Duh :3

  Jenny: umm

  Jenny: i dunno

  Jenny: hes in cali

  Kelsey: And?

  Kelsey: You've been texting him right?

  Jenny: no?

  Kelsey: D: You gotta text him!

  Jenny: ill just talk to him when he gets back

  Kelsey: What if he meets some cool girl in California? D: D: D:

  Jenny: what

  Jenny: he went there for his family…

  Kelsey: You never know

  Jenny: whatever

  Kelsey: You guys are so cute :3

  Jenny: stop

  Kelsey: never! Very Happy

  Jenny: hey kelsey

  Kelsey: What's up?

  Jenny: umm

  Jenny: i keep hearing things

  Kelsey: Like what? Surprised

  Kelsey: Is this about you-know-what?

  Jenny: it might be

  Jenny: i thought i heard someone say awakened on the bus before

  Jenny: and now i think i just heard it again

  Kelsey: I dunno what that means

  Jenny: its

  Jenny: nevermind

  Jenny: i shouldnt have said

  Kelsey: Come on! D:

  Kelsey: Jenny?

  Jenny: sorry it was my stop

  Jenny: walking toward my house now

  Kelsey: Where do you live anyway Surprised

  Jenny: cant say sorry

  Kelsey: Not even for your beeeeeest frieeeeeeeeeend? :*(

  Jenny: not allowed

  Kelsey: Lame

  Jenny: uhh

  Kelsey: What?

  Kelsey: Jenny?

  Kelsey: You still there?

  Kelsey: Hello???

  
  

  Natalie had sent the message. More than once. She tried calling, too, but nothing happened. She tapped on the blank stretch of wall behind the old abandoned convenience store, but it wouldn't budge. She even kicked it a couple times, even though she had no idea why that might change anything.

  What's going on…? They'd never failed to open the door for her before, no matter the time of day. If nothing else, the Laushires were really reliable on that. Natalie wondered sometimes if it was actually automatic when she sent the text message somehow, as if the magic were linked to her phone.

  Probably not. She sat down against a tree trunk in the small park next to the store. She had a growing cascade of messages from Kelsey, wondering where she'd gone, but Natalie was too worried to answer those. She hopped onto the website, but no one was on. She messaged Cinza, Hailey, anyone, but didn't get an answer. Finally, frustrated and afraid, Natalie checked the news.

  Oh my god.

  They were all talking about it. About magic. Awakening. Rallsburg.

  It wasn't a secret anymore.

  Oh no.

  Natalie sprang up, running back to the blank wall. "Let me in," she cried, pounding her fist on the bricks. "Please."

  There was no answer. Natalie had been gone too long, and the Laushires were hiding again. Just like they had in Rallsburg at the end, when she'd been sent by Rachel to try and get people into their secret market to hide. She'd run into exactly the same thing—pounding her fists against an empty wall, while desperate people waited behind her for help that wasn't coming, until they had to run away again as soon as the monsters caught up.

  Except this time, she didn't have Gwen with her, or Hailey and Jessica swooping over the town giving directions, or Rachel trying to solve the problem. She felt it sinking in slowly, steadily, like a storm brewing in her chest, terror erupting through her whole body.

  Natalie was stuck on the outside again, in a city that had already shown her how much it was willing to hurt her, and she was alone.

 

 

 

 

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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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