The Lyddans do show up, Zoe tells him later. With the cops and even an ambulance. The last Zoe saw, they’d been taking Jake away on a stretcher.
From Aunt Addi, Eli learns the sheriff had found Jake’s grandmother. Dead in her trailer, hidden in the bedroom loft. By the timeline, she’d probably been Jake’s first victim. Eli tries not to think of a fading blue eye, watching him from beneath the water as its owner slowly drowned.
No one (else) dies from the incident at the rec centre, although Lance and a few others get treated for burns. They’d tried to subdue Jake after Eli had saved Arthur, and Jake had unleashed balefire on them to escape. The whole thing gets written up as just another attempted mass shooting—just another day in America, nothing to see here—this one averted by the bravery and quick thinking of a room full of teens.
“It was cool, what you did with the lacrosse stick.” Two days later. Eli’s at Zoe’s. They’re both sitting in the big couch-sized swing in her front yard, carefully supervised by Mr. Chung from the bay window in the den. Giving them space, but . . . watching. All the adults are on edge right now. Eli supposes he can’t blame them. He thinks his ribs are still bruised form Aunt Addi’s crushing hugs.
“Was it?” Zoe says. She isn’t in cosplay today, just nebula-patterned leggings and a big chunky black sweater. Eli thinks she looks really nice. Zoe always looks really nice, but today it’s . . . even more. “It felt kinda . . . shitty,” Zoe continues. “Like . . . like, I dunno. Un-feminist? Sending a Man”—she pronounces the capital letter, voice pitching low portentously—“to fight when I should’ve been able to do it myself.”
Eli shrugs. “Well, I mean . . . if you want to be, like, a combat witch you could, I dunno. Take martial arts classes or something? But I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s not like you did nothing.” By the time the sheriff had arrived, they’d found the kids separated into three groups, hiding in three different locations. Zoe had organized that, and she and Morgan and Lance had each lead one of the groups, doing headcount and keeping everyone calm. Aunt Addi had been impressed. People panic, she’d told Eli. And they get hurt. Run wildly into the woods and fall down gullies and break their legs, that sort of thing. Zoe and your friends really helped a lot.
Zoe nods, bitting her lip, and they just swing there for a little while. The rain hasn’t quite cleared but the swing is under a kind of gazebo thing the Chungs’ use for barbecues, so they aren’t getting wet. Eli likes sitting under cover, watching the rain. It feels . . . clean.
“I keep thinking about Jake,” Zoe says. “About . . . the things he said.”
“Don’t . . . I mean. He was just talking shit. Don’t take it, like. Personally.”
“He would say things sometimes, y’know? Like, I dunno. Dumb shit about movies or whatever. And I’d kinda roll my eyes, and think, ‘Ugh, whatever Jake.’ That’s . . . that’s why I though you were so awesome, y’know? Because you didn’t do that.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Eli says. “You thought I was awesome. Past tense.” He keeps his voice light to show he’s joking, and Zoe sticks out her tongue and bumps sideways like she’s trying to push him off the swing. Eli pushes back, and for a moment they’re just wrestling and giggling and it’s almost like it’s okay.
It doesn’t last.
“I knew he had a crush on me,” Zoe adds, when things have calmed down. She’s ended up with her head on Eli’s shoulder and his arm around hers. It’s nice. She’s warm and soft and the closeness feels . . . good. “I mean, he wasn’t, like. Subtle about it. But I don’t . . .” She stops, and it feels A Moment. Like Zoe’s about to say something she’s never said out loud before.
“But I don’t like boys,” is what comes out. “Not in that way.”
“Oh.” That . . . Okay. That actually hadn’t been what Eli had been expecting. He wonders if he should move his arm except . . . Zoe isn’t moving, so . . . maybe it’s okay? It doesn’t have to be Like That. It can just be . . . okay.
“That’s cool,” he says, because it is. Not what he’d been expecting, and not what . . . he’d been wanting? Maybe? But it’s Zoe. So it’s cool.
“I’ve never told anyone that before. Not even, like, online.”
“Well. Thanks for telling me.”
“Thanks for being cool about it.”
“Man, Zee. You were totally cool about me turning into a dragon. I think I kinda owe you this one, huh?”
Zoe just laughs, and pokes him in the stomach.
“Everything is different now,” she says eventually. “With you, and me . . . even Arthur and Morgan.”
“Yeah.” Eli still isn’t sure if Arthur realizes he’s the dragon. Arthur hasn’t mentioned anything, and Eli hasn’t had the courage to ask. On the other hand, he doesn’t have Lacroix busting down his door trying to drag him off to, like, dragon jail. So . . . maybe things will be all right.
“Everything’s always different, though,” Eli says. “Like, every day. That’s like, life. Or whatever.”
“Ooh, look at Mr. Philosophy here.”
“I mean, I’m pretty sure I heard that in a video game,” Eli adds, grinning. “But, y’know. Sure.”
“We’re going to be okay,” Zoe says. Not a question. More like an oath. “We’re a dragon and a witch! Whatever else happens, we’ll kick its butt together. And we’ll be okay.”
Eli leans back against the cushions of the swing. “Yeah,” he says. “You’d better believe it.”
Out beyond the edge of the gazebo, above the treeline, Eli can see the clouds. They hang heavy and grey. Obscuring and all-consuming. But beyond them, Eli knows, lie the stars; bright and crisp and clean with their ageless swirling fire. And for a long time, he sits there with Zoe, and imagines himself counting every single one.