Captivate Me - The Captivated Series by S.J. Pierce

As I sat in the back of the classroom, pushing a wooden pencil across my desk with my mind – or, with telekinesis, as some call it – I thought about what Principal Hughes had said to me when I’d arrived two weeks ago; “You will be accepted here. There will no longer be a need for you to hide who you are. Feel free to be yourself.”
Captivate Me - The Captivated Series
Captivate Me - The Captivated Series by S.J. Pierce
The words were a colossal relief. My parents had never discouraged the use of my gift but were adamant that it stay hidden from the ‘regular’ humans. And I never completely understood why, until one day toward the end of my junior year I had absentmindedly used my gift to close my locker from the threshold of Mr. Thomas’ Science room as the bell rang. It was a knee-jerk reaction; if I had been late one more time to his class, I would have been sent away to detention. Again. But unfortunately, Jenny Rochester saw the whole thing, and before I knew it the entire school was writing “witch,” “Satan’s mistress,” and other clever nicknames all over my locker, desks, and eventually, car. But their accusations couldn’t have been further from the truth. As a matter of fact, I was the offspring of a fallen angel and a prophet, both of them blessed in their own rights. My older half-brother Micah had a gift as well; he could see spirits in other dimensions. I guess you could say ‘remarkable’ ran rampant in our family. We were all gifted, except for my younger, full-blooded brother Sam. His DNA was never infused with whatever caused us to be this way, and he never seemed to mind; probably because he had witnessed our struggles with pretending to be normal in a world where the supernatural wasn’t well accepted. He’d sat up with me the entire night after my car had been spray-painted with the words “witch bitch” and hugged me as I cried. It should have been my closest friend, Liz, but even she had turned her back on me. I sometimes wondered if she’d even bothered to ask anyone what had happened to me. I’d finished the rest of the school year and all of my summer with no friends before I took a plane and taxi ride to this boarding school in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. “And what about you, Ms. Walsh?” the teacher asked from the front of the room. My hands flew to my lap, my pencil halting. Sarah threw an amused glance over her shoulder from her seat in front of me. Her pale grey eyes would seem spooky if you didn’t know why – or couldn’t accept why. She had the enviable gift of reading thoughts by staring at the center of a person’s forehead. She was always careful, however, not to intrude on one’s private ponderings. Her eyes would remain fixated to yours, never wandering above them unless you gave her permission. She was a favorite amongst the students and a favorite of mine. I considered her one of my best friends, if one could even label someone that after only two weeks. But I felt comfortable enough with that term, because here at Midland Pines, everyone accepted you with open arms and without judgment. Such a contrast to my old school. “Umm… Sorry, Ms. Newton. I didn’t hear the question.” “That’s okay, Kathrin. I only wanted to know if everyone had a suitable pencil for the test.” “Yes, ma’am,” I replied, smiling like a good little student. Normally, teachers would become impatient with students whose minds didn’t stay on task, but the teachers here were more than understanding. Gifteds’ minds tended to stray more often than not, which was why I had issues getting to class on time. “Good,” she said and peered over her wire-rimmed glasses. “As soon as everyone receives test papers, you’ll have precisely thirty minutes.” “Yes, Ms. Newton,” everyone replied. Sarah passed the last paper back to me, and I pressed the tip of my pencil to the line on the top right to scribble my name and date. Mom’s voice echoed through my mind; “Remember, you don’t have to be the smartest, but I want you to try your best.” I closed my eyes tight and sighed; I wouldn’t be giving it my best. Levi had kept me up past midnight. We’d snuck out to the courtyard and he had entertained me with some of his ‘illusions.’ That was his gift – to make people see what he wanted by touching them. Last night he must have had some kind of Tarzan complex because he’d gone through a variety of jungle animals – a cougar, a python and some strange-looking birds. An elephant sprayed water on us, and a family of monkeys offered us bananas. I had to admit, it was all pretty cool, though the python was kind of mean; he’d made it slither between my legs and up the bench. Of course, he’d found it amusing when I squealed, then chuckled and wrapped his arms around me with a “sorry, babe.” Babe, I thought, still smiling as I shook my head and pretended to focus on the test. That was his new pet name for me, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. As much as he wanted me to be, I wasn’t his ‘babe’… yet. We hadn’t even kissed. Did I enjoy spending time with him? Yes. Was I certain that I wanted to be his girlfriend? No. Not yet. That was another thing my mom had always told me – when you meet “the one,” you’ll know. They’ll captivate your heart the moment you lay eyes on them. He certainly didn’t do that to me, but I was finding him endearing in many ways. I had always wondered, though, if my mom’s words of wisdom were finite – if they applied to everyone. Maybe those who found their one great love were the lucky few, and maybe the rest of us would have to settle for less than earth-shattering, but still mildly satisfying, loves. Levi could eventually fulfill that standard, I was sure, and perhaps that would have to do. I didn’t want to wait my entire life for the all-consuming captivation my mother spoke of, never to find it, and then miss out on love altogether. That notion was the only thing that had opened me up to Levi – besides his good looks and charming personality – and allowed him to sweep me away into the darkest hours of the night to spend time together when we should have been asleep. A cough from across the room interrupted my brooding, and my attention snapped back to the test. I yawned, pulling my long raven locks into a ponytail to keep them out of my face. My quest for the truth on love and relationships could wait; I didn’t want to have to explain a failed test to my parents. I finished the test sooner than I had anticipated, but I hoped it wasn’t because I was just really fast at giving wrong answers. I’d know for sure Monday morning. After triple-checking my work, I stared at the clock, pleading with it to move faster. Lunch was next and I wanted to have enough time to rush back to my dorm room to get a textbook for my next class and back to the slop hall (as we so fondly called it) and eat. In addition being easily distracted, I was also absentminded. That must have been a ‘Gifted’ thing too… or a Kat thing. Five minutes to eleven thirty, I had my book bag slung over my shoulder, ready to go. I’d have to avoid being sucked into a conversation with Sarah if I had any hope of getting to the slop hall in time to not have to shovel my food down. I hated being late to lunch; it was usually the comic relief of the day to sit with Levi and his soccer buddies. Besides, I was starving. Maybe Ivy (another mind reader) would be eager to finish her and Sarah’s earlier conversation about Ivy’s jerk-of-an-ex-boyfriend back in India and snag her up as I left. “All right, class,” Ms. Newton said. “Pass your papers forward.” Everyone complied, and Ms. Newton gave one last instruction before consulting the mirror on her desk and reapplying her bright red lipstick; “And enjoy the scrimmage game tonight! Hopefully, the weather will cooperate.” “Thank you, Ms. Newton,” most replied, though some had already broken into clusters of conversation. And thankfully, so did Sarah and Ivy. One minute left and I ran out of patience. Ever so discreetly, I lifted my finger and gave the minute hand a nudge from the back of the room – one of the secret privileges of moving things with your mind. I leapt from my seat. “See you at lunch!” I trilled to Sarah and darted for the hallway, but I wasn’t sure she’d heard me over Ivy’s enthusiastic name-calling. Today, her ex-boyfriend was an ass-muncher. I tried not to look like too big of a dork as I zigzagged over the checkerboard floor and through the maze we called a school. The first day I’d gotten lost going to three of my six classes; I then made a mental note to suggest they give newbies a map of the place, which looked like a smaller version of a college campus – an old, but picturesque college campus like Princeton or Yale. And by ‘smaller version,’ I mean two large buildings – one for the freshmen and sophomores, and one for the juniors and seniors – with a recreation area and a courtyard between. And honestly, I’d never been to either Princeton or Yale and hadn’t even planned to in the future (my grades weren’t bad, but they were less than stellar). I’d actually seen both campuses in movies and thought of them my first day here because of the aging bricks, gothic-inspired windows, and spires on the roof. Almost like an old cathedral or castle – borderline spooky with a touch of enchantment. By the time I arrived at my room in the senior dorm wing, panting and hungrier than ever, I’d wasted five of the forty-five minutes I had for lunch. Still, not a bad time considering I’d had to elbow my way through a swarm of students. I rushed to my desk in front of the only window and squirreled my textbook away in my bag. As I whirled for the door, there stood Principal Hughes in his grey wool suit and a red-headed girl I’d never seen before. Puffiness rimmed her glassy brown eyes, and her freckled cheeks had flushed a bright pink. Had she been crying? She gripped a bulky plaid suitcase in one hand and a black tote in the other. At first, Principal Hughes looked surprised that I was in my room when I should have been at lunch, but then he offered a thankful smile. “Kathrin,” he said, placing a hand on the small of the girl’s back and guiding her into the room, “This is Anna-Grace.” I let go of the breath I’d realized I was holding; I needed to remember that while being in the wrong place on purpose at my old school was a punishable offense, they didn’t seem to care as much about that here. I extended my hand for a shake and studied her features, looking for something to associate with the first letter of her name – my way of remembering so many names so fast in a new school. I zeroed in on the pink apples of her cheeks. Apples. Anna. “Anna-Grace… nice to meet you. I’m Kat.” “Nice to meet you,” she said, almost a whisper, and she weakly shook my hand, her eyes scanning over our dorm room. I immediately recognized the look behind them – timid, sad and broken. A lot like I’d looked when I had arrived two weeks before. I didn’t have to imagine what this girl had been through, I knew well enough. “Anna-Grace will be your new dorm-mate,” Principal Hughes continued. “I trust that you’ll help her find her way to lunch?” I stifled a disappointed sigh. I’d halfway hoped the room would belong to only me. While I was a pretty social person, I also liked my solitude to paint or read in quiet. “Yes, sir. I came to get my book and was headed back.” The words came out a little more defensively than I’d intended. He held his hands up. “Quite all right. Just make your way there after Anna drops off her bags.” “No problem.” His lips drew into an approving smile, crinkling his weathered skin. “Thank you.” And with that, he made his way back down the hallway, leaving behind the smell of his spicy cologne and the staccato of his shoes against the tiled floor. So much for further introductions; I suppose he figured us girls could handle that. Principal Hughes wasn’t much for chit-chat anyway. He was friendly, but all business, and probably had other things to tend to. I was actually surprised that it wasn’t his secretary, Wanda, who had brought her up. So there my dorm-mate and I stood in silence – her with her bags in a death grip and me with my overly friendly smile to conceal the fact that I wasn’t thrilled with her moving in. My civility finally came back to me, and I took the tote from her grip and set it on the bed on the opposite side of the room. “Everyone’s so nice here,” I assured her. “You won’t have any problem making friends.” Anna wheeled her suitcase to her bed and sank onto its edge. Her eyes raked over the walls that I had decorated with my paintings of mountains, flowered fields and sunsets – a talent I’d inherited from my dad. “These yours?” she asked, changing the subject off friend-making. I remembered that feeling well too – wanting nothing to do with ‘friends.’ One week here and that would change. “Yes,” I beamed, hoping she would like them so I wouldn’t feel the need to take them down. They reminded me of my dad, and in a way, reminded me of home even though none of them were landscapes of Ireland. “They’re pretty. You’re very talented.” “Thank you.” Her eyes settled on the easel I had set up beside my desk (well, our desk now) and she studied the painting I had started the day before of the woods outside. “You must paint a lot,” she said. “I do.” We lapsed back into silence, and she peered down to her tattered sneakers in thought. I glanced at the clock. Three more minutes wasted. I fought the urge to take her by the elbow and usher her to the slop hall. I then realized she wasn’t in uniform. “You have your uniform in your suitcase?” I asked. “We need to get going.” She nodded somberly but didn’t make any movement to get dressed. I sighed inwardly. Maybe I should be a little more patient, I thought; my first day had been the hardest. I tucked my hair behind my ears, planted myself on the bed beside her. I could always just shovel my food – I’d done it before – and Sarah could catch me up on anything that had happened. “I know how you feel,” I said, placing a consoling hand on her shoulder. Brimming with tears, her brown eyes met mine. Up close, they had splashes of amber around the pupil. “You do?” she asked with a brittle voice. “I do. This is my first year at Midland.” “So you’re new here too, then?” I flashed a comforting smile. “I am.” She let out a shaky, relieved breath. “And I meant what I said earlier… all of the students here are so nice. Even the teachers and Principal Hughes. And there is no judgment or discrimination for being different. We’re all different.” She wiped a runaway tear with a half-smile. “And now you don’t have to hide your gift… whatever it is. Things will get easier, I promise.” She sucked back the rest of her tears, leaned over to unzip her suitcase. She paused mid-zip. “You wanna see?” she asked. “See what?” Her eyes glinted with mischief. “My gift.” My smile widened. How could I refuse? “Sure.” She straightened and pushed her hair from her shoulders, her brow slightly creased. “I won’t hurt you,” she assured me. “I know,” I replied, perking. She had my full attention. What in the world could this sweet red-haired girl do that could possibly harm anyone? I couldn’t imagine her gift being anything other than shooting rainbows from her eyes or pooping out fluffy kittens. With her palms turned to the ceiling, she scooted back on the bed and crossed her legs, reminding me of a meditation pose. Her eyes bored into her hands and narrowed with concentration. A spark of something wild flickered across her face, and her palms glowed red. Whoa… Her eyes cut up to gauge my reaction, and I gave an enthusiastic nod for her to go ahead. Seeing someone’s gift for the first time never got old. She concentrated on her hands again, and her face contorted with absolute concentration. A bright flash radiated from her hands, vibrant red and orange flames flickering from her fingertips. I couldn’t contain my thoughts. “Holy sh-” She brought her palms closer together, molding a ball of fire. “Really cool, Anna,” I managed. “Does it burn?” She shook her hands, and just like that, the fire and vibrant glow were gone. I reached for her forearm, pulling her hand closer to inspect it for curls of smoke or scarring. “Go ahead,” she said. “It’s not even hot.” I brushed my fingers over her skin. Same temperature as mine. “Pretty neat, huh?” she asked. “Yeah,” I breathed. “That’s awesome.” So not the rainbows and kittens I was expecting. “Now you,” she said, bouncing on the bed, “What can you do?” I chuckled at her playfulness; it was hard to believe this was the same girl who’d walked through the door a few minutes ago. Amazing what the words “I know how you feel” and a little opening up could accomplish. I was glad I’d decided not to rush her out of here right away. “It’s not as neat as yours,” I said with a shrug. “Oh, come on,” she pled. “It must be something extraordinary, or you wouldn’t be here.” Conceding, I nodded. “All right.” Looking for something to move with my mind, my eyes flickered over the room and snapped to a paintbrush on my easel. “See that paintbrush over there?” I asked, nodding toward it. “Yep.” “Watch this.” I pointed at it and did as I always do – picture the object in my mind, envision a web of invisible strings shooting down my spine and out my fingertips, reaching and wrapping around it. Once connected, I imagined moving it how I wanted – up, down, sliding or rolling. This time, I lifted it and tumbled it end over end like a propeller. “No way,” she whispered in disbelief. I gave a lazy smile; perhaps over the years I’d forgotten how remarkable it was. To me, it was as natural as picking something up with my own hands. “How do you do that?” she asked. “I just… imagine it, really,” I said, and laid the paintbrush down. “Nothing to it.” “Cool! I bet that comes in handy.” I thought of my trick with the clock earlier. “Sometimes,” I replied, but it could also make me lazy if I wasn’t careful. I could literally sit anywhere in the room and summon everything to come to me – except people. My gift only worked on objects. She hopped off the bed and bent to finish unzipping her bag. I noticed the address on her luggage tag said “Clearwater, Florida.” “Florida, huh?” I asked. “Yep. Where are you from?” “Ireland.” She threw me a puzzled look. “I don’t have an accent,” I explained, as I’d had too many times before. I already had the explanation waiting on the tip of my tongue. “My mom and brothers don’t have accents either.” “Oh,” she said, processing. “My dad does; he’s native to Ireland, but I guess I take after my mom and brothers in that regard.” “Gotcha.” Another question churned beneath her eyes, and she turned her attention back to the suitcase, rummaging through its contents. “Are any of them gifted?” “My dad and brother are. My dad is a prophet and my half-brother, Micah, can see spirits.” I purposefully left out the part of my mom being a fallen angel. I rarely shared that with anyone. Actually, I don’t think I’d ever shared that with anyone. It was kind of a family secret. Not because it was a bad thing – my mom was more of a ‘former’ angel than fallen. ‘Fallen’ suggested that she’d done something wrong or deceitful and had been cast from heaven; my mom chose to live on Earth in a mortal body to be with my dad. Two different things. “Huh,” she said. “Neat.” From inside her suitcase, she lifted the burgundy and gold plaid skirt of her uniform to inspect it. I nodded in agreement, slid off the bed and straightened the skirt that had bunched under my backside. “So your dad can see the future?” “Sometimes. He dreams of the future but it’s usually about nothing important.” She held up a white dress shirt. The school’s emblem of two curved feathers surrounding an eagle was embroidered on the right side in colors matching our skirts. “Still pretty cool, though.” “I think so.” “Do you look like them?” she asked. “You’re so pretty…” I blushed. “Thanks,” I murmured, not completely comfortable with her gushing. I didn’t think I was ugly, just not pretty enough to warrant a compliment. But she had to have possibly been the sweetest girl I’d ever met, and I suddenly didn’t hate the idea of a roommate anymore. “I got my green eyes from my dad. Well, he has one blue, one green, so I guess I got my green eyes from his one green. And I got my black hair from my mom.” “I bet they’re as nice as you too,” she mused and slipped off her sneakers. “Thank you,” I murmured again and shook my head with a smile. Again, with the compliments. “I’ll wait outside for you to get dressed,” I replied, and headed to the hallway. I could tell Anna and I would be good friends, but we weren’t to the getting-dressed-in-front-of-each-other stage yet. “And then we’ll go eat.” “All right,” she trilled. “I’ll be quick.” CHAPTER TWO ___________________ Labels With our book bags slung over our shoulders, we hurried toward the lunchroom with a mere twenty-three minutes left to eat. Plenty of time to shovel, though. As we wound down the dimly lit hallways decorated with portraits of faculty, antique candelabras, and tapestries matching our school colors, I realized how surreal everything still felt, but I also thanked God every day that the school had sent my parents the offer letter to attend. Apparently, there was a total of three high school campuses in the States, and each one hired scouts to find gifted students at various schools around the world. And it was also my understanding that these scouts did this by means of reading auras. Once a Gifted’s ability had surfaced, no matter what age, their auras get a distinctive glow, and when these scouts find us, they alert the school. It was also my understanding that some Gifteds’ abilities didn’t surface until their teenage years, but mine had manifested at four years old. I wanted my sippy-cup from across the room, so I’d simply made it come to me. Unfortunately, the scout for Midland didn’t find me until my junior year. My parents had received the offer letter, but they decided to let me stay in Ireland to graduate with all my friends (well, former friends). But after everything that had happened in the last year, my parents had been more than happy to enroll me in a school where they knew I would feel safe and accepted, even if it was just for one year. We made it to the slop hall and smoothed our hair and rumpled clothes before going in. As we passed through the double doors, a memory of when I had first met Levi flashed through my mind, and I smiled pensively. Already on the verge of unraveling from getting lost so many times, and everything I had gone through months before, I’d barely paid attention that day as I threaded through the milling students to find an empty table. My feet hadn’t cooperated, either, and I’d caught the tip of my shoe on a chair leg and down tumbled my tray and all its contents. I remember staring numbly at the mess I had made with tears streaming down my face, and before I could contemplate running back to my room and openly sobbing, a kind hand had clamped onto my shoulder – a strong, kind hand. I’d looked up to its owner, my breath hitching. He was all perfect white teeth, tan skin, and blonde-tipped hair. “Here,” he’d said, bending down to clean up my lunch as I wiped the sorrow from my face. “We’ll get you another one of these.” The rest was a blur of people he had introduced me to and me trying not to look at him too long. The last thing I’d needed was to be labeled the new creepy girl with a staring problem. After two weeks here, I still had a hard time not staring. He then walked me to the rest of my classes and made sure I felt like I fit in, which didn’t take long. At first, I thought he was only being friendly, that a guy like him wouldn’t settle for one option, but I realized his friendliness ran deeper when he had risked getting in trouble by knocking on my door late one night and stealing me away to the courtyard. He’d done that more than once, obviously, and even during the daytime he found reasons to come find me and pull me away somewhere so we could talk in private. I liked the attention in a way, but he could have almost smothered me if I’d let him, and I wasn’t entirely sure I would have cared. As Anna and I strode through the lunchroom, me confidently on my way to the usual spot, and her taking in the huge throng of students, I felt the need to explain the set-up. “Even though everyone is nice,” I began. “We still have cliques around here. Just not like the snobby, divisive ones you probably picture when you think of the word.” She arched an eyebrow. “Okay…” “For example – those with similar gifts tend to gravitate toward one another. Like your kind, the elementals.” She tested the word. “Elementals?” “Yes, that’s what they call someone like you, an elemental. It means you can manipulate one of the four elements – air, fire, earth or water.” “Oh.” “And the mind readers will all sit together,” I continued. “And the shape-shifters will all sit tog- “Wait a minute,” she said tugging on my arm to stop, her eyes wide. “…mind readers? Shape-shifters?” “Yeah. Cool, huh? Her eyes went distant with some secret thought and snapped back to mine. She leaned in with an urgent whisper. “So they can read my mind, like, now?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “No, Anna, they don’t read your mind unless you give them permission. They block your thoughts otherwise.” Her shoulders relaxed. “You sure?” “Well… I guess we don’t really know for sure. But they teach us here to be respectful and use our gifts appropriately.” I jabbed her teasingly. “Why? You don’t want anyone to know that you’re secretly a pervert or something?” “No, it’s just a little creepy to think others can read my thoughts.” “I know. But you don’t have to worry here.” We started on our way again. “And our table,” I said, pointing to a table in the far corner, “Consists of mainly soccer players and me, Sarah, and whoever decides to sit there that day, regardless of what our gifts are.” She stopped short again, mortification sweeping over her face as she took in the tableful of cute guys. I then wondered what made her more nervous – them, or the mind readers. “They’re all really cool, Anna,” I assured her, and tugged her along. “And your mouth is hanging open.” When we finally made it to the table with its array of colored shirts over muscled torsos – thanks to soccer practice every Friday morning for the senior players – everyone had already dumped their trays and had broken into separate conversations. Some of the soccer players weren’t there; probably in line to get seconds, as usual. I also noticed that a certain blonde-haired boy wasn’t at the table, either. He’s probably on his thirds. “They’re in line again,” Sarah said from halfway down the table, regarding my disappointed look, and then went back to studying her pale blonde hair for split ends. “Figures,” I replied. The feeding habits of a teenage boy should have been considered the eighth wonder of the world, or at least as an act in a side show. Anna and I settled into chairs at the end of the table, and before I had a chance for introductions, a pair of lips breezed over my cheek with a playful kiss. Levi. My expression instantly brightened. He plopped next to me with two trays in his hands. “Here, babe,” he said, sliding one across the table, “I figured you’d be hungry.” I wanted to roll my eyes again at his calling me “babe,” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it since he’d brought me food. “You’re the best,” I beamed. He bit into his burger, and his eyes drew to Anna. “Oh, a newbie!” he said with a mouthful of food. “I’m Levi.” He swallowed and smiled his ever-glowing smile, dimples and all. “Anna,” she squeaked out. I draped my arm around her for support. She was obviously out of her element, in more ways than one. “She’s my new roomie.” “Awesome! Nice to meet you, Anna.” She only nodded. Apparently, words had escaped her. And who could blame her, really? I remember my first day at this table… so much eye candy. I then raked my eyes over him as I reached for a fry; he did look particularly yummy today in his seafoam t-shirt that matched his eyes and made his tan look even bronzer. And the way his muscles filled out every inch of it, well, now my mouth was hanging open. I shut it over my fry and opened my milk. Could this be the captivation my mom was referring to? His looks constantly stealing my attention? I guess if I had to ask, it wasn’t, but it had to be pretty damn close. Levi noticed the empty table space in front of Anna. “Oh, God,” he said and stood. “I’m so rude. You want a tray too?” She held out her hands in protest. “Oh, no… I already date… er, um… ate. I ate before I got here.” I stifled a chuckle. Poor Anna. Two of Levi’s soccer buddies, Ronnie and Dawson, showed up with their trays. Staring at his burger with a big, hungry smile, Ronnie settled next to Levi. “Oh, sweet baby Jesus…” he groaned. “I’m gonna eat the balls out of this burger.” I spluttered into my milk. Levi smacked his back. “Girls, Ron… watch your language. There are girls at the table!” I wiped my mouth. “Jeez, Ron, could you not say that while I’m drinking?” “Sorry, newbie,” he replied, and turned his gaze to Anna. “Hi, new-newbie…” Her eyes washed over him, starting with his closely cropped dark hair, moving down his strong, square jaw line, and ending at his sculpted chest. He repeated his greeting slower this time with an expectant look. “Hi… new-newbie…” Coming back to planet Earth, she shook her head. “Hi,” she breathed. “This is Anna,” I supplied for her. “She’s an elemental too.” Studying her now, he smiled. “Cool. Welcome to Midland.” Anna managed to string an entire sentence together this time. “Thanks. What’s your gift?” “Wind,” he said matter-of-factly and took a giant bite of burger. “Mine’s fire.” Impressed, his eyes flared, and he swallowed. “You’ll have to show me sometime.” I could practically hear her heart doing somersaults. “Sure.” As they chatted, I shoveled my food and contemplated introducing her to Sarah and Dawson too, but they were already in their own little worlds again, kissing and whispering and laughing. Levi rubbed my shoulder. “You guys are coming to the game tonight, right?” he asked. I nodded as I chewed. Friday nights were scrimmage game nights – the one night we could stay out past our weekend curfew of ten o’clock. It was also the one function we were allowed to wear our regular clothes to. I loved Friday nights. Besides, seeing the boys in their uniforms all sweaty and pumping with adrenaline didn’t hurt. I swallowed my food and flashed him a smile. “Wouldn’t miss it.” “Good.” He yawned the word. “What’s the matter?” I smirked with a hitched brow. “Tired? Stay up too late?” He smirked back. “I did. Couldn’t sleep for some reason.” Ronnie cleared his throat and jabbed Dawson with his elbow. “Hey, Dawson,” he said pointedly, his smiling eyes never leaving his tray as he ate, “Guess what I saw last night?” Dawson tore himself away from Sarah and gave an evil grin, flashing his eyes at Levi and me. “What’s that, Ron?” he replied, almost as if they’d rehearsed the exchange. I flushed crimson, and Levi watched their exchange with a set jaw and a look of humored annoyance. “I saw the funniest thing through our window when I got up to pee – a guy and a girl in the courtyard after midnight.” Dawson’s jaw dropped in mock horror. “You don’t say. Well, that would be breaking the rules.” Now everyone’s attention was on us, and I blushed brighter. Gah! “I’d say so,” Ronnie continued. “I hope it was worth all the face-sucking.” Levi jabbed his shoulder. “Shut up, dude! We didn’t kiss.” Everyone at the table started whispering and laughing, even Anna. And on the outside looking in, I’m sure it was funny, but I really just wanted to die. Ronnie threw his head back in laughter, and I tossed a chiding look at Dawson, which only made him roar with laughter too. Levi embraced me in a side hug. “Ignore them,” he said. “Their moms fed them paint chips as kids.” When Ronnie composed himself, he leaned into us. “But really, guys. How did you not get caught?” “I’m sure we will one day,” Levi replied. “But until then…” “Did you go get her or something? How did you make it onto the girls’ floor without getting caught?” Levi clasped his shoulder with a playful shake. “One of these days, Ronnie, you’ll be as awesome as me.” Ronnie jabbed him back, and they started mock fighting, laughing and throwing good-natured insults. I chuckled at their exchange, forgetting how I was just embarrassed beyond belief. Oh, Levi… so carefree and sweet. Maybe I should quit worrying about labels – ‘captivated’ or ‘not captivated’ – and enjoy being around him… or being with him. The idea made my heart flutter, but I still had that strange feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I thought about it too hard. Doubt? The bell rang, derailing my thoughts. Levi stood and swept our trays up to empty them. “I’ll remember this tonight, Ron,” he teased. “I’m on the burgundy team, remember?” Dawson scoffed as he and Sarah started off to their next class. “Burgundy’s going down tonight…” “You wish!” Levi yelled after him. After disposing of our trays, the rest of us migrated toward the double doors, and Anna pulled out her schedule. “Chemistry,” she said aloud. “Wing C, Room 307.” “Coach Carter’s class,” Ronnie said. “I’m going there too.” “You should help her, Ron,” Levi insisted, grabbing my hand. He wasn’t going to let me get away. “Sure,” he said with a shrug, and Anna couldn’t contain the smile that split her face in two. “I’m proud of ya,” Levi said, squeezing my hand tighter as we walked to my next class, “it was nice what you did for the newbie, taking her under your wing like that.” “I couldn’t not take her under my wing… you should have seen how sad she looked today.” “That’s what I mean. You didn’t have to do it, but you did. And you know, when you start initiating newbies, you aren’t a newbie anymore.” “Good…” I said, bumping into him, “Can you ask Ronnie and them to quit calling me that now? I prefer Kat.” We stopped at the door to my next class. “Sure. Fits you better, anyway,” he mused, tipping my chin up with his finger. He sweetly pecked my cheek before turning and lumbering on his way. Holding the spot on my cheek he’d kissed, I watched as he left. Surely if I were around him enough my lingering doubt over whether or not we should be together would leave. I then decided to give him a chance… a real chance and see what happened. Maybe tonight we’d kiss for real and officially be considered a couple. Thinking of the game tonight and Levi and our budding relationship, I didn’t have a prayer at concentrating during class. Luckily, this one was an elective and I could answer every question on a test in my sleep. I wasn’t even sure why I’d signed up for it. The class was called Blending into Society and Mrs. Griffith taught us how to effectively hide our gifts in public while feeling free to tap into them in private. It didn’t have to be one or the other. Though I’d hid mine for years, perhaps I had signed up for the class because I felt there was still something I could learn. After all, slipping up and using my gift in public was the reason I was here. The rest of the day flew by, and Anna and I found ourselves back in our room getting ready for the game. We quickly dressed in our jeans and cute summery tops, fully embracing what little warm weather we had left before fall and bitter winter crept in. Also embracing our school spirit, I quickly painted her cheek with our school emblem before I got a line going out the door. Once everyone had found out I was a painter, last Friday I’d painted fifteen faces before it was time to head out. I had a feeling tonight would be a mad rush to see who could get to my door first. Otherwise, they’d have to do it themselves and settle for the typical war-paint style or half-burgundy-half-gold faces. Memories of when Liz and I had painted our faces before games at my old school crept in, threatening to ruin my mood, and I fought it away. “So, what do you think of Ron?” I asked, hoping to steer my mind away from Liz the deserter. “He’s so funny,” she gushed. “And gorgeous.” Wow… she’s got it bad. “Does someone have a crush already?” I teased, but it was a rhetorical question – the answer was written all over her beaming, starry-eyed face. “Levi’s good-looking too,” she continued. “I hear he’s the most popular guy in school. And one of the hottest.” My hand paused, and I met her eyes with a curious grin. “Where did you hear that?” “Some girls were talking about him in class.” “They were?” I couldn’t explain why, but jealousy flared inside me. I guess I didn’t like the idea of other girls pining over him. How stupid of me, though… of course girls pined over him. It was Levi. Still, I hated it. Anna picked up on my defensiveness. “They were just saying how cute you were together, is all. And you are. You two look like you should be in a magazine or something.” I snorted inwardly. Me? In a magazine? Maybe Levi, but not me. My chin was too pointy and my forehead could have been used as a projection screen. And my pancake butt… don’t even get me started. It could have been served up at the nearest pancake house slathered in butter and syrup. I returned to painting her cheek. “I’ve always wondered, though,” she continued. “How do you know if something’s love or if it’s lust?” I painted the finishing touches, plunked my brush in a glass of water. “When you find out, let me know.” “No, for real. How do you know if you like someone because of the way they look or if it’s more?” Sighing, I worked the kinks out of my neck. I really wasn’t in the mood for a deep conversation on love, but perhaps now would be a good time to explore this, considering I was planning on kissing Levi tonight. But realistically, I imagined lust and love could be too dangerously close to tell the difference. I did know the two could exist together; after all, love begins with attraction, but I assumed lust could exist all on its own without love tagging along. You could be attracted to someone you didn’t end up loving if you were too different. In short, I wasn’t even sure I had a good answer. I hadn’t had much experience with boys. I’d had a few boyfriends, but nothing serious, and the relationships always ended before they really began; I was always too afraid I’d slip up and use my gift. Plus, it was hard to connect with someone in that way when you had to hide part of yourself around them. But I didn’t have to do that with Levi – he knew the real me and could very well be my first true boyfriend. The only thing I had to draw on was what my mom had told me. “I think you just know…” I told her, although I immediately realized how unhelpful it was. “Do you know with Levi?” she asked. I hesitated. Did I lust for him? Who wouldn’t? But would it eventually turn into love? That was the million dollar question. “Sometimes I think you have to take the plunge to find out,” I replied, wondering if that was even sound advice, but it was the belief I was clinging to now. “So you love him, then?” She prodded. I smiled at her fervency. “It’s too soon to know,” I replied. “I’ve only been here two weeks, remember?” “Oh, duh. Sorry.” “But I’ll report back soon.” A knock on the door interrupted us, and on my way there to answer it a vision of Anna and Ronnie getting together came into my thoughts unbidden, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Anna seemed so sweet and innocent, and Ronnie, well… he was Ronnie. With our painted faces and bubbling excitement, we made our way to the bleachers beside the soccer fields. Ivy and Sarah had made their way to the concession stand to grab us some hotdogs while Anna and I saved their seats on the front row. Streaks of tangerine and fiery pink colored the sky above us. The dark of night wasn’t far behind. “Do we always play ourselves?” Anna asked as she searched for the boys. They hadn’t come out of the locker room yet. “Sometimes we’ll play one of the other two gifted schools.” Sarah chimed in as she settled on the bleacher and handed us our dinner. “We have our next game with Rygaard on Wednesday.” “And it’s kind of a big deal,” I added. “Or so I hear. This will be my first one too.” “Oh, it’s a huge deal,” Sarah echoed. “And this one will be an away game. They’re about three hours from here, so it’s a whole day event.” Anna cocked her head. “So we won’t have school?” “Nope… they treat it like a holiday.” As Sarah gushed on and on with Anna about the festivities, which I’d already heard about a hundred times in the past two weeks, I reclined against the bleacher behind me as I ate and let my mind wander. My eyes shifted to the massive, towering pines surrounding the school, swallowing us inside this little slice of earth. The woods had enchanted me since the day I arrived. Like the school, they seemingly held a touch of magic. Just based on the trees’ sheer size, you could tell they had been around for years and years, and it made me wonder what all they had seen. How many games they’d witnessed. Graduations. First kisses. Heartbreaks. Their mysterious beauty was why I’d started painting them; I wanted to capture them in my work so I could take with me when I graduated in ten short months. Someone appeared from behind one of the trunks, and I cocked my head. Wait…Was it a student? Students weren’t allowed to be in the woods. Not even near the wood line without permission. I squinted to make out a face, but they were too far away. All I could see was porcelain skin and a dark shirt. Something about this person made my insides quiver, and I wasn’t sure if it was out of fear or excitement. I swallowed hard and swatted at the girls to get their attention. This definitely wasn’t a student. “What?” Sarah asked, reading the confusion and disquiet on my face. I pointed to the woods. “You see that?” She craned her neck to peer around me. “See what?” “That person in the woods?” Shielding her eyes from the setting sun, she stood and scanned the trees. “I don’t see anyone, Kat.” “Me neither,” Anna echoed. I squinted harder to find the mysterious person, but they were gone. My stomach dropped. Was I going crazy? “You been smoking something?” Sarah teased. I let out a long breath to shake off my nerves. “Maybe it was an animal or something,” I replied, but I knew it wasn’t an animal. It was a person – whether it was all in my head or not. “Here they come!” a girl behind us squealed, and our attention snapped to the soccer players as they barreled onto the field, pumped up and ready to go. I slid one last glance to the woods before refocusing on the game. Still no silhouette or any other evidence that I wasn’t going certifiably nuts, but the eerie feeling the person had left me with was just as tangible. The game went on forever under the gleaming lights encasing the field, not that we minded seeing the boys run around half-naked and shining with sweat. I had almost forgotten about the strange visitor in the woods. Every now and then I’d get a feeling we were being watched, but then someone would make a good play and I refocused. Now the game was nail-bitingly close with ten seconds left: Burgundy – 6, Gold – 7. Levi made his way down the field with the ball, dribbling it between his skilled feet like the soccer god he was, and I found myself holding my breath. Come on! If he could make this goal before time ran out, they’d tie. Overwhelmed by the moment, I catapulted to my feet with clasped hands. I shouted his name over the crowd’s cheers. Another squealing voice caught my attention, and I peered down the aisle of bleachers at another girl doing the same thing – clasped hands, starry eyes – as she watched Levi. Her name escaped me, but I remembered her gift – also an illusionist. She and Levi were in the same classes. Jealousy flared inside me again. I peeled my eyes away from her, focused back on Levi right as he went in for the kill. Ronnie waited at the goal in a protective stance with crazy eyes and a wide smile, his face streaked in gold war paint. Oh… this ought to be good. With one second left, Levi fired the ball at the goal, but Ronnie moved in with an enthusiastic dive and blocked it. Disappointment washed over me, and I fell into my seat with a plop. I couldn’t help but look back over at squealer-girl, and she too looked like someone had killed her week-old puppy. She pressed her hands over her heart and watched Levi like she wanted to run out there and console him. I fought a glare, but I also fought a heap-load of guilt. This girl would gladly have him, and yet, here I was… not entirely sure I wanted him yet; I had to rely on a future kiss and more time to figure it out for sure. I zeroed in on her high cheekbones, and her name came back to me. Hannah. Her name was Hannah. Laughter in the crowd interrupted my pity party and I stood again to see what the commotion was about. Ronnie had ripped off his shirt like the Incredible Hulk and was doing backflips to celebrate the win. And Levi, ever the good sport, watched and laughed with everyone else, even the teachers. I couldn’t help but laugh as well, and Sarah’s hand slipped into mine. “Let’s go!” she said and pulled me onto the field with Anna and Ivy trailing closely behind. Before we made it there, the crowd erupted again, and we paused, our eyes drawing to the sky. An eagle had swooped in for the ball and was flying it over the field in a show of victory. Sarah searched for Dawson’s spiky brown hair amongst the sea of sweaty boys. He was nowhere to be found. She crossed her arms with a dramatic roll of her eyes. If I could read her mind, she’d probably be thinking, dammit… here we go again. Every time he shape-shifted it would wipe him out for the rest of the night. No more celebrating for her. “What’s going on?” Anna yelled over the noise. “That’s Dawson!” I yelled back. She gaped, “He’s a shape-shifter?” “Yep!” Warm, strong arms wrapped around me from behind. I beamed. Levi. And I secretly wished Hannah was watching, though I loathed myself for thinking that way. “Good game,” I said, nestling into him. He sweetly kissed my cheek. “Let’s go,” he purred. “I want to walk you back to your room without getting caught.” CHAPTER THREE ___________________ Getting Out The walk back to my room was relatively quiet – mainly because Levi and I didn’t want to get caught, but we both knew what was about to happen. The anticipation of our first kiss sent bright hot tingles over my skin. We stopped beside my door, and I pressed my back against the wall, shyly looking at my feet. He brushed the hair from my face and tucked it behind my ear. Gently, he tipped my chin up to drink in my face with his glowing eyes – so brilliant and piercing against his tanned skin. “God…” he whispered, a light, hungry growl. “You’re so beautiful.” I flushed and dropped my eyes. “Why is it you always seem so uncomfortable when I say that?” he asked, leaning closer, his warmth and chiseled form teasing me. “You are, babe.” His lips now hovered inches away from mine. My heart went wild with palpitations. This was it. As I contemplated being the first one to move in, an unwelcome face entered my mind – Hannah. She would have already been attached to him like a leech, unable to control herself. I swatted the thought away and tried to refocus on Levi. This was my chance with him; he wanted me. But do you really want him? My subconscious retorted, the doubt in my belly swelling like a rising tide. Frustrated and annoyed, I pursed my lips. I then felt crowded, like I couldn’t breathe, and not in a good way. Like I was smothering. Levi and the anticipation mixed with the blossoming doubt had made for a toxic blend. My knees felt weak and my head spun like a carousel. I pressed my hand to my forehead. What’s wrong with me? “Babe? You all right?” he asked, bracing his hands on my shoulders. Ms. Newton’s voice traveled down the hallway. “Levi,” she barked. “You know you’re not supposed to be up here.” I flinched at her abruptness; I’d never heard a teacher talk that way here. She must have really meant business. But Levi hadn’t seemed to notice or care. His only concern was me. “Hey…” he coaxed, cupping my cheek and brushing it with his thumb, “You okay?” I wanted to reply with “I’m not sure,” but that would make him worry until he saw me again tomorrow. Instead, I nodded, forcing a thin smile. “See you tomorrow?” I mustered an edge of confidence to my voice. “See you tomorrow.” Almost believable. “Levi!” she barked again. “You better go,” I said, still smiling and trying my damnedest to convince him I was all right. “See you in the morning.” “All right.” He didn’t seem completely persuaded, but kissed my forehead and hurried for the stairwell anyway. He didn’t really have a choice. Ms. Newton watched after him and made sure he was down the stairs before her eyes snapped back to me. “Goodnight, Ms. Walsh,” she said expectantly, waiting for me to enter my room. “Good night,” I murmured, and went inside. As soon as I was in the safe confines of my room, I wilted onto the bed, disappointed and a little shaky. That wasn’t how I’d seen this going; I’d really wanted our first kiss to be tonight. Why did Hannah have to show up in my thoughts and ruin it all? I desperately yearned for my friendship with Liz. She was the best at helping me sort things out. But of course, I didn’t want to call her, and the feelings were mutual. The next best thing was my mom. Mom… my thoughts echoed, and I ached even more to hear her voice. After two weeks here, this officially marked the time when I began feeling homesick. Because we didn’t have cell reception out here in the middle of nowhere, I picked up the landline phone on my desk and dialed Ireland. It was eleven o’clock our time, so in Dublin, it would be about six in the morning. Maybe my parents would be up early. The phone rang a few times, my hope slowly dwindling with each ring. “Hello?” my mom said with a yawn. Relief and joy surged through me. “Mom!” I cried. I so wished I could wrap my arms around her. “Kat!” she replied, matching my enthusiasm. The phone rustled around. “Isaac…,” she said, moving the phone away from her ear, probably shaking my dad awake. “It’s Kat.” My dad groaned in the background. “Kat?” he replied. “Yes.” She brought the phone back up to her mouth. “How are you, sweetie? We’ve missed you so much.” “I’m good,” I replied, wiping away a tear, “Sorry I woke you guys.” “Oh, no… no, no, no. Don’t you worry about that. You call us anytime you want.” I realized it had been a few days since I’d called and felt guilty. She had probably been carrying the phone around with her everywhere she went. “Okay, mom.” “So things are going well? How are your new friends?” “Good… everyone’s good. I got a new roommate today.” “Oh, good! What’s she like… is she nice?” “She’s super sweet. Her name’s Anna.” “Wonderful, dear.” She paused for a beat, lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “Have any boys caught your eye?” My dad’s voice groaned again in the background. “She doesn’t need to bother with boys right now.” “Oh, Isaac... really.” I heard the covers rustle, her feet pattering against the hardwood floor. I knew exactly what she was doing – going into a separate room and away from dad. I smiled. My dad - ever the protector of the family. “Well?” she probed when she got wherever she was going. A coffee pot clinked in the background. I hesitated for a flicker of a moment. Was I really ready to talk about him yet? “Well… there is this one,” I finally said. The clinking stopped. “And?” “Not much to say yet, I guess… he’s really thoughtful and cute.” “Those are good things.” “Yeah. And mom? Did you ever feel like you weren’t good enough for a guy?” “Good enough?” she repeated skeptically. I’d said that wrong. “Like he might be better for someone else?” I clarified. “Well, I…” her voice trailed. Had I struck a nerve? “Honestly, Kat. Any guy would be lucky to have you. You’re so sweet and young and have so much ahead of you. Just enjoy your time there and don’t worry about things so much.” I nodded, convincing myself to heed her advice. Maybe I was worrying myself into feeling like Levi and I didn’t belong. “Don’t be like me and overanalyze things,” she continued. “Just have fun… at this age, you’re just supposed to be having fun.” I sighed to steel the rest of my frazzled nerves. “Okay, mom.” “So what are your plans for tomorrow?” she asked, moving the conversation along. “I haven’t really thought about it yet.” “Isn’t the dance next week?” My stomach fluttered excitedly. The dance. I’d totally forgotten. Midland Pines had a dance at the beginning of the school year. “Yes, it’s next Friday.” “Well go get a dress this weekend, sweetie. We didn’t pack you one.” “Nothing too short!” my dad added in the background, and I rolled my eyes with a smile. Mom was probably swatting him away now. He must have followed her. I ran through my wardrobe in my mind. I had a few sundresses, nothing formal. But what would I buy it with? I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t want to use the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. “Use the card we gave you,” she said, echoing my thoughts, “There are dress stores in town, right?” “Oh, I’m sure there are.” “Are you…” She paused. “Am I, what, mom?” I asked, and then it hit me – she wanted to ask if the boy I was referring to earlier was taking me, but she didn’t want to ask in front of my dad. Honestly, though, it hadn’t crossed my mind because none of us had talked about it. The dance had been overshadowed by the away game. But for all intents and purposes, we were kind of seeing each other; us going together wasn’t a wild assumption. “Yes, mom, I’ll be going with Levi.” “Well good,” she replied. I yawned deeply. “Okay, mom… well, I think I’m going to hit the sack.” “Okay, dear.” “Love you… and tell dad and Sam I love them too. Is he up yet?” “No… you know he sleeps until noon on the weekends, but I will and I love you too, dear. Talk to you soon?” “I’ll call this weekend.” “Okay. Talk to you then.” After the phone clicked, I held it to my ear a little longer, wishing I hadn’t ended the conversation so quickly. But my eyes had started to droop, and I wasn’t much for conversation once I was sleepy. As soon as I placed the phone on the receiver, Anna burst through the door, her expression ten shades of blissful. “Hey, girl,” I said, eyeing her with a smile. “Hi…” she breathed and sank onto the bed, her eyes distant as her mind lingered in some heavenly faraway land. “Had a good time tonight?” I probed. “Ronnie put his arm around me and walked me to the stairs,” she purred. Yeah, she didn’t have it bad for him… she had it something awful. Looked like crazy-Ronnie and sweet-Anna were going to happen. My smile widened. At least one of us ended the night on a high note because Lord knows, it wasn’t Sarah or me. I awoke with a gasp, my wide, puffy eyes searching our room. Soft beams of splintered light poured over our floor from between the blinds. Morning. I glanced at the clock on our desk. Eight thirty-six. Dang. I’d hoped to sleep until ten. I laid back down with a plop, thinking over the crazy dream that had awakened me too early. There hadn’t been a coherent theme at first; mainly just a blending of the past two weeks – familiar faces, hallway walks with Levi, the game last night. But then I dreamt of the woods. At first, I strolled through them, taking in their quiet serenity as the pine-scented breeze and moving shadows coaxed me further in. I saw a flash of a silhouette – a familiar silhouette, the same one that had arrested my attention at the game. The silent visitor dashed from tree to tree, and I was only able to get flickers of his features each time – his chestnut hair, flawless skin, a twinkle in his crystal blue eyes. It was almost as if he wanted me to see him but didn’t… or couldn’t. I wasn’t sure which. I then decided to chase him for more; I wanted to see more of him. All of him. When I sprang in his direction, he took off like a gazelle, lithe and nimble through the woods as if he’d lived there his entire life. But no matter how fast I ran, his black shirt and beauty were always an arm’s length away. I stumbled over a log, and down I went into a hole. Down, down, down until I had awakened with a gasp. Weird. Raising my hands above my head, I stretched my body from the tips of my fingers to the bottom of my feet to ease my rigid muscles. Yep. I definitely could have used a few more hours. Part of the reason I was so tired? Anna talked in her sleep. A lot. And I couldn’t help but listen for a while to her incoherent babblings and laugh before I finally dozed off. Apparently, she liked to smear peanut butter on things and had a fascination with Ronnie’s nipples. I wondered if the two were connected. Gross. Maybe those two weirdos did belong together. Laughing at the thought, I rolled out of bed. Shopping sounded wonderful today. As I stood, I knocked a small white object from my pillow. I stared at its curved petals as it lay on the cold wooden floor. A flower. Had Levi left this? Tentatively, I collected it from the ground to study it and rubbed a velvety petal between my fingers. I’d seen this flower before on the bushes at the edge of the woods and sprinkled into the shrubbery in the courtyard – almost like a lily with its belled shape, but smaller, and a tinge of yellow in the center. Levi must have risked getting in trouble again last night to pick this and bring it to me. The gesture induced a brilliant smile. He definitely deserved a first kiss for this, and today would be the day. A knock at the door made me jump. Hoping it was Levi, I rushed to answer it. Before I swung the door wide, I pulled my just-woke-up hair into a ponytail and checked my breath by breathing into a cupped hand. Not heinous. “Morning!” Sarah chimed, her silvery eyes gleaming. Dang. No Levi. She and Ivy were dressed in cute skirts and tank tops with their purses looped over their shoulders, and Ivy had taken the time to curl her shoulder-length midnight hair into perfect glossy spirals. “Want to get out of here and go shopping for dresses?” I halfway wondered if she’d read my mind this time without permission. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Sure.” “Don’t look so excited,” Ivy said, deadpan. “Sorry. I thought you guys were Levi.” “Well get your crap together and meet us in the parking lot in twenty,” Sarah said. “We have some shopping to do!” “Thirty,” I bargained. “I need a shower.” “Twenty-five,” she countered. “Fine, fine,” I said, whirling back inside, “Keep your hair on, girls.” Before I shut the door, Sarah added, “And bring Anna!” I scurried to my closet to find something suitable. Surely I had brought a skirt. I couldn’t remember. “Where we going?” Anna asked with a yawn. “Into town.” “We can leave?” “If you have a car, you can. They let us leave on the weekends as long as we’re back by dinner.” “Awesome!” she replied, bouncing from the bed and rummaging through the suitcase she hadn’t had time to empty yet. I cheered internally as I pulled out a jean skirt that was hanging in the very back. “We’re all wearing skirts today,” I informed her and grabbed a matching top. As I headed to the bathroom to shower, I reminded myself to find Levi before we left and thank him for the flower. “You sure this looks okay?” Anna asked with a sheepish grin, tugging on the only other skirt I owned and had let her borrow. I could tell she wasn’t used to wearing anything short. “Looks great,” I said, appraising her as we hurried out to the parking lot. The girls were already waiting on us in Sarah’s silver Jetta. “You have great legs.” A suggestive whistle from the courtyard stopped us in our tracks. Ronnie. He and Levi lumbered toward us with footballs tucked under their arms, their wide eyes doing their own appraisal of our outfits – and I think they liked what they saw. “Where you guys going?” Levi asked as he pulled me into a hug. He sweetly kissed my hair. I briefly contemplated tilting my head so his lips would plant to mine, but I wanted our first kiss to be in private. “And nice outfit.” “Thanks. We’re having a girls’ day,” I replied. “Oh,” he said with a tinge of disappointment. “We’re looking for dresses,” I added. He perked. “Oh… For the dance?” “Yep.” “I guess I should have asked you, huh?” he said, kissing my head again, “In case you weren’t clear that I wouldn’t want to go with anyone else.” I chuckled. “I already made that assumption.” “Dude…” Ronnie interrupted. “You didn’t ask her?” “I didn’t have to,” he argued. “Do I have to show you how everything’s done?” He grabbed Anna’s hand and kneeled, laying his football on the ground beside him. Her eyes widened, her face flushing with embarrassment and joy. “Anna-Grace?” he said theatrically, almost too melodramatic to sound genuine. Everyone in the courtyard paused to observe, and my own face flushed pink. “Y-yes?” she managed. “Will you do me the sublime honor of accompanying me to the dance?” “Of course,” she said and I could tell she tried with every fiber of her being not to squeal and jump up and down. Ronnie kissed her hand, slid a glance at Levi. “Now that’s how it’s done.” Levi rolled his eyes. Everyone in the courtyard clapped, and as Ronnie stood to give Anna a hug, I turned to Levi to make sure Ronnie hadn’t completely humiliated him. He looked like someone had taken away his favorite toy. “Hey,” I said, nudging him, “You didn’t have to ask me.” He shrugged and averted his eyes. “But maybe I should have.” Yep, he was embarrassed. I took his face in my hands, making sure his eyes met mine and clung. “Hey,” I insisted. “I didn’t need you to ask me. I know how you feel.” I hated the look on his cute face – sad and frustrated with himself. I fought the urge to kiss him right then and there. “Good. But I’ll ask you formally if you want me to.” I smiled, holding his gaze until he smiled back. “You’re plenty romantic as it is,” I said, thinking of the flower. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Thank you for the flower last night.” Surprised, his head jerked from my grip. “Flower?” he replied, his smile wavering. “Yeah…” I searched his eyes, confused. Did he have amnesia? “The one you put on my pillow last night?” He blanched. “I…” Humiliation seeped back into his face. “I didn’t leave you a flower, Kat.” My heart stopped for a beat, and my hands dropped to my sides. He didn’t? Well, who did? “Did they leave a note?” I numbly shook my head. Who the hell would sneak into my room in the middle of the night? Hoping to conjure a face or an explanation, I scoured my memories of classes and everyone I’d talked to the past week. Nothing stuck out. I focused back on his face. His features had hardened with jealousy. So much for making him feel better. I pressed my hand over his heart. “I don’t care about the flower,” I said confidently, though my elusive visitor both intrigued and horrified me. Had they watched me sleep? And quite frankly, I did care, but I wouldn’t let him know that it made me feel anything at all. “If it wasn’t from you, I don’t want it.” He ran his hand through his hair, his eyes portraying his internal struggle to grasp it all. This bothered him more than being shown up by Ronnie, and he wouldn’t be able to shake it as easily, either. Maybe I should kiss him now; that would be the only thing that could turn this disaster of a morning around. Why couldn’t anything go smoothly? Honk! Honk! We all turned to see Sarah and Ivy waving us to come on. Jeez! I held up my finger to say “hold on.” We were well past our agreed upon leave-time, but the dresses would still be there if we didn’t leave for five more friggin’ minutes. I wanted to make sure Levi was okay. “Have fun,” he said, giving me a quick hug and heading for the courtyard. I pulled on his arm. “Levi,” I said, desperate to make him feel better. He turned to me with an unreadable expression. It killed me. “I’ll be back by dinner,” I said and decided to inject some levity. “And I want to see a smile on that gorgeous face of yours when I get back.” His lips quirked into a half smile. Better. “Okay, babe,” he said, planting one last kiss on my head, and he and Ronnie made their way back to the courtyard. An afternoon with his crazy friends and he’d feel better when I got back. Hopefully. “You guys all right?” Anna asked, noting our awkward exchange. “We’re fine,” I said and debated whether or not to tell her about the flower. Maybe later. All I wanted to do now was some mindless dress shopping with my friends. Honk! Honk! And to jab a knife into Sarah’s steering wheel. The outing was much-needed; I hadn’t had a girls’ day in months… which had really felt like years. I finally felt like my life had settled back into normal. My new normal, anyway. Minus creepy visitors leaving me flowers while I slept. And weird dreams about the boy in the woods. While riding down the absurdly long driveway back to school, I slipped on the wedge sandals I’d kicked off once we got in the car to come home, but my feet still ached. I should have worn sneakers today. We had shopped at three different dress stores in town, ate at a trendy sandwich shop, and made sure to browse every store on the square just for fun before stopping by a shoe store on the way back to find heels that went with our dresses. We were now skidding into the parking lot with a few minutes to spare. “I’m so glad you went with the black one, Kat,” Sarah said. “Yeah,” Ivy echoed. “You sure it doesn’t look like I’m going to a funeral?” Anna shoved me playfully. “Stop it. It looks gorgeous on you!” “And Levi will love the neckline,” Ivy added. “Too late now, anyway,” Sarah said. “You’ve already bought it.” True. It was a done deal. I had teetered between the black one and the royal blue, but I liked the way this one plunged in the front – enhancing what little breasts I had – and the way it flared at the bottom like a princess gown, showing off my slender waist. The fabric also shimmered with a hint of silver iridescence. I had matched it with a scalloped diamond necklace – well, a cubic zirconium necklace – and a pair of strappy black heels. When I came out of the dressing room, everyone gasped, even the sales lady, who I could never tell if she was saying dresses looked good on us because they really did, or if she was trying to make a sell. Either way, the girls seemed to love it, and Sarah would definitely tell me the truth. I think her exact words were, “you look like freakin’ royalty!” Because we were the last ones to arrive back by curfew, we parked in the farthest parking spot in the back. Just my luck. I’d have to hobble in with my sore feet like an old, worn out pack mule. I certainly felt like one, complete with shopping bags. I secretly wished for Levi to come pick me up at the car and carry me in. He probably would have if I was able to use my cell phone to text him. Not having cell service here sucked. We all clambered out of the car with our fists full of shopping bags and hurried for our rooms. Except me. I hobbled. Anna glanced back. “Don’t wait on me!” I yelled after them, making a mental note to wear these shoes in the future when I would only be in them for an hour or two. When they disappeared through the large double doors, I slowed even more, and my eyes involuntarily cut over to the woods. No silhouette this time, but I felt this strange pull – like in my dream – to go exploring. My gaze stopped on a bush with the white flowers from my room this morning, and I halted. The visitor from my dream appeared in my thoughts, soft, crystalline blue eyes and all. Now I really wanted to go exploring. I looked back at the school. Everyone would wonder where I was if I didn’t show up for dinner, but I could always sneak out and go tonight. The idea sent an odd, pleasing thrill through my soul. Shouldn’t I be scared to go into the woods at night? The bell rang for dinner, and I jumped. Crap. I needed to get going. I dumped my bags on my bed, hung up my new dress, and changed into my uniform in record time. I scampered down the hall toward the lunchroom – much easier to do in comfortable flats. As I rounded the corner, a hand reached out, gently grabbing my forearm. I squealed. “Shhh,” Levi said, pressing me against the wall. My mind had to take a moment to adjust, but once it did, I read the excitement and mischief on his face. A better look on him than before. He had taken the time to fix his hair, and he smelled of crisp, clean soap and fabric softener. His bronze skin had been kissed by the sun from playing football outside. A day with his buddies had served him well. “I missed you today,” he said suggestively, his lips at the cusp of my ear. My entire body hummed. “I missed you too.” Before another thought could form, his lips eagerly fused to mine. So soft and warm. He pulled me closer so my body molded to his, and my hands tangled in his golden hair. Our first kiss! His tongue slid between my lips, and a shiver ran through me. Our heads wove together as the kiss deepened, warming me from the inside out. I could have stood here and done this with him forever. Screw dinner… An unwelcome noise interrupted us – someone making kissy noises. Startled, we pulled away from each other and saw Ronnie’s head peeking from behind the lunchroom door. Levi gave him a triumphant smile, went back in to plant another brief kiss on my lips and took my hand. “And that, Ron, is how it’s done.” CHAPTER FOUR ___________________ Footsteps and Flowers It took the better part of dinner to form a coherent thought, and I knew now that I was in trouble… I’d want to make out with Levi every chance I got – a hard thing to accomplish in a school where they were always watching. I could practically feel my teenage hormones surging through my veins like a raging river. And it was a good call on Levi’s part to surprise me with an impromptu lip-locking fest; I didn’t have time for thoughts of doubt or other girls who might have wanted him more. Hannah who? He was officially mine. My mom’s voice echoed through my mind. “Just have fun… at this age, you’re just supposed to be having fun.” And I planned on it. All my others concerns seemed like a foggy, distant memory. As I glanced at Sarah and Dawson, Dawson looking worse for the wear with his disheveled hair and circles rimming his eyes, I brought a forkful of spaghetti to my mouth. Word had it they were already having sex; surely she would know of some private places around here that Levi and I could go to. Then I realized that it would skeeve me out to go to a place where they had possibly… er, you know… so maybe Levi and I could find some dark corners of our own. Not to do that, though; I hadn’t gone that far with a boy yet. I was probably one of the only seventeen-year-old girls left who hadn’t, and I was okay with that. I wanted it to be special and not have to experience it the way some of my friends had described. Liz had lost her virginity in her boyfriend’s musty basement so his parents wouldn’t hear. They had used his gaming chair, and their legs had gotten tangled up in his control cords. Not sexy. Or special. I would be a little more selective of my place and time – if my hormones didn’t get the best of me. But I did know that I didn’t want to lose mine in a shadowy corner or a stairwell of this school. “What’s with Dawson?” Anna whispered. “Shape-shifting takes a lot out of him,” I replied. “Last time it took him three days to recover. He’s probably been sleeping all day.” “Oh.” “Sarah says he has to build up his stamina – he’s pretty new at it.” “He’ll get there,” Levi added. “So what’s going on tonight?” Ronnie asked as he pushed the tray away he’d been hunched over for the past fifteen minutes. Levi stood to get seconds. “I think they’re playing a movie in the rec-room… it’s supposed to rain tonight.” I scowled inwardly. So much for visiting the woods later. Or the courtyard, for that matter. Now that would be a good place to make out. We hadn’t been caught so far. But if it rained all night, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. “I think they’re playing Titanic again for the seniors.” A mixture of squeals and groans filled the air at our table – squeals from the girls who loved a good romance, and groans from the guys for obvious reasons. I guess even the opportunity to see Kate Winslet’s boobs wasn’t enough incentive to sit through the entire thing. “I say we have a ping pong match!” Ronnie suggested. “Couples against couples.” Anna beamed like a five-year-old girl at the suggestion that they were a couple. I nodded my agreement. “Sounds good to me.” Rain washed over our school in heavy sheets, and an occasional crack of thunder shook the windows. After a while we didn’t notice as all of our attention was focused solely on the game. Going against Sarah and Dawson was an easy win – he wasn’t on his game tonight – so now it was me and Levi against Anna and Ronnie. Lucky for us, I had played tons of matches with my older brother Micah and his wife who had a ping pong table in their basement. At a quarter ‘til ten, fifteen minutes before curfew, Levi and I won the last game, making us the champs of the night. Sweaty and panting, we celebrated by jumping into each other’s arms and kissing. We must have gotten carried away because a teacher cleared her throat pointedly. Levi begrudgingly sat me down. “Get a room you two, will ya?” Ronnie teased. “Good game,” Anna said, giving me a side hug while Ronnie and Levi bantered about the game. “Good game.” Another teacher flicked the light switch by the door. “Ten minutes until lights out,” she warned. I looked around for Sarah and Dawson. They must have already snuck away. Dark corners and seedy thoughts assaulted my mind. Levi grabbed my hand, running his thumb over my knuckles. “Ready? I’ll walk you to the stairs.” “Ready,” I beamed, looking at his kissable lips. We should have snuck off too so we could have had a few more minutes for a proper farewell… or improper, according to the teachers. Luckily, I had just enough time for another quick kiss with Levi before stealing away to my room. Oh, if we ever got more than a few minutes in private, it would be epic. After dressing in my pajamas – a pair of plaid shorts and a grey tank top – I settled onto the stool in front of my painting. I had no desire to sleep. Anna, however, was already snoring in the uniform that she hadn’t bothered taking off. Poor thing would need to get used to being in constant motion here. Between Sarah and Ivy, Ronnie and the boys, we never stopped. Looking over my painting, I pulled my tresses into a low ponytail and cracked my knuckles. Where to start? I glanced out the window. A post-rain veil of fog had settled on the ground and blocked what little of the woods I could see at night from the floodlights. I could always use my imagination. No, I’d rather capture the woods in their true form. A new idea swept through me, making my heart flutter. Deep inside the recesses of my soul, I felt that familiar, nagging pull. Biting my bottom lip, I studied the wood line again and glanced at Anna. Should I? I couldn’t ignore it forever, and tonight was as good a night as any. Better, even. With the fog, I had an even greater chance of no one seeing me. A smile tugged on my lips. Tonight it is. Quietly, I slid on a black hoody and jeans over my flimsy shorts and tank top. My heart raced faster. Why, I didn’t know. I should have been thoroughly terrified to venture into dark woods by myself. Maybe that was why my heart raced… I was scared shitless but didn’t want to admit it. But I also couldn’t deny there was something else that excited me about it – like I wasn’t just going into the woods; I was venturing into some weird, foreign destiny. Or maybe Sarah had been right – I had been smoking something. I grabbed a flashlight, burrowed my feet into my sneakers, and was out the door. I made my way through the door that Levi had discovered the alarm sensor didn’t work on anymore – our only means of leaving during the night – and skirted around the illuminated circle of grass from a nearby floodlight. Between the darkness, the fog and my dark clothes, surely I wouldn’t get caught. I would have to wait until I was safely hidden inside the trees, though, before turning on my flashlight. Once past the tree line, I slowed to keep from catching my feet on a log or exposed root. My thumb itched against the flashlight’s power button. Not yet. What little light from the building that had made it past the mammoth trunks served as only my guide. When I couldn’t see anymore, I’d use it. A slow and steady ten minutes passed – at least I assumed it was ten minutes; it could have been longer – and the last fragile beam of light from the floodlights was gone. I paused, my skin prickling, acutely aware that I now was in the deep, dark belly of the forest. Alone. And the air hung still. Eerily still. No breeze or breath except my own. I punched the button, and a beam of yellow light sliced through the darkness. I swept it back and forth in front of me. Only an open space and bushes with white flowers were there. Although I wasn’t exactly expecting anything to greet me, I was somewhat disappointed. And there it was again – the pull. Except now, it didn’t plead with me to travel anywhere. It encircled me, wrapping me in an odd blend of warmth and awareness. Like I should be seeing something that wasn’t there. I sensed a pair of eyes on me, and I froze. I wondered if I should be afraid, but it wasn’t fear that I was feeling. I felt comfort and a bizarre sense of belonging. I mustered the courage to speak to the owner of the eyes that were boring through me. I swallowed hard. “Hello?” I asked in a hushed voice. No one answered. I pulled my hood over my head. The rain had brought with it a blanket of cooler air, and my ears stung. “Hello?” I asked again. Nothing answered, only an owl hooting in the distance. I sighed. See? You’re smoking something. Maybe I should head back. A crunch of leaves startled me. A footstep. I yelped and dropped my flashlight. The beam flickered off. Crap! Frantic, I knelt to the ground, my fingers searching for the cold metal of the flashlight. Please… I prayed, and suddenly, coming out here by myself didn’t seem like such a bright idea. After what felt like an eternity, I found the flashlight and gave it a good whack. The light flickered back on. I stood, my pulse pounding in my ears, my breath heavy and ragged. Still, there was nothing. Another crunching footstep made me flinch. Should I run? I wanted to; my body had already turned for the school, but something inside me wouldn’t let me leave. My feet were firmly planted. Shakily, I raked the beam of light over the pine-straw-covered ground. Another footstep crackled, leaving a ghostly indention in the earth. My pulse thudded harder. The infamous disappearing silhouette entered my mind. Was this him? If I could see him, would he look like the boy in my dreams? Despite every warning sign imaginable flashing through my mind to run, I turned around. The footsteps continued in my direction, and I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen next, and hoping to God my instincts to stay hadn’t failed me. If this person were bad, they would have already harmed me… right? The footsteps stopped in front of me, a tense step away, and a rush of heat and energy washed over me. Good energy. A soul-stirring energy. It stole my breath away, my muscles relaxing. A bush beside me rustled, and I lowered the flashlight, coloring the leaves and white petals in yellow. A branch with a lonely bud lifted into the air. I gasped. Was he doing this? The bud trembled, and slowly, magically, its petals opened and spread wide, shifting and blooming into an open flower all within a matter of seconds. To witness it brought a curious smile to my face. I held my breath and reached out with my finger to touch it. The flower detached from the bush and floated in thin air. I jumped away from it. Seeing it suspended in nothingness shouldn’t have scared me, I had the gift of telekinesis for God’s sake, but this was all too weird – the footsteps, the energy, the mysteriously blooming flower. I should go, I thought, but my body didn’t seem to care. I watched with wide eyes as the flower floated toward me and stopped an inch from my hand. Did he want me to have it? “For me?” I asked. Waiting, it hovered. I opened my palm, and the flower rested gently inside. As I stared at its curved petals, I thought of this morning – the flower on my pillow. A surge of excitement and shock surged through me. Was this invisible boy my admirer? The words tumbled out without my permission. “Show yourself,” I said. I wanted to see him. Just like I had wanted to see the boy in my dreams, I desperately wanted to see him. He didn’t respond. I found myself pleading. “Please. I want to see your face.” And with that, the footsteps walked away. “Please!” I cried again, my frantic voice echoing through the quiet woods. I tried to follow but the footsteps disappeared altogether. I swept my flashlight through the air, hoping to see something. Anything. Nothing. Inexplicably crushed, I looked back down to the flower in my hand and curled my fingers around it. My trip to the woods had given me way more than I’d bargained for, and yet, sadly, nothing at all. Once I arrived back at our room, shaking but exhilarated, I stripped down to my shorts and tank top and slid into bed. I laid there, gnawing my lip, twirling the flower between my fingers and thinking of the invisible boy who had given it to me. I moved to lie on my side. Would he bring me another tonight? I should still be thoroughly horrified at the thought of someone sneaking in while Anna and I had slept, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel the same repulsion. If it was, in fact, the boy from the woods, I knew he wouldn’t harm me. And in all truth, if he came again I hoped I would wake so I could feel his presence – his warm, soul-stirring presence. The kind of presence that kept me there with him when any normal person would have run screaming for the school. With a longing sigh, I closed my eyes. Despite my excitement, sleep came swift and sweet, scooping me into its arms and carrying me back into the darkness of the woods. I stood in the same spot as before – the open space with its flowery bushes. Another form materialized, and I jumped. Black shirt, fair skin – the silhouette from the woods. My invisible admirer. Except, this time, he didn’t run from tree to tree; he stood exposed, allowing me to soak him in. He towered over me, which didn’t happen often at five feet, nine inches; I wasn’t a short girl. His eyes twinkled icy blue, the angular lines of his face a divine masterpiece. His chestnut hair had been cropped close on the sides but left longer on top, reminding me of a trendy rock star haircut, but flattering and oh-so-complementary to his porcelain features. And his lips, his supple lips drew into a knowing, heart-stopping smile as he plucked another flower from the bush and placed it into my waiting palm. Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less about the flower this time; I wanted to feel him – his flawless skin. I reached for his face with my other hand, and he stepped back, his smile wavering. Persistent, I tried again, and he took a bigger step back. Why couldn’t I touch him? I could see him, feel his presence… but I wanted to experience more of him. I searched his eyes with a scowl, and his own expression melted into a frown. He didn’t like the distance, either. “What’s your name?” I asked. If I couldn’t touch him, perhaps I could hear him as a consolation. He only stared back at me, sad and apologetic. My eyes welled with tears. So not fair. I looked down to my flower, held it to my chest. When I looked back up at him, he’d disappeared, and a foreign ache pierced my heart in agony. I’d only seen him, really seen him for a matter of a short moment, and he’d left me. The sputtering of the showerhead in our bathroom woke me from my slumber. Anna. My eyes fluttered open, and I glanced at the clock. Ten o’clock. I shot off the pillow, my eyes hastily searching my bed for curved white petals. Disappointment washed over me. No flower. No new flower, anyway. The one he’d given me last night rested on my covers, wilted and browning. On Anna’s side of the room, her suitcase had finally been unpacked and she had hung boy band posters amidst my paintings. Ugh. Boy bands. My taste in music came from my dad – rock, folk rock, classic rock. Basically anything with “rock” in it. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad she was feeling more at home here, just as long as I didn’t have to listen to the over-produced smarmy drivel most girls went crazy for these days. I was glad I had brought my iPod. As Anna’s off-key singing echoed through the bathroom – one of the boy band songs, no doubt – I looked to my closet. They quit serving breakfast at ten thirty, which meant I needed to get up and going, but all I really wanted to do was stay and work on my painting. I could eat a snack I had stuffed away in our desk. I wasn’t in a social mood this morning, anyway. Even my newfound chemistry with Levi didn’t motivate me to leave. Levi, I thought, collecting the flower from my covers. Our conversation about the mysterious flower yesterday echoed through my mind; “If it’s not from you… I don’t want it,” I’d told him. Without knowing it, I’d lied. I did want it, and I’d wanted another one this morning. “You coming to breakfast?” Anna asked from the threshold of the bathroom. She scrunched her hair in a towel to soak up the residual water. “I think I’ll stay,” I replied. She cocked her head. “I’d like to work on my painting,” I explained. “You sure?” “Yeah. I’ll see you guys at lunch.” By then I’d feel up to socializing. “Okay…” she replied warily, making her way to her closet to get a fresh uniform, “You all right?” she probed as she rummaged. Jeez! “I’m fine. Just need some ‘me’ time.” The idea seemed lost on her. She would fit in with Sarah and Ivy better than I. They didn’t need any ‘me’ time either. They were always together or with a boy. I slid out of bed and shrugged on my hoodie before escaping to the bathroom for my morning business. “See you at lunch!” Anna chirped and closed the door behind her before I had a chance to respond. After washing my face, brushing my teeth, and pulling back my tangled hair, I rested on the stool in front of my painting. The stillness of the room wrapped me in tranquility. I sighed. Sweet, sweet, silence. Now… I thought, raking my eyes over the painting. Where to start? My heart fluttered thinking of last night – footsteps and flowers. The woods held a whole new meaning to me now. Visiting them would definitely compete with stealing away with Levi for make-out sessions, and I wasn’t sure which one would win out. I dabbed my paintbrush into the white paint, blended it with a hint of brown and pink to recreate the porcelain skin of my admirer. That was where I would start – his silhouette at the edge of the woods; the first and only time I’d ever seen him in real life. I could never look at the woods again and not think of him, so it only seemed appropriate that I add him to my painting. CHAPTER FIVE ___________________ Off I’d finished painting my admirer and part of the twinkling night sky before I decided to call it a morning. Lunch would be here soon, and I needed to get ready. After washing and dressing, I realized I needed to call my parents. I had told them I would call again this weekend. I also wanted to ask my dad about his prophetic dreams; mine seemed too real lately to be coincidental. The phone rang once, and my dad answered in his familiar Irish accent. “You knew I would call today?” I beamed. He laughed a heartfelt laugh. “Actually, I didn’t. I just have the phone here beside me while I’m paintin’.” I glanced at my painting with fondness. “I just finished painting too.” “That’s my girl. So how has your weekend been?” “Good… went and got a dress yesterday and played a ping pong match last night.” I also snuck into the woods and met an invisible stranger who I think has been stalking me. “Still a force to be reckoned with?” “Always.” We lapsed into silence. “What’s up, princess? I can hear it in your tone today. Somethin’s up.” “I’m okay,” I replied, but halfway wondered if he had seen something in his dreams; my tone was fine. I think. He paused, waiting for me to get it out. Or maybe it was our connection that had told on me; we’d always had one – finishing each other’s sentences, knowing when something was ‘off’ with the other. The day I used my gift to close my locker at my old school and the rumors had started swirling, he’d called me on my cell as I bawled in the bathroom. He hadn’t dreamt it; he’d known something wasn’t quite right. I guess you could call it our sixth sense. I caved. “There was one thing I wanted to ask,” I said, cutting my eyes back to the boy in my painting. “Shoot.” “How can you tell the difference between a normal dream and a prophetic one?” “Well…” He coughed as he contemplated his answer. I’d caught him off guard. “I guess sometimes I can’t tell until it comes to fruition. But there is more of an element of realness, if that makes sense. I’ll wake up and it will take a minute for reality to seep back in. It’s hard to tell which is which sometimes.” He paused for a beat. “Why?” Sounds familiar. “Just wondering.” I couldn’t tell if it was fear or excitement that laced his words. “You been havin’ weird dreams lately?” This part I wasn’t sure of. The last thing I wanted to tell him was that my dreams were of a gorgeous boy. Awkward. “You could say that.” “Does it have anyone in particular in it?” he probed. Yes. I now second-guessed my decision in asking him this at all. “I’ll take your silence as a yes,” he chuckled. “You know…” he mused. “I dreamt of your mother before we ever met.” My heart stopped, and I’m pretty sure the floor shifted beneath me. I plopped onto the edge of the bed. What…? “But don’t you be worryin’ about boys,” he added. I nodded numbly. “Kat?” I’d found my voice. “Okay, dad,” I lied. That was all I would think about now. Had I been dreaming of this boy for a reason? Had I inherited my dad’s gift of prophecy? Mom’s voice trilled in the background along with the rustling of plastic bags. Sundays were her grocery shopping days. “Is that Kat?” Mom! “Bye, princess,” he said, knowing resistance was futile in holding the phone away from my mom. She’d wrestle it from him if she had to. “Bye! Love you bunches.” “Love you bunches.” “She doing good?” she asked before he’d even handed her the phone. “Yes, my angel,” he replied, and I gagged internally as I heard them kissing their “hellos.” They probably hadn’t seen each other for a whole entire hour. My parents – hopelessly in love after all these years. “Hello, dear,” she said as she finally brought the phone to her ear. “Hi, mom.” “You find a dress yesterday?” “I did… it’s beautiful.” “The color?” “Black.” “Black?” “It’s a pretty black, though, with silver iridescent thread in it. And it’s strapless.” “Shoes?” “Some strappy black heels. I bought a necklace too.” “I’ve taught you well,” she said proudly. “You’ll take lots of pictures?” “Of course.” A familiar groan echoed in the background – a newly awakened Sam. I could picture him shuffling toward the kitchen table with a box of cereal in one hand and the biggest bowl he could find in the other. Thinking of my brother, my eyes welled – a new trend lately when calling home, and it had only been two weeks. “Kat’s on the phone,” my mom informed him. “Kat?” The sound of his voice warmed me. My sweet, sweet Sam. “Bye, love,” she said. Resistance was just as futile with my brother. We had always been inseparable… well, until we’d had to separate when I came here. “Bye, mom.” He started as soon as the phone met his ear. “Kat, you’ll never believe what Tinkles did last night.” Tinkles – my fourteen-year-old cat that actually looked more like a four-hundred-year-old cat with his mangy coat and foggy blind left eye. But I loved him, and Sam had promised to take good care of him while I was away. I’d prayed the night before I left that God would keep him alive for me until I returned; he’d been having trouble walking lately. And as to why I’d named him Tinkles, I honestly don’t remember. The imagination of a three-year-old is an enigma. Or maybe I’d seen him tinkle one day and thought it was funny. “I’m surprised he did anything,” I teased. “I know! But he jumped all the way up onto your bed and slept on your pillow the entire night. He wouldn’t let any of us move him.” More tears filled my eyes. One slid down my cheek. “I guess he misses you…” “I guess so,” I managed, and contemplated asking to go home – the homesick ache in my heart had grown to an unbearable size – but the thought left as quickly as it had come. I liked it here with my new friends and Levi and the other ‘recent developments.’ If I left, I’d miss it here too. I glanced at the clock. Twelve minutes until lunch. “Well give him a kiss for me,” I said, swiping the trail of tears away. “I need to get going.” “Okay, sis.” “Love you to the moon and back.” His voice cracked. “You too. To the moon and back.” “And tell mom and dad I love them again for me. I’ll call soon.” “Okay.” “Bye!” “Bye.” I was the first one to our table, for once. And although I was hungry, I just stared at my paint-stained cuticles as I picked them and thought of home, my family, my scruffy cat Tinkles, and my invisible admirer. My invisible admirer, I mused, realizing I wasn’t creeped out by it anymore. I think I actually liked it. I looked forward to the next flower, even. Whenever that would be. If that would ever be. I moved my blank gaze through the window and into the trees – the trees that still called to me. Or maybe it was the who inside the forest that called. I realized I would continue to venture into them, despite the fact that I knew I shouldn’t, despite the fact that I knew it could possibly be dangerous and get me in loads of trouble of the unforeseen kind, not to mention with the school. But until I graduated, I’d have to scratch my itch to find out more… even if nothing ever came of it. I wouldn’t feel satisfied unless I at least tried to find him again and hopefully get a glimpse. And if he looked like the boy in my dreams? Even better. Now that I’d talked to my dad, that was looking like a big possibility. Could I have the gift of telekinesis and prophecy? What were the odds? A welcome voice rolled through the air behind me. “Hey, you…” Levi. He planted a long, sweet kiss on my head and pooled into the chair beside me. “Hey,” I replied, my voice distant as I struggled to snap back to reality. I’d had a lot to process since I’d last seen him. He regarded my detachment with a tilted head. “You all right today? Anna said you needed some alone time or something?” My lips twitched with a smile. She’d seen right through me. Although I really did want to paint. “I’m good. A little tired.” Or something like that. The rest of our friends found their places at the table and brought with them the scent of outside. I noticed Anna and Ronnie were hand in hand – a new development. Dawson looked like new – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Had it been two nights since he’d shape-shifted? Last week it had taken him three to get back to normal. He must have been slowly building his stamina. Levi tucked my hair behind my ear – a gentle gesture to regain my interest. My attention span felt worse than normal today. He stood to get our trays. “Don’t forget we’re going to the nurse’s station after this,” he said. I scowled, confused. He bent down to me, grasping my chin between his thumb and index finger and dusting a feather light kiss on my lips. “Oh, babe,” he said, amused. “What am I going to do with you?” “What?” “You have the memory of a fish sometimes.” He waited expectantly, hoping I would come around to the answer on my own. Nurse’s station? “I have no idea,” I admitted shyly. God, I should have my brain checked. “Vaccines, babe.” “Oh, yeah…” It all came back to me. We were supposed to have them done before school started – something about living in dormitories and being susceptible to certain diseases. Meningitis, I think? But we also had a choice of getting them from the nurse on the first day of school. Except our nurse had come down with a nasty stomach virus and was bed-ridden for a week and a half. This was the day he’d chosen to administer the shots and had announced via the intercom several times to come to his room after lunch. Of our friends, Levi, Ronnie and I were the only ones who hadn’t gotten them yet. I also heard he would do a blood panel to check our general health and make sure we didn’t already have an infection or something. Ronnie groaned as he stood to go get food with Levi. “Ugh, needles.” I stood in line outside the nurse’s station, which I had only been to once during my first tour of the place. It was normally a large open room with a row of hospital beds separated by curtains on one side and a wall of cabinets with a counter on the other storing God-knows-what. Now the middle of the room had been divided into three private stations, each with a table surrounded by a white curtain suspended on frames of PVC pipe. There was only one nurse on staff here, though – Mr. Plunkett, a wiry old man with a buzz cut. They must have hired two extra to help with all the students who hadn’t already gotten their shots. Levi’s arms tightened around me from behind as I fidgeted. We’d been waiting for close to an hour, and I was ready to get the sticking and prodding over with. “After this, we’re playing a kickball game by the courtyard… you in?” he asked. I grimaced. “You sure that’s wise?” Ping pong was one thing, running and kicking a ball was another. I missed half the time, and when I did make contact, I fouled. “You’ll do fine, babe. It’s just for fun.” When Ronnie didn’t chime in with a smart comment about my athletic skills, or lack thereof, I craned my neck around Levi’s arm to check on him. He hadn’t said but two words since we’d gotten in line. So not Ronnie. A pale face gleaming with nervous sweat greeted me. “You all right, Ron?” I asked, and bit my lip to keep from smiling. Who knew he could be such a baby? Big tough Ronnie, afraid of needles. He squared his shoulders. “I’m good,” he said in a deeper-than-usual voice. Who was he kidding? He looked on the verge of hurling. “Okay…” I said, holding back a chuckle, and leaned against Levi, allowing our curves to mold into each other. It felt comfortable there; my back against his washboard stomach, but something had definitely changed in the atmosphere around us. The heated charge that was usually there didn’t seem as powerful. Off. But it had to be my fault, not his. I was off today. Did Levi notice? Hopefully not. I was trying my best to be present and not allow him – the boy in my dreams – to monopolize my thoughts. It was a tough battle. “Next!” A nurse called. “That would be me,” I said under my breath and broke free of Levi’s hold. I headed for the station with the curtain thrown back. A man awaited me behind the plastic folding table. Not nurse Plunkett. This man had dreads and ebony skin, his eyes a deep brown, almost black. He held a stoic expression, unreadable. “Close the curtain behind you and take a seat,” he instructed in his Jamaican accent. All business, this guy. Apparently, he was as ready to get out of here and on with his day as I was. His dark marble eyes raked over me and around me as I did what I was told and planted myself in the chair. Weird. Finally, his attention turned to a sheet of paper beside him with a list of student’s names. “Name?” “Kat.” He arched an eyebrow, giving me a pointed look. “Sorry. Cindra Kathrin Walsh.” After checking my name off, he opened a fresh needle. My eyes flickered over his too-tight uniform as it strained to cover his shoulders. No nametag. I suppose it didn’t matter; I would never see this man again. “Rest your right arm on the table, palm up, please,” he said. At least, this time, he’d said ‘please’. With my forearm against the table, he tied a rubber band above my elbow and swiped an alcohol swab at the bend of my arm. “I’ll draw your blood first,” he said. “For the panels.” I spoke through my teeth, braced for the stick of the needle hovering above my arm. “Okay.” The rest took less than five minutes, and I was on my way out the door on the other side of the room with a piece of cotton and neon medical tape covering the punctures. Levi and Ronnie weren’t far behind, the color returning to Ronnie’s cheeks as he and Levi bantered about who they would pick for their teams. By default I’m sure, I would be on Levi’s, although I would be more of a hindrance than a help. Oh, well… like he’d said, it was for fun. The air outside felt cool and somewhat damp, clinging to my skin and frizzing my hair. Even tied back into a ponytail, my hair looked like a poodle had stuck its paw into a light socket. Sexy. As I stood with Levi and my friends on the sidelines, waiting my turn to kick, I fought the urge to turn and examine the woods. With my back to them, I felt that strange pull yet again, ever coaxing. Ever present. In a weak attempt to ignore it, my eyes drew to the sky. It was hard to tell from the blanket of clouds, but the sun looked like it neared the treetops. An hour into the game, it was now late afternoon. Turn around, my subconscious pled. Not here. Not now. I didn’t know why, but I felt the need to hide my curiosity with the woods from the others. Sarah had already accused me of ‘smoking something.’ “Kat…” an amused voice prodded. “Earth to Kat!” I snapped back to reality. “Your turn, girl,” Sarah said with a shake of my shoulder. “Great.” I hurried behind the plate. “And make sure to actually kick the ball this time!” Ronnie teased from the pitcher’s mound. Assuming the position, I slid him a look of humored annoyance. Real cute, Ron. I think I preferred him nauseous and terrified. Maybe I should threaten him with a needle. “You got this, babe!” Levi shouted. Ronnie smacked the ball in his hands and lurched forward with a look of absolute concentration. It hurled over the grass a little too fast. Ronnie was actually trying to strike me out, the little turd. As if I needed any help. My lips pursed with determination; I never gave up without a fight. That I got from my mom. The static of the outside intercom buzzed to life, followed by Principal Hughes’s strained voice. “Attention, students and faculty.” Everyone stiffened and looked to the school, but I kicked the ball anyway – actually kicked the ball and it went straight! “Everyone report to their assigned dorm rooms immediately,” he continued. Even I paused now instead of running, the ball rolling to a stop in left field by Anna. “And stay there until further notice.” My eyes sprang to Levi for clarity. He shrugged and jogged to meet me. I looked back to the ball with a pout. The one time I actually made a decent kick, wasted. Levi snatched my hand and tugged me to come along. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Beats me.” “Has this ever happened before?” “Not once.” My stomach jumped. “Dude…” Dawson said to Levi as he and Sarah appeared at our sides. “What do you think it is?” “I don’t know, man, but it can’t be good.” His hand squeezed mine, maybe out of instinct or worry for what was going on and what this meant for all of us. Visions raced through my mind of an intruder on campus. Things like that happened all the time – shootings, bomb threats. I swallowed and burrowed into Levi’s side. He hugged me tight as we hurried along. But not many people know of this place, I reasoned. Who would want to come into a school full of gifted students and start trouble anyway? We were more than capable of fighting back if we had to. Anna’s gift of fire was looking a whole lot more useful now. When we made it to the building, Levi pulled me into an alleyway between wings. Really? Now? He read my puzzlement. “Promise me you’ll go straight to your room and not leave until they say,” he said, desperate. “I won’t be able to escort you.” My voice came out thin and breathy. “Promise.” Ugh. Why was I so scared? I had worked myself into a tangled ball of nerves. He also read the terror in my eyes. “It’ll be okay,” he assured me, but I knew there was no way he could promise such a thing. I nodded. His lips claimed mine, eager and anxious. It could have been the adrenaline coursing through me, but the kiss didn’t feel as powerful this time, as all-consuming. With the seriousness of what might be going on around us, I didn’t have the wherewithal to contemplate why. My dream visitor’s face appeared in my thoughts this time as our kiss deepened. His presence was as strong as if I were in the woods. It wrapped around me, filled every inch of me with warmth and wonder. The shock of it made me pull away. Confused, Levi searched my eyes. “I… I’m just scared,” I lied, trying to sound apologetic. God, what’s wrong with me? His brow furrowed. This was the second time I’d semi-freaked out during what was supposed to be an intimate moment. At least, this time, I had something to blame it on. “Let’s get going,” he said and I heard it in his voice – disappointment. Now he knew. Something was definitely ‘off’ with me today. CHAPTER SIX ___________________ Lights Anna and I burst into our room, and I locked the door behind us. She crumpled onto her bed, near tears, with her arms wrapped around her waist. “It’ll be okay,” I soothed, mirroring Levi’s confidence from before. But would it? It just seemed the right thing to say, and I was saying it as much for myself as I was for her. “I’ll be right back,” I said and turned for the bathroom. Hands shaking, I closed the door behind me and turned on the shower to let it fill the room with steam – one of the only things that seemed to calm my nerves. With my arms wrapped around my own waist, I slumped against the wall and slid all the way down until my legs curled into my chest. I wished I knew what was going on, what this lockdown was about and if we were going to be okay. I couldn’t get the visuals of a crazed student unloading a machine gun or threatening to detonate a bomb out of my mind. These were the times an overactive, creative imagination worked against me. Great for art, bad for crises. I then wished for Levi and resented being separated. I wanted his strong arms around me again. They made me feel safe. Safer. Levi, I lamented, thinking of our last kiss, and traced my lips with my finger. I hated seeing how my wishy-washiness bruised his spirit. If Hannah and my dream-guy would just stay out of my thoughts, I could give being with Levi a real shot. I wasn’t ready to make a definitive decision on whether or not we belonged together, but we at least deserved a shot. What was I going to do… break up with him because of a guy I couldn’t see, touch or talk to? Scientifically speaking, he didn’t exist. Even if he felt real to me. Even though I’d seen him at the edge of the woods and in my possibly prophetic dreams, all of this could be in my head. And even if he were real, as I so secretly wished, it might not ever happen. Levi, however, was tangible, and still as sweet and gorgeous as ever. And probably growing weary of my running hot and cold with him after only a few days. I stood and braced my hands on either side of the sink to stare at myself in the mirror. “Get it together,” I said, slow and resolute. Before you lose him forever and never know what could have been. With my heart beating at a normal pace, I settled onto the toilet to breathe in a few more lungsful of steam. A rap on the door made me jump. “Kat?” Sighing, I turned the shower off and decided to head back out. Anna needed a shoulder, and mine was fit to cry on now. Well, barely. I steeled myself with one last breath before opening the door. “Sorry, girl. Needed a minute.” Her eyes reminded me of when I’d first met her – glassy and red. I immediately reached out to wrap her in a blanket of comfort, realizing once I had her locked in the embrace that I needed it too, even if it wasn’t Levi. “We’re going to be fine. They wouldn’t let anything happen to us here.” This time, I had more confidence in my words, and Anna relaxed in my arms. Another quick knock on the door made us both jump. Anna squeaked. Oh, for goodness sake. If we were old enough to drink, I’d pour us both a glass of something. “Who is it?” I called to the mystery visitor. I expected Levi’s voice to answer, but instead it was Sarah. “Open up, girls. I don’t have long.” When I opened the door, the distressed look on Sarah’s face alarmed me almost as much as her knock. “What is it?” She took a step into the room, lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know what’s going on.” “What?” Anna and I asked in unison. “Mr. Plunkett is missing.” It took the better part of a minute for her words to sink in. Oh my god. Sweet old Mr. Plunkett is missing? I thought back to being in the nurse’s station. I didn’t recall seeing him there, but then again, I’d only seen the nurse who had worked on me. The other curtains were closed. “As in, like… abducted? How do you know?” “Mr. Hughes just ordered all of the mind-readers to the cafeteria. Apparently to see if any of us happened to catch any stray thoughts to give them a lead.” “He could have just… ya know, left or something.” She tilted her head in annoyance. “You think they’d be freaking out like this if he ‘just left,’ Kat?” “Good point.” “Besides, they said they didn’t see anything on the parking lot cameras. So anyway,” she said, backing out of the room, “I’ve got to get going. I’ll let you know if I find out anything.” “Okay. Be careful.” I shut the door again and locked it. Missing. Nurse Plunkett was missing. Did Levi know? He would be devastated. Even though I’d never actually met the old man myself, I felt as though I’d already met him from all of Levi’s stories. Near concussions, twisted ankles, and sore wrists had landed him in the nurse’s station many times – the downside of being in sports. “I think of him like a grandfather,” Levi said the first time he’d mused about him to me. “Such a nice man, but he isn’t afraid to lecture you if he thinks you need it.” Anna made her way to the bathroom, and I retreated to my bed to sit in silence. My former fears of a shooting or bomb threat had been extinguished, but I still wasn’t relieved. Not until they’d found him. Where in the world could he be? He had to be here somewhere if the cameras hadn’t caught him leaving. A short frantic knock interrupted my thoughts. Levi? I hurried to the door. “Who is it?” “It’s me,” Levi said, barely above a whisper. I let him in, and he stepped inside, quietly shutting the door behind him. And as I’d suspected, he looked utterly devastated. He knew. Instinctively, I threw my arms around his neck. “I’m so sorry. Sarah just came by to tell us.” He hugged me back with just as much enthusiasm. “Thanks. I had to see you again. Make sure you made it back okay.” Tears prickled my eyes. My sweet Levi. “I’m fine,” I forced out, pulling away and cradling his face in my hands, “I’m sure they’ll find him.” He attempted a smile – a show of bravery. “Thanks, babe.” To make up for earlier, I planted another kiss on his lips, pouring more of myself into it this time and forcing my mind to stay blank. I also wanted to prove a point to myself, that I could be with him and not be such a wishy-washy idiot about it. When I pulled away, his smile widened as if to say wow. I guess my pep-talk in the bathroom had given me the strength I needed. But it still doesn’t feel right if you have to force it, my conscience retorted. I swatted the thought away. The bathroom door creaked open. “Levi…” Anna said, half relieved, half confused. “He came by to check on me,” I explained. “Oh.” “And Ronnie wanted me to give you a message, Anna,” Levi said. Her mood perked. “Oh?” “He wanted to come too, but we didn’t want to risk both of us getting caught. But he says he promises to stop by in the morning.” Her expression brightened, and I imagined she would be doing pirouettes around the room if Levi and I weren’t standing here. My subconscious butted in again. Now THAT’s how it looks when you’re in love. I ignored it. Levi brushed a kiss on my forehead and made his way back to the door. “See you girls tomorrow.” I injected my words with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “Okay! See you then!” Realizing how fake it sounded, I rolled my eyes inwardly. Apparently, I was still trying to prove something. He winked as he shut the door. “See ya, babe.” “See ya.” In the hours that followed, Anna and I mainly kept to ourselves. She painted her nails while listening to music on her iPod, and I read a few chapters of my favorite childhood book – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then organized and re-organized my closet. Anything to keep my thoughts away from the woods, painting them and thinking about who was in them. And oddly enough, I now mildly resented ever going into the woods or dreaming the dreams. Levi and I had a good thing, and still could if I continued having the strength to let go of my thoughts of my admirer. And even more oddly, I wasn’t sure if I could. What if he haunted my dreams every night? What if I continued to get flowers every morning? I felt awful, but powerless at the same time, because no matter how much I pep-talked myself or stayed out of the woods, I also couldn’t deny that he was gaining a slow steady hold on my heart without my full consent. Weary, both physically and emotionally, I decided to surrender to my sleepiness. It was now eleven o’clock and Anna had already fallen asleep with her book on her chest and her headphones in. I plucked them from her ears, covered her with a blanket, and made my way to bed as Anna babbled incoherently about Ronnie’s butt and something about potato salad. I chuckled and glanced at the woods as I passed the window. Yep. I wanted to go. The itch to venture into them remained. Understandably, the mood around the school had taken a nose-dive into melancholy the next day. Mr. Plunkett was nowhere to be found. A person, a tall hard-to-miss person, just gone. Even free-spirited Ronnie was somber. He and I had our first class of the day together, Gift Development, and we sat in back of the class – me with my head resting in my hands, trying desperately not to doze off, and him trying not-so-hard with his head resting against the wall and snoring. Usually, I’d nudge him to wake him up but decided to let him sleep today. Ms. Douglas wasn’t in class yet anyway. An oddity, for sure. She was never late. A brief thought flickered through my mind about her being missing now too, and before it could spiral into full-blown worry, she breezed through the door with her hair in a messy bun and no make-up. Yikes. She must have had a rough night like the rest of us. “Sorry, class,” she huffed out as she dumped her bag on the floor by her desk. Ronnie jerked awake. I offered a reassuring smile. “She just got here,” I mouthed. Shuffling papers around her desk, Ms. Douglas continued. “We’ll get right into it today since I was late. Everyone get your paper and pens ready because I’ll be covering a lot this morning.” I stifled a groan. I hated taking notes. Even in this class – my favorite. Apparently, with the right guidance, our gifts had the ability to develop and mature. Ms. Douglas had a knack to “embolden” them, as she had explained our first day. “Your gifts can reach heights you never fathomed.” She’d definitely had my attention ever since. “First,” Ms. Douglas continued. “Those of you who use your hands to channel your gifts, please stand.” Along with about three-fourths of the class, Ronnie and I stood. I’d only seen him use his gift once, and I had to admit, his was one of the coolest I’d ever seen – wind. He’d demonstrated his gift to me by uprooting a sapling at the edge of the woods like it was nothing. To command the air the way he did… nothing short of amazing. He could create a tornado if he chose to. But the thought always unsettled me a little – Ronnie… crazy, carefree Ronnie having the ability to destroy the sturdiest of buildings literally at the palm of his hands. Scary, but cool. I guess that went for most of our gifts, though – scary, but cool. Ms. Douglas scribbled words on the dry erase board – Separation of Body. “Separation of Body,” she echoed. “All of our gifts originate from the same place all of our other functions do – the brain. But to bolster your gifts, you have to tap into another source – your heart. Not as in the organ, though,” she clarified. “The very fabric of your soul. The essence of your being.” Everyone stared blankly. She sighed as if to say “good grief, kids” and set her marker on the lip of the board. Her mossy green eyes searched the standing classmates and landed on me. I swallowed. Please, no. “Kat,” she trilled. “Come join me up here.” Wonderful. Ronnie laughed as I trudged to the front, and I cut my eyes at him with a smirk. Jerk. If I didn’t like him so much, I’d smack him. When I made it there, she whirled me around and placed her hands on my shoulders. “The best way to teach you all to tap into this part of yourselves is to have you visualize something. Kat, close your eyes.” I did as I was told, but felt completely idiotic. “Now, picture someone you love getting hurt.” Someone I love. My thoughts reeled, and I conjured a picture of Levi’s face. Maybe this little exercise could help prove something. Now think of him getting hurt. My thoughts took a turn for the horrifying. I pictured someone taking him against his will, knocking him out and dragging him somewhere. Just like someone had possibly done to Mr. Plunkett. My shoulders tensed, and I clenched my fists. “Good,” Ms. Douglas cajoled. “A desperate churning in the pit of your stomach, is it there?” “Yes.” “That ache you feel in your chest?” “Yes.” “Draw from that. Your being wants to free your loved one from the grip of harm.” Instinctively, I held out my hand, allowing that oh-so-familiar web to trickle down my arm and through my fingertips. What I was trying to move with my gift, I didn’t know. She grasped my hand, pulling it against my body. “No,” she said firmly. “Not from your hands.” I realized what this exercise was about – moving things simply with my mind. Separation of Body. No fingers, no portal to channel it through, throwing my gift beyond myself. “Open your eyes and focus on that ruler on my desk,” she continued. “Imagine that it’s the one thing that stands between your loved one and their death.” I squinted hard in concentration, imagining it was a knife. I could use the knife against Levi’s attacker. Pick up, I commanded. “They’re close to dying,” she hastened. “Do it, Kat.” I grunted, a vein swelling in my forehead, my neck straining. This didn’t feel right. I wanted to use my fingers. “You can do it, Kat,” a girl said from the front of the room. I imagined the web shooting straight from my mind and around the ruler, the knife. Move, dammit! My entire body shook, and I was sweating. I hardly ever sweated. Why wouldn’t the friggin’ thing move already? “Imagine that they’re dying now. On their last breath.” Shit. My teeth were grinding now. I fought harder. The web didn’t feel like it was gripping tight enough. Why? My poor Levi. If this had been real life, he’d be a dead man. I tried to force the web tighter, and the ruler vibrated. “Yes!” she cheered. “That’s it.” The ruler hovered. Relief flooded me, but I held my intense focus, my hands gripping my plaid skirt so tight that my knuckles glowed white. I wanted to use them so bad. The ruler would already be across the room by now. Or sticking out of the wall. Maybe I really did belong with him. Maybe this was proving something. An unwelcome voice wafted through the air, bouncing off the walls. Principal Hughes. “Attention, students and faculty,” his weary voice announced, and I dropped the ruler. With a mixture of anger and intrigue, I glared at the intercom. I’d almost had it! Two times now he’d interrupted my moment. Realizing he was probably about to announce they’d found Mr. Plunkett, my eyes shifted to Ronnie, hopeful. Maybe he was safe and sound. “Report back to your rooms immediately. Stay there until further notice, and lock your doors.” Two people were missing now. Mr. Plunkett and Jillian Loche – a name I hadn’t recognized when Principal Hughes had announced it. According to a classmate, she was a freshman. As we filed along to our dorm wings, our hearts heavier and fears magnified to insufferable, I took notice of police officers shuffling along as they scrutinized every nook and cranny and spoke to random teachers. This made everything even more real, but I felt safer. My first thought when they announced that Jillian was missing was to make a bee-line for my room and call my parents, but we were also ordered not to call home. The school would be making the calls. I guess they didn’t want a bunch of freaked-out kids calling their parents and freaking them out with second-hand information. But they should have been freaked out. We all should have been. I guess mass hysteria wouldn’t have helped the situation, though, and the cops were here at least. Excruciating. That was the only word I could use to describe how being holed up in our tiny room for an entire day and worrying about Nurse Plunkett and Jillian felt. Teachers had delivered our lunches and dinners to our rooms, and we weren’t to leave unless we called and cleared it with Principal Hughes himself. Occasionally we’d hear the clacking of heels against the tile in the hallway – faculty or policeman on patrol. The school began to feel like a jail to me, except they weren’t protecting the public from us, but rather us from whoever was wishing us harm. I should have felt grateful that they were taking such care for our safety, but I was itching to leave, for fresh air and open space. Claustrophobic. Excruciating and claustrophobic. I knew Levi was probably feeling the same way and was dying to come check on me, but I also knew it was too risky. I was sure he knew that too and that was why I hadn’t heard from him. If our landlines could have dialed each other’s rooms, we’d have already spoken by now. Multiple times. While Anna snored with her earbuds in, I paced by the window like a caged lion wishing to be freed. My lungs were constricting from the stagnant air in this room – this small room that was closing in on me with every passing minute. I paused, stared out into the woods – the cool, spacious woods. I then thought of him. If my admirer had visited last night, he hadn’t left a flower. I had talked myself out of being disappointed all day, for mine and Levi’s sakes. I hadn’t dreamt of him last night, either. Did that mean something? Part of me wished it did, but part of me wished it didn’t. A bigger part of me wished it didn’t. I stepped closer to the window and sighed, wishing to be free and inside the woods… with him. With that feeling he gave me. At this excruciating, claustrophobic moment, nothing in the world sounded better. I gnawed on my lip with my eyes closed, an idiotic idea brewing inside me. No way. I would be the biggest moron in the world if I tried to escape to the woods tonight. With people being abducted and police everywhere, it was too risky. I glanced at my tennis shoes by the closet and back to the window. Which would win? My insatiable desire to feel free and feel him, or my reasoning. And Levi - venturing into the woods would be a step in the opposite direction of where I was trying to take our relationship. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. This should have been an obvious, easy decision. And then I felt it – that pull. That pull I couldn’t deny. The itch in my heart longing to be scratched; as if a piece inside of me belonged there in the woods. I went for my shoes. With my hoodie pulled over my head and my tennis shoes tied tight on my feet, I scurried through the hallways and close to the walls like a rat finding its way out. When I heard the staccato of footsteps, I’d flatten against the wall or hide behind a piece of furniture until they were gone. When I finally made it outside, I wasn’t in the clear yet. More police patrolled outside. But I didn’t care; I had a goal and intended to accomplish it. And the air… I sucked in a lungful of the clean, moist air. Heaven. As a policeman with a flashlight disappeared around the corner, I made a run for it with my own flashlight tucked inside my back pocket. Almost there… Would he be there again? Would he reveal himself to me? The idea propelled me faster. I crashed through the tree line and paused to pull my flashlight from my pocket, my lungs heaving from my short sprint and the excitement of what or who I might find tonight. My thumb rested on the button to click it on, and I caught the sight of more lights ahead. Flashlights? I froze. Were the police looking for Nurse Plunkett and Jillian in the woods? I was a complete moron to think I could get away with this. Crouching into a ball against a tree, I decided to wait it out and see where the lights were headed – away or toward me, but they didn’t seem to be moving anywhere. And the lights… flickered. Definitely not flashlights. Lanterns? Torches? Who used those anymore? This was the twenty-first century. After what felt like forever, I decided to straighten again, that weird yet comfortable pull begging me to go farther in and toward the lights. Speaking of moronic… But I listened. I trusted this feeling I was slowly (and begrudgingly) growing to accept. In a surreal daze, I put one foot in front of the other. The lights were giving off enough of a glow to keep me from stumbling over logs or exposed tree roots. Deeper and deeper I went, into the woods and closer to the lights. They were in a clearing. The clearing. The clearing I’d been in two nights ago… with him. My pulse pounded in my ears now, my ragged breaths puffing into the cool air in white clouds. I stopped at the threshold of the clearing, my eyes raking all around. Lanterns dangled on poles at its edges, washing the open space and the flowery bushes in a delicate, dancing light. Dead center, a fire burned bright with log benches surrounding it. That definitely hadn’t been here the other night. Had he made it? Please be here, I prayed. And show yourself to me. I want to see you. No sooner did the words flit through my mind when a breeze flicked a loose strand of hair across my face. Figures appeared, and I stiffened. I was too frantic to count them all, but it looked close to ten, maybe more. And they had just… appeared. Out of nowhere. I covered my mouth to keep from screaming, my knees buckling and flashlight falling to the ground with a thud. A woman in the front of the group stepped toward me, a white dove on her shoulder. She was beautiful. Mesmerizing. Her straight blonde hair met the small of her back, and she wore a floor-length black velvet dress with long sleeves, dark against her milky skin. Her eyes shone violet, a pleading, but relieved look behind them. She held out her hands as if to say, “Don’t run, it’s okay.” My eyes then moved to a tall, lean silhouette on her left. A familiar silhouette – black shirt and all. My heart gained speed. Oh my God. The boy from the woods. The boy from my dreams. My knees weakened more as I studied him – chestnut hair cropped close on the sides and longer on top. Just as he appeared in my dream, only better: this boy was real. His face – ethereal like a majestic angel or god. Flawless, but strong and chiseled. His blue eyes bored right through me, right into my soul, but his expression confused me. He looked worried, watchful. “Kat,” the woman said, her voice like music, but I barely listened to what she said after that. Nothing existed but the two of us – me and the boy of my dreams, who couldn’t look away from me either. “Kat,” another voice said. Wait… I recognized that voice. My eyes tore away from my dream boy, settled onto the voice’s owner. The Jamaican nurse with dreads. The ground shifted beneath me, and my vision closed in. “Are you all right?” he asked. That was the last thing I remembered. CHAPTER SEVEN ___________________ Half-breed Hushed, anxious voices were the first things to register as I lifted from the darkness. “Think she’s okay?” A woman’s voice answered. “She’s fine… Give her a minute. It was a lot to take in.” She sounded southern, her vowels drawing out with a lovely timbre, almost melodic. “Did you mean for her to see us, Iris?” “How could she see us?” “Everyone settle down, now. She’s waking,” the woman with the melodic voice said. She must have been Iris. The second thing to register was the cold air that had turned the tip of my nose to ice. I was still outside. My eyelids fluttered open to the night sky twinkling with stars. Around me were concerned faces to match the voices, all of them looking down at me, studying me. A figure crouched at my side – Iris. Her bird was eyeing me just as feverishly as the others. I focused on Iris’ face, her purple eyes. I was then aware she was holding my hand and stroking it sweetly. “My dear,” she breathed in relief. “You passed out.” Mortification colored my cheeks. Great. Another figure crouched at my other side. The nurse, his finger resting on the pulse at my wrist, his eyes sweeping over me. “You’re okay, Kat,” he assured me. “Take it easy.” Gently pulling my hands from their grips, I attempted to prop up on my elbows. My head spun, and I rested my hand on my forehead with a groan. Someone knelt by Iris’ side. My heart skipped a beat. Him. The look on his face was a mixture of awe and agony. Over me? I halfway wondered if I was dreaming again. This felt so real, but all of this couldn’t be real… could it? “Let’s give her some space,” Iris said, standing, and extended a hand down to me. Backing up a few steps, everyone obeyed. I tentatively slid my hand into hers. “There you go, darlin’,” she soothed, pulling me to my feet. Her arm wrapped around my waist for support, and she guided me to a log beside the fire. My dream boy fought his way in front of my audience to watch as she helped me sit. My eyes snapped to him again like a magnet; they didn’t seem to want to rest on anything else. I didn’t even know what half of these other people looked like yet. Surely this was another dream. I couldn’t be so lucky as to actually be with him here in the flesh. Why wasn’t he invisible like before? “Piper, get her some water, please,” Iris ordered, kneeling in front of me and clasping my hands in her own. “Yes, Iris,” a tiny female voice answered. “I’m fine…” I said in protest, my eyes still on him. I didn’t want to be fussed over. Iris followed my line of sight to see his eyes on me as well. When she turned back to me, a secret smile played on her lips. “Kat,” she said again to regain my attention. I didn’t want to, but I refocused on her. “I know all of this might seem odd to you, but-” Interrupting her, a dainty arm appeared with a homemade clay mug filled with water. I took the mug into my hands, and my eyes traveled up to the girl who’d given it to me. What had Iris called her? Piper? As she gave me a friendly smile, her hazel eyes shining, I determined she looked about my age. She wore her black hair in a stylish pixie cut. So cute and complementary to her heart-shaped face. Pixie cut – Piper. That would be easy enough to remember. “Hey, Kat,” she said. Confused, I replied. “Hey.” How did everyone know my name? Iris shifted to sit beside me on the bench, the hem of her velvety dress whooshing over the dead leaves and pine straw. She brought with her the smell of lavender and rosewood. The nurse rested beside her. “Everyone, please,” she groaned, swatting at my audience, “Give her some space for goodness sake.” The dove squeaked to seemingly echo her request. Everyone backed up again, except my dream guy. He wasn’t budging, watching every breath I took and move I made. I couldn’t decide if it unnerved or flattered me. Who was I kidding… it flattered me. Iris nudged my chin to look at her instead, and I gave a rueful smile. I needed to quit staring at him. I took a sip of water, and Iris started in. “I know this might seem odd to you, Kat, but let me know when you’re ready for me to explain who we are and why we’re here.” I swallowed. “And how everyone knows my name?” Iris barked out a laugh, but I hadn’t meant it to be funny. “Yes, all of this I can explain. And I also want you to know that you aren’t in danger. You looked frightened when you first arrived.” I nodded in agreement. ‘Frightened’ was pretty accurate. I had come to find my dream visitor, not really believing I’d get the opportunity, and I had gotten so much more than I’d bargained for. But I had to admit, if this wasn’t a dream, finding this group of people in the woods was pretty cool. Now that I knew I wasn’t in danger. Theoretically. I allowed my eyes to sweep over the rest of the small crowd, and I counted. Including Iris, the nurse, and my dream guy, there were eight of them – Piper and the boy she’d moved to stand beside. His coppery hair was tied back, exposing his striking face with its neatly trimmed scruff. He and Piper held hands and were the exact same height. They must have been a couple and looked perfect together – both attractive and slender. My eyes moved to another couple beside them, also attractive. They looked the same age as me, as well. The boy reminded me of Ronnie – a tall beast with short dark hair and a strong jaw, but his lips were thinner, his eyebrows bushier, and he didn’t seem as cordial. The girl his arm hung around was a classic beauty with flourishing auburn curls, long lashes, and a killer figure. A figure I would die for. Everyone here was gorgeous. I suddenly felt inadequate with my big forehead and flat butt. The last of the group was a boy, also around my age, who stood alone next to the beast and auburn Barbie. I could tell he wasn’t short by any means, but next to beast-boy, he looked that way. His blond hair was almost brassy compared to Iris’ but shimmered in the firelight, and his facial features had a feminine quality – round eyes with dark lashes, high cheekbones, and full lips. He seemed too pretty to be a boy, but like Levi, I imagined most girls would swoon for him. And then there was my dream guy in front of all of them. My breath caught when my eyes rested on him again. They could stay there forever. Iris cleared her throat pointedly. I shook my head and took another small sip. Focus. When my eyes refocused on her glowing face, I realized that although she was beautiful – probably the most beautiful of everyone here – she and the nurse were also the oldest of the group. In their early thirties maybe? “So who are you guys?” I asked, my voice shockingly small. I felt small in the midst of these gods and goddesses. “Well, Kat,” she said, looking to the nurse for confirmation. He gave a terse nod of approval. “We’re like you.” A nervous giggle escaped. Hardly. I was hardly like any of these people. She disregarded it, motioned for the nurse to hand her something. “What I mean is,” she said, wrapping her fingers around the vial of blood he placed in her palm, “We all come from the same origins as you. A divine origin.” It wasn’t clicking. She offered a knowing smile, leaned closer. “Angels, Kat. God’s army.” Astonishment seeped into my expression. “You didn’t know?” she asked, misinterpreting the meaning behind my gaped jaw. “No, I… I kind of knew. My mom used to be an angel. I just didn’t know there were others.” “Not many. But there are.” “How did you know about me, though?” It couldn’t be on looks alone; I didn’t look like an angel, or at least as stunning as everyone here. They all looked divine, like ethereal royalty. She again looked to the nurse, and he nodded his agreement. “Are you aware of what an aura is?” she asked, focusing back on me. All too aware. That’s why I was at this school… I was scouted out because of my aura. “Yes.” “Good. Well, you must know, then, that your aura is different from most.” “Yes. But I was told it was because I was gifted. Nobody ever said it had anything to do with this.” She rested her hand on my arm. “Yes, I figured since this was a school for the gifted that you were as well. But what most aura-readers don’t know is that part-human, part-angel auras have an additional quality. Right, Kai?” she said to the nurse. “Right,” he replied. “He’s our aura-reader,” she explained, her smile stretching further, “That’s his gift.” I craned my neck around her to look at him. He’s gifted too? “Most half-breeds, or what we sometimes call ‘hybrids,’ have gifts,” she added. “Not all, but most. Which might also explain why you have a gift.” Huh. I’d always thought it was because of my father. “So does that mean that everyone at the school has angel in them?” “Oh, no, child…” she chuckled, patting my arm, “Most Gifteds’ bloodlines come from human genes, I’m sure.” “So mine could have come from either. My mom is an angel, my dad a Gifted.” Her perfectly groomed eyebrows sprang up in surprise. “Then, yes… I suppose being gifted was definitely your fate. Do you have more than one gift?” “I’m not sure,” I said timidly, my eyes drawing down to my mug, “I know I have telekinesis.” And possibly the gift of prophecy. Well, seeing as how my dream guy was real, I suppose I did have the gift of prophecy… it just hadn’t fully registered yet. Kai studied me again, but I noticed this time as his eyes raked me over, that there was more warmth inside them now. His demeanor from yesterday had shifted. He was still all business, but friendlier. “Makes sense,” he said. “Both the purity in her aura and the silver threads are strong.” “Silver threads?” I repeated, sliding him a curious glance. “Yes,” he replied. “Half-breeds have silver threads woven throughout their auras. Yours does too.” My memory of us in the nurses’ station flashed through my mind, how his eyes raked over and around me. Uncomfortably so. He’d been reading my aura. “Oh.” It also dawned on me how everyone already knew my name. I’d given it to him yesterday. Duh. With care, she popped open the top of the vial and motioned for me to hand her my mug, and I complied. “There’s also another quality half-breeds possess – our blood is different.” This was new. “Different?” “Yes. This is the vial of your blood Kai took yesterday. Watch this,” she said, tilting the vial over the water. A drip rolled into it. I expected it to disperse into wispy curls and dilute, but it didn’t. The drop sank to the bottom in a perfect red bead. What? “How…” “This is what the blood of a half-breed looks like,” she said proudly. “The properties are different,” Kai explained. “Your blood is more potent. Resilient.” I’d never noticed. My entire life. How did I never know my blood would do that when in water? But then again, I’d never tested it out. Why would I? At a loss for words, I only nodded like a half-wit. “I am a real nurse,” Kai added. “In case you were wondering. I didn’t just pretend to know what I was doing yesterday.” If he hadn’t known what he was doing, he could have fooled me. I’d never questioned it. I knew I had other questions churning, but I couldn’t seem to summon them all. One made its way forward. “So were there others’ blood you tested? Are there more half-breeds here?” He hesitated, looking to Iris, and they exchanged a look. What? Was my question moronic? It seemed reasonable to me. If half-breeds had a tendency to have gifts, there might be more here. “No,” he finally answered, but I noticed his words lacked conviction. “Not that I’ve found. Your blood sample was the only one I was interested in. I haven’t seen any other half-breed auras here.” Another question formed. “So you already knew about my aura before you took a sample?” He and Iris exchanged another look, and Iris nodded her consent. These two were a well-oiled machine. “Yes,” he replied. “We are… ever watchful.” Vague, much? “Watchful?” He hesitated again, and Iris clasped his hand lovingly, moving her gaze to me. “Yes, Kat. We’ve been watching you since your first day here.” My eyes slid to my dream boy for a slice of a second. “Oh?” I wanted to say, Would ‘watching’ have anything to do with bringing me flowers during the night and watching me at games? But something told me to keep my mouth shut. “There are many things to learn about us and our way of life,” she continued. “For instance, I’m sure you remember how we all suddenly appeared when you arrived tonight?” I swallowed. Yeah, it freaked me out… obviously. “Yes.” She raised her hand, her lips moving with a whispered prayer. Her fingers snapped, and white tents appeared throughout the woods ahead. The snorts of horses coaxed me into squinting through the darkness for them. I counted eight, and they were all tied to trees, their saddles aligned on low-lying branches. They lived out here. But not permanently, I assumed. Half-breed nomads? Iris moved her hand from Kai’s shoulder to mine. “We’re good at concealment. We can hide ourselves and our entire lifestyle with a simple spell. Others only see us when we allow them to.” ‘Ever watchful’ made sense now. Meaning, they’d been walking around campus this entire time and nobody would ever have known. But why, though? I was part angel, so what? I already knew that. Why all of this trouble with the spying and the blood samples? “So why all this trouble?” I asked. Iris squinted in confusion. “I mean with the blood samples and the spying and revealing yourselves to me?” “Well,” she said pensively. “I wasn’t expecting to do this tonight; I would have approached you in the next few days in a somewhat less traumatizing manner. But you showed up, and we had already tested your sample, so I figured tonight was as good a night as any.” She smoothed her hair behind her ears as she thought. “What brought you to the woods tonight anyhow?” I fought the urge to look at him again, but from the corner of my eye, I saw him shift nervously on his feet. Uh oh. Iris must not have known I was here the other night or that he’d given me a flower. I was glad I’d kept my mouth shut earlier. “I just needed to get out,” I said feebly. She nodded but didn’t seem to really buy it. “I see. But all the ‘trouble,’ Kat, is what I’m about to get into. There’s a point to all of this.” Now I shifted nervously, my heart racing faster. I knew it had to be something big. “There’s one other important quality you should know about us half-breeds.” The way she paused and pressed her eyelids closed for a moment made my stomach clench. What? Just say it! Her purple eyes reopened. “Kat… you’re immortal.” CHAPTER EIGHT ___________________ Captivated Immortal. The word whirled inside me like a tornado, and although I knew well enough what it meant, I still had a hard time grasping it. Immortal… I’m immortal? “I know it’s a shock at first,” she soothed in her southern way, her voice low and soft. “But believe me… be glad you found out this way instead of finding out on your own.” Piper and the girl with the auburn curls slowly nodded in agreement. Iris placed a consoling hand on my arm. “We want you to live with us, Kat. To join us. Being immortal comes with great sacrifices and responsibilities. Ones that I know you couldn’t possibly understand until time passes, but that’s why we’ve formed this little colony and seek out half-breeds like you, to create a haven and support system for others like us.” I released the breath I realized I’d been holding. Again, I didn’t know what to say. I looked to the fire; the only sound filling this secret nook in the woods was its crackling hiss. “I know you need time to process,” she said. “You don’t have to give us an answer tonight.” “And this is a great thing too, Kat,” Kai added. “Although it may not feel that way sometimes, I also see immortality as a gift.” A sarcastic snort from one of the others told me they all didn’t feel that way. Iris threw an annoyed look, her bird ruffling his feathers, but I didn’t see who it was. I was too busy staring numbly at the flames as they licked the night air. My thoughts were caught in a traffic jam; nothing was getting through. Iris was right; I needed time to process. She moved my chin with her finger so I would meet her eyes. “Why don’t you join us tomorrow night for supper? You don’t even have to give us an answer then. Just come join us for a meal after dark to get to know us better and get a better glimpse of our lifestyle.” I nodded my answer, my eyes sweeping through the forest again to take in the tents and horses. They lived medieval. Disconnected from the rest of the world. She smiled. “Lovely. We’ll see you tomorrow, dear. You should probably get back before someone realizes you’re missing.” “Okay,” I managed. That was the last thing my school needed – to think another student had gone missing. Iris stood, grasping my hand and pulling me with her. My knees trembled, but I refused to pass out again. She put her arm around my shoulder, hugging me gently. “Before you leave, we’ll do some quick introductions.” She extended her other hand toward pretty-boy with the blond hair. “This is Raymond.” Round lips – Raymond. Got it. I nodded a greeting. “Hello,” he replied. I now had the wits about me to take note of what everyone wore – black. Iris with her black dress; Kai wore a black long sleeve t-shirt and khakis; this Raymond kid had on a black turtleneck sweater and jeans. “And this couple here,” she said, pointing at Barbie and her boyfriend, “Is Aubrey and Brad.” Auburn – Aubrey. Beast – Brad. “Nice to meet you,” I said. They nodded. Aubrey’s version of their coven’s signature color was a black silk blouse with a jean skirt and black knee-high boots. Brad’s black shirt and jeans straining to cover his muscles complemented her outfit just right – Barbie and the Beast. If I wasn’t so dumbfounded by tonight’s revelations, I would have laughed at myself. “And this is Gabriel,” she said, moving her hand to my dream boy, who wore a black button-up shirt that fit like it was made for him and slate grey slacks that did the same. I met his eyes and melted. Gabriel. So fitting. Angelic. A commanding presence. At least he commanded my attention. I didn’t need to do a word association to remember his name. It was now permanently tattooed on my heart. “Hi,” he said, his voice like velvet, wrapping all around me. I only smiled. That was the best I could do. I was lucky to still be standing. “And this is Piper and Colton,” she said, moving along. Tearing my eyes away from Gabriel, I focused on them. I already had Piper’s name down, and Colton would be easy enough. Copper hair – Colton. Piper wore a peasant top with leggings, both of them black of course, with lace trim around the sleeves and neckline of the top. Her outfit reminded me of something a hippie might wear, but it suited her perfectly. Colton had on a black t-shirt, black leather jacket, and worn jeans. The end of a red handkerchief dangled from his back pocket. I imagined he’d arrived earlier on a motorcycle and parked it amongst the horses. “Nice to finally meet you!” Piper trilled. Colton said nothing, nodding his greeting in my direction. “Same here.” After the official introductions, my eyes swept over the other half-breeds again. My thoughts toyed with the notion – half-breed. Hybrid. Words I would have to become comfortable with. It hit me that maybe the reason I didn’t feel as beautiful as all the others was because my mother was a former angel and one of their parents was probably full-fledged. Not saying my mother wasn’t beautiful, she was gorgeous, but she’d been given a mortal body. According to Kai, though, my threads were strong. And my blood passed the test; I saw it with my own eyes. I guess ‘former’ and ‘full-fledged’ didn’t matter with us hybrids. Maybe it was more the origin of the souls of our parents than the bodies. I had grown inside the body of a mortal with an inherent angelic soul, so as I’d always partly presumed, something must have woven into my DNA while I was in there – an angelic gene. Enough to be considered a hybrid, anyway. Go figure. My thoughts spiraled to my brother Sam. Could he be a half-breed too? Did mom’s angelic origin fuse to him as well? He wasn’t gifted, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything according to Iris. Not all half-breeds were. I could test his blood next time I was home. “Wonderful,” Iris said, rubbing her dove’s head. “Now who would like to walk her back to the edge of the woods?” Piper’s hand shot into the air. Dang. I was hoping for Gabriel. “Gabriel,” Iris said, pretending she didn’t see Piper, “Walk her back, please?” Piper crossed her arms, and the others snickered. She must have been the most spirited of the group. A brief thought of us becoming friends flickered through my mind. I couldn’t see that happening with Aubrey, who hadn’t even smiled at me yet. At least not immediate friends. I waved my goodbyes as Gabriel started toward me. When turning on my heels and thinking about sneaking back into the school, a thought slammed into me – maybe Kai had seen Nurse Plunkett yesterday. “Oh, Kai?” I asked, turning back to him. Gabriel paused beside me. “Yes?” “Did you see Nurse Plunkett yesterday?” He cocked his head, his eyebrow arching. “Yes…” “He’s missing.” “Missing?” He blanched. Iris’ eyes flared. “Jesus, Kai, how much did you give him?” Give him? “Give him what?” My voice echoed off the trees. What did these people do to him? “Shhh…” Iris scolded. “It’s okay. We’ll figure this out.” “Is that why all the police showed up today?” Piper asked. I lowered my voice, although I was still annoyed. “Part of the reason. Now what happened to Nurse Plunkett?” He cracked his knuckles anxiously. “I… gave him something. I put something in his drink. Just to knock him out for a while.” “How much?” Iris asked, irritation lacing her words. “Half the vial.” She rolled her eyes. “I said a fourth, Kai.” “Well, what was it?” I asked, growing impatient. “A potion Iris makes,” he said. “I practice homeopathy,” she clarified. “We don’t rely on modern medicine here and try to be self-sufficient. The plan was for Kai to slip the nurse this medicine, which acts sort of like a mild sedative, borrow his clothes while he slept so he could get your sample, re-dress him and then be out of there by the time he awoke.” “He was only supposed to be asleep for a few hours,” Kai mumbled. “If he’d had a fourth of it, yes,” Iris added. “But you gave him half a vial. Where’d you leave him?” “In a closet.” She spoke through gritted teeth. “In a closet, Kai?” Her bird squawked. “He’d passed out in the hallway! And I couldn’t drag him far… he’s a big man.” I interrupted their brewing altercation, which actually sounded more like a lover’s quarrel. “So let me get this straight… he’s alive and still at the school?” I knew I should have been just as peeved as Iris, but Kai hadn’t actually meant the old man any real harm. And what a relief that he hadn’t been abducted. “What closet?” “It’s down the hall and around the corner from the Nurse’s Station.” He gave Iris an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry, I-” She turned to me, ignoring him. “I trust you’ll go find him once you return?” “As soon as I get back.” “Let me go get you something to help wake him if he’s still asleep.” As she stormed off, she spared one last disparaging look at Kai, and I swore I saw him cower. She definitely wore the pants in that relationship. She had every right to be mad, though; that was a pretty big screw-up for anyone, but especially a nurse. He should stick to his other day job of reading auras. In a matter of a few silent, awkward minutes, she returned holding another vial. “Place two drops of this on his tongue if he’s still asleep. He should wake shortly after.” I clung to it for dear life. “Got it.” Another thought slammed into me. Jillian. “You wouldn’t happen to know about a girl named Jillian, would you? She’s missing too.” Hope swelled inside. How great would it be if both of them were recovered tonight? “Jillian?” Iris repeated with a scowl and looked to Kai. He shook his head with a shrug. My hope deflated. Shit. Iris looked genuinely mortified. “No, dear, we don’t. A child is missing?” “Yes. As of this morning.” “What did she look like?” “I... I’m not sure. I didn’t know her. She was a freshman, so all I know is she was about fourteen.” Her hand met her chest. “Oh no,” she breathed. “How awful.” She searched the eyes of the others. “Anyone see a girl wander off or anything out of the ordinary? Everyone shook their heads. “We’ll keep our eyes peeled. If she’d wandered this way, we would have seen her. But we’ll keep an eye out.” “Okay,” I replied, disappointed. Nurse Plunkett’s disappearance could be explained, but we still had a missing student. “See you tomorrow,” she said as she whirled back for the tents, Kai following after her like a lost puppy and her bird eyeing me. I decided the thing made me uneasy; it seemed too knowing. Too… human. “See you tomorrow,” I replied, and with the vial clutched tightly in my hand and Gabriel beside me, I made my way back toward the school. The walk back was quiet. Too quiet. I’d finally had a chance alone with my dream boy, and I couldn’t seem to conjure a single word. There were too many thoughts; too many questions swirling around in my brain – I was immortal, and I’d just been invited to live with a coven of other immortals. How would I even begin to make that decision? And the case of Nurse Plunkett was solved, but what about poor Jillian? And Gabriel… he was real. All too real and here beside me, his strong, imposing presence swallowing me whole. In a good way. The air between us felt thick with an intoxicating electric charge. The pull to him was stronger when we were closer. “So is Kat short for something?” he asked, breaking the silence. Thank God he’d spoken first. I had no idea where to even start with our first conversation, assuming there would be more, praying there would be more. I stared at my feet as we walked, not daring to glance up at him for fear that I would get lost in him and trip, utterly embarrassing myself. Not to mention it would be easier for me to carry on a coherent conversation with him if I didn’t look at him directly. “Kathrin,” I replied, my voice thin and shaky from the onslaught of emotions over the last hour or so. “You can call me Gabe,” he continued. “Iris is really the only one who calls me by my full name.” “Oh,” I replied, the only word that would form. A few more silent moments passed, the sound of every crunching footstep pounding against me, reminding me how quickly we would be back and how badly I was already screwing this up. Why couldn’t I just talk to the boy? Why did his presence affect me this profoundly? Because he’s gorgeous, my subconscious retorted. And because you know he feels the same. Finally, I felt bold enough to glance at him. He walked with his hands stuffed in his pockets, also staring at the ground, but it was too dark to get a read on his expression. I would have given anything to crawl inside that head of his, to know what he thought about me being invited to live with them. Or what he thought about me in general. My subconscious butted in again. As if the flowers he gives you isn’t any indication. It was now my turn to say something. I couldn’t let this moment pass me by. I might not have been able to squat inside his head to read his thoughts, but I could ask questions in hopes he would give me a glimpse. Speaking of flowers, I decided to start with the most obvious one, but most definitely not the easiest. I had a feeling that our alone time might be limited if he lived with so many others, and I would have to ask these questions while it was the two of us. I cleared my throat to even out my voice. “So there’s something I’m curious about,” I began. His pace slowed, his eyes drawing over to me. “Yes?” he replied, and if I wasn’t mistaken, his voice held a tinge of relief. Maybe the silence was killing him just as badly. I slowed to match his stride, and then we stopped altogether, our eyes meeting. The silvery moonlight danced on his porcelain skin, his piercing blue eyes sending my heart into spasms. The way his hair fell across his forehead made me want to reach out and sweep my fingers through it. Keep it together. Focus on the question. I lowered my voice to a whisper so it wouldn’t carry back to the others. “So the flower I got the other morning, that was from you?” He took a step closer and anxiously scrutinized my face, attempting to read my expression. “How’d you know?” “Lucky guess,” I admitted shyly. And had prophetic dreams of you. “You were the one who gave me the flower in the woods the other night, right?” “Yes… that was me,” he said, a smile toying with his lips, “So you liked the flower I brought you? You didn’t think it was-” “I loved it,” I replied eagerly, cutting him off. He smiled with a mixture of relief and pride, and we lapsed into silence as I thought about where to go from there, my eyes raking through the woods. I noticed the lights weren’t flickering in the distance anymore. Iris must have cloaked everything with her invisibility spell. “So where were the others that night? I’m guessing they don’t know about it?” “Sometimes the others go off on their own – the couples to spend time alone, and some of us go hunting.” Hunting? I guess they wouldn’t rely on grocery stores if they lived in the woods. “So I was alone that night.” “Why wouldn’t you answer me?” I asked. “I wanted to talk to you that night.” His smile fell. “I’m sorry. When we’re invisible you can’t hear us anyway, and I already felt like I was breaking one of Iris’ rules by interacting with you. I didn’t want to break too many at one time.” “Rules?” “Yeah, we’re not really allowed to speak with anyone outside our group unless Iris approves.” For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me. Iris had to approve of everyone they talked to? “Oh.” He held out his hands defensively. “It’s not because she’s controlling or anything. She just always stresses the importance of keeping our lives private. It’s better to keep our existence a secret.” Fair enough. “Gotcha. So you can use the spells too? You know how to make yourself invisible?” “All of us do.” My thoughts reeled at the possibility. That would be mighty useful when sneaking out of the school… or back in. “Think you could show me how?” His eyebrows knitted together, conflicted. He glanced nervously back in the direction of their camp. “If you can’t, that’s fine. I understand.” Probably another one of her ‘rules.’ My eyes involuntarily drew to a bush beside us with the same white flowers, the imagery of when he’d plucked one the other night and given it to me seared into my memory. Warmth flooded my body. “So all of this is real…” I mused. He let out a low chuckle. “Real?” “I feel like I’m dreaming.” Like I could have woken up any minute now and everything I’d experienced was just a product of my overactive mind. “Oh, it’s real, Kat.” God, I loved the sound of my name on his lips. “I’m beginning to accept that.” I think. With a playful glint in his eyes, he collected a bud from the bush. “Well in case you keep having doubts,” he said, laying it flat in his palm, and his other hand hovered over the closed petals. His fingers moved in a deliberate pattern, as though he were weaving some magical tapestry. And then, like the other night, the petals shivered and opened. This must have been his gift. He leaned closer, his well-kept, lean form a breath away, his voice sweet and heavy. “Remember this.” My jaw fell. He then took my hand, placed the newly blossomed flower in my palm. The warmth of his hand against mine sent a wave of chills over my body. I curled my fingers around the flower so I wouldn’t drop it. Gently, he pulled my hand to his mouth and kissed the top of my hand, his eyes never leaving mine. My breath hitched; there was no doubt in my mind now that we felt exactly the same way about each other. After he released my hand, I just stood there. Stupefied and completely and utterly enthralled with this boy. This heart-achingly beautiful boy – a literal descendant of an angel. His mother or father must have been an arch. “You aren’t going to pass out on me again are you?” he teased. I managed a small laugh. “Maybe.” He laughed in return, his blue eyes dancing. “Good, because you scared me earlier. So I’ll see you tomorrow night, then?” Oh, yes. Come Heaven or hell, I would be back. “I promise.” His smile widened to reveal his perfect pearly whites, sending my heart back into spasms. “Good.” We started on our way again, this time in comfortable silence. My brain was mush anyway from him kissing my hand. I would never wash it again. Once we’d made it to the tree line, I whirled to face him. He took my hand again and brushed a kiss on my knuckles. “Until tomorrow.” “Tomorrow.” We exchanged parting grins and tore away from each other to head where we needed to go. There was so much more to ask, to say. But we would have more time tomorrow night. As I pulled my hoodie over my head in preparation for my covert entrance back into the school, I indulged myself with one last look as he walked away. Everything inside me was bursting to run back over to touch him again, throw him against a tree and kiss him, just be near him, so much that my skin could hardly contain it. It wasn’t about lust or even his looks, it was that ever-present calling to him from deep inside – my soul’s recognition of its counterpart. I smiled a face-splitting smile. This was most definitely, without question, the captivation my mother spoke of. Within a short walk and a kiss of my hand, Gabriel had captivated my heart. CHAPTER NINE ___________________ Chemistry By the time I’d made it into the school and around the corner from the nurse’s station to find Nurse Plunkett, I heard voices echoing down the empty hallways. One of them sounded like Principal Hughes. I flattened against the wall and listened, searching for a crevice I could dart into if need be. The voices didn’t seem to be getting closer, so I relaxed. “I’m so glad we found him,” a husky female voice said. Wanda… his assistant. I held my breath to hear better. “Me too,” Principal Hughes answered. “Any idea why he would have been asleep inside a closet?” an unfamiliar voice asked. An officer? “For an entire day?” “No idea,” Principal Hughes replied. He sounded completely defeated. But of course he would be; even though they’d found Nurse Plunkett, a child was still missing. “You can’t think of a single reason?” the officer pried. Because a half-breed, aura-reading dipstick gave him too much elixir. My fingertips grazed the glass vial in my pocket – the medicine Iris had given me to wake him. Did he still need it? “No, I’m sorry.” “I suppose I’ll question Nurse Plunkett again in the morning when he’s less groggy.” I released my breath. He must be awake. Thank God. “That’s what I would do, detective,” Principal Hughes said. I heard a click of a pen and a notepad slam shut. “Okay, then. See you both in the morning.” Shit, that was my cue. I better make it back to my room. With mere hours before I needed to be up and getting ready, my mind raced with thoughts of tomorrow. If they let us out of our jail cells, I’d have to pretend to be just as shocked and relieved as everyone else when they announced the news of Nurse Plunkett, and even if they didn’t let us out, I’d be sneaking back into the woods tomorrow night to join the other half-breeds for dinner. And he would be there. Gabriel. His name injected a fresh rush of excitement into my blood. Sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight. As I laid on my bed with the flower resting on my stomach, my fingertips running over my knuckles where Gabriel had kissed me, I conjured up my own definition of what being captivated meant. Just from my brief but potent encounter with him in the flesh, I could honestly say that captivation was something born, not bred. It wasn’t something created or forced, but rather a natural, organic bond when a soul recognizes its match in another. Now I finally understood what all the fuss was about, what it meant to be truly enamored with someone beyond belief. I wanted to do pirouettes around our room and had a rich, deep-seated hunger to see him again. But what now? Where would this new chapter take me? And as importantly, where would it take Levi? My heart plummeted into my stomach. Levi. It was now all the more apparent how I’d been trying to force something that wasn’t meant to be. All this time I’d been shoving a square peg into a round hole. Tears stung my eyes at the thought of hurting him, because that was what would eventually happen… wouldn’t it? And I didn’t want to be the one to break his heart. He’d given it to me openly, and I had gambled with it like a careless jerk. Wetting my pillow, tears flowed freely down my face. It was emotionally exhausting to be filled with so much joy and guilt at the same time. Joy in finding out Gabriel was real, but guilty… oh, so guilty about what it meant for Levi. My sweet, sweet Levi who would do anything and everything to have me. With that thought, I gave in; I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed. The shrill ring of our phone jerked me from a dreamless sleep. My first thought was my parents, that they’d received their call from the school and were freaking out. And if they hadn’t, it was my dad’s sixth sense kicking in again. I reached with my telekinesis and brought the phone to my ear. My voice was deep and scratchy. Too little sleep. “Hello?” “Good morning, students,” Principal Hughes’ recording began, and I stiffened with anticipation. “You are all permitted to attend breakfast this morning to get out of your rooms. Further information will be provided there as to how we will handle your classes the rest of the day. Make sure and walk with your dorm mates to and from the cafeteria. That is all.” Yawning, I sent the phone back and consulted the alarm clock that wouldn’t go off for another fifteen minutes. It was six-forty-five. Breakfast started at eight, first class at eight thirty-five. I needed to get up and moving. As tired as I felt, I would be a slug and would need the extra fifteen minutes to get ready. As I begrudgingly slid from my warm covers, I knocked a pile of white flowers onto the floor. Wait… more flowers! Smiling like a fool, my hand flew to my cheek as I counted. Twenty-three… there were twenty-three flowers covering me as I’d slept. Beneath the scattered flowers on the floor was a handwritten note. I snatched it up and read. Dearest Kat, In case you’re still doubting that it’s all real. Gabe My hand moved to my heart. Anna grunted and stirred, breaking my reverie. Shit. I needed to hide all of this before she woke up. A knock on the door made me jump. Anna jerked awake. I released the letter into the pile of flowers and swept everything beneath my bed with my foot. “Oh, God…” Anna gasped, preening her hair and stealing away into the bathroom, “It’s Ronnie.” “I’ll get it, girl,” I assured her. I don’t think she’d noticed the flowers. “Coming!” I called to Ronnie and shuffled to the door to give Anna some time. He held back a laugh when he saw me. “Rough night?” I turned to our dresser mirror. Yikes. Puffy eyes were staring back at me, and apparently, a family of mice had decided to make a nest in my hair – the product of an hour or so of sleep. I looked like death. Pining over Gabe and sobbing over Levi dominated what few precious hours I’d had left. “Shut up, Ron,” I chuckled, motioning him into the room so I could shut the door. “Just kidding,” he said, fist-bumping my shoulder. Boys.com my hair. ing. at the edge of the woods like it was noig Anna finally emerged. Her short stint in the bathroom had been productive; she’d managed to sweep her hair up into a bun and swipe on some mascara. “Morning,” she cooed at him. “You came." His expression brightened. “Of course I did. I promised, didn’t I?” I couldn’t help but grin at the two of them. Unbidden, an image of the way Levi had always looked at me – full of love and pride – flashed through my mind, punching me square in the gut. My eyes fell to the floor. I couldn’t look at Ronnie anymore. Once I’d broken Levi’s heart, what would he think of me? Would I be accepted by his friends? I suppose I couldn’t worry about that, though, or let it affect my decision to break up with Levi. I was still resolute. There was no other alternative. I didn’t want to be stuck in some silly love triangle… that wasn’t an option. Or fair to anyone. Especially Levi. After last night, there really was no competition to be had anyway… only prolonging the inevitable. Besides, I was immortal and Levi wasn’t. Now our differences went beyond the level of our affections for each other. Way beyond. “I’ll give you two some privacy,” I said, trying my best to sound normal and not anxious or dejected, and made my way for the bathroom to get ready. Still puffy-eyed, but somewhat fit for a public appearance, I hurried through the hallways with Anna by my side and my hand in my skirt pocket where I’d stuffed a flower. I wanted it with me all day. It was like having a piece of Gabriel, and I needed it for comfort and courage when facing Levi. I would eventually be breaking his heart, and a little piece of mine, when the time felt right. I still cared for him and didn’t want to be the source of his anguish. Of anyone’s, really. But I guess that was the price I’d have to pay. An ugly, painful price. Maintaining my composure was hard to do as we skittered across the lunchroom to our table. When I saw Levi anxiously awaiting my arrival, it was all I could do not to fall to pieces right then and there. I rubbed one of the velvety petals inside my pocket. Don’t fall apart. Not here. I settled beside him, and he wrapped an arm around me. “It’s all right, babe,” he said with a kiss to my temple, misreading my troubled expression. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Ugh. Knife to the heart. I couldn’t even conjure a fake smile. I only nodded. “Hey,” he said, lifting my chin to meet his eyes. I fought my defiant, quivering chin with every muscle in my face. And why did he always have to look so damn cute? “I promise.” I mustered the courage to smile. A weak smile. “Better.” His arm tightened around me, and I couldn’t help but sink into his side – my body’s natural response to needing the comfort. While I was there, I noticed our chemistry wasn’t just ‘off’ anymore; it was close to fizzling out. A couple’s chemistry must have been dependent upon the condition of both their hearts and who their hearts truly wanted. And yet again, Levi didn’t seem to be completely aware. But why would he be? His heart still wanted me. He’d know soon enough. I cringed at the thought. Forcing my thoughts elsewhere, I scanned the table. Because of recent events, nobody seemed in a particularly great mood, so thankfully my state of melancholy didn’t stand out. Anna and Ivy were chatting about how they’d found Nurse Plunkett last night – I guess the news was out – but then went into how Jillian had been missing for twenty-four hours now and how the probability of someone being found after that dropped considerably. Absentmindedly, I rubbed the flower again as Levi took a bite of his biscuit with his free hand. I didn’t have an appetite, so I left the one he’d gotten me alone. “You forget how to talk this morning?” he teased, gave me a little shake. This time, I mustered a shrug and a few words. “Sorry. I’m just tired.” He deliberately dropped his biscuit on his tray with a thud. “Okay…” he said with a sigh. “You’re gonna force me to cheer you up.” A black veil fell over my eyes, wiping out the table, our chatting friends, and the entire lunchroom. I flinched but still felt Levi’s arm around me. “Just enjoy,” he assured me. I realized what he was doing – one of his illusions. But he’d never blacked out my vision before. What was he up to? A light breeze washed over me along with the smell of brine. Seagulls squawked overhead, and the soft, gritty feel of sand squished between my toes. The beach? A blue sky with feathered clouds came into focus, a pink and orange sunset streaking across the horizon. I focused on the waves that rolled toward us as we sat on the shore. “How’s that?” he asked. With wide, glassy eyes, I peered up at him. How did he- “I’ve been practicing,” he crowed. “I see that,” I said, awestruck, moving from beneath his arm and running my fingers through the sand. It felt so real. “You’ve been practicing a lot.” He watched me, and I tilted my chin up and closed my eyes to feel the wind on my face. So peaceful. So what I needed. He really was a great guy… just great for someone else. I fought the feelings of guilt away so I could enjoy the scenery and these last uncomplicated moments with him. Would it be too much to ask to stay friends with him? I didn’t want him out of my life completely. But maybe it was. I guess I’d let him make that decision when the time came. “What’s this?” he asked, and the edge in his voice caught me off guard. My head snapped in his direction, and I looked down to the white flower in his hand. My heart slammed into my throat, my mouth going dry. Shit! It must have fallen out of my pocket. The way his expression morphed from confusion to understanding to agony told me he was putting some of the pieces together – my tiredness, my wishy-washiness, and emotional distance meant something bad, something bad for him. My admirer had brought me another flower, and I was keeping it from him. If he only knew the extent of it. I had no idea where to start for an explanation. “I, uh…” Principal Hughes’ voice rolled in behind the wind, and Levi dropped his illusion. The lunchroom scenery snapped back into place like a tight rubber band. I gasped. “Students, may I have your attention, please? After breakfast, please report back to your dorm rooms. You will not be attending classes today.” Anna and I instinctively looked at each other – she was disappointed, but I was relieved and pretending to be disappointed. Normally I would have dreaded going back to our cage, but as I sat here beside Levi with absolutely no idea what I was going to tell him about the flower, I realized I needed more time to prepare the imminent breakup speech. “Your class assignments will be delivered to your rooms,” he continued. “As well as our decision on whether or not to discontinue classes altogether and send you home until further notice. Please make your way to your rooms now.” A mixture of gasps and relieved sighs filled the air as we all stood to our feet to leave. Nobody really wanted to go home, but I guess it was a matter of time before they shut the school down until they could figure out what had happened to Jillian. Besides, they couldn’t risk losing another student, and none of us wanted to be next. I then wondered if they had come to a conclusion about Nurse Plunkett’s mysterious vacation in the closet for the past day and a half. It couldn’t have helped their suspicions that something wasn’t quite right around here, I’m sure. But I also couldn’t very well enlighten them, either. Ever. Suddenly I wanted to escape from here for real, not just in an illusion. Stealing away with the other half-breeds was sounding more appealing by the minute. “Want your flower back?” Levi asked, deadpan. Ugh. Another stab to the heart. I stared down at it as he held it out. If I said “no,” he’d know I was only saying it to make him feel better. I took it from his hand, set it on the table anyway. No need to rub salt in his wounds. As we headed toward the double doors and back to our rooms, he stayed by my side but kept his hands and lips to himself. Understandably he was hurt, but he had no idea how bad it was eventually going to get. But first, I needed some time alone to think. Thank God they’d sent us back to our rooms. CHAPTER TEN ___________________ Family Our assignments for the day were a joke; I finished mine in thirty minutes. It was mainly busy work and reviewing lessons our teachers had already been over. Lunch came and went, and Anna and I were bored out of our minds. We’d already talked about as many topics as we could come up with and had played three rounds of cards. Funny how I didn’t realize the value of freedom until I didn’t have it anymore. I would have given anything to play a round of kickball or take a stroll in the courtyard. Sundown couldn’t come soon enough so I could escape into the woods. Hoping to get a nap before then, I laid on the bed with my covers pulled up around my shoulders. But try as I might, I couldn’t fall sleep. As soon as I had settled in, my mind wandered to my breakup with Levi and what I would tell him. I certainly couldn’t tell him how vast our differences were, that I was a half-breed immortal. And I definitely didn’t want to tell him that I was dumping him for someone else. In this instance, the truth was too harsh. I couldn’t witness the way the pain of it would tear him to shreds. So what, then? What would I tell him? That I was changing my mind about him? Oops! Sorry, Levi. I didn’t want you after all. Did I care about him? Yes. But did I want him? Not like I wanted Gabriel. I could never say that, either. Jesus… what am I going to do? My thoughts snapped back to my conversation with my mom the other day, how she’d hesitated when I asked her if she’d ever been with someone whom she felt like might be better for someone else. The next time I could talk to her without Anna around, I would. Whenever that would be. Or maybe that was it. Maybe that was the answer to my breakup with him – that I felt he would be better off with someone else. That he deserved better. It was the truth, and yet less harsh than all the other truths. I knew he cared about me, but I also knew he’d caught on a few times to my indecisiveness – in the hallway, after the game, when he’d kissed me after we were summoned to our dorms during our kickball tournament. Surely this wouldn’t take him completely by surprise. And the flower he’d found at lunch – I would have to come up with something for that too. I’m sure his mind was reeling with who was bringing those to me. Would he ever believe the breakup wasn’t about someone else? Even if he didn’t, I would never divulge that to him. He could assume all he wanted. I needed to protect him from that truth and would take it to my grave… figuratively speaking. Levi and Gabe would never meet anyway. I hope. I rolled to my side. Enough about the breakup; my heart needed rest. Next on my agenda – what I was going to ask tonight at dinner with Gabriel and his coven. I had so many questions about their way of life and what committing to that life would mean for me. For one, I was still worried about Sam and if he was a half-breed. Would Iris’ rules permit me to visit my family? And if so, could I tell them about my living arrangements? If not, that would be a problem. I rattled through a few other questions and issues in my head and tucked them away for later, but there was one thing I already knew for sure – if I planned on joining their coven, I’d need to buy a lot more black clothes. I suppose my new dress was a start. Despite my exhaustion from barely sleeping the night before, that much-needed nap never came. My mind wouldn’t rest long enough. Anna, however, dozed off as soon as the last ray of light hid beneath the horizon. Sneaking out of the school seemed to be getting easier and easier. Almost too easy. I reminded myself not to get sloppy with it, though. If someone caught me, the school would start watching me like a hawk – not good when you want to visit a hot guy and his coven in the woods every night. When I’d made it to the tree line, I paused despite the ever-tugging pull and smiled at the sight of flickering torches in the distance. That foreign glow that I’d been so wary of the night before could possibly become a familiar symbol of home. I warmed to the idea. “Hey,” a whispering voice said. I squeaked a curse word. A hand grabbed mine – a soft, strong hand. Gabriel. My body instantly relaxed. “Sorry, Kat,” he said, stroking the top of my hand with his thumb. I relished the sensation. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” Damn, even when he whispered my name it was enough to make me melt. Would it be wrong of me to ask him to record it so I could take it back to my room with me later? Maybe not wrong, but a solid ten on the creepy-meter. Never mind. “It’s all right,” I replied, blushing, embarrassed by my creepy thoughts and squeaking out the curse word. Good thing the moon was behind the clouds tonight and neither of us could really see the other’s faces. He would have seen my bright pink cheeks. Again. “This is where you’ve been entering the woods,” he continued. “So I waited for you here.” “How long?” I asked. The idea of him anxiously awaiting my arrival sent a flurry of butterflies through my stomach. “Only for about an hour…” he attempted to say nonchalantly. “…Or so.” The butterflies threatened to make a hostile takeover. He’d waited for me for an hour, possibly hours. “Looking forward to seeing me again, huh?” I teased. “More than you know.” Oh, I know. Believe me. Attached by our hands, we made our way toward the lights. The closer we came to the camp, the more the smell of roasted meat teased my hunger. I’d only eaten a fraction of my lunch and none of my dinner in anticipation for tonight. Right on cue, my stomach growled. “Someone’s hungry,” Gabriel said, playfully squeezing my hand. I swallowed to keep a handle on my saliva. “Whatever it is, it smells good.” “That’s one thing you’ll learn about us – we know how to make a feast.” A feast, I mused. Who says ‘feast’ anymore? These people really were disconnected from the world. I then wondered how old Gabriel was. If he was immortal, he could be any number of years old. Before I had the chance to verbalize the question, we entered the clearing and Iris’s musical voice squealed with delight. “Oh, you came back! I’m so happy you decided to join us again.” Gabriel released my hand as Iris wrapped me in a tight hug. Air… I needed air! When she released me, she brushed my hair from my shoulders, studying me with a luminous smile. Her eyes sparkled like polished amethysts. Such a contrast from her mood when I’d left yesterday – she must have gotten over her fight with Kai. “We’ve prepared a big feast tonight for the occasion,” she beamed. “So I was told,” I replied. Smiling, I looked to Gabriel who smiled back with his mouthful of pearly whites. He too looked like he’d lit up from within. Who knew my presence could make everyone this happy? And if I was completely honest with myself, I felt giddy as well. The fuss over my arrival, the feast they’d prepared, spending more time with Gabriel and learning more about what I am and this way of life – for the first time in a long time, my heart wanted to soar. Iris slid her hand into mine. “Come,” she said, grinning at my exchange with Gabriel. She must have approved of our fascination with each other. With Gabriel at our heels, Iris pulled me across the clearing, and I gasped at the scenery. They really had gone all out for me tonight. To the extreme. Handmade garlands of dainty white and purple flowers draped between the branches of the trees around the space; white paper lanterns hung from the lower branches to illuminate a massive clothed table covered with platters of roasted pig, some kind of fowl and other game they’d probably hunted that day, and colorful bowls of fruit and salads. A gilded cage with its own arrangement of flowers hung beside the table with Iris’ bird inside. He bobbed his head at me. Weird little critter. Aubrey looked up from the table where she was placing a few more flowers as finishing touches. She gave me her best effort at a welcoming smile. That was more than I’d gotten from her so far; I was surprised her face didn’t crack. Piper entered the space with silver goblets cradled in her arms and spotted me immediately. “You came!” The goblets tumbled to the floor as she bounded toward me. I just stood there, flattered and dumbfounded, as she flung her arms around my neck. I guess inviting someone into their family was a big deal – I was a potential family member. I also wondered if others they’d approached had denied their invitation and decided to do the immortal thing on their own. My presence here tonight must have indicated a partial commitment to them. But I wouldn’t go that far just yet. I had an arsenal of questions waiting for them. The rest of the guys were the last to arrive – Raymond, Kai, Brad and Colton – all carrying chairs to set around the table. They each nodded their hellos. After Piper had released me, Gabriel took the chance to hook his elbow with mine and escort me the rest of the way to the table. He slid a chair from the end and helped me sit. “Thank you,” I cooed, my heart soaring higher. Hot and a gentleman. My dad would approve. Hopefully. As the others settled in their seats, I immediately felt underdressed for this ‘feast.’ All the girls wore their versions of black dresses – Aubrey’s was, of course, tight and short, Piper’s a doll dress with cap sleeves, and Iris’ long and velvet like her other, except this one had beads in a filigree pattern covering the bodice. The boys all wore black dress shirts and slacks, even Colton, but he still had his red handkerchief hanging from his back pocket. If I’d known this was a formal affair, I would have worn something dressier. I thought I was doing good by wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater and leggings tonight, not a hoodie and jeans – my usual woods attire. I wanted to put a little more effort into my appearance this time, partly for Gabriel – okay, mostly for Gabriel – and partly because I didn’t want to feel like a toad amidst royalty. Oh, well. After Kai had prayed over the meal, we all dug in and not much was said other than to ask someone to pass something or to compliment the way a dish was cooked. Everyone must have been as famished as I was. Or maybe they were quiet because a newbie was at the table. I almost scowled inwardly at the thought of being labeled a “newbie” again, but the food… oh, the food tasted amazing and distracted me from focusing on anything else. Other than stealing a few glances at Gabriel. A lifetime of this would be fine by me. When the pace of our eating slowed to a near stop and most everyone was reclined in their chairs, Iris took the dove from his cage and suggested we retire around the fire to talk. Here we go, I thought, silently preparing my questions. Gabriel was the first to stand and offered me his elbow again for an escort. Yep. I could definitely get used to this. I beamed at him as I stood, my heart skipping a beat as he watched me with pride. It felt like we had been together for weeks already. After only a day, there was already a familiarity with the way we interacted. It felt easy. No awkwardness or overthinking. It was nice. We settled around the fire with full bellies and light spirits, but once Iris began speaking, the atmosphere shifted. This was, after all, a pretty serious deal. This was a life-changing decision for me. Not that my life hadn’t already dramatically changed after I’d learned I would live forever – the idea felt daunting and exciting all at the same time – but how I’d spend that life depended on how this conversation would go. “So, Kat,” Iris began. She sat directly across the fire from me, her white-blonde hair glowing in the firelight. “I imagine you’ve come up with a fair number of questions since last night.” All eyes were on me, and I folded my hands to keep from fidgeting. Piper flashed an encouraging smile from beside her. “Ask anything you want,” Iris cajoled. I cleared my throat. I hated being the center of attention. Gabriel placed a consoling hand on my lower back. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, but every time he touched me, it made it harder to concentrate on anything or anyone else. Hell, just being in his presence did that, but I needed to stay the course and remember my questions. “Well, for one,” I began. “I’m close with my family. If I choose to join your coven, will I be allowed to see them?” The lines on Iris’ forehead deepened. “Of course,” she said, her tone almost chiding, as if me suggesting otherwise had wounded her. “This isn’t a prison. We’re all free to come and go as we please and visit whomever we like.” I sighed. Whew. “But that’s not to say that you can tell everyone what we are.” That might be a problem. “What about my parents, though? I’d like them to know.” “Parents and siblings are fine,” Kai interjected. “Since you’re part angel, I’m sure your parents are already comfortable with the supernatural. Telling them wouldn’t be as much of a shock to their system. But friends and extended family… it’s best if they stay in the dark. For many reasons.” “But why?” I asked. I didn’t have an extended family to speak of – no aunts, uncles or cousins – but all my friends here could definitely handle the supernatural. Iris gave me a sympathetic smile. “It’s more than a matter of if they can handle our situation. The fewer people that know about us, the better.” I noticed everyone’s faces growing grim, even Gabriel’s. “It’s for our own protection,” Kai explained. Did I hear him right? “Protection?” My heart raced faster. Why would we need protection? Iris slid him a reluctant look as if to say, “Should we tell her yet?” Kai nodded his assent. “Might as well,” he mouthed, stroking her hair, “I didn’t want to start off with this, Kat,” she sighed. “But I suppose it’s best you know upfront. Whether you join us or not.” My mouth went dry, my skin prickling with fear. “And it goes hand in hand with why we work so hard to keep our existence a secret.” As if to find the courage to continue, she paused and looked down at her hands. This was the first time I’d ever seen her poise waver. Awaiting her next words, my teeth were all but carving a hunk out of my lip as I chewed it. Gabe moved to wrap his arm around me, and it was comfortable there, like we were made to fit somehow. Like we’d been carved from the same mold. Iris swallowed and met my eyes again. “As you know, we live forever. And most angel-human hybrids stop aging around eighteen or so.” I noticed how she said ‘most.’ She and Kai definitely looked older than eighteen. “That’s one reason why it’s best to cut ties with friends and those who aren’t aware of our immortality. After about ten years or so, they become suspicious.” She paused, swallowing again. “Braking ties with them now is best.” My chest tightened. No… I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I would want as much time with them as I could get. I would go on to live an impossibly long life while they aged, withered away and eventually turned to dust. Tears formed in my eyes. Sure, I’d only known them for a few weeks, but they were my friends. Friends I’d thought I would have for many years to come. Not just a decade. Aubrey looked to her lap, a pained expression tainting her perfect face. Piper nodded in agreement with Iris. Gabriel interjected. “We’ll let her decide what’s best. That’s her decision to make.” Surprised, I looked him in his baby blues. I couldn’t believe he’d spoken out like that against her advice. His expression softened as we held each other’s gaze, and it was in that exact moment I realized that I didn’t just have a possible love interest in him, I had a friend. He had my back. “Of course,” Iris conceded. “She can decide that for herself. But the more immediate issue, Kat, is not telling them what you are.” Everyone nodded their agreement. Iris shifted in her seat, smoothed the velvet skirt of her dress. “This is what I didn’t want to tell you just yet. Yes, we are immortal. But that’s not to say that we can’t be killed and don’t have natural enemies.” I balked. Enemies? “Yes,” Kai said, his voice soft. “There are those who wish us harm. We call them conjurers of the dark.” The term was lost on me. “Witches,” Iris clarified. “Their gifts aren’t like ours – given to us through a divine entity. Theirs are given to them by a darker force.” She paused to gauge my reaction and said, “Satan.” I… I had no idea what to say. So I listened, waiting for her to continue. “It’s our understanding that they seek our blood for a spell they used to be immortal themselves. We don’t know how it’s used, but they covet our blood above anything else in the world and will stop at nothing to get it.” “But not only that,” Kai continued. “It’s our understanding that their spell also calls for our hearts. So pardon me for this next bit of information; it’s a bit disturbing.” My mouth went dry again. “They have to cut them out – one of the only two ways to kill us. The other is severing our heads.” I blanched at the thought, and all of the facts tumbled together now to make a clearer, but disturbing, picture – the secrecy, hiding behind veils in the forest, Iris’ rules and advice. All of this was to protect us from harm. From witches. A cuss word tumbled out of my mouth without my consent, but nobody seemed to care. Even me. What I’d learned warranted a cuss word… or two or ten. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined we’d have an enemy so brutal, so heartless. But it made sense – of course, our natural enemy would be Satan and whatever army he possessed. We were descendants of angels - God’s army. I suddenly felt ridiculous for never considering the possibility. Why, though? What could they possibly gain from this? Before I asked the question, the answer smacked me across the face – man, or in this case, witches, didn’t need a reason for greed other than greed itself. We had something they wanted – an ability they didn’t possess. They didn’t need any more reason than that. A tear streaked down my face, and I wasn’t sure if it was from fear or sadness. A flurry of emotions whirled inside, threatening to suffocate me. Iris leaned toward me, the flames of the fire reflecting in her eyes, and if she’d been near me, I knew she would be holding and stroking my hand in comfort. “I know this is hard, darlin’. I’m so sorry,” she said as if she felt my pain, which I’m sure she did. To the core. “I wanted to start with the lighter stuff first.” I swiped away the tear. “It’s okay,” I managed. Gabriel hugged me tighter. “So I’ve been in danger awhile, I just didn’t know it?” I asked this as more of a rhetorical question. They didn’t answer. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this last night?” “You looked as though you were already at your capacity. I didn’t want to give you more than you could handle. But don’t worry, when we said we’re ever watchful, that also went for watching out for your well-being until you make your decision. We take turns each night watching the school.” I sank further into Gabriel. Him sneaking into my room at night made a lot more sense now. He was watching over me on his nights to make sure the witches didn’t… I couldn’t finish the thought. “So those are the two ways we can die?” I asked. “Beheading or our hearts cut out? What if we get sick or injured?” “You’ve been sick and injured before, right?” Kai asked. “Well… sure.” “You’ll never die from it. You might get sick, might even get a broken bone, but your body will always heal itself no matter how bad the injury. A hybrid’s body is resilient. It has to be to live forever.” Wiping another tear, I nodded in understanding. Ugh. Why was I still crying? Iris was right; this was all so much to take in. “Is there anything else you want to know as far as the witches are concerned?” Iris asked. “Have they found you guys since you’ve been in hiding?” Kai stroked Iris’ back proudly. “With what angelic enchantments we have, and Iris’ keen instincts to keep us all safe, we’ve never had an encounter.” Iris looked humbled. “Never say never, though,” she breathed, heavyhearted. “I do what I can, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t always on the hunt.” “That’s why it’s best your friends don’t know,” Kai said. “It’s not that we’re suggesting they’re untrustworthy. Since witches are always on the hunt for our blood, the less your friends know about you and your living arrangements, the better. It’s for their own protection. Like I said, these witches stop at nothing and would have no qualms about harming your friends to get information out of them. And they will be the last ones to have seen you.” I cringed at the thought. “But what about my family?” “Well they already know you have angelic origins, and you haven’t seen them for a few weeks. If you’ve talked to them recently and they’re fine, I’d say they were safe.” “I have. But would the witches try to harm them if they thought they knew where I was?” And Sam, I thought, my heart clenching. What if he needed protection? “It’s a possibility,” Kai replied. “But if they were already on your scent, they’d have gotten to you before we did. Unfortunately, there are more witches on the hunt than those like us trying to save our own kind.” Well, at least that was one bit of good news. Being here tonight with them meant I was already safe. And my family. I was then infinitely thankful my dad and I both had the gift of prophecy – another good thing. We would see harm coming if it decided to find either of us. In theory. Dad had always said select humans were blessed with gifts in the first place to help protect our very existence. I never really understood what that meant; tonight helped clarify. “But telling your parents exactly where we are at all times can’t be allowed. Just to be on the safe side. For obvious reasons,” Kai continued. Understandable. But my parents weren’t going to like it. At all. “I would also advise against telling them about the witches. It would only make them worry. But you can write and make calls whenever you like to keep in touch.” Again, I was thankful for my dad’s gift of prophecy. “So you guys move around a lot?” I asked, immediately feeling stupid. Of course, they did. “Yes,” Iris replied. “We never stay in any one place more than a few weeks.” “Is it always in the woods?” “No, we’ll set up at the beach, on a mountain, in a cave. Wherever our journey takes us. I figure it’s best to be on the move. Besides, we’ve seen some beautiful places. This isn’t only about self-preservation. We’re a family,” she said, clasping on to both Kai and Piper’s hands. “The family that travels together stays together,” Kai said with a warm smile. I couldn’t help but smile back, and this time, a tear of joy streaked down my cheek. Hope –through the darkness of fear and sadness, there was hope of a happy life. Yes, there would be a loss of mortal family members and friends who’d passed away. Yes, there would always be fear of greedy witches needling us in the back of minds. But there was hope. Hope of happiness. I then looked at the illuminated faces around the campfire, their own kaleidoscope of emotions apparent in their expressions, and I knew. I knew I had my answer for them. I wanted to be a part of their lovely, quirky little family. CHAPTER ELEVEN ___________________ Home Even though my heart had already made its decision, I still had a few technical questions, and then I would give them their highly anticipated answer. The thought of making it official caused elation to spiral through me, reaching the furthest corners of my soul. This felt as right as being by Gabriel’s side. After Iris’ invitation to continue with my questioning, I fired away. “School is important to me,” I began. “It always has been. I’m an artist and had planned on making that my way of income, but I’d at least like to have a high school diploma.” This question was just as much for me as it was my parents. “No problem,” Iris replied. “We can enroll you in a program to finish your courses through mail.” “I can do that?” “That’s how Colton finished.” Colton gave a nod of agreement. Do the guys ever speak? I wondered. What a change from the guys at Midland. I would miss them. Deeply. This departure wouldn’t be without heartache, for sure. Oh, but how much I was gaining. “He was the last one to join our family two years ago.” “We have a mailing address?” I persisted. Iris caught on to the fact that I’d said “we,” and her lips twitched with a smile. “PO Boxes. Don’t worry. We have it handled.” “One more,” I said, eager to get the questions over with so we could all hang for a while before I had to get back. And hopefully, Gabriel and I would have time together in private. “Sure, dear.” “Any tips for telling my parents I’ll be dropping out of school and living with a group of people they’ve never met?” I didn’t mean the question to be funny, but the others chuckled all the same. Even the bird cooed a sound like laughter. But not Gabriel; he remained faithfully stoic, although I wondered if he was laughing on the inside. I guess it was kind of funny… until I actually had to tell my parents. Lord knows how my dad would react; witches might be the least of our problems. Piper took the lead on this one. “Once you tell them you’re immortal, everything else won’t seem as shocking.” Colton piped up for the first time, his voice dark and raspy – exactly how I’d expected it to sound. “Living with a group of immortals will seem the natural thing to do. It won’t be as hard on them as you think.” In theory, I lamented, and I noticed Brad, Aubrey and Raymond seemed indifferent to the subject. “Don’t worry about that either, Kat,” Iris soothed. “We’ll all travel to wherever it is you need to go to tell your parents, set up camp, and be there for support.” “And meet your parents, if you wish,” Kai added. Not a bad idea. That might ease my parents’ minds. Might. “Oh, and one more thing,” I said, thinking of Sam. “Sure,” Iris said. “And then we can have a little fun before you leave us.” The others perked at the suggestion. I perked, as well. What in the world did they do for fun out here in the woods? “If I’m a hybrid, does that mean my brother could be too?” Awaiting their answer filled me with a mixture of fear and excitement. If it were a possibility, I would want to get to him as soon as possible before anyone could harm him. I would also love nothing more than to share this slice of eternity with my younger brother. To lose him would be to lose a part of myself. “Sure,” Kai said. I released the breath I was holding. “I would have to see his aura and test his blood. But it’s a possibility. We can check him when we visit your parents.” I nodded, unsure if I should smile or insist we go right away. Please stay safe until then, I prayed. “So…” Iris probed with an anxious, eager smile. “How are you feeling about everything?” The others watched me carefully; I could practically feel their anticipation radiating onto my skin along with the warmth of the fire. How did I feel? I felt a lot of things. But mainly I felt positive – positive about my answer that some would have thought was a hasty decision. But like Colton had said, given the circumstances, this was a natural fit – to live with others like me, who could also protect me and possibly my brother. I finally answered, beaming, “I feel like accepting your invitation.” Everyone cheered. Once the cheering ebbed, Iris smacked her hands together with a mile-wide smile. “Gabriel, you mind providing the music?” His eyes cut to me, and he… blushed. He was blushing now? I rocked into him. “Music?” I asked, a grin playing on my lips. “Please?” Piper begged. “Don’t be embarrassed, man,” Brad said as he stood. He made his way back to the table for another turkey leg. “You have skills.” “You really do,” Aubrey echoed. Gabriel’s lips pressed to a hard line as he fought to conceal his mortification. “Pleeease?” I asked playfully. “I’ll sing with you, Gabe,” Raymond coaxed. Gabriel’s expression cracked. “Fine,” he sighed, hugging me into him and then making his way to the tents. When he disappeared, Iris spoke like a proud mom. “He’s a beautiful musician, but we only get to hear him through his tent. It’s rare we can get him to play in front of all of us.” “In the two years I’ve lived with him, he’s played openly for us about three times,” Piper added. “And it’s a treat when he does,” Kai added. Gabriel was back in no time, toting a blonde wood acoustic guitar. My heart rate spiked, excitement blossoming in my stomach. Just when I thought I couldn’t be any more attracted to him, he proved me wrong. There was something majorly hot about a good-looking boy with talent. Slinging the strap around his back, he settled beside me and laid the side of the guitar across his knee. He fiddled with the knobs and strings until they produced the sound he wanted. He looked to Raymond. “The song from last week?” he asked with a knowing glint in his eye. “Sure,” Raymond shrugged. Piper clapped excitedly. Gabriel strummed a chord and cleared his throat, his eyes cutting back to me. He flashed a nervous smile, and I swooned. My mind toyed with the idea of the two of us in secret hiding places. Hands and lips all over. With our natural chemistry, it would be explosive. I found myself biting my lip and staring at his, but made myself look away and breathe before I did something to embarrass myself in front of his family. The song started with him humming a slow, bright melody, and tingling waves rolled through me. Then the words came – as velvety as his speaking voice but ten times as lovely; it had a subtle shake to it, a vulnerability. I couldn’t contain the expression bursting across my face. I was in awe. Halfway through the verse, Raymond joined in, his voice slightly higher, and their voices blended together so well I couldn’t decipher who sang what notes. Quiet and swaying, we all listened, some with eyes closed, some looking to the ground or the fire. Kai stood, his hand reaching down to Iris. “Dance with me?” he asked. Glowing, she slid her hand into his and they found a spot under the garland to dance. I noted how in love they looked – smitten. Hopelessly so. The Jamaican and the fair, southern beauty. Brad and Aubrey did the same on the opposite side of the clearing, but Piper and Colton stayed put, nestling into each other as Colton stroked her short hair. After a minute or so, the song ended - way too soon - and Gabriel sighed the last word. I tried to conjure the words to express how amazingly talented I thought he was, but nothing would form. My expression must have said it all. “So you liked it?” he asked. The words came out breathy. “I see what all the fuss was about now.” His smiling eyes locked to my lips, and I knew if everyone hadn’t been around, he would have kissed me right then and there. My breath hitched, and my fingers dug into the bark of the log. “Want to hear another?” he asked with a flicker of something playful in his eyes. Before I could answer, he strummed a faster melody. Raymond’s face lit up with recognition, and he slapped his leg along with the beat. “I love this one!” Piper squealed and catapulted to her feet, bringing Colton with her. Gabriel turned his attention to them, laughing as she made Colton dance awkwardly in some sort of square dance routine. The other couples danced along, and as I watched, clapping and laughing myself, I realized I was already finding happiness in this small clearing decorated with flickering lights and flowers. But the joy didn’t come from the ambiance or the food or even the music, it came from the sense of fellowship. I was already beginning to adore my new family. Gabriel graced us with a few more songs – some slow, some upbeat – but all of them I’d never heard. When he’d strummed the last chord of the last song, everyone settled around the fire again, and Piper suggested that Colton show off his talent. He wasn’t shy about it like Gabriel had been; he seemed downright enthusiastic as he trotted off to the tents to get whatever it was he needed. “Just wait,” Gabriel crowed as he laid his guitar against the log and threw his arm around me. “Colton is awesome.” Within minutes, Colton made it back with a pedestal table and a trunk. I straightened and shifted in my seat with anticipation. Piper shot me an excited grin, and I grinned back. Colton opened the trunk and searched through its contents. He pulled out a deck of cards, skillfully shuffled them and set his feet apart as he eyed all of us. “You guys ready?” he asked, smirking. “You’ve never seen this one before.” Everyone replied with enthusiastic yeses. He shuffled the cards one last time, and then fanned them out while holding them with one hand. “Gabe, play some performance music, man,” Kai requested. Gabriel obliged, playing a slow, gritty song with rich chords – perfect for this – and Colton reveled in the moment. His enjoyment for performing was apparent, and my anticipation practically bubbled over as I waited for what came next. Colton waved his other hand in front of the cards, and they appeared smaller. Wait… smaller? Like they’d shrunk. I gaped like the others, and Colton’s expression brightened. He was loving it. Again, he moved his hand in front of the fanned deck, and they were even smaller. About half the size now than when he’d started. He eyed us again. “Smaller?” We nodded. Slowly, he swept his hand in front of the deck, and the cards looked tiny – a miniature deck of cards. What the… In complete awe, I looked to Gabriel to see him already watching me with amusement. He arched his eyebrow pointedly as if to say, “See, told you!” My attention snapped back to Colton. He carefully realigned the cards into a solid deck and cupped them in his hands. Pausing dramatically, he shot a look at Gabriel who strummed the song into a rising crescendo – the finale. It was as though they’d rehearsed it. When Colton removed his top hand, the deck was normal size again, and he leaned with his elbows against the table. With a flick of his hand, a card went flying in the woods like a Chinese star. Then another and another in timing with the rhythm of the music, each card soaring in a separate direction. The faster the music went, the faster he flung the cards – over us, between us, around us, into the sky. Too fast to keep track or count. I found myself squealing and clapping like I was in the front row of a concert. As the last card disappeared into the night air and Gabriel strummed the last chord, we all sprang to our feet in applause. Colton gave a quick bow. “Awesome, man,” Kai said, giving Colton’s shoulder a shake. Iris hugged his neck. “So proud of you…” I looked up to Gabriel as he stood beside me. “Told you,” he bragged. “We’re a pretty talented bunch, huh?” Brad said on the other side of me. I managed a word. “Yeah.” “You know,” he replied, giving me a friendly side-hug, “I think you’ll fit in quite well, Kat. Glad you’re here.” “Same here,” Aubrey echoed, this time, her smile was more genuine. Maybe we would be friends. “Oh, dear,” Iris said, looking to the sky and stealing all of our attention. The clouds had parted, and the moon was on the descent. “We better get you back.” “I’ll take her,” Gabriel insisted. I cheered internally. More alone time. Brad slapped his back. “I don’t think anybody will fight you for that.” “Except Piper,” Raymond teased. She stuck her tongue out. “We’ll see you tomorrow?” Iris said expectantly. “We’ll need to discuss how you plan on leaving the school. It needs to be done in such a way that they don’t think you’ve just… disappeared.” I know it shouldn’t have, but the idea of planning my departure overwhelmed me. What would I say? To the principal? My friends? “I’ll have some time, though, right?” I replied. “Sure. We could wait a few days, I suppose.” I fought to keep the dread from seeping into my expression. Days? Kai stepped in. “Remember we can’t stay anywhere for long… for safety reasons.” I think I nodded. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out,” Iris said. Gabe draped his arm around me in support. “We’ll see you tomorrow, dear.” Like a well-orchestrated symphony, everyone played their part in the deconstruction of the decorations and dinner table as I followed Gabriel in a zombie-like state to his tent to return his guitar. Days… I would have only days to say my goodbyes. To decide what I would tell everyone. And the school… they’d never let me leave unless my parents permitted, and I didn’t want them to know a thing until I showed up to tell them everything in person. As we turned left into a cluster of tents, I realized I’d never been in this part of their living quarters. I counted five tents total – not enough for everyone. Some must have shared. The couples, maybe? HHow long would it be before Gabriel and I might share one? Butterflies swarmed my stomach again at the thought, and suddenly the task of leaving the school took a back seat. I needed to let go and trust that Iris knew what she was doing. This wasn’t her first rodeo. “Here’s mine,” he said, ducking into the last tent before we got to the horses that were tethered to trees. The faint smell of manure crinkled my nose. Ugh. I guess I’d have to get used to that. His tent looked larger on the inside. A lantern hung from the frame, illuminating everything below. A thin mattress with a neatly folded down blanket and pillows occupied the very center. Books lined the left wall and sheet music lay scattered at the foot of his bed and on the case he placed the guitar into. Stacked against the right wall were two more guitar cases, and perched in the far right corner was an antique trunk; I imagined it housed his clothes. “So this is where I rest my head at night,” he said as he locked the guitar case and laid it by the others. A brief thought of my easel in one of the empty corners flitted through my mind. My lips curled into a smile. “It’s lovely.” He made his way back to my side and grabbed my hand. “Want me to show you around?” I hitched an eyebrow. There’s more? Sweeping his other in front of us, he said, “Here it is…” I gave him a courtesy laugh. “Real funny.” “It’s not much, but its home.” Home. Once upon a time, the idea of a tent as a ‘home’ would have seemed sad, but nothing sounded more appealing in this moment. It wasn’t so much the accommodations; it was the people I would be sharing them with. That was what mattered. This mobile compound would be my home. He turned to face me, taking both my hands in his, his lips inches from mine. In this light-filled tent, I could see every speck of color in his eyes – the variations of blue with silvery streaks. Bursts of darker blue were around the edges. A shadow of whiskers ran along his jawline, and it made him look distinguished. Sexy. “I’m glad you’re going to be living with us, Kat,” he said, low and breathy. His eyes trailed down to my lips. Oh, God… this was it – our first kiss. My heart raced like a steam engine, and desire ran hot and thick through my veins – my body igniting. This boy did so many things to me. Footfalls tromped past the tent, and Kai stuck his head inside. “You two will have plenty of time for that in a few days. We need to get her back before they realize she’s gone.” I sighed internally as Gabriel pulled away. Damn. “Sorry, Kai. On our way,” Gabe said. Begrudgingly, we left the tent, and Gabriel pulled me toward the horses. We stopped by the tallest one – white with grey speckles along his back – and he untied the rope tethering the horse’s bridle to the trunk. Gabriel shot me a devious look. “I’ll take you back in style tonight. The long way.” I melted. Who was I to argue? He could take me to the armpit of the skankiest city in the world for all I cared. He sweetly stroked the horse’s mane, looked the magnificent beast in the eyes. A foreign language rolled from his tongue. “Caute ambula nocte, veterem amicum. Cara mihi quid egeris.” The horse snorted as if he knew exactly what he’d said, and I marveled. “Now for you,” Gabe said, drawing his attention to me, “Have you ridden a horse before?” When I was five. “Sure,” I replied, my voice betraying my uncertainty. “Here,” he said, taking my hand and pulling me to stand beside him. He placed my hand on the horse’s mane, sweeping my fingers through the coarse hair. “His name is Legolas.” I cocked my head. “As in the elf from the Lord of the Rings?” “I’m a fan.” He shrugged with a rueful smile. “Well he’s beautiful,” I cooed. And he was – brown eyes like drops of chocolate; splashes of grey in his white mane to match the speckles on his back. Sculpted muscles ran along the length of his lean, sturdy legs. He was a majestic creature. “What did you say to him? What language was that?” “Latin,” he said, tucking my hair behind my ear as I continued stroking and admiring Legolas, “It’s the language of our ancestors. And I told him to walk carefully tonight. That he’s carrying something precious to me.” My hand paused mid-stroke, and I looked up at him. Before I could fully process what he’d said, he braced his strong hands on my waist to help hoist me onto his horse. “Let’s get going.” CHAPTER TWELVE ___________________ Lucky Gabriel led me and Legolas through the pines while holding his bridle, and I noted the woods were more enchanting in the early morning hours – the darkest part of night, right before the sun came up. The dew had already settled on the ground, sparkling in the fading moonlight and giving the usual pine-scented smell of the woods a crisp, earthy aroma. I was in heaven. After a stint of silence, minus the clomping of hooves, I decided to initiate the conversation on the way back this time. “So have other hybrids refused your family’s invitation?” He looked up at me with an unreadable expression. “Some have.” Why? I wondered. They offered everything – a life with protection, lasting relationships, and stability. “I guess others just wanted to try this on their own?” “Yes, and we all worry about them. When they leave us, I see their faces before I sleep sometimes and wonder if the witches ever found them. Or wonder how they’re faring with their immortality.” My stomach clenched. I had definitely made the right choice. For many reasons, including Gabriel. I then understood their enthusiasm over my answer – I was one less they’d have to worry about. I now had a new respect for Iris’ desire to seek our kind out to save them and guide them through this lifestyle. “I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say. He nodded his thanks. “So how old are you?” I asked to change the subject, and I don’t know why, but I almost dreaded his answer. Like the fact that he might be hundreds or thousands of years old would make a difference to me somehow. I knew I was being silly; I would be hundreds of years old one day. The idea felt surreal. “I’ve been with Iris and Kai for close to ten years,” he replied, his voice trailing as he thought. “So that makes me seventy-one, I guess.” Not as old as I thought. And nope, it didn’t make a difference to me. He was still hot. “Who’s the oldest of the group? Iris?” “Iris is actually younger than me. She’s in her fifties. Kai is fairly young too. He’s in his forties.” Huh. I debated this next question as I picked the frayed stitching on the saddle, but asked anyway. “So if they’re younger than you, why do they look a little… older?” He hesitated. “For some reason, some hybrids quit aging past eighteen. I think Iris and Kai quit aging in their thirties. At least that’s what Iris says.” He cut his eyes up to me. “But I wouldn’t say anything to them about it. Especially Iris. Sometimes she gets touchy about it.” “I won’t. So who was the first one they’d found?” “Me. And I’m glad they did. I was getting tired of moving from town to town, pretending to be a graduate and working little-to-no-pay jobs until it was time to move on again. Crappy apartments, no real friends because I knew I’d have to move on eventually. Sucked.” I cringed. Had they not found me, that could have been my fate once my family had… I released the thought before it had a chance to depress me. “Did you ever figure out why you never aged?” “Like my gift with flowers, I figured it had something to do with my heritage. I knew my father was an angel.” “What’s he like?” “Not sure.” Not sure? “You’ve… never met?” “Only twice – the day I was born, but of course I don’t remember that, and the day my mother died. She passed my junior year in high school.” My heart sank. “I’m so sorry, Gabe.” He didn’t reply, and my heart sank further. Is he fighting tears? I contemplated sliding off the horse to hug him when he finally spoke. “But I guess that’s the way it goes when you’re the offspring of an angel,” he said, and although he attempted to say it bravely, I picked up shades of grief. “When the mortal parent dies, you’re on your own.” The idea mortified me; how could any parent – angel or not – leave their kid to fend for themselves? “I don’t let it bother me, though,” he added, even braver. “I know he’s busy. He’s a messenger angel, and the Creator has him running all over the world.” Still, though. The idea seemed repugnant. I was then infinitely grateful for my situation. My mom had chosen to give up her status as an angel to dedicate herself to her husband and family. My love for her swelled. “So who was the next hybrid you guys found?” I asked to change the subject… again. I was sucking at this conversation thing. “Raymond, and then Brad. Next was Aubrey, Piper and then Colton.” “How have they dealt with their immortality?” “Raymond seems to do pretty well, and Piper and Colton are kind of new at it. They’re technically in their twenties – the youngest of us. Aubrey, however, has had it kind of rough.” “Really?” I asked, hoping he would give me more. “Yeah, she lived with us for a few years, and then broke away for a year to try it on her own.” The idea unsettled me. If she didn’t like this lifestyle, was there a possibility I wouldn’t? “She didn’t like living with you guys?” He shrugged. “Not sure it was that. She got restless always being with the same people, I think. She’s like a bird - doesn’t want to be caged.” I could relate, unfortunately. I needed my space, and I got restless if I felt confined. “But she came back,” I noted. “Yeah, she and Brad came back right before we found you. Being immortal in a mortal world is hard.” “But they were only gone a year.” “Just enough time to build a life and relationships you know you’ll have to break in a decade.” Oh… Brad must not have wanted to let her do it alone, so they left together and came back together. Living as a nomad was the lesser of the two evils. My memory jogged back to two nights ago when Kai had said he considered immortality a gift, and someone snorted. Must have been Aubrey. This explained a lot with her – her reluctance to become insta-friends with me, her struggle with enthusiasm. I ardently hoped that wasn’t my fate. “Besides, you feel like you have to constantly look over your shoulder, in continual fear of witches. None had found me before Iris did, but that doesn’t mean anything. It could be only a matter of time – days, years… hours.” “So are these our two options? Nomad life or blending in with mortals for ten to fifteen years at a time?” I asked. “Pretty much. Aubrey and Brad could have been nomads on their own, I guess. We feel safer with Iris. But there might be one other option… ” His voice trailed as he contemplated. “Or so we hear. Don’t repeat this either. Iris doesn’t like us to talk about it. She says it gives us false hope.” “Okay…” “Raymond is older than me – the oldest of our group. And he said he’d once heard about a colony of half-breeds somewhere.” The idea of this secret colony excited me. “Really? You think it’s true?” “Iris says it’s not. Says she’s never heard of it.” “What do you think?” He paused. “I try not to think of it. What’s the point if it’s probably not real?” Good point. But a part of me wanted to believe that it was real - a colony where we didn’t have to constantly be on the move and live in tents. It might be the closest thing to a normal life us hybrids could have. Why would Iris want to crush that? It had to have been part selfishness – she liked having her makeshift family all to herself. I wanted to press the subject further, but I could tell Gabriel wasn’t up for it. Next subject. “So when we get to Ireland to visit my family, we’ll need to let Kai see my brother Sam and test his blood, right?” “Yes. The way Kai explains it is, it’s not enough to go by the aura. There’s a reason he has to test blood. Some humans might have a trace of angel – an angel way back in their bloodline – and they’ll have silvery threads in their aura. So sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re an actual immortal going by that alone. The blood never lies, though.” “So it’s possible for a human to have traces of angel, but not enough to make them a half-breed?” “Right. Half-breed is just a term we use, or hybrid. It’s really our way of saying the angelic blood inside us is strong enough to make us immortal. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re half angel. For instance, Piper is one-fourth – her grandfather was an angel, but the gene wasn’t watered down enough to make her mortal. That’s why we get a sample before we open someone’s eyes to our world – we have to make sure. Sometimes we have the fortune of getting a vial, and sometimes Kai has to use other unconventional methods.” I shuddered. I didn’t want to know. Speaking of ‘unconventional methods,’ guilt crept in. Because of me, Nurse Plunkett had been shoved in a closet somewhere. So Kai could get a vial of my blood. “But if I’m a half-breed or hybrid, Sam should be too, right? We have the same parents. He should be half like me.” I could tell by the way his shoulders lifted with a sigh that he didn’t want to elaborate, and my hope deflated a little. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.” “Oh.” “For instance, Iris’s older sister is in her mid-sixties. She’s sick with cancer, and that’s how she and Kai met; Kai was one of the nurses overseeing her care. He noticed Iris’ aura and knew she was more than likely a hybrid.” “Oh… so he tested her blood and found out she was.” “Right. In other words, one sibling can get the gene while the other won’t – like how one sibling can have blue eyes and the other have brown. It’s never a for sure thing.” “So if someone inherits the gene, then it’s a matter of how ‘watered down’ it is? Like how far back in the bloodline it goes?” “Yes. Which wasn’t an issue for you since you got it from your mother. And it won’t be for your brother either if he has the gene. But there’s still a possibility he won’t.” Damn. Please be a hybrid, Sam, I prayed, although I knew that I was being self-centered. He might not want to be immortal; he might consider it a blessing that he’s not. I wanted him to be for my own reasons – I couldn’t picture my life without him. “So her sister’s sick? Will she…?” “She’s terminal. The doctors say she only has a few weeks left now. Iris keeps in contact with her nurses. Every now and then she’ll go to the closest town and call to check in.” Something seemed odd about that to me. If her sister were so close to death, why wouldn’t she be there with her? I suppose everyone deals with death and loss their own way. But if it were Sam, I’d be there until his last breath. I would want my face to be one of the last ones he saw. I tried not to let this change my view of her. “So you guys just go from school to school, then?” I asked. “Looking for hybrids?” “Yeah. Apparently, Kai had many hybrid friends, since he could tell them apart from mortals, and one of the older hybrids – I think he said he was around three-hundred years old – had told stories of witches seeking their blood. And Iris was so mortified by it, she decided to seek out more of our kind to educate them and offer for them to live in a colony for protection.” “And obviously Kai decided to follow.” “Right. And they started searching at random high schools. And if you think about it, most schools are on big plots of land surrounded by trees. Makes it easy for us to set up camp and stay hidden even if we don’t use the enchantments.” “Do you ever find any younger hybrids? Like elementary age?” “We try not to bother. A parent wouldn’t part with their child so they could come live with us.” True. “Do the witches ever hunt for them, though?” As the imagery of a witch harming a child tore through my mind, I flinched. “According to Kai’s friend, the witches only hunt the older hybrids. He thinks they need the heart of a mature one. Kids are safe until they hit puberty.” Thank God. And thank God we were headed to Ireland next. Sam hit puberty about two years ago. Gabriel and Legolas came to a stop, and I looked straight ahead at the school. Only a few yards of trees separated us from view. Dang. Our time was over already, and all I’d done was pepper him with question after question. After tying his horse to a tree, he extended a hand up to help me off. His expression was unreadable again – a guard he’d put up? What gloomy place had I sent his mind to? I cursed myself for bringing up so many uncomfortable things. We now stood face to face, but his eyes didn’t sparkle like they did when I’d first arrived. I wrapped my arms around my waist; without the heat of a fire, the air felt intrusive and frigid. “Cold?” he asked and rubbed my shoulders to warm me. “I’m okay,” I fibbed. “I should have offered you a jacket before we left,” he said, chiding himself. A frown settled into the lines of his face. Even sad, he looked like a god. “I’m fine,” I insisted and swept back a lock of his hair that had fallen into his eyes. Touching him elevated my temperature, and I didn’t have to fight the shivers as much. He ran a hand through his hair self-consciously. “I need to get Piper to cut it again,” he mumbled. “Don’t do that!” There it was – the sparkle in his eyes had returned. “You like it this way? She’s always trying something different with our hair. I just let her do whatever.” I smiled but forced a mock serious tone. “Tell her if she values her life, she’ll leave it alone.” A laugh rolled out of him. “I’ll let you two battle that out.” “I’ll win.” My lips pursed, determined. “I have no doubts,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. As he held me there, protecting me from the cold and savoring these last few moments, I breathed in his scent; it had a sweet, clean smell. Like honeysuckle and soap. So him – this deity of perfection that brought me flowers every night. “Good,” I said into his shoulder. “Because when I want something, I go for it.” “Really now?” he said and pulled his shoulders back to meet my eyes – his sparkling blue to my green. I titled my chin up, our faces a breath away. This time, Kai wasn’t here to interrupt. “Really.” His eyes trailed down to my lips, and my body hummed, desire clenching low in my belly. I wanted to push him against a tree and claim his mouth with mine, but I also didn’t want him to think I was easy. Our first kiss should be sweet. A good first kiss. He made the first move, his soft, warm lips fusing to mine and the yearning that had been coursing through me since I’d met him cried to break free. Screw restraint. I took a fistful of his shirt and backed against the tree behind me. He followed, his body now pressed to mine, a low groan escaping him. The kiss deepened, and he hoisted me up, my legs wrapping around his waist. We were all hands, lips, and moans. Our hunger for each other was an uncontainable force. No thoughts. No reason. Just a flooding of electricity and racing hearts. My hands tangled in his hair, my head tilting back. He trailed kisses down my neck to my collar bone. I moved my hips against him, wanting more of him. Needing him. With a gentle touch, he moved my head to look at him again. We were both panting, reeling. “Whoa,” was all he said, awestruck. Yeah, whoa. I wanted more, so I leaned back in. He pecked me sweetly and pulled his head away. I groaned, unsatisfied. “Kat…” he said, almost chuckling, but with a strained expression, fighting against his unquenched thirst for more of me. He swept his thumb beside my eye and swallowed as if to suppress his urges. “Let’s take it easy.” I couldn’t help but pout. I didn’t want to take it easy. “We have an eternity for this,” he soothed, and kissed my forehead. “We can take our time.” I sighed, coming back down from the best high I’d ever experienced. “Fine,” I said, almost petulant. He chuckled again, went back in for one last, long kiss, and then set me on the ground, his arms still around me. Our heated moment had left me flush and borderline sweltering in this long-sleeve sweater, but I didn’t care; I could have stood here like this with him forever. “I hate that you have to go back already. It feels like ages since I’ve seen you.” “It’s only been a day,” I teased, but I understood where he was coming from completely. My heart would ache until I saw him again tomorrow night. He rested his cheek against my hair. “And it felt like forever.” I sank into his body, my heart expanding. How was I so lucky to find him? “I know what you mean,” I whispered. Squeezing me tighter, he kissed the top of my head, and we begrudgingly pulled apart. I had to get going – traces of pink were seeping over the horizon. Sunrise. “And when I see you tomorrow…” he said, brushing my hair behind my ear and tracing his fingertips down the side of my neck to my shoulder, drinking in every curve and bend, as if he were memorizing my silhouette so he could carve a bust in my image. A shiver raced through me, and I briefly closed my eyes to savor his touch. Tomorrow really did seem like forever away. “…I want to learn more about you.” I flushed. “I kind of monopolized our conversation with questions, didn’t I?” He swept the back of his fingers over my cheek. “I love that you’re so eager to know about me and my family. But I want to know more about you – what you like, your family. All I know about you so far is that you’re an artist, a half-breed like me…” He fondly glanced at my lips. “And the cute way your lips press together when you blush.” I pressed them tighter, my cheeks now the color of beets. “Here,” he said with one last swipe over my cheek and reached for a nearby flowery bush. He picked a dainty bud, waved his fingers over it so it would bloom and handed it to me. “I can’t let you leave without one,” he said with a lopsided smile. “I guess it’s kind of our thing now.” “Thanks,” I said, holding it to my chest and fighting the urge to jump him again. He really needed to stop being so damn sweet and irresistible if he wanted me to take it easy. “And here,” he said and reached into his pocket. He handed me a folded piece of paper. Another note? “Open it before you head back in.” “Okay…” I said, eyeing him skeptically as I grinned like an idiot. What was he up to? His eyes darted to the school behind me; some secret thought stole the light from them again. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He shook his head, his hands shoving inside his pockets. “Nothing,” he said unconvincingly. My hand snapped to my hip. “I’m not buying that. What’s wrong?” He hesitated, and his eyes dropped. “Gabe… what is it?” “That boy,” he finally said. That boy? “The blond one I saw you with the other day playing kickball. I’d seen you with him before in the courtyard.” Oh no. Levi. My stomach hollowed. I’d never thought about him seeing us. Shit. What could I say? ‘Don’t worry, he’s only my boyfriend. But I’m breaking up with him, I promise.’ Gabriel cut his eyes up at me, and he must have read the agony on my face. He cupped my cheek, stepping closer. “Never mind,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I didn’t mean to ruin the moment.” I shook my head. “No, I pressed you to tell me what was wrong.” I nestled my cheek into his hand. “Just know that you’re the one I want.” “I know.” My mouth drew into a smirk. “I know you know. After that kiss, if you didn’t know, you’re an idiot.” His eyes danced with adoration. “You’re even beautiful when you call me an idiot.” I leaned in for an indulgent peck and turned for the school. “You know you don’t have to keep flattering me,” I called over my shoulder. “I’m coming back tomorrow regardless.” “Okay fine, then,” he conceded. “No more compliments.” I paused, gaping in mock hurt. “See you tomorrow, beautiful.” CHAPTER THIRTEEN ___________________ Desperate Radiant and humming, I pulled out the piece of paper as Gabriel had asked. Written in his lavish handwriting was a note: To keep you hidden. I want you to stay out of trouble until you come back to me. Repeat the words when you want to be seen again: Me custodire. Custodi me latet. Nolo videndum. Sed cum rursus repetere hoc incantatores, donec loquar eis iterum demonstrare vera sui. The spell! He’d given me the spell. Now I just needed to figure out how to say the darn thing. I’d never spoken Latin before. After three pitiful tries to speak the foreign words, I decided to go for it and head back to the school regardless. Fortunately, I made it back to my dorm wing unnoticed, but I didn’t know if it was the spell or the fact that I still felt the need to slink along the walls and hide in corners when I heard the reverberation of footsteps down the hallways. I couldn’t risk being seen. Pausing outside our door, I repeated the words before making my way in. I imagined Anna was fast asleep inside, mumbling incoherently about Ronnie and food products again. Even in her dreams, she was consumed by him. I could definitely relate, and I hoped my dreams would involve Gabriel again tonight. A love-sick grin plastered across my face as I entered our room. I quietly shut the door behind me, and as I tip-toed toward my bed, I froze with fear, my joints locking into place. A silhouette sat slumped on the edge of my bed. I debated screaming but couldn’t will my mouth to move. “It’s me,” a familiar voice said. Oh my God. Levi. My fear gave way to dread. How long had he been here waiting? Minutes? Hours? He stood, moving into the morning sunlight pouring through the blinds behind him, but his face was hidden in the shadows. My eyes moved to a bouquet of flowers limply hanging from his right hand. His left hand clenched a note in a death grip. “Who’s Gabe?” he asked crossly, crumpling the note in his fist, “I’m guessing you were with him all night?” I gasped – a foreign sound, as though it had come from someone else. The note was the one Gabriel had left me. He must have found it under my bed along with the pile of flowers. This wasn’t happening. I couldn’t reply, my lips still frozen along with my body. The only thing that seemed to work was my heart as it hammered against my breastbone like a blacksmith tempering steel. I glanced at Anna, praying her headphones were in and she couldn’t hear any of this. Levi shifted on his feet as he waited for me to say something. The movement allowed a beam of sunlight to wash over his features, a fiery pink flash highlighting the hard lines that had settled on his face. He looked broken, desperate… pissed, but his eyes were heavy with sadness. A film of tears washed over my eyes as I looked back down at the bouquet. After what had happened at breakfast yesterday – him finding the flower – he’d probably come to my room to bring me his own flowers and fight for my affection, but this wasn’t a fight he could win. And by the myriad of emotions registering on his face, I think that reality was already setting in. “Tell me why,” he said, conceding to the fact that I wasn’t going to explain who Gabe was. By saying nothing, I’d already told him everything. Dropping my eyes to the ground between us, I forced my lips apart, but nothing came out. I wasn’t ready for this yet – crushing his heart into a fine powdery dust. I couldn’t even remember what I’d decided to say to him. All of this was so much bigger than him, bigger than me. What do I do? After releasing Gabriel’s letter to the floor, he took a step toward me. “What does this guy have that I don’t?” I needed to say something, anything, but my damn lips wouldn’t cooperate. My heart, my thoughts replied. That’s what Gabriel had that Levi didn’t – my heart. The first tear rolled down my cheek – the first of many. My throat closed tight as I held back a sob trying to claw its way out. With one more step, he was a tense foot away. “I’ve seen it in your eyes, Kat,” he said, his voice softening and catching at the same time. God, no. Please don’t cry. I can’t take you crying over me. “I’m losing you, aren’t I?” I tried to suck back my tears as they streamed down my face in ribbons, but they continued pouring over. Speaking definitely wasn’t an option now. I couldn’t if I wanted to. “I saw it in your eyes at breakfast yesterday morning. Something’s changed.” Everything’s changed. He swiped the clear trails with his thumb. Whatever was left of his anger had dissolved, only the sadness lingered. “I’ve only had you for a few days, and you’re already drifting away.” I dared to meet his eyes and hold his gaze, hoping my regret and sorrow and pain shone through, saying what I couldn’t. “Please say something,” he pled, and his jaw tensed as he fought to keep his own tears back. “I-” I choked on the word. He took one last step, dropping the flowers, his body inches away – intimate, burning. “What do I have to do to make sure we don’t fail?” he whispered, determination flashing in his eyes, “I don’t want to… I can’t give up on this. On us.” He tilted my chin up, and I let him. Before I knew it, his lips were on mine, kissing with a fervor I didn’t know he was capable of. My lips responded, awakening and kissing back, and our fizzled-out chemistry reignited as our heads weaved in a delicate dance. But it left as soon as it came, fading back into nothingness. I pulled away with a remorseful scowl. His shoulders slumped with defeat. “I’m sorry, Levi,” I whimpered, and although I meant them, the words seemed too few, too small to cover what I was putting him through. He deserved better. His expression morphed from desperate sadness to resigned absolution. He knew now. It was over. He was living his fears, and I hated myself for it. For putting him through any of this. “I’m so sorry,” I repeated. He nodded, ran his hands over his head with a sigh. “So am I.” We lapsed into awkward silence, the hollowness of the air nearly suffocating me. “Guess I better go, then,” he said flatly and lumbered to the door. I took a step after him, wanting to call out for him to wait; I knew there was more I wanted to say, an explanation I had worked out, but his surprise visit had caught me off guard and I couldn’t remember. All I could do was watch through a film of rippled tears as he left, and before he shut the door behind him, he mumbled, “Keep the flowers.” After he’d left, my first instinct was to run after him, plead with him to come back, and tell him it would all be okay and he would find someone to fill the holes I’d made in his heart. And then it came to me – that’s what I’d been planning to say to him. That he deserved better. Someone that could love him the way he deserved to be loved. He deserved a relationship like Anna and Ronnie’s, like Sarah and Dawson’s, like mine and Gabriel’s. Anything less would be settling. But any of that coming from me, especially now, would only hurt him further. I needed to leave him alone and let him nurse his own wounds. Thinking of him storming back to his dorm wing and telling Dawson and Ronnie about his traitorous, cheating-ass girlfriend, I cringed, bile roiling in my stomach. I knew the sweet Levi; the boyfriend side of him. What kind of guy was the pissed-off Levi? Would he trash my name? I numbly slid into bed and curled into myself. I couldn’t worry about that now. What was done was done. I just hoped half the school wouldn’t hate me come lunchtime. That wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind when I left with Gabriel and his family in a few days. How I longed to hit ‘rewind’ and be back in Gabriel’s arms, unaware that Levi was here waiting for me to return with a bouquet of flowers that were as wilted as his ego. I fought back another sob. No more tears. Tossing onto my back, I stared at the ceiling, my mind going blank. My psyche couldn’t handle any more strong emotions. In the matter of an hour, I’d experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. My mind needed a break before I did. Heavy and swollen from crying, my eyes shuttered closed. I only had an hour or so to sleep, but I didn’t care. My mind needed the reprieve, the sweet solace that only a state of unawareness could provide. Besides, I was exhausted. In every sense of the word. I threw the covers off and perched on the edge of my bed. Something was wrong. Really wrong. But I didn’t know what. I scanned our dark room. It should have been daylight. How long had I been asleep? “Anna? You here?” The empty room swallowed my words whole. I glanced at the clock that blinked 12:00. Had the power gone out? Frantic, I reached out from my bed and opened the bathroom door with my mind. No Anna. I shuddered, mostly from fear, but the air in our room was uncharacteristically cold. The window wasn’t open, though. Weird. Wrapping the covers around me, I hurried into the hallway, looked right, then left. Nobody. “Anna?” The air was even colder in the hallway, my breath coming out in icy plumes. I pulled the blanket tighter. My next thought was to check Sarah and Ivy’s dorm. Maybe she was in there. I hurried as fast as my cocoon would allow and banged on their door. Nothing. I banged again, louder. Still nothing. Shit. Losing patience, I burst into their room and shrieked, a wave of hot tingles shooting up my spine and through my limbs. Sarah had been tied to her bed, ropes binding her ankles and wrists to the bed posts. Her white tank top was slicked with red, a ring of dark blood on her sheets. “Sarah!” I cried out, dropped my covers, and ran to her side. I knelt, hysterically appraising the damage. She lay unconscious, her chest rising faintly, a nasty gurgling noise coming through the puncture marks in her chest. Stab wounds? Pieces of pine straw jutted from her hair, dirt smudged across her cheeks and clothes. Where had she been? Who’d done this? I coughed out a wail. Not my Sarah. Maybe I could save her… she could still be saved. “Sarah?” I choked out, tapping her cheek with icy, shaking hands, “Wake up, girl. I need you to wake up.” She faintly moaned. “Come on,” I said, now working on untying the ropes, but I was all fingers and thumbs. I could barely feel them. Why is it so damn cold? “I need to get you to Nurse Plunkett.” Sarah’s eyes shivered open into slits – as far as she could manage. Her voice came out raspy, a bead of red dripping from the corner of her mouth. “Ivy?” “No, it’s Kat. I’m here to save you. You’re going to be all right.” She wheezed – a god-awful sound. I worked faster on the ropes, but not as fast as I’d have liked. Stupid fingers! “Kat,” she moaned. I ignored her, concentrating on getting her freed. “Kat!” I paused, leaning closer to hear what she had to say. Her eyes struggled to focus. “It’s too late… I’m-” She coughed, red spraying across my chest. “I’m almost gone.” “No, it’s not,” I snapped and returned my attention to the ropes. “No, listen to me,” she said, reaching out with her freed hand and clamping onto my arm. Her hands felt like ice – colder than mine. Too weak to stay up, her hand slid back to the bed. I almost had her other hand freed. Next were her feet. “Sarah,” I said, resolute. “I’m not going to give up while you’re still breathing.” “Dammit, Kat. Don’t worry about me.” She coughed again, red pouring from her mouth. “Get yourself some help.” The gurgles from her chest were sounding worse. “No, I…” Why would I need help? “There’s still time for you, Kat.” That’s when I felt it – a sharp, throbbing pain in my left side. I looked in horror. Red flowed from my rib cage like a river, flooding down my leg and gathering in a pool around my feet. “Kat, go…” I gaped at the life seeping out of me, blanching, and looked back to Sarah. “Go,” she said weakly, her eyes glazing over. I was losing her. “No!” I cried and went back to the ropes despite the pain radiating through my body, every movement stabbing into my wound like a hot poker. Her head lolled to the side with one last wheeze. No! I fell to my knees, too in shock to cry. “She’s at peace now,” a voice said behind me. I jumped. Gabriel? I leapt to my feet to run to him but halted. He too had stab wounds all over, his face pallid and sunken. “Not you too…” I whimpered. He reached for me with a weak cough. “We’ll all be at peace soon, beautiful.” I stepped back. “No. It’s not over. We’re immortal, remember? Let’s go find the nurse.” A gathering of figures outside the door stole my attention – Raymond, Piper, Colton, Brad, and Aubrey. They all looked like they’d been victims in a horror movie – slashed to pieces, more blood than clothing. A devastating sadness crushed me, weakening my knees. Why was this happening? “Beautiful,” he said again, wrapping me into an embrace. But it felt hollow this time. Cold. “I’m sorry I didn’t see it coming.” “See what coming? What happened to us? We aren’t dying, are we? We wouldn’t die from this.” “I’m sorry,” he repeated, his tears dripping onto my shoulder, “So sorry, Kat.” He then pulled away, revealing a gaping hole in his chest where his heart used to be. How… He pointed to mine, and I followed with my eyes. My own chest had a hole carved the size of a fist. Is that why I was so cold? So rigid? Someone had taken my heart, and I was dying? Dead? Blackness covered my vision, my knees weakening. I’d lost too much blood. Gabe caught me before I collapsed to the floor. I then thought of my family, my brother. Tears flowed freely. I love you guys. And that was when I heard it – a ringing off in the distance. “It shouldn’t have ended this way,” Gabe whispered into my ear. “I wish we’d had more time together.” The ringing got louder. Almost deafening. Gabe was trying to say something else, but I couldn’t hear. I didn’t bother talking over the noise; I just let him hold me, yielding to the darkness, the pain and numbing cold. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing. So much ringing. A voice registered through the clamor. “You gonna get that, Kat?” Anna? My eyes snapped open and I gasped, sitting up in bed. Morning had passed, everything inside our room awash with the joyful glow of midday. And it was warm… no more cold. “Well?” Anna said, sticking her head out of the bathroom, her hair twisted around her curling iron. I blinked into awareness. The ringing was the phone. I summoned it with my hand and put it to my ear. My dad’s frantic voice was on the other end. “Kat! I have that feelin’ again, baby. What’s wrong?” CHAPTER FOURTEEN ___________________ Bound “I’m fine. Hold on a sec.” I put the phone on my chest, dragged in a lungful of air and released it. Everything’s okay. Just a dream… or was it? What if it was prophetic? I remembered what my dad had said the last time we spoke – he knew his dreams were prophetic when they seemed real. When he couldn’t tell the difference between a dream and reality. This dream was so real I actually thought I was dying. The cold still lingered in my bones. My dad’s muffled voice rolled up from my chest. “Kat?” I drew in another calming breath and placed the phone to my ear. “Here, dad. Sorry.” “What’s goin’ on?” “I’m fine.” “You already said that. Now what’s goin’ on?” I blinked away the tears, my body quivering. So much, dad. “Kat, if you don’t answer me, I’m takin’ the next plane-” “My dreams,” I blurted out. “I think I’m having your dreams.” It took him a second. “You think your dreams are prophetic?” “Yeah.” “Is that why you asked me about mine the other day?” “Yes.” Silence. “Kat. What did you dream, baby?” “I-” I paused. Should I tell him? It would only make him worry. I would see him soon anyway when we show up for our unexpected visit and could tell him then. “I just dreamed that my friends and I got in a fight.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Seriously, Kat? That’s what you dreamed?” “Yeah.” Regretful, I pressed my hand against my forehead. I hated lying to my dad. I never lied to my dad. “That’s what had me so worried? I dropped my paint brush and splattered paint all over the floor because the feelin’ was so intense. And then when you didn’t answer the phone right away…” “I’m fine, dad. Promise.” “Okay…” More silence. “Well, I hope everythin’ is okay. Call me later.” I cringed inwardly. Everything was definitely not okay. Maybe when I snuck out tonight it could be for good; I would just have to plan my departure without Iris’ help. I wanted out of this school with the disappearing people, especially now that I’d dreamed I’d been stabbed inside it. Leaving as soon as possible had never sounded better. Besides, I couldn’t deny a specific horrifying detail of my dream – my heart had been cut out. Considering I was a hybrid, that meant the obvious – witches. Iris and Kai would need to know about this, as well as my gift for prophecy. I found my voice, albeit a little shaky. “I will.” “Love you, princess. Here’s your mom.” Of course, I thought. She’d probably been hovering over him the entire call. “Okay, love you too, dad.” “Kat, sweetie?” My mom sounded as frantic as my dad. “I’m fine, mom. Just a bad dream about my friends.” “Well, your dad was ready to take the next plane out there. Had me worried sick!” “I’m sorry. Everything’s okay.” Mostly. I’m still breathing. I wondered if the school had ever called them about the missing girl. Did they know what was going on here? Surely not, or they would already be here. I decided not to say anything. That too would worry them, and I was leaving as soon as I could anyway. I would be safer with Iris and her family than I ever would be here. Or anywhere, for that matter. “Not your fault, dear.” She heaved a sigh, and I imagined the look she got when she was relieved – eyes pressed tight, shoulders slumped, hand over her heart. God, I missed her. “So,” she said, changing the subject, “The dance is in a few days. You excited?” Shit. The dance. I’d completely forgotten. Not that it mattered… with Jillian missing, I doubt there would even be one. Even if there was, I definitely wouldn’t be going. “Yep,” I replied, maintaining the illusion that everything was fine here. Anna emerged from the bathroom with her hair falling in perfect spirals around her shoulders, a towel wrapped around her body. She fingered through her clothes in the closet. Being midday, and seeing that we were still holed up in our room, I guessed the school had delivered another message for us to stay put until further notice, which also meant they hadn’t found Jillian. Anna must have been the one to answer this time as I was dead to the world – poor choice of words, I admit – and decided to let me sleep in. I noticed an untouched tray on my dresser – my breakfast. I checked the clock beside me. Eleven-thirty. “So are you and Levi still going together?” Ugh. Stab to the ribcage – another poor choice of words. I debated my reply. “Uh oh. What happened?” I sighed. My mom could take the award for being the most intuitive away from my dad sometimes. Anna strolled back into the bathroom with her clothes of choice. I lowered my voice. “It didn’t work out.” “Oh, I’m so sorry, sweetie. You’re going by yourself, then? You’ll still have fun. Just hang out with your friends.” Friends. I glanced at the bathroom door with an aching heart. If I could take my friends with me when I left, I would. But that wasn’t an option. Iris wouldn’t have it. Hopefully, the school would do the wise thing and send everyone home soon. The cops could keep everyone safe until then. I made a mental note to check on Sarah as soon as I hung up with mom. It could have been from the dream, but I still had a bad feeling. “Yeah, going by myself,” I finally answered. I heard her feet padding across the floor – more than likely to be out of earshot of my dad – and I knew what she was about to ask. “So no other boys are catching your eye?” Yep – boy talk. Gabriel’s gorgeous smile flashed into memory. “Well…” “Well?” “Yes.” She might as well know. She’d be meeting him soon. “And?” “He’s…” I held on to the word for a breath. “Wonderful.” To say the very least. “He must really be something, sweetie. I can hear it in your voice.” “Really?” My lips spread into a smile, almost forgetting all the seriousness around me. Gabriel had a knack for doing that to me, and I suppose that was a good thing. “Really,” she replied, her voice bright. She was smiling too. “So you must be really drawn to him, then, to be so smitten in such a short amount of time.” If it had been anyone else but my mom, I would have taken that as sugar-coated criticism. But she was a hopeless romantic, always has been. At least since I was old enough to know what being a ‘hopeless romantic’ was. There’s someone you’re fated to, she always said. You just have to find them. “That’s a good way to put it,” I replied. “Oh?” “Yeah. Did you ever feel… a literal pull to someone? Like a physical pull? Not just drawn to them because, ya know, they’re cute?” I think I heard her gasp. “Mom?” “I, uh…” I waited a good few seconds. “Mom.” “Your dad,” she finally answered. “But…” “Mom, will you just spill it already?” “Okay, sweetie. Okay.” Uh oh, she was putting on her ‘serious voice.’ I braced myself. “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t you be in class? You have time for this?” Crap. “It’s lunchtime,” I lied. Well, halfway lied. They’d be bringing the next tray any minute. “We can make phone calls if we want to.” “Oh, okay. Well, I had a ‘literal pull’ to your father back when I was an angel. I know I haven’t talked much about my former life, but I suppose now is as good a time as any.” I heard a chair creak as she sighed. She was sitting down – definitely a sign she was getting ready for a heavy talk. “I was called a Protector Angel, and was assigned by my Elders to watch over your father.” “Watch over him?” “Yes. Protect him from someone who wanted to hurt him. He wanted to hurt a lot of people, actually. But I won’t get into that today. I know you have classes in a few. But yes, honey, I was assigned solely to him because of his gift of prophecy, to make sure he stayed alive. But one of my gifts as an angel was a sort of ‘draw’ I was given to him to know where he was at all times. Like my soul was drawn to his. Bound, I guess you could say.” “Oh.” Sounded familiar. “I’m guessing that rings a bell?” I hesitated. “Yeah. What do you think it means? For me, I mean.” She sighed again. “Beats me. And you care for him, don’t you?” “From the first time I laid eyes on him.” “Oh, sweetie,” she breathed, and I didn’t know if she meant it in a sad way or not. “Is this bad, mom?” “I don’t know, baby. I mean… you caring for him is a great thing. Beyond great. But the pull… I’m not sure what that means. My pull to your father got stronger when he was in danger. I’m wondering if somehow you’ve inherited some of my angelic traits.” More than you know. Remembering my dream, I swallowed hard. “Does that mean Gabe could be in danger?” “Is it stronger at times than at others?” “It’s always been pretty strong.” “But consistent?” “Yes.” “Then maybe everything’s okay. You just have a strong connection.” God, I hoped she was right. “And that’s a good thing, Kat,” she assured me. I tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but with my dream last night, I wasn’t so sure. “So you’re happy about this?” I asked. “That I’ve already fallen for someone so hard?” “The motherly part of me wants to tell you to wait and be cautious,” she said. “But the romantic in me is overjoyed. If I could have met your father at a younger age and had more human years with him, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” I’ll take it. “And mom?” “Yes, d-” The phone beeped. Another call. Crap. “You mind holding a second? I’m getting another call.” “Sure.” I clicked over, and it was a message from the Principal. “All students are to report to the auditorium immediately. Make sure you walk in pairs. That is all.” I clicked back over. “Mom? I have to go. I’ll call you later.” “Okay, d-” Silence. “Mom?” I banged the handset. Nothing. We must have gotten disconnected. Anna emerged from the bathroom all made over. I, however, would have to go looking like I’d just rolled out of bed. “Get your shoes on, girl,” I said. “We’re going to the auditorium.” We stopped by Sarah and Ivy’s room on the way, but it was empty. I tried not to let it worry me – they were probably already down in the auditorium saving seats – but I couldn’t shake the worry my dream had left. “You okay, girl?” Anna asked, eyeing me as we scampered down the stairs. I had thrown on a sweatshirt and a pair of faded jeans and had pulled my uncombed hair into a bun. Not my finest look, I know, but jeez, did I look that bad? “I’m good. Overslept.” She grabbed the crook of my arm, pulling me to a stop, classmates whizzing down the stairs all around us. “I mean in general. You look… stressed.” You have no idea. “I’m concerned.” Once again, I had to lie. I hated this new trend. Friends weren’t supposed to lie to each other. “I’m just feeling under the weather, I guess.” I threw in some honesty for my own conscience. “And this Jillian thing really has me freaked out.” And my dream last night, and breaking Levi’s heart, and possibly being hunted by witches, and breaking the news to my parents about everything, and having to leave you guys behind… and-and-and. She pulled me into a tight hug. “I know. I’m scared too.” “Keep it moving,” we heard a female officer say. Anna’s sympathetic caress made my eyes well. I’ll miss you, Anna – my new friend that I didn’t have near enough time with. I reminded myself of what Iris had said so I didn’t burst into tears – I’d still be able to visit my friends for a while. Until they realized I wasn’t aging. “Thanks,” I said through a tight throat, and we started on our way again. Despite the massive throng of students filling every seat in the auditorium, I could have heard a pin drop. This impromptu meeting at such an odd hour of the day had everyone on edge. As we made our way toward Ronnie and Levi at the end of a row, we passed two officers escorting Ivy and Dawson out. Dawson’s face was fresh with despair, and Ivy flashed me a desperate look, turning my blood to ice. Oh, no… Sarah. My knees weakened, and I was barely holding it together. I almost followed after them, but decided against it; Principal Hughes, who was looking worse for the wear, had already taken the stage and was calling everyone’s attention. By the time Anna and I had made it to our seats beside the boys, Ronnie had moved to allow me to sit by Levi. Levi must not have told him. Yet. I tentatively sat beside him, not sparing a glance for fear of what I would see if I looked him in his eyes – anger, devastation. I couldn’t have handled either right now. He allowed my presence, and that was more than I could have asked for. My thoughts boomeranged back to Sarah. Please, I prayed. Let her be okay. “It’s with a heavy heart today,” Principal Hughes began. “That I’m announcing the temporary closing of Midland Pines.” He paused, wiping his gleaming forehead with a handkerchief. It was now even quieter, if that were possible. “Four more students have gone missing since last night.” Gasps filled the room, a whir of noise pulsating against my ear drums. Or maybe it was my heartbeat. I stared blankly at our Principal’s clammy, tired face. “I want to assure you, though, that we’re doing everything in our power to keep you all safe. More officers are on the way to ensure this until we can get you all safely home. We plan on contacting your parents as soon as the phone lines are back in working order.” The phones are down? Remembering my phone going silent earlier, dread knotted my stomach. This wasn’t good. “We hope to have you home by Friday at the latest. And obviously, the game tonight has been canceled, along with the dance.” Friday. That was two days away. How many more students would go missing? I then wondered if witches could have anything to do with this – the dead phone lines and missing students. But Kai had said I was the only half-breed here. What other horror was wreaking its havoc? Whatever it was, I didn’t want to stick around to find out, but leaving my friends now – in this darkest hour – seemed a selfish thing to do. Anna would crumble if I left her alone. What other option did I have? I could either stay and pray my prophetic dream didn’t come to fruition, or leave and worry about my friends until they evacuated the school. Maybe I could convince the others to help somehow. Maybe there was something they could do – an enchantment or a spell of protection. Anything was better than doing nothing. “That is all,” Principal Hughes concluded. “Please make your way back to your rooms, and keep the missing students in your prayers.” Wait… What? They weren’t going to tell us who they were? A teacher whispered in his ear. “Oh, sorry. Yes. The missing students are Heather Stroud, Jose Velasquez, Christian Lucas…” Please don’t say Sarah Larson. PLEASE don’t say Sarah Larson. “…and Sarah Larson. Keep them in your prayers.” CHAPTER FIFTEEN ___________________ Seeking Help I awoke to Anna sitting on the edge of my bed, stroking my hand, her eyes focused and weary. When my eyes groggily met hers, she breathed a sigh of relief. “How did I get here?” I asked. The last thing I remembered was her squeal. “Levi carried you,” she said. “You passed out after Principal Hughes said Sarah Larson.” Her voice broke on Sarah’s name. “Oh.” Unsurprised I had passed out, my gaze moved to the ceiling; how much pain could one’s heart take in the span of a day? Mercilessly, the pain rushed back in, and a deep, gut-wrenching sadness rose inside me to the point of bubbling over in the form of tears. What good were prophetic dreams if I couldn’t act fast enough to do anything about them? Anna said nothing, her own tears slipping down her cheeks. “Where do you think she is?” she choked out. I fought back the image of Sarah being tied up and tortured. “I don’t know, girl.” Anna wiped her tears and made her way to the bathroom. “I’ll be right back.” As soon as she shut the door behind her, I realized this was my chance. Lying here and crying wouldn’t bring Sarah back. I needed to find Iris and the others to see if they could help. Taking care to be as quiet as possible, I scribbled a note for Anna. I’ll be back. Don’t worry. Going to find help. I set the paper where I had been lying – the most obvious of places so she wouldn’t overlook it – and after saying the invisibility spell, I was out the door. I passed close to ten officers, three of whom had German Shepherds, on the way outside. I didn’t bother walking slowly or being as discreet as possible in case I’d said the spell wrong; I ran like hell and hoped it had worked. Nobody followed or seemed to notice. When I made it to the wood line, I whispered the spell again to make me visible. I noticed something different deep inside – my draw to these woods, to Gabe. It was stronger, almost pulsating, and I blanched. According to mom, that was a bad sign. Before taking off again, I glanced at the school. A silhouette stood in our window – red hair, pale skin. Anna. Shit… did she see me? I didn’t have time to care, so I took off toward the clearing ahead. The clearing was empty, nothing but a ring of stones and smoldering embers from the night before. “Guys?” I asked, my voice echoing. No one answered. The tents and horses weren’t visible; they must have left to hunt or gather and had cloaked everything with the spell before they’d left. I said the spell again, hoping it would reverse the veil. It worked. I spotted Legolas right away, and music filled the air in rich, bright tones – a guitar. Gabe! I followed the pull of my draw to his tent and peeked inside. He sat cross-legged on his bed with the guitar in his lap. I’d never felt happier to see someone. He was okay. “Gabe?” He jumped. When he saw it was me, his expression morphed from joy to concern. “Kat,” he said, laying his guitar down and hurrying to my side, “What’s wrong?” I burst into tears again. “Sarah!” was all I could squeak out. He wrapped me in a blanket of comfort. “Who’s Sarah?” I spoke between gasps. “My friend. She’s gone.” “Gone?” “Disappeared.” His arms constricted. “Like the girl you were telling us about the other night?” I nodded into his chest. “We need to find her.” He pulled back, braced his hands on my face. “We’ll find her. I’ll ask everyone to help. We’ll scour the school for days if we have to.” Relief flooded through me, and I gave him a thankful smile through my tears. The sound of heavy footfalls outside announced the others’ arrival. “They’re back,” he said. “They’d gone hunting. Let’s talk to Iris.” “Oh my,” Iris said, looking to Kai, “We’ll do whatever we can.” I wiped my wet cheeks. “Thank you.” “Yes,” Kai echoed. “Whatever we can.” Piper took my hand. “We’ll find her,” she soothed. “If we have to look all night,” added Aubrey. Colton and Brad unloaded a deer carcass from the back of a horse while Raymond carried two sets of bows and arrows into his tent. Their hunt had been successful. Iris’ dove flew to a nearby branch, and Kai helped remove her down jacket. This was the first time I’d seen her without a dress on. “Let’s all get a drink and we’ll start right away. Kai, you mind?” “Mind what, dear?” he asked, slinging her jacket over his shoulder. She looked at him pointedly. “Drinks?” “I’ll help,” Piper offered. “No, darlin’. Kai’s got it.” “I’ve got it,” he insisted and started to wherever they kept the dishes. While we gathered around the fire ring and settled on the logs, Kai brought out a tray with mugs balanced on top. “Thank you,” I said as he handed me one. “So when was the last time you saw Sarah?” Iris asked, and watched as I sipped my water. It had a tang, and I swallowed hard to keep from grimacing. “Um… yesterday at breakfast, I guess.” “I see.” She watched intently as the others sipped theirs. Kai handed her the last mug, and she placed it on the ground. “Ugh, what’s in this, Kai?” Aubrey scowled. “I know, right?” Raymond chuckled. “You poisoning us or something?” Kai forced a laugh, but Iris remained focused. Watchful. I smiled at her, thankful for their help, and she separated into two images that slapped back together. My head buzzed. Ugh. I wasn’t feeling well. I glanced at Piper, the world spinning as my head turned. She had her tiny hand pressed against her forehead. “You all right?” Colton asked her, but I could tell he wasn’t feeling well, either. He looked green. Gabe piped up. “No, really, man… what’s in this? Did you screw up and put one of Iris’ elixirs in here?” My legs went numb, then my hands. I watched as my mug dropped to the ground and rolled, splattering its contents. Confused, I looked back up to Iris, and a slow smile spread across her face. I tried to blink away the dark fog that was creeping into my vision. I think I saw Piper flop to the ground, but the numbness had taken hold of me to the point that I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Iris’ voice wafted through like a faint breeze. “It wasn’t a screw-up.” My world went black. CHAPTER SIXTEEN ___________________ Deep Shit Iris’ faraway voice coaxed me from my drug-induced sleep, but my head hung heavy; I couldn’t will it to move or my eyes to open. Numbness had a firm grip on me. Nothing but numbness. “Good. Now make an incision here.” “Here?” Kai’s voice sounded hollow. Unsure. “You can do this, Kai. You have to or it won’t work. I can’t do it for you.” “I know,” he said, a little more confident. “I’ve just never done this before. I don’t want to screw this up. Not after all this time.” “Breathe, baby.” He steeled himself with a breath. Silence. “Good. Just like that,” she instructed. “Cut long and deep, though. We have to get it out in one piece.” More silence. My foggy mind attempted to piece their words together – incision, long and deep… one piece. If I could have felt my heart, I ‘m sure it would have jumped. They were cutting something out. Were they cutting into me? I couldn’t have felt it if they were. No… their voices sounded too far away. And why would they – oh no. The word “heart” pulsated inside my head as a burning reminder. Were… were they witches? Coldness seeped into my bones – I was regaining my sense of touch, my nerves awakening. “Good,” Iris praised. “That wasn’t so bad, huh? They don’t even know it’s happening. At least we’re being humane about it.” Oh no. Tears prickled my eyes. Who’d they just mangled? Just killed? Their footsteps crunched across the ground, about five or so paces closer to me. I struggled to move, and that’s when the numbness ebbed and I felt a tight, rough coil around my shoulders, stomach, and thighs, my hands bound inside the rope at my waist. Pieces of jagged bark were digging into my back. They had tied me to a tree, naked, except for my underwear. Bile rose in my throat. No… no, no, no. This had to be another dream. Wake up, Kat. Wake up! My head bobbed as it struggled to rise. “Not as hard as I thought,” Kai said. “Let’s get this over with so we can get back to your sister. Who’s next?” “You have to go clockwise. So that would be Gabriel.” Gabe! My head slammed against the tree; I’d used all the energy I could muster to lift it the rest of the way. Now for my eyes. “Same for him,” Iris continued, steadfast. “We have to drain his blood first. Make the incision along his forearm.” Don’t you touch him! My thoughts screamed, but couldn’t find their way to my mouth. They were lost in the fog, lost in a confused stupor, stumbling around. Warm, wet tears rolled along my cheeks, dripping onto my bare chest. Their footsteps made their way back five paces, but slightly to the right. “Good,” she said. “Just like that.” I dragged in a lungful of air, straining against the rope, every part of my being fighting against the drugs and the haze. “No!” I cried. The word came out muffled, my voice almost unrecognizable. Tape - they’d taped my mouth. Iris gasped, footsteps crunching their way to me. My eyes fluttered open and there stood Kai in front of me, bloody dagger in hand, his eyes wild, determined. He desperately wanted something from me, from all of us – our blood and hearts so they could be immortal. If I weren’t already fighting so hard against my heavy eyelids, I would have had the courage to look past these monsters to figure out who they’d already murdered, but it was all I could do to keep them open. As far as I could tell, the others had also been tied to trees around the clearing. His once-warm eyes stayed glued to me, but he spoke to Iris as if I weren’t even there at all. As if I weren’t nearly naked, tied to this tree, exposed and helplessly waiting to be drained and gutted like a cadaver being prepared for a funeral. “I thought you said they wouldn’t wake.” “They shouldn’t have,” she replied, turning in a circle and appraising the others. “Then give her more.” “That was all I had, Kai. Some burn off the medicine faster than others, and she’s the lucky winner. Hit her over the head or something if you can’t stand doing it while she’s awake.” I balked at how coldly she spoke about it – like I was nothing. Nobody. “Fine,” he replied, a hopeful smile tugging on his lips, and he held up the butt of the dagger to bludgeon me. My wide eyes zeroed in on the wooden handle, and before I could process what I was doing, the dagger ripped from his hand and tumbled through the air into the dark woods. Who knew how far it had gone. They stared in the direction it had launched, dumbfounded. I slumped against the trunk with relief. Despite my tied-up hands, my telekinesis had come through – thanks to my brief lesson from Ms. Douglas the other day. “Did you do that, Kai?” Iris asked. He looked at his hands. “No, I...” She spit the word, her eyes cutting back to me. “Telekinesis.” I couldn’t help but smirk from behind the tape. Forgot, didn’t you? She gripped my chin, squeezing as hard as she could. The pain shot down my throat like bolts of lightning, and I whined, squirming. “You think you’re clever, don’t you, you little bitch?” Her bird squawked in agreement from a branch above me, and she pulled away. “You want to be awake that bad, Kathrin? Fine… you can watch as Gabriel dies.” Anger swelled at the thought of them cutting him, touching him again in any kind of way. “Screw you!” I yelled, the muffled words losing their bite because of the tape. “Screw both of you!” With pressed lips, she ripped the tape from my mouth. I flinched and let out a yelp. “What was that, dear?” she asked, as fake and sugary as she could. “Screw you,” I snarled. “No thanks,” she countered. “Kai? Get the knife. We need to finish this and get back to Rose.” “Don’t you touch him,” I said, and damn if my voice didn’t crack. Why was this happening? I didn’t want to die here, for any of us to die here. Not like this – at the hand of two people we trusted. People the others had loved for years, people I had been naively growing to love. We all deserved better. “I’m afraid we have to,” she said coldly and turned her attention to the woods. “Find it, Kai?” “Still looking!” Her hands balled into fists. “That’s the one we have to use. Keep looking!” Her bird squawked again. An icy pain pounded into me now, throbbing through my limbs in rhythm with my heartbeat – the ropes were too tight, the air too cold, and the numbing effects of the drug had almost completely faded. I finally had the energy to sweep my eyes over the clearing. Perfect, straight lines of white powder had been used to draw a giant star on the ground with Colton tied-up by his wrists and ankles dead center. Each of us was tied to a tree at each of the points. Piper and Aubrey were tied up on either side of me, Gabriel next to Piper and… my gaze found the body with streaks of red – Raymond. Kai had carved a hole in his chest, blood dribbling down his stomach and legs and coloring the point of the chalky star at his feet deep crimson. He was gone. The cold, black arms of death had laid him to his final rest, and grief took hold of me, squeezing my heart. “No,” I choked out. “Yes,” she hissed back, indifferent to my mourning, “You have no idea what these sacrifices mean to me.” I wept, ignoring her as I thought how just last night Raymond was alive and singing with Gabriel by the campfire. I didn’t give a flying fuck what our deaths meant to her. “You guys stumble into your immortality,” she continued. “You’re born with it, blithely unaware of what a precious gift you have.” She stepped closer, her voice low and filled with disdain. “And what makes it even more infuriating, is that when you’re told about it, some of you see it as a curse. A curse!” She straightened her shoulders, trying to maintain her composure. “Those of us who see what a blessing it is to live forever are the ones who deserve this gift, not you sniveling little idiots.” I finally decided to acknowledge her psycho-babble. “And what makes a monster like you worthy?” “Oh, I’m already immortal, dear. I performed this ritual years ago in my thirties. You six are for Kai.” I wanted to tell her to screw off again, but as soon as the words situated themselves on the tip of my tongue, movement in the woods caught my eye. It wasn’t Kai; this came from the direction of the school. “Kai?” Iris yelled again, growing impatient. When she yelled, the movement in the direction of the school paused. Was it a person? Had they heard her? Wait… how could they have heard her? Were we not behind a veil? Oh, right… I removed the spell when I had arrived earlier. Iris didn’t know. “Not yet!” he replied. “Jesus, Kai. They’ll all be awake soon if you don’t hurry!” I spared a glance at our silent visitor – long hair, slender body. A girl, but I didn’t know who. She was too far away to see features. Whoever she was, she darted behind a tree. God, please, I prayed. Let whoever it is see what’s going on and send for help. Distract her, I told myself. Keep Iris distracted so she doesn’t see her. “Why us six?” I asked. She sighed as if irritated by my question. “Six, Kathrin, because that’s how many we need for the ritual. And you six because that’s how many we’ve been able to find in ten years. You half-breeds are hard to come by… and even harder to convince to live with us willingly.” While you feed and groom us like rats for your ritual. “But you were one of the easiest to convince.” She cut her eyes to Gabriel with a wicked grin. “Thanks to lover-boy.” I dug my fingernails into the bark, swallowed the string of profanities working their way out. Keep her distracted. “Before you found me, you had six.” And that’s when I realized one of us was missing. Brad. “Oh, I didn’t only need six. I needed twelve – six for Kai, six for Rose, my sister. She’s been waiting for this a long time.” Her eyes hardened. “That’s why we need to get this over with and get going.” She took an impatient step toward the woods. “Kai!” Her sister. She’d been doing all of this to save her dying sister – hiring the help of an aura-reader to find us half-breeds. She must have fallen in love with him in the process and decided to accumulate six more than she’d needed so she could also live forever with her Jamaican lover. How sweet, I thought bitterly. “Where are the other six?” “Got it!” Kai answered, his voice a stir of echoes. I must have tossed it pretty far, but not far enough. We needed more time, and Gabe was next. I pressed my eyes tight to keep from bawling again. I needed to stay focused, keep Iris engaged. Iris threw her hands in the air. “About damn time…” While Iris was looking in Kai’s direction, I spared another long glance toward the school to find the mystery visitor. Nothing. Where did she go? A flicker of red hair a few yards away caught my attention. Anna? What was she doing out here? The note, I thought. I’d told her I would be back soon, and judging by the setting sun, I’d been gone for hours. She must have seen me going into the woods earlier and had bravely come to check on me. Anna slid her eye from behind the trunk, and our eyes met. She looked horrified. Frightened. I wondered how much she’d heard Iris say, but even if she’d heard nothing, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out we were in deep shit. “Get help,” I mouthed. She nodded, chin quivering, and disappeared again. “Where are the other six?” I asked again. “They’re hidden away safely.” I paused, a thought coming to me. “Would one of them happen to be Sarah?” She slid me an amused glance. “I don’t know their names, child. But probably.” Anger flared again. “Well, you need to know their names. The people you’re killing have names – Sarah, Jillian, Brad, H-.” “That’s nice, Kathrin,” she said, turning to look me square in the eyes, “But obviously if I’ve lived with the ones that are tied up with you right now, and I have no qualms sacrificing them, then I don’t give a shit about what your little school friends’ names are.” I glared at her and hoped she felt it cutting through her. How someone could be so beautiful and terrible at the same time was beyond me. I hope you rot in hell. “Have something else to say?” I pressed my lips tight. Kai’s footsteps were nearing. We didn’t have much time. Hurry, Anna! “That’s what I thought. And while we’re waiting on Kai, I’d like to share a little story with you.” My eyes dropped to the ground. I had a feeling I didn’t want to hear her story, but I wouldn’t have much of a choice. Besides, this would help stall. “This all started with me and my younger sister, Lilliana, about twenty years ago. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a witch.” Her mouth twitched with a smile on the word “witch.” Apparently, she was proud of it. “And so are my sisters, Lilliana and Rose. My sister Rose has a knack for spells and rituals, and she came across one for immortality. To live forever didn’t appeal to her, but me and Lilliana, we couldn’t resist. The only thing was, we needed angel hybrids and had no idea where to look.” She brushed her hand against my cheek, and I shied away. “You little shits look just like all the regular humans… on the outside.” Kai’s footsteps were closer. We needed more time. “Luckily, we knew a witch that read auras.” “Kai?” I guessed, and I’d forced as much venom into saying his name as I could. Her eyes narrowed. “No. This was an old family friend… a warlock. Daemon.” Fitting name. “He said he’d heard of humans with unusual auras, that they had silver threading. He’d never seen one before, himself, but a friend of his had. His friend had also told him he believed they were half-breeds – part angel, part human – but the only way to find out for sure was to check their blood.” Sounds familiar. “So we commissioned Daemon’s help, traveled far and wide. One day we stumbled across a compound – log cabins in the woods surrounded by a rickety fence. Everyone there had silvery threads in their auras.” She paused reflectively. “Makes sense – hybrids living together in a large colony. A sense of community, but a community where nobody dies. No losses. No hiding your true self or your immortality. And that’s when we realized, this is what we really wanted… to live together forever.” My thoughts snapped back to mine and Gabriel’s conversation the night before. About how Raymond had heard of this colony, and Iris didn’t want them talking about it. Now I knew why. “So Lilliana and I did what we had to do. We snuck in during the night and drugged twelve of them.” She smiled proudly. “And in case you haven’t guessed, elixirs are my specialty.” Thinking of the nasty drink from earlier, my stomach churned. “We performed the rituals and haven’t aged since. I’m forever frozen in my thirties, and Lilliana in her early twenties.” “And let me guess,” I said. “Rose became sick with cancer, and you’re on a mission to save her life by killing innocent people.” Her eyes flared. “Who told you she was sick?” I stared back into her eyes, unwavering. I truly did wish they’d all rot in hell. “I’m back,” Kai said, interrupting our stare-down, “Let’s-” She held out her hand to silence him. “Who told you, Kat?” I said nothing. “It was lover-boy, wasn’t it?” By the way her body shook with rage, I know I’d hit a sore spot. I didn’t want her to take it out on Gabriel any more than they were already planning to, so I bit my tongue. “Well let me tell you a little something about that too.” Kai stepped back, knowing better than to interfere. “She has stage four leukemia, and by some miracle – which might partly have to do with some of my elixirs – she’s managed to stay alive twenty years. But the doctors say-” Her voice cracked. “She only has weeks left. Weeks!” Kai placed a consoling hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “After Lilliana and I came back to my sister with our news of immortality, she gave us the news she’d received when we were away. We eventually talked her into letting us bring her six more hybrids from the compound so we could prevent her death, but when we returned, the village had been abandoned.” A tear slid down her cheek, and she angrily swiped it away with the heel of her palm. “So Lilliana and I split up to save time. She went with Daemon to try and find another compound, and Kai came with me – who I’d met while he helped care for Rose – to help look in mortal communities. Lilliana hasn’t had any luck, but I was able to find a hybrid every year or so… getting them to live with us and trust us was another task.” Because they were smarter than us. “It took me and Kai ten years to even get one to commit – Gabriel. After that, it was a little easier to get others to join. We finally had six a year ago, but before we were able to drug and transport them, Aubrey and Brad left us during the night, leaving nothing behind but a parting letter to thank us for our hospitality… but what were we to do? Waste more time tracking them down? I couldn’t risk it.” She paused, heaving a breath to settle her nerves and said, “That’s when we came across Midland Pines, and it was a gold mine for hybrids since some of you also have gifts.” Her eyes closed for a moment. “I believe destiny brought us here. My sister was meant to be saved.” It wasn’t destiny, my thoughts retorted. “So we took Jillian first, in the middle of the night – I’ve gotten sick of this “come and live with us in the woods” song and dance – and had planned to take you and the rest shortly after, but your annoying little curiosity led you into the woods and right into Gabriel’s arms. It proved a useful tactic to get you to keep coming back, though, I admit. He was more than happy to court you at my request.” Confused, I furrowed my brow. At your request? She regarded my scowl with a phony sympathetic pout. “Oh, that’s sweet… you think him being so attached to you was because he loved you? And that quickly?” Her mocking laugh was like a swift blow to my stomach. “You teenage girls are so easily fooled.” I felt nauseous, my mind whirling and trying desperately to make sense of what she was saying. Kai lowered his eyes to the ground. I cut my eyes at Gabriel. Tell me it’s not true. “But don’t be completely heartbroken… I think he had feelings for you on some level. That’s why I couldn’t very well snatch you up; he’d know if you went missing.” I continued staring at Gabe, tears falling harder than before. My heart was broken, utterly broken. All of it was a lie to get me to live with them, and now I was going to die because of it. I’m such an idiot. “So while we arranged the other four’s capture,” she continued like the cold-hearted bitch she was, “Kai and I put on one last charade to get you to come with us. I was even reduced to slashing telephone lines to keep the news of the missing students from getting out and you being carted away by your parents. You were one of the only six hybrids at the school… we needed you.” “How nice,” I snapped between ragged gasps. “How nice of you to oblige me, Kathrin,” she replied with a tug of the rope around my shoulders. “So in short, my dear, Aubrey and Brad came back to us right before we’d had our first talk with you in the woods – another blessing from destiny – and now we’re one big happy family. After taking your friends last night, we now have the twelve we need. Kai can be immortal with me, and we’ll take the rest to my sister tonight.” She stepped closer, looked deep into my eyes. “Take this as a sign, dear – those of us who deserve this life are the ones fate has chosen. You twelve, however, your souls can just float back up into heaven and live with your goody-goody ancestors. We all win.” I had the urge to spit in her face but thought better of it. They were the ones with the knife. “Iris, honey,” Kai said, low and respectful. “We need to get this finished.” She pulled away, her eyes never leaving mine. “Still want to be awake for this?” she asked. Ha! She was extending me mercy? “Fuck you,” I spit out. And that’s when we heard a muffled, blood-curdling scream – Piper was the next to wake. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN ___________________ Reinforcements Iris and Kai turned in Piper’s direction, and my attention drew back to the school. I counted a total of seven figures slinking in the shadows toward the clearing. Anna had brought a small army, and I hoped Iris and Kai, or her stupid bird, wouldn’t notice the crunching of their footsteps. Make noise, I thought. Give them a chance to get here without being heard. “Let us go!” I screamed, wiggling against the ropes. Piper followed suit with a string of strangled cries from behind the tape. “Shut up!” Iris hissed at her. Her dove made a similar sound. I yelled as loud as I could. “Someone, help!” Iris snatched the dagger from Kai and ran to Piper. I couldn’t see, but I imaged she’d poised it dangerously at her throat. Piper cowered. “Shut your mouth, Piper, or I’ll slit you wide open.” Piper nodded with wide, frightened eyes, though there was a layer of devastating sadness there that only realizing you’d been betrayed could bring. I tried to grip the knife with my gift, but I couldn’t grab hold. I couldn’t see it; I needed to see it. Iris bashed her over the head with the dagger anyway, knocking her out. “I’d rather do this in silence.” I cringed with a whimper. Iris turned to me with an outstretched hand, her fingers curling as I felt my throat squeezing tight. I gagged. “Keep that mouth shut, Kathrin.” “Iris, nobody can hear us,” Kai reminded her. “I know that,” she replied. “I don’t want to hear all the screaming while we work.” Blackness was seeping into my vision. I tried to reply, but I couldn’t. She flashed a wicked smile. “You’re not the only one with ‘gifts’.” Before the darkness took me, she dropped her hand. My head lolled as I choked and gasped for air. Iris pointed at me. “Remember the feeling of your windpipe crushing when you decide to burst my eardrums again.” She motioned for Kai to join her, and they headed for Gabriel. Desperate, I cut my eyes back to the woods, and five heads peeked above the trunk of a nearby fallen tree. They must have been crouching and assessing. One of the heads, in particular, grabbed my attention – blonde-tipped hair. Levi! The thought of him coming to my rescue flooded me with a mixture of warmth and relief; although I also knew this was far from over. But where were the other two? I’d counted seven figures earlier. Curious, I searched the woods and saw two silhouettes skirting the clearing to the other side, opposite of the others. I didn’t recognize their shape – bulky with slight guts, and they both wore hats. They must have been officers. God… please tell me they were officers! I looked back to Gabriel and gasped. Blood poured down his leg from where they were cutting his arm open to drain him out, but I couldn’t see the knife. I couldn’t do anything about it. I swallowed the emotions down, tried to bury them deep. I didn’t want to cry for him. I didn’t want to think of him as the boy I’d almost given my heart to. He was a fraud. But I couldn’t help it; they swelled inside me anyway. My soul was already weeping for him, my pull to him practically bursting from my chest because he was in trouble and my entire being pled with me to help him. While I waited for Levi and the others to make a move, my body began to shake violently beneath the ropes – the cold, the pain and flurry of emotions were taking their toll. I almost wished Iris had choked me out. Kai went for Gabriel’s chest with the dagger. “Please,” I mouthed in the direction of the five heads. “Do something.” Almost immediately, an object shot into the sky. I watched as it soared in the direction of Kai and Iris. Feathers and a beak came into focus. Dawson! He swooped down, unbeknownst to them, and took hold of the dagger as Kai was breaking the skin. Kai gasped. The dove squawked. “What the hell?” Iris barked, following Dawson with her eyes. Furious, she reached out with her hand and knocked him from the sky with a swift blow. Anna’s squeak echoed through the woods, and I could hear Levi shooshing her. When Dawson fell unconscious to the ground just beyond the other side of the clearing, he morphed back into human form. Kai and Iris ran to stand next to him, evaluating what had happened. Kai cut his eyes to where Anna’s squeak came from. Blood drained from his face. “We aren’t hidden,” he whispered. Iris smacked his shoulder. “No shit.” “Hands where I can see them!” said a commanding voice. Kai and Iris jumped. “Now!” it barked again. The officers came into view, their guns aimed at Iris and Kai. That’s when Levi, Anna and Ronnie stood from behind the log, eyes blazing, stances wide and ready. Ivy shifted to see better, her furious, dark eyes peering over the log, though she was staying mostly hidden… probably because she wouldn’t be much help in a fight. But all of them were pissed, and I couldn’t help but smile as Anna’s shaking hands glowed brightly with fire. Iris’ dove swooped down and landed on her shoulder; it hunkered down protectively. Iris regarded their army with a smirk, not intimidated in the least. “Oops! Was he your friend?” She uttered the spell to hide us. “Good try, though.” The officers lowered their weapons. “What the…” one of them said. Before heading back to Gabriel, Kai bent to grab the dagger from Dawson’s hand and gave him a swift punch to the face. Dawson moaned. I glanced back at the others who were talking feverishly, confused about where we’d gone, and I whispered the spell to undo it. Iris and Kai were none the wiser. “I swear, it shouldn’t be this difficult,” Iris complained on their walk back. “These damn Gifteds are a thorn in my ass.” While Levi and the rest gathered their wits again, I decided to give them some time. I zeroed in on the dagger while I could see it, and ripped it from Kai’s grip. It fell beside the log the others stood behind. “Grab it!” I yelled. Iris turned to me, hand outstretched and squeezing my throat as hard as she could. Gagging, I squirmed, tears stinging my eyes. “Get the knife, Kai!” she ordered. “I said hands in the air!” the cop yelled. “They can still see us,” Kai gasped. “No shit!” Iris said. “Get the damn knife.” The officer took a step toward them. “Don’t make me-“ With Iris’ other hand, she swept it through the air like she was swatting away a pesky bug, and the officers went airborne. Their bodies landed with thuds a few yards away. No moaning or anything. The force must have knocked them out like it had Dawson. This time, Ivy squealed. Iris now squeezed my throat with both hands, her eyes determined. She was pissed and going for the kill. I fought to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head and cut them to Levi. He plucked the dagger from the ground and tucked it in his back pocket. He looked Kai square in the eyes. Anna’s hands still glowed with fire, her eyes terrified but resolute. “Tell that bitch to get her hands off of Kat, or Anna here will set you on fire!” Kai paused and held up his hands. Iris squeezed my throat tighter. “Gabriel gave you the spell, didn’t he?” My body was going limp, my head tingling and fuzzy; I could feel myself slipping into darkness. “Let go of her!” Levi ordered. Through the blackness, I saw a burst of light. Kai screamed. Her bird screeched, and Iris released my throat. “I told you to let go of her…” As I gasped, my lungs and throat burned from the cold air. All I could see now were spots. “Kai!” Iris yelped. Groggily, I blinked through the stars and spots in my vision to see her hunched over him as he lay on the ground. She was frantically patting out the flames on half his body. “You’re next, blondie,” Levi barked. “You evil little bastards!” she cried as she patted the last flame. Kai rolled on the ground in agony. The flames had singed half of his dreadlocks and burned through his clothes. Welts and blisters were already forming on his face, shoulder and upper arm. She raised her hand to swipe at Anna. No! Ronnie held up his hands, the leaves on the ground in front of her blowing in her face as a warning. Her bird flapped its wings against the wind. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Ronnie cautioned. The others darted behind him. She paused, sizing him up. This was the first time I’d ever seen her broken, uncertain. The others hurting Kai must have gotten to her, and she probably realized she was losing. Even with the cops and Dawson unconscious, she was outnumbered… and out-gifted. I couldn’t help but smugly look at her and think in my best mock southern voice, how’s this for destiny? But whatever hesitation she’d had, her pride and ego got the best of her. Her mouth set into a hard line, and her eyes narrowed with determination. I could practically hear her thoughts – “I’m not losing to a bunch of idiot teenagers!” Calling his bluff, she raised her hand higher for the first blow. Something wild flickered across Ronnie’s face, and with a strong gust of wind, Iris and her bird were thrown against a tree next to Piper with sickening cracks. They flopped to the ground in a heap of feathers, blonde hair and black clothes, and time seemed to pause as we took in her mangled body – an arm bent the wrong way. Her head laying at a grotesque angle, her neck clearly snapped in two. Within seconds, her should-have-been dead body attempted to piece itself back together on the inside, evident by her unnatural twitches and moans. “Her head,” I coughed out. “Cut it off.” Blade drawn, Levi hurried to finish the job, a steely grit behind his eyes. This bitch would never have the chance to hurt us again. It was over. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN ___________________ Gruesome Truth While Ronnie stood over a wailing and still-writhing Kai to make sure he didn’t try to get away, Ivy and Anna ran back to the school to get more help. “And get Nurse Plunkett!” Levi yelled after them as he worked on my ropes with the knife. “It’ll take the ambulances at least thirty minutes to get here.” “Oh, shit… sorry,” he said and blotted my arm with his shirt. I guess he’d nicked me, but my skin was numb from a combination of the cold and the ropes slowing my circulation. I didn’t feel it. “It’s okay,” I said hoarsely and winced. My throat was on fire, and I tasted the metallic tang of blood on the back of my tongue. Damn Iris – she’d ruptured vessels. “Don’t try to talk,” he soothed. “That bitch did a number on you.” I looked ahead to Gabriel. His arm was still dribbling blood. Someone needed to put pressure on it to stop the bleeding. “There…” Levi said as he cut the last rope. I locked my knees to prepare to stand on my own, but my legs felt like jelly. I grabbed Levi’s arm. “Careful,” he said, slipping his arm around me as an anchor, “Let’s sit you down against this tree until Nurse Plunkett gets here.” Once rested on the ground, I nodded in Gabriel’s direction. “His arm,” I coughed out. “I know. He’ll be fine.” He took off his jacket and draped it over me. “No,” I argued. “Needs pressure.” “Okay, okay,” he conceded. “Just quit talking.” He cut a strip of fabric from the bottom of his shirt with the knife, and on his way to Gabriel, he regarded Kai with a sour look. “Hope you like prison, ya sicko,” he mumbled. Ronnie snickered. “Don’t drop the soap, bro.” Huddled under the thick jacket that smelled of him, I watched as Levi tied the fabric around Gabriel’s upper arm to slow the bleeding, and if I could have managed any more tears, I would have cried. Because of him, we were going to be okay. We would live to see another day. And believe me, the irony wasn’t lost on me – unknowingly, he’d helped save the boy I had left him for. Gabriel and I owed him so much; we owed him and the others everything. Hasty footfalls vibrated the ground beneath me, and I looked in the direction of the school. Nurse Plunkett and the Principal were on their way along with a swarm of officers. Yes, we were going to be okay. Holding Levi’s jacket tightly around me, I shuffled beside the officers carrying Gabriel to his tent to rest until the paramedics got here. According to Nurse Plunkett, who’d cleaned and put gauze over Gabriel’s wound, it for sure needed stitches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he needed a blood transfusion, as well. He’d lost a lot. At least I had peace in knowing he wouldn’t die from his wounds; Kai hadn’t gotten the chance to cut out his heart. As we walked, I glanced over my shoulder at Levi and Ronnie talking to an officer to give their statements. The sun was now almost completely hidden beneath the horizon, but there was still enough light left to pick up the confusion that morphed to painful clarity on Levi’s face as he saw me walking away beside the boy with the hurt arm. I’m sure the pieces were falling together – the boy was Gabe. I looked ahead again, reminding myself to find him, Ronnie, and the others later to thank them for saving us, although no words in existence would ever suffice. There weren’t enough words in the English language, in any language, to sufficiently thank another for risking their own life to save yours. But I had to try. When we came to Gabriel’s tent, I pointed into it with a nod. They laid him on the bed and hurried back outside to get someone else situated. Gently, I slid the covers over him, completely aware that this was the first time I’d seen him in his underwear, but not at all in my right mind to even care. I was as benign to it in this moment as a nurse to her critical patient. I then rummaged through the folded clothes in the trunk beside his bed. His twitching eyelids and fingers told me he would wake soon, and I didn’t want him to be freezing on top of being in pain. I found a pair of pants and a shirt and dressed him like a sleeping child, taking care not to wake him any earlier than necessary. After dressing myself in a t-shirt and pair of Gabriel’s sweatpants I’d had to roll three times, I settled next to him, resisting the urge to pick up his hand and stroke it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him anymore, about us, but I didn’t have the capacity to think about that either. I guess the fact that I was here beside him until help arrived was evidence I still cared pretty deeply. Restless, I raked my eyes over his room – his books, his stacks of sheet music, his guitar. Earlier he’d been in here playing peacefully before I’d interrupted him. Was he thinking of me then? What did he really feel for me? Memories of our first kiss breezed through my mind. Was all of that a lie? My teeth clenched, fighting the emotions. Stop, I told myself. Not now. Gabriel stirred. “Kat… What happened?” I met his heavy eyes, now resisting the urge to swoop down and cradle his face in my hands while dusting kisses all over him. I stared at him blankly. Where would I even begin to explain everything that had happened? Would he even believe me? Despite fighting my emotions, they bubbled over anyway, tears filling my eyes. Whether he’d been lying to me or not, whether I cared for him or not, I was about to crush him with the truth about who Kai and Iris were, what had happened to his brother Raymond, and what had almost happened to all of us. I contemplated waiting, but decided it was better that he know now. If the medics took him away, he’d see the evidence of everything outside. I’d rather him hear it from me. Outside, an officer carried Piper’s limp, naked body to another tent. When Gabriel saw her, he tried clambering from the bed but lost his balance. I caught his arm and helped him sit. “What’s wrong with-” His words broke, his eyes going distant and snapping back to the present – the drugs were still wearing off. He regarded his bloody bandage in horror. “Jesus, what happened?” He woozily rocked to the side, and I caught his arm again. “It’s okay,” I soothed, and winced from the pain of talking, but I had to put on my big girl panties and deal with it. “Lay back down. The drugs are still wearing off.” “Drugs?” he asked, ignoring my request to lie back down. I offered a sympathetic smile. “Yes.” His eyes went distant as he grasped at his last conscious memory. “Oh, God,” he sighed with a chuckle. “Kai really did accidentally drug us, didn’t he? And I fell and cut my arm.” He grimaced. “Iris is pissed, isn’t she?” My smile fell. I wish that were it. “What is it, Kat?” He reached for my hand on his arm, and I pulled it away. His jaw fell slack, and the hurt registered on his face. “What’s wrong? What’d I say?” Be strong, I told myself. I needed to keep it together and just tell him what had happened. Here goes. “Gabe, he did drug us. But it wasn’t an accident. He and Iris had planned it.” After taking a minute to process what I’d said, he laughed it off. “Real funny.” I stared back at him, waiting for him to grasp the truth. “That’s not funny, Kat,” he said, almost chidingly. I swallowed hard, pain shooting through my bruised throat. This would be more difficult than I thought. “It’s true,” I forced out. “And they aren’t hybrids, either. That’s why they look older.” He desperately searched my eyes for any sign I might be joking. “I know it’s hard to believe, but I wouldn’t joke about this.” “So what are they, then?” he asked, but he didn’t say it as though he was starting to believe me. He’d huffed it out like he was losing his patience. I let out a long, slow breath to gain the nerve. He wouldn’t take this well. “Kat?” I blurted it out. “Witches.” His eyes widened, and then hardened. “I honestly can’t believe you’d joke about this.” “Gabe, I-” He struggled to his feet. “Where are the others?” “Don’t go out there,” I pled, grasping for his arm, and he wrenched away. The force he’d used caused him to stumble. I reached again to help, and he held out his hand once he’d steadied himself. “Stop.” he said, shuffling his way outside, “Just leave me alone.” “Gabe, please.” I grasped my throat, the pain too much. Once outside, I moved in front of him, my hands held out, tears streaming down my cheeks, my eyes pleading. He eyed me, contemplating for a slice of a second, and then continued around me. I let him go, conceding to the fact that I could never convince him with words. I watched through my tears as he paused at the threshold of the clearing, his body going rigid before he sank to his knees. Kai was still on the ground near the center of the star, half-burned and unconscious with hand-cuffs on his wrists and zip-ties on his ankles. Officers worked on freeing Aubrey from her ropes, and others were hoisting Colton in their arms to take him to his tent. Iris’ blonde hair peeked from beneath a blood-soaked white sheet covering her body, and another sheet covered Raymond, concealing the horror beneath. All of this told him more accurately, more gruesomely, than I ever could. I hurried to his side, crouched beside him. “I’m so sorry,” I said through a tight, sore throat. He fell forward on his hands and bawled. For what felt like forever, I sat faithfully by his side as he wept, stroking his back. When his sobs dissolved into silent tears, I helped him to his tent to rest. At first, I’d wondered if he was in shock; he only stared at the top of the tent with vacant, puffy eyes. Still, I sat beside him, waiting for help to come. “Did they hurt you?” he finally asked, his eyes meeting mine. I hesitated. His question had taken me aback. Considering he’d just found out the last ten years of his life were a lie, his first concern was me? Someone Iris had pushed him into wooing for her own benefit? I shrugged. “I’m okay.” He focused back on the ceiling. “Good.” He drew in a shaky breath. “I’m sorry, Kat. I had no idea.” “I know. They lied to all of us.” He nodded, a tear escaping the corner of his eye. “Are we… okay?” I flinched. Not really. Not until I got the nerve to confront him about what Iris had said, but I would talk to him about that later. His whole world had just been crushed. “We’re okay,” I replied. “Just rest.” “These tents here?” a voice outside said. Paramedics. “Good,” he replied, reaching for my hand, and I let him. “I couldn’t handle another heartbreak today.” My lips twitched with a hopeful smile. Oh, how I wanted that to be true. Maybe it was. Maybe like with everything else, Iris had been lying about it. Two paramedics ducked into the tent with a gurney, and I kissed Gabriel on the forehead. “Get better. I’ll see you soon.” Kai, Gabriel, and Piper were the only ones taken to the hospital. Once Dawson had come to, he refused help. He wasn’t going anywhere until they’d found Sarah. Colton hadn’t wakened from his drug-induced coma yet, and Aubrey sat huddled in her tent, crying and soothing herself. I’d offered to come sit with her, but she declined. Understandable – she didn’t know me that well. And when I grieve, I like to do it alone. By the time I’d made it back out to the clearing, the officers had removed Iris’ and Raymond’s bodies and strung yellow tape through the trees. Detectives and forensic specialists now stood around with lanterns and flashlights, taking pictures and discussing what had happened here. The principal was talking to a man in a slick black suit, his ashy blond hair combed to the side. He looked forty or so, except for his eyes – the bags under them aged him ten years. “We still have six missing kids, and five of them are students,” the man in the suit said. His voice sounded familiar – the detective in the hallway the other night. “Unfortunately,” Principal Hughes answered. “But one of our students was rescued.” I pulled Levi’s jacket tighter. They were talking about me. “We’ll do a thorough sweep of the woods tonight with the dogs. Apparently, we’ve been looking in all the wrong places. We’ll find them.” You’ll never find them, I thought. At least not without help. These mortals had no clue who they were dealing with. Hell, I had no idea until an hour or so ago. I butted into their conversation. “You’ll need my help.” Sizing-up my condition, the detective raked his eyes over me. The principal immediately shook his head. “No, Kathrin, you need rest. I’ll have an officer escort you back to your room.” “Then I’ll help,” Aubrey said behind me. I turned to see her clasping a pillow tight against her chest, mascara streaking her cheeks. She still looked like a supermodel. The detective intervened. “You should all probably rest. You’ve been through a lot.” “Forgive me, Principal Hughes,” I said, moving to stand beside Aubrey, “but I don’t think you understand. You won’t find them without one of us.” “And why’s that?” I hesitated, knowing it would sound crazy to the detective. Principal Hughes was used to the extraordinary. “I’m sure they’re hidden, but not how you think. Iris and Kai use spells to make things… disappear.” I eyed the detective. If he were skeptical, it wasn’t showing on his face. “And how could you two help with that?” Principal Hughes asked. “We know the spell.” “Well then tell us,” the detective asserted. I looked to Aubrey. “Take us with you,” she said without missing a beat. “And I’ll tell you.” I fought a smirk and hooked my arm into hers. We both had people we wanted to see rescued. We both had a stake in this. The detective contemplated. “Absolutely not, girls,” Principal Hughes said, crossing his arms, “You two go get some rest.” Aubrey’s eyes narrowed. “My boyfriend is out there with the rest of them. I’m not going anywhere.” The detective sighed and ran his hand through his hair, rumpling its neatness. He looked as weary and worn down as the Principal. “We do need to find these kids, Mr. Hughes.” A flicker of determination passed through Principal Hughes’ eyes; he wasn’t used to being defied or overruled. But I could also tell he was tired, oh so tired, and desperate to get these kids back. The lines on his face softened. “Fine.” “We’re going too,” Levi said beside me. I jumped, then looked up to him. I had no idea he’d been standing there. Ronnie and Dawson stood on the other side of him – Ronnie with a wide stance and crossed arms, Dawson leaning against him for support and looking queasy from shape-shifting and the hit he’d taken from Iris, but he also looked the most determined of us all to find the hybrids. And that’s when it hit me – Sarah was a hybrid like me. I would have celebrated the fact that at least one of my dear friends would share this long life with me, but not yet. We had to find her first. “Fine,” the Detective answered. “We need to get going.” He motioned with a whistle to a group of officers. “Time to search!” CHAPTER NINETEEN ___________________ Brittle “Where’d Ivy and Anna go?” I asked Levi as the officers’ dogs led us through the woods. Dawson and Ronnie made a point to stay near the front with the officers, and Aubrey walked beside me, our arms still linked, which I was thankful for; the tight ropes and elixir had done a number on my strength. My legs were beginning to shake with exhaustion, the too-big-boots I’d borrowed from Gabriel scraping the ground with each step. “I’m guessing Principal Hughes asked them to stay put when they went to get help.” I was relieved to hear his tone toward me held its usual warmth; I didn’t know how he’d act after I’d left for a while with Gabriel. And had returned wearing his clothes. We were also technically broken up, but I guess with the seriousness of everything else around us, breaking-up was a trivial matter. A brush with death will do that – bring perspective. I wanted to thank him for saving my life right then but decided against it. Some conversations were best held in private. Not because I didn’t want anyone else to hear; I wanted to do it without distraction. Doing it now might come across as nonchalant. It wasn’t long before the dogs caught a scent and bounded right, nearly pulling their officer’s arms out of their sockets. We elevated to a jog – not an easy task for Aubrey and I. Levi wrestled between keeping up with the others and staying back with us. “Go ahead!” I yelled over the rustling footsteps and barking dogs. “We’ll be all right.” But of course, he wouldn’t leave us. Where the ground sloped into a hill, the dogs stopped at a narrow opening wreathed in leaves and roots. Aubrey and I fought our way forward. Squeezing my arm tighter, she muttered the spell, everyone holding their breaths and the officers sweeping their flashlights into the small cavern. Nothing. The dogs went wild, their fevered barks echoing through the cave. “Nothing’s there,” Principal Hughes said, squinting into the void. “One of us should go in,” A K-9 officer said. There was only enough room for one of us to go in at a time. The detective held up a hand. “Everyone hush! I hear something.” As we listened for any sign of life, my heart pounded against my ribcage, my legs close to giving in. Please let them be here somewhere… “Hello?” a small voice echoed from deep inside. That’s when an officer and his K-9 sprinted into the opening and took a hard right. Encouraged, I looked to Aubrey. Her face registered everything from hope to worry to angst. I huddled against her. Maybe this was officially it. Maybe the horror arcing over the past few days was over. One by one, the officers carried the hybrids out of the cave – Sarah, Jillian, Jose, Heather, and Brad. Well, two had to drag Brad on a blanket. I didn’t call him beast-boy for nothing. The only conscious one was a petrified and frail-looking Jillian – the small voice we’d heard. We assumed the others had all been drugged like us, but Jillian had been taken days ago – her medicine must have worn off. Who knows how much Iris had given the others. After the officers had cut their bindings, we started back to the clearing in absolute silence; so much had been lost tonight, only a fraction of it salvaged. And not just lives – innocence and inner peace. That might have been lost forever. And though it could have ended so much worse, the story of what had happened here at Midland Pines would haunt our dreams and thoughts forever. Would we ever feel truly safe again? I had a feeling Iris and Kai weren’t the only witches interested in what they could get from us. Pushing worry and sadness from my mind, I concentrated on keeping my feet steady; I’d lost my walking partner. She hobbled beside Brad as they dragged him. Levi and Ronnie stayed close beside me, Ronnie’s walking partner deserting him too, so he could be near Sarah. If he’d had the strength to carry her himself, I’m sure he would have. Not long into our short journey, my right leg folded, and Levi caught me before I crumpled to the ground. He effortlessly hoisted me into his arms, and I didn’t fight him – I could barely hold my eyes open now. Before long, before we’d even gotten back to the clearing, I surrendered to the healing serenity of sleep as he held me. The worst of it was over, and I’d always felt safe in his arms. Especially tonight. The pad of a finger trailed down the side of my face. “Kat?” A whispering voice cajoled. Levi. I groaned. Ugh. More sleep… I needed more sleep. The bed bounced as he chuckled. “Kat, you need to wake up. The detective wants to see you soon.” “More sleep,” I mumbled, and I swallowed over the bruise in my throat. It felt better. “You’ve slept ten hours.” I sighed, wanting desperately to drift off again. I could have slept ten more. Maybe he would get the hint. His tender touch brushed the hair from my face. “Kat… Principal Hughes made me promise to have you in his office by eleven o’clock. The detective needs to speak with you. He’s with Anna now.” I peered at him through my lashes. He was facing me on the bed. He’d probably lain with me the entire night. “What time is it?” “Ten o’clock. Figured you would want a shower.” My eyes opened fully, searching his, contemplating how to bargain for a few more minutes, but he was right – I needed to get up, get a shower and go through the basic hygiene routine. “You saying I stink?” I teased weakly. His lips quirked with a dimpled half-grin. “I see you feel good enough to make jokes. That’s a good sign.” I smiled back. “I guess.” Silence lengthened between us, but not a comfortable silence. At least not for me. There was still so much to say. His smile wavered, a question churning beneath his turquoise eyes. “Why didn’t you just tell me, Kat?” “Tell you what? That I needed a shower?” “No,” he replied, nudging me playfully and forcing another smile that didn’t touch his eyes this time. “That you were immortal. It would have made everything else so much clearer.” My heart sank. Of course, it would have, but I didn’t think I’d had a choice. At the time, I thought it was as much for his protection as it was mine. Little did I know, I was taking my orders from the enemy. “I know. But would it have broken your heart any less?” His eyes dropped to the bed between us. “Probably not,” he conceded, and he wrestled with his thoughts for a moment. “But is it really such a bad thing? For us to be together with one of us being mortal?” “Not bad…” I replied. “Just harder.” I also want to be with someone else… I think. I still had to work out my issues with Gabriel. God, I hoped Iris had been lying. He nodded, accepting my answer more easily than I’d expected. Maybe he was already moving on in his heart, and everything that had happened last night helped confirm why our breakup was for the better. We were too different. And besides that, even if Gabriel and I didn’t work out, I still couldn’t give him the all-consuming love he deserved. He wasn’t my match. “But I do want you to know something,” I continued, and reached for his hand, squeezed it to emphasize what I was about to say. “I do care for you. I’ll always care for you. You have a permanent place in my heart.” “Just not your whole heart.” I offered a sympathetic smile. He sighed. “I guess I’ll take it.” With some secret thought, humor flickered across his face, and damn if he still wasn’t one of the hottest guys I knew. He would make some girl extremely happy one day. “What?” I asked. “Nothing…” I poked his dimple with my finger. “Tell me!” He laughed. “You realize this would have been a guys’ dream?” “A guys’ dream?” He paused, giving me an expectant look, but I had no idea what he was getting at. “A guy growing into an old wrinkly bat,” he finally said. “But his wife always young and hot?” I swatted his shoulder. “Ew! Don’t be creepy…” He howled with laughter, and I couldn’t help but laugh along with him. He looked at me with mock hurt. “What? You wouldn’t love me when I’m old and wrinkly?” “Oh, don’t turn this around on me!” He pulled me into a hug. “It’s okay… I won’t tell anyone you secretly have a fetish for grandpas.” I shook my head against his shoulder. “If I didn’t like you so much, you’d already have a black eye.” He kissed my cheek before pulling away. “Let’s get going before the principal comes by.” I caught his hand as he started to roll out of bed. “Wait,” I said urgently. He paused, searching my eyes. “There’s more I wanted to say.” “About what?” I swallowed, hesitating about this next part, but I decided to do it anyway. I needed to get it out while it was the two of us. “I’m sorry you found out the way you did about Gabe. You deserved better.” “Stop,” he said, clasping my shoulder, “I’m over it.” I gave him a ‘yeah, right’ look. I saw how he’d looked at us last night. “Okay,” he conceded. “Not over it, but I’m trying to accept it.” “I still think you’re being too nice about it. I basically cheated on you. You need to get mad… punch something. Yell at me.” He smiled ruefully. “Oh, I’ve been mad. You should see the wall in my closet. Looks like Swiss cheese.” I gaped. “Kat,” he said, giving my shoulder a gentle shake, “I understand now – he’s a better match for…” He couldn’t complete the sentence. Yep, he definitely wasn’t over it yet. Not that I expected him to be. At all. Better match for you, I finished in my head. “Besides,” he continued. “I almost lost you last night. For good. I’m just glad you’re alive. I’d rather have you in my life as a friend than not at all.” Friend. Tears welled at the thought. Being his friend was more than I’d hoped for, a divine privilege. Teenage boys weren’t supposed to be this sweet, this mature. I was almost jealous of the girl that would have him one day. And that was another thing – I was alive and breathing because of him. “Thank you,” I managed. “For helping save my life.” He pulled me in for a long hug. “You’d have done the same for me.” A million times over, I thought, my tears wetting his shirt. “Now come on,” he said and grasped my hand as he stood. “We need to go.” While I showered and dressed, Levi waited in the bedroom. Every now and then I felt like I would shatter into a million pieces. My bones felt so tired and brittle, as though each of them was webbed with hairline cracks – an after-effect of the exhaustion, emotions, and elixir, I’m sure. When I got back, I’d rest some more. I scrunched my hair into a towel to get rid of the drips and threw it into a ponytail. Eyeing myself in the hole I’d wiped in the steamy mirror, I sighed. For someone who was part angel, I sure looked a hot mess most of the time. At least this week, anyway. The purple and yellow bruises ringing my neck weren’t helping. As we made our way toward Principal Hughes’ office, Levi clasped my hand supportively. “What do you think he wants?” I asked. “Who?” “The detective.” “It’s normal to give statements when things like this happen.” I took his word for it. “Just tell them everything you know.” We came to his door, Principal Hughes etched in bold, black letters across a gold plate. I knocked. “One moment, please,” a voice answered. The detective. Minutes later, the door swung open with the detective’s back facing us. He wore a navy suit today. “And if there’s anything else, Ms. Darcy,” he said, handing Anna a professional-looking card, “Here’s where you can reach me.” On her way out, she caught sight of me, and we embraced. ”Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whispered – a litany of gratitude to a friend who’d saved my life. Her voice broke. “Us girls have to stick together, huh?” “How can I ever repay you?” She pulled back, bracing her hands on my shoulders with a tearful smile. “Don’t go wandering around the woods anymore alone, ya big dummy.” I swiped a tear that traveled along her cheek. “Done.” “Ms. Walsh?” the detective said. “I hate to interrupt, but we need to get started.” I gave Anna one last hug. “See you in the room.” “I’ll wait here,” Levi said. CHAPTER TWENTY ___________________ Stupid Waiting to begin, I shifted in the wingback chair facing Principal Hughes’ mahogany desk; I shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable talking about any of it. They’d seen the aftermath of what had happened, and they’d already spoken to others about what went down and why. I chalked it up to sitting in the Principal’s office opposite an officer. I’d never been questioned by an officer… or been in a Principal’s office. While the detective scribbled in his notepad, my eyes moved to Principal Hughes, who sat on a couch at the far end of the room. A wall of leather-bound books towered over him. He gave me his typical wrinkly smile. He looked relieved but still weary with exhaustion. I wondered how many years of his life he’d lost over all this. “So, Ms. Walsh,” the detective began, drawing my attention back to him. “Yes, detective?” “Please, call me Paul.” “Yes, Paul?” “Let’s start with you going into the woods last night.” I told them everything, sparing no details, minus my kiss with Gabriel and him bringing me flowers during the night; they didn’t need to know any of that. I told him about wandering into the woods, them revealing themselves to me. I told him about how they’d explained to me I was an immortal hybrid and how, ironically enough, I was in danger from witches and I should come live with them. The hardest part to get through was reliving the last twenty-four hours – asking Iris to help find the missing students, only to be drugged and tied to a tree. But the officer was patient, never prodding or pushing me to continue when I needed to take a moment so I wouldn’t fall apart. After telling them everything I could possibly remember, I expected to get my ass reamed from both of them about sneaking into the woods when I should have been in my room, but they only focused their attention on their notes. They didn’t even seem surprised I was immortal. I guess by now, nothing sounded too crazy. “Is that all you needed?” I asked. Paul circled something on his notepad with emphasis. “Not quite.” He produced a manila folder from his briefcase and opened it, slid pictures across the desk of three women taken from a distance, one of whom was Iris. My stomach twisted with venomous hate at the sight of her. Paul tapped his pen on the youngest looking one. “This is Lilliana, Iris’ younger sister. Did you happen to come into contact with her during your visits in the woods?” “No sir,” I replied, soaking in her portrait. She and Iris favored, but Lilliana had higher cheekbones, electric green eyes the color of grass after a spring rain, and her white blonde hair had a subtle wave. Prettier than Iris, but she didn’t hide her evil as well. Her eyes had a ‘don’t cross me’ look behind them, almost murderous. Beautiful but terrible, I mused. Like her sister. I moved my attention to the picture of Rose. Her bald head gleamed in the sunlight, her eyes sunken, body wiry and pale. Years of cancer treatment had done a number on her. “These are the LaRoux sisters,” Paul explained. “I’ve been after the two youngest – Lilliana and Iris – for some time. I suspected their involvement in another ritual almost twenty years ago. A lot like the one Iris tried to perform last night with Kai.” I shuddered at the memory. “Yeah, she’d confessed to me that she and her sister had been involved in one, years ago, so they could become immortal.” He sighed as though I’d given him long-awaited news. “I knew it.” “So you’ve been following them?” “I wouldn’t say ‘follow’ per se. It’s hard to follow someone you can’t really track.” His eyes went distant. “Hard to track someone when they’re using an invisibility spell.” I nodded, noting how easily he accepted spells and hybrids and gifted students. “How are you so cool with all this?” I blurted out. His eyes snapped back to mine. “Cool?” “You talk about everything as if it’s common knowledge.” He glanced at Principal Hughes with a smile and reclined in his seat. “Graduates from here go on to all sorts of jobs.” I gaped. “You went here?” He smiled wider. “That surprises you?” “No, I uh… well…” He lifted his hand, tiny strings of electricity zapping between his fingers. The fluorescent lights above us flickered. Whoa. He steepled his hands over his stomach. The lights calmed. “I’ve been devoting my life to cases like this one – sacrifices, demonic rituals. When I heard students had gone missing here, I asked to be assigned. Not only because I used to go here, but because of the way they went missing – during the dead of night. That’s the witches’ MO. Your kind is in high demand with them.” No kidding. “Problem is, it’s hard to find you before they do sometimes.” I noted how he said “sometimes.” “Sometimes?” “The only way to tell if you are is by your aura and blood. And there aren’t many of you… I’m guessing a couple thousand in the US, maybe. That sounds like a lot, I know. But considering there are roughly three hundred million people in the States, it’s like finding needles in a haystack.” “Well, apparently, our school is a hot spot.” “I know that now. That was one thing I wasn’t aware of – hybrids have a tendency to be gifted. If we’d known, my assistant and I would have had an easier time.” “You never knew that?” “No. My assistant reads auras. I’d requested to work with an aura-reader because of what I’d learned during my research. But she never went to a school for the gifted; she was one the scouts had never found. Neither of us would have known the connection. It’s not like the hybrids we’ve crossed ever offered up the information to us, either.” I smiled in understanding. “We hide it pretty well.” Unless you’re late for class and close your locker door from down the hallway. A brief memory flickered through my mind –students at my old school spray-painting “witch bitch” on my car. How ironic. Principal Hughes piped up for the first time. “I hate to hear of an aura-reader going unnoticed by our scouts. We like to hire them later to become scouts and find other Gifteds.” “I’d offer her over,” Paul replied. “But I don’t want to let her go.” Principal Hughes chuckled. “Understandable.” “So you and your assistant have located hybrids before the witches did?” I asked. “A handful. And that was something else I wanted to talk you to about - part of my work is to help protect your kind.” I shifted in my chair again. “Protect us?” How could they protect us? Hope swelled inside me – something I never thought I’d feel again. There might be hope for our kind after all. “There’s a place,” he said, resting his elbows on the desk, “A place I can send you to that’s safer than anywhere else you could go. But I can’t send you there unless you’re sure you want to spend the rest of your life there.” “Where?” “I can’t tell you anything until you agree to going there and never leaving.” I hesitated. “Well, how will I know I want to live there until you tell me more about it?” He nodded in understanding, as if he’d been through this dialogue plenty times before. “I know how unfair that sounds, but as you know, it’s for the safety of everyone that lives there. You endanger their way of life if you leave with the knowledge they hold. With witches, you and your thoughts are never safe. We can’t risk this place being discovered. Not after what happened at the last one.” My memory re-visited my conversation with Iris last night. “The last place wouldn’t have happened to be a compound of hybrids with log cabins and wooden fences, would it?” His mouth fell open. “How did you know about that?” “Iris.” “Yes. That was the last place. That was where my work hunting witches began. This new place has taken greater measures to stay undiscovered, so I’m sure you can appreciate why it’s so crucial that I not tell you anything further.” “I get it,” I replied, absently running my fingers through my damp ponytail. I had a good enough picture – a protected compound in the wilderness somewhere. The idea still appealed to me, although I didn’t like the fact I couldn’t leave. “You don’t have to give me your answer today,” he said and slid a business card across the desk. Detective Paul Trueblood. The letters FBI had been embossed across the top. “You can call me whenever you like.” “So I can’t leave? Even to visit family?” “If your family is still alive, that’s something you need to consider. The people that run the compound can make exceptions, but that’s only for your family and friends to visit you. You aren’t allowed to leave.” “Even for a few days?” He shook his head. “Sorry, Kathrin.” My hope deflated a little. I didn’t like the idea of never going home. Being a bird in a gilded cage had never appealed to me. “Think of it this way – you can either live a life in peace with others like you, or live a life constantly looking over your shoulder that you and your loved ones might be slaughtered.” “So no witches have ever found this new place?” “In the twenty years since the relocation, we haven’t had one problem.” I sighed heavily, the weight of this decision bearing heavily on my soul. There was so much to consider, to think about. “Like I said… think about it. You have my number.” “So say I agree. Then what?” “I’ll have an envelope delivered to you with instructions.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.” We sat in silence for a moment. “Okay. I’m guessing I can just call you from Ireland?” Paul looked to Principal Hughes. “We might be keeping the school open now that all of the students have been recovered,” Principal Hughes said. “We haven’t made a final decision, though. We’ll communicate more tomorrow. If we do and you decide to stay, we’ll ramp up our security until graduation.” “How so?” I asked, although I wasn’t entirely sure I even wanted to stay. I didn’t know if I’d feel safe here after everything that had happened. But then again, where would I ever feel safe? Maybe at the compound. “Since witches apparently have a knack for sneaking in undetected, we’ve discussed putting in infrared cameras and having twenty-four-hour K-9 units on the property. Of course, this all has to be cleared through higher-ups.” Infrared cameras. Pretty clever. “So you could stay here until graduation, if you chose to,” Paul interjected. “And then decide what you want to do from there. No life decisions have to be made this week. And Kai will be locked away for a long, long time. You won’t have to worry about him coming back, either.” Good. “Okay,” I said, giving Paul’s card one last glance before stuffing it into my pocket. “And one more thing,” Principal Hughes said. “We called your parents not long ago when the phones lines were repaired. You might want to get in touch with them so they can hear your voice.” I leapt to my feet. “You did what?” My mom was probably on a plane over here now, if she hadn’t already had a heart attack. “We had to. You’re a minor and were involved in a pretty serious incident.” “What did you say?” “Just that. They know nothing about your immortality. We’ll leave that with you.” Well thanks, I thought bitterly and started for the door. “Oh, and Kat?” I forced a respectful tone. “Sir?” “You might want to visit Sarah. She took what we had to tell her pretty hard.” You think? “I’m guessing she knows everything?” “Everything.” Great. Any other messes I need to clean up? I thought and headed out the door. “How’d it go?” Levi asked as I shut the door behind me. “Okay, I guess. I’ll tell you more later. I need to call my parents.” Levi escorted me to my room, hugged me and pecked me on the cheek, and I took a deep breath before entering. This conversation wouldn’t go well. Anna was waiting by the door to greet me, a strange look on her face. “You have a, um… visitor.” She moved out of the way, and my heart leapt from my chest. Gabe. He sat on the edge of my desk looking like a shell of a man who’d just lost everything. The wound on his arm had been stitched closed with zigzags of black thread. “I’ll be in Sarah and Ivy’s room,” Anna said and left to give us privacy. I snapped out of the shock and went to hug him hello, but it felt stiff and cold. I settled on the bed, facing him. “You’re already out?” I asked. “You say that as if you’re not happy about it,” he noted. “Oh, no,” I insisted. “I’m just surprised. I thought you would be there longer.” “We heal fast, remember?” “Oh yeah.” Silence. “We’re not okay, are we?” he asked. I sighed. I guess I wasn’t a very good actress. The fact that I hadn’t objected immediately seemed to deliver a blow to his stomach. He rubbed the tension from the back of his neck. “All of this was too much, wasn’t it?” “You should go back to your tent and rest. We can talk about all of this later.” “I’m fine. I couldn’t rest until we talked about this anyway.” I closed my eyes to find the courage. How would I even broach the subject? When I opened them, he’d clasped onto the edge of the desk, his head hanging while he awaited the next blows. “Gabe, I…” Just say it, Kat. “Iris said something to me last night that… upset me.” He met my eyes, his brow furrowed. “Upset you?” he repeated. “And wait… when did she talk to you alone?” “I woke up during the ceremony.” Abject horror seeped into his expression. “I’m so sorry.” “The ‘something’ she said alluded to you going along with a plan to make sure I joined your family.” Dread replaced his look of horror. “What?” I swallowed over the lump in my throat. The fact that he didn’t immediately object this time had told me everything. Pain clenched deep inside my soul. “She said you’d wooed me at her request to help me make up my mind.” Blood drained from his face. “Please tell me that’s not true,” I breathed, pleading, on the verge of tears. “It didn’t go exactly like that. I…” He hesitated, regret and sorrow etching deep lines on his forehead. I planted my face in my hands to hide my tears. I didn’t know it was possible to actually feel my heart breaking. But I did, as it crumbled into a million jagged little pieces. “She asked me to pursue you, and I agreed, but-” “Enough.” I choked from behind my veil. There was nothing else he could say to make this hurt any less, and quite frankly, I didn’t care what his excuses were. He agreed. He agreed to lure me in for her. He reached for my arm, and I recoiled. “Kat, please.” “No,” I said, pointing to the door, surprisingly calm, “You need to go now.” I should have been mad, furious. But all I felt right now was brokenness, a deep, consuming brokenness. He opened his mouth to protest, but only stood, giving me one last pleading look. I held firm. “I’m sorry,” he said as he trudged to the door. Before going through, he paused to glance back at me and I turned my head away from him, tears streaming. That was the last time I saw him – the boy who’d once captivated me. The boy I had been prepared to give everything to after only a couple of days. Stupid me. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE ___________________ Half Alive I called my parents once I’d gathered my wits, barely; they dangled from my arms, threatening to jump ship. To be honest, I don’t know how I managed to hold it together long enough to endure my mom’s emotional breakdown and convince her I was okay enough to stay, that she was okay enough for me to stay until the school decided what to do with us. I nearly lost it when I heard my dad in the background cussing out the school and the police department, asking how the hell this could have happened and throwing in a few other choice words. I knew his Irish blood was boiling, and he was on the brink of committing homicide over something happening to his little girl. The thought of them suffering as much as I had was the hardest to bear. I suppose the only reason I did hold it together was a matter of will and, being half angel, the God-given strength and resilience placed within me at birth. After hanging up with my mother, I made my way to Sarah’s room. I found her on her bed, curled into a fetal position and hugging a pillow. Dawson, Anna, and Ivy all sat on Ivy’s bed watching her as though she was as fragile as a cracked egg. I said nothing, knelt in front of her so I could catch her silvery eyes. A silent understanding passed between us – the loss, the fear and the uncertainty of our future. I took her head in my hands, pressed my forehead against hers, and we cried. A little part of us died that day. The following days went by at an agonizing pace. The school was given permission to stay open and beef up security. Word had it all three schools for the gifted had ramped up their security to be on the safe side. Some kids at Midland Pines chose to relocate to another school, some moved home, but most stayed. For those of us directly involved with the ‘incident,’ as most here referred to it, we were required to visit the school counselor at least once a week. My first visit was uncomfortable, to say the least. I wasn’t keen on exposing my deepest wounds to a stranger. We mostly exchanged pleasantries and she asked me a few personal questions, probably to help break the ice. Maybe I would eventually feel comfortable opening up to her. Maybe. On the outside, I felt like a droid going through the motions, only doing what I had to do to make sure I didn’t give into the hopelessness lingering at the fringes of my mind. On the inside, I was half-alive. The part of me that was alive felt tired and broken, because that part of me was in the woods with Gabriel. I still felt the pull to him sometimes – a constant reminder of how foolish I’d been. I couldn’t sleep, had to force myself to eat. But everyone else had returned to normal, like none of it had ever happened. That’s the thing about depression – it feels like suffocating, except you can see everyone else breathing around you. Only Sarah and I felt the burden of our future, of the constant threat. The weight of it all. It didn’t help that I thought about him all the time, saw him at night when I closed my eyes. I wanted to hate him, but all I could do was miss him; how strange when we’d only known each other three days. Maybe it was because we were so comfortable together. Everything was easy, familiar – like being home in front of a warming fire. I felt like I’d already known him for so long. Or maybe it was the promise I was mourning – the potential of a long happy life with someone like me, with someone who was just as smitten with me I as was with him. But all of that was a lie, a façade of his and Iris’ to get me to come along. I’d asked myself a hundred times if I would have gone with them if Gabriel hadn’t been a factor, and the truth was, I honestly didn’t know. My plans before I’d met them were to go to college to get an art degree and pursue a career, maybe even teach. But now? Now that my immortality loomed over me, reminding me that I could never have permanent roots anywhere and witches were always on the hunt, I just didn’t know. I felt lost – one of the worst things anyone could feel. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t often wonder how he and the others were faring since they’d lost Raymond. What their decisions would be for their future. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t feel like the biggest jerk in the world for not being there to mourn with them; they’d lost so much. But so had I. I found myself praying one night for my memories of them to be removed. I even fantasized about risking my life to hunt down a witch just to see if there was a spell that could excise Gabriel from my mind. I wanted to forget the way he made me feel. Our first kiss. The false hope of a new family and existence. All of it. I mainly feared I would always compare what we had to everyone else, even if it was a lie, and nobody else would meet those standards. Because even though he might have been faking his feelings for me, everything I’d felt for him was real. Consuming. Almost magical. As far as Levi and I went, our status as friends held steady. The others noticed how we’d quit being affectionate and would even sit apart from each other at lunch, but nobody pried. I wondered if I looked as breakable as I felt and they were afraid to even ask. Despite Sarah being immortal, both she and Dawson were trying to make it work. Unlike me and Levi, their pieces fit together. They had a love worth fighting for. One thing that helped keep me going, if only through the day-to-day motions, were my calls home. My parents knew now about my immortality and the threat of witches. Though it was hard for them to admit at first, they knew I was safer here than at home and encouraged me to stay until graduation. They’d even made plans to visit for the holidays so I wouldn’t risk my life to see them. Principal Hughes even agreed to let my cat Tinkles tag along. I was counting down the days to Thanksgiving break – two-and-a-half months away. The thought of wrapping my family in my arms was like a healing balm to my wounds. Some of them. Speaking of family, once I told them how to test Samuel’s blood, they did. He wasn’t immortal, and I rejoiced at the news. Once upon a time, I didn’t want to live without him, but now he would be safe from witches and the daunting decision of either hiding his immortality from the world and braving said witches, or choosing to live as a borderline prisoner in a hybrid compound tucked away in the wilderness. I wished that on no one. As for me, I was still undecided. Still lost. Detective Trueblood’s card sat on the desk beside my bed. I stared at it every day. Sometimes the idea appealed to me; sometimes the thought of it made my stomach clench with nauseating panic. Holed-up, never to leave. Stuck with a decision I might regret. Like Detective Trueblood had said, I had time to sort it out. At least until graduation. That was the deadline I’d given myself. Although my heart ached to go home, to hear the familiar crackle of a fire, to lie in my own bed with purple sheets, to feel the creak of the floorboards beneath my feet, I vowed to never go back there again. I wouldn’t lead witches to them in case one decided to hunt me. I saw now what they were capable of. I couldn’t do that to my family just for a visit. But if I didn’t go there, that meant I’d have to brave the world alone, maybe. Sarah and I had talked about possibly moving in together somewhere. She wasn’t keen on compound life, either, and Detective Trueblood wasn’t sure they’d let Dawson live there, him being a mortal. Visit? Yes. Live there? It was up to whoever ran the camp. He said he’d ask, but he’d yet to report back. So much unfinished. So much unknown. Such was the life of an immortal, I guess. Today marked four weeks since the ‘incident’ – a solid month. I was getting better at blocking intrusive memories of what had happened, thanks to my sessions with the counselor. My recurring nightmares of the ‘incident’ were shorter and less involved, my depression at the cusp of melting away. Time really was the best healer. The only thing that I couldn’t block was my pull to the woods. Yes, the pull remained. Gabriel and the others must have decided to stay. Why wouldn’t they leave? Move on from here and all the sad memories? Despite myself, every now and then I’d linger at the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of him and wondering if he could see me. Every now and then I’d wake up and hope to see a flower resting on my pillow. I don’t know why; maybe I was masochistic and liked to torture myself. Or maybe I was hoping he’d show back up and say, “Just kidding! I really do want to be with you.” But he never came – further proof he never cared. That it was all a lie. God, I desperately wished they’d move on from here. This wound would take longer to close. This one was the deepest. That was what I got for falling hopelessly and recklessly for someone I hardly knew. But still… I missed him. The fake him, I reminded myself, and continued working on my newest painting – a beach I kept seeing in my dreams, between the ebbing nightmares. A house on the edge of a rocky cliff, sea water spraying up. The imagery calmed me and gave me an odd sense of hope. I’d destroyed the old one of the woods. Not in a fit of rage – I still couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I reserved all the hate for myself for being so stupid. I just couldn’t look at the painting any longer. It reminded me too much of him. I heard Anna’s alarm go off over the Lumineers’ song blaring through my earbuds, and I dabbled one last bit of sea foam onto the crest of a wave. Some nights my dreams woke me, and since the ‘incident,’ I couldn’t fall back asleep, so I’d paint. Time to get ready for breakfast. I stirred my oatmeal to let it cool, and listened as Ivy and Anna gossiped about the latest happenings at Midland. My curiosity quickly waned – I had no interest in who was dating who. Sarah and Dawson were necking, as usual. Ronnie and Levi were cutting up. Things almost felt pre-incident. It comforted me. There had been one new development in our group – Hannah had started sitting at our table, and it was actually at my request. She couldn’t find a place to sit one day, and I’d made everyone scoot down to make room. Of course she’d planted beside Levi. From then on, that had been her seat of choice. Levi didn’t seem to mind, either. I grinned and internally rolled my eyes as she asked him to open her milk. She could very well open her own damn milk… I knew what she was doing. But it was cute. They were cute. And now that I was out of the picture, something could happen between them. Maybe one day she could mend the pieces I’d broken. The bell rang, and we started for our classes. Out of habit, I dug through my bag. Shit. I’d forgotten my book again. “Y’all go on without, me,” I sighed. “I have to run back to my room. Forgot my book.” Sarah flicked me on the shoulder. “You big dummy. I’ll go with you.” “No,” I insisted. “You’ll be late too.” “Like I care!” “Let’s hurry.” We came to my door, and I rushed inside while Sarah waited at the threshold. I paused with a squeak, the floor crumbling beneath me, my head spinning. Gabriel stood beside my bed with a flower in hand, staring at my pillow with his head hung. He jumped. “K-Kat…” “Oh. My. God,” Sarah said behind me, and I did the only thing I could think of – darted out of the room and slammed the door. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO ___________________ Home Again “Shit, Sarah! What do I do?” I stood motionless, bewildered. After a month and a half, he’d come back to my room. Why? Sarah took my face in her hands; she contemplated long and hard before she spoke. “Talk to him.” “Wait… what? You hate him. You said if you ever saw him after what he did, you’d-” “I know what I said,” she said calmly. “But I think you should talk to him.” I was borderline hysterical now. “That’s crazy! What do we even have to talk about? There’s nothing to say.” “Trust me. You trust me right?” “But you hate him,” I repeated. “Kat…” she said, giving my head a gentle shake, “you trust me, right?” “Yes, but… I can’t do this! I’m just beginning to get over him.” She gave me a look. “I’m trying to get over him,” I corrected. And then it hit me. “You read his thoughts, didn’t you? What did you hear?” A grin played on her lips. “Just talk to him.” And with that, she kissed my forehead and took back off down the hallway. Her voice echoed back to me. “Do it!” Five good minutes of pacing and talking to myself outside the door and I’d officially managed to freak myself out. I couldn’t quit shaking, my heart jack-hammering in my chest. I wanted to throw up and make a run for it and leap into his arms and smack him all at the same time. Where could a seventeen-year-old get a drink? I needed a drink! A rustling inside the room made me freeze. Would he try and leave through the window? No… we were three stories up. “Just do this,” I said. “You can do this.” I counted to ten, smoothed my uniform and burst through, the door bouncing off the wall as it hit. Gabe shot up from the bed, the flower he’d brought clenched in his hand. We stared at each other. Watchful, waiting for the other to say something. As I drank him in – rumpled hair, three-week-old scruff, circles rimming eyes glazed over with a deep, overwhelming sadness – my gut wrenched. He looked older somehow, worse off than I ever thought of being, and it caused me physical pain. “I didn’t mean for you to see me,” he said. His voice didn’t even sound his own. My eyes welled, and I involuntarily took a step toward him but forced myself to stop, my mind flashing warning signs of caution. My heart wanted to run to him and forget my feelings of betrayal, but love was nothing without trust, so I stayed put. I would at least give him a chance to speak as Sarah had insisted I do. I did trust her. She was the only one I’d ever confided in about this whole mess, and she’d ruthlessly hated him ever since. So if she had resisted the urge to tear him limb from limb and insist I do this, there had to be a reason. A damn good reason. I stared at him expectantly, blinking. He swallowed. “I came to leave you this last flower, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave your room. We pack up in the morning. They want to leave for Montana.” “Oh.” The idea of them moving far away strangled my heart. Silly considering all I’d wanted was for them to move on. “But I… I can’t leave. The others wanted to move weeks ago, but I can’t bring myself to leave. I don’t want to go.” A tear spilled over as my heart warred with my head. My head was still screaming for me to tell him off and run, but my heart… oh, my heart so desperately wanted him to say why he couldn’t leave – because of me. He couldn’t leave because of me. He consulted my alarm clock. “Do you have to get to class? Will I get you in trouble?” “No,” I blurted out. “I have a minute.” He looked at the flower, trying to figure out where to go from here, and then his eyes cut back up to me. Even rimmed with circles, they tugged on my heartstrings. So not fair. “How are you?” “I’m… okay.” Liar. “I’m sorry, Kat. About everything.” I shrugged, swiped away the trail of a tear, and moved my attention to picking my cuticles. The polite thing to say would have been “it’s okay.” But it was most certainly not okay. He laid the flower on my pillow and took a step toward me, the shortened distance making my heart flip over itself. Damn that perpetual electric current running between us. I heard him sigh with frustration. “I know I’m the last person you want to talk to. But can I at least ask for you to listen to me? You don’t have to say a word.” I nodded. “Since our last talk, I began second-guessing everything. I replayed it all in my mind – my talks with Iris about you, her encouragement to walk you back to the school and win your heart. I even wondered if what I felt for you might have been a spell of hers.” Ouch… Stab in the gut. My lips parted to tell him to get out again, but something stopped me. Just talk to him, Sarah’s voice echoed through my mind. “But then I remembered the day a taxi brought you to the front door,” he continued. “Your first day – your hair was pulled up high and you had on a dark grey tank top and jeans with a hole in the knee. That was the first day I ever laid eyes on you.” You remember what I wore? I fought to keep my eyes downcast. Another tear spilled over. “Kai hadn’t told me about you then, that you were a hybrid like us. But when I saw you, the atmosphere, my atmosphere shifted, and I knew I would never be the same. You enchanted me, Kathrin.” His voice cracked on my name. Trembling, I met his eyes. Enchanted? I wanted to believe him so bad I could taste it. I felt it pulsing through my veins. “You enchanted me,” he repeated. “And I realized… it didn’t matter what Iris did or didn’t ask me to do. My heart wanted to do all of those things anyway. None of it was a lie. Every second we’d spent together meant something. I was under your spell.” I reeled at the thought – none of it was a lie. And such beautiful words… he was under my spell. Nobody had ever said anything remotely close to that to me before. My soul wanted to reach out and pull him close, but a small part of me told me to be cautious, to not give myself over again so easily. I needed to sit. I felt lightheaded, nauseous. Vulnerable. Hopeful. Tentatively, I moved to the bed. He reached out to help me sit but pulled back as though I might swat him away. Kneeling, he watched me until I said something. When I’d found my voice, it sounded small and unsteady. “How do I know you aren’t just telling me what I want to hear?” He paused for a beat, then said, “I guess you don’t.” Then how will this ever work? I asked myself. I’d always wonder if he was lying to me, and he’d always wonder if I trusted him. It would never work. Slowly, he moved his hand to mine. The touch sent a wave of chills through me, the electricity in it revving my heart up again. “Can you honestly say that what you felt wasn’t-” He had to pause, muscles flickering along his jawline as he fought back the tears. “That what you feel isn’t real? Our kisses, our few private moments together. The way we look at each other?” “I know,” I managed, at the cusp of bursting into a full-blown sob. How I wanted this to work, but I just didn’t see how. “I just can’t think of those things and not think you might have faked some of it.” He squeezed my hand gently. “Nobody could fake that. I’m not that good an actor.” We sat in silence, contemplating. Aching. “Every kiss,” he pled. “Every touch, every flower I brought you was because I loved you. I’ve loved you from that first day, and I‘ll love you forever.” Love? My breath hitched. “Even if you won’t have me.” I sat frozen, but I could feel my doubt and uncertainty melting away. Maybe that was why I could never bring myself to hate him – deep down I knew our connection was real. As real as my pull to him. It was love. “You love me?” His mouth twitched with a hopeful smile. A single tear rolled along his cheek. “With everything I am.” I searched his eyes – he loved me – and my heart began to open, uncurl from its protective stance to allow him back in. That was when it hit me like a brick wall, knocking the air from my lungs – if he didn’t care, if he’d been faking his feelings for me all this time, he would have moved on weeks ago. But he couldn’t make himself leave; he was here … after everything, this broken man was here and saying he loved me. I didn’t need to read minds to know he truly meant it. “I love you too,” I sobbed. My words seemed to lift a thousand pound boulder from his shoulders, and we collided into each other, lips fusing and arms wrapping around each other. And it felt right, like this was where I was supposed to have been this entire time. I was home again. Gabriel and I lay on my bed – my head on his shoulder, my fingers sweeping over the soft fabric of his shirt as I reveled in the moment. We were together again, and I suddenly didn’t feel so lost anymore. So inadequate. Whatever decisions lay ahead didn’t seem as daunting. If I was with him, I could face anything. “You should have brought me the flower sooner,” I said, half-joking. “I wanted to,” he replied, squeezing me into him, “But I wanted to give you your space. It wasn’t easy, though. Believe me.” Easy, I thought. None of this had been easy. I then wondered if I could have spared us the additional pain if I’d been willing to hear him out weeks ago. “I should have let you explain back then,” I said, burrowing further into him and breathing in his scent. I couldn’t get close enough. He tilted my chin to meet his eyes, appraising my expression. “Don’t you dare feel bad. Neither one of us could think straight then.” I nodded. “How are the others?” “Trying to pick up the pieces.” I know the feeling, I thought, and felt even worse. “I should have been there for you guys. I’m so sorry.” He brushed kisses across my forehead. “You’re here now. That’s all I care about.” “I know, but...” “Shhh,” he soothed, running his thumb along my lower lip. He kissed me sweetly. “What’s past is past.” I smiled and combed my fingers through his hair. “Deal.” We then talked about what had happened the past month, how they’d scattered Raymond’s ashes after they’d had him cremated. How the principal had offered to let them stay at the school tuition-free until graduation, but they’d declined. They’d already done the high school thing. I couldn’t blame them. We discussed life after high school – I still wanted to stay until graduation. The detective had also extended the same invitation to them about living in the compound, but the idea of never leaving once they’d committed also made them uneasy, though they hadn’t completely discounted it. “We have time to decide,” he said, hugging me and glancing at the clock. “Don’t go,” I pled, almost whined. He chuckled, his eyes dancing with pure love. “I’d love nothing more than to stay,” he said, kissing the tip of my nose, “But I’m fairly certain I just made you miss one class; I don’t want you missing the next and getting in trouble.” My bottom lip protruded. I didn’t give a shit if I got in trouble. He threw his head back in laughter. “Pouting, Ms. Walsh? You think that will get you what you want?” I stuck it out further, giving him my best puppy dog eyes. He pulled me on top of him, his eyes igniting with that fire I loved so much. My entire body hummed. “Okay, it worked,” he replied, and we kissed. I played hooky the rest of the day. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE ___________________ Worlds Collide Anna had once asked me how I knew something was love, and at the time, I didn’t have a definitive answer. It was hard to define something when you hadn’t experienced it. And just because I’d found it in Gabriel didn’t mean it was any easier to explain, to nail down a description of something so fluid and multi-faceted. But I suppose that’s exactly my answer – it’s many things to many people. There’s love for a parent or a sibling – unconditional and familiar; love for a friend – warm and comforting; and there’s love for a soul mate that burns white-hot with passion, awakening places in your heart you never knew existed. Maybe that was why I couldn’t answer her question before; until I’d walked down love’s winding, painful, beautiful path, the concept was as foreign as to me as explaining how to fly – I hadn’t found my wings yet. Piper put one last finishing touch on my up-do before shellacking it with a cloud of hairspray. She’d arrived an hour ago with her mobile hair salon to help me wrestle with my hair. I could only claim three types of hairstyles – down, ponytail, and street bum. Before she’d joined Iris and the others in the woods, she’d been a hairdresser and was more than thrilled to help when I asked. As a matter of fact, I think she squealed at a decibel only dogs could hear. I was in desperate need of help with my hair; the school had rescheduled the dance for this weekend – the weekend before Thanksgiving break. “That should do it!” she trilled, and spun me around to inspect her creation. After one last tweak, she ripped the cape from my shoulders. “My best one yet.” I gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks, Piper.” Her eyes filled with pride, and she flung her arms around my neck. “I’m so glad everything worked out with you and Gabe,” she said into my shoulder. “I’ve gained another sister.” I hugged her tighter. “Me too.” “Get a room, you two!” Aubrey teased. We turned to see her sashaying through the door in a – surprise, surprise – form-fitting floor-length ivory gown. With her pinned-up auburn hair and massive stones in her earlobes, she looked red-carpet ready. Movie Star Barbie. No way was I arriving at the same time as her – I’d look like a plain little stick wrapped in black. Piper threw a comb at her. “Shut up.” They laughed and hugged hello. “Beautiful as always,” Aubrey said, appraising my hair and make-up. “Wait ‘til you see her dress,” Piper said. Anna emerged from the bathroom with her hair wrapped in a towel. She took one good look at Aubrey and gaped. “Oh my god you’re gorgeous…” “Thank you,” Aubrey replied. “Aubrey, this is Anna,” I said. Aubrey offered her hand for a shake. “Nice to meet you.” I beamed as I moved to the closet for my dress. My two worlds were officially colliding tonight – mortal friends and half-breeds. I loved new beginnings. “You’re next, Anna!” Piper said, patting the seat. Anna pointed to Aubrey. “Can you make me look like her?” “Better,” she teased. Aubrey chucked the comb back at her. Once we were all painted, curled, bejeweled and zipped up into our dresses, we stopped by Sarah and Ivy’s room so we could all walk together. The buzz in the air was euphoric, thrilling. A night like tonight was long overdue. As we bustled down the hallways holding our gowns so we didn’t trip, I realized more of both my worlds were about to collide – the guys. How would Levi and Gabriel act toward each other? An ex meeting a new beau for the first time… not fun. When we arrived at the gymnasium door, my heart stopped. We screeched to a halt and watched. Gabriel and Levi were already shaking hands with strained smiles. Colton and Brad stood beside Gabriel, and Dawson and Ronnie beside Levi. Too much testosterone in one place for my liking. My dress suddenly felt too tight. Sarah grasped my arm. “It’s okay,” she said, breathless, but the way she watched I wasn’t sure she fully believed it yet. “Oh, please, ladies,” Piper said, fighting her way in front of us, “They’re fine!” She rushed to hug Colton, and the rest of the guys’ attention turned to us. They greeted us with wide eyes and proud smiles. When my eyes locked with Gabriel’s, everything else around us fell away – as it usually did. He was freshly shaven and wore a black tuxedo, his hair a coif of messy perfection – formal compared to the other guys, but damn if he wasn’t yummy enough to eat. I melted into a puddle. He was mine. “Hey, beautiful,” he said with a heart-stopping smile and pulled me into a hug. “Hey,” I said, and nestled into him, my hair and makeup be damned. “Here,” he said, pulling away, and produced a corsage complete with white and purple flowers. The white flowers. Our white flowers. “Aubrey made it.” I teared up as he slid it on my wrist. “It’s beautiful.” “You look great, Kat,” Levi said behind me. I turned – a black, shimmering pastry puff standing between two guys. I swallowed against the anxiety rising inside me. “Thanks,” I tried to say casually, going in for a friendly hug, “You too.” I tugged on the lapel of his suit. “Shined up like a new penny.” Everyone around us pretended not to watch, but they so were. He chuckled his usual lighthearted chuckle, and the tension inside me eased. Hannah stood behind him, her baby pink dress glowing against her tanned skin, her blonde curls pulled into a low ponytail cascading over her shoulder. “You look beautiful,” I said. “Thanks, Kat. You too.” The speakers buzzed to life, mercifully rescuing us from the awkwardness, and the first song of the night echoed through the gym – a fast-paced song with heavy bass. “Oooh, I love this song,” Ivy said. Sarah tugged Dawson onto the dance floor. “This is my song!” The others trickled behind them, and Hannah tugged on Levi’s hand to join. “You kids have fun,” Levi said to me and Gabriel as Hannah dragged him away, and I could tell he truly meant it. Either that or he was hiding it well. “Nice to meet you, man!” “Same here!” Gabriel replied with a nod. I let out a relieved sigh; the collision of my guy-worlds went better than I’d hoped – it went flawlessly. One collision down, one to go – Gabriel still had to meet my parents, but I decided not to worry about that tonight. All I wanted to do now was relax and enjoy my half-angel boyfriend. “Want to join?” Gabriel asked as we watched the others find their places amongst the pearlescent balloons and streamers. Ronnie was already in the middle of a circle and doing a dance that looked more like a seizure. I glanced out the doors and into the night sky – the stars were fiery diamonds against black velvet. It looked peaceful. “Outside?” he asked, reading my expression, “It’s cold,” he cautioned. “I’m okay with that.” It was private. He draped his jacket over my shoulders on the way out, and just outside the door, he pulled me tight, his lips close to my ear. We swayed as he hummed us a private song, the thump of the bass and the squeals from inside melting away. It was just the two of us again. I cherished these moments – we didn’t get many of them anymore since they’d beefed up security. Principal Hughes only allowed him to visit once on the weekends and it was usually in a public place like the library or courtyard. As much as I’d have loved to be in there with the rest of my friends, I wanted unadulterated ‘Gabe time.’ He began putting words with the melody, and I recognized it - the song from weeks ago beside the campfire; the first time I’d ever heard him sing. This was the song he said he’d written. “I love this one,” I cooed. He kissed my temple and went back to singing. I really listened this time. It was about a girl, her hair black as night, her face a peaceful scene in sleep. She stole his heart, his stay in pain would part, and he knew no more he’d weep. I paused, pulling back in awe. “You still like it?” he asked with a knowing smile, tucking a stray ringlet behind my ear. “Did you…” “What?” he asked, playing dumb and rubbing my shoulders to keep me warm. He wanted to hear me say it. “Is that about…” “Is it about you?” he finished for me with a smirk. “Why would you think that?” “Black hair?” He chuckled. “Yes, beautiful. I wrote it about you. Before I’d even met you. Officially.” My heart swelled with love to the point of bursting. “You did?” He pulled me close again, our lips inches away. “I told you… the first time I saw you, you enchanted me,” he whispered, and kissed me long and slow. He then trailed kisses along my cheek before moving us into a gentle sway again – our private dance under a star-soaked sky. I rested my head against his chest, hearing the sweet, rhythmic thumping of his heart – the most precious sound in the world – and thought, and you, Gabriel…. boy of my dreams… you’ve captivated me. END OF BOOK ONE EPILOGUE ___________________ A Sister’s Wrath Months earlier… the night of the ‘incident.’ Waiting on Iris, I’d been sitting here forever in this dark parking lot. Antsy. Nearly jumping out of my skin. She’d said she would have all the hybrids she needed - six for Kai, six for Rose. As soon as they’d performed the immortality ritual for Kai, she’d let me know and I’d help them transfer the six remaining hybrids into this van I’d rented and haul ass home for Rose. I nervously chewed my nails, the red polish flaking away. Come on. What’s the holdup? I glanced at the clock. 10:36 PM. I’d been here two hours. Something wasn’t right. When she’d last contacted me, it was twilight the night before here in Colorado. I would have arrived sooner, but it was a long drive from Mississippi. She promised to have the ritual over with by this evening. It shouldn’t have taken this long. Screw it. I collected the red velvet sack from my purse and lifted a marble from inside – one of Iris’ creations to help us communicate from any distance. Once broken, red smoke curled out, creating a rippling, translucent screen and let us talk face-to-face in real time. It only lasted around ten minutes, but that was all I needed to confirm all was well. She’d directed me to never use it with her unless there was an emergency – she had a cover to protect with the hybrids– but I couldn’t help but feel this was a perfect time to reach out. What if something had gone wrong? What if they needed my help? Deep down in my bones, I felt it – an undeniable dread that something had happened to a loved one. I knew Rose was still alive; I’d just used a marble to speak with her. It had to be Iris. Shrouded by the invisibility spell surrounding both me and the van, I stepped into the cool night air and smashed the glass marble on the pavement. The smoke materialized and spread to the size of a door within seconds. “Iris,” I said into the red haze, directing the smoke as to which sister I was wanting. Nothing. “Iris!” Nothing. I scanned the woods surrounding the school. I knew their camp was out there somewhere. Good thing I was wearing my tennis shoes. I’d be doing a lot of walking. As I started for the wood line, a figure emerged and headed for the school. Then another. Police officers. They both carried flashlights, and the radios on their shoulders filled the quiet air with static and broken voices; nothing I could decipher from this far away. The dread inside me swelled. “What the hell happened out here?” I whispered and broke off into a sprint for the woods. It didn’t take me long to find the clearing. The tents and yellow police tape stood out like apparitions against the consuming blackness. I chanted a spell for light, and my index finger glowed, washing the area in radiant white. I noticed the star on the ground and blood soaking the base of one of the trees. They’d only just begun the ritual. Another pool of blood saturated the pine straw near another tree, but it wasn’t a tree that should have had a hybrid tied to it – it wasn’t at one of the star’s points. “Iris?” I said, hoping for a reply, although something told me I’d never hear her musical voice again. My skin bristled at the thought, and I swallowed over the lump in my throat. My other hand reached for my ear to pluck the earring from my lobe. I stuck it into my wrist and let the blood dribble into the center of the star. “Show me what happened here,” I directed, closing my eyes and bowing my head to the earth. Visions raced through my mind – Iris and Kai tying the hybrids to the trees; the star being drawn with white chalk; them cleaning the dagger and blessing it with our dark lord’s prayer; my sister’s gentle directions guiding Kai along. They started on the blond boy first, draining his blood and his heart coming out relatively easily. A girl with raven hair awoke as they started on the next hybrid’s arm, a tall boy with a handsome face. Something about the way the girl looked at my sister and Kai made my blood simmer. The rest happened in a blur – Iris and the girl exchanged words; the girl knocked the dagger into the woods; Kai went to look for it; more heated words were exchanged. I saw a red-headed girl beyond the clearing. Behind her was a small army of other teenagers and two officers. They each found logs and trees around the clearing to hide behind. The determined looks on all their frightened faces made me shudder. “Iris,” I said to get her attention, but I knew she couldn’t hear me. Once Kai had returned with the dagger, another girl awoke screaming. Iris knocked her out, and they continued with the ritual. As Kai poised the knife over the handsome boy’s chest, a hawk swooped down and snatched it. Iris knocked the bird from the air, its feathered body tumbling to the ground and transforming into a boy. I gasped. A shape-shifter. My sister was in over her head. When she’d told me two weeks ago they’d found the “jackpot” at a remote school for the gifted, I couldn’t help but worry. Normally, witches could handle their own against ordinaries, as we call humans who don’t practice magic, but Gifteds could be a challenge – the very reason we had drugged the hybrids at the compound twenty years ago; we didn’t know which ones might be gifted with what. We didn’t want a struggle. Again, Kai and Iris retrieved the dagger, but the others – now more infuriated and determined than ever – decided to attack. Iris wiped the officers out, no problem, and then choked the dark-haired girl for ripping the dagger away again. A blond-haired boy behind the log snatched it, and I grunted in frustration. Choke her out, sis! The spiteful little shits behind the log threatened Kai, something about setting him on fire. Flames sprung from the red-haired girl’s palms. “Run, Kai!” I yelled out, my body shaking, a bead of sweat sliding down my back. Fuck. What had my sister gotten into? I should have been here earlier. I should have been here to help them. Flames engulfed Kai, and I screamed, mirroring my own sister’s shriek. Frustrated and scared, I knelt to the ground as my sister crouched protectively over Kai, the dove on her shoulder squawking, and I dug my fingers into the earth. More threats were exchanged, and a jock-looking kid with broad shoulders blasted her with wind into a tree. The bones in her body shattered, her bird exploding into blood and feathers. I screamed again. A hollow, unnatural sound for being in a vast forest, my voice still cloaked by the spell. My cries continued, clawing their way out as I watched the blond boy sever her neck to finish the job, and there was nothing I could do about it. He helped the raven-haired bitch from the tree and her apparent lover with his bleeding arm. Having had enough, I opened my eyes, my forehead pressed against the ground where my sister’s body had lain. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I soaked in what little of her life-force remained. The energy from her fear and anger still lingered here. I soaked it in like a sponge, igniting my own seething hatred. Hatred for what had happened. Hatred for these evil bastards who had done this to her. My sister – a third of my heart and soul – gone. Reduced to a headless corpse. I let out another cry – this time laced with a bitter, acidic rage – and I stood to my feet, dirt clenched in my fists. They would pay for this. All of it. I’d hunt them all down and make sure it was slow and brutal and merciless. I’d calculate it to the last minute detail, and when the time was right, I’d strike. These kids were about to come face to face with a wrath they’d never known, they just didn’t know it yet.

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