Hey friends and fictional folk! Sooo, last chapter ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Sorry but not sorry. Writers sustain themselves on the angst and feels of their audience. Anyway, here is the next chapter to satisfy your need for answers. Hope you enjoy!
Natalie didn’t stop to think about what she was doing. She didn’t stop to think about how she still felt off after adjusting Sam’s shard. She didn’t even stop to think about what Ahuizotl might do with her gone or what that thing lurking beneath Levi Lake was.
The water chilled her to the bone instantly and she almost gasped. It might have been late spring but either the lake hadn’t gotten the memo or winter was hanging on for as long as it could.
She shook off her shock and dove deeper. Knowing that she needed to trust her new body’s instincts, she didn’t think too hard about how to swim. It was quite similar to gliding or moving across the ground. Her tail slithered back and forth, pushing her down into the dark depths. She kept her hands stretched out in front of her, partially so she’d be ready to grab Daniel once she caught up to him and partially because the water was making both her normal vision and infrared vision blurry.
Despite her muddled eyesight, she could still see Daniel and the giant tentacle dragging him down into the depths. She poured on the speed.
The water grew darker as she caught up with the sinking tentacle. Her lungs were already burning for air and the pressure at this depth felt like someone was sitting on her chest. But when she saw Daniel’s closed eyes and limp form, renewed determination burned hotter than her lungs.
She slammed her fist into the tentacle, but the blow bounced off harmlessly. The water resistance had slowed it to the speed of a normal punch and the rubbery skin combined with the thick corded of this oversized limb acted like armor. Natalie threw two more punches, throwing her whole weight behind each of them, but they were just as useless as the first.
Her lungs were screaming for air now. The light of the moon above was almost lost to her. She had to think of something fast.
Punching wasn’t doing anything. The tentacle was too thick with muscles and she didn’t have enough air left for her to squeeze it into submission. She didn’t have claws or talons. Her heightened senses weren’t going to do anything here. She was completely useless.
Out of shear desperation, Natalie opened were mouth as wide as it would go. Her jaw stretched open. Then it stretched some more. And then a little more, much farther than any human mouth could. Then she bit down.
Her teeth sank into the tentacle, piercing it as easily as she might bite into a tender steak.
A sound rose from the depths of the lake. It was like the rumbling of some long dormant volcano erupting to life, part tectonic shriek and part primal roar. The water shook with the force of the noise and it slammed into Natalie like a physical force, pounding against her eardrums.
She clung to the tentacle with tooth and coil as it jerked wildly in pain. It swung back and forth until it had nearly whipped the lake into a whirlpool. But Natalie hung on until finally the tendril loosened its grip on Daniel, sending his body tumbling through the water.
Releasing her foe, she coiled her tail and shot of the tentacle after Daniel. She grabbed his limp form and swam with all her might for the surface. As she did, she glanced down to see if the tentacle was pursuing them.
Nothing chased them, but as they drew closer to the surface, moonlight shone upon the outline of a massive silhouette. The thing below seemed to have no solid form, its countless limbs and tendrils shifted in maddening, untraceable patterns. It was the bigger than any living thing Natalie could have imagined, easily three times the size of her house. She was like a mouse compared to this beast. From somewhere within its mass, she felt its gaze upon her, angry and proud but patient, secure in its power.
She averted her eyes from the thing and clawed for the surface of the lake.
Natalie burst from the water, gasping in relief. She gulped greedy breaths of air to soothe her burning lungs.
She turned at Jamie’s call. Her friend was standing ankle deep in the water with Mr. Ross next to her. Sam was still on the ground. Ahuizotl was nowhere to be seen.
Using one hand to hold Daniel above the water, she swam for shore.
“Mr. Rossss,” Natalie wheezed, almost sobbing. Once her tail could reach dirt, she slithered rapidly through the mud up to her teacher. She clung to Daniel’s body like a lifeline. He wasn’t breathing. “Pleassse tell me you know CCCPR!”
He hurried to her side. “Of course, my dear.”
She set down Daniel’s body and ripped off his shirt.
“Natalie! What are you…” Jamie started, trailing off as she saw the binder on his chest.
Natalie didn’t answer, there would be time enough for that later. She tore off the binder, freeing his chest for Mr. Ross to apply pressure.
I’m sorry, Danny. I’ll steal another one for you. Just please come back.
Mr. Ross crossed his hands over the center of Daniel’s chest and began the compression. Thirty chest compressions followed by two breaths into his mouth. Thirty chest compressions, two breaths.
Natalie watched intently. Her eyes never left Daniel’s face, watching for any sign of life.
Thirty chest compressions, two breaths.
He couldn’t die. If he died it was her fault. He had been out here helping her. Ever since that first day he had been helping her. She had taken it for granted. She had taken him for granted. She needed him. Not just because he knew how this superheroing work or because he brought her food or had given her a place to live.
Thirty chest compressions, two breaths.
Tears stung at the corners of her eyes, waiting to fall.
When had he become her rock? Staring at his motionless body made the whole world feel like it was falling apart. In her mind, she saw life without him. It was an incomplete life. A life missing a vital piece, a hole in the universe. Even now she could feel herself falling into that hole, never to find her way back into the light.
Daniel lurched into a semi-seated position, spewing water from his mouth in hacking coughs. Mr. Ross helped him turn over onto hands and knees so that the water could flow out unobstructed by gravity.
The tears that had been threatening Natalie’s eyes spilled out in a flood of relief. He was weak and shaking, but alive. The hole in the universe that had threatened to drag her in had been filled. As soon as Daniel was done hacking up lungfuls of river water, she scooped him up and hugged him.
“Natalie?” he wheezed. His voice sounded tired and scratchy, like he had been drowning in sand instead of water. She felt him stiffen in her grip.
Afraid she’d hugged too tight, or had crossed a line somehow, she set him back on the ground. He nearly fell, his knees still shaky. She offered her shoulder to help him stand. For a moment, she worried he might not take it, he seemed scared and nervous. But after a moment’s hesitation he leaned against her.
That’s when she saw what was bothering him. He had crossed his arms protectively over his exposed chest, glancing around for the binder. When Mr. Ross offered him his tweed jacket, he took it immediately, wrapping tight over his torso. It looked and felt like he was trying to shrink down as small as possible.
“I’ll call Omphalos,” Mr. Ross whispered to her. “We need to get your seahorse friend into some water that isn’t Lake Levi as soon as possible.”
Natalie nodded and he stepped away. Meeting Jamie’s eyes, she could see all the questions she wanted to ask.
I’ll explain later, she mouthed.
Jamie glanced between Sam and Daniel before nodding and moving to help Mr. Ross.
Natalie waited; one eye trained on the lake. The water was placid again now, but she had seen what was lurking in its depths. She was pretty sure that hybrid was what Patrick had become considering how fearfully Jamie and Sam had spoken of him. If he was going to strike again, she needed to be ready to get out of range of those tentacles. Hopefully he couldn’t leave the lake.
Her other eye she kept on Daniel. He seemed to have calmed down now that he had a jacket on, but she wanted to wait for him to speak first. She felt guilty for invading his privacy like that and tearing off his binder, but it was a life or death situation and she never would have done it otherwise. It was better for him to hate her than be dead.
Hesitantly, she wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He didn’t move away.
“You knew?” he asked.
She swallowed. “Yeah.”
He looked up, meeting her eyes for the first time since being revived.
“Um…” She could feel blood rushing to her cheeks. “My infrared. Onccce I figured out how heat iss disstributed through the body, I noticcced that yourss wass different from mosst other guysss.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I figured that you’d tell me onccce you trusted me. If you were keeping it sssecret, then I knew you musst have a good reasson.”
He looked down and seemed to shrink even further into the folds of the jacket.
“It’s not because I don’t trust you, Natalie. Or maybe it is, I don’t know. Truth is, I was scared you’d hate me.”
“Hate you? Why would I hate you for being trans?”
He winced at the word. She wondered now if it had been used against him in the past.
“Plenty of other people do. Carson, Paul, half a dozen foster parents, Thomas-”
Daniel winced again. Was it true? Had Thomas somehow hurt her friend? Thinking back on her rooftop conversation with him, it unfortunately wasn’t such a hard thing to believe. But she still needed to know for certain.
“What…what did Thomasss do?” she asked.
There was a long moment where Daniel didn’t say anything. He sat quietly staring at the ground and she waited patiently for him to speak. When he did, she listened with mounting disgust and horror. He told her how he’d been caught as he was about to finish hacking the newspaper club’s system. How Thomas had monologued about his dream and then asked Daniel to let him keep publishing stories about her. How, when Daniel refused, Thomas threatened to set Carson and Paul on him.
She didn’t want to believe it. Everybody liked Thomas. He was one of the nicest guys she’d ever met. He didn’t lear at her and the other cheerleaders like most boys at school did. He was the perfect gentleman. But as she listened to Daniel, felt him shake with memories of fear, she knew he was telling the truth. Her crush on Thomas turned to a burning hate. He might have been nice in public, but inside he was rotten and cruel.
Yet still, she could feel that one splinter in her heart that still found joy in thoughts of him. She hated it, but it would not leave her. It held fast through all of Daniel’s story. She hoped that someday it would disappear.
Regardless of her feelings, she was going to be having words with Thomas.
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said, finishing his story.
She shook her head. “Don’t be.”
“But I failed at the mission. I got scared and ran. I’m useless.”
Natalie took his face in her hands and turned him to face her, making sure his eyes stayed locked on hers. His cheeks grew warm against her scales.
“You are not usselesss,” she said. “You found the orb of ark shardss, you sssaved me from getting disscovered by the police when I transformed, you have been by my ssside in almost every fight, and you are the reasson I’ve been able to stay ssane when other hybrids would have ssnapped. I wouldn’t have gotten half this far without you. Don’t every ssay you’re usselesss.”
His blush grew stronger, but she could see the doubt lingering in his eyes.
“I wasn’t able to stand up against Thomas,” he muttered.
“He threatened you with old trauma,” she pointed out. “I don’t know why Carsson and Paul hate you for being trans, and you don’t have to tell me if you aren’t ready, but I can tell that you’ve got bad memories there. No one can blame you for running from that. I cccertainly don’t. And I bet Mr. Rosss wouldn’t either.”
“Ssee? Nothing to be ashamed of. You aren’t the bad guy here. Thomasss is.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Daniel always seemed to have trouble making eye contact for longer than a few seconds, it seemed to make him uncomfortable. She didn’t like forcing this on him, but she needed to make sure that what she said stuck. She hoped it was. Despite any discomfort he felt, Daniel held her gaze and she could definitely something shift in those beautiful brown eyes.
He reached up and took her hands in his. “Thank you, Natalie.”
“Thank you, Danny,” she replied.
Then he surprised her. He pulled her forward into hug. Not an arm around the shoulder or a pat on the back, but a real hug, warm and strong. She wrapped her arms around him in return and they held each other.
Later, she would see Sam and Jamie taken safely into ISRD protection. She would ignore Agent Bellerophon’s snide remarks and thank Agent Medea for her help. She would tend to her scrapes and cuts from the long night, make plans with Daniel to finish his hacking, and silently ponder what to do about Thomas. After far too many hours into the night, she would collapse into her bed and fall asleep.
But for now, she could simply enjoy the embrace.