Hey there friends and fictional folk! Here’s the first update to the story in a long while. We’re going to be getting into some meaty stuff soon. Don’t forget to keep circulating those links.
Hope you all enjoy!
Natalie watched from her place in the bushes with Sam and Jamie as a very familiar girl walked out of the house they were spying on. They were a good distance away, obscured by overgrown foliage from the abandoned home next door. Despite the distance and the darkness of night, it was easy to see the girl thanks to the bright overhead bulb on the back porch.
After securing Cockatrice for ISRD in a pair of cuffs that Natalie had taken with her from the layer, the three of them had made their way across the city to a neighborhood she recognized from only a few days ago. It was on the other side of the railroad tracks where she’d fought Damien. The girl they were watching was none other than his older sister, Mara Swift.
Mara was looking a lot more tired than she had last time Natalie had seen her. Very faintly, she could hear raised voices inside the doublewide house. Seemingly in response, Mara walked further out onto the porch and sat on the stairs leading down to the rest of the yard. There she wrapped rested her arms on her knees and looked up into the night sky. It was hard to read her expression from this distance, but with both of her brothers missing and her parents apparently arguing inside, Natalie could imagine the stress she must be under.
But why did Jamie want to come here?
She risked Patrick’s anger every time she did and, from what Sam had said on the way, it sounded like she had come here a lot in the past two weeks since the explosion. An idea wormed its way into her brain. Not much could drive a person to do something like this except…
Careful not to rustle the bushes, Natalie turned to face her friend. She raised a questioning eyebrow.
Jamie met her gaze and nodded. She motioned for everyone to follow and they slipped away.
Their retreat led to an old playground they had passed on the way to Mara’s home. Natalie joined her Jamie on the rusty swings while Sam clambered about on the monkey bars nearby. One of the rungs was missing, but that didn’t seem to be much of an issue for him.
For a while, she and Jamie sat together in silence, listening to the bugs and cicadas trilling in the night. Since spring was only just giving way to summer, the air was still cool and the insects sparse enough that their droning hadn’t yet reached deafening levels.
“So,” Natalie said, breaking the relative silence, “you’ve got a crush on Mara?”
Jamie nodded, shrinking down into the swing seat.
“I’m guessing Patrick wouldn’t be very happy to hear about that,” she continued.
“He isn’t,” Jamie said.
Natalie raised an eyebrow at her use of present tense. “He knows?”
She nodded again. “That’s part of the deal. I stay his girlfriend and he makes sure nothing bad happens to her.”
Natalie sighed inwardly. There was so much going on. So much to figure out.
Her thoughts tumbled about in her head like clothes in a dryer. One thought would rear its head only to be joined by another and another. As each new idea crested, an older one would fall, crashing into a pile and soon sandwiched by another thought above it. This cycle continued until her head was a tangled, thrumming jumble.
She needed to protect the city, but she needed to protect Jamie too. She was in love with a victim of a hybrid attack but forced into staying with her current boyfriend, who was an abusive jerkwad. Sam, who was basically still a kid, had been dragged into this whole mess at a younger age than any of them. And on top of that, there were the cryptic things Ahuizotl had said.
What was she supposed to do? Who was she supposed to protect? Which problem was she supposed to fix first? Was there a problem she could fix? She should be saying something to comfort her friend. Anything.
“When did you fall out of love with Patrick?” she spat out.
Natalie wanted to smack herself. Of all the things to say, she just had to bring her friend’s mind back to her current trauma.
“I don’t know,” Jamie said, shrugging. “Maybe I still do love him? Maybe I never did? I just know that I feel comfortable around Mara when we’re in shop class. One day I realized I like her more than I like Patrick.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of weeks ago.”
“Did you tell her?”
Jamie shook her head. “No. I wanted to break things off with Patrick first.”
Natalie mentally groaned. It was the right thing to do, but she could see where this was going, and she hated it.
“I’m guessing he didn’t take that well,” she said.
Jamie managed to shrink down even further into the seat. “Not at all. He said I shouldn’t be thinking that way while I’m still his girlfriend. He said I was practically cheating on him and that I shouldn’t even try to ask her out because she probably doesn’t even swing that way and will think I’m gross. He called me…he called me…”
Natalie rested a hand on her shoulder. She was careful to keep the grip in that hand comforting. Her other hand was about to break the swing chain.
Jamie took a breath to steady herself, though Natalie could still hear a slight quiver in her next words. “We eventually reached a compromise. We’d date for one more month and if I still had more of a crush on Mara than I did on him, we would break up. If not, we would stay together.”
“That sounds almost reasonable,” Natalie said, narrowing her eyes. “What’s the catch?”
Jamie sighed. “I couldn’t spend any time with her outside of class or talk to her about anything other than our assignments or actively team up with her on projects.”
“I’m guessing he had a friend in shop class that made sure you didn’t ‘cheat’ on him.”
Natalie could feel the swing’s chain links bend in her fist. Enough was enough. She needed to get Jamie out of Patrick’s grasp. Surely Omphalos could protect her, Sam, and even Mara. At least until she got the chance to beat the snot out of that slimy, manipulative, controlling piece of—
Her earpiece pinged.
“What?” she snapped, jamming her finger into her ear a bit too hard.
“Natalie!” Danny’s voice—an urgent whisper—crackled from the other end. “Come quick, we’ve found Ahuizotl!”