Chapter 23

Polaris, New York

I overworked myself at the kitchen, much to Victoria’s dismay, given the state of my hand and shoulder, but we remained understaffed. Jemier offered to assist, but I declined. Part of me didn’t trust that the Alliance wasn’t tracking him, and I didn’t need to get Victoria’s hopes up that she had another pair of hands on deck when I didn’t even know how Jemier would sneak back to this planet undetected.

We had limited time remaining, and so we visited a museum with a dinosaur exhibit and were reminded of our ancestors. Later, we drank wine and beer in my home while browsing the internet and watching our latest obsession on Netflix, a show about a misfit crew pulling heists. I paused my viewing of another show I’d started last week, an older series that followed the crew of a starship as it ventured the universe. I was struck particularly by the show’s concept of the Prime Directive; had our Dragon ancestors observed a code like that, perhaps the Giants wouldn’t have hunted them into extinction. I didn’t need to get Jemier started on that show, and for extraordinarily selfish reasons: I didn’t want to feel guilty about watching it once he left.

We avoided the topic of our relationship. We talked about Gaian art and culture, and whenever the conversation drifted back to us, one of us cut it short. It wasn’t as if I would never see him again, but if he couldn’t come back, then it would be longer than a few days, a few weeks, a few months without him. It could be years.

We sat down to enjoy what should have been a simple bowl of soup. He decided that our final dinner together would be cooked by his hand and be his first non-toast-and-eggs adventure. Nothing lavish, but given the cold night, I looked forward to it.

“This is disgusting,” he said. He left his spoon in the bowl.

“It is fine.” Edible, but not disgusting. Just boring.

He stared at the pot on the stove. “I boiled the noodles until they were soft.”

“They’re supposed to be soft.”

“I know. I boiled them correctly. I told you I knew how to boil noodles.”

“Yes, but the noodles aren’t the problem.”

“So there is a problem?”

I sighed, staring at the dried orange splats covering the backsplash and the knobs on the stove. Not all from his experimentation, but they needed to go soon. “No, not really.”

He sampled the soup again. “This does not taste like soup from the cans.”

“Ingredients must be added in the proper order. It’s chemistry.”

“I don’t like this kind of chemistry.”

“You will. Come on.” I snatched our jackets. “We’ll go to the large market so—”

“So we can hide in the crowd. I know.” He smiled and slipped his bulky arms into his jacket.

He grinned broadly at me during the entire trip. First when I picked up the basket at the grocery store.

“Let me carry that for you,” he said.

I glared at him. “Fine, I suppose it wouldn’t look good if you let the injured man carry everything. What would the neighbors think?”

“That you’re stubborn to a fault.”

“Oh, shut up.”

I led him to the produce section where I examined a bag of carrots. Then another bag. Then another. If I was going to help him make a soup, it would be with carrots of some quality.

“What’s wrong with the others?” he said.

I spun the bag in my hands, looking for a packaging date. “Things.”

“What things?”

“Things.” I did the bendy test I’d learned from videos online. This bag passed. “Do you see a number on here?”

“I see many numbers on there.”

“A date.”

“How do Gaians express dates?”

I sighed again. “You’re not being very helpful.”

He grinned again at me.

The next grin came in the soup aisle itself, where I perused cartons of stock.

“That’s the same container I used,” he said of the stock I put in the basket.

“I know.” I walked down the aisle. “We need to get in line.”


I sighed with a little more force this time and turned to find him at an endcap. I caught him setting a blue box in the basket.

“Very funny,” I said, plucking out the box and returning it its place on the shelves.

“You should buy it.”

“I am not buying artificial sweetener.”

“It’s called—”

“I know what it’s called. I’ve seen it before.” I headed toward the register again.

“You should be flattered.”

“To have a sweetener with the same name as me? I think not.”

“Solin Sugar.”

“I’m not particularly sweet, you understand.”

He grinned at me wider now.

“Are you trying to be annoying?”

“This is the first time I have seen you peruse a Gaian food market.”

“And it’s amusing to you?”

“You would not like the word I’d use for it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Say it.”


I headed straight for the registers and did not speak to him until we were home.

“I am not a pet,” I said, trying to find a fresh cutting board for him to use. An ordinarily simple task made more difficult by having one arm in a sling.

“I didn’t say you were a pet.”

I sighed and took off the sling entirely. My shoulder didn’t complain. I calmed myself and found what I needed, then set the vegetables he had cleaned on the cutting board. “Make these the same size so they cook evenly.”

“As the noodles?”

“As one another. They cook first. Otherwise, they’re just boiled vegetables. This gives everything that extra…”

“Extra what?” He smiled again, this time softer. “Solin?”


He chuckled at the word and began chopping.

The soup came out much better under my guidance, but we didn’t eat until nine o’clock.

“That was fun,” he said, settling into the couch for night. “I see why you enjoy cooking so much.”

Dirty dishes filled the sink, so I had a different view of it. “Perhaps you can do it again sometime.”

“I hope to.”

On our last morning, we skipped the café and went straight to the church. No sense in giving him a reminder of the barista whose smiles I enjoyed as much as his.

“I’ll see you soon,” I said.

“See you soon, drathos.”

We held each other close, and when we parted, the cold of the autumn morning cut into me. I waved him farewell.


Autumn behaved more properly these days, and Jemier hadn’t returned yet. Halloween, a holiday any Wraithstone would adore, had put the locals into costume. Pumpkins and cartoonish spiders had adorned storefronts along my walk for the past week, and today their proprietors dressed from head to toe as fantastical beings, fictional characters, and spooky monsters.

Saint Mary’s crossed my mind again. I’d expected to come away from there with my powers returned to me. Although I primarily used them to hide and survive, I missed the moments when I could create beauty and whimsy from nothing. What a holiday this could have been for me.

I sought respite from the brisk morning and my thoughts in the café. Armand smiled at me. Red horns sprouted from his head, and he’d pinned a ghost to his apron.

“Your hand looks better,” he said, reaching for an empty cup.

“It finally healed.” He steamed the coconut milk. “Could I actually have decaf this morning?”

“A morning decaf, huh?” He flashed me a smile. “You can have anything you want, but tell me you aren’t cheating on me with one of those one-cup brewers.”

“Not today,” I smirked. He feigned horror. “I’m just feeling particularly rested.”

“That’s always a good thing.” He pressed a button on the machine. “No Mr. Jon today?”

“There is no Mr. Jon,” I said.

He capped the cup and handed it to me, smiling. “Oh, my mistake.”

“Very smooth.” I winked at him. I sipped the latte. Perfection.

He clicked my order and one suspended coffee into the register. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I took out my credit card. “The latte, of course.”

He spun around the card reader for me. I paid. The receipt printed; he tore it from the printer with one hand and grabbed a pencil from beneath the counter with the other. He jotted something on the back of the paper, then folded it up and handed it to me.

“It’s about time you had this.”

His number.

I smiled. “And how do you expect me to use it?”

“Any way you want to, but fair warning, I use a lot of gifs when I text.”

I had no idea what those were, but I set down my latte and pulled out my phone.

Worry not, I texted him. I type out words in their entirety.

“Did you just text me? My phone’s in the back.”

“Oh, you’ll see.” I picked up my latte. “I have to go.”

“See you, Jon.”

“Goodbye, Armand.”

I arrived at the kitchen faster than anticipated. I hadn’t even finished my latte yet. I took off my double-breasted, lightweight coat, my latest purchase with the tablet. Armand’s number toppled out of its pocket. I picked it up and blew away the dust bunny attached to it, mentally filing away a note to sweep the employee coat area before leaving. How much use would I make of this number? I’d told Jemier about my feelings for Armand but never thought of what I would do about them if Jemier never returned. Worse, I’d never thought of what I would do if my feelings were reciprocated before he came back.

“Hey!” Brida smiled at me. Cat ears affixed to a black headband poked out from her hair. “What’s that?”

I sighed. “Armand’s number.”

“Oh.” The enthusiasm in her face faded. “Are you…seeing him tonight?”

“No, I think it’s more of an invitation to text.”

“Oh.” She hung up her coat. “But are you—” Her coat fell to the floor. She picked it up and dusted it off. “I should sweep here tonight.” She carefully rehung her coat, patting it down near the collar to be sure the hook caught it this time. “Are you doing anything?”


“Yeah, for Halloween.”

“No, I’m—”

Victoria wheeled out on her chair from her office.

“Hey, Jon. Hey, Brida. You see the task chart today?”

“Yes,” Brida said.

“No.” I peered around the corner to read the dry-erase board where Victoria assigned our daily tasks. “Service and prep?”

“Yeah, sorry about that. It gets busy tonight.” She lowered her chin at Brida and raised one brow.


“Take those off, please. You know these folks have it hard tonight. You can put them on later.”

Brida’s shoulders slumped, but she took off the headband and balanced it atop her coat. “Sorry. I forgot.”

“Thank you,” said Victoria. She nodded at my hand. “All healed up? Can I put you on dishes tonight?”

“And do service and prep?”

“You can say no, Jon. You know I’m not one of those bosses.”

I waved my hand. “No, I mean yes. Of course. I can do it. I’m feeling extra awake today anyway.”

“I see that.” She smirked. “Who’s Armand?”

“Armand?” I blinked and shot a look at Brida. She shrugged.

“His name and number are on the back of that receipt you’re holding. Plus, you left your cup here the other night. Someone wrote a little note to you on the side of it.”

“They did?”

“You didn’t see it?” She shook her head. “Oh, that’s too bad.”

I’d have to text him and apologize later.

“Oh, and I need you both to stay for dinner. I’ll order pizza.”

“Out by eight?” Brida asked.

“Not making any promises, but we can try.”

“Okay, I can make that work,” Brida said.

“As can I,” I said. “Who left?”

“The new kid,” Victoria said. A high school student had joined us to earn community service credit for some prestigious scholarship, and he had already made it difficult to work with him, given his availability. “I’m surprised he lasted this long anyway.”

Peter arrived wearing red horns, although his were longer and curled more than Armand’s. “What is up, my scary bitches?” He hung up his coat before turning around face-first into our glares. “Oh, right. Sorry, Victoria; sorry. everyone. I don’t usually say that. Sorry. I just love Halloween so much.

Victoria rolled her eyes. “Peter. Take those off.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, you have to.” She held out her hand. Peter removed the headband and set it into her palm. She tossed it into her office.

He sighed and glanced at the task chart, then at Brida. “What did she bust you with?”

“Cat ears.”

“Ah.” He moved to me. “You?”


“Oh. What’s that in your hand?”

I crinkled up the receipt and shoved it into my coat pocket. “It’s—”

“A receipt,” Brida said. “Stop being nosy.”

Victoria hemmed and bent over in her chair. She lifted a dust bunny from the ground, grimaced, and let it fall before wiping her hand on her jeans. “Someone sweep this floor, please.”

“Got it.” Peter grabbed at the marker on the sill of the whiteboard and drew a broom next to his name. He nodded at his handiwork before heading in back for said broom.

“And that’s why I keep you around,” Victoria muttered, wheeling back into the office.

“Sorry about that,” Brida said. “He can be kinda phobic. Mostly harmless.”

“Lovely,” I said. We lined up at the sink to wash our hands. “What did Victoria mean earlier, about tonight being hard?”

“Some people take the scaring thing too seriously.”

“How so?”

“By killing animals and beating up people.”

“Oh.” It sounded like one of Varin’s wet dreams. “That’s…horrific.”

“The police will be out there, but their track record is kind of…well, you’ve seen the news.”

“Do they help prevent anything?”

“I dunno.”

I remained outwardly calm, but inside, I raged. With my powers, I could blend in with the night’s crowd and stop those who caused trouble. But should such violence just be prevented? Why must it break out in the first place? Surely anyone going around beating on animals and people for the sheer pleasure of it was eviler than I ever was. If fear is all that stops one from being bad, what does that say about that person? Would the sight of law enforcement really keep the violence down, or would that person wait for a more opportune moment anyway?

Yes. They would. Varin had.

I sighed and began prepping the first round of meals.

It felt good to chop ingredients without agitating a nasty cut, and better to simply be back here without having to wear a sling and hand out trays all day. I checked the temperature of the roasting chicken. I stirred soup. I boiled peas. Unfortunately, the peas had come from cans today; what once was rainy-day stock had now become necessary. Outside donations had steadily transformed from cash to cans. I considered writing Victoria another check to get fresh food on the shelves again. I completed prep early and had time to help Brida deliver pans to the front.

“You should come with me tonight when we’re done here,” she said, settling the first pan into the steaming water well.

“You’re very forward. When did I give you the impression that I was free to just follow you to this mysterious place at the wee hours of the night?” I set my pan down next. “You know what happened last time.”

“The ‘wee hours’? You guys really say that?”

Brida sometimes thought I was British. Kyle thought I was Canadian. Victoria thought I was Martian. She was the closest.

I grinned at Brida. “Yes, we all say that. Constantly. I’m surprised we get any living done.”

She pushed me at the arm. I tensed, which only annoyed her because I would not budge. She pushed again to no avail, and I laughed.

“My friends are having a Halloween party, and I want you to come with me.”

“I am not really someone who goes to parties, Brida.” They reminded me very much of all the pompous Wraithstone celebrations that had broken out once Jemier was named crown prince.

“We’re not either. It’s only like six of us. We’re just going to have takeout and candy and play horror movies in the background.”

“So it’s a social gathering, but because not one of you enjoys parties, you use the word ‘party’ ironically.”


“I shall think about it.”

“Yes, you shall.” She smirked. “Is the other stuff ready to go out yet?”

“Which stuff?”

“The cold salad with the plastic wrap back there.”

“Oh, yes.”

We made it through the first service. Kyle arrived just in time for pizza and soda. The team recharged, and we started all over again for dinner.

With Kyle in the back, I could more easily switch between cook and server. Victoria called for more soup, so I headed in back to retrieve it and poured the rest of what we had into a fresh serving pot. Brida called out “Hot soup!” in warning to all who might run into me.

People filled the cafeteria. Some were families, dressed in meager costumes. I saw a child dressed as a witch. She handed out candies from her bag to strangers, and her parents weren’t too keen on it. Most, though, were those who had no homes, and were here for the food as much as the temporary shelter from the autumn air and the holiday fright. They smiled and politely declined the young witch’s offer.

“Brida, I have to set the soup down eventually.”

“Hang on, the water’s gone again. I think one of the pans is warped and letting too much steam go.”

We held up the line longer than we’d wanted to. Brida went back and forth between the sink and the wells with a pitcher. I stood there holding a hot pot of soup. Victoria carried on conversations with those in line to keep them from getting too impatient. I smiled at a few of them who muttered their sympathies over the job. Some skipped soup for the night and moved down the line to Peter.

“That’s Solin.”

In the cafeteria, a man with a few days of stubble and an old tan jacket stood up. He eyed me cautiously, but I pretended not to see him. He muttered something to those at his table, then slowly made his way through the crowded tables toward the held-up line.

The soup in my hands could become a weapon. I checked every reflective surface around me. I couldn’t risk harming anyone else.

Brida came back and filled the water again. “One more should do it.”

“I’ll just wait here,” I said. She knew that I actually meant “Hurry up,” for she rolled her eyes at me.

Brida topped off the well.

“Is it set too hot?” I asked, glancing at the dials that controlled the temperature. “Perhaps that’s why the water evaporated so quickly.” The man in the tan jacket closed in on our section of the line, and now I did not want to be left without my weapon.

Brida crouched and checked the dials. She gave them a quick adjustment. I worried for her safety, crouching like that, and scolded myself for thinking that was the best move. She needed to stand back up. The man cut in front of those who had been waved my way now that I could put the soup in its place.

“You,” he said to me with less drama in his voice than he had put into his march from the table.

I set the soup down, knowing the lid’s corners, dull now, could become a blade if I so desired. Even my weak, cursed form could generate more than enough force to cut skin with the lid. I could commit many sins in this form if I needed to.

“Sir,” I said. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go to the back of the line to be served. There are others patiently waiting.”

“No, no,” he said. He pointed a finger at me. His pale-peach skin had seen too much sun, and he carried dark-purple circles beneath his brown eyes. He pointed again. “You’re that Solin, aren’t you?”

Brida touched my arm. “Sir, please go to the back of the line.”

“I’ve already been through your damn line!”

That caught Victoria’s attention. She switched stations with Brida and pushed me behind her. “Sir, is there something we can do for you? Otherwise, I won’t tolerate you harassing my staff.”

“Yeah, you can give that guy over to me,” he said. “Semper Fi. I’m not getting served by no Solin.”

Someone else in the cafeteria stood up, leaving their tray. The child dressed as a witch followed her parents out the door. Did they fear him, or did they fear me?

“You’re mistaken, sir,” I said.

“Get in the back, Jon,” Victoria said. To the man, she said, “You need to leave for the night, sir. Go ahead and take your tray with you, but you need to go.”

Someone from the man’s table stood up to collect him. He acquiesced after an argument about the artificial sweetener.

I did as Victoria commanded and retreated to the back. Kyle just stared at me. He’d heard Jemier call me by my name; had he made the connection?

“You okay, Jon?”

“Yes. This was Victoria’s call, not mine.”

“Happens sometimes. Try not to let it get to you, and just remember that everyone out there is doing their best.”

“That’s actually really good advice, Kyle. Are you sure you’re as young as you say you are?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “You think I should go out there?”


“Okay.” He gestured at peeled apples on the cutting board. “That’s the second batch of the crisp. I already have the pan greased and ready to go.”

I nodded at him and washed up. He headed out into the front. If he’d made the connection to my true identity, he hid it well.

The man in the tan jacket had identified himself as a former member of this country’s military. Did that make him trustworthy? Though who would believe that the nefarious Solin worked in a soup kitchen run by a church? He only needed one phone call to the authorities, and the Shadowfall Alliance would pick up on it. They were already here, and I couldn’t make things easier for them. I needed to call Sam as soon as I got home. I could not go with Brida to the party.

Victoria did not let me out of the kitchen until all of our guests had cleared and the cafeteria’s doors were locked.

Kyle and Victoria cleaned the front while Brida cleaned in back with me. Peter handled the restroom and took a deck brush and steam cleaner to the cafeteria’s floor. He’d also taken on the job of scraping chewing gum from beneath the tables, likely placed there by the witch and those who’d accepted her offers of sweets.

“Are you coming tonight?” Brida asked.

“I can’t.”

“Why? It’ll get your mind off what happened.”

“I’m not dwelling on it.” I feigned a smile. “I’m fine, Brida. I’m just tired. Besides, aren’t you too old to have parties?”

“You’re never too old to have an ironic party.” She smirked. “So, what did he call you anyway? Solin?”

I shrugged. “He said something in Latin earlier.”

“Yeah, everyone knows that.”

We rinsed the final pan and drained the sinks. Kyle and Peter chatted in the cafeteria. Victoria wrapped up in the office. Whenever we were here this late, we left as a group. We had to wait on Victoria, whom we couldn’t exactly assist with paperwork without additional training.

“It’s nothing to worry over,” I said to Brida. We retrieved our coats, and she her headband. She grinned and stood on her toes to put it on my head. I showed her a mix of mild amusement and annoyance but wore the too-tight ears anyway.

“You’re a cat now.”

“Shall I hiss or purr?”

She blushed and glanced away. “Oh!” she said, startled by a thought. “I know! Isn’t Solin like a fake-sugar company or something?”

“I think so?”

She made excited gestures with her hands. “I remember now. I went to this wedding when I was little, and instead of sugar packets on the table, all they had were packets of that stuff. I kept opening them and pouring them out so I could draw in the pile.”

I smiled. “That sounds like something you’d do now.”

“Well, maybe. One of my cousins is getting married soon…”

“Congratulations to them. Will they be at the ironic party tonight?”

“No. They don’t live around here.”

“Neither does my family.” They didn’t want anything to do with me anyway.

“Do you miss them?”

“I miss home sometimes.” I took off the cat ears and placed them tenderly on her head. I let my hands fall to her shoulders. She gave me a dreamy look and stroked my arm.

“What’s it like, where you’re from?”

“Well, people make less fuss about the rain.”

She made a face and laughed. “So, you mean like, Seattle?”

“No, dear Brida, not Seattle. Grander. With sidewalks wide enough for dragons.”

“Oh, dragons? Sounds kinda British-y, Merlin.”

I gave her a charming half-smirk and met her eyes. “Well, perhaps dragons once roamed the earth, seeking out those who would honor their legacy.”

“We’re not talking about conspiracy-theory lizard people stuff, right?”

I pressed my nose to her brow and said, “No, you’ll find it’s more romantic than that.”

She leaned into the touch. “Okay, so less lizard-people, more wizard-people. Got it.”

“Exactly. Every building glistens as though gilded by the sun herself.”

“Okay, I like this. The sun’s a woman. Keep going.”

“And the gardens bloom greener than emeralds.”

“So why did you leave, then?”

“Circumstances changed.”

“Yeah, I understand that.”

She moved closer. Laughter erupted from the cafeteria. Victoria yelled at them to keep it down from her office.

Brida settled back into our near embrace and put her hand on my chest. “They’re ridiculous.” She glanced down, then back up at me. “So, are you coming with me when we’re done here?”

I leaned down. “Must we go to the party?”

“I promised them I would,” she said, eyes half-lidded.

“I see.”

Our lips met. She fit perfectly in my arms, and her hands pressed warm against my back. I could have kissed her for hours, letting her press me against these lockers, gasping as her fingers threaded between the buttons of my shirt.

But I couldn’t. Not while someone out there knew my name and knew where I worked. The Alliance would undoubtedly discover this connection between us and then use her to get to me. Worse, they would reveal my past to her without giving her the dignity of hearing about it from me first.

I pulled away when the kiss deepened. “I’m sorry, Brida.”

“Why?” She smiled and tapped my nose gently with her finger. “Don’t be sorry.”

“I’ve made a mistake.”

Her eyes expanded. “What?”

“No, you’re not a mistake. I simply mean that my life is very complicated right now, and none of it would be fair to you.”

She gave me a skeptical, hurt look. “Are you making this up?”

“I promise I am not making this up. You would not like me if we grew closer than we are.”

Her lips subtly rubbed together. “Jon, this is…we like each other, don’t we?”

“We do.”

“Why not just, you know, go for it?”

“It’s not that I don’t like you.”

“Is it, you know…” Her eyes darted to the double doors. “Armand?”

“No.” I held her hands. “It’s not him. It’s me. I’m sorry.”

“Are you two ready to go?”

Victoria waited outside of her office, coat on and buttoned, purse and bag dangling from her hand at her side.

“We can leave,” Brida said. She detached herself from me, and we met with the others.

I walked everyone to their cars, except Brida, who did not have a car. Everyone offered us a ride home, and we declined, although Kyle had made a convincing argument. Brida and I walked the bright streets, past busy bars with drunken, costumed folk, and a horde of very convincing undead. We commented only on what we saw, ignoring the kiss until we drew nearer her destination.

She sighed. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long, Jon.”

“I’ve wanted to kiss you too, but I made a mistake. It’s my fault. I initiated everything.”

“No, I did. I invited you out everywhere and put the cat ears on you.”

“That’s not an initiation, Brida.”

“Maybe not, but still.” She let out a half laugh. “It’s sort of pathetic, isn’t it? I just wanted reasons to be close to you.”

“It’s not pathetic.”

She rubbed her hands together, then shoved them into the sleeves of her coat.

I had no gloves to offer her. “Are your hands cold?”


We gave each other forlorn looks, and finally I stopped and took her hands to warm them with my own. Her eyes pleaded with me, and I broke. I needed to feel her lips again.

“Brida, I need to ask you something.”


“I’m not a good—” Her hands clamped tight. “What is it?”

“It’s the guy.”

I followed her sight. The man in the tan jacket from the cafeteria. He’d followed us.

Her only option was to run. I had the option to fight.

We ran. He pursued us. She led the way, tightening her hand whenever we needed to turn.

“This feels familiar, huh?” she said. She grabbed onto the pole of a Stop sign and skidded into a turn.

“Getting close to you and then getting chased?”

“Yeah.” Our feet thudded against the pavement. We dodged a group of trick-or-treaters, but the obstacle of families didn’t slow our pursuer. “I want to laugh about it, but come on! Who the hell follows someone home from work?”

“Maybe he stays nearby and saw us.”

“Maybe.” We turned another corner. “That door there.”

She leapt up the wrought-iron railed stoop of the multifamily home and pounded on the door. No one heard her through the noise of the supposedly small gathering.

Our pursuer gained on us, and I prepared to fight him. I wished for Jemier.

“How’re you not out of breath?” she said.

I wanted to tell her I’d been trained since I was a boy, but that would have sounded ridiculous and invited questions I did not want to answer while being chased. “I am; you just can’t tell,” I lied.

I took a defensive stance, thinking of all the ways I could use my surroundings and my fists as weapons.

Brida pounded on the door again, then rang the broken doorbell repeatedly. “Damn it! We should’ve taken Kyle’s offer for a ride!”

“Stay behind me,” I said.

The man in the tan coat stopped at the bottom of the stoop. He peered at Brida. “You’re that girl from the church.”

“Woman,” she said.

He snorted. “You’re not him,” he said to me.


“Solin, you’re not the guy.” He shook his head and looked down the street, scratching at the back of his neck. “Damn it, I thought you were him.”

“Or maybe you’re crazy,” Brida said.

He growled, and I tensed. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I would if it meant saving Brida. I could smash his head into the concrete stoop. I could pull him forward until his teeth met the iron railing. I could simply wrap my hands around his throat and squeeze.

“I’m not crazy,” he said. “You don’t know me.”

“Well clearly this isn’t the guy you’re looking for,” she said.

“Hiding behind your woman,” he said with a disapproving nod, a strange oxymoronic gesture that humans did frequently.

Now he calls me a woman,” she muttered. “Should’ve gone with Kyle.” She pounded on the door again. “Hey! Let me in already, damn it!”

“I hide behind no one,” I said to him calmly. “You have the wrong person. You should leave and get some sleep.”

He thought about that for a second. “Yeah, you’re right.” He put up his hand apologetically, as if he hadn’t just chased two strangers through the city. “Have a good night.”

“You too,” I said. He headed back in the direction he came from.

“Weird,” she said. “So fucking weird. Oh my god, Jon.” She released a wound-up sigh. “Don’t tell Victoria I said that. She’d kill me. I feel bad. I shouldn’t have used that word. I shouldn’t have said anything. He’s not crazy.” She jiggled the knob. “I can’t do better if I don’t break old habits.” She knocked, then rubbed her knuckles.

“It’s going to be all right,” I assured her.

“This is annoying.” Now she kicked it and checked the lock again. No use.

“Want me to walk you home instead?”

“Maybe. Two more minutes.” She sighed and pounded on the door. “Sorry, that guy really shook me up. He’s not actually a vet. He just pretends to be one, or maybe he believes it. Kyle overheard one of our vets say that once.”

“That man comes in often?”

“Sometimes. He never saw you before, I guess.”

“We’re safe now. That’s all that matters.”

She turned toward me. “Forget it, let’s just go. I don’t want to go to their party if they won’t even answer their damn—whoa.” She screwed up her face and blinked. “That’s weird.”

I glanced at her, not wanting to take my eyes off the street. “What?”

“You just looked like—” She peered at my face. “Okay, what the hell? You looked like Kyle.”

I stilled.

She took a few deep breaths before muttering to herself, “This is why you don’t run when you’re out of shape, Brida.” She stepped down the stoop, and I followed. She turned suddenly at me. “We were just running, right? Like, really hard and way too fast?”

“Yes.” I tried to steady my own breath. What the hell did she mean by that? Trick of the streetlight, combined with all the moody Halloween décor? She couldn’t possibly have meant that I’d changed. “Do you want to sit here and rest a moment?”

“No, that’s not…” She gaped at me. “No fucking way.”

Nothing had coursed through me but adrenaline, right? I hadn’t made an attempt to mask. And why Kyle, of all people?

“I’m not seeing things, am I, Jon?” She circled me. “Did you really just change into Kyle?”

I swallowed hard. “I should walk you home now.”

She reached out for me, then hesitated. I wrapped my fingers around the hem of my coat sleeve and squeezed. Her face turned from curious to determined, and she took a lock of my hair and studied it before letting it tumble through her fingers.

“We were just talking about Kyle,” she uttered. “And then you looked like him. You were him.” She shook her head. “No.” People passed us, none of them our recent pursuer. She waited until they were gone. “Why did he call you Solin?”

“Brida, please. We shouldn’t just stand here like this. It’s not the best idea to prank someone when it’s getting this cold out.”

“I’m not pranking you, Jon.”

“Come on, Brida. Let’s get you home.” I walked past her. I worried that she would not follow, but she eventually caught up and led the way. Her curiosity would not allow her to simply stand there.

“Jon, or is it Solin?”

I gave her a side-glare because she’d said my name too loudly.

Damn it.

She lowered her voice. “Holy shit.” She glanced at me several times, then at my hands, and my lips, then forward again. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. Now I remember. Now I know why I’ve heard that name before. Oh my god, holy shit.”

“Everything is going to be fine, Brida.”

“Why are you working in a soup kitchen?”

“Because I am.”

“You did something bad though, right? I’m not remembering something weird, am I? You told me you’d tell me if I ever said something weird. Tell me.”

“I said that because I think you’re brilliant.” I shoved my hands into my pockets. My hand glanced against the rumpled receipt. “It’d be impossible for me to tell you otherwise.”

“Tell me. Why was that guy so angry to find you?”

“You don’t want to know the answer to that question.”

“I really do, Jon.”

“No, you dont, Brida.” I softened; the words had come out as if I were addressing Karrdil. I’d wanted this. Sam had advised me to do this, and she seemed open to knowing. “I’m sorry.”

Her face went between indifference and fear. “I’m not the reason you chose our kitchen, right? You’re not some creep, right?”

“I didn’t come here for you. I came here for another reason, and I happened to meet you.”

“And you live in a cute apartment and work at Our Lady of Sorrows. And you drink lattes and text your friends and get cute baristas to give you their number.”

“Well, he just gave it to me. I wouldn’t say I forced him to.”

She tottered and held a hand to her forehead. “Oh my god, this is why you never use emojis…”

We arrived at her building. I stopped, but she continued pacing small lines in front of the door.

I offered my hand to her, but she shook her head nervously and continued pacing. “Please understand something, Brida. If anyone discovers that I am here, I am finished.”

“Finished?” She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “Tell me you don’t mean what I think you mean.”

“I do, and once you discover why, I’m certain you’ll feel far less empathy than you do.”

She wiped her face again. “I’m so confused, and I don’t understand how you changed your face, and I just showed you where I live, oh my god.”

I stepped back to give her space. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“But you’re not coming back to the kitchen, are you?”

I stared at the sidewalk, my heart heavy. “No, I don’t think I can.”

“I can’t see you anymore either, right?” She stopped, pointing back and forth between us. “This is over?”

“You wouldn’t want to be associated with me.”

“I don’t get it.” Anger took over. Her fists clenched. “I mean, I really don’t get it. You’re one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. I’m not kidding either. I mean, the nicest.”

I trembled; I had caused this pain in her. Worse, I’d actually become a somewhat admirable person, at least to her. I could no longer be that person. I could no longer be Jon.

“It’s not fair,” she said, folding her arms tight across her chest. “I don’t understand how you could be this terrible person.”

I sniffled and wiped my face. “I’ll show you.” I open my palm in peace, then pulled my phone from my pocket. Within seconds I had what she needed to see. I held out the phone to her. “Look.”

She eyed it dubiously. “I don’t want to.”

“It’s right here, Brida. Proof of who I am and why we can never be together.”

Her eyes moved between the phone and the costumed adults who’d crossed the street to avoid our heated discussion. She wiped her face again and marched up to me before seizing the phone from my hand. She stared at the screen before tapping the play button on the video with her thumb.

I closed my eyes and awaited my punishment. My voice, garbled by the shoddy recording, spoke of greatness. She heard everything, the disbelief of my offer, the fumbling of the phone that recorded me, and the shot that was fired. The video ended.

“That could be anyone,” she said. My phone poked into my chest. I opened my eyes and took it from her. A fury had taken her over. “That video was posted by some conspiracy theorist. What the hell am I supposed to take away from that?”

“You can take away this.” I opened my palm and focused. If my powers were truly back, this would be no problem. If not, then it didn’t matter anyway. Brida already knew.

An apple appeared. I tossed it at her. Instinctively, she caught it.

“What the hell is this?”

It turned into a flower, before turning into dust that flowed free between her fingers. “Magick.” I dug my fingertips into my palm. “You can’t tell anyone.”

“They’ll just think I’m crazy anyway.”

“No, they will lock you in a cell, deny you your rights, and interrogate you until you are a broken slab of meat with a brain attached.”

She cast me a look of horror. “Why?”

“Because I killed someone, Brida. They tried to take me in, and I killed them.” Tears streamed down my face. “I didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t matter. There’s a family out there somewhere with one less person, and no matter what I do, I can never make up for it.” I put my weight on my heel. “Brida, the people who want me don’t want justice. They want revenge. They want a power that I had access to, and they’ll do anything to get it. Including hurting you.”

“You…you killed someone.”

“I’m dangerous, Brida. I could’ve killed you tonight. I had no idea my powers had become active again.”

“But you killed someone.”

I nodded shamefully. “Yes.”

“I’m gonna be sick.” She shook her finger at me. “And you…you just, stay away from me. I need to…this is insane, and you need to stay away.”

She scrambled up the steps to her building. I masked, waiting for her to get safely inside before turning heel and heading to a place I’d mistakenly come to think of as home.


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The Fire of Felwing series and its novels, Flicker, Spark, and Blaze © Elizabeth Tybush. All rights reserved. Chapter images (“vibes images”) created using Canva, DALL-E 2, and/or other tools. (Read more)