Book Smugglers Publishing Hurricane Heels

Only Fools Fall (Hurricane Heels #4) by Isabel Yap

Hurricane Heels

Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap
Published 12/6/2016

Five ordinary girls discover magical powers in this new series of interconnected short stories from Isabel Yap

When Alex, Ria, Aiko, Natalie and Selena met at summer camp, they never expected the goddess would ask for their help, enlisting them as soldiers to protect the world from the forces of darkness. Gifting them each with a different object of power–a bracelet, a ring, a watch, earrings, a necklace–the goddess’s grace grants the friends the weapons to fight, the ability to heal, and the magic to strike back against the Grey.

Now, over a decade later, the five best friends are still fighting. But the burden of secrecy, the inevitability of pain, and the magnitude of their responsibility to keep saving the world has left them questioning their goddess.

How much longer can they keep saving the world? Can their friendship survive if one of them leaves their fold? And can they keep it together just long enough to get through Selena’s wedding?

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Only Fools Fall

natalie

“We Own This Strength”

Natalie

When I think of terrifying monsters, I think of my father. I remember this almost every time I finish a battle. I’m holding two blades, both covered in greystone blood. It’s thick and foul, the color of coal. But it’s coming off me quick, because it’s raining, and I’m on a Manhattan side street, so no one else can see me. As I’m waiting for the creature to fade so that I can seize its glass heart, fulfill my mission—I get a phantom pain in my head.

I know the pain is only a memory. I know this memory is only bad because I’ve let it build up over the years. My father slams my head against the cabinet wall. I’m too shocked to cry. Sparks erupt behind my eyes. Scenes follow: I hang a golden medal on the doorknob of my room. I press my ear to the ground to see if I can hear Mama crying. I run down the stairs in time to see the door slam, and I yell the worst thing I know at that age: “I HATE YOU!”—again and again, until Mama crawls over and claps her hound over my mouth, and together, we cry for hours.

It was years before I saw him again. We moved away. I tucked the medal in my drawers and won a couple more, and then I broke my leg and had to stop. Mama gained some weight, wore nicer clothes, told me I was forbidden from boyfriends until I was at least fourteen. I didn’t tell her that’s okay mom, I don’t like boys. I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet.

When I was thirteen someone beautiful gave me earrings that could turn into swords. I sliced the wings off screaming bat monsters, cut apart the nastiest rock beasts. I got better elevation that I ever did, even on a balance beam. I got a purpling bruise on my face that Mama only noticed in its yellowed-out phase. She started tearing up, saying, “Who the hell is he, I’m going to murder him.”

“It wasn’t anyone, it was—in my dance class, someone hit me with their elbow.”

“I’m going to murder him—”

“Mama, I swear. I promise. Look at me.” It didn’t make me feel good to lie, but it wasn’t like truth was an option. “It wasn’t a boy.”

She touched my opposite cheek, unconvinced. “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, baby girl.”

It’s a little too late for that, but in the same breath I thought, Mama I’m the one that needs to protect you, not the other way around.

 

We arrived at the inn a day before Selena’s wedding. Aiko and I took the train together, though she slept through most of the ride. She’d been released from the hospital three days ago, the doctor rewarding us with his solemn nod of approval. She’d been nonchalant about it, the way we always were about getting injured; but I felt tense anyway, like I was waiting for something awful to happen. Maybe the goddess would subsume the priest’s body. Darkness would pour out of the flower arrangements. Greystone guts would pop up in the hors d’oeuvres.

When we got to the resort Ria was already making small talk with a cluster of tall blonde people that could only be Selena’s extended family.

“Natalie!” Marie-the-wedding-planner bounced over, eyes sparkling. She squeezed my hand. “It’s so good to see you. And hi, Aiko, right?” She shook Aiko’s hand. Aiko managed her best pleased-to-meet-you-stranger smile. Marie laughed. “I could tell from the highlights! So punctual, you girls. So great. Wait, are we still missing someone? We need to leave for the church in half an hour.”

“Alex,” I said. “She’ll be here in a bit, I’m sure.”

“Marie!” One of the tall blonde people waved at her.

“See you at the reception,” Marie said passionately. She rushed away (theme of the weekend, I was starting to suspect). Ria spotted us and came over, along with a skinny blonde girl in jeans and a baby blue t-shirt.

“Hi, Natalie,” the girl said.

I blinked. “Gayle? Woah! You’re so tall now! I haven’t seen you in ages!” She grinned shyly at me. Braces lined her teeth. It was weird to see her as an almost-teenager, when she’d been just a kid for so long. She looked a lot like Selena at that age—a year or two before we received our powers. Had we really been so young?

“Excited for your sister’s wedding?”

Gayle shrugged.

“But you are excited to be junior bridesmaid, right?!” Ria said. She was swiftly entering infectious enthusiasm mode.

“Kinda.” Gayle shifted awkwardly.

“Okay, okay, I’ll let you go,” Ria said.

“See you later, kiddo!” I waved at Gayle as she retreated. “Dang. I feel old.”

Ria propped her shades on her head and crossed her arms. “Eh, don’t even say that kind of thing. Let’s get to our rooms. And then maybe stalk Rob and force him into providing Sel with everlasting happiness. Or maybe we should just find Sel?” She was already heading into the inn.

“It begins,” Aiko muttered, darkly.

 

Alex arrived, ten minutes later. The rest of the afternoon was a haze. We didn’t get to see Selena before arriving at the church, and even then, she only had time for a rapid round of hugs before she was ushered to the altar. There was a glamorous aunt in a turquoise shift that had us practice walking down the aisle several times, mostly because the flower girls kept prancing instead of actually walking. This was followed by a lot of sitting and standing in pews, while Rob and Sel rehearsed their vows, grinning at each other like two lovebirds. This made my heart swell, even as it ached a bit.

Alex leaned over. “The priest kinda looks like a white-haired Snape, doesn’t he?”

We giggled until the glamorous aunt frowned at us.

 

I was the first to meet Rob. I just happened to be free when Selena asked me if I wanted to meet her new boyfriend. They were going to Chelsea Market for dinner, which was a few streets away from my office.

Sure, I texted back. This the dude you’ve been seeing for a few months now?

Yeah, she texted back. I like him.

I didn’t realize no one else was coming until I was already outside the bar. “Nat!” Selena appeared and gave me a hug. Behind her was Rob. He was wearing a knitted gray scarf and a black coat. His glasses and dark, curly hair put me in mind of Harry Potter. I was surprised, since he didn’t match her usual type. He was shorter than I expected, and somewhat gangly, but he had a kind smile.

I stuck my hand out. “Natalie.”

“Rob, Nat, Nat, Rob,” Selena said.

“Good to meet you,” Rob said. “Do you go by Nat, or Natalie?”

“Either’s fine,” I said.

“You don’t get to call her Nat until you’re close,” Selena jumped in, saving me. “All right, guys. Drinks?”

Considering I was the third wheel, the conversation was actually a lot of fun. I felt self-conscious about encroaching on their date, but it was just like Selena to want her guy to meet her friends. I felt a pang as we ordered dinner, because the last time I was here was on a date with Alex. It was two months after Alex and I had called it quits—and yes, it still bothered me how overly concerned I was about timelines when it came to us two—I knew when we were just friends, when it was more complicated, when we were together and then not.

Rob was a UI/UX designer for a thirty-person start-up in the food delivery business. He and Sel had been abandoned by friends at the same Saturday night Manhattan meet-up, and ended up talking for hours over mediocre pints of beer.

He’d been born and raised in Rochester, spent two years of middle school in Sydney, went to high school in Canada, attended university in Texas, then moved around a lot before finally settling in Manhattan. He’d never had the traditional New York City dream, but it was home, nevertheless. “It’s comfortable,” he said, arm draped around the back of Selena’s chair. He saw me looking and pulled his arm away. “So, you’ve known each other since elementary school?”

“Yeah,” Selena said. “We were friends ever since, but the rest of our group formed right before high school. Nat’s sort of our mommy. The most responsible, the coolest cucumber.”

I rolled my eyes. “I do it because I love you guys. But Ria helps out a lot, too.”

“What do you do, Natalie?”

“I’m a tax accountant.”

“Ah,” Rob went.

“Told you she was responsible.” Selena chugged her pint. “Natalie will be there to keep us all in line and ensure we have enough in our retirement funds. Can you watch my bag?” Rob and I both nodded, then glanced at each other. She grinned, and bounced away to the bathroom.

I kept staring at Rob. He stared back, with a nervous little smile. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know I’ve got a lot to prove.”

At least he knew it. That was a big plus.

 

Why Accounting? I was quick and decisive about my college major. I got through all my forms quickly, determined to go to Business school. I never debated with Ma. Everyone else had some trouble. Aiko was in a bad mood pretty often, and even Alex—whom we all assumed would go for a BS Mathematics—waffled for a while before finally deciding that she wanted to apply for an Engineering degree.

I liked Accounting because it was neat. Balance sheets were neat. Of all the majors, it seemed to have the clearest career path and the least amount of unnecessary bloodshed and stomach pain. As my Accounting 11 teacher said, every company needed an accountant. We’d be necessary until the end of the world.

The end of the world was not a phrase I took lightly, not with bandages lurking under my clothes so often. There were days when I felt like a walking mountain of labels: black and queer and superpowered and a future accountant, but not any of those things obviously enough. The desire to crawl into an enclosed space and scream was overwhelming some days. Accounting was that enclosed space for me. It was a spreadsheet program and focus and in the end, two numbers that lined up neatly. Some days that was all I wanted. One thing that wasn’t such a damn war all the time.

 

The room assignments were me and Ria, Aiko and Alex. I wondered if it was Selena being thoughtful, or just coincidence. More likely Marie had done it all without any kind of hidden agenda. Because we didn’t have time to get settled in before the rehearsals, all of our luggage was still unpacked. Selena came in as Ria and I were hanging up our dresses; Aiko and Alex trailed behind her.

“Heyyyyy y’all,” she said, sprawling on our bed.

“Hey girlie,” Ria said. “How’s our beautiful bride doing?”

Great,” Selena said, in a way that made me worry. “I’m so glad you’re all here. Aiko, you all healed up?” She was thinking about the bachelorette party, and Aiko lying, unmoving, on the ground. We all were.

Aiko rolled her eyes. “I was okay ten days ago!”

Selena laughed. “Awesome. I mean… ” She took a quick look at the open door, then added, quietly, “Okay, if I’m being honest, I’m pretty fucking tired. But that’s normal, right?”

“Aw, hon. It’ll be over before you know it.” Ria flopped down on the bed beside her, and stroked her hair. “In fact it’ll be over way too soon, and you’ll be like, oh my god, it’s done?! I want it to happen ALL OVER AGAIN! Trust me on this. I’m an event planner.

That made Sel giggle, but as she rolled over and bopped Ria on the nose, I noticed she did look sort of washed out, the usual sunshine of her hair muted, the healthy pink flush she always sported missing from her cheeks. She seemed to have lost a bit of weight, too, and Selena had never been one for diets. I saw Alex staring at her from across the room. Our eyes met, and we both frowned. I’ll talk to her, I mouthed. Alex nodded.

“Is it having your family around?” Aiko asked. “You have two hundred relatives or something. I’d be freaked out if I were you.”

“There’s not that many. Though yeah, Rob does kinda have a big family.”

“Where is Rob anyway?” Alex crept onto the part of the bed that wasn’t already taken up by flopped-over magical girls, and got comfortable.

Sel waved a hand in the air. “Meh. I’m sick of him. He’ll pop up at some point.”

Alex propped herself on one elbow, and joined Ria in stroking Selena’s hair. “You need a nap, Sel,” she said.

“Yeah, I do.” Selena closed her eyes.

Maybe she would only get a few minutes, because there was a lot of prettifying to do before dinner. From that evening and all through the next day she’d have to be the star of the show. After her vows, Rob would be an inextricable part of her life—and by extension ours—even more than he already was. But until that point? Selena was still ours, and nothing made that more real than surrounding her like this, keeping her safe.

 

So that was family: Mama and me, and occasionally Mama’s boyfriend, of which there were several over the years. It wasn’t too weird. No one was as bad as the first, though no one was great, either. I got through just fine.

And then, one summer, completely unexpectedly, I got another family. Of women who—like my mom—noticed the bruises on my face, and made sure that any bastards who did that to me got pummeled. They made sure my back was never exposed. They helped me figure out when one drink was too many, and talked me into dancing whenever I got too reluctant.

They were there when a massive greystone grabbed me in its arms and crushed me till I couldn’t breathe and blacked out. I couldn’t feel my body, the pain more concept than reality. They’d stood in a half-circle around me and Alex touched my face, put her ear against my chest, there was no way to teleport because I was dying, I had stopped breathing, and the goddess—

Well, her magic worked in the end. I don’t remember the week in the hospital. I don’t remember phasing in and out. All I remember is waking up to Alex crying over me. My heart skipped.

“Oh my god, Nat,” she said, leaning over. “Shit. Can I hug you? Is that okay?”

“Yeah, it’s—” I didn’t get to finish before she reached out and embraced me. Alex’s thin arms over my shoulders made me feel weak, boneless, my heart fluttering in my chest. “It’s okay,” I said, blinking away the tears that were coming fast, because she was starting to sob. I had to be cool. Otherwise something in me would break—though I couldn’t say what.

She pulled back, cupped my chin in her hands, and looked at me.

She had to be stopped.

“You’re so weird, you know that? Stop worrying.” I smiled at her.

“Don’t do that again, then,” she said. She kissed me on the brow, and I felt just a little sad—like a quick peck wasn’t quite enough—but also, mysteriously, light and elated. Or maybe not so mysteriously. Shit. Shit, this is really happening.

Mama woke up, from where she’d been dozing next to the bed, and Alex backed away, still rubbing tears from her eyes. The fact that she was crying over me made me happy—almost crazy happy. My heart was beating too fast. I chalked it up to whatever meds were still pumping through me, but deep inside, I knew the truth. And I didn’t like it.

 

So I liked girls. I always knew I preferred them. I know some people have specific moments, like that classmate they can’t stop looking at, the actress they dream about. But I felt cold towards relationships, the whole time I was growing up. Whenever I thought about falling in love I remembered the door slamming shut in my father’s wake, and touching a bump on my mother’s forehead with trembling fingers.

When I was nine it became cool to have a celebrity crush. The girls in my class would come in with stuff they’d printed off the internet or cut out of People magazine. They’d sit in a circle and point at who they liked, who had funny teeth, who looked good in a denim shirt or pastel polos. (There was a lot of Backstreet Boys, and N*SYNC; I remember two girls viciously arguing over who would marry Nick Carter.) “Natalie, come on,” they’d say, and I’d look at all the pictures of white boys and shrug.

On a separate occasion, returning to school after Christmas break, I hugged Selena really tight in the hallway because I hadn’t seen her in ages. A boy passing by said, “Great, now you’re both lesbians.” Selena sighed with exasperation. “Ignore him. I’m so happy to see you, Nat! How was Christmas?”

I was shocked. I wanted to run to the boy and scream so what if I am?

Only I couldn’t call myself a lesbian. Not even in my head. Anyway I wasn’t in love with Selena. Anyway I never wanted to be in love, because what did that get you? A broken heart, a forehead bruise. And fear that followed you forever.

But then—years later—there was Alex, and me wanting to be with Alex, and me telling myself: nope. Nope. Not gonna go there. I was drowning in how being queer, and in love with one of my best friends, made everything inside me feel wrong. Like there was something trapped in my chest, unable to worm its way out. Mama’s smile at the end of the day, her kiss on top of my head, made me feel like a traitor. And there was the group to consider, too—we were such good friends that a change in dynamic could have huge consequences. Plus would it be weird for me to admit that, because we were all girls? We couldn’t like each other that way. Especially not now.

Because that way was weird, and wrong, and there was already too much of both things in our lives.

 

When we first got our powers, I was terrified, and no one else seemed to be, and that terrified me even more. I mean, on an intellectual level, I knew we were all terrified. But no one seemed to be scared of the same thing I was: the fact that we were now so, so, so damn strong.

Really. That was terrifying to me. Where was the panic? Where was the horror at one’s sudden genius talent for cutting down frigging monsters? I understood that in the middle of a battle, and the adrenaline rush of the aftermath, nonchalance made sense. Was necessary, even. I’m not supposed to know how to do this never crossed my mind when I was doing it, but when the blades were just studs in my ears things weren’t so easy to swallow.

I was sick the morning after every battle. My dreams were filled with the soft squelchy noise of greystone bodies, the way they bled, how my swords would hack through their meat. I was killing things. I had become a killer.

The goddess finally came to me one day. I was lying in bed, my stomach empty, the acidic taste of vomit still in my mouth. I stared up at the ceiling, then heard something thump. She was sitting on my chair.

“What are you afraid of, Natalie?”

I sat up. I already knew lying was futile, but that she wouldn’t understand me, either—because as much as the goddess cared for us, she wasn’t like us. She wasn’t human. She couldn’t be.

“I’m afraid of the power you gave us.”

“Why?”

“It’s too much.” I wasn’t speaking like a knight did to her princess, but in that moment, I couldn’t be in awe, not when I was feeling so sick. “No one should be this strong. No one should have this right. It’s… a lot of power. Too much.”

“I haven’t changed anything in you,” the goddess said. “I haven’t changed anything in any of you. I wish you’d understand that.”

I hated how she spoke to me like I was struggling with math, or a mean kid at school. It wasn’t that simple. Things weren’t that clear. Still, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by giving her the petulant teenage answer: “You just don’t get it.”

“You don’t need to fear yourself,” she said, and then she was gone.

 

Three times I wanted to use my powers when I wasn’t fighting the forces of evil:

1. That one time he came back. He stood in our living room, so much nicer than the one we had when he left. He stood there like he owned the place, radiating self-assured righteousness, and I watched my mother—my strong, beautiful mother, who’d picked up all the pieces and brought us out of that terrible dark, who’d made a wonderful life for herself out of the ashes of this man’s abuse—I watched her shrink, and shudder.

“Get out,” she whispered. “Please, get out.”

Please. He looked her over, coolly. After all these years, he could still make her beg. He looked at me, with that same disdain. He’d come for no other reason than to make us feel small. He had what he wanted. He left.

2. Walking from a 9 PM class back to my dorm one day. It was winter. I was avoiding the icicles that had formed on the edge of our business building’s bizarre structure. It was one of those days when the only thing I really had to look forward to was the three-minute instant ravioli I’d bought from Trader Joe’s the day before. Snow kept blowing into my face, distracting me until I realized I was being followed.

I shifted my head. There were two men. One of them caught me looking and nudged his friend, but instead of deciding to drop it, they started to walk faster.

My hand twitched, an instinct to reach up to my earrings and transform—then I realized that would be ridiculous, a gross abuse of what I’d been given, no. I walked faster. So did they. “Wait up, honey,” one of them called. The other laughed.

I crossed several streets, but they continued to tail me, and my knitted cap was now soaked with melted snow. This was getting old. When I turned, they were much closer than before, and grinning.

“We just want to talk, honey,” the man said. “No hard feels.”

No violence, I reminded myself, even as I took a bold step forward. “Well, I don’t want to talk.”

“Ooooh,” the friend said. As they moved closer I told myself to just chill and imagine the ravioli soon, very soon. I looked around. The streets were, luckily, empty. I left them in a respectable pile near the closest trash cans. They shouldn’t have tried me when I was hungry and tired. They should never try me, ever.

3. When I saw Alex during Thanksgiving, freshman year. She’d broken off all contact since graduating from high school, which stung, but not nearly as much as seeing her again. How she acted normal, like she hadn’t just abandoned all of us for three months. She apologized right after the greystone battle, and we all accepted it, relieved and elated.

A day later we were lounging in Selena’s house, eating leftover pumpkin pie. Alex carefully took a photo of her slice, and sent it off somewhere.

“Who ya texting,” Ria asked, flipping through TV channels.

“My girlfriend,” Alex replied. Noticing the incredulous stares we all gave her, she lowered her phone and said, “We’ve gone on a few dates. It’s not that serious, you guys.”

“What do you mean not serious? In what reality is you having a girlfriend not serious?”

“When did you start dating girls?” Selena asked, then added, “There’s no problem with that, I just—I didn’t know!”

“I didn’t want to make a thing out of it,” Alex said. “But uh. Surprise? I’m bi?”

“Guys, leave it,” I said. “We just got Alex back, don’t make her run away again!”

Alex looked at me appreciatively. But then her phone buzzed and she glanced at the message with a smile. My chest felt like it was on fire. I thought about the Mystery Girl who’d had Alex to herself last semester; I wondered what kind of girl could be Alex’s type. Then I thought of Alex knitting her fingers with someone else, Alex lifting some girl’s shirt to kiss the soft plane of her belly. Now my face was probably burning too. She hadn’t kissed me since that incident with the golem greystone—but what did that even matter to me, why should I be bothered, we weren’t like that—and then I had to stop my thoughts, be zen, otherwise someone would get hurt, and in my imaginings that someone was Alex’s girl, who was not—who couldn’t be—me.

 

I ignored my secret pining all through college, but eventually it caught up with me. The summer before senior year, I did an internship with KPMG in the city. Alex had a backend engineering internship with a news aggregator app. Our Midtown offices were close enough that we’d meet for lunch at least twice a week. We probably made an interesting pair, in Whole Foods or McDonald’s or wherever we chose to eat that week (there’d be a budget day and an okay let’s not be so shameful, we’re getting paid, right? day). I was always in one of the two blazers I bought for the job, and Alex would be wearing a hoodie and bermuda shorts, but we’d sit and chat like old friends.

Like old friends. I’d never dream of breaking that. Of reaching across the table to hold her hand. I blotted out my feelings pretty well, after that Thanksgiving. I learned to live with the thought of Alex dating some girl, or some boy. Whenever we asked she’d be evasive, saying she was dating her ComSci degree, her parents were expecting some kind of honors, and anyway who had time for a relationship when there could be a greystone lurking in the dormitory?

“Hey,” Alex said. “You’ve got something on your face.”

“Here?” I wiped my cheek with my palm.

“Other side,” she said. She hesitated for a second, then brushed the rice off with her thumb.

“Thanks,” I said, trying not to blush. Alex shrugged and grinned.

After lunch I walked Alex back to her office building, and there was an awkward moment when she fumbled with her takeaway, then reached over and embraced me. I clutched the back of her jacket and pulled her closer, and thought, I’m not gonna do this anymore. Hugging wasn’t unusual for us—it was a Ria-habit that we all picked up, over the years—but that day, it was different.

“See you next week,” Alex said, and vanished into her building.

I couldn’t do this anymore. Getting twisted, in my heart and head, and not being able to say anything. The next time Alex suggested we grab some food, I told her I was too busy, my boss had given me some additional work that I needed to spend my lunch hour doing. The following week, I said I wasn’t feeling so great and had to pass on lunch, and couldn’t do dinner either. The third week I ran into Alex waiting outside my building.

“Hey!” I said, with a bright smile. “Sorry I’ve been so busy lately!” The excuses piled up in my head, ready to be whipped out.

She didn’t smile back. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean? Nothing’s wrong.”

“You’re avoiding me.”

“What? No, I’m not.” I tried to sound incredulous.

“I avoided you guys freshman year. I know what that’s like. What’s wrong, what did I do?”

We’re college seniors, I wanted to say, we’re not kids anymore, we don’t have to always be hanging out together—but I knew I was the one acting childish. Still, I had to protect myself. “Sorry, Alex, I gotta run. My boss asked me to pick stuff up from the grocery.” I started to walk away.

Alex caught up with me. “I could go with you.”

“You don’t have to—”

“See? You’re avoiding me right now. Why?”

“I just—” I don’t want to keep hurting myself, being with you— “It’s weird, okay?”

“What’s weird?”

“I can’t—” I got cut off by Alex tackling me to the ground. We narrowly missed the concrete, and instead landed on the grassy lawn in front of my building—but it still hurt. I wheezed. A magic barrier wove into place over the lawn. Alex clambered off me, cursing, already engulfed in green light. I touched my earrings and sang, and the next time the greystone aimed for us I twisted to the right, and tried to drive my sword through the side of its head. I only managed to slice off a hunk of its cheek, but it gave a satisfying screech anyway. It was huge. It flew back up, great wings beating down heavily so that dust and soil kicked up into my face.

“Nat!” Alex said. “I’m gonna leash it!” She looped her chain whip in her hands, like a lasso, then cast it around the beast. When she tugged, its wings folded up behind it. I jumped, and drove both my swords deep into its throbbing Cyclops-eye. Blood splashed on me, but I pushed down deeper, twisting the blade. It crashed to the floor, undoing Alex’s bind. I leaned my weight on it, and Alex pulled her whip away, stumbling backwards.

I hacked the eyeball to pieces. The crystal heart finally emerged. I clutched it quickly, then raced to Alex’s side. “It got you the first time,” I said.

“I’m fine,” she mumbled, but blood was pouring down her face. “It’s just—here,” she made a vague motion at her head. I saw the cut—it was on her hairline. Even if I knew it was more okay than it looked, it still made me hiss between my teeth. The barrier started to break up over us, and we morphed back into our regular clothes. People in the vicinity began to look wonderingly our way. It wouldn’t be great if my officemates suddenly passed by.

“My place is close,” I said, pulling Alex up. I slung her arm over my shoulders, and we hobbled away together.

 

I’d never wanted an elevator in my building as badly as I did just then, easing Alex up the stairs. “You shouldn’t,” she mumbled. “You’ll go over your lunch break.”

“Shh,” I said.

At one point, on the second floor landing, Alex had to stick her hand out to stay upright. The bloody handprint looked menacing on the faded floral wallpaper, and she giggled at it. Alex giggling was never a good sign. Luckily my room was right by the stairs, and I knew my roommate was always out during the day at her own internship. No matter how badly shaken I was, my hand was steady as I turned the key.

“We should wash your cut,” I said, opening the door to my bathroom. I felt slightly relieved that I kept my place tidy always, even knowing Alex wouldn’t be the type to judge. I closed the toilet lid and maneuvered her to sit on it, and took down the oft-used First Aid Kit from beneath the sink. I deposited it by her feet, then got the shower running because it needed a bit of time to warm up. Thankfully we all knew the drill by now. Alex obediently stuck her head over the rim of the tub.

“It’s not so bad,” she said. “It’ll be gone soon enough.”

I tested the water to see if it was warm enough. “Okay, here goes.” I held the shower nozzle over her head, and swallowed at the way the water turned pink, even if we were all used to this. Alex whined, and her hands balled into fists on her knees. When the water ran clear I switched the tap off, and wrapped a towel around Alex’s sopping head.

“It’s here,” Alex said, making a part in her hair where the cut was.

I was already putting Betadine on a cotton ball when she looked up. “I hate Betadine—OW,” she said, as I dabbed the soaked cotton onto the cut. I laughed at her pained expression, though it was also partly hysteria from our fight.

“You suck,” she said, slapping the side of my leg. “This isn’t funny!”

“I know it isn’t,” I said. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” The scene suddenly came into focus in my mind. It felt—surreal, almost, to be standing there, our breathing punctuated by the dripping shower tap. We’d been in this situation so many times before, but somehow not like this.

Don’t do that again!

You’re so weird, you know that? Stop worrying.

She kept quiet as I smeared antibacterial ointment and stuck a bandage over the cut. The silence was unnerving. Now that the danger was gone, tension was taking its place. “That should do for now,” I said. I washed my hands. “You want something to eat?”

“Sure,” Alex said. “But before you run away again, you wanna tell me what’s really going on? I’d feel a lot better.”

“There’s nothing—” I started, but she looked at me, cutting me off. The look of hurt on her face undid me, at last. Unraveled the embarrassment and distrust and endless years of thinking this won’t go the way you want, you don’t deserve this, you’re going to ruin this. You can’t fall in love with one of your best friends. You know that romantic relationships always screw things up.

That didn’t matter. I didn’t want Alex to look at me that way again. I exhaled deeply, then crouched so that our faces were level. When I did a thing, I at least tried to do it right. “Alex. I like you.”

She blinked. “What?”

Now that I’d said it, my face was burning, and the words were pouring out of my face faster than I could manage them: “Yeah, I—I don’t know, it’s been a long time, and it feels ridiculous to say this because I’ve always liked you—I mean, as a friend. For ages, right? But then that time in the hospital when I—and then, when you came home from Thanksgiving and you said you had a girlfriend, and I just had no idea because you took a guy to prom—”

“Nat—”

“And I love you as a friend and that means so much to me, it really does, I don’t want to wreck that—”

Nat—

“—or make it weird, or anything, I don’t want anything to be weird between us. It’s not about what’s between us! It’s just—”

“NATALIE! Stop.”

I stopped.

“I didn’t know you liked girls,” Alex said slowly. “I thought me being queer freaked you out.”

It was my turn to be dumbfounded. “What?”

“What do you mean, what? You changed the topic so fast when I first mentioned it that I thought it made you uncomfortable. You were the only one who really had a problem with it, who never—like—I don’t know, wanted to talk to me about it or reassure me it was okay.”

“That’s because I was jealous!”

“How was I supposed to know that? Plus you always acted weird when I—I don’t know, when I tried to—touch you,” and her face was red now, too. “Even just small gestures, linking arms, or hugging—I mean, you still let me, but I could tell you didn’t like it. I knew we were close enough that you would tell me if it was really a problem, but then you started ignoring me, so I wondered what the hell I’d done to cross the line.”

I felt like I’d been punched. “I couldn’t stand you doing those things because they reminded me how much I… couldn’t have you.”

“Why would you think that?” Alex reached out and touched my cheek. I froze. “Seriously, Natalie, where the fuck did you get that idea?”

The cabinet wall. Falling off the balance beam. Watching Alex send that text. On that hospital bed, the unbearable gentleness of her arms as she pulled me against her in the battle just now—how safe I felt, how much I wanted that safety, how much that wanting terrified me. And somewhere along the way I convinced myself it didn’t matter what I wanted. I had my pride, too. She’d never look at me that way, and I didn’t want to risk it. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m an idiot?”

“Well if you’re going to be an idiot, at least be my idiot,” Alex said. “Because I like you too.”

When she leaned in I squeezed my eyes shut way too tight, which made her laugh, right before she kissed me.

 

I remember the day I got the diagnosis to stop gymnastics. Ma wrapped me up in a blanket and I laid my head on her chest. “I’m sorry, baby,” she said.

“I was never going to the Olympics anyway,” I told her, but still the tears leaked out of my eyes. That was a long, drawn-out year, and even removing the cast from my leg I thought I’d lost something I could never get back.

But then I got dancing. When I danced my world got put on hold. When I danced I had no fear. When I danced there was only music, coursing through my body, and then this idea of where to go next, where to go from here—it didn’t matter, I knew it instinctively. My body understood: you’re in this mode now, go free—and it did the rest.

Sometimes it was that way in battle. But sometimes it wasn’t like that at all, and I’d be filleting a greystone and wishing that I didn’t have that much power. It didn’t feel safe. I didn’t deserve it.

 

No one should have that much power—

He held the back of my head, slammed it into the cabinet wall—

He held me after, while I sobbed in the kitchen, said he was sorry—

Sometimes I touched the wood just to see if something would happen, if it would know my pain—

Sometimes I wondered if he’d come from somewhere else, some dark dimension. If that darkness in his heart was just human evil, or something beyond it, but I’d never know. I had no desire to seek him and find out.

 

Selena’s parents were very different from mine. They’d always been sweet to me, growing up, and I envied her for them, just a bit—nothing could beat my own Mama, of course. But Mrs. McAllister was a sweetheart, too. Selena woke just as her mother knocked on our open door and stuck her head in. “I figured you’d be here,” she said. “Time to get dressed. Gayle’s already finished showering.”

“Yup,” Selena said. She rubbed her eyes and slithered off the bed. “Sorry mom. Coming.”

“See you at dinner, girls,” Mrs. McAllister said, dragging her daughter out the door.

“I guess that means we should get ready, too,” Aiko said, from where she’d been surreptitiously editing the video we’d compiled to play at the reception.

“Is that guaranteed to make her cry?” Ria asked, half-buried in a pillow. “Cause it better.”

“I mean, it’s making even me a little teary, editing this,” Aiko said. “But I’ll finish it later. Hey, Alex, I’ll use the bathroom first if it’s cool with you.” Alex waved her on.

Ria rolled away from the pillow, groaning. “Fine, I’ll go too. I know I always take longer than you, Nat.”

That left me alone with Alex. She rolled off the bed and sat on the floor beside me. “Hey. You noticed something off with Sel, right?”

“A little,” I said. “She seemed… kinda drained. But this is such a huge event, that’s normal, right? I don’t want to ask her and stress her out even more.”

“You won’t bring it up, then?”

What if it’s Rob? was the implicit question. But if it had something to do with him, couldn’t she tell us? Did she feel like we couldn’t help—did she want to handle it alone? The idea hurt, but I didn’t want to pry. We all had to be allowed our own secrets.

Besides, even for Selena, this had to be tiring. It was her wedding day, after all. Unless… unless it had to do with the war between dimensions? That was always a possibility…

“Alex. With the size of the greystone at the bachelorette party, it would be crazy to have another one nearby so soon, right?”

“Right,” Alex said. “Unless… maybe the Grey is producing them more rapidly? Doesn’t it feel like they’ve been getting bigger and stronger, too?”

I considered. The greystones had been more difficult to defeat, recently—but maybe that was partly because we were tired and distracted? A thought hit me, and I gasped and turned to Alex. “What if it’s finally happening?”

“What?”

“The Final Battle. When the goddess summons the Cannon of Light, and the Grey rises from his dimension to challenge her and try to ascend into power. We’ve been collecting the glass hearts for years now. Perhaps—perhaps it’s nearing that time?”

When I said it aloud, it seemed unlikely. We’d been doing this for more than a decade, hoping and hoping for that last battle to happen. I wanted to believe it would, but there was also a frightening thought that maybe we’d be fighting well into retirement age.

No. It had to be sooner than that. The parallel powers of the two dimensions—they’d been biding their time, all these years. The goddess and the Grey—could it really be now, that they’d clash? It was no use guessing.

“We just need to keep Sel safe,” I said. “And make sure she has a great wedding. That’s what matters most.”

Alex nodded.

 

The open bar started at five. Alex and Ria were already sitting by it when I came down. “A tequila shot for this girl here,” Ria said, as I approached. The bartender quirked his lips at her, and Ria winked. He went pink as he poured tequila into my shot glass. Aiko was out on the patio, smoking with one of Selena’s guests.

“That’s a nice dress,” Alex said.

“Thanks,” I said. “You helped me pick it.”

Stupid, stupid. Why did I say that?

“Oh, right,” Alex said. She blinked. I could almost see the memory surfacing in her mind: of stalking through the mall together, trying to overcome our shared hatred of shopping with sheer determination. (“Can’t we just wear nice jeans?” she’d asked, but it was my company’s holiday party, and the answer was no.) In the end we found the dress not in the discount section like I was hoping, but right in the new arrivals. Alex said but you look so great in that! and I caved. (It was because she meant it, I knew she meant it, and I wanted things to go well because this was the first time I was bringing her to an office event as my date. We celebrated successful shopping by grabbing dinner at an izakaya, and when that night ended I’d had too much to drink. I fell asleep with my arms wrapped around Alex, and I thought this is nice, I wish we could stay just like this.)

“Your drink,” the waiter said, balancing it on the counter. He laid a wedge of lime next to it. I reached out automatically, and Alex took her purse off the seat next to her so that I could sit down. I knocked back the drink so as to avoid Ria’s overly suggestive expression.

“And another one for you?”

“Sure,” Ria said. “A round for all of us. There are a lot of kids here, so someone has to consume the alcohol.” She waved at the room that was filling behind us. “Besides, I heard there’ll be icebreakers and all that jazz, and I can’t do those things sober.”

Sure enough, in a few minutes there was a feedback squeak as one of Selena’s cousins took a microphone in the middle of the room. “Good evening, everyone! Or afternoon. It’s more like late afternoon, I guess. Haha! Anyway. My name is Ashley. I’m Selena’s cousin, and I’m going to be your host this evening. Thank you all so much for coming to be part of Selena and Rob’s wedding. Can we give the soon-to-be-wed couple a big hand? Woooo-hooooo!”

The room clapped enthusiastically, and two little children cupped hands around their mouths and imitated sirens. Alex grimaced, which made me smirk. She’d never been too fond of kids. “Actually, let’s have them say hi to everyone, okay? After all, they’re the reason we’re all here in the first place! Hey! So Rob—where are you, Rob? Theeeere’s Rob!”

Rob stood up in the corner, waving, clearly not wanting to be Ashley’s focus.

“And—who’s that lovely lady next to him? Okay, I gotta tell you guys, she wasn’t always so nice and sweet when we were growing up, but since I’m the emcee she’s gotta be nice to me for the next day and a half. Just kidding—or am I? Everyone—give Selena a hand!” Another round of applause—Selena waved, then did a mock bow. It struck me how young she looked. She was absolutely still my Selena, the Selena I’d known since forever. Her shoulders were hitched up in embarrassment: Selena as an Adult, About To Be Married. She wasn’t gap-toothed anymore, and her hair was beautifully done, but she was still the same little girl who’d taught me how to curse in second grade. That same year, we made a pinky promise to always protect each other, even before all of this magic stuff happened.

I was proud we’d made good on that promise.

“Okay, now before we get to the delicious dinner, we need to do a couple of things first. That’s right—we need to get to know each other better! I want everyone to come to the middle of the room. You see the chairs here?” The inn staff was arranging the chairs in a loop, right by the microphone stand. “Can anyone guess what they’re for?”

Aiko came in from the patio, made a face, did a U-turn.

“Come on, guys, let’s do it for Sel!” I hopped off my stool, tapping Ria and Alex on the shoulders.

“I’ll take the bottle once this is over,” Ria told the bartender. He laughed.

 

Sel was busy the rest of dinner, moving from table to table and being charming and wonderful. There was seared salmon and gnocchi and lots of good red wine. Ria caught us up on the latest drama at her firm, post event-producer leaving. Aiko told us about her current film project, which was a half-hour long documentary about three Brooklyn-based indie groups.

“It’s not a sure thing,” Aiko said, scooping iced melon sherbet. “But it’s something.”

“That’s super exciting,” Alex said. “Book us tickets at the premier, okay?”

“Haha. If it ever makes it into the theater. Our alternative is to try and sell it to Netflix.”

“Hey guys,” Selena dropped into the empty chair next to Ria. “How’s the dessert?”

“Delicious,” I said. “You want some?” I held out my spoon, and Sel ate a glob of the sherbet.

“I’m going out for some fresh air,” she said. “If anyone’s looking for me—don’t let em find me.” I saw her glance at Rob across the room, speaking with someone I mentally dubbed as Loud Laughter Uncle. Her expression was soft. Instinctively my eyes slid over to Alex, but she was busy dabbing her mouth with her napkin. She caught my eye, and made a concerned face at Selena. I saw my opening.

“You want me to come with?”

Selena squeezed my hand. “Nah, it’s all right. Just need some alone time.”

“Can I at least walk you out?”

She gave me a tiny grin. “Sure.”

 

The evening I came out to Mama was the same night I had my first solo battle. It was the Christmas holiday of senior year. I’d been trying to say it all weekend. We were sitting on the coach eating Rum Raisin together, and while she was fast-forwarding the commercials on our SNL recording, I said, “Mom, I’m gay.” (Eons after the third grade boy had said it—I could say it, now, at last. I owned it. It was mine.) She looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, “Is this the part where we both cry?”

In the end, only I cried. (“You want to tell me something ‘bout you and Alex?” she pressed.)

The relief of that moment propelled me through my fastest battle ever. A greystone broke through my window seconds after I crawled into bed. I launched it back out onto the street, stitching a barrier around us in record speed. It wouldn’t touch my mother. It wouldn’t touch me.

I’d always been bothered that my weapons defaulted to swords. Those gorgeous, glimmering blades fit into my hands so easily, and they were so dangerous. No one should have so much power—

If they can’t use it properly. This I knew. The greystone screeched. I wiped the blood on my cheek, and joined my two swords together, fusing them into one long, long blade. I held it high over my head. The greystone tried to jump, and I cut it down the middle in one clean, broad stroke.

I felt satisfied instead of horrified. I knew this, deeply: I would not abuse my power. I’d use it to save others instead. I’d use it to speak my truth.

I knew that, and I’d never lose sight of it again.

 

“You’d tell me if something was wrong, right?” We’d taken the long way out of the room, dodging relatives, and were finally in the relative quiet of the outside corridor.

Sel patted her face. “Uh oh. Is my mask starting to crack?”

“No, silly. We’re just worried about you, okay? You don’t… look yourself.”

“It’s just the stress,” Sel answered. “Just wait. It’ll all be gone tomorrow.”

I didn’t know why, but that statement gave me chills. I hugged her tight. “You’re right. Enjoy your alone time.”

On my way back I ran into Rob, who clumsily went in for a cheek kiss. “Sorry I didn’t get to say hi at the church earlier,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”

“Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

He raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Have you seen Selena?”

I didn’t hesitate. “No. Wasn’t she in the dining room?”

“Hmm. I didn’t see her there. Thanks anyway. If you see her, let her know I’m looking for her.” He started down the hallway again, then turned. “Hey Natalie—thanks. I’m serious. You girls have been such an important part of Sel’s life—I know you being here means everything to her.”

“Aww, don’t be sappy, dude. I’m super happy for you guys.”

“Does that mean I get to call you Nat now?” Rob asked. He had a sense of humor after all. I laughed.

“Sure.”

As Rob disappeared into the dining room, Alex came out. She spotted me and came over, a tipsy grin on her face. “Did you deliver our princess safely to alone time?”

“Yup,” I said.

“You’re a good best friend,” Alex said. She smiled. Her smile was still home for me, even as it made my heart ache. I couldn’t help that.

“Hey, we’re all good friends to her. And to each other.” After all this time, the word friend still hurt a little, but what mattered most was that we were in this together. If the Final Battle did happen, maybe we could give it another shot. But right now, this was okay. The live band was playing something sweetly in the room behind us, and the sky outside was turning pink. This small happiness, I could allow myself. Even if it was a moment that couldn’t last.

“Let’s go back inside,” Alex said gently. “Ria needs a little reigning in.”

“My favorite thing to do,” I said. We strode back into the ballroom together.

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