Pyro

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Chapter 10

Modern Day; October 17th; Parcia; Melissa

I had never been to a dance before and as I sat in Cierra and Willow’s room, getting ready for Lady Catherine and Lord Darylis’s vow renewal, I realized that I was once again adding to the long list of things I hadn’t done.

“You look absolutely lovely,” said Cierra. She watched me from her bed with her head tilted to the side. “But wait. There’s something missing.”

She grabbed something from her vanity and walked over to me before running her fingers through my hair. It tickled a little bit, but I held still until she had finished. Then she put her hands on my shoulders – which probably looked silly, since she was almost a foot shorter than me – and steered me in front of the full-length mirror on the back of her closet door.

She twisted my red hair up on top of my head and secured it with two jeweled combs. A few tendrils escaped and fell against my neck, but it didn’t look half bad. In fact, I felt quite pretty as I looked at myself in the long red dress Cierra had leant me. We weren’t the same size at all, but she happened to have many different sizes of clothes in her closet. From what she had told me, it sounded like she often dressed some of the ladies in the Underground before important events. After all, not everyone was as well off as the Caldridge family – Cierra, Willow, Darylis, and Catherine.

I didn’t know exactly how everything worked in the Underground, but from everything I had observed, it seemed like the Caldridge family was like royalty. Everything that Lady Catherine and Lord Darylis said was how things were supposed to be. Everyone was more relaxed around Willow and Cierra, but that was because they weren’t even raised by their parents and they barely had any duties at all. They just had to show up to some things and that was about it. The vow renewal was one of those mandatory occasions, but nearly everyone in the Underground was going out of honor and respect for their Leaders.

“How did you make me look like this, Cierra? I’ve never looked this good before in my life.”

“It’s a gift. But half of it was your doing. You’re a very beautiful girl, Melissa. You don’t need to try very hard to look good.”

I started laughing. Usually I wore T-shirts and jeans. Sometimes I changed it up and wore cargo pants and sweaters. And I almost always wore my yellow high-tops. Whenever I got dressed up, I usually just put on nicer pants and a button-down shirt. This time, however, I looked almost like a princess. The red dress came to the floor and had long sleeves that cut off at the wrist in a triangular shape. The neckline was square and embroidered with gold thread. Around my waist was another band of gold that showed off my feminine figure. Overall, I looked very grown-up and fancy. The thing I found most shocking, though, was that Cierra hadn’t even tried to cover up my brown eye when she did my hair.

“I love it, Cierra, don’t get me wrong. But my eyes…”

“What about your eyes?”

“You know. They’re different colors. I look creepy if one of them isn’t covered up.”

“Who told you that? I think you look beautiful. Your eyes are a part of you. Why should you be ashamed of them?”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I just shrugged and looked back into the mirror, staring into my own eyes. Maybe she was right. It was going to take a while before I was comfortable showing my eyes, but what was the sense in hiding all the time?

A knock came at the bedroom door.

“Are you girls decent?”

“Yeah, Willow. Come on in,” said Cierra as she sat down at her vanity to put on some makeup.

When she’d offered, I’d refused to have makeup put on me. I didn’t see the point in wearing makeup. It was like telling a constant lie.

“Hi,” Willow said to me. His eyes had gone straight to me upon opening the door. “You look really beautiful. I’ve never even seen you dressed up before.”

“It doesn’t happen very often. You look handsome, yourself.”

And he did. He was wearing a suit with a purple tie and his hair was combed neatly.

“Thanks. It’s nice to see both of your eyes for once.”

He took my face in his hands and kissed me.

I could feel Cierra’s eyes on us as she said, “Ew. Get a room.”

“You and Scott never bother to,” Willow said.

I laughed when Cierra scowled.

“Are you almost done there, Cierra?” I asked. “We should probably go get our seats.”

“Hold on. Let me put on some mascara.”

“About that,” said Willow. “Since Cierra and I are the – unfortunate – children of the important couple, we have to sit together in the front row. You’re welcome to sit with us, since you’re our guest, but you don’t have to.”

“I’ll sit with you. I’d be honored.”

“Good.”

He took my hand and squeezed it. He didn’t have to say anything for me to know how much he appreciated me coming to what was essentially a large family gathering.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

Cierra stood up and turned around so that we could get a good look at her. Her dress was lavender with a lacy bodice and sleeves, a sweetheart neckline, and poufy skirt. Her hair was pinned up in a bun with sparkly pins that made her shine like a fairy. She looked even more beautiful than I did.

Scott appeared in the doorway then, which was perfect timing.

He held out his hand to Cierra and said, “Are you ready, my lady?”

“I’m not a lady, Scott.” She giggled and accepted his arm. “Ready.”

They walked away together, leaving Willow and I in the room. We looked at each other for a minute and then he grabbed me by the waist and kissed me. I was only half expecting it, but I responded right away and wrapped my arms around him.

“I had to,” he said when the kiss was over. “You just look so beautiful.”

I smiled at him, utterly happy.

“Well? Shall we go?”

“Yes!”

He took my hand and pulled me from the room, pausing only to turn the light off and shut the door to the room that he and Cierra shared. Then we were off down the long hallway. We encountered lots of well-dressed elves who were also coming out of their rooms and hustling towards the room in which the ceremony was to take place.

I knew we had reached the correct room when I saw how many elves were crowded around the doorway. The doorframe was decorated with many different kinds of leaves and flowers. At first glance, I thought they were fake, but when we got closer I saw that they were real and I wondered at their origins. A white carpet ran from the doorway straight forward into the room off to a dais on which there were two throne-like chairs. I couldn’t help but think of a throne room in an old castle when I looked at them. The room was massive. It was roughly the size of a college gymnasium with rows and rows of tiered wooden bleachers for all of the elves to sit on. As I looked around, I once again gaped at how magical everything in the Underground was. It didn’t seem realistic from the outside that there would be room for a space as large as this.

When some of the elves ahead of us in line glanced behind and saw who we were, they hurriedly got out of our way. We were seated beside each other in the first row two minutes later.

“Talk about a fast pass,” I said, smirking at Willow.

He scoffed.

“Yeah, sometimes it’s weird when I remember that I’m actually kind of important around here. At least, my parents are.”

He grimaced and looked down at his knees and his hands folded in his lap. I felt for him so much when I thought about how painful it would be for him to sit through something like this, hating his parents as much as he did. He had every right to, though. If they treated him like a child, he had every right to not treat them like his parents.

“Hello, Willow.”

We looked up and saw Frida standing nearby with Jordan behind her. Jordan gave a little wave, but didn’t say anything, as usual. And as usual, Frida scowled when she saw me looking. I was relieved when the two of them left to find their seats.

“Why does she hate me so much, do you think?”

“Who?”

To my surprise, Willow genuinely didn’t know who I was talking about.

“Frida.”

“Frida?!” He started laughing hysterically. Now I was scowling at him. “Frida hates everyone! She’s the angriest person you’ll ever meet and no one knows why.”

“That’s weird. I wonder why…”

Cierra and Scott appeared in the crowd and hurried over to us when I caught their eye.

“Hey, guys!” Cierra said breathlessly.

“Hi. Where have you been?” I asked as they sat on the other side of Willow.

“We took a detour.”

She winked at me.

Willow looked up at the ceiling and said, “I don’t want to know.”

Cierra and I started giggling, while Willow and Scott looked very uncomfortable in their seats.

The last few elves were making their way to their seats now. A vaguely familiar classical piece of music started playing and I turned to see a few elves with string instruments sitting in a circle of chairs in front of the dais.

“That’s ‘Winter,’” a voice whispered in my ear from behind. “From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Felix sitting behind me. His spiky hair was neater than usual and he looked very nice in a suit. He was definitely one of the most attractive people I had ever seen.

I smiled and whispered back, “Of course you would know that.”

“Music lover that I am.”

“Plus you’re weird.”

He shook his head, but he was smiling. Willow turned around and smiled at his best friend before returning his attention to the ceremony that was starting. He seemed very reserved today, but I could understand why. There was probably a lot going on in his head. Why did his parents have enough time to renew their vows of marriage, but not enough time to raise and nurture and love their own children? It just didn’t seem logical.

The elf who was in charge of the ceremony had made her way to the dais and was now smiling towards the entrance, awaiting Lady Catherine and Lord Darylis. Soon enough, the couple was entering, hand-in-hand, and walking up to the steps of the dais. Elves oohed and ahhed as they beheld Lady Catherine, who was a vision in her dress. As I recalled, women who were having their vows renewed or who were getting married for the second time didn’t have to wear white to the ceremony. After all, white was a symbol of purity and virginity, neither of which were relevant anymore. Regardless of this, Lady Catherine was bedecked in a stunning white lace dress with a five foot train and a plunging neckline. She had three pearl necklaces around her pale neck and an opalescent circlet on her head. Her hair was curled and reached her backside; it was so long. As usual, she was the most beautiful person in the room. Lord Darylis looked good, as well, in a fine tuxedo. His hair was pulled back and his beard was well groomed.

As the couple stood on the dais in front of the elves, the music stopped.

“Welcome, residents of the Underground and honored guests,” said the elf with a regal smile. “I am honored today to once again join these two beautiful people together – Lady Catherine and Lord Darylis, Leaders of the Underground.”

The elves started clapping enthusiastically. Some of them even whistled. Cierra, Willow, and I were the only ones who didn’t clap.

As the clapping died down, the elf cleared her throat and continued, “Each of your Leaders has prepared their own vows that they wish to read to each other. Lord Darylis, if you would like to go first…?”

“Gladly,” he said. Every time I saw him, he looked like he’d been smoking something, but it occurred to me that maybe his face was just like that naturally. He always just looked dazed. “Catherine…” Everyone in the room waited with bated breath for him to go on. “When I saw you for the first time, I knew you had to be mine. I fell in love with everything about you. Your smile, your laugh, your voice, your command of the room. Everything. To me, you are the epitome of perfection. Every morning when I wake, you’re the first thing I think about and every night before I fall asleep, you’re in my thoughts even as you lie beside me. So many years later, I am still just as in love with you as I was in the very beginning. You know I would do anything for you. From this day forward, I promise to continue to be there for you when you’re sad, when you’re angry, when you’re ill, when you’re impatient, when you need someone. I’ll always be there for you. I love you, my darling.”

Everyone clapped again as he took her hands and pulled her into a kiss. The kiss was soft and affectionate, so I found myself smiling even though I didn’t care about either of them. Now it was Lady Catherine’s turn.

“Daryl,” she said in a girlish, breathless voice, “I love you more than words could express. I remember seeing you reading up in the willow tree outside and falling in love with you. I didn’t even know you for a minute before I was falling for you. I knew from the very beginning that we were kindred spirits and that we belonged together. The only day I love more than that first day is our wedding day, when we finally joined together as a couple and pledged our love. I agree to once again pledge myself to you today because I also would do anything for you. If you ever ask anything of me again, I will gladly assist you. Your desires are my desires.”

They smiled at each other with deep affection and the congregation clapped once again. The elf began to talk about the importance of vows and rambled on about love, but I found myself fixating on Lady Catherine rather than the words themselves. There was just something that was so off about her. I didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t help but stare. She had such a funny look on her face. It wasn’t the kind of smile one expected to see at a vow renewal. She looked almost triumphant, as if she had convinced someone of something in a sly way.

I frowned. Something was definitely wrong. I resisted the urge to poke Willow and ask him if he was thinking the same thing. He probably was and I didn’t want to depress him any further by dwelling on it. She seemed like a suspicious character, but there was nothing we could do to prove it to the hundreds of elves that were there in the Underground.

“As a symbol of your great love for each other and to conclude the rite of exchanged vows,” said the elf, “I invite you to kiss.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Lord Darylis said with a sly grin.

He pulled his wife closer and hungrily laid his lips upon hers. Their arms went around each other and the stadium seemed to erupt as the elves clapped and cheered loudly for their Leaders who loved each other. I found myself smiling along with everyone else because it was such a joyful atmosphere and everyone around me seemed to be happy. Everyone, that is, except for my best friend and my boyfriend.

As I watched Lady Catherine, I noticed a change. The hand she had placed on Lord Darylis’s waist was moving. She withdrew it into the folds of her skirt and then began to lift the garment and clasp her ankle in such a way that would not disturb Lord Darylis. He seemed oblivious, anyways. My eyes were on her black boot as she reached into it and pulled out a silver dagger. Dread gripped me like a fever and I found myself immobilized with fear. I felt like I was trembling a lot without moving at all. But all I could do was watch things unfold. Around me, elves were coming to the same conclusion and seemed to be just as shocked as I was.

One minute the dagger was raised high in the air, gripped tightly in Lady Catherine’s white hand. The next minute, it was buried deep in Lord Darylis’s back. His jaw tightened and he released his beloved attacker. He didn’t move away – he probably was physically incapable of doing so. Instead, he stared with cold eyes into those of the woman who had been his lover and companion for many years.

He could have done a great many things in those last few moments of consciousness. He could have ordered the guards to seize Lady Catherine. He could have ordered that she be exterminated immediately. But he did nothing.

“Catherine…” He said weakly, but we could still hear him. His microphone was still on. “After everything that has happened… You are a liar and a thief. You stole my life from me. Even now –” She caught him as he fell forward. “– I can tell that I have missed a great number of things and it’s all because of you. Are you happy now?”

At first I thought she would take pity on him, but then her eyes filled with hate and she pushed him backward so that he fell upon the dagger, which drove it deeper into his body.

I felt Willow’s body seize up beside me and then Cierra was running forward in distress and yelling, “You bitch! He has done nothing but go along with everything you wanted! And you just threw him away! Why?! So you can have the Underground to yourself?! Well, after seeing your treason, you can believe that none of us –” She turned around and looked at the entire congregation. “– will be going along with your bullshit anymore.”

In great anger, Lady Catherine stepped forward and struck Cierra before disappearing entirely. She had teleported, leaving Cierra to crumple to the ground, bleeding. The elves were finally beginning to react. It seemed that Lady Catherine’s disappearance had stirred them from their slumber. I heard them scream and exclaim and move around me, but I stayed still, watching my best friend. My heart leapt when she began to move and I realized that she was still conscious. I grabbed Willow’s arm as she dragged herself over to the Lord Darylis, who was still alive and breathing heavily into the microphone.

Cierra’s whispered words were picked up by the microphone as she leaned over and said, “Father.”

“I’m sorry,” the Lord struggled to say. “I seem to have missed a lot. I had no control over myself, but that is all over now. I… I don’t even know your name, my dear.”

“Cierra.” I could tell she was crying now. There were tears in her voice. “And my brother’s name is Willow.”

Lord Darylis attempted a laugh, but it turned into more of a cough. I knew without a doubt that he was filled with pain and didn’t have much longer.

“What kind of a name is that for a boy?”

“That’s what I always say.”

She squeezed her father’s hand. It was chaos all around Willow and I, but all I could see was Cierra and Lord Darylis and all I could hear was the ceasing of breath against the microphone. I found myself able to move again and I turned my head to look at Willow. His face was drained of any color and his eyes were wide with fear and disbelief.

“Willow,” I whispered. “Willow.”

“Melissa,” he said even more quietly.

“What do we do?”

“I… I don’t know.”

Felix laid a hand on Willow’s shoulder and leaned forward to say into his ear, “Come with me. Scott is going to get Cierra and Margrét and Stefan will meet us in the throne room.”

As he said this, I saw Scott walk down the bleachers and kneel beside Cierra before putting his arms around her and lifting her. She shook against him with violent tears and my stomach churned threateningly. Before I could stop myself, I had doubled over and vomited. My face was red with embarrassment when I straightened, wiping my mouth and fighting the urge to cry.

I opened my mouth to apologize and Felix said, “It’s alright, Melissa. We’ll clean that up later. Come with Willow and me.”

“Okay,” I said, sounding as dazed as I felt.

I followed Willow and Felix out of there and we pushed through crowds and crowds of panicked elves as we went. I was surprised when we were a meeting room a few minutes later. It was almost like I had blacked out for the journey there. Stefan and Margrét were already in the room, looking grim. Stefan was standing with his feet far apart and his arms folded tightly over his muscled chest. Margrét had her hands folded and her head bowed, as if she was praying silently to herself. They looked up at us as we entered, but no one said a word. A minute later, Scott came into the room carrying Cierra. I was horrified to see that Cierra was still hysterical. She quieted down, though, when she saw us, and Scott laid her gently on the floor. I wondered why, but then I remembered that she was injured. By the time I remembered this, Felix was already by her side and laying his hands upon her. The dim room was filled with blue light and then Cierra was gasping and clinging to Felix.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome,” Felix said, and he leaned forward and hugged her even though she was drenched with her father’s blood.

The sight of her beautiful lavender dress soiled with blood made me feel sick again and I put a hand over my mouth just in case I had the urge to vomit again.

Felix helped Cierra to her feet and then we were all standing in a tense circle. I stood between Felix and Willow and I was glad that we were close enough that our arms touched because human contact was the only solace to me in that moment. It reminded me that we were all thinking the same thing right now and going through the same trauma. Frida and Jordan walked into the room then, with Adam right behind them. They joined the circle and looked around at everyone who was there.

“It was my idea to pass the word for all of you here to join together,” said Margrét. “We need a new Leader and now is the time to decide who.”

“Now? Isn’t it a little soon for that?” Scott said.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Frida harshly. “The Underground is facing a crisis now. The longer we go without a Leader, the more vulnerable we become. Lady Catherine has already revealed herself to us as a hostile force. Who knows who else is our enemy?”

Margrét nodded.

“Frida is right. It’s absolutely essential that we appoint a new Leader as soon as possible.”

“Who usually becomes the Leader under normal circumstances?” I asked.

I realized as soon as I’d spoken and they all turned to stare at me that I was the one who didn’t belong there. I was human, after all, and I didn’t even live in the Underground. Who was I to be at the most intimate and important of meetings?

“It’s all right that she’s here, isn’t it? I didn’t want to leave her,” Willow said.

He looked and sounded so sad that it hurt me.

“Of course it’s alright! She knows everything anyways, doesn’t she?”

“To answer Melissa’s question,” said Felix, “under normal circumstances, an elf would become the Leader through blood. That is, by being the son or daughter of the previous Leader.”

“Will it be decided in the same way now?” I asked.

As I said this, Felix’s words registered with me and I turned to look at Willow and Cierra. So the new Leader would be either my best friend or my boyfriend. Everyone else in the room was staring at them as well. Willow was trembling under everyone’s gaze. I could feel his hand shaking in mine. Cierra was looking around at everyone, staring back at them searchingly.

“If we don’t decide in the same way,” Stefan said, “it will upset the balance. It has always been done this way.”

“I…” I looked at Willow as he spoke. “I was going to go to university in America. I was going to get married, have a normal family, and get away from everything. I was going to be normal…”

“What is normal, exactly?” said Frida.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Cierra said. She stepped forward into the middle of the circle. I saw now that she had stopped crying and grown as serious as everyone else in the room. “I never wanted to go to university, really. I might be good at it, but school has never been the place for me like it is for Willow. And I want a family and everything, but I don’t mind having it here. I love this place.”

“I love it too, but…” Willow walked across the room to his sister and took her bloodied hands. “Cierra, are you sure you want to do this?”

She was silent for a minute as she stared into his eyes, but then she said, “I’ve never been surer about anything in my life.”

“It is decided, then,” Margrét said. “We have our Leader.”

“I guess I should be appointed now, since we’re in a crisis. If I’m going to help the people of the Underground, I want to do it as soon as possible.”

“Spoken like a true Leader,” said Stefan with an approving nod.

“Please kneel,” said Margrét.

She did and Jordan stepped forward with a silver circlet in his hand.

“I was told to bring you this. It has been passed down through generations of Leaders of the Underground. It’s yours now.”

Cierra bowed her head so that he could adorn her head with it. In the past, she had seemed so small and delicate, but now I could see the strength that she had inside. In this moment, I could see that she was a woman and a strong one at that.

“I don’t mean to sound rude,” Adam said, speaking for the first time as he stepped forward, “but I probably know the rite better than any of you.”

“He’s right. His ability allows for accuracy in all of his memories,” said Stefan.

Adam placed a hand on Cierra’s head and said clearly, “Do you swear to protect the elves of the Underground with your life?”

It was understandable that one could see Cierra swallow a lump in her throat before saying, “I swear.”

“Do you swear to share all information that you have with the elders and head guards?”

“I swear.”

“Do you swear to honor the wishes of the elves in the Underground as long as you hold your position?”

“I swear.”

“Do you swear to seek out counsel from the elders and head guards if you are in need of assistance?”

“I swear.”

“Then you shall be called Leader of the Underground and you shall deserve respect from each and every one of the elves who dwell in the Underground and elves everywhere. Stand and join your people.”

Cierra stood up slowly and all of us started clapping for her at once. This time, I didn’t need to wait to follow anyone’s example. I was beyond proud. I had only known about Parcia and the Underground for around a month, but I could already see how important the Leaders were and how much responsibility they had.

Cierra looked to Willow and they moved to hug each other at the same time. It was emotional and filled with affection and I felt bad to be watching. Both of them had been through so much in the past hour and I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. Their father was dead and they would never see him again. I had never known the love of a father, but I imagined how horrible it would be to lose Amber and felt myself tearing up.

“Congratulations, my dear,” said Margrét. “I guess we will be calling you Lady Cierra from now on. How strange! I remember when your father was appointed. Anyways, I feel it is important to tell you this, though you already know the customs of your people. It’s necessary for everyone to have a companion and even more important for every Leader to have a companion. Therefore, I must ask you to find someone as soon as possible.”

The wheels were turning in my head, but I wasn’t positive as to what Margrét was referring. Cierra turned around and held a hand out to Scott, smiling for the first time since her father had died.

“I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“Of course we will be married,” I was shocked to hear Scott say. “As soon as all of this is over and you are ready. I have always been ready to marry you, even before I met you. I have always been waiting.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. His words were so romantic and as they gazed at each other, I felt myself breaking down inside. At the beginning of the day, I had thought love was the reason we were celebrating today and it turned out that it was. Things hadn’t gone as I had expected at all – no one could imagine the sheer horror of watching someone die a violent death – but in the end, love was going to save us. Maybe Lady Catherine was still out there, but I had a feeling of premonition that we were going to overcome her someday. Everything was going to be okay and I had to keep telling myself that as the picture of Lord Darylis lying in a pool of his own blood kept passing through my mind.

“Thank you, my love.”

They shared a kiss and I looked around to see that everyone in the room was smiling except Frida, but that was normal for her. Someone tugged at my arm and I looked up to see Willow looking down at me.

“Come on. Let me take you home. You don’t need to stay here with all this madness going on. I would feel better if you were safe at home.”

He pulled me from the room and we walked hurriedly down the hallway. There were still elves milling about, looking confused and frightened. None of them knew that they had a new Leader now, but I could imagine the relief on their faces upon finding that out.

“I wish there was something I could do.”

“There is.” I raised an eyebrow and he said, “Change into the dress you came here in and then tell your mum how much fun you had tonight at the dance. She was really hoping you would have a good time, I could tell. I would prefer it if you were honest with her about everything, but I’m afraid of what she would say if you came home and said that you saw someone murdered in front of you. She might not let me see you ever again and I would understand that. Frankly, I don’t know what to say to make any of this better.”

“Don’t worry, Willow,” I said as we stepped inside his room. I grabbed my duffel bag and pulled out the dress I was supposed to have worn to my first and only Homecoming dance. “You had no control over what happened tonight. No one could have predicted this.”

“That’s the problem. I could have! I never trusted her. I should have known she was plotting something. We’ve always known that Darylis never loved her. It was so obvious that he was enchanted. Somehow, she was controlling him. Probably in the same way she was controlling some of the elves here who are loyal to her. She’s very charismatic, you know. If I had just spoken up, maybe it could have been prevented…”

“You can’t think like that! Turn around, would you?” He turned around and I began changing into my less formal dress. “Willow, what has happened cannot be undone. You have to accept that. I’m distraught too and I will probably never stop being distraught. What happened tonight was the worst thing I have ever seen… But we have to recover. She wants us to be afraid and if we cower in fear for the rest of our lives, she will have won.”

He turned around even though I wasn’t finished zipping up my dress and took me in his arms, kissing me fervently. I held his face in my hands and kissed him back gratefully. The only thing that could ever have made me feel better after this night was Willow. I felt myself succumbing to my desires. Willow laid me down on his bed and slipped a hand in my dress to finger my bra. He hadn’t yet managed to get it unhooked before I pushed him aside and sat up.

“I can’t. I can’t do this right now. I’m sorry. I want to, though, I promise.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. It was… Indecent and badly timed. It’s just that you’re so admirable and everything you say is just… Perfect.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

I stood up and started adjusting myself and he sprang to his feet.

“Let me help you with your dress.”

He zipped me up and we walked upstairs, out of the Underground, and into the night air together. As always, the willow tree above the stairs was great in size and gentle in appearance. It made me think of Cierra and the strength she had shown. Willow and I teleported to the parking lot where he had parked the used car that he had rented so that Amber would think everything was normal. He drove me to my house in five minutes and we didn’t speak at all in that time. We didn’t speak until he had walked me up to the front porch.

“If there’s anything that you need, I’m just a phone call away, I swear. Are… Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Me too. Melissa… I love you.”

“I love you too.”

We hugged and I found that I didn’t want to leave his arms even for a minute. In my bed, I would just be afraid and alone. That’s why he was the first to let go and I held on as long as I could. He squeezed my hand and gave me a reassuring nod and I reentered my so-called ordinary life.

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