“No offense Trinity, but your sister is a bitch and her friends are idiots.” Connor dropped to the grass beside the picnic blanket, the other boys making themselves comfortable around them.
“None taken.” Trinity’s burning cheeks made Serafina wonder if she had a little crush on Connor, too.
“Hi Sarah.” Mason, Connor’s younger brother, smiled down at her. He was thirteen, with sandy blond hair to his shoulders and tanned, wiry arms roped with muscle. He lived with his mom and brother across the road from Bonnie and Abel. Next to Trinity, Mason was the nicest to her. Trinity said it was because he liked her.
Serafina liked him, too. Unfortunately, so did Kylie. She sent Serafina a narrow look as Mason settled himself beside her.
“Hi Mason,” Serafina said shyly, ignoring the poisonous glare being directed at her.
“Good game, huh?” Mason stretched out his long legs and braced his arms behind him. “Connor’s pissed he couldn’t play but Hank told him to save his arm for tomorrow.”
Hank had been an NFL player before he bought the park and Connor’s coach over the summer. Like Ian, Connor was trying out for the Jamestown football team but where Ian was in it for fun, Connor was working towards a professional football career. Something Serafina hadn’t even known was a thing until Mason explained it to her.
“Are you going with?” Meaning the team tryouts tomorrow. “Me too,” Mason said when Serafina nodded. “I’ll show you around school if you want while we’re there.”
“Sure, thanks.” It would be good to know her way around on her first day. One less thing to be nervous about. “That would be great.”
Mason flashed her a smile. “Cool. You’re going into Seventh Grade, right?”
Serafina nodded. “You’re going into Eighth?”
“Yeah. Too bad we won’t have any classes together. Are you going to sign up for anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like any clubs or teams,” Mason explained.
Serafina shook her head. “Like what?”
“Math, science, chess, swimming, girls’ hockey...” Mason gestured loosely ‘and so on’.
Serafina furrowed her brow. “What’s the difference between girls’ hockey and boys’ hockey?”
“It’s not boys’ hockey, it’s just hockey. Girls’ hockey is the same as regular hockey, just for girls.”
“But if it’s the same—?” Serafina shook her head before he could answer. “Forget it. Are you signing up for any of those?” she asked him.
“Not girls’ hockey,” Mason joked. “Seriously though, I’ll probably take Shop and I want to try out for the swim team. Did they have swim in your old school?”
“I was homeschooled.” Barely.
“Oh, no way. Is this your first time going to a real school? Sorry.” Mason immediately cringed. “Not that your homeschool wasn’t real.”
“It wasn’t,” Serafina told him honestly.
“I think you’re going to like it at Jamestown,” Mason said confidently. Based on what, Serafina had no idea, but it was nice to hear. She smiled and nodded as Mason began ticking off things that were great about the school. “...And of course, I’ll be there.”
Mason flashed her a winning smile. Serafina could feel Kylie’s eyes burning into her as she smiled back.
“Hey, Mason,” Gabe called over from his conversation. “Tell Mikey who has the high score in Call of Duty.”
“You do, Gabe,” Mason called back, rolling his eyes.
“That’s only because Mom wouldn’t let me play with you guys,” Mikey scoffed.
Mason laughed. “How long are you grounded for?”
“A week,” Mikey grumbled.
“For what?” Connor wanted to know.
“Ding dong ditch,” Gabe said. “Mrs Anderson installed a camera over her door.”
Everyone laughed. Serafina smiled to herself as they began sharing stories. It was nice being part of a group, even if she had nothing to contribute and one of them was glaring daggers at her.
Serafina wasn’t used to being hated or even disliked, but she’d watched enough TV and movies to know it was normal. Being worshipped and universally adored was not. Still, it was hard to take, especially when she hadn’t done anything. It wasn’t Serafina’s fault Mason didn’t like Kylie that way. The way Kylie acted, who could blame him?
Remembering what Bonnie had said about killing people with kindness, Serafina turned and flashed Kylie a smile. If the goal was to piss her off worse, it worked. Kylie’s face darkened.
“What about you, Serafina?” Mason asked. “Have you ever been grounded?”
Serafina turned pink. “I don’t what that means,” she admitted.
Everyone laughed, but only Kylie did it meanly. “Oh my God, seriously?”
“It’s when your parents or whoever keep you home and don’t let you see anyone or do anything,” Mason explained.
Serafina couldn’t help a short laugh. “Uh, yeah.” He’d just described her entire life at the Church. “Definitely.”
A cheer suddenly rose from the crowd as one of the Mountain View players tackled the other team’s wide receiver right after he caught the ball. Serafina had learned a lot about football in the past few weeks.
Another Mountain View player snatched up the ball and threw it to Ian in the centre of the field. Ian threw it to a third Mountain View player standing close to the end zone. Trinity, Melissa, Kylie and all the boys leapt to their feet as the crowd roared. Another touchdown.
Serafina was about to get up, too, when she felt something cold and wet pour down her back.
“What—?” Serafina jumped up to seven shocked faces and one evil smile, quickly masked by a fake-apologetic ‘O’.
“Oh my God!” Trinity and Melissa squealed in horror.
“What the hell, Kylie?” Connor demanded.
Kylie swept an innocent look around the group. “I am so sorry!” She looked at the now-empty bottle of Gatorade in her hand like it had betrayed her. “It must have spilled when I was jumping up and down.”
Mason shot her an angry look. “Are you okay, Serafina?”
“Yeah.” Serafina reached back and tried to pluck the soaked material from her skin. “I’m just...wet.”
“And stained,” Trinity added regretfully. “It’s Blue Cherry.”
“I better go home and change.” She had to shower, too. The Gatorade was sticky and some of it had gotten in Serafina’s hair.
Kylie’s eyes lit in triumph until Mason opened his mouth.
“I’ll walk you.”
Serafina could hear the boys getting on Kylie’s case as she and Mason walked away. Trinity and Melissa didn’t chime in, but they didn’t stick up for Kylie either. It was small comfort to Serafina, who was starting to feel like friends and social groups weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
The afternoon sun beat down on them as Mason and Serafina crossed the field to the parking lot-slash-basketball court where the opposing team and their friends and families always parked for Sunday games. Almost everyone was still at the game but heavy rock music and the distinctive smell of pot wafted out of the open windows of a huge red pickup truck.
Serafina squirmed uncomfortably as the sticky Gatorade began drying on her skin. She stopped suddenly halfway across the lot. “Ugh! I can’t take it anymore!”
“What’s wro—?” Mason broke off as Serafina tore off her soggy, blue-stained t-shirt. His mouth snapped shut as he registered her sturdy sportsbra. Two pink flags of colour stained his cheeks.
“No big deal, right?” Serafina said, feeling suddenly awkward. “I mean, it’s just like a bathing suit, right?”
Not one she’d ever worn—both of Serafina’s bathing suits were one-piece—but Trinity and her friends wore bikinis all the time.
“R-right.” Mason’s head bobbed in agreement. His steps slowed slightly as they resumed walking. “Whoa, is that—” His eyes dropped to her back, but he wasn’t staring at her butt. “You have the same tattoo as your brother.”
As an act of solidarity, a couple of weeks after Serafina’s tattoo showed up Ian went and got an identical one on his left pec. She had two now, actually—the second was a gold line drawing of a flying bird, tucked behind her ear high on the side of her neck. They were in Mexico when Ian noticed it. He put that one on his inner wrist.
“Oh, that.” Serafina laughed awkwardly. “Yeah, it’s fake.” What they told anyone who happened to see her tattoos. Only Bonnie and Abel knew they were real. They assumed it was another of the abuses inflicted on them by the cult she and Ian told them they’d run away from. Not a total lie.
“Wow, so what... You like, took a picture of Ian’s tatt and they made that for you?” Mason marvelled, dropping back to see her tattoo better. “It looks so real.”
“I know right?” Another awkward laugh. Serafina didn’t blame Mason for being curious—it was weird for a girl her age to have tattoos—but she wished he’d stop staring. This was why she didn’t wear high ponytails, crop-tops, or two-piece bathing suits.
“The gold and white’s so much brighter. I guess that’s because they’re not real. Wow, it looks so cool.” Mason’s tone was admiring. “Where’d you get it from?”
“Um...this place,” Serafina mumbled lamely. They had reached the end of the lot and she shortened her steps as they turned onto the road so they were side by side again. Time to change the subject. “Thanks for walking me, by the way. Sorry you’re missing the rest of the game.”
“Huh? Oh.” Mason blinked at her. “Yeah, I don’t mind.” He fell silent for a few seconds as they walked. “I’m pretty sure Kylie did that on purpose.” There was regret in his voice.
“She did.” Serafina gave him a sidelong look as they passed under the dappled shadows of a maple. “She likes you, you know.”
Mason shrugged. “I don’t like her.” He swallowed hard and shot her a glance. “There’s someone else I like.”
Serafina turned pink under his gaze. She kept her eyes on the tree-lined road ahead of them, lips curving slowly into a smile. “Oh, really? Anyone I know?”
Her smile widened as she caught Mason’s grin out of the corner of her eye. “Yeah, I think you met her once or twice,” he said lightly.
Her lips twitched but she didn’t look at him as they continued down the tree-lined road, their hands brushing together once, twice, then catching the third time, their fingers weaving together as they walked the rest of the way in silence.
Serafina had showered and changed and they’d just settled on the couch in front of the TV when Ian’s voice burst into her head.
Where’d you go? he demanded. You’re not with your friends anymore?
Serafina cringed. She’d totally forgotten to tell Ian she’d left the game. In a lot of ways Ian was more relaxed since they left the Church but in other ways he was ten times worse. During waking hours, the hour-plus between halftime and the end of a football game was about as long as Ian usually went without checking in.
Not that Serafina blamed him. Ian had taken King at his word when he said he would never stop looking for her that first night. He thought Serafina’s visions—Ian’s word—were real and that she was actually seeing King when she had them, not just imagining him like she’d always thought growing up.
Whatever else changed, on the road or here in Mountain View, Ian was still her Guardian and the Rogue King was still after them. After her.
It was easy to forget sometimes, living the closest she’d ever come to a normal life.
“What do you want to watch?” Mason was asking her as he flipped through the channels.
No, I came home, Serafina mindlinked Ian sheepishly. Something got spilled on me and I had to change. Sorry I forgot to tell you.
“Sarah?” Mason prompted, turning to look at her when she didn’t reply.
“Huh? Oh.” She offered Mason a weak smile. “Whatever you want.”
You should be, Ian grumbled. But I’m glad you’re there. Game’s over but half the other team is still hanging around.
“Cool, Southpark is on,” Mason said cheerfully. “It’s set in Colorado, you know. I mean, I know it’s just a cartoon, but still,” he added, misinterpreting her bemused expression.
“Ha. Yeah,” Serafina agreed absently. “Cool.” I thought you said we didn’t have to worry about the shifters on the other team? she told Ian. Because they’re in packs.
I also said I wanted you to avoid them just in case, Ian reminded her. Remember I told you Boulder is neutral territory? Plus they’re firefighters, they probably interact with plenty of rogues.
Oh. Well, good thing I got spilled on I guess. Ian hadn’t mentioned any of that earlier. Had he just been trying not to worry her? Or had something happened after the game? Or was he just literally getting more paranoid with every passing hour? Serafina snickered.
Mason assumed she was laughing at Southpark and shot her a happy smile. Serafina didn’t correct him even though she really didn’t get this show and thought the animation was ugly.
“Guess the game’s over,” Mason said about ten minutes later as Abel’s booming sergeant’s voice carried through the walls from outside. Bonnie said after forty years bossing jarheads around, he didn’t know how to talk any other way.
“...I’m telling you, he’s got real potential. Colleges’ll be lining up for him once they see him play. A little discipline and some proper coaching and that boy’s on track for the pros.” Abel’s footsteps clomped up the short steps, then down again as the door to the trailer swung open. He always let Bonnie go in first.
“Is that what he wants?” Bonnie’s mild tones preceded her through the open doorway.
“Does he want to make millions of dollars as an elite athlete in a sport he loves?” Abel sputtered a laugh. “Is that your question?”
Mason and Serafina exchanged a humorous look at his tone. Abel’s passion for football was surpassed only by his love for the United States military.
“Oh, you’re here!” Bonnie exclaimed, stopping short when she saw them on the couch. “Hello, Mason.”
“Hi, Miss Bonnie,” Mason said politely. His mom was from the South and didn’t approve of kids calling adults by their first names. “I hope it’s okay I’m here.”
Abel filled the doorway behind her. “Any reason it shouldn’t be?”
Bonnie tsked and slapped him lightly behind her. “Abel.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course it’s okay you’re here, Mason. Why don’t you stay for dinner? Abel’s barbecuing.”
“I am?” Abel grumbled, watching her bustle into the kitchen.
“Well, I can do it...” Bonnie called over the running tap as she washed her hands. “How many times do I flip the steaks over, again?”
“Once! Maximum!” Abel barked. He glared at her, knowing exactly what she was doing but couldn’t help rising to the bait. He pointed at his wife with narrowed eyes. “Don’t touch those steaks, you hear me?”
“I think the entire park can hear you,” Bonnie said dryly.
Mason and Serafina smothered their laughs as Abel swung his irritated gaze towards them.
“Call me half an hour before you want to eat,” he grunted, stomping across the living room to his bedroom. “I’m going to lie down.”
“And they say women are dramatic.” Bonnie shook her head as the door slammed behind him, chuckling as Serafina and Mason dissolved into laughter.
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