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The Pinnacle

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One, two, three, four, five, six.

Six was a new record, Arlo thought triumphantly as he watched ripples expand from where the stone had skipped along the water’s surface. Not bad for a desert boy. Even Remi would likely have some difficulty topping that – and she’d lived all sixteen years of her life by a lake. Mildly pleased with his little victory, Arlo slipped out of his Sperrys and seated himself on the edge of the dock, exhaling through his nose and swishing his legs in small, rhythmic circles through the cool water.

Save the soft whisper of a breeze, the gentle splashing of the lake as it kissed the shoreline, and the distant quacks of mallards, Bartlett Reservoir was quiet – strangely so, since Arlo had expected that at least some families would be camping out for the holiday. But he certainly wasn’t opposed to being alone; people were idiots, and idiots always brought noise and drama with them. It would have been exponentially more difficult to enjoy the picturesque evening through the pesky sounds of talking and shouting and laughing, and cars coming and going, and the smells of fire and cooking food.

And a picturesque evening it was. Reflected in distorted shapes and colors on the waters was a quintessentially Arizonan scene – though the sun had set behind the high hills over the lake, dowsing it in cool shade, the scrubby mountains across were illuminated a brilliant golden-brown, contrasting pleasantly with an immaculately clear and blue sky. It occurred to Arlo that it would have been a good idea to bring some dinner along, rather than wait until he got home – a warm, hearty thermos of leftover homemade ratatouille, maybe, or a classic American burger. That would have been nice, he thought. Just him and some food, in the sunset at the lake.

But somehow, at the same time, he was having a hard time convincing himself of that.

The solitude suddenly seemed very lonely, and not in a good way, as he realized that he had no one to appreciate the view with. Holden, normally his go-to for company, had family visiting from out of state, and so even though they had taken the same flight home, his sky-haired friend had barely had time to hang out or even talk since their arrival. Remi was the only other person he’d dream of contacting in a situation like this – and she, conveniently, was on vacation in Hawai’i. Both were probably eating dinner with their families, or at least preparing it, at that very moment – as a matter of fact, so probably were the people who would usually be at the lake right now. Everyone, in other words, was celebrating Truce Day.

Except for Arlo.

It made him angry – no, it made him jealous. Truce Day was an intrinsically family thing, and of all the things that had been handed to him on a silver platter, a normal, intact family had never been one of them. It was true that he had looks and power and money, but was that one small thing too much to ask? Fate thought so, apparently. The years when his mother was married to Grant were the closest Arlo got to experiencing holidays the way everyone else did, but Grant wasn’t a father figure; he was just… Grant, the guy his maman uprooted their lives in Toulouse for. Even despite having a baby together, it didn’t last, naturally. Their disaster of a divorce ultimately landed her and Arlo squarely back at the starting line, and Truce Day, which she particularly hated for some reason that was still yet to be seen, went back to being her sulking while Arlo pretended he didn’t give a damn. He wished pretending made it true.

Arlo pulled his legs from the lake and wrapped his arms around his knees, watching shadows creep up the peaks and devour the increasingly intense hues of butterscotch light. The sunsets in Wellston were never like this, and when they were visible at all, when it wasn’t overcast, they were dull and flat. Colorless, almost, at least in comparison to the sunsets of the Southwest. Some horrible amalgam of emotions stabbed through his gut at the thought of Wellston. It had been his responsibility to protect the students there; they weren’t just his subjects, they were his charges, both Rei and Headmaster Vaughn had stressed upon his ascension to King. And in his selfishness, he had failed them, seduced by the prospect of passing both his and Remi’s onuses on to another before his term was complete. Of course that potential successor had had to be a feckless maniac that was now threatening to hurt the student he cared the most about, but the point still stood that Wellston was in danger now because he both followed the order of his own hierarchy to a tee and then contravened it immediately afterward.

Arlo knew that technically, he should have accepted John’s decision to exit the societal hierarchy at face value, no questions asked; he, after all, was more powerful than almost everyone Arlo had met thus far. It wasn’t his place. But he couldn’t help but feel betrayed by John, who in shirking his duties only made Arlo’s burden, and others’ like him, heavier. Then, despite being nothing better than a lazy and mentally unstable freeloader, he expected the very same to jump at his beck and call. Jealous anger began to simmer under the regret in his stomach. John got a choice in the matter, but he didn’t? He’d been carrying this load practically since birth, and he found that it only grew heavier as he grew older. He didn’t have a choice; he’d never been given one. But John had?

Arlo clenched his jaw and released a shuddery breath through his nostrils, closing his eyes and forcing the rage back into its allotted, overstuffed box. He needed to relax while he still could; John was likely back in New Bostin, and Remi was safely across the country from him and then some. The serene blues of the descending night had a calming effect on his frayed nerves when he wearily opened his eyes again, even despite the glaring splash of orange from the tallest peak. He desperately wished that he had someone to talk to, someone he trusted enough to finally collapse and show his belly, someone who could know that he wasn’t strong like everyone thought he was. He was weaker, on the inside, and softer. That was ultimately what it came down to. If he weren’t, none of this would ever have happened in the first place.

But there wasn’t anybody out there that met his criteria, not even his own mother, who would doubtless be so sorely disappointed in him – maybe even angry – if she ever discovered what was going and had gone down at Wellston this year. Holden, despite being Arlo’s friend, looked up to him just like the other students did; showing vulnerability to him could hold potentially disastrous consequences for their camaraderie. Remi was like a younger sister to him, but as much as he loved her, he knew that she was an objectively incompetent Queen; she’d leave Blyke to pick up the slack if Arlo allowed himself to break under the pressure – pressure John, undoubtedly, was deliberately increasing. Seraphina would have come the closest – had she not hated the ground he walked on, of course. That, and she was best friends with his current nemesis, obviously.

Arlo was alone. He knew that, full well; he had been told ever since he was a child that he stood out because of his ability, that he was special. Most of the time, he could handle that reality. He was strong, after all – maybe not as strong as he would have liked or as he should have been, but still strong. But that didn’t mean there weren’t times like this, when he wanted nothing more than someone stronger that he could lean on. That didn’t mean he never had the desire to be held instead of the one doing the holding. God knew the last time he had allowed tears to leave his eyes, or the last time someone had comforted him when he was upset.

Today was one of those days where he wanted to be able to do all of those things, where no one would judge him and call him weak or try to exploit his vulnerability. But that, all god-tiers knew, was just a fantasy. This was a rare occasion where the simple answer was, instead of Arlo could, Arlo just couldn’t.

His legs and feet having sufficiently dried, Arlo stood and put his shoes back on. He looked out over the darkening lake for a moment, lost deep in wordless thought, before trekking back to his car to go buy some dinner (a burger did sound good) and then head home. He hadn’t necessarily enjoyed his time at the reservoir, but at the same time, it was probably good for him. It was hard, after all, to spare some time for yourself when you had an entire school of idiots to manage.

Tu dois être fort, Arlo, he heard his mother’s voice in his head as he drove westward into the dying light. It was practically the mantra she had used to raise him, essentially exhorting him to suck it up if he cried or made a mistake when he was younger. Even now, when he did confide in her about the struggles of “ruling” a high school, she would spout off some much longer variant of it, explaining how she had only managed to survive that same situation by remembering that she had to be strong, she always stressed. Arlo, privately, grew sick of hearing it. It was only when he was older that he realized she was probably saying it for herself as much as for him. He couldn’t bring himself to blame her.

Tu dois être fort, Arlo, he told himself silently. He blew out, closing his eyes briefly in an extended blink. He would be fine. He just needed to sleep it off – “the human version of turning something off and on again to fix it,” Remi had once said Isen told her. It’s fine. I have it under control, he thought. It always made him feel better, for some reason, knowing that he held the keys that made or broke the social order. As long as he stayed strong, he wouldn’t make any disastrous mistakes, and he wouldn’t have to worry about failing. It wasn’t that hard, in theory, and nothing he wasn’t used to already.

But damn, was it cold and lonely at the top. ♦