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Welcome To Ilirea

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ERAGON

Welcome to Ilirea, Texas. Est. 1897. Pop: 15,200 people. 45,000 cattle.

Eragon sat looking at the sign in front of him, reading those four lines over and over again, until his eyesight began to blur and his head started to hurt. He was perched on the hood of his car, long since cooled from the hours it had been sitting there not running. He didn't know how long ago the sun had gone down, but Eragon didn't really care. Another day ended; another day of the same boring crap. He'd thought he could make it through this last year of school, but the summer was almost over, leading into his senior year. And his patience was starting to wear thin.

To top it off, football camp was starting in a few days. He loved football. Ask anyone, and they'd tell you they'd never seen someone play with as much passion as Eragon did. But as much as he loved it, it wasn't hispassion. That was reserved for a different sport, one that his dad didn't take seriously at all: lacrosse.

All summer, he'd been stewing on how best to tell his dad; how to tell him that he didn't want to go play football for Louisiana State University, with his cousin, Roran. He wanted something more... something that hadn't been his dad's dream since he was ten.

A hot wind was blowing from the west, stirring his dark hair all across his forehead and flinging dirt up into his eyes. He rubbed at them fiercely, though he should have been used to it by now. After almost eighteen years of living in the flatlands of eastern Texas, wind was something he'd gotten used to. But that didn't mean he had to like it. In fact, he hated it. He associated memories of his childhood in accordance with the tornadoes from that year, which wasn't exactly happy.

The road into town stretched behind him, and he could hear the hum of an engine approaching. It seemed they'd sent Search and Rescue out after him, which was happening more and more often lately. The bike came to a stop just behind his car where it was pulled off onto the shoulder. Its rider cut the engine and dismounted the motorcycle, taking off his helmet in the same, fluid motion.

"What the hell are you still doin' out here, man?" Murtagh asked in his deep, gruff voice. "It's after midnight. Mom is worried sick about you."

"Isn't she always?" he muttered under his breath. His half-brother came to stand next to him, setting his helmet on the hood of Eragon's car.

"Would you just come home? It doesn't do anyone any good for you to sit out here night after night. You're actin' like some damn mopey teenager." That drew a laugh out of Eragon, and he looked over at his brother.

"You seem to have forgotten that I am a mopey teenager," he shot back. Murtagh gave a rare smirk before looking out at the bare, open road before the two of them.

"Not according to your dad, you're not. You're supposed to be a man now," the older boy muttered darkly, and it didn't escape Eragon's notice the venom that had seeped into his brother's voice. But before he could say anything, Murtagh pushed up off the hood and grabbed his matte black helmet, painted with dark red flames around the visor. "Just be home before two, alright? School starts in two weeks and you need to get on a regular sleeping schedule." Eragon twisted around to look at his brother as he walked back towards his bike.

"Since when do you care if I'm on a regular sleeping schedule?" he called after the older boy with a bit of a laugh. Murtagh tossed back his dark, collar-length hair as he prepared to put his helmet back on.

"I don't," he said. "That's Mom talking." He gave his brother a wry smirk before pulling his helmet on and mounting his motorcycle. The bright red machine roared to life as Murtagh turned the key, and then he was speeding off as fast as he'd come. Eragon watched him disappear into the darkness of night, and then turned back to the sign.

It sat there, as it always had, twenty yards away and mocking him with its utter banality. His entire life had been spent in this cow-town, and it had been as dull as the sign that welcomed what few visitors the town ever received. One more year, Eragon, he thought to himself. One more school year in this hellhole and then you're free. Just a little bit longer.

With a heavy sigh, he hopped off the hood of his car―a '77 Pontiac Trans Am his dad had lovingly restored and given to him as a gift for his 16th birthday―and walked around to the driver's side. He pulled the door open and slid into the seat, buckling his seatbelt and then gripping the steering wheel tight. But he didn't reach for the keys, which still stuck out of the ignition. His brow pulled together into a scowl as he stared out the windshield, the only sound his heart hammering in his chest.

What he wouldn't give to turn over the engine and tear out of this place like a bat out of hell. But you couldn't do anything in this world without at least a high school diploma, not anymore, anyways. So, no matter how much he'd like to just leave, he knew there was no way he could. Besides, Saphira would have killed him. With just the slightest hesitation, he turned the key in the ignition and then angled the car back into town.

 


 

"Eragon, you need to get down here right now." He sighed heavily into the phone, smirking slightly at the exuberance in his friend's voice.

"I don't see what the big deal is, Saphira," he replied, propping his head up on his arm as he lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling of his room. "They're just people."

"Yes, but they're new people," she quipped back. "I mean, can you imagine moving to a new town your senior year of high school? Especially this dump."

"Actually I can," he said quietly, still stewing on the radical thoughts he'd had the night before.

"Are you gonna come down here with me or not?" Saphira asked exasperatedly. He could just picture her, standing there with a hand on her hip and one eyebrow cocked above the other.

He glanced at the clock that stood on his nightstand. 1:32PM. Finally, he let out an exaggerated sigh. "Fine, give me twenty minutes and I'll be down there. Gotta shower first."

"Yay!" she squealed happily. "Alright, see ya then." He hung up the phone, threw it next to him on the bed and then bounded up, peeling his shirt off as he went.

 


 

True to his word, Eragon was pulling into the driveway of Saphira's house twenty minutes later. She was standing in the driveway, just in front of the garage, bouncing on her toes like an excited schoolgirl. And she was beaming from ear to ear. Eragon would never understand her fascination with the new people that moved to their sleepy little town.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" she said impatiently as he stepped out of the car.

"Aren't they just around the corner?" Eragon asked in exasperation.

"They might be finished already. Come on!" And she was off, bounding across her front yard and onto the sidewalk. Eragon followed behind her with a small smile on his face. Her short, wavy blonde hair bounced wildly as she ran, exposing the back of her neck where there was a tiny tattoo of a dragon snaking its way from her hairline to the top of her shoulder line. She'd gotten it at the end of her junior year—with her mom's permission, of course—and had been showing it off to all their other friends ever since. She'd always been a bit of a rebel, but Eragon thought the tattoo was a little extreme, even for her.

The two of them strolled down the sidewalk of Saphira's neighborhood, following the sounds of shouting voices and shuffling boxes. At the corner of Saphira's street and the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, they stopped, leaning against a six-foot tall fence and peeking around it. Across the street, in front of a modest two-story home, was a moving van and a couple cars. Several people were rummaging about in the back of the van, and Eragon could tell most of them worked for the moving company. But there was a boy among them, whom he had to assume was what all the fuss was about.

"There, that's him," Saphira whispered, pointing to the boy Eragon had already picked out and confirming his suspicions. "Look, doesn't he seem like he's in our grade? What do you think?"

Eragon watched the kid for a few moments, lugging boxes from the back of the truck to the front door. "He's small," he finally remarked. "No use at all."

"Oh, shut up," she snapped. "I wasn't talking about football. Contrary to what you might think, some people actually have interests other than sports."

"That's rich, coming from you," he laughed. "Miss 'Star Softball Pitcher'. Don't try to lecture me."

"It looks good on college applications, alright?" she muttered in indignation, quickly turning back to spy on the new additions to the neighborhood.

After ten more minutes of just watching, Eragon was growing impatient. "Has your curiosity been satisfied yet?" he asked. "They're not aliens, and they don't look like murderers to me."

"No, they aren't aliens," Saphira replied slowly, "but they are Asian, which would make them only the second Asian family in town. Wonder what that's like..."

"You do astound me sometimes, Saphira," Eragon said with a shake of his head. "Come on, let's get out of here. I've only got today and tomorrow before football camp starts, and I don't want to waste my last days of summer." He began to walk back the way they had come, and Saphira let out an irritated growl before bounding after him. "You know," he said over his shoulder, "it would be a lot less awkward if you just introduced yourself to people when they moved into town, instead of spying on them from a distance."

"Yes, but it's a lot less exciting." She stared at the sidewalk, kicking at some loose pieces of gravel until they skittered off into the street. "How did college visits go?" she continued, shifting the subject away from her odd habits. "See any hot chicks?" He'd just come back a week ago from visiting a few colleges that were nearby, but the two of them hadn't had a chance to talk about it yet.

Eragon smirked and chuckled at his best friend, shaking his head at her blunt nature. They'd known one another since they were toddlers, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they would try to date. But that had been two years ago, and they'd both decided they were better off as friends. He was just happy that their expedition in romance hadn't ruined their friendship.

"Only a hundred," he replied, gaining a groan and a rather exaggerated eye roll from Saphira. "But they went fine, thanks for asking. Dad still wants me to go to LSU, and I still haven't told him that I would rather go a thousand other places than LSU."

"Louisiana isn't too far from A & M though," Saphira said softly. Eragon could hear the hope in her voice, and it killed him. He'd hoped to put off this conversation until later, but it seemed that fate was working against him.

"It's nearly a six hour drive, Saphira," he said, keeping his tone light.

"Yeah, but it's a hell of a lot closer than Colorado," she shot back, suddenly angry instead of joking. Eragon had mentioned a while back that the University of Denver had one of the best lacrosse teams in the nation, but he hadn't imagined Saphira would figure out that he was trying to work out going to college there. She was a lot more clever than he'd given her credit for.

"Saphira—"

"Don't, Eragon," she cut him off, picking up her speed and practically jogging to her own front door.

"Hey, wait a second! Are you even gonna give me a chance to explain?" he yelled, running after her and into the house. By the time he made it across the front threshold, Saphira was already halfway up the stairs in a beeline for her room. Down the main hallway and into the kitchen, Eragon saw Saphira's mom poke her head around the corner.

"Everything okay, Eragon?" she called to him in that sweet tone she always had. Mrs. Brighton was practically Eragon's second mom, and he'd always felt welcome in this house. She was used to Eragon and Saphira's little spats, and tried to help in any way that she could.

"I've got it under control, Mrs. B. Thanks," he said, giving her a reassuring wave and then trodding up the stairs. When he got to Saphira's room, she was sitting in her favorite fluffy chair with her knees pulled up into her chest, and she was staring out the window with an angry scowl on her face. Eragon perched himself on the edge of her bed, resting his elbows on his knees and just waiting for a moment. He knew from years of experience that it never went well if he tried to push her.

"When were you gonna tell me?" she finally asked after several minutes of heavy silence.

"It looks like I didn't have to." He was trying to be joking, as he always was; Eragon didn't like to let things get too serious. But she was not amused. That was clear enough by the hurt he could see in her bright, blue eyes. "Look, Saphira. I tried to tell you a thousand times, but the moment was never right. And, if I'm being honest, I didn't want to tell you, because I knew this would happen. I hate it when we fight."

"Don't you think you ought to let your best friend know you want to move a thousand miles away from her?" she said forcefully, tears brimming in her eyes.

"Well, it's only nine-hundred and forty miles, to be fair." Saphira shot him a murderous look, and he decided it might be better to lay off on the jokes for now.

"You've already mapped it?" she asked incredulously. He offered a shrug and a sheepish look in reply. "What's so great about this school anyways?"

"Well, for starters, it's a thousand miles away from my dad," he began slowly. "And secondly, DU has one of the best lacrosse teams in the country. You know better than anyone I'd rather play lacrosse than football. But, to do that, I have to get away from here. Saphira, you know what my dad is like. He's got these huge, great plans for me. I just... I don't know how to tell him that's not what I want."

"Like this: 'Hey Dad, just wanted to let you know that I don't want to go play football for LSU after all, and I'll be moving to Denver next summer.' There, not so hard." Her voice was thick with sarcasm, but Eragon didn't let it get to him. He knew she was only acting this way because she was hurt. "Really, Eragon, I didn't think you were so spineless," she said, tearing her gaze away from him and looking back out the window to the street below.

He sighed and stood up. "Sorry to disappoint you, Saphira," he said quietly. With that, he turned and left, bounding down the stairs and back out the front door. He expected Saphira to come after him, like she usually did. She hated it when they fought just as much as he did. But as he sat in the driver's seat of his car, staring at the front door expectantly, he slowly realized she wasn't going to chase him this time. "Fine," he mumbled angrily, cranking the keys in the ignition. The engine roared to life and he punched the gas after throwing it in reverse, his tires squealing on the concrete and asphalt as he went.

Eragon knew he had a temper, and it wasn't a good thing for him to be behind the wheel of a car when he was mad. Which is exactly why, when he pulled onto the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, he didn't see the figure step into the street in front of him. With a gasp and a curse, he slammed on the brakes, causing himself to fly forward and knock his head on the steering wheel. The car came to a screeching halt, and when he looked up out the windshield, he didn't see anyone.

He cut the engine and jumped out of the car, not even bothering to close the door. As he ran around the front of his car, he saw the person who'd stepped out in front of him, sitting on the asphalt with a hand to their head.

"Oh god, man are you okay?" he asked, kneeling down next to the kid that he recognized as Saphira's new neighbor.

"Ah... I dunno," the kid mumbled, rubbing a spot on the back of his head.

"How hard did you hit? Do you feel dizzy? Any pressure? Come on, man, talk to me." Eragon ran through the list of questions his coaches always asked when they were concerned a player might have a concussion.

"No, no I'm good. Um... I just need to go home," the kid replied.

"Come on," Eragon said, leaning down and angling his shoulder underneath the other boy's. "I'll help you, let's go."

"I'm fine, really," the kid protested as Eragon helped him to his feet. But as they began to walk back to the house with the moving truck out front, he stumbled and Eragon had to catch him before he fell. Eragon adjusted so the other boy's weight was fully on him, which wasn't easy considering the kid was about six inches shorter than he was. But they finally made it back to the house and Eragon helped him inside, stepping carefully around perfect stacks of cardboard boxes.

"Hello!" Eragon called loudly when he didn't see anyone. "Somebody!"

"Oh no, please..." the kid mumbled, hanging his head and putting a hand to his temple.

Suddenly, Eragon heard a frantic call coming from the kitchen. "Fírnen! Is that you?" A short, black-haired woman appeared before them at the end of the hall, her face set into a look of surprise. "What happened?" she said forcefully, rushing down the hall and pulling her son away from Eragon.

"It's nothing, Mom. Really, I'm okay," the kid—who Eragon now knew was called Fírnen—said slowly, allowing his mother to put her arm around his shoulder and lead him down the hall. Tentatively, Eragon followed behind, taking care to remain as quiet as possible. There was a table already set up just off the kitchen, and the woman pulled out one of the chairs so Fírnen could sit down.

"What happened to him?" Eragon looked up and saw the tiny woman shooting daggers at him with her dark eyes.

"I... uh, I hit him with my car," he explained hesitantly. She sucked in her breath quickly and then turned back to her son, speaking quietly in a language Eragon didn't understand. "Look, I've got insurance. If he needs to go to the hospital..."

"That will not be necessary," Fírnen cut in forcefully, looking up at Eragon where he stood awkwardly at the hallway entrance. "Thank you for seeing me back to my home, but I'll be fine, really." Fírnen spoke a few more words in the language Eragon didn't understand before the woman turned to him and thanked him as well.

"Alright then," Eragon said awkwardly, turning and looking around him while he decided what to do. "Um, I guess I'll see you around then." And with that, he hurried out of the stranger's house and ran back to his waiting car.

 


 

"What do you mean you hit someone with your car, Eragon?" His mother had not taken the news as well as he'd hoped.

"I was driving down the street in Saphira's neighborhood," Eragon explained calmly, "and I wasn't paying attention. I was... mad, alright? And the next thing I know, he's right in front of me. I tried to stop but I must have clipped him with the front end. He hit his head on the asphalt, but he said he was okay."

"Eragon, people do not just turn out 'okay' when they get hit by a moving vehicle. Did you at least get his mother's phone number? I want to call her," his mom said quickly, wringing her small hands in front of her.

"No, Mom, I didn't get her phone number. God, you should have seen how she glared at me, like I was some deathly parasite there to infect her precious son." Eragon paced around the kitchen quickly before settling for leaning up against the counter. "Besides, it's a small town, and you wouldn't be able to miss this family."

"What do you mean?"

"I think they're Chinese, or something," Eragon said.

"Oh," his mother exclaimed, "that must be Professor Liu and his family. Deborah was telling me that he was just hired at the local college as the new Physics Professor. They moved from... Pennsylvania, I think."

"Well, I'm sure the son wishes he was back in Pennsylvania right now. He wouldn't have a raging headache and a nice set of bruises on his legs if he was." Selena stood from the breakfast table and walked over to her son, putting her hands on his shoulders and looking up at him with concerned hazel eyes.

"I know you didn't mean to hit him," she said, "but now you know you have to be nice to him at school." He smirked down at his mother and allowed her to plant a kiss on his cheek.

"Yes, Mom, I know," he sighed.

"Go on, get washed up for dinner." She turned away and walked back to the stove where she had been cooking before Eragon came in to tell her the news. He did as he was told and marched off to the bathroom, rolling up his sleeves as he went.

When he was finished washing his hands, he looked up into the mirror and inspected his face for just a minute. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he knew it was because he hadn't been getting enough sleep. Not just because he was staying out late at night, but also because when he was home, the sleep just wouldn't come to him. The closer his senior year got, the harder it was becoming to keep his secret. And especially now that Saphira knew, he hoped she would keep it to herself. If his dad found out from anyone other than himself, Eragon would be in a world of hurt.

He dried his hands quickly and then fished his phone out of his jeans pocket, checking the screen briefly. Still no messages from Saphira. She couldn't still be mad at him, could she? He sighed and put his phone back where it belonged. Girls confused the hell out of him sometimes.

Chapter Text

SAPHIRA

She curled her fingers around the hot metal of the fence, barely reacting when the heat began to spread across her skin. It was the middle of July; the hottest time of the year in the South, especially in Texas. But none of that seemed to bother Saphira.

She stood out in the open, without any shade to protect her from the burning rays of the sun. As usual for the summer, she wore a tank top with a flowing blue vest overtop, cutoff shorts, and her indigo All-Star sneakers. Thanks to some Italian blood somewhere along the line on her mom's side, she never got a sunburn, though her tan lines could get somewhat ridiculous. Her wrists were covered in metal and plastic bangles of all shades, and she wore a white gold band on her right ring finger. Set into the band was a real sapphire.

Her mom and dad had given it to her for her sixteenth birthday. They knew blue was her favorite color, and she'd gushed over the gift. Right now, she was turning the ring over and over on her finger in a nervous habit. Some of the boys on the field glanced over at her when they weren't going through their drills, but never the one boy she wanted to notice her.

Eragon was running suicides with the rest of the offensive players, while the defense worked with Assistant Coach Kelly. She watched as he ran the drills with precision and determination, a sheen of sweat on his brow, but his resolve never breaking. Coach Rich blew his whistle in a shrill blast, and the runners ceased their break-neck pace, breathing heavily, and doubling over in some cases. Saphira leaned forward ever so slightly, drawing in her breath in anticipation.

"You look totally desperate, you know that right?" the voice came from behind her. She turned to glare at the boy leaning on the hood of his car, spiky red hair gleaming in the noonday sun.

"Shut up, Thorn!" she said indignantly. "You know it isn't like that. I just need to talk to him." Thorn was one of her very good friends, but he was also one of the ones that constantly teased her about her relationship with Eragon. The idiots in this town didn't believe a guy and a girl could just be friends without there being something... more going on.

"It can't wait 'til after practice is over?" he complained. "Some of us have better things to do."

"Band practice can wait a little longer, Thorn. I'm sure Grace will be just as happy to see you fifteen minutes from now," Saphira shot back. When she turned to look at Thorn with a triumphant smile, she could have sworn she saw a little tinge of pink on his cheeks. That shut him up quickly.

Saphira looked back towards the field as Thorn sighed dramatically. When she looked back at the field, the players seemed to be breaking for water, and she began to wave her arm over her head to get Eragon's attention. He was standing by the water cooler with a paper cup, but his gaze roved along the fence until it found her, and then he jogged across the field til he was standing in front of her.

"What are you doing here, Saphira?" he asked, leaning against the fence. "Not looking for your next conquest, I hope?"

"Har, har, very funny," she sneered. "No, I wanted to talk to you about the other day, Eragon, I—"

"Forget about it, Saph," he cut her off with a smile. "I should have told you sooner; I'm sorry I kept it from you."

"Well... I shouldn't have snapped at you either," she conceded. "I just hate the thought of losing you."

"We don't even know if I'm going to go," he laughed, taking another sip from the water cup. "Let's just see how things play out before we deal with it, deal?"

Saphira smiled and nodded firmly. "Deal."

Suddenly, a whistle blew harshly and Coach's voice rang out. "Sharp! Let's go, don't have all day!" Eragon turned his head back toward the field and raised a hand in recognition. Then he turned back to Saphira.

"Back to Hell I go," he said with a shrug. "You wanna catch a movie tonight? I think the Regal is showing Magic Mike." Saphira wanted very badly to punch Eragon for the suggestive wink he gave her, but the fence made it impossible.

"You're hilarious, Eragon. I don't know why you aren't going to college to study stand-up comedy," she replied sarcastically. "Thanks for the offer, but I've got Kidnapping tonight. Maybe tomorrow?." Eragon nodded, laughed again and then jogged back over to the fieldhouse to joke with his teammates. Saphira watched him for just a second longer, running with ease despite the pounds of padding he wore. She was glad she'd come to apologize; it had been two days since they'd talked, and she was getting tired of it.

Once he was back to cycling through drills, Saphira turned back to Thorn where he still stood leaning heavily on the hood of his red Jeep. "You done?" he asked pointedly, uncrossing his arms and pushing up off the car.

"Yeah, yeah, let's go," she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. She hopped up into the passenger seat of the Jeep and buckled in while Thorn fired it up. They drove the short distance up the hill back to the high school and joined the other cars that were parked in the student lot. Band Camp was starting tonight, but most of the sections had agreed to an impromptu meeting this afternoon, to hand out sheet music and the first few pages of drill.

"Hey guys!" a pretty girl with dark hair called to them as they came to a stop. Saphira looked over and saw Thorn smiling nervously at her, and she could only laugh.

"Hi, Grace," Saphira said once she was out of the car. "Everyone here?"

"Just about," Grace replied with a dazzling smile. She turned her attention to the boy with the dark red hair. "Hey, Thorn. Glad you could make it."

"Uh... thanks," he stuttered back. Saphira couldn't help the sputtering laugh that escaped her, and it only made the blush on Thorn's freckled cheeks worse.

"Gracie, I think you've stunned him," she laughed, walking around him and joining arms with her friend. Grace laughed right along with her, and they walked towards the gathering of band kids, leaving Thorn standing there dumbfounded for a few moments.

Saphira and Grace had been friends since birth, practically, and they considered one another close as sisters. It was just the icing on the cake that they happened to both be in Band.

"Did you hear that Nasuada got Captain of the Colorguard squad?" Grace buzzed excitedly.

"As a Junior?" Saphira replied. "That's impressive. Especially considering the crop of girls she was up against. How does Trianna feel about that?" It was a known fact throughout the entire band that Trianna and Nasuada often butt heads. It'd be interesting to see how the dynamic played out with Trianna as co-Captain under Nasuada's leadership.

"The bathroom gossip is that she's furious." Grace's voice dropped ever so slightly as they hurried past the colorguard girls spinning their flags, rifles, and sabres, and tossing them high into the air in an attempt to outdo each other. "Considering it's her senior year, I would be too."

"Talent is talent," Saphira replied, giggling slightly when she caught Trianna's cutting gaze following them across the parking lot. "Nas obviously outdid her in the auditions. Honestly, I think Trianna could do with getting knocked down a couple pegs. If she ever wants to get a colorguard scholarship for college, she needs to learn she can't be so bitchy all the time." Grace laughed along conspiratorially, drawing her section leader's attention.

"Grace, you ready to start?" Edric called to the two girls, one eyebrow cocked above the other. Edric was a Senior trumpet player, and very serious about his craft. Saphira clamped her mouth shut under his withering gaze, trying, and failing, to conceal her smile. Grace gave her an apologetic look and then hurried over to the rest of her section where they were huddled around one another in a circle.

Different groups began making their way inside the school, and Saphira met up with her section as they walked through the double doors. As Joint Section Leader of the saxophones, she really should have been here earlier, but the tension between her and Eragon needed to be resolved as soon as possible. Odele, her partner in leading their section, told her not to worry about it. She was a laidback girl, and Saphira got along with her fine. They'd become friendly through their years in band together, but didn't hang out too much outside of that time.

Inside the school, they all moved as one mass of people into the band room where the band teacher, Mr. Adams, was waiting. Next to him stood Albriech, the Drum Major. Everyone was still chattering away as they took their seats. Saphira made sure to steer her section near where the trumpets were sitting, so she could sit with Grace. As she took her seat next to her friend, Grace turned over her shoulder and waved at Thorn where he stood at the back of the room, looking terrified out of his mind. This was his first year in Marching Band, and Saphira noticed he looked ridiculously lost. He noticed Grace waving at him and gave a tentative smile and a weak wave back at her. Saphira gave him a knowing look and a wink. She'd have to do something about the two of them.

"Alright everyone," Mr. Adams boomed in his deep, rich voice, "settle down please. We've got a lot to go over and a short time to do it. I don't want to keep you over, but I will if I have to. Understand?" A chorus of "yes, sir" answered him, accompanied by some giggles from the Freshmen. "Now," he continued, "I want you to welcome all our new members, including the Freshmen. Seniors—" he scanned the room quickly with dark eyes "—I expect you to be inclusive during tonight's activities. I know you all have your traditions, but please... try not to get carried away."

Grace elbowed Saphira sharply, and the two girls shared a mischievous look. Mr. Adams continued talking for a little bit about their show this year, which would be based off Disney songs, but hardly anyone was paying close attention. The excitement buzzing around the room was overwhelming.

Because tonight... was the Kidnapping.

 


 

Odele had picked her up from her house after the sun had gone down, which during the summer wasn't until almost nine o'clock. It was creeping closer to ten o'clock by now. But their sleepy little town had finally gone to bed, and now it was time to begin.

"Who's up first?" Saphira asked loudly, trying to be heard over the pop music coming from the speakers. Odele reached over and turned the knob so it was a little quieter.

"The veterans," she laughed. "Farica has the girls at her house, and Wayland has all the boys. I've talked to all the Freshie parents. We'll be fine to go grab 'em."

"How many are there?" As a section leader, she should have known. But she'd been a little preoccupied over the past couple weeks.

"Just three this year," Odele replied. The windows were rolled down, drawing in gusts of wind and whipping the girls' hair around their heads.

"Alright, let's do this!" Saphira yelled wildly, throwing her arms out as far as she could and closing her eyes against the wind.

Farica's house was first, and Saphira practically jumped out of the car before it had even stopped. She grabbed the pots and pans from the backseat, handing off a couple to Odele, and they hurried to the front door. She knocked quietly, peeking in the side window to see the living room lights on. Farica's mom opened the door with a smile and ushered them all in.

"The girls are in the basement," she said, pointing the way. Saphira and Odele thanked her quietly and then tiptoed over the carpeted floor, opening the basement door and creeping down the stairs as silently as they could. Saphira stopped right before they reached the bottom of the stairs and peeked around the wall.

Five or so girls were all sitting in the downstairs living room, huddled together under blankets with the lights turned off. They were watching what Saphira assumed to be a scary movie, by the screeching violin music and the terrified look on the girls' faces. Perfect.

Saphira let out an almost inhuman scream and began banging the pots in her hands together, making every girl on the couch scream in terror and turn to find where the noise came from. Odele was screaming and banging her pots together too as they stormed into the room.

"Alright girls! Time to go! Get your stuff together and haul ass to the van!" Saphira was running around the basement, directing the now-laughing girls in what they already knew how to do. Once they had their stuff gathered, they were pounding up the stairs and out the door to pile into Farica's mom's minivan. Farica would drive all the girls to Albriech's house, while Albriech himself fetched the boys over at Wayland's place. Odele and Saphira had Freshies to kidnap.

The first Freshman up was a girl by the name of Callie. When they got to her house, the girl's mom met them at the door. Most of the parents were understanding; they knew this was all just a bit of fun, and a right of passage for the new kids. Thankfully, Callie's mom was one of those understanding ones. She directed them to Callie's room, and they thanked her before going up the stairs.

It was after ten now, and it seemed like the girl was asleep. They opened the door slowly, and saw that this was the case. Quickly, Saphira flipped the overhead lights on while Odele began banging her pots together and yelling, "Get up! Get up! Get up! Time to rise and shine!"

The poor girl nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden intrusion, and Saphira couldn't contain her laughter. Everyone was warned ahead of time that the Kidnapping would happen, so they could pack a bag for the ensuing sleepover, but the Freshies didn't know to what extent the Seniors would go to make it unforgettable. Odele grabbed the girl's bag while Saphira brought out a bright red bandana and tied it around her eyes.

"Where are we going?" she asked, and Saphira noticed the tremor in her voice.

"That's for me to know, and you to find out," she said mischievously. Saphira kept a hand on her shoulder while she led her down the stairs blindfolded. Callie's mom saw them out.

"You guys be safe!" she called after them. Saphira assured her they would be, and then guided the girl into the backseat of Odele's car.

"Now don't take the blindfold off til I say so. Got it?" The girl nodded weakly, but Saphira just smiled. She remembered her Freshman kidnapping. They hadn't been nearly as nice to her as she was being to Callie.

Two more stops and they picked up another girl named Nelda and a boy name Gray. Both of them were blindfolded as well and dumped into the backseat alongside Callie. Saphira hopped in the front seat and then turned to look at all the poor, unsuspecting Freshmen.

"Everyone strapped in?" she asked, and they all nodded back. "Then let's go!" Odele hit the gas and tore out of the neighborhood, heading over to the east side of town where everyone was congregating. It was tradition for the Drum Major to host the Band Sleepover, and it was lucky for them that Albriech's dad was a successful land broker; they had one of the largest houses in town, complete with a finished basement that would fit everybody.

Odele pulled into the fancy neighborhood where Albriech's house was. She knew the way well, since the two of them were currently dating. They pulled off into a side street and then went all the way to the end of the cul-de-sac, where the rest of the cars were parked up on the curb. Nasuada and Trianna were pulling up in front of them, ushering two new blindfolded guard girls into the house. She looked up at the front door and saw Jeremy, the drumline section leader, leading a blindfolded kid with spiky red hair. Poor Thorn. He was probably hating Saphira right now for convincing him to join.

They guided the Freshies into the house, and their ears were immediately assaulted by a torrent of sound. Voices and music blended together into a cacophonous ringing that rang throughout the entire house. There were people everywhere, sitting on couches or mingling in the kitchen, where Albriech's mom was running back and forth putting food and drinks out. She was just beginning to show at three months pregnant, but Saphira thought that Mrs. Oster could do with a bit of rest.

"Freshies and Newbs in the basement!" Albriech called out when he caught sight of Saphira and Odele. She nodded in recognition and then made her way to the basement door, helping the blindfolded kids get down the stairs without falling on their faces. In the basement living room, all the blindfolded kids were sitting in folding chairs, their backs facing each other in a circle. There were three seats left next to each other, and Saphira put her Freshies down while Odele helped the last one into their chair.

"You guys hold tight," Saphira said encouragingly. "And don't move!" The two section leaders left and headed back upstairs to join the rest of the veterans. Those poor people, she thought to herself with a smile, they don't know the madness that's coming.

There wouldn't be any sleep tonight; with the myriad games, stories, section bonding exercises, and initiation, there wouldn't be any time. They'd all feel it tomorrow morning, when practice began for real, but right now, none of them cared. Saphira laughed and joked with her friends, fueling her energy from everyone around her. Amongst the Seniors, there was a underlying melancholy to the thing. This was their last Kidnapping, after all. But there was anticipation as well. This was their Senior year, and they were going to make it a great one.

Chapter Text

FÍRNEN

The campus bookstore was mostly empty, which didn't come as a surprise to Fírnen. He doubted very much the people in this town were avid readers. No, that's not a nice thing to say. Mother would be ashamed if she knew I'd thought that. He sighed heavily as he weaved in and out of the stacks; he couldn't help it. It was such a stark change from where he'd spent his entire life, and a few days was not enough time to become familiar in a new place.

Cincinnati was the place he'd called home for... well, his whole life really. When his dad had told them they'd be moving to Only-God-Knows-Where, Texas he was shocked, to say the least. And then he'd become angry. It wasn't right to be angry with his dad, he knew that. There was nothing to be done about the fact that he'd been "forcibly retired" from his last job teaching at a junior college. And there was nothing to be done about the fact that they only job he could find in his field was in Hotter-Than-Hell. And there was definitely nothing to be done about the fact that it just so happened to be the summer before his Senior year.

Fírnen glanced at the piece of paper he held in his hands, a syllabus for his AP Language and Composition course. On it was a list of reading material and workbooks he would need for the upcoming semester. 1984, by George Orwell. "Read it," he whispered sullenly to himself. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. "Boring," he said, a little louder this time. The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. "God, why are all these books written by boring, old men?"

"Seems a little imbalanced, doesn't it?" a voice suddenly said from behind him. Fírnen whirled around to find the source of the voice, and was met with a girl, slightly shorter than himself, with dark hair and intense, green eyes. She offered him a sort of half smile, to diffuse the tension that was written clearly all over his face.

"Um," he started slowly, crinkling the paper in his hands slightly, "yeah, I guess so."

"I'm Arya," she said, extending her hand out in front of her. He took it tentatively. "Your dad is the new physics professor at the college, right? My dad teaches biology."

"Your dad is Professor Draper?" he asked quizzically. As far as Fírnen was aware, Professor Draper had been the one to contact his dad about the position opening here in Ilirea. Arya nodded slightly and then turned towards the stacks of books in front of them, her hands clasped behind her back.

"Who's your teacher for AP Lang?" she asked, moving on the conversation with a fluidity that took Fírnen by surprise.

He glanced down at the wrinkled syllabus in his hands. "Mr. O'Leary," he replied after finding the teacher's name at the top. Fírnen looked back at the girl in front of him, and she was smirking slightly, though her eyes remained fixed on the book spines.

"You're lucky," she responded, tracing her fingers over a few of the spines at eye level. "O'Leary is a good teacher, and he makes his classes fun. Be glad you didn't get stuck with Hagman."

"Hagman?" Fírnen asked in slight disbelief. There's no way that was a real person's name.

"Yes," Arya replied with the smallest of chuckles, "and she is as awful as she sounds, if you were wondering." Fírnen swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat and responded with a chuckle of his own. "Here—" Arya held out her hand for his syllabus "—I'll help you find what you're looking for." He offered up the paper to her waiting palm and watched as her eyes scanned it at an alarming speed.

"I'm Fírnen, by the way," he said quietly once he realized he hadn't properly introduced himself. Arya finished looking over the paper and glanced back up at him.

"Nice to meet you, Fírnen. Come on, we'll start over here." Fírnen followed dutifully behind her as she weaved and darted throughout the stacks with expert precision. By the way she moved about the store, Fírnen was positive she'd spent a lot of time here. Maybe these Texans weren't quite as uncultured as he'd previously thought. But she didn't seem like she fit in here altogether either.

"You spend a lot of time in this place, don't you?" he probed cautiously. He was shy by nature, but once someone approached him, he found his courage to speak to them. If she hadn't initiated the conversation, Fírnen doubted very much he would have even spoken to her. Talking to people didn't come easy, let alone talking to pretty girls.

"It's the only decent place in town to buy books," she explained over her shoulder. "There's a couple local shops in the old downtown area, but they seem to be about six months behind on the new releases."

"So you read a lot then?" He found his voice sounding a little stronger as he went along.

"As much as I can," she replied, finally coming to a stop in front of the science fiction section. Arya scanned the spines quickly, and then plucked the one she was searching for from the shelf. She handed it off to Fírnen, eyes still trained on the books, and he inspected the cover. The Road... Great, I can't wait to read this epic again.

Another book was quickly set on top of the one he held after she shifted over a couple sections, this one entitled Beowulf. Then Arya was off again, around the end of the stack and quickly darting down another aisle. Fírnen hurried to keep up with her, losing sight of her a couple of times. It was lucky there was hardly anyone else in here, or else he doubted he would have been able to keep track of her.

"Here." When he finally caught up to her, Arya was already holding out another book for him to take. He did so, and then watched as she continued her search. She was certainly a pretty girl, but there was something so aloof about her that Fírnen was having a difficult time pinning down any aspects of her personality. He was grateful she was helping him, otherwise he'd probably have wandered here for most of the afternoon. But why was she helping him? It couldn't have just been because their dad's worked in the same department at the college.

They ran all over the bookstore, and three more books were added to his pile before they'd gotten everything he'd need. Fírnen checked the titles in the stack once more, just to be sure. "I can't believe this is only for the first semester," he muttered as he rifled through the books.

"You should be set now," she announced, placing her hands on slim hips.

"Thanks," he said with a nervous smile. "I guess I'll go check out now." He turned slightly, making his way back out of the stacks to get to the counter, when she stopped him.

"If you want," she called, "I can show you around town." Fírnen stopped mid-stride and glanced back over his shoulder. Her tone was friendly enough, but her face was set into the indifferent mask it had worn since she'd introduced herself.

"Sure," he shrugged, offering her a smirk. She followed him to the counter where he checked out with his mom's credit card, then they exited the bookstore into a vast parking lot. Fírnen had ridden his bike over here, and it seemed she had as well. He stopped suddenly, a thought entering his head. Arya hadn't bought any books.

"Something wrong?" she asked when she was halfway to her bike and noticed he was no longer keeping pace with her.

"You didn't buy anything," he said quietly, realization settling in his stomach like a rock at the bottom of a lake.

Her eyes widened ever so slightly, and then her face fell with the sigh that escaped her chest. "Crap," she whispered. "Fírnen, listen, I'm—"

"My mom put you up to this, didn't she?" he asked, a little more forceful this time. "She told you where I'd be, and she wanted you to try and be my friend." His anger was rising, forming a knot in his chest that was beginning to ache. He'd always been good at concealing his emotions, since he'd been punished as a kid every time he'd had any sort of emotional outburst. But this time... he was finding it hard to hold it in. "Because I'm too pathetic to make friends on my own," he spat.

"No, that's not it at all," she explained hastily. "Yes, it's true your mom talked to my dad, but she didn't put me up to being your friend. She thought it would be nice if I showed you around, since you're in a new town and don't know anyone. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before, but let me make it up to you."

His breathing had quickened slightly, and there was a pounding in his head. Ever since that kid had hit him with his car, Fírnen had suffered terrible headaches. Now it only seemed to be amplified. Slowly, he took in a deep breath, and he could feel the rhythm of his heartbeat slowing. It isn't her fault, he thought to himself. If anything, I should be angry with my mom. She went behind my back; she's the one who made me look like an idiot.

"What do you have in mind?" he asked through gritted teeth, keeping his dark eyes on the pavement. He could feel the blood rushing to his face, and he didn't want to face this girl's pitying gaze.

"Let me show you around," she said. He thought on this for a moment. It was true that he hadn't had a chance to explore his new surroundings, but then again... he didn't necessarily want to. Still, it would do him good to familiarize himself with this place. It would be his home for the next ten months or so. And then he was gone... then he'd be in college and he could forget this whole nightmare had ever happened.

"Alright," he finally conceded. Arya had a simple, wire basket attached to the front of her bike, and she offered to put Fírnen's books inside it, which he readily accepted. The books were already getting heavy inside their plastic bag. They mounted their bikes after unlocking them, and pedaled quickly out of the empty parking lot.

 


 

It didn't surprise him that the town was extremely concentrated in its places to go. There was a mall, which was less than impressive, and a movie theater with twelve screens. In the historic downtown area, there were a few small bookshops, like Arya had mentioned before, and some diners and coffee shops. Apparently, according to Arya, there was only one "fancy" restaurant in town, but you'd usually end up paying for more than you got.

They pedaled slowly down Main St., which was oddly empty. He guessed everyone was preparing for the upcoming school year. The shops were open, but there weren't many people out to make purchases. He saw boutiques, antique malls, music shops, consignment stores, and many more. But nothing that would really draw his attention if he'd just been passing by. Now if he could find a comic store, that would be something.

"Is there a comic book store?" he asked Arya where she pedaled to his left. She twisted her mouth slightly as she thought about it.

"Mmm, I'm not entirely sure. If there is, I haven't found it." They turned off onto a smaller side street that ran perpendicular to Main. There were a couple more shops down here, but it quickly gave way to a residential area. "That's about it," she continued, "besides the Wal-mart, Lowe's, Target, places like that. They're on the other end of town, past the mall."

"Well," Fírnen replied, "this was... very educational. Thanks, I guess."

"I know it's not much," Arya replied quietly, checking the intersection before they crossed. "But you're a Senior, right? Any plans for college?"

"If I want to get out of here, I'd better have some plans," he muttered. "My mom and dad want me to go to an Ivy League school... but I don't think that's gonna happen."

"Not your style?" She seemed to be joking, but the matter was a touchy one for Fírnen. He couldn't count how many times he'd fought about it with his parents.

"No, it's my grades. I don't think I've got high enough scores to be accepted, much to my parents' dismay." He was trying to be nonchalant, but even he could hear the emotion in his own voice. Arya suddenly came to a stop and turned to look at him.

"Hey," she said reassuringly, "that's okay. There isn't a single one of us who hasn't done something their parents didn't care for. They're gonna be proud of you one way or another, even if it doesn't seem like it right now." He gave a pitiful attempt at a smile and then began pedaling again. It was a nice thought, but she didn't know his parents. And he wasn't quite ready to spill the history of his family dynamic to this girl he'd just met.

They rode along in silence for a little while, Fírnen following behind Arya as she led him past grocery stores, gas stations, parks and playgrounds, and even a river walk. He could admit that it was a cute town, but much too small for his liking.

When they had passed the river walk, she asked him, "Do you know how to get home from here?" He glanced up at the sky, and saw dusk was approaching. He should be getting home now, but he found he suddenly didn't want to leave. Arya had been really kind to him, even if their initial meeting had gotten off on the wrong foot. He was enjoying the pleasant silence of their company, and didn't particularly want to go home to his mother's fussing and his father's disapproving looks.

"Um," he muttered quietly, "I don't think so." He saw her smirk out of the corner of his eye.

"You live over on Patton, right? Follow me." She swerved quickly to the right, and he pedaled a little faster to keep up with her. It was obvious to him that she'd spent her entire life in this town; she knew it inside out and backwards. They cut through some smaller neighborhoods before they came back to a main road. And when they passed the Shell station, he knew where they were. They turned right onto Patton and then Arya slowed down slightly to allow Fírnen to take the lead. It was only a couple hundred yards from the outlet to his house, and he came to a stop in his own driveway. Arya stopped in the street, balancing on one leg.

"Well, I hope you enjoyed your tour of the metropolis." Fírnen had to smile at the sarcasm in her voice.

"Thanks for showing me around," he replied, dismounting his bike. "And sorry about accusing you of taking pity on me earlier."

"It's no big deal," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I'll see you next Tuesday?" He nodded quickly and then she was gone, just like that. He gazed after her as she pedaled down his street and then turned back onto the main road, out of his sight. And as she disappeared, Fírnen had a feeling he'd just made his first friend.

Chapter Text

MURTAGH

Principal Oromis' office was stuffy and felt closed in, per usual. Horrible, wood-paneled walls from the 1970s seemed to close in around Murtagh where he sat uncomfortably in the chair in front of the principal's desk. The old man himself hadn't shown yet. Typical, Murtagh thought sullenly. He drags my ass out here on a Saturday, and then he's nowhere to be found.

About five minutes later, the door to the office swung open and Principal Oromis strode in the small space. For a man of his age, he was surprisingly tall and lithe, like a willow tree. His face was normally set into an impassive look, and today was no different. But Murtagh knew there was a stern, hard man underneath that peaceful mask.

"Thank you for coming today, Mr. Morris," he said in a quiet voice as he sat in his leather, high-backed chair. It creaked slightly under his weight, but the old man didn't seem bothered by the chair's obvious age.

"Not like I had much of a choice," Murtagh muttered sullenly, crossing his arms over his chest and shrinking down further into his chair, if that was even possible. Principal Oromis glanced up at him slightly, but if he was annoyed, he didn't let it show.

"I presume you know what I wish to discuss with you?" Murtagh grunted in response. "Your grades last year were, to put it mildly, less than desirable for someone in your... position."

"You can stop walking on eggshells around me," Murtagh growled in a low voice. "Everyone else does it; I don't need it from you too." Oromis pressed his already-thin mouth into an even thinner line, and Murtagh thought he could just see a little twitch of annoyance in his eyebrow. "I know damn well enough that my grades were shit last year," he continued, not even caring about his language. He was well beyond that point.

"Well, Mr. Morris, I'd like to know what exactly you plan on doing about it?" Principal Oromis steepled his hands in front of his face, eyeing the young man carefully. It was well known amongst the staff at Ilirea High that Murtagh Morris was... well, "troubled" was the word they most often used. The truth was, ninety-percent of the teachers didn't know the half of it.

He gave the principal a noncommittal shrug. "Dunno," he muttered. "Maybe I'll consider doing some of those take-home assignments your teachers just love giving out."

"Mr. Morris," the old man said, softer than before, "I can understand your frustration; really, I do. But in this school, I expect my students to strive to succeed. Not necessarily excel, but at least succeed. There are numerous tutoring programs at your disposal, and plenty of the teachers are more than willing to stay after school to offer help and additional instruction. Extracurricular activities can be excellent for helping sharpen your focus."

"You sayin' you want me to do sports again?" he practically hissed, jumping up in his chair so he was leaning forward and on the desk. "Everybody in this god forsaken town knows what a shitty idea that is, unless they want a repeat of two years ago." His blood was boiling at the memory, but Murtagh pushed it back down. It didn't bear thinking about... not right now, anyways.

"No, Mr. Morris," the principal said calmly, seemingly unfazed by Murtagh's outburst, "that is not what I'm suggesting. As Mr. Greywood tells me, you are a very proficient painter. There are a few art clubs which I think you should consider joining. Are there any other hobbies or activities you enjoy?"

Murtagh stared at the old man long and hard. "Shooting," he said evenly, completely straight-faced. "You got a hunting club around here?" That seemed to unsettle Oromis slightly; he had no way of knowing Murtagh had never held a gun in his life. Bow and arrow, sure... but never a gun.

"Murtagh, I want you to think long and hard about your future. What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish? I know there are... extenuating circumstances that put you in this position—" he paused momentarily "—but we won't be able to allow you to continue here next year. You'll need to get your GED if you don't graduate."

He felt his heart drop a little. It wasn't that he cared particularly, but he knew his mom would be so disappointed if he didn't walk across the stage to get his diploma this year. After all she'd been through, after all she'd done for him, he owed her that much. So, with great reluctance, Murtagh clamped his mouth shut and nodded, averting his eyes from the principal's piercing blue gaze.

"Very well," Oromis said, shuffling some papers on his desk distractedly. "I will see you next Tuesday, Mr. Morris. Think on what I said, about the extracurricular activities we have available. It will do you some good."

Murtagh didn't bother with a response; this conversation was over. He stood swiftly out of his chair, swooping down to pick up his helmet off the floor, and then barreling out of the office as fast as he could.

What a joke that had been... Who did that man think he was telling him what he needed to do? As if he had the slightest clue what was and wasn't good for him. He knew that his mom had sat down with the principal and vice principal his first day of Freshman year. She'd told them both the horror story of his childhood... But he knew for a fact there were things they didn't know; things he hadn't even told his mom, and really had no intention of telling her.

The empty school hallways made him uneasy as he stormed through the building, making his way to the northern end and the student parking lot. He passed by the gym, catching some snippets of sound from the jocks working out down in the weight room. On his right was the Performing Arts wing, and the sounds of faraway music came floating through the silence briefly. Those music and theater kids were crazy, practicing all hours of the day and night. He definitely didn't have the patience, or the talent, to try his hand at that.

Really, the only thing he was truly good at, was painting and drawing. He preferred charcoal, above everything else. The way the substance looked on the paper, deepening the shadows and making the highlights look that much clearer. And he preferred water colors when painting; something about the way they bled through the lines appealed to him, like they knew they didn't have to be contained, but there was still an element of structure. Or maybe that was just sappy bullshit. He wasn't sure.

The parking lot was full of those damn marching band kids, blaring their instruments and throwing those flags and weird, fake guns into the air. He'd never understood what that was all about, but he had to admit it looked nice... sometimes.

Down on the field, he could see the football team running drills, the coaches screaming til they were red in the face and the kids just laughing along with one another, like they didn't even care. A pang of guilt ran through his chest as he watched them. He should be down there, laughing right along with everyone else; with his brother, who'd managed to become the star of the team through a mixture of good luck and pure, natural talent. But no... he'd screwed that up too.

It hit him like a freight train, the memory so fresh he could have sworn it had happened yesterday. He was on the field, two minutes to go in the third quarter and they were down by ten. His step-dad was screaming from the sidelines, yelling at the defense to hold them off, hold them off! The quarterback of their rival school, Alagaësia County, was set for the snap behind his center, checking to make sure his receivers were in position and ready to run on his command.

Murtagh drew in his breath, crouched in the grass and the rain and raring like a seriously pissed-off bull. This was the game that would determine who would go to the playoffs this year. Ilirea High hadn't made it in years, and he was bound and determined to make sure this would be his year; his year to show his step-dad that he was more than what he thought of him; he was more than what Morzan had thought of him.

"Set..." The opposing quarterback made one last glance at the play clock. 5... 4... 3... 2... "Hah!" Everyone snapped into motion in an instant, grappling and running and trying to adjust mid-action. Murtagh's blocker tried to get a hand on his jersey, reaching out futilely as he sped out and around. The quarterback was in his sights, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he waited for a receiver to come open. So close... Just a few steps further, and then he's mine...

The crack sounded a lot louder in his ear when he took the kid down. Eragon had told him later that he'd heard from the stands, though how, Murtagh wasn't really sure. The ball had flown out of the quarterback's grip, bouncing along the grass to be scooped up by the right-side linebacker and run into the opponent's endzone for a fantastic touchdown. Murtagh hadn't seen any of it. His eyes were trained on the kid that lay crumpled beneath him, eyes staring blankly at the sky and breathing ragged.

"H-help," he cried weakly. "I need help." Murtagh stood and stared in horrified wonder.

"Hey, man, you okay?" he'd asked stupidly. Obviously, the kid wasn't okay. But he'd been so high on adrenaline at the moment, he hadn't noticed how badly he was not okay.

"I... I can't feel my legs." It all went a little fuzzy after that. Murtagh remembered that the stadium was deathly quiet, except for the coaches and trainers that had suddenly run on the field from the other team's sidelines. He'd backed away slowly, grappling desperately with his helmet to get it off his head. The damn thing was suffocating him... or maybe it was the slowly creeping realization of what he'd done. It wasn't long after that when the sirens came blaring from the other side of town.

He'd learned later that the kid had been paralyzed from the waist down; Murtagh had cracked his spine in three different places, and the kid would never walk again. It took him a full six months before he'd gotten up enough courage to visit him in the hospital. The kid—his name was Brady—had assured him it was an accident, and he didn't blame Murtagh for it. Brady was nicer than he'd ever be, and the guilt had never gone away. Even now, looking down on that damn field, he could feel it creeping into his chest and into his mind, gnawing away at him like some hungry beast.

"Hey, Tag!" The voice right behind him startled him out of his thoughts. Murtagh jumped nearly out of his skin and whirled on the speaker. "Whoa!" Thorn said, taking a step back and holding up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean to scare ya."

Murtagh gave a sort of half-smile that he'd figured out over the years made people a little less jumpy around him. What he hadn't counted on, was that anyone would find him halfway approachable. But Thorn certainly had, and they'd struck up an easy friendship in the last few years. Besides Eragon, Murtagh counted him as his only friend. And really, Eragon was his brother; he didn't exactly count.

"What's up, Thorn?" he said, giving him their usual greeting of a sort of high-five/handshake hybrid that turned into a pat on each other's backs. "You hangin' out with these band kids now?"

"Yeah," he drawled, looking back over to the parking lot where his bandmates were currently taking a short water break. "Hey, they ain't so bad though. Some of 'em are even kinda cool." Murtagh watched his friend's gaze settle on one person in particular, a petite girl with dark hair and pretty eyes.

"Yeah, I bet," he said, punching Thorn lightly on his shoulder. The younger boy turned back to him with a sheepish grin.

"What're you doin' here, man? It's Saturday."

"Nice observation, numbskull," he said sarcastically. "Nah, Principal Oromis wanted to talk to me about my plans for this school year. He says they aren't gonna let me come back next year if I don't get my head outta my ass."

"Yeah, makes sense," Thorn mused quickly with a wry smirk. "It's a little creepy, you hangin' out around here with all these younger chicks."

"Dude," Murtagh growled, "I'm gonna be nineteen, not ninety. You make me sound like I'm a frickin' fossil."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm just kiddin' with ya." Thorn shot a look back at the drumline and saw they were gathering their various instruments to get back to work. "Oops," he said quietly, "gotta go. I'll see ya tomorrow, okay?" Thorn was already jogging back to the other band kids, so Murtagh just waved his hand in acknowledgement.

He made his way over to where he'd parked his bike. There wasn't really any designated motorcycle parking, which seemed stupid to him, but the drama teacher had been kind enough to offer him the covered area that led to the back of the theater. There was a huge garage door, and room enough that he could maneuver his bike so it wouldn't be seen easily from any angle. The drama teacher, Miss Angela, had made some remark about his bike being a "two-wheeled death machine", but she'd been nice about it all the same. But, to get to the theater garage, he needed to parade past all the band kids in his leather motorcycle gear. This would be fun.

Murtagh was used to the stares and whispers, especially after he'd paralyzed somebody for life. But they'd started long before that whole incident. It was a well known fact in Ilirea that his biological dad, Morzan, had been the sleaziest scumbag to ever disgrace their pristine, idyllic town. Most of the people in said town didn't have a much better opinion of his son.

"There he goes," someone whispered off to his left. He kept his head down, letting his longish hair shield his face and eyes. "Don't look at him funny," a girl giggled, "he might sick his mafia buddies on you." More giggles from a number of girls. Eyes, following him and boring holes into his skull. God, he was gonna lose it. There was an intense pressure mounting at the base of his skull, making the edges of his vision go fuzzy and dark. The anger was rising, and he didn't know how much longer he could take it.

"Hey!" This time, he knew the call was directed at him.

"What!" he roared, whirling around to face his mockers head-on. Instead, he was met with soft brown eyes, dark skin, brows pulled together in concern... Was there fear? No, it wasn't fear. It was...

"You dropped this," she said, extending her hand and blocking out any other questions circling through his head. He looked at her hand, covered in a fingerless glove with weird padding. In it, was another glove, this one black and expensive leather. He recognized it as his own.

"Oh," he said stupidly, eyes still locked on her outstretched hand. "Uh... thanks." He reached out quickly and took it back, then dared to look into her eyes once more. This time, she was smiling softly at him. In comparison to his usual first-meetings with people, this might as well have been an alien abduction. Why the hell was this chick being so nice to him? Didn't she know the stories? The rumors about this supposed monstrosity?

"You're welcome," she said cheerfully, then turned swiftly on her tippy-toes and ran back to the gaggle of girls with their flags and guns. He was too stunned to speak or move, so he just sort of stood there awkwardly for a few moments before mentally punching himself and hurrying to his bike. He thought he could hear more giggling and then a stern voice cutting those giggles off, but he couldn't be sure once he put his helmet on. That thing blocked out most sounds, and had saved him from scathing looks and cutting remarks before.

Who was that girl? And why the hell had she been so nice to him? The roar of his bike starting up brought him back to reality momentarily. He didn't waste any time speeding off from that hellish place, heading towards the local rec center so he could blow off some steam. And the whole way there, his head swam with thoughts of a pretty girl that had decided she didn't believe the rumors about him. That was the only explanation he could come up with, for why she'd approached him so casually like that. His hands trembled slightly where they gripped the handlebars. What the hell was wrong with him?

Chapter Text

ERAGON

6:45... Where the hell is that girl?

Eragon sat fidgeting in his car, parked outside Saphira's house with the engine rumbling softly. If she didn't get out here in the next few minutes, they were going to be late, and then he was really gonna be mad. His left hand gripped the steering wheel til his knuckles turned white, while the other tapped out a steady rhythm on the gear shift in time with the music. Every couple of seconds, he glanced at the front door. When the clock read 6:49, he decided he'd had enough.

The blasting of his car horn echoed throughout the quiet neighborhood. If it had woken any of her neighbors, it would be Saphira's fault. Even with his insistent honking, it took her another minute to come bursting out of the front door, backpack slung haphazardly over one shoulder and hair looking a disheveled mess.

She wrenched the passenger side door open and practically fell into the seat. He didn't wait for her to buckle her seatbelt before throwing the car into first and tearing out of the neighborhood. He'd be damned if they were late on the first day of their Senior year.

"Sorry," Saphira said breathlessly, rifling through the pocket of her backpack for only-God-knows-what.

"What took ya so long, Saph?" he asked in an irritated voice. "I told you I'd be out there at twenty-til."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," she replied, drawing a hairbrush from her bag and running it quickly through the blonde mess that was her hair. "I forgot to set my alarm, I'm sorry. Band camp was killer last week and I'm still exhausted."

"Yeah, well just wait til you've gotta be at the school at 5:30 for a competition." She gave him a sideways sneer and narrowed her bright, blue eyes.

"Thanks, Mr. Sympathetic." She finished brushing her hair and checked it in the visor mirror, the bangles on her wrist jangling and tinkling loudly against one another as she flipped it down. Eragon guessed she was satisfied when she put her brush back in her bag. "How do I look?" she asked, turning towards him a bit.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to concentrate on the road at the same time. She wore shorts, as it was still hotter than Hell, and a short-sleeved t-shirt with the logo of some band screen printed on it. His eyes traveled up to her tired face and recently-brushed hair.

"When did you get that done?" he asked, motioning to the area on his own head he was trying to point out on hers. As her head moved, he could glimpse the electric blue highlights a little easier, though when she moved back they were covered again.

"Sunday," she replied with a smile. "You like them?" He glanced back, and decided that the blue looked good against her light blonde hair and tan skin. It made the color of her eyes pop even more than they already did.

"Yeah, you look good, Saphira." She smiled even wider and then turned back to the front windshield. "What about me?" He was making fun of her now, but she didn't seem to care.

"You look like you don't give a damn what you look like," she said with a laugh, scrunching up her freckled nose.

"Damn right," he laughed. She cranked up the radio, blasting some song that he was pretty sure was by the band on her t-shirt. By the time the song was over, they were pulling into the student parking lot on the north side of the school, inching at snail's pace due to the long line of cars trying to get into the narrow entrance. "They really need to do something about this lot," Eragon grumbled.

When they finally pulled into a parking space, the clock read 7:05; ten minutes til first bell. Eragon was less than thrilled that he'd gotten stuck with a first period his Senior year; he would have liked nothing more than to sleep in every day. Unfortunately, he was an idiot, and had neglected to take his required multimedia class til this year. And, also unfortunately, the only one he was qualified to take was only offered during 1st. So here he was, draggin' his ass to school before his brother had even opened his eyes. As for Saphira, well she was just a glutton for punishment.

"I'll see ya at lunch, Eragon!" Saphira called, and Eragon had to shake his head in order to focus. He hadn't even noticed her getting out of the car.

"Bye, Saph!" he called quickly as she melded into the crowd entering the school. He thought he saw her wave over her shoulder, but she disappeared before he could be certain. As slowly as he thought he could get away with, Eragon got out of his car and grabbed his backpack from the back seat, slinging it over his shoulder and pushing the door shut with a metallic creak.

Hordes of kids filed or ran past him, shouting and laughing with their friends. There was something kind of exciting about the first day of school, but Eragon knew that feeling wouldn't last through the week. They'd be complaining about getting up early and staying up late before he knew it. It was the same every year; he shouldn't be surprised. The only difference this year was that he didn't share in their excitement.

Eragon glanced down at the schedule he held in his hands, skimming the classroom numbers and teacher's names for probably the thousandth time. He'd had three of his teachers before. Mrs. Green his Freshman year for Algebra 1; she'd be his Statistics teacher this year. Obviously, Coach Haley was familiar to him, and he'd taught the Weight Training class for forever. Then Mrs. Dalton had taught him Sophomore level English; she was the teacher for the Humanities class he had with Saphira. Mr. Wall taught his Computer Lab class, which was the first one of the day. And his last class of the day was a Teacher's Assistant course... for Ms. Herbeau. She was the Drama teacher, and he couldn't figure out how he'd ended up as her assistant. He'd heard some crazy stuff about her; guess he'd get to finally find out if they were true.

He looked up at the brick facade of the building in front of him. Okay, he thought with determination, here we go.

 


 

Eragon sat in his 3rd period Statistics class, tapping his pencil on the desk top agitatedly. Mrs. Green stood before the class in front of her Smart Board, glasses perched on the end of her nose as she read her syllabus for this semester aloud. As nice as the old lady was, she was pretty damn boring. If today was any indication, Eragon could tell this was gonna be a hell of a long semester.

Thirty minutes later and she was finally done prattling on. And with only twenty minutes left in class, Mrs. Green gave them free reign to do what they wanted for the rest of the period. Eragon wasn't gonna ask twice. He fished his phone out of his jean pocket, checking for any notifications.

"Your girlfriend's annoying the hell out of me." That was from Murtagh, delivered at about 8:30, which would put him in 2nd period. What did he have? Oh right, Astronomy. Saphira was in the same class.

"For the last time, she's not my girlfriend, you ass." Eragon hit send with a slight smile and then moved on to the next one.

This time, it was from Saphira. "Murty says he's gonna hit you next time he sees you, since he can't hit me. ;)" Eragon had to stifle a chuckle, and opted for a poorly concealed cough instead. He felt bad for that teacher, having both Saph and Murtagh in their class. Must be hell.

"Try not to bother him too much, Saphy." He knew she hated when he called her that, and it was with a smug sense of satisfaction that he hit send.

Before he knew it, the bell was ringing for the end of class and everyone was scrambling to get out. His desk was situated next to the door, so he had no problem scurrying out of the classroom and into the already-congested hallways. It was a cacophony of laughing and voices, ringing in his ears. The Freshmen were easy enough to pick out; they all had these terrified looks on their faces, and most of them didn't know where they were going. A few Seniors in bright green shirts stood at the ends of the hallways that lead to the main hallway, ready to point any lost Freshies in the right direction.

Eragon weaved in and out of everyone with practiced precision. He stood about a head taller than everyone around him, so it was only a matter of picking out the best route. His next class was Weight Training, down under the gym. A gaggle of girls walking slower than seemed humanly possible blocked his way, so he cleared his throat as loudly as he could, causing what he assumed to be their leader to turn with a disgusted look on her face. As soon as she saw him though, that look disappeared into one of mild embarrassment. He smiled quickly and seized his opportunity to dart past all the girls as they erupted into a fit of giggles.

 


 

Weight Training was, as always, his favorite class. He loved being able to lose himself in working out while the school day went on around him. It was like taking an afternoon nap of sorts, except for the fact that he happened to be lifting more than a hundred pounds over his head at the moment. But working out was cathartic for him; a stress relief. Coupled with the fact that he had a free period after this, he couldn't have been happier right now.

"You good, man?" Jamie, his spotter, asked him quickly. Eragon grunted in response, did two more reps, and then replaced the bar on the rack.

"Thanks, Jamie, I'm all set," he said to the bigger kid. He was an outside tackle on the defensive line, and a hell of a good one at that. At 6'5 and 240 pounds, Eragon didn't think any of the quarterbacks in their league stood a chance against this monster.

He glanced up at the clock on the wall. 10:55. He checked with Coach Haley and left a little early to get to the showers first. After showering quickly and putting his clothes back on, 4th period was over, and the sounds of hundreds of kids heading frantically to lunch floated in from outside the locker rooms. He grabbed his backpack out of the locker and then slammed the door, clicking his lock shut. In his pocket, his phone buzzed like an angry bee.

Eragon pulled it out and glanced at the screen. Saphira: "Meet me in the library?" He sighed, a little overdramatically. They were supposed to be going out to lunch; why was he surprised she needed to go to the library on the first day of school?

"Be there in a sec," he replied. The library wasn't far from the gym, but he had to trek past the cafeteria to get there. A huge line of people were already waiting to get through the food line, most of them underclassmen who didn't have off-campus privileges. Some of the younger girls stared as he walked by, but he ignored them, though the feeling of their eyes on him never left.

Mrs. Martin, the librarian, greeted him as he walked in, and he waved in response. It was quiet in here, as it ought to have been. Maybe that was why he'd never liked it; it was just too quiet for his liking. He did a quick glance about the room, looking for Saphira's familiar form. And of course, she was nowhere to be seen.

"Where r u?" he texted in irritation. The response took a few moments to come.

"History section." He huffed angrily. Right, because he knew exactly where that was. Eragon walked a little further into the huge room, keeping to the edge to avoid walking through the section where all the tables were. After he sighted down a couple of the aisles, he finally caught a glimpse of her distinctive hair. Eragon made his way quickly around all the tables and down the narrow aisle where Saphira was perusing the spines of books.

"What are you doing, Saph?" he whispered, glancing around to make sure he wouldn't be disturbing anyone. "I thought we had plans for lunch?"

"We're still gonna go, Eragon, don't get your panties in a twist." He bristled slightly at the sarcastic remark. "I just need to get my hands on a book before that two-faced little snob gets it." He watched her for another few moments with mock displeasure.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"I got a tip from Grace, who has the same Humanities course we're taking, just during 2nd period. She said there was a book that was required reading that got left off the syllabus," Saphira explained calmly, moving a few books around to look behind them. "There's only two copies in the library. Grace got the first one, and she hid the second one for me." Saphira pushed a couple books apart and huffed in annoyance when her oh-so-important book wasn't there. "Too bad Gracie dear couldn't remember which titles she hid the damn thing behind."

"And who exactly are you worried is going to take this book? Why don't you just buy it?" Saphira whirled on him quickly.

"We're taking a college course, Eragon," she hissed quietly. "Have you ever been to the campus bookstore during the first week of classes?" He shook his head dumbly. "It's a madhouse. I have no intention of going down there. Besides, if I don't have to spend the money on a book, I'm not going to." She turned back to the stacks with an irritated look on her face. "As to the other question... I think you know."

"Oh, don't tell me this is about that stupid rivalry you have with what's-her-name," Eragon said, rolling his eyes slightly.

"It's not a stupid rivalry, Eragon." Saphira actually sounded offended, so he looked over at her. Sure enough, there was a hurt look in her eyes. "You know what it means for me to be valedictorian. My parents don't have a lot of money; I need to get a good scholarship if I want to make it to A&M. The only way to do that is to be top of the class. I have to beat her." Eragon held his hands up in defeat.

"Okay, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking," he conceded. Saphira remained quiet through the rest of her search, until she finally found the book and let out a triumphant squeal.

"Come on, let's go," she said excitedly, any offense she'd taken forgotten completely. Eragon followed behind her as she bounded up to the front desk to check out the book. There was quite a line, so they'd have to wait a little longer. Saphira leafed through a few of the pages as they waited in line, while Eragon looked idly about the room, people watching absently.

He was surprised by how many people were in here, seeing as it was only the first day of school. He guessed there were just a bunch of people who took their grades a lot more seriously than he did. No doubt, he had good grades, but he didn't go out of his way to make sure he did. Not like Saphira, anyways. And this girl she had a petty rivalry with. What was her name again? He couldn't remember.

In the midst of his thoughts, Eragon realized he'd been staring at one table in particular, without really looking. And now that he was, he was shocked utterly still.

Sitting at the table, was a girl. She looked to be in his grade, and she was bent over the table, poring over a textbook with a notebook open at her right hand. Scores of different colored pens, highlighters, post-it notes, and other study materials were laid out on the table meticulously. Shoulder-length, black hair curtained her face, but he could just glimpse the features of her face.

"Saphira," he said quietly, leaning towards her without ever taking his eyes off this girl. "Who is that?" She looked back at him, and then followed his gaze to the dark-haired girl.

"Are you kidding me, Eragon?" she hissed, elbowing him in the gut painfully.

"Ouch! What was that for?" He rubbed at his stomach where she'd hit him, though it did little to ease the pain.

"That's Arya," she said with a sneer, glancing back at the table quickly. Despite Eragon's loud cry of pain, her eyes had never strayed from her studies.

"Who?" Saphira whipped her head back to him with narrowed eyes.

"Seriously? I've had a rivalry with this girl since Freshman year and you don't even know who she is?" she said in disbelief. Saphira scoffed slightly as she turned away, but Eragon couldn't take his eyes off this girl. It was like there was something magnetic pulling his gaze towards her, drawing him in. Why had he never noticed her before? He knew there was no way he'd ever had a class with her; he would have remembered that.

"Come on, you drooling idiot," Saphira said, grasping his forearm and pulling him along. She checked out her book and then they were on their way. And throughout lunch, Eragon couldn't get that girl out of his head.

 


 

Mrs. Dalton had always been one of his favorite teachers. She had this way of teaching that made it fun, and a lot of her projects were hands-on and interactive, which he enjoyed. The fact that he'd be getting college credit for this course only made it that much better. And the fact that Saphira was in this class with him.

It was still a few minutes to the bell, but he and Saphira had already taken their seats. He just hoped Mrs. Dalton would let them keep their seats, and didn't have a seating chart. At his right, Saphira was chatting away about something. But he wasn't really paying attention; not anymore, anyways. Because the last person he'd expected to see walked in the door.

"God, you have got to be kidding me," Saphira said under her breath. As for Eragon, well... he had to mentally slap himself to get his mouth to close. Arya sat on the opposite side of the room, near the back of the class and away from everybody else. Eventually, once everyone else had arrived, the seats around her filled in and Eragon couldn't help thinking she looked uncomfortable. The second bell rang and Mrs. Dalton stood up from her desk.

"Alright, everyone, settle down please," she said, setting herself up on a cushioned barstool. "Welcome to CE Humanities, which is, as I'm sure you all know, a college credit course. I trust you all have your textbooks already. If not, you've got a week to get them from the campus bookstore. To start off today, I'm going to be giving you all assigned seats, so everybody up and at 'em."

Saphira groaned at his side, gathering up her things, but Eragon was silently celebrating, hoping he'd be seated next to Arya. Mrs. Dalton started reading off names and pointing to seats, placing Saphira a few desks over from where she was already sitting.

"Eragon," she said, looking up at him, "you'll be seated next to Miss Draper, over there." She pointed, and he shifted his gaze to where she'd indicated. Emerald green eyes stared back at him, wide and maybe a little... surprised? He walked over and sat at her left, pulling out his notebook and binder and keeping his head down. That magnetic force he'd felt before was gone, and it was replaced by an icy coldness. She sat completely stiff in her chair, eyes trained on their teacher and mouth clamped into a thin line.

"Now that's out of the way," their teacher continued, "I'll be passing out a quiz. This is not for a grade; it's meant to simply test the knowledge you already have so I can know what our starting point is." She passed out the quizzes to each row and they were handed back one-by-one. "You all may converse during the quiz. In this class, we're going to be doing a lot of group projects, so I want you to get used to working together. Alright, you can begin."

A hushed murmur broke out amongst his classmates. At his right, Arya was bent over her quiz, circling answers and penciling in responses with a speed he'd never seen before. Damn, he thought, she must really know her stuff. He looked back at his own quiz and read the first question.

'When was the Romantic Era in music? A. 1780-1850 B.1820-1910 C. 1650-1730 or D. 1790-1910' What the hell? he thought, furrowing his brow. He had no idea what the answer was. A quick scan of the rest of the questions told him he didn't know the answers to them either. Hesitantly, Eragon turned to the girl at his right, still working on her quiz.

"I have no idea about any of these," he said lightly, trying to play it off with a laugh. Eragon saw her shoulders tense slightly, but her eyes never left the page.

"Maybe you should have done the suggested reading over the summer," she replied quietly and in a terse voice.

He was a little caught off-guard by her hostility. Then again, he might have acted the same if some stranger had just started talking to him out of nowhere. But if they'd be sitting next to one another all semester, he had to try and at least be nice.

"Yeah, maybe," he admitted with a sheepish grin and laugh. "I'm not much of a reader, to be honest."

"Well then," she said, turning to him with the most dazzling smile, "I guess you're stuck to guessing, aren't you?" He didn't know what to say. She... she was making fun of him.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly, "have I done something to offend you?" Her fake smile dropped quickly, and then she was eyeing him warily, scathing with those intense, green eyes.

Finally, she said quietly, "You don't remember at all, do you?" His confused look must have been answer enough. She looked away, but he could tell her hostility had been replaced with something else: hurt. Before he could say anything in response, she stood up and handed her quiz in to Mrs. Dalton. She returned to her seat, but Eragon didn't make another move to talk to her. Something wasn't right here... What did she mean he didn't remember?

Once the class was over, Arya put her things away quickly and then hurried out of the room without a look back at him. He watched her go, more confused than ever, but he was brought back by a sharp slap on his shoulder.

"What is the matter with you, Eragon?" Saphira asked him, eyes wide in disbelief.

"Saphira, what are you talking about?" He slowly began replacing his materials in his bag before standing up and making his way out of the class with everyone else.

"Why were you talking to her?" she demanded.

He eyed her carefully as they walked down the hall, pressing through crowds of people that decided the middle of the hallway was a perfect place to stop and have a conversation. "Just because you don't like her," he called over the hum of voices all around them, "doesn't mean that I can't like her." They finally pushed through the most heavily populated area to a clear space, underneath the circular staircase that led to the upper floor.

"Eragon, you really are dumb," she growled. "Do you not remember your Freshman year at all?"

"I've tried to scrub it from my memory," he muttered.

"Maybe this will help to jog it," she said, popping him on the side of the head. "Remember 'metal mouth mooncalf'?" Realization hit him like a freight train. 'Metal mouth mooncalf'... it had been the demeaning moniker they'd slapped on that poor girl back in their 9th grade year.

"Shit," he whispered, wide-eyed as the memories came back to him. "That's her?"

"Yeah," Saphira said exasperatedly, "and I'm sure she thought you were making fun of her by trying to talk to her back there." He remembered his Freshman year, when he'd been unbelievably stupid and desperately trying to fit in with the older guys on his football team. There was a girl in his grade; he didn't really know her, and he hadn't really cared. She was a nerd; a geek; a freak with braces. They'd made fun of her without caring what that might mean. Now it seemed karma was coming to bite him in the ass.

"But... b-but I―"

"You screwed up, Eragon," she said unsympathetically, "big time. Come on, we gotta get you to the drama room or Miss Herbeau is gonna fire up the cauldron to put you in."

"Wait, what?" he said incredulously as she dragged him down the almost-empty hall. It must be getting close to second bell.

"Oh," Saphira said distractedly, "didn't I tell you she's a Wiccan?" Eragon felt a shudder go through him at the thought. Saphira just laughed at his discomfort and led him down a hall across from the gym. If they'd gone straight, they would have ended up in the lobby to the auditorium, but Saph turned quickly to the left to go down a short set of stairs. They were in the Performing Arts wing, somewhere he'd never been before. He'd never had a reason to go there; now it seemed he'd be here on a daily basis.

They passed the choir room on their left, from which he could hear a girl's gentle, warm singing. After that were a couple of offices he assumed belonged to teachers, and then a room full of students with guitars. He glimpsed a few huge, wooden instruments leaned against the back wall on a standing rack, and deduced that this was the orchestra room. They passed a computer lab on the right, a couple of smallish rooms where people were practicing, and then a large room with huge filing cabinets. Saphira told him this was the Music Library. Around the corner from that room was a door with glass panels on either side.

"Here's the drama room," Saphira said, finally releasing his wrist. "I'll be in the band room if Miss Herbeau happens to let you go." She motioned over her shoulder to another door at their left. "But don't count on that. Good luck." She turned swiftly and left him standing in the hallway by himself. He glanced into the room through the glass panel and saw it was empty. Weird, he thought, putting a hand on the knob and going inside.

It was quiet and dimly lit. The overhead lights were off, but there were bistro lights strung along the perimeter of the ceiling, giving the room a warm, orange glow. Long tables took up most of the room, and there was an old-timey chalkboard on the right wall. There were some words written in a looping, fancy script, but he didn't understand them. They looked like they were in a different language... Latin, maybe?

There were a couple of doors at the far end of the room, and one of them was propped open so he could see a dressing room. And on the wall to his left was a large, glass window looking into an office he assumed must be Miss Herbeau's. More bistro lights in the office gave off a soft glow. He could smell incense burning somewhere, and Eragon thought that couldn't be very safe. On every wall there were posters and pictures of plays and musicals, so many he couldn't count them all. He walked a little further along the right-hand wall and found another door, tucked into an alcove so he almost didn't see it.

Hesitantly, he twisted the handle and pulled it open slightly, stepping forward to go through. Before he could take more than two steps though, a sharp cry filled the air, and a streak of black ran past his feet. He jumped back with a yelp, taking care not to trample what he now realized was a huge, midnight black cat. The creature jumped lightly onto one of the long tables, turning and perching on the edge to stare at him with yellow eyes as big as saucers.

"Hey, kitty," he said quietly, walking slowly to the table it sat upon. The cat flicked its tail before wrapping the tail around itself, blinking slowly at him. Eragon reached out a hand, which the cat sniffed at. Tentatively, he scratched behind its ear, and let himself smile a bit when the cat leaned into his touch and closed its eyes, purring contentedly.

"You must be Eragon." The voice startled him nearly out of his skin, and he whirled around to see a tiny woman with the craziest hair he'd ever seen. It was a light brown, with shades of blonde here and there, and curled wildly up around her head. Sharp blue eyes inspected him carefully, but her mouth was twisted into a wry smirk. Her skin was dark, with a hint of warm caramel.

"Uh, yeah, that's me," he replied, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I guess I'm your assistant for this semester, Miss Herbeau."

"Oh please," she said quickly, allowing her smile to widen, "call me Angela. All the other kids do." He thought it might be a little weird to call a teacher by her first name, but he nodded all the same. "Come on, I'll show you around." She beckoned him through the door he'd tried to open, and he followed her dutifully.

"I'm surprised Solembum let you pet him," she said over her shoulder as he stepped into the huge space before him. The ceilings were at least thirty feet high, and it seemed he'd stepped into some kind of workshop. To the left, there was a sort of garage door that stood open to the outside. In an alcove beyond the door, he could see his brother's motorcycle parked in the shade. There were kids roaming in and out of the door, carrying wooden beams or power tools.

"Uh, who?" he asked distractedly, taking in all the sights.

"Solembum," she repeated with a laugh. "My cat. He's not always friendly with the kids, but they know not to touch him. He found you before I could warn you, though it seems I didn't have to." He grunted in response, unsure of what to say. What kind of teacher brings their cat to school? "Now, during 7th period I've got my techies in here, so try not to get in their way. They get a little cranky, especially if we're getting close to opening night." Eragon didn't have the foggiest what she was talking about, but he nodded anyways.

In front of them was another huge opening that led out onto the auditorium stage. He could glimpse the edge of a canvas that he guessed usually covered this opening, but right now it was open, so he could see a group of kids sitting in a circle on the stage while one stood in the middle talking about safety procedures...or something like that.

"Up those stairs―" she pointed to a metal staircase that reminded him of a fire escape "―is where we keep the costumes. That's where you'll be spending most of your semester. I need somebody to organize the wardrobe, and luckily I got a strapping kid for an assistant this year."

"Organize?" he said dumbly. She turned on her heel, flinging her crazy hair wildly.

"Yup!" she exclaimed happily, leaning over to a worktable and picking up a white three-ring binder. Inside were pages and pages of paper with numbers and words typed all over them. She handed it over to Eragon. "This is our costume inventory," she explained, "and I hate to say that it's become quite disheveled over the years. In that binder, you'll find every piece of clothing this department owns, and I need for you to organize it. Our fall drama production is coming up in a few months, so I'll need it mostly done by then. Think you can do that?"

Eragon stared at the papers in front of him, eyes wide. "Mmm, yeah, I think so," he replied. "But, how do you want me to organize it?"

"By color, of course!" she said, clapping her hands together. "I color coordinate all my shows, Eragon. The productions look so much more put-together that way, don't ya think?"

"Oh... uh, sure." Eragon wasn't quite sure what to think of this odd little woman, with her crazy hair, paint splatter overalls, and combat boots. Saphira's words came back to him then, and he noticed a pendant she was wearing around her neck in the shape of a crescent moon and stars. He'd never been overly religious, despite what his mother might have wanted, but that didn't mean he was gonna mess around with witchcraft. Against his better judgment, he was starting to get freaked out.

"Well..." She paused expectantly. When he didn't respond, she rolled her eyes slightly and waved her hands at him in a shooing gesture. "Go on, get up there. You'd best get started." He nodded quickly and clambered up the metal ladder, binder in hand. "Hey! Grant, I need you to get a group of guys and start on that platform!" Miss Angela―there was no way he was gonna start calling her by her first name―was off and running again, twittering around the workshop like some kind of fairy.

At the top of the stairs, he was let out onto a sort of mezzanine that was the ceiling of what he thought might be the music library. There were only three walls, and then an open side that was only contained by a metal banister with an opening for the stairs. And cluttering up the entire space were boxes and racks and piles and piles and piles of clothes. There had to have been thousands of pieces up here. Shirts and pants and dresses and shoes, all strewn about with no semblance of order whatsoever.

Dread filled his chest at the thought of organizing this disaster in front of him. He heaved a sigh and rolled up his sleeves. This was going to be a hell of a long semester.

Chapter Text

NASUADA

"Okay Nas, that's really great. I can tell you've been practicing." The choir teacher—Mrs. Howell—said warmly, giving Nasuada a wide smile. She'd just finished singing a piece her private teacher had her working on.

"All summer," she assured her with a slight bounce on her toes. "I wanted to be ready for the All State auditions in December, so my private teacher and I have worked up a few pieces I think will be really good audition material."

Mrs. Howell gave an appreciative nod. "It's always good to be prepared," she replied, closing the fallboard of the piano. "Do you have a few moments? I wanted to talk to you about some stuff real quick." The choir teacher was relatively young in comparison to her students, but that just meant they loved her all the more. And Nasuada found her very easy to talk to, be it about choir, boys, or just life in general.

Nasuada checked the clock that hung over Mrs. Howell's desk in the corner. 2:15 "Yeah, I've got some time." This was her free period anyways; even if she did have some colorguard practice to get in, it could wait a little bit.

"Okay, great," her teacher replied. "Let me organize some stuff and I'll meet you over in my office." Nasuada nodded and grabbed her bag off the floor, placing her music back in her folder and then shoving the folder into her backpack. Mrs. Howell's office was just across the hall from the choir room, and was unlocked, so she went right in to the cramped space, taking a seat in one of the chairs meant for students. The office was actually connected to the orchestra teacher's office, and he'd left his door open, so she could see into the orchestra room.

Mr. Woodworth looked like he was having a hard time teaching a guitar class. Those kids were always running around acting crazy, or they were constantly picking at their strings, trying to nail down whatever pop or rock song they were currently learning. The rest of the kids in the Performing Arts department tended to look down on them, like they were somehow beneath the kids who studied violin or saxophone or singing. But Nasuada didn't think that way. She actually thought it was good for there to be an outlet for those kids. A lot of them were troubled academically, and this allowed them to have something to forget about that... at least for a little while.

"Okay, guys!" Mr. Woodworth called over the cacophony. "Let's put our guitars down for a minute, please? Thank you." Right then, Mrs. Howell came in the office and wiggled around to sit behind her desk.

"Hey, Nas, will you go close that door?" she asked distractedly, filing through some emails on her computer.

"Sure," she replied softly, walking over to the other side of the office that belonged to Mr. Woodworth. As she stepped up to the door, the orchestra teacher looked over at her and gave a small wave. But that wasn't where her attention was focused; it was focused on the pair of grey eyes staring intently at her.

She recognized him from the other day, when he'd dropped his glove outside. And when he'd almost bit her head off for giving it back. Murtagh Morris. She didn't know he played guitar... Well, maybe he didn't. Maybe he was just starting to learn.

His gaze didn't leave her, even as she went to close the door. It was actually a little frightening, how intensely he was staring her down. Was he angry with her or something? It gave her a shiver to think about it, which she banished with a quick shrug of the shoulders. As the door latched closed, she hurried back to the other side of the office.

"Okay," Mrs. Howell said slowly, drawing out the word as she hurriedly closed down several tabs on her desktop. Once it was cleared, she turned to Nasuada with a wide smile. "Let's talk."

"What about?" Nas questioned.

"About the future." That word struck a chord of fear in her heart. The "future" was the absolute last thing she wanted to discuss. "I know it's only your Junior year," she continued, unaware, "but it's really never too early to start thinking about these things. Do you have an idea of where you'd like to go to college?"

"Um, well..." Nasuada hedged nervously, twiddling her fingers in her lap. The truth was that she didn't really know. Well... she knew what she wanted to do, but that was in such stark contrast to what her dad wanted her to do that she hadn't told anybody.

Mrs. Howell picked up on her hesitation quickly. "Have you considered studying music?" she asked, a knowing look in her kind, blue eyes. Nasuada nodded with a slight chuckle. "I thought as much. But maybe that isn't what your dad wants?"

"Kind of ironic, isn't it?" she laughed in reply. "My dad is the band teacher, and he wants me to become a doctor or a lawyer or a politician."

Mrs. Howell smiled kindly. "I've known your dad for a while, Nasuada. He's only got your best interests in mind. But I can tell that music is really where your heart lies." Nasuada let that statement sink in, rolling it over in her mind and laughing when she realized how true it actually was. "It's only the first day of school," Mrs. Howell continued, "so don't feel like you have to rush off and have some deep, philosophical conversation with him. But I'd suggest you talk to him about it sometime this semester. Come spring, you'll be so wrapped up with the ACT and AP exams that you won't have time to think about it. And before you know it, it'll be time to start auditioning for some programs."

"I don't know why he doesn't want me to study music," she replied quietly. "He knows I love it, and I know he loves it too. I just..."

"Hey," the choir teacher said softly, "your dad has been through a lot. If you just talk to him, you'll understand." Nasuada looked up at her with a nervous flutter in her chest, but she nodded all the same.

"Okay, I'll talk to him once we get past our first parade. That always puts him on edge, and I don't wanna put anything else on his plate on top of that."

"A wise decision," Mrs. Howell chuckled. "Alright, I've got about a thousand pieces to sift through to try and figure out what we'll be performing this semester, so you go on." Nasuada smiled gratefully and grabbed her bag off the floor, slinging it over her shoulder. She opened up the door to leave, but Mrs. Howell stopped her. "Oh, and Nasuada?"

"Yes?" she asked, looking back over her shoulder.

"You're doing a great job," Mrs. Howell said. "I'm really proud of the progress you've made over the past two years."

"Thanks, Mrs. H," Nasuada replied. She left the office, closing the door behind her quietly, and then strolled out into the main hallway. It was deserted, as it was the middle of class, but she could hear the sounds of practicing and voices chattering floating on the air. This was her favorite place in the world; this was where she really felt at home. All that talk of the future had scared her a bit, but she took comfort in knowing that she still had two years in this place.

Nas walked the short distance down the hall to the band room, making sure she opened it quietly so as not to disturb the class currently going on. Her dad had Jazz Band during 7th period, which was the only thing he took more seriously than Marching Band. When she walked into the room, she noticed Saphira sitting in her dad's office immediately to the right.

"Hey, Saphira," she whispered hurriedly. The other girl snapped her head up to look at her, but smiled widely when she realized who it was.

"Oh, hi Nas, what's up?" she said, putting down the magazine she'd been flipping through.

"Nothin' much, just came to get my flag and practice some tosses. You?" Saphira was sitting in Mr. Adams' swivel chair, so Nasuada took the smaller chair that sat by the door.

"I was gonna try and do some practicing myself, but all the practice rooms are full." Saphira shrugged half-heartedly. "Oh well. I figure everyone's enthusiasm will fade by next week, so I'll just bide my time."

Nasuada laughed lightly. "That sounds like a good plan. Okay, well I'm gonna go throw a 6-foot long metal pole a few feet in the air for fun, I'll see ya after school." Saphira giggled and Nas got up to leave.

"Oh, by the way," Saphira said hastily, causing Nasuada to pause her retreat, "I wanted to congratulate you on getting Captain." Nasuada froze momentarily, trying to decipher if Saphira was being genuine or not. Ever since the roster had come out, Nasuada had had to deal with whispers and scathing looks; people saying she'd only gotten Captain because her dad was the band director. But Saphira seemed to really mean it, so she let a tentative smile grace her dark features.

"Thanks, Saphira, I really appreciate that," she replied. Saphira nodded knowingly, and then Nasuada left for real. She skirted around the back of the band room, giving her dad a quick wave and getting a wink and a nod in response. Once she'd circumnavigated the percussion section, she headed to the closet on the other side of the room that stored the uniforms, flags, rifles, sabres, or whatever else the band needed put away during school hours. She pushed aside a few items until she found the flag with the pink silk that was hers.

Once she'd retrieved her flag, she hurried quietly out of the room, through the double doors at the back that opened to the entryway off the student parking lot. The atrium had tall ceilings, which made it perfect for practicing tosses when the gym wasn't available, as it was now. Nasuada set down her bag up against a wall that was nothing but trophy cases for the school's sports teams. She dug around in her bag until she found her gloves and then strapped them on quickly.

The pole felt a little unbalanced as she did a few drop-spins; she made a mental note to get some weights to put in the end cap out of her dad's office later. As the silk 'swished' and 'snapped' through the air, Nasuada could feel herself calming down. It was sort of therapeutic for her, spinning a flag. Each action was intentional; every flick of her wrist or movement of her arm had a direct effect on the flag, creating a piece of visual art. The silk wrapped her in a sort of cocoon as she turned into a quick butterfly spin. And as the flag spun around her back and came back around on the other side, she flicked it into a pop toss right over her head.

She watched it rotate in the reflection of the glass cases in front of her, arcing through the air gracefully. But as her eyes followed its path back downward, and she raised her arms to catch it, she caught a glimpse of a figure standing behind her. Quickly, she abandoned any thought of catching the flag and turned to face whoever it was lurking by the bathrooms behind where she stood.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he muttered quickly, backing up a few steps from where he stood. But his fierce, grey eyes never left her.

Murtagh.

"I just... It's really, um... really cool, what you do with that thing." He motioned at the flag that lay abandoned on the floor behind her.

"Oh..." she said quietly, not sure if she trusted her voice to say anything more. "Um, thanks... Doesn't really explain why you were watching me like that. How long have you been standing there?"

He shrugged. "Not long. Left class to go to the bathroom, and saw you there. Probably only about a minute, if I had to guess."

"It's kinda creepy," she said with a laugh. He was acting so nervous, Nasuada doubted he'd had any ill-intent. And it was sort of endearing...

"Sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"It's fine," she assured him, turning around and picking up her flag. She crossed the short distance between them and stuck out her hand. "I'm Nasuada, by the way. We, uh... we sorta met before."

"I remember," he replied with a sort of half-smile. Nasuada could tell that it was practiced; something he'd learned to do over time, probably because there were so many rumors floating around town about him. She knew who Murtagh Morris was, only because he had a reputation. But the boy standing in front of her didn't line up with the tales of the no-good delinquent she'd always heard. "I wanted to apologize..."

"For what?" she questioned, arching one eyebrow higher than the other.

"How I snapped at you, when you gave me back my glove," he explained, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his black jeans. "I'm... Well, I'm not used to people approaching me; you caught me off-guard. And kindness with no strings attached... that's not something I'm used to."

Nasuada could feel her chest tightening, overcome with sympathy and compassion. What in the world could have happened to him to make him say something like that? The way he was avoiding eye contact made her think he wasn't just over exaggerating.

"Well..." she started slowly, leaning up against her flagpole, "I try to show everyone kindness until they give me reason not to. And you never have."

He laughed mirthlessly. "I guess that means you've never heard the rumors about me."

"No, I have," she replied with a smirk. "But rumors are just rumors. Until I see something with my own eyes, I tend not to believe it's true. So, no; I do not believe that you spent the last summer in a juvenile work camp, nor do I believe that you are part of a motorcycle gang that deals drugs, or that you are in cahoots with the mafia. They're all just stories people make up because they're bored. And the people in this town tend to get bored a lot."

His face was a mixture of amusement and surprise. "Well, I... uh... Thanks, I guess." He rubbed at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Um, I've got to get back to class. I'll... see ya around?" The questioning tone in his voice caused her to smile.

"We go to the same school, so I don't doubt it," she quipped back with a chuckle. Nasuada turned away from him, facing the glass cases once again and flicking her flag above her head in a quad toss, watching it sail almost up into the rafters. It came down in her hands with a satisfying 'slap', but when she turned to gauge Murtagh's reaction, she saw that he was already gone.

Chapter Text

ARYA

Arya's hands shook where they gripped the edges of the sink with surprising force. Her knuckles began to turn white, but she couldn't seem to let go. A knot was beginning to form in her chest, and her breathing became labored, ripping through her chest in a ragged whisper.

No, she thought desperately, no, no, not here. Please not here. Her vision began to blur at the edges, and she slammed her eyes shut against it, willing the pain in her head to go away.

Having a full on panic attack on the first day of school was not quite the way she'd envisioned starting off her senior year.

But she couldn't help it. That damn Eragon Sharp had ruined everything all over again. Who the hell did he think he was? After years of him and his buddies tormenting her, now all of a sudden he decides to be nice? Or was it just another trick? She couldn't be sure anymore…

It had been easier to trust no one than to try and be friendly and end up getting hurt. All of this had started back in the 7th grade, when she'd had to be fitted with braces to fix her teeth and wore glasses too large for her small face. Kids were cruel, and she wasn't naïve enough to believe anything other than the truth… But she never imagined the lengths they would go to in order to make fun of her.

The 8th grade dance was the highlight of every kid's year. It signaled the end of one chapter of their life, and the beginning of a new, more exciting, one: high school. Arya was naturally shy and quiet, and spent more time with her nose in a book than talking to anyone. Which was why she had been stunned beyond all belief when the most popular boy in school had approached her in the hallway, with his tousled hair and lopsided smile.

She should have known better. The warning bells had gone off in her head. This is a trap, they had screamed. Run as fast as you can. But she ignored them. She said yes when he asked her to be his date to the dance, and allowed herself to actually believe her luck was turning around.

Her mom bought her a dress for the dance, done her hair and even let her wear a little makeup. Part of her thought she looked ridiculous, but her mother assured her she was beautiful.

She'd believed it.

The night of the dance came and her date and his parents were supposed to pick her up. She waited… and waited… and waited. No one ever came. Her mom assured her they'd probably lost the address and offered to drive her to the school to just meet up in the gym. That was her chance to run, to save herself some heartache.

She hadn't been smart enough to take it.

The gym was done up with decorations to make it look like a medieval castle. Fair maidens and their shining knights were painted on cardboard cutouts, guarded by glittering dragons. It was like straight out of one of her stories. Music and lights and laughter filled the air, but she didn't notice. She didn't realize… until it was too late.

Everyone was laughing.

They were laughing at her.

"Oh my god!" the girls had squealed, pointing and laughing at her dress. She knew it had looked ridiculous. Why had she let her mom convince her this was a good idea?

"Did you really think he'd actually want to date you?" they'd guffawed, cackling at how stupid she'd been. And she knew it… she knew it was a bad idea. So why? Why? Why had she believed him!

And there he was, right in the midst of them all, laughing right along with tears in his eyes and slapping his buddies on the shoulder like they'd accomplished some great feat. They'd made her a fool. Made her even more a freak than she already was. It was all too much.

She ran from the gym as fast as she was able, barely able to see through the tears blurring her vision. Her mom was supposed to come get her at 9 o'clock, when the dance was over. It was only 8:15, and she didn't have a cellphone. What was she supposed to do?

Her feet had carried her this far… what was a few more miles?

She didn't stop running until the school was far behind her, and even then, she kept a brisk pace. That night, she'd walked all the way home in the dark, shivering against the chilly night air. She didn't care. And she hadn't since.

Except that wasn't exactly true.

The teasing had continued into high school, up til her sophomore year. She pretended it didn't bother her, but every night she'd been plagued with nightmares that left her with lingering thoughts better left unsaid. Eragon Sharp hadn't been the boy to trick her into going to the dance, but he was one of them, the group of boys that seemed to make it their mission to cause her misery. But the summer between her sophomore and junior year, she'd finally gotten her braces off and convinced her mom to let her get contacts. When her junior year began, she realized the teasing had finally stopped. The football jocks had found a new victim to torture, seeming to forget she'd even existed. How could they forget? Did they not care about the years of torment they'd put her through? The physical and psychological damage they'd caused? Did it mean nothing?!

"Arya?" A soft knock came at the bathroom door, startling her and causing her eyes to fly open. At least the room had stopped spinning, but she could still hear her blood pounding in her ears.

"Just a second!" she snapped back, willing herself to look in the mirror. The voice belonged to Vanir, one of her few friends. His presence usually helped when she had one of her… episodes, but right now she just wanted to be left alone. Everything seemed to be weighing down on her shoulders, pushing and flattening her until there was nothing left.

A few more minutes of steady breathing, and she was ready to stand up straight again. She looked at herself in the mirror more closely, noting the dark circles under her eyes and the tired slump of her shoulders. She'd been studying all summer for the SAT, losing countless hours of sleep over this damn test. But she didn't have a choice. If she wanted to become valedictorian—to get into the college of her dreams—she needed to ace it. And besides… she'd never been beautiful anyways, so it's not like she coveted her beauty sleep. She could sacrifice her nonexistent looks for academic excellence.

"7th period is almost over," Vanir's calming voice came through the door. "Do you need me to drive you home?"

Steeling herself by inhaling deeply, Arya crossed the tile floor of the bathroom and undid the deadbolt. Vanir stepped back when she opened the door, looking her up and down in that concerning way of his.

"I'll be fine," she said quietly, hoping her voice didn't waver too much. "Besides, I don't want to have to get my mom to drive me over here to pick up my bike later."

Vanir sighed heavily and gave a slight shrug. "If you're sure," he drawled.

"I'm sure," she confirmed, giving him a small smile. He nodded and picked up her backpack where she'd left it discarded in the hallway.

Vanir had been her friend since they were in 2nd grade. And he'd been the only one to stick around. What few others there had been had either moved away or found some other group to connect with. Arya preferred to keep her acquaintanceships small, and her friend group even smaller. It was easier that way…

"Any plans tonight?" he asked casually as they trekked down the main hallway. Both of them had the last period of the day off, which Arya appreciated. A little company was nice, once in a while.

"Finishing up the reading for my Humanities course."

"Arya, it's the first day of school. How are you almost done?" he cried in that overly dramatic way of his. He'd long been into theater and acting, but Arya thought he overdid it, more often than not. It was okay though. Somehow, coming from Vanir, it was endearing, rather than irritating.

"You know me," she sighed quietly, "I convinced Mrs. Dalton give me the syllabus at the end of last year. I've had all summer to do the required reading, and start some of the assignments I know are coming."

"Yes, I know you," Vanir grumbled, "but I've still never met someone so dedicated to academics." Arya didn't respond, but she did give him a small smirk. It was true, she did give a fervent devotion to her studies, but only because she knew that was her only way out of this dead-end town.

She'd studied the violin for a brief stint as a child, but she didn't have much in the way of natural talent, and couldn't commit to practicing every day. And without any other outstanding talents, academics were her only option. Sure, she enjoyed school and knowledge to a certain extent, but it really was just a means to an end.

They had passed the cafeteria, well on their way to the student parking lot, when Vanir suddenly let out a groan of dismay. "Dammit," he swore, "I forgot to pick up the script packet from Angela for auditions. I've only got a few weeks to prepare, and I'll be damned if I don't make the fall comedy my senior year."

"Doesn't she have Tech during 7th? I bet she's still here," Arya remarked, remembering Vanir mentioning something about it before.

His face alighted with a smile, and he leaned down to wrap her in an embrace, which he knew she hated. "You're a genius, Arrie," he said happily, using her nickname… which she also hated.

"No," she grumbled back, following him as he made a sharp turn towards the auditorium, "I just have a good memory."

"Yeah, yeah, semantics," he said with a dismissive wave over his shoulder. They entered the auditorium by the box office, electing to come in through the theater instead of trekking down to her office. The house lights were all up and the room was warm. A bunch of kids were gathered on the stage in different groups, most likely discussing what needed to be done for the fall production. Vanir bounded down the stairs happily while Arya followed far behind, taking her time.

The theater kids were always welcoming, but she didn't feel she belonged with them, not really. Vanir was the only reason she every actually talked to any of them. As he made his way onto the stage, using his long limbs to pull himself up onto the platform, the seniors greeted him warmly. A couple of them noticed Arya hanging back in the house and waved to her. She returned the gesture with a half-hearted smile, and crossed her arms over her chest. This is uncomfortable…

"Where's Angela?" Vanir asked one of the Senior techies. He motioned back to the shop, and Vanir turned back to Arya. "Come on!" he called, waving her over. She sighed heavily but made her way down the stairs and up onto the stage. "This'll only take a minute." She smiled at her friend, but inside she was beginning to shake. There were so many people staring at her…

Vanir headed towards the huge garage-style door that lead back to the shop, Arya following behind him at a healthy distance. She wished in this moment that she could shrink away and meld into the walls… but that would require magic to exist, something she found herself wishing for more often than not.

"No, not there!" she heard Ms Angela's voice ring out through the open space. "Do you want someone to trip and break their neck?" Arya didn't hear the response, but Angela replied, "Alright, Evan, I'm referring you to a counselor for real this time."

Vanir walked over to where she was directing some kids trying to wrangle a gigantic wood beam and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. The drama teacher whirled around to face him, curls flying every which way. Arya hung back as they talked, not wanting the extremely extravagant teacher to notice her in any way. She'd been trying to recruit Arya for any number of her productions for the last three years, but she wasn't about to start now.

"Look out below!" a voice suddenly cried. Arya looked up in time to see a cardboard box hurtling towards her from above. She stepped out of the way just in time for it to crash to the floor, sending dust and debris flying and causing her to cough terribly.

"Mr. Sharp, what are you doing!" Angela screeched, coming over to where Arya was still attempting to clear her lungs. Arya rubbed the dust from her eyes and looked up to where the box had come from. Who she saw caused her hands to start shaking all over again.

"Sorry," Eragon called sheepishly. "I was just trying to put it on the stairs, but I guess it tipped over." Dark eyes found her green ones, and widened in shock. "Oh my god, are you okay?" he asked with what seemed to be genuine concern.

Suddenly, Arya felt herself freeze. Memories flooded her; laughter as they called her names; jibes at her appearance; tugging at her hair. She found she couldn't move; couldn't even speak.

"Hey, come on, let's go." Vanir's voice helped her get her bearings again, and his arm around her shoulder helped to put her feet in motion.

Angela looked at the pair of them. "Do I need to call the nurse, Vanir?" she asked seriously, her brow furrowed.

"No, no," he said with a forced smile, "I'll make sure she gets home safe." The tall, dark-haired boy glanced up at the loft where Eragon still stood, staring dumbly after them. Arya kept her eyes peeled ahead as they hurried out of the shop and into Angela's classroom. They went straight for the office, and Vanir deposited her into Angela's comfy desk chair.

"Hey," he said softly, crouching down in front of where she sat. She stared past him, eyes wide open in vacant fear. "Arya, look at me." It took her a few moments, but she gathered herself enough to meet his eyes.

"I… I'm—"

"I know, hey—" he leaned in a wrapped his arms around her tightly "—it's okay. Just take deep breaths, alright?" She forced herself to breath, drawing the air in raggedly and forcing it out in a rush of hot air. "There ya go," Vanir continued soothingly.

A knock on the doorframe drew both of their attentions. "Hey," Eragon said awkwardly, "I just… um, I just wanted to make sure you were okay." His words were directed at Arya, but Vanir stepped between them, blocking him from view.

"She's fine, thanks for asking," he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. Vanir knew better than anyone the torment Arya had endured from him and his friends. Eragon was taller than Vanir by a few inches, but the lanky boy had a severe look to his face that people couldn't ignore. And Eragon seemed so unsure… she didn't understand.

"I really didn't mean to almost drop that on you," he tried to continue, attempting to speak around Vanir's shoulder. "It was an accident, I swear."

"Listen, sweetie—" Arya had to fight to keep from rolling her eyes at Vanir's demeaning moniker "—this is real nice, and all, but I think it'd be best if you left. Kay?" Eragon's mouth dropped open in surprise, his gaze darting between Vanir's intimidating stare and Arya's cold façade of indifference.

"I… um, okay." He gave Arya one last look, but she avoided his gaze studiously, mouth pressed into a severe frown. She heard him go back into the shop and the door shut behind him, leaving the classroom in silence once more.

Vanir turned back to her and sighed dramatically. "That boy is fine as hell, but his head's full of rocks," he commented with a smirk.

"He didn't even remember me, Vanir," she whispered quietly, still staring at the floor. He pulled up a chair to sit next to her, leaning on his knees and staring at her in concern. "Those jackasses ruined my life and they don't even know who I am."

"Oh, honey," he said sympathetically, brushing her hair out of her face. With anyone else, she would have jerked away. "Do you want me to call my cousin Rocco? Cuz you know I'll do it in a heartbeat, you just say the word and—"

She shot him a look, but couldn't help her smile. "That will not be necessary," she said, trying to remain aloof but failing miserably. "Ordering a hit on someone doesn't look so good on college applications."

Vanir threw his hands up in mock defeat. "Okay, fine. But you've gotta open invitation, just remember." She nodded slightly and moved to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Can I be real with you for a second?" he asked, his tone suddenly serious again. She looked up at him and nodded slowly.

He took her hands in his own, brow furrowed in concern. "I'm worried about you, Arrie," he said in a quiet tone. "You've had some awful shit happen to you. And I know you haven't told me everything. Do you think talking to a therapist might help? Not one of these hack shrinks here at the school; an actual psychologist that could help you work through some of this."

"Vanir—" she started to protest, but her cut her off with a stern look.

"I know you, Arya. You take all this shit and then you bottle it up inside, not telling anybody. It's not healthy."

She heaved a quiet sigh. "I know," she finally admitted. "But I don't know what to say. It feels stupid, like they're just gonna tell me to suck it up and get over it."

"This is some real life trauma, Arrie. You need to deal with it, or it's gonna eat you alive." She inspected his face for a long time, weighing her thoughts on the options presented before her.

She could bury all this deep down, pretend to forget and hope it goes away. Or she could face it head on and deal with it. Neither option was very attractive, but Vanir had helped give her the courage to make the decision she knew was right.

"Okay," she finally conceded, "I'll talk to someone."

Vanir smiled. "Good," he replied. "But you know who you have to tell first, right?"

Arya's heart filled with dread at the thought. If there was one person in the world she absolutely did not want to talk to about her personal problems, it was her mother.

 


 

Islanzadi Draper was widely considered by most of Ilirea to be the most beautiful woman in town. She also happened to be one of the sternest. Arya remembered a time where her mother used to laugh, and they would do things together. But that had been a long time ago; before… well, before a lot of things.

Now, she was the last person Arya wanted to spend any quality time with. There was nothing but awkwardness between them, which she couldn't stand. It sent her spiraling into a panic attack, which her mother would then berate her for. Arya doubted her mom even knew what was going on with her when an attack would sneak up on her. It wasn't a good combination, which was why she spent most of her time in her room studying. Life was easier for both of them that way.

But now, she found herself having to seek her mother out. Everything felt all wrong, like she was fighting against gravity. Vanir had followed her home in his car, to make sure she made it safely… Now she was wishing he had stayed to see her through this.

Oh well, time to be a big girl.

Arya planted herself in the hall outside her mother's study, where she spent most of her time, working on her interior design business. She took several deep breaths to calm her raging nerves, and then knocked softly on the door. A few moments passed by before she heard her mother shifting on the other side.

"Yes?" she called warily, her chair creaking with her movement.

"It's me, Mom," Arya said, silently praying that her mother would tell her to come back later.

"Oh," she replied, shuffling some papers, "come in."

Dammit, she thought to herself, releasing the breath she'd been holding and pushing the door open. Her mother's office was a place she rarely visited; a place where complicated plans and ideas came together to form one cohesive design for a house. It was something her mother had an innate knack for, which Arya had not inherited. All she saw before her were garish fabrics and samples of wood flooring.

"What can I do for you, Arya?" her mother asked absently, eyes still trained on her computer screen.

Arya took a seat at one of the chairs in front of her desk, usually reserved for clients. Islanzadi must have realized that whatever her daughter needed to discuss was important, because she turned away from her computer and leaned her elbows on the desk.

"I need to talk to you about something, Mom," she began softly, hesitantly. "And I need you to keep an open mind."

"This isn't about that summer writing camp in Washington, is it?" she asked impatiently, sharp eyes cutting through Arya like a knife through butter.

She bit back her response, realizing it would do no good to engage in a pissing match with her mom. She'd begged her mom to let her go to that camp three years ago; the time for that was long gone. "No, Mom," she said patiently, "it's not about that."

Islanzadi remained quiet, inspecting her daughter's face. Arya drew in her breath slowly, trying one last time to steel her resolve.

"It's about me, Mom," she continued, hands folded in her lap to try and keep them from shaking. Since when was she so nervous all the time? It wasn't like her. "There's… there's a lot going on right now, and I feel like I can't necessarily handle it all on my own."

She glanced up from her lap and saw her mother's hard stare, unflinching and without an ounce of compassion. "What are you saying, Arya?" she said quietly.

"I'm saying… " She paused and inhaled deeply. "I'm saying that I'd like to see someone… someone I can talk to and that can help me with some of the things I'm struggling with."

"A therapist." It wasn't a question.

"Yes," Arya replied softly, "a therapist."

Islanzadi was quiet for a long while. So long, that Arya began to wonder if she would say anything at all. Finally, she said, "Why do you feel you need to see a psychologist?"

Here comes the hard part. Arya could feel her fingers begin to tremble, so she gripped her hands tightly together. "Because I've come to realize that there are things I need to deal with; things that I've left unattended for too long."

"This is about the 8th grade dance, isn't it?" Arya's head snapped up to look her mother in the eye, expecting to find sympathy there. But as she'd become all-too-familiar with, there was none to be found. "Are we really going to talk about this again?" Islanzadi continued coldly. "It was four years ago. Yes, it was awful, but it's just part of life, Arya. Everyone goes through it at some point."

"Mom," Arya said, trying to hide the desperation in her voice, "it wasn't just four years ago. This has been going on since I was eleven years old. I can't stand to walk into a room full of people because I have flashbacks. I'm still having panic attacks, all these years later."

"Panic attacks?" It was the first time any note of concern had colored her mother's voice. "What do you mean?"

Arya chewed on her lip as she tried to think how best to explain. "I feel like I can't breath whenever anyone looks at me for too long," she began, "and my hands start to shake. I have flashbacks and it's all I can do not to scream. Mom... I can't go on like this. I need help. And I need you to understand how difficult it is for me just to be asking."

The look on Islanzadi's face was one of pure and utter disbelief. But Arya didn't have time to wonder at what was going through her mother's head. She'd waited too long as it was.

"But if you won't help me," she said forcefully, getting up from her chair, "then I'll figure out some way myself." Arya didn't wait to hear whatever her mother clearly wanted to say. She stormed out of the office and slammed the door behind her, seeking the solace and quiet of her room.

Chapter Text

SAPHIRA

"How's it even possible that we have homework on the first day of school?" Saphira complained as she stared out the window idly. She didn't need to be looking at Eragon to see the smile on his face.

"The teachers at this school are dicks," he remarked. "They're not gonna go easy on you."

"Yeah, well…" Saphira crossed her arms over her chest, sinking down into the bucket seat and sulking like a kid. "Just because I know they're dicks doesn't mean I can't complain about it."

"I thought you'd be happy about it." Eragon pressed down the clutch and shifted quickly, causing the car to jerk forward a bit. "Makes it easier to maintain your GPA, yeah?"

Saphira sighed dramatically. "How many years have you been in school, Eragon?" He cocked his head at her and twisted his mouth. "Then you should know that isn't how any of this works. If I'm swamped in all my classes, then I run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and falling behind."

"Hey," he said unsympathetically, "you're the one who decided to take nothing but college-level courses your senior year. You'll find no compassion here, my friend."

She grumbled a petulant "whatever" under her breath, and turned closer to the window, staring intently at the rows of cookie-cutter houses as they passed them. The neighborhoods blended together, becoming indistinguishable as they whizzed by. Eragon really did need to learn how to slow down. He was likely to get somebody killed one of these days.

"You shoulda taken a page outta my book," Eragon continued on, unaware—or maybe he just didn't care—of his friend's sulking.

"What?" she shot back hotly. "Slack off and take as few classes as possible? Filled to the brim with Freshmen?" She hadn't meant it to sound so mean… Well, maybe she had, but Eragon could be so clueless sometimes. Did he not understand how much this year meant to her? How much it should mean to him?!

He rolled his shoulders in a show of flippancy. "Well excuse me for not wantin' to kill myself my last year of high school," he mumbled, popping the transmission into third so he could swing around a tractor.

"With the way you drive, Eragon, it's practically a guarantee. You know you're not supposed to drive into oncoming traffic, right!" Saphira gripped the seat tightly, squeezing her eyes shut as they raced along the two-lane road.

Eragon just let out a raucous laugh and swerved sharply into her neighborhood, barely tapping on the breaks and practically sending Saphira flying into his lap. "Where's your sense of adventure, Saph?"

"It died!" she yelled fearfully. "Right along with your common sense!" That just caused him to laugh more. It wasn't quick enough when he pulled into her driveway thirty seconds later. Without a second thought, she flung herself from the car and ran around the front, coming to the driver's side window. Eragon cranked it down with a wicked grin and playfulness in his eyes.

"Come on, Saph, you know I'm just playing around." Against her better judgment, Saphira felt herself softening at his boyish charm.

"Your 'just playing' is going to cost me my life one day, Eragon." She reached through the open window and mussed his hair playfully. "And then you'll be really sorry." She gave him a small smile and then turned towards the house, bounding onto the front step and reaching for her keys.

"Remember, Saph," he called out the window, "twenty-til and not a minute later. Got it?"

She waved him away dismissively. "Yeah, yeah, see ya tomorrow, Eragon!"

She pushed open the door without looking over her shoulder and listened as the engine rumbled down the street. When the low roar of Eragon's car was finally gone, she strolled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, searching for a snack. A packet of nuts and cheese seemed to be calling her name, so she snatched it without really worrying if anyone had already laid claim to it. Readjusting her bag on her shoulder, she raced up the staircase and shot straight for her room, closing the door swiftly before her mom realized she was home. It was past dinner time, and she didn't really want to listen to any lectures at the moment.

It wasn't really her fault that she was so late. The entire percussion section had decided to goof around for the first hour of rehearsal, and Mr. Adams had made them all stay late because of it. Not that it mattered; she knew she needed to get her drill down before their first show, which was only in about a month. As co-section leader, she felt obligated to be ahead of the curve... But this year, she'd been so damn distracted.

Between her coursework and the drama between her and Eragon, it all felt like a bit much. She knew it was only the first day, but already she was a little less excited for this year than she had been only a couple months ago. Her Senior Year was supposed to be a time for making memories and having fun with her friends. If she had any plans of making that happen, she was gonna have to tough it out like never before.

She sat down at her desk and pulled out a few of the assignments she'd been given today. It seemed her AP teachers didn't really care if it was the first day or not. But it didn't really bother her as much as she'd made it seem. They only took her about an hour and a half to finish, and then she snuck down to the kitchen to grab something out of the fridge. There was half of a Subway sandwich sitting on the first shelf, so she snatched it and quickly slipped out the back sliding glass door. She wasn't allowed to eat in her room, and she didn't really want to hang out in the living room, in case her mom or dad found her. This day had left her feeling weird, and Saphira didn't really want to interact with anyone right now.

Outside, it was dusky and warm, with a slight haze in the sky. This was her favorite time of day, when everything seemed to slow down as the town prepared to rest for the night. In this sleepy little town, it was unlikely that a lot of people would be out and about. As quietly as she could, Saphira unlatched the back gate and stepped onto the sidewalk, swiftly closing the gate behind her. She started to walk down the empty street, munching on her sandwich as she went. Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted, and she could hear the faint howl of a coyote. She touched her key ring where it still lay in her pocket, making sure her mini-brass knuckles were still there. The last thing she needed was to cross paths with a coyote or a stray dog.

There was a community park in their neighborhood, and sometimes she went there to be alone and just think. Over the past week, she'd been there a lot, ever since Eragon had admitted his plans to leave her. When it got dark, the park stayed mostly deserted, so it was the perfect place. After a short, ten minute walk, the swing set came into view.

Saphira finished off her sandwich and threw the paper wrapper in the trash can, then skipped over to the swing and sat down in the tallest of the seats. These things weren't really made for kids her age, but she was kinda small, and there was something so freeing about swinging as high as you could. Sometimes, when she got way up there, it almost felt like she could fly.

For the first twenty minutes, she just swung there silently. With every movement, backwards and forwards and backwards again, it felt like a little bit of her stress would disappear. The expectations she placed on herself... woosh... the pain every time she thought of Eragon leaving... wooooosh... the debilitating fear that she would never be good enough... WOOSH!

The flimsy, rubber seat suddenly disappeared from beneath her. Air rushed past, and she was free as a bird, floating through the air on invisible wings. For a moment, she felt some unspeakable joy... but then reality hit. Or rather, she hit the ground... hard.

"Ouch!" she cried out, gritting her teeth. A shock of pain ran up her arm, reverberating in her shoulder.

"Hey!" a voice rang out. "Are you okay?"

Saphira looked around for the unfamiliar voice, and saw a shadow emerge from under the jungle-gym. The shadow stepped into the light of the streetlamps, and she recognized the new kid that lived around the corner from her. She was too shocked to say anything, realizing he must have been there the whole time, just watching her swing.

"Um..." she stammered out, struggling to push herself upright, "yeah, I'm... um." Saphira glanced down at her arm and saw a small trickle of blood eking out of an ugly wound. She never could understand why they used wood mulch on playgrounds. The bloody mess that was her arm was Exhibit A on why it was a bad idea.

"Oh, geez," the kid hissed, kneeling next to her and touching her arm gingerly. Saphira pulled away with a wordless cry of pain, flinching from the stinging of her exposed nerves. "That doesn't look good."

"It hurts," she said dumbly, looking down at it again.

"Yeah, I bet," the kid laughed slightly. Saphira gazed up at him, unsure whether to laugh with him or rage at him for making fun of her. It took her a moment, but she decided he didn't mean any harm by it. "Here," he continued, putting a hand under her other arm, "let me help you up." Slowly, the kid pulled her to her feet as she swept dirt off her legs and side.

"Um... thanks," she muttered, poking at the gash on her arm. It wasn't very deep, but it was long, and dirty with mulch and soil. Gingerly, she swept away most of the mulch still sticking to her, wincing at the pain.

"You gonna be okay?" her neighbor asked in concern, tilting his head at her slightly. He was a little bit taller than her, and his brown eyes were warm with genuine concern.

Not trusting her voice altogether, Saphira just settled for a nod. They stood there in awkward silence for a moment, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. Suddenly, she thrust her left hand out. "I'm Saphira," she blurted out quickly.

The boy gave her a half-smile and took her hand to shake it. "Fírnen," he replied simply.

When his hand touched her own, Saphira felt a strange tugging in the pit of her stomach. Hesitantly, she pulled away, chewing on her bottom lip. Now what?

"Uh..." She stumbled for a moment before she thought of something to say. "How's your head? Sorry Eragon hit you with his car." She'd been absolutely mortified when Eragon had told her that.

"So that's his name..." Fírnen laughed awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'm a little banged up... definitely a little sore, but I'll be okay. No hard feelings." His smile was genuine, but Saphira still felt terrible.

"He's a bit of an idiot," she explained, fiddling with the hem of her shirt. "Doesn't usually look where he's going. He's almost killed me more than a few times. But he's my best friend, so..." She let the thought trail off. Why was she even saying any of this? Idiot!

"Some friend," he chuckled, putting his hands in his pockets.

The words began pouring out of her before she could stop. A part of her just wanted to fill the silence, but there was something about this kid that was approachable. And she was curious about this newcomer to their tiny little town. "It's fine," she said with a shrug and a laugh, "I'm still alive, aren't I? Besides, what would life be without a little adventure? It's fun sometimes, even if it's mostly scary. One time, we were coming home from a football game, and he almost hit a steer that was standing right in the middle of the road. You should have heard him scream. It was hilarious!"

Fírnen just stared at her in dumfounded silence for a minute, mouth hanging slightly open. "Wow," he finally drawled out, "that sounds... crazy." If not for his smile, she would have shut up right then and there.

I think I'm gonna be sick, Saphira thought to herself, giving him what she was sure was an awkward attempt at a smile. "Sorry," she finally admitted, "I get kinda nervous talking to new people. And when I'm nervous, I tend to word-vomit. I'm sorry... um..."

"That's alright," he said. "I don't really have an easy time talking to new people either. But you looked like you were really hurt, so I wanted to make sure you were okay."

She stole another glance down at her arm. "Yeah, I'll be fine. Should probably clean it out though. Don't want to get an infection... or something."

Fírnen chuckled at her endearingly. "I can walk you home, if you want?" he offered. At that moment, a coyote yowled somewhere nearby, drawing both their attentions.

"Uh, yeah that might be a good idea," she stammered out, cradling her right arm with the left. They started walking, leaving the dark playground behind.

Saphira knew that he lived a little closer to the park than she did, and thought it was nice that he'd offered to walk her home. "So, how long have you lived here?" he asked, a brave attempt at small talk.

She couldn't help the snort that escaped her. "I was born here, so all my life. My dad is a general contractor, so as long as there's work, I don't think my parents will ever leave. Me, on the other hand... I'm gettin' out of here as soon as I can."

"College?"

"Hell yeah," she said with a laugh. "I want to go to Texas A&M. They've got an incredible aerospace engineering program."

Fírnen seemed surprised—and maybe a little impressed—at her choice of study. "Wow, that's some heavy stuff."

"I want to work for NASA or Boeing," she explained further, unsure why she was telling him all of this. "I've always been fascinated by flight, and I think it'd be really cool to design airplanes or spacecraft."

"Yeah, that would be cool. It's awesome that you have a plan..." He fell silent, and Saphira could tell he'd left something unsaid.

"You don't?" she questioned tentatively. They were strangers—had literally just met each other—and she didn't want to seem like she was prying.

Fírnen didn't seem to mind though. "Not really," he mumbled, offering her a shrug. "I know I want to go to college, just don't know where yet. All I know is that it will be nowhere near here. I never knew a place could be so hot."

She laughed aloud at that; a true, boisterous laugh. "You're from... Pennsylvania, right?" she questioned when her laughter had died down.

"Ohio," he corrected her. "I've never experienced temperatures like this before."

"Triple digits definitely take some getting used to. But you'll get acclimated, I promise. Are you liking school here, though?"

It took him a long time to answer that one, and Saphira wondered if she'd overstepped some unseen boundary. But finally, he said, "It's different. I never thought I'd be starting all over, and definitely not in my Senior Year. But... I'll be okay."

They were almost to her house, but Saphira found she suddenly didn't want to go home. She couldn't quite place what it was, but she found that she really enjoyed speaking to Fírnen. He was so laidback, and really easy to talk to. When she finally stopped at her back gate, it felt like a pit had opened in her stomach.

"Well, this is me," she said quietly, pointing over her shoulder at the back of her house. "Thanks for walking me home."

"You're welcome," he replied, turning and walking in the direction of his own house.

Before he'd taken more than a few steps, Saphira called after him. "Hey, Fírnen!" He turned and looked at her expectantly, somewhat unsure. "If you ever find yourself lonely, or just want someone to vent to... I'm here to listen."

He smiled at her then, a dazzling, genuine grin. "Thanks, Saphira," he said. "I appreciate it." Then he turned and continued his trek down the street.

Saphira waited til he was out of sight, then raised the latch on the gate and stepped into her backyard. She could see her mom through the kitchen window over the sink, presumably washing dishes or something along those lines. So much for staying unseen, she thought to herself, sliding open the back door and stepping up into the house.

"Hey honey," her mom said without looking at her. "Did you eat anything?"

"Yeah, I did." Saphira slipped her shoes off and picked them up, brushing off a few stray pieces of mulch that had stuck to her leg.

Her mom looked over and let out a horrified gasp. "Saphira! What happened to your arm?"

She stifled a groan, forgetting how her mother liked to over exaggerate. Vervada Brighton was a caring woman, but sometimes a little too caring for her daughter's liking. "Mom," she moaned, "I'm fine. Please, don't make a big deal out of this."

Her mother scurried across the kitchen to her, gripping her arm painfully and pulling it closer to her face so she could inspect the wound. "Oh, honey, I've gotta clean this. Come here." She dragged her daughter over to the sink and bent over, rooting around in the cabinet underneath the sink and pulling out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Her mom unscrewed the cap and held Saphira's arm over the sink, pouring the sterilizing liquid over her open wound.

"Ow!" Saphira squealed, trying not to pull away as the liquid burned and bubbled on the surface of the gash. "Ow, ow, ow Mom, that's enough."

"You need to put a bandage on it, Saph," Mrs. Brighton said calmly. She bent back over and opened a drawer, pulling out a bucket labeled 'First Aid'. Her mom pulled out a cloth pad and a roll of gauze, placed the pad over her wound, and then began rolling the gauze around her arm. When she was done, she tied it off and then gave her arm a gentle pat. "There," she proclaimed, "all better."

Saphira gave her mother a deadpan look. "Thanks, Ma. That's much better." She leaned forward and planted a kiss on her mom's cheek. "I'm going to bed now. I'll see you in the morning."

"Okay, honey. Goodnight." Her mom gave her a simple smile and then turned back to what she'd been doing before. Being a housewife for almost twenty years, she'd become almost neurotic about keeping everything clean.

Saphira hurried off to her bedroom without another word. As she got ready for bed, careful not to pull off her bindings, she couldn't help but think of the kind boy she'd met tonight. There was something about him she was drawn to, though she couldn't explain it. She crawled into bed and looked down at her phone. There were a few missed text messages from various people, but they could all wait until the morning. The only thing on her mind right then was a pair of golden-brown eyes.

Chapter Text

MURTAGH

Besides painting and drawing, playing guitar was the only thing Murtagh was remotely good at nowadays. And "remotely good" meant he could just about play "Sweet Caroline" without any screw-ups. It had taken him the whole summer to figure that one out, which wasn't exactly lightning speed, but he'd been pretty damn proud of himself. He'd taught himself off YouTube videos, after all. Not everyone could say that.

On the Saturday after the first week of school, while Eragon was off doing god-knows-what with his friends, Murtagh was holed up in his room, as usual, practicing the first few songs from his lesson book. Mr. Woodworth was a hardass when it came to the Guitar I class, but Murtagh didn't particularly mind. As long as he kept his head down and did his work, then the teacher wouldn't have anything to pick at him for.

He glanced at the alarm clock that sat on his nightstand... 1:37 pm. He had just about ten minutes before his mom came up there and started bugging him about going to therapy later that afternoon. Placing his guitar back in its case, he leaned back against the headboard and crossed his arms over his chest, closing his eyes to try and quiet the noise in his head for a little bit. He knew he needed to go; ever since his meeting with Principal Oromis, those intrusive thoughts his shrink was always talking about had gotten a hell of a lot worse. But the thought of going to that horrible, stuffy office and sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a few hours was just not appealing to him.

Dr. Bowman wasn't a bad guy—Murtagh knew that, as much as he hated talking to him—but it made him uncomfortable how he'd always try to get him to talk about his childhood or some other emotional crap. In his mind, it was a waste of his mom's money for him to go every week for an overeducated asshole to tell him what he already knew: that his mind was a fucked up mess.

"Murtagh!" his mom's voice suddenly cut through the quiet. Against his will, he jumped practically out of his skin. Even now, so many years later, the sound of a raised voice calling his name set his teeth on edge and put him immediately in defense mode.

"Yeah?" he called back after clearing his throat. His heart was still racing, but at least his hands hadn't started shaking. Once he got to that point, it was harder to come back.

"Are you going to see Dr. Bowman this afternoon?" she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

Murtagh looked back at the clock... 1:48... right on time. He brushed a few pieces of hair out of his face and let out a sigh. "Uhh... yeah, Mom, I'm goin'." He could hear her saying something to his step-dad, but her voice was too muffled for him to understand. Whatever it was, he tried not to think about it. The fact that his mom wanted him to go to therapy at all was a favorite argument between her and Brom.

Moving as slowly as he thought he could get away with, Murtagh stood up off his bed and pulled on a clean shirt, trying to contain his agitation when his hair caught on the necklace he always wore. It was a silver class ring, set with an actual ruby and strung on a simple chain. After he'd disentangled it from his hair, Murtagh made sure to tuck the ring into his shirt. It upset his mom when she saw it, so he always made an effort to keep it out of sight.

The damn thing had belonged to Morzan, so he didn't really blame her for not wanting to see it hanging around his neck.

It had actually been Dr. Bowman's idea for him to wear it. There was something cathartic about wearing his father's prized possession like a war trophy, and it served as a constant, tangible reminder of the hellhole he'd escaped. Not only that, but it helped keep him in the right frame of mind. Every time he had a violent outburst, or an intrusive thought, or a depressive episode... all he had to do was hold on to that ring like a life raft. Those things were what Morzan had wanted for him; he'd wanted to mold his son to carry on his legacy and be a carbon copy of the piece of shit he knew he was. If Murtagh could remember that he'd escaped the life that had been laid out for him, it helped to calm him down quicker.

He finished getting dressed then grabbed his phone, wallet, and keys off his desk. They were the only things sitting on top of the wooden desk; all his papers, sketchbooks, and art supplies were in the drawers. Contrary to what others might think, he actually preferred everything to be neat and clean. His mom made fun of him sometimes about how ritualistic he was when it came to doing his laundry. But that was all just another byproduct of his glamorous childhood...

Before leaving his room, he made sure to close up his guitar case and then lean it in its corner by the door. He made sure to turn the light off and then closed the door before bounding downstairs into the living room. He could hear his mom shuffling around in the kitchen, just down a short hallway.

"You want anything to eat before you go, sweetie?" she asked cheerfully.

Murtagh trotted down the hallway and into the kitchen, glancing over and seeing his step-dad sitting at the breakfast table with what was probably his third cup of coffee for that day. His reading glasses were perched on the tip of his nose as he peered at that morning's copy of The Ilirea Star, and his gaze never left the page.

"Sure," Murtagh replied, going over to the fridge and pulling out a bottle of water. "Whatcha got?" He unscrewed the cap and downed the entire bottle in just a few seconds, crumpling the plastic and then tossing it in the recycling bin.

"Grilled cheese," Selena said. "That okay?"

"That's fine." His step-dad let out a not-so-subtle cough, and Murtagh quickly added, "Thanks, Mom." If there was one thing that was not tolerated in the Sharp household, it was a lack of manners. Even though his birth certificate didn't read "Sharp", he was still expected to follow the rules.

His mom slid the sandwich onto a plate and then handed it over, offering him a small smile. He took it without a word and ate it as quickly as manners would allow. When he was done, he put the plate in the sink and wiped his face with a paper towel. Murtagh leaned over and wrapped an arm around his mom's slim shoulders, planting a kiss on her forehead. "Thanks, Mom. I'll text you when I get done. I'm gonna go to the rec center afterwards."

"Okay, sweetie," she replied. "What time will you be home?"

"Late. Might catch a movie or something."

"With anybody?" This time, it was his step-dad that had spoken.

Murtagh turned and looked at Brom, but saw that he hadn't even looked away from his newspaper. On the surface, the question had been innocent enough. But Murtagh knew better; the years had taught him as much.

"Maybe," he said, "if Thorn's not busy. Or I might see if Eragon wants to have some bro time." He couldn't help the sarcasm that had slipped into his voice, and Brom wasn't deaf. He set the newspaper down, and Murtagh knew he was in deep shit.

When Brom looked at him, his blue eyes were unreadable. "I fail to see how you're in any position to make fun of your brother, Murtagh. In fact, I think you could learn a lot from Eragon's work ethic."

"Brom, please—" Selena tried to cut in, but Murtagh could already feel the anger welling up inside his chest.

"Why?" he practically spat. "Because he's not a fuck-up like his older brother? I guess you're right, since he'll never know what it feels like to be the most hated guy under twenty-five in this town."

"You don't do anything to help quiet those rumors, Murtagh."

"Why the hell should I?" He was gripping the counter so hard now he felt like he could almost break it. "Because the jerkoff people in this town have nothing better to do than make up stories about people they don't understand? I fail to see how that's my responsibility."

"That's enough!" Selena suddenly snapped, stepping in front of her son but keeping her eyes on her husband. Selena Sharp was a sweet woman ninety-percent of the time. But when her temper was flared, god help whoever was within hearing distance. "We are not going to do this today! Is that understood!" She looked between her husband and her son quickly, and both of them nodded without a word.

Murtagh stalked across the kitchen in a few, long strides and wrenched open the door that led to the garage, tossing a hurried "Bye" over his shoulder. He grabbed his leather riding jacket off the rack in the mudroom and slipped it on, pulling at the heavy material to make sure it laid flat. Trying to stamp down his anger, he popped open the storage compartment on the back of his bike and threw in his wallet and phone. The ring he wore around his neck seemed to be burning a hole in his skin.

Dr. Bowman's office was a short ride across town, near to the college campus. Ilirea State University seemed to be the only thing that kept their little town on its feet. The jobs it provided helped stimulate the local economy, and the students that lived there during the school year boosted the local small businesses. In the summer months, when most of the students went back home, Leona Lake, which lay on the outskirts of town, drew in the tourists. But Murtagh didn't really mind the smallness of the place; he'd had a taste of city life once, and it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

When he got to the office, he parked his bike under the shade of a broad tree and tucked his helmet under his arm. Dr. Bowman held a small space in a strip mall, also occupied by a hair salon, Chinese restaurant, and a CPA's office. The hair salon was full today, as was to be expected, and it looked like the restaurant was just rounding out their lunch rush. Murtagh walked up to the door of Dr. Bowman's office, faded gold letters that had long ago been bleached by the sun peeling off the glass, and noticed a green bicycle locked to the bike rack that sat out front. He'd been coming to sessions with Dr. Bowman for over three years now, and he'd never seen that bike before.

The bell above the door rang annoyingly as he opened the door and stepped into the lobby. Lorna, the receptionist, looked up from her magazine and smiled at him beatifically. "Hey, Murtagh, how are you today?" she asked cheerfully, closing the beauty mag and setting it aside. He walked up to the raised part of her desk and signed in on the clipboard that always sat there.

"Good as I can be, I guess," he muttered, trying his hardest to sound friendly. He knew he wasn't the most messed up kid that came to see the Doc, and that Lorna probably had to deal with bigger assholes than him, but he still tried to be nice to her. She'd never given him any reason not to be.

"That's better than most days," she replied with a wink. "Go ahead and take a seat; Doc will be with you in a little bit."

Murtagh nodded his understanding and then walked over to the leather couch that sat up against the far wall, plopping down and balancing his helmet on his knee. He scrolled on his phone idly for a few minutes, relishing in the quiet of the office. It smelled like there was incense burning somewhere, and Lorna had the local country station playing softly in the background, but that wasn't enough to bother him. Sometimes, when there was a lot of noise or a lot of people, it got to be overwhelming for him. The panic would take over then, and he had to get somewhere quiet to reset his sense.

As he lazily scrolled through his Facebook feed in relative relaxation, a loud ping suddenly came out of his phone. A little red icon with a white number one in the middle drew his attention to the bottom of his screen. It hovered over the icon shaped like an alarm bell, indicating he had a new notification. That surprised him a little bit; he didn't have many friends on the website, and didn't tend to interact with too many people. Slowly, he pressed on the icon that would take him to his nearly empty notification screen. When the page pulled up, his heart nearly stopped.

'You have a new friend request: Nasuada Adams'

Her smiling face was staring at him, a bright flash of sunlight illuminating her and her dad, whom he recognized as the band teacher. Murtagh could hardly breathe as he pressed on the badge and it took him to her account, showing several more pictures that she'd posted recently. There was one in particular—a black and white action shot of her mid-toss on the band field—that caught his attention. It was something about her face... the way she was wholly focused on that flag as it hung motionless in the air over her head. He could picture her now—bending her knees slightly to counteract the impact of the flag as it slapped back into her hands; smiling like she didn't have a care in the world as it fluttered over and around her in a magnificent display of color. Every time he'd seen her since that day she'd approached him, it seemed like she was full of joy and light, heedless of the judgments of those around her.

So why in the hell did she want to be his friend?

His finger hovered over the icon that read "Accept" in all capital letters. It'd be easy just to press it... wouldn't it? Was she just trying to be nice because they'd talked a couple of times? Or was there some ulterior motive here that he couldn't understand? He was, by nature, an untrusting person. Friendship that appeared to be unconditional? That was a foreign concept; something alien that set off alarm bells and warning signs in his head.

The click of a door being freed from its latch jolted him out of his thoughts, drawing his attention to the hallway past Lorna's desk. A lithe girl—maybe a little younger than him—with long, black hair exited Dr. Bowman's office into the hall, hands clasped nervously at her waist. Quickly, he locked his phone and shoved it back in his pocket, standing up off the couch.

"If you'd like to check the resource rack in the lobby," Dr. Bowman said in his calming voice, "there's a few pamphlets there that I think you'll find useful. I hope to see you again."

The girl nodded warily and then continued on down the hall back into the lobby, stopping at Lorna's desk to sign-out on the clipboard. "It was nice to meet you, Arya," Lorna said sweetly, offering a hand in salutation. She took it after a moment's hesitation and then gave it a weak shake.

As Dr. Bowman came striding down the hallway, Murtagh began walking towards him. The girl standing at the desk turned at the same time and the next thing Murtagh felt was her face smacking into his upper arm.

"Jesus!" he swore, grabbing at her arm. "Are you okay?" The girl stared at him with wide, green eyes that were filled with absolute terror. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and her arm began to tremble underneath his grip. Murtagh recognized that look immediately and released her arm, taking a step back. "Hey, it's okay," he continued, trying to make his voice sound soothing. "I'm not gonna hurt you."

"Murtagh," Dr. Bowman said in a low voice, drawing both of their attentions over to him. "This is Arya Draper. You all go to school together."

That name suddenly rang a bell in his memory. He sat next to Eragon's annoying-ass girlfriend in his second period Astronomy class, and she was always yapping about her stupid rival with the girl that was currently top of their class... the girl that stood shaking before him now, looking for all the world like a puppy that had been kicked one too many times.

"Yeah," he muttered, "I know. Listen, I'm sorry for grabbing you... I just didn't want you to fall."

After a few silent moments, it looked like the girl's breathing had returned almost to its normal rate. "Um... I-it's... it's f-fine," she stammered out, wrapping her arms around herself in a tell-tale sign of an anxiety attack. "I wasn't w-watching where I was g-going."

"Don't worry about it," Murtagh replied.

"Are you ready?" Dr. Bowman asked. Murtagh nodded, took one last look at the girl in front of him, and then followed the Doc down the hall to his office. As he stepped into the open space, he heard the ring of the door and Lorna shouting something unintelligible. Once the door was closed, there was nothing to be done about it; Dr. Bowman had a strict "no-interruptions" policy in place for every single one of his clients. There was also a strict "no-phones" policy in place, so Murtagh tossed his phone into the small wicker basket that sat on a low end table, and made his way over to his favorite spot in the wide office.

He peeled off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack in the corner. Right above the coat rack hung a framed diploma from Duke University certifying that they 'hereby award Tornac Bowman the degree of Masters of Developmental Psychology and' yada yada, so on and so forth. Murtagh knew that Dr. Bowman had to show his credentials somehow, but seeing that degree week after week always left him feeling a little inferior.

Murtagh plopped down on the plush, microfiber couch and stretched himself out, propping his feet up on the dark leather ottoman. "So, what's up, Doc?" he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Nothing much," he replied with a genuine smile, brushing back his dark grey hair with his fingers. "Not anything new, anyways. Ingrid's treatments are going well; her doctors are positive about the prognosis." He sat down in his leather office chair, straightening his shirt and adjusting his black-rimmed glasses. His closely-trimmed beard gave him an approachable look, but there was a sternness in his brown eyes that made Murtagh feel like he was constantly being examined. He supposed he was... but still...

"That's good to hear," Murtagh said, truly meaning it. He'd met Dr. Bowman's wife a few times over the years, and she was the nicest lady he'd ever known. When she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, it had hit the Doc real hard. They were all each other had; never had any kids and most of their living relatives were far away in other states or countries. Yet he was still here, helping out kids that were messed up in the head because it's what he was passionate about.

"So tell me about you," Dr. Bowman continued. "School's started, things are in full swing... How are you handling it?"

Murtagh tried to contain his sigh. "Not real thrilled about having to repeat my Senior year," he mumbled, shifting around on the couch to try and get comfortable, "but I'm doin' alright I guess. Principal Oromis says this is my last chance. They won't let me come back next year."

"No, I gather they won't." Dr. Bowman pulled his cloth-bound notebook into his lap and clicked his pen, jotting a few things down. "Have you set any goals that you'd like to reach to make sure you graduate this year?" Murtagh shook his head, causing his hair to whip back and forth. "I'd like you to. When you write it down, you're more likely to keep the thought prevalent in your mind."

"Yeah, okay," he muttered noncommittally, shrugging his shoulders and scanning the carpeted floor.

"And your journaling? How's that coming along?"

Yet another hokey, self-help tactic the Doc had prescribed. "Yeah, I... uh, ya see—"

"Murtagh," Dr. Bowman cut in gently, peering over the top of his glasses at him, "we've discussed this. In order to work through your trauma, you cannot keep it inside anymore. Repressing it is holding you back; you have to get it out somehow. Whether it be by journaling, or talking to me, or writing a letter and then burning it... Whatever you're comfortable with. For all intents and purposes, you're an adult now. It's almost time for you to step into society, and I want to make certain that you are equipped for that task to the best of your ability."

He could feel the tightness growing in his chest, but it wasn't anger this time. Murtagh knew in his mind that the Doc was right; he did need to do all those things if he ever wanted to escape the memory of Morzan. But practically, it was much harder to put those things into action.

"Every time I try to start," he said quietly, voicing his thoughts in a rare moment, "I just... I dunno, I just feel like I'm paralyzed. Like I physically can't."

"Well, you're talking right now, and that's a step in the right direction. Let's roll with it, okay?" Dr. Bowman leaned slightly forward, writing something else in his notebook.

Murtagh nodded slightly and inhaled a deep breath. "Well," he began slowly, "I've been wearing his ring, like you suggested."

"And what does that make you feel?"

He shrugged one shoulder, feeling his face fall into a scowl. "It makes me feel... in control, I guess. When I start to get angry, or overwhelmed, I just kinda grab it and hold on. It's something physical I can focus on; something I can channel."

"That's good," the Doc said, a slight note of hope in his voice. "What are some things that make you feel overwhelmed?"

Where to begin with that one? he thought silently. "Well... when there's a lot of people around, it kinda feels like I'm drowning in all the noise. That's when I feel the most out of control, because I can't make them stop. Not without lookin' like a psycho, anyways." He chuckled at that, but Dr. Bowman's mask of focus never dropped. Self-deprecation was highly discouraged in his practice. Murtagh knew that little comment would earn him a few lines in the file.

"Go on," he prompted.

"I can't stand the crowded hallways, so I'm late to all my classes, because I have to wait til the hallways are almost clear so I can get from one class to the next without havin' a breakdown. The school shrink gave me a special pass last year, so I don't get detention every day. But then that just makes me feel crazy, because I have to have a special hall pass, for fuck's sake. I might as well just do all my classes online."

"Then why don't you?"

Murtagh sat still for a moment. Honestly... he'd never even thought about it before this moment. But as he dwelled on it then, the thought became less and less attractive. "Because... because I don't necessarily like being alone all the time either. When I'm alone... the voices tend to get worse. They've been pretty bad for the last week."

Dr. Bowman looked at him pensively. They'd talked about the voices a lot before, and the Doc had never judged him for it. That was part of the reason why Murtagh felt he could share certain things with him; things he hadn't even told his mom. The voices weren't necessarily other people inside his head... they were all him, different parts of his own self-doubt and anger.

"Why is that?" the Doc asked, writing quickly.

Murtagh exhaled roughly. "It was right after my meeting with the principal, when he told me I had one more shot to pull my shit together. I was leaving the school and all those band kids were outside. It felt like... It felt like they were watching me, I guess. Or laughing at me... I dunno. But this girl, she approached me—kinda snuck up on me, actually—and I flipped on her, even though she was only trying to do something nice for me. I... I felt really bad, and that's when the voices got a little louder."

"That's to be expected, Murtagh. Even though it's been a long time, you weren't conditioned to know what kindness is."

"I know that," he said, a little harsher than he'd intended. "But that doesn't mean I don't feel like an asshole for how I acted."

"Did you apologize?" Tornac asked. Murtagh nodded, feeling his brows pull tighter together. "Well then, that's something you can view positively. That means you are cognizant of how you're acting, and how it might not necessarily be deemed acceptable."

He rolled his shoulders in response. Memories began flashing through his mind, as they always did when he went to a session with the Doc. He tried so hard to keep them repressed, because nothing good ever came of them, but it was so damn hard. As soon as he started talking about it, it's like the floodgates opened.

Filthy hotel rooms, a different one every week; hiding in the closet when he heard his dad's car pull up outside; screaming matches every time his mom tried to come pick him up; those horrific three years when she couldn't; different women coming and going at all hours of the night, doing things that an eight-year-old kid had no business seeing. One time, the bookies had come to the door, demanding his dad pay up on the money he owed. When he couldn't, they'd beat him within an inch of his life, all while he'd had to watch from under the bed. There'd been so much blood... As the images faded, his back began to throb dully, the scar there suddenly becoming inflamed.

"Murtagh?" Dr. Bowman asked gently, leaning further forward in his chair and squinting at him in that concerned way of his. "Are you alright?"

It was only then that he realized he was gripping the ring tight enough to cut his palm. A trickle of blood snaked it's way down his hand, dripping onto the cotton fabric of his tee-shirt. He released the ring quickly and stared at the small cut. Dr. Bowman jumped out of his chair and circled around to his desk, digging a first aid kit out of a drawer and quickly handing it over to Murtagh. He thanked him quietly, cleaned the blood off his hand with a sanitary wipe, then put a small Band-Aid over the cut.

"Sorry," he mumbled, handing the kit back over. "I uh... I just..."

"It's fine," Dr. Bowman assured him. "Were you having a flashback?"

"Several, actually... Some things I'd forgotten... Some things I never can."

"I know you have your drawings," the Doc began slowly, "but I do think it will be beneficial for you to write these memories down, as a sort of release. If you can, I'd like you to make a concerted effort to write down at least two a week. Is that doable?"

Murtagh was still coming down from the odd feeling of being transported back in time, but he nodded slowly. He'd tried almost everything up to this point; if writing down all the awful shit that had happened to him didn't help, he didn't think anything ever would.

"And if you can," Tornac added, "I'd like you to try spending some more time with other people. Like you said, the voices get louder when you're on your own. A little socialization will do you some good, I think."

"Not a whole lot of people lining up to hang out with me, Doc," he scoffed with a slight smirk. The rough, flippant exterior he normally wore was slowly falling back into place.

"Even if it's just your brother," he continued, unperturbed, "I'd like you to try to get out of the house more. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities this year?"

"Damn, you sound just like Principal Oromis right now," he laughed sarcastically. "There's nothing for me to do after school. Once they see the awful crap that comes out of my head, they'd kick me out of the Drawing Club. And I'm sure as shit not gonna pick up sports again."

Dr. Bowman fixed him with a look that said he was about to spout one of his pearls of wisdom. True to form, he said, "The victory is in the effort, Murtagh. Just try."

All of it sounded like a load of hogwash to Murtagh, but he figured there really wasn't any harm in trying. After all, whatever he'd been doing so far wasn't working. Maybe it really was time to try something new.

Over the next forty minutes of their session, they talked about ways for him to strategize his success for this year, to make sure he walked across that stage in May. When their time was up, he trekked back down the hall to the lobby and stopped at the clipboard to sign out.

"Oh, Murtagh," Lorna said quickly when she saw him, "Miss Draper left this earlier. Will you take it to her? I figured since you go to the same school, you might see her." She laid a black cell phone down on the raised part of her desk.

"Well, there's about two-thousand kids at our school, Lorna," he said, trying to make sure it sounded like a joke, "but yeah, I'll get it back to her." He pocketed the phone, thanked Lorna, and then headed back outside.

As he walked across the parking lot towards his bright red bike, a sudden, unexplainable feeling washed over him. For the first time in a long time, he actually felt a little better leaving his session than he had going into it. Holding onto that feeling desperately, he fished his own phone out of his pocket and opened it up to the last page he'd been on. Nasuada's face was still smiling brightly at him, and without a moment of further hesitation, he pressed down on the "Accept" icon.

Chapter Text

FÍRNEN

Nearly every day for the next two weeks after that night in the park, Fírnen saw the pretty girl with the blonde hair and blue highlights at school. Up until then, he hadn't realized they actually had a class together. It'd been some cruel twist of fate that he'd ended up in the Dance & Fitness class for his first period of the day, made all the more humiliating by the fact that he was one of only two guys in the class. The two of them tended to commiserate in the back corner, trying their hardest to keep their heads down so they didn't get called out by the teacher.

That morning was much the same. Fírnen stood awkwardly at the back of the class next to Eric, arms crossed over his chest and watching as all the girls streamed in with their various cliques. It was nearly deafening, the chorus of giggles and hushed talking that always came along with them. Sometimes, he felt like a zoologist, studying wild animals in the field. What could they possibly be talking about that was so funny? What kind of secrets did they keep that they felt they needed to constantly be whispering? Maybe they were whispering about him... the New Kid.

It felt like some kind of curse that had plagued his every step. Everywhere he went, people stared, some less subtle than others. But it didn't matter how subtle they were... Fírnen thought he could actually feel their eyes on him. Bad enough that he was new to a small town, but being of Asian decent as well... Suffice it to say, he'd become something of a novelty to a very bland town.

Saphira suddenly entered the room, drawing every eye to her with her magnetic energy. Another, slightly-less-pretty—in Fírnen's opinion, anyways—girl walked next to her, followed by a few other girls that were trying to involve themselves in their conversation. He watched them silently, feeling a little creepy but unable to stop himself. There was just something about her that drew his attention. Maybe it was the way she didn't seem to care what anyone else thought. Or it might have been her wild-colored hair and the fact that she was the only person he knew his own age that had a tattoo. To Fírnen, Saphira was the novel one; the one who stood out in a crowd, while he seemed doomed to fade into the background.

Her electric blue eyes found him in the corner, as they always did, and she offered him her usual wide smile and wave. Two weeks on, she'd ditched the bandage she'd been wearing while the cut on her arm had healed. A strange tingling coursed through his veins as he thought about the night; he'd been doing that a lot lately.

Ever since his accident, when that football player had hit him with his car, Fírnen had found it difficult to sleep. The nights always seemed too long, and too dark. So he'd taken to sneaking out and walking around his new neighborhood. It was nothing he'd ever done before, and he just knew that his mom would kill him if she found out, but it was the only thing that seemed to help him get any kind of meaningful rest. He'd never thought to run into anyone else out seeking a little solace of their own. Even if the circumstances had been somewhat... irregular, a part of him felt that their meeting had been more than coincidence.

But the other, more cautious part of him told Fírnen to stay away from this girl. He was an outsider here, after all, and not planning to stick around for very long after graduation. Plus, what chance did a guy like him stand with a pretty, popular girl like Saphira? He knew that she was best friends with the most popular guy in school... Maybe she and Eragon were a little more than friends. If that was the case, there was no hope for him at all. Why chance heartbreak on such a small probability?

Fírnen suddenly realized he'd been daydreaming while the teacher was talking when Eric elbowed him in the ribs. "Did you hear that?" the tall boy asked, grimacing slightly.

He made a small noise of denial and shook his head. "What's up?"

"We're gonna be starting a ballroom dancing course. Ugh, this is the worst day ever." Eric was a nice kid, if not a little weird. From what Fírnen knew of high school societal hierarchies—which, admittedly, was not a lot—Eric ranked somewhere below the Math and Science Geeks and above the Anime-Obsessed Loners. He had a few friends he ate lunch with in the cafeteria, but generally kept to himself and probably should have showered a little more.

Fírnen thought for a minute, and couldn't quite figure out why this should be considered the "worst day ever", but decided against asking. Better to seem in agreement than to seem ignorant, as his father would say. He looked back towards the front of the classroom where the teacher was standing in front of the wall of mirrors, leaning against the ballet bar.

"Now," Mrs. Hastings continued in her pleasant voice, "obviously there is a very skewed ratio of boys to girls—" cue the raucous chorus of giggling and furtive looks "—so we're going to be fair here." The teacher bent over and picked up a small, plastic bucket off the floor. "In this bucket, are the names of half the students in this class. I'm going to ask the other half to separate and then you'll draw names. Whoever you get, that'll be your partner for the next three weeks. Got it?"

Everyone made vague noises of agreement and then Mrs. Hastings started calling out names. Fírnen's ears perked up slightly when he heard Saphira's name called, and he watched as she went to stand next to her dark-haired friend—who Fírnen now knew was named Grace. His and Eric's names weren't called—shocker of the century, right there—and so they trudged to the other side of the room with the other girls whose names were presumably in the bucket. Once everyone was lined up single-file, the teacher started going down the line of the group across from him.

"When you draw a name, call it out and then go stand next to your partner," she explained. The teacher looked over at the other group of kids. "When your name is called, please raise your hand."

The first girl in line pulled a card and called out the name that was written there, going over to stand next to her partner. As the other girls took their turn, Fírnen realized he had a knot in his stomach. But why was he nervous? He didn't care about dancing with a girl; he'd taken tap dancing when he was little, so he was pretty used to it. Then he realized Saphira was looking at him and smiling, and it hit him.

He was praying she would pull his name.

This is so stupid, he thought to himself, trying to keep his face neutral. I don't care, I don't care, I don't... dammit, I care. What the hell am I gonna do if she pulls my name? I can't do this...

Before he knew it, Mrs. Hastings was standing in front of Saphira and she was reaching into the bucket, making quite a show of swirling the cards around while the girls around her laughed. Neither he nor Eric's names had been called, but there were still a few girls in their line too. The odds of her pulling his name were pretty slim so—

"Fírnen!" she called out happily, looking at the little white card with a gleeful smile. Fírnen felt his heart drop into his stomach and his hands start to shake. Before he could remember to raise his hand and identify himself, she was bounding across the empty space between them and skipping to a stop at his side. When she was stood next to him—only a little bit shorter than he was—he remembered he probably didn't need to identify himself.

"Hey," he managed to squeak out, clearing his throat hastily. "How's your arm?" They hadn't actually spoken to one another since the incident, which he realized now was pretty stupid on his part. Of course he had wanted to talk to her, but he hadn't had enough presence of thought to realize that he already had a perfect avenue to start a conversation.

"It's fine, thanks," she replied, clasping her hands behind her back and rocking up on her tippy-toes and then back down. "Healed up pretty nicely after Mrs. S took a look at it. She's a nurse."

Fírnen gave her what he was sure was a blank look. "Mrs. S?" he asked slowly.

"Eragon's mom," she explained. "She's practically my second mom. Anyways, it healed up nice. Even left a kickass scar that I can tell ridiculous stories about." She held up her arm for him to inspect and, sure enough, there was a puckered, pink scar there that was still slightly inflamed from the healing process. The skin around the scar still looked slightly bruised, but it was definitely almost completely healed.

Fírnen wasn't quite sure what to say, so he just settled on, "Cool. Glad to hear it."

Saphira gave him a small smile which did all kinds of things to him, and then turned back to look at the teacher. She'd finished with the name bucket and was standing in front of them now, explaining the curriculum for the next three weeks. They'd start out with the waltz the first week, then the foxtrot, and finish the course learning the quickstep. At the end of the three weeks, the pairs would have to choose one of the dances they'd learned and perform for the class for a grade. Fírnen just hoped that his limited experience with dance class would help him here, but it wasn't likely. Ballroom was a whole different ballgame from tap, and he'd been so little when he'd taken classes. He wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he'd forgotten everything he ever knew.

"Alright, everyone," Mrs. Hastings said loudly, clapping her hands together. "Let's spread out and pair up." Eric shot him a sympathetic look as he walked to the other side of the room with his partner, a short girl with mousy brown hair and glasses that were too big for her small face. Eric towered over her, and she was shaking like a leaf; Fírnen tried to contain his laughter but he let out a snort, which drew Saphira's gaze. She followed his line-of-sight and then smiled softly.

"Poor Amelia," she said quietly, walking backwards til they got to a spot she seemed to approve of. "The rumor mill has been churning out that she's got the hots for Eric. She looks like she's gonna be sick." Fírnen had a hard time believing that anyone could have "the hots" for Eric, but then realized that was a mean thing to think and silently reprimanded himself. It's not like he was any better looking than the gangly, beanstalk of a boy who'd become something of a comrade in the past few weeks.

"Now, the first thing we're going to be working on," Mrs. Hastings said from her place at the front of the room, "is a proper ballroom hold. Can anyone tell me what that means?"

A slim, blonde girl standing near the stack of aerobic steps raised her hand, eyes wide with anticipation. Mrs. Hastings pointed to her. "It refers to the position of the arms, shoulders, neck, and head during a particular dance."

"Very good, Ellie," she praised the student. "Now the waltz requires what's known as a 'closed position'. For propriety's sake, we're going to be working with what I like to refer to as a 'loose position' hold. Basic techniques will remain the same, with a few key differences. First things first... for my girl-girl partnerships—no jokes, please... you're going to have to decide which of you is going to be the 'man'. Fírnen and Eric—" she fixed each of them with a slightly-amused look "—you've got it a little easier. In this position, the 'man' places his right hand on the 'woman's' lower back and holds her right hand with his left at about shoulder height. The 'woman' will place her left hand on the 'man's' shoulder. Everyone got it? Alright, let's try it!"

Fírnen swallowed a massive lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. Saphira was looking at him expectantly, arms held up and a smile on her face. The look in her eyes seemed to be asking if he was ready; the answer was a resounding "no". Tentatively, he took her hand in his own and wrapped his right arm around her waist. At that point, he wasn't quite sure where to put his hand, so he left it hovering a little ways away from her.

She placed her hand on his shoulder and scooted a little closer to him. "I hope this is right," she chuckled slightly. "You're supposed to put your hand on my back." She gave him a wry smile, which made him feel like he might throw up.

"Umm," he stammered, "I... is this...?" Feeling like the biggest fool in the world, Fírnen placed his hand on what he hoped was the small of her back. This was the closest he'd ever been to a girl, and the blood was rushing to his face just thinking about it.

Saphira coughed to try and cover up her laugh, but her face betrayed her amusement. "Fírnen," she said softly. The way she said it sent a shiver down his spine, and a tingling running through his fingers.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. "Yes?"

"That's not my back," she said quietly. Fírnen snatched his hand away and stepped away from her.

"Uh... uh I'm sorry, I didn't—"

Saphira laughed boisterously, the sound simultaneously comforting and invigorating. "It's okay," she reassured him. "Come on, let's try again." She took a step towards him and held her arms up expectantly.

But Fírnen felt rooted to the spot, practically shaking from his embarrassment and unwilling to subject himself to that humiliation again. This was stupid; why did he even care what she thought? It wasn't like they really knew each other all that well, so what was there for him to be embarrassed about? But the truth of it was... he wanted to know her better. He wanted to understand where her vivacity came from; what kept her smiling when it seemed like no one else was; why she even went out of her way to talk to him. There was so much about her he wanted to understand, but he had no way of knowing where to start.

It couldn't have been as easy as a dance... could it?

Mustering his courage, Fírnen stepped towards her determinedly. His palms were sweaty, and he was sure he looked absolutely scared to death, but her smile was enough for him to focus on. As long as she kept smiling, he could do this. He settled into the hold and placed his hand at the middle of her back, opting for this safer option rather than embarrassing himself again.

Mrs. Hastings was walking around the room inspecting everyone's form. She stopped at the two of them and complimented their hold before moving on to the next. They separated after that to wait for further instruction, but Fírnen was still buzzing from where the contact had just been. These next three weeks were going to be some of the most interesting weeks of Fírnen's life, but he was equal parts excited and terrified to experience it. Something big was coming his way, he could feel it. He just hoped that Saphira was going to be a part of it.

 


 

His next period of the day—AP European History with Mr. Long—he sat next to Arya, who'd been a great source of help to him in his first few weeks of school. After getting over the initial hiccups, he'd found her surprisingly easy to talk to. Where Saphira was a bit of a novelty to him, Arya felt like somewhere safe he could retreat to when things got to be overwhelming. She seemed to understand what it was like to be an outsider. Though Fírnen couldn't begin to imagine what a smart, beautiful girl like her would had to have endured to be able to relate to him.

She never spoke about it—not to him, anyways—but there was an underlying sadness to her that Fírnen recognized in himself. The same determination he had to find an avenue to get out of this little town, he saw reflected in her dedication to her schoolwork. Already, she had helped to tutor him in a couple of areas where he struggled.

"The key to success," she always said, "isn't understanding, it's memorization. All the teachers around here, they just copy and paste their test questions straight from the textbooks. If you can memorize the things you learn in class, then you'll always pass the tests with flying colors."

That was something he'd never really thought about, but she'd been right, of course. The moment he'd started focusing on memorizing the answers, instead of trying to cram as much knowledge into his brain on the off-chance that it'd be on the test, he'd started getting high Bs and low As. He'd been able to maintain all of his grades from the beginning of the semester, and his parents had certainly taken note of that. It seemed he had more to thank Arya for than just her friendship.

Mr. Long had gifted them all with another of his "surprise pop quizzes" that morning, so they were currently sitting in silence focusing on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper containing a myriad of questions about the Hundred Years War. Luckily for Fírnen, Arya had helped him make some flash cards during the free period they shared during 5th period, and he was able to breeze through the test with an acceptable degree of confidence. Arya shot him a reassuring look as she walked up to Mr. Long's desk and handed in her test. Fírnen followed quickly after once she'd sat down, not wanting to seem too eager.

As he trekked back to his seat, he noticed the door to their classroom open and a well-built man with graying blondish hair and a matching beard walk into the room. He was wearing a dark suit and tie, and Fírnen seemed to recognize him as the Vice Principal, but he couldn't be sure.

When he sat back in his desk, the man cleared his throat and quietly said Mr. Long's name. But, as was usually the case, Mr. Long had his nose buried in a book and wasn't paying any attention. The possibly-Vice-Principal cleared his throat again, and said his name a little louder, but still, Mr. Long didn't look up. Finally, the man said, "Jeod!" in a harsh tone and the teacher startled himself out of his concentration.

"Huh? What? What's going on?" he asked, hastily looking around the room and readjusting his horn-rimmed glasses. Fírnen had always thought him to be a nervous, jumpy-sort of man, and this incident only furthered his opinion. Finally, Mr. Long noticed the man standing in the doorway to his classroom and stood up from behind his desk.

"Vice Principal Glaedr, what can I do for you?" he asked, putting his book down.

"I need to speak with you in the hall," the other man replied, slightly irritated.

Mr. Long looked around his classroom, almost helplessly. "B-but..." he stammered, "we're right in the middle of a pop quiz."

"It's urgent," the Vice Principal insisted. Mr. Long swallowed a lump in his throat and then nodded quickly, walking around his desk and down the aisle in between his students to get to the door.

He stopped right under the doorframe and looked back at his class nervously. "Uh... don't cheat," he said, trying to imitate sternness. It only earned him a few giggles, so he walked out into the hallway without another word.

"Wonder what that's all about," Fírnen mused, looking over his shoulder at the slowly closing door. He could just glimpse the back of Mr. Long's head through the skinny glass pane of the door, but it was impossible to gauge what they could be discussing.

"Knowing Vice Principal Glaedr," Arya remarked casually, "it probably isn't nearly as urgent as he's making it sound."

A few short seconds later, Mr. Long reentered the classroom and cleared his throat loudly, drawing everyone's attention. The room fell silent, and Fírnen suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

"Umm, Nasuada, I'm sorry but you're needed at the front office," Mr. Long said, nervously twiddling his hands in front of his waist. A pretty, dark-skinned girl Fírnen had never noticed before stood up slowly, bracing one hand on her desk and clutching a locket around her neck with the other. "Your father is waiting for you," the teacher continued quietly. Fírnen thought he could see the girl starting to cry, but to her credit, she didn't sway or show any other signs of weakness.

Slowly, she gathered her things in her backpack and swung it over her shoulder, cutting around the back of the classroom as everyone watched her go. Whatever was happening, Fírnen was certainly impressed by her fortitude. After she was gone, Mr. Long returned to his desk and instructed everyone that they only had twenty minutes to finish their test. Fírnen leaned back in his chair, thinking about the tall, slender girl, and hoping everything was okay.

Chapter Text

NASUADA

Fluorescent lights reflected off the recently-waxed floors like some kind of halo, practically blinding with their intensity. Nasuada sat in the hospital waiting room quietly, hands folded in her lap but fiddling restlessly. Her father sat next to her in another of the horribly uncomfortable chairs, shifting from sitting up straight to slouching down and then back on his feet to pace around the small space. Neither of them said a word, but the tension was so thick, it could be cut with a knife.

It seemed to Nasuada that a thousand years had passed since she'd gone to the principal's office and seen her dad waiting for her there, jacket draped over his arm and a frantic look in his eyes. They'd left immediately to go to the hospital, but he hadn't told her much beyond that her mother had gotten hurt and was currently in emergency surgery. Her mind was racing through all the possibilities of what might have happened... but nothing had prepared her for the truth.

Three gunshot wounds to the torso, the police officer had explained. She'd been leaving her office at the county judicial building, walking down the steps to the parking lot when an unknown assailant had come out of nowhere and fired off an entire clip. It was a miracle he'd managed to miss seven times, they said. But that was a small consolation to Nasuada and her father. The shots that hadn't missed had done a tremendous amount of damage. A surgeon's assistant had come to talk to them briefly when they'd first arrived, informing them that she was in critical condition, and required surgery to stop the internal bleeding the bullets had caused.

Nasuada felt like she was existing in a fog. Just that morning, she'd kissed her mother goodbye before leaving for school, like she always did. Nothing was out of the norm; everything was fine. Until it wasn't, and she felt like she was in a free fall. Would today be the happiest or the saddest day of her life? She couldn't know, and that drove her insane.

Morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon into evening, before someone came to talk to them again. This time, it was the head surgeon himself. He was an older man, with graying hair and tired eyes. His shoulders slumped slightly, and Nasuada thought he looked like he could use a nap. She glanced at the clock... 6:27. Her mother had been in surgery for almost eight hours; no wonder the man looked tired.

"Mr. Adams?" he asked, extending a hand to accompany his somber expression. Ajihad stood shakily and took the surgeon's hand, but it didn't seem he had it in him to speak. Nasuada stood as well, wringing her hands nervously and feeling her pulse quicken alarmingly. "I'm Dr. Grier, the head surgeon at the hospital. Your wife is in the ICU right now. We repaired the damage as best we could, and now all we can do is wait. These next few days will be critical from an observation standpoint; she'll have round the clock care—"

"Is she going to make it?" Ajihad suddenly interrupted, his voice wavering uncharacteristically. Nasuada thought she'd never seen her father like this before, and did little to encourage her.

Dr. Grier hesitated slightly before saying, "It's too early to tell. The bullets did heavy damage to her major organs; there may still be some internal bleeding we aren't aware of. Like I said, she'll have round the clock care. If anything changes, we'll know right away. I'm sorry I don't have anything more than that."

"When can we see her?" Nasuada interjected, feeling like her heart might jump out of her throat.

The surgeon looked at her sadly. "The anesthesia will wear off in the next hour, but we have no way of knowing when—or if—she'll regain consciousness. You'll be allowed in within the next hour, I can promise you that."

Ajihad nodded, the surgeon shot her another sympathetic look, and then he walked away, leaving the two of them there in stunned silence. A few moments passed before Nasuada lowered herself back into the seat. Ajihad looked down at her, eyes unreadable.

"How're you doing, baby?" he asked softly, putting a large hand on her shoulder. "Are you hungry? Do you want to go home?"

"No," she said quickly. "I'm not going anywhere."

Her father knelt down in front of her slowly, grasping at her hands. "I wish I had some words of wisdom," he began slowly, "but I'm feeling a little numb right now. How you holding up?"

Nasuada inspected her father's face, noticing where the tracks of dried tears still clung to his cheeks. His dark eyes were ringed with red, and she could see his bottom lip trembling slightly. "I don't... I don't really know, Dad. This morning... she was fine, and now..."

"I know, baby." Ajihad wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her in tightly as she started to shake. "But we have to be strong now, for her. Your mom's a fighter, you know that. She's gonna pull through this."

"Do they know who it was?" she mumbled into his shoulder, trying to hold her tears at bay.

Ajihad shook his head slightly. "Not yet, but they will. They're not gonna let the man who shot the District Attorney get away with it, I promise."

She sniffled slightly and then pulled away from her father, smoothing down her hair and attempting to keep her hands busy so they didn't shake as badly. "Why would they do this?" she asked quietly. "Is this because of that case?"

Nasuada saw her father visibly stiffen, and his eyes grew cold and hard. It was no secret to her that her mom and dad had argued incessantly about this over the past few weeks. Her mother was the District Attorney for Alagaësia County, so she had a heavy influence on how certain trials were handled, and how severe the charges were for certain defendants. When this case had come across her desk, Nadara Adams had been absolutely livid. Ajihad had cautioned her against getting overly involved, but her conviction hadn't allowed her to heed his words.

Even in this day and age, white supremacy and the KKK ran rampant in their little town. Nasuada wasn't naïve enough to think that racism was dead, but she'd never imagined something as horrible as this would happen. A known Klan member had been arrested in relation to the murder of an elderly shop owner, an African American man that Nasuada knew well. Mr. Barclay had gone to their church, and the community had been shaken. Nadara had used her influence to push for a harsher sentence, and now it seemed that hadn't gone unnoticed.

"I don't want you to start jumping to conclusions," Ajihad said softly, squeezing her hand a little tighter than was necessary.

"But Dad," she implored quietly, "we might be in danger too. If this is because of that case, and they are retaliating against Mom..."

Her dad seemed to think for a minute, worrying at his lip. "Until the police conduct their investigation, we can't assume anything, okay? It's too dangerous. We have to try and go on as we did before."

"Nothing's ever going to be the same, Dad," she said somberly, feeling her brow pull together. "Not after this... I'm scared."

Ajihad sighed heavily and pulled her in for another tight embrace. "I know, baby... me too."

 


 

She was curled up in a chair in the ICU a few hours later, dozing off, when her phone buzzed in her pocket. Nasuada startled awake and dug it out of her pants, glancing at the screen and trying to stifle a groan.

The text message from Trianna read, "Missed u at practice today. U good?" Nasuada had to hold back her snort; Trianna certainly was passive aggressive about things.

She hesitated slightly before typing back a response. "Mom's in the hospital. Won't be back for a couple days. You okay to handle sectionals this week?" With the ghost of a triumphant smile, she hit send and then lowered her phone into her lap. She looked around the room and saw her dad snoozing in a chair on the opposite side of the room, pulled right up next to her mom where she lay in the hospital bed. Tubes and wires of all sorts were running every which way, and the steady beep of the heart monitor was lulling her back to sleep.

Another few minutes passed before her phone buzzed again. Slowly, Nasuada picked it up, noticing that it was a little after eleven o'clock. Again, it was from Trianna. "Most def. Sorry to hear about ur mom. Hope she's ok." It was probably the nicest thing Trianna had ever said to her, so she decided to let it lie.

She was a little more awake now, so Nas opened up her Facebook app and began scrolling through her timeline absentmindedly. It was just something to keep her mind occupied, but when she saw that name pop up in her notifications, Nasuada was suddenly wide awake.

'Murtagh Morris liked your photo'

Nasuada sat up a little straighter, tapping on the notification which pulled up a black and white action shot of her mid-toss. She'd posted that a couple weeks ago, right after band camp. Until now, she hadn't even realized Murtagh had accepted her friend request. A small smile crept its way onto her face, but it disappeared quickly. How could she possibly be thinking about that at a time like this? It wasn't right to feel happy when her whole world had shattered... was it?

A high-pitched 'ding!' sounded off, and a push notification dropped down at the top of her screen.

'Murtagh Morris sent you a message'

Against her will, her heart beat a little bit faster. Well... that's certainly unexpected, she thought to herself. After their initial meeting, she wasn't even sure he would accept the request. But there was something about him; something that made her want to know who he really was, beneath the rough exterior and all the rumors.

She switched over to her Messenger app and tapped on the new conversation. All he'd typed was "hey" and nothing more, but she wasn't really surprised. He didn't seem to her like the overly talkative type. She drew in a deep breath before typing back a response.

"Hi Murtagh. How's it going?" Was it disingenuous to seem unaffected? She didn't really want to spill the beans about what was going on, but then again... The story was probably all over the news by now.

"I heard about your Mom."

Well, that answered that question. "Way to dodge the question," she sighed quietly. "oh" was all she typed back. The little gray bubble with the waving ellipses popped up and stayed there for a while. She imagined he was seeing the same thing on his end, and wondered if this would be the end to any further conversation.

But then his message came through, and she felt her heart drop. "I don't wanna make any empty statements about how everything is gonna be fine. Truth is... I don't really know. But I'm here to talk, if you want..."

A tear snaked its way down her face, cold and salty. She wiped it away hastily and drew in a shaky breath. "Thanks, Murtagh. That means a lot." Nasuada hit send and then exited out of the app; there was nothing more for her to say right now. Maybe she'd take him up on his offer later. But right now, her focus had to stay on her mom, and being strong for her dad.

She watched him, bent over at the waist and half-resting on the edge of the hospital bed. He looked so fragile like that, weakly holding her mom's limp hand. One of them had to be strong right now, and it was going to be her. Whatever came next, she would be the pillar for her dad to lean on. Everything else would wait.