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   Chapter 15 NO.15

Damsel[ed] Rescue Required (3 of the Damsel[ed] Series) By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 20281

Updated: 2018-03-20 10:51


Angelos.

It's funny, returning to a place where the only thing that's different about it is you. Because Starlight City Modern Learning is the same school it always was before the capitol building burned, before my mother died, before I ran from Jay at that dance and had my head bashed in on the gymnasium floor. It's a three-floor gilded cage where the kids carry laptops under their arms and the adults are your garden-variety underpaid professionals who don't want to deal with our crap. The crowd of people, it scares me. My head is pounding, my chest is tight. Standing at the bottom floor, looking up, all I can see is the crush of student bodies. No escape from the mass of limbs.

Gats's fingers are looped in my right belt loop, curled so tightly they've gone white. And then a girl using her tie as a belt waves down at him from the stair rail and Gats lets go. "Hey!" He skids on the soles of his shoes, happily leaving me to join the small group that's formed around her. From below, I squint up at them, watching Gats act. He's leaned up against the banister with his arms crossed over his chest, talking casually, sometimes waving a hand, sometimes offering a calm smirk, a smile. He hops on the rails and leans his head on the shoulder of one of his friends.

A quick squint and I make out the boy's coppery red hair, the slight build of his wiry frame, the hoodie tied around his waist. Aaron Elms. The perpetual on again off again boyfriend.

I shake my head, run a hand over my beanie. "What are you looking at?" asks a girl I can't name. Blonde. Wavy-haired. She tips her head, and I'm so unaccustomed to people walking up to me and offering conversation I flinch.

"Dead meat." The words snap out of me, cold and cruel.

"Aaron and Gatsby?" She squints along my line of sight, "They're cute."

"One of them's dead, anyway." I flip the straps on my backpack, squirm wings that are already beginning to ache. These halls are narrow and stuffy, made more so by windowless red brick and a constant rush of students. They're always moving, since classrooms are relatively small and spaced apart, and I don't mean to take up such a large corner.

"Angelos, right?"

"Right."

"You okay?" She widens soft blue-gray eyes. They look innocent in a lean, tanned face. "Everyone saw what happened at the dance."

"Oh." I'm starting to blush. "Yeah, well. I was just, you know, nervous? I guess?"

Both of her eyebrows rise. Aaron and Gats aren't the only ones who she's squinting at now. And there's this thing about groups of recognizable people standing still and talking that encourages other people to circle up around them. There's a guy named Tony, the school quarterback, and his girlfriend who wave at us and join in. I finally remember the girl's name, Cheyenne. And then I remember exactly how much of a recluse I am when I'm pressed into the corner with the hem of my shirt twisted around my fingers. Social interaction—not my forte. No wonder kids don't tend to sit with me at lunch.

"You good, man?" Tony asks. He's slim, and my eyes lurch down his body; I'm bulkier than he is.

"Yeah."

"What's up with the eye-patch?"

"I walked into a wall, " I say drily.

He buys it. Or at least, he's a good enugh actor to keep his expression from shifting. His brow only furrows, and his concern looks so real I ache. "Are you okay?"

"I, uh, yeah." My fingers trail up to my wrists, lifting my sleeve and rubbing the bruises. They've faded now, but they're still easy to make out from any distance, some blossoming across my skin in horrible black and blue splotches. Scrapes, where the skin is tough and raised. Lumps, bumpy ridges of dried blood. "Yeah, I'm okay. Think I need to...get to class."

"You look different."

"I feel different." I hoist my backpack over my left shoulder. I'm blushing and trying on an aching smile when I realize I've just quoted at least twenty romances, and 'romantic' is not how I feel. More like tired. More like pushed up in a corner. "I just, just kind of got hit in the face with a lot of Starlight City pretty quickly."

He nods. The concern in his knotted brow lifts and he shoots me a smile, toothy and dazzling. "You have to tell us about how it feels to be rescued by Galaxy."

"Oh, that." I blow a fluff of hair out of my face. "Feels so long ago."

"Yeah, " a third girl with her hair done up in pigtails says. I didn't even notice her enter the circle. "With the capitol? And the sky? That was crazy. You'd think they'd cancel school or something."

My skin prickles with gooseflesh. I was there. I helped. "Yeah."

"You got caught in that?" She raises both thickly-penciled eyebrows.

"Yeah." I shrug. Here's where I'm supposed to lie. Say I was somewhere else, doing something else, tell her anything other than 'Yeah, I manufactured the hell you lived through.' But it's like vertigo, talking to these kids who know nothing of who I am or what I did. Like I'm falling on two feet. "I'm sorry. I'm still a little...off from it all." Off. That sort of describes it, right? It hits me like a kick in the livers. I'll never be the person I was before falling off that roof, and for a moment, I stare down at my hands, swimming in a loss too strange to name. I feel sorry for that boy. I feel sorry that I couldn't save him, that I shed him like a second skin. That everything I was for sixteen years was nothing more than that, a skin, and this is the thing that lives underneath it. I don't know what I am. I'm starting to laugh, a nervous series of squeaks under my breath. I'm starting to laugh because I'm scared.

Tony nods. It's a curt, understanding gesture. "See you at lunch."

I nod back. "See you guys." Ten minutes ago, relative for all I've seen, I'd say I was well-adjusted. But now, as I squirm out of the circle and head down the hall with my back to the direction I'm walking toward, I don't know. All I know is that my people skills have gotten even worse, something I wasn't even sure was physically possible, and that my hands are shaking.

"Tak

I'll kill you."

"I'm not gonna let you." My knuckles have gone white, he's wrapped up in my arms so tightly. I don't want to lose him again. "I'm not going to let you fall that far. Hev and I will keep you safe."

He quivers. The sobbing slows. "Look at me. I couldn't even last two bloody hours without falling apart."

I shrug. "It'll get better as long as you keep trying." I don't know how I feel about him right now, beside oddly paternal. And it's strange to me. Two months ago, if you asked me to describe myself, 'paternal' would be the farthest word from my mind. Like I could protect someone. Like I could make anyone's crappy surrogate father. But right now, this is how I feel. Somewhere between exhausted and protective and desperate for everything to rewind. Everything in the vague sense. Him, me, Hev, my mother's death, hurting Jay, growing wings. All the screaming. Crying. Everything.

Gats' breath has become low, even swells. He leans against my shoulder.

"S'alright?" My breath is caught in the back of my throat. "You're gonna try out for that play, right?" Translation: You feeling better now? At least enough to do something you used to love?

"I don't want to stay after school alone."

"Fine. I'll audition too." I'm a terrible actor. I'm already bad at talking people, and talking to people on a stage makes me sweat. But right now, I'd do anything to make him feel better.

We sit like this for a stretch of time I can't define. Me, still cupping him against my body so tightly my arms ache. Him, stilling as the last of his sobs hiccup into uneasy silences. I cradle him, rock him, run a free hand through his hair until he's all but limp in my arms.

The door bangs. Gats yelps, flinching against me. But there isn't enough time to think up and escape. The room is flooded with light. Heaven, her illusion of armor glittering with maps of stars, leans in the doorway. Even after I recognize her, my heart still beats quick enough to burst. The costume flickers away with a snap of her fingers. The armor below is scratched and blue. She raises an eyebrow, and I know I'm in trouble.

"You ever give a twenty-minute impromptu speech?"

"Uh, " I say, "no."

She shakes her head, hands propped on her hips. "So there I was, giving my heart out on stage. And here you guys are. Cuddling. In the janitor's closet. Can I ask why Gats is in your lap and why you seem oddly okay with it?"

"No, " says Gats, scrambling out of my arms.

Heaven tosses a curl out of her eyes, visor flipped up. Her purple eyes are narrowed. "You know what...it doesn't matter. That you weren't there. That you're doing this. It's fine." She closes her eyes. I'm up on my feet, preparing to say something. What, I don't know. But then she's looking back at me, and her eyes are flickering purple, and I know something's up, because she's switched into her smooth Galaxy voice. "You guys are in trouble. We have maybe a minute before we're swarmed with kids and I don't want to deal with them."

Gats swallows audibly. Suddenly, there's so much pressure in my chest it might explode. "Where's Jaylin?" I can't live with myself if she gets hurt.

"Doesn't matter. I'll find her. Come on, Ang!" She takes me by the hand while I'm brushing the dust off my jeans.

"What is it?" I keep my voice calm, just so I won't rile Gats. If he wasn't beside me, I think I'd grab her by her shoulders and shake her.

"Synners." She squints past my head.

"H-here?" Gats' silky voice is a croak.

Heaven nods.

"So we'll skip, " I say, my stomach a knot. "Cool."

"We're gonna hang in the drama room for a little bit." She turns from me. Her voice softens to a sweet croon as she rubs her fingertips through the ends of Gats's hair. He hunches at her touch. "It'll be fun."

Gats covers his face with his hands. The wrinkled hat is stuffed back over his now unruly hair, his blue eyes searing through his fingers. They burn holes into me. "It's never over, " he says, slumping forward against my tensed body. "Never."

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