"Wait," Callie said as she tossed her beach towel over her shoulder. "We're driving?"
Callie ran upstairs to her sister's bedroom. When she saw Jenna, eyes glued to the full length mirror on her closet door, Callie stared in disbelief: it had been half an hour and Jenna was still deciding between the dark green bikini she'd bought on sale last week and her old black one-piece.
Callie locked her arms as she pressed outward on her sister's doorframe. She lifted herself a few inches off the carpeted floor as she said, "Why are we taking the car? I thought we were flying?"
Jenna's green eyes rolled to glare at Callie.
"Can we please just fly?" Callie dropped from the doorframe. "It's not like Ma's going to notice. And Daddy never cares."
Jenna turned to Callie. "Which do you think?"
Callie pointed to the green bikini.
"Really?" Jenna whirled back to the mirror. The green of the suit drew out Jenna's eyes and made her wavy blonde hair look purely golden.
Callie plopped down onto Jenna's bed. Murray, her cat, crawled out from underneath the bed. The large, spotted cat leapt up beside Callie to nuzzle her leg.
"Are you saving that suit for some pool party I don't know about?" Callie said as she scratched Murray's neck, "It is September. Kind of running out of opportunities."
"Yeah…" Jenna held the bikini against her t-shirt and jeans.
"Hey, I've got an idea! You wear the black one tonight. And next summer, when you're a fat cow, I'll take the green one off your hands."
Jenna threw the bikini top at Callie. "You wish!"
"Look, pick one and let's go already. Taylor's been there for like an hour." Callie tossed the piece back.
Jenna dropped the black suit onto her chair and caught the bikini. She ducked into her walk-in closet to change. "You're not dating him, are you?"
"Who? Taylor McConnell?"
"You dating a different Taylor I should know about?"
"No, I'm just saying. I mean, come on: it's Taylor."
"Thought I'd ask."
"Oh? Thinking of making your move?"
Jenna's laughter echoed out of the closet. "And crush my girlfriend's heart? I'd rather not."
Callie said, "You're lame, you know that?"
"Why, because I'm dating someone and you're not?" Jenna grabbed a towel and her swimming goggles from her bureau.
"No." Callie sat up on her elbows. "Because you're dating a frickin' princess."
"I'm ready," Jenna said as she found her keys. She scurried down the stairs, tossing back to Callie as she followed, "And Marissa isn't a princess. She's more like a marquise if anything."
"Marquise. Fine, whatever. I don't even know what that means."
Jenna said, "Yeah, to be honest? I don't either."
"You still haven't given me a good reason why we can't fly." Callie crawled her fingers up Jenna's back. As she did so, she let her eyes change to black with the gentle pulse of magic. A few feathers sprouted in her hair as she said, "It's so much faster and you know it."
"Oh my god, Callie!" Jenna threw her towel over Callie's head. "You're lucky I didn't have the door open yet!"
"No one could see me." Callie pulled the towel free from her dirty blonde curls.
"Ma's going to trim your wings one of these days."
"Good. Then you can drive me all the time. We should fly now while we can."
Jenna shoved Callie's shoulder. "Maybe I'd like to spend some time on the ground, ever think of that?"
"Boo! You suck." Callie said, "All right, fine. We'll be boring humans for the evening."
Callie caught Jenna smiling even as she shook her head and hurried to the emerald green Infiniti their dad left when he was out of town. It matched their mother's dark blue one.
On the way to the party, Callie put her window down. The breeze rolled up her bare arms. Callie shivered and not from the wind. What should have been a feather-down kiss of air had been more like spider webs brushing over her.
Callie's eyes snapped open wide. She took a deep breath, suddenly aware of how shallow her breathing had become.
Her sister said, "You were far away for a second. You okay?"
"Um, yeah." Callie scooted up in her seat. She rolled the window back up. "Weird feeling, that's all."
"You're not going to be sick, right?"
Callie hugged her towel. "Nah, I'm cool."
She didn't say that the back of her throat was tight, like she did need to vomit. She was not going to have Jenna turn around, not now when they were practically on top of A.J.'s house.
Cars lined both sides of the road near the Knowles' driveway and looped around the cul-de-sac. They parked close to the main road that A.J. lived off.
Jenna turned off the engine and sat still. "You want to talk for a minute?"
Which Callie knew meant, "I have something to say."
Callie held fast to her towel. She liked knowing where her towel was; it made the creeped out feeling lessen ever so slightly.
Jenna took one of Callie's hands in hers. She rubbed Callie's wrist with her thumb. "You being good?"
Callie shivered again. This time she at least knew why. "Yep."
"How long we at now?"
"Forty-two days." The number was automatic for her.
Jenna smiled then let go of Callie's hand.
Callie liked that Jenna seemed proud of her, but it was a little odd considering that Jenna was proud of her for not doing something.
Callie stared at the house past Jenna. She didn't have the heart to tell the truth. Where would that smile be if Callie had said it had only been three days? Then Jenna would have wanted to know when, and where, and why. And she'd be grumpy the whole night.
It had only been a little cut anyway, something to ground Callie and snap her back to reality. She could hardly even count it. The magic in her blood had healed it before morning, so Jenna never saw it. Definitely didn't count if Jenna didn't catch her.
"So," Callie said, "there's this party. About a hundred feet away. If you want to go…"
Jenna didn't move.
Callie frowned. This was something serious. Way more serious than Callie's bad coping mechanisms.
But Jenna didn't open her mouth to speak. Instead, she drummed her fingers on her jeans instead, which got irritating fast.
Callie said, "Do you want to talk now or after?"
"I just don't want you to get upset."
"Okay… What if I promise not to?"
"I'm graduating in the spring," Jenna said. "Right?"
"Uh, yeah. Unless you're failing something miserably?"
"No. Nothing like that. I… don't think I'm going to Amherst."
"All right. No big. Other colleges wanted you," Callie said. "Pick one in Boston. You'd be closer anyway."
Jenna winced. "That's not it. Callie, I don't think I'm going to go to any college."
Callie blinked. "Oh?"
"The thing is," Jenna said as she took a deep breath, "Marissa came by school today. I went and ditched the last couple of classes."
"Was anything wrong?"
"Actually, she kind of asked me about going to her family's island."
"I'm… I don't follow. She wants you to go to the… That… what…?" Callie blanked on the name of the city where Marissa Bay and the rest of her royal family hid out from humanity. She motioned with her hands, hoping to conjure up a memory where she'd heard one of her parents mentioning whatever-it-was-called.
"Ruhme," Jenna filled in for her.
"Right. But what does that have to do with you and school? If she wants you to go on visit her or something that won't take forever."
"That's not what she meant. Marissa, she kind of got me accepted to their academy. She said I can do mage training there."
Callie focused on her hands.
She didn't really know Jenna's girlfriend, since Marissa was usually very private about things. The three of them had hung out all of twice in the six months that Jenna and Marissa had been dating. Part of that, Callie understood, was because of how their mom would react if she knew Jenna was even hanging out with a royal let alone dating one.
What Callie didn't understand was why did Marissa want to take Jenna away from her like this? If Jenna went to Ruhme, there would be no visiting.
"Cals?" Jenna's voice was tiny as she said, "What do you think?"
Callie said, "Are you going to tell Daddy?"
Jenna winced. "Maybe not until it gets closer. I wanted you to know first. That's why I didn't want to fly tonight."
"Gotcha." Callie said, "Well, if Ma asks me a direct question, I'm not going to lie."
"I'm not asking you to."
"Not mad." Callie pursed her lips together. "Are you happy about this?"
"About going?" Jenna's face brightened as she said, "I've never been more excited. Ever."
Callie smiled. She reached over and messed up Jenna's hair. It didn't stay over her face for long, but it was good enough.
Callie nearly leaped out of the car. She ran faster when she heard Jenna shut the driver's door and shout for her.
Then the spider webs came back, freezing Callie in her tracks. The breeze trickled up the lawn, dragging more of the phantom threads over her skin. Callie clutched a hand to her stomach. "Jenna!"
Jenna caught up with her. "You all right?"
As soon as Jenna's hands were on her arms, Callie felt the tendrils dissipate. She dragged in a rough breath.
"Uh, yeah," Callie said. "Hey, look, are you sure you want to go in?"
"Oh, please! " Jenna laughed loudly. "You are not pussing out on me now!"
A nervous smile lingered on Callie's face. "Nah, you're right. I was just checking."
"Good. Now let's go, before there's no more cake left."
"Mm, cake!" Callie forced a real smile.
As they walked through the front door, Callie could practically taste the excitement. Living energy flowed to and from the first floor of the house like it always did during A.J.'s parties.
Her first stop was the cake on the kitchen counter while Jenna slipped down the hallway. Callie sliced off two large pieces of the chocolate side. She walked on tiptoes to maneuver past the guests crowded in the hallway, holding her paper plates high over her head and the ends of two forks between her teeth.
In the living room, the music poured into her. Past the groups of friends lounging on the couches and floor, the stereo pounded out heavy drums and low thrumming guitar chords. Gods, how she wanted to dance! But there was hardly room for that.
In the corner by the sound system was Callie's neighbor, and best guy friend, Taylor. His neon green and black braids sprouting from the middle of his shaved head were as good as any homing beacon.
Taylor grabbed a CD and popped it into the five-disk changer as Callie approached. He saw her and nodded.
Taylor yelled, "Did you have to sew a swim suit together or something?"
"No," Callie said, matching Taylor's shout over the music. "Jenna had to."
"Ah, yes!" Taylor looked to the cake and grinned. "For me? You shouldn't have."
Callie made a face at him. "For Jenna."
Taylor pointed across the room and said, "I don't think she's available for cake at the moment. Who's the cute chick with her?"
On the other side of the room, near the doors leading out to the porch, Callie saw Jenna sitting on the lap of a petite girl with vibrantly blue hair. Their lips were locked.
"Ugh," Callie said as she plopped down beside Taylor. "Marissa."
"Jenna never said she was going to be here."
"Well, I'm impressed. Go Jenna, scoring a hottie."
Callie dug an elbow into Taylor's arm, which made him laugh. She offered him the two pieces of cake.
"Don't mind if I do!" Taylor picked the cake up with his fingers. He shoved one whole piece into his mouth.
Callie said, "Want to head to the pool?"
Taylor shook his head. Through the cake in his mouth, he said, "Can't lose my spot. Vultures! All of them!"
Callie scanned the room and saw what Taylor did. A few of the freshmen and sophomores were eyeing Taylor's venerable position as music maestro.
Callie stood, giving Taylor a kiss on the top of his head as she went. "All right, jerkface, if you lose your job in the next half hour, come out and get some moonlight. It'd be good for you."
Callie waded through the guests to the porch door. She smiled to Jenna as she crossed the living room, but didn't interrupt her sister's time with Marissa. Even if she wanted to- desperately- when the imaginary spider webs teased across her face for a third time.
The pool wasn't as packed as Callie had expected it to be. Then again, it was mid-September, summer was waning, and the nighttime air brought a chill with it.
Callie didn't mind any of that. And she wasn't the only one: in the shallow end, sitting on the second stair, was one of the Laurens.
"Hey," Callie said as she stripped down to her dark red bikini. The creepy feelings on her skin had left once she was outside, and now Callie wondered if she'd simply been picking up on too much energy.
Lauren said, "How's it going?"
"Good," Callie said. She eased into the water, which was surprisingly warm. "Where are the others?"
"Other-Lauren had work. Tara didn't feel like coming."
Callie bobbed in the water. Soon her curls were slicked down against her back.
Lauren pointed across the pool as she said, "Did you see who's come down from on high to mingle with the commoners?"
At first, Callie thought Lauren was directing her to the girl rocketing into the air off the diving board, one of A.J.'s friends from another school. But then Callie saw someone sitting on the edge of the deep end, the guy with the nearly black hair and eyes she knew were vibrant, metallic blue. She choked on the pool water as it rippled up from the girl's cannonball.
Through her coughing, Callie said, "Is that who I think it is?"
"If you think it's Grant Sage-Grove, yes, my dear. You are entirely correct." Lauren flashed a smile, showing off her now perfect teeth.
Callie shook her head, still staring in disbelief at the young man in the black shorts and gray t-shirt. "Anyone know what he'd doing out of his cave?"
"Beats the hell out of me. I guess Gene invited him."
"Invited Grant? Really?" Something didn't compute about that. Callie ducked under the water to clear her head. When she surfaced, she asked, "When did Gene and Grant become friends?"
Lauren shrugged. "Other-Lauren might know."
"Tell me about it." Lauren rose from the water. "Want a burger?"
"I had cake," Callie lied, "but thanks."
Callie lurked in the shallow end of the pool while Lauren wandered off to the house. She caught sight of Jenna standing on the deck, staring out over the backyard and her eyes on the Ultimate Frisbee game.
The porch door slid open. Marissa stepped out.
Callie watched, curious, as Marissa sneaked up behind Jenna. Then Marissa snaked her arms around Jenna's waist, surprising Callie's sister.
Jenna peered over her shoulder and visibly relaxed. She kissed Marissa's cheek and slid her hand across Marissa's arm.
Callie continued to watch as the two talked, laughed, and generally gave her a conflicting case of the warm-fuzzies and striking envy.
When Marissa settled her chin on Jenna's shoulder and Jenna ran her fingers through the bright strands of her girlfriend's hair, Callie had to look away.
It really wasn't fair that Jenna could get away with hanging out with another aviavol like that. Why did she bother to keep protecting them? Callie could easily have run to one of their parents and put an end to the whole thing. Hell, she could have just threatened to tell on Jenna and it would probably be over. After all, Jenna had pulled that kind of crap on her before.
Callie lifted her eyes across the pool.
Grant had taken off his sandals. His legs dangled in the water. He wasn't talking to anyone, just watching. Waiting maybe?
Callie saw Gene motion to Grant from a few feet away. He was asking Grant if he wanted a drink, and Grant shook his head no.
Callie floated on her back. Above her, the sky practically begged her to go for a night flight. What would happen, she wondered, if she changed form right then and took to that velvety black sky? She couldn't show her face in school again, that was for sure.
And Ma probably would trim her flight feathers.
Still, there was a certain appeal to breaking the rules so brazenly like that. Maybe the other aviavols there would join her. Or maybe there were other shapeshifters at the party, too, some of the ones called nuls who might throw off their human skins for ones with fangs and fur and go streaking out into the woods, howling and baying.
Of course, there weren't many aviavols in their town, or even Massachusetts and all of New England. Callie could count on one finger the bird shapeshifters in school that weren't related to her. Yet there he was, a royal aviavol same as Marissa, and Jenna would swoop down like a mother hawk defending her young if she caught Callie so much as smiling at Grant again.
And that really wasn't fair. Not remotely.
Callie pirouetted in the water. From what she had seen on her turn, Jenna and Marissa weren't on the porch any more. They weren't in the Ultimate game, either. They definitely weren't mingling around the pool.
Callie exhaled the breath she had been holding. All right. It was as good a time as any. And she'd get in way less trouble than if she shifted in front of fifty or sixty humans.
Callie dove under the water towards the bottom of the deep end. When she reached the bottom, Callie pushed off. She shot up, aiming for Grant's general direction.
The water splashed up around her as Callie broke the surface.
Grant jerked away, startled. "Hey, what…?"
He stopped when he saw her.
Callie grinned. "Hi."
The guys behind Grant stopped talking and were subtle as they turned their attention to her. The people past them, when they realized someone was talking to Grant, were less subtle.
Callie swam to Grant's side. She pressed her back against the edge of the pool.
Gods! What was she doing? Any second, Jenna was going to come screaming from the house or the basketball court to rip Grant's head from his shoulders and devour it whole. And maybe Callie's, too.
Grant tried speaking again. "Uh…"
Callie forced a smile. "So! I didn't expect to see you here?"
Grant's eyes went wide. His mouth hung open ever so slightly as he turned his head to the side, looking distinctly away from Callie. At that, some of the conversation behind them returned to normal.
Callie saw Grant's fingers dig against the concrete.
"Hey," she said, "you okay?"
Grant stared blank-faced at her.
Was that all he was going to do? Stare through her? Callie's disappointment rolled through her body, tensing her muscles. No one had forced her to come talk to him; the least he could do was acknowledge her presence or something.
But Grant didn't.
Callie sighed, annoyed. "Whatever. I thought you were here to have a good time. Sorry to interrupt your alone time, Grant."
Before Grant could respond- not that she expected him to- Callie jetted underwater across the pool, practically leapt up the steps, and snatched her beach towel from the chair she'd left it on. She rubbed the towel over her skin, tousled her hair, then ran barefoot into the Ultimate game.
From across the lawn near one of his parents' cherry trees, she heard A.J. shout, "Callie's on my side!"
And then the Frisbee came flying at her face.
Callie made the catch with ease, as though the disk had been on a string to her hand. She whipped the disk down the playing field and took off running. She wasn't the best player, and she wasn't the worst. But it felt so good to work off her aggravation.
Note to self,she thought, do not bother being cordial to Grant Sage-Grove again. Ever.
After a while, Callie saw two girls emerging from the woods at the back of the Knowles' property. Jenna had her arm draped over Marissa's shoulder, and Marissa had hers hooked on Jenna's waist.
Callie smirked at the lovebirds.
When two actual birds, a pair of blue jays, flew out of the forest above Marissa and took roost in a cherry tree, Callie couldn't help the frown.
So not only was Marissa invading her party, but she'd brought guards along for the ride. What, did they not trust a bunch of humans with their precious not-exactly-a-princess?
Callie shook her head and ignored the guards, entirely bored of all royals and the whole stupid situation.
"You on my side?" Callie said as Jenna jumped into the game.
Jenna said, "When am I not?"
A.J. whipped the disk up the lawn, yelling for one of his teammates to go long.
A flash of blue streaked across the grass. Delicate hands reached up for the disk as it zipped past A.J.'s teammate. Marissa gave a triumphant laugh and slung the disk back up field.
Callie jabbed Jenna with her elbow.
"What?" Jenna said as she ran alongside Callie.
"Nothing." Callie smirked. "Just didn't know Marissa was a joiner, that's all."
Callie lunged for the disk as it whizzed nearby, snatching it mere inches from her sister's outstretched hand.
Jenna said, "I thought we're on the same team!"
Callie whipped the disk to down the field. "Yeah," she said, "but it doesn't mean you get to hog the spotlight."
Marissa met up with Callie and Jenna as they ran.
"You know," Callie said to Marissa, "I was wondering where you guys had wandered off to."
Callie saw Jenna and Marissa shared a glance and a pair of mischievous smiles.
"Never mind," Callie said. "Don't need to know!"
"You sure about that?" Marissa said as she knocked the disk away from Callie's path. "I don't mind sharing the gory details. Like about how Jenna just loves when-"
"Gah, geez, none of that!" Jenna clamped a hand over Marissa's mouth. "You'll traumatize the girl. And then I have to deal with her."
Jenna jumped away from Marissa.
"Aw, ew!" Jenna dragged her hand against her jeans, saying, "You licked me!"
Callie said, "I take it palm-licking isn't the secret turn-on?"
Jenna rolled her eyes while Marissa wiped at her mouth, giggling.
"Fine," Jenna said. "Be that way."
She ran out of the ill-defined boundaries of the Ultimate game.
Callie felt a brush of blackness at the back of her mind. Her shoulders spasmed with a shudder. The spider webs over her body now came complete with disgusting crawly spiders it seemed.
Callie cried to her sister, "Where are you going?"
"To get a drink! That okay, Mom?"
Marissa followed after Jenna. "Probably a good idea. Callie? You want me to bring you something?"
Callie watched as the teams hustled after the Frisbee down the other end of the lawn. She said, "I could use a break."
She took a deep breath and tried to push away the imaginary spiders and their webbing.
They didn't let up.
When Callie and Marissa caught up to Jenna, she was sliding open the porch door. Jenna motioned for them to go in first. Marissa did so with a bow.
Jenna touched Callie's shoulder as she walked past.
Jenna whispered into her ear, "Keep Marissa in the kitchen for a minute, will you? I need to put in a request."
Jenna beamed then scurried over to Taylor, who was still reigning supreme at the CD-player.
Marissa was a good distance ahead of Callie, which was perfect: she hadn't seen Callie get taken aside. They pushed through the crowd to the kitchen counters. As they picked out their drinks, the current song faded out and a new one began.
Marissa put down her half-filled cup. She laughed, sounding genuinely delighted. Callie even saw softness in her eyes as Marissa said, "My favorite."
"One of them, at least."
Marissa poured a second cup, for Jenna probably.
Callie was pouring her own drink when the cobwebs in her imagination become steel threads. The sharp lines bit into her magic and pressed firmly against her flesh.
It all happened too fast.
Callie gripped the counter for support as someone in the living room shouted. Then something wooden crashed to the ground. A girl shrieked and another started a string of swears.
Callie felt the collective mind of the party switch into panic mode.
Taylor's voice rose over the commotion calling, "Callie!"
Hearing her friend call with such strain in his voice, Callie felt like someone had slugged her in the stomach. The terror came a brief second later as the steel threads withered to release her.
Beside Callie, Marissa argued with a young man wearing all black. He had appeared from what seemed like nowhere and was forcibly pulling Marissa out of the house.
The young man in black said, "It's time to go, Ms. Bay!"
"No," Marissa demanded, "tell me what's going on!"
Then the front door slapped shut and Marissa was gone.
The panic of the party never hit full tilt. Callie almost wished it had because the silence of the living statues all around her was deafening.
Callie stood in the living room, unable to remember slamming past the other guests to get there. A circle had cleared in the living room where Taylor stood on his phone, limbs shaking as he waited for his call to be answered. On the floor at his feet, Jenna was lying prone.
Callie dropped to her knees and grabbed Jenna's warm hand. The lights in her sister's eyes were murky and a pool of blood spread beneath her on the Knowles's tan carpet.
Jenna's dim eyes rolled to look at Callie. Her face scrunched in pain as her lips moved. There was blood but no words.
Callie didn't know what to do. She didn't know if she should move her sister or not, if she should try to stop the bleeding, or where Jenna had even been hurt.
The blood was getting everywhere. Callie cringed. Why was there blood in Jenna's mouth?
She said, "Can you hear me?"
The answer came in the form of Jenna's eyes lolling around in her head as if she couldn't see anything.
And maybe she couldn't.
The horror was vice-like on Callie's thoughts and stomach. She held her sister's hand tighter, her only grip on the strange reality that had replaced what had been a decent night.
"Jenna!" Callie said, "Stay with me, okay? Jenna?"
"I don't know the address." Callie heard Taylor telling the operator, "I can't think. Someone tell me where we are!"
Callie couldn't distinguish words after that. She heard someone tell Taylor the Knowles' address, which he repeated. She heard him slap his phone shut and felt him kneel by her side. His arms were around her as Callie kept calling Jenna's name.
Gods, please. She's my sister!
There was A.J.'s voice behind her finally, asking what was with the excitement. But he cried out when he saw Jenna. Callie heard him try to clear the rest of the room. But they only stared.
They all stared.
No one brought a towel. No one tried to bring Jenna into the kitchen, or to get A.J.'s parents down from the room over the garage, or to figure out who'd attacked Callie's sister and where the bastard had disappeared to.
Callie's friends and classmates clung to each other, afraid to breathe as Marissa's favorite song played too loudly for such a quiet room.