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Chapter 3

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Callie slid into Mr. Drape's first block English class. It was surreal to be back there after nearly a month away. She wondered if she actually was going back to a normal life.

Callie smiled, remembering her first day in the class. She had heard good things about Mr. Drape from people who'd had him the year before, so her hopes for something above a D were high.

"You're kind of in my seat."

Callie looked up. There was Elsa, grim and glaring.

Elsa was in this class? How had she missed that before?

Ah, that was right. She'd transferred in late. How pleasant.

Callie smiled politely, trying not to wince. She said, "No one's name is on it."

"Actually," Elsa said as she swung her bag off her shoulder and plopped into the seat in front of Callie's, "there is."

Elsa dipped her head under Callie's desk and traced E-L-S-A on the underside.

Callie let out a hiss of breath and picked up her bag.

"Hey, hey!" Elsa cracked a smile. "I'm just shittin' you. Look, I'm sorry. We're starting out all wrong."

"Yeah, you know," Callie said, her voice a little too light, "I'd sort of noticed."

"We should probably step it back a bit."

Callie opened her mouth to answer Elsa, and then stopped. Past Elsa, Grant Sage-Grove was hesitating at the head of their row.

Elsa continued in Callie's silence. "I don't really care if we're best buds or anything," she said. "I just plan on sitting in this seat like I have been. And if you plan on sitting in that one, I want to know you're not going to be giving me death glares all semester."

Grant was looking at the ground ahead of him, but Callie could tell he was about two seconds from looking at her. Talking to her? Maybe?

"If you want to make voodoo effigies, that's your prerogative," Elsa continued, even as Callie clearly wasn't paying attention. "But this is the only olive branch I'm going to offer."

Callie said, "Olive branch?"

Grant kept walking then. He took his usual seat two rows over.

"Yeah," Elsa said. "A fresh start, you know? What do you say? Can we get a do-over on those first five minutes back there?"

"I guess. But-"

As Callie went to give Elsa a few provisions, Mr. Drape called the class to order. "Welcome back, eager learners! And a happy Wednesday to you all as we enter the peak of the week."

His words were accented by the clack of his ancient-looking walking stick as it struck the floor. He walked around the room to each row of desks and handed out sheets of paper.

Mr. Drape said, "We'll have our quiz first before we move on to today's Julius Caesar monologues."

The air in Callie's lungs felt stale. A quiz? And monologues? What had she walked herself back into?

"Ms. Montalvo?" Mr. Drape said as he handed the sheets down her row, "You're excused from the quiz."

Oh, thank gods for small favors.

While the rest of the class worked on their quizzes, Callie rested her head in her arms on the desk.

Two rows over, there was the only person left in school who knew what it was like to spread wing and feel the currents of air like music over their body. Grant Sage-Grove's hair curtained his face from her eyes as he filled in his sheet.

Left-handed today, Callie noted. Not that she kept actual notes on those kinds of things. No, never. That would be crossing the obsessive line and waltzing right into stalker territory.

Grant was the first one done, but for a while he pretended not to be. Callie could see that he wasn't really writing anything, just moving the pen over the page. When two other kids were done, Grant put his pen down then clasped his hands together.

He turned his head towards Callie and gave a puzzled frown.

Goosebumps rose on Callie's arms. She switched to resting on her left side just to get away from the look on Grant's face.

She spent the rest of the class avoiding eye contact with Grant, ducking Elsa's swinging braid, and zoning out the mostly monotone monologues. Her thoughts were centered far past two o'clock, when the final bell would ring. Until then, she would do her best to be invisible.

Callie almost didn't notice that the bell had rung and that Mr. Drape was trying to assign homework before class dissolved. She looked at the worn book in her hands while Mr. Drape assigned the first chapter to be discussed tomorrow.

Backpacks were lifted off the floor and slung over their owners' shoulders. Callie followed suit and grabbed her own bag.

From a few rows over, she heard, "Hey."

Callie tried not to freeze. She didn't know for sure Grant was calling her.

But then Grant stepped away from his desk. He walked towards Callie as she exited her row.

Grant stood in her way.

Although short when she compared him to Taylor, Grant was still a good half a foot taller than Callie was. Or he would be, if he ever stopped slouching over.

With the other aviavol actively approaching her, Callie almost sat back down but forced herself to stay standing. Just because Grant had pointedly and publically ignored her for the past few years, it didn't mean she needed to be floored the first time he actively noticed her.

Callie stood up straight, mostly because she knew Grant wouldn't.

Grant kept his head lowered, which gave the casual observer the impression he was meek and shy. Callie, of course, was no casual observer.

She threw some faked strength into her voice as she said, "Oh, hey. Almost didn't see you. What's up?"

Grant cleared his throat. The voice that came out was a lot more confident than his body language suggested. "I just wanted to…" He said, "Well, I left that party early but I heard about your sister."

"The whole state did." Callie smiled sadly. "But thanks."

"No, I mean, on a personal level." Grant looked up at Callie. His blue eyes flashed beneath the hair brushed across his forehead. He whispered, "It's tough. You know? It's not like there were many of us here to start with."

"Yeah." Callie said, "I know."

"Well," Grant said, "see you, Callie."

"Right."

Grant trudged out of the classroom. His bag slammed into Elsa's shoulder as he rounded the corner into the hallway.

Elsa glanced inside the room. She locked gazes with Callie for a moment then smiled.

Callie sighed and hurried out. She was only out of the room for a few seconds when she heard Elsa running to catch up with her.

"So," Elsa said, sounding like they were old friends, "what's up with you and Sage-Grove?"

Callie quirked her eyebrows but kept quiet.

"You guys friends?"

She couldn't help but snicker. "Not especially."

"I don't think anyone's friends with him." Elsa laughed. Callie could tell it was forced and narrowed her gaze.

What the hell did Elsa want with her?

"You know," Elsa said, "you're the only person I've seen him go out of his way to talk to. What do you know about him?"

"Not much more than you probably."

"What does he even like to do?"

"Why don't you ask him if you're so interested? You like the mysterious strong and silent type, I take it?"

Elsa made a noise of surprise. Again, sounding forced. "First off," she said, "there's no way that kid's strong. I could definitely kick his ass. And secondly, I'm not interested in him like that."

"Oh? What way then?"

"I don't know," Elsa said with a shrug. "He keeps to himself. That's enough to make me curious. If I find out the most terrible secret he has is that his parents are drunkards who beat him for fun, that'll be disappointing."

"Gee, Elsa," Callie said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "you're so compassionate. I mean, wow. I get why Taylor likes you."

"Oh, shove it! I'm just saying. Until people know what makes him tick, you can't blame me for hazarding some guesses."

"Whatever does it for you," Callie said. She pushed open the door to her second block class. When she didn't hear Elsa's footsteps beside her, Callie glanced back.

Elsa stood outside the doorway like a vampire waiting to be asked in.

Callie said, "What's your next class?"

"Ah, actually," Elsa said, "mine's back in the English wing."

"Are you serious?"

"I'm not worried." Elsa said, "Thanks for talking with me. See you at lunch?"

"Yeah, fine," Callie said as Elsa walked away.

She was seriously starting to dread lunch.

#-#-#

During Psychology, Callie idly drew on her notebook cover while she pondered Grant Sage-Grove instead of how to catch a killer.

Grant was two rows over again.

What had made him speak to her, to break the self-imposed silence he'd held since the end of seventh grade? He'd hardly even looked at her after… Well, after whatever Jenna had said to him. When Callie would see him at the Dunkin' Donuts in the center of town, Grant acted like he was purposely avoiding her.

And now Grant had taken a moment out of his precious day to offer his condolences. More than that, he'd acknowledged that they both were aviavols, evoking it like it mattered if they had something in common.

Curiouser and curiouser…

She remembered seeing him the first day he moved there in fifth grade. Nothing special. New kids came and went all the time.

Then a few days later, Grant came up to her in the hallway. The long, empty space between her hello and his almost made her laugh in his face. But then Grant had dropped his gaze to the floor as he muttered, "Just so you know, I know you're an aviavol. And I'm one, too."

Then he turned around and left.

Callie smiled at the bizarre memory. But she stopped smiling when she thought about everything that came after.

Grant had mostly avoided and ignored her. Which was fine, since he did the same to everyone else in school. Plus, with the Sages and the Groves both royal houses, Callie never felt like pressing the issue and inviting that unholy mess into her life.

Callie stopped doodling on her notebook long enough to take the packet the boy in front of her was passing back. She passed it on as she read the instructions- something about how she had to go through the selected song lyrics about youth experiences and circle anything that hinted at complex teenage emotions.

Callie grumbled and went back to doodling on her notebook cover.

A few kids in the class stifled snickers as they read the packet.

Callie looked over at Grant. He wasn't laughing.

She wondered if he remembered seventh grade and the history project they'd been paired up on.

Then she thought that maybe his being nominally cordial and sane during that time had been an act, so he could get everything over with, get his grade, and move on.

Callie opened her packet and stared at the page. She read the first lyrics- Bryan Adams's Summer of '69, and now the snickers made sense- about a dozen times, but they didn't stick. She circled a few lines at random while her mind was elsewhere.

Callie glared at Grant even though he was busy working on his packet.

How could he have given up so easily? He was royalty, for gods sakes! Aviavols not exactly known for their acquiescence!

Hadn't she been to his house for the project? And hadn't he been nice to her that day? She'd met his guardian, an aviavol soldier by the name of Jemand, who'd treated her like a real person, too.

She'd even planned that, after the history project was turned in, she was going to ask Grant to catch a movie or hang down at the Commons or something.

But then Jenna got in the way.

Callie put her pen down as an old wave of tension rolled up her spine.

When a friend of Jenna's had seen the two of them walking the track together during gym, Jenna realized which Grant was working on the history project with her little sister. Plus, Jenna put Grant's parentage together.

Nothing probably would have come of it, until Jenna heard Callie had been alone at his house. She tried to forbid Callie to see him again, but Callie basically told Jenna to go screw herself. Although, not in those words exactly. But if she'd known them, she'd have definitely used them.

Callie knew Jenna must have confronted Grant at some point before she got to gym class the day the project was due. When Callie went to walk the track, Grant wasn't there like he always was. She found him when she came inside for a drink of water later; Grant had been giving a decidedly unenthusiastic performance on the volleyball court.

And when they presented their project, Grant hadn't even acknowledged Callie. He gave his half of the presentation, sat down, and let Callie stand up in front of the whole class alone for her part.

The ice in Grant's eyes whenever Callie saw him after that made it obvious he no longer wanted a friendship with her. His royal pride, coupled with Jenna's threat, had been enough to shake him it seemed.

Then again, Grant had made first contact. Twice. It made her almost feel like their time together hadn't been completely wasted on him.

Callie frowned at the doodling on her notebook. There were mostly disembodied eyes since that was what she was good at drawing and not much else.

She'd like to sketch Grant's eyes, if he'd look at her long enough for her to memorize them.

The notebook made a soft thump as it hit the bottom of Callie's bag. She didn't want to look at those doodles anymore.

When the class ended, Callie made sure to let Grant leave ahead of her, just in case he felt like doing any more socializing.

The other aviavol passed by without incident. Or even glancing her way.

Callie snatched up her bag. She wondered if Grant hadn't been looking for an excuse to ditch her when Jenna showed him the door. For the first time, Callie wished she'd thanked Jenna for being such a bitch about Grant.

As she entered the cafeteria, Callie couldn't see Taylor's green-and-black braids. It wasn't a huge deal: the rest of his friends wore such a collection of accessories that all Callie had to do was look for those most likely to send parents ranting about how the school needed stricter dress codes and she'd have her new crew.

As she was scanning the farther reaches of the room for Taylor, Callie's eyes fell on a familiar sight. Her old seat. Alongside it? Tara and the Laurens, naturally.

She almost lost her appetite as she stared at the empty seat, feeling panicky. It killed to know exactly how Tara and the Laurens would react if she sat down with them.

Then Callie saw A.J.'s table just past her old one. Part of her wanted to run over to him and hug him. She wanted to say she knew what that empty look was in his dark eyes and why, while he smiled at his friend's conversation, it looked so staged. But more of her just wanted to stay as far away from the memory of him standing, staring, shocked.

Finally, a waving hand caught Callie's eye. Taylor and a couple others were at a table near the stage. She hurried over to them.

Taylor said, "How's the first day back?"

"Meh." Callie dropped her bag beside Taylor and slumped into the empty seat.

"That good, huh?" That was from Savannah, a senior Callie had had guitar with a few semesters back. They'd never talked until they had lunch together.

Callie said, "You don't want to know."

A curious smirk flew onto Taylor's face. "Oh, but we do, my dear. We do!" He faked a German accent as he said, "Divulge your darkest secrets. Now!"

"Where to start?" Callie mused. "Well, let's see. Elsa's in my first block now. And Grant actually talked to me."

Savannah said, "Not Creepy Grant, I'm assuming?"

"That'd be the one."

"Creepy Grant talking!" Savannah laughed. "What is this world coming to?"

"Ugh," Taylor said. "I think I still have the lump where he punched me last year."

Taylor rubbed the back of his head.

"I'm sorry," Callie said. "I bitched to my mom about him after that. Dropped some none-too-subtle hints that she should talk to Grant's dad, but you know Aerin and her inability to ever take a hint."

"Eh, it's probably for the best," Taylor said. "I give you an A for effort!"

"Oh," Callie said, "right. Speaking of grades: I missed out on a quiz and monologue today in English."

"That's not so bad," one of the other guys said.

"You'd like to think that." Callie said, "But I have to make it up Monday. After school."

Taylor visibly cringed. "Glad I'm not you."

"Mm." Callie cracked open her bottled water and took a sip.

"Why are we glad we're not her?" Elsa slid down next to Callie. "Beyond the obvious, that is."

Callie fought to swallow her water and not spray it all over Savannah across the table. The water went down tight, forcing her eyes to tear up from the strain.

Elsa's plastic, red-brown tray slapped onto the table beside Callie's lunch. On the tray was a chocolate milk, chocolate pudding with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on top, and a package of mini chocolate chip muffins.

Taylor motioned to the food. "You've got some healthy stuff there, Seryozhka."

"A girl's got to eat," Elsa said. "You ever want to stop being a walking skeleton, you should take some lessons."

Callie was about to get in Elsa's face when she heard Taylor laugh.

What was the world coming to, indeed.

Elsa brushed her braid away from her shoulder before inspecting her tray of plenty. She peeled open the milk first.

"Anyway," Savannah said. "Callie was regaling us with the story of her fabulous first day back in the system."

"Oh?" Elsa said, "Anything fun so far?"

Callie shrunk in her seat. "No."

"No?" Savannah said, "Don't be so modest. Didn't you mention you two have first period together?"

Callie tried turning invisible. Oh, look at that! Nothing happened.

Elsa leaned closer to Callie. She was smirking as she said, "I know what a fantastic second impression I make."

When Elsa poked Callie's arm, the strange feeling from before rippled over Callie's skin.

Callie stood. "I… I have to go."

Most of the table erupted in protest.

Taylor gave an over-exaggerated frown. "Don't you love me anymore?"

"I got to go to the computer lab." Callie slung her bag over her shoulder. "Stuff I need to look up. See ya."

Callie rushed out the cafeteria door saying to the teacher on duty that she was just going to her locker. She took the stairs up two at a time, trying to leave behind that conversation as fast as possible, and hoping she wouldn't run into a teacher who wanted to see a hall pass.