STONESOUL
by: April Kay

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT:

To say that Quinlan was pissed about Darrow attacking me at my school would have been an understatement. After the conversation with Faye, she drove me to the cathedral rather than letting me walk there, just as she'd said she would do. ("You didn't think I wasn't being serious, did you, Shy?") When I'd found Quinlan in the training room, it must have been written all over my face that something had happened — his first words to me were: "What's wrong?"

Telling him about it had been harder than telling Faye had been. As I'd expected, he seemed to blame himself for it. He was furious, like he was ready to leave the cathedral and hunt down Darrow himself. In the end, I got tired of arguing about it not being his fault, so I just let him pace and curse and wear himself down.

Bedelia was also upset for the same reasons. She was distraught that she hadn't been there to protect me, and worried about what might have happened had Piper not shown up. I wondered if all gargoyles had a guilt complex. "I will inform Lysandra of this right away," she had said gravely.

It was Sunday afternoon now, and I figured that it was probably a good sign that I hadn't yet been summoned by Lysandra about the matter. No news is good news, right?

"I mean, if they were that worried about it, they'd put me under lock and key like Faye wants to."

"That might not be so bad."

Faye had driven me to The Crystal Garden so that I could hang out with Alden a little bit before nightfall, which is when I planned on visiting the cathedral. She'd made me promise to text her when I was ready to go so that she could drive me to Old Craven, continuing to insist that she take me everywhere. This was even after I'd shown her the pepper spray that Piper had given me.

Whatever. She was the one who had to pay for gas, I guess.

"Being locked up might not be so bad?" I asked, playfully sarcastic, which made him laugh as he moved through the shop. He was dusting the shelves while I sat behind the counter, perched on the bar stool he usually sat in when he had nothing else to do and no customers.

"Like a princess in a fairy tale or whatever, right?" he asked.

"I'm lazy, sure, so I'd definitely appreciate all the free time, but I think I'd get just a little bored."

"Nah, I'd come and visit you."

I snorted in laughter. "Oh, great, 'cause that makes it sound so much better."

"I know."

Still smirking, I shook my head. "Have you been back to Valistus since the assembly?" I asked.

"Not yet, but Lysandra seems to be taking it pretty seriously. My visitation rights."

"Please tell me she didn't use that term."

He cackled as he returned to the front of the shop. He came around to stand beside me, storing the duster under the counter where he kept it. "No, no — that one's all me. I'm not quite sure what else to call it."

"Fair enough."

"My father's excited. He was a little disappointed that I chose not to stay for good, but I think he was also a little impressed too."

I reached over and tapped his elbow. "Hey, that's great."

He grinned and nodded. "Guess it's a good thing I never, you know, went to the dark side."

"A really good thing," I agreed. After a beat, I had to ask: "Did you ever think about it? Becoming a dark warlock?"

It was a sign of how much he trusted me that there was absolutely no hesitation in his answer. He nodded. "It is a really tempting option. Before Darrow went all power-hungry and crazy, it seemed like the best possible option for someone who fell from grace. They don't discriminate against you, they'll open their arms to you no matter what. They seem looser, more comfortable and accepting, but you still get the perks that came with being a White Witch: the feeling of being in a group, a community, and of course, that extra power when you swear yourselves to them."

"But you never joined."

He smiled and lifted one of his broad shoulders in a half-shrug. "I may have had a momentary crisis of faith when I initially left, but I'm Ludivine's man through and through."

"Lucky gal."

He looked at me with a furrow to his brow, both surprised and confused by my words. And I just looked back at him in the exact same way.

Where the hell had that come from?

He laughed a little. He didn't seem to find the situation nearly as awkward as I did, thank god.

"Sorry," I said, my face on fire.

"Hey, talking about religion makes a lot of people weird. Don't worry about it."

I tried to laugh — I don't think I did a very good job — and I slid off of the stool, shaking my head to myself. I needed to get up and do something to distract myself, anything that would occupy my mind. What I'd said had just sort of slipped out, as though someone else had spoken them using me as a vessel. It hadn't meant anything. Period. So why had I said it? What the hell was wrong with me? I was very much infatuated with Quinlan, and I had never been so cringe-inducing and awkward with boys before.

And why, despite my humiliation, was I lingering so painfully close to Alden? Our elbows were practically touching as he flipped through a notebook that seemed to hold contact information — magical contacts, I would have guessed. I couldn't bring myself to move away — I didn't want to.

"I could start coming with you," he said. He seemed so totally unaffected by my stupid remark, like he'd already forgotten it.

"What do you mean?"

"I could be your daytime bodyguard," he said, passing me a little grin. "Quinlan can't come with you while the sun's out, but I can."

"I appreciate the offer, but I don't think that's such a good idea," I said.

"Why not?"

"Besides the fact that I don't want to have to live that kind of life — no privacy, come on — that would put you into the same kind of danger of me," I told him.

"So?"

"So, no offense, but you're unaligned. Not only is he a dark warlock, but he's the most powerful one there is," I said. When Alden opened his mouth, it was like I could sense what he was going to say, and I hurried on. "He may have been powerless this time, but who knows when he'll get his powers back?"

"If he'll get his powers back," Alden said pointedly.

I deadpanned him. "All I'm saying is that I would rather be safe than sorry, okay?"

"A lesser man might be insulted that you think he couldn't handle himself."

"And a bigger man would realize that I just care about him and don't want to see him get hurt."

Alden glanced at me like he hadn't expected such a remark, and a slow smile spread across his face. He shrugged almost sheepishly. "I could continue with this little roundabout — tell you that I care about you too and my not wanting you to get hurt either is the exact reason why I want to help protect you."

"You could."

"But I don't think this an argument I can win. I think you're a little too —"

"Argumentative?"

"Too determined to lose any debate you find yourself in," he said, still grinning.

"Well… I mean, you're not wrong. But who doesn't like to win?"

A brief silence fell over us, and Alden studied me. His dark eyes clouded with thought, and I wasn't quite sure how to feel about the expression on his face — it was a myriad of conflicting things that didn't make sense when they were all put together.

"You're really taking this all in stride," he said finally. He sounded pensive.

God, why did people keep saying this? Was there something wrong with me that I wasn't flipping out about all this? I shrugged, dropping my gaze. "I don't know. I guess I don't see a reason to freak out."

"Are you scared?" he asked.

"I'm terrified, Alden. Not just for me, but for my sister. And now my friends."

"Yeah…. Darrow does seem to be reaching the point of no return, huh? That he's willing to come after you in broad daylight. On your turf, so to speak."

I nodded. "And now he doesn't even care about whatever… power is inside of me. Now he just wants to kill me and be done with it. Sometimes I'm just so sick of looking over my shoulder and being afraid that…." Realizing what I was about to say, I shut up. My mouth snapped shut almost audibly, and I shook my head, looking away.

Alden was quiet again. I could feel his gaze burning into me. After what felt like an eternity, he spoke. "That you almost wish it would all end already?"

I hesitated, and then I nodded. Obviously it wasn't like I wanted to die, but it was getting frustrating having to constantly be on the lookout for dark warlocks. As grateful as I was to have met the gargoyles and Alden, and as cool as it was to know that things like magic actually existed in the world, I found myself wishing every day that I'd never gone through the park that Tuesday night back in August.

"I can understand that. In fact, I think most people would feel the same," Alden said. "For what it's worth, I, for one, am glad you haven't kicked the bucket yet."

A surprised little laugh bubbled out of me, and I gave him a skeptical look. His response was a cheesy grin that made my hand fly out and smack his shoulder. We were standing so close that I didn't have to reach far, and my hand lingered on his shoulder well after the playful strike. Through his video game T-shirt, I could feel the warmth of his skin, and the muscle of his shoulder was firm against my fingertips.

His smile had mostly faded, but there was the barest hint of a quirk to his full lips as he looked at me. His eyes were once more unreadable, though they were warm and soft. And I felt like I was hypnotized, transfixed by the way that he looked at me.

Something else took control of me. I watched myself, as though from an outsider's point-of-view, start to lean towards Alden.

What are you doing?! a voice in the back of my mind yelled at me. You don't like Alden this way. You like Quinlan this way. Think about Quinlan for Christ's sake!

But I couldn't stop.

And whatever spell had fallen over me seemed to have fallen over Alden as well. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, he tilted towards me as well. As we came within inches of each other — so close that I could feel his warm breath on my skin, even smell the peppermint gum that lingered on it — my eyes fluttered closed.

Stop this! I was trapped within myself, like I was behind that same magical barrier that had imprisoned me when Darrow had captured me. It felt like I was banging against that barrier, struggling to get free and take control of myself again.

Our lips had just barely ghosted against one another's when Alden suddenly jerked away from me. He looked pale, his eyes wide and shocked. He shook his head, like he were waking up from a dream, and somehow, the sight of his confusion is what made me wake up as well.

"Whoa," he said, slightly breathless. "Whoa, whoa, whoa."

"Yeah…." My face burned hotter than it ever had, and my heartbeat was hard and heavy in my ears. Shame made me feel ill. "I'm — I'm sorry, Alden."

"That wasn't you," he said. And he sounded so certain of it. He caught my eye, and though he still looked bemused, his gaze was even and level with mine. Steady. "That wasn't you," he repeated.

Then who was it?

Even as I had the thought, I had the answer. It came so surely, like a lightbulb turning on in my head.

Florence.

The sun hadn't completely set when I texted Faye to let her know I'd like to go to the cathedral now. Alden was back to his normal jokey self, but I couldn't relax. Had Florence really tried to take control of me? Why would she do that? I thought we were on the same side here. Dead or not, real or not, I'd thought she was my friend.

I told Alden that I was going to walk over to the Rite Aid for something to drink, and though Alden said he'd lock up and put up a 'be back soon' sign, I insisted that he stay at his shop. He looked like he wanted to argue, but I think he knew that I needed to be alone for a moment. So I said my farewells, fighting the urge to apologize once again, and then I hurried down the strip to the Rite Aid.

Before I walked into the store, I caught sight of my reflection in the tinted window. I looked troubled and guilty, and maybe a little bit frightened, and the sight of myself filled me with even more shame. But then a thought occurred to me.

"If you're there, Florence," I murmured, "If you can see and hear me right now… you need to stay out of my life. You're no longer welcome here."

It was small and silly, but once the words had left me, I actually felt pretty good about them.

It hadn't been me, I told myself. I was completely and totally innocent. Well, maybe not totally. Had I tried hard enough to break free? Had I fought against the weird impulse as much as I could have?

I needed to tell Quinlan.

I was not looking forward to it.