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“Where is she?” Peyton paced back and forth, occasionally glancing at the group of students who’d gathered in the small gymnasium—the space the university had so “graciously” provided for us for the rally—as she gnawed on her thumbnail.
We stood at the front of the room, just to the side of the podium that had been set up, waiting for Addie to arrive. And she was late. I’d left her in our room earlier since I’d been nominated to do the coffee run. We were supposed to meet here before everything started. I’d fully expected her to beat me here, but it was time to start and still no Addie.
I was trying to reach her—calling, texting—and nothing. A cold sweat covered my body. There was no way this was a good thing. Addie wouldn’t bail, and she wouldn’t be late. No way.
“Okay,” I said, shoving my phone in my jeans pocket. “I’ll go look for her. But we need get started. Everyone else is here.” More people had pulled out, last minute, just like Clara, but a handful of students were here, ready to speak and support the cause.
Peyton let out a squeak and grabbed my arm—rather painfully—before I could move. “But Addie was supposed to be first! Get everything started.”
“I know,” I soothed, prying her fingers from my biceps. “We’ll just jump to David, okay? You just need to go up there, welcome everyone and intro—”
“No, no, no.” She shook her head violently. “Delia, there’s a reason I’m behind the scenes. I can’t talk in front of people like this. I can’t. Oh God, I’ll puke, or faint, or… Oh God.”
Her blue eyes widened, and I took in the sudden paleness of her skin, the trembling of her body.
“Okay, okay, you don’t have to talk. No worries.” I wiped my damp palms on my denim-clad thighs then moved to where my bag rested on a nearby table. After I dug out my keys, I turned and handed them to my friend. “Check our room first, yeah? And maybe take Brent with?”
After she nodded and whispered “thanks”, she moved to the tall man standing a few feet away—another “behind the scenes” person. I may be paranoid, but I felt better knowing someone was with Peyton. One, to make sure the poor girl didn’t keel over somewhere on campus, and, two, if Addie were in trouble… Fuck, maybe we should just cancel the whole thing.
Even as the thought crossed my mind, I was shoving it aside. The last thing Addie would want was to stop what we were doing. Even after our talk last night, when she’d wondered if this was all worth it, I knew beyond a doubt, Addie would want us to do what was right. And this was right.
“Hey, David, you’re up first. Addie’s…delayed,” I said, smiling at the handsome blond boy who leaned against the wall.
“Sure thing,” he said quietly.
Not for the first time, I wondered why he’d volunteered so quickly to speak. He was a quiet, shy guy. Nice as hell, and everyone adored him, but I wouldn’t have pegged him as a public speaker. Then again, I figured if you felt strongly enough about something, you could overcome a myriad of personal issues.
“Do I just…” He pushed away from the wall and gestured at the podium.
“Nope,” I said with false cheer as my stomach threatened to rebel. “First, a welcome then you’ll be introduced.”
“Addie was supposed to— Well, you know that, obviously. Who’s going to do that, now?”
“That would be me,” I murmured, straightening my spine.
Walking to the podium and checking to make sure the mic was on, I reminded myself that this didn’t need to be anything elaborate or lengthy. I didn’t have to give a speech like Addie was going to. All that was needed was a quick hello, a thank you for coming, and introduce David. Easy peasy.
Of course, even with my little pep talk, my breath still stuttered out when I lifted my head and saw all the faces turned toward me expectantly. Even though there were only, maybe, three dozen people, nerves skittered through my body, and I fought to keep myself steady.
“Good morning,” I croaked then, face flaming, cleared my throat. “My name is Delia Lancaster, and I’d like to thank everyone for coming today. We’re thrilled to see everyone, to have your support, despite all of the changes in venue and the fact it was likely a challenge to find your way here. So, thank you again. We have some wonderful speakers today and…”
I trailed off when my gaze fell on the last person I thought I’d see—Maddock. He stood at the back of the room, away from the small crowd. But it wasn’t too far for me to miss the fact he was clearly unhappy. He stood stiffly, legs braced apart, arms crossed over his chest. A frown darkened his face, and he was practically glaring at me.
Clearing my throat again, I shifted to take in the other people in front of me. A strange calm came over me, even though my heart still pounded and my legs shook like crazy. I didn’t know what Maddock was upset about—if it was me or the rally, in general—but it didn’t matter. I knew what I was doing, what we were doing, was right. And I desperately wanted Maddock to see that. If hearing me and others talking honestly and publicly about it would help that happen, it could only be a good thing. My mind drifted to Peyton’s words a few days back—that maybe I was the person he would listen to. I’d been annoyed, then, not wanting the pressure of that task, but after last night, spending time with Maddock, I wanted nothing more than for him to see the truth of things.
“Before I introduce the first of those speakers, I’d like to take a moment and share why what we’re doing here is so important.” I uncurled my fingers, which somehow had clamped almost painfully around the edge of the podium. “It’s no secret that the anti-magic crowd is strong on campus. Or if it’s meant to be a secret, it’s the worst kept one I know. But it isn’t just here. How often do we see or read about those with magic being persecuted, discriminated against, attacked, hurt or even killed? It’s a daily occurrence. It would be easy to say nothing, to allow it to continue, and not make a fuss.”
I pushed the hair back from my face and lifted a shoulder. “The right thing isn’t always easy, though. The right thing is sometimes the hardest thing for us to do. To be Sympathizer—to openly identify as Sympathizers—opens us up to nearly the same level of treatment as those who have powers. And that is scary as hell.”
The nods in the crowd seemed to pull more words from my mouth, from deep inside me.
“But it’s the right thing.”
Movement near the large double doors drew my attention, and relief swept through me as Peyton and Addie hurried into the room.
“And as terrifying as doing it is,” I continued, “doing it together can only make it easier. We need to keep speaking out, to anyone and everyone who will listen. There are some bad magic users out there. Some who I’d go so far as to say are evil. Unfortunately, those are the ones we see in the news. They make more sensational stories than, say, a woman using her magic to help her garden grow or a boy using his to heal a hurting friend.”
“I think there is a lot of fear out there, and misinformation.” My eyes found Maddock again. He hadn’t moved at all. His expression still set in angry lines. I drew in a shaky breath. No point backing down now. “A magic user isn’t any more likely to do bad things than anyone else out there. Magic isn’t a weapon; it isn’t a disease or condition that needs to be cured or removed. A friend once told me that, even though magic is something someone’s born with, it’s a tool.”
Warmth spread through me as I thought of Kyle—how he’d taken care of me, showed me everything I knew about my power when my dad was gone and no longer able to.
“Like any other tool, it can be used for bad things. Or for really, really good things. And anyone who possesses that tool has to make that choice.” I wet my lips and inhaled deeply. “Despite what the most ardent opponent of magic will tell you, the majority of magic users aren’t choosing the bad. And that is why we need to keep supporting and keep speaking out.”
I glanced over at Peyton and Addie, who stood together to the side. I didn’t know whether to introduce Addie or David, at this point. Her back was to me, and her head was bent forward. Peyton caught my eye and gave a tiny shake of the head before nodding toward David.
“We’re lucky enough to have several people who are willing to do just that. First up is David Wellington.”
I stepped back as a smattering of applause sounded from the small crowd. As David walked past me to approach the podium, he let his hand brush against mine. A fission of power skated over my skin and up my arm. I stumbled, and when he steadied me with a firm grip on my upper arm, a stronger current raced through me. Eyes wide, I met his gaze. He smiled, a small, tight tilt of his mouth, and nodded before releasing me.
My body shook—from the shock and from my own magic responding to his. His magic. I’d spent a ton of time with him while we’d organized and prepped for today, and I’d had no clue David was a magic user. None.
Some of the surprise cleared, or was shoved away, when I approached Peyton and Addie, who were still huddled together, whispering furiously. Addie looked up at me, and my stomach dropped. Her green eyes glistened, and a few tears tracked down her pale cheeks. She swiped angrily at them.
“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice quiet.
“Anti-magic fuckers,” Peyton said. “They caught her across campus.”
“Oh my God, are you okay? Are you hurt?” I turned her around fully by the shoulders and ran my eyes up and down her body, looking for any evidence of injury.
She shook her head. “No, they didn’t touch me. Just kept getting in my way, making it so I couldn’t get past. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“The hell you are,” Peyton exclaimed, the volume drawing the attention of those nearest us. She dropped her voice. “They threatened you. Physically intimidated you. You need to report them, Addie. They can’t be allowed to get away with this.”
“Brent already got campus security. They were sent on their way. What else do you think the school or anyone else is going to do? Be real, Peyton.” She sneered. “Maddock Roberts and his circle are untouchable at this school. Besides, they were very careful not to lay a finger on me, and I’m sure I’ve already been painted as the hysterical female, so what’s the point?”
“Maddock?” I choked, eyes drawn to where he still stood. He watched me, no attention whatsoever paid to David who still spoke at the front. I faced my friends again. “But he was here.”
“He wasn’t with them, though I’m sure he knew exactly what his little minions were doing.” She wrapped her arms around her waist, visibly shuddering.
“Maybe we should—” Peyton stopped, her gaze over my shoulder. “Are you kidding me? How fucking dare they?”
I twisted and saw a group of guys standing just inside the doors. Even if I hadn’t recognized them as some of Maddock’s crowd, I’d’ve known they were trouble. Already making snide comments, loudly enough David stumbled over his next words. The intruding group laughed and slapped each other’s backs.
Jaw clenched, I inhaled through my nose. My control—already shaken after feeling David’s power—slipped, and I ached from the familiar pressure of my magic against my skin. It wanted out. Now. Thankfully, I had plenty of practice, courtesy of Kyle back home, at reining in emotion-fueled magic.
“I’ll handle this.”
Ignoring their murmured protests and sidestepping Peyton’s grabbing hand, I strode across the room. Not to the assholes, but to Maddock.
“I thought you weren’t speaking today. You said you weren’t,” he said in a rush before I could say anything.
“Plans changed. Thanks to your friends. If we’re going to talk about things we said yesterday, I remember ‘No friends of mine will be causing trouble’ coming out of your mouth.” I moved close, until I could feel his warm breath on my face.
His eyes cut over to the other men then back to me. “I’m not with them, right now, and they’re…” He sighed. “Delia, they’re harmless. No one is even paying attention to them.”
“Are you kidding? David can hardly talk because of them. And, even if they aren’t turning and gawking, everyone is this room can hear and is focused on them, not on the message we’re trying to present. Though, that’s the point though, right? So, mission fucking accomplished, Maddock.”
“You think I had anything to do with this?” He gestured toward his friends. “That I, what, somehow planned this out to screw you guys?”
I lifted my shoulder, even though I didn’t really think that. Or at least I didn’t want to believe it. “Don’t see you doing anything to stop it.”
“They’re not doing anything, not really,” he protested. “It’s a function open to all the student body, which includes them. Are they acting like asses? Hell, yeah, but that just makes them look bad. It’s not a big deal. No harm, yeah?”
“No harm?” I whispered, the hairs on my arms standing on end. “How can you say that? Is this how you go about getting your way, Maddock? Do you believe so little in what you’re out there preaching to the masses that you don’t think it can stand on its own? You have to sabotage everyone who is on the opposite side? Bully and threaten them until they’re too scared to do what they believe to be right? Well, fuck you.”
I twisted around, determined to confront those bastards and get them the hell out of here. Maddock yanked me back against him, and I had to bite my lips together to keep from screaming in frustration.
“What are you talking about, bullying and threatening?” he demanded.
Despite the anger, the overwhelming rage filling me, desire spiked, hot and strong, when his quiet voice whispered over my ear. I wish I could lose myself in the feel of his front flush against my back, the warmth that seeped into me from him. But I couldn’t.
I shifted enough to pull away and turn back to him. “Your friends cornered Addie so she wouldn’t get here. They threatened her.” I cursed when my voice cracked. “I don’t know all the details, but she is terrified. I don’t know what would have happened if Peyton and Brent hadn’t found them. Brent had to go get security, just so Addie could get away. That is your no harm, Maddock. That is what your friends do.”
“I had no clue they were doing that or even planned to.” He settled his hands on my shoulders, his thumbs brushing the bare skin along the scoop neck of my shirt. Dipping his head down, he caught my gaze. “You know that, right? You can’t believe I would have anything to do with something like that.”
“I don’t know you enough—” I started repeating what I’d said the night before.
“Bullshit. Have I ever said or done anything that makes you believe I’d bully or intimidate someone or that I’d condone anything like that?” he asked, an edge of desperation in his voice.
“No,” I admitted. “But that’s not the point.”
I pulled away and made to walk toward the group, cursing when Maddock’s hand wrapped around my arm again.
“Let me go.”
“You’re insane if you think I’m letting you confront them on your own.”
“I thought they were harmless, Maddock.” I lifted a brow and shook off his hold.
He glanced over at them, jaw tight, muscles twitching. “They’re supposed to be.”
When he continued to stare past me, I sighed. “They need to go, and if I have to be the one to—”
“No,” he said quickly, brilliant green eyes back on me.
“Why is it okay for them to go up against Addie—then it’s no harm done—but not for me to deal with them?”
“I never said it was okay,” he snapped. “I just… Fuck.” He shoved his hand through his hair. “It’s not okay, period. I’ll deal with them.”
I rolled my eyes at his weary tone. “Don’t put yourself out.”
“Delia,” he murmured, bending slightly until his mouth was next to my ear. “Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, or even something you want to do, but it has to be done.” Turning his head, he pressed his lips to my cheek. “I hate that you were up there talking, making a target of yourself, but I got the message. I was listening.”