Anger churned in my gut as I followed the guys through the corridors. I supposed I should be glad that they’d stepped back, stopped their bullshit and left without a fuss, but I was too pissed. And worried. Worried that, by pulling stunts like this, they had effectively ruined any chance I had with Delia. Of course, that worry brought on the guilt—that I was more concerned with my love life than the fact the people I chose to call friends were not only acting like asses, but threatening violence and ganging up to physically intimidate a woman on campus.
As soon as we exited the building, Mark spun around. “What the hell, Roberts?”
I strode right up to him, quickly enough he stumbled back in shock. “That was exactly what I was going to ask. What. The. Hell?”
“What’s up your ass?” Kevin asked, coming beside us and clapping me on the shoulder.
I spun around, looked at each of the five guys surrounding me. “What was going through your idiotic heads?” I ground out. “Cornering a girl, threatening her? Then, showing up and causing a disturbance at their event? What did you hope to accomplish? Other than making all of us look like violent bullies? How does that further our cause? You could have ruined everything we’ve been working for!”
“We haven’t ruined anything,” Mark scoffed. “Addie Stewart is just a whiny bitch. I wouldn’t worry about her. Nothing happened, anyway. We just wanted to talk to her, try to get her to see reason. Which apparently is beyond her. Her friend cried to campus security, and, like I said, nothing happened. Dude told us to be more careful; that’s it.”
“Nothing happened?” I repeated, rubbing the back of my neck. “Did you keep her from going where she wanted to go? Did you threaten her?”
At first, no one answered; they just stared at me, expressions ranging from guilty to slightly sheepish to annoyed.
“She’s a Sympathizer.” Mark shrugged then narrowed his gaze. “Of course, so is the girl you’re chasing after. You’ve lost sight of the big picture because of her. You need to get your priorities in order, Roberts. Don’t forget what’s important for a piece of ass.”
He pivoted and walked away, the other trailing behind him. Wes hesitated briefly, a frown marring his face as he looked between them and me, before following.
I held myself back—from storming after them, from yelling, from planting my fist in Mark’s face. The last couple weeks, he’d been getting on my nerves—his complaints about magic users and their Sympathizers more harsh than I liked—but I never thought he’d cross the line. Resort to threats and intimidation. How much, or how little, would it take to push him further? To make him act violently? And the others… They just blindly followed.
Of course, when it was me they followed, it was fine. God, I was as much an ass as they were. Scrubbing a palm over my face, I tried to figure out what to do. Not just in this moment but about everything. I hadn’t been lying when I’d told Delia she was making me question all the things I’d held as truth. Not only was I as much an ass, I had been blindly following as much as my friends had—readily accepting my parents’ beliefs, not a doubt in my mind that it was the right way. I just fell into line and did as they wanted without question.
Now, I had nothing but questions. I didn’t know what to believe. Magic had always been a danger, a sickness that corrupted. I’d felt pity and concern for those burdened with it, and had planned to dedicate my life to finding a way to cure it, eliminate it and free those it infected. Just as my parents had. I never once stopped to consider that magic users had a choice—that what was inside them could be used good.
Though, with what my parents were developing, magic users would soon have the option to remove their magic. Surely, some would choose that, unable or unwilling to handle the power that filled them. The work being done was still important. Even as things blurred and I wondered about things I’d been so sure of before, it didn’t negate that fact.
As I walked back towards the small gym, intent on seeing Delia as well as listening to what the other speakers had to say, I decided I’d talk to Mom and Dad over the weekend while I was home. Gain a bit more perspective and hopefully clear up some of the confusion in my head.
Entering, I saw Addie stood at the podium now. Rather than seek out Delia—who was off to the side watching and listening with Peyton—I leaned against the back wall and focused on Addie.
“…not just a good cause or even doing what is right for me. Fighting for magic users’ rights, being a Sympathizer, is worth every risk it puts on me, because it’s personal. Very personal.”
She took a deep breath then took a moment to drink from the water bottle beside her.
“I don’t know what it’s like to have magic. What it is to have something like that as a part of me. Neither do my parents. But,” she cleared her throat, “my brother did. He had magic.”
Well, shit. My chest constricted at the use of past tense in reference to her sibling. I forced myself not to move, to keep listening. As much as I didn’t want to hear this, I honestly felt I needed to.
“Several years ago, there was an anti-magic group in our town. My parents were careful, made sure Scott was, too. His magic was never talked about, even when we thought we were alone. We didn’t take any risks. Just laid low and waited for those people to leave.” She gave a wry smile and a small shrug. “As if it’s ever that easy.”
Her gaze skimmed over the crowd, and I knew when it found me as she straightened, stood taller, shoulders squared.
“One day,” she continued in a tight voice, “that group of…cowards was harassing an older couple in the town square. They didn’t even have magic.” She let out a harsh laugh. “But once those people get it in their heads that you do, there’s no reasoning with them, no stopping them. Scott and I were stupid—like kids are—thinking we were invincible and nothing bad could possibly happen to us. We stepped in and tried to help. I remember being so angry because they were pushing this old woman around, and she’d fallen to her knees, sobbing. For nothing. She’d done nothing wrong. She and her husband were just wanting to walk home from the market.”
Addie’s eyes were still on me, and I shifted, slightly uncomfortable under her scrutiny, but even more so because of what she was sharing. And where I guessed it was headed.
“The woman’s husband was trying to pull them away from her. I moved to help. Everything was a blur, to be honest.” She pressed her fingers to her temples a moment. “I barely saw the knife, a flash of the blade, really, before I felt it. Just red-hot pain that became unbearable as the man holding it jerked it upwards.”
Stepping to the side of the podium, Addie didn’t hesitate in lifting her t-shirt up to reveal the thick white scar on her abdomen. I had to breathe slowly, force down the bubbling nausea. Letting her shirt drop, she moved back to the mic.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the ground, and the anti-magic terrorists—because that’s what they are—were frozen in place. Scott was kneeling beside me, healing me. He’d outted himself to save me.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “I lost so much blood, and who knows what damage had been done internally. I’d have died there, would have bled out on that sidewalk, without him.”
I chanced a look around the eerily silent room. Addie’s weren’t the only cheeks wet with tears. Everyone seemed to be hanging on her every word.
“When the authorities came, they drew their weapons. On Scott. Told him to release the men he had hold of and to step away from me. He looked scared for, maybe, half a second then smiled at me. He said he loved me then told me to tell Mom and Dad he loved them and, no matter what happened, not to be stupid. He kissed my cheek and stood. He hadn’t even turned around and…” Her voice broke, and a quiet cry fell from her lips. “They shot him. He never had a chance. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
“Dear God.” I closed my eyes and let my head fall against the wall at my back.
“There was an investigation—if you could call it that,” she continued, voice now strong and exploding with bitterness. “Scott’s murder was considered justified because he clearly had enormous power to be able to keep hold of those men and heal me at the same time. The responding officers were obviously fearful for their lives and acted accordingly. Never mind that he didn’t harm the attackers, that he’d used his power to save me. He was a danger in their eyes. Simply because he had magic. That’s all they saw.”
I could hardly swallow past the painful lump in my throat. I wanted to wretch, to purge the aching sadness and anger and helplessness I felt hearing all of this. I couldn’t imagine what Addie was feeling, though her attitude and actions toward me were well explained. I got it, now.
“He was only fifteen. He had his whole life ahead of him, and he was killed without hesitation, with hardly a thought. And it was deemed okay, because of something he was born with, something he had no say in.” She cleared her throat again. “So, when people tell me I shouldn’t speak out or support those with magic, that it isn’t worth the risk, I think about Scott and how he gave his life. He risked everything, everything, to save me because he loved me. How can I do anything less, in his name, to stop something like that from happening again?”
Applause rang out, but still I didn’t open my eyes. I heard the next speaker begin, though his words didn’t register. I couldn’t stop thinking of Addie’s brother and what had happened to him. What had happened to his entire family. And I wasn’t naïve enough to believe horrible things like that hadn’t happened elsewhere, that they weren’t happening now.
“Are you all right?”
Lifting my lids, I found Delia standing next to me, peering at me with concern in her eyes. While better than the earlier angry, accusing glare, I didn’t particularly care for being on the receiving end of this look, either.
I pushed away from the wall. “Those guys won’t be bothering you anymore today.”
I wished I could promise her, and all the others, more than that. That I didn’t have to specify today. I wanted to be able to say they wouldn’t bother her ever again. But I couldn’t, and it killed me.
She frowned and stepped closer, her fingers sliding over the back of my hand. “That’s not what I asked.”
When I didn’t answer, she sighed. “It’s not easy to hear, is it? The first time she told me, I bawled like a baby. Even with my—” Another heavy sigh. “I couldn’t imagine going through what she went through. She blames herself, but she’s brilliant, you know? Sure, she can be abrasive, and she sure as hell doesn’t trust easily, but she’s taken a horrific experience and is bound and determined to do something good with it. Gotta admire that.”
Before I could respond, the man who had been speaking before—David, if I remembered correctly—approached us.
“Leo is almost done. We’re all going to grab lunch after.” He looked directly at me. “You’re welcome to join us.”
I couldn’t hold back the shocked, and fairly loud, burst of laughter. “You realize who I am, right? Not exactly going to be welcomed.”
“Yeah, I know who you are. I also know you’re the one who got those assholes to leave. So, I figured you were worthy of another chance.” He shrugged then grinned. “Or a first chance, I guess, since I never really gave you an honest one to begin with.”
“I… Well, I…”
I pressed my lips together, not a clue how to respond. This was the last thing I expected from any of this group. And, frankly, it made me flush with shame, because I couldn’t see anyone in my circle—or myself, for that matter—extending the same courtesy. The truths coming to light today were not ones I was happy to discover.
“I appreciate that,” I replied hoarsely. “I really do. But the others would—”
“Would agree,” he interrupted. “I already ran it by them. Even Addie before she spoke. She was the most resistant—probably not shocked by that, are you?—but she agreed. And promised to be nice.”
I turned to Delia, who nodded. “You should come. Get to know everyone.”
“So you’re not angry with me anymore?” I asked, then felt my cheeks heat even more as I flicked my gaze toward David.
“I think you know the anger wasn’t necessarily directed at you, though you bore the brunt of it. And you did what you could to fix the problem. So no, I’m not angry with you.” She bit her lip a moment. “Are you still upset with me?”
“More frustrated than angry,” I admitted, and David lifted a brow, curiosity all over his face. “Still am, but I’m starting to understand. But…that’s something we can talk about later?”
She smiled brightly. “Absolutely. So, it’s yes for lunch, then?”
Her fingers still brushed my hand, and I turned it to catch hers in my grasp. “Yes, Delia, it’s a yes for lunch.”