Natalie felt utterly alone.
She had done her best to cover the bruises on her chin with makeup, though it did not seem to work too well. Besides, no matter what she did, gossip still traveled through the school faster than anyone could say ‘magic’.
It had only been a mere month and a half since she had last been the subject of stares and whispers. She found that she did not care for it any more this time than she had then – in fact, this time it felt even worse. Now she had no one to share it with. Cecily kept away, though she continued to send her curious, pained looks – and other than Cecily, Natalie really had no friends at school.
Eadan walked around looking smug as if being royalty, the descendant of a long passed king.
“Little Miss Winters will stay out of my way from now on,” he said to his friends, cackling madly and looking far too proud.
Natalie hid in the bathrooms until he had left. She berated herself – she should not be so weak! – but she could not help it. She did not want to face Eadan, not now.
Not ever, a small voice in the back of her head added, but she pretended she had not heard it.
Ramon gaped at the sight of her, but did not say anything. His eyes kept traveling back to Natalie time and time again, but she kept her head down, refusing to look at him.
Because she had made friends with no one but Ava and Cecily, she felt rather surprised when at lunch, a girl approached her. Natalie remembered her face instantly, for she was almost the spitting image of Ava. She had longer hair though – it fell beyond her shoulders – and blue jeans and a t-shirt, rather than Ava’s mostly black attire.
“Hi, I’m Lynn,” she said, presenting herself with her hand held out.
“Hi,” Natalie said. “You were the one that helped me.”
“Oh, so you remember? I wasn’t sure you would,” Lynn said.
Natalie did not know what to say, but to pretend that she did remember. After all, what could she possibly say?
“Yes, well, thank you,” Natalie said uncomfortably.
Lynn smiled. “I merely wanted to see that you were all right – you had me quite worried.”
Natalie smiled, though it felt fake. What was she supposed to say to her? She had brought death to the younger sister and now she had been saved by the older one?
“I’ll live,” Natalie said. She hesitated for a moment, then asked, “You’re Ava’s sister, right?”
A look of sadness came over Lynn’s face. She nodded. “Yeah.”
Natalie had to remind herself that Lynn and her family did not know that Ava had died. She had to be careful as she phrased herself.
“I—I’m sorry that she’s—gone,” Natalie said. “She was my friend.”
It felt natural and strange, both at the same time, to speak of Ava as though she no longer existed.
“Yes,” Lynn said, her voice thick. “I believe I remember her talking about you. It was Natalie this, and Natalie that. You and some other new student, right?”
Natalie nodded. “Cecily.”
“Yes, that was it. She went on and on about the two of you.”
An uncomfortable silence spread between them. Lynn looked miserable and Natalie had no problem understanding why. Week after week and not a single scrap of information.
Finally, Lynn said, “Well, I was just coming to—you know, see that you’ll be okay. And you are, so—”
“Yes, thanks to you.”
Natalie held out her hand, feeling rather silly. A handshake for a saved life?
Lynn took her hand. “It’s nice meeting you without blood all over. Quite the unpleasant way to find someone.”
The corner of Natalie’s mouth twitched into a smile. Lynn had her sister’s sense of humor.
She cocked her head to the side. “I’m just curious - how did you find me? I didn’t see anyone before I collapsed.”
Lynn frowned for a second. “I was heading out with a few friends of mine – there was a party – and I just—something told me to turn and go in your direction. I guess I might have heard you or something.”
“I was quite loud, I suppose,” Natalie said softly.
“Yes,” Lynn said, sounding a bit weak. “I suppose.”
She left a moment later, appearing deep in thought at the simple question. Natalie watched her go. She knew why Lynn had found her way to her, although she did not know exactly how.
Natalie felt the rest of the class’ eyes on her throughout her classes. In art, where the students worked on their own, they spoke under their breaths to each other. Natalie made out words here and there – “she was drunk and she tried to defend herself from a bunch of guys” and “she’s made up some story that Chase Eadan did that to her, can you believe it?” – and she tried to hide herself in her drawing. She wished they could be allowed to listen to music.
Cecily’s eyes rested upon her. The little hairs, prickling on the back of her neck, told her as much. She had not taken her eyes off Natalie since the start of class. She had been the same all day long.
Natalie did not know what to think, or feel about it. She still felt upset that she had gone behind her back – but so much more of her anger and frustration was now reserved for Eadan, that she did not know if there could be any left for Cecily.
“You know, the drawing might get done a slight bit sooner if you actually work on it.”
Mr. Connell stood behind her, looking over her shoulder at the nearly blank page before her. A few pencil lines stood as the only thing Natalie had managed to produce so far.
“I’m sorry, sir, I just have—other things to think about,” Natalie said, finishing lamely. She should be doing her work.
“I’m sure you do, my dear,” Mr. Connell said. “But do not dwell on everyone else’s opinion of you, or you’ll drown.”
Natalie sighed. “Yes, sir.”
It was not the first time Mr. Connell had given her advice. Though he enjoyed playing the part of a stern teacher, Natalie had found Mr. Connell to be one of the few teachers she had ever had, who cared about his students for real.
When the bell rang, Natalie stood waiting at the door to leave. She did not want to be in school for a second longer than necessary. Hoisting her school bag onto her back, she made her way out the door, down the stairs and left through the main entrance.
Natalie’s wish to get away had carried her so far that she did not notice at first that she had been followed.
The wind carried the soft call to her. She turned and found Cecily standing a while away, looking tiny. Were she any lighter, the wind would have swept her away.
They stood gazing at each other for a long moment. Cecily’s face remained neutral. She did not wear the small smile that she usually did. Natalie felt a pang at her heart – she missed it. Still, no matter what she had been through with Eadan, Cecily’s lack of trust in her smarted.
Cecily took a few steps towards Natalie. The brown eyes, usually expressive, told Natalie nothing.
“I don’t want to fight,” Cecily said levelly. “I don’t have enough time left to be spending it that way.”
Natalie looked at her with wide eyes. She knew Cecily to be right and yet, she could not bring herself to forgive her.
Cecily continued, “I’m not asking for your forgiveness, because I don’t think there’s that much to forgive and either way, I don’t believe you can, at least not yet. I get that you think I betrayed you, I really do, but I want you to know that I was only trying to look after you.”
A pause, to breathe.
Natalie did not know how to respond, so she stayed silent. Cecily seemed to have enough to say for the both of them.
“I’m sorry about what happened with Eadan. I—I couldn’t believe it when I first heard. I just—he’s a jerk and I hope you’re okay.”
She stumbled a bit on the words and for the first time since she had started speaking, she studied the ground. Once she looked up again, she said, “When you are ready, if you want to, I’ll be here to talk to.” She smiled wryly. “Well, for a while longer, at least.”
Then, with a small smile, she turned and walked away. Natalie stared after her, wondering if she should call out and ask Cecily to come back, if she should forgive her then and there.
But she said nothing.
Cecily disappeared down the road and Natalie stood there, rooted to the spot without a coherent thought passing through her mind.
“I don’t want to fight. I don’t have enough time left to be spending it that way.”
The words played through Natalie’s mind like a broken record. Cecily was dying. She tried to process the word, tried to understand it. Dying? She would no longer exist.
Tears rolled down her cheeks though she was barely aware of it. She did not care that she stood crying in the middle of a street. No other people were around to see her and it would not have mattered if there were. Natalie’s eyes fixed upon the spot where she had seen Cecily disappear. It seemed unreal, that she would do so for real – disappear, die, be gone.
Her thoughts ran in circles.
Then suddenly, they came to a complete, halting stop.
She knew what she had to do. Everything else gradually faded into insignificant nothingness – Eadan, her grandmother, even Ava. Natalie had to find the pieces of the stone. She simply had to.
She did not know how long she had been standing there, but in a flash, she turned and ran home.
The pink flower lay pale in her hand. Though it had been taken out of the dream a day earlier, it still looked strong and beautiful. Natalie held it in her hands, running a finger up and down its leaves. It seemed to almost shimmer, though she could not be certain. Perhaps her tired eyes played tricks on her.
“All right, then,” muttered Natalie to the flower, “how are you going to help me find the stone?”
She wanted rather a lot to scream. It did not matter how decisive she became about finding the damn Nebula – she was not getting anywhere anyway! And all the while, Cecily grew sicker.
She made a simple dinner – if she could go to school, then she was certainly well enough to make dinner, according to Emmanuella – as her mind kept her preoccupied with thoughts. How could she get back into the dream, if the piece was there? Should she try to sleep more? It seemed stupid.
Richard and Emmanuella distracted her for a few minutes as they sat down to eat. Natalie felt rather maliciously satisfied as she saw the bump Emmanuella had started to develop – she would be huge by nine months. No matter the result, it would still be fun to see Emmanuella waddling around.
“We thought we’d make the room next to yours into a nursery,” Richard told her with great excitement. “We’re not really using that space so it’ll be perfect!”
“If she could just move out, we could tear down the wall and make a big room instead,” Emmanuella said sourly.
Richard sent her a look. “She’s fifteen, Em. It’ll be a while longer.”
Natalie did not say anything. She rarely did, when it came to that kind of conversation – Emmanuella had never appreciated her input and Richard tried to make both happy. Easier to simply stay out.
She returned to her room, with only a glance at the next door – currently, it was their office. Natalie wondered what it would be like to have a baby at home all of a sudden.
Then she stepped into her room, closed the door, and only the thoughts of the Nebula Medeor remained. Natalie’s eyes grew wide.
The flower truly glowed.
It emitted a soft, white light that lit the room. Long shadows and bright spots mixed, and the room looked dream-like.
Natalie’s gaze turned downwards and she gasped. The flower was not the only thing glowing. Her own necklace, the one she had gotten from her mother, shone with equal brightness.
Natalie nearly stumbled over herself as she walked into the room, towards the flower. Her hand shook as she stretched out towards the flower. It called to her, a tune slipping from it and playing inside her head. It was magnificent.
Her fingers connected with the flower and there was a bright light.
Natalie squeezed her eyes shut and shielded her face with her arms. A sudden wind had picked up around her and something blew into her face. It took her a moment to realize that it was sand.
Once more, she had been sent to the desert.
“Fine, what am I doing—”
Natalie stopped herself in the middle of her sentence. The place was nothing like it had been on the previous occasions she had visited. Clouds filled the sky, dark and ominous. The wind slapped sand into her ears, nose and eyes and she could only squint at her surroundings.
A young woman stood before her. She did not seem to be able to see her. Her tear streaked face looked older now than it had before, but Natalie recognized it – the middle sister.
She carried something in her hands, wrapped in a blanket. She held it carefully, but Natalie could not tell if she did so because she was revering it, or if she was frightened of it.
She dropped to her knees in the sand. She was mumbling something, but Natalie could not hear it, until the last part.
“Here I lay my part to rest, never to be found again!” she screamed.
Tears poured down her cheeks. She slammed the stone into the ground, letting it go from the blanket. The wind immediately covered the stone with sand and a moment later, the piece had vanished. Even though Natalie knew exactly where it had been placed, she could not be certain she would have been able to find it.
The sister stood. She glanced down, one last time at the sand, her shoulders slumped. Natalie wondered what had happened to leave her so achingly sad.
As the sister walked away, Natalie gazed at the spot where the stone piece had been buried. For some reason, she could not feel all that surprised when she saw a flower begin to make its way up through the sand with unnatural speed. Even in the howling wind, it grew relentlessly. It twisted, turned and grew, green leaves and stem, and finally, on the top, a lovely pink flower resided.
Natalie awoke a moment later, her fingers no longer curled around a flower, but around a pearly white stone with dark lines passing over it in irregular patterns.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Sixteen: