Short Stories

Short Story Sunday – Lost Girl

I’m afraid I didn’t have time this week to write a new short story for the blog, but here’s one that will be going in the upcoming short story collection I’m publishing (hopefully on the 20th). Enjoy. :)

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Nya strode to the railing of the upper deck, her booted footsteps pounding on the wood. Waves lapped against the hull and a night breeze ruffled the feather in her hat. All eyes below turned to her. For a long moment there was silence.

“I have found a map to Peter Pan’s hideout,” she announced.

A great cheer went up from the crew. It was followed by questions like “where is it?” and “how far is it?” and “let’s take it!”

“All of your questions will be answered as we get there. Put on your hats and gloves. We raid Pan’s hideout tonight!”

As the cheering started anew she turned on her heel and headed for her cabin. Passing the navigator, she leaned into to tell him where to go before continuing. The door closed behind her and she was alone.

*****

The crew was muttering as they let down anchor near Mermaid Lagoon.

“Is she trying to kill us?”

Nya ignored them as the rowboat splashed into the water. She was the first one aboard, followed by her three most faithful crew members, Tyre Smee, Fleet Hawk, and Serene.

The oars cut smoothly through the still water, a sound Nya was well familiar with. All was quiet; gentle waves, a midnight breeze, the shifting of sails growing fainter in the distance.

They eased into the lagoon and Tyre looked a bit hesitantly into the water.

“Something wrong, Mr. Smee?” Nya asked.

Tyre shook his head, his blue eyes a bit wide. “Of course not, Captain. I’m just not sure how the mermaids’ll feel about us rowing straight into their lagoon…”

“Mr. Smee, we have our own mermaid, remember?” Nya gestured to Serene, the half-mermaid member of their crew.

“Of course, Captain. How could I forget?” He gave a bit of a nervous smile.

Mermaids began circling the boat and Serene hissed at them. They hissed back and there was a short conversation no one else could understand before the lagoon mermaids backed down.

“Thank you, Serene,” Nya said.

Serene just nodded.

They reached shore safely and disembarked, a couple more rowboats close behind.

“Where are we going?” one pirate asked.

“Peter Pan’s hideout, of course,” Nya said. “This way.” She moved into the jungle, followed by her crew.

She navigated the jungle like she’d known it her whole live, trusting the map in her head. She’d memorized it almost as soon as she found it. Her photographic memory still amazed even Tyre,  though she’d had it since birth and used it as long as she could remember.

Finally she stopped before a giant oak tree and looked around for the vine that had been notated on the map. She spotted it, the only leafless vine dangling from the tree, and pulled it. A door in the tree swung open and she smiled. “Here we go, boys.”

She plunged into the darkness and Tyre barely managed to slip in before the door thudded closed behind them.

For quite a few feet they walked in complete darkness before finally arriving at a lit portion of tunnel at the head of a staircase. Nya started down without hesitation and descended the curling steps for what seemed like forever, trying to keep her footsteps quiet, before stepping into a well-lit cavern-like room, where about a dozen boys slept on cots around the edges. She tried to identify Peter Pan, but few of them didn’t fit the description she’d heard. There were chests at the end of each cot, and doors on two sides of the room.

Tyre’s eyes were flitting from one boy to the next, worry evident in his eyes.

“They’re not going to wake up,” Nya whispered. “We won’t wake them.” A dozen pairs of footsteps pounded on the stairs behind them and Nya closed her eyes. “Idiots.”

It didn’t take much longer before every pair of eyes in the room was open and the Lost Boys had bolted from their beds.

Nya turned back toward her crew. “Imbeciles!” she hissed. “Did no one ever teach you about stealth?”

“The captain’s a girl!” one of the Lost Boys said.

Nya turned around. “Yes I am. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I’ve just never seen a young captain, much less a girl!”

Ah, yes. There’d only ever been two pirate captains other than Nya: her father and grandfather. Both had been old men.

The door at the back of the room flew open and out came a Lost Boy who could only be Peter Pan. He wore green pants with ragged edges, a red pirate jacket that must have come from Captain Hook, a matching hat with an absurdly floppy feather, and no shirt.

“Invaders!” he yelled. As the Lost Boys yelled and charged, his green eyes landed on Nya. “Capture the Wendy alive.”

“If you want me,” Nya countered, “Get me yourself.” Killing Peter Pan. Now wouldn’t that be an accomplishment?

Pan smirked and shoved off the ground, flying toward her. Nya stifled a smile as she drew her sword. She’d often heard that people could fly, but she’d never actually seen it before. Pan and the Lost Boys had vanished after Hook was swallowed by a crocodile and Wendy left.

She spun away as he neared her, but he caught the hem of her black coat and pulled her toward him. She shed the coat and wheeled on him with a grin. “Nice try, Pan.” She darted toward him, jabbing with her sword, but he flew back away from her.

“Too bad you can’t fly, Wendy.” He grinned.

Around them, the Lost Boys were pressing the pirates back toward the staircase. “My name is Nya.”

“Captain!” Nya spared Tyre a glance to see his eyes wide with fear.

“Retreat!” she ordered. The crew turned and ran up the staircase, resulting in a cheer from the Lost Boys.

While Nya was occupied, Pan grabbed a rope from one of the Lost Boys and wrapped it around her. She dropped her sword as the rope squeezed into her arms.

“Let me go!”

“Come on, Wendy.” Pan took her toward the back room. She struggled against the rope and a couple of Lost Boys moved to assist Pan.

One of the two Lost Boys closed the door as they got Nya through and Pan released the rope, flying to perch on the end of a four-poster bed. Across from the bed was a desk, atop which a fairy stood trapped in a lantern, banging indignantly on the glass. The blonde hair and attitude gave her away immediately. Tinkerbell.

“You locked up your fairy,” Nya said as the second Lost Boy released her from the rope and coiled it up.

“She gets rather arrogant sometimes. She’s served her sentence this time.” Pan shooed toward Tink with his hand and the second Lost Boy – a redhead – released her from her prison.

The fairy immediately darted for Pan and flew around his face. Pan just sat looking at the wall across from him as if this happened every day. Knowing Tinkerbell’s reputation, it probably did.

Finally Tinkerbell stopped and Pan looked at the fairy. “Finished? Good. I want you to meet the new Wendy.”

Tinkerbell crossed her arms and stuck out her tiny tongue at Nya.

“Don’t worry,” Nya said, crossing her own arms, “I have no interest in Peter Pan.”

Pan smirked.

With some effort, Nya ignored him. “How long will I be kept here?”

“As long as Peter likes,” the redhead replied.

Pan hopped off the bed onto the floor. “Wendy, meet Tayn and Fred.” Fred was the redhead and Tayn had pitch black hair and blue eyes.

“My name,” Nya repeated through gritted teeth, “Is Nya. Wendy is gone.”

Pan’s eyes widened only a moment before he smirked. “Well, a Peter always needs a Wendy.”

“Then go find one.”

Pan laughed. “I like you. You’re clever.”

“Oh the cleverness of me.”

“You know your stories well.”

“Would you tell us stories?” Fred asked.

“No. I’m a pirate captain, not some silly storytelling Wendy.” Nya liked stories quite a lot, but she wouldn’t be caught dead entertaining Pan’s band of Lost Boys.

“No. Find yourself a Wendy.”

“Wendy’s gone,” Tayn said, his voice a bit sorrowful.

“Then you’ll just have to do without.” She contemplated a way to get past Tayn, who stood in front of the door, and came up with nothing. The Lost Boys were surprisingly good with swords, so it wouldn’t be easy to get hers back from him, and all the other Lost Boys were probably thronged on the other side of the door to see Pan’s ‘Wendy’ when she came out.

“Why so contrary, Wendy?” Pan asked.

“Because I’m Captain Hook’s granddaughter and I won’t be Peter Pan’s Wendy. Not to mention that I will never change my name, least of all to ‘Wendy.'”

“Not even your last name?”

“I’ll never be attached enough to someone to take their name.”

Pan smirked. “That’s what we all say.”

“Marriage is a part of growing up. If you never grow up…”

Pan turned to Fred. “Tell the Boys to go back to bed. You too. Tayn, stay here.”

Both Lost Boys nodded and as the door opened for Fred, Nya lunged for it. Pan caught her around the waist, his hands abnormally warm. “Where are you off to?”

“Nowhere, apparently. Please let me go.”

“Ooh, polite this time.” He let go and perched on the end of the bed again.

Nya turned to face him with a glare, trying to ignore the fact that he was just as physically attractive as the rumors said.

Tinkerbell perched on Pan’s shoulder, her arms crossed and her face screwed into a very unattractive expression.

“What are you glaring at me for?” Nya asked. “It’s Pan who grabbed me, not the other way around.”

“Don’t take it too personally,” Pan said as Tink stuck out her tongue. “She does this to every Wendy. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her out of the lantern after all.” He looked toward the fairy, who huffed and started screaming at him. He rolled his eyes and picked her up by the tiny waist, shutting her back into the lantern. “Quite the jealous little thing, isn’t she?”

“Unnecessarily so.”

“Really?” Pan wiggled an eyebrow.

“Yes.” A slight blush came to Nya’s cheeks and she mentally scolded herself. “As I’ve said, I have no interest in Peter Pan.”

“Then what brings you here?”

“The lure of the title ‘Pan-Killer.’ I’ve been waiting years for a chance to kill you.”

“So you have some interest in me after all.” He grinned.

“Not of the romantic variety.”

“Not yet.” Pan turned to Tayn. “Please have George prepare some food.”

Tayn headed out to fulfill Pan’s instructions. Despite herself, Nya felt her stomach flip at being alone with the elfin boy. She wished Tinkerbell were out of her cage to intervene should Pan decide to do something forward.

“I’m not hungry,” Nya said. “I ate just before we anchored.”

Pan cocked his head at her. “What do you have against me, Wendy?”

Nya stifled a growl at his insistence on calling her Wendy. “You’re a troublemaker, an impish character, and you’re responsible for my grandfather’s death.”

“I believe it was a crocodile who ate him, actually. I’m many things, but a cannibal is not one of them.” His eyes twinkled.

“But it was you who led him to his death.” She was glad for the argument. Like this she could almost ignore his sparkling green eyes and smooth, tantalizing voice. It was his wit and flirtatious manner that drew her in, though, and that was harder to ignore.

“Touché. But he’d captured Wendy and the Lost Boys and I knew he’d do it again unless he was gotten rid of for good.”

“He captured them for trespassing and trouble-making. You should’ve been roped up, too.”

“Is that what they told you?” He raised an arched eyebrow. “You’re quite mistaken, Wendy.” She glared, but his eyes just twinkled as he went on. “Hook invaded this hideout and kidnapped my friends. I was lucky enough to be elsewhere rescuing Tink at the time and was able to save them. Hook struck the first blow. Not that I expect a pirate to believe the truth…”

Nya strode across the room and slapped him, leaving an angry red mark on his cheek. He looked shocked for a moment before his expression morphed into a grin. “Feisty.”

“I’m a pirate.” His eyes latched onto hers and she swallowed hard, suddenly aware as the adrenaline faded how close she stood to him. “Tink’s feisty, too.” She faltered. “And she’s dying for your affections.” She looked over her shoulder toward the fairy and Pan took her chin gently in hand, turning her face back to him. He had an almost awe-filled expression on his face.

“She’s a fairy,” he said. “You’re a Wendy.”

The spell broke and Nya stepped away. “I’m not Wendy.” Pan would never let go of his first love. “I’m Nya.”

Pan’s eyes drifted to the wall just as someone knocked on the door. Pan’s jump from the bed was more nimble than one from a bed to the floor probably ought to be, and he was opening the door two steps later.

Tayn stepped inside with a tray in his hands laden with three plates. “I hope you don’t mind I got myself something.”

“No,” Pan said. “Not at all.”

They ate in tense silence and finally Pan excused Tayn and Nya. “Tayn, would you please show Nya to the spare room? Make sure she has two or four guards outside her door.”

Tayn nodded and Nya followed the Lost Boy out into the common room and through the door that was to the right. The spare room was rather cozy, with a bed along the left wall and a dresser on the right of the back wall. Over the dresser was a skylight now letting in minimal moonlight.

“Goodnight, Wendy,” Tayn said, leaving her in the room. In moments she heard footsteps approaching the door – guards – and she wondered how they’d been ready so quickly.

She looked up the skylight, but it was a long way up the chute with sheer-worn wood sides. Even she couldn’t get up that. So she resigned herself to her fate – for now – and lay down on the bed, promptly falling asleep.

*****

When Nya woke in the morning it took her a moment to get her bearings. Right. She’d been captured by Pan. That was not the way that plan was supposed to go.

She headed into the common room and was met with the chaos of a dozen boys running around. They all froze when she saw her before rushing to stand by their beds.

Nya arched an eyebrow. “What are you up to?”

None of the boys spoke, but Pan came out a moment later – the lack of commotion likely his cue – and gave Nya a crooked grin.

“Good morning, Wendy,” he said. He wore an open brown vest today instead of Hook’s coat and had left out the ridiculous hat.

“Nya,” she muttered.

Tinkerbell flew out with an angry jingle, no doubt irritated at being left behind, and Pan put a finger up. “Ah, ah, ah. Quiet, Tink. We don’t want to upset the Wendy.”

Tink gave another jingle that Nya interpreted as, “We very much do want to upset the Wendy,” but with another reproving glance from Pan she stopped and limited herself – reluctantly – to perching on his shoulder with her arms and legs crossed.

“Petulant thing,” Pan remarked before turning his attention to Nya. “Now Wendy-”

“Nya,” she corrected.

He gave a teasing smirk and continued. “I have a day planned for you and me.”

“Lovely.”

“It begins with a nice breakfast at the waterfall.”

He took her to a waterfall she recognized from the map and took a seat near the edge of the pool that the fall poured into. The sound of pounding water rushed in her ears and the spray quickly dampened her. Pan grabbed a basket from behind a nearby bush and set it between them, pulling out several pieces of fruit and a couple of rolls.

Now when did he have time to set that up?

“Take whatever you’d like,” he said above the water’s din, grabbing an apple and biting into it.

She hesitated before taking one of the rolls, eating it quickly before it got too terribly damp in the waterfall’s spray.

“You should try growing out your hair,” Pan remarked, studying her. “It would look nice with that pirate hat of yours.”

Where was her hat? She seemed to remember seeing it on the floor of the spare room. It must have fallen off while she slept.”I like it short.”

Pan shrugged. “Just a suggestion.” He took another bite of apple.

Nya ate the roll and a mango before declaring herself done with breakfast. Pan packed up the remaining food and headed off to put the basket away. Nya turned her attention back to the waterfall and the rainbows drawn in the mist. She admired it for several minutes before realizing Pan hadn’t made any snarky comments. She looked toward the bush and found him absent. A quick scan of the area didn’t reveal anything.

“Psst.”

She turned toward the sound and saw Pan grinning behind the bush. He beckoned to her. “Come here. I want to show you something.”

She arched an eyebrow, suspicious, but followed him anyway, pressing through the bush. Beyond the bush the trees were tightly packed and even Nya, being fairly small, wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through the gaps between them.

Pan scrambled up the nearest tree trunk and hung upside down from a branch. “Coming?”

Nya followed him up, much slower – she was a ship’s captain, after all, not a huntress – and he offered her his hand, which she declined to take. He led her through the trees, using intertwining branches as bridges here, using vines as ziplines there. Finally he dropped down to the ground and Nya descended the tree after him.

“Pan, where are we going?”

He put a finger to his lips with a grin and gestured the direction they’d been going. The trees widened out and formed a natural archway, the end of which wasn’t visible. Pan started in and Nya whispered a reprimand to herself before following.

The tree passage seemed to go on forever, but finally they emerged on the edge of a lake. Pan took a seat on the bank, dipping one foot into the water and bringing the other knee up to his chest, and beckoned for Nya to join him. “Moonblossom Lake. It’s prettier at night, but it’s fun during the day, too.”

Nya hesitantly took a seat next to him.

“You look as if I’m going to bite you.”

“You’re Peter Pan. You’re not exactly trustworthy.”

“You’re right, I’m not.” He pushed her into the lake with a grin.

Nya came up sputtering and glared at him. “That was rude.”

Peter stood and shrugged. “Probably.” He jumped in, splashing her in the face, and she gave him a fierce scowl when he came back up.

“If this is what every day is going to be like, I’m taking the first opportunity to run away.”

“Oh please. You must admit that that was fun.”

“Being shoved into a lake and then splashed in the face? Oh yes, that’s certainly my definition of fun.”

Pan grinned. “Come on. There’s more.” He started swimming across the lake and she rolled her eyes before following.

“Why am I doing this?” she muttered to herself. Here she was following Peter Pan, her grandfather’s nemesis, across a lake to somewhere she didn’t know, and she was doing it willingly. What was wrong with her? A thought crossed her mind, but she shoved it away as soon as it came.

They reached the other side of the lake and got out, dripping wet. Nya’s long skirt was now heavy, and her boots were waterlogged. She removed the latter, stripping off her wet socks in the bargain, and left them at the water’s edge.

“Why do you wear those?” Pan asked.

“They protect my feet.”

“Calluses do that, too.” He shrugged before beckoning to her yet again. “This way.”

“Are we going all the way across Neverland or something?”

“Yep.” He ran off.

Nya halted. That wasn’t the answer she’d been expecting. She rushed after him, trying to catch up despite her wet skirt sticking to her legs. They were running across flat grassland, and occasionally butterflies would flit around them. Nya failed to see their beauty, struggling as she was to keep up with Pan, and batted them away like so many gnats.

It was well into the afternoon when Pan stopped, and Nya’s stomach was growling. She was glad, at least, that she’d dried out during their run, but she was tired and hungry. She slumped to the ground, chest heaving.

Pan, who didn’t seem winded in the slightest, sat down across from her and tossed her an apple from a pouch at his waist. She barely caught it, as tired as she was, and had to let her breathing steady before taking a bite.

“What was that for?” she asked.

“The apple? Aren’t you hungry?”

She rolled her eyes. “The run.”

“Well if we didn’t run then it would take us forever to get there. Forever is an awfully long time. I knew you could handle it.”

She snorted and took a bite of her apple. “And how are we supposed to get back to the hideout before dark? I’m pretty sure you didn’t make us run just so we could eat lunch in a spot of meadow that looks just like the spot before it.”

Pan laughed. “No. We’re not there yet. We’re not going to get back today. We’ll go back tomorrow. Where we’re going is prettier at night.”

Nya arched an eyebrow. “We’re staying overnight?”

Pan nodded. “The Lost Boys and I built a treehouse nearby. No need to worry. There are multiple rooms.”

And an opportunity for me to escape.

Nya finished her apple in silence, listening to some story about how Pan had killed a panther with a bow and arrow there once and the pelt still served as the treehouse’s door.

Finally Pan set them back to running – only for a little while – and before too long they were in a forest. He easily navigated to the other side, and they emerged just as the sun was setting. They were at the northwest edge of Neverland, looking out across the ocean. The fog beyond was thick and almost pure white, the area called The Oblivion blocking the land from entry in any way other than flight.

Pan showed Nya the treehouse – a large structure with five rooms – as the night descended. When darkness finally fell, Nya followed Pan to the shore.

“Careful,” he warned. “There are mermaids here. And mermen, though I’ve only ever seen one. Don’t get yourself drowned.”

“I’ve dealt with mermaids before.” Mermen, though. Those were new.

She watched the serene water reflecting moonlight as several ridged backs appeared gliding through the water towards them. Nya watched them come up to shore, whispering words to Pan that she couldn’t understand. None of them even looked at her.

She looked back out at the water and saw a boy in the water. His stare was intently fixed on her. When she saw him he gave a smirk and began swimming towards her. As he got closer, she saw that it was Pan. Confused, she looked beside her and saw Pan still sitting there, surrounded by mermaids and ignoring them all. She turned back to the Pan in the water.

“It’s a trick,” he said. “To keep us safe. Come swim with me.”

Nya looked at the Pan beside her one last time before sliding into the water. The Pan in the water took her arm in a warm hand and took her quite a ways out to sea before leaning forward to kiss her. She pulled away.

“Nice try, Pan, but it’s not gonna happen.”

He grinned, and she saw fangs. Alarmed, she looked back to the shore. Pan was yelling frantically for her. That was all the time the fake-Pan needed to grab her by the shoulders and dart underwater with her. She struggled to break his grip, but she couldn’t. He wrapped his tail around her legs to keep her from thrashing and bit into her neck. She screamed, and ended up swallowing water when she finished. She hacked and coughed, choking herself on the water. Fake-Pan’s hands grew frigid.

After several terror-filled moments, warm arms gripped her around the waist from behind and pulled her away from the merman. Pan, the real Pan, kicked the merman’s tail away and jerked Nya out of his grip, pulling her up to the surface. He didn’t wait to see if she was all right before towing her to shore. The merman followed them, hissing and screaming, and the mermaids congregated around Pan, pulling at him with webbed hands. He shoved through them, doing everything in his power to keep himself and Nya above the water, and finally he scrambled onto shore with her, dragging her a ways into the forest so that they were safely away from the still-shrieking mermaids.

Nya hacked and sputtered, vomiting up water, and Pan lay beside her, up on his arms, breathing heavily.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Nya nodded, vomiting again.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

Pan. The merman had looked like Pan. She had trusted him. Why did she trust Pan?

“What did you see?”

Nya didn’t answer.

“They change to look like what you want. What did you see?”

What she wanted? She didn’t want Pan. She wanted to get back to her crew and her old life. But she hadn’t run away. She’d had numerous opportunities, and she hadn’t. Why? Pan was an adventure. Was that it? Did something about his wit attract her despite everything? He was a terrible, horrible idea. But Tyre had told her numerous times that her ideas were insane, and every time she would just smile and stick to them. She liked bad ideas. She shook her head, lying on her back and looking up through the branches at the stars twinkling above. They looked like very distant fairies. “It doesn’t make sense,” she whispered, barely audible even to herself.

“You have to tell me what you saw.”

She looked at him, dripping wet, green eyes insistent and more serious than she’d ever seen them. “Will you tell me what you saw then?”

Pan shook his head. “I think you already know.”

She turned away. Wendy. Of course he’d seen Wendy. She was all he ever saw. “Do you miss her?” She didn’t even have to ask.

“Almost every day.” He muttered something else she couldn’t hear.

Nya rose and headed toward the treehouse. “I’ll see you in the morning. Or I might be gone.” But she knew she was too tired to run away. She’d be stuck with him. He didn’t even truly care about her. He just wanted another Wendy, when Wendy was gone and never coming back. She climbed up into the treehouse and headed into the room farthest back, lying on the bed despite how entirely wet she was, and closing her eyes. Hopefully she’d wake up and this would all be a dream.

*****

It was not a dream. Or, more accurately, it was not a nightmare. She woke to sunlight streaming through a window in the treehouse and closed her eyes almost as soon as she opened them.

Please, no.

She rose, her clothes still damp, and headed through the treehouse. Pan was nowhere to be found. She climbed down and headed to the bank, the only other place she could think to look. There he was, fully dry, his arms loosely clasped around his knees.

“…Wendy.”

“Morning,” Nya said, a hint of irritation lacing her voice.

Pan looked up, startled, and glanced at her as she took a seat next to him. She didn’t know it was possible to startle Peter Pan. “Oh. Good morning.”

Silence lengthened between them.

Pan took an apple from his pouch and handed it to her. She took it without comment.

“I’m sorry last night didn’t go as planned.”

Nya didn’t answer, chewing on a bite of apple.

“I’d intended for us to enjoy the evening.”

“I’m sure. You plan everything to be enjoyable.”

“I’m not sure if I was supposed to take that as a compliment or an insult.”

“It was intended as an insult.”

“Well then…” He looked down at his bare feet. “I’ll let you finish eating and then we can go.”

As they headed back toward the hideout, the thought of running away crossed Nya’s mind numerous times. But she never followed through. Why? She had no idea. But she kept after Pan, keeping up much better now that her skirt was no longer wet and heavy, and they reached the hideout just after dark.
“How did it go?” Fred asked, greeting them as they entered the main room.

“Fine,” Nya said.

Pan didn’t answer, but headed straight to his room without a word.

“What happened?” Tayn asked, coming over to her, his gaze on Pan’s door.

“Just a little incident with some mermaids. Goodnight.” Nya headed to her room without further explanation and went to bed, tired from the events of the past two days.

*****

The adventure at the shore was only the first of quite a few. Pan had a different thing planned for each day of the next week, though he went after them with perhaps less gusto than the first. Nya humored him, mostly, following him and honestly enjoying their adventures, though she didn’t intend to. She still didn’t understand exactly what drew her to him – or rather ignored what she did know.

On the last evening of that week, Pan took her to a clearing in the forest where there stood a giant willow. Darkness was gathering, and with it came several hundred fairies who accumulated around the tree and danced and sang in and around it.

Nya watched them, in awe of their shimmering beauty, until her attention was broken by Pan’s words.

“I haven’t yet taught you how to fly, have I?”

She looked at him, his gaze holding a bit more mischief than usual. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll run away?”

“Will you?”

Nya thought a moment before answering. “I don’t think so.”

Pan offered her hand, which she took. It was warm, just as it always was. He drew a handful of fairy dust from the pouch at his waist. “Then come on. Think happy thoughts and… fly.” He floated off the ground, sprinkling fairy dust on her.

Her mind filled with thoughts of the ocean and her crew and the woods and the Lost Boys and morning glories and lakes and… Pan. She looked down to find herself several feet into the air. She smiled and looked up at Pan.

“How does it feel, Nya?”

Her smile abruptly disappeared. He’d called her Nya. Had he finally let go of Wendy? Surely not. But maybe?

Pan pulled her close to him as her thoughts threatened to drop her to the ground. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just… You called me Nya?”

Pan grinned. “It’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Why?”

“Why is it your name? Well I don’t know. Maybe-“

Nya rolled her eyes. “No. Why did you call me by my name? Why didn’t you call me Wendy?”

“What, do you WANT me to call you Wendy now?”

“No, I just want to know.”

“Because I kind of like your name. More than Wendy. It’s a much more interesting name.”

Nya looked down at the rapidly retreating ground and blushed. “Thank you.”

“You know I wasn’t just talking about names, right?”

Her gaze returned to his. His eyes were as deep and unfathomable as the night sky above them and reflected the twinkling stars, as if they didn’t already sparkle enough with just his mischief. Did Pan actually love her?

As the week had passed, Pan had proven himself less rude than Nya’s original impression had shown, not the least evidence of that being his rescue of her the night they met the mermaids.

“You know, it wasn’t Wendy I saw in the mermaids,” Pan said. Nya was startled for the second time that night. “It was you. I wasn’t sure you knew that, after a while. You seem to think that I’ll always be attached to Wendy, which isn’t the case. I’ve let go of her now.”

“You would say that,” Nya said, though she did believe him, at least for the most part.

“I mean it, Nya. I do.”

They twirled in the sky, a gentle breeze causing Nya’s skirt to swirl around her legs. “I think I see why Tink’s so infatuated with you.”

Pan arched an eyebrow. “Do you?”

“You can be quite sweet when you want to be. And I’ll admit that your wit is rather attractive.”

Pan let go of her and flew back far enough to sweep into a bow. “Why thank you, m’lady.” He grinned and returned to her as she laughed.

They danced on the air for a while and Nya enjoyed the cool breeze, the warmth of Pan’s arms, the twinkling stars above them, and the sparkling fairies below. When she noticed the fairies start to disperse she said nothing, and neither did Pan. They continued to dance for quite a while before finally returning to the ground.

Pan brushed her cheek with his hand, and she shivered. She wasn’t supposed to like Peter Pan. He was a trickster, wasn’t he? A mischief-making troublemaker. Or was he? He was mischievous, certainly, but there was a sweet side to him that none of the stories she’d heard from her father and grandfather had told. It was something they probably hadn’t even seen. Here she was, Hook’s granddaughter, falling for Peter Pan. She almost laughed out loud. It was nothing anyone could have predicted. It was absurd and… almost wrong. And yet here they were, most definitely falling for each other.

When Pan leaned forward, Nya didn’t pull away. He kissed her, his lips as warm as his arms, and she kissed him back, all the while trying to remind herself that this wasn’t how the story went, and yet loving every minute of it.

When he drew away, she studied his eyes. Those beautiful green eyes of his. She figured she’d probably always found them beautiful, but now that she was in love with him… She did laugh aloud now. She’d admitted it. Admitted that she was in love with him. That was certainly something she was not supposed to do. Falling for him was bad enough, but admitting it?

“What’s funny?” he asked.

“Nothing. Hook’s granddaughter and Peter Pan, right? Who would have thought?”

He grinned. “I don’t think anyone would have. It does seem rather absurd, doesn’t it?”

“Rather like that hat you wear.” She smirked, swatting the hat’s feather.

“Don’t you know that’s why I wear it?” He grinned. “I like being rather absurd.”

A thought crossed Nya’s mind and her smirk faded. “I can’t leave my crew.”

Pan’s own grin disappeared and the two of them drifted to the ground. “I understand.”

“What if you and your Lost Boys joined us?”

Pan shook his head. “I won’t become a pirate, and I know my Lost Boys feel the same. You’ll… you’ll just have to go.”

Nya looked at the ground. “I’m sorry, Peter.”

“It’s all right. But you should know,” he lifted her chin and her gaze met his, “I’ll never find another Nya.”

Nya gave a bittersweet smile and she turned away, heading back for Mermaid Lagoon. Her crew had almost certainly moved on by now, but she could find them. After all, she knew how to fly. She glanced over her shoulder at Pan. His only response was a melancholy smile and a nod. Nya turned to look back at the ground in front of her. It had been a mistake to fall for him. A mistake to let him close. You can’t lose anything if you don’t have anything you care about to lose. Her grandfather had told her that so many times, and she’d listened… until now. She pushed her thoughts away and looked ahead of her. It was time to move on.

*****

Nya landed on the deck of her ship right in front of Tyre Smee, and she smirked as he jumped. “Good evening, Mr. Smee.”

“Captain! We… We didn’t think you were coming back!”

Nya spread her arms. “Well here I am. Find anything interesting while I was gone?”

“We did, actually.”

Nya arched an eyebrow. “Really? What is it?”

Tyre gestured for her to follow and stepped into the captain’s cabin. He shoved a few scattered papers off the desk and uncovered a letter, the seal broken. “We found this after…” Tyre trailed off and Nya filled in the rest. After you were captured, when we were plundering your cabin. “Well, we found this and thought the contents were mighty interesting.” He handed it to her.

Nya opened the envelope and pulled out a letter, reading over it quickly.

 

To be hidden upon my death for Nya Hook.

Nya,

I have a quest for you. It’s something I think your curious, adventurous mind will enjoy. There is a realm off the coast of Neverland known only as the Oblivion. It’s not on any map, nor is it mapped itself, for all believe itto be the end of the world. No one, not even I, has dared venture into it. But if you’ve followed my advice, you won’t have anything to lose. Except perhaps your ship.

So go. Take your crew and be the first to map Oblivion.

-Captain James Hook

 

 

Nya looked at the letter a moment after reading it, then turned to Tyre. “And I assume you were planning on venturing into Oblivion without me.”

“Never, Captain! At least… I wouldn’t.”

“Mmhmm. Let’s sail for Oblivion in the morning, shall we?”

“You’ve never been one to pass up a night voyage-”

“In the morning, I said. There’s something I need to take care of first. You’re excused, Mr. Smee.”

Tyre left, closing the cabin door behind him. Nya waited a moment, trying to talk herself out of what she was about to do, before heading onto the deck. With a deep breath and the thought of Peter Pan, she took to the skies.​

*****

All of the Lost Boys stared as Nya entered the hideout. Tayn immediately hurried into Pan’s room. Nya waited in the main room, trying to dispel her thoughts.  You shouldn’t be attached. If you’re going into Oblivion you could lose him there.

But if I’m lost in Oblivion, she countered with herself, I want to be lost with him.

Pan came out, a doubtful expression fading into one of surprise as he saw her. “Nya? You came back?”

“To ask you something.”

“Anything.”

“My crew and I are going on a quest to map Oblivion. I wanted to know if you’d like to come with us.”

“Oblivion? That’s the end of the world.”

“Maybe.”

Pan waited a moment before nodding. “I’ll come.”

Nya couldn’t stop a grin from spreading across her face. “Thank you. We might be leaving tonight.”

Pan nodded again. “I’ll get ready.” He stepped back into his room and Nya waited. When Pan came back out, he was wearing a red jacket and black pants, barefoot as usual, and he had his absurd red feather hat on his head. Tinkerbell jingled at his shoulder. She was screaming at him, by the looks of it. “Tink insists on coming along,” Pan said, grabbing the fairy and putting her close to his face. “Hush, Tink. You’re being very rude.”

“Isn’t that her default?” Nya asked, smirking and turning for the stairs.

“It certainly seems like it.” Pan followed her out of the hideout. As they reached the top, Nya grabbed Pan’s hand and lifted off the ground.

As Pan lifted beside her, Nya looked over at him. “How are you always ready to fly?”

“I’m always thinking of happy things. Especially at the moment.”

Nya blushed and the two of them flew back out to her ship, landing on the deck. Half the crew was at work keeping the ship on course as it drifted, the other half was below decks sleeping.

“Mr. Smee!” Nya called.

Tyre bolted onto the deck a moment later, climbing up from the crew’s quarters. “Yes, Captain!”

“Prepare the ship. We leave for Oblivion.”

Tyre nodded. “Yes, Captain.”

Nya smiled as Tyre executed orders and got the ship ready to sail. The sails cracked as they billowed out and Nya took a deep breath. She did love night voyages, and this would be one to remember.

*****

Nya stood at the prow of the ship as they neared the wall of fog that marked the entrance to Oblivion. Pan was perched next to her on the ship rail.

Pan’s attention shifted from the fog to Nya and she looked up at him. “Yes?” she asked.

“You’re just beautiful, that’s all. I like seeing you as captain. It suits you.”

“Thanks. I like it here. I was raised on the ocean.” She leaned back against the rail. “My grandfather was a captain, my father was a captain… It was natural to take over for them when they were gone. My father relinquished his possession of the ship when I was old enough – only about two years ago – and I don’t know where he and Mom went. She was only ever half as comfortable on the sea as he was.”

“It seems you have seawater and stardust in your veins.”

Nya smiled softly. “You make it sound so romantic that way.” She looked at him, his green eyes sparkling in the moonlight.

“I do specialize in eloquence.”

Nya laughed. “That you do.” She looked back at the wall of fog, which was now beginning to close over the bowsprit. She moved to the center of the foredeck and gasped as the fog reached her, dampening her with chill. She left her eyes focused on the fog around her until they’d crossed it.

The view of Oblivion was unlike anything Nya had seen. The sky was a cloudy white, the ocean pure liquid silver, and beyond it there was nothing. All of Oblivion for as far as Nya could see was the color of a forest fog.

“It doesn’t look like there’s much to map,” Pan said. “Maybe that’s why no one ever has.”

There was nothing in the silver expanse to give any indication of a changing of direction. No stars. No moon. No sun. No landmarks. No islands. “Do you think you could drift from here to Earth?” The prospect terrified Nya to even consider.

Pan shook his head. “There’s only one way to get to Earth from Neverland. Second star from the left and-“

“-And straight on till morning. I know. It just looks so easy to get lost here… Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“Captain.” Nya turned at the call and saw Tyre mounting the foredeck. “What direction would you like to go?”

Back the way we came. Nya took a deep breath and looked around. “North.” She pointed the way she thought was maybe north.

Tyre nodded and headed back onto the main deck.

“Hey,” Pan said, taking Nya’s hand, “if you did the nearly impossible and turned me away from Wendy, you can do the seemingly impossible and guide your crew through this.”

Nya gave a sour smile. “Those are two very different things.”

“You can do it.”

Nya looked around the deck. “Where’s Tink?”

“Exchanging stories with Fleet Hawk. I’m sure most of hers are horror stories about me. Why?”

Nya shrugged. “Just wondering.” She turned toward the silver expanse before her and took another deep breath. “I’m scared.”

“Don’t be.” Pan put a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s not that easy. You may be Peter Pan, you may feel no fear, but I’m human. I feel fear and pain and…” Nya looked at him. She wasn’t just scared of losing her ship or her crew. She wasn’t even scared of losing herself. She was scared of losing Peter.

“And what?”

Nya looked back at the silver sea. “I don’t want to lose anyone.”

“You won’t.”

“You can’t promise that.” She looked at him. “You really are hopelessly optimistic.”

“Someone has to be.”

The ocean began to roil under the ship and Nya’s attention snapped to the white sky. Storm clouds were beginning to billow, darkening the sky to gray. The waves were beginning to toss, and a figure raised out of the ocean. It took the form of a woman seemingly forged of silver, larger than the ship, with hair billowing around her head and a fiery anger in her shining eyes.

“Who are you to enter the domain of Charybdis unbidden?” The figure’s voice was deep and powerful, like thunder across the water.

“I am Nya Hook.” Nya had to shout over the crashing waves, heavy wind blowing mist into her face and taking her breath away. She wondered if Charybdis could even hear her. “I only came to explore the Oblivion. I’ll leave immediately if that’s what you want.”

But Charybdis’ gaze had latched onto Pan, and she was nearing the ship, impervious to the wind and waves. “No. I want him.”

“No! He’s not an option.”

Charybdis turned to Nya, smooth silver face severe. “Charybdis will have what she wishes.”

“Take me, instead. Let him go with the others.”

“A classic example of sacrifice.” Charybdis drew up to her full height, standing imposing over the ship. “Very well.” She held out her hand toward Nya and the captain climbed onto it.

“Nya!” Pan yelled, his voice almost lost in the wind. “You can’t do this! Let her take me!”

Nya shook her head. “I don’t want to lose you. I’ll try to come back.”

Charybdis laughed. “You won’t be coming back.” She drew her hand back from the ship before Pan could jump onto it. Charybdis glided back to sea and the wind quieted. Nya watched as the ship turned around and sailed back for the fog wall. “You wanted to explore?” Charybdis said. “Well, how about exploring this, then.” Charybdis dropped Nya and she screamed.

Nya didn’t hit the water, though, just sank through it without an impact. She found she was breathing normally, and in moments she landed on hard cobblestone. She had to hastily roll out of the way to avoid being run over by a wagon. Nya scrambled to her feet and hurried onto a sidewalk, looking around with wide eyes. She’d fallen into London. How was that possible?

A bell rang out loud and strong and her gaze snapped to the clock tower so talked about in the stories: Big Ben.

“Are you lost?” Nya looked at the speaker, a middle-aged man wearing glasses and a top hat. His brow was drawn together with concern.

“A… A little.”

“Where are you trying to go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come with me, then. I’ll get you some supper. What’s your name?”

“Nya. Who are you?”

“John Darling. Sorry.” He held out a hand and Nya shook it. “My wife will be more than happy to take care of you. Come on.”

Nya followed him down the sidewalk to a two-story house nestled among several others. Light shone through two of the downstairs windows and one upstairs window, and the door opened as John and Nya neared it.

“Darling! Who did you bring with you?” Nya assumed the speaker was John’s wife, a woman probably a little younger than he, with tight-bound black hair and brown eyes.

“This is Nya. She’s lost. I told her we could take care of her.”

The woman nodded, but she seemed a bit dubious of Nya. “Let her in, then. Have you eaten, dear?” She addressed Nya with the question.

Nya shook her head and the woman headed into what Nya assumed was what would be called a kitchen. There were two people in the dining room – John’s children, she assumed – a girl about her age and a boy no older than ten.

“Prudence, Michael, this is Nya. Nya, these are my children.”

He’d named his son after his brother. An interesting choice, Nya thought. The pirate waved a bit, a tentative smile on her lips.

“Nya, could I speak with you a moment?” John asked.

Nya nodded, following John into an office.

“You’re dressed like a Neverland pirate,” he said, without preamble.

“That’s because I am a Neverland pirate.” She gave an inward sigh of relief. Maybe John could help her get home.

“Do you know Peter Pan?”

Nya nodded again. “We’re good friends.” That wasn’t something she would have thought she’d ever say a few months ago.

“Really? Do you know Captain Hook?”

“The original Hook is my grandfather.”

John raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Nya nodded. “Charybdis threw me here from the Oblivion.” Oh, he won’t know what those things are, she spat at herself. “It’s a long story. Do you know how I can get back to Neverland?”

“Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

“But if I can’t summon up any good thoughts?” What if they’re dead? What if Charybdis didn’t keep her promise? Wait, she didn’t promise at all. What if she has Peter? What if there’s nothing for me to go home to?

“Then I’m not sure there is a way back.” Nya’s heart sank even deeper in her chest. She could be stuck here forever. “We would be willing to take care of you until you can get back.”

Nya nodded slowly before heading out of the office and into the dining room, trying to not look as lost as she felt as she took a seat at the table.

“You look like the pirates Daddy tells us stories about!” Michael said. “But they’re evil.”

“Maybe you need someone else to tell the story, then.” She glanced at John as he took his own seat, then back at Michael. “Pirates aren’t evil.” But she’d been wrong about Peter, she realized. Maybe there was some truth to both views?

Michael looked at John. “Is that true?”

John shrugged. “I suppose it could be debated. But that’s a story for another time.”

John’s wife came back in with a turkey on a platter and set it on the table among bowls of mashed potatoes, corn, and other such side dishes.

John said the blessing and Prudence turned toward Nya, who was sitting beside her. “I’m Prudence. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nya. Nice to meet you, too.” Nya gave a small smile as the potatoes were passed to her.

Nya spent the rest of the meal in silence except when she was spoken to, and afterward Prudence led her up to the bedroom they’d be sharing. The first thing Nya did was open the window. “Do you have a pen and paper?” Nya asked.

Prudence handed her a pad and pen and Nya hastily wrote a note, which she pinned to the windowsill.

 

Peter,

I’ve become a lost girl. I can’t think happy thoughts. I only imagine you gone.

Please come take me back to Neverland. Show me you survived.

-Nya

 

“I’ve posted notes like that before,” Prudence said. “He never comes.”

You’re not his Nya.

When Prudence went to bed that night Nya slept by the window, dreaming of Peter Pan and Neverland.

Studded – Short Story Sunday

Short Story Sundays are back! And with the announcement the whole readership rejoiced. Okay, likely not really, but a girl can dream, right? Yes, I’m back to doing Short Story Sundays, which I’m excited about. This one is shorter than usual, but I’m happy it’s going up, lol. Enjoy. :)

********

Kasslynn was thrust forward by two guards and stumbled, careful not to fall to her knees despite her bound hands. She kept her head up, making eye contact with the cold man on the throne before her, and tossed her long brown curls out of her face.

“Bow before the king,” one of the guards growled.

“I am a queen, and I will bow to no one. Certainly not to a king who adds a jewel to his crown for every royal life he ends.”

“Your rebellion will gain you nothing,” the king said, spinning one of his numerous rings around a finger. “You’ll merely be added to the collection. And apparently you’re behind the times if you still think I’m studding my crown. I graduated from that long ago.” He grinned and held up the hand he’d been fiddling with. “I have a ring missing a jewel, and I think an emerald will do quite nicely.” He gestured to the guards. “I’ve seen her. Take her to her room and make sure she doesn’t try anything. I’ll see her for dinner this evening.”

Something tickled at the back of Kasslynn’s mind as the guards seized her arms and led her out of the throne room into a small bedroom on the ground floor. She heard the door click locked behind her and took a seat on the linen-dressed bed. She set her tied hands in her lap and resolved to sit with her chin up until she was brought for dinner. She would not be using anything provided by King Daumier. If she were to die in this castle, so be it, so long as it was not by his hand or the hand of one of his servants. She would die clinging to the last shred of dignity she had.

********

When Kasslynn was retrieved for dinner three hours later, her stomach was roaring for lack of food. She was taken, bound, into the king’s dining room, and one of the guards pulled out a chair for her next to the king himself. Her hands were untied and she stood still. She would have loved to punch one of those guards in the nose, but to do so would be to give up her dignity and show how desperate she really was.

“Sit, Your Highness,” Daumier said, sitting in his own seat with an untouched plate of food before him. Kasslynn noted this and committed it to memory. Was she something more than a prisoner?

“I don’t think I will,” she replied, keeping her chin held high.

“You’ll grow awfully stiff and tired standing for the whole meal.”

“I won’t be eating any of your food, either.”

“Extra tired, then. You can’t let your pride result in your death.”

She turned to look him in the eyes. His blue eyes were darker than any brown eyes could ever be. “I can, and perhaps I will. It would be far better than being killed by you.”

“You know, it’s funny. If I were to kill you after all your stubbornness – I’m sure you don’t plan on stopping with that anytime soon – then you would be a martyr, remembered only as the queen that was killed by King Daumier of Parenna. You remember I haven’t personally killed any queens or taken jewels for them?”

“That’s where you’re wrong. My people will remember. They won’t allow my death to go unavenged.”

Daumier laughed. “You must be down on your culture lessons, Your Highness. Don’t you remember what an emerald ring signifies?”

Kasslynn tried to think of her lessons on Parenna, and her breath hitched as she remembered. Of course. “I will kill myself before I ever become your wife.”

“I certainly hope that’s not the case. I need peaceful control of Serdor, after all. Your people are too much like you: proud and willing to defend that pride till the very end. Even with all I’ve already conquered, I can’t defeat your people if they get it in their heads to revolt.”

“Then you made an error in judgement when you kidnapped me. Now you’re in a lose-lose situation. If you kill me, you bring my people on your head. If I die on my own and you take over, you bring my people on your head. And you’d be wise not to doubt the lengths I will go to to keep to my word. I will never marry you, I swear it to you.”

“Then you are short-sighted. You and I could rule the whole world together!”

“Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe not everyone wants that kind of responsibility or power? I am perfectly content with my own country. I don’t need or want the whole world.”

“We’ll see. Please, eat.”

Kasslynn held to her refusal to accept Daumier’s offering, and so he had the guards retie her hands and escort her back to her room. He had her brought to every meal for the next week, and every time she refused to eat. He sent food to her room, but she left that on the floor for the mice. She refused even to drink anything. Finally, he brought her to the throne room one morning and she collapsed, shaking, as soon as the guards let her go.

Kasslynn pried her dry eyes open and looked at Daumier. Her vision was blurry, and the strain of holding her eyes open was too much. Daumier gasped and fell to the ground, a dagger planted in his throat. She saw the guards around the room charge toward the throne, and as her eyes fell shut and she shuddered on the ground, she choked out her final words.

“Long. live. the king.”

The Gift

To: The first child you see.

From: A friend.

Marianna looked down at the package she held, reading the tag, and stepped inside the orphanage. She looked up and saw a group of kids run out of the library, no doubt playing hide-and-seek. Marianna smiled as they passed, and looked back down at the package in her arms. The first child you see. She was fairly sure she’d seen Terrence first.

“Terrence!”

The whole group halted and looked at Marianna.

“Yes?” Terrence said, brushing a mop of brown curls out of his face.

“This is for you.” She held out the large box and Terrence looked between it and her for a moment in confusion.

“For me?”

Marianna nodded.

Terrence reached out slowly and took it, setting it down on the floor and pulling off the masking tape that held it shut. The other children oohed and ahhed as he pulled out its contents. Two teddy bears, several candy canes, and a miniature Christmas tree. He looked up at Marianna, eyes wide. “I don’t need all this!”

“It was sent to you.”

“Then…” He looked down at the open box. “I’ll share it.” He looked at the kids behind him and smiled. “I don’t need all this, but I’m not the only kid here.” He handed candy canes to each of the kids, and it came out to perfectly the right number. The two teddy bears went to the twins Marcel and Maisley.

Someone else crept out of the library, leaning against the wall with her hands clasped behind her. Talia.

Terrence only took a moment to notice her and looked in the box for another candy cane, but there wasn’t one. Without a pause, he walked over and offered her his. “Here.”

She stared at the candy cane. “But it’s yours.”

“I want you to have it. I’ll be all right.”

She slowly unclasped her hands and reached out for it, her fingers resting on it gently for a moment, looking at Terrence as if for permission, before curling around the cane. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Terrence smiled.

Marianna smiled as Terrence took out the Christmas tree, figuring out where to put it. “How about right here?” he said. “On the desk where everyone will see it every day.” He set it down and turned back, grinning at everyone. “Thank you, Marianna.”

“It’s not from me.” She picked up the box and took it out to the recycling bin. She spotted a little girl standing outside in a coat and mittens, her arms wrapped around her.

“Are you all right?” Marianna asked.

The girl nodded, looking over at her with earnest eyes. “Did they get my package?”

Marianna nodded, smiling. “They loved it.”

“May I… meet them?”

Marianna nodded again before looking around the parking lot. “Where’s your mother?”

“She’s in the car. I can go get her.” The little girl darted off, perfect black ringlets bouncing against her maroon coat. She came back holding her mother’s hand, and she made a beeline for the door.

Marianna held the door for the two of them and they stepped inside. When the little girl saw the tiny Christmas tree set up, she beamed. “It looks beautiful!” She turned her attention to the children, still smiling. “Hello. I’m Samantha.”

“I’m Terrence.” He held out a hand and she shook it.

“You got my package. I’m so glad. I wanted to give you something because I know you probably don’t get much for Christmas.” She looked over at Marcel and Maisley as they hugged their teddy bears. “Those two were my favorite. That one’s Lilac and that one’s George. I hope you like them as much as I do.”

The twins nodded, grinning.

“And candy canes are my favorite Christmas candy. I love peppermint. I hope you enjoy them.”

“Would you like to play hide-and-seek with us?” Terrence asked.

“Lilac and George can come along!” Marcel said.

Terrence beckoned for Talia to come along before the group rushed off to play.

Marianna smiled. This would be a Christmas to remember.

One Shot – Short Story Sunday

This one is a spy story, something I’ve not written before. It was pretty fun to write, though I think spy stories aren’t really my strong suit (maybe I’d be better on a longer piece?) and I probably won’t write many more. I hope you enjoy it. :)

 

*******

Isaac glanced through the cafe window to make sure that she was there today. Yup. There in the corner, the same place she always was. Her electric blue eyes gave her away instantly, along with her vibrant purple hair. He wondered why she’d made herself so noticeable.

He headed inside, trying to look casually interested, and set a hand gently on the chair across from her. “Is this seat taken?”

She looked up, a lock of bright purple hair falling over her eye. She brushed it away. “No.”

He took a seat. “I’m Isaac.”

“Atrea.” She looked at him, obviously intrigued.

“Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Her jacket sleeve had slid up to reveal a barcode tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. The numbers underneath read “G-037.”

“Interesting tattoo.” He pointed.

Atrea slid her sleeve back down and moved her arm to her lap. “Thanks.”

“You seem really interesting.” Well this conversation was going much slower than Isaac had intended. He had to get her talking. He had to make her feel comfortable.

Atrea shrugged. “I suppose. I’m really just like anyone else.”

Isaac decided against mentioning her eyes. That would have just spooked her further. “Do you like music?”

“Yeah. Do you?”

Isaac nodded. “I love it. I’m going to a concert tonight at the park, actually. Mya & Alex are performing.”

“I love them.” Atrea grinned. “Do you have a favorite song?”

“What could be better than Charming?”

“Agreed.” Atrea’s grin widened.

“I actually have an extra ticket. Would you like to come?”

“Of course you have an extra.” She smirked. “I’ll think about it.”

Isaac pulled out a card and handed it to her. “Here’s my number, so you can call me when you decide. I hope to see you there.” He winked and got up.

“Thank you.” Her vivid eyes twinkled.

Isaac glanced up at the counter. There was Giselle, his coworker, her black hair up in its usual ponytail. He didn’t trust her much. Her black-green eyes met his gaze and she gave him a short wave before turning back to her work. He turned back to Atrea and gave her a farewell smile before heading home.

********

Isaac was unsurprised to get Atrea’s call that afternoon, and that evening he met her at the park gate, about to enter.

“Well fancy seeing you here,” he said with a wink.

“Yes,” she replied, equally facetious. “I didn’t expect to see you ever again.”

Isaac grinned, handing the two tickets to the guard.

“Enjoy the concert.”

Isaac and Atrea stepped through, and Isaac found them seats on the fifth row. As the concert progressed, Isaac looked around and spotted Giselle a couple rows in front of him. His brow furrowed. Giselle didn’t strike him as someone who would enjoy a Mya & Alex concert. And indeed, she looked quite bored with the whole thing. She constantly shifted, as if wishing she could leave.

Isaac turned his attention back to the concert, keeping Giselle’s presence in the back of his mind.

When the concert ended, Atrea and Isaac headed over to a park bench and talked. Isaac caught sight of Giselle out of the corner of his eye, over Atrea’s shoulder, and noticed a tattoo on her neck. It was a series of numbers, and though he couldn’t read it he knew exactly what it meant. How had he never noticed it before? Giselle matched his gaze and gave a bit of a smile before looking again at whatever it was she was studying.

Isaac looked at Atrea. “Do you need a ride home?”

He could tell from Atrea’s eyes that she was masking alarm at his abrupt change of topic. “So eager to cut things off?” She gave a smile, but it faltered slightly.

“Trust me.” He took her hand and headed toward the park gate. She hurried to catch up. He grabbed a set of keys from his pocket and clicked the unlock button. His car lights blinked across the parking lot, and he hurried over, opening the passenger door for her.

“What about my car?” Atrea asked, getting in.

“One of us can come back for it later. We need to get out of here.” He closed the door, looking over the car to see Giselle coming toward them. He tried to look casual as he rounded the car and got in, turning the key in the ignition. “Where are we going?” He backed out of the parking space.

“I don’t think it’s particularly safe to go to my house, if you’re right in your worry. Drop me off at the fire station.”

“The fire station?”

“They’ll take care of any one who comes after me, and thus whoever’s after us probably won’t come to get me.”

Isaac nodded, getting on the road toward the station.

Pulling into the station parking lot, Isaac’s stomach flipped at the thought of leaving Atrea alone. He was supposed to bring her in, and if he lost her to Grantech… “Are you sure you’ll be all right here?”

Atrea nodded. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.” She gave him a reassuring smile before heading into the station.

Isaac hesitated a long moment before heading home, still worrying that Giselle would catch her.

********

How had he missed Giselle’s tattoo? Isaac hung his keys on their hook, closing his apartment door behind him. It had been clear as day at the concert, and she always wore her hair in a ponytail, so her hair wouldn’t have covered it. She must have used makeup or something, and forgotten at the concert. Or was it deliberate? Had she wanted Isaac to know who she was? Surely not.

Isaac took a seat in his living room chair and stared at a spot on the wall, not really seeing it. He can’t lose Atrea. Losing Atrea means losing his job, and losing his job means… He swallowed hard. He wouldn’t lose Atrea.

He headed into his room, slamming the door shut.

********

Isaac woke to the sound of his phone ringing and rubbed his eyes as he answered. “Hello?”

“Hello, Isaac.” He recognized Atrea’s voice on the end of the line. “I didn’t wake you did I?”

“You did, actually. Hi, Atrea. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to see if you wanted to meet for coffee this afternoon. At my place?”

The fact that she didn’t choose Giretti’s – the cafe he and Giselle worked at – didn’t get past him. “Sure. What time?”

“Two? Meet me at the fire station and we can walk from there.”

“Did you get your car last night?”

“I got it this morning.”

“Glad it was still there.” Isaac smiled a bit, attempting a joke.

Atrea chuckled. “I don’t think anyone would be real interested in stealing a rusty old pickup truck. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Sure thing.”

The connection clicked off and Isaac rolled over to go back to sleep.

********

Isaac waited fifteen minutes at the fire station before Atrea finally showed up. Instead of being annoyed, he was impressed with her ingenuity. If someone had been tracking the call, they’d expect her at the station at two, not two fifteen.

“Hello,” she said with a grin. “Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s fine. I understand.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Let’s get going, shall we?” She linked her arm in his, startling him a bit, and they started down the sidewalk.

“Nice delay,” Isaac whispered.

“Aw, thank you.” She smiled and rested her head against his shoulder. He played along with her masquerade, impressed that in her short time free she’d learned to go undercover so effectively.

They got to her house, a small cottage with a door to match her hair, and she let them in. “How do you like your coffee?” she asked, flicking on a couple of lights in the living room and heading into the kitchen.

“Black, with two creams and a sugar.”

“Ugh. How do you drink that? I can’t stand the bitterness. I have to get something like a mocha.”

Isaac shrugged. “I’m not a huge fan of sweet drinks.”

“You’re crazy, but okay.”

After a minute she headed back into the living room and, seeing him still standing, gestured toward the couch. “Have a seat! Goodness. Did you think you had to wait to be invited to sit? I don’t care about etiquette nearly enough for that.”

Isaac chuckled and took a seat on the brown leather couch. “Thank you.”

“Sure.” She took a seat next to him, and Isaac noticed her wrist tattoo again.

“So, where did you get that tattoo?”

“Determined, aren’t you?” She smirked. Abruptly the smirk faded and she swatted at the air. “Dumb bugs…”

Isaac looked around. There weren’t any bugs. Unless she was acting again. “What do you think of tech?” he asked.

“Nasty stuff.” A gleam in her eye told him he’d guessed correctly. She wasn’t talking about insects, but the fact that her house was bugged. He should have known.

“I agree.”

“Like your coffee.” Atrea grinned and Isaac rolled his eyes.

The timer went off in the kitchen and Atrea went to retrieve their drinks, handing Isaac his and taking a sip of her own.

Isaac stopped just before his mug touched his lips. He raised it toward her. “Want a sip?”

Atrea laughed. “No thank you, sir.”

Isaac took a sip of his coffee, grinning. “Well I think it’s delicious.”

“Good for you.” After another few sips, Atrea spoke again. “So, what’s your story? You don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d choose to work in a cafe.”

“No, not really.” Isaac took another sip. “I was a football player in college-”

Atrea cut him off. “And you were injured, lost your scholarship, and disowned.”

Isaac chuckled. “Is it that cliche?”

Atrea nodded. “Yup.” She eyed him over her mug, lowering it after her sip. “Is that really your story?”

Isaac nodded, though it was mostly a lie. He’d been a football player in college, but then chosen to join the CIA in college and left his football career dreams behind.

She arched an eyebrow, but didn’t push further.

After a long conversation in which both of them pointedly avoided the subject of their pasts, Atrea looked up at the digital clock above the mantle. She looked back at Isaac. “I’m sorry to kick you out, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, but I have dinner plans with my sister this evening. I’ll see you later?”

Isaac nodded. “Sure. Something tells me I won’t be seeing you at Giretti’s.”

Atrea’s only answer was a mysterious smile. “I’ll see you later, Isaac.”

Isaac rose and left, walking back to retrieve his car from the fire station and heading home.

******

Several days passed and Isaac didn’t hear from Atrea. All of his calls went to voicemail, and he was more than a little worried that Giselle had captured her when he woke up in the middle of the night to his phone ringing. The clock by his bed read two o’clock. He grabbed his phone and put it up to his ear.

“You have quite the penchant for waking me up to talk.” He smiled as he said it, but it was just to mask his racing heart. Was she all right?

“I need you to come over.” Her voice was calm, but even over the phone he could sense the underlying panic. “I know who you are. Your interest in my tattoo and lame backstory gave it away. You’re going to need to work on that.” She followed up the comment with a nervous laugh that cut off short. “They’re almost here. Hurry.” The connection clicked dead. Looking at his phone, he saw the screen was black, the battery empty.

Isaac threw off the covers and dressed as quickly as he could. Before five minutes had passed he was on the road to her house with enough cash in his pocket to get them both out of the country.

When he arrived, all of the lights were off and he wasn’t sure if he could be glad or very worried. He tried to walk calmly up the stairs and knocked on the door. Atrea wore a smile when she opened the door, but her eyes revealed her terror.

“Thanks for coming.” As Isaac stepped in, he noticed that Atrea was still wearing everyday clothes, a white tank top and skinny jeans under a purple cardigan. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Sure.”

“Good. It’s already on.” She gave him a short-lived smile before her gaze flicked to the three locks on the door. “Don’t let them take me back.” Her voice was barely a whisper, and Isaac wasn’t even sure if he was meant to hear or not.

“I won’t.”

Her electric blue eyes met his, and she didn’t even attempt to mask her fear this time. “You won’t take me, will you?”

“No.” He rubbed her shoulders. “No.” Though when he’d been given the assignment he would have given anything to take her back to the CIA, now, after getting to know her and with her fear right in front of him, he knew that he meant it. He couldn’t take her in. “What did they do to you?”

He knew that she’d been given superpowers, but with so much genuine fear shining out of those almost luminescent eyes, he wondered how they’d done it.

She looked at the door again and shook her head. “You don’t want to know.”

Light shone out on the street. Headlights. Atrea took a step toward Isaac, grabbing his arm in a death grip. “Protect me.”

“I will.” He looked around. “Do you have a scarf you can use to cover your hair?”

Atrea nodded and reluctantly released his arm, heading through the house. When she returned, it was with a black scarf over her hair and a matching leather jacket over her tanktop and cardigan. “Where?”

“Somewhere without spiders.”

Atrea nodded, understanding. She took hold of his arm again. “This way.”

The two of them slipped out the back door, careful not to let it make too much noise opening and closing. Isaac took the lead, heading toward the nearby train station. There was no noise from the house as they drew farther and farther away from it, something that terrified him worse than if he’d heard doors and windows crashing in.

It took them ten tense minutes to reach the train station, and Isaac wished it weren’t so late so that there’d be more people to fade among.

He placed a hand on hers. “You might want to loosen your grip.”

Atrea did so, shifting so that her arm was looped through his instead of gripping it. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“I just don’t want to go back there…” She shuddered, and he drew her closer.

“It’s okay. They’re not going to get you.”

She looked up at him. “And what if they do?”

Isaac didn’t answer, just led her toward a bench. As they sat down, Isaac spotted Giselle enter, flanked by at least a dozen Grantech goons. Atrea flinched beside him.

“Find them.” Isaac couldn’t hear Giselle’s words, but it was easy enough to read her lips.

“We have to go,” Atrea whispered. “They’ll find us here.”

Isaac nodded and tried to appear casual as he and Atrea rose from the bench, heading toward the back entrance of the station. “There’s a warehouse not far from here. Abandoned.”

“How original.” Atrea gave a quick smile. “But if it’ll make us harder to find, I’m all for it.”

A shout sounded from behind them just as they pushed through the door of the station, and they broke into a run for the warehouse. Isaac busted the door in when it didn’t open. It was less than subtle, but he knew they didn’t have time to wait. He pulled Atrea behind a stack of crates and crouched down with her.

Isaac’s breath was short and quick as they waited in electric silence for the sound of footsteps entering the building.

Finally, there they were. Isaac peered through the narrow spaces between crates and saw that Giselle was the only one who had entered. Surely there were goons waiting outside, or a sniper on the roof waiting for them to run.

“I know you’re in here, Isaac. Thought to take her in, eh? Sorry, but I’m afraid she’s our property.”

Atrea was shivering uncontrollably beside him. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“Just give her here and maybe we won’t kill you.”

Atrea shook her head, frantic. Isaac rubbed her shoulder to reassure her. He reached into his pocket for his phone, cursing when he remembered it had died and he’d left it on his bed.

Atrea moved beside him, pulling away. “You can’t touch me,” she warned, still shaking. She stood and staggered out from behind the crates to within full view of Giselle. Isaac almost grabbed her, but he knew she had powers of some kind. If she needed help, he’d give it.

“So, you’ve made your choice,” Giselle said with a smile. “Thank you, Isaac.” She lifted her gun and pulled the trigger.

Atrea thrust her arms toward Giselle, launching streaks of electricity at her. Her eyes really did glow, now, but the bullet was still shooting toward her.

Isaac leapt from his hiding place, throwing himself in front of the bullet. He yelled as it bit into his shoulder, embedding itself there. The electricity hit Giselle, knocking her to the floor.

“Isaac!” Atrea yelled, grabbing hold of his arms.

“I’ll be fine,” he said through clenched teeth. He grabbed a wad of cash from his pocket and handed it to her. “In case they kill me. Get to Thesbia.” He got to his feet, holding his shoulder.

She tucked the money into her jacket pocket. “They won’t kill you.” She wrapped her arm around him helped him past Giselle.

As they reached the doorway, Isaac stopped. “You can’t run while you’re helping me. I can run. You come after me.”

Atrea’s concern was evident in her eyes, but she nodded.

Isaac ran out of the warehouse as fast as he could, and almost immediately was on the ground, a bullet in his head.

Atrea shoved down a scream and ran out herself, trying to take advantage of the time the sniper would need to reload. She dashed into the train station, trying to slow her pace as she entered. Her heart was racing, her breathing too quick. Isaac was dead. She set a brisk pace toward the ticket counter and bought a single ticket for the route that went nearest the airport. It left in five minutes, and she spent those breathlessly running to the proper platform.

As she collapsed into her seat, tears came unbidden. She didn’t even know Isaac, but she’d been the cause of his death. She was responsible. And now she was going to run away from Grantech, and from his death. It would provide her escape from Grantech, yes, but was escape really what she needed to do? The train jolted into motion.

Too late now, she thought, looking down at her lap. Too late. Isaac was dead, but he had died – sacrificed himself, really – to grant her freedom. He wouldn’t want her to throw that away, would he?

She tried to banish her thoughts, but they haunted her all the way to the airport, and through two hours of her ten-hour flight out of the country before she finally fell asleep.

The next thing she knew, she was no longer Atrea Bowman. She was Patricia Tyre, a Thesbian florist, and that was what she would be for the rest of her life.

Music – Short Story Sunday

All right, so this is really late being published because I was out of town this weekend and didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. As such it’s also a bit rougher than some of my other short stories, and please keep in mind that I am a novelist, not a songwriter, so the lyrics of these songs might not be the most spectacular because I didn’t have a lot of time to look over them. Anyway, I hope that despite all of that you’ll enjoy this. :)

*********************************************

Mya’s heels clicked on the concrete as she stepped out of the recording studio, saying goodbye to her recording crew with a stunning smile. A young man whose reputation she knew well passed her in the hallway.

“Good morning, Mya,” he said with a smile.

“Good morning, Alex.” Her expression lost all warmth. Alex Reid was her rival in this singing competition. Each contestant was to record one hundred songs and send them in to the record label, and the winner was to be chosen this evening. There were fifty contestants, but none of them were so good or as close to home as Alex. The others all lived across the country, and Alex lived across town.​

He’d asked a couple of times if he’d done something wrong when she greeted him like she did, but after she gave a terse “no” the first couple of times he’d stopped asking. So he simply moved on this time and she left the building as he entered the studio she’d just left.

She got into her car, a Mercedes her dad had gotten her when she joined the competition – an early prize, he said, so sure his daughter would win – and drove off toward her apartment, a gift she’d gotten herself after winning a different competition. She couldn’t stand living with her father who practically thought she could do no wrong. It was something of a blessing, but mostly a curse as he always expected the best from her.

Tossing the keys onto the sideboard upon her arrival, she headed into her room to listen to some music and get her mind off of Alex. Tucking the earbuds into place, she set her MP3 player on shuffle and started listening. She skipped over a couple of songs, which she refused to even look at the titles of. There were only two artists she skipped most of the time, and one of those was her father.

He’d been a piano performer – still was, in fact – and out of a sense of obligation she bought every album he put out, but she hated listening to them. It wasn’t because he was bad, but in fact quite the opposite. He was one of the best artists she’d heard, and she knew she could never live up to his standard. Hence the apartment, to try to get him to stop hounding her to be perfect. It hadn’t worked as well as she might have liked, but it made it at least a little bit more manageable.

She listened for several hours, doing her nails, makeup, and hair with her MP3 player in her pocket, before her alarm went off at six and she headed to the park for the concert where the winner of the contest would be announced. She smiled at those she passed, making her way to the front row of seats. The label executives were milling around on stage consulting with each other and getting things set up.

Alex took a seat next to her and she slid to the opposite side of her chair to put more space between them. She sat with her arms crossed in tense impatience before finally the head executive of the label stepped up to the mic.

“Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. I am Grant Golde, owner of Golde Records. If I could just get everyone to take a seat, I’ll announce the winner of the Hundred Songs Challenge.” People took their seats behind and around Mya, but her eyes remained riveted on Grant, waiting for the announcement that she had won. “Thank you. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this was a tough competition. All of the contestants are incredibly talented performers, and lowering them down was incredibly difficult.”

Get on with it, Mya growled into her mind.

“In fact, the competition was so tight that we couldn’t choose only one contestant and had to choose two.”

Mya’s eyes widened. Two winners? That was entirely unfair. This was a competition to choose the one greatest singer of the bunch. She would not share her victory with someone else.

“Those two winners are Mya Johnston and Alex Reid.”

Mya’s jaw dropped. Not Alex. They had to be joking. Surely this was all some great prank. She couldn’t have shared her victory with Alex Reid. That was impossible.

“Would Alex and Mya please come up here?”

Alex glanced at Mya as they rose, but she ignored him, forcing her mouth closed and mounting the stairs. As she shook hands with Grant, she whispered to him. “This is a joke, right?”

Grant shook his head. “No. We chose you.” He grinned. “Congratulations, Mya! You’re incredible!”

If I were incredible, she thought, Alex wouldn’t be up here with me. Instead of voicing her thoughts, she gave a wry smile and stood next to the executive.

“Congratulations to you both!” Grant said. “Now, let’s have our performance for tonight, shall we? Welcome onto the stage Isaiah Johnston!”

Cheers abounded from the crowds as Mya and Alex headed back to their seats and Mya’s father mounted the stage. He wore the same dazzling smile she used so often, and he used both hands to wave at the crowd as he crossed the stage to the piano. As he started playing, Mya gritted her teeth. If she hadn’t been in the first row she would have gotten up and walked away, but as it was her father would have seen her and been disappointed. She hated listening to his music. It was too smooth. Too perfect. It was almost slimy, like an eel.

She cringed her way through the concert and was the first one out of her chair when it finished, heading to the parking lot. Alex stopped her first, tapping her on the shoulder. When she turned, he held out a hand.

“Congratulations,” he said.

She ignored his offer of a handshake and gave him what was almost a glare. “Thanks.” There was no warmth in her voice, and she immediately turned back to her track.

Her father stopped her next, grabbing her arm. “Where do you think you’re going so fast, Mya?”

She turned and looked at him, pasting on her best smile, hoping it looked genuine. “I was just heading home.”

“So soon? I thought you’d mingle with some of the other artists. It pays to have friends in high places, you know.”

With you, who else could I need? she thought, sarcasm rolling off of the answer in waves, but she just smiled again. “I’ll have plenty of time to mingle now that I’ve won the competition.”

Isaiah’s almost triumphant expression faded. “About that. I’m disappointed in you.”

You always are.

“You’re my daughter. You’re more than capable of winning that competition without any tie. Didn’t you give them your best work?”

“Of course I did! You think I’d slack off for something like this? Of course I gave them the best I could! I don’t know why they would have chosen Alex, too.” She scowled down at the pavement, crossing her arms.

“Well then you need to step up your game, it seems. You’re a Johnston. You should be the greatest.”

“I’m well aware!” Her gaze snapped up to seize his in a glare. “I am well aware of how big a failure I am! I don’t need you to remind me!” She turned on her heel and stormed off toward her car.

“Mya!”

She ignored Isaiah’s shouts and slammed her car door closed behind her, speeding off.

****​****

The phone was ringing when Mya arrived home, and she yanked it off the cradle, slamming the answer button. “Hello?” She knew she was snapping at whoever was at the other end – she hadn’t paid attention to the ID – but she didn’t bother to fix it.

“Miss Mya Johnston? This is Golde Records. We’re calling about your winning the competition.” If you tell me you got things wrong and I lost… “You left before we could speak to you. We’d like you and Alex Reid to meet us at Golde to go over your performing with the label.”

Mya took a deep breath. “Thank you, sir. When would you like me to come?”

“Will tomorrow morning at ten be suitable?”

“I’ll be there. Thank you.”

“Of course. See you there, Miss Johnston.”

She gritted her teeth as she clicked the off button. She hated being addressed only by her last name. It associated her far too much with her father. She headed to her room and slammed the door. Maybe she could clear things up in the morning.

********

Mya was uncomfortable, but not surprised, to be sitting next to Alex in the meeting room with the Golde Records executives. Grant Golde, of course, headed up the meeting.

“We’d like you to perform together two weeks from today, at Tyron Park.”

“Absolutely not,” Mya said.

“Is there a problem?” Grant asked, turning his gaze to her.

“I refuse to perform with him.”

“And why is that?”

Alex was looking at her, brow furrowed in confusion, and she ignored him, keeping her gaze unwavering on Grant. “I should have won that competition, and I refuse to share my stage.” She choked on her next words, almost unable to believe she was saying them. “Johnstons perform alone and always have.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have the privilege of breaking the mold,” Grant said. The word ‘privilege’ was drawn out as a reprimand.

Mya crossed her arms. “I won’t perform with him.”

“You’ll comply with our orders or you’ll lose your contract.”

Mya tightened her jaw. Now that was something that would make her father furious. She couldn’t lose the contract. “Fine.”

“Thank you. We’d like you to perform six songs. We’d like you to do Finding My Tomorrow and He Thinks He’s Charming, and the others are up to you.”

He Thinks He’s Charming was one of Mya’s hundred songs – written in annoyance about Alex, actually – and she didn’t recognized the other. She guessed it was probably one of Alex’s one hundred.

“Yes sir,” Alex said.

“The concert will be at six, as usual, and you’ll be expected there at four to get ready and practice and so forth.” Grant glanced at the other executives. “Is that it?” The others nodded, so he turned back to the singers. “Preparations of the songs are up to you. We’ll see you for a test recording in a week and then at the concert, unless we hear something that needs work next week. You’re excused.”

Mya got up almost simultaneously with Alex and immediately sped up her pace. He kept up, walking abreast with her. “Why do you object to me so much?”

“Johnstons work alone.”

“So it’s just pride and vanity. You’ll be a joy working with, then.”

So he could lose his charming cover after all. “I suppose we’ll enjoy this equally, then. Goodbye, Alex.” She shoved past the door and loaded into the car, heading for home.

********

Mya got deja vú as she stepped into the apartment to the phone ringing. She picked it up, a bit more civilly this time. “Hello?”

“Hello. It’s Alex. Don’t hang up yet. We have to practice, or we’re both going to make fools of ourselves at the concert.”

Though she didn’t want to, Mya conceded that point. “Fine.”

“Should we meet at your place or mine?”

“You are not coming into my apartment.”

“My place, then. Can you meet in half an hour?”

“If I have to.”

“15 Braddock Lane. I’ll see you then.” The connection clicked and Mya rolled her eyes. This was going to be a lovely partnership indeed.

********

In half an hour Mya sat on Alex’s basement couch. He still lived with his family – unsurprising, seeing as he was only seventeen, like Mya – and he’d made the basement his home studio. There was a guitar against one wall, several microphones on a shelf, not to mention the numerous speakers hooked up to a stereo by the couch.

“So,” Alex began, “We’re settled on Finding My Tomorrow – my hundredth song – and He Thinks He’s Charming… I assume that’s one of yours?”

Mya nodded, still unhappy and uncomfortable. “My fifth.”

“What would you like to sing for the other four?”

“I don’t care.”

“Then how about A Song for the World, Grace for Everything, and then two of yours. You can pick, since I don’t know them.”

“I’m not singing any more of your music than I have to.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I can’t stand listening to your music.”

Alex winced. His voice was quiet. “Ouch.” Mya didn’t apologize. “Look, we’re not going to get anywhere if you continue being stubborn, and if we can’t do this performance then we’ll both lose our contract. I know you don’t want that, and I know your father wouldn’t.”

Mya wheeled on him, fire in her glare. “Don’t ever bring up my father again!”

Alex backed up. “Sorry! Please, Mya, can we get done with this?”

Mya turned her scowl to the coffee table. “Fine. Whispers of My Imagination and Stolen Choices. Are we done?”

“It would help if we knew what songs the other is talking about.” Alex hit play on the stereo and skipped a couple songs before letting one play.

Mya gritted her teeth as Alex’s smooth voice started across her ears. It wasn’t nearly as smooth as her father’s, but it still grated on her nerves, and for the same reason. He was good. He was very good, and she knew he was better than her. Mya was in the business because she was a Johnston. Alex was in the business because he had a passion for music and was willing to work for it. Her scowl deepened. She’d never be as good as him.

The chorus started and Mya failed to tune it out.

“This is a song for the world that is falling fast.

This is a song for the world that may not last.

This is a song for the world that we wish to save.

A song for the world of the brave.”

“What does that even mean?” Mya asked.

“Our world is kind of falling apart right now. I thought I’d write a song giving hope that we can save it if we’re brave enough to work for it.”

Mya shook her head. “People don’t like songs like that.”

“Maybe not. But if it fails to sell it fails to sell. I still want people to hear it.”

The song changed after another verse, and Alex skipped quite a few more before letting it play again.

“Mercy to forgive.

Bravery to live.

Give me grace, your praise to bring.

Lord give me grace in everything.”

“And this one?”

“A praise song.”

“You’re a Christian, then?”

Alex nodded.

“People don’t like that, either.”

“Some do. And even if they didn’t, I’d still sing it.”

Mya shook her head again. “You’re crazy.”

“Maybe. I just know that I sing what I believe, and I sing what I’m passionate about.”

“That’s not what sells albums.”

“So be it, although I think you’re wrong.”

She glared at him yet again. “I know the industry. I’m not wrong.”

Alex shrugged as the song ended. “Do you have an MP3 or a CD with your songs on it?”

Mya pulled out a CD case from her purse and handed it to him. “Be careful with that. It’s number five on disc one, and one-hundred on disc ten.”

Alex nodded and switched out the discs.

“In my imagination there are whispers of your name.

In my imagination there is a burning flame.

And in my imagination we are quite the same.

But it’s only my imagination that you came.”

“And that’s what your imagination came up with?” Alex asked.

“What’s wrong with it? It’s the mindless stuff that people like listening to. It’s not supposed to be deep. It’s music, not a philosophy book.”

“Are you kidding? Music is possibly the most powerful media out there! It should be used to be powerful and moving, not just entertaining and frivolous. I’d rather my music sound like a philosophy book than a cheap movie.”

Mya stood and switched out the discs, putting in disc ten and skipping to song one-hundred, the tenth on the disc. She sat back down with a huff, crossing her arms. “Well in that case, maybe you’ll like this one better.” Her heart was pounding. She didn’t want to share this one, and least of all with him, but if it was what he wanted…

“You’ve ordered my life and you’ve stolen my voice.

You’ve covered my songs with the roaring of piano keys.

You’ve left my words to be lost on the breeze.

And among all of this, you’ve stolen my choices.”

Mya bit her lip as the song finished. It was about her father, of course. Her heart still pounded.

Alex reached over and stopped the stereo before it repeated the disc. They were both silent for a long moment. “That was a life story, wasn’t it?”

Mya nodded slowly.

“Why did you share it with me?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice was small.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t.”

Another lengthy silence followed.

“Are you sure you want to perform those?” Alex asked.

Mya shrugged. “I guess.”

Alex almost rested a hand on her shoulder, but he stopped himself and placed his hand back in his lap, picking at his fingernails. “I guess we’re done for the day?”

Mya nodded. “I’ll see you later.”

********

Mya opened the door and Alex stepped inside. “Hello,” she said. She drew her sweater around herself. It was constantly cold in her apartment. The AC had broken a while ago and she hadn’t gotten it fixed yet. “Sorry about the cold.”

“It’s all right.” Alex set his guitar against the couch.

“What do you want to practice first?”

“You can choose.”

A Song for the World, then.”

They practiced for hours, arranging parts and deciding on future practice times. As Alex got up to leave, he turned to Mya. “Messenger Sparks is playing at the park tomorrow night and I have an extra ticket. My best friend’s manager changed the schedule on him last minute. You’re probably not interested in going with me, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask…”

Mya nodded a bit. “Sure. What time?” She rubbed her arms through her sweater.

“I can pick you up at six? Or we can meet there at six thirty?”

“Six sounds good.”

Alex nodded. “Cool. I’ll… see you then, I guess.”

Mya nodded and Alex hesitated a minute before heading out. Mya stood there silent for a moment before her eyes widened. Had she just agreed to go to a concert with Alex Reid?

********

Alex was punctual, arriving at 5:59, and Mya grabbed her cardigan as she answered the door. She gave a bit of a smile. “Hi, Alex.”

“Hi. Ready to go?”

Mya nodded, and in minutes they were driving to the park. Mya played with her floral skirt as they drove, butterflies having a ball in her stomach.

When they arrived, Alex guided her to a seat near the middle of the crowd, a place she was unused to sitting. She always sat in the front, a habit given to her by her father and the concerts they used to attend. She shooed the thought away.

They enjoyed the concert, but Mya was glad to get home if only to still the butterfly ball within her. What was up with that?

“Thank you for the ride,” she said.

“No problem,” Alex replied. “I hope you enjoyed the concert.”

Mya nodded, biting her lip. “I did.”

Alex nodded back. “Well… It’s pretty late. I should probably be getting home.”

Mya nodded again. “Yeah. Goodnight, Alex.”

“Goodnight.”

Alex headed down the hall and Mya closed the door with a sigh. What is wrong with me?

********

The two weeks passed, and Mya finally became more comfortable with Alex. She was sitting backstage in her dressing room, one of the attendants Golde had sent her applying the finishing touches to her makeup. She rose when the attendant – Lacy – finished, smoothing out her skirt.

She headed into the wings to find Alex already there, his navy blue button-down and dark jeans accenting her silver dress. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey. You look nice.”

“Thanks.” She gave him a smile, the most real smile she’d given him yet.

“Please welcome,” Grant said on stage, “Alex Reid and Mya Johnston!”

The two of them exchanged a look and a nod before heading out onto the stage. Mya gave her dazzling smile to the crowd, and Alex waved with his own almost crooked grin. They stepped up to the mics and the band started up behind them, playing He Thinks He’s Charming. Mya grinned. She and Alex had some fun tweaking this one as they practiced, and now they’d get to share it.

Mya grabbed her mic and turned to face Alex. “He thinks he’s charming. He thinks he’s smooth. He thinks he’s dashing. He thinks he’s cool. But he’s just playing. Yeah he’s a fool.”

Alex took up his own mic and turned to her. “She thinks she’s gorgeous. She thinks she rules. In her new Porsche, thinks she’s a jewel. But she’s just teasing. Yeah she’s just cruel.”

The chorus was a duet. “But then again, maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s old school.”

“Maybe she’s a jewel.”

“Maybe I’m falling for him…”

They acted as they sang, and Mya threw all of her melodrama into it. They grinned regularly as they sang, and somehow, Mya realized, they’d gone from bitter rivals – all because of her – to really good friends in just two weeks. She didn’t have friends, she realized. Fame did have its drawbacks, and as they sang Stolen Choices, she sang it with all the meaning that it had been written with. She didn’t have to be her father’s pet, and maybe Alex was right. Maybe music was better used when given meaning.

As the concert ended and the crowd erupted into thunderous applause, Mya gave a breathless grin and glanced over at Alex. He took her hand and hoisted it into the air. Maybe this partnership wasn’t so bad after all.

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