Chapter 16
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Then: She smiled at him

It was by accident that I saw Aidri and Marianne together in the empty classroom, cast in the rays of the afternoon glow. Heads close together. I thought I was seeing things, at first, that the sun had gotten to me, painted out a scene from a nightmare I hadn't yet had.

Then she smiled at him.

I shouldn't have, but I followed them down the hallway to one of the practice rooms. They didn't close the door all the way, and I crouched outside where I could hear their voices.

I'd thought—I'd been sure she disliked him as much as I did. She'd been there when he said he wasn't here to make friends. She'd been the one to say she could see why he had none.

I knew that was weeks ago. But.

Still.

I wasn’t blind. I noticed that she didn’t shake her head anymore when the trainers praised him or our fellow trainees gave him their sometimes sincere, sometimes backhanded compliments. At the time I hadn’t thought much of it. So maybe Marianne was more generous than some of us, maybe she’d stopped holding a grudge against him. That didn’t mean she liked him.

She’d never said anything about it. I was sure she’d tell us something so fundamental. Unless… I was the only one who thought it was fundamental. But that couldn’t be right.

I craned my neck until I could see them through the crack of the door. If anyone came by now, they’d think I was spying like some creep, and they’d be right about the spying part. It wasn’t a risk I wanted to take, but I didn’t plan to stick around that long, just long enough to see what they were doing.

And she’d smiled at him.

It was partly a lie. I had a good guess of why they were there. There aren’t all that many things people can do in spirit circle rooms.

Sure enough, Marianne knelt in the spirit circle and placed her hands on the ground. Aidri watched from over her shoulder. It was like a playact where she’d become me, and Aidri had become her, except that instead of jumping to her feet with wide eyes and shaking arms after a couple minutes, the ground turned transparent beneath her hands. And instead of reassuring me with that disappointment she always tried so hard to hide behind a smile, he watched carefully.

You know something? Up until then, I didn’t believe I’d ever see him interested in someone other than himself.

"You're not bad at opening the door," Aidri said.

"What does it matter if I can't call a spirit?" Marianne said, and in her voice she carried a quiet despair. It hurt me. To hear her hurt, is what I told myself then. But, that’s right. I’m supposed to be honest now.

What hurt was the newness of it. I’d never heard her like this before, and though I wasn’t naïve enough to think she was positive all the time, I suppose I came close enough that it was essentially the same thing. I’d thought that out of any of us she had to be happiest, since out of all of us she was doing the best. What hurt was finding out that the positive side of her, the only side of her I saw, was only what she’d chosen to show me. It was hard not to think she’d hidden the others from me on purpose.

What? You still think I’m lying?

I’m—fine. Fine.

All I said before is true, and this doesn’t change any of that, but this is a little true too. What really hurt is that she showed this to him.

Happy now? I tell you a thing or two about me, and you think you know my whole life history. I said I’d be honest, not that I’d lay out my conscience for you to trample all over. Can we move on now?

And those details don’t matter much. She was struggling, I was struggling. That was the gist of it.

I leaned closer to the door to hear Marianne. Her voice wasn’t loud. "I'm on the road, and I know the spirits are there, but I don't know how to get them to come to me. I know the trainers say we're supposed to listen for a name, but the more I try to listen the more it all sounds like a jumble. There's a bunch of voices all talking over each other, and I don't hear any names." Her brow furrowed. Her hands pressed harder against the ground.

"Have you called a spirit before?"

She didn’t answer him right away, but he didn’t seem to expect her to. He knew she was listening to other sounds, and he knew what it was like. "Once, when I was young, but I don't remember how I did it,” she said at last. “I only know I wasn't trying to call a spirit. It was an accident. An accident I feel like I’ve been chasing ever since, and I don’t know if I’ll ever…”

She shook her head, and pulled her hands abruptly from the ground. “This isn’t working. I listen so hard, and all it does is make my head hurt.”

"Then stop trying to listen."

"Very funny, Aidri."

“I’m not joking.”

She lifted a hand as if to knock him on the shoulder, which, if it had happened, might have knocked my little world further off its axis. So maybe it was lucky that she saw something on his face, and her hand stopped there, suspended in the air between them, one finger crooked into an upside-down fish hook.

“But…all anyone’s ever told me is to listen harder.”

"You said that it worked when you didn't try, and you said you can hear voices, just that you can’t pick one out because they’re too loud. For me, I usually hear a lot of quiet, whispering voices, not loud, clear ones. Maybe you've got the opposite problem from the rest of us. Maybe you hear too much instead of too little."

"Is it possible to hear too much? I don’t know. Wouldn't the trainers have said something?"

Aidri shrugged. "It's just an idea."

Marianne flicked one finger at Aidri. “You’re so full of ideas once the trainers aren’t around.”

“It’s because they bore me.”

“And I don’t?”

“Well, not all the time.”

“…wow, such high praise.”

“I know. Don’t expect it too often.”

I didn’t know Aidri could joke either. He waved a hand at the circle. “So are you going to try this, or what?”

Marianne looked down at the ground, then back at her palms, then back at the ground. She didn’t hesitate the way I would’ve. “Yeah, I will,” she said, and put her hands back against the ground.

Minutes passed. I wished I knew what it was like on the other side of the door, wished I knew where she'd gone. She spoke once. "Wait, I think I hear—oh no, I've lost it again."

Some more time passed.

One of my legs had started to fall asleep when Marianne's eyes burst open. Something streaked up out of the ground.

It was small and fast. I couldn’t make out what it was until it stopped in front of her face, close enough to kiss. It hovered there, a small silver bird. Its wings beat once, twice, then it dived back down through the door.

Marianne rose unsteadily to her feet, still watching the spot where the bird had disappeared.

"See? You can do it," Aidri said.

She turned, her gaze holding onto that spot on the ground for a final, long moment, before she threw her arms around Aidri. "Thank you, Aidri. Thank you."

He didn't react at first, like he was a little shocked, but eventually he extricated himself from her grasp. "Don't overreact," he said.

He couldn't have been as shocked as me. I ran from there as fast as my feet would carry me.

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