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We Are Inevitable

- Gayle Forman

Ira believes books are miracles. "Twenty-six letters," he used to tell me as I sat on his lap, looking at picture books about sibling badgers or hungry caterpillars while he read some biography of LBJ or a volume of poetry by Matthea Harvey. "Twenty-six letters and some punctuation marks and you have infinite words in infinite worlds." He'd gesture at my book, at his book, at all the books in the shop. "How is that not a miracle?"

What Hunts Inside the Shadows

- Harper L. Woods

I shook it off, trying to shove away the pity I felt for a life like that. His tragic backstory didn’t make up for what he’d done to me, and what he clearly intended to continue to do.

I would not be a prisoner in my own life again, even if I had to kill him to gain my freedom.

Even knowing what he was now, even seeing him in all his glory, there were still traces of the man I’d fallen in love with. There were still notes of the human within the God, and I wondered if it would ever not hurt to look at him.

“You cannot hate me without hating yourself, Little One. Think of that the next time you want to blame me for this bond. I didn’t choose you anymore than you chose me.” His words lashed against me, harsh and hurtful and all the things I knew myself to be when I was angry. “I am just not spiteful enough to throw you away on principle.”

I swallowed, staring at the injuries he’d sustained for me and uncomfortable with the feelings of gratitude that knowledge left me with. “You shouldn’t have—”

“You are my mate. I will always protect you, min asteren. No matter what the cost,” he murmured, his deep eyes gleaming as he stared down at me. I sank my teeth into my bottom lip, unsure of what to say in the face of the weight of his confession.

Things would be easier if he were just a monster.

“I will always choose you, min asteren,” he said, his brow creasing as he stared at me in something akin to confusion. “Your body is just the packaging that gives the other half of my soul a home. I have failed as your mate if you do not already know that.”

“You may find this difficult to believe, my star, but I did not react so negatively because you wouldn’t allow me to fuck you,” he said, giving me time for that to sink in. “I can say it one hundred times over and never convince you it’s the truth, but I would live centuries without knowing the pleasure of your body if you so much as asked that of me. What angered me was the way you shut me out of your heart, and the way you pushed me away when I got too close to you once again. I can be content without your body so long as I have you. Do not deprive me of the mate I have waited centuries to know; not now that I’ve finally been able to truly know you.”

There was so much warmth in his gaze despite that pain, I would never be able to question whether or not he loved me. Never again. This was the kind of love stories were made of, the kind that poets wrote sonnets about. The kind little girls dreamed of finding when they lay in their beds at night and tried to imagine the man who would one day become their husband.

“Oh, sweet girl. What do you know of freedom?” Adelphia asked, her voice sad as she regarded me from my side. Her gaze was a heavy weight on my profile, stealing the breath from my lungs.

“I have fought my entire life to maintain even a small measure of it—”

“There can be nothing small when it comes to freedom,” she said, glancing down at the shackles on my wrist with a grimace. “You either have it or you don’t, and you were a prisoner in this world before you were even born, purely because you lack a cock. No matter how many times you snuck out in the night, you were always a prisoner—just a rebellious one.”

I was not made for war. I was made for peace and a cuddly blanket in a comfortable chair in a library with a book in my hand. And I was so tired of the fucking cold. 

Why was it that women were always so quick to judge other women? Why was it the woman we vilified, even when presented with the truth that the woman had been a victim of the same deception?

Women needed to be better, to do better, because at the end of the day, every one of our actions could see us condemned—while men were free to fuck and murder, to steal and lie, and it was all just brushed off as another day under the sun. 

I hated snakes, so of course by the force of her nature my mate had to treat them like pets. Her gentle care as she watched the basilisk swallow her enemies whole both delighted me and horrified me.

Why did it have to be snakes? She couldn’t have had an affinity for puppies?

I’d never been something good. I’d never had someone look at me as if I was the sun shining on a dark day. Our bond was her way of pulling back from whatever was inside of her, and I would never let go.

What Lies Beyond the Veil

- Harper L. Woods

Everyone who had any sense hated being so close to the Veil and what it represented. Crafted from the magic of the ancient witches who'd made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us from the nightmares beyond, it was like the thinnest of fabrics blowing in the wind, shimmering with the light of a thousand stars trapped within it. Somehow transparent, and yet not, the mist of the waters beyond provided us with the illusion of being alone in this world.

Even when we were very much not. Even when we'd never been alone.

There was blood on me, yet again. I was quickly becoming far too accustomed to the red stains on my skin, and the monster in me wasn’t as horrified by it as I would have thought.

I’d never forget the look on his face, the absolute rage on my behalf. My family had loved me, but they’d never promised vengeance for me. No one had ever cared the way he did.

That terrified me.

“Why fight the inevitable? We both know where this is leading.”

“With me brokenhearted and abandoned when you find something prettier?” I asked, the words escaping before I could rethink them. I hated the vulnerability they showed, the weakness it was to admit that he had the power to hurt me.

No one deserved to have that ability over me.

I was a liability to him, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to sneak off in the night.

The thought of what he would do when he hunted me down once again was enough to keep me by his side, wondering how my savior had somehow become a morally gray man with no boundaries and a distinct lack of understanding how an actual courtship worked.

You didn’t just decide a woman was yours to protect after a few days spent together.


“No, Little One. I’m going to love you,” he said, touching his forehead to mine. His dark eyes glimmered, tiny specks of light shining in the obsidian, like the stars that had become my namesake. “Until you forget what it is to hurt and then long after that. Until the scars you wear like armor have faded from memory, and only we remain.”

"You will not be pressured to become something you do not want to be. Not here,” she said, the sadness in her voice bringing a pang inside me. To exist somewhere that I could be more than just a body to fuck or breed was still unfathomable to me, when that was all I’d been raised to believe was my future.

“I would think someone like you would understand what it is to be beaten down by someone more powerful than you,” she said, in reference to my scars she’d seen in confidence. “What would you do to get retribution against the man who wronged you?”

I paused, considering all that I’d suffered at Lord Byron’s hand, and his command as an extension, mulling over the need for revenge I’d felt once. There’d been a time when I wanted nothing more than to watch him suffer for everything he’d done to me.

Now the idea of it just made me tired.

“Nothing,” I answered, shocked at the revelation. “I’m free. That’s all the revenge I need.”

I stared into his eyes as a deep chill took over his features. Something ancient peered out from behind the dark eyes I’d gotten so familiar with over our weeks together. “Stop looking for answers you aren’t yet ready for, my star,” he warned


“I waited for you for centuries,” he said, his fingers pressing my hand into his chest more firmly when I shook my head and tried to pull back.

“No,” I said, the protest loud in my desperation to not hear what he had to say.

“I felt you live and die for countless lives, felt every one of your life cycles end and grieved the woman I never got to meet. I know you, because you are the other half of me.” Those foreign blue eyes bled to black as he stared at me, and his magic hummed between us. “You are my mate, Estrella, and nothing will come between us now that I have you at my side.”

Where the Crawdads Sing

- Delia Owens

Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.

“Don’t go thinking poetry’s just for sissies. There’s mushy love poems, for sure, but there’s also funny ones, lots about nature, war even. Whole point of it—they make ya feel something.” His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.

Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: “‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”

“You can read, Kya. There will never be a time again when you can’t read.”

“It ain’t just that.” She spoke almost in a whisper. “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”

“Am I your girlfriend now?” she asked.

He smiled. “Do you want to be?”


“You might be too young,” he said.

“But I know feathers. I bet the other girls don’t know feathers.”

“All right, then.” And he kissed her again. This time she tilted her head to the side and her lips softened. And for the first time in her life, her heart was full.

Listless, she wondered what she had done to send everyone away. Her own ma. Her sisters. Her whole family. Jodie. And now Tate. Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress.

She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else.

If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would.

Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.

“I’m okay now, Jumpin’. Thank you, and thank Mabel for all you did for me.”

He stared at her. In another time and place, an old black man and a young white woman might have hugged. But not there, not then. She covered his hand with hers, turned, and motored away. It was the first time she’d seen him speechless. She kept on buying gas and supplies from him but never accepted a handout from them again. And each time she came to his wharf, she saw her book propped up in the tiny window for all to see. As a father would have shown it.

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

The Winners

- Fredrik Backman

But the truth is that stories about boys like Benji hardly ever end with them as old men. They don't get long stories, and they don't die peacefully in old people's homes with their heads resting on soft pillows.

Boys like Benji die young. They die violently.

Maya knows that everyone thinks she moved here because she wanted to grow up, but it's actually the reverse. Kevin took so much from her, far more than she can explain, for him the rape lasted a few minutes but for her it never stopped. He took all the bright summer mornings, all the crisp autumn air, the snow under her feet, laughter that makes your chest hurt, everything that was simple. Most people can't pinpoint the exact moment when they stop being little children, but Maya can, Kevin took her childhood and when she moved here she tore and ripped and scratched out a little bit of it and reclaimed it. She taught herself to be naive again, because she doesn't want to be grown-up yet, doesn't want to live a life with no illusions. Doesn't want to learn that one day she won't be able to protect her own children. That all girls can be victims and all boys perpetrators.

In the end it felt as if only her mother really understood why she left. "I'm so angry with you for leaving me, but I'll be even more angry if you stay," Kira whispered in her daughter's ear that last morning in Beartown. "Promise me that you'll be careful, always, but also that you... Oh... that you won't be sometimes. But not too much!" Maya laughed and cried and hugged her second to last, and her dad last, because he didn't let go until just before the train started to move. She jumped on board and the forest closed around the windows and then Beartown was no longer home.

In the hospital a woman is lying in a bed. No one told her how it would really feel to be someone's mom. Which is just as well. She's going to be scared forever now.

"Vidar is a good name," she whispers.

"It's a brilliant name," the dad sniffs.

And it is. A name for a boy born far out in the forest between two towns that hate each other, on a wild night during the worst storm anyone can remember. A child of the wind, saved by a hunter's daughter. If that boy ever starts to play hockey, it will be one of our very, very best fairy tales.

We're going to need them. Fairy tales are what help us cope with funerals.

There are photographs of hockey players all over the walls. Some of them, like Benji and Vidar, probably spent more time in the Bearskin than the ice rink some seasons, and that says quite a lot about them. Others, like Amat, have never set foot here, and that says even more about them. Ramona has always had room in her heart for those who have succeeded in life, but the space she spares for those whose lives have gone to Hell will always be infinitely larger.

The trees lean over the road, making the sky disappear, and she remembers how scared she was of nature here when she and Amat first arrived, all those years ago. The wind and the cold and the ice and the endless forest, everything seemed to be waiting for a chance to kill you, it was so cold that she didn't think she was even going to get through the first winter. Now she can't think of anything more beautiful. Sometimes nature still makes her giddy, when the snow is so white that her eyes can't look at it for more than a few seconds at a time, when the ice is so shiny that if you stand on the lake behind the ice rink the landscape goes on forever until it merges with the sky. The shapeless world can make you dizzy, the forest can be so silent that it makes your ears pop, as if the trees were sucking all the sound from the world. She used to like people and want to protect her child from nature, but now it's the other way around.

She's halfway between the ice rink and the Hollow, the worst part to be alone on, this section of road is nothing but pavement and loneliness. She stands with her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Thinks about hockey. That isn't so strange, when you're scared you seek refuge in your happiest moments, and her happiest moments are her son's. Sons never understand that.

Amat is so like his dad, the same soft voice, the same determined look in his eyes. It's both a delight and a curse for Fatima that every proud moment also comes with a stab of grief. Amat's father died before they came here, and he never saw his son get this good at a sport his dad never even knew existed, the boy was born in a town close to the desert, but found a home in a place made of ice.

Everything is her fault, she thinks, because she was the one who taught him to be grateful for everything. It was this town that broke him, but it was her fault it was able to do that. "We need to be grateful," she repeated, until the words were invisible tattoos on the inside of his eyelids. He became the best, and she was happy, because finally he was treated as if he belonged here. As if this was his club, his town, his country too. She just didn't know that the only thing heavier than Beartown's prejudices were its expectations. Amat is still only a boy, this is only his eighteenth year on the planet, but hockey placed a burden on him that no adult man could bear.

He called her when he saw the weather forecast, when she didn't answer he knew something was wrong, she'd never admit it but she always kept her phone close when he was out on the road. He turned his old Saab around and drove all night on barely passable roads, straight into the wind, as fast as it would go, and kicked in the door of the Bearskin. And in the dawn, when the storm finally lifted its hand from the shattered towns and all that remained was the rain against the windows, he sat by Ramona's bed and wept like a boy, and like a grown man. When we are little we grieve for the person we have lost, but when we're older we grieve even more for ourselves. He wept for her loneliness, but also his own.

Teemu is far too many people's first phone call whenever something goes to hell. It was only at the Bearskin, late in the evening just before the lights were turned out and the door locked, that he could relax and let his shoulders drop a few inches. Unclench his fists. He would get one last beer and a pat on the cheek and Ramona would ask how he was. No one else ever did that.

So, early in the morning when the storm finally sweeps past he sits on the edge of her bed and wishes he had told her that she was right. We have two families. She was the one he chose.

Maya laughs so loud she's pretty sure the whole train can hear. She doesn't care. She and Ana are half a country apart for months at a time, but a single phone call is enough, then it's as if they've never been apart. As if nothing terrible had ever happened.

"I'm sorry I didn't realize there was a storm at home, I should have..," Maya begins, but Ana interrupts:

"Shut up. How were you supposed to know?"

"I miss you," Maya whispers.

"Call me as soon as you get home," Ana whispers back.

Maya promises, and the incomprehensible idea that so many people who don't have Ana in their lives still manage to be people at all gives her a headache.

When some boys find their first best friend it's the first real love of their lives, they just don't know what falling in love is yet, so that's how they learn what love is: it feels like climbing trees, it feels like jumping in puddles, it feels like having one single person in your life who you don't even want to play hide-and-seek with because you can't bear being without him for a single minute. For most boys this infatuation obviously fades as the years pass, but for some it never does. Benji traveled right across the world but never found a single place where he could stop hating himself for still loving Kevin.

Benji was Kevin's best friend, and Kevin was the love of Benji's life.

So it's Benji's fault, he knows that. It was his job to protect Kevin from everyone else, and everyone else from Kevin. If only Benji had stayed at the party, Kevin wouldn't have raped Maya, and then everything would just have carried on as normal. If only Benji hadn't gotten jealous when Maya arrived at the party and he saw the way Kevin looked at her, if only he had stayed when Kevin asked him to, then Maya's life would never have been shattered. She would have been happy. Kevin would almost certainly be playing in the NHL now. And maybe no one would have known the truth about Benji either, but he wouldn't have minded, he would have swapped being able to be himself for everything staying the way it used to be. He might still have been playing hockey now, and perhaps it would have been worth it. Because he misses how simple it was: just win. Then we'll love you. He misses fighting on other people's behalf, meaning something in a group, being the person their opponents fear will leap over the boards if they touch his teammates. He misses the locker room and shaving foam in shoes and sitting at the back of the bus throwing peanuts at the heads of Bobo and the other idiots. He misses feeling the coach's palm slap the top of his helmet the way a dog owner pats his dog's head, because then Benji knew he'd done something right. He misses having somewhere he belongs, even if it was a lie - sooner that than being lost in the truth.

Maya holds her best friend so tightly that her lungs hurt.

"I miss you so damn much."

"You're actually HOLDING me, you donkey!"

"Shut up!"

How do other people bear it, Maya wonders, how do they live without an Ana? How the hell do people cope?

"Yes, I've seen my fair share of odd guys stand on goal here over the years, but damn me if this one might not take the prize. Never says a word, not even when they win, doesn't even seem happy. It's like he just plays with a great big... darkness inside him."

"All the best players have that," Tails replies, as if it was obvious.

"Really?" the caretaker replies.

Tails watches the goalkeeper down on the ice.

"Peter used to get beaten at home if he so much as spilled his milk. Benji didn't dare tell anyone he was gay. Amat is the cleaner's son in the rich kids sport. All the best players have a darkness inside them, that's why they end up the best, they think the darkness will disappear if they can just win enough times..."

The caretaker wonders quietly if Tails is talking about the players or himself with that last remark, but says nothing.

Oh, how they laugh, all of them, Benji included. They carry more chairs into the church and discuss girls and snow scooters and none of the men in black jackets probably really know what they're doing, but there and then they give Benji the very finest gift you can give someone who always used to be special: they treat him as if he isn't special at all.

Benji takes the back route around the church with his jacket pulled up over his head, like a cat padding as quickly as it dares to avoid being seen, in the hope that no one will stop him and want to talk about hockey. In the middle of the low rumble of hundreds of mourners' subdued conversation it's lucky that he recognizes the sound of size 14 sneakers running, because at least then he has time to brace his knees and dig his heels in to save his back from breaking when Bobo throws himself at him in a hug like a fully grown dog who thinks he's still a puppy.

"BENJI! BENJI!!! SHIT I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW YOU WERE HOME! HOW ARE YOU?" the delighted lummox manages to blurt out before they've even finished hugging.

Benji slips nimbly out of his embrace and hushes him at first, then laughs.

"Seriously, Bobo, have you done anything except eat since I left?"

"Have you been eating at all? Wasn't there any food in Asia or something?" Bobo grins, so happy that he's skipping about on tiptoe until he can no longer resist throwing himself into another hug.

"I've missed you too," Benji sighs. Maybe it sounds sarcastic, but it's true.

There's a special sort of love that you can't get from your mates, only from teammates.

There's no life like youth, no love like first love, no friends like teammates.

"I've never seen anyone play hockey like you, my friend. I can't bear having to live the rest of my life wondering how good you could have been if you hadn't given up."

Considering it isn't a motivational speech, it's actually a damn good motivational speech. Amat's breath catches. He will never forget how Benji looks just then: inquisitive eyes and messy hair in an old campervan. A gentle heart. An outstretched hand.

This is how a community's corruption is measured. It isn't cheating if you don't get caught, and it isn't a scandal if it never gets revealed. Until then, there are just secrets. All forests are full of them.

Amat stops below them and calls mockingly to Big City:

"Hey! Have you met Benjamin Ovich? He's a legend in this town! He actually used to be pretty good at hockey! Not as good as YOU, of course, but he was perfectly OKAY..."

Benji resists as long as he can. Longer than anyone would believe. But then he curses and stands up, muttering:

"Get me a pair of fucking skates so I can break that idiot's legs..."

Maya and Ana laugh so hard that it sings around the ice rink's roof, Amat too, but Big City stands next to him and whispers:

"He meant you, right? He meant he was going to break YOUR legs, right?"

Beni storms into the caretaker's storeroom and comes back out on a pair of skates. The caretaker has spent a lifetime in this rink and has seen more than most people can imagine, but he can't remember a better moment than this. Zackell and Bobo are up in the office to plan the next training session, but when they hear the noise and cheering from down on the ice they go back out into the stands. Bobo sees Benji and looks like a Labrador that's just heard keys jangling in a door, Zackell nods, apparently unmoved, and says:

"I can finish up in the office. You go and play with your friends."

Bobo stumbles euphorically down the stands but Zackell doesn't go back to the office. She stands and watches as Benji chases Amat across the ice and Amat bounces away and laughs and Bobo pulls on a pair of skates and throws himself into the fray and one of the very best things of all happens: almost-adults forgetting that they're adults.

Big City actually only makes one mistake: he draws the puck away and darts past Benji, and Benji loses his balance and everyone laughs. After that he isn't allowed an inch of ice without Benji being there like some furious badger.

"Did you really have to laugh? He's going to kill me!" Big City whispers to Peter when he stops close to the goal, but Peter just chuckles:

"No, no, don't worry, Benji isn't going to kill you here. Far too many witnesses. You'll just 'disappear' suddenly when we least expect it. There's a lot of forest around here, you know, you can bury anything out there!"

Big City stares at him as if he's really, really trying to figure out if the local sense of humor is that stupid, or if Peter is actually serious.

Then they play again, the way they used to play on the lake when they were younger: at full pelt without rules. Uncomplicated and simple. Us against you.

Amat will remember this evening as the start of something. Bobo as the end of something. For Peter it feels like belonging to something again, for Mumble it feels like belonging to something for the very first time. For Big City it's like getting a second chance to be a little kid and fall head-over-heels in love with hockey again. How it feels for Benji nobody knows, this is the last time they see him play.

Sune stands there with the floral wreath in his hands and loss on his cheeks and doesn't know what to say. But if anyone can understand the unbridled, unreasonable love you can feel for an animal, it's probably men who have been told all their lives that they love something more than they should: "But it's only hockey."

The Pack feels precisely everything, precisely all the time. They know that the extent of grief isn't measured by what you've lost but by who you are. They have imagination. So much imagination, in fact, that the very thought of losing something they can't live without makes them lethal.

"WHAT HAPPENED?" Kira cries so wildly that even Teemu bounces out of the way, but he still can't stop himself blurting out:

"Oh, you know, just hooligan behavior, typical of Peter to start fighting! We tried to stop him, but you know how he gets when he's angry..."

He's seriously pretty certain Kira would have killed him there and then if Peter hadn't thrown himself between them.

It's late Thursday evening and all the black jackets from Beartown are sitting in the emergency room at the hospital in Hed. Teemu broke two fingers on someone's jaw, and a couple of his guys have broken noses from someone's fist or elbow. They're in a ridiculously good mood, despite or perhaps precisely because of that, joking and singing inappropriate songs. Above all, they're teasing Peter, seeing as the former general manager had to come here with his split eyebrow, and the nurses quickly decided to put everyone from Beartown in a separate room so that there wouldn't be any more trouble with anyone from Hed. Every time a nurse comes to call someone in, all the members of the Pack beg her to "take the boss first!" Then they nod toward Peter, wide-eyed, and whisper: "Please, don't take us foot soldiers first, help the Godfather! He's the one who gives the orders!" Peter pleads with Teemu to shut them up, but Teemu is laughing too much to be able to stop them.

"You lot don't take anything seriously, you really don't take anything in life seriously...," Peter mutters.

"Don't worry."

"I'm your mother, you can't stop me!"

Maya smiles in such a way that it's impossible to know if she's about to make a joke or start crying.

"I'm sorry that what Kevin did to me almost broke you and Dad."

Now it's Kira's turn to look like she's about to cry.

"Darling, it didn't do..."

Maya nods, so grown-up and so strong, so honest and vulnerable.

"Yes, Mom. It did. Your love was like organ donation. You and Dad and Leo gave me pieces of your hearts and lungs and skeletons so I could put myself back together again. And now you hardly have the strength to stand up and keep breathing yourselves. I think about that so often, and I think about all the girls who don't have you. I feel like I only just managed to survive this. How the hell does everyone who doesn't have you as their mom even stand a chance?"


Good luck having a daughter and not going to pieces when you hear that.

All the men in the locker room run. Some toward the bathrooms, some toward the shower room, some try to crawl out through the window. All except Benji. Because he's the sort of person who runs toward fire.


He always has been.

Those are the two shots that take Benji's life. Both to the heart. What else could they have hit in there? He was all heart.

Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, would have wished him a really long story. A secure life. A happy ending. We hoped, oh, how we hoped, but deep down we probably knew that he wasn't the sort who would get that. Because he was always the sort of person who stood in the way, the sort who protected, the sort who ran. He always thought he was the bad guy in all stories, the real heroes always do, that's why stories about boys like him never end with them growing old. Stories about boys like him only end with us no longer dreaming of time machines, because if one was ever invented in the distant future, it would already have been used to travel back here by someone who loved him.


There are so many of us.

We can't fight against evil. That's the most unbearable thing about the world we have built. Evil can't be eradicated, can't be locked up, the more violence we use against it, the stronger it becomes when it seeps out under doors and through keyholes. It can never disappear because it grows inside us, sometimes even in the best of us, sometimes even in fourteen-year-olds. We have no weapons against it. We have only been given love as a gift in order to cope with it.

Maya wishes she could stop shaking, she wishes she could hold the girl tighter, that she could hug away all the shock and despair and all the terrible darkness that will never leave either of them now. But she doesn't know how, she isn't big enough, isn't strong enough. She can't breathe, she's gasping for air, trying to think away the blood and death on the floor in there and she needs to be strong for the child's sake. But how do you do that? Where do you find the strength? She doesn't have it. She's certain she's going to collapse on the ground in the snow when she feels two arms around her own shoulders. It's her mother. Kira didn't run toward the fire, she ran after the children. Behind her comes Tess and soon other women will come, from all directions, in red and green jackets, some even in black. They wrap their arms around each other, in circles, ring after ring, forming a wall around Alicia.

Nothing that happens to the girl in the rest of her life will ever be worse than this. But in the very worst moment, in the midst of the greatest terror, mothers and big sisters from the whole forest ran here to protect her.


No one can fight against evil. But if it wants to take Alicia, it's going to have to go through every last one of them first.

Soon millions of people will know Maya's name, but every night she will only be singing for Benji. Not all her songs will be about him, but they will all be his, somehow, even the ones that are Ana's. One evening, several years from now, Maya will be so famous that she'll be performing in one of the biggest arenas in the whole country. It will be sold out. The first time she steps out into it she will realize what it is used for when concerts aren't being held there. It's an ice rink. It's the biggest moment in her career, and she cries her way through every song.

Around here we usually say that we bury our children under our most beautiful trees, but not even the best among us can find a tree beautiful enough to watch over Benjamin Ovich. So we grow new ones, all around the stone bearing his name, we let Alicia and other children plant them in the soil so that they grow up around him. Until he is no longer sleeping in a churchyard, but where he was always safest and happiest. In a forest.

Teemu and other black jackets are going to the hockey games again. Are singing again. Always with slightly heavier voices and a greater sense of loss now, always with a beer in their hands after the game when they walk all the way to the churchyard. Then they sit there and talk to Vidar and Benji and Ramona and Holger and all the others who couldn't come, so they know how it went. Every detail. Every shot. Every goal and every wrong decision by the referee. The beer in Heaven is expensive and the whining is the same as always, hardly anything changes, but one day Teemu brings his newborn son here and introduces him.

His son will grow up and decide that he doesn't like hockey, he likes soccer, and there's a hell of a lot of laughter in Heaven then. Oh, so much laughter.

Elisabeth Zackell becomes a famous coach. She wins hundreds of games. She wins leagues, titles, and trophies. The only thing she never really wins back is that first, uncomplicated joy. Hockey never really becomes a game for her again. But one day in many years' time she will coach a national team, the one Alicia plays on, and then Zackell will make an exception to her strictest rule.

She lets someone play with the number 16 again. For one single game.

Alicia gets up from the bench in the locker room and leads her team out and storms the ice, and Zackell watches her and for a single moment forgets that it isn't him.

A few years from now, far away from here, a young man will be sitting on a sofa at a party. Everyone around him will be dancing and drinking but his eyes will be glued to the television. It's just a short clip from a concert by one of the country's most famous female performers right now. Her name is Maya Andersson, and the young man has always loved that name. How ordinary it sounds. He's never thought about her accent, has never reflected upon why it sounds so familiar to him. But now he sees her on television and she's singing a song about someone she loved, because it's his birthday, and on the huge screen behind her a photograph of him flashes up for a moment. She knows no one will really see it, a thousand more images flash past right after it, she just included that particular photograph for her own sake.

But the man on the sofa recognizes it. Because he remembers fingertips and glances. Beer bottles on a worn bar counter and smoke in a silent forest. The way the snow feels as it falls on your skin while a boy with sad eyes and a wild heart teaches you to skate.

The man on the sofa packs almost nothing. He takes just a light bag and the case containing his bass guitar and travels to the next town on Maya's tour. He elbows his way past her security guard and almost gets knocked to the floor, and he calls out:

"I knew him! I knew Benji! I loved him too!"

Maya stops mid-stride. They look each other in the eye and see only him, the boy in the forest, sad and wild.

"Do you play?" Maya asks.

"I'm a bass player," he says.

From then on he is her bass player. No one plays her songs like he does. No one else cries as much each night.

Alicia looks so lonely and small as she skates out onto the ice, but she isn't, she's bigger than everyone and never alone again. She lies down in the center circle and looks up at the roof. When she closes her eyes and reaches out her fingers she hurts in so many places inside, but there and then she doesn't feel anything, because Benji is lying beside her and soon a new hockey season will begin and everything can still be okay. Throughout the whole of her long career, in every ice rink and in every national game, she will do the same thing every time she gets scared or nervous: look up at the roof, reach out her hand, feel that he is there. Because Benjamin Ovich isn't in a grave. Benjamin Ovich is at the game with his best friend.

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

- India Holton

"Oh, my dear, do stay safe at home, at least until Pleasance has ascertained there are no evil spirits in our navigation system. The countryside is rife with scurvy.”

“That is caused by fruit deprivation, Aunty.”

“Precisely! Do you see any orchards out there?”

No men sat at the table, having been left at home to mind the children, guard the treasure, or quite frankly just stay out of the way of women’s business.

The Witch Doesn't Burn in This One

- Amanda Lovelace

over the span
of centuries
animals evolve to
survive their surroundings,

what happens
when women


there exists
a fine line


most days

i can’t tell
which side

it is that
i’m on.

most days?

i don’t

- there are some things i just have to do for me.

women are
considered to be

before we are ever

considered to be
human beings

to sense
what who
looks like
by catching
woman’s eye
from across
a crowded

to be a
is to be
k n o w i n g
all the odds
are stacked
against you.

- & never giving up in spite of it.

ready for a
harsh truth?

don’t need
your validation.

already have
our own.

- my self-worth shouldn’t feel like an act of bravery.

you are
the fire
& tomorrow
you will be
the sea
& they’ll
have no choice
but to hear your siren song.

Witch King

- Martha Wells

Kai let his breath out in an uneasy hiss. He didn't trust easily, something he felt was validated every time some supposed ally murdered him and stuck him in an underwater vault.

Kai stepped close, circled to face his prey, and wrapped his hand around the ghoul's throat. "Do mortals just walk into your charnel house all the time? Am I one? Am I stupid?"

The ghoul choked out, "I didn't know you were a..."

"Say it." Kai smiled.

"...a demon."

"You idiot." Kai leaned closer, "I'm the demon."

"I'd tell you to be careful, but..."

Kai looked at her through the black film of the veil. "You could say 'be violent' instead."

Tahren, who Kai was beginning to suspect had a very dry sense of humor, patted his shoulder and said, "Be violent."

"You forgot what I am."

Ramad huffed a breath that was almost a laugh. "An immortal demon prince."

"No," Kai said pointedly. "Bashasa's immortal demon prince."

Kai watched Bashasa write, as the shadows lengthened over the court. He was well-aware he didn't have a tenth of Bashasa's self-control. He said finally, "I don't know if I can do what you want me to do, Bashasa. If I can stay calm and always think ahead, like you do. I'm so angry, I could burn the world."

Bashasa didn't seem concerned. "Unfortunately, someone else has already burned it. We need to unburn it." He looked up, his expression serious. "Will you help me do that, Kai?"

Kai had already made that decision. "Yes."

The Witches Are Coming

- Lindy West

This moment feels destabilizing, hopeful but precarious, as though everything could change or nothing could change.

The problem isn’t that people have latent biases that manifest in unexpected ways; it’s that we, as a society, are fundamentally allergic to examining those biases and holding ourselves accountable.

One malicious side effect of Americans’ bootstrap ethos (itself just a massive grift to empower the snickering rich) is that it conditions people to cheer at deregulation, to beg and plead for the removal of consumer protections. We are literally asking to be conned; we are a smorgasbord for the most unscrupulous and the least deserving. Being a giant fucking sucker is as American as school shootings.

Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping, or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes, and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art and it makes us, simultaneously.

Feminism is the collective manifestation of female anger.

Men suppress our anger for a reason. Let’s prove them right.

women are conditioned from birth to downplay our intellectual abilities and professional accomplishments so as not to make men feel threatened or emasculated by us and detract from our true purpose, sex decoration

The Wolf and the Woodsman

- Ava Reid

I’ve long given up on any of them loving me, but I still ache at how easy it is for them to hand me over. I’m a good hunter, one of the best in the village, even if I can’t forge my own arrowheads. I spent years doing Virág’s drudgery, even if I muttered curses the whole time, and I killed and cleaned half the food on their feast tables.

None of it matters. Without a lick of magic to my name, the only thing I’m good for is a sacrifice.

Here the trees do not abide by the laws of the gods, to change with the seasons or to grow straight up, slender branches straining toward the sky. We pass trees in their full spring display, lush with verdant leaves and needle-thin white flowers, and then trees that are rotting and dead, blackened all the way down to the roots, as if they’ve been struck by vengeful lightning. We pass trees that have grown twisted around each other, two wooden lovers locked in eternal embrace, and then others still that bend backward toward the ground, as if their branches are aching toward the Under-World, instead.

I remember how the fire roared to life in front of the captain, so sudden and sure. Any wolf-girl would have marveled at such a fire, easily as impressive as the work of our best fire-makers. We would have called it power, magic. They called it piety. But what is the difference, if both fires burn just as bright?

His cold, superior tone rankles me, especially after all the prattling about the blackness of his soul. “Do you call a hawk evil when it snatches up a mouse to eat? Do you call a fire evil when it burns your logs to ash? Do you call the night sky evil when it drinks down the day? Of course not. They are surviving, like the rest of us.”

I’m surprised by the ferocity in my voice, and by how much I sound like Virág.

“I don’t think the hawk is evil,” Gáspár says after a moment. “But I’m not a mouse.”

And thank Isten you aren’t,” I say. “Mice don’t have the luxury of passing moral judgment on every living thing they come across. Mice just get eaten.”

I step closer to him, toeing the abyss. I could slit his throat; there’s no blade or mantle to stop me. Maybe they’d throw a feast in my honor if I came back to Keszi with a Woodsman’s head.

My hand curls around the hilt of my knife. “Would you let me destroy you, then?”

“It would be just as well,” Gáspár says miserably. “I should be struck dead, for wanting you the way I do.”

I’m so enraged that I don’t care how much I hurt him. But Gáspár only looks at me steadily, black eye unflinching.

“You swore an oath to my father too,” he says.

“Yes, and it’s my greatest shame,” I snap, cheeks flushing.

“And don’t you think it shames me equally?” I see his chest swell; for a moment I think he will close the space between us. “But you understood, as I do, that survival is not a battle that you win only once. You must fight it again every day. And so you take your small losses so that you can live to fight tomorrow. You know that my father is a slower, gentler poison.”

I feel like a blacksmith, everything I know laid out in pieces in front of me, and somehow I must forge a weapon from them. But any blade that I make will be double-edged. I cannot help Katalin without hurting my father. I cannot save the pagans without damning the Yehuli. And the only thing I know that might be strong enough to stop Nándor is a hundred miles away in Kaleva, just an orange flyspeck on the gray horizon.

I swallow. “And will you follow me further into the cold?”

Gáspár’s chin lifts, eye going to the star-wild sky and then back to me again. He swallows, the bronze skin of his throat shuddering in the frosted light.

“Yes,” he says finally.

Something warm spreads itself through my body, deeper in my marrow and blood. It is not as quick and bright as joy, the sudden burst of flint touching tinder; it is more like an old tree set alight in the summer, fire crawling through the gnarls and whorls of all that black wood.

“You’ve killed any part of me that was a devout and loyal Woodsman,” he says. There is pain threaded through his voice; I imagine the Prinkepatrios fading from his mind, like a moon paring away in the black sky. His hand shifts from my breast, closing into a fist over my heart. “This is all that’s left now.”

Once I would have been eager to abandon Régország entirely, if I’d ever had the chance and the will to leave it. But those kinds of bitter perversities seem behind me now. I have felt my father’s arms circle me and heard the temple filling with Yehuli prayer; I have had a man hold me through the cold and promise to follow me wherever I go. It weighs me down, that love, fettering me to this terrible destiny.

I meet Gáspár’s eye, glittering wet in the meager sunlight, and I can see all my painful, ruinous love reflected back. There is another world in which we might have stayed in the cradle of tree roots forever, our words rising in cold whispers but our hands and mouths warm.

Someday an archivist will shelve a book about the siege of Király Szek in the palace library, and it will document the lives lost, the ground gained, the treaties signed, and the maps redrawn. But it will not say anything about this: a wolf-girl and a Woodsman holding each other in the blood-drenched aftermath, and the clouds cleaving open above them, letting out a gutted light.

A Woman is No Man

- Etaf Rum

She wished she could open her mouth and tell her parents, No! This isn’t the life I want. But Isra had learned from a very young age that obedience was the single path to love. So she only defied in secret, mostly with her books. Every evening after returning from school, after she’d soaked a pot of rice and hung her brothers’ clothes and set the sufra and washed the dishes following dinner, Isra would retreat quietly to her room and read under the open window, the pale moonlight illuminating the pages. Reading was one of the many things Mama had forbidden, but Isra had never listened.

She remembered once telling Mama that she couldn’t find any fruit on the mulberry trees when in fact she had spent the afternoon reading in the graveyard. Yacob had beaten her twice that night, punishment for her defiance. He’d called her a sharmouta, a whore. He’d said he’d show her what happened to disobedient girls, then he’d shoved her against the wall and whipped her with his belt. The room had gone white. Everything had looked flat. She’d closed her eyes until she’d gone numb, until she couldn’t move. But as fear rose up in Isra, thinking of those moments, so did something else. A strange sort of courage.

“But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”

“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”

Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”

Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”

Isra tried to curb her disappointment. She chose her next words carefully. “Maybe life in America will be different for women.”

Mama stared at her, flat and unblinking. “Different how?”

“I don’t know,” Isra said, softening her voice so as not to upset her mother. “But maybe American culture isn’t as strict as ours. Maybe women are treated better.”

“Better?” Mama mocked, shaking her head as she sautéed the vegetables. “You mean like in those fairy tales you read?”

She could feel her face redden. “No, not like that.”

“Like what, then?”

Isra wanted to ask Mama if marriage in America was like her parents’ marriage, where the man determined everything in the family and beat his wife if she displeased him. Isra had been five years old the first time she’d witnessed Yacob hit Mama. It was over an undercooked piece of lamb. Isra could still remember the pleading look in Mama’s eyes, begging him to stop, Yacob’s sullen face as he struck her. A darkness had rumbled through Isra then, a new awareness of the world unfolding. A world where not only children were beaten but mothers, too. Looking in Mama’s eyes that night, watching her weep violently, Isra had felt an unforgettable rage.

She considered her words again. “Do you think maybe women have more respect in America?”

Mama fixed her with a glare. “Respect?”

“Or maybe worth? I don’t know.”

Mama set the stirring spoon down. “Listen to me, daughter. No matter how far away from Palestine you go, a woman will always be a woman. Here or there. Location will not change her naseeb, her destiny.”

“But that’s not fair.”

“You are too young to understand this now,” Mama said, “but you must always remember.” She lifted Isra’s chin. “There is nothing out there for a woman but her bayt wa dar, her house and home. Marriage, motherhood—that is a woman’s only worth.”

Fareeda closed her eyes and breathed. Something inside her shifted, as if her whole life she had been looking in the wrong direction, not seeing the precise moment that turned everything upside down. She saw the chain of shame passed from one woman to the next so clearly now, saw her place in the cycle so vividly. She sighed. It was cruel, this life. But a woman could only do so much.

The Worst Woman in London

- Julia Bennet

Money, land, and influence; all he'd ever wanted. What else existed for a man like him? A gentleman inherited his wealth and, sometimes, as in James's case, certain unspoken conditions needed to be met. Miriam did nothing wrong by expecting him to make choices of which she approved, and he ought not to feel ashamed for doing his duty in that regard.

Yet lately he found it difficult to meet his own gaze in the mirror.

Wreck the Halls

- Tessa Bailey

Something grew and grew inside of her. Something she'd never felt before. A kinship, a bond, a connection. She couldn't come up with a word for it. Only knew that it seemed almost cosmic or preordained. And in that moment, for the first time in her life, she was angry with her mother for her part in breaking up the band. She could have known this boy sooner? Felt...understood sooner?

Beat studied her hand for several seconds, then gave her a narrow-eyed look-as if to say, don't be silly and pulled her into the hug of a lifetime. The hug. Of a lifetime. In a millisecond, she was warm in the most pleasant, sweat-free way. All the way down to the soles of her feet. Lightheadedness swept in. She'd not only been granted the honor of smelling this boy's perfect neck, he was encouraging her with a palm to the back of her head. He squeezed her close, before brushing his hand down the back of her hair. Just once. But it was the most beautiful sign of affection she'd ever been offered, and it wrote itself messily all over her heart.

"Everyone you know is in this room."

That's not true.

His parents weren't here.

But that's not who his mind immediately landed on - and it was ridiculous that he should still be thinking about Melody Gallard fourteen years after meeting her one time. He could still recall that afternoon so vividly, though. Her smile, the way she whisper-talked, as if she wasn't all that used to talking at all. The way she couldn't seem to look him in the eye, then all of a sudden she couldn't seem to look anywhere else. Neither had he.

And he'd hugged thousands of people in his life, but she was the only one he could still feel in his arms. They were meant to be friends. Unfortunately, he'd never called. She'd never used his number, either. Now it was too late. Still, when Vance said, "Everyone you know is in this room," he'd thought of her right away.

It felt like he knew Melody - and she wasn't here.

She might know him the best out of everyone if he'd kept in touch.

They might have grown up in the same weird celebrity offspring limelight, but they'd gotten vastly different treatment from the press. He'd been praised as some kind of golden boy, while every single one of Melody's physical attributes had been dissected through paparazzi lenses - all when she was still a minor. He'd watched it from afar, horrified.

So much so that the first and only time they'd met, he'd been rocked by protectiveness so deep, he still felt it to this very day.

"Mel," he said gruffly, his smile feeling heavy.

"Hey," she responded, her voice barely above a whisper.

And he hadn't planned on hugging her, but as soon as that single, husky word was out of her mouth, he couldn't stop himself from crossing the office and wrapping his arms around her. His eyelids drooped involuntarily, because she fit against him as well as he remembered. Like she was meant to be there all along. A star-crossed best friend.

She dropped her giant purse onto the floor and hugged him back - and that made him feel more important than any press coverage or birthday party in his honor. It was instantaneous. Honest. How had he missed her like this when their acquaintance had been so brief? It made no sense, but there it was. His reaction to her at sixteen hadn't made a lot of sense, either. It just was.

Beat rarely spent that much time with anyone outside of his immediate family. He kept things surface level. Casual. Spending long lengths of time one-on-one with someone meant getting personal. It's why he vacationed in large groups of coupled up friends. Why he always snuck out of the party earlier than everyone else. To avoid those booze-soaked moments where a longtime buddy was expected to open up.

But he'd learned the hard way that if he allowed himself to be vulnerable, people didn't always like what they saw.

"We can give them some intrigue without any big reveals."

"Cagey, but friendly. Engagingly evasive."

"That's exactly it." His expression was one of mock surprise. "Have you done this before?"

"Only about a million times."

"Sounds like torture," he quipped.

"Maybe I'll follow your lead and see if I can make torture fun."

His smile remained in place, but his eyes changed. Darkened.

"A roadie named Corrigan." Melody smiled, obviously comfortable reciting information that had long been released to the press by Trina herself. "He lives in Detroit with his family now. We met once and I liked him, but we don't have a lot of contact. It's a Christmas and birthday card kind of relationship."

Darren shifted. "How do you feel about that?"

"Confused about how DNA works, mostly. Roadies have good technical skills and I can't even install software."

Beat's fondness for Melody swelled up so huge inside of him in that moment, he wondered if everyone could tell. Could see it. How hard he had to work to contain the bombardment of feeling inside of his chest. Again, he wondered how different life might have been if she'd been in it all along. Even in short bursts. They'd only spent a matter of hours together at this point and already her impact was making itself known. He was lighter and more at home in his skin when Melody was around. He had purpose. A co-conspirator. A friend.

A friend he wanted to make out with.

A friend he wanted to tease and torture him -

"Sure, be loyal to your mother," Melody teased. "Make me look bad."

"There isn't a single thing that could make you look bad," Beat said, without thinking. In fact, it took him a full ten seconds to realize he was openly staring at Melody. And everyone was openly observing him in the dead quiet of the office.

"B-bold claim," Melody stuttered, finally breaking the silence. "Considering you've seen me in braces." She visibly gathered herself, once again pulling that skirt over her knee rasp and his blood ran unwisely south. What sound would those nylons make if she wrapped her legs around his hips?

Those words might have been enough to tell him Melody was harboring a crush on him, but her tone of voice sealed the deal. She may as well have been a devout catholic speaking about the second coming. And his behavior was doing nothing to dissuade the crush, either. Case in point, their hands were still locked together on the seat between them. Two seconds after this footage was recorded, he'd barged into the room and hugged her, because he'd been utterly compelled to...touch her in some way. Any way.

Safe to say they were both nursing a crush.

Might as well acknowledge the facts.

Unfortunately, Melody didn't know his sexual interests were...slightly complicated. He came part and parcel with that complication, and he'd decided early in his life, before he even reached adulthood, that he would handle those needs privately and keep his social life separate. That included Melody. Most of all Melody.

Stop leading her on, then.

Knowing what he had to do - and doing it - were two very different things. Touching Mel came naturally in a way it never had with anyone else. It felt necessary, like he was making up for lost time. They might have grown up separately, thanks to the Steel Birds break up, but their mothers' pasts kept them tethered, along with something intangible. When they were together, his senses heightened, and his two-dimensional world expanded into three. Like it was supposed to be.

As soon as he let go of her hand, the tip of a blade dug into his chest and twisted. Immediately, he wanted to thread their fingers back together, but he forced himself to keep both hands on his phone, instead, tapping out a message to his friends without really processing any of what he was saying.

Minutes later, when they reached the venue, he was relieved to see a security team of half a dozen men waiting for them just beyond the valet line. But when he climbed out of the SUV and automatically turned to help Melody from the vehicle, one of the guards performed that duty instead and his stomach shrunk in on itself. Briefly, their gazes met over the guard's shoulder and she quickly looked away, telling Beat she'd felt him withdraw on the ride over.

Of course, she had.

And it was for the best, even if his stupid heart was in his mouth.

Was he avoiding eye contact with her? It seemed like it, something felt off, but what could it be? "What's your vice, Beat?"

Well, that was one way to make eye contact.

His attention shot to hers like a bullet, tension bracketing his mouth.

The golden pallor of his skin lost its glow, leaving an ashen complexion behind.

"I.. What?" He reached for another glass of champagne off a passing tray. "Clearly, it's drinking." But he made no move to sip the drink, merely staring into its fizzy depths. "My vice is not telling anyone about my vice. I guess that falls under the category of pride."

Melody wasn't expecting that answer. "Why don't you tell anyone? How bad can it be?"

"It's not bad. It's just private." His attention briefly fell to her lips. "What about you, Mel? What's your vice?"

"Refusing to call my super to fix anything in my apartment because I want to be his favorite. I think that's a cross between sloth and greed."

He shook his head. "It's neither. It's.. Melody."

"I'm not a vice."

"You could be." Had his voice gotten deeper? "Easily." Melody sincerely hoped he couldn't see the pulse racing at the bottom of her neck, because she could definitely feel it thrumming dramatically.

"I'm telling you this off camera, because I truly don't think you're aware of how you look at him. Or speak about him. And while my job is to grab views, I like you. I'm giving you a heads up, in case you want to... temper yourself."

"Thank you," Melody managed, her voice just above a whisper.

It was no longer a mystery why Beat had put up a wall between them. He was looking at his phone on the ride to the gala, occasionally pressing the speaker to his ear. He'd clearly seen and heard her gushing about him, like a lovesick schoolgirl.

He didn't feel the same. Obviously. Obviously.

Why would he? Not only was he leaps and bounds out of her league, but he also hadn't spent the last fourteen years pining over a romanticized version of her. She was the anomaly here, just like she'd always been.

Beat lifted his head, studying her closely. There was total and complete understanding in his eyes. So powerful that a sense of belonging, a feeling of security crowded into her throat. "I get that, Mel. That's why I..." He paused, gave a quick shake of his head. "God, I want to kiss you more than I've ever wanted anything in my fucking life."

"Then maybe you should," she sobbed.

A grating sound rumbled in his throat.

He kissed her, then. Fully.

Beat kissed Melody.

Joy roared through her at the speed of light. Oxygen rushed in her bloodstream and her lungs became gluttonous with air. Beat's lips slanting over the top of hers, his tongue begging hers to dance, was like having her life force double. Tripled. For once...she was comfortable in her own body. There were pulses in amazing places and her limbs felt the opposite of stiff. They were energized and languorous at the same time. Glorying in the hard angles of him where they moved and swelled against her curves with urgency.

"Jesus Christ, Mel. Your mouth." He growled against it. "Of all the privileges I never feel like I've earned, you're going to be the ultimate one, aren't you?"

"You deserve everything," she whispered.

When Beat turned around, he saw that Joseph had been filming and wondered how much he - and everyone watching - had overheard. Did it even matter anymore? Hiding things from the camera only reminded him how private he normally lived. Letting everyone close, but never close enough. Never revealing anything too deep or important.

With Melody's hand tucked into his, Beat wondered for the first time if maybe he could learn to be a little more trusting. And what could be waiting for him on the other side.

"No. You have to stop that."

He laughed without humor. "It's not that easy."

"Oh. Believe me, I know. We have these tremendous, unrealistic expectations on us, because of who are mothers are." She thought back to her many hours of therapy, the conclusions they'd drawn over and over. Ones she'd only started believing recently. "But, Beat, we get to be people. We get to just be people."

Her fingers strummed a couple of the strings, the notes perfectly familiar to him. "You're just saying that because you're my best friend."

Was this what it was like to be one hundred percent willing to die for someone?

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the camera's blinking red light and honestly, it just didn't mean a goddamn thing in that moment. "You're my best friend, too, peach."

None of them existed, though, after the first verse. There was only him and Melody, trapped in this moment of time that felt fated. Someone had written it into their story a long time ago and they'd finally found their place on the correct page, so they could follow along.

She was glorious. Brave and uninhibited and a little sad. A lot wise.

Even as he sang, his throat burned with the need to reach back into the past and rearrange every hour of his life, so it could have been spent with her. Knowing her.

He wished for it so vividly that he didn't even realize the song ended until the guitar dropped to Melody's side, remaining there until White Jeans collected it without a word. She was staring back at him in a way his body understood. Responded to.


They crashed into the tiny attic room like tangled wrecking balls.

Melody's blood had never been so hot that she could feel it, the elevated temperature of it, flowing through her veins. Her throat hurt from singing at the top of her lungs, something she'd never attempted in her life, but Beat's mouth on hers was the perfect cure. She had no idea where these stolen moments in the starlight would lead, but just then, she didn't care.

She was cocky.

If she could imply her mother was a coward - to her face - and belt out a Steel Birds song in a room full of people, she could handle a potential broken heart. In fact, bring it on. Bring it all on. She was immortal tonight and she laughed at the concept of regret or pain.

How could a single negative thing exist on this earth at the same time as his mouth? It was the perfect combination of reverent and aggressive, his adventurous tongue banishing any possibility of stopping. Or thinking. Or breathing. She opened her lips wide for him, their heads canting to their respective rights in tandem, like they were built for each other. To kiss this wildly in this house in the middle of nowhere, to taste each other without a hint of reservation or insecurity. The only thing present between them was feverish want and deep recognition of two souls that had been separated too long. Maybe not good for each other but created as a pair for better or worse.

If she left things unsettled between them, she'd regret it for the next forty-eight hours. Melody turned to look at the camera, then back at Beat, leaning close to whisper in his ear. "I think you hold yourself back, because you were taught - we were taught - that the truth is ugly and should always be private. Suppressed. I think you hold yourself back because you were outcasted by those kids after you opened up to them," she whispered, wetting her lips. "What you enjoy is beautiful if it's for the right reasons. But if it's for the wrong reasons, I'm just not sure I what happened last night...again. No matter what, though, Beat, we're best friends. I think maybe we have been this whole time without even seeing each other. If we can still be best friends after one crazy night, I think that means we're in it for the long haul." She wet her lips, searching for the right words. "Maybe we just needed to get it out of our systems?"

He huffed a sound. "You'll never leave my system, Mel. You're one half of it."

Again, she had to resist crawling into his lap and wrapping herself around him like a bow, but she remembered the jarring loneliness of last night too well. Not being trusted with all of him was worse than having none of him, wasn't it? Yes, it was. Especially when she wanted to give him everything. All she had.

Vance gaped as the line of guests formed, his gaze swinging back to Beat. "I have ten thousand questions. And I'm not going to ask you any of them."

His breath escaped like helium from a balloon. "Thank you."

"But someday you're going to get drunk and tell me everything."

"Sure. I'm going to sing like a canary."

Vance laughed, studying his face closely. "No, you're not." He opened his mouth, closed it, and started again. "I always had this weird intuition that I didn't know the real Beat Dawkins, you know? Now I know it wasn't just a feeling. It's true. After seeing you with Melody..." Someone across the room called both of their names and Vance turned to wave, Beat following suit even though his arm suddenly weighed a hundred pounds. "You've kept a lot of yourself hidden, haven't you?"

Any other night, Beat would have pretended not to see the hurt and confusion in his friend's eyes, made a joke and veer the conversation into a different lane. But Vance was the second person to call him on his behavior in the space of thirty-six hours...and Beat couldn't run from the accusation anymore. Had he taken his quest for privacy way too far? Was he now driving people away by keeping his hopes and fears and secrets buried under the surface?

It seemed so. His friend was looking at him like he barely knew him.

Once again, she produced an artillery of snowballs seemingly out of thin air, cradling them in her arm as she ran toward him, firing as she came closer. They'd already established that Beat couldn't bring himself to throw anything at Melody, giving him no choice but to jog backward, deflecting the balls being launched at him. One by one, white burst in the air as the snowballs connected with his palms. When there was finally a ceasefire and Beat realized she'd run out of ammunition, he watched in disbelief as she barreled toward him, tackling him backward into a snow drift.

Melody, who just about reached his shoulder, launched herself through the air and brought him down. And pure joy almost fractured his chest muscles. Tendons stretched to allow the feeling to expand and it didn't merely spread, it ran wild, rocketing a laugh upward from the deepest recesses of his stomach, busting down a sky high barrier he'd put in place without even realizing it. A barrier against feeling this much happiness all at once. There was no keeping her out, though. She kicked it down and hurled herself over the debris and he could barely breathe over the rush of...everything. All at once.

Relief. Shock. Gratitude.


The avalanche of emotion was so overwhelming that it took Beat a moment to realize Melody had lifted her head to watch him in awe. "Ohhh..." she breathed.


"You're letting me see it, Beat," she whispered.

He started to breathe hard, more tendons snapping in his chest.

"You're so beautiful like this. Not hiding anything from me. From yourself."

Despite being lodged in a snowbank, he was hot. Everywhere. His skin prickled and heated more and more. What the hell was happening inside of him? He didn't know. But he couldn't look away from her unblinking eyes. She was the anchor holding him in place. Hiding wasn't an option. Not from Melody.

"Love doesn't come and go that easily. You need to believe you can lean on it, even when you have to lean really hard." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "I think maybe the people who love you want to be tested and leaned on sometimes, so they can show you how much you mean. Expressing love and trust is a gift to the person who receives it."

His chest dipped and expanded. "I'll give those things to you, Melody Gallard. Every day. If you let me back in."

"When," she whispered. "When. You'll have to trust me on that."

Beat sucked in a breath and nodded, falling back against the elevator wall to watch her leave through bloodshot eyes.

And then she was watching Beat walk into his interview room, the assistant clipping a microphone to his collar while he sat there looking dazed. A sixteen-year-old boy staring off into the distance.

"Is everything okay?" asked the interviewer, getting no response. "Mr. Dawkins?"

"Sorry, I..." He looked back at the door through which he'd entered. "I finally got to meet Melody Gallard."

"Was she everything you expected?"

"No." His chest rose and fell. "She was better."

The screen faded to black, spotlights blasting the stage.

Melody shook all the way down to her toes, her heart detonating like a bomb inside of her chest. She couldn't swallow, could barely see through the wall of moisture in her eyes.

Do you need me?

There isn't a single other person in this world I would ask.

After everything she'd learned about Beat during this process, she couldn't even fathom how difficult it had been for him to ask the favor. To trust her with it. To admit his vulnerability in front of her. And he'd done it on day one. He'd had faith in her at the start. He still did. She'd just been too hurt to recognize it.

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