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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (21 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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He's the only guy in town who appreciates Mia, and she lights up like a bright-moth whenever he's around. How can I risk taking that away from her?

Sparring with him is like dancing, and every time he trusts me enough to tell me something, it feels like a gift.

Why did it have to be either/or? Wouldn't it be better if none of them had to choose?

Mia's round face was turned hopefully up to Jennie, framed by the same bowl haircut and slipping-down glasses she'd worn since she was eight. And yet Mia had been the one to cut through the dilemma that Jennie had seen no way out of without hurting someone. Which one of them was really more mature?

“How about if we ask him to go to the dance with both of us?” Jennie suggested. “If he says yes, we can see if we're having a good time or if it feels weird.”

Mia flashed the same warm smile that Jennie had loved when they were two little girls on a dusty playground. “Okay!” She added quickly, “But you ask him.”

• • •

Two days later, Jennie walked into Luc's, breathing in the toasty aroma of baking biscochitos. The light was dim, and a fan blew cool air over the jam-packed interior. Laura Hernandez played with the band, competing with the clinking of forks and the clamor of voices. Jennie waved.

Her heart thumped when she heard a familiar voice.

“Jennie! Come join us!” It was Sera.

The nine other Rangers had squeezed shoulder to shoulder at the biggest table. Indra gave a polite nod. Sera elbowed to make space, and the people on her bench scooted over until Julio nearly fell off the other end.

“Hey,” he protested. “Is that any way to treat your future captain?”

“Might not happen if you can't hold your seat,” cracked Sera, straight-faced.

Julio promptly scooted back, launching a turf war that only concluded when the table started to tip. Jennie squeezed in, half her butt hanging over the edge. Indra was three people over, but she felt as if she could measure every inch of the space between their bodies. She could hear every breath he took, and smell the faint, sweet ghost of the coconut oil he used on his hair.

“What if Jennie had tried to skirt around the pit mouth?” Julio asked, going back to the discussion they had obviously been having.

She was startled to hear her own name. They had cleared a space on the table, and were re-creating her disastrous patrol. Julio was moving the riders (blue corn chips) away from the rattlesnakes (knives) and around a napkin that apparently represented the pit mouth.

“With a bunch of panicking kids?” Frances used a knife to flick several chips onto the napkin, accompanied by gobbling noises. “She would have lost a couple.”

Sera nodded, her gaze on Jennie. “Paco said he didn't know which were scarier, the snakes or the thirteen-year-olds. Personally, I'd rather face the snakes.”

Frances absently munched a chip. “There's nothing much you can do in the heat if your patrol doesn't obey orders.”

Sera added dourly, “They're too young to be shot for insubordination. Unfortunately.”

The Rangers laughed as Luc appeared with a tray of tacos: crispy carnitas, chicken, rabbit, fish, and potato for Indra, who didn't eat meat. Jennie relaxed. At least this part of her life had gone back to normal, even if she couldn't help being very aware of him. From the studious way he ate his tacos, she suspected the feeling was mutual.

Afterward, as she headed home for Ross's dance lesson, memories arose with each puff of dust under her feet. Indra had walked her home every day for the past year, when they had both been students and Ranger candidates. They weren't yet talking again, but at least they could work together.

Everything she'd believed had been resolved now seemed open-ended and complicated. Did she want Indra to still care? Did she want to get back together? What did it mean that she was excited about going to the dance with Ross and Mia?

In her room, she pulled out one dress after another, but nothing seemed right.

Just pick something.
She put one on, barely even noting which it was. Mia had been so sure Jennie had all the answers, but all Jennie had were questions.

25

Ross

ROSS'S STEPS SLOWED AS HE APPROACHED THE RILEY
house, which seemed to be two adobe longhouses built in different styles and joined together, with extra rooms jutting out at random points. Ross couldn't figure out which was the front and which was the back, let alone where to go in.

A clamor of voices emerged from an open door, along with the smell of braising onions and sweet peppers. “No, I did not forget to latch the henhouse.” A blue-green light flashed in rhythm with the boy's voice. “I know better than that!”

“Well, someone let another chicken loose.” Ross recognized the deep, measured tones of Mr. Riley. “Or let something into the coop. Chickens don't teleport.”

“So you kids know what your job is.” The cheerful woman had to be Mrs. Riley. “Scat! Go find the missing chickens, or else find what got them.”

“Whoever finds them gets to pick tonight's bedtime story,” her husband added.

Ross was nearly knocked down by a mass of little kids shouting, “Here chicken, chicken, chicken!”

“Hey, Ross.” José waved at him. “Come on in.”

He looked for a place to put his shoes, then saw that everyone inside was wearing theirs. He stepped into an enormous kitchen. Mr. and Mrs. Riley, José, and a couple of teenagers sat at a long table. Their plates were scraped nearly clean.

“Hungry?” Mr. Riley asked. “Unfortunately, tonight's chicken stew is missing an ingredient—chicken! But there's plenty of vegetables and gravy.”

“Thank you.” Ross tried to remember the proper manners for declining a meal—not that he did it often. “I already ate. With Dr. Lee. And Mia.”

Mrs. Riley smiled. “You must be here to see Jennie. I'll let her know before I go to work.”

José offered him a platter of thumbprint cookies. “Did you feel the earthquake? There was another aftershock this morning.”

Ross bit through buttery shortbread and tart prickly pear jelly. “Yeah. The chimes woke me up again.”

“Chimes?”

“From the crystal . . .” Ross trailed off awkwardly at José's blank look. He'd thought the earthquake had made the singing trees ring out so loudly that they could be heard in town, but that must have been part of his dream.

“Dishes, guys.” Mr. Riley snapped his fingers. “It's your week to wash. Ross, would you like a glass of barley water while you're waiting?”

“I'm here.” Jennie appeared at an inner doorway.

Ross had been about to say he'd like the barley water, not because he was thirsty, but because he liked this warm room scented with hanging strings of herbs and garlic, and he liked the easy give and take of Jennie's family. Though the ceiling was low and the kitchen was crowded, he didn't feel trapped.

She beckoned to him. “I've finished my lesson plans, so we have the whole evening.”

She'd taken her hair out of its usual braids, and it stood out around her head like a black dandelion puff. Instead of the comfortable shirts and pants she taught and fought in, she was wearing a bright red dress with a skirt that ended above her knees.

She was as pretty as ever, but that dress, the color of blood—the color of the singing tree—he hated that color now. Dr. Lee had said his nightmares would fade with time, but, if anything, they were getting more and more vivid.

As they walked down a long hall, a gust of wind rose from beneath a closed door, rippling Jennie's skirt and startling Ross.

“Good work, Yolanda!” called Jennie. Another gust answered her.

“Yolanda lives here?” he asked, surprised.

“Yes. Lots of kids do. Paco Diaz lived with us when Sera was on Ranger missions until he was old enough to be left alone. Sometimes we take in Changed kids to teach them how to use their powers, or at least get used to them. But Yolanda . . .”

Jennie's voice stayed even, but Ross was used to watching for subtle alterations in her face when they sparred. Her eyes were narrowed in anger. “She Changed, and her parents disowned her. She says she won't go back even if they change their minds, so I guess we'll adopt her. She's already begun calling herself Yolanda Riley.”

Jennie's room was almost as big as Mia's cottage, but otherwise it was completely different. Framed pencil drawings of her family hung on the walls. The only things on the bed were pillows and an embroidered quilt. Plants grew in a box fitted into the window; the room smelled of sharp herbs and sweet flowers rather than of oil, metal, and chemicals. Both rooms, however, were full of pages from old books—Mia's lay in drifts on every flat surface, while Jennie's were neatly stacked on her desk, and there were even a few bound books on a shelf.

“Here.” She dropped a pile of folded clothes into his arms. “When Paco grew out of these, he donated them to us. Try them on. If they fit, you could wear them to the dance.”

Ross eyed the polished floorboards. Now that Jennie had mentioned trying the clothes on, which meant he'd have to take his own clothes off, he was too embarrassed to even look at her.

“I'll go make sure the play yard is empty. We can have our dance lesson there.” She opened her wardrobe. A full-length mirror hung on the inside of one door, and a crossbow, a sword, and two daggers were mounted on the other. “I'll knock before I come back in.” She whisked herself out.

The room held so much of Jennie's presence that he instinctively glanced around to make sure she was gone. It even smelled like her. She must put the herbs from the window box in with her clothes. He thought his mother might have done that.

He set his backpack down, making sure the book was tucked out of sight. Mia had encouraged him to show it to Jennie, and it would be fun to see her excitement—but he was uneasy enough having the Lees know. He'd already put them at risk. He might be endangering the Rileys as well.

He was as unused to thinking about these things as he was to borrowing clothes. But Jennie was waiting.

With a quick glance at the closed door, he shook out the garments. The black linen pants were embroidered down the outer seams, and the white shirt down the front and around the cuffs. The blue jacket was beautifully cut. The whole outfit was worth several months of work in trade, or a winter's worth of food. He could hardly believe that anyone would trust him with something so valuable, even for an evening.

Ross barely recognized the guy in Jennie's mirror. He looked tired, but not hungry. His hair was clean and brushed. Though the cuffs of the expensive shirt came down to his knuckles, the equally expensive pants fit perfectly. He looked . . . prosperous.

A knock at the door made him jump. “All dressed?” called Jennie.

Ross almost said no. He liked the thought of her seeing him in these fine clothes, but it also made him nervous. He forced himself to straighten up before he spoke. “Yeah.”

Jennie came in, red skirt swinging. Trying to avoid the sight of it, he watched her face instead, and was rewarded with a delighted grin. “You look great, Ross. Like it?”

“I'm afraid something will happen to it,” he admitted. “I might tear it, or spill a drink on it.”

“The nice thing about clothes is, you can wash them,” Jennie said with a chuckle. “But wear it with your own jacket, not Paco's. That should turn some heads.”

“My leather jacket?” It fit well and gave reasonable protection against cold and sharp objects, but it was hard to imagine it being an object of admiration. “It's old. It's patched. It's been through a million fights.”

“The fights are what make it cool. Most of the guys here would trade their younger sibs for it.” She smiled at him. “Speaking of a million fights, the kids keep wanting me to ask you about them. About what you've seen in the world. The whole town is interested in you. Most of us never get farther than our fields. Could I write a newspaper article about you?”

The thought of the entire town knowing things about him made his neck tighten.

Jennie said quickly, with another smile, “I don't mean now, but someday. Later on.” She indicated his old clothes. “Do you want to dance in those, or stay in what you're wearing?”

“I don't want to get these sweaty,” he said, glad she'd changed the subject.

Ross felt an odd mixture of relief and regret as he put on his old clothes. Then he stashed the dancing outfit in his backpack and followed Jennie into an empty yard fenced with juniper bushes. The hard-packed dirt was pale gold in the fading light.

“How much you do you know about dancing?” she asked.

Ross had come to hate all questions that began with “How much do you know,” but not as much as he hated the answers he had to give. “Nothing.” Of course.

“It's easy. Think of it as very slow set sparring. I move, you back up. You move, I give.”

She took a step toward him. He slid backward, his shoes moving smoothly over the even ground. He watched for the frown that would mean he was doing it wrong.

Instead, she smiled. “Good! Now you come forward. Step, don't slide.”

Ross took a step, and Jennie glided away.

“Forward.”

She stepped toward him. This time he retreated, matching how she placed her feet. Then she beckoned and he stepped forward. They repeated the sequence. As she'd promised, it was easy, not that different from what you'd teach someone first learning to fight.

She added in a sideways sway and began guiding him around in a circle. After all their sparring, it felt natural; he'd gotten used to the way she moved, though it was strange to go so slowly.

Jennie stopped, and he stopped with her.

“Okay, that's the basic step. Everything else is variation. Shall I show you some?” He nodded. “The first is the waltz. That's a dance for two. Put your right hand here.” She patted her waist.

Ross had touched her before, but rarely for longer than it took to strike or block. After that first match, he'd never managed to take her down again. The tree-red dress clung to her body, outlining the dip and curve of her hip.

“Slow sparring,” she said encouragingly. “Very slow.”

He put his hand on her waist. The cloth slid under his palm, and he had to press firmly to keep his hand in place. He could feel the warmth of her skin, and his hand slipped again as she inhaled.

The normal rhythm of her breathing was briefly interrupted, and a tiny muscle tensed in her jaw. If they had been sparring, he would have thought it had occurred to her that he could win.

She reached for his left hand. His fingers twitched, locked, and refused to close. The scar pulled and ached. But she molded her hand to his. Forcing his muscles to relax, he coaxed his fingers into clutching a little tighter. Her hand was cooler than her waist, with ridged calluses and scars on the striking surfaces of her knuckles.

She lifted their linked hands to shoulder height. “Move in place, step-two-three, step-two-three.”

Ross moved, unable to concentrate on anything but his right hand on the curve of Jennie's waist, his left hand holding hers, and the weightless touch of her other hand on his shoulder. Back two-three, forward two-three, and one step sideways. Linked together, they moved in that back-and-forth circle, close enough for him to feel her breath as she counted aloud.

So this was dancing. He relaxed into the pattern, inhaling her scent of dried flowers and herbs. Her half-closed eyes caught the ochre rays of the sinking sun, and tawny sparks glinted against deep brown.

“Ready for the fun stuff?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She took a big step, whirling him outward. He stumbled, then caught the rhythm. They spun and turned around the yard, step-two-three, step-two-three, until the house and the juniper bushes blurred around him, and her cloud of hair tickled his cheek.

After a while, she slowed and began to speak. “Paco wore that outfit for folklórico—that's a group dance. If you want to learn it, you'd have to ask him once his knee heals. But I can show you some different ones.”

She taught him some simple moves, then returned to the waltz. Unlike sparring, dancing wasn't so tiring that you were forced to do it in brief rounds or collapse from exhaustion. He wondered how people knew when to stop, but didn't ask for fear that she'd demonstrate. Maybe they could keep moving forever, step-two-three, step-two-three, just him and Jennie and the broad sky above them.

She finally brought them to a halt. Ross expected her to move away, but she didn't, leaving him conscious all over again that he had his hands on a girl's body. Two instincts fought in him: to pull her in and hold her close, and to run. He tensed with the effort of doing neither.

Jennie let go of his shoulder, twirled under his hand, and stepped back. It was natural to let their hands drop then, and he surreptitiously wiped his clammy palms down his jeans.

“And also we have solo dances!” Her words came faster than usual. “I forgot about those.”

“Dancing alone? With people watching you?”

“You don't have time to learn one anyway,” Jennie said hastily. “But I can show you one of mine. No one's seen it yet. You'll be the first.” She clapped her hands in a fast beat. “Can you keep this rhythm?”

Ross's left arm ached too much to clap, so he slapped his right thigh instead. She stamped her feet while her arms moved with piston-like precision, mapping patterns that were almost too fast to see: her left arm executed a set of five gestures, her right did a different set of eight, and all the while her hips swung to make her skirts fly out and her feet pounded a counterpoint to his beat.

All those difficult movements were done with the same beauty and power she brought to her martial arts. Ross could have danced with her forever, but he could have watched her forever, too.

With a quick grin, she leaped high into the air and threw herself backward in a spectacular series of flips, landing on her hands just before she would have crashed into the junipers. She balanced upside down, her skirt over her head, long dark legs in scarlet shorts stretched out elegantly, toes pointed toward the sky. Then she brought her legs down slowly, showing off her strength and control, until she was bent over backward like a bridge, her palms and soles pressed to the ground. She stood with a flourish, as if it had all been easy.

BOOK: Stranger
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