I hated leaving Zachary last night, and not just because he’s more delicious and addictive than all my grandmom’s Italian pastries combined. I knew it was his first night spent alone in months, since…
My gut curdles at the thought of what they did to him. He thinks I don’t see the fear flash across his face at the commonplace sight of a white DMP van, that I don’t feel the tension in his fingers grasping mine. He’s afraid of my country.
But based on the attention he’s getting right now, he’s warming up to it again.
“Zach, you look amazing!” My best friend Megan shoulders the forty thousand other girls out of the way to hug him. I send her a mental thank you and try not to laugh when she stomps on Tori Benson’s toes.
“Hey, Aura,” says a warm, familiar voice behind me. I turn to see Dylan, Megan’s date—also, my date last year and younger brother to my dead ex-boyfriend.
This should be awkward. “Hi, Dylan.”
“Hey. You look…amazing, of course.” He shifts his feet awkwardly, and in one second I’m taken back to a year ago, when we stood on this spot and he admitted he wanted me. He did that same foot-shift.
But things have changed. He’s with Megan now, sort of. It must just be the memories.
Zachary’s at my side in an instant, extricated by Megan from the crowd of admirers. “Hiya, Dylan.”
“Hey.” Dylan lifts his chin, then points to his own cheek. “Got a little lipstick there, bro.”
Zachary’s eyes widen, and he reaches for the handkerchief in his tux pocket.
“You do not,” I tell him.
Dylan shrugs and looks away. “Sorry, guess it was the light.”
For a moment, we all say nothing, and the James Bond theme playing at the photo booth behind us seems suddenly loud.
And then, a moment later, it gets even louder, as all the voices in the foyer stop.
“It’s okay, kids!” says a deep, authoritative voice. “Just have your fun. Nothing to see here.”
I step to my right to look between Zachary and Megan. Four DMP agents in white uniforms are at the front door, blocking the exit.
“What the hell are dumpers doing here?” Dylan says.
Zach freezes. Megan puts a protective hand on his arm. “You have GOT to be kidding me,” she growls.
The two youngest, buffest agents step forward. “Mr. Moore, we’d like you to come with us.”
Zach’s eyes meet mine. He wants to run, I can tell. So do I.
But the last time he was detained and resisted arrest, trying to defend his mom and sick father from the FBI, they used it as an excuse to keep him. And from the FBI, it only got worse.
I move forward to press against him, entwining my arm with his. “They won’t take you alone.”
F***ing hell. Another van. Same dark interior, same white uniformed agents.
I really need to stay oot of this country.
Aura stays close beside me in the rear of the vehicle. Not huddling, though, or looking to me to protect her. I know she’s pepper spray in her purse, and they’ve not taken it. They’ve not searched me, either.
That’s how I know they’re fake. They aren’t the DMP agents they pretend to be.
Their guns, however, are real. I’ve been shot once, with no desire to repeat that experience. Staring at the bigger “agent’s” sidearm, I rub the exit-wound scar just under my right collarbone. Aura notices, and I stop, putting my hand back in hers.
If they’re not DMP, could they be Nighthawk? If so, we could be on our way to a quiet execution in some dismal swamp. Or to a concrete interrogation cell.
I won’t let them take her. They can beat me, cut me, break me, and it’d be nothing compared to what I endured last summer. All for Aura.
We slow for a traffic light. Through the front window I can see we’re at the intersection of Pratt Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, only a few streets from the exit to the highway. This could be our last chance.
Aura sees it, too, and slips her feet out of her high-heeled shoes, ready to run.
The van starts to ease into the right lane, then suddenly swerves left. I grab Aura as we’re thrown back against the wall of the van. My head slams something hard, making my skull reverberate with pain in every direction.
One wheel of the van bounces onto the median strip of the boulevard. The “agents” across from us spill onto the floor. Aura yelps in fear, and my mind fills with the image of the traffic coming the other way.
But the van lurches to a halt. The bigger chap, the one with the shaved head and sunglasses, reaches across the floor for a dark, dull grey shape.
The pistol he dropped.
In a split second that seems an hour, I choose between tackling him or going for the gun. But it’s too far to get and he’s too big to overcome.
I opt for the third choice. Reaching under the left side of my kilt, I jerk down the collapsible Smith & Wesson baton attached to the inside of my belt. The clasp releases, and with one hard snap of my wrist, the baton expands from the length of my hand to the length of my arm. Two feet of steel encased in solid black rubber.
what’s under this lad’s kilt.
The thug’s hand closes around the pistol’s barrel, but before he can lift it, I slam the end of my baton on his knuckles. He howls in pain and lets go, long enough for me to kick the gun out of his reach, with my heel so it goes behind me.
The guy grabs my ankle. In adrenalin-fueled panic, I crack the baton against his wrist again and again. Finally he releases me, and I stumble back.
Behind me comes a Valkyrie screech, then a man’s high-pitched cry of pain. I turn my head to see the other agent on his knees, covering his left eye. Aura draws back for another blow, wielding her spiked-heeled shoe. His other hand snakes out, seizes her wrist.
“NO!” Swinging the baton with both hands, I bring it down and around with full force, against the back of his shoulder. He pitches forward, dragging her with him onto the floor.
I raise the baton again, ready to bash in his head, knowing it could mean losing my freedom forever. I’ve given that up for her once. I’d do it again, for the rest of my life, if that’s what it takes.
The rear doors open, letting in a flood of flashing red and blue lights. Four police officers stand with their weapons drawn, shouting words so fast I can’t understand. I step back, drop the baton, and put my hands up.
[Author's note: I was asked what the baton looks like. Here it is in its deployed state. Collapsed and concealed it would just be the part on the right that looks like a handle.]
But for once, the guns aren’t pointing at me.
“Kids, it’s all right,” one of the uniformed officers says. “Come on out of there. Careful.” He steps forward, offering a hand to Aura while his partner trains the gun on the man who was holding her.
Behind them on the median strip, Dylan and Megan, along with two other students whose names I can’t remember, are standing next to a female officer. The right front bumper of Dylan's black SUV is streaked with white paint, the same white of the van I’m standing in now.
Nice one, mate.
I pick up the baton I dropped and step around the fake agent.
“I’ll take that club,” says the young officer helping us out of the van. “You know it’s illegal to carry a concealed weapon in the State of Maryland.”
I wobble a bit as I step down onto the grassy median. Still dazed from the fight, I look at the baton held at my side. “It’s not concealed. Where would I—”
“Here.” The officer takes the baton from me and jabs the end against the side of the van. With a bang and a zip, the thing collapses back to its original eight-and-a-half-inch length. He holds it up. “You could hide that anywhere.” He glances down at my kilt and shakes his head. “Man, something new every day in this job.”
By the time Zach and I—and Megan, Dylan, Jenna, and Christopher, who saved our butts by running the kidnappers’ van off the road—finish at the police station, the prom is almost over.
Gina showed up—as my aunt to make sure I was okay, and as a lawyer, to make sure they didn’t charge Zachary with the misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon under his kilt. It was one of those gray areas where law enforcement can use its discretion. Zach did, after all, fend off people who were trying to kidnap us.
They weren’t really DMP agents, which we’d figured out. But they knew we were the First and the Last, born on either side of the Shift. It was only a matter of time before some random criminals thought we’d be valuable enough to hold for ransom.
I wish I could say this was the worst Prom Night ever, but it still beats last year. I’d rather be kidnapped at gunpoint than watch Zachary dance with Becca Goldman. Probably.
When we arrive back at Ridgewood High, most of our classmates have left, off partying in hotel rooms or people’s houses. The photographer is breaking down his cheesy James Bond casino backdrop, and the “bar” is all out of “mocktinis.” Sadness.
In the gymnasium, where the pulled-back bleachers are draped in silver, black, and gold, there are maybe twenty people still on the dance floor, jamming to a nu-metal/hip-hop mashup.
“Wait here.” Zach squeezes my hand and heads for the DJ station. I watch him walk away, his stride confident and steady, the kilt brushing the top edge of the backs of his knees.
“Wow.” Megan puts her arm around my shoulders and watches him with me. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I am at this moment burning that mental picture into my permanent memory.”
Dylan comes to stand on my other side, then sighs. “Takes a lot of, um, guts to wear that.”
I nudge him with my elbow. “Thanks again for saving our lives. Or almost killing us.”
He shrugs. “Since Operation Scot Free last summer was a complete fail, I had to try version 2.0.”
In a minute, Zachary returns to us, looking a little nervous.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him.
“Nothing.” He gives a quick tug to each sleeve of his short black tuxedo jacket. “I hope you like the song I chose.”
“Why wouldn’t I—” I cut myself off as the pounding bass fades into a sweet acoustic guitar. “Oh.”
He bites his upper lip, dark brows pinching together. “Is it a’right, then?”
Any other words are useless, especially considering the song. I step close to him, wrap my arms around his neck, and pull him into a sweet, aching kiss.
Zachary makes that low, soft sound in the back of his throat and draws me closer, his hands firm around my waist. He deepens the kiss as Alison Krauss breaks into the chorus of “When You Say Nothing at All.”
“We’ll just be over…away…now,” Megan says. “Yeah.”
When Zachary and I finally open our eyes, she and Dylan are gone. We start to dance, our bodies pressed together, barely moving.
“I really wanted to do that last year,” I tell him, “when we were dancing to this song.”
“Aye, me, too.”
“Why didn’t we? Besides the fact that we had other dates.”
“Because we were daft.” He brushes his lips over the corner of my jaw, right below my ear. “Because we didn’t know we were already together.”
We stop talking, letting the wisdom of the song dissolve our past foolishness.
So many have tried to steal our future. They put Zachary away, tried to shatter his spirit and shake my faith. All to gain the powers we were born with, the powers that become something new and world-changing when we’re together.
But no matter the odds, or the ferocity of our foes, somehow we always come out stronger, and closer, and more hopeful than ever.
And that? Is the best power of all.
(A short hotel-room epilogue to come in a separate post!)