“Hey, King, how you feeling?”
Chloe closed her eyes and sighed, resisting the urge to rest her head against the locker behind her. She knew Scott was just being friendly—he wasn’t even making a joke—but the reality of Chloe’s situation was exhausting. All her life she had been content to surf the shallow waters of the pond of high-school popularity, reveling in her basic anonymity.
Of course, all that was over now.
“I’m still a little tired,” she said, turning around with a wan smile. “But mostly better. Thanks.”
“Dude, that shit is serious. My cousin got it and he had to be homeschooled over the summer, he was so far behind.” Scott adjusted his headphones and made a gunlike gesture at her. “Peace out.”
Why did it have to be mono? she wondered for the fiftieth time that day. Coming down with Epstein-Barr was the fake excuse Sergei had fed the school’s administrators about Chloe’s long absence, and even now that the dust had settled, Chloe didn’t think sharing the real reason for her absence would go over too well.
Sorry about the whole not-showing-up-at-school-for-a-few-weeks thing, Chloe pictured herself saying to the principal. You see, I’m a cat person and had to hide with others of my kind in a gigantic mansion called Firebird that also houses a real estate firm while this ancient Masonic-like cult tried to hunt me down because they think I killed one of their assassins. Oh, also, I have nine lives and am apparently the spiritual leader of my people, who believe they were created by ancient Egyptian goddesses.
Nope. Chloe couldn’t imagine it would fly.
“But couldn’t it at least have been a brain tumor? Or even a nose job?” she wondered aloud. She watched Scott walk down the hall, slapping hands with actual friends. He was only someone that Chloe knew vaguely before, but at least his reaction was better than most. Keira Henderson, for instance, kept telling everyone how there should be a special health class devoted just to STDs and Chloe.
Of all the things Sergei had done to her, the mono/“kissing disease” lie was up there with the worst. Well, of the thingsshe could actually prove he’d done, that is. It was hard to pin down exactly when keeping her safe from assassins had turned into just plain keeping her. And while the Order of the Tenth Blade was an organization whose sole purpose was to wipe out the Mai cat people, they had kidnapped Chloe’s mom, insisting it was for her own protection. At the showdown in the Presidio their leader swore that Sergei would stop at nothing to cut Chloe’s ties to her human friends and families, and even though Chloe had come to see Sergei as sort of a surrogate dad over the previous few weeks, she found herself wondering if it might be true.
Chloe had really hoped life would get back to normal when she left the Mai, returned home, and went back to school. No such luck. Not yet, anyway. The Order was reasonably quiet now that Chloe had given up one of her lives to save her mom and everyone realized she was “the One.”
Plus—and Chloe wasn’t even really talking to anyone at Firebird right now—her feelings toward Sergei were still unresolved, Brian was missing, and, well, she was still torn between him and Alyec. And everyone thinks I have mono. Great. Chloe pulled out her cell phone and called Brian, but it clicked immediately over to voice mail, like it had the last twenty times she’d tried. And his voice mail was full. She hadn’t heard anything from him since the night she’d died and come back saving her mom from the crossfire between the Mai and the Order. Brian, the son of the Order’s leader, had come out on her side—and vengeance was promised by the rest of the Bladers. He had said his goodbyes at her window, where they’d shared a kiss through the glass pane, and then he’d disappeared into the dark city.
“Hey, Selina, what up?” Paul asked, going up to his own locker. He had taken to calling her that since she had told him and Amy about her true nature. Selina was Catwoman’s alter ego, and, she suspected, his way of dealing with the fact that she had superpowers while he, the comic geek, remained a normal human. Whatever helps him cope, thought Chloe.
“So, besides being tired all the time and getting mocked by the general school population, are there any other symptoms of mono I should know about?” Chloe asked.
“I know you can’t go to some countries in Africa because Epstein-Barr interacts with some weird fungus and can kill you,” Paul said diplomatically. “No African countries, no weird fungi. Check and check.” She thought vaguely of the Pride in New Orleans, made up primarily of Mai who had chosen to stay in Africa after they were forced to leave Egypt and had eventually migrated to Louisiana.
“How you doing, dealing with being back and all?”
Chloe sighed and leaned against the lockers, hands behind her head. “Let’s see. Three weeks of extratricky trig to catch up on, I somehow managed to miss the Civil War Reconstruction, and I have to figure out oxidation-reduction reactions on my own in the lab after school. Oh,” she said, snapping her fingers, “and Moby-Dick. The entire thing, whale meat, peg legs, and all, by next Tuesday.”
“That, uh, sucks,” Paul said.
“I don’t think they have invented a word beyond sucks yet that adequately describes my academic situation,” Chloe reported. They started walking down the hall together, Chloe dragging her feet to phys ed, seriously bummed. She still hadn’t decided between blowing Mr. Parmalee’s mind by suddenly slam dunking something or pulling a Smallville and trying to hide her secret powers by acting like a normal, physically inept slacker.
“What about, you know.” Paul searched for his words awkwardly, something he rarely did. He made a little clawing gesture.
“Fitting in with you monkeys like a normal human being?” Chloe said dryly. “It’s really not that big a deal, Paul. I’ve done it my whole life.”
He nodded, but Paul’s expressive caterpillar eyebrows were drawn together a little, like an anime character miming worry. Paul swished down the hallway in his hipster DJ track pants and Chloe realized she hadn’t seen him in khakis since … well, before she discovered who she really was and fell in with the Mai. As she pushed her way into the locker room, a thought occurred to her: I wonder what else I missed.
When she went over to Amy’s that evening to study, her friend’s already cloth-covered and messy bedroom looked like a costume factory had exploded—a sure sign that Halloween was on its way. There were Styrofoam coffee cups filled with sequins, beads, buttons, and other shiny things dotting every free surface. Bits of lace and pieces of velvet were strewn everywhere. A glue gun and scissors and needles and a sewing machine all perched precariously in one corner, as if afraid of falling into the chaos below and being incorporated into an outfit. Amy’s previous triumphs were hung on hangers, looking strangely organized against the chaos of the rest of the room. She was already playing her Halloween music: Buffy: The Musical blasted through her old-school wood speakers that were hidden under the craft crap.
“I’m thinking seventeenth century,” Amy said, a finger to her lips. “You know, by way of the undead. Zombie, not vampire.”
“Yeah. Vampires are so passé,” Chloe muttered, erasing the math problem she was working on and starting over again. She had managed to carve herself a little nest on one end of her friend’s bed and was using a bolt of muslin as a lap desk. In front of her, Chloe’s notebook teetered unevenly on her math book, covered with sines and cosines and bits of equations.
Amy took her friend’s comment at face value. “I know! Isn’t it ridiculous? But this will be great. I’ll use real boning in the corset this time—you know that place Dark Garden? They said they’d sell me scraps of their two-way coil boning and tips to go over them.”
“Amy, I’m trying to not get held back here,” Chloe said, raising her math book so she could see it. “No offense, but I really have to knuckle down.”
“Oh yeah, sorry, no problem.” Amy squinched her nose and Chloe tried not to laugh. Her friend’s dark hair was frizzing out all around her face, exploding out of the strip of cloth she’d tried to tie it back with. There were giant, baby-diaper-sized safety pins lined up neatly on her T-shirt’s shoulder, and a measuring tape hung around her neck. “I am all about schoolish things these days.” She leapt and crash-sat on the bed, causing Chloe to hug the textbook to her chest and grab her calculator for its safety. “Look at this!”
Amy pulled a pamphlet out of the back of her jeans. She had been wearing pants a lot more often these days, ones that were—for her—surprisingly tight and shapely. She used to, um, eschew them as being banal and pedestrian, Chloe thought carefully, trying to use her SAT words. She took the brochure and began reading.
“ ‘Fit’? What the hell is that, a new diet?”
“No, it’s F-I-T, the Fashion Institute of Technology. In New York. It’s like, the best clothing design college in the country. Very prestigious.”
Chloe looked at the photos: people dressed weirdly—like Amy—sitting in classrooms, walking happily down the street, pinning things up on mannequins, designing jewelry on computers. “Cool. Looks great,” Chloe said, handing the pamphlet back. “But, uh, you’ve got a ways to go yet, you know? We’re sophomores, remember?”
“Yeah.” Amy blushed and looked down. “I’m, uh, kind of thinking about graduating a year early.”
“What?” Chloe demanded, putting her book aside.
“Chloe, I’m done here,” Amy said, sighing. “I’m already taking one AP course—with just three more by next summer I’ll have fulfilled all my requirements.”
“I … shit,” Chloe said, unsure what to say. The only other person she knew who’d graduated early was Halley’s older brother, a certified genius who went immediately to MIT, not FIT. It wasn’t the sort of thing people like them—her and Amy and Paul—did.
One more year and suddenly Amy would be gone from her life.
“Actually, you—I mean, what’s happened with you—was abig part of my decision,” Amy said shyly, her blue eyes round and big. “You know, the last month when you weren’t really here, when you were doing that whole Mai thing and none of us knew what was going on—you had this whole other life going on. You’re, like, a cat person, and leader of your people and dealing with feuds that go back hundreds of years and you’re, like, sixteen. And still going to school. I want a cool life, too.”
They were both silent for a moment.
“I’m not ‘the leader of my people,’” Chloe finally mumbled, opening up her math book again. For the next few hours they interacted normally: Amy interrupted Chloe’s studying, constantly asking what she thought of a particular fabric or lace, and Chloe responded by throwing things at her. They took a break at eight thirty and Mrs. Scotkin made them espresso and s’mores over the flames on her stove. At ten the two friends stopped working and watched The Daily Show with John Stewart.
On the drive home, as Amy chatted excitedly about FIT and her plans for next year, she kept looking askance at Chloe. She’s been wanting to tell me this for a while, Chloe realized. She ’s been working herself up to it.
When they pulled up the driveway, Chloe’s mom was already looking out the kitchen window for her. Amy waved. Chloe sighed and gritted her teeth. Anna King never used to do that, and if she was waiting up, she always made it look like she was doing something else, like watching TV or reading. Her philosophy was to respect her teenage daughter and trust her—something her ex-husband hadn’t agreed with. Although Chloe hardly remembered him, her adoptive dad had had been very overprotective. He’d even told her mom that Chloe shouldn’t date. Ever. Chloe wondered if it was possible that he had known who she was all along—a Mai, a lion person—and that any human she was intimate with would die.
Chloe waited as long as she could, waving at Amy until the black Malibu faded into the black night, its red taillights growing smaller like a match going out. Finally it was time to go in.
“Hey …” Chloe stepped inside the warm house.
“Hey, Chloe. How was your day?” Her mom sounded casual and was washing something in the sink. For just a moment, Anna King looked like a suburban housewife, not a single mom who lawyered by day and had to deal with her adopted freaky lion girl at night. Even though things had basically turned out all right, Chloe still couldn’t forgive herself for her mom’s kidnapping.
“All right. I got most of my math done at Amy’s—if I can get through fifty pages of the Dick tonight, I’ll be golden.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t call it that,” Anna said, giving a smirk that was—just for a second—all lawyer and old mom. “Do you want anything to eat?”
There had suddenly been a lot of extra meat in the fridge, and while Chloe wished her mom would stop trying to be so subtly and awkwardly supportive, she was secretly grateful. She hadn’t gone totally Atkins since her claws first came out, but she definitely found more of a preference for things salty and red these days. Vampires are so passé, she thought. Cats are in now. “I’ll grab something in a little while. ...