Honestly, Wednesday was uneventful compared to Tuesday. I had spent the night before hugging Perry and thinking about Monty like a lovestruck idiot that by the time morning came around, I looked horrible. I piled on as much concealer as I could to hide my exhaustion and maintain a natural look, but I can tell that Tawni and Gabby saw right through it. They kept asking about Monty and how the rest of the night went–so finally, at lunchtime, I filled my friends in about everything. Our parents, the gangs back in Jesup, our “training,” the brand on my left shoulder blade and the meaning behind it, how Monty found me, and everything that occurred between us over the years.
“So you’re saying,” Kaine began, his tone shaky. “That your mom and dad groomed you and all of your siblings from a young age, and once you passed all their gross tests you’re marked as a member of their hybrid bandit gang?”
It was in times like those that Lizzie was grateful they chose to eat lunch far from the majority of students. Instead of trying to find a spot in the overflowing cafeteria, or opting for one of the crowded tables with attached benches in the courtyard, their group normally ate lunch at the foot of a crumbling fountain that was deemed the heart of their school. It was surrounded by cracked concrete and overgrown weeds, and sitting on its low walls was fashion suicide in the rainy season, but it was a memorable spot. Lizzie found herself drawn to its lore of bringing lovers together, and she often wondered if the fountain where Monty found her had a similarly romantic history.
Lizzie gave the area another quick survey–there were no students within earshot–before turning back to her friends and answering with a solemn nod.
Her friends were silent for a moment as they exchanged glances. Gabriella, Tawni, and Kaine especially looked as if they had questions.
Lizzie cleared her throat. “It’s okay if you guys have questions. If something you ask is triggering, I’ll let you know and we’ll switch gears, okay?”
They murmured their agreements, and Kaine half-heartedly raised his hand. “I’ll go first, if no one else minds.”
He trained his eyes on Lizzie, studying her expression. “You said you had how many brothers and sisters?”
She shrugged. “I mean, I had six when I left, but for all I know there could be more.”
Benji raised their hand next, prompting Lizzie to smirk.
“Uh, guys? You don’t have to raise your hand.”
“It makes requesting a turn easier,” Benji opined, lowering their hand. They and Gabby were seated shoulder to shoulder; the latter was watching Lizzie with kind eyes and an apologetic smile. “Were you and your brother Clint the oldest, and that’s why you left? Or was he the eldest and you the youngest, and he did it to help you get away?”
“Kind of neither, actually,” the senior revealed. “You got Clint being the oldest right, but I’m not the youngest or the next oldest.”
Benji’s forest green eyes twinkled as their brow furrowed slightly. “Interesting.”
“Well, it would make sense for the two eldest to run off together, because they would have a better chance of survival,” they offered. “But two teenage bandits would probably have trouble gaining sympathy from colonists, so the next best thing is for the eldest to take the youngest–however, then the burden of survival falls on the eldest, as a significantly younger sibling wouldn’t be able to maintain the same level of stealth as someone who’s older, stronger, and faster.”
Lizzie shook her head. “That’d make sense if bandit kids were raised like colonial kids, but we weren’t. As soon as I was able to walk, they were teaching me how to steal and stalk and kill. By fourteen, you’re all taking your first steps toward learning what it means to grow up, but by that age I was graduating.”
“Jeez, we get it. We’ve all been coddled compared to you,” grumbled Tawni. She hadn’t looked up at Lizzie for longer than a second since the former bandit had described her childhood; Tawni peeked up and sighed, regretful. “Fuck, I’m sorry, Liz. That wasn’t cool of me. Your childhood really sucked and I’m pissed that someone as sweet as you went through that.”
Lizzie offered her friend a contrite smile. “I get it. I don’t mean to make it seem like there’s no way you guys could have it bad or anything.”
Kaine lowered his gaze. Benji reached over to Gabby’s crossed legs and pried her hand off of her knee, squeezing it affectionately. Gavin and Koji exchanged swift, silent glances.
“And besides, neither of your plans would have worked well in our case, Benji,” Lizzie sighed. “Maggie and Lori were in too deep last I saw ‘em, and Addy and the twins were all wildcards. Clint and I had always been close, so I guess it made sense for him to bring the sibling he thought would listen to him the best.”
“What I want to know is, what happened to your brother?” Tawni wondered aloud. “I mean, he made it all the way here–you’d think he’d stick around to make sure you were cared for. Unless he went back to try to free the others, of course.”
Lizzie recalled the night of the escape and shuddered. All she remembered was the sounds of explosions, and Clint’s voice telling her to stay close as they ran to his pickup. “I think about that all the time.”
“How did you two actually get in?” Benji pressed. “There’s no getting past the angels–and even if you had made it over the wall, the prince can sense all movement within his claimed territory. The angels should’ve been on you guys within two minutes.”
Lizzie froze, her mind racing back to Monty in recent days. The prince had told her that he had known where she was on the evening of their reunion due to his rank-related ability. Monty hurried off last night and Sunday evening. I thought it was Alexa reaching out to him, but what if it was him sensing that something was wrong?
She broke from her train of thought; all of her friends were watching her with concerned eyes. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t actually remember how we got in–I fell asleep in the truck, and when I woke up I was in that fountain over in Forsyth. I stayed there ‘til Monty found me.”
“It’s kind of romantic, if you think about it,” Gabby shrugged. “I mean, Monty being the one who found you.”
Lizzie coughed out a nervous laugh. “I don’t think either of us had romantic thoughts that first meeting. He and Mona literally thought I was a kid, and I had never bathed before so I looked and smelled like ass.”
“So you’ve been friends all this time?” Gavin asked. It was the first time he had spoken since Lizzie revealed her past. “Was he living with you? Aren’t you at all worried that he groomed you to like him, like your parents did?”
Lizzie shook her head, thinking back to her conversation with Mona the night before. “No. Monty lived with Mona and me until their eighteenth birthday, and then he moved out. I didn’t see him again until last Sunday. Mona says he liked me even then, but because he had an idea what my childhood was like, he thought it best to step back.”
“I don’t get creep vibes from him,” Kaine remarked. “It’s obvious that he likes you a lot–and the fact that he didn’t approach you immediately after your eighteenth birthday means that he hasn’t been creepily counting the days until you were an adult. I wonder why he waited six months, though?”
“Maybe to not look like a creep?” Tawni suggested. “Or maybe he wanted to wait until after his coronation, but he couldn’t wait anymore so he went to see you Sunday with that prince ability.”
“That makes more sense,” Lizzie admitted before letting out a sigh. “I wish I knew what was up with him now, though. That’s twice now that he’s run off because of angel duties, and it’s only been a week. I like that he takes his position seriously, but will he ever have time for me?”
“He’ll make time.” The friends collectively turned to Koji, who had spent the whole time fiddling with his pocket knife. Weapons were not allowed on campus, but the freshman was adept at hiding things on his person. “If this guy likes you as much as you say he does, then he’ll make time. And if you like him as much as you say you do, you’ll wait for him and make the most of the time he can give you.”
The younger teen’s words reminded Lizzie of her interaction in Monty’s driveway the night before. Heat rushed to her cheeks. I still can’t believe I did that.
“What I’m dying to know,” Tawni spoke up; her usual playful tone had returned. “Is what the old prophet said to you! ‘Cause, no offense, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she asked to see you the same day of his coronation–especially if we’re going off of the assumption that Monty was going to wait until after the coronation to see you again.”
Gabby gasped and leaned in expectantly. “Yeah! What’d she say?”
Lizzie repeated the encounter as it happened, including the advice the Jovial psychic had given her. By the time she had finished, Gabby, Tawni, and Kaine were practically jumping from the excitement.
“Ohmigosh, it’s a prophecy! A prophecy!” Tawni squealed with delight.
Lizzie frowned. “What do you mean?”
“That ‘advice’ the old prophet gave you,” Kaine explained. “That wasn’t just advice–she saw your future and told you what you had to do in order to make it happen.”
The former bandit thought back to Desideria Alagona’s words and the overwhelming sensation of peace she felt upon hearing them. A prophecy…
“Are prophecies good or bad?” she asked. Aunt Desi’s words were replaying on a loop in her mind.
“They can be either or both,” said Benji. “So you could take her advice literally and burn Jesup to the ground, or you could take them figuratively and do your best to heal from your past.”
“Yeah–and after all that, you’ll be reborn!” Gabby bubbled. “Like a phoenix!”
Lizzie giggled with her friends and nodded as the mood calmed. “Well, between you guys, Mona, and the school therapist, I don’t think I’m doing so bad… But I think I know how to take things a step further.”
The former bandit took a deep breath, looked each of her friends in the eye one after the other, and said, “I want to become a scout, like Kent. I want to defend our borders and protect our people. I want to keep this place safe from my family… ‘Cause at the end of the day, they were never that for me. You guys are my family. Mona’s my family. Monty and most of the younger angels are my family–and I’ll do everything I can to keep my family safe.”