He was afraid to touch her. Would she lash out like a sleepwalker or think he was trying to hurt her? They were good friends but not too close. Theirs was one of his most valued relationships. He didn’t want to lose it, but he had to help Emma. She still held onto the rail, but her arms were twitching, like she was trying to fight off something.
“Emma? Hey, Emma! Are you okay?” Tracer tapped her shoulder, ever so lightly.
Emmaline was almost coughing, like she was choking. Her head jerked back and forth, but not in a head shake to say no. She made funny noises, like her mouth was covered by something, and her eyes squeezed shut. She slipped sideways, falling into the railing. He caught her by the shoulder as carefully as he could.
“Emma! Emma! Hey! Snap out of it! Emma!”
Her eyes opened suddenly, and he could tell she was coming back. She shook under his touch, and when she met his gaze, her face flushed a deep, strawberry pink. Then she looked away, and when he looked back, he saw half of the kids from their old school staring at them through the window. Jeering. Sneering.
Ah, nuggets. Now they’re gonna think we were gonna kiss. I hate crowds.
Emmaline slipped away from him and headed straight through the crowd of peepers. Tracer realized with great chagrin that there was only one way out, save jumping off the balcony. He followed after her at a distance.
Just as he reached a more open spot where he could see both Emma and the door, Waximitt St’ail stepped into his way. “Hey, T-man, you goin’ somewhere? Tryin’ to get back with yer girlfriend?” Wax moved closer, always grinning stupidly. He loved to bug people, but this was torture and intrusion. And Wax knew it.
“Get outta my way, moron,” growled Tracer, disgust written across his face.
“Or what, T-man? You gonna hit me, you big showoff? Huh? Huh?” Wax shoved him back. Tracer realized he was stuck in a big circle of partygoers, most of them sneering.
“No. I will.”
Wax turned and found Emmaline in his face, wings flared up in multicolored splendor. Tracer wanted to tell her not to fight Wax, but the look on her face told him to keep his mouth shut. He’d only seen it once or twice when he had insulted one of her favorite superheroes, Thunder, and it had scared him then.
“Sorry,” scoffed Wax. “I don’t fight girls.” He glanced at Tracer, and if it was possible, an even more devious grin crawled across his face. Wax added, “Especially the pretty ones.” He reached for Emma’s face.
Tracer lunged for Wax, but his cronies grabbed his arms. It took four or five of them to keep him back. He struggled to get away but relented when he saw the calm, stoic expression on Emma’s face.
When Wax’s hand was just inches from her face, Emma said, “Touch me and you’re dead.” Her wings twitched ominously, hands curling.
“Zat so, babe?” He glanced deviously at Tracer, his hand suspended in midair. He looked back at Emmaline, drawing closer and reaching again, this time for the back of her neck. Emma didn’t blink.
He’s going to try to kiss her! Tracer surged unsuccessfully, trying to escape the grip of Wax’s minions just as Wax drawled, “Why not just one little dan – ”
The crack of Wax’s nose made everyone flinch, but what followed made them gasp. He didn’t stop sliding through the crowd until he hit the sound equipment, leaving a streak of red behind him. The room was filled with silence, and his curses reached every crevice and hollow where people were hiding and making out. Everyone’s attention was on the arena in the middle, shifting slowly between Waximitt and Emmaline.
“That’s right, turdface,” retorted Emma. “Why don’t you go wash up in a toilet?”
“Hey!” whined somebody. “Don’t be mean!”
Oh, dang, that was so not the right thing to say, thought Tracer. He tried wrestling his way out of the grip of Wax’s henchmen, but they stayed firm.
“Oh, so now I can’t be mean?” yelled Emmaline, her face contorting in unmatched fury. She turned slowly, facing each area of the circle. “So I don’t get an excuse to be ticked off? I can’t stand up to people, huh? Like you guys were all nice to me!” She laughed coldly. It sent shivers down Tracer’s spine.
“Shut up, Emmaline! Nobody cares what you think, Teacher’s Pet!” called Wax, wiping his bloody nose on his black sleeve as he stood up.
“Unless you want quick answers to absurdly easy homework,” she jeered back. Tracer wondered if she was really herself. This wasn’t the Emmaline he knew. But then again, there were a lot of things about Emma he didn’t know until the day before.
“Get over it, nerd girl! You just study all the time because you don’t have any friends!”
“That’s a lie and you darn well know it, prunehead! Now shut it and let us out before I give you another!”
Wax grinned a mouthful of shark’s teeth. “So you are together, aren’t you? Yo, T-man, you asked her out yet? Huh? C’mon, man, she’s right here! Ask already!”
Someone started chanting, “Ask her out. Ask her out.”
Tracer’s face grew hot. He could tell they wouldn’t let either of them out until he did.
“Ask her out. Ask her out.”
He glanced at Emma. Her face was turning red, too, but from more than embarrassment.
“Ask her out. Ask her out.”
He struggled to find words, angry to be trapped like this. How was he supposed to say it when he didn’t want to? Not in front of these people.
“Ask her out. Ask her out.”
Tracer watched Emmaline, silently begging for ideas to get out of it. Her hand curled.
The strobe light blew out, and sparks rained down on a screaming mob of teenagers. A multicolored globe exploded and then a set of hypno-lights. They went out like metallic popcorn, spraying gold light everywhere, until only the emergency lights from the door remained. Girls screamed as their hair was burned, and the fog maker spewed smoke. In seconds, the room was a dark, smoky whirl of adolescents running to get out and to get air. Tracer coughed and with his captors gone, he searched for Emma. He couldn’t see anybody until he ran into Falcon.
“What’s going on?” Falcon choked, leaning up against a root. “I couldn’t see anything!”
“I dunno. One second she’s there, next second all Hell breaks loose!” yelled Tracer. Kael, Wayk, and Gator melted out of the chaotic crowd. “Where’s Emmaline?” Wayk repeated. They stuck their heads around the group of roots they were pinned by. “I don’t see her!”
Emma dropped down from the ceiling. Tracer noted again that she didn’t move her wings. She grabbed his hand and Falcon’s, and the rest instinctively grabbed each other’s. He saw her glance at the ceiling, and as a new wave of people jostled by the root wall, she Shifted.
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