Two months passed.
Despite the time that flew by, nothing changed with the Neverseen, according to Dex. They hadn't made any progress, which Stina didn't mind at all. The less time he spends on dangerous activities, the less chance he has to get hurt. She thought he was much better off with her, spending the days being a normal kid rather than a freedom fighter. It was bad enough that her father was involved with the Black Swan; even worse that he wouldn't tell her anything about it. Stina loved days like this, spent just with Dex. They were always the highlight of her week.
This day in particular was a bright and sunny Saturday, and they'd just finished up watching a movie from the Human Cinema; a theater that had recently opened in Atlantis showcasing popular movies from the Forbidden Cities. The two had seen a film about what humans pictured dinosaurs to be, and had something to do with them breaking loose and hunting down the humans. Stina hadn't really been paying attention, and neither had Dex.
The two couldn't get over the fact that the dinosaurs were ugly, scaley and naked. Instead, they spent the whole two hours giggling at the absurdity of it. “I can't believe the humans accept this as history.” Stina laughed as they were leaving the cinema. “It's kind of sad, really.”
“It's guess it's not doing them any harm.” Dex shrugged, and Stina was reminded then that he'd practically been desensitized to human movies. “This is far from the craziest it gets.”
After the movie they had bounced from shop to shop, hardly wary of running into either of their friends. At first they'd tried to keep their outings discreet, exploring quiet forests or visiting slow, lowly populated shops or attractions. But as time passed, their reservations faded. Of course, neither child openly admitted their friendship, but it was more a matter of avoiding annoying questions. Stina wouldn't have cared if Dex wanted to say anything. In fact, a part of her wished she could just be open about it. She only kept quiet about it for Dex's sake. He doesn't want to explain it to his group. And Stina was okay with that. For now.
“I got your midterms present.” She said casually, leaning against a lamp post. “It won't have a name tag, for obvious reasons. It'll be wrapped in bright gold paper. But I think you'd know who it was from as soon as you see it.” Stina was amused by his surprised panic. “Calm down. I know you've been so preoccupied with your Black Swan stuff, but the tests aren't for another two weeks. I just decided to be an early bird.”
“I forgot all about midterms! I haven't gotten anyone presents yet, either.” Dex sputtered.
“Relax! I'll help you shop for them now.” She winked at him. “I'm a master gift giver!”
It felt so good to have a real friend. At school, the girls she hung out with were more like followers, people who stuck with her for the sole purpose of not being against her. Dex was more like an equal. You don't need to get me anything. Stina wanted to say. The time you spend with me is enough.
Eventually they ended up in a random candy store, buying a big bag of mood candy. She always thought that it tasted best when he was around; a bright, sweet, slightly warm flavor. “So, you worried about any of your midterms?” Stina asked as she popped a morsel into her mouth. “I'm only concerned about The Universe, myself.”
“Uh, yeah.” Dex said, fidgeting with his hands. “I'm pretty much just winging it. Planning for Tam’s rescue has been soaking up all my free time, but… I mean, nothing is too difficult.”
Tam’s rescue? Stina tilted her head, deciding not to say anything. “I'm sure you'll pass. You're, like, the smartest Technopath I know, and your Alchemy is better than any other Level Four.” She hadn't meant for it to sound all gushy, but Dex started blushing. “Okay, you're not that good. But you're my best friend.”
This made Dex blush even more.”I think you're mine, too. I… I haven't had a best friend for a while.” Suddenly, Dex's Imparter went off. “Um, I gotta take this.” He jumped to his feet, seemingly trying to hide Stina from the Imparter’s view, but she saw that the caller was Sophie. “Yeah, hang on, let me find somewhere more private to talk.” He told her, squeezing between two buildings.
Stina crossed her arms, the mood candy turning sour in her mouth. Why am I jealous? She's with Fitz! But Sophie would always be the special Moonlark. She'd always be the one Dex prioritized. The envious sour turned into a sad, bitter loneliness. No matter what Stina did, how much time she spent with Dex, Sophie always came first.
Hearing Dex returning, Stina tried to hide her emotions. But it wasn't easier. Even harder when he said, “I have to go! The team's made a breakthrough! Oh, and meet me here tomorrow!” He leapt away, not seeming to notice her crestfallen expression. And as she sat on the bench, alone, Stina could feel awful loneliness rise in her chest. What do I have to do to make him want to be with me?
The bell rung out, signaling all students to put their pencils down and hand in their tests. As it turned out, The Universe was the easiest midterm Stina had taken all day. In fact, none of the midterms tests were very difficult. Only her Empathy class challenged her.
Apparently, most mentors were going easy on the prodigies, worried that they were losing sleep over the Neverseen attack. Everyone knew now that the bad guys were ahead, but Stina was hardly worried. If Sophie and her friends can't stop them, no one can. She admitted reluctantly to herself.
Prodigies crowded around their locker, eagerly popping prize bubbles and opening Midterm presents from friends. Stina calmly waited at her meeting spot for Dex, carrying the small wrapped box in her hands. I want to watch him open his gift. She'd been waiting more than a month for this. Finally, a tall strawberry blond head separated itself from the crowd, making its way to their quiet rendezvous. As of late, it had been hard to get her friend alone.
Before she could get a word in, Dex started his excited rambling. “I think we should go out back, so nobody overhears our conversation. I have some exciting news!”
“Slow down, Dex! Yeah, we can go somewhere quieter, if you want.” His excitement was almost dizzying as he lead her out, being sure to take a route that no one who would recognize them took.
“So, I was thinking maybe we could spend this Saturday at my house. My parents won't be there all afternoon.” Stina began, deciding not to question is ecstatic secrecy.
“Uh, about that.” Dex said, glancing down. “We've finally found the hideout Tam’s in. This weekend is when we're going to break him out.” The light sparked back into his eyes. “We're really getting close, Stina! I can't say too much, but I don't think the Neverseen is going to be around for much longer.”
Stina's enthusiasm dropped as she listened to him chatter on about the plan. “You're going directly to a Neverseen hideout?” Her heart suddenly twisted. “Isn't that dangerous?”
Dex glanced away. “Well, yeah. But it's not like I haven't done anything more dangerous. It's no big deal!”
“So you're heading directly into enemy territory, where they have the upper hand, knowledge of their hideout, and all of their equipment?” She snapped. Suddenly a dark picture formed in her head. His Wanderling planting. “You already died once.”
“I'm not going to die!” Dex blinked, surprised by her anger. “Don't worry! Why are you so upset?”
“I don't understand why it has you be you. Your group has so many people!” Stina turned away, not wanting him to see the tears forming in her eyes.
Dex looked down. “They need a Technopath. I can't just abandon the group. We've been planning this for months!”
Stina whipped her head around. “So you're just going to risk your life for her.” She spat the last word, as if she couldn't bear to say Sophie's name. “When will you realize that you have your own life and friends?”
“What are you talking about?” Dex muttered. “I thought you'd be glad I was helping take down a group of murderers and arsonists!”
“It doesn't have to be you!” She hissed, stomping away. “Whatever. Go get killed with all your real friends. I just thought I'd meant more.” Stina knew she was being unfair, but she couldn't bear the thought of him running off and fighting the Neverseen. Before, she hadn't put any thought into the dangers he could be in. But suddenly all she could think about was his Wanderling tree. He's already faced death once before. How many more times is he going to get lucky?
Back inside, she hardly tried to recover from her fit of anger. Stina had spent two years studying emotions, yet she couldn't quite figure out why this devastated her so badly. She snatched her thinking cap, not sticking around to join in the celebration of prodigies who passed the test. What was wrong with her? Would she have cared so much if anyone else was in danger? Before she could figure out the answer, Maruca caught up to her.
“Why the long face? It's not like you failed your midterms.” She chuckled, then stopped. “Oh, don't tell me you failed!”
“Of course not! Is that all you think about?” Stina barked. She leapt away before Maruca could reply.
At home she was inconsolable. In a fit of anger she kicked at random things in her room, ignoring her parents’ praise and confused looks. “Leave me alone.” She mumbled, burying her head into the pillow, where she spent the next ten minutes sobbing and letting the worst scenarios play out in her mind.
Even though he hadn't been harmed yet, this was worse than the Wanderling planting in a way. She had grown close to Dex. And now he was throwing himself into danger because of his friends. Because of Sophie. Doesn't he care about what he already has here? Stina questioned, suddenly sitting up.
Reaching for her thinking cap which was full of presents, she thought about the first time they'd met. They were both six years old playing at a park near Mysterium when she saw Dex, happily swinging by himself. Stina had wanted to introduce herself, feeling drawn to him, when Vika stopped her. “You don't want to play with him, sweetheart. His mother had triplets.” She knew now that her mother was only trying to convince herself that she was better than Juline and Kesler. But at that time, she had decided that she would catch his attention in a different way.
By then Stina was no stranger to bullying. One boy, named Marlus, had told her that her parents were cheaters and bad matches. Rumors spread that her mother and father shouldn't have been matched, as Timkin was Talentless. So it felt good to have somebody beneath her.
Stina started throwing insults, teasing him for his triplet siblings and bad match parents. At that point, Dex stood up for himself. “My parents will be better than yours ever will.” He snapped back, tossing a clump of dirt at her. “And at least I don't have muddy hair!”
That was when their prank wars begun. Stina had always been drawn to Dex. My first words to him were insults. If I never see him again… do I really want my last words to him sting? She pulled out his present, which was concealed by a neon green gift box. She opened the little box, surprised by what was inside. A charm bracelet.
But it wasn't any random bracelet with stars and pearls, which most boys got girls they hardly knew. His had five different charms so far. A little green muskog, a red-spotted pegasus, a silver unicorn horn, and a pair of Alicorns. The metal on their manes had been dyed cyan and red.
Beginning to tear up again, Stina grabbed her Imparter. By now it the sun was beginning to set; she didn't have much time. “Hail Dex.”
Before he could say anything, she cut him off. ”Meet me at the outskirts of Sterling Gables. I want to talk to you.”
Time seemed to slow as she waited for him. Did he even want to see her? But Stina knew she had to see him. As soon as she'd opened his gift, she knew exactly what her feelings were towards him. And when he finally did appear, her insides seemed to turn to jelly.
“This is for you.” She said quietly, handing him the box. “I'm sorry for what I said. I know now that... if I don't see you again…”
“I promise I'll come back.” Dex interrupted. “Besides, I would never leave without saying goodbye.” He held out his hand, smiling. But not a cheerful smile, more melancholy. The sun was setting behind him. “We leave tonight. If this mission is a success, it'll put us on the right track to defeating the Neverseen.”
“I know. I just…” Stina stared into his periwinkle eyes, feeling tongue tied. And then she wrapped her arms around him. And then they kissed.
Stars seemed to explode behind her eyes when it happened. It was so sudden, as if an unseen force had pushed her to do it. And it was perfect. When Stina backed away, she could tell Dex felt the same.
He started to say something, but she held up her hand. “Just be safe, okay? Come back for me.” Stina gave him a sad smile. “I know this is important to you. Good luck. And… I love you.”
Dex nodded, looking dizzy. But as he leapt away, she could hear his words. “I love you too.”