Ryan flicked on the evening news. A blank-faced anchorwoman was staring at him. "Good evening," she said. "Tonight's top stories include—"

Ryan braced himself, praying she wouldn't say that the lost teenager from Lorric City was found floating in Haff River, or that they'd arrested two men who'd admitted to kidnapping and killing him. As long as the news stayed silent, Alex stayed alive in Ryan's mind.

"—a very lucky man and his very lucky lottery ticket, and the adventures of—"

Adventures? Adventures could be good. Adventures were okay.

"—a little lost puppy who found his way back home."

Ryan's shoulders drooped. Damn that puppy. Not that he had anything against it—but it wasn't Alex. He stood up and walked to the computer, slumping over in his wheely chair. Nobody interesting was online. Not Mark, or Stacey, or anyone remotely cool. Just a couple of bots and his three screen names, and he didn't feel like talking to them.

The phone rang. Sighing, he grabbed it. "Hello?" he said lamely, starting a game of solitaire.

"Aw… what's wrong, emo boy?" came Mark's teasing voice from the other end.

Ryan sighed. "I was fine till you called."

"Liar. You couldn't hate me if you tried."

"I wouldn't bet on that," Ryan advised, but he knew Mark could hear the grin in his voice. "So what's going on in your world?"

"Nothing…did you see the news?"

Ryan snorted. "I saw the absence of good news."

Mark gasped. "Don't be ridiculous! They found a little lost puppy!"

"Yes, I know!"

Mark was quiet for a minute. "They could still say something, you know. Just because it wasn't in the top stories—"

"If a frickin' dog was the top item on the news, chances are that they haven't found him," Ryan spat. Neither of them spoke for a minute, but he could visualize the hurt look on Mark's face. "I'm not yelling at you, Mark. I'm not."

"I miss him just as much as you do, probably more."

"How many times have we had this conversation? I mean, not counting the times Stacey broke down and we had to comfort her—"

"Come on, she's at a very difficult stage in her life right now."

"Why?" shot Ryan. "Because she was in love with him and can't get over it?"

Mark took a quivery breath. "You're being really unfair to her. She wouldn't appreciate you saying that…" he seemed to be fighting with himself to be saying what he wanted to say. "And besides, you're just bitter because you can't get over the fact that she doesn't want you."

"Shut the fuck up!" Ryan yelled, wishing Mark was there so he could hit him and pretend Mark wasn't telling the truth. "Anyway, you're still crazy over Alex. That stupid game of Spin the Bottle didn't mean anything, and everyone knows it but you."

Mark laughed softly. "I know it, too. But I, unlike you, Ryan, don't let fantasy get in the way of friendship."

Ryan didn't say anything. Mark was right. They sat in silence for a bit, listening to the silence, before Ryan said softly, "I wish he was back. Then everything would make sense again. And then everything would be back to normal. I'd do anything to have him back."

"So would I," Mark said. Ryan felt the static of Mark's hair brushing against the earpiece as he nodded, punctuating his statement. "I really would. And I swear it has nothing to do with—you know—that. I just want him back so we can all be happy again."


"Look at this, Rob," Selina said in Jinn, gazing into her crystal. Roberto floated over and stared with her. A wiry, sandy-haired boy was talking into one of those human devices—a telephone. Roberto looked at Selina questioningly. "Listen to him," Selina said.

Vaguely, he could hear his conversation. He spoke of his missing friend, and how he'd do anything to bring him back. The person on the other end of the conversation spoke too, of the same thing. "Who are these people?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

Selina grinned. "Friends of Alex, I presume. And they amuse me so."

Roberto frowned. "What's so interesting about them?"

" I was consulting the crystal, and apparently, it is in the stars for me to grant their wishes."

The red genie shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm confused. We're bringing Alex back?"

"Gods' wills, no!" exclaimed Selina. "But what's a few more slaves?" She shrugged, making a few motions with her hands. "Work the crystal for me."

Rob nodded, waving his fists over the flat, shining plate before him. Images were growing clearer, and Selina whispered a charm before speaking in a loud, severe tone.


"Ryan, can you hang on a sec? I've got another call coming in."

"Arright," Ryan muttered, staring at his computer screen. An instant message had just popped up, the name unfamiliar to him.

g3n135: Ryan Emerson

He frowned, but typed back furiously.


g3n135: We have your friend. Alexander Darson is in our possession.

imXstalkingXyou...who is this?

g3n135: Meet us in Cavanaugh Memorial Park at sunset tomorrow, in the cherry grove.

imXstalkingXyouthis is really not funny… who the hell are you?

Panicked, Ryan did a search on g3n135's information. There was none listed.

g3n135: Stacey Wells and Markus Delange will be there. Do not call law enforcers. Do not carry weaponry. Come alone and all else will be seen to.

imXstalkingXyou: im going to warn you.

(g3n135 has signed off.)

Ryan's heart was pounding so loudly that he was certain Mark could hear it through his other conversation. To his surprise, the phone clicked and he heard heavy breathing. "I'm back."

"Yeah," said Ryan, "Listen… I just got this IM… and I don't know who it was… and I think they have Alex."

Mark laughed softly. "Someone just called me, and said that they did. They want us to go to Cavanaugh Park—"

"Unarmed and without cops," finished Ryan. His voice was shaking. "What do we do?"

"What can we do?" countered Mark. "I'm sure Stacey knows about it. So… Cavanaugh Park it is."


Leah read and reread the note in front of her. Her eyes trained back to the last line over and over again: know that I'll always love you.

I'll always love you.

Always love you.

Her face contorted into a grimace of misery, and she felt tears prickling at her eyes. No. She wouldn't cry. Real genies didn't cry, and she'd been a poor excuse for a genie too long. This boy wasn't worth her trouble. What had he done for her? Made her weak, made her abandon the only being who had ever really cared about her. What was that worth? Absolutely nothing.

Always love you.

"You lie!" she cried hoarsely at the letter, unable to stop a tear from coursing down her cheek. "You don't love me…because if you did, you wouldn't let go like this… you…" Se took a deep breath. "I hate you."

"Leah?" came a low voice at the door. She looked up.

"Oh. Hello, Selina. Can I help you with something?" she asked, hoping her voice wasn't too hoarse.

Selina smiled lightly. "I need you to return to the city of Lorric. Tomorrow evening. You're by far the most convincing human among us."

Leah sighed. She had to do what Selina commanded. "Tell me what I must do."


Mark clung to the tree's branches like his life depended on it. Dusk was drawing its cloak around him, and he was alone. From his perch in the middle branches, nobody could see him. He was shaking, and the chill October air had nothing to do with it.

"You know, Marky, you could be a lot less conspicuous," said a familiar voice from below. He closed his eyes and slipped down. Ryan and Stacey were grinning skeptically at him.

Stacey chuckled. "Your inner monologue is really loud."

Mark grinned, surprised how relieved he was to see his friends. "So where are the cops?" he murmured. The air was thick with suspense, and whispers were the only sounds he'd trust from his lips.

Ryan looked down. "They said to come without any," he mumbled.

"So?" hissed Mark. "We could fucking die!"

"And if we don't listen to what these people say, Alex might," said Stacey firmly. "Besides…" She pulled a small knife from her pocket. "Take this, we brought it for you." She grinned fondly at Ryan. "He's so useful with his switchblades."

"Gotta be good for something," teased Mark, taking the knife and flipping it open and shut a few times, getting himself used to it. He hated knives, but he felt stronger having one in his hand. A little piece of him knew what little good it would do, it somehow helped anyway.

"Now put it in your pocket and don't take it out unless we need it," said Ryan slowly, patronizingly. Mark did as he was told and said no more. He suddenly felt a chill. He spun rapidly and mentally jumped out of his skin.

Behind him, he heard Stacey and Ryan do the same. They all looked forward at the beautiful blonde girl who had appeared before them. She seemed to stare at all of them at the same time, absently (or perhaps suggestively?) tracing the straps on her flowing blue sundress. Ryan gaped at her, and even Mark couldn't help but stare. Stacey rolled her eyes. "This is it?" she muttered.

"Don't underestimate me, girl," she hissed, seeming slightly less calm and coy for a moment. "I could break you with one touch."

Ryan put a protective hand on Stacey's arm. The dark-haired girl stared unwaveringly at the blonde. "Where is Alex?"

A short laugh. "Not with me."

Mark frowned. Then what did you bring us here for?" he spat, looking hurt and betrayed. Things would be better when Alex was back. Things would make sense again then. He needed Alex back. They all did.

The girl seemed to shine with a bizarre light. The moon hit her differently somehow. "I can offer you information," she mumbled, searching through a deep pocket in her dress. Three pieces of paper emerged, carefully folded into triangles like notes passed by middle-schoolers. She put each piece in her hand and extended it. "This is the best I can give you."

The three looked at her suspiciously. Ryan shrugged. "Chances are, she didn't anthrax these or anything," he said.

"There is no poison here," the girl assured.

Tentatively, Ryan, Mark, and Stacey extended their hands to hers. And the second that they touched, the world blurred into a mass of blue…