I watch as the lukewarm water runs down my shoulders, down to my elbow, and then finally to my forearms. I watch as the puckered white scars create miniature waves in the water. The steam makes my untouched skin pink, but the scars stay the same as they always do: a declaration of my inability to feel; truly and wholeheartedly feel. The pain sparks silently once again as if reminding me of this, and the flames beneath my eyelids burn through my body until they join the sensations, and the water is boiling.
"Castor knows you're lying about something," Archie says when I open the door. I stand aside and he walks right into the middle of the room. "And now he's convinced you're a murderer. Like, mass murderer."
"What?" My hair is still damp from the shower, and it's only half-seven in the morning. There's hardly any light in the room, and it darkens still when I close the door and block out the hall lights. "I'm not lying to him."
"Your parents worked with his dad." Archie unzips his coat, and I notice its shoulders are shining with raindrops. "We can't help you if you're keeping secrets."
"The only secret I'm keeping is ours, Archie, and that was your choice."
And that choice was never concrete, but it was easy enough to tell that when I came to Cofort, Archie wanted to pretend as if we were strangers. I couldn't say no, either. He had the right to that decision, considering I was the one to make it last time.
"Why did Mr. Cabot stop working with your parents?" Archie asks, ignoring the insertion.
I can tell he wants an answer, one that ceases the fire of questions. He watches me for any signs I might be lying. But I wouldn't lie, and I haven't.
"I knew they worked with him," I say. "But my parents didn't talk about their work often, not in front of me at least."
I sit on the off-white covers of my bed. All I know is that they wanted to rid the world of evil. But that's a shared goal, a common interest, with Mr. Cabot. It wouldn't paint them the way Castor wants them to be seen: as if they invited the destruction to their door, and couldn't have sympathy when it arrived and killed them both.
When I did overhear conversations, I never understood the things they were talking about, and when I grew up, they stopped talking all together. They never wanted to involve me in their work, but that can't be called a sin.
"They ran a team for the dismantlement of magic," I explain. "They wanted to control the witches."
"If your parents' work threatened the existence of witches..."
I shake my head. "Castor's father does the same, and it still wouldn't explain the need to destroy an entire town."
"Magic he couldn't even use without killing himself from the strength of it."
Archie looks around the room- perhaps for the first time since he marched through the door. The room is small, and the walls are cracking, with peeling greyish paint, but it's more homely than my home now. I'm renting the room at the top of the building, The Courtyard, so the ceiling slants near the headboard of the bed. There are pencil marks on the ceiling there, as if someone was counting the time, or possibly the frequency of thoughts, and sometimes, when I wake up from a nightmare, I count them, too. There are eight in total, and it scares me how I knew more people who are now dead, than the easy pencil lines someone can make.
"It's nice," I say. "I need it. At least for now."
"For now." The way he speaks is like he's testing the words out on his tongue.
Leo is coming to Cofort today. He promised me, once we were out of the Redwood Forest and in the sunlight, that he would visit. He said I could stay with him and his mum, Lou. Cofort is my for now. You can't stay in a place that doesn't want you.
"Castor said he found something," Archie says. "About different kinds of magic requiring different amounts of power. Apparently some spells need a shed-load."
"The power from Vertaelia."
"Yeah. But he won't admit there's only so much you can find in libraries and school textbooks."
"Do you want to visit Elara again?" I don't usually visit her so often in such a short period of time- we can't have anyone noting patterns or suspicious behavior. I don't want to put her in more danger than she is already in, just by living in the Redwood Forest. "We could do it after the festival."
"That's out. The soldiers patrol at night."
"I can't. I was on my way to help set up the church. In case it's still raining tonight and we have to move the festival inside."
A knock on the door silences Archie. He turns, as if expecting the soldiers to come bursting through the door at the mention of a witch.
"Leo." His words are back to being careful again. "I should go anyway. Holy books won't move themselves."
I stop before opening the door, and Archie stands there, looking away. "I'll find you later, and we'll speak to Elara."
As I watch Leo talk about how he hasn't been ill in over four months, I know I should be relieved. You can tell he's been waiting to tell me, but is being careful because he survived, and I survived, but my parents didn't. I know what I should be feeling, but it's like I'm halfway toward feeling it, but something blocks it, stamps it back down, and I just can't. I tug at the cuffs of my coat at the thought.
Sometimes, it's not so bad. Plenty of people wish to be cut from their feelings at certain moments. It can make bad decisions or dangerous ones easy. Like in the church, I knew Archie was going to die if I didn't push in front of him. And it didn't once frighten me that one wrong move, and I could die instead.
But there are times when people rely on your feelings, and I know that I could never be there for them in that way. So I do what I do best: I run away. I hide from the fact I will never be able to miss my parents completely, or be frightened when I someone I care about is hurting, or love a person the way they want me to. I hide from all of these things, and all I have to think about is putting on a smile or a frown at the appropriate times.
"You should've come to us straight away," Leo is saying. "Mum would have loved it."
This is the time I frown. Loved it maybe the wrong phrase.
"Sorry," he says. "You know what I mean."
I shrug. "It's been good here. Castor and Archie are helping me. We think Xavier Depraysie set the fire in Vertaelia."
I speak quietly even though we're sitting in the garden outside the lodging I'm staying in. It sits just beside the river, and there are plenty of different flowers and plants on the banks. I tell Leo everything we know so far: about the power, All Saints' Eve, and the war. I tell him about Cofort, too; about Ani Fletcher and the Fallwyns. I pick a piece of splintered wood from the bench and wait for his response.
"Okay," he says, and sighs heavily. "To be honest, I thought you were going to tell me something terrible, like you lost your boots."
I crack a smile, and this one isn't fake or only to appease people. I smile because someone finally trusts me, and not reluctantly, or because they have to.
I wait outside Castor's door patiently. Leo is staying in my room at The Courtyard, where I told him to wait. I trust him, and I'm not going to exclude him from what we're doing with the Vertaelia case, but there's only so many conspiracy theories you can handle in one day. He said he'd try to think about why a witch would want such a great amount of power.
Everybody else in Cofort is helping out setting up for the festival later, but the upstairs hall light is glowing, so someone must be home, and I've learnt over the past few weeks that wherever Mr. Cabot is, Castor usually isn't far behind.
The door opens and shuts too quickly for me to anticipate stepping back. Castor looks right and left and then walks to the corner of his house. Not near any windows, I observe.
"Why are you here?" he asks. "My father doesn't want me seeing you anymore, not after you helped those witches."
I hate that we can only call them by what they are. But I decide that if Castor's father really doesn't want Castor associating himself with me, it's better to keep this succinct. Anyway, there's no way we could know their names now.
"I think we need to speak to Elara again." I don't mention Archie coming to see me this morning.
"No. We are not doing that. I am not doing that."
Before I can think to disagree, there's a surprised sound. Castor and I both turn around, and Mrs. Fallwyn is standing a few meters from the front door of the house.
"Castor, you're here," she says. "Wonderful. I was going to pass this note onto your father, but I wouldn't want to interrupt more that needed, and it's just as much for you now as it is for Mr. Cabot."
Castor reads the piece of paper carefully. He's careful to angle it away from me so I can't see the writing. Mrs. Fallwyn looks me over, and must faintly register me from her office because she links her fingers uncomfortably and her gaze weakens.
"Where did you get this?" Castor asks her.
She makes an effort to look bright again. "Someone posted it under the office door, whilst I was out at the church."
The commemoration. Mrs. Fallwyn's child was one of the Cofort Four, too. And she still came out to drop the note off; it must be important.
"Do you have any idea who?"
"Have you had any other tips like this? Anything to back this one up?"
Castor folds the paper up neatly and slides it into his back pocket. "I wouldn't believe it, and nobody else will either. Not without evidence."
"Yes, I'm sure the person was mistaken."
"I want you to keep this out of the newspaper. There's no need to cause worry."
"Right. Yes, okay. You're right."
Once Mrs. Fallwyn has gone, Castor turns back to his house, and gives it a once over, as if assuring we're alone. His face is expressionless when he meets mine again. "Have you told anyone about what we know?"
I think about Leo, and how Castor already thinks I'm lying about something important. "Leo came to town this morning."
Castor's shoulders tense. "Someone left an anonymous tip that Xavier Depraysie set the fire in Vertaelia." I can almost see him counting to ten in his head. "Whoever wrote it either knew about this before we did, or has heard something from us."
I'm careful not to say anything that could snap Castor's mood, which leads me to staying silent.
"I'm hoping for your sake it's the former." He seems to consider something, and like there are invisible hooks pulling him back, he continues: "If we see Elara, it will have to be during the festival, and you can't tell Leo anymore until we all talk about it."
With that, he walks coolly back into the house, saying nothing more.