He got her name right. Fuck yeah. Due to the almost complete drought of non-urgent interactions he’d had with these people, it felt like a gamble to address her as anything other than "You". Besides Archie, he couldn’t quite recall having ever said any of these people’s names out loud. But she was Eli. What was that short for? Elizabeth, perhaps. Seems probable.
He, and apparently the various squirrels that had casually spotted her in passing had been so fixated on her that they literally hadn’t even registered that there was another girl with her. Nic took a quick gander at her. She was really posh and put together but something shot her seemed vaguely familiar. He knew that he knew her face but something just wasn’t clicking. And he was definitely going to put it together.
”Natalie you remember Nicholas, don’t you? He was at the bonfire.”
NATALIE. That’s it. She was Natalie.
Though hearing her name made him feel brighter, like a burden had been lifted off of his shoulders, it didn’t jog his memory in the slightest. Was she in the forest? If so, he’d been too preoccupied by negotiating the release of the Jell-O shot in his grasp to actually sort out who was who in a timely manner. If he realized that he was going to rub elbows with these people, he’d have investigated them. Figured out what they--
Nopenope, he cut himself off. No psychological biopsies today. This was his chance to win the love of the very same siren that he had locked eyes with from all across the way at that very party. The very stars had aligned to create this moment, quite literally in fact, and there was no way that he was going to let his diabolical diagnostics ruin it for him.
He gave Natalie his best smile, Nebraska’s finest, fresh off the vine. “It’s wonderful to see you. Gee, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks, hasn’t it. With all the excitement with the loading bay, the breakout, the forest. Actually, would you mind explaining what had actually happened in the forest? I’m a little fuzzy on the details.” he shrugged his shoulder and arched his eyebrow, chuckling.
“That’s some smooth operatin’ if I’ve ever seen any. That was goddamn amicable. Nicely done, kiddo. You did that like you actually cared what she had to say,” Nic felt the warmth of his father’s familiar nonstop commentary buzzing into his right ear. ”After all, nobody beats a black bear in a fist fight but here in America the most lethal carnivore is man’s best friend.”
Nic dug his finger into his ear, feeling for a wireless earpiece that he could just claw out. All he found was ear wax. ”We’ll bag these ones just like the last couple before the raid. After all, I know we had our differences but you're still my son. And if there's anything in this world that is true, it’s that there's nuthin’ that stops you from gettin' her done."
He clawed at his ear again, desperately hoping that he was being pranked. All his pinky finger found was a vacant canal of non-electronic stillness. Was there something wrong with him? Was this the moment that his dam finally give way to the deluge of disorientation? He couldn’t make sense of it. He felt foolish. He felt embarrassed AND he felt like there was a decent chance that the girls could hear it.
Or worse. Was one of them making the noise? No. Of course not. That would be preposterous. Clearly it was just his imaginatio running rampant. Either way, he felt like he was riding right up onto the verge of looking really weird and he just couldn’t think of any right-ear-related excuses, so he shifted his posture and acted like he was swatting at a mosquito.
“Little critters are out in swaths today,” he laughed heartily, each exhalation topped with a dollop of jolly antipathy. He had to make sure that neither of them caught on to what had just happened. Should he show her the snowglobe now? Did teenaged girls even like snowglobes? Was his self-restraint holding him back from finding his place in the world or was it merely allowing things to fall into place. Damn. Damn! Damn.
”How have you been? Were you in the loading bay too?”
Thank God she didn’t notice. No. This was a time for expressing feelings, for pouring the foundation of something special. If he tipped his hand now, if he jumped the gun, he may as well just jump straight off of The Promise.
Was it Natalie that was bringing this trepidation out of him? Was she… a MIND READER? He disregarded the notion. The odds of this random girl being responsible for this extremely personal, sudden intrusion as he tried to find the means to express himself, the way to make a very specific and limited portion of his true feelings known, seemed infinitesimally low. But the chance was still there. He’d have to test her. Just to see.
As he unrolled these thoughts, he watched Natalie carefully, intent on determining whether she was reading him live. Nope. She didn’t seem to have any tells that he could pick up on. So either she wasn’t a mind reader, which was objectively extremely probable, or she had been practicing her poker face long enough to avoid detection. Given that he, himself, had been raised to be he improbable thing that you’d have to be paranoid to suspect was actually out there, it only felt fashionable, karmically savvy, to extend the courtesy of suspecting someone else might be equally as treacherous.
It then occurred to him that it had been a solid minute since Eli had asked the question. And it was incredibly rude of him to have kept her waiting.
“Oh, sorry. I thought about it a little bit and, honestly, my mind just started wandering. No--not wandering, I.. Yeah. I was there. And I’m really sorry.”
“You see,” he took a deep breath, “when Archie was doing his whole Mr. Hyde thing, I had just been stepping out of the kitchen. I’d rigged a fire extinguisher into an explosive. I’d meant to lob it into the loading bay, where those… people were coming from. But then I saw you. And, even with all of the other terrible things happening, I couldn’t find it within myself to look at anyone else. Because Archie was charging right at you. And I’ve seen… I’ve seen a lot of things but I didn’t want you dying to be one of them. So I threw it your way.
“Specifically, I threw it behind Archie. And it blew. Just like I meant it to. But I’m not sure it really did anything for you. It was kinda stupid, actually,” he said pulling up the sleeve of his jacket and showing her the scar and scab where the shrapnel had crashed into his arm. “I actually almost killed you. Because I wanted to… I wanted to stop Archie--I didn’t know it was Archie--from killing you. But ultimately, he’s the one who protected you from me.
“And yeah. I, uh. After that, I saw one of the other girls that you guys hang out with being crept up on by some commando type. I assumed he was one of the bad ones, so I threw a chair leg at him. But it turns out he was a security officer, so I got to spend a couple hours being interviewed about it all.
“So yeah, I was there. Are you okay? It looked like you were having a real bad time with it all.”