Justin used to start his days as soon as the sun came up, when he’d awaken and go out to the stable to check on the horses and let some out into the paddock. He didn’t know who had done that while he’d been gone. If anyone had done that at all. Maybe his father had taken on that role, because the Bobcatz sure as hell wouldn’t wake up before nine for anyone.
And yet, today, there were some Bobcatz out with the sun. A few girls roaming around in their distinctive pink jackets, and one blonde-haired girl ordering everyone around but not lifting a finger to do anything herself. So Loretta hadn’t changed, then.
“Oh my god, Stephanie, I told you to fill the playlist with music, not this trash,” said Loretta, scowling as she threw the music player back at another blonde Bobcat. Stephanie gasped, offended.
“Raptor isn’t trash! How can you even say that?” said Stephanie. Someone laughed, and Justin was surprised to find that the sound was coming from himself. He hadn’t laughed at something silly like that in ages. Zelda could make him laugh, but that was different. When he was with Zelda, Justin’s entire being felt lighter, and not from any magical doings. It was just being with the girl who he loved.
With the thought of her still in his mind, Justin ate something for breakfast and then walked over to the stable to take Maxy out for some exercise. Maya offered to help like she always did, but Justin told her that no, he could do it. He’d been doing it for ages, and his memory might be patchy sometimes now, but he still remembered how to tack up and ride a horse.
Justin rode all the way out to the Forgotten Fields, and then just gave Maxy free rein so that he could enjoy the warm, early-morning sunshine. Others might find this emptiness eerie, but Justin enjoyed it. It was quiet.
The quietness only lasted, however, until Justin returned to Moorland. The buzz of conversation soon filled his ears, interspersed with the neighing of horses and the happy shouts of the new riders. Loretta found Justin when he was putting Maxy away, and smiled at him.
“Hi, Justin!” said Loretta. “Fancy seeing you here, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Justin. “Hi, Loretta.” He had to admit, it was refreshing to not have her trying to throw herself at him anymore. She had a girlfriend now, which was unexpected, and so did Justin.
“You should, like, totally come inside the stable house,” said Loretta.
“Why?” asked Justin.
“Umm, I think your dad wanted something?” said Loretta.
“Okay,” said Justin, deciding to humour her. He could tell that she wasn’t telling the truth. One good thing about his experience at Dark Core was that he’d developed a healthy skepticism. He didn’t trust anyone anymore, though he wanted to. He’d give anything to be naïve again.
“Cool!” said Loretta, and walked with Justin over to the stable house.
It was dark when Justin opened the door, and he immediately felt a spike of panic. When he switched the light on, though, a sea of pink-clad girls jumped out and shouted ‘surprise’. Justin’s hand trembled on the light switch, but Loretta was already pushing him inside and the crowd was pulling him along.
Lights and noise swirled around Justin, but he couldn’t make out anything distinct. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, even though there was plenty of air in the room.
“Justin, are you okay?” asked Loretta. “You look like you’re gonna faint or something. Relax! It’s just a party.”
“I-I…” Justin couldn’t get words out. He felt like he was going to faint if he didn’t get out of this room soon.
“Is this about how you went missing?” asked Loretta, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Because you’re back now and it’s okay.”
“I have to go,” said Justin.
“Aw, c’mon, it’s your party, stay,” said Loretta, trying to grab his arm.
“Leave me ALONE!” Justin shouted, and ran from the room.
“What’s his problem?” asked Loretta. And then, someone grabbed her and pulled her into another room where it was quieter. “What the hell? Zelda?”
“Okay, I get that you might not know what Justin went through, but can’t you see that he was panicking?” said Zelda, glaring at her.
“He never used to be like that,” said Loretta.
“Look, he’s been missing for about a year,” said Zelda. “You don’t know what he went through.”
“Then maybe you should tell me so I can understand,” said Loretta, folding her arms across her chest.
“He almost died. I saved him from his execution,” said Zelda.
“What?” said Loretta. “Why would his grandfather want to kill him?”
“His grandfather didn’t do that, actually,” said Zelda. “It was the other people out there. The people who Justin thought were his friends. So now he doesn’t trust anyone, and being in a room with all those people… it overwhelmed him.”
“What, so he has social anxiety now?” asked Loretta. “That sucks.”
“Look, if you want to throw him a party, that’s fine,” said Zelda. “Just start with something smaller first. And give him time. I know he’ll feel bad about yelling at you.”
“Fine,” said Loretta. “Should I try to find him?”
“You’re the last person he wants to see right now,” said Zelda. “You just have fun with your party.”
“It was supposed to be Justin’s party,” said Loretta, sounding a little sad.
“I know,” said Zelda. “Tell the others that he needed to leave. Make up some excuse if you have to.”
“Okay,” said Loretta. “Um… thanks for telling me. I hope you can calm him down.”
“I know I can,” said Zelda. She left Loretta, and set off in search of Justin.
Maxy was gone, so Zelda mounted Phantom and rode up to Nilmer’s Highland. Sometimes, Justin went down to the river to clear his mind. He might still be there now. Sure enough, a dapple grey horse grazed on the grass while a black-clad figure sat on the riverbank.
“It’s just me,” said Zelda, dismounting and walking over to sit beside her boyfriend. “Are you okay?” Justin nodded, then shook his head.
“I’m better,” said Justin. “I can breathe now. But now I feel bad. I yelled at her, Z.”
“It’s okay, I explained it,” said Zelda.
“Thanks,” said Justin. Zelda rested her head on his shoulder, and Justin wrapped an arm around her.
“And I told her that you needed time,” said Zelda. “So hopefully she’ll leave you alone for a while.”
“I just feel bad because she organised this party for me, and I ran out on her,” said Justin. “I probably ruined it for her, didn’t I?”
“She’s good at parties, she’ll salvage it,” said Zelda.
“And to think that the day started out so well,” said Justin. “I thought I was getting better.”
“Good days are a start,” said Zelda. “You just have to remember the good when the bad threatens to drown you. And surround yourself with the people who make you feel good.”
“Can you sit here with me for a while?” asked Justin, smiling at her.
“Sure, I have no plans for the day,” said Zelda, smiling back at him. Justin kissed the top of her head, then breathed a contented sigh. It was so peaceful out here, and the air was so fresh. Despite his earlier terror, Justin now felt content. He was with someone he loved and trusted, and she’d fixed the things that he worried about. She was wonderful like that.