The first thing Naomi saw on the other side of the skip was a pair of wide-open eyes atop a gaping mouth, a picture of pure astonishment. Gone was the smirk, the half-mouthed, superior grin, the I-know-something-you-don’t-know in the tilt of his chin and the set of his eyebrows. It had all been replaced by shock, surprise, and more: fear.
In that moment, Innis seemed a much smaller man.
The second thing Naomi saw was a tiny, fuzzy bird, swimming through the black-purple swirls just over Innis’s shoulder. It turned its little head to look at her, tucked in its wings, and opened its mouth in a silent cry.
It had been left behind. It had been in here since her last skip, waiting, flying alone through the emptiness. For the first time in years, Naomi found herself really wondering: what in the world—or out of it—was this place? When she came here… where did she go?
Focus, Naomi told herself. This place could make the mind wander, but there was a task at hand. She forced her attention back to the man in front of her, and found her eyes drawn to a third thing: the gun in Innis’s free hand. It had come with him. Of course it had come with him. Could it be fired in here? What would happen if he shot her? Would she still go back?
Naomi wasn’t prepared to run that particular experiment.
Innis had her right wrist in his left hand, so Naomi lashed out with her left hand—the motion was infuriatingly sluggish—and got her fingers on the barrel of the gun. Innis hadn’t yet recovered from the disorienting amazement of finding himself in this place, and didn’t immediately react, so Naomi jerked her left knee upwards and caught him in the elbow just as he seemed to notice what was happening, and his grip slipped as he tried to pull the gun clear. It came free, and Naomi yanked it away.
He fought back, reaching for the gun, but Naomi twisted, trying to shield the weapon from his grasp while she shoved him away with her right arm. Innis leaned in, bearing down on Naomi. He was bigger than her, stronger, and he was overpowering her, his extended fingers nearly reaching the weapon.
She pushed it away, throwing it with as much strength as she could muster. It spun off into the void, dwindling but never seeming to get any further away, only inches beyond Innis’s fingertips but somehow still out of his reach. He stretched for it, intent on regaining it, and his grip on Naomi’s wrist loosened.
Feathers brushed across Naomi’s cheek as the little bird swooped past her face. It flared its wings and alighted on Innis’s outstretched wrist, drawing his attention momentarily away from the gun—and away from Naomi.
She tucked her legs up under her, then kicked both feet into Innis’s midsection and watched with intense satisfaction as he, like the gun, spun away, tumbling in a gentle arc, carrying the little bird with him.
Innis flung out his arms, flailing to correct his course, and one hand came in contact with the gun. He had it now, and he was aiming it at Naomi, lunging back towards her while the little bird, tossed about by his erratic motion, clung by its feet to a tuft of his hair.
Naomi’s heart sank, and then her stomach begin to sink, as well. It was happening. She was returning.
Innis’s expression changed: he sensed it happening. He was springing after her, charging, clutching, the gun aimed at her heart; she was fading, the purple swirls draining away; his finger moved on the trigger; a searing black lightning bolt scorched through the purple haze; a force struck her chest; she gasped.
Air entered her lungs.
Real air, warm air, not the ephemeral nothingness of that other place.
She was lying flat on the pavement, her chest sore from her hard landing. Flinging herself to the side, she rolled onto her hands and knees, frantic. Had he come back? Had he returned with her? Several human shapes were standing nearby, coming towards her…
Someone screamed and leapt on Naomi, knocked her down, pinned her arms against her side.
It was Emily.
That was Emily’s voice.
That was Emily’s face.
This was… better.
The tension and panic melted away under Emily’s calming gaze, and Naomi felt herself relax into a clear and soothing calm.
“You’re okay,” said Emily, holding Naomi close. “You’re okay…”
An urgent thought bubbled up into Naomi’s mind through the sea of artificial tranquility. “Where are they? The others?”
“They’re gone,” said Emily. “I… scared them off.”
Naomi raised her eyebrows. She looked around, just to check: yes, she’d returned to the same battle zone she’d departed from, the same carnage wrought by Innis’s formidable team of specials, and her friend had scared them off? She had never before considered the power of what Emily could do to people.
A few cops were here, too, talking into radios and brandishing their guns uneasily. Standing amid them was Griff, a look of mystification on his face as he gazed at Naomi, as if she was some kind of alien and he wasn’t sure whether or not she was dangerous. It was the same look she’d received from her father the first time he’d seen her skip.
What had gotten into him?
Naomi shrugged it off and looked away from Griff. “Why are you even here?” she asked Emily. “Weren’t the cops taking you—”
“I ‘convinced’ them to let us come after you,” said Emily, looking somewhat sheepish. “Griff followed you using his ability, and we told our driver where to go. We weren’t going to get too close, but then Griff sensed everyone disappearing—dying—and we knew we had to try to help. By the time we got here, you were gone. We thought you were dead, too. Then we saw you and Francis and the other guy reappear, and Innis and the rest of them were standing over you… Before we could get close enough to do anything, you had all gone invisible, and there was a gunshot, and then Innis disappeared, too…” Emily looked thoughtful for a moment, then continued. “Well, we charged in, guns blazing—the cops, I mean; they didn’t give us guns!—and that woman starting snapping her fingers, and the cop beside me fell down like he’d been shot (that’s him, there; he’s going to be okay, they said), but I managed to make eye contact with each of them for just long enough that they turned and ran, and they’re probably still running. I don’t think I’ve ever hit anyone that hard before. Anyways, we started searching for you, and called for more help, and then a few minutes later… Here you are!”
“Wow…” Naomi looked around again, scanning for a certain face. “Is Francis…?”
Emily shook her head. “It might’ve been them, or it might’ve been us; there were a lot of bullets flying…”
Naomi sighed. “So she’s gone.”
For several seconds, neither of the friends spoke, while the shouts and radio chatter of the surviving police continued on around them. Sirens blared as a series of ambulances pulled into view. “There,” Naomi heard Griff say, watching him point at a body on the ground. “Him, too. Maybe her.” Police officers scurried to the bodies he indicated to check for vital signs. Maybe they weren’t all dead, after all… Maybe some had survived.
“Naomi,” asked Emily, knitting her eyebrows together, “what happened to Innis?”
Naomi closed her eyes for a moment, then quickly reopened them. “He’s gone, too.”
And I will never skip again.