✨ Chapter 13 ✨

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Marian brushed flakes of gold glitter from her shirt and set her helmet in place. Blaine's bicycle was right where she'd left it, on the sidewalk near the Minikins' house. This time when she rode by, she looked across the yard to where Sal's bedroom window poked up from behind blades of grass. "Ah, she must be asleep," she said, noting the darkness behind the glass, wondering what her friends had been up to that Saturday night.

The next morning, Marian woke to knocking on her bedroom door.

"Wake up, lazy butt," Blaine called from the other side. Pound. Pound. Pound. "While you've been sleeping, some of us have been doing chores all morning."

"You're awfully bossy for a youngest child," she grumped, pulling a skirt over her leggings.

"One of us should be responsible. You didn't leave any footsteps for me to follow in, so I'm making my own. Hurry up—your friends are here."

Laughter sounded from a different voice. Sal. Followed by another, deeper chuckle. Endrik?

Marian's eyes widened. "Give me five minutes. I'll be right there!"

"Sure, no problem," said Blaine. Marian noted the eye-roll in his tone. "I'll stop everything else to go entertain your friends. It'll give me a break from my to-do list."

Marian snorted. "You would have a list."

"Can't hear you. Too busy—"

The conversation ended with a thump from one of Marian's stuffed animals hitting the door.

Fifteen minutes later, Marian flew into the kitchen, her face creased with apology.

Blaine looked up from his watch, flipped his hair out of his eyes, and smirked.

Marian covered her face with her hands and groaned, making both Sal and Endrik laugh. Unsure whether they were laughing at her expense or out of general amusement, Marian looked between her fingers at the face of one friend, then the other. Both seemed strangely calm and cheerful, despite the strong words exchanged the day before.

Marian dropped her hands and raised an eyebrow at Sal.

"Endrik and I had a talk about what you said. Whatever's between you two is none of my business." Sal fumbled with her braid. "And we think you're right about the school project. It's not fair for us to put all the pressure on you. We should try harder to find our own wards." The words tumbled out quickly. Sal's voice quavered, as if there were more to her explanation. But Marian couldn't imagine what it could be.

"I see," said Marian, hesitant at how Sal had given in so easily. And how she appeared both remorseful and unusually bright. "Is that why—"

Blaine sat tapping his fingertips together, clearly enjoying himself.

Marian squinted in his direction. "You can go back to your chores now, list boy."

"But it was getting interesting."

"Out," said Marian, pointing her finger.

Blaine rose from his seat and pouted. Endrik slapped the boy on the back as he left the room, and then he filled in the empty chair, which happened to be closer to Marian.

"So," said Endrik, "you were saying?"

Marian's neck warmed. "I was going to ask if that's why Sal brought you with her." She eyed the kitchen. The dishes were washed and put away, and the floor was swept. A bouquet of flowers from the garden filled a vase on the table. Blaine really has been busy cleaning up this morning. The place looks great. Nevertheless, it felt strange to have Endrik here in her home. He hadn't visited before.

After bobbing his head once, Endrik smiled. "We thought you might like to go out with us for a picnic by the river."

Sal held out her palms. "I don't have to come with you, if you don't want me to. You know, if you want to make it a date or something..."

Wide-eyed, Marian sucked in a breath. "Of course you'll come with us." She wrapped an arm around her friend, thinking back on what her mother had said about the disappearance of Sal's father.

"Okay." Sal brightened. "If you're sure."

"Yes, but there's only one problem," said Marian, noting her friends' empty hands. "What are we going to take with us to eat?"

"I figured we'd go into town to pick up sandwiches, but then Blaine offered to make us something while you were getting ready." Endrick nodded toward the refrigerator.

Marian jumped up and opened the glossy white door. "He made us a picnic lunch?" Her lips dropped open at the stack of pollen butter sandwiches, piled next to fruit and bottles of carbonated nectar. Squeezing her forehead, she groaned. "And I basically threw him out of the room. I had no idea."

"He could join us," said Sal. "He made more than enough for everyone."

"Sure, why not. I feel terrible."

"I'll bet he's fine, Mari. I get annoyed with my brothers all the time." Sal's lips formed a tiny smile. "I can go get him if you want."

"Yeah, that might be better. He'd be more likely to go if you mentioned it was your idea."

Sal froze. "What? Really?"

Marian grinned at how her friend's cheeks pinked.

"Um, okay, whatever," Sal muttered. Her braid whipped behind her as she fled the room.

"Blaine's had a crush on Sal since forever," whispered Marian. "But he won't admit to it, at least not to me."

Endrik looked Marian in the eyes and smiled. Some unknown part of her stomach leaped and did a cartwheel.

"I should put our lunch in a basket," she said, rummaging through kitchen cabinets. When she finally found one, on a shelf high above the refrigerator, she looked over her shoulder and frowned.

"I can get it for you," Endrik offered.

"That's okay. I'll grab a footstool."

Endrik shook his head. In a smooth motion, he stood from the chair and held Marian in place as he reached above her.

"Thanks," she said as he backed away and handed her the basket. She opened the refrigerator door, letting the air cool her cheeks a moment before dropping the lunch Blaine had made into the basket. "There," she said, topping the contents with a pile of napkins and slapping her hands back and forth. "Beautiful."

"Agreed," said Endrik, not looking at the picnic basket. His full gaze rested on her.

Marian ignored the tumbling in her stomach and smirked. "When we get back from the park, you and I need to talk."

"Definitely."

Marian turned to the door as Sal and Blaine passed through. Sal fussed with her bangs, seemingly unable to tear her eyes away from the smug grin plastered across Blaine's face.

Just as Marian was about to thank him for the sandwiches, he tore a sheet off a pad of paper and started scribbling.

"Another list?"

"No, Mari. Mom and Dad are both working this morning, so I'm leaving a note on the fridge in case they get back before we do."

"A great idea!" Sal bounced. "Very smart."

Marian rolled her eyes, wondering whether shecould take back the invitation for Blaine to join them.

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