When I was three, my mom smiled so happily, waving her arm in the air holding a crisp white letter.
Isabella Marie Swan swirled beautifully with no return address. My mom shines as she tears it open, calling me over. Her feet are already off the ground in excitement by the time I get to her side. She's lucky. My mom was born with the sparkle of magic. Great grandmother could close her eyes and warm the circle around her, grandmother could influence the emotions of those closest to her, and Mom can move without even touching the ground.
Her daughter—me—can do nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
"I guess I'm just not special," I tell her sadly the same night I got the preschool letter inviting me to attend one of the more prestigious elementary schools in our Court.
"Your magic doesn't have to look like mine," she whispers, tucking me into bed. "Maybe your magic comes from within, and it'll take a very special moment for it to appear."
She was wrong.
My magic never showed up.
Not when I was ten and got my letter asking me to attend the third-best middle school in Court 6. Not when I was fourteen and got my letter asking me to attend the second-best high school in Court 6. And certainly not anytime through high school as I fell in love with Mike Newton even though I was dating Jacob.
"Bella," Jake says, tugging on my sleeve in the middle of math. "Wake up."
I sit up slowly, a yawn slipping through my lips, and notice all eyes on me. Crap. Maybe my magic is sleeping soundly anywhere. I roll my eyes at the thought. The Royals would absolutely do something like this—a joke I'm sure they're laughing so very loudly about.
Jake is like me, and maybe that's why I agreed to go out with him. No magic, no specialty, no anything. Just a simple teenager trying to make it through until we get our final school letter on graduation day.
"I bet you'll be a lawyer," Jake says to Ben who pushes his glasses up his nose.
Ben looks at him irritably. "You know lawyers come from Court 4. There's no way they'd pull a Court 6 nobody to defend any of the wealthier Courts."
"Angela's sister got chosen to be a doctor and she's Court 6," I tell him, reaching over to show sympathy.
Ben moves away from my touch. "Angela's family applied for a scholarship when she was ten. It had been a long time coming. Just face it. We're Court 6 and we'll always be Court 6."
"If you marry—," Jake starts but Ben slams his fist down.
"No one in my family has married anyone past a Court 6 in decades!"
Mr. Banner walks over and asks Ben to please collect his things and see the principal. Ben rolls his eyes as Jake and I watch him. We all know that when you get sent to the principal, you've pretty much sealed your fate.
"Maybe it's too late," Jake whispers so no one can hear. "Maybe the letters are already sent, and the Royals won't hear of this."
"It's still a week until graduation, Jake," I whisper, "and we both know they'll be notified."
Sadness slowly soaks into me all day. Ben's a good kid, but he's slowly been questioning and rebelling for some time. And the Royals from Court 1 do not take kindly to unrest.
As I walk home from school, rain threatening overhead, I wonder briefly where I'll be placed. Unlike Ben, I never question the Royals. My family believes wholeheartedly in the process, and I still have time to find my One True Love before the Soul Bonding process occurs.
"Hey sugar," Dad says, flipping the newspaper over in his hands as he sips a beer at the table. "How was school?"
"It was good," I tell him honestly, setting my backpack down. "Need anything before I change?"
Dad shakes his head and I take the stairs two at a time, unbuttoning the white oxford and pulling it off as I shut my bedroom door. I place the knee-length skirt on my desk chair and pull on black sweats and one of Dad's old t-shirts. We live and breathe by the dress code in Court 6— nothing above the knee, no sleeves shorter than the elbow, in the colors white, gray, black, or brown. Colors are reserved for special occasions like first dates, weddings, and school dances.
Court 6 is reserved for lower middle class, and Mom and Dad do okay in their careers chosen for them by the Royals on their graduation day. I'm mostly left to shop second hand, and I don't really mind, but I've never even smelled or felt unworn, smooth cotton.
My biggest fear is that on graduation day, I'll open the crisp white envelope and see something like 'cook' or 'linen cleaner' or 'factory worker' which would push me into Court 7 or maybe even Court 8, away from my friends, away from my family, away from Mike.
His soft blonde hair and gray eyes with a smile that licks at my belly and sends a warm breeze through me.
I love him.
Once, in 10th grade, Mike walked me home, letting me use his umbrella when it was raining. He wasn't dating Jessica at this time, and I thought maybe he'd ask me out, maybe he'd kiss me, and maybe then he'd feel the Soul Bond tugging us together.
The Soul Bond happens when two people kiss and it's like two pieces of a puzzle finally connect; like the air is breathed into your lungs; like you've been floating around space and the knot in your belly, tethering you to something, finally tightens, anchoring you to something—someone. Well, that's what my mom says anyway. We only have until the age of twenty-one to find a Soul Bond, and luckily for us, there are multiples out there, we just have to kiss a lot of frogs before it happens. Jake and I… we're not bonded. He's not my mate; he's just my friend. Mom and Dad got each other's names in a letter when they turned twenty-one and married that same month.
The only reason you're unmarried after twenty-one is if your mate dies, and then you're alone. Forever. The thought should scare me, something like an arranged marriage, but everyone I know is happy. Everyone I know who opened a letter at twenty-one has an exceedingly happy, healthy relationship. My brother Emmett married Rosalie at twenty-one, two weeks after opening her name in his letter, and they currently have two kids and can't keep their hands off each other. He, a Court 6, married her, a Court 5, and currently they live in Court 4, based off their incomes.
If you ask me, I think it's all very romantic. The idea that the Royals somehow know your mates, and pair you up based off interests and compatibility, excites me. I have never been one to question the Royals—I've accepted the Courts, been fine with them telling me which school I'll attend, and trusting the process. That's all my parents say—"trust the process, Bells."
And so here I am… And next week, in front of everyone while standing on stage, the principle will set that letter in my open palm, sealing my future, my career, my life; I just hope the Royals reward me for always trusting the process.
"Bells," Mom calls, a knock on my door pulling me out of my longing.
Dinner is dinner; filled with potatoes we buy from the farmers down the road, and meat from the deer my dad killed yesterday. We talk about school, and my grades, and Emmett visiting next week. Dad and Mom take a walk before curfew starts, and I watch from the front porch as the dust kicks up and swirls around them. Court 6 rarely sees nice days. Usually, we're overcast, chilly, or rainy, but today the sun shines and the birds sing from the trees.
Sometimes I pray to the Royals, asking them to send me to a better Court, a prettier court, like Emmett's. The few times we've saved enough money to take the train down to Court 4, I've absolutely loved it. Beautiful sunny days, the sound of waves and water lapping at the mountains, greenery, and vibrant flowers of purple and yellow replace everything I know of Court 6.
Dust, and gray-brown, and Earth is all I'm used to—gravel roads and dead grass. No flowers are able to grow in this climate.
The next week goes by slowly. Jake and I finish our assignments in his backyard under the carport. His dad's still at work, so I let him kiss my neck as I finish my research project for science. And when his fingers trail up my thigh, under my skirt, but over my underwear, I close my books entirely.
Jake and I aren't Soul Bonded, but he's my friend, and he makes me laugh. We've had fun the last year, and so I let him take my virginity last month. Luckily, the Royals don't hold virginity against us when picking mates. I only know that firsthand when I walked in on Emmett and his ex-girlfriend.
Jake whispers in my ear how much he loves me, and I stall, stopping my hand from unbuttoning his pants.
"Love?" I ask.
He nods slowly. "I love you," he tells me again.
"But… how? How can you love me even though we're not—"
"Bonded?" he asks, looking into me. "What if we are?"
"But I don't—"
And before I can finish telling him I don't feel anything, he says, "I think we should apply for marriage. The Royals must know—"
"Jake," I start, pulling back, but his fingers grip the thickness of my thigh. "I don't… I don't have those feelings…"
He looks down at me in confusion. "None?"
I shake my head.
"But you let me… last month… and I thought…" Jake tries to wrap his head around my words.
"Because you're my best friend and I trust you."
"You used me?"
I laugh because he's being absurd. "I think we both used each other."
Jake sits back and shakes his head. I want to tell him I'm sorry, but I'm not. The rest of the night, Jake keeps his hands to himself, and when I leave, he only kisses my head. It doesn't hurt my feelings, and I think that hurts him even more.
The entire way home, I think about what it might be like to be with Mike. To be with him.
Sometimes I hear Jessica talk about him and how happy they are together. I never asked if they were Bonded, but it's safe to say they probably are. Jessica's magic is that she shines when she's happy. Literally shines—like the sun. She's so bright and vibrant it's hard to look away. No wonder Mike's drawn to her.
On the day of graduation, Mom helps me get ready. I wear my hair half up, curled in soft waves. Court 6 citizens don't wear makeup, ever. Not only is there no money for makeup, it's not even available in most stores. Rosalie sent me some lipstick, though, for Christmas, and I've been waiting for a special occasion to wear it. Today's one of the only days in our high school careers that we don't have to wear that long skirt and button up shirt.
Today, Mom pulls out a pretty red dress that hits just above my knee, and I gasp when I pull it on.
"Mom, this will get me in trouble!" I whisper to her, eyes meeting through the mirror.
She winks. "It's half an inch too short. They'll never know. Colors are reserved for a special occasion," she whispers proudly. "And this, Bells, is definitely special. You'll see."
My hair shines like Jessica's, my lips a soft raspberry, and my curves show minimally through this dress.
I feel pretty.
I am pretty.
And when I arrive at school, looking at all my peers dressed up and out of their uniforms for the first time ever, I catch the gaze of Mike and smile.
It's fun to hear what the Royals have chosen for everyone as they walk the stage. Some are chosen to be stay-at-home mom's if they've already Bonded with their mate. Many are chosen to be county workers in Court 6. A few lucky ones have been chosen for schooling at a higher Court.
When Jake walks up, dressed in black pants and a black button-up, he opens the envelope with excitement and reads, "Mechanic, Court 6."
Jake smiles at his dad who hollers. Mechanic is better than what his dad does, and he gets to stay within Court 6 to be close to his family.
"Water Works, Court 6," Mike says, smiling at Jessica, who was chosen to be a county worker for Court 6 as well.
Mike in Court 6.
Mike in Court 6.
Relief floods through me. I try not to pay attention to the way he gazes at Jessica.
When it's my turn, my knees wobble in weakness as I cross the stage, nearly stumbling over my feet as I make eye contact with the principal.
He smiles and quietly says, "Good luck, Miss Swan."
The audience is quiet as I slowly rip open the white envelope.
Isabella Marie Swan.
Stepping up to the microphone, I grip the letter, the rough ink of my name presses against my fingerprints. Taking a deep breath before I open the tri-fold letter and freeze.
"Teacher, Court 5."
Away from my family. Away from my friends. Away from my life.
My mom and dad stand and clap and holler because they know this is a good thing—a wonderful thing. I close the letter and wait until I'm seated back in my chair to feel the crippling sadness and despair that the Royals have bestowed upon me.
Jake's hand reaches through our peers from behind and grips my shoulders in quiet kindness and compassion. I shrug him off as I nervously wipe away the tears.
Hoping the Royals perceive these as happy and sad tears, I smile and say "thank you" to all my peers who congratulate me on moving up and moving on.
The few civilians lucky enough to be chosen to move beyond Court 6 have never come back—they've found their Soul Bond, stuck to their career, prayed to the Royals—our Gods—and accepted their lucky fate.
I can't help but feel fear, sadness, and encompassing nervousness as I sit and listen to all my other peers who are staying in Court 6. They get to stay with their loved ones, hang out with their friends, attend University 6 here in our Court, and nothing changes for them. Familiarity and comfortability are wiped out from under me, and I've never been more scared.
And that's exactly what I ask Emmett that night, after the party, as we sit on the porch and listen to the dust kick up against Mom and Dad's car with the wind.
"They know better than us," he tells me confidently.
"This is the only time I've questioned them, Emmett. The only time. I'm scared. For eighteen years, I've understood. But this… this scares me."
"Bells, you get to be in Court 5, as a teacher, in a college that actually educates. You could Bond with someone who—" he pauses and shakes his head, and I so desperately want him to finish, but he doesn't. "Trust the process," is all he says before patting my back and heading inside.
Emmett's magic power, whether he understands it for it's worth or not, is being able to recognize what needs to be said and not said. He's always been good at leaving 'cryptic' messages, but as I've grown older, I know it's his magic of letting me experience life and learn my own lessons.
And that's why he's such a wonderful father.
Our relationship is more friendly than sibling—there's no fighting, name calling, or cruelty. There's not a mean bone in his body. Emmett has protected me in every way he possibly could, and I'll always listen to what he has to say.
So here I am, taking a breath, and trusting the process.
And here we are again, everyone. This story came to me in a weird, CBD gummy induced dream (if you know, you know), and their world sort of fell into place the more I thought about it. If you have questions now, they'll more than likely be answered in the coming chapters. Please feel free to list any questions you may have in a review and I can address in a following A/N.
Please, please, please review and let me know your thoughts! I know this story is totally different than my previous stories, but I think it'll be fun!
Thank you to Fran for looking over this chapter!