072 – Diligence/Distraction

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Oh, it is good to be back.

Even if I wasn’t in costume, it felt nice to be out and about in the territory again. It was refreshing.

What was not refreshing, though, was why I had to be out and about. Not exciting at all. Mundane, even.

I pushed the cart, and D threw more snacks inside.

We were just doing some shopping at the Fill Market – Philly’s as D liked to put it – and it wasn’t even for anything I needed. D just wanted to stock up my refrigerator and pantry again.

Not that I had any real use for either of them, but I still felt bothered by it. Her brazen disregard for other people’s personal space. Useful, when it wasn’t directed at me.

But, I wasn’t bothered enough to bring it up. I kept it to myself.

D tossed in a box of cookies, and then another. She kept taking things off the shelves as I passed, nonchalant, not being particularly picky in her choices.

The more snacks she collected, the more she was getting cramped. She was sitting inside the cart, facing me, taking boxes and bags as we went. I couldn’t see her feet, ankles, and shins, as the boxes kept piling on.

“Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?” I questioned, giving her a wary look as she dropped in yet another box. Donuts, this time. “Or a lot overboard?”

“I don’t think so,” D said, monotone, reaching over to take even more. The pile was getting up to her knees, now. “Why? Do you think so?”

“I know so, D.”

We got to the end of the aisle. I turned us around, moving into another, but I pulled the cart away every time D tried to reach for another snack.

“Hey,” she whined, still monotone. Dry.

“That’s more than enough,” I told her. “You’re the only one who’ll be eating them, anyways. And besides that, you’ve gotten so much that people are starting to look.”

D took a quick look around as we left the aisle. From the expression she had on her face, she didn’t seem to mind at all.

It was true, though, people were looking.

The weekend, at the busiest hour, with a lot of people. Shoppers who had to stock up for the coming week and the following weekend. I didn’t know that people went out in their Sunday best to go grocery shopping, but here they were, doing exactly that.

Bustling, and the place wasn’t very big as far as produce markets went, it took quite a bit of effort not to bump into anybody. D was making it even harder, too, with how she kept trying to take something from the shelves, people noticing and getting out of the way to accommodate her. As if she had no awareness of her surroundings.

Which made me realize there was a point to what she was doing.

“You getting what you came here for?” I asked, eyes forward, more attentive in what I was seeing. Playing catch up.

“Hm. Most definitely. There’s a lot to chew on, here.”

I gave the cart a hard shake before walking forward again. D lurched, some of the boxes of snacks and candy were knocked out of place, falling past her knees, landing in her lap.

“Punny,” I said.

D rearranged the boxes, placing them around her or between her legs. She didn’t have much space to work with.

“We’re not being very inconspicuous, are we?”

D wasn’t making any attempt to bring her voice down.

I met some of the looks coming our way. The staring. All of them varied. From caution, to fear, to downright contempt.

“Not at all,” I said. “We’re sticking out like, um…”

“Like gang members in a public space?”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

“And how are they reacting to us being here?”

I observed.

The people around us were mixed in race, attire, background. I noted some of the clothes they wore, the colors. Some were well-dressed for a Sunday service. Others… They weren’t as holy.

Gang colors. Different colors. Blue, white, and black.

Of the ones repping a group, the ones in black outnumbered the rest. This was our territory, now. But what did concern me were the others, those who had chosen to wear either blue or white. The Thunders, and The Royals.

Neither gang was active nor functioning, we had made sure of that. No, this was their form of protest, making known their displeasure and disapproval over the new, local powers that be. That they wouldn’t accept the changes happening in their community, and show that their allegiance was still elsewhere, even if there was no group for their loyalties to be placed in. Lost, displaced, angry ex-gang members.

I could feel the glares from a distance, as if they were trying to penetrate through me by looks alone. I was sure they wanted to do much worse.

“Not well,” I finally answered. “Most aren’t paying us any mind, but then there’s the rest, and they look like they want to tear us to pieces.”

D rested her arms on the sides of the cart. She slouched.

“They’re more than welcome to try, but they aren’t going to get very far. They’re just salty that they’re not at the top of the food chain, anymore.”

“Still with the food puns?”

“It fits. But my point remains. There’s nothing they can do about it. It’s not like they can fight us on it. Them and what army?”

“Them and any other disgruntled ex-members,” I mentioned. “And that isn’t a small group. Did you forget that the Thunders and the Royals were on decent terms when we first came in?”

“Yeah, yeah, but even then. They saw what happened to their leaders, their friends. Do you really think they’re to try something, and so soon? Now that’s just suicidal.”

Suicide. They would throwing themselves to their deaths if they tried to take back the territory.

I brought my voice lower as I said, “You’re assuming that I’d fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown.”

D didn’t lower hers as she replied, “You wouldn’t?”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away.

Was that how she saw me? My role in the gang? The muscle? It wasn’t untrue, though, and it was a role I had accepted, but it still felt… weird, being defined by only I was capable of, what I could do. By one part instead of the sum.

“I can, but I don’t have to,” I said. “They got their warning, and it was a pretty big one. They won’t do anything now, and if they ever get dumb enough to amass that army and plan, we’ll have gotten even bigger in the meantime, even more equipped to handle other threats. And, hopefully, we get to the point that the locals don’t even want us to leave.”

“Good thinking. I’m along the same lines. It’s just a matter of everyone settling into their new place. And you’re right about getting on the local’s good side. Anyone can take over, but it’s much harder to stay. Getting into the underlying system, becoming it, and making welcome changes is one way to do it.”

Like roots, I thought. Seeds for something better, in the future.

“But, it’s good to have a look at how things stand, now. Gives us a better picture of what to do next.”

“You did say that places like this are deep in the heart of the community, or something. And if you want to be in the know, you check around here.”

D snapped her fingers. “You’re getting it. See, you’re a natural, Wendy.”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away. Again.

I thought we were just going shopping.

I moved us to another aisle, but with more purpose, this time. I knew what to look out for, what to keep in mind, and D did her thing, as well. We were on the same wavelength now.

Though, she kept trying to grab for more snacks. I adjusted the cart to move her away from them.

I noted how the stream of people parted to go around us, trying not to get in our way. There wasn’t much space as it was, yet they were still willing to make the concession. Even those dressed in blue and white. They’d rather keep their distance, not risk what might happen if they wandered too close. An air of uncertainty.

And we were just two girls, neither of us were eighteen, and one of us wasn’t even a teen. There was no real reason for anyone to fear us. Not really.

They probably didn’t even know who we really were, our positions in the new gang. But they saw our colors, what we represented. We weren’t from around here, but we walked around like we owned the place. Which, in theory, we did.

“It’s probably time for us to go,” I said. “We’ve given everyone enough here stress to last the week.”

D murmured. “Fine, but…”

She glanced to the side.

Exhaling, I gave in, and moved the cart to the side.

A large, toothy grin was plastered on D’s face. I minded the gap.

Yes!” she cheered, a slight hiss at the end. “Thank you thank you!”

She grabbed multiple bags of tortilla chips before sheer excessiveness of her gluttony forced me to pull away again. Extraneous bags fell and crinkled onto the floor before D had to a chance to catch them.

Very conscious of the fact that people were watching, I simply peeled out of the aisle, ready to pay for everything.

Consider how much of the store’s inventory D took, it might as well be ‘everything.’

I took us over to the front of the store, into one of the many, busy lines. They were all lengthy, no shortcuts to take, here.

We waited, falling into a slow, languid pace, alongside everyone else. Checking our phones, listening to the soft background music from the intercom, lulled to a calm silence by the mundanity of a normal routine. Refreshing in its own way, I supposed. No matter what, whether someone was a gang leader or a regular churchgoer, everyone could get bored. It was a shared experience. Universal.

The wait didn’t last too long, though, and we arrived to drop off our stuff at the rubber conveyor belt. I started moving the boxes and bags of snacks and cartons of ice cream. D helped, taking them from the pile that had grown around and on top of her. She was still stuck inside the cart.

Then we reached the register. The cashier started scanning everything, and it took time.

“That’s a lot of…”

He started his comment, but he never finished. He had glanced up as he spoke, then froze up as he saw me, and D.

He recognized us?

As if it was a reflex, he bent down, hovering over his workstation, back to scanning the snacks, not saying a word and not facing in our general direction.

Weird.

D seemed to have picked up on it, too, saying, “Yo, loosen up, we don’t have anything planned this time. No need to be all worked up.”

“You know this guy, D?”

“You don’t remember? He checked you out last time we were here. Oh, and speaking of, he was totally hitting on you.”

The boy visibly twitched, having overheard D. She wasn’t exactly keeping it down.

“Was he?”

“It was so obvious, I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it. You must be really dense, Wendy.”

“I’m not dense, I just don’t recognize that stuff when it’s directed at me.”

“That’s what being dense means, silly.”

The boy lowered his head even more, rushing to get through the rest of the items. D did get a lot, though, and they didn’t seem to stop coming down the conveyor belt. I could sense he wanted to leave, but he wasn’t getting any reprieve.

I tried not to smirk or grin, but it was kind of funny, teasing this random stranger in a relatively harmless way. But then I caught myself.

Is D starting to rub off on me?

Darn.

If she was, I would hope it didn’t just go one way.

The boy finally got through about half of the snacks, but a hand on his shoulders made him freeze up even more.

We all turned.

Fillmore.

“I’ve got this, son, go help Omid at lane six.”

Without any hesitation, the boy switched with Fillmore, moving over to the other station. Fillmore took over, scanning, going even faster, but he wasn’t as tense about it.

“Ladies,” he said, greeting us with a curt nod as he worked.

I returned the favor.

“Fillmore.”

“Mr. Phil!”

D gave him a wave, both hands, cheery as ever.

“And hello to you, too, more specifically.”

Fillmore kept working as he addressed us more directly.

“Find everything alright?”

“Pretty much found and took everything,” I commented.

He let out a soft chuckle.

“At least someone’s buying from here.”

“Why?” I asked, checking the line behind us, the lines around us. “Looks pretty busy to me.”

Fillmore didn’t look up from his work.

“We’re running out of stock, inventory is beginning to thin out in the back. Weekends are usually the busiest times for us, so we have about, let me guess, two and a half months left? Give or take. Then…”

He didn’t continue.

“Then what?” D asked, “How come y’all aren’t getting any more stuff?”

I would have tapped D on the head, or messed with her hair. But, I was curious about the details. I wanted to hear more.

“Local farmers and manufactures don’t want to sell to us, none of the good ones. My guess is that they think we’re in a rough part of town, and they don’t want to do business where there’s potential risk. Which, well, I don’t see what the problem is now.”

He lifted his head, meeting my eyes. The first decent look I had of him in a while.

Weary, beyond exhaustion. The lines on his face were deeper, holding larger shadows. His beard looked greyer, his expression a touch somber. But even that had a sense of resignation to it, as if he didn’t have the energy to properly express himself. Just tired.

With his flat brim hat, his clothes from a bygone era, he was as old as he was old-fashioned. And even more withered, too.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” he breathed.

D answered him.

“It’s ‘cause you’re in trouble, and you’re reaching out for help. Nothing to be ashamed about.”

She gestured.

“How about we have a talk with these farmer guys?”

“Really?” Fillmore questioned.

“It’s nothing. We’ll show them we’re worth doing business with.”

His eyes squinted a bit. “I’d prefer if I didn’t have children taking care of something like this on my behalf. This doesn’t concern the streets. It’s proper business, between adults.”

“What happens on the streets is proper business, Mr. Phil, and we’re doing quite well in that regard. If I do say so myself. Besides, it doesn’t have to be us that takes care of it. We have other peeps who can smooth things out for you.”

“Do you?”

“You haven’t met him, but he’s capable,” I said. If we were still thinking along the same lines, we were both considering the same person for the job. “He’s also not a child.”

“His name’s Lawrence,” D said, “And if we were chess pieces, he’d be the knight. Tenacious, tough, and can move forward even when he takes a ‘L.’ You should meet him sometime, and you’ll know we’re serious.”

“I never doubted that you weren’t. Sure, let him visit. I’ll entertain this.”

Fillmore continued with the scanning, getting through more of the still huge set of sweets. Progress was incremental. I was growing more and more cognizant of the fact that we were holding the line up.

“Anything else we should know about?” D asked. She stretched her legs, now that she had more room to herself. “Any sidequests?”

I was starting to catch on why D had gotten so many snacks. To give us time, and more chances to get information out of Fillmore.

Fillmore scanned the last item, a box of thin mints. The register started beeping, and he pressed the keys.

Halfway done. He still had to bag everything. Everything.

He answered while he worked.

“Nothing worth reporting. Or if anything, see it for yourself. This is your land, now.”

“Ah, don’t be like that, Mr. Phil, you’re our eyes and ears! If there’s anything messed up, you should let us know. We might be able to do something about it.”

Look, don’t rely on the hearsay of an old man to get you anywhere. We’re your mess, now, so learn how to clean it up.”

“Boo, you’re no fun,” D grumbled.

Without another word, Fillmore finished bagging up our stuff and putting it back into the cart. I watched as D steadily disappeared underneath all the plastic.

“Ow,” she mumbled, as a bag bumped her in the head.

Fillmore dropped in the last one, and we were finally all done. He told us how much it all added up to – a staggering amount – and D only responded by giving him a credit card. I saw her fingers pop out from other side of the pile of plastic to hand it over.

“There was… one thing I wanted to say, though,” he said, words measured.

“Shoot,” I said.

He swiped the card, handing it back to D, but he had his eyes trained on me the entire time.

Then, his expression changed. The shadows dug even deeper, as he hung his head, the brim of his hat blocking my view of his eyes.

“It’s nothing,” he said, low.

“Now you’ve got me curious,” I said.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” D commented.

“No, I don’t want to keep you, and I do want you out of my store. I’ll let this pass.”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” I said, “But it doesn’t work like that. You have something to say, you tell us.”

I could feel it, now, the mounting pressure behind us. Pressing, pushing. The line was growing, the people were waiting, and the patience was thinning. People were moving over to other lanes because we were taking so long with Fillmore.

If this lasted any longer, I could imagine those in blue and white to use it as a reason to act out, make a sense of us being here. It would trouble, then, for everyone involved.

I waited for Fillmore.

He stood straight, taking one, long motion to get himself up. Nimble, smooth, for someone getting up there in years.

“I’ll keep it short then, to respect everyone’s time.”

“Fair,” I said.

With my undivided attention given to Fillmore, he said his piece.

“Look,” D said, “A sidequest.”

I looked.

A group, picking on an individual. Smaller, weaker than the rest of them. They were all boys, though.

All wearing white.

The smaller boy was backing away, but there wasn’t much room left between him and the wall. His hands were out, placating, as if he could tame the group that was inching closer. It wasn’t working.

D commented on the scene as it continued. A play-by-play.

“Oh. He fell. That’s not good.”

“Definitely not.”

“They’re laughing now, and I think he’s crying. I can’t tell from here, it’s too far. But I mean, he is rubbing his eyes, so it’s not a bad guess. And those guys, they’re laughing and, and, what’s the word? Look how they’re pointing and yelling at him.”

“Mocking?” I offered.

“Close. Wait, no… taunting, that’s it! Right, they’re taunting him, they want him to do something. That I can-”

D had stopped.

“What?” I asked.

She spoke. “That’s not good.”

What?”

“Gun. I see gun.”

I already had a hand on the door.

“Do we move?” she asked.

“Move,” I ordered, getting outside. D dropped her hands at the same time. She didn’t even have real binoculars, she just made pretend ones with her hands.

We both moved out of the van, and crossed the street.

Same neighborhood, different day. D’s rainbow spectrum of gelatos and ice creams would have melted hours ago if we had staked out all night.

Getting more familiar with the territory wasn’t a bad idea. Being more tuned in, learning more about the problems that plagued the area. What needed to be fixed and worked on.

But, it wasn’t just the bad. Learning about the good, the little charms that made the neighborhood unique was just as important, if not more. It wouldn’t do to simply take over a place and not take stock of the intricacies, the subtleties that make up the bigger picture. It would be, there, in the small details where we’d be more likely to slip up, if we weren’t aware of them, to know to look out for them. We’d have to be vigilant, and I’d have to be in the know.

Bikes braked and skateboards skidded into place as we moved through the Wellport construction site.

Abandoned after a building project fell through, the kids soon swept in to turn it into a skatepark, the flat, smooth surfaces and huge cement cylinders with the upper halves missing made for good spot to skate and ride, hanging out and trying out new tricks. The gang presence kept anyone else from coming in and stripping it all down, and left it alone for the kids to use, even if it was probably a hazard, in more ways than one. It had been at least a decade since the last time anyone took a hammer or drill to the place.

If we were going to be accepted by the locals, we’d have to be accepted by the youth as well. Keeping this place up and running was one way to go about it.

“Go, but wait.”

“Got it!”

I approached the group, and the boy they were singling out.

The angle I was coming in from put me at the group’s back, they didn’t see me as I advanced.

But, there was a framework of steel beams behind them, close to me. The beginnings of a skeleton of a building. The most that was achieved in that regard was a metal outline of a cube, sitting atop the dirt.

I ran my fingers against the steel, and I craned my head up.

I jumped.

The approach was threefold. First, the park was busy, an hour after most schools had ended for the day. There were others around. Kids shouted in surprise at my sudden, upward movement.

Second, sound could steal, take away attention from one thing to another. People turned whenever they heard something out of the ordinary, and they couldn’t see what had caused it. Humans were a curious species. The group had turned when they heard the shouts, the clanging as my feet stomped on metal.

Third, would be the slightly hard part.

I moved, quick but careful. I knew what this might have looked like to a normal person, and had to hold myself back accordingly. I acted, climbing to get on top of the higher beam that ran parallel to the ground. I was about ten feet up.

Jogging, I crossed the beam, getting even closer to the group and the boy. I was back in the air.

All together, it should have looked like one smooth, impressive stunt, something a trained professional could have pulled off. After weeks of practice  Me? I improvised.

It got the attention of everyone else, though, and I still found an opening to make my landing.

The group that had the boy wouldn’t have been able to see me. I had moved too fast, and with the sun at my back, high above me, I had the cover of a bright, blue, blinding sky. I soared for a time, my feet then finding hard ground. I crouched, then stood.

Everyone was lagging back a few seconds. They trailed behind, heads and eyes struggling to keep up.

When they finally did, though, they would have found me amongst the group, with the boy behind me.

And… there.

The group startled.

“Who the hell are you?” one of them asked. The leader? Maybe, he was tallest one here, but height didn’t necessarily denote power. And it was hard for me to gauge strength from just appearances, now.

“I’m just here to keep the peace,” I said, not offering any further. I’d let them guess.

“Cop?”

“I said keep the peace, not law enforcement. There’s a subtle difference.”

“Then fuck off, if you knew anything about this, about him, then you’d know we’re doing that all on our own. We don’t need you.”

Him. The boy on the ground.

“Something tells me you really intend to do none of those things.”

I looked at another from the group. His face, his hand, his gun, and his face again. I made it clear that I saw it, and that I knew what, exactly, I was here to stop.

I turned my head, slight, so the boy knew I was talking to him, now.

“Nathan.”

“Huh?” He sounded confused. Expected.

“Hey! How do you know him!”

“You can go. Don’t worry about these guys. They won’t be bothering you, anymore.”

It was as if my words only served to confuse him more. He rubbed his chin with his sleeve, and something fell out of a pocket of his jacket. Spray paint.

Being a place for kids to hang out, almost every square inch of cement was tagged or graffitied in some way. I could make out some of the designs and signatures, despite how it all mixed and clashed together. A crown, and a clouds with lightning bolts jutting out.

We’ll need our own tag, too.

No use, Nathan wasn’t moving. He’d probably be better off if I got rid of the group.

I turned back to them.

“Can’t have you kids causing trouble at a time like this, or any time, for that matter. It makes it harder for us, and that makes it harder for everyone. Don’t make this hard for us.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” the tall boy said.

“Do you?”

“You’re with those fucks that took over Krown and his brother!”

The overall feeling of the group changed in that instant. Or rather, it changed back. From anger at the boy, to confusion at me. Now, anger had snapped back in, but it was pointed in a different direction.

Me.

“And what of it?” I asked, admitting my affiliation with that question.

“You vultures, all you did was take advantage of Krown and EZ being taken out of the picture. And now you think you can boss the rest of us around? Fuck you.”

“EZ and Krown took themselves out, they were never going to stick around for much longer. They couldn’t see past whatever grudge they had between them, and they paid for that lack of foresight.”

“I saw,” the tall boy said, his eyes wide. “I was there. That night. It was dark, and it went even darker, everyone started screaming and running as we were all attacked-”

His voice cracked, and he stopped there. The reactions of the others, the way they gave him sidelong glances, suggested this was a story they’d heard before. Or maybe they had been there, themselves.

Weakness, then anger, begging for an outlet. They wanted something, or someone to take the blame on. They couldn’t go against us, not directly, and they wouldn’t even dare try to go against whoever intruded upon that night. The night he was there.

What, then, could they do?

Their surroundings. People, places, things. Tag more street corners to take back what they thought was theirs, wear colors to show that they didn’t accept the new changes. Beat up others who might have, even inadvertently, nudged things along to where it was now. Like using a specific tag that would have pissed off the other side, and, among other growing incidents, forced a confrontation between the two gangs.

Lash out, hoping that they could carve out a semblance of what they knew before. But the world didn’t work like that.

“So what?” I asked.

They stared at me like I was crazy. Especially the tall one.

“So what?” he repeated.

“Krown, or even his brother? Their reign was never going to last long. They weren’t strong enough. If they were, they would have survived this. They wouldn’t have let it get to this point. And now they’re gone. You shouldn’t mourn something that was never meant to be.”

The tall boy growled, and there was movement. A step forward, an arm stretched out, grabbing for something in another boy’s hand-

“You fire that gun, you’re only proving my point,” I said, raising my hands.

The tall boy had the gun now, lifted at an angle. Not at me. If he fired it now, he’d hit the ground, close to my feet.

I kept talking to keep his attention on me, and not that. I did what I could to suppress my own fear, my own weakness.

I took a second to regain my voice. My composure.

“If you’re angry, don’t direct it at someone else. Don’t shift the blame. Be angry at yourself. Your own weakness.”

He dropped his shoulders, deflating, as if I struck a nerve. Touched something raw.

There. Drive into it. Press harder.

I shifted my position, so my face was more to the sun. The glare hit the lenses of my glasses.

Close your eyes.

I closed my eyes.

“Hate it, recognize it, but learn from it. And don’t make the same mistakes as those who failed before you. Pick up the pieces, and grow. Fire that gun, here, now, you’re going to have this park officially shut down, once police and other ordinance remember that this place still exists. And it’s all you have, here, isn’t it? Do that, and now you’ll have people coming after you like you’re coming after Nathan. Don’t fuck it up for everyone else, and don’t make it harder for us.”

I watched, close, as his gun went back to his side. My fear gave way to relief.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Slow, hushed, he said, “Noah.”

“Noah,” I said. “We’re actually trying to build something, here, in this neighborhood. We, unlike Krown and his brother, want to see things improve. And not just here, but everywhere we expand into. It’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to get better. That, I can promise you.”

I thought about Fillmore’s words. I had promised him something, once, too.

“Why?” was all Noah could ask, through gritted teeth.

I answered him.

“Heroes aren’t real, but people can try. And it looks like no one has given an honest effort in a long, long time.”

The truth, insofar as he was concerned.

Noah’s response was without words, yet it was the most telling. He turned, walking away, parting the group that he was with. As he passed, they filled in the gaps again, leaving with him, leaving the park.

As they left, so did everyone’s attention on the scene. Skaters and bikers dispersed, going back to what they were doing before we had showed up.

I waited, and waited, until Noah and his crew were out of sight.

They were, and I fell forward, bending down, hands on my knees. I opened up my eyes.

“Shit, shit…”

I couldn’t help but smile.

I felt an odd sense of accomplishment, having been able to put an end to the situation without resorting to violence, or without anyone getting hurt. Diplomacy. I managed to pull it off.

All on my own.

Looking up, I noticed D peeking at me, from behind one of the steel beams I had scaled to distract them.

I motioned by moving my head, and she walked to me.

“I was waiting for your signal,” D said. “I thought you were going to get them to fight you, and I’d have all their shoelaces tied to each other, or something. Or anything, at least. Now I’m sad.”

She exaggerated a frown to illustrate her point.

You could have done that? I thought, but it was in passing.

“Not everything is about fighting, like how not everything is a game. I managed to talk them down from beating up on Nathan.”

“You did? What’d you say?”

I fixed my stance again, straight. I cracked a knuckle.

“A lot of it was from what Fillmore said the other day. Wickedness or weakness.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t think you would still be ruminating on it.”

“I’m not, not really. Just food for thought… I guess. Anyways, they bought it, and they’re gone now, so… oh.”

I followed D’s eyes. She was looking somewhere else. I turned.

Nathan was still here.

Standing, now, but he was hunched over, can of paint in his hands. Eyes going this way and that way. Still in shock.

“They were going to, they were…” he stammered. He coughed, and he stopped.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “They shouldn’t bother you anymore. And if they do, I’ll make sure they regret it.”

“I told them, I told them it wasn’t my fault. They were… going to make me tag everything, everywhere, and then they were going to kill me after that.”

“We’ll see to it that it doesn’t happen.”

“Yes yes,” D said, smiling, flashing him a sign. ‘V’ for victory.

He drew in a deep breath, and let it out, audible. He sounded hoarse.

“They were going to kill me, they were going to-”

“Hey,” I said. I would have walked up to him, but he was already tense as it was. Couldn’t agitate him more.

He faced me.

“You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that.”

“I fell,” he said, as if I had somehow forgotten.

“Okay,” I said. “You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that. You were an initiate, weren’t you?”

He gave me a look. Curious. “I was. Now, I’m… Now I’m nothing.”

“Still need a job?”

His look maintained.

I put my hands up. “Nothing crazy. I’m just asking if you’re up for it.”

“Well, what?”

“One thing any group or organization needs is proper branding. That includes logos, slogans, mascots, and in our world, tags. We’re in a good spot, right now, but we’re still missing some important, key elements. I’ll try to come up with some designs in the coming days. I’ll run it by you once it’s all official. Then, you’re free to use it, spread it around. Teach your friends.”

“You want me to tag everything, everywhere? That’s the same thing they were trying to make me do.”

I had taken account of how hypocritical my suggestion sounded.

“I’m not threatening you,” I said. “I’m offering you work. Paid work. Services, too. Like protection, just in case. It’s the literal opposite of what Noah was going to do to you.”

The look on his face suggested that he was considering it.

“Alright, I’m in.”

“Good. We’ll sort it out the next time we meet. Say, this time, here, next week?”

Nathan nodded.

“And I’ll give you back your other cans then, too,” D said. “You should really keep an eye on your belongings.”

“Wait, what?”

“Oops, bye Nathan!”

D ran off first, and I had to catch up with her. Nathan could have followed, but he was too shaken up to gather up the energy.

Settling into a more relaxed pace, we left Wellport, the park behind us, and I was still riding the satisfaction of pulling off diplomacy.

“Oh, Lawrence texted in the group chat, by the way. He wants to meet.”

“Now?” I asked. “That was… fast. I hope that means it went well.”

“Don’t know. Didn’t say.”

“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. We went back across the street, heading to the van. Enthusiasm carried my steps. “Day’s still young, let’s keep ourselves busy.”

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071 – 三猿

epy arc 11 ride

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“Rise and shine, Wendy.”

I opened my eyes.

White.

Blinding.

A bodily reaction. I twitched.

Instinct. I drew away, retreating.

A fading dream.

Only had the broad strokes, even then, they were being erased. A room. Chairs, strewn about. Limbs, too. Chaos there.

Black and white checkered pattern.

Eyes.

So many of them. Appearing in every square. Watching, observing.

Not a dream, a nightmare.

The gazes make my skin crawl.

Couldn’t find comfort in sleep, yet it hurt to face the light.

No choice.

I tried opening my eyes again. I took my time with it, going slow, letting myself adjust to the light, little by little.

I didn’t have the energy or will to rush myself.

The light gave way to details, and I was able to start piecing together where I was, what I was looking at, and the general state of things around me.

Drapes, pulled away from the window, the main source of all the light. As I adjusted, other stuff starting coming into view, more clear. The ceiling, blue with gold highlights, the lines coiling and winding like vines. There was an ambiance to it, as what I assumed was the morning hours bouncing off the colors, giving a soft, warm glow.

It was all so relaxing.

I moved my head. Stiff. I hadn’t stretched or used my muscles in some time, apparently. I put for effort into my fingers and toes, arms and legs, and found that it was tense there, too.

Brushed against heavy blankets. Warm, and somewhat wet. A certain fear began to manifest, until I realized that I had just been sweating.

I pushed myself, and the blankets off my body. I felt how fabric stuck to my skin, how my hair felt damp against my forehead. I pulled my arms free, using them to sit up on the bed.

Bed.

Wasn’t my bed.

Where exactly was I?

“Took you long enough.”

Feeling an itch in my eye, I rubbed at it, but with the other, I searched for the owner of the voice.

Lawrence.

Accompanied by D, sitting at either side of the foot of my bed. If I was groggy from too much rest, then Lawrence was groggy from too little. Bags under his eyes, color gone from his face. His hair, usually neat and combed, was clumped together and standing in some places, as he meant to spike it up. He wore a soft, padded brace around his neck. He was sitting, but I noticed that he was in a wheelchair.

D, however, looked the best out of all three of us, but that wasn’t saying much. She looked tired as well, not so much blinking as she was letting her eyes close, then opening them for brief intervals. She was dressed, though, in her usual style, her hair was sticking together, wet, as if she had just gotten out of a shower. If something were to happen, she’d be the most prepared to handle it.

I tried to speak, but there was a hitch in my throat, and I produced a light cough, instead. It didn’t escalate into a full-on fit, but it did bother me, how dry it sounded.

I cleared my throat, and tried again.

I spoke.

“Yo.”

Being succinct. It helped.

D smiled, soft, with none of the impish or vulpine quality I had come to associate with her expression. It looked as real as I hoped it was.

“Good to have you back,” she said.

Testing myself, I set my back straight up against the pillow, until I was sitting more upright. The bones in my back popped.

“Can’t say it feels good to, ah, be back,” I said.

“Careful,” Lawrence said, “Can’t have you overextending yourself again. Last time that happened, well, you ended up there.”

“Overextending… myself…”

I ran my fingers through my hair, my bangs, getting strands out of my eye.

“I don’t really, I mean, it’s all kind of fuzzy.”

“Take it easy, Vivi, let’s just take it easy, and take it slow. How are you feeling?”

Testing myself, I made a fist, with both hands.

All ten fingers…

“I feel like, I feel like shit. Like I overslept and lost any benefit of sleep to just go around and be tired again.”

“That’s because you did oversleep,” Lawrence said. “It’s been two days.”

My heart leaped in my chest, a small yet potent burst of energy that woke me up even more.

“Two days?”

“I wish it was a joke, but yeah,” D said, as if she was apologizing.

“You and I were supposed to be out of here yesterday,” Lawrence said, “But you slept right past that. We had to pay for an extra night, out of the gang’s pockets. Do you know how fucking expensive it is for just one night?”

“No,” I said.

Lawrence shook his head.

“If I hear that number one more time, I think I’ll lose it. So, never mind.”

D looked at Lawrence.

“You take it easy, too. Don’t give yourself any more stress.”

“Too late.”

She looked back to me.

“It doesn’t set us back that far. We’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fucked, that’s what it means.”

Lawrence!”

D shot a hard expression at Lawrence, one of disapproval. He only waved her off.

“I didn’t know I was out for so long,” I said. I put my hands together, resting right in front of me, on the blanket.

I broke all three rules I set for myself, I thought.

Causing problems, being an inconvenience. I didn’t like how much trouble I was causing for Lawrence and D, to the gang, and myself. Like taking steps forward, but always taking one less back. I would be making much more headway if I didn’t keep finding ways to stunt that progress.

D patted the blanket, right above my feet. I looked and met her eyes.

“Back to what I was saying,” D said. “Taking it easy and slow. How much do you remember, before you woke up here?”

Before I woke up here.

My thoughts and memories were like peering through a fog. Thick, muddy, unclear. Difficult to parse. Even the dream I just had was already lost.

Lost, but I felt a certain discomfort.

“I haven’t been very good at remembering things,” I answered, telling the truth. “Asking me now would be like, I don’t know, turning water into wine.”

“Crazier things have happened,” Lawrence commented.

D gave him a glance.

“What happened?” I asked. I was almost afraid to ask, considering a sizable chunk of my memory was missing. I had blacked out, blanked out, lost all sense of self and what took place in the interim. Picking up the pieces without being aware of what knocked those pieces down in the first place…

I was almost afraid to ask, but I was more afraid of the picture I might end up with.

Still, it was something I needed to know. Rather that, than be out of the loop.

“You really don’t know?” Lawrence questioned.

“It’s fuzzy,” I said. “It’s hard.”

“Try.”

I tried. Searching for anything I could use to glean even a piece of what was missing. To latch onto something.

A dream. It was already escaping me, but I held on to what I could. Lawrence wanted an answer, and I had to find one.

“White. I remember being followed by Granon’s men, but, I think it was more me leading them. I brought them to that hallway, I remember that and how white it was…”

“Wasn’t like that when I saw it,” Lawrence said.

D’s reaction was expected. I continued.

“After that, it all goes blurry. I remember it being really hot, and…”

I trailed off. I massaged my fingers, working much longer on one in particular.

I remember how loud it was.

Even now, apparently two days later, the impression of it hadn’t gone away. A very distinct echo, still ringing in my head. Voices, distorted and raw. Pained, hurting, begging. I had a distinct feeling as to who those voices belonged to.

And a pounding. Though, that was much harder to place. I chose not to concentrate on it.

I stopped, letting the silence that followed be a sign that I was done, that I had divulged all that I could recall.

“That’s fine, you did what you could,” D said.

“I could be doing more, it’s just not coming to me. Dammit.”

It was frustrating, not knowing, but in this case, there was almost a comfort, in that.

Maybe I don’t want to know, after all.

“Has this happened before?” Lawrence asked, pulling me away from my thoughts. “You blacking out?”

“I, it’s… the first time.”

“It is?”

I didn’t respond right away.

It was a lie of the partial sort. She had moments when she lost herself, Alexis, but I didn’t claim those experiences as my own. They weren’t regular occurrences, and if this recent incident was bad, then it was impossible to recall anything of those times back then. Only that they happened.

“Do you know what caused it?” Lawrence asked. “Why?”

Don’t know. Don’t want to know.

“I wish I knew,” I said.

“That’s not inspiring a lot of confidence.”

All I could do was shrug.

Lawrence looked like he wanted to say more, but he deferred to D, instead, saying, “You’re up next, D.”

D pointed to a nightstand by the head of my bed.

“There weren’t any cameras in that area, I took some pictures of the hall after everything… happened. You want to see?”

The reaction was instant. My stomach was tied up in knots at the thought of it.

“No thanks, I don’t want to see it.”

“Maybe later, it is pretty important that you look at it.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to put my mind on other stuff. “Later.”

Lawrence sat back and folded his arms.

“Don’t dodge, D. Tell Wendy why and how we’re even here to begin with.”

D winced, as if those words had a weight to them, and Lawrence just hit her.

D, right. She was here, present, being active. It had just occurred to me that I was talking with her, seeing her.

When was the last time we talked, face to face? It felt like ages ago.

D twiddled her thumbs.

“That’s, uh, a much deeper conversation than I’m qualified to have, and personally I believe that everyone should find their own meaning and purpose in life, and-”

D cut off when she saw me.

“Please,” I said. “I hadn’t seen you for a while. I missed you.”

D reacted, making a face and adjusting her choker.

“Missed you too, Vivi.”

I would have expected Lawrence to make another comment, but instead, he just stayed back, watching, as if he was letting this happen.

Then, D gave her explanation.

“Alright, let’s back this up a bit. As I’m sure you might have guessed, but Styx did have a hand in this.”

“Styx,” I said, breathing the name. I let it sink in. I had never met the man before, not me, not personally, and yet he had played such a pivotal part in putting us in this situation.

It was a mixture of emotions. Anger being one of them. Rage, really. Forlorn, too, that I wasn’t doing enough to regain my own hold on things I didn’t like how events in my life were being arranged by people I’d never interacted with. That wasn’t freedom, it wasn’t peace.

D nodded, saying, “He helped because I came to him for help. And it wasn’t the first time. When we were tackling the whole Benny thing, he had his Ferrymen, um, contain the fires that we started in Eastside, so to speak. If it weren’t for him, we’d have a lot more enemies on our back, and we probably wouldn’t even last long enough to have Granon as an enemy. He’s had a hand in this, in our growth, and in our ability to maintain.”

I was in bed, but I still felt I had been knocked down.

My memory was hazy, but that was only for recent events. I remembered the Ferryman that I had encountered when I was making my way back to E-One, where Lawrence reported on the earpiece that he had Benny. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but, coupled with this, the other Ferryman that gave us the keys into the Lunar, maybe I should have.

D going to Styx… It made sense, but I almost wished it didn’t.

“How did you even know to go to Styx?” I asked, but I felt as if I already knew what the answer would be.

“Styx and her go way back.”

It was Lawrence that spoke, giving D an accusatory look. D, however, didn’t look back at him. Her focus was still on me.

She didn’t have anything to say.

I’d have to get it out of her.

“You could have told us,” I said. “Keep us in the know, keep me in the know. Maybe I hadn’t told you this before, but I absolutely detest being kept in the dark about things, being led around, manipulated, and played with. You were there, when EZ and Krown got the better of me, you know how it… irks me.”

D had a dour expression on her face, eyes down. She tried to make herself look small, bringing her shoulders down, inward.

But she was still there, I could still see her.

I asked her again.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

D stammered out her reply.

“I, he, it was one of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t directly help you guys, but I did what I could to work around it, bugging rooms and getting access to the security and cameras in the hotel. I was always keeping an eye on you guys, making sure things were running smoothly, and also I-”

I interrupted.

“I don’t give a fuck about that, D, that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m talking about before any of this shit even started. You could have told me about Styx’s involvement in our plan of getting Benny, you could have gotten ahead of this. I’m talking about the principle of the matter. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

It was a slow, barely perceptible movement, but D nodded her head.

“I do,” she said, sounding hushed and apologetic. She either meant it from the bottom of her heart, or she was playing up the little kid angle. It was hard to tell with her.

D continued.

“It was just, we were just starting, everyone was still getting used to the idea of working together, like Lawrence and the Ghosts, and us. I thought something like that would be so fun, and I didn’t want to mess it up, so I kind of played my own card, to ensure that everything would go smoothly. And then it worked, but like, I could tell that the other Ghosts were still kind of wary about me and Wendy, so I kept-”

I raised a hand, palm facing outward. D stopped.

I set my hand back down, and I noticed that I had been gripping the blanket tight. I had to pry my fingers out from the fabric before I could use them properly.

“No excuses,” I said, “I’m not in the mood for them. I just want things to get better. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, I’m holding you to that.”

D blinked, quiet, nodding as well.

It wasn’t great, and I was still feeling that mix of melancholy and anger. I wasn’t at my best, but it would have to do, for now.

But, shit.

So much to consider, now. Too much, even. It was overwhelming.

Take it apart, compartmentalize it. Discard what isn’t needed.

Not a bad way to start.

“Now,” I said, changing the course of the conversation, “There’s a lot we need to get through and figure out. Like what the fuck are we going to do now?”

I tossed the covers off of my body, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. Heavier than I expected. I really had been out for a long time.

I took the next part easy, planting my feet on the floor, getting up slow. D got up from her chair to help me to a standing position. I didn’t stop her.

“Let’s move while we talk,” I said. “It should help me think clearly again, get all my gears moving.”

D helped me with my first step, allowed me to test myself with the second, and I was under my own power by the third.

I was still sluggish, but damn, it felt good moving around again.

What didn’t feel good, though, was how greasy and oily and sweaty my skin against my pajamas. I couldn’t wait to hop into the shower after this.

D went to Lawrence, turning him around in his wheelchair. She pushed, and they had passed me as we moved the discussion over to the living room area.

“Lawrence,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“How long are you going to be in that?”

Lawrence grunted.

“She’s been making me stay in this thing until we’re out of this hotel. But I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” D said. “I just want to make sure you will be.”

Lawrence made a hand signal, lifting a finger and traced a circle in the air. D spun around so they could both face me.

“As soon as we get out of here, I’ll be better than fine. I’ll be okay.”

“Soon,” I said. “When are we supposed to be leaving again?”

“Technically, twenty-two hours ago.” Lawrence let out a small chuckle.

“Noon,” D said, correcting him.

“So, we’ve got two hours? That’s enough time to iron things out.”

I put my hands on the ornate couch in the living room, using it for balance. I started.

“Let’s start with what we do know. Granon and the People’s Hammer?”

“Summarily fucked,” Lawrence offered. “You did your… thing, and I did mine. They’re not going to be a problem anymore, especially Granon. His employer might want to try branching into Stephenville again, but that won’t have anything to do with us. Probably.”

“Is he…” I paused.

“Dead? He’s not, but he is fucked. He’ll need a tube up his ass to take a shit, now.”

“Language,” D said. “Gosh.”

“I curse all the time.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been doing it too much, lately.”

“It’s how I deal. Deal with it.”

D grumbled.

“Deal.”

“Next,” I said, “Styx. Is he still a factor?”

I would have asked about Granon’s men, if they had met a similar fate or not. But, this was one of those very few, very rare instances that I’d rather not know.

Killing was a hard line to cross, different from maiming or hurting. A very definite step above. I didn’t see myself as a killer, even with having handled knives and guns in the past. I’d hurt people, and I’d put them at the brink of death, but I had never pushed someone over the edge. I didn’t have a particular rule against it, but it would brand me forever, the second I crossed that line. Murderer. Killer.

Even Benny, whose life I was more than willing to take, I shied away from that particular edge at the last second. It didn’t feel right, in that instance.

Much like how it didn’t feel right, in this one.

If those men were gone forever, never to wake up again, I… couldn’t see me as being wholly responsible. I had lost control of both my mind and body, whatever happened wasn’t anything I intended to do. Maybe people did die, but it wouldn’t have happened if I could help it. And I couldn’t.

It doesn’t count.

“Styx will always be a factor,” Lawrence answered. “He was here before Stephenville became a sanctuary city for gangs and cartels, and he’ll probably be here even after nuclear war wipes the rest of us out. He’s a fucking cockroach.”

D answered the question properly, saying, “He sees me, or us, as being in his debt for all the assistance he’s provided. He’s going to want to cash in those favors. When? It’s anybody’s guess.”

“It’s going to be soon,” Lawrence said, as if it was a premonition. “It’ll be some sort of test, I’m guessing, he mentioned that we should get our shit together. But, whatever it is, I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Mentioned?” I asked.

“As in, he fucking told us.”

“Ugh, language,” D said, quiet.

“Ah,” I said, “Duh.”

Two potential tests.

At worst, they’d derail the gang’s progress. At best, it could be Styx’s way of helping us even more, but I doubted the man’s benevolence.

“Well, if he helped us twice, now, he probably wants to get something out of it,” I said.

“Three times,” Lawrence said, correcting me. “Three.”

I tilted my head.

“What was the third thing?”

Lawrence jabbed a thumb at D. She, in response, went stiff, her lips in a hard line.

“D,” I said.

“It’s not relevant,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “It doesn’t pertain to the gang.”

“I told you, D, I don’t like-”

“It’s not relevant!”

D shouted, sudden, so loud that I flinched, and I could have sworn the scene around me briefly change. White. Chairs strewn. Red splotched everywhere. I blinked, and I was back in the suite, in the living room, that incident already fading from my memory.

“Uh,” I said, unsure of how to respond, if I even should.

D had screwed her eyes shut. She wasn’t holding onto the wheelchair’s handles, her arms were straight down, hands balled up.

There was no act to it, no pretending. D was a kid, and she reacted like how a kid would.

She doesn’t want to say.

Lawrence gave me a measured, careful look.

“Hey,” he said, “If it’s not relevant, it’s not relevant. Right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, with care. “Not relevant.”

D took her time in composing herself, unwinding. She played with her choker.

I put my thoughts elsewhere.

I was standing, lifting a leg up to stretch and get blood flowing. I still felt fatigued, thoughts and ideas weren’t connecting as well as they should have been.

Delayed, I was finally hit by a harrowing realization.

I opened my mouth, speaking slowly.

“Does… Styx know my secret identity?”

Heads turned.

I saw their expressions. I knew.

“Fuck,” I said.

“It’s just a feeling,” Lawrence said, “But I have my doubts that he’d do anything with that. It’s his business to know things. It’s how he got to where he is today. If he let slip every piece of information he has, then his gang wouldn’t exist, or not to this capacity.”

“But he was a part of the Solace conspiracy,” I said. “He was directly involved with trying to take me out of the picture, during my Blank Face days.”

Lawrence spread his hands.

“I wouldn’t know about that. You’d have to ask her, she’s the one that’s chummy with the guy.”

I looked at D. She didn’t look at me.

“Styx isn’t going to do anything with that information,” D said. Her voice wasn’t firm, but it didn’t falter.

“You had better know for sure, or I’ll make it so he can never ride his bike again.”

For a moment, D set her jaw, lips pressed together.

Then, she replied.

“I’ll be sure to tell him that.”

Covered, but not concluded. Styx’s actions, as I understood it, were completely contradictory. Sabotaging me as Blank Face, but willing to help now that I was V. It didn’t connect, not from where I was standing, not with the limited information I had on him.

I’d have to seek him out, one of these days. Get a proper dialogue going. If anything, it would interesting.

“So we’ll keep Styx in the back of our minds,” I said. “We still have our own priorities, and we can’t have him looming over our heads. We stick with our original plan, and whenever he shows himself again, we’ll be ready.”

Lawrence replied. “And our priorities are?”

“Maintenance and expansion. We touch base with our territory, and we start picking through other gangs that had a debt with the Ghosts. That plan is still in effect. That doesn’t change.”

“Hit the ground running, then? I’m down.”

“Same here.”

D had responded, though with less enthusiasm than before. She was still shaken from her own outburst from earlier.

I nodded, glad that we were in agreement. Even though it was on varying levels.

“Anything else?” I asked. Every pertinent item was addressed, but I wanted to be thorough, to cover all of our bases.

Lawrence didn’t hesitate to offer another topic.

“Yeah. You.”

I paused.

“Me?”

“You heard me. All this talk about knowing this and knowing that and staying in the loop, yet you’ve never told me a damn thing about how your powers actually work and what fuels it.”

“Fuel?”

“You mentioned that you don’t eat, that it was a drawback of your powers. What you failed to mention was, while you may not eat, you do drink, and I’ve seen what you’re like when you’re thirsty.”

I swallowed, hard.

“You saw?” I asked, my voice breaking a little bit.

“You’d have to be blind to miss it.”

It was my turn to avoid the stares. I glanced elsewhere, keeping my eyes down. I moved my hands to my side, but I found that my pajamas didn’t have any pockets.

I was in an awkward position.

“It’s not relevant,” I said.

“Bullshit. The only reason why things turned out like this is because you ran off and went berserk on Granon and his men. It’s why we had to stay an extra night to wait while you were recuperating. That is absolutely something I should know about. If I did, then maybe this entire thing would have went down different. Less messy.”

“It’s…” I started to say, but I wasn’t sure what point I wanted to make. What I point I wanted to refute.

Lawrence raised his hand again, using his thumb to point at the little girl behind him.

“Did she know?”

A simple question. A simple answer.

I gave him the truth.

“She does,” I said.

Lawrence frowned. And in his eyes, I could almost ascribe it to the same feeling I had now. That mixture.

“Let me ask the same question you asked her. Why the hell did you not tell me about this?”

My gaze was to the couch, down, unsure of what to say.

What was I supposed to tell him?

That I had once thought of him and his Ghosts as expendable? Pieces that could be sacrificed for a move or a play? No one ever liked hearing that they were expendable.

“It’s not something that is a direct concern for the gang,” I explained. “I have my condition, and I’m usually good at taking care of it on my own time. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, and I only told D because she asked.”

“So it’s my fault I didn’t consider that you might have a condition. How idiotic of me, then.”

“The less people know, the better. Just as a rule. Could you imagine what might happen if it got out? People were already freaking out and rioting over the fact that I exist. That would only get worse if they learned what I needed in order to sustain myself.”

“Panic is panic is panic. And you think I’m a snitch? That I’d go off and run my mouth to anyone who would listen?”

“Course not,” I said. “It’s just a rule. Did you want to know, Lawrence?”

His response was immediate.

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Now I was confused.

I brought my eyes back up, meeting his.

He doesn’t want to hear it.

“Then why bring it up?” I asked.

“I had some time to think about it while you were resting. It’s not about me knowing, it’s about you not knowing. Because, it seems to me like you are completely unaware about who and what you are, and you’re letting your ignorance blindside you, and you’re not in a position to be tripped up like that. It’s dangerous, and more importantly, it’s stupid. My life is already crazy enough, I can do without your baggage.”

“What is it you want from me, then?”

He straightened up. I could see how he tried to mask the aches, his effort to maintain a neutral expression. It didn’t really work.

“I want you to get yourself together. And fast. We can’t bail you out everytime a screw gets loose in your head. If you become a liability, then that puts everyone in the gang at risk. Me, D, and all the rest. It’s like having nukes. Ideally, it should be used as deterrence against our enemies, and if we have to use it, then so be it. It shouldn’t break down and give the rest of us radiation and turn us into mutant-vampire-demon-things.”

“I doubt that’s going to happen,” I said.

“But do you know for sure? Like, how did you put it, it’s the principle of the matter. Understand, exactly, how you tick, and why. If you’re going to be our muscle, you can’t just come in, wildly and blindly swinging, hoping for something to connect. You have to think what your next move is going to be.”

Lawrence continued, “So instead of this-”

He mimicked what he had mentioned earlier. He swung his arms around, flailing them.

“Be more like this.”

He stopped, his arms out in front of him. He lowered them, posing, assuming a fighting stance.

“A Shaolin warrior.”

An odd sort of silence settled in, as Lawrence kept his fists up, and I stared, trying to make sense of the point.

It lingered.

D was the one to break it up.

“Wow! Where’d you pull that from? That’s so dorky!”

D started cackling, tossing her head back, making herself louder.

Lawrence turned red. Even his ears.

Then, he slammed his hands down, grabbing for the wheels of his chair, and he pushed himself away from D.

“Fuck this, fuck all y’all! You’re not taking this seriously!”

D tried to chase after him, but she had found it way too funny, having to lean on a leather chair for balance. She tried to call out to him between her fits of laughter.

“Wait, L- I am, we are taking this seriously, promise! Right Wendy?”

Despite how tired I was, how bombarded I was with every new update I had gotten, I broke, and cracked a smile.

“We are, Lawrence.”

It was a brief respite, considering I had just woke up, shaken, and immediately had to deal with the fallout of the fight with Granon. A little bit of levity could go a long way.

He stopped in his tracks, though he was pretty close to the door. It made me wonder where exactly he was trying to go.

Lawrence sighed, twisting his wheelchair around. D was cooling down, now, reduced to giggles. He spoke over her.

“But you do get my point, right?”

I did.

“I do,” I said, rubbing my eye, stifling a yawn. “I’d rather focus on this, the gang, but I can start that on the side… or something.”

“And whatever you do find, you can spare me the details, honestly. As long as you’re moving forward with it.”

“Yeah… no, yeah, that’s fair.”

“And I can help,” D ventured. She gave me a victory sign.

“If I need it,” I told her.

“No way, you don’t have a say in this, actually.”

“I don’t?”

“Nope. You shouldn’t keep trying to do everything yourself. Even if you have super duper strength, you still have your limits. Obviously. I’m just curbing this before it becomes a bad habit.”

I rubbed my eye again. “I can live with that. Sure.”

Before either of them could get another word in, I continued. “I see where you’re going with this, and I… agree. Is it safe to say that we’re all in sync, now?”

Lawrence’s head perked up, and I swore I saw him smiling.

“More or less. It’s a start.”

I nodded, satisfied.

“Awesome. Good, now we can actually start making some moves. And our first one should be getting out of this fucking hotel.”

“I’m definitely with you there, girl.”

“Same.”

I clapped my hands together, finally able to stand for an extended amount of time on my own two feet. “Then let’s move. Hit the ground running.”

After a shower.

Of course.

With everyone on the same page, we split up, each doing our own thing in order to get ready to leave.

I was ready to go.

Ready to get back to the territory, ready to make that territory larger, ready to work on other stuff that I’d have to pick and choose from.

I returned to the big, fancy bedroom, finding my luggage set aside in one corner. I worked on getting some fresh clothes to change into.

Part of me wanted to change into my costume, my mask was right there. I liked the way it fit on my face, the way it covered my eyes, how comforting it was to wear.

“Hey, Vivi?”

I turned as I closed a zipper, collecting a shirt and jeans instead.

It was D, standing over me with her hands behind her. Weird, to have her looking down at me.

I stood, and the perspective immediately switched. She moved her head in turn.

“What’s up?” I asked.

D moved her hands to her neck, tugging at her choker again.

“I wasn’t sure if I should say, but, I know that things got a little crazy, back there, and maybe you’re feeling super anxious about yourself and your powers and maybe even your body but that’s why I said I was going to help since you know it’s tough to try and do everything by yourself and I’d-”

I put a hand on her head, ruffling her hair. She stopped rambling, and dropped her arms to her sides. It was easy to forget just how young she was, sometimes.

“There’s no need to worry about me,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”

“But-”

I brought that hand up to my eye, rubbing it some more.

“But you don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said.

Still getting at that itch, feeling the eyelid flicker, I tried to assuage her concerns.

“Honest,” I said, lying, “I’ll be fine.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Lawrence

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence blinked blood, sweat, and a single tear from his eye.

Everything hurt. Everything.

His head, his face, his neck, his chest, his stomach, his side, his legs, his feet. Everything.

He let himself collapse onto the tile. It wasn’t a very soft landing. He would have howled in pain if he could draw in the proper air into his lungs.

Not so much, right now.

Of everything that was hurting, his neck had the worst of it. He could still feel Granon’s grip, his heavy and huge and rough fingers wrapping around him, choking him. The very real possibility that he was going to die.

He had retreated, the pain fading, turning it into a white noise that buzzed throughout his entire head and body. A certain, very specific kind of numbness.

The kind of numbness that would have made him complicit in his own death if he submitted to it, did nothing.

Fuck that shit.

He’d do what he had to. And in that, the buzzing, he found the last remaining slivers of strength, and used it.

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

But now, he didn’t have the strength to pick either option, if he had to do it again. He was spent.

The buzzing continued. His head pounding, his vision fuzzy. If he were to somehow slip away, now, after giving everything he had to survive

He would have laughed. Somehow. He’d find a way.

Now, he just had to make it to the next minute. And the next one. And the one after that.

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

A shot rang out. Lawrence flinched, and all the pain in his body ratcheted up again. Flaring, searing. Screaming.

It would have been so easy to just fall back and sleep. To give in, and just let the natural flow of things take him and drag him away into nothingness. Into the gloom.

Hell fucking no.

Rolling off the momentum of the flinch, the pain, Lawrence used to that to keep moving, dragging himself over the Granon. Granon’s body.

The man was huge, like a wall of muscle, vaguely shaped as a human body, the outline wide. The strength of a bull, and just as stubborn. A pain in the ass, really. Of all the problems Lawrence had in the twenty-something years of being on this planet, Xander L. Granon was absolutely the biggest one. Figuratively and literally.

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

Granon was still, unmoving. His head was tilted to one side, his arms and legs spread out around him. Eyes half-open, the tip of his tongue sticking out. If he wasn’t dead, Lawrence would have died from shock, himself. It would be like if Goliath had gotten up after David struck him with a rock and a sling. All that effort would have been made meaningless.

He didn’t move, though, to Lawrence’s relief. After all the boasting and gloating, after all the condescending, Granon was still human. And humans were so very fragile.

Shots continued to fire, and Lawrence continued to move over to Granon’s body. He needed cover, and, even on his back, Granon was big enough that Lawrence could use him as a shield.

All the chaos and bloodshed of a war zone, condensed into a single, small hallway. Confusion, disarray, violence. Lawrence’s part was over, but he still wasn’t safe. The battle continued.

Lawrence got closer to the body, his arms and sleeves getting soaked in the blood and other junk. He could sense the stench of it hit his nose, making his stomach jump in revulsion. It made him want to throw up again.

He couldn’t believe he had to stoop so low. That he had to play dirty in order to win. But, he did what he had to, and Lawrence wasn’t ashamed that he had to pull that card. It was…

The fact that the situation even called for a play so dirty, so low.

He would have never predicted his life ever getting to this point.

As if to punctuate his thoughts, another shot was fired.

Lawrence got into position, taking cover behind Granon. His body ached with every heavy beat of his heart.

The shots continued, but the gap between each one began to widen. More sporadic, random. What filled the spaces in between were screams.

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

On both sides of Lawrence and Granon, people ran by, passing them. Granon’s. They didn’t seem to care that they were leaving their boss behind, and the man that might have very well killed him, in the most unfortunate and humiliating manner.

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

Something else had taken over. Their focus wasn’t on regaining the upper hand, anymore, it was something more primal. Like what he had experienced, just now.

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

It came by in a flash. Not to his left, or his right, but above. Jumping over Lawrence and Granon’s body.

It landed, head down, on all fours. Shoulder blades stuck out of its back, as if it would break through the skin itself. The visual reminded him of a tiger, or some other creature.

It pounced before Lawrence got a longer, better look at the thing. Diving, then crashing into the group of Granon’s men, several of them falling down with her.

Her. The realization dawned on him.

The crash left only a few standing, those on the outside of the group managing an escape by stepping over their comrades and staying close to the walls. They broke into a run as soon as they had the clearance to, then turning the corner to run down another hall. They were gone, leaving their boss and their friends behind.

The less fortunate were at the mercy of her. And she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

From the pile of fallen, bodies started to fly. Thrown with abandon, only stopping when they slammed into the wall, or the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Bodies landed funny as they hit the floor, assuming awkward positions, not moving afterwards. Broken bones, if they were lucky. Anything worse, and they might not ever get up again.

Others tried. The ones who hadn’t gotten thrown crawled and grabbed for purchase, anything that could get them back up to their feet. They were fighting each other as much as they were fighting her.

It was a mess, in every sense of the word. From the blood and junk, to the weeping, to the gnashing of teeth. It was hell.

A body was thrown. It a direct crash into the ceiling, knocking out a light. A shadow was cast on the panic and disorder.

Back on all fours. She was above them. One hand on someone’s head, keeping them down. Her feet were at different angles, pressing into two different bodies in the pile. Her other hand…

Her other hand kept going up and down, back and forth from her chin to something in the pile. It was hard to tell. Her back was to Lawrence.

The trail that would follow as she raised her hand up made Lawrence want to hurl again.

This is who she really is.

Lawrence had seen it when he arrived. He still couldn’t believe it.

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

It divided the hallways, from her side to his. The victims were on her side, not moving, Granon included. Dead or alive, he wasn’t sure at the time.

And there she was.

She had been out of it, in a daze, staring at him as if she had no idea what the hell she did. Maybe she didn’t.

That still didn’t excuse how horrific it all looked.

The streaks of red had length to them, stretching and splashing out to every portion of the hall. Walls, floor, ceiling. There was a general path to the color, too, a sort of loose line that extended out and down the hallway, until it trailed off at the end. A spiral.

There was still more to it.

The cuts and scrapes that clawed into the different surfaces of the hall, scratches that had carved lines, breaking the tile and the brick and some of the light fixtures. There wasn’t anything in her hands when he found her. Lawrence couldn’t even begin to guess where the marks came from.

Had she even noticed? The daze she was in, the lack of response and her inability to speak properly when he questioned her made him think she was in shock over something. Something had happened, and she might be as lost as he was.

Do I even want to know?

A graphic scene, with graphic details. They wouldn’t ever leave Lawrence’s mind.

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

Some got a second chance of luck, one finding themselves able to break free and run around the corner, while others ran back the way they came, passing Lawrence one more time. ‘Run’ and ‘ran’ were inaccurate words, however, as none of them could manage a full sprint. Every one of them were comprised or hurt in some way.

One that chose to book it for the corner turned, looking back at her, still over his comrades. He lifted his arm. He had a gun.

He fired the second another person ran past him, bumping into him in the process.

She was thrown back, sent spinning off the people she had pinned below.

That was the reason why the shots started being less frequent. It was dangerous and idiotic to fire any guns in such a narrow space, with a lot of people, in close range. She had gotten in close, when what they needed was distance.

One of them got that distance, and was idiotic enough to give it another try.

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

The screams turned into shouts, more organized in their message, though it was still simple. Run.

Those who could get up, did, and those who could not were either never moving again, or they stayed there, playing dead, praying she would not return to investigate.

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

She was standing, now, though she leaned to the side, massaging a shoulder. She gave her hand a hard shake, like her arm had gone asleep, and then stretched both arms. She was fine.

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

From the nose down, her entire face was red. Not in being flustered, but of blood. He saw that she’d gotten kicked in the teeth, when Granon inexplicably stood back up, but her teeth were red, too. That was recent, that just happened right now.

Lawrence didn’t know what to expect, and what he got still horrified him. He would have never expected that.

Clothes torn, hair wild. Her glasses were crooked, bent at an angle. Her eyes, not a human’s eyes. Animalistic, primal.

But, then why is she crying?

Her expression was the opposite of blank. Even with his vision not being what it should be, he could still see how her face was screwed up, scrunched, forehead and space between the eyebrows creasing. Clear lines ran down her cheeks, washing some of the red liquid. The way she was shaking, hiccuping.

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

Lawrence had seen that before, those symptoms, but he wasn’t sure if the same principle applied, here. This was too alien, too foreign for probably anyone to understand.

She lumbered forward, a single step, and Lawrence started to feel a panic grip him.

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

She continued to stumble towards him, shaking her head, hitting her head with the palm of her hand.

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

Both of her hands were brought up to her face, now, covering them. Still trembling. In her distraction, all of Granon’s men who were capable had made their escape. It was just Lawrence, now.

He tried to move, but found himself too exhausted, too heavy. He could barely move his legs, or lift his arms. His throat was still on fire, no sound was coming out.

Couldn’t move, couldn’t scream for help. Lawrence was helpless.

Snapping her head back, she yelled. The noise was rough, raw, frayed at the end. An inhuman sound.

Twisting, writhing, it was like something was right under her skin, trying to dig its way out. And she was suffering for it.

She swung an arm, hitting the wall. She left a dent, chunks of brick flying out.

Her hands went back to her face, her raw howl filling Lawrence’s ears.

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

Then, she turned, back in Lawrence’s direction. He was still frozen.

She moved to him again, but she didn’t falter. She headed straight to Lawrence. Faster.

No.

No no no fuck no no fuck fuck no no shit fuck

She dropped to her hands, getting into a position. Pushing with her feet, she jumped over to Lawrence.

She threw Lawrence against the wall, a sharp edge jabbing into his back.

He opened his mouth make a sound, but that only gave her more of an opening.

Her lips pressed against his, and he felt her tongue. He didn’t have much a choice expect to push back with his own.

They stayed in the moment for a while, until Lawrence was able to convince himself that he enjoyed it.

She was pretty, she smelled nice, and she was making all the right moves. Nibbling at his lip, making small noises, running her fingers through his hair, pulling at it ever so slightly. It was good. Good.

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

Torn away, too fast, sudden. Her tooth clipped the underside of his lip.

Ah!”

Lawrence jolted, letting out a harsh grasp. Then again, as his back was jabbed again.

“Fuck!”

Charlie was the culprit, the one who had spoiled the moment. Very firm, she moved the girl away from him, and pushed her back into the crowd of people. The girl didn’t seem all that bothered by the interruption, though, as she simply moved on, going elsewhere, soon disappearing into the mass of dancing and partying.

Lawrence shot a quick glare at Charlie, who only rolled her eyes.

“I was in the middle of something,” Lawrence told her.

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

Long but wild hair, sharp eyebrows, and a dash of freckles across her face, Charlie had a unique look that made her expression more defined. She knew how to make Lawrence feel like shit, as if he actually did something wrong.

But, Lawrence had gotten that look enough times that the effect had diminished.

He rubbed the corner of his mouth, licking his lips.

“Man, you’re killing my vibe,” he said, shrugging it off.

“We’re not here to party, El, we have a job to do. I thought you were going to take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. I’m fucking nervous as shit, Charlie, I need a distraction.”

“What are you so nervous for?”

Lawrence scratched his arm, then pushed himself off the wall. He felt what was poking him earlier. The side of a drawer.

That’s what that was.

“This is our first drop off,” Lawrence said, “And our first real meeting with the big guys. So of course I need something to take my mind off that. And you ruined it by kicking her out. I kind of liked her, you know.”

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

Lawrence grinned, sly. It only prompted a harder eye-roll from Charlie.

“You are an ass,” she said.

“Whatever, I’m back in the now, no thanks to you. Let’s just count up the funds, did we reach the quota?”

“I’m one-thousand percent sure we did, but I want to get the others first, so we can pile everything up into a final count. I’ll go grab them?”

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

Charlie nodded back, and left Lawrence, and the kitchen, to go grab the others.

Lawrence put himself back against the kitchen counter, being careful, so the drawer wouldn’t jab him again. He crossed his arms and waited.

Everything was going according to plan. It should. The plan was rather simple.

They were at a house party, in the suburbs. It wasn’t their house, but they brought the party.

Drugs. Not the hardcore stuff, but moderation was always a good policy for anything. Weed, molly, xannies, anything these kids needed to make a good time better. They were to sell the whole stash, and make a profit when they return to their bosses. Maybe recruit a few who might be interested, in the process. Some more muscle.

A lot of work, being a part of a gang. But it was easy work, and it was even fun work.

If I’m going to go to these parties and make out with girls, I might as well get paid while doing it.

An easy gig. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

For now.

The lights were dim, the music boomed, and more people filled into the space to dance closer together. They were in the kitchen, of all places. Couldn’t they get hyped up somewhere else?

But it was nothing to Lawrence. He liked how crazy it could get, at one of these parties. Anything could happen, and it never got boring, if done right. Lawrence knew how to do it right, or at least pick the right parties to go to.

From where he was in the kitchen, Lawrence could see into the living room. A television was playing an old Kung Fu flick. It was a classic, one of Lawrence’s favorites.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

Stoners were on the couch across the screen, watching, enraptured with the fights. Lawrence was right there with them.

The moment he saw what was on the screen, he knew this would a good party, for both fun and for funds. Turned out he was right.

Lawrence watched the movie, passing the time while keeping close to the stash. A duffle bag on the counter behind him. One of the straps was wrapped around his arm.

“Yo!”

Lawrence turned, then realized he had to move his line of sight down.

A girl. A kid.

Much younger than anyone else here, but she wasn’t out of place with her styling. A short bob, eyeliner and lipstick. A loose cream cardigan sweater and denim shorts, with black tights covering her legs. She had a choker around her neck.

It was odd, seeing someone seemingly on the younger side here, dressed like that. It was more odd that she had to be standing so close.

Close. Uncomfortably close, even with all the people hanging out and dancing. There was enough room that she could stand a foot away, if she wanted to. She apparently didn’t want to.

Pressing up, close, looking up, smiling. A full set of teeth.

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

Lawrence tilted his head, unsure if she meant what he thought she meant.

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

Lawrence squinted at her. Something wasn’t right, here.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“I mean, I’m just trying to think of any reason why you might be here. Are you… a cop?”

She laughed. Sincere, but loud, for her size. She touched his arm.

“I’m not cop, silly! I can’t go to parties to have fun? Isn’t that what parties are for?”

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

I’m not about to give anyone here my real name.

The odd girl dropped her jaw, an exaggerated gesture. She hit him in the arm.

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

“Are you looking to score or nah?” Lawrence questioned. “I’m about close my shift, if you know what I mean, and I can’t accept any more payment after I’m done. It fudges up the numbers when people do the audit, later.”

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

“It’s not my job, but I don’t want to make it harder for the next guy. It makes it harder for me, later, and then I can’t reap the other benefits as much.”

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

“Being able to get paid while chilling with friends,” Lawrence answered. “But, you know what, I’m closing up shop, now. I’m not about to do business with a kid, sorry. Not like this.”

The odd girl pouted. She really did come off as disappointed.

“That so? Ah, too bad. I am looking to score, by the way.”

“Sorry, maybe you can try your luck with my other buddies, but not me.”

She shook her head.

“No. I think I like you, so I’ll give this another shot later.”

Later?

Gentle, she put her hand on his arm, brushing it up. Lawrence flinched, backing up even though he couldn’t, allowing himself to get jabbed again.

The odd girl brought her hands back, giggling. She retreated into the crowd.

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

She was gone before he could make any sense of it.

Fuckin’ weird.

He did his best to forget about it, hoping no one else saw that interaction. He spent the rest of his time waiting, watching the movie over in the living room.

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

Lawrence noticed Charlie motioning for him. She had gotten the others. It was time to count up the funds. He gave her a gesture in acknowledgement.

Time to get ready.

They were coming, and he’d meet them soon.

He braced himself for the meeting.

No strength, no will to fight. Lawrence closed his eyes and prayed that his end would be a swift one.

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

A noise, coming from behind, where he couldn’t see. A bang. Several more.

That wild, frenzied scream again, fried yet raw at the end.

Then, a sharp decrease in intensity and volume. The scream began trail, losing steam, until all he could manage to pick up was a low moan, and that trailed off as well.

Until he couldn’t hear anything. It was silent. Lawrence almost considered that he’d gone deaf.

Almost. Heavy boots hitting the tile, hitting liquid, dashed those concerns.

But now he had more.

The steps went around him. With only his eyes, he followed the man as he strolled around, stopping in front of Lawrence, looking down at him.

Lawrence managed to find the breath to produce a sound in response to the presence above him. A word. A name.

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

“Pale as a ghost,” Styx said, before letting out a deep, warped chuckle.

Much to Lawrence’s confusion, the man bent down, and extended a hand. In his other a hand was a handgun, a distinct lengthy attachment at the end of it. Lawrence was too tired to piece together what it was, exactly, and what that meant for the situation as it stood.

Couldn’t stay here forever, though. His hand was forced, and he had to muster up the strength to lift his arm.

They shook hands.

Lawrence broke away from the man, wanting to wipe his palm on his jeans. He hated that he was sweaty. Nervous, knees weak. Arms heavy.

It took all of his effort to come off as calm and ready. It was all surface level, though. Just appearances.

The man, Roland, scanned the rest of them with a very careful eye.

They were all present and accounted for, standing outside on the expansive lawn of the suburban home. The party had spilled outside of the house, so a group of people situated in a circle was nothing out of the ordinary, here. There were other, smaller circles around as well, the occasional puffs of smoke billowing out like chimneys.

“I see our customers are making quick use of our products,” Roland said.

“They are,” Lawrence said, trying to hide the dry, scratchy tone in his voice. Short sentences helped. “It’s been easy.”

“Good,” Roland said, scratching his chin. Cool.

He was the best dressed of anyone here, of ravers and gang members alike. A nice dress shirt, the brand was probably some Italian name he couldn’t pronounce. Thin wire glasses that gave him a more sophisticated touch. Beige, slim khakis. He looked more like he was ready to present at a conference than meet with some low-level thugs.

A handsome, but still chiseled look. Rugged and tough. He could fit right at home on the front cover of a magazine. Lawrence could admit that much.

It contrasted against Lawrence’s own outfit. A basketball jersey over a baggy white shirt and baggy jeans. Lawrence made a mental note in his head. To use him for inspiration, one day.

As good as he looked, he also wasn’t a guy to mess with. Lawrence wouldn’t dare try.

“Has it been easy for everyone else?” Roland asked.

Everyone else. It was all the new guys, and the even newer ones.

Standing in a circle. It was Lawrence, Charlie, Jonathan, and the most recent members Melissa and Eduardo.

Melissa had a strong resemblance to the girl Lawrence had just been blowing off some steam with. She wasn’t a ten, not even an nine, but she could be a strong eight on a good day, and today was a good day. Straight brown hair, hazel eyes, and a tight shirt that showed her rather large chest. Lawrence actually preferred them on the smaller side, and he was more of a waist and butt guy, but he could see himself make an exception when it came to her.

But, she shot him down rather quickly, and he accepted the rejection with grace. She simply wasn’t into guys like that.

Eduardo, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Something about him bugged Lawrence. He was tall, lanky, awkward in his gait. Hair combed back, the sides shaved. With the denim jacket he wore, and the way he kept checking the house behind him, he couldn’t be across as any more of a punk if he tried.

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

He wasn’t used to being in a gang, yet.

He wasn’t used to being in this country yet.

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

“It’s been a profitable night, sir, these kids really think they need this stuff to have a good time.”

“To be fair,” Jonathan said, “They do.”

“It helps,” Lawrence offered. “Helps us, helps them as well.”

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

Everyone shook their heads. Though, Eduardo casted another glance at the house.

Roland was willing to accept that.

“Not a problem, and Charlie? No need for the sir, we’re still small, so we’re trying to build a close, familiar dynamic between us and you. Though, that form of respect will still need to apply to my boss, should you ever address her directly. La Señora.”

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

La Señora. Benny. Lawrence hadn’t gotten a chance to meet her, but it was a goal to reach, one day. He’d wanted to be in the upper echelon, one of the big guys. Going to these parties, making bank, it was good, enjoyable work. Fun and games. But it was just that. Fun, and games. This kind of life wouldn’t sustain him forever. Lawrence knew that he had to look and plan ahead, and that meant he couldn’t be on the lower rung forever.

Money. It was all about the green.

He wanted to find a way to get noticed by Roland, by Benny. To impress them.

One day.

He had to step it up.

“We just finished counting the revenue, matching it with the product sold. We didn’t sell everything, but it all adds up properly, and we’re in the green, too. It’s all good.”

“That’s what I like to hear… Lawrence, was it?”

“Right, sir, I mean, just Roland, right.”

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

The group, minus Lawrence and Roland, erupted in laughter.

Lawrence rolled his eyes, trying to keep a relaxed expression. He could roll with the punches, he was good at that.

The laughter didn’t last long, and it wasn’t even really to bully or humiliate him. It was a playful sort of teasing.

“Another for ‘L’ for El,” Eduardo commented.

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

The laughter kicked back up again, to Lawrence’s chagrin. He was that much closer to putting some hands on the punk.

Roland raised a hand, and that was enough. The group was silenced.

“Levity is fine, but let’s stay on the task at hand.”

Eduardo answered for them, as if he was allowed to speak for Lawrence.

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

It was Charlie that had the bag. She walked over to Roland, breaking the circle of people, to hand the money over.

A light in Lawrence’s eye. He blinked, and started shaking his head.

The bag was black, so why was there red and blue bouncing off it it?

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

It wasn’t even a matter of being organized in their escape. It was about survival. Move somewhere that wasn’t here.

Lawrence ran, and didn’t get three steps before he was interrupted. Someone had bumped into him. There was a second of panic before he saw that it was Charlie.

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

The sentence would have came out if he had the time to ask. Instead, confused, he breathed out, hard, and kept running towards the house. It was the only place he could think to go, or at least to go through.

The house was big, multiple stories, but the number of ways getting in were limited. The front door was wide open, but the entry way was choked, with number of people all having the same idea as Lawrence and Charlie. Pushing, yelling, general panic.

Lawrence stopped, and brought an arm out to stop Charlie. He stole a quick glance back. The cars, the lights, the men in uniform chasing after the kids.

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

“Why are we stopping?” Charlie said, “They’re coming this way!”

Scanning, thinking, Lawrence replied. “We’re going to get stuck among all those people if we run right into it now. We can’t get stuck.”

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

“We don’t have time to try, Charlie, we have to do shit.”

“Then no go on jumping the fence. Plus, I have some added weight, literally.”

Lawrence looked at what Charlie was talking about. The strap around her side.

“Why do you have the bag?”

“Fuck, they’re coming this way, El, here.”

Charlie moved without giving Lawrence a proper answer. They weren’t going through the group at the door, they went around.

Windows at the front of the house, as tall as they were wide. When Lawrence first arrived at the house, he was able the see the dining room, the tables and silverware on the other side. Now, something was blocking the view. Something murky.

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

“Nope,” Charlie said, “But we’ve got no choice. We’re deep in this shit, now.”

Charlie grabbed a rock from a border of a small garden at the base of the window. She grabbed another, crushing flowers and leaves as she went back over to hand it over to Lawrence.

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

No more words, just an agreement on what they had to do. Lawrence was willing to go that far.

They threw the rocks.

Struck home, hitting the base and perimeter of the windows. It shattered, making an opening for them. The edges were jagged, but they were covered up well enough.

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

“Too late to back down now,” Charlie said. “Come on!”

They ran, before anyone else had caught on to what they just did.

Lawrence covered his mouth with his shirt, squinting hard, eyes watery and lungs irritated. The effect was immediate.

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

It was dark when he went in, but the sudden light filling in the room felt like an assault on his existence. He lurched, groaning again from the harsh movement.

He would have fallen over if he wasn’t already sitting, being rolled into the room.

Lawrence couldn’t fight back, even if he wanted to. He was entirely at the mercy of Styx. Which was worse than being helpless.

“Take it easy, lil’ boy,” Styx said. His voice was unnatural for him. Soft, sympathetic. Understanding. Lawrence had dealt with Styx before, back when it was just him and his Ghosts, he’d never heard Styx sound like this. It was unnatural.

Lawrence couldn’t see him, with Styx pushing him as he sat in the wheelchair. Only being able to hear his voice, while still being at the whim of where Styx wanted to take him, while not being able to see Styx, made for an odd, out of body experience.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for everything that’s happened in this fucking hotel.

Blinking, Lawrence started getting a better picture of the room he was a rolled into.

A conference room, not for guests, but for the staff and management related to the hotel. Only accessible by going through the back parts of the building, where guests weren’t allowed. It wasn’t as fancy or as decorative, compared to the other parts of the hotel he’d seen. More particular, utilitarian in design. Bland, brown walls with nothing on them, a long conference table, enough for at least twenty people, judging by how many chairs there were.

An ambient light had dimmed to a low settling, seemingly on its own. Lawrence could see himself falling asleep here.

Could. With Styx here, Lawrence couldn’t afford to get any shut-eye.

Even though his body and spirit were begging more rest, Lawrence had to keep going. Keep staying up.

Pushed along, Styx moved him to the end of the conference room, the other end of the table. Styx stopped there, turning Lawrence around, then pressing the locks at the wheels. Lawrence wasn’t able to move, regardless, but Styx just wanted to make sure.

Styx put his attention on the chair itself, moving himself over to it.

It was a simple thing to do, to just pick a chair and move it. Styx apparently thought that ‘simple’ was too boring.

He kicked, and the chair was sent sliding, skidding, until it fell over and collided with the wall. A violent crash.

Lawrence startled, and he was wracked with pain yet again.

Styx chuckled.

There it was, Lawrence thought, That’s the Styx I know. The one I’m familiar with.

Familiar didn’t exactly mean better, though, not in this case.

Leaving the chair fallen over, Styx rearranged more stuff. He put Lawrence’s wheelchair in place of the old one, and Styx himself grabbed a seat at the closest chair next to him, to Lawrence’s right.

He fell into it, staring at Lawrence. His eyes were wide, and a little wild.

Leather jacket, no shirt, black skinny jeans. The whites of Styx’s eyes, the yellow of his teeth, contrasted against the melanin of his skin. He wasn’t her, but he looked like he could eat him at even the slightest provocation.

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

Styx smiled at him. Lawrence was starting to hate that look.

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

Lawrence wanted to throw up, but there was nothing in his stomach, now.

Styx crossed his legs, settling into his seat. He looked as comfortable as Lawrence wasn’t.

“Hi,” Styx said again.

Lawrence wasn’t sure how to respond. Styx greeted him a second time.

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

The third time. As if Lawrence needed any more stress.

Styx sneered.

“You’re Lawrence. I bet you’re wondering how you got into this situation. The choices you took that led you here, the thoughts in your head that made you make certain decisions, molding you into the person you are today. Were they the right thoughts? Did you end up where you wanted to go? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again?”

A specific, ugly emotion was beginning to stir and rise to the surface. One that he’d tried not to think about or consider for years. Lawrence pushed it down, harder, farther than before. It hurt.

“What do you want, Styx?” Lawrence asked. It strained, but he couldn’t just be a passive actor in this.

“That, right there. That face. Faces.”

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

“I wanted to see your face, how you look at your lowest moment. I want to savor whatever it is that brings those expressions out, for the world to see. It makes me vibrate.”

Sickening. It was twisted.

“Fuck you, Styx,” Lawrence said, even though it was probably the single worst thing he could say, at this juncture.

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

“You’re welcome. And you look great, by the way.”

Lawrence wanted to move, to leave, to figure this out another time, to get back with his crew and be back at the territory, his apartment, his bed. All he needed was rest.

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

It probably showed on his face. The face that Styx was delighted to be able to see.

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

Before Lawrence ventured further into dangerous emotional territory, the doors opened with a burst.

“Styx! Styx!”

Lawrence knew that voice. It was a very specific pit in his stomach.

Styx fell back into his seat, leaning over, turning somewhat to face the new party.

“Yeah?”

D stomped over to them, but she directed herself to Styx.

She smacked Styx on the arm. Not a playful hit.

Styx had little to no reaction. He just shifted around to have her in view.

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

“I told, you just needed one. I put in the appropriate dosage for you ahead of time. I gave you the extras as a precaution.”

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

“You didn’t need to hit her with everything!”

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

She started wailing on him, punching him in the same spot on the arm. Styx didn’t flinch or try to defend himself.

“You jerk, you big dummy! Idiot! Loser!”

After the tenth punch, Styx finally made a move. He used his other arm to grab D by the shoulder. He threw her off him with a single push. She was just a little kid, after all.

“For your information, I was being careful for her sake. I loved it, truly, the image she painted with Xander was exquisite, but the others don’t appreciate that kind of art. You do, but not them. If I let it get out of hand, then it becomes a problem for me, okay? So I put a stop to the shitshow.”

D put her hands on her hips, sticking her tongue out at Styx. Styx, of Styx’s Gang, the leader of the gang that had connections and relations with every major player in Stephenville.

“Dummy,” she said.

Lawrence had been through enough shit that he could actually believe what he was seeing.

I swore that I’d come up with something, the next time I saw you. But I don’t even care about that anymore.

Lawrence tried sitting up in the wheelchair, but he was too weak to move. The chair creaked and wobbled a bit, and that got their attention.

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

D inhaled, making it deep. D exhaled, and walked over to Styx’s chair. She sat on the armrest, her own arms folded.

Lawrence hadn’t seen her for over twenty-four hours. He had been worried about her disappearance, paranoid over what she could possibly be doing.

Getting a call by the girl herself, it confirmed his fears. In a frenzied tone, she told him to run down to the casino. Wendy was in trouble, and he couldn’t just stay holed up in the hotel suite and do nothing. It added to his fears. How did she know that Wendy needed help? How did she know that Lawrence was still in the room?

And then he found Wendy, in that hall. Granon. Everything that followed.

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

“When Granon first came on to the scene, and started nudging into our territory, I did what I usually do. Research. You can never be too careful. In this case, if there’s a new gang in town, the first person who’d know anything about it would be Styx.”

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

“Granon was just one branch of his employer’s organization, but we all knew this wasn’t a feud that we could just drag out. We’re still new, relatively small. If we got stuck on dealing with the People’s Hammer, or if it got messy, it wouldn’t present the best image of us if we were able to move forward after that.”

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

There was a particular word in that sentence that Lawrence didn’t like.

Another?”

D nudged the floor with her foot, causing her to sway a bit on the chair. Styx moved as well.

“Back when we were just starting our alliance, while we were still hunting Benny, I knew what we were doing was super duper messy, blowing up gangs and their bases with the weapons I found. It sort of fudges up what Styx had taken decades to set up. So I let him know what we were up to, as a courtesy. And Styx offered to do some damage control after the fact, so nothing unforseen can blow up in our faces, later.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Lawrence said.

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

“And this?” he asked. “How exactly does Styx fit into this?”

“I came to him for help, and, using his connections, pulled some strings and gave you and Wendy a reservation to stay at the Lunar Tower, with fake IDs so the staff will know that you’re legit and that the room’s already covered.”

“You’re welcome,” Styx said. He couldn’t have sounded anymore pleased.

Lawrence needed a moment to compose himself, gather his thoughts. He gave himself that moment.

When it came time to speak his mind, the result was still disorganized.

“Why Styx? Why me and Wendy? Why like this? Why… why?”

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

Styx gave D a look, though D didn’t turn to give him one.

Lawrence wasn’t about to pick apart that answer with a ten-foot pole.

“And about this setup itself, it was Styx’s idea. He-”

“-wanted to get something out of giving this little rascal and her super friends a handout. I gave her conditions that made it interesting for me. One, she couldn’t help you directly. Two, it had to be done in this hotel, and three, you were supposed to handle the bulk of the work done here.”

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

“Yeah, bitch. As I understood it, you’re supposed to be the face of this group, and I know the kind of muscle that girl brings. You were supposed to handle business with Granon like how everyone else handles their shit here. With class, and diplomacy. Instead, you spent most of your stay up in that room, and when you do confront Xander on his bullshit, you vomit on his shoes. Though, I fuckin’ loved it, so thank you for that.”

Speechless.

“It’s something I learned very quickly,” Styx said. “If you want to be in this business, you can’t just do whatever you want, and think you can get away with it. I can, of course, because I earned the right to do whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want, however the fuck I want. But you? No. Delegating is good, but it’s better to stick your own neck out, sometimes, show bitches you mean business. You wanted to prove yourself to me, and to the rest of the gangs? This performance doesn’t cut it.”

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

“I win this round,” Styx said, looking at the back of D’s head. “Better luck next time.”

Styx stood from his seat. D jumped to get out of his way.

“That’s three favors, D, now it’s my turn. Three for three. I’ll be coming by to collect the first one,” Styx said, ruffling D’s hair. She reacted, pushing him off to fix it.

Styx continued. “It’ll be sooner, rather than later. Could be tomorrow, the next day, or the next week, so I suggest you get yourself together before then. Show me you’re as promising as D pitched you to be.”

Styx started to take his leave.

“It’ll be fun, I promise. I’ve got plans for all of you. D? Thanks for stopping by to visit, you really do have a talent for making things interesting. Do come by again. You know, this body’s getting older, man, I need more excuses to relieve some fucking stress. And, one more thing, don’t worry about the mess, we’ve got guys for that.”

Lawrence or D didn’t respond as he left, the door clicking as it closed. A heavy silence hung in the air.

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

“Alright, fine, another question. Why the fuck didn’t you tell us any of this beforehand?” Lawrence asked.

D was able to answer that.

“It was part of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t help you directly. But I was watching, and things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. Wendy was out, and you were there, taking a nap. And when Wendy was being followed, I panicked, and I thought I had to do something. I broke one of the conditions.”

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I was going to insist that I’d help, do my supposed part, but Wendy wanted me to stay up there, she wanted me to rest. How was I supposed to know I had a bigger part to play?”

“I don’t know. I thought it would work out a different way. I know you aren’t the kind of guy who likes to stand still. Even if you had gotten hurt from your first fight with Granon, you’d push yourself to do more, after that. You’ll do anything to take that next step.”

“Wendy didn’t want me to do that. She would have rather pushed herself.”

“And look where that brought us,” D said. “Fudge.”

D dropped herself into the seat that Styx had just occupied. She brought her feet and legs up, and she hugged her knees.

“What’s next?” Lawrence said, wanting to get to it.

“Either I, or someone from the medical staff will give you a proper checkup, clean your wounds and make sure nothing broken or permanently damaged. Then, you can rest, for real this time. Still supposed to be out of the room by noon, though.”

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

“You never needed much,” D said. “And after that, we put this mess behind us.”

Lawrence put his hands into his lap, making fists, feeling each cut.

“Speaking of messes,” Lawrence said. “Where is she?”

D had paused before answering.

“I was looking after her, earlier, making sure she was still breathing and had a pulse after being filled up with pentazemin. She up in the room, now, out cold.”

“Pentazemin. Isn’t that a muscle relaxer?”

“Benzodiazepine class. Antidepressant. It’s easy to get if you know what you’re looking for.”

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

Lawrence made a noise, the aches and pains coming back to haunt him.

“Dammit, D,” he said. “I wish you told me. Not just about this, but about her, too.”

“I wish I could,” D replied. “But my hands were tied. I tried to have some fun with it, giving you signs that I was around, that I was helping, but I guess it only served to make it worse.”

D looked genuine in her remorse.

“And, about Wendy, I don’t think anyone knew what happened there. I don’t even think she did. Darn, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“It got messy,” Lawrence said. “Maybe it wasn’t public, but there’s blood on our hands now. She mutilated people, ruined them. I killed someone.”

“He has a pulse,” D said, “Not like he’s getting up any time soon.”

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

Lawrence wanted to say more, but the hurt was getting to him more, now, making its presence known. He couldn’t just fight past it forever.

“Wheel me over to get checked up on. If you know what you’re doing… I don’t mind if it’s you, I guess.”

D seemed to brighten up a little, hearing that. “Really?”

“Don’t make me regret it.”

“You won’t, promise. I know what I’m doing.”

“Alright. Then, we deal with the rest of this tomorrow, or whenever she wakes up. We need to be in sync, if we want this group to continue and thrive, having her go off on her own and try to do everything herself isn’t that. We can’t just hit her with antidepressants forever. It might even make things worse in the long run.”

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

D threw her head back, making a croaking noise. She stared at the ceiling.

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

“This is fucked. We’re fucked. Everything about this is fucked.”

Lawrence would have added more, but he didn’t want more smoke in his lungs. He was close to coughing them out.

They were in the clear, for the moment. Out of the smoke, out of sight of anyone who might be looking for them.

Charlie had given him the rundown, and the bag. Roland had shoved the bag in Charlie’s arms, forcing her to take care of it. So there was nothing that could pin him down, Charlie had guessed.

But now it was Lawrence’s responsibility. There was another meeting point they had planned, just in case, a couple blocks away. No specific order was given to meet there, but that was why they had designated a location in the first place. This was that case.

The spot itself was fine. It should be. It was getting there that was the problem.

Smoke, everywhere. The house was trashed, more so that Lawrence had realized. And they were sitting still, while there might be cops right outside the room and hall.

And they had a bag of money and drugs. It was all collected into one bag when they counted everything up. Made for easy transport, but if they got caught, then it was all over.

Couldn’t let this be over.

Lawrence had convinced Charlie to let him carry the bag. He was faster, and if it came down to it, more willing to do what have to be done. For survival, he’d shoulder that burden for the both of them.

“How is it?” Charlie asked, keeping to whispers, keeping it short.

Lawrence peeked through the crack of the door. He tested his luck a bit by sliding his hand over, opening it some more.

“No one,” he answered, voice low. “But that could change in any second.”

“Right,” Charlie said.

They had heard footsteps earlier, rushing in this bedroom to evade any potential pursuers. Nobody followed, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. They weren’t familiar with the layout of the house, they didn’t know what the situation was in either the backyard or the street past that. They had to leave, but rushing without thinking would be an even bigger mistake.

“Let’s give it a few more seconds, then we move over to that room on the other side of the hall, and check out the window. There.”

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

“Oh. Uh, it’s over there. Just follow me when it’s time.”

“Alright.”

Lawrence raised a hand. With the other, he widened the opening a little more, inch by inch.

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

Lawrence got to his feet and booked it. Charlie was right behind him.

It was a rush, from both the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the speed at which he crossed the hall. There wasn’t anyone around to catch him, but, if there was, he would have liked to imagine himself like a ninja, slipping away at the last second. The image fit, somewhat. Mouth covered with his shirt, bag slung over his back. Like a modern reboot of those movies he watched all the time.

The door had been cracked open on the other side, as well. It made for an easy escape out of the hall, and back out of sight, into the safety and shadows.

Charlie closed the door behind them, but not all the way. She kept low, staying next to it, blocking it, in case someone else tried to get through.

Yes!” she said. She lifted her hand, and Lawrence returned the favor with a high five.

“Almost there,” Lawrence said. He kept moving, putting his back on the vanity set across the room, away from the door.

“Move,” he said. “We can still hide if anyone wanders in. If the door gets blocked, then they’ll know for sure.”

“Good point.” She listened, crossing the room. She didn’t hide right away, though, instead checking through the window, facing the outside world.

“What’s it look like out there?”

“Promising. Los policías are mostly busy dealing with all the kids outside. Gathering them up, making sure they’re away from the house and out of trouble.”

“Is it everyone?”

“I… don’t see Jonathan or Melissa, or Eduardo. Definitely don’t see Roland.”

“We might be the only ones in here, then. Which is a good thing.”

“Might be. Keep in mind we’re the ones stuck in a burning house.”

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

“Don’t you think this seems all… off?”

“Meaning?”

“There’s smoke, but it’s not killing us, and it’s thinned the deeper we got into the house. And, haven’t you noticed that we never came across anything that was burning?”

“This was all staged,” Charlie said, her eyes wide, mouth agape. “Someone set up some smoke and called the cops?”

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

Charlie checked out the window again. “I don’t.”

“They’d be here by now if this was legit.”

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

“That, I can’t answer. Right now, the main concern of the police is just getting everyone out of the house, and they sort it out from there.”

“What if we’re stuck in this house and there’s a bomb.”

“There’s no bomb,” Lawrence said. He considered it. “There’s no bomb.”

“Should we just ditch the bag and go outside? We might not get in trouble. There’s so many kids out there, we can just slip away and meet with the others.”

Again, Lawrence considered it.

“I want to try,” Lawrence said. “If we get out of this, with the money and drugs, Roland’s going to know we’re the real deal.”

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

Very little time to argue, and there was no doubt in Lawrence’s voice. Charlie went with it.

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

Charlie crossed the room again, meeting with Lawrence. She got on her knees.

“We’re close to the back,” Lawrence told her. “We’re so close I can almost fucking taste it. Past the backyard is that service road. They can block it, but not without fucking up traffic there, and with the majority of the smoke coming from the front of the house, that’s where they’ll focus their attention on. As long as we can get to the back and make sure things are quiet, we’ll be alright.”

“Alright, I like that. Taking advantage over someone else’s scheme. It’s great.”

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

“Whoever got the ball rolling on this knew what they were doing. I’d be impressed if it didn’t actively fuck up our night.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Okay. Get ready. Same thing as before, except now, we head straight for the back.”

“Right behind you.”

As silent as possible, Lawrence crawled over to the door. He opened it.

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

Ears pounding, muscles aching, heart beating heavy in his chest, but it didn’t matter. Lawrence saw the way forward. It was right there. He could make it.

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

It took several seconds for Lawrence to switch mental tracks. In the meantime, he turned his head.

Eduardo, and a girl he’d never seen before in his life.

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

“Where the fuck else? Meeting the rest at the safe spot!”

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

“Sounds good.” He looked to the girl, grabbing her hand. “Come!”

The girl only ran, keeping up with the rest of them. She looked too puzzled to make a proper response.

You better not be dead weight.

The backyard. The sliding glass door was already opened, and there was a pool just ahead. They’d have to go around, but the coast looked clear.

So close.

Lawrence picked up the pace, running harder, faster. Charlie didn’t lose any speed.

They formed a line out the door. Lawrence, Charlie, Eduardo and the girl.

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

Lawrence turned. It took him several seconds to figure out what exactly he was looking at.

Blue, and long. Wispy in quality. A vague, human shape, bending and twisting in unnatural ways. Like it was trying to break out of itself, but it struggled, trapped by its blue and glossy skin.

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

It wasn’t a monster. Monsters weren’t real.

It was the girl that Eduardo brought with her, wrapped in what looked like a pool tarp.

She shouted some more, tried moving some more, before falling to the ground. She kept fighting all the way, but it only made her more stuck in the thing.

“Maria!” Eduardo shouted. He ran over to try and get her out.

He tugged, but the tarp was heavy, and the girl kept moving too much. It wasn’t a good combo.

Eduardo looked at Lawrence, Charlie. His eyes were pleading.

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

They both worked together to get the girl out, but they weren’t making much progress.

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

“Just help me get her out of here! The tarp is huge, and if it gets in the water, it might drag her in!”

“The pool is right behind me! It’s not going anywhere near her!”

“Just help!”

Eduardo was freaking out more than the girl was, and if he didn’t shut the fuck up…

Lawrence went to them.

He put his hands on the tarp, yanking it, coordinating with the others so it would end up being worse.

A lot of moving, jostling around. The bag slipped over his shoulder, bumping into him and Charlie, Eduardo.

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

It was easier, now, to get the tarp off the girl. It slipped out faster, not going taut as much. It was working. Lawrence was able to see parts of her face as they continued.

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

The cry came from Charlie. It was angry, confused, and pointed.

It got Lawrence’s attention, and he turned to look.

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

Around the pool, to the grass, over the goddamn garden gnome. The fence.

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

Not that he was too slow, but she had gotten too much of a head start.

She was sitting on the stone fence, legs hanging over on the other side. The bag around her shoulders.

The odd girl.

Lawrence was still running, and she had time to monologue.

“Told you I’d come back to get my score. See? Nothing a few online tutorials and a little improv can’t solve.”

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was losing the breath, and he was just at a loss of words.

So close to the fence.

“Oh, I like that expression, it’s nice. You’re fun, you know that? I might come around to see you again. But for now, so long, El… boy!”

She ducked, and disappeared from behind the fence. Lawrence’s blood was hot and pumping. He kept running-

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

Cops had made it to the scene, forcing them both back. Charlie had her hands up, and so did Eduardo. They backed away, slow.

None of the cops looked as if they had any intention to shoot, but no one was going to give them a reason to. All control of the situation was deferred to the cops, now.

One got down on a knee, over the tarp. The girl – Maria – still hadn’t got out yet.

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

Charlie and Eduardo saw Lawrence, and a cop followed their gaze. He stalked over to Lawrence.

Lost.

That odd girl had run off with the bag, so the three of them were nothing but kids at a party, now. No different than the rest that were here to drink booze and smoke some pot. They’d get escorted out, and like Charlie had suggested, they’d slip away from the scene.

But there was more to it than that.

They had a job to do, there was a responsibility that Lawrence shouldered, but he failed. He couldn’t do it. He had let down Roland, Benny, the rest of El Carruaje.

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

Lawrence met Eduardo’s eyes, and pushed with hatred, seething with it. Eduardo broke away from the glare.

He’ll pay for this. Someday, somehow. That fucker.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He wasn’t supposed to be the small fry.

Cops were approaching him. He didn’t care. He had emotions, and he needed release.

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

Back in the hotel room. Dark, but the hour was sometime in the morning. Lawrence wasn’t sure of the exact time.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. He’d like sleep, and he knew he needed sleep, but it wasn’t in his nature to rest when there was other shit to deal with.

Still in the wheelchair, but he could move on his own. It was a slow process, but he could manage. He just had to be careful in his pushing, or he’d ruin the stitches and bandages that wrapped his body up. Funny, in a way. He was still alive, but he felt entombed.

Lawrence had to shift his whole torso to turn. He had a basic, soft neck brace on. A precaution.

“Who in the fuck are you?” Lawrence asked her, his voice barely above a whisper.

Wendy didn’t respond. Well, she couldn’t.

Lawrence couldn’t help but find it a little funny. Must be the late hour.

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

She was tucked in the bed, the same one she had offered to Lawrence, but he didn’t mind. She needed it more than he did.

Glasses off, folded on the nightstand beside her, dressed in pajamas that she had brought herself. D was the one who helped her on that front. She was already like that when he arrived, just a few minutes ago. No one else was allowed access to her, or even be in the same room.

After wheeling Lawrence in, D had taken some more numbers from her, mostly beats per minute. Everything seemed to have stabilized, whatever that meant for someone like her.

She explained that Wendy had a powerful regeneration ability. Lawrence had seen it firsthand. There was a chance that the antidepressant would run its course faster than normal, and that she would be getting up soon.

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

Then, D left, and it was just Wendy and Lawrence.

He continued to watch her sleep, unsure of how to feel about this. Unsure about everything. Himself.

“Forgive me for coming off as creepy, right now, I get it, but I wanted to see you. I want to see if you’re still the same Wendy and V I thought I knew. Who knows? I might see you as someone completely different once you wake up.”

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

“To be fair, out of all us, you are the creepiest motherfucker. Ever.”

Silence.

“I wonder if you remember the first time we crossed paths. I definitely do. You were the Bluemoon, then. Crazy, how things changed.”

He gripped the blanket, feeling some resistance from the bandages on his fingers.

“You were trying to protect me, weren’t you? I saw it, in that hall. Styx was there, but I couldn’t see him, and, in whatever fucked up headspace you were in, you deemed him as a threat. But not me.”

Lawrence paused.

“At least, I’d like to think of it that way. It’ll make tomorrow easier, and the next day.”

A flutter of the eye. Lawrence thought that she’d awaken, but a minute passed, and there was no other activity.

It was a stark contrast, from what he’d seen before. Wendy looked so peaceful, in her sleep. The soft breathing, the relaxed expression. The fact that D had washed her body, getting her cleaned up. The full treatment, and she was asleep throughout all of it.

The setting of the room, the fancy and beautiful design. It made him think of something like a movie. His mind went those flicks he liked, then to fairy tales.

Must be the late hour.

Was she the sleeping beauty, waiting for the prince to save her? No, didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit. Not for her.

Then, was she the evil queen, with the power to turn into a dragon, only resting after expending so much strength?

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

If she was, then he wondered where he fit into all of that. If he was supposed to even fit in at all, or if he just stumbled into something he had no business being a part of.

Charlie and Jonathan and Melissa were gone, leaving the Ghosts after V and D officially joined. It had gotten to be too much for them, the stress of always watching their backs, it wasn’t the reason why they got into this life in the first place. It had gotten too hard.

Now it was just him. The normal one. Stuck with the Styx’s and D’s and the V’s of the world. The creepy and the crazies.

He used to think that the sacrifice was worth it. That the glamour and power that came with this life was a good goal to strive towards. Being one of the big guys. Thinking about it gave him pause, now.

But it was too late for that. He was too deep into this shit.

Previous                                                                                               Next

070 – All Along the Watchtower

Previous                                                                                               Next

What the hell did I do?

I had no clear answer to give.

The blood was still there, dripping now, down the wall and from the ceiling. It wasn’t an illusion, or a trick of the eye. So very real, and so very wrong.

My attention was divided, trying to make sense of the situation, finding how to address Lawrence, and figuring out what to do next. I wasn’t making much progress in any one of those avenues.

Couldn’t think? Then move. I had to make progress somewhere.

I crawled, on my hand and knees. I wanted to use my other hand to go faster, but it was still burning. The one finger.

I didn’t get far. I wasn’t trying to. I made it to the base of the wall and sat, letting myself fall and letting the wall keep me propped up.

My eyes roved over everything again. Worse than before. Not only in how visceral it was, but in my actual ability to see.

Shadows flickered around the edges of my vision, making whatever images I saw to be blurry and undefined. The intense light reflecting off the white walls and tile didn’t help, making it even more of a burden to understand anything. It hurt to look, and it hurt to try and look.

The bodies weren’t moving.

They were just dark shapes, now, but they weren’t moving, trying to get up or showing any other signs of life. Strewn about, torn apart, spilled everywhere. So much blood, and none of it was mine.

Okay, not true. I did have some blood on my hands, when Granon had cut my finger…

When Granon had cut my finger clean off.

My head was down, looking at my hands, palms open. All ten fingers were there.

But there was nine, if only for a brief moment. I had felt the knife cut through the skin, muscle, bone, then muscle and skin again. There was no mistake about that. Everything happened so fast, but that one moment seemed to stretch, as every fiber and piece of my finger was ripped away by the sharp edge of a cold knife.

And then the fire.

It contrasted against the cold blade that had cut me. A sudden burst of heat, then numbness…

Trying to piece together what immediately followed was impossible.

I fell to the floor, Lawrence arrived…

And here I am, now, failing to fill in the blanks.

My thoughts caught back up to me, and I hadn’t learned anything new. Nothing to report to Lawrence.

Hold on, Lawrence.

He had arrived, Lawrence was here.

How, why?

“Lahw-” I started, but a rough edge scraped my voice away. It was dry. The realization that followed was immediate and clear.

I was thirsty.

I failed to properly address him, but Lawrence was spurred to action anyways. He hurried over to me.

“What, you can’t get up? Here.”

He didn’t bring both hands forward, instead keeping one pressed against the side of his head. He seized me by the arm.

His hard tug sent a surge through my body. I shut down again.

Lawrence pulled up, but all he managed to do was hold my arm up. I was still down, back to the wall, hunched a bit, coddling my other arm, my hand and finger throbbing, now.

“Wendy, come on. Um, I don’t know what happened, and she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. Hey, Wendy, get the fuck up!”

He pulled and tugged even more, until he started yanking, but it was fruitless. I wasn’t complying.

“Shit, hold on, let me get her up first.”

Another hand touched me. That only made things worse.

I felt myself getting lifted, my back getting dragged up the wall.

I resisted, pulling back, trying to shake him off. I didn’t want to be here, but I was still out of it, but I didn’t want help. I didn’t want anyone touching me.

“Hey, hey!” Lawrence said, struggling to get me on my feet. “We don’t have time for this. We need to get going!”

I was of two minds. I recognized that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around, that someone would be coming to investigate or happen upon this very soon. I also understood that fighting Lawrence on this now wouldn’t do us any favor as far as the dynamic of the gang.

But, on the other hand, fuck everything and fuck everyone.

“Let,” I started, feeling the itch in my throat, the coarse, scraping noise that was my voice, “Go!”

I threw out my arm, the one Lawrence had been pulling at. He went from him trying to move me, to him doing what he could to hold on.

Useless. I was too fast, too strong.

Lawrence grip gave out, and he slipped, flung away to the other side of the hall.

He crashed bodily into the wall, not making a sound at the initial hit or when he collapsed to the floor. His back was to me, I couldn’t see if he was breathing or not.

The regret I felt was instant.

I fell, too, sliding back down the wall. Still watching Lawrence, hoping he’d move or give me some notion that he was okay.

Then, he coughed, hard. It gave me relief.

“You… zombie bitch,” he said, breathing out the words, “I told you… we don’t have time for… this.”

I was blinking, erratic, eyes stinging from sweat getting in and how much it ached to look at anything.

Blood, I needed blood. But I didn’t want to go after Lawrence for it, and I didn’t want him to see me use the other bodies, instead.

Why?

Everything I was feeling was hard to parse. It all mixed together.

I was confused, hurt, and on a more worrying note, scared. I had no angle to approach this, no way to wrap my head around it. I had been betrayed by my own body, it doing something behind my back. All I had was the aftermath to gather any clues about it, and it was almost too hard to look. I couldn’t accept any of this.

Horrid, an ugly feeling that sat heavy within my chest. Pressure. It was suffocating, both physically and mentally. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t the confusion and the hurt and the fear.

This wasn’t like me. I wasn’t supposed be like this. This wasn’t part of my design.

Wendy, V, we had to be the antithesis to what came before us. Stitched together by a different fabric, made to hold, no matter what outside pressure tugged and needled. I wouldn’t come apart, I wouldn’t pull back, I’d press forward.

Don’t count me out just yet.

I raised my head, trying this one more time. I wouldn’t rely on Lawrence, or anyone, not here. No one else could help me with this. Had to do it on my own.

I lolled, letting my upper body hang. Before I could falter and split my chin open on the cold, hard tile, I brought my hands forward, catching myself. Both hands.

That middle finger was stinging, pulsating at the miniscule amount of pressure and weight I was putting on it. I could have relented, lifting that hand back up, but I pushed through it, letting the hurt of it fuel me to spur a change. To move.

I brought a foot under me, wincing as I did it. I wasn’t used to this, the pain, the fact that I had an injury and that feeling persisted. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t succumb to damage, I had powers that put me above people. This… this was bringing me down, to that level, their level. People.

A hard thrust with my foot, and I lifted myself back up, using my other foot for regain balance. I wasn’t standing completely straight, I was still hunched, my body a bit sore, my hand feeling as if I had stuck it in a fire. Wasn’t at my level best, but being that was a luxury, now.

As if to touch base with myself, using the hand that wasn’t fucked up, I ran my fingers down my back and around my waist, right above the hip, feeling where the bullet and gone through me. There was a small hole at both ends, ruining my jacket and the shirt underneath. I poked a finger through the hole at the back, touching skin. No tears or rips or anything broken, nothing protruding.

I drew my hand away, seeing the blood at the tip of my finger. My blood.

That, I was used to. That, I was fine with. I’d been shot at before. It still discombobulated, and it was hard to shake off, but I’d manage to walk away, debatably alright. I could deal.

This, though, this was nothing I’d ever experienced. The lack didn’t even apply here, this was too foreign for anyone to comprehend. Too off, too wrong.

It was all wrong.

A rough, scratchy sound tore me away from constant, looped thoughts. Lawrence. He was moving as well, hands pressed to the wall behind him, using his legs to slide up to a standing position. He managed about as well as he could, still hunched, his legs not all the way straight.

He looked right at me, and I looked right at him.

Sorry.

I willed the sentiment at him, knowing he wouldn’t actually pick that up. My throat was too dry to talk.

Lawrence opened his mouth, but he didn’t speak, instead putting a hand into his pocket. His hand came back up, an object in his hand, lifting up to his head.

“Yeah,” Lawrence said, eyes still on me, but it didn’t seem like he was addressing me. “She’s here. V has come to.”

Lawrence dropped his arm, and swung, letting go of the object. It finally clicked to me what it was as it made an arc through the air, across the hall.

I caught the phone. It hit my finger, and it flared up again. I was almost sent back to the floor from the intensity.

I tried to keep my focus on Lawrence, though, to try and dull out the throb and burning. It hardly helped.

“She wants to talk to you.”

He added another piece, but I couldn’t catch it, him muttering under his breath. Wasn’t a pleasant mutter, though.

One of my hands was useless for picking up and grabbing at the moment. Fumbling around, switching grips while not properly standing or balanced, made for what should have been a simple task, into an arduous and frustrating process.

I got it, but it took some bending, an awkward lean. Through my foggy eyesight, I could have sworn I saw his lips curl up.

This isn’t funny.

“Hehk-” I tried, but my voice was locked up, my throat begging for sustenance. I coughed, even though it sent sudden aches throughout my whole body, making me shudder, shake.

Oof, that doesn’t sound good. You holding up, Vivi?

I knew that voice. I hadn’t heard it in quite some time.

I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or pissed as all hell at hearing it.

“Deh…”

A simple letter, and I couldn’t even do that right.

Um, right. L-Boy was trying to explain to me what he’s seeing at your end, but I’m kind of having trouble visualizing it. Think you can help?

“Nuh…”

It was pointless, but I tried anyways. As though the third time would somehow be a charm. Or maybe repeating the same thing over and over said something about me.

Hm, doesn’t seem like this is going to work. Can you give the phone back to Lawrence, please?

I listened without putting much thought into it. I hardly wanted to think at all.

I tossed the phone. I was out of it, weak, but the phone flung out of my grasp in a blur, hitting one of the lights above. It made a loud noise.

Not weak, rather my control was compromised. Which, for me, was even worse.

Lawrence had to step forward to catch the phone, getting his back off the wall. The phone had bounced off the ceiling, spiraling down.

It fell into his palms, catching it like he would a baseball. He stopped with one foot ahead of him, and set himself straight again, standing. Despite all his injuries, everything that was inflicted upon him, he was still able to move under his own volition. He wasn’t useless. And he was only human.

Lawrence put the phone back to his ear, watching me, being careful. I saw the concern in his eyes. For himself? For me?

“I told you she’s being weird. No, I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at here. Yes, I fucking hate both of you for putting me through this. You all suck.”

It wasn’t coming, it was already here. It had been here. A massive headache.

The burning sensation from my middle finger seemed to spread throughout the rest of my body, like a cancer or disease. As if my body giving me message, loud and clear.

To go fuck myself.

I had very little grasp of anything that was going on, I couldn’t make anything connect. And any attempt was met with the equivalent of getting kicked in the head. Separating, taking everything apart, compartmentalizing, only did so much.

The bloodied hallway, the bodies… something I wasn’t willing to touch upon, anyways, but it was worth putting on the mental list.

Lawrence and D. Lawrence was here, and while D wasn’t physically present, she was on the other end of that call. I could reach her, if I was able. But I had my own plethora of personal issues plaguing me at the moment.

I need blood.

As I sifted through my thoughts again, Lawrence continued his conversation with D.

“You better stay on the line, D, or I swear to god I’ll, fuck, I’ll come up with something next time I see you, and it better be soon. No, I didn’t fucking miss you!”

Lawrence was going around, pacing, avoiding the blood and avoiding me, seemingly, he wasn’t trying to approach me.

He would, on occasion, look over me, presumably to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t, but it was the thought that counts, I supposed.

“Hold on,” Lawrence said, observing me, “I need to check on Wendy, first. She’s freaking me out. Her eyes are huge but she’s staring off into nothing, and she’s all bent over and breathing hard. The fucking murder hall I found her in doesn’t help, either. D? D. She looks like a goddamn zombie.”

Did I really look that bad? I probably did, if I looked as bad as I felt, and I felt like shit. I was doing everything I could to keep myself together, but it clearly was not enough.

Shit. I hated this, not being in control, not knowing, not being aware. This was all of my fears and anxieties being rolled into one, and, for added salt on the emotional wound, I was the root cause. Who was I supposed to direct my anger and frustration to? I had no outlet, no method of release, and I was afraid that, if I tried, something might happen again. Something even worse.

Shit. Had to prove Lawrence wrong, that I was fine. I had to make myself believe that.

With the phone still to his ear, Lawrence had stopped pacing, taking measured, slow steps to me instead. I swayed, ready to move and keep trying.

“Wendy, hey,” Lawrence said. I didn’t like the tone he was using. Too calm, patronizing, condescending. Like he was talking to a creature, instead. “Let’s try this again. Can you move? Like, under your own strength?”

I swayed again, leaning one way, tipping my weight so I was forced to move a foot forward to stabilize myself. A step. It was the best I could do without just simply vocalizing an answer.

“Okay, so you can move. Not well, but you can move. Wendy, I know you’re pretty stressed out right now, but I need you to take some of that fire you used to throw me at the wall, and kick yourself in the ass because we need to get going. We’re going to have to catch each other up on the way, because I know you have questions, and I… I want to know what the fuck this is.”

Questions.

So many questions, and I had zero answers. Didn’t matter how many times I repeated the last few minutes in my head, over and over and over again, I couldn’t come up with anything worth saying, anything of value.

And I couldn’t even speak. My voice was robbed by my thirst.

Nothing to say, and no way to say it.

“What’s wrong?” Lawrence asked. A very, very good question. “What the hell is holding you back?”

I couldn’t even begin to answer that.

I opened my mouth, letting it hang, and stumbled forward. I was fighting the urge to leap at him and tear his neck out, juice spilling between my teeth and past my tongue. I was also fighting the urge to dive for the other bodies to get my fill there, too. I didn’t want him to see, I didn’t want him to know.

But, why?

D had seen me, D knew. I was upfront with her about that. What was stopping me now?

Embarrassment? Shame?

I wasn’t aware that I felt those things.

Whatever it was, it gave me pause, it held me back.

I stumbled again, to the side, in the direction of the blood and bodies. I wasn’t sure on what I was trying to accomplish, but I was still operating on vague directives. Prove Lawrence wrong, make myself believe that I was okay.

It was so hard.

Lawrence pulled the phone away from his ear, his expression unreadable, but it wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Here, I’m getting nowhere with her. You’re on speaker phone, D.”

Another, digitized voice filled the hall.

Man, this took a sudden and not very awesome turn. Okay, fine, I guess we have a couple seconds to spare. Wendy? Hi.

“She just looked at me. I think that’s a response.”

Let’s just go with that. As far as I was able to gather, it’s not looking so pretty over there, is it?

“That is a severe understatement.”

You said Granon was there? Is he alive?

“I don’t want to look, D. I, I’m doing everything I can to not throw up here.”

It’s kind of important. If he’s no longer a problem, whatever that entails, we need to provide proof to show that we won.

“The fuck did you set me and Wendy up for?”

I gave us an opportunity. Now hurry and find him. Take a picture if you have to. There must be some kind of way out of here, right? I’m sure you’re thinking along those lines. Just take it a step at a time.

“What about Wendy? She hasn’t moved or responded. I’m worried it might be some kind of trauma or something.”

Yeah I’m, I’m thinking. I’m only working off what you’re telling me. Um, I can only guess, but, Wendy? Are you thirsty?

I am.

I am so thirsty.

“What does that have to with anything?”

It might have to do with everything. Wendy, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but go ahead and drink. Lawrence, you’re probably scaring her so turn around and don’t look at her until she’s done.

“Done with what?”

Don’t tell me you watch a lady while she eats? How rude.

“D, you have a lot to answer for, I swear to-”

And promise I’ll give you the proper context. Right now, just listen, please?

A warped sound, not from the device. Human, closer.

The man turned, his back turned, his face obscured.

Free, unshackled. No longer bound by the man’s gaze.

Movement, not a smooth or elegant.

Rough.

On the floor, crawling. Insect. Insect. Wrestling control from more base instincts. The man was not a threat. Here to help. Back turned, meaning submission. Free to move. Indulge.

Fingers wet. Arrival.

No hesitation.

Fingers met lips. Tongue. Swallow.

Electricity.

Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

I came to.

The effect was instant. The shadows digging and blurring my eyesight fell away, disappearing, like a veil being pulled off of my face. A wave of calm washed over me, and the finer controls over my own body were being returned to me. The burning and the fever was going away. I could see, again, and I could feel things that weren’t just abject dysphoria.

I sipped, not concerned over cleanliness or decency. Lawrence wasn’t watching, I was free to consume how I needed to. No reservations, no qualms about what I was doing.

I slurped, licking my fingers down to the knuckle, thrusting my fingers back into the puddle of red to scoop up some more, making it collect into my palms. I was still aware of that the bodies were there, so I maintained a distance, trying not to think about them as much as possible, blocking it out of my mind’s eye. I blocked out the deep grooves and scratches in the tiles, at the bottom of the puddle, I’d rather not consider where those might have came from.

I could see, but I closed my eyes regardless, to savor the taste, lose myself in the moment. To forget about everything that weighed on my mind. I had almost forgotten this, how good and sweet the taste was, how it seemed to cleanse my palate, how it-

It hit me like a kick to the teeth.

I was kicked in the teeth, sent back from the sudden and blunt impact to my face.

I heard a shout. Then I heard several.

On my back, eyes rolled back, mouth filling with blood. My blood.

My jaw had been forcibly shut, fast, tight. My tongue was out, between my teeth. I nearly bit it right off.

I started choking, convulsing from confusion and trying to cough the blood out. I sputtered, with some drool and blood trailing down my cheeks.

A high ring was singing in my ears again, but I picked up the other noise that were happening around me. Shouts. Footsteps.

“How the fuck are you still standing?”

“A real man does not let such setbacks stop him.”

“There’s a fucking hole in your shoulder!”

“I sense fear in your voice, boy, I see you tremble. Was our prior meeting an act? A show, to give me a false impression of you and your group?”

“Damn right it was! Jesus-fucking-Christ, this is insane, this isn’t real!”

“This is real, boy, and it’s also about to be over.”

The footsteps swelled in volume, and something told me the growing commotion couldn’t be ignored. This wasn’t like earlier, with the tension in the air, but Lawrence still being patient with me. This was much more pressing, much more urgent.

“Wendy! I kind of need you on this!”

Right. That was a good indication as well.

I put a hand to my face. I was healing, feeling things shift.

My nose had been broken, with blood spilling out onto my face. My tongue was cut, split almost in half by the teeth, with even more blood for me to cough and spit out. The muscles in my face and mouth pulled, setting things back into place, taking things out where they shouldn’t. That shifting feeling, hot, like magma moving under my skin. Bones mending, skin and muscle coming back together. Teeth pushed back into place.

I moved as I healed, as fast as I was capable. I had gotten some blood, but it wasn’t enough to cover everything, I wasn’t recovering fast enough.

But it would have to do.

I scrambled to my feet. I opened my eyes, trying to get my bearings. I fixed my glasses, surprised to see that they still fit on my face.

Fuck.

There was a lot of bearings to get.

People. A lot of people, not just me and Lawrence and…

And Granon.

Granon was here, that much I knew, but he was still standing. How?

He was there, towering over me, blocking the light, but his attention was squarely on Lawrence, who was on the opposite side of him, several feet away. Granon, though, was stealing the attention of everyone else.

He had a buttoned shirt, but it was undone, not due to any effort on his part, but there were so many hole and tears and tatters that it left little to the imagination.

Under his shirt was body armor.

Of course he has body armor.

But, whatever happened, whatever it was I did, it would only do so much in protecting him, now. He was clutching a shoulder, the fabric reddening around the area. I would have thought that he couldn’t use that arm anymore, but the way he formed a fist, and the way his muscles tensed, led me to believe otherwise. The armor, too, had seen some damage, hanging together by a thread. It looked like it would fall apart if he took another step. It certainly wouldn’t hold if he were to get into a fight now.

And it looked like we were all about to.

Others filed into the hall, moving in groups, holding firearms. I turned so my back wasn’t an easy target. More of Granon’s men, and part of me prayed it was the rest of them. If we made it out of this on top, then there wouldn’t be any stragglers left to deal with. And if Granon was going to make this his last stand, then so would we.

But… shit. We were outnumbered, outgunned. I could heal, but that didn’t mean that I’d survive this.

Their presence alone was enough to keep me and Lawrence still, waiting to see how all of this would play out.

Granon bellowed, and his men positioned their guns. At me, at Lawrence, meaning Granon was in their sights, too.

Where was everyone else? Hotel staff, security? D? Who was letting this happen, letting this situation escalate in the back of the Lunar Tower? What happened to this place being a neutral zone?

Granon bellowed again, gripping his shoulder even tighter. He swung with that arm, removing his shirt and armor in one motion. The body armor thudded against the wall. I could sense the weight of it by how the thing dropped to the floor.

Granon’s torso was like a wide canvas, colored in different shades of red, varying strokes of gashes and cuts. From smaller nicks to wounds that looked worrying, Granon stood as if he didn’t feel a thing.

His body was a result of something I had done, after he cut off my finger. I’d get another headache if I tried to remember what that something was, looping my thoughts again.

Granon stretched, and clapped his hands together. He really was a beast of a man.

“Come, boy, you come all this way to where I’ve been staying, where would my manners be if I do not provide some hospitality? We’re face to face, now, so let’s make a deal! Let’s settle this like men!”

Lawrence looked equal parts annoyed, scared, confused, to the point that he could laugh.

“Am I a boy or a man? What the fuck is happening?”

“Winner gets to decide. Come!”

Granon charged at Lawrence, as though he hadn’t taken a piercing wound through the shoulder, and other injuries across his body. He rushed with the strength of a bull.

And Lawrence was the matador, but he was wholly unequipped and unprepared.

Lawrence dashed to the side, just narrowly dodging his tackle. He bumped into the wall, and I saw him make a face. In pain.

“Wendy! Get over here and help! You don’t get to stand there and do nothing anymore!”

Granon turned, and pointed at me. He yelled in his native tongue, then gave us the general message.

“She does not move, and she does not speak! I will settle this with the boy, and then I take care of her! If she so much as coughs, you will turn her into shreds!”

Granon’s men responded by turning their weapons on me. Every single one of their guns.

It was risky, stupid show of power. If I actually did move, and they fired, there was no guaranteeing anyone’s safety, not even Granon’s. A bullet could ricochet, or someone’s poor aim could hit him directly. He knew that he’d put himself in harm’s way, giving that order. Yet he gave it, in spite of that.

Risky, stupid, but I complied. I didn’t move.

Various reasons. I didn’t move because I couldn’t. My entire body was screaming for more blood, fuel for healing. I hadn’t gotten enough to quench my thirst, and I had been interrupted by a boot to the face, requiring more healing there, too. I was tired, rattled, and afraid.

Afraid. Another reason why I didn’t move. I was afraid of getting shot. The loudness of it, the shock, the pain that followed. Powers or no, healing or no, the fear of it never went away. Especially not when there was the very real chance of a bullet going through my head, and I wouldn’t be the one that came back. Everything that I had tried to build would disappear, everything would have been for naught.

I don’t want to disappear.

With that fear seizing me tight, with my self-hatred boiling, I didn’t move a muscle.

Leaving Lawrence and Granon to fight it out themselves, Man to man. Face to face.

It was all on him.

We were going to lose everything.

Lawrence jumped away again as Granon charged.

The difference between the two was obvious. Lawrence was one man, but Granon was easily the size of two, with plenty left over. Breeds of a different kind, and Granon was built for fighting.

In dodging, Lawrence had managed to put some space between them, and he tried his first move. A kick, to where there was a decent cut on Granon’s side.

Hardly anything. Granon roared, either in actual pain or for some other psychological effect. For Lawrence’s part, all he accomplished was pushing himself off Granon, like being launched off a platform. The force of the kick made him stumble when he landed, a critical mistake.

Granon stalked over to Lawrence while he tried to get back on his feet, moving with an incredible stride for someone already so bloodied.

A sweep of his leg, his foot into Lawrence’s ribs. Lawrence would scream if he could.

Large hands then went out, and grabbed Lawrence by the collar.

He threw, but he didn’t let go. Lawrence was swept off his feet, his back shoved into a red portion of the wall, his feet kept above the floor. Lawrence hacked and coughed, then gasped for breath as sausage-like fingers wrapped around his throat.

Granon began to choke the life out of Lawrence.

My heart sank.

Lawrence tried to wrestle out of Granon’s chokehold, kicking, twisting, but all it amounted to was him flailing uselessly as Granon held him in place. He had already gone through so much punishment in recent months, weeks, days. From surviving a bus crash, to getting shot, to his now two fights with Granon. A human body could only take so much punishment, and Lawrence had reached his limit a while back.

The kicking started to have less kick in them, the energy behind the twisting dropped. Lawrence started to give out, the colors of his face turning white, his eyes bulging out of his head.

I formed a fist so tight I made crescent moon shaped imprints into my palms. Blood moons.

Fuck, fuck.

How could I be so frozen in my fear? Lawrence was dying, forced to risk his life in fight he had little chance of winning, and he was still fighting to the end. He didn’t have powers, didn’t have the ability to heal, and yet he didn’t run away. He was trying.

He had yelled for me, and I was standing here, doing nothing.

This wasn’t the lack, or any missing connections. This was me being a coward, running away when it actually mattered.

The realization choked me.

I want my costume, I want to wear my mask. Hide. I want to hide.

I inched forward, the feeling of bile rising in my stomach. My fingers dug into my palms even deeper.

Then, a burst.

It wasn’t from me. Lawrence.

He didn’t kick. With the last of his breath and strength, he lifted a leg, and thrusted. He didn’t remove his foot or pull away though. He kept it there, pushing, digging the heel of his boot in more and more.

Into the hole in Granon’s shoulder.

Granon shouted in another language, and seemed to double down, twisting his fingers around Lawrence’s neck, straightening his arms. Lawrence only returned the favor by pressing his heel into the wound even harder, faster, more desperate.

A sick game of chicken. Until either Granon let go, or if Lawrence died.

One of them gave.

Lawrence dropped down the wall, slumped.

Granon backed away, holding his shoulder, grunting all the way.

There was a pause.

And then Lawrence blinked.

A small thing, but I noticed it. I was looking for it, praying for it.

He was still alive, he still had a chance.

I tried to inch closer again, but a click behind me made me reconsider.

Damn me.

Lawrence began to dry-heave, body jerking, wild, tears streaming down his face. Granon’s attention had remained on his shoulder, having not noticed Lawrence. Was that a potential weakness? An exploit? If Lawrence could focus on that shoulder, or hammer on other deep cuts, then he might be able to pull this off.

He’d have to get control back of his body, though.

Shaking, heaving, Lawrence did what he could to slump forward, head hanging down. Slow, he brought his hand to his lips. His fingers disappeared into his mouth.

I sympathized.

A sudden, hard shake, and Lawrence retched, and a stream of bile flew out of his mouth. Violent, harsh, fast, a brown and green mass of liquid waste was flung, far and strong enough that it curved in the air.

Projectile vomit.

Everyone had a reaction. Granon’s men blanched, taking steps back, even though they were nowhere near him. Even I was granted permission to move.

Granon reacted as well, but with his attention having been elsewhere, it was delayed. He craned his neck to look, and leapt in surprise.

Agh!”

Anyone would have acted similarly to seeing such a sight. Women, children, men like Granon. But his response was a second too late.

Lawrence had been purposeful with his attack. He had intent. He had aimed right for Granon’s feet.

Granon attempted to swing his feet back, to avoid the vomit. But he had seen it a second too late, the floor already compromised by all the blood. Vomit splashed right under him, mixed with the blood, and coupled with his size and momentum, he slipped the second his feet returned to terra firma.

Bigger they are…

Legs over his head, his neck bore the brunt of the impact. I heard a very audible crack.

His arms fell beside him, his feet landing and pointing in different directions, outward. A stretch of nothing, a pause as it settled in that Xander L. Granon wasn’t going to be moving ever again.

Time seemed to have all but stopped, inside that hallway.

Both on the floor, only one of them still breathing. It wasn’t a possibility the majority of the people here saw as actually feasible.

Lawrence didn’t turn his head, but he moved his eyes. I met them.

A passing of the torch.

My turn.

I turned. Facing the crowd of gunmen, all dazed, confused, and soon, very angry.

There weren’t any that had come the other way, from where I had turned when I was being followed. Maybe it was part of Granon’s ego, his arrogance, that led to his downfall. He assumed he would win, he thought he had power over us, and tried to use that to orchestrate a situation that would illustrate that to everyone present. A way of gloating. He ended up drawing up a different point, instead.

I took a step to them. They took a step away.

Lawrence had went above and beyond, not just for his own survival, but for my own, and for the gang. He could have been killed by Granon’s hand, but he fought back. He tried.

I had no excuses.

I had operated under three rules, the moment I walked into this hotel. They limited me, made me bend in ways I wasn’t meant to bend. A shape I wasn’t meant to fit.

I had broken the first and the most important rule, despite my best efforts. Now, I wasn’t going to let anything limit me, anymore.

Barriers fell and crumbled, inhibitions lifted. Something else was taking over. Something distorted.

Diving into the mob, diving back into the madness. But this time, it was an intentional descent.

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