088 – The Revenge of Surf Queen

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It hadn’t occurred to me just how much I took my leadership position for granted, not until I had to go through the fallout of botching the El Paso job. This last week was nothing if not a harsh wake-up call, or a splash of water in my face, about the responsibilities of my role. Unlike being whatever it was that gave me my powers, being a gang leader wasn’t a natural thing. It had to be earned, and the foundation of that was built on trust.

That had been shattered by the time I got back to Stephenville.

I could see it in the eyes of the other members, in their postures as D and Lawrence had everyone come meet us when we returned. Word spread fast, apparently, and not everyone was happy with what they heard.

It was varied, but the general sentiment was mutual, shared. Some shifted their gazes away, others glared at me straight on. Hard to avoid, when I was at the center of it all. Nothing I wasn’t used to, but getting it from people who were supposed to be in my corner… it didn’t help, in any case.

When we got back, Lawrence seemed to take it in stride, but he was also on an assortment of different painkillers, being propped up by D. He was off on his own ride, and I had just gotten back from mine. Now, all that was left was the come down. And that was a slow, numbing, gradual descent into self-flagellation and self-loathing. A thick miasma of an atmosphere that was hard to parse, harder still to get out of.

Which, which was…

I don’t know.

And that atmosphere was palpable throughout the rest of the week, clouding my vision, my mindset, and my general disposition. Every movement, every passing thought, was being met with second and third guesses, every stare and whispered breath made me more and more conscious over all of my decisions. Picking up and turning over the same stone, time and time again, becoming a bad habit.

Those seeds of doubt had finally taken root, and this was what bloomed. An ugly flower with more thorns than petals.

If only there was a way to nip it in the bud. Or was it too late?

I don’t know.

All I knew was that there was a lot to do, and it would take time before everything would straighten out, reach a new equilibrium. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would have to do.

It’d have to.

Challenge after challenge, constant struggling with no end in sight. It was such a tiny, fleeting draft of an idea, but it flickered in my mind, anyways.

That, maybe, it was better that I give up, or that I had never tried at all.

A small pressure on my head, right between my elbow and my temple, pushing against me. Rain tapped against the other side of the glass, like a weird sort of role reversal of the whole fish in the bowl thing. Except I didn’t want to put myself in the position of a helpless creature, exactly, but…

I don’t know. That’s where I am, I guess.

But, whatever. In the grand scheme of things, none of this mattered. It all stacked together, adding up but still not amounting to much, leaving me being nothing but-

“Wendy?”

I startled a little, lifting my head. The pressure became a fading throb, lessening as I shook my head, slight.

Sarah, at the driver’s side.

She was facing me, her hands off the steering wheel. Lips upturned, slight, her eyes crinkling a little. If there was ever an expression to project ‘patient’ onto, it was that one.

“We’re here,” she said. I could hear it in her voice, too. Patience.

But, I didn’t want to keep everyone waiting. I didn’t want to be what held everyone back.

The only response I could offer was a nod, enough of a signal for everyone to start getting out of the van.

I braced myself for the rain. It came down harder, merciless even, hammering down on us as if each drop was attempting to pound us into the cement. Punching, stomping me into the curb, and it would have, if I didn’t put past the minimum effort in standing up, standing my ground. With how tired and done I was feeling, that particular tug of war would have favored the opposition, had the door leading inside not been only a few paces away.

Sarah threw the door open, the hinges creaking, announcing our arrival. Even over the rain. Assholes.

Heads turned. Eyes stared.

Another sort of role reversal. I had gotten out of the water for a chance to breathe, but now I had found myself burning up in the glare of others.

My own subordinates.

They were all moving about and working as we came in, the majority of them taken a moment to pause what they were doing and put their focus on us, instead. Me, more than likely.

It was only for a moment, but time seemed to stretch for so long that it might as well have been for an eternity.

Dozens upon dozens of spotlights, a stage I once thought I could stand on with confidence, and a part I once thought I could play, but now, I doubted my ability to deliver those lines with conviction. The queen.

I’m still on the board, but I’m not in a good position.

I was stuck on what direction to take.

Through the blinding glares, I peered past them to take in the rest of the base.

One of the headquarters for the Fangs. Deep in the heart of our territory in West Stephenville, an emptied out museum we took over and renovated. Like the Whiterose Hall for Music and Theater, where we had taken Granon for our first encounter with him, the Free Grant Museum of Arts was supposed to be a community center that encouraged students do partake in after-school programs, joining art classes with peers instead of joining gangs. But, like the theater, it lost out on the appropriate funds and eventually had to shut down. It had taken some work, and some time, but we had enough hands on deck, and we got the museum up and running again… for Lawrence. The museum wasn’t open to the public anymore.

One of the headquarters, because it was agreed that each of the leaders would have their own, spreading out, taking over more bases as the territory expanded. We were still in the process of getting everything together. Lawrence had just gotten his and was ready to go, D was in the planning stages now that she had a place in mind, and I was still undecided on where I’d set up shop. There were some options, but part of me would rather wait until the territory expanded into places where I’d have better choices.

But, I couldn’t see myself having a base if this was what I’d return to.

We were in the lobby of the museum, branching off into the different wings of the building, available to us from there. Lawrence’s office would be in the back, straight ahead, but there was a sizable crowd of people between us and our destination. Carrying boxes, checking inventory, doing last-minute checks on wiring to make sure it held up after a week or two. And most had paused, brief, to look at us as if we were intruding. Even though they were all members of my gang.

It was only for a moment, but the tension coming from each glare, each spotlight… it was tactile. Pulling, tugging at me, in every direction, until I came apart.

Was that what they intended? Did that want that?

It made me feel so alien. So other. I was very conscious of the droplets of water on my face and glasses, how my clothes weighed me down.

Paranoia. A miasma by any other name would be just as toxic.

A nudge from behind, like the wind from before, except I was made to move, this time.

D moved to the side of me, her hand still between my shoulder blades.

“Come on,” she said, putting more force there, where she was touching me.

I complied. As a group, we made the first move, and everyone else went right back to work. Only for a moment, we were all locked in a kind of stasis, a symptom of what could be a larger issue. What would happen if I had to give an order at a critical juncture? Would they drag their feet, delay, or fight me on my decision? It would be hard to say for sure until we were in that exact situation, but at the same time, I didn’t want things to get that bad.

I’d have to do something about that. Another box to put on the list. There were so many boxes, already.

Sarah cleared the way, getting in front so others would have to get out of the way. She was in a weird position, as well, being one of the people who worked under me while still comfortable being at my side. She could maneuver through both circles with ease, which made her a big help.

I felt bad for having to rely on her. D, as well.

Like bodyguards protecting a celebrity, Sarah and D and Isabella made a barrier around me, putting space between us and them. Space that shouldn’t be there, but we’d have to work around that.

We ducked into a door past the main exhibit hall, leading into the back area of the museum. The walls immediately shrunk in dimensions, choking us so we had to walk in less of a group, and more of a line. D took point, leading the way. I was a step behind her, lagging a little.

Then, after finding a set of stairs leading up, and down another hall, we made our way over to Lawrence’s office.

The door, an off-white wooden slab with subtle, winding engraving, wasn’t open, but D pressed against the surface of it anyways. She reached for the handle, then pressed both hands against the door, palms flat, fingers splayed, and threw her weight onto the door. It took some doing, some real effort or some genuinely good acting on D’s part, but she managed to sell the image that the door was heavy.

It gave our entrance, and our intrusion into his office, that much more weight.

Lawrence was waiting for us.

He was sitting on the other side of his office, the room dim, with wisps of smoke floating through the air. Lit by the window behind him, rain pelting the glass, soft greys became white brushstrokes against the dark hues that enveloped Lawrence and the room. Across the space, there were white patches of light gave shape and form to the shadows. I saw Lawrence, I saw his desk, I saw how he sat, favoring a side, the only other color in here was a burnt orange, by where his lips would be, glowing periodically.

Burning orange, then a soft white, tracing thin, hazy lines into the air.

“What the heck is this?” D asked, stomping into the room. With how delicate the atmosphere was in here, each step came down like thunder.

“You… kept me waiting,” was the answer from Lawrence. It sounded slurred, slowed in a way. But measured. As though he had to put effort in not tripping over his words.

Where Lawrence was sluggish, however, D was fast as lightning.

She crossed the distance in a sprint, disappearing into the shadow, patches of light falling on her on occasion. The shape of Lawrence vanished, swallowed by dark, the burnt orange gone as well. I heard ruffling and a bit of a struggle, and when I saw the orange light again, it was on the floor, quickly being stomped out.

“No smoking,” D said, harsh.

“I needed to something to take the edge off.”

“That’s why I gave you those meds. Your prescription. Don’t mix it with other junk.”

“A little bit isn’t going to do anything too bad. Don’t… worry, I know what I’m doing.”

“If you know what you were doing, then you wouldn’t be self-medication. Mixing that stuff while you’re already on something is just a recipe for disaster. So stop it. Last thing I need is for you to fall into a drug-induced coma, or you get a seizure or a heart attack or something, okay?”

“It’s clean weed, D, I got it from the boys down there. It’s stuff we sell. And I didn’t even take that much, before you got here. And it helps. So-”

“I said stop, okay, I said it. I don’t need another-”

D twitched, going quiet. The outline of her twisted around, facing us. As if she realized that she wasn’t alone.

Dropping her shoulders, head lowered, she stepped to the side, and I could see Lawrence’s outline again. Light cut through blinds to shape him.

“Do you need a light in here?” I asked, experimentally moving inside.

Lawrence replied. “Probably not the kind of light you’re offering, so no, I’m good.”

I was fine with that. I wasn’t like I couldn’t see in the dark, anyways, and there were more important things to fuss over about. The lights stayed off.

My eyes began to adjust to the dimness, and I was finally able to see Lawrence as I approached. He was dressed to relax, or at least be as comfortable as possible, while still being presentable. A sweater one size too big, the hole for his head hanging open, revealing the white undershirt he had underneath. He had one leg propped up on his desk, slim fit acid-washed jeans and a cream seashell colored shoe upon closer inspection. He was resting it by a laptop, but by the lack of any lighting reflection off him, I could tell that it was on a sleep mode.

As relaxed as he appeared, the expression he wore was one of restraint, his eyes part of the way scrunched while his jaw was set, square. Holding back from showing any of the pain he was feeling. Which was fair, he still had to wear a bandage on his chin, covering the stitches.

He was still suffering from residual aches from his multiple bouts with Granon, and had the lower half of his face split open by Styx. I could see why he’d want to find reprieve in any way possible, be it at the bottom of a pill bottle, or at the end of a joint.

Lawrence scratched his neck, close to the stitches. He was being ginger with it, not wanting to irritate the skin there, probably.

“How was the barn?” he asked.

D looked at me. I wanted to look and see if Sarah was still here. I had left her by the door when I walked into the office after D.

“A bust,” I replied, looking back at Lawrence. “Nothing left there. Doesn’t help that we went when it’s raining as hard as it is. Everything’s been cleaned out and washed away.”

“We found a bunch of puddles, though,” D said. “Lots and lots of them.”

Easy to tell, that Lawrence didn’t like hearing that. He looked to the side, over to D. She must have done something, judging by his sudden frown. He moved his hand from his neck to his nose, pinching the bridge of it, looking up.

“So that’s it, just like that? You’re just going to give up?”

I wasn’t sure if that question was pointed or more general in scope.

My turn to look at D, and all she did was tilt her head.

“We don’t have to,” I answered, in both meanings. “That barn was our best lead though, and we couldn’t turn up anything.”

“That’s why you don’t delay, Wendy, because the opportunity slips away from you. Fuck. You don’t let chances disappear when they’re right there.”

“Yeah, I get it, I don’t need to hear it twice.”

“I think you do. You’re surprisingly stubborn.”

Fuck. Like I needed this right now.

I turned, glancing back. Sarah was here. Which made everything more complicated.

It was good that she was here, that I still had her, but it sucked that she had to see this. There was space between us, too, now that I was in D and Lawrence’s company, the leaders of Los Colmillos. As much as I wanted- needed her here, she didn’t belong.

“You’re dismissed,” I told her. “Thanks again, for everything.”

Sarah gave me a nod.

“Of course. Anytime.”

She took her leave, the heavy door slamming behind her. Not because of any lingering emotion, but because the door was that damn heavy, apparently.

After that sound rang out, it gave way to the rain. Tapping on the window, incessant, like a unsolicited visitor, trying to get in.

I turned back to Lawrence.

“It’s not the first time I went down to Braham Barn,” I said. Jumping back into the previous discussion, but it felt like a non-sequitur.

“When?” Lawrence asked.

I sifted through broken memories, loose connections. I didn’t like that I had to plug some of them back in.

A shock coursed through me, like a tiny bit of static, but across my whole body.

“Back when I first got my powers, a couple days after the incident that took place there. I went back. It was the same then, too. Nothing.”

Lawrence lifted a brow. He shifted, leaning more into that side he favored. He grunted.

“You didn’t mention that before.”

I took a second before I answered. Images flashed in my head. Alexis. The barn. Testing her newfound strength on some picnic tables. That moment was the most clear, since it was one of the few times her powers ever gave her a sense of wonderment. That feeling was all her own, I couldn’t take that away from her, not that I wanted to. I’d rather keep my hands off, regarding that.

“It just came back to me,” I explained, “But yeah, it wasn’t like I didn’t try. Didn’t find anything then, either.”

“So you just wasted your time by going there again, even when you knew you wouldn’t find shit?”

I lowered my eyes. Lawrence was irritating when he was a little high.

“It’s… complicated,” I said, “I have a new set of eyes now, metaphorically speaking. I brought others, too, different perspectives. Still came up blank.”

“We all tried,” D said. “It’s big deal that Wendy even wanted to go back. Seriously.”

“This isn’t a therapy session,” I commented, voice hushed. Stupid, to bring up that tidbit.

Lawrence didn’t seem to catch it, though, continuing the conversation with another point.

“And you still didn’t find anything?”

“I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Then you go at it from another angle. I don’t know your whole origin story, but there has to be some record of it. Cops used to stop by there for drugs. Check those.”

D interjected. “You have been smoking, because you’ve forgotten the cops we have to deal with. Chances are good that they’d covered things up, without even realizing what they covering up. You’re right, that barn was a hot spot for drugs back in the day, so the less attention places like that, the less trouble and heat on them. Wouldn’t shock me if this thing did get covered, but got buried in the back pages of the paper or at the bottom of someone’s feed. We probably wouldn’t get anything out of it.”

Lawrence coughed, sounding strained at the end.

“You wanted another perspective, there’s one. Don’t let this one slip past you, too.”

D and I exchanged a glance. Fleeting.

“I can look into it for you, Wendy, if you like,” D said. She winked. “It wouldn’t even be hard. I know how to get past Uncle J’s back when he’s not looking.”

Uncle J. James Gomez. She really had nicknames for everyone.

“Sure,” I said to D, and for Lawrence as well. “We’ll give it a shot.”

Lawrence leaned on his side some more, failing to suppress a groan. He sounded like an old man.

“It’s a start. Just don’t go about this all half-heartedly. That’ll just piss me off even more.”

“God,” I said, “Maybe you do need a light.”

D flashed me a look. With how the shadows fell on her face, she looked scary.

Lawrence laughed a little. Sounding strained.

“Ha, ow, not maybe, I do, but that’s beside the point. Alright, fine, I won’t keep bugging you about it, since it seems like you give enough of a shit. Let’s move onto other business.”

“Yes, please,” I said.

Moving onto other business was good, and it helped that business was good. Despite my fuck up, the gang was doing pretty well, growing at a steady rate and building momentum. Granon wouldn’t have come after us if we hadn’t been doing something right. And all we had to do was keep at it. Getting numbers, looking after the terrority, and eyeing rival gangs to go after, ourselves. That particular plan was still in effect. We had beaten out the Thunders and the Royals, and, though our dealing with Hóngshuǐ ended in a stalemate, there were still others that owed us, other doors to knock down. Other business.

“What’s next on the agenda?” D asked.

Lawrence lowered his chin, letting the shadows take more of his face. He was starting to look more and more the part of a mob boss. If we weren’t on the same team, and if I didn’t have powers, I could see myself wanting to shrink under his gaze.

He really was the face of this gang.

“Maintenance and expansion,” Lawrence said. “We get back on track with everything we were doing before Wendy left for El Paso. There’s a lot we need to check up on, especially here in town, and if we want to keep growing, we’ll have to start scoping out potential targets. Other gangs.”

“Y’all got any suggestions for gangs?” D asked.

“Lawrence knows them better than I would,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Lawrence started. He scratched his chin. “We’re going to be swinging above our weight pretty soon. What’s left on the list are either individuals with nothing else to offer, or gangs that squat at a place without really holding anything there, or they’re just too fucking far. I’d like everything to connect, it makes coordinating and communication much easier. If we get split up, fragment ourselves, that leaves us with openings for others to exploit.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” I said, “I don’t know how above our weight you want to swing, but that comes with the risk of us getting smacked back down, no chance of getting up.”

“You think I don’t know that? We’ll play it smart, gather some intel. If we do lock on a bigger gang, like the Cobras or something, we can go for their smaller holds, inching in on parts of their territory that they aren’t as secure over.”

“Buffer zones,” D said. “The bigger the gang, the more hold you have on the city, meaning a lot of smaller groups might try to size you up to prove themselves, or police might have to come knocking just to keep appearances. That what those zones, or forward bases, are for. Leftover scraps for them to chew on. Like remoras to sharks.”

“I’d never heard of these,” I said.

“Insider secret,” D offered, with sing-songy tone.

I considered the plan that was being suggested.

“So if we take these bases for ourselves, we would be able to grow the gang a little bit at a time. Growth, while still pacing ourselves.”

“We’d have to be careful, though,” Lawrence said. “Take enough of those bases and they’ll have to retaliate. This isn’t like taking candy from a corner store. They have the power to wipe us out, make it look like we were never here in the first place. Worse than a war. Obliteration.”

A tug, a reflex. This was the part where I’d say that we had the power to wipe them out to. Referring to myself.

I held my tongue. I couldn’t even fake it.

Instead, I ventured with, “So we should start scoping out some places, then. See who we can hit first, and who. No one, specific target is in our sights yet.”

“I can start on that,” D said. “I know where to look.”

Lawrence nodded, more assured now. “Then I’m putting you on that for now. No need to rush, let’s just get our ducks in a row first.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Now, what’s next? Anything that needs to be taken care of here?”

“A lot,” Lawrence said. “If D is going to be working on expansion, then you’re taking care of maintenance. Check around the terrority, touch base with the locals. Make sure our presence is well established. If there’s any trouble or problems, take care of it.”

“Any in particular that’ve cropped up recently?”

Shadows dug into his grimace.

“Some. Maybe. Few of the boys have mentioned someone snooping around, talking to the locals, asking questions. A lot of questions, which to me means too many.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Like who’s occupying the territory now, what happened to the previous occupants, any rumors, leads.”

I didn’t like the sound of any of that.

“Oof, sounds like a real journalist,” D said. “Scary.”

In one word, D voiced my concerns for me.

The idea of someone out there, asking about us, trying to get information… it gave me a sense of creeping dread. As if I had been stabbed with my own knife.

“I haven’t been able to get much else on this person,” Lawrence said. “Age, name… all I have is they might be a woman. White.”

“Might be?” I questioned.

“The reports conflict. Some say it was a male, others say female.”

“More than one journalist, then?” D suggested. “Super scary.”

Two words, now.

“That doesn’t make this any easier,” I commented. “We don’t need anyone sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, and not at this juncture.”

Lawrence gestured, the look on his face suggesting that it hurt to do so.

“I hadn’t heard anything about them in a while, which still worries me. It’s just something I heard during the daily reports.”

“Something to keep in mind then,” I said. “I’ll be on the lookout.”

“Me too,” D said. “What else we got?”

I paused.

“There’s… something I need to bring up.”

There were just two others here, but I back up a bit to better gauge the room’s reaction.

Lawrence looked at me, D did too. The rain seemed to tap harder on the window, bodily crashing into the glass.

It was like being the spotlight again.

“Yes?” Lawrence asked.

I breathed.

“It’s the others,” I said, breathing out. “There’s some tension between me and those we have working for us. Ever since I got back from El Paso. It’s hard to explain, but… it’s there.”

I wanted to put air quotes on the word ‘some,’ but I didn’t have the energy to lift my arms, move my fingers.

“You’ll be fine,” D said. Her voice was pitched higher than usual. Fake. “It’s all just in your head.”

“I’m tired of everything being in my head,” I exhaled. I must have had some kind of expression on my face, or how the shadows hit mine, because D dropped any pretense of being chipper. Just for a split second, but I caught it.

“No, you’re right,” Lawrence said. “Doesn’t surprise me. We’ve been keeping them in the dark about certain stuff, like how we operate. There’s cliques, now, ever since we started taking in more people. Those who were on the come up with me, us, they’re more in the know than the newer guys, and I can bet they have some reservations over having to take orders from a thirteen year old girl.”

“Hey, whoa,” D said. She made a victory sign. “I’m not thirteen.”

“My point stands.”

“And they’d feel frustrated if they don’t get anything clear on V, or her relation to the Fangs,” I said. “Reggie, Tone… Sarah. People like them know. Doesn’t mean everyone does.”

“It’s an open secret,” D said. “It was always designed to be that way. If it gets out, fine, that’s how it was supposed to work. But we do have to get out in front of it by a smidge. Once locals or other gangs pick up on what’s going on, before we get any bigger, they’ll started getting their ducks in a row and it’ll be harder to make any more headway.”

We could pace ourselves, but we also couldn’t. We were racing against an abstract timer, having to beat it before it reached zero.

I voiced other thoughts.

“We still have to do something about our own people. The locals and our members. I don’t want to be on bad terms with them. That’s just complicates everything even more.”

“Then don’t fuck up next time,” Lawrence said. Like it was easy.

“Thanks,” I breathed.

Lawrence groaned, moving in his seat. He brought himself forward, elbows propped up on the table. He scratched his chin, and flinched.

“But that’s what this next part is for. There was a stumble, sure, but it didn’t end in a complete failure. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here, talking about it. All that’s left is to just, you know-”

“Keep swimming?” D offered.

“Shut up,” Lawrence moaned, and D laughed. “But sure, go with that. And, Wendy?”

“Yeah?”

“Being disliked by your workers, or feeling that kind of distance? It comes with the job. The opposite might even be unnatural. As long as you keep your head on straight, and have a good vision for the future, it all falls into place. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Sounds easier to say that do.”

“Too bad, time to get to doing. You two have your assignments. I’d help you out, but I still feel like complete shit.”

Lawrence twitched, his hand hovering under his bandage.

“Styx really did a number on you,” I said. The comment was more meant for him, but I could feel it reflecting back on me, as well. “We’ll have to do something about him, too.”

“Like what? He’s practically untouchable. Go after him, that’s guaranteed obliteration.”

“He’s like a storm,” D said. “If you see it in the distance, try and get away. If you can’t, all you can do is let it do its damage, and pick up the pieces later.”

Pick up the pieces. That was all I kept doing, in the months after the incident at the school.

“Sure,” I said, resigned.

Rain kept knocking, the light outside tinged grey. I wasn’t at my best.

“I’ll go out first and get started,” D said. “I’ll take the van, if you don’t mind.”

“There’s a spare umbrella at the door,” Lawrence said. “You can take that if you’d like, Wendy.”

“Sure,”  I said.

“We can meet up later, Vivi. I’ll get you dinner?”

“Sure.”

Then, we all broke from the discussion. D went first, heading out, her hand touching mine, rubbing it before passing me.

“D?” Lawrence said, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated face. “Send me everything you took. Now.”

She didn’t respond right away.

“Go easy on her.”

The door slammed. It was just the two of us.

I had the distinct impression that he wanted me to stay back.

Lawrence stood up. I could see how hard it was for him.

“Am I being unreasonable?” he asked. “I don’t think I am. I try to be fair, Wendy, I really do. It helps when you’re a leader, and it’s invaluable when you’re on a team. It’s diplomatic.”

He asked again. “Am I being unreasonable?”

I answered, uncertain, “I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be.”

Lawrence glanced down. He tapped at his laptop, and turned it around. The screen faced me.

“Look.”

Not a suggestion. An order.

Reluctant, I looked.

Red and white. There was so much of the former that it took time for it to sink in. Blood-soaked tile.

Splashed about, streaked in some places, pooling in others. There was so much I could smell it from here. In the deeper, darker sections of the liquid, there were gouges in the tile, chunk torn out and missing, as if someone had gone through and picked at it with a jackhammer. There was a whole length of destruction in that vein. The word choice even fit, considering all the blood.

I swallowed.

Lawrence brought his hand on the keyboard, fumbling with it since the laptop was facing me. He pressed an arrow key.

A wider shot. The arrangement of tiles lined up and spread out far enough for me to see that it was a hall. It seemed familiar, but there was even more blood.

It soaked and streaked the walls, even the ceiling, and in this particular photo, it had been taken while some blood dripped down, a thin line connecting the top and bottom of the hallway.

And the veins.

Spiraling down the length of the hall, gouges were made into the tile and brick, slashing across the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the other wall, and farther down the floor. A spiral. The damage was bad enough that it had broken through some pipes in the floor and ceiling, releasing some water, and taking out lights above.

Lawrence pressed the arrow key again.

I saw body parts. A hand. A leg. Granon’s body.

Despite myself, or perhaps because of myself, I looked away.

Look,” was all Lawrence said. I heard the sound another pressed key.

Even more reluctant, even more disgusted, I looked.

Water, wood. More familiar and more recent.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Braham Barn,” Lawrence explained. “D sent these to me just now. Look.”

He kept cycling through the pictures. They were all of the interior of the barn. The floor, the walls, the high ceiling, the walls on the other side… back to the floor.

A spiral.

I looked at where the water had collected, how it pooled in some places. Puddles. So many puddles.

Lawrence fished out his phone, reading off of it. “Here’s the description that came with the pics. Also from D. ‘Spiral pattern matches the damage observed in the Lunar Tower service hallway, however, less deep considering the dimensions of the barn’s interior. Wood breaks differently as well, but the end result is similar enough to start gathering a conclusion. Also explains the holes in the ceiling, allowing more rain to get in.’”

He put his phone down by the laptop, and cycled through the rest of the photos. Different gouges at different angles. I even saw myself, standing in the distance, talking with Sarah.

When were these taken? While I wasn’t looking?

Then, the photos circled back to the first one. With all the blood and gore.

Lawrence pushed his laptop down. It closed with a slap. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.

“What happened at the Lunar Tower?”

My mouth was open, but that was more my jaw hanging. Frozen, like a chill went through me, turning the water that had settled on me into ice.

Tell me,” Lawrence ordered.

“I,” I started. In one hand, I balled up a fist. In the other, I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger. “I was looking Granon, but he got to me first. In that hall. Shot me, had me in a lock. He-”

I pressed my finger again, but it had already cracked.

“He cut off my finger.”

Rain.

“And then?” Lawrence asked.

Both my hands were fists, now.

That,” I said, referring to the pictures. “The rest really is a blur to me.”

Lawrence sighed, rough.

“Let me see your hand.”

There was hesitation, but no delay. I brought my hand out. My right hand.

Lawrence took it in his. He wasn’t being gentle.

“Which finger?”

“The middle one.”

“Still there,” he said, brushing it away. My arm fell to my side.

My head stayed angled towards the laptop, but my eyes went up. Lawrence. I was shrinking under his gaze.

“Whatever happened in that hall, it happened before in that barn. Maybe you didn’t remember it then, but you would have picked up on it if you had seen these pictures when D offered, initially. You looked, but you refused to see.”

“I get it. I know what you mean.”

“Do you? I don’t like half-hearted bullshit, Wendy, in fact I fucking loathe it. If you’re going to not put in the proper effort, then you might as well not do it at all, and fuck over all of us in the process. And I didn’t take the risk in working with you, and D, just so you can fuck me over.”

“I’m not, we won’t.”

“You better not.”

I watched as Lawrence threw both hands into his pockets. He talked as he worked.

“There’s something inside of you, Wendy, I don’t want say ‘monster’ but humans can’t do that on their own. Some facet or side-effect of your power that you’ve never been aware of. And if you don’t get a grip, it’s going to get a hold of you instead, and the last enemy you want to make right now is yourself.”

“What, so you want me to start cutting off my appendages and see what happens?”

He drew out both hands. A lighter and joint in his left, and a raised middle finger in his right. He lifted his right hand to me.

“You have value, Wendy, you have your use in this gang. After all, I agreed to rename the gang in your image. So I’m giving you one more chance. Don’t make it your last one.”

Each word hit me like rainfall. The message was clear. In fact, it was explicit.

“I understand.”

Lawrence didn’t respond right away. Careful, he dropped back into his seat, and proceeded to light the joint.

“You have your assignment. Get to it.”

He took a puff.

“And don’t tell D. I don’t want to hear it.”

I nodded, just going along with the flow, by this point.

Dismissing myself, I left the office, gathering what I needed. With a light flick of my wrist, the door swung open.

Isabella met me across the hall.

“Forgot you were here,” I said, still walking. Footsteps dragged. Isabella followed.

“As long as you need me, I’ll be around.”

“Good,” I said, dreading the moment when I’d have to open the door out into the museum proper. “We’ve got, ugh, we’ve got shit to do.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

087 – Petrichor

epy arc 12 miss

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Tiny, innumerable impacts slammed against the wood above and around us. A relentless barrage that was hard to find cover from, even with something over our heads. By sheer volume, it was enough to get hit, even with the aiming being scattershot in approach. It didn’t matter where we went, because, any spot had us in sights and under bombardment. We couldn’t get away, and there was zero percent of anything missing its target. No one was spared.

The rain fell, hard, soaking everything and everyone.

It kept barrelling down, seeping in through small cracks, dripping when the wood got too saturated. I could probably pick up a broken plank, squeeze it, and watch as water would come spilling out like a sponge.

I could, but I didn’t. Wasn’t up for movement, or much of anything else. I remained still, watching instead. Observing.

Feeling.

I had a hood over my head, but the back of my neck was damp, the wind being strong enough to whip bits of water around, getting into places I didn’t expect water to be able to get into. The tip of my nose and cheeks felt sticky, where the air grazed against wet skin. My glasses had taken the worst of it, droplets sticking onto the lenses and getting in the way of my line of sight, making everything blurry. Annoying. I didn’t even really need glasses, and yet I was being subjected to the minor inconveniences of wearing them.

It didn’t help in making me feel any better. Though, it was hard to imagine what would.

Drip, drip… drip. Rain kept hitting the top of my hood, in odd intervals, making it hard to predict, and when people’s natural inclinations were to find the patterns in things, it set me back, as if nature itself was pointing out how useless everything was, how useless I was, and had been.

The tiny impacts, the water hitting the roof above, the wind, and the offbeat dripping. The gathered noise resulted in sending a certain static through the air, and it coursed. My mind felt like it wasn’t being tuned to anything in particular, even with my eyes opened, blurred with water, wandering over what I could see, which wasn’t much. I wasn’t taking in much of anything.

Middle of the day, but it really didn’t feel like it. Overcast clouds had blocked most of the light, an overpowering, muggy grey. It was coloring my perception of things.

My lips were pressed to a line. Neutral, but if I had to put it on a sliding scale, I’d inch more towards…

I didn’t know. But it wouldn’t be up.

Another thing I learned about myself. Not a fan of rain.

I wonder if Alexis ever felt the same.

Digging my hands deeper into my pockets, my feet remained planted. In place, on damp wood. I sniffed the air. The smell of rain. Earthy. Soil getting a chance to come alive, joining the air when the rain came down to wake it up.

Hearing it, smelling it, sifting through the different, muddied, muddled emotions…

Nostalgic, in an odd way. Not that I had ever stepped foot into this place before, but being here, now, it still invoked feelings of déjà vu. A somber recollection.

Eerie, to be here. In Braham Barn.

Back to where it all started.

The building was exactly how it had been depicted in my nightmares. Broken, delipidated, with seemingly more holes than there were hard, solid surfaces. I kept blinking, but nothing came to fill those blanks. No yawning mouths, no staring eyes. It was a sign that I was awake, and another sign that I had gotten some decent sleep the night before. Which was good, I supposed.

Then, why did I feel so tired?

It felt wrong, standing here, being in this place. A distorted shift, a sort of universal… displacement. As if, on a fundamental level, it had been recognized that I wasn’t supposed to be here, not me. If anyone was to return here, it would have to be the other person that once had this face, that once had this body. But, the chance of them ever coming back at all was next to nil. And, on another fundamental level, I could feel the pushback. The wind kicked, as though it was trying to get me to lose my ground. Being inside, the wind would whip around as well, coming at me from different directions, going about removing me from any possible angle. It howled, and I could almost hear it scream her name.

It was… dizzying.

I tried to dig my feet more into the wooden floor. Difficult, seeing that the rain made the surface slick and slippery. Like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. I could fall at any moment, if I wasn’t careful.

Constant diligence.

“Wendy.”

I didn’t turn, but I shifted, so I could better face whoever was trying to get my attention. With the rain drowning out most sounds, they’d have to raise their voice to speak. It distorted, and required my full attention to make out who they were. I scrunched up my eyes behind foggy, wet glasses.

“D,” I said.

She replied with a wave, walking not in a straight line, but rather hopping over puddles, zig-zagging her way to me. She wasn’t playing her own game very well, because her boots would splash into water more often than not, kicking it up and getting her legs and skirt wet. But she didn’t seem to care. Her tongue was sticking out, pressed against the gap in her teeth as her forehead creased in concentration, even though she kept landing into water.

Same old her. D. With the oversized jacket and skirt and choker and everything. It was good to see her again.

I didn’t show my amusement on my face, though.

After a final hop, she landed at my side. That time, she didn’t hit a puddle.

D showed her amusement, though, beaming wide, as though she could break through the heavy clouds. If she was trying to be the sun, then her gap was a sunspot.

I looked away. Too bright for my eyes.

“You’re having fun,” I said.

“You’re not,” D said back. “I just try to make the most of it, when I can.”

“I mean, to be fair, we’re not even here to have fun.”

“I know, I’m just saying. That’s how I roll.”

My hand landed on her head. I wasn’t even looking at her, I could just gauge it from her height, and how close she was standing.

“Hey.”

“Where’s your umbrella?”

“My jacket pocket.”

“I gave it to you for a reason. Your hair’s wet.”

“I’m already wet. No point in using it now.”

I breathed, and my glasses fogged up even more. My hand went back into my pocket. Inside, I cracked a knuckle. My middle finger.

I had never been so aware of my skin before, how my clothes sat on my body. How uncomfortable it was, like putting on a sweater that someone else had worn right before. Still warm. Disgusting.

“This is a bust, isn’t it?” D asked. From her tone, I could guess that she wasn’t beaming anymore. Clouds. Overcast. Grey. Colored perceptions.

“I think… we were doomed before we ever had a chance to start,” I said. That familiar feeling again.

“So gloomy,” D retorted, “But yeah. I’m sorry.”

I shrugged, leaning forward, leaning against the wind and rain.

“It’s not like you physically made it rain before we got here. We checked before we left, and thought the worst had already passed. If only that was the case.”

“How foreboding of you,” D commented, with a giggle at the end.

All I could do was shrug. Again.

“Probably for the best, anyways. I knew to keep my expectations rather low. Really low.”

“What were you expecting?”

“Realistically? Nothing, and that’s exactly what I got. A whole lot of nothing.”

“That’s not true. There’s… a buttload of water.”

I would have laughed at that, if I was up for it. I wasn’t.

“What about you?” I asked. “Happy now? We finally came here to check it out.”

“It’s not that. I wanted you to want to come here, if that makes sense. To see if you could find anything on your own.”

“But,” D added, “I’m not unhappy.”

I leaned in another direction, slight, when the wind and water picking up again. Pushing back even harder.

“Could be a start,” I said. “In that it started here, but that’s about it. This barn served its purpose, there’s nothing left to it anymore. And anything that could still be here got washed away, even before this shower. It’s all gone, now. No evidence, no trail. Nothing.”

“You hadn’t taken a step past where you’re standing since we got here. You’re here, but you’ve barely tried.”

Again, the wind pushed, and I pressed against the balls of my feet. Back. I shook my head as more water got spat into my face. I flinched.

“It’s pointless,” I said.

Then, I looked skyward, and saw the roof of the barn. No clouds in view, but water would still come down from the cracks and gaps, landing on my nose or glasses.

Ah, I hate the rain, I thought.

Another push, but this time it was harder, physical. It forced to me lose ground, and I would have slipped and fallen over if hands weren’t there to hold me, guide me.

I moved forward.

“Nuh-uh, Vivi,” I heard D say. She had me in an embrace, holding tight, shoving me to get me to walk. “No more doom and gloom for you. Just give it a proper look through, and if you can’t actually find anything through your own merits, then we can call it a day and leave.”

Part of me wanted to protest, to put my foot down and stop her, and say I was ready to leave now… but that was just a part. A larger, harder to ignore part of me recognized that this was important, and that I had to be here for my own good. Whatever ‘good’ meant for someone like me, I didn’t know, that particular metric was nebulous, now. I just knew that I had to do this, it had to happen, even if I’d end up with nothing in return.

Letting D push me, I walked ahead.

Going deeper into dark, damp barn, water sloshing under my feet, I let my eyes wander around, checking on the others and glancing where there might actually be something. The others were searching, and D had been putting in the effort… It wouldn’t have been fair to them, if I didn’t pull my weight. I was the reason why we had come here, and, in a larger sense, why every bit of this mess had started in the first place. Blank Face, the Bluemoon, the Halloween Riots, Solace

The attack at the school, Benny, V, Los Colmillos, Solace again…

And then the trail lead back here.

We weren’t even done. There was so much more I had to do.

I was back, but here never felt so far away.

Listless, I stopped. I had let D push me, but now, I put my foot down.

D bumped into me, her momentum still carrying her. I didn’t budge.

“We can start here then,” D said, walking around to my side.

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m really glad you’re doing this,” D said. A general statement.

I pursed my lips. If I had the energy to say another word, it would have been the same one.

We started.

There wasn’t much, where D had taken us. Some broken bits of wood and bricks, scraps of metal by a bale of hay, made dark brown from all the water it had absorbed. Not much in the way of places for potential leads to hide. One quick scan was enough to gauge that.

Still, though, I put in the effort. It was only fair.

I bent down, starting by sorting through the metal scraps. Piece by piece, I picked them up and set them to the side, taking a glance at each one. Bolts, nuts, screws. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. Just as I… expected.

Moving on to a nearby pile of bricks, I started tossing them away. I was displacing things more than I was trying to find openings, uncovering them for any secrets. All I got was water, falling between my fingertips, harder to grasp, harder still to take away anything concrete out of it.

I threw a brick to the ground, hard enough for a piece to chip off. I grabbed another, and squeezed just hard enough for it to crack.

Restless, but I was lost on how to direct any of that energy.

I breathed. It came out funny.

“Nothing here,” I said, reporting my findings.

“Same,” D said. I heard her grunt a few times, and when I turned, I saw that she had been kicking at the wet bale of hay. Droplets of water flicked out from every impact.

“What are you doing?”

“Stupid thing won’t, ugh, move!”

“Here,” I said, getting up. I walked over to her, a short distance. My hands went to the side of the bale of hay, where some rope tied everything together.

In one quick motion, I had it up over my head. Two droplets hit the top of my hood before I tossed it, letting the bale drop a safe distance away, where the splash wouldn’t reach us.

“Thank you thank you,” D said. She whispered it, but I heard her over the rain.

“And it’s still nothing,” I said. Nothing but another puddle. “Why bother?”

“No stone unturned, you know? That’s how I found those weapons from The Chariot, back when we were hunting Benny. I just keep looking, and I’ll come across something, eventually. I always do.”

D stepped into the space the bale of hay once occupied. She hopped a little, and I stepped back to avoid getting more wet.

“But, in this case, it’s goose eggs, except I’d rather have goose eggs, because at least that’s something, and who knows, maybe it might lead to something else and be a clue.”

“Are you saying that you want me to be some half-animal hybrid?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

My hand found its way to her head again.

“Ow.”

“Quit playing around.”

“I would rather never take another breath. Ow.”

I put my hand back down, to my side.

“I’ll go check with the others, after that we can head out.”

“The others? Other places to search?”

I searched, and found what I was looking for. Who.

Crossing the length of the barn, I walked over to her. I heard D having to pick up the pace in order to keep up.

“Sarah,” I called out, reaching.

Her ears perked up, then her head, and then she turned to see me approach. Her smile was slight but there. It was the smallest of quirks, but I happened to pick up on it.

I picked up on other stuff, as well.

Sarah had dressed for the weather, wearing darker tones, but with thicker material that could handle the oncoming rain. A black, cropped turtleneck under a long grey raincoat, with a skirt that rest just above her knees. She went without tights, but if she was anything like me, she didn’t like the feeling of wet fabric stuck against skin. Black boots that went past her ankles as an added measure against the water. A red five-panel hat added just enough color and spice to the outfit, as practical as it was fashionable.

She had been bending over a picnic table and what looked like half a tractor. I regretted calling out to her too soon. But watching her get up wasn’t so bad, either.

“Wendy,” she said, as we approached her.

Not Voss.

Like with D, I had looked away, but for different reasons.

“Any luck?” D asked, stepping in for me.

“Not here, not anywhere,” Sarah replied. “Sorry.”

“Nah, no big, it’s not your fault. Right, Vivi?”

The name grabbed my attention. “Uh, yeah, it’s not.”

Nervous, I looked back at Sarah, readying myself, as if I’d actually have to shield my eyes.

Sarah.

She was here, she had come with us, and I still couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think she’d be up for even standing next to me after what happened just a week ago. I still couldn’t believe it had already been that long.

Already? Only? I wasn’t sure how to gauge my feelings on that passage of time.

“Feels weird to be here though,” Sarah said. Hazel eyes inspected the corners of the barn, taking in the view.

“Weird how?”

“I used to go to parties at the mansion down the road, back in my college days. Here though, now? It’s like I’m in some historical site. There should be a plaque that explains what happened here.”

“It’s not that special.”

“Oh? I think it is.”

My hands went back into my pockets as I said, “In any case, we’re just about ready to go, so if you’ve been wanting to take a break sifting through wet trash, then you’re free.”

“Is that an order?” Sarah questioned. Her tone was light, the corners of her lips still turning upward. Even in the rain, she could still be that bright.

I tapped my tongue against the back of my teeth.

“It’s a really strong suggestion,” I said. My gaze fell to my feet.

“I’ll take it. Let me just finish up here, then.”

“Sure thing. Um, D?”

I had to turn my head to face D properly.

“What’s up, Vivi?” she asked.

I struggled on how to articulate how I wanted this next part to go.

“Do you mind, uh, giving me a second?”

D nodded, her eyes on me, a little wide.

“Sure, okay.”

She stood there. The usual elements continued to batter at us. Didn’t take long for the pause to become unbearable.

“Could you give us a second?” I asked, restating my question. I was staring back at D, shifting my eyes to Sarah’s direction to better drive home my point.

D’s eyes then went wider, her mouth opening like a yawn, and she nodded again, with an agonizing slowness.

“Oh, okay,” she said, just as paced, “You want to be alone with her? Why?”

Darn you, D.

She was so smart, but she really knew how to play dumb.

My hands found their way to her head, for a third time. I spun her around and gave her a soft nudge.

“Go find some more puddles to jump into,” I said.

“But I already got all of them!”

“If you give me a minute I’ll punch some wood and make more for you.”

“Like actually?”

I put more of my strength into another nudge, and for D, it was strong enough that she’d fall if she didn’t run to catch herself. Carrying her momentum forward, D jogged and started hopping.

Turning my attention back to Sarah, I smiled. Or, at least, I tried to. I felt too dumb and embarrassed to properly wear that mask.

“Sorry about that,” I said, that feeling persisted.

Sarah managed one of her own. Warm, genuine. The opposite of the weather that assaulted us. Something I didn’t know I needed.

“You’re all straight,” Sarah said.

Was I?

“Kids,” I said, watching D. She ran like she didn’t have a care in the world, kicking up water until it splashed onto the sides of her raincoat and skirt. “Who would’ve thought they’d be such handfuls?”

I tried to put some sarcasm in my voice, but I doubted that it came out right.

“I bet,” was her reply. “I was thinking more along the lines of a little sister.”

“Sister? What makes you think that?”

“It’s just my gut reaction. I can say that though, since I have a little sister of my own.”

“Oh. So… I’m guessing you had to be around kids a lot?”

I wanted to kick myself.

The hell was I talking about? That was my next move?

I wanted to melt into a puddle right then and there.

Sarah, for her part, took the question in earnest.

“Used to. As I mentioned, my sister. She’s in middle school now, I think, is that right? What grade is thirteen again?”

“Probably middle school,” I offered.

“Then, yeah.” Sarah’s bright expression remained, but it looked more apologetic. “You can tell that I haven’t been around them for a while, huh?”

“You haven’t?”

“Doing this full-time kind of necessitates some distance between you and any parental units.”

“I bet. Do you… ever regret putting that distance there?”

I wasn’t sure what I was getting at, or where I was going with this. Just wandering through this conversation. No real direction.

“Regret? I wouldn’t say that. I mean, of course it sucks that I don’t get to see my family all that often, but at the same time, we weren’t all that great when we were together, anyways.”

“Oh,” I said. “Were your parents strict or something?”

Why was I pressing it? Why did I care?

Somehow, for some reason, Sarah continued to indulge me.

“Difference in opinion. That’s all.”

To ask for any more would be pressing it for real. I went quiet, wind and water filling the dead air.

Taking a chance, I looked at Sarah, stealing a glance. Gauging if she was being annoyed with me being here or not.

“Anything else on your mind?”

With a snap, her eyes locked onto mine. Darn. She was quick.

With another snap, I broke the eye contact. Back to the floor.

“I, um, nothing in particular. Why, what would make you even think that?”

“It’s written all over your face.”

My breathed fogged, making my glasses cloudy. I was warm in the face.

This wasn’t even what I came here to do.

As I struggled to regain any composure, Sarah spoke. “You did say you didn’t mind being read, if it was me.”

“You remembered that,” I said, unable to look at anything for longer than a second or two.

“Of course.”

I was being put on the spot. I had to say something, or I’d look stupid, in front of Sarah.

Though, I already looked stupid, so I just had to not look even more stupid in front of her.

I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger again, and the effect was immediate. A sudden discomfort. Conscious of my skin and body, how gross and out of place I felt. How even the weather didn’t want me here.

I frowned.

I muttered, “Then you read right, I guess.” Speaking up, I added, “I just wanted to thank you for agreeing to come here. You really didn’t have to.”

“Oh, no, Wendy, it’s no problem. I don’t mind being out here at all, even if it means being out in the rain. I want to be a help to you.”

All words I didn’t mind hearing, made sweeter hearing them come from her, but…

Endless doubts. Second guesses. Deep uncertainty.

“But you didn’t have to. You don’t have to. You could have quit and dropped the Fangs after we got back from El Paso, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. Things, well, it didn’t go as planned.”

“Of mice and men,” Sarah said.

“Huh?”

“I’ve told you this before, Wendy, but this was never a burden that you had to carry on your own, even if you are super strong. So, if you’re to put the blame all on yourself, don’t. It’s not healthy, and it’s not realistic.”

“It did get pretty bad, though, and I probably didn’t help things, in the end. The whole time, we had been set up for the transport to be infiltrated and sabotaged, and for me to be taken out during all of that.”

“You forget that Styx sent that Solace guy to do a two-part job. And the other part was to dismantle that cartel. It wasn’t just you.”

“One person, and a whole organization, a whole cult of people. That doesn’t stack up so equally, to me.”

“Wendy.”

A hand on my shoulder. Not to push me, or to get me to move. Just to keep me down, to stay firmly in place.

“It’s never just one person. You’re not alone in this. There’s a whole gang behind you, and that’s what had them scared. You have real power outside of just yourself, and that has people like Styx worried. Maybe even Mister, too. Don’t sell yourself short, because that puts the rest of us down.”

I won’t stop selling myself short, I thought, the sentiment echoing from another time in my life. From before I had taken control of this body.

Very aware of my skin.

“I-” I started, but I couldn’t find the words. No. That wasn’t it. I could find the words, but saying them was a whole other problem, entirely.

I killed someone.

Even if that person was Solace, despite everything he was responsible for, all the transgressions he had done unto so many others, Alexis and I excluded, he was still a person. And even with a gun, there wasn’t really any sort of distance, no blame to put on a single bullet, or several, in my case. I still had to own this, and I hated it.

And that conflict entrenched itself into several levels, some deep. That, somewhere deep within me, I still did see myself a person, and not the monster I believed I had to be. That my powers still put me here, among the rest.

And, as a person, I had robbed another of their life. And in turn, the most important thing I’d ever need, they had taken it with them. Knowledge. Information.

There was so much that I wanted to ask him.

My breathing grew heavy, unmeasured, like the rain.

I felt a squeeze. Sarah. Her hand was still on my shoulder.

“You forget that I was there, too,” Sarah said, “I saw how hard you worked to try and save us. Me. And I’m still here, you have D. Tone… I mean, everyone deserves a little break, but he’s still on board, and you can always count on Reggie.”

I forced my thoughts to go elsewhere.

I didn’t miss how she described Tone. That was the most I’d heard about him since we got back from El Paso.

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Sarah’s hand. There was a bandage wrapped around the palm and back.

That feeling, again. Discomfort. But there was a warmth there, too. Another kind.

“I must sound like a dumb kid to you,” I said.

Even more stupid.

“Not dumb, I’d never think that. You’re just someone who has a lot of learning and growing to do. Like I said, it’s part of being young.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my… not really question, but, uh, do you even know what I mean?”

“I think it answers your question, and yeah, I get where you’re coming from, this time.”

This time?

“But, I have to say,” Sarah said, and I could feel my stomach start to drop at that, “It’s a good thing that you’re able to talk about this stuff. Being more open. It’s a real relief to me.”

I was spared that particular ache. But I still found it hard to breathe.

Exhaling my words, I said, “Maybe. It’s your fault that you’re so easy to talk to.”

A dry chuckle. “I do apologize for my magnetizing charisma.”

I brushed her hand off me. The back of my hand grazed her bandage, then a bit of skin.

“Whatever,” I said.

The quiet fell back down, reigning over us. They solidified into physical taps against our heads. I could gauge the time that passed by guessing how many poured down. Had to be in the hundreds.

I still didn’t like the rain.

But, it seemed more bearable, now. Less of a burden.

“Should probably get back,” I said, “No point in sticking around.”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Using that as my cue, I put a hand up to my face, close to my face, and cleared my throat.

“We’re leaving!”

D stopped in her tracks, wobbling on one foot as I got her attention, turning to me. She copied my gesture and yelled back.

“Okie!”

She started running again, making herself into more of a mess.

But, where D was seemingly oblivious to the chaos she was causing, Isabella was hyper aware of her next move and her surroundings.

She had come along to see the barn, being curious herself. I had my concerns at first, how Isabella would handle being around D, considering their brief history together. She had made her terms very clear, should she decide to come back to Stephenville. The two of them were not to be in the same room together.

But, here they were, together. It wasn’t a room, though, but a barn, but the same principle applied. It wasn’t a mess, or rather, it wasn’t messy. Isabella seemed to tolerate D’s presence well enough, and D wasn’t bugging or teasing her like I feared she would. There was some splashback from D jumping around too much, but Isabella knew to keep her distance, staying in a corner, looking through stuff.

It might not last, but for now, it worked. And it gave me a sliver of hope in how this all turns out, moving forward. It made the rain that much more bearable.

I watched as the girls approached. D, as she ran, and Isabella, as she watched D as she passed, so she wouldn’t get hit with water.

“Thanks again,” I told Sarah, almost absentmindedly. As if I was reaching in the dark, trying to feel if she was still there.

“You’re welcome, again, but I’m not sure what I did this time.”

“You putting up with me, even when I was rambling or losing direction on whatever we were talking about.”

“You’re fine. Besides, if it’s with you, I don’t mind getting lost.”

My face got warm enough that it could fog my glasses again. I wanted to see if she was wearing a similar expression, but I was afraid to show her what mine might look like, at the moment.

“I’m flattered,” I said, eyes down.

“Hey, I’m just repeating what you said to me before.”

“Repeat about what?”

D had arrived, announcing her presence with yet another hop. That time, she splashed at my feet. It was a good thing we all had boots on.

I shook my head, probably harder than I should have.

“Nothing,” I said.

D pouted. “Come on, tell meeee.”

“It’s grown up stuff,” Sarah said. “You wouldn’t be interested.”

“That’s crud, I deal with grown up stuff all the time. You think I’m only about fun and games?”

“Yes,” I said.

D blinked water out her eyes. “Oh. Well then.”

From behind her, Isabella finally caught up.

She was wearing the same clothes from the trip to El Paso. Her leather jacket gave her some decent covering against the weather, her backpack providing some coverage for her back, too. All that was missing was her teddy bear. That had been left behind, in another town over.

Compared to the rest of us, she hadn’t gotten too wet. Her hair was in pigtails, but they weren’t clumped together or sticking to her cheeks. She’d done a good job in staying out of the way of any incoming water.

She took a step, then several, away from D, and looked my way. She shook her head and gestured. Nothing in her hands.

I nodded. Nothing we could really do about it.

“We good now?” D asked. She grabbed her skirt, bunching it together. She twisted, and wringed some water out.

“As far as coming back here is concerned,” I said. My eyes roved over the barn’s interior. One more time, for good measure. “It’s as good as we’re ever going to get.”

“Doom and gloom,” D said. She smiled. “We’ll have to work on that.”

My expression remained. “And we have a few ways to go about doing that. But we don’t have to get to everything all at once. We can pace ourselves. For now, let’s just get out of this rain.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sarah said.

And with that, we all took our leave from the barn, escaping from what little shelter it provided, and we faced the wind and rain in full force, completely exposed.

It sucked, in all honesty, and it only made me feel all the more despondent. Forlorn. I hated the rain, and I hated that it was like some outward expression of the emotions I had, internally. And I hated that I was having such lame, corny thoughts.

Not that sunny days were any better, with how blinding it could get. No, for my part, I preferred the nighttime, to be alone with the moon. Peace.

But I had killed my chances of that a week ago. All I could do now was pick up the pieces. Which was the most anyone could do, really.

We moved as a group, walking fast, reaching the van that was parked a short distance away from the barn’s entrance. Using her keys, Sarah unlocked the doors with a push of button, and we were all able to get in without much hassle. I was in the passenger side, D in the row behind me, Isabella in the row behind her. Sarah drove.

I was grateful for Sarah. Grateful that she agreed to drive us, grateful that her wanting to be here seemed genuine. Grateful that she was so easy to talk to, even when it was hard sometimes. But it was the good kind of hard. The kind of challenge I was okay with facing alone.

Sarah started the van, and I stole a final look at the barn.

I remembered it. I remembered everything. It was as clear as the day was not.

Wandering through the fields of corn, coming across a small trail of blood, and then her.

The girl that started it all and sent Alexis and I down this spiral.

I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t know where she might be, and all traces of her had been washed away. Maybe this place was the site of something unusual, something strange, but now, it had gone back to what it was before. Nothing more than a decaying, decrepit barn. In ruins.

Good.

I was glad that our search hadn’t turned up anything, that, in the end, it turned out to be a bust. There was nothing here for us, no more secrets left to be uncovered. What had been done was in the past, and we couldn’t get that back. Gone with the wind and water.

Not that any of this even mattered. It didn’t matter how I got here, where these powers had come from, and where that girl was now. It had been this long, and I had gotten this far without it being a thing. If the past were to come back to haunt me, it would be like a walking corpse. Creeping, in the distance, and easy to put back down. I had the resources to handle a situation, should it come up. Being a leader of a gang had its perks, after all.

And I’d have help, should that time come. Help had been offered, and I was able to get myself to accept that I’d need it. I preferred to be alone, but I didn’t have to be.

Which was… comforting, in a way.

Like I’d admit any of this to D.

Sarah got the van moving, turning us around, and were we able to put the barn behind us. Finally.

“What’s the time?”

Isabella asked from the back of the van.

Making a habit out of it, I cracked my knuckle before taking my hand out of my pocket. I checked the time.

A simple and sleek design. The face was all black, no numbers or markings, and the thin, long hands were gold. A watch, a relic of a past I would have rather forgotten, yet here it was. Seeing it gave me an unpleasant pang, an emotion I couldn’t quite put my finger on. An echo.

I really was a sentimental one.

“Just past noon,” I said, facing forward, with the forsaken barn no longer in sight or in mind.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Dong-Yul

Previous                                                                                               Next

Finally, I’m back home.

Dong-Yul moved into his apartment, or rather, he was carried into it. He couldn’t operate under his own strength.

A whole crew was waiting for him, having gotten there well before he did. Through squinted eyes, Dong-Yul saw how they had shuffled around the furniture to better accommodate the crowd and then some. Chairs and coffee tables and designer pieces were placed into corners above him, and people were walking along the ceiling to get out of his way as he was led through.

Everything had been flipped upside down. No, wait. It was just him.

It was bright, as if it hurt to see. Before letting his eyes close, Dong-Yul tried scanning for a place he could be set down. It was hard, though, considering that everything was reorientated and it just plain hurt to try. His vision swam.

Dong-Yul gave up, letting his eyes drift, closed. He’d let whoever had him take point in that.

He groaned.

It really fucking hurt.

With the way he was being carried, Dong-Yul could tell that they were doing their level best to not make it such a bumpy trip. But, even with the tiniest of movements, a cut would get pressed into, or his clothes would brush against a scrape, or a wound opening a pinch more, he’d flinch at how much it all hurt…

It really fucking hurt.

The pain was enveloping, making his whole body feel like it was throbbing, feel like it was somewhere else. It was so bad that Dong-Yul could almost distance himself from it, a sensation so deep that it dulled the senses, in an abstract way. Like being submerged underwater. Hard to feel wet when the water was everywhere.

Almost, though. Pain had a funny way of giving reminders. But Dong-Yul wasn’t laughing. Couldn’t.

Like being in a dream.

Crossing the living room, Dong-Yul practically floated as he was taken somewhere to rest. He slowed, and people worked with his momentum to slide him into a-

Dong-Yul’s eyes cracked open. Bright. He groaned, loud.

There it was. That reminder.

His back was propped up against soft cushions, but throbbing and stinging made it feel anything but. The aches hammered at his body and mind. Until it consumed his focus.

It took genuine and concentrated effort to get himself out of the headspace, to think of anything else that wasn’t the hurt, that wasn’t the cuts and scrapes and aches and bruises and pangs. Considering how upfront they all were, it was a challenge.

“Sorry, Donnie.”

Dong-Yul recognized that voice.

“No, it’s…”

He wanted to make himself comfortable, but he didn’t have it in him to move. Comfort was too far a shore to reach. Off in the distance, into the horizon.

“It’s shit, Jackie,” Dong-Yul said, hoarse. “I feel like- ow, shit.”

“Yeah.”

Dong-Yul fell back, and the regret was immediate. His back had taken a pretty serious hit, when Styx had flipped him and slammed him down onto the hard surface of a table. Second only to his face. That motherfucker had really gone to town, there. Even now, just an hour or so later, he could still hear the squelching.

How many stitches? How many painkillers did Styx’s men hook him up on? His entire body flared, but a stilling effect would wash over him in occasion. It took the edge off, and while it was only by a margin, it was a godsend compared to tackling the full brunt of it all. He only wished that they had given him more, because the little bit of relief he was desperately clinging onto wouldn’t last forever.

But, for now, he could manage, he could deal. And he was able to communicate without it killing him.

“What’s… up?”

It was a start.

“You’re at your place, in case you weren’t aware. Tried to gather as many of us as I can, but there’s only so much space, and there is a lot of us.”

If Dong-Yul could smile, he would have. But the sentiment was there.

“Army,” he said.

“Just focus on getting some rest right now, Donnie. If we try to discuss anything now you might not remember it in the morning.”

“Just… catch me up then.”

Through the throbbing and faded sensations, Dong-Yul heard Jackie grouse at him. Dong-Yul had known Jackie long enough to decipher the different mumbles and non-words that would come out of him on occasion. Though, it would be more accurate a claim that Jackie knew Dong-Yul for even longer. He was one of Bruce’s best friends.

Was.

Bruce and Jackie went back, way back, to even before they were born. Their respective parents having met when they first moved into the city, the country. Immigrated. The parents had become good friends over the years, and when they had their own children around the same time, it was only natural that those kids would get along well. By the time Donnie had moved up from crawling to walking, Jackie was already like another older brother to him. A brought from another mother tongue.

Now, Jackie was the only family Dong-Yul had left.

In a gang, connections mattered, and real, tangible ones could make all the difference. Life and death. Dong-Yul knew not to put so much strain on this, particular one. It was like walking on a tightrope. A delicate balance, and all it took was a hard enough push to send him down, that connection slipping far and away, then gone.

Dong-Yul could feel that tension now. Wobbly. He was pushing it.

“How’s everyone?” he asked, pushing the words through puffy cheeks. He screwed his eyes open.

Not just Jackie. Other concerned faces stared him down, too.

Making another sound, Jackie took his eyes off Dong-Yul, his gaze going around the room looking at the other faces. Some words were exchanged, Dong-Yul saw Jackie’s mouth move, but the words just missed his hears. The pounding aches overtook the sounds.

The words continued to be exchanged, Jackie nodding and shaking his head, then directing himself back to Dong-Yul.

“We’ve got a lot of people that managed to come up here, but we also got a lot of those who can’t. We got fucked, Donnie, this night didn’t at all go how you, we, planned it.”

It was Dong-Yul’s turn to grouse. Words were hard.

Tonight. They had plans for tonight. And, if there was one thing Dong-Yul hated the most, it was when things didn’t go according to plan.

It should have been easy. In the recent weeks, Dong-Yul had been getting more and more reports about a new gang in town, one that had risen from the ashes of The Chariot, having come back from near death as the Ghosts. They were gaining momentum, fast, with a lot of eyes on them, even international ones. There were rumors that some Eastern European mobs had been meeting with them for… something. No one knew for sure. Possible joint ventures, vying for their territory? Whatever the case, this reborn gang, Los Colmillos, the Fangs, had momentum, and people were wanting to hitch a ride up.

Dong-Yul didn’t want that opportunity slip by. He wanted to ride that wave.

It should have been easy. He knew Lawrence, maybe they weren’t brothers, but they were acquainted well enough. They had met back when they were still nobodies in their respective gangs, and they had bonded over that. Somewhat. A slight connection, but it was enough that the Kung Fools could go to the Ghosts when they were selling goods for cheap. To help out a friend in need, so the favor could be returned later.

Sure.

This world was one of dogs, vicious animals that would tear the other to shreds to stay on top. Donnie was never one of the top dogs, but Dong-Yul would be, in place of his older brother. He had his own fangs to use, in the form of his recent swell of volunteers. He didn’t know what Lawrence’s secret was, but he didn’t have the numbers, not like Dong-Yul.

It should have been easy.

He thought he had them, Los Colmillos, cornered when he led Lawrence and his girl to the club in order to pay back his debt and float the idea of working together. It was all a lie, of course, a trap to capture Lawrence and use him as leverage to take that momentum by force. The girl would have been for more leverage, another way to twist Lawrence’s arm, to force him into complying.

Dong-Yul had no idea that the night would go down like this.

“Some of our… volunteers didn’t make it.”

Dong-Yul might as well have gotten another hit to the face. The same type of pain, but it struck another part of him. Something more raw.

He must have reacted in some noticeable way, because Jackie went right to correcting himself.

“No, no one died, but a lot of them did get fucked up. Some might not be able to stand, ever again. Or breathe properly without some kind of machine. It’s not pretty. Oh, and I’m okay, thanks for asking.”

Dong-Yul wanted to make a quip, that he didn’t look pretty, too. But this wasn’t the time for jokes.

“It got ugly down there, Donnie. We were just sitting there, in the basement lounge, I was waiting for you signal, when the lights were cut without warning. Then, it all went to hell.”

Another metaphorical hit to the face. Through the haze of his drug-addled memory, Dong-Yul could recall his disposition earlier in the night. The confidence, the swag. Having Jess and Yuri at his side, helping him give off the air of the cool gangster. Like Bruce.

A mask.

Then, the fact that, while he was up in the restaurant above the club, acting suave while his boys, his last remaining real connection, were being terrorized below his feet, all without him knowing any better…

More hits to the face.

I should have known something was up when that girl left the table.

“Her…”

It was all Dong-Yul managed to get out. He could sense that the drugs would be wearing out. Not now, and not for a several more hours, but they would. Whatever he had over the counter wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t be strong enough.

When those wore off, he would be Donnie again.

Couldn’t have that, didn’t want that.

He needed something to hold on to.

Dong-Yul pushed.

“I saw her, down there. With Lawrence, and Styx. Someone else too, but I can’t remember it very well. I know they were short.”

Jackie was frozen as Dong-Yul spoke, as if he was shocked to hear him go for that long. Maybe he was. It took a bit longer for Jackie to respond.

“That… I know who you’re talking about. And don’t push yourself too much, Donnie. You’ll regret it.”

Not Donnie.

Dong-Yul grumbled the thought.

Jackie picked up on it. He smiled, slight, in a way that made Dong-Yul think he was pitying him. That look.

Her,” Dong-Yul said, stressing the word. “I think it’s her. The Bluemoon.”

The room was already packed with people, anxious in atmosphere. The mere mention of the name screwed everything that much tighter. People huddled closer, more faces looking down on Dong-Yul. Breaths were held.

Dong-Yul released his.

“I mean, she has to be. She, ow, that girl Lawrence brought with her. They had something, agh, planned against us from the start. A counterattack.”

“But it was hectic down there, I couldn’t see shit for a while. But, yeah, I think you’re right.”

As if to punctuate his conviction, Dong-Yul nodded, despite his body. If it weren’t for the drugs, he wouldn’t be able to move at all.

“Then, that woman, I think… I think her name was Wendy, but I don’t remember her last name. She’s the Bluemoon, or V, or whatever that other freak announced itself as. She’s their secret weapon. No… doubt about it.”

Silence came in like an unwanted visitor. And Dong-Yul didn’t want anyone he couldn’t trust in here with him.

He continued.

“Doesn’t anyone here get it? We have that, now. We know. We tried to take them out, they tried to stop us, but Styx got in the way of that, because we were the bigger threat. Over them, her. And now we know their secret weapon and its name. Don’t you see? It’s leverage.”

With his words, Dong-Yul tried to kick silence out the door. But, after a time, it found its way back in.

He closed his eyes, slow, letting himself float there for a moment, before opening them again.

Why?

Jackie answered that thought.

“Not that I don’t believe you, Donnie, but… I want to believe you. But what’s your proof?”

Proof?

“Proof? What else do you need? I saw her, she was right there! She, I…”

Various memories started coming through the haze.

Wendy choking on food, leaving the table, Styx coming up to interrupt the dinner, and his plans. Forced to… hold hands with Lawrence, of all things, and being sent down to the basement lounge to find-

The Bluemoon, V, or whatever she decided to call herself. She was there. In the mask and hood and everything. His men scrambling all over the wet floor, broken and battered and bruised.

She was there. Wendy. V. That had to be her.

But, proof. What else did he have besides a hunch?

“Just trust me,” Dong-Yul said, with confidence than before. Sounding like Donnie.

“That’s a big accusation to throw out there,” Jackie said, matching him in faith. Or lack thereof. “Do you want a witch hunt? Because that’s how you get a witch hunt. Cast that girl to the fire without evidence, and you’re no better than everyone who participated in those riots and attacked those that look-”

“Don’t fucking finish that sentence.”

His whole body had been flaring up, and now he was on fire.

“Don’t put me in with them, I’m not like that. I’m just-”

“Doing the exact same thing? I’m not against the concept of what you’re proposing, Donnie, but you need to think this through. If you’re working on a feeling, and that feeling is compounded by stress and adrenaline and a plethora of painkillers that no one here knows the exact mixture of, then you’re not in the right mind to make any decisions, not for some time, anyway.”

That was a lot of words. Dong-Yul didn’t like the sound of them.

“What are you saying?” he questioned.

Jackie breathed and backed away, his face dipping out of Dong-Yul’s view. The space where he used to be got filled by others.

Dong-Yul tried to gather strength in his body, but couldn’t. Could barely form fists with his hands.

He bit his tongue, pushing himself more. He bit his tongue harder, until it felt as though his teeth would cut through, but he didn’t care. The drugs dulled the feeling, allowing him to push that much more.

Pressing his hands into the leather, Dong-Yul pushed his body up, leaning against the cushions. He didn’t even raise himself by that much, but his head felt light, a wave of nausea coming over him. It took every bit of his concentration to not make more of a mess of himself, in front of everyone.

Searching past the faces, he saw Jess and Yuri. They had that same look. Pity. He used his anger to ignore them. Hard.

He found Jackie, sitting across the living room, in one of the older, more expensive pieces of furniture in the apartment. It was here before Dong-Yul moved in, after Bruce no longer needed the place.

Donnie had debated on whether or not he’d get rid of all that stuff. He compromised, getting rid of less important items, like toothbrushes or old clothes, and keeping what at least held some sentimental value. Like the chair that Jackie was in right now.

I should have thrown it out with everything else.

With his eyes back on Jackie, Dong-Yul let him explain himself.

“We’re not in a good position to do anything crazy. Not anymore. And with you needing to rest, I’m…”

“You’re what?”

“I was never good at this leadership thing, that was more Bruce’s talent, and I wasn’t going to get in your way when you stepped up, but, I can take over while you recover, if you want.”

More words. More, did Dong-Yul not like the sounds of them.

“No, I do not want that.”

Jackie frowned.

“It was more of me putting my foot down than a suggestion, really. I don’t want you doing anything rash because you think we have something to prove.”

“We do. Now isn’t the time to lie down and do nothing, or we risk killing any hype we-”

Dong-Yul’s eyes went wide, a pang in his back.

Jackie got a word in before Dong-Yul had a chance to.

“Maybe you missed what Styx told us, but I didn’t. We’re done. This war you want, to pit us against them, you against the world? Styx already put a stop to that.”

Styx.

Dong-Yul recalled something along the lines of that, but he refused to believe it.

“We go deeper into the shadows,” he said, “Where not even Styx can see. People are still coming to us, they won’t stop coming to us and we can-”

“Donnie, no!”

Every face turned from Dong-Yul to Jackie.

Out of the chair, Jackie was standing, now. Dong-Yul was finally able to take him in, full view.

His vision was still blurry, but he knew that man’s outline. Tall, broad shoulders, a physique that Donnie could never match, and Dong-Yul would never get near, despite his efforts.

Wearing half of a uniform, Jackie had his blazer off, hanging on the armrest of the chair, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down. The lights inside were set to low, probably to spare Dong-Yul’s eyes, but he could see how Jackie’s skin glistened. He had been sweating, working to carry Dong-Yul’s limp body up to the apartment, and that was after being thrown into a fight with the Bluemoon herself, the sprinkler system working against him as part of her sabotage.

He was still standing, and Dong-Yul was still Donnie.

“Just, no,” Jackie said. “That’s not what we need right now, that’s not what this city needs. We can’t, shouldn’t, fight fire with fire, that just leaves everyone burned. That includes us.”

“Water,” Dong-Yul said, feeling like he was floating, again.

“What?”

“We flood them out with our numbers. Everyone who’s been antagonizing us since this whole thing started. We’re a growing tide, Jackie, you can’t just plug a hole and hope we go away. It won’t work like this.”

Jackie shook his head.

“Then, it’s going to have to. Until you’ve recovered and you’re in the right mindset, Hóngshuǐ is on ice.”

Dong-Yul cracked.

“Get out.”

No one moved. It was like they didn’t even hear him.

Dong-Yul mustered all the remaining strength he had, and spat it out at them.

“Everyone get the fuck out!”

A long stretch of time passed before it settled that everyone meant everyone.

One by one, Dong-Yul saw the faces as they disappeared, out the door, leaving him alone. Jess and Yuri lagged behind, but they left, taking their pity with them.

Good, he didn’t need it. He didn’t need this.

Dong-Yul looked, and saw that Jackie was still standing there.

“What did I say?” Dong-Yul asked.

Jackie shook his head again.

“What did Bruce say? I promised him I’d look after you. I’m not leaving. Sorry, Donnie.”

Another slap across the face. Dong-Yul fell back down, into the couch. He didn’t care how much it’d hurt.

He blanched.

Regret. It did hurt.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This wasn’t fair.

Dong-Yul was supposed to be the one to dole out the pain, the hurt. There was a reason why he forced himself to step up after Bruce passed. Forced himself and the gang to change. Donnie was weak, he wouldn’t have been capable of leading. Dong-Yul, though, he would.

That was the image he wanted to project. The mask he wanted to become. The dyed hair, the streetwear, the flexing, the strength.

He looked at Jackie again. He remembered how Jess and Yuri looked at him.

So, why does everyone keeping looking past all that?

Dong-Yul watched as Jackie moved, approaching him. Delicate, Jackie landed a hand on a shoulder. More stings.

Cold, like ice.

Time wasn’t the all-encompassing healer it was advertised to be. If anything, it had made everything worse.

Dong-Yul could stand, now. He had that at least. That still put him at sixty percent of what his ‘normal’ should be, and it would take even longer before he could get to that point.

The stitches made his face a little puffy, the bandages that patched his body together made him feel like a mummy. If he took a moment to rest, he was afraid that he’d drift off to another, far deeper slumber.

No. There was too much to do. He had to make up for lost time.

Dong-Yul looked across the room, and addressed the new recruits.

“Everyone, thank you for being here today, for deciding to-”

Dong-Yul coughed.

“For deciding to finally stand against those who-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook.

“Against… against those who have tried to silence us and keep us down. We will-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook. He tried to suppress a groan and he couldn’t.

He had wanted to express his frustration, he had written it all down. And he couldn’t even deliver the words with the gravitas they deserved, and he couldn’t even express the frustration he had with himself.

These over the counter knockoffs. These drugs weren’t good enough.

Whatever Styx had given him, he needed more. Couldn’t get through this assembly without them.

He would have to try, though. No other choice.

Dong-Yul tried again, his words coming out in a sputter.

“We will show… agh, show the world that we…”

He had to stop before he started shaking again. Convulsing.

“What Dong-Yul wants to say is, he appreciates you coming to us when you needed help, and we’ll be sure to make you useful.”

Dong-Yul felt hands placing themselves on his shoulder, pressing him down. Jackie.

With little energy to protest, he found the chair in front of him and sat. Falling into it, really.

He grunted as he sat down, as though he was an old man.

Looking across the room again, he gauged the reactions of the new recruits. There weren’t many in here, ten of them, but this was only the first round of the new batch. There were plenty more to go. He had wanted to address them as close to individually as he could, to make a deeper bond, to show that he cared about their struggle. It would take longer, but in turn, they’d fight for him that much harder.

There were looks of concern, worry. Maybe even pity.

No.

Dong-Yul, above anything else, knew that appearances mattered. They could be used as a symbol, to shape how others perceived it when viewed. From hope, to even fear. Dong-Yul, from his name to his face, wanted to be a symbol.

And Styx had taken that away from him.

He did what he could. He dyed his hair another color. He wore a black face mask, which was a decent fashion statement by itself. It covered most of the stitches and the puffiness around the face and cheeks. His full fit, with each individual piece of clothing a grail item to another person’s closet, covered all of the bandages and wrappings that coiled around his body. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror, a beaten, bruised version of the symbol he had in mind. Even a dent in symbols could mean a huge difference, given the abstract nature of it all. Dong-Yul wondered what the dents meant to the recruits.

“You,” he said, looking at one in particular.

The recruit tensed, Dong-Yul could tell by how his shoulders went up.

“Your name, Justin, was it?”

The recruit, Justin, nodded. A kid, no older than a high school senior, most likely. Vietnamese. Thin, more lanky than he was a soldier.

But, he’d do. He could make it work.

“What brought you here today? To me?”

Dong-Yul had to be careful to not strain himself again. He spoke slow, deliberate.

Justin answered, “Um, everything, really. Figured I had enough. Getting shit from random strangers, threats on me and my family, even my-”

Justin choked, sounding strained at the end.

“Your?” Dong-Yul offered.

Justin looked pained that he had to continue.

“My girl, or she was. Not threats, though, actions. And I’m tired of people getting away with shit.”

There it was. The wound. The thing he needed to press into to turn that hurt into something more.

Dong-Yul pressed.

“What’s her name?”

Justin flinched. He didn’t answer.

“What was your girl’s name?”

He heard Jackie, to his right. A whisper.

“What are you doing?”

Dong-Yul didn’t answer him, he just waited for his own from Justin.

Don’t make me ask again, he willed.

Then, Justin did answer.

“Emily.”

“Emily,” Dong-Yul repeated. Slow, he brought his head down, slight, almost a bow.

He wouldn’t ask for the specifics, but he would request something else.

“You remember Emily, and you hold on to that feeling of losing her. Take that loss, that anger, and you turn it to the rest of the world. Make them feel what they did to you, so they can understand their injustice. Do you understand?”

“Don- Donnie.”

Another whisper. Dong-Yul raised his hand. So sore.

“Do you understand?”

Repeating himself, but every syllable was delivered with care and intent.

He watched the gears spin in Justin’s head.

“I, yeah.”

Satisfied, Dong-Yul turned to the other recruits around him.

“Same goes to you, too. Find your Emily, let that anger fuel you, and direct it to where I point. If you can do that, then we won’t have any problems.”

The recruits, Justin included, all responded in unison.”

“Yes sir!”

“Dismissed.”

They took their leave at that last word, filing out of the door at the corner of the space.

The backroom of a bar and casino, specializing in Chinese cuisine. Jackie’s father once owned the place. Past tense.

The space was well furnished and expensive, in both price and actual appearance. Kept in a low light by paper lanterns, red and orange light reflected into soft hues off the wood and gold that lined corners and edges. A chic, modern twist on something more ceremonial, Jackie’s additions on top of what his family had built before him.

“What are you doing?” Jackie asked, as they watched the last of them leave, the door closing behind them.

Dong-Yul leaned forward, resting his arms on the table in front of him. Green, with a wooden border around it. A table for mahjong.

“You know what I’m doing. You’re just questioning it because you don’t like it.”

“Then, why?”

“I know what I’m doing. You don’t want me to touch the Fangs for now? Fine. But there’s no rule against getting more people to join us. I just won’t make a show of things. Which is why I’m introducing myself to them in this way. It’s not efficient, but it pads out enough time to get another plan going, one Styx won’t be privy to.”

“You’re an idiot if you think Styx won’t know about this. That’s why I-”

“I know ‘that’s why you,’” Dong-Yul said, mocking. “I just don’t want to hear it. I’m the leader of this gang, it’s my decision and it’s final.”

Another grumble from Jackie. And he just said that he didn’t want to hear it.

“Bruce wouldn’t have done this.”

Dong-Yul would have slammed his fists on the table, if he had the strength.

“Yes he would have. He was, before…”

He trailed off, letting the sentence die out. It reminded him of how he saw his brother go.

“Not like this. Not this aggressive.”

Dong-Yul settled for a light tap on the table.

“Bruce isn’t here. I’m just picking up the slack and running with it. Your input is appreciated, bro, but I’d rather not get another word about this from you.”

One more sound from Jackie, this time a breath. Dong-Yul knew the meaning.

For now.

The door opened before either of them could get another word in.

A fat, Vietnamese man entered. With a very visible look of dread on his face.

Dong-Yul frowned, even though he was wearing a mask.

“Sunny, what’s wrong?”

Sunny, the lead security for the bar, was a wide man, so it took until he was completely out of the doorway before Dong-Yul could see who followed him in.

A cold, prickling feeling crept up the back of his neck. Hair standing on ends. The pain of his entire body flaring up in anticipation, in fear.

No, not you. Not again.

Styx.

It was like he hadn’t changed in the week Dong-Yul saw him last. The leather jacket, the skinny jeans, all black. The wild look in his eye, like a feral animal. That anything could happen with a snap.

Dong-Yul did not, under any conceivable circumstance, want that snap.

The contrast between the two men was as wide as Sunny’s build. Where one man was built more like a ball of pure muscle, the other was more lean and cut. One was pale, the other much less so. Though, Sunny had a good reason to have much color in his face, at the moment.

Styx wasted no time in making himself comfortable.

“Man man man, I just can’t keep doing this! Always running around, always so busy!”

He slapped Sunny’s back, and Sunny leapt, yelped. Dong-Yul had never seen him be like this.

Not that he blamed him.

Styx then walked around Sunny, his finger tracing from his back to his shoulder, sliding off as he walked across the room, leaving him there, frozen. Sunny looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.

“And you, my friend, suffer from the same ailment.”

A disconcerting quiet lingered, threatening to stick around for more. Did Styx want him to respond?

“And… what is that?” Dong-Yul said, wary.

Styx smiled, baring teeth, and Dong-Yul felt a freeze run through him.

“Stubbornness.”

“Stubbornness?” Jackie repeated. His way of interjecting himself into the conversation. His way of trying to deflect Styx’s attention, his way of protecting Dong-Yul.

Dong-Yul didn’t think he’d need it. Donnie might, though.

Styx kept his eyes forward, at Donnie. Like a hawk.

“Everyone has something they’re stubborn about, a vice they can’t quit. People are… single-minded, like that. Try to tear it out of a man, and they go batshit. And if you do manage to take it away, and cut off all ways to reconnect, you get…”

Styx inhaled, deep, eyes closed, lifting his head so he was facing the ceiling, then Sunny behind him. He kept tilting his head back, until it looked like he was about to fall.

Then, he snapped.

Styx threw his head forward, like an even more hardcore version of a headbang. He exhaled, but it sounded more like a scream.

“Disorder,” Styx said, smiling.

Dong-Yul didn’t know what to make of anything.

He didn’t have any exits, Sunny was supposed to be guarding the only entrance into this room. And if Styx’s Ferrymen were right outside…

Donnie prayed for his life.

Styx tilted his head.

“You look swell,” he said, twisting that smile again.

Dong-Yul’s face throbbed.

“I saw the new boys out there. Good meat, they really hold themselves well in a fight.”

This was the absolute worst time Styx could have showed up.

Styx lifted his hands. A placating gesture.

“Relax, you already know the proper meaning of a beatdown. I’m just here to mediate.”

That didn’t answer what he did to the new recruits, and Dong-Yul was already too afraid to ask.

Dong-Yul lifted an eyebrow, instead.

“Mediate? I didn’t know you were capable of keeping the peace.”

Stupid. Wasn’t thinking.

Last time I questioned this psychopath he nearly killed me.

With his hands still raised, he shrugged.

“I’m capable of anything. I just said goodbye to solace not too long ago. Disorder.”

Styx grinned.

Any possible meaning was lost on Dong-Yul.

Styx put his hands down, looking at Sunny. Dong-Yul gave an order before Styx could force his own command.

“You can leave, Sunny, it’s okay.”

Sunny was a decent friend, a good man. Dong-Yul had never seen him move so fast.

Before he could clear out, though, he was stopped at the door by another person.

A woman.

She was well-dressed, in a suit, her blonde hair tied up into a bun. She looked more in place in a boardroom, meeting with executives, than she was being here, in a den with gangsters. She was as prim as she was proper.

Sunny jumped out of the way, letting her get through, he ran to his escape, the door closing behind him.

The woman started walking as everyone’s eyes fell on her. With an elegance and grace that also contrasted with Styx’s wild, unpredictable nature.

“I hate to be kept waiting,” the woman said, eyeing Styx as she passed him, stopping right at the front of the table.

“Take pity on a grieving old man,” Styx said.

“I’m not here to be concerned about your personal life.”

“It was both, this time. Business and personal.”

“Not my concern, Styx.”

“Ah, but in this case, it is half of it.”

“Excuse me, but who are you?”

The woman directed herself back to Dong-Yul. Adjusting several items she had in her arms, she also adjusted her glasses.

“You can call me Mrs. Carter.”

With that, Mrs. Carter took another step to the table, taking the seat across Dong-Yul. She set her belongings down. A tablet, and a binder full of documents. Styx moved as well, taking the seat to his right.

“May I?” Styx asked.

It wasn’t like he could say no. Dong-Yul nodded.

“Mahjong,” Styx said, settling in. “Been a while since I played, but my Mandarin is rusty.”

“It takes at least three to play, four is ideal,” Jackie said, still standing at Dong-Yul’s side. “And I’m not in the mood for games.”

“Same,” Mrs. Carter said, looking straight at Dong-Yul. She didn’t at all sound or look delighted to be here.

“Another game, then,” Styx offered instead, grinning.

Mrs. Carter breathed, audible for it to have meaning. She fixed her glasses.

“I’d like to start, now.”

Styx gestured. “By all means.”

Dong-Yul turned to Jackie, tilting his head, indicating towards the table.

Reluctant, he could tell, but Jackie complied. He sat.

Dong-Yul turned back to the other two.

“What’s,” he started, flinching at a sudden spike in pain. “What’s this about?”

“A lot of things,” Styx said. “About you, me, the entire city. If we want, we make this to be about the whole world.

What?

Dong-Yul couldn’t help but feel like he was being played for a fool.

“Let’s keep the focus to what’s in this room,” Mrs. Carter said, sounding tired. “And please, Styx, allow me to speak.”

“Go ahead.”

She was treating him like a unruly kid. The fact that someone could even get away with that…

Who is this woman?

Mrs. Carter finally got to speak, but she was tapping at her tablet, swiping, while addressing Dong-Yul.”

“I represent Mister, and I’m here to provide a proposal that was just recently drafted, with my input and… his.”

She glanced at Styx.

This woman represented Mister.

Excitement and fear coursed through Dong-Yul.

“Mister, and Mrs. Carter,” Jackie said, “Am I supposed to ignore a possible connection there?”

“The proposal, as it stands, is a simple one, but I find that it will prove to be a good opportunity for you and the Kung Fools.”

The way she said that name, she sounded disgusted.

Hóngshuǐ, now,” Dong-Yul said. He couldn’t help but correct her. “We’re under new management.”

“Yes. So I’ve heard.”

“So what’s this proposal then?”

Tapping the tablet one more time, Mrs. Carter moved her attention over to the binder, turning it around and sliding it across the table. Dong-Yul caught it.

Opening it, he skimmed through the documents. Plain English, but with the sudden arrival of Styx, this woman, the mention of Mister, and the general amount of pain and stress he was under, it was hard to focus on any particular word and its meaning.

“Explain the general idea,” Dong-Yul said. He lifted his eyes to meet Mrs. Carter’s glasses. A glare had caught the lenses. “Please.”

“Mister is offering to back you in the growth and general operation of your gang, Hóngshuǐ.”

Stunned. Dong-Yul and Jackie exchanged looks.

“Mister?” Dong-Yul repeated.

“In exchange for your resources and capabilities, you will work for him.”

“Congratulations,” Styx said. “You want a sponsor? You can’t ask for a better one.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t believe a word they were saying. Not because he thought they were lying. Styx’s presence, in a way, officiated the offer. He wasn’t sure about Mrs. Carter, but she seemed serious enough.

“Can’t say the offer intrigues me.” Dong-Yul looked from Styx, then back to the papers in the binder. “Though, I wonder how much room I have in this deal. Is there even an option to refuse?”

“You can, though it would make this your second biggest mistake.”

“Second?”

“The first was refusing to listen to me the first time.”

Styx grinned, and Dong-Yul understood. He had no room, unless he wanted to reopen stitches and break more skin.

“Okay,” Dong-Yul said. “What’re the particulars of this… sponsorship?”

Mrs. Carter swiped at her tablet again.

“You have recently been reaping the benefits of the political uproar in the city, the increased violence against Asian Americans have brought many of their youth to you, either for protection or willingness to strike back against those that wronged them through no fault of their own. Your numbers have swelled, and continues to swell, which is always impressive, but it isn’t sustainable.”

“No?”

“It isn’t. How do you expect to pay all your new people, or provide the protection, the reason they joined in the first place? You had a decent sized territory before, but it won’t be enough to properly accommodate everybody. You would need growth in those other departments in order to catch up, but, I suspect you haven’t been growing fast enough?”

She was right. For a time since the first wave of new recruits, Dong-Yul had a worry in the back of his mind, on how he’d take care of everyone that went to him. They hadn’t been hurting before, save for the loss of Bruce, but they had never been making much in the way of waves under his tutelage, and when the tides started to turn and rise, Dong-Yul had to cut some corners where he could, like shaking hands with Lawrence, while hiding a knife behind his back with the other.

But, that wouldn’t be sufficient enough. The logistics weren’t there. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t provide for everyone. People like Justin.

“And you’re saying that Mister will give me that growth in those departments?”

“He is able and willing,” Mrs. Carter said. “Warehouses, equipment, cars. Weapons. We still have plenty thanks to an acquisition made last year, in the fall.”

“The wheels turn and turn,” Styx said.

“Mister will invest in your proper growth,” Mrs. Carter said. “Giving you assets to turn you into a better one.”

Dong-Yul flipped through another page, the words hardly registering to him. What he read, what he heard.

“Why?” he questioned. “Why the sudden interest?”

Too good to be true.

“That’s not for me to say. I wouldn’t delve into the particulars, in that regard. Accept the terms, and let him round out the edges for you.”

“May I meet him, ask him myself?”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter answered a touch too quickly.

Dong-Yul closed the book. He looked up at the woman.

“What’s the catch, then?”

He knew there had to be one.

Mrs. Carter took her time in answering.

“It’s spelled out in more detail in that binder, but, in accepting the vested interest of Mister, you will have to put a freeze in any and all movements toward enacting a retaliation against the forces that brought you those swelled numbers in the first place.”

Her wording made Dong-Yul take a moment to parse everything. He didn’t get what she meant at first.

Jackie caught on a second before he could.

“You want us to stop building our army.”

Dong-Yul tapped the table, his body flaring up again. Pain.

“No,” Mrs. Carter said. “The opposite, in fact. As it stands, Hóngshuǐ is an asset, one Mister would like to put in his pocket for the future. He would just like if you didn’t dry yourself up before that time comes.”

There. The catch. Dong-Yul knew there’d be one.

“You want me to sell my revolution?”

It was Mrs. Carter’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Just don’t cause any fires where we don’t need them.”

“Not fires, a tsunami. Because you know that it’s going to flood, hard, and you want to buy as much property as you can so you can claim the insurance.”

The woman smiled. Pity again. If Dong-Yul had the strength, he’d tear her lips off her face.

“I assure you that will not be the case. It’s a simple stipulation.”

Dong-Yul was done.

“Then I refuse Mister’s sponsorship.”

“Donnie-”

“No, no Jackie. These people, they don’t understand why I’m doing this, and I don’t think you even know, now. Every goddamn day, I get stories from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese people telling me all the shit they go through now because of a select few.”

The select few. Harrian Wong. Blank Face, V. Wendy.

Dong-Yul continued, saying, “They’re tired, Mrs. Carter, Styx, there’s a restless undercurrent that’s bubbling, and it won’t be long before things overtake. I’m not sorry Styx, but I’m ready to accept the consequences of my second biggest mistake.”

Styx lifted himself, brief, to adjust his chair to better face Dong-Yul. For a second, his heart leapt, thinking that Styx was about to snap.

He didn’t.

“Hate to break it to you, buddy, but this revolution of yours? It was never going to work. Not really.”

Dong-Yul stared at him, hard.

“You and Bruce, Jackie, Justin. You all have your differences, your different cultures that define you. And they’re very well defined and unique in their own way. And each of you, I know, take pride in that.”

Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese.

“Your point,” Dong-Yul said.

“Maybe you band together on this one thing, the pressure from the other, because they all think you all look the same, that those differences aren’t there. Say you do win, this war of yours goes the way you want. Then what? Do you truly think you’ll stay as one group forever? All of you know you really aren’t, there is no amalgamation. Eventually, those differences become borders, and your sovereign nation becomes split.”

Dong-Yul breathed, measured.

Asian people and cultures weren’t one entity, it didn’t work like that. It was tricky. Dong-Yul knew that, recognized it. But, he didn’t like hearing it being spelled out for him. Having Styx poke holes, enough that it might make the whole plan sink.

“Take it from me,” Styx said, in a tone that Dong-Yul had never heard before. A normal one. “You all still have your identity. For me? This country took away mine when my ancestors were taken here on ships. I never got to learn about my tribe. That’s why I had to go make my own.”

Dong-Yul hesitated to answer, unsure what to make of anything, at this point.

“You’re building something with them, together, and there’s something to be said about that accomplishment. Just keep in mind that you’re not going to last if you get to where you want with this. Take this sponsorship, and you’re in the big leagues, you’re at the table. Your people get taken care of, and you can continue to grow and help them, too. All we’re asking, is to temper things in exchange, throw some water on the fire.”

Then, Styx shrugged.

“And, when the time comes, and it will, I will personally give you oil.”

Dong-Yul started shaking his head.

“It’s not a bad deal, Donnie,” Jackie said.

“Why? What’s Mister planning?” Dong-Yul asked. “Why does he want us?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter answered. “To be honest, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him for as long as I have, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources. People.”

“He wants to use my army,” Dong-Yul said. “Why? Is it because of V?”

The quiet that followed said so much. So did Styx’s grin.

“She was there. At the club. You, ow, remember, right?”

“I do.”

“Why didn’t you do anything then?”

Styx’s grin went wider. Wilder.

“I did, actually, right after I had you removed from the scene. You aren’t the only cog in this machine.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had a laugh.”

Cryptic. Which was normal for the psychopathic biker.

“I know her name.”

Dong-Yul said it like a threat.

The statement felt like pulling out a gun, a way to escalate. As if he needed leverage to use.

Styx’s expression became more neutral.

“About that,” Mrs. Carter said. “That would be part of the deal we offer. Whatever you think you know, don’t act on it, because it’s the same thing as you going forward with your quote unquote ‘war.’ We don’t need any more trouble, and especially any more with her at the root of it. In summary, you are not to approach V or the Fangs until explicitly ordered by Mister.”

Styx winked at Dong-Yul.

Even though we still have a score to settle.

It was neither a confirmation or denial. Dong-Yul still felt like he was onto something, though.

Again, he exchanged looks with Jackie. His stomach turned.

Almost everything he wanted. Recognition, power, a seat at the table, and a way to prove that he had surpassed his late older brother. But, at the same time, it didn’t feel right, it felt too easy. Cheap. Like he was selling out.

Proof, but not on his terms. A way to ride the wave up, but not his own current.

But, could he really refuse?

“Fine,” Dong-Yul said, “I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It seemed genuine. “Swell. Then, my work here is done.”

She scooped up her tablet, then got up, fast, and proceeded to cross the room.

“I’ll leave that with you,” Mrs. Carter said, referring to the binder. “I’ll be in touch. Styx or one his Ferrymen will monitor you to make sure you keep your end of the deal.”

“I can do it myself,” Styx said. “Consider it a personal favor.”

“That’s your choice.”

With those words, Mrs. Carter left the room. She was gone.

Styx then rose to stand, but he was slower, more relaxed.

“Ah, finally, I hate meetings. So much busywork.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t find any words. He needed to process this, how he was going to move forward from here. Now that his main goal was officially put on ice.

He heard a crinkling of plastic, and a rattling that fell onto the table.

Looking up, he saw that Styx had tossed a bag. Plastic, transparent.

Bottles atop bottles of pills.

“Consider this a welcoming gift,” Styx said. “Strong shit, I take it you’ll need it as you recover, you’re not quite there yet.”

No thanks to you. Asshole.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I was just feeling it, is all.”

Styx spoke as if he had heard those thoughts. “But there’s plenty more where that came from, if you behave.”

Giving a salute, Styx started to turn, heading out. With his handle on the door, he spoke one more time.

“Bruce would have wet himself, he’d be so proud of you. So don’t screw this up. No need to be stubborn.”

“안녕,” Styx then said, in perfect Hangul, and with a twisted, ugly, cackle, Styx left the room. The sound seemed to echo in Dong-Yul’s head as he stared at the pills. The pain of everything stacked against his body and mind. His spirit.

The pills looked appetizing.

“Hey, Donnie,” Jackie said, after what felt like ten minutes. It probably was. “You okay?”

The question was too easy, the answer obvious.

Donnie was weak, his whole life was spent being protected by the likes of Bruce and Jackie. And the one time Bruce actually needed him, he wasn’t there to protect his older brother. Now, he was gone.

Dong-Yul wasn’t supposed to be weak, he was supposed to be the older brother for everyone else. To look after those that came to him, in these troubled and confusing times. Protect them, teach them to fight for themselves, and hope they’d learn, like how his older brother did before him.

And now, backed into a corner, beaten and bruised and bloodied and scared, he had to take those promises away. He didn’t have the strength to fight back. Not for himself, not for them.

The answer was obvious, the question too easy. No need to say it, hear it out loud.

His eyes were still on the pills.

“Get me some water,” Donnie said.

Previous                                                                                               Next

086 – Dead End

Previous                                                                                               Next

This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group

Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything from the list was checked off

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing

And what was I, in all of this? The antivirus? Then, what was Solace, a developed resistance

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson

Solace was Benny.

She had to be

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.

Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.

I blinked away tears, feeling water seep into my mask. Stinging. Hurting.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. But, I really couldn’t believe much of anything, anymore.

This man, Remus, Victor… he was Solace this whole time.

Him. That man over there. Him.

Shaking, trembling, I tried for a motion of my volition and I couldn’t.

Couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I was reduced to the very concept of struggling.

So many memories and connections were hitting me, all at once. Moments, flashes and glimpses of another life. Small, brief pieces of a larger picture, but they came at me as surge, overwhelming me. I was losing myself to the sheer amount and intensity of the torrent of emotions, drowning in it. That I was becoming undone, my very self being washed away, with another self being exhumed. Another, older mask.

I am Wendy, I am V. Me. My name is my name. Me. Wendy. I. Me.

It took all I had, all that I had left, to keep myself together.

I fought against the struggling, pushing back, standing my ground. I wouldn’t let myself unravel because of this, I wouldn’t let it be so easy.

I moved my hands, putting them up to my head. It was almost a natural instinct to just start wailing, letting everything out until my body had become a hollow husk. Skin, ready to be worn by another creature.

As if I was bottling up the bubbling, frenzied emotion, my hands clenched into fists, pulling at my hood. My legs drew towards my body, knees close to my chest. My jaw was set, hard, teeth clattering so hard they were cracking and aligning themselves back into place.

Barely restrained words were thrust between my teeth.

“You’re… lying. Shut up. That isn’t him, that isn’t Solace.”

I got an answer before I could steel myself for one.

“Why don’t you ask the man himself?”

Thrown back at me, forced to confront the issue myself. To face my demon that had haunted me… us. He was in the flesh. He was right there.

My hands went to my face, over my eyes. I peeked between the gap between my fingers. Fear was what had me moving in increments, sad, pathetic twitches.

One look was all I needed.

He was had that expression, that grin that now made me sick to my stomach. His lips were curled upward, more towards a sneer, with enough teeth showing to make it all the more biting. His hands were up, over his head, but still managed to come off as relaxed. When he was just as much a captive as I was, or the rest of the passengers, he was sitting, legs crossed, hunched over, next to no tension being displayed in his posture. He was fine.

He was Solace.

“You look like you have your answer right there,” Solace said. His grin grew wider.

It didn’t make me feel any better.

My body started to rock, and it took a while before I realized that it wasn’t me.

Sarah. She was still holding me, tighter than before, wrapping me deeper into her embrace. It was warm, comforting in a way that I couldn’t properly articulate or even understand. But it was useless to even try. Pointless. I didn’t even want to get it.

She shifted her grip, so her hands were resting against mine, fingers interlocking between the gaps I was peeking through. I felt her squeeze, pulling a bit, easing up where there was some resistance. Pulling again when there was more pull to be found. Inch by inch.

It took some doing, but Sarah was able to get me to move my hands away from my face, pulling them down and away, until they were in my placed into my lap. Settling them there, she locked her fingers again with mine, firm. I couldn’t move them unless I applied strength that I couldn’t find, not internally.

It was still bad, and it wasn’t really any better, but I wasn’t worse. I could feel my breathing ease up, and the shaking and trembling not as painful.

I was still in that state of being, just… lesser. Just enough for me to come to grips with everything. Myself.

It was like cold water to the face.

I shifted around, extending my arms and legs, taking back control of my body, as much as I was able, at least. Sarah relented, letting me go.

Leaning forward, I got myself into an upright position, leaning more so I didn’t have to rely on Sarah.

I was sitting, now, in the dirt. Slouching, but I was being supported by my own body. My own power. I was very aware of the others that were around us that had been watching, maybe even judging. Alessa, her animals, my passengers, Sarah, Tone, Isabella… him, but I didn’t really care. Well, a tiny, shriveled up part of me did, but it wasn’t like I had the will to act on it. Not really.

Still bad, not really better, but not worse.

I lifted my head, heavy, and I made eye contact with Solace again. His expression remained. So did mine.

You.

“It… really is you,” I said, sounding hoarse.

“Was it ever going to be anyone else at this point? I wouldn’t say I believe in destiny, but I do think there are reasons for why things come to be. Like this, like now.”

“And what are those reasons?” I asked.

Solace glanced at Alessa.

“Not sure if it’s within my ability to say more, right now. My arms are getting tired, by the way.”

He still had his arms up.

Alessa crossed hers, glaring at Solace.

“Good. Keep them there, I don’t care how tired you get.”

Solace frowned. “Can’t keep them there forever.”

“Then my men will shoot you the second your hands get lower than your head.”

“Harsh.”

This… was all so wrong. Solace was here, the remaining minutes of his life determined by how long he could maintain that pose, but he didn’t appear stressed in the slightest. Alessa even seemed somewhat spirtless in how she was handling this situation, despite her threat of death, and despite the amount of damage Solace and I had brought onto this town-

Oh fuck, fuck me.

Solace and I worked together. He was the one to help me, when I needed it most.

The realization of that was like a punch to the stomach, making it harder to keep bottled emotions down. I was so ready to explode.

Kill him, kill him.

“I…” I started. I noted everyone’s gaze fall back on me.

“I don’t understand, any of this.”

I admitted it for a third time.

But, after hearing myself say it out loud, in three different instances… it was almost liberating. That I was no longer beholden to standards that were constantly being raised and escalated, and that, for this one moment, I didn’t have to keep trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, I didn’t even have to catch up. I was already behind, I had already lost.

Though, I didn’t give up, getting here. I fought, I tried, but I still ended up here. Despite my best efforts, given the circumstances, I had come up short. El Paso was still so far away.

So now, I was done, maybe even done for. What next?

I could laugh.

“If it’s any consolation to you, Bluemoon, I’m a bit lost as well,” Alessa said. “I’m not fond of uninvited guests, especially when they come in and begin to make a mess of things. It’s just rude.”

“Oh yeah? But I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Alessa turned back to Solace.

“This place is a home for many, and it’s also a place for prayer. This is sacred ground, Vic.”

Solace scoffed, “Oh, fuck off with the act, Alma. You don’t have to play it up because you have other guests around. It’s me. Cut the crap.”

“It’s my town, my circle, and you are within its influence. You, too, will abide by the rules I have set, or would you like your sacrifice to come early?”

Solace shrugged, grunting as he did so.

“You, agh, haven’t given me much time to abide by those rules, anyway.”

He wagged a finger, hands still above his head.

“Harsh,” he said again.

I caught a passing glance from Alessa. She grinned.

I could vomit.

I threw up something else, instead.

“How do you two know each other?”

The question came out of me like a reflex. Getting info like an addiction, a thirst that needed to be quenched. It couldn’t be helped.

Then, it was Alessa’s and Solace’s turned to share a look, seconds passing, and then some, as if one was waiting for the other to provide the answer. It was such a small moment, but I had never felt so disconnected, so out of the loop, than in those extra seconds. I had never felt so consciously other.

Alessa was the one to speak, because of course. She was the only with any real power, here.

“I don’t know Victor, really. It’s more accurate to say that I’m familiar with his work. I used to hold some territory in Stephenville. An expansive section on the south side. But that was years ago, well over a decade by now. Wow, time flies.”

“It does,” Solace said, interjecting. “Inez is still holding things up pretty well. But I’m not surprised about that anymore.”

“As am I. We keep in touch.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Stop it stop it stop it.

More memories and connections were leaking in, drip-fed between cracks in broken pipes. Fuzzy television screens, distorted voices. Proxies, coded language and doublethink. Solace had been built up to be a very specific entity in my head, in her head. Always at distance to taunt, provoke, then slip back into the shadows, staying right out of our grasp. No matter our efforts, we couldn’t catch him. Solace had ceased activities, but only because he chose to stop, it seemed like.

But now, in broad daylight, the man himself was present, sitting there before me, captured as well. Nowhere to run or hide.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

Putting a face to the name, and even a voice, it further distorted the image I had of Solace. Now he was a person, talking with others, having worked with me, he was familiar.

I felt more ill.

Options. Did I have any? Not really. I was down, in every sense, and if I tried to get back up I’d just get shot back down. It wouldn’t even be hard for them. And it wasn’t just me. Sarah, Tone, Isabella, the rest… they were here, too, and they weren’t any better off. The threat wasn’t implicit, I knew what would happen if I, or anyone, tried anything. There was no clean way of getting out of this. I had failed in my end of the deal, in saving them.

Nothing I could do now.

“How would you have known that he was Solace?”

I asked another question. Grasping for straws, gasping for air.

“For a captive, you are awfully chatty,” Alessa said. “Like I mentioned, I’ve kept an ear to the streets in Stephenville, and I’m familiar with this man’s work. Well, his work and Styx’s. Build up a framework, and then use it as a playground. Like the web of a spider, feasting on whoever gets trapped in its bindings. And it seems like you were but another bug, Bluemoon.”

“Please, Alma, you’re more than familiar, you’ve practically lifted my framework wholesale for this place. I will say that I’m impressed by the implementation, not so much the… execution, to put a word to it.”

“I thought Mister was supposed to be the metaphorical spider,” I said. I thought back to how Benny explained things to me. Another memory, but at least that one was mine.

Solace faced me. “It’s the general idea she was going for. Metaphors can be tricky like that.”

My eye caught a twitch in the corner of his lip, and I could guess what direction it would curl. I blinked, timing it so I wouldn’t have to see that expression again. I kept my eyes closed for an extra second, just to be sure.

“If we want to make it trickier, you could say that I’m in the business of selling webs to spiders.”

I blinked again.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Styx had a hand in how Stephenville’s underground developed. Styx’s gang was one of the oldest, able to take advantage of the groups and cartels that started coming in after the failed manufacturing boom left behind a gutted industry and plenty of empty factories, warehouses, and the accompanying equipment, having a say in who got what and where they’d set up shop, setting in the place the systems that would shape the city into what it was today. At least, that was the story Hleuco, D, and Benny gave me, the commonly known beginnings of Mister’s criminal empire.

What was kept secret, then, was that he had help. Or at least, he was working from someone else’s notes.

And Alessa used those same notes to make Fuckington.

I was beginning to understand, but I didn’t like what was coming together.

“But that doesn’t-” I started.

“Enough.”

All eyes were back on Alessa.

“This might be the time, but this isn’t the place for questioning. I’ve got people to move and buildings to inspect. Can’t sit out here forever.”

She gestured, and the animals moved, the circle breaking a bit to prod us along, as if we were the cattle.

I sensed movement, watching as the people around me were forced into smaller, tighter groups. I saw Sarah pass, pushed into a separate group from Tone, Isabella separated from everyone else. I heard the panicked and hushed whispers, glimmers going out one by one as people realized they were being shuffled around again. Going through the same song and dance, their lives in the hands of others. Another gamble.

I was still on the ground, so was Solace. They hadn’t touched us yet.

Please,” I said, pleading, noticing just how frail I sounded, “Leave these people alone, let them leave. You can take him… me, if you really want to, but they need to go to-”

Alessa cut me off.

“El Paso, right? You don’t think I haven’t caught on to that? It’s all anyone wants to say to me. El Paso this, El Paso that, ‘please let us go I want to see my family again.’ Are you transporting people or broken records?”

Solace let out a dry laugh. My emotions bubbled again.

Alessa looked over the animals at her side. The horsemen. She tilted her head, and they got moving. To us.

“Don’t you worry. I have something planned you, him. Everyone. It might even work in your favor.”

A horseman went around me, to my back, and I felt hands on the back of my jacket. He pulled up, and I got to my feet. I could have thrown him off like getting dust off my shoulder, but it wasn’t just my life at stake, here. There were up to a hundred others, the real headcount just shy of that number, probably.

I thought of Olivia and her family.

Another horseman went over to Solace, grabbing him.

“Tie his hands together,” Alessa instructed, “His arms stay over his head.”

Solace grinned, and I saw it, but I noticed some strain in his expression.

“Harsh as ever,” he said.

The horsemen pushed us forward, so we were right in front of Alessa. She gave us hard, threatening looks before turning around and walking.

One more push, and we had to follow. People were being sent in direction differents, and it didn’t take long more me to notice that we were being led away from everyone else.

“What is this, where are you taking us?”

Alessa answered. “I can’t exactly have this proceeding go on like this, out in the open, we’ll have to move this to a more appropriate forum.”

“I don’t… What do you mean?”

Alessa raised her head, half-turning to look at me. She… grinned.

“We will gather a congregation, and we will gather at the facts as they are presented, and from there, we will lay out a sentence. Long, or short. Today is judgement day.”

The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda

I was still up. I was still doing this.

I could hardly recall that last few minutes leading up to being here. Stuffed into vehicles, the sunlight being cut by the roof over my head, and then I went dark. It wasn’t until natural light broke past my eyelids, and heavy hands shoved without care or cautious, stirring me awake and alert.

I had shaken myself up, scatterbrained and rattled at the sudden movements. I could recall jitters and twitches, but that was from me, and I was still exhibiting them now.

It was cold.

Taking a quick look around, it looked like I had been taken into the middle of an arena, at the bottom of a pit with others watching from above. From humans to horses to pigs to wolves and vultures. There were several levels to it, rings of eyes staring down at me.

I looked away.

More eyes here, too, on the ground level. But, I wasn’t exactly in a position to avoid these gazes.

Alessa was facing us, a distance away, with her usual horsemen by her side. She stood, robes flowing, hood raised, imposing in her presence, not so much watching as she was overseeing. It seemed like she had modes, going from a cartel leader she really was, to the cult leader she was trying to come off as.

She was in the latter mode, for this part.

Alessa spread her arms, wide, addressing everyone here, in this expansive space.

“Wise ones, I have gathered you all today to the town hall for this congregation, because, in our presence, we have two transgressors who have tried to lay waste to our bountiful and holy land. Their breach into our borders has caused near irreparable damage to our property, and more egregiously, has harmed others from our congregation. This cannot stand.”

The gathered congregation cheered, the voices amplified by the acoustics of the room, bouncing and making it stack and echo. The noise was ringing in my ear, disorienting me even more.

I wanted to throw my own voice into the mix, to scream that it was because of them, that we were here. But, my throat was burning, my will was weak, and my hands were tied. I was well aware of the heavy piece that pressed against my lower back. Enough to tear me to shreds.

Maybe I could push him off and make a run for it, but what good would that do? I was surrounded, and stuck in the middle of a foreign, almost alien town. There was nothing holy about this place. I wouldn’t make it three steps before I’d find myself in a worse position than this, or dead. And even if I survived to make the fourth step, I might not make it, anyways. Not me, not V.

I stayed still.

Alessa raised her arms higher, hands open, then closed, and silence took over. The last bit of sound echoed out, before fading away.

“Bring the sinners forward,” she commanded.

The gun dug into the small of my back, jabbing me. I winced, but I took a step, then another as the force from behind kept pushing.

I saw something come up from my right, the corner of my vision. I turned to look, letting whoever was handling me guide me forward.

It was Solace.

Being guided by animals as well, shoved to get closer to Alessa. His hands were also tied, but they were resting on the top of his head, still forced to maintain that position. He was staggering, and he would have fallen over if there wasn’t three wolves making sure that he didn’t. I’d imagine the same amount of security was placed on me, or more, most likely.

One of the wolves reached out and grabbed Solace’s shoulder, firm, stopping him in place. After another jab from behind, I was in step with him, too.

Another wolf had a gun to his head. It was just a pistol. I could sense that they had something much heavier for me.

Ha. Being pinned by a canine. The imagery wasn’t lost on me.

When we were in place, Alessa dropped her arms to her side, and looked at us directly. When she spoke, she spoke for us.

“This proceeding will be a simple one. I will ask the questions, and you will answer with the truth as you know it. From there, I will determine your sentence, whether it be a long or short one. My congregates above may provide their own input, but my word is final. I’ll try to make this quick, since I have other business to attend to, no thanks to you two.”

“It was my pleasure,” Solace said.

“Yes,” Alessa said. She held onto that last word for so long it somehow rang out as menacing. “It would be in your favor to abide by these standards, do you understand?”

“Of course,” Solace said. I blinked and looked at Alessa.

“I do,” I said, meaning it. For this one moment, I understood completely.

I was fucked.

If the previous conversation between Alessa and Solace was anything to go by, they were already familiar with each other. Alessa would have little reason to throw Solace under the bus in exchange for me, the only active person with powers on the planet. If anything, they’d conspire to take me out. It was Solace’s plan from the beginning, why wouldn’t he jump at another chance to accomplish that?

The chance that I would leave this town alive… they weren’t in my favor at all.

I understood that, now.

Alessa spoke, having taken in our responses. “Smart. Now, oh, before I begin, I’m not sure about you, Bluemoon, but I won’t take any chances with him around.”

“It’s not like I can do much now,” Solace said. “You got me with my pants down, fair and square. I’m completely vulnerable.”

“And thank you for that mental image,” Alessa replied. “But, no. As much as I’d like for this to conclude already, I won’t let myself slip up. Right now I’m wired up, on a call with others of my group with the rest of yours.”

Alessa pointed to me, then continued her explanation. “With just one word, or if our line to each other gets disconnected, they open fire, and the proceeding ends, just like that.”

She snapped her fingers at that last word, punctuating them.

“And we will go see what remains of them, together.”

Dry vocal cords scraped against each other. It hurt.

I nodded, slow.

Alessa took her time with her next move. She drew out the moment, and the anticipation pushed me closer to the edge than her animals ever did.

“Again,” Alessa said, the one word sounding like a warning. “I’d rather not play this safe. Just to make sure you understand my words.”

She lifted a hand, and snapped her fingers again. More movement.

They came around from behind her. A wide corridor on the other side.

Horses, pigs, and goats. It was like a reverse herd. The animals leading the people.

Sarah and Tone… and Isabella.

They were being sent into the rotunda, the courtroom, but they instructed to stand at the sidelines. Not at the center like me or Solace. They were being made to witness.

“This is how you’ll know I’m serious, Bluemoon. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these two are a core part of your team, and this operation. Let me make this incredibly clear. You try anything, and I get more dolls to hang outside for the rain.”

My gaze was stuck them the whole time Alessa talked, her voice in the distance. Sarah. I hadn’t noticed how disheveled her appearance was before, her clothes dirty and wrinkled, having been pushed around for the better part of the day. Her hair was a mess, parts of it covering her face, making it hard for me to see her whole face, but I didn’t miss that scowl. So bad, did I want to run over to her and fix her hair, be close to her. Tone, from a glance, had gone through a worse hell, with the nicks and cuts, and one going from the forehead to the the temple, dried blood caked and smeared down his face. His hands were placed in front of him, his expression stoic. I couldn’t gauge it from where I was, but it looked as if one eye could be swollen, too. Would he even be able to drive?

Isabella, though, hadn’t been touched. That was a relief to see. Staring daggers at Alessa and Solace, playing with her hair.

Tone, Sarah, and Isabella. Their lives were being dangled in front of me, yet again.

“Don’t… touch them,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Don’t give me a reason to.”

Fuck this, and fuck Alessa. She had effectively gutted me, then pulled me at my arms and legs until I was split, torn down the middle. Here, in this moment, I was powerless.

Fuck me.

Then, Alessa brought her arms up and together, clasping them. The sleeves of her robes flowed with the motions.

“Now, let us begin,” she said. Above, the animals roared again.

Fucking finally, I thought. I didn’t know that I’d be so ready for the end to come. And now, it was near.

As easy as it was for them to get riled up, Alessa was able to cut them off with another motion, her arms spread.

“Victor,” Alessa said, turning to the person in question. “Or Solace, as better known to the opposing party. I know of you, but the congregation does not. Please explain your position and the accompanying duties.”

Solace tried to straighten himself, but the awkward position he was forced into, and the heavy hand that held him made that attempt futile. He settled for a slouch.

“Well, if you want to be accurate, I don’t have much of a position now. I’m retired. Though, I suppose creatives can’t keep themselves out of the game for long.”

He made a face like he thought what he said was funny.

“Okay. Second question. Why-”

“That’s it?”

Hundreds of pairs of eyes fell on me.

If I could move, I would have kicked myself for interrupting. But I knew that this was a game of sorts, and I’d have to play in order to win. Alessa didn’t say this was against the rules, though.

Silence for several more seconds. Was Alessa letting it be my turn?

I had to take it.

“He didn’t even answer the question properly,” I said, explaining myself.

“I will get the final say in what is ‘proper,’” Alessa answered. “I gave my question, he chose to answer it in that way. That is how he decided to represent himself in this proceeding. Unless he would like to elaborate?”

“I’m quite satisfied by my answer,” Solace said.

“There. That was two questions, so I’d like to direct things to you, Bluemoon.”

From bubbling up to boiling. My blood burned.

Dammit. Solace was treating this as a game, too. He knew I couldn’t help but get any details out of him, now that we were physically in the same room. Playing it so I wouldn’t pick up anything. And with how Alessa was conducting this hearing, it didn’t leave me with much of an advantage. It was probably intentional. To screw me over.

Even now, when he was right there, he still found a way to stay out of my reach.

Fuck this, fuck Alessa, and fuck Solace, now, too.

Teeth clattered and cracked.

“The first question will be of a similar vein. Please provide me and the congregation a better picture of who you are, and your position.”

No choice. Had to play this one straight.

I answered.

“I am V, publically known as the Bluemoon, but at that time, I was actually operating under the name Blank Face.”

It sucked, that I had to attach those names as being a part of me, in order to properly answer the question. It wasn’t exactly the truth as I knew it.

I continued.

“Now, though, I’m a leader of Los Colmillos, or the Fangs, a reformed splinter group of El Carruaje. The Chariot. If it wasn’t obvious by now, we’re based in Stephenville.”

I felt that there was more I could have delved into, elaborated on, but anyone could just read a recent headline for that. It was the other stuff, the specifics on what I was, that I was still in the dark on. Information I didn’t have…

Information I was putting off.

A distraction.

I bit my tongue.

“Second question. Why have you come here?”

“I wasn’t my intention to come here. I was on another job, overseeing a transport to El Paso. One hundred and three people. Due to a… complication, earlier in the day, I had gotten split up from the transport. I… tracked a signal, and it lead us here. And then you and your cult attacked us. And here we are. If it was up to me, I would have never known about this town and its stupid name.”

Alessa visibly reacted, like I had slapped her in the face. If I really did, her head would be sent clean off its body.

She directed herself back to Solace, instead.

“Third question, which was originally going to be my second. I think I can venture a guess, but I would like to hear it from your mouth. Why did Styx send you here?”

Styx. He did have a hand in this.

At least it was a question I would have asked, myself. The real question was if Solace was going to answer it properly.

“Bringing him into this? Alright, I’ll play ball. I was getting ready to leave Stephenville, it’s easier to keep your head down in a country where the authorities aren’t actively hunting for you, after all. I was commissioned, did my job to the best of my ability, achieved satisfactory results, and it was time for me leave. But, before I would leave the country, Styx asked me one last favor. To pay you a visit. Oh, and he did say hi, by the way. Before I forget for good.”

“Elaborate.”

Not a question, but a command.

“Styx has been keeping an eye on you and your commune for some time. You may be a separate element, but things have a funny way of spiraling out of control, sometimes. A new paradigm shift is coming to Stephenville, and Styx wanted to see to it that you aren’t a part of that, remaining separate.”

Alessa glared.

“And apparently, that involved attempting to crush me and my people under my own building. You would have been better off leaving me alone. Now I’m tempted to retaliate in some way.”

Solace’s arms were raised over his head, but he shrugged.

“The plan was admittedly slapped together, suggested on a whim. Styx finally found a way to send me off with a bang. He always wanted to.”

I didn’t like how Solace looked at me as he said that.

“Two birds, one bomb and a malfunctioning boiler room. I had all the pieces, all I needed was a way to put it together. Program a application that sends out a rather enticing signal, lure you out to my location, and have your congregation take back the truck you find at those coordinates.”

Solace grinned. I winced.

He was trying to get me killed too, to die under the crumbling mess hall, except the building didn’t quite fall apart, and people managed to evacuate, save some who got injured or shot during my assault.

But, that was why Remus was so vague on the details of the plan, why he wanted me out of the boiling room and into that fire. He was trying to cast me into it. Because he was Solace, and that was his goal ever since he introduced himself at that party, all those months ago. It hadn’t changed.

And I helped him in that.

More and more boil.

Alessa spoke to that.

“You failed, Victor. Now I’m tempted to go back to Stephenville for more than just to visit family. My next, and then my final question. What’s happening in the city that Styx doesn’t want me to be a part of? And why did you do such a terrible job in trying to kill me? It’s not fair to me, nor is it fair to Styx.”

Solace did that half-shrug again, and with how silent he was in the minute that followed, I was afraid that would be all that he’d offer.

Then, he grinned and offered more.

“Styx asked me to play it loose, to be free for one, final time. He’d work with whatever the outcome was, here. If it all went well, or if it all went wrong. He was ready to push.”

“You didn’t answer the other question,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough,” Solace said. “You won’t need me to answer that.”

Damn him.

I tried to speak, but I coughed instead. “So, this all was just a big joke?”

“Setup for the punchline,” Solace said.

That must have pissed off the congregation, too, because they erupted again. Howling and squealing. Clamoring for his death. On the inside, I was right there with them.

“Enough!”

Back to silence. Like flipping a switch.

Alessa took back control of the room.

“I’ve heard enough. V, you asked a question of your own, so I will count that as you forfeiting your turn. The proceeding has concluded.”

What.

No, no way.

“Hey,” I started. I felt resistance, someone holding me back. “That’s not fair, you can’t just change the rules and-”

Alessa threw her hand up to my face, her middle finger and thumbs touching. Ready to snap.

I didn’t say another word.

Alessa brought her hand back down, relaxing. She pulled back.

“It’s now time for the sentencing hearing. I’ve heard everything, and taking circumstances into consideration. There are only two possible sentences. Long, or short. Exile, or death.”

The congregation cheered again. But they knew to stop before Alessa spoke again. They were already intune with her timing.

This was it, the verdict. Alessa and Solace were both playing this game against me, cutting off questions and accepting half-answers. I was never going to be able to explain myself, or argue to let us go. They were out to kill me from the start.

Alessa opened her mouth, and I was sweating through my mask. I realized that I still had it on.

Her voice echoed throughout the rotunda.

“For the Bluemoon, the sentence is exile. And for Solace, the sentence is death.”

People moved, animals cheered, and I was somewhere else entirely. My headspace.

Sounds and images faded and murky shapes swam over my eyes, distorted voices stuffed my ears, until I was in a daze, confused. So… so tired.

Stunned.

When those sounds and images crystallized again, my brain catching back up, I saw myself standing over a man. Solace, down on his knees, hands tied together over his head. As for my hands, they were untied, but a heavy piece sat in my palms.

Still in the rotunda, still in town hall, the ‘courtroom.’

Still up, still doing this. Still alive.

So dizzy.

“Do you understand?”

“I… don’t,” I admitted.

Minutes passed, and it was quiet yet again.

Alma repeated herself, the sound crystal clear.

“Your sentence is to be exiled, to leave this place and never come back again. His is death, by execution. I have decided to offer you and everyone you are responsible for a guaranteed, safe passage out of my town, on the account that you play the role as the executioner.”

“Creatives do love to talk about their process,” the man said. Solace.

“We do.”

The heavy piece. A sizable handgun. Alessa wanted me to kill him.

Crystal clear, but I didn’t like picture given to me.

“I…”

I didn’t know what to say, was there anything I could say?

“What’s wrong, Blueballs? You’ve caused so much destruction and pain to so many people, but you hesitate to take a life?”

Solace was on his knees, sentenced to die, and he was taunting me.

“I didn’t know a monster like you operated on the morality of humans.”

I breathed.

“No… it’s not like that. It’s not…”

“Like what? What?”

The question repeated in my head. Like what? It was through terrible and ugly circumstances, but one of the things I wanted for so long, was to have Solace in my grasp, to have the chance to get back at him for everything he had done. It was because of Solace, that her life was sent into further turmoil, it was because of Solace that Thomas died. It was because of Solace, using Benny and her resources to push her so far back into a corner, that she’d snap and attack a school.

It was because of Solace that I was here, today. V. Wendy.

Strained connections, broken promises. Lies and painful memories. So many of them were caused by the man before me, his hands tied, unable to escape. Completely vulnerable.

“You’re human,” I said, hardly above a whisper. “You’re still a person.”

“Is that supposed to make me see you in a different light? I thought you dropped the hero act already. A monster glows in the moonlight, becomes beautiful, and you’ve been basking in it for some time now. I meant it when I said that I was impressed by how you’ve grown. I might have had my doubts in the beginning, but I’ve been watching your progression even after that town hall incident. I’m so proud of you, Voss. I’m glad things worked out the way it did, Styx putting us together. You made me truly happy.”

“Shut up, shut… up.”

“There’s only one way to do that,” Victor said.

I lifted the gun, the metal pieces clacking from how much I was shaking. Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like decades.

This wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Hey!”

My head snapped up. Sarah jumped at how sudden I stared at her, as if she wasn’t expecting it. My eyes moved a little to the right.

Isabella.

“Why are you shaking? Isn’t he responsible for all of this? Think of all the shit he put you through, he didn’t lose a damn thing! That’s the enemy, your enemy, and he’s here on his knees!”

Her voice didn’t ring out throughout the rotunda, instead ramming into me, like a blunt force. Aware of the rings of eyes, hounding at us, desperate to see blood. Blood that I had to spill.

“But…”

“I’m growing impatient,” Alessa said. “Waste any more of my time, and I will sentence you and everyone you came here with to death. Do not make me change my mind.”

I was sweating bullets.

My gun shaking harder, I turned to Solace.

“There was so much I wanted to ask you, why you did what you did in Stephenville, how, or anything else I could think of. I would have wanted to put time in that. This… this is just laughable.”

Solace smiled, and, on some level, I took comfort in that.

I took in a deep breath. Shaky. My finger went around the trigger. I had never fired a gun before. I had never intentionally killed another person before.

A flicker in my eye. I shut both.

The gun nearly flew out of my hand from the recoil, and I had to see to catch it again.

I missed.

“No!” I yelled, for different reasons. Denial, confusion, that I had to look the enemy in the eye when I killed him.

I threw the gun back into place, squeezing the trigger again.

Not a clean shot. The man fell with juice pouring out his abdomen.

I panicked and fired again.

No!”

I threw the gun down when I knew it was empty. I didn’t hear it clatter against the marble floor, the animals having went back to wailing and gnashing.

Then I dropped, too, my knees becoming soaked in juice as it continued to spill forth.

Everything torn away from me, forced by my own hand. As if the universe itself didn’t want me to hold onto anything for very long. Satisfaction was a fleeting feeling, peace was an impossible goal.

Bubbling, to boiled, to eruption.

I looked up, light in my eyes, blinding me, like I was cast into fire. I opened my mouth, and joined in on the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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