Interlude – D

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A loose circle had formed around the gathered gangsters. Loose, because not everyone showed up, leaving very little yet very noticeable gaps in the lineup.

A certain little girl attempted to fill one of those gaps, but it was still too wide, the space around her still too noticeable. She stuck out like a really really really sore thumb. But, with it being her, who had a unique tendency to stand out as it was, her presence alone was enough to raise both questions and eyebrows.

A man, Arthur, asked, “Who the hell is this?”

Showtime.

“Yo! Mind if I disrupt- I mean interrupt?”

D grinned, mouth open, showing off her own gap. The one between her teeth.

The man was perplexed to the point of being offended. He looked across the loosely formed group and questioned the whole thing.

“Please tell me you ain’t serious with this, Mrs. Carter.”

The woman, standing across from her, at the opposite end of the not really circle, stared D down hard behind horned spectacles. D wasn’t nervous. In fact, it gave her a thrill that she craved. She couldn’t get enough.

Like bubble gum or lollipops or cotton candy or jelly donuts!

The woman, Mrs. Carter, kept staring.

“I’m very serious, Arthur, but I don’t know what this is. Or rather, who.”

D watched the woman’s movements, or the seeming lack thereof. Nothing obvious, very subtle. The slight angle of her chin. Up, eyes lowered by a fraction. Fingers tensed, grip tight on the binder she was clutching. Shoulders raised in a straight line, her back perpendicular. Poised, but there was an energy behind it. Ready to charge, needing just the exact provocation.

Everyone had a breaking point. D knew that all too well. And, after spending her smaller and small and formative years doing this, being this, D knew just how to tease it out. It was something she could intuit.

She knew now, though, to not reach for that impulse so… impulsively. If this was a year ago, she totally would have. She had learned some self-control. But not now. This was too important.

From her smaller to small years, to now.

Maybe I am growing up.

The thought freaked her out a little.

“I’m D,” D said, as though to reaffirm herself as well, “Like the letter!”

It was like a routine, by this point. A series of certain words and actions that brought out certain reactions, reactions she could use. Like playing a piano, pressing certain produced certain notes.

And, for what it was worth, D was a pretty decent musician.

She watched with a keen eye, and got exactly what she expected. Mrs. Carter and the other gangster’s guards were up, but not by much. They were wary of her, but they were underestimating, and she knew it was because of her age and stature. Nobody ever took her seriously, and she liked that. Knowing that was as comfy as a big warm sweater, or a fuzzy teddy bear.

She didn’t have one on her now, but D wished she did.

She wasn’t nervous at all.

“Reduced to nothing but.”

A dry chuckle followed after those words. A noise that grated. A sound that echoed from a not too distant past, but it haunted all the same.

Shuffling next to Mrs. Carter, Styx crept up to the circle, filling in another gap. He was slouched over, his arms hanging limp by his side. His eyes were wide, as he took everything in, darting around like he was on something. But he wasn’t on something, Styx wouldn’t be that dumb. Manic, but not dumb.

When he locked onto D, his eyes were wider, somehow, his mouth yawned to an exaggerated smile. That chuckle emanated out of him again as though it was possessing him. But, nope, it was Styx that was in control. Always.

It was something she admired about Styx. It was also something that freaked her out a lot.

He really found all of this funny.

Mrs. Carter remained as still as a statue.

“Would you know anything about this, Styx? Her?”

Styx stretched, his limbs groping and twisting through the air around him like the legs of a spider. Feeling for the webs he had spun, long ago.

With an odd pitch that spiked up, Styx’s laughter crescendoed, then stopped. A shrill noise that unnerved everyone in the circle, D excepted, maybe Mrs. Carter, too. But for D’s part, it was a song she had heard before.

Styx finally spoke.

“It’s a surprise to me, but very welcome one. She’s free to be here.”

Styx had spoken. No one would dare challenge him on that.

Which gave D the chance for her to rub it in. Styx totally gave that to her.

She’d take it though.

“Yup, I’m with the Fangs,” D said. “Hello again!”

Another one from the loose circle said their piece. A woman, this time. Hayden.

“Never seen her before. Weren’t there other Fangs? What happened to them?”

That last question in particular almost pierced through D. Almost. She plastered a goofy looking expression on her face. Not really a frown, but she opened her mouth and showed off the gap in her tooth again. Sulking in a way that only a kid could.

Wearing the expression like a mask.

D answered.

“Same thing that happened to D’Angelo, or Edward, Gary or Inez.”

That answer rippled through the others in a similar way, hitting them, but they weren’t as good at hiding it. Worried looks were cast, concern falling over everyone, oppressive like the dark that surrounded them.

Everyone except Mrs. Carter and Styx.

“No, no! I refuse to fucking believe that this little girl is coming here to announce the end times. Not for a fucking second!”

“Nothing is ending, Cassius. You will be fine.”

Mrs. Carter sounded so cool. Calm.

Cassius sounded rather uncollected when he bursted out again.

“Don’t give me that crap! How could you look at the situation we’re in and not be even a little concerned? Shit, I mean- Inez is dead, Gary is dead! Fuckin’ D’Angelo! And now we can put those two new fuckers on that list!”

With each name bellowed, their respective absence among the group was made painfully and painstakingly clear. Little gaps, but they were there. And for D in particular, the gap at each side of her felt as wide as a canyon and as deep as a cliff. There was no avoiding the feeling it gave her. Right there, a knot in her tummy.

“They had names,” D said, mimicking Mrs. Carter’s tone of voice. “Lawrence and Wendy.”

“Cassius is right, if I may be so bold.” That had come from Hayden. “Too much is happening, and too quickly at that. Several of our own are dead. We couldn’t even rendezvous in our usual location. We have to move here, to a place hardly more elevated than a garbage lot. I’m not asking you to lie to us, Mrs. Carter, but at least pretend that some alarms need to be raised.”

“And where the hell is Mister?” Brian asked. “This ain’t important enough for him?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t crack, however, her composure still composed, maybe even detached. The only thing alarming was how much Styx seemed to enjoy watching the scene unfold.

“What would you say then, Hayden, if I did indulge in your wishes for panic? Would you feel more at ease if I succumbed to fear like all of you seem to have? I have no time for such things. I’d much rather hold this meeting to achieve something tangible. If you would all prefer a therapy session, please, do so at your own time. But not mine.”

No one seemed to have any objections to that. No one said anything.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter then said, as though she was pleased with that response, or lack thereof. She then continued, and took back control of the space.

“With that being said, I do understand where you concerns are coming from. They are legitimate, but not cause for panic. As long as you stay here, you are safe. None of you have any obligation to stay here, however, and you are permitted to come and go and see to your respective gang’s activities. Just take the usual precautions, do not be followed. Does that sound agreeable?”

No objections. There were nods all over.

“And, as for Mister, he is well aware of the situation, and hopes that we can bring this to a satisfying resolution. Now, shall we have a proper discussion, then?”

“Please,” someone said. It wasn’t a voice within the circle.

Everyone turned. D did, too, following the act.

From the dark, two figures emerged. Covered completely, even wearing masks. A raven and a clown.

They approached the circle, moving like they belonged. They didn’t.

Everyone who wasn’t D or Styx or Mrs. Carter reacted with alarm. Tensed up.

“Who the fuck are you?” Arthur growled.

The masked pair stopped. The raven raised her hands. A gesture, before things could heat up.

“We are Machiavélique,” one of them said. Came from the raven.

“And how the fuck did you get in here?”

“That shouldn’t be a concern.”

“Well I fucking think it should be. I thought this place was supposed to be cool.”

“It is,” Mrs. Carter stressed. She looked over the masked pair. “Consider yourselves fortunate that I haven’t had you immediately shot for trespassing. Explain yourselves.”

“You came here for a discussion. We would like to participate. We believe our interests may align.”

Mrs. Carter was silent. A sign for Machiavélique to continue. The raven continued.

“As you all are aware, there have been some… complications that have popped up in the last few days.”

“Understatement of the fucking century,” Arthur said. “The city is on fucking fire, and, because this bears repeating, nearly half of us are fucking dead because of-”

“I’d advise you to check your math again, Arthur,” Mrs. Carter said.

“That’s one way to put it,” Machiavélique said, “But it carries the appropriate weight. Complications. The riots all over the city, and V.”

“V?” Forest asked.

“The Bluemoon,” Machiavélique corrected. The clown.

From the gestures and ticks, D observed as a chill looped through the circle.

“Well then,” Forest said. It was all he could say.

“The problems aren’t separate from one another, but let’s peel away the layers a bit. First, the riots. They’re tearing into the city, they’re growing in magnitude, and they’re believed to be targeted. Several of you have reported attacks on your own bases and buffer zones, is that correct?”

Everyone nodded, D included.

“In regards to your own equipment, manpower, your capacity to fight back, this shouldn’t be an issue, but with the very… politically charged nature of them, it makes the situation quite, again, complicated. Volatile. They are a minority, but they are a loud minority, and they are, at the end of the day, civilians. When they hit, they think they’re fighting against a world that has wronged them. A system. If you hit back, it shows the world that they’re right. That the system exists and needs to be addressed. And that will mean a larger response, and a brighter spotlight, on all of you.”

“Meaning?” Forest asked.

“Meaning that, once you go out to defend yourself, you also put yourself out there as a problem that needs solving. What those riots are really about exists on a deeper, fundamental level, a black thread that has stitched itself through the fabric of society itself. It can’t truly be cut or washed out. However, through either military intervention, or increased media coverage, the second any one of you gets pinned as a potential scapegoat, it’s over. Everyone that isn’t a part of your industry will be against it, and they will not be satisfied until you’re liquidated of all of your assets. The underlying problem would still persist for these people, but for that fleeting, pitiful moment, they will be satisfied. We assume that you’d all be against that.”

“What do you suggest we do, then?”

Mrs. Carter asked.

Everyone waited for Machiavélique’s answer. Even D was curious… at how Machiavélique would word it.

Machiavélique, the raven, raised her head, then her hand. A victory sign was made with her fingers.

“Layer two. V.”

Those chills again. D liked watching them squirm. It was funny.

“During the chaos of all the riots, she’s been targeting you, too. In the past few days, she’s already taken out a decent chunk of this group, here.”

Machiavélique didn’t have to mention their names again. Their lack of presence was felt. The lack at D’s sides.

Names she couldn’t bear saying again.

“The super villain thinks she’s being clever, taking advantage of the widespread panic she’s partly a cause of, but she doesn’t realize that she’s putting herself out in the open, too. You can’t really fight mass hysteria, but you can take down one person, even if they have powers. Prop V up to be the scapegoat, take her out, and the fires will quell.”

“And you truly believe that will work?” Mrs. Carter questioned, “That it will be that easy?”

“Might not be easy, but it is simple. If we all work together, I think we can accomplish something very special.”

The gangsters conversed with one another. It wasn’t an immediate rejection.

Mrs. Carter continued to stare at Machiavélique.

They’re doing well, D noted. It was kind of scary.

Forest had a question.

“Why should I believe any of this? Why should we believe you? I left Las Estrellas because of a similar incident, and that was damn near twenty five years ago. Now it’s happening all over again, except now you have these masked fools running around, taking bigger, messier shits. I heard some other fool in a mask is leading the riots. A gang going after other gangs.”

“The Flood, Dong-Yul being their leader. From what I’ve heard, he’d have the motive.”

Forest spread his arms, as if to say ‘I hecking told you so.’ D thought that in her head.

“But Dong-Yul is human. He’s only human. If he gets taken out, it won’t change anything. You’ll need to go after someone bigger. A monster. V. She is the beast you need to slay.”

“And you know how to slay this beast?” Hayden asked.

“We have a plan,” Machiavélique answered.

“Why? You two come out of nowhere, making this proposition. I don’t think you’re in a gang. So what’s your stake in this?”

Machiavélique paused, considering.

“No stake. Just… it’s just. Now, will y’all consider helping me?”

D observed with a keen eye. They were all considering it. Mrs. Carter, for her part, was allowing the discussion to continue, and Styx was having the time of his life. About to crack up. Ready to hear the great punchline of it all.

D didn’t find it funny, though, but she didn’t have a choice but to consider it, and go along with it. She didn’t have a choice at all.

D was no longer free.

“Break it down, I guess. Reduce it, right down to the letter.”

“Okay.”

Doris followed the instructions, right down to the letter. She was good at that, good at listening. And she liked that he liked that she was so good at following instructions.

Dad ruffled her hair, leaving it messy.

“Very good. You need anything else?”

Doris shook her head, both as a gesture and also to get her long hair out of her face.

“Nuh uh. I think I’ll be okay.”

“That’s my girl. I’ll be over in the living room. If you need me, just holler.”

“Okay!” Doris hollered.

That prompted Dad to ruffle her hair again, leaving it even more messy.

Giggling, Doris had to put the homework on pause to get some bunched up hair out of her eyes. Her pencil went flat on the table, her hands and her attention elsewhere. It took her some time, because she was so uncoordinated, and her hair was so long. It went past her lower back, as long as it was nutty brown.

She finally got everything sorted out, pushed back, and she was free from her tangle to get back to the homework.

Simplifying functions. Easy stuff.

Doris saw a lot triangles and X’s and tiny twos that liked to hang out in the upper right of the letters. Divided and separated into fractions. Doris knew fractions, she learned that in Ms. Gibbons’ class.

She went to work, doing it like how Dad showed her. She was just following after the steps, but it still came easy to her, she could feel that it was all coming together, everything either being broken down or reduced. She just had to keep plugging at it.

Crossing out X’s, canceling stuff that looked the same. Taking out those tiny twos when she didn’t need them anymore.

And… there. Just a two and a ‘X’ standing together like buddies.

She found the derivative.

Down to the letter!

It was easy to feel proud of herself. Dad said this kind of thing was hard, but she did it just like that. Well, she needed instructions, but even Dad admitted that he didn’t really understand this stuff, he was just reading words off of the page. But she still figured it out, and she liked to think that Dad had a hand in that.

Smacking her pencil down again, a loud clack, Doris pushed her chair away from the table. Her chair rolled back.

“Dad!” Doris hollered.

She didn’t hear an answer. Weird.

He said he’d be in the living room, right?

“Dad?”

Again, nothing.

Doris hopped out of the chair, gathering her pencil, paper, and textbook. She hugged them into her arms and stalked her way out of the kitchen.

Before she could step out on her own, a heavy hand guided her.

“Come on little one, this way.”

“Hey!”

A bit of fear rose within her, but that was nipped in the bud, after having realized who it was.

“Dad!”

She could only go for one word responses.

“Go to your room and stay in there for now.” Her dad took a pause. “And no, you’re not in trouble.”

Doris was rushed down a hall to her room, her bare feet barely keeping up with her dad’s longer strides.

“Why?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Dad said, but with the way he was acting, how he was hurrying, it made her worry anyways.

“But-”

They got to her room. Her dad opened it for her, nudging Doris inside. Not a push, but the implication was there. She felt it on her back.

Doris spun around, her things shaking in her arms.

“I finished your homework!” Doris said, louder than she had meant it to.

Dad smiled. It was something in his eyes, the corners of them. A little sad.

“That’s my girl. Thank you. Now just stay here. Go read something.”

Dad closed the door before Doris could get even another word in.

Frowning, Doris turned around and looked at her room.

It was a simple room, but Doris and Dad had always lived by simple means, and there was nothing bad about that.

The walls were a soft yellow, the sun as it filtered through the shutters made it brighter. A bed and some stuff animals in one corner, a dresser with maybe five different combinations of outfits in another. No closet in here.

Along one wall was a shelf, filled with books of different types. Dictionaries in different languages, encyclopedias, biographies of prominent anarchists, and coloring books. Not a lot of fiction stuff, Dad didn’t want her head to be filled with ‘fantasy crap.’ Doris didn’t really get it, but she wouldn’t complain over what they didn’t have. She knew better.

She had more books than clothes, and she was fine with that. More than fine, really.

Doris moved along to the shelf, setting her things there. Pencil, paper, and textbook. Her dad’s textbook.

It was Dad’s idea, but she wanted to help where and when she was able. Doris was more than happy to do it.

Dad had just went back to school, a local community college. Studying… Doris wasn’t sure exactly, but Dad needed to go through the core subjects first. That included stuff like math, stuff Dad wasn’t so good at.

Doris was a willing learner, and a fast one at that. So Dad let her in on it. Whatever he couldn’t wrap his head around, he’d try to teach her and have her take a crack at it. And then, he would get a good grade and pass and Doris would get an early and free college education.

It was a good idea, and it made sense to Doris. She just wondered if Dad was learning anything.

She picked up voices on the other side of the door.

This apartment was her home, but it was more like a tenement, to borrow from one of her dictionaries. The walls were thin, and someone didn’t have to be very loud to be heard. Doris was well aware of that.

Moving back to the door, she sat with her own back resting on it. She listened.

“… from his office. Nothing big, a quick meeting. How are you holding up, Carl?”

She didn’t know that voice. A man, maybe around Dad’s age, but it was hard to tell from voice alone.

“I’ve been doing everything you’ve asked. Twiddling my thumbs.”

That was her dad. Carl.

“You’ve been calm during this whole ordeal. That’s good. That’s, um, you’re doing a great job, I can say that much.”

She heard good, she heard great. That had to be a good thing, right? Maybe they were talking about planning a surprise birthday party for Doris or something.

Doris reconsidered. But her birthday wasn’t for another few months.

“I don’t like how you’re talking there, though.”

“I… it’s not good, Carl.”

Oh no. Not good wasn’t good. It was not good.

She heard her dad make a noise. Something like a moan or a groan.

“Damn- come on, man, I thought you said you’d help me out, here!”

Dad tried to keep his voice low, but it didn’t work.

“Like I told you the first time, Carl, I’m doing what I can, but what I can’t do is promise you anything. I talked with the company that’s looking to buy the building, Tate and Mono Construction. They’re pretty adamant about getting this property, and several others, for their planned, shall I say, aggressive expansion. And, this was supposed to be between me and their lawyers, but they are putting together a deal, a payout to anyone who is willing to leave by a certain date.”

“Payout? How much?”

“Ten thousand.”

“Each?”

Doris didn’t hear the answer, but she definitely heard the response to that.

“I can’t take that! That’s bull- that’s peanuts to the peanuts I’m making now! If I take that, where else am I gonna go? I- We can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“And I understand that, Carl, but there’s only so much I can do. I’d love to take you on as a client and go after these bastards, but there’s the whole matter of…”

“I can’t afford you?” Dad asked.

“As you are, the firm I represent doesn’t see a need to take you on. Me? You can always come to me.”

“I’m coming to you now, please. If I have to beg, then I’ll beg.”

“There’s no need, but this is all I have for you. Any more and it becomes a thing, and you know how it is. My firm is rather selective with its clients, and… well, the more I talk the more I’ll demoralize you, so I’ll stop right there.”

There was a long pause. Doris almost thought that she had lost her hearing.

Then the man spoke again.

“I’m not officially your legal counsel, so I won’t advise to take the money, but as a friend, I’d think about it.”

“My daughter won’t have a home-”

“Think about it. In the meantime I can start looking for some other places for you and Doris. Public housing. The programs haven’t been properly funded for some time but I’ve been getting to know the people who run it. They’re good folk, they’ll set you two up and make you comfortable.”

Another lengthy pause.

“That still doesn’t give me a lot of time. And, it’s not like I want to stay here, but, I can’t go anywhere else, man. You know what I do, what I did. I’m trying to get out of that game, but I leave now they’ll… I just need some time. And money, but if I have time I can get money, and I want to do it the right way, do it clean. I’m just… I want to do things right by her, cause I know I ain’t do squat for her mother.”

Her mother. Doris felt a breeze run through her. A large and noticeable hole that she had grown to live with, but sometimes, she’d feel that cold, how it touched the edges. She shivered.

Dad continued to plead. Beg.

“Please, man, I’m not going to ask you for money but please just buy me some time.”

A third, much longer pause. She really thought she went deaf that time.

“I’ll tell you what,” the man then said, “Something about those lawyers at Tate and Mono, they were serious about securing this spot for them. I don’t know why, no offense Carl, but it isn’t exactly prime location for a large overseas company, looking to dig some roots into American soil.”

“Thanks.”

“What I meant was, Tate and Mono are desperate to get their footing in Stephenville. I can only guess as to why, so I’ll have to do some more digging. But, their lawyers did briefly mention that they were looking into some other buildings in the area as well, buildings my firm’s clients happen to own. I’ll keep an eye on this, and if they try to make a move on another building, and it lines up, I can encourage them to take action, and your testimony will help when it comes time to that.”

“You’d do that?”

“I’ll try. Until then, just sit still, twiddle your thumbs for a bit longer. I’ll get you the time you need. No promises, though.”

“Ah god, thank you, seriously. Thank you, Th-”

The door cracked and bent off the hinge. The door, the whole apartment, was old and rickety, and Doris had leaned on it for too long.

She fell back into the hallway, making a dumb sounding grunt as she did so.

Hurrying, Doris jumped back onto her feet, her hands going to the door to fix it. Shake the hinges back into place so she could close it, but that only made more noise. Loud, so super duper obvious noise.

“Doris?”

She froze.

Turning to look down the hall, she saw her dad, staring back at her. He wasn’t mad, but he was confused, maybe a little embarrassed.

She saw the man standing behind him.

Tall, wearing a suit. Handsome, fit. Dark hair, slicked back. He looked nice. The opposite of Dad. Except the nice part. Dad was nice, too.

But looking at that man, Doris felt her face get all warm. Definitely more than a little embarrassed.

She forgot about the door. She ran back into her room, diving onto her bed, her tiny arms being greeted by fuzzy ones. She hugged a huge teddy bear. The only thing she had could come close to filling that hole that had always been there.

Doris hugged it tight, eyes shut just as heard.

Still though, she couldn’t help but listen.

“That her?”

“It is.”

“Cute kid. Hey, if she wants to make a new friend, I know someone who would love to get to know her.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, why not? It might make my next visit less depressing, depending on how things go. And if anyone deserves some good, it should be her, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

Doris only hugged the bear tighter.

She wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, she didn’t understand it. She got that last part, though, that she might make a new friend. Or someone closer than friends. Like family.

It was hard for her to get along with the other kids in class, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she was too short, or they didn’t read the same books as her. But maybe someone new would like her, someone different.

Doris wasn’t so worried anymore. In fact, she was thinking of some encyclopedias to recommend right now.

The old but grand building stood tall in the distance. A hangar in an airstrip, once passed between corporations, it was now owned a single, sole, private entity. In any case, it was away from the city. it was secluded, it was safe.

Even then, D still felt like they’d be fish in a barrel.

Them, not me.

Get far enough out of the city, the sprawling cityscape would give way to something more sparse, rolling hills and long stretches of road. The hangar on the very edge of that. Far enough to escape the heat, but the smoke was still very visible from the rearview mirror.

D drove down the long road. She was by herself. She had been used to that for some time now, but, ever since she returned to Stephenville, she became very busy. That meant meeting new people, making new friends. Even new family. Not a lot of time to be on her own, anymore.

But, for the moment, for this drive, she was alone. A brief respite.

Time alone, time to think.

The van sped along, speeding, really. D wasn’t concerned over any cops or other drivers. It was that late, or it was that early, depending how one considered it. It was a weird time. It was a weird time for everybody.

D took a glance at the mirror, checking the road behind her. The city was but a small dot in the back. It glowed, though, stinging if she looked at it for too long.

Her eyes stung.

She blinked away coming tears. Dangerous, being on the road. Doubly so if her mask cracked during the meeting. She’d have to get a grip on herself, now. D was good at that, and being alone helped, but it had gotten harder, since she came back.

Everything had gotten harder since came back.

D could remember a time when it was easy, when it was fun. When it was all about doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Pranks and just scraping by to do more pranks. And if she fell or failed, it wouldn’t matter, because nothing did. No one would have missed her.

Now, it sort of did kind of mattered. There was people she missed, now, so the inverse had to be true. Now, if she fell, the descent was slowed, the inevitable crash hurting all the more.

No longer instantaneous.

Don’t think of their names. Don’t even say them.

In the instant that thought flashed in her mind, a light flashed behind her.

D checked the mirror.

A pair of lights. Bright. They hadn’t been there before.

Not a cop. No color. Just white.

Blinking. Hazard lights. Signaling.

D looked ahead, and saw a tree off to the side of the highway. Secluded, safe.

The van skipped as it changed terrain. In the back, a pile of teddy bears fell out of their seats. Tires had to work harder to climb up the slight incline, dirt kicking and sliding out under the rubber, but she managed to get up there.

On her tail, the lights followed.

D put the van in park, turning her hazard lights on for a second.

The other car’s lights got cut. Then D’s.

She hopped out of the van. She was able to see the car now. A teal Honda.

Without breaking a stride, D walked, calm, over to the tree. The hangar, the meeting place, was still way over there.

D turned. She didn’t want to think about that now.

Leaning against the tree, she watched doors opened on each side of the teal car. Two figures emerged.

They approached, walking in step with one another.

The moonlight was dim, but D could see their faces. Or rather, she couldn’t. They were already wearing their masks. One more closely resembled a human face, with colors and shapes painted across it like a clown. The other looked like a raven with more eyes than it needed.

D wasn’t perturbed. Just a little cold.

Ça fait longtemps, dis donc,” D said, lively. Any other negative emotion was kept locked down, it wouldn’t be allowed out, kept below her choker.

Neither replied.

Quoi de neuf?” D tried.

The clown and the raven stopped. They stood in a triangle.

D and Machiavélique.

“If you have to ask, then you’re not taking this seriously.”

Quothed the raven.

D shrugged. Acting cool, staying cool.

“I’m taking this very serious. For real.”

If any of those eyes could react, they would all be squinting at her. They remained wide and open. All-seeing, but not all-knowing. That was what D was for.

“Is that it?” Machiavélique asked. The clown half. “The huge building building over there?”

There was only one huge building around.

“Yup yup! Meeting’s moved to the outskirts. Precautions. You can imagine why.”

D would have punctuated that with a laugh or giggle, but she didn’t want to push it. A simple crack, or if she got the delivery wrong, would have given away everything.

Getting a hold of herself. The real test would be in there.

“God damn,” the clown said. “This is getting out of fucking hand.”

“It’s been out of hand for a long time now,” the raven said. “But that’s what we’re here for, to take it back. To set things right.”

“Be prepared for it to get a heck of a lot worse right before it gets better,” D said. “That’s how stuff like this usually goes. That’s how everything goes, always.”

“We’re ready,” the raven said, answering for both halves of Machiavélique. “You came alone?”

“I did. I thought Sarah might try to come, since she was there for the other meetings, but she dipped, instead. Didn’t like how things were going. What the other Fangs wanted to do.”

“So it’s really just you now?”

“It really just is.”

“That doesn’t scare you?”

It was the clown that asked her.

D shrugged again, exaggerating it on purpose.

“Nah. What does scare me is the responsibility. I was used to staying on the side, doing the fun stuff for the gang, but now I have a bunch of underlings who they have to take orders from. And while I like them a bunch, I know they don’t like me. They prefer me on the side, and I work better from there, honestly. I don’t belong on the stage. I’m more like the stagehand, I rig things.”

“You won’t be on stage for long,” the raven said. “And you shouldn’t have to worry about the other Fangs. Play these next few moves right, this should be over very soon.”

D thought about the prospect of that. Reaching endgame, even if Machiavélique didn’t like to think of it as that. A game.

Yet there were moves to make.

“My Fangs are already down, so if you can manage to get everyone in there to work together, then you might be right,” D said. She looked up, gauged the position of the moon, its light dancing between the gaps in the leaves. “Let’s get going, everyone else should be there by now, and I don’t like to keep Styx waiting. Really don’t like to. Leave your car here, and I’ll sneak you in with the van. I stuffed like the biggest pile of teddy bears in the back, so you can hide among all of them if they decide to do a search through.”

“You and your bears,” the raven said.

D grinned, gap showing. That was genuine.

“Yeah, let’s go,” the clown said. “I’m shaking as it is, and it’s not because it’s cold.”

“Let’s,” the raven replied, and that word got them all to move. They went back, all heading to D’s van. A new van. The old one with some sentiment value had been sacrificed. A worthy cover.

D felt something well up in her throat, under her choker. Pressure boiling, punching against a lid. She knew she had to relieve some of it, or she might burst at the wrong time.

She spoke, only for the raven to hear.

“You say I don’t need to worry about the Fangs, but I quite like them. I like those two, too. Liked.”

“I know you do,” the raven said. “I also know that you recognize that they cannot be allowed to continue. Her especially. We take her down, and this madness ends.”

Or you finally get your petty, selfish revenge.

But D managed to keep that thought down, below the choker. She knew better than to talk back to an elder. Besides, D was still here, she was still helping.

And that choked her up inside.

Tugging her choker, relieving some of that pressure, D replied with only a soft, “D’accord.”

“Nor… Nordisk, no disc family book, what?”

The older girl inspected the book with a mild curiosity, but the expression on her face was mostly confusion.

Nordisk familjebok,” Doris said, without the trace of an accent. “It’s an encyclopedia from Sweden. That one is the Uggleupplagan, or the owl edition, because there’s an owl on the cover.”

The older girl ran her hand across the cover. She never cracked it open, though, instead sliding it right back into the shelf. Her hand floated through the other options, ready to pick out a new one like fruit.

“You don’t have any book series or anything,” the older girl said, a little disappointed.

Doris pointed, her arm and finger fully straight. “Noooo! There in the corner! The complete history of motorcycles, from the Reitwagen to the right now!”

The older girl laughed.

“Noooo,” she said back, imitating Doris. “I’m talking about book books, with characters and stories. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Doris said, a little disappointed. “My dad doesn’t want me to read those kind of books. Book books.”

Book book books.

“Why not?”

“I dunno. He says I should read to learn so that’s why we have all these.” Doris motioned across her shelves.

“That’s crap, you can learn from anything you read. Say, would he get mad if I got you something, as a gift?”

As a gift? Doris thought about it.

“I don’t think he’d get mad. He also says you should never not accept a gift.”

“Cool.” The older girl smiled. “I’ll bring something next time.”

“Next time?”

That smile grew brighter. “Sure.”

Doris squeezed her fists, shaking them a little. This girl just got here, and she was already talking about a next time. That made Doris super duper excited.

With even more awe in her eyes, Doris watched as the girl perused her humble library and its offerings.

The girl was older than her, as Doris kept noting, and while it was only by a fistful of years, the older girl already looked so much more mature than her. Taller, her darkish blonde hair done up, her outfit more stylish than Doris had ever seen in a magazine or TV.

She looked cool, and she seemed cool because she was nice. Doris appreciated that.

“What kind of books do you like?” Doris asked.

“I like… um,” the older girl took out something and skimmed the pages. A French dictionary. She stopped at a page and gave the book to Doris, leaving a finger on the thing.

“Those kind,” she said.

Doris followed to where her finger pointed. She read the word with ease.

“What’s noir?” The dictionary definition by itself didn’t make any sense.

“Crime stories. Pulp fiction. Cops and robbers and detectives and the like.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Doris knew what those things were but she didn’t see the appeal in them.

“My dad is a lawyer so it’s like the same thing. Well, not actually but I still like it.”

“Oh. But that is cool. Like actually.”

Doris didn’t want to be misconstrued.

“Thanks,” the older girl said, a funny tone. Like she meant it, but she was also joking somehow. It was weird.

“Why do you like it?” Doris asked. She really wanted to know more about her.

The older girl leaned a bit, eyes to the ceiling. Thinking.

“Why? That’s a weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding. I’ve just never been probed on why I like a thing, before. Not weird, just different.”

Not weird. Different.

“Why do I like them? Uh… I dunno, I like bad guys when their just desserts. But, I guess, in those kinds of stories the main character isn’t usually such a great person, either.”

“So what happens when there aren’t any good guys?”

The older girl put some serious thought into it.

“In that case, you just have to go with the lesser of two evils.”

The lesser of two evils.

“So you like it when the bad guy is beat? Or the bad bad guy?”

“Worse than beat. When they’re beat so bad they can’t run away and do more bad.”

“Oh,” Doris said.

“Anyways, let’s not get into that,” the girl said. She took the book back and set it into its proper place on the shelf.

“Why?”

“It’s depressing, and I’m not about to mess up a little kid I just met.”

“Okay,” Doris said, accepting that answer. “But promise when you come back you’ll bring me a book you like.”

“Hmmm. I shouldn’t make any promises, but sure.”

Doris made little fists again.

“For now though,” the older girl said, “Wanna play a game?”

“Yeah!”

Crawling a few feet across the floor, she reached over for a small purse. She pulled out a tablet.

“Um, do you know how to play chess?”

“Yeah!”

The older girl tapped on the screen, setting the game up, and then placed it on the floor between them.

Doris hadn’t gotten a lot of chances to use a device like this before, her family never had one, but she figured it out fast.

The older girl went first. She was white, then it was Doris’ turn.

Pieces started moving around. They talked as they played.

“So, uh…”

“Try to remember it, will you? Name’s-”

“Can I call you Big Sis?”

A pause.

“That’s another weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding again. Um, alright, why not?”

Yes, Doris thought.

“Big Sis. Your dad is a lawyer?” Doris asked. Pawn to C5.

“Yes ma’am,” was the answer. Knight to F3.

“Is he going to help my dad?” Knight to C6.

“As much as he can, I guess.” Pawn to D4. “Do you know what he needs help with?”

Pawn over to D4. Pawn taking pawn. Knight to D4. Knight taking pawn.

“No,” Doris said, down. “I’m scared that he needs help because he’s a bad guy.”

“Why would you say that? Do you think he’s a bad guy?”

“No,” Doris said.

Pawn to G6. Bishop to E3. Bishop to G7. Pawn to C4.

“I know we just met, so it might not mean anything, but, if my dad is willing to help yours, then he can’t be such a bad guy.”

“Okay,” Doris said.

“Those are just stories, they’re not like real life.”

“Okay.”

More pieces moved. Pieces taken.

“Not bad,” Big Sis said.

“I want to help him but I don’t know how.”

The words blurted out of her mouth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. Dad and her dad were out there, in the living room, talking about matters that Doris couldn’t fully understand. It was grown up stuff. But Doris could understand that Dad got really stressed, that he lost lots of sleep and wouldn’t be able to finish his homework by himself. Dad got sad a lot, and that made Doris sad. Kids and adults could understand that feeling.

Doris wanted to help Dad like how her dad was, but she didn’t know how.

Big Sis’ turn. Rook to F5.

“Hey,” she said. “You’re a kid, so you shouldn’t worry about it so much. But hey, I say that, but I worry about my dad, too.”

“How?”

“He really wants to get this… your whole situation straightened out, and he hates that he isn’t in the right position to make the right moves. He talks about this with my mom after dinner. He thinks I can’t hear him but I do. My dad’s the type to give it his all to his work, so when something doesn’t work out…”

Big Sis paused. Doris was quiet too.

It was Doris’ turn. Pawn to rook. F5.

Big Sis’s turn again. Bishop to F7.

“… he gets frustrated.”

Doris couldn’t quite place the feeling in the air with a word, but it was probably not what either of them intended for this playdate.

Doris was stuck. On what to say and on what move to make. Her king was stuck in a corner.

Doris tried, though.

“Maybe, if we can have fun today, would that be enough for them?”

Queen taking pawn. B2.

She looked at Big Sis.

Big Sis smiled.

“That could work.”

Then, she made her move. Bishop to F8.

Doris let her mouth open so long it got dry.

Check and mate.

Big Sis smiled even wider. Doris knew the word for that one for sure. Smug.

Doris smiled back.

“Who are you talking to?”

D was worried. It was a genuine concern. No smiling here.

Wendy had her arms flat on the desk in a vain attempt to cover up something, but D could see how the table bent inward, like there was a crack down the middle. Wendy was never very good at hiding things. Not at all.

But this was different. This was concerning.

Wendy was talking to someone, but D didn’t remember leaving anyone else in the room with her. And she sounded mad.

Clutching her teddy bear, D took stock of the office. Right. No one else in here.

No. Wait. No one else in here. That wasn’t right. That was so very wrong.

Wendy stared at D, and it was almost like looking back at the abyss. There was simply nothing within those pools of wide blackness.

Her mouth dropped open, and an hollow sound echoed out.

“Huh?”

It wasn’t even a word.

D was good at hiding what she felt, deep down. She could keep it from sounding out when she spoke, disguising it as something else. Chipper. Hyper. Nothing would go above the choker she wore.

Crying was different. That was real, and it fit, made sense for this situation.

But now, a certain emotion threatened to bubble up and burst out of her mouth. One she didn’t want to show. Fear.

Had to suppress it when she asked again.

“Who are you talking to?”

The lights never seemed more harsh and oppressive, the glare catching Wendy’s lenses and glazing over the eyes themselves.

Then, Wendy moved her head slow, almost like how an old person would, and they had forgotten where they were or how they got there. Her arms, resting on the desk, had relaxed.

“Isabella,” Wendy said, looking off to some far distance, somewhere D couldn’t see. “She’s right there.”

D looked. But, no. Try as she might, the corner, the walls, the ceiling. Nothing there.

She was scared to report that.

D didn’t risk it. Stayed quiet.

But that only made Wendy more dazed.

“You alright?”

D wasn’t sure if Wendy was talking to her or not.

But she didn’t answer regardless.

Wendy closed her eyes, then opened them again. A slow blink?

“D?”

So much was happening, so much had happened. D was reeling from one thing, already. Lawrence was dead. She wasn’t prepared for this.

“Yeah?” she asked, getting ready to take a step backwards, to the hall. She already regretted coming back in here.

“You… alright?”

Wendy’s speech slurred there a bit.

This… D couldn’t save this.

She couldn’t bear to answer. She couldn’t say.

D bit her tongue.

Wendy broke her stare from D, and looked into the distant nothingness again.

“It’s not up to me, we have to come to a decision together.”

D only hugged the bear tighter. If it could breathe, she was strangling it.

She still couldn’t say anything.

Wendy looked back at D, and blinked again. Blinked some more. And blinked. Blink blink blink.

D was scared. But she couldn’t say that.

“Isabella asked you something.”

A knot went up into D’s throat.

Have to say something.

D nodded, glancing to a vague direction within the room. Leaning back.

Choking, D said, “I’ll have to get to back on you with that… Isabella.”

Wendy motioned for D. “Hey-”

An arm was lifted off the desk, and there was nothing to hold it together anymore. The desk was split into two, dropping into place and making a thud.

But it might as well have been a crash.

D leaped, despite herself, and like an animal that hunted for its food, Wendy didn’t respond well to that.

Wendy jumped up, too, away from the collapsed desk. Her head and eyes darted around, searching for something, hunting for it, until the gradual realization came down like the setting sun. That nothing was there.

And then something rose. Something much darker.

D couldn’t stick around to find out.

She bolted out of the room.

Down the hall, a corner, a corner, then-

The quick panic made her temporarily lost. Dark. Couldn’t see.

No delay, but fear had her. Delay.

Pause. Panic.

Turn.

Run.

So much running.

Crash.

Disoriented, D shook herself off. She found herself on the floor, on top of Sarah. It was Sarah.

“Sarah,” she said. Glad to see her.

She was on the floor too, having been knocked into by D. She grunted.

“You alright?”

“Please don’t ask me that, we need to get out of here.”

“What-”

What followed wasn’t Wendy herself, but her howl, the moon just outside.

D picked her and Sarah up, rushing her.

“We need to get everyone out of here.”

Sarah snapped to action, but she still wasn’t sure of what was happening. Then again, neither did D.

But it almost didn’t matter. It immediate goal was simple enough to understand.

Leave.

Both getting to their feet, they ran together down a hall. D let Sarah take the front, because she was older and because she was faster overall.

The howl grew in both intensity and volume, seeming to bounce off the cold steel walls around them. Imprisoned by metal and sound. More crashes and bangs.

“… going on?”

Sarah yelled out maybe less than half a question, but D got the meaning.

“I don’t know, Vivi’s having another episode!”

“Again?”

More howls and crashing answered that for her. Louder. Closer.

“There isn’t anything we can do for her?” Sarah asked.

“For her? That’ll have to wait. Now? Gotta-”

D could have sworn she heard metal snap.

“Go!” D finished.

They ran, and D’s legs were already hurting. The Redhouse had been blown up only two hours ago, and now she was fearing for her life again. Wendy carried her to safety that time, now they were running from her.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The doors.

Bursted open.

“Every-”

D couldn’t finish the word.

Wood splintered and cracked and fell apart. Somewhere above her.

She couldn’t even begin to consider how, but Wendy had gotten out another way, crawling out from somewhere that led back to the main area of the church. A sizable hole was left in a wall above where the priest would have sat, dirt and debris dropping down.

D looked, and saw the moonlight frame the girl. More shadows than anything else. The outline vaguely human.

The vague outline that was supposed to be her new big sis, and Sarah’s new partner, leapt from her post and into the crowd. Her fangs met her Fangs.

Chaos ensued. More than D had ever seen or caused.

Everyone rushed to get out of there seats and aisle, spilling out to the sides, trying to find an exit. Screaming things too rude for D to repeat.

This wasn’t good.

She wasn’t considering that these were her own men. She was going through them, taking them down, one by one by one by one. She would leap into the air, landing on top of them. D lost visual on them as they fell behind one of the wooden seats.

She’s going to tear them apart.

And we led her right to them.

D had to come up with something. Couldn’t let this last any longer.

Too dark, too crazy in here. Her voice was too small to direct them to proper exits.

D took a quick scan of the church. Wendy’s base. Probably not her base anymore.

“Don’t go into the crowd yet!” D yelled to Sarah, “Stay out of the way.”

“But Tone-”

“Stay out of the way!”

D shoved the teddy bear into Sarah’s arms and ran.

Over to the other end of the church. Exactly where D told Sarah not to go.

The crowd was dispersing, being cut down to size. D couldn’t make out the scope of the destruction. Just screams and people bigger than her running for their lives. It was hard to squeeze through, but she had to move.

Too much was happening to the Fangs, one after another. The riots starting at Wellport, and then Lawrence… they couldn’t even give him a proper burial. And now this. Wendy snapping and lashing out at the nearest things around her.

So much pressure had been building up, and now it was blowing up.

D couldn’t let the Fangs fall apart. She still needed them.

Had to keep it together. For the endgame.

Someone knocked into D. She would have fallen over, if she hadn’t knocked into someone else. She pushed and kept going.

Another super loud sound. Shots. People were trying to shoot their way out now.

Or at her.

Keep running keep running keep running.

There. She could reach it now.

On a wall in a small pocket by where the choir would play. A panel that controlled the sound equipment.

D went right to work crossing wires and plugging things in. Power still ran through here. She could use it.

She heard a static click of a speaker turning on.

Spinning around, she searched for a mic. There, on a chair. It was dusty and old but it would work.

She grabbed for it, fumbled with the wire, then yelled.

“Exits to the side, not just the front!”

The roar of the crowd dampened at the sudden sound, but there was no clear response. D did see, however, Fangs start directing themselves to where D had indicated. The chaos was still there, but it was beginning to thin out.

But Wendy was still there, too.

Blood and splatter arced through the air. D wasn’t able to count how many of her own teeth Wendy was pulling out.

I have to stop her.

D yelled again.

“Vivi!”

A head popped up. Tilted and bent and crazed and covered in blood.

There were no words. Just anger and aggression.

D clapped her hand against the mic, making another loud sound. She tapped it.

The speakers were at the head of the church. Less people there. If D could direct it- her-

Wendy, Vivi, Sis

It jumped, soaring through the air, towards the front of the church.

D was almost disappointed at how easy that was. But that wasn’t Wendy right now. Something else had taken over.

Shots followed after Wendy, missing, but they kept trying. They kept shooting at their own Voss.

Wendy landed on top of the altar, on all fours. She stumbled and staggered when the occasional stray bullet tagged her, but she didn’t fall.

She didn’t go after D, just the sound of her voice, coming from somewhere else. All D had to do was keep Wendy away from the rest. Then, how to get the heck out of here.

Shots continued to zip by. Most of them missed. But not all of them were aiming for her directly.

Some of the Fangs were working together, now, shooting above Wendy, what was overhead. And what was overhead was a crucifix, held suspended in the air by old cables.

One stray bullet wouldn’t do. Several hitting the mark could. And then it did.

“No!”

D’s scream reverberated throughout the whole church, then swallowed by the crash. Nails to teeth.

She saw how the sudden weight tore through her new big sister. A beam of wood caught her at the shoulder, severing the arm. Crossing her, cutting her, the weight sliced the limb.

It-

D recalled a conversation with Wendy. What had happened in the Lunar Hotel against Granon. Lawrence saw the aftermath there. She had seen it for herself, too, when they visited Braham Barn on a rainy day.

A spiral of destruction.

Then, now, D finally was able to witness the leading suspect.

A burst of mass and blood. Black and slick and huge. Lengthy, it stretched and twisted of fibers and muscles. Sinew.

Obsidian tendrils whipped around in a circle, taking out everything in its path. The crucifix had its turn to be cut in two, and many more pieces.

Long and powerful, the tendrils sprouted from the place where her arm was supposed to be. They had reach.

Spinning out of control, they sliced and slashed the poor unfortunates who tried to take the side exits D had pointed out. Some still made it out, some were able to turn back, the rest weren’t able to do either.

Lucky bullets hit a long black target. It was like steel. Bounced off.

Just more destruction. A spiral of it.

Moving on its own volition. This was that something else.

The screams spun around D. It was a blur and a rush.

Then, the whirlwind stopped, the debris allowed to settle in place.

It happened fast. Or, it took long for D to realize that it was over.

From behind a chair in the choir section, D climbed back up to her feet. She didn’t even remember ducking for cover.

A church was in disarray. People picking each other up. Less than before. Some got out. But not everyone did.

Wall, ceiling, wall, floor, wall, ceiling, broken window. D could follow a path of destruction, of self and otherwise. But she wasn’t here anymore.

Horror show. Horrible.

D walked to the altar. Sarah was there, standing up, by the broken wood and metal and marble. She was still holding the teddy bear.

No one was at the altar. No arm, but D was certain it had been lobbed off. She found a torn piece of cloth in the wreckage. A sleeve.

Sarah was speechless, all words robbed from her. D was just as broke now, too. But she’d need the words soon, because it was time to make that call. That move.

The queen had moved into position. The beginning of the endgame.

Doris was scared, and she couldn’t do anything.

Scared for herself, scared for Dad.

A voice taunted on the opposite side of the door, across the hall. Menacing.

“Should have taken the money right then and there, Carl man. You see, those good people need this property. For good reasons. Good for my business.”

“Please, don’t!”

“And your testimony put a stop to that. You and your lawyer friend. That’s not ace.”

“God, please!”

“No, Carl, no deities here. I could take you to them, though.”

“Stop!”

She tried to cover her ears with her teddy bear.

Tried, but the walls were thin, Doris heard every struggle, every strained scream. Her dad’s. The other voice was like nails on a chalkboard.

Blocking her hearing didn’t work, her only line of defense now was staying under her bed.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, don’t move. Here, here. When you go see the doctor for this, tell them you took a trip down the stairs as you were moving out of here.”

“No, no, stop, please, no-”

Dad scream was so loud it scared her. But it was the laughter over it that terrified her.

It was all so sudden. Doris couldn’t even remember what she was doing before it happened. Probably something mundane. Probably reading the newest book her big sister gave her.

Dad’s descended to a whimper. Doris couldn’t hear him anymore.

She heard nails on a chalkboard, though.

“Search the rest of the apartment. Take anything they don’t need. Lighten the load for when they leave.”

Footsteps. Up and down the hall. Things breaking.

Hinges squeaking.

The footsteps were closer now. In her room.

Boots walked to the foot of the bed, stopping there. Unmoving for a time.

Then, they turned, but instead of walking away, rusty bed springs bent and creaked together. They were sitting on the bed, right on top of her.

“Hi.”

Doris kept every emotion and word in her throat.

“What’s your name?”

No escape. Stuck here. No choice.

She looked at the man’s boots. Boots with sharp things coming out the bottom of them.

“Doris…”

“Hi Doris, I’m Sticks.”

“Sticks?”

“Like the river. Anything I can get you? Thirsty?”

Salty tears were already streaming down her face. She wasn’t in need for water.

“Styx, did you hurt my dad?”

“I did. He wouldn’t listen otherwise.”

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“Not up to me. Offer still stands.”

Doris didn’t, couldn’t get another word out, even though her throat was dry.

“Well,” Styx said, “Just so you know, the offer will always stand. Always. No matter what. If you need me, for anything, just come and find me, and we’ll figure something out. And in fact, I insist. Please. Do me that favor, from you to me.”

He then chuckled.

Doris didn’t really get it, at all. She was still too scared to connect any thoughts.

“Why are you doing this?”

That was the only question she could think of, her confusion like a haze in her mind.

“Why? Because I can. I can do whatever I please. I didn’t have to do this, but I felt like it this time. Seems to me like it was worth it.”

“So you’re a bad guy?”

Sticks, Styx paused.

Dumb question. Stupid. Stupid. But she wasn’t really thinking.

“Bad?” Styx asked back, “I do what I want in a system that allows me that freedom. I’m free, in every sense of word and existence. Is that so bad?”

Doris didn’t have an answer for that.

“Tell me, Doris, do you feel free here?”

Through the haze, Doris thought about it. Here, with Dad, doing his homework, playing with big sis whenever came over, she was content, hardly sad, but free? Within these walls? Maybe not. But that had never been a detriment, something that Doris complained about, under her breath.

“No,” Doris answered.

“Oh wow! Doris! You should really try it sometime! Most people go their whole lives, letting themselves get shackled to things. But true freedom is liberating, it’s honest, it’s real. And that, my Doris, is a very good thing.”

Somewhere deep in the core of her, where she wasn’t or would ever be conscious of, those words struck like a bell, and rang throughout the rest of her being.

She sounded, “Oh.”

“I’d best get going then. Remember, offer. Favor. See you then.”

The bed springs retracted to their neutral positions, creaking along the way. Styx’s boots walked their owner out of her room.

Her heart was in her throat. Pounding. That sensation reached her head.

She’d always wanted to help Dad. She even thought she was helping by playing with her big sis, having fun, being happy. But Dad still got hurt. She couldn’t do anything at all.

Her heart was pounding so hard it was breaking. That sensation matched what was happening in her mind.

It didn’t work. Nothing she had tried worked. Now, those feelings of wanting to help that broken whimpering man kept her down. Very much like shackles.

Freedom didn’t sound so bad.

The van had slammed into a sudden stop, and D’s bones were rattling. She couldn’t even shake it off, because of how hard the impact thrummed through her body.

Nothing broken, so go me. Yay.

D still felt as if her atoms were splitting apart though.

Testing, she moved an arm, and found that she could. A huge relief, that she was able to move over some of the stuffed teddy bears. Stuffed with stuff. Made for a decent cushion.

Her head rattled, and so did her thoughts. She took a second to collect them, remember what just happened.

Oh, right. She was being chased. A car chase, except she was driving a van. And she was being chased by a taxicab, of all things.

And then someone climbed out onto the top of the taxi while it was speeding down the street, she definitely remembered that. It was like a stunt from a movie.

Then they jumped over onto her van.

D did what she could to shake them off, but their grip was like steel. Impossible.

Then a crash happened, somehow, and D forced the van to a halt.

Cracks ran across the windshield like a web. Hard to see through, but she could still drive with it like that. It’d just be really really hard.

Rearview. The taxi was there, lights on. No movement.

Before D could check the windshield again, the door to her side flung open.

Middle of the road, but D didn’t crash into another vehicle. Not even the taxi. She was too good of a driver for that.

Something else had stopped her, someone.

A person crashed her van to a skidding stop.

That person.

Shorter than D had expected, but still taller than her. Covered from head to toe, even the face was hidden behind a mask.

A red phantom. Not a blue moon, but the phenomenon was just as rare.

It has to be you.

Their head was tilted as they inspected the van’s interior. The reaction was expected, everything was. Staking out the factory, waiting. The chase, the run-around, the van and the teddy bears, all to throw them off and make them not suspect a thing. Her.

My new big sister.

All D could do was smile, big and wide. Goofy, but only because she was so excited.

“Yo!”

“Dad says you’re moving out soon.”

Doris moved a bishop. No word.

“He also said you can sleep over in my room in the meantime, while he helps your dad find a new place. I’m totally cool with that, by the way. I don’t have to keep bringing my board and pieces here all the time.”

A rook. Still no word.

“Do you, do you wanna sleep over at my place?”

Pawn. Doris said nothing when she let a pawn go.

“Hey, you listening? You’re not even playing-”

Wordless, D only replied with chess moves. Putting her heart and thoughts into each one. Her intent. Things she couldn’t bear to say, but had every sense to follow through. She hoped her sister would understand.

She did. Replying with counters, responding by the certain placement of a certain piece. A developing language, spoken only on the board, the message only fully fleshed out by the final position of the remaining pieces.

Doris had sacrificed her black queen early in the game for an opening. A risky move, but it played out well in the long run. Queen’s gambit.

Checkmate.

Doris had it. With but her king and bishop left, and putting as much distance between the pieces as possible, she was able to finally beat her big sister.

She won. She’d be free. She almost wished she wouldn’t be.

Her eyes were hot, wet in the corners, her throat locked up again.

Words failed her big sister, too, because it was too late. Nothing she could do or say would stop her now.

“Got your message, sis.”

D sat atop of an impressive height of teddy bears, almost like a throne. Looking down. Her smile was gapped.

Three of them total. Two people at the bottom. One response.

“You ran away from family but you’re still calling me that?”

“All of the fun but none of the work. It’s great!”

She had paused. Looking up and down the pile again.

“A lot of bears. How heavy is the weight?”

“Enough,” D said, “These gang leaders need better number crunchers. I’d offer my services, but… it’s work.”

“Katy, this is crazy.”

The other girl spoke up. Maria, her sister introduced her as. A new big?

No, she doesn’t seem into the idea.

How disappointing.

Maria was ignored.

“Doris,” her sister called out, “Get down here!”

She complied. She’d only be allowed to tease her for so long.

Slipping out, D slid down the pile. The friction on her legs was warm and fuzzy.

She reached the bottom and fixed her skirt. It had been a minute since she last saw her sister. They had all gotten taller.

“I think you’re asking for someone else,” D said, “But… mais je divague.”

“Here.”

D cupped her hands. Something dropped into it.

A black queen.

D started tossing it up into the air, catching it. Playing with it.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know who it is exactly, but I know the name it’s using. Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis. Ah-leck-sis.”

D giggled.

“Keep an eye on her for me. Doesn’t matter how. Follow her, befriend her. Be her personal bodyguard for all I care.”

Maria spoke, “You’re seriously just a kid. Katy, she’s just a kid. Do you know what you’re asking of her?”

“That’s all I need for now. Give me constant updates. Don’t let her go too far.”

“Can’t promise that last part,” D said.

“Then if she does, we’ll go from there. Just be my eyes and ears.”

“Sounds like a lot of work. Responsibility. What’s in it for me?”

Her older sister gave D a look.

“You’ll have someone new to play with.”

D shivered when she heard that, starting from the very bottom of her spine, shooting up.

Spinning the chess piece between her fingers, D grinned, excited and silly. She didn’t have to say any more.

“Doris.”

Knock.

“Doris?”

Knock knock.

“Got some math problems for you. They’re a little out of my league. Want to take a crack at it?”

Nothing.

Nothing.

Her mouth was full, her tummy fuller.

D for donuts.

The car spun wildly out of control, music blasting from loud speakers and open windows. Hard to hear anything else, except when the back parts collided into the other cars in the lot. She’d skid a bit, then she’d kick the engine back into full gear.

Spin spin spin.

A loud and distinct blare. Police.

D let the car collide into another to get to a stop.

Music down, windows up halfway. She waited.

The officer approached the car. Driver’s side.

“Do I have to tell you why-”

He lost his remaining words. She was good at that.

“Yo!” D said, giving the office a full smile, showing all her teeth. Bits of jelly dripped out a corner of her mouth.

The officer looked so stunned, and his huge mustache made him look so funny. She’d never had an uncle, but this guy kind of looked like one.

Before he was able to find those words again, D spoke up first.

“Mind if I practice my driving here? I’m still getting the hang out it. Better yet, how about a race!”

D stood up from her seat, stomping on the gas.

The car tore through the parking lot, leaving the cop and his car behind in head start.

The window was half open. She felt the wind in her hair as it flew around. Free.

Finally.

It was time.

From one life to the next.

Doris stood at the edge of the hall. Her room behind her. Nothing but the clothes on her back, and her favorite teddy bear.

She hadn’t packed anything else. There was nothing to bring.

She was supposed to go to school today. She instead waited at the corner of the bus stop, and waited some more. The bus left without her.

Dad should be at work by now, thirty minutes late after having to hobble there in crutches. A while to get there, a while to get back.

Time alone, time to think.

This was it. A hurdle to step over, and then there was no coming back here.

Doris started walking.

The hall, where the walls were etched in crayon but Dad never got mad. The living room, where they would sit on the couch and watch public access television, or run around the rickety coffee table in a game of tag.

The kitchen, where she would sit and do her homework as fast as possible so she could move on to Dad’s.

The apartment was mostly empty, now, everything had been packed and ready to go. The plan was for them to move into the project housing by the evening. Mr. Thompson would come and pick them up and take them there.

That was their plan. But she had other plans.

Doris went to a drawer, and drew out a big knife.

Silent, she moved over the dining table. Where she’d do their homework. Where she tried to help and make her Dad happy. Where, even if she got every problem right, there was one she wasn’t ever able to solve.

And she was done solving problems.

Frustrated, she kicked one of the legs, and her foot hurt. Feeling worse, she pushed the table around until it fell over, and she pushed it some more until she got it halfway across the living room.

Kick. Kick. Kick.

Doris was useless, Doris couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t free at all.

But I will be.

Her arms seemingly moved on their own as she brought the knife to the underside of the table, carving into it. The table was old, bought secondhand or thirdhand from somewhere. Other people before her had left their mark. Most of them were mean messages. But Doris wasn’t writing something mean, it was something true.

She poured what was left of her heart and self into the blade tip, leaving them there, leaving it here, within these walls.

She got up to inspect her work, pushing her wild hair out of her face. No good. She’d have to get it cut.

The inscription, the epitaph.

Doris is here.

Doris would stay here, like she always did. Trapped. And now, she was free to go.

And she knew just who to see first.

D turned around and never looked back.

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105 – Check

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James Gomez was a lonely man. Only the shadows greeted him as he came in, but even then it was a cold and uncelebrated greeting. The shadows were wordless, and Gomez was wordless, too.

He sauntered in the dark. He didn’t even bother to go for any light. He seemed to know his way around without it.

The little light that did break in filtered through blinds, cutting into thin horizontal lines that sat across the living room.

He was as quiet as the place was dark, leaving nothing disturbed, with only the sounds of steps and breaths coming through, as faint as the light was thin. The walk of a dead man. Either that, or the world was dead to him, and he was just floating through it.

Gomez descended deeper into the dark, blending into it, haunting it. A familiar haunt, as he went straight towards the couch and sat at one end, slumping into the cushion. He slipped into the seat like how a hand might a glove.

Still in the dark, still keeping himself there. He did, however, let a little light come in.

Searching through his pockets, he procured for himself a lighter and a cigar. He took one to the other, and a soft orange glow cut a hole in the black around it, glowing brighter as he inhaled his first, slow, long drag. A trail of smoke left his lips, swirling into the air in front of him.

Time stretched, this single moment sat there with Gomez and stayed there with him, taking in the smoke that he let out. However, it wasn’t a depressing scene, Gomez didn’t sulk in the dark, he didn’t seem to curse it. In all actuality, it was exact opposite. This was where he seemed to be the most comfortable, where he could be the most at ease. This was his world. Where he knew where everything was, where everyone would be. Even in the dark, this was where he had the most control, even the light had to bargain with him, only a little bit at a time was allowed.

If anything were to intrude upon this desolate home of hopelessness, he would have known it. Past the heavy cigar smoke, he would have sniffed it out, and enacted a certain swift justice to snuff it out. He was a policeman, after all, he had the means to strike with a hammer and invite a sudden bang, a flash of light as fast as hitting the switch, then back to blackness with the same relative ease. It was his domain, where he had the most jurisdiction. Because the world outside refused to give that to him.

The moment passed, time having stretched as far as what was allowed, until it could stretch no more. Something, eventually, had to give. It would have to snap.

It snapped.

With a motion much more smooth and fast than when he went for his lighter and cigar, he drew a pistol and had it ready to fire a glow much brighter than any orange. He had the pistol aimed, pointing to a far corner of the living room, where the light didn’t cross, but he saw all the same. This was his domain, his one true territory.

I stepped out of the shadows, letting the horizontal lights fall on me.

“James Gomez,” I said.

“Get the hell out.”

No pleasantries at all.

“You’re not going to ask how I got in here?”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re not the first person to break in and threaten me in my own home… but there is a good chance you might be the last. But, I won’t take that chance, not tonight. So get the hell out.”

“You’ve got all wrong, Gomez, I’m not here to threaten you.”

Gomez made a noise, not unlike the smacking of lips or the clicking of the tongue, but that seemed too childish of a behavior for a man his age. It was his gun, then, that answered for him.

His gun clicked at me, its spittle as intense as its bark. And it was ready to bark.

“I’m not going to grace you with a third and final warning,” Gomez said. “I’ll just shoot you, dead.”

That, in and of itself, was his third and final warning, but he hadn’t yet fired. He was being graceful.

I couldn’t take advantage of it too much.

“You speak of warnings, but I had given you mine, first. You came back to the territory, I had eyes on you, last night. Did you already forget?”

“I have a job to do, a role to play. A duty I keep to. Do you seriously believe that my job is to just stay to the side and bow whenever you gangsters walk on by? Are you that arrogant?”

“Arrogant? Maybe, when I first started, but I got that knocked out of me. Eventually. Although, I suppose I’m still needing of a reminder, every now and then.”

Gomez didn’t respond. His gun didn’t, either.

I took that as him allowing me to continue.

Starting with a move, I craned my head, observing the room, my eyes peering through my mask.

“No wife, no kids. Or at least, you’ve been very smart not to put pictures of them around your own home.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gomez said. His arm was still up. His gun still pointed.

I cocked my head to the side.

“You’re right, Gomez, I wouldn’t. Would be the standard gangster thing to do, but I’m not your standard gangster, am I?”

I watched the gun, carefully. The hand that commanded it. Any slight movement, any indication.

Nothing.

An answer. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t a bark. Gomez himself.

“I don’t know what the hell you are, Blank- V. You’re not the standard anything. I’d go as far as to say you have no standards.”

I forgave that near slip of the tongue. “I’ll take that. Not like I have much of a choice, granted, but it works all the same. But, with that being said, I’m not actually here about that. I’m not so petty.”

“Well, good for you.”

“The riot at Wellport, Gomez, what do you have on it? What can you tell me?”

A dry but low grumble. Wasn’t from the gun. It was something.

Gomez replied, “I can tell you very little, if I wanted to.”

“You’re a lonely man, James Gomez, if there’s nothing else I know about you it’s that. You might want to help but you can’t. Not by yourself. So you can help me, I’ll see if some of that goodwill can get back to you.”

“Goodwill. At this venture? Did you pick up a sense of humor the last time we spoke? Did you already forget, V? I know that was you, back at the Pupil. Campbell. Don’t even know what you did to him, because you broke more than just his collarbone. There were some other complications, but he didn’t want me to know. Imagine that. My best officer, and he doesn’t want me to see him. He doesn’t want me to bear the sight of him, not until he can walk on his own two feet again. Now tell me, where do you see me giving you goodwill? Tell me!”

I didn’t tell him.

Smoke filled the room. A soft orange glow.

Brighter. More smoke.

“People are dead, more are injured, but every single one of them bled. Their blood is soaked into the dirt and cement of my territory. It’s still wet in some spots, too, so you might want someone to clean your floor once I’m done here-”

“Stop, V-”

“I don’t want another mess, Gomez, I don’t want another mess. Things have gotten messy enough, and now people are bringing their own mess into my territory. My territory. And while that sucks for me, do you really want that to spread to the rest of the city? That mess?”

Mess, huh? Sounds like it’s not all tea parties in your little criminal wanderland.”

I gave him a pointed look, but my mask blocked his view of my stare.

“It’s never easy, and that’s just a general truth to life. But you don’t need me to tell you that, Gomez.”

I had to tell him something else.

“No, you don’t,” Gomez said.

“What happened at that park can’t happen again. We have less than twenty-four hours, maybe less than twelve, but if we let those hours slip by without doing anything, more blood might, no, is going to get spilled. We can prevent that.”

“I can prevent that by myself, V, it’s you who seems to have a habit of introducing this insanity in the first place. First, it was when you came to me about Solace, and I ultimately decided to help you then. And then Thomas Thompson died. Next, you come to me talking about wanting to get back at Benny. Remember that?”

“I do.”

“I knew better, or at least I thought I did, and I declined you then. Next thing I know East Stephenville is up in flames, and I can only imagine who was standing there, poking that pit. Then there’s the Thunders and Royals, and now look at us. Some new masked clown is doing his level best to bring this city down with a riot, disguised as a war.”

“Tiger,” I said. “He was wearing a tiger mask.”

“That’s not the goddamn point! Ever since you came onto the scene, everything has been getting worse, it escalates. Temporary solutions to a much bigger problem, and there is a breaking point, V, and we’re heading to it in a mad dash, faster and faster. I tried to stop us from getting to that point. But even then, you managed careen us closer to the edge. So, no. If I help you, that’s it. Past the point of no return, where it all breaks. If I help you, that point gets pushed behind us. Because luck just seems to run like that, in Stephenville. It runs out.”

So many points, but they all meant the same thing.

“I want to hear it from you, directly. If you’re not going to be of any assistance in this, tell me.”

Gomez’s arm had to be tired by now, forcing it up to hold the gun. It didn’t waver.

His breath blew out a puff of smoke. It dragged.

“Part of me will tell you no.”

“And the other part?”

“Still no.”

I grimaced. That, through the thin lines of light, he could see.

“We both want the same thing, Gomez. Our interests align more closely than you’d think.”

“No. They couldn’t be farther apart. Standing here, watching how you’ve changed, watching how everything changed, you want destruction. I wanted things to go how Thomas envisioned, before he saw you and twisted that vision. Bet he even took a mask for himself. But I bet if you weren’t ever in the picture, he would have still found his way there. Because that seed had always been planted in his mind. You’re just shit, V. Fertilizer. Maybe it’s all bullshit, this entire time.”

Harsh words from an angry, older man. Maybe I could understand where he was coming from. But they weren’t words I needed to hear at the moment. They wouldn’t help me get anywhere, achieve anything.

“That’s quite a shame,” I said. “But it’s no surprise, so I suppose I can’t fault you. Just know, when blood sheds again, and you show up too late, being reactive, that you could have been there before it happened. You could have helped stop the blood from being shed in the first place.”

“I have a role to play,” Gomez said, “A job to do. And that… that comes with the part. In other words… I’m just a piece on the board. I don’t have a say in where or how I get moved. I just get moved. And maybe… it’s the same for you.”

“I am trying to do something,” I said, snapping back, still aware that there was a gun pointed at me. “I’m the one in control, here.”

“Sure, Bluemoon, you are. Let me ask you something. What happened with Natalie and Oliver, was that you?”

“What?”

“Was that you, what happened with Natalie and Oliver?”

My single word question had been directed at Gomez’s first statement, but I was made to answer his second.

“I could ask you the same question.”

No answer. It said everything.

“Okay,” I said. “If that’s how you want to play this. Let me tell you what I know, then. The riot at Wellport? We have reason to believe that it’s orchestrated by a gang known as the Flood, when translated to English. Dong-Yul is the leader’s name, mostly likely the guy who was wearing the tiger mask, getting everyone riled up. We’re doing our own investigation right now, putting eyes on bases we know of, see if we can’t find any others, or where Dong-Yul’s hiding and what he has planned next. Proactive.”

Gomez was silent. Smoke circled him, a small dot of orange hovering at an angle above his mustache.

Stubborn, like how everyone seemed to be, lately.

I added, “If you had agreed to play ball, in other words, I could share with you the locations of those bases, and maybe you can go take a look for yourself. Get a warrant, do some searching and seizing of your own. A tip.”

Still. Nothing.

Still nothing.

“Last chance, Gomez. Or are you that lonely? Lost? Are you so far gone that you’ve given up completely? Not me, Gomez. Not me. Because, in the end, I know we both want the same thing. To solve this problem. But I haven’t given up, I’ll keep trying, I-”

Gomez, finally, answered. No warning.

Loud, able to split ears. Not from his mouth.

He fired at me, at the shadows. But, by the time the bullet spat out to the dark, I had already vanished.

I had wanted to apologize to Lawrence, for having made a move without him after all. But we needed to get something going, or we’d end up on the backfoot. And standing still was the worst thing we could do at the moment.

I wanted to apologize to Lawrence, but I couldn’t.

D twiddled with her thumbs, her legs swinging freely. Her hair was disheveled, sticking to her face in places, outlining and framing her cheeks. Made it rounder than usual, made her look young, or maybe as young as she had really been this whole time. It was quirk of hers, then. Stress didn’t age her. The opposite was true.

“Everything will be fine, D.”

I had to give her something. Even if I didn’t necessarily believe it myself. Not everything would end up fine. That was an impossible undertaking. Our job, then, was to save what we could. As much of it as possible.

We would try.

D kicked her legs together. She hummed. A minor melody.

“It better, or I’m gonna punch him! I’ll punch him really really hard.”

My eyes found their way to Sarah. How easy, it was, to let my gaze wander and to immediately spot her. Really made me believe that everything might be okay.

Then I opened my mouth. Sound came out, vibrated the air, and my ears picked it up. Reality.

“Sarah?” I called out.

“Yes, Voss?”

The look on my face must have said it all.

“Wendy.”

I smiled.

“Any word from Reggie?”

“Not yet. Still searching.”

“Jordan?”

“Still searching.”

Tone?”

“Still.”

Sarah punctuated that with a shake of her head. Which meant that anything I’d ask her would only get returned with the same answer.

Not everything was fine.

Lawrence hadn’t been seen or heard from since he left.

I still couldn’t wrap my head around that.

The Redhouse. Afternoon. Or so after the afternoon that, outside, the sun would be pressing right against the horizon, digging into it, digging deep and breaking through, the force of the impact breaking and scattering an insane expanse of burnt orange across the entire sky, leaving tinged clouds and facades of buildings and cars and other things with a coating of embers. The light had spread into here, the main lobby, with the wide windows fracturing the spectrum to make it, for that instance, almost blinding. It was combustion, standing in the middle of an explosion on pause.

The world on fire.

There wasn’t a lot of us in here. Just a small handful of the Fangs, the leaders and those who were allowed to stand close to that circle. We needed a place to convene that was out of the way, and the gang wasn’t so attached to. The Redhouse was both those things, now. By the time D, Lawrence, and I had secured our own bases, there was less of a need for this spot, now that we had moved a lot of the armory and cargo and equipment out to other places. We could have went to my base, first, but the church had seen too much heat in too many recent instances. Had to cool off somewhere else.

“Damn.”

A word. I wasn’t sure who said it, I wasn’t sure if I said it. My mouth was still open, though.

Summed it all up pretty well though. Everything.

“Hey,” D said, admonishing me, admonishing someone. Her legs were still kicking.

“We’ll hear from him, in time,” I said to her, said to everybody. “In time.”

D’s legs swung like a pendulum.

“Yeah.”

Sarah again. Couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.

“You’re sure you saw him get back to his place?”

“I’m positive, Wendy. Reggie and I followed him the whole way there. Straight. He didn’t waver, stop somewhere else, or get distracted. From D’s base to his place. Promise.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, it just wasn’t the first time I had asked her. Not the second or third, either.

“I believe you, Sarah.”

I just wanted her to know that.

“I know.”

This normally wouldn’t have been an issue, but nothing about any of this was normal.

Dong-Yul, or whoever it was in that tiger mask, hadn’t shown up again since the first initial riot, but it almost didn’t matter. Their presence was being felt all throughout Stephenville.

Smaller bouts, skirmishes that began to blip all over different parts of the city. People rising up, it seemed, against injustices they had been subjected to, and wanted to retaliate. Fighting fire with water. But people were getting burned.

They had started in the morning, after I had met with Gomez. Less than twenty-four hours, and even less than twelve. Didn’t take long. People were that pissed off.

None of the more recent outbreaks of violence were on our territory. No. Just the first and worst one. They didn’t last nearly as long, too, not nearly as bloody. Those smaller uproars weren’t for us to silence, but they did keep me up throughout the day. I hadn’t gotten any sleep since the last night.

I shut my eyes, hard, then peeled them open. Didn’t help. My eyes stung.

“When night falls, I can go out looking for him,” I said.

“Reggie and Tone and Jordan are out there doing just that,” Sarah said. “Most of the Fangs are. They’ll find him.”

Sarah glanced at D. “They’ll find him.”

D eyes were elsewhere. Down.

“I can search past the territory,” I said, looking at D, “I’ll keep a mask on, keep in the dark.”

Sarah replied. “That’s appreciated, and I’m sure the rest of the gang feels the same way, but we need you to be where you need to be. And that’s here.”

“We?” I questioned.

Sarah gave me a certain look.

“Me more than anyone else, Wendy.”

She wanted me to know that.

Over to D, she said, “I need you here too, D. So nothing crazy from you. At least, not the usual crazy.”

I tried to not get jealous over that.

D knocked her feet together. She had sat herself up on a counter in the lobby, with a forlorn expression on her face. She hadn’t gotten much sleep, either.

“Yeah,” D said. A small voice.

Her attention had wandered, seeming to be somewhere else. Not distracted, but tired.

I walked on over. Part of it was just to move, feel like I was getting somewhere. A larger part of it was to be next to D.

Getting to the counter, I leaned my back against it. I was close enough to take D’s hand, holding it. I did just that.

“Long day,” I said.

Ouais.”

“Are there any new leads?”

She shook her head. Very slow.

“Uncle J doesn’t want to help, and I couldn’t find anything at the restaurant club place Dong-Yul took y’all to. They dumped that joint the second they were able to. If they are behind this, they’re not the Flood. They’re something worse. Bigger.”

“A deluge?”

“Something like that.”

I breathed, looking out through the windows around us. The light dazzled.

“If anything goes down tonight, maybe I can do something. Keep the mask off this time, step into the light a little bit. Maybe I can find that Jasmine girl there. Get in that way.”

“You’re not getting in anywhere!”

Sarah called from across the lobby. I couldn’t help but take pleasure in her jealousy.

“I want to find Ellie,” D said.

There wasn’t much levity as it was, but D brought it down by a new notch.

“Lawrence can wait.”

Leaning up, still holding D’s hand, I looked from across the counter.

“Hey,” I said.

Isabella was there, resting against the counter on the other side. Looking bored, looking impatient.

“Lawrence can wait,” Isabella repeated. “People are out there now, flipping cars and breaking glass, and they’re doing it in other gang’s territory. You should be taking advantage of that, helping them cause a little more damage. Introduce some more anarchy.”

“We do any more, unprompted, we might bring everyone on our heads. The police, those gangs, and even Mrs. Carter and Styx. D’Angelo. Inez.”

“I’m not saying we need to, like, beat up anyone to find him! I just want to find him!”

I turned to D, “And I didn’t mean to say we’re going to give up on him. D… I need a break, girl, I’m admitting that now before anything else happens. It’s been a long day, and from everything I’ve seen the night is going to get longer so… we came here to regroup, while we can. Let’s just… let’s just do that, okay?”

D didn’t say anything. Then I turned to Isabella.

“Lawrence is waiting for us. The Fangs are out there looking for him and locking down the rest of our territory in the meantime, so what happens at Wellport doesn’t happen again. We should secure what we have, get our ducks in a row. Get a grip.”

“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip.”

Isabella droned on and on.

“This is the start of everything you were working towards. This is it. Now, Wendy, now. This is the opening you need. You’re already at the table. If you let this get bad enough, if you nudge things so it gets that way, they’ll all get together, and you’ll be there, too. Maybe even Mister himself, if this gets to a certain point. Then, you go for blood. Right then and there. Don’t make it quick, either, make it slow, make it worth it. Make so you never need for another sip for the rest of you life.”

“Let’s not…” I started.

“Why not?”

It was D who asked that.

“Ellie’s been missing for an entire day, almost an entire day. One person shouldn’t be gone for that long. We can do more!”

Then Isabella took her turn.

“Let’s not what? Why are you waiting? Why do you need to delay when everything is right there, ready for you? The enemy- the enemies are out there, and when they stumble you need to be there, ready to strike! There’s no need to be clever, you’ve already done enough planning and scheming. Just do. This can be all over when you want it to be. Isn’t that what you want? What are you so afraid of?”

This can be all over when I want it to be.

What was I so afraid of?

I searched for answer, something that might sound appropriate. But whatever I would have came up with, it would have sounded like a lie.

An answer never came.

The doors bursted open. A commotion through everyone gathered like a conflagration.

It was Reggie. It was Lawrence.

Or the bloody, beaten, bruised, very ruined shape of Lawrence.

“Ellie!”

D’s voice broke with a crack. A deep crack that could split a girl in half.

We all converged on the two.

Lawrence had an arm around Reggie. It was a move to help him propped and standing, but from how he stood, that stance, there was no strength in it. More like he was being dragged by Reggie, who also didn’t want to get any of the blood and dirt to fall on his clothes or face.

However, it was too late for that.

Reggie started working to lower Lawrence, slow, cautious, as not to subject him to any more pain. Sarah got there first, helping Reggie.

D was crouched to his right, I was by his left.

This was sudden, this was scary. I needed a moment to process this.

What was I looking at? Who?

A bloody, bruised, beaten man. That man was Lawrence. He was still wearing the same clothes from last night, but they were soiled, dirty with grime and cut. His shirt was stained by a deep crimson. His face was cut across one cheek, swollen in the other. One eye was shut, too much blood for him to peer through.

When Reggie set him down, a long line of blood stretched and connected the two men, until it cut and the half-tendrils smacked and soaked into each of their shoulders. Then I saw why there was so much blood there.

I asked.

“Where’s his ear?”

Reggie looked as shocked and scared as I was.

“I found- I found him like that. At the… at an alleyway. No wait. I came over and I got him to-”

“Reggie, calm down.”

How Sarah was even able to say those words with that level voice, it gave me enough distraction from Lawrence that I could feel something that wasn’t fear. A longing.

And I saw Lawrence, and it was back to fear again.

“Lawrence… When I found him he was by an alley, leaned up against a dumpster. At the territory. Freaked me out, man, Lawrence, he-”

Reggie couldn’t gather his thoughts well enough to explain a proper thing.

No. Shit. That didn’t matter. Not now.

Now. We had to check on Lawrence.

D was already on it.

“I can barely feel a pulse.”

Her hands were on his, clasped together, fingers on his wrists. Feeling. Shaking.

“Is he responding?” I asked.

D was choking up.

“No. Barely. I can’t tell!”

“D…” Sarah said, in that same, level voice.

“He’s too weak,” Isabella said. “He’s not going to make it.”

“He’ll make it,” I said, snapping at her. I looked at D. “He will make it.”

D didn’t look convinced, but she was still clinging onto something. What bit of hope we have left for him.

Lawrence was clinging on, too. His hands were around D’s. Whether it was because of compassion or weakness, I didn’t know.

“He won’t,” Isabella said. It was like she tried to personify my paranoia. My despair.

Lawrence was gasping like a fish out of water. Pained intakes of breath, getting softer each time.

The breaths had a curve to it, however, trying to hit the ear.

“Hold on,” I said, “I think he’s trying to say something.”

Everyone went silent.

We listened to Lawrence as he hurt.

“Phil… Phil… Phil…”

Phil? Or fill?

“Lawrence, who is that?” I asked. I had to make my words clear, I said them slow. “Is that who did this to you?”

He wouldn’t answer, or perhaps he couldn’t. He just kept asking for that word, or that name.

“Please, Lawrence, who is-”

“It’s not a name.”

Everyone turned to D. She was clutching her choker, eyes welling up.

“He’s asking for pills.”

Lawrence, for his part, acted like he was responsive, breathing that word out more, harder.

“Phil, Phil, Phil…”

He couldn’t even say the word right. His jaw wasn’t closing right.

Breathing out the word.

“Does anyone have any?” I asked.

Reggie answered, “Searched his body and pockets already. Nothing.”

Lawrence threw out the last few pills he had. If he had any, would he be able to ride out the pain of a bit longer?

“Could we take him to a hospital?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah answered. “If we wanted to get him to one it’d have to be now. Like we’d have to be there already. With everything that happening in the city, the hospitals are going to be packed and busy. He might… he might not…”

Even Sarah couldn’t finish that.

“No! No no no!”

D yelled, squeezing Lawrence’s wrist. His one visible eye cringed.

“We can get something for him! I know where we can find a gang doc! He’ll make it!”

“Get a grip,” Isabella said.

“He doesn’t look good enough to be moved,” I said. “We’d have to bring someone here.”

“I can do that! I’ll get the van!”

“They’d have to be here already,” Sarah said, soft. Sorry.

Lawrence’s breathing was only getting worse.

“Phil… Phil, Phil…”

His light gasps of air were subdued. D’s sobbing began to mask them. Mask her hearing them.

It was starting to settle in, just how bad this was, just what exactly this meant. Seeing Lawrence like this.

When I breathed, it was shaky.

“I think… we have to look for a good place for him to… rest.”

D smacked me in the arm.

“No! No! We have to do something, try anything! Can’t you turn him, make him like you? There has to be a way!”

Looking down at Lawrence, I saw how his body had been broken, unable to support itself. How open and exposed his throat was. How, despite the ugliness, the aroma wafted into my nose.

Would it work? Could I even do that?

The possibility was there, but I didn’t know if that was how that worked. For all I was aware, I could simply end Lawrence’s life, right then and there. His blood on my hands.

No going back. Isabella’s earlier question echoed in my head.

D smacked me again. Smacked me back to reality.

“Wendy! Come on!”

I paused, despite myself and everything.

“D-”

Fuck!”

The word. I couldn’t place its owner, but the meaning was all too clear.

It was the sound that came first. Followed by the fury.

Glass shattered, a certain bark. Several. Something I had been hearing a lot of, lately.

Everyone was crouched over Lawrence, but we all ducked when we heard everything break around us.

A torrent of bullets tore through the Redhouse.

I took a quick glance to the entrance. A haze of lights, shades of people, standing in a line. As the glass broke and fell, I caught glimpses. Animals.

“You were followed?” I yelled into Reggie’s ear. “You were followed and you brought him here!”

Barely could hear his response. No or know.

Didn’t know?

Didn’t matter.

“Move!”

Everyone moved.

We were caught off guard, completely unaware. Fight or flight kicked in, and we weren’t equipped to do the former.

I scooped up D and started running. She wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming.

“Lawrence, Lawrence!”

I didn’t have the breath to argue, for several reasons. One, because a wasted breath meant wasted energy, and two, because my right shoulder blade spat out a bullet, and my teeth were grinding together, shut.

That didn’t stop D from fighting back.

“Lawrence! What the h-”

“Cars!”

I somehow threw out my voice. Sudden, raw. Am angry noise.

Yet, somehow, someone picked up.

“Back!”

I followed the voice, like how easy it was for my eyes to find Sarah. To the back hall. Exit there.

Everyone went that way. I hoped everyone did. I couldn’t keep eyes on us all.

Had D, heard Sarah. Reggie, for a brief but loud second. Isabella?

Lawrence.

My eyes were hot and streaming, but I kept running.

Then the-

Colors vibrant and hotter and more sudden than anything I had ever personally known. White and orange and red. Combustion, an explosion unpaused. The world was on fire.

The blast wasn’t too close, it didn’t knock me off my feet. Some did get knocked, though, as I saw their shadows pass before my eyes.

I ran, I ran.

Run run run run run run run run run run run run

My sight was violated, but it was my hearing that had gotten shot. A high and thin line, a tea kettle singing. I couldn’t hear anything else.

I couldn’t hear anything else, but the echo of a dying beggar.

Phil.

The building crumbled in places behind us. The word looped and consumed itself, like a snake eating its own tail. It consumed me in much the same way.

A whole gang of us gathered. But I never felt so stranded. Alone.

Dozens upon dozens of eyes, peering through me like how bullets could. Some were wet, many were bloodshot.

D’s eyes were the most wet.

Most of the Fangs were here, a lot of people. And yet, the shared silence between them all was eerie. The sounds were of D’s muffled sobbing, her face buried into the fuzzy back of a teddy bear.

Most of the Fangs were here. It was a lot of people, but it wasn’t everyone. This gathering was equal parts a funeral service, and just getting together to figure out what the fuck we we’re going to do next.

Maybe it was fitting, to do this at a church. Maybe it was one big fucking joke.

But when I looked at the faces, when I heard D’s soft sniffling, I knew there wasn’t anything funny about this.

“I’ll just get right to it,” I said, then I startled. Was that my voice?

One more time.

“Right… Get right to it. Lawrence is dead.”

I paused. I gave the moment and the man in question the levity they deserved.

Then I picked it back up.

“But what he started isn’t. What he built. This gang, the Fangs will continue to spread and grow, with more teeth and bite than he would have ever imagined. And I will…”

My eyes roved over the crowd.

I saw the many Fangs that scowled, the anger that shaped the line between their lips. I saw D, the waterworks still pouring. I saw Sarah, and how much I hated to see that kind of sadness on her face. I saw Tone, I hadn’t seen him since he decided to take a hiatus from Fang activity.

I didn’t see Reggie, however.

I had to pause, or else I’d break down again. I wanted to be right there with them, but I couldn’t.

“D and I will continue where Lawrence left off, and… I…”

This was too hard.

“Between the two of us, we’ll decide the Fang’s next move, while considering Lawrence’s intentions. For just now, though, I suggest we all take some time to have him in our thoughts. Thank… thank you.”

No one said anything.

Uncomfortable, clumsy. Couldn’t stay here.

I wasn’t sure of what else to do but bow, slight, and take my leave.

Didn’t stay inside the church. I retreated to the back annals of the building, going into the halls, down another, and entering an office room.

My office. It was supposed to be, anyways, but I hadn’t much to keep in here. It was empty, no real tether. That scared me. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The door opened just as I sat down at the single desk at the far end of the room, lights turning on. So much for being alone in the dark.

Sarah and D. D’s teddy bear. Isabella.

“How are they taking it?” I asked.

Sarah answered. “Not well, obviously. I heard some of them talking amongst themselves. Some of them blame you for it.”

I frowned, my eyes stinging again. I adjusted my glasses. They slipped back down from the sweat and soot.

“Suppose I can’t blame them for it,” I said. “Do you? Blame me?”

“Course not, Wendy.”

I didn’t feel better, hearing that.

“D,” I said, seeing her.

Her head was still down, her bob of hair in her face.

“I know you’re mad at me for… I’m not so happy with myself, either, but…”

“I’m not mad,” D said, voice still weak and hurting. “I’m just sad.”

Sarah put a hand on her head. D let her. “I know, sweetie.”

I really hated seeing them like this.

“This is bad,” I said.

It was stupid, it was obvious, but it still needed to be said. Recognized.

D hiccuped.

I spoke. “Something happened to Lawrence, and somebody out there is responsible. And the only person who might know anything isn’t… here anymore. But, I saw who showed up at the Redhouse. People in masks. Same kind as the ones that were Wellport. That’s twice, now. During all this chaos, that’s twice they’ve done something against us. We can’t let them get us a third time.”

And that’s not including them using Alexis Barnett’s face and name.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the news,” Sarah said. “There were similar attacks around the same time, in places suspected to be owned by gangs. It could be coordinated.”

“It could be coordinated, or it could be convenient. I don’t want to inherit Lawrence’s paranoia so soon, I have my own as it is, but we can’t let what happened to us stand. If this is Dong-Yul’s work, then he shouldn’t have signed it. We’ll find him, and make him regret it.”

“Wendy,” Sarah said. That was all she said.

“Can we not talk about stuff like that right now?” D asked. “Can we just… not?”

Another breath. If I was a smoker, it would have swirled the entire room by now.

“Sure.”

The silence lived within the shadows. Nothing else was in this room. Nothing else to discuss.

They left. Probably to process this by themselves. I needed to process this by myself.

“What’s their problem?”

Isabella turned from the door when it closed. It didn’t even close all the way, maybe Sarah and D were low in spirit that they could hardly manage that.

“Not now,” I said.

“But D knows what kind of world we operate in. This happens. It is what it is. Stick your neck out, you risk getting slashed there.”

“What happened to Lawrence… he didn’t deserve that. If we were harder on him, intervened more and made him give that stuff up earlier… maybe…”

“You were always going to use the Fangs as a stepping stone to tearing this city down. That includes Lawrence. Includes Sarah, too. D was helping you with that goal, if you really believe her. So she knew what that would mean for the rest of them.”

“We would have figured something out, when we’d get to that point. We’re just not there, yet.”

Isabella laughed.

“Why not? When will you ever? What’s the delay? Someone, if it’s not Dong-Yul, is out there right this second, fucking shit up and doing everything you claim you want. I say join them! You’re not going to get a better opportunity than this!”

Enough!”

I slammed a fist on the table. The surface cracked.

That didn’t stop Isabella.

“If you wanted this so bad, you’d be out there already. But you’re not. So why? What’s stopping you?”

“I said enough, Isabella.”

“Or is it that you want something else, instead? Something you can truly and honestly call yours and yours alone?”

I balled up a fist for another strike, threatening to break the table.

“What changed, Wendy? Or… maybe nothing changed at all, that’s why. Because you talked to Natalie, and saw her face all around you. That, no matter what you do, you can’t escape it? Her? Even after all this time?”

“You are not getting another warning!”

Before Isabella could learn her lesson, the door cracked open. Wider.

We both turned to the door.

It was D. A short break, so she wasn’t looking any better.

Her teddy bear was hanging from a hand. She wasn’t hugging it.

She wore an expression on her face. Concern, her brow furrowed, head tilted. Anxious. Apprehensive.

“Yes, D?” I asked. I set my arms on the table, trying to hide where I hit the surface.

D didn’t speak right away. She needed a moment to formulate her words. Consider them carefully.

And after some consideration, she asked a question. The words struck me like hot lead, through my ear then out the other side of my brain.

“Who are you talking to?”

Previous                                                                                               Next

104 – Chessboxing

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I was trapped in a flood of total anarchy, very nearly drowning in it. I had to keep my head up, keep my breathing steady, and wade through the rising tides of turmoil.

There was a lot going on.

People were rushing past and against me like a current, impeding my progress towards the park. Yelling, screaming, panicking, the only shared impulse in the mob was to get out, find safety elsewhere.

Me? I was running straight into the smoke and gunfire.

That probably said something about me, but I wasn’t allowed the luxury to figure that out.

Into the smoke and gunfire I went.

More shots popped off as I continued forward, slipping between the crowd as they passed. Some were more willing to let me by than others, some even tried to knock me back, force me off my path and get swept away by the undertow.

Arms hit my shoulders, ribbing me in the sides. I twisted and even spun in a circle as I kept squeezing myself through. And with everyone who wasn’t a cop going in one direction, running for their lives, they weren’t so kind to anyone who might be an obstacle.

I was like a pebble in a fucking river, it was so easy to get lost in the flow of things, the opposing pressure working to crush. If I didn’t have even half of my enhanced strength, I would have sank right down, lost in the bottom. Exactly the place I fought to avoid.

Head up, breathe steady.

I pushed through.

The more I fought, the more that current fought back, pushing harder. Stronger. People who were in the back had to work that much more to move down the stream, turning frantic as the bullets were louder, flying closer.

I was getting closer.

Clawing and thrashing their way out, like animals trapped in rushing waters. It really felt like that.

Then, a surge of activity, and it happened in a wave.

Something wet hit me in the face. A splash. Sweet, as a mist of it sprayed across my lips.

The crowd around me roared, and I turned to see why.

A crack of fire exploded, somewhere up ahead, but I immediately felt the result of it.

People- bodies fell, tumbling down, over one another. Limbs splayed out, catching others and throwing their weight, sending the living down with them. And with the rush of people kept coming, kept crushing, the living wouldn’t be the living anymore.

So loud. So fucking loud.

Something slammed me in the shoulder, and my foot slipped, balance gone. And as exactly as I had feared, the second I lost my footing, the current would come in and try to take me away.

The momentum had been building, stacking as the bodies stacked, people scrambling over one another to get ahead. Pushing, forward, forward.

I wasn’t very tall, and everyone around me were either my height or taller, and I had to reach out with my arms to find anything I could use to pull me back up. Anyone.

The paper had long slipped out of my hands. Didn’t matter. There was still plenty of them fluttering overhead. Watching. Mocking.

Laughing as I drowned.

No. Fuck.

Couldn’t think about that. Them. Her.

My hands found a hold and I worked my way out, getting my head above the surface of the panic.

It wasn’t unlike swimming, I had to keep myself afloat and push other stuff down. Kicking, doing everything in my power to stay up.

But what I was swimming through wasn’t water, and that was what made the whole thing fall apart from something natural to pure disorder.

Blood and fire and fucking madness.

People were falling over, because of others, because of a bullet, or because of me. Rendered unable to escape this hell.

Damn me. I couldn’t save them, couldn’t get them back to their feet. All of this was happening in my territory, riddling it with holes.

I had to find out who was doing this. I had to stop them, even if it took as many bullets as they used, here.

The bodies kept piling on. It wasn’t pretty, despite what my nose was sensing. A certain aroma lifted into the air, mixing in with the smoke and paper scraps. My heart bled for every drop spilled, enough to satisfy my own quench for the night.

As I went more upstream, everything more rough. The pushback. The violence. Everything.

I stepped, and again my foot slipped. I couldn’t see what caught my balance, but I was already being plunged into darkness.

Fuck. No.

A voice growled right by my ear, raging.

“You bitch!”

Hands dove for my throat, choking me out, stealing my breath at a moment when I needed it most.

I struggled, kicking, trying to scream, but no sound came out. Not even a gurgle. And, even if one did, one one would be able to hear it.

It was a man, judging from how heavy and thick the hands were. The face was too hard to see, with it being so dark. Not because I couldn’t see when it was dark, but because my eyes were straining, and I was seeing more red than black.

I couldn’t breath, or keep my head up.

Everywhere, I felt the stampede as it crashed by us, but I wasn’t slipping away. The opposite, in fact. I was pinned, and I couldn’t even scramble for any purchase. He bent and twisted me into an awkward position, and he leaned his weight into and over me. Even if I had the strength, he caught me and threw me into a situation where I couldn’t use it.

The red overwhelmed the black, and I could feel the last bit of air being squeezing out of me. I fell under, submerged, and I was drowning.

Then a crack of fire, and I was buoyant again, filled with air and floating right back to the top.

I gasped.

I was about to throw the man off of me, but I didn’t have to. He fell, instead, trading places with me. Unmoving, unresponsive as feet stepped over and even on him.

I looked.

Smoke trailed upward. There was enough space between me and the gun to see who was holding it.

A girl. Wearing a leather jacket with studs down the sleeves, a black skirt and boots like that looked more fit for a soldier. Her hair was long, swept to one side. She was Asian.

She was holding a gun, pointing it at me. I froze, and found that I was able to. The rushing crowd had parted around us.

Then the girl approached.

I felt my blood pumping faster, ready to attack, as if to make up for not being able to fight back against that other guy, just before.

But the girl had set her gun down, taking a hand off of it.

She shouted at me.

“Hey! You okay!”

I wasn’t sure what to say. My voice came out hoarse when I tried.

“You shot that, you shot that guy?”

A girl made a face. It somehow didn’t match the scene around us.

“He was trying to kill you. I’m not about to let some fat slob snuff out one of our own.”

Our own?

Was she a vamp-

Wait, no.

I had to think a step removed. Not that. Something more in her face.

“Right,” I said, not at all confident or right. “Thanks, then?”

She took another step to me.

“You got a gun?”

“I… no?”

“Here.”

She stuffed the gun into my hands. It was still hot.

“You can take mine, come on!”

She took off, in the other direction. The direction I needed to go.

Glancing down, I was able to see what caused me to slip, what let that man get a hold on me.

A single sheet of paper. Alexis Barnett’s face, looking up at me. Mocking me.

Fuck all of this.

I looked to find the girl making distance.

If she knew a good way into the park, I had to follow.

I followed.

“Wait!” I yelled, having to push through more people. It was a good thing I got D and Isabella out of here, or they would have gotten stamped into the ground if they tried to come with me.

I fumbled with the gun in my hand, but I still held onto it. I was aware of where it was hot, where it wasn’t.

The girl turned to check on me and grinned.

“Don’t worry about me, I have another one!”

She showed me as soon as she mentioned it. Tucked behind her jacket and skirt, she equipped herself with another piece, and then proceeded to blow it in the sky.

The crowd around us scattered.

The girl used the opening she just made and ran through it.

“Keep up!”

No other choice, if I wanted to get into the park and find that guy in the mask. She was making the way for me.

I kept following her.

We ran up the rapids of the chaos, and I could see where it was all coming from. The entrance of the park.

Cops were retaliating, different groups doing different tasks. Protecting those who were trying to escape, and fending off the mob. They didn’t have the sheer numbers, and they were caught off guard, but it wouldn’t take much longer for the cops to turn this around. They had the equipment, they had the training, and, given enough time, they’d have the numbers.

Shots zipped by, some overhead, some much, much closer to my head. It made me shudder and shake, the volume of it was enough to make my skull ache and want to split.

The girl kept yelling at me, another tether I could use to hold onto and follow.

“Let’s not get caught in the middle of that! What say you?”

My voice came out hoarse again.

“I think we already are!”

The girl laughed. Of all things, she laughed.

“This way!”

She went another direction, away from the entrance. It had become a bottleneck, now, the cops focusing on that area.

Sirens began to blare, piercing the air. Reinforcements were coming, and they’d hit that spot first, close it off. Then they’d surround the park and find other means of getting in, forcing every offender into a huddle, cornering them. Find where the water was coming from, and plug that hole.

But I’d get to it first.

The girl turned us to the side of the park, over to a fence. There was hole, with nothing spilling out.

She squeezed in first, and I was next.

Stepping into bedlam. The Wellport Skate Park proper.

“Over here!”

The girl beckoned for me, waving with her gun. Still with that grin on her face, she led me over to a small group, hunched behind a raised portion of a cement wall. They were all Asian.

“Shit, thought you died,” one of them said, looking at the girl. He had a gun in his hands, too. A semi-automatic rifle.

“Not yet, dude,” the girl said, still wearing that grin. Still. She looked at me, and gave me a nod. A knowing nod, it seemed like, but I probably didn’t know what she thought I knew. “Found her out there, being choked out by some asshole.”

“That so? She wasn’t here when we started?”

Everyone in the group directed their attention to me.

“I got here late, then everything went to shit and I couldn’t make my way over to the park,” I said. I gave the girl a nod. “She saved me.”

If I wasn’t good at anything else, I was good at lying.

“Cool,” the guy replied. “Cool. She gave you a gun, too?”

The gun. I lifted it between two fingers, pinching it, as if it had a smell. And not a good one.

“Never used one,” I said. “I’m more liable to get myself killed with this thing.”

Another lie.

“Fair,” the guy said.

Now that I had a chance to catch some of my breath, I had a look better at these people.

They weren’t kids, they were probably older than me, but they were way too young to be involved with any of this. At least I had my powers to keep me going. D had always been an outlier, and Isabella was removed enough from the action. This? These people had thrown themselves into this. Diving head first into the waters.

The girl crouched, her shoulder bumping into mine as she got down. Different from the other bumps and crashes, even if this one felt intentional, too. A tender touch, somehow, but not in a way that reminded me of Sarah. A knowing gesture, a supposed shared connection.

Comrades in arms, a sisterly feeling.

I knew it was that, because a deep, vestigial thing buried within me shuddered at the mere suggestion.

But I wasn’t one of them, not in any real capacity.

The girl moved, checking the corner around the wall, before popping out to fire off some shots. Sudden noise among sudden noise. It still made me jump.

“Fair,” the guy said again, after seeing my reaction.

For a moment, when I looked back at him, and the wall behind him, I thought I saw a chalkboard, fluorescent lights of a classroom. Those flashes of lights were gone a second later, as fast as a bullet from a gun.

What I saw instead was a twisted version of my own face, tagged in graffiti.

I shook my head, hard.

Didn’t need to waste time here.

“Hey,” I said. I wasn’t particularly loud, but someone heard me. Another girl, a few years older than the one who brought me here.

She looked my way and I talked to her.

“How did you find your way to the park?”

“Me? I got invited by a friend of a friend. It was kept real low, but I felt the energy, you know what I mean? People really came through for this one!”

“People are shooting at the police and innocent civilians! Isn’t this going too far?”

I pushed it, just a little. To prod some info out of them.

“They started it,” the girl replied, in all seriousness. “I didn’t ask for this shit. But I’m here, now, and I’m going to take it into my own hands. Our hands.”

I lifted a hand, to try and placate her.

“Fair,” I said. “What about the guy in the mask? Is he around?”

“He just got down from the platform.”

It was the guy from just earlier. He pointed across the park.

“Do you know where he is now? Who he’s with?”

“Why are you asking? Are you with us or not?”

“Stop that!”

The girl with the swept hair went back for cover. She admonished the guy.

“She’s here, isn’t she? Don’t give her shit, not everyone is ready to make this kind of commitment. But she’s here, in solidarity, and that matters.”

The guy glanced at me, then to her.

“Alright,” he said.

This isn’t working.

If I was going to get any real details, I’d have to uncover it myself, get to the source. And the only lead I had to that source was there that guy pointed, a general guess of a direction.

I had to go.

“I have to go,” I said, and the girl spun around, to me.

I had to add, “Thanks again for, you know, saving my life. I really owe you.”

The girl grinned, and that somehow made me feel relieved.

With her free hand, the other still clutching her gun tight, she extended a hand. Without any real reason in my head, I shook it.

“You don’t owe me shit, dude. Just promise me that I’ll see you again.”

“Sure, hopefully under less… sucky circumstances.”

“Certainly. Jasmine, Vietnamese.”

Jasmine. Oh. That was her name?

“Wendy,” I said. “Half-Japanese.”

Entirely something else, though.

“That’s cool, yeah. All of us, all of us? We have to stick together now. So I’ll see you around, Wendy. And cute glasses.”

Jasmine grinned.

“I… you too.”

Fuck.

It’s ‘I’ll see you around, too.

I left before I stumbled to correct myself. Whatever.

The park was less packed than I had expected, probably because most of everyone who was here were now storming out the floodgates that was the park entrance. Those were still here held down the fort, so to speak, shooting at the cops who just wanted reintroduce some semblance of peace.

But then I remembered D’s words. How peace was a pipe dream.

I hoped it really wasn’t.

I hoped all I had to maneuver through were people, but no. There was more than that. Glass as thin as splinters, smoke as wide as a cloud. Bullet casings, blood, and papers, seeping with red and stuck to the ground.

People fell. For some, it was their bodies, for others, it was their minds, as they allowed themselves to descended to this level, one that gave them the ability to send bullets through the backs of innocents.

I hoped I could stop this at the source.

Bullets continued to zip by, pinging off metal or getting embedded into cement, or worse, flesh. I saw the platform come into view as I crossed the distance of the park.

I saw people in masks leaving the park.

A small group of them, five of them, faces all covered. I was close enough to notice the details, now. They were all wearing animal masks.

Another appropriate metaphor, for all of this.

It was easy to spot the leader, or at least the one who handed this crowd lead and had them dive off the deep end. His clothes were bright but not gaudy, the fashion was more streetwear. And his mask. It wasn’t cheap, flimsy plastic, it covered the whole head. From the back, from the color and the stripes, I could tell it was a tiger.

Though, for all the strength that image would have invoked, the man needed support from the others around him. He didn’t walk so much as tumble, letting himself fall while his aides guided him, preventing him from actually hitting ground.

I knew that tumble, recognized it. It was the same kind of tumble Lawrence had, when the only things that were keeping him on his feet were his height in pills and other drugs.

They were already at the fence on the other side of the park, ducking through a hole cut out from the wire. An alley between some buildings. The park was really an abandoned construction sites, with skeletons of structures all around. If they had set up an escape route before this all started, they could slip away, easy.

I can’t let them.

In the instant I brought my foot out to start a running stride, a weight threw itself onto me. Another body. Blood coated the back and made the leather slick right off of me.

But that bought the animals enough time to escape the pen.

Too many metaphors, but that was how hectic this thing was becoming. Enough so that the perpetrators were able to make an escape.

As I went across the park, I watched them leave, the last of the animals getting under the fence. The rest were well ahead, helping the tiger walk.

Could get them, considering the scope of my speed and strength they were well within my reach. But I didn’t have my mask, was it a good idea to become an animal, here, when things were already this bad?

I had my territory to consider. I needed this contained, first and foremost, and the cops were working on that.

I had my gang to consider. I needed everyone to get together, figure this out, not just have one person make a hot-headed decision, especially in the heat of the moment. Better to handle this with a level mind.

I had myself to consider. I needed to stay sane, whatever that meant for me now, and not do anything that could get me killed, or worse, get everyone here killed. Now was not the time to overestimate my capabilities. Or underestimate, depending on how this could go.

The words I yelled at D rang out to me, loud as a gun.

I wouldn’t be long, I wouldn’t be stupid.

I wouldn’t do either.

I stopped.

Amongst the mob, deep in the waters and animals… no. It was more like mud, if I was mixing all those metaphors together. I supposed it fit, in a sense. So much shit was happening, with this inclement weather of smoke and bullet-fall

And Alexis Barnetts.

Her face continued to fall from the sky, so many of them. Some looked down on me, and while others were facing up, they weren’t looks of admiration. It was smiling, carefree, as if not a single fucking thing that would happen to her didn’t matter. As if it didn’t apply to her. That someone else would shoulder that weight.

Fuck all of that.

I had to go.

The sky was falling. And in that moment, it really felt like the world was ending.

“You have got to be motherfucking kidding me.”

“Language, Ellie.”

Lawrence gave D the most searing look.

D frowned, but then ran. She hopped, arms low between her legs, and threw them out when she landed.

“Agh!”

She sent the ball down the lane.

Strike.

“Yes!” she cheered, hopping again in place. Her frown was now upside down.

In the background, the machine worked, eating the pins and ball, preparing to spit them out for another round.

D kept celebrating her win.

“You only got that because those little wall things are up,” Isabella said, sounding bored.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really count when you have to bend the rules in order to win,” I said.

“Blah blah,” D said. She stuck her tongue out at us. “A win is a win, and I won!”

“If you say so,” Isabella said.

“You are kidding me?”

Lawrence watched his language that time, but D still frowned at him.

We were at the Electric Place, or the Electric Palace, now that D had finished her renovations. She finally put back that second ‘A.’

Royalty in their palace. But their land was on fire.

Lawrence sat back, or he tried. The plastic seats that faced the bowling lanes were almost as slick as the lanes themselves, and he had to flatten his feet on the floor to stay in place. That usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone, if that someone’s body was in a decent shape. Lawrence wasn’t out of shape, not exactly, but what was shaping him… it wasn’t anything natural.

He coughed when he talked, and it sounded like it hurt.

“This isn’t good. Not a single bit of it.”

“That’s the only way I could think of putting it,” I said, “Yet it still feels like you’re underselling it.”

“Not a single bit of it,” Lawrence reiterated. “The place, the timing, the people.”

“They started a war and used our territory as ground zero,” I said. “The police are doing what we can, but we need to find our own way to stop it. If we leave it all to the police and other authorities, they might use that as a way to get a foot on our turf. And that isn’t good, either.”

“We need to find out who they are,” Lawrence said. “Setting this up, here, of all places. It has to be deliberate. It has to be fucking Inez!”

“Hey!”

We all turned to D.

She was picking up another bowling ball as she said, “Language, sheesh, and it’s not Inez. That wouldn’t make any sense.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who would want a problem with us, and Inez made herself clear.”

“She isn’t exactly our number one fan, but a vote is a vote. Everyone made their decision, and the result still put us there. And you talked to her yourself, Ellie, she was pretty upfront about her, uh, displeasure. And from what I gathered, what happened at the park isn’t her style.”

“Enough with the fucking nicknames, D.”

D frowned again, she looked like she wanted to cry.

I had to step in.

I got up from the seat next to Lawrence and literally stepped in.

I asked D, “You were saying?”

“Well, given the makeup of the people who went to the park, like… demographically, and what that guy in the mask was talking about, my best guess would be… Dong-Yul.”

Lawrence flinched. I was sure he would have gone for a more bodily reaction, if his body could actually allow it.

“What? Fucking Donnie?”

D hugged her bowling ball. It didn’t look comfortable, but she did it, anyways.

“Are you sure?” I asked, “I thought Styx told him to back off from that particular plan of his.”

Well, not ‘thought’ exactly, since Styx did more than just tell Dong-Yul, he literally beat it into him.

Lawrence, too. That I remembered. Even more vivid.

Poor guy.

D shrugged.

“It’s my best guess, considering what just happened. Of course, I’d hate to generalize, but yeah. Maybe Dong-Yul decided going against Styx was worth it.”

“Or maybe Styx wanted Donnie to start this, and they’re all fucking in on it! Shit!”

Lawrence waved his arm as he shouted, then cursed. Put too much strength in moving his body, it seemed like.

It seemed like he was getting worse. The problem was escalating, and it was exponential.

And the problems keep piling on and on.

“Lawrence, please, thinking like that… it isn’t healthy.”

“What we do isn’t healthy, but here we are. A little paranoia goes a long way.”

“Sure, but when it starts to get compounded with other stuff, it becomes a downward spiral, and we don’t need that right now.”

Lawrence either growled or coughed. Either way, it didn’t sound good.

I tried my best to steer the conversation.

“So what’s the plan? If Dong-Yul is responsible for this, we need to know what he’s really after, and see if we can either stop him from getting it, or at least do it off of our property.”

“You spoke with him, that one time at the club,” D said, “So did Lawrence. You know what he wants. Violence against the violence that was done against those who look like him.”

“Revenge, then.” I sighed. “That’s such a… I’m surprised he managed to get so many different people to go along with him.”

“Hate to generalize, again, but I guess there’s some solidarity to be found when they get generalized and attacked and harassed for it. Even if I can’t feel that, I get how that’s frustrating.”

Solidarity. Frustrating. I heard that word, felt that energy.

“If it is Dong-Yul finally playing his hand, we’ll have to play ours,” I said. “He knew that this is our territory, he knew what he was doing, bringing all those people here, bringing those cops. And if there’s anything we do know, it’s that he’s in the city, somewhere. At the very, absolute least, we need to find him.”

“I can find him, and I can talk to him, too.”

Lawrence tumbled out of his seat, both legs just barely catching him before it became a fall.

“I can talk to him.”

“El,” D started, then paused, “Lawrence-”

“You really think that’s a good idea?” I asked. I felt bad for interrupting D, but I didn’t want Lawrence to snap at her again.

“Y’all don’t know Donnie like I do,” Lawrence said, “We came up together, more or less. He was willing to meet with me when I wanted to talk about money.”

“He was willing to fuck you over, remember? If D and I hadn’t been there…”

I didn’t finish the sentence, but it was clear that he picked up on it. Lawrence grimaced.

“We cannot let what happened at the park happen again. Not in our territory.”

“I get that, Lawrence, seriously, we all do. That’s why we’re here. We need to be smart about this. We need to work together. Why does this feel like a lesson we have to learn all over again?”

“Stubbornness,” I heard Isabella say, “But it’s worked for you. It can work again.”

“Let’s not get our heads clouded, alright?”

I addressed the whole bowling alley with that. Lawrence, D, Isabella, myself. Even Sarah and Reggie, who had been sitting by the arcade the whole time, eyes on every entrance and exit.

Everyone needed to hear that. I needed to hear that.

He stayed still, slanted in his stance. Lawrence didn’t look any more at ease, just the opposite.

He looked like how I’d probably look if I was starved. Except the cravings were very different.

He breathed heavy.

“We have a fucking lot to figure out. What do you propose we do?”

Doing this for as long as I had, now, I learned that I wasn’t the ideas person. But, I had something to suggest, this time.

“When I was in the mob, I ran into someone. Jasmine. I think she likes me.”

“Very nice,” Lawrence said. “Who gives a fuck?”

D whined and stomped her foot.

“Meaning,” I said, “She wants me to see her again, so that gives me an in. I slip into their ranks, figure out where they’re being deployed, and we can set them up there.”

“Donnie knows you, too, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “He might even know too much. If he really is running this thing, and he gets even a hint that you’re in close, it’s over.”

“It won’t get to that point. It shouldn’t. You want to talk to him? I never intended to deny you that. Just give me and D an avenue to give you support, because the way you were talking earlier made it sound like you wanted to go off on your own. And we can’t have that, not now.”

It wasn’t lost on me, how the three of us were standing. Me, closer to the shadows, where the limited power of the bowling alley didn’t reach. Lawrence, in the light, a bead of sweat running down one side of his face. D, still hugging that ball, giving both of us worried looks.

We had just gotten exactly where we wanted to be. Then why did it feel like we were all in our own separate corners?

Lawrence was the first one to move, or slant the other way in his corner.

“Not a bad proposal. We could start things in that direction.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Fuck. I need sleep.”

D groaned.

“Been there,” I said. “Not fun.”

“I need something to help me sleep.”

Bringing his hands to his head, he ran fingers through his hair, even tugging on it. He fell back into his seat.

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I hate what this is doing to me, I hate that I need this shit. I thought I’d have everything under control by now, like everything, but I don’t. I feel like shit. I feel like shit but I need shit to make me feel less like shit but I makes me feel like shit all the more. Fuck.”

Now Lawrence was tugging at his hair.

“I don’t know what’s happening. I’m not like you, Wendy, I don’t have powers, and I’m not whatever D actually is. I’m not as capable as you two, I’m just normal. I feel like I’ve been falling behind, and I need this shit just to keep up. But now, more shit keeps happening and I need more shit for that shit.”

The curses were making him sound more and more vague and detached, but I felt him all the same.

“Oh, Ellie, you’re not normal!”

“D,” I said, almost as tired as Lawrence. Almost.

She stepped forward with bowling ball.

“I’m serious!” she said. “You’re better than normal, you’re way more awesomer! You’re the face of the Fangs! And you have really good movie tastes and you can laugh at some of my jokes now and you liked whenever I came over to check on you and baked pusties!”

She took a step with every exclamation.

I looked at him. “Is this true, Lawrence?”

Lawrence either chuckled or coughed again. Hard to tell.

“Fuck off. Like I’d admit it.”

Somehow, despite everything, a smile passed my lips.

“Face it, Lawrence, you’re just like us now.”

Lawrence chucked, dry.

“God, don’t say that. That sounds so harrowing.”

It was the closest thing to levity we had between the three of us. I used it to pivot to another point. For Lawrence’s sake.

I spoke.

“We need rest, but you especially, Lawrence. And you need to seriously start tapering off on those drugs.”

He nodded and shook his head. Mixed messages.

“Yeah!” D shouted. “Before we split up I want to you empty pockets, sir!”

Languid, but still responsive, he put a hand into his pocket, and took out a tiny plastic bottle. Shining off the faint light of the bowling alley, there were only a few pills left.

Moaning, he then mumbled, “Never wanted to get high off my own supply, yet here I am. Fuck me.”

He opened the bottle and tossed the whole thing into a dark corner. The pills spilled out and clattered underneath chairs and racks.

“I’ll have the janitors get that in the morning,” D said. She sounded momentarily satisfied.

Lawrence had to fight to get back to his feet. In this moment, he won out.

“Anything else we need to talk about?” he asked. “Or anything we have to get done tonight?”

We don’t have to talk about Alexis Barnett.

“That should be it,” I said. “If you want to leave and get back to sleep, then please, I’d actually recommend it. D and I will stick around for a bit, but we won’t do anything concrete without your knowing.”

“I might actually listen this time. It’s late. I’m about to die.”

“You’re about to go to bed and have the best sleep ever,” D said. “Goodnight Ellie!”

Lawrence waved, weak, but it was a genuine effort. He turned, and started to walk.

I watched his back, shaded by shadow, more gloom covering him as the distance grew. When he got to the exit and went out the door, the dark took him in completely.

I searched for Sarah, and found her easily. Still by the arcade. I was so glad she was safe.

I beckoned for her. Reggie too.

They came over.

“So, Jasmine?” Sarah immediately asked. “What she like?”

“What?”

“Er, nothing. Yeah, Voss?”

“Could you guys look after Lawrence, follow him back to his place? Just to make sure he gets back alright.”

Reggie answer, “We can do that, Voss, sure.”

“Thank you,” I said, as Reggie started to turn. Sarah went to follow, but not before having her hand brush against mine.

The only amount of physical contact we had all day. And she wouldn’t be coming over tonight.

I watched her as she left, going into that dark. I longed.

Then it was just me and D. Isabella too.

“This is a mess,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” D replied, “Usually I’m the one who makes them, not cleans them up! It’s super lame.”

Still holding the bowling ball, she went back to her lane, preparing to toss it in.

“Better to make a mess of them before they come back and do it again. That’s more to clean up.”

Isabella wasn’t up for playing, preferring to watch and make the occasional comment. Sometimes it helped. Other times, it felt like she was getting me to do something else.

“Before we go and do anything crazy and equally messy,” I said, “Are there any other bases we need to cover? Mrs. Carter? Styx?”

“I kind of don’t want to see either of them,” D said. “Mrs. Carter would want us to handle this by ourselves, and Styx would just use this as an opportunity to cash in his third favor or something. So, no thank you.”

“Okay, I get that. Anyone else? Gomez, maybe?”

“Uncle J?”

D hopped and dropped the ball. It rolled, bouncing between the bumpers that prevented the ball from falling into the gutter. It continued that way until it reached the pins. They crashed.

“Aw! So close!”

A seven-ten split. Only two pins were left standing.

D set her hands on her hips and faced me again. Upset, but she was playing it up.

“Uncle J would work. We could see if he knows something.”

“Cool. I owe him a visit now for him sticking his nose back into our territory, might as well get him to talk. But, we should wait for Lawrence in the morning, when he’s in a better headspace.”

“Maybe not.”

I glanced at Isabella.

“Lawrence is weak. He’s always been weak, and now he’s getting weaker. It won’t be long until all strength has left his body and he ends up as deadweight.”

“Maybe…” I said, but I didn’t finish the thought.

I was worried about Lawrence. I was worried about everything. But most of all, I was worried that Isabella might be right.

D made a sound. “What was that?”

“No. It’s… it’s nothing.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

103 – Meltdown!

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence was sweating. Granted, there were several factors as to why that was the case, but still. Having to host, being presentable, and attempting to make a good impression on a senior who might have had a reason to not like us. I could see how that was cause for stress.

But still…

His skin was clammy, he tumbled over his words on occasion, and how he walked was too deliberate, having to think over every step, every movement. Again, he could just be trying to consider the guests, but still.

But still.

“And you’re proud of this collection you have here?”

Inez had her nose turned up while she asked. Incredulous. She walked in step with Lawrence, but her pace was more measured, almost like she was the one leading the way. Lawrence struggled to keep an even stride with her.

The whole thing was hard to watch. Where I had the sharp teeth and bite, Lawrence was supposed to have a tongue of silver. What did it say, when the face of the gang looked so unwell?

“We might not be at the Mazzucchelli, but we do have several pieces that would be worthy of such a place. Take this piece, here.”

Lawrence raised an arm, pointing to the specific piece he had mentioned. The last one down this hall, in the East wing of the museum. A painting.

Wasn’t any artwork I’d seen before. Must have missed it during my one and only proper visit to the gala.

It was a quaint, reserved work of art. One that wasn’t trying to be flashy with its colors or technique, but rather creating and capturing a mood that one had to sit with and contemplate. It didn’t strike so much as it did stir.

A portrait of a man. Elderly, with a soft expression on his face. A few, small brushstrokes reflected a certain sadness in his eyes, but he didn’t look particularly troubled. It didn’t consume him, it didn’t swallow him. There was a distinct line between his lips, turned up, so slight. There was a gloom that the man had lived through, but he learned to live through it, live with it.

Quick dashes of violet hues shaped the man’s face, shoulders, upper body. His hands were clasped together, in his lap, one resting on top of the other. The coloring was kept simple, monochromatic, focusing more on forming things through lighting and shading. The presentation had a surrealness to it, but the overall sentiment was so very real. Despite the torrent behind the man’s eyes, and maybe behind the painter themselves, there was a calm that permeated the piece. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, myself, aside from a strange mixture of longing. And dread.

If I had come across this while I was going through the gala, I probably would have given it a pass. It was too real, it hit too close. The eyes looked through me, too deeply.

I stayed back as Lawrence waited for Inez and her crew.

“Not would be,” Inez said, “It has been. I’ve seen this piece before. You just stole it from their walls.”

“We all work in the same industry,” Lawrence said, “Is crime not our craft?”

Inez turned to get a better look at the painting. I only had the back of her head to work with, now, but I could read her body language. She wasn’t being very subtle about it.

Her shoulders stiffened, lifting them up. She rolled them back, and as she relaxed again, Inez angled her head. Turning her nose upward, over Lawrence. With heels, she towered over Lawrence, and he was already taller than me.

I could only imagine the look she had in her eyes. I wasn’t envious of Lawrence at all.

“I deal, young man. I make offers and then others take them. Power, wealth. That is how I build these things. Respect. I do not need to resort to simple thievery like the common thug.”

Ugh. She wasn’t even addressing me directly, and she still got me heated. I knew why, though. Because it was my gang she was putting down. My people, and that included people like Sarah.

Lawrence was rankled, too, but I saw him work to keep his composure. Lawrence laughed. It was a nervous one. Not a good look.

Shit. At this venture I’d be doing a better job than him.

No, wait. Fuck that. If I was in Lawrence’s position, this would have turned into a bloody mess, quick. Literally.

And the last thing we needed right now was a mess.

My hand closed into a fist as I watched Lawrence struggle.

“You could say we had set the stage to play the role of the common thug. But even so, would the common thug be able to rob the biggest art museum in the city, on the night it would be the most guarded, occupied by the rich and the elite? Most, if any at all, wouldn’t even make it to the front steps of the place. We managed all of that, and it was but one part of a grander plan.”

Lawrence hoped that would be enough to impress her. Hell, I did, too.

Still facing the direction of the painting, her back to me. Nothing in her posture suggested that at all.

“By grand plan, do you mean running into the smoke of a convenient fire?” Inez questioned.

God, she was as bad as Mrs. Carter, maybe even worse. At least Mrs. Carter was able to congratulate us, give us our props. She even welcomed us. Inez, though? What was her fucking problem?

But, that was why we invited her here, to the museum that Lawrence made his base. It was just that the process was like pulling teeth.

Something I wouldn’t have been opposed to inflicting upon our… esteemed fucking guest.

Lawrence took a noticeable second to provide a response.

“Smoke and mirrors, Lady Inez, deception is one of the most important tools we have at our disposal, and I think we showed a good display of that, on that night. If you believed that fire to be a convenience, then we did our job better than we expected, and we more than earned our seat at the table.”

Inez straightened out her back. As if she wasn’t tall already.

“Not a fire, then, but a hellblaze. And if you’re the one who lit the match and threw it, young man, then it proves just how reckless and hot-headed you really are. By throwing caution to the wind with this stunt to impress the panel, you risk causing a fire you had no control over.”

“Doesn’t everything come with a bit of risk? Given the circumstances, we did well enough to win over the panel, did we not?”

“Hm.”

Inez had folded her arms, squared her shoulders, judging from her outline. Most of her body was covered by a dark brown long coat, with a texture that suggested it could have been skinned from an animal. What kind? I had no guesses, there.

In this exchange of words, it was Inez’s turn, and she was taking her time. She stared ahead at the painting, deep in thought. Seemingly. I did not envy Lawrence in the slightest.

I stayed back, closer to the shadows. Right where I belonged.

Keeping watch until something went wrong. Which it might.

I willed Lawrence to get his head back in the game.

If it wasn’t so clouded with pills.

Then, finally, Inez spoke.

“This painting, it’s a very particular piece. A relatively obscure piece from a relatively obscure artist, only recognized by critics due to his storied past and the people he influenced. Either you only happened to pick this by chance, or you actually have some developed taste.”

Lawrence faced the painting. I saw him fix his posture. Not completely straight, but straighter.

“The latter,” Lawrence said. Breathy, but it was with the most confidence I’d heard from since Inez’s group got here. “LIke I suggested, I do know what I’m doing, and that extends to my gang, too. You’re right, this man’s work isn’t well known or appreciated by the general public, but I did come across some his paintings while digging into other stuff. Movies, and then documentaries. Some of them talked about his art during his time in East Asia. It was only for a brief time, but if you compare-”

“Yes. I am aware. After his visit, his art moved from the idyllic portrayals of landscapes, to almost exclusively self-portraits. His style shifted as well, veering away from his more picturesque attempts at realism to this more abstract, yet stark approach. The art and subject matter had changed so intensely the few peers and friends he had refused to believe it was his work.”

“It wasn’t so much what he decided to paint, it was how. They weren’t prepared to see how the man saw himself, when he returned.”

The two conversed, on a level that seemed more even for Lawrence. He was able to keep up, or she was letting him keep up. But if that was the case, than he had already lost ground, here.

And we would have wasted time inviting someone over, only for them to insult us in our own home.

That was the last fucking thing we needed, right now. We got here, we earned our spot. We were riding that wave up. We didn’t need anyone to come and knock us down.

Lawrence, please.

Inez’s turn. Again.

“It’s been suggested that he’s always had that particular view of himself. From personal journal entries, to accounts by those who could only stand to be with him for more than a few minutes. Manic, self-destructive, obsessed with the idea of creating something that he perceived to be worthwhile and would last. To be one of the greats. That was his fuel, but it burned him on the inside. And flames have a habit of wanting to burst, escape into the open air.”

Turning again to Lawrence, she continued, no longer willing to give him any space to speak. Like I figured, she was playing him. Us.

“Do you know how he died?”

Lawrence was sweating. More from nervousness than anything else in his system. I’d bet.

He was about to answer, but Inez cut him off. Toying with him.

“He died a young man. Got into opioids during his time in the East. Overdose.”

I could see the look on his face. I could bet I had the same look when Natalie gave me Alexis’ name. Like we had seen a ghost.

Fear.

Lawrence was too out of it now to give a proper response. Too shaken.

Inez toyed with that, too.

“This artist thought he could be more than what was around him, and then, more than his own self. That was why he painted what he painted. He wanted a legacy that would last well after he was gone. And in the end, maybe he got that. I do wonder if this was what he had in mind, exactly. As I mentioned, relative obscurity.”

This conversation was going off in a totally different direction, with Inez at the lead. Not at all how I would have liked for this thing to go. But here we were, because of her.

Lawrence, finally, managed to get enough of his bearings back to say something.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak for him, but I suppose it would almost be fitting, that he’d be disappointed.”

Inez paused, brief.

“Yes. That’s one thing we can agree on.”

Lawrence shifted in place. He looked as if he’d need assistance just to keep standing on two feet.

Dammit. He insisted that’d he be fine. And we all let him go out there, like that. Part of that was on us, now. On me, on D.

I was starting to sympathize with Lawrence, though. He had to have felt the exact same way when dealing with me. Dammit.

Lawrence spoke, and it wasn’t with much spirit. If anything, it sounded like he had little left.

“But, yes, as hopefully you now see, I- the Fangs, we know what we’re doing, and we wouldn’t have gotten that seat if we hadn’t-”

A clear sound rang throughout the wing. Inez shifted to face Lawrence straight on. Her heel struck the marble floor, producing a note that resonated through everyone. It made me freeze and want to recoil, and I was already hanging as far back as I could.

Being as close to the epicenter as he was, Lawrence shook, needing a step back, stumbling that made me scared that he’d take a fall. He didn’t. But he could have.

And I was getting scared that I’d have to insert myself into this.

Inez made herself clear.

“Really, young man? You play with fire and steal the painting of a man who did the very same? Did you already forget his ultimate fate, or is this another sad facet of his tragic legacy?”

Lawrence stammered, but nothing came out.

Inez took his turn, and pushed the game further.

“I know why you invited me here, today, and I have no problem telling it to your face, young man. Yes, I did cast a vote against the Fangs.”

By this point, it wasn’t a surprise, anymore.

Taking it in, Lawrence made himself stiff, bracing himself for more. Because more was coming.

“I can’t and won’t tell you how others voted, but I can give you my reasons. Mrs. Carter was right, changes are happening in Stephenville, and a gang like yours represents that very clearly. However, I disagree that these changes needed to be embraced. Much like fire, your gang is unpredictable, wild, liable to destroy everything in your path, turning it all to cinders. Do we really need a group like that, at the table? Do I?”

You’re not that far off, I thought.

Lawrence, though, looked as if he didn’t have a single thought in his head. Struggling wasn’t the right word, because that would have suggested an attempt, an effort. There was no such struggle in Lawrence, no fight. Not anymore.

He had completely given up that this would go well.

I did, too.

Poor Lawrence.

Inez then turned, her sharp eyes piercing through me like daggers. The hair at the back of my neck stood at the ends, and I was aware how I was standing. Leaning towards her, slight, needing just a brush of wind to push me and make me lunge right at her.

I balled up my fist, doing everything I could just to keep standing, keep myself staying here.

We didn’t need that, we didn’t need that mess.

Her stare was like a dagger, because it was short, cold as ice when it passed through me, and left me in a startled yet readied state, ready to retaliate. She pulled back, though, pulled the blade out of me.

“And I’m concerned with the kind of fire you have at your disposal. I’ve read the official reports by the police, but everyone has. Explosives, thermite. But what truly worries me and the others who voted against you is what the police didn’t report, what’s being whispered in hallways and back corners, because we have ears, there. We listen. And we heard something about the Bluemoon, or someone very similar to them.”

Lawrence replied, it surprised me that he did.

“The Bluemoon is gone, probably dead. No one has seen them last year.”

“Last year wasn’t that long ago, young man. Solace did have a part in waning the Bluemoon, but none of us really know what we’re up against, with that. It can always rise again, it might even take on another shape, another phase.”

Inez sounded so pleased with herself, as if she was the only one who had cracked the code. In truth, she wasn’t so far off, but that arrogance rubbed me the wrong way. Raw. Red.

If she found out, if it came out…

Well, it’d be too late for them to do anything, wouldn’t it? We were already where we needed to be. The timeline of things would just be moved up a little.

Still, using Lawrence’s words, deception was one our most important tools.

“If you’re suggesting that the Bluemoon has been back and working with us,” Lawrence said, “Then you would be mistaken.”

Mistaken on a technicality.

Lawrence continued, “Rumors are just that. Unsubstantiated. Shapes lurk in the shadows, and when the human eye can’t make out what’s there, it fills in the blank for you. That’s how you get monsters, the things you can’t really touch, so you fear it. Like changes.”

That prompted the first, genuine reaction from Inez. She unfolded her arms, her hands moving onto her hips instead. The crew she had with her reacted, too, getting more tense, stirring. As though they were an extension of her.

All Lawrence had for an extension right now was me. I hoped that would be enough for him.

Inez kept that pose, a new sort of defense for Lawrence to try and penetrate. But he wouldn’t have the strength to do it. He was too out of it, out of sorts.

He was sweating.

“I fear nothing, young man,” Inez answered, “But as I said, I do know why you invited me, today. You want to win me over, change my mind? If nothing else, this day won’t be a complete waste if I can get some entertainment out of watching you try. Come. Show me if you Fangs really have teeth.”

And then Inez left, or took down towards another corner of the wing. Her crew went with her, leaving Lawrence behind.

With me in the distance, in that brief moment, it was me, Lawrence, and that painting. How it gazed, content with the chaos in his life, but ultimately doomed to it.

Lawrence looked away from the painting, to Inez, and I looked at Lawrence.

I watched him wipe his brow, and follow. For him, this was far from over.

For all of us, really.

I was about to follow, too, take a step, when my phone vibrated.

Giving the message a quick read, I walked, but not in Lawrence’s direction. I went other way, leaving Lawrence to his own devices, at a time when his own devices weren’t working so well for him.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Poor guy.

I maneuvered through empty halls, displays and other paintings were my only company as I turned onto the path back to Lawrence’s office.

Pushing through the weighty doors, I returned.

Sarah, D and Isabella. They were all doing their own thing, but they all shared a collective air of anxiety. One I drew breath from, too.

D was sitting in Lawrence’s desk, her face illuminated by the open laptop in front of her. Her face was screwed up in a tight expression, studying whatever was on her screen, fretting over something. Isabella sat in the corner, in the shadows, not really doing much of anything.

Sarah.

Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.

Just seeing her, it lifted me, made me flutter. Repeating myself was lame, but it was either that, or tumble over my own words. And after watching Lawrence, I’d spare myself the effort.

“Hi,” I said, addressing the room. There wasn’t much else to say.

Sarah was already looking at me. She smiled, but it was dampened somewhat but the surrounding circumstances. Couldn’t blame her.

D was next, popping her head up from her screen.

“You’re back!”

“Only because you asked me, too.” I lifted my phone. I dropped it into my pocket. “Lawrence isn’t doing too hot. And that could be seen as joke, considering how hard he was sweating it out there, but there isn’t really anything funny about it.”

D frowned. She looked legitimately upset, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Knowing her, she would have already had things in motion.

“He won’t listen to a thing I say.”

“He’s not listening to anything anyone says,” I rebutted. “I’ve come to learn he can get pretty fucking stubborn.”

“We all are,” D said. “You, Vivi, and me especially. Maybe even Sarah.”

She pointed at Sarah using her lips.

Sarah shrugged, a slight smirk on her face.

“That could be a fair assessment. Stubbornness has gotten me this far.”

She eyed me as she said that.

Lame.

I smirked back.

“It’s gotten us here, sure, but it’ll only take us so far,” D said. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I-”

D massaged her neck, tugging at her choker.

She then sighed. “We’ll need more than this if we want to keep the momentum going.”

“Like what? Any ideas?”

Shaking her head, D’s hair whipped around her face.

“I dunno. I’m tired.”

If D of all people couldn’t think of anything, then we had a problem. But, expecting so much from someone so young…

It was reckless.

“More fire, more burning things,” Isabella said, from her little corner in the dark. “Like Inez.”

“Inez is giving us exactly what we needed from her. Lawrence, no, we just aren’t giving her what she needs. If we can’t show her why we earned our place… it sets us back, but not by much. We’re already here, and they can’t call for a vote to get rid of us so soon, right?”

Then I considered it.

“Right?” I asked, a little less sure.

“I don’t know how Mrs. Carter does things. Maybe? We probably in some grace period at the moment, but we shouldn’t push, it probably won’t last long.”

“We shouldn’t push it… but we are. I hope Lawrence… I hope we can get our shit together.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Sarah said. “I believe in you.”

From anyone else, I would have taken those a hollow sentiment. But from Sarah, it made me able to stand a little taller.

“Start by turning Inez into ashes,” Isabella said. “Burn her and her operation down.”

“For the next meeting, let’s go with someone who actually likes us,” I said. “My ego doesn’t need another beatdown.”

“Probably for the best,” D said, “But I think we should move on to something else. For the time being.”

She flipped the laptop around, showing me the screen. I walked closer to the desk to get a better read on it.

“You got this from Nathan again?” I asked, reading the message.

“Yeah, can you believe that? He’s been really helpful, lately. He’s the best.”

“I’m sure he didn’t have a choice but to help you. So, anyways, what is this? Something about a meeting?”

“Ah, right, not a meeting, actually, more like a gathering, or… what’s a good word for a lot of people coming together for a party but it’s not really a party like they’re not going there for fun and the cops might be there because there’s probably to be a lot of trouble?”

“Um… sounds like a riot to me,” I said.

D nodded. “Riot! Right. It’s going to be a riot.”

I could feel the energy in the air. A tension that reached. Reaching for the night sky, wanting to pull the moon and stars down to earth, crashing it all around us.

D wasn’t wrong about this. Where there was tension, there was the risk of a snap. And the risk was high. It reached.

A lot of people at the Wellport Skate Park. Kids, adults. Protesters and police.

Enough had gathered that this could get real ugly, real fast.

The entire park was packed, everyone standing shoulder to shoulder. No room to push through, unimpeded, on a skateboard.

There were several rings of people, surrounding the entrance of the park itself. Sort of like the bottom half of a target, if I had pulled back and up, looking from a roof.

Kids and younger adults in the park, doing everything they could, given the little room they had to work with. They still managed a lot.

Cheering, yelling into the open air, over loud music. Rocking back and forth to the beat. The bass boomed, contrasted by the higher shrills. Different groups in the crowd were chanting different things at different intervals, so it was hard to discern what the actual message was. The feeling, however, was made as clear and bright as the moon.

Frustration.

The first ring around the park and its entrance were the cops. Police cars were parked in wait, lights flashing, spinning through strong red and blue hues. Unlike those in the park, they were more stationary, communicating with other at intervals, getting the occasional update, making sure this wouldn’t get out of hand. As much as I wasn’t fond of a police presence in my territory, they were doing a decent job on keeping an eye on things.

Doing most of the work for us.

The second ring were the onlookers, those who were here just for the spectacle of it. Watching, taking videos, wasting their time. It bugged me, seeing them here, seeing everyone here. Too many eyes on my territory. Too much scrutiny and pressure. Pressure that could burst.

Then the last ring, the one farthest back, was us. The Fangs, watching everything and everyone, making certain that the situation wouldn’t get any worse.

In that way, I hoped D was wrong about this becoming a riot.

“I don’t like this,” I said out loud. I shared my sentiments with D.

“Me too me too,” D said. She hopped a few times, trying to get a better look, but everyone around was too tall for her. She made a growling sound.

If we watched from rooftops, we’d immediately get spotted by the police. We needed to keep a low profile, here.

D immediately casted that aside as she scrambled to the top of the van, standing on it. She put her hands to her eyes, pretending to hold binoculars.

“Wow, that’s a lot of people!”

“D!” I hissed, “Get down from there!”

We were at the edge of the action. Too far to be noticed, but close enough to get a sense of things.

But there was still a sizable group around us, and it wasn’t just our Fangs. Some I could categorize as part of that second ring.

Some stared as D acted out. Stood out.

I hissed again, between sharp teeth.

D!”

Groaning, D hopped to the ground, dusting herself off. Exaggerating.

“I saw Uncle J,” D said, just under her breath, as if the man in question could somehow hear her, over all this noise.

“Gomez?”

“Over there!” D pointed and hopped, but she wasn’t indicating any specific direction. I knew to look for him now, though.

“I didn’t like this before, and now I’m worried,” I said. “Everyone’s coming out tonight, makes it seem like something big is about to happen.”

“Something big is happening right now.”

I looked to my side. Not at D.

Nathan stood, hunched over with a lean, hat and then hood over his head.

“And shit is about to go down,” he added.

“And if you know what that shit is, now would be a good time to tell us,” I said.

“I don’t,” Nathan said, shaking his head. “I just know about this.”

“I appreciate you giving us the heads-up, though. But, are you going to be okay, standing around us like this?”

“It’s cool,” he said, cool. “No one knows I’m here, and it’s not like anyone really cares where I’m at, anyways.”

“I care!”

That was from D.

“You’re always free to join us,” I told him. “We could offer you protection, whatever that means to you. D brought up that you’ve been a help, lately. Again, I appreciate it.”

“Nah,” Nathan said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hood. “Not my thing, this street shit. I’m just here because I’m here, you know? I didn’t ask for this.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

Up ahead, the crowd roared. I checked, but there wasn’t any new changes.

“Whatever happens here, it’ll fuck me up,” Nathan days, looking ahead. “So I have to let someone know, and the cops sure as shit won’t do anything about it.”

“In their defense, they’re here now.”

“Yeah, well, I still don’t trust them.”

Looking back into the crowd, I saw some of the cops, keeping everyone in the second ring at a distance. James Gomez was there, somewhere. Here in my territory. Even though I had given him my warning.

The park was stewing, the police keeping on a lid, but if pressure got to a boiling point…

“Let’s hope they won’t have to do anything but stand there,” I said. “D, any ideas?”

“I think… we should just see what happens.”

“You don’t think there’s a way to de-escalate this?”

“You’re asking the wrong person for that, Vivi. Our best bet would be that everyone leaves on their own, peacefully. But, knowing people, peace is kind of a pipe dream.”

It was disappointing, hearing that as a forgone conclusion.

“There’s only one way for this end. For everything.”

Isabella was leaning against the van, hanging farther back, hands tugging at her backpack.

Between D, Nathan, and Isabella, I felt somehow ancient. Sarah wasn’t here, having been sent out with the rest of the Fangs, extending our reach across the park and the surrounding streets. Lawrence was also absent, but he was sitting this out, entirely. After that performance in front of Inez this afternoon, he finally agreed to take the rest of the day off.

And as soon as we got settled, we could work on him, work on us. Me.

The constant running back and forth between different things. Taking care of the territory, meeting with the other gang leaders, and everything that was going on within the Fangs. Lawrence.

While I could sympathize with him wanting to push forward, he had his limits. He was human. I, however, was not.

“And let’s hope you’re wrong about that,” I said, to D and Isabella.

Before either of them could get a chance to respond, the crowd roared again, but it was more uniform, in response to something.

“My fellow soldiers!”

Heads everywhere turned. Mine included.

Off in the central area of the skate park, on top of one of a cement wall that repurposed into a ramp, someone was standing.

A man, from the overall build, but their face was obscured.

A mask?

Couldn’t tell what the exact design was, from here. They were too far.

And as if to directly contrast the mask, their outfit stuck out like a light in the dark. A bright neon green coat that reflected hard spotlights that hit him. The beams moved in coordination with one another, to keep the masked man in focus as he sauntered around, yelling into the megaphone.

The amount of planning just to set that up, it didn’t sit well with me.

“How- how is the energy tonight!”

The crowd at the park cheered, loud. I saw some of the cops tense up.

“Someone had to bring them all here,” I muttered.

“And he’s getting them all riled up,” D said.

“That sounds amazing! Fucking fierce!”

Once more, the crowd responded in turn.

“Before we begin, I want to thank our sponsors, for allowing us this space to freely express the hurt, and the injustice, that has been brought down upon us as a people!”

The voice sounded familiar, but the megaphone distorted it, masked it. I couldn’t pin it down.

“What’s he talking about?” I asked. “What people?”

“You didn’t notice?” Nathan questioned. “Or maybe I’m just not used to seeing that many Asian people all at once. Not in this neighborhood, anyways.”

I tried checking the crowd again, but like D, I wasn’t tall enough.

“No,” I said, “I didn’t pick up on that.”

The man was still saying his piece. Yelling it.

“These past weeks, these months, have been nothing but torture for us. The assaults, the violence, all because of a few, certain individuals. Harrian Wong, and the Blue-fucking-moon!”

The crowd shouted. The cops started communicating amongst each other.

I tensed.

“They said the Bluemoon was one of us, looked like you or me, but what does that justify? What does that suggest? That we’re monsters? That we’re something to be feared? Is this what America thinks of us? Huh?”

Several people got up on the platform the man was standing on. Each were holding briefcases and heavy bags. Several were getting them open.

“Well fuck that noise! If they want to give us smoke, we’ll hit them like a fucking flood!”

“D…” I said.

“I know.”

One of the people by the masked man handed him a briefcase. He raised it into the air. The others started tossing stuff out into the crowd. I couldn’t see what it was from where we were.

But the cops were winding up. Tension.

“Countless victims, brothers and sisters who aren’t getting the protection they need. They’ve had to come to me for that shit!”

The briefcase fell upon, releasing the contents into the air. Paper, stacks of them, getting caught by the wind, carried far across the park and the rings of people.

The man kept lecturing while the papers soared.

“No more, yeah? We’re taking our shit back! I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and now, I am finally allowed the means. My own Helter Skelter.”

A crowd, a gathering, but it wasn’t a party. Loud pops blasted into the air like firecrackers.

This isn’t a party.

Screams, roars. From everyone.

I felt the people around us falter, get pushed back.

Guns.

Snap.

“They were handing out guns into the crowd,” I said.

“Not just they,” D said, “I think it’s-”

A gunshot stole that last word from D’s mouth. It was close, loud.

The panic was spreading out, far and wide. The crowd was rushing out from the park, continued to be egged on by the masked man. Firing, shooting at the rings of people surrounding them.

I pulled D on instinct, hugging her close, retreating back to the van.

“It was a trap, for everyone!” I yelled, “We have to get out of here!”

“Shit!”

I turned and saw Nathan, already running away, getting submerged into a wave of people, rushing out from the park.

Police were already taking action, firing back, but they didn’t have anything lethal, just standard equipment to handle a riot, which this now was.

No, worse.

This was so much worse.

A literal, bloody mess.

I pushed D into the van, I left the door open for Isabella to get in.

“Close it!” D yelled.

I closed it.

The window was kept up, so I had to yell to coordinate a quick plan.

“Get the other Fangs! Make sure they’re okay, leave containing this to the cops!”

Make sure Sarah’s okay, I thought.

“What about you?” D yelled. More shots rang out, louder. They were coming closer.

With my thoughts still on Sarah, I answered.

“Maybe I can find the guy in the mask!”

Vivi-”

“I won’t be long, I won’t be stupid! Go!”

The van started, moving in reverse. It didn’t move very fast, now that there was a lot of people trying to get through.

I turned.

I faced the crush of people. Chaos and confusion gripped the scene and brought everything and everyone down with them.

I swatted at something close to my face.

Papers had scattered all throughout the place. Descending like gentle snow, which contrasted against the simultaneous and sudden hail of bullets.

My fingers wrapped around the paper, clutching it. As more flew around me, I-

I only meant to get a glance, but what I saw caught my eye. Stole it, really.

Standing stock-still, I watched the weather around me swirl. Snow and hail.

Etched into the elements, engraved deep with the color of an apparition, hundreds of Alexis Barnetts drifted past, dispersing into the open air.

Previous                                                                                               Next

102 – Wings of Wax

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Wind brushed through my hair, sweeping it past one ear. Sarah was right, my hair had gotten long.

I fixed it myself, brushing a loose strand away from my face. A nibbling want in the back of head was asking for Sarah to do it for me.

And I could have. She was right there.

Seemed like it would have been too much, though.

The sun shined without a single cloud to block its rays. A week had passed since the rain and clouds greyed the skies. Now, it was a clear blue that pierced through.

Outside, sitting by the storefront of a cafe. I was exposed to the elements, but it was something I could weather.

Cold air nipped, but it didn’t bite. I could still feel the tip of my nose, my face as it got warm when I looked. Outside, but I hadn’t gone numb. Just the opposite, really. I was in a flutter.

“Is this a good spot?”

I was already looking at her when she asked.

A bright red hat, or a beret, whatever she called it. It was petite in size, and it didn’t look goofy when she wore it. I could imagine it looking stupid on me.

She had round shades that framed her face, a scarf that bundled around her neck. A black sweater and coat made her outfit even more trendy and chic. She didn’t have to go all out today, but she did, but it was hard muster any disappointment when she looked that good.

A pair of jeans had completed the look, but I couldn’t see them from where I was, across the round metal table chair we were sharing. But I had already stolen a glance or several on our way over here.

Oh right. There was a question I had to answer.

“Should be,” I said, finally getting to it. “It’s not like we can move now. You already got a coffee.”

“We can move,” Sarah said. “Do you want to move?”

“We don’t have to. This can work.”

“But it can be better. If you want to, we can go somewhere else.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I want to do what you think works best.”

I glanced up at her, trying to wear the most annoyed expression on my face. Trying, because it was only an attempt.

Sarah was across from me, holding her cup, covering her mouth with it, as if she was hiding behind it. From how her eyes crinkled at the corners, I could tell she was wearing a knowing smirk. It immediately broke through any facade I had.

As I thought, it was only an attempt.

Me. Sarah. The very idea that we could even fit in the same sentence. Sarah and I.

A week, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

That slow day had been extended into seven more, marked with late nights and later mornings, waking well after the sun had already gotten up. It was a routine of sorts, and I wouldn’t have minded if it actually became routine. I could absolutely get used to the pattern we were falling into.

It did leave me with a nagging thought, however, like how fragile everything was, or how fragile I perceived everything to be, and how that affected my approach in things. This. The longer this went, the more scared I was that this could get ripped away from me. My whole existence, I felt, was a shaky and tumultuous one, not exactly the best foundation to start building… anything. At the very end, it might be akin to stacking a house of cards. It would be easy, for this to crumble.

I didn’t want this to crumble.

It made me second-guess myself. Just how serious was I supposed to take this? Was this a real thing, or was this just the current state of affairs?

Where did Sarah stand? Did it matter? Did I want it to?

Why was I always overthinking things?

I looked at Sarah again, like a habit, a routine. I thought it would a certain effect, but I found the opposite. My heart raced even faster.

From behind that cup, I could see the edges of her expression, the corners of her lips, turned up. So bright that there needed to be something to block it. Couldn’t be faced straight on.

But, at least in this very moment, those concerns seemed to melt away. There was only this, and if I could get myself to sit here and enjoy this, I might be able to relax.

It was a promising dream.

Sarah placed her cup back into the saucer. It was a smooth, practiced movement. Cool. Something I could never hope to replicate, myself.

What wasn’t cool, was when the wind tried to intrude on us again, blowing stray strands into my eyes. I had to fix my hair and glasses both.

“Let me get that.”

A hand reached for me, fingers brushing into my hair, pushing it to one side. It didn’t seem to help much, as the wind came back to try and undo most of the work. Maybe Sarah had the right idea, wearing a hat today.

I wasn’t about to complain. I didn’t even have to ask, that time. I’d let her take the lead. A small part of our routine.

Finally, the wind relented, and Sarah could start making some progress on me. Or my hair, rather. I angled myself forward, so she could have an easier time with it. It was only a few stray, but she fussed over it for much longer than she really had to.

Again, no complaints there.

“There,” Sarah said, seemingly satisfied with the results. She sat back into her seat. I was still sitting forward, lingering there, with something on the tip of my tongue, that nibbling want returning. I was hoping she would get that, too.

She didn’t, but I couldn’t fault her for it.

It hit me, where we were again. Outside, sitting at a cafe, people watching. Meaning that there were people around us.

Was I being too obvious?

I sat myself back, feeling a touch flustered over it. Stupid.

“Wendy.”

She was watching me, now. Or maybe she had been, this whole time.

“Yes?”

“Enjoying yourself?”

I could answer that honestly.

“Of course I am. Of course.”

I touched my hair. Then I realized it was the third time I had done that.

“But?” Sarah ventured.

I let out a breath.

“It’s not, it’s not any one thing, there’s just a lot on my mind, right now. But hey, isn’t everyone like that?”

“Sure, but you are not everyone. You are you.”

“I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. I, um, sorry, I’m not trying to be lame right now.”

“We have time for lame.”

I really wasn’t trying to get into this now. But, we did have the time, I supposed. And we had to fill it with something. I supposed.

Sarah knew how to draw this stuff out of me. It was a dangerous power.

I started with a question.

“How does it taste? Your coffee?”

Sarah’s reaction was crucial. I watched for it.

There wasn’t one. Too muted and understated. She took it completely serious.

I found some comfort, in that.

Another part of our new routine. Whatever she tasted, she would share with me. We couldn’t exactly share a meal, so this was the closest thing we had.

Sarah lifted her chin, slight, lifting a finger to tap a steady rhythm as she thought. She was playing it up, I knew that much, even that was crucial to me. Sarah wanted me to know that she was putting in that effort. And that said so much to me that I couldn’t even begin to translate it. I knew how it made me feel, though. It made my eyes all watery.

Good nights, better mornings.

“Well, according to the menu, these beans were from South America. Columbia. So it has a tendency to be more sweet, not so acidic. But, it can have a nutty hint to it.”

A soft chuckle. “Nutty, huh? Sounds nutty.”

That prompted something similar from Sarah. “Sure is.”

“What else?” I asked. “You added, like, sugar and cream, right?”

I wanted to know more, demanded it. I wanted to savor every detail she could give me, I wanted to be selfish.

She said we’d have the time. She would have to indulge me.

“I did. There’s a natural sweetness to it, but, coffee is coffee. It’s always going to be bitter by itself. I had to punch it up with some sugar, some cream. Not too much, though, I didn’t want to spoil its original taste.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. “But I know how much of a sweet tooth you have.”

“I guess you do,” Sarah said. Then she smiled. “Am I describing it right? Or am I just boring you?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I can’t get enough, really.”

“You are you,” she said, as if it was a matter of fact.

“And coffee is coffee,” I said, in much the same way. “Thank you so much, Sarah. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through this week if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah’s smile was warmer than the weather.

“I think you’d do just fine. But you know, not as fine if I wasn’t around.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. That effect had yet to diminish on me.

“I will not disagree with you there,” I said.

Our surroundings stirred, passing us by. People, cars in the distance, the wind. But there wasn’t anything to be concerned over. Not for a little while longer. It was just us, sitting here, stationary and completely in the moment. It was almost like nothing else mattered. That I could just… be here, and do this. With Sarah.

This, this right here? It wasn’t for V, and it sure as hell wasn’t for Alexis Barnett. This was mine, and mine alone. Wendy.

I knew it would be fleeting, and would escape from my grasp like sand from an hourglass. But for now, I’d use every ounce of my enhanced strength and hold on for as long as inhumanly possible.

“Once things start picking up again, it’s going to get harder to slip some time in during the day,” I said, “For stuff like this.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said. “It will be a hassle. But I doubt it’ll turn into a mess.”

“I hope not.”

“Which means I probably shouldn’t be coming over as often.”

I frowned at the prospect of that.

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Sarah frowned, too, but it was a sympathetic one.

“I know, but there’s fun and there’s being realistic. People are starting to ask questions.”

“People? Who?”

She lifted a shoulder, nothing too committal.

“I’m kidding. Well, Reggie, even Tone. There’s only so many times they call me up for drinks and I’m not available, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Just say work has been holding you up or something.”

“I don’t think that will fly so far when we all work for the same boss.”

“Well that sucks,” I said, plainly. There was a bit of sadness in those words that I didn’t expect, and I hoped they didn’t ring out, clear enough for Sarah’s ears to pick up.

I wanted her, I wanted this. And it sucked how fragile and how easy this could slip out of my hands. Or like it could get yanked away by a string.

I pressed my lips together and huffed. Hard enough to mess up my bangs, my hair.

I was overreacting.

“We’ll just have to pace ourselves,” Sarah said. As though she knew what was on my mind. “I’m still coming over tonight.”

I tried to stop myself from showing something on my face, but I didn’t have a cup to block Sarah’s view of me.

Darn.

From what she showed on her face, she saw. Darn. But whatever. I didn’t really care.

“Sweet,” I said.

“It is.”

This… I could have spent the rest of the day doing this. Another thirty minutes here, just chatting, then we could go to the Realm and look at clothes, maybe do some shopping. Then we could either go for dinner at the food court there, or a nearby place, or just take something and bring it back to my apartment. We’d watch a movie, maybe two, and just hang out until it got too late for Sarah to try and drive back home.

And then we would…

We’d do other stuff.

Thoughts crystallized in my head as they came to me. Too much to say out loud.

Before either of us could say something else, though, a new scene arrived. Not to pass us by, but to interrupt.

A car squealed as it swerved around a corner, music booming out of the open windows. Loud enough to turn heads, even ours, and I recognized it in an instant.

The gears turned in my head. Like I had put on my mask. The objective reason why I had come out, today.

“They’re here,” I said.

I remained seated, only watching as the car straightened onto the new street. The street the cafe was on. It was a silver muscle car, with black stripes running along the edges of the machine. It sprinted down the length of the street, squealing again as it came to a halt. The front of a general store on the other side.

The muscle car sat in park for a minute, rumbling with power, as if to flex what it had. They definitely weren’t shy about their presence.

Other people started to move on, going about the rest of their day. For me and Sarah, this was part of our day.

Doors on each side opened, people getting out. Four of them, not the driver, the car was still rumbling, alive.

They circled around, going into the store. It was a small detail, hard to see from a distance, but I saw it. A sign on the store’s entrance flipped to ‘closed.’

“I hate those guys already,” Sarah said. I heard her fingernail tap against her cup, irritated. “Cutting into our date like that?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, kind of happy to hear Sarah call this a date, “If anything, we’re the ones that’ll do the cutting. We were waiting for them.”

“Figured that much, but what should I look out for?”

“You don’t have to do anything. We’re just here to confirm things.”

“And that’s it? Just for that?”

Sarah had raised the pitch of her voice. It made my face get all warm and dumb.

“And our date, of course,” I stammered.

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Lame,” I said. “So so lame.”

We both shared a small laugh.

I kept my watch on the car ahead, though, the store. Nothing we could glean from this position, but we weren’t here to find out what they were up to. We just needed to know that they were here in the first place. Our territory.

According to D, who had gotten it from Nathan, some of youth who happened to live within our borders were becoming more and more… displeased with the changes happening around them.

Looking at it from their perspective, I could see it. The Thunders and the Royals had been rooted in the community, they had grown from it. And, from somewhere in the dark, those roots were ripped out, and another group moved in to fill in the cracks and gaps. How we operated was different than how they worked, pushing different weight, tagging different tags, and stamping out threats in different ways. My way.

It would make sense for the younger ones to want to rebel. With everything that was going down in the city, not unlike a downward spiral, their home was the last the place they wanted to start breaking apart, not making sense. They’d work to take it back, or they’d try, at least. I could give them that.

But that was as much as I’d give them.

Whatever it was they were planning, they wouldn’t get far. The Fangs were already onto them, ready to bite. We just had to keep an eye on them, wait until they were about to make a move, then we’d would go and pay them a visit. Give them a good enough scare as V so they wouldn’t try anything again.

It was a simple plan, but this was a simple problem. Just part of the process of holding onto a territory. Mundane, in all honesty.

I looked at the sign above the store and tried to read it. Tried, because I couldn’t read those characters.

Chinese, definitely not Japanese. But it was a store owned by someone from the Asian community.

A small detail, but it was too early to draw any conclusions with that.

For now, I’d watch. With Sarah.

“Any thoughts so far?” Sarah asked.

“Thoughts? I think we’ll be able to handle this. It just some unruly kids. Nothing I haven’t dealt with, myself.”

I thought of D when I said that. Not so much Isabella.

“I can imagine,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, and it looks like you picked a good spot for us, after all. We have an eye on them, and we’re at a safe distance. And I can hear all about your delicious coffee.”

“You still haven’t had enough?”

“I am always up for more.”

“Well, you know, I’m just trying to do my part.”

She sounded pleased with herself.

“And you’re doing great,” I said.

“Are you referring to anything in particular?”

“Everything,” I said.

It was a moment that ultimately came and went, but I managed to get a hold on it, if only for a short moment.

The moment passed, and then it was back to work.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I kept my eyes on the store and the car as I got it out, only glancing to check the new message.

My heart skipped a small beat.

“Done with your coffee?” I asked Sarah.

“Just about,” she said. “Why? We’re heading out?”

“Just about,” I answered. “Got a text from Lawrence. Looks like the committee has come to a decision, and they’re ready to tell us.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re about to see if we’ll get a seat at the round table, and be among the leaders of the biggest gangs in Stephenville.”

“That’s exciting.”

“If it works out, sure,” I said. “Lawrence must be freaking out over it.”

I am, too, but I can’t tell you about it.

Pangs of guilt. There had been one when I considered Lawrence, but now…

I hated the thought of hiding this from Sarah. My real plan with the city and the Fangs. She was in the dark about all of it, and it hurt.

Was there a way of getting her out, before it was too late? Bring her with me? Would she even want to be there, when it all fell down? At my side?

It hurt, thinking about it.

There was still this, though, this moment. If I could hold it…

“We should get ready for when Lawrence calls for us again,” I said, “No need to stick around anymore.”

“We got what needed from here?”

“We did.”

The two of us prepared to leave, gathering our belongings, and for my part, gathering my thoughts.

The Fangs, the table, Lawrence, Sarah. When all was said and done, what would be left? Who would still be around?

The thought of being alone, it froze me cold. Worse than the weather around us.

“So the rest of our day is put on hold?” Sarah questioned. Disappointed.

I was, too.

“Doesn’t have to be,” I said. “We should have some time before then.”

Sarah looked relieved to hear that, in a way that set me at ease.

“Then let’s not waste any more time.”

I nodded, unable to suppress a coming grin. I’d let it get plastered on my face, even if it looked stupid. Because with Sarah, it was the only time I could show some stupidity, without any real consequences.

“If it’s you,” I said, “I don’t want to waste a second.”

“You’re right on time.”

Mrs. Carter didn’t sound impressed as she addressed us.

“Not a second late,” Lawrence said. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

This was it. The moment of truth.

Ironic, since we had to cover up the truth to get here.

We were back at the table. It was round, yet Mrs. Carter somehow managed to find the head of the table and position herself there. Part of the effect could have been attributed to the fact that she was standing, angling herself so she looked down on everyone, even Styx, but I figured it was more simple than that.

She just commanded presence.

Everyone was on edge. Or, it was either that, or I was so on edge that I projected that onto everyone else. Every scratch, itch, cough, shake of the head. Every low chuckle from Styx.

I could feel my stomach twist into knots. Knots into knots. The tension was so tight that it might snap.

It probably would, if this went on for any longer-

I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Something tapped my leg, by my thigh. Stiff, I looked in that direction.

Sarah passed me a glance. It was only through her eyes, there were too many others on us for anything else to be shared.

I’d take it, though. It helped.

My eyes went back up to Mrs. Carter, and I scrounged up the confidence needed to just shut up and let Lawrence do the talking.

Lawrence did the talking.

“So should we move along with the… with the proceedings? It would be naïve of me, us, the Fangs, to assume that this is the most important part of your night. This meeting.”

“Naïve, yes, but this does deserve the appropriate weight. To not do would be rather… ignorant of us.”

Styx chuckled again, from his far corner. Off to the side, but his presence was still known. It seemed fitting. His voice had a harrowing note to it.

Lawrence nodded. It was shaky, uncertain.

“Then, what’s the verdict? The suspense is, uh, killing me.”

“It’s not suspense that’s going to kill you, boy!”

Styx hollered from across the space. The crackling noise rattled my very bones.

Mrs. Carter remained cool and calm. It was wonder that they seemed to work together, that she even tolerated him at all. They were the polar opposites, representing the different parts of the crime that gripped Stephenville. From the grime of Styx’s domain, to the upper echelon that I could associate Mrs. Carter with. And yet, there wasn’t any friction, not from what I could see. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a good view on things. Not from this seat.

She let Styx settle before she took back control of the room again.

“What he is implying, is that we operate in a volatile world, where nothing is guaranteed. This whole time, you’ve only had a taste of just how changeable it really is. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Even I believe you all need a reminder of that. Everyone at this table.”

Everyone at this table exchanged looks. Not to us, though. Everyone who was here to represent the Fangs were too frozen to move.

Mrs. Carter was still facing forward, eyes trained on us.

“But, it’s a lesson we will all learn. As part of this table.”

There was a pause. Lawrence was supposed to say something, but he didn’t.

He let the moment hang. The appropriate weight.

“As part of this table?” Lawrence repeated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said. “Everyone here, me and Styx excepted, have already taken their vote. Those seats you’re sitting in now? You’ve earned them. Congratulations.”

We heard that word, that confirmation. It still didn’t feel real.

I almost couldn’t believe it.

“We’re in?” I asked. The first words I’d spoken since walking into this building.

“Yes. Of course, there’s still a significant discrepancy between yourselves and the rest, but nevertheless, you now share common ground.”

You now share common ground.

I noted the distinction. Separating herself from everyone else at the table. Mrs. Carter wasn’t seated, she was looking down at us. On us.

But I could forgive that. Because we got it, we were here. The Fangs were now considered among the top gangs of the city. The snake was allowed among the rats.

“That, well, that’s… that’s good news,” Lawrence said, breaking his own silence. His own voice broke a little.

“Don’t let the new height you’ve reached make you dizzy,” Mrs. Carter said. It sounded like something of a warning. “As I mentioned, there is a difference in might between you and the rest here, and it is very real.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you were put here on a vote. And it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, it results were more narrow than the initial one.”

That was worth noting. I looked at the faces around us. D’Angelo. Arthur. Inez.

Of everyone here, D’Angelo seemed the most pleased about this development. Could we have counted on him to have voted in our favor, again?

Wait. D’Angelo had helped in swinging the vote our way, last time. It couldn’t have gotten more narrow than that. If we had somehow cut it that close, then who had broken the tie, this time?

Styx chuckled, low. It was like he thrived on keeping me on my toes, unsettled.

No, not like. He absolutely did.

“Then we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Carter said. “We all do.”

“I don’t suppose those results are confidential? We were here for the initial round of voting.”

Mrs. Carter gestured, spreading her arms.

“You’re here now, aren’t you? As a word of advice, I would just focus on that work you ahead. Work produces its own results. Use that.”

“I suppose we will. Is there, is there anything else you need from us?”

“At this juncture, I do not. For now, just work on getting yourselves in good standing and position here, and I can handle the rest.”

What ‘the rest’ was, Mrs. Carter didn’t share. If I wanted things to go my way, we would have to get ahead of her, too. Find out what her plans were.

Added to the pile of work ahead of us. But the results would be worth it.

“We can definitely do that,” Lawrence said. It was the most certain he had sounded all night.

“Good. Then the only word I have left to say is… welcome.”

With another gesture, and a step back, Mrs. Carter was done. She relinquished control of the room, and the whole table was free to move about.

People got up from their seats. Some went to chat with each other, mingling, while others kept their focus on us, guarded, as if we were liable to strike at any moment.

We would, just not in any way that would be clear to them.

Lawrence stood. Sarah and I joined him.

“Shit,” Lawrence gasped. He exhaled the word. He leaned away when he scratched the side of his neck.

“Shit,” I said.

Sarah commented. “What you guys said. You did it.”

“You had a part in this too, Sarah,” I said. “Don’t count yourself out.”

“I guess I can’t then.” Sarah smiled. “Shit.”

I would have smiled, too, looking at her, but the pangs were even sharper, now that I was getting so close.

“I think I’m about to have a panic attack,” Lawrence said.

We had gotten good news, the best turn our gang had taken since getting started. Upward mobility, as D had mentioned once, a long while back.

Good news, and Lawrence looked like he had been told that a close friend had passed.

He was sweating, his forehead glistening, dots of white reflected from the lights above us. For his part, he was smiling, but it was weak, underselling how relieved he must have really been on the inside.

Lawrence was dressed sharp, but he still wasn’t looking his best. It had been a week since he gave us a scare, and he didn’t seem to like like he had improved. He was going through his own pangs.

“Next thing on our list is going to be an intervention,” I said. I had to keep my voice low. “You can’t keep going like this, Lawrence. This isn’t healthy.”

“I can manage,” Lawrence protested. He coughed, despite himself.

“That is a dangerous game you are playing, Lawrence. You said it yourself, you hate half-hearted bullshit. You loathe it, to use your own words. You have to put in the proper effort, or we might end up losing everything.”

“Yeah? Like how I asked you to keep digging into the source of your powers? What’s inside you? How is that going?”

Those questions were like a slap in the face. Too stunned to give a proper reply.

But Lawrence continued.

“Just as I thought. Motherfucker. Unless you have a real answer for me, I really don’t want to hear it.”

Sarah pleaded. “Guys, not now.”

Lawrence didn’t stop.

“And you know, you’re so certain that it was someone else who gave you your powers. Another monster, another vampire. Where are they now? Did they fuck off and go into hiding? Or did they get hunted? What if someone got to them? And what happens when that someone decides that it’s your turn to be hunted? It would only be a matter of time, Wendy.”

“Lawrence!”

Sarah hissed at him.

“This isn’t the time, and it definitely isn’t the place. So please, just leave it be.”

Sarah was sticking up for me. I couldn’t even speak for myself.

The idea of being hunted…

Lawrence stared at Sarah. There was a mad look in his eye, like he had to process the fact that she was even here at all.

He wanted to say more, I could see that, too, but we were interrupted.

“Wendy!”

D’Angelo was as flamboyant as ever, walking with his cane, using his limp to give more swing in his stride. As he grinned, I could have sworn it was brighter than lights reflecting off Lawrence’s skin.

“Yes sir,” I said, not wanting to show any hint of the previous argument. No one needed to hear that.

“I just wanted to personally congratulate you all for passing the test. You did good work, and it you were rewarded for those efforts.”

“Thanks. Feels like we barely made it, though.”

“There’s nothing else to feel at the moment but pride.”

Can I really be proud over having seen to the deaths of two journalists?

I’d let that question remain a passing thought. The pangs were sharp enough as they were.

“Would it be safe to assume that you casted your vote for us?”

Lawrence went straight to it.

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty timbre.

“You would be, but I’d rather not speak for anyone else. Trust is a rare commodity, in our line of work, and betraying that is akin to a death sentence.”

“Noted,” Lawrence said.

Tapping his cane, D’Angelo pointed in the direction of others.

“Why don’t you ask them yourselves? You are one of us, now.”

I examined the faces across from us. Arthur and Brian were conversing with one another, Cassius, Edward, Forest and Gary were holding their own discussion as well. Hayden was on her own, and Inez was, too, looking right at us. Firm.

None of them looked particularly… inviting.

Lawrence lowered his head, seemingly bowing at Inez, and she turned to Hayden, saying a word to her.

From here, it was hard to tell who voted which way. But I could venture a guess for some of them.

“We’ll introduce ourselves on our own time,” Lawrence said. “I’m more interested in what it means to have a seat at the table. Mrs. Carter didn’t exactly make that clear.”

“To help maintain an equilibrium,” D’Angelo explained. “Crime, like business, is a fine art, and is supported by many people who not only work for their own interests, but for the longevity of the game. There’s a reason why feuds can be dangerous, they can threaten the whole system that’s been set in place. Are you aware of a Xander L. Granon?”

“Still in my nightmares,” Lawrence said. “Our gang had gone up against his. We beat him, somehow.”

“So I’ve heard. See, Mr. Granon tried to muscle into our arrangement by violence and force. He wanted to come in and crash everything around him, and rule over the debris. You, on the other hand, have certainly made an impact, but I find your approach more… respectable.”

“I appreciate the kind words,” Lawrence said.

D’Angelo gave him a nod. “So, with Mrs. Carter and the likes of Styx, we officially maintain the delicate balance that keeps this city standing tall.”

“And Mister?” I asked. “Are we ever going to meet with him?”

D’Angelo smirked.

“That would be for him to decide.”

So close, yet he kept us at a distance. We’d- I’d need Mister, in order to fully and completely destroy that balance we now had some responsibility to maintain.

“Hopefully it’ll be soon,” I said.

“For your sake, maybe,” D’Angelo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take my leave. And once again, congrats.”

“Thanks again,” I said. “Really appreciate it.”

D’Angelo tapped his cane again, and gave us one more smirk before taking off.

Of all the gang leaders that I’d come across, D’Angelo seemed to be the most eccentric, yet the most… agreeable. It was almost a shame, that I’d have to bring him down, too.

It was back to the three of us. We reconvened.

“Well, we got what we came here for,” I said. “We ready to head out?”

“I am,” Sarah said.

“Sure, I think,” Lawrence said. “Any ideas on our next move?”

“Wendy and I had plans to watch one or two if we had some time left. I wasn’t aware you wanted to join us.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah.

Sarah’s eyes went wide.

“Oh. I thought you said movie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey,” I said, voice back to being low, “Let’s… not. How about this? We’re at the table, but we still need to establish an individual rapport with each of them. D’Angelo? He’s a good start.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sarah said.

I continued. “Not everyone voted for us to be here, so we should find out who they are, see if we can’t convince them that we’re the real deal.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s better than them continuing to doubt us,” I said.

And it gives me an idea on who to go after, first.

“Okay, I don’t hate that.”

“Good. So we’ll catch up with D, gather all the info she got on each of these guys from the past week, and we’ll go from there.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said.

Wary, I looked up at the ceiling, past that lights. I wore that expression, made it obvious.

Then I saw Styx, watching him watch me.

By the huge windows that overlooked the city, where water had cascaded down the glass the last time we were here. For someone who could stick out like a blade in my back, Styx could blend into the background just as well. A ghost in the shadows.

His face twisted up, and I could hear that sound in my head. A low cackle.

He looked up, too, at the ceiling, then back to me. He brought a finger to his lips, face still twisted. Still cackling.

No one else saw that. It was for me only.

Me only, because D wasn’t actually here. Like we’d risk putting her in the same position as last time. I had to learn from some of my mistakes.

D got what we needed from our first visit here. It was time to use that information.

We’re at the table. Finally. Now we had to prep the fire.

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101 – Morning Star

epy arc 14 game

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Sunlight streamed through the windows, filtered by curtains. It was lightest alarm anyone could have asked for.

And yet, I woke up in a frenzy.

Consciousness came like a quick and sudden hit, a jolt of lightning that sent a shock through my whole body.

I shuddered, and the regret came just as fast.

“Ow…”

Groggy, sore in places I hadn’t been aware of until just recently. Cricks in my neck, joints popping and aching. I felt old, or worn out at least. An overwhelming sensation that thrummed through my entire body in waves.

I figured my healing might take care of this sort of thing, but apparently not.

While my body felt like it was hit with a shock, my mind was the opposite. A haze, pieces of things coming at me in slow, languid movements.

Mentally walking through a fog. Very little was clear to me.

I blinked, squinting as the light intruded into my vision. I shifted around, feeling sheets roll over my body.

Direct contact on my skin.

That started to clear the fog.

I shifted again, pushing myself up. The sheets were bundled together in some places, falling off me as I threw them to the side.

The sun was on me, but I immediately felt a chill.

I wasn’t wearing anything.

The realization wasn’t embarrassing so much as it was confusing. I sifted through the haze of my memories, searching for anything that could-

Oh.

I grabbed the sheets and covered myself up again.

Oh.

One by one, the pieces started falling into place, until the puzzle formed a better picture. I could barely keep the image in my mind’s eye, though, because I hadn’t the faintest idea on how I’d begin to approach what happened last night.

A moment that came and went in a flash, bang, but the impression of it had seared and left me dizzying and stunned.

I could feel my face warm up, sunny as the light that was on me. Trying to think back on it… it was still too bright to face directly. I instead worked on the edges, taking in the detail on the peripherals.

The bed was in disarray, the sheets folded over and stretched flat in different spots. Pillows weren’t where they were supposed to be, one at the foot of the bed, a few others seemed to be missing.

This was my bed, at least. I knew that much. I was back in my apartment. How I got there or what happened as soon as I got here… it was fuzzy.

Oh god.

I had to put my focus on something else. Anything else.

Couldn’t stay in bed forever, couldn’t not be clothed, either. That, I could work on.

The sheets fought with me as I tried to get out of their grasp. Everything was in a tangle, snaked around my arms and legs. It took actual work, more effort than I would have normally wanted to put forth, especially with it being so early in my day, and especially with my body feeling like I had sprinted an entire marathon. Sore in so many different places.

I groaned as I climbed out of bed, the blankets and sheets finally relinquishing their hold on me. The light chill had its turn, instead, but I wouldn’t let it keep its grip for much longer. I went right for my closet.

My foot brushed past something, and I was jumpy that it made me do just that. Almost tripping over, I had to catch myself by setting a hand back on my bed.

Clothes, piled on the floor. Not just mine.

I flicked at it with my foot, not strong or hard enough to be a kick. I separated the clothes, from mine to…

I considered…

I couldn’t, no. Needed new clothes.

Bending down, I collected what was mine, and set the rest at one corner at the foot of my bed. There were still some other clothes strewn about, but I could work on that later. I just wanted to have something on me.

My closet was like a haven when I retreated into it. A smaller space, easier to take in, with everything set in place and organized.

I dumped the clothes in a basket by a corner, and went to searching for what to wear. I wasn’t trying to be picky, but I was at a loss on what I wanted to wear, exactly.

Why was I thinking about it so hard?

I started with the easy ones. I found some underwear, then put on a pair of shorts. A loose oversized shirt with long sleeves was next. I decided to go without bra because… just because.

It was a wonder, just how much having a shirt on put me in a clearer headspace. Just a little bit of weight on my body went a long way. Something that kept me… tethered. It wasn’t unlike the feeling I got whenever I had my mask on.

I saw the box would be, tucked under other baskets and clothes. All my V stuff, and old Blank Face stuff I hadn’t thrown away yet.

No need for that stuff, not now. It was too early for that.

Feeling satisfied enough with my clothing choices, I came out of the closet. Blinking, I shuffled around to other parts of my room. Walking a lazy path, with only a blurry idea of what I wanted in my head.

I… couldn’t find my phone. I couldn’t find my glasses.

There wasn’t much else I could gather from wandering around my room. Aside from the very, very obvious fact that my room was a mess.

Really had to get out of here.

I shambled like a zombie as I entered my living room. Groaned like one, too. I felt like I had died and come to life. And, in a really weird way, it wasn’t even the first time.

“You’re up.”

A voice called out to me like a siren. Loud, with my ears still being attuned to the concept of waking. I followed it.

I rubbed at my eyes before I saw her. She noticed me before I ever had a chance to.

Dressed in what seemed like just a shirt, but it wasn’t several sizes too big like mine was. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t done very neat, just enough to keep her face and eyes clear as she reached up into a cabinet, grabbing for a plate.

I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything, as I saw Sarah in my kitchen, setting plates and utensils together. She looked at me again once she had everything settled. She smiled.

“You kept me waiting, wondering when you’d get up. Got some hotcakes prepared if you’d like.”

She indicated to a countertop in the kitchen, a stack of fluffy cake things set and ready to be eaten.

I sniffed the air. The smell wasn’t as fresh as the stack looked, but it was easy to ignore.

“I didn’t know I had stuff to make… hotcakes,” I said. I rubbed at my eye again. “What time is it?”

“Not too late. About ten.”

“Ten?”

“Relax, you’re allowed to do that you know,” Sarah said. She smiled. Bright, yet somehow shy.

There was a sharp sensation in my chest. Under any other circumstance, I would have recognized it as pain, some type of hurt or ache. But this wasn’t really that. Not really.

“I can give it a shot,” I said, almost at a whisper. “Relaxing.”

“Awesome,” Sarah said, still smiling. “Now come on, sit with me.”

She grabbed a seat at the center counter in the kitchen, taking her fork and knife and helping herself with some… some hotcakes.

I didn’t go straight there, as much as I wanted to just right to Sarah. I went to go get a cup of water for myself. Sarah had set out glasses, but they were filled up with orange juice.

Guilt struck, and it struck me hard. She put in all that work while I was out, and I couldn’t even properly accept her efforts.

“I can sit,” I said, as I filled my cup with water from the sink. I paused, then said, “Not very hungry, though.”

“You can’t eat, or won’t?”

I frowned as I said, “Bit of both?”

Sarah smile faltered by a fraction. But it didn’t break completely. It was too bright for that.

“Ah, that’s right. More for me then!”

She added a few more to her plate. She ate them with fervor.

“I… um…”

I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything.

I finally joined her at the counter. Sitting across from her, I propped my elbows on the surface, resting my chin in the palms of my hands. I stared at her. Long, longing.

“A lot happened last night,” I said. It was more of an observation. Trying to take a step back and assess everything. But it was hard when I was still very much in the thick of it.

Sarah had to finish chewing and swallowing before saying, “Certainly. You did great though.”

“That could be referring to anything.”

“I’m referring to everything.”

I got warm again. Sarah had opened up the windows in the living room, too, letting light spill out all over the place.

“You are so lame,” I said. Her dumb smile was stupid. Contagious, too.

The moment was so still, quiet. Even with the occasional word and clanking of metal on ceramic. There was a calm, here, that I wasn’t used to or aware was possible. It resonated on a deeper level.

I could call this peace. Solace. Maybe. I was wary on crossing that line, making it definitive. Making that commitment.

If there was anything I had learned, being a leader of a gang, it was that everything was fragile. I wouldn’t want to push my luck and risk breaking something.

“You sure you can’t eat anything?” Sarah said, pushing it. More of a nudge, to be fair.

“I’m sure, I think. I haven’t had the craving to eat anything, I just get, uh, thirsty.”

“You were looking a little thin, though.” Sarah looked away from me. “Around the… sorry, couldn’t help but look.”

“It would be weird if you didn’t.” I looked away too. “I guess.”

The thought did come to me, brief as it was. What would I eat, anyways? The only things my body would accept were blood and water. What were the next logical steps from that?

I dismissed the thought as soon as it began to take form. Avoided it.

This was what I wanted, right now. This moment. Sarah. I knew how fragile this was.

“What kind of… what did you call them?”

“Hotcakes.”

“Hotcakes,” I repeated, “Never heard of them.”

“It’s what it said on the box. Tastes sweeter, fluffier. But, what, you don’t know what’s in your own pantry?”

She had a teasing tone in her voice that rang like a bell. I was compelled to follow.

“I have some idea,” I said, “But it’s mostly D who stuffs it herself. She likes to bring snacks whenever she comes over.”

“How often does she come over?”

“Dunno. Often.”

Sarah took another bite, then a sip of juice. She was clearly enjoying herself.

“That explain all the teddy bears you’ve got around here.”

“It does,” I said.

“But, I do hope she doesn’t come over today. Wouldn’t want to be interrupted.”

She smiled at me. Dammit. It was getting too bright and warm in here. It also made me wonder just how long she was expecting to stick around. Not that I wanted her to leave or anything. I was just…

I was just what?

I wasn’t sure of what to make of-

Yeah, I know.

“How does it taste?” I asked. I changed the subject.

“Hmmm?” she sounded, she slid her fork out from between her lips.

Her voice had a melody to it.

She knew exactly what she was doing.

Damn her. I hated it.

Yeah, yeah.

“I thought you couldn’t eat, well, eat this stuff?”

Teasing me again.

“I can’t, but, I still want to know. Describe it to me.”

Sarah licked her lips, cutting out another piece of her breakfast. As if it was gliding up, she brought the food to her mouth, taking a bite. Her eyes lowered a tad, an eyebrow raised ever so slightly, furrowed in concentration. She was really putting thought into this.

Fuck, she looked so fucking cute.

“Fluffy,” she said. “Sweet, even more sweet with syrup.”

“I know sweet,” I said.

“Sweet!”

“Tell me more though,” I said. I didn’t want this to end. I wanted to make this things last for as long as I could possibly could. If I could reach in and use my own physical strength to stretch out this moment in time, I absolutely would.

Sarah still had a lot of her breakfast left. We still had a lot of time.

She went for another piece of hotcake. It was easy for her.

“Chewy, and I put in a little chocolate extract but I can taste it. Oh, I sprinkled in some powdered sugar so I can really taste that.”

“You really do have a sweet tooth,” I said.

“I was just using what I found. You said D stocked everything here, right?”

“Yeah, and she has a sweet tooth. But you didn’t have to use everything she brought in.”

“I didn’t use everything. Just a lot of it.”

I gave her a look.

Her smile turned into a smirk. It had the same effect on me.

I fixed my glasses, until I realized I wasn’t wearing them. I nearly poked an eye out.

Why am I being so weird about this?

“You know where my glasses are?”

I had a feeling she might know.

All Sarah had for response was a glance elsewhere, stuffing her face with more food.

“Don’t,” I said. I set my hands on the countertop, propping myself so I could reach across and hold her wrist. I pulled the fork out of her mouth, still being careful. Her mouth was still stuffed.

She got me there. I’d have to wait until she finished.

I’d keep holding her wrist while I waited, though.

“Can’t remember,” Sarah said, once she was free to talk. “Think I tossed it somewhere in my car?”

“They better not be broken.”

I tried a teasing tone, myself. I doubted I sold it as well.

“I don’t think I did,” Sarah said.

Yeah. She was much better at it than me.

“You’re lucky I don’t actually need those to see,” I said.

“You don’t?”

“It’s just an accessory. People do that sometimes, right?”

“They do. Sometimes.”

I let go of her wrist. Almost having to peel my fingers off.

Sarah didn’t seem to mind, though. I hoped that was the case, anyways.

“Your hair’s gotten long.”

I fixed my posture in my seat.

“My hair?”

“Yeah.”

Setting her fork down, it was Sarah’s turn to reach across the counter. Instead of my wrist, her hand went to my face.

Grazing just past my cheek, her fingers found their way around some strands behind my ear. Light, I could feel what she was doing. She pulled.

I suppressed a small noise from escaping my lips. It took more effort than anything else.

Her fingers brushed from the base of my ear to somewhere near the middle of my neck. Several inches.

I tilted my head where she pulled. If she kept going, I would have fallen out of my chair, completely.

She wasn’t that cruel. She released her hold on me. But even that felt like a temporary thing. She wasn’t that kind.

“It’s gotten longer since I first saw you,” Sarah said.

I could only speculate when she first saw me, because I had the notion that she saw me first. She got to me before I ever knew what was coming. I never had a chance.

My own fingers filled the space Sarah’s hands just left, and I almost felt them, as if they were still there.

I fixed my hair and shook my head.

“Has it?” I asked.

Talking just to talk. Sarah was doing what she could to extended this moment out, too. I found some comfort in that.

“I think so. Reminds me of the picture you showed me.”

“Picture?”

Then, I remembered.

Sarah must have seen something in my reaction or expression, because her smile faltered by an even larger fraction. Was I frowning that much?

I coughed, as if the deflect things, and looked away.

“Maybe I should get another haircut,” I said, a touch hollow. “I guess it has been a while.”

“It’s all up to you,” Sarah told me. “I think you’d look good no matter what.”

I clicked my tongue. “You’re just saying that.”

“Am I, though?”

“You’re also insinuating that it wouldn’t matter what I do with my hair because you’ll just say you like it anyways.”

“Insinuating?” Sarah’s smile returned to grace her lips. “That’s a pointed word.”

“I’ll point as much as I want since I know I’m right.”

“You’re getting heated. Are we having our first fight?”

I hesitated.

“Fight? No, we’re not fighting. Why would it be a fight?”

Sarah’s smile broke by more than several fractions. She laughed, hard.

“I’m just messing with you!”

Sarah was teasing me again. I grimaced.

All I could do was stare at her, unamused. That only made her laugh harder.

Watching her… I couldn’t keep it up.

I grabbed my cup and took a sip. Mostly just to hide my face. I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of seeing me crack a smile, too.

Cold water cooled me as I drank it.

We both managed to get settled again. The moment became still again. Still.

I had zero complaints about that.

She ate, and I just watched. I was nervous, had been awkward about things, and probably looked as dumb as I felt.

But that was okay. More than okay.

Sarah set her utensils to the side. I had put my cup down as well.

“Did you, um…”

Sarah met me in the eyes. Direct. She wasn’t smiling.

“I wanted to know if you found what you were looking for, last night.”

Last night.

If one part of last night was a dreamy haze, another part had a razor edge to it that cut.

Going back to her apartment. Alexis Barnett. Seeing the woman that had the single most connections to her, the ones that could still pulse with life whenever I was in close proximity. One of the many reasons I knew I had to leave in the first place.

Seeing that woman again… it brought back a flood of memories that I couldn’t call mine, but they were there. They hit me, anyways.

Dinner at the table in the kitchen, eating her favorite meal. Chicken and some type of soup. The name was lost on me but the attachment was still there. It pulled.

Seeing her, blank and down and at a loss, it gave me a pang that I didn’t want to put a finger on, because it would take that and make it real. It was like whenever I looked at Lawrence now, but on a deeper level. Past the surface to and a core that I thought had buried itself at the very bottom. But apparently not.

Natalie Beckham had dug at it, throwing the dirt into my eyes. It irritated and made them red, but I had to face all of that again, if I wanted to put it back into the ground.

I went back to bury it again. But this time, I caught myself in mourning.

Rubbing at an eye, I gave Sarah the best answer I could.

“I think so. It helped, or I at least got something out of it. And, uh, in one case, I got way more than I would have ever expected.”

I made sure to look into Sarah’s eyes as I said that last part. I made sure she saw me.

“I think it was worth it,” I said.

The smile I saw as it came back, it was like a beacon.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Sarah said. “Very glad.”

“Yeah,” I said.

We sat near, and in near silence. Time passed, and by those minute degrees, the room got warmer and brighter, and I was able to just sit and soak all of that in.

I could almost see the future being brighter, too, and not just by fire.

A knock broke the moment. I knew it. So fragile.

“I can get it,” I said, hopping out of my seat, going to the front door.

“You definitely can,” Sarah said. “Sorry.”

“What?”

“I mean, should I put this away now? Or go somewhere else?”

Sarah was leaning partway, out of her seat, hands near her plate and stack of hotcakes she hadn’t yet finished.

“You should be fine,” I told her. “I’ll check who it is, first.”

There was another knock. I hurried over.

I heard the lock tumble out of place, the door cracking open. I hurried faster and put my hands on the door.

Behind me, I heard Sarah scramble to clean up the kitchen.

“Hey!”

On the other side of the door. I heard a small voice.

“Let me in!”

“You were just about to let yourself in, D.”

I looked over to Sarah. We exchanged looks.

It was hard to gauge how we wanted to go about this. We only a few seconds away before things got even more awkward.

“I knocked and knocked again and I didn’t hear anything so I was going to check if you were okay.”

“There are other ways to check on me. Barging in is not one of them.”

“I was not- okay but I knocked twice and waited-”

“You barely gave it a second, D-”

“Let me in please!”

I pursed my lips. I checked how Sarah was doing.

She had worked rather fast, the kitchen was close to clean, save for some silverware in the sink, but that could be ignored. Or not. D had good eyes.

But, did it really matter?

I gave Sarah a shrug. From across the kitchen, Sarah noticed me and shrugged back.

Turning to the door, I asked, “Is it just you?”

“It’s just me that wants to come in. Why? What’s going on?”

I let out a breath. I didn’t hesitate, but I did pause.

Then I let the door open.

D barged in.

As the door swung the full arc it was allowed before breaking off its hinges, D shattered any semblance of peace and quiet, bringing instead her own unique brand of chaos.

“What took you so long to-”

It was like D’s words entered the room first, then D herself. It meant that she needed an extra second to assess everything once she was fully inside.

Maybe a second more, it looked like.

She craned her neck to me, over to the kitchen, back to me again.

“You ate without me,” D said.

“It’s past ten,” I said. “You haven’t had breakfast?”

“I am always down for hotcakes.”

“They’re still fresh,” Sarah said from across the apartment. “Warm enough to make the butter soft when you put it on.”

D looked towards the kitchen. It was so obvious she wanted some.

“Okay!”

She booted her boots off and slipped into the slippers I had gotten her. They squeaked, rabbit ears flopping as she skipped her way into the kitchen.

I half-turned, and noticed Isabella sidling into the apartment before the door closed on her.

She looked up at me and shook her head, her pigtails swaying. She adjusted her backpack.

“D wouldn’t have listened even if I said anything.”

I responded with an understanding look.

“I know.”

D was already off in her own world, helping herself in getting a plate and fork and some breakfast. Or near brunch, I supposed.

“You did cook using my supplies,” D said, taking what was once my seat. “Without asking, to boot. So I get to judge if it was worth the thievery.”

“By all means, go ahead.”

Sarah sounded confident.

I returned into the kitchen, and Isabella followed. From where I could see, Sarah had sat back down, using an apron to cover her legs. At least she found something to make her decent.

Checking on Isabella again, I was about to ask if-

Isabella raised a hand, as if to physically block the suggestion itself.

It was actually funny, just how different those two were.

D went right to devouring her food. Through the butter and syrup, I could have sworn I saw some powdered sugar puff up into the air.

Licking her lips, D was deep in thought. She tapped her fork against the plate.

“Not bad,” D said, sitting back. “I can accept this.”

Sarah put her hands together, a light clap for herself.

“That makes me so happy.”

D folded her arms.

“Well, don’t get all supercilious about it.”

“I’ll try not to, whatever that means.”

D made a sound. A loud hum.

“So, D, what brings you over?”

I had to ask, because if I could deal with D now, she could leave sooner.

Not that I didn’t want D around… but I didn’t want D around.

Not usually. Not this time.

Sorry, D.

D went to cutting her another bite of her breakfast.

“I brought over some of the paintings we, eh, procured last night. I thought maybe you wanted to get some decorating done today.”

“You had decorating in mind for today?” I asked.

“Why not? Why? Are you busy with something else?”

Or someone else.

I stopped myself from looking at Sarah. I noticed D hadn’t commented on the fact that Sarah was here in the first place. Not even Isabella.

“Nothing in particular,” I answered. “I figured you’d have some other work on your itinerary for today.”

“She just wants to play,” Isabella said. “She always does.”

“Or, yeah, did you just want to goof off?”

D took a bite, talking while she chewed.

“I do not just want to goof off. Well, truthfully, I do, but still.”

The gap in D’s teeth whistled out the word ‘truthfully.’

But D continued. “We can do the stuff Lawrence suggested last night, but we aren’t exactly in a rush to do that. We can take a day off.”

A day off. That was exactly what I wanted.

Sarah.

If I could, I’d take a whole week off.

“If you think that’s a good idea, sure,” I said. “We could afford a day to take it slow. Not easy, but slow.”

There was a metric ton of things to consider, now that the journalists were out of the picture. Like Mrs. Carter, if we had earned a seat at the table, looking after the territory, and waiting if there would be any fallout following the Alexis article.

Natalie wasn’t sure of my end game, I had to tell her. But she had to know that there was one, because she tried to throw a wrench in things, regardless. Releasing that article on Alexis was only a part of it. They wouldn’t give up the full picture, Natalie or Oliver, rather taking it to the grave.

The whole thing was tricky, because it was a hard situation to address in direct manner, not without directing more attention to it. Lawrence wasn’t aware, he didn’t know about Alexis Barnett. D and I would just have to keep an eye on how it all unfolds.

It wouldn’t be easy, but we could take it slow.

“Cool,” D said, chewing and talking. “Then after I’m done we can go down and pick out what you want. I was able to fit most of it into the back of the van, but I had to be really careful not to rip anything when I was rolling it up because I was taught to always take care of my stuff and-”

“I already told Sarah which painting I’d take for the apartment,” I said. “And please stop eating with your mouth full.”

“You did?” D completely ignored my last sentence. “When? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because you would go out of your way to make it weird with Sarah and I didn’t want to make it weird with Sarah.

“Because you had more important things to worry about last night,” I said, trying to put it as lightly as I could.

“Oh. Okay then.”

She returned to finishing her hotcakes. She seemed to enjoy them.

It occurred to me, how I had never been able to share a proper meal with anyone. Not with D, not even with Lawrence, and now, not with Sarah. That soured my mood a little, and I couldn’t even taste sour.

“All done!” D exclaimed. Her fork hit the plate with a long clang. “Let’s go!”

“Put everything away first,” I instructed. “And how about you just go down and pick out the painting. I don’t need to be there for that.”

“But I don’t know which one you wanted!”

“It’s the pop art looking thing. Bright colors. A woman’s face.”

“Oh, that one? I actually liked that one. Good taste.”

Sarah added her voice. “That’s what I said.”

“You would like anything I picked out.”

“Maybe,” she intoned. Teasing.

“But why can’t you come down?” D questioned, whining really.

“I’m not, what’s the word, decent? I hadn’t changed or even taken a shower yet.”

“It’s just right outside, we’re not going anywhere! Unless you want to? Do you want to?”

“No, I,” I stuttered, scratching my neck, where Sarah had her hand before. “We can discuss that once we’re done with this.”

“Boo,” D said, protesting, but she managed to find it within herself to listen. She scooted out of her chair, hopping back down.

“Dishes,” I said.

“Boo!”

D collected her stuff and brought them over to the sink.

“Have you heard from Lawrence, though?” I asked.

“Not since last night.”

“If you’re wanting to take it easy today,” Isabella said, “Maybe we should give him a break, too.”

“Right, let’s try to not bother him. I have a feeling he’ll need his space for now.”

“Wow, what a diva,” D said. “That’s the Ellie I know.”

D washed her plate and fork and put them away. Her footsteps squeaked again as she hopped back to the front door.

“I’ll be right back!”

“No need to rush,” I said. I saw Isabella, still standing there.

A look was all it took for her. She did roll her eyes at me before she followed D out the door.

Kids these days, I thought.

I turned to Sarah. But it was more like I let myself get pulled to her direction.

“Sorry about that,” I said, as if by instinct.

“What do you have to be sorry for?”

Sarah stood, setting the apron on the seat. She walked to me. I gulped.

“You know, getting interrupted, work beckoning like always…”

“That’s just who you are, the nature of what you do. If I’m not able to keep up, then I don’t deserve walk beside you.”

“Is that where you are now? At my side?”

“Can I be?”

Sarah positioned herself. Exactly as she had mentioned.

“Can’t say anything about it now,” I said.

“You can’t, or won’t?”

Having Sarah stand right next to me, it made the height difference all the more glaring. How much more mature she was than me, how little in experience I actually had.

But, being inexperienced might not be so bad, if it meant getting taught a thing or two by her.

Sunny. So bright that I could burn if I tried to fly higher. But, that wasn’t even a concern right now.

“Bit of both,” I said, before having to stand on the tips of my toes, my lips reaching for hers, wanting for hers. Sarah met me the rest of the way.

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