106 – Mate

epy arc 15 burn

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When I came to, I was alone. Dizzy, discombobulated, nauseous. Then, there was the gradual realization that I was upside down.

I moved a leg, and discovered that I couldn’t. It was stuck, tangled in something, and I couldn’t even wiggle a toe.

Hand? Tight. Struggling against another something, couldn’t figure out what. I was able to wiggle a finger, but not by a lot, and it wasn’t like I could reach or grasp anything.

Both hands. Both arms. Pressed together, crossed, squeezing against my chest in a big ‘X.’

My whole body. Couldn’t move, and couldn’t feel much outside of a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I was very aware that my feet were above my head. Upside down.

Head?

Could move that.

I looked around, squinting, trying to peer through an oppressive dark. Too tired, my vision still swimming through the murky waters of fatigue. There was some light, but it didn’t break past that gloom.

Where the hell was I? Was this hell?

That…

I shook my head. Had to. Too ridiculous to seriously believe. But, no other possibilities were coming to me. My thoughts weren’t catching up to me fast enough.

Where then?

How did I get here? Why? When? Where am I, again? What the fuck?

Who am I?

Didn’t know.

Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know.

I didn’t know my own name.

A name wouldn’t form, not even a letter to guess. No matter the question, I kept drawing up blanks.

It was worrying, but I had just woken up, blood was probably flowing to my head for minutes too long, and I was fucking upside down. My thoughts and answers were probably scattered somewhere below me, down there. I needed to get down there, I needed to get grounded.

I kept shaking, feeling the restraints. Digging into me like claws or talons. I shook my head, the only part of me that was free.

Something slipped off my face.

It spun in the air, catching a fleeting glint of light, and I recognized it as mine. A pair of glasses.

They fell, or rather they seperated from me, as if, they too, were frustrated by my lack of progress.

I tried listening, as if my glasses could tell me anything on the way down, like how long the drop was.

They said nothing.

Which brought with it its own message, but I didn’t like what I heard.

Nothing.

I stopped struggling, shaking. I reconsidered my options, as few as I had. If I managed to break out of whatever it was that that tied me up- upside down, I might just fall into something worse. There was nothing but a deep blackness below, or was it above me? Hold on, no, below me, for sure, for sure.

Nothing but a deep blackness below, and if I got myself free, I wouldn’t be free for long, only plunging after my glasses into a literal abyss, I probably didn’t need sight, where I’d end up.

Or down.

Now wasn’t the time for jokes.

But what else could I do?

I screamed.

The sound seemed to stretch in every direction. Fading out, not even a faint echoed returned to me.

I screamed again. Harder, louder.

Even my own voice wanted to leave me, never to return. My own voice.

I laughed until it became a scream again. Raw. Painful.

Was I dead? Or some kind of limbo? Maybe there was no abyss above or below me, because I was already within it, suspended in the middle of the bottomless pit. Gloom and dark all around me, I had already been swallowed.

Sickening, if I wasn’t dead I was sick, with an agony longer than the chains that had me bound.

Hold on. Hold it. Bound.

Chains?

I shook myself again, shimmying, and heard a distinct rattling, a small clink of metal. I craned my neck, saw them for myself.

Snaked all around my body, coiling around my limbs and torso in a deathgrip. Glints of light had been caught, too, making it easier to see the outline. Chains.

I couldn’t look up too far, I’d have to bend my body for that, and that was impossible. I didn’t know how far the chains extended away from my person, or what I was attached to. But, nothing about where I was seemed real, so a very possible answer could have very well been… there wasn’t anything at all.

But I couldn’t…

I refused to stay here, like this. There was no peace to be found in a place like this, by myself, with not even a letter of a name to attach my thoughts to. Just an ever growing, ever present madness.

So fuck that. And fuck me if I couldn’t get myself out of here.

I fought. I struggled, but I fought.

The chains clinked and clanged together as I squirmed within their confines, tugging at them, trying to find some purchase I could use to buy my freedom.

I pulled my arms out, links of metal digging into the cloth of one arm, flesh in the other. I winced as they pinched and bit into skin, but I kept going. Even if it was mad for me to do so. There wasn’t much room for anything else, in my mind.

My muscles tensed, my body ached. Fighting, struggling.

Purchase.

Hearing more than some jangly clinks, I heard cracks. Metal against metal, tugging and pulling in both directions so hard as to compromise their structural integrity. I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know I was that strong.

I’d use it, anyways. I wasn’t about to let that go.

The pains small but sharp, but I didn’t care. I kept going until I cracked. Until the chains cracked, until I heard a crack.

I heard a crack.

Somewhere along the length of chain, there, closer to my arms. Getting looser, giving me more room to dig in a little more.

Few more cracks, even more room. I started shaking hard, near convulsing, putting my legs and back and even my hips into it. Until I’d burst into scraps of metal.

Gritting my teeth, I either heard more cracks of chain, or it was from something in my jaw. I didn’t stop.

There, I could move an arm, not by much, but better than I was able to before. I pulled and tugged even harder.

Then I yanked.

Intertwining metal fingers finally splayed open, breaking, releasing their grip on me. I wasn’t wholly free, but my arms were, and-

I fell. Plunged.

But I wasn’t completely free of my bindings, I broke the chains around my arms, but my legs were another story.

I had figured by how I was bound, that the snake around my legs and feet would keep me suspended in its coil. No such thing. Instead, the snake seemed to take offense to my attempted escape, and decided to take itself down, me with it.

Not a straight descent, an arc. In a spiral, but I was also swinging down, like a pendulum.

I was falling and falling fast, even though the chain was still taut. Swinging and swinging, lower and lower, faster and faster. Descending yet it felt like I wasn’t heading in any particular direction. All sense of time and placement had escaped me, like my glasses and my voice, so I was spinning for what seemed like hours, descending and ascending several times. Spinning out of control, not that I ever had any in the first place.

Couldn’t even scream, and I wanted to.

Couldn’t laugh, and I would have even went for that.

There was no sound when it all finally stopped, and I hit rock bottom.

All breath left me as I crashed, life and soul. It was a flat drop, no momentum to lessen the impact, just one hit, all focused into one point.

I heard more than the chains break. Bones, too.

In my last few moments of clarity, I noticed how my chin had settled onto the ground, or rather how it didn’t.

My nose wasn’t buried into dirt or surface. Rather, open air, the sweetest of scents meeting my nostrils, a punch compared to intense sensory deprivation I’d been subjected to since being reborn in the dark.

A shiver colder than chains grabbed and shook me. Hard.

There’s a deeper drop than this.

Then, one more dizzying spin of confusion, and my consciousness was the last thing to abandon me.

“Eyes open, wanderer. Or have you lost your sight, too?”

I opened my eyes.

Blackness. In a way, it wasn’t nothing.

But, in all actuality, there was nothing.

Without a breath to respond, arms and hands groped out, feeling ground to push up from. I had found ground, I realized, a surface to start getting my bearings from.

I slipped, landing on my shoulder. I wheezed, deflated.

“How sad. I’m disappointed.”

I felt that my eyes were open, but I couldn’t see.

A voice, I had my ears. I followed that.

“Is this all you really are, when you’re alone? Crawling like an insect?”

I continued to crawl. I had no other means to move.

The voice was talking to me, taunting me. Goading me for a response, though it probably was aware of my general lack of ability, as much as a discarnate voice could even be aware.

My dry tongue sat limp in my mouth, closing it for a second, I tasted a warm, sweet coating against the back of my teeth.

I crawled a pace faster. I clenched my jaw.

“How pitiful, just stop. Trying harder only makes it that much more pathetic.”

I spat my words out, venom flying out between my teeth.

“What’s pathetic, is expecting something out of nothing. How sad is that?”

“If you could only see yourself now.”

I can’t, I thought, but I had ran out of breath to say that. I carried on.

Crawling for some miles, or a foot out in front of me. I didn’t even know anymore, the effort felt all the same, and the progress seemed meaningless.

I continued, despite all nonsense and logic, dragging myself through a cold absence, a cryptic abyss. I was tired, but the voice persisted.

“If this is the best you can do, the most you can come up with, than I suggest you give up now. Actually, you know what, please, please just stop. It physically makes me cringe to see you keep going-”

I shrieked and clawed forward, like a wild and dirty and disgusting and sick animal and I thrashed and gnashed my teeth like it meant something but it didn’t mean anything because I reached for nothing and got nothing.

Collapsed to the ground.

Laughter. Wasn’t mean.

“Come on, get up.”

The words were said like it was easy. But the words were friendly, not at all menacing or demeaning.

Easy. Matter of fact.

Up.

I reduced the sentence down to its very essence. The intention. Struggling, fighting, dying, I pulled myself up, leaning a bit, my head bobbing a bit. I was on my butt.

And it finally just occurred to me that I wasn’t in chains anymore. Still didn’t have my glasses.

But I looked.

“Isabella,” I breathed.

The little girl smiled.

I saw her in full view, her black hair, tied into pigtails, the tan skin, the jacket several sizes too big, the backpack that she always kept on her back, hands gripped on the straps like she was about to go on a ride.

She was crouched over me, looming, despite her stature, her head cocked to the side, curious, like I was stray cat that had approached her.

Maybe a part of that was right. Being astray.

I, we were in complete darkness, yet I could see her clear.

My hands moved on their own, to my face, wiping my eyes, slapping myself across the cheek until it stung.

When I looked again, she was still there. This was all real. Somehow.

“Where are the hell are we?”

Back to the first question.

Isabella shrugged.

“Is that really the most important question?”

A moment to catch my breath.

“Feels like it an important thing to establish,” I said,

Isabella shook her head, pigtails swinging. “Nope.”

“No?”

“When do you think you can start walking?”

“What?”

“Moving forward, there’s still quite the distance for you to go. Quite the distance.”

“I can barely stand, you just asked me to sit.”

“Can’t stay here forever. Unless you want to, but that wouldn’t be exciting, would it?”

“Try me,” I said. “I’m serious.”

“I’m being serious, too.”

“How the hell did we get here?”

Question two.

“You really don’t know anything, do you?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Work harder.”

I grunted.

“You don’t remember?” Isabella asked. Asking the obvious. She cocked her head the other way. Swaying slight, back and forth. “Because I do.”

I stared at the girl, for so long she almost became unrecognizable. I blinked, and it was Isabella again.

“You mind sharing?” I asked of her.

“Nope.” She continued sway. “I don’t mind one bit.”

Glaring at her, I started, “Could you not-”

“You attacked them. Killed some of them, too.”

Attacked and killed. Those words froze me, still.

“Who-”

“You know who. Well, I know, but the lines have gotten pretty blurry now.”

“The Fangs,” I said, as though I didn’t believe it, myself. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“What does, really, when it comes to someone like you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You open yourself to distractions so you get distracted. It’s simple, honestly. Hard to grasp for someone like you but it is simple.”

“You’re saying I attacked them… because they were distracting me?”

“You killed them because you kept wasting time with things that didn’t matter. And somewhere, deep in the back of your mind, something was telling you that enough was enough.”

Isabella raised a finger, but tapped the side of her head.

“And you finally listened.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” I said.

Isabella frowned, then pouted like how a kid would.

“But saying it was stress or guilt is too boring! I’m trying to help you here!”

“You call that help?” I questioned, my head feeling heavier by the second.

“It’s something,” Isabella said. She smiled again. “I’m trying. We’re trying.”

I looked at her. That girl. Isabella. So small and young.

There was a hard tug in my chest, seizing my heart tight and threatening to tear right out of my body and leave me dead, if this wasn’t some kind of afterlife already.

Her smile was as real as anything here, which gave me reason for doubt to enter and fill the cracks of my shattered mind.

Stress. Guilt.

Tug.

“Isabella,” I said, just to say it, and frame her in both my mind’s eye, and my actual sight. “You died because of me.”

The girl flinched. I saw a pang of sadness right before she composed herself again.

“There were very many factors. You… were one of them, but not the sole reason.”

“You died because of me.”

I repeated it. I felt like it needed repeating.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened to me-”

“You died because of me.”

There was a pause. Silence and darkness. Emptiness.

Isabella’s lips were set in a straight line.

“You’re wasting your time, talking about this,” she said, voice tight. “That’s not what’s important, here.”

“It can be, Isabella, it should be. I was responsible for you, and for so many other people. And I wanted you to stick even closer, as if that’d make you safer. At the end of the day… I couldn’t save everyone, and that included you.”

Isabella breathed, shaky. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I am so sorry, Isabella, I really-”

“The fuck is this pity party?”

Isabella turned. It wasn’t my voice.

I turned, too.

Out from the shadows, walking with his back straight and his head high. His hair was slicked back and his suit prim and proper. He walked with a cool confidence he normally wished he had.

“Lawrence,” I said.

He gave me, us, a nod. He stopped about a foot away from Isabella. Closer to her, but farther from me.

Lawrence was standing, Isabella was crouching, and I was sitting.

I said his name again, sounding like I was out of breath.

“Lawrence…”

A grin went across his face, yet he didn’t seem pleased.

“Better than calling me by a fucked up nickname.”

“You liked them and you know it,” Isabella said.

“You don’t know shit.”

“I know as much as you, maybe even more.”

“You don’t know shit.”

“Nope,” Isabella said, smirking.

I watched them bicker, a normal moment during a strange time, which only made it even stranger.

“I am so sorry, Lawrence.”

I gave him those words, too. As I was, here, now, it was all I had to give.

Lawrence glanced at me from the side. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“It was my fault, too, that you…”

That particular wound was still too fresh. Hurt, to even consider.

“And Reggie…”

All the other Fangs I had pulled out of my mouth.

“Oh that?” Lawrence questioned. Cool, smooth, he reached into his pocket and popped something into his mouth.

No. I knew what that something was.

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” he said, crushing the pill between his teeth. “Not for me, anyway. I don’t need to hear it.”

“Sounds like someone does need it.”

Lawrence shot a harsh look at her, but left it at that. Isabella didn’t seem fazed by it.

“I guess I’m as good as dead, too.”

They both turned their eyes to me.

“What makes you say that?” Lawrence asked.

“Well,” I started, “You’re gone, and Isabella…”

“That don’t mean fucking nothing, okay?”

“If anything,” Isabella said, “You’ve never been more alive, more free.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You keep saying that but that’s not the issue here.”

“Then what is it?” I asked. “The issue?”

“We need to get you sorted the fuck out,” Lawrence said. “Because, as you are right now, you’re a fucking mess.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“So don’t worry about me, and don’t about this little girl or any other, and can you forget about the Fangs and all that shit too. We’re all… superfluous. We’re distractions.”

“And you’re planning to do… what then?”

Lawrence smiled.

“Distract you for a bit longer.”

He positioned himself in front of me, Isabella to the side. Feet flat, shoulders and back straight, head down, facing me. There were no shadows in the contours.

He popped another pill into his mouth, and then, clasping his hands together, spoke to me.

“Let’s get started.”

I wasn’t sure what we were starting.

“How are you?” he asked.

I leaned to the side. It was slight.

“How am I? What does that have to do with anything?”

“How are you?” he asked again.

“What? I don’t know, I’m fine.”

“How are you feeling?” Lawrence asked.

“How am I- fuck,” I said, several touches irritated. “I don’t know. Irritated, angry. Frustrated.”

“Do you think before you act?”

“Do I-”

I was about to talk back again, but I felt like I could guess as to what his response would be.

“Generally,” I answered instead.

“Do you spend your leisure time wisely?”

“I don’t really get to have leisure time.”

“Do you have a tendency to act before thinking?”

“I… probably more than I’d like to admit. Generally.”

“Have you failed more when acting on impulse than consideration?”

“Probably the former, I guess. I haven’t really kept score.”

“Would you say you have failed more times than you have not?”

“I wouldn’t so far as to say that. Like I said, haven’t kept score.”

“Do you enjoy spending your time on long car rides?”

“Don’t know how to drive. No.”

“Do you define yourself by your success?”

“I don’t have much else. Sure.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Dwell… Can’t say I don’t.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“I already answered that.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Fuck… Yes, I do.”

“Are your failures a source of frustration for you?”

“Yeah, they are.”

“Does this all seem familiar to you?”

“To me? Not particularly. Look, Lawrence, I don’t see how-”

Isabella, this time.

“Still don’t see?” She looked to Lawrence. “Keep going.”

“Keep going- what the fuck are we-”

“For the next series of questions please answer as quickly as possible, while making them as short as possible,” Lawrence said. “Do you feel like you have purpose in your life?”

I frowned and growled, yet I felt compelled to follow along. A tug.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Do you believe a higher power will save you?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you are worth saving?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you can save yourself?”

“Working on- by myself… No.”

“Are you true in your intentions?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see through your own lies?”

“Maybe. I really don’t understand that one.”

“You do. Yes you do.”

“I don’t. That’s to you and the question.”

“Are you afraid of dying?”

“I’m afraid of disappearing.”

“Have you ever taken a life?”

“I have.”

“Who?”

“Too many.”

“And do you regret this?”

“Some of them. You and Isabella. My own men. Reggie. Thomas Thompson… Memory’s fuzzy.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“It is.”

“Would this regret serve as cause of frustration for you?”

“I’d say it would.”

“Would you describe yourself as paranoid?”

“Very-”

“Are you easily distracted?”

“-paranoid. But only… what? I was still thinking about the last question you asked.”

“Are you slow to anger?

“Uh, no.”

“Are there things you would like to change about yourself?”

“Yes.”

“What are they?”

“Everything.”

“Examples?”

“My attitude. My appearance. My ability.”

“Are you constantly picking up new hobbies?”

“Don’t really have any hobbies to begin with.”

“Are you overwhelmed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Are you stressed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever feel like quitting?”

“Yes.”

“Will you quit?”

“I won’t.”

“Even if you break down?”

“No.”

“Even if you suffer all the more?”

“No.”

“Even if you burn out?”

“No.”

“Even if you find something or someone else?”

“I… Quitting isn’t an option.”

“Aside from work, does anything else matter to you?”

“Yes. Not anymore, I guess.”

“Are you willing to burn out?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to burn?”

“If that what it takes.”

“What are you after?”

“Peace.”

“For yourself?”

“Yes.”

Lawrence paused. For what seemed like an eternity, for so long that I could go mad and wrap back around to sanity, he was still. Still. Still he was still.

Then Lawrence asked the next question.

“And who are you?”

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.

“What is your name?”

Several different names came to me, but none of them felt too honest to say.

“I don’t think I have one,” I said, uncertain.

“Yes you do. What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know!”

“Tell me your name.”

“I don’t know which one to pick!”

My hands went to my head, fingers getting twisted into hair. I fell forward, on my knees, my forehead pressing into the cold ground. With no answer to give, I screamed instead.

Raw, pain, the anguish. The yelps of a dying animal. Sad.

“No more distractions,” Isabella said, “Keep it simple.”

“I… I…”

My fingers gripped tighter on my head, as if I was pressing down on a lid, the contents inside boiling and bubbling, about to burst. But my skull was throbbing, feeling heavy, and there was only so much pressure I could take.

I couldn’t stop boiling.

Names kept driving into my head, hitting me over and over, each with the force of a truck. More names than any one person needed.

Letters assembling and reassembling, words being flipped and taken apart, falling between my grasp like sand.

A… Lexis… Wen… V, V… D…

“I can’t, I can’t pick, so many letters, so many so many so many-”

“Hey.”

Hands on my face. Not mine.

Lifted.

Isabella.

Her face close to mine, her hands trailing to mine, until she pulled them away and placed them into hers, setting them between us.

She hushed me quiet. Trying to calm me.

I calmed, in fits and starts. I hiccuped and choked up, but I wasn’t shaking as hard.

“It’s okay, here, it’s okay…”

“I don’t… I can’t…”

“It’s okay, that’s what we’re here for, that’s what you’re here for. We’re sorting you out, one more time. Let’s hope it’s the last.”

I swallowed, hard, a taste of something sweet in my mouth.

“Get rid of everything that doesn’t matter. You’ve don’t it once before, haven’t you? Friends, family, Fangs. No more. But you still need people, though, of course, but let’s stay simple. Their function, what they can do for you, how they move on the board. And you are on that board, too, so we should make you simple too. Break you down, reduce you to the essential parts and the essential parts only.”

“Alexis?”

“No.”

“Wendy?”

“Too many connections now, too. Simpler.”

“V…”

“Better, that’s so much better. Good job!”

“What is your name?”

“V. My name is V.”

“Good. V, there is something inside you. Deep down you know this. Deeper still you’ve seen it. Maybe you want to call it a monster, a parasite, maybe you want to call it something else. But that doesn’t matter either. What matters, is what you’ll do with it. You might not know what you are, but you know who, right?”

“Yes. V.”

“So the question isn’t how you got here, or what you are, or any of that bullshit… It’s, what are you going to do next?”

What am I going to do next?

“I’m going to burn everything. This city, this world is fucked up as it is, so I’ll just fuck it up some more and force everyone to rebuild from the ashes.”

“Least you have an answer. Think we’re done here.”

“We are.”

“Come on, get up.”

Isabella helped me to my feet.

“Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already. Not a luxury you have, so you’ll have to get right to it. You’ve called yourself a queen, but the game can still be played without her.”

“So our suggestion is, make the moves you can while you’re still able. It’s your gambit now.”

“I understand.”

“Perfect.”

“You might want this.”

Isabella handed me something. When I raised it and inspected it for myself, I saw that they were my glasses.

A small crack had formed along the edge of one lens. Barely perceptible, but it was there.

I wiped some of the dirt and blood off with a sleeve, the one sleeve I had. Doing the best I could, all I could do, I cleaned the lenses.

Then I put my glasses back on. Blinking. Seeing again.

“Thank you,” I said, with more clarity than I ever had before. There was a fire had that been lit within me. The fuse felt short, but until then, I’d move before the boiling and the bubbling gave way to the actual explosion.

“Don’t mention it. Now come on, we’re losing precious time.”

“We are,” I said, and it was as if our voices we’re coalescing into one, along with all the others who had a hand in getting me here. Us.

And then Isabella was gone. Lawrence too. Just the darkness that surrounded me. V.

And with them gone, the dark descended in pitch, swallowing me up even more. The opposite of what was happening inside.

But that was fine.

I walked through the valley of the shadow… knowing very acutely what could come for me, and soon.

It was still dark when I let myself in. The sun would be rising soon, so I’d have to take my leave before then.

Looking through the glass, I didn’t see anything out of place. Sliding it open, I introduced a soft breeze. A few papers on a nearby table fluttered with the light wind, but nothing got too disturbed. I stepped out from the overhang and let myself in.

Not through the front, no, too risky to try that. Had to get by other means. Just in case. Paranoia had walked in, wearing my skin.

My apartment. Though, I supposed it wasn’t my apartment anymore.

I moved through it with a supreme familiarity, gliding to where my room would be, when I still claimed ownership of this place.

Grabbing everything I needed, grabbing everything I would ever need, stuffing it into a bag that I could carry on one shoulder. Costume, mask, weapons. Guns and knives. An extra set of clothes for good measure. I found a skirt that I was hazy on if it was actually mine, but in my rush I shoved it in, anyways. I still had the room.

I made sure to cram in stacks of cash. Being the leader of a gang had resulted in a decent cash flow.

Leaving my closet and room, and moving right along to the kitchen. The fridge.

Packets of blood, squeezing the remaining space in my bag with them. No reason to leave any behind, I took them all.

Zipping up the bag, I put the strap around my shoulder, giving it a pat. For any other person, they would have had trouble walking with the weight, let alone running and jumping. But I wasn’t any other person. I’d manage just fine.

I started to take off.

“Wendy?”

I spun around, already on edge. I was ready to strike.

Not out from the shadows, rather a light went on. A lamp illuminated them and their soft features that I had come to be intimately familiar within the past week.

I didn’t say anything when I saw Sarah.

“I know it’s you, Wendy, it really can’t be anyone else.”

Everything and everyone inside me was shouting for me to just leave right away. My feet were flat on the floor.

“It’s not,” I said, “Sorry.”

It was Sarah’s turn to be silent.

I saw the phone in her hand, how a finger hovered over a bright screen.

“Did D ask you to wait for me here?”

“I volunteered.”

“Are you going to call it in?”

“I don’t know.”

Her finger stayed in place.

“D is looking after the Fangs herself,” Sarah said. “Trying. The rest… they aren’t so happy with what happened, how it happened, and how fast it happened. They want to go after you, and I don’t think D has the power to stop them.”

“And you doubt you have the power to convince them otherwise, too.”

Sarah nodded.

“Do you agree with them? That you want to go after me?”

Sarah shook her head.

I breathed. More stable than I had expected, but there was a slight tremor.

“Then this is your last chance, Sarah. Leave now, and don’t look back. Because if you do, and I see you again out there, I can’t and I won’t guarantee your safety.”

Sarah looked particularly hurt, hearing that. It hurt me, too, seeing that.

“So this is it?” Sarah questioned. She dropped her phone, arms hugging her body. “You’re really going to do it like this?”

“It is,” I answered. I took a step towards the window. “I am. I have to.”

“Can I-”

Sarah had stepped forward after me, arms unfolding, wanting, reaching.

But my eyes weren’t on her anymore. They were on the city, with the pale dots of fire and thin drawn lines of smoke in the distance.

I was reminded of two paintings. The one I had caught a glimpse of while in my apartment. The false idol, the lie I had bought into, thinking I could make it real for myself.

The other, through watery eyes as the height and descent got to me, looked a lot like what I was seeing now. The one from the Mazzucchelli. A city on fire.

Stephenville was my canvas, and I had my tools. And now, after stripping everything else away, I was ready to paint my masterpiece.

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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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Sarah

Previous                                                                                               Next

The car was parked outside the apartment. It was running, kicking up in fits and starts, coughing out exhaust that trailed out a slow, hazy path. It was an old thing, but it still worked, which was just about the only reason why she was here. If it finally had the sense to die, she could have had an excuse, and she’d have no way of showing up.

Sarah shivered.

“Cold?”

Sarah looked over to her left. She smiled, nervously.

Hazel eyes stared back at her. They were usually so… mischievous, not unlike a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse, or even a ball or yarn. It bugged her to see them filled with such concern.

Sarah glanced ahead to the street. The break from her gaze didn’t last long, the urge to meet it again became too alluring.

Black hair, parted down the middle, exposing her forehead and reaching just past her neck. Lips just a dash deeper than pink, the color only really noticeable when contrasted against her pale complexion.

Not exactly goth, but goth inspired. A lot of black and even more accessories, but still presentable to those weren’t as fashion conscious. A thick grey flannel, a shirt sporting a metal band’s logo, with sharp, branching lines that extended out in every direction, and loose denim pants with rips in them.

Sarah would have preferred if she had went without the fishnet stockings, peeking just past the rips. But… whatever. They were here already.

She looked into those eyes again. No, that look was still too much for her. She searched around them, instead. The round frames of her glasses, the thin line of maroon that gave her eyes a deeper definition. All the more alluring, all the more unlikely that she could contain herself and not reach for her and-

Sarah swallowed.

“Freezing, Celeste,” Sarah finally answered. “I’m freakin’ freezing.”

Celeste gave a grin, her eyes shifting to match the expression. Smug. Mischievous. That feeling like she was being pulled along by a string. She tried not to mind that feeling so much.

“If you ask nicely, I can warm you up.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

“How nicely?”

Celeste made a purring noise. Along with the running engine, it made for a sensation that Sarah could feel.

The engine sputtered. A reminder that this thing might not last for much longer.

“If you have to ask,” Celeste said, still playful, “Then there’s nothing I can do for you.”

Sarah pouted. She wanted to play along.

“There’s always such a thing of being too nice. I just want to know where that bar is set.”

That only made Celeste double down, pulling on that string between them.

“Why don’t you take a guess?”

A challenge. She was up for that.

If it means not having to go outside just yet.

Sarah answered that challenge, not with words, but by leaning over the console between the seats. Tilting her chin up by an fraction. If she lost her balance and fell into Celeste, she didn’t care. Part of her kind of wanted that to happen.

Sarah inched closer, almost too close, almost too nicely. She pushed it, just a little bit more.

Celeste didn’t budge, keeping that smugness about her. One way or another, Sarah was going to get that look off her face.

She aimed for her lips.

“Whoa!”

Sarah jerked back, shaking her head. A hot gust of air struck her on the right side of her face.

Celeste took her hand off the knob, just below the car radio.

“Nice enough,” Celeste said.

“God, don’t do that,” Sarah said, rubbing her cheek. She reached over to adjust the knob again, so it wouldn’t keep blowing out hot air. “It’s going to fuck up the whole thing.”

“I thought you were freezing?” Celeste asked, already forgetting about it.

“Yeah, frozen in fear,” Sarah answered.

“What? Why?”

Sarah shot a look at her.

“You know exactly why. I haven’t seen my folks in two years. Haven’t talked to them for even longer.”

Since I left for college.

It was a touchy subject that she didn’t delve into a lot. She hadn’t even let Celeste in on all the details, just the broadest of broad strokes. She probably should have, now that Celeste was here, but part of her hoped that it wouldn’t have come to this, at all.

Even then, even now, she still didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t even want to think about it. Maybe, if she was careful, everything would go smooth, and there wouldn’t anything to explain.

Sarah sighed.

Celeste crossed one leg over another, so her knee was sticking out from the rip that was there. She circled her finger around the hole, picking at her stocking while she was at it.

“Is that the only reason?” she asked, her eyes down.

Sarah frowned, but Celeste wouldn’t have seen it. She didn’t.

“Me and my family, I mean, of course I love them because of course. I sort of have to. But… that doesn’t mean we can’t have, um, disagreements, and that definitely doesn’t mean that those disagreements can’t get in between us and keep that distance, um, there.”

“But there’s a reason why you’re here, now, right? To try and close that distance?”

Sarah made a face.

“The only reason why I’m here is because you wouldn’t stop begging to come with me. And, because you were willing to drive my shitty car over here.”

“Oh, is that so?” Celeste laughed, but she sounded a little hurt, having heard that. Sarah immediately regretted saying it like that. “I just wanted to meet them, is that so wrong?”

“It can go wrong, if you’re not careful.”

“So I’m a problem?”

Another regret. Sarah fixed her hair, tucking it behind an ear.

“No, you’re…”

She couldn’t find the word. It seemed like anything she could say might come across as an insult.

“A disagreement?” Celeste offered.

Sarah sighed again.

“No,” she said. “You’re my roommate.”

Celeste mouthed that last word, not actually saying it. She looked out to the window past Sarah, over to the apartment complex. It wouldn’t even take a minute to get there from the car, but that was enough to make it feel like an eternity.

“Ugh,” she sounded, not much of a pur. “Sure, I get it, I really do. It’s fucking hard as shit to come out like this, doubly so if you haven’t been home in a couple of years. But… yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything.”

Sarah felt that invisible string between them loosen. Celeste wasn’t tugging on it anymore.

“You’re not wrong to have expectations, I think. Ugh, I wish I had your parents. They’re cool.”

“The coolest,” Celeste said, eyes still to the window. “But they weren’t the coolest for the longest time. It took a little. But now… they’re cool, and that’s cool.”

“Cool,” Sarah said.

Celeste turned, facing Sarah directly. Her lips curved at the corners. It reminded her of a cat.

“But if we actually did have the same parents, there’d be a lot more we’d have to explain, and I don’t think they’d be cool about that.”

“I bet,” Sarah said. She smiled, still nervous. “But I love Rosa too much to make the switch.”

“She’s great, but you can keep her. Being an only child can have its perks.”

“In what ways?”

“You know, you get doted on, you get all the presents. You get your own room.”

“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Sarah said. Having a sibling meant having scarce amounts of privacy, if any. She had no time to herself, and growing up when forced to share space with someone just a few years behind made those growing pains ache that much more. It was equal parts living with a best friend, and living with an actual monster.

But Sarah didn’t bring any of that up.

Celeste flashed another one of her trademark smirks.

“Now though? I much prefer having someone to share a room with.”

Sarah felt a warmth in her face. It wasn’t from the car.

“Definitely different from sharing one with my sister.”

“Again, a lot harder to explain we had the same parents.”

“Can we not go in that direction again? Please?”

Celeste laughed. Completely genuine.

Sarah loved hearing Celeste’s laugh.

This… This wasn’t so bad. Sitting here, warmed up, just the two of them. It was all she really needed. It was all she really wanted.

It was the outside world, them, that she wanted to avoid. They were the others. Mom, Dad, if she let them inside, she was certain they’d break something. Somehow.

The car hiccuped yet again. Sarah sighed for the third time.

“What if I told you that a little bit of happiness leaves your body every time you do that?” Celeste said.

Sarah stared at Celeste. She opened her mouth and groaned, exaggerating it.

“And I thought I was the gloomy one,” Celeste said.

The car continued to rumble, continued to cough on occasion. It was as if the old thing was in its death throes.

“We’re still in here,” Celeste observed. “You want to keep choking the planet?”

Sarah had to fight the urge to sigh again. She didn’t want to make a habit out of it.

“It’s cold outside,” Sarah said.

“That’s not a good excuse to stay inside forever.”

“It kind of can be.”

“That wasn’t a real sentence.”

Celeste tapped the wheel, keeping her hands on it.

It would have been so easy – too easy – to ask Celeste to drive away, and Sarah could make up something on the way back home. Car broke down, the weather got too, the roads turned slick.

Celeste let her hands drop into her lap. Sarah felt her heart drop, too.

“It’s freezing outside,” Sarah said.

The hollow reverberations from the car was like static in the air.

“I know it’s hard,” Celeste said. “Believe me, I’ve been there. I totally, hundred- thousand percent get it. If it’s something you think they won’t be able to accept, then it can wait.”

“What if it never happens? What if this is the final thing that makes it, um,…”

It was hard to find the word right away. She hesitated.

Final,” Sarah said, finishing the thought.

“Then that’s their loss, and they can go fuck themselves about that.”

Celeste didn’t apologize for her vulgarity. Sarah wouldn’t ask for it.

“I appreciate the sentiment. The mental image I can do without, though.”

“What I’m trying to say… it’s all up to you, Sarah. Your call. Whatever you choose, I am absolutely and unequivocally here for it.”

She always seemed to know the right thing to say, the right buttons to push. Sarah almost loved her for it, if it didn’t come so easy for Celeste. It made Sarah feel like she was just a toy to her, something that could be pulled by a string and be moved along, accordingly. A kind of connection that only really went in one direction. A feeling she didn’t mind so much, but…

It was there.

It was a thought she only had in passing, but it was there. It came and went. And sometimes, it gave her pause.

Not today, though. Today, she liked that someone else was with her, in this. Someone else could hold her down. Pull her out if it got too bad.

It wouldn’t be fair to her family, it wouldn’t fair to her if she didn’t even try.

The window by her side fogged up. She had looked in the other direction without realizing it.

Another breath, another bit of happiness gone, according to Celeste’s theory.

Sarah talked, listlessly, “You’re awesome, you know that?”

“Oh, I know, but it’s nice to hear that without you screaming it in my ear for once.”

Sarah turned, jaw dropped, and reached over to smack Celeste in the arm.

“Oh my god, fuck you!”

Celeste gestured over to the general direction of the apartment.

“Sure, but your fam is expecting you, and these things aren’t tinted.”

Her jaw dropped lower. One more smack to the arm for good measure.

“Ow,” Celeste said.

“Freak,” Sarah said, but she might as well be speaking to a mirror, in that sense. And she was done with the self-deprecation, the self-harming.

Closure. That was why she was here. With or without Celeste, she’d get that. One way or another.

She held her breath.

The door cracked open. A chill crept through her.

Celeste turned the key in the ignition. The car was finally allowed to rest.

“Let’s not keep Rosa waiting,” Sarah said.

“Yes!” Celeste cheered, opening the door on her side.

They both stepped out, the cold folding around them like a hug they didn’t want.

Sarah looked to the apartment complex.

Celeste went around the car. Sarah wandered over to her side.

“Lucky,” Sarah said, “You’ve already graduated. If they weren’t pitching in for my tuition, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Keep feeding yourself bullshit,” Celeste said, bumping into Sarah, “No one’s going to want to ever get close to you.”

Sarah couldn’t help but smirk. If she tried to fight it, she’d probably look really stupid.

Instead, she rested her head on Celeste’s shoulder. Their fingers intertwined.

A split-second decision, but it didn’t feel wrong. Far from it. And if it didn’t feel wrong here, it might not be so bad there.

Right?

Sarah hoped.

“It’s a good thing I have you, already,” Sarah said. She squeezed Celeste’s hand, giving a soft sway. “You can’t go anywhere.”

“Ha. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten comfortable. Never forget, I have you.”

To illustrate her point, Celeste shifted her hand, fingers still together with Sarah’s. With her index, she traced some letters across the palm of Sarah’s hand. ‘I’ and ‘U.’

The sensation wasn’t unlike electricity going up one arm, bursting through the rest of her body.

Point taken.

“Yup,” Sarah said, resigned, not minding it as much as before. “By a string.”

As a pair, they started walking into the direction of the apartment. The walk was made a little easier, now that Sarah had someone she could lean on.

The door swung open, revealing several people that had already gotten started. Standing around, relaxing, beers in hand.

“Sarah’s here!”

She waved, pushing herself off the edge of the door frame she was leaning on. She came by herself.

“I am!” she said, cheery as she usually presented herself. She stepped into Casa Martinez, taking a quick scan around.

It didn’t take Sarah long to find who had called out to her.

Reggie and Tone were hanging around by the bar in the back of the restaurant. Reggie waved back, and Sarah started to make her way over there.

There was a small gathering of people between her and her friends, but she maneuvered through them without a problem. There wasn’t a reason to expect anything different. The overall vibe was pretty chill.

“Hey,” Sarah said, as she joined Reggie and Tone.

“Happy New Year,” Tone said, flat. “Do people actually say that?”

Tone passed Sarah a beer, sliding it across the bar to her. She caught it, taking a sip. Bitter, but refreshing.

Sarah let out a breath, smiling a little.

“You can say that,” she said.

“Still got a couple minutes before it’s official,” Reggie said.

Leaning against the bar itself, propping her elbows up, Sarah took another sip.

“God, hard to believe another year is about to pass.”

“Hard to believe we even made it through this one,” Reggie said. “Feels like this year was the start of the end times.”

“I take back my previous statement then,” Tone said, “Next year is probably going to be a lot more shitty.”

“Always the optimist,” Reggie said.

Sarah took yet another sip, tipping the bottle back a little higher.

“Damn, how fucked up are you trying to get before the year ends?” Reggie asked.

Pulling the bottle away from her lips, Sarah inspected the bottle, swirling the liquid inside. Three of what she considered to be sips, and there was only a few drops left.

She shrugged it off.

“I’m just trying to catch up to you guys,” she said. “Got here late.”

“Not that late, and this is still my first one.”

Reggie raised his bottle, showing that he only downed about half of it.

Tone interjected. “To be fair, this is my second.”

Sarah pointed at him. “See?”

“Yeah, but his girl can pick him up,” Reggie said. “And I arranged a ride for myself, too. How are you getting home?”

“I…”

She drove over here, parked in the back. She didn’t have that beaten up old thing, anymore.

The thought sobered her.

“I can take a taxi,” Sarah said, almost sluggish.

“Nah, how about we get this settled now before we forget about it later. Oh hey, we can talk to him about it.”

The trio all turned to where Reggie had indicated, watching as an imposing figure approached them.

Wearing a suit, but without the tie, the overall look was casual but still holding on to an air of authority. Standing somewhere between Reggie and Tone in height, he didn’t loom, but he definitely wasn’t someone to fuck with.

“What’s up?” Lawrence asked. He sounded somewhat distracted, as if he wasn’t expecting to be talking to the three of them. Then again, Reggie called him out as soon as he spotted their boss.

“Not much,” Reggie answered. “Great party by the way.”

“I’m not looking to bring the house down,” Lawrence said. “Mrs. Martinez will be coming in early to prep for the new year. So I don’t want anyone to get too crazy.”

“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” Reggie said.

Lawrence blinked. “Oh, right.”

“Anyway, we were just talking about rides. Sarah came without having designated a driver.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah. “You drove here by yourself?”

“Well, I mean…”

She couldn’t but feel like Lawrence was judging her.

Instead, he pointed to the people behind him.

“It’s fine, I accounted for that. I’ve got a few people here who are willing to drive anyone who gets too shitfaced for the wheel.”

Sarah set her bottle down. “Whoa, sir, I did not plan to go that far, tonight.”

Lawrence didn’t seem convinced. “Either way, you have options, and I suggest you take them.”

“How very responsible of you,” Tone commented.

Lawrence fixed his hair, slicking it back more. “Yeah, well, last thing I want is for any of you to get in trouble, or worse, get the police involved. The Ghosts are finally on an upswing, so the less chance of anything getting in the way of that, the better.”

“You’re really thinking ahead.”

“Call me paranoid, whatever, I don’t care. Just behave yourselves, and that goes for everyone.”

“Damn, we will,” Sarah said. “But, keep that up, and you won’t be able to enjoy your own party.”

“This is all for you guys, not me.”

Lawrence turned, his eyes searching across the restaurant. To the front door, it seemed like. No one was there, though.

“I’ll be around, if you still need anything from me,” Lawrence said, focus still somewhere else.

“And yeah, I’ll take one of your drivers,” Sarah said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Alright,” Lawrence said, nodding. “There should actually be one more coming in soon, but… shit, I hate when people are late.”

“Definitely sucks!”

Lawrence nodded again, but he didn’t say anything. He just left, disappearing into the crowd.

“Interesting guy,” Tone said, then went back to finishing his beer.

“You’d have to be, in order to be in a position like his,” Reggie said.

“Somehow, I feel like he thinks he’s one of us,” Sarah observed. “Just a regular person.”

Tone laughed, setting his bottle down beside him. “Look where we are, Sarah, what we’re doing. We’re standing on the polar opposite of regular.”

Sarah and Reggie laughed along with him, but it wasn’t as spirited. As if to deflect and change the subject, Sarah smacked Reggie on the arm.

“The heck?” Reggie questioned, now massaging his elbow.

“Why’d you have to call me out in front of the boss?”

“I wasn’t calling you out, I was just looking out for you.”

“I would have been fine,” Sarah said.

“No, you’ll be fine now because we got it sorted out early. But, come on, do you really want to end the year with an argument, of all things?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Reggie grumbled, rolling his eyes a bit.

“I think you know exactly what I mean.”

It was Sarah’s turn to grumble. Another thing she didn’t want to recall. It was still ringing in her ears, like tinnitus. It had been that loud, that destructive. The growing emptiness that threatened to swallow her apartment… no amount of bottles or spliffs could ever attempt to fill it.

She turned, signaling the bartender for another drink. Taking it from a shelf behind him, the bartender then popped the cap and slid the bottle to her. Sarah caught it, swinging it up to her lips, smooth.

She would have argued with Reggie on that point, but she drowned those words with another swig.

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll let you off the hook this time.”

“I appreciate your benevolence,” Reggie said.

“So, y’all have any resolutions for next year?” Tone asked. Another change in the subject. “Do people actually make those?”

“They do,” Sarah said. “Whether or not they keep it is another matter, entirely.”

“Good point.”

“Resolutions,” Reggie mused. He was actually putting some thought into this. He set a hand across his belly. “Maybe I should work on cutting this down.”

“That’s a classic one,” Tone said. “Also the hardest one to keep. Good luck.”

“I did say maybe. What about you, then?”

“Me? I ain’t even bother with that shit. No point.”

“Good to know you haven’t changed in…” Reggie pretended to check a watch on his wrist that wasn’t actually there, “Ten minutes.”

Tone sipped and finished his second bottle. Sarah was about to catch up with him.

“You?”

Sarah breathed. She felt her breath getting thick and heavy.

“Sarah?”

Sarah looked at Reggie. “Huh?”

“You have any resolutions for next year?” Reggie asked.

A question she didn’t have an immediate answer to. Trying to form one was like wading through a haze, made more clouded by the added, seeping mist of drink.

Reflecting on the past year. Having to extrapolate on everything that happened and finding what she could do better.

But that meant sorting through memories she wasn’t ready to face, opening wounds that hadn’t fully healed yet. She had showed up tonight to try and get her mind off all that shit, not focus on it more, magnifying it with a glass full of alcohol.

And what’s the lesson to be learned, anyways? Don’t get cut like that again? Don’t put myself in a position to be cut so deeply?

No. Through the haze and miasma of the past year, one thing began to solidify. Something she could hold, control, pull and manipulate on her own.

Sarah finished the rest of her drink. It didn’t clear her mind, but it did give her something to say, and hearing it out loud might break through the ringing in her ears. Might make it real.

“I want to take control of something,” Sarah answered. “I don’t even care what that something is. Maybe my own damn self, finally grow up and take that back. I just hate either running away from connections or getting twisted up in ones that’s pointed in every direction that isn’t coming from me. For once… I want to be the one that’s holding the strings.”

“That sounds like a tall order,” Reggie said. “You up for it?”

“Honestly? I have no fucking idea on what I just said.”

“Then you need to slow down by a lot. There, that’s my resolution. To not be the one that’s dragging your drunk ass back home every time we go out.”

“Hey, I can handle my shit.”

Sarah tilted away from Reggie’s incredulous glare.

“I can learn how to control it,” she said.

His glare didn’t break. “Prove it by not having another drink, tonight.”

Her bottle slammed down when she went to set it aside. Harder than she intended.

“I give you the same challenge then!”

Reggie shrugged, a relaxed air about him. “My sobriety isn’t the one being questioned here, but sure.”

He set his bottle down. He still had only a few drops left.

“I’ll match you,” he said, cool.

She had nothing else to say to that. The only way to win this now was to beat him at this game of his.

There was stress in trying to win, though, and Sarah hadn’t come here to add more on her mind. As far as this night was going, it wasn’t, in a manner of thinking.

But, if she couldn’t even do this, then she’d might as well drink herself under the table now, render herself unable to get up to greet the coming year on her two feet. It would almost be fitting, letting the weight of the past year continue to drag her down. The top of the year introduced the cuts, the middle let those wounds run deeper, even tearing off completely in some parts, and now, if she chose to, Sarah could let herself crumble from growing imbalance. An emptiness she couldn’t find what to fill it with.

She could feel herself wanting to reach out, her hands waiting to brush against something, to grab it and pull it in, close. The bottle was right there.

Breathe in, breathing out was much less easy.

“You guys really know how to keep the party going,” Tone said. As though to taunt them, Sarah especially, he called over his third drink, and guzzled down the length of the bottleneck. He breathed out, satisfied.

“It was his idea,” Sarah said, pointing with both hands to Reggie. She paused, suppressing a burp. “I honestly don’t have a problem that’s worth addressing.”

“Well, if it’s really not a problem, then you’ll have no problem getting through the rest of the night without another drop.”

Reggie said that with a joking kind of inflection.

“You really are just fucking with me, aren’t you?”

Reggie was smiling, now. “Guilty as charged.”

It was Sarah’s turn to glare at him, but she couldn’t help but smile, too, even if it felt dumb.

She still have every intention to beat Reggie at this game. She could control it. Prove it to him, prove it to herself. That she was holding the strings on this.

Wanting to toss in another topic of conversation, Sarah was about to say something, but in a second all sound was stolen from the room.

The whole crowd inside the restaurant shifted, turning in one particular direction. Reggie and Tone did, too. Sarah was almost compelled by a universal force to turn as well. To be pulled as well.

At the front of the restaurant. Two people had come in. All eyes were on them.

One stood out immediately. A little girl with her hands around a box half her size, totally comfortable with where she was right now. Short hair framed her already small face, like the painted head of a doll. Choker around her neck, a heavy bomber jacket a few sizes too big, almost hanging over the hem of her skirt. Black leggings and boots covered her legs and feet.

That girl, Sarah knew. Or she knew of him. Her pranks and antics had sewn chaos among not just the Ghosts, but several other gangs that were within their weight class. Lawrence had made his disdain for her well known, he nearly lost his mind over it.

But, she was here, now. For once, her penchant for panic managed to help and turn things around for Lawrence and the Ghosts. By nearly blowing up East Stephenville into the sky, but it somehow worked out.

She was here, and her reputation was more than twice her height. It preceded her. And everyone was hit by a sudden tenseness that gripped them tight.

Sarah was more curious than anything else.

Lawrence was the one to approach the pair, being able to move while everyone else was frozen stiff. Maybe because he was getting to be on the same wavelength as them, now? He did agree to work with them, and that offer extended to this point in time. They weren’t just Ghosts, now, they were leading the rest. And it wasn’t like anyone could get a say in it.

The three of them were too far to catch anything Lawrence and the girls were saying. Lawrence pointed to the box, and she pushed it into his arms, fluffing up the bow on top. She laughed with little regard to who was watching her. A gap in her teeth.

Lawrence set the box down by the door, out of the way and mostly out of sight. Didn’t seem like it was a set up for a prank on an already suspecting crowd.

They continued conversing, and it soon became clear that they weren’t here to cause trouble, not directly. Everyone else, the normal people, did what they could to settle back to the equilibrium that they had before the pair’s intrusion. They didn’t get it quite right, but they could still find some way to relax.

“So that’s really them,” Reggie said, eyes still on them. “Crazy.”

Sarah’s eyes were still locked on them, too, but they found another target.

The other girl. Taller than D, older, yet less certain of her place, here. And from how she held herself, standing behind D, one arm folded over another, glancing around the rest of restaurant. She looked more like a lost kid than the actual kid who actually looked out of place.

Her hair was cut short. Black, reaching just past her jawline. Skin whiter than… Sarah would have connected it to snow, but it didn’t snow here much. Pale like… a wound that finally healed into a scar. A faint line. An old, faded thing.

Dark clothes, jeans that weren’t super skinny. It was a simple outfit, but it was more wearing her than the other way around. Like she still had to work on being conscious on what her style was going to be, in terms of fashion.

Still, though, she still looked cute.

“Is that…” Sarah started, but she didn’t need to finish. The others caught on.

“I think it is,” Reggie said. “The Bluemoon herself, or V, whichever she goes by now.”

Sarah watched V with even more intensity. The world’s first superhuman, having once been a superhero, was now going to join their gang as a leader? And that was what she looked like under that mask?

She felt her lips dry. She needed something to drink.

“I’m shocked that she can show her face here,” Tone said.

“Why not?” Reggie asked.

Tone brought his voice to a whisper. “She’s the reason the Chariot fell apart and why the Ghosts were struggling for a minute.”

“She’s also the reason why the Ghosts are starting to turn things around, now. Sure, I get it, but do we have a choice? And now that we know what she looks like under that mask, it’ll be harder to walk away. It’s like we signed a death clause the moment we saw her eyes.”

Her eyes. The girl was still blinking, taking everything in. Sarah wondered how she might look in glasses.

“What’s her name?” Sarah asked, still transfixed.

“I… don’t know actually.”

That’s fine. Should be easy to get.

“How old is she? Looks kind of young.”

“Don’t ask me. I think she’s Asian, and I don’t want to make it into a thing where I guess because I’ll just come across as-”

Reggie stopped.

“Sarah? Sarah no.”

She looked from V to Reggie. “What?”

“I know what you’re thinking, and let me be the first to tell you… it would be the worst idea you ever had.”

Sarah put her hands up. “I wasn’t thinking of anything.”

Reggie’s glare didn’t break. It went back to bearing into her.

“That’s our boss, now, Sarah. I’m telling you right now to just stop and set your sights somewhere else.”

She took a more defensive position, situating herself away from the bar. She moved her arms, forming a ‘X.’

“Hey, hey, enough with the presumptions. I was just curious, can I not be curious about our new super overlord?”

“Curiosity was what got you into your last mess,” Reggie said.

Hearing that was like a hit to the stomach. The instinct to grab her drink and finish it came back, hard.

She didn’t, though.

“Don’t bring her up,” Sarah said, a warning tone. “Don’t.”

“Alright, okay,” Reggie said. He slouched a bit, as though it was a gesture, a half-bow. “Just promise me you’ll leave this well alone.”

“I will,” Sarah said, rushed, not really considering her own words. “Gosh, is that how you really see me? I don’t pounce on every girl I come across.”

“That’s obvious, Sarah, I know that. I’m just looking out-”

“Well don’t, okay? Not now. Fuck, this isn’t how I wanted the year to end.”

“Good thing the year ended already.”

Sarah and Reggie both looked at Tone.

He met them with a bored look on his face.

“It’s past midnight. Happy new year.”

They both checked their phones. He was right. How did they lose track of time?

Sarah turned, her eyes somehow found her again.

V was with D and Lawrence, conversing about matters Sarah would never know the particulars of. V looked so… adrift, like she didn’t have a legitimate anchor to hold her down. There were no strings attached to her.

Sarah could feel a compulsion to reach out, her heart beating at the prospect, solidifying harder from a thing to a resolution. A hard pull.

But this time, the strings could be in her hands.

The car parked in front of an apartment. It was running, the engine humming a low tone. No troubles with this one, it was working fine, with a promise to last much longer than that old, broken thing she had before.

Sarah stretched her hands out.

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

“Of course,” Sarah said, like it was part of a routine. But it still came from a genuine place. As genuine as anything else.

She had followed her directions, turning where Wendy had indicated, heading to wherever she wanted. As if she was pulling the strings.

It wasn’t quite like that. It wouldn’t be. Not allowing some give would be too constricting, the balance wouldn’t be right. She had to give room for some slack, some room for things to breathe. Because if she didn’t, any added stress might cause too much tension, too quickly. It might snap.

Wendy asked her to take her to this place. Wendy, in very many senses, was her superior, but Sarah wanted to think that she had this one over her. This string. That she let her pull it.

But, it wouldn’t have gotten this far if that connection wasn’t real, tangible. And, from what Sarah gathered from all the hints and flirts, she wasn’t being pushed away or shut down. She was here, sitting in her newer car.

That had to account for something.

It made her heart race faster than the drive that got them here.

Sarah caught herself taking another look at Wendy. She couldn’t stop herself.

As cute as ever, maybe even more so, if not very fatigued. But that was understandable. She had probably run herself ragged in executing this operation, among other… things. Sarah wasn’t there for the grittier details, she had been allowed to excuse herself.

She did have her involvement, though. Being there, in the crowd, while Lawrence put on his performance, Sarah acting as a spectator. In one sense, she really was one. She was able to watch these three as they worked together, observing from the sidelines as they concocted these plans and games, schemes. Plotting like how mad geniuses or villains would.

It was… funny, even, to see someone like Lawrence in their ranks now.

Lawrence had changed, and Wendy did, too. Or at least, Sarah was able to see the different sides of Wendy. Sides that no one else had gotten to see, maybe even sides of herself that Wendy might not be aware of. But that wasn’t a detraction, Sarah didn’t think any less of her. Rather, the opposite was true. It added to that attraction, the string that connect her to Wendy.

The thread that was becoming more red.

A loose sweater, jeans that had a hole across one knee, but that looked more from actual wear and tear, rather than being bought or made like that.

Wendy had glasses now. It served to make her look even more attractive.

Sarah would have kicked herself for seemingly having a type. But there was a difference, now. She was the older one, the taller one. She was the one with experience.

Sarah had her hands on the wheel. She was the one driving this time.

Sarah watched, entranced, as Wendy cycled through different motions. Fidgeting with her glasses, rubbing her hands and arms, licking and biting her lips. Looking up, looking down. Agitated. Nervous.

“Cold?” Sarah asked.

All Wendy did was nod. It took some time before she could say, “I am, actually.”

“I can fix that for you.”

Sarah fixed that for her, reaching to adjust the knob, and the temperature. It was slight, but the interior of the car heated up.

Wendy seemed to appreciate that. She wasn’t fidgeting as much, not being as anxious in her movements. Her eyes betrayed her, though, as they remained locked on a specific point up ahead, somewhere past the windshield.

There had been a dash of hope, that Wendy was inviting her over to spend the night, but as the drive continued and got farther away from the city, that possibility became less likely. Wendy wouldn’t have lived that far from the gang and the territory. She seemed the type to want to keep everything important close at hand, and distance having to travel meant time that could go to waste.

A small smile formed across Sarah’s lips. She liked that she was even able to venture a guess on Wendy’s thought process.

Setting her hands in her own lap, Sarah tried to follow Wendy’s gaze. Too many apartments, she could narrow it down but it wasn’t exact.

She decided to ask.

“So, where are we?”

Wendy bit her lip. Pink, with a subtle streak of red across the bottom. The contrast colors was made more apparent against how pale her skin was.

Sarah bit her own lip.

She had to wait for an answer. Having gotten closer to Wendy in recent weeks, and being sincere in learning every bit of what made her tick, she was starting to get an understanding of the different tells. The slight crease between her eyebrows when was deep in thought, the rapid blinking when she was put on the spot. She’d heard from Wendy before, how she wanted to be seen as a monster, but having seen those small, rare moments, it just made her so much more human.

Finally, Wendy did answer.

“Do you… remember when I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of my past self? Who I used to be?”

Sarah answered, “You’ve brought it up, once or twice.”

Wendy rubbed her arms again.

“That’s it. There’s where that past self came from.”

Sarah tried searching through the gloom. It was late, and there were so many apartments it was hard to figure out which one she was indicating, exactly.

“Not sure I follow,” Sarah said. “I thought you got your powers at that barn we visited.”

“No, not that. Here. The apartment there on the left. That’s… that’s where I used to live.”

There, the apartment on the left. Wendy pointed it out and Sarah found it.

“That was the home of Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis Barnett…”

The name wasn’t a familiar one, sounding foreign as it crossed Sarah’s lips. How it hit her ears, it didn’t make any sense at all. Who was Alexis to Wendy?

“This is where you came from?”

“In a sense,” Wendy said, despondent.

This was obviously a touchy subject, a sore spot, a raw wound that would burn at just the slightest brush of contact. Better avoided, if possible. Sarah wasn’t a stranger to that concept.

She waited some more, until Wendy was better able to approach that wound properly.

Wendy attempted her approach.

“While you and D kept an eye on Lawrence, I had a talk with Natalie Beckham. I tried to find out what she knew about John Cruz, on us, but she was more interested in revealing what she knew about her. Or, me.”

The fracture between those pronouns. That obvious division. It didn’t go over Sarah’s head.

“Natalie knew about this, too? But, hold on, I’m a bit confused on who-”

“Alexis Barnett was, she was an old name, an old self,” Wendy said, stammering through her explanation. “She was Blank Face, but after a time… it was something I knew I needed to get away from, because that wasn’t working. It was too… I can’t find the word.”

“Constricting?” Sarah suggested.

“That works.”

“What was Alexis like?”

“I…”

Wendy was fumbling. Her overall disposition, and as her hands dug into her pockets. She took out her phone, hands shaking as swiped her password, typing on the screen.

“That’s the thing,” Wendy said. “I had done my level best, trying to avoid an answer to that question, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything I’d have to say… but…”

Wendy passed Sarah her phone.

Taking it, squinting as the screen was too bright, Sarah read the words on the screen, the spelling of the name. A short article about the girl.

A picture was attached in the article. She looked just like Wendy, which wasn’t surprising, she supposed. Her hair was longer, though, wearing a smile that was bigger than any she’d seen on Wendy. More often than not, her smiles were reserved ones, belying what she was really feeling on the inside. Which was as alluring to Sarah as it was disappointing, that Wendy couldn’t feel like she could be that open.

Sarah skimmed through the article. It was all news to her. She picked out a few details, how she was a student, that she played in the school’s volleyball team, quotes from her old coach and teachers. Her mother. How Alexis was a cheery girl, sociable, bright and kind to anyone she met.

She sounded so normal.

Sarah set the phone down. She stopped reading before the image in her head could shift and warp any further.

Wendy was the real one to her. It was her, that Sarah’s strings were attracted to. Wanting and working to be attached to.

“Now everyone can know,” Wendy said, voice cracking.

“This was just published?” Sarah asked.

“Right before Natalie… It was her final move. Her way of trying to put me in checkmate. Didn’t work.”

“I didn’t see any mentions of Blank Face or V or the Fangs. Just, um, Alexis.”

“Yeah. She knew all of that but she kept it out of the story. But I don’t know why. She refused to give that up.”

“No,” Wendy added, shaking her head. “She mentioned why. She was setting up for something, and it didn’t require her being here to set it off.”

“You sure about that? I only scanned it, but I didn’t see any mention of Blank Face in the story. From the looks of it, this is probably going to be forgotten in a week. The news cycle moves fast. Too fast, sometimes.”

“I’m certain of it,” Wendy said. “She was willing to die to put this out, before anything else. We might have taken them out as an immediate threat, but I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear of their movements.”

“If you say so.”

She wasn’t going to question that line of thinking. That was Wendy’s job, to consider all those options, when enemies were everywhere, in the light and in the shadows.

But, that kind of thinking could break a person, the stress of it all weighing to heavy on the mind. Sarah worried.

“But what brings you here? What’s brought you back?”

There was a long pause from Wendy.

“I don’t know,” Wendy said. “It felt like I had to see it for myself, again. When she brought it up, it all came crashing into my head, like rush of water I was trying to hold back. Dammit. She asked me if all of this was worth it. I spend so much effort to make my own name and she keeps finding some way to intrude. Over and over. Fuck!”

Wendy put her hands into her face, rubbing her eyes. She had to adjust her glasses when she finished.

Sarah got it. She totally did.

“You came back, to see if you could walk away from it, still resolute. If you’ve grown from this place. I get it.”

Closure, Sarah thought.

“Part of growing up is being able to come back, right?”

The last time she tried that. Going home and taking Celeste with her. That terrible, terrible dinner. The first of the cuts that began to run deep, enough to snap a string into two.The worst Thanksgiving break of her life.

“It is,” Sarah said. “But you don’t have to force it. Everyone has their own pace. Rushing it can… it can lead to a mess.”

Holes you can’t fill.

“Maybe. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so tired.”

“Remember what Lawrence said? You don’t have to apologize.”

Wendy just kept shaking her head.

“You always know what to say, Sarah.”

Brief, but Sarah reminisced on another, earlier time.

“You have to hear it first before you can repeat it to someone else. Live it.”

“Could… I ask you another favor?”

“Anything,” Sarah said, meaning it.

“Could you just knock on the door? I want to see who answers.”

“You want me to do what? It’s pretty late.”

Wendy sighed, sounding jittery.

“You’re right, shouldn’t have mentioned it. I-”

“I mean, I can,” Sarah said, unbuckling her seatbelt, hand on the door. “Can’t promise if anyone will show up.”

“That’s fine, I just want to see.”

“Should I say anything?”

“You don’t have to.”

Sarah considered it. Didn’t take her long.

Keeping the key in the ignition to keep the car warm, Sarah got out of the car.

The walk was quick but uncertain. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was out of place. Because she was. But it was a feeling she’d have to fight.

She had the apartment in mind as she went up the stairs, able to find it when she reached the top level. She was sure this was it.

Quick but uncertain. She had to do this for her. She had to put some slack in again. To let the hook sink in.

Sarah knocked.

The wait was long. No surprise, it was late.

Sarah could sense where her car was parked, behind her. Wendy sitting inside. The pull of a string.

The lock tumbling out, first. The creaking of the door. Louder as the noise echoed into the night sky.

A woman stood before Sarah.

Short, shorter than Wendy. Uncanny. Disturbing, somehow, almost like seeing a vision of her, many years later. After all the stress and heaviness of life began to take its toll, leaving a broken constitution that no power could really keep up forever. For all her strength, that only meant that Wendy was pushing herself more than anyone should ask of themselves. Her body might be super, but her mind and spirit was human. It would have to be.

The woman’s shoulders were inward, her posture shrunk in, her hair long and disheveled, eyes red and baggy, carrying tears that had to have been wiped away just before the door was open. A bundle of blankets were draped over her, making her look even smaller.

There was still a beauty to her. It had to have been gotten from somewhere.

Sarah knew that pain. Deep, almost naked in its intimacy. She knew who this woman was.

Blinking, slow, laborious, the woman raised her head to look at Sarah.

Sarah had already considered her words. What she’d do.

It was what she should have done, that day.

Sarah took a step back, at an angle from the doorframe. So she wouldn’t be blocking the woman from being seen from outside.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sarah said, having to play another part tonight. “Looks like I got lost, I’ll find my own way.”

The woman didn’t reply, probably still discombobulated from having been roused out of bed at an ungodly hour.

Sarah kept the act going, already backing up some more.

“I’ll leave you alone, have a good night.”

She lingered a second longer than she needed to, just so the woman could linger at the door a second longer.

This was the home she left behind. And that was what happened to it in her absence.

Sarah understood that.

Then, Sarah left. Slow, but certain, she went back to her car. The apartment door and the car door closed at about the same time.

Sarah returned to a different scene. A different side of Wendy.

Her face was buried in her hands. Body trembling, shoulders sinking in, folding into her emotions that were now rushing forward, overpowering her.

She was weeping. Maybe it wasn’t born from regret, but rather acceptance of a loss she felt she needed. A wound she was finally tending to.

Letting it out.

Sarah understood that, too. She wished she could have had that at a much earlier time in her life.

But, now, all she could take back was control.

Broken people, doing broken things to try and fix themselves. Jagged edges that rub against each other, as if they could smooth it all over. They’d try, they’d hope.

Like a strings reaching to finally tie them together, Sarah threaded her fingers around Wendy’s, lifting them up.

Gently, Sarah moved them away from her face. She leaned over, her lips brushing barely past hers.

Then she pulled, ever so slightly, until Wendy was pressed into her.

Light, enough to make one faint.

Wendy trembled again, but it was different, a more shocked reaction. This was fine. Sarah knew how to work with that. Sarah moved her hands so she could remove Wendy’s glasses. Tossed somewhere, she already forgot.

Soft touches passed like moments, momentary. They stole Wendy’s breath, letting Sarah get a better hold on how things were to go, on Wendy herself.

Tongue, a barely felt nibble. Lessons exchanged.

Sarah’s hands moved elsewhere, lower, over fabric. She was sensitive. She knew how to hold it in her hands. It had been a lesson exchanged, once before.

Wendy arched her back, surprising herself that she could even react like that. Sarah was craving for moments like that. She was wanting for something to drink.

Needed more.

They shifted, a little clumsy from the lack of space. Sarah managed to fit her knee between Wendy’s legs. Placing it there, firm, insistent, intent to teach.

Like a connection that was getting stronger, Sarah felt Wendy angle her hips.

A part of her was already satisfied. Everything she wanted, what she thought she needed. To be the one in this position, this time. To be able to lead, to have the strings and pull. To play.

A much larger part of was thirsty for much more.

Wendy continued moving her hips, Sarah kept her leg in place for her. The car didn’t cough, hiccup, burp, sputter. The sound that filled inside was a delicate moan, that Sarah promptly stole from Wendy with another kiss.

A moment was coming. No. Not here, it wasn’t enough. Not yet.

Sarah pulled back, and smiled as Wendy leaned forward, still wanting for more. Her tears had already dried. A trace of salt graced Sarah’s lips as she then licked hers.

Her fingers traveled down Wendy’s arms, to her hands and fingers, leading them down between her legs. She drew the letter ‘O.’

Wendy shuddered as she tried to make sense of everything. Everything.

“I don’t… I don’t know…”

Sarah stole that, too, taking her breath with yet another kiss.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “Let me lead the way.”

With just a nod, Wendy let her.

Then, by a thread, Sarah led the way.

Previous                                                                                               Next

099 – Keyword

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An intense rush went over and through me. Hitting against my chest, forcing me to steel myself and keep an iron grip on the van’s cold, metal roof. A hard wind that sent shivers across my whole being.

It probably said something, that this kept my focus, centered me, to the point that I could get lost in it, because I had done that before. Danger, destruction. A void that I had come from and could easily slip back into.

The wind hit, and I shivered again. I smiled.

Speeding out of the alley, the vans immediately disrupted the oncoming traffic, tearing up the road and causing chaos. Cars swerved out of the way, tires screeching, people screaming. The drivers were good, they didn’t hit anyone or crash into anything, but they did leave behind a mess.

Over the initial wave of pandemonium, I yelled into the earpiece.

“We’re en route! The vans, or the hammers, are splitting up as we speak!”

I could hear D’s tiny voice in my ear.

I can hear it from here. Could you not be so obvious about it, though? We need to leave through the same alley, too.

The van drifted through an intersection, hardly losing any speed. I held on hard enough for the metal to bend.

“And you’ll get that, don’t worry!”

I almost heard the start of a whine, but a sharper horn cut through that, instead.

Cars practically leapt to safety, even if it meant endangering other people. The van I was on snaked between the different obstacles, sometimes just skirting past the metal of other vehicles, almost trading paint. It was so easy for this to go so wrong. A turn made too late, a driver panicking and skidding right into us… a collision would send me soaring before I crashed, myself. It was something I could walk away from, but that meant losing precious time, time that could be spent raising even more hell.

I wasn’t planning on staying on the roof of this van, however, I’d have to split up again. That was the point. But I needed more distance, we had to spread out more.

Another corner, turning even when the light was red. The squeals of tire on rubber pierced my ears as the van veered through everything and everyone. Another street.

The traffic was thinning out as we got farther away from the gala, moving through another part of the Eye. The metropolis still sprawled out, so we all had plenty of cover from buildings and alleys, back roads and some even improvised paths if we had to brute force it.

A benefit of being able to operate in the city, we were given a lot of room to work with. The vans and trucks would have the streets, while I had the rooftops. The verticality.

It wasn’t unlike having a canvas to paint on. We were in the process of making a picture. I had in mind a piece that Sarah had singled out, while we scoped out the gala ourselves. The image of anger, of broken fractals and harsh colors. Fire.

With the Fangs, I didn’t need a painting like that in my apartment. We could paint an even more vivid picture.

The van accelerated, and I didn’t budge or sway. I did, though, start to lift myself up, pushing so my feet were pressing more into the roof. My legs tensed, my arms tightened, my whole body coiling up and getting ready to spring.

I waited. People and cars scrambled to get out of our path, risking other lives to save their own, creating a sort of lawlessness that branched out and spread by itself, almost like a wildfire. The high pitched screams and squeaks were like the embers of a great flame.

One more turn, and then it was just us. The van, and me on top of it. The others were taking their own routes, forming their own branches. And I was to add to that, as well.

I yelled into the earpiece.

“I’m about to start! How’s Sarah and Lawrence?”

D answered.

Same as you. About to start. The Fangs are right at the door, and Lawrence is about to signal them in. He’s got visual on at least one of them.

Hearing that almost made me stumble off the van and onto the pavement.

“At least one of them?”

The reporters. I can’t get anything else from Lawrence since he’s about to start. We’ll just have to make do.

Words I didn’t want to hear so early on in this. We needed both reporters in order to consider this job complete, we couldn’t let either of them slip past us. And Lawrence only pegged down one of them?

I wanted to turn back and help Lawrence, maybe even protect Sarah if she’d need it. I wanted to, but I recognized that I couldn’t. That wasn’t what the job called for. If it was, I’d be there instead, hiding in the crowd, being another pair of eyes for Lawrence, bringing in some muscle if the situation called for that.

No. I could only help by doing my part, and that was here, away from the gala, leaving as much disorder as I could in the distance between us. And that distance was growing.

A lot of work to do.

“That’s fine,” I said into the earpiece, “We’ll make it work, we always do.”

Do we? I’m kidding. Alright, cameras are on a loop and… there. Their communications will be all scrambly for a little. The Fangs are about to bite.

Lawrence was looped into the call as well, but he couldn’t actively participate in our conversation. He was about to get on stage, ready to perform.

And so was I.

Now.

It was a synchronized moment in three parts. The van took a sudden turn, Lawrence shouted, and I took to the air.

I heard it in my ear, over the wind as I through it.

A harsh, digitized burst of noise, like static. The single warning shot of a gun.

And then Lawrence.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are your entertainment for tonight.

His voice sounded a touch more distorted than before, when he was among the attendees, mingling with them, pretending. If I got the timing of everyone’s part right, one of the Fangs would have passed him his mask by now.

First a costume, now a mask. Was he trying to give me competition?

The question soon passed from my mind as I headed to terra firma.

I hit the ground running.

We’ll be putting on an amazing show for you, and we’re about to get right to it. But, before we do, may I ask for some volunteers?

I jumped again, clearing more of the street, until my feet hit the sidewalk, running and pushing through a small group of passersby.

I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I had brought myself down to this level while I was in the city, in my costume. Wearing the mask, being active, being so close to people who couldn’t even comprehend what I was capable of. Alexis and Blank Face, maybe, but not me, not V.

I remembered the Thunders and the Royals, when I had made my debut as V. It was a show for EZ and Krown, and for Gomez, when his cops came to clean them up. A warning, that we weren’t to be messed with, that we’d play, we would play for keeps.

Now, we were going to send out another warning. This time, it was for everyone else.

Confusion gripped the men and women I knocked over, stunned at what was happening and what to do in response of it. Perfect. Cause a big enough mess, and people would take too long in making sense of it all. Reports would conflict, the point of origin would be harder to pin down, and first responders would be slowed by a significant margin, forced to tackle things at the edges of that mess, first. By the time the smoke cleared and the glass got swept away, it would take even longer to find what started it all, to find any connection.

Cause a big enough fire, and the source gets swallowed up, too.

Finding an alley, I dipped into it, jumping up a fire escape to I hauled myself over a building. I crossed the roof, then the street, then another roof.

Lawrence continued with the show as I moved.

No one wants to step up? That’s… that’s quite alright, I can just call on you from the audience. Let’s start with, Alan Gordon!

Lawrence started listing names. We didn’t have access to a guest list, but we didn’t need one. Sarah and Lawrence were able to pick out a few names from just talking with people, getting acclimated with that environment. They only needed a handful, just enough to make it seem random.

Congratulations, Mr. Gordon, you’re the first to join us, but we’re not done yet. Do we-”

Lawrence coughed, the static fuzziness in his voice clipped.

Do we have a John Cruz in here as well?

As I ran, I kept an ear on Lawrence, and another on the city around me. Sirens, now, joining the growing cacophony. Music, really.

And just a reminder,” Lawrence buzzed, “Please, no flash photography, getting up during the show, or talking with others during the show. We take your safety very seriously, so don’t make us put it in jeopardy!

Yes, Ellie, you are totally selling it.

“Now is not the time for new nicknames, D.”

She groaned as I hopped another roof, maneuvering down the length of a street. I saw a structure in the distance, a building that hadn’t been fully constructed yet. The marker.

I plotted my path in that direction.

Thank you,” Lawrence said, as if to address both his captive audience and D as well. “Back to the show. Still need just a few more lucky volunteers. Let’s see…  do we what have a Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan?

All my attention started to narrow towards my earpiece. I was running without any conscious thought for the steps ahead of me, my body moving on its own. Muscle memory. I climbed over vents and metal railings, flew over alleys in a single bound. There was one building with people lounging on top, eating. Probably a rooftop patio. I ran along the edge, running harder. Before people could turn and realize who I was, I had already moved on.

People would catch glimpses of me, maybe enough to try and piece together a picture. But they wouldn’t get the full thing, they’d only have enough to make them scared.

And Oliver Morgan?

Lawrence asked again, then coughed again. Was Lawrence not able to find him?

I couldn’t get an answer. I couldn’t ask, the extended exercise of having to parkour across rooftops left me with little breath to speak. I’d have to stop, and I couldn’t.

The hollow husk of a building loomed overhead as I got closer.

Lawrence continued. The show had to go on.

Alright, and just one more before we can start. Last but certainly not the least, Martin Bolland!

My legs were pumping hard, muscles straining as I pushed myself to run faster. Lawrence seemed to be doing alright, D had things under control, and I needed to stoke the flames. I couldn’t let doubt slow me down, not at this juncture.

I jumped again.

D, being Miss Director, directed things along.

Better wrap it up soon, Ellie. Silent alarm has been tripped. It’s still gonna take the cops a while to get there, and Vivi is working to slow them down, but we can’t stick around for too long.

“What she said,” I said. It came out strained.

I got over to the other side of the street and ran.

Okay then,” Lawrence said, as if speaking to us and the audience, “Time to get on with the show. What we have for you tonight is a magic trick, actually. Watch closely as we make half this fucking room disappear!

I smiled as I closed in on the building. Lawrence was really playing it up.

It was easy to see it in my head, the picture clear. Lawrence standing at the head of the exhibit hall, masked, with the Fangs spread out through entire space, controlling the crowd. Everyone else would be crouched or on their knees, not daring to try and pull any tricks of their own. Sarah, being an extra pair of eyes, wearing her complete outfit in that white blouse and fitting skirt. Easy to see how good it looked on her.

The people Lawrence called out would have been pushed together, forming a small herd, surrounded by Fangs. John Cruz. Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan both, hopefully.

Other Fangs were moving now, too, taking different paintings off the walls.

Someone would protest, despite themselves. One of the art curators. They’d risk their lives over some art.

No, no, we can’t have that.” I heard Lawrence. “We already gave you a warning!

Through the earpiece, I heard a more faint sound. A cry. Did someone actually try to fight Lawrence and the Fangs?

If I was there, I’d go for the hand, because they tried to take the paintings back, or maybe the leg, because they got up and ran. Break them, set an example for the rest, a further warning.

It was important, posturing in that way. The image of power was just as crucial as having it. Lawrence understood that more than anyone.

My dear audience, it is time for the trick, and then we will close our show. I do hope you had a good time, or at least a memorable one. In any case, so long, and we vanish!

We’re starting the trucks now,” D said. “We’re open and ready to load!

“And I’m almost at the marker!”

There was a courtyard tucked between some buildings, between me and a large, unfinished structure. A skeleton of a building. The marker. My real destination was just below.

I did a cursory check before I would drop down. I saw them.

Two groups, meeting at the fountain, in the middle of the courtyard. Two gangs.

Six to seven on each sides, the heads of each group were speaking to one another. Each indicated to a member behind them, and they went around to hand the leader a bag. After inspecting the contents between them, the bags switched hands.

Some kind of deal.

I knew the gangs that were just below. We moved them there.

One of the groups were decked out in blue, hoods that covered their heads. Styled after a long-abandoned identity, but it just made it easier to know where their loyalties would lie. Lawrence had already gone to them and held that meeting. Instead of paying back the funds they owed us, they’d work for us instead. Manpower over money.

Or pawns, really.

The other gang was in a similar position, but they wouldn’t get the same grace as the blue hoods. They were another gang that owed us, another set of pawns that we could move and manipulate.

The blue hoods would call the other gang, hoping to cut some sort of deal. Meet in a secluded location, discuss the details there. All from Lawrence’s suggestion. The blue hoods had no choice but to comply.

The pieces were on the board. I could move freely.

I moved.

Dropping down, I descended several stories, sticking a foot out. Several lampposts illuminated the courtyard, with one being directly above the two gangs, overlooking the deal as they proceeded.

I went at an angle. The heavy sole of my boot crashed into the lamp itself, casting the gangs in darkness and shattered glass. They fell back, shocked, as I pounced on one of them. The leader that wasn’t in a blue hood.

He went down, stayed down, without a fight. He didn’t even know there would be one.

I heard screams, I heard clicks. I heard gunfire.

Ducking close to the ground, I crawled over the man I had laid out flat, keeping low to avoid getting hit. Bullets zipped by, but they didn’t go anywhere near me or anyone else. Warning shots, to try and scare off the sudden ambush. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was right where I needed to be.

With something as loud as a gun, it brought with it attention. Sirens were already incoming, I could hear them blare. They had been out, red and blue lights searching for a source of trouble, and I was able to lead some of them this way.

I just had to lead even more.

Springing back up, I tackled another in the ribs, feeling them crack. I rolled, keeping my momentum, stretching out that momentary shock as far as I could. Until it snapped.

Two were advancing on me as I got up, square on my feet. One was armed with a pistol, the other with a knife.

I had both on me as well, but I didn’t go for them. They were substitutes, tools as I wasn’t as intimately familiar with, having lost the originals during the initial raid of the church.

Still need to see if I can find them again. They should still be there. Another thing on the list I-

Cold metal slid right through my arm, tearing past the meat and getting caught in the bone. I winced, my thoughts escaping me, and I twisted around to avoid more hurt while still keeping some momentum.

Fuck. Got stabbed. Had to keep my priorities straight.

It was fine. I could keep going. Focus, focus.

I struck out, going for the guy with the gun. The other guy already lost his weapon, with it being stuck in me.

The gun got knocked out of his hands. I threw my arms forward, grabbing his wrists, twisting them until they couldn’t move again.

His screams gurgled as he went to the ground, arms still braided in front of him. More shock, more confusion. More momentum.

I went without my weapons because I didn’t need to kill. Maim, maybe. The message would be about the same.

That was about half of the other gang, already. I wasn’t tearing through them, not exactly, but I very well could, and everyone here knew that, now.

Before anyone could get their bearings again, we were flooded by red and blue lights.

Police yelled orders as they ran out of their cars, guns pointed. Everyone who was able to, scrambled.

I started to move, but I noticed one of the blue hoods. He was standing still, frozen, staring at me. The leader of his particular group.

For reasons I wouldn’t try to understand, this gang had decided to change their entire look around Blank Face. Whatever. I didn’t care.

But, he wasn’t running. The cops were getting closer.

Someone from the other gang was running, though, to him. He had a knife too, ready to slow another down in order to buy him some time.

I started to move.

It didn’t even take a second. In one smooth motion, I lowered myself and scooped up a handful of glass. I threw it.

The shards flew right into his face. He was down before I even fully crossed that distance.

I didn’t slow when I passed. I indicated to a path behind the blue hood, a way out through the courtyard.

“Go,” I said, “Don’t waste this chance I gave you.”

I wasn’t even sure if he heard me. I didn’t bother to check. I was already out of earshot. Running, but in a different direction.

Someone fired. The cops fired back. They tried to go after everyone. Me.

I could let them get close, but I wouldn’t let them catch me.

There was a short wall that divided the courtyard and the unfinished building on the other side. It only took a short jump to scale the thing. But it was more than enough for the cops to stop what they were doing and direct themselves to me.

Cars rumbled back to life. Sirens blared again.

I ran.

Bullets followed me as I went over the wall, landing in a patch of grass that stretched to the building proper. Maybe proper wasn’t the right word, since it wasn’t a proper building, yet.

I ran inside, or rather, I used the place as a cover.

The building was tall enough to see from a distance, so stairs had already been installed to get to the higher levels. I rushed over to them, the sirens and gunfire never that far behind.

I tripped over a stray brick, catching myself on the metal railing that wound up and around the staircase. Hasty.

The near fall gave me pause. I had to catch my breath. It was so loud.

“Updates?” I breathed.

Everything’s been loaded in the trucks. D has supervising the art, and I’m keeping my eye on our passengers.

I wanted to be with you!

As if. We’ve already left the gala.

“And the cops?” I asked.

All part of the plan,” Lawrence said. “Got delayed in showing up, and they don’t have enough of a force to stop us, not with everything that’s been happening. Will happen.

“You’re welcome. I think they’re converging on my position.”

Good. Keep them coming. We’re almost… we’re almost home free.

“Yeah, but I’m not.”

Deal with it.

“Thanks.”

The hammers are loaded with enough firecrackers to make the new year come super early,” D said. “You’ll have an opening.

Sounds were getting louder. Couldn’t stick around any longer.

“I hope it’s a big enough opening,” I said. “Better send one of them over to me now.”

On it,” Lawrence said.

“Alright, I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”

You can do it!” D cheered, so loud that it clipped.

I couldn’t delay another second, but I needed one in order to pull the knife out of my arm. It immediately went to healing itself. The wound sealed up, I saw as the individual fibers groped out across the gap to join back together, mending.

I pulled the sleeve back down. Did not to see that, right now.

I went back to getting the fuck out of here.

The stairs took me higher and higher up the building. Winding, spiraling. I grabbed the railing, using it to pull myself farther and hop over more steps. I lost count at how many floors there were, but it didn’t even take me a minute to reach the very top.

It wasn’t much of a roof, rather just another floor with nothing else above it. Steel beams spiked up, exposed, cement blocks and other building materials were strewn about. I had to be careful to not trip over anything.

I ran until I got to the edge of the surface. It was a long fall to the bottom.

I turned, and I waited.

The building was unfinished, there were only so many available means of getting up here. The stairs, in turn, became a choke point. The cops would be forced to take them. I left them with no other choice.

I gripped the knife, tight. The one I had pulled out from my arm. I gripped it even tighter.

My heart was beating heavy and hard. My knees were shaking, my ears ringing. My head.

That doubt seeped back in, again. No, not again, it was more like that doubt reminded me of its presence. That it never really left.

There was a chance that I wouldn’t make it back. I might die instead.

I could see how funny that was. I could laugh. I almost did.

Instead, I settled with a wide smile. It’d give the approaching police a more startling image, at the very least.

Everyone converged at once. The footsteps of the gathered police force came as a stampede, and I was basked in a sudden, blinding light, with a hard thrum that droned overhead.

It was a sensory overload, but I wouldn’t let it overwhelm me. I couldn’t let it. Doubt held me, but I had to fight to prevent it from seizing.

Ah, I want to get back to Sarah.

A flood of people came rushing from the stairs. Bigger guns and bigger equipment. Armor.

They saw a chance, and they were going take that shot.

Taking their formations, the SWAT team circled around me. They were fast, no surprise there.

I expected them to start barking orders, screaming for me to put my arms up, put them down, drop my weapon, to not move, get on my knees. They didn’t. They were silent.

As a collective, they took one large step forward, closing the circle. They took one more. They should have known that this wouldn’t go their way, but they tried, regardless. I could admire that.

I stood my ground. Just another second. Just long enough that they thought they could stop me. The more time they spent being here, the bigger the opening for the Fangs. Less of a force available to go after them.

One more step. One more second.

The circle tightened.

I swallowed.

Strangling.

Now.

It was my turn to rush them. Forward, to the stairs I had just came from. Fast enough that I caught them by surprise.

I had a few moments before they could respond. I used that, throwing the knife. The blade spun, striking the one of the SWAT team members in the faceplate. It didn’t break through the hard plastic, but it did hit hard. The man was knocked back, falling into the men behind him.

There wasn’t a moment I wasted. Running into that part of the circle, I pushed further, flattening him. The effect rippled to the me around me.

I had to squint as I glanced around. Bright.

Everyone leaped into action. I did, as well.

Again, I ducked low. I was surrounded by armed men, they were basically soldiers. They were trained, unlike random gang members, they wouldn’t shoot when the target was among their own. I used that against them, hid among their numbers. It bought me a little more time.

Getting lower, my hands touched the ground, searching for anything else I could use. The knife again, maybe even shards of glass, somehow. My hands found something else.

I picked it up, felt the weight of it, and swung.

The metal pipe was twice my height, and it wasn’t light, and I didn’t have much room to actually toss it around. I powered through it, though. Literally.

My arms tensed as I swung a complete arc, using the pipe to clear out a circle. I relied on sheer strength more than speed, pressing them down rather than a push. I didn’t waste time to breathe as I threw the pipe itself, the horizontal bar slamming into the another part of the group across from me.

And then I booked it.

I bought them enough time. Sarah and D and Lawrence would make it out okay. Now I just had to do the same for myself.

Bullets flew past me as I went straight to the edge of the roof.

“That hammer better be here already!” I could barely hear myself over the gunfire.

It’s-”

I wasn’t sure if that was D or Lawrence. The sound that swallowed the rest of it.

The sound came first, then the fury. A deep rumble that shook the foundation of the building. It was enough to make me stumble.

A bullet caught me in the spine.

Fuck.

I stumbled, the ledge only a step away. I lost any momentum I might have had, and I plunged, instead.

The wind hit, and I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.

An out of body experience, it felt like, as I fell deeper and deeper. I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t hear much outside of the wind that whipped past my ears. I was watching my body as it tumble, my limbs lazily dragging around me.

A fall that could very well kill me.

I would have smiled if I could.

Instead, I just crashed into a fire escape attached to the building across an alley. It broke my fall into the alley itself.

I wasn’t moving. Couldn’t. My healing kicked into high gear, my entire body overwhelmed by an intense warmth. Bones came back together, cuts sealed, bruises lost their color.

Normally, I would have let the healing go through its motions, get as close to better as I could before I got going again.

Didn’t have that luxury.

Through the pain so hot it was like I was on fire, I crawled, weak. The bullet was still lodged in my back, the bone and muscle feeling like it was massaging itself in order to push the foreign object out. Until then, I had the relative strength of a child learning to walk for the first time.

My fingers found a tiny thing of plastic. My earpiece. It had fallen out when I crashed landed.

I pressed it into the side of my head, not being ginger with it at all. Everything hurt so much it was as if I couldn’t feel a damn thing.

I gurgled. It was the only sound I could produce.

V?

Whoever that was, it sounded like a test.

I couldn’t answer.

My healing finally started to turn things around. I was able to move a bit better, crawling on my knees, then dragging myself over to a dumpster, using it to pull myself up. I leaned against it, catching my breath. My mouth was filled with a nauseous stench from the trash beside me.

I coughed.

“I’m… still alive, somehow.”

Oh my god, you totally had me freaking out, there.

“Sorry, I just need to stop getting shot in the back.”

I took a breath. Sour.

“I don’t know where I am.”

Where are you, then?

No. I wasn’t being pursued at the moment. I checked my surroundings.

On another side of the unfinished building. The SWAT team had stationed themselves through at different levels of the construction site, mostly near the stairs. Most of their force was dedicated to the building itself, not the narrow sides where most cars couldn’t fit through. I was in the clear.

For now.

They saw where I had fallen. A helicopter’s spotlight was searching down the alleyway behind me. It would find me if I didn’t move.

I moved.

Bones popped into place as I put my weight on them, cracks disappearing. I had a limp, but it lessened as I tested my body.

I was healing, but I was becoming thirsty.

Checking for the spotlight behind me again, I saw what had caused that deep rumbling. Or what was left of it.

At the foot of the building, where the front entrance would have been when the thing was completed, a hollow shell of a van burned, smoke billowing out. It was among the gathered police force, near their vehicles, burning as well.

Accelerating until it couldn’t be stopped, the van careened right into the police blockade, exploding with enough of an impact that I could have felt it from all the way at the top. The police were nails, and that was our hammer.

“Christ, D, those are not fireworks,” I whispered.

It’s fine,” I heard her say, even when it clearly wasn’t. “The driver aimed the van and got out in time, and if the police were smart enough to realize they couldn’t stop it they were smart enough to jump out of the way. Where are you?

I answered while I limped.

“East? No, west. Dizzy. Side alley by the marker. Blue hoods brought in the bait, now that’s two gangs that know not to mess with us anymore. Cops should be sufficiently distracted by now.”

Yes they are,” Lawrence said. “The other hammers went down, so now their forces are divided again to try and clear up all the smoke. Now’s your chance.

Right! Yes! The driver got picked up already, so I’ll tell them to go your way and you get out of there already.

“Will do,” I said. That intense rush was still there, and I sensed that focus still guiding me. Just had to use that to guide me that back to the base.

Once you’re secured, everyone’s home free. Good work.

I was walking now. I actually smiled.

“Too soon to be talking like that,” I said.

Fair,” Lawrence replied, as I found a window in the alley. A storefront. Clothes and stuff.

Surreal, that after everything that had happened, this was the easy part. I broke the window, letting myself in. I picked and switched clothes as I moved, bundling up my costume into my arms. It didn’t take long to find my ride.

By the time there was a spare police officer who could investigate the break-in, I was already gone.

I was the last to get to St. Elizabeth. The Fangs already had everything set up, so it was just a matter of me getting back, and getting the updates.

I strolled down the main aisle to reach the altar.

“You’re late,” Lawrence said. On the altar, he was sitting where the priest would. Leaning back, slumped. D was seated in the chair next to him, arms hugged tight around a teddy bear.

“I’m fashionably… whatever. I’m here now, I’m ready to go.”

“You sure, Wendy? D told me you took a pretty nasty fall.”

Sarah was here, too. It was so easy to find her. Standing by Isabella.

Seeing her made me feel more relaxed and not, all at the same time. A weird feeling to properly parse.

“Yeah,” I said. “Still feel some lingering aches, but I can still walk.”

Sarah frowned. Her concern over me made my stomach twist up.

“If you ever need a massage, just hit me up.”

I really, really wanted that, but now wasn’t the time.

I nodded. “Of course.”

I stepped up to the altar, meeting her there. Turning to Lawrence, I asked, “Are they in there?”

Lawrence tilted his head. A half-gesture. Not a nod, not a shake.

“Not they, just she.”

She.

“Natalie? Where’s Oliver?”

My stomach twisted again, but not in a good way.

“I wanted to wait until we were all here to talk about it. I didn’t see him at the event.”

“There were a lot of people there, maybe you didn’t-”

“I did, I was thorough. Ask your girlfriend. She didn’t see him there, either.”

Sarah gave the same half-gesture.

I felt like I had to dispute that other comment, but there were more important things to discuss.

“We need both of them,” I said. “That’s the job we were given.”

“And we’ll get them both,” Lawrence said. He pointed to a section of the altar behind him and D. “Tied and stuffed her back there, in the… confessional, I think it’s called. We’ll just ask her.”

Could have done that before I got here, I thought, but Lawrence probably wanted to do this as a team. Nothing behind any of our backs.

I frowned, guilty.

“Sure,” I said.

I headed to the confessional. Natalie was in there, at least. We were halfway there.

Lawrence started to get up, but he faltered. He went to his knees, and it didn’t look like he was trying to pray.

“Shit…” he muttered.

D jumped out of her chair to help him stand. She tossed her bear to the side.

“Ellie…”

Lawrence stiffened, but he didn’t push her away. “Stop calling me that, will you? Fuck…”

I walked over to Lawrence instead. Sarah did too.

“Is everything alright?”

A quick look told me it wasn’t. Up close, Lawrence was sweating, and it wasn’t because he was in a suit. The inside of an abandoned church wasn’t known to be keep warm in the early months, and yet his skin glistened.

Lawrence shook his head.

“It’s just… it’s just my painkillers. I usually take them at a certain time but… had that whole art heist thing. Kind of got in the way.”

“That’s why I told you to taper off of them already,” D said, berating up.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“You look like you’re about to pass out,” I said. “D, go with him, make sure he gets some rest.”

“No.” Lawrence tried to stand again, but he fumbled with it.

“I bet you can’t even stand without assistance.”

“I am fine, I just need to catch up on my dose.”

“I can handle this part. D, listen to me and go with Lawrence.”

D, still holding Lawrence, craned her neck to look at me.

“But I don’t want to go. I don’t want you to-”

I raised my hands. “I won’t do anything drastic until I’ve discussed it with you both. But right now, Lawrence won’t be able to walk or talk if he pushes himself any more. Sarah?”

“Voss?”

“You go, too. Make sure D listens.”

“Okay.”

Sarah went to D, helping Lawrence get to his feet. Reluctant, he put an arm around Sarah. Not so much D, considering the height difference, but she did stay by his side as they got down from the altar, walking across the aisle.

D looked back at me. I raised my hands again.

That seemed to be enough for her, but already made her reservations clear. They were ringing in my head.

We can’t kill them.

On that thought, I turned, to the confessional. Isabella joined me.

“You know you’ll have to,” she said.

I didn’t respond.

One side of the confessional was propped open. The other wasn’t. I slid into the empty booth and closed it.

The space was limited, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. A wood box, like a coffin I could sit in. Eerie, in that respect.

Vague connections made themselves known. I’d been here before. Alexis. Except this time, I was sitting on the other side. I wasn’t the one being questioned.

“Natalie Beckham,” I said.

There wasn’t an answer. But I knew she was there. Through the cross-shaped pattern and faint black mesh that divided us, I could make out a woman’s outline. Natalie was here.

“It all depends on you, Natalie, but you could either see the sunrise in peace, or in pieces. All up to how you want to play it.”

“Play, huh?”

“Hm?”

“This is all just a game to you, isn’t it? Playing at the hero, now the villain. Pulling off fake heists just to get to me. It’s all pretend, there’s no truth to what you’re doing at all.”

“I assure you this is all very real,” I said.

“Where are the others? The paintings, John Cruz?”

“No,” I said. “You don’t get to ask the questions, here. And it’s precisely why you were asking about John Cruz that got you into this predicament in the first place.

There was a pause.

“That may be the case,” Natalie Beckham said. “But now I’m in this predicament because of something I find much more interesting. The one I really want to talk about is you, Alexis Barnett.”

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