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 deep 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 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… Everyone else made it except for 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 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, patting the bag. 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 with in 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 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 shedding everything else away, I was ready to paint my masterpiece.

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Interlude – Sarah

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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 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 had 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

Interlude – Lawrence

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Everything hurt. Everything.

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

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

Not so much, right now.

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

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

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

Fuck that shit.

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

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

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

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

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

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

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

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

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

Hell fucking no.

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

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

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

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

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

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

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

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

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

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

Her. The realization dawned on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is who she really is.

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

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

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

And there she was.

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

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

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

There was still more to it.

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

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

Do I even want to know?

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

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

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

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

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

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

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

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

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

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

But, then why is she crying?

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

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

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

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

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

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

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

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

Ah!”

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you so nervous for?”

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

That’s what that was.

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

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

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

“You are an ass,” she said.

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

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

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

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

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

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

“Yo!”

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

A girl. A kid.

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

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

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

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

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

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

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

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

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

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

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

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

Later?

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

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

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

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

Fuckin’ weird.

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

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

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

Time to get ready.

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

He braced himself for the meeting.

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

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

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

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

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

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

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

But now he had more.

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

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

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

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

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

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

They shook hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

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

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

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

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

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

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

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

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

Roland was willing to accept that.

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

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

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

Money. It was all about the green.

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

One day.

He had to step it up.

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

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

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

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

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

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

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

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

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

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

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

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

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

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

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

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

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

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

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

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

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

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

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

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

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

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

“Why do you have the bag?”

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

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

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

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

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

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

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

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

They threw the rocks.

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

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

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

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

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

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

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

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

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

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

“Hi,” Styx said again.

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

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

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

Styx sneered.

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

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

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

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

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

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

Sickening. It was twisted.

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

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

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

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

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

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

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

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

“Styx! Styx!”

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

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

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

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

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dummy,” she said.

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

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

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

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

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

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

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

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

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

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

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

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

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

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

Another?”

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

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

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

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

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

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

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

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

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

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

Speechless.

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

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

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

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

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

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

Styx started to take his leave.

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

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

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

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

D was able to answer that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

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

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

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

D had paused before answering.

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

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

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

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

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

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

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

D looked genuine in her remorse.

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

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

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

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

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

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

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

“Don’t make me regret it.”

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

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

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

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

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t let this be over.

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Charlie said.

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

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

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

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

“Alright.”

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

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it look like out there?”

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

“Is it everyone?”

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

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

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

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

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

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

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

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

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

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

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

Again, Lawrence considered it.

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

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

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

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

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

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

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

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Right behind you.”

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

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

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

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

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

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

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

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

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

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

The girl only ran, keeping up with the rest of them. She looked too puzzled to make a proper response.

You better not be dead weight.

The backyard. The sliding glass door was already opened, and there was a pool just ahead. They’d have to go around, but the coast looked clear.

So close.

Lawrence picked up the pace, running harder, faster. Charlie didn’t lose any speed.

They formed a line out the door. Lawrence, Charlie, Eduardo and the girl.

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

Lawrence turned. It took him several seconds to figure out what exactly he was looking at.

Blue, and long. Wispy in quality. A vague, human shape, bending and twisting in unnatural ways. Like it was trying to break out of itself, but it struggled, trapped by its blue and glossy skin.

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

It wasn’t a monster. Monsters weren’t real.

It was the girl that Eduardo brought with her, wrapped in what looked like a pool tarp.

She shouted some more, tried moving some more, before falling to the ground. She kept fighting all the way, but it only made her more stuck in the thing.

“Maria!” Eduardo shouted. He ran over to try and get her out.

He tugged, but the tarp was heavy, and the girl kept moving too much. It wasn’t a good combo.

Eduardo looked at Lawrence, Charlie. His eyes were pleading.

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

They both worked together to get the girl out, but they weren’t making much progress.

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

“Just help me get her out of here! The tarp is huge, and if it gets in the water, it might drag her in!”

“The pool is right behind me! It’s not going anywhere near her!”

“Just help!”

Eduardo was freaking out more than the girl was, and if he didn’t shut the fuck up…

Lawrence went to them.

He put his hands on the tarp, yanking it, coordinating with the others so it would end up being worse.

A lot of moving, jostling around. The bag slipped over his shoulder, bumping into him and Charlie, Eduardo.

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

It was easier, now, to get the tarp off the girl. It slipped out faster, not going taut as much. It was working. Lawrence was able to see parts of her face as they continued.

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

The cry came from Charlie. It was angry, confused, and pointed.

It got Lawrence’s attention, and he turned to look.

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

Around the pool, to the grass, over the goddamn garden gnome. The fence.

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

Not that he was too slow, but she had gotten too much of a head start.

She was sitting on the stone fence, legs hanging over on the other side. The bag around her shoulders.

The odd girl.

Lawrence was still running, and she had time to monologue.

“Told you I’d come back to get my score. See? Nothing a few online tutorials and a little improv can’t solve.”

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was losing the breath, and he was just at a loss of words.

So close to the fence.

“Oh, I like that expression, it’s nice. You’re fun, you know that? I might come around to see you again. But for now, so long, El… boy!”

She ducked, and disappeared from behind the fence. Lawrence’s blood was hot and pumping. He kept running-

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

Cops had made it to the scene, forcing them both back. Charlie had her hands up, and so did Eduardo. They backed away, slow.

None of the cops looked as if they had any intention to shoot, but no one was going to give them a reason to. All control of the situation was deferred to the cops, now.

One got down on a knee, over the tarp. The girl – Maria – still hadn’t got out yet.

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

Charlie and Eduardo saw Lawrence, and a cop followed their gaze. He stalked over to Lawrence.

Lost.

That odd girl had run off with the bag, so the three of them were nothing but kids at a party, now. No different than the rest that were here to drink booze and smoke some pot. They’d get escorted out, and like Charlie had suggested, they’d slip away from the scene.

But there was more to it than that.

They had a job to do, there was a responsibility that Lawrence shouldered, but he failed. He couldn’t do it. He had let down Roland, Benny, the rest of El Carruaje.

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

Lawrence met Eduardo’s eyes, and pushed with hatred, seething with it. Eduardo broke away from the glare.

He’ll pay for this. Someday, somehow. That fucker.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He wasn’t supposed to be the small fry.

Cops were approaching him. He didn’t care. He had emotions, and he needed release.

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

Back in the hotel room. Dark, but the hour was sometime in the morning. Lawrence wasn’t sure of the exact time.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. He’d like sleep, and he knew he needed sleep, but it wasn’t in his nature to rest when there was other shit to deal with.

Still in the wheelchair, but he could move on his own. It was a slow process, but he could manage. He just had to be careful in his pushing, or he’d ruin the stitches and bandages that wrapped his body up. Funny, in a way. He was still alive, but he felt entombed.

Lawrence had to shift his whole torso to turn. He had a basic, soft neck brace on. A precaution.

“Who in the fuck are you?” Lawrence asked her, his voice barely above a whisper.

Wendy didn’t respond. Well, she couldn’t.

Lawrence couldn’t help but find it a little funny. Must be the late hour.

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

She was tucked in the bed, the same one she had offered to Lawrence, but he didn’t mind. She needed it more than he did.

Glasses off, folded on the nightstand beside her, dressed in pajamas that she had brought herself. D was the one who helped her on that front. She was already like that when he arrived, just a few minutes ago. No one else was allowed access to her, or even be in the same room.

After wheeling Lawrence in, D had taken some more numbers from her, mostly beats per minute. Everything seemed to have stabilized, whatever that meant for someone like her.

She explained that Wendy had a powerful regeneration ability. Lawrence had seen it firsthand. There was a chance that the antidepressant would run its course faster than normal, and that she would be getting up soon.

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

Then, D left, and it was just Wendy and Lawrence.

He continued to watch her sleep, unsure of how to feel about this. Unsure about everything. Himself.

“Forgive me for coming off as creepy, right now, I get it, but I wanted to see you. I want to see if you’re still the same Wendy and V I thought I knew. Who knows? I might see you as someone completely different once you wake up.”

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

“To be fair, out of all us, you are the creepiest motherfucker. Ever.”

Silence.

“I wonder if you remember the first time we crossed paths. I definitely do. You were the Bluemoon, then. Crazy, how things changed.”

He gripped the blanket, feeling some resistance from the bandages on his fingers.

“You were trying to protect me, weren’t you? I saw it, in that hall. Styx was there, but I couldn’t see him, and, in whatever fucked up headspace you were in, you deemed him as a threat. But not me.”

Lawrence paused.

“At least, I’d like to think of it that way. It’ll make tomorrow easier, and the next day.”

A flutter of the eye. Lawrence thought that she’d awaken, but a minute passed, and there was no other activity.

It was a stark contrast, from what he’d seen before. Wendy looked so peaceful, in her sleep. The soft breathing, the relaxed expression. The fact that D had washed her body, getting her cleaned up. The full treatment, and she was asleep throughout all of it.

The setting of the room, the fancy and beautiful design. It made him think of something like a movie. His mind went those flicks he liked, then to fairy tales.

Must be the late hour.

Was she the sleeping beauty, waiting for the prince to save her? No, didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit. Not for her.

Then, was she the evil queen, with the power to turn into a dragon, only resting after expending so much strength?

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

If she was, then he wondered where he fit into all of that. If he was supposed to even fit in at all, or if he just stumbled into something he had no business being a part of.

Charlie and Jonathan and Melissa were gone, leaving the Ghosts after V and D officially joined. It had gotten to be too much for them, the stress of always watching their backs, it wasn’t the reason why they got into this life in the first place. It had gotten too hard.

Now it was just him. The normal one. Stuck with the Styx’s and D’s and the V’s of the world. The creepy and the crazies.

He used to think that the sacrifice was worth it. That the glamour and power that came with this life was a good goal to strive towards. Being one of the big guys. Thinking about it gave him pause, now.

But it was too late for that. He was too deep into this shit.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

057 – Red Flavor

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Benny was bound, wrists and ankles. She couldn’t move, fight back, or otherwise escape.

A chill ran up my spine.

We were in the abandoned factory, where Hleuco and Blank Face used to convene, back when Hleuco was still corporeal, and where I first encountered D. It was secluded, people would only come here if they knew about it, and few cared to remember. And at this hour, no one else was going to be wandering in here. The perfect place to hide a body, if it ever came to that. It was still up in the air.

I was still thinking about it.

I watched as D fixed the last zip tie. A hard tug, and Benny flinched.

“That’s the last of them,” D said, getting up from behind Benny. D went around her and joined me.

“Thanks,” I said.

Benny was on the floor, sitting on the tarp that used to cover up Hleuco’s van. We were on an upper level, overlooking the ground floor and machines. Inside a managerial office, situated in the very back of the factory, probably so the supervisor could watch over the sweating, tired workers break their backs while he sat comfy, leaning back in an air-conditioned room. We didn’t get that luxury, though. An abandoned factory meant no power, and the only lights that were available were backup flashlights D and I found in a nearby closet. The room was lit, though dim, the flashlights placed in a half-circle around Benny.

The whole setup looked like a ritual. Or maybe even a sacrifice.

With the lights, I still had to be careful. It was a good idea to bring the tarp.

If the ground floor was dusty, this place was even worse for wear. Pipes and tools were strewn about, along with dirty needles and broken bits of glass. There was enough dust that I had to watch my step, it was too easy to slip and fall.

The corner of a corner. No one was going to find us, here.

Benny groaned, shifting her arms and legs, trying to find what little allowance we gave her.

“Even without these, I’m in no position to run or fight. This is a bit much, don’t you think?”

I shrugged.

“Chalk it up to paranoia. I’m used to things suddenly going wrong, all at once, so forgive me if I don’t leave anything up to chance.”

She shrugged, herself.

“That’s a feeling I know all too well.”

She went quiet, and we stared at each other, an uneasy silence settling in. Not unlike the one from earlier, in the kitchen, but it was nice to definitively have the upper hand this go around.

A black skirt, with leggings to match. The skirt was tight fit, preventing her from sitting properly, giving the bindings, and she had to position herself so her legs were folded underneath her, feet together.

So, that’s what you’re wearing.

Sitting there, with her arms tied behind her back, her legs tied under her, completely powerless. Her hair had loosened from the different scuffles and being moved around, strands falling in front of her face. She exuded anger, though. I could see the scowl. She had no control or hold in this situation, here, yet she did what she could to exercise her remaining slivers of agency. Her expression.

Her face…

There was a quality to her, that I couldn’t quite place, but the sensation was real. Carnal.

Ah, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Benny broke the silence. “Sitting here, in the dark, where it’s cold and filthy and why the hell is it damp-”

She coughed, probably from some dust catching in the back of her throat.

“This is fun and all, but I have to ask, why did you even bring me out here? I thought you were going to give me up, already.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw D shoot me a look, but my attention stayed squarely on Benny.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Benny gave me a funny look. Her voice wavered as she asked me her next question.

“Are, are you going to kill me, or are you leaving that up to the powers that be?”

D’s look and Benny’s stare remained on me. They were curious. I was too.

“I don’t know,” I said again.

Benny’s expression and body language both expressed different reactions. Her body relaxed some, but her face was stark terror.

“You don’t know?”

“You have to understand, I’ve been chasing after you for a long, long time. Now that I have you… I’m struggling to figure out what comes next. When you’re so focused and driven to a specific goal, and for so long… And when you finally do get it, see, I don’t know.”

I stopped, failing to have made any point, or any sense.

“Can’t say I’m all that flattered,” Benny said. “Having taken so much space in one person’s mind.”

“What can I say? That’s just how it happened. I… we, gave up a lot over the weeks in order to just be in the same room with you. And now, here we are.”

“Sounds like you’ve developed something of an obsession for me,” Benny said.

I didn’t reply to that.

Another break in the conversation, a period of silence.

Benny shifted, groaning again when the restraints dug deeper into her skin.

“Ironically, you’re indecision on killing me or not is killing me,” she said. “If you tell me either way, at least I’ll know, and I can come to terms with whatever happens.”

“Just wait, you’ll know in time,” I told her. “I’m still figuring it out.”

Benny grunted from the restraints, and coupled with the uncertainty of her ultimate fate, resulted in a more pained expression.

I was getting more of a satisfaction just from looking at her than doing anything else. I could stay here until the sun rose.

I saw a glow emanating from right beside me. D had taken out her tablet.

“You might want to figure it out sooner rather than later,” she said.

“Are we short on time?” I asked, still watching Benny.

“No, but the other Ghosts are going to be worried if we take too long, and Jordan can’t stay in the hospital room forever. With Lawrence out of commission, they’re going to need someone to take orders from.”

“Will they listen to us? This was a joint effort, not one person was supposed to lead the rest.”

“It’s not one person, it’s us two, and it’s better than nothing, and I’d like to think we earned enough of their trust if we ever need to take point. Like right now.”

D lifted her tablet. “I can communicate from this, but they’ll appreciate it more if we call the shots in-person.”

I watched Benny. She was still, now, listening to our conversation. But we weren’t trying to be discreet, exactly.

“Sooner, rather than later, huh?” I said. “That does move things up a little.”

“Sorry,” D replied, as if this was something she had control over.

“No need,” I said. “It’s better this way. If you give me all the time in the world, I’ll probably never come to a decision. I work better with my back against the wall, thinking on my feet.”

D hummed. “I feel that.”

I moved to crouch in front of Benny, getting on my knees.

“Lucky you, looks like you’ll get your answer sooner than you thought.”

“Fun,” Benny said, with no fun to be found in her voice.

I took off my bag, setting it aside. Then, I threw a hand into my pocket. I drew out my knife, revealing the blade. Dried blood caked the sharpest point, trailing down until it was reduced to a smear.

I set it down, placing it between me and Benny, the tip of the blade pointing to her. She was stiff.

“I mentioned that I’m struggling to find out what to do with you, that I’ve spent so much time and energy pursuing you that I haven’t put enough time and energy towards what follows.”

Benny was watching me, wary.

“But, that doesn’t mean I’ve come up completely blank. I do have a few ideas.”

Benny’s eyes grew to saucers.

“I thought about hurting all of your crew first, the rest I didn’t get to, back at the school. Demoralize you, bring you lower before it was even your turn. Then, I would hurt you, in every way I could think of. Take out your eyes, cut off your tongue, burning your skin. I’d take breaks, so I could be thorough. And then, once I’ve harmed you enough, I would kill you.”

Terrible, terrible things. But I was saying them like they were easy.

Her lower lip trembled, but no sound was produced.

I went on. “Things changed though, naturally. I joined up with D and the Ghosts, and now it’s no longer just about me. Not anymore. I won’t be able to get around to hurting your crew, but that’s such a small setback, and the Ghosts need you to be somewhat recognizable, if they want to cash you in for a prize. That takes some of my ideas off the table. Out of courtesy, I won’t be making a mess of your face, that’s for sure. And personally…”

I stopped myself.

Benny looked at me with confusion. A sharp anxiety. The wait really was killing her.

“Damn,” I said, “I never expected it to go down like this.”

“What, what do you want from me, exactly?” Benny asked. She was leaning back, as if she was afraid of what my answer would be. “Revenge?”

“From you? I want you to pay, for what you did at the school, for your involvement with Solace. For bringing me here. All of it, you’re responsible for all of it.”

Benny took a deep breath, shuddering as she exhaled.

“Revenge, then.”

I thought about what Gomez asked me, between ‘justice’ and something more… intimate. It wasn’t too long ago, but it felt like forever.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I hate to burst your bubble, but I can’t be responsible for everything, not when it comes to revenge. That takes some action on your part, an active hand to get what you want. You didn’t have to join up with Lawrence and that young girl, you didn’t have to set half of Eastside aflame, you didn’t have to threaten me using my closest friend. I may have pushed you, but you chose to keep falling, and drag me down with you.”

“You didn’t have to attack the school,” I said back. “You didn’t have to join up with Solace.”

“I didn’t have a choice, on that last part.” Benny sounded downcast, broken.

“But,” she said. “You are right. I recognize, now, that I was blinded by that desire for vengeance. That’s why I attacked the school. You hit me, and I wanted to hit back harder. But look where it brought me, brought you.”

“It’s too late to start feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Please, the last thing I feel right now is sorry. Regret, though, that’s a whole other matter.”

She looked back at me, meeting my eyes. Level.

“V, right?” she asked.

“Right,” I said.

Benny fixed her posture, not making a sound, the restraints probably numbing any feeling, there.

“We both pushed each other. We both fell, and we both dragged each other down. In our pursuit of revenge, it made us do hideous things. A chain of increasingly hideous things, and led us down into this hellhole. That’s what revenge does to you. It corrupts you, V, and it changes you, inside and out. It makes you ugly.”

“You’re very easy on the eyes, for someone so ugly,” I said. “I hope I age as well as you.”

She shook her head. “You don’t get it, do you? Or maybe you’ve made up your mind, and you don’t want to hear anything different. This… it’s a spiral of destruction, and it’s not going to end with one of us leaving here alive. It’s going to continue. Someone we hurt along the way, or something we did, it comes back. It’s a cycle. Maybe she stabs you in the back, one day.”

She pointed with her lips, pointing to D. I didn’t turn to look at her.

“I haven’t been in the city for that long, but her reputation precedes her. And I’ve seen it myself, too. Petty pranks. Nothing too damaging, until tonight. But, my point is, from what I’ve heard and seen, the whole world is a joke to her. What’s to say that she isn’t making a mockery of you, right now?”

“Are you trying to waste my time?” I asked. “Distract me, until I either run out of time, or you come up with something better?”

Benny shot me a look.

“Maybe,” she said.

“D, how long do we have?”

D answered. “Um, about an hour and a half. We do have to be back, but as of right now, it’s not super urgent.”

A noise, coming from Benny. It sounded like a snarl.

“An hour and a half,” I repeated. “That’s not bad at all. You know what? I decided what I want to do.”

Benny stiffened again, hearing that. “And that is?”

I sat, my butt on the tarp, my legs crossed. I inched myself so I was closer to Benny.

“Let’s talk.”

Benny blinked.

“Talk?”

“Why not? Even though you’re tied up and everything, you’re still willing to run your mouth. And honestly, I’m willing to listen. There’s a lot I want to ask you, actually, and I can imagine there’s a lot you want to ask me. So let’s do it.”

Benny opened her mouth, then closed it. Unsure of what to do or say next.

I threw in another point for her. “This might be your opportunity to convince me not to kill you. I can’t say the Ghosts, or whoever they hand you to, will show you that same mercy, but my offer’s there.”

Benny dropped her head a little, but it didn’t last long. She straightened herself, facing me again.

“I’ll take what I can get,” she said. “You start.”

She was a gang leader. She was used to power. She maybe even craved it, and was looking for as much power as she could consolidate, given her position, her situation.

It was admirable.

I smiled, remembering I had on a mask.

“Okay then, let’s start at the very beginning.”

Benny tilted forward, eyes down as she talked.

“I didn’t ask for any of this, it was forced upon me.”

“But you went along with it, and let those circumstances shape you,” I said. “Somewhere, on that path, there had to be a point where you could stop.”

“Are you admonishing me, V?”

I fell silent.

“I’m not,” I finally said. “Just an observation. I was much the same way.”

“Whatever happens,” Benny said, “Just make sure nothing happens to Roland. Just let him get back to Mexico.”

It was the third time she asked that.

“I make no promises about that last part, but nothing’s going to happen to Roland as long as you’re here, and your crew doesn’t pull anything.”

Benny nodded.

It was the third time I answered that.

“You care about your people a lot,” I said.

“Of course I do, they’re family. They’ve protected me my whole life, and I tried to protect them.”

A tear fell from one eye.

“And I failed.”

I didn’t really have a follow up. I was the reason why she failed.

I felt for her, in that moment. I had the memory of wanting to protect someone, and to fail, catastrophically. The tears wouldn’t come, however, that part of me was sectioned off, to be discarded.

But the memory was still there. I understood, and let Benny shed tears for the both of us.

“You say you want to kill me, but have you actually done it before? Take another person’s life?”

Flashes of memories surfaced. From a time I didn’t want to recall.

“Maybe. I’ve incapacitated people, using more strength than what was reasonably necessary. Maybe I left them to die. I can’t say for sure.”

“So, no, you haven’t.”

I squinted at her.

“Consciously, no. Have you?”

“I haven’t. That wasn’t my thing. If it ever came to that, I left it to the others. But I always tried diplomacy, first. Always.”

“Honor among thieves?” I asked. “Or among mobsters?”

“Something like that. People deserve fairness, even the worst of them. It’s a principle I tried to follow. A personal philosophy. No cheating.”

“The world isn’t fair,” I said, not to object, but as a general observation. “People aren’t fair, they cheat each other, and they get back at each other. At least you tried, but the world ended up beating you down, didn’t it? It broke you.”

Benny met my eyes.

“It broke you, too.”

“Tell me about Solace.”

Benny didn’t move.

“And Mister, too.”

Benny jerked her head up.

“If you’re going after him, then you are insane!”

“I’m just asking for information,” I said.

Benny slouched again.

“I don’t know much, honestly, about either of them. You’d be disappointed.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. But just tell me what you do know, for now.”

“Or,” I added, “I might have to bring Roland into this, again.”

Benny made a sound. Between a cry and a snarl.

“That’s not fair,” Benny said.

“I’m sorry,” I responded, meaning it.

“If you had the chance to start over, do it all again, would you change anything?”

“I…”

“You don’t think you would?”

“I think… people are incredibly stubborn, and, even if I was taken back to the beginning, I can’t imagine a reality where I don’t make the same mistakes.”

“That’s a rather stubborn thing to say.”

“I still see myself as ‘people.’”

“So you believe in fate? That you were meant to be here?”

“Not… exactly. I believe in moving forward, and learning from the past. My mistakes define me just as much as my successes do. If I could go back, do things different, I wouldn’t be me, and I’m not sure I want that.”

“I see. I can’t believe I agree with you on that.”

“We’re truly ugly people, aren’t we?”

“Ha, you could even say ‘hideous.’”

I sat back, more drained than I had anticipated.

“Thirty minutes,” D said. A reminder for me, and a sentence for Benny.

“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said to D. I turned back to Benny. “That went by faster than I thought it would.”

Benny’s face was hard to read, a dark look in her eyes.

“That’s too bad. I was hoping we’d go for a while longer.”

“I’m already beat. This, on top of everything else that happened tonight, I’m shocked you can go another round.”

“You should be the one with the endurance. You’re still young, after all.”

Benny lowered her head.

“And besides, my life is sort of depending on it.”

I looked at Benny. There was something… different, about her.

Nothing explicit had changed, though. She was still there, restrained, sitting on the tarp. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. The gold blazer, the black leggings. Her ponytail, her tan skin. Her makeup. She was still Benny.

Yet, there was that quality to her.

Benny looked at me.

No. Something was different, but not with her. With me.

The dim of the flashlights illuminated her, illuminated us, and there was a warmth to it, that I hadn’t noticed before. A certain sentimentality, and she glowed in that light.

It wasn’t the traditional sort, but there was beauty, there, that struck me in a way that managed to leave an impact.

We looked at each other. The silence was shared, but it had different meanings for each of us.

Then, I broke that silence.

“I won’t kill you.”

Benny arched an eyebrow.

“You… won’t kill me.”

She said it slow, deliberate, as if repeating it made it more real.

It did. I had made up my mind.

“I tried to find it in my heart, the anger I would need to hurt you, and then to end your life. And funnily enough, I didn’t even need to try that hard. It was easy. It’s just… right there, sitting on top of everything else. But, digging a little deeper, I found something else. Something new.”

“And that was?”

“An understanding,” I answered.

“Don’t pity me,” she said, growling the second word.

I shook my head.

“Not pity. I don’t want you to look at me in that way, so I won’t do the same for you.”

“How noble of you,” Benny said. She started struggling with the restraints around her ankles. “Now help me up.”

I let her struggle a bit more, until she realized she wouldn’t receive any help.

Slow, but Benny caught on. She stopped moving, and stared back at me, very carefully.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” she said, voice breaking before she finished. She sounded like she was either about to laugh or cry.

“It’s not what you think,” I said, as if to reassure her. “I have another thing in mind.”

“What?” she asked. In that one word, I could hear it so clearly. Trepidation.

I answered not with words, but with actions. I removed my gloves, setting them by the knife. With my hands free, I felt how cold the air was on my skin.

I touched my face, and felt the mask. The hard, cold plastic.

I hid my face with my hands, lowering myself. I undid the strap around my head.

The mask clattered to the floor.

I raised myself, taking off my hood. Benny and I looked at each other.

She took it all in, studying my face. Her eyes darted from one detail to the other. Up, down. From my forehead to my chin. Not a freckle or mole would slip by her, it felt like.

I pushed some hair away from my face, fixing it. I averted her gaze. The sudden and heavy attention had me strangely flustered, but it was also what I wanted. A paradox.

“I’m not at my best right now,” I said, just to say something. “I’ve had a busy night.”

I waited for a comment, a response from Benny. None came. The now all-too familiar stillness returned.

Couldn’t avoid it forever. A sharp inhale through my nose, and I faced Benny.

Shadows were cast on her face. Hard to read.

“Hey,” I said.

“You’re… just a kid,” she said, nearing a whisper. “You’re just as young as her.”

She was referring to D.

“I’m not that young,” I said. I made my back straight, so the shadows would fall differently on my face. “Surprised?”

“Not surprised, no. When I… visited the school, I had an idea in my head of who to look for. You’re not too far removed from that image. Maybe you’re a little thinner, a little more pale, but that isn’t what scares me.”

Benny chuckled, or at least she tried. It came out more strained.

“What does scare me, is this sickening feeling at the pit of my stomach. It feels like I’m staring death in the face.”

Slow, nervous, I put my hands on Benny’s shoulders. It took an ungodly amount effort to get them to not shake.

“I’m afraid I can’t do anything about that,” I said.

Gently, I removed Benny’s blazer. It fell to a bundle behind her. She still had her sleeves on, due to the bindings.

I worked on the buttons on her shirt next, undoing them. My hands felt like they were moving on their own.

Benny reacted, and she went still, stiff. Exhaling softly, then more pronounced as I got to the lower buttons. I had robbed her of the ability to vocalize, to protest.

Wrong, this was all wrong.

But I didn’t stop.

I was drawing it out, taking longer to undo the next button. Not to waste time, not to question myself, but to stay in the moment. To turn it into a picture in my head. Framing it.

I finished the shirt, and pushed the fabric off her shoulders. She was still wearing the sleeves, but I had gotten to what I wanted.

Her shoulders were exposed, and my eyes trailed see to what else touched the open air. Her chest, rising and fall as she breathed. Her stomach. A thin, white line of skin peeked out from the waistline of her skirt. Benny gasped as my finger grazed it.

I wouldn’t go farther than this.

I stalled.

Benny managed to get out some more words, between periodic, shallow breaths. “If… you’re not intending to… kill me… what, exactly, are you planning?”

What was I planning?

I searched for an answer.

I spoke, but I found it almost impossible. Shaky, and soft.

“I still hold you responsible for everything. This, me. There’s… a catharsis that comes with finally getting what you want.”

“A catharsis?”

“Yes, and it’s a very sweet taste.”

“Um, I can leave if you want, put a sock on the door.”

That didn’t come from Benny. Someone else? But I was sure it was just the two of us.

Hazy, getting to my head. It was cold, but my body was heating up. My fingers traced around Benny’s shoulder, her skin smooth with sweat. I felt her body heat.

I leaned closer.

Benny remained there, making it easier for me to remove a strap off one shoulder, letting it hang. My lips brushed against goosebumps.

If I had left it there, it would have been a kiss.

But there was more to come.

I held her with my hands, keeping her in place. She’d want to move. I wouldn’t let her.

I opened my mouth.

My tongue grazed a salty taste, and then my teeth brought forth a sweeter flavor. Red.

Small noises, smaller sips, and this continued until I had my fill.

I found myself at the top of the factory, the breeze in my face and hair.

The air was fresher here than in the city. It soothed, and helped in bringing my thoughts back to other matters.

It was cool, calm, and I hadn’t felt more collected. But, could I call this peace? The question gnawed at the back of my mind, raw.

I walked, and Hleuco landed ahead of me, waiting for me as I approached.

He looked worse for wear. His feathers were ruffled, matted in some places, sticking out in others. He slouched, and leaned one way, favoring a leg. I remembered how he’d raise his chest, giving off a sense of pride and power. Standing tall. Now, it took all he had just to keep standing.

Hleuco was standing, though, meaning like me, he had won.

I saw what he had in his beak, what was stuck in blood and feather. Bits of a blue windbreaker.

Hello there.

I heard his voice.

I smiled, soft.

“We did good, didn’t we?”

I continued walking, passing him. He stayed as I crossed the roof, heading for the edge. I found D there, sitting.

I sat with her, setting my mask beside me.

Our legs dangled, and it was long way to the bottom. Should an accident occur, only one of us would have been able to survive that drop. Yet she was sitting here without a care in the world.

D gave me a glance, then turned her attention back to the city.

We watched the skyline for a while. The smoke was all but gone, now, but even from here, I could see the wisps that were left. All that remained of what was once a greater fire.

“You’re late,” D said. “We’re late.”

“Are we in trouble?”

D raised her shoulders, then dropped them.

“Nah. I’ve been in contact with them, but we really should be heading back.”

D gestured again.

“But, now I need a break.”

“I would say I’m sorry, but it would only half true.”

“No biggie,” D said. “Hard to believe we actually pulled this off.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long and crazy night.”

“We ended up cutting it close, but we got lucky.”

D rubbed her hands together in her lap for warmth.

“It’s the kind of luck that makes you wonder if something truly terrible is just around the corner.”

I didn’t want to think about that.

“Either way,” I said. “You managed to prove yourself to me. Congratulations.”

D made a fist, and drew it in close.

Yes!”

We laughed a bit, briefly amused by the exchange.

As D settled back down again, she fixed her jacket.

“Oh yeah. How’s… um, the lucky girl?” she asked.

Who else was she talking about?

“Not a concern,” I answered. “Benny’s not getting up.”

That was all I was willing to offer.

D didn’t press for more details. “You’re carrying her back to the van, though. She’s heavy, and my arms are tired.”

“Will do,” I said.

“So, you finally got her, in more ways than one. All that’s left is to give her up to the Ghosts, and you don’t have to be there for that. Your part is done.”

Done? I didn’t feel done.

“What’s next for V?” she asked.

What was next for me? I couldn’t go back to the apartment. That wasn’t home for me. I couldn’t go back to being Shiori’s daughter, or Katy and Maria’s best friend. They weren’t connected to me. I couldn’t go back to a life that didn’t fit, to fill a hole that wasn’t shaped like me.

And I didn’t want to.

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

There’s still much to do. The fire still burns.

I answered her.

“I won’t pull back, that’s for damn sure. I’ll press forward. Don’t count me out just yet.”

“I like that,” D said, sounding satisfied. “You’re up for another game. I’m hyped.”

The breeze picked up, strong enough that it pushed, and I gripped to the ledge to stay in place. It was cold.

It died down, and I could relax again.

“Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not really my thing. Also, I kind of can’t.”

Turning to D, I realized that I had grabbed her arm, as if to secure her as well.

I let her go. “That, I can apologize for.”

“You don’t have to. I don’t mind that, particularly. No one’s going to object to holding hands with a pretty girl.”

“Hm?” I asked.

D looked at me. This time it was longer than a glance. “Yup, you are seriously pretty.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that. “Um, thanks. I’ve never been told that before.”

Me, as in V, and not her.

“Really?” D questioned. “There had to be someone who’s told you that before. Like a boy at school, or your grandma? I dunno.”

“Nothing I care to remember,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Eh, it’s whatever. But I hope it made you feel better.”

I had to think about it. It was a compliment, but that sort compliment was better suited coming from a boy. I’d even accept it coming from anyone else’s grandmother.

From her?

“It did, I think. Thanks again.”

“Happy to oblige.”

We spent another minute looking towards the city again. The smoke was all clear, now. From a distance, it was like nothing had happened at all.

The hectic buzzing, the chaos. We’d have to return to it, eventually. Sooner, rather than later.

Another minute passed.

“I thought you were going to say more,” I said. “About me showing my face.”

“Um, besides having a tiny bit of… something, on your upper lip, then no. If not that, gosh, you’re already fishing for compliments?”

Flustered, I wiped my lip. “Not that. Earlier, when I was trying to get back to E-One, I had gotten… distracted.”

“Yeah?”

“I had to gather myself together, to keep myself going, and that involved, um, raising my voice a notch or two.”

“Make that like ten notches. You almost blew out my ear back there.”

“Sorry, again. I wanted to ask, also because your stunt back at the restaurant nearly gave me a heart attack, but, while I had gotten distracted, did you pick up anything, especially at the end?”

“At the end?” D asked. She put a finger to her chin, thinking. “Not really, no. Again, you almost blew out my ear, and I was focusing on other things. You can’t expect me to catch everything, especially when it didn’t sound like it was something I was supposed to catch.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“And, about my stunt, anyone in Benny or Christian’s position would jump at that kind of bait, even if it was true or not. They were desperate, and I took that to my advantage.”

“I see.”

I got my clarification, but I couldn’t take any relief in that. A strange part of me expected her to know.

Want her to know.

“Was there something I had to catch?”

I held my tongue. I tasted juice in my mouth. Intoxicating.

I made my choice.

“My name,” I said. “I want to give you my name.”

“Is it not ‘V?’” D asked.

“It’s more a placeholder, for lack of a better word. I’ve already shown you my face, so I guess my real name would follow.”

“Shucks, you don’t have to, but if you’re up for it, then I won’t stop you.”

She turned to face me.

“I’ll give you mine, too.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that, either. “It’s not ‘D,’” I asked.

“Placeholder,” was all she said, with a wide smile. Toothy, with a gap.

“Hm,” I said, giving myself some time to think. Tonight wasn’t just about finding Benny. It was about finding where I stood, how I functioned without her. Alexis. Without her connections and memories. And I did pretty well, when all was said and done. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t stumble where she would have fallen. I proved myself, as much as D proved herself. I didn’t need Alexis. Not anymore.

I’d rejected her memories, and her connections, and I succeeded. I won.

A flurry of feathers. Hleuco flew over our heads.

I watched him go, joining other birds in the distance. As he got smaller, he tested himself with a flap of his wings, but he’d falter, flounder in the air. He settled to keep his wings level, more of a glide than flight itself.

He slowly became a dot, and then he was gone. There was something melancholic about his departure. A sort of finality to it.

I willed him good luck.

I turned my attention back to myself.

Alexis had never declared a name to the world. That was her first mistake, the first stumble. She let the world give her a name, stamp an identity on her. Their perception on her warped, despite her attempts, and the world fought back. They rejected her, wanted her gone. She didn’t shape herself properly, and instead let others give her a shape neither wanted. She tried to get take back her name, her identity, but it was too little, too late.

Names were important, names were everything. Names held meaning, not only for the individual person, but to others. And she’d called herself Blank Face. No wonder she was overwritten.

She was a white canvas, painted over in blue. Now, red and black.

Names were important, names were everything.

I’d need a new name.

Like the dying spurts of a candle, I felt a spark. A faded memory, a connection that Alexis had. Brief and fleeting to her, but to me, I would use that. Another rock to build upon.

There.

I returned to D, giving her a smile of my own, and we exchanged first names.

Previous                                                                                               Next

056 – Minor Piece

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Everything exploded.

Loud enough to rupture ears. Loud enough that my heart sank to my stomach and stayed there. Loud enough that my mind went completely blank.

It was so loud.

Deafening.

Like the whole world was crashing around me. Destruction.

Not like the movies. The sounds weren’t mixed or mastered, here. Just a stinging intensity. The hail of gunfire put everything in the red.

A bang, followed by cracks and pops occurring with equal intensity. Sharp, jarring. Noise. My ears were ringing, and it only added to the sense of chaos. I lost my sense of placement. Left and right, up and down.

Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the-

That thought was overridden.

I didn’t lose my sense of direction. I clung to it. Ingrained in the very fiber of my being.

Retribution.

My body moved under the orders of my last conscious thought.

Arms close, wrapping around me. Not a reflex, not for comfort, but to secure.

The action was interrupted, then blocked from moving any farther. Something was in my grasp. Someone.

No time to check. No time to think. Just had to focus on getting down, and staying out of harm’s way.

And then, it was quiet.

Not silent, not completely, sound wasn’t absent. There was the harsh intakes of breath, the clicks of guns being reloaded and ready to fire again. And there was the high-pitched ring that sang in my ears.

Not silent, but a stillness that sat heavy in the air.

It was quiet.

It took some time before I realized I could move. Testing, I used my legs, rubbing them together. No issue there. No pain, it seemed like, coming from any other part of my body. I had made it out okay. Miraculously.

I tried breathing. The air was thick. Almost polluted.

Something squirmed in my grip, trying to wrestle itself away from me. Tried.

I tightened my hold, exercising just a fraction of my full strength. The movement stopped.

The stillness remained, giving me a chance to survey the situation in full. It felt like the light was attacking my eyes as I opened them, and I needed a second to adjust.

Bits and pieces. I couldn’t see much. I was on the floor, all my weight on one side. One arm was pinned down. A body. They were close, and their back, neck, and head blocked most of my view. A few loose strands from a ponytail got into my eyes, and I had to blink them away.

A body. They were close, and they were wearing a gold blazer.

My heart jumped in my chest at the realization. Faster and faster, all from how close she was. I finally had her in my grasp.

She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before. I had her. Finally. There she was, and here I was.

Just me, just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

We were together.

Now it was simply a matter of getting out of here, and taking her with me.

Easier said than done, though.

I shifted us around, moving so I had a better position to work with. I wasn’t about to try and leave. I had what I wanted, but I was still trapped here.

And I couldn’t just fight my way out.

As the dust settled, everyone else started getting their bearings again. Barking orders, my ears still too out of commission to pick it up. Everyone’s attention was pointed in different directions. The side door of the kitchen, the vents above, each other.

Me and Benny.

Scattered, disorganized, but it didn’t take long for everyone’s attention to point in a particular way.

With guns reloaded and ready, Benny’s crew had me in their sights.

“Let her go,” one of them said, voice tight. Oh, I could hear, now. It was the man in the suit.

I adjusted my posture, pushing my weight more into Benny. She grumbled from the added pressure, but she didn’t try to fight me.

I was crouched over her, my foot pressed into the small of her back. I had my knife drawn, the blade right against her gullet. My other hand went to the back of her neck, helping keep her down. If I tripped, or if she tried to move, the result would be rather messy.

I used that as my leverage.

Tapping the flat of the blade on her throat, I gave my response.

“How about no? I worked too hard, I worked too long, and I gave up too much to get here. I earned this.”

That garnered more grimaces and piercing glares. Itchier trigger fingers. Best not to push them any further.

I looked past the man in the suit, at the others in Benny’s crew, and the other Ghosts. There were more guns in play than I had fingers. Not all were trained at me though, some of Benny’s crew were keeping the Ghosts in check. After that bang, the players on the board had moved around, but the overall situation snapped back to the previous state of being. A standoff.

I looked for Lawrence. I didn’t see him.

I saw the streak of blood that led away from the nearby table and chair, past the man in the suit.

Benny? I checked, but there was no pool of blood under her. She wasn’t bleeding. By process of elimination, then, it had to be-

“You’re cornered, Bluemoon,” the man in the suit said. His gun was still staring right at me. “There’s no variation of this that sees you getting out of here alive.”

“That’s where you’re wrong again,” I said. “And on two different counts. It’s not the Bluemoon, it’s V. Even your boss acknowledged that.”

Underneath my foot, Benny tried to speak, but it came out as a muffled, incoherent mess.

The man in the suit glowered.

“Fine,” he said. “V it is.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked. Had to keep them busy, distracted. If they were talking, they weren’t shooting.

“Christian,” he said.

“Nice name. See, now that makes it easier for us to get a dialogue going.”

“I’m not interested in talking.”

So much for that plan.

A shuffle, behind Christian. People were moving around, stepping out of the way as more people came into the kitchen. A momentary interruption from everything that was going on.

I would have used that as my opportunity, but Christian maintained his position. He hadn’t budged.

“Found anything?” Christian asked, eyes still on me. The question was for his partners behind him.

“Found something, alright.”

Two men approached Christian, struggling to walk a straight line to him. I immediately saw why.

Carried by the armpits, feet off the ground. D was kicking and twisting to try and get away, but two fully-grown men proved to be much stronger than one little girl. They brought her to Christian, stopping at his side.

“We caught her hiding in a box, out in the hall where that door lead.”

D continued to kick, even trying to go for Christian’s knee, but he was too far, and her leg was too short.

For her trouble, D received a smack in the back of the head. The hit was audible.

She yelped, and they yelled over her. “Pipe down!”

I felt a surge in my body, a charge. I wanted to rush them for laying hands on her. But I had to remind myself where I was, and what I was here to do.

Keep a hold on Benny, and they can’t do anything.

The hit was hard, but D recovered enough to scan the kitchen. She noticed me.

“Hi, V,” she said.

“Hi, D,” I said.

“I tried, but I guess it’s gonna have to take more than that. Insurance?”

Not a question, a suggestion. I nodded. Like Lawrence, she didn’t have her earpiece. We really had to play the rest of this out by ear, now.

“Oh, where’s Lawrence?” D asked, skimming the kitchen from her perspective.

“Follow the trail of blood,” Christian said. “You’ll find him.”

D looked down, and saw the blood go past her feet, and behind a counter where we both couldn’t see. D kicked again.

“You dummies! What did you-”

Another outburst, another hit. D piped down.

Christian gave her a glance, but he kept his eyes on me when he said, “Lawrence, you, and now her? Talk about an unholy union.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“I know her work.”

He left it at that. Not giving me much to work with.

“You, what was that, just now?”

I wasn’t sure if that was for me or D.

“Bring her up here, too,” Christian ordered, nudging with this chin.

The men listened, carrying D somewhere between me and Christian. Her feet dragged behind her as they moved. Now we were both in the gun’s sights.

“Answer me,” Christian asked. That time, it was clear he was talking to D.

“Firecrackers,” D said, sounding out of breath. “Up in the vents. Scared you, didn’t I? And I kick open one door and you guys blow up like it’s the Fourth of July or something. Y’all…”

D started shaking.

“Y’all crack me up.”

D started laughing, and she was struck in the head again. She kept laughing. It took three more, increasingly violent hits to get her to wind down.

At the final hit, D’s head slumped forward, and she was panting, sounding hoarse.

“Respect your elders,” Christian said. “You should have learned that lesson by now.”

“You’ll find…” D started, she had to take another breath before continuing. “That I’m very selective with what lessons I retain.”

“Then I’ll beat that lesson into you, and many more.” Christian looked to the two men. “Search her, make sure she doesn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.”

A small noise came from D. A giggle.

The two men dropped D, and she fell to the floor, on her knees, barely supporting herself with her arms. They began patting her down.

“And you,” Christian said, looking straight at me. It was my turn, again. “Let her go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Take one step forward,” I said, “And Benny will have to breathe through a tube.”

“You won’t harm her,” Christian said, shaking his head. “You want her, for reasons only you are keen to. But you need her alive.”

“You’re right, I do need her alive, but what does that really mean? What does it mean to be alive? Break it down to the most basic definition, it’s a state of being. Having life. And you can harm someone while still keeping them alive. It’s just a matter of taking away what isn’t necessary. Lose an arm, you’ll live. Lose a leg, you can still moving around okay. Lose all four limbs? You’ll need assistance, but as long as you can eat, breath, and shit, you’ll live. Quality of life sucks, but you’re still alive. And how about the other stuff? Gouging out eyes, cutting out tongues, burning skin. Breaking bones. It’s nothing that’ll kill you. The brink of death is still a state of being. Take one step forward, and you bring Benny close to that brink. I need her alive, but I can harm her.”

Benny didn’t seem to like the sound of that. She struggled, mumbled. Little success in either venture, but she got her message across.

Christian’s gaze narrowed.

“I shoot you, then, right through the head. I’m a good shot.”

I paused.

“You say that, thinking it will stop me. You would be very disappointed.”

It was partially true. I had been shot before, and I was shot earlier tonight, but they weren’t shots through the head. This body might survive… but would I?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t about to put that to the test.

Christian stood there, his gun still out in front of him. If his arms were getting tired, he didn’t show it on his face.

We were at a standstill. I couldn’t move, or I might die, and Christian couldn’t move, or Benny would get mauled. And the first scenario had the implied risk of Benny getting injured, too.

There must be a way out of this.

I willed that thought to D.

“Christian, I think I have something.”

Of the two men that were searching D, one stood, holding a device in his hand. “Found this in her jacket.”

Christian gave it a quick look, then looked at it again, for a longer time. I didn’t move.

“A tablet?” Christian asked.

“Ah, crud,” D said, head still down.

The two men grabbed her and brought her up, making her stand. They didn’t take their hands off of her.

“What is this?” Christian questioned.

She lifted her head, facing Christian.

“I thought you didn’t like repeating yourself.”

He looked like he was about to snap.

“What’s on it?” he then asked.

D hesitated, her head down again.

“Crud,” she said.

“Tell me,” he said, teeth gritting together.

D didn’t answer, of the two men that held her, the one who wasn’t holding the tablet raised his free hand. A smack to the back of her head.

D squeaked, and her head drooped, hair obscuring her face.

The stillness stretched. Christian wasn’t going to ask again, instead waiting for D to finally give up an answer.

And then she did.

“Notes… crucial to our plan,” D breathed. “And drafts of other plans. Backups. Scribbles, really. There’s some other stuff on there, too.”

“Like what?”

She tried raising her head, only to lower it again.

“Personal stuff. Where other gangs keep their stashes. Drugs, weapons, money. Names, too. As… a bargaining chip.”

“Names?” Christian’s gaze shifted, from me to Benny. “Could use those chips as our ticket out of here. What kind of names?”

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity.”

It was like a shockwave. Everyone reacted. Myself included.

Christian looked right at D. I was too caught off guard to make a move. And I wanted to see what exactly she was up to, what she meant.

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity?” Christian repeated, but he was being serious.

“I’m not stupid,” D said. “I keep a lot of notes, I’m thorough. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to last.”

Craning her neck, D looked at the two men that were detaining her, then at Christian. “Benny came to make a deal, how about a counteroffer? Let me go, that tablet’s yours.”

My eyes went wide.

Benny gurgled, and I was reminded that she was there. I was strangling her. I loosened my grip, but not by much.

“D,” I said, anger creeping in my voice.

She had the gall to look at them when she gave her terms, but she couldn’t bear to show me her face.

She’s selling me out.

Wait, I had to think. There was no way she knew that bit of information. The name that wasn’t my name. There was only one person that knew, and they were dead. There was no way D knew.

Right?

Something’s not right here.

Wait a minute…

Oh god.

A flash of a memory. The hooded figure, decked in blue. The declarations I used to fight it off.

I went cold.

Christian questioned her. “You’re willing to walk away from this?”

“If it means walking away from this. I can start from scratch again. It’ll take forever, but it’s a fair trade-off.”

D,” I said, harder that time. Seething. I was so close, and she was threatening to take away everything.

“Shut up,” Christian told me, gun still pointed and ready. “You’ve lost this game.”

He turned his attention to D. “You can let go of her.”

The men complied, releasing D. She was standing on her own now, but slouched. She started fixing her hair, massaging her head.

“What’s the password?” Christian asked.

“No password,” D said, tossing her hair back with one hand. “Just swipe it and you’re in.”

“Let me verify it, and it looks legit, you’re free to go.”

“Okay.”

It’s like I’m not even here right now.

Christian nodded at the man with the tablet, and let him be the one to turn it on.

He pressed the button on the side.

Stop him.

But I’d lose Benny.

They’ll find out. They’ll ruin everything.

We weren’t sure of that.

I struggled to find a proper course of action. I hesitated.

While I was drowning in my uncertainty, he swiped the tablet.

I held my breath.

The tablet was facing Christian. Only he had a good look at the display, and all I could do was gauge his reaction.

His expression was blank.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Follow the instructions,” D said. “It’ll make sense.”

Christian stared at the tablet, then took it from his partner. He started heading towards me.

“Hey!” I yelled, my knife still on Benny’s throat.

“Just… following instructions,” Christian explained.

D spoke, too. “It’s okay, V, let him.”

Christian approached, and I remained wary.

“Stop there,” I said, when he was a foot away. He stopped.

Christian bent down, and flipped the tablet, having it face me. He lowered it so even Benny could see it.

Black letters on a white canvas, the letters were sloppy and uneven, as if drawn with a finger instead of a pen. A poorly done smiley face was done on the side, too.

For Benny’s eyes. Swipe right.

Benny twisted herself, trying to get her arm out from under her. My weight prevented her from getting anywhere.

“Set the tablet down,” I ordered.

Christian set it down, flipping out a stand on the back of the tablet’s case to let it stay upright on its own.

“Back away,” I ordered, tapping the knife against Benny’s throat again.

Christian backed away, but his gun was still trained on me. The standoff remained.

I eased off of Benny, but only by a margin. Benny took the cue, and wedged her arm free, reaching towards the tablet in front of her.

“Remember where you are,” I told Benny. “Who’s allowing you a bit of freedom. Abuse it, and I abuse you.”

Benny grumbled, and I took that as her understanding the situation. She moved her head to get a better look at the tablet, and with her only free hand, she swiped right.

The picture changed.

A hospital bed, a man resting. Tubes ran into his arms, his nose, a device attached to his finger. Blankets covered his waist, over his stomach, but his face was visible. Eyes closed, mouth open. Either asleep, or knocked out by anaesthesia.

The room was dark, but the subject cast in a bright light, and source coming from whatever device had taken the photo.

“Who is this?” Benny asked, sounding rough.

“I think you know,” D said. “Not everyone from your crew is standing in this kitchen.”

Benny swiped again, and again. Again.

Every picture was similar, but not exactly the same. Each consecutive picture was closer to the man in the bed. From the whole bed in the frame, to the foot of the bed, to the side, to his face, eyes closed and mouth open.

In the very last picture, the angle changed again, higher up, the man still visible. But he wasn’t the only one in the shot this time.

D was in the shot, holding the tablet high, placing herself right up against the man’s face. She held up a victory symbol.

A selfie.

I couldn’t see Benny’s face, but sitting on top of her I felt her reaction. Her whole body tightened up, tensing at whatever the realization was.

“Oh no,” she said. It pained her to say, but I could catch it. “Oh no!”

“Oooh yeaah,” D said, drawing out the words. I saw her face as she mocked her.

She wore a toothy grin. Vulpine, though a tooth was missing.

“Benny, what?” Christian questioned. He turned to D. “What did you do?”

Benny answered him with a single word.

“Roland.”

Christian let his mouth drop.

“Ah crud,” D said, that grin never leaving her. “You guys got bamboozled.”

Another shockwave. Christian jumped back, so D and I would be more in his gun’s range. The men that held D went after her again, but she ducked down, rolling away. She got up and ran towards me, stopping at my side, hands raised.

“Nah ah ah, we’ve been so well behaved, it’d be a shame to be so rash, now.”

D was taunting them, when we were just barely keeping them back.

This better work.

Benny was fighting me, now, trying to break away from me. I had to press the knife a fraction harder against her throat to calm her down.

“Explain,” Benny said, straining, breathing hard. “Now.”

“Wow, I was really on edge, there. I couldn’t just tell you to open up the thing, or you wouldn’t have felt compelled enough to do it. Had to make up a whole bit about information to entice you guys. And you fell for the bait, and hard. You guys really are desperate.”

Christian repeated after Benny. “Explain, now.”

“Don’t worry, I will, that’s part of the fun. Last night, among so much other stuff, I was doing a little hospital hopping. I was actually looking for someone else, but guess who I found in the meantime?”

“But that’s impossible,” Benny said, exasperated but weary. Being on her stomach took more air out of her than she could use to speak. “We went through the proper channels, using the right doctors. They don’t snitch or let anything leak. It’s against their code.”

“Code, schmode,” D said, “A magician never reveals their secrets. But, that’s not what really matters. Double-tap the button at the bottom, there.”

Benny pressed the home button on the tablet, twice, in quick succession.

It switched to another app.

The tablet displayed another picture. Grainy, but it was the same image. The hospital bed, Roland. He was still asleep. It wasn’t as bright, though, most of the light came from a lamp in the background, and the ambient bulbs and screens running next to him.

“Wave hi, Jordan!” D said.

From under the picture, a hand emerged, palm facing us. It was lightly wrapped in bandages. The hand waved, and the screen shook, too.

I could feel Benny starting to sweat. Quickly checking my knife, I saw a small bead of water drip from the tip.

“It’s a live feed,” D said. “And he can hear everything that goes on here. If you shoot me or V, or if we just give the word, Jordan pulls a few plugs, removes a few casts and bandages, and then he’s out before anyone there gets the chance to notice. Maybe more, if he’s up to it?”

D spoke louder for her last question. Jordan’s hand gave us a thumbs-up.

Benny coughed, wheezing, due to my foot, my weight on her back.

“You… wouldn’t…”

“Hey, that’s all up to you. New deal. Me and V get to walk out of here, unharmed, and we get to take Benny with us.”

Christian laughed, but it sounded like Benny, right before D’s ambush. Wild. “As if we’re letting you walk out of here with our boss!”

“You are, and you will,” D said. “And I know exactly why you will.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s been over a week since you attacked the school. Over a week. You had all the time in the world to leave the city, and hey, I even came up with a few ways for you. You could’ve left in smaller groups, you’ve taken the long way and hopped the border in another state. You could’ve even set up a meeting with the Ghosts before all this. But you didn’t.”

No one responded. An invitation for D to continue.

D continued.

“Why? Well, it wasn’t clear to me until I laid eyes on that handsome man over there.” She pointed to the tablet on the floor. “You were waiting for him to get better. You couldn’t leave until he recovered enough to move without medical attention. And from what I saw, you would have waited for a long while. Broken arm, fractured ribs, severe burns. That takes time.”

I could feel Benny slump underneath me.  The fight had all but left her.

This was our final play, our last-ditch effort to get Benny to comply, in case we ended up in a pinch like this. Our insurance. I just didn’t know how D would lead up to that.

She had a knack for making things complicated.

It was scary.

But, enticing them by claiming she knew my secret identity. Genius.

“You’re wrong,” Christian said. “We have other matters to deal with before we can leave. Roland isn’t our highest priority. It’d be great if he gets better by the time we’re ready to go, but if he isn’t, then it’s a loss we’ll have to take.”

“Maybe,” D conceded. “You might have a point there. Except there’s a difference between him and those you already left behind. Like Sofia, and Samuel.”

“How do you know about that?”

D ignored him. “But you won’t leave without Roland. Even with the entire city, from good guys and bad guys out to get you, you won’t leave. In fact, you can’t. And you know why. Unlike them, he isn’t disposable. He’s family.”

“Paco,” Christian said. The fight was starting to leave him, too.

“And that is the not-so small detail that gives us the win. The Chariot, El Carruaje… You were originally here as representatives of larger cartel. La Rueda. And your real boss, Paco, or El Tunante, isn’t gonna be happy if you leave his nephew behind.”

D answered before Christian could repeat himself. “I’m thorough.”

Again, the stillness stretched. No one said a thing. Not Christian, not any of his partners, not Benny. The deal was clear, the terms obvious.

It was just a matter of them wrapping around the fact that they lost.

Checkmate.

Benny wasn’t moving, hardly breathing.

I wasn’t moving, hardly breathing. I wanted to say something, add more, involve myself, but I was lost for words.

I had my role here, though. I had to keep Benny pinned, or our position didn’t have legs to stand on.

Time passed.

Benny spoke. It was so quiet, but the words still carried.

“You win. I give up.”

Her crew needed a moment for that to sink in. I needed a moment.

We won.

“Benny, por favor,” Christian pleaded. “You don’t have to-”

Benny screamed. Prolonged, raw. Not a word, but an emotion.

Despair.

She trailed off, then sputtered, coughing. Her body shook.

“Don’t you lay a fucking hand on him,” Benny said, for all to hear. “I’ll come with you.”

“Smart,” I said, taking over. “Get up.”

I got off of Benny, my legs already aching, but it was easy to ignore. D gathered her tablet, then helped as I lifted Benny to her feet.

I put my knife to the small of her back, a simple but effective reminder. My other hand reached around her neck. She was taller than me.

I watched the others.

Christian didn’t react, he didn’t move or say anything. He finally had his gun down, arms at his sides. Defeated.

I nudged Benny, and she walked. The three of us moved as a group, careful not to trip over bullets and casing.

D stuck her tongue out at the two men that held her. They didn’t react.

It was odd, even awkward as we walked past Christian and the other leftovers of El Carruaje. The stares, the frustration that festered within. As if they were trying to kill me and D with looks alone.

But they couldn’t, and there was nothing they could do about it. All they could do was stand there and watch, and let the emotion sit.

“Jesus, what did they do to you?”

I turned when I heard D break formation, going ahead of us. She ran to a corner of a counter.

Lawrence was there, on the floor, bleeding. His knees were to his chest.

“Got shot, duh,” he said. He had to force it out. “They dragged me here, out of the way.”

“Shoot, shoot,” D muttered. She was clearly worried. It was obvious in her tone.

D’s hands hovered over Lawrence’s body, unsure where to help. Her head popped back up, looking around in haste, hair flying. “You!”

She pointed to one of the few Ghosts in the back. A girl. She pointed to herself.

“Yes, you! Get over here and get him some help!”

She looked between D and the girl who still had a pistol on her, though it was half-raised, now.

“Don’t worry about that, they touch you and Roland dies! Get over here, and a grab towel!”

She jumped, hearing D raise her voice, shrill. She hurried over to Lawrence’s side, grabbing a towel from a nearby rack along the way.

D turned back to Lawrence. “Where were you shot?”

He gestured, somewhere near his chest, closer to the shoulder.

“Oh god,” D said, sighing at the end. “Might not be fatal. Here, put pressure on it, and keep it there until we get someone else to handle it.”

D stood up, giving room for the Ghost to help Lawrence.

“What’s it to you?” Lawrence asked, wincing. “I thought you were a heartless bitch.”

“Hush. You work on making it through this, or I’m shooting you myself.”

D then left Lawrence, walking in front this time.

Surprising, seeing that from her.

I pushed Benny again, and we moved.

We stopped again when we reached the door. Our exit out of the kitchen. D approached one of the other remaining Ghosts.

“Call the others,” D said. “Tell them they can pull back now. You need numbers if you want to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t pull anything, and you’ll be free to take Lawrence and have him looked after. Oh, except Jordan. He stays until we’re all done.

“What if they do try to pull something?”

“If they try to fight back or sabotage this, I’ll know, and they know what happens after that. Round them up, have them give up their guns. It’s okay if we don’t have everything, we have who matters.”

“And where are you going?” the Ghost asked.

D turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I was still trying to process this.

“Out,” D ventured. “We’ll be back. And to you peeps…”

She directed the next part to Benny’s crew.

“We promise you’ll see Benny again. You can count on it.”

She didn’t clarify whether or not Benny would be alive when they saw her again. Now that I finally had her, I started asking myself the same question.

Is Benny going to live to see the morning?

The debate in my head was ongoing as I pressed into Benny’s back, urging her through the door.

“We’re going,” I said, lost in thought.

“Bye bye!” D said with a wave. “And someone tell Mrs. Martinez I said sorry for making a mess of her kitchen!”

We moved out the kitchen, finally, into the dining area of the restaurant. It was just us, now. Me, D, and Benny. No one to interrupt, no one to interfere.

And I still couldn’t fucking believe it.

“You can sit here,” D said, “And I’ll bring the van around. We’ll wait for the rest of the Ghost to show up, and we can take it from there.”

“Alright,” I said, still taking it all in. “Alright.”

“You okay? You kinda went quiet after a while.”

“I’m alright, I’m just… I don’t know, I’ve told myself, for so long, that this day would come. Now that it’s here, now that I have it, I…”

I went quiet. Still.

Benny didn’t even have anything to say. She hung her head. Too dejected, I assumed, to do anything, anymore.

“I get it,” D said. “Just stay put, and take deep breaths.”

I nodded.

“We won.” she said.

We won.

Repeating it, over and over, in my head. I still couldn’t believe it.

We fucking won.

I nodded.

With that, D left, going through the front door. Through the glass, I saw her run off, crossing the sidewalk, to the other side of the street.

She was gone before I could think about stopping her. Asking her questions. But I wasn’t up for talking, myself.

Later, then.

So many things on my mind. If things were really handled here or not, if Lawrence would be okay. If D actually knew my civilian name.

And yet, I couldn’t give a fuck.

I had Benny, and she wasn’t getting away. It was everything I ever wanted. The floodgates opened, and I felt a pure sort of relief that overwhelmed me. Peace of mind.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I didn’t know what to do with Benny. But that was okay. I had the inklings of a start.

I cleared my throat. It itched.

It was generally considered rude to play with food. However, after a long night of hard work, a girl should be allowed to indulge herself.

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