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Crime Does Pay

Chapter Text

Mari hated cleaning the blood out of her clothes. It coated her hands and arms, sticky and deep in patches of muted color against her skin. She rubbed her nose with the back of her arm, plunging her once pristine shirt into a bucket of clean water before scrubbing away at it with a brush. 

She was alone in the basement of the place she'd been squatting in for the past two months, her only light source a fading light bulb that pulsed in tune with the generator behind her. It was dark and dingy down in the bowels of building, the temperature always perfectly stable from where the basement had been built into the house, plunging itself into the ground like a rotting, concrete fist.

The whole building was like that, empty and filled with dust, grime, and blood, blackened and flaking like paint, spilled long before when the West End of the city was still inhabited by the common person, and not heroin addicts and squatters that had made do with the rows and rows of abandoned houses. 

Joven would be here soon to help her with the body. Even after she'd betrayed him he'd still answered her call. Even after the long pause on the phone, her breathing ragged against the phone's receiver, that empty echoing silence, he still calmly asked what she needed. Joven had always been good to her. She was his mercenary, the woman he'd helped shape from a scared little girl, angry at the world, that had held a dull pocket knife to his stomach, into a weapon with capabilities that even he couldn't understand.

Mari was strong. She'd always been strong, even when those men had made her feel weak. Even when she'd been thrown out onto the street by those who said they'd love her forever. Mari had been strong when she stole a pocket knife from an unfriendly stranger and had used it to make him feel as weak as she had. She hadn't meant to hurt him, she swears. 

Joven had understood her. He was young too. He understood that the world was dangerous, and that in order to win, he had to guarantee that he'd be more dangerous than anyone else. Joven taught himself how to fight, and fight he did. There were no good men where Joven came from, and he wasn't keen on being the first. 

There was no honest work in Los Santos, and every dollar you made came from using your body or selling something that was just illegal enough to feed yourself. Joven was smart. Smarter than those who had laughed at him fail again and agin. He knew who was rich and who was poor. He knew whose money funded which politicians. He knew that you couldn't get shit done in this city unless you had the cash.

Mari had been a commodity at first. She'd been a lucky pick from the barrel, the perfect piece of earth that he could mold into a masterpiece. Mari had gotten in on the ground floor, back when Joven's name was worth shit. They'd built the bones of an empire together, and Mari had the gall to go an knock it down. It had been perfect, everything ran as smoothly as an underground ring could, but Mari had some shit to face, and that had included some unfortunate deaths. Some deaths that even Joven couldn't excuse.

So Mari had left, ended up in some crack den with a needle in her arm, blood on her clothes and her head spinning. 

That had been two months ago. 

She'd been laying low here, wasting her days away in the dirty corner of the room. She swore that she wasn't an addict, but the empty bottles and pile of needles said different. 

There was a sound from upstairs. Steady footsteps tread their way across the barren floor and down the stairs. Mari didn't look in his direction, but she could feel Joven's eyes burning into the back of her neck.

"You look like shit Takahashi." 

"I'd say the same to you." She looked up and over at him. He stood in the middle of the doorway, his jaw set firmly, his eyes unreadable behind his glasses. Joven wore a suit, much too nice for disposing a body. His hands were in his pockets, and he didn't make much motion to move. "What the hell're'ye waiting for dumbass, I didn't ask you here to gawk." 

"No." Joven took a step forward. "There's someone coming to deal with that. I'm not here to help you with the body Takahashi, I'm here to take you home." 

"Well then you turn your pompous ass around-" Mari wrung her shirt out- "I don't want to join the team of any idiot would want someone like me in their ranks."

"You're right." Joven’s voice was smooth, all business. Mari stifled a laugh. 

"Wow Jovert, really laying it on thick." She let out a raspy laugh that ended with a coughing fit. 

"I know why you killed him." Mari went quiet as Joven crossed the room to her. "I know why you killed all of them." There was the pause again. That terrible silence that Mari couldn't help but hold her breath through. The amount of times that silence had woken her up in the middle of the night, it hands wrapped around her throat as she begged for air, her body riddled with pain as she folded into herself, trying more than anything to disappear to somewhere the silence couldn't find her. "You're family Mari. Come home to the Jackrabbit." 

"You really think I want to help run your janky-ass strip club?"

"No. I want you to help me run the city." Joven's eyes were familiar, the guards had begun to fall. "The King is dead, and anyone who's anyone is grappling for control in the ensuing power vacuum. I want his position more than anyone. You and I both know that" Joven's eyes flicked to the black bag that lay on the floor behind Mari. "I know you want back in."

"Joven what if it happens again?" Mari hated the fear in her voice. "What if I go crazy again and-"

"That won't happen. I promise" Joven reached out, his hand tentatively touched Mari's shoulder. She expected to shrug it off, but instead, should found herself hugging him, her face, slick with tears, buried in his shirt. He smelled like the club; acrid dollar bills and sweat.

Mari realized that Joven was the only one who'd seen her cry since that night when she was a kid. Joven was family. The Jackrabbit was family. And, god, she missed having a family. The only comfort she'd known was the sting of the needle in her arm. Mari covered the marks on her arms as she pulled away from Joven, grabbing her shirt from where it hung on the sink. The basement was quiet as Mari let tears run down her cheeks, trails of water cutting their way through the dirt on her face.

"Let's get you home." 

"But the body."

"Someone's coming to get it. Someone I trust." Joven turned away from Mari, starting towards the stairs. "We should go. We've got plans to make." 

Chapter Text

Joven sat at the bar, downing his fourth glass of whiskey. 

The Jackrabbit Strip Club, the crown jewel of Joven's operation, opened in an hour or so. His 'entertainers', as they were so eloquently called, were busy backstage rehearsing for the evenings festivities, and Mari had gone off to her old room to take a long nap, so Joven drank alone.

The entirety of the Jackrabbit was one main room, minus the back rooms for private shows, and the extra hallway that had been added on that acted as the barrier between Joven's two businesses. Above him, he could hear his mechanic fixing a light that had shorted out in the rafters. His tools and material were strewn out underneath a ladder on the second floor VIP balcony that overlooked the rest of the club. 

When he'd bought the place almost a year ago, all he'd had to do was give it a fresh coat of paint and replace some of the old furniture, but that was the extent of the repairs. In their dark, pulsating, sweat, heat, and alcohol fueled delusions, he knew that his patrons wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a pile of shit and a pot of gold. 

Now the Jackrabbit was everything he could've dreamed it would be. He was the talk of the town, and there was nothing in the world he wanted more than to have his name on the tongue of every person who meant anything in this shit-hole they called a city. 

"Something up boss?" Joven looked up at the man who had broken him from his thoughts. His bartender stared back at him with a raised eyebrow.

Damien Haas looked like he had rolled straight out of bed and behind the bar. To be fair, he always looked a little half-asleep, his face set in a semi-permanent grin. His eyes, whose color Joven could still not determine, were perpetually half-lidded, making him look coy and cat-like. Damien had been stacking and unstacking the glasses, something Joven noticed he did every night before his shift. He found it odd, but it must've been a quirk that translated to nearly everything, because Damien did the same thing when he handled the guns before a raid. He'd take his weapons apart, cleaning them until he was satisfied with how they looked, before putting them back together and placing them in their holsters at his sides. 

Joven had hired Damien to bartend before he'd hired him as an enforcer. He'd been working at the Jackrabbit for about a month when Joven had a particularly nasty run in with a small time drug dealer who had threatened his position. Damien had just happened to be leaving when it all went down.

When the sun rose over the tops of the buildings the next morning, the alley behind the Jackrabbit was splattered with blood, the drug dealer was missing half his fingers, and Joven had a new employee. 

Joven nodded, finally responding to Damien's question. "Ah, ya know, the usual."

"Another?" 

"Do you even need to ask?" Damien snatched up Joven's glass, spinning it on his hand. He one of the few tricks he knew, pouring the whiskey in from a foot above as it spun on the back of his hand. It looked like a complicated stunt, when in reality, Joven had seen him do it a hundred times before. "You really need to do that every time you serve a drink?" Damien slide the glass across the table, putting his elbows on the table as he held his face in his hands, his nose a few inches away from Joven's. 

"Yes." Damien's smile drew up farther from its normal Cheshire Cat grin. "I mean, it's a hit with the ladies."

"Ya tryin' to seduce me?"

"You only wish I was," Damien said with a wink. Joven rolled his eyes at the bartender, who hopped up from where he'd been and began re-polishing the glasses. 

"Learn some new tricks." Joven spun around slowly in his chair, his glass in hand as he leaned back against the bar. "God knows that you can do anything you put your mind to." Damien chuckled from behind him. "We don't call you our Jack of All Trades for nothing." 

Damien let out a puff of air from behind Joven. "Really, that nickname again?"  Boze, Joven's "accountant" had given Damien the nickname on accident, and the title had sort of stuck. It was a well known fact at the Jackrabbit that Damien was just sort of good at everything. He wasn't the best, or the most brilliant, but he got the job done, and that was all that Joven could ask for. 

Joven didn't know much about Damien. He knew that he'd grown up in Los Santos, but had moved around the city a lot, and he also knew that Damien had a knack for mixing drinks, but everything else was a mystery to him. A dark past was an occupational hazard in Joven's business, and Damien was no exception. Joven had seen Damien torture someone with nothing but a wine-opener, and he wasn't going to be quick to ask Damien where he'd picked up his skills. 

"Joven? Are you in here?" Mari stood in the entrance of the club. She had showered, her hair braided across her shoulder in a striking purple hue. Mari had changed into a pair of black pants and a dress shirt, something she'd always worn back when she was still living in the attic in the building nicknamed 'The Barracks' next door. 

"Takahashi, I'm over here." 

"Bar. Should I be surprised?" 

"No." Mari made her way across the room, her hands in her pockets as she sat down next to Joven, facing forward, bracing herself against the bar. 

"Damien." 

"Mari. It's been a while. Wanna drink?" 

"Please." Damien poured her a scotch and soda, something she used to drink regularly. Mari sipped it slowly, rolling her neck around, mumbling under her breath about having slept on it weird. "Is the club open tonight?"

"We open in about a half hour," Joven responded. "Speaking of which." He craned his neck up towards the rafters where the sounds of work was being done. "Tanner?" There was the sound of some shuffling before a pair of feet appeared, followed by a short man with dark sandy hair and a mess of a beard. He wore a denim jacket and a backwards hat with a small logo on the front.

"What's up?" 

"How close are you to finishing up?"

"Almost done, just have to test it out and you're all set." 

"Wonderful." Joven sat up, arching forward. He patted his pockets, looking for his wallet. "Same payment as usual?" 

"Yep." Tanner disappeared back up the ladder as Joven counted out forty dollars, setting them on the table. 

"Make sure Tanner gets this." Joven nodded to Damien as he slide the cash forward on the bar counter. 

"Aye-aye boss." 

Joven stood, folding his wallet back together and sliding it into his pocket. Mari downed the rest of her drink, standing to join Joven as he surveyed the club.

"You've really made a name for this place," she breathed. "It was a shit-hole before, but look at it now, it’s a proper club." Mari turned to him. "So, what's the plan for tonight?"

"Mari, you just came back yesterday, don't you need more time to get your bearings?" 

"I've had time Joven. Hell, I've had two months." Joven let out a puff of air. "C'mon man. I bounce back. I'm not a kid anymore, I don't need you to pick me up when I scrape my knees." Joven's jaw tightened as he turned to face her.

"I know Takahashi, but you've been through a hell that no one should have to go through. I thought that you'd at least like to sleep a little more before getting into the thick of it." Mari didn't answer, letting the thought mull over in her head. Joven let out a sigh, knowing that compromise was a bad idea, but went through with it anyway. "We'll stay back, watch the sets tonight, just try to enjoy ourselves before we try to take the throne. It'll be like our last supper. But with a bunch of horny women in a bachelorette party all screaming when Shayne comes out on stage." 

That made Mari laugh.

"Should we find somewhere to sit?" Joven flicked his head up to the balcony, and the two ascended the stairs together, walking in tandem. He had shoved his hands into his pockets, trying not to seem awkward.

The last time he'd seen her like this, happy, alive, and human...it had been almost too long ago to remember. They'd been sitting here, barefoot on the edge of the balcony, before they'd gotten the railing installed. Mari had sat down on the edge, her feet dangling over the side, tangled, messy hair long forgone brushing, and paint smeared across her face. She had been happy. At least, he'd thought she'd been happy.

Then things had started going down hill. The Men got out of prison. The ones that had hurt her so long ago, a chapter on her life that Joven had thought he'd watched her close, opened old wounds, revealing scars even older than the ones he'd known about. 

Mari fell back into old habits. She kept a gun under her pillow and a knife on her leg. She stopped eating, her face growing gaunt and hollow, eyes sinking slowly into her face. Mari started disappearing at all hours of the night, returning with scars on her arms and blood on her shirt.

Then she'd almost hurt someone she was close to, and that killed her. She packed her things in the middle of the night, disappearing before Joven even had a chance to try and change her mind.

But Mari was back now, and that was all that mattered. 

They found a table near the far right corner, the one that Joven remembered that they'd used when first coming up with plans for the future. He'd gotten  bored once while waiting for her to get back from a job, and as they sat, he felt under the table for the thing he'd carved into the bottom of the table. Joven ran his fingers over it as Mari slid into the booth across from him. He couldn't remember exactly what he'd carved. Maybe the initials of his ex-girlfriend, or possibly a tattoo idea he wanted to scratch out on paper first. Whatever it was, he couldn't help but run his thumb over it, trying to discern all of the intricate lines and loops.

From down below, he could hear the dancers coming in from running through their sets next door. They'd practice on stage for a bit to get warmed up before disappearing into the back until their cues. 

"Who's on tonight?" Mari asked, craning her neck to see who was standing down below. 

"The normal line up, Shayne, Courtney, Noah, Keith and Olivia." 

"What about Wes?" She raised an eyebrow as she turned back to face him. 

"He started permanently working for me on the other side of the job. I've had him working as an enforcer, some muscle behind the operation, y'know." Joven nodded, he spoke quickly, trying not to draw attention to his blatant misdirect, but failing miserably. Mari raised an eyebrow, but didn't question him. Joven wasn't sure he was ready to tell Mari about that whole messy part of his life yet. She'd just come back, and he didn't want to do anything to scare her off on accident. "He and Damien make a pretty good team when they're not arguing about strategy." 

"And how's our other favorite rowdy child?" Mari let loose a little smile, the comment making Joven laugh.

"Boze?" He scratched the back of his head. "She's doing alright. Boze likes being in charge of the finances and stuff." Joven flicked his eyes towards the table, where he'd put his hands, picking away at a loose hangnail. "She was just a little shaken up when it all went down. We all were." 

"Joven-"

"And you shouldn't have to apologize for what happened that night either." He looked back up at her, her face silhouetted in purple light of the club. "That wasn't you, you're not that person anymore." Mari rubbed the inside of her arm with her thumb, nodding. "Because it's over, right? It's all over?" The light changed, a pale green appearing with the purple. Joven turned slightly to see Tanner descended the ladder, packing up his things.

"It's over." Mari nodded. "I...I made sure of that. They, um, they, uh, they didn't get very far." The two sat in silence for a second, Joven watched as Tanner went down to the bar, Damien sliding his payment over. 

"Yeah." Joven blinked, returning to face Mari. He shook his head. "But enough of that, let's just enjoy tonight." 

"Mmhm." Mari seemed distracted, her eyes unfocused. She blinked, slowly at first, before coming to focus back in on his head. 

"Everything alright?"

"I think so, my head's just a little fuzzy." 

"Maybe that drink was too strong, you've always been kind of a lightweight." Joven grinned, and Mari returned a smile, but it wasn't genuine. "Yeah, I think we're just going to keep you drinking water tonight." 

"That sounds good." 

"And you know what'll be even better?" Mari raised an eyebrow, looking down at the dancers below. "A night of watching people make fools of themselves while we laugh from above." 

"Jovert." 

"What?" He grinned. "We used to do it all the time." Joven pushed out his lower lip. "Pwease help me make fun of some drunk overly macho-men?" 

"As long as you promise never to say 'pwease' again." 

"I can't promise you anything." Joven felt the air around them change. They were slipping into old form, slowly dipping back into their friendship that had been left in the dark for so long. Joven had known since she left that she wouldn't be able to get back on her feet unless she asked for help. It's how she was. Mari needed her family, her support, to thrive.

He'd always thought that she needed him to survive, to pull herself off of the ledge she'd been dangling off of. It took him too long to understand that she didn't just need him, but that he needed her as well. 

And now that she was back, Joven found that he'd needed his best friend back more than he realized. 

The laid back way she spoke put him at ease. Mari was one of those people you find yourself telling your life story without realizing it. He'd always assumed that he came along and adopted her into his life, but it was really she who adopted him. 

He'd lost her once, and Joven wasn't going to chance that happening again. He would do anything to keep her safe. 

Chapter Text

"Dames? Damien? Dames. Earth to Damien." Damien blinked, looking over to see a familiar pair of blue eyes staring back at him. The face of Shayne Topp came into view. "Are you alright man? You've been staring off into nowheresville polishing the same glass for like three minutes straight." 

"Hm?" He squinted, blinking as he set the glass down in front of him on the counter. "Oh, yeah didn't get much sleep last night." 

"Up with some chick?" Shayne's face contorted up into a devilish grin as wiggling his eyebrows at Damien. Damien snapped the towel he'd been using to clean the glass at Shayne, who leaned back, barely avoiding the towel and laughing loudly in response. His face flushed red, and even though he knew Shayne couldn't see him in the darkened light of the club, Damien changed the subject quickly.

"You working tonight?"

"No, I'm wearing this firefighter outfit for fun." Shayne laughed at his own joke, shifting how he sat on the barstool when Damien didn't respond. "God, I've got three sets to do tonight, and I don't know half of my routine for two of them." 

"I thought you'd gone with Courtney to classes on that stuff this weekend."

"Nah, she had to bail last minute, I ended up just re-playing some games I'd forgotten about in my cabinet and ate food." There was a soft silence between them. Damien knew he should say something, but instead supplemented it with more filler, something to keep the conversation going before it inevitably lulled. 

"You want a Salt and Rye?" 

"Well I'm not gonna pass one up." Damien nodded, pouring Shayne the drink. He set it down in front of the man, leaning against the bar as Shayne knocked it back, looking away as Shayne shook his head in disgust. "Oof, that taste always bites me in the ass."

Damien's gaze had moved up to the balcony, catching Mari's eye for just a second. They both looked away, Mari looking back at Joven, who had swung his arm over the banister, and Damien turning to look at Shayne. Shayne gave him a soft smile, and Damien pretended not to notice. 

Things had been tense between them for a while, and Damien hadn't wanted to face the truth of it all. Shayne couldn't know about him working for Joven, well, the truth about what he did for Joven.

Ever since they had met, Damien had only told Shayne the surface level of his past. Shayne knew that Damien's dad hadn't been a good guy. He knew that the scars on Damien's body weren't accidental, and that the hatred in his eyes wasn't born in a home with kindness.

He'd been reminiscing on the past more than usual, a fact he about himself he found funny. His dad had always scolded him about the dangers of nostalgia, how a man could end up dead if he kept looking back instead of keeping his eyes on the road.

Damien felt that he did it out of spite, rather than anything else, but in this instance, it was different. This was for comfort. They'd been so close, but now, there was a distance that hadn't been there before. He and Shayne been there for each other in everything, the ups, the down, the rock bottoms. And they'd been there to lift each other up. 

In fact, It'd been Shayne that had originally gotten him the job at the club in the first place. 

Damien didn't mind being a bartender at a strip club. It was better than what he'd been doing before, and he'd almost come to like standing behind the bar, serving drinks, and watching the shows. Doing the whole shebang.

Most people would normally think that it was weird that he liked working there, they'd think he had some weird kink or something, asking, 'why don't you work at a normal bar? One where there isn't a constant stream of people half-naked in your general vicinity? ' Damien would shrug, and tell them what they wanted to hear, that he hated it, that he was looking for a new job, that it was the only place that was hiring. 

In reality, it was the people that kept him there, not the scandal and sex of it all. Under the low lights, people were themselves, they could be the slobbering dogs that they were, eating up every tease of flesh and skin. Damien liked watching how people worked, the skin they shed at the door and the true creatures they were underneath. He'd seen businessmen, with stuffy suits and ties and expressions that reminded him of the hungry ache in the eyes of a wolf, turned into puppies with a single touch. Damien had watched as the local gang members, guns stuffed down their pants, eyes rimmed with unearned confidence, melt into children under Courtney's gaze. 

Sure, he hadn't planned on working here, but that didn't mean that he hated it. Joven was an alright boss, a nice guy that cared about the people around him, though Damien could recognize that it was all a facade. He came off as a good man, but underneath, there was a hunger for power. A thirst for recognition so strong that Damien knew that it would be the thing that would topple him in the end. 

Damien had started working for Joven twice. Once for his cover job, and then again for his real one. Granted, both jobs were real, but one was a little more real than the other. He'd been closing up with Joven late one night when someone had come into the club with a loaded gun. Damien had been lucky that the intruder hadn't seen him when the man had pointed the gun at Joven's head. 

It only took a few swift kicks and the attacker was down.

Damien had been glad that Joven wasn't just some random club owner, and that he understood that Damien had to teach the man a lesson. He had to take off a few fingers, it was only good form. And it was the one lesson that had stuck with Damien since childhood. 

He'd grown up with a gang leader for a father and a string of his father's unfaithful girlfriends and Sesame Street for a mother. Damien had learned the hard way to fend for himself, dear old dad was keen on throwing him to the sharks. 

"I don't wantcha ever gettin soft," his father had growled. "You're gonna prove yourself the right way, the way a man should." 

Damien had proved himself to his father more times than he could count, but the man had never been satisfied. It was because of this that Damien had made certain that no one ever questioned the legitimacy of his position as his father's right hand man. The things he had done to make it that way - the blood on his hands - it was something that was better not to think about. 

But his old man was dead, and the only regret Damien had ever had was that it wasn't him that had fired the bullet that shattered his father's final breath. 

When his father's gang had been dissolved by the cops, Damien had gotten off on a technicality. He'd been lucky, he was just under 18, and hadn't been caught in any photos from the numerous stakeouts held by the detectives on the case. Most of his old contacts, people he'd considered more uneasy allies that friends, had been caught and sentenced, their time in prison stretching long past their life span. He'd been alone, but he'd also been free. In those first few days after it had all gone down, Damien had tried to get clean, wash his hands of all the damage he'd caused.

He did the thing that anyone starting over would do, and picked the dumb dream that he'd always kept in the back of his mind, and took the shot at it. Damien tried his hand at acting. He wasn't bad at it, spend years in a gang and you learn to lie your way out of things, but it was always the same:'you're not what we're looking for' or 'you're just not old enough for this role', and sometimes, those who had known his father, 'we just can't have you around, reputation, y'know?'

So Damien was left in a shitty apartment that he couldn't afford, living off of cheap ramen and the last bit of money he'd gotten from his lawyer, trying desperately to find something, anything, that could help him support himself.

Then, finally, he'd managed to land a small role in a commercial, staving off his vampire of a landlord for another month. 

It was only two lines, and now Damien couldn't even remember what they'd been, but they'd changed his life. He had been standing alone on set, eating something from the craft services table, maybe a bagel or a muffin, something familiar to ease his stomach. The crew was setting up, barking orders at one another, and some of the extras were milling around, chatting like good friends. 

He'd been alone, his anxiety acting up as he looked around for something to do, to seem busy and not out of place in the grinding gears of the set. Then, a man had appeared from the crowd like magic. He had soft sand-colored hair, and bright blue eyes that looked almost technicolor in the early morning sunlight. He gave Damien a nod, pouring himself coffee in the biggest styrofoam cup they had, mixing in sugar and milk absentmindedly as he looked over the food provided. 

"Those any good?" Damien realized that the man was talking to him.

"Hmm?" He took a second to register the question, looking down at his breakfast. "Oh, uh, this? Yeah it's actually pretty good."

"Blueberry?" 

"Yeah, it's the best kind." 

"True dat." What kind of idiot says true dat?  Damien couldn't help but suppress a laugh, hoping the man didn't hear him. "Sorry, that was lame. I'm just a little nervous." 

"First gig?"

"No, but my first one in a while." The man scratched the outside of his arm. "I've been between jobs as of late, and this was a lucky grab. You?" 

"Similar situation." 

"I guess that's just the curse of being an actor, huh?" He held out his hand to Damien. "I'm Shayne, Shayne Topp." Damien rearranged his things, shaking the man's free hand.

"Damien Haas." 

Even though the shoot was only a week long, he'd managed to become Shayne's friend by the end of it.

Life was rocky, but manageable. He was living paycheck to paycheck, putting in as many hours as possible in at the shitty pizza place he'd started working at, his free time spent auditioning and looking for parts. He tried his best to keep his mind off of it, the whole impending doom that was the inevitable existential crisis that would send him down a rabbit hole of doubt. 

Then there was the other thought. The though of his past, the one he knew would eventually catch up to him and bite him in the ass in the end, weighing on him. He knew Shayne well enough by then to be able to call him at the wee hours in the morning. Shayne was almost always up, doing one thing or another, maybe coming home from work, or up late playing video games. 

"What's up man?" Shayne always answered like this, no matter what time it was. 

"Are you busy?" 

"Not really, just got home from work." 

"They really keep you out that late?"

"Hey, what can I say, the life of a stripper isn't all glory." 

Shayne had been pretty up front about what he did for a living. He wasn't ashamed of it, but instead carried a sort of pride. Shayne saw his job as an art form, one that he could master, and that was enough motivation to let him see past the other parts of it. He was creating art, putting on an elaborate show that could spellbind an audience, if that was even the right term. 

"I hate my job." Damien said, and air of finality to his voice. "I hate living a life like this. And I hate to say it, but I'm getting sick of pizza."

"No!"

"Yeah." Damien scratched his head. "Maybe I'm just not cut out to be an actor...I should just go get some dumb corporate job, marry some blond bimbo from Starling Heights, have some rich annoying brats that squander my money."

"Ugh, I hate you just for saying that." He could hear Shayne's voice become muffled as he moved away from the phone across the line. "You've got more of that fresh faced determination than half the hot shots who I've worked with." Shayne's voice grew muffled on the other side of the phone. Damien knew that he was looking for something. "Most of the time, when people are just about to make it big, they've hit rock bottom, and then bam something comes up and it's into stardom baby!" 

"I've been sitting at rock bottom for so long I can't even fathom getting back up to the top anymore." Damien rubbed his eyes, lying down on the couch, turning the phone on speaker as he curled up next to it. Shayne's contact photo, one that Damien had taken when they'd gone out clubbing a few weeks ago, glowed behind the greyed out interface of the phone app. "I mean, what do I do? I can't get a job anywhere without a college degree, and I can't exactly put 'former mob associate and gang leader' on my resume."

"No dude you totally should, to just like, see what kind of reaction you'd get back." Damien laughed wholeheartedly, his chest squeezing around the loneliness, making it disappear for just a second. 

"Yeah, I'm sure that'd go over well." Damien contorted his voice, re-enacting a character he'd used to do for Shayne back on set during the long stretches of nothing. "Hi there, I'm Bapps Makenzie and I'd like your job please. Yes, I want your job. References? No, sorry they're all dead. Hadda get rid of the evidence!" Damien let out a maniacal cackle that made Shayne bellow with laugher in return. 

He felt his body begin to ease, Shayne's breathing steady and low on the other end of the phone helping to calm him down. "I am getting sick of the pizza place though dude." 

"Really, you don't like cardboard pizza that's 90% grease?"

"I'm serious man," Damien replied with a laugh. "I need to find a new place to work, my manager's driving me crazy. I swear to god, if he asks me to work late without pay again I'm going to rip out his hair plugs and feed them to him." Shayne laughed, and Damien could hear him change the phone from one ear to another. 

"Actually, there's a job opening at the Jackrabbit, if you want to come work with me."

"No offense Shayne, but I don't think I'm really cut out for the whole stripper lifestyle." 

"No, no, no, not stripping. There's a bartending job that just opened up. The old guy quit a few days ago, and Mr. Ovenshire's been looking for a replacement." He shifted the phone into the crook of his shoulder as he sat up from where he was lying on the couch. "You know how to bartend, right, your dad taught you?"

Damien scoffed, passing it off as clearing his throat. "Yeah, I know the basics, but I'm sure I could pass it off as professional." 

"Damien if you came to work here, oh my god, all the crazy shit we could do, it'd be amazing." 

"Yeah..." Damien's heart began to pound. Were things really working out? This never happened, especially not to him

"Are you interested? I can call my boss right now and get you an interview for tomorrow." 

"Yes. Yes! More than yes, definitely, one hundred percent." 

"Dames this is going to be amazing." 

Back then, Damien would've given anything to just stand next to Shayne like he was now. He would've dreamed about working here, living his life, Shayne by his side. Now the reality was different than he'd expected. Somehow the closeness had pushed them farther apart, and they were both grappling at strings to pull each other back together, but both were mis-stepping and their friendship was slipping through their fingers. 

"Everyone! Attention!" From the corridor underneath the stairs, Boze appeared holding a clipboard. "We're opening in five minutes, I want everyone in place now." Shayne, knowing better than to cross Boze, was off the barstool and backstage before Damien could blink. 

Damien began to stack and un-stack the glasses on the counter as Boze checked things off on her clipboard. The club began to hum to life as the lights dimmed. Damien prepared himself, watching as the curtain stirred, trying not to imagine everyone piling in backstage, preparing themselves with all manner of primping and preening. 

As Boze moved like a bee around the club, Damien tried to keep his mind off of everything. 

Things were shifting again. He could feel it in the air, in Joven's eyes, in Shayne's voice, in the way Boze moved her hands. So much had changed after Mari had gone crazy. Damien only felt safe saying that to himself. After she'd nearly killed Boze, Joven had made an unspoken rule that it was never to be talked about again. So far everyone had kept that rule unbroken. 

But Mari was back, and for once, Damien didn't know what that meant for the club, and for the whole operation entirely. He had made mistakes in the past, ones that had spurred from not trusting his gut. Now he didn't know what to think. So much had changed all too quickly, and Damien would give anything to go back to how it had been before, back when there weren't glances behind your back and knives at your throat. When everything had felt like family. 

More than anything, he wanted to go back to that night. The night he'd been too drunk, and stumbled to the only arms he wanted to hold him. The night he'd told his best friend he loved him. The morning that followed, waking up on the couch, lying to Shayne and himself about why he was there. Covering up lies with more lies, because hey, it was what he knew how to do best. 

It's too late now. Damien thought to himself. Things have changed, and there's nothing we can do about it. Things are changing, and there's nothing we can do about it

He sucked in a breath as the lights around him dimmed to a pale purple-pink hue. Damien braced himself against the bar without realizing it, squeezing his eyes shut until stars danced in front of his eyelids. The door to the club swung open, and the night began. 

 

Chapter Text

It wasn't even midnight yet and Boze was already feeling stabby. 

Why Joven had decided to put her on floor duty tonight was a mystery to her. She doubled as his assistant and his accountant, and normally the two would sequester themselves in the building next door, working through plots and plans, but the wrench in the gears of that nightly escapade was the re-emergence of Mari Takahashi. 

It was no secret that Boze didn't like Mari. In Boze's eyes, Mari was still a scared kid. She was a loose cannon, and unpredictable element in a plan that needed every object in play to work like it was supposed to. As long as she'd known Mari, she still had yet to impress Boze in anyway. Sure, she was ruthless and cunning, with some charismatic charm and steel wit mixed in, but that only got you so far. 

When Mari had gone crazy, she'd come after Boze. It hadn't been her fault, and Boze knew that Mari hadn't meant to hurt her, but she still couldn't let it go. Mari was a killer, she come home with blood on her hands more times than Boze could count. Of course, Boze didn't blame her for that, she herself done plenty of things that would be considered illegal. It was the fact that Mari had turned on one of her own that irked Boze the most. The fact that she could hold a knife to the throat of a friend with pure calm in her eyes.

But that matter was for another night, as Boze was far too busy worrying about the here and now than to deal with her gripes about the purple haired mercenary. 

The current thought on her mind was how best to keep the show running without another horny drunk guy thinking she was part of the entertainment. Boze tried her best to stand out as the business side of the operation, black jeans, and non-descript grey Jackrabbit t-shirt with white lettering. The last thing she wanted was to mess up and end up with her butterfly knife at the throat of some frat boy who'd gotten the wrong impression.

Boze liked staying behind the scenes for a reason.

Today she was in the back, sitting behind a table of businessmen as they watched Olivia spin around the pole. Boze was trying to work, she was trying, but tonight she was more distracted than ever. Her brain was a foggy mess from forgetting to sleep again last night, and her eyes threatened to snap shut every few seconds. She'd tried to talk with Damien, someone she relied on more than anyone else to listen to her worries, but he wasn't in the right mind state to do that tonight. He was more distant than normal, quiet and fuzzy-eyed. She knew he was busy with whatever he was worrying about, and had wanted to move on to her next best bet to talk to. Wes.

Wes wasn't the best at conversation, but he was a good listener. He'd nodded along at her worries while stacking inventory in the back, taking breaks every so often to sit in the chair across from where she was perched on an empty crate. Wes had been working there longer than she had, and hadn't really said much about himself in the time she'd known him. She knew that he used to work on the Jackrabbit side of the business before he was moved over to the part she specialized in. Boze still wasn't sure exactly what he'd been apart of, but her best guess was that he'd been the Jackrabbit's Shayne before Shayne had even started working there. 

But today, Wes was conveniently missing from the building, so Boze was alone. 

She charted out something on a map spread out before her, working in pencil. Frustrated, Boze dug the pencil in so hard on the paper that the tip snapped off, and she swore quietly to herself as she flipped it around, picking at the point with what was left of her nails. Her nerves translated in several ways, from picking at her eyebrows and eyelashes to biting her nails, the latter being the worst offender of the three. Boze hated writing in pen, too much permanence in pen, and as a result, carried one to many pencils around with her. She dug around in the briefcase next to her, pulling out another, perfectly sharp, and staking it right into what she'd been working on.

Damn, Joven has a lot of guts to try and go through with this. She jotted something down in the notebook to her right, her personal notebook, the one whose pages you slit open and hid things inside. He'd had her working on a plan for their next raid, but he'd really bitten off more than he could chew. Not only did he want to try and intercept the merchandise from an illegal arms deal, but he wanted her to find a place to store it, and a way to blackmail the gang it was going to originally into submission. She'd done something like this before, but never at this scale. Damn again. She'd have to contact an old friend, but would he even help her?

"Hey Boats," a voice brought her back to reality. She looked up, wondering who in the hell would call her by that nickname.

Oh.

Courtney Miller stood before her in her half-naked glory. She was wrapped up in a complex ensemble of leather and brass buckles, her hair, short blond waves, falling in perfect tandem over her shoulders. Boze hadn't remembered Courtney wearing that outfit, but she definitely wasn't opposed to it. 

"Courtney, what can I do for you?" 

"Just stopping by to say hey, making sure that you're doing okay." Courtney's eyes softened, and Boze wanted to melt underneath the weight of them. "I saw her when I came in today." Boze caught herself reaching for her shoulder, stopping midway and scratching her nose. Her attempts to hide the action went poorly, and if Courtney noticed, she said nothing.

"I'll be fine," Boze replied. "It was all a misunderstanding anyway."

It hadn't been, but Courtney didn't need to know that. 

Courtney nodded along with her, shifting her feet as she turned towards the bar, where Damien was serving drinks to a giggling bachelorette party. She looked around, her eyes quick to scan every part of the club.

"Something up?" Boze raised an eyebrow.

"Kinda." Courtney slid into the booth across from Boze. "Joven was busy with Mari, so I thought that you were probably the next best person to talk to. I didn't want to make this look weird either, so I'm going to pretend that we're just talking, and um, I don't know-" Courtney kept rambling, running a free hand through her hair. Boze reached across the table, squeezing Courtney's hand.

"Hey." Courtney looked up at her as Boze pulled her hand away, her eyes were rimmed with fear. "What's going on?" Boze's eyebrows bundled together in concern.

"These guys came in a few minutes ago. Gang type. I don't think they're here for dinner and a show."

"Shit," Boze began gathering up her things. She folded them up, shoving them all into the briefcase at her side. Courtney watched her with worry, slowly standing and helping Boze with the papers. Boze snapped the breifcase shut, handing it to Courtney. "Bring this to Joven's office. There's a safe behind the painting that's hanging on the wall behind his desk, put this in there. Draw no attention to yourself, whatsoever, okay?" 

"Okay?" Courtney looked scared, and Boze felt terrible for not telling her what she was doing or what kind of danger she might be in.

"Where were they?"

"Near the front, in front of the stairwell up to the VIP balcony." Courtney gave Boze a nod and put on a brave, cocky face before spinning around and strutting across the floor towards the entrance to the office. Boze brushed off her shirt, more for confidence than cleanliness, and began walking towards the stairwell. She cast a bored look in the direction that Courtney had given her to see four men sitting in the front. The two on the sides were moderately well dressed in similar outfits, cheap suits and gold chains, their collars rumpled and their guns not so cleverly hidden on their belts. Bodyguards, and the non-disposable kind by the looks of it. 

ShitIt's someone important. Boze drew closer to them, trying to look like she was watching the show rather than scoping out the table. She recognized the man in the middle the second she saw the side of his face, the scar arching its way across his face from the top of his forehead, across his eye and around to his ear made it clear who he was. Cvestikov. From behind him, the curve of a head caught her attention. She had found it odd that there were four men instead of just the boss and his bodyguards, and now she knew exactly what Joven had sent Wes to do.

Because he was currently sitting next to the highest ranking member of the Bratstvo Medvedya, a gun pressed into his back.

Wes managed to turn as she passed by, and she caught his eye, which was half swollen shut, a bright purple bruise that was smudged across his eye socket, glowing black under the lights. He had a cut on his upper lip, drops of dried blood back from when the wound was still fresh now stained his shirt. Boze could only hope that her look conveyed that help was on the way, because he turned back to the stage without another motion. 

Her heart was pounding in her chest as she tried to keep herself from running. A scream from the bachelorette party sent ice cascading down her back as she turned to see Shayne parade out on stage. Boze closed her eyes for a second, stopping herself to stand in front of the stairwell, turning towards the stage, crossing her arms across her chest. She acted like she was judging his performance, trying to look like she was doing anything that she could use as a deterrent from the eyes she knew were now watching her from the table across the room. 

Boze stood stock still for a good five minutes, her eyes glazed over as she watched the stage. She chanced a glance as Courtney passed in front of her, the other woman giving her a nod that the briefcase was securely hidden, and Boze watched as she walked down the aisle towards the stage. Shit. The bodyguards were definitely watching her. 

She pulled her phone out of her back pocket, pretending like she was just checking her messages or the time before shoving it back into her jeans and walking up the stairs. The VIP balcony was empty except for the booth filled by Mari and Joven. It wasn't a Friday or anywhere near late enough, so the club was only maybe a quarter full. She caught Mari's eye as she strode over to the table. Mari didn't look away, she was too prideful to not look Boze in the eye, but Boze knew that the confidence was all a show. She stopped in front of the table, rapping her knuckles on the wood to get Joven's attention.

"Boze?" 

"We've got company Joven." 

"What? Who?" 

"Cvestikov," Boze tapped nervously on the table over and over again with the front of her fingernails. Joven's eyes widened, his mouth opening to reply, but Boze cut him off quickly. "He's got Wes." 

"Shit." 

"What were you thinking?" Joven peered over the edge, Boze and Mari following suit. Cvestikov's bodyguards had stood, and the mob boss had moved the gun trained on Wes from between his shoulder blades up to the back of his neck. "I had everything under control, we didn't need a scout. Our entire reputation, our operation is in jeopardy because of this!" Joven ignored her comment, turning to Mari.

"You thinking we do Geneva? Mess em up a little first?"

"Really? We can do better than that." Mari spoke, her tone was too cocky for the intensity of the situation. "I'd say that we should try Tanqueray, and if everything goes to shit, we do Geneva." 

"Sounds good to me." Joven turned back to Boze, who was about to object, demanding that they explain to her the whole code-word situation. "Boze, tell Cvestikov that we'd love to do business with him after hours. Then rendezvous with Damien, tell him to meet me in the locker room just before close." 

"What about Wes?" Boze chanced a glance down, watching as the bodyguards took chance glances up in their direction. "We can't just leave him there for another hour and a half." 

"We'll have to if we want to get everyone out of this alive." Mari's eyes glowed like obsidion in the dim light.

"Fine," Boze let the word hiss off her tongue. She left the table, descending the stairs. Boze put on her bravest face, and strode over to the table. The bodyguards had sat down again, and Boze drew in a breath, letting her words drip from her lips like opalescent jewels. "Mr. Cvestikov?" 

The mob boss turned to face her, his lackies spinning halfway in their chairs, each pushing away the folds of their jackets to reveal pistols that gleamed under the light. "Hello there." His voice was tinged with a Russian accent, one thick enough to be discerned as such, but worn away in places from years of being surrounded by Americans. He placed a finger under the crook of his chin, cocking his head to the side just slightly. "You're a bit shorter than I expected, and a lot more feminine, but you're the leader of this operation I expect?" 

"I simply speak on the authority-"

"Ah, is your boss too much of a coward to face me himself?"

"Mr. Overshire prefers to do business after hours, and he'd love to speak with you then." 

"Hmm." The man scratched his neck, nodding to her. "Fair. We wouldn't want a shoot-out with civilians around." He scanned the room, taking in the others around. "So, after you close, where does your party wish to meet to negotiate?" 

"Here, preferably." He smiled like he'd caught her in a trap, but Boze chose her words carefully. "We wouldn't want the police to catch on to anything would we? And the best place to, chat, would be someplace like this, wouldn't it?" 

"You're a smart one." He drew a finger from his chin, stroking Wes's head with the back of his hand. "But I hope to expect no funny business on your end, unless you want your pretty little spy here to end up in a shallow grave."

"Of course not," Boze nodded. "We have a deal?"

"For now." She took one last look as Wes before heading in the direction of the bar. Boze let the bodyguards watch her as she took a seat at the counter. 

"Hey Boze, whatcha doing over here?" Damien raised an eyebrow. "I thought that Joven put you on point tonight." 

"Plans have changed Damien." She looked up at him, and he seemed to instantly read her mind.

"Rum and coke?" Boze nodded as she rubbed the bridge of her nose. Damien pulled the rum off of the shelf, pouring it into a glass in front of her. "Is there something going down tonight?"

"Yeah, Joven made a shitty call, and now all of us are gonna have to clean up his mess." Damien furrowed his eyebrows and Boze motioned with her head towards the table up from "First table, left side of the stage." He peered around her, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, and she watched as he read the situation.

"Oh no." Damien slid the drink towards Boze. "Please, please, please tell me that's not Cvestikov." 

"It is."

"And that's Wes sitting next to him? And he's got a gun to his back, doesn't he?"

"Yup."

"So we're pretty much screwed?"

"Yep." Boze swallowed half of her drink, choking it down no matter how badly it burned. "Joven told me to tell you to meet him in the locker room just before close."

"Damn, we're gonna have to fill out so much paperwork after this." 

"That's what you're fixating on?" She rolled her eyes, drinking the rest before standing up from the booth. "Damnit!" Boze pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, slowly pushing them back across her face and towards her ears. "I was hoping for an easy operation, but as per usual, I'm stuck with this shit."

"What are you gonna do?"

"Gear up and hope to god that Joven doesn't fuck this one up." 

Boze slid her glass towards Damien, who caught it before it fell off the table. With fire burning behind her eyes, Boze stalked towards the doors that lead to the hallway between buildings. She slammed the doors open with the palms of her hands, letting her anger consume her as the adrenaline began pounding in her veins. 

 

Chapter Text

Wes had made a mistake. Well, he'd made several mistakes, but this was by far the worst one so far. 

His night had started with Joven approaching him, asking him for help on a scouting mission. It was easy enough, he'd go to a security post near the warehouse they'd be infiltrating, record some footage, and get their bearings for the place. 

One second he'd been holed up inside the security booth in the empty parking lot, watching a security tape, and the next he was getting the shit kicked out of him by two Russian goons. Wes didn't even know how they'd found out that he wasn't the regular guard. Maybe they'd paid the guy off, and found it odd when he didn't show up for work, or maybe it was Wes's hair that had tipped them off. 

Wes remembered being dragged to a limo underneath a bridge that cut the parking lot down the middle. Through his good eye, he'd seen the infamous face of the mafioso only known as Cvestikov. His attackers had tossed his wallet to the man in the car. 

He could hear Joven's voice in his mind already, Idiot move Wesley

"Jackrabbit, huh?" Cvestikov laughed. "I had not seen your people as a threat. I guess I should be more careful next time." The door slammed shut in Wes's face, and he was dragged to the back of the car and tossed him thoughtlessly into the trunk. The ride was one of the most terrifying experiences Wes had ever gone through. It was dark in the back, and it smelled all to familiarly of dried blood. When he wasn't covered his head to keep it from banging against the roof or the ground, he was scrambling to try and pry the safety lock open, only to find that it had been snapped off. There was no escape.

Wes could barely breath, and gasped for breath as the back of the trunk popped open and the bodyguards hoisted him out, each wrapping their arms under his shoulders as they followed their boss through the velvet-colored front entrance to the Jackrabbit. They'd set him down in a chair near the front, and Wes had tensed as he felt the prod of a pistol jammed between his shoulder blades. Wes knew that if he moved a muscle for help, he'd be done for. Cvestikov was known for handing the dirty work himself, and he wasn't the kind of boss that was turned off by a little blood. 

The bodyguards sat back in the chairs next to him, both giddily watching as one of the girls swung around the pole. Wes's brain was too fried to register who it was, his head pounding like a bass drum. He couldn't even tell how long he'd been sitting there, the time bleeding together as he waited for something, anything, around him to happen. 

Wes happened to hear someone walked behind him, and turned his head ever so slightly to catch Boze's eye in the last second. Her jaw was rigid and sharp, but her eyes were scared. She knew exactly what was happening. Of course she did, she was the smartest person in the building, she always knew what was going on. 

His kidnappers had seemed to notice, and the men on either side of him were now watching Boze out of the corners of their eyes. At one point, they stood and Wes felt the gun trail up his back to his neck. A show of force. They knew that Joven and the others were watching them now. The men sat back down, and less than a minute later, a voice interrupted the pounding in his head. 

Boze was sweet talking a Russian mobster, and actually doing pretty well. Wes felt Cvestikov brush the back of his hand against his hair, and it took all of his strength not to lurch away. The bodyguards and the mafioso spun back around in their chairs, clearly quite full of themselves. 

"This will be fun boys," Cvesitkov cackled, just loud enough to be heard over the music. "I was wanting to take this territory after the King fell, and I'd say that this is a pretty good closeness to getting that throne, eh?" 

"So we kill them all?" The taller bodyguard poised. "Every one of this crew?"

"No," Cvestikov looked over Wes. "We will keep this one, he will be made an example to anyone dares to cross us." Wes swallowed down the lump in his throat, his heart thrumming in his ears. C'mon Joven, you better have a plan

Wes knew that Cvestikov and his bodyguards were outnumbered, it would be 4 to 3, 5 if he managed to escape somehow without getting his brains blown out. Then again, Cvestikov was known for his deadly force and skill, half of them might be dead before a bullet on their side was even fired. 

The lights began to rise, and Wes felt his chest constrict around itself. Cvestikov and the bodyguards stood, and the mafioso placed a hand on Wes's shoulder, wrenching him to his feet. He twisted Wes's arm behind his back, holding the gun against the base of his spine. Wes could see the whole club now, which was beginning to drain of people. The patrons, drunk and thoroughly entertained, stumbled past him as Cvestikov pushed him forward, walking him to the middle of the Jackrabbit's floor in front of the stairwell. The bar was empty, as was the rest of the club, Damien and Boze, who he'd seen sitting at the bar just minutes ago were nowhere to be seen. 

Joven appeared at the top of the stairs, one hand in his pocket and the other around a glass of whiskey. His hair was slicked to the side, and from the distance, he looked clean shaven. Joven had put on a suit, his nice black one with the red inlay on the inside. 

"Are you the Mr. Overshire I've heard about?" 

"Unfortunately," Joven responded. He began to descend the stairs, and Cvestikov's men watched him with a murderous glee. Joven drank the rest of his whiskey, setting the glass on one of the standing tables near the back. "Do you have a grievance about something?"

"Yes, I found one of your little spies snooping around my warehouses. I thought it only fitting to return him to you, and to figure out what this whole spying business is about anyway." 

"I'd been wondering where Wesley had run off to. Next time I'll be sure to put him on a leash," Joven let out a small chuckle that Cvestikov didn't return. "If that's all you're here for, you can just, hand him over, and we'll be all square."

"No, I don't believe we will." Cvestikov handed the gun pointing at Wes's back to one of his guards, who forced his arm to his back more painfully than before. The man strode towards Joven so that they stood just feet apart. "I was used to having other organizations like my own send these scouts to my territory the night before a transaction." Cvestikov's voice became shatteringly cold. "But I have long since purged my ranks of loose ends. So how in the world did you, a man whose name I had never cared to know until tonight, know about the transaction?" 

"Just as anyone in our line of work would, I have my sources." 

"Really," Cvestikov's voice was unsettlingly monotone. "You must have an in to my organization somewhere." Joven shrugged, turning from Cvestikov, who shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants, his shoulders raising. "I'll cut you a deal, you seem the type, if you tell me who in my organization is unloyal to me, I'll let him live."

"I never claimed to know anyone that was involved with you." Joven replied as he turned back towards Cvesitkov. "What makes you think I would tell you my secrets to where I get my information?" 

"I'd advise you to tell me, unless you'd like to place that cocky face of yours at the end of my gun." 

"There's nothing to say, I know nothing." Wes could tell Joven was playing with the mafioso, which was the worst idea Joven had ever had. Joven's eyes flicked back to him, and Wes tried to give him his best, 'what the hell man?', look. 

"Fine. You've your choice." Cvesitkov turned towards the bodyguards. "Kill him." The guards knocked Wes to his knees, pointing the gun at his head.

"Wait, wait, wait." Joven took a few steps forward, shaking his hands.

"Have something to say now?" 

"Yeah." Joven turned slightly. He whipped out his pistol from his back pocket, firing it three times towards the bodyguards. He hit the guard that was pointing the gun at Wes in the forehead, and got the other in the shoulder, the third bullet missing entirely, and slotting into the stage with a pop. 

Cvestikov dropped the ground, crawling away from Joven towards a table. Joven doved behind a table, knocking it over. 

Wes scooted backwards, keeping his head down, and pressing himself against the stage. He could see Cvestikov from his peripheral, who was now grabbing for the dead bodyguard's gun. Someone grabbed his leg, and Wes turned to see the second bodyguard, gun held awkwardly in his free hand, blood matting up his suit where the bullet had torn into his skin. There was a shot from above, and Wes squinted to see the barrel of a rifle being drawn back through the railing. 

Damien. 

Wes kept moving along, his vision blurry as he tried to move towards a table that had been knocked over in the skirmish. Things had begun to blur together, and every sound echoed around his head like someone was rattling a can of coins next to it. His head injury must've been worse than he'd originally thought. 

Somebody grabbed the collar of the jumpsuit he was wearing, and they hoisted him to his feet. Cvestikov had a gun to Wes's chin as he pulled him against his body. 

"I'll shoot!" The mafioso sounded frantic, his every breath loud in Wes's ear. "I will shoot your man!" Joven peered out from over the top of the table, his hands raised, the gun held loosely between his fingers in surrender. Wes looked up into the balcony, but it was too dark to see if Damien was still there, or if he even had a clean shot. 

"Cvestikov, you're outnumbered, let him go." 

"You really think I didn't bring backup?" Wes could hear a grin in the man's voice. "That my whole organization isn't about to break down these doors to save me?"

"We know they're not coming." Joven's voice was calculated, like he'd practiced saying it before. "Because you've underestimated our abilities. One of my associates shut your 'panic button' the second we knew you were a threat."

"Underestimated?" The man spat. "You're a bug beneath my foot, I could squash your little upstart attempt of being me with the press of a button. I am an emperor, and you, you're nothing." Joven began to slowly cross the room towards Cvestikov. "Stop right where you are! Or I'll shoot!" He jammed the gun up into Wes's chin. 

"Before you do anything stupid, I think that we should come to an agreement. We don't want anymore blood on our hands than there already is."

"Why the hell do you think I would even consider making a deal with you? You were supposed to be dead by now." 

"Well, plans have clearly changed, and if you're smart, you'll make a deal with me." Joven set his gun down slowly on the table, moving his hands back up into the air. Cvestikov watched him, and Wes could feel the man's heart pounding on his back. 

"What do you want?" The mafioso spit it out quickly, like it burned his tongue. 

"Three fourths of your shipment from tomorrow, and an alliance, as long as the throne is open, our establishments will be allies."

"Is that really the game you're playing at?" Cvestikov moved just slightly, his arm loosening on Wes's neck. "You want to be King?" He scoffed, opening a small space between Wes and him. Wes knew Joven was getting somewhere, but he had an opening to escape. If there was someone else with a gun trained on Cvestikov, he'd be down, but they'd have an angry mafia to deal with. He moved back, and Wes lost his chance. "You're an idiot if you think you can obtain the throne, let alone even keep it." 

"Losioz did it."

"Losioz was paying off half the city, and he still ended up dead, his body is still missing, is that really what you want?" 

Wes knew Joven, and that was exactly what he wanted. Wes knew how much Joven craved that power, how much he wanted to flex his fingers and topple empires. If he died in a glorious shoot-out, his face plastered all over the news, his name spoken on the lips of every single person who'd ever thought about killing him, every person that had hated to love him, Joven would die happy. 

"Isn't that why we do all of this?" Joven's smile was deadly. "Do we have a deal?" 

"No, you're another dumb hollywood dreamer, and you will be dead this night is over. No one will remember your name." 

"No. No one will remember yours." Joven nodded.

Wes felt himself get shoved forward as Cvestikov's arms went limp around him. He stumbled forward, and Joven leapt forward to catch him before he hit the ground. Wes pulled himself up on Joven's arms, barely holding on as he stumbled around. Joven held him up, and Wes turned towards the stage, Joven's arms still underneath him as he struggled to stand. 

He watched as Mari threw Cvestikov to the ground like he weighed nothing. She pulled a gun out of her coat pocket, firing two rounds that popped like firecrackers into the mafioso's chest.

And then everything went dark.

< < ^ > >

 

Wes sat with his feet over the edge of the counter as Mari patched up the cut on his forehead. His head had stopped pounding after Mari had given him something that he hoped was Advil, and now he sat Joven's office, the silence since Cvestikov had stopped breathing still was ongoing. 

Joven and Damien had gone to the basement to get rid of any evidence, but they knew that if the police did hear that Cvestikov was dead, they wouldn't look any deeper into it than random gang violence, or a simple 'accident' gone wrong. Wes was glad that the police wouldn't be on their asses, because that was one thing, but angry members of the Bear Brotherhood, or the Bratstvo Medvedya were another. 

"Shit, they really got you good." Mari surveyed the damage, craning her head to look at him from a distance. Her eyes came back to focus on his, and she moved to copy his expression, which was stuck somewhere between exhaustion and general confusion. "Are you feeling any better?"

"My head's stopped hurting...but that's about it." Wes rubbed his eyes, his fingertips cold against his skin.

"What happened?" Wes looked away, his temples were starting to throb again.

"I don't even really know..." He looked back to her. "Everything was fine, it really was, and then they grabbed me out of nowhere, I didn't even see them coming. They must've recognized me somehow, but I don't know how." 

"Alright, just checking." Mari pulled a flashlight from the first air kit, reaching up to hold his eyelid open as she flashed it quickly. Wes blinked fervently after she let go, crossing his arms over his body and digging his fingers into his skin. "Just get some rest, and we'll monitor you for any severe damage." 

"Okay." Mari began packing up her things as Wes slid off of the counter. He felt almost too scared to move, as if there were something dangerous behind the doorway into the hallway. Mari began walking towards the hallway, but stopped to turn back towards Wes. "Everything alright Wes?" 

It took him a second too long to respond, but he managed to spit out and answer. "Yeah. Um, yeah I think so."

"Are you still living here or do you want me to call a cab or an Uber or something?" 

"I still live here." 

"Cool." Mari shifted the first aid box in her hand. "Well, I'm gonna head to bed, so, see you in the morning?"

"Yeah, sure, of course." 

Mari nodded back at him and exited through the doorway, nearly running into Joven as he rounded the corner. He gave her a nod, before looking up to see Wes standing in the middle of the room. Joven read his face quickly, closing the door behind him, and making sure that it locked. 

"Wes," Joven's voice was hoarse. "I'm so sorry, I never should've-"

"No, Joven, it's not your fault." 

"It is my fault, I never should've let you go there. I should've listened to Boze." Joven ran a nervous hand through his hair, his eyes looking everywhere around the room except for Wes. Wes said nothing, tightening his grip around his arms. Joven looked up at him, stopping what he was doing and letting his shoulders relax. "What am I even saying...Wes. Are you okay?" 

"Yeah, man, I'm fine." 

"Someone just tried to kill you. Multiple times." 

"Is that any different from every night?" Wes tried to crack a smile, but it hurt his heart too much. "Someone's always out to get us, right? Someone always wants us dead?"

"Wes you don't have to pretend with me, you know that." Joven moved towards Wes, but when he saw him tense, he walked around the desk, still within proximity, but now with a barrier between them. He pretended to sort through some files but Wes knew that Joven was faking it to get closer to him. "We're all family Wes, you don't have to hide things here."

"Everyone says that. And then they betray you." Joven looked away, letting out a puff of air. 

"Is that really how you feel?"

"I don't know Joven, am I supposed to feel a certain way about this?" Wes could feel the heat brimming in his eyes, his throat growing hot as he tried to keep himself from crying. There was a long silence. Joven opened and closed his mouth several times, about to say something but deciding against it.

"We used to be so close." Joven's eyes were dark behind his glasses. "We all did. What happened to all of us?"

"We stopped acting like kids and we grew the hell up." Wes felt an ache in the pit of his stomach, a hurt that roared louder than any of the cuts or bruises he'd gotten from the men. He drew in a breath before Joven had a chance to say something else. "It's late. Mari said I need sleep." 

"I'll be up for a few more hours," Joven grumbled. "I've got some loose ends to burn." 

Wes said nothing as he shuffled to the door, his hand hovering about the handle, feeling the tears beginning to fall down his face. "G'Night Joven." 

"Night Wes." 

He trudged up the stairs to his room, nodding to Boze as he passed by her room, where she was sitting on her bed, her laptop on her legs. Wes opened the door to his room with the spare key he'd borrowed from Joven's office.

Wes felt the door close behind him, and without even checking to see if it was locked, he melted into a sobbing mess on the ground. 

Chapter Text

It was the first time in a while that Mari hadn't cried herself to sleep. It was also the first time in a while that she'd actually slept in a bed, and not a ratty sleeping bag she'd stolen from some flea market on the outskirts of the city. 

There was something nostalgic about coming back into the room, even though she'd only been gone two months, it had felt like years had passed since she had last stepped foot in the attic.

When she and Joven had first bought the Jackrabbit, it had included the building she was standing in as extra rooms for all of the nasty deeds that couldn't be performed in the main body of the club. When they had been renovating, she and Joven decided to close that side off for their operations, offices and meeting spaces. It had come in handy more times than they'd expected. 

There were three floors to the building, not including the attic that Mari had claimed.

The bottom floor, or the basement, was accessed by a hidden stairwell behind a locked door to which only Joven had the key. This was where they kept all of their materials in case someone needed to be made 'disappeared'. By now, everyone in their little group of gangsters had been in the basement on clean up duty, most of them more than once. It was dark down there, full of cobwebs and reeking of mildew, mold and the harsh acidic stab of various chemicals and cleaning products. When they got the incinerator up and running, it got hot down there too, which would rise up to the higher levels of building, and make it nearly impossible for them to get any work done at all. The night previous had been one of those days, and Mari had slept suprisingly well in the warm environment.

The second floor, more commonly called main floor by those who frequented the building, housed Joven's office, the conference room, the panic room, as well as their makeshift kitchen and eating space for the dancers. The whole place was painted a space grey with glass and windows wherever possible. Joven liked the idea of transparency in a business that was the opposite of transparent. The walls were adorned with expensive looking art that in reality, had been found in a dumpster outside Boze's old apartment. 

The third floor was where most of Joven's 'inner circle' employees lived. The strippers all had their own apartments in other places in the city, but Joven's gang had all accidentally ended up living in the building. It had started as a sort of joke when it had just been Joven and Mari that the two of them spent so much time getting their club off the ground that they practically lived there. Joven spent many nights sleeping in his office, while Mari had climbed out through the window in the attic to smoke on the roof, and had ended up just sleeping up there on night when she was too tired, or too drunk, to walk all the way back down stairs. Joven had moved into the first room on the right on the third floor, while Mari had ended up dragging an old mattress up the rickety stairs to the attic, slowly accumulating things and storing them in the nooks and crannies of the walls. 

When Joven had first started hiring Wes for more than just his pole work, he'd started working out of the room across the from Joven's. Overtime, he'd ended up moving in. It was cheaper than owning an apartment, and all of them spent more time in the club than anywhere else.

Boze had joined a few months later, after Joven's previous accountant was sent to prison for extortion. She'd made a wonderful addition to the team, stubborn and extremely smart, and one of the only people besides Mari herself who was willing to question Joven's ideas. Boze had moved into the room next to Joven's after only two weeks of working with them.

Damien had come in most recently, and he was the person Mari knew the least. He was a bright guy, both in personality and intelligence, and had been a friend of Shayne's, who had highly recommended him for the job. Joven had been stressing out about getting a new bartender after the last one had quit, and Damien had been a godsend in more ways than one. He picked up skills easily, and was willing to follow orders to the letter. He was also the best damn marksman she'd ever met. 

Mari had walked down the stairs and into the kitchen to find Wes and Damien talking to one another loudly. She didn't know what they were discussing, but they both seemed distracted, as if their minds were elsewhere while pretending to be completely enthralled with what the other was saying. It almost made her laugh, but she didn't, she wasn't in the mood to explain herself to them that early in the morning. Mari grabbed a bag of chips and a banana from the cupboard above her head before strolling out of the room and into Joven's office. 

"Yes. Of course." Joven was rubbing his eyes, leaning back in his chair as he held his burner an inch away from his ear. Boze sat on desk next to him, her legs dangling over the side. She made emotionless eye contact with Mari as she entered, only looking away when Joven spoke again. "We'll see what we can do." 

"Something happen?" 

"The Bear Boys called us, told us they knew their leader was dead. They weren't too happy about it." Boze relayed the information with a blank face.

"They want us to meet them at six today in the Warehouse District," Joven added.

"Shit." Mari set down her food on the desk. "That's a trap if I've ever heard one." She plopped down on a chair across from Joven, popping open the bag of chips. "So how are we taking them down?" 

"What?" Boze had shifted slightly so that she was turned halfway in between Joven and Mari. "That's impossible, from all the data I have and simulations I've run, they'd squash us like bugs." 

"Data can't always tell you what will happen in real life, Boze."

"Most of the time it's more accurate than not," Boze replied, voice coated in ice. "The Bratstva outnumbers us 10 to 1, and they've got more resources than we could ever dream of having. Why else do you think that they're one of the three, well, now one of the two biggest gangs in the city?" She picked at her eyebrow, twisting the hair between her fingernails. "This isn't like Losioz's gang, they aren't just going to disperse after you cut off the head, this is a whole different beast." 

"I still think that we could do it." Mari popped a chip in her mouth, crunching down on it loudly. "Cvestikov didn't know our numbers, but we can use that to our advantage. His followers are probably surprised that he fell so easily, so, if we can make them believe that we're stronger than we actually are, they'd back down, let us take over. We could absorb them into our ranks."

Joven furrowed his eyebrows together, thinking about Mari's proposal. "Huh."

"Please say that you're not actually considering this," Boze muttered. Joven said nothing, and Boze rolled her eyes, pulling her laptop, which was sitting closed on the desk next to her, onto her lap. She let out a long sigh as she pulled it open. "I'll run mock ups of strategy." 

"Can you get Damien and Wes?" Joven asked as he rummaged through the open briefcase on the table. "We're gonna need their help with this."

"Yep." Mari hopped up, leaving her food there as she swung out of the room and into the kitchen. "Yo boys." The two looked up at her, seemingly happy to be roused from conversation. "Joven needs us in his office, now." 

"Do they now?" Damien raised an eyebrow. Mari nodded, and he and Wes both stood, following her out to the office. 

A sharp pain shot through Mari's head. She stumbled, almost falling to the ground, but caught herself on the railing of the stairwell. 

"Woah, Mari, is everything alright?" Wes put a hand on her shoulder, and she shook him off quickly, steading herself. Her vision was blurred, and Damien and Wes looked like more like rainstreaked chalk drawings than people. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Mari nodded, pretending to laugh. "Just tripped." Wes and Damien looked at her with confusion. She quickly changed the topic, thinking quickly of something that would get them off her back. "I'm gonna pee quick, but I'll join you all in a second." She waited for them to stop questioning her, and watched as they had entered the office before booking it up the stairs.

Her head was pounding as she collapsed into her bed upstairs, her pulse racing and body slick with sweat. Shit, no, not now. She'd been fine, she'd been perfectly fine. She was clean, she swore she was clean. Mari tried not to look at the needle marks in her arms as she fumbled with her mattress, she slid off of it an onto the cold floor below. She pushed the mattress away from her, revealing a stretch of floor that was hidden in plain sight, pushing up a loose floorboard to reveal a tiny bottle and a small plastic box. 

Mari held it up to the light, her head swimming and pounding and screaming as her hyperventilating breaths burned in her throat. Damn. There was barely anything in there, she had maybe one go left before she was out. Mari knew that she shouldn't use all of it in one go.

You need it. Her head hissed at her. You need all of it unless you want it to come out again

With shaking fingers, Mari pulled a clean needle from the box, sucking up some of the poison that would heal her pounding head, and pressed it forcefully into her arm. Her chest rose and fell in harsh increments as she felt the drug disperse throughout her body. For a second her fingertips grew numb before they started tingling with heat, her vision returning slowly as her head stopped pounding. For a second everything was okay.

The empty bottle in her hand was now the dull pain behind her eyes. Shit

Mari felt around the ground for her phone. Not the one Boze had given her, she knew that one had been tapped, but the one she'd used during those empty two months. She powered it on, a shiver tracing its way down her body as the start-up sound hummed to life. As soon as it turned on, she went straight to her texts.

There were several different people she had texted from that phone. Only one was important.

It was someone Mari wasn't sure if she could trust. Hell, she wasn't sure the man trusted himself. She sent the message anyways.

Mari : It's Takahashi. If you're still on the ins with that supplier, I need a new bottle of that shit. It's urgent. 

She pushed the phone into her back pocket, letting her body take a second to adjust to the feeling coursing through her veins. Mari drew in a breath, and exhaled slowly, walking down to the bathroom on the second floor. She washed her hands, slicking back her hair slightly with the excess water on her palms. Her eyes had stopped looking so sunken, sleep had been good for them, but her cheeks were still slightly gaunt, and she knew that chips and bananas wouldn't sustain her forever. 

Mari entered the office to find the others circled around the desk, Boze sitting on the counter, her laptop turned towards everyone else, playing footage of something. Joven bit the back of a pen, watching intently. Wes had taken a seat on the ground, sitting cross legged next to Joven, and Damien leaned against the desk where it curved around, his arms crossed against his chest. 

The video ended, and Boze looked up at Mari, her face disappointed. "You were right, I think that we can make it work." Boze sat up, snapping her laptop shut. "But, there's no funny business. If someone goes rouge, it could end up being curtains for all of us."

"We'll close the club tonight, we don't want anyone from their ranks coming back to the Jackrabbit and taking someone hostage. We need all hands on deck, and last time I left Noah and Keith in charge, well, there was some dancing on tables that lead to slipping on spilled alcohol." 

"I think we can manage that," Mari nodded, answering the query from Boze she knew was aimed at her. "What are we gonna need to get all of this done?"

"A few guns, a flash bomb or two and a hell of a lot of distractions." She turned to Joven. "Do we still have those popping fireworks? The ones you throw at the floor and make noise and a little light?"

"I think so?" Joven looked over at Wes. "Do you remember if we put those in the basement?"

"We did, they're on the top shelf in that styrofoam temperature controlling box." 

"Right." 

"Perfect." There was a change to Boze's face as the plan began to knit itself together. She clasped her hands, a grin slowly working its way through her face as she pulled her laptop back open, brushing her hair out of her face as she typed with a furious excitement. 

Mari's phone buzzed in her back pocket, and she pulled it out to find two messages. 

S : i thought u were dead takahashi, guess my info wz wrong

S : still friends with the guy if u want sum of the h i can get u some

She pulled the phone's brightness down, pretending to be checking something, like the weather or a text from someone else. 

Mari: I need it sooner than later. Can we meet somewhere soon?

He didn't take long to reply.

S: under westside bridge, 2 tomorrow, bring cash

Mari: K

She slipped the phone into her pocket, looking up at the people around her, who were all distracted with the orders Joven had given them. Mari felt bad for doing this, for needing the drugs. But she knew that it was the only way to keep it at bay. She couldn't risk hurting these people again, this people who she just wanted to become her family again. 

She'd be good about it, she'd get clean on her own, she'd done it before. 

Mari hated being alone, but if it meant that she could keep this family, this little dysfunctional family that had been hers once, then she was willing to do anything, even if it hurt her in the end.

Chapter Text

Joven was trying to remember how to breath as he helped Wes load up the van outside the Jackrabbit. 

He hadn't been this nervous since Mari had run off and left the whole operation in his hands. Wes had been ignoring him since last night, the only time he was willing to say anything was when it pertained to the plans Boze had been working on all morning. The two of them were standing in the back alley next to the van, the garage door wide open as the rest of the team filtered in and out, carrying boxes and equipment as they came and went. 

Joven leaned against the brick of the building as Wes pushed a box into the back, dusting off his hands and running them through his hair, which glinted a silver-orange-red in the light of the setting sun. He wanted to say something to Wes, anything that might cleanse the air between them, but it had become clear to Joven that he wasn't going to start talking anytime soon. 

Mari stepped out of the garage, squinting in the fading light. She was dressed in all black, the laces on her boots duct taped down, and her hair braided up around her head to keep it out of her face. Wes wore something similar, black and well tailored for the occasion. Joven had opted for a suit, but that didn't mean that he was going to opt-out on a bulletproof vest under his shirt. Damien followed behind her, the black case, which Joven knew held his favorite sniper rifle, in hand.

"Boze needs another minute or two," Mari spoke, leaning up against the wall. "She wants to run through something quickly before we head out." She pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her pants pocket. Wes dug through one of the boxes, handing her a lighter. She handed him back a cigarette, lighting her own before lighting his. Joven hadn't remembered Wes smoking before.

Damien was reading something on his phone, his face distracted for a second before he shut it off abruptly, holding down the power button before tossing it into the back on top of one of the crates. He was getting into the zone, psyching himself up for the task at hand. Joven knew that things were getting serious when Damien started cleaning his pistols, taking them apart one by one and putting them back together in the span of thirty seconds. 

Mari and Wes made light conversation as they both smoked, Mari leaning against the wall as Wes hunched over on the tailgate of the van. Joven distracted himself with the cuff of his shirt, pretending that he wasn't worrying about getting out of this meeting with the Bratstva alive. 

They were all on edge, that wasn't hard to discern. Everyone watched eachother out of the corners of their eyes, a siren in the distance making the hair on the back of Joven's neck stand up on end. God, what the hell had he been thinking sending Wes into the war zone like that. Now Wes wouldn't even look him in the eyes. He wished that he could've kept Wes's walls down that night when they'd been drunk and he'd been talkative. Wes had spoken with such beautiful fluency, his voice soft and sweet like honey wine. Joven had let the taste burn his throat and wanted more. 

But it was the waking hours, that time after 4 am when the lights started to rise and the air grew clean and clear. That dreaded time where the needle of daylight ticked above the horizon, and the sweet smell of midnight on Wes's breath disappeared, and was replaced with something less pleasant.

Joven should've been paying attention to what Mari and Wes were talking about instead of letting himself get sucked into his own thoughts. He closed his eyes for a second, imagining a white screen behind his eyelids as he cleared his mind of everything that had been waiting in the back of his mind. His advance on the club, Mari, his family at the club, his Kingship, and the most important thing nagging his mind, the silver-haired man sitting less than two feet away from him. 

Boze slammed the door to the garage shut as she stepped out in ripped black sweatpants that had been tucked into a pair of thick soled combat boots, and a baggy black tank-top that hung off of her shoulders. She adjusted her glasses, smiling devilishly over at the other four, her free hand grasping the briefcase at her side. 

"Y'all ready to storm the castle?" 

Damien drove the van, Joven in the passenger side. He was the only one that Joven trusted besides himself to drive the car. Damien was a good driver when it came to tense situations, and drove just well enough and talked just sweet enough to get out of any accidental situations with the cops mistaking their van for a stolen one. Wes and Mari were buckled into the two seats in the row behind them, and Boze had managed to thread a loose seat belt through two of the crates, and was fiddling with something in the briefcase. 

Damien's knuckles were pink, edging into white on the steering wheel as he drove through the city, and Joven was relieved to see that he wasn't the only one worried about the task at hand. Joven looked to the backseat in the rearview mirror, first looking at Mari, who sat with one leg stretched out under his chair and the other propped up on the seat and pulled close to her body as she watched the city whiz by. He then looked to Wes, who was also staring absentmindedly out the window, the heel of his palm pressed underneath his chin, a stray strand of hair slowly falling away from behind his ear. 

Joven crossed his arms over his chest, trying to ignore the way his heart was pounding. He noticed Damien taking a quick look at him from the corner of his eye, and heard the man let out a soft puff of air. 

"It's alright to be nervous." 

"Hmm?" Joven pretended that he hadn't seen Damien look over at him. "What'd you mean?"

"This is like the first time you'll be going up against someone with this kinda power, right?" 

It dawned on Joven that Damien had probably gone through something like this before. He was a strange kid. From far away, Damien looked barely a day over 21, but close up, you could see the weariness in his eyes. The kind that Joven had only seen in the eyes of old men at the Veterans Home.

Before Joven became to law-bending, rule snapping juvenile delinquent that he still was today, he'd been a good kid. He used to visit his grandfather in the VH with his Grammie, and he'd perched on his Pappie's lap, looking up into the old man's face that had been worn with time, listening to the same old war stories again and again until his Grammie decided that it was time to go, and would whisk him away. In his times with his grandfather's stories, Joven had learned a lot about life. Sure, he'd mostly paid attention to the blood and gore that 11-year him had eaten up and dispersed to his friends the second he got to school, but he'd also watched as his grandfather's eyes had grown misty. He'd remembered the feeling that his Pappie had told him that he should hope he never has to feel. The profound loss that was losing someone you loved on the battlefield. That feeling of watching your men get shot down just after they'd told you about the family they dreamed about seeing back home.

Damien's eyes had seen war. Whether it was a real war, one he'd been deployed into, with honors and hush-hush protocol, or one that he'd gotten caught in the middle of, and was forced to fight in to keep himself alive. 

Joven brought himself back to the conversation. "Yeah, I mean, I've dealt with the corner drug dealers, and I got the chop shop across the street closed down, but nothing like this." 

"No midnight assassination attempts? No junkies have ever cornered you in a bathroom because they think you can hook them up? No bounty on your head that could set you for life?" Joven whipped his head towards Damien. 

"Seriously?" 

"Nah man," Damien was laughing. "You really think I was some sort of kingpin before this?" Joven tried his best to laugh along with Damien, but it caught in his throat, making him sound more like a strangled goose than a person. 

"I don't really know what to think with your skill set." 

Damien chuckled in response, a half-smile pinned to his face, but he didn't add on to Joven's prompting. He pulled a quick left turn that made Joven white knuckle it on the handlebar above, and pulled the van into the back entrance of the Warehouse District. Damien put the van into park in a narrow alley flanked by the windowless metallic sand-colored wall of one of the warehouses, and a chain link fence that looked out into the harbor, which was filled with yachts and old 'clunkers', or crab fishing boats. Boze spoke up from where she was buckled into the back. 

"Alright everyone, listen up, and listen up good, because I'm not going to repeat myself." Boze unbuckled herself from her makeshift seat, ducking down and squatting behind one of the crates. She retrieved a map out of the briefcase, smoothing it open on top of the crate. Boze pulled a pencil from behind her ear, and Joven and Damien craned their necks to see what she was pointed at. "Joven will enter the building with Mari as support here," she pointed at a larger building near the middle. "I've communicated with the Bear Boys and we've agreed on it being a neutral location, which means neither of you are allowed any sort of weapon that could be seen as threatening. Understand?" She waited for Mari to nod, before turning back to her handiwork. "Damien will be on the roof of the building next to this one, and he'll provide shots from above if it comes to that." Boze moved the pencil from the main building to the one adjacent to it, circling it and making sure Damien understood. "Wes will be stationed nearby with a cache of weapons in a building one behind the rendezvous point. I'll be here. I've tapped into the surveillance feed around here, so I should be able to keep an eye out on you all." 

She dug around the briefcase, pulling out a small black plastic case the size of a book. Boze snapped it open, undoing the latch to reveal a set of four smaller cases. She handed one out to each of the members, pulling a headset with a microphone out from one of the crates for herself. Joven opened the box to find a small clear earpiece, delicate filaments weaved their way around inside. 

"These are another precaution for worst-case-scenario." Boze snapped her box shut, pushing it back into the briefcase. "We'll keep them in, but I don't want you using them unless we're under fire."

"How much did these cost you?" Joven pressed the earpiece into his ear. "They look too fancy to be something you pulled out of a dumpster."

"I made em." Boze marked something up on her map. "Bought the casings for cheap, and I had some extra pieces and parts left over, so the only expensive thing about them was figuring out how to sync them up with my computer."

"Impressive." Wes nodded with a half smile. He turned around, catching Joven's eyes before turning quickly to slide the door open. Mari followed suit, and Damien pulled the keys out of the ignition, tossing them to Boze, who managed to catch them with one hand. The four of them circled around the van, stepping in front of the back as Boze opened it up, sliding their crates towards them. 

Damien grabbed the black case first, fastening the shoulder straps on it and pulling it over his back like a backpack. He tapped the backs of his two pistols, and made sure his knife was at his belt. Wes did the same, loading a few cases into a black burlap backpack. The two double checked that their earpieces were working with Boze's equipment before they both nodded goodbye to the others and disappeared through the alley adjacent and into the maw of the district.

Boze checked her watch like a maniac, drumming her fingers on everything as she double checked their vests were properly secured, and that their smoke powder and 'snappers' were properly hidden in case they needed a quick getaway before Boze put Plan B into action. Joven knew Boze was crossing her fingers that her back-up plan wouldn't be needed, but seeing how terrible their luck had been lately, he wasn't optimistic about getting out of the whole ordeal unscathed. 

The dreaded 6:00 on Boze's watch blared at them, and the two began their walk through the towering warehouses over head. Boze called out directions in their ears, which seemed to annoy Mari, who pulled out her earpiece and put it in her pocket. 

"In position." Damien's voice crackled through the earpiece, followed by Wes's confirmation of his location close behind. 

Mari and Joven didn't say much to each other as they approached the building, trying to keep their expressions resolute. Two sour-looking guards, a man and a woman, both covered in tattoos and rippling with muscle stood outside the door. The woman spoke, her voice surprisingly low, grating against her throat like two stones being struck across one another.

"Mr. Ovenshire?" 

"That's me." 

"The Korol Medvedev has been waiting to see you." The man pulled the door open, and Joven and Mari were ushered inside, blinking from the sudden change of light to dark. They kept moving forward across the warehouse, which was completely empty except for a small desk with a lamp, a chair, and a potted plant. A man sat in the chair, his hands folded on the table, and his eyes following Joven and Mari's every move. 

It was hard to tell exactly how tall he was, as he was hunched over the desk, his posture and stature staying true to his name, Bear King. The man wore a steel-grey suit that fit him well, an expensive silver and black watch escaping from the cuff of his suit-jacket. His eyes were dark, set in the whites of his eyes like two perfectly polished stones, one just a little lighter than the other. 

Joven could already tell that Mari was on edge, mostly because he was too, but her jaw was tightly wound, and her hand kept drifting to where her gun would've been. There were no conceivable exits except for the one they came out of, and the only things to hide behind were the desk and possibly the chair. He hoped to god that Boze could see them, but he knew in the pit of his stomach that they would be flying in blind. 

"Welcome." The man spoke calmly, his face was a mask of neutral emotion. "Take a seat." He gestured to two chairs in front of the desk that Joven hadn't seen earlier. "I'll keep this short."

Joven could see Mari drawn in a breath, but her posture remained calm and collected. 

The man spoke again. "I don't care that Cvestikov is dead."

"What?" Joven was taken aback.

"You seem surprised." 

"It's because I am. I was under the impression that Cvestikov wasn't a man to be crossed." 

"Cvestikov was a man to be feared, even by his own people. But he was reckless and brash, and those are not things that a good leader should be." The man unfolded his hands, running one of them along his beard. "Cvestikov wanted the spotlight, but he didn't seem to understand that he couldn't live his lifestyle, make money and stay out of jail at the same time. He didn't want to pick two of the three, he wanted all of them."

"So you wanted him dead?" Mari questioned, raising an eyebrow. 

"We couldn't exactly just make him 'disappear'." The man gestured, in a 'as you know' kind of way. "His old man's still alive and is just lucid enough to figure it out if someone had him killed, and he's got enough sway in the organization to stage a coup, and that's the last thing we want." He gave Joven and Mari a half smile. "We were lucky that Cvestikov decided to take you on himself." He drew in a breath.

"So I suppose that this is a...thank you?" Joven raised an eyebrow. "What's the point of you telling us all of this?"

The man sat up straighter in his chair. "We want to make a deal with you." 

"Really?" Joven's eyebrows furrowed, and he looked to Mari, who seemed just as confused.

"We're nobodies compared to you," Mari spoke slowly, still considering what he'd said. "You could fix the next election, while we're still be struggling to get bums out of our alley." 

The man began again as if Mari and Joven had said nothing. "The Bratstvo Medvedya has decided, as a council, that we want to return to the shadows. Most've us are getting older, and the old fashioned mob isn't really as big of a hit with the kids as it used to be." There was a pause. "We've been expected to fight for the throne. That's what Losioz...that dumb dead bastard...it's what he'd planned."

"What do you mean planned?" There was a broken urgency in Mari's voice that worried Joven. 

"He was by himself towards the end. He was bitter and angry that the people he'd trusted had left him. Most of his allies had gone to jail after the police stopped caring about his payoffs because someone else had started paying them better. His death was real, but the 'collapse'," the man put that in quotes, "of his army, was well beyond fake. It was only him and a few others when he died, and they had already begun allying themselves with other gangs. He wanted a war that would tear this city into pieces to punish it for everything it had done to him." 

"So you still want a piece of the action, but you want to do it through a proxy?" Mari crossed her arms over her chest. 

"Exactly." 

"That's brilliant," Mari remarked, sitting back farther in her chair. Then she mumbled a second addition more to herself than anyone else. "And it's a damn shame that I didn't think of it first." 

"We'll give you manpower, a port for exports and imports, as well as a serious upgrade in your headquarters."

"We'd love the first two, but we're all good on where we're staying right now," Joven nodded with a controlled smile bridging across his face.

"You're really alright working out of an old dinky strip club?" 

"It's home." Mari answered for Joven. "We've grown to love it, and we'd really hate to lose that prime real estate," she added sarcastically. 

"So you've got more than a few bodies in your basement." Joven and Mari didn't answer, which made the man smile. "We all do in this business." There was a moment of pause as Joven considered the agreement.

"No strings attached? You're just going to hand over the title of King just like that."

"Of course not. We'll want some of the profits, as well as a bit of the glory, but we won't ask for too much. As for the title...the title isn't something that you can just, 'hand over'. At this moment, no one is currently 'King'. No one's been brave enough to even try to claim the crown." The man leaned forward slightly. "This is a prize that it won through blood and betrayal. And that doesn't come easily. Are you really willing to destroy your life for this?"

"Yes." Joven didn't even have to take a second to think. He'd known his answer even since that King had stood over his Grammie's body like she just another meaningless death, an accident, someone no one cared about. He'd known that he'd wanted to take that title, to kill anyone who got in his way when he'd first met Mari, battered and broken, wrists still ripe and red from being tied up to a pipe in a dingy basement. Joven wanted to protect the innocent people from the wolves of the street, those with the ravenous eyes and the teeth that were bullets, even if that meant that he'd have to slaughter them all to do so. It was worth it if it meant keeping them safe.

"Wonderful." The man folded his hands in front of him, sitting back in his chair. "We'll be in touch when we're in need of your help." 

Joven and Mari stood from their chair, the two people who had been standing at the door before were behind them, ready to escort them out. 

"I never caught your name," Mari spoke as she turned back to face the man behind the desk. He had stood, his hands in his pockets. The man seemed to consider the question for a second, his eyes narrowing slightly as he gave his answer. 

"Matt Raub." 

"Matt Raub," Joven repeated. "Well Mr. Matt Raub, it's a pleasure to be your ally." 

And for the first time since leaving the Jackrabbit, Joven's pulse had stopped pounding at his fingertips. 

For the first time, things were moving in Joven's favor. 

Chapter Text

Damien had been ignoring his phone. 

He'd told himself that he was doing it for the mission, that he didn't want to be distracted while covering Mari and Joven in the worst-case-scenario. But the mission was over, and he and the others were back in the car, with him up front driving, Joven passenger side, Mari and Wes in the back row, and Boze buckled into a crate in the very back. They'd all been relatively surprised that it hadn't ended in a firefight, and Damien was glad for it. The last thing he wanted was one of them being carried home in a body bag.

Driving normally relaxed him, it put him in this trance that let him focus, but today was different. They'd gone into today thinking it would be a war zone only to find that it was more or less like having tea with your slightly off the rocker aunt that smelled more like her cats than her cats did. He couldn't help but feel like something was wrong, like they were missing something. What if they'd stumbled onto the wrong gang meeting and gotten off the hook while some poor sap had been riddled full of bullets? What if it was a trap and now there was a bomb back home at the Jackrabbit? Damien knew that line of thinking wasn't anywhere near reality, but he couldn't help but overthink. It was the only thing that kept him from what was actually on his mind.

Or more accurately, what was waiting in his pocket. 

Shayne had sent him a message before he'd left that afternoon, and he'd had yet to respond. 

Shayne : Hey man, just saw that work was cancelled today. If ur not busy, do you wanna come over and play nidhogg until like 2 am?

It was a simple reply, but Damien was terrified of it. He knew that it was dumb to think that this would change anything between them. It would just be another chance for Shayne to glide over what happened that night, and another chance for Damien to have to calculate his every move. If he so much as breathed at the wrong time, he'd think about it for weeks after. 

Damien wished that he could have someone to talk to about this. He didn't know Joven, Mari or Wes well enough to talk to them, and if he tried to talk to Boze, she'd just laugh at him, call him and idiot, and then give him bad advice.  

The only person he wanted to talk about Shayne to was Shayne, but of course, that wasn't something he could exactly do. 

He'd started to weigh his options when Joven's voice caught him off guard. 

"Something up Damien?" He had a familiar cocky smile that Damien found himself comforted by. "You kinda look like you just zoned out a little."

"Just tired," Damien lied. "It's been a long few days." 

"Ah, yeah, I guess so." Joven smiled, genuine and bright. "For the first time, I think we can actually sleep easily." 

Damien pulled the car into the alley behind the Jackrabbit, letting Wes hop out to open the garage so that he could pull in the back. The five of them unloaded in relative silence. It was less of an uncomfortable silence and more one of relief. Damien wasn't quite sure what they'd all been expecting, and it was as if each of them were letting all of their wound-up energy out, the tightened coil slowly unravelling again. 

Boze dragged her briefcase back inside, and Wes carried several crates of the unused explosives in after her. Mari slid a nearly empty metal shelf away from the wall, prying open a secret hatch inside of it hidden behind the drywall. She re-organized the inside as Damien set the two crates full of guns and ammunition next to her. Joven had put himself on look out, and stood outside the garage against the wall. 

"God." Mari breathed as she pushed the hatch shut with a click. The two of them pushed the crates into the corner as Joven closed the garage door, and they all trudged inside. "I'm still on an adrenaline high." She stretched, making her bones pop and crackle as she twisted from side to side. They all entered Joven's office, where Boze had unloaded her briefcase all over Joven's desk. "I think I'm gonna head out to that club on 51st if anyone wants to come with, because I don't think I'm gonna be able to sleep until like 1 am, and I don't want to sit around doin' nothing." 

"Yeah, I'd say I need a break," Wes responded. He gave Mari the closest thing he could get to a smile. "I think that sounds like fun." 

"I'll come to," Joven's words tumbled out of his mouth faster than he could say them. 

"Love to, but I've got some pending messages from our new friends, and I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea to keep them waiting." Boze spoke without looking away from her computer. "Have fun though." 

The three looked over to Damien. 

"Oh, um, I think I'm actually just going to stay in tonight, get some sleep, maybe catch up on some anime or something." 

"Fucking weeb," Boze murmured under her breath with a grin. "Have fun doing your stuff y'all, but if you don't mind, I'd like to get some work done, so if you would please-" she shooed them away with a dismissive hand. 

"Alright, 'night Boze," Joven nodded as he gathered up some of his things from the table. 

Damien left the room with the others, climbing up the stairs with them, listening as Mari cracked some joke to Wes that made both him and Joven laugh. He said goodnight to them, and broke away from their little pack, closing the door to his room behind him.

He stood in the darkness for a second before flipping on the little lamp on his bedside table. It wasn't super bright, but cast just enough light for him to see. Damien lay down on his bed, looking up at the ceiling and tracing the cracks in it with his eyes. He lay there for a second, bathed in the off-yellow light of the lamp, trying to forget everything that was going on around him. Damien played with the ringer button on his phone, clicking it on and off as he let his thoughts be intruded with the idea of Shayne. 

He hated playing that game with his heart. Damien could imagine what he wanted to happen, he could see the future that he'd dreamed of. He wanted to hold that fantasy to the light, but he knew that if he did, it would only burn. 

Damien tried to watch something on his laptop, but his phone kept distracting him. Every time he'd get into what he was watching, he'd get a notification or a message and open his phone to see the Shayne's message staring him in the face. Finally, he snapped his laptop shut and changed into a pair of jeans, a grey t-shirt that he was pretty sure was actually Wes's but had gotten mixed up in the landry, and a worn black leather jacket.  

And then Damien did what he always did when he was faced with a problem like this. He went to get ramen.

He told Boze that he was going out and wouldn't be back until late, to which she responded with a loving middle finger and a reminder to not freeze to death. Damien responded with another middle finger and a threat of a bear hug when he got back. Boze hissed like a cat and hid behind Joven's desk until he stopped laughing. 

Damien stepped out of the back entrance to the club, making sure to lock it behind him as he closed the door. He double checked that he had his switchblade on him for a just-in-case situation. Luckily for him, he had one of those faces that kept people from messing with him. He wasn't sure if it was because he looked too nice, or if he looked to scary, and he definitely wasn't sure which one he would've prefered. 

Midori No Me Ramen Shop was less than two blocks from the Jackrabbit, and when he'd first started working there, he'd gone out with his co-workers for a late night dinner at the resturant. Now, it was tradition to go whenever he had something on his mind. It was a little past eight, not quite late enough for the place to be empty, but still late enough that he'd have the place mostly to himself. 

He pushed the door to the shop open, stepping inside and letting the slight cold of the evening roll off of him. The smell of broth and warmth hit him like a hug, and he never wanted it to let go. Damien ordered quickly, already having known what he wanted before he even got there. He paid for his meal, and took a number plaque from the front. 

Damien looked for somewhere to sit, but was suddenly distracted by the jacket of someone sitting at a booth in front of him. It was familiar. Too familiar. He cleared his throat, his breath still for a second as he spoke.

"Joe?" The man tensed, and he moved slowly, turning his head just slightly so that Damien could just barely see his eyes beyond the rim of his baseball cap. "Bereta is that you?" The guy started to slowly move his hand towards his belt, and Damien added quickly. "It's Damien." 

"Haas?" Joe Bereta turned around in his chair, his face grizzled and dark under the hat. Damien crossed the room and slid into the seat across from him, placing his number on the table facing outwards. Joe sat back in his chair, pulling his cap up sightly and extending a cordial smile. "How long has it been?" 

"Um," Damien counted on his fingers. "Four years, I think." 

"God, you look so much older now." He gestured to Damien's head. "And you cut that hair of yours." Joe let out a huff, crossing his arms over his chest. "You look so much like your dad." He cringed slightly. "Sorry, sore subject., 

"It's alright," Damien grimaced.

"What are you even doing here? I swore you said that you were getting out of Los Santos after everything fell apart with, well, with y'know... I thought you'd said you were going clean, gonna become a, what was it-" he snapped his fingers- "an actor, that's right."

"It's going okay, I'm in kind of a rut right now. Working as a bartender at a club downtown in the meantime." Joe nodded satisfactorily, and Damien changed the subject quickly. "What about you? We were some of the only guys that made it out of that bust free men. You went into Witness Protection, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Joe pushed down the rim of his hat. "But it didn't stick."

"What...what'd you do?"

"I got bored." 

"Really?" Damien sat back, mimicking Joe's actions, one of the only useful tricks his dad had ever taught him.

"Well, I got bored, and then I got worried, and then I got paranoid. I started seeing the same black car over and over again, and I saw men in black on my street corners, and I knew it was only a matter of time before those that were still free and working off of your dad's dying wish came to kill me."

"So you ran away?"

"I faked my death."

"Holy hell." 

"Yep. Ran with some bikers for a while, then they found out that I used to work for your dad, and if this chick I was sleeping with hadn't warned me about the fact that they were out for my head, I probably wouldn't be here." Joe took a sip of his water glass in front of him that Damien hadn't seen when he'd sat down. "Somehow I ended up here. I don't really know how, but it seems Los Santos is the best place for a dead man." 

"Aren't you worried that someone from the old days'll come after you?"

"Nah, most of the guys that want me six feet under are already dead, and the rest are in prison for life." Joe raised an eyebrow. "Don't you know who was sentenced and who wasn't?"

"I stopped watching the trial after I was released. I just wanted to put all that shit behind me."

"Can't blame you." 

A waitress in a green apron came out with two bowls of ramen, Damien thanked her as she set his down next to him, and Joe gave her a nod as she placed his bowl down. Joe waited until she was gone before he continued again.

"How have you been holding up?" Damien looked up at him from a bite of ramen. Joe was still opening his chopsticks.

"What do you mean?"

"You lost your dad, you friends, and your identity all in the span of a week." He stabbed the pork belly in his bowl with the end of his chopsticks. "The marshals had shipped me off to freeze-your-ass-off Vermont before I even had the chance to make sure you made it out okay.

"I was already trying to find a way out when it all went down." Damien swallowed down a noodle and the lump in his throat. "You of all people know that I was only there to impress him, there was no other reason that I was even there except for emotional manipulation."

Joe said nothing for a second, and they ate their food in silence for a few golden minutes. 

"Haas, we both know that it's not just that easy to quit the life." Joe stirred his ramen. "We were built to be soldiers in an army we had no control over. You were bred and born for that work. Our lives were a constant rush of adrenaline, and the fear that kept us going...well I can say from experience that that shit doesn't just go away."

"It did for me." Damien wasn't in the mood to argue with him. Joe started to say something, but Damien shot him a look. "I was a kid Joe. Life worked differently for me."

"You never knew anything but the gang, how could it've?" Joe moved his head in a dismissive way. "You can't get through life lying all the time Damien."

Damien stabbed his bowl with the chopsticks, threatening to snap them under the stress of his fingers. "You want some truth?" His eyes burned into Joe's, which were so blackened already that Damien wondered if it was even worth it to defend himself to a man that was already gone. "I got out. I got out of that shit, and I was happy for a little. And then I got miserable. I was acting, and I was supporting myself, but barely. And then my friend got me this job. It was good, honest work."

"You weren't lying about being a bartender were you?" Joe smirked, setting his chopsticks down on the dish next to him. "You always were good at mixing up drinks."

"It was good job. It was really good, but I was still miserable and I didn't know why." Damien felt his voice break. "Then, one night, I found out that my boss wasn't just some regular joe-shmoe club owner. Someone came after him...and...and," he looked down at the table, his hand in a fist around the chopsticks. "I did what dad always told me to do. I taught him a lesson." Damien looked up, realizing that Joe looked blurry.

He was crying. He didn't do that.

His voice was a ghost. "It felt good Joe."

"Doing what?" 

"Hurting that guy." Damien shook his head. "It wasn't a weird good, it wasn't like psychopathic. It was like a bad memory, the kind that made me feel nostalgic for that kind of pain. But it still made me feel something that didn't feel, bad." His pulse jumped up rapidly. "And then, out of the blue, I'll just get scared. For no reason. I know that I'm safe, and that the people around me would protect me from anything that would try to hurt me, but I still get this feeling, and I try to keep it from happening, but, it's not...I don't even what the hell it is." 

"You're not alone kid," Joe sighed. His eyes couldn't quite meet Damien's. "It's the wiring in our brain. It got all jumbled up, like a tangled power cord, but it's been sliced apart with knives and all of the ends had fused together and it's shooting signals one way and then the next until we can't tell up from down anymore. It's telling us to fight even when there's no danger, and we have to listen because we don't know any different."

They both went quiet for a while. Damien picked at his ramen, now too on edge to eat. He counted the rings in his pork belly, tracing the lines of fat until he felt his pulse slow. 

"I'd give anything to live a normal life." Damien looked up at the man across from him. He could see the wear on Joe's face, how it had drawn wrinkles into his skin, how his hair had started to go grey. The man wasn't even halfway through his thirties yet, but he looked decades older. Joe let out a breathy laugh, scratching the point in between his eyebrows with the back of his thumb. "I haven't had a real conversation like that with anyone in years. God, what I wouldn't give for that suburbia I loathed in my twenties." 

Damien's pocket buzzed, and he looked down at his phone. He hadn't realized how quickly the time had passed that it was nearly a quarter to ten. There was a message from Shayne.

Shayne : Just double checking if you got my message, offer still stands if you're up for it.

Damien looked back up at Joe, who smiled back at him sadly.

"Got somewhere to go?"

"No."

"Liar," Joe grinned. "I've known you long enough to know what your face looks like when your head's somewhere else. What's their name?" 

"Their?"

"Hey," Joe put his hands up in surrender. "I'm the last person who should judge."

"It's a friend..." Damien felt oddly like he could trust Joe. The man before him was technically dead, and who better to keep your secrets than a dead man. "A good friend, but I said something that hurt our relationship. I've mended as many bridges as I can-" Damien sighed- "I've lied all I could. And now he's extending an olive branch, but I don't know if I want to take it." 

"Ah." Joe nodded, his posture had begun to slowly relax. "You're in love with them, aren't you? And you're afraid that if you go down this path that it's just going to hurt?"

"I'm not in love-" Damien paused. "Not yet." 

"So you're afraid that feelings will come back if you do get closer again."

Something inside Damien seemed to click. "Oh my god."

"What?"

"I don't know, I guess it's just me overthinking everything, but that thought has crossed my mind, but it just, it makes so much more sense when you say it." 

Joe guestured in a sort of, what can I say? motion. "Can I give you some advice Damien?"

"Um, sure."

"You don't have to take it, but you do have to listen." Joe stood from the table, pulling his coat tight around him and fixing the brim of his cap. "Say 'screw you', to your inhibitions, because when your my age, you might regret not having taken this chance. It might not end in the way you'd expect." He began walking backwards towards the door. "Good to see you Haas, you make for good conversation." Joe whipped around at the last second, disappearing out of the door and into the night.

Damien pulled out his phone, thumbing over the photo of Shayne at the top. 

Damien: Hey sorry man, something came up today, i didn't see your message until now

Technically not an utter lie. Damien was getting sick of lying to Shayne.

Damien : Heading over now, be there in like 20

It took him three minutes to hit send on the second message, but when he did, the three little responding dots from Shayne appeared immediately.

Shayne : Awesome, bring snacks if you're stopping on the way

Damien: Milk duds and doritos?

Shayne: Holy shit, you read my mind!! r u csykic??

Damien: Shut up shayne

Shayne : hahahahahahahaha

Damien pushed his phone into his pocket with a smile on his face. He left a tip on the table for their waitress before zipping up his coat.

The wind felt different on his face tonight. It felt less like a sting and more like the soft brush of an old friend long forgotten. Was this what change felt like?

Chapter Text

Boze was getting bored.

She'd sent a message to one of the people from the Bear Brotherhood, but they hadn't been the most for conversation.

Boze: Yo, it's Jackrabbit HQ, your boss said he'd send us data on what's happening next, do y'all have anything, or?

She'd gotten a response a half hour later. 

B78s4w: Instructions will come soon. Wait until then. Any sudden moves could endanger the operation.

Boze lay on her back on Joven's desk, her computer held above her head as she waited for her map of the city to render. She'd been compiling data and cases for years, and now with her connections to the mob, she was hoping to get some more. The Bear Boys were meticulous, she liked that about them. They kept files on everyone they had ever worked with or employed, but they were all locked up tight in an offshore server that was one of the best protected she'd ever seen. Boze had hacked into it years ago, (it was easy compared to her attempt at NASA), but she'd never been able to access all of the files without leaving a trace of herself behind. Now, all she needed was a few passwords and an excuse about some sort of malfunctioning code-breaking software, and she'd have a whole new city at her fingertips. 

She set her computer on her stomach, hanging her head off of the side of the desk, feeling her back crack as she turned in one direction and then the other. The computer made a loud hum and she sat up, moving to be seated cross legged on top of the desk. Perfect. She hovered her cursor over a few red dots, pulling up the familiar algorithm of her chart. There was a large orange exclamation point at the top of her screen, and she was happy to see 'new information processed' when she clicked on it.

Boze was less happy to see repeats of information she already knew. Everything was stuff she'd already collected, but there were a few lucky finds that confirmed some theories she'd already written down. She sat on the desk for a good hour changing and re-pinpointing data until everything looked clean and smooth. Boze saved the map to her hard-drive just as her stomach growled so loudly that it almost rivaled Joven's snoring. 

Shit. She glanced over at the clock to see that it was nearly a quarter to nine. Boze grumbled a few angry words to herself; she should've just gone out with Damien to Midori. It was too late to go out now, she really didn't want to have to cut off some poor saps ear who'd thought she was just another club girl he could catcall. Boze settled for tequila.

She locked up Joven's office after putting her computer into her briefcase and sliding it into his secret safe behind the painting, grabbing the spare keys to the Jackrabbit out in return. Boze unlocked the club doors, flicking on the security lights, which bathed the room in a glow of yellow, rather than the regular purple-pink-green variety. The curtains were pushed up and away on the stage, and Boze could see the whole backstage had been opened up. It looked almost empty without the plethora of costumes and make-up and strippers that it normally hosted.

She pushed the little swinging door to the bar open and began browsing which bottle she wanted for the night. There wasn't a lot to choose from, so Boze picked the one that looked the most expensive and made a mental note to pay off Damien later.

From behind her, she heard the sound of the back door behind the stage being jimmied open. Boze pushed the bottle back onto the shelf and dropped to the ground, pulling her butterfly knife out of her back pocket. Someone was breaking in. Boze whipped the knife out, listening as the door swung open and a pair of footsteps crossed the stage and down the stairs and began walking past the bar. Boze counted, feeling the shadow of the intruder passing over her. She crawled forward in tandem with their footsteps, reaching the end of the bar just slightly faster than they did. 

They turned the corner the second Boze leapt out. Despite her height, she managed to grab the intruder by the neck, placing the blade of the knife into the soft part of their skin.

"Who the hell are you, and what the hell do you think we're doing, we're closed, and last time I checked, that backway's never been an entrance!" She spat out her words with as much ferocity as possible. "Who sent you?"

"What?!" The voice of the intruder was too sweet and too scared to be a grizzled mercenary sent by a rival gang. Boze turned her head slightly, recognizing the familiar waves of blond hair. "Boze!"

"Courtney?" She let go, flicking her knife shut as she pulled away from the other woman. Courtney looked slightly shaken, searching Boze's face for an answer. She was wearing a pair of jeans that fit her well and a pale pink blouse that was cut low around her neckline and left swooping and long on her shoulders, a plastic bag filled with boxes was held loosely in her free hand. "You scared the hell out of me."

"You scared the hell out of me." Courtney ran a hand through her hair.

"What are you even doing here? We're closed for the evening, remember?"

"Yeah," she eyed Boze's knife. "I realized that I forgot my water bottle here yesterday, so I swung by to come and get it. I texted Joven and asked if he or someone else could let me in to get it, but he told me to just use the key underneath the silver rock outside." She paused for a second. "What are you even still doing here? Joven said everyone already went home."

"I was working late."

"And you keep a knife on you to do that?"

"What can I say? I'm a practical girl." Boze paused, pocketing the knife, which seemed to relax Courtney a little. "Um, uh, sorry for almost stabbing you."

"I wish I could say that that was the first time."

"Really?"

"I had a really possessive ex-boyfriend."

"Oh dear, that never goes over well."

"It does not," Courtney shook her head. She seemed to get lost in thought for a second. "Oh, my water bottle, that's why I'm here." 

"Yeah, is it in the studio?" 

"Yep."

"Need me to unlock it?"

"No, I've got a key."

"Al-right." Boze felt awkward after saying it and immediately began pretending to clean the bar as Courtney turned around. She heard the door to the hallway open and then close before it opened again.

"Hey," Courtney furrowed her eyebrows. "Have you eaten yet tonight?"

"No, why do you ask?"

Courtney held up the plastic bag. "I bought food for the team tonight as a treat, but I wasn't able to cancel my order. I was just on my way home from picking it up. There's too much for just me, so I was going to keep it for leftovers."

"What kind of food you get?"

"Indian."

"Oh hell yeah. You got tandoori chicken?" 

"I think so?"

"Then I've got the booze," Boze grinned. "Let's have a feast." 

The two of them sat on the stage, all of the food laid out between them, each eating off of the only good plates that were kept in the kitchen on the office side. Boze had lost track of how many shots they'd each taken, but it was enough to leave Courtney with rosy red cheeks and a laugh that made Boze want to laugh along with her.

"Okay, you go," Boze took a sip of the Gatorade she'd mixed with vodka.

"The craziest thing I've ever done?" Courtney let out a breathy laugh. "I still can't believe that you really got your nipple pierced on a dare."

"Miller I thought you got all your giggles out about that already," Boze grumbled under her breath.

"I did, I did, but-" she snorted laughing- "how drunk were you?"

"Sad to say, but not as drunk as I could've been." 

"Craziest thing..." Courtney paused for a second. She looked around, laughing to herself. "I guess doing all of this."

"Being a stripper?"

"Yeah," Courtney smiled to her gin and tonic. "Yeah." 

"What did you want to do with your life?" Boze leaned back on her hands. "Like, before whatever happened in your life to land you here."

"You think that I didn't want to be a stripper? I grew up in a pair of high heels and skimpy clothing." Boze raised an eyebrow, but Courtney waved her hand. "Kidding, kidding." She let out a puff of air that sounded like she was blowing a raspberry. "I don't really know." 

"Really? You didn't have some big dream before coming out here?"

Courtney sat forward, picking at her fingernails. "Well, I think that back in high school I had planned on becoming a teacher, like elementary school or something. I've always like working with kids, I have too many siblings to count, so it was kinda par for the course." 

"Why did you come out here?"

"Family stuff." She didn't speak for enough time that Boze opened her mouth to respond, by Courtney kept moving. "It doesn't matter now. Anyway, I went to high school for my senior year in the city and was devastatingly lonely. I was that kid in class that was always talking about how their life would be so much better in college."

"I hated that kid."

"Everyone did." Courtney tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "I went to college in the city, and like all college kids, I was broke as hell, so I went looking for a job." She rolled up a bit of napkin between her fingertips. "There was an opening here, and I was just that full of myself to think that it might be a fun 'college experience'." She squinted at the napkin. "I think that was two...maybe three years ago now?" Courtney shook her head. "Ehh, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is the fact that I was ter-i-ble at it when I first started. I think that Joven only kept me around because I had that fresh-faced college appeal." 

"Probably," Boze cracked her neck. "Or maybe he saw potential in your fledgling attempts to look like the pros." 

Courtney laughed, "I doubt that, but maybe." 

"Do you regret not doing the whole college-teacher-husband-family-kids thing?"

"No and yes." Courtney laid back against the cool of the stage, folding her hands over her stomach. "I think there's a part of me that's disappointed in myself. It's kinda like one of those videos they show you in school, like, 'don't quit doing your education kids or you'll end up selling your body for money and disappointing your parents'!" She waited until Boze stopped laughing before she continued. "And the kid in my that ate up every threat they made is dying inside just a little." She paused for a second. "And then there's the other part of me that knows I make more in tips in two weeks than a teacher makes in a whole year."

"Yeah, that is true." Boze squinted at Courtney as she rolled over onto her side. "But if you go into teaching, are you really going into it for the money?"

"Nah. And who's anyone these days without money?" Courtney rubbed her eyes with her thumbs. "Did that make sense?"

"I don't even know anymore."

"Another shot?"

"Definitely."

Boze poured them both one and they knocked it back together. Courtney recoiled at the taste, but Boze found herself getting used to it.

"So," Courtney's voice was a slow murmer. "Dated anyone recently?"

"Mmm, not really." Boze hadn't expected her to ask that question. "Why'd'you ask?"

"I don't know." Courtney smiled to herself, sitting up from where she'd been lying on the ground. "Makin' conversation?"

"What about you?"

"What about me."

"Have you dated anyone?" 

"It's been a while." Courtney seemed to glow under the security lights. Boze wondered if it was the alcohol talking, because she swore that she couldn't feel herself forming the words. Courtney looked like some angelic figure. God, she was pretty. "Last time didn't end great, but maybe something new will come along." 

"You think?"

"Yeah, but I'm getting kind of sick of these traditional stuff, with all of the subtext and that shit. I was hoping for something sporadic." Courtney rubbed her eyes again and yawned. "Like a friendship, but with no-strings-attached sex." The word made Boze's face heat up.

"So like friends with benefits?"

"Kinda." Courtney smiled in a bright haze. "But there's still an emotional thing there, like they care about each other, but there's no pressure to be romantic."

"You have someone in mind?"

"Mmm, maybe." Courtney reached across to grab something from near where Boze was sitting, scooting closer to reach it. When she pulled away, she was still right there, the drunken warmth of her body spilling off in every direction. Courtney placed her pinky finger over Boze's thumb, squeezing it just slightly. Boze looked up, almost afraid of what she might see in Courtney's eyes. There was a longing there, a depth that rivaled the deepest trenches of the ocean. "Maybe they're closer than you think."

"Wait," Boze's voice was a whisper. Courtney was so close to her now, but she stopped when Boze spoke. "You're drunk and tired. We're both going to regret this in the morning."

"Are we? Or are you afraid that it'll be me that regrets this, because-" Courtney traced a soft finger over Boze's cheek, sending a shiver down her spine- "I won't. I told you, no-strings-attached. This isn't a memory that will last like a stain on the carpet. This is something to enjoy. And isn't that what life's about? What you're about?" Courtney's eyes had never been so hypnotically green. "You're a brilliant person Boze, but you work yourself to death. You deserve something to enjoy." 

"And you want this?"

"I'm asking if you want this."

"I do," the words fell like scattered dice. 

And then Boze felt Courtney's lips pull into hers. They were sweet like alcohol, and they burned Boze's tongue with every taste. Courtney pulled Boze to her feet, and into the dressing room to the right of the stage, locking the door behind them for good measure.

Courtney was sweet like sherry, and Boze couldn't help but melt under the heat of her.

Chapter Text

Wes was starting to regret agreeing to come with Mari and Joven to the club.

Mari had abandoned them halfway through the evening for some guy with green hair that was covered in tattoos and piercings, and now it was just him and Joven in the back of the club, each holding a drink that was way too overpriced and tasted more like the bottom of a coffee filter than whiskey. People danced wildly, limbs flailing and arms pushed up towards the sky, each dancing slightly off beat to the music, which only helped to make Wes feel more drunk than he already was. To say that he was a lightweight was an understatement. He was what would happen if a lightweight was also anemic and had perpetual vertigo, because he'd only had a beer that Mari had given him, and had been sipping the whiskey Joven had recommended, and he was already feeling the effects. 

Joven wasn't great for conversation either, and seemed content staring aimlessly into the crowd, or at the back of Wes's head, or even into his own whiskey glass. He knew that Joven would've probably been drunk off his ass celebrating by now, but with Wes here, it seemed like he felt obligated to stay at least somewhat sober. 

Wes was dreaming of his bed at the moment. He thought that the club would be an escape, but instead he found himself unable to get up the courage to lose himself. Wes felt rooted into that spot next to Joven, it felt like if he tried to move, everything might crumble away around him.

"God this music is terrible." Joven grumbled to his whiskey glass. "Nobody these days really knows good music anymore."

"What'd you prefer they play? Darude Sandstorm or some shit like that?"

"Ha ha, very funny Wesley," he grumbled. "No, like some good eighties, the basics, like Bon Jovi or Van Helsing or something."

"Yeah, we should've known that this is the kind of place that Mari'd love, and we'd hate."

"I don't get why she loves this thrume-thrume music so much, like, what's so great about the hype up to a bass drop? Give me a banging guitar solo and some good lyrics about death or love and we're golden." Joven smiled in that way he used to. That way that made Wes's heart break for the times back when they'd all been a little less broken.

Wes felt himself tipping inside, from the cold shoulder he'd given Joven earlier that day, to the warmth he wanted to spread now. He wasn't quite at the point of drunkenness that he'd try to sleep with Joven, (it wouldn't be the first time), but he was close. There was some sort of comfort in Joven, like a song you'd listened to religiously as a kid, and then heard again as an adult and felt the shock waves of nostalgia permeate your skin as all of those memories that came with the music flooded back. 

"It's loud in here," Wes felt himself stay. "Mari's gone and I don't really want to dance tonight anymore." 

"Where do you want to go?" Joven already knew exactly where Wes wanted to go, but he asked anyway.

Ten minutes later, the two of them stood outside of the belgian waffle food truck, waiting in line as a group of high school kids ordered food in front of them. Joven thumbed through his wallet, gauging what Wes could order. He ended up buying a waffle tiramisu with an emphasis on the alcohol, and got Wes a double decker, three scoop strawberry-chocolate heart attack. It was delicious, and Wes was willing to risk the stomach ache that would come with the hangover the next morning. All of that would be Future Wes's problem, and Present Wes couldn't care less. 

He and Joven walked for a while in the quiet. The lights of the city were nice at night, and Wes liked watching the streets and the buildings and the alleyways in the white-yellow-orange glow. They stopped at a small public park that had once been the city's attempt at trying to clean up an old empty lot, but it had instead once again become a barren wasteland for junkies and squatters to find shelter at night. Wes knew that it was dangerous, they could get mugged at any moment, but the greenery smelled good on the evening air, and he wanted to soak it up as much as possible.

Wes hadn't grown up in Los Santos like everyone else. He'd lived a relatively normal life up until he'd given up everything and moved to the city for a fresh start. Out of everything from his life before now, the only thing he'd really missed was all of the plants and trees. Wes missed getting up early and taking the car out into the mountains and just taking a second to breath in a lungful of air that was so clean and cold that it burned the back of his throat.

He wanted to stop and watch the city go by from the comfort of a park bench, but the night's cold was starting to affect him, and the darkness stopped looking so friendly. Wes and Joven kept walking down to through the increasingly empty streets until it was just them walking along the edge of the pier above the water. They strode along the empty pier that jutted out into the ocean, reaching the end and stopping for a while. The lights around them seemed to brighten as Joven hung his arms over the edge of the railing, looking out into the water ahead. Wes turned with his back to the sea, leaning against the wooden barrier, watching Joven out of the corner of his eye.  

Joven looked tired as he stared aimlessly out into the churning ocean ahead of him. He looked like he hadn't slept in days, which Wes knew wasn't an exaggeration. Joven's eyes had begun to betray him, and Wes could see what he was thinking about as clearly as if he were saying it outloud. 

"Do you ever get tired of all of this?" Wes felt himself ask the question, but wasn't quite sure where it came from.

"Tired of what? Seeing your lame face everyday?"

"Lame Joven, really? I think you can do better than that." Wes raised an eyebrow and Joven let out a little puff of a laugh. "But really, I mean, do you get tired of all this waiting? And all of the uncertainties, all of that stomach twisting doubt about if it's worth it, because there are some days you're afraid might not live to see the next one?"

"You sound like you've been worrying about it more than I have." Joven paused when Wes didn't respond. His voice was softer with his next words. "Have you been worrying?"

"I don't know," Wes rubbed the outside of his arm. "A little. Not that much though, just a little thought. It's not as all consuming as it used to be." 

"Yeah, I get it." Joven hung his head back, looking up at the cloudy night sky above and blinking slowly up at the stars. Wes did the same, connecting the constellations quietly in the back of his mind. When he'd been younger, he'd taken his siblings that were just old enough to stay up late to see the stars. He'd learned all of the stories behind each of the constellations, and would retell them to his younger siblings, who would listen with fascination until they learned them themselves. They would retell the stories to him, and he would act as if he'd never heard them before, gasping at all of the twists and turns he'd told a hundred times over.

But in the city, the stars were faint and dim, even out here on the pier. He could make out a few of the bigger constellations, the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and a few others, but most that he'd known and loved had faded from the canvas of the sky. It almost made him sad that in the future this might be the sky that the people below saw, and not the sprawling beauty of a sky that glowed as bright and radiant as the moon with the amount of stars in view. 

Wes wondered if Joven might feel the same, or if his mind was filled with plans for the future, and not musings about stars. Joven might like the stories about the constellations, he always seemed to enjoy the stories people had to tell. Wes opened his mouth to ask Joven, but was interrupted before he could say anything.

"When did we stop being friends?" 

"What?" Wes looked over to see that Joven had been watching him. Joven probably thought they he looked like an idiot, mouth hanging open and eyes as bright as the stars above them. "We are friends, aren't we?"

"Yeah, I guess we are by the definition of the word, but we used to be so much closer than we are now." Joven let out a sigh. "We talked, Wes, we told each other shit."

"We were banging."

"Yes-" Joven smoothed his hair, clearly flustered by the abruptness of Wes's statement- "but you know what I mean...we were all so close, all of us at the Jackrabbit, we were family, Wes, what happened to all of that?"

"You know what happened." Wes had felt himself beginning to sober up, but he was willing to blame his boldness on the drunkenness anyway. "It was Mari. She went crazy and she tore us all apart."

"That wasn't her fault," Joven's voice was quiet but cold. "She wasn't in control-"

"Like hell she wasn't," Wes snapped back. "She chose to take those drugs, she chose to do all of that."

"She didn't know any different," Joven's eyes were dark. "If you had gone through what she had, you'd turn to something to ease the pain too."

"What do you mean 'gone through what she had' ?" 

"Oh," Joven's mouth mimicked the word. "That's right, you don't know about that." He sighed, his breath warm enough to leave a trail of mist in the air. "Maybe this'll all make a little more sense if I explain that." Joven folded his hands over one another, looking out into the water ahead. "Mari was hurt badly when she was a teenager...she was kidnapped for nearly two years."

"Oh my god."

"I found Mari on accident. I, uh-" Joven scratched the back of his head- "I crossed the wrong person and I was thrown through a downstairs window and into a basement. She was chained to a water pipe with a pair of handcuffs. She was nearly dead, she looked like a skeleton, her face had this ghastly glow to it. She was feral. I managed to coax her out without raising any alarms, and I took her to the police station, where she relayed what had happened to her." He pinched the skin on the back of his thumb. "And I mean, I felt bad for her, she was just a kid, only 17 and scared out of her mind, so I pulled some strings and got the police to actually do their jobs for once. They tracked down the people that hurt her, and made sure that they went away for a long time."

"How long ago was that?"

"Mmm," Joven squinted. "I don't even remember, like maybe 7 or 8 years?" He bit his lip. "It's not something I really like remembering. Dark times." He moved on quickly. "But during the trial, Mari had nowhere to go, so she offered to pay for rent if she could stay with me for the time being. I didn't mind, I was almost always out of a job, and she had enough money saved up to pay. And then she just kinda never left." He smiled sadly. "We tried to do the whole 'get your life together' thing, but it didn't work. Turns out that we both have a habit of working on the wrong side of the tracks."

"So you two got the club up and running?"

"No actually, for a while we tried dealing. Then the Seventh Street Titans tried to have us killed, so we stopped." Joven let out a chuckle. "Actually, Mari tried to be a mercenary for hire for a while, it went surprisingly well until someone tried to get her to kill a bunch of public figures and then she stopped."

"So a lot of starts and stops before you started the Jackrabbit?"

"Yeah, we decided that it would be better to start up a business as a front so that we could get a cash flow to fund our operation. And then it ended up going over better than we planned. I don't even remember when we started shooting for the Kingship. I guess that it was always kind of a goal in the back of my mind, but I never really was like, really set on it." He raised an eyebrow. "You know what I mean?"

"I think so."

"We started hiring more people, more strippers, and you as muscle and a - what did I officially call you again?"

"I'm pretty sure that my title is 'Building Consultant'. I'm supposedly some sort of expert on how the structure of the building works or something like that."

"Huh, yeah I'm pretty sure I was drunk when I came up with that."

"I think we were both drunk and in the same room and I yelled out two words that sounded official and you wrote it on the document."

"I hate that that's probably incredibly accurate," Joven cringed. "God we were so young." He huffed out a single bright note. "Maybe that's why it all made more sense."

"What made sense?"

"Life," he smiled. "Life still made sense." Joven pulled away from the railing. He took one long look out at the dark waves that rolled across the bay, the wind slowly rolling through his hair. "I'm gettin' tired," he spoke softly, "let's head home."

It was a quiet walk back, with a bit of conversation in between. Joven continued with his story about the formation of the Jackrabbit, but everything Joven said Wes already knew. He didn't know how late it was, but it was late enough for the moon to hang high above their heads, casting a pale glow down on them. Wes was warm with food and alcohol, and almost felt like he was floating as he bounced alongside Joven.

Joven fumbled with the keys as he unlocked the door to the apartment-office side of the Jackrabbit. The lights were all off and Wes had assumed that Damien and Boze were already up in their rooms, and if not, had probably gone out for a late night dinner run. Joven locked the door behind them, and they walked side up side to their rooms on the second floor.

There was a moment there, and Wes stood in front of his doorway trying to puzzle through it.

"You're thinking about it, aren't you?" Joven had opened his door, and stood halfway in and halfway out of his room. "We can't Wes."

"I wasn't thinking about that, I haven't-"

"You are clearly drunk, of course you were thinking about that."

"Maybe a little." Wes scratched the back of his head. "It's just, everything feels like old times right, and I can't help wanting to slip into old habits, especially when old habits are really fun."

"Old habits were fun. But we can't go back like that, I don't want you to become a liability for me."

"What'd you mean?"

"If someone tried to hurt you Wes, I'd cut my arm off to get you back." Joven's face was red in the dim light of the hallway. "You know that. If we started that, agreement, up again, it'll only be a matter of time before something happens."

"Okay." Wes felt his stomach fall. There was a moment of quiet between them that cut away at Wes's heart.

"I know, I'm incredibly handsome, you'd have to be a fool to think I'm not a catch." Joven waggled his eyebrows at Wes, trying to lighten the air a little.

"Oh shut up," Wes grumbled sarcastically. "Goodnight Joven."

"Night Wes."

He opened the door to his room, listening for the sound of Joven's door shutting before he closed his own behind him. He sat in the silence for a while on the edge of his bed, staring at the lines that etched across his palms. Wes finally forced himself up and off the side of the bed, and changed into his pajamas, which was a novelty old triple-x t-shirt with a giant grinning gopher on it with the words 'gopher it' in ugly brown lettering. Boze had bought him as a gag gift the year before and he'd accidentally fallen in love with it. 

He scrolled through his phone for a while before turning off his light and trying to fall asleep.

But everytime he closed his eyes he kept seeing the barrel of that gun again and again. He kept dreaming of his blood, trickling across the floor in stark red lines. Wes felt the cold icy hand on death grip around his chest until he couldn't take it anymore.

Don't do it. He told himself. Don't go there. But he'd never been very good at listening to himself.

He stood, tip-toeing over to his door. As his hand hovered over the door handle, he heard someone moving around out in the hallway. There was the whisper of a soft voice that could have easily been two, but it was too muffled for Wes to quite tell. Wes pulled the door open, peering out into the hallway to see Boze's door slam shut. She'd probably just come back from some sort of late night escapade, but his head was too fried to even think about that right now. 

Across the hall, Joven's light was on under his door. Wes crossed the hallway, standing in front of Joven's door for a good minute and a half, his hand poised in front of the door. He finally gave in and knocked when his hand started to hurt. There was a muffled "It's open", and Wes pushed the door open. 

He stood outside for a second, Joven sat at his desk, mostly changed out of his clothes from the day, except for his shirt, which hung loosely off his shoulders. 

"Wes, I told you, we weren't gonna do this...besides, the last time was months ago."

"Joven...It's not that."

"You have a question or something? Can it wait until morning?" 

"I...I can't sleep." Wes's voice broke.

"Oh."

"I was wondering-"

"Of course." Joven answered so quickly Wes wondered if Joven had heard him correctly. 

"You're really okay with this?" Wes stepped into Joven's room, closing the door behind him. "I thought that after-"

"Just get in the bed Wesley."

"Okay."

"I'm gonna work for a little more, is the light too bright?"

"I'll be fine."

Wes crossed the room like he'd done hundreds of times. This had been something that they'd done back when Wes still had the nightmares that left him too scared to sleep alone. When he'd come to Joven for support. When they'd shared the bed on those nights where the darkness crawled into bed with Wes and wouldn't leave until the morning. Joven was more than an old comfort, he was a protector. 

Wes crawled into the bed, the familiar lavender smell of Joven's sheets fell over him like waves they'd watched on the pier. He was turned away from Joven, but he could feel him there, and that was enough. He heard Joven flick off the light, and he felt the bed dip slightly as Joven slipped in next to him. Wes could feel Joven's breath on the back of his neck, and that was enough.

And in the darkness, Wes turned towards Joven. His eyes were closed, but he smiled, soft and slow.

And it was like old times again, but this time Wes felt hopeful. Life was going to be different, he didn't know how, but he knew that it was.

And for the first time in forever, Wes fell asleep without tears. 

Chapter Text

Mari awoke in a bed that wasn't hers. 

For a second the cold grip of fear grasped at her skin, and she felt her body go rigid where she lay. The bedding next to her moved slightly, and a familiar head of bright green hair and the curve of a back covered in tattoos brought back the memories of the previous night. Damn, she'd been drunk last night. She pulled the covers off of her slightly, the warm morning air feeling good on her skin.

There was a buzz from the floor and the rest of Mari's responsibilities come flooding back to her.

Mari sat up, pushing off the covers as quietly as she could, and felt around on the floor for her pants, pulling her phone out of the back pocket. It was already noon, so she had some time before she had to get to Westside. Mari unlocked her phone to find seven texts and three missed calls from Joven. Mari swore quietly, and began pulling on her clothes, barely buttoning her pants, and her shirt barely on her body before slipping out through the door.

She scrawled a lazy note on a scrap piece of paper, making sure the fives in her number looked likes sixes, and the ones looked like sevens, and one of the nines looked like a five, until her whole number was impossible to get right. It was her trick. She didn't want to give him her number, but she did want to be the strange encounter he'd talk about one day. One of the ones that got away.

Even if he did happen to get her number correct, she wasn't going to answer, and if she did, she'd probably be half-past drunk at two am, and up for anything.

Mari stepped out of the man's apartment and into an empty hallway, dialing Joven's number and pressing the call button. He picked up on the second ring, just as she started down the stairs at the end of the hall.

"Hey, where the hell are you?"

"Some guy's apartment."

"You fucked that gangster wannabe?"

"Yeah," Mari grumbled as she descended the stairs. "The sex was ass at first, but I topped and then it was great." She laughed loudly as Joven grumbled 'grossunder his breath. "Sorry for ditching you and Western yesterday, I thought you two might want some privacy to chat."

"Bullshit." She could hear him grinning on the other line. "You were horny so you left."

"You're not wrong!" Mari cackled. She pushed the door open in front of her and stepped out into the cold morning air. Mari held her phone loosely to her ear, taking a second to figure out where she was. She squinted at the nearest street sign, and grinned, realizing that she was on the right side of town. "So were you just calling me a buncha times 'cause you were worried about me, or did that Matt Raub guy get back to you?"

"I was a little worried, but I knew you'd be up by noon, so I didn't worry that much."

"Aww, Jovie." Mari walked down the street a while until she came upon a line of restaurants open for late brunch. "You really do have heart."

Joven cleared his throat, and moved on. "The Bratstvo Medvedya got back to us. They're sending someone over at three. Can you get home by then?"

"Yeah sure." Mari grinned to herself as she pushed open the door to a tiny diner she recognized. "I think me and the twenty-one-pilots reject are gonna go for another round, so don't expect me back too soon, okay?"

"Once again, gross, but alright."

"Later."

"Bye."

Mari pushed the phone into as she grabbed a seat at the front counter. A middle-aged waitress in the stereotypical blue and white striped outfit took her order: a black coffee, bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns. Mari looked around for something to do in her spare time. The box television hanging from the ceiling on the edge of the wall caught her attention. It was turned on to Channel 5 News, where a story was being investigated, the kind of one that was normally overly dramatic and scripted to put the viewer on edge. Mari hated those kinds of pieces, but she watched anyway. The audio was fuzzy, but it was just loud enough for her to hear.

"Though the story is still developing, authorities have brought forth new evidence that supports the claims." The news anchor, a women who might've once been beautiful, but now looked fake, with caked on makeup and hair with enough product in it to kill a small animal, read from the teleprompter. "Joseph Loisoz-" the name sent a spiraling chill down Mari's spine- "renowned for being Los Santos's most prolific gang leader-" Joven would've hated that- "has been confirmed dead as of this morning."

Mari's body went cold. She couldn't move, her hand poised over her phone as she continued watching. 

"Authorities searched an abandoned building off of an anonymous tip, and found evidence that Loisoz died inside the house. They have yet to recover a body, or find any evidence towards who the killer might be, but the local police and state troopers have been called in to work the case."

"Order up." Mari reached towards her belt, grasping for a gun that wasn't there. She turned towards the waitress, who looked back at her bored and confused. "Somethin' wrong hon?"

"No...No." She gave the waitress her best fake smile. "Just a little tired."

"Long night?" The waitress gave her a toothy grin. 

"The longest," Mari sighed. 

"Enjoy." 

Mari looked down at her food, not quite sure that she could eat with her stomach churning. An anonymous tip. She felt the hairs on her arm stand on end. Somebody sent an anonymous tip about where I'd been squatting. Somebody knows what I didJoven was the only one who knew...except for-

Joven had said that he called in backup to help clean up the scene. Mari would figure that out later. For now, she was safe. The police were stupid enough, she had at least three weeks before they got anywhere in the case. By then she could have her identity wiped from the world if she wanted. Being a ghost might be fun. She'd been a mercenary once, why not try it again?

She looked back up to the tv, but saw that they had moved on to chronicalling Loisoz's life, and she knew most of that stuff already. Hang around Boze enough and you learn a thing or two about the truth of the crime world. Mari missed that about Boze.

Mari tried to eat her breakfast, but it didn't taste as good with the new worries in the back of her mind.

She set down fifteen bucks on the counter and headed out the door, walking towards the Westside Bridge, which was about a four or five blocks from where she was. Mari checked the time, she had about a half hour before she had to be there, so she took her time walking, savoring the morning air. You got used to the smell of piss and pigeon shit after a while, and Mari wondered if she could ever live life without it.

She'd grown up on these streets, they'd been some of the only comfort she'd known for several years of her life.

Mari wished that she'd brought a coat with as she rubbed the back of her arms. Los Santos managed to get somewhat cold during the winter, of course, not as cold as some other places, but it still managed to let her breath hang in the air and the sky grow dark with clouds, threatening to rain, but never making good on the promise. 

It was easy to forget that she'd grown up on the Westside. She'd lived all over the city, but her first few years were spent in a little apartment crowded with at least ten people at all times. She'd loved the atmosphere it had, all of the people moving and shifting, laughing and crying, living life through the most explosive of emotions. As she got older, she started to resent all of the noise and people in her life. She craved that little whisper of silence that never seemed to be able to survive, trampled under the feet of all of those who ran through that apartment. 

Mari had often wondered what he life would've been like if she hadn't run away that day. If she had reconciled with her step-brother and step-mom, instead of packing all of her things into a bag and heading for the streets. If she had taken a left instead of a right, how would her life have changed? Maybe she would've been a dancer, moved to New York, or maybe she'd have gone back to Japan to visit her grandparents, if they were still alive, and studied to become a translator or something.

Now she was going to meet a drug dealer underneath a bridge so that she could make small talk with a mafia boss without collapsing. 

She could smell the smoke before she saw him. He was always smoking. Mari crossed the road to meet him under the bridge, where he was leaned up against the cement foot, hidden away in the crevice that was shielded from cameras or anyone that happened to be passing by. 

"You look like shit," he grinned, pulling the cigarette away from his mouth. "You must'a had fun night last night." 

"Fuck off Sohinki." Mari smiled as she leaned on the wall across from him. "You don't look too great yourself." In reality, he looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen him. The same hollow eyes that were too big for his face, the scraggly beard that was cut close to his chin, and the familiar three hundred layers of clothing covered by the coat that was three sizes too big on him. He held the cigarette between his fingers, the skin that wasn't covered up by his green-grey fingerless gloves was a pink-grey from the ash.

"Swore you were dead Takahashi," Sohinki accented his words with a jab of the cigarette. "Legs said you were dead."

"Legs is an idiot and a pothead, why the hell do you believe anything he says?"

"He's a good kisser." 

"So was I." Mari raised an eyebrow, giving Sohinki a smirk. "And I'm not a very truthful person, am I?"

"Nope." Sohinki put the cigarette in his mouth and dug through his pockets, looking for her order. He grinned up at her, his teeth a worrying shade of yellow. "So, where've you been since you went all crazy? I heard that you sliced up one of your friends like a side of beef and then ran off."

"I didn't-" Mari's voice went cold. "She's fine."

Sohinki put his hands up. "Aye, I ain't tryin' to start a fight here." His cigarette hung loose from his lips, smoke wafting out the corners of his mouth. "I'm just tryin'a get the facts straight." He tried a different pocket, digging around for the bottle. "Where did ya go that whole time?"

"I hid out on a old friend's houseboat for a while, but I ran out of the H pretty quick, so I moved to a den for a while after that."

"And I'm guessin' all of this had nothing to do with those four shitheads that just got out of prison?" He tried another coat pocket. "And the fact that they've all gone missin', and no one can find their bodies?"

"I'm here for product Sohinki, not conversation."

"A-ight, I get it, no talkin' about ya personal life." He scratched the back of his head. "Or multiple possible homicides." 

"What about you?" Mari cut him with her eyes. "You had someone else deliver my stuff for a little while, why was that?"

"So you can ask me questions, but I can't ask you shit?" He took a drag on his cigarette. "Unfair Takahashi, un-fair."

"Shut it Sohin, you love talking about yourself."

"And ya lucky I do," he grinned, pulling a small bottle out of the last possible pocket. "Cause then our conversations are never borin'."

"How much?"

"125."

"125?"

"It's a steal Takahashi, plus a friend discount, don't make me make you pay 150." 

"It used to be 75."

"That's when we were fuckin'. And we're clearly not-" he gave her a smirk- "unless."

"No." Mari ran a hand through her hair. "Not making that mistake again."

"Hey-"

"Fine. Here’s the 125." She slapped a thick wad of cash into his open palm, taking the bottle from the other. Mari bit her lip slightly as she pocketed the bottle. "Thanks."

"No prob." Sohinki cocked his head, pulling the cigarette out from between his lips. "Ya sure that you can do this?" 

"Do what?" Mari looked back at him.

"You're tryin'a get clean, right?" He rolled his eyes when she gave him a blank expression. "I know ya Takahashi. You do this every time, ya say you're gettin' clean, and then you come back for more the next month." 

"It's gonna stick this time."

"Ya sure?"

"I have something to fight for this time."

"And you didn't before?" 

"It's different this time." A breeze from a truck whipping by the underpass sent goosebumps over Mari's skin. "I have an idea of the future. My past isn't going to hold me back anymore. There's nothing holding me down anymore that I can't break." She turned back to him, nodding firmly. "I can do this."

"Well good luck Takahashi." He took one final drag on the cigarette before throwing it onto the ground and stamping it out. Sohinki exhaled a lungful of smoke, letting it hang around his face. "See ya around Mari."

"See ya." 

Sohinki turned away, and Mari stood where she was as the smoke dissipated. She felt for the bottle in her pocket, running her finger over the top, the familiar cold of the metal made the inside of her elbow ache. Mari looked up at the underside of the bridge, listening to the hum of cars as they rumbled across. She couldn't help but feel so small in that moment, like a drop within an ocean of people. A pinprick of blood that had fallen between the cracks of the sidewalk after a fight, and been left to dry, crackling and black.

In that moment, something inside of her shifted. There was so much fear locked away in the pit of her stomach. So much hurt that made her want to cry, and cry, and cry, and never stop. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, as she tried to get her heart beat under control.

She had work to do. There wasn't room for doubt in this sort of project. She closed her eyes, and let her mind go blank. She let all of her anger and fear and worry root itself into the ground. Mari pushed out everything, letting it tumble to the ground. She pushed out the noise, and the light, and the smells of the street, and the cold of the breeze on her skin until all she could feel was the darkness that slept in the corners of her mind.

She didn't know how long she had stood there, but it was long enough. 

Mari turned towards home, trying to pretend that she was okay. 

Chapter Text

Joven slept better than he'd slept in months. 

He woke up at the crack of dawn, trying to untangle himself from the sheets as Wes slept softly next to him. Joven lay in bed for a second, watching Wes breath, his hair had fallen in his face, and it took all of Joven's strength not to push it away. 

He pulled himself out of bed, grabbing his phone off of the nightstand and pushing the door open as quietly as possible as he stepped out into the hall. Joven walked to the end of the corridor, looking up to see that Mari's door was open at the top of the steps. She hadn't made it home last night. He sent her a text, checking that she was out, and hadn't just forgotten to close her door.

Boze and Wes's doors had been shut, as had his own, but Damien's room was empty, his door ajar. Joven hoped that he'd just gone out for a morning walk or had changed his mind the night before and gone over to the house of one of the girls that he'd met bartending.

Joven liked how quiet it was in the mornings, how the silence poured over the building, and every single step he took could be heard clearly as he took the stairs down to the main floor. He wasn't entirely sure what to do that morning. Normally there were plans to worry about, and people to pay off, and checks to write, but today felt like a day where he could finally take a second to breathe. 

He took some food from the kitchen and popped open a can of that gross fizzy water one of the stripers had brought and left. Joven drank the whole thing before he realized that he hated it, and crushed the can in his hand before tossing it into the garbage.

Joven opened up the safe behind his painting, and pulled out the briefcase, snapping it open and pulling out some of the contents. He opened up Boze's laptop, which was technically his, but she had sort of never let him use it again after he'd given it to her. She had her pet project open, and he was glad to see that she had made some headway on it. 

The notification of a chat post caught his attention, and he clicked on it to find the following message.

B78s4w: Greetings Jackrabbit. This is Matt Raub. We are calling a meeting at your headquarters at approximately three o'clock today. Prepare for planning.

Joven thought out his message, deleting it and rewriting it at least three times before he finally sent it.

J4ckrabb!t : Good to hear from you. We'll be ready by then. Come in through the back entrance, we'll have someone let you in.

Joven set the computer aside, pulling out a few maps and other papers Boze kept in there from the briefcase. He got to work on cleaning off his desk, and filing the papers, knowing that he'd have to clean the conference room last minute. There was a message less than five minutes later.

B78s4w Prepare space to accommodate four people, including room for several computers.

J4ckrabb!t: Will do.

Joven snapped the computer shut, setting it back in the newly-cleaned briefcase. He set about cleaning the meeting room, something they hadn't used in a while, and was due for a good dusting. Joven worked for a few hours before Wes came downstairs, the bruise around his eye looked like it had begun to heal, and the scratches on the rest of his face were less red than they'd been the day before.

"Something up or are you just obsessively cleaning the conference room?"

"Ha-ha Wesley." Joven stood from where he was leaning over the conference table with a washcloth and a bucket of warm water and soap. "No, the Korol of the Bear Brotherhood just sent a message. He's bringing some friends over at three. I'm just getting the conference room ready."

"So you're obsessively cleaning and something's up," Wes laughed.

"Shut up Wesley."

"An excessive use of Wesley too, you must've slept better than normal last night."

Joven grumbled under his breath, but he was really more happy that Wes was back to talking to him again than anything else. Someone passing by the entrance to the conference room caught his eye, and he looked up, not quite catching who it was.

"Boze must be up," Joven noted. "I'll go fill her in while you finish cleaning the conference room."

"Joven-"

"Have fun cleaning under the table!" Joven grinned as he exited the room, laughing as Wes as he did. 

Joven turned away from Wes to see Boze standing at the entrance to the club through the hallway, talking to someone through the door. Whoever it was, Boze seemed as ease, joking as she leaned against the door. Joven waited as she said goodbye, pushing the door slowly closed behind her. Boze was grinning as she turned around, but her expression quickly mutated as she saw Joven.

"Shit," she tensed. "Joven you scared the hell out of me." Boze relaxed, raising a eyebrow at him. "How long were you standing there?"

"Why does it matter?" Joven raised his own eyebrow, feeling a coy expression cross his face. "Oooh, did little Boze get her freak on?"

"Really Joven? 'Get my freak on'? You can do better than that," Boze sighed. She changed the topic quickly. "Any updates on the Bear Brotherhood?"

"Yeah actually, they'll be here at three."

Boze's eyes bugged out of their sockets. "What!? What time is it now?"

"I dunno, like noon?"

"Shit, I've gotta get that thing done before they get here."

"What thing?" Joven turned with her as she blew past him, pulling open the door to his office.

"Y'know, the thing!" Boze started pulling the door closed after her. "Make sure no one bothers me, under no circumstance should anyone come in this room unless someone's bleeding out and I'm the only one that can help, or the building's on fire, okay?"

"Okay-but Boze, wait!" 

"What?" She paused with a tiny gap left in the door.

"You wouldn't happen to know where Damien is, would you? He wasn't in his room, I assumed that he went somewhere last night. I thought that he'd have told you if he left though, right?"

"Yeah, he went to go get ramen, I'm gonna guess that he met someone or ran into someone or something, alright?" She waited for a response by Joven put up his hands in surrender. "No distractions!" Boze slammed the door shut behind her and Joven was left in the darkened hallway.

Joven sent Damien a text, and got a response a few minutes later.

Haas: Sorry, should've sent you a message. Went to Shayne's for some video games. Be back in 20.

Damien was always punctual, something that Joven admired about him. He knew that when Damien said twenty minutes, he'd be there in twenty minutes. Joven then sent a few messages to Mari, but he knew that she was probably asleep.

He called her twice, and the third time left her a short message. Joven started to get a little worried after he sent the seventh text. She normally responded by now, even if she was busy. Mari was the kind of person to get back to you unless she didn't want to be found.

Joven tried to ignore his worries by cleaning up office side of the building. He organized the kitchen in a way that looked presentable, and took the trash out for the first time in months. 

He had started considering grabbing some of the less harsh chemicals from downstairs to try and address the problem that was the Jackrabbit's bathroom when Mari called him back. Joven let her talk about her night for a little before filling her in on what was happening back at the headquarters. She promised to be back in time to meet with their guests before she said goodbye.

Joven couldn't help but feel a little more at ease. After all that had happened, it was almost strange to feel that way. Everything had been so chaotic for the past few months, but now it felt like they were slipping back into their old routines, making each other laugh and running the club like the weird little family they were.

Joven was almost happy. But he didn't let himself get that far.

He checked in on Wes, who had begrudgingly finished the cleaning in the conference room.

"Was it Boze?" He asked, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm.

"Yeah, and she was seeing someone out the door."

"Really?" Wes raised an interested eyebrow. "Last night when I got up, I heard her going into her room, and I swore I heard another person with her. Did you see who it was?"

"No, but I'm guessing that it was one of her, friends, she has on speed dial." 

"Maybe." Wes got a far away look in his eyes. His lips turned up into a smirk. "Do you think people talked like this about us when we were together?"

"All of this talk about us Wes. Did you fall in love with me again?"

"Ew gross," Wes scrunched up his nose sarcastically. "Nah, it's just kinda one of those weird intrusive thoughts. I thought you might find it funny."

"I do," Joven grumbled with a smile. He considered Wes's question. "I'll ask Mari or Damien about it."

"Not Boze?"

"I already know what her answer is gonna be." 

Wes chuckled, handing the bucket of water to Joven. "I did what you asked, but you've gotta deal with the clean up, bud."

"What are you gonna do in the meantime?" Joven hoisted the bucket over his shoulder. 

"Mmm, I was going to go try out the pole of a little, see if I'm still in shape." Wes stretched, showing off his shoulders as he did.

"Really?"

"Yeah, why, you wanna watch or something?" Wes bit his tongue in a mock flirty way. Joven was hit with the sudden nostalgia of an older time, one where Wes still talked to him like that, instead of curt nods and quiet responses. Wes wiggled his eyebrows as Joven, who rolled his eyes.

"Get outta here Wesley," Joven sighed. Wes let out a little giggle and left the room, leaving Joven to organize the it. 

His phone buzzed, and he assumed that it was Mari or Damien updating him on where they were. Instead, a cold shock sent itself down his spine.

Missed Call From 555-0930

He picked up his cell, his brain going into autopilot as he slid the phone into his pocket.

Joven closed the door to the conference room quietly behind him, making sure to lock it several times. He drew the blinds on the conference room, ensuring that he hadn't missed a spot. Joven pulled out a key that hung around his neck under his shirt. He always wore it on his just in case he needed it, and there was a spare copy hidden on Boze's keyring.

Joven faced the painting on the far wall, and felt along the frame with his fingertips. His found the spot on the painting and flipped open the small hidden panel on the side with the tip of his fingernail. Joven slotted the key in place, turning it slightly in the wrong direction with the key halfway in before pressing it all the way in and turning it back all the way in the right direction. There was a series of clicks, and Joven removed the key, swinging the painting off the wall to reveal a small door just big enough for him to fit through behind it. 

Joven punched in the code to the room on the keypad lock on the door. The mechanics in the door whirred to life, and Joven pushed the door open, closing the painting hatch behind him.  He flicked on the light in the corner, listening to his back-up generator whirr to life. The room was small, but it was big enough to fit a small bed, a desk in the corner piled with heaps of electronics and wires and a smallish monitor, and a wire rack filled with rations and bottled water. Joven crossed the room to the desk, flicking on a few switches. He pressed a giant yellow button on one of the consoles as he sat down in the chair. Joven pulled his phone out of his back pocket, loading up the app he kept hidden on his phone. 

The home screen blank white, with an oscillating grey circle in the middle. Text appeared on the blank white space. Connection Secured

Joven took a breath before dialing the number, putting his phone up to his ear. The phone rang three times before there was an answer on the other end.

The voice on the other end of the line had said nothing, but Joven knew that she was listening to him.

"I was wondering if you'd even call me back," the voice sighed. "Last time we spoke, you were in quite the hurry."

"Are you here to tease me, or do you want something?"

"Temper, temper, Joven." He hated how she said his name. Joven could hear every little syllable as if it had been spoken with an overly pronounced staccato. "I come bearing news, more than anything else."

"Good news or bad news."

"Bad news I'm afraid, though I wish it were good." He waited for her to continue, there was no use rushing her or else he wouldn't get any information at all. "I'd thought, that you might like to know that some upstart journalist is going after your friend."

"I have a lot of...those kinds....of friends. You're going to need to be more specific."

"The fuck-up you keep trying to save, the one with the purple hair."

"What about her?"

"The police found the kill site you sent me to Joven, it was on Channel 5 this morning. I cleaned it the best I could, but I couldn't really conceivably burn it, so..."

"What." Joven felt his heart stop. "Shit. Oh, fucking hell, how did they find it?" He pressed his free hand against his temples. "Kate, I swear to god if you told someone-"

"Joshua, I would never dream of doing such a thing."

"Joshua?"

"If we're using our real names, why shouldn't I be able to give yours for a spin?"

Joven held back from using a few choice words very loudly. "Fine, Prime, whatever, that's not important right now-" Joven leaned his head back- "what really matters, is...no one else knew Kate. Just you, me, and Mari. and if...if you so much as referenced that building to someone, anyone, doesn't matter who, I will find you, and I will choke that sick, psychopathic light out of you-"

"Joven, please." Kate sighed loudly. "As if you could even find me in the first place-"

"This isn't something to laugh about," Joven spat. "Mari could be in danger because of this." He rubbed his eyes, trying not to let his anger get the better of him. "How much did it cost you?"

"How much did what cost me?"

"HOW MUCH DID IT COST YOU?" Joven roared, slamming his fist into his desk, stinging hot pain radiated up his arm.

Kate's voice became deadly calm. "Joven even if someone promised to pay me all the money in the world, I would never betray you like that."

"Then who did?" 

"How the hell should I know?" Kate sounded annoyed. 

"You're Katherine Prime, you know everything."

"I do," she sighed, her voice honeyed with bravado. "It's a gift and a curse, really."

"So you know who it was that tipped them off?"

"No, I don't know that, but I do know the reporter that's going after your friend in the first place, the guy who's trying to get to the bottom of this."

"Who?"

"His name's Ryan Todd, he's some big city hotshot or something, runs a podcast about true crime."

"And he's looking into old gang activity, isn't he?"

"Yep, went straight for Loisoz and Los Banditos."

"God," Joven felt his blood run cold. "I haven't heard that name in a while."

"Loisoz?"

"No, Los Banditos."

"Surprising with who you've associated yourself up with." He could hear Kate grinning over the phone. The was a slight silence before Kate spoke again. "Alright Joven, gotta run."

"Kate?"

"Hmm?"

"If you hear anything else about this, I'm the first one you call, got it?"

"'Course."

"And, um..." He could almost visualize the coy look on her face. "Thanks."

"No problem," she purred. "See ya."

The line went quiet as Kate hung up on him.

Joven turned off the devices on the table, sitting back in his chair. He let out a sigh, crossing his arms over him as he looked over at the security feed on his monitor. Boze was hard at work in his office, and Wes, true to form, was actually on the stage, cleaning off the pole in between routines. Joven watched him for a little bit, trying to get his mind off of Kate's words.

He felt the tiniest bit of worry creep into his mind, but flushed it out quickly. This wasn't a time for doubt. He needed to be strong.

The Bear Brotherhood was coming, and they were going to help pave his way to the crown. Joven didn't care what he had to do to get to it.

In fact, the deadlier the better. From the amount of anger and fear coursing through his veins, he wouldn't mind to crushing a few skulls.

 

Chapter Text

Damien woke up to sunlight and a cat sitting on his chest. He took a second to take in his surroundings, realizing that he was still in Shayne's apartment. Damien sat up slowly, trying to not bother Shayne's cat Sadie, who was currently crushing his ribs. 

He had fallen asleep on Shayne's couch across from the tv, and Damien smiled at the fact that there was a warm, woolen blanket that had been lain on top of him. The ground, which had been covered in doritos and milk dud boxes the night before, had been cleaned as well.

Sadie sat up from where she was sleeping, blinking at him slowly before leaping off of his chest and running into the kitchen, her collar jangling loudly.

"Hello my little Sadie-Wadie," Shayne cooed from where he was across the room. Damien looked up at him to watch as he lifted his cat off of the ground and held her like a baby in his arms. "How are you? Good?" Sadie trilled loudly. "Good." He scratched the back of her head before letting her down onto the ground.

"Morning," Damien's voice was thick and groggy with sleep. 

"Hey," Shayne smiled. "You're up. Want some eggs?"

"Scrambled?"

"With ham and lots of cheese."

Damien stood, folding the blanket after it spilled off of him, and setting it on the back of the couch. "You got some coffee brewing?"

"It's in the pot, you know where the mugs are."

Damien brushed past Shayne as he entered the kitchen, grabbing a cup from the cupboard as Sadie weaved her way around his legs. He filled up the mug halfway before grabbing the sugar from Shayne's pantry and ladling in a few spoonfuls. Damien took a seat at Shayne's tiny kitchen table, distracting himself with the cat that was very adamant about sitting in his lap. He sipped his coffee and petted Sadie as Shayne tossed a few handfuls of cheese into the eggs on the stove. 

Shayne turned the heat off, and grabbed some plates from above him, handing one to Damien and setting the other at the seat across from him. He rolled his eyes as he saw Sadie had made herself at home on his lap.

"Oh, you've been enabled, haven't you Sadie?" Damien laughed as Sadie kneaded his leg, meowing loudly in response. She hopped off his lap and weaved around Shayne's legs a little before running off to wherever she went in the apartment. "And that's all were going to see of that sweet little girl for the rest of the day." Shayne pulled a towel that was hanging from the handle of his oven, turning it over on itself and tossing it on the table before setting the pan on top of that. "Here for love one minute, gone for the other fifty-nine."

"Cats are like that," Damien responded as he served himself from the pan. Shayne grabbed his own coffee off of the counter as he slid into his chair. Damien swallowed down a fork-full of eggs, surprised to find that they were actually pretty good. 

"These are great," he noted. "I didn't know you could actually cook a decent meal."

"I can't, those are actually little bits of that sponge from under the sink that I clipped off and mixed in with some mold that was growing on something in the back of my fridge." Shayne grinned mockingly as he piled the eggs and ham mixture on his plate. 

"Oh, shut up Shayne." Damien chuckled sarcastically as he devoured half of the food on his plate.

"So..." Shayne's voice was slightly tensed. "Are we gonna talk about last night?"

Damien nearly choked on his eggs. He felt his mind go blank as his heart rate shot up substantially. He'd been sober, right? He was sober. They'd played some video games and ate junk food. Nothing else happened. "What?"

"C'mon man, you weren't serious, were you?" 

Shit. Shit. Shit. What had he said.

"What'd'ya mean?"

"Really Damien?" Shayne rolled his eyes, sighing. "Fine. You're really gonna make me suffer through saying it for your own guilty pleasure? I don't really owe you hundred bucks because you beat me at nidhogg seven times, right?"

Oh thank god.

"You definitely owe me a hundred bucks bud."

"Dammit, I shouldn't make bets with you after midnight."

"You should not," Damien grinned. 

The two of them made friendly conversation as they finished their breakfasts. Damien felt relieved in a way, he felt like his friendship with Shayne was just that, a friendship again. They were best friends, nothing more. And he was going to be okay with that. He had to be okay with that if he wanted to keep Shayne in his life. Losing Shayne, someone who had been an anchor in life for so long, might be enough to finally break him.

"You alright Damien?" Shayne picked up his plate and the empty pan, and set them in the sink. Damien pushed his plate forward, and Shayne sighed overdramatically about having to put it away before picking it up and setting it in the sink on top of the other things already in it. "You seem distracted again."

"Was I distracted before?" Damien raised his cup to his lips. "I don't remember being distracted."

"All these past few weeks it's been like...like you weren't quite there." Shayne leaned forward against the back of the kitchen chair. "Then last night, you were back to your old self, and then just now, it's like the switch flipped again."

Because I've been worrying about you.

"Did I say something wrong?" Shayne asked the question calmly, but Damien could see the nervous energy in how he stood. "I just want to make sure I didn't offend you, or say something you didn't take well but then you said nothing about 'cause you were afraid of hurting my feelings or-"

"No, no, no," Damien forced a weak smile. "It's not you man, don't worry. It's just..." He considered his words for a second. Damien was getting sick of lying to Shayne. "Work's been killer lately."

"Something happen?" Shayne raised an eyebrow, spinning around the chair to sit in it. Then he seemed to register. "Oh shit. You were there when that thing went down two days ago, weren't you?" Shayne's face changed, worry permeating his expression. "When that gangster, mobster, mafia or whoever he was came in and tried to shoot Joven."

Damien tried to keep his face straight. "How did you know about that..."

"The Jackrabbit's not exactly the Pentagon Dames, course I knew." He sighed into his coffee mug. "Same way I know that Joven's not actually just an enterprising club owner."

"What do you mean?" Damien's only action was to play dumb.

"Damien, if I didn't know you so well, I would've thought you were telling the truth right now." Shayne set his cup quietly on the table. "It wasn't hard to piece together your background from what you told me. You used to be in a gang, didn't you?"

Damien swallowed quietly, looking down at his coffee mug. 

He used to never be able to get caught in a lie, he could lie to his father for fucks sake, and that was known to be impossible. But looking at Shayne's face, something in Damien's throat shattered. Damien had known that it was a matter of time before he couldn't lie to Shayne, but why did it have to be now?

"I did," Damien's voice was a whisper.

"And now you've joined up with Joven?" Shayne's voice was strained, and Damien looked him square in his eyes. "What happened to your dream?"

"I could ask the same of you," Damien noted. Shayne rolled his eyes as he let out a huffed sigh. "Alright, okay," Damien relented. "At first, I did care. I worked the bartending job, and only the bartending job, like you saw. Then one night, this guy came in and tried to attack Joven, so I fought him off. Joven hired me to help him after that."

"So you're like the muscle of his operation?"

"Kinda of?" Damien buried his head in his hands. "Shit, I'm not even supposed to be telling you any of this."

"Is this why you've been so distant?"

One more lie wouldn't hurt. "Yeah." Then he was done lying to Shayne, for good. "I was afraid that I'd accidentally tell you."

"Oh," Shayne's expression changed. "Oh!" He seemed pleased with himself. "I was so worried for the past few weeks, I was afraid that you were trying to push me out as a friend."

"Nah dude, I'd never do that."

"Yeah, I don't know what it is," Shayne scratched the back of his neck. "But you've been one of the friends I've managed to hang on to the longest. So many people pass through my life, but you're the only one that's really stuck."

"I guess that's probably because I'm kinda your best friend," Damien grinned, feeling his heart snap a little.

"Yeah," Shayne smiled. "You kinda are, aren't you?"

"Awe, Shayne loves meeee." Damien crooned sarcastically.

"Oh, shut up Dames," Shayne swatted his arm. Damien's phone buzzed, and he pulled it out, checking to see an unread text from Joven. "Lemme guess, work?"

"Yeah, looks like Joven needs me to be back at the office."

"Aw man," Shayne's face grew a mischievous expression. "I was hoping for one more game of double or nothing nidhogg."

"You really want to owe me $200?" Damien sent Joven a return message. "Because I'll gladly take an extra hundred."

"You're gonna eat your words, Haas."

"Well your controller smells like a stinky butt, Topp."

"I hate you."

"Love you too bud."

 

< < ^ > >

 

Damien would've been happy to walk home two hundred dollars richer than he was before, he beat Shayne every round except for one, but instead he made Shayne promise to buy him Up-n-Atom whenever he asked for the next month. They'd both agreed that it was a suitable punishment with the added bonus of a steady stream of free food on the side.

He arrived back at the Jackrabbit, coming in through the front door after seeing somebody moving around inside. Damien stood at the front entrance, watching with a confused expression as someone performed a complicated routine on the pole, his feet never touching the ground as he spun himself back up with more grace than most of the other strippers.  

“Wes?”

The man on the pole slipped just slightly, but managed to catch himself. He spun around once more, landing near soundlessly on the stage floor. “Oh, shit, Damien. It’s just you.” Wes caught his breath, pushing a fallen lock of hair out of his face. “God you scared the fucking daylights out of me.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Damien crossed down the main floor, stepping slowly down the tiered levels of the concrete floor. “When’d you find the time get so good pole dancing?”

“I...um..I used to do this before Joven brought me to the business side.” Wes patted the pole appreciatively. “Now I just do it to clear my mind.”

“Really?” Damien raised a confused eyebrow. “Out of all the people I know, you’re the last person I expected to be a stripper.”

“Even more than Shayne when you first met him?”

“I was in no way surprised when he told me.”

“It kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?” Wes cocked his head slightly to the side. “He’s got that kinda like, mysterious air to him that most strippers have.” Wes let out a raspy laugh. “And he’s got that quintessential Atlanta stripper ass.”

Damien choked on air. “W-hat?”

“You know,” Wes grinned. He spun around the pole a few times. “You can’t have not noticed it, it...it like could take up a whole room.” He stopped, laughing to himself. Wes caught Damien’s expression, and his own changed. “Ah the face of pure mortification at the thought of objectifying your best friend,” he sighed. “I remember that.” Damien moved to ask why, but Wes moved on before he could. "Did Joven tell you about the situation?"

"The Bratstvo Medvedya are coming, right?"

"Yeah, the leader's going to be here in an hour or so with some friends."

"So bodyguards," Damien grumbled. "They're always fun to deal with."

"Yeah, I'd thought so too. He's a high-profile guy. Word's probably started getting around that he's the head-honcho for the mob now, and somebody's probably out for his head."

“That sounds about right,” Damien nodded.

“You should probably go check in with Joven,” Wes stepped around the pole. He mounted it, climbing up and spinning himself down. “He probably needs some help...cleaning.”

“Fun,” Damien grumbled, voice full of sarcasm. He turned away, heading towards the office side of the building before stopping and turning back to Wes. Damien felt something tug at his stomach, a sense of duty in a matter he wished someone would’ve done for him. “Hey Wes-“

“Yeah?”

“Are you doing okay?”

“What?” Damien couldn’t help but be drawn to Wes’s black eye and the cuts across on his face. Wes turned his head downwards slightly, the shadows arching across his face accentuating the severity of his wounds. Wes tipped his head back up, the expression on his face was happy, but Damien knew from experience that it was fake. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just...I know what it’s like.” Damien crossed back to Wes, who stood barefoot on the stage, still clinging to the pole, gripping it for dear life. “To suffer in silence. An old friend reminded me that we have to tell people what’s making us hurt inside, or else that hurt is never going away.”

“And you-“ Wes cleared his throat- “And you think that I’m hurting?”

“I know you’re hurting,” Damien pulled himself right up next to the stage. “Because you’ve got that same look in your eyes, that empty hollow look, hungry for someone to just hold you for once in your damn life.”

Wes swallowed, blinking just slightly as he tightened his grip on the pole. His head was silhouetted by the lights above him, casting his shadow dark and foreboding onto Damien. Had Damien been a younger man, he would’ve found Wes threatening, standing in that stance, his shoulders locked and arms tensed from holding the pole, but he’d been through enough to know that it was all a facade. Wes was breaking down before his eyes.

He watched as Wes sank towards the ground. Damien moved away, letting Wes sit with his legs hanging down from the stage. He pulled himself up there with Wes, letting them sit in silence for a little while.

“Are you waiting for me to say something?” Wes asked, Damien looked over to see him staring down at his legs.

Damien shrugged, “We can sit here in silence, or we can talk, it’s up to you.” He paused for a second.

“How did you know?”

“That you were hurting?”

Wes scratched his arm, looking away from Damien, “um, yeah.”

“Mmm.” Damien looked off into the darkness of the club. “My experiences.” He shook his head with a smile. “Shitty experiences, but experiences that taught me to look for the things in people’s eyes that they try to hide.”

“Smart for a business built on lying,” Wes responded quietly. 

"How long have you been on the edge like this?" Damien felt his voice echo throughout the club. 

"A while," Wes's voice broke. "A while too long." He turned his head slightly to catch Damien's eye. "I...I tried to talk to Joven, but when I did...I just couldn't say what I wanted to. It's like the words were stuck in my throat, begging me to let them out, but I never could."

"You're close to Joven, right?" Damien let out a little puff of air. "Very close?"

"We fucked a few times back in the good old days, if that's what you're asking." Wes muttered sharply, "it's kind of common knowledge around here."

"And maybe you don't feel like you can be emotionally intimate with Joven like that, because you're afraid of trusting him?"

"No-" Wes paused, considering it for a second. "Maybe...well, yeah, probably, but when we were together- if you could even call it being together-, we talked...but not like about that sort of thing."

"Your relationship was only physical then-"

"No, no." Wes shook his head, a slight smile flickering across his face. "It wasn't just about sex. Well, it was about sex, but it was also something else. We talked about the big picture, we talked about that hard hitting stuff. I used to-" Wes face with melancholy with nostalgia- "we used to spend hours just lying in bed talking about stories. Stories about people we knew, stories about people we heard on the way downtown." He picked as one of his cuts, catching himself and instead rubbing at the stubble that had begun to grow in on his face. "But we never talked pasts. Joven's got a past so dark it'd make a black hole look like a sunny beach in florida, and me...Mine was a little different."

"And all of this is about your past?" Wes was quiet for enough time for Damien to begin to wonder if looking into all of this was a good idea in the first place.

"I don't think all of it is." Damien watched as a sun glinting off a passing car glinted through the windows on the front doors. "Some of it's just general worry, about the world around us, about the danger we're all in." Wes leaned his head back, his eyes trembled as he stared straight forward. "It's just, there are some things that I've done...and they keep coming back up." 

"Bad memories?"

"Yeah," Wes whispered. "Yeah." 

"The kind you share for closure, or the kind you keep to yourself until you're ready?"

"The second one," Wes murmured. "But-"

"Damien, Wes!" Damien looked up to see Joven standing in the entrance to the hallway, holding the door open. He had a rag over his shoulder, a spray bottle in hand. "What are you guys just farting around for? They're gonna be here soon, we gotta get this place clean, stat, okay?" Joven shifted his hold on the door. "Damien, I need you to do a perimeter check, and secure all of the locks. Wes, just make this place look good before they get here, alright?"

"Got it Joven," Damien threw Joven a competent nod. 

"Yep," Wes made a salute motion towards Joven. 

He nodded back at the two of them before disappearing back into the building next door.

"Okay," Wes sighed. "I should get back to work."

Damien stood as Wes pulled himself up to the pole, grabbing a cloth from the ground and cleaning the base of the pole.

"Wes?"

"Yeah?" Wes looked back at Damien, and he felt a pang in his heart as he saw tears in Wes's eyes. It was immediately eased by Wes's expression, which held so much hope in it Damien wondered if he might start to glow.

"If you ever want to talk about those memories, my door is open, and my mouth is shut. Anything you tell me will never leave my lips again unless you want it to."

Wes looked like he might start to really cry. "Thank you," his words was whispered. 

"No problem," Damien returned a half smile. 

He turned away, the smile not once leaving his face as he checked the locks on the back door. It almost felt good.

For once, he might be okay with letting someone into his life. Hell, he'd had enough people unload them onto him to equal a hundred lifetimes of life stories.

Maybe it was time that he did what he was encouraging Wes to do.

Maybe it was time to open up to someone. Even if that person was a blue-eyed stripper with an annoyingly lovely cat named Sadie and a smile that could melt his heart into nothing.

 

Chapter Text

Boze swore at her computer more times that morning than she count. Her data sets were malfunctioning, her battery was shit, and she was cooped up in the only corner of Joven’s office that had an outlet, her brain was still fuzzy from the events of the night previous.

She’d gotten way too drunk with a girl that was way too pretty. Boze shut her eyes, rubbing her eyelids. Focus dumbass . You can think about her later, there’s bigger fish to fry. Courtney’s eyes kept appearing in the back of her mind, watching her with a hungry ferocity. They were wild and green, filled with the kind of mystery only she could hold.

It only hit Boze in that moment that she had done something many people had to pay for. She had slept with a stripper. Boze felt herself grinning at the strangely ironic joke, letting her lips fall slowly as she pushed the idea of Courtney out of her mind.

Her files finally loaded, and she filtered through them, picking out her favorites, and setting them aside in a seperate tab. There was a lot of clutter to go through, mainly from Joven giving ‘ideas’ that she’d researched, but never put much effort into. He had several of those, usually more than one a day, and Boze had pulled a few all-nighters on research. Of course, she didn’t have to do that, but she was nothing if not an insomniac, and it seemed some days that her brain preferred work to sleep.

Boze opened her messaging software, double checking for the fourth time that nothing new had been sent. To her disappointment, there were still only two active chat logs, one from her personal account, and one from the Jackrabbit’s private line, and both were empty of any new messages.

There was a knock at the door, but Boze ignored it. It came again a few seconds later. She checked the time, realizing that she’d already been at work for nearly two hours. The knock rapped on the door a third time, and this time Boze sighed, opening one of the applications on her desktop and typing in a few lines of code before hitting the activate button at the corner. The door unlocked itself as Boze closed the application and Joven barreled into the room.

“Took you long enough,” he grumbled. “I thought about messaging you. I should've known you’d lose track of time.” Joven swung open the door to his closet, pulling out a suit before putting it away again. He stood in the entrance to the closet, reaching out to touch a suit before pushing his hand away. She watched over the top of her computer as he muttered to himself about what to wear.

Boze set her laptop open on top of the briefcase as Joven swore under his breath. She crossed the room, shouldering her way into his closet. Boze snatched up a grey suit that rippled with lines of black thread throughout it, making the fabric look bolder than it actually was. She tossed the ensemble to Joven before picking out a dress shirt that a blue so pale it almost looked white. Boze mulled over ties for a while before handing Joven one that was blood red with just the slightest touch of orange in its hue.

“I should just let you coordinate my wardrobe from now on.”

“I’ve been saying that forever,” Boze grinned. Joven stood for a second in front of the closet with the clothing in his hands, looking at her expectantly. “What?”

“Aren’t you gonna leave so I can change?”

“Just change, I won’t peek.” Boze turned around, shaking the trackpad to wake up her laptop.

“Boze…”

“Hey, if I wanted a looksy at your goods I would’ve hacked into you security feed months ago.” She turned back around as Joven opened his mouth- “don’t question it.” Boze whipped back around to face her laptop screen. “I have to monitor this thing anyway, so either you leave or you suck it up and change, ‘kay?”

“Fine,” Joven grumbled. She clicked through her tabs, distracting herself as Joven pulled on his clothes. He let out a soft grumbled, muttering to himself before bringing his voice up. “Boze, you’re basically a walking crime encyclopedia when it comes to this city, can I ask you a question based on crime stuff?”

“Shoot,” Boze replied monotonously.

“Have you ever heard of Prime before?”

“The contract killer?” Boze whipped around as Joven did the the buttons on his shirt.

“Hey!” Joven put his hands up defensively as Boze rolled her eyes.  

“I knew you already had your pants on. Also-” she crossed by him, flicking her eyes over his wardrobe- “This belt.” She slapped it into his barely open hands before doubling back and adding a pair of grey-green socks and copper colored shoes. Boze returned to her computer, pulling herself up onto Joven’s desk. “And yeah, I do know Prime.” Her laptop made a noise and she pulled it up onto her lap. “Why’d ya ask? Some contact of yours get killed in a weird way? You think it’s Prime?”

“No, no,” Joven tied his tie incorrectly for the third time. He pulled it out, finally looping it correctly and tying it tight.

“Ohhh,” Boze let a maniacal grin bloom on her face. “You’ve worked with them before.”

“Mmm.” Joven looked down at the cuffs of his shirt, buttoning them each before answering. “Not exactly.  Prime and I are old friends. We go way back.”

“Oh, like assassin school way back?”

“Assassin school?” Joven rolled his eyes as he pulled on his vest, tucking in the tie. “Really Boze? You have a lot of weird theories, but that one's just plain stupid. I taught you better than that.”

“You can’t blame me for that one,” Boze put her hands up. “That was one Noah came up with, and I just agree with some of the facts.”

“Boze.” Joven smoothed his suit jacket with his fingertips, looking down at his bare feet. “What is our number one rule when it comes to the strippers?”

“Don’t let them know that we run a secret gang?”

“Don’t let them know that we run a secret gang.” Joven quoted it back to her with disappointment. “Though, I really didn’t expect better from you. You’re good with math, but not with words.”

Boze grinned, “that’s my brand. Math and conspiracy theories about my boss. Besides, Noah was joking, I think, I made it clear that I was joking.”

"Good," Joven declared pointedly. "Back to what we were talking about."

"Prime." Boze raised an eyebrow, kicking her feet back and forth. "You want to know what I know about them?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Why?"

"I just want to know what kinda vibe you think, um, they, have."

"Again, why?"

"Just, Boze, can you-" Joven pinched the bridge of his nose- "can you please just work with me here?"

"Fine," she huffed with a bright smile. Annoying Joven was a good way to keep herself from stressing. "From all of my research, Prime seems...dangerous." She rolled her eyes at herself. "But that's par for the course, they're a fucking contract killer, of course they're dangerous...but it's this bright darkness that follows the cases Prime's tied to. It's this...weird childish whimsy that only accompanies the people who're the true, boogeymen, of the world." Boze tucked her hands between her knees, leaning forward slightly. "But there's a beauty there too, care taken with the deaths. Prime never skimps on a job, the bodies are always found-" Joven rubbed his nose, hiding a grin- "or maybe not, but the ones that are, they're masterful. Never a trace of evidence as to who Prime truly is, but always that damn mark on their necks."

"The brand," Joven grinned. "I helped Prime make that original design when we were younger. I had thought that it was a tattoo design, but now it's synonymous with Los Santos's most wanted serial killer."

"Contract killer," Boze corrected. "There's a clear difference." He snorted a little, and Boze added. "Prime doesn't kill for sport, that's clear in their tendencies, it's a job."

"Maybe now, but back then? They'd slit someone's throat open if they had the chance." Joven considered his words for a moment. "I guess I was like that too though. We've grown up a little since then."

"Just a little."

"Only a little, we're still dumbass children down at heart."

"And still fully dumbasses."

"Not gonna argue with that." 

Boze rapped her fingernails on the open space of her laptop. "Do you mind if I ask why're you asking about Prime in the first place?"

Joven was quiet for a second before answering. "I got some information that worried me, and I think I might need to stay in contact with Prime again to fix it." He looked up at Boze. "I don't think I can trust Prime, but I have to if I want to keep someone safe."

"Who's in danger?" Boze furrowed her eyebrows, rephrasing her question. "And how dangerous is it if you have to bring Prime into it?"

"It's not something to talk about now." Joven turned back to his closet, fiddling with his cuffs. It was clear that the conversation was over.

Boze's laptop made another noise, and she pulled it onto her lap. "Su-weet. Files are done downloading. We'll be all ready for them now."

"Perfect," Joven closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. "We'll be ready," he murmured the words back to himself. "God, I hope this goes well."

"It better. The window for us to take our shot at the Kingship is getting smaller."

"Is is?" Joven's eyes shot open. "We have competition?"

"Someone's always power hungry Joven, it's not just you."

A knock came at the door, and the two turned their heads to see Mari pop her head in. "Hey. Am I late?"

Boze checked the time. "Shit!" She snapped her laptop shut, hopping off the desk. "We've got fifteen minutes, and I still have to change." She turned to Joven. "Put your shoes on before you forget-" Joven opened his mouth- "you will forget, you forgot two weeks ago when we met with those city people-" Boze turned to the closet, leaning just far enough to see inside. "Wear that black overcoat with the copper satin lining if he invites us to a nice bar to meet contacts."

Boze turned back to Mari. She looked the other woman up and down, narrowing her eyes. "Purple," she muttered. "You had to choose purple." Boze pondered quietly to herself, "it'll work...I think it'll work..." Mari looked confused with her eyebrows knit as Boze gave her a blank stare. "Black pants, those purple stilettos I saw you buy, white dress shirt, black blazer and this-" Boze snatched a plum purple tie from Joven closet. She turned to Joven- "don't touch my stuff while I'm gone."

Boze breezed through the room, handing Mari the tie with little care as she pushed past her and out of the office. She turned to see the door to the hallway connector open, and Damien and Wes step through.

"Perfect. Just the boys I wanted to see." Boze crossed the room to the stairwell, stopping in front of it as they met her halfway. "Do you both have those suits I picked out for you?"

"Yeah, I think so," Damien replied. Wes gave her a nod. 

"Good. Put them on. We want to look the part." Boze turned to Damien. "After you get dressed, wait next to the back door entrance to let them in. Wes I want you waiting next to the hallway entrance to open the door. Escort them to the conference room. Joven, Mari and I will be waiting inside."

"So we're putting on a show for them?" Wes questioned, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. 

"A little," Boze pushed a piece of hair behind her ear. "We need to impress them somehow, and just showing up in last night's alcohol-stained t-shirt isn't gonna cut it for the Russian mafia."

She gave them a little nod after they both fell quiet before running up the stairs and into her room. Boze shut and locked her door, rummaging through her closet until she found a nice black dress that spooled off her shoulders and hung around her knees. She pulled on some tights, which she hated doing, but her legs looked good in them, so she continued with the act of slowly forcing her toes through the thin layer of fabric, pinching herself repeatedly in the process. Boze picked out a pair of heels that she'd look killer in and gave her just enough height, but were flat enough to let her run if she had to.

She let her hair down, setting her glasses in their case before blinking in a set of contacts. If she had more time, she'd have done her full make-up routine, but decided that lipstick and just the barest amount of mascara were enough.

Boze tiptoed down the stairs, trying to keep herself from tripping and falling. She burst into the office to find Joven, Wes, Damien and Mari all waiting for her, dressed in their nice outfits. Boze looked them up and down. She took Damien, Wes, and Mari's ties, and unbuttoned their top collars. 

"Okay, I think this is good. It's formal, but it's not a wedding." She squinted, trying to frame their faces in her mind. They each gave her increasingly concerned looks. "Hmm. Joven's can stay, if he's gonna be King, he better damn well wear a tie while doing it. Alright, we're good." Boze stepped back, grabbing her laptop and her briefcase before leading the way to the conference room. She wired in her computer, setting up the projector and rearranging the water glasses and pitcher Joven had set out in the middle. Once she was settled, she sent Wes and Damien to their posts.

Now they waited.

Boze checked her notifications every few seconds, clicking the reload button again and again until a message paged through.

B78s4w : Here

"They're here." Boze could barely breathe, and she couldn't even fathom how Joven was feeling right now. His face portrayed calm contentedness, but she knew that all of this was eating him up inside.

Boze shot a message to Damien, and less than a minute later, she heard the hallway door open, the sound of approaching footsteps in tune with the pounding of her heart. 

She drew in a deep breath as she settled in her chair, setting her jaw firmly in a neutral expression.

Four strangers entered the room, flanked by Damien and Wes, and the meeting began.

Chapter Text

Wes sat at the back half of the table, bored out of his mind. 

He didn't show it, but it had started to get to him, every second that ticked away felt like a millenia. Wes sat with his back straight, his jaw set in a stern, guarded expression as Boze droned on about a data or crime statistics, or whatever she had been talking about for the last twenty minutes. 

Mari, Joven and Boze seemed enthralled in the conversation. Mari watched with curiosity, her arms crossed over her chest as she sat back in her chair. Joven had leaned forward, arms placed on the table, one over the other. There was a glass of water in front of him, but it had sat untouched. Boze spoke with the sort of muted excitement she was known for. She spoke sternly but quickly, her face trying its best not to grin giddily. 

Damien was a mystery to Wes. He still wasn't quite sure whether or not Damien was completely engaged or tuned out entirely. Damien's jaw was slack, his hands in his lap. Unlike the rest of them, his eyes were trained in on one figure alone. The man at the very middle of the table across from them.

Joven had shook his hand when he entered, referring to him as 'Mr. Matt Raub', which Wes hoped was his name, and not some dumb nickname Joven had tried to make a thing. Matt Raub was sharply dressed in a black suit that looked grotesquely expensive, the watch on his wrist alone already racking up a price tag of over $8,500. 

He had been accompanied by two bodyguards, each dressed somewhat well, their clothing already looking more expensive and high-class than that of the men who had dragged him into the club bleeding and battered just a few days ago. The bodyguards had been introduced simply as bodyguards, and Matt Raub had set them against the wall like expensive hunting rifles, the safety off. They watched Wes and Damien particularly closely, their expressions were hidden well in their irises, and from the way they looked Wes couldn't help but feel like they were going through a mental rolodex of all the ways they could kill him.

The final guest had been introduced by Matt Raub, and looked starkly out of place in the conference room. She was a young woman, maybe about his age with long brown-blonde hair that curled around her shoulders. Her eyes were bright and full of mischief behind a pair of hot-pink rimmed glasses. Unlike the suits that the others wore, she had donned a pair of ripped up blue jeans held up by a chunky black belt. She wore a white t-shirt that was tucked into her jeans that read 'world's best grandpa', and a long, bright orange wool coat hung off of her shoulders. 

"This is Sarah Whittle." Matt Raub's voice had the familiar command of a mob-boss. "She's our little genius and the Brotherhood's best kept secret."

Sarah gave a little wave, grinning wildly at the people across from her, having no idea in the world how terrified they all were of her in that moment. The oddity that was Sarah Whittle was now seated in front of a complicated layout of computers and paper, changing from one to the other so quickly it made Wes's head spin.

"That won't work," Sarah looked up from her computer, and Wes found himself back in the conversation. "The docks are backed up with security checks for weeks after that last bust. Even if you could get a shipment in by next Monday, it'd get caught."

"Damn," Boze grumbled. "I'd thought that there'd been leaks about that? That the dates and times for the security checks were up online, someone found them a little while ago."

"They were a bait trick," Sarah responded somewhat snidely. "It wasn't hard to tell that they were faked. Those idiots down at the LSPD didn't even think to erase their IP when they left the document up."

"Are you two going to continue showing off to one another, or can we get some more ideas out onto the board?" Matt Raub picked a paper from Sarah's pile before she could snatch it away from him. He read it over, but didn't seem to understand what it was about, and set it back down. "Anyone? We've got little time here."

"Why don't we start from the very basics?" Joven asked, leaning forward farther. "You know better than us what we're up against. What's the competition like? Who do we watch out for? Then we move on from there."

"Sarah?" Matt Raub turned to her as her fingers flew across the keyboard.

"Um-"

"Our biggest threats are from the Xiaolong-" Boze picked up, looking to Matt Raub- "as well as some of the other smaller gangs, Shifa's boys, the Seventh Street Titans, and some smaller drug-dealing circles. All of them have made plays for the Kingship, but nothing has ever truly solidified the title."

"Makes sense." Matt Raub sat back in his chair. "The Bratstvo Medvedya could crush those smaller gangs under our thumb if we wanted to, they don't worry me, but the Chinese mob is a whole other story. They've been a thorn in our side and our biggest competitors for as long as I can remember."

"Here," Sarah spoke, trying to regain the attention of the room. "The Xiaolong have been trying to take back some of the Bandidos' territory. I remember recording this a little bit ago, you asked me to flag it."

"Have they succeeded?" Matt Raub's voice grew severe.

"No, they've only reclaimed about half." Sarah typed in some commands and hit enter. "There's been some trouble with the smaller gangs that rushed in for the territory after the Bandidos fell apart. Some of them have been pushed back, others absorbed, and some destroyed entirely."

"Whittle, why was I warned about this?"

"You told me not to worry about it when I brought it up," Sarah retorted to him pointedly. Wes bit his lip, making eye contact with Joven. Yikes

"Fine," Matt Raub rubbed his temples. "Fine. Next time, warn me if someone's coming up on the damn Kingship."

"So," Joven tried his best to segway. "The Xiaolong, we'll focus on them, then?"

"It's our best course of action," Matt Raub nodded. "We need to take as much territory as possible. It's what will qualify us for the Kingship ultimately."

"What do you mean?" Wes found himself speaking. Matt Raub seemed just as surprised to see him speak as he was to hear himself say the words.

"If you own more than half the city, that's what makes you King," Boze shot Wes a look. "I've told you this before Wes."

"Of course." He responded, trying to keep his jaw straight. "Just making sure," he lied poorly. 

"If we want to stop them, we're going to have to do something drastic," Mari spoke for the first time. "We cut off resources. Stop a shipment, block trade, generally make their lives a living hell." She looked around the group. "Any ideas?" The room was quiet except for the sound of fingers typing frantically on a keyboard

"How about stealing all of their money in one fell swoop?"

Matt Raub turned to Boze. "What?" 

Boze tapped on a document, opening it up and grinning like the cheshire cat. "This is too perfect. I almost deleted this plan a few years ago when I made it, but a while back my..." She stopped herself, catching her tongue. "I was doing some freelance work. I worked on some security schematics for a casino downtown. Ever heard of the Avian?"

"It's that fancy casino downtown, nearly 1,000 dollar buy in per person," Matt Raub remarked. "Nearly impossible to get in to, and the place has security wherever you turn."

"And it's crawling with Xiaolong members." He nodded for her to continue. "It's where they launder their money, and it's always bringing in a steady cash flow in and out."

Sarah popped her head up. "No, I thought that the Xiaolong worked with all of the businesses in Chinatown to launder their money. They provide protection, and in return the money is near impossible to trace, you'll find maybe one out of every thousand dollars. The Brotherhood did something similar based off of it."

"They stopped doing that a few years ago," Boze nodded to Sarah. "The police started staking out their joints, and they were forced to move." Wes looked over to see Boze opening up building plans. "And of course, no good casino goes without security. I just happen to be one of the only people in the world with the shutdown codes for the entire building."

"And the Xiaolong let you get out alive with that information?" Matt Raub sat back farther in his chair, the hint of an impressed smile hidden behind his hand. 

"Nah, they think I'm either dead or somewhere in Siberia right now. One of my contacts made sure I got out alive."

"And you think this'll work?"

"It won't secure our position, but it'll get us a good part of the way. They'll still have guns and drugs, but their money will be entirely gone. We'll have to sit on the cash for a little while, but the Xiaolong aren't stupid enough to call the cops on already stolen money, so we should be safe for at least a week and a half."

"So what are you proposing for a plan?" Sarah asked the question this time, looking a bit peeved by Boze stealing her spotlight.

"It'll take me a second..." Boze looked away from him, her eyes searching her computer screen. "Here. Okay." She looked back up, folding her hands over her laptop keyboard. "We want to find a night preferably where all of security is distracted. We're lucky, because it's the holidays and Kingship season, the Avian has events booked nearly every night. We take that opportunity to infiltrate, find every weakness, and exploit it, distract, reorient, really do anything to keep them on their toes."

"Here!" Sarah turned her laptop towards everyone. "In two nights, there's a Gala for the biggest Vinewood stars, there's some sort of re-enactment thing with the building."

"Perfect," Boze shot Sarah a smile. "Security will be distracted with A-listers, so we don't have to worry about them as much...as for the actual plan." Boze looked her computer files up and down. "I need twenty minutes, Joven's office, a map of the Avian, and some red markers." She stood, snapping her laptop shut. "Joven I need your help getting some of the old maps from your safe in the basement. And-" she turned, considering it for a second- "Sarah, why don't you come with me, you might come in handy"

"Oh," Sarah seemed surprised. She turned to Matt Raub, who gave her a nod. "Okay, um, let me just-" she closed her own computers, piling her things together and following Boze out the door. Joven stood too, making a scene of fiddling with his keys. 

"I'll be back in a second." He shot Wes, Mari and Damien a quick looked from behind Matt Raub and his bodyguard's backs. Play nice.

Wes sat straight up, watching Matt Raub intently. Mari shuffled in her chair, and Damien sat stock still, and Wes wasn't even sure if he was tuned into the conversation until Matt Raub spoke.

"So," his voice was clean and cold. Sterile, almost. "Quite a little crew your boss has created."

"Yeah, what about it?" Mari's voice was on edge. 

"I did a little research about all of you," Matt Raub smiled. "You know, just to see who we'll be working with, and most of you all have quite long resumes." He shrugged, "and by that I mean, nearly non-existent." Matt Raub turned to Mari. "You've got a drug-addict, wannabe assassin with a temper no one can control-" he shifted slightly to face Damien- "the former lieutenant of the Black Blade who managed to be the only one who got off scot free -" Matt Raub made direct eye contact with Wes, who tried not to tense as he spoke- "and a little nobody from the greener pastures of the suburbs turned stripper turned 'building consultant'. Quite a strange team if you ask me." He put the last part in quotes. "Am I wrong?" The three of them said nothing, which only made him laugh. "Good," he grinned. "That's the reaction I hoped for. Only the most cowardly people try to pretend they're better than they actually are."

The door reopened and Joven entered with a bowl filled with mints and a refill for the water pitcher, which had remained nearly untouched throughout the whole meeting. The ice had melted, so Wes guessed that it was more a presentation thing that anything else.

Joven and Matt Raub made polite conversation as Mari, Wes and Damien watched the bodyguards like hawks.  

Boze and Sarah returned a few minutes later, spreadsheets and determined looks on their faces. "We got it," Boze grinned. She and Sarah sat down at their places at the table, spreading a few papers across between them.

"What'd we need?" Matt Raub drew his attention to the diagrams.

"We're gonna need a 12 person team, two stealth vehicles, and at least three flashy expensive ones." Sarah read off of a piece of paper. 

"We'll also need an assortment of different devices that we can use for communication and the actual hack into the building," Boze slid a sheet towards Matt Raub. "Most of their money in these three safes underneath the building. They're connected to an automated system lock controlled by a high-security computer in the building, but it's nearly impossible to get to. Luckily, the cameras around there are incredibly easy to get into, so that won't be a problem." 

"I've done the calculations, and the Brotherhood has six people we can possibly send for this job, myself included." Sarah turned a screen towards Matt Raub that Wes couldn't see, and he nodded at it. 

"Alright. Are you sure that it has to be done with 12 people?"

"Uh, yeah," Sarah looked to Boze. The two shared a look. "We both tried at least forty different algorithms, we need 12 people."

"And we can't spare a seventh person?" Sarah shook her head in response. He looked up at Joven. "You wouldn't happen to be hiding a sixth member of your Jackrabbit friend, would you?"

"No, unfortunately, it's just the five of us." Joven closed his eyes slowly in a way that worried Wes. "But there is someone I can call if we need a Renegade." Matt Raub waved his hand, motioning for Joven to continue. "She's wild, she has a mind of her own, but she'll follow most orders...and she owes me a few favors."

"That'll work," Sarah nodded. "We need some good distractions. Is she good with a gun?" 

"The best."

Sarah grinned, typing it into her computer. 

"Wonderful," Matt Raub gave them a slight smile. "We'll have the two of them iron out the details over the messenger." He stood, rounding the table to shake Joven's hand. "Good things are coming Mr. Ovenshire."

"I look forward to them Mr. Raub."

Wes watched as the four trickled out of the room, Damien close on their heels. He hopped up after Damien, following them out and escorting them to the back entrance. Damien said goodbye and closed the door behind them.

Wes had a smile on his face, and waited for Damien to return it, but Damien's expression was worrying.

"Hey, something wrong?"

"Nah," Damien looked down at the floor. "Just a weird feeling."

"Like what...?"

"I don't really know," Damien met his eyes. "How did he know all of that about us?" His voice was ragged.

"Boze probably, I think she keeps files on us." Wes grinned, but Damien didn't seem to get the joke.

"Maybe," he sounded distracted. "I'm gonna look into him...just for safety."

"Alright."

Damien gave him a nod, not quite making eye contact as he disappeared into the hallway entrance, leaving Wes alone in the darkened club.

Wes looked up to the pole, which glinted in the evening light. They were going to be open in a few hours, and he wouldn't mind chatting with the strippers for a while if they came in and found him doing a routine. He needed to clear his head.

It was going to be a strange next few days, and he wanted to be ready for it.

 

Chapter Text

It had been a stressful few days for everyone at the Jackrabbit.

Ever since Matt Raub and his crew had stepped out the door, and Damien had locked it behind them, the Jackrabbit had been in full panic mode. Mari felt like she'd refilled the coffee machine seven times before the end of the first day, and she was about 95% sure that nobody had slept at all.

In Boze's absence, Mari had been forced to take over the job of running the strip club behind-the-scenes when it was open for business. She didn't mind doing the job, it'd been hers back when it was just her and Joven. What she did mind, was all of the crazy that had come with bringing in more strippers since she'd worked there last. When she wasn't making sure someone made their set on time, she was fixing someone's outfit, or tweaking a hairstyle, or doing make-up. It was exhausting work, but Boze was busy with plans, so Mari had to do it no matter how much she protested.

Boze had locked herself up in Joven's office, only letting people in to bring her food or water, or when they'd have their annual every six hour check in to see where the plan was going. Mari wasn't allowed into the room unless there was a meeting, and all the times she had been, Boze had a skype call set up with Sarah, who, everytime Mari saw her, looked slightly more unhinged.

At 6:00 AM on the day of the Gala, Boze announced that she and Sarah had put the finishing touches on the plan. They had their tickets into the Gala, (which no small feat, according to Sarah), and everything was set. Boze then proceeded to pass out for three hours in her room before springing back to life and acting as if nothing had happened. She stole the keys to Joven's black sports car, and had disappeared for another two hours before reappearing with five outfits all racking up a price tag of over $5,000 dollars. 

Boze had set out each of their ensembles, as she had started calling them, in Joven's office, and the four of them spent forever trying to peer through the windows on Joven's office door get a look at what Boze had chosen for them to wear. The theme for the Gala had been 'Masquerade Evening', and from what Mari could see Boze hadn't skimped one bit. The fabric was gorgeous, and the design a tasteful blend that she knew would help them fit in perfectly with everyone else, while also finding places for them to hide weapons and other bits of gear coherently.

Boze finally let them into the office an hour or so later after she'd finished putting the final touches together. Mari was stunned to find a gorgeous royal purple coat-tailed jacket with gold brass buttons. The fabric was like something Mari had never seen before, it was soft but firm at the same time, with symbols, and plants and other victorian designs etched into the material. The inside lining was made of black silk, to be worn over a black dress shirt and pants that Boze must've found in Mari's closet. To finish out the outfit, there was a mask of a fox sitting waiting for her.

"Fox?" She turned to Boze, who shrugged in return from where she was fiddling with her dress.

"You want some sort of meaning from it?" Boze pulled her own mask from the shelf, a rabbit. "Look it up yourself."

Damien held the mask of a lion, and he traced the curve of the tooth. Wes fastened his own mask, a bear, to his face, trying it out as he moved around. Joven looked down at the mask Boze had chosen for him, his eyebrows furrowed as he stared at it. Mari went on her tiptoes, pretending to look for something she had dropped. He held the mask of a wolf, which was more delicately designed than any of the others. Mari watched as he held it up, squinting as he rubbed something off of the cheek, holding it closer to his face. 

"Alright," Boze crossed to the center of the room. Her voice sounded a little fed-up. "There's a shit ton of things to do before the heist, but I don't want to do them. I say we order food, eat it until we have an hour to leave and then let crunch time be our ally."

"I second that," Wes pulled his mask off of his face. "Chinese?"

"Definitely," Damien smiled weakly. "I could do with some comfort food from Lucky's."

Boze pulled out her phone. "I'll order and see if I can bribe Mr. Ling into giving us extra egg rolls."

"I'll go see if I can get the projector screen down in the conference room, we can watch that video Joven made way back when." 

"Nooooo," Joven groaned. "This'll be the fourth time, Mari!" 

"And we love watching you squirm Jovert."

"Jovert!" Wes gasped, doubling over laughing. "I completely forgot about that nickname."

"And I'd hoped that you'd all forgotten about the Joven-reality-show-audition-tape, but apparently not." Joven grumbled as he went to the safe behind the painting. "I'll go get it from the basement."

Mari felt a genuine smile cross her face. It felt almost odd on her features, to be happy. She'd been in such a state of misery lately, it had felt like she'd never be able to get out, but now, here with the people that were slowly becoming her family again, she felt at home.

They set up a few blankets on the table in the middle of the conference room, dimming the lights and closing the shades behind them as Mari managed to yank the screen out of the ceiling as Boze helped the tiny projector sputter to life. Damien went to pick up chinese food and sauces and plates and piled in the middle of the table. All of them lay on the tables, close around it so that they would be within grabbing distance of the food.

Mari spent the next few hours in pure nostalgia, laughing with the others in a way they hadn't before. Boze and Damien sat across from one another, playing some card game that they kept trying to teach to the others, but could never quite get to stick. Every so often, either Boze or Damien would punch the other in the ribs, and the two would die laughing and shuffle their cards, starting again. Wes laid his head on Joven's leg, smiling at at him, which prompted Mari to raise an eyebrow at Joven."You guys a thing again?"

He responded with a shrug, shaking his head."Nah, not again." Joven looked down at Wes, his eyes soft as he turned back to the screen before looking back to Mari. "My heart couldn't handle it."

She was taken aback at how easily she could read Joven. She was even more taken aback at how long it had been since they could hold a conversation without talking. Mari kept herself from grinning as she recalled the time the two of them had an entire conversation about how hot their repair guy was, with him in the room the whole time.

"Whatcha laughing about Takahashi?" Apparently she hadn't hidden her amusement well enough. She coughed into her arm, caught off guard, and nearly hacked up half a piece of chicken from her coughing fit. "Don't die on me yet, remember our deal, I'm gonna be the first one to go."

"We'll see," Mari teased with a grin. She turned her head, but Joven persisted.

"What were you laughing about?"

"It's stupid."

"Not to you."

"Fine," she rolled her eyes, giving him an over-dramatic sigh. "Remember that guy that came before Tanner? That really hot repair guy that came to fix our speakers when they broke?"

"Oh, yeah." Joven raised an eyebrow. "What about him?"

"I was just thinking about how we held a whole conversation about him without talking, and I was remembering some of the things and how funny they were."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Hmm." Joven nodded thoughtfully to himself. "Yeah."

The five of them continued to sit on their asses until about five, when they went into panic mode. Boze had been right, they were much more productive on a time crunch. Mari had the room clean and their van packed in the blink of an eye.

As six rolled around, Mari could almost hear the roar of the engines of the special cars Matt Raub had sent them specially for the gig. She pulled on her clothes, which fit her perfectly. Boze had made her wear makeup to help hide their identities, and she had just finished putting an absurd amount of purple around her eyes. 

Mari hurried down the stairs, checking the silver pocket watch Boze had made hang out of her pocket as she sped through the hallway and out into the main stage room. Five people she didn't recognize stood aimlessly around, three of them were dressed in all black, the other two were men in matching black suits and bow-ties, bulldog masks in hand. 

Sarah, dressed in black clothing, sat against the stage with the Jackrabbit's people. Joven stood on one side of Sarah, his suit looking sharp on him under a black overcoat. Boze stood on the other side in the most intricately designed black dress Mari had ever seen. It was lace in some places, and tiered into solid fabric that flowed like a waterfalling cape over her shoulders, down her back, and out around her waist. She was normally a good amount shorter than Mari, but with her shoes, a pair of black heels with some height to them, she came up to being just a few inches short of Mari's height.

Damien and Wes stood against the stage a few feet down from them, talking in quiet tones. 

"Are we ready?"

"We're waiting on one person," Joven spoke without looking up. "She tends to be fashionably late, as we will be if she doesn't get here soon."

"Should we run through the schematics once with everyone before we go then?"

"Smart." Joven pulled himself up on the stage, calling everyone to attention. "You know why you're here, and you know what you're here to do. We are more than grateful for the help of the Bratstvo and we really will be forever in debt to you all."

Mari couldn't help but smile at Joven as he stood on stage speaking to everyone. For as much as he looked like some sort of weird little nerd, which he was, don't get her wrong, he was truly a charismatic guy. She liked to throw quick glances into the crowd, beaming even brighter when she saw them entranced in Joven's words.

"There will be four teams of people; Sarah and her three associates for base camp; these two fine young gentlemen here, Donny and Samuel for extra security; Boze, Wes and Damien on extraction; and my team on general distractions. We're plan B if everything goes sideways."

There was a sound of a door being opened, and a figure entered from the back. They stepped into the light, and Mari was surprised to see a woman about Joven's age standing in a long fur coat and a pair of devil-red heels, a poisonous expression smeared across her face. Everything about her immediately set off all of the warning bells in Mari's head. 

"Sorry I'm late Jovie," she purred. "Traffic was murder." 

"Ah, perfect, you finally managed to show up." He turned to the crowd. "Everyone, into positions. Your director from base camp will direct you with the earpiece you've all been given. Alright, go."

"Testing, testing, can you hear me?" A voice in Mari's ear piped up. She grumbled under her breath before pocketing the earpiece and following Joven to where he and the new woman were headed. They stepped out into the back of the building, and Joven made a beeline for a bright red car that looked too expensive for them to even think about driving. He stood next to it, chatting with the woman in the fur coat. 

"Did you make sure all of the doors were locked?" 

"Boze's got it," he nodded. "I'd have forgotten so I let her do it."

"Jovie, you should introduce me, shouldn't you?" The woman batted her eyelashes, but Mari wasn't fooled into submission by her soft doe eyes and sweet expression. Her smile gave her away, it was too cocky, too full of itself, she was a whole different animal than anything Mari had ever seen before. Her hair was bright green and yellow, and fell around her shoulders. From the brilliance of its color and the state of her hair, Mari could tell that the dye job had been done recently and sloppily. She didn't personally like how it looked, but with how fashion trends worked these days, she guessed that it was purposefully done to look like neon vomit. 

"Mari, this is my friend Katherine Bow."

"Kate for short," the woman smiled, but didn't hold out a hand to shake. "And you're Mari Takahashi then. I've heard plenty about you from Joven over the years."

"How long have you two known each other?"

"Oh, since we were kids. We were both raised by our grandparents, who happened to live in the same housing complex. It was a happy accident that we even became friends, and even more luckily, ended up in similar fields of work."

"What do you do?"

"Freelance," the word hissed off her tongue.

Hitman .

"Always good to meet someone else that can put up with Joven's nonsense 24/7." Kate smiled, and Mari gave her a tight lipped one in return.

A short guy with mousy black hair tight against his head hurried over. He was one of Sarah's lackeys, and from the look of him, their handler for the evening.

"Hi." He slowed to a light jog before stopping in front of them. "I'm Brandon. I'll be in your ear for the evening." Brandon dug around in his pockets, pulling out three small cards the size of half a sheet of paper. They were made of thick cardstock, and the wording was embossed with gold. "These are your tickets into the building, and-" he pulled a small object from his pocket- "your keys to the car. Be careful with this car, it's likely more expensive than anything you'll ever own, so, not a scratch, okay?"

"Of course."

"Earpieces in, got it?" He looked to Mari, who raised her eyebrows. Brandon gave her a blank stare before she sighed and pulled her earpiece out of her pocket, pressing it into her ear. "Perfect. Now get in the car and wait for my signal." Brandon turned on heel, climbing into the Brotherhood's black van and slamming the door closed behind him. 

Joven climbed into the driver's side, and before Mari could get the passenger side of the car, Kate was already buckling herself in. Mari slide into the backseat, snapping her seat belt into place as Joven started the car.

He revved the engine, "ooh, listen to that purr."

"If you do that too much you're going to ruin the engine," Kate chided Joven. 

"Too bad," he sighed, taking his foot off of the gas. "Because it sounds awesome." 

Brandon's voice came in Mari's ear. "We're all set to go, follow the directions as they appear on your screen." Joven grinned as he shifted the car into drive, letting the car pull forward. Mari couldn't help but smile a little at the low growl the car let out as it glided along the darkening street. With the sunset in the background, and the streetlamps slowly lighting themselves, Mari wanted to stick her head out the window and let out a whoop to the world.

They were actually doing it. Things were going their way.

Mari sat back in her chair as Joven turned on the radio. It was something old and eighties, but no one protested. Kate tapped her long black fingernails on the ceiling of the car, one leg crossed over the other. 

Driving in the car made Mari realize how big the city really was. She leaned her head against her hand, trying not to smudge her makeup as she watched the car go by in the reflections of the building alongside them. Mari could tell that they were getting close when Joven slowed down, swearing everytime someone cut him off or merged without signalling.

They passed a large building, and the casino spread out before them on its own little block of paradise. There were spotlights outside the front of the building, twirling and spinning around in the air, and crowds of people had gathered outside the barriers, flashes of camera popped and flashed as movie stars got their photos taken on a red carpet that was laid out in front of the building. 

"Okay, the car is registered as an official vehicle of an attendee, so you just have to pull into the entrance funnel, and they should wave you along." Brandon's voice made Joven jump, and Mari's skin roll up in waves of goosebumps.

"Alright," Joven spoke quickly. "Got it."

He signaled to turn, merging in and letting Mari get a better look at the whole casino. The color scheme was quite clearly gold, with everything glowing with touches of the color. The building was huge, hurtling up into the sky high enough to be seen, but low enough to blend in with the rest of the high-rise buildings around it. There was a large u-shaped area in the front that was most likely for the rich and famous who were getting dropped off in the front by their drivers in their fancy cars and limos. Bright gold lights lined the building, making the whole front area look moody and low-lit. There were two towers on the casino that reached far above, reflecting on one another's windows, also tinged gold. In bright white, neon letters, 'The Avian' was written in a font that commanded regality.  

A guard in a tux waved them through, and Joven pulled up to the valet, rolling down his window.

"Name?" A man in a small booth and a red velvet vest held a tablet in his hands.

"Matt Raub." Joven laid on his regular brand of charisma.

"Oh." The man scrolled through his tablet. Mari felt a chill run down her back. "Here it is. All set. pull forward, and one of our valets will take your car. Have a wonderful evening"

"Thanks, you too." Joven pulled the car forward, and a young woman in a white dress shirt and the same red velvet vest opened the door for him. Mari unbuckled herself and stepped out of the car, rounding it to stand next to Kate as Joven handed off the keys to the car.

"Wait there for Team 1 and 3," Brandon spoke. "Cross the street and stand under the entrance, just a little off to the side."

The three of them did exactly that, passing underneath the long awning covered in hundreds of tiny lights that pulsed with golden intensity. Joven and Kate walked briskly, and Mari had to move to a slight jog to even keep up with them. She blamed it on the fact that she wasn't used to wearing this high of heels. Boze had gone just a little overkill with them.

'Team 1', which consisted of the two Brotherhood operatives, showed up next. They held their masks in hand, walking in an eerie tandem. They said nothing to anyone or eachother, only speaking once to respond to a command from their earpieces. 'Team 3', consisting of Boze, Wes, and Damien, showed up a few minutes later. As they all stood together in the front, Sarah's voice came over their earpieces.

"This is it." Her voice was clean and loud in Mari's head. "From this point on, this is the big leagues. You're going to pass through those doors tonight and come out of them different people." There was a pause. "Are you ready?" Everyone looked to one another, nodding in agreement, giving each other one last look before the plunge. 

"We're ready," Joven's voice rung clear and true.

"Then let's do this."

Joven pulled on his mask, tightening the back straps. Mari did the same, watching as the others slowly disappeared behind the ornate details of the mask. Mari turned to Joven, securing her mak on her face.

"Let's go."

Chapter Text

Joven stepped into the entrance of the Avian, greeted by the sounds of people and the brilliant flashes of dresses and suits that passed by him. There were people in masks everywhere, from ones so intricate that they moved with the wearer, to ones so simple they only covered the person's eyes. Joven felt naked in the crowd of people, not quite sure where to go. His friends were beginning to disperse, no doubt on the orders of whoever was currently in their ear. Kate grabbed his arm, leading him along, past the people taking photos on the red carpet, and past the lines of security guards.

They stopped at the top of a balcony, looking down into the main room of the casino below. Mari hobbled after them, no doubt uncomfortable in the shoes she was wearing. She caught up with them, leaning over the side as she braced herself against the golden railing, letting her feet rest for just a second. 

From the looks of it, the Avian was clearly not a place for the average gambler. Joven had been to a few casinos in his life, but they had always had dim lights on low ceilings, and flashing bulbs on arcade machines that would roar and whoop every time someone won even a decent prize. The air didn't have that commercial taste to it, and Joven could tell that it wasn't that pure oxygen that they pumped into other places. Kate dragged him down the stairs, and Mari followed, her looming shadow behind them making her look more like a bodyguard for two rich lovers trying to get away from the big city but somehow being drawn back to it. Joven shook his head, the clothes and the ostentatious surroundings were getting to him.

There were tables set up with the sorts of games Joven had only seen in movies. They were all played around large tables with fancy hand-carved roulette boards and, from what Joven could see, custom decks of cards that shimmered with filaments of gold and silver in the light. The tables were filled with people, all dressed dripping with diamonds and gold, the chips laid out before them equalling small fortunes. It was clear that the Avian made bank pulling these people in.

"Ooh, let's play!" Kate brought him over to one of the tables, sitting him down. 

"Kate I don't-"

"It's fine," she purred. "I'll help you win!"

"Kate..."

"Fine," she rolled her eyes. Kate shooed him off of the stool, crossing one leg over the other as she opened her coat, pulling out a set of chips. She set them in neat stacks, smiling up at the dealer as he pulled her into the game.

Joven didn't exactly know what was going on, but from Kate's squeals of excitement, he guessed that she was doing pretty well. He turned away from her, looking over at Mari, who was surveying the area. It was hard to tell what she was thinking with her mask on. She looked over to Joven, realizing that he was watching her. Mari took a few steps towards him, turning her body so that they stood facing each other but just slightly apart so that he stood just behind Kate and she stood slightly to the right of her, facing outwards. 

"Something up?" He asked.

"Who is she?" Her voice was low. 

"Who, Kate?"

"No the dealer," Mari rolled her eyes. "Of course Kate." She turned her head slightly to get a better look at him. "Who is she really?"

"Why do you need to know?"

"Damnit Joven," she hissed under her breath. "You picked a bad day to be cryptic."

"And you picked a bad day to be pissed off about something that doesn't matter."

Mari's eyes flared underneath her mask. She crossed her arms over one another, "Joven-"

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Joven sighed, "do you really want to know?"

"Why the hell else would I have asked?"

Joven turned to Kate, tapping her on the shoulder. "We're going to the bar, do you want anything?"

"A raspberry sgroppino." She gave him her signature sugary smile. "Be back soon."

"We will," he smiled, realizing too late that she couldn't see it.

He began to walk towards the bar, letting Mari follow just behind him until she caught up. They weaved through crowds of people, narrowly avoiding several collisions with other patrons in stunning suits and gowns that probably cost a fortune. Joven reached the bar, ordering Kate's drink and one for himself, a whiskey, neat. Mari ordered herself something off of their specials menu, something with bourbon and cherries.

"So," Mari pulled herself up onto a barstool. "Who is Kate really?"

"Why do you want to know so bad?"

"It's just....she..." 

"Spit it out Takahashi."

"She gives me a bad vibe." Mari shook her head. "Well, it's more like she rubs me the wrong way, I don't know why. I thought that maybe you'd have some sort of insight that might explain that for me."

"I can try, but I don't think you're going to find what your looking for," Joven mumbled truthfully. "She is an old friend, and I have known her since we were kids." Joven scratched the back of his neck. "How...How much have I told you about my past?"

"Not much," Mari responded quietly. "You've always been private about that, even when you do get smash-drunk."

"Oh-kay," Joven murmured slowly. He settled into the barstool next to her.

"And she was also telling the truth about my grandparents, I was raised by them. Well, more by my grandma, or Grammie, as I called her. My Pappie was in and out of assisted living at the Veterans Home until he died. My Grammie kept thinking that she'd be able to take care of him, but she was always wrong." Joven paused and pulled a bar napkin from a pile a few inches away from his fingers, picking at it with his fingernails. "Grammie and I lived in an old beat-up housing complex in a bad neighborhood. Kate's folks lived down the hall from us. They were nice people, but so afraid of everything around them. They always kept Kate on a five-foot leash. She couldn't go anywhere and she hated it."

"Is she a drifter now?"

"Kind of," Joven shook his head. "Not really, but she does what she wants. She never stays in the same place for very long. It was lucky that she even answered my call in the first place." Joven's mind laughed at him, 'which one? it was a miracle that she answered twice'. He drew in a breath, moving on. "When I say we lived in a bad part of town, I mean it. We lived in a shitty part of town. Drugs and crime everywhere. You couldn't go five feet without seeing a pile of needles or a bloody knife and no idea where it came from." Joven cleared his throat loudly, trying to keep himself together. "The whole story doesn't matter. People died, and Kate and I survived."

"Joven-"

"We learned to fight, we had our childhoods taken, but we had it happen together." He looked up at Mari, he could only see her eyes, but they seemed to understand. "That's why we're friends." 

"Your drinks," a voice came from behind him. Joven took his whiskey and drank half of it, he grabbed Kate's sgroppino and stood. He began crossing the casino before Mari could say anything in return. Joven didn't turn to make sure she was following, but when her shadow appeared next to him, he felt more at ease.

As they reached the table, they were surprised to see that a crowd had gathered around Kate. Her hair was an illustrious lime green underneath the lights, and it only managed to make her face look more intense from where it sprouted out from her mask. 

Joven still wasn't quite sure what Kate's mask was. It was some sort of bird, with a hooked beak that curved out from her nose.

"Kate?"

She turned, grinning up at him. "I won!" He elbowed his way through the crowd to stand next to her. Her pile had quadrupled in size, and the table, which had been previously filled with people, now only had one or two actually playing. 

"You cleaned the board," he responded. 

He felt a hand on his shoulder, his blood running cold before he realized that it was Mari. "We gotta get out of here, we can't draw attention to ourselves like this," she hissed at him as quietly as possible. Joven turned back to Kate, knowing Mari was right.

"Kate, we gotta go."

"So soon?" She took her drink from where it hung loosely in Joven's hand. Kate turned to the dealer, "bag this up for me, will you dear?" Her words turned sharp, "and don't even think about skimming a little off the top, or I'll have your head, m'kay?" The dealer nodded, no doubt used to dealing with those kinds of threats from his employers. He dragged her chips towards him, pulling out several large plastic boxes and stacking them in neatly. The dealer pushed the boxes back towards her, and she swooped them up, pushing them into the pockets of her fur coat. "Now we can go," she purred to Joven, taking a sip of her drink.

He followed after her as she sauntered through the crowd, heading for a stairwell that would take them to the upper balcony on the opposite side of the entrance. Joven remembered the from the blueprints of the building Boze had made him study, that they were walking towards the restaurant on the second floor. Kate ascended the stairs with a surprising amount of grace, as opposed to Mari, who looked like she'd rather be walking over hot coals that in heels. 

They reached the top, and stopped to look over the casino. Below them, Joven could pick out Damien and Boze, who walked together in tandem across the casino floor. From how Boze moved her arms, Joven could tell that she was ranting to Damien about all the easy ways she could scam each and every game in the building. That, or she was trying to achieve liftoff. Joven guessed that it was probably the former. 

His gaze moved across the room, where one of the two bulldog-masked bodyguards was talking to Wes. They both held drinks, and Wes nodded at something the guy said. The second bodyguard was nowhere to be seen, but Joven guessed that he was probably just off doing some sort of reconnaissance.

Someone, who was clearly drunk, walked by Wes, accidentally knocking into him. Wes stumbled, catching himself on the bodyguard's arm, and Joven felt his heart stab a little. The guy helped steady Wes before sharply pulling the drunkard by the collar and pushing them into the wall. Wes reached forward, grabbing onto the bulldog's arm, making sure he let go of the person who now stumbled away from them, giggling loudly. Joven crossed his hands over one another on the railing, rubbing the back of his hand with his thumb.

"Mmm, still into that Wesley boy, huh?" Kate had sidled up next to him.

"What?" He turned to her as she stared down at Wes, a soft smile on her face. "Where the hell would you get that idea?"

"You're about as opaque as a pane of glass on Johnson Tower. It's not hard to read you Jovie." He turned his head slightly, looking for Mari, making Kate tsk with her tongue. "Mari's sitting down on a bench, if you're afraid of her knowing. Her feet were killing her, poor girl. She doesn't have the posture for heels, she's taken too many lessons on posture from you, which is to say, she has the posture of an 50-year old man."

"You're kinda rude, you know that?"

"If I wasn't rude, then someone might consider me nice, and we wouldn't want that, would we?" Kate stretched her arms out in front of her, letting them hang off of the railing. "But you're the one deflecting." She looked over to him, cocking her head slightly. "Were you really hoping that I'd forget that easily about my question?"

"Yeah," Joven grumbled.

"So that little twunk really still catches your eye?"

"Twunk?" Joven nearly choked on air. 

"Isn't that what he is?" Kate smiled slightly, seemingly happy that he was actually paying attention to her fully now. "Halfway between a twink and a hunk?"

"I guess?" Joven changed his footing. "I'd guessed I'd really never thought of it that way."

"Liar."

"You're really the worst, you know that?" He sighed as she giggled under her breath. "You're the only damn person who knows when I'm lying."

"I can tell when anyone's lying," she grinned. "It's a gift and a curse, really." Kate tapped her fingernails on the railing. "Last time we talked, before all of this madness, you two were together, right?"

"It was a friends with benefits kind of thing." Joven rushed through his words. "Not really anything else. We tried it for a little while, and it worked, but after sometime, we just didn't click in that way anymore, and I ended it."

"Mmhmm," Kate nodded skeptically. She rubbed her temples, groaning. "God I wish I had a cigarette right now."

"Mari's probably got one."

"Can't smoke in here," she replied. "You didn't read the sign?"

"I didn't, because I don't smoke."

"We all smoke," she turned to him. "We're all stressed to hell, we all smoke."

"I never made it a habit." he shrugged.

"Ohh," she nodded, turning her head. "You're more of a drink until you're sick but pretend you're okay kind of guy now, huh, hon?"

"We've all got the habits we aren't proud of."

"Mmhmm," she said again. The two stood there in silence. Joven didn't know exactly what they were waiting for, but there was some power in watching everyone below. He watched as Boze and Damien returned with drinks for Wes. The other bodyguard had disappeared, and his twin still hadn't returned. They talked, gesturing and nodding in place of expressions that they normally would show. Damien fiddled with his mask, running his fingers along the back and Boze drank nervously, no doubt trying to keep herself from checking her phone. Wes seemed strangely calm through all of it, watching the room around them. 

"Huh." Kate's voice was slightly dreamy as Joven pulled himself from his haze of thoughts. "You lied to me, and I almost didn't catch it." He could see the curve of a smile under her mask. 

"And what did I lie about?"

"It was working fine between you two, wasn't it?" Kate sipped her sgroppino, breathing into the glass and making it fog up. "But you broke it off anyways because you started getting scared."

"Really?" Joven chuckled, taking a sip of his whiskey.

"Because you were falling for him," Kate caught his eye out of the corner of her mask. It pierced him with silver intensity, shattering through his skin. "And nothing scares you more in this world than commitment like that." Joven didn't know what to say, and his mouth hung open for a second without him realizing it. "Careful darling," she reached up and closed it for him. "You'll catch flies." Kate let a sigh out of her nose. "Your dumb brain is so afraid of losing someone else that you had to detach yourself from him. You can't care for him like that because you're afraid that it might break you if he leaves. And Jovie, for once, I think you might be right."

"What are you saying?"

"As much as it's going to hurt, you have to let him go." Kate hunched over the railing. "Lord knows I've had to do it in my past. We're a dying breed Joven. We're the people that can really make change in the world, but everyone around us is going to have to suffer for it." She took another sip of her drink. "Life is...easier...if you break the ties that hold you down."

"Teams, call in." Sarah's voice reverberated in his ear. He and Kate turned in tandem, facing Mari, who looked up and over at them.

"Team 1, checking in," a gruff voice spoke.

"Team 2, all set," Boze's voice came through his ear.

"Team 3 is here," Joven spoke.

"Perfect," Sarah spoke. "Because the fun's about to begin." There was a buzz and Joven looked down to see that his phone had a notification. He grinned as he saw a small map on the front, with a pinpoint location. "Get to your locations asap, when this shit starts rolling, it's gonna be hard to stop it."

"Ready?" He turned to Kate and Mari, who also had their phones in hand.

"Ready," they both said in unison.

"We're on our way," he spoke to Sarah. "Let's gut them for everything they're worth."

 

Chapter Text

Damien still wasn't quite sure what was going on as he, Boze and Wes began making their way towards the back of the casino. Boze had them split off from her, and they walked a few feet away, cutting through the crowd like a three-pronged human comb. Damien wondered what they looked like from above, and looked up to see if Joven was still standing on top of the balcony. He and the mystery woman with green hair that had shown up late had been standing up there for a while, but when he looked again, they were gone. Probably already moving into position.

Boze turned slightly, moving towards an open doorway adjacent to the bar in the far back. They hung a right, all congregating in front of a darkened doorway roped off with a velvet barrier, the entrance covered in a black cloth. A bear of a man stood in front of it, his jaw as sharp as a knife. He towered over Boze, only moving his eyes to look at her as she approached him. Damien took in the man as much as possible, trying to discern every fact he could about him. Leverage, if they needed it. Gold band on his finger in a place like this, married and proud; close cropped hair, willing to do what it takes to fit in; dragon tattoo curled around his neck, loves his job, and definitely a member of the Xiaolong. 

Boze exchanged a few words with the man as Damien and Wes stood behind her, trying to look as threatening as possible. He looked away from her for a second before looking back to her and grunting. She grinned as he moved away and unhooked the rope from the barrier, pulling back a black curtain. Boze gave him a smile as she passed through, and Damien gave him a curt nod, stepped through, followed quickly by Wes. 

The clouds of smoke were the first thing to hit Damien. Boze immediately started coughing, fanning her eyes as she blinked tears out of them. Damien was used to it, he'd spent enough time in the Oak Room on 7th that the burning of the smoke almost felt familiar. To his surprise, Wes also seemed immune. He knew that the man smoked, but in a room filled with the smell and the ash, it was hard not to retch a little if you'd never been around it before. He watched the man with the silver hair as he furrowed his eyebrows, pursing his lips.

"Wes?" 

"Smells familiar," he spoke quietly. "In a bad way." A shock rippled down Damien's spine as Boze's fingertips brushed against his arm, grabbing for his wrist to pull him along. It was hard to see, but Damien could tell that they were in some sort of speakeasy back room. There was some sort of eerie 1920's music playing on a record in the back, and people in intricate outfits and masks pulled up above their lips smoked and drank and spoke in quiet tones to one another. 

Boze dragged Damien to the back of the room, sitting them down at a small circular table high off the ground. A man in an owl mask and the red and white ensemble of the employees sauntered across the room holding a platter. On one side there were drinks, and on the other thick cigars. 

"Hello," the man's voice was warm and dark. "Welcome to the Raven Room. Cigar or champagne?"

Wes took a cigar and Damien followed his lead. Boze flirted with the waiter a little before taking a glass of champagne, sipping it slowly as she watched him out of the corner of her eye. The waiter lit the cigars for them, letting them glow red before he was satisfied. 

"Tell me if you need anything," the waiter's voice was thick like honey as he spoke. The three of them watched him leave, and as soon as he was out of earshot Boze's posture fell. 

"Dammit," she grumbled. Boze took Damien's cigar, drawing in a puff before coughing it out. "Shit, what the hell?"

"Have you ever smoked a cigar before?" Damien took it back from her, chuckling.

"No," she coughed again. "Why?"

"You're not supposed to inhale the smoke, that's like rule number one," Wes raised an eyebrow, a half smile on his face.

"Well damn me for never being rich enough to chain smoke cigars," she grumbled, drinking more champagne. "Well, at least I can drink champagne right." Boze's eyes cut like daggers into Wes and Damien. "And don't any of you dumbasses 'um, actually' me on that. Let me have this for once."

"So, where are we exactly?" Damien looked around, "this place seems pretty nice for a casino."

"As he said, it's the Raven Room. It's a very exclusive smoking club that basically no one knows about. We're damn lucky I managed to sweet talk that guy outside into letting us in."

"I'm guessing that we're not just here for a quick smoke break before the heist," Wes exhaled a cloud of smoke. 

"No," Boze sighed. "The Raven Room has a back entrance for the waiters to get food and drinks and stuff in case they run out. It leads to a back hallway that connects to everything in the building, and we can get to the control room from there, and then I can open the doors to the vaults in the basement where they keep the cash."

"I'm guessing there's a but to this?"

"And it comes with the dammit I said earlier." Boze fiddled with the stem of her champagne glass. "Our waiter is the key to this whole operation, I need his specific uniform and badge, it's what'll get us back there without setting off any alarms."

"Why him?"

"Did you notice how he's the only one in here? He's not just a waiter, but he's also a Xiaolong spy in the casino, it's a brilliant tactic. A 'secret high level club'? The perfect way to draw in the wealthy and powerful of Los Santos. They liquor them up and learn their secrets. I love it and I hate it because I wish that I'd come up with it first." Boze waved her hands, "but enough gushing. The waiter. I was surprised to see that he still works here when I was checking the list of employees, but I remember him from my days working on servers here. I overheard a conversation between him and one of the Xiaolong hot shots, and from what they were saying, it wasn't hard to tell that he's not only not a member of the Xiaolong, but also a high-up in the syndicate. He's someone's son or something."

"They were just talking openly about that?" Damien furrowed his eyebrows. "That seems like they were trying to catch someone with false information." His dad had used that tactic on defectors who were feeding information to rival gangs or the cops. The results were usually deadly. 

"They were talking in Mandarin," Boze stared back at him plainly. She then looked down at her hands, crossing one over the other and leaned back, "and I may have bugged one of them so I could hear them better."

"You speak Mandarin?" 

"A little, I'm better at listening than I am at speaking, but I can get by."

"How?" Wes raised an eyebrow. "Where the hell did you find the time to learn Mandarin?"

"My dad dealt a lot with businessmen in China," Boze said quickly. "You pick stuff up when you see it over and over again. And I also watched a lot of Chinese dramas as a kid." She shook her head. "But my language skills aren't what we should be focusing on. My plan was to seduce him, and then steal his badge and uniform after knocking him out, but we've come to a problem."

"Which is?" Damien was somehow not surprised that Boze's whole plan was hinged on seducing someone. She'd done crazier things before.

"He's gay."

"What?" Wes set down his cigar, pulling his head back. "How do you know?"

"When I flirted with him? Nothing. I was just a blank slate to him."

"Boze," Damien chose his words carefully. "Just because he didn't flirt with you back doesn't immediately make him gay. He might just not be interested."

"Trust me," Boze held her hands up. "My gaydar is tuned to hell. I knew that Wes and Joven were gonna hook up months before they did."

"What?" Wes whipped towards Boze. 

"It was so obvious Wesley," Boze said gingerly. "You two are both dumbasses and the fact that it didn't happen sooner surprised the hell out of me." She turned to Damien, "in fact, you and-"

"So let's say you are right about this," Damien spoke before she could. "Which one of us is going to seduce him?"

Wes whipped his finger to his nose. "Nose goes."

"Wes that doesn't work with two people."

"Nah Damien," Boze shook her head. "You seem like his type."

"Really?"

"Honestly, I have no idea, but you're our best shot because Wes doesn't know how to flirt effectively."

"Hey," Wes protested.

"I've seen you flirt with Joven, and it's a train wreck."

"Fine," Damien sighed. He fluffed his jacket and messed with his hair, letting the cigar droop off of his lip. Boze rolled her eyes, motion for him to step forward. She fixed his hair and his coat, taking his cigar away. 

"Now you're good."

"So what do I do?" 

"There's a storage room in the hallway, if things get hot and heavy, then he'll probably take you there." She put something into his hand. "Inject this into his arm or leg or back, or really any open part of skin, and he'll be knocked out almost instantly. It's a powerful tranquilizer."

"And what do I say?"

"Just flirt with him," Boze shooed him away with her hands.

"But I...I'm not sure I know how."

"Bullshit," Boze rolled her eyes. "You flirt all the time with people at the bar."

"That's flirting?"

"Yeah?"

"Oh...okay!" Damien drew in a breath, trying to calm down his mind. "Let's do this." 

He crossed the room as gracefully as possible, the smoke billowing around him in waves as he tried to keep his eyes from watering from the sting. Damien stopped at the bar where the waiter stood behind it, cleaning glasses. 

"Hey." Damien tried to layer on his bartender charm, but it didn't work so well on the other side of the bar. 

"Hello," the man in the owl mask spoke. "What can I get for you?"

"A scotch," Damien nodded. He tried to remember what his dad used to drink, it was a specific brand, expensive, but it would act as a good name drop. The name was lost on him, and he settled for the almond colored liquid that the man set in front of him. Damien took a seat at the bar, slowing sipping the drink. The man continued cleaning the glass for a while before he started making conversation.

"I thought you were here with your friends over there," he spoke. "You all seem like a peculiar group. We don't normally see many gang members here that aren't some of our own."

Damien felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but he kept his cool. He could see the real reason Boze had sent him over, Wes would've cracked instantly. At least he'd had some experience with this kind of pressure before. He drew in a breath, a half smile drawing across his face.

"Gang members?"

"Yes, we haven't seen many of your type around here in awhile."

"Well I'm glad that's what you think," Damien gave a chuckling sigh. "That's exactly what we were going for." Damien turned towards Wes and Boze, who were trying their best not to stare. "I'm an up-and-coming actor, and those are my agents. I was just cast in that new Terry Westenburg film. He's doing a thriller about the gangs of Los Santos. We'd hoped that bringing me here and just generally acting brooding and dark might get me into the idea of it all." He sat back in the stool. "It seems like it worked."

"Ah," the waiter nodded. Damien couldn't see his face, but he knew the man had gone red. "So you're coming over here to order a drink, and what, chat me up for some sort of method acting exercises?"

"No," Damien tested the waters. "I came over here because I wanted to get a chance to talk to you more. You seem cute."

"Do I?" The man spoke in return. His words were inviting, and his posture was surprisingly open. "You haven't even seen my face."

"Your eyes are enough," Damien smiled sheepishly. The line was cheesy, but it seemed to work. 

"Yours aren't to bad either, Mr. Lion," he replied. Damien was confused for a moment before remembering his mask. The waiter leaned forward against the bar, making softly intense eye-contact with him. "Amber-yellow, with that kind of sadness in them that the cameras eat up these days." He sighed, "you're an actor alright."

Damien continued to talk with the guy for a while. He found that he was surprisingly good at flirting, apparently, because the guy in the owl mask seemed to take to him quite well. Damien started to feel a little bad for having the tranquilize the guy in a little bit, but he had to remember that it was for a job, this was all a job. 

"You know," the waiter spoke. "There's this certain scotch in the back room of this place, and I've never been able to get it off the shelf..." he drew his finger through a pool of water that had formed from the condensation under a glass. "Do you think you might be able to help me?"

"I don't see why I wouldn't be able to."

"Can you get away from your agents for a little?"

"They won't mind as long as I'm back by midnight," Damien winked. 

"Follow me then," the waiter smiled. Damien stood, fluffing his coat and pulling the little device that Boze had given him out of his pocket.

The waiter pulled out a key, unlocking the door hidden behind a red velvet curtain. Damien passed through it after the waiter. There was a piece of what felt like a coin, or a plastic disc, in his pocket. He dropped it onto the ground, sliding it back into the door, leaving it unlocked for Boze and Wes, the curtain falling back into place hiding the sliver of light shining through. They were standing in a dim hallway that lead down towards a fluorescent-lit corridor. 

"It's here," the man spoke. He pulled out his keys, slotting them into the door knob. Damien pulled out the tranquilizer. Sorry man, he thought to himself, you seemed kinda nice. He plunged the device into the back of the guy's neck. The man let out a little gasp as Damien held it there are, waiting for the man to go limp in his arms. "I'm sorry," he murmured over and over again.

"Damien," Boze's voice came from behind him. She and Wes had just come through the door. "Good work dude. Did he open the door to the storage room?" 

"Yeah."

"Let's hide him in there then."

Damien helped them move the guy inside. He undid the guys mask, pulling it off to see the face of a young man. The guy was maybe his age, probably just a bit older, his hair was thick and dark, and there was a scar on his eyebrow that sharpened his face. He was actually kind of pretty, in a mob boss's son, making out in the back room, forbidden kind of way. Damien stood, trying to shake himself from the thoughts. 

"Alright boys, turn around, I gotta change into his stuff," Boze commanded loudly. 

Wes and Damien turned towards the door, waiting as they listened to Boze pull on the guys clothes. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence and Boze grumbling about how the guy's pants didn't fit her right, they were ready to go. She folded her clothes and mask up, pushing them into a black bag she had kept in her coat. Boze handed the bag to Damien.

"Take good care of this," Boze pushed it into his hands. "It's hella expensive, and I don't want to lose it. If they track it back to us, it could mean curtains." She smoothed the strings on the owl mask, holding it in her left hand. Boze drew in a deep breath. "Okay boys, this is where things are gonna start getting crazy."

Boze pulled out her phone, flipping through a few apps before coming to one that looked like a calculator. She pressed a button, holding the phone up to her mouth. "I'm remoting in, because I'm going to be the one to lead the charge from here. I'm our eyes on the ground." 

Damien could hear Boze's voice in his earpiece. She was speaking to everyone.

"We're in position, Sarah, move everyone to Alpha 010."

"On it," Sarah replied.

"Move Wes and Damien to their own server, and make sure to keep knocking out the camera wherever they go. They're going to head for the jackpot. Move the van down to Bay 7. Use the pass and the fake security tape I made you."

"Got it."

"Listen up everyone. This is the final make-it-or-break-it stage. Either everything's about to go wrong, or everything's about to go very right. Be prepared for anything, and listen to the voices in your ear."

"Everyone check in," Sarah spoke. "We'll use that as confirmation."

"Here," the voice of one of the bodyguards, Sam, Damien guessed, called in.

"Me, of course," Boze replied.

"We're here too," Damien spoke quickly.

"As are we," Mari's voice was quiet over the speaker. They were somewhere with people.

"Location changes..." Sarah spoke quickly. "Now. Go."

Boze shut her app down, turning to Wes and Damien. "You two are going to be our runners. From what we can tell, there's a good chunk of money in the vault. We want you to clear it out. We have a window of 15 minutes. For the first five or ten, you'll be alone, but Mari, Joven and Kate should show up soon after to help, as will the bodyguards." She pulled on the owl mask, tying it behind her head. "We can't have any delays. You need to move quickly and efficiently, got it?"

"Got it," Damien spoke for them. 

"Good," Boze spoke from behind the mask. There was something about the owl that made her look all the more threatening. "Good luck boys." She disappeared down the hall.

"We've got no time to waste," Wes nodded. He followed after her, his phone in hand. 

Damien couldn't help but feel unsettled for a second, like there was someone watching him from the shadows. He pushed the thought away. There were four people in a van watching him right now, it was probably just nerves.

He took off down the hallway after Wes, heading towards the unknown.

Chapter Text

Boze jogged down the hallway, trying to keep her eyes ahead as her mind ran circles around itself.

She could hear Damien and Wes behind her for a while, but they soon turned off behind her, the sounds of their footsteps slowly dwindling until only the soft pads of her stolen shoes could be heard. Boze passed by several security members, but they seemed to pay no attention to her. They were probably too busy fixing some problem or cleaning up some mess caused by a drunk starlet than paying close attention to someone that looked like they were just doing their job.

She was grateful as hell that she'd remembered to do all of her research. The building hadn't changed that much since she'd worked on it three years ago, but the security had been upgraded, and there were certain places blocked off that hadn't been that way before. Boze passed by the kitchen, which was framed by giant windows. People in white clothes yelled to one another in a mixture of English, Mandarin, and what Boze guessed was French. If she'd had the time, she'd have slowed down to get a better look, but she pressed on.

Boze knew these hallways better than she'd realized, her phone useless in her hand. She lost herself in the maze that was the building, her eyes always forward, no matter who passed by her.

Minutes ticked by, the seconds counted on the soles of her shoes connecting with the cement floor below. It wasn't long until she could see the sign in front of her. Control Room

Twenty feet.

Ten feet.

Five feet. 

She was there. Boze pulled her badge off of the chain on the pants she was wearing.

Then a hand clamped on her shoulder. The hand spun her around, and she found herself facing a tall old man in a black suit. He spoke to her rapid fire in Mandarin, and she was only able to catch the gist of what he said. 

"What are you doing here?" The man's tone wasn't happy. "Get back to the Raven Room. There are customers!" 

"Yes sir," Boze replied in her best Mandarin. She dropped her voice, hoping the man wouldn't notice.

"Why are you even down here? The Raven Room is halfway across the building!"

"I needed to get-" shit. She didn't know the word for champagne in Mandarin. Boze sighed, testing the word out,"champagne."

"Stupid boy," the man growled back at her in English. He said something in Mandarin that was too quick for Boze to catch entirely, but from what she heard, it wasn't nice. "Get back to your assignment! I don't know why you didn't just ring Jameson in the first place." The man turned, opening the door to the control room. He stepped in, and Boze could see two guards sitting inside, looking at security tapes. He shouted at her in Mandarin, "what are you waiting for? Go!"

Boze nodded quickly, turning on heel, waiting as the man closed the door behind him. She turned back around, swearing lightly under her breath. Plan B already. She didn't think that it would come this soon in the game.

Boze started formulating a plan quickly, her head spinning as the map of the building refreshed itself in the back of her mind. She walked briskly around the corner, entering through a door labeled 'storage closet'. She groped around in the air for a chain, closing the door behind her as the light snapped on and she found herself in a tiny room. Boze had to work quickly. 

Think, think. She closed her eyes, her mind running through the building plans, the codes, the wires. The wires. Boze pulled her butterfly knife out of the pocket she had put it in. She measured with her hands, thanking whatever dumb contractor that had decided to leave the wall unfinished. Boze took a deep breath and stabbed the knife into the wall, dragging it down about four inches before doing the same on the other side. She pried the piece up with the flat of the blade, ripping the chunk out of the wall. Boze grinned as she found a massive mess of wires behind the wall.

"Boze? Are you in position or is my GPS incorrectly calibrated?" Sarah's voice appeared in her earpiece.

"Whittle," Boze set her knife on a pile of things. She grabbed a fist full of wires, looking for the box she hoped would be at the bottom. "I'm in a little bit of a predicament, I can't get into the control room."

"Why, what happened?"

"I got chewed up by some old guy in Mandarin, he told me to go back to the Raven Room. I think he thinks that I'm the guy whose clothes we stole." Boze pulled out a wire, grinning as it held taut. "Whittle, I'm going to need some help hacking here." 

"Always," she could hear Sarah's fingers flying over the keyboard in the background. Boze pulled out a wire from her pocket, plugging it into her phone. She reached down into the belly of the wall, pressing her fingers against the black box that was connected to the other wires. Boze slotted the cord in, patting the top to make sure it connected. "Your phone's been wired in. It's going to take us about a minute or so, but we'll be in." 

Boze stood with her back against the wall, her phone held loosely in her hand. She could feel her pulse thrumming against the back of her wrist as she crossed her arms across her chest. Her breathing slowed as she closed her eyes, leaning her head back. 

Don't hold your breath to make your heart stop beating so fast. The familiar nagging comment ricocheted around in her brain. It's just make your fear worse, Ericka

Damn you, I wasn't, she thought back. I know better than that now.

"Boze, we're in. We can see the room."

"Can you get me an audio and video feed into the room?"

"I'll page it into your earpiece and your phone." 

Boze looked down at her phone as the screen changed to the inside of the room. It was dark, the only light coming from the screens in front of the subjects in the room. 

"Did you fix the problem?" The question was asked in sharp accented English. "It should've been beaten into your brains how important this Gala is. Did you fix it?"

"We're trying sir, but it seems that whatever's accessing our network is smart about where they go on our servers. They've gotten past all of our traps."

"Whittle, are you-"

"Yeah, I'm hearing this too."

"They're onto us."

"Dammit!" Boze knocked her head against the wall. 

"Wait!" She looked down as one of the guards spoke. "Found it, the IP address for the computers hacking us-"

"Whittle..."

"Already on it."

The voice of one of the guards crackled in her ear. "It's...it's a prank sir." 

"What?" The voice of the old man in the black suit cut like acid.

"What?" Boze and Sarah spoke at the same time. 

"It's...um...there's a message here...it looks like it's from your son..."

The man leaned forward, reading the message quickly. Boze watched as his eyes followed across the screen. He swore loudly and quickly in Mandarin before roaring to himself, "I'm going to kill that boy when I find him again! He was just here," the man paced the room, "I bet he wanted to see this night ruined."

"Oh no." Boze's stomach dropped. 

"What?" Sarah's voice was panicked. "What? Are you alright?"

"Yeah." Boze shook her head. "I'm fine. But I know who that guy is now...." She paused, the words coming to her slowly. "I just got accidentally yelled at by the leader of the Xiaolong, and he didn't even realize that I wasn't his son." 

"That guy is the leader of the Chinese Mafia?" Sarah puffed out a laugh. "He's pretty unhinged for running a multifaceted organization."

"Wasn't your previous boss a crazy party boy that cared more about power and money that putting in the actual work?"

"Cvestikov had been out of the throne for years before he died, he was basically a puppet that was treated like a king, but he had no power." Sarah replied like she'd had to say it hundreds of times. "Matt Raub and some of our more, silent, partners were running the show. It's how we kept the Brotherhood from running into the ground." She paused, "as much as I'd like to talk shop about stuff, we've got work to do."

"Yeah, 'course," Boze breathed. She looked around for something to use as a distraction. Above her, a smoke detector caught her eye, and she grinned. "Sarah, I'm gonna try something stupid, but I think it's going to work." Boze reached into her shoe, grabbing around in her sock before she pulled out a small bag she'd pushed into the side of her foot. "Knock the cameras out."

"Done." 

Around her was everything she needed to start a small fire. She piled a few ripped up wad of paper on top of each other on a crowded workbench, dumping a whole host of different types of cleaning products she found hiding under a cupboard onto them. 

 

Boze peeled open the tiny package, pulling a match from where it was secured inside. She struck it against the marked space on the packaging, watching as the light flared to life before reaching up to turn off the chain light. She pushed the door open behind her before setting the match onto the pile of paper and chemicals. It flared to life, and she stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind herself.

She crossed the hall, pressing herself against where the wall dipped back before the command room. The fire alarm began to blare, which set off the rest of the alarms in the entire section of the building.

It wasn't long before the door to the command center banged open, and the man in the black suit and one of his guards ran out of the room, turning and yelling loudly as they both spotted the smoke that had begun to billow out into the corridor. Boze caught the door behind them, slipping in quickly as she heard the old man begin to curse loudly in Mandarin.

Boze grabbed the tranquilizer she'd slipped in her pocket, glad that she'd been smart enough to bring an extra. She stuck it into the remaining guard's neck, having no time to waste making sure he was down before she had plugged her phone into the main server and began to type away.

Boze bypassed their locks quickly, setting up a direct line for Sarah. She watched as the security system began to dismantle itself, the feeds freezing on a single second of frame, twitching back and forth. Smart. Make it look like a power overhaul. 

"I'm connecting you with Wes and Damien," Sarah spoke. "We have fifteen minutes starting now. The van is in position, and all of the other teams are prepared to storm the vault when needed." 

There was a crackle in her ear, and she could suddenly hear Wes's voice. "I don't even know anymore," she could hear him say. "It's just, every time I see him..."

"Wes? Damien?" She cleared her throat. "It's time. You're in position?"

"We're in position." It was clear that Damien answered for Wes. She could hear the cocking of a gun in the background.

"Did you two grab those crates from the storage room near the docking bay?"

"We've got em."

"Alright," she breathed, trying to keep her pulse still. "The vault is right ahead of you, can you see it?"

"Yeah," Wes replied. "It's a giant metal door covered in sensors and camera down the middle of a dark empty hallway?"

"Perfect. That's the one. You haven't move passed the tile change on the floor?"

"We're standing at the base of it."

"Good." Boze typed in a few commands, checking her phone at least four times to ensure that they were correct. "I'm putting in the shutdown codes now. Do not move until I tell you do. Don't speak, don't breathe, just stay still. This system is extremely touchy. It's meant to be sensitive for a reason."

She typed in one final line of code, holding her breath. Her finger stood still, slightly shaking as it hovered over the enter key. Boze re-read through all of the code, not daring to move as her eyes flipped from her phone to the screen, back to her phone. 

Boze let her finger fall, sending the code out. It hummed, and she flipped her phone screen to the live feed from downstairs. She watched with a slowly growing grin as the defenses in the room fell, and the lights powered down, leaving Damien and Wes in low red light.

"Head down the hallway," she commanded. "Stop just a few feet in front of the vault door." Boze watched them from her phone. "Stop." Wes and Damien stopped in tandem. 

She looked back up to the monitor in front of her. Boze cracked her fingers, letting them fly across they keys as she slowly but surely broke down the inner defenses in the vault. There were many more than she remembered, but whoever had installed it had never changed the old passcodes, and she bypassed them quickly. 

It wasn't long before she pressed the enter key again, and the door swung open.

"Grab as much cash as possible, you're going to be making a few trips, but you'll have more people each time. Don't always run, but avoid suspicion. Move with purpose. You have fifteen minutes starting now. I'm going offline, so you'll only have Sarah to guide you, okay?"

Boze drew in a breath as she unplugged her phone. She powered the device down, throwing it into her pocket. It didn't take her much time to set up a virus that would eat away all of the files she'd just accessed. They'd be so corrupted and strung out that it would take years to ever even attempt to put them back together. 

That was Boze's favorite part, watching as all of her hard work destroyed itself in front of her, it was almost cathartic. The screen displayed a red error message that flashed wildly, slowly spreading from one monitor to another before taking over all of them together. Boze smiled as she pulled off her mask, tossing it onto the ground. 

She stood, looking over at the guard that was now slumped over in the chair, eyes wide as he looked up at her blankly. 

Boze crossed the room to the door, pushing it open and slipping out quietly. The hallway was filled with the last few wisps smoke and a few people rushing about, all of them soaking wet. The ground was watery beneath her feet, and she knew that someone had turned on the sprinklers for the area.

She could hear someone blasting a fire extinguisher at where the fire had started, and plumes of smoke bubbled outwards. Boze kept her eyes straight ahead. 

She began down the hallway as people swarmed to that corner of the building. Boze kept onward, never looking back no matter what happened. She heard someone yelling towards her once, and the sound of footsteps trying to catch up with her, but they never seemed to make it.

Boze weaved through the building, finding the exit out towards the back bay. Before she got outside, she grabbed a branded hat that was hanging on the wall. Boze pushed it down on top of her head so that it hung over her eyes. 

She crossed the front entrance, going unnoticed by everyone until she reached the valet parking garage. The clerk sitting in the booth barely looked up from his magazine as she gave him the valet ticket she'd been given when they'd first arrive. He handed her back the keys, a small tag attached to them denoting the location of the car.

Boze climbed up several flights of stairs, unlocking the car from across the lot. The two other cars that had ferried them there were gone, and Boze already knew that Sarah had called for them to be picked up by one of her underlings.

The doors to the car swung open and Boze climbed into the driver's side. The vehicle roared underneath her, the hair on her arms standing up as her whole body went numb for a split second.

She slammed her foot on the gas, speeding out of the garage and into the night.

Boze drove for a long time, the lights of the city glazing past her window. She didn't quite know when she stopped driving, maybe it was when she realized that she didn't have anymore road to follow, or maybe it was when she realized that she'd forgotten to breathe since she'd gotten out of the control room.

Boze had found herself in the back alley of some empty street that was backed up against the harbor. She sat back in her chair, letting her whole body relax. Boze closed her eyes, waiting for her heartbeat to stop echoing in her head.

She reached into the back of the car, grabbing the change of clothes she'd brought with. Boze changed in the back of the car where the tinted windows kept her from sight, and she stepped out of the car with the clothes held loosely in hand. 

Boze rifled through them, pulling out the badge and name plate of the man whose clothes she'd stolen. Leo Zhao. She dropped the two onto the ground, slamming the heel of her boot into them, listening as they cracked underfoot. Boze plucked what remained of them from the ground, as well as a few good sized stones. She made a neat little bundle with the clothes, weighting the in her hand.

Boze then stepped up to the fence that bordered the harbor before chucking the bundle over with all of the strength she could muster. 

Her breathing was labored as she stared out at the lights of the boats sailing by in the distance.

She pulled out her phone, powering it on. There was a single message from Sarah.

B78s4w: Are you out?

She typed a quick response.

Boze: Yeah. Just threw out the rest of the trash. The car is safe. I'm somewhere on the other side of town.

Boze pushed her phone back into her pocket before circling the car to get in the driver's side. It didn't take long for Sarah to respond. 

B78s4w : Good. We're having some trouble. Head to the warehouse location I've just sent you.

Boze Is everything good? Or should I come as back-up?

Boze turned the car back on, the hum a strangely familiar comfort for her racing heart. Sarah's text was much more brief this time.

B78s4w: get to warehouse

B78s4w: medic there

B78s4w: let him in

B78s4w : X opened fire, someone is shot

Boze's heart dropped in her stomach, her mind going into autopilot as her body went cold. She plugged the location into the GPS of the car, and pressed the gas pedal so far back that it wouldn't go any further. Her mind was racing, god please let everyone be okay.

But something in the pit of Boze's stomach wasn't optimistic.

 

Chapter Text

Wes didn’t remember what being shot had felt like at first.

They’d been so damn close, they’d gotten so far, and then the Xiaolong had opened fire.

He and Damien had carted cratefuls of stacked bills to the van until their arms and legs burned in pain. Wes's heart was beating out of his chest, but the adrenaline rush had begun to calm his nerves, and he'd already started to zone out, letting his body go through the motions for him. Damien had been climbing into the back of the car when the gunshots first started. Wes had nearly jumped out of his skin, but Damien barely twitched. He found himself standing, slightly shell shocked with his head on a constant swivel as Damien moved the crates faster than was humanly possible.

"Wes!" Damien shouted, snapping him back to attention. "That last crate! Grab it!." 

There was the sound of metal piercing through metal, and Wes chanced a glance to see a new hole in the side of the van. He threw the crate in Damien's direction,  slamming the back of the van shut.

Gunshots echoed in the darkness. The popped like deadly firecrackers, and Wes was terrified at the fact that he had no idea where they were coming from.

“Get in! Get in!” Joven’s voice came from somewhere around him.

He could hear the ground crack underneath him as the bullets anchored themselves into the ground near his feet. Dust and pavement blooming in giant smoky figures across the lot as the Xiaolong's aim became slowly more accurate. Wes could hear shouts in a mixture of English and Mandarin, and he ducked as muzzle flashes winked dangerously in the distance.

His body moving sluggishly through the haze cast by the smoke and orange-white fluorescents. Everything slowed down in that moment, his feet growing heavier and heavier as his heartbeat thumped evenly in time with the seconds. The door to the van was thrust open by someone inside, and Wes began to clamber in.

It had felt like someone had shoved him into the van at first, as if the palm of someone behind him had pushed him forcefully in his shoulder to keep him going. Wes had seen the door slam shut behind him, so he assumed that Joven or Damien had climbed in after him, moving him along to save both of their asses.

It was the adrenaline, he decided, that kept him from feeling it at first. 

The van jerked beneath him, and he pulled himself up against the door, gaining his bearings. Wes’s vision was getting fuzzy, his stomach churning in that way it did when he was going to throw up. Drinking three glasses of champagne and all of those miniature cakes before this was probably a dumb idea.

Around him, he could only see grins. There was someone up front driving, and someone in the passenger seat, but their faces were hard to make out. He turned slightly, spotting the Brotherhood’s tech girl, Sarah? , her name escaped him. She and another Brotherhood operative ran their hands over the stacks of money, they counted them meticulously, fist pumping every so often as they reached a certain number. 

Mari and Damien held onto the bars on the roof of the van, the two of them breathing hard. Mari had a half-grin on her face and Damien stared out the window with a smile on his face. They were both covered in sweat, their clothes, most likely expensive and one of a kind, now covered in dust and grime, though the two couldn't look more content with themselves.

The woman Joven had invited, the one with green hair, was missing her fur coat. She now wore a pair of black pants and a sweat-stained white shirt. The woman sat on an overturned empty crate barefoot, one leg crossed over the other, her stilettos taking up roost on the crate next to her. She grinned, counting a pile of poker chips as Joven rolled his eyes at her.

“Those are worth nothing now, you know that right?”

"It'll still be fun to have them," she waved her hand dismissively. "Hey, maybe they'll even be worth something in twenty years."

"Keep dreaming Kate," he sighed.

Joven turned to Wes with a smile. He looked like he was glowing. Damn. With messed up hair and skewed glasses, his head covered in sweat and a half-crazed look on his face, Joven had never been more beautiful. His smile was brief, falling quickly as his eyes drew towards Wes’s shoulder.

“Wes?” Joven’s voice was filling with fear. The van was starting to get fuzzy around him, and he could begin to feel a sudden pain radiating like a hot spike in his left shoulder. Wes reached up slowly, his joints and muscles aching like he’d just finished a marathon. He slowly shrugged his suit jacket off the shoulder, his fingertips connecting with something warm and wet that was bleeding through his shirt.

Wes looked down at his fingers, his blood dripping from the tips of his nails and down around his fingers. He looked up at Joven, his chest heaving as his vision began to swoop left.

“Huh,” he whispered. "They got me.”

Wes fell forward into Joven’s arm, slipping into unconsciousness.

 

< < ^ > >

 

Wes hated dreaming. His subconscious was the most fucked up thing about him, and that was saying something. The wound seemed to make it worse, because this time the pain was so much more vivid. He could feel everything, the screaming red-hot pain, the blood, the cold that overtook him before shocking him back to warmth.

There were voices too, some were familiar, others were not.

Some of his dreams made sense. Other didn’t.

This dream seemed to be a mixture of both.

He was standing on a pier with another man, smoking cigarettes. Where they were standing made no sense to him. From where they were standing, the city stood in front of them, rather than behind them like it should’ve been. The sky above them was a light salmon pink, accenting itself with touches of puffy peach-yellow clouds, and the tangerine orange sun that had fallen almost all the way under the horizon, the final fingers of sunlight dragging shadows from their feet.

“So, uh, someone told me sometin's comin‘.” The voice of the man across from him had that gravelly element to it that Wes always associated with habitual smokers. The kind that forced you to hear every rasp of their voice, and reach for your own throat in solidarity.  “You got any info on that?”

“Sorry friend, but no.” Wes felt himself answer, but it wasn’t his voice that spoke. He drew his cigarette to his lips, pulling in a mouthful of smoke. Wes tapped the butt on the wood barrier of the pier. “If you want that sort of information, I’d say talk to Wyshiffe.”

“I thought you and Wyshiffe wasn’t friends no more.”

“I’m always someone’s friend,” the words sounds dangerous in Wes’s mouth. “You’re either my friend or you’re dead.”

The man looked back at Wes, mortified.

“Kidding,” Wes grinned, baring his teeth.

“You’s a funny one Mr. Johnson,” he jabbed at Wes with his cigarette. Flakes of ash floated in the air, landing on Wes’s coat. “Always know whatta say.” Wes pressed his lips together, brushing the ash off of his coat.

“I suppose I do. I’m in the business for it, aren’t I?” Wes looked down, displeased, at his cigarette. "So, enlighten me. Is my shipment safe?"

"We've got guards on it 24/7."

"And those informants? You had them disposed of?" 

"Your information proved'ta be correct, and they're bein' put in max prison as we speak." 

"Perfect." Wes smiled out at the harbor alongside of them, looking out at the city ahead. "Wonderful. I believe that's all we're here to discuss?" The man laughed, which Wes did not do in return.

"Always with the jokes Mr. Johnson." He looked up at Wes. "You betta not be thinkin'a breaking our deal, would you?"

"Of...Of course not." He shifted in his stance, trying to think of something to say.  “But I suppose that you won't leave me alone until I give you something, will you?"

"No siree."

Wes sighed so loudly he felt the breath rattle throughout his entire body. "I can tell you a little bit about West Wind.”

“Some new gang forming up? Sometin' we needa worry about?" 

"No, no, nothing like that. Something I think you'll be...pleased to hear."

"Ahhh," he pulled his head up slowly in recognition. "Sometin' you billionaires up in that tower been workin' on for us little people?" The man bared his teeth in a sort of grin, revealing jagged yellow rocks that hid the slowly greying interior. "Is'it't a another one of ya damn programs?”

“It’s a revolution.” Wes felt his body hum with pride. “And I’m going to change this city for good with it.”

The man chuckled. He stabbed out his cigarette on the pier, leaving ash and marks of char in the wood before flicking the butt out into the water below. He took off his hat, still laughing as he placed it against his heart. The man ran a hand through his grease-slicked hair, wiping the residue on his pants as he looked out into the water.

"All ya damn rich kids are the same," he sighed. "In all my years on the force, you privileged fuckers always picks one'a two options." The sky had begun to darken, the peach and salmon colored horizon darkening to the maroon and navy blue palette of a bruise. "Either ya wanna fix this trash hole, or ya wanna control it for yourself." He sighed, pushing his hat back on his head. "I guess I should be glad that you's one of the good guys."

"One of the good guys?" Wes felt himself laugh. "That's adorable." He pulled his handgun from where it was held at his side. "I prefer morally grey."

"What?" The man stumbled back, reaching for his weapon, but Wes already had the gun at his forehead. "I'm sure it's'a lovely program Mr. Johnson. Ya don't needa shoot me ova it! In fact, tell me more, what can the LSPD do for you?"

"Nothing," Wes hissed. "You can shut up and tell me the truth for once, I know that you've been protecting the O'Learys."

"What?" The man's eyes, a dark stony blue, searched his. "How-how the hell did ya know that?"

"The LSPD isn't my only informant." Wes jabbed the gun further in his face. 

"They'll catch you for this one," he bubbered. "They won't let you get away with my death." The man's eyes shifted from Wes's down to the ground next to him. "And in front of the kid, too?"

Wes's vision tilted. He found himself lower to the ground, looking up at the greasy man in the cheap suit and off-brand hat. He turned his head just slightly, looking up at the man holding the gun to the guy's head.

"Why are you doing this?" The words echoed through the air like ripples on the water.

"It's what we have to do, son." There was no kindness in the words. "It's what you have to do."

Wes could see through the original man's eyes again. He felt his finger move to the trigger on the gun. As much as he tried to keep himself from going through with it, the pressure built under his finger. We held his eyes shut, waiting until he could feel the pressure building behind his eyelids. Then there was a sound so violently loud it shook Wes to his core. It turned his legs to jello, and he felt himself collapse.

His body was on fire as he felt his lungs try to burst. Was he under water now? He couldn't tell. Wes kept struggling, but the pull of whatever was keeping him there kept dragging him down. He knew that he shouldn't open his eyes, but he did anyway. Screaming pain erupted from them as he struggled to see around him. 

He was falling again, but this time, the ground caught below his feet.  His eyes burned, and smoke filled his lungs. Wes coughed, a ragged, horrible noise. There were sounds all around him, voices, cries for help, screams in the distance. Light seared his eyes, and he blinked, trying to see through the smog and the haze. 

Something was burning.

Fire licked out from a blackened building, the banner hanging above it whipped back and forth in the wind wildly. The windows were punched out, the remaining glass glowing from the heat of the fire as it poured from the windows and doors. Wes never expected the sound the fire made. It was deafening as it roared in front of him, popping and crackling as the bones of the building popped like they were made of powder.

The voice came again, this time stronger.

"Let go." The words were spoken quietly in the back of his mind. "Let go Wesley."

"Joven?" He called out. "Joven!"

The words became less hazy. He stopped struggling, listening for the call again. Before it could come again, he felt his body jerk upwards, his lungs drawing in air again.

The familiar darkness of Joven's room spread out before him. The soft sheets beneath him, the array of knives on the dresser across from him, the stupid stuffed tiger that Mari had won Joven at a carnival and that he'd decided to keep on display on his nightstand. 

A shiver traced its way down his spine, the familiar morning cold that he was used to when he woke up in Joven’s room. Wes buried his face in the pillow, breathing in the smell of lavender and Joven’s hair gel. There was a grumble next to him, and he felt the covers move themselves away.

“Hey there,” Joven’s voice sounded different. Wes groaned into the pillow, “tired?” Joven chuckled. “I’d be after what we did last night.”

“What?” Wes turned over and the pieces clicked into place.

He was still dreaming.

Joven lay in bed next to him, still fresh-faced and young.

It wasn’t until this moment that Wes realized how much the job had aged Joven. Here you could still see the pudgy curves and arcs of baby fat in his face that accompanied him through the end of his teenage years and into the beginning of his twenties. He was clean shaven, that, or he hadn’t still wasn't able to grow the patchy mess that he considered facial hair, and the wrinkles that had just started to form on his forehead were barely there. If Wes looked close enough, he swore that there were a few freckles on the bridge of Joven’s nose.

Joven hadn't put his glasses on yet, and his hair was a mess, but with that stupid smile and the warmth in his eyes, and Wes would give anything to really step back in this moment again. Back when things were so simple between them, when Wes could smile at Joven without seeing him flinch. He craved those nights when Joven wasn’t afraid of touching him, and they could fall into one another as easily as the curve and bend of a cresting wave. Now it felt like Joven was walking on eggshells everytime they talked, as if he might say the wrong thing and shatter Wes into pieces.

Wes knew exactly why he was dreaming about this moment. It had been the last time in a while he’d felt truly happy. He'd been happy, but he hadn't had this kind of happiness in his life in a while. This was the kind of happiness so intense it made you stop and check that you'd remembered to breath. Wes had used this moment to ground him recently, to keep him from spiraling out of control.

“Something on your mind?”

“Yeah, actually.” Wes cleared his throat. “Lots of stuff," he paused as Joven moved over in the bed. "Sometimes I think I overthink things too much.”

“Mmm?” Joven rested his head against Wes’s shoulder, his hands curling around Wes's stomach. He opened his mouth, trying to think of something to say, but no words came out.  “What kind of stuff?” Wes could feel the warmth of Joven’s breath against his bare skin.

"Y'know..." Wes moved his head slowly to rest on top of Joven's, playing with the hand that rested on his stomach. "Life shit. The club, the business side of things...us." 

"You worry about us?"

Wes paused. This was where he'd messed up last time. He didn't even remember exactly what he'd said now, but he knew that it hadn't been good. "Um...yeah." He picked up Joven's fingers, letting them entangle with his own. "But dumb stuff, like if I'm out at a donut place, and I wonder if you'd want one,  or like, when I'm at a store and I see something that reminds me of you, and I'm compelled to take a picture and send it to you, even if it's at one am."

"Aww Wesley," Joven snorted into the crook of his shoulder. "It's almost like you've got a crush on me."

"Almost," Wes giggled back. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Joven spoke.

"You're warm," he sighed, nestling closer to Wes. 

"I'm like your own personal heater."

"Except you're soft in the right places, and I can have sex with you and it's not weird."

"God, Joven you're disgusting."

He giggled into the crook of Wes's neck, "I think that's why you like me so much."

"Because you're disgusting?"

"No," Joven turned his head, looking up at Wes. "Because we're the only two people in this city with the same shitty humour."

"Probably," Wes felt a smile creeping up his jaw. He snaked his free hand behind Joven's back, running his hands through his hair.

"You're going to have to wake up soon," Joven whispered.

"I know," Wes smiled sadly. "I wish I could stay here with you forever."

"You don't want to do that." Joven leaned up, his eyes on Wes's lips. Wes swallowed, leaning forwards towards Joven, pulling him closer.

"I don't?"

"This close to death," he could feel Joven's breath against his lips. "You might see something you don't want to remember."

Joven turned to smoke in his arms. Wes found himself falling, spinning and swirling in through darkness, his body completely loose and weightless as a feather. Then everything went dark.

 

< < ^ > >

 

Wes jerked awake. His eyes were impossibly heavy as he struggled to sit up. He could hear a machine next to him ticking out the rhythm to his heartbeat, which pounded along even louder in his wrist. The room around him was lit sparsely, but just enough that he could see. He was lying in what felt like a hospital bed, but the room around him didn't smell like a hospital. There were wires and tubes poking into his elbow and clamped onto his finger, and his head had begun to throb. A dull uncomfortable sensation in his shoulder slowly began to register in his mind, the memories of the night began to flood back to him.

Wes tried to sit up, crying out in pain as his shoulder began to burn. 

There were footsteps outside of the curtained off area, and the curtains were suddenly thrust open, and a man in glasses, a white collared dress shirt with the sleeves, a grey vest and a black tie stepped in. He moved quickly, looking at charts and running his hand through his hair, the silver watch on his wrist catching the light just enough to blind Wes for just a second.

"What, who are-"

"Please, don't talk-" the man spoke quickly. "You might rip something."

"Rip-"

"Shh!" 

Wes shut his mouth as the man pulled back the stale, scratchy shirt that he'd been dressed in, as it definitely wasn't the nice silk one he'd bled all over. He checked Wes's bandages, and he flinched as the man cleaned them off, and applied new bandages. The man reached up to a bag that hung above Wes's head and fiddled with something on the nozzle before wadding up the used bandages and tossing them in a trash can in the corner. A rush of calm fell over Wes, and the roaring pain in his shoulder mellowed out to a dull mewl. 

"Alright, you look like you're going to bust through your stitches if you don't talk, what do you want to know?"

"Can you tell me what's going on exactly?" Wes spoke weakly. "Who are you?"

"My name is Dr. Timothy Baker, you can call me what you want, Baker, Tim, Doc, I don't care. As for what happened to you..." He pulled a stool out from under a table that had been set up with medical supplies and bandages. "You were shot in your left shoulder." The man paused. "You nearly died twice during the procedure, we had to move you from the Brotherhood's warehouse to my personal residence in order to keep you stable." He gestured around, "this is where you are now."

"I nearly died?" Wes whispered.

"You came close to the edge, your heart stopped at one point, but one of your friends,  the loud man with black hair, Joven, I believe his name was, was determined to do anything to save you. He performed the chest compressions that brought you back."  Wes felt the shadow of a smile flicker across his face. Tim watched him, a pensive expression on his face. "Your friends seem to care for you a great deal. They all came to visit you multiple times. More times than I might've liked, but it was still a sweet gesture."

"Multiple times...how long have I been here?"

"Just a little over two days. They brought you to the warehouse two-" he checked his watch, sighing- "now three, nights ago, and we moved you here just before dawn. It took us a good deal of time to get you stable, but you've been resting since then. Your friends wanted to bring you home, but I'm going to keep you here for another day just to make sure that everything looks alright." Tim stood. "I'm going to call them, they'll want to know that you're awake, but I'll let you have some time alone for a little while. Give you more time to rest. When you wake up, I'll have something for you to eat, you're probably starving. Would you want coffee, tea, water?"

"Water's fine," Wes nodded. Tim moved across the room, adjusting Wes's bed. He reached up, fiddling with the nozzle on the bag connected to Wes's wires.

"Your friends left some things for you to do when you woke up, and they left them there." He pointed to the nightstand next to Wes, and Wes grinned as he saw the stack of comic books that Joven was always trying to get him to read, a tablet and headphones and the tiger stuffed animal from Joven's nightstand.  "I'll leave you be."

"Thanks," Wes smiled. 

"No problem," Tim nodded. He pulled back the curtain, disappearing and leaving Wes alone in his makeshift room.

It felt odd to sit around doing nothing, even if he did have things to busy himself with. His brain already liked to wander, and the silence of the room wasn't doing him any favors. Wes pulled up the tablet, opening up the notepad app. He wrote two lines in the notepad.

Try to talk to Brenden again. See if he wants to remember this time.

Wes closed the app, opening up his music. He hit shuffle, pulling his headphones on and laying back against his pile of pillows.

He sat with his eyes glued to the ceiling tiles, trying to keep his breathing stable as he let the music overtake him.

 

Chapter Text

Mari paced across the length of her room, her body shaking and her mind on fire. 

She'd locked her door, trying to ride out the pain as she shivered in the corner of the room. Mari was so close, if she just held on for a little longer, she'd ride it out. Withdrawal was a bitch, and she was going to make it hers. 

Mari felt like she was freezing cold and burning up at the same time, her head and arms slick with sweat as her brain pounded against her skull. A few more hours. She kept telling herself. A few more hours and we'll be okay. Her stomach churned, bile burning up in her throat.

Mari ran to the bucket in the corner of her room, dry heaving into it, tears nearly blinding her as her stomach collapsed in on itself. She'd already thrown up so much her throat was raw, and mouth tasted like the acrid flavor of whatever she'd eaten the night before. Mari waited for the nausea to pass before pulling her knees to her chest, leaning against the wall as she pushed the bucket away with her foot, the smell inside already enough to make her start retching again.

We should just tell him. Her mind murmured, trying to be helpful. Joven will know how to get help.

Fuck Joven. A voice in her mind roared back. 

Mari drew in a shaky breath, wiping away her tears with the heel of her hand. It was getting bad again. Her body shook violently, but she didn't dare get up and grab her blanket. If she moved she was terrified she might fall apart. As if her skin might rip at the seams, and her muscles might untangle like a frayed length of rope, and her bones might break apart as they hit the ground, shattering into dust. 

It's getting bad. She pulled her knees closer to her chest, letting the fabric on her pants soak up the tears dripping down her chin. Everything hurt. Her body ached and her mind was numb. Every thought felt like a muted conversation between two people in another room. She could tell that the conversation was about her, but she wasn't able to make out any words, only worry about what they might be saying.

Mari shook her head, and for a second, the haze began to clear. Her body still shook, but substantially less than before. She was in the eye of the storm now.

She managed to pull herself to her feet, holding onto the wall behind her. Mari stumbled across the floor, barely catching herself before she tumbled to the ground, her legs weak and her arms even weaker. She lay on the ground for a moment, turning over onto her side and letting the cool of the floor seep into her skin. Mari turned to lay on her back, letting her stomach churn as she studied the ceiling she'd stared at for many sleepless nights. It looked different in the daytime. The shadows were less intense in the sunlight, and the ghastly faces they cast looked friendlier, but still not the kind of people you'd associate yourself with.

Mari's skin felt disgusting after she'd finally pulled herself off of the ground. She knew she'd never cleaned her room, but it hadn't dawned on her that that would mean there was three years of dust accumulating on the floor beneath her.

Mari managed to pull herself off of the ground again, this time standing stronger than she had before. Her head spun as she closed her eyes, letting her feet stand unstable underneath her. She just needed to let some water wash off all of this sweat, then she'd feel better. Mari pulled her towel and a spare pair of clothing from the pile of things the floor.

She unlocked her door, descending the stairs to find the hallway empty. Mari shambled around the staircase, entering the door underneath it to the bathroom. She locked the door behind her, reaching into the shower and pulling up the lever for hot water. 

With trembling fingers she peeled off her sweat stained clothing, letting them fall to the ground as she held herself up against the wall with one hand.

Another wave hit Mari, and she stumbled, almost losing her footing. This one was worse than anything she'd been through before. It felt like she was balancing a bowling ball on the very crown of her head. Her whole body shook terribly, and she fell to the ground, crouched like an animal in the corner between the shower and the toilet. The tears came again too, cold against her skin. 

She waited for it to pass before crawling into the shower and closing the door behind her. Mari let the water scorch her skin. The pain wasn't any worse than what she was already going through, so she let it burn. The water drew down her face, hiding the tears as they came. 

She sat in the water for a while until her chest stopped heaving and she could stand again. Mari took some of Joven's lavender soap, letting the smell wash over her like an old memory. She washed her hair with whatever off-brand shampoo Boze had left in the corner of the shower before rinsing it out and stepping out of the shower. Mari dried off with the towel as quickly as she could, hoping that the distance between the waves of pain would be longer this time. 

She pulled on her clothes, putting her hair up inside the towel to let it dry a little easier, though she knew that it wouldn't be dry for a few hours. Mari left the bathroom, her legs shaking as she began up the stairs. Not here. She pleaded. Not now

Her mind didn't seem to like to listen to her. Mari's legs gave out under her halfway up the steps, and she stumbled, catching herself on the railing.

"Mari," a voice sent a shock down her spine. Mari reached for something, anything, she could use to defend herself, whipping around towards who had spoken. "Hey, Mari..." Joven stood at the bottom of the steps halfway down the hall. Every nerve in her body stood on end. Run. Part of her brain screamed. No, another part roared, fight, hurt him. "Are you...okay?"

"Yeah," her voice was raw, but she spoke through it. "Fine, why?"

"Um," Joven paused. He shook his head, looking down at his feet and then back at her. "Nothing, just...nevermind."

"Is something up, or are you just saying hi?"

"Oh," his head jerked up. "Wes! I got a call from Dr. Baker, Wes is awake. He's going to be home at the end of the day."

"That's great," Mari plastered on a fake grin. She paused for a second before speaking. "What have you been doing all day?"

"Trying to get things sorted out with Matt Raub, we're making plans for moving the money to a safer location."

"Boze helping you with that?"

"No, she's taking the day off for once." Joven shook his head. "God that woman works like a madman, she deserves a break more than anyone."

"And Damien?"

"He's tagging some buildings to take them in as official Jackrabbit territory." He nodded slowly more to himself than Mari. "There's apparently a lot of city blocks in the area that used to belong to Losioz, but now don't belong to anyone."

"Cool?" Mari responded, furrowing her eyebrows. Her head pounded. "I'm going to go take a nap, I didn't sleep super well last night," she spoke quickly.

"Neither did I," Joven sighed with a smile. "Sleep well Mari."

"I'll try Jovert."

He turned, leaving her curled over the staircase, her knuckles nearly fusing to the bar. She heaved herself up the stairs, shutting the door behind her and sliding down it. The sweat and pain came again, but this time it came with new thoughts she hadn't had in months.

You should hurt him

"What?" She spoke the word out loud. The room was getting fuzzy. 

He's not worth anything. Do you really think he cares about you? Mari's heart pounded in her chest. Do any of these people really care about you? Or are they just waiting for you to die on a mission so they don't have to deal with you anymore.

"No," she whimpered. "They care. They're family."

You think after what you did to them they'd still call someone like you family? The voice laughed huskily. That poor Boze girl. So traumatized from what you did to herYou should've finished the job when you had the chance, it spat.

Mari stumbled to her feet. "Get out of my head." She grabbed her head in her hands, her fingers squeezing her temples as her head began to pound. "Get out of my head!"

I can't leave, it roared. I'm a part of you Mari, you and I are the same fucked up human, but the more that you resist, the more I will existSo give in. Give in to it. Hurt them. 

"No!"

You can't starve me away forever. 

"I can try."

And you will fail just like you did before. You and I both know how this ends. So just do it already. Give in to the animal. 

"Dammit," Mari cried. Tears blinded her, and she barely had time to blink them away before more took their place.

Kill them.

"Shut up!"

Kill them.

"SHUT UP!"

KILL THEM.

Mari barreled forward, shoving her mattress as she fumbled with the floorboard. Her fingers shook, threatening to drop the bottle now held tightly in her grasp. She was shaking, but the voice in her head was quiet. Mari pried open the box, fumbling for a needle as she plunged it into the bottle. She took a little at first, but the hiss in her mind made her take the rest along with it. 

Mari held her breath as she pressed the needle against her arm, the tip resting against her skin. "I need this," she breathed. "I need this." A sharp sudden pain accompanied the needle slipping into her skin like it had a hundred times before. She injected the drugs into her system, closing her eyes as her whole body tensed. 

Her fingers were the first to stop shaking when it hit her. She pulled the needle out of her arm with such triumph that she was almost surprised when it didn't hurt. She slowly put the bottle and the needle box back into the floorboards, trying to ignore the shame creeping up her back.

Mari told herself that she was doing exactly what she was supposed to. She was slowly weaning herself down. She didn't need it as much as she used to. At least, she was trying to use less than she used to. 

As long as her conscious was clear and she could make decisions, she was fine. As long as that creature didn't come back, she'd be fine.

She'd be fine.

Mari could feel herself crossing her fingers behind her back. 

Chapter Text

"Sarah, can you page me through to Matt Raub?" 

"You have his number, can't you just call him directly?" Joven could hear Sarah grinning across the phone. "I'm not Raubbie's Secretary, Ovenshire."

"I don't have his number connected to my secure line yet."

"Ooh, fancy," she crooned patronizingly. There was some clattering in the background, "shit." 

"Sarah?"

"Yep, I'm fine, just dropped something." There was a pause. "Give me a sec, I'll page you in."

Joven sat back in his chair, the whir of the generator in the background filling the empty space with quiet noise. He'd hidden himself away in his panic room, his office, arguably one of the most secure rooms in the building, feeling too open to him. Joven tapped his fingers on the table in front of him, his phone held in the crook between his shoulder and his chin. The monitor in front of him oscillated with the circular loading emblem. 

There were several dial tones and Joven sat up as Matt Raub's voice paged through the receiver.

"Ovenshire. It's about time you called."

"Sorry for the delay, I've got a few things that have been occupying my mind."

"Oh, that's right, your friend. He was shot in the shoulder if what Sarah told me was correct, you brought him to Timothy Baker. How is his condition?"

"Tim stabilized him, and he was in a coma for the past few days. I just got a call from the good doctor, and Wes is awake."

"A lucky man." There was some shifting in the background. "Sarah said that a few inches and-"

"He'd be dead," Joven nodded slowly. "We're very lucky that the Xiaolong didn't have better aim."

"That we are." Joven reached for a coin that sat on his desk and began spinning it on top of the table.

"Onto business." There was the sound of shuffling papers in the background. "The money has been secured in a vault outside Los Santos. After your friend was brought to the warehouse, Sarah and a few other of my employees brought the cash there. It will be near impossible to find, and near impossible to break into."

"That's reassuring." He cleared his throat, "I'm assuming there's a but to this."

"There always is," Matt Raub sighed. "The Xiaolong have gotten in contact with me."

“And?” Joven felt a knot begin to form in his stomach.

“They recognized us. We’ve been at peace with them for a long time...but I don’t think it’s going to be like that for much longer.” Matt Raub’s voice tensed. “This has only worked to spur them harder to take the Kingship. And-“ he sighed slowly- “according to something Whittle just sent me, they’ve thrown down the gauntlet.”

“They did?” Joven’s voice left him. The word sent a shock down his spine. There hadn’t been a gauntlet in years. The last time was when Losioz had taken the throne out of nowhere, and it had been a bloodbath.

“There was a spray painted dragon on the side of city hall earlier this morning.”

“And let me guess, they left the details encoded?"

"After Losioz pulled that trick, no one's making gauntlets easy again." Joven rubbed the bridge of his nose.  “Whittle’s been translating it for the past hour or so. She’s been sending me updates slowly as she cracks the words.”

"How far has she gotten?"

"Not as far as she wants to be, but she'll have it done by tonight. There's no way they would make the gauntlet this soon anyway, best case scenario, it'll be in a week." Matt Raub paused. "But with the tenacity and numbers they possess..." Joven pinched the skin on the back of his hand. "It will most likely be soon. Very soon."

"What kind of competition do you think they'll they hold?"

"Competition?" Matt Raub let out a little laugh. "That's right. I keep forgetting how young you all are. All of you twenty year olds with the souls of old men." He could hear Matt Raub shift in the background. "How old were you when Losioz took the throne?"

"I was young, 12, 13 maybe?" Joven ran his finger along the ridged edge of the coin. A fist tightened around his chest, and he tried to ignore it.

"The gauntlet is a bloody battle between gangs who want to take the throne. More people from the Brotherhood died in the last gauntlet than any casualties combined in the last 14 years since then."

"I know the gauntlet better than you think."

Matt Raub bit at the pause "...And?"

"It's what started me on the path to delinquency. I learned how to fight, how to make money, and worked some odd jobs until I met Mari." Joven wasn't in the mood to let his backstory ravel apart.

"Ah." Matt Raub went quiet for a moment. He let the silence linger for just a second. "You're going to have to fight your way in this gauntlet, you are aware of that, correct?"

"Yes."

"This isn't some mind chess game you can worm your way out of, you're going to need a strategy more war like and barbaric that you might be used to."

"I'm better versed in that than you might think," Joven rubbed the back of his neck out of habit. "The heist at the Avian, that was a Boze plan. Boze plans have no room for fancy improv, but Joven plans, I could get hit by three bullets before I even start to run out of ideas."

"Good."

Joven felt the conversation lull, and his subconscious decided to speak for him. “Matt Raub, can I ask you something?”

“Depends,” he paused, considering his tone. “Try me.”

“You’ve been in this organization a lot longer than I have, and you’ve probably gotten experiences that I wouldn’t understand and-“

“This is about your friend who was shot, isn’t it?”

“Kind of,” Joven spoke slowly. "It's just...I didn't think that he, or anyone on my team for that matter, would get hurt this early in the game."

"It's an occupational hazard," Matt Raub noted. "They might be your family, but they’re soldiers. They’ve agreed to join your force, and they’ve got the skills to keep themselves safe under pressure. For as much backstabbing and treacherous this business might seem, there's a good amount of sacrifice involved in it. I've seen many people around me come and go. Some of them were bad people, and they might've even deserved what came to them, but most of them were just trying to make it in a world that believed had abandoned them." Matt Raub cleared his throat. "You're terrified for their safety. That’s normal. It means you’re human.” There was a pause. “It doesn’t become a problem until you get too scared to send one of them into battle.” Matt Raub’s voice took on that air that it had when they’d first met, the voice of a man who had stared death in the face more than once.

"It sounds like you've said this before."

"To too many people." Matt Raub sounded sad. "Not all of them have taken my advice. Not all of them have survived the all-crushing machine that is this city." There was a noise in the background, "give me one moment."  Joven sat in the silence of his room, trying to feel impatient as he flicked his coin across the table.

"That was an investor. I'm going to have to go. I'll have Whittle call you when she's figured out the code. Goodbye Mr. Ovenshire."

"Bye Matt Raub."

The phone call ended with a click as Joven disconnected his phone, flicking off the switches on the device. A notification on his phone startled him. Unknown Persons at Door. Joven felt himself go cold. He stood, flipping off the lights to his panic room and locking the entrance behind him.

He smoothed his shirt and pants, readjusting the collar that had come undone. Joven crossed the building, grabbing the gun stowed in one of the door panels. There was a banging on the door, and from behind it, a loud voice.

Joven swung the door open to find a  short man standing at the door, his hand poised to knock again. Joven towered over him, his eyes sharply trained down on the man as he head stayed straight forward. He was somewhat well dressed, with a nice button down and a pair of blue jeans that didn’t fit him well. His coat was rumpled, about halfway through being pressed, and he held a bag leather bag at his side, clutching to it protectively.

“Can I help you?” Joven blinked slowly at the man.

“Um, I was told I could find a Joshua Ovenshire here?” The man fiddled with something in his coat, peering around the side of Joven and into the club. “I was told that he owns this club, and I was wondering if I might be able to talk to him.” Joven tightened his grip on the gun behind his back, moving to obscure the man’s vision. “I’m a journalist from Liberty City, and I want to ask him some questions about the Willow Hills Massacre.” The words sent chills down his spine. The man definitely wasn't from here, because people from here didn't call it that. He pulled an ID badge from his coat pocket, “my name’s Ryan Todd. I work for Defy Media, we’re a broadcast journalism company, we produced that podcast, Overture ? You might have heard of it.”

Ryan Todd. The man Kate had talked about, the one who had stumbled onto the crime scene.

“Unfortunately, I have.” Joven stirred in his stance against the door, trying not to look bothered. “Why do you want to hear about Willow Hills?”

“I just want to know if I can talk to Mr. Ovenshire.”

“What kind of information are you looking to get from him?”

“Hey man, I just want to know if he’s willing to talk to me.”

Joven leaned out of the door, looking around outside. “How’d you find this back door?”

Ryan rolled his eyes, “the front door was locked. Look dude, I appreciate the small talk, and you're probably just doing your job, but I really just want to know if I-“

“I’m Joshua Ovenshire.” He bit down on the words, watching as the man folded in on himself, his face turning red.

“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry, I tried to look you up, but I couldn’t find a photo, and-“

Joven held up a hand, surprised when he stopped speaking. “It was a simple mistake.” He let his hand fall to his waist, resting a finger in his belt loop. "What questions do you have for me?"

"I'm currently doing a piece about the gangs in Los Santos. The Willow Hills Massacre is connected to that, and in my research I came across the fact that you were one of the only people left alive after it. Is that true?"

Joven considered his words. "Why do you want to know?"

"Is this a bad time?" Ryan's shoulders drooped, his posture growing weaker by the second. "It's just, I don't have much time to finish this, and I've been stuck and..." he sighed, "I'm rambling now, but...I think that you might be the missing puzzle piece of this story.”

Joven felt his heart race in that egotistical way that he loved. He considered his options. He could shut the door in the man's face and keep his past as it was, a secret, or he could tie up the loose end in Mari's case. Joven decided split second, and put on his best smile. “I have an hour or so. Why don’t you come in?” He moved aside, gesturing into the building.

Joven let Ryan walk past him, and dropped his gun into the basket by the door before shutting it firmly closed behind him. Ryan took a seat at one of the tables in the club, emptying his bag onto the table.

“Is it alright if I record this conversation?”

“It’s fine,” Joven lied, pulling on a smile for the man. “Would you like any tea or coffee?”

He pulled out a small recording device, “no, um, I’ve got a water bottle. Thanks though.” Joven took the seat across from him as the man plugged the device into his phone. “Testing, testing.” Ryan looked up at Joven, and Joven got the first good look at him. He had a softly round face with a thick beard around his chin, his eyes were dark and nervous. He was clearly uncomfortable where he was sitting, his expression hard to read as he spoke. “Can you state your name and a little about yourself for me please? I need to test your levels.”

“My name is Joshua Ovenshire.” Joven cleared his throat. “I’m 27 years old, and I run a strip club in Los Santos.”

“Perfect.” Ryan referenced something on his phone. “How long has it been since the Massacre?”

“God,” Joven turned his head. “I was 13, so it would’ve been 14 years.” Joven repeated the last part to himself, “14 years.”

You lived in Willow Hills before it happened, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Joven responded.

“And were you there the night of the Massacre?”

“I was,” Joven’s voice wavered in his throat. His mind was knocking loudly on his skull, what the hell are you doing idiot?.

“Joseph Losioz was known for being particularity ruthless, and he let you live?”

“He let four of us live. Losioz was ruthless, but he wasn’t heartless in the way the media makes him out to be. Losioz believed that the world was broken. He believed that the only people that are still worth something are the children.” Joven paused, considering his words. “The four of us were brought under his care until I turned 17, and I managed to get out. I did some odd jobs before I met my business partner, and we started this club together.”

“Interesting.” The man seemed genuinely surprised about his answer. “Were you aware at the time of what was really happening that night? That the cops used a fake cover story about a madman in the building?”

“I know that now, and even then, everyone in this city is taught not to trust the cops before they even learn to walk.” Joven sat back in his chair. He decided to play dumb, see how much Ryan really knew. Joven wanted to know how much how a threat this Ryan Todd could really pose.

“Have you ever heard of the Kingship before?”

“No,” Joven arched his face down in a fake confused frown. “I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Well, when a certain gang has control of enough land and power in Los Santos, they are eligible for something the people here call the gauntlet.” Ryan smiled, clearly very excited about the topic. Joven almost found it cute, but in the way someone finds a puppy falling over cute. “The gauntlet was held at Willow Hills by the gang that wanted to take the Kingship, but Losioz’s gang, Los Bandidos, took it before they could.” Joven could hear him switch into radio producer voice, planning out exactly what the voice-over would sound like, how he would describe Joven as a tall stocky man with scraggly facial hair and greased black hair. “Losioz was a nobody, and then he was on everyone’s lips.”

“Hmm.” Joven nodded, pretending to be overly interested in the conversation.

“His death is what brought me out to Los Santos anyways.”

“It was?” Joven felt his throat tighten.

“Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do a piece on Los Santos’ gang culture for years, but I’ve never had the excuse. When he was reported missing, I contacted the LSPD, and they seemed to think that I’m some sort of investigative private eye thing.”

“You’re the one that found his body.” Joven guarded his expression the best he could.

“We didn’t find the body, but we did find the kill site, which is all the cops needed to open an actual investigation.”

“Was it a lucky break, or-“

“There was some anonymous tip that came in a few weeks back, said that there’d be a body of importance in the basement of a building outside of the city. I followed a hunch and found it with my partner.” Ryan shook his hands, cracking his knuckles as he fiddled with something on the phone. “But that’s not the important part. That’s just the start of it all. I think that Losioz’s death is much bigger than all of this. He’s not the first body to drop, there was Cvestikov, the son of the Russian mobster-“ Ryan shook his head with a smile- “it’s no secret that he took over after his dad retired. And there was that heist at the Avian, that booshy club downtown.”

“A heist?” Joven tried to look surprised.

“The cops have been keeping it under wraps, but it’s no secret with all of the territory they’ve been taking in the past two days.” Ryan leaned forward, “I think they’re gearing up for another Kingship. They performed the hit on Losioz, and when Los Bandidos disbanded, they thought that they could do it again, so they went for their next biggest rival, the Bratstvo Medvedya," Joven tried not to cringe as the man completely butchered the name. "This time, things didn't go so well. The Russians hit back, and they took enough to make whoever runs the Avian very mad." He watched Joven's expression closely. "Does this sound like anything that happened before Willow Hills?"

There was a sound from behind them, and Joven turned. "Joven, what's going on?" Mari spoke, she stood, her eyes and jaw set firmly as she gave Ryan her best death stare. 

"Just doing a little interview with this nice reporter here." He turned back to the man. "That's my business partner, she's just passing through."

Ryan nodded, but he seemed distracted. "All of the deaths, the disbanding of several gangs, even small ones, all of this, it has to mean something, right?"

“Hmm,” Joven laughed. Ryan’s smile slowly fell, his shoulders heaving slightly as his lips parted, his eyebrows furrowing. “It’s a nice theory, but I’m afraid that you don’t know this city quite like I do. Death is common here. Not every death leads together in one long string in one of those convoluted ways that would make great television or radio. Sometimes death is just death. I’ve seen enough of it to tell you that.” Joven stood, catching Mari’s eye as he turned back to Ryan. “People die, people get robbed, gangs in this city topple one another often. This isn’t the Kingship, this is the changing of the guard." He watched his fascination as the man began to shrink in his seat as his voice sharpened. "People in this city crave power, and sometimes, when the power isn’t enough for them anymore, they need to take down someone they think is more powerful than themselves. Sometimes, that person is some random person on the street, and other times it’s a gang leader they think needs to be taken down a peg.” He tapped a finger on the table. “There’s no story here. If you want some cheap entertainment with shock value, I suggest you take a tour of Vinewood, they have enough washed up stories there to fill hours of tape. This is real life.”

Joven stepped forward, watching as Ryan Todd leaned away, his eyes filled with fear. He watched the slow realization on the man's face that the conversation was over, and Joven basked in the feeling of power that coursed through his veins in that moment.  “Al-Alright. Um, thanks...thank you for your time.”

“Of course.” Joven smiled darkly. He and Mari watched as the man packed away his things, walking towards the back door. Ryan took a look back at them like a shamed dog, his tail between his legs. They waited for the door to slam shut before Joven let out a breath. “You think I scared him good enough?” Joven grinned at Mari, all teeth.

“Yep." She crossed the room to him, craning her neck to see the gun sticking out of the basket in the corner.  "Who was that guy?"

"Some random reporter," Joven lied. "He found out something about my past and seemed to think that he could just easily ask me questions about it."

"Hmm." She had continued to look at something in the back, but spoke again. "Hear anything more from Matt Raub?"

"The Xiaolong have decided to fire back."

"Shit," Mari cursed. She turned to look up at him. "What did they do?"

"They've thrown down the gauntlet."

"Fuck." 

"They sent out the details this morning. Some sort of graffiti thing. Matt Raub's been having Sarah translating it all morning. He said he'd have her call us when she got the details."

"More sitting around?" Mari rolled her eyes. "Fuuuun," she grumbled sarcastically. "You wanna go shoot at pigeons in the back alley until he calls?"

"Normally, yes, but I've got some emails I want to check. With all that money, I've contacted a contractor about maybe expanding parts of the club."

"Oh, cool," Mari grinned. "Maybe get some extra rooms in the back and stuff?"

"If we ever hire more people, yes, but until then, no."

There a silence that was brief enough to let Joven's mind return to the thoughts he was dreading.

"So, a gauntlet, huh?"

"Yep."

"How are you holding up?" She reached out with her free hand, squeezing his arm. "I don't know exactly what happened to you, but I do know that it hurt."

"I'm alright," he spoke with a fleeting smile. Joven narrowed his eyes at the gun in the back basket. "How long do you think shooting pigeons would take?"

Mari grinned, "not long."

"Then I'll get my gun."

"Al-right." She laughed, a sound that Joven missed. "That's my Jovert!"

Joven smiled back at her, but there was an uneasy feeling in his gut that he knew meant something was coming.

And it was going to hurt.

Chapter Text

Damien pushed the scarf up farther around his mouth as he spray painted the Jackrabbit decal onto the side of the building.

Joven and Boze had sent him out early in the morning, armed with several spray paint cans, an outline Boze had made at the shitty little copy-shop down the street, and a 22 caliber pistol. Damien had been alone with his thoughts for the last three hours, and for the first time, he hadn’t been overcome by them. Normally he needed to blast music to even focus in the first place, but his headphones hung around his shoulders, untouched.

It was more likely that his mind was in so many other places than thinking about his past that kept his thoughts from growing dark. He’d been worrying about so many different things that it was almost hard to picture the faces that normally scared him.

Damien found himself distracted himself with thoughts of Wes.

He’d watched when Wes had gone down, how Joven had leapt to grab for his body as he fell.

There had been a surprising amount of blood for a simple bullet wound, but Damien knew that Wes’s adrenaline probably hadn’t helped. That night was a blur now. He remembered ripping apart his shirt and holding it down on the shoulder, his hands covered in Wes’s blood.

Sarah had been calm as she called the Brotherhood’s field medic, a quiet well-dressed man in oval-shaped glasses and a neutral expression, but he could hear the wavering worry in her voice. She’d texted Boze, who was a few miles away on the other side of town. Damien was glad to hear that she was alright, but the fear for Wes, whose breathing had been growing shallower and shallower by the minute, threatened to overtake him.

They had reached the warehouse just in time, not even bothering to get out of the car as the driver drove it through the open wall on the side. Damien had helped Joven and the bodyguards lift Wes out of the van and onto a stretcher. He moved to cross the room with the stretcher to the medical bay set up in the back, but Kate grabbed his arm, shaking her head.

“Let them deal with this,” she spoke quickly.

“But Joven-“

“Joven knows what he’s doing.” She hadn’t let go of his arm yet, and he could feel her fingers digging into his skin. “The rest of us will only be a burden on the doctor.”

The next few hours moved by like millennia. Mari paced back and forth as he and Boze sat on the back of the tailgate. The rest of the Brotherhood crew had gone to clean the van and lock up the money where the Xiaolong could never find it. Kate had disappeared after an hour or so. She'd been sitting with them one moment, and in the next, the space was bare.

Mari held a hands to her lips, nervously chewing on her fingernails. Boze’s leg jostled wildly as she picked at her hands, and Damien had tried to focus on a spot on the ground, flinching every time he heard a sound from the medical bay.

After two hours of excruciating silence between the three of them, Joven and the doctor came out from behind the corner. The doctor wiped his hands on a towel, the sleeves of his dress shirt pulled up around his elbows, a vest and tie completing the strange ensemble.

“Joven…” Mari stopped. “Is he okay?”

“He’s stable now,” the doctor spoke for Joven. “But he’s currently comatose, and will likely stay that way for the next few days.” He turned his head towards the medical bay. “He was shot in the left shoulder blade, dangerously near his heart.”

“We nearly lost him,” Joven’s voice was quiet. “We we had to bring him back twice.”

“Yes,” the man nodded. “But Joven managed to keep him going. He’s a fighter, that Wes. I’m going to bring him to my residence so I can keep and eye on him.”

“No-“ Mari began, but she and Joven made eye contact and she stopped.

“We talked. It’ll be safer for Wes to keep him in a place with an actual doctor on hand.” Joven’s voice was frayed, he’d seen a lot that evening. “He can rest and heal up, and he can get medicine for the pain. Something we don’t have.”

“I’m having some old friends from the hospital who know to be discretionary come pick him up in an ambulance. I’ll call you when he’s stable.”

“Can we visit him?” Boze’s voice cracked softly, her arms wrapped around her body.

“Of course.” The man gave her a soft smile.

“Thank you Dr. Baker.” Joven gave him a nod and a tight-lipped smile. The doctor nodded in response as he pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“They’ll be here any moment.” He looked up at them. “You’d best be off now.”

The car ride home had been a quiet one, the empty seat between Damien and Boze a looming reminder on their thoughts.

Joven had spent the most time at Tim’s, and today was the first day that he hadn’t gone over to see Wes. Damien, Mari and Boze had all gone to see him twice, but it was almost hard to look at him knowing what had happened. He slept so peacefully, despite the wires trailing out of his skin. His hair, which had been getting noticeably longer, was brushed neatly out of his face. Damien could still see the touches of cuts on Wes’s face, but the bruises had all healed.

He looked almost ethereally peaceful, but their shared grim expressions told a different story.

Damien pulled himself from his thoughts, folding up the decal and pushing it into a plastic bag. He threw the spray paint can and the bag into his backpack, zipping it up and tossing it over his shoulder as he grabbed for his phone. Damien checked the map that Boze had sent him, ticking off the area that he'd just done on the map. He pushed his phone into his back pocket, pulling up the scarf as he walked towards the end of the alley. 

Damien stepped out into the sunlight, looking on his map for the next location. He jogged to the corner of a street, looking both ways before crossing through mid-day traffic. Damien chanced a glance behind him as he turned the corner, spotting a man in dark clothing a quarter of a block behind him. The man was far enough away that Damien wasn't too worried about being followed, but there was something in the way he walked that sent alarms off in Damien's brain.

He rounded the corner, ducking into an alleyway and pressing himself against the wall. Damien let his heart slow, his hand on the gun as he waited for the man to pass by the building. He let his breathing grow steady before peeling away from the side, setting his backpack on the ground.

Damien pulled the stencil out of the bag, holding it against the wall as he shook up the can of paint. He sprayed the decal, freezing for a second as he heard a sound from down the alley. He threw his things into the bag, swinging it over his back as he jogged out of the alley, barely zipping it shut as he did.

Damien blinked with confusion as he stepped out of the alley. He was in a part of town he recognized. This was where Shayne lived. He doubled checked his map, making certain that he was in the right place. Damien crossed the street, walking down the hill towards the park that flanked Shayne's building. A cop car rounded the corner, and Damien pulled his hood over his head, re-adjusting the baseball cap he was wearing so that it covered his eyes.

He stopped in front of the building, standing forlornly in across the street from the entrance. Damien thought about going inside for a second, checking in on Shayne and assuring him that he was okay.

When Damien had come home from the heist after Wes had been stabilized, he'd had three missed calls from Shayne, the voicemails becoming increasingly more frantic as they went. Damien had called him back as soon as he'd stopped shaking, the phone held loosely in his hands as he'd sat on the edge of his bed.

"Were you there?" It was the first thing Shayne had said the second he'd picked up.

"Yeah." Damien's voice felt too quiet in his throat. "Yeah, we were."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm in one piece." He laughed huskily. "If that counts."

"Everyone's okay?" Damien felt his heart drop. "I heard they opened fire on you."

"Wes..." he drew in a breath. "Wes got shot in the shoulder."

"Oh my god."

"He's alright now, they him stable..." Damien felt the rest of the words on the tip of his tongue, but it was close. He didn't want Shayne to worry more than he already was. There was a pause. "How did you know about it? How'd you even know it was us?"

"A friend of mine was at the Gala, he told me that there was some sort of gang war going down. I just...assumed." Shayne's voice sounded groggy but earnest. "And then I worried. And then I called you three times." 

"It's alright," Damien murmured. "I'm more happy that you care that much."

"You're my best friend man, of course I care about you." There was a slight pause as Shayne drew in a breath. "Just...be more careful next time, okay? This kind of job could get you killed."

"I know," Damien felt his eyes well up with tears, his chest tight as a smile overtook his face. "I will."

"Good."

Damien stayed on the phone until Shayne's breathing eased. He listened to the sound of cars going by Shayne's apartment, and his cat, who was most likely in bed next to him, softly purring every so often. Damien wanted to say something into the phone so badly. He'd wanted to pour his soul out to the sleeping Shayne, tell him everything he loved about him. But his nerves got the better of him, and he ended the call.

He crossing the street to where the building jutted up against a smaller high-rise, dipping into the alley. He shrugged the backpack off his shoulders again, pulling it open and grabbing out the decal and slapping it against the wall. Damien went through the motions again, peeling it off and sealing up the bag as he looked through his phone to make sure he hadn't missed anything.

The hairs stood up on the back of Damien neck as his hands went numb. 

“I thought I saw you Mr. Lion.”

A chill ran down Damien’s spine as he lowered the paint can. His hand moved into position to grab his gun, but the voice behind him spoke again before he could.

“I know you know who I am. But I'd like you to know that I know who you are. It took some looking, but I found you.” Damien measured his heartbeats. He grabbed for his pistol and whipping around to find the face of a young man with a coy expression looking back at him. It was the man from the casino. The man who wore the owl mask.

“Oh, so it was a gun. I’m a little disappointed that you weren’t just happy to see me.”

“You,” Damien breathed. He trained the gun in on the middle of the man’s forehead, but the man didn’t seem to even flinch. “How’d you find me.”

“It wasn’t hard.” The man blinked back at him. “You weren’t lying about being an actor. I just had to put in some of your details on some website, and voila, I get to see those pretty little eyes of yours again.” He stepped forward, sauntering with an impossible sort of bravado. “So, Damien Haas, how would you like to help me take down the Xiaolong?”

Twenty minutes later, Damien and the man, whose name he learned was Leo, had stepped out of Joven's car and into the main part of the building.

"Joven?" Damien called into the empty office.

"In my office!"

Damien pushed open the door to find Mari and Joven at his desk. Mari sat on top of the desk, reading through as stack of papers, and Joven sat in his chair, typing something out on the laptop in front of him. He stepped in, Leo moving to stand next to him. Mari looked up, her eyes widening and narrowing as she reached for something on the desk next to her.

"Damien-" Joven looked up, registering that there was a guest in the room. Damien watched as the business facade washed over Joven's face. "Who is this?"

"Leo Zhao." The man stepped forward, a cocky expression plastered on his face. 

"Son of Yukun Zhao?" Mari lifted a gun from the desk, holding it out at Leo. "Who is better known as the leader of the Xiaolong?" Leo's hands slowly moved up from his sides in retreat as he took a step back from her.

"Yes, but-"

"What does your daddy want?" Joven shot Mari a look. He nodded to Leo, who cleared his throat.

"I'm here to give you some information." He pulled a small flash drive from his pocket, holding it up for Joven to see. "This right here, it has everything about my father's organization. Dates, times, addresses, shipments, crimes, everything."

"And you're just going to give it to us for free?" Mari's voice was layered with skepticism.

"It doesn't take a genius to understand that my father is a man without principles." Leo held out the drive towards Joven. "It's time someone finally takes him down a few hundred pegs." Damien took the drive from Leo, handing it to Joven.

“How do we know that we can even trust you?”

“My father is going to destroy this city, I’ve seen his plans for the future, and they aren’t going to pardon you...or anyone, not matter how innocent, that stands in his way. Trusting or not trusting me isn’t an option.”

“Bullshit,” Mari snarled. “There’s always more than one option.”

Joven held the drive up to the light, though it was more for show than anything else. Damien knew that Joven knew about as much about the drive as anyone in the room, which was to say he knew nearly nothing. Damn . Today was a bad day for Boze to take off.

“Do you want to risk destruction, or do you want to cut off the snake’s head before it bites?”

“You’d just betray your dad like that?” Joven looked up at the man.

“My father is a cruel and vile man. I’ve known that for years. Maybe...it’s just..." Leo cleared his throat, holding his head higher. "I’ve found the words to say that’ll let me stand up to him.” Leo’s eyes rotated from Joven’s face, to his shoes, to the curve of Damien’s face and then finally to the flash drive. “He’s not the kind of man you can cross without repercussions...especially when you’re his son.”

Joven looked to Damien, swallowing slowly. Damien moved his shoulders just slightly, in a sort of ‘ I don’t know’ gesture.

“We’re seriously just going to trust him?” Mari grumbled, setting her gun down on the table. She flicked the safety on, but didn’t move her finger from the trigger. “Alright.”

“Just put this in my computer?”

“USB drive, yep.”

“And this will give us all of the information we need about the Xiaolong?”

“Yes.”

“You better be telling the truth.” Joven flicked off the cap. “Because you should know that you’ve sealed your fate. If you’re lying, you’re going into the basement. And you better believe that you’re not coming out again.”

Leo nodded, and Damien searched his face for any hesitation. His face was so neutral, that Damien wasn’t even sure Leo was thinking at all.

Joven plugged the drive into the computer, holding his breath. The icon popped up on the desktop as the sound of someone moving around in the hallway sent the hairs up on Damien’s neck.

“Hey,” someone pushed the door open. “I’m back.”

Wes stood in the doorway, closely flanked by Dr. Baker.

“Good,” Joven grinned. “You’re just in time to help us take down the Xiaolong.”

Chapter Text

Boze leaned against the rental car as she scrolled through her phone, waiting outside of a small brick building in the middle of the city. She’d been waiting about five minutes or so, and the cold of the metal car had begun to bite against her back.

Courtney said she’d be outside a few minutes ago, but the woman was nowhere to be found. Boze didn’t really mind waiting, but her worrying got the better of her. Just as she stood from the car to knock on the front door of the apartment complex, it opened, and Courtney bounced out. Boze eased back against the car, slipping her phone into her pocket as Courtney locked the door behind her.

“Looking sharp, Miller.”

Courtney turned, her grin wide and genuine as she did a little spin. “Like it?” She was wearing a pastel pink wool dress and white stockings, a pair of grey sneakers completing the ensemble. Courtney brushed her hair, which fell curly and short around her shoulders, out of her face.

“You look like a regular teenage daydream.”

Courtney gave a little curtsy. “That’s what I was going for.”

Boze pulled the door open for Courtney, but she rounded the car, climbing into the driver’s side. She raised an eyebrow, sliding into the car as Courtney buckled herself in. “Keys?” She held her hand out towards an increasingly confused Boze. “I’m the one that invited you out, you really think I’m letting you drive?” Courtney stuck her tongue out between her teeth with a grin.

Boze sighed, digging through her pockets and pulling out the keys. She put them in Courtney’s hand, who grinned as she turned, slotting them into the car. They drove for a while through the city. They made small talk, and Boze tried her best to focus on Courtney.

It wasn’t hard to focus on her, she was so bright and full of life that she seemed to glow, but Boze’s mind was filled with the happenings of the past few days. The heist had gone almost perfectly. It hadn’t ended the way she had wanted, but Wes was going to be okay, and they were one step closer to the Kingship.

“Where exactly are we going?” Boze leaned back in the seat, trying to make herself comfortable.

“Somewhere fun.” Courtney replied with a cryptic smile. “I’ve been wanting to check this place out for a while, so I thought, why not have some fun?”

They pulled off the highway somewhere near the pier, and for a second Boze wondered if they were going to the Ferris Wheel to do the stereotypical date thing. Oh god, was this a date ? Boze was nowhere near well dressed enough for a date. She’d thought that it might be something more on brand with what they’d done last time they’d been together. Boze had guessed that they’d hop in the car and drive somewhere secluded and do what all dumb horny people their age did.

Courtney drove past the pier, her foot pressing up and down on the pedal as they sped along the road, the reflection of the car echoing on the water’s edge. She pulled the car into the parking lot of a small dilapidated building. There were a few cars in the lot, all old, but not in that cool-old way. Courtney parked the car, stepping out into the lot. She drew in a breath, turning towards the building.

Boze looked up at the front, stifling a laugh. “A roller skating rink?” She shut the door behind her as Courtney walked around the car to join her in front of the building.

“Yep.” Courtney held out the keys to Boze. “Apparently they just re-did the interior.”

She took the keys from Courtney, pocketing them. “Well, if it looks better than the exterior, then I’m all for it.”

“C’mon!” Courtney grabbed Boze’s hand, dragging her inside as a small group of kids walking along the sidewalk held the door open for them.

It smelled like nostalgia, off-brand yellow popcorn, and the pungent leather-foot smell combo that came with the roller skates. Boze drank it all in.

Courtney insisted on paying, and slapped down fifteen bucks for two pairs of old-fashioned box wheel roller skates. They walked out from the food court area, which was carpeted in the most hideous on-brand 80’s pattern possible. Boze and Courtney sat down on one of the benches, tying on their skates.

Boze watched with a small smile as Courtney stumbled forward, her arms waving wildly as she tried her best to keep her balance. She spun around, holding her hands out to Boze, who stood, grabbing one before skating circles around Courtney. Spinning her slowly.

“Woah, wait, you can skate?”

“Yep,” Boze grinned. She didn’t let go of Courtney's hand as she pulled her forward.

“Damn, I thought that my minimal skating ability would be enough to impress you.” She let the tips of her fingers stay entwined with Boze’s as she skated backwards a few inches. “See?”

“I’m very impressed, don’t worry.” She pulled herself back towards Courtney, trying not to knock her off balance.

“When’d you even find the time to learn how to skate? I swear to god you can do anything.”

“Nah, that’s Damien that can do anything.” She looked forward. “I can’t do a lot of things. Most prominently, I still can’t do that tongue-rolly thing. Oh! And I also can’t cross my eyes.”

“Really?” Courtney raised an eyebrow. “I can do both of those things, at the same time actually.” She proceeded to demonstrate, pretending to lose her balance before actually making them lose balance.

“Court no!” She let go of Boze’s hand, letting her roll across the the rink. Courtney ran into the wall, grabbing it to steady herself as Boze laughed full volume at her. She wobbled as Boze skated towards her, smiling brightly at her with a shaky grin. Boze held out her hand, and Courtney looped her arms through Boze’s, holding on for dear life as they slowly skated around the circle.

They avoided children dashing by, and the overzealous adults who showed off to their kids, and the teenagers grasping for each other’s fingers as they made a long chain across the rink, only to be knocked apart by one of their friends. Boze missed this feeling. There was a community to it, a silent message of humility in knowing that no one here knew what they were doing. The music changed as the voice of the DJ, who sounded like a bored 30-something clearly fed up with his job but trying to hide it, blasted through the speakers.

“Alllll-right.” There was some squeaking from the speakers, and it was clear from the next words that someone had jumped for the volume button. “We’re throwing it back to a time before. For all the adults out there today, we’re going to the 80’s.”

There were a few half-hearted cheers from tired parents, and some grumbles from the teenagers in front of them. Courtney tightened her fingers around Boze’s, smiling down at her with a brilliance in her eyes.

“So you never told me, how did you get so good at roller skating?”

“I was in roller derby as a kid.”

Roller derby ?” Courtney scoffed with a grin. “What kind of parent lets their kid do roller derby?”

“My aunt,” Boze tried to hide the sappy smile on her face. Courtney seemed to notice anyway, a bright grin spreading across her own. “When my dad was away on business trips, which was pretty frequently, she let me come to the rink with her. She was called…oh shit, what was it?” Boze snapped her fingers. “The Merry Murderess!”

“Holy shit that’s a metal ass name.”

“Yep.” Boze grinned with a hint of sadness. “She taught me everything I know. I could hip-check everyone here and make it out without a scratch.”

“Really?” Courtney gave her a dopey grin that made Boze’s heart melt. “What was your roller derby name?”

“Bone-Crushing Big Boss Boze.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, my dad always called me 'big boss boze' as a kid, and I just needed to add ‘bone-crushing’ and it stuck.” Boze turned her head towards Courtney as they rounded the corner. “What about you? Any weird stuff you did as a kid?”

“My siblings and I used to tape lawn chairs to skateboards and ride them down the hill in our neighborhood.”

“Holy shit, really?”

“Yep,” Courtney giggled. “We were those annoying neighbors.”

“God, I can see it now. Y’all piled up together before skyrocketing down, flying past people’s windows and making them believe in aliens.”

“Woah, how’d you know?”

“Wait, did that actually happen?”

“Yeah.” Courtney dropped her arm a little, linking her pinky finger with Boze’s. “It was so stupid too. We had this neighbor...this little old lady named Mildred Flaching, she was blinder than a bat and screeched louder than one too. She used to sit on her front porch at night, and we happened to decide that it was a good idea to go lawn-boarding at night. So she saw us ride by, and we were yelling really loud, so I guess she thought that we were the first sign of the apocalypse, and she called the cops.”

“Did you get caught?”

“Nope,” Courtney grinned. “I still don’t know how we did it, but we got away!”

Courtney and Boze circled the rink a few more times, chatting and laughing at one another’s stories. Boze didn’t think that she could hurt out of happiness, but her stomach was killing her from laughing too hard. Courtney’s hand never left hers, and she was glad for it. Even if it was small, that touch was enough to keep her going.

They left the place after their feet ached and the place grew too crowded with the older swarms of people their age, probably looking for the same thrill they were. Courtney and Boze stumbled out, their legs still getting used to not wearing skates. Courtney dragged Boze out of the parking lot, running towards the ocean a few hundred feet away.

She let go of Boze’s hand, kicking off her shoes and pulling off her stockings as she ran into the ocean. Courtney looked divine in the light, her hair glowing in the afternoon sun. She grinned back at Boze, who pulled off her own shoes, joining Courtney in the pull of the ocean. They stood in silence, Boze a little bit back, the water lapping up against her ankles. The water curled around Courtney’s thighs, the sunlight falling through the waves, illuminating the paleness of her skin against the color of the ocean.

“This is the only part of this damn city I love.”

“Hmm?”

Courtney turned back towards her. “The ocean. I love the ocean. It’s the only constant here. People die, people fuck, people scam, but the ocean still laps against the shore.” Boze fell in love with the stars in Courtney’s eyes.

“Were you near the ocean where you grew up?”

“By about a half hour.” She turned back slightly. “When I turned 16 I drove out to the coast every weekend. My sisters went shopping and did shit like that, but I always went to the ocean.” Courtney drew in a breath through her nose, exhaling through her mouth. "I've forgotten how much I've missed just taking a second to breathe." She closed her eyes, her fingers dipping into the water as she swayed along with the curve and twists in the waves.

Boze did the same, feeling the pull of the ocean at her feet. She'd always been afraid of the water, the dark depths and the unearthly magnetic tug had kept her from ever learning to swim. But here with Courtney, the water felt like an old comfort she'd never known. The chill was familiar, and the sway fell into a rhythm that was etched in her soul.

They stood there in silence for longer than Boze could count, until Courtney finally turned around, the bottom of her dress tinged with water, and her eyes full of life. "So, how does ice cream sound?"

The two of them sat on the beach together, shoes and socks laid out in the sand as they ate their ice cream and watched the waves. 

"I'm going to guess that this wasn't just a fun little outing," Boze finally spoke. "We should probably talk about that night..."

"I was wondering when this would come up." Courtney sighed, leaning back on her free hand. "I like you Boze. I really like you."

"Well Miller, you're not to bad yourself," Boze grinned.

"Yeah, yeah," Courtney replied with a shy smile. "I like you, but...I don't really want anything serious right now. I'm just...well...it's like-" her face screwed up, trying to find the words. "I'm not in the place for a regular old run of the mill relationship."

"You said something about that on that night."

"You remembered that?"

"I remembered a lot of things about that night," Boze responded with a coy smile that made Courtney blush. "And we don't have to be 'official-official', if that's what you mean. I like you too, and I'd really like to do what we that night again. A lot."

Courtney grinned, "I want that too." She brushed her hair away from her face. "But I also want some of this. Talking. Eating food. Doing stuff. I dunno."

"I like that plan."

"So what are we? It's not," she pretended to gag, "friends with benefits - I hate that term - but it's more like-"

"Something closer."

"It's no-strings attached sex, but also with cute dates." She licked her ice cream cone. "But there's no worrying about appearances or anything."

"Alright," Boze smiled. "I really like this plan."

"I do too." 

"But I think, just because we are...going to be open and stuff...I should tell you the truth about the Jackrabbit." Boze sat up, crossing her legs over one another. "And it's for your safety, because I don't want you getting hurt because I didn't tell you all the details."

"Oh, that the Jackrabbit's a front for a gang?"

"What?" Boze furrowed her eyebrows in worried confusion. "How...how did you know that?"

“I had some idea for a while. No normal accountant carries around a butterfly knife and uses it with that much precision. Besides, Shayne told me about a week ago.”

“Damien,” Boze sighed.

"Yep," Courtney grinned. 

"I'm guessing the other strippers know too?"

"Yeah," Courtney nodded. "I've talked to Olivia about it before, and I know for a fact that Keith and Noah were there the night someone tried to kill Joven."

"Which time?"

"There's been more than one?!"

"There's been three." Boze rolled her eyes, "I keep telling Joven that he needs better security, but that man is nothing if not stubborn."

"It was the one just after when Damien started bartending."

"Ah, that was just before he was hired."

"Who exactly works for Joven's...backroom organization?"

"Me, him, Mari, Damien and Wes, but we've been getting some outside help of recent."

"Wes works for Joven?" Courtney threw her head back in a laugh. "I'd wondered why he'd gotten off the pole to become a building manager or whatever his title was."

"Wes really only started working for the other side of the business because he and Joven were fucking, but-"

"What?!"

"You knew that the Jackrabbit was secretly the cover for an underground gang operation, but you couldn't tell that Wes and Joven were a little more friendly with each other?" Boze laughed loudly. "Wowie."

"I'm a little oblivious to that sort of thing," Courtney blushed. She pushed Boze playfully, "and you're one to talk. It took you a year to realize I was flirting with you!"

"You were flirting with me that whole time?!"

"Yes!" Courtney fell over laughing, wiping her eyes as she brushed sand off of her legs. "God, we're really clueless, aren't we?"

"I guess we are." The two of them let the conversation lapse for a second, gaining their bearings as a group of teenagers ran into the waves from behind them. Courtney sighed, her head propped up on her hands, a sad smile on her face. They watched the teens splash around in the water, their pants hiked up to their thighs and their shoes discarded on the beach.

"Shayne told me that something went down a few days ago, is that true?" Courtney's words caught her off guard. She was picking at her toenails, which were painted a vibrant shade of teal, as wild and churning as the ocean. 

"You heard about that?"

"It was at that casino, right?" 

"The Avian," Boze nodded. "We pulled a heist that took way too much planning for how simple it ended up being."

"And Wes," she paused. "Is he okay now?"

"He's stable, but we still don't know his condition."

"God," she let out a long breath. 

"The Xiaolong, those are the people we stole from, they've yet to retaliate, but knowing their numbers and their abilities...they will soon."

In her back pocket, Boze's phone started to go nuts. She pulled it out of her back pocket, ice dripping down her back as she recognized the alarm that was set. 

"Fuck."

Her phone had a single message. ALERT: SERVER-WIDE DATA BREACH; VIPER VIRUS DETECTED

Chapter Text

Wes had woken up in the same hospital bed that he'd been in earlier, but this time, the wires were all gone except for one clamped onto his fingertip. Dr. Baker pulled the curtain open as he walked in, holding a pile of folded clothes in his hands.

"Oh, good, you're awake." The doctor crossed the room, checking his vitals. "And everything looks like it checks out."

"Does that mean I can go home?"

"I'll drive you back as soon as I've changed your bandage and you've changed into these clothes." Wes sat up, and Tim pulled away the bandage on his shoulder. He cleaned it up for the third time that day, placing gauze on the area and wrapping it up with a clean bandage. He placed something over Wes's shoulder so that it was harder to move, some sort of special bandage he supposed. Tim left the room, leaving Wes's clothes, a pair of jeans, a basic grey hoodie with the Jackrabbit logo, and some socks and shoes on the nightstand next to him.

Wes changed clothes, feeling out how he could move his shoulder as he gathered the things Joven had brought for him. He and the doctor headed out the front door of his house, a small suburban home with a beachy feel, to the car, an inconspicuous grey-blue vehicle just big enough to move someone from one place to another. They drove in the quiet for a while, not saying much except for Tim lecturing Wes on keeping his wound well tended to.

"I'll be back in a few days to check on it, and then after that, every week or so until it's healed."

"That sounds good."

"Yes, the last thing we want is for it to get infected." Tim nodded without looking at him. "Make sure you eat well, and you drink a lot of water. If your body is happy, then you'll heal better. And no strenuous activity. No going out to do your 'enforcing' or whatever it is you and the Jackrabbit do. Though, I'm sure that Joven won't even think about letting you into the field for a while after this."

"You think?" Wes grumbled sarcastically. "I'll be surprised if he lets me leave the Barracks after this."

"The Barracks?"

"Old nickname for the office housing space."

"Ahh." He nodded slowly. "I can see why Matt Raub refers to you as soldiers now."

"How did you come to work for Matt Raub?"

"I don't just work for Matt Raub. I work for anyone who needs a discreet procedure, and quickly." 

"So you're like a travelling doctor for Los Santos' gangs?"

"Yes, I suppose I am." They stopped as a red light and Tim moved his pointer fingers up on the steering wheel. "I was a hot-shot surgeon up in Richman." The light changed and Tim pulled forward. "But the best fall from grace the most easily, hmm?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess that's pretty true." Wes changed the subject a little, "so who do you work for if you don't work with Matt Raub?"

"Anyone that has my number, and is willing to pay the fee."

"So you've worked for lots of the gangs in the city?" Wes smiled slowly. "You must know a lot about the inner workings of them then."

"Yes," he replied sharply. "And I'm also known for my ability to keep tight-lipped. It's really the only way I've managed to stay alive and in the good graces of those with more power than myself."

"I wasn't-"

"You were," Tim's voice was calm and cold. "I'm not offended by it. It's common for people to ask, but it's better if I say nothing at all. Appearances, you know. You never know who could be watching."

"Ah," Wes nodded. 

The rest of the ride to the Jackrabbit was quiet save for the radio. Tim liked classical, and the music was an odd nostalgia trip for Wes. He pushed away the old memories of the ballroom and the record player as Tim pulled into the back alley of the Jackrabbit. 

They stepped out of the car together, Tim carrying a briefcase full of medicine for Wes to take, and Wes's arms full with the things he'd been given. He unlocked the back door, letting Tim in front of him as they stepped into the backstage area. The curtain was closed, and Wes took the lead, pushing it away as he took the side stairs down. The two of them rounded the bar and walked down the hallway and into the main office space.

Wes could hear voices in the office, and he pushed open the door. Joven, Mari, Damien and a man whose face felt familiar stood in the office. "Hey," he smiled at Joven. "I'm back."

"Good," Joven grinned back. "You're just in time to help us take down the Xiaolong."

Tim slid past Wes, entering the room behind him. "Hello again Mr. Ovenshire."

Joven's face faltered for a second. "Baker."

"We should discuss-"

"Yes, give me a moment." He nodded to Mari, who slid off of the desk and into his chair after he stood. Joven crossed the room to follow Tim, closing the door behind them.

"Hey," Mari nodded at him. "Are you feeling better?"

"As good as I can for being shot two days ago."

"So they did shoot someone." The man next to Damien nodded. "One of the snipers swore he hit a target."

There was a flicker of recognition in the back of Wes's mind. "You're the man from the Raven Room."

"That I am."

"Why is he here?" Wes felt his voice grow dark. There was something about the man that put him on edge, his shoulder beginning to ache as his heartbeat quickened. Wes grimaced, reaching for it. 

"Wes?"

"I'm fine," he snapped quietly. "Just sore."

"I am here with information," the man nodded. "Information that will held you little rabbits get on your feet." He held his hand out, "I'm Leo."

"Wes." He didn't take the man's hand. Leo splayed his fingers, tightening his lips as he thrust his hand into the pocket of his coat. He was dressed surprisingly well for such an informal meet-up. Black dress pants with brown loafers, a white dress shirt and a black overcoat to match, his dark hair slicked to the side and wet with styling oil. 

They stood in silence, Mari's hand wrapped around a gun that hung next to her side. Damien stood still, but his eyes were uneasy, his fingers playing with the bottom of his sweat-shirt. Leo stood, head high, his arms crossed against his chest. Wes bit his lip, turning to see the doctor and Joven standing outside. Baker spoke quickly, his hands moving as he did. Joven stood solemnly across from him, giving him short, curt nods as his fingers latched onto the loops on his belt. He turned towards the room for a second, catching Wes's eye before turning away. 

Wes turned back to the others in the room, trying to ignore the itching pain in his shoulder. Damien gave him a quiet glance, a soft nod hello that Wes realized he hadn't given yet. Leo watched all of them with a sort of curiosity, but Wes wasn't quite sure that that was even what it was. His eyes were too dark to read, and his jaw was softly held shut, his lips falling in a thin line.

The door opened behind them, and everyone in the room turned towards the two entering. Joven held the briefcase that Tim had brought in, and the doctor stood just a few feet behind him. He adjusted his glasses addressing Wes. 

"Remember, no strenuous activity, don't use your shoulder if you can avoid it, and lots of rest. Mr. Ovenshire has your medicine and the times when you should take it. I'll be back in a few days to check in on your progress." He gave them all a nod. "I do hope that this will be the only call I make to you this week."

"We can't guarantee it," Joven gave the doctor a sad smile. 

"Then good luck to you all." The doctor stepped back, holding the door open for just a second. "You're going to need it."

Wes watched the doctor leave, but the sight of Boze barreling through the door caught his eye. He whipped towards Leo, grabbing the man by his arm and whipping it behind his back as the door slammed open and Boze raced in.

"Hey-" Leo's cry was cut short by the sight of Boze. "Oh dear," he laughed.

"JOVEN WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?" Boze's voice roared through the room. She nearly threw Mari out of her seat as she leapt at the computer. Boze's fingers flew across the keyboard, her eyes searching the screen as it began to make strange noises. "Dammit, dammit, dammit." She ripped the drive out of the computer throwing it to Mari, who grappled for it as Boze drew her hair out of her face. 

"Boze, what's going-" Joven started towards the computer.

"What the hell do you think is going on Joven?" Her eyes were rimmed with red as she shot him a glare. "We've been hacked! And this is all your fault, I know it is!"

Leo began to laugh. "Oh goodness little hacker, you can try to save it, but we both know you're too late."

"No," Boze scanned the screen. She roared as Mari, "destroy the drive, destroy the drive!"

Mari threw it to the ground, stamping down on it with the back of her foot. Boze shook her head at the computer as Mari continued to smash the drive. "Not good enough," she whispered. "Burn it, you need to burn it." Wes pushed Leo towards Damien, who caught him, securing his arms behind him as the man sneered with pure glee.

Wes pulled his lighter from Joven's desk, grabbing what remained of the drive and letting the flames eat away at it. Leo just smiled, grinning softly. 

"Aww, that's cute." His expression changed to something darker. "Do you really think that we don't already have all of your information?"

"I know you have it," she growled back. "That wasn't just a flash drive, it was a transmitter."

"Yes," he grinned. "Smart girl."

"Don't patronize me, snake." 

"I prefer Long de Erzi."

"This was your Ceshi, wasn't it?" Boze spat. "You're the heir now, right, officially?"

"Smart girl," he repeated. "Now my father will train me in the ways of the Xiaolong. I will ascend to the Dragon's Throne soon enough."

"You aren't leaving this building, remember?" Damien's voice bit into the man, and Wes watched as his grin grew even wider. 

"Quite bold of you to assume I won't escape."

"You won't," Damien replied with such coldness in his voice that it stunned the man for a second. "I will make sure your life is a living hell, personally."

"I look forward to it Lion," Leo purred. Damien rolled his eyes, his expression hard to read.

Boze typed away at the keyboard, her expression growing less panicked as she went. "Smart," she chanced a look up at the man. "But I'm a better coder than you assumed."

"Really?" His expression changed to a pitying pout. "I know you think you can fix this. But trust me, you can't." Leo's expression curled up into a sneer. "I know that you were the one that wrote the code for the Avian. And I also know that code better than the back of my hand. You can't shut this code. It's you against yourself. An impossible battle."

"Yes," Boze smiled. "But I also know my weaknesses. Even with the strengths you added to it, I still know where to go to rip it all apart. You're an idiot if you think that you can use a code I perfected to take me down, Viper Virus and all." Leo's expression faltered. "And yes, I know that you used Viper for this."

His grin turned back upwards, the frown disappearing as quickly as it had come.

"Which means..." Wes could feel the tides shifting under his feet as Boze turned her head back to the computer. "Shit," Boze gasped. "Someone get Whittle on the phone, NOW."

"What, why?" Mari raised an eyebrow.

"I connected our servers." Her breathing was low and shallow, easy to hear in the silence that cloaked them. "He could've burrowed his way into their network if he had enough time-" Joven scrambled for his phone, punching in some numbers before handing the phone to Boze. She pushed it under her chin, her eyes scanning the screen again and again as the phone hummed.

"Whittle? This is an emergency. Code SD9." Boze clicked through her tabs, looking through pages and pages of source code. "I need you to shut-down and manually clean servers 15, 29-72 and 85."  There was a pause. "Yes I know, just do it. We'll discuss that later. Yes. Good." Boze set the phone down next to her. She pressed a few buttons on the keyboard, more or less clicking around now, before drawing in a deep breath and sitting back in her chair. "Okay." She breathed slowly. "Okay I think I've quarantined it the best I can." Boze's eyes turned dark as she whipped towards Joven. "What the HELL were you thinking?" She rose from the chair stalking towards Joven. Boze was a good half a foot shorter than he was, but she still managed to intimidate him. "I would've been home in an hour, couldn't this have waited? Now you've put us in jeopardy with your thinking. AGAIN!"

"Boze," Damien cut her off, recoiling slightly under the cold strength of her gaze. "This is my fault. I'm the one that brought him here, I should've known better, I've gotten soft and-"

"He's right you know," Leo grinned. "You and I both know that transmitter would've latched on to the wifi and would've found a way into your system. This is his fault."

"But he didn't know that." Boze shot back, "Joven was the one stupid enough to plug it into the computer."

"We'll argue about this later Boze." Wes was taken aback at the calm in Joven's voice. It seemed to surprise Boze too, as her face immediately changed from an expression of anger, to one that was unmistakably one of confusion. "There's more important things to worry about right now. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and now it seems that the Xiaolong want to stop us before we even get to the battlefield. They see us as a threat, which is good, but they seem to overestimate our power. We need to focus on that right now."

"Ah, yes, that was one of the conditions of this. If you managed to figure it out, that I was a spy of sorts, before we managed to steal all of your information, then I would tell you the translated message on the city hall building. I assume you'd heard about it by now."

"We have," Joven replied.

"It translates as follows, 773 Canal Street, one nights from this posting, send only your leader and a trusted member. Our gauntlet will not be the gauntlet of the past. We do not wish for blood to be spilt."

Joven turned to Boze, "send that to Whittle." Boze didn't argue like she normally might've. There was something in Joven's voice that sounded different, and if it scared Boze, then it sure as hell scared him. He turned back to Leo, "anything else?"

"No. That was all I was given."

"Should I dispose of him?" Damien sounded hesitant, and Leo tensed where he stood.

"Not yet," Joven turned. "He might still be useful to us. We'll torture him if we have to, but I'm sure that he'll crack before them. Lock him in the basement for now, if the cold doesn't get to him the smell will."

Damien nodded, carting Leo out with his hands held firmly behind his back. Wes held the door open for him, closing it behind him as he turned back to the room. It was quiet except for Boze sitting at the computer, a blank expression on her face. Mari rubbed her hand over her face, exchanging silent words with Joven only through her expressions. Boze's phone buzzed, and she checked it slowly.

"Whittle's going to be here in twenty minutes. We'll need the room. I'd suggest getting out now because I need to hit something, and if any of you are still in here in two minutes it's going to be you." The three of them left the room quickly after that. Mari and Joven spoke quietly to one another before Mari ascended the stairs to her room. Wes and Joven stood alone in the empty corridor. Joven's back was to Wes, and he could tell that it was more than likely purposeful.

"Joven-"

"I can't look at you..." Joven's voice was quiet. "I can't look at you and not see the blood."

"Joven, I'm okay, I'm alive, aren't I?"

"You were dead. I watched you die, twice, you were dead."

"I survived, that's what matters."

Joven went quiet. He turned his head, looking at Wes from out of the corner of his eye. 

"It's just...maybe you should take some time off."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You were shot Wes," he turned around. His face was tinged pink. "Someone shot you in the back. There was a bullet in your shoulder that nearly killed you. You should be resting. Go upstate, visit your family, rest, live life-"

"When Mari was...well, you know...you threw her right back into the fray, why do you care so much about me getting better? I'm not a child, I don't need to be coddled!"

"Maybe I don't want to see you hurt Wes!" Joven crossed the room so that he was standing just a foot from Wes. "Maybe you mean something to me, maybe you mean a lot to me. And you not being in my life? I don't want to live in that world."

Wes felt himself step closer to Joven, their feet inches apart. Joven's chest rose and fell, his eyes, dark and brown, glowing in the fluorescent light. "You don't?" Wes's voice caught in his chest. The seconds ticked by so slowly that Wes could feel the earth turning under his feet, but the second Joven broke away, reality rushed in.

"Just...get some sleep Wes." Joven crossed the room to the hallway doors. "We'll talk about this after the gauntlet."

He pushed open the door, disappearing down the hall.

Wes stood alone in front of the stairwell, an aching pain forming in the corner of his heart.

Chapter Text

Mari sat against her door, running her hands through her hair. Her body ached in that way it did after she was re-acclimating to a high. Everything hurt, her head, her eyes, her body, Mari was getting sick of it. Now, the gauntlet was going to be that night, and she already knew that Joven was going to pick her to come along with him. The invitation had specified the second in command, and out of all of them, Mari was the most qualified.

She pretended that the time wasn't slipping through her hands as she pressed herself against the cool of the wooden doorframe. Mari ran a slow hand through her hair, scratching her scalp slowly as she let out a long sigh. Her eyes drew to the mark on the inside of her arm, and she felt a pang in her stomach.

She was going to need to call Sohinki again. Mari was nearly out of the drugs in her bottle, and she was going to need more than she'd realized. She had enough cash saved up from what she'd swiped from the Xiaolong heist to buy more if she needed. Mari couldn't go through a withdrawal like the one she had last time. The last time had gotten bad. She grabbed for her phone, which lay on her bed a few feet away.

Mari opened up her messages to find the last time she'd texted him, which had been almost a week and a half ago. She considered it a few times, deleting and re-writing the message until she was satisfied.

Mari : It's Takahashi again. I need more. Not soon, but within the next few days .

She tossed her phone against the wall, letting it bounce off and fall onto the bed. She was getting antsy, her skin suddenly starting to crawl at the thought of staying in the room any longer. Mari considered going up to the roof, but she wasn't wearing the kind of clothing for standing on top of the building, and instead, she left her room for the comfort of the kitchen downstairs. She descended the stairs, crossing most of the way down the hallway before finding herself distracted by Joven's voice coming from his partially open door.

"Yeah-" she could hear him say. Mari stopped in her tracks, listening in. "I know...It's just...yeah. Yeah." There was a brief pause, and it was clear that he was on the phone. "Kate, I know, but if you just-" He sighed loudly. "Of course. Yeah. Bye."

Mari tiptoed forward, knocking ever so slightly on the open door.

"Come in," Joven's voice sounded hoarse. "Mari." He gave her a slight smile. His face was tinged red like he'd been crying, but if he was, he did a good job at hiding it. "Close the door, would you?"

She shut it behind her, taking a seat on Joven's bed. "We should talk about the gauntlet."

"That we should," Joven responded. It was clear that the gauntlet was the last thing on his mind right now. 

"Was that Kate on the phone?" Mari asked, breaking the few seconds of silence that had threatened to stretch into something longer. 

"Yeah," he gestured with his phone. Joven didn't make much eye contact with her, and he set the device on his desk. When Mari didn't continue, he spoke again. "We were talking about the heist, and life and stuff. She's leaving town soon. Wanted to check in to see if I need her for any other favors."

"And?" Mari felt her heart fall just a little. "You're going to bring her to the gauntlet, aren't you?"

"What?" Joven's face screwed up, and he turned to face her. "Kate might be a talented woman when it comes to the deadly arts, but you're my partner Mar," Mari smiled at the old nickname, "there's no one else I want by my side in battle besides you."

"Aww Jovie." She held the silence a little longer than normal, taking a second to treasure the moment, knowing that it would be a while before it happened again. "What were you and Kate talking about then?"

"I was talking to her about the gauntlet, but it was more logistics and stuff, seeing what she would do." 

"And?"

"She honestly had no idea. She expected the gauntlet to be flashy like the last few have been, nothing like this. This is simple, almost too simple."

"Do you think it's a trap?"

"It probably is," Joven sighed. "Which is why we're going in without backup, like the invitation says."

"What?" Mari shook her head, a half grin on her face. "You're kidding, right?"

"I wish I was. It's the last thing I want, but if it is a trap, we're only risking ourselves, and not our entire team. If this thing goes down, and we don't make it out, we still have someone back home to take care of things." Joven's voice was firm. "The Jackrabbit's a business too, and we'd be laying off a lot of people, and an entire ecosystem of customers. Boze can take over most of the business, and Wes can lead, I know he has it in him, where he comes from...he has to know at least a little bit about leading something like this." He looked up to her, his eyes with the guise of a martyr walking to the pyre. "We were prepared to give our all to the Kingship. Maybe our time has finally come. To test how far we're willing to go."

"I guess so," Mari sighed. "I just didn't think it'd be so soon."

"It's been a whirlwind of a few weeks." He looked at the floor, his feet dangling from the chair. "You come back, we kill a major gang leader, the Bratstvo takes us under their wing, Kate comes back into town, we rob one of the biggest gangs in the city, Wes gets shot, and now we're gearing up for the gauntlet."

"A lot has happened," Mari tried her best not to sound cryptic. From all of the slow and painful months before, the past two weeks felt almost like a breath of fresh air. Something about the hecticity of it all had thrown her back into work better than she had hoped. "God, we're going to be so tired after this."

"We are," Joven smiled. "But there's only going to be more work to do." He gestured to the door with his head.  "Whittle got here a little while ago. She and Boze have been working non-stop in the office. From what I could overhear, it didn't sound good. Damien's still in the basement. I think he's been trying to get more information out of that Xiaolong spy, but I don't think he's getting anything."

"And Wes?"

"It told him to get some sleep, but he's probably not." Joven blinked, narrowing and opening his eyes slowly. He drew in a breath, looking at his desk.

"Is there something going on between you two?" Mari asked the question as lightly as she could.

Joven didn't answer for a few second, opening and closing his mouth as he thought of an answer. "Honestly, I don't even know anymore," he spoke quietly. Joven rubbed his face with his hands, letting his fingertips drag from the top of his face out to his temples, over his cheekbones and then down to his chin. "It's just..." There were so many words in the silence, but Joven seemed to find trouble grappling for them. "We had something, and I think I ended it selfishly. I wanted to keep him safe so badly, I was willing to hurt him to do that. Now I feel like I'm in that boat again."

"You're into him again?"

"I don't think 'into him' is the right term," Joven put the words in quotations. "But I could see something between us again, and in the deepest pits of my heart, I want that...so badly."

"Then why not say something?"

"That's the problem," he rubbed the back of his thumb habitually. "No strings Mari."

"What?"

"It's something Kate told me," he sighed, dropping his hands. "If you get too attached, people can use it against you, and when they do..."

"Things get ugly."

"Exactly," Joven murmured. 

Mari changed the subject slightly, her curiosity getting the better of her. "What is all of this caring about what Kate thinks suddenly?" Joven looked up, furrowing his eyebrows. "It's like, you're this no-nonsense, kick 'em in the gut, don't care what others say kind of person, and suddenly when Kate shows up, you immediately bend to her will. What is that even about?"

"Kate's smart, she's managed to stay alive-" Joven paused, considering his words- "doing what she does, which is a feat not many people could accomplish."

"You two were...close?"

Joven wrinkled his nose up at her, raising an eyebrow. "No, no, not like that. Kate and I are close for different reasons. We grew up together, literally, we..." He stopped for a second. Joven glanced at the door, moving his head around the room, sighing before looking back at Mari. "I'm only going to tell you this because we're probably going somewhere we can't return from tonight." Mari sat forward on the bed, listening intently. "We were there the night of the last gauntlet. Losioz killed so many people...Hell, the screams still wake me up at night. My Grammie hid me inside a cupboard in our apartment, she told me to stay put until she told me to come out, and that...that was the last time I ever saw her alive. They came for her so swiftly, I remember..." Joven cleared his throat. "I remember her pleading with the man in the room to let her live." He squeezed his eyes shut. "They killed her without a second thought. The room smelled of so much blood, and I had to sit there, trying not to sob, for an hour before them came again."

Mari felt her throat catch as Joven blinked tears out of his eyes, wiping them with the corners of his shirt. 

"Losioz's men kicked the door to the cupboard in. They grabbed me, dragged me out. I remember it so clearly. Losioz standing over my grandmother, the light in the hallway silhouetting him like some sort of fucked-up demonic angel. He wasn't a big man, but he was still physically imposing. And he had this voice..."

"Like a sort of hushed growl?"

"Yeah, how'd you know?"

"Doesn't matter," Mari shook her head. She nodded for him to continue, her heart pounding at what she had said. How had she known that?

"I thought I was going to die," Joven breathed. "I was sure that he was going to pull out a gun and blow my brains out. Watch my blood as it seeped into the carpet" He closed his eyes. "But he didn't. He offered me a position. He told me that he'd keep me safe until I was ready to face the world. Had I been thinking clearly, I probably would've accepted, and he probably would've killed me on the spot." Joven rubbed the inside of his wrist. "But I spat in his face. And that's what he wanted. Losioz wanted those that had some fight in them, and he wanted to crush us into weapons with hair-triggers. Weapons he could control. It was me and Kate and two others. They...they didn't last as long as we did. The first one ran off a few weeks in. They caught her, tried to throw her back in to the program, that's what they called it, the 'program'. She didn't live much longer after that. The second one was sent on a mission about a year in. He got shot down by a rival gang, and we weren't allowed to go places by ourselves after that. We were taught to fight, and how to survive in this city. Kate and I...what we went through...it was worse than hell." He pressed his lips thinly together. "I managed to get out when I turned 17, and I met you soon after."

"And Kate?"

"Kate stayed with the Los Bandidos until she was 19, and she's a year younger than I am."

"So we're the same age?"

"Yeah," Joven nodded. "Then Kate disappeared off the map for a while. She kept in touch in little ways. I might hear her pseudonym on the news, or I'd find the food in my apartment eaten when no one was home with a note on the tupperware that had a heart on it. We only talked for the first time recently." He closed his eyes, opening them slowly. "When you called me that night, she's the one I sent the clean the crime scene." 

Mari nodded, and it seemed like that might be the end of the conversation. "You trust her." 

"I trust her sometimes more than I trust myself. Kate's a genius, but she's ruthless. I was held captive by a gang once and when Kate got there...she slaughtered all of them. She doesn't hold back if you've wronged her, or in this case, taken something she loves" Joven's expression was one Mari didn't recognize. "Our relationship is something that I can't explain. To me, she is the closest thing I have to a sister, and to her, well, I don't exactly know what I am to her. I think she sees me as a soulmate. Not a romantic one, but in the way the greeks looked at it, like two halves of what was once a single person. She sees herself in me, and I see bits of myself in her." He shook his head, a half smile on his face. "But about trust...now I'm not so sure."

"Why's that?" Mari had begun to connect the dots in her head, a sneaking suspicion growing in the pit of her stomach.

"The police found the kill site."

"I knew about that," Mari nodded. "It was on the TV the night I stayed over at the guy's house."

"And that reporter, the one that was here earlier? He's here because of the case. He and some partner of his on the force found it together from an anonymous tip."

Mari clenched her jaw, her hand curling into a fist. "Do you think-"

"She says it wasn't her but-"

"But?"

"I don't know honestly. I want to trust her...but she's not one that you'd consider the most loyal."

"Joven," Mari buried her head in her hands. "I knew this was going to come back and bite me in the ass. I have to get out of town."

"No, no, it'll just seem suspicious. The reporter was just here, if he sees that you just up and left, he'll have some questions, and when you can't answer them, the walls will come crumbling down."

"I didn't come back just to watch all of this get destroyed." Mari growled, her eyes fierce as they bit into Joven's. "We do this. You become King. We destroy the LSPD, okay?"

"Woah, woah, woah." Joven put his hands up as Mari bristled. Her head was on fire, and she shut her eyes, rubbing her temples. "We'll get rid of the reporter, maybe drop some lines into the police department, but nothing that drastic yet, okay?"

"Okay," Mari's head was growing frantic. "Okay. Okay. Okay."

"Again, we don't even know if it was Kate, someone might've seen you, or heard you." He tried to reassure her, but that almost made it worse. 

"There was no one there that night. If there was, they were too coked out of their mind to even pay attention, let alone try to go to the cops. It had to be her." She squeezed her eyes shut. "Just. Keep Kate away from me if she comes to the Jackrabbit."

"Okay," Joven nodded. He looked like he wanted to reach out to pat her leg, or give her some semblance of solidarity, but he turned away. She had scared him, which made her want to cry. Joven was the only one here who had understood what she was going through, even through all the bad, and now he seemed to be pulling away. His voice made her jump. "So. The gauntlet."

"The gauntlet." She opened her eyes, sitting forward. "The gauntlet."

"We'll leave the Jackrabbit open, business will look like it's functioning like normal."

"Okay."

"And I'll put Boze in charge while we go, and I'll have her on call just in case."

"Okay." She felt like she might collapse right there. It was as if someone had punched her in the gut and left her flailing and helpless on the ground.

"Mari?" She looked up from where she was staring at the ground. 

"Yeah?" 

"Are you okay?"

"I-" she felt her eyes begin to heat with the beginnings of tears- "I don't know."

"Do you need help?"

She drew in a breath, swallowing slowly. Mari pushed down the feelings like she had time and time before. She blinked slowly, letting them fall down to the darkest depths of her mind as her eyes cleared of tears. 

"No." She cleared her throat, trying to look at Joven through the haze of her mind. "Not yet."

Chapter Text

Joven and Mari packed up his shitty little sports car, slamming the trunk shut as the sun had begun to set in the distance. Mari drew in a breath, a renewed look of confidence on her face. Whether it was real or fake, Joven didn’t quite know.

He’d managed to talk to Boze without her biting his head off, and she agreed to run the club for the evening. She still wasn’t happy about the breach, but it was clear that she had calmed down, possibly fixing more problems than she’d originally had. Boze had given him that look as he left, the one that she’d given him the first night they’d met. It was as if she was trying to read him, but was confused as to what she saw.

Damien had been coming up the steps from the basement as they were leaving. He looked tired, sweat dripping from his forehead, a few dots of blood speckled bits of his shirt. From the look on his face, the interrogation hadn’t gone well.

“Are you heading out?” Joven nodded, and Damien clapped him on the shoulder in solidarity. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Joven considered opening Wes’s door to say his goodbyes, maybe hug him one last time before it all went down, but he turned away, joining Mari where she leaned against the car. She had pulled a cigarette from her pocket, lighting it with a lighter she had somewhere on her he couldn’t see. Mari lit it slowly, drawing in a breath before puffing it out in quick bursts.

“I don’t know if I have a good feeling about this one Jovie,” she sighed. “That knot in the pit of my stomach keeps twisting around. At this rate, I’ll be barfing out the window before we even get there.”

“It’d be better if you didn’t,” Joven spoke meekly. “But I get it.”

“Just give me like five minutes and then we can go.” She ate down half the cigarette in one go. “Let’s just watch the sunset and hope that it won’t be our last.”

“Let’s hope,” he repeated.

The two of them stood side by side against the car. The sun dipped slowly below the building across the street from them, and the street lights, with their cheap fluorescents, began to flicker to life, dousing the alleys and corner streets in pools of light and shadow. The wash of calm was enough to settle Joven’s nerves, even if it was just for a little while.

The slippery oily feeling in his stomach made him want to throw up, but he clamped his jaw shut. Mari finished her cigarette as the sun finally disappeared behind the building. He pulled the keys from his pocket as she tossed the discarded butt onto the ground.

They climbed into the car and drove to the address Leo had given them.

It was dark by the time they got there. The address was to a building on the other side of town entirely. They were in the old red brick district, one that had once been neighborhoods for the upper middle class, but were now reduced to slowly crumbling walls, and streets littered with trash.

There were some people on the sidewalks, but the streets were empty, the shops shuttered and barred, and the pedestrians themselves looking more sinister than regular every-day walkers out for a jog. Joven could tell that Mari was on also edge. She had her arms crossed against her chest, sitting forward in her seat. He could see her fingers move at every sort of noise or movement, going straight for the gun at her belt.

They stopped in front of 773 Canal Street, which itself was one of the biggest buildings in the neighborhood. The brick was a faded grey-brown, and it was clear that it had once been home to someone much richer than they were. Black iron gates guarded a small front garden and the giant black walnut door with an ornate silver knocker with the head of a snarling dragon. Two men were stationed outside, one was barrel chested and the was built like a house, both stood with their arms crossed against their chests, their forearms taught and toned with muscle.

“I guess we’re here.” Joven parked the car, smoothing the jacket of the suit Boze had thrown at him before he’d left. They stepped onto the sidewalk, standing in front of the black gates. Joven reached forward, pushing them open as they crossed the small walkway that felt hundreds of feet longer that it actually was. They stopped in front of the door, and Joven watched the guards with feigned interest.

“The gauntlet,” he felt his voice slip out of the fear he’d been feeling and into something more commanding. The mask was falling down over his face, and this time, Joven was glad for his fake bravado. “We were told that it was here.”

One of the men moved, his body as smooth and carved as a statue as he opened the door. “The Dragon Lord has been awaiting your arrival. Emigre will escort you.” A young woman standing just inside nodded at them. She wore a suit much nicer than Joven’s, her hair pulled back tightly in a perfectly smooth black bun.

They followed the woman through the building, which looked more professional on the inside than it did on the outside. Everything was made of warm oak, and polished to perfection. Joven knew that if he had the time, he’d have gone to look at every individual carving on the doors leading to the next room, but they were moving too quickly and he barely had time to blink before they were gone. They rounded a corner, and found themselves standing at the top of gigantic marble staircase that lead down into a expansive room with low ceilings that was lit with a soft buttery glow from the yellow lights hanging off of the walls.

The woman leading them, Emigre, reached to her left, pulling out a large bell that had been sitting on a stool. She rung it three times until the crowds of people in the room turned towards her.

“Representatives from-“ she turned to them with a bright and poisonous smile.

“The Jackrabbit.”

She addressed the crowd once again. “Representatives from the Jackrabbit.” The woman rang the bell once more before directing them down the stairs with a wave of her hand. Mari and Joven stepped quickly down the stairwell, trying not to be caught too harshly under anyone’s gaze. Mari grabbed for Joven’s arm.

“What the hell is this?” They turned around as a waiter passing handed them a glass of champagne. "I was expecting a cage match kind of thing, not a formal event like this." Mari threw back half the drink, wrinkling her nose when the bubbles burned her throat. “There’s so many people here.”

“How many do you think are actually representatives and how many do you think are Xiaolong?”

“I recognize a few people, but lots of them are from passing.” Mari watched a group out of the corner of her eye. “And I know that some people already broke the ‘leader and second in command’ rule.”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t even know.” She turned a few times, still trying to get her bearings. “It’s just...it’s loud in here and it’s a little over stimulating.”

“Hey, are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” She clenched her jaw. “I’ll be fine,” she sounded less convinced this time.

Joven caught some commotion out of the corner of his eye. A man with a clear earpiece weaved his was through the crowd. He watched where the man was going, his gaze drawing to where a tall older man sat on top of a golden throne. How he’d missed it, Joven didn’t know, but it was all he could see now.

The man on the throne watched him with the severity of a hawk. His eyes were dark and hollow, burying themselves deep into Joven’s skin. He turned back to Mari, who was looking like she was calming down.

“The leader of the Xiaolong, does he happen to be the man sitting on that chair over there?”

Mari moved slowly, turning back towards him and nodding. “Yep, that’d be him.”

“I’m starting to get the feeling that we might be screwed.”

“Oh, now you are?” She grumbled, shooting him an annoyed glance. “I told you we should’ve brought back-up.”

“So, you two are the ones that pulled that heist, huh?” A voice came from behind them. He turned, holding his champagne still despite how his hands were beginning to shake.

“Who’s to say?” Joven grinned, all teeth.

A man with a sleepy expression and dark mousy brown hair hair smiled back at him. He wore a messily buttoned suit, and his eyes, blank and dark drew him in like a magnet. He held out a hand and Joven shook it, surprised at the hard calluses on his palms and the firm cold of his grip. “I’m Matthew Sohinki.”

“You work for the Titans, right?” Mari spoke for Joven.

“That I do,” his grin was almost mocking. Her expression was hard to read, but Joven could tell that she recognized him. “If you make it out of this alive, you should come visit us. We’re in the trade, if you know what I mean, and we’re always looking for new distributors.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Joven nodded with a smile. “We’ll definitely talk.”

“Good.” The man nodded towards Mari. “Good to see you.”

“You know him?” Joven’s voice bit through the conversation as soon as the man was out of earshot.

“Yeah.” Mari sighed, “he’s...an ex.”

“Oh,” Joven pressed his lips together, looking towards him. Sohinki had regrouped with a short but well built man in the corner. They both conversed quietly, shooting small glances at the crowd while mumbling into their glasses. “Him, really?”

“I was young, and I was really fucking stupid, you remember.” She shrugged, “he was like my version of the manic pixie dream girl.”

“Please never say that again.”

“I don’t plan on it,” She grumbled into her glass.

Joven and Mari walked through the crowd, getting stopped and drawn into conversation. Old mob secrets seemed to flow as freely as the liquor, and Joven learned more about the sex life of the leader of the Armenian gang from 25th street in twenty minutes than he had in a lifetime of living in the city.

“Boze would’ve loved this,” Joven murmured to Mari as someone drunkenly talked about the secret sewer tunnels underneath 17th Street. “She’d have so much information on everyone by now.”

“And she wouldn’t shut up about it either.” Mari snickered quietly. “Love her to death even though she hates me, but she talks a lot about crime.”

“It’s her business, of course she loves information about crime.” He furrowed his eyebrows. “And Boze doesn’t hate you.”

“Cute,” Mari rolled her eyes. “But Boze definitely hates me.” She sighed, “I almost killed her, she’s justified in hating me.”

“I’m sure-“ Joven shook his head. “I’m sure she doesn’t really hate you that much, but then again...I don’t even know what she’s thinking anymore. She hides a lot of the shit that makes her who she is, and it’s just...hard to tell.”

“And you want to know what she’s thinking?”

“It’s…” he let out a slow sigh. “Sometimes I wonder what she’s really capable of. What she’s hiding from us.”

“You think she’s hiding something?”

“Honestly? Probably. All of us do.” Joven shook his head. “But that’s not important right now.”

“So is this just a giant marketing event, but for Los Santos’s criminals?” Mari had a sarcastic smile playing across her face, but to Joven the pieces started to fit.

“What if it is?” Joven shifted on his toes, turning his head to catch glimpses of the man on the throne. “Like a league of evil or something.”

“But the Xiaolong controls it…” Mari’s eyebrows knit together. “Would we even want to be apart of that? Some of these gangs have some nasty people that even we wouldn’t associate with.”

“I think we should hear them out...but I don’t think this is an offer we can exactly refuse.” Joven swallowed slowly, his heart jumping to his throat as the man on the throne rose. The bell rung behind them, and they turned as the man brought the room to attention.

“Welcome everyone,” his voice was soft but weathered, and twinged with the whisper of an accent that had faded over time. It commanded the room as much as it put them on edge. “I'm glad that our painters didn’t make the little puzzle too difficult to figure out, though I’m sure that as soon as one person cracked the code...the others weren’t too far behind.” Joven tensed as the man turned towards him, sweeping his eyes just over the top of his head. “Many of you remember the gauntlets of old. Bloody and terrible, they are not to be repeated.”

There was a murmur that rippled slowly through the crowd. People seemed to be both relieved and disappointed.

“Losioz’s way of doing things was flawed. The Brotherhood and I stood idly by as he slaughtered those people, and we will not make that mistake again. There is already infighting for the crown. The Avian, my pride and joy, was savagely pillaged by a ragtag group of low-level marauders with no idea what they were doing.” He locked eyes with Joven, the steely blackness of his pupils threatening to swallow him whole. “There are already plans forward to destroy them. Some, that will take place tonight.”

A chill shocked down Joven’s spine, Mari held firm next to him, but he could feel the anger boiling off of her. Don’t show emotions . He begged her in the back of his mind, hoping through some weird loophole she’d hear him. He’ll know for sure if we do that .

“So,” he hissed. “Here is my proposition. An alliance. All of you will join our ranks, honorarily of course, controlling your territory and enforcing it for the glory of the Xiaolong.”

The murmurs in the crowd grew louder, but with a swift turn of his head, they were silenced. He blinked, long and slow like a cat, at each of them. “I know this may go against the morals of many of you, and most thought that this would be an all out battle...and those who did are slightly more armed than others.” Joven turned his head, noticing how the crowd had thinned around him. He'd been right, it seemed that many of them were Xiaolong members. “And there are also those who broke the rules. Brought more company than was allowed. They will be dealt with.”

Joven drew in a breath, watching as Mari reached for her gun. He moved his hand, pushing hers away from her belt. “Not yet,” he hissed.

“The Xiaolong will control the city and in return, we will allow you to continue your operations while funneling money and resources into your businesses. This will be the most fruitful year of your life.”

He was one of the best liars Joven had ever had the pleasure of listening to. It was something about the charisma in his voice, he and his son had that in common. Joven almost found himself falling for it to until he saw the man’s eyes flicker between his words. Then he could felt the pulse of a speech that had been written and memorized as clearly as if he had stuck his hand to an electrified fence and held it there. It was a performance, and Joven had felt the collapse of fantasy crack around him.

“This is a once in a lifetime offer. An offer you will not get anywhere else.” He paused. “And one you can’t refuse.” The man sat into his chair, his arms draped over the arm rests and his expression fixed as watched the crowd below him. “Step forward. Pledge your loyalty to me.”

The murmur grew loud now as people began to circulate, looking to one another in confusion or anger. Joven looked around to find that the man that they had seen earlier, the one that had known Mari, was gone, as was the other man that was with him.

“Really? No one?” He shook his head. “Hmm-”

A man stepped forward out of the crowd. He was tall and slim, with dyed sunflower blond hair that was cropped close to his head. “The...uh...the Wyverns of Laithen Heights...uh...pledge themselves to you.”

“The Xiaolong welcomes the Wyverns with open arms.” The man stepped back, his arm grabbed by a shorter man behind him.

A woman with more muscles than the bodyguards outside and tattoos painted across her skin broke through the crowd. Her hair was short and well-groomed, slicked across her forehead. She gave the man on the chair a nod. “The Sirens accept your deal. The docks are open for y’all when you want ‘em.”

The man on the throne gave them a nod akin to a king. He surveyed the crowd as they went quiet. “Seems you need some incentive.” He turned his head. “What about your freedoms? Are you willing to risk those?”

The doors were slammed open, and at least forty cops stormed the building, guns cocked and fully decked out in body armor. Joven froze as a man in formal Police Commissioner dresswear glided across the room. He was incredibly tall and slender with dark hair that was brushed across in a swoop and patchy facial hair that dappled his face. Mari reached for her gun, and this time Joven didn’t stop her as he reached for his own. He knew the cops had the surrounded as he moved to stand back to back with Mari. There were a few others in the center with them as Xiaolong members in black suits grabbed the members of those who had already pledged.

“Commissioner Morgan.” The Xiaolong leader stood.

“Zhao.”

“You can call me King now.”

“King it is,” the Commissioner smiled.

Joven’s stomach twisted into a knot at the title, and it took all of his energy not to rush the man. He knew that if he did, he’d be shot dead before he was halfway there. Mari grabbed his wrist, almost as if she was sensing something. Joven turned towards her, giving her a nod as she shook her head slowly.

The Commissioner turned towards the crowd. “My name is Elliott Morgan, and I'm the Police Commissioner of Los Santos. It's my pleasure and my delight to tell you that we have information on all of you that is enough to send you all to prison for a very long time. If you join up, we can offer you protection and anonymity with certain crimes that are near impossible to get off of. If not, well, my boys have been looking for some gang arrests...look good for the higher ups, you know."

A few of the others in the center looked to one another, stepping forward. They meekly pledged themselves to the King, who watched with a pleased expression. Mari and Joven stayed in the middle with a few others. 

"You're brave to think that you can get out of this." The King spoke sharply. "Do you want us to legitimize our claims?"

"Yeah man," a scruffy guy who looked no older than 18 piped up. "What kinda info you got on us?"

"What's your name?" The Commissioner seemed amused as he asked.

The guy cleared his throat, "Scratch."

"Ah," Commissioner Morgan lifted his head, nodding. "Detective Peabody?"

A man in a cheap dress shirt and tie stepped forward, holding a large stack of papers. He cleared his throat as he opened a folder. "James 'Scratch' Mulligan, Liosea gang, five counts of assault, two counts with a deadly weapon, buying and selling of illegal weapons, three counts of murder in the first degree."

The man who had spoke had went quiet. It was clear that there was no disputing the charges. 

Joven swallowed slowly, his throat dry as four more people stepped forward to join up. He knew that it was a matter of time before they were the only ones left in the middle. 

They stood in silence for a few painful seconds, the newly crowned king staring Joven down with an intense ferocity. "Anyone else?" The rest that stood there stayed quiet. "Hmm. Too bad. Take them away-" he waved his hand, but held it on Mari and Joven. "But...leave them."

The officers closed in on the circle, snatching up the rest of the gang members like vultures at a carcass, ripping away until only the two of them remained. Joven felt naked standing in the middle, despite Mari only a few inches away, it felt like they were rooms apart. The King's eyes made him feel so small, so insignificant in a room full of such powerful people. You're powerful too. The voice in the back of his head was louder than normal. You managed to steal millions from this man...right under his nose. You have his son. You have the upper hand.

Do IJoven thought back at it. This time, the voice was silent.

"The Jackrabbit," he let the words fall from his lips. "I should've expected more from you. You were a lowly club owner that dealt pain on the side, who was I to think of you as a threat?" He looked Joven up and down. "But I think I see it now. You carry yourself the way he did."

Joven opened his mouth to speak, but the man held up his hand.

"You knew Losioz, correct?"

"I did."

"You're his protege." The man's face curled up into a fascinated grin.

"I'm afraid you're thinking of someone else, she's-"

"No, it was a man, a hot-headed bastard that's been a thorn in my side for years. He runs most of Brookside." The King shook his head. "But no, you're on the East side of the city, I remember that. But that's besides the point. You stole from me, and I will crush your operation by morning unless you tell me where the money is."

"Don't have it," Joven replied.

"You don't have it?" 

"Nope, it's in the safe of someone much better at this than myself."

The King's face screwed up as he spat out his words, "Matt Raub. The Brotherhood took you in like a lost little street dog, didn't they?" Joven didn't have to answer. "Of course they did. One last hurrah before they implode." His sneer was so similar to Leo's it was hard to tell them apart. "There's no way a no-name club in East Los Santos could make a name for itself like that. Especially with leadership like your own."

"I'd watch your mouth," Joven snapped. "You don't know what we're capable of."

"I think I do." He nodded to the Commissioner, who took the files from the Detective, who looked tired of the whole process.

"Joven Shire-" he looked up at Mari- "and Marissa Tavahishi." Joven felt a wash of relief fall across him. Boze had saved them. She'd always had fake files for them on her computer, and she had to have figured out the code or whatever it was Leo had plugged into the computer. "Several counts of fraud and theft for both of you, as well as a grand larceny charge from your little heist on the Avian." Joven tried not to smile as he counted off the much longer list of crimes that a single trip down to their basement would cash them in at. "Enough, but not impressive."

"You want it to be?"

"I expected something more from a student of Losioz." The Commissioner nodded, narrowing his eyes. "Take that however you want."

"You want me to be more fucked up?" Joven almost laughed. You should meet KateHell, where she's going, he probably will. 

"Well, beggars can't be choosers," he sighed. His words made little sense. "King, you want anything more with them or should I throw them in the holding cells downstairs?"

The King narrowed his eyes. He put a finger to his lips. "Why did you rob the Avian?"

"It was convenient." Mari responded for him. "But that's a question for our strategist. I have a feeling you'll meet her one day. In fact, you've already met her." She laughed, "she managed to look you in the eyes and convince you she was your son."

"What?"

"You heard me," she grinned. "You could've stopped us. But you didn't recognize your own son well enough to do so." Mari cocked her head to the side. "Speaking of which, I hope you're okay with getting him back one piece at a time, because when our heavyweight is done with him...it won't be pretty."

"Take them away," the King snarled. "And plan an attack on the Jackrabbit for tomorrow evening during their peak opening hours. Show no mercy. Kill everyone if you have to."

Someone grabbed their arms forcefully from behind, pinning them as they were dragged away from the room. At some point, their guns were ripped from their sides as they were brought deeper and deeper into the compound. A heavy iron door was thrust open, and inside they found themselves in a small room lined with prison cells.

The cops holding them threw Joven and Mari into a cell, grins on their face as they did.

“BASTARDS.” Mari yelled after them as he disappeared. She slammed a fist into the bars, rattling them with all her strength. “FUCK.” Mari roared the word at no one in particular before whipping around. "Shit, why did I say that?"

There were three other people in the cell across from her, and all of them looked at her with various expressions. “What?” She snarled. “Something funny?”

She stalked across the cell towards the door, but Joven caught her with an extended arm, pulling her back towards him before she could slam herself against it. Mari shook in his arms. There were tears in her eyes, and her hair was a muted purple mess around her face. “Dammit!” She slammed her fists into Joven’s chest, slowly letting go as she collapsed into him. Mari pressed her face against his shoulder, her words murmured into his shirt. “The Jackrabbit...They’re vulnerable now. Zhao's going to lead a charge tonight...Joven,” Mari a tear dribbled down her face. "What if they hurt one of them? What if they kill one of them? Or one of the strippers?" She wiped away her tears on her shirt sleeve. "I can't be responsible for this again. What are we going to do?" 

Joven let her go as he turned towards the door of the cell. He rattled the bars a little as he felt how they worked. Joven tinkered with the lock, but it was one of those automatic ones that only shorted out with those magnets that could break computers to bits. 

"It doesn't look good, does it?" Mari grumbled. "We're fucked, aren't we?" 

"We're a little fucked." Joven turned around, leaning back against the bars before sliding to the ground. His thoughts turned to the safety of the club. "Boze'll know what to do for a little bit. She can hold down the fort...but the Xiaolong's got the cops on their side, and even with the Brotherhood...all we can do it hope."

Joven rubbed his face as Mari sat down on the ground next to him. She lay her head on his shoulder, "we really got ourselves in a mess, didn't we Jovie?"

"We did. But did you expect any different?"

"No." She grinned, closing her eyes. "I knew we'd die together, somehow. I just thought that it would be in some cool motorcycle accident while flipping off the cops."

"Yeah, yeah."

There was the sound of the door opening behind them, and Joven turned his head to see Detective Peabody from earlier enter quickly through the door. "Jackrabbits," his voice was hushed. Joven stood slowly, Mari following suit soon after. He came up to the door, his expression nervously scattered. 

"What, does you Commissioner or stupid 'King' want something?" Mari spat. 

"No," the man shook his head. "I'm Sunny Peabody, I'm the Brotherhood's contact in the LSPD."

Joven's heart leap. "You're kidding."

"You better be glad I'm not." He shoved a burner through the bars. "Call someone, and make it quick. Matt Raub told me to only do this in the darkest hour or some shit like that, and I'm pretty damn sure this is it."

"Thanks," Joven whispered as he fumbled with the phone. He dialed a number quickly, closing his eyes as it rung. Please pick up, please pick up, you're the only one that will.

"Hey Joven why are you calling me?" Damien's voice came clear through the receiver.

"No time," Joven spoke quickly. "Mari and I being held captive, there's a Brotherhood operative here helping us. Get Boze. Tell her to get her ass and as many reinforcements as possible over to 773 Canal Street. I'm declaring the Jackrabbit's counter gauntlet."

"Of course." Damien's voice had slipped into a serious tone. "Anything else?"

"Come guns blazing. This is our last chance to win this. There's no other way. Now go."

The tone rung in Joven's ear before he'd even finished speaking. Sunny held out his hand for the phone but Joven held it for just a second. "There's one more person I've got to call."

"Joven-" Mari's voice was dangerously sharp.

"She'll know what to do," he replied just as pointedly. "If we want to win this, we need her as a wild card."

Joven dialed her number, feeling all the eyes in the room on him.

It was exactly what he wanted. He began to grin, slowly at first, but gaining over time. They were going to win this, he knew it.

The Kingship was so close he could taste the blood in his mouth already.

 

Chapter Text

Damien almost hadn't brought his phone with him when Joven called. 

He'd slipped it into his back pocket earlier, thinking about turning it on silent entirely as the flood of people entering the club walked towards the bar. He didn't know what had made him decide to leave it on. Damien wanted to say that it was fate, but he knew that was stupid, and the real reason was entirely more likely that the last time he'd left his phone off Boze had stormed towards the bar and chewed him out for five minutes about effective communication. On an already high stress night, that's the last thing he wanted.

Bartending was good at getting things off his mind. Mindless flirting and the validation of impressing someone with the trick he'd done a hundred times before somehow worked to soothe his mind better than anything else. He watched parts of the show, cleaning the glasses habitually and turning to talk to a customer every so often.

The night had moved to that point where it all blended together when Joven had called. He almost hadn't answered it too, it had rung three times while he was watching Shayne onstage before he tore his attention away. He'd raised an eyebrow at Joven's name on the call screen, but he'd answered it, pulling it up to his ear.

"Hey Joven, why are you calling?" He was going to continue and ask why not call Boze, but Joven's voice cut him off.

"No time," Joven sounded out of breath. "Mari and I being held captive, there's a Brotherhood operative here helping us. Get Boze. Tell her to get her ass and as many reinforcements as possible over to 773 Canal Street. I'm declaring the Jackrabbit's counter gauntlet."

"Of course." Damien's felt his heart skip several beats as he clenched his fist around a towel hanging from the bar. "Anything else?"

"Come guns blazing. This is our last chance to win this. There's no other way. Now go."

Damien had stepped down from the bar before he'd even finished talking, heading for the back of the club where Boze was standing. She leaned against a railing, her arms crossed against the Jackrabbit logo on her chest. 

"Hey," she gave him a confused look as he came over. "Are you out of something, do you need the storage key?"

"No-" Boze read his expression quickly.

"Shit." She shook her head. "Joven got himself in trouble, didn't he?"

"He and Mari got themselves captured, but a Brotherhood inside man got them a phone. We need to get to 773 Canal Street right now."

"Shit," she grumbled again. "Close the bar, get Wes from upstairs, we're going to need him. I'll talk to Whittle and start closing the club."

"Got it." Damien broke away from her, jogging towards the bar. He caught Shayne's eyes from where he stood against the pole on-stage, half naked. Despite what he was doing, Damien could read his eyes, and he knew Shayne was reading his. He stepped up into the bar, shutting the cabinets. "Sorry everyone," he spoke as sweetly as he could. "But the bar has to close for tonight."

There were a few people who looked upset, but Damien was too busy to stay and argue with them. He scanned his Jackrabbit card against the door to the hallway, a precaution Boze had added recently for when the club was open. Damien jogged up the steps, tossing his extra things into his room as he pulled his body armor out from under his bed, tossing them on his bedspread. He left quickly, knowing he'd have time later when Boze gave him instructions 

Damien knocked on Wes's door three times before he answered. He didn't look like he'd been sleeping, but his voice was groggy like he had. 

"What?"

"Code red, can't explain, get to the office."

Wes snapped to attention, following Damien down the steps as they entered the office. Inside, Boze and Sarah were at Joven's desk, typing away at several computers. 

"Hey," Boze looked up for a second. "I've cut down the sets, we'll close in ten minutes."

"I'm trying to get a hold of some of my Brotherhood contacts, but most of them are out of the city right now, or they're too far away. There's maybe two people that could give their help but even then, I don't know..."

"And to top it all off, they've frozen our assets." Boze reached out, tapping the computer screen harshly. "Our bank account, Joven's back up account, and it looks like they're trying to cut our phone and internet, but Whittle's setting up a backway to get into the network again, so things are looking even more shitty by the minute."

"Boze do you need us to do anything?"

"Pack up the van, bring all of your artillery." She stopped, looking up at them. "And I mean all of it."

Wes and Damien were out of the room as soon as Boze looked away from them. They went for the caches of weapons in the storage locker in the garage, pulling it open as Wes began loading in weapons and body armor into the side of the van. Despite his injury, Wes still moved freely. He grimaced every so often, but he pushed through.

Damien winced everytime Wes did, turning to him after a while. "Wes, you don't have to do this-"

"No," his voice was sharp. "I'm going to do this, if I don't...I'll never go out in the field again, you and I both know that Joven won't put that kind of trust in me if I can't prove it now."

"Okay," Damien nodded slowly. "But if you start to stress your arm, don't even think about pushing it any farther. I know guys who thought that they were fine and ended up severely damaging nerves and muscle tissue because they were stupid when it came to their abilities in something."

"Damien I'm fine-"

"You're not fine Wes, you got shot in the shoulder. You don't have to pretend that you're okay." Damien drew in a breath. "You might be used to telling the world that you don't need help, but you don't have to do that anymore-"

"I don't want to be fucking helpless Damien." Wes's words were laced with fury. Damien felt the hair on his arms bristle with a wave of fear. He could feel Wes teetering on the edge, his eyes rimmed with red as he threw a crate into the back. "I'm in control now. A lot more than I used to be. You're not the only one with a past they don't want to remember." He let out a breath, his chest heaving slowly. "I'm going to get stuff from Joven's storage room...Finish packing or something."

Wes stormed away, slamming the door open as he disappeared inside. Damien felt something squeeze in his stomach. Wes had never gotten that violent before. He'd seen that same behaviour in the past, and it had never lead to anything good. Damn it Wes

He closed the garage's now empty storage vault before heading back inside. As he entered the main corridor, Shayne appeared from the hallway. He was still shirtless, but wore a towel around his waist. From the sweat still glistening on his forehead, it was clear that he'd come directly from the stage.

"Hey."

"Hey, Shayne, sorry I really don't have the time to talk." He turned to walk up the steps to his room.

"Is something going down tonight?"

Damien turned back, "what?"

"Boze just cut half the sets, she says we're closing early tonight but won't tell us anything else." He followed Damien up the stairs, standing a few inches away from him, close enough to touch but far enough away that it didn't make his head pound out of his chest. 

Damien bit his lip, searching the room. "C'mon," he grumbled. Shayne followed him up the stairs and into his room. He began rummaging around in his closet as Shayne stepped in, a little confused. Damien then realized that Shayne had probably never been up to the second floor before, and he now looked around at his surroundings with curiosity.

"Wait, this is where you live?"

"Uh, yeah," Damien shrugged. "I just forgot to tell you I guess." He set a pair of well-worn black jeans and a long-sleeve black shirt on the bed with his body armor. 

"So what's going on?" Shayne's voice wavered. "Does this have something to do with that cryptic dragon message that was spray painted on some city hall building?"

Damien turned to him, "how do you know about that?"

Shayne seemed distracted by the decor, answering slowly. "Noah told me about it...said that it was on some conspiracy theory subreddit he follows, he thought that you might know something about it."

"Unfortunately." Damien organized the things on his bed. "Have you heard of the gauntlet before?"

"Um, no?"

"Have you heard of the Willow Hills Massacre?"

"Yeah, everyone in the city has."

"That was a gauntlet back in the day."

"A gauntlet?"

"It's a giant fight between gangs, metaphorically 'thrown down' when one of them wants the Kingship. It ends when one gang either kills all of their opposers or they surrender." He took a breath. "It's always bloody and it never ends well."

"Didn't everyone in Willow Hills die?"

"Most of them," he spoke quickly. "A few got out, but most of them are dead by now anyway."

"So that's what's happening?"

"Sort of...Joven and Mari went to represent us, but something went wrong and they're being held hostage. We're going to get them back. There's only a few of us...but we're going to catch them by surprise, so I can only hope that we might have some sort of upper hand."

"I'll come with you."

"What?" Damien stopped, fully turning away from what he was working on. 

"I'll...come with you."

"No, Shayne, you can't-" Damien shook his head- "since when do you even know anything about guns or high-stakes gang violence, or even wanting to be a part of something like this?"

"The Jackrabbit is important to me, more than you might think." Shayne retorted quietly. "And if you need help, I'm more than willing to lend some."

"This isn't-" Damien bit his lip. "This isn't a movie Shayne. You could get hurt, you could get shot."

"So could you!"

"I've been doing this a lot longer than you have, and I've always come out clean because I know what I'm doing." 

Shayne's face was slowly growing redder in the dim light of the room. "This place is a family to me Damien. Everyone. I've known all of them for a long time. You're family Damien. Let me help protect my family."

Damien shook his head, "we can talk about this later. Go finish up the sets onstage, I've got to change."

"Fine." Shayne stepped out of the room, his hand on the door. "But we are going to talk."

Damien felt a strange heat boil on the back of his neck as he pulled on his clothes. He secured his body armor on, checking his knee braces and boots before slotting his pistols into place in their hostlers. Damien descended the stairs towards the office, passing through the doorway to find Boze and Sarah geared up. Both of them had donned bulletproof armor, a full gear set for Boze and a vest for Sarah. He hadn't seen Boze brandish a gun in a while, and she loaded it carefully, her form rusty as she clicked the magazine into place. 

"How are we looking?"

"Not good," Sarah grumbled. "I can't get any Brotherhood people online, Raub's out of the city on business right now, and some of our smaller contacts aren't responding."

"Shit," Damien spat.

Wes entered, an thick armor plating Damien hadn't seen before was slotted over his shoulder. He was dressed in form fitting clothing, his armor perfectly adjusted despite his injury. "The van's loaded. We're ready to go when you are."

"The club's emptying out now." Boze's voice sounded strained. "I had Court-" she cleared her throat- "um, Courtney's making sure everyone is out. We can leave in the next ten minutes." 

"Dammit," Sarah growled. "I still can't get in contact with the Brotherhood operative at the Xiaolong's location. They must've cut cell reception. It...it looks like it's down in the whole area..."

The door opened, and the strippers, now fully dressed, all entered the room.

"Hey," Boze looked up at Courtney. "Is everything done?"

"We know about the Jackrabbit." Courtney's voice was firm as she spoke. "About the real Jackrabbit."

"Court-" Boze's voice wavered. "This isn't the time-"

"The Jackrabbit's in danger, isn't it?" Noah asked, his voice inquisitive. "This is about the dragon spray painting? And all of the tags on buidings? And the heist at the Avian?"

"Yes," Boze spoke slowly. "And we're trying to deal with that right now, but-"

The door swung open once again, and a familiar face in a familiar fur coat stepped into the room. "What's happening?" Kate's voice, normally calm and somewhat cocky, sounded frantic. "What the hell did Joven do?"

"He got himself captured by the Xiaolong, the gauntlet must've been a trap," Boze responded.

"So we're going to get him back?"

"Yes, and I was just telling our entertainers-"

"We're coming with you," Shayne's voice broke through. "We're smart, and we're an extra set of hands."

"We can't ask you to do that," Damien introjected.

"You're not," Shayne responded. "We're volunteering. We can help."

"Yeah," Keith spoke up from where he stood next to Noah. "We've all be affected by this Kingship, or whatever Noah calls it. I don't know about you, but I know I want to punch one of these guys in the face for hurting my sister."

"I got into all this conspiracy stuff because of them," Noah nodded. "I wanted answers, and this sure as hell has given them to me."

"I've watched them bring drugs and guns into young neighborhoods," Courtney shook her head. "I've seen the worst of people because of them."

"I live in old Bandidos territory," Shayne spoke. "I've seen my fair share of ODs and violence, most of which took place in the hallways of my building." He paused, looking up to Damien and then to Boze. "We care about this place," Shayne smiled with a fondness Damien hadn't seen before. "It's one of the most loving places I've been in a long, even though what we're doing might not be all that 'PG', we're more a family than any family I've ever had."

"I don't make the decisions," Kate narrowed her eyes, a smile across her face. "But I'd say let them come."

"You know that you might get hurt." Boze looked to each of them as they nodded back at her. "This isn't a game, this is an active shooting situation, and you all understand that you'll probably see more blood and gore tonight than you will in your entire life?" There were more nods. Boze turned to Wes and Damien, letting out a long sigh. "Normally I'd say no, and Joven is going to kill me for this, but get them suited up, give em a quick course in how to use a gun if they don't know how and then send them out to the van."

"Before we do that," Olivia, who had been quiet this whole time, spoke up. "You said this is the Xiaolong, right? The Dragon Gang?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Because I have some information that will change everything." She raised her head, looking at each of them before looking to Boze. "I know how to bring down the Xiaolong from the inside out."

Chapter Text

Boze and Courtney worked in relative silence as they gathered the things they'd need for the attack on the gauntlet. Courtney's jaw was set firmly as she loaded her gun with relative ease. Boze pulled out an extra few pieces of body armor, helping Courtney secure them in the back where she couldn't reach.

"Didn't really expect to do this tonight, did you?" Boze's voice was soft.

"No, I thought that it was an early night for other reasons...and that you might come back to my place for some...dessert."

Boze grinned as Courtney turned around with a smile. "God you're terrible and I love it."

"It's my charm," her smile was full, but tinged with slight sadness.

"We should get into the van. Olivia's contacts'll be waiting for us at the rendezvous point."

Sarah popped her head into the office. "We're all ready to go."

"Then let's go."

Boze and Courtney trekked out to the van, climbing into the back as Damien started up the engine. He and Shayne, who wore Damien's set of back-up kevlar, sat in the front seats. Keith and Noah squatted towards the back, wearing sets of bulletproof vests that didn't fit them entirely too well. Wes held on to the rung above his head with his good arm, crouching with his hand on the gun at his side. Kate stood across from Wes, holding on to the back of Shayne's headrest, her fur coat dragging across the ground as she moved. Olivia sat cross legged across from Sarah, who was fully engrossed with the small laptop on her lap.

Boze signaled to Damien to pull out of the alley, and he sped out onto the road ahead of them. She turned to Olivia, who stared down at the crappy, plastic burner phone in her hands. "So tell me again, what this is?"

Olivia looked up, her face surprisingly sharp and grim in the light. "A rebellion years in the making. I have some contacts from back when I was under the Xiaolong's control, the ones that got me out."

"So that's who we're meeting?"

"We're meeting a few of them." She fiddled with the phone. "Like I said earlier, it's hard to tell who's on what side. When the old Dragon Lord died, the throne was supposed to go to his son, who was my cousin, Erzi, but Yukun and his family, who were long time Guwen to the Dragon Lord, took the throne and had my cousin killed." Courtney held her hand out to Olivia, who took it, squeezing it gently. "There was about half of the gang that was still loyal to Erzi's rule, and half that was loyal to Yukun's. He managed to keep the gang together, but the cracks ran deeper than he could control. There's a reason all of you aren't dead after that stunt you pulled at their casino. Half of those gunshots weren't aimed at you."

Boze's eyebrows popped up in surprise. "What?"

"They could've killed you if they wanted to, but they didn't care that you got away with that much money, they've been trying to funnel it out themselves for years." Olivia blinked slowly. "I was taken in as an 'entertainer' for their industry, and it was the rebellion that got me out. I'm Erzi's only living relative, there's a reason they either wanted me under their thumb or dead."

"So if you go now-"

"I'm a literal beacon to the cause," Olivia nodded. "If they see me walk in, gun at the ready, with reinforcements, they'll join us." She turned her head up towards the window as Damien turned the van onto an empty street. On unsteady feet, she crouched, peering up at her surroundings. "We're close." She turned, looking back at the others. "Alright, when we go in, I'll do most of the talking, okay?"

"Got it." 

"They'll be a little uneasy of outsiders, but when I tell them that you pulled the Avian, I think they'll like you a little more." Olivia looked towards the window. "Stop, we're here."

Damien pulled the car up next to a small suburban house. Olivia and Boze stepped out of the car as Wes swung the door open. Courtney got out after them, and with the look on her face, Boze knew it was better to let her come with than argue. Boze heard the car door slide shut behind her, the night window cold against her bare skin. It was an eerie silence that surrounded them, all of the houses with lights off in neat little rows, except for the single porch light of the house in front of them.

Olivia approached the house first, knocking on the door in three short knocks, followed by a long knock and then another short. They stood quietly until the door was swung open, and a woman a few years older than them towered over them in the doorway. She said something in Mandarin that was too quick for Boze to catch, but Olivia caught the words and the three of them entered. 

The house was small, with stairs leading up to their left, and a large family room with couches and a tv in the back to their right, in front of them, there was a hallway that lead to a kitchen where the sounds of dishes and water could be heard clattering around. There were at least twenty people packed into the family room, all talking with one another in small groups. Most of them were heavily armed, with rifles and snipers similar to the one Damien toted slung over their backs, and handguns and magnums at their waists. There was a pile of ammo and artillery on the coffee table in the middle, untouched but clearly waiting to be used.

The woman addressed the crowd, and they turned towards her. Their eyes immediately flicked over Boze and Courtney, before landing on Olivia. Though their expressions were stoney and cold, it was clear that they were pleased to see Olivia.

"We were right," the woman spoke. "Tonight is the night we overthrow the oppressive Zhao regime and reinstate the rule of Sui to the Xiaolong." She turned towards Olivia, a half-smile gracing her face. "The rightful Lord has returned, and she will take the throne that she deserves. The Xiaolong will not be held by these poisoned hands any longer."

A man in the back spoke up in Mandarin. "Who are these people?

Boze stepped forward, hoping that her Mandarin was as sharp as she remembered. "We are the Jackrabbit, and we are here to save our friends, and destroy the old idea of the Kingship." Her words were shaky, but they seemed enough to impress the rebels. "The Kingship should be something to trust, not something to fear. Enough innocent people have died at the hands of unjust Kings, and it's time we changed that. Our King has been captured by the Xiaolong at the gauntlet. We're going in to save him." She drew in a breath. "He may be brash and loud, but he is also kind and incredibly smart when it comes to strategy. I would trust him with my life over and over again." Boze nodded towards each of them. "And we're going to need your help if we want to take them down."

There was a prolonged silence before one of them spoke up, his voice high and light as he did. He spoke to quickly for Boze to understand, but what he said, the others seemed to agree with. The woman that had opened the door turned to Olivia. She asked her a question softly, and Olivia answered.

"He was kind to me even when I was at my lowest. When you lifted me from Yukun's grasp, he was the one that kept me safe. I too, would trust him with my life, and I have." Olivia's eyes burned with the ferocity of the leader she truly was. "Fight, if not for him and this new order, then for me, and the principles that the Sui family stood for."

The whole room spoke in one breath. "Wisdom. Power. Honor."

The woman turned to Olivia. "There is no disagreement between us. We will always fight for you. If you support this new King, you will have our full armada behind you." She turned to her group, and began barking orders to them. The room turned into a frenzy as the woman grabbed up a large gun from the table, cocking it and tossing it into the holster at her waist. She pulled them towards the door, ushering them out as they headed towards the van. 

"773 Canal Street," Boze nodded towards the woman. "We're attacking quietly, but with everything we've got, okay?"

"I wouldn't have it any other way." 

Wes pulled open the van door as they climbed in. "Who was that?" Boze turned to Olivia as she sat down in the van. 

"Linghun." Olivia turned slightly, pulling a gun from the crate behind her. "She's the one that made sure I got out when it got bad there." She cocked the gun, "I owe her my life, and tonight, I'm gonna repay her in full."

"Damien," Boze called up to the front. "773 Canal Street. Cut the lights when we get on the street."

"Course." The van puttered to life as they pulled out of the street. 

"Was it true what you said about Joven?"

"Hmm?" Olivia looked up as she pushed the gun into the belt of the black canvas pants Boze had lent her. "Oh. Yeah. I had nowhere to go, and I knew no one. Linghun told me to get out of the city, but I couldn't leave without the Xiaolong's feelers finding me. I found an ad for Joven's club, and I went. When I told Joven my situation, he told me to rest up there for a few days to get back on me feet, in case I didn't want a job stripping again...but it's what I liked doing. I just wanted to be somewhere safe, and I knew that Joven would make sure I was. He saved my life more than I think even he understands."

"Woah."

"Yeah," Olivia nodded. "I've watched him during the time that I've been here, and I've realized, Joven cares deeply about everyone. He'll fight tooth and claw to save them if he has to, sometimes going too far in doing that. He loves all of us in a way I don't think we can even really understand, which is why we're so invested in all of this Kingship stuff. We feed off of his love for it, and we can see the passion in turn."

"I can second that," Kate's voice came from where she was standing. She was playing with a pocket knife, cleaning under her nails. Kate flicked the knife away, pushing it into the pockets of her coat. "Joven has a weird way of saving people when the least expect it." She smiled fondly. "He's one of the only reasons I'm still sane."

"He's saved me too," Wes spoke. "And I know he's saved Mari as well."

"This means something to all of us," Boze smiled. "We'll make it through tonight. For him, and for the club. With all of those people, and all of this help, we'll make it." She drew in a shaky breath. "I'm sure of it."

Boze turned back, looking to the little house that was disappearing into the distance. The light flicked off on the front porch, and Boze felt the reality of it all begin to set in.

Chapter Text

The lights of the street whipped by the windows as the Jackrabbit's team, plus Kate and Sarah, hunkered down together inside the van.

Wes watched as Damien tightened his grip on the steering wheel, moving his hands every so often to wipe his palms on his pants. It was a bad sign when Damien was scared. Wes drew in a breath, closing his eyes for a second as he turned towards the shaded window of the van. He pictured Joven's face in the darkness, the familiar cocky smile and the grin behind his eyes. Wes knew that he had to tell Joven tonight if they made it out. He would tell him about the feelings that had been bothering him for weeks, the ones he'd been pushing down.

The image disappeared, and that familiar growing dread in the pit of his stomach returned. 

The car had been silent ever since Boze had given them a fading rally speech. It'd been quick and quiet, and was nothing like what Joven could do, but it was enough to rouse them to the occasion. Wes wondered how much worse he'd be feeling if there was noise, the silence at least let him putter through his thoughts. 

Damien cut the lights, and Wes felt his stomach drop as the car slowed. They drove along quietly as Damien pulled the car next to the curb, a few blocks away from a gigantic mansion that couldn't have been anything else than the address. Each of them stepped out as Damien turned off the car. Wes lowered himself out of the van and onto the ground, the feeling of something solid beneath him a strange comfort. He and the others rounded the van as Boze pushed open the back. Sarah was still sitting inside, working away at her computer. Wes knew that she'd do her best to act as techie for them, but with only one person, it'd be a difficult job to do.

They unloaded crates of weapons and ammo as giant black trucks pulled up behind them. Linghun stepped out of the passenger's side of the truck, swinging herself down onto the pavement. She cocked her gun as she crossed the small stretch of road to where they were standing. 

"How are we doing this?" He voice was hushed. 

"We take out the guards one by one, and then start picking off anyone that doesn't ally themselves with the rebellion." 

"Uh, Boze?" Sarah looked up at her from where she sat in the van. 

She turned, her expression fading as she braced herself for another disappointment. Wes bit his lip, fiddling with the back of the gun in his holster, nervous energy shooting through his veins. His shoulder had begun to throb, but with the meds he'd taken before they left, it was a dull roar compared to pounding of his heart.

"I don't think it's just the Xiaolong and gang members here..."

"Shit," Boze rubbed her forehead. "Are the cops involved?"

"It looks like it...and from the phones I have connecting...they're a small batch, but there's some higher ups we've got to watch out for."

"Damnit," Boze climbed into the van. She turned to the others. "You're gonna have to lead the charge, I'm gonna try to get the rest of the force here. Hopefully they'll be less corrupt. You'll need to be in and out in twenty to thirty minutes unless you want to be arrested. Sarah and I will keep in contact with you through our phones. Sound good?"

She got nods from everyone around her. Linghun signalled to her people, who followed her across the road and towards the building. Wes turned on his phone, pushing it into his breast pocket as Boze's voice filtered through.

"Check, check." She nodded. "We're good."

Wes and Damien took point, with the other following close behind them, their guns in hand. They reached the front entrance, their clothes blending in with the darkness.

"Take the guards out," Boze commanded. Two well placed shots and the once mighty bodyguards toppled to the ground. A short man with greying hair stepped forward. He pulled out a small silver mechanism, and pushed it into the keyhole of the door. He twisted it around a few times before the door popped open, and the small army entered the front room. "Take out the cameras." Wes raised his gun, taking shots at the two cameras in the corners of the room.

"This way," Linghun signaled to them. A few of her allies took a left instead of a right, and Wes could hear five shots from a suppressor go off in the next room over. They took twists and turns around the house, the sounds of suppressed gunfire going off around them. He held his gun tighter to his chest as the sounds of voices grew louder. 

A woman jumped out from behind a wall, a gun held loosely in her grip. Linghun took one well placed shot to her chest and she was blown backward, toppling to the ground. "Damnit," she growled. "She might have set the alarm, be on the lookout now." They moved steadily throughout the building, slowing at every sound or movement.

Linghun held up a hand, stopping them. They were at a turn in the stairwell, and Wes could hear voices below them. From behind her, a man stepped out from a room, a tray in his hand, Wes barely had to lift his gun before the man stopped in his tracks. He gestured with his pistol, and the man dropped to the ground. Two of Linghun's men crossed to the man, they checked the inside of his palm before letting him up. 

He asked them something in Mandarin, and they nodded. The man turned towards the group, his eyes falling to Olivia. He dropped to a bow, leaping up and whispering something quickly to them. He drew his hands out, grabbing two cleverly hidden latches on the walls and pulling them closed.

"A hidden ally," Linghun explained. "He'll make sure that the upstairs gets closed off." She smiled coldly. "They won't be able to escape, and he'll warn the rest of the sleeper agents. This is perfect." She addressed them all. "This is where we part. Take out as many people as you can that try to oppose you. Jackrabbits, save your King, we'll cover you."

Linghun checked her gun one last time before she descended the stairs. The rest of them followed suit, and 30 people in their little party ran down the steps, opening fire on anyone and everyone in the room.

Wes aimed the best he could with the thumping of his pulse in his hands, taking people out by the kneecaps as they raised their weapons to combat him. There were a few people in police uniforms, but they were the first to fall. He saw a few people go after a tall older man in the back who sat on a golden throne. A few people threw themselves in front of him, but ultimately fell. A few of the rebellion grabbed the man by the back of his arms, dragging him away to a dark corridor.

Kate moved like a viper on the stairwell, taking out anyone who dared come as reinforcements. She lashed out, grabbing anything she could to use as a weapon. There was blood splattered across her face, but she was grinning as she ripped her pocket knife, now ruddy and red, out of the side of someone's throat.

The air was thick with the smell of blood, and bodys littered the floor, some still writhing in agony, and others completely still.

Shayne and Damien stood across from him, their faces snarling as they stood back to back, picking off people around them. Keith and Noah were rounding people up with their weapons, pushing them to the far corners of the room before shooting them wherever their aim was best. Sometimes was a shot to the leg, and other times it was an unfortunately placed bullet to the stomach. Courtney held a rifle in hand, blowing back anyone that dared get to close. She'd pulled her hair back, her eyes burning bright with fury as she brought down another line of people, the blood staining her clothing as it was flung from injured hands.

Olivia stood in the middle of it all, almost glowing as she shot down everyone that came for her. Everytime the battle looked bleak, people would rally to her, and with her arm drawn towards the throne, they would triumph again.

The sound of gunfire was deafening, and Wes threw himself at the first person who looked like they knew something. He pointed the barrel down at a frightened man in a suit with a clear earpiece. "WHERE ARE YOU KEEPING THEM?" He realized that it was vague, but he was seeing red, and the man seemed to get the message. With the gun to his back, the man lead Wes down several hallways to a large metal door at the end of the corridor.

Wes shot down the guard that stood in front of it before choking out the man that he had held at gunpoint in front of him. He rummaged through the guard's things, finding a set of keys to unlock the doors before stumbling into the room of prison cells.

"Joven?" He called out. "Mari? Are you guys here?"

"Wes?" a voice called to him from his left. He turned to see Joven standing inside a cell. "What the hell are you doing here?" Wes pocketed his gun, fiddling with the keys and pushing them into the lock. 

"Saving you," he replied as he slotted the correct key in. "C'mon." He swung the door open, and Joven and Mari joined him in freedom. 

"Wes, you've got ten minutes before the entire LSPD convienes on your area." Boze's voice caught him off guard.

"The LSPD is already here Boze," Mari sighed. "There's really no use."

"No," Boze paused. "Sarah and I found something...and when I said the entire LSPD, I meant the entire LSPD. Finish the job and get back here, immediately."

Joven ran towards a small box in the corner, digging around in it and grabbing out his and Mari's weapons. He tossed Mari her gun as the two of them followed Wes out to the hallway. Together they walked towards the chaos that was still winding down. In the main room, Shayne, Damien, Courtney, Keith and Noah stood over a group of tied up people who didn't look like they were Xiaolong, guns pointed at them. Olivia stood with Linghun and a few other, a large red gash across her cheek drew blood across the curve of her jaw and down her neck.

"I got 'em." Wes called out. "We gotta get out of here, the cops are coming in ten minutes."

Linghun looked up. "Good. But there's one thing we have to do." She stepped away, revealing the once mighty leader of the Xiaolong, now sitting on his knees, head bowed towards the ground. He looked up, his eyes filled with malice and fear as he searched the room.

"Just do it," he growled. "I don't want to live with this failure any longer."

Olivia looked to Joven. "He's the King," her voice was quiet. "You know what you have to do to take the title." 

Wes watched as Joven swallowed slowly, pulling his gun from where it rested at his belt. He drew in a breath, closing his eyes as he trained the gun on the man's forehead. Olivia reached out, and Joven's eyes opened again, as he lowered the gun slightly.

"Wait." He looked to Olivia, who seemed to ask him a question without speaking. "I have one thing I want to ask." Joven stepped back, letting Olivia forward. "Why did you take the title of Lord from my family? Why did you kill Erzi?"

The man laughed. "I'm about to die, you really think I'm going to answer questions?" The Sui's were weak. They deserved to die."

Joven leapt forward, grabbing the man by his hair, forcing his head upwards. "I could shoot you in the stomach and let you bleed out on the floor. I could torture you to death. Answer her, and I'll give you a quick death."

He sneered, his face turning down in pain as Joven gripped his hair harder. "Never."

"You wanna try that again?" Joven's voice was cold. He let go of his hair just a little.

"Fine." He grimaced. "I stole it because he wasn't worthy. He didn't understand the old ways," the man spat. "He wanted some idiotic 'new' way of running things. He deserved to die just for even suggesting it." Joven threw the man's head down, bashing his nose against the tile floor. The former King lifted his head, blood beginning to stream down his face as Joven stepped back.

He turned to Olivia, who blinked back tears. Joven's voice was soft, "How was that?

"That was more than anything I could've ever wanted from him. I've always just wanted to know." Olivia drew in a breath. "Now I know that it was what I thought all along. You were always just as power-hungry and unthinking as Uncle Shui always said you were."

"Any last words?" Joven readied his gun again, aiming it for the man's head.

"Tell Leo not to be so much of an idiot." He drew in a breath, uttering one last phrase in Mandarin. "Wisdom. Power. Honor."

Wes looked away as the sound of the gunshot echoed through the room. He didn't know if it was the silence that followed it, or the weight that that single bullet held, but the sound rung in Wes's ears until Boze's voice snapped him back to reality.

"You guys have to get out of there, now."

Wes felt himself leave the building, but his mind was stuck on Joven's face the second before he'd shot the former King. There had been no reprehension in him. He'd let his finger fall on that trigger with no hesitation. Wes knew that Joven knew he'd have to kill the man, but the lack of feeling in his eyes sent chills down Wes's spine. They climbed into the van, the strange feeling of accomplishment buzzing through the vehicle.

Boze looked up at them as they entered. "Did you do it?"

"Yeah," Joven breathed. Damien started the engine as they all grabbed for something to hold on to. There were the flickerings of smiles on each of their faces, slowly building as Damien pulled out of the neighbourhood.

"So...?"

"The Kingship is ours."

 

< < ^ > >

 

"To us," Joven raised his glass into the air. The Jackrabbit's team, the rebellion and a few Brotherhood members that managed to show up raised their glasses in tandem. "And to a new era of the Kingship!" Everyone cheered vehemently as the room turned to chaos. People knocked back drinks like it was the end of the world, and Damien and Shayne, who had gone behind the bar to get a bottle of scotch, were now stuck back there serving drinks.

Wes drank the glass of whatever Damien had given him, taking small sips and hoping that it wouldn't be too strong. Joven stood across the room, talking with Linghun and an important-looking Brotherhood member over a few drinks. He pulled himself away and joined Mari over where she stood next to the tv monitor in the corner. There was a live newsfeed running, showing an aerial view of the building they had just left as it was surrounded by cop cars and police helicopters.

"How's it looking?" He smiled over at Mari. 

"Like we just got out in time," she replied with a grin. "How's your shoulder?"

"Never better," he rotated it slowly. "Still a little sore, but the cuff I was using kept it from stressing too much."

"I can't believe we actually did it," she breathed. Mari brought a glass of what looked like her regular scotch and soda to her lips. "We've actually got the Kingship. I thought that it was just a stupid pipe dream a few years ago, but here we are."

"We used to have friends in high places, but now we are the friends in high places."

Mari laughed wholeheartedly. "God," she mumbled. "I think this is the happiest I've been in a while. No more looking behind us every step, no more wondering what shadow is being sent by what rival-" Mari shook her head- "because we're the shadow now."

"Has Joven talked to you about what we're gonna do with the club?"

"What? No, did he say something?" Mari furrowed her eyebrows. "We're staying here, I'm making sure of that. I don't wanna leave this place quite yet."

"No, no, no, nothing like that." Wes shrugged, "I'd just thought that it'd been long enough that we could try to upgrade the place. Add some new stuff to the club, maybe give the strippers some more room to grow, new sets, maybe some classes, or something like that." He turned to her as she scanned the crowd, her face surprisingly happy as she did. "How've you been through all of this?"

"Hmm?" She looked to him, her eyes daring him to ask again.

"Like...uh, with how quick all of this is going."

"Ah," she nodded. "I almost thought that you weren't going to be able to save yourself on that one." She swirled her glass, looking through the bottom of it. "If you're asking about the drugs, I'm clean now. I've been clean for a while. Whatever I was before...when I...when I hurt Boze. It's never coming back again."

"Good," Wes smiled. "That's good to hear."

They stood in friendly silence, watching the crowd as new people greeted Joven, and as the rowdy grew rowdier. Wes was happy to see that there were smiles on everyone's faces. He looked over to see Keith, Olivia and Noah standing by the stage with a few people from the rebellion. They laughed at something Noah had said, and Keith pouted before hoisting himself up onto the stage.

"Do I really need to show my sexy body?" He heard Keith jest to Noah as he and Olivia roared with laughter at him slowly lifting his shirt. Wes rolled his eyes before scanning the room for Boze. He found her standing with Courtney, who had cleaned the blood off of her shirt and put her hair down around her face. They spoke quietly to one another, grinning as they drew each other closer. He nudged Mari's arm gesturing towards them with his head.

"Since when have they been a thing?"

"Oh," Mari raised her eyebrows in surprise. She grinned, "I guess for a while."

"Huh," he smiled. "Well, I think we know who Boze went out with on her day off."

"I guess we do," Mari laughed into her glass.

Wes left Mari to her corner, and mingled throughout the club, meeting a few new people and greeting some old faces. He said hello to the bodyguard that they'd worked with during the Avian heist, a kind but brooding man with a good sense of humor. Wes moved through the crowd, avoiding Joven as the promise he made himself sunk like a stone in the pit of his stomach.

As it drew later in the evening, someone dimmed the lights, and someone else put a tiny plastic crown on Joven's head. He laughed as people placed him on their shoulders, parading him about as he pretended to address a fake crowd. The whole room moved like a twitching animal as people, drunk and happy, stumbled about. 

Damien and Shayne had run off an hour ago, holding yellow spray paint cans and a shittily made crown template, yelling something about 'crowning the rabbit', which sounded like a terrible euphemism, but Wes knew that it wasn't. It took him an hour, but he finally swallowed his pride, and crossed the room to where Mari was standing by the monitor.

"Hey, have you seen Joven?"

She turned back, "Yeah, he went up to his room, I think he was grabbing something."

"Cool, thanks."

Mari stopped him, "hey, is there something wrong?"

"No, why?" He answered too quickly, and she raised an eyebrow.

"You just look a little pale."

"I always look pale Mari."

"That's true," she giggled. It was clear that she was a little buzzed, her smile floating lightly as she raised her glass to him.

Wes jogged across the club, pulling open the door and climbing quickly up the steps. He stopped at the top, seeing Joven's bedroom door hanging open. Wes stepped inside, and pulling the door closed behind him

Joven was alone, sitting on the edge of his bed, the tiny plastic crown in his hands.

"Hey," Wes's voice felt too quiet.

"Hey," Joven looked up, smiling as Wes stepped farther the room. "I still haven't thanked you for saving me...so...thanks." He grinned, turning his head away before looking back. 

"Um, uh," Wes felt his throat go dry. "Yeah, you're welcome."

"God, I can't believe it." Joven shook his head. "We actually did it."

Wes smiled sadly, "Mari said that too."

"Did she?" Joven sighed contentedly. "Course she did."

They stood in silence for a second before Wes finally let himself as the question was knotting up his throat. "Can...can we talk? About something?"

Joven's face fell slowly, and Wes felt his heart plummet. Joven cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah, sure, lay it on me."

"I...um." He closed his eyes, drawing in a breath. "We had something once, back when we were still small and not afraid of everything around us...and I think that we broke it off too quickly." Joven opened his mouth to say something but Wes held up a hand. "We've been closer than ever recently, and earlier tonight, when you said that you didn't want a world without me...did you mean it how you said it?"

Joven looked down away from Wes, a shaky breath rattling his body. "It's hard." His eyes were closed as he looked up. "I like you.......I love you Wes, but I...I can't tell you that. I can't tell anyone that. Because if they knew, they'll use you against me. I can't see you hurt like that again."

"I can protect myself."

"And I know that," Joven sighed. "But these people..." He shook his head. "The ones that we'll be up against...they can hurt anyone, even those who can protect themselves. You're strong Wes, but they're stronger."

"What are you saying?"

"I can't." His eyes burned the ground where he stared down at it. "The Kingship is on my shoulders now, and I can't worry about you all the time-"

"You don't have to-"

"But I will. I will worry about you until I die, because you're fucking important to me, okay?"

"Okay." He sat there in silence for a while. "So what are you saying? We can't even be friends?"

"Of course we can be friends...but I just...anything more, I can't do that with you." His eyes were bleak and dark. "I can't handle opening my heart only to have it shattered when they come for you." The silence between them made Wes sick. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Um," Wes was tired of lying. "No."

Joven's head pulled up from where he was staring at the ground. 

"But I'll get better." He pressed his lips together. "It's just...good to know." Wes turned to leave, his hand on the doorknob before he turned back. "Can I...um," he laughed breathily into the door. Wes turned back to Joven, "one for the road?"

The corners of Joven's mouth flickered at the old inside joke. He stood, and Wes took the few steps that would close the gap between them. Joven kissed him so softly Wes felt like he might break. His hands found that point on the small of Joven's back that they always did as Joven held Wes's cheek with one hand.

Wes was the one to pull away, stumbling backwards as his face glowed red. He fumbled for the door handle as Joven stepped back, seeming to realize what he'd done. It was the look in Joven's eyes that shattered Wes to pieces. A look that made a sob bubble up from the pit of his stomach.

Wes pushed Joven's door open, not looking back as he nearly tumbled down the steps. Kate passed him on the way there, raising an eyebrow at his expression, but not seeming to question it. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she walked up the steps. 

Joven opened his door, looking down towards him as he and Kate exchanged quick words. Wes looked away, the truth starting to melt into his gut. God it's her, it's always been her, hasn't it?

He slammed the club doors open, stumbling into the club. Wes pulled himself over the bar's locked door and raided the liquor cabinet, popping open bottles that looked older than he was. The club was empty, save for the few people passed out drunk on the floor, but Wes didn't care who saw him.

He was fully content on drinking enough to forget everything that he'd done.

And if it killed him, Wes didn't even know if he cared anymore.

Chapter Text

Mari woke up the morning after the gauntlet before anyone else, the silence a rare commodity.

The club was eerily quiet. It was normally somewhat quiet, there was always at least a little noise, but today was different. It was like the whole building was letting out a breath it had been holding for years.

Mari had woken up with the worst headache she’d ever had and her mouth feeling like it had been filled with sand. She’d pulled herself up from the ground, finding that she’d passed out in Joven’s office, apparently having taken one of Joven’s suits out of the closet and used it as a pillow. Mari wiped away the bit of drool on sleeve, tossing the coat into the closet and hoping Joven wouldn’t notice.

Mari stumbled out of the office and into the kitchen, downing three cups of water before knocking back some pain relievers the strippers kept in the top cupboard underneath the chips. She leaned back against the counter, waiting there for a few minutes as she waited for the meds to kick in. Outside, she could hear the sounds of distant sirens, and for once, the hairs on her arms didn’t prickle up in fear.

Mari stepped out of the kitchen and crossed into the main club room, tip-toeing over people that had passed out on the ground, and the others that were just waking up. She craned her neck to see Keith and Noah asleep on the couch backstage, both of them looking entirely comatose.

There was a groan from behind the bar as Mari passed it, and she tiptoed up, peering over the edge. Below her, a bleary-eyed Wes blinked slowly up at her, holding his head.

“Morning sunshine,” she grinned.

“No, shhh,” he grumbled, grabbing his temples. “Too loud.”

“How much did you drink last night? You’re never this bad.”

“You sound like a fire truck siren through a megaphone.”

“A lot then.” Mari reached over the counter, giving Wes a hand up as he wobbled slowly, catching himself on the bar. “There’s some advil in the cupboard in the kitchen, drink a glass of water, take some, and then drink another glass, okay? It won’t take the headache away, but it’ll make it better.”

“Thanks,” Wes mumbled as he braced himself against the counter.

“Have you seen Joven yet this morning?”

Wes grimaced, “he’s probably upstairs with Kate.”

“Oh that’s right, he said she’s leaving town today.” Mari rolled her eyes. “And frankly I’m glad. Once she’s gone, he’ll be able to think straight again.” She shook her head. “Ever since she got here, he’s been in such a funk, following her around like she’s some sort of savant. I get that he trusts her opinion, but-”

“It feels overkill?”

“Yeah.”

“Like there’s something more behind it?”

Mari furrowed her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

Wes shrugged, rubbing his head before turning away from her and stumbling towards the hallway doors. “Just a thought that’s been on my mind for a while.”

Mari watched as he went, more confused than she was before. She knew that Wes and Joven had been together once, it had been a long time ago, but from Wes’s face...Mari wasn’t quite sure. She’d ask Joven later when he got up.

She crossed the room to the backstage door, pushing it open and peering around outside. The sun was high in the sky, but the alleyway was empty in front of her. She drew the door closed, walking towards the rim of the stage as she looked out into the empty house. It felt odd to see it from that angle. She normally hung towards the back, looking at the stage rather than out from it, but it had been a while since she’d really looked at the club in all its glory.

Mari noticed a few places they could touch up with paint, and some furniture that looked like it would need to be replaced soon. She felt that familiar bubble of excitement in her stomach as she thought about all the things that she’d wanted to upgrade in the club forever that could now be a reality. A neon Jackrabbit sign above the bar, those cool oscillating lights she’d seen online for the VIP section, and most importantly a new addition to the back of the stage so that they didn’t have to drag the black wall divider out every night just to give the strippers proper space for their dressing rooms.

She drew in a breath as she made notes on the carpet stains and the humming coming from the speaker above her. There were small things that needed to be fixed before they could do anything that big, but Mari knew that they would have the money soon enough.

Wes re-entered the room, now dressed in a pair of clean jeans and his Jackrabbit hoodie, holding a bottle of water in one hand as he ran his fingers through his hair with the other.

“Your hair’s getting long,” Mari noted, crossing her arms over her chest as Wes walked across the room towards her. “Are you going to cut and re-dye it soon?”

“Is it fading?” He pulled his phone from his pocket, checking himself out in the camera.

“No, no, but your roots are starting to come in.”

“Ah,” Wes looked at himself for a second longer before putting his phone away. “I think I like it this long. I can tie it up and it won’t get in my face.”

Mari laughed, “Wes in a ponytail, that’s a funny image.”

“Hey,” Wes pouted sarcastically. He brightened quickly, “I’m gonna go out and grab some assorted breakfast foods-” he paused- “mostly pancakes...but, I want to get them before everyone wakes up. Do you wanna come with?”

Mari’s ringtone went off across the room, and the bright electric pop scared both of them. “Must’ve dropped it over there last night,” she jogged across the room towards where the sound was going off. Mari fished the phone out from where it had fallen behind the monitor.

Incoming Call From: S

Mari felt her skin go cold as goosebumps ran up her arms. She turned to Wes with a fake smile, “You go on ahead, I’ve got to take this. It’s important.”

“Kingship stuff?”

“Yep.” She pressed the answer button on her phone as Wes waved goodbye to her as he trudged towards the front entrance. “Hey.” She waited for the door to close behind Wes before moving across the room to look out the window. “You never call, something up?”

“Does 1301 Verloren Street have any meaning to ya?”

“That’s the address for the J-”

“For your strip club, good, then I’m in the right place.” From outside, Mari saw Sohinki turn the corner, pushing the door open to the Jackrabbit. He grinned at her as he pulled his phone out of where it rested in the crook of his shoulder and his chin. “Good to see ya alive Takahashi.”

“Sohinki,” Mari nodded. She raised an eyebrow as she turned off her phone, slipping it under her other arm as she crossed the two over her chest. “I saw that you and your friend bolted before the gauntlet went down.”

“Yah, the second he thought he might’a smelled trouble, we were outta there.” He spread his arms out, “and we’re alive, aren’t we? He’s got-ta stronger gut sense than anyone I’ve ever met. Lotsa those Xiaolong fuckers didn’t have the same fate. Heard they got gunned down by some crazy revolutionaries and a pack of new kids. Anyone left got arrested and sentenced. Apparently some blast of information went out that arrested most of them.”

Mari furrowed her eyebrows, “The Titans have that sort of intelligence?”

Sohinki shrugged, “someone hacked us in’ta the police database a while ago, and when I’m not out dealin’ or helpin’ the boss, I’ve been readin’ the police reports that come in.”

“I didn’t know you could read,” Mari grinned.

“Ha, ha, very funny Takahashi,” he stuck his middle finger out lovingly, “but tha' was low even for you.”

“It’s good to see you Sohinki,” Mari clapped him on the shoulder. She held her hand there, her nails biting into the soft fabric of his coat. “But what exactly are you doing here? I thought I told you that we couldn’t talk near here. I thought I said the we weren’t going to talk unless I texted you saying that I needed...well…”

“I know, I know,” Sohinki pulled his hands up, stepping back slightly. “But at the gauntlet, you and Joven made me a promise. If you made it out alive, you’d come talk to the Titans ‘bout a deal. I’m here to bring ya to our headquarters.”

“Really?” Mari raised an eyebrow. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“There’s always a catch with you Sohin.”

“No catch for now,” he shrugged. “You’ll have’ta talk to my boss ‘bout all the red-tape. He’s a good guy, and I’m sure he’ll cut’ya a fair deal.”

“Mari?” Joven’s voice caught her off guard. He trudged into the room, rubbing his eyes as he blinked the sleep out of them. “I thought I heard you out here. Who are you-” Joven stopped suddenly, narrowing his eyes. “Oh, you’re that Titans guy-” he snapped his fingers- “Matthew, right?”

“Yeah. Sohinki.”

“Sohinki it is,” Joven crossed the room to shake his hand. “So you’re the Titan’s frontrunner?”

“Nah, I’m the leader’s lieutenant. He does lots of the behind the scenes work of the business while I go out and picket.”

“They’re offering us a deal,” Mari interrupted.

“Ah,” Joven nodded slowly. “Titans…” He narrowed his eyes, thinking for a moment. “You guys run drugs, right? Not the hard stuff, but not the easy stuff either.”

“Yep,” Sohinki nodded. “We deal mostly in H, Toilet Cleaner and Myriad, but the boss can explain that all later.”

Joven turned to Mari, turning his head slightly. Can we trust him? His eyes were easy to read, and Mari was glad for it.

She shrugged, nodding slowly. It’s worth a shot .

Joven turned back towards Sohinki. “Alright, we’ll meet. When do you want to schedule a rendezvous?”

“Now would be good.” Sohinki gestured over his shoulder. “We got a tanker waiting out front for ya.”

“Now?” Joven raised his eyebrows, looking around the club. “Well, I guess we do have to time.”

“Wes just left to get food,” Mari pulled out her phone. “I’ll text him that we’ve left to go look at a potential business opportunity.”

“Perfect,” Joven grabbed his own phone. “I’ll call our cleaning service.” He looked around, scrunching up his face at the mess. “You don’t really realize how dirty this place is until it’s been trashed.”

Sohinki pulled out his phone, checking a message before putting it back in his pocket. “That’s the boss. Don’t wanna keep him waiting long. Are ya in or out?”

Mari looked to Joven as he nodded with a grin. “We’re in.”

Chapter Text

The tanker, as Sohinki had described it, was a giant reinforced black car that was definitely worthy of the title ‘tanker’. They’d slid into the back of the car, Sohinki taking the spot across from them as he knocked on the divider with the back of his hand.

The car pulled away from the club’s front, and Sohinki crossed his arms against his chest, sitting back as they drove along in silence.

“How far is your headquarters from here?” Mari asked, her voice surprisingly bored.

“‘Bout fifteen minutes.” Sohinki moved his arm to drape over the empty seat next to him, running his free hand over the back of his head. “We’ll be there before you know it.” He reached down under his seat, popping open the compartment beneath. “Ya want some water? Or booze? Mini-pretzels?”

Mari took a bottle of water from him, and Joven politely declined as Sohinki popped open a finger-sized bottle of vodka. The three of them rode in silence until the car came to a stop in an open area in the middle of the factory district.

“We’re here.” Sohinki stepped out, holding the door open for Joven and Mari. They found themselves in the gravel courtyard of Los Santos’ steel mill. Giant copper-colored builds rose out of the dusty terrain, guarded by tall chain-link fences lined with barbed wire. The car started up behind them, pulling out of the courtyard as gravel popped under the tires. “Comin’?” Sohinki had already walked towards one of the buildings and was now standing next to a door twice his size.

Joven and Mari crossed the courtyard to where he stood. Sohinki swiped a card against a panel on the side, and with a moaning creak the door drew itself back against the wall. Inside, the sounds of machinery at work roared over the sound of Sohinki’s voice as he directed them where to go, but Joven got the gist of it. Follow me .

They passed through the body of the steel mill, where men in grimey clothes and heavy leather aprons moved among sparking machines and glowing red-hot metal. Joven moved closer to the wall as Sohinki walked them along to where their path dipped up into a copper-plated stairwell.

Sohinki nodded to the guards on either sides of the door at the top, who let them pass, pulling the doors open. The hallway ahead of them was cold and dimly lit by harsh grey lights, but Sohinki moved like he'd walked the stretch of space a hundred times before.

They reached a door at the very end of the hall, and Sohinki knocked three times before stepping away.

He turned towards them, biting his lip. “Little warnin'. The boss is a good guy, but he comes off kinda…” Sohinki shrugged. “Well, you’ll see.”

A green light flared above the door, and a short buzz went off as the door swung open. The three of them entered the room to find a chair occupied by a medium-sized man with bright orange hair. His eyes were jarring, wide and full as he watched Joven and Mari with what Joven hoped was curiosity. The man wore a suit with a thin black tie and expensive looking shoes. He looked comfortable, his legs crossed over one another, one arm resting lazily across the armrest, and the elbow of the other resting on his thigh, his fingertip extended to his upper lip.

“Hello.” His voice was surprisingly musical behind its command, as if he were amused by their arrival. “I’m guessing you’re the Jackrabbit Operation Sohinki’s been telling me so much about. From what I’ve heard, you managed to swindle the entire Kingship with a crew of only ten people?”

“Well, a crew of about five,” Joven corrected. “But more back-up than that.”

“Impressive,” the man nodded. “I, personally, prefer the shadows, but to each their own.” He smiled, almost pressing into the silence between them. Joven moved to open his mouth, but the man continued. “I suppose introductions are in order. The people around here call me Lasercorn.”

“Interesting choice in name.”

“From an unfortunate tattoo following a night of drinking too much.” He smiled with his mouth but not with his eyes. “I have a feeling you may know me better by another name. David Moss.”

Joven’s heart skipped a few beats, rattling in his chest. That name had always only been a name to him, never associated with a face, or a person of any kind. David Moss had always been an urban legend, an eccentric billionaire who seemed to buy everything in the city. If something had gentrified, it was him behind it. He’d perpetually become the boogeyman of the steady and quickening gentrification of the city.

Joven swallowed slowly, “I’ve heard the name.”

“And I’ve heard yours as well.” Lasercorn nodded, “The name Joshua Ovenshire has gained some acclaim in a surprisingly short amount of time. You’ve really come into your own in what you do.”

“Lucky break I guess,” Joven felt strangely uncomfortable under Lasercorn’s gaze. It was too cold and too inviting at the same time, and reminded him too much of a slowly uncoiling snake, quietly preparing to strike. He cleared his throat. “Sohinki says you have a deal for us.”

“That I do.” The man changed how he sat, moving his legs down to set his feet flat on the floor. “But first, why don’t we take a walk?” Lasercorn stood, straightening himself before breezing past them. He pushed the door open, and Mari and Joven couldn’t do anything but fall in behind him as Sohinki took up the rear.

They were in the hallway again, but this time, Lasercorn stopped halfway. He pulled a card out of his pocket, swiping it against an off-colored panel in the wall. Lasercorn waited a few seconds before pressing down on it with his thumb and forefinger. A door-shaped hole outlined itself, pressing in and sliding away in the wall.

They stepped into a long hallway lined with windows along the left side. There was a sharp turn at the end of the hall, and Joven looked out to see the warehouse below. When they’d come this way, Joven hadn’t remembered seeing windows, but he guessed from the sheen on them that it was probably one-way glass.

“I assume you’re probably familiar with my name?” Lasercorn walked ahead of them. “If you’ve lived in this city long enough, you must’ve by now.”

“I have,” Joven nodded. “Your name’s on every billboard in West Vinewood.”

“That it is,” Lasercorn smiled. “Not an easy feat, but one that had to be done.”

They turned at the curve in the wall, heading towards another door at the other end. Joven expected them to head there, but Lasercorn stopped. He placed his hand on the wall, pushing in until a panel gave way. It flipped upwards, just barely brushing Lasercorn’s hair. He tapped in a complicated code, letting it scan his middle finger print before the wall split in two, revealing what looked like an elevator inside.

They stepped in, letting the door close behind them. Lasercorn pressed several buttons on the side panel, illuminating a specific code that flashed three times before it went dark. A slot popped open above the panel, and he placed his card inside. It registered it, letting several things click into place, before spitting it out. Something above them whirred and Lasercorn cleared his throat.

“You’re going to want to hold on.” Joven turned to see that Sohinki and Lasercorn had already wrapped their hands around the bar affixed to the inside of the elevator. He and Mari quickly did the same as they shot downwards. Joven’s stomach tossed and turned as they plunged deeper and deeper below to the point that he wasn’t even sure how far they’d gone.

The elevator shuddered, the lights flickering as they fell deeper into the earth. “Don’t worry,” Lasercorn seemed to notice the panicked look on his face. “That’s normal-” he continued a little quieter- “most of the time.”

They began to slow down until entirely coming to a stop. The elevator made a pathetic ding as the lights regained their power, still a little dimmer than before. The doors shook as they opened, and Sohinki pushed the right side open the full way with his hand.

Joven stepped out to find himself in a giant white room. Everything was quiet and sterile, and every footstep echoed across the floor to the ceiling and into his ears. Ahead of them, there was an entirely glass wall broken up into several panels.

“This is-”

“Our drug operation. I supposed that if you want to work with us, you’re going to want to see...how the sausage gets made, so to speak.” Lasercorn strode forward, leading them towards the wall. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, a softly proud look on his face as people in masks and hazmat suits stood around beakers and odd-colored liquids. They moved methodically, and Joven could tell that they had all done this hundreds of times before. “They can’t see us. One way glass. People on the other side would only be distractions.”

“How’s business look for you?”

“Our workers are loyal. They create the most pure substances, we sell them for double the price, and we pay them handsomely in return. It’s the best way to keep them honest.”

“And you want us to help you?”

“Selling in your territory would open up lanes of traffic we’ve never even dreamed of seeing. We’re called the Seventh Street Titans for a reason. We’ve managed to hold strong by sticking to our roots, selling to who we could, grabbing territory where it was the freest. Now, with your benevolent control, and more importantly your permission, we could take control, raise an empire like never seen before.”

Joven looked to Mari, who seemed distracted watching the people inside work. He’d have to make this decision on his own. He was King after all, this was his choice to make.

“Here’s an idea, do you want to see the product we’ve made in the last week?”

“Why not?” Joven put on a fake smile. “We’ve got the time.”

Lasercorn lead them down the hall to a heavy looking grey door. He swiped his keycard and the door buzzed. He wrenched it open, leading them into a large warehouse filled wall-to-wall with shelves filled with wooden crates. Each one was stamped with a different barcode on the side, and Lasercorn stopped in front of a shelf.

He patted one of the crates. “Here we are. Each one of these holds roughly a hundred units of product, and each unit sells for roughly a hundred and fifty bucks, so we make bank pretty quickly.”

“And this crate is what you made in a week?”

Lasercorn almost laughed. “No, no, this whole shelf is what we make in a week.”

Joven craned his neck back, taking in the entirety of it. There were at least fifty to sixty more crates lining the shelves, and possibly even more on the other end. “And how much do you sell?”

“Enough to keep us in constant demand.”

“Huh,” Joven nodded. Mari grabbed the back of his sleeve. Her eyes were clear, let’s talk . “Give us a moment, will you?”

Lasercorn nodded, and he and Sohinki crossed the room to look at something on a shelf.

“What do you think?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I think we should go for it,” Mari responded quickly.

“Really?” Joven furrowed his eyebrows. “With your experience with this sort of thing, I’d have thought that you’d be against it.”

“It’s an easy trade, and an easy trade to hide.” Mari crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes nervously scanning the room as she moved her weight from one foot to the other. “We could buy that old auto body shop across the street. Use it as a warehouse. If things go south, we can just burn it.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Joven looked up to Lasercorn and Sohinki, who eyed them from where they were standing. “You know Sohinki better than I do...can we trust them?”

“Normally? No.” Mari caught his response with a flicker of her eyes. “But with this? Definitely. This is their arena. They don’t want anything from us but the territory to sell in. If they wanted the territory for themselves, or the Kingship for that matter, they would’ve taken it already.” She drew in a breath, her eyes locked with Joven’s. “The Kingship is going to put a target on your back if you don’t make your big move soon. If you make your debut as a drug lord? That earns you some props you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

“So we do it?”

“We do it.”

“And you’re sure-”

“I’ll be fine Joven.” Mari reached out, squeezing his arm. “And if I’m not, I’ll tell you. I’m not stupid enough to hide that from you anymore.”

“Good.” He pressed his lips together, turning towards Lasercorn and Sohinki. “We’ll do it.”

“Wonderful.” Lasercorn smiled slowly, the cold bite to his gaze still present as his eyes, black and solid, drew Joven in. “It’ll be a pleasure doing business with you.”

Chapter Text

“Are you ready to talk yet?” Damien sat in a chair in the basement, leaning forward with his elbows on his mid-thigh.

Leo sat across from him in his own chair, handcuffed to it where it was bolted into the ground. He smiled slowly, wincing where it hurt from the bloodied marks and bruises that had begun to form on his face. “Nope.”

Damien drew in a breath, watching as Leo, despite his outward bravado, winced as Damien stood.

“What are you going to do to me today?” Leo’s voice was seldom lacking confidence, but something about today was different. “Punch me? Taser me? Waterboard me? Choke me out every few minutes until I can’t even think about breathing?”

“No,” Damien responded. “I’m not going to hurt you today." He crossed the room, grabbing the first aid kit off the wall. “I’m going to dress those wounds. They look like they’re getting worse. The last thing we want is you dying on us.” Leo scoffed loudly, rolling his eyes.

As he moved closer to Leo, he watched as the man’s eyes twitched, looking away. Damien knelt next to him, popping open the box and setting it on the floor. He looked up to see Leo watching him from the corner of his eye.

“I’d never pegged you to be the kind of man that liked doing the dirty work.” Damien pulled out a cotton ball from a plastic bag, placing a piece of the top of the bottle of antiseptic alcohol and tipping it to coat it in the liquid.

“What makes you say that?”

“I’ve read a lot about you.” Leo responded quietly. “Before and after I met you. I knew who you were before we met, but I could never put the name to your face. You were always good at avoiding the camera. It’s almost ironic that you became an actor.”

Damien pressed the cotton ball to Leo’s skin, watching him wince and draw in a sharp breath. He wiped away the matted blood on Leo’s skin, revealing the sharp cuts and bruises underneath.

“Why do you know so much about me?”

Leo didn’t say anything for a few seconds and Damien wondered if that was all he was going to get out of him. “Father made me study up on all of our enemies. The Bratstvo, Los Bandidos, Armiaote-” Damien moved away to grab something as Leo turned his head- “and the Black Blade.” The name sent a shock down Damien’s spine. “Don’t like that name much, do you?”

“Not really.” Damien pulled out a salve from the box, popping open the top and taking a small cloth to rub over Leo’s skin. Leo winced again, wrinkling his nose.

“That smells like death, what is it?”

“I don’t know,” Damien sighed as he put it away. “I just know it works.” He pulled out gauze and medical tape, setting it on the closed box next to him. “We have to leave it on for a second, it’s going to feel like it gets really warm, and then it’s gonna sting, okay?”

“Alright.” Leo paused, shaking his head. “You’re lucky that this isn’t as strong as the damn Chinese medical tape my father used to use. That was strong enough to smell across a room.” He smiled slightly. “I'd always wondered if my father used it to know when I got beat up. I always smelled like that tape. It was overly herbal, but in a way that you’d never quite know what you were smelling.”

Damien sat back on the floor despite the dirt and grime. “Are you going to miss your father?”

Leo looked away, “that’s a complicated question.” He rolled his eyes. “And I know that you’re just trying to get close to me so that I’ll tell you what you want to know.” He moved to wave his hand but the chain of the handcuff clattered against the chair, and he let out a sigh. “Well...I like talking about myself, so-” Leo gave Damien a sad smile- “why not?”

He moved his head downwards so that he could rub the corner of his eye with a stray finger. “When you told me my father was dead...I didn’t feel anything.” He looked up at Damien with cold eyes. “I should’ve, right? He was my…he was my damn father, he raised me, fed me, clothed me, I should feel something right?”

“Depends.” Damien reached to his side, grabbing the spare gauze. He reached up, wiping away the leftover salve off of Leo’s face. “What was your relationship like? Were you close? Was he a bad father?”

“He did his best,” Leo sighed. “I just didn’t want any part of the gang, and he blamed me for being weak and himself for being a failure. I was lucky that my sister came along. She wanted nothing more but to take my dad’s place, and...well it kept that target off my back for a while.”

“You have a sister?”

“Had a sister.” Leo bit his lip. “She died while going out to fix a deal we were making with an up-and-coming gang. They shot her down. My dad was too late when he finally arrived.” He looked away, bowing his head to wipe his eyes. “And less than a week later, he was on my case about taking her place...like she’d meant nothing.”

“And you resented him for that.”

“I don’t know. People...they deal with grief in different ways.” Leo’s eyes had changed, and Damien knew that he was going quiet. Damien pressed his lips together, pressing bandages onto Leo’s skin in the silence. He would wince every so often, but he would never cry out in pain, as much as Damien knew that it must’ve hurt.

“I get it.” Damien sighed, “shitty dads I mean.” A smile flickered on his face. “Out of all the dads in the world, I got stuck with a drug obsessed alcoholic with a hatred of everyone and everything around him, including himself. Nothing was ever good enough for him. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get him to see me, and I was his son.”

“I understand,” Leo nodded. “Even when I did try to care about...all of this...he’d never take me seriously. He never taught me in that way he taught my sister. He made me hate the throne more than I hated him.”

“And then you try to act out to get him to see you,” Damien sighed.

“But when you do, you just get into more trouble-” Leo gave him a twitch of a smile- “I know Lion, I know.”

Damien turned away at the nickname, pretending like it didn’t make him grin every time he heard it. “And…” He pressed a piece of medical tape gently onto Leo’s skin. “There. You’re patched up.”

“Thanks,” Leo mumbled. Damien closed the first aid kit and set it back on the wall. He took his seat across from Leo, assuming the sitting position he was in before.

“So.”

“What?” Leo raised an eyebrow. He sat back in his own chair. “You think just because we had some sort of heart to heart about our dads that I’m just going to spill my guts?” Damien blinked slowly, saying nothing as Leo shifted in his chair.

He was looking for a new angle, Damien could see it in his eyes. Leo sat back farther, crossing his legs, one over the other, the best he could with how he was handcuffed.

“How much do you think I actually know?” Damien sat forward, furrowing his eyebrows as he watched Leo begin to slowly unravel. “The Xiaolong are gone. You and your gang made sure of that. Why the hell do you still keep me around?”

“Why do you think?”

“Oh,” Leo grinned, turning his head upwards. “Do you like me Lion?”

Good, Damien thought, he thinks he has the upper hand .

“I’m flattered,” he purred. “But I’m currently in a very committed relationship with the jail cell you and your idiot friends put me in.” Leo fidgeted in his seat. It was clear that he wanted the space to walk around and gloat.

“It’s kind of...odd...that you think that’s what affection looks like.” Damien changed how he was sitting. “But no. Sorry. I’m not......you know...”

“Cute,” Leo cocked his head. “You can tell yourself that you don’t feel what I know you’re feeling, but we both know the truth of the matter.” He gestured to the room around them. “Why else am I here? Why haven’t you broken me yet?”

Damien folded his hands in his lap. He was getting somewhere, he wasn’t quite sure where, but from Leo’s tone of voice, it was important.

“I’ve read more of your case file than anyone else’s. I know your ticks, your ideas, I even know what you’re going to say next.” Leo smiled harshly. “You’ve broken navy seals in seven hours. You could show up at the CIA and they’d hire you immediately with your record in the dark room alone-”

Damien didn’t feel himself move, but he had his hand around Leo’s throat before the man could say another word. “How do you know about the dark room?” His voice was quiet and sharp as Leo struggled beneath him. “There were only five people in the world that knew about it and two of them are dead. HOW DO YOU KNOW ABOUT IT?”

Leo choked out a few unintelligible phrases before Damien released his grip, stepping back but still looming over Leo. Leo coughed a few times, retching onto the floor so hard that he spit blood.

“It was…” he gasped in a rattling breath. “It was in a police report...something like that, I swear.”

“No.” Damien grabbed the sides of Leo’s chair, leering over him, their faces inches apart. He could almost taste the fear that poured out of Leo’s eyes. “The dark room was a death pact. You would’ve had to-” He turned his head away from Leo slightly, biting his lip. “Did Bereta? He wouldn’t…No. He might've betrayed my dad, but he would never betray me.” Damien grabbed Leo’s chin, tipping his head back. “Who are you working for?” Leo’s jaw trembled beneath his hands. “WHO THE HELL ARE YOU WORKING FOR?”

“Fine!” Leo cried. “FINE. Just, let go of me!” He shuddered away from Damien, pressing against the back of his chair. “There’s a shadow organization.”

“Names.”

“I don’t know it’s name.”

Liar .

“They hired me to spy on my father, apparently they couldn’t get one of their outsiders in, so they came to me. I agreed to help in exchange for a way out when they took it all down.” Damien stepped farther back, sitting down in the chair across from Leo. “They gave me resources and information I could use to get closer to my father. And it worked.”

“And it had information on…” he cleared his throat. “The dark room?”

“Only statistics. Names and times.”

“And torturers too?”

“Initials.” Leo’s breath rattled in his chest. “H.H. J.L. J.B. M.R and D.H.” His eyes slowly swiped up from where they had locked onto the floor. “Your initials were on three quarters of the ledgers.” Damien bit his lip. “You were a machine.”

“I told you.” He whispered, “I tried so hard, but I could never impress him.”

“H.H.” Leo’s eyebrows raised slowly. “That’s your dad, isn’t it?”

“Hannibal Haas.” Damien stood. “A horror show of a man.” He paused for a second, waiting for Leo to say something else. But the room was quiet.

Leo bristled as Damien unlocked his handcuffs from the chair. He opened the cell, lifting Leo up by the collar of his shirt. Damien pushed him into the cell, slamming the door shut.

“I’ll be back in a few hours with food and a change of clothes.”

Normally Leo called after him, but today he was silent.

As Damien shut and locked the basement door behind him, he could still feel his hands shaking. He hadn’t spoken his father’s name in years, and yet the thought of him still made him fall apart.

The dark room made it worse. He hadn’t thought of it in a long time. It had been blocked out for years but now…

Damien clenched his shaking fists, his hands shivering violently.

It was back.

Chapter Text

Boze slammed her fist against the top of the machine.

“Goddamned piece of shit!” She rubbed her eyes with the tips of her fingers as she shut down her computer and rebooted it for the fourth time that morning.

Boze had thought that the Kingship would’ve meant that her tech would’ve gotten a suitable upgrade, but instead she was stuck with the same, probably infected, shitty space-grey laptop, and a tiny server Joven had shoved underneath the stairs in the closet.

It’s where she was currently sitting, trying, for the fifth time, to back up her drive. Sarah had been working with her for the past three weeks to ensure that their drives were safe, and that any trackers left in the metaphorical ‘bloodstream’ of their computers had been cleaned out. So far all of Boze’s tests had come back clean before they’d shut down her computer entirely.

When she’d first created the failsafe, she thought that it’d been a smart idea, but now every time she tried to do anything, her laptop fizzled out and she was left screaming at it again.

Boze was getting sick of being alone in the club. No one was ever there anymore, and even if they were, they were sleeping or working on important projects. She almost missed the spaces of time they’d used to take to catch up and talk with each other. Joven and Mari were busy with the Titans, Wes was heading up large scale deals, and Damien was almost always meeting a client or down in the basement with Leo, and Boze had already tried to talk to Jackrabbit's prisoner.

Leo wasn’t much for conversation, and it was clear that he liked talking to Damien and only Damien. Whenever her wifi got shitty enough, she’d walk down the stairs with her laptop and a folding chair. She would sit with Leo in the silence, listening to the sound of him breathing between the drops of water that fell from the condensation laden pipe above.

He never spoke to her unless she talked to him first, and she often didn’t. Though he never said much, she could tell that he was glad to be a little less alone down there. She’d do the laundry once and a while, and he’d given her some help on how to get the blood out of Wes’s shirt, but that was the extent of their conversations.

It was clear how Leo had changed from that first time they’d met. It had been a long time ago, but he remembered her, she was sure of that. He’d been just as cocky when she’d gone to work at the Casino making databases. He had one of those bright smiles that hid the things he didn’t want you to see behind his eyes. He was full of himself, too full of himself, and Boze was almost glad to see him have some of the cockiness sapped out of him. It seemed the darkness of the basement was the best way to do that.

B78s4w : checked last servers, all clean. we’re set for new upload of X data

Boze was glad to hear some good news for once. After the gauntlet, the rebellion completely dismantled the Xiaolong in less than a week. By the time Sarah and her crew showed up to get any tech from the Xiaolong’s headquarters, it was already packaged and boxed away in alphabetical order. Boze had to hand it to the rebellion, for as messy as their work was, they knew how to clean it up.

J4ckrabb!t : Standby. My server’s being an asshole. May have to reprogram.

Sarah’s answer was quick.

B78s4w : you need me to bring you a back up or come help fix it?

J4ckrabb!t : nah, I’ve got it covered. It might just take me a few more hours

B78s4w : k

Boze watched with a relieved sigh as the laptop’s logo bloomed on screen. She pulled the computer off her lap, setting it on the tiny table next to her. Boze stretched, wincing as all the bones in her body popped and crackled at once. A 24 year old’s back definitely shouldn’t sound like that . She rolled her shoulders a few times, reaching down to touch her toes before grabbing to box of Xiaolong data from where she’d slotted it into the hole in the wall.

Her phone buzzed on the table.

B78s4w : gtg. MR and i are going to some sort of meeting. I’ll be offline for the next two hours or so, if you need help, call Bridges.

Boze grumbled as she set her phone back on the table. She crossed her fingers tight as her computer displayed the main screen, the last thing she wanted was to go to Bridges for help. If there was a patron saint of incompetence, he would wear the shining title. She pulled a wire from the cardboard box sitting on the shelf across from her, connecting it to one of the many Xiaolong data boxes.

Boze had already run hours of diagnostics on the nearly twenty crates of data boxes gathering from the Xiaolong’s different strongholds. The Avian had the most, but it had been closed down for weeks now, having declared sudden bankruptcy. A few news outlets had done stories on it, but none of them had gotten any farther than the large withdrawal that had happened on the evening of the gala, and the ensuing death of Yukun Zhao. So far none of them had come close to touching the truth.

She plugged the Xiaolong box into her computer, before connecting her computer to the hard drives that blinked with life and data around her. The logo for the data box appeared on her dashboard. With a deep breath and unsteady fingers, she dragged it towards the HDMI cable icon. She dropped it on, waiting with baited breath as her computer began to hum and wheeze. A window popped open, asking for the access code. Boze rolled her eyes, opening the source code and disabling the phishing scheme before it could affect her computer. Did they really think she was that dumb?

She cleared the first few rounds of security, finally entering the main interface after checking that she was in the right place for the third time. Boze then moved to the large Upload button. She sucked in a breath. Boze pressed down on the button, letting go slowly. She held her fingers crossed as her laptop wheezed out hot air.

And then her computer crashed again.

“God FUCKING DAMMIT!” Boze slammed the top of her laptop shut before exploding out of the closet and into the hallway. “JOVEN.” She kicked his office door open with her foot. “I don’t CARE if you’re in a meeting, I NEED A NEW COMPUTER.” Joven blinked slowly at her from behind his desk. His shirt collar was buttoned wrong and his hair was a mess.

“Yeah, sure, fine.”

“Wait, really?” Boze straightened how she was standing, raising an eyebrow as Joven stood behind the desk. “I’ve been asking you for the past few months but you’ve always said no-”

“Well, if you need one now, then buy yourself one.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. Joven dug around in it and pulled out his credit card. He tossed it to her, and she caught it in between her hands.

“Thanks?”

Joven looked tired, and he pulled his phone from the table. He pressed his lips together so tightly they looked like they might burst. “Dammit.” He whispered.

“Another meeting?”

“Yeah.”

“Titans?”

“Yeah.” Joven pulled his suit jacket on, pushing his phone into his pocket. He moved to walk past her, but she caught him.

“Hey,” Boze grabbed for his collar, fixing it with quick fingers. “You can’t go to a meeting looking like this. Just send Mari, go take a shower and a nap.”

“I wish I could, but Mari’s already out with Wes and Damien on other business.”

“Then let me go.”

“Did you finish the Xiaolong servers already?”

"You sound like my dad," she grumbled. “And no, but I’m getting sick of-”

“Do you really want me to get bored and start poking around in there?”

“No,” Boze responded quietly. She grabbed his tie from where it was hanging out of his jacket pocket. Boze looped it around his neck, tying it tight before messing with his hair. “Sometimes I wish I was a man so that I could spend two minutes fixing my outfit and look decent,” Boze grumbled. “But nope, women get weird niche standards.”

“Yeah, it’s stupid,” Joven responded absentmindedly, checking his phone. “Mari told me that she got so fed up with it after a while that she just burned her make-up.”

“Metal,” Boze nodded. “Alright. You’ve got the Boze ‘just rolled out of bed’ stamp of approval. Good luck at your meeting.”

“I’m gonna need it,” Joven sighed. He pushed the door open, stopping for just a moment as he looked at the closet. “Do you want me to get you a bigger server-”

“Yes.”

“Eager, are we?”

“I’ve been begging you for a bigger server room since I first saw it.”

“I’ll see what’s in the budget.”

He waved goodbye and Boze grinned, looking down at the credit card in her hands. She pushed open the door to the office, looking up to see as Joven held the door open for someone coming through the hallway. Courtney grinned at Joven as she walked through the door, greeting him warmly. Boze grabbed for the door, pulling it open quickly before Courtney’s voice caught her.

“Hey, Boze!”

“Oh, Court, hey.” She backpaced from where she was standing. “Whatcha doing here? I thought the club was closed today.”

Boze knew that the club was closed today, which was why she’d scheduled herself here. She and Courtney hadn’t talked much recently, and she wanted to keep it that way. Her mind was so stuffed with thoughts that the last thing she wanted to think about was her relationship Courtney. Sure, they’d agreed that it’d be something lowkey, but Boze still felt like she had to twist and bend herself like in any regular relationship.

“Shayne and I are gonna teach a pole dancing class today.”

“Oh, cool.”

“You working on something?”

“Yeah, servers and stuff, really boring.”

“Well then I’ll entertain you, I have like a half hour before the class starts.” She rolled her eyes, “there’s already people here, but they’re all really here for Shayne. And you know how he loves to show off.”

Boze forced a smile, “yeah, I do.”

“So, uh…”

“Yeah, come in, it’s kinda cramped, but it’s my server room, and I have to make do with what I have.”

Courtney squeezed in next to her, sitting down on top of Boze’s table. Boze sat on the stool, her knees brushing against Courtney’s as she grabbed her computer from where it had restarted. She flicked through the browser as she opened up the site for Electronics-Unlimited .

"So much is changing around here, huh?"

"Yep."

"It's almost been overnight too, which is crazy. I mean, Joven's adding a whole new wing to the building for us, and he's expanding the backstage. It's just...it's crazy."

"It really is," Boze replied monotonously.

“You buying a new computer?” Courtney asked, cocking her head to the side.

“Yep.”

“What’s wrong with that one?”

“It’s old.”

“Ah,” Courtney tipped her head back in a nod. "What computer are you looking at."

"I dunno, one that works?" Boze shot back.

"Oh, okay," Courtney's voice was sharp. She swung her legs just slightly, letting them just lightly brush the air. They sat in silence for a while, Boze silently hoping that Courtney would get bored and leave. “Did I say something wrong?”

“What do you mean?” Boze didn’t looked up from her computer.

“I just, I feel like um...you’re giving me a little bit of a cold shoulder and I don’t know why, and if I did anything wrong, I just want to know.”

“Everything’s fine,” Boze murmured.

“Boze.”

What? ” She snapped her eyes up to Courtney’s. Courtney seemed to lurch back slightly at the sight of Boze’s eyes, and Boze felt something crack in her. “Sorry.”

“Hey, are you okay?”

Boze pressed her lips together, thinking of an answer. “I’m fine, Court, really.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Courtney rolled her eyes, sighing. “I’m dropping the nice act. Boze, what the hell is up with you? One minute I feel like we’re living out one of those fairy tale movies and the next it’s like I’m the plague, can you just tell me what you’re feeling for a second? Let me catch up?”

“I thought that we didn’t talk about our feeling to each other in this agreement . Only fluff and happiness here.”

“What?” Courtney wrinkled up her nose, and Boze couldn’t help but find it cute. “When the fuck did I say that?” Boze smiled at Courtney’s loose language. “We’re not just fucking Boze, we’re also friends. And friends tell each other when something’s bothering them, when they need to let loose.”

“And you think something’s bothering me?”

“With that stick up your ass? Definitely.”

“I think I like Mean Miller.” Boze closed her laptop slowly, taking in the full effect of Courtney’s face as it was silhouetted by the blinking server lights. Her jaw was set firmly, her slow smile curling up against her cheeks. “Okay, something has been bothering me.” She tapped her fingers on the top of the laptop. “I feel like I’m walking around on eggshells around you, like we’re really in a relationship, one that’s really new and really fresh. We know each other, but barely, and I can’t tell you things like I see them because I’m afraid of hurting your feelings and ending this.”

“Okay,” Courtney nodded. “This is good. And you can be clear with me about what you feel, because most of the time, I'll listen to you.” She snapped her fingers. “And for not knowing each other as well, we’ll play a game. How about, we each take turns telling each other three facts we think the other won’t know.”

“And that’ll help us how?”

“How much do you know about me?”

“You’re a stripper, you work for the Jackrabbit, um, you moved to the city when you were in high-school, you like the ocean, you…” Boze wracked her brain. “You thought about becoming a teacher…” Her eyebrows sunk down until she realized Courtney’s point. “Huh. I thought I knew more about you.”

“Same,” Courtney accentuated the word with her hands. “I was thinking about this a few nights ago. I barely know anything about you personally, I know you’re good with computers, and you got a lot of jobs with computers,” she smiled softly, “and I know that you were in roller derby. But that’s about it.”

“Okay.” Boze clapped her hands. “Normally I’d think this was dumb, but this actually sounds kind of fun.”

“First fact,” Courtney narrowed her eyes, thinking. “I’m from a really big family, I have six siblings, the oldest is ten years older than me, and the youngest is seven years younger than me.”

“Woah,” Boze nodded. “My fact...I’m an only child, and I was raised by my dad.”

“I remember you saying that, your aunt took care of you while he was away on business.”

“You remembered that?”

“Course.” Courtney shrugged, her smile half cocked. “Second fact. My favorite foods are strawberries and fries, but never at the same time.” She gagged, looking down. “Trust me, drunk me has had some amazing food creations...but that was not one of them.”

“Second fact,” Boze bit her lip. It was hard to think of facts, especially when most of her life stayed behind the curtain in her mind. “Oh! I have a scar on my palm from the one time my grandpa took my fishing. I thought that it would be funny to hook myself. It was not.” She held out out her hand, and Courtney took it, running a finger against the small gash along her palm. “Suffice it to say, I didn’t spend much time on the water after that.”

“Huh,” Courtney let go of her hand slowly. “Swimming never big for you?”

“I actually can’t swim,” Boze shrugged. “Never found the time.”

“Really?!” Courtney bounced on the table where she sat. “Oh my god, next date idea, I take you swimming.”

“In a pool, right?” She bit her lip, "still a little uneasy with the ocean."

“Of course,” she nodded. She paused, kicking her feet back and forth. “Third fact...um, don’t laugh…I’m afraid of the dark.”

“What?!” Boze cried out, her smile bright.

“I told you not to laugh!”

“I’m not,” Boze giggled as Courtney rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe I am a little.”

“I’ve slept with a night-light since I was a kid. And now I just leave my curtain open, and the light usually wakes me up pretty easily anyways.”

“Aww that’s adorable.”

Courtney turned her head down, smiling to herself. “Thanks,” she murmured sheepishly.

“Mmm,” Boze whispered. “Final fact...final fact…” She looked up, “ooh, okay.” Boze drew in a breath. “I don’t really talk to people about my past...but...I think I’ll make an exception. My dad was the one to teach me how to code. I still remember sitting on his lap when I was little, watching as the lines moved along with his fingers.” Courtney’s face had softened, watching Boze’s with empathy and the kind of warmth she had missed. “When he first let me come on a job with him, it was like this whole new world opened up in front of me...and I fell in love with his profession.”

“And it’s because of him that you love computers so much?”

“Yeah,” She grinned. “Without half of the things he taught me, we would be nowhere near this far. I wouldn’t have gotten into the Avian, hell, I wouldn’t have even made it this far. Without him, I’d probably still be a bartender in Las Venturas.”

“You were a bartender?!”

“Yep,” Boze winked. “But that’s a story for a different time.” The silence between them as Boze felt her grin slowly fall to a soft smile was friendly.

“So,” Courtney reached out, and Boze took her hand. “How are you feeling?”

“A lot better than you could ever even know.” She shook her head, taking a breath, considering what she was going to say before letting the breath go. “I shouldn’t have bottled up what I was feeling,” she sighed. “I should just tell you . You’re my friend, you’ll listen to me bitch about the club and you won’t try to give me stupid ‘advice’,” she put that in air quotes. “And sometimes all I need is someone to bitch to.”

“I’m glad I could be that for you.” She slid off of the table, still holding Boze's hand. “And I hope you could be that for me sometimes.”

“‘Course.”

“Do you wanna do something tonight?”

“If I have this done by then, sure.”

“Mmm,” Courtney narrowed her eyes. “If you have it done, we’ll go out for indian, and if you don’t, I’ll order it in and we can eat it here.”

“That sounds like a perfect plan.”

“Awesome!” Courtney leaned down, pecking Boze on the cheek before opening the door. “See ya later!”

“Good luck,” Boze called back with a grin. As the door shut behind her, Boze was surprised to find that her smile didn’t fade, in fact, it grew wider.

Chapter Text

Wes drew in a breath as he laid back on a bed that wasn’t familiar. He let it out in a soft puff, the air cold against the skin that wasn’t covered by the thin blankets on the bed.

A figure appeared in the doorway, holding a mug of coffee.

“Morning,” a voice spoke tenderly. It was rough and warm, but unfamiliar. The memories of the previous night rushed back to him. The club, the lights, the trade of the pills in his coat for the wad of cash. He’d been leaving when someone bought him a drink. Then he remembered the talking, and the drinking, and then the lack of space between them in the back of the Uber.

Wes hated the new job, but he didn’t mind whatever this was. A pair of boxers hung low around the hips of the figure at the door, skin illuminated in the light of the morning.

“Want some coffee?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.”

The man disappeared and Wes turned to sit on the edge of the bed, realizing as the blankets fell off him, that he wasn’t dressed whatsoever. He pulled on his underwear just as something buzzed on the ground. Wes grabbed for it, pulling out his phone to see Joven’s name on the home screen.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“You didn’t come home last night, you alright?”

“Yeah,” Wes bit his lip. “I um...uh-”

“Oh.” He could almost see Joven’s expression as he cringed in response. “You…”

“Yeah…”

“I’m okay with it, y’know, you don’t have to-”

“Joven.”

“Yep, right, um,” Joven cleared his throat loudly, moving on. “You need me to send a car to pick you up?”

“What, why, is there a meeting today?”

“Shit, sorry got ahead of myself,” Joven grumbled. “Yeah, the Titans need two people to help with some sort of deal they’re making at this big corporate thing. They were pretty vague.”

Even though it’d been nearly a month since Wes had confessed to Joven all the things he’d been feeling, it was still awkward between them. They had started avoiding each other to the point that he was sure that at least Mari had picked up on it. Wes had thought about talking to Damien about it, but their schedules were so vastly different, that it was hard to find a time to even spend five minutes to chat.

Wes craned his neck, looking into the kitchen. “Can’t you get Mari or Damien to help you? Or what about Boze?” He sat back on the bed. “Didn’t she just finish setting up the Xiaolong data yesterday with Whittle?”

“Yeah, but she and Whittle are in the process of moving all of that data onto the Bearhood’s drives now. It took her four days to move it onto our server, and she’s pretty sure that it’s going to take the day whole there too.”

“And Mari and Damien?”

“Damien’s busy with Leo stuff.”

“Really?” Wes knitted his eyebrows. “And he can’t take two hours off babysitting an incompetent weirdo?”

“He’s following a lead in Sandy Shores, he didn’t say much, but he seemed content that he’d find something.”

“Then Mari, what’s she up to?”

“She’s ironing out policy with Lasercorn and Sohinki. She won’t be back in time.”

“Mari’s been spending a lot of time with them,” Wes scratched the back of his head. “Are you sure she’s staying clean out there?”

“She and Sohinki go way back, and if it wasn’t her out there it’d be me, and I just thought that it might be easier to make deals with them if she’s the one making them.” He paused for a second, “does that make sense?”

“I think so,” Wes sighed. “Alright. How soon do I have to be there?”

“I need you to be at the Jackrabbit by two.”

“And what time is it right now?”

“Eleven.”

“Send me a car at one.” Wes pulled the phone away slowly. “I’ll text you the address. Bye.”

The man came in with coffee, and Wes put his phone away, taking the coffee from him.

“Thanks.”

“Got somewhere to be?” He asked, holding his own cup in hand.

“I’ve got some time,” Wes responded, sitting back against the bed frame. He smiled coyly, drinking in the form of the man across from him with little shame. “You want another go?”

 

< < ^ > >

 

The car that had pulled up outside wasn’t familiar to Wes, and as he climbed in he realized that it was just a car Joven had called for him. He drove in silence save for the radio, which played some sort of indie music Wes didn’t recognize, but he was too distracted to care. His whole body was warm, wrapped in the coat he’d forgotten he’d brought with him. It was Damien’s, he was pretty sure, he’d found it in the laundry and decided that it was perfect to wear on a cold night and an even more frigid morning.

But Wes wasn’t only warm from the coat. His skin still buzzed where the man’s hands had ran over him. Jacob, that had been his name. He was a nice guy, but Wes knew that he would mean nothing in a few days. Sure, what they’d had was nice, but Wes wasn’t interested in any sort of relationship for the time being.

He stepped out of the car a few blocks from the Jackrabbit, walking the rest of the way until Joven standing in a black coat came into view. The cold snap of early January had hit the city like never before, and even Joven, who wasn’t affected by many things, wrapped the coat tighter around himself.

“Where are we going?” Wes crossed the street to Joven. He turned and the two walked side by side down the alley to Joven’s black sports car.

“The docks.”

“This is a shipment pick-up, isn’t it.”

“As it turns out.”

“Dammit, I should’ve just told you that I was halfway across Blaine County, shouldn’t I?”

“I want to do this about as much as you do Wesley.” Joven replied, cringing away at the last second as he registered the name he’d used. He coughed into the back of his hand, “you know.”

He slid into the familiar leather seat of Joven’s car. It hummed to life as Joven inserted the key. Joven tapped the directions into his phone, setting it on top of dashboard. They drove in silence, Wes leaning forward to turn on the radio.

“So, you really made bank last night, huh?”

“I don’t want to talk about it Joven.” Wes glanced sidelong at Joven as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

“Yep, sorry, I’m an idiot.”

“Hmm,” Wes smiled with one side of his face. “You say that like it’s not common knowledge.”

“Oh shut up,” Joven grumbled.

He laughed softly to himself, the breaths catching in his throat as he did. The silence took over again, but it was clear that Joven wanted to say something more.

“It’s good…”

“Joven-”

“No, no.” Joven shook his free hand in the air, waving away Wes’s words. “It’s easier knowing that you’re moving on.”

“I don’t think ‘moving on’ is the best term.”

“Then what is it?”

“Something we shouldn’t be talking about.”

“Yep, right, sorry, I should stop prying.”

“Then why don’t you?” Wes turned towards Joven. “You’re always pushing, always trying to get more information. And then you act like you’re innocent. It’s fucking bullshit man.”

“Over analyzing this early in the morning?” Joven sighed, his lips drawing up into a awkward half smile. “It’s good to have some of the old you back, Wes.”

“Old me?”

“Yeah, the one that wasn’t afraid to make fun of me.”

“I always make fun of you.”

“But you don’t mean it.” Joven almost laughed as he turned to car down the small ramp to the clusterings of large grey buildings by the docks. “You definitely meant it now.”

Joven parked the car, the radio going silent as he turned off the car. He sat there for a second, and Wes went quiet, knowing that things were about to get serious.

“Hey, didn’t this used to be Siren territory?”

“Yeah,” Joven scratched the back of his head as he pocketed his keys. “Most of them were arrested after the gauntlet, or just didn’t make it out in general. Their territory was taken into our pretty quickly with no one to defend it.”

From behind them, the roar of a truck entering the tiny matted grass parking lot rumbled in next to them. “That’s them,” Joven grumbled. “I don’t think we’re gonna like them.”

“Why’d you say that?”

“Have any of the Titan lackeys been anywhere near helpful?”

“Not really.” Wes grumbled, remembering the times he’d been paired up with one of them. They were either drunk off their own product, barely coherent, or they were the kind of kids that were bred and born for this work. Angry, brash, aggressive, Wes didn’t like those types very much. The truck next to them roared, sitting up high on large wheels, the grills painted silver-grey with spokes that looked like flames.

The doors opened, and two men got out on either side. The man on the driver’s side crossed around, knocking on the glass. Joven rolled down the window, turning his head just slightly.

“Yo, ya Joven?”

“Yes.” Joven sighed, “I’m guessing that you’re the escort Lasercorn sent?”

“I wouldn’t say we escorts ,” he retorted. “We don’t got that kinda sex appeal. But yah. We ya ‘escorts’.”

Joven stepped out, and Wes followed suit, grabbing a gun from Joven’s glove box. The men acknowledged him as Joven fluffed his coat, slamming his door shut.

“I’m Bussy.” The man from the driver’s side held out a calloused hand. He looked just a little bit older than Joven, maybe 31 or 32, with greasy black hair and a few missing teeth, more likely from getting into one too many fights rather than some sort of addiction. He had sharp blue eyes that sunk into his face, which was pale and well-formed with high cheekbones. Bussy guestured to the man behind him with his thumb. “That’s Nails. He don’t talk much.”

The man had been standing like a giant, silent shadow behind the man. He came off as slightly overweight, but from the muscles on his arms and legs, Wes knew that the look was deceiving. This man could and would break him in half. Nails had dark skin, his cheeks round and full, and his eyes surprisingly warm beneath their blankness. His hair fell around his face in braided black dreads, and he’d shoved his hands into the pockets of the light grey sweatshirt that was zipped up to his collarbone. He gave Wes and Joven a slight nod, his eyes moving to the more fidgety Bussy in front of him.

“So,” Joven drew in a breath. It was clear that something about the two of them irked him. Wes didn’t mind them, but he also wanted this job to be over so that he could get back to his bed and maybe take a ten minute nap for once. “Lasercorn didn’t tell me much about this. He just said that I needed to sign some papers down here.”

“We don’t take orders direct from the boss, so I don’t know jack-shit to tell ya.” Bussy shrugged, pushing his hands into the pocket of the unzipped blue sweatshirt he wore over a Blood Wench t-shirt. “But Sohinki told me that we was approvin’ some goods from the harbor.”

“And he couldn’t have just sent you two alone?”

“Nah, nah.” Bussy shook his head, looking down. “‘Parrently there’s some sort of boss that’s been givin’ the Titan’s usual enforcers mad grief.” He turned, and began walking down towards the small path that lead to one of the buildings in the distance. “When we get there, let me do the talkin’. I know these folks. And I know they don’t like bureaucrats such as ya-self nosin’ in on their territory.”

“They are aware that this is the Jackrabbit’s territory, aren’t they?”

Bussy paused, considering his words. “Sure.”

Wes hung back with Nails as Joven jogged forward to walk in line with Bussy.

“What do you mean sure ?”

“We control the harbor and the shipping, but The Steve keeps his honorary title as Dock-Master.”

“The Steve?” Joven retorted. “What kind of name is that?”

“One that you shouldn’t even think ‘bout makin’ fun of.” They passed the first building, and Bussy nodded to some dock workers that loaded crates into a warehouse room.

“What exactly are we dealing with?”

“Nothing you needa worry ya pretty lil’ head about.” Bussy kept his head up straight towards the horizon, his hands pushed farther into his coat. “Remember, you keep ya mouth shut in there, a-ight?”

“No.”

“What?” Bussy’s head snapped towards Joven.

“I don’t take orders from you,” Joven responded. Wes nearly cringed away at Joven’s words. His tone wasn’t harsh enough, making him sound more like a tantrum-prone toddler than the King he was.

Bussy stopped in his tracks, turning towards Joven. “I appre-ciate the sentiment your highness, but I don’t care.” He pointed his finger starkly into Joven’s face, and Wes watched as Joven bristled. Wes moved forward as Bussy drew closer but Nails moved his hand, clamping it as a warning over Wes’s arm. “No ‘fense man. You might be the King, but-chu ain’t a boss.” Bussy put his arms up in surrender, turning around from where Joven was frozen, and began walking backwards towards the next building along the water. He whipped back around as Joven followed after him, Joven’s hands slowly balling into fists.

Nails let go of Wes’s arm, and Wes shot him a quick look. The bodyguard held Wes’s scornful gaze, the cold stillness in his eyes enough to make Wes look away.

The Jackrabbit hadn’t been getting along very well with the Titans. Every time any of them had come back from a mission, or a drop off, or anything to do with the Titans in general, they’d all found the people to have left a bad taste in their mouths. They were disrespectful, brash, and more importantly, loyal only to themselves. The amount of times Wes had gone in to save a Titan from the fray compared to the amount of times one of them had come back for him were staggering. Wes didn’t mind Nails as much, but it was clear that Bussy wasn’t just getting on his nerves. One more step out of line and he’d more than likely find Joven’s gun at his head.

The four of them entered the fourth building along the water, finding themselves inside a room filled with wood crates and cardboard boxes covered in shrink-wrap.

“Finally,” a voice caught Wes’s attention. Two people stood in the middle of the room. The first was a more heavy-set man with bright eyes framed by a pair of squarish glasses. He had crazy black hair that curled in a messy mass around his head, the curve of black facial hair around his grinning jaw completing the look. Despite the cold, he wore a bright Hawaiian shirt and tan cargo shorts along with a pair of sandals, his hands held up in front of him with his fingertips pressed together.

Next to him, a woman with the whisper of a smile looked at them with intrigue. Her hair was a rosey pink, falling over his shoulders in near perfect curls. She was dressed much better than the man next to her, with a pair of well-fitting black jeans, grey boots and a white sweater that looked designer.

“The Steve, it’s been long fuckin’ time man,” Bussy crossed the room. He gave The Steve a half hug, clapping him on the back as he let go. “Lee,” Bussy nodded to the woman, who nodded back.

“It’s always good to see you Bussy.” The Steve rubbed his head with the back of his hand. “So you here for this month’s inventory check?” He looked up at Joven and Wes with an open mouthed expression. “Ooh. Who are these little morsels of joy?”

“Joshua Ovenshire.” Joven held out his hand. The Steve grabbed it, pulling him in for an awkward hug. Joven’s hand ended up getting pressed beneath him as The Steve clapped him on the back. The Steve let him go, but grabbed him by the shoulders, something Joven looked like he definitely didn’t enjoy.

“Oooh,” he cooed. “You must be that idiot that took the Kingship after Loisoz. Aww, so stupid. You must have a real big death wish.”

“I guess?” Joven raised an eyebrow as The Steve let go. He adjusted his glasses, stepping away as The Steve turned to look at Wes.

The Steve gasped, putting his hands out as he crossed the room to Wes. He cupped Wes’s face, unblinking as he stood there for a few seconds. “Wow, look how pretty you are. We don’t normally get pretty boys like you around here much.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re almost too pretty, like holy shit.” He leaned back towards the woman. “Lee you see this guy? Look at him, he’s like a fucking angel, oh my god.”

“He is...” she cocked her head slightly. “...Surprisingly attractive.”

“Right?!” He clapped Wes on the cheeks. “I don’t even want to know your name, I’m just going to call you Angel.”

The Steve crossed back to Bussy, grabbing Joven by the arm as he lead them deeper into the warehouse. Lee smiled up at Nails before following the three of them into the back. Wes went to follow them but Nails caught him.

“We don’t go back there,” Nails’ voice surprised him. It was light and airy, with an edge of darker tones to it. “That’s just for them.”

“So we just...stand here?”

Nails nodded.

“Alright.”

The two of them stood in silence for a few minutes. Wes’s phone was dead, and there was no way he’d check it now anyway. He instead focused on his surroundings. Wes could hear the creaking metal of the building as the wind buffeted against the north wall and the soft voices in the back of the warehouse. The faint light that filtered through the single window in the corner. The smell of something old and moldy that had probably died and decomposed in some dark corner years ago.

Wes let his mind wander to the thoughts of that morning. He could see flashes of the face he’d kissed between blinks, but it was somehow foreign to him now. The face which he’d seen just an hour before was now unfamiliar. Wes went cold at the thought that someone he had been so intimate with could disappear from his mind so easily. God, he had changed . He’d never been this kind of person, he’d always been the kind of guy who would rather pine over someone for years than spend one night with someone he barely knew...but now…

“The Jackrabbit.” Nails’ voice pulled him from his thoughts. “You have done a lot in the past few months.”

“Uh yeah,” Wes choked out, slightly taken off guard.

Nails nodded slowly. “It’s almost too impressive. Lots of the Titans were rooting for the Xiaolong, lots of us weren’t to happy when it went down.”

“Is…” Wes swallowed slowly. “Is that a threat?”

Nails’ lips twitched into something resembling a smile. “No.” He turned, “I won’t threaten you, but others...they had more than just hope staked into the Xiaolong.”

“Like bets?”

“More than that,” Nails drew in a deep breath that rattled his chest. “Some people placed their future in the hands of the Xiaolong. No one saw you coming, and many were angry about your win.”

“What are you saying?” Wes changed his footing.

“Watch your back pretty boy.” Nails returned to his stoic stance, his eyes glazing over slowly as he looked out the window across from them. Wes’s shoulder wound began to throb, and he reached for it, massaging the skin under his shirt. It had done that recently, more than before. He knew that it was probably just stress, or adrenaline, but it still felt like an omen, one he wouldn’t take lightly.

The others returned, The Steve and Bussy leading the pack, and Joven and Lee taking up the rear.

“Well Angel,” The Steve crossed the room to him. “I’m sad that we couldn’t spend more time together. The Sirens will always be here if you wish to...spend the night.” He drew a finger across Wes’s arm. “We’d love to keep you company.”

“I’m afraid that he’s strictly off limits,” Joven’s voice was quick and sharp. “He’s in a committed relationship-” his words were jumbled as he caught Wes’s eyes- “with the job. We all are.”

“How noble of you,” The Steve’s words were less kind than they were before. He let go of Wes’s shirt sleeve with flourish, moving behind Lee to a small wood door in the back. “Have your boss call mine later. We’ve got shipping deals to discuss.”

The two of them disappeared, and Wes watched as Bussy’s shoulders hunched, squaring up towards Joven.

“What the hell did ya just do?”

“What?” Bussy stalked towards Joven, pulling his sleeves up. “I told you, don’t talk back to The Steve!” He reared up his fist. Wes’s brain managed to connect in the last few seconds and he lunged forward, grabbing Bussy’s arm.

The Titan whipped around, using his momentum to crack his fist into Wes’s nose. Wes felt his nose pop as his jaw went slack, the shock stunning him as Bussy came at him again. He managed to block that one with his good shoulder before Bussy pushed him to the ground.

In between punches, Wes could see the feral mania in the man’s eyes. He was enjoying this. Disgusting . A voice in Wes’s head that felt familiar grumbled. Wes tried pushing the man off of him, but he was firmly planted just over where the bend in Wes’s stomach was to help him up.

Then he felt Bussy’s weight disappear from his chest. Wes blinked the blood out of his eyes as he pulled himself back, crawling towards a wall to help himself up. He turned to see Nails attempting to grab at a man in front of him. Dammit, he went for Joven . Wes fumbled for his gun. They were gonna be in deep shit with Lasercorn, but Bussy had attacked him first, so it was justified. At least he hoped it was.

He aimed the gun, flicking off the safety as he cocked it, aiming from Bussy’s thigh. Then Nails moved away, and the familiar coat swung around the attacker’s body. Wes managed to stand as he saw the full picture, Joven had Bussy on the ground, his arms a fury as he took out his anger on the man.

Bussy had his arms above his head, trying to keep Joven’s hands off of him. He had blood on his knuckles, and there was a gash on his forehead. Wes pocketed the gun, running over and grabbing Joven by the shoulder.

“Joven, stop.” Wes’s voice shocked Joven back to reality. He took Joven’s hand, snaking his own under his arm and hoisting him to his feet.

“You’re a psycho!” Bussy’s face was a bloody mess as he grabbed for Nails’ arm to help him up. “You’re a fucking psychopath!” He shook, his eyes even more darty and unstable than they were before. “You better believe that I’m telling my boss ‘bout this. You’ll be fucking dead by morning.” Bussy wiped the blood off his face with his shirt sleeve. He pursed his lips, spitting out a few teeth, along with a mouthful of blood, onto the concrete below them. “C’mon Nails.”

The Titans slammed the door behind them, and Joven melted in Wes’s arm.

“Shit Joven, what the hell were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Joven whispered. “He was hurting you, and I had to do something.”

“You didn’t have to beat him up!” Wes helped Joven steady himself. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble now. Lasercorn-“ he sighed- “We’re toast.” Joven reached up, wiping the blood out from where it tricked from Wes’s nose. “Why Joven-“ he caught Joven’s hand- “There was a better way to do this, you didn’t have to punch him to get your way.”

“No,” Joven’s voice was dark. “There wasn’t. I had to.” Wes let go of his hand but he held it there for a second longer. “He hurt you. I couldn’t let him get away with that.” His hand fell, but Joven held his eyes. The silence was familiar, and Wes couldn’t help but feel a knot tighten itself in his stomach. “We should go.”

“We should.”

Joven blinked slowly, and Wes could feel the shifting between them. There was so much hunger in his eyes, and Wes could tell that Joven was trying to fight it back, but there was an electricity between them, and he couldn’t let go that easily.

Wes knew that Joven would give in, and he’d have to be the one to turn away. He didn’t want to turn away, but he knew that giving in would only give them more problems in the future.

“Let’s go home,” Wes spoke quietly, turning his head to break their gaze, “if the Titans haven’t already popped the tires. There’s probably a phone call waiting for you from Lasercorn anyway.”

“Shit, yeah.” Joven moved past Wes, and the two of them stepped out of the warehouse, and out of the moment that they knew they would pretend to forget, but think about for hours after.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t getting worse. Mari told herself that as she looked at her reflection in the window of Lasercorn’s office, her fingers buzzing as she tried to keep her mind straight.

“Takahashi.”

She turned, holding her slowly shaking glass of scotch and soda limply. The tremors had been coming more frequently. She’d been draining a bottle of H a week recently.

“Yeah.” Lasercorn stood across from her, tie straining against his neck

“Are you paying attention?”

“Yeah, ‘course.”

“She’s not.” Sohinki stirred from where he was sitting on a stool behind Lasercorn’s desk.

“I’m am,” she snapped. Her teeth were bared without her realizing it, and she stepped back. Mari downed her drink, blinking as it burned, shaking her head. “What were we talking about?” She slammed her empty cup down on the rolling bar cart with a clack.

“Statistics from your areas.” Lasercorn set his own drink down on his desk noiselessly. “They’ve dropped.”

“That’s not my fucking problem. People just don’t want drugs in those places.”

“Or,” Sohinki stood. “We’ve got a rival taking our buyers. And, with the infighting between the Jackrabbit and our Titans, people are too afraid to buy from us. They think we’re unstable.”

"Bull-shit."

Lasercorn sat back against the desk. “I shouldn’t have to remind you that your King attacked one of my men.”

“And I shouldn’t have to remind you that he attacked one of our enforcers first.”

“The King took it too far.”

“It was a show of force,” Mari replied coldly. “Would you have done anything different?”

“The man was missing teeth.”

“Good.” She snarled.

“This meeting is over.” Lasercorn picked up his drink, walking around the desk. “Escort her out please.”

“No,” Mari’s voice was sharp. “You don’t make those kinds of calls.”

“Excuse me?” Lasercorn’s eyes flicked over to her, angry and dark.

Mari wasn’t feeling like backing down today. “The Titans didn’t win the gauntlet, the Jackrabbit did. We call the shots leagues before you do.”

“Yes,” Lasercorn’s voice was dangerously quiet. “But we also control the product. And…” Sohinki pulled something from his coat pocket, setting it on the table. The bottle of H watched her with quiet menace. “We also  personally fund your habit. I would think first before snapping like that again.”

“Cute,” Mari scrunched up her nose sarcastically. “But I could just as easily get that from the corner druggie.”

“But you won’t.”

“And you’re so sure of that because?”

“You haven’t yet.” Lasercorn eased into his chair behind his desk. Mari took a seat across from him, crossing one leg over the other and folding her arms over her lap.

“Because you’re convenient.” She gestured to Sohinki with a flick of her head. “‘Least he was way back when.”

For a second, she swore Lasercorn cracked the barest smile as he pressed his lips together, looking down. He folded his hands on top of the table. “Yes, it seems Sohinki will spread his legs for anyone.”

Mari snorted with laughter as Sohinki muttered a string of quiet expletives under his breath.

“Something to say, Sohin?”

“No,” he grumbled, rubbing his nose.

“I like you Takahashi,” Lasercorn turned the corners of his lips up just barely. It wouldn’t have been noticeable unless she was looking for it, but it was definitely there. “You’ve got a familiar bite to you that I haven’t seen in a long time. What gang were you raised in?”

“I wasn’t,” she replied.

Lasercorn furrowed his eyebrows, turning his head just barely towards Sohinki before looking back to Mari. “Really?”

“Yep,” she leaned forward. “Grew up in a group home, ran away a lot, lost myself, let someone find me-”

“Bought from me,” Sohinki grinned.

“And got kicked out,” she turned her head towards him just slightly. “And then…” Mari paused, clearing her breath. “I was...stuck...somewhere for a while. And then Joven pulled me out. We’ve been partners ever since, but that’s the extent of my criminal upbringing.”

“Peculiar,” Lasercorn pulled the glass to his lips. “You just...You remind me of an old mentor of mine...I’d wondered if you’d suffered under him like I had. Seems like you were a free bird though, until you met Joven that is.”

“I’ve always hated being tied down,” she leaned back in her chair. “But Joven managed to keep me long enough to make me fall in love with the family he’d created, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

“So you’re very loyal to Joven.”

“He’s my best friend.” Mari shrugged, biting her lip. “I’d die for that dumb bastard twenty times over if I had to.” She looked up, the question suddenly beginning to register to her booze-slowed brain. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, if the Jackrabbit ever goes down like the flaming shipwreck it already is, then the Titans would love to offer you a position high up on their team.” Lasercorn looked to Sohinki. “Sohinki has already made you a resume a mile long with all of the stories he’s told about you, and the Titans could use someone as strong as you in their ranks.”

“Plus,” Sohinki grabbed the bottle from the table. He tossed it her way, and she caught it softly, furrowing her eyebrows. “Free H whenever you need.”

“Free?”

“Hey, we make it for much less than it costs, so why not take a few out for recreational use.” Sohinki gave her a wink she almost found charming,

“I...um, I don’t know what to say.”

“Of course,” Lasercorn stood. “I didn’t mean to spring this on you right now, but it seemed a better time than any to at least tell you about it.”

Mari choose her words carefully. “Yeah, I just...I didn’t expect it.”

“And I don’t expect you to answer now, but soon would be better.”

“Alright,” Mari stood, filling her glass with some sort of unlabeled liquor. “Do the Titans have some sort of plan coming up?”

“Of sorts,” Lasercorn turned away, grabbing a stack of paper. “But when can discuss that later. For now…” he slammed the stack heavily down onto the table. “Policy.”

“Fun.” Mari fell into her chair, trying not to spill her drink.

The three of them worked through at least a quarter of the papers before giving up and calling it a night. Sohinki grabbed their coats and they all left the building towards the parking garage cleverly hidden behind the building.

“Drinks and a smoke at the Oak Room, Mari?” Lasercorn stopped next to his car, Sohinki moving to the passenger side. “And, why not invite Joven, as well.”

“Ahh, I’d love to, but we’ve got the club open tonight. He and I are on point to make sure that everything goes well.”

“Too bad,” Lasercorn shook his head. “We’ll have to catch you another time.”

She waved goodbye to them as she climbed into the sleek silver car Joven had bought for her a few weeks ago. Mari had been driving it everywhere as soon as she could, and on the nights when she was free from the job, she’d make up some excuse about a pick-up and drive out to the desert. She’d sit on one of the mountain tops, watching the moon as she popped a few pills from the drugstore down the street and let her mind go wild. Mari found that they eased her mind when the H was about to run out.

Her brain was moving faster than it ever had before. It was a good thing, she knew that it was a good thing, but something in the back of her mind kept trying to tell her that it wasn’t. She was fine. Mari bit her lip as the horizon in front of her flashed in and out. She was fine.

Mari pulled into the back alley of the Jackrabbit, flicking her lights off as she stepped out of the car, locking it. She started towards the back entrance to the Jackrabbit, fiddling with her keys before a strange voice caught her off guard.

“Hi, excuse me-” She whipped around, her pulse rising as she faced the stranger.

It was a man maybe a few years older than she was, with brown hair and watery eyes. He wore a suit, one that looked cheap and tacky, his tie tightened in a way that looked like it was choking him. It was the man from after the heist at the Avian, the reporter.

“Yes?” Her voice was bored.

“My name’s Ryan Todd, I spoke with your partner, Joshua Ovenshire, a month or so ago?”

“I remember you.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I was wondering if I could speak with him again.” The man fidgeted with his hands, moving from one foot to another, which ticked Mari off just slightly.

“Sorry,” she shook her head. “If you’ve tried to get in contact with him and he hasn’t responded, I don’t know what to say.”

She turned away, moving towards the back entrance.

“Wait!” The man grabbed her wrist and Mari whipped around, throwing him off.

“Don’t you fucking touch me,” she growled. He didn’t seem to get the warning as he moved closer.

“Maybe I could talk to you then, and then maybe your boss too? I’d be a big help to my project, you guys might even trend when this comes out!”

“We don’t want exposure or anything.” Mari replied coldly. “Now be a dear and kindly fuck off.”

“Please,” the man gave her a smile that made her want to vomit. “Just, five minutes?”

“No,” she turned away again, power walking towards the door. Ryan rounded her, blocking her path as she tried to get to the door.

“C’mon, it’s just five minutes , nothing more! I’ll never bother you guys again. I just want to know some stuff, I think it might clear up my investigation and it’d help me a ton.”

“You know what I think?” Mari could feel the blood boiling under her skin. “I think that you should go back to Liberty City. I think that you and your podcast should get its nose out of Los Santos and stick to something a little more your style. Go do something in Strawberry, make a name for an up-and-coming athlete. Don’t meddle in the gangs. That shit gets you killed, okay?”

“I just think that five minutes-”

Mari punched the man squarely in the face. He stumbled backwards, falling against the wall as he clutched his nose.

“What the hell?!”

She could feel the anger and the heat under her skin as she came at him again. His body cracked like ice under her knuckles as she beat him into the ground. She could taste the blood on her knuckles as it flug into the air with every wind-up. Mari hit him until he stopped moving, and she continued to hit him until the tears in her eyes stopped her from seeing the mess that his face had become.

She shook as she stumbled to her feet, leaning against the wall as she wiped the blood on her hands off on her pants. That’ll buff out . Mari almost laughed at the stupidity of the thought, the tears blurring her vision as her lips contorted up into a morbid smile. What the fuck was wrong with her .

With shaking hands she pulled the bottle of H from her pocket, the blood from her fingers staining the label like rosey red ink. As her mind began to clear, she shoved the bottle back into her pocket, turning back to the body as her hand fumbled for her keys. Please don’t be dead .

Mari dragged herself into the club, walking down the stairs from the stage to where Joven was standing on the phone, looking the other way. Her voice was ragged and quiet as she spoke.

“Joven…”

“Mari can you wait a second-”

“Joven.” Her voice was stronger this time as he turned to look at her. Joven’s face fell faster than she could even register.

“Mari...no.” His eyes were dark with disappointment. “What did you do?”

 

Chapter Text

Joven had never liked the police station, even when he was young.

Everyone in Los Santos knew that the cops were dirty, and they’d arrest anyone if they thought they could get something out of it. Why he had decided to meet their contact at the station and not at the Jackrabbit headquarters, he still wasn’t quite sure, but his hands were jittery as he walked down the long hallway towards a secretary’s desk.

He stopped in front of her desk, and she looked up at him from her magazine. “Yes, can I help you?” She had a slight southern drawl that tinted the boredom in her voice.

“I’m looking for Detective Peabody?”

She pointed with a manicured nail, looking back down at her magazine as Joven followed her finger to the sign on the ceiling. “Bullpen is that way. Ask someone there.”

Joven thanked her quietly, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep himself from fidgeting as beat cops with coffee and danishes passed by him. The hair stood up on the back of his neck, and goosebumps raced up his arms as he went. Joven couldn’t help but wonder how many of their brothers in arms he’d seen killed, or killed himself, at the gauntlet. He kept his head low as he rounded a wall of windows that were shaded with the kind of cheap white blinds that you could still make out shapes behind.

Joven stopped in front of the entrance to the Bullpen, a bustling, chaotic area filled with too many people in too small of a space. It was dimly lit, the walls painted a color that might’ve once been meant to spruce up the place, but had now faded, making the whole room feel like it was closing in on itself. A phone would ring every few seconds, and someone would either pick it up and answer, or pick it up only to put it right back down on the receiver. There were at least eight desks in a space meant for only about five, paperwork and case files muddling together as they were strewn across two or more desks. It’s almost not surprisingly that they get nothing done with a system like this .

“Can I help you?” He turned to see a tall man with a thick black beard and short-cropped hair in a beat-cop uniform standing across from him, holding a cup of coffee.

“Uh, yeah,” Joven crossed the room just slightly. “I’m looking for Detective Peabody, he needed to meet with me?”

“Yo, Sunny!” The beat cop called over to a man in a dark blue button up shirt and black pants that was hunched over a desk, writing something. He turned, his detective’s badge hanging against his chest as he made eye contact with Joven. The beat cop gave Sunny a thumbs up, turning it quickly upside down and then back again, probably judging whether Joven was one the crazies or not. Sunny shook his free hand, giving the man a thumbs up before waving Joven over with a sigh.

Joven crossed the room to the detective, who closed the case file he was working on and turned to face him. “You’re early.”

“Better than late.”

“Not really,” Sunny moved away from the desk, heading down the hall. “C’mon.” Joven jogged after him as the two of them moved farther into the precinct. “You’re lucky that you called me when you did. And you’re doubly lucky that he’s not going to press charges.”

“You said that he wants something in exchange for keeping quiet?”

“Information.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah I said the same thing-” he paused quickly- “not to him of course, but I was definitely thinking it.” Sunny pushed open a door, and the two entered into the viewing side of an interrogation room. Inside, Ryan Todd sat, his face, which had looked more like the mouth of an animal the night before, was bandaged and much less bloody. He sat nervously, his hands tapping on the table next to a recording device. “He’s already asked a lot of our beat cops about the gauntlet, and we’ve been lucky that most of them still here weren’t there that night.”

“And have you said anything?”

“Nothing,” he shook his head. “The last thing I want to do is put myself more in the spotlight than I already I’m. I’m damn lucky that the Commissioner didn’t press farther into this.”

“How big is the case file on the gauntlet?”

“The public one?” Sunny shrugged. “Maybe ten pages, max. But the private one?” He turned to Joven raising his eyebrows as he pressed his lips together, lowering his voice. “If that got out, only 15% of the entire LSPD would still have jobs. The rest of us, probably right into prison. Not to mention all the gangs that would go down with it...There were maybe two gangs that didn’t show up to the gauntlet that night, and all the rest that were there haven’t already collapsed? They’d be snuffed out like a light.” Sunny fixed his badge, which had swung backwards on the way over. “Of course, Commissioner Morgan will do anything to keep that file under wraps, so for now, you’re pretty safe.”

“That’s good,” Joven pinched the bridge of his nose. “I needed to hear some good news today.”

“Let’s head in,” he sighed, long and low.

“Better now than never.”

Sunny pushed the door open and the two of them entered the room. Joven made eye contact with the man the entire time, barely blinking as he took a seat across from him. Sunny stood behind them, and Joven could feel his presence bearing over the conversation.

“So,” Joven felt awkward talking to the man. He looked like he expected something from Joven, but Joven had no idea what to say. What the hell do you even begin with saying to the man that was just beat up by your best friend .

“Didn’t you tell him?” Ryan looked up to Sunny.

Sunny nodded, “You want information.”

“I do.” Ryan leaned forward, turning on the device next to them. “I was trying to get in touch with you, but you weren’t returning my calls.”

“You were probably calling the Jackrabbit’s main line. We don’t return calls unless they’re interested in a service the club provides.” He folded his hands on the table, shooting the man a quick forced smile. “An unfortunate side of the business are our former clients that, well...fall in love with our entertainers. We’ve had to deal with cases of stalkers more than once.”

Joven knew that it was only partly a lie, but he didn’t mind lying to this guy. Whatever he’d done, it had to have warranted Mari hurting him like that. She didn’t hurt unless she had to, and when she did, she went full force. He crossed his arms against his chest, watching the man with a new mindset.

“Oh…” the man paused, shifting in his chair. “That makes sense.”

“You have questions, and I have some time. What do you want to know?”

“What do you really know about the gauntlet?”

Joven let out a long breath, emptying his lungs before drawing in a mouthful of air. “The gauntlet is a competition between the gangs of Los Santos to win the ‘Kingship’.” He paused, looking down at his hands. “In the past, it was often bloody and grotesque. More people die in the gauntlets than with any other gang-on-gang violence.” Joven looked up at the man, “the last gauntlet was no exception.”

“So you know about the gauntlet that took place at 773 Canal Street almost a month ago?”

“What?” Joven furrowed his eyebrows. “No, I was talking about the Willow Hills Massacre, that gauntlet, the one I was apart of.” He turned to Sunny, shaking his head with a mock-confused expression, making sure that Ryan saw his face in the mirror. “What is he talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Sunny narrowed his eyes, “what are you talking about?”

“Ah,” Ryan’s mouth open slowly as he nodded. “I see.” He shifted in his chair as Joven’s eyes cut into his. “So, different question, obviously. Your partner, Mari-”

“No questions about her,” Joven responded quickly. “I’ll talk about myself, but she, along with my employees, have a right to their privacy.”

“Alright, don’t worry,” Ryan moved his hands in surrender, “I won’t pry there then.”

Joven paused for a second, “you said there was another gauntlet?”

“Yeah,” the man nodded, tapping a finger against the table. “The Chinese Mafia went down. The Avian, that casino, that was their place, where they laundered their money. It went down almost immediately after that night.”

“What…” Joven swallowed slowly, testing the waters. “What else did you hear?”

“Not much,” he raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I had some friends that might’ve been in there.” Ryan’s face twitched just slightly and Joven held up a hand, “when you run a club like mine, you can’t always pick and choose who your patrons are. When you start to get trouble from the seedy sort, you need to call in some back-up. It was just, I haven’t heard from some of them.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he replied quietly.

“It’s alright,” Joven stirred, dragging his hand across the table to situate himself. “Most of them weren’t good people.”

“Gang types?”

“Maybe,” he responded slowly. “But I can neither confirm nor deny that.”

“One more question,” Sunny spoke sharply.

“That wasn’t a part of the deal.”

“It is, now that I know that you stole private LSPD information.”

“What?” Ryan furrowed his eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

“The Commissioner was keeping the existence of the gauntlet on the down-low, no one was supposed to know until we sorted it out.” Sunny shifted in his stance, and Joven watched as Ryan shrunk slowly down, clearly guilty. “And you’ve been hanging around the precinct more than normal.”

He shifted in his seat, sitting up with his back straight and his eyes burrowing into Joven’s. “What did you have to do with the Avian?”

“What?” The question caught him off guard. “The casino, the one you were talking about earlier?” Ryan nodded slowly, his arms crossed against his body. “What about it?”

 

“The heist, where all of the safe’s cash was stolen in a single night.”

“Was that the gala that everyone was talking about for a while?”

“Yes,” Ryan leaned forward.

“I wasn’t there, if that’s what your asking-“

“Really?” The man grinned smugly. “Because I have proof that you and your associates were there that night.” His lips drew upwards, clearly trying to hide his self-satisfied expression.

I should’ve just let Mari kill him . Joven thought to himself as he blinked slowly, barely reacting.

“Well,” he shifted forward. “This is going to be a little, um, incriminating, but I was there.” Joven sighed like Ryan had just cracked open his pandora’s box of secrets. “The Xiaolong ordered a special show for their Raven Room.”

“Raven Room?” Ryan’s face paled quickly.

“Yes,” Joven crossed one foot over the other in victory. “Our strippers are the best in the business. We often get calls for things like that. The gala brought in some more, unsavory clients, and they had to keep them entertained somehow.” Ryan stared at him, dumbfounded. “I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth. I didn’t even hear about the heist until after. The Raven Room is a secured room that’s sound-proof and very exclusive. It would make sense if you’d never heard of it.”

Joven clapped his hands on his legs, standing slowly. Ryan watched him with a half open mouth, blinking with confusion. “Well, if that’s all you need.” He gave Ryan one more poisonous smile, “I hope you got what you were looking for.” Joven nodded to Sunny as he placed his hand on the doorknob, “detective.”

Sunny gave him a nod as Joven exited into the hallway, letting the door slam behind him.

He pulled out his phone, sending Boze a text to update the Jackrabbit website with a secret page that required a passcode. His lie had given him the perfect idea for a new facet to their business.

Joven didn’t feel his shoulders relax until he had gotten into his car and driven it halfway across the city. The precinct had left such a horrible taste in his mouth. Not only the stench of cops and corruption, but also the conversation with Ryan Todd. He’d known too much for a journalist. How the hell had he gotten his hands on any of that information . He must have a plant somewhere in the gangs, either in the Bear Brotherhood or in the Seventh Street Titans. If someone from the Jackrabbit had tried to sabotage him, it would’ve happened already.

Joven was leaning towards the Titans. He trusted Sohinki and Lasercorn about as far as he could throw them. If it hadn’t been for the friendlier terms Mari had put them on, Joven would’ve dropped them weeks ago. They were strong, but without the reach of the Jackrabbit, they were barely a threat. Joven could overthrow them easily if he wanted to. A few well placed blows to their supply of the chemicals needed to make their drugs and they’d be nearly obsolete by the next month and a half.

He did have to admit, their process was genius. All of their workers were more loyal than lap dogs, and their product reflected it. He’d watched a junkie get higher off a single pump of their Myriad than an entire bottle of any other drug from anyone else, no matter how strong.

Joven pulled into the back alley of the Jackrabbit, his stomach flipping for a second as he noticed the absence of Mari’s car where it was normally parked. He wasn’t quite sure what would’ve made him more nervous, her being there or her being gone. He didn’t want to have to face her after what had happened a few night before. Joven thought that he might’ve scared her on accident. When she’d come in, shaking and terrified, he hadn’t reacted like her experience might’ve been as jarring as the man’s outside. He’d seen her shoot a man point blank with no reaction, but this time...something was different.

Joven didn’t know how he would even begin to apologize for that. Maybe he should...no...that wouldn’t work. He’d think about it later.

He hadn’t seen any of his crew in what felt like ages. Joven hadn’t spoken much to Wes since the Bussy and Nails fiasco with the Sirens at the docks, Damien was in the basement all the time, and for the past two days he’d only talked to Boze over text. It felt odd not to have someone around all the time. They were more scattered than they ever had been before, and Joven could feel them growing apart.

He pushed open the door to the back of the club, walking past the new wall that they’d added in the upgrade and along the side down to the stairs. Joven stopped just before them, taking in a breath as he stood on the edge of the stage.

They’d had the club painted last week, and the new color, a mix of light and dark greys with some splashes of purple, was accented by the black wood flooring that they’d added in. It hadn’t been cheap, but it had been worth it. The lights Tanner had installed almost three months ago looked much better with the new wall colors, and they cast shadows more stark and clear that ever before.

Joven stepped off of the stage and back onto the floor, entering the hallway to the office. He opened the door into the main corridor as the door to the basement opened next to him.

“Damien,” Joven spoke quietly, trying not to spook the man. It didn’t seem to work, and Damien still flinched as he spoke.

“Joven, hey.”

“How are things with him?”

“Not great,” Damien grumbled. “Every time I think I’m getting somewhere he doubles back and I’m left with nothing.”

Joven pushed the door to his office open, guesting for Damien to follow him inside. “Even that lead in Sandy Shores?”

“The guy was dead. Had been for a year or so apparently, so no luck.”

“Shit,” Joven took off his coat. “And you said that he does know something?”

“Yeah.” Damien rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand “Something he’s not supposed to know unless he knew someone high up in the old gang.”

“The Black Blade?” Damien dug his fingernails into his arm, nodding as he looked towards the ground at his feet. Joven changed the subject quickly as he leaned against the back of his chair. “So, what do you need to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Torture him? Threaten him?”

“I’ve tried,” Damien shook his head. “It’s like he’s immune to all of it. No matter how much I threaten, how scared he’s become of me, he never lets anything go…” He drew in a breath, looking up. “He’s gotten smarter ever since he let the thing about...the thing that made me realize he knew stuff, out. I have to try something new, but I don’t know what that would be.”

Joven cleared his throat, “have you tried seducing him?” Damien’s eyebrows shot up.

“Excuse me?”

“He’s...y’know…” Joven felt uncomfortable saying it.

“What?” Damien looked like he knew, his arms crossed across his chest in a clear ‘if you’re going to make me do it, you’re going to have to say what it is outloud.’

“He’s...interested in you. At least it seemed that way to me.” Joven scratched the back of his head. “You’re a good liar right?” Damien opened his mouth to answer, but Joven waved his hand. “Of course you are. I want you to make it seem like you’re falling for him. If you can forge a relationship, that’ll be good for us. We can figure out what he’s really hiding.”

Damien spoke slowly in response.“How far do you want me to go with it?”

“As far as you have to,” his reply was sharp and quick.

“Really?” Damien swallowed like there was a rock caught in the back of his throat. “I’ll try my best.”

“Rule of thumb for right now,” Joven moved to sit in his chair. “Visit him once, and get close, threaten him or something. Stand so that there’s barely and space between you two. Then stop mid-sentence and look at him like you haven’t looked at him before.” Damien nodded slowly. “Then run off in a hurry, act embarrassed. Don’t visit him for a few days, I’ll have someone else send him his meals.”

“Play the Star Crossed Lover Card,” Damien’s smile began to grow. “Joven, sometimes you’re more a genius than I give you credit for.” He gave Joven a little salute, “I’ll visit him before the club opens tonight while bringing him his dinner. He normally insults me somehow, I’ll pretend to snap or something.”

“Perfect,” Joven grinned. “Keep me updated on everything okay? The moment you catch a break I want you to get in touch with me okay? Call me if you have to. This is important.” He paused, “I can’t help but get the sinking feeling that you’re very right about this.” Joven’s phone began to buzz, and he pulled it from his back pocket. “Leo knows something, and I think it’s bigger than all of this.”

The phone number belonged to one of their Titan contacts, and Joven rolled his eyes. “Another day another disaster to avert.”

“Good luck,” Damien laughed as he turned on heel. Joven watched him leave, noting the strange limp to his step.

He didn’t remember Damien having that limp before he came back from Sandy Shores. It could’ve just been that he’d accidentally run into something, or possibly an old wound acting up, but something about it rubbed Joven the wrong way. In fact, Damien also had a few cuts on his cheeks, and he was wearing a sweatshirt pulled around his wrists. He never did that, he always wore short sleeves or long sleeves pulled up to his elbows.

His past was touchier than most, and the way things were working recently, Joven would’ve have been surprised if the past had come back to haunt him.

Was Damien hiding something?

Chapter Text

Damien had been following Joven’s advice, and for once, it seemed to be working. He sat across from Leo like he had hundreds of times before, the silence between them was normal, especially on days like today. Visiting him almost three times a day for the past month and a half had brought them closer in a way Damien still didn’t quite understand. Leo seemed like he might trust Damien one day, and then want to sell him on the black market the next.

Leo started up at him from where he was bound to the chair, his expression cocky as his hands lay folded in his lap.

“So Lion, what’s on the docket today?” Leo crossed one leg over the other slowly. “Normally we get right into our activities, but you’ve just been sitting there. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t even spoke to you in nearly four days.” He grinned, his expression turning sarcastically pouty. “I was having withdrawals from not seeing your pretty face.”

Damien looked away, pretending to be embarrassed, which wasn’t all a lie. Leo liked to flirt with him like that often, and there was something inside of him was partly okay with it. He turned back, mirroring Leo’s posture. “I thought that we’d have a talk today.”

“About what?” Leo moved his leg, seemingly having caught on to Damien’s swindle. “The weather?” He raised his eyebrows, moving his hands to gesture around. “Well, it’s damp and moist. Like it always is.” Leo let his arms clatter back into his lap. “Next question.”

“I thought that we should just...have a little talk.” Damien sat back in his chair. “Anything you want to talk about. I’ll be here to listen.”

“Hmm, really?” Leo raised an eyebrow, a small smirk bleeding across his lips. “You’re worse at this than I thought. This is a clear probing technique, you try to get me to be your friend, and then when I get comfortable around you, I’ll start spilling my guts. Good try Lion, but do something else. That method is boring.”

“Alright,” Damien put his hands up in surrender. “If you want to stay quiet, then I’ll just talk about myself.”

Again , Lion, another clear tactic. Getting me to trust you. Then I feel safe. You obviously don’t know how to interrogate someone who knows all of your tricks properly. It’s almost pitiful what you’re attempting to do here.”

“Would you rather chat or I waterboarding you for an hour?”

Leo barely took anytime to answer. “A chat sounds lovely.”

Damien gave him the barest flash of a smirk, not quite sure what to say. He drew in a breath, furrowing his eyebrows. “I don’t really know where to start.” Damien looked up to Leo from where he’d been staring at the ground. “What do you want to know about me?”

The man across from him thought for a moment, drawing his finger to his lip as he narrowed his eyes. “Where are you from in the city?” Leo cocked his head, “the way you talk, you have to be city scum like me.”

“Well,” Damien cleared his throat. “I was born and raised in Los Santos, but in different parts of the city. We moved around a lot, occupational hazard of my father running a gang.”

“Ah, was it a family affair?” Leo smiled, which faded as Damien raised an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes, sighing, “was your mother into the gang life as well?”

Damien furrowed his eyebrows, somewhat surprised at the question. “No actually. My mom only took care of me for a few months after I was born, but from what my dad told me, she was a junkie, and would’ve sold me for a bottle of H if she had the chance.”

“Ah,” Leo nodded. He gestured to Damien, “it’s clear that you didn’t end up getting pimped out by a drug dealer, so...”

Damien’s lips twitched into a small smile at the joke. “My mom had enough of her brain left to realize that she shouldn’t sell me to some random dealer, so she dumped me with my dad.” He rubbed his shoulder. “I don’t really remember her, but sometimes I’ll smell smoke or really strong mouthwash, and I feel this weird sense of nostalgia and I don’t know why. I...I like to think that that was her, but I don’t know.” Damien paused, blinking at the ground. “I don’t think I’ve ever told that to anyone.”

There was a ruminating pause, and Damien opened his mouth to continue, but Leo spoke. “What happened to her?”

He sighed, thinking through his answer. “I don’t know, honestly.” He shrugged. “She could be halfway across the country, wildly successful with a family she cares about, or she could be dead in a ditch.” Leo’s face had changed, and now he watched Damien intently. “I don’t remember her, I can’t remember her, I’m not supposed to, but I feel like I know her.”

“Yeah, I get it.” Leo spoke softly after a prolonged silence. “My mom’s gone too. was some heiress, and the daughter of a massive art collector, which, in the Mafia business, usually means stolen artifacts and forged paintings that are worth less than a hundred bucks, but sell for millions. She lived in China for most of her life, and before she and my dad divorced, she always talked about wanting to take me and my sister there.”

“Divorced?”

“Big scandal.” He nodded slowly. “She cheated on him. The mob had her head for it.” Leo shook his head, “doesn’t matter.” He blinked quickly, trying not to look at Damien. “So, you joined up with your dad.”

“Yeah, I did.” Damien smiled to himself, “I had to. There was really no other choice, and he hated me. I was his son and he hated me. He wanted nothing to do with me, and he threw me to the care of whatever woman he was sleeping with. Some of them were nice, others were not.”

“Prostitutes?”

“Mostly, some of them weren’t, they were usually the nice ones. One of my favorites was a military woman my dad got shacked up with. She was a field medic in Iraq, she was sweet but tough, and she could always get me to eat my vegetables.” A wistful smile crossed Damien’s face. “And then one day she was just...gone. A lot of life in the gang was like that.”

“There one day gone the next? No explanation?”

“Were the Xiaolong known for that too?”

“They practically invented disappearing people in Los Santos. There’s more bodies in the bay surrounding the city than I can count.”

“I’m not proud to say that I know that first hand.” Damien grimaced, noting Leo’s concerned expression. “I never got to choose whether or not I wanted to be in the life, I wanted my dad’s approval so badly I was willing to kill to get it.” He shook his head. “I should’ve known that it was wrong, but I was so hungry for any sort of warmth from him. He was my dad,” he turned his head, letting out a chucking breath, “I wanted...y’know.”

The two of them sat in silence, Damien felt himself slowly turn inwards, the cold of the basement starting to get to him. He’d put on a short-sleeved t-shirt, the Barracks were usually pretty warm, but now, with goosebumps up and down his arms, he was beginning to regret that decision.

Leo let out a breathy laugh, not making eye contact with Damien. “I don’t really know what to say about myself. You already know so much about me. You know all of me, if I think about it, there’s nothing much left for me to say.”

“Really?” Damien raised an eyebrow.

“Everything about me was tailored since birth to make me the perfect heir to the throne. I never picked up any hobbies except for the ones my dad made me learn.”

“Hacking, coding, charisma, drink making?”

“Yep.” Leo hung his head back just slightly. “If I think about it, I don’t think there’s many other things I could quote to you as things I like.” He opened his mouth just slightly, swallowing. “Well. Actually. There might be one.”

“Being a general annoyance?”

“Har. Har.” Leo moved forward. “I always loved drawing, but only for fun. I never got exceptionally good, but I liked it.”

“I could get you a notebook and some pencils if you wanted.”

Leo laughed, his smile fading as he realized that Damien wasn’t kidding. “Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “You trust me with sharp objects?”

“I’m beginning to,” Damien’s voice was soft and husk.

Leo rolled his eyes. “Alright, we’re done with this.”

“With what?”

“This act .” He crossed his arms, leaning back, licking the cracked parts of his lips. “It’s getting weird.”

“What act?”

“All of this!” Leo threw his hands up, the metal of his cuffs clanking against the chair. “Whatever this Mr. Nice-Guy routine, though it was kinda hot at first, and then just kinda cute, but now it’s creepy.”

“I’m not acting,” Damien stood. Leo twitched just slightly as he moved across the room. He stood a few inches from Leo, their faces close enough that Damien could just barely move and their noses would touch. “You wanna ask me if I’m acting now?” He could feel Leo frozen underneath him. “What do you really want to know?”

“Why-” Leo’s voice was breathy. “What is this all about, why are you-” His eyes were wider than ever before, searching Damien’s as they flicked from his pupils to his lips. Leo bit his lip just slightly as Damien’s breath mingled in the air with his. He smelled sour, but in a good way. Deep and mildewy, and twinged with the blood from dryness of his lips and the crackling cuts on his forehead.

“I think you know,” his words fell like raindrops onto Leo’s skin. The man beneath him blinked slowly, trembling under the heat of Damien’s gaze. Leo moved his hand slowly, almost afraid that if he went too fast, he might break the moment. He wrapped his fingertips around the loose material of Damien’s shirt, slowly pulling him forward, and Damien didn’t want to move away.

“Damien?”

The voice send a shock down his spine. He leapt away from Leo, nearly jumping out of his skin as he grabbed for something to hold on to. His hand caught the top of the laundry machine next to him as he turned to face the intruder.

Shayne stood across from him, silhouetted by the light coming from the stairs above him. He held his phone next to ear, his hair a mess and his forehead sweaty as his eyebrow knit together with worry. The club must’ve just closed. Joven must’ve been looking for him. Damien had lost track of time.

“Shayne, what the hell are you doing down here?”

“Why do you have a guy tied up down here? And what were you doing? Damien what the fuck is going on?”

“Shayne, just, it’s club stuff, okay?”

“Who is this cutie?” Leo’s voice was strained, but gaining back its confidence. “Someone I should know about, Lion?”

Damien turned from Leo back to Shayne, the dread setting in as Shayne searched his face for an answer. “Shayne, upstairs, now.”

“Damien-”

“Now,” Damien shocked as much command into his voice as he could muster.

The two of them climbed the stairs, and Damien looked back one last time to see Leo looking back at him with a confused expression as the door closed out the light in the room. Shayne stopped in front of the server closet door as Damien locked the door to the basement to his right.

“What the hell was that?”

“Not something you should be worrying about,” Damien looped the basement key around his belt. “This doesn’t concern you.”

“Like hell it does, you were going to kiss him!”

“What?” Damien furrowed his eyebrows. “You saw that?”

“You practically threw yourself at the guy, what the hell are you doing down there!”

“How long were you watching?”

“Long enough.” Shayne reached out, jabbing Damien in the shoulder, “I don’t know who he is, but I know shit when I see it. If you even think about hurting the Jackrabbit, I won’t care if I have to hurt you to protect it.”

“Shayne, no, it’s nothing like that, you don’t understand-”

“Like hell I don’t you were going to make out with him, are you two lovers or something? Making a plan to get away with the Kingship on your own?”

“Shayne,” Damien grabbed his arm. “Shut up for five minutes and I’ll explain.”

He scanned the hallway before he dragged Shayne with him upstairs. He pushed Shayne into his room, slamming and locking his door behind him. “You fucking idiot. You nearly blew my cover.”

“What?” Shayne’s face went pale. “You’re flipping. You’re a insider playing the long game, aren’t you, this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

“What?!” Damien grabbed Shayne’s arm, recoiling as he tensed, his eyes flicking down to Damien’s hand slowly pulling away. “No,” he looked away. “God, I didn’t think I’d have to do this…”

“Leo is, or was, the heir to the Xiaolong throne. We captured him before the gauntlet, and we’ve been keeping him in the basement.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know I had to.”

Shayne’s gaze broke away from him, looking to the window behind them. “So, why is he here?”

“He knows something he’s not supposed to, and I’m in charge of getting that information out of him.”

“Like a nuke code, or-”

“Something from my past that was supposed to be locked up tight. Something that, if uttered aloud, meant that you’d have to kill the person that heard. The men who made that pact weren’t ones to take it lightly. Whoever told Leo about it...they’re in deep.”

“You think there’s a spy.”

“There might be,” Damien shook his head. “I don’t know. All of my leads are turning up empty, and even when I do try to get information out of him, he shuts down, no matter what I try.”

“So now you’re trying to make-out with him?”

“It was Joven’s idea,” Damien rolled his eyes. “I met him during the heist, and he was into me, and it seems he’s still into me. If I can get this right, we’ll have the information we need.”

“That’s the most convoluted plan I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s stupid, but it’s our only plan.”

The two of them stood in the silence around them for just a second. Shayne looked everywhere but Damien’s face.

“I’m not even supposed to be telling you any of this.”

“But I’m a part of this too Damien, I want to know things.”

“Shayne you’re not-“

“We fought together at the gauntlet, don’t you forget that. We all fought, you shouldn’t keep us in the dark like that. I mean, we have a fucking PERSON in our basement, and no one thought to tell us?” Shayne’s eye burned bright. “I’m in this as much as you are, and I’m sick of being kept in the dark about all of this.”

“Shayne, it doesn’t work like that.” Damien felt like he might break. “You might have fought with us, and you were a big help, but in real life...on paper, you’re just a stripper.”

“And on paper, you’re just a bartender!” Shayne’s voice pitched. “We’re not that different.”

“No,” Damien shook his head. “I’m a fucking enforcer with years of experience as a lieutenant in the most cut throat gang in Los Santos. You are a washed up actor who’s lost faith in himself and is going through a quarter life crisis to try and fix it. You don’t think I’ve noticed that you haven’t been booking acting auditions anymore?”

“There’s just nothing out there for me-”

“Bullshit,” Damien retorted. “There are hundreds of roles that you would fit like a fucking glove. “The pot calling the kettle black,” Shayne crossed his arms. “You haven’t been acting either.”

“Because acting wasn’t my dream.” Damien’s voice roared in his throat. “It was a stupid idea I had once . And I was tired, and I had cash to blow, and I put all of my eggs in one basket. I’m not meant to walk on the silver screen, it’s not the life for me. You are made for this, you’re just too scared to try and follow your dream because it’s not exciting enough for you anymore. You’re chasing a thrill that you’re not cut out for, this shit will get you killed.”

“And you’re so safe from it all,” Shayne sneered.

Damien dropped his voice low, putting pressure into his words so hard he felt like he might break. “I’ve killed more people than I can even count, I’ve had my hands covered in innocent blood, I’ve shot men and left them to bleed out in alleyways, I have looked friends in the eyes as I pull knives out of their backs. I’m not the man you think I am.”

“Then who are you?” Shayne’s eyes were reddening as his breath caught in his throat. “Have you been lying this whole time?”

“Wait-”

“How much have you lied to me, Damien?”

Damien went quiet, trying to search for an answer. “I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Hurt me?” He closed his eyes, his smile shaking as he tried to hold himself together. “You’re doing a lot more than hurting me.” Shayne’s eyes opened, the blue warmth they normally held spilled over his cheeks. “I thought you were my friend.”

“I am your friend,” Damien’s voice rattled in his chest.

“I thought…” He looked down, wiping away the tears that had started to build again. “You know what, I don’t...I…” he held back his voice. It shook as he spoke. “The Jackrabbit is my family Damien. I wanted you here because I wanted you to be family. Now...I don’t know anymore.”

“Sha-“

“Just,” Shayne backed up against the door. His hand fell on the handle, and he looked back to Damien, tears in his eyes. “Don’t talk to me anymore.”

Damien froze, unable to speak, as Shayne closed the door behind him. He couldn’t move, his whole body like a statue at his clutched his throat, trying to hold back the painful sobs in his chest.

He stumbled backwards onto his bed, letting his fist fall against his chest as he lay back on his bed, curling into himself.

He lay there on his mattress for what felt like hours, letting his brain hum with static as his eyes grew hot with the threat of tears. Damien didn’t move his hand away from his chest as he let his mind go silent.

He was afraid that, if he did, he might find his heart in his fist, shattered and broken, his emotions seeping from the scars he had made himself.

Chapter Text

“How long ago did it happen?” Boze pulled herself into the car as Joven slammed on the gas. Joven and Wes sat in the front of Joven’s car, both of their expressions worrying her.

“Maybe four hours,” Wes responded. “We weren’t there, but Joven just pick me up from one of the Brotherhood’s warehouses.”

“And is everyone involved alright?”

“From what we’ve heard…” Joven looked quickly to Wes before flicking his eyes up to Boze in the rearview mirror. “It doesn’t look pretty. The cops might get involved.”

“Shit.” She slammed her fist into the ceiling of the car.

“Hey, careful,” Joven piped up.

“Were any Jackrabbit or Brotherhood people involved?”

“Luckily, no,” Joven sighed. “It was all Titans, but this could come back and bite us in the ass if we’re not careful. The Commissioner is already out to get us, and we’ve been walking on eggshells as it is, and if we’re not careful-”

“Boom.”

“Yep.”

Boze grabbed for the handle above the window as Joven took a sharp turn. “What about your LSPD contact, Peabody?”

“He’s already doing all he can, but he’s just one person compared to the entire department.” Joven shook his head, “his neck is already on the line, and I can’t ask him to get us out of this.”

“Are we getting Damien and Mari?”

“Damien’s holding down the fort, and Mari’s already there. She was at the headquarters when it happened.”

“Is the alright?” The question came quickly, but it stung Boze’s tongue as she spoke.

“It happened at a Titan warehouse downtown, she wasn’t there.”

“What exactly happened?”

“There were a few Titans meeting with this new gang, they’re claiming some of the Titan’s territory as their own, and the Titans weren’t having it.” Joven turned slightly to Wes. “Our old friends Bussy and Nails were heading the operation. They managed to make it out with a few scars, but the new gang suffered massive losses.”

“So what’s the problem.”

“They were a sting operation headed by some beat cops from the LSPD.”

“The only ones doing their jobs apparently,” Boze snickered, turning her head towards the window as the pulled into the Titan’s lot. “Which is lucky for us most of the time.”

“Here’s the thing, according to Sunny, the operation wasn’t sanctioned by the department-“

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, we’re looking into policy right now, and if we can catch them on the technicality, we can get out of this without much panic.”

“And how easy is that to do?”

“I don’t know,” Joven put the car into park. He opened his door, stepping out to address Boze face to face. “There hasn’t been something like this before.”

“Well, this should be fun.”

The three of them crossed the lot, and Joven swiped a card against a small panel on the door. The gigantic door rattled open, and the three of them walked along the long hallway to the staircase across from them. Boze stared down the guards as Joven gave them a nod. She couldn’t help but feel a strange reprehension in their stance as they shuffled the guns strapped against their chest to grab the handle to the door.

They entered a claustrophobically small hallway, and Boze crossed her arms, wrapping her fingertips around her biceps as she felt the walls press against her.

At the other end of the hall, Boze could hear the barest bit of voices behind the gigantic bronze door, the diamond shaped door handles glinting in the bluish-green tint of the hallway lights.

Joven pulled open the door, and they stepped inside to find a man just a little shorter than Joven with bright red-yellow hair, standing behind a desk. Lasercorn, better known as David Moss. Boze was surprised at how well Joven had described him. She had never met him in person, but he was the spitting image of the caricature Joven had made him out to be.

A thin man with pale skin and a sleepy expression leaned against the front of the desk. He had dark hair and patchy brown beard, his eyes flicked over the group, but he blinked them away as he turned back to the shouting match happening in front of them.

Mari, her hair wild and her eyes roaring like fires, she spat back and forth with an increasingly red Bussy. Four others stood behind Bussy, nursing their wounds. Out of all them, Nails looked the least hurt. He had a cut above his eye that looked nasty, and his hairline was a mess with blood and sweat, but besides that he looked fine.

“Who gave you those orders?” Mari tested, her fingers notched into the loops for a belt on her pants. Bussy said nothing as he grappled for an answer. “That’s what I thought. You took unauthorized supplies and resources from not only the Titans, but also the Jackrabbit. You were on no authority to meet with that gang.”

“But they threatened-“

“Do you think I give a flying fuck?” Bussy recoiled as Mari stalked towards him. “A single search and our data analyst would’ve been able to tell you that they were faker than a hooker’s tits.” She gestured wildly. “Now look at what you’ve done! You’re lucky that Lasercorn decided not to reprimand you too harshly on this.” The five of them seemed to ease as Bussy fell into line with the others. “I won’t be so kind.” She pointed to all of them. “Demotions to foot soldiers for all of you. You’re all picking up the transfer graveyard shifts.”

“What?!” Bussy protested, “you’re not a Titan, you can’t do that.” He looked to Lasercorn for support, but the man simply watched Mari with intrigue.

“A second demotion for you. You’ll be shoveling coal into the incinerators with that sort of tone.” Her eyes seemed to glow as she spoke, Bussy shrinking back at her words. “And I may not be a Titan, but I’m a Jackrabbit, and if you’ve forgotten, we won the gauntlet if I’m not mistaken.” She stepped back gesturing to the door. “You’re dismissed, wait for your next orders somewhere I don’t have to see you.”

The five of them shuffled out, and Mari turned, her eyebrows raising just slightly as she noticed the three of them standing behind her.

“Joven, Wes, Boze,” she crossed the room. Mari grabbed for her phone. “I sent you a text. We have it under control.”

“Yes,” Joven nodded slowly. “But I have...other concerns.”

“About what?”

“The Titans are becoming more of a liability-“ Lasercorn stirred from his stoney stance behind the table- “than an ally.”

“You’re looking to break our contract?” Lasercorn spoke for the first time. He set down the drink that was held loosely in his hand, letting it fall soundlessly on the table. “I must warn you, that’s not a wise decision.”

“Joven,” Mari crossed the room. She dropped her voice as she grabbed his arm, turning him away from the two Titans in the room. Her voice was low, but Boze could still tell what she was saying.

“What are you doing? We need them.”

“They’ve only caused us trouble,” Joven whispered in return. “We have the resources to get things from other suppliers and distributors, we don’t need their help with this anymore.”

“Their H is top of the line Joven, and even with the slack of the other products, we’ve got more sales of their H than anything else combined.”

“Mari.” Lasercorn’s voice was light, but Mari still turned. She cleared her throat, stepping away from Joven, crossing her arms.

“We need them Joven,” her voice was dark. “They’ve got the sort of sway with civilians that we don’t have. If we want this Kingship to last, we stick with them. Lasercorn’s been doing this a lot longer than we have.”

Joven drew in a breath, searching the room. “Fine.” He cleared his throat, “but I want to make sure that I’m made aware of any transactions. Any. No matter how small, I don’t care, I want to know how this operation ticks. And I want to speak to the offenders who took their own orders. I want them to understand the severity of what they did.”

“Of course,” Lasercorn nodded. “Sohinki and I will take you to them.”

“You sure you have all of this under control?” Boze spoke firmly. Something about what Mari was saying rubbed her the wrong way, and she wasn't sure why.

“We do, don’t worry.” Mari faced her, her eyes catching on Boze’s for a second too long.

A painfully familiar feeling shocked down Boze’s spine. The room began to spin, and Boze stumbled forward, grabbing onto the wall for support.

Wes turned quickly, holding out his hands as Boze pushed him away. “Boze, oh my god! Are you alright?”

“Fine,” She grumbled. “I just didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

“Too much coffee?” Wes nodded slightly, “I know the feeling.”

Joven turned to them, “wait at the car, we’ll meet you in twenty minutes or so.”

Boze rubbed her head, trying to catch a glimpse of Mari as she breezed out the door with Joven. The door slammed closed behind them, and Wes threaded his arm under Boze’s, supporting her as they walked out.

“C’mon sleepy head,” he grinned. “Let’s get you to the car.”

Boze wondered if this was what having a brother was like, Wes had always felt like that to her. He always had such a childlike aura despite being two years older than she was.

The two of them walked halfway to the car with him supporting her, before Boze walked the rest of the way on her own. Wes reached out, tugging on the car door handle, swearing softly but sharply under his breath as the door didn’t budge.

“Joven has the keys,” he sighed. “Guess we’re waiting out here then.”

The two of them leaned against the car. Boze was tired, there was no doubt in that, but something about Mari’s words still made her stomach flip. That expression...the strange empty hunger behind her eyes. It was all too hauntingly familiar. That night...she thought that everything had been fine. She’d gone to speak to Mari...she must’ve scared her...then there was a knife...and the pain...the pain was unbearable.

Boze was shaking now. She clenched her fist, letting her nails bite into her skin as she counted down from ten. Boze closed her eyes, letting her heart slow as she started the countdown over again until she could breath easily.

“Hey,” Boze opened her eyes to see Wes looking at her with confusion. “Are you really okay? You look like you’re going to cry.”

It’s nothing .

“It’s-“ Boze’s voice broke, and she felt the heat rush up to her eyes. “It’s Mari.”

Wes’s nostrils flared, his eyes widening as he searched Boze’s. “Do you think-?”

“I don’t know,” her voice was a painful whisper in her throat. “She looks...her eyes...they look like they did before.”

“...you think she’s using again?”

“I don’t know,” Boze repeated. She looked down at her shoes. “It’s just...I feel like all of the signs are there.”

“You've been ignoring them too?”

“I thought I was crazy,” Boze laughed as she let a tear trickle down her cheek. She wiped it away with her sleeve. “I shouldn’t laugh. This is serious.”

Wes paused, looking out to the field before looking back to her. “How sure are you that she’s back to old habits?”

Boze thought for a moment, letting the afternoon breeze trace itself along the bare skin on her shoulders exposed in her tank top. She crossed her arms tighter against her chest, trying to keep the cold from further permeating her skin. “Like 90%?”

“Shit,” Wes’s voice was disappointed. “And you’re sure?”

“Those eyes are burned into my brain.” Boze nodded slowly, her gaze watching the door of the building in front of them. “That cold silence? I’d recognize it anywhere.” She turned to Wes, “what the hell would we even do? We can’t tell Joven, he won’t believe us.”

“What would make you say that?”

“Joven’s a genius, but he’s utterly blind when it comes to two things. Mari,” she looked at him with a coy grin, “and you.” He opened his mouth to respond but she waved her hand. “Don’t defend yourself, we both know it’s true. Whether he’s said it or not, you two mean more to him than anything else in the world. It’s not hard to see that.”

Wes cleared his throat, “so we go behind both of their backs for this?”

“We have to,” Boze nodded solemnly. “Mari’ll just deny it and Joven won’t believe us unless we have proof.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Snoop.”

“What?”

“Everyone is out of the office tomorrow, Damien and Joven are going to some convention downtown, Sarah and I have Brotherhood tech stuff to deal with, and Mari’s confirming a shipment across town. It’s perfect.”

“Why do you want me to do it?”

“Mari already thinks I’ve got something against her.” Wes raised an eyebrow and a small smirk. She rolled her eyes in response. “She’ll know something’s up the second I set foot on her stairs.”

“So you want me to break into Mari’s room.”

“Yep.” Boze pulled away from the car as the door swung open and Joven and Mari exited, walking in tandem with one another. “Good luck.”

“I’m gonna need it.” Wes grumbled, pulling open the door as the car’s lights flashed and the locks on the door clicked open.

Chapter Text

Wes stepped to the base of the stairs up to Mari’s room.

His heart pounded in his throat and his stomach balled up into knots as he tried to keep himself from puking all over the ground.

There was no one in this world that scared Wes more than Mari Takahashi. She was the kind of wild card you wanted on your team, but the one you were still wary of, even with her allegiance.

If what Boze had hypothesized was true, and Mari was using again...Wes didn’t want to think about what she might do to him. The last time had been bad, blood everywhere, and Mari gone. He didn’t want to think about what might happen if things didn’t go well.

Wes had waited until everyone had left the building for the day, watching the camera feed from alley to make sure no one had come home prematurely. Unluckily for his nerves, the alley had remained quiet and empty of anyone coming and going from the Jackrabbit. He’d spent a solid ten minutes psyching himself up before he finally put his foot on the first step. As he climbed slowly, one step at a time, he was reminded of the threat Mari made to everyone who had moved into the Barracks.

“Rule number one of the Jackrabbit,” Mari’s voice was clear in his head. “Don’t go into my room unless I tell you to. If I find you in there…” She would always flip out her knife, inspecting the blade, watching the expression of the person across from her in the flat of the blade. “Ol’ Gertrude and I are going to have to do a little impromptu plastic surgery.”

The words still send a shiver down his spine. The building was eerily quiet as he fiddled with the lock on Mari’s door. Every little noise made him break out into another cold sweat, and he blinked it out of his eyes as it ran down his forehead. Just as he was about to give up, tell Boze that the lock pick she had given him didn’t work, something clicked, and the door swung open.

Shit . Wes realized that he hadn’t quite expected to get this far. He stepped into the room slowly, the floorboard creaking underneath his feet.

Mari’s room was a part of the older section of the building. It had been redone a long time ago to get rid of the mold in the grout of the brick walls and the asbestos in the ceiling, but the floorboards had stayed, only needing a thin coat of varnish for upkeep. The boards were uneven, but the color, a rich brown, had stayed virtually unscuffed.

The walls had been painting white a long time ago, but besides the color, they were adorned with nothing else. Mari’s room was sparse and spartan, with a window on the wall adjacent to him, and on the wall across from it. Her bed was straight across from him, a simple mattress with a down comforter strewn on top, unmade.

Wes almost couldn’t move as he took it all in, terrified that if he did, he might trip some alarm or set off a trap Mari had left for this very occasion. He let the door shut behind him and got to work, leaving the feed of the alley on his phone on the windowsill.

Wes combed every inch of the room, knocking on the walls, pressing certain bricks, feeling around the ceiling tiles, but he continued to come up empty. Maybe Boze was just paranoid . He hoped that it was just paranoia, the last thing that wanted was a completely unhinged Mari on his hands. She was smart and savvy, and he knew that the moment she realized her cover was blown, she wouldn’t hesitate to do what she needed to get out of town.

It had been almost four months since the last time this had happened, but it felt like years longer than that.

Wes had first started working for Joven about two years ago. He was one of the original strippers when the club opened, a fact that he still wasn’t sure what the make of. When he worked, it felt like he was flying, spinning and turning and dipping until the world around him disappeared.

It’s what he needed after where he’d come from.

He and Joven had gotten close slowly over time, closer than Wes had really been with anyone before. Sure, he’d had relationships in high school and his first semester of college...but this was different. This was something he hadn’t felt before. Joven was the only one who could make his stomach twist up into knots. He was the only person that could light that spark in Wes’s heart.

The night that they’d ended it was a fuzzy memory. He remembered crying, and lying in bed for a few hours hugging his pillow, but everything else was a blur. They’d barely spoke to each other until the night of the attack. The night Wes and Damien had rushed a battered and torn up Boze to the hospital while Joven tried to track down Mari, who had disappeared into the cold August evening.

Boze wasn’t in the hospital for long. It wasn’t that she’d healed fast, but rather that she hated the hospital. She begged them to take her home every time they visited, but they didn’t budge until she was cleared by a doctor that looked reputable, and not one Boze had paid off under the table.

They didn’t talk about what happened to Boze after that night, every time they tried, Boze would push it away. She would get a look in her eye that made Damien shut down the conversation. It was clear that he’d dealt with something like that before.

Joven stopped looking for Mari. Wes remembered the night that happened the clearest. It was the night that the two of them fucked up. The night that they had decided to forget, but Joven’s lips, his hands, his hair, still hummed in Wes’s brain.

He was gone in the morning after, and the two of them had just pretended that it never happened. They pretended that a lot didn’t happen in the time that Mari was gone. They pretended that the didn’t see the news stories about the men that were going missing. The same men that had been arrested after Mari’s rescue just nine years before. They pretended that they didn’t hear each other crying at night. They pretended that the deaths and the breaking of Los Bandidos had been a long time coming.

Wes almost expected to wake up one morning to find a cop on their doorstep with a neutral expression and the news that they’d found Mari’s body, dead and cold, in some lonely crack house.

Joven had told him the news first when Mari had called him that night. Wes had always wondered if he should regret encouraging Joven to go get her. She had been his friend too, and despite all she had done, Wes still cared about her. If Boze knew that he had given Joven the go ahead to let Mari back, he wasn’t quite sure what she’d say.

It was probably best not to tell her.

Wes continued to search, but everywhere he looked came up empty. He hoped that he was wrong, begging and praying to any deity that would listen that he wouldn’t find anything. Wes picked the mattress up, gingerly setting the comforter on the floor as he patted it for any sign of something amiss. He turned the mattress over, feeling the sides and the bottom for any slits on the fabric, and with a content sigh, he dropped it.

He was moving to put the comforter back on when a floorboard caught his eyes. The lump in his throat began to resurface as he noticed that it had been jostled by the movement of the mattress. With nervous hands, Wes knelt on the ground, sliding the bed across the floor to get to the shifted floorboard. He pried up the board with his fingertips, feeling his heart sink as he found several empty bottles lined up neatly next to a small box.

Wes lifted it up, popping it open to find a clean needle and a half-full bottle inside. Using the bottom of his shirt, he lifted it out by the top, reading the label slowly.

Shit .

There was no mistaking it. This was H.

 

Chapter Text

Wes’s words still burned in Mari’s mind. She’d never seen him so angry.

Mari had never been afraid of Wes, but the way his eyes pierced into her as he told her about the bottles he’d found in her room, she was beginning to understand why Joven had made Wes an enforcer. His words had been quiet but firm, his hand clasped around her wrist as she raised her own to push him away.

“You said you were clean, you promised all of us that you were clean.”

“I had it under control.”

“Obviously you don’t.” Wes sounded genuinely disappointed. “I have to tell Joven about this Mari.”

“Wait,” she searched his eyes. He let go of her arm, and it fell to her side. “Give me a week. I can do this.”

“Can you?”

“Yes.”

She rolled her eyes as Wes’s expression didn’t change. "Fine," he murmured.  “We’ll talk in a week.”

Mari flashed her card against the panel on the door to the Titan’s building. She entered through the backway, pushing open the door to Lasercorn’s office. Mari threw her coat on the back of a chair, waking up the sleeping figure hunched over Lasercorn’s desk.

“Mornin’ Sohin.”

“What the fuck Takahashi.” Sohinki stretched, letting the bones in his back and his arms pop as he drew in a long breath. “I was havin’ such a nice dream.”

“Where’s Lasercorn?”

“What time is it?”

Mari pulled her phone from her back pocket, clicking it on and off. “10:32.”

“Ah shit,” Sohinki rubbed his head. “Prob’ in a meeting.” He paused, looking up at her, “why? Joven want to commit more treachery?”

“I wouldn’t call it that-”

“Hey, speakin’ of which, thanks for saving our asses on that anyway, we wouldn’t’ve been able to get outta that mess without’chea.” He pulled open one of Lasercorn’s desk drawers, digging through it. “Here,” he tossed something to her, and Mari fumbled to catch it. “For your work and devotion’ to the cause.”

The bottle made her fingertips go cold as her heartbeat quickened in her chest. She stared down at it, her hands shaking just slightly enough that she knew she wasn’t controlling them.

“You good Takahashi?” She looked up at Sohinki, who watched her with furrowed eyebrows. “You needa shoot up right now?”

“No, no, it’s not that.” She set the bottle gingerly back on the corner of the desk. “I want to stop Sohinki.”

"Really?" Sohinki let his face fall, his expression almost condescending. “How many times have ya tried to do this?”

Mari bit her lip, trying to to look at Sohinki as she answered under her breath, “seven.”

“What was that?” Sohinki’s grin grew just slightly.

“Seven Sohin,” she growled. “I’ve tried seven times.”

“Maybe you should just accept that this is a part of you Takahashi,” his words cut through her. “You can’t-”

“No.” Mari’s voice was dark. “No. I have to quit.”

“Woah, where’d this come from?”

Mari’s eyes twitched just slightly. “I need a drink.” She turned away from him, moving to the closet to pull out Lasercorn’s bar cart.

“Did someone catch ya?”

Mari didn’t answer as she began pouring herself a large scotch and soda.

“Ah,” Sohinki’s head lifted up as he stood. He rounded the desk to pour himself a shot of whiskey. “They threaten’ you?”

“Yep.” Mari tightened her grip around her glass and Sohinki knocked back the shot, moving to pour himself another. She was beginning to regret her drink choice as Sohinki put down the second shot, shaking his head from the taste. “If I don’t get my shit together, he’s going to break it to Joven.”

“And some random threat scares ya like that?” Sohinki laughed as he poured himself a glass of scotch. “You’ve changed Takahashi, you’re softer than ya used ta’ be.”

“It’s more complicated than that.” Mari rounded the cart, sitting against the chair in front of the desk. “I could normally just deny it, Joven would believe me, but the guy has proof. Hard proof. It would indict me no matter how I try to hide it.”

“Which of the Jackrabbits came after ya?”

“Wes,” Mari spoke. Sohinki raised an eyebrow and Mari elaborated. “Silver haired guy.”

“Oh,” Sohinki nodded. “And you can’t hurt him because that’s the guy Joven’s sleeping with.”

“Slept with,” Mari corrected. “As far as I know. They’ve been pretty...cold...to one another recently.”

“Really?” Sohinki shook his head in surprised. “From what Bussy ranted to me ‘bout them, it seemed like Joven would do whatever it took to protect Wes.”

“Joven would do anything to protect any of us.” Mari weighted her answer in the back of her head, “but you wouldn’t be wrong if you said that Joven would put his life on the line for Wes’s a thousand times over.”

The two of them stood silently for a moment. “So you wanna quit,” Sohinki finally spoke.

“Yeah.”

“Well, can’t go cold turkey, doesn’t work like that.”

“I know,” Mari nodded. “Withdrawal is a bitch that I’ve never managed to tame.”

“I can help with that actually,” Sohinki crossed the room to the door. “Give me a minute or so, I’ve gotta go grab it.”

He disappeared out the front door, and Mari stewed in the silence around her for little while. The bottle of H on the table stared her down. She pinched the inside of her arm as it began to throb with the familiar hunger she’d been pushing down every time her mind began to numb like it had before.

Sohinki reappeared, holding a small cardboard box. He handed it to her, and she thumbed over silver tops of the bottles.

“What are these?” She looked up at him as he dug through the drawers of Lasercorn’s desk.

“I don’t really know.” Sohinki didn’t look up at her from what he was doing. “But I do know, that when I was tryin’a get clean, they helped me more than anything.” He turned his head up towards her, pulling something out of the drawer and setting it on the surface next to him. “Take a small bit with your H when you need it. It should help.”

“...thanks Sohin,” she murmured. Mari came to her senses and dug through her pockets. “What do I owe you?”

“On the house,” he replied with a slight smile. “But-” She paused, her hands prepared to set down the bottles and leave if Sohinki proposed anything bad. “I want'cha to take the job Lasercorn offered you.”

“What?” Mari shook her head. “But the Jackrabbit...I don’t want to leave them. I can’t leave them.”

“Alright,” Sohinki nodded. “Then, if all’a this fails, you come’n work for us.”

“That sounds like I’m the only one that wins in this situation.”

“We want ya on our team Mari.” Sohinki pushed Lasercorn’s chair in to the desk. “You play a bigger role here than I think ya can understand right now. And besides,” he grinned to himself. “Ya scare some of our toughest boys shitless, and it’s fucking hilarious.”

“Then I’ll take it,” Mari nodded. “If this all crashes and burns, you can expect to see me in Lasercorn’s office with my box of stuff the next morning.”

Sohinki grinned, his teeth appearing from beneath curled lips. “I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

“Sohin,” Mari stood shaking in the middle of her room, her hands shivering as she struggled to hold to phone to her ear. “What the hell did you give me, I feel like I’m dying.”

“Takahashi? It’s late. What the fuck are you doing up right now?”

“I think I’m dying, this shit...my brain’s on fire I’m-“

“Calm down Takahashi,” Sohinki responded calmly. “Sit somewhere comfortable. You’re gonna have’ta ride this one out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hundred percent.”

“It feels worse than anything I’ve ever experience.” Her voice shook. “Matt I feel like I’m going to die.”

“Hey, hey,” his voice was warm like sunlight, gold and pure, washing across her face. “Just listen to me, okay, keep ya-self tethered to me. Close your eyes if ya have to. I’ll stay on the phone with you as long as ya want.”

“Okay,” she murmured. Her body was on fire and her bones and muscles ached, humming with a soaring pain that shot through her. “Okay, just keep talking.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m on a game show where the prize is pain.”

“Specific,” Sohinki remarked.

“Was it this bad for you too?”

“I was lyin’ on the floor for three hours with the worst shakes you’d ever seen. Slick with sweat, scared outta my mind. I thought I was gonna die too, but here I am.”

“Just...stay here with me, okay?”

“I’m not plannin’ on leavin’ anytime soon.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

“Mari!” Wes’s voice shocked her back to reality. “Jesus, I’ve been calling your name for like a minute and a half, didn’t you hear me?”

“I did now,” she murmured. Her head was beyond foggy. This new drug was doing a number on her, she’d had to change her H intake to balance the amount of this stuff, but she felt like it was working. Her body was more alert than ever, but she’d not been getting enough sleep recently, and her mind was taking a toll. “Are we heading somewhere?”

“Titans fucked up again.”

“Shit,” Mari grumbled. “What happened?”

“They were hiding a warehouse from us, keeping half of their product there.”

“Maybe they just didn’t have enough people to sell to.”

“No, they were selling it overseas in bulk and keeping the profits.”

“Does Lasercorn know about this?” Mari felt a spike of fear radiate through her head.

“Joven’s talking to him.” She blinked, trying to keep Wes in view, but all she could register was his voice. “Right now we don’t know.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

Mari stood against the wall in Joven’s office. She could hear voices near her, but they were muffled. Her arms were crossed against her body, but that was the only thing that tethered her there.

They’d sorted things out, at least she thought they had, she wasn’t quite sure. Joven was on the phone. Maybe he was…no, wait, he wasn’t. There were definitely more people in the room than just them.

A voice spoke her name, and she looked up at them, the room coming into harsh focus. The lines of the room sharpened, and as she blinked, it was as if someone had placed a pair of binoculars in front of her eyes. She could see everything, every hair follicle in Joven’s beard, the scars on the side of Lasercorn’s face, and pale dusting of the cigarette ash on Sohinki’s fingertips.

“Yeah?” She spoke up. Mari tried to read the room, but it was hard to tell what side to take. “What?” Her voice growled in her throat.

“Are the Titans necessary to our operation?”

“Yeah.”

Joven’s eyes twitched. Shit. Wrong answer.

“But,” she continued. “We should begin to phase them into different parts of the Jackrabbit, give them more free reign in other areas.” Mari shifted in her stance. “If your people aren’t willing to follow us, I’m not sure we can continue to work with you.”

“A peculiar sentiment Takahashi,” Lasercorn murmured. He narrowed her eyes, looking her up and down. “Are you feeling alright? You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine,” Mari snapped. “I’m perfectly fine. Are we done here?”

“We can be.”

“Good,” she stormed out the door, letting it slam behind her. Everything is fine, her mind murmured, that was normal. That was definitely normal.

Whatever Sohinki had given her, it was definitely doing something.

 

Chapter Text

“Again?” Joven leaned back in his chair as he answered the third phone call in the last hour. Mari watched from a few feet away where she leaned against the back of his desk. “Yep. Uh-huh. No. Sure. Just get it done, okay? Bye.”

“Titans?”

“Yep.” Joven rubbed his eyes as he reclined back in his chair. “I’m hoping that you’re right about them being more of an asset than a nuisance Mar, because they’re really testing my patience.”

“Huh, you haven’t called me ‘Mar’ in a long time.”

“I don’t have enough energy for two syllables.”

“The job’s really taking it out of you, huh?”

“Yeah.” Joven sat forward, hunching over his desk as he stared straight forward. “I don’t know what I need more, coffee, a nap, or something to take the edge off.”

“What happened this time?”

“I don’t even know anymore,” Joven waved his hand. “Titans meddled in something stupid, Titans fought with our people again, Titans BLEW UP A SPEEDBOAT. How the fuck do you blow up a speedboat?”

“There’s actually a lot of ways to do that-”

“But they didn’t NEED to blow up a speedboat.” Joven hung his neck back over the side of the chair. “I’m starting to wonder if the Titans are really worth it Mari. Boze doesn’t want to work with their tech guy, Bussy attacked both Wes and myself, and he’s threatened Wes multiple times after, and Damien, who can get along with most people, also told me that he found them annoying ‘just the slightest’.”

“They’re making improvements,” Mari shrugged. “They’re getting better, slowly, but they’re getting better.” She stretched moving forward. “Eeh, we’ll figure it out. I’m gonna go...do something else.” She gave him a grin he couldn’t decipher. “Have fun with cleaning up messes.”

“I’ll try,” Joven responded slowly. Mari left the room, letting the door slam behind her.

Something had changed about her, and Joven wasn’t just that it was good. The last time she had acted like this…

No. Mari was smarter than that. She wouldn’t go back to it again. She’d tell him if she’d fallen back into old habits. Wouldn’t she?

Joven let his eyes close, falling back farther into his chair. God, he needed a nap. Joven turned his ringer on, setting an alarm for a half hour before leaning back in his chair.

He barely let himself sleep anymore, and anytime he could was a godsend. Joven always had weird dreams when he took power naps. It was as if his brain was beginning to understand his sleep schedule, and then planned for his subconscious to process everything in the short amount of time.

His dream began like many of his dreams do, in that closet where he hid those many years ago. He snapped his eyes shut as the sound of gunshots rang out in the distance. Joven hugged himself closer, the light from the hall shining through the gaps in the closet door.

He could hear the door being slammed open, but he didn’t want to look up.

“Open your eyes.” Joven’s eyes fluttered open. Mari stood above him, her body silhouetted by the light from the hall. He looked down to see the familiar cold body on the floor. Wes’s silver hair spilled across his face.

“Get up,” she stood above him. Her two lieutenants flanked her either side. Lasercorn and Sohinki watch him with cold smirks. Joven stood shakily, trying to take in the sight. He was taller than before. Normally in these dreams he’d feel small. But now, he towered over Mari. “He’ll do nicely.”

The dream shifted, and he was lying in a bed, the bunk above him shifting as his bunk mate moved in her sleep.

“Kate,” he whispered. His voice wasn’t his own. “Kate are you awake?”

“I am now,” she grumbled. Her voice was thick with sleep. “What do you want Josh?”

“It’s Joshua, don’t call me Josh.”

“That’s stupid,” she sighed. “Joshua Ovenshire is a stupid name.”

“It’s not stupid.” He replied meekly. “It was my Grandfather’s name. Though, lotsa his unit called him Jovenshire.”

“Jovenshire?” She laughed breathily. “That’s even stupider.” Kate paused for a moment. “Joven. I’m gonna call you Joven.”

“Joven?” A different voice called to him from across the room. Joven turned over in bed to see a door open across from him. Wes stood in the doorway, his hair falling over his face as he stumbled into the room. “J-oven?”

The lights in the room brightened, and Joven could see the blood falling from Wes’s shoulder as he stumbled towards him. He reached out to catch Wes in his arms, but the second his fingers pressed into Wes’s skin, he exploded into rose petals, which fluttered ungracefully towards Joven. They stuck to his skin, leaving tiny marks where the blood covered petals graced across his body.

Joven’s alarm rang through his dream, shocking him awake. He fumbled for it as he sat forward, grabbing the device and shutting it off.

Damnit . Joven grabbed his head, massaging his temples. Headache .

“Hey, boss, you awake in there?” Joven looked up to see Shayne peeking in the door.

“Shayne, I thought the club wasn’t opening for another few hours, did I oversleep?”

“No, I’m just early.”

“Did you lose your key again? Because I told you, they start getting suspicious down at the place when you make too many.”

“No, I have it right here,” Shayne pulled the key up from around his neck. “Actually, I came to talk about something else. I want to be more involved with the other side of the club.”

Joven raised his eyebrows. “You do?” He shuffled in his seat. “I didn’t know that the strippers were all interested in this sort of thing.”

“It’s just me, no one else.”

“Oh!” Joven nodded, trying to make sense of it all. “And what brought this on?”

“After the gauntlet, well, um, before that too, but uh-“

“Hey, hey, slow down,” Joven guested the chair in front of his desk. “Take a seat, what’s on your mind?”

Shayne pulled the chair under him, sitting with his knees pressed together. “I became an actor because I was bored, and then I became a stripper because I was bored, but the gauntlet, all of this? It’s the first excitement I’ve felt in a long time.”

“And you think that joining us would make you feel less...bored?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, it’s an interesting idea, but I’m not certain how it would work in reality.”

“I don’t even have to do that much,” Shayne shook his hands. “If you just want me for helping on smaller mission, or picking stuff up, or running small errands, I don’t need anything more.”

“Joven-“ a voice came from behind Shayne’s head. Damien leaned in through the door, “sorry to bother you, but-“ Damien seemed to register that Shayne was the one sitting in the chair, but his voice was odd. “Shayne,” he murmured coldly.

“Damien,” Shayne’s voice was just as layered with ice.

Joven was surprised at their hostility. Whenever Damien and Shayne had fought in the past, it had been small things, what color Shayne should dye his hair, if Damien should buy a car, stupid things they’d feel bad for fighting about later. Both of them made aggressive eye contact with him, each expressing a different, but intense emotion.

He blinked, looking from one to the other.

“Shayne, could we continue this conversation later? I would love to further explore your proposition.”

“Awesome,” Shayne’s sharp expression melted into a bright grin. He stood, pausing for a second as if he was trying to figure out what to do before turning and and pushing past Damien towards the door. The office door shut loudly behind him, and Damien stepped fully into the room.

“What was that about?” Joven gestured with his thumb. “Something up with you two?”

“Nah, it’s all good.” Damien smiled quickly, which further cemented Joven’s idea that something was definitely wrong. “What was he asking about?”

“He’s interested in joining up,” Joven cleared some things off of his desk. “Says he’s ‘bored’ or something.”

“Joining up?” Damien seemed surprised, but he let his expression quickly return to neutral.

“Is there something up with you two?” Joven tried to phrase the question as delicately as possible. “You two seem…off today.”

“It’s nothing,” Damien replied coldly.

“Alright, alright, don’t get yourself in a twist, I was just wondering.” Joven put his hands up slowly in surrender. Damien rolled his eyes, but just barely, as if he thought that Joven wouldn’t catch it. “Did you need something?”

“Uh, yeah, actually.” Damien shifted in his stance. “I was wondering if I could take Leo out of the basement. Maybe take him on a little field day? He hasn’t been out in a month, and I think that this is what he needs to truly trust me.”

“He still hasn’t give you anything?”

“He’s a blabbermouth, but it’s always about something that isn’t what I want him to tell me.” Damien rubbed the corner of his eye with a fingertip. “I keep thinking that I’m getting close, and then he throws a curveball and I’m confused again.” He shrugged it off, moving to massage his shoulder. “Leo makes no sense to me. It’s like he’s constantly changing. I can’t keep him under my thumb the way I want to.”

“And if you can convince him that you’re fighting for him, you think that’ll help?”

“I do.” Damien nodded, he tilted his head slightly. “And Shayne freaking out on me a few days ago definitely took us back a few steps.”

“What do you mean?”

“He came down into the basement, nearly blew my whole operation, a few more well placed words and all of my progress would’ve come tumbling down.”

“Damien, why didn’t you tell me about that?” Joven raised an eyebrow. “I hadn’t heard about this.”

“You've been so busy, it’s almost impossible to talk to you. This was the first time in a week that I’ve even caught your attention for more than a minute, and even then, we couldn’t talk about Leo with other around.”

“Everyone knows that Leo’s in the basement, there’s no point in keeping him a secret anymore, is there?”

“Keeping the nature of his and my relationship secret is crucial .” Damien leaned forward, dropping his voice. “In all of my talks with Leo, and my research into his family and their connections...I think there’s a spy somewhere in the network. Either a spy for the Xiaolong, or maybe someone we don’t know about, but there’s definitely a spy, and they’ve been watching the gangs of Los Santos for years.”

“What does all of that mean for us?”

“From what I’ve figured out, they are somehow connected to all of the gangs that have been big in the past twenty years or so.” Damien swallowed slowly, “the Black Blade, Los Bandidos, Xiaolong, Bear Brotherhood, Seventh Street Titans, and now us. They’ve all been mentioned by Leo at some point, and he’s always made points about them that I don’t think he could know unless he had someone on the inside.”

“Huh,” the gears in Joven’s brain began to click. “Do you have any theories about who it might be?”

“A few,” Damien nodded, “but I want to put this final part into place before I pursue anything fully.”

“Then go for it,” Joven shrugged. “Take him somewhere, but keep him on a short leash, okay?” Damien gave him a quick nod before he turned to leave.

“Hey, Damien, are you sure that everything’s okay?” He turned back, his expression pained as he faced Joven slowly. “It’s just...you’ve been quiet recently. Quieter than normal. If you ever want to talk or-“

“I’m fine, really,” Damien sighed, a soft smile on his face. “And I appreciate the sentiment, don’t get me wrong, but I really am fine. I’m just a little stressed and I need some sleep, but I’ll be okay, don’t worry.” He flashed Joven a smile, but Joven couldn’t help but feel his heart sink at how fake it was.

There was something in Damien that had been broken, and it wasn’t the kind of break that healed.

Chapter Text

Damien let Leo stand in front of the Jackrabbit, breathing in the cold afternoon air as he stretched his arms up towards the sky.

“God, I can breathe again,” Leo sighed. He let his hands drop, turning to face Damien, who was watching him from behind.

“So,” Leo grinned. “Where to Lion?”

“There’s a place a few blocks from here I think we should go.” Damien tried not to move too much as Leo slipped his arm through his. “It’s, um, called Midori No Me.” Leo looked up at him with a beginning of a familiar smirk. “It’s one of my favorite places,” he added quickly.

“Japanese?”

“Uh, yep, ramen.”

“Ah.” He tightened his grip on Damien arm as a gust of wind buffeted against them. “Sounds wonderful.”

They walked the short few blocks to the restaurant, making small talk as they went. It wasn’t hard for the to carry conversation. They’d gotten to know each other well by then, and Damien actually didn’t mind chatting with Leo that much. Their conversations had become a good way to get things off of his mind.

It had been a surprisingly windy winter, and Damien was getting tired of the cold. He missed the summer months, which always carried friendlier memories. Something about the cold brought out the worst in people.

Damien pulled open the door, and Leo entered, breathing in the warm seasoned air as he unzipped the coat Damien had lent him. “God it smells incredible in here.”

“That’s why I love it,” Damien replied, scanning the room for any sign of trouble.

The two of them ordered, Leo taking a bit longer than Damien to deliberate. They chose a booth along the window, and Damien found it odd that it happened to be the same booth where he’d sat with Joe Bereta just a few months ago.

Things were so different now than they were even just that short time ago.

Those few months ago, the Jackrabbit had barely been a name. Now, it seemed to be on everyone’s lips.

Those few months ago, Damien had been going to Shayne’s apartment. Now they weren't even talking. They barely even made eye contact in the hall anymore. He knew it was his fault that Shayne wasn’t even acknowledging his presence. He had known that his lies would topple him one day, but he hadn’t thought that it would be so soon.

“So,” Leo’s voice was scheming. He picked at the shock collar that was currently fastened to his wrist. There was another one on his ankle, and Damien had slipped a tracking device into his shoe, just in case. If he did try to escape, Damien knew that he had at least twenty minutes before Leo found and destroyed the device.

Somehow, Damien got the impression that Leo wouldn’t try to run. Even with the current threat of shock, and Damien’s position bearing over the conversation, Leo still looked at ease.

“So what?” Damien finally answered Leo’s dangling question. He knew that it was bait for something, but he took it anyway.

“Why are we really here, Lion?”

“You can just call me Damien, you know that, right?”

“I know,” his words were honeyed. “But I like Lion better. Makes you sound more chivalrous. Like you’re my knight, and not my torturer.”

“Knight?”

Leo had already moved on.

“How long has it been since the gauntlet?”

Damien furrowed his eyebrows. “What?”

“I’ve lost concept of time I’ve been in that basement so long. I don’t even know what day of the week it is.”

“It’s Wednesday.” Damien raised an eyebrow just slightly. “And the gauntlet was in November -- the end of November -- it’s a week or so into February now.”

“I’ve been in that dark cell for three months?” Leo shook his head. “I’m surprised that I haven’t gone crazy yet.”

“I am too,” Damien nodded. “I thought that you’d snap by the second week, but instead…”

“I’ve persevered.”

“Apparently.”

A waiter came by with their food, and Leo dug into it ferociously. Damien tried not to smile at Leo’s expression as he processed the taste of the ramen.

“My god, this is good.”

“Like heaven, huh?”

“If heaven was made of noodles and broth, this would be it.” Leo paced himself as he looked up to see Damien still fiddling with the egg on top. “You didn’t answer my question earlier.”

“Which one?”

“Why you brought me here.”

“You’d been stuck down there for months, I thought you deserved to get some time out, even for a little bit.”

“And that’s the only reason?” Leo raised an eyebrow as Damien furrowed his. “Oh,” he sat back slightly. “Is this some sort of secret outing, you snuck me out the back way? We’re dastardly and terrible? Breaking laws for the better?”

“Nope,” Damien shook his head. “I checked with Joven about taking you out yesterday, he was cool with it.”

“Ugh,” Leo scoffed. “For someone who breaks at least three laws everyday, you’re as straight-laced as they come.” The two of them let silence lapse between them as they continued to eat.

Damien let his gaze draw to the window, watching as a misty rain had begun to fall outside.

“Huh,” Leo murmured. “It never rains in Los Santos. Always gets cloudy, but never rains.” He looked up to Damien. “Do you think it means something?”

“I’ve never really been one to put stock in superstition.”

Leo rolled his eyes. “Always the fun-sponge.” He set his chopsticks down on top of the bowl of ramen, folding his hands. “I’d wager that it means that things are changing. I mean, that’s what rain does, doesn’t it?” Damien shrugged, swallowing down a piece of pork belly as he nodded along absentmindedly. “The city looks one way, and then it rains, and it washes away the old stuff and brings in the new. And sometimes it shows you something you never knew you needed to see.”

“I didn’t know you were so much of a romantic.”

“The bleakness of a basement jail cell shows you the beauty in life.”

“Does it now?”

“Indeed it does,” Leo smiled softly as he picked his chopsticks back up. He drew in a quick breath, considering saying something before closing his mouth. Leo narrowed his eyes, catching Damien’s as he looked up. “You know, we never talked about that day we were so rudely interrupted.”

Damien nearly spat out his broth.

“The man came downstairs, what was his name? I heard you yelling it a few times from upstairs.”

“You heard that?”

“It was muffled, but I could tell that it was his name.”

“That was Shayne.”

Shayne ,” Leo nodded slowly. “Someone I need to be worried about?”

“What, why?” Damien furrowed his eyebrows.

“I don’t know,” Leo shrugged. “When he burst in, there was just something about his face. There was a sort of...jealousy to it, and I-”

“Jealousy?” Damien had to keep himself from bursting out laughing. “I don’t know what you think jealousy looks like, but it definitely wasn’t that.”

“Ah.” He blinked slowly. “Really? It was just….Hmm. Good to know.”

“What?”

“Oh, you know,” Leo waved his hand, but he didn’t answer Damien’s query in the slightest. “I worry, and I wonder. It doesn’t matter.” Damien wanted to know exactly what Leo meant, but he’d already begun to move on. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, he is attractive, but he’s simply not my type.”

Damien humoured him. “And what is your type?”

Leo grinned, “funny that you want to know, Lion.”

“Just asking.”

“Uh-huh,” a smile danced across his lips. “Your friend is too showy for my taste, with those muscles and that physique. I like boys who are a little sad and a little beautiful.” He stabbed at a piece of meat in his ramen. “And you happen to fill both of those requirements, which is nice.”

Damien ducked his head, feeling his face grow red as he lifted his bowl to sip the broth.

“You’re nearly perfect, which I always thought was impossible. You’re one of the most gorgeous people I have ever had the privilege of laying my eyes on….And if your cheeks did that little dimple thing when you smile, I think I might just die, melt into pieces, waste away in your beauty.” He felt his lips draw upward just slightly in retaliation, and he heard Leo sigh with content. “There it is. Perfection.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Flirt with me like that?”

Leo shrugged, a half smile still glowing on his face. “It’s fun to watch you squirm. You’ve obviously never learned how to take a compliment before, and it’s almost funny the little box you curl yourself up in when you’re nervous.” His eyes were soft as he made quick eye contact with Damien. “I can stop if you want.”

Damien pressed his lips together, shrugging one shoulder, “free country, do what you want.” Leo only grinned wider.

The conversation lapsed again as they began to finish their food. Every so often, Leo would open his mouth to say something, but then he would close it again, and continue eating. Damien almost finally snapped, and was about to tell him to just spit out whatever he was trying to say, when Leo finally spoke.

“I really thought we would talk about that day.” Damien looked up, pushing the last of his noodles into his mouth. “But we never did. I mean, you came in, you gave me my food, you sat across from me, you threatened to electrocute me, and then you left. And then the next day, you brought me lunch, you threatened to waterboard me, and then you left. Always threats, always empty.” Leo’s lips turned downwards just slightly as his expression became pitying. “And then you send the others to bring me food, and they’re so boring. I like the one with the brown-black hair and the weird taste in boots, she wears glasses sometimes, comes and visits me every once and awhile? Good with computers.”

“Boze.”

“Boze,” Leo nodded. “She’s sweet. She used to sit with me, and we’d just enjoy each other’s company. I like her.”

“I think she’ll appreciate hearing that.”

“And then there’s Joven,” Leo rolled his eyes. “If you looked at the word cocky in the dictionary, you’d find his picture underneath the definition. When I was first in the basement, he seemed to like rubbing his victory in my face. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but he’s an arrogant fool, and his pride will be the death of him. He’s like every other wannabe gang leader, he’ll be dead by thirty-nine, probably caught with his pants down, gunshot wound to the back of his head.”

“I wouldn’t say Joven’s a wannabe, he’s made it this far.”

“Mm, it’s more like he’s faking it.” Leo pushed his bowl of ramen forward, crossing his arms over his chest. “Like he’s made it this far, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he keeps pretending.”

“That sounds more accurate.”

“And then there’s the scary lady with purple hair.”

“Mari,” Damien nodded.

“A surprisingly tame name for a terrifying human being.”

“Is she really that scary?”

“She looks like the kind of person who would stab you in a dark alley for five bucks. And she’d have no mercy about it either.” Leo bit his lip. “Suffice it to say, I don’t like her very much.”

“Mari’s….someone you have to get to know. She’s a good egg, but you just have to peel back a few layers to get to it.”

“And then there’s the silver-haired silent brute.”

“Wes.”

“Another sad pretty boy.” Leo shook his head. “He would seem to also be my type, but there’s something behind his eyes. It’s like this...hope, or maybe it’s a hunger, I almost can’t describe it.”

“Like he’s in love with someone already, and you’d never be able to change his mind?”

Leo’s eyes flickered, blinking with surprise. “Nail on the head Lion.” He cocked his head to the side. “Something between you two?”

“Definitely not,” Damien shook his head. “Wes and I are more like brothers than anything else. I’ve consoled him about love and shit like that before.”

“Ah,” Leo nodded. “He’s a sweet guy, I do hope he ends up happy.”

“You and me both.”

“You know, Lion, I’ve been thinking about it, why did your friend, Shayne, why did he react like that?”

“Like what?”

“So brash and loud.” Leo narrowed his eyes. “Maybe it wasn’t jealousy, maybe it was fear.”

“I don’t know,” Damien sighed. “It’s just...I think he’s tired of being out of the loop, and recently…” he closed his eyes, drawing in a breath. “I had to tell him some things I thought he’d never know. They were bad things, things that just kind of came out. It was like the truth had been trapped behind a dam, and then one little thing sprung loose, and everything collapsed before my eyes.  Our whole relationship was based on a lie, and I know that I should’ve just told him the truth, but...I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t talk about your gang past or you didn’t want to?”

Damien swallowed slowly. “I’ve been trying to forget…” he cleared his throat, “the Black Blade. So many fucked up things happened to me there, it was almost easier for me to lie to myself about where I came from. And I know-” he shook his head- “Shayne’s got a thing about trust, and I should’ve just gotten drunk and told him the truth. I should’ve put my trust in him and cried to him at three am, but instead-”

The memories of that one fateful drunken house call filled with confessions that were covered up by more and more lies flooded back to him. It was why Damien didn’t drink. Alcohol did something to him. It broke him in a way he couldn’t explain. He missed Shayne so badly.

“In truth,” Damien murmured. “I’ve forgotten a lot about...the gang...because I didn’t want to remember so badly that things started to delete themselves. And then, like a flash, I’ll remember something, and it’s sudden and violent, and it breaks me down.”

“How frequently does that happen?”

Damien bit his lip, “maybe every week or so, it depends.”

“Is that why you’re so adamant about figuring this out?” Leo leaned forward, catching Damien’s eyes. “Because you think it’ll give you some closure.”

“I wasn’t there when my dad died.” Damien’s voice burned in his throat. “I didn’t get to watch that chapter close. And now, it’s like I expect to go into my room one day and find him sitting on my bed.”

Leo sat back against the booth slowly. He opened his mouth to say something but Damien stopped him.

“I don’t need pity, or a ‘you’ll get em tiger’ or anything. I don’t even know why I told you all of that.” Damien brushed the corners of eyes with the sleeve of his coat.

“Damien, I-”

“No, you don’t need to-”

“No.” Something in Leo’s voice had changed. “I think you need to know this, and I know I’m breaking protocol, but...screw protocol.” He didn’t make eye contact with Damien as he spoke, his voice hushed and arms crossed against his chest. “There’s a storage unit in East Los Santos. It’s how I knew about that...that thing that we talked about a month or so ago. There are papers, and recordings, and notes. They’re all there.”

“Leo-”

“Just, don’t thank me yet.”

“What, what brought this on?”

Leo looked up at him, eyes soft, but eyebrows furrowed. “My employer left me to rot in your basement for three months. They said that they would protect me. That they cared about me, but it’s clear that they don’t. It’s even more clear that I was just an asset, and nothing more.” The pause nearly killed Damien. “But I think...to you, I’m something more.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

Damien pulled off the shock collar from around Leo’s ankle, tossing it into a bin behind him before loosening the one around his wrist.

“The code is a little complicated.” Leo wrote out the digits onto a piece of paper Damien had given him. Damien was knelt next to Leo, trying to deactivate the collar so it wouldn’t shock him on accident.

He stood slowly, drawing to his full height over Leo, who sat on his bed, checking each digit for a third time. Leo then scratched out a tiny map next to it, marking an X over a small location. He looked up, pressing his bottom lip into his top as he handed it to Damien.

Damien furrowed his eyebrows at the line of code scrawled in Leo’s messily neat handwriting, TGEgRG91bGV1ciBFeHF1aXNl . The code made no sense to him, but he supposed that it meant something. The length was probably just a safety feature for the things it was protecting.

“It’s this long?”

“It’ll make sense when you get there.”

“Alright.” He ran a finger over the paper. “Hey, thanks,” Damien murmured. “Really.” He folded the note, pushing it into his pocket. “For listening to me, and everything.”

“Anytime.” Leo searched his eyes, rolling them slightly. “Or, for as long as I’m stuck down here.”

Leo’s expression was so familiar, and Damien felt his heart ache as he thought of Shayne. Why had he lied? He was an idiot. He should just let Shayne go if he didn’t want it to hurt this bad.

Leo watched him, and Damien bit his lip as Leo stood, closing the small space between them.

“I mean what I said before.” He barely had to whisper for his voice to carry to brush against Damien’s lips. “There’s something here. Something about you is different.”

He was so close.

And then he could only see Shayne’s face. The look of confusion, the smile, the door closing behind him.

His eyes.

His hair.

Leo was so close but Damien could only think of Shayne. You can forget him, drown your sorrows in someone new. The voice in the back of his head sounded rational, but another spoke louder.

Damien felt himself pull back, and he felt the moment break. Leo searched his face, and Damien scrambled to put the walls back up in front of his eyes, but there was something twisting in his stomach, and it was too late.

“Huh.” Leo pulled away, his hands falling slowly to his sides. Damien’s face moved to slow. Everything they had worked for. All of the months, all of the hours, all of the past Damien had dredged up. It was burning away before his eyes.

“Leo, wait-”

“You must’ve been a great actor,” his voice was poisonous. “Because you’re an incredible liar.” He pushed Damien away with a shaking hand, sitting back on his bed. Leo pulled himself into the corner of his bed, sitting cross legged, his eyes fixed on the point farthest away from Damien’s face. “I should’ve known better than to fall for a pretty boy like you. They always break your heart.”

Damien didn’t know what to say, backing slowly out of the cell and pushed the door to the cell shut.

“Good. Run away coward.” Leo’s words were choked up in his throat. “You might think you won, but there is so much more to this story. That code is only a drop in the ocean compared to what’s going on under your nose.”

Damien clenched his fist around the bars, trying to think of something, anything to say, but his voice was gone.

“What?” Leo roared. “Are you just going to stand there and taunt me? FUCK OFF!”

Damien turned around, somewhat stunned. He was still trying to process what was going on. He’d blown it. He’d jeopardized their entire plan. The thing they’d been plotting for months.

All because he couldn’t get a stupid blue-eyed boy off of his mind.

 

Chapter Text

Boze sat in front of Lasercorn for what felt like the fourth time that week. Her laptop stood open on the desk in front of her, her arms crossed against her chest as she raised a bored eyebrow. “That’s Joven’s final offer.”

“If he wants to draw ultimatums, he should be here himself.”

“Joven is busy with other projects currently, and he couldn’t be present.”

Mari laughed from where she stood behind Lasercorn, her fingers curled over the back of his chair like she was some glorified parrot on his shoulder. From the bright purple of her plumage, she almost looked like some exotic bird from here. “Joven could be here if he wanted to.”

Boze shot her a look, but Mari’s eyes were so far away, that she wasn’t even sure if Mari knew that it was Boze sitting across from her. After Wes had confirmed her suspicious, Boze had done her best to stay as far away from Mari as possible. It hadn’t been hard, she normally avoided Mari like the plague, but Joven had told her to come today, and there wasn’t exactly and easy way to get out of this.

“It’s not the Titan’s fault that the Jackrabbits aren’t competent.”

“Bold words coming from someone who know he’s lying.”

Lasercorn tightened his fist on the table, drawing in a breath as he swallowed slowly. “Who are you again?”

“Joven’s accountant, data analyst, and part time manager of the club.”

“Hacker,” Mari coughed.

“Yes,” Boze nodded. “And I’m very proud of that title. But I’m not here to hack, I'm here  because I’m the only one who’s able to get Joven to see clearly for once.”  Mari’s lips pressed together until they turned white, her eyes flickering everywhere except for Boze’s face  “There's been too much fighting and not enough profit for us to believe that you’re a suitable ally anymore.” Boze closed her laptop, folding her hands on top of the desk. “So either you and the Titans shape up, or you ship out, got that?”

“Loud. And. Clear.” Lasercorn growled quietly.

“Perfect.” Boze slipped her laptop into the bag at her side. “We look forward to hearing from you, and hopefully what we do hear will be good. You have one more strike Moss,” Lasercorn’s eye twitched at the name, “make better choices this time.”

“We’ll see.”

“Good.” Boze replied coldly. In no way was she going to let him get the last word.

“I’ll see her out,” Mari patted Lasercorn’s shoulder. “I should head back to the headquarters anyway.”

Lasercorn said something to her in a different language, and Boze wasn’t even sure what it was before Mari was striding out of the room, forcing her to trail behind. Mari slowed her pace as the door closed behind them.

“What the hell were you doing in there?” Mari didn’t make eye contact with Boze as she spat out the words.

“What do you mean?”

“Disrespecting Lasercorn like that!” Boze felt her stomach flip at the tone of Mari’s voice. “He’s a powerful man, and there’s a modicum of respect that comes with standing in his presence.”

Boze pushed the door open, stepping out into the mid-day sun as Mari followed behind her. “I don’t care if he’s the fucking president of space, he’s just another boring, insignificant wannabe.”

Mari grabbed Boze’s wrist, and Boze felt waves of fear wash over her. “You shut your damn mouth.” Boze threw her wrist away from Mari’s grasp, trying to calm her breathing as Mari’s cold stare fought her down. “Lasercorn is more of a leader than someone like Joven could ever be.”

“What?” Boze narrowed her eyes. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Oh Joven thinking he’s so high and mighty with his Kingship and his whatever . He’s a fucking idiot compared to Lasercorn.”

“Lasercorn is a dictator and a bully, why else does he run a failing gang?” Boze spat back. “Why else has he been too stupid to even think about getting the Kingship? He might be powerful, but he doesn’t understand the beauty of loyalty.”

“Loyalty.” Mari scoffed. “What do you even know about loyalty?”

“A lot more than you do.” Boze felt herself on the verge of tears. “Because there's a reason I care about this fucking family.” Her chest rose and felt, a sob bubbling in her chest. “There’s a reason that I’ve stuck around. I don’t ‘stick around’, I’ve never ‘stuck around’, especially when I have so many flashing alarms in my head telling me to run. Especially when I have the scars on my back from betrayal of someone I thought was my friend.”  Tears had begun to stream down her face, her body shaking.

Mari watched her, her face neutral. There was no life behind her eyes.

Boze let her hand fall from her mouth. “Joven has made me care about something. And if he can do that for me, I know he did that for you. Why are you throwing that away? Why do you let yourself inject poison into your veins?” She was shaking so hard she thought she might fall over. “I know you’re not stupid, why do you do it?”

“How do you know about that.” Mari’s voice was cold, caught in her throat. Her hand moved too quickly for Boze to react as she caught her shirt, wrapping it up into a fist as she lifted her up by it just slightly. Boze was frozen, but her mouth still managed to move.

“You aren’t good at hiding it,” she spat. “You’re unstable. I can see you teetering on the edge.”

“No,” Mari’s lips curled upwards. “I’m in FUCKING CONTROL.” Mari threw Boze to the ground with ease. Boze threw her hands over her face as Mari towered over her, her foot poised to slam down on her neck.

This is it. This is how she died.

That cold look in Mari’s eyes would be the last thing she saw.

Boze squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the sharp pain of Mari snapping her neck with the heel of her foot.

But it never came.

Mari stumbled backwards, and Boze uncurled just slightly from where she had been thrown to the ground. She was shaking, at least Boze thought she was. Mari looked terrified, her eyes filled with so much emotion. So much fear.

“Oh my god.” Mari looked at the backs of her hands, her gaze drawing to Boze on the ground. “Oh my god what have I done?”

“Mari-”

“No!” Mari’s voice ripped through her throat, her words breaking as she stumbled farther back. “Get away from me!” She grimaced, gripping her arm as her eyes squeezed shut, pushing tears from her eyes. “I’m just going to hurt you.”

“Mari, listen to me,” Boze trembled, shakily getting to her feet. “Something’s obviously very wrong, let me call you someone, Joven or-”

“NO!” Her scream sent shivers across Boze’s skin, and her eyes grew wider as Mari pulled a gun from her belt. “Just stay AWAY. I can do this. I can handle this on my own, I don’t need your help or Joven’s or ANYONE’S.”

Boze watched helplessly as Mari kicked open the door to her car, her gun trained in on Boze’s chest. She slammed the door shut, staring the car with one hand as she held the gun in the other. Mari ripped out of the parking lot, her tires squealing on the road.

Boze stood in shock, her hands still poised in the air as she watched Mari jet off into the distance. She fumbled for her phone, dialing the only number that registered as ‘online’.

“Wes.” Her voice was a ghost in her throat. “We’ve got a problem.”

 

Chapter Text

“Shit,” Wes’s breath left him. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Would I kid about this?” Boze’s tone was frantic.

“She didn’t hurt you, did she?”

“A little, but she didn’t go through with it.” Wes was surprised at the calm layer that fell over Boze’s voice. Normally she would find anything to catch Mari in a bind, but something was different. “I don’t think she’s all there. Something...something’s wrong with her.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” Boze sounded like she was moving. “She took the car, and I don’t have the keys to hers.”

“So you’re stranded?”

“Yep.”

“Sit tight, I’ll send a car.”

“Good, the wifi's shit out here.”

“What?” Wes could hear the sound of Boze's computer booting up in the background.

“I put a tracking device in that car, just in case something ever happened to it. Let's just hope that it didn't run out of battery yet.” Boze paused, and Wes held his breath as he could hear her fingers flying over the keys on the other end. “Damn, I should’ve guessed.”

“What?”

“She’s heading your way.”

“You’re sure?”

“There’s no other place she could be heading. She just took a left on Covington, and...a right on Denmark.” Boze paused. “A few more blocks and she’ll hit Verloren, and if she turns, she’ll be coming right for you.”

“Wait, why would she want to come back to the Jackrabbit? Especially since she knows at least one person will be home”

“She probably thinks that it’s her only chance to get the rest of her H and some clothes. The Jackrabbit is her only connection, and she doesn’t really have anywhere else to turn.”

“Oh god," Wes murmured, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "What was she even thinking?"

"If we knew, we wouldn't be in this situation - s hit,” Boze spat the word softly. “She just turned on Verloren. She’s coming your way.” There was a brief pause, Boze was more than likely double checking her data.  “Wes, I need you to listen to me very carefully, okay?”

“Of course.”

“Mari might try to shoot you.”

“What-” the word left Wes’s lips in a whisper.

“She’s out of her mind, and heavily unstable. If she hadn’t gotten distracted, I think that she would’ve snapped my neck after she threw me onto the ground.” Boze let her voice go out for a second. “So that means...you might have to do anything it takes.”

“You want me to shoot her?”

Boze paused again, and Wes felt his stomach drop. “Only if you have to. And don’t hesitate . She’s not Mari anymore. She’s an animal and she’s afraid. If she feels threatened, she’s going to strike, it’s inevitable.”

Wes didn’t answer, choking down his words before clearing his throat. “Okay.” He crossed the club to Joven’s office, going for the pistol Joven kept under his desk. Wes fiddled with the bottom of Joven’s desk, pulling the gun from the bottom. He slipped it into his back pocket, covering it with the loose back of his shirt. “Boze are you going to be alright out there?”

“I can call myself a cab, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“I’m going to let you go. I have to call Joven.”

“What?!” Boze’s voice pitched high.

“He’ll believe me.” Wes closed his eyes. “I know he will.”

“I still doubt that big time, but good luck, you’re gonna need it.”

The line on the other end went silent as Boze hung up, and Wes pulled the phone away from his ear. He scrolled through his contacts, picking out Joven’s name and letting the phone dial up his number. Wes waited for the screen to show before putting the phone to his ear.

“Hey, what’s up?” Wes could hear the sounds of traffic behind Joven. “I’m on my way back, the meeting with Matt Raub went great!”

“Joven, we’ve got a problem.”

“Goddamnit, what did the Titans do now?” The sound of the turn signals clicked in the background. “Did the meeting with Boze fall through.”

“No,” Wes felt the words on his tongue. He drew in a breath, not sure how to say it.

“C’mon Wes, I love chatting, but I don’t have all day.”

“Mari’s using again.”

There was a silence that fell over the phone. Joven spoke his next word with a soft sharpness that send goosebumps splitting across Wes’s skin. “ What.

“I went into her room, and-“

“You went into her room?

“Boze had a hunch and-“

“Wes, I’ve told you before, you can’t just go around following Boze’s hunches like that. She means well, but she’s got a hair trigger and-“

“She was right Joven.” He could feel the disbelief over the phone. “I found three empty bottles and one half full about a week ago. All H.”

“Shit.” There was a short pause. “I’m not going to ask why you didn’t tell me for a week, but I am going to ask, why are you telling me now?” Joven bit down on his words. “Please tell me something didn’t happen.”

“Mari attacked Boze after a Titan meeting, she took Boze’s car and ran off. From Boze’s description, she seemed wild, not like herself.”

There was a long pause. “Almost like the way she was when this happened the first time?” Joven sighed. “I noticed the signs a month ago. I thought that it was nothing, I trusted her. I should’ve known better.”

“This isn’t your fault, Mari’s a better liar than all of us, she saw an opportunity and she manipulated her way through it.” There was a sound from the hall, and Wes felt his adrenaline spike, his heart pumping in his teeth. “She’s here. I’ve got to go.”

“Wes, please be careful.”

“I’ll try.”

“And Wes...I-“

Wes shut his phone off, setting it on the table as he strode across the office, pushing the door open. Mari pace rattled like thunder across the floor, her head held low. Wes stopped in front of her, and she halted a few inches in front of him, her chest rising and falling rapidly.

“Wes, move.” She was visibly shaking. “I don’t have time. Please, just move.”

“I’m not letting you through-“

“Did Boze call?” Mari spat the words towards the ground. “Snitch on me? I bet she did. The nerve of that bitch.” Wes’s eyes widened. The woman before his was not the Mari Takahashi he’d know.

“Mari…” he dropped his voice. “How much did you take?”

Her eyes dragged up his shoes and across his legs, up to his eyes. Her eyes glowered with a dark malice he’d never seen before. “Not enough.”

“How much did you take.” Wes spoke the words softly but sharply, accenting the last consonant take with the back of his tongue.

Mari rolled her eyes, pushing past him with a blunt shoulder. Wes whipped around, grabbing for her arm. She moved just as fast, grabbing onto his arm with her own, digging her nails deep into his skin. He winced but kept eye contact with her.

“Let me go,” She growled. “Wes I need it.”

“No you don’t you have to wait it out.”

“No, I need that H, Wes I’ll go crazy without it.”

“You’re already going crazy!”

“That’s why I need it!” Mari ripped her arm away from Wes, leaping back. He grabbed for her torso but missed, she reached behind her, grabbed a gun and pointing it directly at him. Wes felt his skin go cold, and he put his arms up in surrender. “I need it Wes. I need it. I just have to accept that it’s a part of me, right?” Her face screwed up into a morbid smile. “That I'm just a stupid junkie. That I’ll probably die with a fucking needle in my arm.”

“Mari, please just-“

“No,” her voice was curt. “Don’t pretend to care about me. I know you all hate me. Boze clearly hates me, Damien and I have barely held a conversation for more than five minutes, and look at you. You’ve always know that I was never going to last. You’ve always know that I’m going to die. You knew that I’d give in.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Boze knew!” Mari gestured with the gun. “And it didn’t take you long to believe her when she told you.” Wes furrowed his eyebrows. “Don’t give me that look, I knew that you didn’t find the H on your own.”

“She sounded serious this time, I had to at least humor her.” Wes moved slightly and Mari cocked the gun. “I guess it’s good that I trusted her.”

Mari laughed. “Trust. There’s no such thing as trust. I’ve trusted so many people, and they’ve only lied to me.” She gestured with the gun. “As much as Joven plays the martyr, he’s no better than any of us. He’s the best liar out of all of us.” Her lip quivered. “He pretended to help me, I thought he was doing it because he wanted to...turns out that he was just paying a debt.”

“What?”

“It’s lie Wesley. It’s all a lie.” Her voice ratcheted in her throat as she laughed raspily. “My kidnapping, my torture?” She grinned, a line of tears spilled down her cheek. “He was there.”

What?

“He was there when that monster ripped me apart.”

“Mari you’re hallucinating, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense, Joven couldn’t have-”

“What do you even know about Joven’s past?”

Wes paused, the grim reality falling over him. He knew nothing about where Joven had come from, and even though Mari was clearly unstable, there was something that looked like a glimmer of truth in her eyes. “What...what did he do?”

“Nothing!” She spat, “absolutely fucking nothing. He stood there, as that man hurt me, again and again.”

“Who hurt you?”

“That stupid name, the dead one.” She blinked tears out of her eyes. Her voice was a whisper. “ Loisoz . He’s connected to all of this. This whole web of a mess is more connected than we realize.” Mari pressed her eyes shut, pushing more tears down her cheeks. “If I could just see it clearer again.” Her chest rose and fell in rapid, ragged increments. “I have to take it Wes, I have to know, it’s the only-”

“Mari no-” he stepped forward.

“Don’t you fucking dare get any closer, or I’ll shoot!”

“Then shoot me, I’m not letting you do this.”

“Liar,” Mari spat. She fired a warning shot into the ground next to him, catching him off guard as she threw the gun towards him. Wes stumbled as Mari disappeared down the hall. He caught himself at the last second, bolting up the stairs after the fleeing Mari.

The door slammed shut behind her at the top of the steps, and Wes heard the definitive click of the lock sliding into place. He sprinted down the hallway, leaping up the stairs two at a time. Wes jiggled the door handle, begging for it to open, but the door stuck shut. He had nothing to open the door with, but there was no time.

He braced himself, backing up as far as he could go before ramming himself into the door. The door didn’t budge. Shit . The extra security door bolts he’d had Joven install were now working against him.

Wes threw himself at the door again and again, listening to the wood splintering beneath him. Only a few more hits and-

“Wes? Wes!” Joven’s voice came from below.

Wes rammed himself against the door as Joven materialized next to him. “What are you doing what’s going on?” He asked the question in one breath.

“Mari.” Wes slammed his side against the door. “She’s in there.” He slammed himself against the door again. “She’s trying to shoot up.” Joven’s eyes went wide, and he rolled up his sleeves as he took a turn at the door. “She’s crazy Joven, she keeps talking about how you lied to her, or something, and torture with Losioz-”

“What?” Joven rammed himself against the door.

Wes took his turn, his heart sinking as he registered the look in Joven’s eyes. Mari hadn’t been lying. Joven knew something.

“Not important,” Wes gritted his teeth. He drew in a breath, closing his eyes as he threw his body against the door one last time. The door splintered open, and Wes fell forward, catching himself on the floor as Joven leapt over him towards Mari’s curled form on the ground.

“Mari!” Joven’s voice sent Wes’s heart into a frenzied panic. He pulled himself to his feet, looking down at Mari curled in Joven’s hands. Joven was crying, his hands shaking as he looked for a pulse.

“Joven…”

“Call 911.” Joven’s voice broke in his throat. His voice grew louder. “Now, do it now CALL 911!”

“Mari.” Wes’s voice choked in his throat. He fumbled for his phone, his eyes blurring with the beginnings of tears. “Mari…no.”

Chapter Text

Mari wondered if this was what death felt like.

She was flitting in and out of consciousness, the sounds around her muffled. She’d been an idiot.

Why had she taken so much? Why hadn’t she just listened to Wes?

It wasn’t like that mattered now.

She was dead.

She had to be.

There was no other instance where she could be in this much pain and darkness at the same time. Her surroundings swam like dark clouds around her, hugging her, choking her, making her regret all of the decisions she’d made in the past few years.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t already regretted those decisions, but now they just felt so much clearer.

Maybe that was why her thoughts felt so coherent.

And maybe she was still alive.

I think, therefore I am.

Was that the saying? Mari couldn’t remember.

Then, out of the darkness, Mari felt a hand grab at her, her chest growing with heat as her heart lay quietly in her chest.

Ah.

No heartbeat.

She must be dead.

Would she even fight against death if it came for her?

Mari was so tired, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to anymore. The prospect of an endless sleep sounded like a golden dream.

And if what she had remembered was true, she wasn’t sure she could face Joven again without wanting to rip his heart out.

It was complicated.

The pain in her chest came again, sparking against her skin. She wanted to push it away, but she wasn’t quite sure where her hands were. Or where the rest of her body was in general.

A voice burbled against the dark membrane around her. It was muffled, but it was clear enough to be a voice. It sounded like Joven.

Joven . What had he been thinking?

Why was he there?

Why hadn’t he helped her?

Memories can be altered . A voice in her head murmured softly in response. You’ve seen it happen.

Mari also knew that Joven was capable of anything. He’d surprised her in the past.

The pain her chest came again, this time more intense than before. Electricity crackled through her veins, and Mari felt her heart shudder to life.

“C’mon Mari, fight this, you can make it.” It was definitely Joven’s voice. Her heart began to pump, and she felt blood begin to move beneath her skin again.

“We’ve got a heartbeat!” A unfamiliar voice shouted.

“Keep her stable,” a third voice spoke.

“We’re almost there Mari, you’re going to make it, you’re going to make it.”

Mari felt someone slip a needle into her arm, and she dipped into sleep.

 

< < ^ > >

 

“Again.”

The voice was cold, unforgiving.

Mari’s screams echoed across the walls as sparks of electricity licked across her skin.

“Your past is pain, your future is here.”

“Let me GO!” Mari’s screams ripped at her throat.

“There is nowhere for you to go. This is where you belong.” The owner of the voice flicked off the machine with a limp finger. “We’ve been over this. Your old life is gone, you belong to me now. You are a warrior, and warriors don’t cry.”

He wiped the tears from under Mari’s eyes with the back of a finger. She snapped at him with her teeth, more tears replacing the old as the man’s lips drew up into a crude smile. “That’s the fight I’m looking for.”

He stepped back, and Mari shook violently as the man surveyed the tools on his cart. The man looked up towards the figure standing in the corner of the room. “Care to chip in, or are you just going to continue brooding?”

The man in the corner didn’t answer. Through her tears, the figure clearly looked like Joven. He was much younger here, but it was still clearly him. His hair was darker, thick and full, and his glasses looked different too.

“Brood it is.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

“She’s stable physically, but mentally…” The voice sounded muffled. Mari couldn’t open her eyes, and she didn’t want to. Her whole body felt rooted to the bed, and she didn’t want to move. “We’ll only know when she wakes up. We’ll do a full mental check, and monitor her. We aren’t entirely sure how she’ll react. She had more Hypieonpheamine in her system than nearly any patient we’ve had before. It’s a miracle she isn’t dead or mentally unresponsive. It was very lucky that you caught it when you did. A few minutes more and we might not be standing next to her right now.”

“That’s good to hear.” Joven’s voice was a harsh familiarity. It almost hurt her to hear him speak. She was terrified and she didn’t know why. “And rehab, you said-”

“We’ve got a few options for her, but the cost-”

“Cost is no option for us.”

“I’ll have a nurse bring you some information on places around here. How far out are you willing to send her?”

“Maybe just out of the city, but not too far. Somewhere with a nice lawn, and some trees. Greenery too. She’ll probably want to work, she gets restless, so maybe somewhere with a gym…” there was a pause. “I’ll just talk to the nurse.”

Mari heard a pair of footsteps leave the room, and Joven took a seat in the corner as the door closed. She waited in the silence, listening to the sound of her heart monitor and Joven’s breathing. Mari lay there for what felt like an hour, wanting to open her eyes, say something to Joven, but she kept falling short.

She drew in a deep breath, about to open her eyes when Joven spoke.

“You really gave us a scare there, Mari.” He let out a breathy laugh. “When you came back I just assumed that you were fine...I knew I should’ve spoke up, but....” He paused. “I was terrified that I might say something wrong and you’d leave again. I trusted you because I was afraid that if I didn’t, you might think that I didn’t trust you at all. I know how you think pretty well by now...” She heard him shift in the seat. “But I guess it’s a little too late for all of this now. We’re already here, aren’t we?” Joven laughed to himself.

He shifted again, clearing his throat. She heard him grappled for his voice several times before finally speaking. The chair creaked underneath him, and he sighed. “The others will be here in a little bit. The doctor said that you’d wake up soon, so I told them to come. I want everyone here, I was going to tell the Jackrabbit when we all got back to the club, but...” There was a pause, and Mari felt her stomach flip. Something had happened . “Matt Raub didn’t even see this coming, but we discussed it. We’ve got a new path, and I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out.”

There was a pause and Mari kept her eyes shut. “But I’m glad that you’re still here for it.” He paused, and she felt him place a hand on hers. “And even though I know you can’t hear me, I’m gonna promise you. I’m not going to ignore anything with you anymore. You’re my best friend Mari, you’re my partner, and I’d probably put my head in front of a gun for you if it came to it. I couldn’t lose you, not yet.” He laughed shakily to himself. “I’m dying first, remember? That’s our deal.” He let go of her hand, falling back into the chair.

“And you can’t break a deal with Mari Takahashi,” she spoke.

“Mari?” She opened her eyes as he leapt up from the chair.

“Hey there Jovert.”

“Oh my- I haven’t heard that nickname in forever,” Joven blinked tears out of his eyes. “Oh my god.” He hugged her the best he could, and Mari groaned under his weight.

“Careful, you’re crushing me.”

“Oh, shit sorry!” He pulled away, grinning at her.

A pang radiated through her stomach and Mari looked away. She couldn’t even look at him without feeling the electricity coursing through her skin. Mari looked out the window, biting her lip.

“Hey…” he moved to her sightline but she moved her head. “Is there something wrong?”

She opened his mouth to answer but closed it. Mari closed her eyes, letting the image of Joven in that room conjure up in her mind one last time. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That you were there.”

“There?” Joven sounded confused. “What are you talking about?”

Her eyes snapped open. “Losioz, that room, torturing me while I begged for help ? That bringing back any memories for you?”

“Mari-”

“You stood there, doing nothing, while he ripped me apart! ” She was beginning to shake again. “You watched as he hurt me. He tortured me for three years and you did nothing .”

“I watched him torture you once.” Joven’s voice was low but sharp. “And then I got out of there. I knew what he was doing was wrong, and that’s all it took for me to know I had to escape.”

“But I was still in there!” Mari felt her throat constrict. “The things that monster did to me. The things I blocked out so hard it took overdosing on H to remember.” Joven looked like he was going to cry. “You could’ve stopped him…You could’ve saved me...But you didn’t.”

“I wanted to,” Joven whispered. “There wasn’t a night I didn’t think about you in that cage. But I couldn’t...I couldn’t go back there, I couldn’t save you…”

“Why Joven, why couldn’t you save me?” She was sobbing now, her head aching as her eyes poured over with tears again.

“Because I was a coward!” Joven was shaking now too. Tears fell fluidly from his eyes, soaking the bottom of his face as he wiped them away again and again, but they didn’t seem to be able to stop. His voice quivered in his throat, breaking every few seconds. “I couldn’t stand up to my parents, I couldn’t stand up to Losioz, I couldn’t stand up to Kate, and I can’t stand up to you. I’m a fucking coward Mari, I’ve always been a coward. And it took me three years to break into that cage and get you out. I regret every day I didn’t save you sooner.” His eyes were red with veins as he looked up at her.

“I don’t know anymore,” she shuddered. Mari closed her eyes, letting her tears burn her eyelids. “I can’t - I don’t even know if what I’m seeing is real. Joven, everything seems wrong.” She shivered, gasping in short, hyperventilating breaths.

She felt a hand around her shoulder, slow at first, but when she didn’t throw it away, it curled around her arm. Mari felt the familiar warmth of Joven’s chest, pressing her face against the crook of his shoulder. He smelled like linen and warmth. He didn’t even seem to care that she was getting snot on his shirt, and he just rubbed her back as she sobbed into him.

His voice broke slowly, and she felt his words hum against her. “They took you when you were fifteen. You were told that you were coming in job interview. I don’t remember what it was for, but Losioz liked you. He took you to a room far away from everything and he tied you up. He wouldn’t let anyone see you for two weeks. And then he began...” Joven cleared his throat. “The ‘teaching process’ of the program.”

“Torture?” Mari cried softly into his shoulder.

“....Yes.” He paused. “How much have I told you about….my part...with Loisoz?”

“Only that you were taken in after the gauntlet.”

“Loisoz prided himself on ‘rehabilitating’ people to his cause.” Joven murmured, his eyes were far away. “He did it with his first protege, a kid named Max. Max wasn’t the most stable guy, and he was a horrible teacher. Kate and I were pretty relieved when the guy left to go start his own gang on Losioz’s orders. Losioz wanted to do what he did with Max to another group of kids down on their luck.”

“So he made a fake tradegety?”

“He did, not realizing that we’d resent him for everything.”

“You hated Losioz?”

“Every inch of him. Everything about him made my skin crawl. There are some nights where I’ll wake up dreaming of him, thinking that he’ll be standing at the foot of my bed with a gun, telling me to disarm him or die.”

“Did that really happen?”

“More than once,” Joven replied quietly. “And a lot more to Kate than to me. He and Kate never saw eye to eye, and it was what really molded Kate into Prime in the end.”

“What?” Mari looked up, her eyes still bleary. “Kate is Prime?”

“Ah shit,” Joven grumbled. “I haven’t slept in like 30 hours, don’t tell Kate I told you that.” He rubbed his eyes. “Losioz wanted to continue with his projects, but he wanted something that he could control, something he could experiment on. He began to profile people around the neighbourhood, and then he found you.”

“He found me?”

“On accident I think, but he took to you immediately, kept saying something about ‘the black-haired girl as fucked up as me’.” Joven sat back against the bed, and he and Mari laid there together. “I think he thought that if he could find someone enough like himself, he’d know exactly how to break them.”

“And then he took me.”

“And I ran.”

“Why did you run then?” He looked down towards her. “Why didn’t you run before?”

“I was more afraid of being out alone in the world than I was of Losioz. It was beaten into my head that he was my only home, and the only one I could turn to. Leaving meant breaking something I was told was the only thing protecting me, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.”

“And Losioz scared you so badly that you choose running over safety.”

“It was shock,” Joven nodded. “I was so badly in shock from seeing what Losioz was really capable that I think I took a little too long to process it all. By the time I came to try and get back in, Losioz had already moved operations, and when I found my way there, it seems he’d also changed the locks.” Joven moved his arm, pulling back his sleeve. “Losioz’s men were tight-knit, and they don’t take too kindly to deserters.” Mari’s spine shivered at the sight of the faded but clearly visible scar up Joven’s arm.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”

“I keep it hidden on purpose.” Joven rolled down his sleeve again, clearing his throat. “Memories are the devil.”

“That, I can agree on.” The sat together on the bed for a few quiet moments. Mari felt at ease for the first time in forever, Joven’s arms protectively on her shoulder as she felt her breathing finally return to normal. “Hey you never told me how you finally got me out.”

“I didn’t?” Joven stirred in where he sat. “Well, it was late one night after a lot of planning. A few of my buddies from work agreed to sneak me into the building you were being kept in. Losioz had his guard down during this time, one of his friends got killed or something, and most of his security was lax in the location they were hunkering down in. I was in and out in less than an hour.”

“I was probably a mess,” Mari grumbled. “I remember feeling like shit.”

“You were surprisingly calm after you realized I wasn’t Loisoz. I got you out, and I brought you to the place I was squatting. You drank like three liters of water and the entirety of a large pizza before raiding the fridge for more food.”

“And then I conked out for like 17 hours, right?”

“You remember that?”

“Not exactly, but remember that story you used to tell? About when the police came the next morning?”

“Oh my god I’d actually almost forgotten about that!” Joven burst out laughing. “I tried to get you up but you just wanted to go back to bed, and then you almost punched an officer in the face?”

Mari felt a smile flicker across her lips. “Yeah, but he gave me a pass, which was lucky.”

“Very lucky,” Joven sighed. “And then after the trial, you continued to raid my fridge and punch me in the face after I woke you up.”

“Holy shit, the trial!” Mari felt the blood drain from her face. “Those men I accused...were they innocent?”

“I knew them,” Joven replied quietly. “They were nowhere near innocent. They deserved their sentences.”

“It should’ve been Losioz,” Mari’s voice was pained. “I could’ve gotten him...but...why-” She looked to Joven. “Why did I remember them and not Losioz, why could I only remember Losioz now?”

“Why do you think you’re so addicted to H?”

“I dunno, got a taste when I met Sohinki?”

“Losioz was testing on people with drugs.” Joven watched as Mari’s eyes bugged, nodding solemnly. “I never thought that he’d actually done it until you went over the edge last time. He must’ve gone through with his plan.”

Mari was almost afraid to ask. “Which was….”

“To force-feed a patient drugs until a high is the only thing that makes them feel normal. When they don’t have drugs in their system, they become something else...animalistic, murderous-”

“Everything that I became.”

Joven shrugged, “exactly. And using it, he managed to manipulate you into thinking of him as four men, rather than just himself."

"How?"

"I don't know, I just know he did it."

“So is that it?” Mari turned to Joven. “Am I unaddicted just like that?”

He raised an eyebrow, “what do you mean?”

“I feel fine now, no high no nothing.”

“The doctors would disagree,” Joven bit his lip. “It seems that Losioz got his theory on drug stasis validated. And you’re the prime patient.”

Mari’s voice wavered. “I’ve still go H in me?”

“Significantly less, and several other drugs balancing you, but yes.”

“Shit.”

“And...I’ve been talking to doctors about-”

“Yes.” Mari nodded, “send me to rehab. Please, Joven, I’m so fucking sick of drugs. I just want to be done with them, I wanna live life without a fucking H headache every three hours.”

“Good,” he ruffled her hair and she swatted at his hand. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.”

Mari leaned back into the crook of Joven’s shoulder. She closed her eyes, listening to the heart beat beneath her.

“Hey, why didn’t you tell me who you were when we met? You even lied about how you saved me in the first place.”

She felt Joven shrug underneath her. “When you didn’t recognize me, I just thought that it might be better if I didn’t tell you. And it wasn't exactly in my best interest to tell you 'hey I was there why you were getting tortured' to someone fresh out of the trauma."

"Yeah, probably not."

"I didn’t expect us to even become friends either. I thought that I’d just save you and then let you out into the world to live your life, repay my debt. But you stuck around."

"Like glitter, you can never get rid of that stuff."

"Very true," Joven noted with genuine agreement. He sighed to himself, "and then, I started to forget over time. I started telling myself that I did save you on accident, and then one day, I just started believing it.”

“You wanted to forget that part of your life.”

“I’ve always tried to forget the things I saw with Los Bandidos. They did so much corrupt shit, Mari. So much worse than anything we’ve ever even thought about doing. Losioz was a fucked-up man, and he seemed to think that he could take that out on innocent people.” Joven narrowed his eyes. “I think that I wanted the Kingship because I thought that it might finally make me feel powerful. Losioz was always drunk on power, and part of me wanted a taste so badly. And now that I have it I just feel….empty.”

“The real deal’s not so impressive, hmm?”

“I guess Losioz was just overdramatic.”

“I guess so.”

“This city has changed so much since his death.” Joven laid his head on Mari’s. “I’m kinda sad that I wasn’t the one to kill him though.”

“Guess you were just too slow,” Mari grinned. “A more capable, dashing, and overall cooler person got to it before you.”

“Oh, stop gloating,” Joven chuckled. “Someone might actually hear you.”

“Like the police would actually care.”

“True,” he replied. They sat there for a while, listening to the sounds of the hospital around them. Mari let the silence fall over her, her head barely pounding more than normal. “The others will probably be here soon.”

Joven groaned as he sat up, sliding off the bed. “Yeah you’re probably right.”

“You said that you have some new information?”

“Someone flipped.”

“What?” Mari’s eyebrows shot up. “Who?”

“Someone from the Titans. And what they told us-” Joven nodded grimly. “It changes everything.”

 

Chapter Text

When the doctors finally left and room grew quiet, Joven finally let himself breath. The past two days had been a nightmare, and he was just glad to feel like things might be moving towards the better. The news about the Titans had done nothing to calm his nerves, but the bare fact that Mari was going to be okay was enough to keep him going.

Matt Raub and Sarah Whittle had arrived first, Boze and Wes a few minutes behind them. Damien had arrived ten minutes after everyone else, his hair a mess and his eyes bleary. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, and from the amount of times he'd been gone on 'Leo business' recently, Joven wasn’t sure that his assumption was much of a stretch.

Sarah and Boze chatted with one another, grins on their faces as Wes made sure that Mari was entirely okay. She looked a little tired, but the smile on her face was the most genuine Joven had seen in a while. Matt Raub made polite conversation with Damien, the two seeming to get along surprisingly well.

“Okay, everyone seems to be settled in,” Joven cleared his throat. “It’s time we talked about the topic at hand. The reason I had everyone come here, rather than just meet at the Jackrabbit.”

Matt Raub moved to close the door, and Sarah and Boze nodded to one another as they both pressed something on their phones. “In short,” Matt Raub spoke. “We’ve been double-crossed. But in long….things are a lot more complicated than we even realized. The Titans...well...it turns out that they lied to us a lot more than they let on.”

“What exactly happened?” Damien furrowed his eyebrows. “I’ve been out of the loop for a few days.”

“Bussy, you remember him?”

“Very clearly,” Wes grumbled through gritted teeth.

“He flipped a few days ago, came to me with information in exchange for a promise of his freedom and safety.”

“And?”

“He told us everything he knew,” Matt Raub’s eyes flicked across the room. “But let’s just say, he isn’t exactly on a beach in malibu right now.” He wrung his hands. “The Titans and Los Bandidos are connected more than we realized. And the link....is Lasercorn.”

“He’s Losioz protege and successor, isn’t he?” Damien spoke quietly.

Matt Raub furrowed his eyebrows. “How the hell did you know that?”

"I knew him, when I was really young, like just barely into grade school young." He dipped his head just slightly. "I knew him as Max Raelnamm."

A sharp shiver buzzed through Joven's head, and he squeezed his eyes shut rubbing his right temple with a finger. The pieces of the puzzle began to make sense. Joven knew that he recognized Lasercorn, but he'd never know how. He and Mari made eye contact and he nodded. Yeah, same guy. She raised her eyebrows in response. 

“I should’ve told you all of this earlier, but...there wasn’t a good time.” He paused quickly. “That doesn’t matter. Leo finally came in handy.”

Joven raised his eyebrows. “He did? What did you find?”

“Records. Everything from the Black Blade. Journals, money-books, death-ledgers, all of it.”

“I’d heard rumors that the Scalpel," Damien winced just slightly at the name, "ordered everything to be destroyed when the cops closed in." Matt Raub leaned forward slightly, “though I guess you’d really know better than any of us.”

“I wasn’t there that night,” his voice cracked. “Bereta had gotten me out by then.”

“Bereta?” There was a tinge of amusement in Matt Raub’s voice. “I haven’t heard that name in years...shame what happened to him.”

“Joe was a good man, mostly.” Damien blinked slowly, turning fully towards Matt Raub. “You knew him?”

“We both frequented the same bars in our prime. Most of the foot soldiers of the various gangs knew one another,” he paused. “At least the ones brave...or stupid, enough to break the unspoken rules. I got drunk with a lot of the Black Blade, and sometimes a Los Bandidos or Xiaolong member here and there.”

“Huh.”

“Things were less tense back then...but now…”

“We deal with scandal and betrayal every damn day it feels like,” Joven sighed. He turned to Damien, who faced him slowly. “What else did you find?”

“Plans that never went through, and some more truths about my dad.” The room seemed to dim as all eyes trained on Damien. “It turns out, my dad didn’t tell me jack-shit about his life, including the fact that he toured twice in Iraq. The first one he wrote a lot about, but the second...nothing.” His eyes were dark. “The only thing I did learn, was that he wasn’t alone on that second tour. There were four other men on the team. Three of them died overseas, and the fourth...was Losioz. Whatever he did over there, I don’t think that it’s the kind of work you write home about.”

“Torture?” Mari’s voice was quiet.

“Yeah," Damien furrowed his eyebrows, "for information. He could get anyone to talk, kept a record in one of his journals. There was no one he didn’t break eventually.” Damien turned his head towards Mari. “How did you know?”

“Losioz had that power to. Anything out of anyone. Torture, didn’t matter what kind, psychological, physical, mental, he could use it like an extension of himself.” She shook her head. “I don’t even know how I remember that. Things are coming back, slowly, but I’m remembering.”

Joven felt something in his stomach flip as he too thought of his past. It felt like all of them were connected to Losioz somehow. His reach had been so far and so deep that it had managed to hurt all of them, and at the same time, bring them all together. Losioz had hurt him in a way Joven could never fix, but he knew that without him, none of them would’ve ever known the others even existed. The Jackrabbit — his family — would’ve never existed. Was he selfish for being okay with this outcome?

Joven cleared his throat, “there's something else too.” He nodded to Matt Raub, who stood slowly from where he leaned against the wall.

“There was a plan conceived between Lasercorn and Losioz just before they broke apart to become the Seventh Street Titans. The Kingship would only be held by the Los Bandidos and its associates, if it came into the hands of anyone else, the Titans would strike them down. It didn’t matter who they were, and it didn’t matter what they had to do to destroy the enemy,” he looked towards Mari, “even betray someone they had considered a friend.”

“Sohinki-” Mari’s voice was a whisper in her throat.

“He gave you something, didn’t he?”

“It was a...I don’t really know what it was...but I trusted him .” She rubbed her face with a hand. “I’m an idiot. He’s a snake and a drug dealer, I should’ve known not to trust him.” She turned her head, “they  used me. They said that they wanted my help, they got me to trust them by...stroking my ego...am I really that shallow?” No one answered, and Mari lay her head back against her pillows. “I guess so.”

Joven raised an eyebrow, registering something Mari had said. “What do you mean by ‘they wanted your help?”

She waved her hand absentmindedly. “They wanted me on their team or something. They offered me everything, but I never gave in.”

“That’s probably why they moved forward with their plans so soon.” Boze spoke. She’d been quiet from where she’d been watching in the corner of the room. Boze was leaned against a wall, her arms crossed against her chest. “They must’ve wanted you for an asset, you’re a smart woman, and you’re perfectly capable of holding your own. When you didn’t take the bait, they probably realized that you were too loyal to Joven. So they used their last resort weapon.” The silence held for a brief second. “Your addiction. They had to have known how it hurt you last time, so they sped up the process.”

“Huh,” Joven was surprised at Mari’s reaction. He’d almost expected her to fly into a fury at the Titans, swearing like a sailor as she had to be held back, but instead she lay solemnly in bed. “I thought Sohinki...”  She closed her eyes drawing in a breath. “What do we do now? The Titans know everything about us.”

“And we know just as much about them,” Matt Raub nodded. “Mr. Haas can keep combing through his information for more things we can use against them...but for now, we have to keep our guard up. The Titans fight much dirtier than anyone else you’ve faced before. There’s a reason they’re one of the only gangs still standing after the last war with the police.” Joven felt a shock go down his spine as Matt Raub kept his eye contact fiercely. “I asked you this before Mr. Ovenshire, what feels like ages ago. The Kingship is won through blood and betrayal, and you have managed to make it this far. Now, are you prepared to fight for it? Fight for all of it?”

He looked to each person in the room, his expression softly neutral as he did. Matt Raub and Sarah watched him intently, Whittle bouncing lightly on the tips of her toes. Damien blinked at him slowly, his eyebrows furrowing just slightly as his lips drew inwards. Boze drew in a breath, the corner of her mouth pulling upwards. Wes stood stoically towards the back, his eyes soft and warm as he gave Joven a nod. His gaze finally fell to Mari, who looked like she was practically drowning in blankets. She gave him a smile he felt like he hadn’t seen in years, nodding to him slowly.

He turned back to Matt Raub. “Always.”

 

Chapter Text

Damien felt the blood slip off of his skin as the scorching water ran over him. The last raid had been hell. The shouts of Titans and the pop of bullets still roared in his mind. And even with all of that shit on his mind, Damien felt his thoughts only falling to two people.

Leo and Shayne stained Damien’s brain with so much doubt that it was hard to even think.

Both of them hadn’t spoken to him in weeks.

That was a lie.

Leo hadn’t spoke to him in weeks.

Shayne had somehow managed to convince Joven to let him in on Jackrabbit dealings. The two had spoke, briefly during the last few raids, but Shayne's expressions alone were enough to communicate to Damien that he was still rubbed the wrong way by the things they’d said that night.

Damien had gone over that conversation in his head over and over again, but he could never tell where it’d gone wrong. It was like something in Shayne had just snapped, and then it had snapped Damien as a result. Damien wiped the water away from his face, pushing the shower door open to grab around for his towel.

He dried himself off, pulling on a pair of grey sweatpants and a navy hoodie somebody had left lying around. Damien toweled off his hair and brushed it out of his face, squinting at his reflection in the mirror. It’d been a while since he’d last shaved, and Damien rubbed a finger over the soft fuzz on the sides of his cheeks.

He was too tired to shave, and instead walked barefoot to the kitchen. It still smelled like the coffee Joven had brewed a few hours before, but the pot was cold by now, and sat, dejected, in the corner.

Damien pulled open the refrigerator, the smell of old Chinese food and tacos quickly replacing the smell of stagnating coffee. He wrinkled his nose, pushing away the boxes and foil bundles to look for anything that he could use to make himself something to eat.

It had been way too long since Damien had a real, home cooked meal. They’d been too busy for anything like that, and Damien doubted that Wes, Mari or Joven even knew how to cook. He let the fridge door slam shut before digging through the cupboards. All he managed to find were several bags of open chips, loose pasta and a jar of unopened marinara sauce that looked like it had been there since Joven bought the building.

Damien settled for some pasta, and decided to chance the marinara, hoping that heating it up and adding salt would save him from either the bland tomato taste, or possible food poisoning. He put a pot on the stove, filling it up with water and a few pinches of salt as he let it begin to boil. Damien sat against the counter, his elbows on the countertop as he peeled a banana that had been hanging in a bunch in the corner.

The door opened behind him, a and voice spoke that made the hair on the back of his neck bristle.

“Oh, hey, sorry, didn’t see you were in here.”

He looked up to see Shayne standing in the doorway. His hair was a mess, and he’d changed clothes, but his shoes still had dirt and blood on them.

“Coffee’s bad, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Um, thanks, yeah.” Shayne crossed the room, not making eye contact with Damien. He dumped the pot of coffee out, which had only been about a quarter full. Damien watched him out of the corner of his eye as Shayne put in a new filter, grabbing the grounds from the cupboard and spooning them in with a plastic shot glass that had been left inside the bag.

“So Joven lets you tag along with us now, huh?” Damien’s words seemed to catch Shayne off guard.

“Uh yeah,” he coughed. He paused just briefly, moving his hand to slide the grounds into place. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Damien was surprised at the sharpness of Shayne’s words. “Your life man, not mine.”

He watched Shayne bristle, but the man barely moved besides that. The light in the kitchen was dim, but it fell over his shoulders, highlighting the soft rise and fall of his back.

Damien let his thoughts fall over him, everything he wanted to say stewing in the back of his mind. Shayne’s back was still towards him, and Damien could feel the tensity in the air.

“I know we haven’t talked since that day…” Damien caught himself. “But I feel like-”

“There’s nothing for us to talk about.” The silence was almost painful. “You burned the bridge the second you told me the truth.”

“Shayne, I-”

“You used me, do you know how disgusting that feels? To find out that someone you thought was your friend didn’t care about you at all?”

“I would never use you-”

“But you did.”

“You’re my best-”

“No,” Shayne tightened his fist where it lay on the counter. Damien felt his throat squeeze shut. “You don’t get to call me that.” He turned, his eyes burned coldy where they were fixed on Damien. “I am not your friend anymore.”

The words cut into Damien like a knife. Shayne’s chest heaved as he studied Damien’s eyes. He blinked quickly, looking away from Damien’s confused expression.

“What did I do?” Damien didn’t even realize the words came out of his mouth until it was too late.  

“Don’t play stupid,” Shayne whipped back towards him. “You know exactly what you did.” Damien furrowed his eyebrows farther, and Shayne rolled his eyes. “You befriended me because you knew that I had a way into the Jackrabbit for you. It’s not that hard to figure out where I work, and Joven doesn’t exactly make it difficult to find out that the Jackrabbit’s just a strip club.”

“What?” A small smile drew up on Damien’s face.

“Why the fuck are you smiling?”

Damien bit his lip, trying to draw his expression back down. “Your memory must be pretty shitty. Because I had no idea who you were when we first met.”

“What?” Shayne’s eyebrow raised slightly before his expression returned. “Maybe you were scouting for possible ins into gangs.”

“Hell no,” Damien shook his head. “The last thing I wanted after I got out of...the old life...was to go back into it. I thought that acting would get me the farthest away from it all, but it ended up landing me back here.”

He watched as Shayne’s face slowly began to soften. “And besides, the Jackrabbit started their gang operations until after I  started the bartending job. A job that you set me up for. I was working at that shitty pizza place, remember?”

Shayne blinked wildly. “The one...with the bad manager, with the hair plugs?” He searched Damien’s face again. “But you said you lied to me...that you…”

“I lied because I didn’t want to scare you away…I thought you were cool...I just wanted to be your friend.” Damien paused, looking away. “And then the lies started piling up on each others...and then it was too hard to tell you anything, so I just decided to-”

“Never tell me?”

“...Yeah.”

“Dames…” The nickname sent up swarms of butterflies in Damien’s stomach. He hadn’t heard that name in so long that it was almost strange to hear it again, but something about it...it made him happy in a way he couldn’t explain. Shayne ran a hand through his hair, rubbing his face. “God, I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”

“That’s you saying it, not me.” Damien grinned as he put his hands up in surrender. He shook his head. “I should’ve told you everything sooner…”

“But you were scared?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “It’s just that I know you have a thing about trust-”

“I don’t have a thing about trust-”

“You definitely have a thing about trust,” Damien retorted sharply.

Shayne rolled his eyes. “Fine.” They stood in silence for a few seconds, trying to size up who would speak.

“Hey, um-” Shayne began. His pocket buzzed, and Shayne grabbed for his phone. He pulled it up, letting out a sharp sigh. “Joven.”

“We were just out, he needs you again so soon?”

“I think there’s a shipment he needs brought in, and he wants me to get some experience.”

“Makes sense,” Damien nodded. He paused, “so you have to go?”

“In like maybe 15 minutes, probably.”

“Good luck then.” Damien’s water had begun to boil. He dumped half a bag of pasta into the pot.

“Are you still mad at me for joining up?”

Damien tightened his fist around the bag of pasta, but he didn’t answer.

“You are, aren’t you?”

“It’s just, you don’t get what this all takes...you haven’t been through half of what we all have.”

“I know, but I want to try to.”

“Because you’re bored?”

“What?”

He turned back around. “You’re bored. You thought that acting would be fun, but it wasn’t, you thought that stripping might give you a thrill, but you’re clearly getting bored. And now...here you are.” Damien let his shoulders relax. “Shayne. When are you going to be satisfied?”

Shayne blinked slowly at him, his posture slowly dropping until it near-perfectly mirrored Damien’s. He looked towards the ground, his eyebrows furrowing slowly. His gaze returned to Damien. “Why did you join the Jackrabbit? I know you worked as a bartender, and kind of still do, but why did you transition over to the other side of things? What pulled you there?”

He felt his expression soften as he thought over the night where he’d saved Joven. The look on Joven’s face when he’d returned with a bloody knife and a plastic bag filled with fingers. When Joven had offered him a job, he could only answer yes. That rush coursing through his skin had been a better high than any drug he’d ever known. Boredom had been easy to ignore, but when it had been thrust away, it was almost painful when it seeped back into his skin.

A smile twitched on Shayne’s face as Damien didn’t answer.

“We pretend to know each other well," Shayne cleared his throat. “...but we still known barely anything about one another.” He looked down at his phone, pushing it into his pocket before pulling the coffee pot out with his free hand. Shayne poured the coffee into a thermos he pulled from the cupboard. “Joven told me about the meeting in the hospital when Mari overdosed.”

“He did?” Damien’s voice caught in his throat.

“You told people about your past. And you don’t do that. All the time I’ve known you, you don’t open up like that.”

“I care about these people.”

“And so do I.” Shayne nodded. “And I think that I misjudged you.” He didn’t elaborate, but he almost didn’t have to. “You care about everyone. You care about me, even after all of this shit between us. And that takes a lot of-” he paused, smiling slowly- "trust.”

Damien could hear his water behind him begin to bubble over the top of the pot, but he was fixed in place. “I think, one day I’ll tell you about where I come from, because I think that it’ll explain some things.” He stepped back, shrugging. “And then maybe, if you felt that you could, trust me, you could do the same.” He pushed the door open, his eyes glowing as he did. “Over ramen, maybe.”

The door clicked shut behind Shayne. Damien could hear his water overflowing on the burner, hissing and spitting. What the hell just happened? Something warm had begun to bloom in the dark cave of Damien’s chest.

And he didn’t want to ask himself what it was. Because he already knew.

And it already hurt.  

 

Chapter Text

Boze sat in the back of Sarah’s van, inputting codes and running systems through as she waited for the others to come online. Whittle sat up in the driver’s seat, her knees pulled up to her chest as she clicked at the computer sitting on the dashboard.

They’d been sitting there for over an hour now in near silence, just in case there was a bug planted somewhere nearby, and both of them were beyond bored. Boze drew in a long breath, monitoring her heart rate as it pumped in tune with the light on her computer that slowly oscillated in and out. A pop-up appeared on her screen and she let out the breath she'd been holding.

“Whittle, we’re good on any possible outside interference.”

“Oh thank god,” Sarah grumbled. She slapped her laptop shut, stretching her legs under the steering wheel before climbing out of the front seat to join Boze, her laptop tucked under her arm. “I was starting to go fucking crazy up there.”

She reached up, flicking on a few buttons that were fixed to a dashboard on the ceiling, and a few of the mounted computers around them flickered to life.

“How close are we to the next raid?”

“About a half-hour out.” Sarah plopping down in the chair across from Boze’s, setting her laptop down. “Joven’s still rallying some troops, but Wes and Shayne have been in place for maybe fifteen minutes now.”

“And Damien?”

“He’s coming from the storage place.”

“He’s been there a lot recent,” Boze murmured.

“Have you heard if he’s said anything more about it?”

“Mmm,” she shook her head. “Nothing, not even Joven knows much about it.”

“Those Black Blade guys always liked to keep their secrets close.” Sarah spun in her chair, turning towards Boze. She wrinkled her nose up. “I never liked anyone from the Black Blade; always too angry and too quiet.” Sarah shrugged, “but he seems nice.”

“He is,” Boze nodded. “Damien’s a sweet guy, cares about the people around him. At least, that’s always what it’s seemed like.”

“Where’d you even come across him anyway?” Sarah pulled her computer into her lap as her phone buzzed on the table. “All of the Blade went dark after the Scalpel was killed, and everyone that wasn’t already dead or arrested, disappeared.” She murmured her next words more to herself than to Boze. “They were always painfully good at that.”

Boze shrugged, “I don’t really know, you’d have to ask Joven the details.” She leaned her head back. “Although, he started as a bartender for the club first.”

“Bartender? That’s a sharp change.”

“Yeah, he was actually a-” Boze snapped her fingers, trying to come up with an answer. “An actor, that was it...he was an actor for a while, but then it didn’t pan out so he...oh that’s right, he met Shayne before then, and that’s how he got in the door at the Jackrabbit.”

“If you wanna talk a sharp career shift, I think Shayne takes the cake more than Damien.”

Boze nodded, narrowing her eyes. “Yeah actually,” she grinned slightly. “I was hella confused when Shayne asked Joven to let him in on more stuff.”

“Guess it’s just the call of the wild,” Sarah responded. “The allure of adventure. I get it.”

“Wait, actually, I’ve never asked you, how’d you even get into all of this?”

Whittle shrugged, “I was broke straight out of college, and I needed a job. The Brotherhood was offering, and I ended up just kinda staying.”

“Weeeeak,” Boze teased. “Where’s the tragic backstory?”

“No really, legit I just saw an ad somewhere, or maybe heard about it in passing, and I sent in for a meeting. Matt Raub and I met, and he gave me a few trial runs. I’ve been here ever since.”

“And you’ve never gotten bored?”

“I’m pretty content, actually.” Sarah sat back in her chair. “I have enough money to support myself, I’ve got a nice apartment in a better part of town, I’ve grown up a little bit, and I haven’t died yet, so I’d call that a win.” She looked up, a half grin on her face. “Besides, it’s fun to annoy Matt Raub. He’s like a weird older brother, or maybe like an uncle, I don’t really know. And he introduced me to my boyfriend, which was nice of him.”

“Boyfriend?” Boze raised an eyebrow and a half smile. “We’ve never talked about this before.”

“Yeah,” Sarah brushed her hair behind her ear, hiding a soft blush. “Claudio. He’s really nice, and I like him a lot. He’s a little bit of an idiot, but I love him for it.” She waved her hand. “What about you? Got anyone in your life like that?”

Boze felt a soft heat rise in her cheeks. “Um, actually, yeah.”

“Oh?” Sarah grinned, “someone I might know?”

“Do you remember Courtney?”

“Really?!” Sarah’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked up from her laptop. “The stripper with the blond hair? She was at the gauntlet, I definitely remember her. We talked after at the Jackrabbit. She seems nice.”

“She is,” Boze smiled sheepishly. “I really like her.”

“So you two are dating?”

“No, no,” she shook her head. “Just trying things out, seeing how it feels.”

“Ah,” Sarah nodded. “I get that. You’re still young, trying shit out.”

“You’re only five years older than me Sarah.”

“Still,” she shrugged with one shoulder. “That’s a good amount of time.”

“Especially when time for us feels like centuries rather than years.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Sarah grumbled sarcastically. “Sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to turn 60 next year, not 30.”

“God, yeah,” Boze rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “I’ll be 25 in a few weeks...huh. It’s funny how time works.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah. I was so wrapped up in everything, I almost forgot.” She narrowed her eyes. “I wonder if Joven’ll get me a cake.”

“He’d better. If he doesn’t, I will.” Sarah sat forward. “What’d’ya want?”

“A nice big fudgey chocolate cake with strawberries and whipped cream.”

“Ah, fuck that sounds amazing.” She winked at Boze, “I’ll be sure to pass the message along to Joven.”

“You’d better,” Boze grinned. A notification pinged on both Boze and Sarah’s screens.

“Whelp,” she sighed. “Looks like we're on.” Boze signed into their shared server as she watched everyone’s signals ping online slowly. “Let’s hope this one is less bloody than the last.”

“Yeah.” A twinge of anxiety sunk into the pit of Boze’s stomach. “Let’s hope.”

 

Chapter Text

Wes stood out on the pier, his truck behind him humming in park as he waited for the shipment. The people selling were supposed to meet him here twenty minutes ago, but they were clearly very late.

He stood alone in the darkness, considering bumming a cigarette off one of the dock workers. Wes had been smoking more than usual recently. It was a habit he’d picked up when he was still living back home. When the stress got to him, he’d sneak out onto his balcony and smoke half a cigarette before one of his many siblings caught him in the act. A few of them would’ve asked to finish it, but others would grab it from his lips and stab it out before throwing it over the side.

“Don’t let father catch you,” they’d mutter. “He’ll make you smoke a whole pack.”

A voice from behind him made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “Yo, you with the Jackrabbit?” He turned half of his body, catching the eye of a bored looking dock-worker.

“Yep,” he replied. “You have the shipment all ready?”

“Where do you need us to load it up?”

Wes pointed to the truck parked next to the largest building in front of them. The engine hummed in the distance as the front lights flickered. “That one there. Just load it up and I’ll be off.”

“Can I see some ID?”

Wes turned, shifting his coat so that the gun at his side was visible. “Of course.”

The man held his hands up. “Alright, suit yourself. But I do need payment.”

He let his coat fall back. “The payment is coming digitally, and it should’ve already been sent.” The dock worker checked his tablet, punching in a few numbers with a fingertip. “Seems like it was sent.”

“Just load up the truck and I’ll be out of your hair.” He turned his head, surveying the area. The outline of a figure standing across the way on an adjacent dock caught his eye.

The face was too familiar as it looked out into the bay. Despite the darkness, Wes would’ve recognized that stance anywhere.

He cocked his head to the side, narrowing his eyes. The person on the dock turned their head, catching Wes’s eyes. Their head jerked back, and they moved across the dock, crossing the twenty or so feet between them.

“Hey, buddy, I need to know what to do.” The dock-worker piped up.

“Just load the truck,” Wes’s words bit sharply. “Lock it and leave it, I’ll take care of the rest.” The dock worker rolled his eyes, but he shouted to the rest of his workers as he turned around.

“Wesley. Alan. Johnson. It’s been too fucking long.” The figure stepped into the light, the fluorescent glow of the warehouse lights pooling in the very few wrinkles of the man’s incredibly expensive suit. His grin was easy, and all too familiar, and his eyes were that shade of blue that Wes had always associated with disappointment.

“Hi Brenden.”

“Aww is that really how you’re going to greet your brother Wesley?” He held his arms out, and Wes let himself hug Brenden. Despite the warmth that Brenden pretended to exude, his posture was cold, and his friendliness was the familiar brand of fake it had always been.

Brenden let go, clapping Wes on the shoulders before raising his eyebrows. “Shit bro, you got swole.”

“Did I?” Wes raised an eyebrow, waiting for Brenden to let go of him.

“Wow,” he sighed. “How long has it been since you abandoned all of us?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it-”

“Three, four years?”

“Probably,” Wes grumbled.

“Wow.” Brenden nodded snidely. “Just wow.” He put his hands up. “What are you even doing in Los Santos? I thought you would’ve moved halfway across the country with the amount of money you stole.”

“I didn’t-”

“Oh, you’re probably here for that concert, right?” Brenden grinned. “Sick bro.”

“Um, no, actually.” Wes stumbled slowly over his words. “I...live in the city.”

“For real?” Brenden's eyebrows shot up. “Richman’s the shit! How’s life there treating you?”

“Richman?”

“Yeah Richman, you must live there, right?” Brenden tipped his head up. “Golden boy Wesley wouldn’t be caught dead in anywhere less than five stars.”

“I actually live in East Los Santos.”

Brenden’s jaw did everything short of dropping. He blinked quickly, trying to keep his composure. “You live in the Strip District?”

“Yeah, actually.” He nodded slowly. “I live above a, um, strip club.”

A smile slowly crackled over Brenden’s face. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“So you manage a strip club?”

“Uh, no.”

“You…” Brenden began to giggle. “You......don’t tell me that you....”

Wes crossed his arms across his chest, nodding as he rolled his eyes at his brother, who was doubled over laughing. “Yeah, Brenden, I was a stripper.”

“YOU WERE A STRIPPER!” He cackled into the night air, wiping his eyes as tears began to form at the corners. “Oh, Wesley you’re killing me. God, Trenton is going to get a KICK out of this. Golden-Boy-Most-Likely-To-Succeed-Daddy’s-Favorite-First-Born-Heir-To-The-Throne was a stripper. Oh how the mighty fall so far...to think that I resented where you were once. Now look at you.”

“I don’t strip anymore,” Wes grumbled sheepishly. “I’m a…a building supervisor now.”

“Ah,” his mouth hung open as it accented the vowel. “So you’re sleeping with the manager.”

“What?!”

“Nah, nah, I get it, you couldn’t cut it as a stripper, but the manager thought you were hot, so you were moved ‘up a rank’ to accommodate. I get it.” Brenden raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Is she at least a little hot?”

He and I are not sleeping together,” Wes cleared his throat. “And I have a very nice position at my job.”

“Huh, well, I’ll have to stop by sometime.”

“It’d be better if you didn’t.”

“Oh, Wesley you don’t want me around, huh?”

“I don’t want the company you keep around.”

“Chad and Millard?” He shrugged. “They’ve moved on. You’ve been gone for a long while Wesley, things have changed.”

Something changed in his eyes, and a realization hit Wes.

“Brenden. Why are you really here?”

“Hmm, um, uh,” he narrowed his eyes. “Concert? Remember?” He gestured with his hand. “I said it earlier?”

“Don’t lie Brenden.”

He broke slowly, rolling his eyes. “ Fineee .” Brenden dropped his voice, scanning the area. “A lot has changed back home. Father’s….pretty sick.”

“I’ve said it before, I’m not going back home. No matter what lie Father dangles in front of me, never again.” Wes felt a shiver shoot down his spine. The familiar cold memories of the ballroom, stark, white, frigid, creeping back into his mind.

“Hey, just let me finish, okay?” Brenden held his hands up. “Is that too much to ask? I’m your brother Wesley, it’s been three years can I at least have a moment.”

“Fine,” Wes replied sharply.

“Father wanted me to find you. He wants to talk about your future.”

“He doesn’t want me back, he just wants to manipulate me.”

“Sure, sure,” Brenden waved his hand dismissively. “But he still wants to talk.” He let out a sharp sigh. “Wes, we’re pretty stuck back home. Father’s got some secrets to running the company-”

Wes rolled his eyes, “if you could even called it that.”

“And you’re the only one that can get them from him,” Brenden continued over him.

“Why can’t you do it? You’re probably his favorite now anyway.”

“You’re the heir, and that apparently that title means that only you can take his position. Tradition, or some bullshit like that.”

“I never wanted that stupid title,” Wes rolled his eyes.

“Well we don’t always get what we want, do we Wesley?”

“How did you even find me?”

Brenden winked cryptically, “I’ve got good contacts.” He dug through his pockets. “Besides, the Jackrabbit-” he pulled out a small white card- “has been making waves. Big enough waves to touch our little harbor back home.” He held the card out to Wes. “My number.” Wes didn’t move to take it, and Brenden pushed it forward just slightly. “Please just consider it.” He puckered out his lower lip, but he didn’t soften his eyes. “For me?”

Wes snatched the card from his brother’s extended hand. He looked over it, feeling the ostentatious embossed lettering with his thumb.

“Call me, will you?” Brenden stepped back slowly. “I’ll be in the city for another month or so. I’ll send a car for you if you decide to come.” He saluted Wes with two fingertips at his forehead.

“Don’t expect me to call.”

“Oh no. You will.” Brenden only grinned wider as he slowly slipped back into the darkness. “You always do sooner or later.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Alright Ms. Takahashi.” Mari held her arm still as the doctor gave her the morning dosage. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to flex her body too much. “There you are, all set.”

“Thanks,” she nodded. Mari blinked a few times, letting her vision clear as her breathing steadied.

“So, what are your plans for today?”

“Um,” Mari shook her sleeve over the bandaid on her arm. “Probably hit the gym, and take a swim, and then maybe a walk around the facility.”

“Ah.” The nurse put away her things. “No room for group?”

“I don’t really need to talk about my feelings with a bunch of strangers,” Mari wrinkled her nose. “I’m perfectly fine just going through the medical side of the program.”

“Therapy is just another facet to the medical side of the rehab process.” The doctor smiled. “You’d be surprised how much it can help.” She moved across the room, looking at her clipboard. “And it doesn’t look like you’ve been attending many group sessions. You do know that those are a mandatory part of the program, right?”

“Yeah,” Mari grumbled under her breath.

“If you don’t complete enough sessions, you can’t be discharged, you know that right?”

“Yes.”

“Besides, it’s good to talk to people around you. There are so many people here who have vibrant stories to tell, you just have to open up a little.”

“Yep.” Mari nodded, but her mind was elsewhere as the woman took her blood.

She wouldn’t have contact with anyone from the outside world until she was discharged, and it was already driving her mad. Mari wasn’t the kind of person who made friends very easily, and she wasn’t about to start with these people.

Mari was stronger than them, and she was beginning to regret coming out here in the first place. She would be so much more help to the Jackrabbit on the outside then here. Mari could get clean on her own, she just needed a little-

No. Mari pinched the inside of her elbow, using one of the physical reminders the doctors had told her about. She needed this help. She’d already tried and failed to get better on her own, and if she tried it a third time, she might not make it out alive.

She knew that the Jackrabbit could survive without her for the time being, but it didn’t help her nerves thinking about all the shit they were probably going through back home. Mari let go of the skin in her elbow as the doctor turned around.

“Looking good.” She smiled, her eyes were kinder than most Mari had seen in a while. “You know, I lead the group session at 7:30, if you wanted to join that one. It'd be good to have a friendly, recognizable face, right?”

“I thought that only therapists could run the groups.”

“I’m a functional M.D and a licensed therapist.” Her smile was pained, ";ots of years of school, and lots of debt, but overall, it’s worth it to make a difference.”

“And you must cash in the big bucks,” Mari nodded coyly. “This place is known for its volume of high paying customers. Rich kids sobering up, mob bosses trying not to shoot up every few hours, the occasional royalty, I’d imagine they pay you well.”

“I’m...um, not at liberty to say,” the doctor’s face turned a remarkable shade of pink.

Mari lifted her head in a nod, a grin spreading across her face.

“Well, I look forward to seeing you in group tonight,” she retorted. “Um, have a nice workout.”

“Thanks. I will,” Mari grinned, watching as the sheepish doctor shepherded herself out.

Mari did end up going to the gym, like she did often, but not just to work out. The gym was the only room with a tv, and it only ever played the news. Mari used it as her lifeline to the real world. It was often crowded in the gym, more by people there to watch the news or zone out or pretend to lift weights while they plotted their escape.

The news was enjoyable for the first day and a half, but it was a lot of the same, and she was quickly bored of it. It was by that time that she’d begun to notice the same man sitting in the corner of the room. He was older, with squinting eyes and greying hair, his hands held on the arm rests as he watched the news intently.

On the fourth day at the center, Mari finally approached the man.

“Hey.”

“I am in your way?” The man had an impossibly thick Russian accent.

“No, but I wanted to know...do you sit here everyday?”

“You have problem with that?” His voice grew sharp.

“No, no! Do what you want, free country, but I was wondering...could you look out for some stuff on the tv for me?” Mari crossed her arms over her chest as the man watched her with a blank expression. “Anything about the Seventh Street Titans, or the steel mill downtown, or a strip club called the Jackrabbit?”

The man pursed his lips, narrowing his eyes just slightly. “What you do for me?”

“What do you want?” Mari dropped her voice. “I can get anything,” she dropped it even further. “Anything.”

“Two pudding cups from dining hall every morning, and we have deal.”

She pulled her head back in surprise.

“That’s all you want?”

“Been here long time. Pudding cups, better than drugs.”

Mari’s lips drew up into a grin as the man blinked back at her, a bright intelligence in his expression. 

 

< < ^ > >

 

“Hi, um, my name is Mari.”

“And?”

The circle of addicts around her looked at her with varying levels of interest.

“And, um, I’m, uh, an addict.”

The room replied with various versions of hello as Mari sunk down in her chair.

“Do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?” Her doctor, whose name she’d learned was Cece, sat forward in her chair, her hands on her lap.

“Well, there’s not much to say.”

“Everyone has a story of their journey, I’m sure that someone here could relate to yours.”

Mari knew that she wouldn’t be able to get out of this one. “Um. Well. Got into H when I was a kid, got addicted, got a little better, and then got a lot worse. I overdosed, but some friends of mine saved me. Made sure that I got here. I’d probably be dead without them.”

“Thank you for sharing Mari,” the doctor nodded. “Okay, who’s next?”

Mari felt herself sink lower in her chair.

She missed her friends so much, but it would be nearly two weeks before she got to see them again. That was, if she could pass her final drug test. Mari would give anything to have a five minute conversation with Joven about anything . He could always make her laugh, even when she was at her lowest.

Even if their first meeting came out of a horrible situation, she still didn’t regret knowing Joven. He’d managed to help her in a way she only now understood. She’d have to remember to thank him when she got out.

 

< < ^ > >

 

Mari lapped the center’s lakeside area for the fourth time. She stopped in front of the big oak tree, catching her breath as she measured her heart rate.

It had been a long time since she had formerly exercised, and she hadn’t realized how grossly out of shape she was until now. Sure, she looked alright, but after five minutes of running, she had been doubled over sucking in lungfuls of air. Now, she could run a mile in six minutes, and had beat her previous record of three laps in an hour.

The rehab center was a surprisingly picturesque location. It was located a four-hour drive outside of Los Santos, far enough away that the smog had begun to clear, and where trees were actually capable of growing. It was a place she’d become okay with getting lost in, mentally and physically. She checked the watch she’d been given when she arrived, which she guessed probably doubled as a microchip and a heart monitor for the doctors. Mari hadn’t read the paperwork, but it had probably been in there.

Mari leaned back against the tree, drawing in a lungful of air as she prepared herself for another lap, leaving in just enough time to get to the gym for the boxing class at 3.

A woman running out of the building caught her attention, she waved her arms wildly and Mari jogged toward her, eyebrows furrowed.

“Hey!!” Her voice carried across the distance. “Are you the woman that asked Chekov about the tv stuff?!”

“Yeah! Why?" Mari slowed to a walk as the woman stopped, out of breath.

“Because there’s something you’re going to want to see.”

Mari was sprinting back to the gym before the woman could say another word. She slammed the door open, nearly running into a group of people leaving. The crowd dispersed, and Mari looked across the room to see the Russian man looking over at her.

He nodded to her before pointing a finger at the tv. She jogged over, standing next to him as she watched the tv intently, her chest rising and falling in sharp increments.

On the screen, a giant metal building was burning. Flames licked out of the windows, ash and dust plumed in the air, making it hard to see from where the helicopter footage zoomed in. A good-sized chunk of the building was missing, as if some giant had ripped through it with clawed fingers.

The Titan’s steel mill was being turned to rubble before her eyes.

“Oh my god.”

“Though reports are still unconfirmed, we do know that this plant, which has been evacuated, was owned by eccentric billionaire, David Moss, who is still missing in the wake of this tragic accident.” The woman placed her finger up to her ear, nodding slowly. “It seems that the authorities have discovered a warehouse connected to the building, filled with several types of deadly amphetamines. We’ll be back in twenty with more details on this unfolding case.”

“This what you were looking for?”

Her mouth hung open, blinking wildly as she turned slowly towards the man. “Yeah. Yeah it was.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

She’d started to count the days to her release in a notebook they’d given her to record her feelings.

Mari hadn’t needed to tell the man in the gym to look out for her, because the story was the only one playing on the televisions and radios across the facilities. More things slowly began to unfold, and the truth of Lasercorn and his gang had begun to unravel. His drug trade was virtually squashed in less than a week, and by the end of it, everyone that had to do with the Titans were either dead, missing, or had been one of the unluckies in the mass arrests headed by the LSPD.

She found it odd to watch the gang dissipate from the comfort an exercise bike.

The entire time the story ran, she heard nothing but whispers of the Jackrabbit. They were always referred to as the ‘inciters of the incident’, or the ‘shadow organisation’, but they were never held by name. Mari was in part relieved, but a bad feeling about the whole situation stewed in her stomach.

Lasercorn and Sohinki were still missing. The tvs were running Lasercorn's picture all hours of the day, and every time they did the same message would play.

“Information about the location of David “Lasercorn” Moss and Matthew Sohinki should be brought to the Los Santos Police Department, failing to do so may result in charges of collusion with the suspects.”

The itch to get back out on the field was stronger than ever, and it took everything in Mari’s power not to run after it.

 

< < ^ > >



“This is your last blood test, how are you feeling Ms. Takahashi?”

“A little nervous, but pretty excited.”

“Good, good,” the doctor grinned. She drew Mari’s blood, placing it into the pressurized tube to be sent to the lab. The doctor held down on the button, and the tube was shot down into the belly of the building. “It’s always good to see someone come through here who really wants to try.”

“Yeah?”

“It feels like most people here are just trying to get through it, and you had a little bit of that mentality in the beginning, but I’d like to think that you warmed up towards the end.”

“I was just sick of the drugs and the lying,” Mari shrugged. “And I’ve tried to get better on my own, but it’s never worked out.”

“Well, it’s good that you decided to come here.” A smile, warm and kind, drew up her face. “And as much as we’ve enjoyed having you here, we hope that we won’t have to see you again.”

“You definitely won’t,” Mari returned her smile. “It’s gonna stick this time. I’m clean for good this time.”

“And that’s what I wanted to hear.” The doctor checked one last box off her list.

The computer updated in the corner, and the woman turned towards it. A smile bloomed across her face, and Mari felt something flutter in the pit of her heart.

“Mari Takahashi, I am incredibly proud to tell you that you are completely clean of any drugs in your system.”

“I am?” The words left her lips in a way they never had before. Was this...hope?

She blinked tears out of her eyes. “I’m clean…” Her lip began to quiver as she drew in a breath, tears threatening to break. “I’m clean .”

“Congratulations!” The doctor pulled out a few forms. “If you have someone to pick you up, you can leave by five pm today.”

“What?” Mari looked up, the tears clearing. “I can leave today ?”

“Yep.” The doctor turned her head. “As long as you have someone who is willing and able to get you, you can go home.”

Home. Mari could go home.

For the first time, Mari wanted the Jackrabbit to be her home. Forever. She’d always been afraid to put down those kinds of roots, but the thought of seeing her friends again, to go somewhere she could call home, was enough to make her cry.

“Thank you,” the words were a whisper in her throat. “Thank you so much.”

It took everything in Mari’s power not to hug the doctor.

At five pm sharp, she got a call from the front office. A nasally voice called her to the front, called her home , “ Ms. Takahashi, please grab your things, your contact is here .

It was hard for Mari not to cry with joy.

She stood behind the one way glass pane in the front office for what felt like eons. Joven, Wes, Damien, and even Boze, stood in the front entrance. Joven was signing paperwork, Wes over his shoulder as Boze and Damien chatted with half smiles on their face.

A hand tapped Mari on the shoulder. “You can go.”

Mari ran out of the waiting room like the world was ending.

And four pairs of hands wrapped her in a hug.

 

< < ^ > >

 

Joven helped Mari carry her things into her room, huffing and puffing as he did.

They had filled her in on everything that had happened since she’d been gone, and they’d turned a four hour car ride into what felt like barely any time at all. The four of them, plus the help of Shayne, Sarah and some of the Brotherhood, had managed to dismantle the Titans with few casualties.

Joven had been surprised that Mari had even known that anything had happened, but she’d just grinned and replied that she was sharper now that before. She was surprised how easy the others seemed around her, even Boze, who was notoriously cold towards her, seemed somewhat relaxed.

Mari looked out at her room, squinting at the bareness before her.

“God, why did I ever want to live here?” She let out a sigh as she put down her bags.  

“What?” Joven sounded a little concerned. “You don’t like it here?”

“No, no, I don’t want to leave.” She smiled softly at him. “I mean, why did I want to live in such a bare room? It's so spartan, like a bad hotel room.”

"So like a motel room."

"Exactly," Mari grinned. She gestured to the mattress. “I don’t even have a proper bed frame or bed sheets, and I’ve lived here for like five years now.”

“So you want to get some?”

“I think so.” She shrugged. “My stuff has always been so temporary,” Mari sighed. “I don’t think I want temporary anymore. I’ve just...closed an old chapter in my life, and I want to start the new one off right.”

“Oh?” Joven’s eyebrows popped up. “Oh!” A grin slowly spread across his face. “Cool. Cool, awesome, that’s awesome!” He let out breath it looked like he'd been holding for years, hanging his head back. “It’s good to have you back Mar.”

“I missed you too Jovie.”

“Well, uh, Damien’s gonna order us all some ramen from that place he likes, what do you want?”

“Hmm,” she shrugged. “Just ask him what he thinks is best and order that for me.”

“Alrighty,” he snapped his fingers. “Are you going to settle back in?”

“Yeah I think so.”

“I’ll call you when the food gets here.”

“Sounds good.”

He crossed the room to the door, stepping out into the hall before turning back. “It’s good to have you- the full you- back. I forgot how happy you used to be.”

“I can’t agree more.”

He let the door close behind him and Mari let her smile grow.

She flopped down onto her bed, falling into a fit of happy giggles as she rolled around in the covers. Tears began to form as another bubble of laughter rolled up in her chest. She hadn’t felt like this in years, and she never wanted this feeling to go away.

And then her phone rang.

Mari sat up, grabbing for it as she read the contact name.

Shit.

She pressed the recieve button, putting the phone up to her ear. “What the fuck do you want Sohinki.”

“Takahashi.” The familiar cool tone of voice made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. “Can we talk?”

“Why the fuck would I want to talk to someone who…fucking poisoned me ? Lied to me ?”

“Five minutes. It’s important.”

“Hell no.”

“I’m already out in your alley.”

Mari considered it for a second. If he did have something to tell her, it might be important. It was likely that this was his last stop before he got the hell out of the city. She was surprised that he hadn’t left earlier.

“Fine, but any bad moves and I’m shooting you.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Mari threw her phone onto her bed, flicking off the lights behind her.

She snuck surreptitiously down the stairs, past the office and out into the club. Mari slipped backstage without being noticed. She grabbed the gun Joven kept behind the door and pushed it open into the alleyway.

“Where are you?”

A shadow melted from the wall, and Sohinki, his hood up over his face, stepped into the light. He flipped it down, the gaunt lines of his face drawn sharply in the light.

“Hey.”

She pointed the gun at him, surprised how her hands shook ever so slightly as she held it.

“Careful with that,” he murmured, but he didn’t moved his hands in surrender.

“What do you want.”

“Looks like you’re sober, good on ya.”

“No thanks to you,” she spat.

“C ’mon Takahashi, ya should’ve expected that.”

“I thought you were my friend, that I could trust you.”

He laughed ever so slightly. “We weren't friends. Acquaintances and mutual benefactors maybe, but not friends.”

“Liar,” she huffed. “We were friends. You’re just trying to convince yourself we were to make yourself feel better about what you did.”

“I did what I had’ta do to survive.”

“You did what you had to do to keep Lasercorn happy.” Mari didn’t let him reply. “Losioz had the same charisma that Lasercorn has. They draw you in and then they spit you out when you aren’t useful anymore.”

“You don’t know him like I do.”

Mari rolled her eyes. “Don’t come crawling back to me when he leaves you.”

“He won’t,” Sohinki replied sharply. He shook his head, coming back to his senses “I’m not here ta’ fuckin’ argue with you.”

“Then why are you here?”

“You messed with somethin’ bigger than yourself when the Jackrabbit turned on the Titans. There’s some bigger players in the game who haven’t shown their hand yet. But they will, and soon. I just thought ya outta know.”

“And you say we weren’t friends.”

“Ya did me a solid back in the day. I wanna make sure I pay ya back, so that I don’t owe ya nothin’.”

“How typical of you.”

He shrugged, grinning. “Hey, what can I say?”

She paused, pursing her lips. “Good luck Sohin, with whatever you’re doing.” Mari gestured with her gun. “But if I ever see you around her again, I will kill you, you got that?”

“Loud and clear Takahashi, loud and clear.” He backed into the darkness, flipping his hood up over his head.

“See ya in hell, Sohin.”

Down the alley, the headlights of a car illuminating the middle finger held up in the air. There was the sound of a car door being slammed shut, and the rev of an engine as the car pulled back and out of the alley.

Somehow, Mari knew that this would be that last she would ever see of Sohinki. Wherever he and Lasercorn were going, it was the kind of place people often went to disappear. If she did see him again, his name wouldn’t be Sohinki, and he’d have forgotten everything about his old life.

Mari pulled herself back into the club, dropping the gun back into its hiding spot.

She wasn’t eased by her conversation with him, and it only made the stone in her stomach sink further down. Mari felt herself crossing her fingers, hoping that his threat was only a bluff.

But knowing Sohinki, she knew that it was closer to the truth than she would’ve liked.

 

Chapter Text

Joven hadn’t slept easier since the Titans had fallen.

But he was getting bored.

Sure, he had plenty on his mind, but with what he was used to dealing with, all of his problems felt small.

Mari was back, and more stable than she had been the entire time he’d known her. Wes was warming up to him again. The club was thriving. He should’ve been happy.

But something irked Joven just slightly. It felt too perfect. And nothing ever worked out perfectly, at least, not for him.

Damien had barely spoken about anything to do with Leo in weeks, spending most of his time away from the Jackrabbit. Boze had been somehow present and distant at the same time, Mari’s outburst and return had clearly sent her on a wild spin of emotions. And to top it off, Lasercorn and Sohinki were still missing, and knowing them, they could pop back up at any moment.

They’d managed to trick Mari, and that was a hard thing to do. To say that he was afraid of what they were capable of, was an understatement.

It wasn’t like he should be that worried. They had no power anymore. The Titans were gone, Sunny had confirmed it over a very brief phone call, the Jackrabbit was the only threatening gang left on the block.

From his right, his office door slammed open, and Boze stepped through the entrance, her hands full of papers piled on top of her computer. “Afternoon Joven. I’m surprised you’re up.”

“Yeah,” he rubbed his face. “I almost slept in today, but I knew there was some paperwork to fill out so…”

“Always more work to do,” Boze nodded. “Speaking of which, the city got back to us about the permit.”

“And?”

“It actually passed through.” She tossed a manila folder onto his desk. “We can start work on the expansion as soon as next Friday.”

Joven opened the folder, paging through the lawyerly wording and the many, many signatures, looking for the stamp from the city. He smiled just slightly as he ran his fingertips over it. “We should almost get this framed.” Joven snapped it shut, handing it back to Boze. “Because it’ll probably be the last time the city agrees with us on anything.”

“If that ain’t the truth,” she snorted. Boze filed the folder in the closet in the corner as Joven paged through some of the other documents on the pile.

“Anything else interesting in here?”

“Eh, not really.” She shrugged, “unless you like looking at more zoning permits and some paper deals we made with the smaller gangs around the city.”

“Paper deals?”

“Yeah, we’ve basically taken the whole city now, and lots of gangs are willing to give up their territory in exchange for money or alliances and stuff.”

“Money?”

“Mostly alliances or trade deals.” She squinted, cocking her head slightly. “Gangs are surprisingly more democratic than our own government.”

“They know what they want and they know their bounds, our government doesn’t know that in the slightest.” He paused, “and most gangs are also run by one person, who makes more decisions, sometimes for worse than for better.”

“But if they’re still around by now, probably for the better.”

“True.”

“I’m surprised we even made it this far.” Boze crossed the room, falling into the chair across from him. “I’d expected it to take years longer than this.”

“You were willing to stick around here for that long?”

Boze furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”

“Well, when you first got here, I remember you telling me that you’d only be here temporarily.”

“I guess I changed my mind,” she shrugged. “Everyone here changed my mind.” Joven raised a suspicious eyebrow. “What?”

“I don’t know, it’s just…” he looked back at her. “Did you expect to end up here doing all of this? Is this what you wanted with your life?”

“Trying to get rid of me Joven?”

“No, just curious.”

“Good, because it’s going to take a lot more than that to get me on the move.”

“You’ve nested.”

“I have,” she grinned. “And I’m not going to get leaving anytime soon. The rent’s cheap-”

“It’s free-”

“And the food’s cheaper.” Boze leaned back, her hands on the back of her head. “And I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

“But is this what you wanted?” He was genuinely interested, but Boze rolled her eyes. “Did you look out on your life and expect it to turn out this way?”

“Are you trying to ask if I’m happy here?”

Joven shrugged, “kinda I guess.” He opened his mouth to speak and closed it again.

“What?”

“Nothing, just a random thought.”

“Well, would you like to share with the class Jovert?”

“Fine,” he grumbled. “It’s just...you feel like the same person you were when I first met you. And you obviously weren’t happy with the job then, and if you haven’t changed much, how do I know that you’re truly happy with it now?”

“I’ve changed.” Boze moved slowly from where she sat.

“Not really.” Joven chose his words carefully. “Wes has changed, Damien has been changing, albeit slowly, and Mari has definitely changed. You’re the only one that’s stayed the same.” She blinked back at him blankly. His words were light, “when was the last time you really told anyone anything about yourself?”

“All the time!”

“Anything that really mattered.”

Boze went quiet.

“You’ve wrapped yourself up in one identity for so long that I think it’s started to blind you from yourself. You can’t go your whole life with only one interest, I get it, computers are cool, but you have to find something else from it.”

“What do you have besides the club?” Boze crossed her arms against her chest. “Your just as guilty of it as I am.”

He let out a small laugh. “Hmm, you’re kinda right.”

“And you’re projecting.”

“Am I?”

“A little.” She made a small sweeping gesuture. "Why else bring all this up."

"You've just seemed a little...off recently."

"That's more Mari than me," she replied sharply. Boze glanced up at Joven's expression and tweaked her words. "Though I guess I should stop blaming my problems on her." She squinted, watching Joven intently.

"I guess...why did you still stick around?" He swallowed slowly. "So much shit has happened to you here, why deal with it, why not run?"

"Cause that's not how I wanted to do it this time."

"This time?"

"I always used to run when it got bad," she shook her head. "But I was sick of reinventing myself everytime I did. I like it here. I....I love all of you here so much. I didn't want to lose any of you, even...even Mari." She rubbed her face. "I don't even know why I started hating her. I didn't blame her...and then I did...and now I still do." 

There was a pause.

“But you’re not wrong,” Boze murmured. “I do need to step back and think about myself a little.”

“We’ve been busy, and you’ve been distracted justifiably.” He caught her eyes, making sure she maintained eye contact. “You’ve been going at this non-stop for almost five months, barely taking breaks for yourself.”

“Please don’t tell me to take the week off.”

“I’m giving everyone the week off,” Joven smiled. “We all need some time off with all that’s happened. Rent a hotel room out in Richman, go to the beach, take a trip up to Geld County. Relax Boze. You need it more than any of us.” He stood, fiddling with something on his desk. “Take some time. Reflect. I want you to take a look at yourself. And ask, are you happy?

“I’ll try,” Boze rolled her eyes. “But I can’t promise you anything.” She stood, standing across from him. “And,”  her finger extended in his direction in a sharp accusing point, “the vacation doesn’t start until tomorrow.”

“Deal.” He smiled. “Have fun.”

“You should too,” she replied. “If I can’t work, you can’t either, okay?”

“Alright,” he watched as the door closed behind her. “I’ll try my best.”

 

Chapter Text

“You can’t ignore me forever Leo.”

The man sat in the corner of his bed, the farthest away from Damien as he could get. The door to the jail cell was wide open, but he hadn’t made any motion to move towards it. Damien let out a long sigh, sitting farther to the front of his chair as he hung his head forward.

He didn’t know how much longer he could sit here with Leo looking like that. His face was so thin now, the concave sharpness of his skull darkened by the pockets of sunken shadows around his eyes and his cheeks. Leo watched the ground with a fuzzy expression, his eyes unfocused, but his jaw tight.

Damien watched as he twitched, moving just the slightest in response to Damien’s voice. He wasn’t scared, but it was clear that something inside him had been shattered, and he wasn’t strong enough to put on the cocky persona he had once so easily paraded around.

He cleared his throat. “I found the storage locker.” The pause in his voice was painful. “I don’t know if I told you that. I probably did. I don’t remember.” He turned his head, drawing in a shaky breath. “It was a big help. It opened some doors I thought were closed forever. We wouldn’t have been able to take down the Titans without it.”

Leo’s eyes flicked up to him for the first time in weeks. He didn’t speak, but something in his eyes motioned for Damien to continue.

“But you...knew that already, didn’t you?”

Leo’s eyes moved slowly across the room, landing on the outside of the jail door and staying there.

“Alright.” Damien stood, drawing himself up slowly. “Be that way if you want to, but I’m not going to leave.” He stood in front of the incinerator, placing his hands on top of the handle. Damien closed his eyes, imagining Leo’s face as he sat curled in the corner. “I still don’t get why you’re mad at me.”

He turned to find Leo looking at him again. His eyes were dark beneath the waves of black hair that had begun to thicken in the several months he’d been kept down in the jail cell. “How can you even say that?”

His voice was so much different that it almost scared Damien. Normally it was dripping with charisma and bravado, but now, it was broken. Every blink looked like it was barely holding back tears, and the man shivered where he sat with his knees to his chest.

Damien had broken Leo, but not in the way he’d expected.

“I thought that you…” Leo cleared his throat. “No. You don’t deserve this kind of...I don’t even know, praise ?”

“Praise?”

“Of a job well done, of tricking me.” He shook, wrapping his arms around his shins. “You’ve managed to lie to me. People don’t normally get away with that.”

“I’m a good liar,” Damien whispered.

“I noticed,” Leo replied sharply.

“You really believed me?”

“I was desperate,” he whispered. “I’m not used to people caring about me.” Leo chanced a look at Damien. “And you did care for me at least a little. You wouldn’t have kept me alive if you didn’t.”

Damien didn’t reply. There was something about Leo that he had wanted to protect. In the beginning it was because he thought that Leo might be a bargaining chip, but now...there was no logical reason to keep Leo around.

In truth, he should’ve killed Leo months ago. But something kept him from doing that. It wasn’t some sort of weird romantic thing, but more or less that Damien felt a kinship for Leo. They had both been raised in the same situation, and Damien could see more of Leo in himself than he realized.

“Why did you...like me like that?” Damien’s question left him before he could stop himself. Leo raised an eyebrow. “I’m not worth falling in love with.”

“I didn’t-” Leo stopped himself, clearing his throat. “You’re beautiful. And you’re kind, and smart, and you-” he closed his eyes. “And you were the first person who wanted to hear from me, for real. You seemed like you actually cared when I told you things. Of course, maybe that was all a lie.” He opened a single eye. “Was it?”

“Not all of it,” Damien replied quietly. “Lies are easier to tell if you thread them into the truth.”

“Hmm.” Leo nodded, more to himself than to Damien. “I wish I’d known that growing up.”

“It’s a good skill to have.”

“I’ll remember that when I finally get out of here.” Leo gave Damien a flicker of a familiar expression. “You don’t expect me to stick around here for much longer, do you?”

“I guess I didn’t think about that.”

“The Titans are gone.” His voice rattled in his chest. “There’s not really a reason for me to be around here much longer if they’re really gone.”

“Were they your associate?”

“I still don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I never knew,” he turned his head upward. “But I trusted. Because I would’ve done anything to get out of my father’s grasp. When they came around, I just guessed. And they almost had you for a while, but it seems they screwed up, and now we’re here.” Leo paused for a second. “How long did it take for you to take them down?”

“A month or so, why?”

Leo didn’t answer, but he looked deep in thought. “It’s all too quick,” he murmured.

“The fighting was almost non-stop. Both of us were constantly throwing blows at one another, but the Titans could never quite chip away.”

“Many casualties?”

“On their side, yes, but on our side, not many.”

“That woman, with the purple hair, I haven’t seen her in a few weeks, where has she been?”

“Mari,” Damien nodded. “She overdosed a few weeks ago.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Seems their plan worked. I’m sorry for you loss.”

“She’s not dead.” Damien answered slowly, his eyebrows furrowing. “But did go to rehab-” he sat forward- “what do you mean ‘their plan worked’?”

“They always wanted her on their side,” he replied. “Always talked about she was integral, or something. They were going to convert her, get her as an ally, and if they couldn’t, they’d try plan b.”

“And that was?”

“A last resort.” Leo stretched a leg out, holding his other knee to his chest with his hands. “If she wouldn’t budge, they’d light her fuse, and let that ticking time bomb inside explode where it would.”

“You knew ?” Damien’s voice grew sharp, and Leo drew his leg back up to his chest. “And you said nothing.”

“I didn’t owe you that information.”

“I should’ve just done this the old fashioned way,” Damien rubbed his face. “That might’ve saved Mari months ago. We could’ve been so much farther…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I should’ve listened to my gut. You should be dead in a river somewhere by now.”

“As if you could’ve even gone through with that,” Leo laughed morbidly. “You can’t torture like you did back then. You don’t have a reason to, it’s against your morals.”

“You had information that could’ve saved my friend from overdosing and hurting herself, like hell I don’t have a reason.” Damien crossed the room to the entrance of the jail cell.

“You can try, but you won’t get anything,” Leo sneered. “You’ve lost your finesse, I can see it in the way you move. You used to be a man afraid of nothing, willing to face death head-on, but now you’re built on fear.”

“Maybe, it’s because I found something to fight for.” Damien felt his heart pumping in his chest. “Because I can look at my life and see all the things I’d miss, and all the people who would miss me, if I was gone. You’ve lost everything, and you think you’re so high and mighty. In reality, you’re too broken to even think that loving is possible again.”

“I can’t love,” he whispered. “I’m already dead. No one can love a dead man.”

“Then maybe you should be the first.” Damien let out a soft breath. “Love yourself. And then let others love you.”

Leo watched him from the corner, tears gleaming in his eyes.

"Maybe breaking you isn't so hard after all."

"Too bad that there's nothing else for me to tell you."

The two of them stood in silence for several minutes. It was clear that any conversation they could ever have, was over. 

Damien pressed his lips together, grabbing the jail door and swinging it closed slowly. It connected with the latch with a familiar click.

He turned to leave, but Leo’s voice stopped him.

“One last thing. The Titan’s don’t give up that easily,” his voice was uneasy. “I don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of them.”

Damien turned back, nodding to Leo. “Thanks.”

There was a strange finality in Leo’s voice, and Damien knew that Leo had realized the same thing he had. He knew that Leo was breaking, and that it was true, there was no point in keeping him around much longer. Damien would talk to Joven about sending Leo away soon. Hopefully somewhere nice, maybe with witness protection from their police contacts.

Leo deserved to be happy for once. Damien wanted him to be happy.

“Goodbye Lion.”

He tried not to get too choked up as he replied for what felt like the last time.

“Bye Leo.”

 

Chapter Text

Boze put the car into park on the edge of the cliff, stepping out as Courtney slammed the passenger side door closed behind her. She stretched as she rounded the car, sitting against the hood as the sun shone over the water in the distance.

The city was far enough away to only look like a shining mass of iron and stone in the distance, and the wind that whipped across the cliffs was sweet and cold. It smelled like the ocean for once, bright, and briney, unlike the normal fishy and somewhat urine tinted odor that normally accompanied the winds that breezed through Los Santos.

“God I feel like I can breath again,” Courtney sighed.

The two of them had spent almost three hours at the ocean, and Courtney’s hair hung around her shoulders in dripping tendrils. She had never looked so alive than she did here, glowing brighter than she had in forever.

“What next?” She grinned, crossing her arms over her chest as she sat back against the hood of the truck.

“You told me that you wanted to learn how to shoot a gun for real, right?”

Courtney’s eyes widened as she hopped off the front. “Hell yeah, is that what we’re doing?”

Boze grinned, rounding the car to open the back door, revealing a large black box sitting in the back. She popped open the cache, pushing open the top, letting it thump solidly on the ripped up carpeting of the trunk. There were a few handguns, and one or two rifles. Joven hadn’t let her bring the sniper with, but if he hadn’t stopped her stopped her last minute, it’d be in the back right now.

Courtney helped Boze pull out a few crates they kept in the back, setting them up thirty or so feet away from where they were going to shoot. Boze set up a few empty cans and glass bottles on top of their makeshift stands before jogging back to Courtney.

She picked out the handgun she knew how to use the best, slipping the extra boxes of ammo into her back pocket. Boze cocked the gun, aiming it at the targets down the way. She fired six rounds, hitting four out of the twelve targets.

“Not too shabby, if I do say so myself,” Boze shrugged.

She handed Courtney the gun, who took it gingerly. She cocked the weapon, taking quick aim before firing off the same six shots. Courtney hit six targets with ease.

She turned back to Boze with a cocky grin on her face. “How was that?”

“What the?" Courtney looked back at her with a gleaming expression. "Oh, I get it.” Boze took the gun from her, loading it back into the cache. “You wanted to show off, hmm?”

“Did I impress?”

“Entirely,” Boze smiled, a sense of strange pride welling in her chest. “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a farm with a dad who thought that the best security was a shotgun under your pillow. Your aim gets good fast if all you have laying around are a bunch of old weapons and some coke cans.”

“I thought you grew up a half hour away from the ocean?”

“I did,” Courtney took a rifle from the cache. “My family grew up maybe eight or nine hours outside of Los Santos. I only moved out here when I was in high school, but I mostly grew up on a farm in the mountains.”

“A farm to Los Santos is a pretty...stark change.”

“My mom got,” she loaded the rifle, cocking it, “custody when I was 17. Shipped half the family to Los Santos.” Courtney stepped up to the line. She let off three shots, shattering two wine bottles to dust and catapulting a plastic vodka bottle hundreds of feet into the air. “I wanted to come back to the farm more than anything...but something about Los Santos, is it just-” She paused, the rifle going limp in her arms.

“Sucks you in?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Court, are you happy?”

She looked up, furrowing her eyebrows. “Yeah, why?” Courtney cocked the gun, letting the shells clatter into the sand at her feet as she took aim at the bottles. “Is everything all good with you?” Boze winced as the gun fired, snapping bottles in half and throwing others across the sand.

“It’s uh, just something Joven said to me.”

“What’d exactly he say?”

“I think he thinks I’m bored.” Boze sat back against the tailgate of the truck, feeling it sink just slightly under her.

“Are you bored?”

“I don’t know.” She propped herself up on the heels of her hands. “I haven’t really had the chance to sit back and ask myself how I feel in a while.”

“The Jackrabbit has been the only thing on your mind.”

“That,” she nodded. “And then I’m also thinking about our numbers, and the Brotherhood, and then the Xiaolong when they were around, and then us, and then the Titans came around, and then Mari started acting weird, and all of that shit went down. We’ve barely had time to talk. I don’t think we’ve gotten any time to ourselves in weeks.”

“Yeah,” Courtney’s lips twitched at the corners. “I was so fucking excited when you called me. I mean, sure, we text, but there’s something so much better about actually standing next to each other.”

“And it’s kinda worked for us,” Boze waved a hand, letting it fall back down slowly. “We wanted a small thing, and it’s worked. But now...we aren’t really up against anyone anymore.”

“We’ll have more time together...but you’re afraid we’ll get bored.”

“Exactly,” Boze let out the breath she’d been holding.

Courtney stopped where she had started to move forward. “I hadn’t thought of that.” She set the rifle, barrel down, on the ground, placing her hands on the back. “Because I do really like you...and I could see something more with us.”

“Yeah,” Boze ran a hand over the back of her head. “I really...um, I really only wanted to keep you at arms length because I was afraid that you might get hurt...but now-”

“The only threat is the amount of people the club might start bringing in?”

Boze felt a smile trace up her lips. “Yep.”

“So what are you saying?”

“Do you wanna...get a little more serious?”

Courtney’s face brightened, her eyes nearly glowing in the fading light. “Oh hell yeah, but, slow, right?”

“Definitely,” Boze nodded. “We need time to adjust, right?”

“Right. But not too much.” Courtney couldn’t stop grinning as she tackled Boze into the back of the van.

 

< < ^ > >

 

Boze sat, half-naked, in the driver’s seat of the car. She wore only a pair of pajama pants she’d dug out of her suitcase, and the bra she’d pulled out from where it had been left underneath a sleeping Courtney.

The moon was more beautiful that evening than it had been in a long time.

Perhaps that was because of how Boze was feeling, or maybe it was how far away they were from the city. Boze hadn’t realized how happy the countryside made her. It wasn’t until you left Los Santos for a few days that you could feel your spine unbend and your bones pop back into place after feeling so pushed down by the grinding maw of the city itself.

It was easy to feel small in Los Santos, but out here, you could drive for miles and miles and miles and find nothing. Boze hadn’t realized how much she’d needed that in her life.

Maybe in twenty years, if she and Courtney were still going strong, they could go on a road trip out to Courtney’s childhood home. And maybe, if it was buyable, they could fix it up, live there, start a life.

Boze had never know what she wanted her future to look like. She’d always imagined traveling with her dad until she could take over for him, but when he’d died…

“You’re still awake?”

She turned back to see Courtney, head propped up on her hands, lying in the back, the blanket Boze had thrown over her barely covering her body.

“Couldn’t sleep.” Boze drew her knees up to her chest, resting her back against the window.

“You’re overthinking again aren’t you?”

Her lips pressed into a soft line. “You know me too well.”

“Do I?” Courtney sat up, drawing the blanket around her as she sat with her legs crossed. “Sometimes I’m not even sure.”

“What is it with you and wanting to know stuff like that?”

She stared out the window at the moon. “Because I feel like I can trust people when I really know them.” Her eyes grazed across the car to Boze’s face. “Old habits die hard, I guess.”

“What do you want to know?”

“You don’t talk a lot about growing up.”

“Yeah.” Boze whispered. “I don’t.”

Courtney fell silent, and they let the quiet lapse. “What about your time as a roller derby girl. Tell me more about that.”

Boze smiled slightly. “I was living with my aunt back then.” She closed her eyes, letting her head fall back against the window. “You know what? Fuck it. I can’t believe...Alright.”

Courtney furrowed her eyebrows, “everything okay?”

“I'm only telling you this because I-" Boze shook her head. "Because someone should know something about me before I finally kick the bucket." Boze traced the leather seams of the seat with a stray fingertip. "My mom died when I was a kid. Or maybe she didn’t, I don’t even know. My dad did his best to raise me. But he was gone a lot, work and stuff. I lived with my grandpa until he died, and then I was bounced around with family until my dad could come and get me.”

“And you stayed with your aunt a lot?”

“Yeah, from age 10 to about 14.”

“And you roller derbied?”

“Derbied?”

“I dunno man,” Courtney rested her head against the side of the van. “I’m tired.”

“Yeah, sure, I ‘derbied’.” Boze watched Courtney fondly. “And then when I was about fourteen and a half, I convinced my dad to take him places with me. Traveled the world, learned a bunch, studied computers and code, learned Mandarin and some Spanish on accident."

"Is that when you worked for the Xiaolong?"

"Yeah, my dad and I set up their severs. It was there that I first learned how to double back my codes, sow in the details so they can't be found.” She smiled sadly. "My dad could always turn everything into a teaching moment. Even when he was overseas for work, he would still send me gifts that would challenge me. Books about coding, some entirely in different languages. He was patient, and he was always kind. It was my aunt that taught me how to shoot a gun, and also my aunt that taught me to carry a knife."

"Did she teach you how to use it?"

"Nah, she prefered learning in the moment." Boze bit her lip. "Let's just say, two gang grunts tried to jump me, and when it was over, they were missing a few...body parts." 

"You've always had some fight in you, haven't you?"

"You could say that," Boze's lips twitched into a smile. "My dad and I traveled everywhere. We got into some sticky situations, but he was always incredibly talents at getting us out of them. He was charismatic and coy, and he was one of the best liars I've ever met. He taught me more about life than anyone else I've ever met, and he was there for me when I was low, and I was there for him. My dad was my rock, and I was his."

"You two were really close, huh."

"We were practically a sitcom family," Boze's voice wavered. "But then he made some mistakes. Barked up the wrong tree." 

Courtney tipped her head up towards Boze, her face drawing in with concern.

“And then…” She closed her eyes, letting the tears in her eyes burn her eyelids. “And then my dad made a really, really bad deal. And it got him killed.” She opened her eyes to see Courtney sitting up straight again. “And I couldn't handle it. I almost left Los Santos because I just needed to get away."

"You threw myself into work at the Jackrabbit, didn't you?”

“I never let myself grieve.” Boze was shaking where she sat. “And now I can feel those feelings I pushed down coming back.” She blinked tears out of her eyes. "I shouldn't have told you that, it's stupid."

"It is not stupid." Courtney's voice was hushed and scolding. "You deserve comfort as much as anyone else, and you deserve closure, whatever form it comes in." 

Courtney opened her arms, and Boze fell into them.

“Hey, I’m here.” Courtney planted a soft kiss on Boze’s forehead. “I’m here. Always.”

Her arms were like the ocean, and Boze let herself fall under the waves again and again.

She cried on Courtney’s shoulder until she stopped shaking.

The two of them fell asleep, arms curled around one another, Boze’s head in the crook of Courtney's neck.

 

Chapter Text

The last thing Wes expected his week off to be was nerve-wracking. And yet, here he was, thinking about someone he’d been trying to forget.

When Joven had decreed a week ago that everyone was getting the next week off to recuperate before they moved into the next phase of the Jackrabbit, Wes had expected to be home alone at the club, getting food delivered and watching over the place.

He’d watched as the club had slowly emptied one by one.

The strippers had left first, Olivia, Noah and Keith heading to a karaoke bar, Shayne looking like he wanted to say something to Damien before saying nothing and leaving with them. Wes had noticed that recently. Damien and Shayne hadn’t been as friendly as normal. The two of them were normally thick as thieves, but now, something had clearly changed.

Courtney and Boze had taken one of the vans. He’d helped Boze pack some guns in a cache she'd put in the back.

“Just in case?” He’d asked, raising and eyebrow.

“She wants to get some shooting in.”

“Careful out there,” he’d replied with a grin. “And good luck.”

“Thanks Wes.” Then Boze had hugged him, it was quick, but it was kind.

He and Joven had waved them goodbye after he made sure Boze didn’t pack Damien’s sniper.

Mari had packed a backpack, promising to be back at the end of the week before renting a car to drive her into the mountains to try to summit Mount Elm. She’d been talking about doing something like that ever since she’d come back from rehab. Wes guessed that it was probably something she’d been taught there, to get her to pick a new hobby or something. There was another thing he’d noticed when she’d come back. She was significantly more muscular than she’d been when she’d left. He wasn’t sure if it was how frail she’d been back then, or if she’d just packed on muscle now, but she looked all the more dangerous than she was before.

Damien had said something about ‘finding an old friend’ before he’d disappeared for the week. He’d been like that recently. Quieter than usual. Damien had always been cryptic, but he’d been more so than he was normally. He’d lost some of his humorous side, and what had taken its place was the beginning of something darker. Wes had been meaning to talk to Damien, but they’d both gotten busy with work and it’d fallen by the wayside.

Wes kept waiting for Joven to leave, but he never did. It wasn’t until they’d both gotten up at relatively the same time one morning, avoiding each other on the way to the bathroom that Wes finally asked. He’d been standing in the kitchen in a pair of pajamas making coffee, Joven entering in quietly behind him.

“So when are you heading out?”

“What?” Joven looked up from his phone. He looked like he’d just rolled out of bed, a black robe over a pair of bright blue shorts and a white tank-top and messy hair. His glasses balanced precariously on the bridge of his nose. “I thought you were leaving?”

“I never said that.”

“You didn’t?”

“I don’t think I did,” Wes replied, clearing his throat. “You’re not going somewhere?”

“Nope.”

“So it’s just going to be you and me here for the next week? Alone?”

“Well, we’ve got our friend in the basement, we wouldn’t want to forget about him.”

“Leo. That’s right.”

“And since you and I are both staying home, we can trade off who brings him food each day.” Joven reached in front of Wes, grabbing the coffee pot. Wes faulted for a second, trying to keep his footing, hoping Joven wouldn’t notice. He brought his coffee to his lips, sputtering as it burned his tongue. Wes swallowed it quickly, blinking as he watched Joven smile back at him.

“So,” Wes coughed. “What are your plans for this week?”

“Catching up on paperwork for the club, and sleep.”

“No Matt Raub or Brotherhood things planned?”

“Matt Raub is in Cabo right now dealing with some offshore accounts that went bad, and Whittle jumped at the opportunity for a break. She and her boyfriend headed upstate to visit her parents.” Joven slotted the coffee pot back into place. “So it’s going to be a very quiet week.”

“Uh-huh.” Wes blew over the top of his coffee, a little terrified at the fact that he and Joven were going to be in such close proximity for such a long time.

“And what about you?”

“Watching tv, maybe playing a video game Shayne recommended, but otherwise not much.”

Joven nodded, moving to take a drink of his coffee, but realizing too late that it was scorching hot. He choked on the coffee as he swallowed it, setting his mug on the table.

“I literally just did that.”

“Shut up Wesley,” Joven grumbled playfully. He crossed the room to the fridge, pulling it open as Wes took at a seat at the table. “Do we have any food in here?”

“I’m pretty sure we’ve only had take-out for the past three months,” Wes replied, blowing over the top of his mug.

“We’re disgusting aren’t we?”

“Just a little.”

“Alright, then we’ll go shopping today.”

“We?”

Joven let the fridge fall shut. “Well, obviously, you aren’t doing anything today, and if I go alone, I’ll just end up buying a bunch of junk food we don’t need”

“And I would help you do anything different?”

“I’ll find my better judgement and pretend that I’m actually healthy if you’re there with me.”

“Fine,” Wes rolled his eyes.

“Great! It’s a date!” Joven’s eyes went wide as he realized what he’d said. “I mean...it’s not, um, y’know…”

Wes grinned with one side of his face. “Freudian slip?”

“Twenty minutes,” Joven cleared his throat. He grabbed his mug of coffee, breezing past Wes. “We’re going.”

Wes knew that there was no arguing with Joven. He popped a few ice cubes and a mountain of sugar in his coffee and downed it in three gulps.

He pulled on a pair of jeans and a cleaner sweatshirt than the one he’d been wearing earlier, and met Joven in the hallway in front of the club. Joven was wearing a pair of grey pants and a nicely pressed shirt, his hair had been combed back, and Wes was pretty sure that he’d trimmed his beard too.

“We’re going for a grocery run Joven, not a dinner party.”

“I always dress to impress,” Joven grinned.

“Overdress,” Wes teased.

The two of them walked to the run-down chain grocery store that was located a few blocks from the Jackrabbit. The prices were somewhat cheap, and the food wouldn’t kill you, so it was good enough for them.

Joven grabbed a cart, and wheeled it down the aisle, Wes in tow. “It’s now that I realize that I probably should’ve brought a list with.”

“We can grab and go,” Wes pulled a box of pasta from the shelf.

“Not too many sweets, okay?”

“I’ll grab as many as I want.” Wes grinned, jogging down the hallway.

“Wes, wait!”

He grabbed a few bags of chocolate candies, and some cookies before doubling back to Joven and placing them in the cart.

“They made it in, so they can stay!”

“That’s not-”

“It’s the rule I’m making right now, and it’s staying.”

Joven caught his eyes, a fond smile that made something in Wes’s stomach warm bloomed on his face. They held each other’s gaze for just a second long enough that he began to question if it meant something.

“I hate you,” Joven laughed, smiling with such warmth in his eyes. He expression faltered as he realized what he was doing and looked away, breaking their gaze.

“Cheese, we need cheese, right?” Wes cleared his throat, pointing to the dairy fridge at the end of the aisle.

“Uh yeah we do, and do we want to get some tomatoes and avocados?”

“Yeah sure.”

“Yep, um.”

Joven’s expression stayed with Wes even on their way home. They made small conversation, but it was clear that whatever had just happened had stuck with the both of them.

He’d unloaded the groceries into the fridge, stocking up the cupboard, trying to weave around Joven as the two of them moved in tandem. They were both somewhat awkward around one another, with was odd. Sure, they’d been awkward for a while, but something had changed recently, and now it was like the switch had been flipped again.

Wes retreated to his room with an energy bar and some candy, flipping off the lights and turning on whatever was on tv. It wasn’t interesting, but it was something that distracted him from everything else. He let himself fall into whatever was in front of him before a knock came at his door.

“It’s open,” he shouted softly. Joven pushed the door open slowly, balancing two bowls in hand. Wes furrowed his eyebrows. “What...is that.”

“I made dinner. Mac and cheese, old fashioned, homemade.” Joven handed him the bowl. “Bon appetit.” He moved to leave back towards the door.

“Hey, are you just going to eat alone?”

“Well it’d be weird if I brought it all the way up here and made you come down to the kitchen to eat it with me.”

“Then stay here with me,” Wes felt his heart flutter. What the hell was he saying? . “We can watch this show the mechanic, Tanner, told me about. It’s probably shit, but it’d be nice to watch it with someone.”

Joven smiled just the slightest, climbing onto Wes’s bed next to him.

The two of them ate the mac and cheese, which was actually really good, in relative silence, watching the show and just enjoying each other’s company. Wes had been right, the show was shit, but Joven seemed to like it, and that was enough for him.

As the room darkened, the sun setting slowly and the street lamps flickering on, Wes felt the bed shift slightly. Joven had moved, and now sat a few inches closer to Wes than before.

Wes chanced moving just slightly, so that their shoulders just barely touched.

They sat there for maybe twenty minutes, Wes’s heart humming in his chest everytime Joven’s shoulder brushed across his. Wes moved his hand, leaning against it. He felt Joven’s fingertip brush against his, and he turned his head to see Joven glance in his direction.

He watched Joven slowly turn his head, his eyes flickered in the dim light, moving between Wes’s eyes and his lips.

Something loud happened on the tv, and both of their heads whipped back towards the screen. Wes looked back at Joven, but he saw him recoil, the reality of the situation seeming to have hit him.

He cleared his throat. “I should head to bed,” he murmured.

“Yeah, um, yeah, me too.”

Wes didn’t move as he listened to Joven leave, his heart pumping as he tried to rationalize what had just happened.

The two of them didn’t talk much after that night.

It was clear that there had been tension, but Wes wasn’t about to bring that up to Joven again. Last time he’d done that, he’d only gotten himself hurt, and he didn’t want that to happen for a second time. But his feelings would do what they wanted, and he’d bury them if he had to.

They’d pass each other in the hall, giving each other small nods. Sometimes they’d talk about the weather in the kitchen, or about who had to bring Leo food that day. They never talked about the important things.

Wes had resigned himself to the pole onstage to think through his worries. It had always helped him before, and today wasn’t an exception. The familiar twisting of his body, and the firmness of the pole beneath his hands. The sting of the skin where calluses had formed and loosened over the years of use.

He would climb and spin and let himself fall. His hair fell back against his forehead as he felt his spine contort backwards.

“Hey,” Joven’s voice roused Wes from his thoughts. He let his eyes open, spinning down the pole, setting one foot gracefully on the ground before letting the other fall a little less gracefully.

“What’s up?” He was breathing surprisingly hard, his heart pumping in his chest.

“Do you maybe want to go out tonight?”

“Like what?”

“A club or something.”

“We never have fun at clubs.”

“Get drunk and dance?”

Wes considered it, a grin slowly peeling across his face. “I can swing that.”

They headed out at seven, when the light slowly drained from the city. They’d taken Joven’s nice car, the black one that he’d bought a few months ago. Joven was dressed to a tee, and Wes felt like, for once, his fashion choices could actually compare to Joven’s.

They ended up at some club he didn’t recognize downtown, it was popular enough to have a line at the front, but exclusive enough that it had a valet service.

Wes did enjoy the ease in which they could get into clubs these days. All Joven had to do was flash a smile and sometimes his business card and the velvet ropes would open the world to them.

The place was nice. Drinks were expensive and the people seemed more high end than the average party girl or fraternity bro that populated most of Los Santos. The walls were bathed in blue light, and the music was upbeat but not overpowering.

Joven bought him a drink, not too strong, and the two of them stood around, drinking and making small conversation. Joven was quickly swept up into conversation with two or three tall men with sharp eyes but easy smiles. They talked like old friends, rapidly and with lots of gestures, to the point that Wes could barely follow conversation.

He ducked out quickly, heading across the room to see if he could get something a little stronger to drink. Wes finished whatever Joven had gotten him and approached the bar, he wasn’t quite sure what he’d asked for, but whatever he’d gotten tasted good.

The night began to blur, his head thick with alcohol.

Wes remembered there was a guy at the end of the bar. He’d bought Wes a few drinks. Where did Joven go again? The two had been talking for a while, the guy was kinda cute. Wes just wanted to forget Joven. He was sick of letting himself hurt.

He’d let the guy kiss him, and he’d kissed the guy back.

But his heart wasn’t there.

And then when he’d pulled away, he’d seen Joven standing across the room. He almost looked betrayed.

Wes felt his stomach drop, and he pulled away from the bar as Joven turned to leave.

He chased Joven out into the night.

“Joven?”

Wes caught Joven’s arm. The look on Joven’s face was unmistakable.

“Were you just going to leave me?”

“You looked pretty content with that guy .”

"What?"

Joven's face was red. "You know."

Wes was taken aback, “what is it with you, Joven?” They were out on the street, and they were very not alone. Wes could feel the eyes of the people around them stabbing into his back. “Do you want me or not?”

Joven drove them home in silence. The words unsaid thickened the barrier between them. Wes would begin to speak but Joven always clear his throat and cut him off.

The second Joven slammed the club doors behind them, Wes was at him.

“We keep going around in these circles, what the hell do you want?”

“I don’t know Wes.”

“You clearly do.” He replied, “because you can’t seem to stand me with anyone, but you also don’t want to be with me.” Wes crossed his arms, on the verge of tears. “So what do you want?”

“I want you.” Joven’s chest rose and fell in sharp increments.

"Do you really?" Wes spat, "or are you going to chicken out like you always do."

"No," Joven's voice was firm. "I should’ve said so many things that night but I didn’t."

"Why not, you had the chance."

"Because I was scared," he cried. "I should’ve told you how I really felt. But I didn’t. I got too into my own mind, and I messed myself up. I messed you up, and I can't forgive myself for that. You shouldn't forgive me for that." 

"Joven-"

"I shouldn’t have lied to you, I should’ve just come clean.” He closed his eyes. “I have to stop hoping that you’ll just wait around for me. Because you’re going to move on sooner or later.”

“I don’t want to move on.”

Joven opened his eyes. "You don't?"

"No." Wes stepped forward from where he’d been standing a few feet from Joven. “I haven’t moved on. Because you’re all I want. You’re all I’ve wanted.”

"God we're idiots." 

"We are aren't we?" Wes let his arms fall to his sides. "So what now?"

Joven got that familiar look in his eye. “I have some ideas."

"I think I'm gonna like them," Wes grinned. 

 

“I knew you probably would.” Joven kissed him softly at first, looping his fingers in Wes's hair. Wes found that spot on the small of Joven's back, pulling him against his body.

“So, your room or mine?”

“Shouldn’t we go where it all started?” Wes replied coyly, Joven rolled his eyes, kissing him firmly again.

“I hate you.”

“I know.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

Wes sat in the back of the club, watching the people move by under the low lights. He’d been standing with Mari for a while, she was on point tonight, but he’d felt like he’d just been stepping on her toes, and instead had chosen a seat in the back.

It seemed that everyone was busy tonight. The strippers were always working, Damien was behind the bar, and Boze was sitting with Shayne and Joven in a booth towards the front. He wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, but Shayne hadn’t changed into his outfit yet. Wes knew that he was working tonight, there was a bachelorette party and Shayne was almost always on the schedule, but he must have had some Jackrabbit things to deal with. He was surprised at how easily they’d integrated Shayne into the business recently. Wes was glad to have someone to run the errands he hated, but he wondered if they were moving just a little too fast with him.

Wes was the only one not working tonight. He normally had very little to do with the club itself, he’d move shipments in the back, take inventory, sometimes work as a bouncer if he had to, but tonight he was free of anything to do.

He’d gotten bored of watching tv in his room, and people watching was actually somewhat fun. Wes was also there in a hope of finally talking to Joven.

They still hadn’t spoken after last night, he’d woken up the next morning to find the spot next to him empty. When he’d gone downstairs, he’d found Mari and Damien with Joven, chatting about what they’d done over the week.

Even though they hadn’t said anything, Wes knew that something was different this time around. The way Joven looked at him, it was a hunger he was familiar with, a hunger he shared.

Wes caught Joven’s eye from across the club. Joven smiled just slightly at him, his eyes curving up at the corners. He said one final thing to Shayne and Boze before standing, a scheming grin on his face. Wes met him a few feet in front of the entrance of the hallway, grinning back.

“Hey,” he purred.

“Hey,” Joven murmured right back. “So, we haven’t really had time to talk about last night, have we?” He reached up, straightening Wes’s collar.

“I was just about to say the same thing.”

“I want to do this.” Joven was surprisingly direct. “I’m sick of running around it. I want you.”

“So do I.” Wes felt his heart racing as a smile flickered across his lips.

“Good,” Joven’s face bloomed. “So, do you want to...go into the storage room, for some fun?”

“Oh, now?” Wes’s eyebrows shot up. He looked towards Boze and Shayne, who were talking excitedly while making large gestures to one another. “Weren’t you talking to them?”

“I was, but they think that you needed my help. So please help me escape.”

“What were they on about?”

“Boze and Shayne both have very strong ideas about where the club should go, so they both ganged up on me to try and push their agendas.”

“There’s a duo I’d never thought I’d see.”

“I had thought the same thing, but here we are.”

“Things are changing, huh?” Wes looked out at the sea of people enthralled in the show onstage. “We were nothing four months ago. Now look at us.”

“Things are really moving,” Joven nodded with a smile. “I think for the better.”

And then there was a sound like the world was being ripped in half.

Wes was toppled to the ground, his ears ringing as dust filled the air. He could barely see, retching and coughing as his body shook.

Wes looked up to see Joven next to him, his face filling his vision. He could see Joven mouthing his name, but he couldn’t hear him over the sharp ringing in his ears. Wes tried to speak, but he couldn’t even hear his own voice.

Joven helped him to his feet, and Wes’s hearing sharpened suddenly.

He barely caught the end of what Joven said, but he could parse out what it meant. “-okay?”

“I’m…” Wes coughed, his lungs burning. “I’m fine.”

There was screaming everywhere.

Bodies flailed about in the pale lights flickering around him. Chunks of the building were gone.

And there was blood, splattered across the people that passed him, their eyes wide and their jaws slack in cries of pain and fear.

“What just happened?” Wes’s voice wavered. He looked to Joven, whose eyes were just as wide as he knew his own were. Wes knew he didn’t have to ask to know.

Joven was shaking. “Bomb.”

“Where did it-”

Wes already knew that too.

Because where Boze and Shayne were sitting was now nothing but piles of rubble.

And the two of them were nowhere to be seen.

 

Chapter Text

Mari’s heart was pumping out of her chest.

The ambulance sirens wailed around her as she followed closely behind it, her shaking fingertips tightening around the steering wheel.

The technicians hadn’t looked hopeful as they’d loaded the bodies into the back of the van.

There had been so much blood.

The memories flashed like fireworks every time she closed her eyes. She’d been standing in the back, barely paying attention, trying to focus on the set numbers. Then the explosion had bloomed across the room. She had felt the sonic hum deep in her chest, and the ringing in her ears still burned, even now.

Mari slammed her fist into the steering wheel, letting out an ear splitting shriek as she let her emotions bubble over. Her friends might be dead. She had never thought that it would actually come it this.

She thought that they were safe now that the Titans were gone.

Sohinki’s words now echoed hauntingly in the back of her mind.

The ambulance in front of her ripped into the hospital parking lot. Personel in white coats and white gloves ran with crash carts from the front door as soon as the ambulance stopped.

Mari found a parking spot quickly, putting the car into park before running towards the van, barely thinking to lock her car behind her. She could see them pull a gurney out of the back, moving it quickly towards the front entrance as doctors and ER techs shouted numbers at one another. Joven stepped out of the back, out of breath and sweaty, covered in blood.

“Joven, how are they?“

“Boze is stable, but still unconscious, they still bringing her in.” He swallowed quickly, his lip quivering. “She’s going to be fine as soon as she wakes up.”

“And Shayne?” Mari felt her heart squeeze. She’d gotten to know the guy well over the few years, and he was a good man. He didn’t deserve this. If anything happened to him—if he couldn’t come back from this—she knew that everyone at the Jackrabbit would be devastated, Damien especially.

“The technicians…” his voice rattled in his throat. “They said that it doesn’t look good.” Joven was shaking, and Mari felt the remnants of the shock and terror bleeding off of him. “Is everyone, they’re all okay? I should be with them right now, Wes and Damien, oh god, Damien, he must be a wreck.”

“Hey, hey,” Mark grabbed him as he stumbled forward. “They’re okay, don’t worry, I’ve got it under control. We need to get you some water.”

“Mari, I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You’re clearly still in shock, c’mon, let’s get you warmed up a little.” She felt Joven stiffen and then melted on her arm. Mari could feel him shaking beneath her.

“Mari, what have I done?”

“You didn’t do anything.”

“We should go back to the club, the strippers are probably terrified, and Damien, oh my god, he must be in pieces, we should go back.”

Mari furrowed her eyebrows, turning Joven towards her. She studied his eyes for a second, steadying his head in her hands. “Shit, you must’ve hit your head.”

“What?”

“I think you have a concussion.”

“Mari, I’m fine.”

“No, c’mon, we’re getting you checked out.”

Mari forced Joven to see the doctor after some prodding, and the doctor, a nice young guy who bore a strange resemblance to Tanner, confirmed that it was indeed a concussion. Joven sat on the examination table, paper crinkling under him as he fiddled with the edge of his coat as the doctor entered his data in under the fake name Mari had given him.

“Are you two are coming that bombing at the strip club?” He raised an eyebrow, his eyes were kind, but strained. “We’ve had a few people come in after that, all similar symptoms and levels of trauma.

“Yeah,” Mari nodded. “We came with some friends that were injured pretty badly.”

“Oh,” the doctor’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Joven grumbled, half-concious. “But whoever did do it is going to pay.”

“I’m sure the police will figure out who was responsible for this,” the doctor nodded.

“We’d be lucky if they even give us a nice look in the first place,” he grumbled back. “I’d be surprised if they come by at all.” Joven popped his head up, narrowing and widening his eyes. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

He ran for the bathroom, leaving Mari and the doctor alone in the room.

“Don’t worry, that’s normal for concussion patients-“

“I know,” Mari nodded. She moved her head slightly. “I was Pre-Med back in the day. So I also know to give him plenty of fluids and to force him not to look at screens too much.” Her lip curled up slightly. “Though that might prove difficult.”

“Ahh,” the man nodded his mouth open. “I suppose that’s how you knew that he had one in the first place.”

Mari nodded, tight-lipped. She cleared her throat, opening her mouth before closing it and then opening it again. “I really don’t mean to pry, or annoy or anything, but would you happen to know how the two people that came in around the same time we did?” Mari racked her brain for Boze’s pseudonym. “Boze Erickman and Shayne Topp?”

“I wish I could tell you,” the man frowned apologetically. “By unfortunately I only specialize in this field, I couldn’t touch the ER Branch even if it boosted my salary tenfold.” He turned away, stopping for a second before turning back. “But I did hear one thing. People talk between shifts, and this bombing has brought in a wave of people. There were some paramedics in the break room between shifts, they were talking about a victim who was in really, really bad condition.”

“White guy, blondish-brown hair?”

“Yes.” The man drew in a breath. “From what they were saying...if they haven’t gotten him stable by now, he might not make it at all.”

“Do you think that they couldn’t stabilize him?”

“There’s a 50/50 chance.” The doctor pulled up a clipboard, signing it quickly. “But for now, it’s a waiting game. If you believe in some higher power, I’d suggest praying to it.”

 

< < ^ > >

 

“Is he alive?” Damien’s voice crackled over the phone.

“I don’t know,” Mari walked down the hall, her arm threaded through Joven’s to keep him upright. “They haven’t let us in yet. Joven just got out of the doctor’s office.”

“What happened to him?”

“Just hit his head. He has a mild concussion.”

“And Boze?”

“She’s stable, but she’s in a coma. She broke her left arm, her right wrist and her left leg, and they’ll have to check her for brain damage when she wakes up, but for now, she’s alright.”

“That’s good to hear,” Damien sighed. “It’s only been bad news on bad news here. I’m heading over as soon as I hear about Shayne.”

“Damien, no, we need you there.”

“Wes has it under control, and the club will be okay, the police have left now, they’re all done questioning everyone. I sent the strippers to Courtney’s. They’re all going to stay together there until we get the all clear.” He paused for a second, swallowing slowly. “And I need to be there when he wakes up.” Damien’s breathing sped up enough to be noticeable. “I need to…”

“I get it,” Mari murmured. “I get it.”

Damien cleared his throat, his tone changing. “There’s some more bad news.”

“Shit, did a patron get hurt?”

“No, luckily,” Damien’s voice wavered. “It’s Leo.”

“The blast got to the basement?”

“No." There was a pause. "It’s worse than that...He’s gone.”

“What!?” Mari stopped in her tracks, a slightly loopy Joven trying to focus as he leaned up against a wall. “How did he get out?”

“I don't know," his voice grew increasingly more frayed. "He didn’t do it on his own, the door was opened from the outside.”

“Somebody helped him.”

“That's what I was worried about." He paused again. "And it was probably the same person that set the bomb in the first place.”

Shit ,” Mari swore. “You're probably right.”

“I’m not one hundred percent sure,” he murmured. “But it’s the best bet.”

“Damien, are you okay?”

His voice was low and quiet, “I’ll be fine as soon as I know that Shayne’s okay.” He didn’t sound angry, almost disappointed. “I should’ve apologized, and now-” he seemed to catch himself. “Just call me when you can go in and see him, I’m driving over.”

The phone call cut off before Mari could reply. She picked Joven off the wall, pulling him towards the nurse’s desk.

“Hi, can I help you?” The woman at the desk has a nice voice, and Mari was glad for some calm.

“I’m looking for the room numbers of Boze Erickman and Shayne Topp.”

The woman gave her a nod and a smile, looking down at the paperwork. She checked a few boxes looking up at them. “Are you two family or friends?”

Mari smiled, trying to keep Joven from slipping.

“Family.” She nodded, tight lipped. “We’re family.”

 

Chapter Text

Joven was alone in his office again, like he’d been so many times for the past few weeks.

The club was empty all the time these days, and the only time it was ever full of people was when either Mari or Wes came home to sleep. It felt like on most days, they were too busy to even do that.

Wes was swamped with something that had caught his attention every few seconds. Apparently somebody from his past had got in contact, which could never be a good thing. Joven had tried his best to get information out of Wes, but ever since the explosion, he’d been more closed off than usual. It felt like every time they were close to something happening between them, something else always got in their way.

Maybe he should just let Wes go.

Joven let his head fall into his hands. He didn’t want to think about that again.

Mari was trying her best to track down old contacts. There weren’t many people from her past left, most of them dead or in prison. She’d thrown herself into work, probably to keep away the stress that might make her want to use again.

Joven was proud of her. She’d come so far in such a short amount of time. Mari was attending meetings every week, she was exercising surprisingly regularly, and he hadn’t seen her touch a drop of alcohol since she’d gotten back.

Boze was awake, and generally angry about being stuck in a tiny room that smelled bad. She’d tried to escape so many times that the doctors had put a padlock on the windows and a guard outside her door. Joven knew how much Boze hated hospitals, but they were still testing her for any damage they couldn’t immediately find, not to mention that she could barely do anything on her own with both an arm and a leg broken.

To top it off, Joven had heard from Mari that Boze and Courtney had broken up. He’d sent the strippers upstate a few weeks ago to stay with an old friend, but Courtney had visited Boze the day she’d woken up. Mari couldn’t get much out of Boze, but it was clear that she had been the one to break up with Courtney.

Damien hadn’t left the hospital since the accident. Shayne was alive, but deep in a coma. His cuts and bruises were slowly beginning to heal, but he was still in bad shape. He could barely breathe without a tube, his body kept alive by feeding tubes.

Joven knew that seeing him like this was killing Damien.

Mari visited the hospital the most, bringing Damien food, and Boze something that she actually wants to eat. Her reports back to him about how they were doing were nothing if not bleak.

Joven barely had time to think anymore. He was swamped with club orders and renovations and pushing down lawsuits. He’d barely had time to feed himself recently.

A gust of wind blew through the office, the plastic tarp draped over hole in the wall moving just slightly with it. He rolled his eyes. He’d have to tape it down again. If there was any business that worked slower than the police, it was the construction companies in Los Santos.

“Hey darling,” a voice spoke from in front of him.

He started just slightly, trying to keep his pulse steady. “Are you a fucking witch?” Joven raised his head, his eyes meeting a familiar pair of sharp grey irises. “I didn’t even hear you come in.”

Kate smiled slowly, her expression hiding an underlying anxiety that was clear in her eyes. “I suppose I’m something not quite human.”

“It’s good to see you,” Joven stood, rounding the table. He hugged Kate, something they didn’t do very often, their contact brief, but just lengthy enough to mean something was different.

You lost some weight,” she stepped back. “Have you been eating much?”

Joven went quiet, looking away. “No,” he grumbled softly.

“Jovie!” She brushed her closed fist against his shoulder in a soft punch, “food is important.”

“Catching the fucker who did this is more important.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she patted his arm. “This is my specialty, I can catch anyone, even if they don’t want to be caught.”

“I know,” he murmured.

“And you can relax , god knows you haven’t.”

“Somebody tried to kill me Kate, normal people usually don’t relax after that.”

“Oh c’mon, someone tries to kill me everyday.”

“Because you’re you, I’m not used to that sort of shit yet.” He sat back in his chair as Kate leaned against his desk. “This whole thing...Mari overdosing, the Titans falling, Wes, this attack...it’s all been so much at once.”

“Wes?” Kate’s eyebrow popped up. “You didn’t mention that. I thought I advised you not to pursue him.”

He eyed her carefully. “Sometimes your advice isn’t always right.”

She lifted her eyebrows, her smile somewhat threatening. “Bold words Overnshire.” She tipped her head. “But it’s usually a mistake to ignore my advice.”

“I know.” He tried to smile, but it seemed to deflect off of Kate. “But I’m good at making mistakes into opportunities.”

For just a second, she looked like she might strangle him. But Kate just laughed. “You always were a bit of an idiot.” She cocked her head back into place. “I suppose that’s part of your charm.”

“Yeah, it kinda is.”

“I missed you Jovie,” she murmured. “More than I think I realized. I’ve always hated this city, and all cities, and people in general. But I don’t hate you.”

“From some of the the things you’ve said, I’d think different.”

“We’re one in the same,” she continued. “I see so much of myself in you. It’s partly why I keep coming back.” She stuck her finger out, “and it's why I’m helping you in the first place.”

“That’s...actually pretty sweet Kate.”

“Don’t let it get to your head.”

“I’ll try not to.”

She drew in a long breath. “So you’ve been busy,” she gestured to the hole in the wall. “And people have been busy hating you.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it sooner.” He raised an eyebrow. “Where have you even been this whole time? It’s been months, I thought that I would’ve heard from you.”

“We’ve gone years without contact,” her lips drew up. “Are you getting sweet on me?”

“Har, har, very funny.”

“I know,” she grinned. “I am.”

“Where have you been this whole time?”

“Oh, you know, around.”

“That doesn’t make it any clearer.”

“I know.” Kate leaned against the table, her face flickering as she changed conversation. “What happened with your purple haired friend, that addict, I heard that she overdosed.”

“Mari’s fine now.”

“Is she?” Kate’s grin felt out of place in the conversation. “She’s not ‘riding the truck bed’ anymore?”

“That’s not funny Kate.”

“It’s hilarious,” she grinned. “And it’s about time you made her get clean. It was so obvious that she was using when she came back.”

I didn’t make her get clean, she wanted it for herself, and I fully supported her in it.” Joven furrowed his eyebrows. “And it wasn’t obvious.”

“Really,” she raised an eyebrow. “You really are blind.” She waved a hand. “Literally and metaphorically. You care about her too much, you care about all of these random people too much. It’s about time that you start whittling them down to their core.”

“They’re my family Kate.”

“And that’s your first mistake.” She dug around in the pocket of the coat that was very clearly not hers, riding too big on her shoulders. Kate fished out a cigarette pack, sliding one out with a finger. “Considering expendables ‘family’.”

Joven stifled a laugh. “Sure,” he smiled mockingly. “Come back to me when you’ve managed to sustain a Kingship worthy gang without loyalty and family.”

“Loyalty and family are very different Joven.” She held out an expectant hand, and he narrowed his eyes.

“I didn’t say you could smoke in here.”

She held her hand out more forcefully, and Joven begrudgingly pulled the lighter Matt Raub had given him from where it sat on his desk. “And besides, I have. Started a gang, I mean.”

“You did what ?” Joven’s eyebrows shot up. Kate held the cigarette between her teeth, lighting it and taking a quick drag.

“A long time ago, just after I got out from under Losioz’s finger.” She smiled to herself, a devilish expression. “Needless to say, it didn’t last. People didn’t want to follow me very much, but I still craved that power I had with Losioz.”

“Did we even have power under him?”

“More than I think we realized.” Kate drew in another breath. “Do you really think that there’s no coincidence that you ended up running this place?”

“I’d never thought about it like that, I guess.” Joven rolled his neck back. “You always make me so fucking existential when you come into town.”

“That’s my charm,” Kate winked. She shrugged, pulling the chair out from across from Joven. Kate lay across it, kicking her legs up over the armrests. “Besides, I wanted control so bad. I missed sitting in front of the chessboard with Losioz, and being able to move one piece and topple armys.”

“Surprised you didn't become a fixer.”

“I liked killing people too much for that,” she shrugged, moving the cigarette to her back teeth. “Fixers need a clean background and even cleaner hands, and I didn’t have, and didn’t want, either of those things. And besides, the guys I would have to work for to make a name for myself were shitty people to begin with.”

“And you chose being a contract killer over hiding a rich guy’s dirty laundry.”

“That’s the thing, I don’t have to care why I’m killing whoever I’m being sent to kill, but I always have to look at the shit I’m covering up.”

“But don’t you figure out why you’re killing the person anyway?” Joven raised an eyebrow. “Not all of the people you’ve killed have been bad people either.”

“Ehh,” Kate shrugged. “Money is money I guess. I’ve stopped caring.”

There was a short silence between them, and Joven bit his lip, still thinking about things she’d said. “I still don’t quite see it. How exactly are we the same to you?”

“Well,” she sat up, pulling the part of her coat that had fallen down back over her shoulder. She narrowed her eyes, shifting to sit up straight. “I think I’ll let you figure that one out.”

“Kate.”

“What.” Her voice was surprisingly sharp. Kate stretched, drawing in a breath so deep he could hear it rattle her chest. “Wow I’m tired.” She looked up to him. “I got in a day earlier than I was supposed to, and the place I rented isn’t ready yet. Do you have a place here where I could crash?”

“Uh, yeah sure.” Joven blinked, somewhat taken for a loop by her sudden change in demeanor. “Damien’s been staying at the hospital, so I don’t think he’d mind if you took his room.”

“Wonderful,” Kate’s lips drew up into a cat-like grin. “I’m going to head to bed unless you want to stay up drinking.”

“I’ve got some work to do that’s better done sober, so I’ll pass for tonight.”

“Shame,” she shrugged. “I’ll finish my smoke and then head up. You just do whatever you want, pretend I’m not here.”

“Alright,” Joven nodded. He turned his attention back to his work, finding it hard to ignore her presence, but he eventually lost himself.

He wasn’t sure when she got up to leave, but he did remember her watching him for quite some time.

Joven wasn’t sure why she did that, but he remembered that it was something she used to do when they were kids. Kate liked watching the world around her as much as she liked controlling it. She liked prying things apart to see how they worked, sometimes they were old radios that had broken, or road kill she’d found when they’d gone out on patrol.

She’d always watched things, observed. It was something Joven liked about her that he’d never seen reflected in himself.

Kate said they were similar, but still Joven couldn’t see that. He then realized, that perhaps the reason that she liked him so much wasn’t because they were similar, but that they were different in a way that complemented each other.

She was cold and ruthless, but he was warm and protecting. He was calm and somewhat level-headed, while she could be brash and quick to think. He cared, and she didn’t.

And somehow that fit more perfectly than two people who were exactly the same.

Joven turned his head towards his phone, which buzzed on the table. A text from Mari.

Mari Takahashi Hey dude, if you’re still awake, thought you should know.

Mari TakahashiKate’s back in town.

Joven smiled at the text, swiping the message open.

Joshua OvenshireI am well aware.

 

Chapter Text

Damien sat back in the hospital chair, adjusting the pillows he’d mashed behind his back. The familiar thrum of the heart monitor and the easy, soft sounds of Shayne breathing had apparently lulled him to sleep again.

He hadn’t even remembered falling asleep in the first place.

The days had begun to blur together in endless cycles of watching Shayne and trying to keep his dreams off of his mind.

The dreams had been getting worse recently, worse than they’d even been before.

Damien had always been good at pushing them down, shoveling them away, making them disappear when he was alone. But now, with stress and anxiety constantly on his mind, he found it hard to do things that were once so easy for him.

“Hey, are you awake?”

Damien bristled, relaxing as he made eye contact with Mari, who stood in the doorway, holding two brown paper bags.

“About as awake as I’m going to be,” he grumbled in return. Damien stretched, his back popping as he stood from the chair. His knees were still weak, and he stumbled forward, catching himself quickly.  “I’m guessing you haven’t visited Boze yet?” Damien took one of the paper bags from her, turning and setting it on the windowsill as he leaned against the wall.

“No, I was going to bring her these and then head home. She probably won’t want to talk to me anyway.” Mari crossed her arms against her chest. “Have you visited her yet?”

“A few times,” he responded. “But she only complains about wanting to leave and not much else. The amount of times she’s tried to use me as a ruse to escape has been one too many for my taste.”

“She’s just scared,” Mari responded.

“I know,” Damien replied quietly. “And that’s what I’m afraid of. We don’t really know what regular Boze is capable of, and Boze on spite and revenge? She could be an entirely different monster.”

“How far do you think she’d be willing to go?”

“If it’s true that she and Courtney broke up, she probably doesn’t have anyone to hold her back.” Damien moved back to his chair, fluffing the pillows and sinking back against them. “Even at our strongest, not even Joven could stop her from doing what she wanted.”

“God, I didn’t even think about it that way.”

Damien and Mari stood in silence for a second, the only sound was of Mari’s shoes as she balanced on one foot and then the other. She cleared her throat, biting her bottom lip as she looked at Damien expectantly.

“What?” He furrowed his eyebrows.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“How are you doing with all of this?”

“I’m fine Mari, I don’t need a therapy session.”

“Your best friend is lying next to you in a coma, you would be insane not to feel something.”

“Maybe I'm just insane then,” he replied sharply. Damien felt his stomach squeeze in that way it did when another wave of uncertainty rushed over him.

Something in Mari’s face softened, and she dropped her voice. “You might be a little broken,” Mari pulled a folding chair where it sat against the wall. “But you’re in no way insane.”

He closed his eyes, trying to push himself back together, but that didn’t seem to work anymore. Everything was crumbling down around him, and for some reason Damien wasn’t sure if he cared anymore. He could feel the neat seams of the pain he’d sewn shut begin to burst open, his chest heaving as his gaze returned to Mari’s face.

“If you want to talk about it.“ Mari smiled just slightly, her face well framed by the light streaming in from the window behind Damien. "I'm here."

He drew in a shaky breath, letting it rattle around his chest as he exhaled. “Everything just...hurts.” Damien’ lip quivered. “My whole life I’ve hurt.” He turned his head, clearing his throat a few times to hide how much his eyes were watering. “I…” he looked back to Mari, shaking his head, “you’ve got your own problems, I shouldn’t burden you with this.”

Mari crossed her arms, letting out a sigh. “No.”

“What?”

“Out of everyone at the Jackrabbit, you and I are the most similar. I am the perfect person to talk to, because I think I might actually get it.”

“How are we similar?” Damien rubbed his mouth, his breathing shallow. “I don’t think anything I went through could compare to what you went through.”

“Maybe,” Mari nodded. “But we both went through a kind of abuse you don’t completely heal from.”

“How...do you know about...that?”

“Your dad was a gang leader. They’re not the nicest people.”

“Um, uh, yeah.” Damien turned away. “The called him the Scalpel for a reason, and not just because he could pick apart human bodies.” He wasn’t even sure what he was saying, but he knew where it was going to go. “He could pick apart the human mind like a machine. There was no one he couldn’t break.”

“You said something before, when we were all in the hospital the day after I overdosed. That your dad tortured like Losioz did?”

“It’s what he specialized in. It’s um,” Damien cleared his throat again, “it’s what...I...specialized in.”

He watched as Mari’s eyebrows slowly furrowed on her brow, her expression almost one of disbelief.

“There was...a program, one my dad created...that he used for information. One so horrible and secret that if you mentioned it to anyone not, uh, ‘in the know’, the others had to not only kill the betrayer, but also the one they told.”

“Did that ever happen?”

“A few times. Until there were only 5 of us.” He felt his heart beating off-key with the pounding in his head. “And then two of them died. And then there were three.”

“Who...who were they?”

“My father, me, a man named Joe Bereta, Losioz, and Max Raelnamm.”

“Lasercorn,” Mari breathed. “You knew him?”

“Briefly.” Damien swallowed slowly. “It's why I didn't recognize him at first. He's a good  few years older than us, but he was around just before the Blade and Losioz split apart.”

“And you all tortured?”

“Um, not always, not all together, but uh…” Damien could feel himself shaking. He tried to steady his breathing but nothing seemed to help as his heartbeats began to shudder.

“Damien…” Mari’s voice fell like soft snow into his ears. “You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. Sometimes trauma needs time before it can be shared.” A friendly, calming smile played across her lips. “Something I learned in therapy.”

“Yeah?” Damien croaked, letting his heartbeat begin to mellow as the two of them sat in silence. He dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand every few seconds, letting the pressure leave small dents in his skin.

“Is he doing any better?” Mari gestured to Shayne with her chin. “It looks like he’s starting to heal a little.”

Damien turned to Shayne’s face, which he’d watched every day for the past three weeks now. The bruises on his cheek and the scratches on his forehead had slowly begun to disappear, barely visible on his skin. The gash spanning across his temple down to the base of his jaw had faded to a pale pink, the edges nearing the pale white hue of a permanent scar that Damien knew all too well. Soft sand-colored facial hair had begun to sprout from his upper lips and along the edges of his jaw, meeting at his chin.

“They still can’t tell if he’s completely unresponsive yet,” Damien murmured. “But the nurses check everyday, and Merissa keeps telling me that all of his symptoms are common, but I can’t help but worry.”

Mari’s face perked at the name, her eyebrows raising. “Merissa?” She smiled, “who’s that?”

“A nurse that works here,” he replied. “She’s pretty nice, and we get along well...after she stopped trying to get me to leave.”

“Oh yeah, how did that exactly go?”

“They threatened security on me, and security came and I didn’t move.”

“And they just gave up?”

“The security looked ex-gang, I think he recognized me.”

“Oh,” Mari nodded. “Xiaolong or something?”

“Not sure, maybe.”

“But Merissa, huh?”

“What about her.”

“She cute?”

Damien narrowed his eyes, “I didn’t think you were really someone who...dated people...but yeah, I guess she’s pretty.”

“No dumbass,” Mari rolled her eyes. “For you .” 

Damien almost laughed, his eyebrows shooting up before furrowing again. “What?” Merissa was nice, but she was in no way his type.

“C’mon, you deserve a little happiness in your life,” she grinned. “Why not try it out, give it a spin, do the romance thing, distract yourself!”

Damien opened his mouth to respond, but found himself at a loss for words. If he said something, Mari would figure him out quicker than he could even blink.

“I, uh, I’m not really…” His eyes flicked to Shayne on impulse, and he cursed himself as he moved his eyes past the bed, up to the clock, and back to Mari.

Her expression had settled on a soft ‘oh’, her lips circular and parted just slightly.

“Mari, wait-”

“You and him-?” She closed her mouth, surprise still evident on her face. “It almost makes sense.”

“I….um….I don’t,” Damien let his body decompress. “okay, fine. Maybe a little.” His eyes held firmly with hers. “And I’m only telling you that because I am incredibly sleep deprived.”

“It’s actually kinda cute.” Mari’s eyes were filled with a kindness that made him want to cry. She actually looked happy for him. “How long have you felt like this about him?”

Damien hung his head back, pulling back a memory that made him smile. “July 13th, four years ago.” He pressed his lips together, looking back at Mari. “We went to that one pier downtown, I forget the name, with the ferris wheel and the rides and stuff. He and I did all the stupid shit, ate way too many funnel cakes, rode the gravitron until we were sick, played games for those little stuffed animals that you could buy in bulk for like five bucks.” Damien scratched the back of his head, “he and I went out onto the beach. It was dark, but there was enough light to see.”

He closed his eyes, feeling a sob pressing down on his chest. Shayne had been so free, so bright. His eyes were bright and soft, and his face…

“It was like something clicked in me,” he looked up at Mari. “I fell so hard.”

She was quiet for a second, pressing her lips together. “But then something between you two changed recently, right?”

Damien didn’t even care how she knew that. All of this pain was rushing out of him, and he wasn’t about to stop it. “He and I were arguing about the club, and Leo, and the fact that I lied to him…”

“You lied to him?”

“About who I was, about what I did. All of our relationship was based on a lie, and he took it the wrong way. He thought that I was using him, and...we stopped speaking for a while.”

“I’d wondered about that,” Mari shifted, leaning forward. “The two of you are always so close...I was surprised when you two didn’t talk about each other every other sentence.”

“We don’t do that,” Damien pulled his head back in surprise.

“Oh you definitely do,” Mari replied with a grin. “Boze and I kept tallies...back when we were still speaking.”

“It did get a little better between us.” Her expression eased again as he spoke. “But there was still a disconnect. I should’ve just...I should’ve told him everything…”

“And that’s why you’re here.” Mari’s voice was so soft Damien almost had to strain to hear it. “You feel responsible for this.”

“I…” he swallowed slowly. “I don’t even know what I feel.”

“I should leave you be,” Mari murmured. She stood, stretching, grabbing her bag from the floor. “Boze is going to want her stuff soon, but if you want to talk again-”

“Yes,” Damien didn’t even have to think as he answered. “I would, I definitely would.”

“Good,” she smiled. “I think you’ll find that talking to people really helps.”

"Oh and Mari-" she turned back to him, eyebrow raised. "Can you please keep this between us? The last thing I'd want is for this to get out. I don't want to make a mess of it all."

"Of course."

Mari gave him a wave as she pushed the door open, disappearing down the hall. He felt his smile fade as she went, letting his shoulders decompress as he melted into the chair.

Everything had been hurting, but for a single second, the pain had been lifted, and Damien felt like he could breath for the first time in weeks.

 

Chapter Text

“It’s just…”

“I get it,” Courtney’s voice was barely a whisper in Boze’s mind. “You just care about yourself.”

The door slammed shut, and Boze felt a sob bubble up from the pit of her stomach.

Boze stirred, her eyes held shut as she turned over just slightly in bed. It had hard to move with the cast on her leg, but she made do.

She heard the door open and lifted her head, immediately falling back into bed as she saw who was standing in the door.

“Hey Boze,” Mari moved across the room. Boze grumbled some sort of response as she pulled the covers over her head, groaning quietly as she buried herself farther into the bed.

“What do you want?”

“I brought you some food and stuff, some books and some-“

“If it’s not my computer I don’t want it.”

“Boze, you know I can’t give you that. You can barely move, you’re not in the right health to do any work right now.”

Boze lifted herself from below the covers, trying not to wince as she sat upright. “Really? Every moment I waste, the farther the people that did this get away.” She'd woken up in this god forsaken hell hole three weeks ago, Joven trying his best to lay what happened on her gently. Boze hadn't taken it well.

“I’m working to find them Boze, all of us are.”

“Are you now?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Our window of opportunity to find any viable suspects was gone the second we passed six hours after the blast.” Boze sat back against the bed frame, easing her leg into a comfortable position. “The only way to find anything now would be to do a deep search. And I’m the only one capable of that. I need my computer, my data, everything.”

"And when you get out of here in the next few weeks, you can have all of that stuff."

"I need it now," she barked. "We don't have time to sit on our asses and wait around, we need to start figuring this stuff out now."

Mari pressed her lips together, moving on. “I’ve heard that you’ve been quite a handful for the nurses.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Putting a padlock on your windows and a guard out front, that’s a high order.”

“I’ve told you all a hundred times, I don’t need to be in here,” Boze growled. “I’d be perfectly fine on my own.” She crossed her arms against her chest. “Why do they keep sending you anyway?”

Mari’s jaw was tight, but she answered, “Joven and Wes are busy.”

“And Damien?”

“After the stunt you pulled with him, he’s staying put.”

Boze felt something pang in her chest. Her voice softened. “He’s still here?”

“He hasn’t left since they admitted Shayne.”

“God,” Boze murmured. “He cares about that dumb stripper a lot.”

“That he does,” Mari's spread into a small smile.

“What’s so funny?”

Mari’s expression fell as she cleared her throat. “It’s nothing, just an old stupid memory.”

They went quiet for a second, and Boze hoped that enough silence would make Mari leave.

The silence drew on longer, and Boze could feel the tension building between the two of them. Mari moved around the room, cleaning and picking up stuff that had fallen to the floor. She changed out the flowers that sat on Boze's desk, and dusted off the set of books Joven sent over every week. Boze had barely touched them.

“Hey, um," Mari cleared her throat to get Boze's attention. "I heard about you and Courtney, and I’m really sorry-“

“I don’t need your pity,” Boze snapped sharply. “It was mutual anyways.”

“Was it?” Mari’s gaze softened. “You know that I’m here if-“

“We’re not friends Mari.” Boze sat stock still as Mari’s face fell. “You might have redeemed yourself to Joven, and to the others, but not to me.”

“I know.” Mari dropped her gaze to the floor. “And,” she closed her eyes. Mari let out a sharp breath and lifted her gaze to Boze. “And I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever told you that. I am so fucking sorry.” She leaned against the wall. “And I also get it,” Mari rubbed the outside of her arm, “if you can’t forgive me. And I don’t expect you to. What I did...it was horrible, and there is no forgiveness for it.” She swallowed, smiling slowly. “But I miss being your friend Boze.”

“Oh shut up,” her voice was cold. Mari's expression faltered, taken by surprise. “You can pretend to have changed all you want, but I’ve seen the real you, the you that you hide from everyone. The one that gave me scars that will never heal.”

“I was on H, you know that, right?” Mari looked almost confused. “That thing wasn’t me.”

“Like hell it wasn’t,” Boze roared. “I saw your eyes that night, you knew what you were doing. I was a threat, and those drugs made you see that clearly.”

She grappled for her words, murmuring. “I never meant to hurt you, or anyone. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t-”

“But you still did.” Her voice shook violently. “You took a knife and you carved lines into my back. If it wasn’t for Joven, you would’ve slaughtered me.”

“And I know that! And that wasn't me. That was something that to