“I feel like I should say something about borrowing trouble,” John said, giving me a level look that I did my best to return calmly.
“You said, ‘don’t go rushing in without a plan,’ and we had a plan.” The protest was weak, even to my ears.
“Yeah?” He leaned forward, narrowing his eyes. “And how well did that work out for you?”
I looked down, glaring at my glass of water to hide my blush, and John laughed humorlessly.
After leaving Glory Girl last night, I’d gone straight home and spent hours lying in bed, the events of the night racing through my mind until I fell into an exhausted sleep, only to be cruelly woken by my alarm.
You would think that after so little sleep, I would be struggling to stay awake, but if anything, I felt great. I wasn’t sure if I just needed less sleep now I was a succubus or if passively feeding on the people around me as I made my way to John’s cafe was making up for it.
I’d have to ask Dad about it later, but right now I was more concerned with what I had seen last night.
“What happened to those people?” I asked John, forcing the conversation to move on from his disapproving look, and he sighed.
“Well, you’re right about his speech. That little performance was absolute bollocks, a show to cover the magic he was using, which is fairly normal among cults.”
Tapping the table, he stared off into the distance, a fond smile on his face as he lost himself in a memory. I could taste a bitter-sweet combination of happiness and pain. “God, I haven't seen an honest-to-god cult in years…”
“You’ve dealt with a cult before?”
His surprised laugh was so loud that the few other patrons in the cafe turned to look at him, and John quickly waved in apology.
“You could say that,” he said in a quieter voice. “They’re sorta like weeds. There’s always a new one cropping up somewhere, and they tend to follow the same pattern. Someone stumbles into a few spell books, or finds an enchanted idol, or is just plain nuts. They start gathering people around them, showing off some ‘miracles’ as proof of power until they convince themselves they really are a god.”
I stared at him, my surprise there for all to see. “Why don't we hear about this more?”
“Most of the time, they don’t last long,” he said with a shrug. “Either a random cape, the PRT or even cops find them and put a stop to things, or the members get bored and move on. Really, they only make the news when people start dying… or running naked through the streets and screaming gibberish. Besides, not all cults are evil. You’d be surprised how many community groups started out as cults, like the Lunar Rabbits.”
“Wait, that's a cult?” The Lunar Rabbits were an organisation that went around helping the homeless, raising money for charities and other such things. Their spokesperson was Usagi, a dark-skinned cape who ran around dressed up like a bunny girl. Rumor online was that she was actually a very lucky Case-53 and that the rabbit ears were real.
“Of course…” He gave me a considering look. “Actually, they have a small chapter in the city. You should check it out sometime; you might find you have a lot in common with them.”
Before I could ask what he meant, the woman who was currently manning the counter came over and handed a note to John, distracting us both as she turned and walked away, her hips swinging.
“So,” I said, shaking myself and trying to move the conversation along. “What about the people I fought? Cause something about them just felt… wrong. Like they were empty or missing part of themselves.”
Exhaling through his nose with a huff, John stroked his stubble, his eyes staring off into the distance. “It sounds like the people you fought were possessed,” he said slowly.
“The ritual you saw certainly sounded like a binding spell…” He quickly held up a hand to keep me from interrupting. “Don’t ask me how it’s done, cause I don’t know. But the idea is, you summon a spirit and place it into a host. The spirit gets to experience… well, life, and the host gets power or abilities, depending on the spirit used.”
That made a lot of sense when compared to what I already knew about spirits. They tended to be weak, often embodying a single thought, idea or element. That made them incomplete when compared to a human. So, a person possessed by a fire spirit might have fire powers, a water spirit gave water power, and so on.
That was simple enough to understand, but if that's really all it was, why didn’t things like this happen more? Why wasn’t the PRT fielding entire squads of magically enhanced troops, or the gangs?
John sat quietly, watching as I thought everything over, and when I asked, “What’s the downside?” he smiled broadly, waving at me to continue.
“There has to be one, or else everyone would be running around with spirits and the city would probably be a smouldering crater.”
“You’ve certainly got Annette’s brains and your Da’s cynicism.” He laughed, but it faded quickly as he gave me a sober look, his fingers playing with an unlit cigarette.
“But you’re right, there's a cost. For one, if a mage is strong enough to control the spirit, then they can control the host, even if they weren’t the summoner. Or, if the host isn’t strong enough, mentally and physically, the spirit could overwhelm them, taking over completely. When that happens, you tend to get the twisted monsters that go on a killing spree.”
“The people who get taken over… is there anything that can be done for them?”
“It depends,” he said softly, sorrow radiating from his body like cold from ice. “Minor possession can be recovered from, but the really bad cases, when the spirit has completely taken over? No. There's no coming back from that. The lucky ones just die and the spirit takes over. The unlucky ones… I think you've seen something similar.”
I shivered at the reminder, and in my mind’s eye, I saw cold eyes staring down at me as golden light burned my skin and mind.
“Yeah.” I swallowed thickly, picking up my water and taking a sip in an effort to distract myself. “So… it’s a balancing act, between a spirit strong enough to be useful, but weak enough that it's not a risk? I suppose a gun would just be simpler?”
“Exactly.” John nodded with a dry smile, some life returning to his eyes. “People are lazy bastards; a dozen men with guns is cheaper and easier to deal with than a rogue spirit. But if you really want to know more, I might be able to lay my hands on a book or two about it?”
I opened my mouth to refuse outright — I had no intention of summoning spirits or shoving them into people’s bodies — but John's face was so carefully, painfully, blank that I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if he was testing me, but it certainly felt like it.
The thought was repulsive. That was no better than being a human-level master, and it made me sick to my stomach just to consider it. Fuck, my mom and I were from a literal slave race, why on earth did he think I would want to do that to anybody?
And yet, there was someone in the city who was doing exactly that.
“...I think,” I said slowly as the idea came to me, “that I would like books on how to break possession, if any exist…”
Smiling, John sat back in his chair. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Leaving the cafe with a promise to at least try avoiding a fight until I’d had a chance to study more about possession, I turned on my heel and started walking towards the boardwalk. The nervous energy that I had been forcing myself not to think about was once again making itself known.
It was like ants under my skin, making me want to move about, to run or maybe even fly. The urge to unfurl my wings and roar was incredible. Failing that, I just wanted to laugh.
I was on my way to my first ever date. Me. I had a date! It was taking all I had not to skip.
I mean, despite Emma’s constant attacks and my isolation at Winslow, I hadn’t completely given up on having a love life. I’d just assumed it wasn’t going to happen while I was at school. That maybe, when I was in college, I’d meet a girl and things would progress from there.
I had tried not to think about it too much. I was too focused on just getting through the day and didn’t want to build my hopes up for some uncertain future.
Except it had actually happened and I had a date!
Giddiness aside, I glanced around for a suitable location to change, as I had been unwilling to walk into John’s while dressed up for a date.
Spotting an alley with a dumpster just inside the opening, I checked to make sure no one was watching and stepped inside. Using the dumpster to hide me from view, I relaxed my grip on my power and let my body change.
I kept my horns, wings and scales hidden, of course, but everything else went back to my ‘natural’ state. The jeans and hoodie I appeared to be wearing morphed back into my ‘date clothes.’
At Madison’s suggestion, I was wearing a loose-fitting, buttonless blouse that exposed my collarbones, with a black corset over the top. The corset was just for support, so breathing wasn’t an issue. She had also suggested a pair of tight jeans and black ankle boots with a, thankfully, low heel.
The result looked good, if I was honest, showing off my figure without actually exposing much skin. Though I still felt oddly exposed.
Stepping out of the alley, I double-checked my clothes, glad that transforming them hadn’t left any creases, and continued on my way.
The walk was mostly uneventful, beyond a few stares and only one dirty comment from a guy who turned and ran the moment I glared at him.
The sun was shining down on the streets as I reached the boardwalk, the weather unseasonably warm for this time of year. There was a slight breeze from the ocean that carried with it the smell of the sea and chilled anywhere the sun didn’t reach.
I closed my eyes briefly, letting the sun warm my face in an effort to drown out my nerves as I approached the meeting point, which was opposite a small PRT-themed cafe that offered a clear view out over the bay where the Protectorate base sat.
It had been an oil rig once, but the Protectorate had added some form of levitation and floated it into the bay. It now sat in the middle of the bay, the protective forcefield shimmering in the midday light.
When I was younger, I had imagined joining the Protectorate and spending my time at the base. Now, all I saw were the people who had attacked me, and I couldn’t help but shiver. The Protectorate often patrolled the boardwalk, which was why I had been avoiding the place, or at least tried not to stick around too long. I did not want to run into Dauntless.
My concerns, however, vanished when I moved past a display and spotted Amy waiting on the other side of the road. She was leaning against the railing, the wind ruffling her hair as she stared out at the bay.
She was wearing a mid-thigh length cashmere sweater over black leggings and knee-high boots in the same colour as her top.
My heart was in my mouth, and for just a moment, I seriously considered running away. Before I could squash that impulse, Amy turned. Spotting me, she broke into a face-splitting smile, a blush dusting her freckled cheeks as she waved at me.
Swallowing my nerves, I smiled back, my own cheeks hot as I moved to stand beside her, not sure if I should hug her or not.
“Hey.” Amy looked up at me, biting her lip and her face a brilliant red.
“You look great.”
“Yeah… I mean, you do too!”
We stared at each other, unsure what to say or do until Amy suddenly giggled. “We’re both kinda useless, huh?”
Laughing, I reached out and took her hand, pulling her closer to me. “In my defence, I’ve never really dated anyone before.”
“Me either,” Amy said, tugging me gently in the direction she wanted to walk. “Between school and the clinic, I don't really get much free time.”
Letting Amy lead the way, we ambled down the boardwalk, glancing at the various displays as we talked about various interests.
“Really, you actually like horror movies?” I stared in open shock. “I mean, don’t you see enough blood at work?”
“Why not?” Amy said with a shrug and a laugh. “That's half the fun. The effects are always so over the top, and some of the monsters are really creative!” Looking around to make sure no one was listening, she leaned closer and whispered, “I made a xenomorph once!”
I tried to remember what that was. The name was familiar, but I didn’t watch a lot of horror movies. “I’m not sure I saw that one. Wasn’t it from that sci-fi movie… with the face…”
Amy broke into peals of laughter as I stared down at her in horror, wrapping her arms around my waist in an effort to stay standing, her face pressed into my side. Despite myself, I put my arms around her shoulders.
“You’re kidding!” I hissed, picturing those things loose in the city.
“Nope!” she said between laughs. When she calmed down enough, she looked up at me and rolled her eyes. “Oh relax, I made sure it couldn't reproduce. Anyway, it worked. I haven’t seen a skinhead near the clinic since.”
I wanted to argue, to point out that not even the fucking Nazis deserved that, but it would be a lie. Besides, Amy looked so happy that I couldn't bring myself to argue, so I settled for just smiling with her.
“So you’ve never seen it?”
“Not all the way through…”
“We should watch it sometime, you’ll love it!”
Our discussion was only briefly interrupted when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of red and turned to see a girl vanish around a corner.
Amy nudged me with her hip. “You okay?”
I shook myself. “Yeah, just thought I saw someone I knew…” I was probably just imagining it. It’s not like Emma was the only girl with red hair in the city.
Putting the thought aside, I gave Amy a one-armed hug, delighting in watching her blush. “So, where are we going?”
“Umm.” Amy blinked, and a flash of panic filled my mouth as I realised that we had never actually planned anything.
“I-I was thinking lunch,” Amy said quickly, clearly making it up on the spot. “Then maybe lunch, I mean, a movie?”
“Great, there's a place just down the road that you might like,” Amy said, radiating relief as she led us further down the boardwalk and down a side road that was lined with shops. “They do all sorts of… oh…”
Amy's face fell as, up ahead, a section of the street had been taped off. As we got closer, I could see the front of a building had been demolished. Something large had apparently slammed into the glass front of the building, shattering the glass and a good portion of the wall around it, leaving a hole big enough for me to walk through. From the remains of the sign above the hole, this had likely been the place Amy had been talking about.
A small crowd had gathered to watch, with a police officer standing guard outside.
“What happened?” Amy said to no one in particular, but one of the nearby watchers heard her and turned around.
“Didn’t you hear?” he said breathlessly, his tone so much like Greg’s that it made me shiver. “One of Uber and Leet’s stunts went wrong last night! Leet punched through the front and the back of the building, live on stream! It was brilliant!”
I winced at the image, but it didn't sound like anyone was hurt. Well, maybe with the exception of Leet, but I didn’t feel too bad about that.
Amy was still looking at the ruined restaurant when I reached down and gave her hand a squeeze, making her twitch. “I guess we should find somewhere else to eat?”
“I’m sorry.” She sighed, giving me a nervous smile. “I didn’t think this would happen…”
“It’s fine,” I said gently. Though if I ever got the chance, I was gonna punch Leet. “Come on, let's go…” I paused, realising that the boy who had spoken was still watching us, his eyes rather blatantly locked onto my chest.
“Are you finished?” I asked him, putting as much scorn as I could into my voice. Turning, I walked away, doing my best not to stamp my feet. It was only after I’d gone a few meters that I realised I was rather roughly pulling Amy along.
“Fuck, I’m sorry!” I tried to let go, but Amy only tightened her grip.
“Why? That was hot!” Her eyes widened in horror and her blush returned. “I mean, that is… he was being a creep and...” Her rambling trailed off as I laughed, and we continued to walk.
Thankfully, the boardwalk wasn’t exactly short of places to eat, and we soon found ourselves at a small Italian restaurant that was only five minutes or so away, and the waitress led us to a private booth away from the door with a friendly smile.
The restaurant was dimly lit from small lights in the ceiling and tealight candles in jars that were on the dark wooden tables, giving the room a close, intimate feel that filled me with nerves, a feeling that was only made worse when Amy smiled at me over her menu.
The prices were a little high, but I had enough savings that I could probably cover both our meals. Especially if I skipped dessert.
“So…” Amy said slowly, “my foster parents kinda have a rule. Apparently it was something my Dad had insisted on when he was still around, and they agree with him.”
“Well… he had a lot of rules. It was apparently a ‘thing’, but they won’t tell me rule one.” She shrugged but continued. “Anyway, one of his rules was no talking ‘shop’ while at dinner.”
I chuckled at the amount of seriousness she said that with. “Well… with our job, that's probably for the best.”
“Exactly. Now, that being said, let me tell you why Arcadia banned kale from Home-Ec…”
“So,” I said with relish while Amy clutched her sides in laughter. “There he was, half way up the flagpole, wearing nothing but his helmet and screaming ‘no, please don’t kill me lord cheese!’”
“Oh god, no more,” she gasped, fighting for breath, and I sat back with a smile.
Sure, I’d never been popular at school, and Winslow had been a shithole long before it became a literal hell on earth, but there had been plenty going on that, in retrospect, made for some funny stories. Like finding the captain of the football team having a bad trip.
While Amy tried to calm down, I took a sip from my drink, and the waitress used the lull in conversation to approach. I’d been impressed with the service here so far; the food had arrived quickly, and the empty plates were removed not long after we had finished.
“Can I get you two anything else?” she said politely, but there was a faint hint of frustration to her emotions.
I glanced at Amy, who shook her head, digging her phone from her pocket.
“No, I think we’re —” I started to say, but Amy's startled gasp cut me off.
“Fuck! It's nearly four! We missed the movie!”
Holy crap, had we really been chatting for that long? Well, that explained the waitress's frustration.
Flushing in embarrassment, I quietly asked for the bill while trying to guess how much it would cost while Amy fretted over her phone. The meal hadn’t been too expensive, but I’d lost track of how many drinks we had ordered, and I thought I might have had a second dessert.
Noticing that Amy was worrying her bottom lip, I reached out and put my hand on hers. “Hey, you okay?”
“Oh, yeah I’m fine, but I can’t find another viewing that’s not either on the far side of the city or doesn’t start until nine! I should have set a reminder on my phone or something, I mean, I asked you out and then forgot to even ask what we should do and —”
Without thinking, I quickly got up and moved around the table, sitting myself beside Amy and pulling her into a one armed hug.
“Hey, it’s fine,” I said gently. “I don’t mind. Really. It’s been a great day.”
She took a shaky breath. “Really?”
Sighing, she relaxed against me. “Sorry, I get stressed out when things don’t go to plan.”
We were still cuddling when the waitress returned, giving us both a warm smile, this one genuine, and putting a small plate with the bill on it on the table. I reached for it, but Amy was quicker, snatching the bill before I could.
“I’ll pay,” she said with a determined look.
“No, let me!”
We glared at each other for a minute before we both started giggling.
“Half?” Amy offered, and I accepted with a nod. The bill was quite high, but not ruinously so, and we were soon back outside.
We continued to walk aimlessly along the boardwalk, neither of us in any hurry to leave. Eventually, we found ourselves back where we first met, leaning against the railings and looking out over the bay. The tide was coming in, bringing with it a cold wind that didn’t affect me too much, but made Amy shiver.
Putting my arms around Amy, I pulled her close to warm her up, thrilling at the quiet little squeak she made. The feel of another person in my arms, pressing up against me, was intoxicating. I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed actual human contact with someone who wasn’t my fucking dad.
Turning in my grip, Amy’s arms snaked around my waist and looked up at me in concern. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said thickly, forcing myself to smile. “Just… working through some issues.”
Relaxing, I rested my forehead on hers, and we stood there for a time, just enjoying each other's warmth and listening to the waves until Amy's phone beeped.
“It’s getting late,” she sighed without looking at her phone, and I muttered in agreement. Despite that, neither of us made any attempt to move. At least, not until I felt a spike of anger in the distance.
I glanced up, looking for the source, and spotted a group of boys not too far away. They looked harmless enough, if you didn’t know what to look for.
Despite what people thought, most gang members didn’t walk around with big neon signs with things like ‘Nazi’ written on them. In fact, the ones that did publicly show off their allegiances were very much in the minority and tended to be the more fanatical or fringe members.
Other members were more subtle. They wore certain colour combinations or specific patterns that you had to look out for. Someone wearing red probably wasn’t a neo-nazi, but someone wearing red and words starting with ‘E’ repeated three times on them likely was. A group of white teens, all dressed in various shades of red, with empire patterns and glaring at a pair of ‘lesbians’? Yeah, they were almost certainly Empire, and while the boardwalk was supposed to be ‘safe’, it was getting late, and this was not a city you wanted to wander around in after dark.
The group of boys near us weren’t saying anything outright, but I caught the occasional glare in our direction, their emotions a toxic mix of anger and resentment that tasted like ash in my mouth.
“Taylor?” Amy asked quietly, turning her head to look over her shoulder.
“It’s nothing.” I gave her a bright smile and reluctantly separated from her. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”
The walk was peaceful, with the group not bothering to follow us (I discreetly checked behind us via various windows to be sure). If Amy noticed my caution, she didn’t mention it. Instead, she was content to walk quietly at my side, holding onto my arm.
“So...” I said as we reached the bus stop, unsure of what else to say, and Amy laughed.
“I really enjoyed today.”
“Me too… we should do this again… if you’d like?”
“Of course!” I was blushing so hard my cheeks were hurting, and in the distance I could see the bus coming.
“Will you be okay getting home?”
I’ll be fine. It's only a short ride.”
“Okay, that's good…” She took a breath, the bus coming to a stop next to us. “Text me when you're home?
“Don’t worry, I will —” Before I could finish, Amy rose up on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. Smiling broadly, she jumped onto the bus, barely slowing to scan her pass. The driver gave us both an amused chuckle and closed the doors, slowly pulling away.
My surprise quickly turned to giddiness. I’d had my first ever date, and it looked like another wouldn't be too far off.
Resisting the urge to squee, I turned and walked down the road. I didn’t care what else happened, today had been incredible.
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