Actions

Work Header

(Problem. Problem. GODDAMN PROBLEM.)

Work Text:

Crack.

“Ow!”

I doubled over laughing, nearly dropping my makeshift whip.

“The hell was that for?”

Solon asked, turning to give me a dirty look over his shoulder. It was midday, and following routine, I was helping him clean up. Working at Deathbucks had never been very exciting, so I had invented games to liven things up a bit.. Unfortunately for them, my coworkers had become my main targets, though I had to be careful around some of them.

The one time I’d tried to prank Crona, the poor kid ended up sobbing in the corner while their brother, Ragnarok, despite being the younger of the pair, decided it would be a good idea to harp on the “snivelling baby.” I learned to leave the two of them alone after that, since upsetting Crona wasn’t fun at all and Ragnarok had been insufferable to begin with. I almost felt guilty, but I couldn’t possibly have known what would happen, so it wasn’t on me.

The two were practically joined at the hip, which was a general nuisance for everyone. Despite being bigger physically, Ragnarok aggressively shadowed his older sibling everywhere. This made it nearly impossible to talk to Crona, and Kilik rarely managed to schedule one without the other, which stressed him out. I wondered why Kilik hadn’t sacked the Gorgon siblings after realizing how ridiculous they were, but I suspected the soft hearted bastard felt bad for them. I didn’t know exactly what had happened to them as kids to mess them up that bad, but it wasn’t my business.

Solon was all bark and no bite, so I got away with needling him a bit more than I probably should have. He tried so hard to be cool but did such a bad job that it just proved his dorkiness. Hell, the bookish girl that had become a regular probably knew he was full of shit, even though they had barely talked to each other..

“Thought you needed a wake up call there, Evans.”

I cackled again, tossing the rag into the bucket of disinfectant by his side, the wet towel falling in with a gross ‘plop’. He had a strip of wetness across the backside of his awful khakis (I thought the mark actually improved the look), and I smirked when I noticed our resident brainiac was hiding a smile behind the spine of her book. I eyed her, raising one eyebrow as if to say “Go get ‘em,” before hustling back to my position behind the counter before Solon could strike back.

I pretended to be absorbed in counting out the tip jar so I could watch as she approached him, amusement glittering in her emerald eyes. If I was being honest, I didn’t care much for her one way or another. I didn’t know her personally, but she managed to rattle our reliably grumpy busboy by existing, so she was at least somewhat okay in my book. And even though she sat in the cafe all afternoon, taking up three people’s worth of space with all of HER books, she had the decency to buy a drink or snack every few hours and tip, unlike the other geek who had recently begun camping in our lobby as well.

He was bald, but that wasn’t the oddest thing about him by far. I suppose someone could find him attractive if they squinted from a distance, but the oddly pointy sideburns, thick glasses, and creepy smirk he always wore were deal breakers. He sat across the room from our other brainiac, often staring at her as if she was a math problem he was determined to solve- definitely a change from how he looked at one of our newest baristas, a girl with bubblegum pink hair named Kim Diehl.

Despite her small body, she had a sharp tongue on her, that Kim. You could tell that this guy, Ox if I recall correctly, thought himself the main character of his own little novel, the bookworm Mara/Meke/Maha (or something like that, Blake’s handwriting was beyond a lost cause) his rial, and Kim the girl he had to win over. Privately, I was proud of Kim, and and the other girl too (who both seemed a bit younger than me) for not backing down to him. If only our other new hire, Jaqueline Dupre, would get the stick out of her ass and tell him off too- but it would take a while, if it ever happened. She was too much of a lady for that, it seemed, and I kind of hated her for being holier-than-thou; she were always looking down her nose at us.

The bell rang cheerfully, and we all looked up. It was another regular, a quiet, beautiful Japanese girl, and before she even had both feet through the door, Blake had already sidled up to her and began babbling about one thing or another. She did her best to put up with him going on and on about who-knows-what, nodding at all the right times, and even laughing when he did something particularly dramatic. Even though it had been months since she first started coming by during her lunch break, I still couldn’t figure out if she was attracted to Blake, or just thought of him like an overeager puppy. I hadn’t said more than a few words to her myself, no one had (except the girl with the ‘M’ name, apparently they were old friends) but I knew that she had some kind of fancy-schmancy office job and was consistently on the edge of a nervous breakdown- it was written all over her face and she always looked tense, too.

Blake walked her over to the counter, shoving his way past me none too carefully to get to the unoccupied register, nearly knocking over the neatly stacked rows of singles I’d been laying out. I swatted at him, but missed as he ducked.

“You want your tips, or not?”

I threatened him, but he knew I was only playing at being annoyed. We were equal in rank, and being the manager’s girlfriend didn’t legally let me take any of his wages away (as much as I would have enjoyed doing so). In fact, I couldn’t legally be the manager’s girlfriend to begin with.

Kilik Rung, the poor sap, was head over heels for me, which made me vaguely uncomfortable if I thought about it too hard. He had big dreams; I could tell from the way he spoke about advancing up the Deathbucks corporate ladder and going back to school, while still taking care of two young children. I had no idea how one person would be able to do it all at the same time without exploding (even one of those tasks seemed impossibly daunting to me) but if anyone could pull it off, it was him. He was nearly superhuman, and I loved all this almost as much as I resented it.

A warm hand fell on my shoulder, causing me to jump and the coins I had been sorting back into the register’s compartments to fall to the floor.

“Jesus Christ.”

I spat out in annoyance as I stooped to search for the change, knowing that our total for the day would be off if I missed so much as a penny. To be honest, I didn’t actually care if the till was off, especially if it was only missing a few cents, but Director Deater (who I referred to amongst the ‘Crew’ as Death the Dick since he inarguably resembled a small grim reaper, considering his perpetual grave tone and pinched expression) had begun writing “strongly worded letters” to Kilik, that were apparently becoming more and more of a problem. As much as I’d like to walk out and not have to give a shit about that greasy little creep, this was a fairly decent job, and I’d be throwing the coworkers I’d grudgingly come to respect under the bus. Not that I’d ever admit out loud that I had “respect” for any of those little twerps, but still.

I let out a very undignified squeak, turning to shoot a glare at the very same ‘significant other’ I had just been thinking of. He’d reached out and pinched my ass, that cheeky little shit, and done it so quickly that no one but me could have possibly noticed. Blake was too busy chatting up his girl and Solon was too busy being oblivious to a girl chatting him up, so this was strictly between Kilik and me. He knew what he was starting, so I decided to go along with it: this was war, and I always play to win.

I straightened up, coins in hand, and proceeded to put them back in their appropriate slots, all the while ignoring him. I was wearing yoga pants that day, the type I had been informed (by a teasing Blake) were absolutely illegal for hot girls to wear- and I knew I looked damn good in them. Kilik would have to wait a little longer to get some of this, just because he needed a reminder that I’m wearing the (yoga) pants in this relationship.

“And a very good morning to you too.”

I said flatly, facing away from him since his infectious smile would have made me laugh and the jig would’ve been up. Damn, that guy really knew how to get under my skin. I never had a problem keeping a straight face around anyone else, unless I was really fricken’ pissed, in which case I took no responsibility- anger takes priority over everything, at least where I come from. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, kiddos.

“Something the matter, Lizzy?”

Kilik asked, and goddamn it, I could practically hear him trying not to laugh even though his voice was as smooth and even as ever. He knew I wasn’t actually mad; apparently if you hang around me for long enough, you figure out when I’m being serious and when I’m just bullshitting. I hadn’t thought I was that easy to read, but considering that Blake (of all people, too) had been the one to point it out, I knew my manager was reading me like an open book.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I replied, shutting the cash drawer a little harder than strictly necessary (just because the moderate racket was surprisingly satisfying). When I looked up, I noticed Blake watching me with yet another of his stupid expressions. He looked like a constipated idiot this time, or maybe a barely restrained kid on a sugar high, which basically meant that he was bursting with something that he thought was important for everyone in the vicinity to know immediately. And let me tell you, the key word there was ‘thought’.

“What?”

I asked, actually annoyed now. He looked like the cat that ate the canary, as if he knew something I didn’t, and I just wanted him to spit it out and get this discussion over with. Of all the times for Blake to show even the smallest amount of self restraint, it just had to be then, didn’t it? How ironic. Maybe it was for that girl’s benefit, who was looking between us as if she were watching a tennis match, still holding out her credit card for Blake to swipe.

“I was just thinking- you guys must be REALLY serious now, right? It’s been like, months since you started boinking, and now he’s calling you Lizzy? What happened to “Elizabeth”? You’re practically married at this point.”

I gave him the dirtiest, meanest look I could manage, and this time it was for real. Even though it wasn't directed toward her, the girl he was supposed to be helping wilted under my withering gaze. I almost felt bad for injuring her, like I had stepped on a flower and crushed it, but that guilt was gonna have to come second to ripping Blake a new one. I could always apologize later, or not- didn't fucking matter to me just then.

“Ugh, give me that.”

I snapped, leaning over to snatch the card out of the girl’s hand. I was vaguely aware of Kilik still somewhere behind me, of Solon wheeling a cleaning cart out of the back, but none of that was important. I finished her transaction, slapped the card down on the counter, and pushed the tray of drinks toward her with so much force, she had to grab onto the edge of the cardboard to keep the whole thing from tipping over. She wisely made the choice to scribble something on the signature pad, hit confirm, and high tail it out of the store as fast as heels, a pantsuit, and four boiling hot coffees would allow, giving just the smallest wave goodbye to Blake, who wasn’t looking anyway. No, his eyes were locked on me, and now that there wasn’t a customer in front of us, I was free to stare right on back.

“The fuck is your problem, Barett?”

I hissed, trying to keep my voice low. Kilik was constantly reminding me that customers came to our shop for a “friendly, quiet atmosphere” with the unspoken implication that I was basically creating the opposite. From my very first day, he’d been incredibly supportive of my “new start” and “budding career” and even though I didn’t give a shit about many things, he gave a shit about me and always had. While I knew I was a bitch, I knew the value of having someone who’s gonna watch your back, and I wasn’t fucking stupid- I was there working instead of sitting locked up in jail because of him, and I wasn’t about to spit in the face of someone I owed. From what I’d seen, that was the kind of thing that got you a bullet in the back of the head as soon as you turned away unless they were already dead- and I had no plans to kill Kilik, just as he certainly had no plot to shoot me.

“What’s my problem?”

Blake asked incredulously, his raised voice drawing the attention of the two bookworms in our lobby. They looked over at us, then at each other, and while the boy returned his gaze to the textbook in front of him just as quickly as he’d glanced up, the girl locked eyes with Solon who was in front of me and slightly to the right. She didn’t look afraid at all, just curious. I didn’t bother to turn and see Kilik’s reaction since I already knew exactly what expression he had on his face: a frown that furrowed his brow. I hated that look, and add that to the way he was definitely crossing his arms across his chest, it would only add fuel to the steadily growing fire inside of me. I’d always had a bad temper, but what I knew (unlike Solon, unlike Kilik, unlike the two geeks out in the dining area) was that Blake had one just as explosive, if not more so.

“What’s your problem? I’m just joking Lizzy, you haven’t forgotten what that is, have you?”

He got right up in my face, and I flinched when I realized how much he’d grown. In under a year he’d caught up to me and might have even been taller- it was hard to tell- and the lean boyish muscle of the kid I’d run with in the streets had given way to a more chiseled, defined frame. We might have left the old life behind, but clearly he hadn’t let himself go… but neither had I.

“You sure you didn’t hit your head? You’re talkin’ even more stupid than usual, B.S.”

He flushed an unnatural shade of pink, and crowed at having gotten under his skin.

“Shut the hell up, Thompson! You want to play that game now, huh?”

He immediately tossed back, and now he was really yelling, too. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the weird looking guy in the dining area get up and start to pack up his things, but in all honesty I couldn’t care less at that moment about anything other than the object of my anger who was right. In. Front. Of. Me.

“You started it, dickhead.”

I lifted my chin a bit so I could look down at him at an angle, my lips twisting into a sneer that felt odd- it wasn’t an expression I had much use for, at least in the few months prior to this.

“What happened to Liz? You know, the fun Brooklyn girl who could take a joke just as well as she could hold a drink? Because I’m not seeing her, only a miserable bitch who wants to take everyone down into the pit with her.”

That was it, I was already at the end of my rope, and with that, I finally snapped. I lunged at Blake, grabbing a handful of his shirt, but he was faster and landed the first hit. I felt his fist connect with my right jaw, but even before the rush of pain hit me, I kneed him in the stomach. I could’ve aimed lower, but I didn’t, because somewhere inside was still the twelve year old boy that tried to be tough all on his own. Damn it all to hell, but I still cared about him, and it was satisfying enough to release my hold and watch him double over as all the air whooshed out of his lungs.

That sense of pride, the rush of gaining the upper hand, fell away when I was pulled off by hands that I knew- warm hands, calloused and surprisingly strong hands, Kilik’s hands. I instinctively tried to shake him off, still on edge as I would’ve been in a real fight, but he held fast. Solon was restraining Blake in much the same way, but he wasn’t struggling at all. As soon as he had some air back in him he lifted his head, grinning in such a shrewd, crooked way, I actually felt a pang of fear, as if I were truly seeing Blake for the first time and I was afraid of what I saw in his eyes. Maybe it’s true that you can never get the city rat out of you, because goddamn did he look feral. I wasn’t seeing Blake Barett, goofy barista and resident fun guy at Deathbucks, but Black Star- an orphan from a clan of murderers with a god complex that endangered anyone within a hundred feet of him. He’d been a loose canon and a liability as a kid, and I didn’t want to know what he was capable of now that he was practically a fucking adult.

“Go home.”

A voice came from behind me, and it belonged to my manager, of course it did. There was no anger, no disappointment, no emotion at all. I felt his chest against my back, his breath hot on my shoulder, but his voice was so flat that I would never have been able to identify Kilik as the speaker if I didn’t already know.

“Both of you, get out. I’ll call in the girls. Solon, if you stay til closing and help them out I’ll give you time and a half.”

And with that, he released his hold on me, and stalked into his office without looking back. Solon didn’t release Blake, just steered him by the shoulders to the back door, practically pushing him out. Blake, though, stared straight at me the entire way, even going so far as to stick his tongue out- the best he could do without his hands free, and Kilik surely still watching and listening.

Solon turned to me once Blake was gone, and jerked his head toward the front door. I took off my apron, practically ripping it from my body, and threw it to the ground. I stalked out, head held high, and almost missed his low, quiet voice that slipped through the door just as it swung shut behind me.

“Careful.”

He had said. Just that one word. And to my credit, I kept a stone face and continued walking without acknowledging his warning, or his obvious concern. I walked home, my anger replaced by frustration and self loathing, and my mask cracking little by little. But I didn’t cry until I was inside, the door locked securely behind me, and the curtains drawn shut.

-

The phone didn’t ring until much later, 10:09 P.M. to be exact. I’d been expecting the call, but with every passing hour, I was becoming more and more hopeful that it would never come, that I’d just get up tomorrow morning and go into work as usual, bullshit some apology to the other staff and the three customers that had been present, and carry on just like that. But I’ve never been lucky, and it seemed like that wasn’t changing any time soon.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to, sitting on my threadbare couch in my shitty apartment, a half empty bottle of liquor on the table in front of me, and a cigarette balanced between the fingers of my left hand. I knew that whoever was calling, Deater the Dick himself, Kilik, or even just Solon, would have nothing good to say- and if I followed the “no news is good news” rule, then it was worth pretending for just a few minutes longer.

In truth, it was almost two hours, a good number of shots, and more cigarettes than I cared to count before I finally picked up my phone and checked my voice mail. There was just one, from the store, and the voice that emanated from the speakers was just as bleak and haunted as it had been the last I’d heard it.

“I have to let you go.”

The message said, sounding very tinny through my phone’s shitty speakers. But it was still unmistakeable- it was Kilik Rung, my manager and my lover, and the only person who actually gave a shit about me and who I gave a shit about in return. There was a short pause and a crackle of static that might’ve been a sigh, but I wasn’t sure.

“You assaulted an employee in the workplace. I’ve been able to excuse your behavior up until now, I’ve given you so many chances, but enough is enough: you’re fired. You’ll get your last check mailed to you this Friday, so don’t bother stopping by.”

Another moment of relative silence.

“Goodbye, Elizabeth.”

That was where the message ended, and the waterworks began. The floodgates opened, and suddenly I was violently sobbing. I could hear the apology in his voice, in the last two words he’d said, and I could taste the bitter ending it implied. He wasn’t just removing me from Deathbucks: he was removing himself from me, cutting whatever connection had slowly been growing between us with words like a razor- too sharp to feel until it was too late. And I suppose I should’ve been expecting it, good men like Kilik don’t belong with bad girls like me, but that didn’t mean my drunken brain didn’t feel betrayed, abandoned.

I startled at a sensation of heat and burning, I’d dropped my cigarette onto my thigh, where it had eaten through my work pants. I cursed as I smothered the small flame, and collapsed on my back on my couch, the spent cigarette falling somewhere on the floor. I used the rest of my energy to throw my phone across the room at the opposite wall as hard as I could, and then just shut my eyes. I wasn’t crying anymore, no, but tears still slid down my chest and neck and I could feel my eyes swelling. I was so tired, completely drained of life, and honestly didn’t know what to do next. I thought vaguely that I should change out of my clothes and head to sleep, maybe rip up my ruined pants to use for rags or something since I wouldn’t be needing them anymore, but I just laid there, maybe for a minute, maybe an hour, it was hard to tell. And when I got up to change, it sure as hell wasn’t into one of the oversized shirts I usually slept in. No, that wouldn’t do for where I was headed.

I didn’t need a reflection to know what I looked like in the clothes I’d had to dig out of the bottom of my closet. I felt as if I’d been suppressed and constricted for a long time and was finally free and back in my element. I pulled my fur lined jacket tighter around my shoulders, one of the only things to survive the trip from Brooklyn, and left my apartment.

It wasn’t too long of a walk, and I didn’t think much along the way. I had an unlit cigarette between my lips, my hands shoved deep in my pockets as I counted the doorways along a dark street. At the seventh, I made a left, and came to a rather nondescript door.

I took the few steps up to reach it, and forewent knocking in favor of kicking the door three times with the tip of my boot.

“Open up, bastard. It’s Liz.”

It took a minute, but I didn’t care too much. Knowing the resident of this particular house, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was passed out drunk at this hour, so I was just grateful to hear rustling from within following my words, and then heavy footsteps approaching the door. It swung open to reveal a big man, older than me, with a beer in one hand and the other braced against the doorway.

“Look who we have here.”

He drawled, slowly dragging his eyes up and down what he could see of my body in a predatory way. I didn’t flinch, didn’t look away, just faced him with a confident smirk. He’d let me in, I was sure of it, but I also knew he was going to draw out the pleasantries (or in his case, unpleasantries) for as long as possible.

“Why, hello Brooklyn. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? What brings you to my door tonight? Don’t tell me you’ve been missing me, I might cry if you do.”

“Cut the crap-”

I replied, brushing aside his words without a second thought. He laughed at that, a deep sound that was so familiar, I actually shivered in anticipation.

“Giriko.”

-

His hands were everywhere, rough and greedy but so satisfying. It might have been a while, but Giriko certainly hadn’t lost his touch. He crashed his lips against mine, and even as our teeth clicked angrily against each others, and saliva dripped from our mouths, I was savoring the sensations I’d been missing. He tasted like sin, and in that moment, I must have as well. Cigarette smoke, vodka and whiskey, something oddly sweet- these flavors all seemed to blend together between us until I couldn’t tell one from the other. I just knew that I wanted more and more; I couldn’t get enough.

“Still such a slut, Thompson.”

He growled as he broke our kiss (if you could even call it that). I felt the slight prickle of stubble against my cheek as his tongue trailed a hot stripe down the side of my throat. I shivered involuntarily, and he seemed pleased by that.

“You like this, don’t you? Being used and degraded like the whore you are?”

I nodded in confirmation as best I could with him sucking on the junction of my neck and shoulder. It wasn’t enough for him though, and he bit me sharply, causing me to whimper a bit.

“Y-yes.”

I said, squirming under him where his body pinned me to the threadbare, stained couch of his front room. He was the only one who could do this to me, treat me like absolute shit, and still have me coming back for more. In fact, I would even beg for his attention, and he rather enjoyed that- maybe even a little too much- but he always ‘rewarded’ me, so I didn’t give a shit about stupid dirty talk.

“I was wondering when you’d show up, you worthless bitch. What took you so long?”

I wasn’t expected to reply this time apparently, because before he’d even finished speaking he was already propping himself up on his elbows so his hands were free to practically rip off my shirt. It joined my jacket on the floor, which had been abandoned almost as soon as I made it through the door, and he was making quick work of my jeans as well. He was fast, and rough, and he liked everything hard. Pain and pleasure were nearly synonymous to him, and right then, I was more than okay with that notion.

He used me, abusing my poor body to serve his own needs, and I let him. I even helped him, eagerly encouraging him with hoarse whispers as my fingers tangled in his hair and pulled. He nearly roared at that, and gave me a sharp slap as punishment. I relished in the sting, because I knew I deserved it: I deserved to be punished, I deserved to be in pain. Who was I to think I could live a normal civilian life? My hands were much too bloody for that. And whose fault was it?

My mother. It was her fault. She took no responsibility for me or for Patty. I did what I had to do to keep us alive, and if that means I’m headed to hell, fuck it. No use worrying about the afterlife when you’re still alive, because otherwise you’ll miss the opportunities the universe owes you for the millions of times it’s screwed you over. I don’t believe in karma, but I certainly feel entitled to a little good in my life from time to time. And though Giriko was far from good, I would take what I could get, and then a little more. As the saying goes, give her an inch and she’ll take a yard; I intended to milk Giriko’s resources, connections, and finances for all he was worth, even if it wasn’t much.

Even as he completely overwhelmed my senses, my mind was elsewhere. You’d have thought that his rough treatment would have tethered me to reality, but it actually gave way to a strange mental state. It was like watching him doing those things to someone else, like in a dream, but that just gave me a bubble of thought I could observe and contemplate in.

Everything he did was right, but it was so wrong at the same time. I couldn’t help but compare his rough treatment to the gentle and almost reverent way my bed partner for the last few months had touched me. It was entirely different I realized, even more so than apples and oranges, but I still kept looking for similarities where there were none. It made my heart ache a little, knowing I’d never get to experience “making love” (as disgustingly sappy as that sounded), because Giriko wasn’t capable of anything other than fucking. Somehow I knew that Kilik would have made love to me, if only I had asked.

It was over before I knew it, Giriko tucking himself back into his pants and standing up, practically throwing his previously abandoned shirt at me. He used to like seeing me in his clothing, a strange possessive kink of his he’d always had. When I had fully returned to the present, I slowly pulled the shirt (stained with beer and ash) over my head, my cramped back muscles protesting. I looked up at him where he was standing next to the couch only to find him grinning ferally.

“Always knew you’d come runnin’ back, princess.”

-

The next few days passed in a weed and booze filled haze, just Giriko and me lounging around his shitty flat fucking around. I knew my rent was due that week, but just then, I couldn’t have cared less. If that bastard had been willing to let me use up his stash, he damn well would house me until I was ready to go home; not that I really had a home in this city or anywhere else, but that was just nitpicking the details. A roof over my head (even the water stained one of my apartment, or Giriko’s grimey ceiling) was better than nothing, after all.

I was sitting in his lap on that ugly, filthy sofa of his as people staggered through the door and loitered around his apartment. He’d told me earlier that “friends” would be paying him a visit, but I knew what that really meant: dealers don’t have friends, after all. They had clients, maybe a fuckbuddy or two (he had a very diverse taste, to put it lightly), and the occasional person who owed them a favor, but Giriko definitely didn’t have anything that could even come close to touching the definition of friendship.

I knew, because I had friends back at Deathbucks. Even with my mind cloudy from being high as a fucking kite, I was able to recognize that loss, which cut straight through the haze like a razor. I had finally found out what that meant to have people you could let your guard down around, and not end up dead or injured as a result.

Giriko wasn’t my friend, not even close, and the people circling the room like goddamn piranhas even less so. Even the girls I ran with back in Brooklyn for a bit, whom I’d called friends, were only looking out for themselves. I couldn’t blame them too much though: I was doing exactly the same thing, on top of protecting and caring for my sister. When it came down to them or me, well, if she survived that gunshot, I’m sure my former “bestie” could tell you how I had chosen.

Solon had been my first friend, taking me under his (metaphorical) wing when I’d first started my job. He showed me the ropes, covered for me when I made mistakes, and even encouraged me in his own stuffy, awkward way- and I hadn’t appreciated it one. fucking. bit. I’d brushed off his help, lashed out at him when he tried to talk to me, and been an all around bitch to him, but he’d never complained, not really. He didn’t take it lying down though, he didn’t let me push him around, but he also didn’t give up on me. I grew fond of him, and him of me, because we had this mutual understanding as two people who felt out of place- but despite the hints he’d dropped left and right over the time I’d known him, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what he had to complain about. I often wondered, but ended up assuming it was a result of his appearance. I’d never asked directly (the kid had a tongue as sharp as his teeth) but all I needed to know was that on some strange fundamental level, we got each other.

I shook my head, hard. For some reason, I kept getting lost in my thoughts, in a way I'd experienced before but couldn't tell you when for the life of me. Coming back to reality was like breaking the surface of the water after diving into a pool, but instead of being shocked at the temperature of the air, I was surprised to find Giriko’s hands sliding up and down my sides, even going as far to grope my tits at his leisure. He was a vulgar man, and I shouldn't have been surprised that he would take advantage of my distraction considering how long I'd known him.

I lifted my head from where I had turned my face into Giriko's neck, and immediately wished I hadn't. Several men, clearly wasted, were watching Giriko touch me and looking on in a way that I once would have basked in but felt entirely repulsed by now.

I used to love the attention I could get, just by flashing a little cleavage, or bending down, or even just leaning in to whisper into someone's ear. It made me feel powerful, like I was invincible as long as I kept up the charm. I thought I could get anyone under my thumb, completely wrapped around my little finger- but I found, in a way that makes me cringe thinking back on it, that absolutely nothing can make Giriko do anything.

It's probably why he's still alive today, with the amount of illegal shit he's done. Now, I'm not really in a position to decide where the line that divides 'acceptable but against the law’ and 'too immoral’ is if such a thing exists, but let it be said that Giriko is one hell of a stubborn motherfucker. He's not going to bite the bullet or kick the bucket any time soon, and I respect that about him. He might be the embodiment of everything mothers are terrified of their sons becoming, but he's a survivor and a smartass to boot.

I leaned into him more, nuzzling under his chin and brushing my lips against his jawline as my hands moved to rest on top of his. In any other situation, with any other couple, maybe our position would have seemed intimate. But trust me, even though we've seen each other naked more times than I can count, nothing about our arrangement could fall under the umbrella of intimacy.

It's difficult for me to explain what I had been thinking I could accomplish with the shift in position, but it was completely automatic. I was shielding myself with Giriko, pulling myself tighter into him, so he covered my cracks and no one would see how vulnerable I really was.

Maybe Blake- no, Black Star- had been right; I had left Liz behind in the precinct almost a year ago now. I became Lizzie, a fairly ordinary (and ornery) girl with a safe apartment, a stable job, and actual friends. I didn’t have to sleep with a knife in my hand, or walk the streets with an eye out for trouble and a hand on a gun. I had gotten soft, too used to the kind of security I felt, that I forgot two fundamental rules: one, that there’s no such thing as luck and two, that the universe fucking hates me.

The minute Kilik fired me, probably a week ago now (though I couldn’t tell you for sure), I was in violation of my parole. I had gotten out on “good behavior” which, honestly, probably wasn’t a valid reason for releasing me, because I was no less of a nightmare in prison than someone who knew me would expect. The only thing that kept me exercising the slightest bit of restraint was because I wanted to see my sister again.

I was seventeen when they arrested me, so they decided that I wasn’t fit to be Patty’s guardian. It was total bullshit, it really was, and I fought tooth and nail to keep Child Protection Services from taking my little sister (who was what, 13?) away from me. She was the only family I had left, and I’d rather die than let her go. When I told that to the two CPS asshats questioning me, a blond man matched me argument for argument, word for word, getting increasingly angry with my lack of cooperation. After several minutes of this back and forth, Agent Sizemore was quickly shut up by his partner, who looked amused at our exchange, the smug bastard. He had said something that I repeated in my head every day that I woke up for work, as a reminder of why I had to behave.

“Liz- may I call you Liz? Liz, whether you like it or not, you’ve been tried and convicted by the court as an adult. If I remember correctly, you’re only weeks away from your eighteenth birthday. So if you behave yourself until the end of your sentence, you can appeal to get custody back. But you have no chance if you’re being dragged through the entire justice system kicking and screaming the whole way. Do we have an understanding?”

I nodded, and that was how I started talking with Agent Akane Hoshi. Perhaps he felt bad for me, but I had a feeling there was more to it than that- like he understood my situation on a more personal level. I never asked, though, and he respected similar boundaries with me. He never prodded me, never asked for more information than he needed, and for a long time, I had no idea what he was getting out of helping me.

He would come visit me, the only visitor I ever had, and he’d update me on how Patty was. He became her caseworker, personally overseeing her placement and taking responsibility for working toward, as he called it, ‘family reunification’. I couldn’t see her while still in prison, but I was allowed to speak to her on the phone after some time.

She sounded different every time, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it. At first she seemed petulant, angry, a little hurt- and I understood that. I felt that way too. But as weeks and months passed, I could hear her slipping further and further away from me as she settled in with her foster parents. They were weird, she’d said at first, but after a while conceded that they weren’t too bad.

It was a married couple, both in their thirties, Akane had told me; a Stein and Mjolnir, who had been a part of the foster program for a few years and personal acquaintances of his. They were expecting a baby of their own, Patty had told me on the phone near the end of my sentence. She sounded so full of joy, happier than I can remember her ever being, and I felt a pang of jealousy. I’d busted my ass to keep her alive, it’s true, but one of the things I’d never been able to do was to give her a normal childhood. Now that she had one, I wasn’t sure if trying to get custody back was the right thing to do. Maybe she would be better off in an adopted home, with parents that were financially stable and could feed her regularly… send her to school… and even get her real presents for Christmas.

I still hadn’t decided by the time I started my job at Deathbucks, though we continued having supervised phone conversations every week without fail until everything came crashing down. I must’ve missed at least one of our appointments since I began freeloading on Giriko, but I couldn’t tell you for sure- my phone was probably still somewhere on my living room floor, dead as a doornail and probably broken apart (just like my soul). I wondered if she tried to call me, if she’d been upset when it inevitably went to voicemail, if I’d return home to a slew of messages, and immediately felt a pang of guilt deep down inside. I was still Patty’s sister after all, and I might have scared her, or made her worry, and goddamnit, upsetting my baby sis was the last thing I would want to do. Not to mention, Akane’s probably been calling me as well (considering he’s ‘responsible’ for us), and he might be suspicious because of my absence. If he went to my apartment building and found the mail piled in front of my door, a notice that I’m late on my rent, and no indication I had been home for weeks, he’d likely start looking for me. And if he called Deathbucks to ask Kilik if he knew anything, he’d learn I was in violation of my parole. And once he had that evidence, ‘nice guy’ or not, he would be obligated to alert the authorities who would take me back to jail and take Patty away forever. I realized with sudden clarity in a room full of smoke and bawdy laughter, that I had to go, and NOW.

I pawed at Giriko until he let go, and hopped right off his lap. My right foot was asleep, and I staggered, just barely catching myself.

“Gotta bounce, Giri.”

I told him, as casually as I could. I hoped I sounded confident, or at least more so than I felt. I leaned over to give him a kiss, and tried to resist the urge to hyperventilate. I was NOT going to panic in front of Giriko, and certainly not in front of his buddies.

“Thanks for havin’ me, yeah?”

I said, giving him a wink and the best side smirk I could manage with the amount of adrenaline suddenly surging through my veins.

“It’s been fun, but I think I ought’a be getting back so I don’t like, get evicted. Come over when ya have a chance so we can have some more fun. I’ll make it up to you then.”

He guffawed, much more intoxicated than I was.

“Yeah, yeah princess. You better pay me back for the fuckin’ amount of my stash you’ve drained. A few favors ought to do the trick.”

He reached behind me and gave my ass a squeeze. I didn’t react outwardly, or so I thought, but the way his eyes flashed dangerously indicated otherwise. I tossed my hair over my shoulder and turned on my heel, walking out of his sorry excuse for a living room and into the area that would have been a normal person’s kitchen, though as I’m sure you understand that Giriko wasn’t exactly the domestic type. In the mess I managed to find a marker and some kind of napkin or tissue, and wrote down pretty basic instructions. The marker bled pretty badly, so it wasn’t all that legible, but I knew that if Giriko really wanted to track me down, he would. I left it there on the counter, hoping that he wouldn’t find it for a few days, or even forget entirely and throw it out with the rest of the garbage littering the place. I didn’t exactly need him bursting in on a meeting with fucking CPS or something.

-

Giriko’s little shit-hole in the wall really wasn’t all that far from my apartment, and I ran on the way back. My coat was only halfway on, shrugged over my shoulders even though it was twisted behind my back; I was freezing, but that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was making it to my apartment and getting the money from my last week at Deathbucks so I could pay enough that I wouldn’t lose the fucking place- assuming there would be enough there since most of my savings were stashed in the form of cartons of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. And yeah, I could've sold that shit off, but that would take time AND that would be another layer of criminal activity they could nail me with.

I passed by a glass window, uncommonly intact and clean for that part of town, and stopped short when I saw myself. I looked fucking disgusting, in week old clothes and hair that hadn't been brushed. I looked wild with bloodshot eyes and deep shadows under them. I didn't look like a responsible woman who could raise a kid. I looked like a street urchin, a criminal, a good for nothing sewer rat… But worst of all, I looked like her- the bitch who’d had the audacity to claim she was my mother.

I’d been denying it, running from the truth for years, but right then as I stood gaping at my reflection, there was no way to avoid the fact that I was a perfect picture of my worst nightmare. Goddamn, the very face staring back at me was the one that I drank to forget even though I hadn’t seen it since I was eight years old, Patty only three or four.

“Hurry up.”

I heard a crackly demand clear as day, the voice chasing away the cobwebs that had taken up residence in my head. I turned sharply to my left, and then to the right, eyes narrowed as I looked for the source of the voice.

“You fuckin’ brat, so ungrateful.”

The woman said. She had a rough voice, a smoker’s hacking cough, but a demanding tone so intense that made me want to yield and beg for forgiveness. My hands clapped over my ears, and my back slid down the rough brick wall behind me until I was sitting on cold concrete.

“Shut up.”

I said, trying to keep myself steady even as my voice wavered. I knew I was in a bad area and that shouting would only draw people who would slow me down, so I had to deal with this woman, whoever and wherever she was and get the hell out. But she didn’t listen to me, she didn’t stop… she just laughed at me. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed until she was downright screeching. It got louder and louder, and I could feel my heart in my throat as I panicked because I couldn’t get her out of my head. I think I might have screamed, I can’t remember, but the next I knew, my throat was raw and I was sobbing or hyperventilating or heaving or maybe all at once, I don’t know. I fell forward so my palms were flat on the ground and started rocking back and forth as the woman kept tormenting me, spouting insults in a raspy voice that was not loud, just laced with disdain and bitterness.

“You think you’re tough, girl? You’re nothing, just a fuckin’ useless waste of space. You’re pretty enough now, so maybe you can whore yourself out and get some johns to give you some spare change for dinner.”

I knew I was responding, trying to talk, but I had no idea what I was saying. It was the same out of body sensation I’d felt sitting in Giriko’s living room, but a thousand times more intense. I couldn’t fight it because I felt like I had no control over my body whatsoever, so I finally gave up and let myself be swept along in whatever direction the woman was trying to take me.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

She spat at me, and I could have sworn I had been kicked in the stomach. I was retching, but there was nothing in my stomach because I hadn’t eaten in- shit, it must have been days. I coughed, spitting up bile, but she didn’t let up, and kicked me again with the toe of her shoe.

“Look at me, you disrespectful little shit.”

She demanded, and I slowly lifted my head from where it had been hanging so low my chin nearly touched my chest. I know I screamed then, because the buildings around me seemed to amplify the sound, and it echoed far longer than any resonance I’ve ever heard. Standing over me was my doppleganger, a woman who looked so much like me, but I knew somehow wasn’t me.

Maybe she’d been beautiful at one point, but aging and bad habits had stolen her looks. She was gaunt, with hollowed out cheeks that must’ve been round and full once and far too many wrinkles around narrow navy eyes. Her hair fell just to her shoulders, just the slightest bit uneven but relatively clean. It was hard to tell the color, but it might have been dirty blonde, and she had a fur coat draped around her shoulders. It looked expensive, and despite being obviously a bit stained and dusty, was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I instantly wanted to touch it, to possess it, but I didn’t dare reach out when her eyes were boring into me murderously.

She stepped on my hand, no, stomped on it, and I cried out in pain. She didn’t let up either, just kept her foot planted where it was and shifted most of her weight on it.

“I’d break your fingers for that, wrench, but you might need them out there tonight. No use in damaging you now, you’ll come back punished thoroughly enough anyway. If I let you up, are you gonna go out and work for your momma?”

Before I could respond, she tapped a finger on her cheek, the rest of her fingers curled into a loose fist resting on her chin, as if thinking.

“I’m a little low on money right now, think little Pat can go a day without? You might make a couple dollars out there, but while you’re growing up to be a pretty little thing, you still have no idea what this world is like. I’m toughin’ you up, you’ll thank me someday.”

I choked as I tried to clear my throat and had to spit out a vile mixture of phlegm and bile before I could speak, and even then, barely a whimper escaped.

“I’ll go, please, just stop.”

She snorted, and picked up her foot almost delicately, as if she were checking to see if she’d crushed a mouse underfoot. My hand was sore, stiff from cold and well on its way to losing circulation altogether.

“Might want’a leave your coat. Be a shame if your baby sister freezes to death, the poor thing.”

I think I must have screamed again, probably some obscene profanity- because what kind of shitty parent sells a three year old’s clothes and then expects her eight year old to give up hers while she’s standing there fully dressed with a fur to boot- and I heard thundering footsteps fast approaching. Someone was coming, and I scrambled to my feet. Whoever it was, I thought they might try to hurt Patty, they might try to hurt me, they might be coming for my mother. The two of them were the only family I had, and I loved them: Patty was the most important thing in my life, she kept me going even when I felt like I couldn’t take any more, and my mother was my mother. I wasn’t gonna let nothing happen to them.

“We need’a go! We need’a go!”

I yelled, grabbing for her wrist. She just laughed at me, a lit cigarette hanging from between her lips, as my hand passed right through her. I tried again, and again I couldn’t grasp her.

“Don’t worry Lizzie bear.”

She said, her voice slow and sickly sweet like poisoned honey.

“I’m already dead, didn’t you know?”

And with that, I collapsed on the pavement, my head making a dull thud against the cold hard ground and my eyes sliding shut as I heard a voice I couldn’t identify yelling something. It sounded male, and young, and I knew I should have been running away, but I couldn’t bring myself to move, let alone stand. I didn’t care now, I had nothing left to care about. My mother was dead, my sister gone, and with them had went my desire to live.

-

 

I came to slowly, only one sense waking up at a time. I smelled rubber, and some kind of cleaning agent, and there was a low rumble coming from somewhere I couldn't identify. I was propped upright, covered with something warm and itchy and a bit musty that I thought might have been a blanket.

I coughed, trying not to heave again, because the taste of bile- and something else, which I later figured out was blood from the scrape on my forehead- made me feel sick to my stomach. My eyes fluttered open, and even after I had blinked several times, my vision was still blurry. I was in a car, I could tell from the blue-green light emanating from the dashboard and the radio, and that explained the smells and sensations. But what it didn't explain, was why I was fucking handcuffed.

I jerked, now fully awake, but of course that did nothing but make the seatbelt lock- hurting my shoulder and causing me to gasp for air.

“She's awake.”

A man in the passenger seat said to the driver.

“I see that.”

Came the dry response from the person directly in front of me. I couldn't see him, but the guy who had first spoken, Mr. Obvious, was dressed in sober colors, a uniform of some kind. He had red hair, long for a man, and though it was dark outside (some time must have passed while I was out) I could tell that he was young, no more than thirty five for sure.

“How ya’ feeling sweetheart?”

The driver asked me, and I think I might have seen his eyes flicker up to look at me in the rearview mirror.

“You look pretty beat up, so we're taking you to the hospital to get checked out. I'm Joe, and my partner here is Spirit.”

Mr. Obvious- Spirit- spluttered at that, and began squawking in protest about how that was NOT his name, and wondering why Joe couldn't just let that go, that it was a stupid nickname from their academy days. It hurt my head so I tried my best to tune out the whining as I focused on figuring out what the hell was going on.

“You're cops.”

I said, trying to keep my voice even. I wasn't scared, I told myself I wasn't, because they had no proof I was doing anything wrong. But what had I been doing? It wasn't like some shitty amnesia drama; I knew who I was and the year and all that. But it was like a chunk had been ripped out of my memory, leaving strange, jagged pieces that didn't fit together quite right.

“What's happening? Why am I here? Where are we going?”

I continued, louder now, but I didn’t feel one bit bad about raising my voice. I wasn't upset, I was confused- but that confusion frustrated me, and the frustration in turn transformed into anger. I had no idea how I'd ended up in this situation, and I intended to find out.

There was a beat of silence, and thinking back on it, they might have been exchanging one of those 'meaningful glances’ that adults and authority figures do that just serve to piss off anyone who wasn't in on the secret: me, in this case. To my surprise, it was 'Spirit’ who answered me, suddenly so serious and sober that the shift was actually frightening. He was all business now, and suddenly I understood why he was a police officer considering how much he acted and looked like a circus clown.

“You don't remember then, huh.”

He said, not asking, but stating the obvious again. I wondered briefly if that was somehow conducive to his thought processes, but immediately brought my attention back to the man himself when he continued.

“Got a call that a girl was ‘disturbing the peace’. When we got there, a witness- not the person who'd called, mind you, told us you appeared to be hallucinating, possibly as a result of drug use, and had injured yourself.”

I had no recollection of this when Spirit was telling me (it would take more time than it should have for my memory to come back) but it didn't sound impossible. But at the same time, it most certainly raised more questions than it answered. I opened my mouth to reply, but this 'Spirit’ was faster than me.

“We're taking you to the hospital to get you checked out. You're not under arrest or anything- not right now, at least- just in protective custody until we know you're safe, and we've figured out how you ended up in that state, okay?”

I didn’t respond because the gravity of the situation had sobered up my addled mind enough that I remembered something fairly important: anything I say from here on out can be used against me. Spirit said I wasn't in trouble with them, but I knew there were plenty of charges they could hit me with if only they asked the right questions. I was in possession of a fake ID, I bought and drank alcohol underage, I had quite a few unregistered weapons hidden in my apartment… That was enough to get anyone into some pretty deep shit, and just to add insult to injury, I had a criminal past (that extended well past Death City, Nevada) and parole conditions that I hadn't honored. Perhaps it was too late to say 'oopsie daisy’ the way Party might've in my place, but 'fucking hell’ (as I thought over and over, varying only slightly in colorful ways) still seemed appropriate.

I don't remember what happened after that, if more was said, because I think I lost consciousness again. That's the only thing that would explain the gap in my memory between the 'debriefing’ and finding myself on a gurney.

-

The next time I opened my eyes, I was in a white room. They always talk about ‘glowing’ or ‘dazzlingly bright’ hospitals on TV shows and shit, and I had always thought that description was total bull, but I quickly changed my mind when I found myself in the middle of the freaking North Pole. Hunched over in the chair by my left was the hulking man who’d called himself Joe, and leaning against the opposite wall was Spirit, who was slouching with his hands in his pockets. They both looked exhausted, and I didn’t really blame them. I was too and I still felt like absolute shit. At least I didn’t feel like I had to puke again, because that would have been difficult considering I was still in fucking handcuffs.

“Ah, you’re awake.”

Joe said, and he smiled at me. He had a kind face, and even though his complexion was lined with wrinkles, I could tell he was about the same age as he partner. I looked at him blankly, and then to Spirit, who was most definitely not smiling.

“Cut it out Joe. Just ‘cause she’s pretty doesn’t mean we can’t give it to her straight.”

Joe’s smile flattened into a more thoughtful look when he turned his head toward Spirit, but his shoulders moved as if he was chuckling.

“I didn’t say she was pretty, nor do pleasantries have anything to do with whether she is or isn’t. You came up with that all on your own. She’s been through hell, and you think she doesn’t deserve a minute before we start grilling her? She’s not a slab of meat, just in case there was any confusion there.”

Spirit made some squawking noises that were very similar to the ones his performance in the car consisted of, but this time he was flapping his arms as if he were trying to take off the ground. His face was red, and even though he didn’t make much sense, I caught:

“Women are not slabs of meat Joe, they are precious flowers to be tended to and treated with respect. You don’t know the first thing about treating a lady properly!”

Joe just looked back at his companion, and shrugged.

“Your ex-wife would beg to differ, and last I heard, your daughter still isn’t speaking with you, so your opinion on the matter is irrelevant.”

Spirit looked as if Joe had just sucker punched him in the gut with the way he wilted at those words. He opened his mouth, looking ready to whine this time, but Joe cut him off with a gesture and turned back to me.

“We’ll start easy, okay?”

He said, rubbing at his eyes with the palm of his hand.

“What is your name?”

I hesitated for just a moment too long, and I knew the instant Spirit’s eyes flickered toward me that he had noticed. But there was no point in lying, because either way, I was certainly not going back to my apartment after the doctors finished checking me out. They’d take me to a holding cell at the precinct, and then to face the parole board the next morning.

“Elizabeth Thompson.”

“Age?”

“Nineteen.”

“Marital status?”

“Single.”

“How about employment?”

I paused again here. Kilik had just fired me, so I wasn’t working at Deathbucks anymore. That made me…

“Unemployed.”

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

I didn’t hesitate, because I had been caught, and I knew it. The only way out of the hole I’d dug myself into was up- and I had to play by the rules if I wanted to reach the surface. Otherwise, I’d just sink lower and lower. This time, I answered immediately, and I put some power behind it.

“Yes.”

-

Not long after their initial processing, a kind but impressively efficient nurse (who sported a few bandages of her own) came in and gave me a hospital gown to replace my filthy street clothes and weird socks with rubbery pieces on the bottom so I wouldn’t slip and fall. That struck me as funny, it really did, considering I wasn’t some eighty year old woman with a broken hip. I was amusing myself with those kinds of thoughts, because I knew that once they searched my belongings and pulled up my record, there wouldn’t be anything to laugh about. And once they got to my apartment, well, I knew I’d be done for. The nurse, who had introduced herself as Mira, gave me a quizzical look when I couldn’t stop chuckling, but didn’t react otherwise. I got the impression that I wasn’t the strangest patient she’d seen in this line of work, since some of the marks on her arms that weren’t quite covered looked suspiciously like someone had tried to bite her recently.

She took blood and urine samples, and I tried not to think about what kinds of results would come back from the drug tests because I knew my body was completely wrecked from the week prior. As the memories of what had happened in the moments leading up to Spirit and Joe’s arrival slowly came back to me, I recounted it as best I could without giving away any information regarding Giriko or any other people who had been there. Joe told me, multiple times, that if I could assist them in catching the drug ring or gang responsible for my current state I’d have a better chance when it came time to look up at the courtroom judge, but I held my lips shut tight. Giriko was a slippery bastard, and I knew that if I snitched, he’d find some way to take revenge. I was completely certain that even if I was locked away, he would find a way to get at me so that I’d have less than nothing when I got out. He had a particular propensity for destroying lives, and I wasn’t about to be next. Jail looked like paradise compared to the kind of nightmare Giriko could conjure up for me.

It was a lot of waiting after that, and the three of us (Joe- who could obviously use a cup of joe, Mr. Obvious- who still managed to be somewhat restless, and I) all seemed to be dozing on and off. When I was awake, I didn’t bother with the television or eat any of the cold food Mira brought me. I just stared up at the ceiling blankly, waiting for my eyes to get heavy enough for me to drift to sleep once more.

Eventually, I had to give up and accept that there was no way I would fall asleep again. I wasn’t tired enough to ignore the constant beeps and the murmurs of other doctors and patients and families. I wished a member of my family could be here with me, a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle... an adult. I wasn’t even twenty yet, and it looked like I would be serving a second jail sentence. I was too young to be handcuffed in a hospital bed, or hallucinating on the street in the middle of winter. But I never got to be young, no, because I had to be a caretaker for as long as I could remember- I was a little girl playing house with my sister, except there was no house and I was the de facto mother- when really, all I wanted was for someone to take care of me for once.

I don’t know when I started crying silently, but I couldn’t help but notice the snot dripping from my nose. I shrugged my shoulder so I could wipe my face on the gown, and tried to stay in control, but that didn’t happen, of course it didn’t. I shook, laying on my side the best I could, trying to muffle my sobs in the pillow. I don’t know how I still had any tears left, considering the episode earlier, but they just kept coming, and coming. Neither Joe nor Spirit reached out to me or said anything while I cried, though whether they were truly ignorant, I couldn’t tell you. But Mira, she had no qualms about coming to me. She placed a gentle hand on my back, and slowly rubbed circles until the sobs subsided and I relaxed, practically melting into the pillow. But I stiffened again when Mira sighed heavily, a sound that sent me straight back into panic mode.

She cleared her throat, and Joe jerked awake. He had fallen asleep with his elbow on his knee, and his chin in the palm of his hand. He blinked a few times, and then made eye contact with the nurse, whom he smiled at.

“Nygus. Thank you for getting the results back to us so quickly, you must be very busy considering it’s a Saturday night.”

She pursed her lips and didn’t reply to him, and instead sharply called out to the red haired man.

“Spyr Albarn, might I ask why you’re sleeping on the job?”

His eyes flew open, and he sniffled up what had begun to drip from his nose. It was disgusting and childish, but the corners of my mouth turned up slightly at how ridiculous he looked. Joe might’ve been a little disheveled, his hair and clothes rumpled, but Spirit (or Spyr, apparently) looked like hell. His eyes were bloodshot with bags underneath, his suit jacket only half on, and his hair sticking out every which way. The nurse, Mira Nygus, didn’t look amused, though. In fact, she looked… nervous? When she was sure she had the attention of both officers, she clutched her clip board a little tighter to her chest, seeming not to need it to deliver the prognosis.

“The drug tests came up positive for nicotine, alcohol, cannabis....”

Mira looked at me, and I stared right back into the lightest blue eyes I’d ever seen. She waited after each name on the list, looking for some kind of confirmation, and I nodded each time because there was no denying I had been partaking in recreational drug use.

“-and Phencyclidine.”

I felt my eyebrows come together, because I had no idea what that was. She immediately picked up on my confusion, and without breaking her icy stare, tried another approach since I clearly wasn’t wired to understand whatever science was behind that fancy name.

“Angel dust. PCP. It’s a-”

And suddenly, I knew exactly what had happened. I interrupted her with a very unladylike:

“That motherfucker!”

And immediately regretted it, when I got a death glare from Mr. Obvious, a frown from Mr. Needs-A-Cuppa, and an eyebrow twitch from the very clearly overworked nurse trying to deliver what should have been a very quick and simple report. After a moment, Joe spoke up in that mild way of his.

“So I take it you’re familiar with that drug?”

I made a face and might have even rolled my eyes a little before I grumbled my reply.

“I never had any personal experience with PCP, but I know someone who deals it. Guess the rumor’s true; that stuff is supposed to really fu- mess you up.”

I caught myself that time, because they were all looking at me: Joe with mild curiosity, Spirit with suspicion, and Mira with… concern? Something didn’t seem right in the way she looked at me, but she wasn’t the one I had to be worried about. I doubted she minded my swearing (again, I would bet money on the chances she’s dealt with more unpleasant patients than me) but the police always seemed to mind. Best to lock those words up and throw away the key before my mouth got me into deeper shit, or so I thought.

“We were all smoking- someone laced it.”

I said, trying not to lose my temper again, because Giriko had laced it, and I wanted nothing more than to squeal in order to get back at him for putting me through that hell. But I was more afraid of him than I was of the law- and that was really saying something.

Joe and Spirit glanced at each other- and, yep- they definitely exchanged knowing looks this time. Spirit took one step in the direction of the hallway, opening his mouth to announce a bathroom trip, or maybe to excuse himself, he needed to make a call, but without even turning around Mira held up one hand and he halted in his tracks immediately.

“Yes, yes, Spirit, I know you’re impatient to get back out in the field and let poor ‘Butt here do all the paperwork. And yes, I know that whoever possesses the drugs might be on the move, and you need to track them down, but I think you can spare thirty more seconds...”

He hung his head, looking as if he’d been thoroughly scolded, and I noticed that she had referred to both of them by nicknames. There was a tense pause, and to keep myself calm I wondered idly whether they brought in drugged up teens regularly enough to get to know her, or if they knew each other from somewhere else, like school. But as soon as she took a breath to speak, my attention was all on Mira Nygus, RN.

“-because I wasn’t finished. There’s something else you three should know.”

I stiffened, and watched as her eyes darted away, looking to Joe, who looked just as confused as I felt.

“There was… something else we found.”

She said lowly, looking at me now with a tenderness that both surprised and scared me.

“Spit it out already Mira, we haven’t got all day!”

Spirit interjected, and instead of doing something productive like telling his partner to shut the hell up, Joe just mildly replied with:

“It’s the middle of the night, or did you forget?”

Spirit growled in return, but that exchange ended when Mira turned and glared at each of them in turn.

“Honestly, it’s like you lot still think we’re thirteen.”

She sighed again, and I saw her grip her clipboard so hard, the skin of her knuckles stretched and lightened with tension.

“Sometimes I wish we were. Elizabeth, the tests found hGC in both your urine and blood samples. Do you know what that means?”

I don’t know if I said anything, or if I nodded, or even if I just stared blankly. I felt like time had frozen, and my field of vision seemed to zero right in on the nurse. I don’t even think I was breathing, just holding on and waiting for whatever news seemed to trouble someone who dealt with illness and injury and death daily.

“It means that you’re pregnant.”

-

I stared at her, completely shell shocked, before my insides and my body and my face all crumpled up and I was… I don’t really know, thinking back on it, but it was like every emotion I had held inside, nearly two decades worth, purging from my system all at once. Mira hustled the two cops into the hallway, or at least I think she did, because in a flash she was sitting on the corner of the bed, stroking my dirty, filthy hair and holding me to her, and Joe and Spirit weren’t there. We rocked back and forth, and she patiently let me cling tightly to her for as long as I needed. Thinking back on it, she was one hell of a woman- tough as nails. I transitioned from sobbing, to screaming, to heaving and hyperventilating, and finally to single tears and pathetic little whimpers, and she held on through it all, whispering reassurances and rubbing my back and cooing softly.

Once I was cried out, she gently released me, and handed me a tissue from a small box I hadn’t noticed earlier. She took another look at me, and wisely gave me a few more, which I used to wipe off my face and blow my nose, before tossing them in the bin she nudged out from under the bed with her foot. She looked like she wanted to say something, but I beat her to it.

“Why- hic- are you being so nice to- hic- me?”

I asked. There was no malice in the question, just exhaustion and confusion and gratefulness all rolled into one. She regarded me seriously for a moment, looking at me steadily before slowly exhaling.

“I had to learn a lot of things to become a nurse, Elizabeth, but compassion isn’t something you get from a book. I don’t know much about you, it’s true. But healing goes beyond broken noses and twisted ankles, because pain comes in many forms. I’m not nice because it’s my job to be, I have this job because I genuinely care.”

It’s good that the waterworks didn’t start up again (though I did tear up a little), because I had some pressing questions that I needed to know the answers to before Spirit and Joe took me to the cell waiting for me in the precinct.

“Can you tell… how long ago I… How long it’s been?”

I was genuinely scared to know the answer because if the baby was Giriko’s… I didn’t want to think about what he would do to it, or me, when he found out. I could safely say that he wouldn’t be proud to be a daddy, that’s for sure, and he’d probably do anything in his power to make sure that he would never have to answer to that title.

Mira hesitated, and I felt a pang of dread.

“When was your last period?”

I thought about it, and goddamn, I had no idea. It was long enough ago that I couldn’t remember, and I told her this.

“I can’t promise anything, but pregnancy tests aren’t accurate until at least two weeks after your missed period, so conception could have taken place in the middle to the end of last month at latest.”

I laughed even though I wanted to cry, because I wasn’t sure how to feel about the news. The father wasn’t Giriko, but that didn’t make me much safer from his wrath. And the real daddy, Kilik, probably never wanted to see me again. I had no idea how I would tell him, or even if I should tell him, because not only were we no longer together, but…

“Oh my God.”

I said urgently, my eyes blowing wide.

“The drugs. Is it gonna be okay?”

Mira looked at me, and I searched her face for a clue to whatever wheels were turning in her brain as she weighed the possibilities.

“I can’t promise you anything, but if you go to a rehabilitation facility immediately and follow through with the program… We don’t know a lot about what PCP and marijuana do to fetuses in the very early stages, so you do have a chance of carrying to term successfully if that’s what you decide you want to do.”

-

After Mira bid us goodnight (and good luck), a young nursing assistant came in to help with the discharge process. Spirit was on his way out when she arrived, and they exchanged a few words in the doorway. I couldn’t hear their conversation from my vantage point, but I saw her leaning back, as if to distance herself from him. Once he disappeared down the hall, I noticed the girl visibly relax. Whatever he had said, it definitely hadn’t put her at ease, but she was not deterred by his behavior and came right in with a bright greeting.

She introduced herself as Mai, managing a smile for Joe and I despite the fact that she was all but falling asleep on her feet. She took off her red framed glasses and rubbed at her eyes before setting them back on her nose smartly and sorting through the large pile of paperwork she held. She handed me plenty of forms to sign and gave Joe reports to look over while I worked on them. Once all that was done, she gave him a list of rehabilitation facilities Mira recommended that I go to that he accepted with a nod of thanks, and held out a stack of leaflets and sheets crammed full of information.

“What are these?”

I asked, glancing up at her. She was young, around my age, and pretty too, even in the high collared drab uniform she wore. She had long, dark hair pulled back into immaculate braids, and although I just wanted to get the hell out- and mentally avoid the bill since I didn’t have insurance- I resisted snapping at her. I might’ve come across as agitated, but to her credit, she only blinked a few times and didn’t look intimidated at all.

“Oh, a few different things.”

She told me evenly, shrugging a little. The girl was definitely in the right field of work, just like Mira: limitless tolerance had to be in the job description or something, because even the people that came in and took my blood pressure and my temperature and all those other silly little routine things had been just as polite and efficient.

“There’s some information about different drugs, the effect they have on your body, and what to expect when coming off of them- but it’s not really a secret that it’s difficult to break a cigarette addiction. It’s just one of those things we’re required to give you when you leave. And there’s some very basic information about pregnancy, but whoever you’ll be seeing for your prenatal healthcare will be much more reliable and explain it all a lot better.”

I stared at her for a moment, and then managed a wry smile.

“I might have trouble carrying them.”

I said, nodding to my handcuffed wrists. She seemed startled by that, and a bit embarrassed, because she hurriedly turned and practically shoved them into Joe’s lap.

“Wait.”

I said as she went to leave. She stopped in her tracks and came back, looking concerned.

“Are you alright?”

She asked, and I brushed off the question with a nod.

“Just peachy. But you look very familiar to me, and I’m wondering why.”

She ducked her head, looking like a kid who’d gotten caught with her hands in the cookie jar (just like Kilik’s little ones when we would catch them trying to sneak packets of sugar) and laughed awkwardly.

“You’re the Liz that used to work at Deathbucks, right? I go in for a cup of tea now and then, or at least I used to. I think I only saw you a few times though, so you must have a good memory.”

I squinted at her a little because that didn’t feel like a complete story, and I was absolutely sure that she had left something out.

“Now that I think about it… Kim used to talk to a girl with braids once in awhile. Was that you?”

She winced a little, looking thoroughly embarrassed.

“Yes, that’s me. Kimial and I live in the same apartment building, and she’s not very kind to her neighbors. She’s even got a nickname, the witch of cherry street complex.”

The full picture clicked in my head and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I always thought you two were friends. She’d call your order out as-”

“Eternal Feather, I know.”

She said with a sigh.

“I haven’t the slightest where she came up with that. One day she told me it would be cool if I had a nickname, since ‘Mai Thi Hoang’ is so long, and I had agreed that it might be a good idea. Next thing I know, she’s told everyone that I want to be called ‘Eternal Feather’ and it stuck. That’s why I don’t go in much anymore, because she makes fun of me as if I’d started it myself.”

I shook my head, the corners of my mouth still turned up a bit. That certainly sounded like the Kim I knew; a total bitch, but funny as hell. We never talked much since she was new and she’d only taken the position as a temporary job, but I think we would have gotten along just fine. A month ago I might’ve asked her to come over and smoke a joint with me, but at this point I couldn’t smoke anymore, had no way of contacting her (and very little desire to), and was not free to do so considering the whole in custody thing. Despite the irony, I couldn’t help but think that there’s no use indulging in pipe dreams, and forced myself back out of my head (where I’d been hanging out disturbingly often recently) to turn my attention back to Mai “Eternal Feather” Hoang.

“Well, if you do happen to go in and she gives you shit, feel free to give her a big, friendly ‘fuck you’ from yours truly.”

I didn’t really care what Kim thought of me, since I doubted I’d ever see her again or at least not for a long time. Plus, we’re both the same kind’a street girls- she’d probably find it funny since I can’t hurt her and have no reason to anyway. Unfortunately for delicate Mai though, people like Kim and me see her as an easy target- Kim only bothers her because she can, it’s literally kid logic- and maybe if she wasn’t taking care of me and there wasn’t a police detective next to me I would’ve ragged on her a bit too. But things being what they were, I decided to take pity on the stressed girl. Afterall, my day was hell, but chances were high that hers had been too.

“No, but seriously. If you don’t react, our dearest Diehl won’t know what to do. Best thing to do is to ignore her, and just when she gets discouraged, ya give her the finishing blow while dealing the shade right back.”

Mai’s eyes blew wide, and she looked rather taken aback. I don’t think she’d ever thought about being rude to Kim, and that was really saying something. She must’ve been some kind of saint, or something, because I’m pretty sure other people wouldn’t let someone as harmless (because face it, she talked a big game but couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds) walk all over them. It’s equally possible that I was just naturally aggressive, but that didn’t matter because it wasn’t about me.

“Uhm, thank you for your advice, Liz.”

She said, giving an awkward bob of her head.

“I’d better get going.”

She added quickly, picking up her clipboard and scanning the lists of names.

“Good luck with everything! And maybe I’ll go back to Deathbucks for tea sometime. I hope by the time I’ve worked up the courage, you’ll be back there- if not as an employee, then as a customer. It always looked like you all had so much fun, I’m a little jealous.”

With a little wave and a smile she left, leaving me with Joe, who sighed heavily.

“Come on, kid. Let’s get you to the precinct. It won’t be comfortable, but we’ll talk about how we’re going to proceed forward and we’ll get you a blanket and some food. It won’t be that bad.”

In my experience, if you had to be told something wasn’t going to be ‘that bad’ it was actually ten times worse than you thought, but since I had no choice but to trust him, I followed him out the automatic doors to the squad car without complaint.

-

He actually hadn’t been lying. It was a pretty decent station (I thought), small, on the clean side, not too cold, and quiet. It seemed like I’d be the only one being detained that night, which was perfectly fine with me. Not that I thought I’d get a lot of sleep on a bare wooden bench, but at least I didn’t have to hear some drunkard singing sea shanties or something.

We sat down first at a wooden table in a barren room that was lit too brightly, and talked about my options. I knew from my conversation with Mira exactly what I wanted to do: plead guilty before a judge, go to rehab, and hopefully be let go on parole after.

Joe tried to tell me that there were other things I could do that might have been easier on me, and even suggested outing the dealer that had drugged me to get a looser sentence. I refused every option he laid out for me over and over, and finally he threw up his hands in defeat and led me to my cell. True to his word, he brought me a blanket and a small tray of simple food. I had a toilet and a sink that actually worked (but only the cold water) and I grudgingly figured that things could’ve been worse. I sat down on the bench and held out my arms expectantly, and he took out his set of keys and undid my cuffs. He turned to leave as I was rubbing my wrists where they were raw and the circulation cut off, but stopped outside the cell after he’d locked me in.

“You do know you get a phone call, right?”

I looked up from my angry red skin to stare at him. I don’t think I was making any particular expression, like sad or angry or surprised, and I just shrugged because this information was useless to me.

“A lawyer, a family member, a friend…”

He suggested, and and I shook my head with a little smile. It was a self deprecating one, though, because I felt truly alone in the world.

“I can’t afford a lawyer and I have no family or friends to contact. So thank you for the offer, but I won’t be needing it.”