Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member. Note that you can only see posts made in areas you currently have access to.


Topics - Elvis Strunk

Pages: [1] 2 3
1
Mafia Vortex / Death Note Mafia - The End
« on: September 15, 2017, 06:00:28 pm »







Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
The End


Kira Task Force Headquarters. A mysterious, spacious building, from which several of the most intelligent people in the world have engaged in a struggle to defeat the mass murderer dubbed by the public as 'Kira'.

On this day, the building is entirely empty, save for twelve individuals, each asked to come alone, equally unaware of who the other inhabitants are. Directed to individual lockers, they each find a note, scrawled in the familiar handwriting of the world's greatest detective, L.

Without question, they each do as instructed, donning an outfit suspiciously similar to that of the Japanese Police Force, as well as a helmet likened to that of riot gear. Knowing the abilities Kira possesses, none of them need question why.

The next step is to head toward the meeting room. One after another, the members open the door, stepping inside to find others seeming exactly like them. From boots with expanded soles, to padded clothing, it seems L planned everything to a T, making certain that every last one of them appears the same size and shape.

As uncomfortable as it might at first seem, it has become impossible to tell who is who. As they speak, they find that even their voices are scrambled via a small device near their mouths.

Right after the last of the twelve settles into the room, the door clicks shut- and lockdown begins. Heavy steel bars descend from the ceiling, blocking the only exit possible. Right then, the monitor located in the far end of the room powers to life, L's symbol displayed amidst static.

A distorted voice begins to speak.

"I appreciate you coming here today. Those of you still alive, I ask that you continue to dedicate yourselves to catching Kira, no matter what happens. When we leave this building, it must be with Kira in custody, with enough evidence to convict."

A pause, as the room fills with a foreboding silence. The clock on the wall ticks as each second passes, and the twelve find themselves glancing between each other, as if to ask just what L was thinking. Before a word can be spoken, the broadcast begins again.

"Kira is here. Of this much, we're certain. Recently, I uploaded criminal information to the database with coded messages, inviting Kira to come here and settle this. The proof of this should be in the number of people standing around you. I'm certain it doesn't match with the number of Task Force members."

With that bombshell, the screen shuts off, a different screen lighting atop a nearby table, bearing the same insignia. However, it's what is illuminated in the glow that really surprises.

"This is the Death Note, the item Kira uses to kill. After the defeat of the Yotsuba Group, I managed to discreetly recover and study the item. Cross-checking names and dates, as well as the rules written, everything matches. While we cannot eliminate the possibility that more than one book exists, we can be certain this belonged to the original Kira at one point, and he no longer possesses it."

Indeed, right on the table, in front of them, sits a Death Note, there for anyone to reach out and grasp. As they focus on it, 'L' begins reading out some of the more basic rules written within, explaining how it works.

"The human whose name is written in this note shall die. In this context, it has been modified to be capable of killing one person every night- an unblockable, undetectable kill. Anyone may use the Death Note if it is in their possession during the night, by simply writing down the name and alias of any other member gathered here. During the day, you must democratically vote on who will keep the book during the night. As for your alias..."

A slot opens on the front of each member's uniform, revealing a seemingly meaningless codename.

Alias List
1: Geocorn
2: woolyshambler
3: Gamerjunkie
4: Merne23
5: Arraxis
6: Pal
7: Meliran
8: Jynx
9: Revontulet
10: Duke Rockhopper
11: Verthand
12: WeAreTheMeta

"At the same time, we are the Task Force. If remotely possible, we would prefer to capture Kira alive and bring him to justice. During the day, you may vote either Guilty or Not Guilty for anyone else here. If someone is deemed Guilty, they will be arrested, but not killed. Effectively, this will remove them entirely from this competition. If you manage to arrest Kira in the entirety- as we cannot be certain how many people hold that moniker, after the Third Kira incident- the exit will open and you can all return to your lives."

Another heavy, mortifying pause, as the clock chimes to signal the hour. With that, 'L' exhales, a final, heavy breath, and speaks his final words to the twelve.

"If you've heard this message, I am likely already dead. I hate leaving this burden on your shoulders, but catching Kira has always been the most- the only important thing. Whether you trust me, believe me, or consider me a fool, know this. I hope you all make it home."

With the faintest trace of emotion, plain to hear even through the scrambled words, 'L' falls silent, and the screen shuts off, leaving the twelve gathered to figure out their next step.

With 12 alive, it takes 7 to arrest.
Deadline: September 16th 2:00 PM EST

2
Mafia Vortex / Death Note Mafia - Signup Thread
« on: September 12, 2017, 08:54:33 pm »
Perched high atop a tower woven from steel and rust, the invisible force of destruction known through whispers as God of Death bears a twisted grin. Staring down at the masses below, it feels a hunger- not for anything so paltry as food or drink, but for a cure to the ultimate disease: boredom itself.

Dangling from its' fingertips is a small, black notebook, the words 'Death Note' scrawled across the cover.

"Let's see how interesting humans really are."

With those simple, playful words, each carrying no sound and little life, it lets slip chaos from the sky, bringing a new era upon the world below.

The reign of Kira has begun.

---

Hello, friends.

It's been a while since the last Mafia, but I feel enough time has passed since what happened, that we might be able to give it an honest shot. Anyway, I was searching for a nice setting to base this on, and I found one that works pretty well- detectives, criminals, mystery, and death... it's perfect, really. That aside, the new movie just came out, so this seems a decent time to play with such a topic.

I'm sure you still remember the gist of how this works, but I'll give a review of the rules anyway. Basically, be nice and civil as possible, don't discuss the workings of the game outside of the main thread, I.E. no IC in OOC or the other way around. Don't edit posts, don't quote my PMs, and don't post at night unless allowed by me.

There are a couple twists in the workings of this Mafia, and you'll be voting for more than just who to Lynch during the day, so be prepared to have to plan around multiple factors even when it isn't Night. For now, we'll leave signups open and see just how many people are interested; I'd say, as long as we don't have too few, we need not worry about too many.

Don't expect this to be the best Mafia ever. It might not be balanced completely, and you know my track record. But, it's always fun to get together, have a few drinks, kill all your friends. So, why not? Just, sign your name in the book below...

PLAYER LIST
1: Geocorn
2: woolyshambler
3: Gamerjunkie
4: Merne23
5: Arraxis
6: Pal
7: Meliran
8: Jynx
9: Revontulet
10: Duke Rockhopper
11: Verthand
12: WeAreTheMeta

RESERVE LIST
1: WhydidIbuytheunionfrigate
2:
3:

3
Other Games / That Nintendo Thingy. The Switchamacallit.
« on: March 02, 2017, 10:56:45 pm »
Hello friends. It is time I reveal a very carefully hidden, shameful secret. I am very excited about the Nintendo Switch~

I figured there might be some more people that're excited for it too! And that maybe it'd be cool to have a place to discuss it, and to add, like, friend codes and stuff, so people can be friends and stuff.

Anyway...

Neon or Grey?

4
Other Games / Chapter 1: Crux of Cessation
« on: October 17, 2016, 01:33:52 am »
"Everyone dies."

All humans are aware of this undeniable, unavoidable fact of the universe.

Some hope this process can be averted, or reversed, believing that their culture stands only one breakthrough away from denying that most vital of laws.

Many find themselves dissociating 'everyone' from 'myself', choosing to accept that "everyone dies... yet I am not everyone", perhaps aware only unconsciously of the importance they afford their existence.

Many believe the "Nature of Humanity", which is, in many ways, the same as saying "How Humanity thinks of Death", has changed as culture and species have evolved. They are wrong. These notions, these foolish excuses and blasphemes have existed since humanity took its' first putrid breath.

This law of reality itself cannot be wrong. It is true because it is true, and it will continue to be, because it is. Such is the way of this world.

It is not wrong, but it is limited. Those who can accept that "Everyone dies" are, in the end, no less foolish than everyone else. It is not their fault. Humanity does not know the truth, tied to the cycle too closely to ever see it for what it is. It is not that everyone dies.

It is that "Everything dies". All will return to the ultimate void, an abyss of entropy and decay so potent that it cannot be comprehended. From that eternal nothingness, we have come. We will come again. We will return to it when our time is over. So it has been. So it shall be. It is true because it is true, and it will continue to be, because it is.

Such is the way of this world.

As one who was, once, like you, I ask. Do you accept the undeniable, unavoidable fact that you will die? Can you carry on, into the abyss that calls us all back home, knowing that everything will meet the same end?

You, who will decide, remember that you are mortal. Remember that you will die. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. I walk by your side. Through the breathless darkness... and the brightest light.

To create a world where "Death" is a lie.

---

A dream. You remember little of what you witnessed there, what shapes and sights lay before your naked eyes. You recall moving, quickly, though you stood still. Your lungs filled with air, though you did not breathe. The sensations fade as quickly as they come. The only things that held grasp in your mind were the words spoken, and the soft, sympathetic voice whispering in your ear, loving even as it fates you to death.

The time is just after sunrise, first rays of light just peeking over the horizon, seeping through windows and welcoming the start of a new day, the same as every other Monday morning. You take a moment to get your bearings, once you feel up to doing so. Checking watch, clock, television news, or merely looking up at the sky above, you realize you have some time left before you must absolutely start your day. Sleep seems out of the question, that strange dream having chased away the last visage of drowsiness.

The only question is what you'll do before then... and where you'll begin your journey into the grand, man-made city of Null. An unknown future beckons you forth... Be certain that the path you choose is one that carries the true color of your heart.

For the nine souls who will, for a brief moment in time, call this world their home, life starts now.

5
General Chat / I need help.
« on: July 22, 2016, 07:55:39 pm »
Hello, friends. It pains me to do this, but I'm in need of money. Yesterday, my dog broke her leg. The injury was a spiral fracture, meaning the bone twisted, and the fracture went down the length of the leg. A cast won't help. The only way to fix the problem is surgery, one that costs around five thousand dollars. We've been in a bad spot lately. I won't go into all the details, but we definitely don't have the money, and we would have to sell pretty much everything to get it. It isn't right that I have to ask this of you, and it isn't right that you have to be asked, but, if there's anything at all you can spare, we would appreciate it a lot. Every dollar we get is one more dollar we'll have for food, or rent, or the multitude of other things weighing us down. There's a link to the donation page, here, obviously created by someone other than myself, if the quality of the description is any indication. Regardless of whether you can spare anything or not, I want to thank everyone for being here. It's meant a lot to me. I feel awful for doing this, but it needs to be done.

6
Other Games / Overwatch!
« on: July 12, 2016, 09:49:33 pm »
I don't have the game yet, but I see plenty of people playing on the forum, trying to get together and and play as a group. However, they have to keep telling each other their names and numbers and such, so I thought I'd make a thread for people to post that information for easy recording~ That way I'll be able to add everyone once I get it. Also, feel free to discuss the game in various other ways, here and post as much porn as you want.

7
Other Games / Crux of Cessation: A Hyperspace Roleplay
« on: June 26, 2016, 03:23:10 am »
Hello, friends. This is something I've been pondering for a while. A new roleplaying game, and something a bit different in intent and execution. As the title might hint, this game will be using the general system from Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition.

In interest of full disclosure, the encounter system won't be based on combat from any version of the main game. It will, in some ways, mimic a more traditional turn-based RPG system. Furthermore, this game will not be based on the Cthulhu Mythos. Therefore, not knowing or wishing to learn about that universe shouldn't be a deterrent from joining. Likewise, there won't be any benefit to those that are familiar with it, as far as story planning goes.

The setting will be based on an existing universe, but what this is, or how heavily, will not be revealed until the story is a decent amount underway. This will be a horror game. Something else that should be stated in the sake of fairness: I fully intend to kill you all. I don't expect this game to last more than a few months, and it won't be a happy ending. With that in mind, I will be accepting every single person that applies. There is no limit to the amount of players that can join this game.

What I can reveal about the setting is this: It takes place in a world exceptionally similar to our own. The main divergence came seventeen years previous, when a plan was enacted to create a new city in neutral territory, a melting pot of sorts, that would accept people from across all different walks of life. The governments of the world wanted to see what type of civilization this would become with time, and what the implications of this would be for the future of a world rapidly growing more united, yet still split by ideologies and conflicts. After almost a decade, the plan managed to move forward, against all odds, resulting in the city of Null. For whatever reason, be it personal, business, or whatever else, the characters have all come to this location during the intervening months or years, either to live or to visit.

If you've gotten this far, and are willing to put up with the setup as I've laid it out, you probably want to know what you'll need to play. First, head over to this link. Download the program; you'll need it to properly use the character sheet. Also, please make sure to uncheck the unrelated items they want you to download. They aren't remotely necessary. Following this, go here, download both of the files there, and bookmark the link while you're at it. This will be where your character sheets will be going once you create them, and it will definitely come in handy in the future.

As for how character creation works, we'll be using a modified version of the traditional Call of Cthulhu rules. First, I'll explain what the stats actually mean.

Spoiler

Strength

0: enfeebled; unable to even stand up or lift a cup of tea.
15: puny, weak.
50: average human strength.
90: one of the strongest people you’ve ever met.
99: world-class (Olympic weightlifter). Human maximum.
140: beyond human strength (gorilla or horse).


Constitution

0: dead.
1: sickly, prone to prolonged illness and probably unable to operate without assistance.
15: weak health, prone to bouts of ill health, great propensity for feeling pain.
50: average healthy human.
90: shrugs off colds, hardy and hale.
99: iron constitution, able to withstand great amounts of pain. Human maximum.
140: - beyond human constitution (e.g. elephant).


Size

1: a baby (1 to 12 pounds).
15: child, very short in stature (dwarf) (33 pounds / 15 kg).
60: average human size (moderate height and weight) (170 pounds / 75 kg).
80: very tall strongly built or obese. (240 pounds / 110 kg).
99: oversize in some respect (330 pounds / 150 kg).
150: horse or cow (960 pounds / 436 kg).
180: heaviest human ever recorded (1400 pounds / 634 kg).


Dexterity

0: unable to move without assistance.
15: slow, clumsy with poor motor skills for fine manipulation.
50: average human dexterity.
90: fast, nimble and able to perform feats of fine manipulation (e.g. acrobat, great dancer).
99: world-class athlete (e.g. Olympic standard). Human maximum.
120: - beyond human dexterity (e.g. tiger).


Appearance

0: so unsightly that others are affected by fear, revulsion or pity.
15: ugly, possible disfigured due to injury or at birth.
50: average human appearance.
90: one of the most charming people you could meet, natural magnetism.
99: the height of glamour and cool (supermodel or world renowned film star). Human maximum.


Intelligence

0: no intellect, unable to comprehend the world around them.
15: slow learner, able to undertake only the most basic math, or read beginner-level books.
50: average human intellect.
90: quick-witted, probably able to comprehend multiple languages or theorems.
99: genius (Einstein, Da Vinci, Tesla, etc.). Human maximum.


Power

0: enfeebled mind, no willpower or drive, no magical potential.
15: weak-willed, easily dominated by those with a greater intellect or willpower.
50: average human.
90: strong willed, driven, a high potential to connect with the unseen and magical.
100: iron will, strong connection to the spiritual ‘realm’ or unseen world.
140: beyond human, possibly alien.


Education

0: a newborn baby.
15: completely uneducated in every way.
60: high school graduate.
70: college graduate.
80: degree level graduate.
90: doctorate, professor.
96: world-class authority in their field of study.
99: human maximum.

Normally, you would roll these stats out and have your character defined by chance. Some GMs let you roll and then choose which number goes where. We aren't going to be doing either of those things. Instead, I'm going to give you a set number of stat points. All of your stats begin at 20, and you have 300 points to spread between them as you see fit, though they can not surpass 70. You need not use all of your points; anything left unused will be converted into Luck, up to the normal maximum. I'd let you go above this amount, but if you choose not to spend so many points, you probably won't live long enough for it to matter.

As for skills. Every skill has a base number listed on the character sheet. Everyone has that level of knowledge in that skill. For the sake of this game, Credit Rating will start at 10 for everyone. Right now, I will allow you to pick eight skills and increase them from their base number, by 40 points. For instance, Charm would increase from 15 to 55, while Climb would instead move from 20 to 60. Once you've chosen those eight skills, you have 100 more skill points to place wherever you want, though no skill may start about 70. Furthermore, any of these unused Skill Points will also be added to Luck, up to the maximum. You may note that it's possible to end up with a lot more skill and stat points in the normal game; part of my intention, handling things this way, is to make everyone generally even. You might choose different capabilities in every way, but you'll know nobody else in the game has an exceptional advantage over you.

One more thing to discuss at this point: thanks to the alterations in the battle system, some of the surprises in store, and my general intention to please my players until their inevitable deaths, every skill and stat will matter. So, don't be afraid to focus less on combat for fear of dying- that ability to dance or that hundred dollars in your pocket might just save you when a bullet won't. I'll be frank; in the last Call of Cthulhu game I GMed, everyone went full military, all weapon skills and violence. Nothing wrong with that. I fully expect a couple of those here as well, and I welcome it. Firepower will come in handy. But, if you all focus on such things, you will die bloody.

Still, I encourage you to make the character you want. Be whatever type of person you want, no matter what. This city is a good place for new starts, a great location for scams and crime, or just a nice place to live comfortably, so everyone would have some reason to be here. Don't make characters based on how well they fit with the group or what ground isn't being covered- those people with the same skills might be dead by tomorrow. Those characters you're hoping to get along with might not survive the chapter. Be yourself and everything will work out. Until you die. You can even invest in what sorts of belongings you have, based on your income level; feel free to take some initiative if you wish to.

As for NPCs, do not expect them to be handled like those in AdEva, where every friend and family member you have gets to interact and be important. No matter how many you make, there's a good chance a lot of them will never show up or be important. That said, don't let that stop you from having personal attachments if you want them. If I spy something useful or interesting, it might end up showing up, and an entire group full of complete loners will likely have little reason to get along and survive together. You'll spend as much time at each other's throats as fighting against the enemy. Oh. Speaking of, feel free to fight and kill each other. Nothing will magically come along to stop you. If you have a reason, go ahead. You are all entirely expendable.

While you're going about filling in your character sheet, it's worth noting that Sanity and the Cthulhu Mythos skills will not be used in any way during this campaign. There will be certain other surprise aspects in use, but having you go insane arbitrarily won't help much. If you want to be crazy, roleplay it. If you don't want to be, I won't force it with a mechanic. And you'll have more than enough chances to be removed from the game without worrying about that. If CoC is a game where you die easily, think of this as Hard Mode.

There will be more to come regarding this in later posts. I'll be dropping some questions for you to answer in the near future, if you're so inclined, and I'll be leaving a few hints as to the nature of the story and universe. If you need help creating your character, feel free to contact me via PM or Steam- my account name there is the same as here. If you'd like clarification on anything, ask, and I'll answer what I can. Some things are, by nature of the mystery, off limits, but don't let that stop you. Not sure when we'll be starting exactly, but don't be in too much of a rush worrying that you'll run out of time. Let's take things one step at a time, and have some fun.

8
Create n' Share / Orbit - A Love Story
« on: May 27, 2016, 09:28:20 pm »
Hello, friends. This is a side project I've been working on for a while now. It's the backstory to "Pluto", my character in the Maid RPG thread, hosted by woolyshambler, though I've tried to make the story enjoyable even for people that have never read anything about that. Now, this isn't the most amazing tale ever, and it's only my first work of creative writing, but I, in my biased opinion, think it's pretty good, and I hope you enjoy it. That said, the main story is, officially, complete and intact! Please, take your time, have some fun, and get to know the world from a slightly different perspective. As a general disclaimer, it is Rated M, because of sexual content, drug use, and violence. The subject material may get a little uncomfortable, so don't say I didn't warn you. As a final note, the chapter titles are a reference to something! Whoever first figures out what they mean, and posts it here, gets a bonus~ I don't know what that bonus IS yet, but it'll probably be cool.

Chapter 1 - Deceit
It had been a dreary day, clouds overcasting the bustling streets of Akkierens. School had let out a few minutes earlier, one young girl choosing to take a remote route home, to avoid running into any classmates that might see fit to use her as a target for their ire. The weight of her backpack presses down on the girl, filled with books on subjects she cared little about, and could barely comprehend to start. Her too-large, brown, hooded jacket covered nearly every inch of the top half of her body, from her tied blonde hair to the tips of her fingers, her face the only flesh visible, as if her body had been encased in a coat of armor. Dark blue jeans and thick boots complete the illusion, allowing the girl to hide herself from the eyes of others. Her outfit, typical for the eleven year old, made her feel secluded in her own world, as did the darker, deserted paths she often walked.

While the seclusion of the trek would ensure she arrived much later, this suited the girl just fine. She had no reason to hurry home; no open arms would be waiting for her at the door. All home would bring is a sense of quiet discomfort, and loneliness. If she had to be alone, she would rather do so on her terms, away from all of the things that made her remember who she is. In spite of the cloth bundled well around her frame, the cold settles into her bones, the dim, chilly atmosphere reflecting her mood, rain barely held inside gray clouds, the same as the tears in her eyes. It had been another awful day at school, the same as always. Someone had stolen her favorite pen, a gift from her teacher from the previous year, given on the final day of class, with a smile and the hope that she would have a nice summer. She had found the item, at the end of the day, hidden away in her locker, broken in half. With no way to repair it, she had dropped the shattered keepsake in the trash on the way out. She didn't want to keep it as a reminder of the cruelty.

Walking slowly, the girl drags her feet, imagining the scene that would take place when she arrived home. The same as always, she would walk in, her father, if home from work, would be sitting on his couch, engrossed in the news. He wouldn't even notice she had returned. On the way up the stairs to her room, her mother would ask how her day had went, with a distinct lack of interest, going through the motions. She would answer that it had been fine, and the woman would believe her, because it was easier that way. Her brother would be too busy with homework, or extra lessons, to spend any real time with her. He always was, now that he had been moved to advanced classes. Even if he finished all of it, he would find some other excuse, his tone clearly indicating that he would rather do anything else. The girl sighs, her arms held lifelessly as her side as she walks, gaze following the cracks in the sidewalk, so that she can avoid stepping on them as she goes, the habit having formed into a game, over time, though she never got any real enjoyment out of it.

The relative silence of the city stabs at the child, as she passes gardens full of wilting flowers, and trees sick with dying leaves. Even the birds seem more mournful, under the knowledge that, soon, they would leave everything behind to find somewhere warmer, endlessly trying to settle down, the effort fruitless and futile. She feels the desire, not for the first time that day, to open her backpack and produce her headphones. No matter how bad she felt, the music would distract her, take her away from the world for a while. She would be able to find the exact song that conveyed the way she felt, or the way she wanted to feel, and, slowly, convince herself that there was any reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To even bother getting up in the morning. And yet, the desire is pointless. Nearly a week previous, her father had stepped on the small gadget, smashing it to pieces. He had claimed it an accident, but she couldn't believe it, even if she had no reason to think he would be so cruel on purpose. The man had promised her a new pair, but he had forgotten, not really caring to begin with, and he would likely just get annoyed if she brought it up. Not that she had the courage to do so in the first place.

Thus, the other reason she had taken this route. Not too far ahead set an old, filthy electronics store, selling cheap, often broken gadgets, more than a few likely stolen, or otherwise illegal. She had never been given an allowance of her own, nor had her brother, her parents of the mindset that they should be capable of making their own money for the things they want, so that they would be productive citizens when they grew up. Though there was likely some merit to their logic, the girl found it resulted in nothing more her not having much of anything to call her own, constantly failing to impress her mother and father in any way that counted. She had often fantasized about writing novels, stories that would make people feel something, under the logic that so many people seemed to be closed off to their own feelings, more and more. However, her parents considered fictional fairytales to be a trivial waste of time, and had assured her more than once that she had no talent in the field, and that it would be best to give up.

Casting the thought aside, she draws closer to the store, feeling a tinge of fear. This part of the city was one of the worst, known for drugs and crime, abundant. In one way, that was why she had come here, as well. With no money of her own, and her parents ignoring her wants, she had convinced herself that the correct solution was a form of vigilantism. A few weeks back, her parents had taken to arguing, for hours on end, throwing things across the room and cursing. Her father had even talked of putting a gun in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. Though they didn't fight more than a few times a year, the fights were always terrible, just short of physical violence, and the children were always left feeling small, weak, and miserable. However, as they had gotten older, they had begun to look for ways to get back at their parents for their shouting matches. Small things, acts that would never be noticed. During that bout, the girl had stolen one of their credit cards, one rarely used or checked. While she would be unable to recall the information herself, she had written it down, the note and card buried safely in a compartment on her backpack.

Finally, she would chance using the card, to replace her destroyed headphones. Somewhere inside, a sick small of glee was born, at the thought of getting revenge, of using money they didn't want her to use. Of taking control, not of her life, but of this one little act. While there was more than a little guilt, twisting in her stomach, the feeling brought with it pleasure, the sheer act of doing something bad exhilarating. Of course, she had still chosen to go somewhere that would sell her the item cheaply. Revenge or not, she didn't want to take too much from them, or she would really feel bad. The fact that she had been forced to come to such a dangerous location to achieve her goals mattered little; as afraid as she felt, some part of her, one she tried not to think about, secretly hoped that something bad would happen to her. If she survived, perhaps someone would actually care that she existed. If she didn't, at least the pain would stop. With those same feelings, she often found excuses to travel far away, or late into the night, but nothing bad had ever happened. In spite of all of her risks, she remained fine. As fine as she ever had been.

The door opens with a screech, a bell attached to the top letting out a chime, to inform those inside that she had entered. The floor, walls, and ceiling were made of old, rotting wood, old games and gadgets stuffed into compartments on large shelves, lining the walls. At a desk near the back, a sketchy, ugly teenager stands, eyeing her carefully for a few seconds, before turning away in disinterest, his shirt bearing the logo from some band she had never heard of. She could barely make out the gun behind the desk, a long, large, and quite intimidating rifle, reminding her that she should stay in line. She almost laughs, at the thought; none of what she was doing was 'in line'. She remains silent, too nervous for laughter, or to offer any form of greeting to the male, who wouldn't have cared regardless. Carefully, she began searching the shelves, ignoring most of the items entirely, mildly annoyed with the lack of organization, everything seemingly placed at random, with no order or way to find what one is searching for. She considered asking the teen, but it would be too difficult to ask for help. She couldn't find it in herself to breach the barrier between them.

After nearly ten minutes, she gives up, unable to find anything that matched what she had owned before. However, she refused to let the trip be a waste of time, instead choosing a pair of earbuds, a bit old, a bit chipped, but working just fine upon testing. Even if it wouldn't be what she wanted, she was long used to settling for whatever she could get. Besides, on the off chance that her parents actually bothered to look at her, and remember that her old set had been broken, she could pass the chipped pair off as a gift from a friend. Of course, they weren't aware that she didn't have any. Crossing to the counter, the girl lays the item down, digging around to find the card, before passing it over to the cashier. Staring down at her feet, she is unable to shake the feeling that an alarm would go off, at any moment, summoning the police to take her away. She is startled, a minute later, by the man's hand, shoved dangerously close to her face, holding her card. He mumbles something that sounds similar to "Have a nice day."

The girl nods, taking the card, barely remembering to grab the earbuds before rushing for the door. Outside at last, she sighs in relief, a giddy feeling overtaking her. She had gotten away with it. She wouldn't be caught, dragged off to jail, or forced to tell her parents what she had done. With a soft smile, she plugs the cord into her music player, setting the buds into her ears, as the faintly crackling sound of her favorite band begins to play. The day seems a little brighter, the renewed cold a bit less biting, as she shuts out the world, walking away from the shop, and her crime. Lost in thought as she is, she never notices the figure slipping out of the alleyway to follow behind her.

She doesn't make it twenty yards before an arm wraps around her shoulder, her body pulled tight against another. Immediately, she assumes someone is trying to hurt her, be it a classmate who had somehow found her, the police, having discovered her crime, or some criminal, planning horrible things. However, while the embrace is tight and uncomfortable, it isn't violent. The hand reaches out, pulling the earbud from her ear, softly, a feminine voice taking the place of the music. "Those are some fancy cloths you've got, there. What's a little babe like you doing in a place like this?" The girl shivers, and not just from the cold, looking over, and up, at the girl hanging on to her. Several years older than herself, the woman has dark hair, tips bleached blonde. Her eyes are a shade of golden honey, cunning and mischievous, a feeling the stranger gives off in spades. Her clothing gives off a dirty odor, easy to smell, as close as the two are, all dark and revealing, her shirt cut low and shorts too tight.

Sensing her discomfort, she gives the younger girl's shoulder a light squeeze, before setting her free. The child moves several feet away, staring at the ground, her emotions a mix of nervousness and guilt, as if the stranger could see her crime written upon her face. As shaky as she's gotten, that might be true. Swallowing, she tries and fails to find something to say, the other girl laughing uproariously at the look on her face. "C'mon, Sweet Pea, I don't bite." The girl remains silent, music droning into one of her ears. Distractedly, she pulls the other earbud out, subconsciously not wanting to seem like she's ignoring the woman, in spite of her failure to respond. Shaking her head, the stranger continues, her voice filled with mock exasperation. "Around these parts, you're probably up to no good. Maybe I should report this incident to the maids. I'm sure they would love to hear about it." Smiling, she enjoys the look of panic that crosses the smaller girl's face. "Bingo." Moving closer, she cups the girl's chin with her hand, moving her head up until their eyes lock. "I won't do that, though, if you tell me a bit about yourself. What's your deal?"

The child can smell the liquor on the woman's breath, though she neither slurs her words or moves impaired. Shakily, she holds the woman's gaze. She forces herself to admit to the truth, her voice full of guilt and shame, and very small. "I used my parent's card without permission, because they wouldn't..." She trails off, unsure how to finish. Saying it out loud, her reasoning seems silly, petty, worthless, making her feel even worse. Unable to look away, she feels the tears prickling her eyes. The woman sighs, letting go, finally allowing the small girl to break contact, sniffling. "I'm sorry," she mumbles, waiting for the woman to continue mocking her. Though she was only a few years older, to the girl, she seemed big enough to be someone of authority, someone who would punish her, and rightfully so.

Instead, the woman puts a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it again. "Hey, don't cry about something like that. We've all done worse one time or another. I won't rat you out." She smiles, sweetly, running her hand down the girl's arm. Briefly, the younger girl finds herself wondering who the 'we' might be, but the woman continues before she can ask. "Come with me, hon. You're in no shape to be alone around here. Someone'll snatch you right up." Turning, she begins to walk away. For a moment, the girl stands in place, torn between following, or running home. Something about the woman sets her nerves on edge, and yet, she was captivated. In the end, curiosity wins out, shuffling slowly toward the alley. At this, the woman's smile turns to a grin, showing her teeth, a few missing. "Good girl. And, I'm Beth." As she catches up, the woman reaches out, ruffling her hair. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of you."

---

Deeper into the alleyway, the girl begins to regret her decision, every step carefully calculated to avoid a rat, pile of garbage, or puddle of what she could only hope is rain water. Even more alarming are the rare needle or used condom, scattered among the rest of the trash. Feeling the slightest bit ill, she takes extra care to avoid these, following the older girl along. A slight drizzle of rain begins, the old brick buildings on either side blocking most of the falling liquid, though Beth still picks up the pace, the girl's smaller legs working hard to stay beside her. After what seems an hour, they reach the end of a long series of alleys, finally coming out to a large, empty lot, where a house had once stood. The atmosphere seems to be less comfortable here, everyone she sees passing on the street stopping to give her an odd look, though they seem just as suspicious of her companion. None of them offer words of greeting, and she gets the feeling each is more concerned with themselves, instead of her. In a way, it's refreshing. Everyone else seems just as afraid as her.

Beth leads her to a house, small, brick, the front windows broken out and replaced by boards. The sound of arguing can be heard, even from outside. Without bothering to knock, the woman strolls her way inside, pulling the girl along with her. Two men sit on a couch, playing a fighting game on a small, dimly lit display, yelling about whether or not whichever one had won had done so fairly. Unnoticed, at first, the girl looks around. The only lighting in the room comes from a small lamp on the table, the light fixture above smashed and broken. A rug lines the floor, dirty and stained, the couch not much better. The entire place smells of musk and something she can't place. At last, the two men stop arguing long enough to notice the girls. One, a bit older than the rest, adult in body, if just as immature, grunts, looking her over. "Who's that," he asks, to the woman. "Bringing in strays?"

"Funny, coming from you." The woman laughs, her voice mocking, though not unkind. The older man huffs, tail flicking out from around his waist, the only indication, that the girl can see, of his ethnicity. Crossing the room, Beth wraps her arms around him, locking him in a passionate kiss. Dropping her gaze, the child feels a mix of embarrassment and amazement that the woman would be so open with her affection, in front of a stranger. Breaking away, the woman turns to her, making a seat out of the man's lap. "She's a friend." Giving the girl a wink, she pats the man on the arm. "She'll be hanging out for a little bit, so be nice." She clears her throat. "The guy behind me's Ken. Nice enough, when he wants, even if he doesn't look so good. He's my boyfriend, so don't go getting any funny ideas." She smiles, to let the girl know that she's joking around. "The dummy beside me's Jack, my brother, and a real hothead. Best to just ignore him all the time. I do."

The younger man rolls his eyes, as she turns her attention to him. His hair, whatever color it had been originally, had been dyed silver, looking nearly black in the gloom, though his eyes are the same shade amber as his sisters'. Now, seeing them side by side, she can see a vague resemblance, at least in their faces, though the man is much taller, and skinny. He also isn't wearing a shirt, she notes, after a moment, revealing the long ugly scars stretching most of his body. The contrast between her family and this odd group is striking, just in how less self-conscious they are. Beth pats the last seat on the couch, between the men. "C'mon over, Sweet Pea. Plenty of room." Shakily, she moves closer, the floorboards creaking beneath her, a fly buzzing past her head, making her flinch. Finally, she reaches the couch, sitting down, hands folded in her lap. The woman pinches her cheek, just hard enough to sting. "Aren't you just the cutest thing."

The younger girl focuses on the television, as the boys start up another round, too uncomfortable to talk to them, or turn their way again. The game is barely recognizable, the girl rarely being afforded the opportunity to play any, and a fighting game like this not being what she would choose to begin with. The characters jump around on the screen, doing fancy flips and techniques that seem downright impossible, even for maids, much less ordinary people, which most of the cast seems to be. One of the two wins, apparently Ken, as Jack begins shouting, the sound hurting her ears. She sinks lower in the seat, wondering why she was there. And yet, she doesn't try to leave. In spite of the oddity of these people, and how much they argue, she gets a clear sense that they actually care about each other. Some part of her is drawn to that, even if she doesn't feel remotely like she belongs.

About ten minutes pass in this fashion, the two fighting in the game, and then fighting in real life, before Beth gets up, stretching. Turning to the girl, she leans closer, her low-cut top affording the younger girl a very clear look down her shirt, causing an odd fluttering in her stomach. She looks away, as the woman speaks. "You don't look like you're having fun. Hungry? Want a drink? You like soda, right? Yeah, everyone likes soda." She taps her on the head, heading off to a different room. Ken calls out, asking her to bring him a drink. "Get it yourself," being the only response. A few seconds later, the woman returns, pressing a cold can of some generic soft drink into the girl's hand. She stares at it, murmuring a thanks, softly. She drank mostly water, her mother often admonishing her over the unhealthy effects of this drink or that. But her mother isn't here. Popping the tab, she takes a sip, the cool liquid burning her tongue and throat. She gives the woman a small, shy smile, as Beth sits back down.

"This' nice and all," Jack murmurs, some time later. "But bringing some kid in here to suck up all our stuff won't fix our problem." He sets the controller down, seeming angry, all of a sudden. She flinches, at the shift in mood; she had almost felt comfortable for a second. "We're almost out, and we're running out of favors. What are we gonna do?" Beth rolls her eyes, getting up again. She taps the boy on the shoulder, telling him to follow her. With a scowl, he acquiesces, exiting the room, leaving the girl with the oldest of the group, the man eyeing her curiously. She looks back, nervously, inching away unconsciously, finally getting a good look at him. This close, he clearly bears the features of an animal, big, powerful, not as tall as Jack, perhaps, but twice as muscled at least, his arms and chest hairy, blue eyes sharp and clear.

"Thanks for having me over," She offers, trying to ease her nerves, figuring that showing some form of gratitude would be better than not. The man grunts, turning away. Though she can't place it, something about him reminds her of her father. She drops her gaze, listening to the distant, distorted sound of the siblings arguing, elsewhere in the house. She had seen no clock in the room. With the windows boarded as they are, the girl has no way of telling how long she had been there, or if the sun was still up. Surely, even her parents would eventually care where she had gone. The longer she sits in the dim room, with just Ken and the screen for company, the more nervous she becomes. With a sigh, she takes another sip of the soda, the taste of oranges overpowering. Taking a risk, she sets the can down on a nearby table, feeling relieved when the man remains silent, apparently not bothered.

Finally, the others return, Beth choosing to sit between Ken and the girl, with Jack on the child's other side, the couch just big enough to hold the four of them, their bodies a bit too close for comfort. Without noticing, the girl inches herself a little closer to Beth, feeling slightly safer around the woman than her anger-prone brother. Jack begins messing with some powder on a black tray, located on the table. After a minute, he wraps it in a small tube, similar to a cigarette. Flicking a lighter, he lights the end, breathing in deeply, as the air fills with a harsh, unfamiliar smell. The girl resists the desire to cough. The young man grins, seeing her face. Holding the cigarette out to her, his eyes bright with amusement, he whispers conspiratorially. "Want some? It's dust. Ever hear of it?" Staring at the item, the girl frowns. She was aware that it was a type of drug, though which one or what it did was unknown. As fun as being rebellious had seemed, this is something she was not remotely prepared for. Shaking her head, mutely, she tries to suppress the look of horror on her face. Chuckling, the man hands the drug off to Beth instead, the woman repeating his motions. "Suit yourself, kid. Don't know what you're missing."

The drug gets passed around a bit more, the process slowed by random arguments about who was supposed to have it next. The air slowly fills up more and more with thick smoke, clouding the girl's vision. Though something in the back of her mind was screaming for her to leave, telling her that all of this was wrong, it grew dimmer as time went on, the world around her becoming more and more comfortable. After a short time, the arguing stops entirely. Beth ends up back in her boyfriend's lap, and, though she can't see very clearly, she gets the odd, almost amusing feeling that they're doing more than just sitting. Jack has started laughing, on and off, as if it were all a joke, and only he got the punchline. For the first time in quite a while, the girl finds that everything is all right. It doesn't matter that her pen had broken, or that her parents would ignore her when she got home. Here, now, in this moment, she was at peace. Nothing could hurt her. Jack takes her hand, rubbing his own down her palm, her arm, and up her shoulder, his touch bringing an odd, numb sensation. After a time, he lets go, taking another hit from the roll.

The girl leans back on the couch, exhaustion taking over. Some time had passed, though she can't be certain how much. Beth's face swims into her vision, a huge grin on her face. The woman says something, but she can't make it out properly, so she just nods. She reaches for the can of soda, to find that it's grown lukewarm. Her hand falls away, and she has a hard time remembering if she wanted it to. The child tries to swallow, her throat dry, as she feels Beth's hands, gripping her, moving her through the air, as the world turns around, the ceiling suddenly all she can see. The woman lets her go, "Let her sleep," she says, shadowy figures of Ken and Jack moving off of the couch in her peripheral vision. The woman rubs her cheeks, the feeling warm, comforting, reminding her of a time she was much younger, laying in her parent's bed, feeling safe, and secure, and happy. With the last of her will, she gives the woman a wide, happy smile, wishing that the feeling would never end. And the world goes away.

---

The child swims through a sea of darkness, neither scared nor uncomfortable. Small bits of dreams take her away for a time, some her own, others seeming to belong to the three whose house she had found herself inside. At times, her eyes open, taking in the world around her. The three figures, as that is all they are, the girl unable to make out which is which, laugh, and talk, and play, the screen from their game seeming like fire, the entire scene feeling like camping in the woods, in the dead of night. She had never gone camping, something whispers, from the dark. It makes her laugh. Her eyes close, opening a while later, the world much the same, small things changing. Bottles of liquor sit on the table, empty, others in their hands, halfway to being the same. The screen has been turned off, a peaceful dark settling over everything, bringing the waking world a bit closer to the blissful blackness of unconsciousness. She slips between the two, never entirely awake or asleep, riding a high not her own, the effects increased by her sheer desire to be connected with anyone, anywhere.

At some point, she falls asleep properly, the effects of the dust in the air lasting a short time, much shorter than her perspective of it. Her dreams were strange, though no nightmares found their way into her head, replaced instead by half-remembered memories and distant hopes. Waking, hours later, the girl is unable to remember much of any of them, the surreal illusions all mixing together into an indecipherable jumble of images and words. Sitting up slowly, she expects her head to hurt, but there isn't any pain. She finds that, oddly, she can no longer smell the odor of the room or the smoke, having long grown accustomed to it. The table is littered with empty bottles of beer, some having fallen to the ground, liquid droplets staining the carpet. The light is dim, her eyes taking a minute to fully adjust, only to find herself alone. All three of the strange people she had met were gone, leaving a feeling of sadness that the girl would have been fine not reclaiming.

With a soft sigh, she stands, legs trembling. Reaching out, she accidentally knocks a bottle to the ground, where it strikes another, causing a loud clink. Footsteps from the other room signify that someone else remained inside the dwelling. Sitting back down, the young girl watches as Beth slips into the room, wearing nothing more than a nightgown. Seeing the girl, an expression crosses her face, somewhere between relief and guilt. Moving closer, she sits down beside the girl, holding her hands. "You're awake. Good. Didn't think it would hit you so hard, since you didn't even smoke it. I forget how much of a tolerance we've built up, sometimes." Tilting her head to the side, she smiles, showing the gap in her teeth. "Can you ever forgive me? Here, I wanted you to have this. Maybe it'll help." The woman lets go, reaching across the couch to pick up a stuffed teddy bear. "This," she says, pressing the bear into the girl's grip, "Is Flynn. You were using him as a pillow earlier. I think he's taken a liking to you."

The girl stares down at the bear, frowning. She didn't feel comfortable taking a gift from someone she had just met. Even if the meeting had been as... unusual, as this. But she doesn't have the heart to say no. With a small nod, she surprises herself, moving forward to hug the woman. Beth laughs, awkwardly, before moving her arms to hug the girl back. "You really are a sweet one. It's a shame you got yourself mixed up with people like us." Something about her voice makes the girl feel sad. She just tightens her grip, enjoying the warm, safe feeling, for however long it lasts. After a long moment, the woman sighs, gently moving her away. "It's getting real late, Sweet Pea. You family's gonna start missing you if you don't get a move on." She stands, guiding the girl to the door. "Everyone loved having you over. Do you remember the way? Come back... whenever you want." The girl nods, shyly, hugging the bear to her chest, as the woman closes the door. Before she even takes a step away from the house, she knows that she'll be coming back tomorrow.

---

The next day, after school, she made her way to the same electronics store, slipping into the alley and searching for the passage back to the strange house at which she had spent the previous evening. However, after nearly an hour, she succeeded in doing nothing more than getting herself hopelessly lost. Eventually, she found her way back to where she had started, forced by the reddening shy to give up and go home, at least for the day. The trip hadn't been a complete waste, at least; with her music player and earbuds on hand, she had spent the duration listening to one track after another. The following day, she returned, searching a different path, once again failing to reach her destination. After a while, it became a game. While no different than what she would normally do outside of her house, she had a purpose for her traveling, bringing her back to that same spot, again and again.

On the fourth day of searching, she reaches a dead end, around half an hour into the journey. Her legs ached from walking so much the previous days, but that mattered little. The annoying buzz in her earbuds had gotten worse, worrying the girl. If she had gotten a faulty item, the only one she had to blame was herself. Distracted, sound muffled by the gadget, she doesn't hear the first call from behind, but the second, closer, reaches her ears. Turning, she finds Jack, standing a short distance away. He salutes. "Heard a rumor some little kid kept coming around, exploring the place. Not safe around here, you know? You should go home." His tone indicates full well that he knows she won't be leaving. "You're lost, right? Trying to get back to us?" She nods, shyly. "Fine. Follow me. I'll show you the way, but only once. You remember it or you stay home. Don't care how lucky you've been, you keep getting stuck out here, one day you won't get back out."

The two walk through the passages, the girl trying her best to remember the route, failing miserably. Eventually, they arrive at the deserted lot, the young man turning, looking down at her. "Where's your house, kid? If I know where you're starting at, I'll be able to tell you a better way to get here." She shakes her head, not meeting his eyes. "Eh, fine. I wouldn't tell me, either." Walking again, they pass streets lined with trash and broken glass, a couple people sleeping in the streets. Jack kicks a can, sending it flying. Eventually, they reach the house, seeming even more beaten up and decrepit than during her last visit. The boy has the decency to knock, waiting a for seconds, before the door is thrown open, Beth sticking her head out, just enough light leaking through the door to show that she isn't wearing anything. The siblings have a quick, quiet conversation, the woman eventually turning to regard the girl. To her brother, she mutters something, rolling her eyes, before slipping back inside and shutting the door.

A minute or so later, it opens again, Beth stepping out wearing a dark, revealing outfit. The girl can't remember if it's the same she'd worn a few days back, but there was virtually no difference regardless. "Hey, Sweet Pea." The woman smiles, beckoning for the two to come in. "Ken and I were... talking. We're done now." Her voice is strained, and the girl doesn't miss the dark look she shoots her brother as they enter the building. Inside, Ken sits on the couch, looking half-dead, fingernail marks running down his chest, but smiling. He offers a wave, which the girl has a hard time returning, trying to avoid looking at the man, currently wearing nothing more than a pair of boxers. Beth leads her into a different room, this time, a refrigerator and stove indicating a kitchen. She finds a seat at a dusty wooden chair, at a table bearing the same features. Without asking, Beth opens the fridge and pulls out a can of soda, grape, this time, setting it in front of the girl. "Was starting to wonder if you'd be coming back. We missed you."

Staring down at the patterns in the wood, the young girl takes a sip from the can, feeling the burning sensation on her tongue and throat. "I couldn't remember how to get here." Her cheeks turn red, embarrassed, but the woman just laughs, easily, crossing her legs on top of the table. For a while, the two sit in silence, listening to the sound of the boys, having a quiet conversation in the other room. The girl looks for something to say, before realizing that she doesn't really need to say anything. Even if she's completely out of place, even if she doesn't understand these people at all, it feels good to be here. Better than at home.

Beth hums an old melody, off tune, staring at the girl. After a moment, she stares back. "From the second I saw you, I knew who you were, kiddo." The girl blinks, wondering if the woman had somehow been familiar with her parents. Though they had some wealth, they weren't an old, successful family, with a long history; merely two people who had found personal success, and ended up together. The woman chuckles. "Not literally. But I could tell you were looking for something, and not a cheap gadget." Beth sits up, smiling coyly. "You remind me of me, when I was a bit younger. Bit less..." she motions toward the room, around her, flies buzzing overhead, paint scrapping off the walls. "I thought, 'you know, Beth, she could use some company. Some help. To find where she'd be happy.' Are you happy? Here?" After a pause, the girl nods. "Yeah, you are. You happy when you're not?" A longer pause. The girl nods, again, slowly. "Mm. If you say so. You're the one who knows how you really feel." Winking, she leans closer, the girl looking away shyly. "But, you know, I think we can both help each other out."

Growing more nervous, the girl taps her fingers lightly on the tabletop, her leg shaking beneath the table. "What do you mean?" Turning back, she finds the woman's gaze has changed, from playful, to something darker, a pain in her eyes. More quietly, the girl continues. "How can I help?" Beth sighs, heavily, sinking back into her chair. Opening the fridge again, she takes out a can of beer for herself, and a glass. She pours a small amount into the glass, bringing the can to her lips and gulping the remainder down quickly. Crushing the now empty can, she sets it down on the table, sliding the glass over toward the girl. It takes her a moment to realize what the woman wants, staring down at the foul smelling fluid, lips curling in disgust. The warnings go off in the back of her mind again, but she dampers them. Though she had never had much interest in alcohol, fully aware that it could end up damaging her body beyond repair, she knew this much would do next to nothing. And the woman had been nice to her. If she wanted her to drink just a little of this, in exchange... Her shaking grows a little stronger, as she reaches out to grip the glass. Quickly, like ripping off a bandage, she brings it to her mouth, letting the harsh drink flow down her throat.

Coughing, the girl sets the glass down, Beth reaching out and collecting it, smiling. "Good job. I know, it tastes awful. You get used to it, and it makes life a bit less... life." Internally, the girl decides that she wouldn't be drinking again, feeling a small sense of shame that she had done something like that, at all. She would never be able to take it back. Aside from that, it tasted absolutely dreadful. As the coughing subsides, she turns her attention to the woman in full. "Ah, right. Like I said, we could help each other out. You can come here, whenever you want, and you can tell me anything. I'm your friend, so you don't have to hide things from me." She reaches out, rubbing the girl's hand with her own. "Even if you say no, that doesn't change. But, we've got it bad, here. Barely making ends meet. You see what this place is like... where we are. We can handle the rest, but we need some way to take the edge off." Her smile transforms into a grin. "You remember that stuff we smoked? It's dust. Harmless, completely harmless, but it makes you feel good. You remember?" She nods, blushing slightly at the memories. "Mm. But it costs a lot. The best stuff in life always does. We can't afford it, and to keep the house. But you... you don't want us to get put out, living in the street? Right? No. Of course not. You... still have that credit card?"

---

After a short conversation, the two return to the living room, Beth leading the girl to the couch, letting her sit in her lap. "Boys, we've got ourselves a deal." With a bright smile, she hands the card, and the piece of paper, to Jack. "There's a bank not far, you know the way?" The young man nods, grinning foolhardily. "Don't take a lot. A little here, a little there, so they don't miss it. We don't need them canceling the thing." The man nods again, slipping out the door. With one hand on the girl's head, she strokes her cheek with the other. "He'll get the money out himself, get the dust... if anything happens, they'll never know you were involved. There's no risk for you, so just sit back and relax." The girl nods, shyly, leaning back against the woman's body, warm, and safe, and entirely unaware of the implications of the deal she had made.

Chapter 2 - Death
Life continued as it had been, after that. Waking up, getting dressed, going to school, suffering through it, and then finding her way to Beth's house. Though it was in Ken's name, but she would always think of it that way. Then, they would all spend the day together, the others laughing, smoking, drinking, and generally having a good time. The girl herself didn't partake in the dust, or the beer, content to merely be around people who could stand each other. The sound of laughter was, in its own way, her drug. After the first couple times, the dust stopped effecting her to an obviously noticeable level, the minuscule amount in the air not strong enough to get past the slight resistance she had built. Jack held on to the card, her parents never seemed to notice that it had vanished. Eventually, on a particularly warm evening, before the three got too messed up, Beth suggested they take a trip into the city. The others agreed, seeming willing to do whatever the woman wanted, hanging on her every word. The girl wasn't any different, of course, lost to the woman's natural magnetism.

The sun shone high above their heads, free of overhanging clouds and rain for the first time in almost a week. It had been over two weeks since the girl had met her new companions, and she had begun to feel comfortable around them. After the first few days, she started telling Beth how her days had gone, and what the other children had done. The woman always seemed eager to listen to the stories, so unlike her mother and father, the former blissfully unaware, by choice, the latter unconcerned entirely. As they walk through deserted streets, making their way to a small park Jack promised would supply more than enough fun for one night, Beth listens as the girl regales her with the fight that had happened at lunch, her classmates throwing both food and fist. In the end the principal had been forced to intervene, and they had all gotten in trouble. The woman shakes her head, sadly, gently squeezing the younger girl's hand with her own. "It's hardly fair for them to punish you, if you didn't do anything. It's always been like that, people don't care enough to figure out what really happened. Why you do something doesn't matter..." She trails off, smiling down at the girl. "Well, nevermind that, Sweet Pea. It's in the past, so enjoy yourself now."

Nodding, the girl casts a nervous look around. Despite how remote the neighborhood is, compared to her own, she could never shake the feeling that, somehow, her complaints would reach the ears of her school-bound tormentors, and they would punish her for it on the next opportunity. While she had grown to consider Beth's home as a safe place to let out her feelings, it felt much more difficult to open up, outside. Equally troubling was the idea of running into the more dangerous residents of the area, something Jack continued to insist could happen. She hadn't met anyone outright dangerous, most strangers choosing to leave her alone, presumably because of the company she typically kept. Yet, sometimes, she couldn't shake the feeling that the young man was trying to drive her away, for some reason. Though he was easier to talk to than Ken, Beth's brother still felt oddly distant at times. She had tried to bring the subject up with Beth, but, unable to explain her feelings properly, the woman had just laughed, and told her that the boy took time to warm up to people. Glancing at him, as they walk, she wonders if that's true, or if the man might really take issue in having her around. She had just butted into their life, without warning, and all because Beth had said so, never really asking if the others wanted her.

Jack stops, whistling softly. Turning, he smiles at them, showing off. "We're here." Shoving Ken's shoulder, lightly, he laughs. "Race you there, old man." The animal-featured man grunts, and the two take off, toward the distance, the girls making up the rear, walking at a more relaxed pace. In front of them stretches a large, old park, the remaining light showcasing the rusty slides, swings, and monkey bars, a few wooden tables set slightly away, and what looks to have once been a court for some ball game or other, far to the side. The girl is slightly taken aback; she had expected more of an open field, with grass, flowers, trees, not something so similar to the contraption they were sent to during recess. Sometimes, she forgets that Jack and Beth are really only a little older than her; the wisdom the woman showed, and the anger the tall man often held back indicated that they were much older in mind, if not body, and Beth had certainly developed enough to give off the impression of an adult, to say nothing of Jack's six-foot frame. While she would have vastly preferred a leisurely walk amongst the beauty of nature, the fact that she was here with friends, and that her classmates were nowhere in sight, meant that she could at least have fun. For once, maybe she could feel like the child everyone treated her as.

Ken beats Jack to the finish line, a set of discarded tires someone had piled beside each other, though the girl hadn't been terribly interested in the contest from the start. Beth bends down to her level, smiling softly. "Stay here and play for a minute, okay? I'll be right back." The girl nods, obediently, confused. She hadn't said anything about splitting up, before, and the girl didn't like the idea of being left alone, the sky beginning to darken, shadows creeping closer, as the boys argue playfully, not paying her much mind. Beth walks quickly toward an outcropping of trees, the path on the other side leading her out of sight. As she goes, she casts a few glances toward the boys, as if worried that they would notice her departure. The girl's stomach twists, not liking the idea of Beth hiding anything from them; she had seen what a lack of trust could bring about, and the idea of her new friends becoming like that doesn't sit right. She waits until Beth is out of sight, then walks toward the trees, and the path beyond, intent on finding the truth for herself. She doesn't have to go far, spotting the woman standing with her back against the brick wall of a building, around the corner, talking with a man. Her voice caries just enough in the quiet, still air, for the girl to catch her words. "That's all? You promised twice this." She waves a handful of money in the man's face.

"Half now, half after." The man swipes his hand out, gripping the wad of cash tightly. "Or we can call it a day, and you go home empty." Beth shakes her head, the man smiling cruelly, letting go. "There've been rumors, Betty. You and your pack, ripping people off, planning to run? You got something big in the works? One last, big scheme?" His laughter is mocking, loud. "You don't get out; nobody gets out. This ends with you in a bodybag, and that's if they feel generous enough to waste one on the likes of you. Oh, don't look at me that way; it's the same for me." The girl leans closer, concerned that the man might be dangerous. His words certainly didn't sound kind. So far, she hadn't been noticed, but she can't be sure she'd make it over to Beth without the man seeing her, and without surprising him, there wouldn't be much she could do. Lost in thought, she doesn't hear Beth's answer, but she hears the man's. "Then get started." The woman kneels down, on her knees, close to the man. Her hand moves out, reaching into his pants. What is she...

"Hey, brat, what're you doing over here?" The girl jumps, turning to find Jack standing a few feet away. She shakes her head, resisting the urge to glance toward Beth and the stranger, around the corner. The young man huffs, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder, a little harder than necessary. "C'mon back before you get lost. Again. Beth'd kill me if I let something happen to you." Nodding, the odd, sick feeling in her stomach gets stronger, every step she takes back toward the abandoned playground. Ken sits at one of the tables, sipping a bottle of what she assumes is a type of alcohol, the label torn away. He nods at her, but doesn't say a word. Jack sits on the other side, motioning for her to sit besides him. Staring down at the dirty, cracked seat, she hesitates only a moment, before acquiescing. The silver haired man gives her a funny look. "You don't look like you're having a good time. Thought you'd like this place, young as you are." He motions to the old, abandoned building, nearby. "Used to go to school here when I was your age. Beth, too. Place sucked, teachers didn't care, kids were all dumb as a brick. Guess that's why we ended up where we did. Lost our parents and then our house, so we just quit going." She looks down, somewhere between curious and sad. While the details weren't uplifting, the man had never opened up so much, before. "So, yeah, life sucks. Ours did, anyway. Yours, too? Sounds like, from what Beth's said. But, you know, she likes you, and I like having you around. You're..." He stops, frowning.

She waits for the man to continue, but he never does, instead pulling a rolled up package of dust. "Ken, lighter?" The older male tosses the item to him, Jack catching it and lighting the drug in one motion. He takes a long, hard drag, before offering it to the girl. Something about his face, when he looks at her, then, makes her feel sad. For a single moment, all the anger and bravado seem to melt away, leaving the scars underneath. On some level, she knows it would make him happy if she took the dust, even one hit, though she doesn't know why. She reaches out, her hand just brushing his, before pulling it back, shaking her head. He nods, and the moment ends, his eyes hard, his face harder. "Ken." The other man takes the item, hitting it, passing it back. The girl just stares at the table, watching a few ants crawl across the top, regretting not accepting, not knowing why, and not knowing which was right and which was wrong. If it somehow made her friend feel better, then was it really a bad thing? Her thoughts turn back to Beth, the woman still missing. She almost wants to say something, to head back over and check on her, but the woman had made it clear that she wanted to be alone. Balling her hands into fists, she stays where she is, listening to the sound of the men coughing, as the smoke enters their lungs. Crickets chirp mournfully in the distance, cool wind blowing against the three, as the day winds down.

---

Beth returns a short time later, the trio acting as if she hadn't been gone at all. The woman sits down beside Ken, taking the drug and inhaling sharply. With a grimace, she passes it along. "Ugly taste." The girl finds herself staring at the woman, and forces herself to look away. Though she feels more than a little confused, Beth looked fine, no injuries or torn clothing or anything, bringing a much more powerful sense of relief. Though she feels like asking the woman what had happened, she figures she'd tell her, sooner or later, if she wants her to know. After a minute or so of silence, the woman speaks. "They keep out of trouble?" Realizing that the older girl was talking to her, she looks up, taking in her meaning. She nods, confirming that the boys hadn't seen what Beth had been doing. The woman laughs. "Good." She reaches her hand out, to take the girl's, but stops short, pulling back, looking uncomfortable, and a little ashamed. "That's good. You're a good kid." The woman looks away, and it almost seems like she'll start crying. Ken throws an arm around her, pulling her close, and the girl finds herself wanting to cry, too.

Jack sighs, a heavy and empty sound. The man takes one last drag on the cigarette, giving it a hateful glare as he drops it down to the table below. "It's done," he mutters, not looking at any of them. "Don't have any more. Do we?" Neither Beth nor Ken give a response, which is answer enough. The young man scoffs, standing up. "Well, ain't that a bitch." The girl bites her bottom lip, at the curse. Though she had heard more than a few, at school, during her parents' arguments, and on occasion from her new acquaintances, she never felt entirely comfortable with it. Jack taps her on the shoulder, causing her to flinch. "Hey, come with me, kid. Give 'um some space." She shoots a panicked look at Beth, but the woman just nods, waving her away, not quite able to meet her eyes. The girl gathers her determination, nodding, before following the male from the table. He leads her on in silence, out of the park, and deeper into the city. The clouds darker the sky, and the breeze grows cooler, indicating a coming rain. After a time, the man sighs, stopping, the girl catching up after a moment. She stares at his face, studying the weariness resting there, the lines and scars that no one his age should bare. Taking a deep breath, he turns to her in full, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Hey, kid, why are you here?"

The question catches her off guard, and she has to resist pulling back, enduring the unwanted feeling of his hands gripping her flesh. She considers the question, unsure of how to answer, or of what answer he wants. Her thoughts turn to her parents, trying to remember the last time her mother had held her, stroked her face, or let her sit in her lap. She thinks of her father, unable to recall the last time they had held an entire conversation. Acutely, she recalls the uncomfortable, almost sickening feeling at school, wondering if someone would choose to do something to her, that day. What it would be, how long she could go unnoticed. Her brother, lost in thoughts of a future he hadn't even chosen, so bothered by her failure to live up to the expectations he had met, as if she hadn't tried just as hard. As if she weren't worth just as much. Lowering her head, she stares through a spot on the ground, giving the only answer she has. "I want to be happy. With people that love me."

Whatever answer Jack had hoped to hear, that wasn't it. "Kid, you don't know what that means." The tall man shakes his head, as he finally lets her go. Turning away, he stares off down the street, as if the trash blowing in the wind and the mud caking the pavement were the most interesting things in the world. "You're so... you're lucky. Your ma and pop, they want more for you. More than this. They only push so hard, so you'll have a better life. Better than mine, better than theirs. We never... never had that." He turns to face her, and she's taken aback by the look in his eyes. "Dad was a lousy drunk. Always got mad, took it out on us. Hit me so hard he broke my jaw, still a little crooked." He laughs, clenching and relaxing his fists, suddenly full of energy, more alive than she had ever seen him. She isn't sure she likes it. "He had a belt, called it 'Lady Justice'. Old man had a sense of humor. He'd beat me with it if I didn't do what he wanted. Cleaned the house, did the yard work, brought him his beer. He'd have me steal from the markets, and if I told him I didn't want to..." With a chuckle, he rolls up his sleeve, revealing several small, circular burn marks on his arm. "Cigarettes. Heh. I never stood up to him. Until he started hitting Beth. Punched him in the throat, hard as I could, knocked him down. But he got back up, and... I was in the hospital for a week. Cops didn't look into it when he said I fell down the stairs. We were trash, from the worst part of the city, so who cares what happens to us? Didn't matter than I was younger than you are now." He gives a sick, lopsided grin. "Bastard never hit Beth again, though."

The girl's gaze remains rooted to the ground, finding it impossibly difficult to look up at the man. A hot, painful feeling rises in her chest, and she feels a tear slipping from her eye, rolling down her face. Tenderly, he brushes it away. She can feel his hand shaking as he touches her face. Softly, he continues. "Don't you cry for me, kid. I don't want pity. It sucked, but it was my life, and it's in the past. I got through it. But that's not the point. You, kid, you think it's all bad, but at least you know they care. Even if they can't show it, even if... You can't forget that they love you, and-" He's cut off, as the girl crosses the distance between them, wrapping her arms around him. He stays still, for a long moment, before slowly, hesitantly, moving his arms around her. The composure he had been trying to keep breaks down, and the two stand together, sobbing. The man buries his head on her shoulder, his tears staining her shirt.

She isn't certain how much time passes, before he finally pulls away, sniffling, wiping at his face with his sleeve. "Sorry." His voice trembles. "Guess I'm not that cool after all." The sound of thunder resonates overhead, causing the man to glance skyward. "Storm's coming. You'll get soaked if you don't get home now. I'll tell them..." He shakes his head, inhaling sharply. "Think about what I said, kid." He takes off his jacket, draping it over her body. She tries to protest, softly, that it's too large, that she already has her own, but he just shakes his head, gently pushing her in the direction of her house. "Know how to get back from here?" After a moment, the girl nods, pointing. "Good girl. Don't waste any more time on me. Not worth the trouble." He doesn't resist when she hugs him again, nor does he return the gesture, merely following her with his eyes, as she walks into the distance and out of sight. Leaning back against the wall of a building, the man reaches into his pocket, pulling out the credit card, with a heavy sigh. "Sorry," he repeats, voice lost to the sound of thunder overhead, as the rain begins to fall.

---

"It didn't work." Nearly two weeks had passed since their outing to the old, broken down playground. The girl had continued to visit the three, when able. Her school had begun preparing a celebration for the annual Maid Day festival, and she had been stuck late after school on more than one occasion, unable or unwilling to turn the teachers down when they asked for her help. Though they did fairly little to stop the bullies that tormented her, they often had a smile or kind word for her, and some of them remembered her name. The last two days had been busy, leaving her without enough time to make the trek, so the girl had been relieved when she had allowed to leave early, lost in thoughts of happy and peaceful conversation the entire trip. However, she had arrived to find a cold, uninviting atmosphere, Ken answering the door with a glare, and those three words. "The card. Jack tried to use it, and it was declined. Did you talk?" The buff, towering man glowers down at the child, his tail sweeping back and forth violently, making her feel like nothing more than an insect. Unconsciously, she bites at her nails, a habit she had picked up recently. Suppressing the shaking in her legs, and the odd feeling of guilt rising in her chest, as if she had actually done what she had been accused of, she shakes her head.

The man scoffs, turning away, leaving the door standing open. The girl stands at the precipice, feeling tears stinging the corners of her eyes, not knowing if she should enter, or head home. After a drawn out silence, the animal-tailed man speaks again, roughly. "Going to stand out there all day?" Swallowing, she steps inside, the door falling shut behind her, blocking the light. In that moment, she wonders how she had ever felt the man was similar to her father. No matter how angry he had been, she had never thought he would do anything to hurt her. Now, standing alone, in the darkness, with Ken, she finds herself far less certain. The man sighs, slumping onto the couch. "They're gone, out trying to get enough to buy what we need. Won't be back for a while." With that, the man turns his attention to a game on the screen, some modern action game where the only thing visible of the character was the gun they held. The set had been turned up far too loud, sound of gunfire hurting her ears. Mumbling a quiet apology, the girl slips from the room, into the kitchen, enjoying the quieter, less intimidating atmosphere.

After a time, the girl opens her backpack, pulling out a novel she had checked out from the school library, some fantasy story about maids saving the world. She had never been terribly interested in the maid culture, no more than that of the police or soldiers, but the story had been written by an author she enjoyed, so she had grabbed the book on instinct. So far, it had proven interesting enough to be worth her attention, and she quickly loses herself between the pages, the action and romance definitively more intriguing than the empty, shadowed house, and the prickling worry in the back of her mind, about the only friends she had. Nearly an hour, and several chapters, pass by, before the girl realizes that the others still haven't returned. The more time that passes, the more concerned the girl gets, finding it increasingly difficult to focus on the tale before her. Eventually, she sighs, setting her bookmark in place and putting the book away. She opens the fridge, finding a can of soda, and taking it for her own, sipping slowly, hoping that it will last long enough to keep her occupied until she can see Beth again. However, even that runs out before long, leaving the young girl to stare at the peeling paint on the wall, feeling lost.

Another half hour passes. Sometime during the stretch of time, the sound from the other room fades entirely, the girl almost missing the sound of the front door slamming shut. Realizing that she had been left all alone in the house, for the first time, the girl begins to grow curious. She had never seen most of the domicile, having no need to venture further than the living room, kitchen, or restroom, Beth always deigning to spend her time there, rather than elsewhere. Deciding that exploration would be vastly preferable to sitting around stewing in her own worry, the child stands up, ignoring the ache in her back and legs, moving back into the living room, toward the stairs. Slowly, she begins ascending, a fluttering feeling of guilty pleasure rising in her chest, as the wood creaks beneath her feet. The railing on the side was rotting and broken, several wooden banisters missing entirely. Halfway up the staircase, a hole had been knocked into the wall, the girl imagining she can see mice and other, stranger creatures, crawling inside.

Finally, she reaches the second floor of the dwelling, her worry overtaken entirely by a childlike sense of excitement, secure in the knowledge that, though she had no permission, neither Beth nor Jack would truly take offense. Walking over to the nearest door, she tries the handle, finding it unlocked. Inside, she finds a bedroom, the large, twin-sized bed covered in red sheets, curtains of the same shade covering the window, blocking most light. A mirror sits on the wall, above a dresser, showing her reflection as she gazes into it. She walks the length of the bed a few times, poking at it; it responds by doing nothing, as beds are wont to do. After a moment of consideration, she drops herself into it, the cool feeling of the silk sheets brushing against her skin. From her position, she can see the light fixture overhead, mildly surprised to find it, and the bulb inside, in perfect condition. Standing up, she walks toward the wall, seeking out and flipping the lightswitch, bathing the room in a soft, artificial glow.

The walls are a soft shade of pink, accenting the red fixtures pleasantly. The dresser, fully visible now, has several large, porcelain animal sculptures resting atop it, in elegant and fanciful poses. She can even spot what seems to be a Remnant, in the back, the image inadvertently sending a chill down the girl's back at the accuracy of the model. Moving to the shelf, she studies the figures more closely, enjoying the delightful, handcrafted works. She resists her desire to touch them; clearly expensive, and likely sentimental, if they hadn't already been sold for the sake of paying for the house, or for the dust the housemates enjoyed so much. Opening the middle drawer, she peers inside, finding blouses and dresses folded neatly, stacked on top of each other. The girl slides the drawer closed, slightly confused. She felt confident that the room belonged to Beth, the clothing as well, but she had never seen the woman wear anything like this. Her mind conjures the image of the older girl, dancing elegantly, wearing a flowing white dress, and she feels an odd warmth spreading through her body. Frowning, she decides to leave the woman's belongings in peace, stepping out and closing the door softly.

Three more doors are visible on the top floor, one to the left, two to the right. The young girl moves to the leftmost door, opening it to find a second restroom, slightly bigger than the first, though the sink and bathtub both fail to turn on when tested, and the tiles are smeared with dirt, and what looks almost like dried blood. A quick search of the room fails to turn up anything of significant interest, and the girl quickly makes her way out, toward the remaining rooms. The next door opens into another bedroom, painted a color too dark to make out, without lighting. This time, the girl tries the lightswitch first thing, soft light filling the room to reveal walls of a dark blue, though points of gold show through, like stars in the night sky. The floor of the room is covered in discarded clothing, all dirty, as well as empty snack containers and a few packages that had once held fast food. The bed is large, luxurious, and low to the floor, nothing but the large mattress for support. She navigates her way through the minefield of messiness, to the bed. This one, upon inspection, appears to be filled with a water-like fluid, rather than a traditional mattress. She doesn't bother climbing into it, noting the odd, musky smell surrounding it.

A dresser sits against a door, blocking it from opening. Through a window set in the door, she can see that it leads outside, likely to a balcony or staircase she hadn't noticed before, or possibly to nothing at all. The dresser itself is covered in random assorted items, a towel, shampoo, toothbrush. Nothing like the exquisite artistry in Beth's room. She opens one of the drawers to find exactly what she would expect: dark, colorless clothing, the same Jack preferred to wear, and the same that coated the floor like a carpet. She sighs, sliding it shut with only a little difficulty, grateful that he hadn't also been hiding dresses, the image conjured more than a little amusing. A nightstand sits next to the bed, a package of fresh-seeming cookies set atop it. Crossing to it, she takes one, looking it over. Figuring that the young man wouldn't notice if she took only one, she begins heading out of the room, the sweet in hand. She stuffs the cookie into her mouth, as she closes the door, the always welcoming taste of chocolate washing over her tastebuds, and washing away any concern she still felt.

More than a little curious as to what secrets the last door might hold, or, failing that, what snacks, she quickly moves toward it, turning the handle. Her joy turns to confusion, as she finds the door stuck, not willing to budge an inch against her minuscule strength. With a mildly disappointed sigh, she steps away, heading back to the stairs. The girl resists the sudden urge to slip back into Beth's room; she had already explored everything, so there was little point. With a smile, she waves to the upstairs, as if it were a companion she had shared an adventure with, rather than a collective of inanimate objects. Listening to the creaking stairs, the only sound in the empty house, the girl makes her way to the living room, sitting down in the middle of the couch, surrounded by the familiar belongings of her friends, yet feeling no true happiness without them around. Eventually, she checks her phone, noticing the time, and collects her belongings, regretfully leaving the house unoccupied, wondering if they would be able to finally meet again tomorrow.

---

The following day, the girl arrived at the house hours later than usual, pouring rain soaking her clothing, tears streaming down her face. She knocks on the door, trying and failing to suppress her sobs, waiting for well over ten seconds. No answer comes. Undeterred, she bangs on the door, louder, on the cusp of hyperventilating. At long last, the door cracks open, Beth's violet eye staring out at her. "You should go home, Sweet Pea." She speaks quickly, voice filled with an emotion the girl cannot place, somewhere between fear and anger. The woman moves to slide the door closed, and the girl reaches out on instinct, keeping it from budging an inch. Opening her mouth, she tries to speak, but deteriorates into a sobbing mess, nearly collapsing on the spot. Beth watches the scene unfold for a few seconds, coldly. She takes a deep, difficult breath, and opens the door. Before she can say or do much else, the girl launches herself into the woman's arms, face buried in her chest. Idly stroking the child's head, she murmurs small, kind words, hesitantly pulling the younger girl into the desolated house.

"Beth..." The girl chokes out her friend's name, between sobs, her voice raw with pain. "I'm sorry it stopped working... please don't get rid of me." The woman is taken aback, her mouth squeezed into a firm line. After a moment, she connects the dots, shaking her head, with a drawn out sigh. The little girl presses on quickly, the floodgates broken, as if trying to make up for all of the words she hadn't been able to speak over the past few days. "If it doesn't work, I can get another one... I can get a job, or I can... can find some way to get money... just don't hate me. I didn't t-tell anybody. I know Ken was upset..." Her voice breaking, she clings to the woman, only absently noticing the red stains on the woman's arms. After a moment, she finds herself being swept off the ground, held in the woman's arms, like a princess. Staring up with blurry eyes, she tries to memorize her friend's face, as if it were the last time she would ever see her. The older girl gently reaches out, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Beth... I promise I didn't tell anybody."

Slumping down on the couch, Beth lays the girl down on her lap, giving her a small, strained smile. "Hush, Sweet Pea. I know. I know. I'd never hate you. None of us, not me, not Ken, not Jack." On the last word, her voice trembles, close to breaking. Absentmindedly, she returns to stroking the girl's hair. "Kenny might have been angry, but not at you. We've been... fighting." The woman glances around, as if afraid someone were listening in, but the room around them remains silent and still as a grave. "Jack had an idea to do something... a little dangerous. Ken didn't like it. We started getting louder, and of course, the more he protested, the more I had to do it." She shakes her head, not meeting the girl's eyes, her voice small and filled with venom, directed more at herself than anyone else. "I can be hardheaded, and a real bitch when I want to be. He said he'd walk out if I left; I told him not to come back if he did." The woman closes her eyes for a bit longer than a standard blink. When she opens them, the sadness has been buried, a smile gracing her face that the child can tell is forced, at a glance. Deflecting from her own self-loathing, she pokes the girl lightly on the forehead. "Tell Beth about your day, sweetheart. What's got you so upset?"

With a deep, shuddering breath, the girl attempts to calm herself down, taking comfort in being held so close by someone that cares about her. "Well..." She trails off, feeling silly. "I haven't been able to see you in so long, I thought you didn't want to be my friend anymore. And today, everyone was being mean. They kept calling me a crybaby, because I was sad, which made me cry more..." Biting her bottom lip, she looks away, her hands playing with the cusp of her waterlogged sleeves. "And then at recess, the boys were throwing rocks at people... one of them hit me in the eye, and I had to go to the nurse..." She stops short, turning her attention back to the older girl, to find her staring off into the distance, mentally a hundred miles away. Feeling tears stinging her eyes anew, the girl frowns. "I'm sorry for bothering you. I know I always complain about dumb things." She pulls away from the woman, feeling ashamed, and a little angry. Before she can get up, Beth's hands wrap around her arms, pulling her closer.

The woman begins rocking her back and forth, sniffling. "Don't go." Her words are barely audible, the desperation in her voice still deafeningly loud in the whisper-quiet room. "Don't go, I'm sorry. I'm here. It's not stupid. Nothing you could say would ever be stupid." Her grip tightens, just enough to hurt, though the child says nothing, still feeling as if she had been betrayed somehow. "Don't go," the woman repeats, like the mantra were the only thing keeping her sane. "Ken's gone. Jack won't wake up. I can't lose you too." The stillness is broken by the sound of coughing, dry and muffled, from farther off in the house. Beth glances toward the stairs, absently, then back to the girl. "Come on, I'll get you a drink. You can tell me about the rest of your day." Helping the girl to her feet, the two head into the kitchen, putting more distance between them and the muffled sound. Throwing open the fridge, the woman sets down a couple cans of soda in front of the girl, surprising her by not retrieving any alcohol for herself.

Frowning, the girl recalls that Beth hadn't used any dust in the time she had been there, either, though she had earlier attributed it to the lack of funds from the declined card. Normally, when Beth became upset, she would use at least one of the two substances to lift her mood. Her frown deepens, as she recalls her friend's words from just a minute before. Jack won't wake up. Suddenly finding her throat dry, the girl opens the tab on one of the cans, taking a small sip. Since she had started visiting Beth and the others, she had drank more and more soda, already gaining upwards of ten pounds. She had even started to look almost healthy, instead of skinny to the point of malnourished, though she knew the longterm effects would be rather bad, if she kept it up. Trying to distract herself from the paranoid buzzing in the back of her skull, the girl watches as Beth paces the room, rearranging random items that weren't out of place to begin with, opening and closing the fridge multiple times as she goes. Though the child wants to continue talking about the day she had, she finds that the little, mean-spirited things done to her paled in comparison to her worry. She had never seen Beth so agitated before. "Beth... what happened yesterday?"

The woman stops pacing, turning to the girl, a dark, haunted look to her. Her smile grows more strained, as she walks slowly to the table, pulling out a seat for herself, opposite the child. "Honey, it's not worth worrying about. Come on, tell me how your day went. You went to the nurse? Did the boys get in trouble?" A moment passes in silence, Beth's attempt at deflection doing nothing more than multiplying the girl's fear. Slowly, she shakes her head, not willing to be left in the dark. Beth exhales, wearily, pulling a can of beer from the fridge, setting it down in front of her, unopened. For a long, long moment, she merely stares at it. The sound of rain pouring outside reaches their ears, the droplets of water falling from the girl's clothing, mimicking the downpour, soaking into the wood. At length, the woman begins speaking again, defeated. "It's probably best if you don't know the details, honey. Less risk for you that way. I told you, Jack wanted to do something dangerous. It wasn't really legal, either. And it went bad. We got spotted by the wrong person at the wrong time, and..." She shakes her head, staring down at the red stains on her arms. "Guy had a knife. Almost cut my damn throat. Would have, if Jack hadn't... Oh, Jack." She closes her eyes, fighting off a wave of hysteria. "I could barely stop the bleeding. Can't take him to a hospital. He won't wake up. He won't..."

Feeling an odd sense of weightlessness, the girl stands up, the world moving around her as if she were in a dream. She crosses to the doorway, Beth not doing a thing to stop her. Just as she opens the door, preparing to step into the living room, the woman calls out, voice empty. "He wouldn't want you to see him like that." With a small, painful nod, the girl steps out of the room, the door falling shut behind her. Beth lays her head down on her arms, composure finally breaking, tears flowing down the valleys of her face like rain. The girl makes her way to the stairs, for the second time in as many days, filled not with a feeling of excitement and childlike curiosity, but with a dark, dreadful certainty, of what she would find at the end of her journey. Balling her hands to fists, she takes one slow, measured step, after another, toward the room belonging to Jack. The door is ajar, darkness seeping out of the unlit room, reminding her of the worst of her nightmares. Swallowing, the girl pushes the door aside with a terrible slowness, the smell of copper nearly overpowering.

The dim light from the hallway bathes the room is its soft glow, as the girl stands in the precipice, leaving the door standing wide open. Some part of her considers turning on the overhead light, but she resists the urge, not wanting to see. Crossing over to the bed, the sick, stomach-churning smell grows more powerful, forcing the girl to control her breathing, to keep from gagging. Finally, she draws close enough to make out the withered figure laying atop the sheets, gasping in shock. Jack lays still as a corpse, pale, naked, and covered in sweat. Makeshift bandages have been wrapped tightly around his stomach, dyed red with his blood. One look at the man's terrible state slides all of the pieces into place- Beth's vague story, the woman's fragile state, the fear that had covered her face when she had first answered the door. The young man coughs, causing her to flinch backward, nearly tripping over the garbage piled on the ground. Hands reach out from behind, securely, keeping her from falling. "It's all right." Beth's voice, distant, broken, speaks the opposite of her words. "He'll be okay. Jack's... he's always been a fighter."

She knows next to nothing about injuries, medication, or anything relating to the situation at hand. Even with what little information she had picked up from her father throughout the years, the girl finds herself at a loss for words or action. The only thought that crosses her mind in that moment is that, if left as he is, Jack will certainly die. Turning toward Beth, she finds an odd calmness settling over her, her terror, and the tears formerly threatening to cascade from her eyes, vanishing as if they had never existed. As quietly as she can, she calls to the other girl, drawing her attention. "We need to get him to a hospital. And we need to... change his bandages." She had no idea how long it had been since they had been applied; Beth had mentioned stopping the bleeding, yet they were soaked with crimson- either they had been left on long enough to risk infection, a less than ideal outcome, or the bleeding had started up again, an arguably worse outcome. Looking around, the girl fails to find anything resembling a sterile wrapping, and she doesn't know how to sterilize anything, to begin with. From the look on her face, Beth is just as lost. Without asking, the girl can already tell that the siblings own nothing that could properly access the holonet, and the information they need. With a heavy sigh, she wonders where Ken had gone. If there had ever been a time when they needed him...

"We can't take him. I said that earlier." Beth speaks quickly, her tone hostile, causing the girl's gaze to sink to the floor. Moving closer, Beth touches the child's cheek, speaking more gently. "The dust isn't out of his system, not yet; he'd just end up in jail. And... the guy that we- that did this, he isn't... he might not be doing so well. They could blame Jack for that, too. He could go away for a long time. No hospital in Akkierens would be safe, not for us, not right now." The woman runs her hands through the younger girl's hair.. "We have to handle this ourselves. He always liked you, you know?" Realizing that she's close to rambling, the woman laughs, a half-mad quality to the sound. "I don't have... much. I didn't want to leave him alone to go get what I need, in case he..." She trails off, unable to finish. "But you're here now. He won't be alone. Please just... stay here, in case he wakes up. I'll be back before you know it." She takes the girl's hand, squeezing softly. The girl squeezes back, not wanting to let go, or to be left alone with a dying man and a house filled with shadows, Remnant seemingly lurking under every piece of furniture, behind every corner.

At length, the girl breaks the contact, giving the woman a small, slow nod. "I'll be right here. If... when he wakes up, I'll tell him where you went, so he won't worry." Beth smiles, nodding back. Pulling the girl close, she gives her a kiss on the forehead, turning away immediately afterward, so the child can't see her cry. With a wave, the woman slips from the room, her black clothing nearly merging her with the darkness as she moves down the stairs and out the door, leaving the girl alone in the stillness of the bloodied room. After a long, quiet moment, the girl sits down beside the bed, running her hands over Jack's, hoping that the motion would bring some comfort to the unconscious man. Reaching into her backpack, she produces the book she had been reading, an older classic that the school had assigned, that she didn't get much enjoyment from. Keeping her voice quiet and neutral, she begins reading aloud, the words rolling off her tongue and helping the time pass a little bit faster.

---

Shivering, the young girl continues to read one passage after the next, detailing fictional tragedies and insights into souls long deceased, the story an exaggerated regaling of the time of the First, and the fantastical world that Antiope had once been. Though she reads the words aloud, they pass through her mind with little recognition, leaving no imprint of knowledge or any real regard for the tale being told. With a soft, shaky sigh, she sets the book aside, pulling the soaking wet hoodie tighter around her body, accomplishing nothing more than settling the cold a little closer to her flesh. Absently, the girl thinks of home, her warm, cozy bed, waiting for her, heat pumping through the ventilation systems, keeping the chill out of her bones. For a short moment, she slips into a fantasy, in which she and Beth would bring Jack to her family. They would be allowed inside, and her parents would, somehow, make everything better. They would find a simple, obvious solution, a way to treat the youth's puncture wound that would ensure he would survive, and everything would be all right. The imaginary scene ends, fading like so much smoke in the evening sky. Even if they were supposed to help her, to take care of her, to hold her and make sure that everything would be all right, her parents would never live up to the ideal image of family she held in her head, as distant from reality as the book sitting at her side.

The last bit of light seeps through the windows, dims, then dies altogether, leaving the girl with nothing but the light from the hall to keep her waking nightmares at bay. She holds on to the thought that, for once in her life, she has to be an adult, brave, strong, and capable of facing her fear. Jack needs the supplies Beth had gone to collect, and Beth needs her to be by Jack's side, so she would stay. Biting at her nails, she ignores the sound of treelimbs scratching at the window, and the distant howling of a canine, locked out in the storm. Rain continues to crash against the rooftop, echoing mournfully, as thunder bursts like sirens in the distance, screaming warnings of impending doom. She reaches for the book, throwing it open to a random chapter she had read before. Trying to progress would be a pointless endeavor, unable to concentrate enough to retain the information, and she has the terrible impression that Jack was too far gone to hear her words regardless. A few sentences in, she tosses the book to the ground, the novel landing with a muffled thud, in a pile of clothing. Running her hands over her face, she bites back her fear, her anger, and the feeling that everything is falling apart. Ken had left, and might not be coming back. Jack might not survive the night. If he didn't, Beth might not last much longer herself. The girl recalls the vacant, broken look on her friend's face, and some part of her wishes she had never followed the woman into the alley, that day. Another part of her curses her own weakness, her inability to do anything to help them, for all that they've done for her. More than anything else, she just wants Beth to come back, Jack to wake up, and for everyone to laugh again. She would even take the dust next time Jack offered, if it would make him smile again.

A hot, burning sensation rises in her throat, as she realizes just how foolish she had been, thinking that her own life had been so terrible. Every complaint she had bitten back, every hurtful word she had been the target of, none of it compared to the broken, bleeding form on the bed beside her. To the look on Beth's face when she had cracked the door open, wondering if the police had come, to drag them away, or Ken, angry and looking for revenge, or whoever had attacked the two, ready to finish what they had started. Her home, awkward, silent, miserable, still failed to match even a portion of the sorrow spilling from every inch of the desolated house around her. She thinks of her father, so disappointed in her grades and her tests, contrasted against the dark, towering figure, smashing a belt against Jack's arms and back, ripping flesh and spilling blood. Her academy, clean, bright, filled with opportunity, regardless of her squandering each chance given, so different from the dirty, abandoned schoolyard she had seen only once, windows shattered and the only chalk on the ground outlining lives that had met violent ends.

An eternity passes in that small room, two souls inching closer to oblivion, one in body, the other in mind. Her phone rings piercingly every few minutes, her parents trying to get the girl's attention, but she ignores it every time. Rising stiffly to her feet, her legs and bottom aching, the girl ponders how long it had been since she had arrived, already nearing night, when she had knocked on the door. By now, her family would realize that she was missing, but they would have no idea how to find her. She smiles, absently, staring down at the bed. Here, nobody could find her. When she came here, she could forget about the torments of the world outside, the people surrounding her, and, perhaps most importantly, herself, her failures, and how much it hurt just to exist. Inside, she had always known her time here was nothing more than a lie, beautiful as it seemed, to distract her from the problems she couldn't fix, and the things she couldn't change. Sooner or later, she would be forced to face the truth, to embrace it, to become herself once again, dismissing the person she felt like she could be, around Beth. A lyric from a song slips through her head, causing a short, bitter laugh to break the silence. She barely knew your name. Sweet Pea. Even from the beginning, before she had introduced herself, Beth had called her that. Kid, kiddo, brat, from Jack. Ken had never bothered referring to her by any title or name at all, and her parents had even discarded her birth name from their vocabulary, as if she were unworthy of it. Of being a person. Then what am I?

An old memory presses in on the girl, taking her out of the darkness for a time. Nearly three years previous, standing in the abandoned auditorium in her elementary school, with the rest of her class, studying lines and actions for a play. It hadn't been the first she had performed in, nor the last, but it would be the only one she remembered with any real importance. Merely two short years after the Fall of Varnadria, the staff had decided that the event was one that should not be forgotten, not by the children, who had been far too young to understand at the time, nor the few adults who managed to be unaffected, convincing themselves that the event, while tragic, was not something to bother themselves over. And so, that year, and each year hence, one of the traditional performances, typically a love story or highly fictionalized 'true' story, would be cut from the lineup, replaced by a terrifying, accurate portrayal of the Fall. Students had been selected as maids, civilians, or Remnant, with appropriately childish costumes. Having been merely six at the time of the tragedy, the girl wasn't entirely aware of what the play meant, nor the dark, twisted costume she had worn. She studied her lines and her moves, and when the time came to crash into one of the maid students and cut at them until they stopped moving, she played her part without realizing what that meant, either.

Her mother had been shocked when she had gone home and explained her role, and she hadn't understood that any better than the rest. She had apologized, as if she had done something bad, but her mother waved it aside, set her down, and told her exactly what had happened. The people that had died, numbering a total so high she couldn't comprehend it. The strangest, most difficult part to accept had been the idea that she was supposed to be one of the monsters, one of the villains. She had always wanted to be a hero, if anything, and she thought of herself as more of a civilian than anything else. It hadn't seemed fair. At the time, she had been far too young to realize that all of them had potential to be any of the three. The memory moves along, through practices, and anxieties, and, at last, to the day of the performance. Her mother had stood beside her back stage, holding her hand, smiling the way she always smiles when things aren't okay. The girl could still recall the words she had said. "Life won't wait for a little girl with little dreams. Dream big, and the world will race to catch up."

She hadn't done well in the play. In front of all of the parents and teachers, she had frozen, barely managing to recover in time to catch up to her target and bring the maid to the ground. There, staring down at the face of the girl who she was supposed to 'kill', she had thought of all of the real people who had been maimed or slain that day, and had burst into tears. She wasn't one of the focal points of the performance, nor near the front of the stage, so she went mostly unnoticed, one of the stagehands managing to get her out of sight before she messed up the play for anyone else. Backstage, crying into her mother's arms, she had tried and failed to explain her outburst. The woman had been upset, and it had been the last time she had offered any real encouragement or advice, but the girl found herself not regretting the outcome. If the cost for fitting in and being liked was to do something like that, even just pretending, maybe it would be better to be alone. She returns to the present, finding herself slumped against the bed, wiping sleep from her eyes, wondering what point the memory had become a dream. Her earlier question echoes faintly in her head, and she finds that she has no answer to satisfy it. Living two lives, neither fulfilling, accomplishing nothing more than a pittance of personal happiness on rare occasion, she knows that she has no concept of identity to hold on to.

The front door slams shut below, and the girl jumps, her heart speeding up. Slow footfalls mark someone ascending the stairs, and the girl stares out at the suddenly too-bright light in the hall, holding her breath, waiting. Finally, Beth comes into view, carrying a large bag filled to the brim with items the girl cannot place. She sets it down on the floor, inside the room, smiling softly. "Sorry I took so long. Everything close was closed already." Moving over to her brother, Beth feels for a pulse, waiting for nearly a minute. The girl watches, nervously, wondering if the young man might have died while she slept, uselessly, nearby. At length, the woman nods. "He feels about the same." Turning, she addresses the girl. "I know you probably want to get home, I won't keep you. You'll probably get in a lot of trouble already." The child shakes her head, without hesitating. Beth smiles, sadly. "All right, Sweet Pea. I thought that might be your decision. I won't force you to leave. I don't want you to, anyway." Pointing to the bag, she asks the girl to unpack the stuff she had purchased. Quietly, the girls sets about cleaning the floor a little, grimacing at the soiled clothing as she tosses it aside, finally managing a space big enough to fit the supplies. "Good girl. Now, hand me that." She points at a bottle with a label the girl barely recognizes. The girl passes it to her. Taking a deep breath, the woman begins unwrapping the old bandages, the smell of blood permeating the air.

The two work long into the night, cleaning, disinfecting, and suturing Jack's wound, the girl trying her best to be brave enough to keep her composure, forcing herself to look at the jagged gash without feeling sick. The girls talk, on and off, about random, unimportant things, Beth handling most of the delicate, bloody work. The child's eyes slide closed, and she has to force herself to stay awake, the act growing more difficult as the hours pass. Finally, Beth sets the tools down, stroking the girl's head. "Go lay down, Sweet Pea. You've done more than enough. I'll finish up; we're almost done anyway." Looking at the bloody, ruined sheets around the man, and the red soaking the woman's skin, she has her doubts, but she realizes that she physically can't stay awake much longer. Weakly protesting, against the woman's words, and her own body, she picks up a wet rag, placing it on Jack's forehead, replacing one that had been there before. Beth sighs, softly. "Don't overdo it." The girl nods, and they get back to work. A while later, Beth glances up from her brother, to find the girl leaning against the bed, asleep. Draping a clean sheet over the child, she lays her down on the floor, before resuming and redoubling her effort, as the first rays of morning peek over the horizon.

---

The girl is awoken hours later by the smell of food, wafting up from downstairs. Slowly, she inches open her eyes, staring at the unfamiliar ceiling, overhead. Footsteps signal someone moving up the stairs, and the girl has no doubt that they belong to Beth. Sitting up, she rubs at her eyes, trying to remember the night before, but getting nothing more than dark, bloody memories, jumbled together. Her dreams, forgotten in the light of day, leave hints of the same lingering in the back of her mind. She turns to study Jack, still laying unconscious on the bed. Though the sheets are stained with dried blood, the bandages covering his stomach are clean and white, and the man's body had regained a little color. Blushing lightly, she turns away, the feeling of fear and adrenaline having faded enough for the girl to notice his state of undress, in full. Jack's sister finally reaches the room, bearing a long, pink dress, a tray of pancakes, and a smile the girl hadn't seen in a long time. Her breath catches in her throat for a moment, stealing her voice, so she merely waves, lamely.

Setting the tray down next to the girl, she sits on the other side, humming quietly, an old tune the younger girl can't place. "It's been a long time since I cooked for anyone," the woman admits. "Sometimes daddy would have me make breakfast. Mom was usually too hungover." Her smile wavers for a second, noticing the sad look that crosses the girl's face. "But enough about the past; this is a good day. The first day of the rest of our lives." Lifting a plate containing a large, syrup and chocolate covered pancake, she hands it to the girl, along with a fork. "Eat up." The girl wastes little time devouring the meal, the first thing she had eaten in nearly a day, and the most delicious meal she'd had in a month. "You like it? Good. It was nice having you here last night... helping. Thank you." She hesitates, for a long moment, before continuing. "It would be nice to have you around all the time. Wouldn't you like that?" With a frown, the girl lets the fork clink down on the plate, staring down at the mess. Leaving home? Running away? It was an interesting idea, but it would never work. Eventually, her parents would find her, and Beth and Jack could barely support themselves as is, much less a child as well. An image of her brother flashes before her eyes, bringing with it a sense of longing and sadness, and she finds herself unable to answer.

Sensing her discomfort, Beth changes the subject, turning toward Jack. "His fever broke. I think he's really turning around. He might even wake up soon." The smile returns, in force. "I made the right call. I had to keep him here. Now, he'll be okay, and I won't lose him. They won't take him away." The girl resists the urge to ask what exactly had happened, already certain that the woman doesn't intend to tell her any more. With a sigh, she takes another bite of the sickeningly sweet breakfast, letting the syrup and chocolate wash her concerns away. Beth chews more slowly at her own meal, a replica of the dish she had handed the girl. A third plate sits on the tray, untouched, and the girl realizes that it was likely for Jack, the thought bringing a stab of pain in her chest, wondering what might have happened if their best efforts hadn't been enough. Looking over at the tall man, she finds herself immensely grateful that he was still there, alive, breathing. She recalls one of the last times they had spoken, Jack trying to explain the intricacies of some movie she had never seen, failing miserably. She had promised to watch it with him at some point, when he had begged, but the chance had almost slipped away entirely.

Setting the now-empty plate down beside her, the girl turns back to Beth, finding herself staring at the woman's dress, so unlike the normally dark, revealing outfits the woman favors. "You look really pretty," she breaths, the truth slipping out easily. The soft, pink color seems to make the honey of her eyes, the blonde tips of her hair, stand out all the more beautifully. Thinking of her own outfit, embarrassed, the girl regrets her lack of similar clothing, her wardrobe consisting of nothing but the most concealing items she could find. The image of her and Beth, wearing identical, flowing gowns, dancing in some fancy hall somewhere, comes to mind, the two moving together in time, like water, ignoring yet not forgetting the crowd gathered around, clapping and cheering. The girl forces the image away, vaguely placing it as a scene from a movie she had once seen.

Beth laughs softly, at her words, looking much younger than she usually does, for once giving off the air of the teenage girl she actually is. "I'm glad you like it. Pink's always been one of my favorite colors. I used to love wearing my dresses. Only thing mom left that was worth anything, besides her sculptures. She was pretty good at making them... when she was sober." She shakes her head, leaning back to stare at the ceiling. "Ken always wanted me to dress a certain way; had a real love of black leather. Never liked it much myself, but relationships are built on doing things you don't like, if it makes the other person happy. Or that's how lots of people think. Anyway, Ken's gone now. He wasn't here when I needed him, when Jack needed him, so he can stay the hell away. Don't need him. I've got everything I need right here. I don't need anyone to love me." Thought she tries to hide it, her tone reveals the bitter, sad feeling buried under the surface.

"I love you." The words slip out without thought, as the girl stares at her closest friend, hurting so much. Though she speaks the truth, she had never said as much to the older girl before, the admittance making her feel oddly uncomfortable, her heart speeding up. She wants to get up, to walk over to the woman, and embrace her until she feels better, but she finds herself stuck to the spot. Somehow, it felt different than saying it to her mother or father, or even her brother, though she sometimes questioned if she meant it, speaking to them. Swallowing, she finds herself unable to look at Beth's face, afraid that the woman would just look annoyed, or weirded out, every second passing making it seem more and more likely that she doesn't feel the same. A sound reaches her ears, finally, and it takes her a moment to place it, halfway between a laugh and a sob. The weight keeping her glued to the ground disappears, as suddenly as it came, and she finds herself right next to Beth, holding the woman gently.

"I really am terrible." Guilt traces every word from Beth's mouth. "You really mean it, don't you." More of a statement than a question, she turns to the girl, her eyes shining with unshed tears, even as she continues to laugh. "Even after all this, you really don't get it. Your life's so messed up that you care more about some washed up druggie that'll be dead before the decade's up, than you do yourself." The girl freezes in place, arms still wrapped around the woman's body, trying and failing to dismiss what the woman is saying. Beth continues, every word like a knife stabbing at the center of the warmth the girl had felt, just moments before. "You're young. Naive. You don't get how the world works, but you will. I only ever brought you here because you were useful. Needed to get that card from you, needed you to trust me enough not to tell your parents. Only let you in last night so I didn't have to do this alone. Now that Jack's better, and the card's bust, there's no real reason to keep you around." She smiles, a dark, cruel smile, and the knife inside the girl twists.

"You're lying." Her voice is small, weak. She hates the doubt coating her words, that she can't dismiss. Instead of pushing away, she holds the woman tighter, pressing her head against her body. "You're lying, you're lying, you don't mean that." Finding herself of the verge of tears, the girl bites her tongue, trying desperately to seem like the adult she had never been. "You promised you wouldn't get rid of me... you meant it. You're just... scared. Because it hurt when Ken left. Because it hurt when Jack... when you thought he might..." Her voice shakes. "You're scared that I'll hurt you too. But I won't... I won't ever hurt you... I love you. I love you... more than anything..." She feels sick, bile rising in the back of her throat, as her tears crash to the ground. The woman doesn't move, to push her away, or pull her closer, merely staring at the lost, breaking little girl, her face blank, all of her emotions trapped behind her mask. Whining, her voice small, and filled with hurt, the girl begs. "Say something... Beth..."

Coughing, from the bed, loud and painful. A raspy, quiet voice mutters something too low to hear, before repeating it, a moment later. "What's going on?" Beth turns away from the girl, her gaze falling on her brother's form. Their eyes meet. In that moment, the last of her composure breaks, her guilt, fear, and self-loathing tearing down the last defense she has. The child understands, somewhere in the back of her mind, that the man has woken up, but she fails to process it, lost to the tidal wave of doubt and sorrow trying to crush the little shard of hope she had found in this house, with these people, the only good thing left in her life. Her sobbing devolves into a long, pitiful wail, as she slams her balled up fists uselessly against the woman's chest, as if she could force her to take back her words. Finally, it all becomes too much. Pushing away, she scrambles to her feet, barely keeping her balance, as she runs out the door. Jack calls her name, but she doesn't stop, somehow making it down the stairs, to the door. Beth just stares at the ground, listlessly, as the sound of the slamming door echoes through the house, leaving silence in its wake.

Chapter 3 - Love
The next few days are a long, painful blur for the girl, feeling more alone than she had ever felt before. Her days are an agonized, drawn-out test of endurance, the child lacking the will or desire to so much as get out of bed, much less go to school and deal with the overly difficult tests, or the even worse people. Contrarily, their torments don't bother her as much as usual. Brought as low as she is, she can't sink much deeper into her own despair. At home, her family is gone often enough that she avoids most interaction; when they are around, they hardly notice her depression, the child hiding it behind an obedient mask, only letting her tears flow, silently, late at night. Increasingly, she finds it difficult to sleep, staring at the clock as the hours flow endlessly by, only to end up more and more tired each day. When she does sleep, her dreams rest somewhere between happy and nightmarish, the girl imagining scenes that had never happened, that would never happen, memories of things that had made her happy, warped into dark, tragic versions of the same, leaving her feeling cold and empty. Other times, she dreams of being with Beth, places they had never gone, doing things they had never done, some she could barely understand. These dreams leave her feeling even worse.

When she does consciously think of the siblings, she focuses her attention on Jack, trying to convince herself that she really had seen him, awake. That she had heard his voice. Surely, that would mean he was really recovering, that he would be fine. But the doubts remain, feeding off of her sadness, whispering that she had remembered wrong, that the man had still been unconscious, that he had looked even worse. That he was probably already dead, and she hadn't even been there for him, or for Beth. In spite of the words the woman had said, the girl finds herself more and more certain that her estimation had been the truth. That Beth had been scared of getting hurt, or hurting her, and had wanted to drive her away before she ended up caring even more. Somehow, this made her feel even more terribly about herself, too weak to stay and sort it out, too scared to go back and make amends, or apologize for running away. The part of her mind, the one that everyone else had convinced that she was to blame for everything wrong in her life, piled accusation, atop doubt, atop misery, ensuring that the girl would feel terrible for not going back, yet she would find it even more difficult to do so, the more guilty she feels, leading to a downward spiral that very quickly leaves her hollow.

The fourth day after she had left the siblings behind. The sound of her mother, knocking lightly on the door, rouses the girl from her half-slumber. The clock reveals that morning had snuck up on her while she had futilely tried to sleep, and now she would be doomed to another listless day walking alone in enemy territory. She becomes dully aware of the chill of the air, dancing across her naked body, clothing and sheets laying uselessly on the floor, the girl feeling far too warm to make use of them. Her mother knocks again, the same as she does every morning, and the child considers calling out, to inform her that she was awake and would be down for breakfast, soon. And yet, she remains silent, turning her attention away. Her throat hurts, and she doesn't feel remotely hungry, though she hadn't eaten the night before. After a long, uncomfortable moment, the door opens, her mother stepping into her room without hesitation. "Darling," her voice, quiet, and soft, in spite of her sole intention being to wake the girl. "Are you up?"

At this, the girl gives answering an honest try, but nothing happens, her body seemingly too weak to respond to her command, or maybe her heart simply feeling too much pain. "Darling?" Her mother's face swims into view above her, and she had the faintest collection of the single time she had ingested the drug they had always called dust, everything moving with the same blurry lack of focus. A hand touches her forehead, her skin feeling like it had been set on fire on contact. "Honey, you're burning up." The face disappears from view, returning an unknown length of time later, joined by her father and brother, all standing beside her bed. Some part of her, just beginning to form, feels annoyed that they could see all of her body, but most of her feels a distinct lack of emotion from it; they were her family, no matter what else, that would always be true, and they all seen her like this countless times. Aside from that, some small sense of alarm blooms; if the entire family had abandoned the dining room, something must be wrong. Her thoughts flowing like mud, she fails to connect the pieces, instead letting the thought drift away pointlessly.

Her parents step back, talking amongst themselves, while her older brother smiles, a smile she had missed, even if it's filled with pity. Reaching down, he takes her hand, and she squeezes back, not wanting to lose his attention, his affection, like she had before, even if his skin feels like fire. Her parents return, moving her brother out of the way. Eventually, they begin to dress her, and she has the sudden, half-mad idea that they were preparing her for school. She knows how important it is, to them, even if she was nothing but a failure. Her father picks her up, holding her in his arms, and she feels safe, and warm, as if she were a small child again, allowed to sleep between them in their bed, safe from the monsters, and the dark, and all of the pretty girls in pink dresses. Her thoughts drift, falling away, as the movement disorientates the girl, lulling her toward sleep while simultaneously making her feel sicker and sicker. She has the vague sensation of being outside, then moving, far too fast, before the lights go away, leaving her with nothing the sweet embrace of oblivion, her fear, pain, and sorrow all left behind.

---

Flu. The diagnosis had been quick, and simple, nothing life-threatening, or mysterious. She had come down with a bug that had been prevalent in her school over the last few weeks. Her stay in the hospital had lasted merely one morning and afternoon, before the young girl had been evaluated, cleared, and sent home, with some medication she couldn't name and a suggestion to avoid strain. Though she couldn't remember who had suggested it, her parents quickly agreed that she wouldn't be going to school for the next week. While some part of her feels a desire to interject, not wanting to miss the Maid Day celebration she had put so much effort into setting up, the rest of her just feels relieved at being free of her classmates and their tormenting, even for a little while. Especially now, as terrible as she feels, both physically and mentally. Any amount of light or sound causes a fresh wave of pain, her family deigning eventually to just seal her away in her room, laying miserably in bed.

With no appetite, and very little interest in drinking, she has little enough reason to venture out, aside from the rare, miserable trip to the restroom. The medication itself brings another layer of annoyance to the event, the girl having never been able to swallow pills, her gag reflex kicking in and causing her to nearly throw up, when at her best. In this state, she feels confident that she would choke and die on the attempt, but every few hours, her mother comes into her room with a glass of water and a large, red pill, forcing her to try and swallow it, again, and again, until it goes down. Hatefully, she complies, not complaining or talking back; on some level, she knows that it will help her get better, but part of her doesn't want to. If she could stay sick forever, she would be able to stay away from school. Aside from that, the pain has given her a powerful distraction from Beth, and the emotions she can't fully sort out. A deeper, more spiteful part of her enjoys the attention of her family, something she had been without for so long.

After the first day, the medication and the sickness win out, dragging the girl into a perpetual state of rest, broken by the occasional bout of waking. During this time, her dreams become even more confusing, her past, present, and things entirely fictional, all blurring together to create quickly fading visions of lives that seem entirely baffling when she's conscious enough to recall any of them. Beth factors into surprisingly little of the mess, as do her immediately family, most people unknown, or acquaintances she barely knew, in situations that didn't fit them at all. She herself was often missing, some part of the girl understanding that she didn't find herself worthy enough to dream of. When she does have a viewpoint, she is nearly always 'someone else', though who this person is remains unclear, and unimportant. The next few days become one long, pointless moment, void of activity or movement, and for a time, the girl feels as if she had actually died, her bed transformed into her coffin. Maid Day passes without notice, as do the following days of celebration, not factoring in a dream the girl has, of a Remnant, towering over her form, the thing bearing her face. The stage is that of the auditorium she once performed in, only this time, when the lights turn off, the monster doesn't stop cutting.

---

The sickness fades with time. After the first several, bedridden days, her parents begin forcing her to get up and walk the length of the house, informing her that whatever pain and discomfort she feels would be preferable to the bedsores and weakened muscles that would result from not doing so. Likewise, her mother forces her to eat, though her appetite hasn't returned in the slightest. She manages to finish the walks, and keep the food down, and soon enough, talk begins of her returning to school, and catching up on missed homework. What attention her parents had paid quickly begins to drop off, as it becomes clear she would be perfectly fine. Her brother keeps her company a while longer, but even he eventually falls back into his work, preparing for college. She doesn't blame them; some part of her knew it wouldn't last, and had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The weekend passes uneventfully, and by the morning of the first school day, she finds herself waking up to her mother's knocking, early in the morning. As miserable as she still feels, she doesn't resist, dressing and heading downstairs to eat as much of her breakfast as she can, ignoring the odd, swimming sensation every time she stands or moves too fast.

Class moves slow, terribly dull, the girl unable to remember much of anything said, more often than not choosing to bury her head in her arms, blocking out the light. The other students don't pull their punches, in spite of her state, taunting and teasing, and every time anyone talks about much enjoyment they got out of the celebration, she can't shake the feeling that they're only saying it to hurt her, though some part of her knows this is ridiculous. The feeling is nothing new; whenever she would hear someone laughing, when walking alone, the automatic assumption is that they're laughing at her. Even without the results, she knows that she failed every exam given that day, not recalling the answers, nor bothering to try. For recess, she merely sits inside, in a dark classroom, the idea of going out into the too-hot playground, under the blaring sun, being the last thing she would want. At long last, the final bell rings out, the girl slowly collecting her belongings, shuffling out the door unnoticed.

Dragging her feet, she makes her way to the gate, the proper exit to the school, watching as the other children pile into cars, their parents driving them home. Before she can stop herself, she imagines what life must be like for someone like that, with parents who actually come all this way just for them, every day. Would they sit together, laughing, watching movies, and playing games? Would they feel safe, and warm, and loved? Do their parents hold them when they cry? Do they even have anything to cry over? Unwillingly, the image of Jack's arm comes to mind, the burns from cigarettes, creating an ugly, permanent scar, a reminder that, despite outward appearances, everyone has problems. None of those other children had a perfect life, without problems or sorrow. She admits to herself that all of the cruelest of her bullies had to learn that behavior from someone, their family likely doing the same to them. The girl finds some solace in this, walking out of the gate and down the path she had traveled so many times before.

The decision to return isn't conscious, not entirely; certainly, she was terrified of seeing Beth again, of finding out, once and for all, what had become of Jack. Her body and spirit are both already exhausted, and the wisest course of action would be to return home and sleep until the sun went away entirely. And yet, she can't erase the image of the scars on Jack's body, the deep, jagged wound on his stomach, or the empty, self-pitying look on Beth's face when she had called herself terrible. Besides, it had been long enough. A certainty grips the girl, that she would either go now, or she would never be able to, and she doesn't think she could live with herself if she never gets closure, in whatever form it may be. She finds the electronics store right where it belongs, though the trip takes nearly an hour longer than it did before, moving as slowly as she is. Slipping into the alleyway, she tries in vain to remember the correct path, trying one turn after another, succeeding in finding every dead end possible, but not the route to her destination. Her body begins to weaken and slow down even more, the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other taking more energy than she has.

The sun dies slow overhead, bringing dusk, then night, and the girl grows no closer to her goal. Slumping against a wall, she listens to the sound of her phone ringing, her parents trying to locate her. She shuts it off, the sudden silence unnerving in the darkness. Sliding down, she sits amongst the garbage, a rat running across her leg, before scampering away, disinterested. She can see discarded needles and used condoms, among the trash, feeling a comical sense of deja vu. Somehow, she knows that nobody will be coming to find her this time. Taking off her hoodie, she folds it up, laying it gingerly on the ground, covering up trash, the smell and sight almost enough to make her gag. Laying down, she tries futilely to find a comfortable position, the jacket becoming a pillow, the concrete transformed into a bed. Closing her eyes, she wonders if she might go to sleep, only to never wake up. She remembers the peaceful feeling of oblivion she had felt, before, free of pain, and sadness, and wonders if it might not be a bad thing. Shivering, her body curled into a ball, the girl slowly drifts toward sleep, all alone.

---

Pain traces the lines of the girl's body, consciousness slamming into her like a truck. The cold, hard concrete below digs into her flesh, her eyes sliding open to gaze at the old, cracked wall across from her, paint chipped away and brick smashed to pieces. Slowly, the girl forces her aching body to roll over, landing on her back with a grunt, as another wave of pain shoots through her frame. Night hangs relentlessly overhead, little light seeping in between the tall old buildings lining the length of the alley, as the child stares at the nothingness stretching endlessly in every direction. The cold has settled in so deeply that she barely notices the shivering anymore, her nose running constantly, to point of painful irritation, as she wipes at it with her sleeve. Feeling the sickness she hadn't entirely battled off, stronger than it had been in days, the girl laughs, bitterly. In the end, it had all been a waste, of time, of effort, of life. Thinking back, she wonders if she had even done anything that wasn't wasteful. If not, then did it matter if this had been pointless? Even if someone else attributed more value to a different act, if it meant nothing to her, there was little difference. Little reason to be alive.

Immediately, she knows that she won't be getting back to sleep, though the exhaustion still weighs heavily on her mind, the illness trying to pull her back into the depths of her delusions. The girl attempts to stand, legs shaking, pressing against the wall for support. No matter what her intentions had been, no matter what she wanted, in that moment, she knows that she needs to get somewhere safe, warm, or she'll run the very real risk of not surviving. As much as she sometimes ponders death, the actual fear of dying sets in quickly, blowing away everything else, causing her to put one foot in front of the next, traveling at random through the passages. Down one large, darker side path, she can see what looks like a figure, laying on the ground, the sight bringing a surge of terror. Though she, herself, had been in the same position merely a minute before, the idea of the person noticing her brings no sense of hope or camaraderie, her mind assuring her that the stranger wouldn't have any good intentions toward her. She presses on, straight ahead, deeper into the maze.

With shaking hands, she finds herself reaching for her backpack. She stops short, standing in place, as the realization hits. She had taken it off, before going to sleep. The pack, bearing her music player, earbuds, all of her school supplies, and even the book she had been reading, had all been left laying in the dark, next to her favorite hooded jacket. She turns around, quickly, meaning to retrace her steps, only to spot something moving, in the distance. A shadowy figure, bearing the appearance of a man; at her gaze, it stops, then steps to the side, hiding behind something further back. Her pulse skyrockets, reaching into her pocket, only to find her phone missing, left lying where she had set it down after she had shut it off. For a long moment, she stares out at the shadows, trying to convince herself that nobody had been there, that she hadn't seen the figure at all. She almost manages to believe it, when the sound reaches her. A deep, raspy cough, from further away. She backs away, one step, then another, as the stranger, realizing it had been spotted, gives up on stealth, rushing into the open and charging at her.

Turning, the girl takes off as fast as she can, wheezing, struggling just to breath, the sickness and exhaustion dragging her down, her shorter limbs giving the stranger an insurmountable advantage. Looking around wildly as she runs, the girl spots a fire escape, leading up out of sight; if she could make it up without being noticed, she would be safe. Moving to the side, she tries to reach the bottom of the ladder, leading up, but her fingers brush nothing but air. Panicking, she's forced to give up on the attempt, the sound of the assailant growing louder, as the distance between them decreases. Running again, ignoring the deep ache spreading through her entire body, she slips down one corridor after another. Just when she thinks she might have a chance of getting away, her foot slides into a deep puddle, ankle twisting painfully. She impacts with the ground an instant later, crying out in pain, as her face hits the pavement painfully, blood flowing down from her busted nose.

Heavy breathing, as the figure catches up, following her cry. The last few feet of distance between them is crossed at a slow, deliberate pace. Pulling herself into a ball, as if making herself a smaller target would somehow save her, the girl squeezes her eyes shut, as a hand grips her roughly, pulling her from the ground. A voice, distantly familiar, breaths next to her ear, as she struggles vainly. "You're Betty's little girl, aren't you." The words rattle around in her head, distorted with pain. Every breath is agony, trying to breathe through her mouth, as lights explode behind her eyes. The man shakes her, roughly, annoyed with her shivering, sniffling state. "No need to be shy. We're all friends here. I bet she's been teaching you all kinds of things." He runs a hand across her face, slowly, and she has to resist the urge to bite at his fingers. Chuckling, he moves his hand lower, reaching into her shirt. "Why don't you show me exactly what you can do."

"Murphy." A second voice, further away, achingly familiar. "What do think you're doing?" Stepping up beside the man, his tail swishing back and forth violently, Ken looks her over, frowning heavily. He lays one large, toned hand on the stranger's arm, squeezing enough to turn the flesh around it white. Chuckling lightly, the man retracts the hand from her shirt, though not before caressing her body one last time. Letting her go, the man turns away. Dropping to the ground, hands crossed over her chest, she sobs quietly. A sudden rush of force, and Ken has the man pinned against the wall. "Get the hell out of here before I tear off your dick and shove it down your throat." Stuttering awkwardly, the man nods, excusing himself. Within a few moments, the two are left alone, the animal man staring down at the shaking, bloody child. With a thud, her backpack lands on the ground beside her. "You should know better than to stay here so late. Stupid kid." He reaches out, setting her dirty, mud streaked jacket over her body. "Get up. I'll take you home."

The girl tries to stand up, but she doesn't make it, her leg giving out the moment she puts any pressure on it, igniting another gasp of pain, as she hits the ground, palm scrapping on the concrete. With a heavy, tired sigh, the man reaches down, lifting the girl from the ground. "Don't go to sleep," he mutters, noticing her eyes, drooping shut, as she begins to succumb to the pain. She nods, mutely, tears continuing to leak from her eyes, as she absorbs the warmth of his body, at last finding some small relief from the cold settling around her skin, like ice. Staring up at the man's face, the thin line of his mouth, the sharp point of his jaw, messy hair nearly covering his eyes, she smiles, murmuring her thanks. "Don't mention it. Scum like that needs to be put in its place. And you're... important, to Beth. Even if she doesn't want to see me anymore, that doesn't mean I should want her to suffer." The girl opens her mouth, to tell the man how wrong he was, how sad the woman had been, how much she wanted him back, but the words don't come. Sinking deeper into the dark, peaceful sensation overtaking her, the girl lets the thought slip away, listening to the low sound of the man's breathing, as they walk through the night.

---

Beth stares out through the crack in the door, eyes wide. "You came back." The girl can't tell if she's talking to Ken, or herself, but even as drowsy as she feels, she can't mistake the relief in her friend's voice. The remainder of the trip had been short, and uneventful, Ken's muscular form scaring off any other vultures, lurking in the night. The sight of Beth's house had immediately washed all of her fear and anxiety away, certain, in that moment, that everything would be all right. It did little enough to dull the pain spreading out through her body, in waves, but the girl could handle pain. Loneliness was a much deeper wound. The woman steps aside, throwing the door open. "Come in, come in... what the hell happened. I'll get you cleaned up." Ken walks over to the couch, setting the girl down in the center, the soft, warm fabric a welcome change from the hard concrete of the alley.

With short, concise sentences, the man explains everything he had seen to Beth, from finding the discarded items on the ground, hearing the pained, terrified shriek, to finding and stopping Murphy's assault. The girl fades in and out, listening to his words, which quickly move on to the argument the two had fought, a week before. She stays conscious enough to realize this is the first time they had spoken, since then, and what little she understands of their hushed voices paints a slightly clearer image of what the siblings had been doing when everything went wrong. Attempting to steal something, something expensive, they had been caught by the owner, who had fought back. It didn't sound very likely that the man was alive. She continues to listen in, hoping to get some word on Jack, but the two get stuck on whether or not it had been worth the risk, Beth simultaneously upset by the lack of support, yet grateful that he had showed up when he did. Eventually, the man sighs, promising to return the next day, when things had calmed down. He casts her one last, hard look, before exiting, slamming the door behind him.

Finally alone, Beth takes a minute to collect herself, processing everything that had happened, over the course of a few short minutes. At length, she glances at the girl, staring up at her from the couch, the woman's face full of worry, and guilt. She looks away. After another minute of staring at the door, she seems to remember her earlier purpose, walking toward the kitchen, returning a while later with a bucket of water and a washrag. She sets the bucket down, kneeling beside the girl. "I knew something like this would happen. I should never have..." She shakes her head, running a hand across her forehead. "Just stay still, okay? This is going to hurt a little." The girl nods, feeling lost, scared, the way she had at the doctor, the only time she had ever gotten surgery. With her free hand, Beth reaches out, squeezing her hand, and the girl finds something secure, in the warm, familiar feeling.

Beth presses the damp rag against her face, wiping at the blood, causing the girl to scream, her grip tightening on the woman's hand. Professionally, Beth keeps going, delicately washing the girl clean, forcing her hands to remain steady every time the girl cries out. After what seems like hours, she finally sets the rag aside, staring down at the girls' face, free of blood, though covered in tears. "I don't think it's broken," she begins, softly. "Everything seems to be in the right place. Just go easy on it, and you'll heal up just fine." The child holds her arms out, weakly, and the woman pulls her close, careful not to accidentally touch her damaged flesh. "You shouldn't have come back." Her voice drops lower, even as she hugs the girl to her body. "The more you come here, the more you'll end up getting hurt... I'd hoped you'd figured that out." The girl shakes her head, slowly, the motion causing her head to ache violently. Beth sighs. "There's really no stopping you, is there." Finally, she releases her grip, letting the girl drop softly back down. "Stay here. I'll be right back."

The child stares up at the ceiling through blurry eyes, listening to the muffled sounds of the old house, as Beth takes the bucket and rags back to the kitchen. Simmering in the dull, glowing pain, the girl ruminates over the events of the last few weeks, from the moment she had met the sly, charming woman, to the day her heart had been shattered to pieces. Idly, she wonders if it would have been better to have never met, for all of the pain and confusion it had caused her. She would still feel empty, dull, lifeless, the way she had for the past several years, but she had been able to bury that pain, a lot of the time. Since she run home crying that day, the pain had become so much deeper. But now she had something to compare it to. Happiness, that she hadn't felt before. A feeling of peace, of acceptance, as if she could just be herself, instead of what someone wanted her to be. Even if she had been used, even if she had been hurt, no matter what happens now, and how bad things get, none of that can erase the happy times she did have. Closing her eyes, she decides that it had been worth it. Despite all of the pain, it wasn't enough to invalidate even a single smile.

Some time later, she awakens from her half-slumber, as a hand brushes her hair. "You really scared me earlier, Sweet Pea." Her eyes stay shut, listening to the quiet flow of the woman's voice. "Opened the door to find you all bloody, pale. Though you might have been dead, right then and there. To tell the truth, I really didn't care about helping you. I saw you that day, looking so scared and innocent, wearing those expensive clothes, and I knew you'd be a fine mark. Took you home, said some pretty words, and I had you eating out of the palm of my hand. Jack, he was the one that got mad. Said you deserved better. But he's a slave to his drug just the same. When I handed him that card, he took it." She laughs, quietly, moving her hand down to stroke the side of the girl's face. "You did whatever I wanted. Even if it was something I never should've asked you to do, you did it. For me. Never had that before. Someone that cared that much. Sure, Jack, he was always there, but he had to be. You could have left. But you stayed, and you loved me, and when you ran away, I..." The hand moves away, leaving coldness in its wake. "I'm sorry. For everything. You deserve better. That's why you can't come back anymore. I'll only ruin your life like I did mine."

"I don't care." Her voice comes low, barely a whisper. Beth flinches back, realizing that the girl had been awake, the entire time. Her brown eyes open slowly, filled with a happy kind of pain. "It's already ruined. There's nothing else." Her hand snakes out, searching for the woman's, finding it. "You said it before. It would be nice if I could be here all the time. So I'll stay here. I don't need to go to school. I'm failing everything anyway. I don't need to go home. They don't care if I'm there or not. Nobody can find me here." She exhales, sharply, trying to keep her emotions in check. "You're my family, now. I'll stay here." The two girls stay silent, for a long moment, their eyes locked, hands clasped together, both far older, more damaged, than they ever should have been. In that moment, they can understand each other. Not completely, but enough, the rest of the world vanishing like so much sand on the beach, washed away by the tide. The moment ends, Beth the first to turn away. Fighting against the tears, threatening to fall from her lashes, the woman turns back, smiling a sad little smile. Slowly, the motion somehow more difficult than it should be, she nods, and pulls the girl into her embrace.

---

"Where's Jack?" The two had been laying together on the couch, Beth holding the girl tightly to her body, for a while, though not nearly long enough. Though silent, the two had both been lost to their thoughts, thinking of the future, wondering what might be in store for them now. The question had been growing in the back of the girl's mind, mostly overshadowed by the sheer happiness she felt, but eventually, her curiosity had grown too strong, forcing her to voice the quarry that she feared the answer to most. She hadn't seen the young man even once since she had arrived, and Beth hadn't gone to check on him, the way she had when he had been unconscious. Though she had spoken of the man, earlier, when she had thought the girl to be sleeping, it had all been in the past tense. While she hadn't sensed any grief in the woman's words, nor any stiffness to the body holding her, she can't shake the ever-present concern in the back of her mind, for the man she had learned to consider a friend.

"He's gone," comes the answer, quietly. The girl's heart skips a beat, dread beginning to stab at her. Noting her reaction, Beth pulls her a little closer, kissing her cheek. "No, honey. He's fine. We did it. You did it. It took a while, but he did get better. But he blamed himself for what happened. It was his plan, to go out there, to get... what we went to get. I almost didn't come back, that knife was only inches off. I guess he feels like he almost got me hurt. I tried to tell him, I wouldn't be here at all if he hadn't reacted so fast, fought the guy off. But he wouldn't hear it. Left a note, saying he'd come back when he felt he deserved to." She sighs, heavily, breath hot against the girl's face. "I wanted to go look for him, but I couldn't leave this place all alone. I thought, maybe you'd come back, and..." She trails off, shaking her head. "I'm worried about him, of course, but he can take care of himself, better than anyone I know. I have to believe that."

The girl mumbles her agreement, relieved to hear that he had survived, even if she couldn't see him. Recalling the last time they had been together, he had awoken to her running away, in tears. The girl feels a stab of guilt, wondering if her antics had fed into his feeling, forcing him to leave the way he had. She dismisses the thought as best she can, telling herself that everything would work out. It had to, now that she had found Beth again. Ken would be coming back tomorrow, and the two would make up. Jack would even show up again soon, she's certain, and they would all be sitting together on the couch, talking and laughing. The woman stirs, gently separating herself from the girl, sitting up. Fumbling around on the table, she retrieves a small, rolled cigarette that the girl recognizes immediately. Noticing her stare, the woman laughs, quietly. "Got a little bit left. It goes slower when it's just me to smoke it." The girl forces herself to sit up, laying back against the couch, a wave of dizzy pain shooting through her brain at the movement. Beth lights the end of the roll, putting it between her lips and inhaling, sharply. Blowing smoke out into the air, she holds it out to the girl. "It'll help with the pain," she murmurs. The girl considers, for a long, pregnant moment. At last, she reaches out, gripping the cigarette. Slipping it into her mouth, the way she had seen the others do it, she tastes the older girl's lipstick. Her vision blurring against the smoky room, she braces herself- and breaths.

The world becomes something new, as they pass the drug back and forth. Everything in the dimly lit room seems to shine with color that can't be seen, calling to her in soundless voices, demanding her attention, all speaking at once, yet not overpowering. The pain in her body doesn't decrease, but it doesn't matter quite so much, easily blocked out by the intensity of reality. Turning to regard Beth in full, she realizes that the rest of the world pales in comparison to even a single inch of the woman's face. She doesn't lose control of her inhibitions, as much as losing the concept of control entirely. Reaching out, her hands brush against the woman's face, exploring every angle and curve as if it were sculpted from the same porcelain as the beautiful statues upstairs. A large, euphoric smile breaks out on her face, as she moves closer to the woman, pressing their bodies together, moving her hands down to the woman's neck, shoulders, chest, even as she rubs her face against Beth's, every touch as intense as fire, pulling her along in its wake. Her pulse speeds up, breathing becoming heavier, as she works her hands beneath the woman's clothing.

"That's... enough, Sweet Pea." Beth grips her hands, holding the girl back, her face burning with scarlet. The cigarette sits forgotten on the couch, laying in the small bit of space between them, light burned out. Trying to regain her composure, the woman gently pushes the girl back, to her original position, putting some distance between them. Laughing, softly, she picks up the roll, lighting it anew. "I think this might be a little strong for you. Should have known better than to use the good stuff for your first time." The girl tries to focus her mind against the slowly fading intensity poking at every angle of her brain, realizing exactly what she'd been doing. Blushing heavily, she looks away, murmuring a soft apology. Beth shakes her head, rubbing the girl's hand, barely managing not to flounder her words. "Don't feel bad. It affects everyone differently, and you're at about that age. It would have been weirder if you didn't react that way, probably." The woman stands, turning away, toward the kitchen. "I'll go and... get us some snacks. Be good while I'm gone." Beth exits the room, leaving the girl to stare down at her hands, shaking softly. After a moment, she recognizes it for what it is: not regret, but excitement. She had felt something strange, unexpected, and while she isn't sure what to make of it, somewhere inside, she knows she wants to feel it again.

Returning a short time later, Beth sets down a large bowl of chips on the table, sitting down beside the girl, warmth emanating outward like a fire. Forcing herself to stare straight ahead, to keep her eyes from wandering too far, the girl attempts to calm the rush of input coming from every direction, her brain seeming to ache. Reaching forward, she tries to grab one of the chips from the bowl, missing, her hand not quite obeying her commands, fingers twitching randomly. Wondering how the others manage to function so well, she retracts the limb, choosing instead to just lay back and close her eyes, until the feeling passes. Behind her eyelids are a world of memories, and not her own. An old, scowling man, holding a knife. Jack, a few years younger, screaming something incoherent, as the man lunges forward, blade just barely avoiding his face as he pushes himself out of the way, landing heavily on the hardwood floor. A body laying on the ground, leaking blood- so much, too much- while a younger, more innocent Beth cries on top of it. The man slams a fist into the boy's face, once, twice, a third time, before stopping, the youth going still on the ground, as blood leaks from his shattered visage. He raises the knife over the boy's throat. Reaching under the limp, lifeless body, Beth grabs something, small, black, staining her hands red as she pulls, desperately. After a long, agonizing moment, it comes free. Pointing the gun at the man, a sob catching in her throat, she pulls the trigger.

The girl opens her eyes. The shaking has grown worse, and for a painful moment, it's all she can do to avoid vomiting, holding her hands over her mouth. The vision had seemed almost real, as if she had stood in that room, watching everything as it happened, unable to change anything. Ignoring the nearly-overpowering yearning settled throughout her body, she turns to Beth, wondering what had just happened. The woman has taken to staring at the table, lost in thought, idly rubbing her wrist. Slowly forcing herself to calm, the younger girl turns away, wondering if what she had seen was the truth, merely a fantasy concocted by what little she had learned of the sibling's histories, or some combination of the two. It doesn't matter, she decides. Whatever had happened in the past, that wouldn't change who they were, or what they meant to her. Reaching out, she takes Beth's hand in hers, ignoring the way her fingers twitch upward, wanting to explore. For her part, the woman just squeezes back, seemingly undisturbed by whatever dark thoughts might be running through her mind, or by what the child had done before. Praying that her voice will make it through the haze of her brain, the child whispers. "You're a good person, Beth."

Staring straight ahead, the woman takes another drag from the rolled up paper, the colorful smoke flowing into the air around her. "Maybe," she murmurs, her voice unable to mask her disbelief. The two sit in silence, the child eventually calming enough to lean her head against the woman's shoulder. When the dust finally runs out, the woman drops what's left of the roll in an ashtray, wrapping her arm around her companion. Smoke fills the room, giving it a hazy, somber atmosphere. Just as the girl thinks she might be slipping away, into her dreamscape, random bits of chatter reaching her ears from directions that don't exist, the woman speaks, drawing her back to reality, the pain in her face and ankle flaring up spitefully as the drug fades away. "This place is broken." Her voice seems to echo through the room, as if a choir of voices were ringing out in agreement. "I don't know if there's anything good in me. But there is in you. You deserve better than this." The girl isn't sure if the woman knows she's awake. She isn't entirely sure, herself. Leaning against the girl, Beth closes her eyes. "And I'm gonna make sure you get it." There's a certainty to the older girl's voice, a conviction that warms the child's heart. More than that, it's the sense of something she had yearned for, for so long, that finally eases her mind enough to erase the images of her family, of the terrible things she had envisioned, and of the uncertainly of what would happen next, allowing her to fall into a comfortable, dreamless sleep. What she heard, at the edge of the woman's voice, was love.

---

The soft, muffled chirping of birds stirs the girl from her slumber, opening her eyes to take in the dark, quiet room around her. Though she had been inside only once before, she immediately recognizes the light, pink paint of the walls, and the soft silk on the bed beneath her. A warm, soft body lays close to hers, and she instinctively nuzzles herself closer to it, eyes sliding shut as she listens to the woman breath. She could barely remember falling asleep on the couch, the night before; the trip into the bedroom was lost entirely on her exhausted mind. Stifling a yawn, and the desire to curl herself up under the covers, and the warm, slender arms nearby, she sits up, noting with some satisfaction that some mix of the dust and a proper night's rest seem to have stolen away the last of her sickness, and most of her pain, though a dull ache remains at her slightly-swollen ankle. With a smile, she turns to the sleeping form beside her, wearing a comfortable nightgown, hair messy and spread out wildly, the smell of shampoo hanging in the air. The sight causes her breath to catch. After a moment, she turns away, carefully getting to her feet, wishing she knew how to make a breakfast good enough to match what Beth had prepared for her, so many mornings back.

As gently as she can, the child crosses the room, taking a moment to stop and admire the beautiful porcelain sculptures on the way. Making it to the door without causing any of the floorboards to creak too terribly, the girl softly closes it behind her, stepping into the hall beyond. Down the stairs, and into the kitchen, the girl moves quickly, intent on doing whatever she can with what time she has before her friend awakens. Finding very little in the fridge besides soda and beer, the girl frowns, locating a stepladder and digging through the overhead cabinets. Pancake mix, which she has no idea how to use. She moves it to the side, figuring that burning down the woman's house would be a sorry form of repayment. My house, she corrects, finding herself smiling at the thought. Past the cake mix, she finds a box of cereal. Opening it carefully, she sniffs, and finds nothing rotten or off about it, though she isn't certain how cereal would smell if it goes bad. Inhaling the powerful taste of the sugary box, she takes it down as she goes, figuring it would do them both well. A chocolate flavor. Everyone likes chocolate. Heading back to the fridge, she digs around behind cans and bottles until she finds a gallon of slim milk; not her favorite, but it would do. The expiration date informs her that it was safe to use. Until tomorrow, anyway.

Carrying the twin bowls filled almost to overflowing, the girl carefully makes her way up the stairs, trying to balance everything. Halfway up, past the hole in the wall. Near the top, only a couple steps left. She raises her foot to reach the top, bringing it down at the wrong angle. Her ankle lets out a screech of pain, in protest, as her leg gives out, sending the girl falling forward. Miraculously, she manages to avoid smacking her face on the ground, managing nothing more than to hurt her foot a little bit, but the tray slams to the ground, making a loud crash, as the bowls spill all over her clothing, as well as the ground. The bedroom door opens a moment later, a panicked Beth rushing out to stare at the girl, quizzically. Looking more embarrassed than hurt, the girl stares down at her soiled outfit, as the woman helps her to her feet. "I... made breakfast..." She murmurs, quietly, face burning red. Laughing softly, the woman leads her into the room, setting a towel on the bed, and the girl on top of it, mostly keeping the milk from staining the sheets.

"I'll clean up," the woman calls, heading into the hallway, the girl watching through the open door. "And get us some more cereal. It was a sweet gesture, but, for today, you can leave the meals to me." More to herself than the girl, she adds, "I'm just amazed you managed to find this stuff." Quickly retrieving another towel, from Jack's room, she lays it on the ground, soaking up most of the fluid. Following this, she heads down, taking the dishes with her, returning after a couple minutes with more food. The girl shivers uncomfortably, feeling the cold drip down her body, entirely erasing the comfortable, sleepy feeling that had enveloped her before. Beth enters the room, setting the tray down on the bed, and sitting beside it, casually running a hand through the girl's hair. "Eat up, and then we'll get you changed." Frowning, the girl suddenly realizes one error in her earlier estimate: all of her clothing was still with her parents. She doubts she would be able to fit in any of Beth's outfits, and Jack's would be entirely out of the question. Quietly, she mentions this to the woman, who stops eating long enough to wave her concern aside. "I should still have a few of the things from when I was your age, lying around somewhere."

Nodding, the girl brings her spoon to her mouth, chewing on the chocolatey mess, knowing that it's almost certainly bad for her, and not caring in the slightest. The two continue to eat, in peaceful silence, the girl watching as the cereal slowly turns the milk to chocolate. Finishing the last bite, she raises the bowl to her mouth, drinking the remaining milk as if from a cup. Beth watches, eyebrow raised, causing the girl to set the bowl down, embarrassed. "S-sorry. I got carried away." Laughing, the older girl brings her own bowl to her lips, copying the girl's movements, before giving her a wink. Collecting the empty dishes, the woman sets them, and the tray, on her dresser, out of the way. Following this, she begins opening drawers, digging through shirts, shorts, dresses, underwear, but finding nothing that would fit the eleven year old. Messing with the hem of her shirt, the girl watches as Beth shuts the last drawer with a sigh. "It feels pretty dry already. I could just keep wearing this."

"For the rest of your life?" The woman shakes her head. "Anyway, it won't be necessary. C'mon, follow me." The girl follows her out of the room, down the hall, to the room she had tried and failed to open before. "We keep most of our old stuff in here. Most of it, we don't have a use for. Some of it's just too painful to keep looking at all the time." Leaning against the door, the woman begins shoving it open, the door creaking slowly. With a grunt, she turns to the girl. "Normally I just make Jack do it, or Ken if he's available; door likes to stick pretty bad." Walking closer, the girl begins pushing against the door as well, figuring even her small amount of strength might do something. A few more seconds, and the two have cleared enough of a path to get in and out, light creeping in to illuminate the room just enough to give the girl an idea of what's inside.

Boxes line the room, stacked one on top of another, random bits of various items sticking out from the tops of a few, like the limbs of abandoned corpses. The floor itself is manageable, full of only small knickknacks to get underfoot, and what seemed at least three decks of playing cards, scattered across the space. The room has two windows, but they, like those below, had been boarded over from outside, blocking out the light. Sliding into the room, Beth leads the girl further inside, to a stack of boxes near the back wall, bearing the title, drawn in marker, of 'Clothes'. Opening the first box, she finds old jerseys from what was once Jack's school's team, along with several pairs of shorts and some blue jeans, the latter of which the girl feels would suit her just fine. However, Beth moves the box aside, opening the one below, to reveal faded blouses and skirts a bit too short. She pulls these from the box, along with a pair of panties that had once been white, handing them to the girl. "Go ahead; see if they fit."

Staring down at the items, the girl mumbles quietly about heading to the bathroom, hugging the ensemble close to her chest to avoid dropping anything, as she carefully navigates her way toward the door. Smirking, Beth calls after her. "Little Miss Independent, eh? Or are you too shy? You seemed pretty comfortable last night!" Hurrying her pace, face glowering red, the girl slips out of the room and into the restroom on the opposite end of the hall. Securely shutting the door, the blushing girl makes short work of stripping off her old, soiled outfit, staring at herself in the mirror, noticing the dirt staining her body, for the first time. Frowning, an image comes to mind, of her, laying on the hard concrete, garbage and mud caking her form. Turning the faucet, she frowns, as no water flows from it. Still staring at the tainted reflection of her body, in the mirror, the girl realizes that the woman had allowed her to lay with her all night, to wear her clothing, and sit on her bed, when she had been this messed up. Slowly, she picks up her old clothing, putting it back on.

By the time she exits the restroom, Beth has closed the door, leaning back against it. The woman frowns softly, staring at her. "They don't fit? I knew I should have left it open. Stupid." The girl shakes her head, shamefully walking toward the woman, handing her belongings back to her. "What? You don't like them, then?" The girl keeps shaking her head, even as she wraps the first tear slips down her face. Kneeling down, Beth looks her in the eye. "Hey, Sweet Pea, don't cry. Tell me what's wrong." Quietly, the girl tries to explain her feelings, the shame she felt for messing all of the woman's stuff up, the happiness she felt, because Beth had let her. Sighing, the older girl ruffles the girl's hair. "You worry too much, sometimes, kiddo." She smiles, and the girl can't help but notice her resemblance to her brother, in that moment. "I said it's fine if you wear these. You can keep 'um, even. And all the rest of whatever'll fit you, if you want. You're more important than some old clothes." Sniffling, the girl hugs the woman, nodding slowly. Rubbing her back, soothingly, the woman whispers, "But you can take a bath here, if it's bothering you that much."

---

Staring at the mirror in the downstairs restroom, the girl smiles, her blonde hair flowing loosely about her head, dripping with water. Her clean, pink skin sets a fine contrast against the dirt-and-tear streaked visage she had borne before. Running the towel through her hair one last time, the girl makes sure she's dry enough, before slipping on the panties, feeling oddly uncomfortable with wearing underwear that had been worn by someone else. Following this, she dons the shirt, stenciled lettering glittering out the words 'Cutest Girl Ever', entirely different from the blank, nondescript cloth the girl normally wore. Finally, she pulls up the skirt, frowning as it fails to come anywhere close to her knees, much less covering them, her legs absolutely exposed. Briefly, the girl wonders if she can get away with never going outside again, the idea of Beth seeing her like this traumatizing enough, much less complete strangers.

Collecting the shampoo, towel, and assorted other items Beth had given her, along with her old outfit, the girl exits the room, trying to see over the massive pile of stuff in her arms. Beth, sitting on the living room couch, just laughs. "It'd have been okay to make two trips, you know. Put that down, so I can see you." Setting the pile down beside the woman, she stands awkwardly as Beth's eyes run up and down her body. Turning when the woman asks, she finds herself growing more embarrassed the longer she's inspected. Finally, Beth tells her to sit down, the girl falling onto the cough right beside the woman. "You look great," she concludes, smiling. "I hope you like it. We don't have much money, right now, so I can't get you much else, but anything I have is yours." The girl nods, while trying to find a position where the skirt actually covers her crotch properly, frowning slightly at the difficulty, and more so, at how amusing Beth seems to find it.

After a while, the girl grows a bit more comfortable, listening as her friend recalls a time she had made a bet with Jack, ending with the man dressed in nothing more than a dress and high heels. Smiling at the image, the child leans against the woman, asking random questions about the young man, curious about what he had been like when he was younger. The topic soon moves to Beth herself, the woman telling stories of her time in school, several causing an old, sympathetic pain to flare up in the girl's chest. Regardless of the differences between them, the girl is left acutely aware that neither of their lives had gone so wonderfully. Recalling the words Jack had spoken to her once, she feels she can finally understand his meaning, with everything she had learned in the weeks since. Beth turns the tables after a time, asking the girl to tell her a story of her own life, a happy time that she still held on to.

Thinking back, it takes only a few seconds for the girl to settle on one memory, above the rest. "There was a field trip, at school," she begins. "I was pretty young at the time, and it was a week long. I didn't want to leave my family, and mom and dad didn't think I should, either, so I got to stay home that entire week. No field trip, no school, no homework, just sitting at home with my brother and playing games. We even had the new Maid Quest Portable that had just come out, so we spent hours seeing who could get further in their copy..." She trails off, smiling at the memory. "It was a long time ago, but it was a lot of fun. " Staring at the table, and the old, stale chips that had been forgotten the night before, the girl speaks quietly, more to herself, than the woman. "I wish I could bring him here too." Despite her best attempt to put on a smiling face, Beth can easily read her sadness, holding the girl a little closer. The two sit in silence, just enjoying each others' warmth, until the doorbell rings, causing them both to jump.

"I'll get it." Cautiously, Beth stands up, moving over to the door to peek out through the porthole. Relieved, she turns to the girl. "It's Ken," she calls, as she opens the door. The man steps through a second later, standing awkwardly, arms crossed over his chest. "Come on, Kenny, sit down." With a sigh, the man complies, following the woman to the couch. Beth sinks into it beside the girl, Ken landing on the woman's other side. Staring at the girl, it takes the man a moment to realize what's different. He gives her a nod, as greeting, before turning to stare at the empty holonet. Forcing back the sudden impulse to giggle, the girl realizes that Ken was actually feeling even more nervous than she is. Beth clears her throat. "So, everything's calmed down now. We talked it out, and she'll be staying here from now on." The man nods, slowly. "Jack's still off doing whatever it is he does." Another nod. Beth sighs. "Kenny, come home. I need you. She needs you."

Tail twitching rigidly behind him, the man lets out a heavy sigh. "I want to. I miss you. I miss us. But you're dangerous, Beth." It's the woman's turn to nod, this time, unable to deny his allegation. "What we had was great. The best thing that ever happened to me." The man looks pointedly away, trying to hide the faint redness to his face, so unused to showing his feelings so openly. The girl wonders if it would be better if she left the two to their privacy, but Beth just runs a hand over her leg, telling her to stay. Coughing, Ken seems to find the words he's looking for. "We make each other worse. With you, I'm lazy, content, never trying to reach a better place. This isn't where I want to be in five years. This isn't where I want you to be, or Jack, or her." His eyes glance at the girl for a moment, causing him to scowl. "This place will ruin us all if we stay, and with me, you'll never leave. I can't sit by and watch as you get yourself killed."

Beth inhales, considering the mans' words seriously. When she speaks, her voice is shaky. "I know. You're right. We can't live here. We never really have been. Just surviving." Absently, her hand brushes across the girl's leg. "I want better, too. For all of us. Together. I've been thinking a lot lately. About a way to get there." The man looks over at her, suspicious. The two lock eyes for a short, painful moment, and she looks away first. "It's a little dangerous, yeah. And we could get in a lot of trouble. But it would be the last dangerous thing we'd ever have to do. We could be out of this. Out of here. Not have to worry every day of our lives." Her voice gets a bit louder, a bit more confident. "Baby, I know we can do it, I know we can make it, like we always talked about. Think about it; our own luxury apartment, you could get cleaned up, get into radio, I know you've always wanted to. I could focus on my art. I would actually have something beautiful to draw, instead of this dark, horrible place. We could have it all... we can do it. But not without you."

Ken stares at the woman, long and hard. Just as the girl becomes convinced that he won't speak at all, he breaks the silence, the words coming rough. "I'll think about it. I'll get back to you soon." Standing, he crosses over to the door. "It's better if I don't know any of the details. Not now. You can fill me in, if I..." He shakes his head. "Don't do anything stupid, Beth." The woman walks over, locking the man in a passionate kiss. Looking away, the girl ignores the odd, stabbing pain in her chest, at the sight, hugging her knees to her body. Breathing deeply, Ken grins, before gently moving the woman back. "You've always been good at debate." He forces the smile from his face, taking a measured step back. "You'll have my answer within the next couple days. Don't do anything stupid," he repeats, less harshly. With one last, longing stare, the man slips out the door, closing it behind him. Crossing back over to the couch, Beth wipes at her mouth, smiling. Sitting down beside the girl, she insists that everything is going to be all right. As the pain in her chest digs a little deeper, the girl isn't sure she believes it.

---

"Murphy Wright." Beth's voice comes quietly, carrying just a hint of disdain. It had been several hours since Ken had left. After a time, the two girls had settled at the kitchen table, staring down at an unfolded newspaper, as the older woman points out a specific article buried amongst the text. "A local politician, and well-regarded by the public in Akkierens. He donates a little to charity and puts on a nice smile for the cameras, so nobody looks into him enough to see the stuff he gets into on his off-time. They don't know that he used to live in the slums, just like us. Or how many people he clawed through to get out. The man's a perverted asshat with no respect for anyone but himself." Beth subconsciously rubs her arms with her hands, before reaching out to turn the page to a full report, a picture bearing the man's face. The girl stares at it, a shudder moving through her body, as she takes in the image of the man she had seen, twice before. After a moment, the woman continues, voice lower. "He's made a profit off of collecting and reselling old relics, things that don't belong to him. From the lost Varnadria, or just what he can manage to buy from scalpers and thieves. Tracks down who it originally belonged to, when he can, and charges insane prices just to give a piece of their lives back. The things he can't sell for profit, he keeps for his own. Thinks it makes him special somehow."

Frowning, the girl nods in agreement, having no evidence to prove the woman's claims, yet no reason to doubt them, either. Faintly, she remembers the way the man had stuck his hand down her shirt, running his fingers across her bare flesh, another shudder passing through her at the memory. Squinting, the child stares down at the too-small text, trying to make heads or tails of it. The article seemed to be detailing the man's accomplishments in the past, what he hoped to do in the future, and information on some sort of campaign he planned to announce his involvement in. The girl bites at her nails, wondering why he would announce how he would be involved, before announcing that he would be, at all. It seems redundant, and it leaves her wondering if people were supposed to pretend they didn't know until the appropriately dramatic time. With a sigh, she decides that trying to understand politics isn't a hobby she'll invest much time in. Turning to her friend, she switches to a different train of thought. "You seem to know a lot about him. He seemed to know you, too. And you just happened to have this paper laying around. Who is he to you?" Some part of her feels bad for asking, prying into her friend's personal business, but she knows they have to be open with each other, and that the woman wanted her to know all of this, for whatever reason.

Beth hesitates a long moment, lifting a bottle of alcohol to her lips, taking a long drink. "I got involved with him a few times, when I needed cash. Sold him... a lot of things. Some drugs, some stuff my old man left behind. He was a cop, you know that? Sometimes found stuff on his raids that he didn't report to the station. Took it home with him. After he died, we had no use for most of it." She speaks coldly, merely stating the facts, her words void of any personal attachment, as if speaking of someone else's past. "But, yeah. Sold a lot of stuff to ol' Murphy. Did a lot of things I wish I could take back. But I needed the cash. And that's one thing he's got plenty of." Forcing a smile, burying the shame that had creeped into her voice for just a moment, she squeezes the girl's hand. "It doesn't matter what he did to me, but he never should have touched my family. Should have known better. Bastard thinks he's invincible, that he can do whatever he wants? Well, he's not a good guy, he doesn't deserve what he has, and he doesn't need it." There's a dangerous glint in her eyes, as Beth continues her speech, looking dangerous as a livewire, and twice as alluring. Turning to the girl in full, she grins. "And I'm gonna take it from him."

Some part of her mind protests against the idea; surely, if what the man were doing was illegal, or really as bad as it seemed, someone would have found out by now, and he would have been punished. Even if he were well regarded, and had money, that shouldn't mean he can just get away with whatever he does. A dark, quiet part of her mind reminds her of how many times she had seen Beth or Jack casually ignoring all the rules. How many times she, herself, had broken them. Drinking, taking drugs, running away from home, skipping school, stealing money. The realization hits her hard- at the time, none of it had seemed like a big deal, or a problem, but in the last couple months, she had managed to become an entirely different person. Maybe that's how it is for everyone, she ponders. At the time, it just doesn't seem like an issue, until you wake up and realize that you're one of the bad guys. Sighing, she wonders if taking that money from him would make them just as bad as Murphy himself. 'Them', because she certainly wouldn't let Beth handle it alone. Not after what had happened to Jack. Finding her voice, she murmurs, "How are we going to do it?"

Pointing to a part of the article the girl had merely skimmed over, Beth smirks. "I'm glad you asked. There's going to be a big gala event in a few days. Murphy loves to show off, his cars, women, watches, whatever he can blow his money on. He'll be there all night. While he's out, his estate will be practically empty. Just the little security he keeps on hand around the clock, and a few cleaners. All we need to do is get in, find something we can get a good price for, and get out. We won't need much; just enough to get us set up. Ma wasn't from here. Came from Ilskaieh originally. Still got some family over there, nice people. I'm sure they'd be willing to take us in, until we get on our feet, start making real money. But the trip there's gonna cost way more than we've got, especially for four. That's why we're doing this. If Murphy really cares about helping the less fortunate, then he shouldn't mind. And we'll take so little, he probably won't even notice it's gone." With a wink, she folds up the newspaper, setting it aside. "Best part is, we won't even need to break in. Wright 'graciously' invited me to his house a few times, and I made sure to memorize the code."

The child listens quietly, as her friend discusses her plan in more detail, thoughts turned half toward a future unknown, traveling alongside the people who had been kindest to her, toward a life filled with happiness, free from stress, worry, and obligation. The rest of her musing turns to regard the life she had left behind, her mother, her father, and, more than either, her sibling. On one hand, she had already decided to leave them, to stay with Beth and the others, but she had always held on to the idea, in the back of her mind, that she could go back to them. No matter what else, she felt certain they would welcome her, if not with open arms, then without much protest. Moving to Ilskaieh would cut off that chance entirely. If everything fell apart, she would be stranded on her own, in a distant city, away from all that she had known. Much of her life in Akkierens had been miserable, but it had also grown comfortable in some ways. And it would be risky. If the family Beth mentioned turned out to be less inviting than she expected, they could end up on the streets, with nothing, even worse off than they are now.

Eventually, the woman reaches a lull in her conversation, turning to the girl for her opinion. Hesitantly, she considers the situation from as many angles as she can find. The mission itself would require more than a little risk, and it could all end up being for naught. However, she feels certain that Beth would go through with it, regardless of whether or not she agrees. As the woman had once informed her, she could be really hardheaded when she wants. Aside from the risks, the reward could be exceptional, erasing all of their worries and finally giving them all a chance for a future. Some part of her whispers, traitorously, that it wouldn't be too terrible if she did get caught; of all of them, she was the one the courts would take pity on most. Trying to shove the cruel voice as far down as she can, she assures herself that it wouldn't matter. Without Beth and the others, there would be no point in mercy. She would end up locked away regardless, either in the prison of the justice system, or of the life she had lived before. Finally, she turns to the woman, coming to a decision. Even if they ended up homeless, with nothing, they would have each other, and that was worth more. "It sounds like a good plan," she smiles, timidly, taking the woman's hand. "I think everything's going to be all right." Echoing the words the woman had spoken just a few hours before, she squeezes her hand, and tries to believe.

Chapter 4 - Kindness
Three days had passed since the child had left her old life behind. Ken hadn't given an answer, yet, and with only two days left before the gala, the girls had begun to grow nervous. Though the older woman insisted that they could accomplish their objective without the man, the girl couldn't ignore the way Beth never held her gaze when saying it. Eventually, she had decided to take her friend's mind off the matter entirely, at least for a little while. The plan had already been finalized, so she figured there was little point dwelling. Sinking onto the couch, the girl reaches over and presses a button on the holonet broadcaster, the screen lighting up after a moment to show the fighting game Jack and Ken had played so often, the familiar music bringing a sense of nostalgia. Turning to Beth, she reaches for the controllers, setting one beside her. "It always looked fun when the boys were playing, but I have no idea what I'm supposed to do, and I don't want to play alone." Trying to look as innocent as possible, she pouts cutely, noting that it felt a little fun to manipulate the woman, even if for her own good. "Could you teach me?"

Crossing her arms, Beth gives the screen a look that would kill any living thing it landed on, before turning to the girl, resisting her charms entirely. "I suppose it couldn't hurt to play a little." For all of a second. Sitting down, she picks up the remote, directing it to a screen where they could play against each other. "You know, you're really too young to be playing this type of thing." She laughs, softly. "Hell, I'm too young to be playing it. And I'm not very good either; I mostly just watched. Or listened from the other room, with how loud they set it." With a bemused shake of her head, she selects a character, a tall, shiny figure that looks like a robot, a man wearing a large suit of armor, or a robot wearing a large suit of armor. "Know who you wanna be?" The girl looks over the selection, to find most of the male characters to be muscled, shirtless, exceptionally tall, with way too many sharp spikes, or some combination of those features. The woman aren't any better; the few that even look entirely human are mostly nude, nearly as tall as the men, or some weird type of fetish. She does find one character that seems to suit her, a fairly short girl in a uniform, though she also has a really, really big scythe. That seemed to be growing out of her back. Figuring the choice to be as good as any other, she shrugs, and confirms.

The round starts within a moment, the area they're placed on filled with lava, bodies hanging from hooks in the background. She takes a moment to just stare at the utter violence of the entire scene, wondering what sort of person would want to purposely play something like that to begin with. Pressing a couple buttons, to get a feel for the controls, she watches as the character sends the scythe across the screen, hitting the robot/armor thing and causing an eruption of blood, as it screams. With a sigh, she shakes her head. The girl had never been one for horror movies; less because they scared her, and more because they were far too over the top, and a little pointless. Most of the casts existed just to die, without any character, or reason to care about them at all. She had read a couple horror novels in the past, that stretched for hundreds of pages, with very little death. They had been much more terrifying, because the fates of the characters actually mattered to her. The robot- well, robots don't bleed, so likely some sort of living creature- gets up, rushing across the screen to slam her character into the ground. Deciding to just ignore the brutality itself, to focus on learning the game, she shuts off her mind, focusing on fighting.

The match doesn't last long. However little skill Beth had with the game, the woman had an obvious advantage over the complete newcomer, winning with most of her health intact. As the scythe-wielding girl collapses to the ground, a cinematic begins, the enemy's arm transforming into a drill, which it stabs all the way through the girl's body, before lifting it into the air. A blood effect showers over everything, before the thing reaches up and viciously tears off her head. "Seriously." The child sets down the controller, feeling a little sick. "Could they be any more violent?" Beth just laughs, informing her that this was only a normal victory, and that using a special move would be at least twice as bad. Picking the controller back up, she closes the game. "Maybe we should play something else..." The other options pass by, a shooting game involving the deaths of countless people, some sort of sports game where every character was female, and in a bikini, and... "Maid Quest 6?" A fairly normal, family-friendly roleplaying game, and certainly not something she had expected, considering the other content on the set. For a moment, she considers loading it up, but the game's only for one person, and the entire point to the venture was to let Beth unwind a little. She moves to the next game, finding a multiplayer platform game, which she opens.

Though the game seems simple enough, the two quickly find that the puzzles grow more and more complex, demanding split-second timing, and an extreme degree of synchronization. The duo become absorbed in the game for a time, trying to figure out the mechanics, though more often than not dying to the same traps and pitfalls that they had fallen at, six times before. In spite of their constant demise, and forced restarts, most of their time is filled with laughter, at each other, themselves, and the game entirely. About half an hour in, the girl looks over at her friend, all smiles, shining bright in the light from the net, and realizes that she's in love. The revelation isn't sudden, or shocking, but the culmination of something she had been feeling for a while, as if she had been working on a puzzle, and had just found the missing piece. Some part of her wonders if this made her strange; every couple she had ever seen had consisted of a man and a woman. Another part of her wonders what her friend would say if she knew. If she could feel the same way. The thought makes her heart beat faster. She doesn't say anything, just smiling a little wider, as she turns back to the game, letting herself get lost for a while.

---

Ken shows up a short time later, rapping his knuckles against the door. Pausing the game, Beth turns to the girl with a grin. "This was a lot of fun, Sweet Pea. Thank you." The child smiles back, but the woman never sees it, already crossing toward the door. She glances through the peephole, wasting no time in throwing the door open and pulling the man inside, despite the difference in their strength. Ken offers a quiet greeting, mildly surprised to find the display on, the girl still holding her controller. Staring at the ground in embarrassment, she barely manages a response, feeling lightly uncomfortable in Beth's old wardrobe. The woman had washed the clothing she had worn on arrival, but the child found herself unable to don the clothing, partially out of protest, the items a symbol of her old life, and partially because it would feel disrespectful, wearing that over all of the stuff Beth had been kind enough to offer. Numbly, she watches as the woman leads Ken to the couch, hand clasped tightly in his, as the two sit beside each other.

Softly, her voice barely hiding her hope and desperation, Beth asks the man if he had come to a decision. Somberly, the man stares at the screen, at length, his tail curved around his waist like a belt. Letting out a heavy breath, he nods. "I have." He squeezes the woman's hand, once, and lets go. "I don't know what you're planning, but I don't think you should so it. Especially with her here." The animal-tailed man glances at the girl, as the smile fades from Beth's face. "But you'll do it anyway," he continues. "If I'm there, I could keep you in line." Turning, he locks eyes with the woman, frowning. "Tell me whatever I need to know. You can count on me." Joyously wrapping her arms around his neck, Beth begins explaining in earnest, the process expedited by Ken's foreknowledge of their mark's past, the man more often than not merely nodding along. Beth falls silent, letting him take everything in. Running a hand through his hair, Ken gives a short, humorless laugh. "You've put a lot of thought into this. It almost sounds like it could actually work."

"It will, Kenny." Beth traces a hand down the man's shirt, staring into his eyes. She smiles, and the man smiles right back, soft music flowing from the net to fill the silence, as the girl hugs her knees a little closer to her chest, tracing the patterns on the wooden floor. Trying in vain to shut out the soft, whispered words between the couple, the child tries to ignore her jealousy, understanding what the dark, hurtful feeling is, on an instinctive level. After a time, Beth turns to the girl, as if just remembering she were there. "Sweet Pea, mind giving us some privacy? Ken and I've got lots to discuss. Go wait upstairs; I'll be up in a bit." With a slow, resigned nod, the girl pushes off the couch, getting to her feet, murmuring a quiet farewell that is mostly ignored. Every step toward and up the stairs seems harder than it should be, the girl turning to glance at the two as their voices are lost to the distance.

At last, reaching the top of the stairs, the child sits herself against the wall, entirely out of sight from those below, legs crossed beneath her. She contemplates the ugly, bitter feeling surrounding her, in that instant, some part of her wishing the man had never returned, that he had decided to be done with their risky plan altogether. Surely, if he had, she would still be sitting beside Beth, playing games and having fun, right now. And yet, Beth wouldn't be happy, because Beth cares about Ken. Remembering the way he had pulled her so close, that day in the park, and the light, gleeful smile she had bared when he had returned, a few days back, the girl forces herself to accept the truth, as much as it hurts. Beth loves Ken; even if they had argued, even if he had been gone the last couple weeks, that hadn't changed. Nothing had changed, even if she had managed to trick herself into thinking that she could somehow be what Ken and Jack had been. That she could somehow fill the holes they had left behind.

A sound reaches her, distant, at first, but growing louder with time, dragging the girl from her thoughts. The sound of Beth's voice, heavy, from below, forming not words, but grunting, like that of an animal. Beneath that, she can hear Ken, panting, mumbling words she can't make out. Some distant part of the girl understands what she's hearing, insisting she get away, far enough that she can't hear the sounds at all, but she ignores it, her stomach churning, as she hesitantly turns the corner, gazing down at the two on the couch. Ken sits in the middle, Beth's legs straddling his, the woman bouncing up and down, at a quick, constant pace. Clothing lays scattered on the ground below, every inch of their bodies visible, every bit of flowing, clashing flesh, entirely clear. From her perch, the girl can hear every gasp and moan, her body trembling, in fear of being caught, in guilt, from doing something she knows she shouldn't be doing, and in excitement, the sight causing a reddening of her face, every sound the woman makes ingraining into her ears, drawing her attention, as her body grows warmer.

Attempting to swallow, the girl finds her throat far too dry, heart beating so fast that it threatens to burst. The pits of her arms go damp with sweat, and her breathing grows harder, as the couple quickens the pace, Beth letting out a loud, piercing moan, her voice filling the space between them until the younger girl thinks she'll go mad. Turning away, she stands up, knees quivering, the sensible, logical part of her mind winning out, even as the rest of her tries to grab on to the warm, pleasurable feeling calling to her, filing every sight and sound away inside her mind. As quietly as she can, the child crosses the hall, staring at the ground every step of the way, awash with guilt. She opens the door to Jack's room, not entirely conscious of why she had chosen that destination, gazing around lamely. At length, she spots the small door, blocked off by a dresser. Recalling her purpose, and the overpowering urge to get away, outside, into the cool, evening air, where she can calm down, and properly process everything that had happened, she makes her way to the dresser, tugging at it with all the might her shaking, treacherous body has left.

The door opens to reveal a small, rotted balcony, the material so plastered and faded that the child questions if it would even support her weight. The faint echo of a blissful moan echoes into the room, and the girl steps outside, hands balled to fists. Outside, the breeze courses around her body, relieving some of the heat overtaking her, while making her fully aware of how tightly her sweat had bound her clothing to her frame, forcing the girl to stop and adjust her outfit as best she can. The balcony supports her weight, aside from the creaking each time she steps too forcefully. Making her way to the edge, the girl is afforded an expansive, mesmerizing view of the streets and alleys beyond the house, awash with light from the setting sun, few trees to block the bountiful clouds overhead. Standing in place for a long, peaceful moment, the youth takes in the sight, sound, and feeling of the world, trying, and partially succeeding, at suppressing the mental image of her friend's body, bare, and glistening with sweat. Her hands wrap around the splintered railing, and she finds an old desire, gripping her forcefully, begging her to walk away, until she can bring herself under control.

The immediate problem consists of getting to the ground to begin with, the balcony lacking any form of stairs. A quick search reveals a rope ladder, bundled at the base. Dropping it down, the girl frowns as it hangs, insecurely, as if threatening to fall away the moment she puts her weight on it. From two floors up, the ground looks far from pleasant, the idea of falling suddenly the only thing the girl can focus on. Thinking again of the act taking place deeper inside, the thought bringing more pain than anything else, in that moment, the girl gathers all of her resolve, stepping one foot down onto the ladder. Within a moment, she finds her shaking growing stronger, and not from excitement. With a sense of shame, she retracts her foot, huddling entirely on the balcony once again. After a minute, she repeats the process, almost managing enough courage to put her second foot on. The third try, she manages to successfully climb onto the ladder, every creak in the rope and wood causing a burst of terror, certain that it had given way and would soon send her spiraling down.

As the girl progresses down the ladder, her already slow progress becomes even more sluggish, until, around a third of the way down, she freezes up entirely, aware that she could easily reach the ground if she tried, but unable to get her body to move an inch, the fear too overpowering. Part of her considers heading back up, into the house proper, and something inside encourages the idea, insuring her that she would vastly prefer the guilty pleasure brought from listening to Beth and Ken, than the fear of dangling above the abyss. The part of her that still wanted to believe she was a good person denies the idea, telling her that her earlier act, of spying on the two, had been natural curiosity, something she could be excused for, but that returning to do so again would be unforgivable, now that she knew exactly what was happening. Neither moving forward, nor falling back, the girl just grips the ladder as tightly as she can, knuckles turning white, as tears threaten to spill from her eyes. Wind blankets the rope back and forth, and an eternity seems to pass, as the sky slowly darkens.

A sickening crunch, and one half of the ladder tears from the base of the balcony, sending the girl into a panic, at the sudden motion. Eyes widening in horror, she looks up at the splinting wood, then down at the ground below, vision blurring as vertigo sets in. Some part of her mind whispers that she would likely survive falling from this height. Another tells her that Beth would be upset if she got hurt. The first gleefully counters with the idea that Beth would only be paying attention to her, if that happened. She forces the thought aside, knowing that Beth would never leave her long enough to do what needed done, and she wouldn't recover within two days. She couldn't selfishly risk their entire future just because of her feelings. Gritting her teeth, the girl does the hardest thing she can, forcing her grip to loosen on the rope, her hands moving as slowly as if made from rock. Somehow, she finds the will to move her hand one rung lower, following it with the other, then her feet, repeating the cycle, feeding off of her terror, rather than giving in to it.

In time, her feet sink weakly to the ground, the girl letting go of the ladder entirely, relieved to be alive, and uninjured. The feeling of solid ground comforts the girl, assuring that she had made it, and that everything would be all right. Though it had seemed like hours, the entire trip down had taken a few short minutes, at most, looking around the find the world much the same as it had been, sun still peeking out from behind the clouds, the soft echo of lust reaching out from the thin walls of her home. All of the intense feelings of the last half hour catch up to the girl, leaving her feeling dizzy, sick, and exhausted, but she forces it all aside, standing up carefully and beginning to trek toward the front of the house. The boarded windows stop the two inside from spotting the child, though she has a feeling they wouldn't have noticed regardless. Reaching the gate, she exhales, realizing she hadn't taken any of her belongings with her. Resigning herself to a silent, uneventful walk, the girl turns to gaze down the street, dismissing everything else, as she walks away.

---

The deserted neighborhood stretches out around the child, sidewalk cracked and crumbling underfoot, streets lined with trash, broken glass from bottles and windows alike, threatening the exposed bottoms of her feet. Glancing around in short intervals, the girl attempts to stay out of sight of wandering people, embarrassment over her comparatively revealing outfit, as well as the fear that, somehow, they would be able to tell what she had done, causing her paranoia to rear up violently. Perhaps fortunately for the girl, the passages she chooses remain free of others, save for the roaches and flies, and an occasional cat, lazing in what light remains. The sun slowly sinks lower as she travels on, fading light shining softly through the clouds, floating overcast like waves in the sea. Flowers and weeds coat manicured lawns, grass overgrown to a degree that likely violates several laws. Unused to the feeling of the breeze against her legs, the girl shivers, shadows arcing from brick structures to cover her in dusk.

Walking past what had once been an establishment selling fastfood, the faded sign still hanging atop the door, the girl glances through the large window in front, the sight of filthy walls and busted pipes, alongside what few tables and chairs remained unbroken and upright, somehow bringing an eerie sense of calm to the overstimulated youth. The next building in line stands largely intact, a sign on the door stating that it sold flowers, and shut down by two in the afternoon, the locked door confirming that it had closed up shop hours before. A barred window allows the girl a glimpse inside, the potted plants live, though unhealthy, assuring her that beauty could be found no matter where one looked. Across the street, she can make out what seemed to be a nail salon, and beside it, a market focused on pet fish. The girl sighs lightly, wondering why she had never taken the time to explore the area before, figuring that she had never had reason, or opportunity. From the back of her mind, another voice whispers that she had merely been too lazy to do so.

Further along, the sidewalk breaks off in a fork, a row of houses leading off to either side. After a moment of deliberation, glancing left and right, the child decides to travel westward, the sound of music brimming from afar. A chorus of songbirds erupt from a bush as she passes, flying overhead before lighting on a nearby rooftop, staring curiously down. With a smile and a wave, she sends out her silent greeting, before moving on. A gaggle of children, a few years younger than the girl, play in a yard ahead, laughing and shouting. She watches for a moment, one of the youths tossing a ball into the air, the others trying to knock it back up each time it falls, keeping it from hitting the ground for as long as possible. One of the youngest calls out, asking her to join in, but she merely shakes her head, politely declining. The air has grown cool and comfortable, the girl adjusting to the temperature just fine, and she finds even her outfit has brought her less embarrassment, the more she walks.

A short time later, the child comes across a small domicile, dim light shining through the curtained window. A cat lays outstretched on the stone step, cleaning itself and staring out at the girl as she passes. With a stretch and a yawn, it rises to its feet, crossing over to rub against her legs. Bending down, the girl strokes the feline's fur, running her hand across the body and tail, as it purrs contentedly. For a while, she stops worrying about the rest of the world, and focuses on the simple, joyful act. Sitting down, she lets the fuzzy beast curl into a ball on her lap, feeling the reverberation of its heartbeat, bringing to mind a vague memory of the times she had begged her parents for a pet of her own. She had claimed herself able to care for an animal, though she had been less certain than she had pretended to be. Regardless, she had always loved the idea of a little cat or dog to pet, feed, and sleep alongside. Waking up next to it in the morning, rubbing it behind the ears as it happily greets her when she gets home from school. Idly, she ponders whether or not Beth would let her get a pet. She knows they couldn't afford it, not now, but perhaps after they move to Ilskaieh...

The door to the house opens suddenly, drawing the girl to the present, her heart speeding up. Guiltily, she gently moves the animal off of her lap, rising to her feet and shuffling off down the street, not so much as risking a glance at whoever had exited the dwelling, in fear that they would suspect her of trying to take their pet as her own. The beast calls happily after her, the girl turning around to find it trying to follow, hoping for more pets. With a shake of her head, she quietly tells it to go home, pressing on faster, leaving the feline behind where it belongs. She stops a few houses down, sighing softly, the sun low enough that most light comes from the streetlights, now active. She rubs at her arms, the chill settling over her exposed flesh. She decides that it would be best to return to Beth's house sooner, rather than later, enough time having passed that they would certainly have grown worried by now. She reassures herself, as best she can, that she had people who would actually care where she went, what she did, and that she came back safe from doing it.

Turning, she begins retracing her steps, having the foresight to travel in a mostly straight line, knowing full well that she would end up hopelessly lost otherwise. She passes in front of the cat's house, whoever had exited disappearing, the animal with it. The children still play in the dusk, less of them now, with an adult watching from the doorway. She reaches the flower shop, taking a moment to look at the pretty hangers within, one more time. "Didn't know you liked that sort of thing, brat." The girl jumps, heart speeding up from the surprise, even as her face breaks into a wide smile. "Easy now," the man mutters, as the girl turns and wraps her arms around him in one smooth motion. "I'm still a little sore." Murmuring an apology, she backs off a bit, eyes tracing up and down Jack's body, looking no worse for ware in spite of the terrible state he had been in, last they'd met. He reaches a hand out, ruffling her hair. "Saw you skulking around the place. Barely even recognized you at first, wearing what you are." He stares pointedly at her legs, and the girl moves to cover herself up, futilely. Laughing, he moves his hand away. "Hey, don't look so flustered. I think it's cute."

Finding her voice is harder than it should be, in spite of the relief she feels at finally being reunited. Quietly, trying to keep her words from sounding whiny or childish, she asks the man where he's been. Shrugging, his golden eyes lit in amusement, Jack begins walking, toward the house. "I've been here and there. May not be the 'epic love' Beth's got," he chuckles, making light of the idea. "But I've got a few girls of my own that're more than happy to have me for a few nights." Glancing behind him at the small girl, his mouth turns to a smirk. "I see you found the broom closet. I remember that outfit. Looks good on you, but Beth pulled it off better." She resists the urge to make a sarcastic response, wondering why she even cares. "Anyway, don't tell Beth you saw me, eh? Don't want her to know I've been keeping an eye out. She hates when I get protective. Noticed you've been hanging around a lot more. Even snuck out earlier. Glad to see you girls worked things out. So, what's been goin' on while I've been out?"

For a moment, she wonders how much she should say. The girl could remember all too well what had happened the last time Jack had gotten involved in one of those dangerous plans. Deciding to beat around the bush, she quickly recounts what had happened between Murphy, Ken, and herself, a few days back. She doesn't miss the look of anger on her friend's face, though he hides it fast, nodding for her to go on. Exhaling, she proceeds to tell him of her moving in, something he admits to having guessed already, and some of the events between Ken and Beth, including what they had been up to earlier, though she leaves out her part in it. With a laugh, Jack nods. "I can see why you wanted to get out so badly, then. Sis should know better than to expose such a pure little girl to such dirty things." Something in his tone makes the girl feel uneasy, but she forces herself to disregard it, the two walking on in silence. For a moment, she debates bringing up her feelings, hoping that the tall man would be able to help her understand them a bit better. She even opens her mouth, emitting a dignified 'um', before letting it fall uselessly shut. "Hmm?" He glances behind him, at the girl ever-trailing his footsteps. "Something on your mind, kid?"

She shakes her head, awkwardly, but he presses on, stopping to stare down at her. The child looks away, unable to meet his gaze. After a long, uncomfortable moment, she opens her mouth, spilling forth the secrets she doesn't want to keep, acutely aware of what a lack of trust could breed. "Beth has been... planning something." Guiltily, she looks up at Jack, the youth curious, if not surprised. With a little hesitation, she presses on. "That Murphy guy, he's going to be at a party in a couple days. She's going to break in to his house and take some stuff. Said she could sell it and get enough to make it to Ilskaieh, and your family over there." Biting at her nails, she forces herself to hold Jack's gaze, only to find him breaking it, a moment later, something dark in his eyes. He nods, voice cool, though she senses anger just beneath the surface, as he asks he to keep explaining. "She said she knows the code to the security system, so it'll be easy for us to get in and out. Ken's going to help, too. It seems like it could work. Then we can all be..." She trails off, looking for the right words, unable to say what she wanted, a lump in her throat.

With a scoff, Jack turns toward her again, running a hand through her hair. "You know, it's weird seeing you with your hair down. Looks nice, though. Don't need to keep it hid all the time." He moves his hand down, poking her lightly on the forehead. "Thanks for the chat, kiddo. I've got some stuff to take care of, so I'll be heading out. You get home before it gets too dark; you know by now how dangerous it can be." Shoving his hands in his pockets, he takes a few steps away, calling her name without turning back. "No matter what else happens, no matter how this goes down, just remember that there's always someone out there that loves you. And, never stop smiling. Even when it hurts like hell. Especially then. Keep smiling, keep trying, 'cause as long as you don't give up, it's never hopeless." Snorting, he gives a casual wave, walking off into the darkness. Finding herself at a loss for words, the girl just nods, though she knows he can't see her, before turning in a different direction and hurrying back to the house.

---

The girl only makes it a few feet into the yard before she makes out the sound of her name being called. The sun had sunk deep beneath the hills, abandoning the city to darkness, and it's all she can do to avoid tripping on fallen branches and scattered rocks, as she makes her way into the backyard, following that voice. More quietly, her words tempered by her fear, she responds, calling out to the woman. The shadows seem to shift, as Beth materializes next to her, her expression impossible to make out through the gloom. The woman reaches out, gripping her arm, just hard enough to hurt, pulling her toward the front door, and inside. With the light from deeper in the house, keeping the dark at bay, the older girl lets out a heavy sigh, leaning back against the wall. "You scared me half to death. Went upstairs to see how you were doing, the doors were all open, and the ladder's broke. I thought Murphy had somehow... I thought something bad had happened." Casting a quick glance at the girl, she tries to mask the worry in her words. "Did something happen?"

The girl shakes her head, quick to dismiss the notion that she had been forced from the house, or that her trip had been anything other than peaceful. With a start, she remembers what Murphy had said, the first time she had seen him. He had seemed to know a lot about her new family, possibly including where they lived, and he had already gone after her once. With more than a little regret, she mumbles an apology, having never once stopped to think of how her actions would trouble the others. She had only wanted to get away for a while, from the sounds, and the sights, and part of her head that wanted to enjoy them. At the thought, the girl recalls a vague sense of what she had felt before, causing her to root her eyes firmly to the ground, suddenly unable to look at the woman at all, for fear that she would take one look into her eyes, and understand exactly what the girl was thinking. Summoning what resolve she has left, the girl tries to change the subject. "Where's Ken?" Her voice comes out low, and almost accusatory, somehow, the sound of it making her feel even worse. She didn't want to blame the man for what she had done in any way, even if her troubles were heavily wrapped up in his return.

Beth hesitates for a moment, before heading for the couch, sinking into it and massaging her temples. "Sent him out looking for you. He's supposed to check in soon, in case you turned up here. I get that you're..." The woman trails off, at a loss. Reaching for a bottle of alcohol, she takes a long, deep gulp, before continuing. "I know you're used to being independent, not telling anyone where you're going, and I can't expect that to just go away. And I know it's not fun being stuck up there by yourself. I don't blame you for taking off, but that doesn't mean I won't worry, and that doesn't mean I'm not mad." She downs another drink, the bottle running empty. "Just thought I might get treated better than the people who never gave a damn about you." The words cut deep, but the child doesn't respond, several defenses coming to mind, each beaten down systematically. Somewhere inside, she knows the woman is right; given the circumstances, she never should have left the way she had. She whispers another apology, for that, and for the intrusion of privacy, as unknown as it is, feeling as worthless as her family had treated her. With a sigh, Beth sets the bottle aside, staring up at the ceiling, through the gloom.

Silence drags on for nearly a minute, Beth laying still enough that the girl could almost believe she had fallen asleep. Some part of her wants to say something, but she has no words to make up for what feels suddenly like a betrayal, and she feels like she doesn't deserve her forgiveness, besides. After a long moment, Beth breaks the silence, turning to gaze at the girl. "Nevermind, Sweet Pea. I'm just... being myself. Messing things up. I'm not mad, not really. Just drunk." She taps the empty bottle, causing it to fall pointlessly to the ground, nothing left inside to stain the carpet. Motioning the girl closer, she scoots further back, affording the girl enough space to lay beside her. Hesitating for a long moment, afraid that any further movement or speech would bring her to tears, the girl slowly shuffles forward, laying down facing the woman, sniffling quietly. "Sorry," Beth breaths, holding the girl tight enough to hurt, the thick smell of her sweat still reeking from her body. "You're just a kid. You didn't deserve that. Did much worse by your age." Running a hand through the girl's untied hair, she closes her eyes, the alcohol slowly taking its toll. With the last of her waking breath, she adds one, final decree, her tone quiet and sad. "Would just hate to see something happen to you."

Belatedly, the girl realizes she had never even had a chance to mention Jack, though the youth had asked her to avoid his name, regardless. Inhaling the woman's scent, she tries to ignore the new sense of discomfort that being so close to her brings, the events of the last day causing the closeness to feel tainted, somehow. Aside from that, though the woman had forgiven her, the child had accepted the blame, and those tired, fading words weren't enough to make her feel any better. She considers getting up, leaving the woman to her peace, but as soon as she tries to move, she finds arms wrapping around her, holding her in place, like a living teddy bear. Exhaling softly, she watches the woman sleep, for a time, trying not to picture what she would look like this close, without her clothes, suppressing her less than insignificant desire to find out. Instead, she merely squeezes her eyes shut, distracting herself with thoughts of music and books, slowly following the trail of meaninglessness, letting her mind blank out, the tension fading from her body, as she cycles toward sleep.

Before she can slip away entirely, the girl is brought back to full consciousness by the sound of the front door opening. Turning her head as best she can, trapped inside Beth's embrace, the child tries to peer through the gloom, just able to make out Ken's form before he slides the door shut. The man walks toward the couch, standing over the two. "You managed to get back after all," he mutters, stating the obvious. "Good. Would hate to have to rescue you again." With a surprising degree of gentleness, the man reaches out, separating the girl from Beth's grip, before bodily lifting the woman into the air. She stirs for a moment, and it seems as if she might awaken, but the alcohol grips down harder, dragging her away. With a sigh, Ken carries her up the stairs, returning a minute or so later to gaze down at the girl. "Try not to get her too worked up. This is a stressful time, with the Murphy job just around the corner." The way he says it is almost amusing, like a gangster in an old movie, though she doesn't quite have it in her to laugh. "Go on up and get to sleep. I'll take the couch." Shaking her head, the girl rejects the idea, feeling it would be better to avoid such closeness, at least for now. Besides, she isn't really the one Beth wants beside her. With a small, forced smile, she tells the man that she'll sleep where she is. He gives a curt nod, seeing no reason to protest, before slipping upstairs, leaving the child alone in the darkness, both real, and in her mind.

Chapter 5 - Beauty
Morning comes too early. The girl had been left alone the previous night, unable to shut her mind down, endlessly reflecting on everything that had happened the day before. She had held several conversations with people she knew, and some with complete strangers, all entirely fictitious, the words spoken only in her mind. Likewise, she had imagined scenes from events that would never take place, small, childish fantasies, where she said the right thing, made the correct choice, or merely managed to stay strong, when in reality, she hadn't. In time, she had worked herself up enough to cry, tears spilling silently onto the old, stained couch. Her doubts and insecurities had taken hold, replaying everything Beth had said to her, looking for any hidden meanings, twisting everything until she could only look at it in as negative a light as possible. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she convinced herself that the woman had gotten tired of her. That she had somehow messed up, without even noticing it, time and time again, and it had finally been too much. Some part of her knew it was ridiculous, but she would never be able to move past the feelings if she didn't let herself worry.

When unconsciousness did finally claim her, it became a long, difficult battle to stay asleep, and to avoid waking up too fully, whenever a small sound or sudden discomfort roused her from her slumber. More often than not, she failed, finding herself staring at the backs of her eyes, remembering bits and pieces of nightmares. One dream shows a large backyard, the one at her old house, all dug up, strangers milling around everywhere. The world consists entirely of black and white, and the girl finds herself unable to make a sound, no matter how loud she screams. Though nobody says as much, or pays her any mind to begin with, she has the distinct, sickening feeling that the holes in the yard are meant as graves. After a time, she finds her parents, walking around and watching the process, directing the strangers as if they were farmers, tending a field. They pay her just as little regard as the rest of the world, though this hardly feels different than normal. At last, she gathers the resolve to walk forward and look into the holes, finding them entirely empty, yet knowing full well which bodies are meant to lay inside. Waking from this dream, the girl is overcome by a deep sense of fear, lost in thought of what could go wrong, how easily everything could fall apart, and how little time they had left before it did.

After what seems like hours, she manages to calm her racing heart, erasing the irrational fear that eyes were watching her in the dark, and that something was only a moment from reaching out and grabbing her arm. When she does manage to get to sleep, she finds another, simpler dream, though even more uncomfortable than the last. She lays in bed, warm, content, Beth beside her, both free of either clothing or cover. The two lay entirely still, staring at each other, the girl trying to memorize the way the woman looks, yet unable to get a proper look, in spite of their closeness, her mind unable to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. Though they don't move, or touch, the other girl's breathing gets faster, her body shaking and trembling the way it had the day before, and the girl recognizes that, in some way, they were performing the same act Beth and Ken had performed, before. Her ears are filled with the sound of Beth's voice, her own body getting warm, as her brain grows fuzzy. The conscious part of her, aware that she's dreaming, tries to take control, reaching out her hand to explore her friend's flesh properly, but the intrusion into a scene she had no right to control causes the entire vision to collapse, leaving the girl to an unfulfilling darkness.

She is awoken a while later by the sound of a loud horn blaring outside. After a moment, she recognizes it as a garbage truck, coming to collect trash, entirely unimportant. And yet, when she slides her eyes shut once more, she finds it impossible to return to her slumber, her mind ruminating on the vague memory of dying dreams, and dreams of dying. Laying still, she wonders how much time would need to pass before the strange, embarrassing feeling would be forgotten, allowing her to feel as comfortable around Beth as she had before. A worrying voice in the back of her head quietly whispers that it might never happen. As little as she understands about her feelings, and as odd as she finds her particular brand of attraction, she knows that most other people are just as obsessed, if her parents, and the other children at school were any indication. Her classmates often bragged about who had the most experience, each ignoring the fact that all of them were lying in equal part. She always wondered why they thought it was a good thing, something worth lying, and bragging about, and her dream, leaving her sweaty and tense, does little enough to explain. Surely everything would be easier if she didn't have to feel the way she did.

Time passes slowly for the girl, seconds becoming minutes becoming hours. No matter what position she shifts into, or how comfortable she feels, sleep continues to elude her. Eventually, as the sun rises over the small, desolate house, the girl lets out an exhausted breath, sitting up and surrendering to the truth that she would not be able to rest. Searching through her small amount of belongings, she eventually tracks down her phone, pressing the power button, only to find the device void of power, her charger nowhere in the dwelling. Giving the room a quick once-over, she finds the lack of a clock more annoying than anything else, forcing her to get up and head into the kitchen to confirm the time. The news is less than satisfying; for all of her laying about, it was still far earlier than Beth would be waking up, leaving the girl at a loss for what to do with herself. She considers breakfast, but the idea of eating alone seems too sad, and she isn't very hungry, besides. Settling back on the couch, still wearing the old, dirty outfit from yesterday, the girl stares at the disabled screen for a time, mind churning slowly.

Part of her considers taking a bath; it would likely help wash away her sweat, and the odor emanating from her body, though some part of her finds the stench oddly soothing. It would also feel pretty nice to just lay back and soak for a while, in the warm, peaceful water. After a moment, she dismisses the idea, worried that the sound of the pouring faucet might be too loud, in the quiet house. Even if she had to be awake, that shouldn't mean Beth and Ken couldn't enjoy a full night's rest. After a while, she gets bored enough to turn on the holonet display, the screen flickering to life to reveal the platform game she and Beth had played the day before, patiently waiting for a command. Retrieving the controller, she closes the application, searching through the menus in the hope of finding the actual stations, and something worth watching to pass the time. After a minute, she gives up, unable to navigate the unfamiliar settings. Just as she's about to turn off the display, she recalls a random memory from the day before, cycling through the listed games until she stumbles across the one she wants. Pressing a button, she watches as the picture shifts, the words 'Maid Quest 6' emblazoned proudly at the top.

The theme music plays quietly, an updated, modern version of the tune from the game she played years before, bringing an old, familiar sense of nostalgia, the girl slipping into a more peaceful, content mindset, as if all of the worries she had accumulated since then simply didn't exist. Pressing the start button, she boots up the game proper, sitting through the opening cinematic, followed by what seems like a mountain of text, the girl delighting in studying all of it, as the game focuses on building the world. After a short time, she's introduced to her character, a young, cheerful girl intent on saving the world. Quickly enough, she manages to set out on the story, fighting off monsters and Remnant, saving villagers, and protecting the world from evil. Absorbed in the experience, the girl loses track of time, the pixels and text drawing her down the rabbit hole until she forgets everything else. So distracted, the sound of the door closing roughly upstairs immediately brings to mind her parents, coming to put her to work, rather than her new housemates, just waking up. She has to calm the sudden rush of panic, and the guilt at having wasted so much time on playing instead of studying, reminding herself of where she is, and that nobody would blame her for having fun.

Soft footfalls and creaking wood signal Beth's movement down the stairs, Ken's shirt the only thing covering her frame, hair messy and eyes heavy with sleep. Stopping a few feet away, she stares listlessly at the screen, taking in the girl's progress at a glance. "Been having fun?" Her voice sounds carefree, loose, so unlike the disappointment of the night before, or the disinterested numbness the girl feared, the child feeling silly for worrying so much in the first place. "Guess you're used to getting up early," she adds, sinking lifelessly onto the couch beside the girl, looking a little less than conscious. "Here's some advice, Sweet Pea. Don't mix your beer and your alcohol, never feels good." Nodding, the child stares blankly at the woman, unaware that there was a difference between the two, much less that they shouldn't be mixed. She has the sudden desire to ask if she plans to get dressed properly, the hem of the shirt riding dangerously high as the woman lounges, but she chooses to remain silent. It hadn't been a concern before; she wouldn't want to seem awkward or nervous about it now, and risk revealing too much of her feelings. Turning back to the screen, she pauses the game, noting how many hours she had been playing, with a small degree of surprise.

"Want something to eat?" Beth's voice comes quietly, a few minutes later, interrupting the girl's attempt to find something to say. Shaking her head, she politely declines, her appetite still fairly low. Nodding, Beth lids her eyes. "Me neither." The silence stretches on, the younger girl trying her best to focus on the missions in the game, growing increasingly distracted by the woman beside her, and the overpowering need to speak, to feel as comfortable and carefree as before. Knowing that forcing her words would only make her feel more awkward, she sighs, the motion turning into a long yawn. Though she had mostly been disregarding it, her body had grown tired enough to elicit one after another, the frequency causing her eyes to water. With a short bark of laughter, Beth runs a hand over the girl's leg. "You look pretty tired. You haven't been up all night on this thing, have you?" Ignoring how close to the truth her evaluation is, the girl shakes her head. It hadn't been by choice that she had been awake so long. "Well, you can take a nap whenever you want. Don't force yourself to stay up for my sake. I'll find some way to entertain myself."

It's hard to sleep without you, she wants to say, the idea silly, if true. She had only shared the woman's bed a few times. but she found it so much easier to rest knowing that she's safe, that there's someone there that cares about her, instead of being surrounded by nightmare and darkness. "I'll be okay," she murmurs, instead, as her maid tears through another enemy on screen. A script appears, and she has to read it three times before remembering what it says, the dialogue feeling more like a chore, than entertainment. Another yawn, and she hands the controller to Beth. "I'm done... sorry." Not knowing what she's apologizing for, she just slumps back against the couch's support, staring at her friend from the corner of her eye. "Could you show me how to get to the stations?" A brief explanation later, the screen shifts to a news program, recounting the tragedies and accomplishments of the day, a list of the unfortunate maids who had perished scrolling across the bottom, even as the main feature talks of reconstruction and expansion, the newscasters switching topics with practiced ease, leaving the girl wonder which of their joy or sorrow was true, or if both were artificial. "Could you... change the channel?" Her voice is soft, tired, both of being awake, and of the depressing feeling the program always gives her. She catches a single glimpse of the newswoman's name before the station changes, the name Michiko Sumeragi randomly filing away in her memory.

The display changes to show an old cartoon the girl had never watched, merely seen commercials for in the past. "You're probably too old for stuff like this," Beth murmurs, turning to the girl, fighting a losing battle against sleep. The child shakes her head. While her parents tended to frown upon it, she still watched some at times, both those intended for children, and some for teenagers or adults. Of course, most people couldn't tell the difference between the two, at a glance, and she had to hide it from her classmates, lest they use that as more fuel for their teasing. All of that aside, it was vastly preferable to the news, and the list of names scrolling repeatedly at the bottom, as if fallen heroes were merely as noteworthy as closed schools. Beth smiles down at her, amused. "You're passing out, kid." The woman pats her on the head, making her cheeks flare red; she isn't a dog. Though, part of her does like it... Mumbling an incoherent protest, she gently shakes Beth's hand from her head, trying to focus on the images on the holonet, an anthropomorphic gang of animals getting into trouble that they always resolve by the end.

The idea is amusing to the girl. Even most of the novels she read had an ending that seemed satisfying to the story. Sure, sometimes a few plot threads were left open to give the reader something to think about, but it all got tied up. Yet, she knows it doesn't work like that. Not in real life, not often. Because life doesn't have a defined 'end', a point where the universe looks over the story, and says 'now things work out'. Even if it felt like everything in her life were changing, so drastically, that wouldn't be the end, of her, of her story, or of the stories of those she cares about. Feeling Beth's hands, lifting her up, she smiles calmly at the woman, taking some odd comfort from her thoughts. The sight of her friend's smiling face is the last thing she sees, before finally succumbing to the fatigue dragging her down.

---

The girl floats in the ocean, gentle waves rocking her back and forth each time she moves. Her eyes open to gaze at the stars above, stretching out into the distant horizon. The sound of echoing laughter reaches her ears, willing her to awaken fully, but she resists, sliding her eyes shut and falling back into herself. Some time later, she isn't sure how much, the smell of foods, meat and vegetable, producing a hearty, powerful aroma, beckons from a distant shore, her stomach protesting against its unfulfilled state, even as her mind begs for the thick veil of sleep to wash over it once more. Moaning softly, the child turns over, finding something soft and warm covering her mouth, rather than the cool, drowning flood of water she had expected. For one single, hopeful moment, she almost falls away again, into her dreams, the image of stars falling to the ground, burning in gold then fading away, erasing her consciousness and the world trying to shatter the fragile dreamscape she had crafted. Then it all crashes down, as an all-too-familiar sound reachers her: that of someone lightly knocking on the door. The stars blow away like the seeds of a dandelion, white and decayed, as the child's identity crashes into her like a wave, her parents, her school, and her suffering all pushing to the forefront of her mind, bringing reality with them.

The ocean below becomes a bed, even as the stars above transform into a ceiling and wall, the sky nothing more than paint, the stars just points of white color in the canvas. Slowly rising up on her elbows, she feels the water of the mattress below, shifting, oddly comfortable, though unfamiliar. The clothing littering the floor like a rug, her backpack leaning against the bed, and the faint smell of old, rotting food packages, bring an old, fading memory to mind, of a boy soaked in blood. He's fine, she tells herself. She had seen Jack, with her own eyes. Had spoken to him at length. He had been a little off, but he was always a little off. It was almost charming. Sitting up, she feels a cover slide off her body, the outfit Beth had given her, still clinging to her frame. With a sigh, she stumbles to her feet, navigating to the door, through the minefield of garbage and cloth on the ground. Cracking it open, she finds nobody waiting for her. Had she imagined it? Or had they realized she was sleeping, and left her to her peace? Running a hand through her messy, uncombed hair, she steps into the hallway, glancing around to find the other doors all shut, no light shining from the gaps. The sound of the holonet calls from below, and the girl begins heading down, seeking company, the stairs creaking as she goes.

Beth and Ken sit on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, staring contently at the screen, as a sitcom plays, the canned laughter giving away each joke as if that were the only way to know they were funny. The smell of hot, fresh food wafts in from the kitchen, her stomach rumbling at the thought. Offering a quiet greeting to the couple, she begins heading toward the other room, in search of a meal, and to avoid disturbing what looked like a very peaceful, intimate moment. Beth turns toward her, giving a casual wave. "Hey, Sweet Pea. I'd say good morning, but you slept the sun away. Made some stew earlier, with what stuff we had lying around. Thought you might be hungry by now." The girl nods, slowly, shuffling out of the room like a zombie. In the kitchen, she finds a pot, the bottom caked in random bits of potato and beef, a lid covering it to keep the bugs out. Figuring it had been left for her, she pours it into a bowl, sitting down to eat. From the other room, Beth calls to her, asking if she'd like to watch the movie with them. With a sigh, she considers, staring down at the slop in front of her. Some part of her wants nothing more than to be with them, but she felt like she would just be getting in the way. Yet, somewhere inside, she knows she'll have to get over that feeling, or at least bury it away, or she'd never be able to live happily with the others.

Picking up the bowl, she makes her way back into the living room, sitting down as far from the couple as she can. The sitcom itself doesn't suit her much, the jokes too racy and the acting a little over the top, the exact sort of thing her mother would turn her nose up. In the back of her mind, she wonders if her opinion of it were really her own, or if she were just looking at it the way her mother would want her to. Frowning, she brings her fork to her mouth, chewing on a soft, melting potato. Not just the sitcom, she realizes. In some way, her thoughts on everything were merely a combination of what her parents wanted her to think. Violence, perverseness, what to eat, and drink. In truth, she had never really had a chance to figure out what she wanted, or what anything meant to her. Though still hungry, she suddenly doesn't feel much like eating. Forcing herself to continue, she turns, to stare at the couple, seemingly oblivious to her gaze. Forcing her eyes back to the movie, the child shakes her head. That wasn't entirely accurate. No matter what her parents wanted, no matter how much their ideals were ingrained in her head, she had found one thing in all the world that she cared about only because it mattered to her. Giving a wobbly smile, she turns to the woman again. "Thanks, Beth. For everything."

"You're welcome, sweetheart." The woman looks slightly taken aback, not expecting so much emotion in the girl's words, but she just smiles right back. After a while, the girl decides that the atmosphere really isn't as awkward as she had thought. Both Beth and Ken seem entirely at ease; likely, the only thing that had made her uncomfortable was herself. Taking a deep breath, she tries to relax, letting herself enjoy the movie for what it is, even laughing along with a few of the jokes. Eventually, the movie winds to an end, credits rolling by, the girl left holding an empty bowl, stomach feeling full and content, if a little sick. Beth clears her throat, taking a sip from a can of soda. "I hope you liked the meal. I think, once we get to Ilskaieh, I'll be cooking a lot more. We'll be able to afford fancy meals, instead of having to scrape together whatever's in the cabinet." With a smile, she turns to the girl. "I can even make some cake, to celebrate. I would have done it for your moving in, but everything's been hectic. We'll get you back in school; a good school, where you can study what you want. We'll get good jobs, make enough money that we won't have to worry. We can spend our time like this every night, together, as a family." She smiles, and the child has to force herself to smile back, unable to shake the feeling that it all sounded too good to be true.

The three watch another movie, some action thriller that defied logic as often as it followed it, the main character managing to survive countless injuries that should have killed him, while also managing to save the love interest and live happily ever after. The girl pays about as much attention to this film as the last, getting more enjoyment from the company, than the action. The credits roll by, a couple hours later, the girl turning to find the others asleep where they sit. Switching the display to a random station showing reruns of a detective series she'd never seen, she retrieves the cover from Jack's room, somehow avoiding tripping as she drags it down the stairs. She lays it over the two, before slipping beneath it herself, leaning against Beth's body, enjoying the warmth emanating from the woman and the blanket. One more day, she thinks, staring numbly at the screen, vaguely wishing she had bothered getting something to drink before settling down. The thought echoes in her head, assuring her that, by this time tomorrow, everything would be decided. One way or another. Reaching down, she holds the woman's hand in her own, smiling a soft smile, not knowing it would the last time they would ever be this close.

---

The final day passes far too quickly, the three waking long after the sun had risen. They eat a quick breakfast, the last of the cereal, milk having gone just bad enough to develop a bitter taste, though they swallow it just the same. They go over the plan one last time, not because they need to, but to convince themselves that it could work. Ken leaves soon after, talking of renting a vehicle. Beth heads upstairs to pack her things, the two seemingly intent on leaving as soon as possible. The child sits on the couch for a time, staring at the spot where the holonet had once been, hugging her knees. She had already abandoned one home, recently, one that had been far more familiar than the dusty, run-down dwelling she had lived in less than a week, and yet, the feeling was somehow just as painful, as if she were leaving a part of herself behind. Her thoughts turn to Jack, wondering what he was doing, and if he was even aware that they were leaving. Beth had always spoken of the four of them going together, but they might not have enough time to track the man down if things went poorly and they had to run.

A crash from above takes the girl from her thoughts. Walking quickly up the stairs, she stops in front of Beth's room, staring in. The woman stands near the bed, staring down at the ground, one of the glass sculptures having fallen and shattered, a thousand pieces spread through the room, impossible to collect, more so to repair. She notices the girl after a few seconds, suppressing the pain clear on her face. "Guess I should be more careful," she murmurs, turning away to shove a bundle of clothing into a cardboard box. Sometime since waking, the woman had changed out of her dress, into a thin, black outfit, covering most of her body, though tight enough that it leaves almost nothing to the imagination. Her hair is tied into a ponytail, carefully managed and out of the way, a first in the time the girl had known her. Walking carefully into the room, trying to avoid the sharp glass, she offers her help, but the woman just waves her away. "I'll take care of my mess. If you want, you can go pack up some of Jack's stuff. No need to leave it behind."

The girl gives her acquiescence soon enough, murmuring an apology and slipping out the door, leaving the woman in peace. Heading into the room she slept in the night before, she finds a stack of boxes, taped securely and waiting to be used. Starting with the clothing scattered on the floor, she begins picking through the tall male's belongings, trying her best to file everything away in an organized fashion. Spotting a piece of cloth sticking out from beneath the mattress, she lifts the corner of the bed, having to hold it up with both hands. Using her foot, she scoots the item, an old pair of black pants, into the open. Just as she's about to let the heavy mattress sink back down, she spots something, hidden further beneath. She considers turning the light on, but she has her doubts that she'd be able pick the bed back up if she put it down. Sitting down, letting her head and back hold the mattress up, the pressure far from pleasant, she swipes her hands forward, tugging the thing free. Exiting from beneath the bed, she stares down at an old magazine, bearing the image of a naked woman. Frowning, she turns to regard the boxes on the bed, wondering if she would sort that with the health supplies, clothing, or perishables. She considers the garbage, briefly, but the man might be upset that she'd thrown it away. Then again, he might be upset that she had found it at all. But leaving it behind wouldn't work very well, either, since Jack likely wouldn't be able to come back for it.

Staring down at the troublesome item, her curiosity slowly gets the better of her. Throwing a quick glance around, to make sure nobody had suddenly materialized inside the room, she opens the book to a random page, looking inside to find... a bunch of words, and not much else. Narrowing her eyes, she flips the page a couple times, about to give up entirely, when the magazine switches to a long row of images, the contents making her eyes widen in shock. She had seen a few items like this in the past- her father owned several, which he had always kept laying out in the bathroom, atop a pile of other sorts, talking about science, guns, and motorcycles, but she had never been too interested, mostly ignoring them along with the rest. Now, face burning bright red, she finds herself more than a little curious about the contents, men and women doing what Ken and Beth had done, and much more, things she barely understood or knew the purpose of, alongside pairs of women, doing things to each other that seemed downright disgusting, and all the more captivating because of it.

The images ease her mind in one regard, assuring her that she was far from the only girl who felt the way she did. In fact, there seemed to be just as many pairs of women, as there are women with men. She holds the magazine close to her face, hot breath washing over the page, trying to get a better look in the dimly lit room. Her heart speeds up rapidly, remembering that she had left the door open, just as she hears footsteps outside the room. Throwing the book down on the bed, she lays down, on her back, covering it entirely. Beth walks in a moment later, staring down at the flushed, shame-faced little girl, breathing just a bit too quickly, and raises her eyebrow. Entirely unaware of how her position might seem even more suggestive, the girl gives a timid smile, not quite meeting her friend's gaze, afraid that part of the magazine were somehow visible to the woman, or that the movement of the bed would cause the pages to crinkle and make noise. "I'll come back later," Beth murmurs, knowingly, stepping out of the room. "I came to see how you were doing, but I see you're handling everything yourself."

The girl gives a quick, oblivious nod, unable to talk over the lump in her throat. Shutting the door, Beth leaves the girl alone and in peace, giving a bemused chuckle as she walks away. Sitting up, the child collects herself, considering. It had been too close for comfort already; she couldn't afford to keep looking at the thing, and she wasn't entirely sure why she wanted to anyway. She pushes it into the trash, buried under a few containers, so that nobody could see it. Heart still beating like a jackhammer, she resumes cleaning up clothing, shoving everything hurriedly into boxes, trying to dismiss the wobbly feeling in her legs. After a time, she finishes packing up the clothing, leaving the rest of the trash where it is; there would be little point cleaning the place up if they were going to be running away. Littering would be the least of their concerns. Moving on to the little bit of stuff that Jack actually kept clean, filed neatly in his shelf, she opens the bottom drawer, putting the clean socks and underwear into a separate box. From the next drawer, she retrieves pants and shorts, and the one above, shirts, and, oddly, a single bandana that she'd never seen him wear. The last drawer remains slightly too high for her to properly reach, forcing the girl to pull the mattress closer, for use as a stepping stool.

The insides of the last drawer are nothing short of a mess, random knickknacks that may have held some sentimental value to the boy, scattered around at random. She digs through them passively, pulling out old rocks and coins, cards from games she never heard of, and even a remote, though she has no idea what from. She begins piling all of it into another, separate box, figuring that, though a lot of it was likely useless trash, it wasn't her call to decide what gets kept. Finished with the drawer, she moves to shut it, but the light catches on something, far in the back. Cautiously, she reaches in as far as her small arms can go, unable to see with what little light pours in from the window. Her hands brush up against something, hard and small, taped securely to the back of the drawer. Curious as to what sort of strange things the boy might be hiding here, she begins systematically peeling at the tape, until, finally, she gets bored, her tattered fingernails not great at the job. Grabbing hold as securely as she can, she begins outright pulling on the thing, the last of the tape tearing free with a satisfying ripping sound, even as the force of the act sends the girl falling backward on the bed. Victorious, the girl raises the item up to the light- and stops short, her heart seeming to stop.

In her hand rests a small, black pistol, the word Chekhov engraved on the hilt, cold to the touch and far too heavy. All of a sudden, she remembers the nightmare she had been forced to endure the previous night, the world in black and white, screaming soundlessly over the graves of her friends. Thoughts of naked women and hidden guilt seem to fade away, inconsequential. Her mind spirals, as the young girl recalls the bloody, gaping wound on Jack's stomach. With a shudder, she can almost feel Murphy's hands caressing her flesh, hungry, predatory. She pictures Beth, laying on the ground, covered in blood. Faint, tearful words echo in her head. "Guy had a knife. Almost have cut my damn throat. Would have, if Jack hadn't..." Without really thinking about what she's doing, her body moving faster than her mind, she slips the weapon into her backpack, zipping it shut and walking to the door. Hesitating a few seconds at the precipice, she exhales, taking one last, long look at the darkened room. Turning away, she slowly closes the door.

---

Walking back into the room, a few minutes later, she digs quietly through the trash, retrieving the magazine and slipping it into a different compartment in her backpack, discreetly exiting and heading back downstairs.

---

The sound of an engine signals Ken's return, the girl opening the front door to find a large moving truck stopping in front of the yard, the animal-featured man behind the wheel. Opening the door as the engine dies, he steps out, hint of a smile on his face, keys clutched tightly between his fingers. The back slides open, a ramp lowering to the ground, allowing them to easily and safely move their belongings. That done, the man crosses to the house, the girl stepping aside to allow his entrance. Instead of progressing further inside, the towering figure stops, staring down at the child. He speaks awkwardly, at a loss for how to talk to the much younger girl, their tastes and feelings never quite in-tune, yet needing to say something, knowing he might not have many more chances. "Thank you," he begins, moving his hand to pat her on the shoulder, but retracting it before it connects, letting the limb dangle pointlessly at his side. "You've always made Beth happy. I think you remind her that there's more to the world than the miserable life she's led. Without you, I don't think she would have gotten here. You give her hope. I've never been able to do that, because I don't have any." He turns away, staring at the old, peeling wallpaper. "I know you don't like me very much. I can't blame you for that. I'm the type of man that remembers every fight he's been in, fondly. People call me an asshole and I don't feel bad. I laugh, and nod, because it's true. Beth makes me better than that, and you make her better than me."

For a moment, the girl finds herself incapable of saying anything. It seems almost as if the man is speaking more to himself, than to her, and she isn't able to protest against his claim, regardless. Some part of her had never very much liked the older male; he had seemed violent, spiteful, dangerous, and, even if her relationship with Beth existed only in her head, Ken stood in the way of that, too. Even disregarding all of that, she had seen him at his most intimate, and the memory makes being alone in his presense, for any real length of time, uncomfortable. And yet, she cared about him. In spite of what some deep, petty part of her mind might have whispered, in the middle of the night, she had never wanted anything bad to happen to him. And he had saved her. That didn't instantly erase whatever negative feelings she buried, but it meant a lot. He could have just as easily walked right past, leaving her to her fate. She can't speak about her opinion of him, or his opinion of himself, afraid that her words would sound false, or weak, though aware that saying nothing would be just as bad. But there is one thing she can focus on. Something that meant the world to both of them. "Beth's a good person," she murmurs, staring down at her bare feet. "She's done a lot for me. More than I've ever done for anyone... If I can help her, I will." She glances upward, meeting his gaze for a second. It isn't understanding that passes between them, but something like it.

Ken nods, breaking contact a moment later, to the relief of both. Muttering about getting the boxes in the truck, he begins stomping up the stairs, the girl watching him go. Left alone with her thoughts, and the mildly uncomfortable feeling left in his wake, she goes to sit at the edge of the couch, biting at her nails and staring at the patterns on the wooden floor, wishing she could do more to help, not wanting to intrude. Though the couple had talked of their desire for a better life, and how much displeasure the neighborhood as a whole, and their home in general, brought, she knew the idea of leaving had to be painful, and a little scary. She had never been to any other cities, having spent her entire life in Akkierens, so the child wasn't sure what to expect, of the wilderness between their destinations, or the strange, unfamiliar culture they would need to adjust to. Ken returns a few minutes later, carefully balancing a stack of boxes in his arms, managing to get them out the door without too much hassle. He heads back upstairs without wasting any words, repeating the trip numerous times over the next hour.

Eventually, Beth walks down, sinking onto the couch beside the child, brushing her hair. The girl doesn't protest, even as the woman begins tugging on her locks, seeming to twist them around just a bit too roughly. As she works, she begins talking, her voice gentle, though laced with concern. "Sweet Pea, we'll have to leave pretty much as soon as we're done here. I know you think you're ready for this, but even with everything you've been through, you're still just a kid. If anything goes wrong, if we get separated, or... or anything, I need to know that you'll be safe. That you won't do anything stupid. You need to put yourself first. Don't try to find me, don't try to take anything, just get out and get away. Keep yourself safe and don't get caught. Do you promise?" Staring down at her hands, clenched in her lap, she quietly promises the woman that she will. Neither of them quite manage to believe it, but Beth nods, just the same. Setting her brush aside, she stares at the child for a brief, silent moment. "Ken doesn't think I should let you go at all. Almost had to argue with him about it. I'm sure Jack would feel the same way. I almost wanna tell you to stay here, myself." Taking a long, difficult breath, she wraps her arms around the girl, holding her softly. "If everything goes like it should, we'll be able to come right back here, relax a while, get everything ready properly. But things never work out that way. If it goes bad, we might need to get out of town as soon as possible. I can't leave you here, because I might not be able to come get you."

Gently, the girl reaches up, clasping Beth's hands in her own. The woman's voice was full of guilt, sadness, and fear, and part of her hates that she had anything to do with her friend feeling that way. Sounding far more confident in her words than she would ever feel, she offers a big, bright smile. "It's okay. I'll be fine. It'll all go perfect, because Beth planned it. You're the greatest person I know, so there's no way it won't work out." Beth laughs, a genuine, if pained sound, squeezing the girl's hands. "We'll be back in just a little while. We'll get Jack, and go to Is..." She trails off, not quite remembering how to pronounce the name. "We'll go find your family, and we'll all be happy." Some part of her doesn't want to go, of course. Inside, she's terrified, not just for her friends, but that something could happen to her. In the last couple months, she had finally started to feel like life, her life, mattered. The idea of it ending, just when she's starting to feel alive, makes her heart hurt. There were moments when she wanted nothing more than to lay in Beth's bed, warm, safe, surrounded by the woman's scent, until the others return to pick her up. But she couldn't do that. It had never been a choice, or consideration: as long as Beth was in danger, she would be there to protect her. Even if all she could do is take the pain in her place.

"This is the last of it." Ken's voice, from the top of the stairs. Beth separates herself from the girl, brushing a hand across her cheek as she stands, turning to the man. In his hands sits a single box, the heads of sculpted animals and fantastical creatures just peeking over the top. Bearing a smile that makes the woman look years younger, she bounds over to the man, taking the box from his grasp. He pulls her into a kiss, impassioned by the nervous current of energy that had permeated the entire house throughout the day. The girl finds herself surprised, staring up at the two, her heart free of either jealousy or pain. She doesn't have a chance to question it, the couple descending quickly, Beth carrying the box from the house, depositing it in the passenger seat, rather than in the back with the others. Ken looks the girl over for a moment, frowning subtly. Heading to the kitchen, he returns a moment later, her brown, hooded jacket clasped in his hand. "Put this on. We're in for a cold night." He tosses it through the room, the child barely managing to catch it, staring down at the familiar, warm fabric, free of stains and looking as if it had never been used as a shield against garbage. She gives a small nod, offering her thanks, but the man waves it aside. "Make sure you have everything you need. It's time to go." His face falls, and it almost seems like he has something to say, but the man just shakes his head, slipping his hands into the pockets of his pants and walking outside, tail swinging idly behind him.

Slipping into the jacket brings an old, nostalgic feeling of comfort to the girl. While her legs remain almost entirely exposed, the moment she feels the sleeves reach over her fingers, and the hood cover her hair, she feels safer, as if nothing in the world could reach her through the barrier she had created. Beth calls her name from outside, and the feeling slips away. Softly, she smiles, not missing it at all. Nothing bad could reach her, when she closed herself off completely, but nothing good would ever find her either. Nothing warm or kind would ever touch her heart. Thinking of Beth, Jack, and Ken, the people she had grown to care about, the things they had done together, all the laughter and the tears, she draws in a slow, calming breath, pulling the hood from her head, letting her hair flow down the other side. Picking up her backpack, she straps it carefully across her shoulders, not giving the empty, desolate house another glance as she walks out the door, slipping her hand into Beth's as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "I'm ready," she says, and she means it. Surprisingly, Ken reaches out, taking her other hand, for a single moment, before letting it drop. She gives the man a smile, and they begin walking, toward the future, and all the misery awaiting them.

Chapter 6 - Truth
Darkness settles high above as the three arrive at the Wright Estate, the massive structure towering three stories, oppressive and dark. Tiny specks dance through the sky above, avian specters circling like vultures above a dying man, visible only when they cross beneath one of the many clouds, full to the brim with unshed rain. The air rests heavy with fog, cold settling deep. Pulling her oversized jacket closer to her body, the child takes in the gargantuan dwelling, feeling even smaller and weaker than she is, doubt prickling the back of her mind like needles. Before, the plan had seemed distant, unreal, her concern trapped deep in the back of her mind, overridden by her certainty in her best friend. Now, staring out at the large, steel gate, the brick building beyond, and the multitude of shadowed, barred windows, something in the back of her mind whispers of how foolish she had been to ever think she could succeed, trying to drag her down until she gives up entirely. Glancing at her companions, she can tell they feel afraid as well, possibly more so than she does, their experiences leaving them more aware of how badly this could go.

Inhaling softly, the girl inches herself closer to Beth, biting at her nails, listening to the sound of sirens blaring in the distance, dogs howling morbid responses from scattered, isolated yards throughout the neighborhood. The trek to Murphy's home-slash-art museum had been long, and mostly silent,the trio walking far enough to find a cab willing to transport them, no driver willing to stop anywhere near their neighborhood, having it stop just far enough away to mask their true destination, in case the driver would be questioned later. That hadn't been the only precaution they had taken; though they hid the signs well enough, both of the oldest members of the group were suffering from sobriety, not willing to take the chance of any drug lingering in their systems, were they to be caught. Breaking and entering, robbery, endangering a minor, all bad enough to begin with. Staring up at her sullen, silent friend, the girl gives a small smile, trying to mask the nervousness in her voice. "Is it time? He's gone by now, right?"

Beth hesitates for a moment, staring off into the distance, carefully studying the grounds around the building, a few guards walking the premises, nearly invisible in the gloom. What little can be made out through the distant windows shows that most of the rooms have gone dark, no light to signify life within the compound. At length, the woman nods. "He always makes sure to arrive on time. Likes to brag about it. Unless this is the one time in his life he decides to show up fashionably late, we should be good to go. Still," she adds, clenching and unclenching her fists, "There's one way to know for sure." Leading the group through the underbrush, she begins circling the compound, making a slow, quiet trek to the other side. After a time, the girl realizes their destination: a second, much smaller building, located just outside the gated estate. "His garage," Beth scoffs. "Keeps it locked up tight. We won't be able to get in, but that doesn't mean we can't get anything useful here." A large, clear window sits high off the ground, no light shining from within. Motioning to it, she smiles at the girl. "Think you can get a look, see what's inside?"

The girl just stares at it, frowning. The wall is one long, uniform slope, no footholds or ledges to use for leverage, not that she felt any confidence in her ability to scale them if they did exist. "How am I..." She begins, only to feel a large, muscular pair of hands, gripping her waist and lifting her bodily into the air. Ken holds her up, standing on his tiptoes, the top of her head just reaching the edge of the glass. "Why would he even put this so high up," she murmurs, quietly, as she gazes inside. The interior is nearly pitch black, even darker than the shadows surrounding them, keeping the girl from making out much of anything. "It's too dark," she calls, glancing down and immediately regretting it, the ground seemingly a mile away. "Please don't drop me," she murmurs, voice barely above a whisper, Ken just grunting in response. Forcing her eyes back into the room, she stares at the abyss inside, slowly adjusting. After a minute, she becomes capable of making out colors, and the general shapes of some of the vehicles, though she has no idea which brands they are, much less which specific models.

The child begins listing them off, wondering what the purpose to this endeavor could be. Occasionally, Beth asks for more specific information, the girl often incapable of giving it. "All right," the woman says, after a few minutes. "Set her down." Happily reunited with the ground, at last, the girl leans herself against the wall, trying to collect her thoughts. When she raises her head, she finds Beth smiling down at her, arms crossed over her chest. "All right, Sweet Pea. You did good." Turning, she begins walking back toward the house, not bothering to see if the others are following. "Sounds like his main ride's not here, and he's probably wherever it is. I think things are finally looking our way." They cross back to the front of the gate, the trip taking less time than before, a certain nervous energy shared between the three, pushing them on. Staring out at the grounds beyond, and the oblivious guards, the woman taps her chin in thought. "We need a route that gets us to the door without being seen. Ken?"

Turning to the man, curiously, she watches as he cracks his knuckles, focusing intently on the distance between them and the manse. "I see an opening," he mutters. "We'll need to get inside first, of course. Are you ready?" He turns to Beth, the woman nodding. Gripping her around the waist, the way he'd held the girl, earlier, he lifts her up high, the woman grabbing hold of the top of the fence and swinging around the other side, climbing down expertly. Her feet touch the ground a moment later, and she puts her hand up, thumb sticking high into the air. Ken turns to the girl, next. "Can you handle this?" Swallowing, she turns to the fence, peering hesitantly at the peak, at least thrice her height, her legs wobbling at the thought. While it certainly wasn't as high as the rope ladder she had descended, a few days earlier, it seems nearly as terrifying, the dark pressing around her suffocatingly, any mistake potentially bringing disaster to them all. Balling her hands to fists, she gives a curt nod, her eyes squeezing shut as she's hoisted up.

"Come on, Sweet Pea," Beth's voice rings out softly, from below. "You're almost there. I know you can make it." Cracking her eyes open, she spots the top of the fence, merely feet away. Her arms shaking, she reaches out, gripping the ledge as if her life depended on it. For a long, uncomfortable moment, she just hangs in place, knowing that she has to pull herself over, her limbs disobeying her command. "They'll see you if you take too long," comes a hissed call from below. Inhaling sharply, the child nods, using what little might she has left to pull herself upward. Ken's hand presses against her bottom, giving her a light shove and forcing her the rest of the way over the edge. The ground looms far below, taunting, as her hands grip the mesh on the inside of the fence, unable to free them long enough to navigate down. Her eyes unfocus, sweat pouring down her forehead like rain, as Beth calls out again, her tone gentle, her words sweet, neither doing much to calm the child's racing heart. With a sigh, the woman glances toward the house again, worrying that the security might notice them at any moment. "Please, baby. Come on down. Even if you fall, I'll catch you. There's no way I'd let anything happen."

Ken scales the fence, a couple feet away, the girl tightening her grip as the frame shakes beneath his weight, feeling certain that it would give way at any moment. "I've got you," he whispers, grabbing the girl up in one arm, holding her tightly to his body. Squeaking softly, she clings to the animal man, eyes squeezed shut, as he descends, bringing both of them to a stop on the ground below. Setting her down, he ruffles her hair, Beth wrapping an arm around her, thanking the man with a kiss on the cheek. "Let's not waste time," Ken whispers, glancing around quickly, to confirm the positions of the guards. The girl stares at him again, and this time, he notices her gaze. "I can see in the dark," he confides, conspiratorially. "And I can smell them. That's how I found you in the alley, that night. Follow me. I'll get us there safely." Nodding slowly, she begins following the man, genuinely impressed. She hadn't even known he could drive before today, much less about his more unusual capabilities.

A handful of tense, fitful minutes later, the three stand next to the main dwelling, hidden beneath the shadows of jutting spires, meant for accenting the design of the building, currently providing ample cover from prying eyes. The trek through the well-manicured grounds had been long, yet uneventful, Ken managing to lead the group easily past what few guards walked outside. Beth sighs in relief, looking out over the distance they'd crossed so far. "I have to admit, I almost didn't think we'd even make it this far. Everything else should be a piece of cake." With a smile, she struts right up to the front door of the facility, the other following along. Tracking down the keypad, she punches in the four-digit code, hitting enter. For a moment, nothing happens, silence stretching on, as if taunting the words she had spoken. "Should I press it again," she asks the cold night air surrounding them, neither it, nor her companions, giving a response. "Don't tell me the paranoid bastard changed it." The child glances around, wondering if it still counted as paranoia when people were actually trying to rob you.

Just as the woman brushes her hand across the pad, ready to reenter the code, a soft, quiet buzz emanates from the security door, hidden mechanisms sliding and clinking inside. With one final, annoyingly loud clanking sound, the entrance slides open, allowing just enough room for the three to pass unhindered. Slipping through the precipice, the girl casts a long, awestruck glance around the room, seemingly as large as an entire floor of Beth's house, paintings hanging high on the walls, urns and sculptures displayed proudly for all to see. Beth gives a curt warning not to touch anything as she slides the heavy door shut, the girl retracting her hand from one of the urns, covered in Adalsteir crystal, shimmering beautifully in the light. Looking around at the mesmerizing display, the girl wonders if she might have been misinformed. This seemed less like the home of a politician, and more fitting to one of the richest, most influential members of the city. Quickly, she murmurs as much, turning to Beth with a question. "All of this stuff is really pretty. It's probably worth a lot. Should we just grab what we can and go?"

Beth shakes her head, solemnly. "All of this, he's got legally. We're after the stuff he can't report, which he keeps deeper in. While we'd get a lot of money for this, we'd also get caught trying to hock it. As for just how much crap he keeps laying around, the whole place isn't like this. He only lets most of his visitors see a couple rooms, so he makes sure they look as nice as possible. The rest of the building looks pretty much like you'd expect." The girl nods, not sure what she's meant to expect to begin with, following the others as they traipse through the chamber, through an archway, and further inside. In time, they come across another door, blocked off by a traditional padlock, rather than the technological contraption protecting the main door. Turning to Ken, Beth gives his shoulder a light shove. "All right, Hercules, looks like it's time to put your muscles to good use. Take the door down." The girl has to suppress a laugh, staring at the metal door in front of them. While the man was certainly one of the strongest people she knew, based on appearance alone, the idea of him managing to take down such an obstacle seemed far too fantastic.

Ken seems to agree, reaching into his jacket with a grunt, pulling out a small, rather simple hacksaw. "Or we could not alert every living thing in the building to our location," he counters, pressing the tool against the metal of the lock, reciprocating it until it lacerates, the latch falling away with a dull thud. Hiding the saw away, he turns back to the incredulous looks of the two girls. "What? At least one of us should be prepared." Cracking the door, the man peers through, announcing the all-clear after a moment. Beth and Ken pass through, the girl hesitating. Glancing behind her, down the passage they had just walked, she can't shake the feeling of a presence, eyes watching her every move, though she doesn't see anyone there. Shaking her head, she moves to follow the others, reminding herself that anybody that saw them would raise the alarm, not follow them around suspiciously. Beth's earlier words seem to ring true, the room beyond filled with much more normal accessories, walls a faded, dull color. Several cushioned chairs sit around a table, a fireplace dark and unlit nearby. Smiling, the girl imagines living in a place like this. If they pull this off, maybe they could.

They pass through several more rooms on their journey toward the riches Beth promised were awaiting them, each paling in comparison to the first room they had seen, yet spectacular in their own right. The child quickly loses her bearings, entirely unaware of how to reach the exit from where they are. Beth seems to navigate the maze like the back of her hand, leaving the girl to wonder just how many she had been inside this place, and why she had never taken anything before. Thinking of the amount of dust she had seen the others ingest over the last couple months, she figures that maybe she has. The thought makes her uncomfortable, bringing old doubts to the surface. Even if the man was as bad as they said, did it really make any of this right? Sure, he had been planning to do awful things to her, or so it seemed, but she finds that she can't really blame him for that. Just a short time later, she had done something similar, to Beth. It had been under the influence of a drug, she knew that made some bit of difference, but she had still wanted to do it, somewhere inside. Even discounting that, she couldn't bring herself to hate the man for anything he had done. On some level, she had never hated anyone. Her parents, her classmates, certainly not someone who was a virtual stranger to her.

Attempting to dismiss the thoughts, the girl focuses on following Beth's lead, the group now passing through a long, narrow tunnel, the ceiling curved above them, the walls on either side painted to look like an aquarium, pressing in from every direction. Lost in the beauty of the handcrafted work, the girl almost doesn't notice when Ken holds up a hand, stopping and grabbing hold of Beth's arm. With a frown, she stands still, staring at the others in confusion. Ken points toward the far end of the tunnel, holding a finger up to his lip, in an obvious message. Be quiet. Glaring at the distant point of light, eyes narrowed, she can barely make out the sight of multiple people milling, voices too low to catch. Pressing herself against the painted wall, the girl stands utterly still, certain that her heart was beating hard enough for the other to hear, in the silence. Several minutes pass by, feeling more like hours, before the barely recognizable figures vanish. Ken waits for a few minutes more, inhaling slowly, before nodding. "They're gone. For now. Let's press on while we can."

Out of the tunnel, they find a few discarded candy wrappers on the ground, alongside a few cigarette butts, the only evidence that the guards had existed at all. An absurd thought comes to mind, that Murphy would be upset over the littering, but she dismisses it, wondering why she should even care. Leaving the trash where it is, she hurries to catch up to Beth, ignoring the paranoia warring in the back of her mind, resisting the nearly overpowering urge to glance behind them. The woman stops in front of a door, running her hand gingerly over the knob, a bright smile on her face. Turning to her companions, she speaks, quietly. "This is it. What we're looking for's right through this door. Is everyone ready?" The girl nods, whispering her consent, as Ken reaches out, placing a hand over Beth's. Together, they turn the knob, the unassuming wooden door opening without protest, light flickering on immediately to reveal the mysteries hidden inside. Casting one final, futile look around, the girl steps through, into a different world.

---

"Wow." The word slips from her mouth, unbidden, not coming close to matching the feeling of awe inside the girl, yet the only thing she can say. An orb of pale, glowing energy sits high above, light cascading into the room. Statues of cerulean and amber stand behind glass shelves, burning with a magnificent aura unlike any the child had ever seen. Behind other panes lie fantastical weapons, many of which seem impractical, when not downright impossible. Perhaps most haunting, one container bears the gown of a maid, ripped in several locations, stained dark with blood, yet having lost none of the extraordinary intensity it had borne, when last donned. Unconsciously, the girl moves forward, ahead of her companions, feet sliding easily over the tiled floor, deeper into the cavernous chamber. Beth and Ken find themselves equally spellbound, losing themselves amidst the wondrous belongings for a time, haste and worry forgotten. Stopping in front of the maid's uniform, the girl places a hand on the glass, recounting the story of where Murphy had acquired his collection, the vast number of people, maid, soldier, and civilian, who had died that day. Below the pane, a name has been affixed, titling the outfit Abertha.

A sense of sadness and longing overtake the girl, until she forces herself away from the glass, taking in the next in a row of strange, exotic items. In the next window sits a statue, crated into a harrowingly accurate rendition of a Remnant, mouth gaping wide and hands twisted into terrible claws. What gives the effigy true magnificence, however, is the fabric used to create it, a brilliantly red stone that could almost be mistaken for ruby, if not for the energy seeming to flow constantly within. Though she had heard of items like it before, the child had never seen an Adalsteir sculpture before, the material generally put to more traditional uses in most cities. Varnadria had been one of very few she knew of that employed the crystal in such a way, the city having many skilled craftsmen. That art had been another thing the tragedy had taken from the world. And now instead of sitting in a museum, where everyone could enjoy it, the statue had been locked away for the pleasure of one individual. Something about it almost breaks her heart.

"Over here," Beth calls, softly. Tearing her attention away from the statue, she walks over to the case the woman had been studying at length. Inside sits another wonderful sculpture, over a foot in size, this one shining with pale, blue light, molded into the likeness of the massive, breathtaking tree of legend, Yggdrasil. In the branches sit giant, beautiful figures, men and women donning exquisite gowns, some dressed as maids, others in the costume of people long dead, each entwined with the tree even as it supports them. Perhaps most impressive, a massive series of roots intertwine beneath the tree, expertly woven together to create a cacophony of symbols and shapes, the way the clouds above sometimes transform from mere collectives of water to stunning spectacles that can fuel the imagination for hours. Below the statue sits a card, titling the sculpture as Adnascentia. Her hands pressed against the glass, reflection of her smile plainly visible for the others to see, Beth murmurs. "This is it. This is what we're here for."

"It's wonderful," the girls says, a tear in her voice, as she gives the item a long, dazed look. They would almost certainly fetch a small fortune for something so beautiful. A voice, buried deep in her head, whispers it would just end up in some other private collection somewhere, cut off from the world, if they sold it, but she forces herself not to hear it. They had come this far, risked this much; there was no way they could walk away empty-handed now. Uncomfortably, she bites at her nails, staring at the glass separating the statue from their grasp. Quietly, she speaks, afraid that raising her voice too loud would wash away some of the magic of the room. "How can we get it out? Won't there be alarms?" While the door to the room had been left unguarded, and the owner hadn't taken to changing the passcode even once since Beth had last been here, this all seemed too easy. Perhaps some part of her had expected something to go wrong, but she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling nestled in her chest.

"Murphy doesn't have an alarm here for the same reason he does most of what he does." Beth knocks on the glass, a dim, hollow sound reverberating. "He thinks he's invincible. He made it this far, when everyone else failed, so he must be better than them." Shaking her head, she turns to Ken. "I don't suppose you brought any laser cutters in that jacket of yours?" Demurely, the man shakes his head. "Didn't think so," Beth murmurs, staring at the problematic barrier at length. Finally, she gives a faint sigh. "We'll just have to break it. It might cause some noise, so we'll have to hurry out, but the crystal should be fine. Adalsteir doesn't shatter that easily." With a nod to Ken, she steps back, dragging the child with her, until they stand several feet away from the man. With a grunt, he cocks back his arm, throwing it forward with all his might. Fist impacts glass, shaking the pane but accomplishing little more. He pulls back, repeating the motion, a second time, then a third. On the fourth impact, he lets out a massive bellow, something cracking on impact, though she can't tell whether it's the glass, or the bones of his hand. One final, desperate crash, and the barrier explodes into a million pieces, shards of glass reflecting the pale light from above as they cascade through the room.

"You did it! Amazing!" Unable to control her excitement, the girl rushes several feet forward, staring rapturously at the sculpture as Ken reaches his other hand into the space beyond, gently lifting the statue and pulling it free. "It's so pretty," she murmurs, staring at the exquisite blue crystal. He asks if she'd like to hold it, a smile in his voice, and she nods happily. Swallowing, she tries to fight against the lump in her through, the sweat coating the palms of her hands, as he places the strangely weightless item between them. Running a hand across the dangling roots, she laughs, a carefree, childlike sound. "I can't believe that-" Thunder fills the small room, drowning her words like a whisper against a scream. Shocked, it's all she can do to keep ahold of the precious gem, her ears ringing painfully, barely hearing the echo of a scream, and not certain if it had come from her, or somewhere else, infinitely distant. Raising her head, the look on Ken's face is the first thing she sees, his expression twisted in shock and pain. She only notices the large, round hole in his chest as he sinks to the ground, laying still, blood pooling beneath him.

The last echo of sound fades away, leaving a dark, deathly silence in its wake, stretching on for what seems an eternity. The child stares down at the body a few feet away, not comprehending, and not wanting to. She sees Beth rushing over to the man, kneeling down, face breaking into tears, and for a moment, she finds herself not feeling anything, body entirely still, breathing even, clinging to the last moment in her life where she would ever believe that everything could be okay. From behind, somewhere distant, unimportant, comes a bark of laughter, filled with cruelty. "Oh, Betty, Betty, Betty. Did you really think you could get away with taking what belongs to me." The voice, heartless and cold, breaks the girl from her stupor, as the first tear slips own her cheek, her legs threatening to give out. Murphy walks slowly into the room, giving her a hungry, predatory look, stopping a few feet away, a large, ugly stick in his hand. After a moment, she recognizes the gun for what it is, backing away several steps without thinking about it at all. With a grin, Murphy Wright raises the weapon, pointing it effortlessly at Beth's chest. "Now, I think it's time we have a chat. About how you're going to fix this little breach of trust."

---

The world seems to slow down, the next moments passing with an otherworldly quality, slow, hazy, secluded. Distantly, Beth screams, the mournful, terrible sound echoing through the cavernous chamber. Holding the sculpture close to her chest, the child traces Murphy's path with her eyes, seeing nothing, tears crashing against the tiled floor like so much broken glass. Buried deep in the back of her mind, something screams for her to run, fight, do anything other than stand rooted to the ground, waiting for the end. The gun-touting man takes another step forward, slowly, inevitably, drawing ever-closer to the shaking woman's form. Reaching his hand forward, he grips her hair, pulling her roughly away from the bleeding figure on the ground. "I told you once, and I'll say it again. There's no getting out. Not for you. Not for some back-alley whore who eats more sand and cum than actual food!" Shoving the woman down violently, he laughs, Beth's head slamming against the ground, eliciting a gasp of pain. "You're even stupider than I thought, coming after me. Me. You only ever lived this long because I let you. Every meal you shoved down your throat, every drink you wasted, I allowed that!" He raises her head again, slamming it against the concrete. "I! Gave you! Everything!" Another impact, to emphasize each sentence. Moaning pitifully, Beth falls limp, vision swimming as her consciousness threatens to fade entirely. Murphy chuckles, turning the woman onto her back, wrapping a hand around her throat. "Now I'll take it away."

Across the room, in another world, the girl watches, pain growing in the backs of her eyes, her head burning as if set ablaze. She feels the tears slipping down her face, her heart beating heavy in her chest, the cold, sharp edges of the Adalsteir sculpture, biting against her flesh, as if those feelings belonged to someone else. She stares at the large, muscled body, motionless on the ground, pool of crimson around it, inhaling the taste of copper. Adjacent, Murphy's laughter, joined with Beth's choking sobs, draws her gaze. Straddling the woman's body, he begins tearing at her clothing, ripping fabric, exposing flesh. His other hand presses the gun to her head, finger just inches from the trigger. The weightless statue in the girl's hands seems to grow heavy, dragging down at the powerless child, as the voice in the back of her head grows louder. Holding on to consciousness as best she can, Beth turns, eyes boring intensely into the girl's skull. Silently, she mouths one word. Run. Tears streaming down the woman's cheeks, blood caking her hair, face twisted into a abstract expression of terror and desolation, the sight rips the girl apart.

Something snaps, inside, and reality crashes in, bringing with it pain, anger, determination. She begins to run. Not backward, but straight toward the two. Lifting the statue, she brings it down on the back of the man's head, as hard as she can, the sharp, pointed roots stabbing through flesh and spilling blood. Some part of her, deep inside, feels sick, at the thought of hurting anyone, even a man like Murphy, but in that moment, she forces it down until she can almost pretend it doesn't exist. The man leans to the side, grunting in pain, and for an instant, the girl feels a burst of hope, that maybe she could make a difference. Murphy corrects himself after only a moment, swinging the gun back and slamming it into the side of her head, hard. The impact sets off explosions behind her eyes, the girl falling to the ground and staying there. Smiling, Murphy turns to glare madly at the child. "Stay right where you are. You'll have your turn." Turning back to Beth, he rips open the last of her clothing, unzipping his pants and forcing himself inside of her, delighting in the woman's shriek. Cracking her eyes open, the girl stares at the statue, flung from her hands, too far to reach, her body too weak to wield it. She tries to get up, stumbling back to the ground, her backpack tangled in her limbs, dragging her down. Laying her forehead flat against the tiled floor, her tears flow freely, stomach twisting in agony, as the edges of her vision blur.

Once we get to Ilskaieh, I'll be cooking a lot more. The words dance through the child's head, mockingly, Beth voice, but distorted, twisted by the truth, and reality, and the knowledge that they would never make it. I can even make some cake, to celebrate. She wails, hands pressed to her stomach, feeling like she'll throw up. We'll get you back in school; a good school, where you can study what you want. We'll get good jobs, make enough money that we won't have to worry. Her scream mixes with Beth's, and she loses track of where one of them begins, and the other ends. We can spend our time like this every night, together, as a family. She pictures Beth's smiling, happy face, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to hold on to it, and not the broken, bloody visage that she fears she'll never forget. A dark voice whispers in her mind, assuring her that she wouldn't have much more time to remember it, or anything else. Balling her hands to fists, she presses them against the ground, struggling against gravity, and her own worthlessness, breath coming in heavy, as she rises onto her elbows. Murphy grunts, an ugly, animalistic sound, body moving up and down, rapidly, hand once again wrapped around Beth's throat, stopping her breath.

Hollowly, she watches the light dim behind the woman's eyes. She pulls her arm from the mess of cloth and backpack, the sleeve of her jacket tearing open as the heavy pack slams dully to the ground, the sound entirely ignored by the ravenous man. Without the weight pulling against her, the girl finds just enough strength to get to her feet, stumbling forward and wrapping her hands around Murphy's arm, trying to tug it from Beth's neck. Fighting back sobs, she begs the man to stop, softly, putting all of her desperation, hope, and fear into her plead, shakily staring into the man's eyes. He slows his thrusting, turning to regard the girl, teeth bared and nostrils flaring. Slowly, his grip loosens, Beth taking in a large, gasping breath. Sweetly, he reaches up to caress the child's face, the touch causing her to flinch in terror. "How rude of me," he murmurs, pulling himself up from the woman, hand inching down the girl's neck. For a moment, she can see something in his eyes. It looks like sadness. "My mother taught me better than to neglect my guests. Can you ever forgive me?" His hand reaches down, into her shirt, nails pressing down just enough to hurt, red lines marring her flesh. His other hand grips her shoulder, painfully, forcing the girl down until she rests on her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tries to block out the sight and smell of the man's lust.

"Murphy..." Beth's voice comes low, quiet, and filled with hate. Her hand reaches out, weakly gripping his ankle. "If you're really a man at all... you won't leave a job half finished." Her eyes bore into his, as she spreads her legs wider. "You wouldn't want people to think you'd rather go for... some whiny little kid, than a babe like me." Baring her teeth in a smile that isn't a smile, she spreads the tattered remains of her shirt open wide, revealing her body. The girl shakes her head, slowly, bile rising in her throat. She understood, on some level, that the woman was trying to rescue her, to spare her from the same fate Beth had endured, but she would rather take whatever pain Murphy would offer, than let anything else happen to the woman she loved. Time and again, she had done everything she could for the girl, listening to her problems, giving her whatever she could spare, making her feel happy, and safe, and loved, and now she would have to give up everything she had left, all because the child had been too worthless to run when she could. Fresh tears slip down her face, shame burning deep in her heart, wishing she were strong enough to say something, anything, to beg the man to take her, to protect someone the way everyone else had always protected her.

Murphy shoves the girl backward, roughly, her body hitting the ground, knocking the air from her lungs. "It's about time you came around, Betty," he mutters, turning back to the woman and forcing himself on her even harder than before, Beth biting back her tears and her screams, deathly silent, not willing to give the man the dignity of her pain. Staring up at the glowing orb of energy, high above, the girl's thoughts swim through the void of nothingness calling to her, random images dancing through her head like dreams. She sees her old backyard, dug up and empty, her parents standing idly over the holes, uncaring and cold. She sees Jack, younger, weaker, screaming as his father holds a lit cigarette to his skin. She seems her brother, rubbing his eyes, turning to give her a strained smile, up too many hours into the morning, doing work two years above his grade. She sees Beth, barely more than a child, hands tainted red with her mother's blood, holding a small, black pistol as tears run down her face. The girl chokes back her shock, the thought gripping hold of her and forcing her mind back to consciousness, eyes opening slowly to fall on her backpack, sitting only a couple feet away. Reaching out, she wraps shaking fingers around the strap, inching it closer and closer.

With a shuddering laugh, the girl pulls the pack into her arms, holding it tightly against her chest. "What the fuck do you have to laugh at?" Murphy turns, shaking his head in bemusement, panting from his excursion. "Don't tell me you already went nuts. I was looking forward to really having some fun." Sighing in mock disappointment, the man turns away, ignoring the child in favor of the pleasure building in his loins. Quietly, she unzips the pocket on her backpack, reaching in, her numb, fumbling hands taking far too long to find the cold, dark item. Pulling it free, she marvels at the way the thing seems to shine with light, from above, as if alive with mystical power, the way all of the weapons in Maid Quest glowed with iridescence when first discovered. She bites back half-mad laughter at the thought, some part of her finding it the most fitting thing in the world. If ever there had been a weapon meant for protecting the innocent from evil, surely this was the moment she needed it most. The pain flares up again, behind her eyes, as the girl forces her wasted body to move. Taking a deep, trembling breath, she aims the gun at the back of the man's head.

Deep inside, the part of her that wanted to believe she was capable of being a good person, the same part that had always wanted to be a hero, feels an odd sense of sorrow. She almost feels like she should say something, give a dramatic speech, or command the man to stop. Her hands shake, sweat running down the nape of her neck, the palms of her hands. No words come, the child's throat suddenly far too dry, afraid that trying to speak would send her into a fit of hysteria. Though only a few moments pass, in that too-bright, blood soaked room, they feel like an eternity, breath coming heavy and hot against the cool air, arms aching under the strain. It isn't Murphy who notices her first, but Beth, the woman making a pained, choking sound, at the sight. Looking into the girl's eyes, she shakes her head, slowly, to make sure the message gets across. Though she doesn't hear the woman's voice, she knows full well what she would say in that instant. Don't do it. Not for me. I'm not worth it. The girl smiles, a small, broken gesture, and doesn't lower the weapon an inch. She sets her finger on the trigger, the way they always did in movies, taking a deep breath.

Whether he notices Beth's reaction, senses some change to the atmosphere of the room, or if fate itself guides his vision, Murphy turns back at that moment, processing the scene for several cold, hard seconds, his movement slowing, then ceasing altogether. "Seems like you've got guts after all, little girl." His voice rings with annoyance, though free of fear. She finds herself wondering if the man didn't take her seriously, or if he just doesn't care what happens to him. "Go ahead and shoot," he says, with a laugh. Adjusting the gun in his hand, having misdirected it during the intercourse, he sets it right against Beth's temple. "You'll kill me, I'll kill her, and you'll be left alone to explain all this to the cops. Or you can put the gun down, let me have my fun, and all three of us can go about our lives like none of this ever happened." She hesitates, unable to move or speak, sight frozen on the image of the gun against Beth's head. She tries to remember whether or not he would have enough time and control left to pull the trigger, if she shot him. She would never be able to pull the trigger, if it meant Beth could die too. He'll kill her anyway. The thought comes suddenly, cold and emotionless, from far away. At least this way, it would be quick.

The trembling of her arm worsens, the girl doing all she can to keep the gun steady, certain that he would shoot her dead the moment he saw an opening, the child less concerned with her own fate, than where that would leave Beth. She swallows, throat aching, and tries to convince herself of that, ignoring the fear threatening to override, telling her to put the gun down and beg for mercy. She bites her bottom lip, hard enough to draw blood, gripping the weapon with both hands to steady her aim. The ugly taste of copper runs down her throat, as she presses down against the trigger, loosening the pressure a moment later, accomplishing nothing. She tries to tell herself that it was no different from ripping off a band-aid: one sudden, smooth motion, and everything ends. The thought does little to force her into action. As young as she is, she knows full well that pulling the trigger would take at least one life. Even disregarding Beth, as hard as it is to put her friend out of her mind for an instant, even someone like Murphy had a right to live. He had hurt Beth, and probably a lot of other people just like her, and he had stolen and extorted countless more. There was no doubt in her mind that the man needed to be punished, and if he were merely some fictional movie villain, she would be rooting for the hero to shoot him dead.

And yet. The man in front of her is real, living, breathing, full of hopes and dreams, desires and fantasies, just the same as her, as Beth.  He had done terrible things, harmed the people she cared about most, and she would never forgive him for that. Some part of her knows this never would have happened, had they not gone after him first, but that matters little; he had been willing to do such horrible things at the slightest provocation. These weren't the actions of a stable man. Then maybe we can help him. She knew the government had countless medications and treatments for people with mental issues. Someone like this, someone who would do what he had done, had to have something wrong with their brain, somehow. Maybe, either now, or in the future, there would be some way to fix whatever was messed up. Another tear falls from her lashes, as the thought slips away. Maybe he could be helped. Maybe killing him isn't the right answer. The way her heart aches, it certainly feels wrong. And yet. Staring down at Beth's tear-streaked face, she knows that there isn't any other way. Not to save her friend, nor herself. Unless he's telling the truth. The two sides wage war inside her head and heart, trying to tear her in half.

This isn't fair, comes the thought. I just wanted to be happy. Yet, everything had fallen apart. Like it always had. Like it always would. She had been left holding the gun, forced to choose between two impossible choices, the fate the only person who ever truly loved her, hanging in the balance. Distantly, she remembers the way it had felt when they had first met, the girl listening to one of her favorite songs, through her earbuds, Beth's arms wrapped around her shoulder. It had been scary, at first, but something had felt so right about it. Beth had smiled, stroked her face, held her when she cried. She had made the girl feel alive. For the first time in so many years, she had found purpose, and meaning, something beyond the barrier of numbness she had tried to place around her heart. Shoulders shaking, she looks into the woman's eyes, shining with tears. In that moment, she makes her decision. "I'm sorry," she whispers, voice hollow and empty. "I love you."

Movement, from the corner of her eye, catches the girl's attention. Moving faster than she thought possible, a mountain of muscle and flesh slams into Murphy's body, Ken's hand grabbing the man's arm and forcing it away from Beth's head, the snapping of bone reverberating through the room along with the man's scream. Before she has a chance for thought or action, a hand, large and warm, wraps over hers, gently slipping the gun from her grasp. Jack's voice, quiet and laced with pain, breaths into her ears. "Sorry, kid." His hand covers her eyes, turning the world to darkness, just as the air around her explodes, the sound deafeningly powerful. The first gunshot leaves her ears ringing, a deep, sharp pain stabbing through her head, all other sound dim and muffled. The second leaves her hearing nothing. She doesn't know if there are more. The next sensation she feels is a pair of arms, wrapping around her body and lifting her through the air, setting her down sometime later, a cold wall against her back. As the hand slips from her face, her eyes fall on Jack, staring down at her grimly, the two back out in the hallway prior to that accursed chamber.

His mouth moves, forming words she can't catch over the dull, endless buzzing in her head. Falling silent after a moment, Jack runs a hand through his hair, silver locks looking almost black in the dimly lit room. For a moment, she can almost convince herself that they're back at home, sitting on the couch, Jack telling her about some movie she would never see, far away from tears, blood, and screams. The young man squeezes her hands, hard, before pulling away. Reaching out, she grabs his sleeve, holding as tightly as she can. A look of sorrow crosses his face, as he draws closer, the girl wrapping her arms tightly around his neck, her tears flowing freely, staining his shirt, letting loose all of the pain and misery she had been bottling inside. Stroking her hair, he murmurs sweet words that mean nothing, the girl just barely able to hear them. After a long moment, he pushes her back, giving a tiny, genuine smile. Loud, almost to the point of yelling, he speaks. "Stay here. I have to get Beth." Turning around, he slips into the shadows, leaving the girl alone as her consciousness fades.

---

"So this is Ilskaieh?" The girl looks around, skyscrapers reaching high into the sky, the city bustling with people, all heading off on jobs or errands. Some of them turn and smile as they pass. She smiles back. "It's so beautiful here," she murmurs, feeling the cool breeze wash over her. Even the air seems to smell better. Giggling, she turns back to her companions, Beth standing a few feet away, Ken's arm on her shoulder, both watching her with easy, relaxed expressions. Jack leans against the wall of a nearby shopfront, staring down at a tiny electronic device. Calling her name, he motions the group over. The girl stands between the couple, arms around their waists, smiling happily, as Jack raises the camera. The three yell "Cheese!" in unison, as the device flashes, recording the wondrous, hopeful moment for them to look back on, for years to come. This would be the first day of the rest of their lives. Blinking away the echo of light, the girl laughs at Ken's huffed complaint at how bright the flash had been, even as Beth reaches out and strokes her arm, smiling down happily. Reaching out, she wraps her arms around the woman's neck, pulling her in for a kiss. Their lips brush, and the girl closes her eyes, full of warmth and happiness, and thoughts of a future free from pain.

---

Her eyes open in the dark hall of Wright's estate, the dream fading quickly, taking the feeling of peace with it. Groggily, she tries to stand, leaning against the wall for support, as she makes her way back toward the door. Inside, her vision is robbed momentarily by the bright light from above, the child shielding her eyes against the pain. Lowering her arm, she casts a glance around the room, spotting Jack, further inside, half-carrying, half-walking Beth from the room, the woman struggling to keep her footing, the two noticing her after a moment. Jack gives a tense nod, Beth pausing, nearly tripping over her feet, shock, relief, and guilt written plainly on her face, her tattered clothing hanging uselessly from her frame. The girl pretends not to notice the blood, leaking down her face, and between her legs, running forward to help her friends make it out. Jack sets his sister down outside, giving her shoulder a hard squeeze before heading back into the room. Hesitantly, the girl approaches the woman, whispering her name. Beth's eyes raises slowly, the woman offering a tiny, withering smile. "I'm glad you're all right, Sweet Pea." Her voice breaks, shoulders shaking.

Unsure of what to say, or if she should even say anything at all, the girl just nods, forcing back her tears. Crying now would only make Beth feel worse, she knows. Staring down at the woman's exposed body, the girl frowns, stripping off her jacket and holding it out. Beth stares at it, hesitantly, not moving. "Go on," she murmurs. "You shouldn't have to be..." She trails off, shaking her head. "Just take it. You're more important than some old clothes." The two stare at each other for a long, silent moment. Eventually, Beth nods, grabbing the jacket and fumbling around until she gets it on properly, zipping it up and covering most of her modesty. Staring at the ground, she mumbles a thanks, the girl nodding, pulling her friend into a hug. She tries not to notice the way Beth stiffens up at her touch, equally ignoring the tears the woman cries into her shirt. The two stay like that, mourning whatever had been lost in that room, neither of them having a name for the concept, until Jack returns.

The girl turns to find the man carrying her backpack, holding it out to her. "Keep this safe," he says, pressing it into her arms, the pack both heavier and harder than it should be. Unzipping it, she glances inside, the sculpture known as Adnascentia tucked firmly beneath books and school supplies. She zips it closed again, biting her bottom lip, ignoring the fresh wave of pain and blood. At length, she nods, strapping the pack on her shoulders, Jack staring into her eyes for a long, silent moment. Finally, he turns to Beth. "We need to get Ken. He won't make it out on his own. Can you do it?" She remains silent, staring at the girl. "Beth!" Her eyes turn toward her brother's face, lost, confused. "Can I count on you?" At last, she nods, climbing slowly to her feet, following Jack into the room. The two return a minute later, Ken held up between them, the man semi-conscious, doing his best to support his own weight, but not succeeding very well. His shoulder bears a wrapping of bandages, stained red, and his breathing comes rough, but the man gives the girl a nod in greeting, putting one foot in front of the other, just the same.

The four begin to move, a slow, painful process, Jack the only one without physical injury. More than once, they find themselves trapped at a dead end, Beth accidentally giving the wrong direction. The girl glances behind them, cautiously, expecting Murphy to appear at any moment, waving his gun. "Just keep walkin', brat," Jack calls from ahead, grunting as he helps Ken over a particularly difficult obstacle. "There's nothing back there worth your time." The child frowns, picking up her pace, to match the others. Remembering the deafeningly loud gunshots, and the things Murphy had done to Beth, she has a very difficult time convincing herself that Jack had left him alive. The thought makes her heart hurt, the girl forcing it from her mind as best she can. Right now, they had to get out, past the security. It was a miracle they hadn't already come running, after the first gunshot; they couldn't waste time worrying or feeling bad. Not yet. Picking up her pace, she moves ahead of the others, hoping she'll be able to spot any danger soon enough to warn the exhausted group behind her.

After a time, Beth manages to collect herself, enough to find her voice, softly asking Jack how he'd known to be there. Her voice has regained some of the life the woman had been so full of, before, and the girl offers her friend a smile, trying to seem cheerful in spite of the ache in her heart, and the feeling that someone had split her skull in two. Quietly, Jack recounts the day he had run into the girl, outside the empty flower shop. "After we split ways, I looked into what she'd said. Figured tonight'd be the night you did it. Knew you could get in easy enough, but I couldn't leave it all on you. I'd never forgive myself if you didn't come back." His amber eyes scan the hallway in front of them, passively. "Got pa's old ride outta the garage, that's how I got here. Been keeping it up and running, in case we ever needed it. As if we'd ever have anywhere to drive to. Helps keep me sharp, anyway. Always liked messing with stuff like that." He shrugs, ignoring the strain on his muscles. "Got here a bit late. Wasn't sure where I was going, so I just followed the first set o' voices I heard. Lucky for me, it was you guys."

Suddenly, the child recalls the eerie feeling that had overtaken her, earlier, as if a set of eyes had been following her every move. She had assumed it was Murphy, after everything that had happened. She frowns, slowing her pace slightly, exhaustion catching up to her, even as her tired mind struggles to put the pieces together. Something doesn't add up. If Jack had found them that early, why had he just watched from afar? Why hadn't he caught up, and tried to help? Furthermore, if he had been that close, surely he would have seen what Murphy was doing much sooner. Out of all of them, he would have had the best chance to stop the man. Then there was the issue of Murphy being home at all, when he should have been out most of the night. The lack of guards, the security code, conveniently the same, the room with Murphy's most valuable possessions, lacking so much as a lock on the door. Aside from the three of them, Jack had been the only one that could have known what they were planning. He's a slave to his drug just the same. When I handed him that card, he took it. Beth's voice echoes in her head, as the girl stops, heart beating far too quickly.

"What's wrong?" The others halt a moment, Jack looking her over. "You all right, kid? Need to rest a minute?" The man offers a small, genuine smile, even as a chill goes down the girl's spine. He saved us, she protests, against the idea forcing its way into her brain. Did he? She tries to remember exactly how that moment had played out, moving both at a snail's pace, yet far too quickly. Ken had surged forward, grabbing Murphy's arm, when she had been pointing a gun at the man's head. Jack had only acted once the situation had been under control. Once the victor had been decided. It might have been possible for them to capture Murphy alive. Unlikely, but possible. And yet, Jack had taken the gun and made sure the man was dead. That he couldn't talk. But he had to have been coming to help already, if he managed to get there right when Ken started to move. She stares at the man, smirk on his face, pistol gripped tightly in his hand. She smiles back, shaking her head. Of course, he had to have already been coming to help them... unless he had already been in the room. They hadn't noticed him, but she had been focused on Beth, and Beth had barely been conscious. Murphy would have noticed him, of course, but that wouldn't have made any difference at all if Jack had been working with the man to begin with.

"I'm fine," she says, unable to hide the fear in her whisper-quiet words. "Let's go home." Forcing her legs to work, she takes one step, then another, passing Jack and the others without sparing them another glance. Part of her feels entirely certain that the man would never betray them, would never do anything to get his sister hurt. Another part knows with absolute certainty that this is exactly what he had done. She shoves both of them aside. In the end, Murphy was dead, they were alive, and she would never know. Sometimes, there are no answers, and sometimes it's not worth finding them. Passing through the darkened halls, the group slowly make their way to the exit, unimpeded by guards, Ken offering a soft, vague warning on occasion, when conscious enough to smell or hear them, luck, or some other force, guiding them the rest of the way. Jack lets Ken go for a moment, Beth supporting the man's weight as her brother forces the heavy security door open all the way. The other three leave first, the child staring out at the darkness, taking a deep breath. Gathering what little resolve she has left, she grips the straps of her backpack a little tighter, stepping out into the night.

---

The cold, black world beyond is a sharp contrast from the building's interior, rain falling from the heavens above, causing the girl to shiver immediately, her short skirt and sleeveless shirt doing very little to keep her warm. Sirens blare in the distance, drawing closer, and the fence, marking their only exit to freedom, seems more and more distant by the second. Unable to run while carrying Ken, the others march forward as quickly as they can, doing their best to avoid stumbling over rock and tree root, the girl following immediately behind, despite the nearly overpowering desire to run as fast as she can. Shouting comes from behind them, the guards finally closing in, and the child considers heading back to close the door, either to slow them down, or mask their escape. Grimly, she presses on, aware that it would buy so little time as to be worthless, if not get her caught altogether. The weight of Adnascentia presses down on her, reminding the girl that she can't afford to hesitate or fall behind. Without that sculpture, everything they had been through would be for naught.

Halfway to the gate, the girl's foot slips into a hole in the soft dirt below, filled with mud, bringing her to her knees. She glances around wildly, trying in vain to pull herself free, as the guards exit the dwelling, guns raised. She surges forward, slipping her foot deftly from her shoe, as a bullet impacts the ground just a foot from where she had just been. Hobbling, she picks up speed, shouting a warning to the others, closer to the exit. Another bullet tears into her backpack, the impact knocking the girl to the ground, her head smacking into a rock, even as the fabric tears, spilling the contents and obliterating one of the straps. Gingerly, she picks herself up, grabbing the pack and hugging in to her chest, head full of panic, barely even noticing the pain from where the bullet had grazed her arm, tearing flesh and spilling blood. Breathing heavily, she finally catches up with the others, standing at the gate, a chain and padlock sealing it shut. Without hesitation, Jack raises the gun, firing two rounds into the chain, the metal exploding in a parade of shrapnel. Kicking the gate open, roughly, he steps through, the others at his side.

The sirens draw ever-closer, the taillights of a police car shining from down the street. "Come on," Jack calls, panic creeping into his voice, as he leads them into a thicket of trees across the yard. Glancing behind them, the girl feels no small measure of relief on seeing the guards stopping at the gate, waving their guns aimlessly at the line of trees hiding the criminals from sight. A few minutes later, Beth calls for them to stop, the siblings setting Ken down against a tree, all of them panting for breath. Feeling every bit of pain and exhaustion as if it were new, the girl lids her eyes, focusing on regulating her pulse, taking long, deep breaths. From somewhere far away, Jack's voice resonates, asking her if she's all right. His hand touches near the wound on her arm, causing the girl to cry out in pain, opening her eyes to find the man standing merely a foot away, tears in his eyes. "It's all right," he assures her, running a hand across the blood streaking her face. She just barely manages to avoid flinching. "The car's just up ahead. Hid it on the other side, in case... well, in case this. We get to that, we're home free." He smiles, the old, friendly smile she had seen so rarely, whenever the man actually opened up. In that moment, she can convince herself that it had all been a big coincidence. He'd had nothing to do with Murphy, or what the man had done. Whether naivety or faith, she accepts that idea into her heart, smiling back.

Beth tends to Ken while the others talk, inspecting the bandages on his arm, trying to smile for him, not quite managing. "Jack did a good job on this," she whispers, tracing a line across the fabric. Her hand strays too close to the wound, brushing over the irritated flesh surrounding it, causing the animal man to grunt in pain, clenching his teeth against a scream. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she murmurs, staring at the man's face, relieved that he was conscious enough to feel the pain. The woman lets out a shaky breath, turning to her companions. "We need to move," she says, managing to put some conviction into her words. "He won't last long out here." Jack nods, crossing over and hoisting Ken up, Beth grabbing his other arm and supporting the man again, her body screaming in protest, pain racing through her tired muscles. Turning to the child, she motions her forward, holding out her hand. "Come on, Sweet Pea. Everything's gonna be all right." Nodding, the girl catches up, locking her fingers with Beth's, flesh warm in contrast to the chill of the rain.

Shouts come from elsewhere in the wood, causing the girl to jump, the group picking up the pace. The rays of torches dance through the trees, searching them out, and it's all they can do to keep from being discovered. Breaking through the other side of the treeline, the world expands around them, the sidewalk and street momentarily free of life, civilian or other. Multiple vehicles sit unattended across the road, Jack pointing to one of them, a small, nondescript four-door, painted black, nearly blending into the night around it. With renewed energy, the four rush forward, hand in hand, more than ready to end the long night of suffering and sorrow. She can feel, as much as see, the smile on Beth's face, as the woman pulls her onward, the child taking a single step into street. Then a hand grips the back of her shirt, grounding her in place. The girl struggles, instinctively, trying in vain to free herself, the others stopping short, turning to find a large man, bearing the uniform of Akkierens' police force, holding the frieghtened child with one hand, standard issue automatic in the other. "Don't move," he warns, voice full of confidence and self control.

Jack raises the pistol quickly, pointing it straight at the man, only to find the officer's weapon trained on his chest, at a stalemate. The girl tries to pull herself away once more, tightening her grip on Beth's hand, hard enough to hurt. In the distance, they can hear the other officers, closing in, slowly yet surely erasing any chance for escape. Jack's finger twitches, the cop giving a slow, deliberate shake of his head. "Don't make me hurt you, boy." Each second seems to last a lifetime, every breath the girl takes, shockingly cold. This is it, she thinks. It's over. She looks into Beth's eyes, the terror that had never left the woman, that might never leave her, resurfacing. She can practically read the woman's thoughts from her face: court, prison, death. No more freedom, no more happiness, no more hope. Jack struggles with his own demons, hand trembling, eyes wide, just one mistake away from death, or from ending the life of someone who had done nothing wrong. Ken's eyes lay half open, the man barely more than dead weight, likely not even comprehending what had happened.

And yet, the girl finds herself growing calm, her heart finally slowing. She takes in the face of her captor, the officer tall, well-built, the type of man who could fight well enough to take any of them, one hand behind his back. Less obvious is the weariness lining his face, buried in his eyes. He had grown old, not from age, but from duty, having seen tragedies like tonight countless times before, and worse besides. His words rang not with barely restrained violence, but with a sad sense of finality. He didn't want to hurt them, but he would, if pushed, because he knew as well as any of them that sometimes you don't have a choice. Sometimes you can't take chances. He glances her way for a single instant, eyes filled with pity, nothing like the empty, cruel loathing she had sensed in Murphy. Forcing her face into a smile, she turns back to the others, looking them over in turn, that single moment lasting an eternity as the girl tries her best to memorize their faces, their voices, the way they laughed. In that instant, she realizes what she has to do. She squeezes Beth's hand, gently, one last time- and lets go. In its place, she shoves her backpack, filled with hope, promises, and a dream for the future. A future that would never be hers. Throwing away everything she had seen that night, every lesson and doubt ingrained into her heart, pushes the woman away, shouting for the three to leave.

The child turns away, knowing she'll never see them again. The officer moves his gun to follow their trek, or shoot them down, or just on instinct alone, and the girl steps in front of it, grabbing hold of the man's hands and locking them in place, weapon pointed straight at her head. Their eyes lock, the choice entirely clear: Kill me, or let them go. Something shifts in his eyes, and in that instant, she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he won't shoot. Jack hesitates a single moment, teeth bared, before he begins backing away, cursing. Beth stares at the child in shock, not comprehending, even as Jack uses his free hand to grip her shoulder, trying to force her toward the car. Standing utterly still, the girl feels the larger, stronger man, pulling with all his might to free himself... and failing. She doesn't know how she had moved fast enough, how she could overpower the officer for even a single moment, or why she had suddenly been so certain that she would be capable of doing either. The idea had been instantaneous, and not her own. From behind her, she hears Beth, screaming her name, and has to force herself not to respond, knowing that doing so would break whatever strange spell she was under. The sound is soon followed by slamming doors and the roar of an engine, fading quickly in the night.

As suddenly as it came, the strength leaves her body, head aching worse than it ever had, as the officer pulls himself free. Staring incredulously at the girl, he laughs, the sound bitter, if not a little impressed. He stares into the distance, at the fading vehicle, turning toward the bloody, exhausted child, the girl barely staying on her feet, injured, possibly badly. With a sigh, and shake of his head, he reaches down, attaching a pair of handcuffs to her wrists. "I'm not sure what you did," he mutters, "But don't do it again. If you try something like that again, I will shoot you." She just stares down at the ground, numbly, trying to hold on to consciousness, telling herself that she had made the right choice. Yet, in the end, had it been a choice at all? If she had done nothing, either the other officers would have shown up, and they all would have been captured, or Jack would have pulled the trigger. If that had happened, the cop would be dead. He hadn't been a monster, or a criminal, just a man trying to do his job and help people. She had sensed that from the start. Aside from that, Jack himself would have very likely died as well, and the other officers would never give up on hunting them down. She knew full well that killing a cop was worse than killing someone like Murphy. Turning to gaze at the darkness, she recalls the words Jack had spoken to her once before, forcing a smile. She doesn't know if they'll get away, but through her sacrifice, they'll at least have a chance. As the last of the pale light fades from her eyes, she tells herself that's good enough. And tries to believe.

---

The officer leads the child to his car, opening the back door and gently placing her inside. Ignoring the near-constant chatter from his radio, he stares at the girl for a long, hard moment. She stares back, apathetically, wondering what was so interesting. After a moment, the man shakes his head apparently choosing to forgo whatever he'd been thinking. Crossing to the other side, he climbs into the driver's seat, turning on his communicator. "Officer MacLeiad here." A pause. "No, I didn't find anyone. Heading out to scope the area." The girl stares at the man, confused. She certainly felt pretty 'found' right about now. Looking at her through the dashboard mirror, the man gives her a nod. Shutting off the communicator, he turns his attention to the road. "You're the girl that went missing about a week back. The rich kid. Right?" She doesn't answer, staring at her feet. In some ways, that's answer enough. "Your parents put down a hefty reward for anyone that could bring you home safe and sound. They seem to care a lot about you. Makes me wonder how you ended up involved in a situation like this."

The child bites back the urge to laugh, feeling the metal stinging uncomfortably on her wrists. Of course; this is about money. It seemed everything was, in some way. The officer shakes his head, sighing, as the silence drags on. "I can hazard a few guesses. The force has been investigating Wright for a while. We suspect that he's been involved in a multitude of illegal activities, but we've had no proof. If even half of what we suspect is true, and it's looking likely, then I'm glad the bastard's not roaming the streets anymore." He takes a turn, and the girl realizes that the buildings around her have grown vaguely familiar. "We don't know exactly what happened tonight, not yet, but we found a lot of blood at the scene, and not all of it belongs to the deceased. Looking at you, I'm thinking you're just as much a victim as anyone else. That's what my gut's telling me. And what you did back there, for those kids, that was brave. It was very stupid, and everything would be a lot better if you hadn't done it, but that wasn't something a heartless criminal would do."

The officer glances at the child through the mirror, one more time, and she can see that same pity in his eyes. A pity that seems almost kind. "There are a lot of guys on the force that let it break them. All the crime, the hate, the stress. I like to think I'm not one of them. I'm going to tell the station that I found you on the way back from the scene, and that I had no reason to suspect you were involved. With that in mind, I took you back to your doting parents, and we both went about our days. If I do need to question you later, I'll have plausible deniability, and you can stay somewhere comfortable unless and until we find out that you're the one that pulled the trigger. I get the feeling that won't happen." He stops the car, parking along the side of the road, at an entirely nondescript clearing. Switching on the radio, he informs the station that he sees something suspicious, and is heading to check it out. Sitting still in the driver's seat, he gives the girl a dark look. "Whatever you did, whatever brought you where you are, I don't think you deserve to be locked away. Everyone deserves a second chance. Don't screw it up. Go home, work hard, get a good job, and live a life you can be proud of. Understood?"

A few seconds pass, in uncomfortable silence, before the girl nods, listlessly, trying to feel some sense of gratitude for the man who had ruined everything. The officer exhales. "You're a quiet one, aren't you. Haven't said a single word. What the hell happened to make you act like this?" He doesn't expect an answer, and the girl meets his expectations perfectly. What could she even say? She had been like this long before she had run away. Whatever had happened, however damaged she was, none of that's new. In fact, before tonight, her scars had finally started to heal. Idly, bites at her nails, listening as the man turns the radio back on, reporting on his 'discovery'. That finished, the cruiser starts up again, sailing quietly through the streets of Akkierens, toward her house. The silence doesn't last long, the officer opening his mouth after a minute or so more. "I'm not the bad guy here. You can talk to me. If you want." Remaining silent, the girl lightly kicks the seat in front of her, vengefully. Part of her understands, on some level, that the man speaks the truth. She had messed up, badly, and more than once. The officer's willingness to help her in spite of that, even at the risk of his own career, should be enough for her to open up, at least a little. Instead, her thoughts swim endlessly with memories of the woman she had loved, her heart hollow. She knows the pain will come, in time, and that it might never fade, but for now, she just doesn't feel anything.

The cruiser pulls up in front of her house, the sight bringing old emotions to the surface, good, bad, and everything between. Most surprising is the nearly overpowering urge to see her family. Crushing the desire, she turns away, gazing at the floor of the meticulously clean squad car. They won't be able to make anything better. If they even try. "Here," comes a voice from the front row, the officer undoing her cuffs, before holding out a small, lamented card. With some hesitation, the child takes it, staring down at the information written. It bares the man's name, along with a phone number, in clear, concise letters. Pressing a button on the dashboard, he opens her door, giving a stiff smile. "Like I said. You can talk to me. If you want." He offers his hand, the child staring at it, expression empty. After a moment of consideration, she nods, coldly, taking it. The contact lasts only a moment, sweaty and uncomfortable, before the girl pulls free, climbing out and walking toward her house. "By the way," the man calls, just as she reaches the precipice. "It says James, but when you call, ask for Jimmy." Without so much as a goodbye, he shuts the door, the vehicle speeding away, leaving the child with nothing but darkness for company. She stares at the card for a long, silent moment, wanting nothing more than to rip it to pieces. Exhaling softly, she loosens her grip, slipping the item into her pocket. Reaching out one tired, trembling limb, she hesitates, the smell of her mother's cooking wafting through the gap in the door, the interior shining with light. Wiping away the tears falling from her lashes, the child knocks on the door.

Epilogue
It had been a dreary day, clouds overcasting the bustling streets of Akkierens. School had let out a few minutes earlier, one young girl stopping at the gate of the academy, watching the other children file into their parents' cars. She bears a minute smile on her face, knowing that nobody was waiting for her. In some ways, the last month had been the longest of her life, heart soaked with pain, brain functioning just well enough to keep her above ground. Despite how difficult it seemed to get through each day, she remembered very little of what had happened in that time, nothing of any worth to the girl. While her life had improved in some ways from before she had met Beth and the others, she found it all paling in comparison to that short-lived fantasy they had shared together. Jimmy had helped her through the worst of it, talking her out of doing terrible things, on the nights she felt brave enough to call him. Likewise, her brother had found time to pay attention to her, at last, choosing to forgo some of studying, in spite of their parents' wishes. Often, they would find a couple hours each day to play a game together, or watch a movie.

Her parents did what they could. For one, she hadn't been punished for leaving. Whether they could somehow sense the pain she wasn't showing them, or if they realized how some part of her actions had been caused by them, they seemed more overjoyed to have her back safely than upset she had left. Some small part of her could almost believe they actually cared. They had also started driving her to and from school each day, to ensure she couldn't 'get lost' again. In some ways, the child took comfort in this, able to pretend her life was just like everyone else's, for the duration of the trip. She had little enough reason to walk anymore, anyway, her earbuds and music player both gone wherever Beth had ended up. Jimmy had kept her up to date; the three hadn't been caught, and, while the search had spread throughout the city, it seemed more and more likely that they had fled elsewhere. The thought makes her forced smile slightly more genuine. Though the drama surrounding the case had mostly died down, the news still spoke of Johnathan and Elizabeth Josephs, on occasion, with big, dramatic words, as if they were the latest celebrity craze, and not merely kids who had gotten in over their heads.

The ringing of her phone breaks the girl from her thoughts, her mother's name displaying on the screen. She answers quickly, mumbling agreement that she would stay safe, and would be home soon, each time her mother asked. Earlier in the day, the woman had left a message, informing her that both of her parents would be too busy to pick her up, today, and she would be forced to walk. Since then, the paranoid woman had called at least three more times, to confirm. Listening to her mother drone on for a few minutes, the girl mumbles agreement to everything said, until the woman finally deigns to hang up. Slipping the device into her pocket, she begins the long, familiar trek to a place she had once called home. The idea of disobeying her parents, and not heading straight to the house, doesn't bother the girl at all. She had been looking for a chance to get to Beth's house, one last time, hoping it could bring some form of closure, and, though she suspects her parents will stop paying attention soon enough- it is, as always, inevitable- she knows this will be the best chance she'll have for a while. Some part of her knows that 'closure' isn't so easy to find, if it exists to begin with. Life doesn't have a defined 'end', a point where the universe looks over the story, and says 'now things work out'. But she has to try.

She reaches the old, battered electronics store without issue, the windows boarded up and the interior empty. In a month, it would probably be an ice cream shop, or a boutique, or one of a thousand other failing dreams that would call the building home, there but for a single moment in time. She doesn't bother going inside, slipping down the alleyway and into the maze beyond. Some part of her worries that she won't find her way, but the path seems oddly clear, every twist and turn burned into her memory. Stepping over the garbage lining the concrete, ignoring the used condoms and needles scattered amongst the rest, she walks without hesitation, her frame wrapped in her comfortingly familiar blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt covering her arms. She knew full well that people wanted to see her flesh, and she knew why. Now, more than ever, she wouldn't give them the dignity. One with the silent stillness surrounding her, the girl slips through the darkened passages like wind through the trees, finally breaking free of the shadows to find the old, desolated house exactly where she remembered, boards on the windows, no lights shining from within.

Every step on her march toward the door brings back another memory, another moment they had been together. All of them hurt, but she finds that the pain brings with it something warm, and kind, a lingering fantasy of the person she once thought she could be. Through laughter and tears, she walks on, up the steps, throwing open the battered door to release the faded, smokey smell from within, so strong she can nearly taste it. Ignoring the trembling in her legs, she steps through the precipice, the empty, silent room the only greeting. First, she moves to the couch, taking a seat on the middle cushion, gazing down at the space the holonet broadcaster had once been. Exhaling deeply, she wraps her arms around herself, curling into a ball and letting her tears flow freely. She isn't sure how much time passes like that, though light still shines in through the opened door when the child finally rights herself, rising up and wiping the tears from her face. She had cried a million tears already. Sometimes it seemed like there was no end to them.

She moves to the kitchen, the dusty table having only grown worse in her absence. She opens the fridge to find old, lukewarm cans of soda and beer, the power having been cut off weeks before. She slides the door shut, leaving everything in place. Back into the living room, and up the stairs, the hole in the wall that would never be repaired, nothing moving inside. She walks to Beth's door, dismissing the absurd desire to knock, fully aware that no answer would come. She slips inside to find the room both empty, yet full of the woman's life, the bed still covered with her sheets, the pink walls speaking of the side of the woman she had loved the most. She resists the hopeless, breaking feeling in her chest, climbing into the bed, wrapping herself in the covers. There, she inhales what little is left of her love, every breath carrying her scent, bringing fresh tears stinging at the girl's eyes. She lays still, in a waking dream, imagining she could reach out and find the woman beside her, waiting for the child to take her hand. Instead, she slips her fingers beneath the hem of her pants, beneath the underwear that never should have belonged to her, lost in thoughts of a love that never would.

The girl goes still, minutes later, warmth and pleasure spreading through her body, her mind more alive than it had been in weeks, even as a hazy, dreamlike feeling wraps around her entire being. She gently pulls her hand from beneath the covers, staring down at the wetness coating her fingers, laughing softly at the realization that it wasn't any different from the tears pouring from her eyes. The laughter turns to a sob, as she buries her face in the pillow, shaking with the last fading traces of her climax, as well as the pain etched deep into her heart. Eventually, inevitably, the shaking stops, leaving the girl drifting on the edge of consciousness. Every fiber of her being screams out for her to close her eyes, to rest eternally between the sheets she had slept within so seldomly, never returning to the pain and anger waiting beyond their border. Instead, she forces herself to sits up, her breathing heavy and hard, her eyes burning from the liquid leaking from their edges, yet none of it mattering in the slightest. Futilely trying to hold on to the pleasure she had felt, almost like a drug all it's own, she stands, crossing to the door. She takes one final look inside, knowing that she'll never be coming back, and then steps outside, closing the door.

The door to Jack's room lets out a screech of protest as she forces it open, the hinges busted, nobody to repair them. Beyond the entrance, lines of paint on the wall make out the illusion of the night sky, contrasting against the sunlight reaching through the window. Navigating through the garbage on the floor, she sits on the edge of the bed, staring at nothing. Though she had cared a good deal about Jack, and had even slept in the bed, once before, she finds herself entirely void of the desires she had felt earlier, instead surrounded by an odd numbness. She knew nothing remained in the room, and, much like the entire trip, she didn't know what she had expected to find. After a time, she lays back, letting the water inside the mattress flow around her like an ocean, whispering nothing of importance. She lays like that, finding herself unable to summon the desire to get up, knowing just how little awaited her. She doesn't cry, or scream, or break anything, though she found herself wishing she were able to shout all of her rage for the world to hear, as if it would somehow make things better. Exhaling, her eyes scan over the desolate room, the smell of faded blood thick in the air. She looks over the door to the balcony, and considers the idea of heading outside. She could get some fresh air, or, if the desire so took her, throw herself off.

She laughs the idea away, nobody to be bothered by the sound. The girl found herself thinking such dark thoughts, on occasion, but distant, vague, unreal. The way Beth's ill-fated plan had once felt. She goes to turn over, to hide her face from the light, when the thought hits her. The dresser isn't there/ Slowly, she turns back over, glancing around the room. She feels fairly confident it hadn't been one of the items they had packed into the moving truck, so long ago, yet a careful study of the room shows that it isn't anywhere inside. As always, she finds her curiosity overpowering, eventually forcing the girl to her feet. She checks outside, the balcony revealing no clues, eventually stepping back in and heading for the only other location she can think of. Pressing against the door with all of her might, she grunts, forcing the gap wider an inch at a time, until the old storage room is laid bare to her eyes. Inside, cards lay scattered across the floor, random knickknacks threatening to trip anyone entering. Near the back, the dresser sits, unassumingly, one drawer open just an inch.

Finding herself oddly nervous, the child makes her way over, carefully avoiding the debris underfoot. Her hands shaking minutely, she grips the open drawer, pulling it out to find two small items stashed inside, neither of which she had ever seen before. One, a small, electronic device, used for recording and playing video messages. The other, a small, brown, hardcover book, bound with string, no title or logo anywhere she can see. Frowning, her heart beating rapidly, the child reaches for the recorder, pressing the play button. The screen turns to static for a long moment, before clearing to show Beth's face, staring down at it. "Hey, Sweet Pea," comes Beth's voice, and the girl has to choke back her sobs at the sound of it, face splitting into a smile. The woman on the recording seems to hesitate a moment, at a loss. At length, she continues, offering a small, genuine smile. "I knew you'd find this eventually. We waited as long as we could, but they would have got us if we'd stayed here. We'll be going... well. You know where we'll be. Jack managed to get a good price for the crystal. We'll be able to make it over, and have enough to get set up. For a little while."

Beth sighs, wiping at a stray tear rolling down her cheek. "I wish... I wish things could be different. We won't be able to come back for you, babe. Just take care of yourself. I..." She trails off, looking away. After nearly a full ten seconds, she looks back, trying to hold back her emotions. "I don't blame you for anything, I hope you know that. I don't know if you would have pulled that trigger. I just..." She runs her hands over her face, laughing, softly. "You never should have been in that situation. Never should have had to choose. In a way, I'm glad you're free of us. We'll probably... we'll..." The woman sobs, forcing herself to continue. "We're all okay. Ken's recovering, slowly. I'm. I'll get better. I don't know if any of us will ever be..." Jack's voice speaks from farther away, the girl unable to make out what he says. Beth nods. "All right. All right. We have to go, sweetheart. Just... be a good girl. I love you. Goodbye." The video cuts out, leaving the room in silence. The girl finds herself shaking, uncertain of when she'd started, unable to stop it. With a shuddering breath, she gently sets the recording down.

The sun begins to fade in the sky, the girl's phone ringing in her pocket, but she ignores it all, focusing instead on the last four words the woman had said. It starts soft at first, but soon grows louder, until the girl feels like she'll fall to the ground. Her laughter echoes through the room, and, somehow, she finds that some small bit pain has gone away. Leaning on the open drawer for support, she waits for the feeling to pass, leaving a smile on her tear-streaked face. She wonders what she had found so funny in the first place, but in the end, no answer comes. Yet, the pain doesn't come either, not in full. Reaching down, she gingerly holds the small, string-bound book, looking it over. No name or indication of ownership appears on the front, back or binding. Beth hadn't mentioned it in the recording, either. She opens it to the middle, finding every page equally blank. Torn between confusion an amusement, she turns to the first page, finding the answer she seeks. A single passage has been written inside. She reads it, over and over, her tears spilling onto the page.

I had meant to give this to you when we got to our new home. Since we would have so many happy memories there, I wanted you to have a place to write it all down, so that you would never forget any of them. Life is short, and you never know what's going to happen. I never did get to give this to you, but I know you'll find it here. I used to love to create. I don't know if I ever told you, but I wanted to be an artist when I was young. I really loved the sculptures my mother made, and I wanted to be just like her. After she died, I gave up on that dream. There was never anything beautiful to draw inspiration from. Until I met you. You brought beauty back to my life. That's why I made this book. One beautiful creation for another. Never give up on your dreams. We will always love you.

Below that, each of them had signed their name, in their own handwriting. Taking a deep, difficult breath, the girl picks up both of the gifts, holding them tightly to her chest. Digging into her pocket, she slips out her phone, answering to her mother's frantic voice. After a moment, she smiles, at the old, dirty, abandoned house around her. "Yes, mom," she murmurs, walking out of the room, down the stairs, and through the front door. "I got lost for a little while. I think I know where I need to go now." Ending the conversation, she slides the door shut. Turning away from the place she had once called home, she sets her sights on the path ahead, and begins to walk.

Author's Note
I'll start this off by saying, you should read this after finishing the story. There are going to be a lot of spoilers here, and that may lower your enjoyment. I'll try and be matter-of-fact here, not focusing too much on my doubts and the like. When I started writing this, the idea was to make a short summary of the events therein, though they were much different at that stage. This was meant to be part of an actual post in the main MRPG thread, covering a small portion of her life in a way that explained her thoughts while also leaving people interested in finding out more. I set down and wrote everything that came naturally. On the first day, I wrote all of Chapter 1. Seven thousand words, and the most I'd ever written in one sitting before. It was surprisingly easy to get into the right mindset and just let the words flow; normally, I have a much harder time, even on the easiest stuff I write. Not to say that it didn't get harder to write stuff out later, but we'll get to that.

I also wrote a single paragraph of what ended up becoming Chapter 2. The plan here had been quite simple; I wanted the rest of the story to be about the same length as the first chapter. To summarize, I had a few ideas in mind, and scenes meant to portray those ideas. Almost none of that made it into the finished story. At the park, the trio of Beth, Jack, and Ken were meant to be messing around and having fun, drinking, taking dust, all fairly similar. The only thing I'd planned to have any lasting effect was Jack and Ken riding a bicycle down a particularly steep hill. Jack would prod Pluto to join in, and, against her better judgement, she agrees, and ends up getting hurt. Not badly, but it was clearly something she didn't want to do, yet she put herself at risk for the others. In the end, the scene with the alcohol played a similar role, at a different point in the story, though it wasn't as blatant. And there are plenty of other scenes that subtly show the same idea. For people she thinks cares, she's willing to do pretty much anything, even if it's foolish or bad.

What was meant to happen next? Well, with that established, I wanted to have a little bit of fluff... that ended up not matching up with how I portraying the cast. To be blunt, I ended up making everyone way more sympathetic than I'd planned, because I'm too optimistic. Everyone was supposed to get high, or drunk, or both, and pass out. Pluto would have ended up sleeping on the couch, and she would wake up to Jack drunkenly trying to take her clothes off. Beth would take force the man off of her and tell the girl to go home. Of course, she would come back anyway, and find some justification for the man's action. After those scenes, the only ideas I had fully formed were the failure of the credit card, and the others arguing. The girl would arrive at the house to find Ken had left, taking most of the valuables with him, as well as their stash... and that's it, for him. He wasn't meant to come back, and his actions were entirely meant to appear selfish, as far as Pluto would see. However, the story ended up expanding, and I realized that he would need more development and presence, to justify even having him in the story. He became a sort of rival love interest, though not in the traditional way.

As for Jack... He and Beth also would have ended up arguing, for a number of reasons. In the end, he would leave angry, his reasons stated as Beth caring about everyone else, more than him. She would talk of wanting Ken back, even after he'd betrayed them, and she would obviously end up getting close to Pluto. Jack may or may not have some romantic feelings for one, or both, of the girls- it was generally meant to be up to interpretation, though in the final story the only vague hints that remain are toward Pluto, I think. And they are vague. Either way, his jealousy forces him away. Following this, with her brother and boyfriend gone, and no belongings, no dust, and no hope, Beth would bemoan her life, stating that nobody loves her, and that she doesn't love anyone. From here, things would go similarly to the final result- Pluto would try to comfort her, and they would end up going off to commit a crime to get money. Not to get out of the city, but just to continue the same lifestyle. It was also meant to be clear that this was an entirely selfish act on Beth's part, and that the woman was abusing Pluto's willingness to help her, established earlier. I feel this got across on some level, but in the end, I think Beth ended up caring a lot more about the girl than I'd expected. Or her feelings were more blatant, at least.

As for the ending, the girls would get the item they were looking for- I had no clue what it was yet. They would be trying to escape, and Jimmy would end up grabbing Pluto and holding her to the ground. Beth, having slipped out of sight, would be presented with the option to either hurt, potentially kill the cop, to free her, or walk away. In the end, she walks, though this is the one time in the story she acts entirely selflessly, realizing that she would only put Pluto in more and more danger if they stayed together, and that the girl wouldn't be harshly punished due to her age, and her family's wealth. Of course, all Pluto sees is the only person she thought cared about her, abandoning her when she needs her most. Though, Jack was meant to show up around this time, arriving just in time to get his sister safely away from the scene. Even in the less sympathetic version, he does care about his sister in the end. I think some aspect of that feeling is clear in the final version; in the end, Beth does believe that she and the others would only keep dragging Pluto down if she did stick with them. That's probably part of why she left when Pluto told her to.

You may be noticing the distinct lack of Murphy in this version. Well, he didn't exist. The guy that showed up in the alley was meant to be a one-off that built up the idea of the crime Beth was planning, and maybe hinting that things weren't quite as innocent as Pluto thought. Even when he showed up in the alley later, the idea just came randomly, when I realized I needed a good excuse to get Ken into the story, with a stronger role. Even then, that was supposed to be the end of Murphy's part; I hadn't decided just what the climax would revolve around. I stretched out the story here, for... a while, adding fluff and, hopefully, more depth and foreshadowing. Honestly, the parts with Ken dragged on, and it probably shows. I had a hard time writing his scenes and actions, especially when I realized that I hadn't actually had him SAY anything for the first half of the story. Actions speak louder than words, but words still help!

Alas, if I had known how long this would have ended up being, I wouldn't have written Jack out so quickly. While I feel like adding more of him might give too much away, too early, he was fun to write. There was one scene that I only thought up the last day I wrote, and by that point we were at the climax, so I never did get to add it. If I ever rewrite the story, I'll find a good place for it. Mostly, it would be an early scene, in the first two chapters somewhere, between Jack and Pluto. She would go out to the garage, to find him working on his father's car. There's a throwaway line like that in the final version, but it's not so great. In the scene, he would talk a bit about his memories of his parents, and how he feels like he's becoming like his father, though he tries not to be. This would be before she actually knows anything about the siblings' father, so she wouldn't be able to sympathize so well, but it does establish a few things: this is the first time Jack would ask her to keep a secret for him, since he doesn't want Beth knowing about his project. It would also show how he likes to keep things working, and his desire to someday become a mechanic, or inventor, perhaps. This, sadly, never got brought up elsewhere.

Now, enough about what didn't happen; let's talk about the final product. While I feel that I could have done with less fluff and padding, I don't regret adding it. I tried to set up the story in a circular fashion, so that everything comes back around at least once, in some way, and some point. I also wanted to showcase that, in spite of everything she's been through, our main character is still just a child. She doesn't see things the way the others do. That said, I'll address the thing I was worried most about adding: the sexual content. Now, some will look at it, and say it's just because I'm a pervert. And that's not wrong. However, I added it the way I did, for a purpose. By the time I was Pluto's age in this story, I was looking at porn with semi-regularity, and I certainly had dreams and thoughts much worse than hers. While she is young, she's not entirely innocent, and I wanted to show that, as well as try and portray what it's like to come to grips with the idea of sexuality, and love, lust, and everything in between. I don't know if I did a good job, and I'm sure a lot of it is fairly uncomfortable, but that's all right. That's how it would be, and how it was for me, at least. I guess in some way I just wanted to try and explain a part of myself that's very intimate and personal, though her eyes. And, I'm a pervert.

As for the story itself. I left a lot of things open. One thing I regret is not being able to make Murphy a little more sympathetic. He's the antagonist, sure, and he does some awful stuff, but that's not all there is. The man almost certainly had some reason for being like he is, but that isn't the sort of thing that she would be able to find out. He's not going to stop in the middle of the scene, to give a long detailed explanation of his motives and methods. Since I didn't come up with a better way to get it across, I fear he's a bit one-note, and I'd do things differently if I ever re-wrote this piece... though he'd still clearly be the bad guy. And he'd still end up dead. As for any possible connection between him and Jack, that was not planned. I wanted Jack to seem suspicious, mildly, and I think I pulled it off too well. I only realized the implications that Pluto did, as I started writing that paragraph, and that alternate interpretation was too good not to leave in. That said, do I think he sold them out? I dunno. I'd like to say no, but that's up to the reader, I think. Likewise, I'm not sure what Pluto decided before the choice was taken out of her hands. She apologized, and stated her love, but that could have been an apology for shooting and possibly getting Beth killed, or for letting Murphy continue and hoping they could make it out alive. It's also, hopefully, ambiguous as to just how Beth feels toward Pluto. Are her feelings even remotely romantic? Or is that just how the girl wants to see it? While some of those might seem obvious, I wanted to let the reader decide which version of events fits better with their idea of who the characters are.

I also left the fate of the other cast members up in the air. They could have gotten arrested afterward, they could have died trying to get out of the city, or in the wastelands beyond, or maybe they're alive and well someplace far away. I will confirm that Ken didn't die from the gunshot, at least, if the third signature in the notebook wasn't good enough indication. There are some things that don't get explained at all, such as why the guards didn't cause any problems as they escaped, or why Murphy was even there to begin with; in the end, it seems that Jack's betrayal is the most logical explanation. This is actually intentional; I could have added some possible explanation for it, but the reader is in much the same position as Pluto, this way. If you want to believe in Jack, you have to do so with blind faith and reckless abandon, tossing all the evidence away and saying "I know he didn't do it", because sometimes in life that's the best you're gonna get. She did, in the end, believe in him- at the end, when she grabbed Jimmy's gun, she had to have faith both that he wouldn't shoot, and that Jack wouldn't take the chance to shoot him. It paid off, but it does show how easily her naivety could get her, or someone else, hurt.

Next, the reason that scene played out the way it did. Originally, as stated above, it was going to happen a lot differently. However, in the final version, it's quite clear that Beth cares about Pluto. Even if she did leave her that way, it wouldn't cause as much of an emotional impact, as Pluto would be able to understand it better. So, she had to make the choice to give it all up herself. Sure, she could have forced the gun to the ground, instead of pointing it at herself. She could have taken it from Jimmy, or just outright attacked him. But, she wasn't looking for a way to get away; her primary goal was for all five of them to survive. After all, she wanted to spare Murphy, even, so there's no way she'd be willing to get a most-likely-innocent cop killed. Not sure how well it got across in the story- I admit that I rushed that part a bit too much- but the idea was, she had to keep herself in danger to stop Jack from potentially killing Jimmy, and she couldn't fight him herself because she could hurt or kill him on accident, or someone else could get shot in the process.

Plus, they were running out of time; forcing the others to leave her behind was the only surefire way to get them to actually leave at all. Was it the smartest plan she could have made? Probably not. But she is eleven, and had just gone through hell. As for Jimmy, he was originally meant to be the one explaining just how awful sticking with the others would be, to Pluto, making her realize that she was better off without them using her. This... didn't really work, given the changes the story and cast undertook, leaving the man with little purpose beyond screwing everything up. But, I needed some way to stop her from leaving, since she clearly has to stay in Akkierens and become a Maid later on, and I was under too much of a self-imposed deadline to think of something better. Again, something to think about for the future, though I imagine the connection might prove interesting and fruitful, if the officer ever appears in the main story. I don't think he and Pluto ever managed to get exceptionally close, and I doubt she ever really opened up about what happened, but if nothing else, both of them have a sense that the other is a good, semi-trustworthy person, and that could be worth something.

One more thing worth pointing out: this entire story is, in a way, meant to be the way Pluto would see it, from three years later, so some things won't be remembered properly, and all of it is from her perspective, which, as is the case with everyone, contains at least a little bias. Why yes, that IS my way of explaining any plotholes you might notice without actually admitting that I messed up. I'd also like to posit the idea that she be remembering wrong, and that the man in the alley and Murphy were actually two entirely different people, since that seems like the sort of thing that might blur together over the years, and I find the idea interesting for whatever reason. Most likely, he wasn't the only one Beth made such 'deals' with, regardless. I'd say that's about everything I remember from what I wanted to put here, but feel free to ask questions in the main thread. I'll answer most of them, probably. You can also state any issues, spelling errors, ideas for improvement, or just tell me how much better the original version would have been. Whatever you have to say, I appreciate it, and I appreciate you taking the time to read my first story.

I know it's not the best thing ever, I'm aware of a lot of my issues, not the least of which being my OCD desire to have every paragraph roughly the same size, making it insanely difficult to have proper conversations between characters, and leading to far less dialogue than some scenes probably needed. Not to mention going sixty thousand words without naming the main character... I put myself under far too many obligations for utterly no reason, sometimes. As I said, I think I'll probably rewrite this, some day, years and years from now. It IS my first story, and it'll always hold a place in my heart. I'll probably make it a bit shorter, a bit more clear in a lot of ways, and hopefully I'll just be a better writer by that point. Plus the car scene will totally happen. Now, if anyone can figure out the reference to AdEva in this, besides the sculpture, I applaud you. Though it might not be very hard, it should be quite surprising, and rather unexpected. As always, have a nice day, friends. I hope this was worth your time, and I hope those of you that read MRPG understand or are interested in Pluto, a little more. Lastly, apologies to wooly for the dozens of ways this doesn't match up with you established ideas for the universe. Hope I didn't break the world too badly.

9
Hello, everyone. Since it's officially Valentine's Day, and... well, actually, that doesn't lead into this event in any meaningful way, but I needed some way to open this without sounding awkward.

...

So much for that.

Anyway! Thanks to receiving my income tax check a bit early, and careful planning of my finances over the last half year, I managed to secure enough to buy all the things I want (mostly just Fire Emblem three times and then DLC) as well as, like, pay rent and stuff.

However, I have a little money left over after everything! I figured, instead of spending it on my significant other wait I don't have one of those. I mean, instead of spending it on chocolate milk and junk food, I would put it to better use, by using it for games!

...

But then I realized I never actually play games. What can I do, then? Not spend the money? That's silly! No, I have the perfect plan: I'll simply buy games for other people!

That's where you come in!

I'm not going to go entirely overboard; I have set aside one hundred dollars. For the sake of fairness, I'll put a limit of... let's say, twenty dollars? Per person. You can, of course, go lower, if you'd like. And I might be talked into going a little higher if need be.

There are some rules, now. Game has to be on Steam. You have to have already been a member of the forum before today, since, like, I don't think anybody would create an alternate account for this sort of thing, but it never hurts to have the rule.

Just post here, and, like, add me as a friend on Steam? I'll probably delete you afterwards, but I can't give gifts otherwise.

Also, the first person to name a certain game, the title of which I have already decided, gets it for free on top of whatever else they ask for. hint, it's ten dollars, and it should be fairly obvious. The first person to literally guess 'ten dollars' gets a free pat.

I might do this more in the future. Maybe. Depending on how often I get spare money manage not to blow all my spare money on chocolate milk and junk food.





CURRENT: $96
Arraxis: Space Food Truck ($18) -Unlocked: Bonus Undertale, Bonus Pat-
Duke Namechanger: RWBY: Grim Eclipse ($15)
Merne: Cherry Tree High Comedy Club ($8)
Metaple Personality Disorder: RWBY: Grim Eclipse ($15)
The Loli Assassin: Firewatch ($20)
rellybadatdeciding: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky ($20)

10
"Fulfill your duty. Fall in love. Betray your friends. Get murdered by an A.I. Welcome aboard the Everett."



Hello, friends. I decided to randomly browse Kickstarter for Visual Novels earlier today, as my father was taking quite a while to show up for work. I ran across something I feel will resonate quite positively with a lot of our forum members. It certainly interests me, at least, and I could definitely seeing it finding a place on this forum. First off, it's an English Visual Novel, but it has Japanese voice acting! And the first Stretch Goal, which I see it easily reaching, is to voice everything in the game! From what I heard in the trailer, it seems pretty decent, at that. The game has romance paths, six in total, though it has no actual sexual content.

The storyline blends several elements that this forum thrives on: space and science fiction, anime and romance, and MURDER! That's right, the AI onboard the ship has forced the characters into a battle royale situation- lots of people likely won't make it out. Now, the page itself describes everything with more flattery, so check that out if what I put down interests you. The game's been mostly funded, and it's still at the very beginning of the campaign, so I expect it to go places. I haven't backed it yet, but I expect I'll put down a decent amount sometime o'er the next month- got to put my money where my mouth is, or something like that.

11
Other Games / Adeptus Evangelion - Adnascentia of Ideals
« on: November 21, 2015, 11:57:51 pm »
Unknowable years hence, a world met it's end. Through union, light was born. Light culled the world, ending good, and evil, peace, and war. All was silent. All was still. In the eons of devastation following, one sound would be known, though only to the empty streets and distant, dead mountains. The third burned red, the world ceased, and everything laughed in unison.

Across time and space, in places little known and unimportant, plans are laid out and lives slowly spiral toward the abyss. Five are selected of many, to lead the people to hope, and to resist the end surely coming for them all. Futilely, they prepare, even now, to stand together and wage a war caused by those long dead. They, though unimportant, listen to the commands and sentences of those even less meaningful, attributing their lives only to the petty goals and pointless squabbles required to fit the society they know. Is there no way for peace? Is there no way to prevent the end? How cruel is the fate that dictates this weary cycle?

One last time, a new plan is laid out. A new dream is hatched. Against the tide turning toward that empty abyss, and laughter therein, power is cast aside and something new is born. It is known by many names, uttered since times long past, yet new it remains. The eldest set of eyes open to gaze upon an alien world and the struggle of ants which crawl upon it. Oceans of blood, solely visible, ebb and flow in every direction. Casting away hesitation, the first fateful step is taken.

The Archangel awakens.

---

NERV Headquarters, evening. The staff set at their monitors, watching for any change. Any sign of activity by the enemy. No signals were sent, no alarms were triggered, and nothing inordinate was made apparent, but all the same, not one of them failed to feel a chill up their spine. By and large, the feeling was ignored. As were the terrible dreams they would have when they finally crawled off to sleep, late into the night. They were professionals before anything else, and the fate of the world was at stake. That they had all shared the same vision- of a world rotting away and millions of lives extinguished under the glow of their own weapon, halo shining with power above it's head- mattered little. The staff set at their monitors, watching for any change.

---

The selection, and impromptu party, have slowly faded into memory. Several weeks had passed. Most of the candidates have been sent back to their old lives, perhaps a bit wealthier, and a bit safer, but by and large, everything continued as if they had never been contacted. The five that passed were the sole exception. They had been allowed to continue their everyday lives, living where they had been before, attending the same semi-ludicrous schooling. However, today was a time of change. In the middle of class, they were interrupted by the arrival of NERV's science officer, Gerard. With his trademark smirk, he gave them the order to come to NERV headquarters at the end of class.

The man departed, allowing their teacher to return to his lessons, and the students began to count down to the fateful event, little as they knew of what would happen. Now, as class draws to a close, and the other students begin to file out, Steiner, Yuki, Elidia, Azami, Phillip, Anatoly, Ishihara, and their teacher are all that remain inside the small room. The pilots, left to their own devices, have been tasked with reaching their new base, but for what purpose? With nothing but a vague order, the Children begin to wonder what awaits them...

12
Mafia Vortex / Higurashi When They Cry - Happiness Ending Chapter
« on: October 05, 2015, 08:23:56 pm »




Day 2: Discordant Cessation Chapter
Day 3: Harrowing Conflict Chapter
Day 4: Precipitous Mortality Chapter


A meeting is called, in the town hall. Though they should have been in school, several children are in residence, hoping for any leads on their missing friends, as well as many older residents, resisting the urge to hide away from the world, and the wrath of Oyashiro-sama. Some of them talk amongst themselves, but most settle for casting suspicious glances at those they suspect of slighting them.

It is in this atmosphere that a strange figure steps up to the podium and begins to speak.

"Good morning, friends. I am --- --- ---. I have come to save you from yourselves."

They are instructed by the strange woman to look under their chairs, and each find a large cloak, as well as ritualistic mask, which they don, feeling an instinctive urge to follow the woman's directions.

"Very good." She smiles, and some of the men swoon. A casual wave of the head, and all heads turn to glance upon... a vent, which had always failed to be noteworthy in any way. A few citizens turn back to the woman, quizzically, and her smile turns to a sharp-toothed grin.

"Though beings such as yourselves are unable to see it, this room has been filling with a strange toxin since the doors were sealed. By my estimation, you have a very short amount of time before succumbing." The figure bows, and the lights go out.

In the darkness, many are trampled as crowds rush for the doors. Their voices become a cacophony of shouts, and by the time the lights turn on, minutes later, several bodies lay amongst the aisles.

A handful manage to exit the room, into a back section, typically meant for storage. One of them, thinking quickly, blocks the gaps in the door with old towels, significantly slowing the entry of the toxin, though several of them look less than healthy already.

The group instantly notice several strange events: none of them can recall the woman's name, or what she had looked like. Several weapons had been distributed throughout the room- many of which held significant value to some of those gathered. Last, and most disturbing, was the corpse pinned to the back wall, of Oryou Sonozaki, body broken and bloody, a butcher knife dead center in her chest.

Several of the group gasp in terror, and some sink to their knees in grief, but in each an anger and suspicion begins to bubble up- who could have done this? Someone powerful? Someone... close.

Again, suspicious glances are cast. Collectively, yet individually, the decision is made to leave the cloaks and masks covering their forms. Without identity, perhaps they would be safe from oni creeping in the night...

---

And so, the curtain rises. Welcome to Hinamizawa.

Day 1 theme: When the Cicada Cry

Player List:
Arraxis
Verthand
Gamerjunkie27
woolyshambler
Whydidibuytheunionfrigate
Merne23
mrgw4
WeAreTheMeta

With eight alive, it takes five to Lynch.

Day 1 will end on 10/7, at 4:00PM, EST.

13
One day, during the middle of their instructions on filling out their applications, the teacher gets an idea.Redrawing the face on his paper bag to one of shock and wonder, he bolts up from his seat, turning to the students. "Children, attention. We have been going about this all wrong." He fans his paper bag, as if in danger of fainting, and turns away. "We have most of your qualifications, and you are all amazing alone. But!" He turns to face them again, arms held out as if to embrace them all. "We need to see how you all get along together! For a while, put away those pens and pages, and have some fun!" Quietly, he mumbles something, and those closest may just be able to make out the words. "I'll still be grading you, of course."

---

Hello, everyone. This thread is meant as a place for the potential pilots, or PoPi, to test their roleplaying skills and character ideas together, as well as how much chemistry certain players have with each other. It is only semi-canon, so don't worry about saying or doing things you might not do in the game, and no need to be entirely serious. The teacher may or may not join in on the wacky hijinks at times. Also, trying to kill each other will not give you a better chance to become a pilot- nobody can die here! Likewise, attempting to remove Paper Bag Teacher's paper bag will both fail, and lead to immediate detention!

---


The class president, Ishihara, stands up, and raises her hand, though she begins speaking without waiting to be called on, as is customary with such a lazy teacher. "Is that really a good idea? NERV wants them to be ready as soon as possible."

Mister Strunk stops spinning, appearing mildly dizzy. "Woah, love these chairs." He stands up, wobbles like a weeble, catches himself, and points. "Technically you're also applying!" He bows, then, and continues. "As for NERF, we are serving them as much as we can, by not serving them! After all, we are not chefs! We must prepare the Children as a team, so that they taste better!"

"...I think... you messed up your metaphor." She sighs, shaking her head. "Very well, class. Please be on your best behavior!" She bows, courteously, and takes her seat.

14
Other Games / Adeptus Evangelion - Rebuild of Stupidity!
« on: September 21, 2015, 12:23:38 am »
*The wiki page for the game is located here.
*The TvTropes page for the game is located here.
*The prologue is located here.
*Chapter 1 is located here.
*Chapter 2 is located here.


A man, wearing a brown paper bag over his head, walks into a classroom filled with students, appearing between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The bag has an artfully drawn smiling face, easily matching the man's tone as he begins speaking. "Hello, Children. Excited for another day of studying and merriment?" He holds his hands up, in double "okay" symbols, a briefcase hanging from his right picky finger. "Mister Strunk is here to inform you~" He bows, then, holding the briefcase out and flicking it open expertly. "Today, we'll be doing something a bit different!"

Long used to the strange man's antics, most of the students ignore the oddities, and a few ask what the odd looking sheets of paper in the briefcase are for. In answer, the teacher very expertly changes the drawing on his paper bag to a 'wink', taking out a bundle of sheets and putting them on the first desk in each row. "Take one, and pass it along, you know the drill~" With that, he walks to his own desk, turns his chair around, and sits. He waits until each student looks over their booklet. "Now, Children, you all know who NERV is, and what they do. Building the Evangelion project, fighting the Angelic menace; I've taught you enough about this already... what I didn't tell you, is how important each and every one of you is!"

The man jumps up, then, as his voice takes on tones of glee and wonderment. He holds his arms out to the crowd of bewildered students, as several only stare blankly, or scratch at backs of heads. "This document- seven pages in length- is the written form of assigning to NERV to be a Pilot! You Children were all brought here, together, in this class, because you have that Potential! You can all be heroes! You can save the world, have the parental issues, and probably die!" He coughs, then, exaggeratedly. "I mean, save the world. You can save the world. Ah, how sad it all is..."

The teacher sits down again, looking them over. "All right, you'll be working on working on this project, how a while, and then, with luck, you'll be working on this project, instead on working on working on working on this project. Do I make myself clear?" He gets nothing but blank stares, at this. "Ah, let me see... how to explain. Instead of school work and History stuff, we'll be working on the future, instead of the past. Today, and for the extended future, I have leave to not teach you anything other than what it takes to become Pilots! ...don't dawdle just because of this, however, if we don't actually get the Pilots, everyone will probably die."

With that, he begins to list out some simple instructions for the students.

---

If you wish to apply to become Pilots in Adeptus Evangelion, please go to this link, helpfully supplied by Deeox2. I would suggest reading over the Player's Guide, located in the Resources folder, and avoid looking at the GM's Guide- those are state secrets! Though I can't really stop you if you get a little curious~

This game, I, Elvis Strunk, will be your host. The game will not be entirely serious, and will have some comedy, but it should still be taken seriously, and be handled with care from both I, as GM, and you, as players. Now, as you'll see when clicking that link, there are already a lot of submissions. You may be thinking, "How many players does he plan to have?!" The sad truth is, not everyone that applies will get in, or, not immediately.

The idea is to have four players, though I'll possibly stretch that to five, considering how many applicants we have already. And those who don't get in at first needn't despair, as we will doubtlessly need replacements in the future, when you die... or go insane... or lose your soul... or just plain quit, not that anyone would ever do that!

Until recently, the idea was to start the game once my current roleplay, Call of Cthulhu, came to an end. However, as of now, I am considering starting much earlier, as the date of ending for Call of Cthulhu is unknown, and it could last another year at this rate. With this in mind, we would need to determine a time and date that is good for everyone. Once the players have been decided, we'll discuss the format and the timing, and everything- for now, I'll only explain what I'm hoping to do, though it's subject to change, and when I will be available. You can't do much without your king, after all.

The idea is, all in-character events will be in the form of text. If we end up using a format that allows for voice chat, this will be used exclusively for Out-of-Character converse- and don't worry if you're shy, as you won't need to use voice at all, and can post your Out-of-Character chatter using text as well.

What I would prefer to do is use a mix of Google Plus and the site known as Roll 20, as this is what I have used for our previous Adeptus Evangelion game, as well as the current Call of Cthulhu game. However, I know some people don't like Google's systems, and many other options would be available. We could forgo voice chatting and only use ROll 20, or even move to a program, like Skype. Basically, don't avoid signing up merely because of the format, since we'll all decide on what to use together, in the end.

As for the times I'm available, this is a general "Free time every week" situation. I'll try to keep everyone updated if any other time clears up each week, of course, and we don't technically need to meet at the same time and day every time.

GM's availability
I run entirely on EST- if you have something else, I am far too lazy to convert it, so kindly figure out when these times will actually be, for you. I am willing to wake up as early as 9:00 AM, EST, though I can't promise that doing so will allow me to get enough sleep to actually be at my best.

Sunday: From 9:00 AM until I need to prepare for work, around 4:00 PM.
Monday: From 9:00 AM until I need to prepare for work, around 7:00 PM.
Tuesday: From 3:00 PM until I need to prepare for work, around 7:00 PM.
Wednesday: From 9:00 AM until I need to prepare for work, around 7:00 PM.
Thursday: From 3:00 PM until I need to prepare for work, around 7:00 PM.
Friday: From 9:00 AM until I need to prepare for work, around 4:00 PM.
Saturday: From 9:00 AM until Call of Cthulhu starts, at 8:00 PM.

If we wait until CoC ends, all of Saturday would be available, though it might be a while. The reason I'm less available on Tuesdays and Thursdays is because I'm already part of a roleplay going on those mornings. They generally end sometime between 12:00 PM and 1:00 PM, but can, on occasion, go longer, so I have specified this time bracket as when I will absolutely be done on those days. While I cannot promise that all sessions will be so long, I imagine from past experience that a four hour block on time would be ideal to set aside- there's nothing worse than having to rush to the end of something because we run out of time, right?

On to the fun part: building characters. The book contains most to all of the information you'll need, but I am allowing a few things- as long as it's not too exploitative (as to be decided by me) I will allow you to take more than 15 points worth of Assets and Drawbacks. It is also not entirely impossible to take some from roots that aren't your own. For example, if you wanted to be a Poster Child, yet have the Frail Drawback. Finally, you can have more Drawbacks than you have Assets- if you want to do my job for me and screw yourself over, I have no objections, though these points will not go toward anything. As an added bonus, everyone is allowed to freely choose their Evangelion's colors and any and all cosmetic attributes.

If you do need any help with this process, I am more than willing to do what I can to aid you, assuming I know what it is you're looking for. Which is unlikely, since I haven't read this latest version of the book yet! Yes, I'm entirely irresponsible. Still, I am not entirely against strange character ideas, and if you have some backstory or plot twist you would like to incorporate into your character, feel free to ask me- the worst that could happen is I say no, and you might just end up getting something interesting and fun out of it. Also, it is not technically required that your character be from this classroom- NERV likely has other ways of finding it's Pilots, so don't be afraid if you want to branch out a bit.

And finally, yes, that is going to be your teacher in the game. No, I am not ashamed. Yes, you will probably all hate him.

---

The teacher, finished explaining the details... sort of, bows again, then straightens out his suit and tie. The students wonder briefly if he'd even been wearing that outfit before his explanation, but disregard it as they focus on the task at hand. They put pens to paper, and begin the long difficult process of saving the universe, all from a small history classroom in Tokyo, Japan.

15
"Hanyuu?"

A tentative voice echoes in the still night air of the Furude residence.

The Watanagashi festival had only just ended, and many townspeople had yet to disperse. Her friends were certainly still around. Furude Rika thought briefly of searching for them, asking for their help... and yet, something inside stirred. She refused to believe it could be starting again- not after everything, all the struggle and strife. She didn't need help, because nothing was wrong. Not after only one year.

She didn't need help as she walked up to the shrine door. She didn't need help as she smelled the hideous odor of fresh blood, and opened the door, horrifically slowly, to find the twisted and torn bodies hanging from the ritualistic tools. As the hand covered her mouth and something sharp pierced her back, Furude Rika needed help.

Like so many times before, none came. The world faded to black- and time came to an end.

---

Hours passed. The bodies were discovered quickly. Two, one man and one woman, hacked and burnt nearly beyond recognition. Immediately, the townspeople began to speak of the curse of Oyashiro-sama, making up for lost time. Upon the discovery that the two Furude children had vanished in the night, their suspicion changed to fear. In one day, everyone had locked themselves away, and several began to scratch at their necks...

Welcome to Hinamizawa.

You are dead.

You are going to die.

Everyone is an enemy.

Can you trust an enemy?

Can you trust a friend?

Will you step forward and discover the truth behind the events of that town, once again?

Here there are no happy endings. Welcome to Higurashi Mafia, one week after the disappearance of Rika and Hanyuu Furude, and the deaths of Teppei Houjou and Rina Mamiya. This game does not run like a typical Mafia game. Expect the unexpected, and be careful to avoid giving away too much information. This game contains a health system, meaning being attacked without guarding may very well result in your life not ending. However, this offers no peace, as you are unaware of who the enemy is, and even discovering their identity might not get you any closer to the truth. After all... you have been betrayed before.

Good luck, brave citizens of Hinamizawa. Without your light to lead you, journey deeper into the darkness.

The Cast
The 'Players' will only act as characters among this list. Not every character on this list will be in the 'game'.

Maebara Keiichi


The son of a famous artist, his family recently moved to Hinamizawa after an unfortunate event involving him in their hometown. His charisma and remarkable talent for speechmaking allow him to easily make new friends and become popular in the village.

Rena Ryuuga


She has an obsession with things she perceives as cute, whether they're actually adorable or butt-ugly. Every now and then, she goes treasure hunting in the town's trash heap, searching for "cute" things to collect, and upon finding something "cute", it's difficult to stop her from taking it home. Despite this disarming trait, Rena is shown to be amazingly observant and perceptive about the things around her.

Mion Sonozaki


She is the class president and everyone looks up to her as the leader. Her social skills are on par with Keiichi, whom she highly respects as a friend and rival. She acts like a tomboy, but has a hidden girlish side. She is next in line to be the head of the Sonozaki household, one of the Three Families which holds tremendous influence in Hinamizawa.

Shion Sonozaki


Mion's identical twin sister, who currently resides in Okinomiya. She was sent by the Sonozaki family to a private boarding school, but escaped and returned to live near her hometown, where she lives with Kasai. She works as a waitress at the Angel Mort restaurant and is the manager's assistant for the Hinamizawa Fighters little league team.

Satoko Houjou


A younger classmate in Keiichi's school. Although her personality is quite energetic and mischievous during the events of the games, Satoko's past was full of trauma; her family were outcasts for supporting the dam project that would have destroyed the village, her parents died in an accident, she was abused by her foster parents, and her beloved brother Satoshi disappeared.

Rika Furude


A younger classmate in Keiichi's school, who is in the same grade level as Satoko. Naturally, she is great friends with her, as they live together in the same house. She is the Miko of the Shrine of Oyashiro-sama, and some of the villagers revere her as a prophet. She has been the head of the Furude family since her parents died, but rarely attends town meetings due to her young age.

Hanyuu Furude


The mysterious "transfer student". She has a pair of dark-colored horns on her head, one of which is chipped slightly. She is very meek and often makes the noise "Au au au" when she is nervous or uncomfortable. She dislikes alcohol and kimchi. She is thought to be Rika's cousin.

Satoshi Houjou


Satoko's older brother, who disappeared two years ago. He had been a part of the club activities, and was a member of the village's baseball little league team, the Hinamizawa Fighters. His past was full of trauma; his family were outcasts for supporting the dam project that would have destroyed the village, his parents died in an accident, and he and his sister were abused by their foster parents.

Kuraudo Ooishi


A veteran police investigator at Okinomiya who had once vowed to solve the mystery of the Hinamizawa murders before his retirement, due to personal reasons. Due to his uncouth tactics and the lengths that he goes to in order to solve the mystery, he is looked upon as a nuisance by the villagers. In the last year, he has settled into his retirement comfortably.

Jirou Tomitake


A freelance photographer who comes to Hinamizawa occasionally. He gets along well with Miyo Takano because of their similar interests in photography. Despite being only an occasional visitor, he seems to know a fair amount about Hinamizawa's past.

Miyo Takano


A nurse at the village clinic who has a keen interest in Hinamizawa's past and culture, recording all her speculation in notebooks. At times, her storytelling can be very mysterious and chilling, and she seems to enjoy putting people on edge.

Kyousuke Irie


The head doctor of the village clinic. Despite his young age and the fact that he has a severe maid fetish, he is highly respected in the community. He cheerfully makes house calls and seems to truly care about everyone's health. In addition, he is the manager of the village's baseball little league team, the Hinamizawa Fighters.

Mamoru Akasaka


A young police investigator at the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo. He befriended Rika while investigating a case in Hinamizawa four years ago, all due to a prophecy about his wife which came true; he, however, just brushed it off as coincidence.

Oryou Sonozaki


Mion and Shion's grandmother and head of the Sonozaki household. She appears to be a very harsh old woman and is considered the most powerful person in Hinamizawa. Shion call her "Oni-baba" ("demon granny").

Teppei Houjou


Satoko and Satoshi's uncle/foster father. He and his wife were forced to take care of Satoko and Satoshi after the death of their parents, but they abused them. He left Hinamizawa after Tamae's death, and currently lives in Okinomiya. According to Kasai, he is a pimp and uses his lover Rina to swindle men out of their money.

Rina Mamiya


She is the lover of Teppei Houjou, and together they swindle men out of their money through intimidation and blackmail schemes.

Player List
There will be between seven and ten 'Players'. These 'Players' are...

Arraxis
Verthand
Gamerjunkie27
woolyshambler
Whydidibuytheunionfrigate
Merne23
mrgw4
WeAreTheMeta


Reserve List
There are many 'Reserves', beings that might become 'Players' if certain conditions are met. These 'Reserves' are...

Duke Rockhopper
Jynx
ShadowX
Revontulet
Pal




I was the most unfortunate.
I knew that there was no exit out of this maze.

Then, he was the next unfortunate.
He did not know that there was no exit out of this maze.

But all the rest weren't so unfortunate.
They didn't know that they were in the maze in the first place.

-Frederica Bernkastel

Pages: [1] 2 3