Chapter 4.19 (Hello strangers!)

I held her. I wanted to comfort her, and, selfishly, I wanted her quiet. While she shook with sobs in my arms my mind raced.

We weren’t going to be getting out this room except through that door. They’d likely notice one of their number was missing soon, and if not, I doubted they’d come with a small force. I’d long past the time where they underestimated me. No longer was I just a short skinny girl that could be easily overpowered. They saw me for what I was.

I glanced at the corpse that was slumped next to us, and it focused me.

Weapons? We now had a single hand-gun. Ammunition? I broke off from the embrace with Beth, trusting her to keep her sobbing quiet, and knelt by the body. The guy was wearing a thick, if worn, coat over a military-style vest with pouches down the front. For a moment I considered taking the coat – we’d no doubt have to go outside, and I was thoroughly fed up of being cold.

But it was far too large; it’d get in the way of fighting.

Pockets. I pulled out a small knife, more a tool than a weapon, a compact mobile locked with a password, and three heavy magazines for the pistol. Beth held out her hands for them and I relinquished them to her without argument.

Not much, overall.

I scanned the room once again. There had to be something we could use to give us an edge. There was a stout cupboard built into the wall. Doubt a mop make a good weapon. Not sure the shaft would have the heft to cause much damage.

Still, I crept to it and swung the door open.

Cleaning supplies. Could you make explosives from household cleaners? I was sure I’d read somewhere that it was possible, but I doubted it was a quick process.

I could throw bleach at their faces and eyes, blind the enemy – felt like it wasn’t going to be as easy as it sounded though. Probably just as likely to blind myself. Note to self, add safety goggles onto my shopping list.

What about gas?

Bleach, acid… everyone knew that was a bad combination. I pulled out the bottles and started scanning the labels looking for the bright square warning labels.

Yo-Duck. I love you and you’re stupid cartoony face. But mainly I love that your creators were liberal in their hydrochloric acid content.

“Alex?” Beth’s whisper made me jump. She didn’t question my actions, as I sat surrounded in brightly coloured bottles.

She brought my focus back to the here-and-now, and the voices that were drifting through the doorway to our little stronghold, or prison. An argument, and not one meant to be quiet. They knew we were here. They knew we were trapped.

Beth knelt at the corner of the wall dividing the room and lay out the three extra magazines in front of her. She slowly pulled back the slide on the pistol until there was a muted click and the hammer stayed back.

Gas was a dumb idea anyway, the windows didn’t more than an inch. We could try breath in the fresh air through the crack but it would be so uncontrolled, besides I doubted I could produce enough chlorine gas to do enough damage.

Damn.

“I take it my man is dead.” A voice echoed through the showers. It took me a moment to place.

Victor.

Huh. Why’d be here in person? Surely he knew it would be exposing himself. We’d shown ourselves capable in a fight, if nothing else over this last month of harrying his men.

I was unsure of with what to reply, not enough context to make an informed decision. Is this a “Mike’s dead, I’ve come to finish you off” gloat?” Without information I’ve no idea what I’ll be giving away if I speak.

So I let him do the talking. “Who’s in there? I’m just here to talk. Something in both our interests, I hope. Mike, are you there?”

Well, one thing I didn’t want them to know was Beth’s presence.

“I am here.” I said. Not answering about Mike. He’s not here. Could be on his way. Do I say that? Had they finished searching the house? Wouldn’t be giving anything away, would be letting them know friends could be charging in the door any moment.

I was locked into this conversation, might as well try and keep it going so I can work out an exit strategy. Or at least produce myself some kind of chemical grenade, if it was a last-ditch option. As I pull the lid off one of the containers and start pouring the contents down one of the rusted drains running along the wall I shout a reply, “He’s dead. Didn’t much seem he wanted to talk.”

“Hmm. Well, I apologise for his conduct. I expressly informed my people not to fight back unless provoked. If he attacked you, I’m disappointed.” There was a muted discussion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Beth taking position at the corner of our little partition and take aim at the door. Her eyes were cold, looking down the barrel of the stubby black pistol.

I hadn’t seen her like that before.

“Didn’t give him much of a chance to attack.” I said, for lack of anything better, my mind running over what Victor had said. There must be some motivation for him to come here, some kind of explanation. “People don’t usually break in to my place and sneak around with guns out when they fell like a chat” I called back.

There was a short silence before the reply. “Yes. Well. I guessed you wouldn’t think you’d think much of a phone call.”

“Phone can’t shoot me.” I grumbled to myself.

What tactic was he pulling here? How’d this stupid conversation get him anything?

“Look, Alex was it?” His voice dropped the slickness it shared with Mike and took a more tired sound. “I’m here to make a compromise. I’m here to make you an offer.”

My bottle – soon to be grenade – had emptied and I’d half filled it with Go-Duck. I didn’t reply.

“I respect you. Okay, I don’t understand your ideals, but I respect them. And you’ve shown me and my men, on many occasions, that we are no match, on a small scale at least, for you and your friends. I can keep fighting you. We can tear chunks off each other until one of us rolls over and dies. Where would it get us? We’d both suffer and neither of us would get any nearer our goals. Take down my gang and ten more spring up to take its place. And me, I’ve got many other more… conventional threats a person in my position faces.

“You’ve changed the paradigm here. You’re not fighting for competition. You’re not fighting on our level; you’re fighting against the level as a whole. I’ve wasted more resources trying to corner, defeat and outwit you than I have on almost all the other gangs that push into my territory. I’ve lost more men, more assets, than in any other rivalry.”

Now he sounds frustrated. Even given our disadvantaged position, I feel a spike of glee at being told by my enemy I was a pain in the ass.

“So,” I say, slowly. “You’re saying I’m doing a great job. You certainly aren’t doing a good job of persuading me to stop.”

“I’ve not come to persuade you to stop, per se, but to… re-direct you. My Kolmek are the largest gang in Montreal. Even after losing territory and men after… complications caused over the last few months by your little outfit we have double the territory and man power of the Four-Fingers, the Howels, or any of the big names on the island.”

I was ready to add the bleach, shove the stopper on, and throw this thing through the doorway. I hesitated though. I couldn’t shake the vision of it fizzling out anti-climatically, for us to burst out into some angry men with itchy eyes. And trigger fingers.

Maybe talking wasn’t so bad. Victor had caught my interest, if nothing else.

“I’m listening.” And holding off on the chlorine. For now. “You’re big and scary. And I’m a pain in your ass.”

Victor cleared his throat, the echo distorting the sound, before continuing. “I’m willing to… give, or loan, you a portion of my territory.”

Beth glanced sideways at me, eyebrow raised. Victor was willing to give up some of his precious territory? Land, and the rights for the custom, both of drugs and ‘protection’ money were the lifeblood of the gangs.

The silence stretched out.

“On what terms?” I asked. There must be one hell of a catch.

“Cease of hostilities.” He said.

“That’s all?” I asked. “You give up a source of income and I just have to leave you alone? Why not just kill me right now?”

Why the hell did I say that out-loud?

“A number of reasons. I’ve tried to kill you before, in circumstances much more in my favour than this and failed. You’re a slippery fucker. I’ve no idea what you’ve got down there. For all I know you’ve got your finger on the detonator for a few tonnes of explosives wired into this building, or somehow got your hands on some fucking micro-nuclear warheads. I wouldn’t put it past you fuckers.” There was a pause, just long enough to take a breath. I glanced down at my only weapon, the cartoon label peeling off slightly. I was glad he was giving me so much credit. “The problem with people as naïve as you is you go and try do the right thing, even if it’s against your own interests. That makes you very difficult to deal with in situations like this…

“Second. I’ve got a number of political and supply issues, partly caused by your actions, partly more conventional competition. Consolidating the regions I manage will give me a lot more men to work with. There’s less tied in with the little jobs and I can utilise them for more long-term goals.

Strangely enough, it could probably work out quite well. You’ll want to start with areas that have less of my customers. They’re worth less to me. You can have a go at your little utopia in peace.”

“Utopia?” I glance at Beth again, but she’s focused on watching the door.

“Presumably you’ve thought about what you wanted to actually do if you ever ‘won’ against me haven’t you?” He scoffs. “A world without gangs, something’s going to have to fill the void.”

Mike had talked about this. I guess simply a place where you weren’t likely to get killed for insulting the wrong person is a Utopia for people like Victor.

“Okay, I get some space, your bruisers move out, we all behave and respect those boundaries, what then? It’s not stable.”

“I firmly believe it isn’t. See, I’m willing to make this offer because I think you’re going to fail, Alex. It’s not going to work. But it’s great for me. You put all your effort into this little project and leave me alone. Without your pressure, your angry stings being re-directed on other targets, and all my competitors focusing on the easy prey of the new kid on the block… By the very nature your new territory would be bordering on mine. But with our agreement in place, I can expect no problems from you. You’re my buffer state. A whole border I don’t need to worry about.”

“Until our agreement fails.” It’s naïve to think it wouldn’t.

“Well, you’d have plenty of other gangs to target. If you succeed in your endeavours you can expand one direction. We can expand the other. There’s plenty of space on this Island, and we’d both do better for not having to worry about each other. When it fails, it fails. I for one would expect you’ll manage failing all by yourself. All I’ll have to do is deal with whatever gang gets the better of you. If you don’t fail, well… We can deal with the ‘ifs’ of the future when we come to them.”

It did kind of make sense, in a convoluted way. But what did it mean for me? If I accepted this I’d have to stop fighting. Or at least, to watch his people spew poison into my city and drip feed it that shit to the poor in exchange for their futures. How many people would I be letting die at the hands of his gang? Is that something I could accept?

But, comparing it to the alternative… He’s right, all I’ve been doing so far is stinging the gangs. However many men I kill, deals I bust, drugs I burn, there’s always going to be more unless we deal with them in a more structured way.

He’s right, we need actual territory if we’re going to make any real difference here.

We could fight tooth and nail to take the Kolmek down, kill Victor and whoever’s insane enough to take his place and keep going down the hierarchy of motherfuckers until the gang is so fractured it implodes, but that’s just the start. Once that happens we’d have to face off those who push inwards to pluck at the spoils. Every gang in the city would come in-force to try pick at the free territory and we’d be left dealing with an unholy mess of Kolmek splinter-groups and new-blood trying to carve out our own place.

It would be a bloody mess.

Or we I could say yes here, Victor would leave and me and Beth would live through this day – and we’d have something to build on.

“Beth?” I whisper. Was I wrong for even considering it?

“Does it matter what he says?” She hisses back. “Just say yes, and let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Can’t just say yes. No one would just say yes.

“What blocks?” I say.

“Dorval is out of the question,” I was expecting that, he had a little compound on Doval Island. “I was thinking a nice strip along Boulevard des Sources. Say Perrefonds to Roger Pilon?”

Right next to the Roxboro gang. Not ideal, those were pretty tough fuckers, and it was far beyond our normal range of operations.

“Too far. Too north. How about the Beacons?” Near the old space-port, bordering on Kirlkand where our hideout was. Mostly old industrious areas that supported the space-port that went to shit when it was shut down. More importantly, that’s where Jack’s Dad’s shop was.

“No way, that area is too stable. Half my incentive is to have you as a buffer between me and my competition.”

“The other half is to have me not kill all your men. And this area isn’t such a big loss to you, less customers.” To use your language.

Silence. Good or bad?

“You’re asking me to stand by and watch you sell poison to people for everything they have. To do nothing about it. For that give me the Beacons.”

“I find it curious,” he says, casually, “that you find yourself allied with my brother in these lofty ambitions. Of all people you find on this island to support your cause, Mike?”

It takes me a moment to adjust to the sudden change in subject. “Seems not all people follow their father’s footsteps.” Is all I can manage as a retort.

Victor doesn’t reply immediately. “No. Seems not. Mike was always so much more like grandfather, who did carve his own way through life, I suppose, building our little outfit from nothing.” Beth risks another covert glance to me. “But of the both of us, he was always the meaner. That, he got from our dear late father.

You can have your little district. If you ever set foot in my territory uninvited, or perform any of your little raids against my assets or interests I will consider this little deal null. If not, I think we could co-exist together at least. Besides, I am curious enough to watch you fail.”

We had a deal.

 

Notes: So. Hello again, those that still check this dusty corner of the internet. Hope you enjoy, things might be a little rusty grammar and… well, everything wise.

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Chapter 4.18

We both froze, Beth’s hands held mid-air. The towel in her fingers dripped disinfectant, half way to a graze on forearm.

“Mike?” she whispered, but her voice hesitant, questioning. I had my own doubts. Mike wasn’t one to tread lightly when he was here. He let doors slam, jumped stairs. He wasn’t quiet. Could be Danni, she wasn’t with the rest. It would make sense for her to have looped around, hidden somewhere and come back here for lack of anywhere else to find us.

We waited, listening intently. I didn’t dare breathe, not for fear of someone hearing but so I the sound of my own breath didn’t mask that from our surroundings.

Silence. Or rather, the dull buzz of the city, pipes draining under our feet, the buzzing of the lights above our heads, even the subtle white-noise of air in my ears you never notice until you really listen.

I was hesitant to just open the door and check. The showers weren’t quiet, if someone had followed me back there could be a couple of guys waiting on the other side of that door.

Or Mike. Or nothing. Could just be a board shifting under a temperature change. If only we could check the CCTV. I should have been paying attention. I wasn’t so injured that I had to let my guard slip. Idiot.

I could think of only one way to try find out. I rose to my feet with painstaking care, ignoring the burning of tired muscles in my thighs.

My phone was tucked into a pocket of my pants, now in a pile idly kicked against the wall. I just hoped I hadn’t slipped it into a pouch on my belt without thinking – now lying uselessly on the floor with a submachine-gun I would have killed for right now. I crept to it on the balls of my feet, bare soles silent on the tiled floor. We’d been planning on keeping in touch, but it had completely slipped my mind as a way to check on the others until now.

The pocket was Velcro. Nice, simple, easy to open in a hurry. Just what I wanted. Except right now it felt like the noisiest thing in the known universe as I tore it open millimetre by millimetre.

Beth was on her feet and at the back of the room where the cavernous shower room was broken into a pair rooms with basic, brushed steel toilets.

I knew there wasn’t any other escape. I’d already checked for other exits, and entrances, before I’d even thought about using one of the showers.

Could be a good place to hide. I had to remember I had Beth with me. I couldn’t be reckless.

I wiped away the film of moisture from the screen and punched in the unlock code.

Eight missed calls, five from Mike and three from Danni.

A text message scrolled underneath it time stamped half an hour ago: ‘@jacks dads. cool dude. search missed us. call asap.’

So, not Mike.

There was a dull thud from below us. Something falling over? A stupid mistake by someone trying to keep quiet? That’s at least two people.

I took a glance around the room. It would be clear we’d been here, but then they knew that already, there was plenty of evidence of that as soon as they came through the door, assuming they had.

The floor was littered with the plastic from the dressings, empty bottle of disinfectant, and the pale red stain running from shower to drain, clothing strewn around the place…

I skipped over and grabbed my discarded vest and followed Beth. Didn’t have time to tidy up. The room was divided by block work that stopped short a few feet from the ceiling. It threw the cramped toilet rooms into a dank shadow that their own meagre lights failed to combat. It also left me with the constant fear that someone could pull themselves up and look over – but then this wasn’t school.

I didn’t want to get cornered, but it would be harder for someone to call for help at the back of the room than if I jumped them at the door.

Beth was pulling at the catch on the window trying to get it to open further than it was designed.

“It’s barred,” I said. Already been through this ritual. Mike’s grandfather hadn’t been a cheap fucker either, the bars were welded, not bolted, and straight to the metal frame.

I threw the vest over my head. The cold damp soaked right through the semi-dry t-shirt to my skin. I twisted to get at the straps but my rib screamed at me. “Here, help me with this.”

She gave up with the window with a frustrated growl before turning and snapped the straps at my side to pull the armour plates tight across my chest. They were battered, but mostly still good. I was unlikely to get shot in the same place twice in one evening.

I mentally cursed us for being in the one place in the building where was nothing I could use as a weapon. What was here was bolted down, and I was pretty sure even with my strength I couldn’t rip off a length of the stainless piping from the wall – besides, the noise and the mess would alert anyone to our presence.

“What if we-” Beth stuttered to a halt as the door opened.

Her fingers were wrapped around my arm, painful. I could feel the heat of her body pressed up against me.

There were quiet footfalls. Slow. A rustle, a boot nudging a box full of meds? The clink of glass on tile. Bottle. Disinfectant. All we could hope was that he’d give up, not notice the dark openings at the back of the room.

I couldn’t even hear Beth breathing, couldn’t feel her chest moving next to mine. We froze, eyes fixed on the opening to our hiding place, ears straining against the background noise for the slightest hint of someone about to leap around the corner and attack us.

Nothing. No more footsteps. No more movements. Was he gone? Or waiting, mirroring us on the other side of the stunted tiled wall, listening as intently as us for the slightest sound.

After an agonising minute of silence I heard the tap of boots again, towards the door-

Screaming. No, buzzing. A thousand bees, each and every one of them wanting us dead. Beth squeezed my arm, sending a jab of pain, but I hardly noticed, our little cocoon of silence was shattered.

Phone. Cast idly aside having served its purpose. Silent mode wasn’t so silent on a hard floor.

I jumped at it and mashed buttons until it shut up, knowing full well the damage was done.

There was a grunted “Hey!” Enough warning for me to get on my feet before he came around the corner.

I didn’t have time to prepare. No time to vault over the dividing wall and get behind him. He was on top of us before I could think. His gun was already out, ready. I lashed out with the phone, catching him in the chin, but his momentum carried himself into what was too-small a space for the three of us.

I fell backwards into the wall, my skull crashing into unforgiving tile. I slumped as I struggled to get my feet under me. My vision burst with flashing stars. I tried to blink them away as I pushed off to keep my guard up, only to find the focus of his attention on Beth.

She had grabbed the gun. My stomach jerked into a tight knot as they struggled for it, the muzzle pressing into Beth’s chest. I couldn’t watch her die. But she’d managed to drag back the slide on the top and the trigger was useless. He still lifted her from the ground and threw her against the wall with a bone-jarring thud.

They were so locked together there was no opportunity for me to get a limb for a lock. No elbows to break, no shoulders to dislocate.

I jumped on his back, target: head. Punching, clawing, so long as his focus was Beth he was helpless to defend himself. Anything to distract him from her. I gouged his eyes, fingernails clawing at skin. I grabbed an ear and twisted, hoping to pull his head down but tore, useless. It took him too long before he grunted with pain and pulled and arm up to his head to fend me off.

But he wasn’t going to let Beth get the gun, and Beth wasn’t giving up what little power she had. His one free hand pulled at my hair, my scalp burned as he tore at it. I gritted my teeth through the pain.

The crook of my arm found underneath his chin. He pressed it downwards as soon as he felt it close around his throat – he was no stranger to chokeholds.

But I’d hooked my fist under the crook of my other elbow, snaking one hand around the back of his head to brace all my strength into crushing his jugular. My weight pulled down against him, but he still had the strength for one last ditch attempt to dump me by throwing himself backwards onto the floor.

I held. But my grip slipped. Not enough pressure on the arteries. He was still conscious. No quick blackout as blood was cut off from the brain. He choked instead, his chest bulging for air. I denied it.

He kicked and bucked, twisting body wedged me into the space behind the stainless steel toilet, pipework digging into my shoulder blades. But I held, it gave me something to brace against, limited his reach as he tried to claw and punch at me. I hooked my legs around his chest to restrain his body and squeezed with all my strength.

Slowly. Painfully slowly, his kicking and bucking slowed, then stopped altogether. We were left, once again, in silence. I didn’t let go. I couldn’t risk it until I was sure. He could be feinting unconsciousness.

Now?

How long was it?

How long could you go without air? Minutes? I hadn’t been timing.

The silence wore on and the clammy skin of his head grew an unnatural shade of purple.

I unwound my arms and pushed at his limp body off myself, untangling myself from him. Panting, I looked to find Beth. She held the pistol out at him, tears rolling down her face.

“I couldn’t shoot. Not with you there.” I pulled myself to my feet, still keeping an eye on our intruder.

“I was fine,” I leaned against her, trying to catch my breath and persuade my knees not to shake so much. “I’m used to it.”

“It’d be too loud. I just didn’t’ want him to shoot, Alex. It’d be too loud. They’ll hear.” She shook, her whole body jerking erratically in my arms.

“You did good.” I put my hand over hers, and pushed the gun down to point at the floor. “You did good Beth, and we don’t need to worry about him.”

She looked at me, frowning.

“I think he’s dead.” I clarified.

*Vote on top web fiction*

 

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Chapter 4.17

She pulled up my shirt and poked the left side of my back gently. No words, just a sigh. Couldn’t be that bad then. No tears. No shouting.

“We need to get that washed. And you need to warm up, you’re freezing.”

She picked a shower faucet, right in the centre of the row running down the far wall. I would have picked the corner. I always did.

The tap squealed, metal-on-metal, and a torrent of water stuttered out of the shower. A cloud of steam began to fill the room. I smiled a little as Beth’s glasses steamed up, and a little more as her frown shifted from worried to frustrated. She pushed tem them up onto the top of her head, parting her hair neatly, but the little crease between her eyebrows remained.

“Come on.” I hadn’t moved from where we had been.

“Err-“

“I can’t see shit, Alex. Come on.

I’d worn her glasses once, her sight wasn’t that bad. Maybe a few feet away things got a little blurry, reading was hard. But from any distance, the idea of her seeing me… I was aware my body was a wreck. I dreaded to think what colour half of it even was after tonight, and that’s ignoring the rake-like ribs and boyish figure.

If Beth was into girls, I really didn’t understand what she saw in me.

Another sigh. “Okay, fine. Just get in wearing all that. It’s already wet enough.” She tugged my sleeve, pulling me off-balance. Something I would never have let happen in a fight. Before I could instinctively pull away – clothes weren’t for showers – she’d pushed me against the cold tiled wall and under the torrent of water.

I gasped.

Hot.

Too hot. My skin burned, fingers and toes flashing with intense pain.

I fought to get out but Beth had her arms in the way and my soaked clothes tried their best to tangle my limbs into ineffectuality.

“Shush, you’re just cold.” I closed my mouth, unaware I was making any noise at all and now determined not to.

After a few seconds the pain subsided to a fuzzy pins-and needles. I relaxed, but gave Beth a furious glare I couldn’t entirely commit to.

She pulled back and let out a quiet, restrained laugh, before her expression fell back to the gentle frown. “You stay here. If I come back and find you’ve even thought of moving…”

I think she even put her fists on her hips. I nodded, and let her go. I was still half-caught between a sleepy tired and lingering fight-paranoia. I followed her instructions, didn’t move a muscle, ignoring the corner of the hard tiles digging into my back or the rain of warm water running down my face, blinking as it dripped into my eyes. But I couldn’t rest my mind.

I traced her steps through the building in my head. First to our room, probably. Stairs, hallways, door. Give her a few minutes to find the first aid kit. Now what? Maybe it wasn’t all there, maybe she couldn’t find it. Danni was always well stocked. Her room was down the hall. An easy detour.

Her room wasn’t so well known. Might take her a bit longer looking… but she must be or she would have returned by now.

Minutes past. I shifted uncomfortably under the stream of water and steam. Maybe she went back to the door, retrieved the gun I’d brought along. That’s what I would have done. Shouldn’t have let her leave it. That might account for-

The door kicked open and she came through it shoulder first, her arms held my jacket a few items of clothing and the battered cardboard box I recognised as our impromptu first aid kit.

She dumped it by the door, away from the drains running down the centre of the room for the showers, and picked out a bundle of clothes in an old towel, tossing them across the room just outside the growing path of grimy, red-stained water running to the drains.

“Put them on. You’re not staying in that. I promise not to look.” She crouched down to pick up my armoured vest, holding it to the light for a closer inspection, facing safely away from me.

I retrieved the clothes she’d thrown. A t-shirt, one of my own faded monochrome grey, if probably the smallest size I owned, still big. The other was a pair of shorts. I wasn’t one for shorts, the only time I’d ever worn them was gym class, where things seemed to be designed for optimal torture.

The class where you’re going outside and likely to be pushed over and scrape your knees to hell? Let’s provide the least protective, least-thermally efficient item of clothing besides underwear. This was Montreal for god’s sake. Montreal. Today was the first time it had rained instead of snowed and it was freaky, this close to winter.

Beth had them for sleeping in, if I had to guess. I’d never seen Beth wear them. I would have remembered seeing that much-

“Hollow point, I’d say.” Her voice made me jump. Even with her back to me, I blushed at my train of thought. Every moment I got distracted there was more chance she’d turn around and find me half-way through getting changed. It was enough to get me over my reservations.

Shorts was better than no-shorts. I twisted the taps until the flow of water ceased, returning us to a blissful and easy-to-monitor-for-intruders silence.

As she picked pried out a shard of mangled dull metal, letting it fall soundlessly to the floor, I hurried to get out of my clothes. I vowed to spend the minimum time possible in any state of undress.

“You’re lucky. These things are nasty, but easy to stop. Three inches lower and…” She shuddered.

First, pants. The t-shirt I had on was longer. Pants were priority. They clung to me, resisting all attempts at removal. I wrestled on, panic at having them half-way down my leg hindering a rational approach to removing them. I discovered a long gash down one leg, bleeding profusely into the dark material and gluing it to my skin. I hadn’t noticed the pain.

Eventually I managed to peel each leg free and I threw them to the side. Their impact made a satisfying squelch. Victory.

At least the shorts were easy, having little leg to battle with and a vague attempt to dry my legs. I pulled them over the top of my still-soaked underwear, trying to steer clear of getting any blood on them.

The t-shirt wasn’t so easy. Again, blood had tried to mesh gouged flesh with fabric. Tearing it apart again stung like hell, but it was less an ordeal than pant legs.

While I replaced it with the clean version, being mine I didn’t care about bloodstains. Beth was still run her fingers over every inch of the battered surface of my vest searching for any more significant damage. Or stalling for time. Probably stalling.

“Um.” Done! I managed to get dressed. I felt like a fool.

She turned, and grinned. With only one thing to grin about, I looked away and pulled at the shorts as if I could pull them any lower. Did trying not to blush have to make my cheeks seem a thousand times hotter? It didn’t help, I was sure it just made it worse. A feedback loop. Flawed Design.

I should have seen through this ruse as another of her attempts to get me to wear something stupid. God forbid the day she gets me into a skirt.

But by the time I raised my eyes again she had her head in the first-aid-box, rummaged around, picking out bandages, tubes of cream and little bottles of disinfectant. Now for the fun bit.

I sat when she gestured, and endured her probing figures and the stinging liquid she dabbed on my injuries. I didn’t remember any of them specifically, bar the bullet, which had apparently managed to break my skin from sheer-blunt force. I dreaded to see the bruise.

But no bullets to join the one lodged somewhere in my back a long time ago. Only cuts and scrapes, the worst of which ran from high on my hip down my thigh to my knee. I had to pull the shorts up slightly at the edge for her to properly dress it. She didn’t seem to notice, just tutted and grumbled at nothing, or rather at me.

But for its messiness and jagged edges of torn skin, it seemed forgivingly shallow. It certainly wasn’t the slick fine-edge of a knife wound. If I had to guess, I’d say I caught a nail when the broken gutter had dumped me on my back in the pile of garbage.

Disinfected, glued and patched, I bent my knee to check the dressing still gave me free-enough movement. I didn’t want to be restricted.

“You should keep off that leg.” She took my chin in her hand and tilted my face, looking into my eyes for a second before focusing on a graze on my cheek. She quickly judged it too small to bother with, but her fingers, still warm against my chin. I didn’t meet her eyes, trying not to imagining how close her view of the older scar dominating my face was.

“It’s fine.” I mumbled. “Doesn’t even hurt much.”

Her lips pursed together, but she didn’t respond for a while.

“Breathe in for me.”

“I-” My breath caught, I’d been breathing all this time. She didn’t need to ask.

“Properly. I know those short breaths. You used to do them, but stopped a while back. Take a deep breath, as far as you can. You can’t think I don’t notice?”

I hesitated. I knew what she thought. I knew she was most likely correct. But still, I didn’t want to worry her. I’d managed before.

I gradually filled my lungs, bracing for the shooting pains that would come – but every time I reached what I thought I could get away with she gave me a look that said she wasn’t having any of it.

Eventually I couldn’t push past the pain. I let it go with a spluttering cough, not helping sooth the stabbing jabs in my chest.

“You broke them again.” She looked like she was putting all her effort into resisting punching me.

“They’re crap.” I complained. “It’s not my fault they can’t keep up. I didn’t break anything else this time.” I neglected to mention the second finger on my right hand. I think I’d managed to do that in pulling up the dead-bolt on the door me and Mike were ready to pounce from. It wasn’t my trigger finger, I could deal with a bit of pain from a little fracture.

She sighed again. “Nothing we can do about it, but you need to rest. A lot. Now.”

I opened my mouth to protest, just in time for the thud of a boot on the broken step I always took care to skip.

Someone was here.

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Chapter 4.16

I considered throwing the gun, tossing it in some pile of garbage by the side of the road. I wasn’t fond of drawing attention to myself, and carrying around something like that got people’s attention all right.

But it wasn’t something you want to leave lying around. I’d done my fair share of searching through trash to find something. Something to sell, something to trade, something to eat even. The desperate, that’s who might find a gun in the trash. Desperate, or a kid. Kids and desperate people tended to make bad decisions. I wasn’t going to take that risk.

Besides, I had my armour on and no coat big enough to cover up. Either way, I was going to draw people’s eye. Best just keep to the back roads, stay away from the night-life of the Island markets, the strips of bars, or strip bars. Alleyways, cut-throughs, and where I could, abandoned buildings.

What people I did see: the drunks, homeless and destitute, also had an aversion to people and stayed well clear of my path. They tucked into alcoves, or slipped down adjacent streets and in one case simply turned around and scurried quickly in the opposite direction. Whether it was the sight of my armour, the blood covering it, or the long black gun tucked to my chest, no one bothered to stick around.

Only when I started to get close to Mike’s hideout did I begin to take more care. I doubled and tripled back, circled. Finally, I picked a doorway to hide crouching down with cramping legs waiting for someone who might follow me. No one did, only when biting my lip failed to stop my eyes dragging themselves closed did I step back out and make the final few dragging steps home.

I knocked, not even feeling the sensation on my knuckles, the pain of the cold in my fingers gone. Replaced with a warm numbness. I finally let my eyes close, leaning against the wall as the camera stared down at me wondering if Beth was even awake to let me in.

It was barely seconds before the sound of locks sliding, muffled by the thick door, met my ears. A comforting sound, locks.

The door swung outwards and Beth grabbed me, one of her hands sliding under my shoulder. She used her height to take some of my weight. I let her take control and we staggered in through the doorway.

“Is it just you?” I nodded, she leaned me up against the wall. Only when her hands were gone and I was standing alone did I realise how heavy my body felt without her support.

Soft, warm hands took the gun from mine and after a quick investigation she snapped back something on the side with a metallic click. She had it tucked into her shoulder, taking a quick look up and down the narrow alleyway joining on to Mike’s pace, before returning and gently closing the door, sliding the locks home. I could finally relax.

“Are you okay?” She was at my side, voice thick with worry. Her hands were on my cheeks, cupping my face as she stared into me with sharp eyes.

“I- I’m fine” I stumbled over the words a little, my tongue thick. “Just tired.”

She looked down at my chest and she mouthed a little ‘o’ of shock.

“Fuck.” The gun rattled against the floor, forgotten. She started pulling at my armour. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

She couldn’t get the buckles undone at my sides. Whether it was the tears, or just panicked fingers struggling with the mechanism, she shouted with anger.

“Beth, it’s okay!” I grabbed her arms, pushing her away from me. Her eyes were red, wet. Snot dribbled from her nose.

“It’s not okay!” She was sobbing, her hands balled into fists, holding them like she was going to hit me.

“It’s not my blood, It’s someone else’s” I ripped at the straps, I could get it off with my eyes closed, and soon I had one side open and tore off the shoulders so it fell free from my chest. It slapped to the floor a sodden mess.

I pulled my t-shirt, but she’d already slipped her hands underneath. Hot, against my cold flesh. I looked down, sure enough there was no gore between her searching fingers – but a rose of angry purple bruising blossomed from where the bullet had hit, above and left of my belly-button.

Seeing it brought the pain. Both the dull ache, with highlights of needle-like stabs across my stomach and around my back on each breath. Maybe it was the numbness of cold wearing off, maybe it was the curious ability of the mind to hide things until they became important enough to notice.

Beth fell to her knees, she clutched me in an uneven hug, her face pressed against my stomach as she sobbed.

“I told you! Look, I’m fine.” She could see.

“You are not fine!” Now she did hit me. A clumsy fist slapping against my thigh. “This is not fucking fine!”

I slid down the wall till I was sitting with her, a heap of sobbing Beth. Her feeble assault had run its course and she settled for a soggy hug. At least tears were warmer than rain.

The shaking sobs soon turned into quiet crying. Eventually, that settled on an occasional sniffing, of which I was glad of. It hurt more having to endure her tears than any bruises.

At last, she whispered to me. “What happened?”

“Uh…” How to describe the night? I was at a loss where to even start.

“The others? Are they…?”

“I don’t know. We split up. Jack’s safe. Danni, I’m not sure, she probably got away. I don’t know about Mike. He’s not here?” I knew he wasn’t. Beth wouldn’t have asked, and I’m sure he would have surfaced by now. I still had to ask.

“No, no one.” Her eyebrows pushed together with worry.

“I told him to try make it to Jack’s Dad’s.” I wasn’t sure what to do to make any of this better. I wanted to make things better… but…

“You’re here.” She threw her arms around me again, pulling me into a hug tight enough to make me wince. “That’s what matters. You’re okay.”

I let her hold me, even if it did hurt. She wanted to hold me, she got it for as long as she needed.

Soon, even with her warmth against me a shiver shook me. I tried to resist it but I still had sodden clothes clinging to me. But it was enough for her to release me on the promise of a warm shower and something clean and dry to wear.

I held out my hand but she ignored it, taking me under the armpit and pulling me up the wall to my feet.

I needed it too. My legs weren’t legging properly. All jelly and jerking out in the wrong direction. A combination of cold, pins and needles from my awkward position and too much use left walking slow and painful.

Beth cursed me as we struggled up the stairs. She cursed me, Mike, the Island. I think I even heard her throw some words towards her father in her angry mumbling, but she was quiet after that. Wordlessly taking them back?

I had to stop at the top of the stairs for a rest. Sore legs made for slow work, but even that was too fast for breathing, which was becoming increasingly painful. Beth was frowning again. Was I still managing to hide my grimace on each intake of breath?

We made it to the large open bathrooms we shared with Danni. They were too close to the design of the school ones for me to ever feel comfortable with them. Whatever this place was, it had been designed for a lot of people to take quick showers without caring who saw them, only segregated for each sex. No way was I ever doing that. Nope. I had my showers late at night, when I knew Beth was asleep and Danni had one earlier. Change of clothes ready to hand. Chance meetings in the bathrooms were to be avoided. There was no chance. No meetings.

So, understandably, I pulled back. “I can manage.” I managed to say.

“No you cannot.” Not a good voice to argue against, but I had no choice.

“I’m okay.”

“You can’t even walk, stand even! You’ll fall and smash your head in, or end up somehow drowning yourself.” She pulled me through the door. “Don’t think I don’t know what you get like when you’re hurt. I’ve seen you hurt. Right now you are.”

She’d seen me in a lot worse states than this, but we hadn’t been-

“I can manage.” I tried to pull away, but she wasn’t letting go. She wasn’t going to let this go.

“I don’t even know how bad things are, Alex.” She showed me her hands, her palms were pink with watered down blood from my t-shirt. “You’re bleeding from somewhere. You forget things, you don’t notice when stuff’s bad. I can’t just let you go off and… and…”

Die?

I wasn’t going to bleed out from a scratch, I’d had worse. There’s be a lot more blood.

But did it matter? Beth mattered. If it calmed her down… wouldn’t do any harm.

The shower heads mounted along the wall drew my eye. Too much like school changing rooms. It was enough to send a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with being cold.

“Alex. This is me!” My head snapped back to her. “We…”

We were together. I knew that. It wasn’t that.

“It’s me. I’ve seen you before. It’s not new to me you know? Anyway… we’re…”

Girlfriends?

“It’s not like that anyway…” She was rambling. “I’m not… This isn’t…”

I know it’s not. But why would I care if it was? Is that not what I should be wanting? She is my girlfriend, right? I should probably say something. But I didn’t know what.

Her jumbled speech ended, “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

I closed my eyes. It was easier not looking at the room so much. Easier to think, easier to talk. “Okay.”

“Do you remember anything? Where?”

I remembered a lot of things, none of them seemed to… no wait. That feeling of being drop-kicked in the back. It was almost familiar.

“Back maybe?”

“What?”

“Uh, bullet. Don’t think it’s bad.”

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