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Probably too old for this shit, but still in it anyway.
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In Edenridge 3 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay
TIMESTAMP: Tuesday, July 20th, 2021 || Morning
A @Venus, @Aces Away & @BrutalBx Collab
Featuring Aleyda Gonzalez, Maliq Briteson & Mr. Beau
TW: GRAPHIC MENTIONS OF DOMESTIC ABUSE






Creed knocked on the Gonzalez' door after a quick glance around for suspicious activity. Ley had texted him early in the morning saying she would need an escort, and he easily finished his routine before heading over to start his job. Not that making sure Ley was safe was much of a job, at least not like it had been whenever ReyRey had him keeping an eye on her in highschool. Ley used to be one of the most fearless snakes he’d ever seen, with a loud mouth and an ear-ringing right hook to back it up. He’s seen her take a girl down by the ponytail and not stop thrashing her until he had to pull her off, and even then she would still be raring to go another round. He’d had to leave many parties early and miss out on a full night of customers because he had to drag her out of a fight and get her home. She was a blazing inferno and he loved to get too close to those flames. He admired the ferocity she had behind everything she did. He used to flirt with her in the middle of dragging her out of fights, and it was always a bit of a blow to his ego when that was the thing that made her stop flailing and start laughing, calling him corny and blowing off any compliment or pick up line he threw her way.

It was a far cry from the paranoid, traumatized girl he’d been reassigned to a month ago. Nowadays, Aleyda Gonzalez was a mere ember of her former flame, and the most life he’s seen in her eyes has been when her gaze fell upon her young son. He felt lucky enough to be able to see that light many times recently, as he accompanied her and little Raf around town on errands and outings to the park. It was a rare glimpse into who was now just a memory most times. While he missed how energetic and volatile she used to be, Creed also felt blessed that he got to see her as a caring mother as well. It was far better than any other outcome of her former relationship.

After giving Aleyda the space she needed to process the shock of the news of Hyde's release, the Gonzalez family sprang into action to come up with a plan to keep her safe. The first thing they had done was move her and Rafael back to Big Rey and Lupe’s house. As much as it hurt to watch them leave the home Big Rey had so lovingly gifted her daughter and grandson, they all agreed that the move was the best way to keep the two of them safe.

The day after the news, Ley and Big Rey had an emergency meeting with Renee Davies to ensure that the restraining order she’d been granted was still in effect. They received confirmation that the order was still active, and were advised to contact law enforcement if it was ever broken. In reality, there was a bigger chance of Cameron Hyde meeting his demise before the police were ever called, but that wasn’t something the Gonzalez’ would say out loud.

Their next move had been to speak with Marlena Brady about the situation and coordinate measures to take place during Ley’s shifts at the salon. As always, the Mexican woman was understanding to a fault. Being a teen mom and the daughter of a kingpin herself, Marlie reassured the younger woman that she’d be more than taken care of during her watch. Security cameras inside and outside the building, an alarm system and the Glock she kept in her office had always been a part of the salon’s safety precautions, but she’d also ask her husband Colin to put in a word to his superiors to increase the patrol rounds around the salon for added peace of mind.

The final and most important part of Ley’s security plan was to assign a capable, resourceful, trusted Serpent to escort her anytime she left the house and whenever Big Rey and Lupe weren’t around. The Serpent that was was a no-brainer. Maliq and Aleyda had known each other since they were babies-- they’d grown up together, gone to school together, and he’d been her bodyguard and protector since their playground days. Most importantly, Creed was the only man in the organization with the rarest quality of all: Aleyda’s entire and wholehearted trust.

Following Creed’s knock, the front door to the Gonzalez house opened just wide enough to allow the person inside to glance outside. A brown eye could be seen peeking out, visually confirming the identity of the person on the other side before closing it again. After a few rattling sounds, the door swung open to reveal the Serpent Princess herself: all dressed up and ready for the day.

“Hey, Mal,” Aleyda politely greeted the Serpent, offering him a half-smile before allowing him entry into the home. None of the former bright smiles, sparkling eyes or playful banter from before she got the news-- only meek politeness and deliberate avoidance of eye contact. “I was just putting Raf’s shoes on so we could head out.”

"Hey, Ley," Creed responded, crossing the threshold with one more security glance outside. He immediately knelt down in front of where Raf was sitting with one shoe partially on and the other in the boy's hand. "Hey lil' man, let's get your shoes on an' show ya off around town, yeah?" He grabbed the laces of the shoe already on his foot and made quick work of tying it, then he held his hand out for the other shoe, giving little Raf a fist bump when the item was handed over. Once both shoes were on, he allowed the little boy to hook his arms around the back of his neck and picked him up off the floor, pretending that Raf's counterweight was affecting him and wobbling dramatically on one foot to make the child laugh and his mother smile. Once he'd finished a performance Jokes would be proud of, the Serpent enforcer smiled and put his own arm under the boy to keep him stable in his hold. Turning to Ley with a soft smile on his face, he asked, "We all good?"

Are you ready, his eyes asked. To be out there? because that was always an important step for days when they got out of the house. If she wasn't ready then Creed could do her errand on his own, but giving Ley choices were important. So many choices had been violently torn from her grasp that it was important to remind her that she still has the ability to make her own choices again. Creed detested Hyde for everything that man did, for the way he destroyed beautiful things just so he could see how they crumble and break under his fist, but the pain and destruction he cause Aleyda Gonzalez has its biased place at the very top of his list of grievances for the animal in a man’s skin.

Watching Creed interacting with Rafael healed and broke Aleyda’s heart in equal parts. Maliq had always treated Raf with patience, kindness and affection. Whenever he was around, smiles and laughter seemed to be the order of the day for both mother and child. It filled Ley’s heart with joy to know that her son was so loved by not just Mal, but by so many other people as well. On the other hand, a gut-wrenching pain seemed to gnaw at her chest whenever she saw the man and her boy together. As much as she tried not to, Ley couldn’t help but fantasize about a world in which Cameron hadn’t succumbed to his demons and tried to kill her. A world in which they’d shared a healthy, loving relationship, and one where they raised their child together as the family she always dreamed of having.

A world that didn’t exist and never would.

Fighting away the tears springing to her eyes, Aleyda blinked a few times before turning to Maliq and nodding. She was still very visibly afraid of leaving the safety of her parents’ home since that day, but the girl knew she was safe under her friend’s watch.

Creed nodded to Aleyda and grabbed the keys to her red Hyundai Elantra before he headed out the door with Raf in his arms. He looked down the street to see Jokes nodding to him from the corner, giving him the all clear, and then unlocked the doors so Aleyda could get in while he strapped Raf into his seat in the back. The boy pulled at Creed's beanie excitedly as the man strapped him in and Creed was content to let the boy's focus remain on his hat so he could focus on getting all the buckles right. Once that was finished, the bodyguard straightened up and ruffled the hair on Raf's head before closing the door and sliding into the driver's seat. Spending these days with Aleyda and Raf were giving him similar feelings to spending the day with Fin and Prof; it left him with a yearning to build such a family dynamic in his own life. It wasn't that he didn't love the relationships he had, but playing bodyguard to a girl that practically thrived on blowing off his advances and that girl's son who treated him like he was the coolest thing since sliced bread…Creed, for the first time since Natalia, was feeling sick of flings and one night stands, and he was ready for something real again. Real like he'd had with Natalia, real like he'd always had with Jokes. He loved doting on lil' Raf and treating the little man like his own, but he also wanted a child of his own, and had known he wanted to be a father quite young when he was busy being the older brother to a bunch of chaotic preteen snakes. He looked to Ley in the passenger seat and smiled, pushing all his thoughts away to focus on the woman beside him.

"Lookin' good as always today, Viper," he complimented, earning himself a small, reserved smile from Aleyda as a thank you. "Now where're we goin'?"

"Beau's café," she answered without missing a beat, putting on her seat belt and locking her eyes on the road stretching out in front of them. In all honesty, Ley hadn't wanted to leave the safety of the house in the first place-- she was sure her hesitation was painted all over her made-up face. Any visit around town outside of the usual back and forth to work could mean coming face to face with her ex-boyfriend, which was something she desperately wanted to avoid. But Lupe had insisted that some time outside the four walls Ley had grown accustomed to would do her good, so she took it upon herself to arrange the outing they were embarking on.

Nodding to Ley to show he'd heard, Creed pulled out of the driveway and headed off towards the cafe, turning the music up as he did so to allow Ley some time in her head to get ready to be out and about. His and Raf's singing filled the car for the majority of the ride and by the time they had reached Beau's they had already cycled through most of Raf's favorites. At least, the ones Creed kept saved on his phone for the little guy.

Aleyda, on the other hand, appeared to be lost in her own thoughts for the duration of the car ride. After the conversation with Prim the night before, she seemed to be more inside her own head than usual lately. The news her friend had disclosed to her during this impromptu phone call had unraveled the progress of years worth of therapy in a matter of minutes. All the confidence in herself that she’d rebuilt came crashing down, the insecurities she’d been battling against returned in full force, and the doubts about her self-worth came back with a vengeance. If Cameron had been able to move on so quickly, did that mean she’d been the problem in their relationship all along? Had she acted or been lacking in ways that justified his aggressions towards her? Maybe she’d mouthed off to him a little too much. Maybe she’d given him reasons to doubt her. Maybe she’d unknowingly tested his patience for so long that he couldn’t take it anymore and he lashed out. Shannon and everyone else said that nothing justified what happened to her, but what if they were wrong? She was the one who decided to date him. She was the one who decided to go against everyone’s advice to be with him. No matter how many ways you tried to spin the story, maybe she had brought this all on herself.

Maliq checked the rearview to see that Jokes had hopped into a car with Duke and both were parked across the street to keep watch. As he watched, Duke stepped out and nodded in the Elantra's direction to give them the all clear before walking off to do surveillance on foot.

"All good, let's head inside," Creed assured Ley as he turned off the car. He got out and got little Raf out of his seat and onto his hip, securing the boy to him with one arm before he went around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door for Ley, letting his large figure be a wall between her and the open street behind them. He held his free hand out to her to help her from the car. "I gotchu, mama."

Aleyda couldn't help but offer Maliq a nod of appreciation as she took his hand and exited the vehicle. Even though Creed had never been anything less than a gentleman in the years she'd known him, the man's actions made her heart ache with sorrow. When things had taken a turn for the worse during her relationship with Hyde, she had been quickly conditioned to expect that no good deed came without a consequence. A bouquet of flowers was proof that he loved her with all of his heart and was willing to forgive her even if she was 'being fucking crazy, acting like a mouthy fucking bitch and overreacting all the fucking time'. A drive around town was an opportunity to get yelled at about how stupid, annoying, bitchy or idiotic she was in close quarters with no escape. A door being opened for her meant getting forcefully grabbed by the arm and flung into the room the second she crossed the threshold because she was 'in the way'. Walking past him meant her hair getting painfully yanked or her body getting shoved, but he 'was just playing, babe'. Sleepovers 'because I miss you' were a gateway into screaming matches that ended with Cameron storming off and Aleyda crying beside a hole he had punched near her head in the wall of his bedroom. Attempts at intimacy began as masked passion, but the underlying violence of his actions revealed themselves sooner and sooner with each encounter, eventually turning into anything other than the act of love it was supposed to be. These days, Ley couldn't help the way she flinched whenever a man made any sudden moves around her or got too close. It was a reaction she had no control over, but one she was actively trying to deprogram herself from.

Rafael's small voice calling for her attention pulled the Gonzalez daughter out of her sad reverie. After a glance at her beautiful son, Aleyda pushed the unwelcome thoughts and made the conscious decision to focus on the present. She couldn't let her traumatic memories with Hyde continue to interfere with her life like this. So with her hands still intertwined with Creed's for emotional stability and support, the Serpent enforcer, the Serpent princess and her small prince made their way into Café Rochambeau.

There had been some minor flooding out back of the Cafe because of the storm but no major damage, so Beau thought best just to drain it himself instead of bothering any of the local services. Emerging from the back, a wide toothy grin crossed the former teacher's stubbled face as he saw a sight that might just bring tears to his eyes. Aleyda Gonzalez, hand in hand with Maliq Briteson and her lovely little boy, Rafael. They looked to the untrained eye like a young family out and about for the day. In reality, Aleyda was a prisoner in her own body and Maliq was the guard trying to rehabilitate her. Beau’s eyes drifted to the window, he could see the Serpents watching and he wasn’t surprised. After what the poor girl had suffered at the hands of Rafael’s father, Big Rey’s reaction of having a protection detail on his princess at all times was not a shocker.

“Well well, hey there.” Beau had known Aleyda most of her life. Despite his former occupation as police, he and her father held a deep rooted respect for each other. They were men of honor in a time where honor was no more. “It’s so good to see you all,” Bending down, Antoine looked at the little boy and booped his nose, earning himself a small giggle from the boy. “Especially you, petit Prince.” Raf had so much of his father in him, right down to those cold blue eyes, though thankfully, there was a warmth behind them that just didn’t exist in his progenitor. Beau still held some guilt about not being able to help Cameron. Mr. Hyde was already too far gone. “What can I get for you, sweetheart?”

"It's always good to see you too, Mr. Beau. Good mornin'." Aleyda quietly greeted the older man with a wave and a half-smile, occupying her usual booth at the end of the establishment and choosing the side facing the window to the outside. Sitting with her back against entrances or exits was certainly not an option these days. "I'll get a large caramel latte, a ham, an egg and cheese croissant for me; a glazed donut and a hot chocolate for Raf-- but don't make it too hot, you know? Just warm enough. And can you put it in the disposable cup with the sip lid? He’s still not the most careful with things, so I wouldn't want to risk him spilling his drink or breaking any of your nice mugs." With hers and her son's orders now placed, Ley turned her attention to Creed. "Pick your poison, Mal. Food's on Dad's dime today."

"Well I ain't gonna say no ta that," Creed replied, smiling at both Beau and Aleyda as he slid into the seat opposite her, well aware of her issue with facing her back to open spaces and willing to allow this slide in security measures with the knowledge that his serpent brothers were watching their backs outside. "I'll take an everythin' bagel with butter an' large coffee with cream an' sugar," he ordered, not even bothering with a menu. While him and Beau weren't as close as the older man was with quite a few of the other Southies and Serpents that Creed knew, he still held an immense amount of respect for the man who had a heart big enough to support those from both sides of the track. He'd known about him from running around town, from Decky and Ley and his other friends, but considering how much school he skipped to work he had hadn’t much actually been in any of the classes, so he only truly met him face to face when he went to one of the school dances when he had been dating Natalia. The man was warm and welcoming while still holding an air of authority about him, and Creed found his presence immensely calming, and gave him the respect that his presence demanded but his actions earned. This man was certainly something special, and someone healthy and successful in his own small way that the disenfranchised of this town can look up to. "How've ya been, Mr. Beau?"

“Oh you know me, same old same old.”

Beau scribbled down the young “family’s” order. There had been too many days in the past few years where Big Rey Gonzalez came into Rochambeau lamenting the sadness of his daughter. The guilt and the pain, it so very obviously ate away at the former Serpent's heart and Beau knew that there was nothing he could do or say to alleviate that. Oh to be a father was the greatest gift a man could receive but it could also be the worst curse a man could ever bear. Antoine looked down at the small boy reaching up with his little hands. “You wanna help me make this Raf? It's good with me, all my staff are out today. Come on little man,” The older man picked up the giggling boy into his arms and carried him to the counter where he placed him down. He handed the blonde boy a toy from underneath the counter where he kept spares for tired Mom’s and began making the order.

Beau glanced out of the window at a cab parked at the traffic lights outside before returning his gaze to Rafael. The child looked so much like his father, it was really quite haunting. From the reddish blonde hair and pale blue eyes right down to the small freckles that were still developing across his face. “You taking care of your Momma, Raf? She’s good people. Grand Papi and Grandma too. Jury’s out on your uncle but don’t give up hope. There’s a light out there for him; he just has to find it. You too, but you got time.”

Antoine had a lot of regrets in his life. It came with the territory really. As a police officer and a teacher, it was strange that his regrets in both of his lives were married. He hated letting people down. Failing them when he promised absolution. For a time that revolves around being unable to bring someone to justice. After that it was about children that he watched enter a life he tried to teach them to avoid but that was the real lie he told himself. He wasn’t teaching them to avoid it, he was teaching them how to survive it.

Rafael’s father was one of those regrets. When Cameron Hyde walked into Beau’s class, he saw the darkness straight away. It was like a cloud, an aura Colleen would say. He was solemn, moody but oh so clever. Cameron knew how to work a room and the people in it. He learned quickly that the problem with the young boy was his rage. There was just so much rage. Beau tried. He really tried to get through to him and for a time, the boy they now call the Devil responded. Then something turned. Something changed and Cameron was lost, giving birth to Hyde.

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.” Beau quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s great novel of man’s duality. “I’m sorry your daddy never found his light. Maybe it was you all along?”

Creed had turned back to Ley when Beau took Raf to get their order ready and found himself staring at her for a long moment as her eyes stayed locked on her child. He knew being out was hard for her, but she did seem to consider the Rochambeau a sort of safe territory for a little of her spark to reignite. Her eyes were softer and less guarded and her muscles, while still rather coiled, were relaxing in small motions as she registered her safety. It wasn't something anyone else may notice, but Creed has been a master in Ley's body language before he ever even became a Serpent; back when he was just a Legacy in grade school and, yeah, she was still the Serpent Princess but she was also just a Legacy as well. The Legacies knew each other all quite well, but even they had their own little groups within their own small community. The Bookers all stayed together and took the Bransons and later the children that became part of the Dawson household with them. Creed and Jokes had each other and Ley, and later the first generations- like Mordechai and Sonny- fell under their wings and got in close, especially with their quick rise in the ranks to Captain and Lieutenant so young.

All that being said, he knew Ley, and he knew when she had a lot on her mind.

"What's goin' on up there, Viper?" He asked, tapping his temple with two fingers to indicate her thoughts before dropping his hand back to the table, glancing out the window for a split moment just as the light turned green for the cab sitting there.

The young woman took in a deep breath. "Do you believe in karma?" she asked Creed, keeping her brown eyes locked on the table. "Like, do you believe that what goes around comes around? That you always pay for every bad thing you do in one way or another?"

"I…can't really say I do, I've seen too much bad shit go on for too long without any consequences ta believe in it," he answered truthfully, interlocking his fingers and resting his hands on the table in front of him. "Do I think that sometimes people get what they deserve? Sure, but there's a whole lotta graves in this town alone that are filled with people that deserved ta be here today, so I think us humans are just too small in the universe ta be subjected ta strict cosmic balance," he watched the dark haired beauty in front of him and raised an eyebrow, asking, "Why'd ya ask?"

Aleyda inhaled and slowly exhaled a deep breath, bracing herself for the vulnerable position she would be putting herself in. "I got a call from ReyRey's friend Prim yesterday… Apparently, while I can barely make it out of bed without having a panic attack, Cameron was at The Afterlife last night-- drinking and dancing and laughing and kissing the night away with that Milligan ex-girlfriend of his that just came back to town," she revealed, pulling out her phone and handing it to Creed to scroll through the photos Prim had sent her of Hyde and JJ Milligan in various stages of the flirtation and seduction game seemingly having the time of their lives together. She had stared at the images a million times since she'd received them, but they brought a gut-wrenching pain to her heart every time she went through them. "And if that wasn't enough, they went home together, too."

Creed scrolled through the photos slowly, trying to take in whatever details he could from each one before moving on to the next. He tried to see these photos from the eyes of someone like Aleyda, but all he could think when he saw the pictures of Hyde smiling was Did he smile like that when he threw his mom down the stairs before beating Ley within an inch of her life and walking away? When he heard he was being let out early? but he made sure to keep his face carefully neutral as he handed the phone back to her. He leaned back against the booth and calmly stated, "He's a sociopath, Aleyda, he can gut someone an' half an hour later show up ta that person's birthday party actin' just as confused as everyone else when they don't show up. He's probably lyin' right ta Milligan's face, too."

He looked over to where Beau was making their order with Raf and then out the window for the continued all clear from Duke and Jokes. Finally, he returned his sights to the strongest yet most frail person he knew. "I hope you're not usin' this as some way ta blame yourself for anythin' that happened," Memories of finding her bruised and half sprawled out of the doorway of April McMahon's home during one of his routine scoutings were burned into his mind. He never asked Beau why the other man was there that day, but his steady hand on Creed's shoulder as the younger man held a battered and unconscious Ley was a godsend. "He's snapped before an' he'll snap again, and none'a that's your fault."

Aleyda shifted her gaze away from Creed and onto her lap, where she fiddled around with her fingers. “It’s just…” she began, trailing off as she felt herself getting choked up by the tears bubbling up to the surface. After a moment to compose herself but only managing to get caught up even more deeply into her feelings, Ley turned her eyes back to Creed’s as the tears began to roll down her cheeks. “How can I not blame myself when I’m the only one of his girlfriends he did this to?” she told him, holding back a sob. “The other girls got to see the charming side of him: the one who listens to every word they say, who compliments them at any chance he can get, who surprises you with flowers or gifts or dates ‘just because’. I put up with his bullshit time and time again, hoping that if I just loved him hard enough and did whatever he wanted he would go back to treating me the way he did at the beginning. I stood up for him and defended him against every person that had anything bad to say about him time and time again-- whether it was strangers, my friends... I even went against my own family to be with him. I did everything he asked me to do and more, and all I got back was being beaten within an inch of my fucking life!" Ley's voice broke, and she allowed herself to release the sobs that had been weighing on her chest. "How is any of that fair, Mal? What the fuck did I do to deserve any of this? Why did it have to be me?”

Not for the first time recently, Creed found himself struggling to find the words that the woman in his care needed to hear. After Natalia and the events at Carlisle, he had turned to a phone call with his mother to calm his worries and bolster his mind and spirit, and while his mother was like an aunt to Aleyda he wasn't sure she'd know what to tell him. Abuse like what Aleyda experienced at the hands of Cameron Hyde is outside the Briteson's wheelhouse. They could sympathize with the victims of such cruelty but Kamilla, Creed, and Jokes came from homes of warmth and love and have experienced relationships the same way. He knows logically that nothing Ley did could have stopped Hyde from snapping on her, on the day he almost killed her and all the days before that, the issue was that there isn't really an easy and gentle way to outright say that to the woman currently sobbing across from him. Not for the first time, and undoubtedly not for the last, Maliq Briteson wished he had the power to heal a loved one's pain, even if the caveat was that he felt it all himself.

Creed took a deep breath and reached across the table to gently cover Aleyda's shaking hands, giving her an anchor point and some much needed warmth as she remembered such cold and dark times.

"The hardest thing ta admit when you're tryin'a comfort someone is 'I don't know', but I'm sorry Viper, I can't give ya any of the answers you're lookin' for. Anythin' I say would just be assumption, an' all that could do is hurt ya more for no reason," Creed kept his eyes on Aleyda as he spoke, letting her know that even as she got lost in her turmoil again, she had him. He freed one of his hands to grab a napkin and pass it to her to clean up her face when she wished to. "What I can tell ya is that ya didn't deserve anythin' that that monster did t'ya.”

"How can you even be sure?" Aleyda retorted, taking the napkin she was so graciously being offered and dabbing it under her damp eyes. “For all I know, this is life's payback for all the things Papá and ReyRey have done. Or maybe I just wasn't good enough for him. Like, maybe I was too loud, or too mouthy, or I didn't do enough of what he wanted me to. Maybe if I had been nicer or, I don’t know, behaved or acted better, he would've just let me go instead of hurting me the way he did."

"You ain't about what he wants, Viper," Creed countered, his voice full of conviction and surety. "Ya never have been an' I'll be damned if ya ever will be. What's so wrong with mouthy? Ya think my pops liked my momma 'cause she was quiet? Or Jokes' parents? Ya think love means submission or somethin'?" The thought that she was still mentally under Hyde's boot ground on every nerve he had, but it ground on him even more that he just couldn't seem to help her up either. What could he say that could break years of gaslighting and severe physical trauma? "Last I heard, love was about mutual respect an' compassion an' care, not pain an' fear an' degradin'," he made sure he never lost her gaze, keeping her locked in to see he wasn't lying. "Which one were ya goin' for, an' which one did that bastard show ya? Also, I may not believe in karma but if there's one thing I do know it's that it don't attack ya for sins that ain't yours. Get that weight off your shoulders. Ya deserve love an' respect an' happiness, a'ight? An' I'll be right here by your side ta help ya find it whenever you're ready, okay?"

Maliq’s statements struck a chord with Aleyda. Although she had already addressed the topic with Shannon during therapy, the words always hit different when they came from one of the people you trusted the most. Chances were that she would never know why Cameron did what he did: that was a truth she needed to accept. Nothing would ever justify his abuse towards her, and there was no use tormenting herself with blame. What mattered was that she and Raf had survived, that she deserved better than that, and she would get better than that. It was a long road of recovery ahead; with lots of mindsets to change, patterns to modify and behaviors to unlearn. But with her family, her friends, her son and Creed by her side to give her support and strength, Ley couldn’t help but see the faintest of lights at the end of a very deep tunnel.

Beau placed the coffee onto a tray and looked across at the youngsters in the corner booth. They were feverishly locked in a conversation that was shrouded in a cloth of anxiety. The once and former literature teacher had a decent idea of what it might be and it involved a night three years prior drowned in innocent blood. Beau had been visiting Rhonda Decker that day. He was worried about her son, Charlie. He had all but completely shut down socially and academically; he was at the bottom of a barrel. Charlie had once been Beau’s prized student. He had such wisdom and such wit and a mind for the printed word. Nobody understood or took from literature like Charlie did. It was upon leaving Miss Decker’s home that he heard the yelling. Antoine’s old police instincts kicked in, he drew his gun and followed the shrill sounds. His heart almost stopped dead when he came across a bloodied Aleyda Gonzalez on the street, cradled by Maliq. He entered the house and found April McMahon unconscious. Aleyda managed to say one word: Cameron. Beau knew then that the boy had succumbed to the beast that had always been inside of him.

“Come on, little man,” Beau picked Rafi up with one hand and tucked him under his arm causing the boy to giggle. He then lifted the tray of coffee and made his way over to Creed and Ley. It was funny, seeing the young woman that sat before him and the fact he held her child under his arm. He remembered the very day she was born. He remembered Big Rey, whom he barely knew, weeping in joy on a bench in Lyon Park. How time flies. “Here you go kids, piping hot, made with love and on the house.”

Beau arrived with their order in one hand and her son tucked under his other arm. Even with the nature of the conversation she was having with Creed being heavy and serious, her son's little giggles of amusement at the way he was being carried around echoing around the cafe pulled out a small laugh from his mother, momentarily lifting her spirits. Once the items had been placed on the table, the woman turned to the owner.

"Thank you, as always, for everything." Ley told Beau, her eyes shining with budding tears of gratitude. She hoped the man would understand that her words were not limited to the excellent service he was providing for them at the moment. Although his genuine care for her well-being and lifelong kindness had always been appreciated (much like Maliq's), these days it felt like a healing balm to the invisible, lingering wounds her relationship with Cameron had left her with.

“Mon cherie, it has and always will be, my pleasure.” Beau bowed his head to the young woman and offered her his typical bright, toothy smile followed by a hearty, grandfatherly laugh. Once he placed Rafi down into the kid’s seat positioned next to the table, the elderly man placed his hands into his pockets and glanced outside. It was strange to think that only a few hours ago, the idyllic looking town on the other side of the glass was trapped in a bubble of chaos. The weather the previous night had been so extreme and in some ways, Antoine believed it was a perfect reflection of the hearts and minds of Edenridge’s faithful.

“Anything else I can do you for?”

The young woman shook her head, a ghost of a smile playing around the corners of her lips. “Nope. I’ve got everything I need right here with me.”


In Edenridge 6 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay
TIMESTAMP: Tuesday Noon
A @Venus & @BrutalBx Collab
Featuring Natalia Belmonte & Mitena Strongbow





Once Jade had left them, it was up to Mitena to decide what to do next with her Stargirl. She could easily take her back to bed and satiate the burning hunger that had grilled her from the moment she laid eyes on her alabaster beauty. Yet she wanted more. As the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes to hours, Tena became more and more sure of the fact that what she was feeling for Natalia was far beyond just sexual attraction and interpersonal chemistry; it was written in the cosmos. It was something made by the Creator's design. She wanted to-- no, she needed to know more about the gift of a girl that the stars had given her.

With that in mind, the young, doe-eyed girl looked towards the raven that had nested above them-- the raven she named Charlie-- and followed it. Without letting Natalia in on her crazy notion, Tena took the Italian girl onto her bike and followed the herald of truth through Blue Hill on her bike and into the woods. Tena finally lost Charlie when her bike reached a clearing, one that she barely even remembered. She had been to it as a child but had forgotten it even existed. It was small, nestled away in the privacy of the mountain's shadow and it was all theirs: Mitena and Natalia’s own private hiding place.

Settling there for the morning, the singer took hold of Tal’s hand and led her towards the cliff’s edge; overlooking the Reservation and all the people on it. She positioned herself behind the girl with galaxies in her eyes and wrapped her arms around her small waist. Tena kissed the spot below Natalia’s neck and between her shoulder blades with a content moan. “Like what you see?”

With the topic of Charlie left behind in Adora’s kitchen, Natalia was trying to do as she had the previous night and focus on the present rather than on anything else clouding her mind. Thankfully, with company as special as Mitena, distracting oneself from the gloomy thoughts previously permeating her mood was a task quite easy to accomplish. And the amazing view of the luscious Blue Hill greenery stretching out in front of them in this desolate, little piece of mountain heaven certainly helped shift the Italian girl’s mindset into something more positive.

Mitena’s kisses sent shivers down Natalia’s spine. She had always been a fan of physical displays of affection, so it felt nice to experience them again with someone she was quickly growing to care about. At the native girl’s question, Tal shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. I guess it's okay. I think it could be better," she observed with a feigned lack of amusement, a smirk playing around the corners of her mouth as she turned around and switched places with the other woman. Instead of her standing in front of the breathtaking backdrop, Tena was now in the center of the canvas of the work of art in front of them. "There. That's better," she commented in satisfaction with a wide smile, taking a moment to marvel at the beautiful sight in front of her before closing the distance between them, cupping the other girl's face in her hands and kissing her lips.

Tena gave herself completely to Natalia’s embrace, losing herself in the kiss. She slipped her tongue between her lover's lips whilst tracing her fingernails down her back. The silence around them did nothing but charge their moment of bliss, the world around them with all of its problems and fears fading and disappearing into the trees to be stolen away by the restless spirits of the wood. There was magic carried on the wind when Mitena was with Natalia. She had all but given up trying to find some logical explanation for what was happening between them. Her entire life, Tena had been told about good and bad medicine, white and black magic, karma. She had never been a full follower of her tribe's teachings but she had always been open to it, always willing to believe. Natalia, she made her believe.

Coming up for air from the throes of passion, Mitena’s dark gaze drifted from Tal’s full kissable lips and across her cute freckles, up to those damned green eyes and she smiled softly, drinking in her beauty. “I couldn’t dream of anyone more beautiful.” With their noses lightly grazing, Tena brushed her thumb over Natalia’s lips and gently leaned their heads together. “This is something, right? You and me?”

The Belmonte girl nodded. "It's more than just 'something'," she reassured her lover with a small laugh, getting her point across with another fleeting kiss. "I haven't felt this way about anyone in… Well, in a while, actually. Probably not ever. But at the same time, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, I don't want to just rush into things and mess everything up, you know? I don't want either of us to get hurt here."

Mitena understood. She was human and had gone through the pain of heartbreak before. Whatever was happening between her and Natalia was exciting, new and intense. It was a different breed of special that needed nourishment, care and most of all, time. She nodded her head to show that she was with Tal, that she was on the same page and stood on the same hill. “I don’t know, sometimes pain can be a little pleasurable.” Tena coyly teased before playfully nipping at Natalia’s bottom lip.

The Italian girl chuckled into the kiss, amused by Tena’s flirty comment. “I guess you have a point there,” she chortled, copying her lover by momentarily capturing her lower lip between her teeth.

Taking a few steps back, the native girl reached down with her fingers and lifted her shirt off, tossing it to the side when she was done. Mitena tilted her head, deep dark chocolate eyes staring into the Stargirl’s soul. She ran her hands through her raven tresses and a smirk curled up over her thick lips as her fingers traveled down her face and neck until she suggested brushing the top of her exposed breasts which were only covered by her bra. “How’s the view now?”

There was silence between the two women as Natalia’s green eyes locked on Mitena, utterly mesmerized at the breathtaking sight. No matter how hard she thought about it, she couldn't comprehend how one person could be so gorgeous in every single aspect that mattered. She tore her eyes away from Tena’s long enough to let them travel down her lovely features: from her beautiful face, her succulent rosy lips, her shiny dark hair falling down her shoulders, her soft, sun-kissed skin, the tantalizing curves of her chest perfectly emphasized by the bra she was wearing… Natalia found herself being more captivated by this stunning woman with every second she spent in her presence. It was truly something she couldn’t truly put into words.

"I still think it could be better…" she drawled, Tena's smirk mirrored on her own pale face as she approached the dark-haired beauty. With her eyes locked on hers, Tal gently grabbed both of her hands and carefully walked backwards, until she felt her back softly colliding with the thick trunk of a maple tree. Without letting go of her lover's hands, Natalia slowly slid down against the trunk, reaching the ground and settling into a seating position. It was then when Tal moved from holding Tena's hands to placing her hands on the bare skin of her small waist, and guided the Native girl into a straddling position on her lap.

From this angle, with their bodies pressed together and her face hovering so close to her own, Mitena looked even more gorgeous than before. "This right here is the most perfect view to me, dolcezza. My own personal masterpiece," she whispered softly, smiling at Tena before pulling her into a deep, passionate kiss, hands roaming over the other girl's exposed caramel skin.

Tena had never done hard drugs before. She smoked a lot of weed, of course she did, her auntie grew it on the farm she lived on but she had never touched the really addictive stuff. She imagined that the first bump of any of the strong line drugs was much like kissing Natalia; no wonder addicts always went back for more, she was pure unadulterated intoxication and Tena was craving, aching for the next hit.

The gentle touch of the Italian girl's hands, combined with the warmth of the summer sun on her bare skin was sending Mitena into a tailspin of ecstasy. The indigenous flower began to slowly but deliberately grind her hips against her Stargirl as their tongues graced each other with deep affection. She could feel the fire burning beneath her skin heating up with every passing moment of embrace they shared together. Her lover’s hands skillfully unhooked her bra and tossed it in the general direction of their forgotten shirts. Tena’s hands wandered down from Natalia’s beautiful face, down her body to the hem of her shirt where she gripped tightly and lifted it up over Tal’s head, throwing it into the brush with her own top. She gazed at the porcelain body before her with an eager hunger in her eye.

Mitena leaned forward once more to kiss those enthralling lips before she allowed her mouth to travel across Natalia’s sharp sharp jaw and up to her ear lobe where she playfully nibbled. So engrossed in her gift from the stars was Tena that she didn’t hear the rustling of the trees around them. As she feverishly gripped and nibbled at Tal’s neck, the native woman finally heard the movements. Breathlessly she turned her head, still holding Natalia’s head in her hands, and was greeted by the sight of a pale white horse, watching the lovers lose themselves in each other.

The rustling sounds of the nearby vegetation were drowned out by the two girls' chorus of moans and heavy breathing. As lost as Natalia was in being the recipient of Mitena's passion and the desperate desire to become one with her again growing with every second, she had become oblivious to their surroundings. It wasn't until Tena ceased her ministrations on her neck for longer than usual that Tal's eyelids fluttered open. She turned to her lover with a curious expression, silently questioning why she had stopped. Her answer, however, was obtained after she followed Tena's line of sight to a spot between the trees not too far away from them.

"Oh my God," Natalia exclaimed in admiration, her eyes wide at the surprising sight. In the twenty years she had roamed the earth, a pure white horse wasn't something she'd ever encountered. They were the same as unicorns in her mind: very talked about, but rarely seen in person. "Is that real?" Tal inquired, still unsure whether she was actually seeing the horse or whether it was her lusted mind playing tricks on her.

“Ska-cante.” Tena said breathlessly, still trying to suck some air back into her lungs after giving so much to Natalia. “Oh Stargirl, she’s very real.” The singer could feel her lover's body tense between her fingertips, though it was a very different kind of tension than the one she had quickly come accustomed to in their short time together. An amazed smile curled up across Mitena’s lips as she held Tal close and watched the majestic creature edge slightly closer to them. “Don’t make any sudden movements, we don't want to scare her.”

Still straddling Natalia’s hips, the doe eyed girl locked her gaze on the white mare and slowly outstretched her arm, flattening her palm in a welcoming motion. “You’re okay.” She spoke gently. “Hi there. You’re okay. You’re a beautiful girl.” The horse moved ever closer to the girls and began to lower its body to match their grounded height. “Her name is Ska-cante, in your tongue that means White Heart. Nobody knows where she comes from or how long she’s been in our woods. Like the Chief says he saw her when he was a boy, which would make her at least fifty!” Tena spoke in hushed tones, almost whispering in Tal’s ear so as to not spook their new companion. “Some say she’s the horse that led our tribe to this new land when ours was taken. She comes at times of great change.”

As the mare finally lowered itself fully to the ground and rested her head in Tena’s hand; her eyes shifted to Natalia and looked deeply at her. “I think she’s here for you.”

Tal, who had been transfixed by the mare's beauty, its intense stare locked on her and the gentle way in which her lover was tending to her, shot Tena an inquisitive look. "Why would she be here for me?" she asked with confusion, keeping the other woman held close to her body.

Mitena could feel Natalia’s grip tighten on her back and she smiled. She enjoyed the pressure, probably a little too much but she knew it wasn’t out of longing yet neither was it fear. It was a need for understanding. Comfort maybe? Tena moved her hand away from the horse who stayed her course. She reached around her back and took a hold of Tal’s wrist. “It’s okay.” Tena said reassuringly as she looked into those big green eyes of Natalia’s that had captured her heart. “Trust me.” She guided the Italian girl's palm to where her own once was, holding it flat she gently rested the Stargirl's palm against Ska-cante’s chin. “I think she’s here to tell you something. What? I don’t know. That’s between you.”

A cloud of uncertainty cast a shadow on Natalia's eyes, and she began to bite the inside of her cheek as she gently stroked the horse’s chin. "I'm sorry. I just… I don't know how I'm supposed to figure out what that message is…" she admitted, crestfallen at potentially disappointing Tena with her non-answer. Even with their brief time together, the girl could tell that Tena was a person who believed in the power of the supernatural and who was very in tune with her feelings, her emotions and her spiritual side. The Italian, however, was the complete opposite. She had never been much of a believer, even after being raised by a devoted Catholic. She was a thinker, who liked to justify things with reason and who believed in the logical explanation of things. To be told that there was a potentially mythical horse on this field to give her a message from beyond was a thought she needed to digest in itself. But to somehow be expected to know exactly what that message was was a tall order in Tal’s opinion. She'd try, though, for Mitena.

“I don’t think you are.” Tena responded. “At least not yet.” The native girl leaned back, allowing Natalia a little more room to maneuver. “She’s a horse, she can’t speak. She’s not going to give you a vision. She’s just here to signify that something is about to change for you. Something important.” With Tena’s final word, the white mare licked Natalia’s open hand before moving and doing the same to Mitena’s. Ska-cante pulled herself up by her strong legs and back up to her full height. With a loud whine, she turned and took off back into the woods from whence she had come, leaving the lovers alone once again.

Mitena moved closer to her Stargirl once more, placing her hands on the alabaster girl's neck and jaw, holding her close. “Or maybe she was just a pervy horse that wanted to watch me fuck your brains out like I did last night? Who's to say?” She couldn’t help but let out a laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, and heard Natalia joining along. There she was: in the middle of the woods, mostly naked with a girl she had met the night before, getting gawked at by a horny horse. It sounded like one of Bear's stories.

Tena gently caressed Natalia’s cheek with the back of her fingers, getting lost in those big green eyes as she did. “You okay?”

Natalia was quick to ease any worries Tena might have with a nod, kissing the nearest finger caressing her face. "I'm good. I was just thinking about how nice it feels to be the one being chased for once. Makes me feel important," she said with a small laugh, tucking a strand of the other girl's hair behind her ear.

“Your exes never chased you?” Mitena questioned. She couldn’t help but wonder why anyone wouldn’t chase Natalia to the ends of the Earth, Beyond and back again. With her hands resting on Tal’s jaw, Tena sunk her thick hips deeper against her beautiful stranger's lap. Her dark eyes mapped out the light freckles over the Italian’s face like it was a map of the world. Such deep sadness lay like sea water in the stardust flecks of Natalia’s eyes. Such sorrow. Yet behind the ocean of hurt there was a bright light on the horizon. The burning of a sun which lit up her life and filled Tena’s heart. “If you ever let me go, I’m chasing you off the edge of the map.”

Natalia laughed brightly, amused and elated at Mitena's declaration. While knowing that this girl found her attractive enough to want to chase her in that way, her statement made the Italian girl nervous. Nobody that had ever said those words before had ever stuck around longer than a few months. But before she could ruin the moment by going down the rabbit hole of bitterness left behind by her failed relationships, she shifted her attention back to the breathtaking beauty on her lap.

"That's not how I meant," she told Mitena, kneading the girl's thighs. "I meant like in the beginning of getting involved with someone. Nine times out of ten, I'm the one taking the initiative and chasing after whoever I want. I do most of the work and they reward me with a chance. This is about the third time in my life that it's the other way around. It's a good kind of different." She admitted, momentarily kissing the native girl's lips. "What about you, dolcezza? I'm sure you had boys and girls chasing you left and right," she teased with another kiss.

“Only people chasing me were the people on my track team.” Mitena joked as she ran her fingers through Natalia’s gorgeous hair. “I wasn’t exactly what you would call popular in high school. See in Salem, everything was a little cliquey and the class I was in with my bandmate Odie, they didn’t take kindly to native girls. Odie got it worse.”

The pale woman rolled her eyes and shook her head in disapproval. While Edenridge might be cursed and riddled with crime, Tal liked to think that the diversity of its residents made for a more tolerant, inclusive town. People of all races and walks of life made up their tightly-knit community, and everyone eventually found a place where they felt like they belonged inside of it. The thought of anyone discriminating against Mitena of all people just for her ethnicity made Natalia’s blood boil under her skin.

"That is ridiculous,” Tal protested, green eyes flashing as she displayed anger in front of Tena for the first time since they’d met. “Ostracizing someone because of their race, their ethnicity or even their social standing in this day and age is a pretty pathetic move if you ask me. This isn’t the 1900’s. And just for the record: being popular doesn’t give you an excuse to be a shitty fucking person to other people. I was part of the it-crowd back home since sophomore year and queen bee senior year, and I treated everyone the same way they treated me. Hell, one of my best friends was in a fucking wheelchair, and you bet I was quick to put whoever said anything about him in their place. Anyone who discriminates against someone else period is nothing more than a fucking loser.”

Even talking of sorrowful things, Tena still tried to keep her confidence in the moment and not be sucked into bad memories. “I dated a few guys, nothing long term. Girls too. Weren’t even bad break-ups, really; they just didn’t ignite my soul, you know? Didn’t set my world on fire.”

Natalia nodded her head to show she'd been listening, but remained silent after the dark-haired girl's words. The difference between hers and Tena’s romantic experiences seemed to be as opposite as the night was to the day. While it seemed like Tena had been the less invested party of her previous relationships and the one to put an end to them, Natalia had always been the one at the receiving end of the breakups. She tended to fall so deeply in love with her partners; investing so much of her time, attention, trust, and affection in their happiness and healing only to be discarded and eventually replaced by someone else. She never claimed to be a perfect partner. She’d definitely made her fair share of mistakes over the years. But she sure was tired of giving everything to people who wouldn’t be sticking around

“I’d take my world never being set on fire in the first place than constantly having that fire being extinguished by somebody else,” Tal eventually muttered under her breath before she could stop herself, shifting her eyes down to stare at her lap.

“Excuse me.” Tena took her finger and placed it beneath Tal’s chin. She pushed the stunning Sicilian beauty’s gaze back up to meet hers. “You don’t look away from me. I’m not done with you yet.” A soft, barely there half smile slipped across the indigenous girl’s face as she looked with such wanting at the girl between her legs. “When I’m done with you, your world will be brought to cinders and you…” Mitena lowered her voice to a whisper as she kissed each corner of Natalia’s lips between her words. “Will love every moment of it.”

The gorgeous musicians' hands wandered down from Tal’s face and interlocked their fingers together. As their fingers laced together, Tena rested her forehead against Natalia’s, sharing the air, their lips hovering close together. Dolcezza, that’s a beautiful word. What does it mean?” She bit her plump bottom lip, her tan body warming by the second.

The Italian girl smiled at the question. "Sweetness. It means sweetness in Italian,” she explained, kissing the back of both of Tena’s hands without letting them go. “It felt like the most fitting name to call you. I figured since you call me Stargirl that I should have the same courtesy and give you a cute nickname of your own.” Tal told her with a small laugh before adding, “Which I have no idea what it means, by the way, the Stargirl name that you keep calling me by.”

Stargirl. Tena smiled. She hadn’t even considered the connotations of bequeathing that name to her. It just seemed right, especially once she knew who Natalia was. In Charlie’s novel, his way of describing Tal was otherworldly, like she was a star stolen from heaven, with eyes that burned with the fire of a million supernovas. She was a beauty that no Earthling could truly understand, let alone a small boy from Massachusetts.

“It’s from a book.” Tena mused. “It means you are a cosmic beauty, something we mere mortals will never be able to understand. It means that when I look into those pretty green eyes, I see a million galaxies shining and stardust dancing in space. In my culture, there’s a strong belief that star people come from other words to help us progress, to move forward and to take us on our next great adventure.” The songstress kissed Natalia deeply once more, placing her hands between them, pressed tightly against both of their bare chests. “Stargirl means I want to explore and I want you to be my next great adventure.”

The usually outspoken Natalia was left speechless, a breath catching in her throat and her eyes filling up with tears. All her life, she’d been waiting for the person that would make her feel like her intense, passionate, unconditional love wasn’t this overwhelming burden they would never be able to repay or measure up against. She had tried to find a love like hers in the arms of broken partners; giving her all but always ending in disappointment because the timing was never right. She’d spent years numbing away each rejection and the feelings of inadequacy and emptiness with weed and pills, or compartmentalizing and pushing the bad memories to the back of her mind with the help of active sports and fleeting one night stands.

But for the first time in her life, Natalia felt like she was finally enough. She wasn’t a burden, or an inconvenience, or a person that could so easily be discarded and replaced with someone else. Her love wasn’t this behemoth that intimidated and scared people away. It was the opposite. She was someone who was worth the world: who deserved her same form of love to be returned to her even with her many flaws and mistakes she’d made throughout the years. The way Mitena spoke to her filled that invisible emptiness in her heart in ways she hadn't even dreamed of. And although she was aware that they had just met, Tal could sense it in her very spirit that the woman in her arms had meant each and every one of the words that came out of her mouth.

Completely overwhelmed with raw emotions, Natalia didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t want Mitena to see her cry. Instead, she did the only logical thing that was left. Without any further hesitation, the Italian girl wrapped her arms around Tena’s bare torso, pulled her close and passionately claimed her mouth with her own. Words may have failed her, but her actions would always reveal the truth.

The last day had been a whirlwind of emotions and situations that Mitena never thought she would have to deal with. Charlie’s long lost friends searching for her, connecting with one of those friends in a way that was borderline cosmic; not of it really made any sense. Hell, there was a high chance she just met a mystical horse. It was a weird day. Yet she wouldn’t trade it. She didn’t want to change a thing save how her meeting with Poppy went. Mitena knew that she needed to seek out the girl with the flower for a name; the one that Charlie broke into a million fragments of glass. She had to make it right. Yet before she did, the powers cosmic were not done with her and the Stargirl just yet.

The feel of Natalia’s lips on hers drove the fire inside Mitena to burn hotter than ever before. She desperately gripped at her lover's hair, face and body, driven not by lust but by love. Tena had fallen in love. The force of their passion pushed the girls down onto the floor where between feverish kisses, they removed what was left of their clothes and gave themselves to one another in body and in soul. Mitena wondered what the future had planned for them. There were so many variables in the equation that it was hard for her to really fathom its enormity. Yet she pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind, the answers would come in due course. This moment was theirs and theirs alone. Straddling her Stargirl, Tena pinned her arms to the floor, her breath labored from their kisses and desire for one another. She stared deeply into Tal’s green galaxy eyes, and saw Natalia looking back up at her with the same desire and need. God, she was so beautiful. As they crashed into one another once more, becoming one as they were meant to be, Ska-cante raced through the woods, bringing life where once there was none.



In Edenridge 27 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay
TIMESTAMP: Early Tuesday Morning
FT: Clayton Costigan, Alexandria Davies, & Niles Sinclair
@BrutalBx @Venus @LovelyComplex




“I don’t know why we’re bothering to do this, Davey.”

Clayton dragged his feet as he followed closely behind his best friend and his twin as they walked down the old wooden dock on Collins Port. “I’ve got a date with that Pinehurst chick and you’ve got a party to go to and a girl to rescue!” The sky was a deep navy by this point as the bite of winter nipped at the heels of those brave enough to be outside. Clay had done this walk so many times in his young life. He knew every signature creak that broke from the boards beneath his feet, especially the long stretch towards his father’s boat.

“Because your dad needs to know, bud.” David’s hands were pressed against the back of his curly haired head as he strolled cool as a cucumber, fingers interlocked and a shit-eating grin crossing his face towards the yacht. “You can’t win the State title with the most badass group of Celtics that ever did exist and not to tell your old man! Who! I might add, should’ve been there anyway to support, but was too busy doing what? Tinkering with his boat? Nah, dude. We’re giving the Captain a piece of our mind.”

Jamie wrapped herself around Clay’s free arm as his other one carried the trophy that the team had won having pried it away from Francis. “You know, Clay, that family is everything. It has to be. Family is something we should do anything and everything for. It’s something we should never let die. I know I never could.” The glass ballerina’s O’Hara blues fell upon her older brother leading the charge to confront the Captain. The adoration she had for her twin was unquestioned and un-measurable. “I know your mom and dad and Lamby are different to us, I know that and we’re not trying to change that. We just want you to be happy. Despite what you say, I don’t think you ever really have been, have you?”

With Jamie’s final words the trio stopped as they arrived at their destination; the yacht belonging to Clay’s father. Looking up towards the upper deck, Clayton could see a light on and his fathers silhouette moving around the captain's cabin. With an O’Hara twin standing either side of him, God’s favourite idiot stood mouth agape, just looking at the pride and joy of his family. He remembered stories of his father’s days as a member of the legendary Gallows. It was hard to even believe that the man that raised him was the same man who raised hell with his friends. Though Clay did not wonder what changed for him, it was surely family. Was it family that killed the Captain’s dream? Was that why he didn’t care? Was that why he spent more time out in the ocean than with his kids?

“It’s time to figure it out, Sixteen.” David’s voice rang out. As Clay turned his face to look upon his friend, the David he knew had been replaced by a drowned version of himself. Bloated with dried blood around his mouth and nose, his curly hair soaked, dead white eyes staring as water pushed itself from every orifice. Behind David, Clay could see something, he could see someone; a girl. Alone in the distance he could not make her out as she reached forward, screaming, crying, wailing for his help. He spun to look at Jamie but she too had been replaced. Clay’s dark gaze widened as he watched Jamie being dragged away by men in white. They pulled her towards a cage inside a van and she was not fighting them. Jamie stared blankly at Clayton before parting her lips. “Figure it out.”

The port side door of the yacht burst open and from within a torrent of paper and pages flew out and began striking the police officer all over. He could feel every slice as he suffered a thousand cuts. His best friend's words rang out in his ears as he tried to push forward towards the light inside. With every step Clay took he could feel something pulling back, like someone or something had a hold of his collar from behind and was yanking him. He could feel the tightness around his throat like a noose as he body began to ache. Through the light, Clay could see a figure and it was not his father. No he would recognise that figure anywhere, it was his Kitty. “Figure it out, baby.” He heard Cat say and with a final push energised from the mere sound of her voice, he charged forward into the yacht.

As the door closed behind him, Clay opened his eyes…

Anxiously running his hands through his hair, Niles walked from the dining room table where his coffee was to the closest window. Peering through the curtain, he noticed the rain had dissipated, finally. He should wake Clay up soon. When he saw Lexie trying to carry Clay on her own in the rain, he parked his bike and assisted her. He ended up leaving his bike behind and he knew it likely got towed or stolen (it was left on the Southside after all) so once Phil’s opened, he was quick to give them a call to see if they could retrieve it, if they hadn’t already. He likely offended the girl on the other end by accident, coming across far more snappy than he intended. He would have to apologise when he got the chance.

With Beau’s voice ringing in his head to do the right thing, he chose to stay up all night in case the rain did give or Clay needed more care. Lexie’s house was closer than the clinic or Scott Street and taking care of him while they waited out the storm was a smarter idea than all of them risking their lives in this weather. Pacing back to his coffee, he sat down on a chair and pulled his phone out. With his right leg bouncing up and down he went to Caitlin’s number, debating if he should call her. She hadn’t wished him goodnight and they barely talked yesterday, or the day before even.

His gaze grew distant as he peered down at her name. He could feel it. The storm inside him and what was inevitably going to happen. He wasn’t a stranger to the signs of being broken up with. He knew because time and time again he was the one that broke up with others. She had been weird ever since he got back. Not the same Cece he was into when they were apart and he was studying pre-med in Chicago. She loved Mika. He wasn’t dumb. He could see it a mile away. He could fucking feel it whenever they went on dates and that stung.

First Natalia, now Caitlin.

Mika won.

How great must he feel to have gotten the girl in the end?

Niles was stupid to think he could make any sort of relationship work. This is why he preferred no strings attached. The hurt wasn’t the same because they had low expectations — there weren’t promises of building a future together. There wasn’t anything really besides sex. Things were better when emotions weren’t involved. Laying his phone down, he rested his forehead in the palm of his hand as his elbow and arm held him up. “This is stupid,” he muttered before bringing his attention to his cousin, not by blood but by bond. “Why do we bother coming back? I mean sure, yeah, if it wasn’t for us, Clay would’ve bled out in the street. But why is that shit even happening? It’s always something in Edenridge. I fucking hate it.”

The question of 'why bother coming back' was one Alexandria had been trying to come up with an answer for for the last month and a half. When she'd voiced the idea of returning to Edenridge to her friends back in Boston, they had looked at her as if she'd grown a second head overnight. They'd read the articles. They'd seen the news segments. They'd heard her stories. Why in the world would she want to go back to the town that only saw her as the poor, little, dead queen bee's sister? To a place where death and tragedy seem to strike at any moment?

You've come so far since you left that place, Lex, they would say to her, with visible concern all over their caring faces. Why would you risk losing all of your progress by going back to the place that ruined you in the first place?

I’ve moved on past it! Lexie was always quick to counter proudly, the confidence oozing from her voice and radiating through her body. Therapy’s helped me a lot to deal with things. I have my family there, I have an amazing opportunity to work with my aunt’s boss at the hospital in town to gain experience; and after all this time away, I think I’m ready to go back.

Her optimism, it turned out, was short-lived. A few weeks before what she thought would be her triumphant return to Edenridge, pages from Charlie Decker’s journal had been delivered to everyone’s mailboxes, springing the topic of her sister’s death back to life. Instead of being greeted with interest and enthusiasm about her accomplishments, she was once again under everyone's microscope. Townies showing her pity or comparing her to the females in her family, the Scott Street gossip moms fishing for information, her parents downplaying their vigilance for any signs of an emotional relapse… And the cherry on top? ReyRey Gonzalez, the one who had made her move to Eden possible in the first place and had so brazenly welcomed her back into town with more than just open arms, had been in a relationship with Vivia Belmonte (her sister’s best friend) for years— even during the day they slept together.

Safe to say, things were not panning out like she had hoped for.

"You're telling me…" Lexie replied with a snort, cradling her own cup of coffee in her hands as she made her way from the kitchen to stand by the window beside Niles. She knew he would understand exactly what she was talking about without her having to spell it out. "I thought that coming back to Edenridge was the right choice for me after nursing school. But I’ll be honest, Niles: I've only been here a week and a half, and I’m kinda already regretting that decision.” she confessed, taking a long sip from the warm, caffeinated drink before continuing. “But it’s not me we’re going to talk about here, though. What’s up with you? Not that you’ve ever been a fan of Edenridge in the first place, but what’s got you so heated about it right now?”

Sitting up from his chair to look at his cousin, Niles casually wiped the sleep off his face and shrugged, “You know I missed that whole shitshow that was your sister’s ghost coming back to haunt us or whatever. Even if I was around, I wouldn’t have gone. This shit has always annoyed me. The fact that people absolutely need to be in everyone’s business. Every year, it’s always something new, like David O’Hara, people couldn’t stop calling him a Diddler which is part of the reason why he pushed himself to drink himself to death. And yet…” Taking a moment to himself, Niles turned to his coffee to stare into it. He could see the fading image of his mother. Her beautiful smile. The memory of her, still very much alive in his heart. His teeth clenched. “Is it weird for me to be mad that if someone dies horribly and was seen as a shining star, like Allison, or a fucking monster, like Charlie, they’d be remembered forever? But then you have my mom, who died giving birth, who wasn’t even born and raised here; is it wrong for me to be pissed at how easy people forgot her? She’s just an everyday hero, no big deal.”

“Edenridge History 101: the only way you or your loved ones will be worth remembering in this town is if your death is associated with some big, juicy scandal that can be talked or conspired about for years to come,” Lexie started with a shrug, taking another long sip from her mug. As callous as the statement was, it unfortunately defined the way a vast majority of the town's inhabitants let their morbid curiosity and thirst for gossip prevail over any potential compassion for the victims of these tragic occurrences. “Let’s use the examples you just gave me for context. People remember David O’Hara over someone like Maxine James because the thought of Coach and Lizzie’s prodigal son committing the crime he was accused of presented endless fodder for the gossip sharks in town. People remember Charlie Decker’s death over some of his own victims’ because of the Allison accusations and how fucking brutal and extensive what he did was. And people remember Allison’s death more than they’d ever remember mine if something ever happened to me simply because ‘Ally’s little sister OD’ing’ doesn’t have the same juice as the '2016 it-girl, girlfriend of the golden boy, OD’ing at a Southside party in the house of the reigning Serpent King'. Might sound like a bit of a ramble, but hopefully you see where I’m getting at.”

Niles nodded in understanding and it forced him to reflect on his own death and how no one would shed a tear if he disappeared. Something he knew was his future if he ever did give into his dark thoughts, which made it more of a reason for him to want to die. He didn’t matter. Just like his mom, he meant nothing to anyone. To make a mark, to die a legend, you had to be worth talking about. Was his mother not worth talking about? Leaning back in his seat, staring up at Lexie, he cursed in frustration, “Without my mom, some of these fuckers wouldn’t even be alive. Do people think it’s easy to rush someone to a hospital on a fucking helicopter?”

“You give the people around here too much credit, my friend,” she commented, ruffling up Niles’ hair affectionately and planting a kiss on top of his head before waltzing back bare-footed to the kitchen for a refill. Lexie had always sympathized with her cousin by association. Although the loss of her older sister had been gut-wrenching, she couldn't conceive the utter heartbreak of losing someone as important in life as a parental figure. Still, she could certainly understand where the root of his anger towards the town was coming from-- to which he was completely entitled to. In a strange way, his frustration on the topic mirrored her own. “I agree with you that it is absolute fucking bullshit that people as amazing and priceless as Auntie Noella can be so easily dismissed by others, and it's disgusting that’s the way things work around here in Edenridge. But I also believe that, as long as people like you and I who truly cared about her make sure her memory stays alive and we continue to remember her with love, then everyone else is just a tool for not realizing her worth.”

Clay’s dark eyes opened heavily when the dull ache became a sharp fleeting strike in his gut. He let out a struggled gasp, as if emerging from under deep waters before he tried to pull himself up from his prone position. His neck felt weighted and his chest, it was like something was atop him, keeping him down. With a groan, he pushed himself up from the bed using the palms of his hands. Once fully sitting upright, Clayton’s eyes adjusted and he began to take in this new, unfamiliar setting.

What happened?

He thought back through the haze to find what memory first came to him. He remembered talking to Cat, God Kitty would be so worried about him! It was daytime now and he always checks in! She must be terrified. Before he could scramble to find his phone, Clay was struck by another memory. The car. The driver attacked him. The light and roar of a bike and a woman yelling. His head felt three sizes too big and was throbbing. Clayton was no doctor but he knew what a concussion felt like. Once more he drank in his surroundings, trying to place himself. He recognised the room’s architecture, he had been in houses like this before.

He was still on the Southside.

Rolling out of the bed and onto the floor, Clay noted several bandages on his arms. Bringing his hand to his face he felt band-aids as well. Someone had patched him up. He gingerly climbed up to his feet and straightened out his back. God, everything fucking hurt. The room was sparsely decorated; it reminded him of his own place before Cat forced him to buy stuff. That meant either this person was new to the house or just hated things. Logic dictated the latter since on the walls and bedside table there were photos. Clay’s eyes narrowed as he recognised the subject of one photo that sat pride of place. “Allison?” He moved closer, reaching out to touch the face of his childhood friend, his former girlfriend, the girl that changed everything when she died. Based on the earrings she was wearing, the photo would’ve been taken in September before she passed. He knew because Francis dragged the entire crew around Boston trying to find Ally a gift. In the end they had to call Jamie and she came from her school to come help them. She was having one of her bad days and clung to David like he was the only thing keeping her afloat. Even then though, she still offered to help.

Clay’s eyes drifted to another photo; Renee and Alastair Davies. Allison’s parents. For as long as he had known that family, the young police officer had very little to do with the Davies. Renee was never home; she basically lived at her office in Boston and was always in court. When she was home, she was in her little hideaway, working on her closing argument or whatever it was that lawyers did in their spare time. Alastair was definitely more present in both his daughters' lives and he was not a big fan of Clay though he didn’t blame him for that. Most fathers were less than approving of their daughter dating someone like Clayton. Alastair probably jumped for joy when Ally brought Fran home.

With every breath of morning, the pain was becoming more manageable and his head was getting a little clearer. He glanced at the final photo on the wall. It was him. Clay was on the wall! But not alone. Allison was there, Francis' arms wrapped around her and Lexie below them. Rhett was being all stoic and badass like he always was. Russ towered over them all. God, he was big. Little Danny was on the floor in front of them. Off to the side was Jamie, smiling at David who had an arm around…Caitlin?

Caitlin!

Clay thought back to that night; the night of the state game, the night Ally died.. During the half time break when he went searching for Rhett, he saw David! He questioned what he saw and just assumed he was too exhausted. He thought it was some red headed Pinehurst girl. It was CeCe! Caitlin Cleary was the girl! Clay took a step back and placed both hands behind his head as he stared into the innocent faces of days once thought wonderful. Jamie’s face. The way she looked at David. It wasn’t just him. She was looking at Caitlin too. She knew! Jamie knew about them. Of course she did. How could he not see that? David and Jamie knew everything about each other. They were the same soul. He took another step back as the pieces began to fall into place.

Jamie knew about CeCe, the whole time. She gave him the first letter. Avery said she felt that the letters weren’t even about who was writing them but about bringing purpose. The writer wasn’t trying to out themselves but they wanted to tell the truth. If Caitlin was the one who wrote the letters, she wasn’t the one releasing them. Someone had to have them, know where they were and be able to hide them when the police raided David’s room for evidence. Someone with opportunity and motive. Lamby said it clear as day when he interviewed her. Russell would do anything for Jamie. Jamie was sensitive. Jamie only ever wanted to help. Jamie never got over David. It was Jamie. It had been her all along.

Clay moved towards the door. He had to speak to Jamie. Twisting the door knob, he wasn’t sure who he would meet on the other side but based on the photos he had seen, he had a pretty good idea. Clay pulled the door open and stepped into the living room, ignoring the pain in every part of his body and forcing the adrenaline that was now building to do all of the work.

“Yeah, I know she isn’t my usual type but I thought… Honestly, I don’t know what I thought. Caitlin just seemed sad and that drew me in.”

Niles was quick to quiet when he heard rustling in the room Clay was in, and the moment the door opened he stood up, “Clay, take it easy.” Trying to ease himself in front of the officer, knowing he probably was confused about where he was and what happened to him last night, Niles approached him. Both him and Lexie stood up the night prior to make sure their former senior didn’t die in this house. As he went beside him, scanning Clay’s bandages, Niles addressed another person who was in the kitchen making herself a second cup of coffee, “Lexie, we should look at him before we go.” And by go, he meant the hospital. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the two pre-med students who were related to the main doctors of Sinclair Health would want to rush the officer to get proper medical attention. At least with this reveal, Clay would know he was in good hands.

When Lexi came across a man sprawled out on the side of the road next to his vehicle the night before, she wasted no time in putting her Santa Fe in park and sprinting to action. The fact that there was a storm raging around her didn’t seem to phase her— once the adrenaline and her nursing instincts came in, there was nothing that could take her focus away from providing the care her patient needed. A closer inspection of the scene revealed the victim to be part of the local PD, and that the identity of said victim, lying beside the patrol car and showing signs of violence having been inflicted upon him, was none other than Clay Costigan.

As soon as Lexie recognized Clay, her urgency to help intensified. Throughout her years growing up in the shadow of her older sister, Clay had been one of the few people to always see her for who she was. Around him, she wasn't invisible. He acknowledged her as her own person, treated her as an individual. He had unknowingly done so much for her during her formative years-- here was the time to pay it all back.

The task of lifting a man that was eight inches taller and fifty pounds heavier in the middle of a storm proved to be more than Lexie could handle. She'd tried her best to lift him by the shoulders and carefully drag him towards the passenger side of her SUV, but the rain slicking his arms, clothes and her grip made everything harder. The Davies girl was growing increasingly more panicked when the roar of a bike brought her help in the shape of Niles. With his assistance, the two young adults were able to lift Clay onto the backseat and take him to her house, where the small guest bedroom had been appropriately set up as a clinic of sorts. After providing Clay with basic first aid for the damages they were able to treat, Niles had volunteered to stay up monitoring their patient, while Lex had showered and collapsed on the bed until morning.

"Hey buddy," Lexie softly called out to Clay as she approached him, calling him by the same nickname he used on her growing up. "How are you feeling?" she inquired while placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, knowing that it was a stupid question considering that he probably felt as shitty as he looked but that she also needed to know of any abnormalities she couldn't see in order to know what else was going on with him both inside and outside.

“Like I got beaten up by a Sasquatch and then hit by a pick up truck.” As the two younger aspiring doctors supported him, Clay scanned their faces. Niles, he knew through their shared home on Scott Street. He didn’t have any siblings Clay’s age so they had few interactions outside of their bubble world high on the hill. But he knew that Niles had a heart beneath the bluster, he had seen it in small glimpses. For all the lack of book smarts, Clay had a sense about people. Lexie, he knew a lot more. The way she was looking at him now, with those big brown eyes, she looked just like her sister but she definitely wasn’t. Lex was her own woman, with her own mind, her own heart and her own problems. Problems that Clayton could see from a mile away even when she was a kid because she shared them too. “How you doing little buddy?”

"Oh, I am just absolutely fucking peachy! So happy to be back here in town again!" Lex was quick to respond back with her signature sarcasm, winking at Clay to make sure he knew she was joking.

He let out a little laugh that hurt his chest before relieving himself of their hood and pushing forward into the room. “Thank you both.” He turned his head lightly and offered them his famous doofus grin.

Lexie shrugged her shoulders. "It's no problem! We weren't just going to leave you there, Clay. If anything, it's a good thing we were the ones who found you. Anyone else wouldn't have treated you as good as we did. If not me, who else would've known to prioritize the mane over everything else?" she joked with a chuckle.

“Oh fuck, everything’s hurts.” Clay stopped and placed his hands on his hips. He could feel the sweat forming beneath his magnificent mane of hair. He felt like he was back on the court and hearing Coach yell it him for dragging his feet during the suicide drives. “Sinclair, I need you to take me to Scott Street.” He exhaled deeply, trying to force all the pain out of his body through his mouth. “I gotta finish this.”

Niles blinked a couple times in confusion. Having been preoccupied for most of yesterday, he was unaware of the second set of letters being distributed. “What are we finishing?” He dumbly asked. As smart as he was, he had his moments where he sounded like a complete dumbass. It was part of his charm. After the moment of being bewildered came and went, Niles shook his head in disagreement, “That doesn’t matter. Clay, you need to go to the hospital.”

Even if Niles did take Clay to Scott Street, he would have to either take Lexie’s car or call a Lyft driver. He had left his bike on the side of the road after seeing a woman struggle to carry a limp body to her car. Turns out that woman was someone he considered family, Lexie, and the dead weight was their former senior, Clayton. His bike was at Phil’s, thankfully still intact. His goal, after handling this situation and making sure Clay was in good hands, was to pick it up. “Whatever you got going on can wait.”

“No, it can’t.” Clay snapped back; a rarity for the usually affable former basketball player. “I have to go and put a stop to this fucking letter business and I know exactly who is sending them. Either one of you drives me to fucking Scott Street or I’m taking your car under police jurisdiction and you will not be able to do anything about it.”

Lexie couldn’t help but snort at Clay's comment. "Really?" she drawled, crossing her arms in front of her and raising a defiant eyebrow. "You're going to take on the both of us to confiscate my car when you can't breathe without flinching? Riiiiiight. Okay, Clay."

He stopped himself and took a breath. This was cop Clay coming out and although it was his job, he knew these kids. He didn’t want to cause them stress after what they’d done for him, taking care of him the way they did. “Listen guys, I promise I will go to Clinic as soon as I’m done but I have to do this.” His voice broke and water began to fill his eyes. “I have to make this right.”

Rather than be taken aback by Clay’s passion and frustration, Niles became even more bewildered. He hadn’t checked the mail since… two days ago. He didn’t even know there was another set of letters. Who was it about this time? He had already missed the Allison chapter, unable to attend the meet at the gym to investigate how it really happened. That’s when he started dating Caitlin and spent the night in Boston by the harbor. Was he so out of the loop to not notice anyone but himself in deep distress? Who else knew? Did the whole town know? “What letters?” Did it matter? Whatever the letters were about, it made the officer lose his cool. Maybe it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting Clay where he needed to be. The sooner this was done, the sooner he could go to the hospital. Niles needed to do the right thing. “You know what? Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. If Lexie doesn’t mind loaning her car, I’ll take you but I left my bike on the street you got jumped at. I get it, you want to get this done and over with but I don’t recommend you going alone in your condition.”

As much as Lexie agreed with Niles that Clay wasn’t in any state to chase after any truths, she was also aware of the stubbornness that characterized the Costigan clan. Whatever case he was working on seemed to be one that tugged at his heartstrings, too, because the last time Lexie had ever seen Clay get this emotional was after David O’Hara's death. Knowing Clay like she did, the stubbornness and potential personal stakes meant that there would be no stopping him from doing what he needed to do in order to solve his case, which meant that he wouldn't think twice about taking risks to accomplish his goal. That, of course, was the last thing they wanted right now. So instead of swimming against the current, she decided to float with it.

The young woman took a deep breath before uncrossing her arms, placing both hands on his shoulders and locking her eyes with his, dropping the tough girl act for a moment in favor of her genuine interest in ensuring his well-being. "Clay I promise I'll take you where you need to go. But let me take care of you first, okay?" she told the man, a silent pleading visible in her eyes. Once she'd received his agreement, she rushed off in the direction of the bedroom he'd been staying at and returned shortly with a bottle of water and two pills in the palm of her hand. She offered both items to the taller man. "Here, take these oxys for the pain. They're not high dosage, but they should be enough to hold you down without making you sluggish until you get to the hospital. And you will go to the hospital after this-- even if I have to drag you in myself. Do we have a deal, big buddy?"

“Look at you.” Lexie had found confidence in herself, the assurity in her voice said as much. She had come a long way since being the little twerp that used to run around the Davies house crying for attention. “Thanks Lex.” Clay took the pills and water from the tanned girl and swiftly stuck the medication into his mouth; polishing them off with the offered water. His throat burned and it hurt to swallow but once they had finally gone, he stuck his tongue out like a child forced to take medication. “Bleh! I hate pills.”

Clay paused to take a few further deep breaths to allow time for the Oxy's to do their things. It seemed like neither Lex nor Niles knew about the latest batch of letters. He wondered if that was for the best? Especially for Niles. He was dating Caitlin and she was about to be dragged through fire if her identity got out. Hopefully Clayton could stop it before it got to that. “Now, let’s make like a tree and get out of here. I need to go to the O’Hara house.”

Clearly, this was beyond Niles’ control. He didn’t know Clay well, not like Lexie did so if anything, he was just here for the ride. Shrugging at the mutual decision to take the officer to Scott Street, Niles grabbed his keys and wallet off of Lexie’s console table and stuffed it in his pants pockets. He proceeded to grab Clay’s phone, charged by Lexie's usb charger, and offered it to the older man. ““You might want to let people know you’re okay. Your phone’s been going off all night.”

Clay hastily took a hold of his phone and began to scan his Lock Screen. He had multiple missed calls from Cat, his mother, Lamb, Avery and Kylee; messages too. Immediately he opened up his tupper-bot app and sent a DM to Cat.

To Kitty:
I’m sorry, I lost track of time dreaming of you. I’ve cracked it! I’m nearly done. It’s nearly over. I love you.

He then opened up a message from Kylee.

From Kylee:
I know who the author is! Message me ASAP!

Clayton responded to her message with another apology, he felt like he would be doing a lot of those after this was all over, as well as a request to meet him on Scott Street to finish this. He placed his phone in his back pocket and put his hand against Niles to steady himself. “I’m gonna need my gun.”

Without warning, Lexie waltzed away in the direction of the bedrooms, returning fully dressed in athleisure and carrying a large plastic ziplock bag containing the items Clay had in his pockets, including the gun in question. "That's everything you had on you and around you," she told him, handing him the bag before grabbing her purse and keys from the kitchen counter and heading towards the door. "Let's get going, then. The sooner Clay gets this done, the sooner he gets to damn hospital."
TIMESTAMP: TUESDAY, JULY 20TH 2021 | EARLY MORNING


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A @Venus & @BrutalBx Collaboration
Featuring Natalia Belmonte & Mitena Strongbow


In the early hours of the morning, the Italian girl from Scott Street replayed scenes of the evening's events over and over in her head. The previous night had been something straight out of those sappy, sultry movies she loved to bash on. As experienced as Natalia considered herself to be in the art of loving, Mitena managed to exceed expectations that hadn't even been set yet by taking her to heights she hadn't reached before under the blanket of stars. The woman's hungry lips on her lips and skin, so plump and luscious and soft, had set her athletic body ablaze with desire. Her touch was gentle but deliberate, as if determined to explore, find and target all the places that made her squirm. Her tongue… God, her tongue… So perfectly skilled it made her legs shake and brought her to tears. And throughout it all, there were those breathtaking brown eyes deadlocked on hers, with the same drunken lust Tal was sure was mirrored on her own-- taking in her every expression as affirmation to continue working her magic.

Their outdoor escapade eventually led them back to the barn, where Natalia proceeded to give her newest lover the same unforgettable experience she had just been presented with. Nestled in the privacy of Mitena's bedroom, the sun-kissed skin had been like warm velvet under Tal's fingertips, her beautiful locks of silk tangled in between her fingers as they kissed fervently. The sounds emanating from the Native girl's lips had been sweeter than any melody she could ever sing, and her taste of honey was an intoxicating nectar she couldn't get enough of. Once Tal had fulfilled her quest and exhaustion had claimed them, the two girls had laid in each other's arms for hours on end. Between the exchange of soft kisses and gentle caresses, they spoke and learned more about one another before inevitably drifting off into a peaceful sleep… Until now.

While the sun rose over the horizon to illuminate the luscious greenery of the Blue Hill Reservation, a war was raging inside the head of Natalia Belmonte. When she had first accepted the invitation to join Poppy, Mordechai and Jade in their quest to find Mitena, Tal had done so in the sole interest of self-preservation. Her purpose for seeking out this long-lost sister of Charlie’s wasn't to get to know her or make sure she was safe from whatever threat the Southies thought she was under. Quite frankly, she hadn’t cared about that. Her only goal had been to inquire what she knew about the Belmonte and Strongbow ties to consequently control the narrative based on the information she obtained. Then, when she became aware of the existence of letters exchanged between Tena and Charlie, Tal’s plans had expanded to include the search, confiscation and potential destruction of the potentially incriminating letters. But as she laid face-up in Mitena’s bed, staring blankly at the ceiling while the most beautiful girl snuggled closely beside her slept peacefully, Natalia knew that the pursuit of these ulterior motives had gone to hell the second hers and Tena’s eyes met in the longhouse bathroom the night before.

The young woman's gaze turned to Mitena, and she instantly felt guilt bubbling up in her stomach at her budding feelings towards Charlie’s sister, her actions with her of the night before and her previous self-centered selfishness. The more they had spoken, the more Natalia had wanted to know about Tena. Their conversations had revealed a woman who was not only sweet and kind, but charming, intelligent, intuitive, and highly perceptive. She instilled in Tal a feeling of safety and comfort-- that she could tell her absolutely anything without feeling judged or criticized. They purposely avoided the topic of Charlie and anything related to him, but even then there was plenty of conversation to be had. She'd told Tena about her time at school. About her mother. About her regrets with Danny and all the time they missed. About her dreams, aspirations, and fears. About deep things she hadn't voiced aloud to anybody else before. And throughout it all, the native girl had been a source of helpful insight, good advice and words of encouragement. Even if her beautiful features had been the ones to pull her in, it had been Tena's essence what had truly captivated Natalia. All she could hope for was that this wouldn't be the first and last moments they shared.

Tena had learned very early on in her life that hiding your true self can only lead down dark yet well traveled paths. From the stories of her father, to seeing how Forrest and Illara parents' lives went and especially considering what happened to her brother. It was for this reason that she always said what she felt, it was for this reason that she held no secrets and told no lies. When her eyes first locked onto the brunette running through the bar she was intrigued. Then when Tena walked into that bathroom and her eyes met Natalia’s lost galaxies of green, she knew what she wanted and she wouldn’t lie, she wanted Natalia. As she nestled herself in the embrace of her Italian lover, warm skin pressed against one another, her arm draped around the Eden girls waist, Mitena would by lying to herself if she said that she wanted it to end.

Their time together had been short: twelve hours at the most. And much of that time, Tena had spent exploring Natalia’s body with her lips and tongue, caressing every contour, tracing every freckle with her fingertips. Mitena and Natalia’s spirits danced as their bare bodies played and became one. Yet she knew there was more to it-- more to her. Their physical attraction to one another was a no brainer but what kept Mitena coming back was Tal’s soul. In between kisses, whispered words of thought and feeling, seeing glimpses of the real girl with stars in her eyes, that was stronger than any drug or science. The songstress knew she wanted more, but she was scared. If she opened her eyes now, would that be the end?

When she reluctantly opened her eyes to accept the world, all of Tena’s fears fell away as she groggily saw the infinite galaxies that she had fallen in love with the night before gazing back at her. A smile crept up across her lips as she leaned upwards, her hand tracing up from Natalia’s waist, brushing her breast before settling in a hold within the offcomers luscious dark locks. “Morning, Stargirl.” She spoke softly before capturing Tal’s bottom lip between her own. She moaned in content with the thought that if the world ended whilst they stayed in that bed, she could die happy.

Whatever guilt Natalia had been feeling faded away the second Mitena's eyes fluttered open and she smiled at her. While the feeling that she was insulting or mocking Charlie's memory with what she was doing still nagged at her, the Native woman seemed to know the perfect way to get Tal to push those thoughts aside to focus on the present. Within seconds, her soft touch was causing goosebumps on her bare, pale skin. Her hand had moved to grasp Tal's curly dark locks in that dominant way that drove her wild. And after a brief greeting, the two women were locked in a kiss.

The moan in her mouth made her shiver with growing desire. Natalia, completely entranced by Mitena's love spell, had wasted no time in laying on her side, wrapping her arms around her lover, and pulling her as close as she could to her body. "Good morning, pretty girl," she mumbled unintelligibly without breaking the kiss, her words muffled by Tena's lips. She let her own hands freely explore the woman's enthralling body as they kissed deeply, savoring every second of her and her company. Only after she was breathless did Tal pull away from Tena.

"I don't know if we'll ever get out of bed if we keep messing around like this…" the Italian girl teased with a smile before pulling Tena into another heated kiss.

Mitena pulled Natalia’s leg around her waist, locking them even closer together as their tongues danced in a ballet of tantalizing lust and want. She had never experienced drugs beyond her aunt's weed or alcohol but the native girl could only imagine this is what it was like to be an addict. From the second their skin touched for the first time the previous evening, Tena knew she just had to have more of Tal. She needed to be with her in body and spirit and every conceivable way. Her heart was on fire and her brain was screaming, her body was aching and she was completely and utterly lost in this strange girl that walked into her life one night at the longhouse.

Moving her lips to Natalia’s neck and collarbone, Tena began to speak breathlessly in between soft sensual kisses. “I could stay here forever with you.” She moaned as she playfully bit the bottom of Tal’s chin. The reality of the situation was that they did need to get out of bed because the Great Spirit had sent Natalia here on a quest not for love and not alone. Mitena had promised that she would talk with the Italian girl's friends about her brother and what she knew. It seemed that even in death, Charlie Jay was causing problems for the people he loved. It seemed that was the Strongbow way.

Tena leaned upwards and pressed her forehead to Natalia’s, the warmth of their bodies radiating against one another in an inferno. She stared into her lover's green eyes and smiled. “What are you doing to me?” She whispered.

Her inquiry made the Eden girl smile at the idea that they were both asking themselves the same question. She'd been attracted at first sight to others before, but not to the depth or the level that she was experiencing with Mitena. "I could ask you the same thing," Natalia murmured back with a small laugh, running her fingers through Tena's dark hair, giving her a soft, fleeting kiss.

Mitena had never felt like this before. Had her mother sent her someone to give her heart to? Was it her father? Maybe it was Charlie? Maybe he had sent Natalia into Tena’s embrace as a way of seeking forgiveness. Whomever or whatever sent the Stargirl to the singer, they were not of this world. “Tell me to go make breakfast otherwise you’re stuck here.”

Getting stuck with Tena in bed for an undisclosed period of time sounded like absolute bliss to Natalia, but she knew it would have to end at some point. The rest of the Southies were relying on her for transportation back home, and their agreement had been that it would be an overnight visit. They probably had other things to do back home, too.

But that didn't mean they needed to leave the house just yet…

"How aboutttt… we eat each other for breakfast instead?" the Italian girl proposed with a suggestive smirk, followed up by a wink.

“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” Mitena giggled as she rolled forward and on top of Natalia. Hovering her face over the off-comer's, the indigenous girl pressed her body against Tal’s, raising her hands and locking her fingers in the ringlets of the pale, freckled girl's dark hair. She didn’t want to move. In that moment and every moment that would follow her heart and her body craved more time with Natalia. Yet she knew it could not last, she knew that outside of the barn there was a world waiting for them, people waiting. She pressed her mouth down against her lover’s, savoring the taste from Natalia’s lips like she was the last breath of a perfect dream that Tena did not want to wake up from. “Breakfast tastes amazing.” She teased as she kissed Tal again.

Natalia let out a moan of approval. The very limited resolve she had to get off the bed and out of the bedroom was thrown out the window the second Mitena rolled on top of her and took control of her body with a deep kiss. Her hands explored her smooth back again a few times before firmly settling below it, never once pulling apart from the passionate kiss she was in. In normal circumstances, weak was not a word that Natalia would use to describe herself. She was strong, in charge and in control of the situations around her (most times, at least). But with Mitena, the Italian girl felt just like that: weak, and unable to resist the supernatural pull that had brought them together in the first place. The reins she usually held so tightly had been surrendered to Tena, allowing herself to submit to the native girl's tantalizing bidding. It was nice to follow someone else’s lead for once.

The more they kissed, the more Tal felt that familiar sentiment of desire starting to overwhelm her. There was something she was craving right now; much more than any breakfast, lunch or meal she could have… "Let me taste you again, sweetheart…" Tal pleaded in a whisper with a hint of desperation in Tena's ear, peppering her neck with kisses and gentle nibbles to sway her decision.

Within Natalia’s scintillating words and full luscious lips, Tena found her body becoming weaker. This was not from a pain or an aggravation but from a hunger waiting to be satiated and the only way to do so would be to once again give herself to the all encompassing supernova that was her Stargirl. She felt her spine quake and shudder beneath Tal’s neck kisses as she moaned into the pillow. Mitena could feel the smooth steel that sat pierced in Natalia’s chest pushed firmly against her own and it drove her further into the early morning madness.

With magic and electricity circling the room, Tena pressed her forehead against her pale lover’s. Thank you, Charlie. The whisper of a thought gleaming across her mind for a fleeting moment. Her big brother had done wicked things, caused shame and pain and set fire to almost everything he touched. Yet she knew that somehow, some way, he had plucked a star from the sky and handed it to Tena herself, so that she could care for it, so that she could feel its warmth and light fill up her life. Charlie stole a star from heaven so Mitena could love it: a star called Natalia.

She shared her breath with the offcomer, lips hovering over lips and bodies deeply entwined with one another in the throws of tantric sorcery and untamed hearts. “Now now.” Tena’s words danced across the air. “I know you’re hungry but so am I.” The radiant indigenous girl descended beneath the duvet slowly, her lips tracing every contour of Natalia’s body on the way down.

Time to feast.

Some time later, Mitena’s bike pulled up outside Adora’s home. She had always been one for the finer things despite the usual rustic living of Reservation life. After their own private breakfast, Tena had offered Tal her choice of clothes from her wardrobe. Whether her items fit her or if her style of apparel was up to snuff for the obviously fashionable Stargirl wasn’t something Mitena had concerned herself over. She was instead basking in the feeling that had overflown in her heart and mind.

Once they had stopped off at Resi’s truck for some food to bring with them, Tena had been hit with a very sobering feeling of what was about to transpire. She was about to meet all the people that her brother loved so much, the people that shared the fears and loves of his very soul. They knew him better than anyone. As they ascended the steps to Adora’s home, the raven haired songstress gripped onto Natalia’s hand tightly. Was she even ready for this? She had spent a long time putting to rest the soul of a boy she didn’t really know but loved so dearly. By putting their five pieces of his heart together, would this tempt the Great Spirit to bring him back?

There was a shift in the vibe surrounding Mitena as the two women made their way to the front door of Adora Diamondheart’s home. Whereas before she had been starry-eyed, cheerful and chatty, she was now quiet, reserved, and even hesitant to some degree. If the change in demeanor wasn’t proof enough that something was weighing on her heart, then the way her grasp on Tal’s hand grew tighter with every step they took confirmed it. So instead of allowing themselves inside as soon as they had reached the front door, Natalia turned to Tena with eyes full of concern. Considering the circumstances, she could only guess what was the cause of her mood swing, but she preferred to get a straight answer rather than assume anything.

"Hey. Are you okay?" she asked her, tucking a dark strand of hair behind her ear and caressing her cheek. She wanted to make sure the woman knew that, much like she had been the night before, Tal was also a safe space to confide in. "We don't have to talk about anything you don't want to or anything you're not ready for."

“I think that’s the problem.” Tena turned to face the beautiful stranger. “I want to talk about everything. I think the reality has finally hit that you, your friends, you all are a part of my brother's story in a way that I can barely fathom.” She looked into Natalia’s green eyes in hopes of getting lost, in finding comfort in the embrace of the neon eternity. “I met Charlie only once. We only talked in letters. When he did what he did, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was less difficult I think for me to push past it and move forward. You were there. You lived it. And now that I’m about to have access to his world, is it wrong for me to be absolutely terrified?”

In the last twelve hours, Mitena had shared more of herself with Natalia than with anyone before her. This wasn’t because she was guarded, if anything she was a massively open book when it came to even the most taboo of subjects, this included Charlie. Yet there was something, something mystical that happened when the last living Strongbow looked into the eyes of the Stargirl. She couldn’t lie. She couldn’t hide herself. Natalia saw her and everything that she was. Her gaze filled her up with warmth and lightened even the darkest of spots.

Leaning in, Tena captured Tal’s cheeks between her palms before she stole a kiss from her thick, soft lips and took in her addictive taste. “Normally I’d ask the Spirit to send me courage. Instead, it sent me you and you’re all I need or want right now.”

Natalia swallowed hard and put on her bravest face, letting a fresh wave or guilt wash over her. As honest as she was being about wanting to provide support to Tena and as warm as it made her feel that her mere presence was giving the other girl courage, a part of Tal was secretly hoping that she would change her mind about discussing anything related to Charlie. It was a pointless wish, though, as she could see that the determination in Mitena to get a glimpse at her brother's world was absolute. So with her best attempt at a reassuring smile in the face of potential adversities, Tal returned Tena's kiss and led them to the inside of Adora's house.



A @metanoia & @Venus Collab || featuring Mikhail Zima & Caitlin Cleary
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FLASH BACK || T U E S D A Y , M A Y 1 S T , 2 0 1 8

A horde of butterflies was fluttering nervously inside Caitlin Cleary’s stomach as she carefully made her way to the bed of the brand-new Toyota Tacoma that now belonged to Mikhail Zima. During one the first conversations she and Mika had back in March, the topic of birth dates had come up. The new friends were pleasantly surprised to find out their birthdays were exactly twenty-three days apart: with his being on May 1st and hers on May 23rd. They had gone on to share stories about their most heartfelt memories involving their special day, which prompted Mika's sad confession that he hadn’t had his favorite cake since he’d moved to Edenridge two years previously. That day, Cece had made a promise to herself that, if she and Mika were still friends when his birthday came around, she would surprise him with a home baked cake of his liking. As luck would have it, they were not only still friends when the time came, but their friendship had strengthened and blossomed at a rapid pace throughout the weeks. Before she knew it, the end of April had rolled around, and so had the opportunity to do good on her promise.

The night of April 30th, Caitlin had gathered her ingredients to set off on the journey of trying to bake and decorate her first three-layer cake from scratch. Each layer was made by combining vanilla cake batter with one of Mika’s favorite three berries: layer #1 was blueberry, layer #2 was raspberry, and layer #3 was strawberry. Cream cheese buttercream served as the glue for each layer, as well as for the cover for the walls of the cake and the piped decorations on the top and bottom. An assortment of fresh blueberries, raspberries and strawberries cut into a heart shape helped hide the imperfections of the cake while giving it more personality, as well as complimenting the “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” Cece had messily written in dark purple decorative gel. The end result wasn’t as neat and pretty as she wanted it to be-- after all, her specialty was cupcakes, not layer cakes. But she hoped that Mika would see the heartfelt intention behind the gesture, and that the taste would make up for the baked goods's smudgy exterior.

That Tuesday, Cece had been lucky. She had been able to take her cake to school, along with some snacks, milk and utensils, and store them in the Home Econ fridge until the end of the day. She’d hidden out in the library from the time school let out until basketball practice was over as she usually did when she and Mika would plan to hang out. Once the coast was clear and Mika had sent her the message that it was time to go, the giddy redhead gathered her items, met the young man at the parking lot, and they set off together to O’Halloran’s Creek. Twenty minutes later, it was time to surprise the birthday boy.

Taking advantage of Mika getting things ready for them in the bed of the truck, Caitlin had announced that she had a surprise for him, and had politely requested that he take a seat and close his eyes. Once she made sure he’d followed her instructions, she retrieved the cake from the dark insulated bag she’d been keeping it in, placed a candle in the middle of the cake, lit it up with the help of a lighter, and carefully made her way to the back. When she had made it safely to their destination, the girl took a deep breath in an attempt to soothe her jitters before speaking up.

“Okay, Mika: open your eyes…” she instructed, holding the cake out to him as she nervously waited for him to open his eyes. And when he did, she offered him the happiest, brightest of smiles. “Happy birthday!”

“Wow…”

The shock of not only the surprisingly loud shriek from Cece, which she was normally timid with the volume and how she typically spoke. But that wasn’t just it. As he looked at what was in front of him, he was amazed at what he saw. A cake that, at first glance, looked so delicious and he certainly could see something familiar about it. The way the berries were arranged, the faint pink and purples of each layer, even down to the handwriting -- it brought back some very fond memories from his childhood. “Blossom… I could be wrong here, but this isn’t a… Boston cream pie with mixed berries, is it?” Normally Mika would take the hint of the berries decorated at the top of it, but the nostalgia goggles he was looking through hindered a lot for him right now. He was intensely salivating, but also needed to make sure he wasn’t wrong. Looks could be deceiving, after all.

Caitlin nodded vigorously. "It sure is," she declared proudly, feeling the nerves evaporate as she took in Mika's positive response to her gesture. "Or, at least, I tried for it to be," she said with a chuckle. "Each layer's got a different berry mixed into the sponge, and the buttercream's all cream cheese. I tried my best with the decorating bit, but since it was my first time it didn't come out as good as I wanted it to be. The flavors though… that I am absolutely confident about."

“Buttercream, huh?” Mika repeated approvingly, a smile on his face. He never had it with that before. His mother always just used a berry cream, which as he remembered was always tart. He didn’t have much experience with buttercream, though. Some cupcakes here and there, but he never had it growing up. Still, he wasn’t worried at all. In all honesty, as he divided his gaze from the cake and Cece, it was a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. Also he loved cream cheese. Most didn’t, but he did.

“What are you talking about, Cece? The decoration looks amazing!” Mika said, grabbing one of the blueberries and popping one into his mouth. He made a noise that nobody really could describe, but it was the kind one made when they really enjoyed food. “It looks so good! As good as I remember from when I was younger.” He was all smiles and even laughed, though it was from the fondness of the happy childhood memories he had about his mother making the same cake. “I just don’t know what to say.” He was struggling to not let all of his emotions show off just how much this meant to him.

It was hard for Cece not to beam as brightly as she was. She had accomplished exactly what she had set out to in the first place: to take Mika back to times of joy, celebration, and family unity. Their friendship was still very fresh, but the snippets of experiences he had shared with her had provided the redhead with enough context to know her act would be appreciated.

"You don't have to say anything," she told him earnestly, offering the birthday boy a sweet smile. Actions often spoke louder than words, and it was obvious from Mika's expression that he was both surprised and truly touched by her heartfelt gesture. Thinking back on it, this was the most and the widest she'd seen him smile since the day they had met under the oak tree. "Just close your eyes, make a wish, and blow the candle out before the wind does it for you and steals your wish," she added with a small laugh, bringing attention to the way the flame flickered dangerously in response to the light breeze starting to pick up around them.

“Close my eyes?” For a split second, Mika’s almost wholesome smile turned into something teasing -- naughty, even, if he was being completely honest. Chuckling it away, he gave himself a small shrug. “Fine, but I’m trusting you. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do.” Normally people often said what they wouldn’t do, but Mika had a lot of thoughts in the short moment that he looked at Cece when he said that and let’s just say that Mika was the type to entertain a bunch of…creative thoughts.

The pink blush in Cece’s cheeks was instant. Leave it to her new friend to be able to fluster her with a mischievous look and a few sentences with double meanings. “Just blow out the candle, Mika,” she playfully chastised with a sheepish giggle.

As he closed his eyes and the immediate thought of Cece standing in front of him became the main focus in his mind, he smiled. And he kept smiling, picturing her. His mind flashed back to that day they met by the Oak Tree. The day that he came to visit David’s grave (or was it a memorial?). Whatever it was, that day led to some interesting things happening. Just a little over a month later and they were in a private-adjacent place, alone, in the bed of his brand new Toyota Tacoma, and she was asking him to make a wish. What did he want to wish for, though? There were a lot of things. Selfishly, he’d like it if his father wasn’t a complete asshole. VIktor, too. He’d also like to be able to return home and see his sisters as much as he wanted.

All of those things were great, but the largest part of Mika knew what it wanted. Mika, outwardly, knew what he wanted. A gust of air left his mouth, blowing the candle out and he smiled still, opening his eyes. “So what now, Red?”

"Now we get to see just how badly I butchered the taste of this cake,” Cece joked with a small laugh, handing the cake over to Mika before walking back to the passenger side of the truck to retrieve the rest of her surprise. When she returned, the redhead effortlessly climbed onto the Tacoma’s bed, settled herself next to the birthday boy and started to pull out the items from the large insulated bag that had previously harbored the cake.

“I brought us some spoons, some napkins, some milk to wash down the cake… You told me the other day that you liked to dunk the limon Flamin Hot Cheetos in nacho cheese, so I got some of those too-- and some Ritz crackers with the Cheese Wiz, in case the Cheetos weren't enough… And since I know how hungry you get after practice and how much you liked the pastrami, swiss and pickled red onion sandwich from The Godmother, I asked Danny for the recipe and the ingredients I needed so I could make you a few… I brought us some water bottles, too…” she trailed off, placing each of the items in the space between them as she mentioned them. Finally, once the last water bottle was set, Caitlin turned to Mika with a bashful look on her face. “I’m sorry for getting carried away like this… It’s just… I know how much your birthdays meant to you and how they were some of your happiest memories, so I wanted to try and make this one as special as I could for you.”

She was listening to all of that?

Mika stared in awe, not only astonished that Caitlin had actually listened to him when he made off-hand comments about some snacks he enjoyed, comments in which he’d half-assed spoken with very little seriousness behind them, but the fact she did it just to make his birthday special. Yeah, Mika had a bottomless pit for a stomach and has grossed out Aleyda and the rest of the Gonzalez’s with his preference of snacks (mostly the fake cheese that came in jars and cans). He may have mentioned his mother’s signature sandwich without giving much context other than saying how delicious it was. Nobody in Edenridge could make it like she did even if Cat Belmonte came pretty close at the Godmother. It wasn’t as tasty, but not a bad second place.

To say the least, he didn’t expect so much. The cake, the snacks, the fact she did this all for him — It was a lot. Like a slice of home that he missed since he came to Edenridge. He had accepted his life here now, but it wasn’t exactly the same, yet Cece did all of this to give him that feeling again? “No..don’t be sorry.” He finally spoke after a few moments (long ones at that) of taking everything in. The food alone was a shock and it made his stomach grumble, but the act of it all had forced him to reassess that maybe Cece might’ve liked him more than he thought so. Better question, was that a two-way street?

He looked at her, smiling. Mika wasn’t the type to widely smile. That wasn’t his thing and probably never would be. He thought people looked stupid with those wide grins. Like that Marco Brady guy. But that was his thing, so no hate there, but Mika? Nope, not the person for that kind of outward expression, yet he could feel the muscles around his lips stretch and flex, eyes almost at the brink of watering. They had a glisten in them sure and Mika could feel the intensity of emotions come up from his stomach and heart. Memories of his past birthdays with his entire family -- even his father and oldest brother who supposedly hated him, gathered on special occasions and were different people.

He shook his head briefly. “I guess you can call me a hypocrite because I’m gonna do what I just said you shouldn’t. I’m sorry I don’t know what to say. Nobody has done this sort of thing for me. At least, not in such a grand display like this.” Mika went for the cake, wanting to taste the frosting and to nobody’s surprise, it was cream cheese buttercream. “Seriously, you didn’t need to do all of this…but…” He absentmindedly grabbed one of the strawberries that served as the decoration of the cake, eating it. “Thank you.”

"It was nothing," the girl said humbly with a small shrug, her heart glowing inside her chest. Every minute of the hours of work spent making the cake and the rest of the food had been worth that blinding smile Mika had given her. "I'm sure you already know this, but I'm not someone who usually opens up to people. But ever since that first time we talked under the oak tree, I felt like I could have deep, honest conversations with someone who wouldn't judge or make fun of me. Things came so easily with you… It's something I've grown to cherish very fondly. Even though we've only known each other for a little over a month, I do consider you a friend to me, Mika. And with my friendship comes me going all out on special days like these, because I love making those close to me as happy as they make me."

“I guess I'll just have to get used to the delicious cake that only my mom really knew how to get right and all my favorite snacks being a regular thing every birthday.” Mika’s tone hinted at sarcasm, but underneath that almost teasing-like tone, there lied a sincerity full of gratitude for the cute ginger that sat beside him.

"I guess that's a sacrifice you'll just have to make…" Cece responded with a shrug, matching Mika's level of teasing and dramatic sarcasm before chuckling.

Mika wasn’t a loner that didn’t have many friends, but other than those he called his brothers in the southside, his only friend on the northside was Natalia (who he had crossed the border from time to time with, but that was neither here nor there). Caitlin was a different kind of girl than Natalia was. Well, obviously Natalia had darker hair, but it was more than that. Natalia was bold and beautiful (much like the show that his mother was obsessed with), but Caitlin, in her own way, was bold and beautiful. She had a tender spirit and a generous heart. Her eyes were soft and everything about her had so much love. If the display in front of him wasn’t evidence of that, then it was her matching her acts of caring with the confidence in her words. When she said her friendship meant there would be acts of showing that love, Mika believed her.

“By the way--” Mika looked up at her. He was smiling still but not a smirk. On his face was a gentler smile. “It’s not nothing. Fact is, and you might find this hard to believe, but I’m not the open book with a lot of people than you saw when we both ended up at that cemetery. Ever since coming to this town, I’ve tried to hide myself from opening up. It took a few wrecking balls to get me to open up, and then there was you: just sitting under the shade of that tree across from where I stood, talking to me about our families and then laughing at my bad jokes.” Mika kept his eyes locked on Cece chortling at his last comment, feeling something stir up inside him. He didn’t know what it was, but he continued, “I told you about this cake and how it was my favorite. My childhood wasn’t picture perfect, but special days like birthdays and Thanksgiving? Yeah those were pretty spectacular! Every single birthday my mom made this exact cake and you did that. For me. So trust me, Red, it wasn’t nothing. It’s never gonna be nothing. This means more to me than you might ever know.”

Mika's smile was mirrored on Caitlin's face, which grew bigger when he confessed how easily she'd been able to penetrate his defenses without even trying. It was amazing to think that their small, coincidental interaction had meant so much to the both of them. She was grateful and honored that, among so many different people in town, it was she who had been awarded the invaluable gift of his trust. It was something Cece would cherish and never take for granted.

"Thank you so much, Mika. I'm just glad I could make you happy," she said sweetly, placing her hand on his for a brief moment before grabbing one of the spoons and digging into her creation.

A comfortable silence settled between the pair for some time, with the only sounds being their meal consumption and that of their surroundings before Caitlin spoke up. "Is it part of Coach's workout plan to starve his players?" the redhead commented in amusement with a playful snicker. She'd been watching the way Mika was devouring his food like a hungry caveman for a few minutes now, and her mind immediately went to the many times that she'd witnessed The Elite eat enough food to feed a small army. Thank God their mothers liked to cook big batches. "I swear, every guy I've met that plays for him scarfs down their food as if they'd never eaten a day in their lives!"

“I-u s-w the w-y we pra-ced, --you’d e-t l-ke is too.” Mika had half of a mouthful of the sandwich in his mouth, and the way he couldn't pronounce his words properly made Cece giggle. That pastrami and swiss on..well, he wasn’t the most knowledgeable about specific breads but it tasted sour. Either sourdough or rye. Either way, he was enjoying it so much that Mika forgot the most basic rule when eating: never talking with your mouth full. After he washed it down with some water, he coughed. It went down the wrong hole, as was the expected thing to happen when you ate too much and too fast and tried to wash it down too soon. “Sorry, what I was saying is that our practices are insane. Don’t get me wrong, Coach is amazing and clearly we’re phenomenal. Even after The Elite, the current team is just…really bitchin'. Like Danny is a great captain. And Coach help us maximize our talents by giving us drills that plays into them and pushes us to our limits.”

If only she knew that he was gushing about his Uncle, but that was something Mika could never reveal for a lot of reasons. But it didn’t take away from how much truth he spoke. Coach John O’Hara was strict as hell and expected nothing short of perfection, but Mika couldn’t deny that it felt great to have someone pushing him to be his best self. Or maybe it was just the fact that he was getting to know his mother’s family -- his family.

"You know, John has a really good talent for that." Cece mused, pausing to take a bite of cake before continuing. "He has such an ability for polishing his players' strengths while significantly improving their weaknesses. In the years I've watched him coach, he puts his players first, never plays favorites and makes decisions based out of logic and not bias-- which I imagine was extra hard for him when he had the Elite, considering he had pretty much watched them all grow up in his backyard. I remember how he could even go a little harder on David than the rest just so nobody could say he was being easy on his son, even if nobody really felt that way."

Mika knew what that was like. Even though he tried to push it to the back of his mind (or out of it if it could be helped), he always managed to think about his own father from time to time. Cece mentioning how Coach was hard on David only reminded how, in his own cruel way, his father was the same way. Maybe not in the same way. Mika’s childhood was vastly different from anyone he knew in Edenridge (or at least of what he knew about their home lives), so maybe it wasn’t fair, but it was still something that always lingered. “Fathers are like that,” he responded softly in a lamenting tone. “I’m sure Coach meant well. Hopefully David… didn’t hold it against him.” Mika had no idea if he was way off base or if his assessment was hitting close to the bullseye.

From the way Mika spoke, it wasn’t hard to decipher that he might be seeing his own father-son relationship reflected in that of David and John’s. Cece only knew David’s side of the story and what she’d witnessed firsthand during family activities and basketball games. But it was Mika’s birthday. The last thing she wanted was to dampen the mood by continuing this dreary, sore subject. So rather than providing insight, she chose to remain quiet.

As a moment of silence was left between them, Mika shook his head quickly. “But yeah, what I was saying is all these drills we do are taxing and that makes me hungry as fuck. But I should at least remember some of my manners,” he laughed off his neanderthal-like display of how he ate his sandwich with all of the big bites and little time for chewing and swallowing. “Guess it doesn’t hurt that the sandwich was really tasty.”

“Well I’m glad you’re enjoying it!” Cece chuckled, wiping the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I hope you’re leaving some room for whatever the Gonzalez’ have planned for you later, though. Might be hard to explain to them why the guy with four stomachs is suddenly too full to even sample his birthday meal,” she teased, playfully bumping her shoulder against his arm.

“Like you wouldn’t believe…” Mika started to laugh, remembering last year and how the Gonzalez’ really made it into a whole thing. The amount of food that Momma Guadalupe made, the amount of Serpents that came over -- Mika wasn’t officially part of it but he was the closest to a Prince of the Serpents as he came and it was the best. It was his first birthday he celebrated without his mother or his sisters, so it meant more to him than they probably ever knew (especially because Mika didn’t really show that side of him yet).

But another thing caused his silence. Or someone. Cece’s arm brushing against him made him look into her eyes, seeing the sparkle in those turquoise pools with specs of the sunlight hitting them, the playful expression on her face. God, why was he getting these weird feelings in his stomach? And why did his heart start to pump a little faster than it did a few minutes ago?

Mika got stuck in his thoughts for a few seconds and shook it off. “Uh..yeah they’re great, They go all out with just about anything you can think of! But how about the real star of the show--” In both an attempt to eat it at long last and, if he was being honest, distract himself from thinking too much into that singular act of her arm brushing against his, his eyes went to the cake.. It was an accident and he was looking too much into it. “Since it’s my birthday, I’m just going to say fuck my stomach and tear into this bad boy!” He chuckled and grinned, dividing his eyes and attention between the chef who made that cake and the cake itself as he salivated at the thought of putting that cake in his mouth.

“Go right on ahead, before I finish it off myself!” Cece said with a laugh, bringing attention to how she had already consumed a third of the cake before Mika had even had a chance to taste it.

“Jesus! Have you been chomping away at it this entire time?” The young woman let out a small giggle, and nodded confirming her guilt. Truth be told, that didn’t seem unreasonable. Mika didn’t even pay the cake much attention until she mentioned it. Perhaps it was because he was too focused on the sandwich. Regardless, he had to at least get his own third of it so he could try the cake she made for him before it’s all gone. As he took the knife and sliced off a part of it, he put it on a place. With his fork, Mika made sure to get the perfect bite that had all the layers of cake, cream, and berries. And when he did--

“Holy shit! This is fucking good!” Mika said as his mouth was still full with the cake. Just like how his mother made it. No, it was different. Sweeter yet still tart. He was in a state of…he didn’t know how to describe it because he was feeling a lot: the high emotions nostalgia produced, awe that someone other than his mother could make his favorite cake so well, a certain kind of foodgasm that became clear in the sounds he was making as he chewed, and maybe a bit of an addiction as he had scarfed down half of it while he still had some in his mouth.

And then he started to choke and immediately reached for the milk, washing it down as he coughed a few times. “Seriously a flavor bomb!” He looked Cece’s way with a smile on his face. “No wonder you helped yourself to a third of it.” He looked down briefly at his fork. There was still some cake on it. “In fact, you should really have some more.” With a mischievous smile forming on his face, he had an idea that maybe he was gonna regret or maybe not. He bent the fork back and flung the cake straight at the red headed chef as the remains of the cake found a place right on the left side of her face.

Cece, who had been grinning from ear to ear watching Mika sample her creation, was caught off guard by the attack. She let out a small gasp of surprise, her blue eyes widening as the realization of what had happened hit her.

Oh, he'd really done it this time.

"Maybe I will…" she quickly shot back, wasting no time with grabbing a handful of buttercream from the base of the cake and slathering it all over the guy's left cheek. "Wow, that color looks great on you! Totally your perfect shade," she taunted, giving Mika a smirk and raising her eyebrows at him, as if challenging him to retaliate.

And retaliate he did.

He widened his smirk as a majority of the buttercream frosting that she smeared his direction was all over his chin and lips so it looked like clouds that had pink hues to them were parting. He inched closer to the giggling, cowering Cece, chuckling in a more sinister way the closer he got. He dipped his whole left hand into the remains of the cake, raising it up like a weapon. “Get ready to face the white claw!” He declared as he went to lightly, yet still firmly, pressed his hand into Cece’s cheek all the while he managed to push her on her back. Though she had fought back, it hadn't been enough, and he was now looking down at her. “Well well well, you seem to have lost this round, Blossom.” He grinned as bits of the frosting had made its way into his mouth and were stuck on his teeth. “Admit defeat and you can walk away with your life!” He stated in a faux-villainous voice, even stretching his accent in a parodical way.

Upon first contact of Mika's hand on her cheek, Caitlin had done her best to defend herself against the buttercream attack. She was able to get a few licks in, smearing more frosting onto Mika's face and hair. Unfortunately, she was overcome by a case of the giggles, which had sapped any strength she had to fight back. It wasn't long before Mika overpowered her in a swift motion, causing her to let out a high-pitched squeal that was followed by even more giggles. And when he addressed her in his current position, looking down at her with his frosting-covered teeth and using that comical voice, Cece couldn't speak-- nor could she hold back the tears of sheer laughter flowing down her cheeks. The last time Caitlin had laughed this hard, to the point of tears and an aching stomach, had been with David shortly before his death.

“No answer?” The laughing Caitlin could barely shake her head.

As Mika lingered over the laughing redhead, her eyes practically oozing tears produced from the continuous, high-pitched giggles that have been nonstop for nearly a minute now, he couldn’t even think about hiding his own grin. Not the kind of grin one brandished when they were feeling cocky or clever, but the kind that was simpler in nature. He was feeling all of the serotonin build: seeing Cece, for the first time, actually giggle and laugh and have the kind of smile that was infectious. She had smiled before and laughed before when they spent time together, so it wasn’t as though this was the first time he saw them at the same time or anything like that. But to see it being displayed in such an earnest way was something else entirely. Not only that, but this was the first time he was on top of her like this.

Something was stirring and it had been for quite some time.

As she continued to laugh, filling his ears with a sound that calmed him. He had been calm the entire time they spent in the bed of his truck, but there was something else to it. His left hand, which was covered in the remains of the cake she baked for, caressed the left side of her cheek. He was still smiling at this point, but the way he looked at her was different. As lighthearted in its core, he found himself being drawn more and more into her warm, affectionate gaze. No amount of puff in her eyes, tears of joy, or echoes of jovial laughter could stop what was coming.

“You look cute from this angle...” was all he said as Mika leaned down, his heart pumping faster and faster the closer he got to her face. As he inched so close to her lips, feeling the aroma of her natural scent, the way her body slowed in its rhythm just like it did with his, he swallowed whatever remained inside his dry mouth and laid his lips on hers tenderly. It all felt like it was happening in slow motion and for him, that’s exactly what it was. In reality, it all happened in less than ten seconds that even if Mika wanted to, he couldn’t stop it from happening.

Caitlin couldn’t stop it from happening, either.

The signs of budding feelings slowly developing between them the more Mika and her got to know each other had been impossible to ignore. Cece had chosen to push hers to the back of her mind, of course, out of fear that she was misunderstanding the queues or that they were figments of her imagination. But they were there: front and center. They were present in the way they looked at each other-- turquoise pools meeting those of melted chocolate. They were present in the way they laughed at the same stupid jokes, or how they’d shyly smile at each other when walking down the halls at school. They were present in the way they confided thoughts and experiences in each other, with the certainty that their trust would not be broken. They were present in the way he held her hand, and how her heart beat just a little faster when he caressed her face, or tucked her hair behind her ear, or playfully bumped her shoulder. They were present in the way Cece closed her eyes and tentatively kissed Mika back.

Immediately, a wave of fresh, burning guilt washed over her, causing the redhead to momentarily break the kiss. Five months ago, she was being kissed just like this in the back of a vintage Ford at the clearing near her home, by the man who she had been certain was the love of her life. They had sworn undying love to each other over and over again, outlined plans for the future and pictured the rest of their lives together as a family. Was it okay to be opening herself up to someone else so soon after David’s passing? Would it be disrespectful or insulting to his memory? Was she the world’s most selfish, self-centered, horrible girlfriend for allowing herself to build a bond with another guy so fast?

In the midst of her doubt, she thought of the circumstances that had brought her and Mika together. It couldn't be a coincidence that they had met by happenstance under the oak tree by David's grave. It couldn't be an accident that their personalities complimented each other effortlessly. It wasn’t a mistake that they shared so many similar outlooks about life. And it wasn’t an error that she felt the familiar sensation of warmth, safety and affection whenever they were in each other’s presence. What brought them together wasn’t some random twist of fate. It was destiny.

Was she ready to unlock her heart to the possibilities of what could be?

All it took was one look into Mika's warm blue eyes to confirm that he would be there to catch her if she fell.

So, with nervous steps and a racing heartbeat, she allowed herself to step off the edge.

Pushing all of her fears aside with a timid smile, Caitlin raised her head, gently pulled Mika close with the hand at the nape of his neck and locked her lips with his in a slow, berry and buttercream-flavored kiss.
TIMESTAMP: AFTER “APONI AND HER HEART”


____________________________________________________________________



A @Venus & @BrutalBx Collaboration
Featuring Natalia Belmonte & Mitena Strongbow

____________________________________________________________________

Meeting Charlie’s friends was a lot.

In her correspondence with her half brother, Mitena had noticed that he had been fairly guarded to start with. He revealed very little of his life and the people in it outside of a superficial level. As time wore on and they grew closer, Charlie began to open up about a great number of things and a lot of his thoughts and feelings were very dark. It was obvious from the poison dripping from his words like blood from a knife that Charlie wasn’t okay. When Tena found out about his actions on the first day of his senior year, her heart broke into a million tiny stardust pieces. Could she have helped him? Should she have gone to Edenridge even though he was adamant she should never do that?

It was too late either way. Charlie was gone.

Mixed in with Charlie’s deep resonate thoughts on the world and far too many quotes by authors she had never heard of, Tena found herself drawn in as the few joys in his life were revealed. The main one being his friends “the crew” he referred to them as. Jade, Mordechai and Penelope. And on this particular night under the bright lights of Aponi’s Heart, the native girl had come face to face with her big brother's best friends.

Jade was everything that Charlie had described. Clad in black, angry at the world and with peroxide blonde hair, she was a badass wrapped in the body of a porn star. It was hot. Yet Tena could tell that there was a brokenness behind her smoke show eyes that any onlookers would rarely see. Charlie liked broken things.

Mordechai was Charlie's best friend. Though towards the end of the letters she received they had sadly had some form of falling out, which resulted in a massive fight which he hadn’t gone into much detail about. But the Decky that she met at Aponi’s was a really sweet and kind guy. She wondered what could have caused the friction.

Then there was Poppy-- THE Poppy, the girl whom Charlie spoke about in every letter. Ethereal, almost ghost-like with sad emeralds for eyes, her skin as pure white as freshly fallen snow. The girl, it seemed obvious, that his heart belonged to. She reached out and Tena immediately felt like she had known her all of her life despite never meeting. She held Charlie’s heart in her hands.

All of them were kind with their words, though they did not speak much beyond the intended conversation of warning Mitena about the menacing letters that they had been receiving. This gave her much food for thought. As far as she had been concerned prior to that night, Charlie was dead and buried and his legacy with him but now it seemed that like a poltergeist he was haunting and hurting the town that had failed him; even if it appeared like he didn’t actually want to.

Once she had finished her set, Tena had offered the quartet a place to stay at the farm but they declined, citing a prior relationship with Jadyn’s boyfriend ReyRey which was understandable. They were going to stay at Adora Diamondheart’s-- which was fine since Adora was a sweetie-- and had agreed to meet again in the morning before they left for Edenridge as a group. Tena had pulled Natalia aside, because out of everyone that had ventured to Blue Hill for her, she was the one that intrigued her the most. Mitena offered her privately a place to stay and the songstress couldn’t hide her surprise when Natalia agreed to stay with her for the night.

The Italian was also present in Charlie’s letters but unlike the other three, she became more fleshed out, more real, in Charlie’s heartbreaking manuscript. It seemed obvious in hindsight after meeting his friends that all of them were characters in the book that her brother had sent to her before he died. It was a heart-wrenching tale of love and loss, ghosts and evil but at its core it was the tale of a boy who loved intensely but was unable to form his feelings into words. The protagonist had deep affection for two girls, one of which as a reader, you’d assume he was meant to be with. This was Poppy. Natalia was the other girl in the book. She was the one that could’ve offered him something akin to normalcy. No drama. No pain. Just two kids learning and falling. She was the one he could’ve loved but never took that step.

Maybe she could take that step for him?

When Mitena had pulled her away from the group to unexpectedly invite her to her home, Natalia (having been caught off guard) had nervously blurted out her acceptance. It's not that she was a stranger to the whole one-night-stand business-- quite the opposite, in fact. With her charming demeanor and bold approach, Tal had persuaded males and females alike to become her fleeting companions for passionate nights in college. Things with Tena, however, were vastly different. Since her relationship with Kylee back in senior year, Tal had been the driving force behind every hookup she’d been involved with in college. But tonight, for the first time since Reagan, it was she the one being actively pursued by a breathtakingly beautiful woman instead of the other way around. It was a change of pace from the norm she'd grown accustomed to, but a welcome one all the same.

Natalia felt some of her previous hesitation being left behind as they sped through the dirt roads of the reservation on their way to Mitena’s place of dwelling. The other girl’s soft, flowery-scented hair had tickled her face as it flowed freely with the wind around them, and the feel of her full, femenine figure wrapped around her arms was stirring up feelings inside the Italian girl that she had thought were long since gone. She was curious about her, and even more curious about the possibilities of what could be. The nervousness of swimming in uncharted waters was still there, but the green-eyed girl’s curiosity trumped over everything else.

Tena felt magic and mystery in the air when the pair arrived outside the farm on her motorbike. With Natalia’s arms around her waist, she glanced back at her Stargirl and smiled. “We’re here.”

"Cool," Natalia mumbled, letting go of Tena's waist, stepping off the bike and awaiting further guidance or instructions from her hostess. The two women had parked in front of what looked like a large barn standing tall in the middle of an even larger piece of land, with tall trees shielding them from the world outside. "Is this, uh, is this your place?" she asked the native girl in an attempt to prevent any awkward silences that would only increase her nerves to settle between them.

“It’s my Auntie’s.” Mitena looked around the dusty roads around the farmhouse and barn and could not see ReyRey’s Firebird anywhere, which meant that he and Jadyn were still thankfully in town causing whatever mischief they desired. “I’ve lived with her since I was young, since my mother passed. I also have two cousins who live here off and on too, Resi and Illara.” She hoped they were ok. Illara was sensitive and as much as Forrest doted on his younger sister, he was a wanderer by heart and it was easy for him to be sucked into an adventure so it wasn’t surprising when Illy would turn up at the farm to spend the night. “Jadyn is super cool. She got stuck with us all when she was really quite young herself, she’s a badass”

It was true. Once upon a time there were three Silverheel sisters: Dakota, Leah and Cheryl. Jadyn was the daughter of Cheryl-- so technically, she was actually Tena’s cousin, but the age gap and Native tradition created for her the identity of Auntie. She was only twenty one, still living with her mother when Mitena landed on their doorstep. In many ways, she never got the chance to finish growing up. She very much became a big sister to Tena. And when her mother died, she graduated from sister to mother, gaining two new charges in Resi and Illy when their father went to prison. Luckily, the Reservation always took care of their own, and Jadyn, Mitena and the kids were looked after by Chief Coldwind, the Summerhills and everyone else in the Rez.

Looking out across the open field, it was on nights like this that Blue Hill really was beautiful. The dusty dirt roads and luxurious green trees mixed with the dotted lights of the distant town were mesmerising, romantic and sad all at the same time. The ride between the longhouse and the family farm was not a long one by any means, but Tena had hoped that it would have lasted forever. The touch of Tal’s hands around her waist, her hot breath on the back of her neck… Great Spirit, this girl was driving her absolutely crazy. She had never felt like this before. Her heart was racing and she could barely breathe. What was Natalia doing to her?

”You wanna come inside, Stargirl?” Tena asked, reaching out her hand. “Or there’s some lovely spots around the farm that we could go sit under and watch the sky.”

Natalia looked up at the cloudless sky above them, peppered with diamond stars and a full moon that illuminated the sea of fields and trees around them. The sounds of nature could be heard all around them, and a comfortable breeze kissed the bare portions of her alabaster skin, balancing out the warmth of the summer. When you are blessed with alluring surroundings like these and such lovely company, it would be a real shame to stay indoors and not take advantage of the offerings laid out right at your fingertips.

With her first smile of the night, the Belmonte girl linked her fingers with the hand Tena had extended towards her. “You lead the way. I’ll follow you where we go.”

With a soft receptive smile, Mitena secured their hands together and led Natalia towards the main farmhouse. If they were going to be spending some time outside they were going to need supplies. Avoiding her bedroom, which was by the front door, Tena first took Tal to the sitting room to grab a blanket. The farmhouse and indeed the ranch itself was very old and had been in the Silverheel family for generations: old wood panel walls and a great big stone fireplace-- it was a bastard to maintain but Spirit it was beautiful. This was followed by the kitchen for some snacks and beer, which she placed into a cute little picnic basket that her grandmother had made. The girls final stop was the den, where Mitena grabbed a single antique tobacco tin before leading Natalia out of the back door and into the fields.

Following a brief two minute walk, the young women found themselves on a small embankment towards the left of the property. Off in the distance, the sparkling lights of the Blue Hill Reservation danced like small embers on a crackling fire. Tena lay down the blanket and picnic basket before placing herself down on top of it and kicking off her shoes, placing her bare feet in the luscious green grass. “Sit down.” She smiled as she opened up her tin to pull out some roll ups. “You want some? Take off that knife-edge you’re carrying around with you.”

Natalia let out a small laugh. "That obvious?" she asked Mitena, imitating the Native girl by removing her sneakers and taking a seat next to her on the blanket. It wasn't until she pointed it out that Tal noticed the tightness constricting her shoulder and neck muscles: a tell-tale sign of the nerves and stress she had been in recently. As in her head as she was about her home situation and the Charlie situation and now this situation, Tal might not have noticed, but her hostess clearly did. "I'm sorry. Without going into too much detail that would damper our night, I've been going through some shit lately, and tonight's actually the first time I've gone out since I came home from college over a month ago. I've never been here either so I guess the combination of everything has me all messed up."

“I feel you there,” Mitena took out a blunt and placed it between her painted lips. “Not every day you play a gig and end up meeting the two girls your dead mass murdering brother was madly in love with.” Sparking her lighter, the native singer lit up the joint. She took but a small drag before taking it out of her mouth and placing it in Natalia’s. “I’m sorry for the dark humour, it runs in the family, I guess.” Stupid.Stupid.Stupid There she was with her dream girl and she was making bad jokes and shitty comments.

Mitena’s off-hand comment stunned Natalia into silence. It wasn’t the crude humor she had used-- God only knew Tal used it more than it was probably politically correct. No, what brought the Italian girl’s mind to a standstill was the implication that Charlie Decker’s feelings towards her went beyond complicitness and friendship-- that they could be in the same realm as the ones he felt for Poppy James.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on this, though, because Mitena had noticed her bewildered reaction and assumed it was her doing. "No, no, it's fine!” Tal quickly consoled the other girl, trying to ensure Tena knew she had nothing to apologize for. “Don't apologize. I don't mind dark humor at all."

Tena moved her doe-like eyes to meet the pain-filled galaxies that had bewitched her the moment she saw them. She raised her hand slowly, it hovered for a moment before her fingers gently rested on a bare bit of skin on the Stargirl’s back that was not covered by Tal’s top. "Just relax. Tonight doesn’t have to be anything you don’t want. Just chill, feel the vibe. Tomorrow can come tomorrow.”

The Belmonte girl nodded and offered Tena a small, reassuring smile. It had been so long since she had been somewhat sober and actually wanting to live in the moment; but this was the perfect night to allow herself to do so. Although she didn't know her yet, Tal felt safe and at ease with Tena. It was… It was nice. "Only if you promise that we'll talk about topics that aren't gloomy or depressing," she said with a small laugh, mindlessly placing a hand on Tena's thigh. "I'm over those for a while."

"Anything you want, I promise.” Mitena’s eyes fell upon Natalia’s hand on her thigh and she felt her cheeks flush slightly. This was insane, how connected and tethered she felt to this basic stranger that she met in a bar. Yet the feeling was almost indescribable. It was a shame she didn’t have her brother's talent for words because Tena could write sonnets and anthems about how Tal made her heart race. Mitena’s fingers travelled up Natalia’s back, climbing up her spine until they reached her tense neck. Without really thinking, she began to massage her new friend. This was insane.

"So,” Tena began. “Do you go to school? Forgive me if I’m assuming but you strike me as the college type.”

When she felt Mitena's touch softly trailing from her back to her neck, Natalia couldn't hold back her smirk and the knowing smile that followed. She knew exactly what the other woman was doing with her soothing, stress-relieving massaging. Physical contact that progressively escalated into passionate, heated exchanges was a technique she'd used plenty of times herself, but one she was comfortable in engaging in all the same.

Focusing back on the present and not the rabbit hole of lust she was almost at the edge of slipping into, the Belmonte girl nodded. "Finance and Business Administration major at UMass," the woman replied, discreetly shifting closer to Mitena. This girl was very accurate in her assumptions-- proof of how perceptive she probably was. "Got a full-ride volleyball scholarship for it, too. With the exception of one of my sisters who's a teacher, most of my family's been involved with running a business in one way or another, so I figured by the time I was finished with school there could be an opening for me. But even if there isn't, it's still a field of study that has plenty of opportunities, you know?" she elaborated. "What about you? Forgive me if I'm assuming, but you strike me as the free spirit type," Tal lightly teased, shooting Mitena a small smile and a wink.

Tena let out a little chuckle as Natalia echoed her own words. Touche. She felt the girl shift closer to her and the songstress' fingers danced across her skin even more. "Yeah, nothing as exciting really,” She smiled. "We don’t have a high school here so I went to school in Salem. I did alright there, won a few trophies and medals for track and field. I loved to run. College was never really in the cards for me though. Never had any money and my auntie and the tribe needed me here.” Mitena’s eyes drifted across the skyline of trees against the moonlit backdrop as she reminisced. "But I get free beer when me and the band play Aponi’s so it’s all good,” She reached her hand higher up Tal’s back, caressing the bottom of her hair. "Family has to come first, right?”

“Right,” Natalia agreed, though she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Before her mother’s illness, any closeness she felt towards her family was limited to her parents-- especially towards her father. The age gaps, their many responsibilities and individual, unspoken struggles meant that she wasn’t close to her older sisters, while her relationship with Mira was fine at best. Tal’s most fractured connection had been with Danny, and thankfully they were already in the process of mending those cracks before it had been too late. In hindsight, she hated that it took shared suffering for her to lower her defenses enough in order to welcome her twin back into her life. All she could hope for was that the rest of her family would follow their lead, and that Silvia’s death wouldn’t tear them apart any more than some of them already were.

“Family’s actually why I’m taking this upcoming semester off and staying home. My mother’s not doing very well--” Understatement of the year right there. “--which I’m sure you can understand. Her health has been on the decline for some time now, so I wanted to be around for when the inevitable happens…” she trailed off, feeling the heaviness of her mother’s imminent passing settling heavy on her heart.

Hearing about Natalia’s mother brought Mitena back ten years and her own mothers final days. Everybody on the reservation loved her. Despite her apparent terrible taste in men, a Silverheel woman’s curse, Dakota was a kind hearted soul. She was a nurse and spent her days caring for the sick and the elderly. It was a true shame that when it was time to take care of her, what could be done would never be enough. Mitena missed her, everyday. Jadyn and Chief and everyone around her had done wonders to raise her and bring her up to be what she hoped was a good woman but that didn’t change the fact that sometimes a little girl just wants to be with her Mom.

"I’m sorry to hear about your Mom, I lost mine a few years ago.” Mitena shook away her sadness and tried to reinforce the positivity that Natalia very obviously needed in her life. "If you ever need to talk about how you’re feeling, I’m here.” Tena had lost a whole lot in her life, so much loss, but she always powered through. Even if nothing ever came of this chance meeting with the Italian girl, she would at least know she offered what she could to take some of the sadness away.

“I’m really sorry for your loss. And thank you, truly. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Tal responded, taking Mitena’s free hand in hers and squeezing it for a moment in a display of gratefulness. In the spirit of moving away from depressing conversation and focusing on enjoying the opportunities of the present, however, Natalia added, “I plan to go back for the winter-spring semester, though, if everything has settled by then. I’m not the kind of person that leaves things halfway finished. If I start something, I have to see it through. A Belmonte never quits and never gives up-- that’s what my Pappa says.”

Snapping away from dark thoughts, Tena grinned. "Well I’m happy you always see things through; means this night doesn’t need to end just yet!” The native girl pushed a strand of Natalia’s hair away from her face so she could see more of her before returning her hand to the girl's back. "How are you finding it here? Bit of a change of pace from town, right?”

“In the best way,” Tal confirmed with a laugh. “I love Edenridge, but living there can feel suffocating at times. Getting the chance to go somewhere else to breathe is always a good thing.” She briefly explained, allowing her fingers to begin grazing the soft skin of Mitena’s outer thigh. “What about you? What’s it like growing up in a place like this?”

Tena’s eyes fell upon Natalia’s touch on her thigh and she let out a shallow breath. She had to stay calm. What on Earth was this girl doing to her? She edged even more close to the offcomer and took a minute to compose herself. She stared at the girl for a little while, just lost in every contour, every small freckle. God she was beautiful. "It’s probably a lot different to what you’re used to. It’s quiet. Not a great deal happens that’s noteworthy which can be a bit boring.” She nodded as she glanced at the picnic basket that neither had touched because they were so lost in their conversation. "So when we get visitors like you and your friends, it’s very exciting. And not every visitor looks like you do…”

“I bet you say that to all the girls you bring back here,” Natalia teased her with a chuckle, making sure Tena knew she was just joking with her by smiling at her. “A gorgeous girl like you probably has a whole line of interested people from here all the way back to Edenridge. Makes me think about how many of them I’ll have to fight to get a chance with you.”

"Oh sweetie,” Tena let out a giggle. Natalia’s smile and laugh were infectious. "You’d be surprised how many people I had to fight off back at the Longhouse just to get into that bathroom to meet you.” Although it was mostly a line, it was also true. Mitena knew that once some of her fellow Blue Hillers caught sight of Tal’ perfect perfectness, they would be on her like a rash. She could only thank the Spirit that she got there first, because even though their moments together had been brief, Tena felt like she had known Natalia all her life. "Though the thought of you fighting? Kinda hot.”

“I’d be an idiot to waste my opportunities by letting someone else take them.” The Belmonte girl laughed again, this time shifting her touch from Tena’s thigh up to her arm and shoulder, playing with the fabric of her sleeveless dress. How nobody had snatched up someone as gorgeous as Mitena didn’t make sense to Tal, but she sure was grateful for it. “Once you asked me to come back here with you, even if I was fucking nervous in the beginning, I knew this was a chance I couldn’t say no to. I’m sure you’ve probably heard this before, but I swear to you I mean every word when I say you’re the most beautiful, captivating girl I’ve ever met in my life. And I don’t know how you feel about it or where you stand on things, but I really hope this isn’t the only moment we ever spend together.”

Tena was almost speechless. To hear those words from Natalia made her heart begin to pound against her chest. How could this even be real? They hadn’t even met but a few hours ago and now they were camped out under the stars and feeling something that neither had ever felt before. "If it’s up to me, this moment will simply be the first of a million.” She began. "The second I saw you from that stage, the very second I looked into your eyes; Stargirl, I knew that I had to-- I just had to speak to you. To know you. You absolutely stole my breath away from me. Even now my heart is beating faster than Odina on drums and trust me she beats. Life is strange and fickle. It gives and it takes away. Tonight, it gave me you and I’ll be damned if it tries to take you away.”

“Then I guess you better give me a damn good reason to stay…” Natalia muttered, letting the implications of her words amplify the tension between them as she moved to caress Mitena’s face, allowing her own to slowly inch closer to that of the gorgeous woman beside her.

Was she saying what she thought she was saying? At this point it didn’t matter either way because Tena had made her mind up about what happened next between her and the Italian beauty. Her fingers reached up and took a hold of Natalia’s gorgeous dark hair whilst her other hand came up to cup the beauty's flawless face. Without another second wasted, Mitena brought her lips to Tal’s and felt a volcano burst around the two of them. Tena's brown dress was soon accompanied by Natalia's own clothing items in a pile atop the forgotten picnic basket as the girls passionately lost themselves in each other-- gentle hands and lips exploring soft, bare, alabaster and caramel skins. Tena could not fathom with her now furiously busy mind what was happening. But the only thing she could see was Natalia. The only thing she could feel was Natalia. Finally breaking their kiss, the native girl pressed her forehead against Tal’s. Breathless and now addicted, she opened up her eyes to look into the other girl’s.

She had never believed in love at first sight but this girl was making a very compelling argument to the songstress. Tal’s demeanour and energy had changed to match what Tena was feeling. Any vibe of awkwardness and hesitation was gone, replaced by raw magnetism. Something was drawing the indigenous woman to the Edenridge girl. If her older brother Charlie was right and Natalia did indeed have galaxies in her eyes, then Mitena was desperate to become a space explorer.

"Stay with me, Stargirl.”

Drinking in the sight of this beautiful woman hovering over her, seemingly sparkling under the glow of the moonlight like the rarest of gems, Natalia mulled over everything that had just happened to her in the span of over twelve hours. At the beginning of this day, she had been in the middle of a depressive episode, explaining to her father the reasons why it was best she leave the States to settle in Italy over some bagels in her kitchen island. She talked about having nothing going for her in this country, and how a clean slate somewhere else would be her only real option to thrive. Fast forward to a few hours, and here she was: staring right at what could be her one reason to never leave. It was a scary thought, allowing someone you just met to hold such power over you. But she had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. So instead of concerning herself with what came next, she did just as her father told her to: live, girl. Live now. We’ll worry about the future later.

"For as long as you want me to,” the girl finally answered breathlessly, tangling her fingers in the native girl’s luscious locks of black hair and pulling her into a heated, passionate kiss.

And under a cloudless night sky, with the moon and the stars as their only witnesses, Natalia and Mitena abandoned themselves into the heated throes of passion.
TIMESTAMP: Monday, July 19th, 2021; after “A Badger’s Breakdown / A Viper’s Virtue”



_________________________________________________________________________________





Featuring Mikhail Zima & Caitlin Cleary
_________________________________________________________________________________


After such an infamous start, the rest of Caitlin’s day had gone on surprisingly smoothly. Mika departing her home once he’d recuperated from his earlier scuffle gave Danny and Cece a chance to reconnect for the first time in months. She told the Belmonte boy all about her relationship with Niles: their beginnings, the highs, the lows and her current concerns with where they stood as a couple. In return, and after some persuading with some strawberry cupcakes she’d baked for him the night before, she was rewarded with a detailed update on his life: his repaired bond with Natalia, his unexpected rekindled relationship with Marco Brady, where he stood with his father regarding his sexuality and the unfortunate news of Silvia’s rapidly declining health. And just like old times, the best friend duo provided each other with a listening ear, honest advice, and words of encouragement.

Once Danny left her home shortly after midday with a basket of assorted-flavored muffins and her mother had come and gone, Cece was left alone with her thoughts again. Instead of isolating herself in her bedroom like she’d done before she sought solace in the one place she felt at home: the kitchen. As her hands busied themselves with the preparations of another round of muffins, the young woman reflected on the day’s happenings and the lessons she had come to learn. The earlier conversations with Mika and Danny about her past had helped her realize that every secret she had kept in hopes to spare and protect feelings had only backfired on her. The more she mused about her former actions and the reasoning behind them, the more her thoughts circled back to Niles, and how their budding, borderline toxic relationship could no longer go on when her heart wasn’t truly in it. So while her muffins baked, Cece bared her soul out to the Sinclair man one last time in a heartfelt letter that concluded their romance before personally delivering it inside an envelope addressed to him to his mailbox. She had returned home just before the storm began to make its appearance in Edenridge.

It was sometime after six in the evening when the sound of the garage door opening and closing followed by a knock on the side door pulled Caitlin out of her stew-cooking reverie. Her ginger eyebrows came together in a frown, and she paused the Taylor Swift track she was listening to so she could pay more attention to the noises around her. She glanced at the window nearby and back at the door in confusion, wondering why anyone would risk going anywhere considering the weather conditions that had only worsened as the hours passed by.

Had one of her parents or Rhett forgotten something in the house? Doubtful. They wouldn’t wait until the storm was at its peak to pick up whatever the missing item was. Had they decided to close up shop early and ride the storm at the house? Unlikely-- the only times they would ever close The Hole were during some important holidays, close ones’ deaths, championship Celtics games or life-threatening weather (which they didn’t consider this storm to be). She checked her phone for a missed call or text message from any of them explaining the situation, but found herself staring at an empty notifications bar instead.

In the meantime, another round of knocking echoed through the home. Cece, now on edge at the thought of a stranger knowing the code to their garage, parking inside it and knocking on their door, grabbed the handle of the nearest large kitchen knife and tip-toed to the side door. She probably wouldn’t get far with it if it came to a confrontation, but she wouldn’t go down without a fight. A quick peek at the peephole was all it took for the identity of the ‘intruder’ to be revealed, and the young woman let out a sigh of relief as she unlocked the door and swung it open.

"Hey," she greeted the man in her garage, a hint of confusion easily heard and visible as her little frown made its return.

In the back of his mind, past the part of his physical self that was drenched in Mother Nature teaching him a lesson to not go out in the damn rage she was putting Edenridge through currently, Mika knew it was a close one. The timing of everything, especially after having a long talk with Ley, made coming here a risk. What if a tree fell over and hit his truck? What if some cops caught him? He’d have to explain why he was not only speeding down main street when the only source of reliable light guiding him were the unreasonably bright headlights of his Tacoma (thank Phil for the hook up, by the way), but out in the height of the storm.

But he made it. He made it past the gate. He got lucky because someone else was coming back from wherever they were. Mika couldn’t see who it was, but he saw a head of bright blonde hair on a damn motorcycle. When he had gone the opposite direction that the biker did, Mika went to Cece’s house. And thank God that nobody seemed to be home other than her (hopefully). He risked it all to open the code and had gotten completely drenched in the process. Now he was staring her in the eyes, her confused expression saying more than she ever would or could.

“Yeah...hey.” Mika awkwardly said, giving Cece a small wave that she returned with her available hand just as awkwardly. He wasn’t certain about what he could say to explain what he was doing in her surprisingly spacious garage. No scrunchie to return as a shitty excuse. Nothing but the truth weighing heavy in his heart.

After a more careful visual inspection, Cece noticed Mika’s damp clothes, puffy eyes and reddish nose-- all clear indicators that he’d been crying some moments before. These hints, and the fact that he had driven through the storm currently roaring outside to once again drop by her home unannounced, gave Cece definitive cause for concern. The only times Mika had ever cried in front of her were during emotional scenes in a movie-- not because of anything else. "Is, um, is everything okay?" she inquired, her inquisitive eyes searching his blue ones for any answers on his worrisome state.

No, everything is not fine-- would be what he would say if he was being honest. He wanted to be honest with her, but not right now. At the same time, he knew he couldn’t get away with just some lame excuse. “I guess so...” Well, that was better. Not as blunt as what he wanted to say, but it set the stage for something more meaningful later. “Can I come inside?” Mika asked, laughing for a few seconds immediately afterward. “What I mean is can I come inside the main house? Possibly out of these clothes too? I..I will explain everything I promise. Just…need to not be so wet, y’know?” Despite the incredibly awkward and possibly tense (for both of them, really) situation, Mika laughed again.

"Yeah, of course!" Cece quickly conceded, stepping aside to allow Mika entry to her home. Once his back was turned, she locked the door, placed the kitchen knife in the doorside table and followed him suit.

As Mika settled in one of the booth chairs of the island, the redhead exited the kitchen for a moment and returned with a fresh towel that she gently draped over her visitor’s shoulders like a fluffy cape. “Here. I’m sure you could use this,” she told him with a soft, caring smile. “I can throw your wet clothes in the washer and dryer too, if you want. I’m sure I can find some of Rhett’s old clothes that might fit you in one of the dressers upstairs.”

“It’s like you’re a mind-reader.” Mika’s poor excuse for sarcasm was in clutch tonight. He laughed as she took the liberty of draping the towel over his shoulders. Mika silently dried his damp hair with the towel. He had to imagine that Cece was probably thinking, at least in some capacity, that he was insane to be here, much less go through the storm to get here. Why would he do it? Mika didn’t have an answer right now. After his talk with Ley, he just had to come here. He didn’t think about the why in great detail. He’d know when the time came. For now, he would get as dry as he could.

But before he could, Mika finally took a solid look at Cece. Maybe it was that oversized gray T-shirt she was wearing that hit her mid-thigh and his assumption she was going braless, but part of him liked what he saw. She smelled nice, too, like strawberry shampoo or something fruity. He could smell it even from how far away from her scalp he was. “That’d be great. If I spend another minute in these clothes, I might catch a cold.” Mika put the towel on the island, half raising his shirt, revealing his toned abs. “So should I just do it here or…?” He asked with a half smirk.

The young woman rolled her eyes, shook her head and playfully pushed Mikhail away, giggling nervously as she always did whenever he made loaded comments like these. Leave it to Mika to take any opportunities to make things suggestive and run with them. It was one of the things that, albeit embarrassing sometimes, she enjoyed about him. “There’s a perfectly good downstairs bathroom down the hall that would come in very useful for what you’re trying to do,” she reminded him in a teasing tone. As much as she wouldn’t mind having a first-row ticket to witnessing what was hiding underneath the man’s damp clothes for a second time in one day, Cece had a larger interest in hearing the reason why he was at her house in the first place.

He chuckled low at what Cece implied what he might’ve or might’ve not been trying to do. Was she right? Well obviously she was, but Mika would never admit that - at least not right now. Mika walked closer to the redhead, his lips still curved into a smirk. As he walked past her, Mika was leaning closer intentionally and turned his head to her. “Down this hall you said?” Her silence, pink cheeks and the way she held her breath as he closed the distance between them spoke volumes and Mika chuckled. “Right. Be right back.”

As he went down the hallway, Mika found the bathroom and closed the door behind him. The last time he was looking at his reflection, he was so ready to completely break it, but didn’t through whatever self control he had at the time. The last time he was gazing at his reflection, Mika had too much weight on his shoulders. Ley helped rid himself of some of that weight, but it still remained. Not only that, it felt like that didn’t really help a lot. Talking about David and telling his sister about it got him to thinking.

It was…

“Focus, Mika. None of that tonight.” Correcting his train of thought, the man slid off his clothes and tossed them into a small pile. He had hoped they didn’t get wet, but he was on terrible terms with Lady Luck. Once finished, he heard a knock on the bathroom door. Knowing who that was, Mika decided to be cheeky. Lo siento, baño ocupado!”

Although Mika couldn’t see it, Caitlin rolled her eyes as she stood on the opposite side of the bathroom. "Did you come all the way to my house just to have someone to make your corny jokes to?" Caitlin joked as she placed the clothes she'd picked out for Mika on the floor. "I left the clothes outside the door. I'll be in the kitchen when you're done."

By the time Mika returned to the kitchen wearing a pair of Rhett's old green and white Celtics shorts (something Mika never thought he'd wear ever again) and a gray T, the Russian boy was met with the sight of two meal servings, two ice glasses and some napkins were neatly laid out on the island countertop. A generous serving of warm Irish stew was inside each of the matching bowls, paired with a jumbo corn muffin on a smaller plate and their drink of choice: Dr. Pepper for Mika and water for Cece.

"What's all this?" He asked, confused in the best way possible. His senses soon filled the gaps. It was slightly different, but the aroma that took his sense of smell by the balls was Irish stew.

"I hope it's okay that I served you some dinner," Cece told Mika as he entered the room, leaving a trail of clean-smelling soap behind him. "I was in the middle of making the stew for dinner when Mom texted me that she and Dad were spending the storm at the Hole, so there's plenty of food to go around, and I know you can't ever say no to a fresh, home-cooked meal," the redhead teased with a wink, taking a seat in front of her meal.

She had him there. Plus, between the amount of stress he’d been under all day and the very little time between meeting with Anya to Ley, Mika hadn’t be able to eat a decent meal aside from that leftover chinese over five hours before. “It would be a crime to let it go to waste.” The first thing Mika did was wash his hands, using that same soap that Cece so graciously left. Once finished, he took a seat at the table across from Cece.

And once he sat, the smell really grabbed him to the point his stomach made some sounds. Amid everything, Mika had barely registered that Cece even put out his favorite - albeit controversial - cup of pop. “I feel bad for your parents. They really are missing out on some good grub,” Mika noted, taking the first bite of the stew, blowing on it as slowly but as many times as he could. It was still hot, of course, but so delicious. Mika obviously burnt his tongue but it was so worth it. “It’s really good. Been so long since I’ve had your cooking. Really gives Mom a run for her money,” he laughed, remembering how he should go by her place once this storm lets up.

"Oooh, I'll tell Mary-Anne you said that," Caitlin teased Mika, eating a spoonful of stew. His mother’s cooking was definitely in her top five list of favorites, so it was always a big compliment whenever he praised her culinary skills and compared them to Mary’s. "How is she doing, by the way? Is she okay, is she still in Edenridge? I think about her often. I've missed her and the conversations we used to have."

Mika chuckled low, swallowing the bite of the stew he just took. Cece asking about his mom made the Zima man frown slightly. Last time he was able to actually physically go see her was…a couple of weeks ago. When he found Boa in the graveyard. The night that he had dinner at the Gonzalez’ house. That felt so long ago in light of everything that happened since. It felt so simple in comparison. Having to drag Boa out of his hole and letting him sleep off…everything at his mom’s place. Even though it was sad to think about, it also made him smile.

He hesitated for a moment. “She’s still here.” Mika’s voice went almost emotionless, though behind a neutral expression he was hiding a momentary anger and deep sadness for how his mother had to live. Here he was, freely moving about, sneaking into Cece’s house for the second time in the same day and his mother couldn’t even go outside her apartment without a top level Fallen Angel and Serpent escort. She can’t even see her own family. “I’m sure she misses you too. Maybe…one day, when everything isn’t so fucked up, you can see her again. And maybe outside of that apartment, too.” That was Mika’s deepest wish, but he didn’t see a way for that to be possible any time soon.

Cece was quiet in silent realization for a moment. Now that she stopped to think about it, Mika had never elaborated on the reason why Mary was not to leave her cozy apartment in the Southside. During the time they were dating, her inquiries about the situation and the strict protocol they followed to see her had been dismissed with 'it's complicated' and 'for safety, it's best if you don't know'. But after their conversation by the lake, the redhead could only guess that the woman's circumstances had to do with keeping her safe from Cameron Hyde and his psychotic ways or the violent tendencies of Mika's father Ivan. Of course, the only way to know for sure was to ask.

"You know, I don't think you ever told me the reason why Mary's here in Edenridge," Cece mused, taking another bite of her stew bowl and hoping Mika would catch what she was implying.

Mika knew this was going to come eventually. In truth, part of him had hoped this specific topic wouldn’t be brought up, but that was asking for too many miracles. Besides, as much as he didn’t want to, maybe it was time he did tell her the full story. Everything: about his father, him in Edenridge, and the dirty truths about why they were here.

Looking up at Cece after he took a quiet moment of thought, Mika expelled a long sigh. “So, you remember what I mentioned about my father, right? About how he was a violent man?” Mika could see it in her eyes that she did, and she confirmed this with a nod. “Well here’s the grim truth. The Zima Family, we...” Mika’s stomach turned. He hadn’t associated himself as a Zima in years. “...We aren’t your normal family. We are just one cell of the greater Russian Mafia, or commonly known as The Bratva. My father is the current head of this cell, based out of New York City.” Mika understood that was a lot to take in. “The reason I’m telling you this is to set the stage. My father has a lot of enemies and not just from his business, but here in Edenbridge. Hyde, for one, is probably numero uno. He was still in jail when mom came to Eden - around the time the shooting happened. She heard and was worried I had been shot. Other stuff happened too, but because there may have been a threat on all of us - me and my sisters included - Big Rey and an associate of his and my father’s, the Fallen Angels, hid her on the top floor of the Lost Souls Apartments. Top floors are VIP and it’s the most protected floor in any of the buildings. That’s why you were blindfolded. It really was better that way.” As he said all of that, Mika understood now a lot of what he thought was best for Cece was bullshit. He underestimated her ability to handle everything. Maybe it was time to be completely honest with her about everything.

The redhead nodded, deep in thought. If Mika would have given this explanation to any other girl, they'd probably dismiss him as full of shit and send him off on his merry way. Russian-born men and their families being involved in the mafia was something you only saw in Hollywood movies. But Cece knew and trusted Mika-- he wouldn’t lie about something like that. Not only that, but she was a born and raised Edenrite: a small town in which the unlikeliest of possibilities often turned out to be the truth. No matter how sheltered Gary and Deidre had tried to keep their children from the world, she wasn't oblivious to some of the underground forces that, with their inner workings, contributed to the way Edenridge ran.

The explanation, of course, opened the door to a more concerning question. "Are you expected to take part of or be involved in the cell to a greater scale at some point?" she asked him point-blank, her eyes locked on his expression. Based on her limited knowledge of criminal organizations involving families, it wasn't a far-fetched assumption that, at some point, Mika could be asked, expected or even obligated by force to partake in the business. Sometimes, in these situations, the choices would be made for you with no room for opinion or protest.

Mika gave a halfhearted, genuinely clueless shrug. “Who knows what goes on in Ivan’s mind. I was far too young at the time to have any real stake in the…family business. My older brother, VIktor, on the other hand, he’s probably going to be in charge on the eventual day that Ivan hits the bucket. And I for one couldn’t care a damn bit when either happens.” A grim thing to admit, but Mika held no love for his father nor the brother of his that was every bit the son of Ivan as Cameron Hyde was.

And then Mika realized that speaking so nonchalantly about how he felt or didn’t feel about his father sounded harsh. Cece only knew that his father was violent. She didn’t know the violence he showed to him. “Sorry…I guess thinking about him just brings up unpleasant memories. That and he called me this morning.” That was something Mika didn’t mention to anyone. “Called me to ask how I was. Can you believe that? The nerve of him! Asking how Mom was as if he had any right to. Not after the way he treated her, forcing her to leave her home--” Mika stopped himself from going any further, almost letting it slip just where she was from. He wanted to tell her, but not unprovoked like that.

The sudden outburst didn’t phase the young woman. For as long as Cece had known Mika, he had always been candid about his dislike for his father. It was a topic they avoided discussing when they were seeing each other; and the more she found about the reasons behind the defensive wall, the more she understood why it had been built in the first place. “It seems like you all have sacrificed a lot for your father,” the redhead observed, keeping her compassionate eyes on her ex. Basing a personal opinion off on the words and/or experiences of others wasn’t exactly the best thing to do, but by finding out Ivan had possibly treated Mary-Anne and Mika in a way that they didn’t deserve, the Cleary girl’s impression of the Zima patriarch was not the best. “I’m really sorry this is happening to you guys. Nobody deserves to be punished or make sacrifices for the mistakes of others.”

Mika wanted to believe that she was right. As much as he wanted to solely blame Ivan for this, and he was to blame for most of it, Mika knew he had a hand in that too (technically a fist). It all came back to that summer, on the last day of school, in the first week of July of 2016. The day he unintentionally changed his and his family’s life. He looked down at the half-empty bowl of stew, wondering if he should let it go. It’s the easy thing to do. Not holding himself accountable for what he did to that kid, that Bulgarian kid he nearly killed. It would be so much easier for him to just pretend that the Big Bad Boogeyman was the only one to blame.

But he wasn’t.

“You’re right about one thing: nobody should have to suffer for one person’s mistakes, but Ivan isn’t the only guilty one here.” As he felt the pits of his stomach twist like the very storm that rained down on Edenridge, Mika had to tell her this part. He brought his blue eyes back up to Cece. “I would love nothing more than to cast the blame on my father. He’s a bad father who put Mount Everest-height expectations on me and gave me some pretty shitty tools, but he’s not the sole reason I…we’re here. You remember when I told you that we were shipped off to Edenridge and Pinehurst because of something that happened?” He asked Cece, who nodded in confirmation. “It’s because of me.”

Mika’s fists balled as his stomach tensed up, his throat tightening. He pushed through the sudden discomfort, though, and continued. “It’s my fault because of my temper. I tend to keep it under wraps, but close to six years ago, I was a different person. And there was this kid, an annoying fucking pizda. You might not know it, but in that life, we have as much in common with the Bulgarians as strawberries do with sour limes. Put us together and there’s bound to be a nasty clash.” Remembering that day made Mika visibly irate. Not for what happened, but for the after, and how red he was feeling that day. “It was our last day of school. I was out with my boys - Boris and Denis - just trying to enjoy ourselves, then Penko Petrov comes up to us. He starts to disrespect us. He was lower than us, like an ant. So nobody did anything.

“But then he put my mom’s name in his mouth. He called her a slut and a whore. Said my sisters would be the same. And..and..”
As Mika relived that moment in real time, his eyes changed. The look in them was darker and he grinded his teeth, trying to contain the residual ire that was tied to that memory. “I don’t know what happened between me sitting down and being on top of him, but I beat him to the point he was hospitalized. Fast forward a week and it turns out he was the son of one of my father’s…business rivals. Blew up one of the cars in our driveway and, well…the rest was history.” Mika was feeling red. As red as he was in that moment. There was a reason he didn’t like to talk about his father because talking about Ivan meant that he remembered that one action. And it always brought the unresolved anger and guilt he kept buried at a consistent rate. “So you see, that’s why it’s not just Ivan’s fault. I’m to blame for my family’s suffering too.”

As Cece listened to Mika’s tale of how he came to Edenridge, she could tell that the events in question continued to haunt him, dragging him down with guilt and shame. It was obvious that he regretted his actions and the life-altering consequences they’d had in his and his families’ stories. But it was a sign of growth that, like she had hours before, he was able to be honest and truthful with himself about his flaws. By showing remorse, taking accountability and utilizing his error as a teaching moment, Mika proved that he was no longer the kid he spoke of, but a man whose experiences made him wiser. Maybe he needed a little help to see it.

She rose from the chair she'd been occupying, stood up in front of the man and tilted his chin up so he would be facing her. "Mika, look at me," she ordered, waiting until his eyes met hers before continuing. "You can't beat yourself up over something you did when you were a kid. I know that's the easy thing to do-- I did it myself for years with David's passing. But if there's anything I learned today, is that carrying all that guilt within you, even after saying how you really feel, is only going to keep you miserable. All we can really do is make the most out of our situation and grow from our mistakes." She told him, pausing to let him mull over her words and cup his face with both hands. "Look at it this way: if you hadn't moved to Edenridge and if I hadn't lost David, we wouldn't have met each other. And it would have been a tragedy to miss out on your lame jokes," she teased him with a laugh.

He smiled as she gave him no choice but to look at him. His anger that previously occupied his eyes, the kind of gaze that looked too much like his father's, softened once Cece had firmly demanded he look at her. No matter how angry Mika became at his life nor the life he was living, Cece always managed to pull him out of the darkness he willingly succumbed to. She always had that superpower about her.

"I don't care about what you did when you were an immature thirteen year-old fighting to demand respect for his family in the middle of Brighton Beach,” she reassured him, caressing his cheeks with her thumbs. “That doesn't define you. I care about the sweet, funny, protective, loving and caring guy I came to know after a chance encounter under an oak tree in March of 2018. The man that makes sacrifices to keep his loved ones safe, even if it means breaking hearts in the process. The man that's trying to wrong his rights with honesty and transparency. That's the only Mika I care about."

Honesty and transparency

Out of every word that came from his former beloved’s mouth, Mika clung onto those two words. He appreciated everything she was doing and it was working, but Mika could feel it come back - that sharp guilt poking at his sides, growing in his stomach - about those two words: honesty and transparency. Cece believed he was doing the right thing, trying to correct all the wrongs he did by being honest. And maybe some of that was true. He was honest with Ley, with Danny this morning, and with his sisters a few weeks ago. But what about with Cece? Mika promised he would tell her everything. When they went to their spot, he said what he felt was appropriate at the time, but with recent events, even before coming here to her house tonight, Mika had been rethinking everything.

But how could he tell her after this long? Where would he even begin?

Then he looked into her eyes. He really looked at her. This wasn’t the same Caitlin Cleary that was so defensive over David and so shy and insecure. She was never weak, but over time, he came to understand that she had so much pain. And over time, Mika came to understand that they weren’t so different from each other. They had the same pain, same weaknesses. Mika just behaved differently. Understanding all of this, even though he never realized it, she also had the same strength he did. She was unassuming with it, but Mika knew it now. She didn’t flinch when he talked about his father and what the Zima family really did nor when he was describing in great detail about what he did to Penko.

So maybe he could be completely honest with her? Be the Mikhail Zima…Gonzalez that she once loved and cares about.

As he brought a hand to gently caress Cece’s left, Mika smiled, laughing low. “I don’t deserve you after everything I put you through, but I’m really glad that we’re in each other’s lives again.” As he said that, a guilt passed through Mika and a thought that he knew he didn’t want to voice but just had to. “if you’ll forgive me for possibly ruining the moment, but Niles…he doesn’t deserve you. I just hope he doesn’t do anything to ruin anything between you two. I don’t like him, but if he makes you happy, you deserve to have that in your life, Cece. Even if he couldn’t be here with you.”

The mention of Niles wiped the smile off Cece's face, replacing it with the guilt she’d been feeling since she’d delivered the letter to his mailbox a few hours prior. “Actually, Niles and I aren’t together anymore…” Caitlin admitted, letting go of her hold on Mika’s face and dropping her eyes to the floor beneath her in guilt and shame. She didn’t think she’d be talking about it so soon, but nothing ever went according to plan in her life, did it? “He's a good guy who deserves to be happy and I hate that I wasted his time but… I couldn’t do it any longer.”

Mika had no words. The shock that she and Sinclair no longer being together was something that’d take some getting used to. He didn’t want to seem too happy, but part of him was. Maybe it was wrong of Mika to feel that way. He didn’t know Niles and maybe, deep down, there was a small part of him that felt like he had no reason to dislike Niles. Perhaps the only reason he did was because he had been with Cece. It was a crap reason and it would be just the sort of thing his father would do. He couldn’t help it. But as much as he didn’t like Niles, curiosity took priority. A curiosity about what Cece said, so he just had to ask.

As he kept his eyes on her, Mika just said it: “Couldn’t do what any longer?”

The redhead took in a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and looked up at Mika, a vulnerable expression all over her beautiful face-- she was scared of the consequences of the words she was about to say. “As much as I really liked him, I couldn’t keep trying to force myself to fall in love with him when… When I’ve obviously never stopped being in love with somebody else.”

He was frozen in the chair he sat in by…something. A revelation like that, on top of everything else, Mika couldn't quite process it all. She and Niles were no more and she was still in love with somebody else. She didn’t have to say the name because Mika knew. His stomach turned and tossed itself over and under in every possible way, heart began to pound at a crazy rate. Everything that could make it impossible to process what she just said was simultaneously active.

And he didn’t know what to do with this. Should he just be selfish and take her right now? No, that was wrong. Goddamn that voice in his head! Goddamn his guilt! Goddamn it all!

As Caitlin watched the way Mika’s face dropped after her confession, tears began to well up in her eyes as her heart sank to her feet. Just like she had done when they first started seeing each other, here she was: making the mistake of being vocal and open about her feelings only to be met with that impenetrable wall of resistance Mika seemed to have built around himself. She understood the reason why he kept his defenses up around his father-- but why was he so adamant on keeping her out, too? All she had ever done was love him and support him unconditionally, treating him with tenderness, kindness and respect… And all she ever got in return was being pushed away whenever she got too close.

The hurt Cece had felt watching Mika’s expression morphed into a deep-seated anger. “Why do you always do this shit?” the redhead burst out in utter frustration. Her turquoise eyes suddenly blazed as brightly as her flaming hair did, and her voice was loud and passionate in a way Mika had never heard before. “Why do you always make me feel like I can tell you everything I’m thinking and feeling, but any time it’s your turn, you fucking push me away? You break up with me after over two years in a relationship with no label because you never wanted to give it one. Then you find out I started seeing someone and you had the audacity to show up at our date and ruin it-- which, by the way, was part of the reason Niles and I broke up in the first place. You seek me out a few weeks later to confess the reason why you broke up with me in the first place and I’m like: ‘hmmm, it looks like he’s changed, so he deserves my forgiveness for his honesty’, so I forgive you and we’re okay again. Then you use that as an invitation to show up at my house twice today, saying all the right things and stringing me along to think that you’re finally, finally letting me in… And the minute I start talking about my feelings, you’re like Forrest fucking Gump running away from the bullies chasing him! It’s getting fucking old, Mika!”

The young woman was red-faced, her chest rising and falling with the intensity of the emotions she was experiencing-- but she wasn’t finished yet. “Why are you even here, anyway? To string me along some more? Because if all you’re here for is to toy with me, then you better take those musty clothes with you and get the hell out of my house! I am done playing games with you!”

“No..that’s not--” Shut up, Mika. Stop talking before you dig yourself into a bigger hole than you already have.

Even now, he had no words to offer immediately. Mika was stuck between this rock that weighed him down almost to the highway to hell that he was Forrest Gump- running on and the hard place that has been suffocating him for so long. The aerostasis right before asphyxiation where everything around him feels like he can’t breathe but he’s not quite dead-- that’s what Mika’s state of mind has been in an endless, repetitive rotation of. And all because he couldn’t allow himself to feel, or be open about it for once in his life.

Instead of being honest with her, he just sat there like the little helpless child that everyone kept saying he was. And now he had done this thing to Cece twice - the thing of hurting her to a point where it made him feel twice as bad. Twice as guilty. If only he could just say it: say that he still loved her. Say the fucking truth that he never stopped loving her, but…he just couldn’t.

Not yet.

He couldn’t tell her that until he told her something else first. It has been weighing on him for so long. For way longer than she has known him.

Mika sank off the chair and next to Cece. He didn’t attempt to touch her but he was on both knees in front of her. “I promise that’s not it. I’m not stringing you along -- not now, not ever…” His hands were balled up into fists, chest tightening and tightening like something had a vice grip on his heart. Not something, but someone: Cece’s anguish was grasping it to the point where unknowing tears flowed down Mika’s face. “I can make excuses. I can say it’s because of my father or my circumstances growing up. But that’s not even close to being it. It’s more simple than that.” He forced himself to take a deep breath. “Cece…Caitlin…the reason I could never be this way…be the man you wanted me to be is because I could never trust myself that way.” He bit his lip but never broke face with the redhead. “When I said my father took my mother away from her home, I never elaborated about that. Truth is, my mother…she’s from Edenridge. Like you and like David, she’s a foundling.” Oh, God it was coming. One last deep breath, Mika. Just let it out. “Her name, before marrying Ivan, before becoming Mary-Anne Zima, was Mary-Anne O’Hara. She’s John O’Hara’s - Coach’s - younger sister. My mother… she’s your David's aunt.”
TIMESTAMP: AFTER “APONI AND HER HEART”


____________________________________________________________________



A @Venus & @BrutalBx Collaboration
Featuring Natalia Belmonte & Mitena Strongbow’s First Meeting


____________________________________________________________________


“My lover's got humor
She's the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody's disapproval
I should've worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She's the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday's getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
"We were born sick", you heard them say it

My church offers no absolutes
She tells me, "Worship in the bedroom"
The only Heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
A-, Amen, Amen, Amen

Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
Take me to church.”

Stood in a power stance with her head down and her feet apart, Tena plucked hard at the strings of her Stratocaster before easing her dark gaze into the crowd and allowing her sensual hard rock voice to howl into her microphone. They were eating out of the palm of her hand. The other girls were vibing with their own respective instruments and they sounded like they actually practiced more than twice a month. She scanned the room for the girl she saw earlier but couldn’t pick her out amongst the raucous tribe living their best under the lights of Aponi’s Heart.

At the conclusion of their cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, Mitena leaned against the microphone and smiled brightly as applause rained down upon her and her friends. “Thank you so much, guys. We’re gonna take a little break now but we will be back shortly with another set. Go top your drinks at the bar with the lovely Echohawks or go get your grub on with Resi On the Rez out in the parking lot! Fuel up people, we only get louder from here!” Once she had leaned her guitar against one of the amps, Tena picked up the beer that was sitting on top of it and polished it off in one swig. Rock and roll was thirsty work.

After tossing her bottle into the recycle bin by the stage, the young native girl turned to face one of her bandmates, the bassist Odina. “Hey girl, I’m gonna hit the bathroom real quick. You mind grabbing me something from Resi’s truck? And also just see if Illara is okay? Thanks, boo.” Wow, she really was turning into Auntie Jay.

Jumping off of the small raised platform they called a stage, Mitena squeezed her way through the crowd. This might have been the band's biggest audience yet! This was fantastic. There even seemed to be some offcomers from outside the Reservation, though Tena couldn’t help but wonder if those people had been dragged here by her aunt's boyfriend. ReyRey seemed to have the vibe that any perceived slight against him and he would raise Blue Hill to the ground. The tribe had worked hard to build the community and they didn’t have much. The fact that they willingly worked with Rey to get funds just or stay afloat, that really made her uneasy.

Making her way towards Aponi’s ladies room, the talented vocalist didn’t actually need to use the bathroom, she just wanted to use it to cool down. For some reason it was the coldest room in the entire building and her skin was on fire. Pushing open the somewhat heavy oak door with two hands, Mitena was greeted by a welcome sight: the girl with the green eyes. The tanned songstress’ mouth fell slightly agape as she watched the stranger wash her hands and face in the sink. Her soft doe-like eyes followed the contours and curves of the white girl’s body. Her blue jeans hugged her lower frame perfectly, accentuating a pert bum whilst her low cut black tank showed off an athletic and toned physique. Tena’s gaze danced upon the light freckling all over her porcelain skin before being drawn back into her eyes. Great spirit, she wanted to lose herself in those eyes. She had come to the bathroom to cool herself down but seeing this girl there, a raging fire had been ignited inside her. She had to say something, anything! She wrote songs for goodness sake, she was supposed to be good with words!

“Hello there.”

Once the triggering song had ended and she had collected herself with the help of a few pills, deep breaths and vape puffs, Natalia exited the safety of her stall and ventured back to the restroom to freshen up. She took to occupying the sink next to the paper towel dispenser, and quickly busied herself with washing her hands and face. Over the hustle and bustle from the longhouse outside and the stream of water from the faucet in front of her, the Italian girl failed to hear the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing. It wasn’t until she heard a female voice nearby that the girl’s attention was abruptly diverted away from her jumbled thoughts, and Tal’s eyes moved from the sink to the mirror in front of her.

Was she in the twilight zone?

The reflection in the glass belonged to what was probably the most stunning woman Natalia had ever laid her eyes on. Silky strands of dark brown hair framed a beautiful, square-shaped face with inviting pink lips, a cute button nose and a pair of soft brown eyes, their chocolate color being emphasized by the turquoise scarf draped over the girl’s shoulders. The beige dress hanging over her body accentuated the tan skin brightly glowing underneath; its lack of sleeves brought attention to her strong arms while its short length revealed a pair of thick thighs and toned legs. But it was the way this girl was looking at her, with a perfect mixture of curiosity and the same alluring wonder she was sure was reflected all over her own pale face, that had Natalia unable to do anything but drink in the sight in fascination.

Realizing she’d been silently staring at the woman for longer than what was appropriate, Natalia awkwardly cleared her throat and turned to face her. “Hey,” she somehow managed to respond awkwardly through a dry mouth, shutting off the faucet in front of her. “I was, um, I was just leaving. In case you, um, needed to use the sink… or anything...” Stumbling over her words like a clueless idiot? Really? God, if Reagan saw or heard the way her former disciple was behaving in front of this gorgeous woman… She needed to get a grip on herself.

Mitena struggled to even comprehend the words that the stranger was saying, she was so enamoured with the offcomer’s beauty. She could barely speak, but Tena could definitely write a thousand songs about this girl. ”Soooo….I can tell you aren’t local.” The porcelain skin was a dead giveaway. Blue Hill very rarely had non indigenous visitors save a handful. Her eyes tracked the young woman’s face and whilst taking in just how stunning she really was, she noted sadness in her diamond-filled eyes. Something wasn’t right. The way she rushed through the crowd and even the way she was looking at her now, like she was some kind of ghost. ”Did something happen? Are you okay?”

Natalia blinked for a few seconds, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. She gave a quick glance at herself in the mirror and noticed that she, indeed, looked as shitty as she felt, and suppressed the urge to slap her palm on her forehead. What a perfect time to put absolutely no effort into what she looked like! Of course, the one time she encountered the most breathtakingly beautiful person ever was the one time she was dressed and looking like she belonged on the set of Night Of The Living Dead.

“Yeah! Yeah, I’m fine,” Tal lied without missing a beat, throwing in a dismissive wave of the hand for added flair. There was no way she was letting this stunner of a woman see or hear about how fucked up she was inside the head. Her earlier meltdowns with Jade and in public were enough displays of vulnerability to last her a few lifetimes. Instead, she decided to circle back to the woman’s first question. “We’re um, we’re visiting the rez for the night, some friends and I. Someone mentioned there would be live music here by the locals and we, um, we figured since we were already here we could, um, we could come check it out," she rambled nervously, beating herself up for losing the signature Natalia Cool and Collected Boldness right now when it mattered and attempting but failing spectacularly to make up for it with her next sentences. "The band's amazing, by the way-- I'm not sure if you know them, but you probably do considering you look like a local and they're local too... The girl that was singing was… Her voice was fucking gorgeous."

That final phrase brought a wide and bright smile to Tena’s face. She couldn’t tell if the bathroom stranger was playing an excellent game to get in her pants or she was just as clueless and as rambling as the native herself which made her infinitely more attractive to Mitena immediately. "Yeah I hear she’s quite the catch. Track athlete, rock musician and quite the dab band when it comes to gardening.”

"Oh, that's, um, that's pretty cool," Natalia babbled again, unsure of what else to say considering the breathtaking smile she had just been gifted with had served to fluster her further. "Well, um, if you see her, let her know she's awesome." Not like it mattered anyway. Tal wasn't interested in that girl-- no matter how amazing her voice was or how good she was on the track. Her attention was solely on the stunner standing in front of her.

Taking a step closer to Tal, the doe-eyed beauty noted a sprinkle of something on the Italian’s cheek. ”You…uh…missed a spot. Let me help.” Tena rested her hand on Natalia’s warm cheek and like she had been struck by a bolt of lightning sent down by the Great Spirit, her body filled up with fire. She gently licked the top of her free thumb and with her other hand dabbed away the smudge on the newcomer's face.

As the distance between them became shorter, Natalia held her breath without realizing it. Her heart was pounding hard in her chest, its loud beating filling her ears. The woman's gentle touch on her cheek brought her a peace that was short-lived, as her next actions sent Nat's hormones into a frenzy. Transfixed, her green eyes watched in awe as the girl slightly opened her mouth, brought her free thumb up to her lips and let the tip of her tongue slide down the surface of her thumb. Immediately, a shiver ran down the Belmonte girl's spine. Her mind had begun to entertain all the different places in which this mystery woman could use her tongue when the girl upped the ante by dropping the first pick-up line.

"So I don’t spend my time picking up hot girls in bar bathrooms….much. But, forgive me; I just have to say that you have the most incredible eyes I’ve ever seen.”

"You say that as if you haven't seen your own reflection in the mirror," she replied with a teasing, slightly bashful smirk. Secretly, Natalia let out an internal sigh of relief. At least able to return a cohesive compliment in her mesmerized state.

Tena’s tongue danced across her lower lip before she eased herself back and away. "Sorry, I… What’s your name?”

"Natalia," the pale woman answered breathlessly, forcefully tearing her eyes away from the girl's inviting mouth to fully focus back on her face. "My name's Natalia Belmonte. What about yours?"

"Natalia,” She mused. "Beautiful name for a beautiful girl.” There was something eerily familiar about the newly named Natalia. She reminded Tena of not someone she knew but someone she had read about. There was a girl in her brother’s book; an Italian who hid from the world behind a veil of beauty. He had said she had stars in her eyes and Natalia certainly had that. Miss Belmonte would forever be her Stargirl no matter what came next. In Charlie’s book, there were two girls in the story that Charlie’s protagonist was in love with. One was innocent and pure and heartbreaking; the other was bold, charismatic and magnetic. It was the second girl that Natalia reminded her of and if she was anything like that, then Tena knew that she was about to fall hopelessly and deeply in love herself.

She took Tal’s hand into her own under the pretense of a handshake when in reality she just wanted to touch her more and feel that electricity and pray that Natalia felt it too. "Mitena Strongbow. But everyone pretty much just calls me Tena.”

The unexpected response had Natalia blinking fast in disbelief a few times, the compliment she’d just received being pushed aside in favor of obtaining confirmation of what she’d just been told. "Come again?" she heard herself asking impulsively, a slight hint of panic in her voice. Had she heard her right? She couldn't have heard her right. Because if she had heard her right, and this girl's name was indeed Mitena, then she had been blown away and utterly captivated by none other than Charlie Decker's sister… The girl she’d vowed to convince to steal Charlie’s letters from and get rid of forever.

Just her luck, right?

”Mitena” She repeated. “Lot of people want to say Tina but it’s Tena. Teh-nah. Don’t give into temptation…well maybe not that particular temptation,” Tena’s eyes began to wander again, soaking in more of Natalia’s beauty. She had never felt like this before. She didn’t know this girl but she immediately felt like she did. Natalia was no more than a random person that Mitena had met in a bathroom only a few minutes prior, but the native girl felt like she had known the Stargirl her entire life.

As much as Tena wanted to continue talking and learning about this mysterious stranger, there was a shiver in Natalia’s voice that told her that something else other than exploring their chemistry was on her mind. “I get the feeling you want to say something. Did I come on too strong? I’m sorry. I just… You’re just… I don’t know, I saw you and I felt butterflies. Is that weird?”

“Oh no, no, no, no! It’s not you!” Tal was quick to interject, cupping the hand Mitena had previously given her with both of her own and making eye contact to make sure the Native girl could see she was being truthful. She felt like an asshole for making Tena doubt her fearless (and effective) approach to coming onto her, but the Italian girl’s mind was partly still caught up on the topic of Charlie. “You have nothing to be sorry for. You’re fucking gorgeous, and I’m really attracted to you even if it sounds really weird because we’ve just met and all. It’s just…” she took a deep breath, bracing herself to drop the news on this poor woman who had probably only wanted to flirt with her and would now possibly be getting her night ruined. “You know how I said my friends and I were here for the night? Well, the reason we’re here to begin with… Is you. We came to Blue Hill looking for you. Because… Because of the letters. That Charlie wrote.” There. She said it. The cat was out of the bag.

"Charlie?…”

Tena searched her mind feverently. Why would they be looking for her? Charlie had been dead for two years and as far as she knew, her brother hadn’t told anyone that she even existed. He was very honest in their correspondence about the state of his life and where he was mentally and the stress of introducing everyone that was a part of his heart to his long lost sister was a lot. Mitena did not blame him for this but she couldn’t hide her sadness. She wanted to be involved in Charlie’s life more than she was but she would respect his wishes.

She had heard rumblings from Resi about some creepy letters in Edenridge. He often popped down there with the food truck to earn some cash from the townies and would come back with stories. The last little while he had mentioned mysterious letters exposing secrets but Tena hadn’t given them any mind. What could they have to do with her, after all? Now the picture was getting clearer: the letters were from her brother, his journals that he wrote in so dedicatedly. In their own talks, Charlie had alluded to knowing stuff he shouldn’t.

This brought Mitena back to her present situation-- and the girl holding her hand and warming her soul. Why would she and her friends be coming looking for her? Had Charlie finally acknowledged her as his sibling in one of these mysterious pages and now the reporters were coming to find her? Take advantage of her? The sister of a school shooter, to find out more so they can sell it to Netflix for a shitty documentary. Was this a game? Did Natalia even like her?

As a thousand thoughts ran through her head, one particular one began to shine. Tena looked at the pale brunette and drank her in. How had she not seen it? The freckled skin, the sharp angles…

“In her eyes, waves of green eternity, bedazzled with dancing flickers of gold.”

This wasn’t just a random white girl. This was the girl, from Charlie’s book, the other girl. The girl with galaxies in her eyes. She stepped out of the pages and swept Mitena up in the same black hole of beauty that had ensnared her brother. Wrapping her fingers with Natalia’s, finally settling on the notion that the Italian came to do her no harm, the indigenous girl tilted her head softly and looked deep into Tal’s eyes.

”Well if you’re here for me, then I guess I better be yours. Take me to your friends.”
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