22 - Mad World
“And then, this bitch nigga had the audacity to say, ‘you pretty smart for a black guy’.”
“Exactly! Man, I could run circles around these alabaster hoes.”
“This nigga said ‘alabaster’,” Tiana laughed.
“You know I’m right,” Dante smirked.
“Colonizahs, stay trippin’,” Tiana said, shaking her head. “That’s like how these dumbasses tell me ‘oh, you kinda cute... for a dark-skinned girl.’ Like, bitch, you could have stopped talking four words ago.”
“Is that shit supposed to be a compliment?!” Dante said frustrated.
“Right? Like who raised you?”
Tiana sat on her living room floor that was scattered with wires as she worked on several devices with her brother. She used a screwdriver on a remote as she watched Dante pluck at a mainframe. “Move that cord over before you fuck up the N-T2,” she pointed.
“Nigga, is you questioning me?”
“I just don’t see the difference between the N-T2 being plugged in here and over there,” Dante argued.
“Oh, okay, headass. Let’s pretend like you didn’t ask for my help and go ahead and do it yourself. And then, watch me laugh in your face when you fry the board,” Tiana snapped. Dante sucked his teeth as he yanked the cord from Tiana. He plugged it into the other socket just as the computer started to light up. “Oh snap! Is that- is it... could it be that it’s working?” Tiana gasped dramatically. “Who would have thunk it? Who could have possibly made such an assumption? Who could-”
“Aight! Aight! Damn, T. You play too much,” Dante smirked as he shoved her playfully.
Tiana shook her head as she tapped away at her computer. “I get to rag on you as much as I want when your stupid ass comes asking me for help, and then has the audacity to question the same expertise you asked for. You know what we call that?” she asked.
“Being certain,” Dante sighed.
“Mansplaining,” Tiana said.
“Being a headass,” Tiana continued.
“Proof that women are the superior se-”
“Aight! Chill! Damn! You made your point,” Dante laughed.
Tiana grinned as she analyzed the diagram that Dante loaded onto her computer. She quickly scanned the codes when a frown came to her face. “Um... D...”
“...this is H-Corp…” she said.
“...why are we removing a structural coding virus from a company that tests toxic substances on animals…?”
Dante leaned over and looked at the screen before looking at her. “Don’t worry about it, sis. Just... take care of it.”
“‘Take care of it’? Dante, they’re fucking poachers!” Tiana protested. “They’re a large part of why white rhinoceroses are going extinct. Remember when-”
“Tiana!” Dante said firmly, startling her. “Can you or can you not remove the damn virus?” Tiana looked at him confused. “CAN YOU!?” he snapped.
“Y-yes,” she said quickly.
“Then just do it, alright?! Please,” Dante said annoyed as he looked back at his phone.
“You know your brother used to zone out just like that.”
Tiana blinked back her memory as she stared at the bruised face of Roger Peterson. His lip was bleeding and his eye was nearly swollen shut, but that didn’t stop him from smirking at her. “Just how much information did you share with Dante?” Roger asked, curiously. “I mean he showed us the work you did. What else did he tell you? Did you help him hack into RaVage’s database too?”
“I never did that!” she said quickly.
“How would you know?” Roger asked with a quirked brow. “You waited until now to let them know your brother was part of my group. What else are you lying about?”
“Enough,” Owen’s robotic voice said to Roger though he was looking at Tiana.
Roger scoffed. “This bitch is-” But before Roger could finish his sentence, his head jerked back from the sheer force of Jason punching him square in the face.
“Just shut the fuck up,” Tyler snapped at Roger who was bleeding profusely from his nose. Tyler looked at Tiana whose eyes were laced with fear and uncertainty. “We need a minute.”
Tiana swallowed hard as Owen stalked towards her and grabbed her arm. He dragged her outside as Jason and Tyler followed.
Owen was neither gentle nor kind as he pulled her outside of the room. She could sense the tension from them, and she couldn’t even see their faces. Stumbling into an empty room, she backed up into the corner as the guys spread out around her.
She knew the situation was bad, and it made her look beyond suspicious. She tried desperately to think of what she could say to prove her innocence. The guys seemed to keep their distance from her, and she felt too unnerved to look at them for long.
“Talk,” Owen’s robotic voice broke the silence.
Tiana shook her head as she kept her eyes on the floor. She couldn’t believe she was even in this situation. “Do you guys seriously believe that asshole over m-”
“We fucking love you, so don’t you dare even ask that shit!”
Tiana looked up startled to see Jason’s bat was practically shaking as he held it within his grasp. She had never heard him yell before.
“We just need an explanation, T. Now, talk,” Owen repeated.
Tiana looked up at them and nervously played with her fingers. “Can you guys at least take off the masks so I can see your-”
“DAMMIT, TIANA! TALK!” Owen growled.
“Okay! Okay!” Tiana said, trying not to freak out. She pulled at her fingers that slipped from how much they were sweating as she tried to think of the right words to say. “I... I d-didn’t know Dante was a part of HeaTWave, at first. I swear. I just learned who they were from you guys,” she said, biting her lip.
“Then how did you know Dante was a part of HeaTWave just now?” Tyler asked. “Why did you wait so long to tell us? And at that time?!”
Tiana lowered her head again, trying to think. Still shocked by the reveal, her nerves were making it so hard for her to think straight. She was seriously regretting drinking all that water earlier because she had to pee so badly.
“TIANA!” Tyler snapped when she didn’t respond.
“Okay! I’m sorry, I’m just... trying to think,” she said, rubbing her cheeks. “I found out he was in HeaTWave from that thumb drive. The file that we couldn’t open before has all the work he did for them on it.”
“That file was impossible to open... So, how did you know how to open it?” Owen asked.
Tiana tried to hold back her tears, praying to God that they didn’t find her truth to sound as ridiculous said out loud as it did in her mind. “I remembered,” she said, holding her dad’s dog tags. “A time when I was with Dante, and he... he just kept hinting that these.. these were important,” she said, looking down at the dog tags as her tears fell on the metal. “I took a guess,” she said, wiping her nose. “I had tried everything else, so I took a guess and it worked...”
She closed her eyes and tried to keep any more tears from falling. The pain in her chest was overwhelming. She couldn’t believe Dante would put her in this position. Her brother whom she loved so much.
“You didn’t even know what you were working on... what it was for...” Owen’s voice was a bit softer. Even through the robotic voice changer, she could sense it.
Tiana only slightly nodded before she completely broke down crying. She felt embarrassed, awful, and heartbroken. She just wanted to run away where things made sense again.
She dry heaved through her sobs when she felt a pair of warm arms wrap around her. She looked up at Owen’s bright blue eyes which were bloodshot and filled to the brim with sadness and remorse. He looked just as heartbroken as she felt. She didn’t even hear him take off his mask because her own sobs were drowning the rest of the noise out.
“It’s okay, T,” Owen said, hugging her close. “It’s okay.” Tiana couldn’t stop her sobs until she felt Owen’s finger against the side of her cheek. “Look at me, baby,” Owen insisted. Tiana looked at him again as tears continued to cascade down her cheeks. “It’s okay,” he reassured her. “It’s gonna be okay, T. I promise.”
“You believe me?” she asked.
“Of course, we believe you, baby...” Owen said. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. He could taste the salt from her tears on her lips and felt awful that she had cried so much. He looked up past her and saw Darren opening the door. “Stay with the guys,” he said. He pulled back from her and headed towards Darren.
Tiana barely had a second to gather her bearings before Jason rushed her. He immediately kissed her with such a fiery passion, it nearly knocked her off of her feet if he didn’t have such a tight grasp on her. “Fuck, babe. You know I hate seeing you cry,” Jason breathed against her lips.
Tiana looked at him a bit confused, and it bothered her to see tears falling from his eyes as well. “I thought you guys were going to like... hurt me or something, thinking I betrayed you.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jason chuckled through his tears. He pressed a thumb against her cheek and wiped one of her tears away. “Hurting you would be hurting ourselves...”
Tiana felt her heart swell as Jason hugged her tightly, lifting her into the air. She stumbled a bit when he put her back down and settled back against his chest. She felt more than relieved to be in his embrace and not the focus of his angry glare. She smiled when she felt Jason kiss her cheek from behind but completely lost her smile when she saw Tyler take off his mask. The look in his eyes was unreadable as he walked towards her, causing her to shrink back a little.
“Don’t do that,” Tyler said quickly.
“... You guys kept your distance for a reason...” Tiana said, trying to avoid his gaze.
“That’s because you destabilize us,” Tyler said, stopping in front of her. He turned her chin with his finger to catch her gaze.
“Can’t really think straight when you’re around, babe...” Jason admitted, as his face nestled into her hair.
Tyler gave her a pathetic half-smile that she could tell was a ruse to cover up the pain and betrayal he felt inside. “We just needed to hear the truth from you first...” he said, taking her hand.
“Whatever Tiana said was true,” Darren said to Owen as they stood near the exit. “She’s been affected by the gas.”
“We don’t need the gas to know she’s telling the truth. We believe her regardless,” Owen said. He rubbed his thumb against his bottom lip, trying to think. “But we need to process this...” He looked up at Darren. “How’s Anna?”
Darren deeply exhaled as he rubbed the back of his neck. “...not good...”
“Alright. We need to huddle and figure this out,” Owen said. He turned around and saw Tyler and Jason sandwiching Tiana between them. Her form could barely be seen between their massive bodies, which seemed to be trying to comfort her in the most explicit ways.
“Guys,” Owen said, getting their attention. “We gotta talk.”
The team sat in a circle talking, while Tiana merely listened. Though Owen, Jason, and Tyler assured her she would be okay, she couldn’t help but feel like an outcast. A traitor. Like she didn’t belong. She couldn’t tell if it was her paranoia or if everyone was really staring at her.
She averted her eyes from the group and lowered her head in silence. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around why her brother would betray his team like this. And why he would use her to do it.
Her chest felt hollow. Her throat dry. She mentally threatened herself not to cry in front of a group of people that were already questioning presence. Her head pounded and her heart hurt. How could he do this? It didn’t make sense.
She felt a large hand slide against hers before lacing her fingers with theirs. From the tattoo on his forearm, she could tell it was Tyler, but she was still in shock that he was actually holding her hand. As if he were trying to comfort her, despite the fact she hadn’t said anything.
She looked up at Tyler, still surprised by his bold move and met the warm, comforting smile on his face. With her words still caught in her throat, she then felt an arm wrap around her neck before Jason leaned over and placed a protective and comforting kiss against her temple.
Tiana wanted to melt.
“I just don’t get how Tiana worked on half those projects and didn’t know they had to do with HeaTWave,” Joey said annoyed as he glanced at Tiana. “I mean, shit. None of that looked even remotely suspicious to you?”
Tiana felt her throat dry up and desperately tried to think of a defense. But before she could speak, Owen’s voice reverberated throughout the room. “Tiana is not on trial here,” he said firmly. “She’s as much a victim as everyone else here, if not more. She’s part of the team and will be treated as such. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Tiana was once again rendered speechless.
“COÑO! This is all fucking... BULLSHIT!” Anna blurted. Everyone looked at her confused. “There’s no fucking way I believe Dante would do any of this shit and neither should you! He built this damn team! He made it what it is! And now we’re expected to believe he just... threw all of it away? That fucking white ass puta is lying. I’m calling bullshit on Jamie Lannister’s ass,” she snapped.
“Anna...” Darren said softly. “Roger was affected by the gas. His mannerisms immediately changed once it hit him. He was telling the truth. And... Tiana saw the file. She admitted it herself.”
Anna went to speak, but she had nothing. She looked at all of them before her eyes landed on Tiana who looked back at her with much regret. Anna’s eyes brimmed with tears before she spun around. “I can’t fucking do this!” she said, rushing out. Tiana’s shoulders fell as she watched Anna run out of the room like a bat out of hell. She wondered what impact this would have on their friendship.
Darren looked at Tyler who gestured with his head. “Go after her,” Tyler insisted.
Darren hesitated before nodding and stood to his feet. He looked at Tiana and gave a small smile. “Do you mind if I look at that file later?” Darren asked.
“No, of course not,” Tiana said quickly. Darren nodded and quickly walked out.
“Well, as our team continues to dwindle to shit,” Joey said, standing up. “We have to finish this and find out what to do with this guy.”
“Right,” Owen said, standing up. “Suit up. You’re going in with us.” Joey nodded and left the room to go get his gear.
Tiana watched as Jason and Tyler both got up to talk to Owen about what their next plan of action would be. When they finally agreed on what they’d do, Jason walked over to Tiana and took her hand. He pulled her to her feet before grabbing her waist to pull her close. “Jason..-” she hesitated.
“Relax, baby girl,” Jason smiled at her. He leaned forward and gave her a tender kiss on the lips before pulling back to look at her. “It’s going to be okay.”
While Jason put on his mask, Owen grabbed her hand and pressed his lips against her fingers. “I told you we got you,” Owen said, looking her in the eye. “Just sit tight. We’ll be back.”
She saw Jason and Owen walk to the door as Tyler grabbed his mask and bike chain. “Wait,” she said quickly. The three of them turned to look at her, waiting for her to speak. “Why... why are you guys so quick to believe me? To defend me? I mean... the others don’t seem as convinced...”
Tyler took a few steps towards her and brushed her hair out of her face. His eyes switched from her lips to her gaze. “Well... It’s as Jason said... because we’re in love with you...” Tiana’s eyes widened in complete shock, unable to respond.
“It’s about fucking time!” Jason shouted. “Owen, you owe me 50 bucks, bro!”
“Well, shit...” Owen smirked.
“You guys placed bets?!” Tyler growled as he turned on them.
“Uh... DUH! You act like you don’t know how this shit works,” Jason grinned as he snatched a few bills from a reluctant Owen.
Tyler rolled his eyes and turned back to face Tiana. It warmed him to see that she was actually smiling. Even if it was rather small and accompanied by sad eyes. He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek before stepping back to put on his mask.
Tiana watched as all three of their masks lit up before they jogged back outside.
Roger looked up when the door opened and saw four guys with masks on walk in. “Thought you shitheads forgot about me,” Roger scoffed, spitting up more blood.
“We forgot we left you in here alive,” Tyler said.
Roger looked at the four of them as Owen approached him. “My guys here decided we’re better off gutting you and leaving your corpse in a ditch. And frankly, I don’t see shit wrong with that,” Owen, said folding his arms across his chest.
“HeaTWave is already looking for me,” Roger said quickly. “Just let me go. We’ll end this stupid feud and let bygones be bygones. A truce, if you will.”
“Or,” Jason interrupted. “We could rip you limb from limb and send your little group on the egg hunt of a lifetime to try to piece your body back together. How’s that sound?”
Roger scoffed. “You guys aren’t like us. You don’t kill.”
“Wanna test that theory?” Owen threatened, grabbing the chain from Tyler.
“My team could be here within the hour,” Roger protested.
“You’ll be dead in ten minutes,” Tyler said coldly.
Roger swallowed as he looked at the four of them and shook his head. “Listen... I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for any of this,” Roger tried to reason. “Dante... I didn’t tell him to play both teams. He lied to us too. At the time, we didn’t know he was working with you guys as well.”
“Berserker. Bat,” Owen ordered.
“They’re going to go after his cousins!” Roger shouted.
The guys looked at Joey who pulled back confused. “What?” Joey said.
“It won’t stop with just your mother and sister,” Roger explained. “They’ll go after the cousins. They’ll go after the Asian kid’s parents. They’ll go after the grandmother of Dante’s ex-whor-” Jason backhanded Roger across the face so hard, he nearly fell from his chair.
“Watch your fucking mouth about her,” Owen warned.
“I’m surprised you didn’t use the bat,” Tyler said.
“Not as satisfying...” Jason muttered.
Roger spit out more blood and sighed as he looked up at Owen through bruised eyes. “I know this isn’t what you were looking for. We felt the same way. But Dante was a piece of shit. Always has been. And good riddance the motherfucker is dea-”
Roger felt a harsh foot to his chest that knocked the wind out of him as he went flying backward out of the chair. Owen put his foot down and looked at the others. “We’re leaving,” he said.
Roger writhed in his restraints as he watched the four of them exit the room.
“Okay, okay. We got this! On 3!”
“Bitch! Whatchu mean ‘on 3’?!”
“Yo, stop being a pussy, Owen! On 3!” Dante laughed as he sipped his shot.
“I love how he says that as he’s already sipping his shot,” Tyler grinned as Jason laughed out loud.
“You know I can hear you pale ass bastards, right?!” Dante laughed.
Jason kicked his feet against the edge of the roof that his legs dangled off of as he sat between Owen and Tyler with Dante on the far right of Owen. He leaned back on his hands and stared up at the dark night sky. They had just come back from a successful assignment with a fantastic payday and were celebrating with a nearly empty bottle of Irish whiskey.
“Did you see the look on that guy’s face when we rounded the corner,” Jason smirked.
“That’s cause you flashed him your ass, you psycho,” Tyler chuckled.
“You guys said you needed a distraction,” Jason shrugged.
“And that’s what you came up with?!” Dante blurted.
“Are you complaining?” Jason asked with a raised brow.
“Yes, motherfucker! I could have gone my entire life without seeing your lily-white ass,” Dante laughed.
“Oh, come on, D. Admit it. It’s a nice ass,” Jason grinned.
“It’s a hoe ass,” Tyler smirked, sipping his whiskey.
“Whatever. I wear my hoe badge with pride,” Jason said. “Right, Owen?”
“Bitch, don’t come for me,” Owen said, tossing his drink at Jason as Tyler and Dante laughed.
Jason rolled his eyes and lay back on the roof as he stared at the stars. “Do we plan on doing this forever?” Jason asked.
“Trolling for a living?” Owen said, lighting a joint. “Forever is a long time. Haven’t thought that far ahead.” He puffed on the joint and passed it to Dante. “You?” he asked.
Dante looked at Owen and shook his head. “Nah, bro... I got plans, you know?”
“Oh, yeah? What kind of plans?” Owen asked with a raised brow.
Dante took a long drag and shrugged. “I mean...”
“You and your lame, secret ass plans, bro,” Jason said, hitting Dante in the head with a bottle cap.
“Hey!” Dante laughed.
“Forreal, Dante,” Tyler said, pulling his knees up. He rested his forearms on his knees and looked at Dante seriously. “You’ve been so secretive lately,” he said. “What’s up, bro?”
Dante shrugged. “Nothing, man. I just got a lot going on, you know? My mom and my sis need me.”
“You know I got Tiana, D,” Owen said, taking another sip of his whiskey. “I’m looking after her.”
“Yea, I know, Owen...” Dante said, looking down. “I trust you.”
“And you know... we got you, right?” Tyler insisted. “We’ve got your back... no matter what.”
Dante looked at Tyler and tried to smile, but he couldn’t hold his gaze and quickly averted his eyes. “You guys are too good, man... You’re family,” Dante said, putting the joint back between his lips. “Family protects family.”
Tyler and Owen exchanged concerned glances as Jason sat up. “You’re speaking in riddles again, D. Is something going on?” Jason asked.
Dante looked at them and quickly plastered a smile on his face. “Nah, man, it’s all good. Pass the bottle.”
Tyler snapped out of his daydream when he heard Tiana walk into the kitchen. He had basically tuned Owen and Jason out as his thoughts became consumed with Dante. He tried to find the clues on what they may have missed, to piece together why he would betray them.
Tiana had isolated herself in her room for weeks. It was the first time any of the boys had seen her since they kidnapped Roger. Owen frowned at how red and puffy her eyes were. Jason quickly leaned off the kitchen table when he saw the duffel bag on her back.
“Are you okay?” Owen asked.
“Where are you going?” Jason asked simultaneously.
Tiana took a deep breath as she looked at the floor. “I just found out my brother and closest friend had been working for a corrupt hacker group and has been using me and lying to me all this time.” She looked up at the three of them. “And he hurt the three guys I’ve fallen hard for. So...no. Actually... I’ve had better days...”
Jason quickly walked up to her, but she took a step back to distance herself from him. “Baby...” he said weakly, put off by her distance.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding herself. “I just need to be away from here right now... I’m going to see Shae. I just... I need to get away from all this for a minute.”
Tyler felt his throat tighten as Tiana refused to look at any of them before she quickly walked out. “Shit...” Jason said frustrated. “I’ve never seen her like this... What do we do?”
Owen deeply sighed as his eyes followed Tiana until she left through the front door. “She’s hurting...” he said. “The best thing to do is respect her wishes... and give her some space...”
Shae sat curled up on the couch drinking a hot cup of cocoa. She blinked furiously as she thought back to everything that had happened to her the past few days. The people she met. The creatures she discovered. The death she escaped. She felt her phone buzz and checked it to see a text from one of her new friends.
Ava: Thinking of you today, friend. Remember, if you need to talk... I’m here.
Shae smiled as she sipped from her cocoa again. She was both appreciative and terrified of what she had learned about herself. Her only concern was how to tell her best friend. She jumped when she heard a key at the door and started to panic. But then, Tiana walked in.
“...Sh-... Shae?” Tiana said with tears in her eyes.
“Tiana!” Shae screamed. She put her cup down and rushed towards her best friend. The two women embraced each other with such ferocity that they both fell to the ground.
“Ow, bitch! My back!” Tiana whined.
“You old fart. Do you need a cane now?” Shae chuckled through her tears.
Tiana held Shae’s face between her hands and watched the tears cascade down her caramel-colored cheeks. “I missed you so much,” Tiana said, tearing up.
“I missed you too!” Shae wrapped her arms around Tiana again, hugging her tightly. Tiana sobbed into her friend’s shoulder as she reveled in her warmth and her scent that she missed so much. “Tiana... you’re crying a little harder than I expected, hun,” Shae said, pulling back to look at her. “And no offense, boo, but you look like shit.”
“GIRRRRRLLL!!!” Tiana broke out into laughter. “These naps are so in desperate need of redoing they about to start singing negro spirituals!”
“Bitch, my skin been so damn dry and in need of moisturizer, my ancestors started chaffing,” Shae said.
“What did I say about leaving without your cocoa butter,” Tiana scolded.
“If I had the chance to bring my cocoa butter, don’t you think I would have?!” Shae laughed.
Tiana chuckled as she playfully tugged on her friend’s ear. She looked into her light brown eyes and sighed. “What happened to you, Shae?” Tiana asked concerned. “You look...”
Shae smiled as she cupped Tiana’s cheek. “Another time, sis. Let’s order takeout.”