Red Dragon

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Cat's Cradle

Against his better judgment, even knowing that he wouldn’t like it, Francis decided to take up Penny’s offer to try her burger. The idea of “coffee whip” sounded so appalling, so disgusting, that even the smell of it as she partook made his stomach turn. She explained that it was crushed espresso beans mixed into a paste with cream cheese and dark chocolate powder then combined with a famous salad dressing… Which only turned him away more. Not because they were mixed, no; he couldn’t stand Miracle Whip. Mayonnaise or nothing.

However, she wore him down. It took all of four times for her to ask him to, as well, cutting off a large enough piece from the back of hers. He was long since done with his; better than fast food, at least. Worth the price? Hell no. Not when he can make better for free. That being said, would he ever dream up the combinations that Mako’s had to offer? Aside loathing fish, probably not, but he also wouldn’t be pairing beef and fish anyways. Beef and crab or lobster or even shrimp was a different story; the bugs of the sea were delicious. Alas, the closest the menu came to any of those was a crab cake, but, knowing now they used salad dressing, the coleslaw was not appealing.

He was delaying the inevitable, though. He held that strip of burger between his index and thumb, looking over it, over Penny, at that menu. Their “catch of the day” portion was essentially the fan favorites. There was no way they caught halibut, salmon, mahi-mahi, catfish, grouper, and tuna all in the same day –unless they pilfered a local aquarium. In Francis’s case, it might as well have been a blacklist on the left side, followed by the “value” menu. Yes, value, where a single burger with a cup of fries was the same price as four “premium” sandwiches and a basket of golden greasy spears from ye olde Golden Arches. Truly value; if one was coming here, they might as well spend the little extra for a full course. The middle was full of safe options, basic, run-of-the-mill fish-and-meat combos, while the rest was the “wild catches”, where his Marlin Grill and the Get-up burger were proudly shown. Really, now that he had the time to look, he wished he did grab the Crabby Patty.

But, here he was, still delaying the inevitable. It was only hurting him in the end, as well. The longer he took, the more time the burger had to cool. If he didn’t like the idea of the coffee whip when it was on something warm… He sighed, and finally raised that musky morsel to his mouth, popping it in.

“Finally,” Plank grumbled, sipping on her soda. She still had half of her burger left, even after that strip. And his dallying. “Well?”

He gulped… and took a drink of his soda. Then had a few fries –a few more fries… another drink- half the glass, actually… then another handful of fr-

“Well!”

“I’m processing, okay?” He exclaimed… finishing off his glass. He stood, went to refill it at the soda fountain by the entry, where four more people entered. It took him a few moments to balance the ice-to-soda ratio, but, when he finally did and lumbered back to the booth… Those people were still waiting on the dryad. He took another drink… and sighed. “Okay! It was… fine.”

“Really?”

“Wasn’t the worst thing I’ve eaten. Wouldn’t go out of the way to order it myself, but, if it was made with mayo instead, I might be able to recommend it.”

“Mayo, huh? You, too? Can’t stand Miracle Whip. Thankfully, the coffee spread takes away the tang for me… Shame you didn’t like it more, though. It’s my favorite here.”

“Obviously.” He said. Derisively. Which she caught.

“Look. Just because I don’t vacuum my food doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.”

She scoffed again, and picked up the patty, leaving him to pull out his phone again. The deluge of texts wound down as he ate, and, thankfully, only one more decided to make its presence known. From Jessica.

Where you at? She sent.

At a burger shack.

Mako’s.

Wow. Didn’t even have to explain that one, he thought, then sent, You been?

Hell yeah! What’d you get?

The Marlin Griller. Minus the Marlin.

What? Why? The fish is the best part! @w@

There’s only one kind of fish I can handle, and you aren’t here at the moment. I had more than enough fish today, anyways.

You get my hopes up only to dash them. >w> What did I warn you about this morning? Keep it up, and I’ll make you dine on an entire seafood buffet.

I’ll be asleep then. Won’t matter to me. I’ll just wake up smelling low-tide.

>.< Eww!!! But yes. >w> Could you grab me an EAC from Mako’s? I’ve been craving one of their burgers.

I’ll ask Plank. Wallet’s at home.

“Oi,” he said, looking up at her. She made some progress at least; at the rate she was eating, he might get an hour nap before needing to get ready for class. “Hate to ask, but can we grab a sandwich to take home? Jess wants an… EAC? Don’t remember seeing that on the menu.”

“It’s under Catch of the Day,” she said, pointing at the left. Much to his chagrin… Which, even then, he couldn’t see it. “Okay. Am I blind or-”

“East Australian Current,” she clarified, and that was when he had his realization. It was the top menu item.

“‘A delight all the way from down under, this catch-all has our signature double with thousand island, then is topped with…’ Turtle! Turtle… Actual turtle?”

“Yep.”

“What did the turtle do to you!”

“Nothing, but it’s delicious.”

“If you say so… ‘Sauteed in a light butter sauce before deep-fried, then topped with a fried soft-shell crab’- as in the entire crab?”

“Yeah.”

“How! Thought you couldn’t eat the shell. That sounds painful and annoying.”

“Soft-shells are fine. Sort of in the name.”

“Okay. What else is a part of that abomination of a sandwich… uh… ‘Finally topped with battered-then-fried butterfly shrimp and a grilled tuna steak’. That’s the only bit of fish on it, and that’s already too much fish. Not for me, though. So… can you?”

“Why don’t you? She’s your fucktoy, after all.”

“Because I forgot my wallet… and that’s not nice. She promoted herself. She’s not only my fucktoy but my waifu now.”

“Oh? So you’re serious about this? No other girls? None at all?”

“I’ve been giving it thought,” Which I am HOPING most of it is MY OWN thought… and not someone else meddling, “and came to the realization. It’s better to shack up with one in this school. Makes it so much easier to torture the rest. Oh, woe is them that they cannot have the hunkiest man on campus-”

“I’m gonna stop you there. Johnny is the alpha on campus.”

“Bull-fucking-shit!”

“Oh yeah? Want to prove it? Fight him. Kick his ass.”

“Eh? Why would I do that?”

“My point exactly.” She huffed, taking a drink, and she was in the final stretch on her burger. Only a few more bites- oh? Another text.

From Cassidy.

“Oh. Great. What now?” He grumbled, opening it… rolling his eyes. “She’s persistent. I’ll give her that… a far-cry better than the timid fuckface I started dating.”

“Cassidy?” Penny said, slowing down- no no no! Keep eating! “What did she have to say?”

“Oh, she asked if I was home. Hold on. ’Not right now. Out with Penny. Jess is waiting and started to move in, though.’ there we are.”

“You know, I always knew you were cruel. Didn’t realize just how much you love to twist the knife… Still. I’m proud of you. You’re giving up your playboy ways and settling down with a nice girl, starting a family… In truth, if someone told me this would happen a few months ago, I would have laughed right in their face. You’ve come a long way, Frankie-boy-”

“That doesn’t mean you get to call me that… but I’ll let it slide. This time.”

“Only because I’m buying your wife a burger?”

“Sounds fair.”

They chuckled, and she finished at last. That didn’t mean they could leave yet, though. She went up and, after the four finally got their orders done (in no small part thanks to Penny’s “intervention”), she got that horrid amalgamation of a burger ordered, returning and sitting across. The four women chose a booth on the other side of the restaurant, ogling Francis whenever they could, but he was a married man now. He could only enjoy those stares… and send Jessica a message.

It’s ordered. Waiting on it to be made then we’ll have it delivered.

Just shove it in my mouth when you get in. I’m exhausted.

You seem it. Only a half-shift today?

Yeah… Collapsed while there. -w- You wore me out, but boss thought it was her fault. She is covering the rest of my shift… Once again, you did me a solid.

Sounds like it. She seemed like a total bitch, too.

She can be… Anyways, I’m gonna crash now. This would be the part where I am the sappy, witless wife and tell you that I love you.

And I suppose this would be the part where the husband held at gunpoint tells you that he loves you, too.

Yup. Seems right.

He scoffed… but chuckled all the same, rolling his eyes one last time to finally get over 100,000 miles… Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t give it much thought before. Being with one person for the rest of his life (or at least her life) while at school? It was going to be incredibly… dull from then-on. Then again, after the months of nonstop events, it was going to be nice to finally catch his breath. There’s no doubt that there will be problems down the line, but, for now, he can focus on the simple fact at hand: He was a married man.

The dryad called out the abominations number, and both him and Penny stood. Plank passed it by, but Francis yanked it so hard from her grasp that he unrooted the stoner from her tree. The wisps that were her essence, those green “flies”, buzzed as she screamed and flopped on the deck, while her stump sank down onto the ground, lifeless. Okay. Maybe he was getting a bit ahead of himself. It wouldn’t be boring so soon.

He sighed as he shut the car door, phone once again in-hand… seeing another message from Cassidy.

Are you going to be home soon?

“Fuck’s sake,” he mumbled, typing. Why? Why does it matter?

I need to see you.

We’re through! Don’t you get it? The paternity test was a formality. I was going to dump your ass anyways for Jess.

Even if she wasn’t pregnant?

If she wasn’t, I was going to dump you regardless. I am SO sick of the jealousy. We had fun, but you just got more and more fucking clingy. It was cute, a nice contrast the first time. From there? Too fucking much.

Why didn’t you just say so?

I think I did, actually. Dozens of times.

I can change, dear… please?

It doesn’t matter now. Jess and I are going to have a family. Any other relationship? Fucking over. Simple-as.

It took her a moment, the dots showing she was trying to respond. The interstate hummed under the car, returning them to Paradise. With each passing moment of those dots, he grew less and less interested in whatever she had to say. No matter how long a message she sent, how much she poured out her heart… He just couldn’t give a fuck anymore.

At last, she sent her message.

I will always love you.

“What’d she say?” Penny inquired, reacting to Francis’s groan.

“Oh, that she still loves me and always will,” he muttered, pocketing his phone. The car slowed as they took the off-ramp from the interstate, returning to it on the other side before heading backwards to the rocky road of Paradise. “Harpies, man.”

“Yeah… Once they have their sights set, they don’t stop. No matter what.”

“Now, you see, why did you have to ruin the mood like that? I was chilling, enjoying the ride-”

“Awake this time.”

“Good point. It was already ruined.” He winced as the car met the earthen decline, and the car shuddered to a crawl down it. The bridge could already be seen, the sun rising over Vereor Nox, casting the entire area in a glistening, glittering haze. They dove underneath that veil, trudging through the fog, and the wheels whirred their appreciation as they met asphalt again, turned to hums on the bridge. He checked the time on the LCD, then looked at the burger. “Good thing she doesn’t seem to care if it’s cold. It’s most likely a jellified mess after an hour.”

“Blame that dryad.”

“Oh, I do. How did she have a job there?”

“She was best friends with Tsunami.”

“Who- oh. Mako’s daughter. See? I can put two and eight together.”

“Good on you. You’re growing in so many ways this week. Now, if you didn’t kill her we’d see real progress.”

“Didn’t see you stepping in.”

“If you didn’t, I was this close to setting her on fire.” She chuckled, and the car huffed one last time, settling into the parking spot. “Well… See you in a couple hours.”

“Don’t remind me… That being said, it was nice to hang out with you.”

“Yup. Thank my therapist. She said to push for more ‘us’ time.”

“Good on her. Maybe they aren’t all money-grubbing sociopaths. Just… sociopaths.”

He clambered out of the car, yawning as he loosely held her burger. No fries, though; not like they would have survived the journey. Cold fries were a sin, and he would have devoured them long before they hit that point.

Francis made it to the first level, and stopped to yawn again, looking out upon the blacktop of the apartments. Penny had a point; if Francis heard he’d be a family guy at the start of the year, he would have laughed-then-eaten that person alive. Just… look at him. He wasn’t family material. He was barely boyfriend material, no matter how many women now said his shirt (or muumuu) were made of it. He was, and still is, a monster. A monster among the monsters. Only one other group was above him, and those were the pure bloods.

But he dawdled enough. He cracked his shoulders, then turned to go up the next set of steps. Jessica wasn’t the only one worn out by his actions. His jaw was still sore, and, feeling her clench him so many times, his neck and back were bruised and weary. Maybe he could talk her into a massage in the morning. The least she could offer.

The second level passed, and once again he thought of the future and what it held. Cassidy was the least of his worries. What about the lycans and their plans? What about the other harpies? No… There was still plenty ahead of them, but, as long as they faced them together, they were but candles in a hurricane. He was the storm that was approaching, and she was his crimson cloud. Together, they were unstoppable.

At the top of the third floor, he started left… only to roll his eyes, ticking over to 100,001 on the mental pedometer, and went right. To his room. To their room… Their home- his home… He actually had a home… He huffed outside the door, wiping away a tear- and noticed a sign on the worn timbers.

Went out shopping. Won’t be home until after you wake up. Have a stream on Wednesday, so I needed to “doll” you up. Better be good on your arrangement. –Francine.

Given how saturated it was, it had been there a while. Probably longer than Jessica made herself at home –their home- no… He won’t go down that line again… it was still nice, though. He sighed, and opened the door, walking into the dark apartment. There was no sound… no sound.

Not even breathing.

His heart dropped, and he rushed into the bedroom. Maybe she fell asleep in her apartment? Perhaps she was in the middle of moving one final… no. She was in his bed, underneath the covers, face-up.

And still not breathing.

The light outside the window seemed to fade, the soft gold turned an ashen white on her furry face. So calm, so serene… not even stirring as he caressed it. As he slapped it. He leaned down to her chest, another needless formality, but it was for his sake. He needed to know… needed to hear as close as he could. With how silent it truly was.

“J… Jess?” He said, barely more than a whisper. He gulped, repeating it, again and again, rising as he shook her, as he tried to fight some life back into her… only for her to flop back down. He was screaming it, rumbling the entire apartment as flames threatened to engulf them both, pouring out of his mouth like the tears in his eyes, raining down upon her still face.

The bed crunched as he shoved her back down, making him gasp… heart sinking more as he realized it didn’t matter. Her body meant nothing anymore… the children inside were gone, as well. What he originally started to utter under his breath, in between calling her name, replaced it. He denied what was before him. He denied what was taking place before him, the conclusions… the possibilities. He denied reality itself, bellowing it to the heavens as the flames kept rising- and, above all, he denied Penny, trying to pull him out of that room. Away from Jessica. He wasn’t leaving without her.

But he couldn’t stay there with her, either.

With a heavy heart and an even heavier grimace, he wrapped her in one of the blankets and cradled her as they fled from that room. The roof collapsed behind them, portions of it already falling in through the living room, pushed aside as Penny lead the way out. Ezra, Dixie, Bridget, the other two witches… even Tina were all waiting outside, down in the parking lot. Sirens wailed, hurrying to Paradise, but it was lost. Forsaken. Just like his heart.

He collapsed in the parking lot, his knees too heavy, unable to carry her anymore, and the blanket fell away from her face, showing her resting visage one more time.

“Jess,” he croaked, and broke down, sobbing on her chest.

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