“Ario,” Evelyn shook her husband. He’d turned on his stomach, holding a pillow over his head to block out her frantic whispers. “Ario, wake up!”
He groaned, letting the pillow plop to the floor he’d been asleep for barely an hour. The faint, echoing pounding that had woken his wife intensified.
“What’s going on?” the words were nearly lost in a deep yawn.
“I don’t know,” she clutched his arm tightly. “But it sounds like someone’s trying to break in!”
Ario rolled his eyes, patting her hand comfortingly.
“It’s okay, amore,” he said. It was probably just someone working in the stables. The repairs from the last storm were taking longer than expected. He pushed off the blanket, flicking on his bedside light. “I’ll have a look around.”
He’d barely stood when a door crashed open downstairs, loud, excited voices bouncing up the stairs along with heavy footsteps. Three men burst in, their faces hidden by grotesque Halloween masks. Ario glared at them, his lips pressed in a hard line.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “Get out!”
They laughed, the one in front taking an old revolver from the large pocket of his baggy sweatshirt. The same gun Ario had reported stolen less than a week before.
“I don’t think you’re in any position to give orders, old man,” he pulled back the hammer, keeping the gun at his side. “Now, you’re gonna give us what we came for, or your brain gets a little airing out.”
Ario met his gaze steadily, keeping silent. The younger man glanced over his shoulder, nodding to his partners. Evelyn yelped in fear when they dragged her from the bed, writhing in the bruising grip they had on her arms. He shoved the muzzle of the gun in her mouth, turning her protests into muffled whimpers.
“Still wanna think about resisting?” he asked. “Unless you want this bitch’s head blown off, I suggest you cough it up.”
Evelyn stared, wide-eyed, at her husband, subtlety shaking her head; nothing was more important than keeping that safe. For a brief second, Ario looked conflicted, then gave a heavy sigh.
“You’ll find it behind the panel in the corner,” he said. Damn it, damn it all. “Left side of the dresser.”
“Smart choice, old man,” he pulled the gun away, chuckling when he saw Evelyn shiver. “Let her go, boys.”
They shoved her to the floor, laughing as she scrambled to her hands and knees. She gawked at Ario, relief pierced by disbelief, and pure horror. The green metal case was no bigger than a cassette tape, but it contained something far more valuable than money, that the future of the whole world depended on. The lead thief chuckled again, tossing his prize in the air and catching it.
“I know what you’re thinking, old man,” he said casually. “That since you started all this, you’re too important to kill.”
He lifted the gun again, training the site on Ario. The cruel glint in his eyes grew even colder.
“Well, guess what, you just became obsolete.”
He fired, the round tearing through flesh and muscle. Ario fell back on the bed, clutching the wound.
“Y-You’ve made a big mistake,” he snapped breathlessly. “I hope you’re prepared…for the consequences.”
The masked man laughed, signaling to his buddies.
“Then I guess we’ll see you in hell, old man.”
They left as quickly as they’d appeared, silence soon following. Evelyn grabbed the phone from her nightstand; she’d never thought dialing three numbers could take so long.
“Please, I need the police,” she tried to keep calm, tears starting to run down her cheeks. “Someone broke in and they just shot my husband!”
“Lena,” the teacher sighed, snapping his book shut. It was the third time she’d fallen asleep that period. “Would you please pay attention?”
Her chin propped on her hand, Lena lurched forward when the lunch bell rang, most of the students filing noisily out. Moaning quietly, she rubbed her eyes, failing to stifle a yawn. Mr. Selma set his book on the corner of his desk, leaning against it and taking off his glasses.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, wiping the lenses with the corner of his shirt. “You’ve been falling asleep in most of your classes lately.”
Lena moaned again, stretching her arms across the top of her desk.
“Yeah, Mr. S,” she murmured tiredly. “Everything’s fine.”
He looked at her strangely, putting his glasses back on. He walked to the desk in front of hers, pulling out the chair and straddling it.
“You haven’t been keeping up with your homework, either,” he went on. “You sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”
Her chin still on the desk, Lena stared blankly at him, then gradually pulled herself upright.
“It’s just been…kind of hard,” she started haltingly. “So much has happened since…since I moved here, and I…”
She swallowed, briefly tapping her fingers together before letting out a sharp breath.
“And I keep dreaming about what…I don’t even know…”
Mr. Selma took off his glasses again, scratching his cheek with the arm before tucking them in his shirt pocket. His concerned gaze, the same shade as Jason’s, regarded her curiously.
“And what happens in these dreams?” he prodded gently. Lena hesitated again, this time biting her knuckle hard enough to bruise the skin.
“I-I hear voices,” she started. Her best bet to get out of there quickly was to keep things simple, as vague as possible. “A-And I see things. I don’t know what they are, but they always close in on me. I try calling for help, but it feels like I’m drowning.”
“Hmm,” he rested his crossed arms on the back of the chair, tilting his dark head. “Is there anything else?”
She shook her head, the words spilling forth anyway.
“The people I call out to never help me, they just start mocking me like all the other voices do.”
She didn’t bother going into the rest of it, sure it would just land her in the loony bin. The teacher thought a moment, glancing at the clock. It ticked quietly on, oblivious to the lives flowing past it.
“Well, the short answer is it sounds like you’re unsure of yourself,” he turned back to her. “You don’t seem to realize how important you are to the people you care about, or how much they care about you.”
“But that’s just it,” she argued, suddenly wide awake. “Pretty much everyone I’ve known, their lives got worse after they met me.”
He chuckled softly.
“Now I find that hard to believe.”
“My best friend lost his brother,” she started. “There was a massacre at my school and now Jason’s grandfather was shot!”
“In the shoulder,” Jason added from the doorway. “The guy had lousy aim.”
Mr. Selma got to his feet, pushing the chair back in before going to the whiteboard. He picked up the eraser, looking at her over his shoulder.
“You can go, Lena.”
She nodded, grabbing her backpack and following Jason into the hall. They walked in silence until he stopped at his locker, stashing his books inside and grabbing his own backpack.
“How much of that did you hear?” she asked.
“Just the end,” he curled the strap over his shoulder, slamming his locker shut. “Ty’s never really said anything about his brother.”
“He hates talking about it,” she turned toward the doors. “It was the main reason they moved.”
She looked up when they got outside, smiling faintly when she saw the clear sky; the barest breeze brushed her cheek.
“C’mon,” he started toward the half-full parking lot. “There’s somewhere I wanted to take you.”
It was a short drive to the park near the town square. This time of day, it was crowded with little kids, families enjoying the break in yet another long wet spell. He pulled into the last empty spot, hitting a button on the dash to put up the black canvas top.
“Look, I know something’s bugging you,” he cut the engine. “You wanna tell me what’s going on?”
She shook her head, putting on a bright smile; he’d seen her cry too many times already.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” she said. She glanced out the window, unlocking her door and stepping out. “Come on, let’s go for a walk, it’s nice out.”
They ended up on a popular path near the woods at the edge of the park. Lena focused on the damp soil ahead, watching the patterns the sunlight made as it filtered through the leaves above. The sound of birdsong was everywhere, the undergrowth rustling as rabbits and squirrels darted through it. Jason stopped at a fork in the trail, taking her hand and leading her to an empty, leaf-strewn picnic area. He picked the table furthest away, pulling her down beside him on the cement bench.
“Now, what’s going on?” his voice was firm, full of concern. She shook her head, cracking a shaking grin.
“I can’t tell you,” she still wouldn’t meet his gaze, sure she’d spill everything if she did. “I don’t want you to worry.”
“You’re making me worry more by not telling me,” he put a hand on her cheek, tilting her face toward him. “And I know you still think I’m messing with you, but I really do care. Now, please, just tell me what’s wrong.”
He wasn’t sure what to expect when she pulled back, his eyes widening when, slowly, she pushed up her sleeve, revealing her arm was covered in long, narrow cuts. Most of them only a day or two old.
“I-I thought I’d stopped for good this time,” she explained hurriedly. She yanked her sleeve down again, turning away from him, wrapping her arms tightly around herself.
“I-I didn’t want to tell you,” she murmured. Her voice broke slightly, tears visible at the corner of her eye. “B-Because I knew you’d leave if you found out just…just how messed up I was.”
She moved to leave, barely making it to her feet before he grabbed her hand again, gripping it firmly.
“I’d never do that to you, Lena,” he said seriously. He stood, moving close to her. He wiped the tears from her cheek, hating the fear he saw in her clear green eyes. “You could murder someone, and it wouldn’t do a thing to change how I feel about you.”
She gasped softly, the fear fading into shock. She really meant that much to him?
“R-Really?” she asked. He smiled faintly, leaning down and kissing her tenderly.
“Really,” he kissed her again, delighting in her light blush when he pulled away. Feeling the same heat spread across his face, he cleared his throat. “A-And there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a while now…”
He took off his class ring, he hadn’t gone anywhere without it since the day he’d gotten it, and slid it on her thumb.
“Will you be my girl?”
The young agent shifted impatiently in his seat. He’d barely fallen asleep when the call came, summoning him to headquarters. It was going on two in the morning when the maid who’d let him in returned to the foyer, leading him silently to the trophy room. An aging man sat before the fireplace in a plush armchair, polishing what looked to be an antique pistol. Without looking up from his work, he motioned to the matching chair on the other side of the blazing hearth.
“Have a seat,” he said distractedly, barely glancing at his servant. “You know what to do.”
The woman nodded, shutting the door and leaving them alone. He turned toward his protégé, watching as the boy turned in a slow circle, taking in all the flickering golden glow of the fire had to offer. Stuffed animal heads were mounted high on the sage green walls, framed black-and-white photographs capturing the kills hung below them. A tall lacquered cabinet stood in one corner, housing his prized hunting rifles. He smiled faintly before going back to his pistol, breaking the weapon down to clean it more thoroughly.
“I’m surprised it’s taken you so long,” he said at length. “You’re usually much faster than this.”
He put the gun back together, setting it on the small table between the chairs. The boy sighed heavily, slumping into his appointed seat, running his hands slowly over his face.
“I know what you’re going to say,” he muttered. “That I should’ve used whatever feelings she had for me, not succumbed to them.”
The old man smiled again.
“You’re right, I should say that,” he started. “But I won’t.”
The boy looked at him.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to kill her,” he went on. “I went through the same thing when I met her grandmother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She hasn’t done anything to deserve this,” he smoothed a hand over his thinning gray hair. “I gave you her information because I wanted to show you there’s more to life than just silencing targets.”
The younger man continued to stare at him, the fire glinting off the confusion in his eyes.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?”
He cocked a brow, putting the pistol together and setting it back in its case.
“Would you have bothered getting to know her if I had?”
He could tell the line had caught the boy off-guard; so he wasn’t completely gone yet. Good.
“No, but…” he trailed off, unable to believe he’d been played so easily. “So…you tricked me…”
“I had to,” he pushed himself to his feet, walking to the small bar on the other side of the room. He popped the caps off two beers, being sure to keep his actions hidden. “But you’ve grown to like her, haven’t you?”
He turned in time to see the boy rub the back of his neck, looking sheepish.
“Well, yeah, I guess. I mean…” he trailed off again, shaking his head. So, things had gone even better than he had planned. Excellent. He crossed the room, handing off one of the bottles.
“You mean it’s more than that, isn’t it?”
The boy took several gulps without hesitation, no doubt trying to steady himself.
“Well, the truth is, I…” he swallowed, scratching at a healing cut peeking out from his collar. “I-I think I’m in love with her.”
He chuckled, holding his own drink aloft before taking a long sip.
“Now that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
They looked up at a small knock at the door. Anya poked her head in, clearing her throat nervously.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said quietly. “But we’re ready.”
“Perfect,” he rose again, once more turning his back on his young counterpart. No matter how much it hurt to do so. “You can go.”
There was a small shuffle as the boy got to his feet, a groan and a crash as the bottle fell to the floor. A woozy moan was soon followed by a thud, Anya covering her mouth to hide a shocked gasp. She stared past him, to the body lying on the floor. How could he have done such a thing?
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, knowing it would never be enough. “I’m so sorry.”
The pen stopped, hovering just above a half-inked page. Jason turned toward the living room, hearing a layer of noise beneath the rain, wind and thunder. The sounds blurred together, but it was clear people were talking, their excited voices full of laughter. He crept from his seat at the kitchen table, wincing at each creak of the floor as he snuck toward the basement, where the noise seemed to be coming from. Gripping the knob tightly, he took a deep breath, throwing the door open.
The scene playing out at the base of the stairs was straight from a movie. A girl was curled up on her side, her face hidden by soaked dark hair. She’d been bound hand and foot with old bandanas, shivering in fear and stripped to her underwear. Two men stood over her, one looking up as thunder crashed, his eyes widening behind his white goalie mask.
Panicked, he brought up his gun, shooting blindly as he dashed for the stairs that led to the yard. Jason let them go, hurrying to the girl’s side. She shied away from him after he untied her mouth, tears dripping across her already wet cheeks.
“P-Please,” she begged brokenly. “Please, d-don’t hurt me!”
“Relax,” he loosened the black cloth around her wrists. “I just want to help you.”
He helped her sit up, gently pushing her hair back, gasping when he saw her face.
“Lena? W-What the hell happened to you?”
Sniffling, Lena hugged herself, bringing her knees back to her chest.
“T-Those guys came at me out of nowhere,” she explained, her voice shaking. “T-They dragged me to their car and ripped my clothes off. I-I think they were going to…”
She broke down, leaning close to him. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, quickly untying the bandana around her ankles.
“I-I don’t know why they brought me here,” she went on. “U-Unless they thought they could…”
Her voice died when she saw the blood on his shirt, the ugly gash above his hip. He kissed her hair, apparently clueless of the wound as he went to the dryer, reaching into the basket of folded clothes on top of it. He tossed her one of his old baseball shirts, keeping his gaze averted as she pulled it on.
“Are you okay, though?” he asked at last. She nodded, holding her throat as she got to her feet.
“Yeah, I just need some water,” she leaned against the bannister. “It feels like I haven’t had any in hours.”
She watched as he ran a hand down his side, looking surprised at the blood on his fingers. She swallowed.
“But what about you? Didn’t you just get shot?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, grabbing another shirt from the basket. “But I’ll be fine, it just grazed me.”
“How do you keep getting in these situations?”
Jason leaned against the bathroom counter, pulling the old towel off his wound. It hadn’t stopped bleeding entirely, but had slowed a great deal. He tossed it aside, grabbing a large gauze pad from the first aid kit Kelly had insisted he keep. He finished dressing it quickly, pulling on his shirt before turning to Lena. She was sitting on her knees next to the tub, washing the dried mud and dust from her hair.
“I snuck out after Kara was asleep,” she wrung her hair again, grabbing the conditioner, smirking when she saw it was sun-kissed strawberry. “Nice choice.”
She squeezed some into her palm, working her fingers back through her hair.
“Ty told me about this place you guys like,” she went on. “I wanted to check it out.”
She waited a few more minutes before rising her hair out, shutting off the water. She wrung her hair out one last time before grabbing the towel he’d dropped next to her. He scoffed.
“You went alone?” he asked incredulously. “In the middle of the night?”
She flashed a guilty smile, running her fingers through her hair to get rid of the worst of the tangles. She’d brush it properly when she went home in the morning.
“How was I supposed to know it would out to be a bad idea?”
They went downstairs to the living room, Jason groaning faintly when he sat on the couch.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked, sounding worried. He nodded.
“I’ll be fine,” he leaned back, sighing. “It’s nothing new.”
She looked at him.
“You mean you’ve been shot before?”
His breath caught in his throat. He coughed.
“Once, when I was twelve,” he rubbed a spot on his upper thigh; just another scar he’d completely forgotten about. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Lena turned to the window, shrinking against him when thunder crashed, the wild wind blowing sheets of water down the empty street. The oily clouds flashed silvery-blue with every streak of lightning. After another minute, she pulled back from him, an old anger pushing its way to the front of her mind.
“You don’t trust me at all, do you?” she asked softly. He blinked.
“What do you mean?” he gave a confused laugh. “Of course I do.”
She sneered at him.
“Then why won’t you tell me anything? You know pretty much everything about me,” she added vehemently. “But you’re still a big mystery. What is going on with you?”
He stopped. He should’ve known this would happen. Even so, as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t tell her, not yet. Not when there was still the faintest flicker of hope that things might change.
“L-Lena, please,” he begged. “Please, I-I can’t-”
Her sneer darkened further.
“Oh, so I’m not good enough?” her voice hardened. Why was he so determined to keep lying to her? “Is that it?”
“N-No, no, it’s not that,” he fumbled, running his hands over his face. Why did this always have to be so difficult for him? “I-I just-”
“Just what? Want me to accept I’ll never know you?” she stood, glaring down at him. “That you like keeping me in the dark?”
She waited for an answer, getting only a blank, agonized stare.
“Ugh, I can’t believe this,” her voice broke. She whirled away from him; the last thing she needed now was for him to see her cry. “I finally find a guy that wants more than sex, only to find out he doesn’t give a damn about me!”
“Lena, that’s crazy,” he stood as well, sounding anguished as he reached for her hand. “Of course I-”
His words cut off when she smacked him, unaware that her nails had caught his skin. He ignored the sting in his cheek, not resisting when she yanked her wrist away.
“Alex was right about you,” she blurted through a sob. “You’re nothing but a dirty liar!”
Jason wasn’t sure what happened next, only that he was suddenly filled with burning ire. He lashed out, trapping her arm in an iron grip. She whirled at the harsh contact, her hand flying above her head. He laughed cruelly, yanking her closer.
“Go on, smack me again and see what happens,” he taunted. “Now shut the hell up and listen to me.”
She whimpered, her eyes widening when she saw the blood starting to trickle down his cheek. What on earth had come over him?
“I have never lied to you,” his grip tightened further. “And I have never done anything to hurt you.”
“J-Jason,” she sniffled, choking on the knot in her throat. This wasn’t normal for him! “Y-You’re hurting me now…”
Hearing the panic in her voice, he grit his teeth, clinching his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the rage had faded, buried by fear and confusion. He looked down, gasping when saw just how tightly he’d been holding her. She shied away quickly when he released her, gazing fearfully at him.
“Jason, what…” she gulped. “W-What just happened to you?”
“I-I don’t know,” he stared at his hands, clenching his fists when he saw how much they were trembling. “I-I’ve never lost my temper like that before…”
She strayed back a while longer, then approached him carefully, laying a hand on his arm. The tension coursing through his body faded at her touch; she reached up, running her fingers between the cuts on his cheek. Had she really done that? He covered her hand with his, bringing it briefly to his lips.
The spy’s smile dropped into a sneer, their cold eyes narrowing in disgust. Just when things had started getting interesting again!
“Your opinions aren’t important right now,” a hard voice crackled to life in their headset. They scoffed.
“Why are you still making me sit here?” they asked impatiently. “Why can’t I just kill them now?”
There was some shuffling in the background, a muted argument, then a slamming door.
“Taking them out now would just cause suspicions,” their boss replied testily. “We can’t take any more risks.”
“You know I do my job thoroughly,” they snapped in return. That was one thing they had always hated about this agency, and the corporate world in general. How inter-company feuds and endless lines of red tape were always getting in the way of everything important! “No one would ever find them.”
There was another pause on the line; they could envision the old man nodding in agreement.
“I know how well you do your job,” he said at last. “And I assure you, their time will come.”
“But when?” they shifted in the soil, hardly caring if the people inside happened to hear them. “I’m getting tired of watching them!”
“Patience,” the man’s voice grew even colder in warning. “I understand your frustration, but I still have a few more things he needs to finish for me. After that, you’ll be free to do whatever you want with them.”
They chuckled, their sneer twisting back into a grin. It was about time they were allowed to have some fun again!
“I can hardly wait.”