At two in the morning, Arkelance was practically a sleepy town with only one patrol guarding the streets. It also had its own harbor at the south, primarily intended for imports, where a merchant ship was currently settled in the berth.

The only thing that lit the boat was the moonlight, casting shadows on the deck every time it was rocked by a slight train of waves. A silhouette suddenly broke through the shadows, running silently overboard and jumping to land, fading in the darkness of night.

At that same time, Lucianne was lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and passing a key between her fingers. She had not closed an eye, waiting patiently to carry out her plan. Sleep was upon her, but she couldn’t afford to be overcome by it just yet, not while anxiety was gnawing her.

She heard the front door open, the tinkling of keys and a few heavy steps up the stairs, diminishing as they went down the hall. She immediately got up and opened her door to peer outside, getting to see her father’s door closing.

She clasped the keys and left her room quietly, walking all the way down the corridor, putting an ear to the door and hearing movement inside, like heavy objects being dragged on the floor. She hesitated for a bit, but after hearing about the effects of the gift’s loss and in light of her father’s recent behavior, she couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. So, she took a deep breath to gather her courage, and finally locked the door.

There was a momentary silence, as if time had stopped. She kept her hand grabbing the latch, wondering if her father would’ve heard the lock. Then a set of footsteps approached the door, followed by the sound of the latch being forced.

“Lucianne, if that’s you, open right now.”

She stood motionless, holding her breath until the door began to shake, making her jump, the frame shuddering after each bang. She feared it would give in under his strong blows, but since her father was promoted to commissioner years ago, he’d decided to install in every room of the house a security door that looked like wood on the surface, but was filled with really strong material with reinforced frame, which made it resistant to any kind of attempt to knock it down.

“Open the door!”

“I’m sorry, dad, it’s for your own good! You’ll thank me later!” she said, staring at the door shaking on its hinges while she backed away. Even after she went back to her room and lay down on her bed she could hear it. She put on headphones and squeezed a pillow around her ears, closing her eyes to just listen to the music and ignore all the noise around.

“Marianne . . . Marianne . . . Marianne . . . ” Samael repeated, waking her up in the middle of the night once again for a second day in a row. She opened her eyes and found him on his knees in front of her bed, so she glared at him.

“What is it now? I left you enough food in case you got hungry.”

“It’s not that. I just feel something strange in my eyes, don’t know what it is.” His voice sounded weakened and Marianne focused on him, noticing his eyes were a little red and he blinked nonstop. “They’re stinging, and no matter how much I try to keep them open, they’re still closing.”

“Have you slept?”

“Sleep? Angels don’t sleep,” he said, shaking his head and struggling to keep his eyes open.

“You mean you’ve gone two days in a row without any sleep? Come on! You’re tired, that’s it! You said it yourself, you have to adjust to your new human form. Well, sleep is one of the basic needs we have,” she explained, sitting up and now rubbing her face.

“But . . . how do I sleep?” he asked with a vulnerable expression.

“Just close your eyes and stop thinking, when you feel like opening them again you’ll feel better.”

“Okay,” Samael agreed, closing his eyes and staying still for a moment. Marianne stared at him, wondering if he intended to follow her advice right there, but before she could say anything else, he just fell asleep on the floor.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” She walked around him towards her closet and took out an extra pillow and a blanket to try and wrap him up the best way she could. Then she sat in her bed again and looked for her alarm clock. It was just past two in the morning. She sighed again and leaned back, keeping her eyes shut for a long time, but feeling like sleep wouldn’t come to her. Several minutes passed, or so she thought. She heard some noises downstairs and then the beep of her alarm, which she supposed was in her imagination since it was still several hours left for school. Next, she heard some distant knocks and an unintelligible voice that slowly began to become clear.

“Are you listening? It’s getting late! Didn’t you hear me?”

She heard the noise of the latch and squinted just as the door was opening. That woke her up immediately and glanced at the floor where Samael was still sleeping. When she looked up again, Loui was entering the room and, in what seemed like a split second, she sat up, tossing aside all of her blankets down the floor, falling in pile over Samael and completely covering him.

“What was that?” Loui stopped with suspicion.

“What was what?” she repeated, standing in front of the pile of blankets.

“There’s someone down there, I saw it,” the kid said, pointing at the pile.

“You must have imagined it,” she replied with a poker face. Both held a staring contest for several seconds until Loui stepped back and turned his face outside, staying between the door and the frame to prevent her to close it.

“Dad, come here! Marianne is hiding someone in her room!”

She immediately kicked the pile, and when her father’s footsteps got closer, she kicked it even harder.

“What is it?” he asked, getting inside the room.

“Nothing. I just overslept.”

“There’s someone there, under all those blankets! I saw it, she’s hiding it!”

“He’s seeing things,” she maintained her position, though her nerves were about to break. Noah looked at her, then at the pile of blankets, and finally came closer. He started to lift them and put them back on the bed. As the pile decreased, Marianne’s anxiety grew. It was just a matter of time before he found Samael lying on the floor. And that she couldn’t explain.

He finally reached the last layer. There it was, the blanket she had covered him with just hours before. She was ready for the worst as soon as he lifted it, though there was nothing but a pillow underneath. Noah picked it up and placed it on the bed too.

“All done. When you come back from school you can make the bed, but now get ready or you’ll be late,” he suggested while Loui analyzed the place and looked under the bed, feeling disappointed.

“I swear there was somebody in there, dad!” the kid insisted as his father pulled him to the door.

“Come on, go get your stuff. I’ll take you to school in five minutes,” he ordered in a warm and gentle tone, closing the door behind them.

Marianne stood static, getting the feeling that she had been saved by a hair’s breadth again. With no time to relax, she started looking for Samael around the room, assuming he had become invisible. She knelt down to check under the bed, empty at first glance, and decided to pass her hand over there. It was stopped by something solid. Then Samael became visible again.

“Whew, you almost got caught,” she said with relief.

“You didn’t have to kick me,” he replied, taking his hand to his ribs while crawling out of there.

“Maybe if you hadn’t fallen asleep in here, I wouldn’t have had to wake you up at any cost. That’s what the attic is for, you know?”

“You were right, my eyes no longer burn. I do feel so much better,” he said in a more fresh and relaxed tone.

At least after that he seemed aware that nobody should see him while he was home, and with her mother at the hospital and her father not so much into investigations, the only one they had to be more careful with was Loui. Now that her little brother had it stuck in his head that he’d seen something, he wouldn’t rest until getting some proof. They would have to be extremely cautious around him.

Her father’s call urged her to put on her uniform and get ready in record time. She granted him a point for being available to take them to school, though he wasn’t a strict father. In fact, she couldn’t remember a single occasion when he had scolded them or even spoken loud. He always kept the same soft and moderate manner even when her mother, being temperamental and impulsive as she was, had outbursts out of nowhere. Just like the ‘great bonfire day’ when she’d decided to burn in the garden all of the portraits she had made of him. As she threw papers and whatever she had on hand to the fire, her father stood in front of his car in silence, with a straight face but no hint of anger in him, rather with some sort of conformist melancholy, as if meekly accepting the situation.

“Are you guys ready?” he asked, waiting in the car. Marianne got in the front seat without a word and kept her eyes on the road through the window. He dropped Loui at his school first and was already headed to hers when he suddenly asked: “Have you opened my luggage?” The question took her by surprise, unable to say a word. “Just wondering, because some of my things seem to be missing, though I’m not sure what.”

“If you’re not sure, then you probably left them somewhere else without even noticing. They’ll reappear,” she replied, trying not to show any sign of guilt.

“Yes, you’re right. I’m so careless sometimes,” he accepted, dismissing the matter with a smile which restored her calm, even though she knew now that she needed to find the right moment to return all of his clothes.

She looked through the window while passing behind the campus and saw Demian walking on the sidewalk. He was running late just like her.

He looked up and caught a sight of her. Marianne didn’t know whether to wave or not, she wasn’t sure yet how to define their relationship as of lately, if they could be considered friends or what. But those split seconds weren’t enough to make up her mind because the car turned around and she lost sight of him.

Demian just stood there, watching the car going away. Then he resumed his walk, going past the closed coffee shop and glancing around the façade just as he had used to do lately. A noise made him stop and turned to the narrow gap in the left side of the property. He knew there was a dumpster in that passage, so it wasn’t hard to think it could have been cats fighting. But then a distinctly human groan made him retrace his steps and take a look inside. The length of the alley spread throughout the coffee shop, there was an exit door in the middle, and next was the dumpster. It blocked the view of the rest of the passage, but that didn’t stop him from spotting a pair of bare feet folding, hidden behind the trash can.

According to his watch it was five past eight, so he was already late. A few more minutes wouldn’t make much difference. He glanced sideways just in case he saw someone coming, but the street was unusually lonely. And finally, he blew out some cold air and got into the narrow passage.

“Do you want me to come for you later?” Noah asked after leaving Marianne at the school gates. “The three of us can go for ice cream and smuggle some into the hospital.”

“No, I have other things to do, but you two do it. Mom sure will appreciate it.”

“Oh, well. We’ll save some for you, then,” he said in a somewhat disappointed tone, although his ‘everything’s fine’ smile remained.

Without wasting any time, she went into the school, thinking she wouldn’t make it in time, but luckily the teacher hadn’t come either.

As she headed to her seat, she walked past someone with a plastered nose. At first, she didn’t recognize her, but as soon as the girl frowned and squinted, forcing her to look away, she couldn’t help a comically surprised expression. Kristania never looked better in her opinion.

“That’s right, it’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Lilith said with a big grin, clearly enjoying the situation.

“It’s not right to take delight in someone’s misfortune,” Marianne replied, trying to suppress a smile of her own.

“Oh, I know you’re enjoying it as much or more than me,” Lilith said, raising an eyebrow and keeping the smirk on her face. Marianne wagged her head, hoping not to chuckle and prove her right.

“Marianne . . . can I ask you something?” Angie came to her, sitting at the desk on her left in a discreet manner, as if not wanting to be heard by anyone else.

“Sure, tell me.”

Angie looked around with secrecy, thinking what to say. She finally leaned forward and spoke quietly.

“Is Samuel . . . something of yours?”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“Well . . . if you and him . . . ”

“No! Of course not!” she promptly replied without measuring her volume. When she realized, Lilith had already turned on her chair and was looking at them.

“Oh . . . it’s just that . . . you seem so close.”

“Well, that’s because he’s my childhood friend,” she explained, though her mind couldn’t help adding ‘and my guardian angel’. Angie just nodded with a brooding expression.

“He’s a little peculiar, isn’t he? Like someone out of this world.”

“Yeah, well, let’s leave it at peculiar.”

The raspberry-haired girl moved her head affirmatively, staring into the space, not even noticing both Marianne and Lilith arching their eyebrows suspiciously.

“Hasn’t Belgina come yet?” Marianne asked, changing the subject.

“She went to the bathroom a while ago.”

Each area from the institute had their own bathrooms, and theirs were at the bottom of the last corridor. Marianne went there to see what was taking her so long and just by turning around the last hall, she saw Belgina in the distance, virtually attached to the wall, while Mitchell was leaning with an arm resting next to her in a playboy attitude. His impish smile looked like a permanent tattoo on his face.

“So, you’ve known my sister for years? What a coincidence. And she never introduced us. Oh, well, I’ll complain to her later. Tell me more about you.”

“Don’t bother her, you perv!” Marianne interrupted, standing in front of Belgina.

“Bother her? I’m just trying to know her. Can’t a guy talk to a girl anymore without everybody thinking he’s harassing her?”

“Your pose says otherwise,” Marianne added, pointing at his arm holding onto the wall and his body leaning forward.

“This is how I stand, it’s not forbidden, as far as I know,” he retorted, accentuating his pose and arching a brow. “Could it be that you’re jealous?”

“You wish!” she angrily replied, while Belgina didn’t know where to hide her face until Marianne took her arm and led her away. “Come, let’s go back to class.”

“Bye, babe. See you later!” Mitchell said with a wink. Belgina blushed and averted her eyes to the front. Marianne threw her a reproachful look.

“Remember what we talked about yesterday?” Marianne said, and she began to babble.

“To . . . to be careful . . . around him?”

“Exactly, you should have run as soon as you saw him coming closer.”

“I’m sorry, my mind went blank,” Belgina said, looking down and hoping she would stop talking about that.

“What’s that in your hand?”

Belgina seemed to barely realize she had her hand closed in a fist and once she opened it, she revealed a pair of small earrings like the ones Mitchell wore. Marianne gave her another reproaching look, which made her feel even more ashamed.

“I’ll take them back,” she decided and Belgina just nodded, handing her the earrings.

Marianne returned to the juniors’ hall, but he was no longer there, so she reached the bottom classroom and look through the doorway. The students were chatting to kill time while their teacher arrived. Mitchell saw her from the other end of the room and approached the door with a cool attitude.

“Did you come to apologize and tell me you can’t live without me and want another chance? Well, I’m sorry, kiddo, because this ship has sailed.”

“Not even in your wildest dreams! Here!” she said, leaving the earrings in his hands.

“Why are you giving me this? I gave them to Belgina.”

“You’re not buying her with gifts, ok? Just leave her alone.”

She turned around to leave, but not before one last look to the classroom. It was odd not seeing Demian since he was almost within walking distance from school. She was tempted to ask Mitchell, but immediately dismissed the idea and decided there was no reason to keep dawdling about it and went back to her class.

Standing in front of the solid reinforced door that held Commissioner Fillian prisoner, Lucianne remained still with a tray in her hands. The plate held an omelette, toast and a glass of orange juice in it. Breakfast for her father. Or at least she intended it to be. She really had no idea what would happen once she opened the door and went in there. In her mind, she hoped her father would feel remorseful or at least would let her in, but her rational side knew it was impossible, the least she could expect was that he would push her away —food and juice included— and get out of there like a bullet train, and she couldn’t afford that. So, while she was standing there, thinking how to bring him breakfast before it cooled down, she tried to perceive any kind of sound coming from inside, something that would indicate her whether or not he was awake, but she couldn’t hear a thing. If only she could get inside quickly, leave the tray and get out in a matter of seconds. But couldn’t take the risk, not if she wasn’t able to be that fast.

She ran her eyes over the door-frame, wishing to have supersonic speed or some kind of super power. And then it dawned on her. She was an Angel Warrior. She may not have super speed, but she did have a special power. And thus, she quickly leaned against the door and set the tray on the floor while doing mental estimations about its size and density. Finally, after several minutes analyzing it, she closed the right hand, leaving her index finger extended and breathed deeply, her eyes fixed on the boards below. A flash of light was shot from her tip, going through the material very smoothly, like a laser beam. She held it firm while running over the bottom, cutting it off and leaving a small breach where the tray could easily get through, and even took the time to make another orifice through which the glass could also be introduced. She wouldn’t even have to worry about her dad trying to get out through it since it would be impossible given his size.

Just as the task was completed, she took the tray and started to carefully insert it through the gap she had opened, keeping her senses on guard in case she heard a noise. When the tray was almost entirely inside, it was suddenly snatched from her hand.

It all happened so fast she had no time to react. She could almost hear her own voice in her head shouting to move away, but just as she was pulling back her arm, another hand held her tightly by the wrist.

“LET. ME. OUT,” her father’s voice resounded.

The door vibrated, maybe because of the struggle or the powerful resonance of his voice, but either way she panicked. And what made her dread even more wasn’t the possibility of being hurt by him, but the certainty that he’d do it under his condition.

“Open the door right now!”

Lucianne pulled her arm, trying to break free, but her father’s hand closed tighter around her wrist.

“Dad! You’re hurting me!” she cried, hoping he’d realized the damage he was inflicting her by the sound of her trembling voice and stop, but that didn’t seem to have any effect, he was completely deranged.

With her free arm, she leaned on the door and pushed her body back, feeling the muscles from her arm ripping up, inducing her to let out a cry of pain. Suddenly she felt a tingling in her fingers, much like the feeling she had every time she was about to shoot one of her light beams. She made a big effort to get loose before anything happened, but her fingertips already felt itchy, and then her father screamed, releasing her instantly. She fell on her back, staying on the floor and panting exhausted. She took her hand for a closer look and saw the tips of her fingers were all red, but were starting to recover their original color. She could hear her father’s groans in the background.

“What did you do to me?! I have a hole in my hand, what did you do?!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she repeated, overwhelmed, wondering what to do now when she heard a knock on the main door. She entered the room right above the front of the house and looked out the window. Parked in front of the garden was a police car and Officer Perry was circling in front of the porch. Before he could raise his eyes and see her, she pulled away from the window and closed the curtains. She had to decide her next move real quickly, because if he didn’t get any answer, he would force the entrance, suspecting something had happened. And her father’s cries could still be heard, so she didn’t want to risk being discovered.

She breathed deeply to keep her cool and then ran to the bathroom, opened the built-in mirror and began to pull out bandages, alcohol and whatever could come in handy.

She left the bathroom, leaned back against her father’s room and slid everything she had taken through the gap, rushing down to her room where she took a sweater and a bag, not even bothering to check whether or not they matched with her outfit.

Officer Perry waited impatiently on the porch, his hand close to his gun and his fingers drumming on it with an unnerving feeling. It had been days by now that he worried about not hearing from his boss, but he was mostly concerned about Lucianne.

Whenever she was in town, she resorted on him to take her anywhere and he gladly accepted. It didn’t bother him to act like his driver just to be around her. When he’d met her for the first time, he was barely a cadet who followed commissioner Fillian everywhere as his apprentice and he’d asked Perry to follow her everywhere, to practically be her shadow, and a shadow he’d become to her. She just had to say a word and he stopped whatever he was doing to go after her. If something was to happen to Lucianne, he didn’t know what he was capable of.

The door opened, alerting him, but when he saw Lucianne, he felt his soul coming back to his body.

“Miss Lucianne! I finally get to see you!”

She closed the door quickly without giving him the chance to enter.

“I was just leaving, could you take me?”

“Yeah, sure, but . . . is your father home? We’re worried about him at the office, we haven’t even received any call from him, is he still sick?”

“Yes! It’s an extreme case of chickenpox! You know what they say when an adult gets it. I had it as a child so I have no risk of contagion.” She hadn’t, but he couldn’t know.

“Really? That’s weird, how could he have caught it?”

“I’m asking myself the same, but anyway, he won’t be available for the next two weeks. They can give him a medical leave, right?”

“Of course. Want me to help with anything? You know you can count on me whenever you need it.”

The sound of breaking glass coming from inside made Lucianne hastily take his arm and pull him to the car.

“Will you take me to the Retroganzza? I have something to do there.”

“But your father . . . ”

“He’s resting. Come,” Lucianne insisted to get him to take her away before he noticed something was wrong.

“I’ll wait for you,” offered the young officer, just parking in front of the cafeteria.

“No! It’s not necessary this time. I’ll stay here for quite a while. Waiting for my friends, that is,” said Lucianne to make him go. “I’ll call you in case anything happens, okay?”

“Well, as you wish, Miss Lucianne.”

“And stop calling me that. Just Lucianne, please. We’ve known each other for so long,” she asked, pointing at him like it was an order.

“Well . . . see you later, Lucianne,” he finished with a big smile. Then he went out the parking zone, with that joyful expression of his, and was gone in a matter of minutes, leaving Lucianne with a strange mixture of relief, remorse and even hunger. She looked straight to the coffee shop and entered. It wasn’t even ten o’clock yet in the cuckoo clock displayed as part of the set decoration. It was odd to find it open but empty.

“Hello?” she called out loud, waiting to get an answer, and heard a muffled sound like steps up or down some stairs, which was even weirder given that the property was a single level building.

There was a clank, like a heavy door closing, and then she saw Demian getting out of the kitchen looking agitated, but trying to hide it.

“Lucianne…What are you doing here? We’re not open yet.”

“The door wasn’t locked. Besides . . . shouldn’t you be at school right now?”

“Yes, but . . . something came up. I didn’t realize I left the door open,” he said, more like berating himself and looking back a little anxiously towards the kitchen.

“I’m sorry. Clearly I came in a bad time so I’ll just leave.”

“No, it’s fine, stay!” he said holding her arm and Lucianne looked at his hand first and then right into his eyes. He flinched and immediately let go of her, a little ashamed. “Like I said, it’s okay if you stay, although there’s a problem back in the kitchen, but you could keep me company . . . That is if you want, of course.”

“If you don’t mind,” Lucianne agreed with a smile, and Demian returned the gesture while putting the ‘Closed’ sign on the door. Then he went to get a drink for her, and waited for the cook and the waiter to arrive, but despite his claim of being alone, he was constantly glancing to the kitchen over his shoulder.

“You really don’t need any help? I could call someone.”

“No, everything’s fine,” he assured her, trying to hold his urge to look back. “In fact, I find it kind of weird that you’re here so early, did something happen?”

“No, I just . . . wanted to see you,” she said unthinkingly, but after seeing the surprised look on Demian’s face, she realized she shouldn’t have said that lest he take it the wrong way. Though it wasn’t entirely a lie, either.

“Oh,” was all he said, followed by several seconds of awkward silence. He looked away with a pensive gesture as she tried to think of something else to make up for her slip, and just as she was about to open her mouth again, he went ahead. “There’s this movie . . . that was released recently. ‘The empire of Gods’, I think it’s called. I heard it’s quite good. Maybe we could—”

“Are you asking me out?” Lucianne interrupted. She was now the one who looked shocked. Demian cleared his throat and his smile slightly curved to one side.

“Friends go out, right?” It wasn’t exactly the answer she was expecting, but that didn’t stop her from smiling too and nodding frenziedly.

“Sounds good to me,” she agreed, momentarily forgetting the problem she had at home. But then they were interrupted by what it seemed to be the sound of a whack coming from the kitchen.

“Be right back,” Demian excused himself, returning to the kitchen with a sense of urgency, leaving Lucianne sitting on a stool in front of the counter, wondering what was happening back there. Why had he decided to skip classes being within walking distance from school?

As a child, she remembered him always worried about his grades and being in the honor roll. There was no day he wouldn’t go to school, except when his mother died. That had alienated him from everyone, but still she had been there for him, really close, and had it not been for her father sending her to a boarding school after her own mother’s death, she was sure Demian would have also been there for her. Sometimes she wondered what it would have been like if she hadn’t left at all, but she supposed it was something they would never know.

“Is he staying in town, then?” Angie asked as they crossed the shortcut that would lead them to the coffee shop.

“Well . . . yes. After all, he came to fight alongside us.”

“I assume he’ll have to transfer schools then, right? It would be great if he comes to ours!” Lilith said, walking ahead of them.

“Uhm . . . sure . . . he’s on it,” Marianne lied, impatient to change the subject.

“He’s joining us today, right?” Angie asked yet again. “Where is he staying?”

“Gosh, what is this? An interrogation? You should ask him directly. But I warn you he’s very discreet about his personal life.”

“I’m sorry,” Angie apologized, a little embarrassed.

“I have no problem with that, I love introverted guys,” Lilith said, rubbing her hands.

“Whatever. Belgina, what’s on your mind?”

“Nothing, I’m just following you,” she replied in a monotone. Suddenly they heard a set of hurried steps approaching them from behind. They were barely turning their faces when Mitchell showed up, startling them.

“Hey, I’ve being following you for a while! Do you mind if I join you?”

“Will you go away if we say yes?” replied Marianne, rolling her eyes in annoyance. Mitchell walked right next to Belgina, winking and wiggling his brows up and down, despite her recoiling, trying to hide her uneasiness.

“That’s weird. It says it’s closed,” Lilith announced, pointing at the sign on the door.

Marianne stepped forward to look through the window and was surprised to see Lucianne sitting at the counter. She then tapped on the glass to get her attention.

Her cousin turned and saw the girls waving from outside, so she quickly went to the door and let them in.

“I was waiting for you.”

“How did you get in if the ‘closed’ sign is hanging on the door?”

“Oh, well, apparently the stove in the kitchen went ablaze and burned several things. The cook and the other waiter went to buy replacements and left Demian in charge while they came back.”

“What are you doing here?” Demian asked, just coming out of the kitchen.

“Sorry, I let them in, should I not have?”

“It’s okay,” he replied with a sigh, massaging the bridge of his nose. “I just wanted this to involve as few people as possible.”

The rest exchanged confused glances and wondered what he could be hiding. The only one who seemed oblivious to everything was Mitchell, who just closed the door, leaving the sign on the table and patting Demian on the shoulder with audacity.

“So, you decided to skip classes and didn’t invite me, huh? Oh! By the way! Good job with my sister,” he added, pointing at his nose. “Her septum deviated and she started to talk in a nasal voice, so she made a vow of silence until the plaster is removed. It’s been the best day of our lives and all thanks to you!”

“I don’t think it’s a joking matter,” Demian chimed, feeling guilty.

“And I’m telling you with all the honesty pouring out from my heart: thank you for giving us the cherished gift of her silence! I would kiss you right now!” he said, taking his face with both hands and squeezing his cheeks.

“Stop it!” Demian pushed his hands away. “Listen, if you want to stay here, you should know that the most I can bring you is something to drink, and you must go when the other employees come back.”

They just played along, sitting in their favorite booth while Mitchell walked towards the kitchen, but Demian stopped him before he could enter.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“The dungeon, of course,” he answered casually. The girls turned their attention to them after hearing that word. Demian gave him a reproachful look.

“Clients can’t come in,” he muttered with emphasis, blocking his way.

“No problem, then. I’m no client: I never pay.”

“Does that mean there’s an actual dungeon down there?” Marianne interrupted.

“You should see it! The marvels down there!”

“Wow, Demian, what happens in that dungeon that you keep it so hidden?” Lilith asked playfully.

“It’s not what it sounds!” he defended himself, still blocking Mitchell’s way when the sound of the doorbell interrupted, and they all turned towards the entrance. A pair of uniformed men walked in. “Sorry, but it’s closed, there’s no service today.”

“There was no sign, and it seems to us that the place is very open,” said the taller man looking at the whole group gathered at the table next to the door.

“Oops, should I have put the sign back?” asked Mitchell and Demian gave him another disapproving glare.

“We’re not here for the service. We’re going through the city looking for someone,” clarified the other man. “We’re immigration agents and we have reports about a person who illegally entered the city. He was hidden on a cargo ship and he’s apparently dangerous. Wanted in his country. We just need you to look at some pictures and tell us if you have seen him or not.”

They took a folder from their jackets and drew some pictures to pass them along. The girls looked at the photos for a few seconds, but didn’t recognize the face they were seeing, so they ended up returning them to the agent. Mitchell just took a glance and gave it back, but Demian kept staring at the picture with a serious face. The pompadour boy saw a chance to take a few steps to the kitchen and get into it.

“Well? Do you recognize him? Have you seen him recently?”

“No, sorry,” Demian finally answered, giving back the photo. His face remained impassive. The agents had no choice but to keep the pictures into their folders again, except one, which they left sitting on the counter.

“If you see him, let us know immediately, our numbers are on the reverse. As I said, he’s considered potentially dangerous.”

“Of course,” said Demian, placing his hand on the picture at the counter and rattling his fingers, clearly waiting for them to leave. Both men tilted their heads, and after giving one last look at the place, they left.

“Are you okay, Demian?” Lucianne asked, noticing his tension, but he looked around the place, his eyes seeking someone.

“Where’s Mitchell?”

A scream coming from the kitchen alerted them. Demian rushed inside, followed by the girls. On one side of the kitchen there was a door leading to a narrow staircase which descended into some kind of basement with sliding bars.

The ‘dungeon’ was every teenager’s dream, with shelves full of magazines, videogames and action figures, a TV plasma at the back and walls entirely covered in posters and comic pages. Attached to the wall, Mitchell stood frozen with a frightened expression, holding his breath while a long metal rod was pointed at his face by someone with his back to the door.

“Put the pipe down,” Demian said.

“I won’t return! You can’t make me go back!”

“He’s a friend of mine, he won’t take you anywhere,” Demian continued, calmly. “Did you hear? He’s a friend.”

The end of the pipe began to slowly go down until it dropped to the floor. Demian then took it and gestured for Mitchell to move away. He didn’t think twice and jumped from the back of the room to the other side where the girls were standing, looking curiously yet cautiously at the guy who had been threatening him a few seconds ago.

He was now on top of a cot, legs folded, with his face buried in his knees. His long curly hair was falling on the cot. Demian stood in front of everybody in a protective manner.

“Everything’s fine, nobody’s going to take you,”

“Demian . . . who is he?” asked Lucianne.

“Is he the immigrant?” Marianne inquired. Demian didn’t respond, but the rest let out a shocked snort.

“How could you hide him? Didn’t you hear those men? He’s dangerous!” Mitchell pointed out with his confidence back.

“I’m not dangerous,” the boy replied, getting up.

He wore a simple cottoned kurta, and trousers from the same type of fabric, both filthy, as was his hair. He clearly had passed too many days hidden on the ship, possibly without any food or water. They could hardly see his features so covered with dirt as he was, with his long hair falling on his face.

“Well, I don’t know what kind of habits you have, but to threaten someone’s life with a pipe isn’t acceptable here!” Mitchell claimed in a fit of bravery, though well hidden behind Demian.

“I thought it was the people from the boat coming for me. I don’t want to go back. I can’t,” the boy replied, looking really remorseful and despaired at the same time.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Demian asked after seeing Mitchell starting to move towards the door.

“What do you think? To call you know who,” Mitchell murmured, making a motion with his hands.

“You won’t tell anyone about this!”

“And what are you going to do with him? He’s wanted. You’re committing a felony by covering him up.”

“Who told you I’m wanted? Who did you talk to?” said the boy, nervously.

“These men came. They say you’re wanted in your country and you’re dangerous.”

“It’s a lie! I’m not dangerous, nor am I a criminal!” he cried, clutching his chest in a quick motion that caused the rest to start, as if expecting some backlash from his part. Noticing this, the boy sat on the cot again, looking discouraged. “You don’t get it. I can’t go back there.”

“Did you do something wrong?” Demian asked, choosing his words carefully.

“I ran away, that’s what I did,” he muttered, more to himself than the others, hiding his face under all that tangled hair of his.

“Why did you run away?”

The boy came out of his reverie at the question, but still remained silent, thinking of a way to respond.

“It’s just . . . you have no idea how things are in Gerbinkav. We young people are practically slaves. We have no chance,” he began to explain, his gaze fixed on the ground as he clutched his hands. “Anyone who dares to flee is considered a traitor to the country and . . . rewards are offered for those who returned them, so there are usually bounty hunters monitoring every boat leaving the coast, and they spread the news as if they were criminals to find them more easily. You don’t want to know what they do to those who are returned to the country.”

“What do they do to them?” Mitchell asked with morbid curiosity and the boy kept quiet for several seconds.

“They cut off their tongues and feet. If you turn me in, that’s what they’ll do to me. I can’t go back,” he insisted, holding onto his own body upon their baffled eyes.

“No one’s going to give you away. Isn’t that right?” Demian stated, glancing at the others, especially Mitchell.

“Again, what will you do with him? You can’t keep him here forever. How am I supposed to come to play videogames, then?”

“I’m not even answering that,” said Demian, casting him an irritated glance.

“Demian, he’s got a point, you can’t keep him hidden. If someone else finds out, you could get in trouble,” seconded Lucianne.

“I don’t want to be a burden,” the boy intervened again. “Thanks for helping me outside, I thought I was going to freeze to death. I can handle it from now on.”

He sat back a little shakily and began to walk towards the door.

 “Wait. You cannot leave that way,” Demian stopped him, standing in his way.

The front door bell sounded. Apparently the other employees were back and the gang was still down at the ‘dungeon’. No one moved, but exchanged urgent looks, as if they shared the same responsibility.

“Stay here, don’t go. I have an idea. You all go up, I’ll catch up in a minute.”

The others went up just as he asked, wondering what he was planning to do.

Past the kitchen door, they expected to find the cook and the waiter back, but it was Samael who stood waiting in the middle of the room, looking around in confusion.

“You’re finally here!” said Marianne, crossing the room.

“I’ve been hanging around here for hours, but the ‘closed’ sign was always up. I barely could get in here up until now . . . Did something happen?”

“Just a few . . . mishaps,” she replied just as Demian went out the kitchen. His expression seemed to harden when he saw him, but all he did was go behind the counter and get some keys.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t stay, I must go out.”

“But the illegal can, huh?” said Mitchell, folding his arms with indignation.

Demian gave him a scolding look as he headed for the door and held it open for the others.

“Good luck with your idea,” said Marianne going through the door.

He just watched them leave without saying a word until Lucianne walked out.

“Lucianne, can I ask you something?” Everyone turned around, making him hesitate for a moment. “Uhm . . . I just . . . need your help . . . Could you come with me?”

“Well, the thing is . . . ” she looked hesitantly at the others. By her look it was obvious she wanted to go with him.

“Go. When you’re done you can reach us,” Marianne resolved so she wouldn’t worry. “I’ll let you know where we’ll be.”

Lucianne smiled with gratitude and turned back to Demian, both leaving afterwards under their friends’ curious gazes.

“We need to find a place for the meeting,” said Marianne to make them focus.

“If you’re okay with it . . . we could go to my house. My mother must be at court right now,” Belgina suggested.

“Home alone? I’m in.” Mitchell intervened, letting them know he was still there. They had to get rid of him.

“You’re not invited!” Marianne decreed, beckoning the others to start walking and taking Belgina by the arm to keep her away from him.

“Are you aware I could just follow you?” Mitchell said, and they knew he was serious. They had to think of something soon to chase him off, which Samael solved quickly by creating an invisibility cloak around them as soon as they turned onto a street, so Mitchell couldn’t keep following them, making him think he had lost track of them at the first turn of a corner.

When she got back to her house later on, Marianne checked the mailbox and pulled the correspondence out. It was her mother’s usual ritual, but since she was in the hospital, Marianne felt compelled to do so.

She began sorting the envelopes with promotions and magazine subscriptions they usually received, for they rarely got any important letter or personal correspondence.

“Are you going to tell me what happened while you were there?” asked Samael. It would have been easy for him to read her mind and find out on his own, but he had promised not to do it again.

“I’ll tell you when we go up,” she replied, focused on the mail.

She was starting to separate what might interest her mother when something made her stop and stare at one of the envelopes. It was completely blank with only one name written on the back: Noah.

She remembered those fine strokes, the delicate calligraphy and the scent of lavender. It was identical to the one she had found in his father’s luggage. She immediately felt her blood pumping and stopped listening to whatever Samael was saying.

“Hey, when did you get there?”

Loui’s voice brought her back. She stared straight ahead and saw he had opened the door and was watching her oddly. She quickly turned to her side, remembering Samael was supposed to be next to her, but he wasn’t there anymore.

“What you got there? Is it the mail?” She looked at the envelopes in her hand and for a minute she thought of keeping the one addressed to her father, but Loui snatched them from her hands before she could react. “Dad! Marianne’s home!”

“Just in time! We were about to have lunch. I brought pizza, want some?” said Noah coming out of the kitchen, but Marianne couldn’t take her eyes off the pile of envelopes her brother was checking, hoping he overlooked that one, but with all its austerity it ended up standing out even to him.

“Look, dad! You got a letter!” Loui announced, handing it over to him before Marianne’s anxious gaze. Noah took the envelope with his usual gentle face, but once he saw the back, his expression radically changed, erasing his smile.

“What’s up? Is it . . . from work?” Marianne asked, keeping an eye on his expression as if by doing so it would reveal his thoughts. He tried to smile again, but it was more of an imitation, a grimace that didn’t belong to his face.

“Yes, I think . . . I’ll read it later. It’s pizza time!” he replied, trying to sound enthusiastic, keeping the envelope into his pocket and getting back to the kitchen, followed by Loui.

“I’ll be upstairs. I’d appreciate if you save me some pizza,” Samael said in her ear. He had been with her all along.

Marianne only nodded as she heard his footsteps up the stairs, but couldn’t think of pizza at the time, she couldn’t think of anything at all. In her mind, there was only room for the letter. That damned letter.