15. CIRCUS FROM THE PAST
Angie looked anxiously at her father across the table. He was eating some toast and drinking coffee while reading the newspaper in a very good mood. She could even hear him humming a tune inadvertently. She had barely touched her breakfast, trying to think of a way to talk to him, but she guessed his good mood would perhaps benefit her a bit after all.
“What is it, Mona? I see you haven’t finished your breakfast and you know I won’t let you go to school with an empty stomach,” the man said without looking up from the newspaper, though he still sounded cheerful.
“I’ll finish it. I just… wondered if you still remember that I joined the athletics club last semester. The qualifying rounds start this week, and if by some miracle I’m to be selected, I just want to know you’ll support me, and in return I can assure you I’ll be fine,” she said out of the blue before regretting it. Her father kept his eyes on the paper, but his lively expression had drastically changed and now it seemed subdued.
“…I thought I told you to quit immediately. It’s dangerous for you.”
“I swear, dad, running doesn’t hurt me; on the contrary, it makes me feel free and forget my limitations. If you could see me, you’d understand.”
“Okay then. Show me,” her father replied, folding the newspaper and putting it away to look directly into her eyes.
“He-Here’s not a good place to run. I couldn’t…”
“I didn’t say you do it here. Show me in that club. I want to see one of those tryouts to decide whether or not to let you stay,” her father continued, though his expression seemed to say that his position wouldn’t change anyway, and just the thought of him watching one of her trials and aware of this, did nothing but add pressure to her.
“The… the preliminary tryouts are done behind close doors. Only students are allowed.”
“They can make an exception for me. When are these preliminaries?” her father insisted.
“…Wednesday,” she finally said with resignation.
“Very well. I’ll be there on wednesday. Now finish your breakfast before it’s too late,” he sentenced, taking the newspaper and extending it right in front of his face, blocking Angie’s view. She had now definitely lost her appetite.
As the car parked, Vicky came out like a hurricane, carrying multiple rolls of fabric and bags of what seemed to be magazines, and rushed towards the entrance.
“Don’t worry about me! I just need to leave these things in our club before class. You go ahead,” Vicky said, running nonstop while Demian didn’t even have the chance to offer his help. Addalynn also got out of the car, and he went after her.
“Wait. Do you have a minute?” he said, reaching her right after entering the building. “I wanted to ask this for a couple of days now; it’s about something Samuel mentioned…”
“Have you been talking about me?” she asked, frowning.
“No, no. It was only a comment he made in passing. The thing is… he mentioned something about the demons you two faced before coming here… Did one of those looked like carved in bone?”
“Does it sound familiar to you?”
“I… maybe I bumped into him once during the short time I spent in… that place,” Demian admitted reluctantly. “I want to know if you heard him say something about what they were looking for, even if you didn’t understand at the time.” Addalynn only shook her head in denial. “Did you at least establish some connection between the people they attacked?” She shook her head again as he tried to hide his frustration. “There must be one. I’m sure of it.”
“Perhaps if you go back, you could find out yourself,” Addalynn said and Demian considered her response.
If any other would have said it, he could have easily taken it out of context, even feel offended if it was Frank or the angel, but coming from her seemed to make sense, a step both logical and dangerous. The problem was that he had lost connection with the Legion of Darkness and couldn’t simply transport himself over there at will… and he also doubted they would let him come and go whenever he pleased after denying his own blood.
“…Tell me something else,” Demian added with a pensive expression. “Do you remember among those demons one with amber eyes?”
Addalynn kept silent and reactionless, and for a moment she almost seemed absent, as if listening to some distant noise, deep inside her mind, until she focused on him again and shook her head.
“No amber-eyed demon… but you should better stay away.”
Demian’s face flinched in confusion, but before he could say anything else, she already headed towards the intersection.
“…Hey, wait.” He blocked her way before going any further. “What did you mean by that?”
The school bell interrupted and by Addalynn’s change of posture he knew he had lost the opportunity to keep asking her.
“I must go to my class,” she announced, waiting for him to step out of her way.
He wanted to insist on the matter though, but once he saw the arriving students looking at them, drawing their own conclusions about the scene, and possibly even giving rise to rumors, he chose to step aside and go upstairs.
Addalynn resumed her walk, ignoring everyone else staring at her, but she just took a few steps and felt a shove on her shoulder that almost made her fall had it not been for her incredible sense of balance. However, her purse didn’t have the same luck as it dropped with everything inside overturning on the floor. She just stared at her belongings impassively and then raised her eyes. Four girls looked askance at her with sneaky smiles.
She didn’t usually pay any attention to other people, but she recognized them as members from the swimming club. The four girls kept those derisive grins as they went upstairs. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that quartet was also responsible for the vandalism in her locker.
Addalynn hunkered down to pick up her bag when someone else knelt beside her and began to gather her things. Her cell, a brush, a pen case, a notebook; her aversion for anyone touching her things was almost as much as her hair being touched.
“Here you go.”
Dreyson offered the objects, staring intensely at her, as if daring her to take them from his hand so he would withdraw it abruptly. She almost snatched them with a quick movement, and he let his hand extended a few more seconds before getting it back to his pocket. One of his crooked smiles showed up in his face and he stood up in complete silence, continuing his way to the hall.
Addalynn narrowed her eyes suspiciously and noticed everyone passing by, watching her curiously, so she quickly straightened with her head up, slowly combed her hair, and resume her walk nonchalantly.
The boys from the basketball team were already gathered in the auditorium when Demian arrived. They seemed to be discussing something important and suddenly fell silent once he came in. Demian just frowned, puzzled at their secrecy as he closed the door, and headed to the locker room, carrying his sports bag in tow. The boys followed his movements in complete silence.
“…Is something wrong?” he asked before entering, one hand resting on the door and the other holding his bag.
“Everything’s fine,” one of the guys answered curtly, as if waiting for him to get in the locker room so they could continue.
Whatever they were talking about and decided to exclude him, Demian chose not to show any interest. He got into the locker room and while settling the bag and starting to unbutton his jacket, the door opened again, giving way to Dreyson. Despite giving each other a look of recognition, they didn’t say hi, not even a gesture; the boy just walked to the opposite side.
Demian thought maybe that was his opportunity to verify for himself the existence of such bruises, although the idea of watching him change his clothes wasn’t appealing at all. He ought to be discreet. He kept doing his own thing for a while, trying to do everything as he used to, but speeding up the process a little more than usual. When he was about to finish, he looked askance to the guy, he was already taking off his uniform shirt, leaving his back exposed. Demian averted his gaze again to convince himself he had to do it, and when he glanced, he saw the bruises on his lower back.
“…Did you bump into something?” he asked casually to test the waters. Dreyson stopped and looked confused over his shoulder. “…Your back.”
The boy tried to twist his body to look at his back and approached the mirror attached to one of the walls. There were dark stains positioned right above the curvature of his spine, and he watched them almost with a scientific interest. It seemed to be the first time he noticed them, yet he showed no reaction, at most he looked thoughtful, as if trying to remember where he’d got them. A few seconds later there was a slight change in his face, a flash of recognition that instantly languished as quickly as it appeared while he diverted his attention from the bruises as if losing interest.
“I don’t know. Does it matter? Were you watching me as I was changing my clothes?”
“…Of course not! It was just a side glance! I was on my way out, anyway!” Demian stormed out while thinking of the boy’s reaction —or lack of.
Outside the locker room, he saw the girls gathered on their own side of the auditorium, while the guys were on the opposite side, still engaged in their secret talk and constantly glancing towards Demian, making him believe that he was the main subject for some reason.
“Enough, please. I didn’t do that much. It was all teamwork,” Lucianne said, overwhelmed by the girls’ compliments.
“I could play the next time,” Kristania said, probably eager to be in the next game so she could also be creditted with the win.
“We’ll smash them next time! It will be a crushing victory!” Lilith proclaimed.
“Congrats.” Demian approached them with a smile. “You did a great job yesterday. You should all be proud.”
“Actually, we know that we owe it to Lucianne; but at least it wasn’t an unfair victory,” Marianne said, making a slight movement with her hands to symbolize the use of her power.
“Stop it! I don’t deserve all the credit you’re giving me.”
“Don’t be so humble, enjoy your moment. Because next time I’ll be the star of the game!” Lilith decreed in a heroin pose while the others laughed, even Demian, who incidentally glanced towards the door and saw the coach coming in and the rest of the boys intercepting him, which made him immediately suspicious.
He felt a slight nudge to the ribs and noticed Marianne pointing to the other side. Dreyson was coming out of the locker room and went to sit on the bench, waiting for instructions. With a discreet nod, Demian tried to let Marianne know that he hadn’t discovered that much, which she seemed to understand.
A loud noise from the door drew their attention and they all saw Frank coming in with a bitter sulky expression. His brow furrowed even more when he saw Demian so close to Lucianne and just banged the door when he entered the locker room.
“What’s his problem now?” Marianne asked.
“More like what isn’t?” Lilith replied dismissively and Lucianne just gave a tired sigh.
“Okay, guys, you know that within two weeks the interstates will begin, and we always send twelve regular team members. In the recent years we’ve had good results with our current captain,” the coach said minutes later after gathering the boys and gesturing at Demian. Frank rolled his eyes in annoyance. “Now, it has come to my attention that some of you want a change, which some of you consider fair to revive the teamwork and equality.” Demian frowned and glanced towards his peers, who remained in the same position, facing the coach and looking pleased, as if getting what they wanted. “I’m not saying I completely agree, but I’m open to new ideas that may or may not work, that’s why we have preliminary trials. So, I wonder… who agrees that the team needs a new captain?”
The boys from the team slowly began to raise their hands as if it were a difficult decision to make even when their faces said the opposite. Demian looked impassive but felt betrayed and struggled to stay in control by clenching his hands.
Frank quickly joined the wave of raised hands, regardless of whether or not he could vote. The current titulars turned then to the new recruits who preferred to stay out of it and through intimidating looks, some ended up also raising their hands for fear of further reprisals. Dreyson didn’t; he remained sitting with arms crossed and without intervening.
“Well, it’s almost unanimous,” the coach concluded with a shake of his head. “Like I said, I’m willing to listen to opinions, but at the end of the day what matters is what’s best for the team. Demian has shown so far a better performance, so unless he says otherwise…”
“Do it,” Demian said, directing a defiant glare at his teammates. “Put the title of captain in competition… I have no problem winning it back.”
The boys from the team didn’t show any reaction, only returned his gesture with eyes devoid of emotion.
“Well, then… Next week we’ll decide the team captain,” the coach solved in a gesture that showed his disagreement. “Go back to your positions now! Time to start the practice!”
The boys dispersed, seemingly satisfied with themselves, secretly shaking hands while Demian looked at them with growing anger. He forced himself to look away, to keep him from tempting his demon blood and then noticed Marianne watching him from the other end, as if sensing his internal fight. He wanted to gesture her to that he was fine but couldn’t, because he wasn’t. He could feel the desire to destroy fizzling inside, the throbbing scar in his wrist stung in agreement. The only thing he could do was turn around and leave the court, ignoring everything around until he was out of there. He just wanted to disappear, to regain control of himself. And he would have done it if once out of the auditorium he wouldn’t have bumped into several students about to enter the gym a few feet from him. He had to keep going, feeling his muscles hardening and his skin tingling, his demon form struggling to get out.
As he reached the arch connected to the main building, he was already picturing the columns supporting the roofed stretch shattering in his path while his shadow was already looking for different points where it could start chaos. He needed to get away, to search for a place with no one around, but soon stopped in his tracks when he saw his sister and Addalynn walking in his direction.
“Brother! Are you done with your club already? I thought you were just starting.”
“No… I… forgot something,” Demian tried to sound normal, but his tense posture and troubled gesture denoted his struggle.
“Did you leave it in the car? Because I was just heading there to get some fabric rolls I forgot in the trunk.”
Demian didn’t know what to answer, his head was a mess and a tight pressure in his chest prevented him from getting his voice out. His skin temperature was dropping and could almost swear he was about to lose its color.
“…Are you okay? You’re a little pale.”
“Why don’t you go ahead?” Addalynn suddenly took control of the situation. “I think he’s talking about his phone, I kept it in my bag by mistake.”
“How did it end up there?”
“We bumped into some girls and our things fell on the floor and got mixed,” she lied with an ease and resolution that it didn’t raise any doubt.
“Well, I’ll be right back, then. Maybe I can catch up with you later!” Vicky said, hurrying up to the parking lot.
Not even five seconds had passed and Demian stepped back, starting to rub his wrist, eyes searching for a place to go with no one to disturb him.
“Thanks… and sorry if I step away… I’m not in condition to be near anyone right now,” he excused himself, looking at the back of the auditorium, wondering how much he could resist until he could sneak away.
Addalynn watched him repeatedly rub his wrist below the wristband while his fingers and knuckles turned white, as if his blood had stopped circulating in his veins, and then did something that took Demian by surprise. She approached and extended her hands up.
“Give me your hands.” Demian seemed confused, so she took the initiative by placing his hands up just like hers a moment before. She glanced at the red swollen line below his wristband, but focused on his hands, placing the tips of her fingers directly on his skin. “It’ll be just a spark.”
“What?” Before he could grasp her meaning, her hands emitted a subtle electric spark, sending a brief shock through his body, making him fear his demonic impulses would finally take control. But the shock lasted only a few seconds, the tingle in his skin and the tightness in his chest waned while his fingers regained color. He opened and closed his hands, the need to destroy already gone. He was back in control. “…What did you do?”
“Positive energy, negative energy, they’re no more than electric impulses. All I did was reversing the polarization already charging inside of you. Make no mistake, that doesn’t mean you now have positive energy, I just cheated your system into believing that you had discharged it as I guess you would have done eventually,” Addalynn explained, shaking off her hands as if she had left some kind of electric dust in them. “It now depends on you to keep that way, unless you feel another wave coming.”
“No, I think… it’s over for now,” Demian said after a brief analysis. “I don’t feel like… destroying things.”
“Does it happen very often?”
“Only when I feel stressed,” he said, omitting the times he had increasingly felt this need out of nowhere for a while, ever since the smoke demon appeared.
“And what do you do then?” Addalynn asked again, as if subjecting him to an interrogation in order to determine whether he was worthy of a chance.
“I just look for a way to vent.”
He seemed almost ashamed to admit it. Addalynn asked no more questions but kept watching him analytically.
“Next time you feel that way, you can come to me. I may not be the ultimate solution, but I can give you a temporary release. Eventually, however, only one person can take control of your actions: yourself.”
Demian seemed surprised at her unexpected offer. Why would she help him overcome those fits? He didn’t understand, but she was right about something: he was the only one who could take control of it at the end of the day.
“…Thank you. And I’d appreciate your discretion about this.”
“Who would I tell?” she said with a shrug. And it was true; her secrecy was such that even his sister hadn’t been able to get more information out of her despite knowing her for longer. He adjusted the wristband to cover his scar and just nodded with a grateful smile.
A few feet away, Marianne watched them both, not daring to take a step outside the building. She had thought she could help him calm down, but apparently it hadn’t been necessary after all. Addalynn had done it very well. She stepped back quietly and retraced her steps before they would notice her presence.
Angie had managed to surpass her own record for a few miliseconds, and if she kept that pace for next week, according to the coach, she would have guaranteed a place in the relay team, if not also getting to be the titular in the 400 meters. She was overjoyed at the time.
Now that the next group was preparing for their speed test, she took the time to get out of the field for a bathroom break and saw Samael heading to the swimming dome at that very moment. She was so excited that she forgot how sweaty and disheveled she was when she called him and ran towards him.
“I’ll get a place in the relay team!” she said, eager to share her excitement, and even better if it was Samael. “Well, it’s not official yet, but I just have to keep my pace and if I can improve my time, perhaps I could even be the titular in the individual race!”
“Really? I’m happy for you,” Samael said with a smile. “We may even go together to the interstates; our coach thinks I could go with the swimming team.”
Angie’s smile widened even more at the prospect of going to the games together.
“All we have to do is compete with other candidates, Addalynn and I,” he added, and Angie’s face darkened at the mention of her. “But the coach seems very confident that we’ll succeed; he even asked us to come after school to train.”
“Seems like uhm… you’ve been spending some time with her,” Angie said, trying not to sound dejected.
“She’s interesting,” he said casually, though his words only pierced through Angie’s heart.
“Maybe… you could spend more time with others… and you would also find them interesting,” Angie replied. Samael looked up at the sky as if seriously considering her words and finally nodded.
“Perhaps you’re right.”
It seemed a little ray of hope, but quickly fell back to reality remembering who she was talking to. Addalynn walked nearby, heading to the swimming dome while Samael followed her with his eyes. There it was, the invisible blade sinking a little deeper into Angie’s heart.
“Well, I have to go to the club,” Samael said, waving her goodbye, but before he could even take a step forward, Angie grabbed his wrist in an impulsive attempt to retain him a little longer, but soon realized her pathetic outburst.
“I just wanted to wish you luck… See you later,” she said, trying to mend her sudden impulse and Samael turned to her as if the spark of an idea had sprouted in his mind out of nowhere.
“Spending more time with other people is a good idea. Would you like to go out somewhere tomorrow?”
Angie’s eyes blinked in a daze. Had she heard right? Several seconds passed until she could send the order to her brain to relax the grip around Samael’s wrist and release him.
“I-I… uh… sure! Of course! I’d love to!” She was unable to hide her excitement. Even her freckles seemed to come alive.
“Very well then; see you later,” he finished with the same kind of frozen smile. As he was walkin away, his brow began to furrow in a confused gesture, wondering what had happened there.
Angie on the other hand couldn’t be happier. It seemed unbeliveable for her; it must be her lucky day. And to think she had only suggested that to get by, never imagining that he would actually take it seriously, and now she would go out with him! Could she call it a date? She would have time to decide it. Maybe they could even hold hands, she thought in her innocent fervor, and suddenly she stopped short to look at her hands, bringing her abruptly back from the fantasy realm. It was too good to be true; it really was. She had held his wrist right before he suddenly ‘decided’ to ask her out. What a coincidence, just what she secretly wished for.
Her previous happiness quickly faded away as she watched her hands, wondering if she had inadvertently used her power. If so, she didn’t know what was sadder, the fact that only through her power she had gotten his attention, or that nevertheless, she still longed for that date more than anything in the world.
Lilith ran through the halls right after her first reunion with her newly founded club where they had assigned their roles in their ‘organization’. They had named her treasurer, which made her extremely nervous, but tried to show confidence to prove she could be trustworthy. As a first activity, they were given out the responsibility to hold a reception for the interstates committee farewell. It was a test to validate the existence of the club itself, and they had to pull it out. The downside was that she had to work closely with Vicky and still didn’t feel comfortable at all around her.
She finally crossed the avenue, but instead of finding the coffee shop open, she saw her friends glued to the windows, trying to sneek a peek inside.
“What’s going on?”
“We got here, and it was closed,” Marianne said, pulling away from the glass “We’ve been calling for a while and no one answers.”
“Have you tried calling Monkey?” Lilith said, also sticking her face to the window, but the place was completely dark and lonely; there was no sign of life inside.
“We heard the phone ringing inside but no one’s answering.”
“I told you we should break the glass and get inside,” Mitchell suggested as if there was no other solution.
“We can’t just break the glass and enter like ordinary thieves!”
“But if there was an accident and while we discuss the legal implications of our actions, Mankee could be bleeding on the kitchen floor, with his head wounded and lying naked.”
“Why would he be naked in the kitchen?”
“Why not?” he replied, as if it were the most natural thing to do.
“I don’t know why I even bother,” Marianne snorted, shaking her head in disgust.
“Maybe we should notify Demian; he should have a spare key,” Belgina suggested to avoid arguments and Lilith began to rummage in her backpack, taking out a pendant full of keys of different shapes, sizes and even colors.
“We’re losing valuable time here. While he arrives, Mankee may have already bled dry and we’ll find him floating in a pool of his own blood… and naked,” Mitchell insisted while Lilith went from key to key until stopping on a small flattened one, painted with what looked like pink nail varnish, the same tone she had on her own nails.
“Will you stop saying that? You’re making us nervous.”
“Because of the idea of him bleeding out or finding him naked?” he retorted while Lilith now introduced the little pink key in the lock.
“Stop taking everything as a joke!”
“I’m taking it dead seriously, or do you see me laughing?”
Before Marianne could reply, they heard a click and the tinkling of the doorbell.
“Done. Now let’s try to solve this mystery,” Lilith said, letting them in and keeping her stash of keys.
“Do you have a spare key?”
“One day I saw it hanging in the kitchen and I thought it would be helpful to have a copy just in case, and look! A forewarned woman is forearmed,” she said as they walked into the kitchen, leaving the door closed again to prevent anyone else from entering.
“…Do you usually do that with every key you stumble upon?” Marianne asked, thinking it was kind of disturbing.
“Remember the time we got to your house in time to prevent that demon to hurt you and said the door was open?” Lilith pulled back her pendant full of keys and tossed it to her. “The green one with white stripes like a pepermint candy is yours.”
Marianne looked puzzled at the key and shivered.
“Are those keys from everyone’s houses? I could use a stash like that as well!” Mitchell said, reaching out with the intention of taking the pendant, but Marianne slapped him before he could take it.
“Do a favor to mankind and keep it away from Mitchell,” Marianne said, returning the keys to Lilith, but not before taking her own.
“Doesn’t matter that you take it; sooner or later I’ll get another copy,” Lilith replied with a smile as Marianne kept the christmas-cane looking key.
They passed the kitchen door and it looked like it hadn’t been used since the day before; it was clean and tidy, and the door to the dungeon was open.
“Ready to call an ambulance or even the police?” Mitchell said while they gathered the courage to go down, fearing what they could find. Lilith finally decided to be the first, running her hands to the side walls until she found the light switch and the room lit up as she stopped in the middle of it.
“…Oh, my god,” Lilith whispered, covering her mouth with her hands, and the others ran down, imagining the worst. However, the room was almost as neat and tidy as the kitchen, as if the entire cleaning team of a hotel would’ve been there, leaving it, if not new, at least the same as it was before being occupied, like an altar. “…He’s gone.”
“Maybe he just went to buy grocery and hasn’t returned yet.”
“No! He’s gone for good and cleaned everything to erase every trace of him, like he was never here.”
“She’s right, I remember this exactly like it was before when I came down for the videogames,” confirmed Mitchell, analyzing the arrangement of the furniture and bookshelves with perfectly aligned magazines.
“But where could have he gone and why? None of this makes any sense. Didn’t he even leave a note?” Marianne asked, starting to check the room like the rest of them while Lilith kept thinking that she might be the cause; after all, he had been a little distant since she had declined his invitation.
“Yes!” Mitchell yelled after opening a cabinet and checking inside.
“What happend? Did you find a note?”
“No, but wherever he’s gone at least he didn’t take the console nor the collectors’ games with him. He may be an immigrant, but at least he’s an honest lad.”
Marianne gave him a disapproving look, but instead of uselessly wasting breath on him, she just made a motion with her hand and one of the drawers of the shelf suddenly opened, hitting him in the stomach and knocking the air out of him.
“What are we supposed to do now? He could be anywhere right now, depending on how long has been since he’s gone,” Angie said, glancing at the magazine collection that filled the shelves attached to the walls.
“At least he was still here last night, after all he was at the game,” Belgina said, even though Mitchell tried to gesture her not to continue.
“Was he at the game?” Lilith asked, frowning with surprise.
“You couldn’t have missed him with that wardrobe that seemed directly out of any crime series from the 20’s,” Marianne said while checking the closet, without finding anything either.
“But why would he go see it? Why didn’t he stay until the end?” Lilith asked in what seemed to be a rather rhetorical question. The girls just shrugged and kept looking for clues to his whereabouts while Mitchell was still writhing in pain. The sound of the door came from above and Lilith immediately ran up the stairs followed by the others, but they only found Samael looking around and waiting for someone to appear.
“Good you’re here! Mankee’s missing! We can’t find him anywhere!” Marianne blurted to save time from speculation. Samael frowned and turned to look around as if analyzing the place.
“There are no signs of attack. Neither physical nor energy wise,” Samael said after a brief analysis.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with an attack. Rather, he seems to have left on his own will.”
“I insist, why would he leave just like that? He had no reason to do it without telling anyone.”
Samael remained thoughtful and then closed his eyes, in a sort of trance. The others watched him curiously until he opened his eyes so suddenly, they all stepped back with a start.
“…I found him; he hasn’t gotten too far.”
And once he said this, he disappeared in a flash while the others immediately turned to the front of the coffee shop to make sure no one was looking inside through the windows.
“…Should we sit and wait then?” Angie asked to break the silence.
“Good idea! I’ll go get the drinks and if any of you know at least how to make some fries, we could spend the time,” Mitchell said, going behind the counter and starting to manage the fountain like an expert.
“Mitchell, this is no casual meeting; it’s not time to relax with some drinks and snacks,” Marianne spat.
“Well, do you have a better idea then?” he replied, already sorting the glasses and ready to fill them. There was another flash in the middle of the room and Samael appeared, holding Mankee’s shoulder. He was carrying a small bag in tow which bore the few belongings he had gathered and seemed disoriented after the teleporting trip. He blinked to adjust his sight and as he glanced around, he seemed disappointed.
“…Oh, meelban,” he spat with a snort while his body hunched forward, and his bag slipped to the floor.
“Did you just decide to leave without telling anyone? Why would you that?” Marianne asked, crossing her arms.
“I just… Something unexpected came out and… I needed to get out of here as soon as I could,” he tried to explain despite his defeated expression.
“Do you really wish not to have joined us?” Samael asked, thinking it was all because of his request. Mankee paused a few seconds and finally gave a sigh.
“…You wouldn’t understand.”
“At least try to explain it.”
The doorbell rang again and Demian came in with a confused expression.
“May I know what’s happening here? I heard the coffee shop was closed and there were still people inside.”
“That’s exactly what Mankee was about to explain, right?” Marianne said, turning back to Mankee, so he could give the long-awaited explanation, but he just cleared his throat and picked up his bag from the floor.
“…There’s nothing to explain. I’ll go prepare the kitchen to start the day. Excuse me,” he said, getting into the kitchen and leaving the others disappointed.
“We almost had him!”
“I’m sorry, did I interrupt something? You want me to leave so you can continue with your own private team stuff?” Demian asked sarcastically, clearly resentful that he was once again left out of any matter concerning them.
The others just took their seats as usual while he took the closed sign from the door and headed for the counter, where a smiling Mitchell showed up with a tray full of drinks.
“I’m just trying to be helpful since there’s one less waiter; you should be thankful we’re not so picky about the service,” Mitchell justified himself with that characteristic joker smile on him. Demian just rolled his eyes and fixed his sports bag under the counter.
He glanced towards the guys and tried to think of a way to get the angel’s attention to discuss about the bruises. Soon the customers began to arrive, so he tried to make some time by settling the glasses, but when he turned to the counter, Marianne was already standing there, watching him intently.
“…What is it?” he asked after a slight wince.
“I just want to know if you’re okay.”
He immediately understood what she meant. After his untimely departure from basketball, she would have surely thought the worst, that he wouldn’t be able to control himself this time; and she wouldn’t be entirely wrong, had it not been for Addalynn.
“…I’m fine. I managed to handle it and that’s what matters,” he finally said, looking down at the glasses he was rearranging just to have something to do with his hands to avoid her gaze. “…I guess you were right when you said the only way to do it was to just try.”
“…Yeah. It seems,” Marianne said, remembering him with Addalynn, but deciding not to comment on that. “I don’t understand why your teammates decided to turn their backs on you. Friends don’t do that.”
Demian’s mouth slightly lifted to the side in a bitter smile. That was because he never had real friends, it seemed to say. At least so far. Sometimes he felt excluded, and other times even doubted their veracity; but it was all paranoid tricks from his demon blood trying to get him away of his acquired humanity.
“…Whatever. I won’t be easily beaten,” he said, lifting his gaze again to look more cheerful. “I’ll win the title back and it will be like it never happened.”
“You seem very confident about it. I hope it doesn’t end up playing against you. It’s never good to be overconfident.”
“I know their game, their strengths and weaknesses. I think I can handle it,” he assured, smiling with more confidence once the matter of his almost loss of control was left behind.
“Well, since you’re so sure of yourself, I really hope it is. Smash them until there’s nothing more than snitches puree.”
Demian let out a laugh, which made him feel more relaxed than he’d been during the day. Marianne seemed pleased and decided to return to her table.
“Wait,” he said before she left, and she glanced at her wrist, which he was holding and quickly let go. “…Could you tell Samuel to come for a moment, please?”
She raised both eyebrows in surprise and then approached the counter again, settling her arms above it with a confidential expression.
“Is it about Dreyson? Did you find out anything else?”
“…I had no idea you had so much interest in him.”
“Hey, you two were the ones that suddenly decided I had to be careful around him, so of course I’m gonna be interested in the topic and at least I expect updates,” Marianne replied while Demian snorted reluctantly.
“…I saw the bruises in his back,” he admitted, looking around the coffee shop to make sure no one was listening up close. “I can’t be sure about its origin, but he didn’t seem aware of it. He looked genuinely surprised when I mentioned it and looked in the mirror. Whatever its source is, I don’t think he knows more about it than we do. In any case he hadn’t noticed it.”
Marianne adjusted her arms on the counter again with a pensive expression, drumming her fingers as if they were accompanying her mental process.
“…I don’t know if I should say this,” she began with a hesitant gesture. “Maybe I’m making wrong assumptions, but… there may be a possible explanation for those bruises.”
Demian frowned inquisitively.
“He seems to have some kind of father complex, and by some details I caught, he might be a little violent,” Marianne said, recalling the fingerprints on his mother’s neck before she settled her scarf again. “…It isn’t nice to think of that kind of things happening, but… it’s likely that’s how he got those bruises.”
“And how did you come to that conclusion?”
“We’ve gone to his house for teamwork,” she said without noticing his tone. “His mother showed us a photo album and when we stumpled upon one from his father, she quickly closed it and Dreyson didn’t seem pleased that we had seen it. He told us to leave immediately. You should have seen him, I’m sure you would also have the impression that they have lived under the yoke of that man for a lot longer than anyone could handle.”
Demian seemed more attentive to her expression than the actual words.
“…You sound worried. Seems like you know him much more than what you claim.”
“More than worried, I dread the thought of something like that happening. I mean, I know there’s no perfect family, but it must be terrible to live terrified of your own parents… or even hating them,” once she said this, she lifted her gaze noticing Demian’s hard look on his face and thought that maybe it hit them both in a certain way, since his real father was essentially evil incarnated and she had this unresolved grudge against her own for things that were perhaps too meager in comparison. “…I’m sorry, maybe it’s not a topic we’re exactly excempt from.”
“We all have our personal… demons,” Demian snapped, with a brief pause before completeing his ironic comment.
“Three chocolate milkshakes for table five and two cherry sodas for seven,” announced Lilith, leaving the orders at the counter and then going to the kitchen. “You can handle that, right, boss? I must take Mankee a special request.”
She didn’t wait for an answer, just walked into the kitchen while Demian took the two pages to confirm the orders.
“…Table seven is not even occupied,” Demian said, looking from the paper to the table while Lilith was already in the kitchen, standing in a reproachful pose, arms crossed and feet slightly apart, watching Mankee already igniting the grills and taking out the ingredients from the pantry.
“Allright, can you tell me now why the hell did you decide to leave without even saying goodbye?” she asked accusingly, causing him a jolt.
“…It doesn’t matter anymore. In a little while I’ll be so stressed because of work as usual that I’ll even forget my name… hopefully,” he answered without stopping.
“Of course it matters! One does not simply decide to leave everything overnight for unimportant reasons! And even less with so many bonds and responsibilities!”
“Why not? I’ve already done it before,” he replied as if it were no big deal; pots and kettles had been prepared and he was now cutting potatoes for the frier. Lilith’s wrinkle between her eyebrows pronounced even more and a red stain began to spread from her nose to the rest of her face.
“Is it because I wouldn’t go out with you? Because if so, you’re being such a coward.”
Mankee looked at her, hurt by her assertion, and even when she thought it was excessive, she remained steadfast, hoping to get him talking.
“…Oh, no. You can be sure that as selfish as my reasons might be, they wouldn’t reduce to a rejection,” Mankee said, going back to cutting potatoes and Lilith felt a pang of guilt. She didn’t consider it a rejection, just a warning of her own flirtatious nature.
Mankee took the slices and when he dropped them in the fryer, oil splashed his hand leaving a red mark on his skin.
“Are you okay?” Lilith got closer to see the burnt.
“It’s nothing, I’ll just… put some cream on it and that’ll be enough.”
“Ice can help too. Come here, there’s crushed ice in the dispenser,” she said pushing him out of the kitchen and checking inside the fountain, unaware that the others were looking curiously at her. Mankee just smiled nervously and pointed at his own hand to indicate he was burned and just needed some ice.
Right at that moment, Vicky came in, followed by Kristania and then Addalynn a little behind. The first two were laughing as if they had seen something funny while the latter remained just as stoic as ever.
“Hey, listen! I think there’s a circus coming!” Vicky announced as she crossed the door. “We saw something like a middle eastern entourage walking down the street and handing out flyers while some others were carrying some kind of carriage without wheels with someone inside. Do you think it’s a circus or a fair?”
“…Oh, no!” Mankee suddenly panicked, dropping to the floor behind the counter and staying there as if in the middle of an earthquake.
“Did you lose something?” Lilith asked, but before obtaining an answer, the door opened again and several men with robes entered, standing in two rows in front of it, as if they were a royal procession waiting for someone important to enter so they could present arms.
“…What’s all of this?” Demian asked, glancing at Mankee below the counter, but he seemed too terrified to answer.
The men stood firm, forming two lines from the door, the closest ones holding it to keep it open while another group stopped outside the cafeteria, carrying the corners of a cart, and carefully lowering it to the floor. A pair of them walked to both sides of the carriage’s door and opened it to let out a figure dressed in an attire made of silk that seemed embroidered with gold, inlaid with precious stones and a veil covering its face entirely. It looked like the child of a sultan from a far exotic land.
The figure entered the coffee shop, flanked by the two men who helped her out of the car and walked in the middle of the procession, nodded at two of them, and after a brief bow, they began distributing sheets among the clients while the figure stopped in the front and took the veil off, revealing a girl with skin like bronze, eyes the color of the sand and eyebrows so black they seemed tattooed. Small jewells encrusted to her nostrils like piercings, joined by a thin gold chain, linked to another set of earrings that pierced the thin sides of her eyebrows; and to top it all, another larger gemstone graced her forehead.
The entire coffee shop fell silent, staring fascinated at that girl like something out of the whimsical land of the arabian nights.
“Greetings, citizens of Arkelance. I don’t intend to take away much of your time,” the girl said with an even thicker accent than Mankee. “My name is Latvi Mitra from the far away kingdom of Gerbinkav. We came to this city in search for someone. We have reasons to believe he can be found around this area, so we’d be grateful if you could watch the pictures that have been provided to you and any information you can give us will be greatly rewarded.”
Demian looked at the paper, which basically consisted of a full version of the picture that months ago some men claiming to be immigration agents had showed them when Mankee was hiding. In the picture, the boy seemed to be in the middle of what looked like a garden, wearing a burka, just like the one he was wearing the first time, but clean and neat with his curly hair pulled in a braid. He discreetly looked at Mankee, who merely shook his head as a clear request not to tell on him.
“What do you want from Monkey?” Lilith asked, unaware of his desperate gestures to keep quiet.
The girl with the veil narrowed her outlined eyes and laid them on her, and Demian tried to fix her slip.
“…He left overnight; we don’t know where he is. Chances are that he’s already out of town by now, and if so, he’d better never set a foot here again. You can’t just take off without telling anyone and leave your job unnannounced,” Demian said, adopting a sullen expression, hoping to scare them away.
The girl now laid eyes on him and didn’t look pleased. In a matter of few seconds, she made a sign with her hand and suddenly all the men around drew sabers out of nowhere and pointed menacingly at Demian, but he didn’t even flinch.
“…Rahkasa,” she whispered in a condemning tone.
He frowned, not understanding the meaning of it.
The others stood motionless at the sight of the sabers, and for several seconds there was only silence, so much that one could almost hear the sweat rolling down their faces. Those seconds seemed overextended until the girl spoke again.
“…You know something and we’re not leaving until we get the information we need,” the girl warned them.
No one answered. The atmosphere remained tense and Demian was starting to devise how his shadow would charge at them when suddenly someone talked.
“If it’s the cook you’re looking for…” Kristania said, and all eyes set on her. “…you might want to start by looking behind the counter.”
Lilith looked horrified, holding her hands up as if in the middle of an assault.
“They have him,” the girl said, making another sign to the men and they brandished their swords more firmly, ready to break through the counter as soon as she told them to. “Hand him out to us right now or there will be consequences.”
Demian looked down at Mankee, who had closed his eyes in a grimace, aware that it was the end for him. He then took a few steps to the counter, not even considering the sabers following his moves. He was ready to lean on it to shut them off.
“…You’re not coming in here,” he said in a challenging tone.
Several expressions of fear and surprise followed, including Mankee, shocked by his resolution to protect him.
The girl, however, wasn’t intimidated. She kept her hand in the air, holding the gesture that would start the attack at any moment.
“…So be it,” she finally said, her hand beginning to describe an arc while going down.
“Stop!” Mankee abruptly stood to his feet with a jump. “Th-This doesn’t have to go that far… I give up.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Demian muttered, shooting a warning look at him.
“The right thing… I guess,” Mankee said, holding his breath to gather his courage.
The girl made a quick movement to get into the counter and Demian couldn’t stop her on time, but right when they all thought he was doomed, given Mankee’s fearful expression, she suddenly stopped in front of him and bowed down.
“Prince Hisham, we finally found you.”
The rest of the men with the sabers bowed with reverence and sheathed their swords while the rest were so surprised that their jaws dropped.
“…Please, stop. Stop doing that,” Mankee begged, overwhelmed and embarrassed.
“He’s hurt!” the girl suddenly cried after seeing the burn mark on his hand and all sabers were back in plain sight as she made another sign. “Who dared to wound the prince?!”
“No one! It was just an accident, okay?! Enough!”
“What is this? You better start explaining who these people are and what are they doing here,” Demian demanded to know.
“And why do they call you prince?” Lilith asked bewildered.
“That is… it’s because—” Mankee tried to explain.
“How dare you talk to him like that? He’s the crown prince to the throne of Gerbinkav and you’d better treat him deferentially!”
“…Thanks, Latvi. I’d appreciate if you won’t interrupt me again,” Mankee replied, trying not to get carried away by frustration and the girl bowed once more to express conformity. “I… uh… maybe I misconstrued things up a little bit the first time I got here—”
“Just a little?” Mitchell interrupted. “Unless you have a word that means both ‘slave’ and ‘prince’ I’d say the difference is a little more than a change of clothes and a few more cents in your pocket.”
“…I don’t expect you to understand why I did it. I just… Things are not as sumptuous as they really seem—”
“I got you a job and a place to stay,” Demian said. He seemed genuinely outraged by this revelation. “I supported you when I thought you were escaping a life of slavery, and all this time you were just some rich kid fleeing his responsibilities?”
Mankee didn’t know what to say; until then he hadn’t thought of an explanation in the case he was discovered and even less now that the truth was finally out so unexpectedly.
“It’s time to go home,” the girl with the veil said, standing beside him and taking his arm. “You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Just come back.”
“No!” Mankee yelled, letting go and stepping back. “I’m not leaving, and you can’t make me do it! This has been my home for the past few months and now I know I belong here. I’d rather stay working as a cook for the rest of my life than going back there— I mean, if I still have a job after this.”
He directed a cautious look at Demian, who still looked pissed.
“Well, if that’s what you want,” the girl replied, snapping her fingers. As if it were a sign, one of the men approached, carrying a heavy bag, and dropped it on the counter with a strong metallic clank inside.
The guys raised their heads slightly to try and see more clearly as the girl opened the bag and showed off a lot of gold coins, offering it to Demian.
“In that case we buy the place. If that’s not enough, we have more bags in the car.”
Demian looked incredulous from the bag to her and then to Mankee, who seemed ashamed, waiting for the ground to open and swallow him.
“…Keep it. Do with this place whatever you want,” Demian finally said with a tone that showed his indignation. He then took his gym bag and plowed through the group of men occupying most of the room. Vicky hesitated a few seconds before following her brother and Addalynn did the same.
“He forgot the bag; take it to him,” the girl said, pointing at the bag of gold, and the same man took it back and tried to reach Demian. “The place is yours now, you can do whatever you want with it.”
“This is not happening,” Mankee put his hands to his temples to massage them.
“Who’s this girl anyway?” Marianne asked on one side of the counter. “Are you some kind of royal assistant or something?”
“Assistant? Well, certainly not! I’m her fiancée!” the girl replied, lifting her head in a dignified pose, and Mitchell spit his soda until his choking transformed into a loud laugh, while the others’ mouths kept hanging, like they had just dislocated their jaws.
Mankee covered his face in shame, wishing he could just vanish in the air like Samael. Kristania pushed through the saber men until getting to the counter and leaned towards Lilith.
“…Oops, who would have thought? Looks like he was a good catch after all,” she said in a whisper, but Lilith didn’t answer.
She stood there in front of the kitchen door, with a few pieces of ice melting in her hand and looking stunned at Mankee and the girl who had appeared to change everything. His fiancée.