17. EXCELLING AT DEFEAT
That November evening was particularly cold and the gray sky did nothing but enhance the grievous atmosphere that had fallen upon the house.
Previously full of persons offering condolences a few hours ago, it was now almost empty. Only a handful of people were gathered in the kitchen, trying to comfort commissioner Fillian for the tragic loss of his wife.
Away from everything, Lucianne was sitting on a stair step, her face between the bars, looking at the coffin in the middle of the living room, deciding whether she should come and see inside while she had the chance, when she suddenly sensed a presence sitting beside her on the steps. However, she had no energy left in her to turn around.
“Feels unreal, huh?”
Lucianne flinched after recognizing the voice. Setting her hands on the bars, she began to sluggishly pull away and found Demian beside her, dressed in black, too formal for a kid his age. She immediately recognized the suit as the one he’d worn at his own mother’s funeral a few months ago.
“You keep thinking that if you close your eyes, maybe when you open them again it would’ve been just a nightmare and you’ll see her in front of you,” he continued, clinging to the step he was sitting on and stretching his legs. “But as much as you close them, as much as you go to sleep expecting to wake up the next day as if nothing had happened, things remain the same.” Lucianne kept quiet, watching him as though immersed in a dream. “I still wake up every morning and run to my parents’ room, thinking that I’ll find her there, standing in the balcony as she used to . . . But when I realize she’s not, it really hits me. I won’t hear her voice again, nor her laugh, nor will I ever smell her perfume when she hugged me. If not for you . . . I wouldn’t have been able to cope. You were by my side even though I didn’t say a word, you stayed with me in silence, so I want to be with you on this moment. If you don’t want to talk now, it’s okay. I’ll stay with you anyway, because no one understands what you’re going through better than me.”
Lucianne jumped up with her head hanging low and he followed her lead, dropping one step to stand in front of her. At the age of ten he hadn’t hit puberty yet, so they were almost the same height and he had to lift his gaze to look at her. He waited for her to speak, but she only stood there, letting her hair fall over her face. Demian wanted to say something to reassert his support, but right when he opened his mouth, Lucianne had already closed the distance between them with a quick motion and before he could react, her lips were on his.
It happened too fast. In a matter of a few seconds, she pulled away and ran up the stairs without even looking at him or saying a word, leaving him frozen for several minutes, trying to process what had happened. He ultimately had to go home at his father’s call.
Had he known it would be the last time he would see her in years, he might have stayed there for a chance to talk to her again. But it didn’t happen. Lucianne was sent to a boarding school a few days later and he learned about it too late, staying with the empty feeling of something unfinished.
That childhood longing remained paused for years until they met again, bringing it back to life. The brief childhood kiss that had left so many emotions frozen in time echoed again as Demian kissed Lucianne.
He was transported back to being ten years old, when his world revolved around his family and his only friend, who had been the greatest support after his mother’s passing. The friend for whom he kept a special feeling he didn’t have for anyone else back then.
And it would remain that way, for that emotion certainly had been frozen in time and now all it had done was to revive it for the kids they already ceased to be. It was clear to him now. As they pulled apart and looked into each other’s eyes, he knew she also had that realization. At the end of the day, their childhood feelings had failed to mature as they did.
Demian kept quiet for a little bit, waiting for her reaction, until Lucianne finally smiled.
“I guess we’re no longer the kids we used to be. But we’ll always be friends.”
He nodded with a subdued smile, which was immediately erased when he saw the door opening behind Lucianne.
“Who was it?” Marianne asked, leaning out the door. At the sight of Demian, she stopped, feeling a little awkward at the thought that she may have interfered again in the least appropriate moment. “Oh, it’s you.”
“I have to go. See you later,” he said, turning around.
“Did you come here walking?”
“Sometimes I like to walk long distances,” he replied, with a final wave without even turning to them. She also waved back and closed the door with a melancholic smile.
“I’m sorry if I interrupted something.”
“Don’t worry. Everything’s all right,” she replied with a tone so soothing, it seemed even weirder to her.
“If you say so.” Marianne shrugged, willing to return to the kitchen, when the door was knocked on again.
“Did he forget something?” Lucianne wondered, opening it just to find Officer Perry now. “Hi! I thought you weren’t coming anymore.”
“Good evening, Miss Lucianne.”
“I told you to call me just Lucianne.”
“Yeah, uh . . . I’ll go see the boss, if you don’t mind,” he said without meeting her eyes, strangely distant.
“Sure. Come in,” she agreed, giving way to him. “Would you like to have dinner with us? I made Spanish omelette.”
“Thanks, but I have other things to do,” he declined, going upstairs in a haste while she watched him, thinking how unusual his attitude was.
“That was odd,” Marianne said, noticing it too.
Lucianne kept looking towards the top floor, wondering why he was acting distant. Then the answer finally struck her…Given how quickly he had arrived after Demian’s departure, he must have seen them. A strange feeling of sorrow came over her, not for herself though, but for what he might have felt at that moment. The last thing she wanted was to hurt him.
“Hey, would you give me the wifi password?” Marianne asked, pulling her laptop out of her bag. “We were told they were going to publish the test results today on the school website. I’m curious to know how I did.”
“ . . . Sure, go ahead. I’ll go reheat the dinner,” Lucianne replied, going back to the kitchen.
Marianne was quick enough to make the connection and search for the school website. Apparently, Samael had been reading the manual as she suggested and did some system upgrades because everything loaded very quickly and the programs looked more organized.
Once the page loaded, she began to check its sections, searching for the results. When she finally found them, she was surprised to see that at the top of the high school list was Belgina with a perfect score.
Thinking it was going to take her forever to find her name, she decided to use the search engine on top of the page and to her amazement, aside her name was the number 25, which she considered a real achievement.
She decided to search for her friends’ names too. Angie appeared roughly in the middle of the list, but the one who didn’t seem to have performed very well was Lilith, who was ranked almost at the bottom.
She could close the page now that she knew the results, but she was curious to know how Kristania had done. She searched for her name and saw her in the 30th place, right below her. A smile curled up her lips. If only she could see her face when she found out. She would take all the juice she could from it.
About to exit the page, she noticed there was a special section for previous generations. She’d heard her parents had also studied there, so she began to check the section. Among the pictures she recognized her mother, with her distinctive long dark hair, actively participating in what was apparently the arts club. She must have been the same age as her, about 15 going on 16. Behind, the caption read: ‘Enid Fillian, ninth grade, Arts club.”
In the picture, she could be seen brush in hand, giving a few touches to her painting, as if trying to imprint even more depth to those green eyes staring at a book on his lap, sitting under a tree with light filtering through the leaves. She knew that painting, it was one of those that ended up at the bonfire, the first portrait she had painted of her father. Just a few pictures below, they were both posing together with the finished painting. Her father always had that magnetic quality that diverted all attention towards him.
She was surprised to see how little they had changed since then, and maybe that was the reason sometimes it was difficult for her to take them seriously. As they had become parents at a very young age, it was like having two other teenagers at home, especially with her mother’s outbursts. She didn’t even meet her grandparents because they had died long before she was born, so she never had the chance to grow with responsible adults. At least, that was how she saw it.
“What are you doing?” Lucianne asked, standing beside her to see the screen, giving her a slight jolt.
“I’m looking for pictures of my parents, when they were in school,” she said, while going through the album.
“Hold on! Go back to the previous picture!” Lucianne suddenly exclaimed, so Marianne went back to an image of a girl with long auburn hair staring at the camera from the stands. She remembered that intense gaze from somewhere. The caption read: ‘Hosanne Olander, twelfth grade, Athletics’. “Mom.”
“Is that her?” Marianne looked at the picture again, this time more carefully, and recognized her from the portraits scattered throughout the house, but she still had the feeling of having seen her elsewhere. “I didn’t know your mother went to school with my parents.”
“Neither did I,” Lucianne said, her eyes fixed on the image, feeling nostalgic again.
“Maybe that’s how she met your father, since he’s my mother’s older brother.”
As she had learned just after Commissioner Fillian’s last visit to her house, he was ten years her mother’s senior and their parents had died in a car accident when she was fourteen, so he’d become her legal guardian. For that reason, he wasn’t happy when she decided she would get married after her graduation. By then Lucianne was already born, so Enid deemed it unfair to be denied a family of her own, and she ended up running away with Noah in a rebellious fit, way before graduating. They were not even seventeen.
“Could you . . . save the picture and send it to me?”
“Sure,” she replied, downloading the entire photo album. They heard footsteps on the stairs then. Officer Perry was already coming down.
“Everything’s fine. He seems quiet, so I’m leaving.”
“So soon? Won’t you eat dinner with us? The omelette is delicious, right?” she said, turning to Marianne for support.
“Oh, yeah! I’ve never tasted anything better!”
The young officer seemed dubious, looking at the door and then back at them.
“I prepared one more for you,” Lucianne added with a smile, and he seemed to think about it for a couple more seconds, as though he were in a dilemma.
“Okay, I’ll stay a little while,” he finally agreed, getting into the kitchen with them, but stayed in silence most of the time, trying to avoid Lucianne’s gaze. He really looked uncomfortable in her presence, and it made her feel bad.
Marianne only grimaced, feeling the tension in the air, until he set down the plate and silverware and got up. “Well, gotta go. Thanks for dinner.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Lucianne said, following him.
“I’ll . . . just stay here,” Marianne said, stretching her arms and then resting them on the table, feeling relief that all the tension had come to an end, at least in the kitchen.
“Good night,” Officer Perry said once out the door, ready to leave the place.
“Are you mad at me?”
He stopped, let out a sigh and turned back to her with a sorrowful gesture.
“No, Miss Lucianne, I would never be mad at you.”
“Stop calling me that! We’re friends, don’t treat me like you barely know me!”
“I’m sorry. It’s just out of respect,” he said, eyes on the ground, looking for a way to continue. “I just . . . I care about your well-being. I don’t want anyone to hurt you.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I find it impossible. I’m always thinking about you.”
After saying this, he kept quiet, as if he had spoken unthinkingly, and resumed his way to the car while she watched him, saddened.
The sound of a cell phone caught Marianne’s attention while she was relaxing in the kitchen. The screen announced it was an incoming call from Samael.
“What is it?”
“I thought you should know this. Your father and your brother are checking the attic right now.”
She rolled her eyes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that something like that would happen in her absence.
“Where are you? Please, don’t tell me you’re calling me from there.”
“I’m in your room. When I left, they were inspecting the books from the shelves.”
“You didn’t leave anything suspicious in sight, right?”
“No, all the clothes you gave me are in the closet. Unless they discover the hidden door, I don’t think they’ll succeed in finding anything.”
“Then there’s nothing else to do,” she said with a sigh, rattling her fingers on the table. “You better stay in my room. When I come back tomorrow we will know the extent of their research.”
She saw Lucianne returning and tried to hurry up.
“Uhm . . . gotta go. Get some rest.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“It was . . . Loui. Going overboard as usual.”
“Oh, right! You should have brought him too so he wouldn’t be alone.”
“Don’t worry, he’s with dad, he came back today.”
That was Lucianne’s only reaction, like expecting her to talk more about it, but Marianne simply kept her cell and took her backpack.
“I’ll go up and change.”
She was aware that her cousin was waiting for a comment about her father, but she preferred not to talk about it, and Lucianne couldn’t do anything else.
When she was back at her house the next day, she and Samael went to check the attic, making sure there wasn’t anything out of place, but everything seemed to be in order. Her father had said nothing about it, so she assumed he had appeased Loui.
On Monday, they all met at the school entrance and walked down the corridor together, talking about their progress, though Belgina looked distracted, and suddenly stopped midway. Down the hall, Mitchell stood in front of the stairs in anticipation and at the sight of them, settled his jacket and ran his hands through his hair.
The girls just waited for Belgina’s reaction and she gave a deep breath, as though gathering courage, then resumed walking, barely dodging Mitchell.
Marianne glanced at him, recalling the strangely enlightening conversation she’d had with him.
“Belgina, could we talk about . . . ?” she started as they arrived at their classroom, but stopped when they saw Kristania in her seat, having a tantrum.
The plaster was already removed from her nose and she seemed to have ended her vow of silence. She stood up and walked towards them, standing in front of Marianne and glowering at her.
“I heard your cousin went out with Demian,” she muttered with a tense jaw, as if the mere mention were enough to activate her terminatrix mode.
“So? Is there a problem?”
Kristania gritted her teeth, holding back her anger. The rest of the girls opted to step out in case everything exploded, although Marianne remained steadfast in front of her.
“Of course there is! I’m sure you introduced them just to spite me!”
“You’re unbelievable,” she snapped, letting out a snort of disbelief. “I didn’t introduce them. They’ve known each other since they were kids. In case you didn’t know, they were inseparable.”
That was enough to leave Kristania mute. She wasn’t expecting that. She started breathing for air, as if about to talk back with another complaint, but couldn’t think of anything else to say, which only made her rage grow. Marianne smiled triumphantly, realizing she had struck a chord. Point to her. She could just leave it there, but couldn’t resist the temptation to add one more thing.
“By the way, congratulations on ranking 30th on the knowledge test. Only 5 points below me. Bravo,” she finished with a bang, keeping her steady smile. Kristania’s face reddened to a boiling point, so much that one could almost swear there was smoke coming out of her ears. One more point to Marianne.
She decided it was enough for now and went to her seat, leaving her friends astonished that she had dared to ridicule her.
“Ha!” Lilith let out a guffaw of celebration after a few seconds.
“That was a little harsh, don’t you think?” Angie said softly.
“She deserves that and even more. Good for you, you shut her up! Let her know she can’t always get away with it!”
“But now she could retaliate.”
“I don’t care. Let her do whatever she wants,” Marianne huffed indifferently.
She wouldn’t let anything ruin her small victory, even if she would try to get even later, as Angie remarked.
When the teacher arrived, the first thing she did was to officially announce Belgina as the representative for the Knowledge Olympics, though Belgina didn’t look very excited about it nor seemed to pay any attention.
“The competition will be held on Wednesday morning and at night will be the award ceremony. It’s not required to attend the latter, but you’re all encouraged to come and support your schoolmates,” the teacher announced while giving the schedule for that day.
Belgina reluctantly took hers and saw that the back had the list of subjects for the final test. She just sighed and kept it on one of her books. She knew perfectly every subject on that list and reviewed them every day before school, she could even make a presentation about them in her sleep.
“Do you think there would be cute guys from other schools?” Lilith asked as she walked alongside Marianne toward the basketball club.
“That’s all you can think of?”
“I can’t help it! I’m very visual. These eyes are not peculiar for nothing.”
“What’s that got anything to do with it?”
Kristania passed them running all of a sudden, pushing Marianne away and heading to the auditorium. Following behind were her minions, flanking her like sentinels, one identical to the other.
“Ugh, that gargoyle!” Lilith cried, not caring if she heard it.
“Leave it. If she thinks she’s going to daunt me with that, she’s wrong.”
“Do you think she’s going to complain to Demian?”
They both looked at each other with growing curiosity and immediately run to the auditorium door and looked inside. The boys were already there in the middle of practice as usual, and Kristania was standing in front of the court, staring at Demian like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.
“Why are you standing there?” the coach asked from the other end of the court. He had already been discharged from the hospital and allowed back to work. Kristania seemed disappointed, because that meant Demian could no longer stand in for him and spend time with them.
“It seems we’re finally going to train properly.” Lilith snapped her fingers, excited.
The training kept its usual course and about twenty minutes before it ended, the coach made them run around the court.
Marianne was trying to keep the rhythm when she noticed Kristania joining her side, which seemed strange given their mutual aversion, but Marianne tried to ignore her and kept going, at least until Kristania spoke.
“You think so high of yourself, don’t you? You must believe you always have reason on your side, in order to please your ego.”
It was unheard of, that word coming out of her mouth, but she wasn’t willing to pay any attention. She just kept her eyes to the front.
“But you’re not what you’ve led the others to believe. I know about the blond guy, I’ve seen you both.”
Marianne tossed aside any effort to ignore her and turned to her in annoyance.
“Of course you’ve seen us both. He’s my friend! And not just mine, actually!”
“Oh, really? Do they also know he’s living with you?”
Her balance suddenly faltered and turned to Kristania, realizing she was smiling wickedly. She didn’t know how could she have found out, but she definitely wasn’t bluffing, which worried her even more.
“Now you keep quiet, huh? You weren’t expecting that, were you?”
She continued tromping in silence. Kristania was clearly using information she already knew in advance to get even with her. Maybe she’d been saving it for something else, but their quabble in the morning had forced her to use that card too soon. But how had she learned about it?
“You must be wondering how I know it,” Kristania continued, feeling in control of the situation, relishing the moment. “Did you seriously think I would stay so quiet the whol week I was unable to speak or set foot in the coffee shop? You’re always there in your mysterious meetings with that boy. So, I decided to watch you and saw how you left together after those blissful meetings. I followed you once.” She paused to see Marianne’s reaction, though she remained unfazed. “Then you’ll know that this is how I discovered you live together.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Marianne finally replied. Her voice sounded tired by the effort to run, but it also gave off her growing anger.
“Then I suppose it doesn’t matter if I make it public, since you say it’s nothing,” Kristania said in a provoking way, causing her fury to grow while her breathing became heavier. “Of course, I could choose not to say a word for now, but given how often you’re upsetting me lately… you’d have to make merits for my silence. Although it would depend on my mood as well.”
That was enough. Marianne imagined herself jumping on top of her, pinning her to the ground and screaming at her face so loud, it would leave her deaf, but she had to control those impulses. However, once the seed was already sown in her mind, it was impossible to prevent it acting on its own. As Kristania took a step forward, an external force acted on her, making her lose balance and fell on her side, like pushed by an invisible hand, twisting her ankle.
“Ouch, my foot! You pushed me!” she cried with an accusing gaze, holding her ankle tightly while the coach blew his whistle to stop everyone.
“What’s going on here?”
“She pushed me, coach! She did it on purpose!”
“Is that true?” the coach asked, but Marianne didn’t answer, just stood there, looking bemused.
“She didn’t do it,” Demian suddenly said, everyone turning to him. “I saw everything, she just collapsed.”
Kristania looked at him with wide eyes, unable to believe he was contradicting her.
“B-But . . . she did push me! She did! She really did it!” she insisted, looking desperate.
“There’s only one truth here and until I know what happened—”
“I pushed her,” Marianne declared to everyone’s surprise, even Kristania’s.
“Well, in that case you should have some punishment. You’ll stay after school to sort and clean the auditorium. It doesn’t have to be a big issue, right?” the coach said, looking at Kristania as if he already knew she was prone to exaggerating things. She just whimpered, sniffling in a dramatic gesture.
“N-No,” she answered, acting vulnerable.
“Take her to the infirmary. At this rate we will end this year in red numbers,” the coach ordered, shaking his head as her friends took her limping.
“Cheer up! If you really pushed her, she deserved it! I’m with you!” Lilith muttered, patting her on the shoulder while the rest of the boys began to disperse and get out. Demian gave her one last look before leaving.
As soon as she was alone, Marianne sat on the floor, feeling frustrated at having lost control of her power and letting Kristania get to her nerves. And worst of all: she was now on her hands. She couldn’t even explain how Kristania had managed to go unnoticed, how they hadn’t realized she was following them.
She clenched her hands and snorted, then stood up and looked at the place she had to clean. She put the practice balls back on their box and swept the court, but otherwise everything looked in order, except, perhaps, for a mobile she found in the stands. She decided to put it away while she finished cleaning and dealed with it later.
Once she was done, she went back to sit in the stands to rest. She needed a moment to think about how she could counteract Kristania’s possible revelation. Her mind began to concoct different solutions that could serve for that matter, but they all had one major drawback: the fact that if Loui saw Samael, he would recognize him immediately. The ghost story no longer seemed such a good idea now. She then recalled the phone she found earlier and took it, wondering who would have forgotten it, and suddenly the door opened. Demian came inside with a can of juice in one hand and his sports bag on his back.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, and he glanced at the phone in her hands.
“I forgot my cell phone,” he replied, and she reproached herself mentally, thinking it seemed obvious. She handed the phone to him and he sat down beside her, unexpectedly giving her the can of juice. “And I’m the one with the hero complex.”
“There’s no comparison, this is totally different.”
“Why did you say you pushed her? I saw it, you didn’t even touch her.”
“You probably didn’t see everything. I can be quick if I want to.”
Maybe he thought she had said that for some kind of heroic reason, to ‘turn the other cheek’, but she really had pushed her, though not physically. She had to admit to herself that part of the reason for taking responsibility had to do with Kristania’s threat.
If she wouldn’t have recognized her fault and made her look like a fool again, she was undoubtedly going to reveal that Samael lived with her to everyone in a fit of rage. And if anything was clear to her, it was that she originally intended to use this information to blackmail her somehow, and she needed time to think of a solution with a cool head.
“If you insist.” He shrugged. “Either way, no one would blame you if you had done it. She can be a real pain.”
“You can say that again,” she added, opening the can. “You should have thought it better before going out with her.”
“What?” He turned to her with a baffled look in his face, as if he had lost part of the conversation.
“Not that I criticize your taste, but boy that was really poor decision making.”
“Wait a minute, stop,” he said before she continued talking. “What do you mean with poor decision? What are you talking about?”
“You dating Kristania of course,” she replied, taking a sip of juice, and Demian stared at her dumbfounded.
“I did what? I’ve never dated her!” he claimed, outraged, as if he were the victim of a very bad joke.
“Well . . . that’s what she’s been saying all along.”
Demian immediately rose to his feet, visibly upset.
“I don’t know exactly what she has said, but we never went out together! I don’t understand where she might have gotten that idea.”
“Maybe . . . you met her somewhere and said something that led her to believe or imagine things thereafter,” Marianne suggested, and he thought about it for a moment, as though recalling something, until he finally closed his eyes and sighed.
“There was this time three years ago. I was upset with my father so I went to the movies looking for refuge. She sat next to me. She seemed to be alone, but I saw her signaling some girls sitting at the other end. I didn’t care, I just needed a distraction. I went to buy something before the movie started and when I returned she was crying. I didn’t know what to do. I considered changing seats, but I thought it would be rude, so I offered her a handkerchief and spoke to her in an attempt to calm her down. I even offered her a soda and some popcorn. After that I started to run into her everywhere in school, and even out of it, as if she were following me around. If it wasn’t her, it was one of her friends. It came to a point when I didn’t even feel secure at home.”
“So that’s why you thought I could be a stalker,” Marianne asked, holding her laughter. “It doesn’t take a genius to assume that the thing at the movies was pure acting to get near you. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to me if she still retains your handkerchief.”
Demian shuddered at the thought, while she couldn’t hold her laughter anymore.
“It’s not funny. All this time she’s been spreading these rumors about us and I wasn’t even aware of that.”
“At least your friends should have said something, shouldn’t they?”
Demian kept silent and looked down at the floor, as if ashamed to admit that despite having so many acquaintances, he hadn’t formed any real bond with them. No one really dared to tell things straight to his face. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned around.
“What are you planning to do?”
“What do you think? I’ll face her and clear up all the lies she’s been telling about us.”
Marianne seemed alarmed. She was sure that if he were to face Kristania after the bad day she’d had, she would certainly reveal all about Samael just to drag someone down with her. She was also sure that she would find a way to blame it on her too since she had exposed her to Demian, even if unknowingly. So she jumped up and settled the can on the stands.
“Wait! Don’t do it right now! She hasn’t had a good day!”
“So what? Do you really care after all?” he snapped. She tried to think of something quick. All she knew was that she had to hold him for a while.
“I’m telling you, please wait!” she yelled, jumping over him and knocking him on the floor. It took a few seconds until Demian pushed himself up and turned to her in astonishment.
Realizing her action, Marianne immediately pulled away, embarrassed. She blushed a little and tried to think of some justification.
“Just . . . wait a little before facing her. Right now she has her guard down, you don’t want to kick someone when they’re down, do you? You better wait until she’s in a perfect emotional state, and then you approach to solve it privately and if she doesn’t want to clear it out publicly, then you take the helm without remorse.”
Demian kept staring at her, a sign she interpreted as if he couldn’t believe her boldness. Maybe she should have waited before acting on an impulse.
“All right. I’ll wait a few days,” he finally said to her relief as he stood up, shaking his uniform. “I don’t get what you win with this. It’s obvious that you two can’t stand each other.”
“I-It’s not about me! She just…deserves the benefit of the doubt. Even a stalking Gorgon like her is entitled to it,” Marianne replied casually and quickly covered her mouth after sharing the private joke she had with Lilith.
“Gorgon,” Demian repeated and suddenly began to laugh. “It makes sense.”
He then stretched his hand to help her up and she considered it briefly, but finally decided to accept his help. She clutched his hand and at the touch, he felt some kind of electric current running through his palm and each one of his fingers. Marianne began to shake her clothes once up and when she looked back at Demian, noticed he was watching curiously at his own hand, opening and closing several times.
“Nothing,” he said, pulling his hand away. Maybe it was just static.
“Shouldn’t you already be at the coffee shop by now? Of course, it’s not like you’re at risk of getting fired, but still.”
“I was just about to go,” he said, coming back for his bag and throwing it over his shoulder, but stopped on his way to the door and turned around. “Are you coming or what?”
Marianne gazed at him, wondering if he had really forgotten his phone, but remembered that her friends should be waiting for her, so she took the can of juice and followed him. Luckily there was no sign of Kristania afterwards, although it also meant that her sprained ankle could be more serious than imagined, which didn’t soothe her either, knowing her degree of responsibility in the incident.
When she appeared at school on crutches, with her foot bandaged up to the ankle, it contributed to Marianne’s guilt, though it seemed to keep her at bay at least, given the special treatment she received from others, which helped feed her ego. It seemed like, after her mishap, she had acquired the status of victim, and that put Marianne in the role of the villain in the eyes of her classmates, but she didn’t care. If the attention she was receiving helped to keep her quiet, it had its positive side.
“Are you nervous, Belgina? I would be,” Angie commented, walking along her to the auditorium where they had arranged several desks for the competition.
“I’m fine,” she replied, though her mind seemed to be elsewhere.
“I’d say good luck, but you don’t need it, you’re a nerd,” Lilith said, patting her head with camaraderie.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Marianne asked, noticing how absorbed she looked.
She glanced around the auditorium and saw Mitchell among the public. He was wearing his sunglasses and waved his hand in her direction, hoping she would return the greeting. Belgina quickly averted her gaze with a sigh.
“Yes, I am. I’ll go take a seat now.” She got into the auditorium and walked towards the center, where teachers were giving instructions to all the contestants.
Lilith and Angie went to buy snacks while Marianne decided to stay and wait for them. She watched Belgina, trying to figure out if her posture meant absolute concentration or her mind was actually canalized in other matters. She then felt the presence of someone sitting next to her.
“So? Have you talked to her?”
She turned to her right and saw that Mitchell had moved to her side, staring at Belgina.
“What was I supposed to say to her?”
“Oh, come on! We talked about it! I’m not the monster you think I am! I thought I had been clear,” he said, fighting his urge to take his hands to his head and ruin his well combed hair.
“You must understand that this is not about just telling her to talk to you now, like she needs permission to do that, she must want it herself.”
“Don’t you see how anxious I am? I have bags!” Mitchell insisted, lifting his sunglasses to show the incipient gray circles under his eyes. “I’ve never had bags in my life!”
“Well…there’s always a first,” she said, wrinkling her nose, not knowing whether to laugh or feel sorry for him.
Belgina looked up for a brief moment and was surprised to see them talk so calmly despite all. She instantly returned her eyes to the test, but seemed to be looking through it. Her attention lost in space. She then wrote nonstop until setting her pencil on the desk, then stood up, delivered the booklet with the test to everyone’s amazement, and walked away. Marianne went down the stands in a rush, but once at the door she lost sight of her.
That night the auditorium had been arranged for the final event very quickly and the stands were starting to fill while the girls stood at the door, hoping to see Belgina.
“Do you think she even finished the test? Because, you know, she handed it before everyone else.”
“I don’t think it matters now,” Marianne said without losing sight of the people arriving until she got to spot Belgina in the distance, getting out of the main building to approach the auditorium. “Could you go ahead and take some seats?”
Angie and Lilith exchanged glances and shrugged, getting inside while Marianne walked towards Belgina to intercept her.
“What’s going on with you? Why did you disappear like that?”
“I just needed to think,” she replied, her eyes on the floor.
“Think about what? Is this all because of Mitchell?”
Belgina just looked at her in silence, unsure of what she should say.
“No, it’s not that,” she replied with growing anxiety. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to be thinking all the time whether I’m worthy of that kind of attention. All my life I’ve handled myself with a low profile to avoid conflict and have tried to hide my feelings so no one would be able to use them against me. For example, a few years ago I used to like Demian.”
Marianne lifted her eyebrows. She wasn’t expecting that at all.
“Although, of course, it wasn’t just me. Kristania had especially proclaimed to be the first one to notice him and therefore the only one who had the right to approach him. I witnessed many of the times she harassed other girls who openly confessed they liked him. After telling everyone she had a date with him, it got even worse. She was suspicious of everyone…but never said anything to me. I guess I didn’t seem like a threat, she didn’t consider I was worthy of getting anyone’s attention. And now add that to the fact that Mitchell is her brother.”
“But he’s different from her. I never thought I would say this…but he’s not that bad. He has an honest side that doesn’t show too much because he’s so lost in himself, or at least that’s the image he tries to convey. Maybe he just needs a chance so he can get rid of all those antics, to show more of the real person and not the clown.”
“Ouch, please don’t help me.” Mitchell was a few steps behind them, in his way to the auditorium. Belgina looked nervously at him, not expecting he would be listening to their conversation.
After a brief moment of silence, she opened her mouth, but they heard through the speakers that the ceremony was about to start. She closed her mouth again and quickly entered the building without a word.
“Er…good luck, babe!” Mitchell said as she walked away.
Belgina didn’t look hopeful, so the girls weren’t too optimistic either during the ceremony. And so, when her name was mentioned as the winner, the three girls immediately burst into applause and cheers, while Belgina seemed incredulous. She walked up hesitantly to the podium, looking skeptically at the audience and after accepting the trophy, she went to stand on the winners’ side in disbelief. It took her a while to finally dare to look at the audience and saw her friends clapping and making victory signs, and further away, at the edge of the stands, Mitchell was also applauding. She found herself smiling.
When the ceremony ended, Belgina tried to cross the hall to meet with her friends, but they were informed that there was still a photo shoot at an improvised kiosk in the middle of the sports field for the press and their respective schools, so she had no choice but to follow the rest of the winners, carrying her trophy. They had already left the auditorium and turned towards the field when Mitchell stepped out to her.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” he said, a little cautious, but she remained silent. The rest of the winners were already ahead.
When the girls managed to get out of the building, they rounded it to find the place where the winners —and therefore Belgina— should be. They knew most people stayed at the auditorium, but found it odd that, while heading to the sports field, the atmosphere began to feel heavier and even the ambience noise was gone.
“Do you feel that?” Lilith said, breaking the silence.
“Something’s not right,” Marianne frowned.
Angie ran toward the mesh surrounding the field and stopped right in front of it.
They rushed to catch up with her and looked through the mesh, discovering several bodies lying on the lawn beside the kiosk. Fragments of what looked like frosted glass were scattered beside each one of them.
“Hollow,” Marianne said, looking distraught at the bodies.
“We need to find Belgina!” Lilith snapped, forcing the mesh open to go through it and check on the bodies, looking for their friend.
Marianne gripped the mesh and then she felt a hand resting on her shoulder, making her wince.
“It’s me,” Samael announced to soothe her.
“How did you get here?”
“I felt something was happening. Just like the first time, like watching everything through a veil. I got here guided by you, again,” he replied, getting to the field to get a closer look and restore the gifts. “All of these ones are Intellectual gifts. That must be Hollow’s current target.”
“Belgina’s not here,” Lilith added after checking all the bodies. It wasn’t hard to figure out what that meant.
“She’s the next target,” Marianne said with concern.
“May I help you?” Mitchell said, taking Belgina’s trophy and pulling her away from the paved road. “I knew you’d win. You’re really smart. That’s one of the things I like about you.”
“What are the other things?” she asked, taking him aback.
“Well . . . you’re different, you didn’t judge me from the beginning like everyone else,” he answered with a smile, but she seemed disappointed.
“It could have been anyone.”
“But it was you! Not just because another girl would’ve given me a chance I would have liked her too . . . well, okay, I probably would, but to be honest I like everyone. However, I felt a very strong conection with you. I hope you can forgive me if I gave you the impression that I was just goofing around. I really like you, for all of what you are…even if you don’t think so yourself. You’re the opposite of me and . . . let’s just say you complete me.”
For the first time he blushed saying this, and now Belgina was the one surprised. She looked down at her feet, wondering the proper thing to say next, and when she lifted her gaze again, she found Mitchell’s alarmed face, watching behind her as if he’d seen something horrifying.
She stood still, suspecting the reason. There was this tingling in her head she was trying to ignore, but now she knew she shouldn’t have done it.
Assuming that the others would arrive soon, she just had to make some time in that case. So, she set a foot on the ground and pushed Mitchell with a gust of wind arising from her hands.
He was repelled several feet away onto the floor, getting to see a shrouded figure with a dark aura holding Belgina from behind. A shiny sphere was shot out of her chest.
The demon took the gift in his hands and dropped Belgina’s motionless body. Right at that moment, his instinct told him to bend to the side and the edge of a sword passed within inches from his face. Marianne was looking through her helmet at the end of it. He smiled then, with his red eyes lighting up as embers. A dark halo extended through his body and continued to expand beyond him, throwing her away.
“Don’t let him take her gift!” Marianne shouted.
Lilith went ahead and tried a fire attack, which only crashed into the dark layer surrounding the area where the demon was. They tried to go through it, but it was impossible, it repelled them like an electrified fence.
“What is this?”
“It’s a negative energy field, he created it so we can’t get through,” Samael explained, watching his hand being rejected just by trying to touch the layer.
“Does that mean we can’t do anything while he’s in there, stealing Belgina’s gift?” Marianne asked, looking through the wall at Hollow already taking the container.
“I’m sorry, it’s the just like when I create a protective barrier. It would be difficult for a demon like him, filled with negative energy, to pass through it. They’re repelled by positive energy and can cause them great harm. The same applies to us regarding negative energy.”
“You said difficult, but not impossible.”
Samael took a breath, realizing that she wanted to break the barrier.
“I’ll try my best,” he agreed, placing his hands in front of it and concentrating his energy into his palms. His fingers tickled from the tip and he tried to lay them on the wall, though it did nothing but draw sparks each time he touched it.
Marianne beckoned the girls and the three of them took his shoulder or his back to share with him part of their own power.
“Quick, or we’ll lose him!” Marianne urged him. Hollow had already placed the sphere in the vessel, which accepted it without difficulties. Samael struggled to fracture the barrier, but it remained firm while he was starting to run out of energy until a spark sent them to the floor.
“The barrier is too strong for me. I need more time.”
“We don’t have it!” Marianne watched desperately through the layer, thinking they wouldn’t be able to do a thing for Belgina, but all of a sudden, out of nowhere, something rammed the demon to everyone’s surprise, and the most incredible thing of all was finding out who it was.
“Is that Mitchell? But how did he get through the barrier?” Lilith asked incredulously.
“He shouldn’t be able. It would be impossible for anyone to pass through it,” Samael said, not believing his eyes. An idea crossed his mind, a possibility.
He got up and tried to touch the layer again, but it was gone, confirming his suspicion. He obviously was wrong in believing his search was over.
Hollow shook Mitchell off him and took him by the neck.
“Where did you come from? You’re nothing but a simple human,” he growled, his hand closing around his throat, cutting off his breath. A buzz on the left alerted him that something was coming, so he turned to that direction and with his free hand stopped the blade. Marianne tried to regain control of it, but the demon was holding it firmly. “You’ll need more than that to beat me.”
“How about this?” Lilith suddenly appeared alongside Marianne and poured her firepower into the blade which took on a red-hot hue, forcing Hollow to let go of it, hurling the two girls and releasing Mitchell. Samael seized the moment to pull the boy and take him away. Meanwhile, Angie dragged Belgina as far as she could, and looked for ways to open the vessel.
“Hold on, Belgina. I just have to . . . open this thing . . . but how does it open?”
She looked up and saw Hollow rising up in all his height, a wicked smile in his face. Within seconds he had already snatched the container and a black hole above him absorbed it. He then grabbed her neck and squeezed. A shield of dark aura surrounded him, so neither Marianne nor Lilith could go through it to help her.
“Use your hands! Like the last time!” Marianne beckoned her as they strived to go through the new barrier.
Despite getting short of air, Angie reached and touched Hollow’s face with her hands, but nothing happened, it only increased the demon’s evil smile and the pressure on her throat.
The situation was spiraling out of control and Samael was nowhere to be found. They pulled away in an attempt to tear down the wall once again, but suddenly caught sight of an armored figure getting through it without a problem, pouncing on the demon’s back while Angie crawled away, clutching her neck and trying to catch her breath.
“Was that Samuel?” Lilith asked, unable to see him clearly.
“No, I’m here,” he answered, approaching from behind.
“But if you’re here . . . then who . . . ?” Marianne asked, though she didn’t need much thought. Deep inside, she already knew the answer and couldn’t help but let out a snort of disbelief. “Oh, no.”
The demon got rid of the lump clinging to his back with a quick motion, battering him down the floor and rising above him, placing his hands right in front of his face and another shadowy aura began to emanate from them. Once he felt the acid heat advancing towards his face, Mitchell freed his limbs and placed his hands forward as protection without realizing that a few feet above, some type of hole was forming in a whirlpool that covered the perimeter.
“What is that?” Marianne asked when they were surrounded by some sort of smoky gray layer. Samael cautiously touched it, but nothing happened.
“It doesn’t contain negative energy. Hollow couldn’t have made it. It must be Mitchell.”
The demon was standing up, checking his hands as the new Angel Warrior crawled towards Belgina, trying to make her react.
“She needs her gift back, the one that demon snatched from her,” Angie said, kneeling beside them.
Hollow kept examining his own hands. The shadowy aura that had begun to flow from them had stopped and didn’t seem to respond to his attempts to activate it again.
“Interesting,” he said with a hint of fascination, even though his powers seemed cancelled for the moment.
“What does that mean?”
“Seems like the new layer is containing him,” Samael replied, watching the demon’s reaction.
“All right! That means it’s the perfect time to finish him!” Lilith snapped her fingers and extended her arms, but to her surprise she couldn’t take out a single hint of smoke from her fingers either. It was like she had run out of fuel. “What the…? Where’s the fire?”
Marianne also tried to move something from the floor with her mind, but it was useless, not even moving her hands.
“What’s happening? Did we lose our powers?”
“No, they were all suppressed momentarily,” Samael replied, trying to become invisible and failing at it. “Apparently the barrier overrides any kind of energy, positive and negative alike. That means we’re under the same conditions.”
“Enough for me, then,” Marianne added, brandishing her sword and charging against Hollow, who just leaned to the side with nimbleness and spun around to stop her hand.
“The same conditions? Think again,” he said with a confident smile, and immediately began to squeeze Marianne’s wrist until a rustling sound like dead leaves was heard. She let out a scream and dropped the sword, holding her hand in pain.
Samael appeared immediately in front of her, receiving the next onslaught and then getting up again to fight hand-to-hand against the demon.
“Come on, we have to help him,” Lilith said, pulling Mitchell up. “Belgina will be fine. We must defeat the demon first.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“What do you think? Attack!” Marianne said, holding her hand against her chest.
He stood up, glancing doubtful at Belgina. But just as he was about to go and help Samael, he stopped to see the demon on the floor.
“Did he do it? Did he really beat him?” Angie asked, her hand still around her neck.
Samael looked surprised at Hollow, unable to believe he had defeated him. He was panting and kept an alert posture for any sudden movement from the demon, but the last thing he expected was that he would start laughing on the floor.
“I was just testing you,” he said as he stood up completely indifferent to the beating. “And it’s been more than enough.”
They exchanged alarmed glances, but couldn’t react in time. One quick motion and Hollow moved in front of Mitchell with a smile.
One punch was enough to knock him out, and the smoky barrier disappeared, allowing them to get the full control over their powers again.
“It’s time to end this.”
“On the floor! Everybody on the floor now!” Samael yelled when Hollow stood at the center, with an intense dark halo surrounding him.
The angel barely managed to throw himself over them as a wave of expansive energy exploded from the demon’s body, covering the ground like a cloak of shadows, exerting pressure until shattering the entire perimeter, leaving only a cloud of dust that cleared up to reveal a huge circle of devastated land.
Nothing was left inside the area, like the scene of a bombing.
The demon just smiled while another hole opened behind him. He disappeared inside, leaving all the devastation behind.
It was a crushing victory for him.