«Never forget . . . »

«You can’t be happy . . . »

«How can you allow yourself? »

«After what you did . . . »

Whispers arose from everywhere, threatening and sinister, as if they resided in a hidden part of her.

«You know what you’re capable of . . . »

«You can’t keep hiding it for long . . . »

«Sooner or later you’ll show your true colors . . . »

«And join us . . . »

In the misty darkness of unconsciousness an image appeared: a motionless body on the floor, lying on its side, with a charred hole on its back, profusely bleeding.

« . . . Murderer . . . »

Lilith snapped awake, breathing hard, her face covered in cold sweat. She glanced around to make sure she was still in her room and saw the other bed where her little sister slept peacefully. Then she rubbed her face, trying to wipe the sweat, and sat back, waiting for her calm to be restored. Yet she knew how difficult it would be, especially after such a dream. Sometimes, though, she couldn’t dismiss it as ‘just a dream’.

The voices. The whispers. They were back.

It had been about a year since she’d last heard them, she was starting to believe she could finally lead a normal life despite her current circumstances. But even that seemed a positive change, a way to keep her busy and distracted. She thought to be finally in control. Until now. She had no clue what that lifeless body meant or who it was, the only thing she wanted was to push it out of her mind.

She was no murderer. She wasn’t. She repeated it several times in her mind in an attempt to convince herself.

A new wave of whispers tried to break through her, drilling her mind, looking for an entry. She covered her ears and began to hit them repeatedly.

“Are you okay?” A little voice took her out of her reverie.

Her little sister was looking at her from across the room with her huge brown eyes. She knew that look. It had been a year since she last saw it.

“It’s nothing, go back to sleep,” she said to soothe her, but the girl kept looking at her, worried. “It was just a nightmare, seriously. I’m fine.”

The girl didn’t seem convinced, but sleep finally overcame her. Lilith, meanwhile, settled back into bed, forcing her eyes closed. Hopefully it would remain a bad dream in the morning. She couldn’t afford to lose control, not when she was doing so well. Especially now of all times.

“Marianne? Are you awake?” Noah asked, knocking on her door. It was barely eight in the morning, but he already seemed ready to go out. “Loui and I are going to the hospital. Are you coming with us?” She didn’t answer. Noah sighed and stopped knocking. “Well, if you feel like going out later, you know where to find us.”

After waiting a little longer and not getting any response, he left. Marianne stayed in bed as she waited for them to leave.

The front door closed a few minutes later and the sound of the car engine let her know that they were on their way to the hospital. She proceeded to stand up and get dressed.

When she left her room, Samael was already coming down from the attic. The temperature had dropped considerably, so finding him in a short-sleeve shirt caused her teeth to chatter.

“Aren’t you cold? Put on a sweater or something. I feel like I’m freezing just looking at you.”

“Sorry,” he said as if he had done something wrong, and turned around to go back to the attic.

“Forget it,” she stopped him and changed course towards the kitchen stairs. “Come on, let’s have some breakfast.”

Marianne checked the fridge and the pantry, but to her surprise there was nothing fairly edible. The leftovers had either taken an overly brown shade or had recently crossed the expiration date.

“There’s nothing left. Can you endure a couple of hours to go to the coffee shop and eat something there?”

“Sure,” Samael accepted willingly, while she looked across the table and found a note that her father had left:

We couldn’t buy groceries this week.

Please, either buy or order what you want and charge it to me.

Love, Dad.

Marianne sighed as if she’d seen it coming, and without much thought, she walked to the door, determined not to waste any more time.

“Well, let’s get you something warm enough to get outside.”

Lucianne’s only concern going back home was her father’s condition, and if he would have given any problems to Officer Perry, but fortunately he had managed to control him very well in her absence, much better than she could have done it, for which she was grateful. In turn, he was more than happy to have her back.

While she was at the camp, the young officer had almost temporarily moved to her house to monitor the commissioner more closely. Now that she was back, he naturally moved back to his own apartment, but still dropped by her house early in the morning, with the excuse of making sure everything was okay.

Lucianne, kind as she was, invited him to breakfast now that he was already there, an offer he immediately accepted.

“Miss Lucianne, let me tell you, these are the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten in my life,” he said while taking one bite after another.

“Thanks, though it’s not a big deal. And I’ve told you many times to stop calling me that. You’re almost a member of the family.”

The young officer choked on a bite and hit his chest repeatedly, while Lucianne offered him a glass of water. As the choking eventually subsided, he lifted his longing gaze to her

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course, you’re like a son to my father, so it’s like you’re my brother,” she said with an innocent smile, leaving him like a statue about to crumble.

“Oh, right. Of course,” he said, taking another bite dejectedly.

Someone knocked on the door and Lucianne jumped up.

“I’ll be right back.”

She walked walked calmly to the entrance; her father seemed quiet that morning, so she opened the door without further expectations. Outside there was someone with his back to her, looking at the cloudy sky with hands inside a black leather’s pockets. His short hair curled around the tips. Lucianne twisted an eyebrow. She had no idea who that was.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

The stranger turned around and her expression immediately changed.


“It’s been a day and you don’t recognize me anymore? And yet I thought I had made at least some impression,” he remarked with that smile that curved sideways.

She stepped out, holding the door behind her, a mixture of surprised and puzzled.

“Why are you here? How did you know where I live?”

“Hacker, remember?” he admitted unabashedly. “I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye properly when we were at camp, and considering that you were just trying to be nice. I guess I behaved like a jerk, so . . . here I am, trying to compensate somehow.”

She kept staring at him in disbelief, blinking with a stunned expression.

“Your hair . . . ” That was the only thing she was able to say.

“Oh, this?” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “I thought it was time for a change. Also, perhaps I really needed a cut, don’t you think?”

Lucianne didn’t say a thing, so the boy raised an eyebrow, waiting for a reaction.

“And I guess I’m not entirely welcome, so . . . goodbye.”

He took a few steps back, intending to leave, but Lucianne stopped him.

“No, wait! Sorry, I just . . . you caught me off guard. That’s it.”

“Well, mission accomplished, then. That was my purpose,” he replied, trying to sound casual, but then his expression seemed to soften. “Maybe I should’ve warned you, though.”

“It would have been a good idea . . . but definitely would’ve ruined the surprise.”

Franktick smiled again, and she responded the same way.

“Who was it?”

The door opened and Officer Perry stopped at the sight of the boy in front of Lucianne, tall and tough-looking, who in turn gazed at him as if he had interrupted something important and shouldn’t be there.

“Oh, sorry, Perry. This is Frank, a friend I made at camp.” She then turned to Franktick to continue the introduction. “And this is Perry, a family friend . . . well, his real name is Sascha, but he prefers to be called by his surname.”

The young officer gave her a look after her unnecessary clarification and Franktick smiled derisively.

“Isn’t that a girl’s name?”

“It’s Russian and it means ‘defender of man’, which is very appropriate, given what I am,” he replied, showing his plate as a warning.

“Oh, right. My apologies, officer. Sometimes I have problems with authority . . . and that includes obeying it,” Frank replied without erasing his insolent smile. Officer Perry looked warily at him.

“Be careful. Not everyone would take such comments that lightly.”

“Well, they shouldn’t,” Frank retorted with a challenging attitude and Lucianne was forced to intervene.

“Are you seriously doing this, guys?”

Officer Perry took a deep breath and kept his mouth shut while Franktick puffed a short laugh and shook his head, turning around to leave.

“Well, apparently I came at a bad time, so . . . good bye.”

“Wait!” Lucianne stepped out of the house to stop him, much to Perry’s surprise. “You came here this early only to leave after five minutes? At least stay for breakfast.”

Franktick raised his eyebrows and glanced at Officer Perry, who seemed to have stopped breathing.

“But of course. I’m starving,” he agreed, smiling defiantly and giving the officer a sneering look.

He, on the other hand, looked hurt at Lucianne’s invitation, and finally decided to take his coat and get out.

“Perry? Where are you going?”

“Breakfast’s over. Gotta go to work.”

“You can go in peace, officer. I’ll take care of her in your absence,” Frank said with a patronizing tone that ignited his anger.

He seemed to instantly regret his impulsive decision, but he couldn’t just withdraw it. He paused for a few seconds with a disgruntled gesture and tightened his hands, after which he continued his way, despite how much it troubled him.

Lucianne watched him go with distraught, but she didn’t want Frank to leave. Not like that.

The Retroganzza opened at ten o’clock as usual, and even though his father had waived the penance he had imposed, Demian decided to keep going to stay active.

“I thought you wouldn’t come back. Glad you decided to stay,” Mankee said as he set the chairs. Only the two of them were at the coffee shop at the time.

“Maybe I’m already used to the environment. So much that I wouldn’t know what to do in my free time,” Demian replied, separating a couple of chairs near the door when he looked through the window and suddenly changed his demeanor. “ . . . I’ll go to the kitchen to see what they need.”

As soon as he said this, he turned without waiting for a reply and rushed into the kitchen before Mankee’s confused look. The doorbell sounded and Marianne and Samael entered.

“Good morning, you were missed during the break,” he received them with a bow and Marianne just showed a weak smile.

“Thanks, that’s kind of you.”

Mankee led them to their usual place, while adding a couple of chairs, knowing the rest of the group would join them later.

“Can I get you something, or would you like to wait until the others arrive?”

“We’ll order something. We’re starving,” she answered, taking the menu and then having a look around. “Are you alone or has anyone arrived?”

“If you mean Demian, he’s in the kitchen. Do you want me to call him?”

“No, no! I was just wondering,” she quickly said, looking back at the menu and lifting it to cover her face.

Samael gave her a puzzled look. Marianne tried to look nonchalant, but couldn’t help the concern reflecting on her face, breaking her concentration.

“Bring us burgers,” she decided, tired of looking at the menu without actually paying attention to it.

Samael just smiled and retrieved the one he was holding, since she had already ordered for him.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Samael asked as Mankee retired.

“Of course. It’s absolutely necessary,” she said, resting her elbows on the table and starting to clatter her fingers anxiously. Samael stopped her hands, trying to calm her down.

“I can handle this. You could go to the hospital with your family and I would deal with the others.” She was about to protest, but he went ahead. “And I promise not to say anything about what happened.”

Marianne considered his proposal, but she ultimately refused.

“Thanks, but no. I’m perfectly capable of coping with this.”

Samael sighed, understanding he wasn’t going to convince her and opted to only nod and squeeze her hands in support.

In the kitchen, Mankee was ready to take their burgers, but when he grabbed the ketchup, it fell all over him, smearing his shirt.

Meelban!” he said with frustration and almost immediately seemed embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, anyone could have done it,” Demian said, holding his tray to help him while he tried to clean his shirt.

“I need to change. Could you take that order?”

He was about to refuse, but Mankee ran downstairs to the dungeon, leaving him with the tray. He looked around as if waiting for someone else to take over the task, but there was no one else, just the cook, so he took a breath and finally got out of the kitchen.

As he opened the door, he briefly glimpsed Samael releasing Marianne’s hands.

He walked towards them, clutching the tray.

“Here you go. Bon appétit,” he simply said, settling their orders in front of them and heading back to the kitchen.

“I thought you wouldn’t be working here by now,” Marianne said as she toyed with a chip. “Since you don’t even get paid.”

Demian stopped, his back to them, and twisted his mouth as if resisting the urge to reply, but in vain.

“If you hate seeing me here that much, it would be easier to start looking for another meeting poing,” he snapped and then moved on to the kitchen, leaving Marianne astounded. What had she said now, to make him react that way?

“Was there a problem?” Mankee asked, wearing a clean shirt. Demian was just getting back to the kitchen with a clenched face.

“None. I need to get out for a moment,” he growled, leaving the tray aside and going straight to the door that led to the narrow passage, exactly where he had found Mankee a few weeks ago.

He stopped on the opposite side of the dumpster and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and exhaling cool mist through his mouth.

Then he heard footsteps on the street, passing right in front of the alley where he was, and when he looked up, his eyes widened with a mixture of surprise and disbelief.

“You haven’t eaten anything,” Samael said, noticing Marianne hadn’t touched her food other than to stir her chips and play with them.

“My appetite’s off,” she muttered with a moody face.

“Why does it affect you, anyway?”

“What do you mean by that?”

Samael stared at her as if trying to get inside her mind, but she squinted once she understood his intention.

“Don’t you dare.”

He looked away with a sigh, aware that he wouldn’t get her to say anything. When he looked up, his face immediately seemed to expand. Marianne wanted to turn her head, curious to know what he was looking at, but it wasn’t necessary. Lucianne appeared next to them.

“Hi, I didn’t think you would come so early,” she greeted with a smile.

Marianne was about to respond when she saw Franktick right behind her, his hands in his pockets and walking with a carefree attitude. She opened her mouth, trying to make a comment, but couldn’t say a word, just looked at Lucianne with a questioning gaze.

“Uh . . . I hope you don’t mind. Frank wanted to know the place.”

The boy stopped at their table with a crooked smirk that seemed to recognize how unlikely the situation was.

“Hello, we meet again. No hard feelings?” he said, nodding towards Marianne, who only scowled at him. Then he glanced at Samael and gave another arrogant smile. “Do you still want to punch me?”

“I wasn’t going to,” he answered, without showing a hint of contempt in his voice.

“But you don’t deny you wanted to,” Franktick reiterated with a wink, having fun at their expense.

Samael twisted his eyebrows, unsure of how to answer to that.

“He’s joking, don’t mind him,” Lucianne intervened, while Frank laughed.

“Why do you take everything so seriously?”

“Says the guy who was involved in a fight the first day of camp after a simple accident,” Marianne blurted out, unable to take it anymore. She received a disapproving look from her cousin, while Franktick squinted as if she had touched a nerve. However, he immediately returned to his playful gesture.

“You’re absolutely right. I have a slight temper I need to work with. That’s not a reason to condemn me, is it? After all, I don’t think you’re the one to talk.”

He smiled crookedly, returning the punch, and Marianne clasped her hands, feeling attacked.

“Why don’t we all sit down and talk quietly as grownups?”

Lucianne stood between them to end the exchange before it would spiral out of control, so Marianne chose to shut up and sit back, while Franktick took another seat with a triumphant expression.

Demian took one last breath after recovering his composure and was already heading back to the kitchen, when Mankee bumped into him, apparently in a rush.

“I have to go shopping. Could you take care of the tables? You’d be doing me a big favor,” he asked while going past Demian.

“What? Wait!” He tried to refuse, but Mankee had already walked through the alley at a fast pace and on the main street. As if it wasn’t enough, now he would also have to put up with the boy he’d already had problems with. Once again, he seemed to have got up on the wrong side of the bed.

“Marianne . . . could I ask you something?” Lucianne said, taking her away from the tabl and leaving the boys alone. “Do you think your father could help me to request a transfer to your school?”

“I guess so, yes. I don’t think there should be a problem,” she shrugged. “And while we’re at it, could you explain what is he doing here?

“It was . . . unexpected. He suddenly appeared at my front door and I thought it would be rude not to invite him in . . . And then we had breakfast.”

Marianne gave her a recriminatory glance.

“And then what? Did you think it would be a great idea to bring him to our meeting where not only we talk about stuff no one else should know, but also where Demian works?”

“I couldn’t just forbid him to come,” Lucianne said, fiddling with her hands. “Besides . . . I’ve told you there’s nothing but friendship between Demian and I. And the same applies to Frank. We’re just friends.”

“Keep telling yourself that until you believe it.”

“Really,” she sighed, tired of trying to convince her. “If you’re worried about what Demian might think, you shouldn’t. He’s not interested in me, at least not in that way.”

“How are you so sure about it?”

Lucianne shook her head in disbelief.

“Just . . . don’t worry about it, okay? Demian’s a friend. Frank’s a friend. Can’t we all be friends?”

“You’re too idealistic,” Marianne concluded.

“So then . . . what’s your relationship with the little warrior?” Franktick asked casually once he was left alone with Samael, crossing his arms and leaning back in his seat. Samael looked somewhat alarmed by his choice of words.

“What do you mean?”

“I thought I was clear. I asked what’s your relationship with her?” he repeated, raising an eyebrow since it was an obvious question. “I mean, for you to act almost like her bodyguard must be because something binds you to her.”

“I’m a family friend,” Samael replied, trying to sound as casual as Frank, but he squinted and clicked his tongue with suspicion.

“Yeah. And that gives you the right to follow her everywhere, even to the lake in the middle of the night?”

Samael seemed disturbed. How could he know something like that? He stared at him for several seconds, trying to infiltrate his mind, and Franktick stared back. His cinnamon eyes shone with a red flash, and suddenly the angel came across a wall that blocked access to his thoughts. A wall of fog.

The angel blinked in confusion. Why was it suddenly impossible to access? The day he had come between Marianne and him, he could enter his mind and read his thoughts to know what kind of person he was.

At the time, he hadn’t caught any bad intention towards her or anyone, so he’d decided to let it go. But something must have happened since then, and whatever it was, it concerned him. There was no explanation for him to suddenly be able to block his own thoughts.

“Excuse us for leaving you two alone,” Lucianne said, returning to their seats. “Were you talking about something?”

“Stuff. We were just exchanging opinions on the ozone layer and global warming,” Franktick said, pillowing his head with his hands.

“Can’t you be serious for once?”

“What could be more serious than global warming?”

Lucianne tilted her head, knowing it would be impossible to get a serious answer from him while maintaining that playful attitude.

«Lucianne should be careful with him. »

The voice echoed in Marianne’s head and she looked at Samael. One single glance was enough to convey his message. She nodded and glared suspiciously at Frank. She didn’t have a good feeling about the boy, but if Samael had warned her, she should take it more seriously. If only Lucianne could see it too . . .

“Okay, someone please tell me what’s going on here, because I don’t understand.”

Mitchell had arrived and couldn’t help the puzzled look on his face when he saw his cousin sitting with them.

“Hello, Mitchellin, surprised to see me?”

“Honestly, yes. I thought you’d have returned to your computers and leaving all those ‘brownie stamps’ in private nets”.

“You always underestimate me. I can do much more than that and you know it.”

“Brownie stamps?” Lucianne asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Frank said, shaking his head.

“The point is that you’re not supposed to be here,” Mitchell said with a hint of superiority and for the first time, Marianne agreed with him.

“You say that as if you were part of an ultra secret organization when you just come here to eat burgers,” the guy replied, laughing out loud at how ridiculous it sounded.

“Well, maybe we are. Perhaps we’re part of a cult that’s plotting to take over the world and we use a public place to divert attention and avoid suspicion.”

“Oh, well. Is your sister also part of this cult?”

As he said this, Kristania came into the place with flushed cheeks and a heaving chest, as if she had been running all the way to get there. When she saw them sitting at their usual booth, she waved her arm in a warm greeting and smiled widely, in a way that made her look disturbingly more like Mitchell.

“What the hell are you doing here? I told you not to follow me!”

“I knew you were coming here, and I wanted to see my new friends. Hello!”

Ignoring her brother’s protests, she went straight to the table and sat between Marianne and Lucianne, embracing them as if they were old friends.

Marianne seemed about to scream.

“Sorry for being late, I fell asleep.”

Belgina appeared beside them, but kept quiet after seeing Franktick and Kristania. She seemed to think it over for a minute until finally opening her mouth.

“Are they also . . . ?”

Mitchell immediately covered her mouth as the others looked alarmed.

“Of course not, babe! They could never join our super awesome club of common people who do nothing out of the ordinary, they came uninvited.”

Marianne glared at him to be quiet once and for all, while Franktick could already smell something fishy.

“Are you going to order?”

All eyes now rested on Demian, and as if he was the distraction they needed, Frank turned his attention to him and chuckled.

“I had no idea Mr. Stuckup worked here. The place suits you well. Maybe next time you could stick more to the retro style and serve orders on roller skates or a costume,” Frank remarked with a derisive tone.

Demian just clutched the pencil in one hand while holding the note pad with the other.

“Frank, stop it,” Lucianne chided with a firm voice. “If you’re going to make fun of my friends, you might as well leave.”

He looked at her with the same posture, analyzing her face, until he ended up straightening in his seat.

“I apologize, then. I know when it’s time to go. Excuse me,” he added, pushing his chair and getting up. He patted Mitchell’s face in the process and headed to the door. Lucianne closed her eyes and sighed.

“I’m sorry,” she said remorsefully. She then got up and went after Franktick.

At the door, the boy ran into Angie, who was just coming in with a distorted face. She looked as if she were about to burst into tears.

Lucianne catched him at the exit.

“Why do you always have to act like that? I don’t understand what’s your problem with the others.”

“I don’t have any problem with them. It’s just the way I get along with people. Not everyone can handle it, and I understand. I don’t expect any of them to do it,” he said, putting his hands into his pockets in that laidback attitude of his. “Seriously, I don’t even dislike them. Well, except for Mr. Stuckup, but I think the feeling is mutual.”

“You can’t keep excluding yourself like that.”

“I didn’t. I don’t mind being in a place full of people who don’t want my presence as long as there’s at least one who does… But from the moment not even that person feels comfortable with me being there, well . . . there’s no reason to stay.”

“Now you’re just making me feel bad.”

“You don’t have to. No hard feelings,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m a complicated project. Or maybe I just like to make it difficult to others.”

He then smiled and winked, making Lucianne blush.

“Or you’re just complicating yourself unconsciously,” she said, trying not to show any sign of alteration.

“Auto-sabotage? Are you still trying to psychoanalyze me?” He arched one eyebrow in a mocking way, but Lucianne didn’t smile, just stared at him with that expression of genuine concern.

Angie, on the other hand, had entered the coffee shop with one thing in mind, and when she saw Marianne in their usual seat, she didn’t stop until getting there.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you mean? I asked you all to come, did you forget?” Marianne answered, taken aback by her tone.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she replied, her voice sounded about to break at any moment, her face clenched and her mouth began to tremble as much as she tried to stay rigid.

“Angie . . . I don’t understand . . . ”

“Your mother is in a coma. How can you be so calm?”

Marianne closed her mouth shut and realized that everyone looked surprised at her. That wasn’t what she had planned, no one else was supposed to know about it.

“Don’t you have feelings? It’s your mother!” Angie repeated with a shaken chest, about to crumble, as if speaking of her own mother.

Marianne opened her mouth, but no sound came out of it. Angie then turned around and left, pushing Franktick out of her way.

“Watch your steps, ‘strawberry shortcake.”

Angie stopped and turned to him. Her expression, restrained so far, finally seemed to crack under pressure and her tears ran down her cheeks. She turned again and ran nonstop.

“Wow, I’m on a roll today.”

“Something happened. Angie’s very sensitive . . . something must have affected her.”

“I understand,” he replied with sudden interest, looking for a split second in the same direction she had gone. He then returned to his former playful attitude and stretched his arms. “Well, auto-sabotage or not, I really have to go. I’ll let you know the next time I make a child cry so you can keep track of it.”

“That’s not funny. I don’t think you had anything to do with Angie’s state.”

“Don’t break my heart,” he finished with a smile as he walked away.

Lucianne watched him go as she wondered what he suddenly had to do. It seemed more like an excuse to leave, but she didn’t understand why if he’d decided to go with her.

But it wasn’t the moment to think about it. She had to find out what had triggered Angie’s reaction, so she got into the coffee shop again.

As the door closed behind her, Officer Perry’s car started from a distance and began to advance. While passing the coffee shop, he looked askance at the interior, but didn’t stop. With the slight roar of the engine, he put the car in gear and followed Frank.

“What happened to Angie? Why did she leave in such a rush?” Lucianne asked as she returned to the table and noticed everybody’s long faces.

“Why don’t you ask Marianne? Her mother is in a coma and apparently she wasn’t going to tell us,” Mitchell replied, pointing at her.

“What? Is it true?”

Marianne remained quiet. Except for her impulsive outbursts she didn’t allow herself to get carried away by emotions. She tried to be as rational and practical as possible. Not that she didn’t care, but she knew crying wouldn’t solve anything.

“I think I’ll better leave you alone,” Demian said, feeling he had no place in there. He walked back to the kitchen and leaned on the door as it closed. If he thought he had been overreacting before, now he felt guilty, and inevitably thought of his own mother.

“When were you going to tell us? Or is that why you asked us to meet you here?” Lucianne continued, waiting for her to say something.

“I . . . wasn’t. I don’t even know how Angie learned about it,” she finally said.

“Why? Aren’t we friends enough to support you right now? Like you did with my father?”

Marianne lifted her gaze. Lucianne seemed really hurt.

“It’s not the time to worry about me.”

“There’s always time to worry about someone.”

Lucianne decided to leave after those words. Belgina seemed as lost as the last couple of weeks and Mitchell looked reproachfully at Marianne, but said nothing.

“Poor thing, don’t worry, I’ll comfort you,” Kristania said, passing an arm ove her shoulder and adjusting her hair behind her ears.

Marianne cringed and jumped up. And without saying anything else, she tromped to the door while Samael followed her.

“Call me when you need someone!” Kristania said, waving an arm.

Mitchell looked from the table to the rest, and then back at the table.

“Oh, great. Now I have to pay for their orders.”

Something Officer Perry wasn’t exactly very proud of was the extreme measures he used to take when it came to watch over Lucianne, even though she wasn’t aware of that. He justified it as better to keep her safe than see her suffer the consequences of a poor judgment in her choice of friends and save her from a broken heart —and why not? Incidentally sparing his own heart too.

After all, that measure had proved effective after finding out that several boys that had shown any kind of interest in her in the past had turned out to be on the wrong path, so the Commissioner himself had made sure that not only she didn’t see them again, but that they received a wakeup call before getting to infringe any law.

It was as if Lucianne were a magnet for troubled boys, whom she welcomed like a charity project. So, when Demian came into the picture and he found nothing incriminating or suspicious about him —including the hospital issue that had been settled since then— he thought that finally someone worthy of Lucianne had appeared . . . and it scared him.

He couldn’t just charge him with anything just to keep him away from her, that would be a really hideous thing to do, so the only thing he could come up with at the time was warn him not to hurt her. Of course, he was taking a wild chance, Lucianne could find out and consequently get angry, but to his surprise it didn’t happen, which somehow made him respect the boy and resign himself to whatever would blossom between them.

But this morning when he saw that other boy at the door, talking to her in such a nonchalant attitude, his warning signals set off again. Even if it he used to doubt the intentions of anyone interested in Lucianne, he had the feeling that it wasn’t unfounded this time.

He said he was going to work, but he couldn’t just leave her alone with that boy, so he stayed as close as he could to watch out, and once he saw them out, decided to follow them, keeping his distance. Then he finally went after him, looking for any evidence to justify his acts.

He had followed him through several streets, entering an increasingly uninhabited area, at least at that time of the day. He even had to leave the car and walk at the risk of being discovered. Franktick seemed to know exactly where he was going and seemed confident when he stopped in front of a building.

The officer also stopped one block behind him, hiding from his sight and waiting for him to make another move. The boy looked sideways, making sure no one was watching, and then got into the abandoned-looking building, with part of its foundation about to collapse.

Perry stood there, unmoving, wondering what he was doing in a place like that. He couldn’t get closer. There was still a chance that he would find out about his presence, so he waited until Franktick was out again, closing his jacket and putting his hands into his pockets. It was definitely suspicious, and for Lucianne’s sake he would find out as much as he could about it.

It wasn’t in her original plans, but Marianne ended up going back to the hospital, her family already gone.

She kept thinking of Angie’s words, feeling guilty for not following the expected from someone in such a situation. But as she entered the room and saw her mother in bed, she felt again out of breath. Seeing her that way made her lose focus, and she couldn’t afford that.

Samael laid a hand over her shoulder.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty. No one but you knows how you feel right now.”

“Tell me then why I haven’t even cried,” she snapped, and he didn’t know what to say. “We better get out. My mother won’t get any better just because I’m here. And we know the only solution, I just needed a confirmation.”

While they left the room, Angie was across the adjoining hallway, sitting in a chair, waiting for some news.

Last night, hours after arguing with her father, she went down again to talk to him, hoping he would be calm by then, but found him unconscious on the floor instead. He had suffered a heart attack and she couldn’t help but feel responsible for it.

She had spent a sleepless night in the hospital, waiting for news about his condition, bearing with her own heart to not divert any attention from her father. She had been told he was stable, but had to spend a few more hours for observation.

When she finally decided to go get something to eat, she ran into Noah. He was the one who had told her what happened.

She couldn’t understand why Marianne wasn’t there with them, given her mother’s delicate condition. That was what family did: being there for their kin.

Back when she was five and her mother left, it was the first time her father had a heart attack. She didn’t understand what has happening and yet she was there all the time. Her aunt had come from out of town to watch her brother, even taking her own family with her.

She didn’t even see them that often, still she had no doubt they would be there in the blink of an eye if she called them. But she didn’t want to worry them as long as it wasn’t serious, after all, she was already old enough to look after her father.

She thought of Marianne’s mother again and tried to put herself in her place, to imagine what was going through her mind, but still didn’t understand. If it were her mother, she wouldn’t be away from her, because she wouldn’t know at what point there could be any change or . . .

And then it dawned on her. Marianne didn’t need to wait for a change because she knew there wouldn’t be one. Not without the gift. Perhaps she had judged her prematurely.

Regretting now what she had said, she stood up and started to head towards the intensive care unit. She thought maybe if she talked to her father, she could learn a bit more about her way of thinking, but as she was about to turn into the hallway, she saw her and Samael leaving the room. She stopped and instinctively stepped back into the corner.

“What are you going to do now that they know about your mother?”

“There’s nothing to do, just keep up with the plan.”

“But don’t you think it would be better for them to know that what happened to your mother is not only a consequence of the kind of gift she was ripped off but the lack of gift itself? That would give them a motivation to stay focused on getting them back.”

Angie bit her lip at that revelation and clasped her fingers on the wall.

“In that case we might also tell them about you.”

Hearing that, she opened her eyes wider and leaned against the wall, trying to listen more closely. Her heart began to beat faster at the prospect of finally learning his secret.

“That’s . . . different.”

“What are you so scared of? By now they’ve already seen demons, it wouldn’t be that different with you.”

“Are you comparing me to a demon?”

“No, I’m just saying that after going from a normal life to fighting demons, there are not many things left that could surprise us anymore.”

“Still, I don’t think they would understand . . . ”

“Samael,” she stopped him with a firm voice and Angie twisted her eyebrows at that name. “You have no way to know that for sure. What if more like you show up later?”

Samael didn’t know how to answer that and Angie held her breath while trying not to move or make any noise.

“Come on, I can’t be the only one with a guardian angel, right?”

Angie couldn’t keep hiding anymore, once she heard that, her heart overturned with a swollen beat.

“Is-Is that it then?” she interrupted, stepping out and catching them off-guard. Her face was turning red and her hand was on her chest, panting uncontrollably. “Sa-Samuel is actually . . . ? And the gifts . . . ? Why didn’t you say anything?”

They exchanged puzzled glances, thinking carefully what to say.

“Maybe you misunderstood . . . What I meant was that . . . ”

“Don’t keep lying! I heard everything!” she yelled, her hand writhing over her chest. “Is that why you told me that at the camp?”

“That . . . ?” Marianne started until she recalled the moment and just nodded, while Samael remained silent.

Angie felt like several needles pierced her heart. Suddenly it all made sense to her: how extremely protective he was of Marianne, the unnatural halo around him, the secrecy and the feeling of remoteness despite being close to him. And to make matters worse, there was this certainty that the latter hurt the most, realizing now that he was more unattainable than she ever thought. Her eyes began to cloud, and she already knew what would happen next. She couldn’t allow them to see her crying again. Leaning against the wall with one hand, she took an impulse and ran off, stumbling around.

Marianne stood there, unsure of whether to follow her or not. Then she looked at Samael, waiting for him to say anything, but he seemed a living statue. He stood like that for several seconds until he finally spoke.

“Her father is in the hospital. That’s how she learned what happened to your mother. She’s been here since last night.”

“And that’s all what you caught from her?” Marianne asked, surprised at his stoicism.

“No. There were other things, but . . . I don’t know what they mean. They’re about me, but not something in specific, rather emotions . . . and I’m not sure yet how to interpret them.”

“Okay, then. Let’s go after her.”

Angie had managed to leave the hospital without fully breaking down, but when she stopped at the alley on the side, out of the public view, she couldn’t hold back her tears anymore, and began to cry as though she were being squeezed from inside. Her heart was beating hard, not just pounding, but with an excruciating pain she had never felt before. Was it just physical or maybe her heart was already controlling her just like she feared?

She clung to the concrete wall as her legs began to falter, and then lifted her head to gasp for air. Her heart didn’t seem to give her a rest, trying to take control of all her functions. She wanted it to stop, whatever it may take, to rip off that emotion.

And then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a dark figure appearing in front of her. She tried to clear her sight, but tears prevented her, all around was blurry. She tried to say something, but not a sound came out of her throat.

The shadowy figure chuckled, and it was then that she understood the danger. She tried to make a move, even if it was more difficult in those conditions, but the presence stopped her effortlessly, placing a hand on her chest.

“I can help you with that.”

Angie’s eyes cleared up for a split second to see a pair of red eyes staring intensely at her right before everything went dark.

Marianne and Samael stopped when a sense of tightness announced the attack, and they looked at each other in sync. Without wasting any more time, they sought for a spot with no surveillance cameras to be able to transport and appeared next to the hospital with their armors on. Hollow was in the middle of the alley, holding in his hands a container that shone steadily from within. Angie’s body lay aside. The demon gave them a look of triumph and smiled, showing his sharp teeth.

“One more down, six to go.”

After saying this, he disappeared through a hole that opened beneath him. It was only then that Marianne reacted and ran towards Angie’s body, her armor retracting while Samael pondered on what the demon had said.

“Six . . . They’re halfway through now.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Marianne repeated while trying to create a temporary gift for her.

Angie opened her eyes once the substitute sphere was in her chest, breathing with difficult, as if she had been underwater for too long.

“Are you okay? How do you feel?”

Angie watched them quizzically for a second, then sat up and touched her chest.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“Angie, forgive us, please. We didn’t make it in time,” Marianne pleaded while Angie remained with a vacant expression. “That demon took your gift and we couldn’t do anything about it. I’m really, really sorry.”

“Oh. It’s okay,” she minimized it, taking her hand away from her chest and getting up, shaking her clothes casually.

“Did you hear what I said? Hollow took your gift.”

“Yeah, I heard it, but what can you do?” she continued with an eerie calm. “I guess now we just have to wait until we recover it.”

“Angie . . . do you really feel okay?” Marianne asked.

The raspberry-haired girl looked impassive, as if not having been attacked at all just minutes before.

“In fact, I have never felt better.”

With that same unperturbed gesture, she turned around and walked out the alley, while Marianne seemed at a loss for words. Samael stood beside her, his armor disappearing too.

“Samael . . . what gift did Angie lose?”

“The Sentimental gift,” he answered without delay. Her lips tightened, knowing what that meant.

“She will now be indifferent to everything.”

Samael only focused his gaze in the same direction as her. Angie walked away so lightly, with what seemed to be a new sense of freedom for her. Freed from her heart.

Lilith walked down the street like a zombie towards the coffee shop. Gray shadows furrowed under her eyes. She hadn’t sleep well since that nightmare woke her in the middle of the night. She tried to put it off her head, but couldn’t help constantly going back to it. She needed to be distracted and hoped that the meeting with her friends would serve that purpose. No, she didn’t hope, she was sure they would help to distract her. Lately, only their presence made her feel safe.

She gazed up and when she saw the huge letters decorating the entrance to the coffee shop, she hurried to the door and opened it with a sense of urgency.

“Sorry I’m late!” she yelled as she got in, only to discover their usual table was empty. She ignored the client’s gazes and went to sit in confusion, wondering where everyone was.

“Hello! You’re a little late, the others are already gone,” announced Mankee, approaching the table once he saw her sitting there like a lost puppy.

“They left? Did they say anything?”

“Hmmmm, I don’t know really, when I came back from shopping they were already gone. Demian was attending to them, but also had to leave earlier. He felt ill, I think.”

“Oh, I see,” she replied, looking disappointed. While the boy served other tables, she pulled out her cell phone to search through her messages, but apart from the one she received last night, there were none.

She tried to text the others to find out what happened, but it bounced back, showing an on-screen warning that she had run out of credit. She closed the phone, feeling discouraged, and left her hands settled at the table, unable to hide her frustration.

«They left you now and will do it again . . . »

«Because they don’t care about you, they know you can’t be trusted . . . »

« They know. They know everything . . . »

Lilith put her hands over her ears and pressed. It was the first time she’d heard those whispers in a public place, in broad daylight, in her right mind.

“Excuse me, are you okay?”

She looked up and realized Mankee was looking at her, worried, so she uncovered her ears and placed her hands on the table again.

“Sure . . . Why do you ask?”

“Well, firstly because you’re not as cheerful as always, and secondly you haven’t called me ‘monkey’ since you’ve come here.”

“Well, I guess it’s normal to have one of those days when everything goes wrong.”

Mankee looked intently at her and suddenly sat down at the opposite side of the table.

“My hometown has some beliefs that sadness and depression are caused by spirits that feed on our positive energy and the only way to fight them is with laughter,” the boy said with a serious face, and all of a sudden let out a loud laughter to her confusion, returning then to the same gesture. “Come on, try it.”

He laughed again, ignoring the clients’ befuddled looks, asking her to join him. After blinking in amazement, Lilith also burst out laughing to play along, and the exaggerated laughs eventually diminished in normal laughter.

“How was it? Don’t you feel better after that?”

“I would be lying if I said no. Thank you very much,” she agreed, smiling as she breathed a sigh of relief. It was then that he saw some kind of white spot flashing in her eyes, making him abruptly stand up.

Nonuma!” he suddenly exclaimed, his pale face twitching.

“What?” Lilith asked, confused, but the boy was already backing away and looking around as if searching for a way out.

“I-I better go back to work . . . The tables won’t serve themselves,” he said, quickly returning to the kitchen, bumping into some tables in his haste to get away from there, leaving Lilith baffled at his reaction.

«You know why he’s running away . . . »

«He noticed . . . »

«Sooner or later everyone will leave you . . . »

Lilith dug her fingers into the table and clenched her teeth, trying not to chatter. She would’ve preferred to think it was all in her mind, but it was impossible to deny what she had just witnessed: Mankee’s terrified face while desperately running away from her.