Chapter 27


Just like every other morning since he’d been in the town, Mankee got up early to start the day, trying to make it as routinary and normal as possible under the circumstances, which included at least two dozen men invading the kitchen and part of the bunker where he was staying, watching his sleep, and pretty much doing everything for him despite his reluctance. He was already so resigned to this as he climbed the stairs that he just let them dress him up with the more traditional garments he’d been wearing as of lately.

The kitchen was also occupied by the rest of the saber men, cleaning and replenishing the pantry. Mankee sighed, realizing it was another day he would be unable to keep his routine as much as he longed for, and looked at the bottom of the kitchen where a recent added section included a ladder up to the roof where there was now a luxurious loft that Latvi had made build in a record time, but he still preferred to stay at the old dungeon, regardless of the comfort he was quitting just to stay away from her. At the moment, there was no sign that she was awake, so he had the morning for himself at least.

He tried to dodge the men to make his own breakfast, but just as he tried to take a glass, someone had already handed him a milkshake and a plate full of fries and a burger. He let out another sigh and headed to the front of the coffee shop to have some peace in the solitude of the dining room. He walked through the door, relieved to leave behind the bustle of the kitchen, but once the door closed behind him, he stopped astounded to see Frank sitting on the table next to the entrance, drinking straight from a bottle —clearly taken out of the freezer—, and staring blankly, lost in his own thoughts.

“What the—?”

“Good morning, princess. I see you brought breakfast. Take a seat and get me another bottle while you’re out there.”

Mankee was so bowlegged that, before he could reason about his presence, he had already taken the bottle out of the freezer and walked across the room to get to the table.

“How did you get inside and what are you doing here?” he finally managed to ask.

“Relax, I just waited for Lilith to get distracted, took his stash of keys from half the town and made a duplicate for the coffee shop keys. And then just told your slaves I had an appointment with you, and I would wait for you to wake up. You know? For your own army of eastern goons, they basically agree to anything they’re told. I think they need urgent lessons in our language.” While Frank spoke, he never missed the chance to steal fries from Mankee and sip from his soda as the other boy looked at him in disbelief.

“…WHAT are you doing HERE?” Mankee repeated more emphatically, ignoring the fact that Frank had already taken a bite of his burger.

“How rude, your highness! That’s how you treat your humble subjects? No wonder they rather follow orders from Sherezade,” Frank replied with a mocking attitude.

Mankee backed down with folded arms and put the plate away from him before he could take another fry.

“Okay, alright. I’m just making time while I decide whether to go to school or not. Happy? Now be a good princess and feed the hungry.”

“Why would you have to decide such a thing? The school’s right across the street, it’s not so difficult.”

“Sure. And you just need to tell your girlfriend to bug off and leave you alone. Piece of cake, right?” Frank retorted and Mankee didn’t dare to respond, although he did shoot an unsatisfied glare at him.

The kitchen door opened and, as if being summoned, Latvi showed up, dressed up and ready to rumble.

“My prince is being visited very early. It must be important,” the girl said with that accent that couldn’t hint whether she was being serious or sarcastic.

“I’m just a humble servant who comes to pay his respects,” Frank replied, raising his drink with a little smirk that made clear sarcasm was his thing. Latvi looked from the guys to the plate with the bitten burger at Mankee’s side.

“…That’s not appropriate breakfast for a prince. I’ll prepare some Mognar just like you used to eat back home.” She returned to the kitchen after saying this without waiting for an answer and Mankee let out a moan of commiseration.

“You’ve got a girl who takes care of you, obviously dresses you, cooks for you and literally treats you like a king, and you do nothing but drown in your own misery. How you suffer, man! I don’t understand how you can resist that kind of torture!”

“You don’t get it,” Mankee replied, refusing to fall into his provocation, while Frank loudly laughed, and took advantage of his distraction to grab the plate beside the table and took another bite of the burger.

A muffled but catchy tune began to play and Mankee looked around for the source. Frank didn’t even flinch though, just took another drink, completely ignoring the tune, so Mankee ended up looking at his pocket where he could see the extreme of a cellphone.

“You’re not going to answer?”

“Mmmmmh, maybe some other time,” he said without lifting a finger while the annoying tune restarted again, making Mankee increasingly impatient, but before he could say anything, Latvi came back from the kitchen, carrying a plate consisting of some sort of stuffed bread, and placed it in front of him. Suddenly and unwarned, she reached out and pulled the phone from Frank’s pocket, pressing the cancel button and leaving it on the table. “Hey!”

“If you don’t answer, at least turn it off. Don’t bother the others.”

“Excuse me, Zelda, but that’s my phone and I decide what to do with it.”

“…Well, I must admit I didn’t expect this,” Mankee remarked, after looking at the screen and seeing Lucianne’s name on it. Frank immediately snatched the phone back to his pocket with a swift movement, taking the stolen burger with a sulky mood. “So… anything you want to say about it?”

“Mind your own business,” Frank growled, hiding behind what was left of the burger.

 “…Hmmm. This is weird,” Vicky muttered when she arrived at school with Addalynn and starting to notice the gazes directed at them, and then running into Demian when they walked down the next aisle. “Brother!”

Demian didn’t expect to see them so soon, and felt bad with Vicky after leaving unexplained, but the captive audience only added to his level of discomfort.

“Where have you been? I’ve been calling you since last night and you never picked up the phone,” Vicky claimed, regardless of who might be hearing them. People around them didn’t bother to pretend anymore and had even stopped as if about to witness a stage show.

“…Can we talk later? This isn’t the time or place for that,” Demian said, slowly walking around them.

“Will you come back home?” she asked again, so focused on him that she didn’t seem to notice all the prying eyes upon them.

“…I’ll see you after school, okay?” Demian said uncompromisingly, taking the chance to get away from everybody’s eyes.

Vicky nodded with disappointment and resumed her way, while Addalynn kept walking at her side, aware of the stares directed at her, and although she usually used to ignore them, it was increasingly difficult to do so.

The classroom went suddenly mute as they entered. Vicky went to her seat while Addalynn walked the row of seats on her way to hers; she couldn’t help but look askance at the curious faces, highlighting Kristania’s scowling face. When she finally got to her desk, she saw Dreyson at the bottom, leaning carelessly on the backrest of his chair with an expression that could pass for boredom or indifference despite having his eyes set on her. She didn’t show any expression either, just sat down and stare straight ahead, ignoring all the gazes turning surreptitiously to her until the professor entered the room.

Vicky let out a breath of despair when she dropped to her seat and a couple of seconds later a ball of paper fell on her desk.

‘Demian is staying with my father. Don’t worry about him.’

She turned around after reading the note and Marianne only nodded to confirm she had thrown it to her. Vicky allowed herself to show a little smile and tried to act less discouraged for the rest of the day.

As Marianne straightened in her seat after serving her purpose, another paper ball landed on her desk. She didn’t need to turn around to know where it came from.

‘The rumor has spread throughout the entire school.

It will soon be out of control.’

She crumpled the paper and didn’t even bother to turn to Dreyson. What did he expect her to do? It wasn’t her problem. The most she could do was trying to keep Vicky from hearing it and save her a bad time. She could see Kristania from her seat, sitting with her back too straight and stiff shoulders; unlike the rest of the students, she didn’t bother to look askance at the girl of the moment.

Another paper ball landed on her desk, and she just smoothed it and read without a hurry, out of habit.

‘You still want to know about my father?’

Marianne stared at the note for several seconds until finally turning to Dreyson. He was now leaning on his desk, his eyes set on her. He didn’t make any gesture, like he was just waiting for an answer, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to know anymore. She just looked back to the front and threw the crumpled paper into her backpack, where she kept the rest of the notes. Dreyson made her more nervous acting like that than pretending to be interested in her, so she’d rather keep clear of him for now.

When it was almost time for fencing, Marianne gathered her things in a rush, thinking she should try to find out everything she could about the recent rumor. She hurried up to the door, trying to reach Kristania, but once out the classroom, she was already gone. She could be really quick and elusive when she wanted to.

She started to run through the halls until she got to the gym with her chest pounding; most of the guys from the team were already at the bottom. They all turned their faces at the same time, but once they saw her, they returned to their unconcerned talk. Demian wasn’t among them. She wondered if he had even come to school. Kristania was nowhere to be found either, so she assumed she had to be in the locker room.

The first thing she did once there was to take a quick look around for recognition, but she didn’t see nor hear any sound. The place was empty; Kristania hadn’t even arrived to the gym yet. Where had she gone? The only thing left to do was to go to her own locker to fetch her suit, and while she was taking out all of her garments, the door opened and Kristania finally came in, carrying the bag she took everywhere. She seemed to wince a little at the sight of her and took her purse to the other shoulder, she then smiled in such a way that made her usual smile worthy of an Oscar in comparison.

“…And here I thought you’d get here with Dreyson.”

“Why would you think that?” Marianne frowned instinctively and Kristania shrugged as she approached her own locker, acting normally, or at least her twisted version of a normal behavior.

“You’re exchanging notes all the time, anyone would think you’re really close, but if you say there’s no reason to think so, I believe you then,” Kristania replied as she pulled her suit from the locker and put her purse inside in exchange.

Marianne gritted her teeth at her condescending tone, but what bothered her the most was the fact that she knew such a thing even through their seats were all the way in the bottom, as if she had eyes in the back of her head.

“…That’s how rumors start,” Marianne said, trying to swallow her anger and take the chance to find out what she knew. “Just like the one that’s been going around lately. You may have heard something.”

“Oh?” Kristania raised her face with sudden interest and a twinkle in her eye that told her she should proceed carefully. “Wich one? It’s a very large school, so it’s a constant source of rumors. There’s like ten new every day and by the end of the day they have already evolved into new ones. I thought it was your life motto to ignore them, did you hear something that changed your way of thinking?”

“I still think the same,” Marianne said, trying to keep her cool, not to end up biting her own bait. “I ignore them; they’re nothing but speculations from pathetic minds who seek attention by harming others.”

She couldn’t deny it felt good to say that to her face even under a mask of cordiality; she was sure that under the surface they were both aware of how they felt about each other. She knew Kristania was just pretending, and Kristania knew that she knew; it showed through her fake smile.

“But that doesn’t mean I will stay idle if those rumors affect people I care about. I imagine you would also feel the same if they talk about—” she was going to say ‘someone you care’ but couldn’t push her credibility that much; it was clear to her that she didn’t care about anyone but herself.

“Sure, I get it perfectly,” Kristania said to fill in the blanks, her smile masking what she really thought of her significant pause. “And trust me, I would also do something in that case.”

And she didn’t doubt it. She would surely do something, though in secret and not exactly to help the affected, Marianne thought.

“So? What’s that rumor that seems to bother you so much?”

“…Just a stupid thing. You’re right, I shouldn’t care about it. Whoever started it doesn’t deserve the attention,” Marianne finished, closing her locker and carrying away her uniform. She had no intention to change in there, so close to Kristania, she wouldn’t be able to endure her presence. She didn’t need an explicit confirmation any longer, it was clear to her that if she hadn’t started it, at least she helped spreading the rumor. She just hoped the gossip would stick to the halls instead of telling them upfront.

If anyone was commited to ignore rumors and prying eyes, that was Addalynn. She had been doing it since the very first day of school and it wasn’t very difficult; she just wasn’t interested in other people. But her strategy was cut short when she had barely walked half the paved road leading to the swimming dome and four girls from the diving team —the same girls that made her tumble the other day— blocked her way, looking scornfully at her in silence, until they exchanged glances and seemed to agree.

“Seems like you had fun during the trip, huh?” The girl in the front said, holding her head up with pride and an expression of contempt in her eyes.

Addalynn watched the four girls undauntedly and didn’t show any sign of responding.

“What? The cat ate your tongue?” the first girl spoke again with the same dismissive tone. “Do you think so high of yourself that you don’t deem anyone worthy of an answer?”

“Stop acting so virtuously, no one believes you, anyway,” another one interjected, spitting out the words as if they burned in her throat.

Addalynn wasn’t even fazed, though she had an idea of the matter.

“You know what I think?” the first girl said again, since Addalynn refused to respond to their taunting. “You had everything planned since the moment you decided to come with your ‘friend’ from the other side of the world. Staying at her house, sharing space 24/7 and sticking with her all the time, thus having a free pass to get into her brother’s pants.”

Addalynn’s face winced in a grimace and her eyes glinted like an electric storm.

“Seems like she got offended,” the head of the group added, moving forward and leaning towards her as if about to tell her a confidence. “You may act as innocent as you want, but now everyone sees you as what you really are.”

The four of them laughed dismissively while Addalynn stepped back.

“…You’re invading my space,” she said in a tone that wasn’t intended as a threat, but the girls reacted deffensively.

“WE’re invading your space?” the nearest girl with mahogany hair repeated, squinting and straightening ahead to make herself taller than her. “We could say the same. You come to our school feeling above us, moving like you own the place, getting everyone’s attention, but those days are over and now you’ll receive the only kind of attention you deserve. What will you do about it, huh?”

The other girls had already begun to move towards her too, but Addalynn remained undaunted, her blue eyes so bright that they seemed to shine in the darkness. Out of the corner of her eye she saw they were taking their hands to their bags, rummaging inside as if searching for something. But she wasn’t worry about it, she still felt in control.

“If that’s all, step aside now and don’t make me waste my time.”

The four girls exchanged incredulous glances again and sneered at her.

“I’m sorry! Are we wasting your time? Let us then summarize what we think about you.”

Worthy of the synchronized swimming team, the four of them pulled their hands off their bags in a coordinated way and lifted them theatrically, holding something with them. Their arms gained momentum at the same time and when they were about to fling them out, a pair of hands grabbed two of them and pushed the third one, letting go of three eggs that ended up falling on their heads amid gasps of surprise. However, the fourth girl had her eyes on the prize, and made the throw as planned, but Addalynn quickly dodged the egg with such precision that it barely grazed her face and crashed a few feet behind her.

The girl swore under her breath at her failed shot, and turned to her friends, now whimpering, shaking and wailing with expressions of disgust after getting a taste of their own medicine. Behind them, Dreyson was still holding them.

“…Go away! This has nothing to do with you!”

“Maybe not,” said Dreyson with a shrug. “But this wasn’t a balanced match either.”

“Oh, I get it! You’re always trying to replace Demian and pick up his leftovers! You’re just a pale imitation of him!”

Dreyson’s gaze darkened at her words, but a moment later, a crooked smile appeared on his face to her surprise.

“…And yet I wouldn’t choose you either.”

The mahogany-haired girl bit her lip and her face contorted in a furious grimace. She raised her hand with an open palm and tried to slap him, but ultimately failed when it was stopped by Dreyson.

“I’ve had enough of those,” he replied, holding her wrist with a lifted eyebrow. The girl seemed to slowly lose the fierceness in her eyes until Dreyson finally released her and she walked away to her friends, rubbing her wrist with a new wave of anger growing inside her.

“…I wish you’d leave. You don’t belong here. Neither one of you,” the girl spat before running away with her wailing friends.

Addalynn straightened up and just adjustedher hair and clothes, not even looking at Dreyson.

“I’m not going to thank you.”

“I don’t need it. I was just going to the gym, it’s on the other side.” Saying this, he started to walk in the opposite direction while Addalynn stepped away without leaving her cautious stance. “And this won’t be the last confrontation you’ll have.”

Addalynn just turned around and marched to the swimming dome as it was her original intention. She didn’t want to spare him any thought, neither the rumors. She crossed the door and all eyes immediately fell on her. No one spoke, just followed her with their gazes while she headed to the locker room, deciding to ignore them all, though it was impossible to ignore the piece of paper that suddenly appeared in front of her, forcing her to stop.

“Good to see you here! I can now leave you in charge of this. Would you give this medical excuse to the coach for me, please?”

Holding the piece of paper was the one everyone else saw as Samael. He waited for her to take the paper, and once she did, he took the chance to add something quietly enough so no one else would hear.

“…Maybe you should avoid the locker room. I don’t know what’s awaiting you there, but it doesn’t look good for you for what I overheard,” he whispered before returning to his former position with the same frozen smile in his face. “…Well, I should go now before I spread this stomach virus to everyone around.”

He waved off then and quickly left before anyone would make him stay any longer. Addalynn looked at the doctor’s certificate and then made a quick look around. All eyes were still on her, some at least attempting to hide it, but others not even bothering to.

She folded the paper, keeping it in her pocket, and went to the locker room despite Mitchell’s warning. There was no one inside, everyone was already in the pool or the stands. A trail of steam wouldn’t let her see the shapes of the lockers, but knowing by heart the location of hers she just walked with cautious steps towards her row and stopped in front of her locker, waiting for the steam to clear.

She knew no one else could open her locker and vandalize it since she had made sure of that with a little trick that sent electric shocks to whoever tried to open it, but she didn’t consider that something could happen to it, and as soon as the steam finally cleared, she was able to see the strong and intense red strokes covering the locker door from one end to to the other with insulting words, big and bold, and different types of handwriting.

She wasn’t surprised, just stood there, watching the offensive graffiti until she finally opened it by running her hand through the keyhole to neutralize her special safe. She took some clothes of it and before closing again, she stopped for a few seconds, absently staring into the dark interior.

“…You need to come back,” she whispered, her hand clutching the corner of the locker until pushing herself away and closing it again, walking to the bottom of the room without giving a single glance at the graffiti covering it.

When Marianne went out, she saw Kristania already close to the court while rehearsing some of the basic fencing position by herself. Other members of the club were talking to each other in the stands, but Dreyson was now sitting close enough to hear whatever they said. He looked up at her, but his pocker face didn’t reveal anything. She wondered if they were speaking about the rumor.

The main door opened, and they all went silent, turning their heads just as they did with her, but this time they didn’t go back to their own stuff and remained on their target.

Demian hesitated at the entrance, noticing the stares, but eventually forced himself to walk and avoided any eye contact, going straight to the locker room. Marianne watched him approaching, aware that everyone else seemed to be mindful of his movements.

“Vicky was worried about you,” she said just as he passed by and he quickly caught up to her face.

“…I saw her early on. I told her we would talk after school.”

Marianne nodded and noticed that the other guys were still attentive of his movements, even Kristania, despite pretending to polish her foil.

Demian looked over his shoulder and everyone pretended to mind their own business in such an obvious way that even a blind guy would notice.

“…I should get started.”

He entered the locker room while Marianne headed for the stands, glancing at the other fencers, who were now gathered around, watching something on a cellphone. She sat near Kristania with her knees drawn up to her body, waiting for the coach to arrive.

“I had no idea you were acting as an intermediary between Vicky and her brother,” Kristania said, changing seats to get a little closer to her but not quite at her side.

“…I’m not,” Marianne replied dryly. “I don’t know where you get that idea.”

“I have ears, you know?” the girl snapped in a tone that was more like the real Kristania she was so keen to hide from others, but soon returned to the artificial ways she was trying to maintain. “…Besides, Vicky hasn’t exactly been discreet about it; everyone saw them arguing this morning. Seems like he left home without explanation. You’d think something really bad happened to make such a decision, don’t you think?”

“Whatever, I don’t think it’s of our concern.”

“Don’t you? I heard you were giving him shelter of some sort.”

“I’m not—!” Marianne tried to rebuke, but was interrupted by the arrival of the coach and Lester, who was acting now like his personal assistant since his broken leg.

He immediately began to give instructions, dividing advanced students from the rookies, making an exception with Dreyson after his role in the competition. When Demian left the locker room, the groups were already split in extreme opposites of the court. He went to join his teammates while the coach watched his notes. Despite his attempts to ignore the rest, he was aware that the other boys were discussing something while pointing at him, until finally one of them decided to approach with an air of curiosity.

“…So? How was it?”

“What?” Demian frowned with confusion.

“Come on, dude. Everyone knows what happened, we just want you to tell us how it was,” another boy added with the same morbid smile as his friends, eager for an answer. Demian just kept looking addled at them.

“…Okay, show him,” the first guy intervened again, and another boy walked from the back of the group with his phone at hand, turning the screen towards Demian. A low-resolution video was playing, apparently taken from a surveillance camera that showed an empty long corridor from a high plane, positioned in a transverse angle. Two figures entered the screen on the left side and moved quite slowly since the taller one leaned over the shorter.

Demian’s face underwent a significant change when he recognized himself in the video next to Addalynn, both advancing slowly with faltering steps until stopping in front of the first door in the hallway. Addalynn turned away from him to take her key while Demian leaned against the wall and lifted his face with eyes closed, as if suffering from vertigo. Then she took his arm, making him start a little, and then followed her into the room without protest. The door closed softly, even though the video lacked any sound, and thus it stopped playing. The owner of the phone kept it back.

Demian stood there for several seconds in silence, with clenched hands, his face contorted at the sight of it.

“Where did you get that video?” he asked once he managed to get his voice out.

“No idea. All we know is that someone sent it to multiple contacts, and they began to share it. Seriously, you must tell us everything. We thought the snow queen would just ignore everyone, and then it turns out that she leads you to her room. Or is that how things have been going back home behind closed doors?”

“Speak! Is her cold behaviour just a facade and she’s actually as hot as she looks?” another boy added, but Demian didn’t answer, he was too busy trying to think what to do in that situation.

“…Nothing happened,” he assured, but the others just laughed it off.

“Yeah, sure! Tell that to your granma!”

“…Delete it,” he suddenly said, and at the apparent inability of the others to understand his words, he snatched the phone from the boy’s hands to quickly delete the video despite his protests. “Delete all the videos immediatey.”

“Have you gone mad? Besides, that won’t prevent the video to spread, anyway. It’s probably reached anyone with a phone by now.”

Anyone with a phone. The whole school. Demian felt his stomach boiling. He immediately turned around and saw that the other group at the opposite extreme was staring at him after his brief outburst and Marianne was among them, bewildered.

“Stop distracting each other and go to your positions! We’re about to start!” the coach said, clapping to get their attention, but Demian didn’t seem to hear anything at all.

He suddenly dropped his mask and foil and wordlessly walked towards the exit, ignoring for the second time the coach’s orders to go back.

The coach shouted for everybody to go back to their places, but the whispers didn’t stop after Demian left. His departure was so unexpected that Marianne had to hold back not to run after him.

“What happened?” Marianne asked, intercepting Dreyson after leaving the gym.

“Oh, NOW you’re interested in what I have to say,” Dreyson replied with a wry smile and letting her keep up with his pace for a change.

“You were near by, you must have heard what the others said to him.”

“I think you know, you just want to confirm it.”

“Stop playing and just tell me,” Marianne snapped, grabbing his arm and forcing him to stop once outside the building.

“…All I can say is that it involves a video. One that’s been circulating.”

“Video?” Marianne repeated with a frown. “…What kind of video?”

“I think the question you’re looking for is who’s in it,” Dreyson added, raising an eyebrow. Marianne pursed her lips, disturbed by the notion. “Everyone has been receiving it, maybe someone will end up sending it to you by the end of the day.”

“I… I should return to class,” she said, deciding she had heard enough and walking away with tense shoulders.

“This afternoon at your house?” Dreyson said and Marianne looked at him as if he had spoken in a foreign language. “Teamwork.”

“Oh… yeah… I guess,” she said, barely remembering it. She was so distracted lately that she had ended up agreeing to do their next research at her house, otherwise she would have given some excuse to do it elsewhere.

“I’ll be there,” Dreyson finished with a smile and, in the brief moment he glanced to his left, as if something had caught his eye, the smile was abruptly erased from his face, and without a word he walked in that direction with a sudden rush.

Marianne followed him with her gaze and saw a figure peeping peeping through the parking lot gate, clinging to the bars as a prisoner begging for their freedom, and after a brief analysis, it dawned on her that it was his mother. She was so overload with clothes: skirt down to her ankles, long socks that didn’t show an inch of skin, a heavy coat over her clothes, plus a scarf wrapped around her neck, and a pair of gloves, that she seemed ready for the next ice age. The only jarring detail was the sunglasses she was wearing like it was a sunny day.

She was frantically gesturing with her hands, as if something had disturbed her, while Dreyson only answered with monosyllables, increasingly upset. She started to take off her sunglasses, but he stopped her, adjusting them carefully. She took her face in an extremely motherly way, stroking his cheeks despite wearing those thick gloves and gazing adoringly at him behind the sunglasses, even when Dreyson remained unfazed.

She couldn’t help feeling curious about why her mother seemed so agitated. She wondered if it had to do with his father and thought again about the picture on the police record. What if they had already released the details to the press and media? Was that perhaps what concerned her so much?

Dreyson glanced over his shoulder, as if aware that he was being watched, and met her gaze. Marianne immediately looked away, feeling intrusive, and decided to resume her way to the classroom. She needed to remind herself that whatever their family dynamic was, it wasn’t her business. She quickened her pace until getting into the main building, and once certain that he couldn’t see her anymore, she slowered down and walked back to her classroom where she met Lilith at the door.

“Hey, what happened?” Marianne asked.

“Belgina overheard something in the hallways. Something about… Demian and Addalynn.” Marianne said nothing, but her blank expression was enough to confirm that she already knew. “No! Really? Is it… true?”

“It’s just a rumor,” Marianne replied, neither confirming nor denying anything. “I need some distraction for everyone to leave the room for a moment, could you do that?”

Lilith scratched her head in confusion, but nodded and ran away, knowing exactly what to do.

Marianne entered the classroom, and after a couple of minutes they heard the fire alarm, forcing everyone out, though she deliberately stayed behind to make sure there was no one in the room or near by. She then approached Vicky’s seat, and after a brief search in her backpack, she took out her cellphone and checked her inbox for any recent message and most especifically for any video but found nothing suspicious. She then proceeded to block any incoming call or message that wasn’t from them, her closest circle. It was an extreme measure, but it would only be eventual; she would unblock it later without notice.

“What are you doing?”

Marianne jumped, almost dropping the phone, and juggled it until getting a hold of it again, sighing with relief and turning around.

“Why are you here? Everyone’s supposed to be outside.”

“There’s no smoke and I bet they won’t even find any fire when they check the facilities,” Addalynn snapped from the doorway, watching her leerily and posing her eyes on the phone in her hand.

“…It’s not what it seems.”

“It seems like you’re checking a phone that’s not even yours. You have no right.”

“I-I didn’t mean it like that,” she replied, despite the look of guilt reflected all over her face.

“What did you mean to do then?” Addalynn added, walking towards her until getting face to face in one of those rare occasions when she chose to look someone right in the eyes. “…You’re no different from everyone else. Manipulating others at your convenience. Convincing them to do things for you. You’re no better than them.”

Marianne clenched her jaw, feeling the rage running through her veins, and with a swift movement she handed the phone to her.

“I was only trying to prevent her from watching a video of her brother and her supposed guardian! Instead of judging, you should ask yourself if you’re doing your role as you should! Samuel would never act like that! He wouldn’t—!” She paused at the mention of her angel and without saying another world, she left, sizzling with anger.

Addalynn stood in front of Vicky’s desk, holding the phone and looking disgruntled.

Marianne waited restlessly in her dining room that afternoon, feeling uncomfortable in advance after the clash with Addalynn. Plus, Loui was in the living room playing video games and had no intention to move from there.

“Don’t you have homework or something?”

“I did it at school. I have nothing left to do for today,” he said without taking his eyes off the screen as his fingers danced on the joystick. “You should’ve thought it better before agreeing to do your teamwork here. You know very well I can be a little loud when I’m playing.”

“…It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision,” Marianne murmured with a snort, staring at the clock, and rattling her fingers on the table where she had already stacked several books and a notebook to take some notes, in addition to her laptop on the side.

“Good excuse, by the way, the one you gave for fake cousin Samsa. I wonder how many more credible excuses you have left until mom starts to suspect.”

“That’s the least of my worries right now,” she mumbled again. Her mother came down the stairs, holding some sort of watch while putting on her earrings.

“You need anything else for your team meeting? Or is that okay?”

“Mmmmh, it’s okay. If we need anything to eat, I’ll just look in the kitchen… You didn’t tell us you had plans to get out,” she added, but her mother didn’t reply, just walked purposefully to the living room where Loui played, all his attention focused on the screen. She leaned with the strange bracelet on her hand and closed it around the child’s ankle.

“…Hey! What—?”

“Done,” the woman said, straightening and shaking her hands. The bracelet began to flash a red light while Loui looked confused at it. “I’ll go out for a coffee… with Gil. So, I’ll be out for a couple of hours.”

“What’s this thing? Why is that light blinking?” Loui asked, shaking his leg as if the bracelet were to fall to the ground by itself.

“It’s an electronic shackle. You like it? Your uncle Red lent it to me when I told him I needed something to control you while you were grounded. If you try to leave the house or put just one foot out, I’ll know. If you try to take it off, I’ll know it too. Consider it your house arrest,” his mother explained nonchalantly, patting his cheeks with a triumphant smile while he looked puzzled at her; outwitted for once. She then took the joystick from his hands, disconnected it from the console and put it in his bag, all under Loui’s astonished gaze. “…And no more videogames. Go to your room and hit the books or something, I don’t care if you’ve already done your homework. You’re not playing anything while you’re grounded, okay?”

Loui opened and closed his mouth several times, until he finally dropped sulkingly in the sofa, crossing his arms and puffing his cheeks indignantly.

“This is so unfair!”

“You should have thought of that before acting like a spoiled, rebellious child,” his mother snapped, touching his nose playfully as if not at all taking unconventional measures. When the door was knocked, she immediately opened, thinking it was her date, but it was a tall boy instead, looking at her from above. “…Yes?”

Marianne quickly got up and rushed to her side, making the introductions with a bit of concern about any possible strange behavior by Dreyson, but he just responded to the greeting stiffly.

“So… I understand there are more team members yet to come, right?” her mother asked, trying to sound indifferent, but the underlying message was unease at the prospect of leaving them alone, despite Loui’s presence.

“They should be here soon,” Marianne assured, catching the hint, and using the situation to get back at her. “…You could cancel your date and wait for them to come. I’m sure you’d be a source of useful information for our research.”

Her mother was about to answer, but the sound of the knocking once again demanded her attention. It was Angie’s father this time, just as they had set up. Marianne gave a slight greeting nod, still reluctant to accept the fact that they were seriously dating, and Loui kept sulking in the sofa without responding.

When they finally left, Dreyson stood in the division between the living room and dining room and stared at Marianne.

“…What?” she said with a scowl.

“I was just thinking that I finally got my way and I’m inside your house.” He smiled in that crooked way that made Marianne uncomfortable and her only reaction was to fold her arms.

She noted that her brother was now up in the wing chair, looking over the back of the seat and staring at Dreyson through scrutinizing eyes. Marianne was about to send him to his room as her mother had told him, but then thought it better and decided to let him stay as insurance, even though it may seem an exaggerated precaution.

“Shall we start then, or we’ll just wait?” Dreyson added, making his way to the table without paying any attention to Loui, despite his not so discreet stare, as if at any moment he would jump out of the chair and sink his teeth into his legs with a roar. Marianne glared at her brother, gesturing him to keep quiet, and followed Dreyson.

“Suit yourself, I already pulled out every biology book I could find. If you have any idea where to start, I’m willing to listen.”

The boy stood there, checking the books, pushing them one by one to see the titles. and once finished, he left them aside and looked up at her like a professor about to give her a note.

“There’s something missing: your genealogy. The work won’t be complete without an example.”

Marianne grimaced at the thought.

“…I thought we were just doing primary research and then decide on whose genealogy we should work on.”

“Well, we’re at your house. Yours is more available,” Dreyson replied, and Marianne twisted her mouth, uncomfortable with the idea of exposing her family tree as an example for the whole class. Why her, who didn’t like to talk about family affairs? “…I can’t wait to see your pictures as a little girl.” He said with a grin, as if that way he was getting even for the time they saw his album at his house. But it wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t foresee that his mother would show it to them.

“…Don’t be so sure about it,” Marianne hissed reluctantly when a knock on the door made her jump.

“I’ll go!” Loui said, leaping from his chair and running to the door, but as soon as he opened and saw Vicky in front of him, wearing a matching beanie, coat and gloves, his hand practically froze in the doorknob.

“Hi there. Is your sister home?” she greeted him as if talking to a lovely puppy that wouldn’t stop wagging its tail. Loui stepped back, his face so red it looked like smoke would come out of his ears, and after pointing to his left with a rushed motion, he ran upstairs as if his life depended on it.

“That was easy, I thought it was going to be harder to get rid of him,” Marianne said, approaching from the dining room.

“I don’t get it. I’m nothing but nice to him, but he always reacts that way. Why doesn’t he like me?”

“…I think you’re far from the truth,” Marianne replied, raising an eyebrow, though she didn’t seem to get it. After leaving their coats on the hanger, she took her hands in a pleading gesture.

“…I know you have other things to worry about right now, but do you think you can take me to my brother afterwards? I’m worried since he didn’t show up after school as promised, and somehow I feel like everyone is hiding something from me.”

Marianne hesitated and glanced at Addalynn, but she just averted her gaze, showing that she had no intention to say a thing.

“…Let’s just start with the investigation and we’ll decide what to do then,” she replied just to muddle through it. The two girls followed her into the dining room —only a few steps away from the entrance, anyway—, and Dreyson watched them from the corner of the table with his arms over the back of the chair. Addalynn tried to sit away from him, and just took notes without looking up at any moment, despite feeling Dreyson gaze fixed on her.

“I don’t see why it has to be my genealogy just because we’re at my house,” Marianne snapped once the subject was brought up again.

“Well, since we’re already here, we should go ahead and do it for once,” Vicky said like it was the most reasonable thing to do.

“Or we could just finish researching at your house and use YOUR own family tree,” Marianne replied, unwilling to budge.

“My family tree is boring. I think it’s more entertaining to discover yours.”

“…It sounds more like an excuse to see my photo albums,” Marianne huffed, and Vicky smiled without denying it.

“I want to see those pictures too,” Dreyson interjected, raising his hand with a smile of incitement, and Marianne gave him a warning look.

“I like that voice,” Vicky agreed, surprised of his intervention, and then deciding to join the idea. Marianne tried to protest, but Addalynn suddenly hit the table.

“Will you keep wasting our time on nonsense? It doesn’t matter the example right now, we might just make one up. All I want to do is finish this and go home.”

Several seconds of silence followed her sudden burst of impatience. Vicky stammered an attempt of apologee, taking back her book, while Dreyson just watched her with his piercing dark eyes, until he pushed back his chair and stood up.

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“…Upstairs. There’s one near the back, right before reaching the service stairs,” Marianne said with hesitation.

Dreyson got up and went upstairs, following her instructions, while they went back to their notes quietly. Addalynn tried to concentrate on the book in front of her but failed to make it pass the same paragraph during the next few minutes, and just pushed it away, leaning her forehead on her hands in a gesture of weariness. The sudden ringing of a cell phone startled her, and the other two girls looked at her curiously, as she pulled hers and looked at the screen. She then stood up without a word and went into the kitchen for privacy while Marianne and Vicky exchanged confused looks.

“What you got?” Addalynn asked stoically, stopping at the dishwasher, and looking through the window at the side of the street as she listened attentively to the voice on the line. “…That’s not helpful, you have to get him directly… Yes, I know he’s elusive, but if you dedicate at least a fraction of the effort you give to… I know it’s not your responsibility, but you know that it will eventually be of your concern too.” She raised her free hand and began to massage the bridge of her nose. “…I’m sure you can use one of your hundreds of resources… I don’t care if you have other duties. I need him to appear. Keep looking and stay in touch.”

She ended the call and put her hands on the edge of the sink with her eyes closed, letting out a snort.

“How mysterious.” Addalynn turned so quick, her hair whipped the air. Dreyson was at the foot of the back stairs, leaning against the wall with folded arms, looking curiously at her. “It sounded important.”

She didn’t answer, just lifted her chin to show resolve. Dreyson smiled and started to walk toward the door, and she stepped back. Dreyson stopped halfway and raised an eyebrow, and then pointed at the door with a smile.

“…After you.”

Addalynn looked unusually exasperated. A whole combination of adverse factors seemed to be hovering around her, and worst of all, her head was throbbing. She kept her head steady, while starting to walk toward the door, trying to ignore Dreyson. He stood in the same spot, and once she got to the door and was about to step out, she suddenly felt someone holding her hand and turning her around. Before she could even react, Dreyson’s lips were already pressing against hers. Cold and tasteless. She could have pushed him away, but just stood stiff until he pulled apart.

“…You’re not so fierce anymore, are you?”

Addalynn’s eyes flashed like lightning, and suddenly slapped him so hard that his face turned to the side while she stormed out of the kitchen.

Dreyson remained in that position for several seconds, his hair falling over his face as it was before, until he bent over to pick something from the floor. As he did it, he looked up and saw Loui at the stairs, one foot on a step and the other in the air.

The kid looked puzzled, as if he had just walked into a room and interrupted his parents in a compromising position, so when his gaze met Dreyson’s, he almost stumbled and ran up the stairs.

“What happened?” Vicky asked after Addalynn went out of the kitchen heedlessly and leaned on the back of the nearest chair, breathing heavily. Yet, she didn’t answer; instead, she took her hand to her temple and squeezed her eyes. “…Are you okay?”

Addalynn gestured her to stop talking and Vicky closed her mouth, not understanding what was going on, while Marianne watched her intently, convinced that something was about to happen.

The girl suddenly opened her eyes at once, glistening like a lightning bolt before breaking into a run to the entrance. Marianne also jumped up without hesitation and followed her, with Vicky very close behind.

Addalynn opened the door and a gust of wind sneaked into the house, rocking pictures and the coats from the hanger as she ran outside. The sky, riddled with tinges of orange, was now covered by dark clouds, swirling on the horizon, and forming a distintive vortex in the same direction Addalynn was heading.

“Wait!” Vicky yelled at Marianne, already going after her. “…Dreyson’s still inside.”

“Let him stay by himself,” Marianne snapped. She wouldn’t let anything stop her from following Addalynn, convinced that she would lead her to Samael. Vicky didn’t argue and closed the door behind her to follow suit.

She was one block ahead of them, but they could still see her. There was not a soul on the street, so they didn’t need to worry about any witnesses in case they had to resort to some of their skills. They couldn’t lose sight of Addalynn, who kept running non-stop, her hair fluttering in the air.

“Look!” Vicky shouted, pointing at the sky, and Marianne looked up, covering herself with one hand to prevent the intense gusts of wind from hitting her right in the face. The vortex was now at its peak, but instead of opening like the last time, it was forming a funnel, going down like a tornado touching the ground way ahead of them. At the same time, Addalynn changed course and they lost her.

“…Follow her. I’ll see if I can intercept her on the other side,” Marianne said, breaking away, with the idea of taking a shortcut after recognizing Addalynn’s direction. She hadn’t lived in the town long enough to know every street and corner by heart, but she knew very well that street and the building she seemed to be heading for. After all, they had been about to die right there just a few months earlier.

The building occupied almost the entire block, and due to its abandonment, it was easy to get inside despite the security tapes that had been placed after the damage they had caused during their fight.

Marianne stopped behind the building to catch her breath as she looked at the sky and saw the end of the funnel apparently starting to disintegrate, so she quickly passed beneath the security tape and ran to the side of the building to go around it, but once she turned the corner, she bumped into a figure that wasn’t there a moment ago.

“…What are you doing here?” she asked after seeing Demian standing there, just as surprised as her.

“…I sensed a dense gathering of energy and wanted to see what it was,” Demian said, helping her up. They heard Vicky yelling something unintelligible, and it only took an exchange of glances for them to react. They ran along the side of the building, filled with rubble, and reached the front where they saw Vicky on her knees beside Addalynn’s unconscious body.

“…She was standing, looking at the building and suddenly she just dropped,” she explained, utterly confused. “…It was when the vortex began to disintegrate. It looked like it had gone through the building… Do you think it will come down? Should go move away as a precaution?”

Marianne didn’t answer because, from her experience, that building seemed to refuse to fall, even after all the damage they caused the last time she’d been there. Addalynn then opened her eyes and gasped for air.

“…It’s back,” she said in a whisper, her unfocused eyes set on the building, and Marianne quickly turned in that direction, her heart racing.

Among the rubble and darkness of the entrance, they saw movement. The edges of an erratic silhouette were barely seen, struggling to stand. As it moved forward, they could see some kind of glowing halo surrounding it, slowly fading as it came to light. It stepped outside, holding from a precarious column with a dazed expression.

“¡…Samael!” Marianne couldn’t wait any longer and ran to him as soon as he emerged from the entrance and held him tightly, her face reflecting the relief she felt having him back.

“Ma… Marianne?” he said breathlessly, tyring to clear his sight, though she refused to release him and helped him walk, tottering.

“…Oh, my god,” Vicky muttered after seeing the huge red stain spreading on his chest.

Dried blood.

Demian only watched everything from his standing point. The sky was clearing out and the gusts of wind slowed down just as quickly as they had formed, leaving the befuddled angel behind, barely standing on his feet.