Sparks (Flames of Freedom)
Diego was late. Andrea knew what that meant, though she didn’t like admitting it, not even in her head to herself. She was in the restaurant. They never celebrated Valentine’s Day in February. The three years they’d been dating, they agreed it was something of an atrocious holiday invented by the candy and card companies to squeeze pennies out of people stuck in their honeymoon phase and people who were a little too lonely for their own good. So, they decided to do what any rebellious college kids would do — make a passive-aggressive statement.
They celebrated in June when they could actually enjoy the weather. Diego always made the argument that they could actually sit on a restaurant patio and not worry about the slush getting on their shoes from the recent snowfall that always seemed to center itself around the middle of February.
And now Diego was late. The restaurant was expensive and it had taken them several tries to get reservations after some couple finally gave up their table. Andrea liked to think they broke up or one of them tragically was shipped off to some other country. She’d managed to come up with the whole plot of it just by sitting there waiting, the water level in her glass getting higher and higher as the ice melted. She’d held off on ordering wine for fifteen minutes before she broke and got herself a glass. And then another.
She checked her phone. Nothing. Part of her wanted to be worried. She wanted to believe something might be wrong. It was an awful way to think. She hated herself for it. But it was better than all the alternatives running through her head: some blonde bitch with her legs spread for him. She’d rather him hurt in a ditch than fucking another woman. That was love, right?
She finished her third glass of wine and her patience wore thin. It was logged with California’s most expensive merlot because he’d given her his credit card to put collateral down on the reservation, like an idiot. Now he just paid forty-five dollars in glasses of wine alone. That was before she would order the caviar appetizer.
“Anything to eat yet, ma’am?”
She could tell the waiter was getting agitated. He paced back and forth and she could feel his eyes on her from wherever he stood across the room. He’d started with several tables to distract him from watching her like a hawk. But the longer she waited, the more the others began to shuffle out and he was left to notice just how long it was taking her date to arrive. Sorry, my boyfriend is an irresponsible fuck apparently, was what she wanted to say. She wanted the attention off her. Diego’s inability to show up anywhere on time recently wasn’t her fault.
“Caviar, please,” she said, punctuating her request with a loud pop as her lips connected with the glass and sucked down what was left. “And another glass.”
Little did he know she would tip him a horrendously large amount, thanks to Diego’s Capital One card tucked neatly into her clutch. This wasn’t the first time in the past few weeks he’d stood her up, but it was the last straw. This restaurant was expensive, the reservations had been hard to get. And now she was sitting here, nearly an entire bottle of wine deep by herself and she hadn’t even ordered appetizers yet.
At the bar, there was a ruckus going on and she assumed it was something to do with the local sports team doing poorly or well. She didn’t care. Diego liked to wear a Lakers hat even though he’d never once been to a game, even when they came to play all the way out in their city. He liked screaming at the TV in bars and high-fiving strangers when something good happened, and they all spent way too much money on rounds of drinks for the table.
Maybe he was doing that now; he got carried away with his plans to meet up with the guys and got too invested in the game, too drunk to meet her. She’d kill him for that too.
She looked over at the TV and, instead of ESPN or some other awful sports channel with an acronym she didn’t know the meaning of, she saw the news up and on. A giant banner across the top flashed that the news was BREAKING and that a frantic reporter on the screen spoke fast into her microphone.
“Turn that shit up,” someone yelled. “The captions are off.”
The bartender unmuted the TV and turned up the volume to rival the jazz music that had been playing overhead in the restaurant proper. Andrea lazily turned in her chair, deciding to devote her attention to something other than the elderly couple in the corner constantly looking at her with pity all over their faces.
“The store owner says the vandals wore Shifter Alliance logos on the ski masks, demanding every emergency road flare he had to sell. No word yet on what the motive was or the plan for the use of the flares, but police are on high alert for two suspects. Both are believed to be male in their mid to late twenties standing between six feet and six feet four inches. If anyone has any information on them, please contact the number below. Meanwhile…”
Andrea tuned out. It was more of the same garbage political crap clogging the airwaves. Shifters this and shifters that. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the situation, especially when Andrea didn’t care. Shifters existed, terrorists existed, neo-Nazis existed. There were all sorts of bad seeds in the world and she wouldn’t get herself worked up over a group of people she’d never come in contact with.
She’d never known a shifter, though she had heard a rumor in high school that Karen Gryke had been one, some kind of wolf shifter. She’d never talked to the girl and never seen it for herself; most shifters kept that part of their identity a secret. Though, if whatever fucking bill everyone was talking about recently went through, they’d all be wearing big bright signs identifying them on the street.
Andrea finished her wine and conceded that Diego wasn’t coming and he wasn’t planning on calling, so she asked for the check and the filet mignon to go. She would track him down and eat it in front of him.
She banged down on Diego’s door, the doorman letting her into the apartment building. He’d seen her plenty of times going in and out with Diego, but she wasn’t discounting the effect her deep-neck shirt had on revealing her cleavage. She’d worn it for Diego, but willing to use it wherever she needed to if that was the case. Maybe she’d give the security guard something to think about when he was alone tonight, just to get back at him.
Now there was no answer on the door.
“Diego!” she shouted. “You asshole, open the damn door right now!”
She heard a shuffle inside the apartment. If the door didn’t open in five minutes, she was prepared to make a scene that his neighbors would never forget. But she saw something move across the shadow under the door, in the narrow strip of light between the bottom and the ground. She heard several clicks. Diego always had several locks on his door, claiming he thought the crackhead down the hall was stealing from people.
When he opened the door, Andrea hadn’t expected to see what she did. He was dressed in ratty black sports clothes, his hair a mess. It looked like he’d just come back from playing football and hadn’t taken off all his underclothes. He yanked her in the apartment and slammed the door shut behind her, going back to reattach all the locks he’d just removed.
“What the hell is going on?” she asked, slamming the to-go box on the table. She tossed the credit card at him. “By the way, thanks for taking me to dinner.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He sounded stressed, but not like he meant it.
He paced around the apartment, shoving things away. His cleaning spree should have been a sign that something was very wrong. He never cleaned. Not for her at least. She never once saw him exert effort to make his apartment look presentable in the many years they’d known each other. But there he was, shoving things away and out of sight.
“What is it? Porn? Letters from your secret girlfriend?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“No, it has nothing to do with any of that,” he said, sounding frustrated.
“Not giving me much to go on here,” she said. “I’m three seconds from walking out that door again, but somehow I don’t think you’d care.”
That got him to pause. He turned around with a desperate look in his eyes and dragged his hand down his face, massaging at the muscles there quickly. It didn’t do much. Bags still sat under his eyes and the visible vein in his neck and one in his temple both still throbbed.
“I would care,” he sighed. “I promise. I’ll explain everything. I just need to make sure things are safe.”
She felt something dark wax in the pit of her stomach and swallowed a little too painfully. He was scaring her now, rushing around the apartment in his strange clothes, hiding things away. Every time he passed the window, he peeked out of it through the crack in the curtains. The lights were off and three new locks that she’d never seen before now bolted the door shut. Something was very wrong.
“Diego,” she said, softer.
But it wasn’t enough to get his attention; instead, he raced around the apartment until every last scrap of what he looked to clean up had been shoved away. That’s when he dropped onto the couch and let out a breath. He ran his hands through his hair, succeeding in only making it messier. It had a sheen of sweat visible, even in the dark tufts sitting on top of his head. Some of it stuck to the base of his neck and behind his ears.
“What’s going on?” she asked, walking over to him and putting a hand on his shoulder. It was fascinating how quickly she could turn from scorned lover to concerned girlfriend. She cared about him too much for her own good sometimes. She squeezed his shoulder and ran her fingers through his hair, ignoring the ick factor of feeling the sweat gathered all across his head. What had he been running from?
He didn’t answer but he didn’t have to. Her eyes caught sight of something she was probably never supposed to see, but there it was anyway, sitting out in the open, the one piece of evidence that Diego had missed in his cleanup. A beanie sat on the coffee table. It was small and black, but there was a logo on it she vaguely recognized, though she couldn’t quite place it from how far away she sat. She reached for it before he could stop her.
Shifter Alliance in red and black and that familiar logo was now suddenly so clear to her. She could feel the blood rushing around in her own head, trying to get control of her spinning brain. She turned to look at him and he stared back at her, pale and terrified.
“It’s not what you think,” was all he got out to say to her as she got up and moved away, attempting to make a run for the door.
Andrea learned a lot that night that she didn’t know only several hours previous. It was the kind of thing that made her grateful she’d managed to down an entire bottle of wine at her disaster of a date night dinner, but also made her wish she had more.
“How is this not what I think?” she said, standing up with the hat in her hand. “I heard the news broadcast, Diego.”
“It wasn’t dangerous, nobody was hurt,” he said.
She didn’t know what she wanted to focus on first: the fact that her boyfriend missed their date because he was busy robbing a store, or the fact that he was somehow involved with the shifter movement. More than involved. He wore the logo of a known terrorist organization, one linked to some of the most violent shifter extremist activities in history. And according to the news, he’d been stealing road flares, flammables.
“You have three seconds to explain it to me or I call the cops,” she said, reaching for her phone. He dove across the room in a violent launch, grabbing the phone right out of her hands and yanking it in. She let out a yelp and he shushed her, slapping his hand over her mouth, and she recoiled. He’d never touched her before, never so much as laid a hand on her. But now she could feel the tension rippling underneath. If she didn’t watch herself, she thought he might actually deck her, knock her out, remove the threat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, instantly, pulling his hand away. “It’s been a trying day. I’m sorry. I would never hurt you.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“I’m a shifter,” he said. “I think that’s obvious by now. That’s the first secret out in the open.”
“You mean the first lie,” she said darkly.
“I never lied. You never asked.”
“And what about when you said you’d be at the restaurant for dinner?”
“I thought I would. We got held up.”
“No, you were holding someone up.”
She was more than a little proud of that play on words but he looked positively ready to burst with nervous energy. He growled and got to his feet. Taking his frustration out on some old, empty beer bottle instead. It shattered hard against the wall, leaving both a skid mark and a stain from the minuscule amount of beer that had been sitting at the bottom. The pieces fell to the floor, one by one.
“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” he said, turning back to her with that pleading voice again.
“What was the end game, Diego? Were you planning on telling me on our wedding night? When our kids suddenly started sprouting claws or wings or God knows what else?”
“It’s not like we were engaged,” he said, darkly.
“I told you I just needed time to think about it; it wasn’t a no,” she said. “And you’re not turning this around on me. You’re wanted for robbery and battery and I’m sure five other things they didn’t say on the news. You didn’t make it to our date. You’ve been lying to me for years — ”
“Okay. I get it. I fucked up.”
“Do you get it? Do you get how scary this is for me?” It was her turn to stand, her turn to feel powerful. She got to her feet and walked right up to him, making him seem smaller than he’d ever been before. “I was considering marrying you, Diego. And now I’m finding out everything about you was a lie the entire time.”
“Was considering?” he parroted back with such hopelessness, she thought she might cry just a little bit but held it in.
“You think that’s the first thing on my mind right at this moment?”
“If I can explain it all to you, would you let me? If we sit down — it can be somewhere public. You pick the place, you’re not in any danger — and I can just explain to you what’s been going on. Would you listen?” he asked, taking her hands in his shaking ones.
She looked at him. It was hard not to see the boy she met all those years ago in school, sitting there in front of her. He’d looked just as vulnerable the first time he asked her out and she had to decline because she’d been dating a boy from her English requirement at the time. But he waited for her with that pining look on his face. He never asked twice. She asked him out the next time.
She remembered their first date, their second date, several dates in between. She knew Diego was a good person. She knew he had a good heart. How could he not? But people could also change, they could become something terrible or different or wrong. Just look at Voldemort for God’s sake. But she owed him the chance to explain. They’d stuck by each other’s sides for so long, she had to see this through.
“I’ll give you an hour,” she said. “After that, if I want to disappear, you don’t follow me, you don’t look for me.”
He looked devastated at the mere idea of it but nodded and said okay. He offered to walk her home, but she vehemently declined. Despite how late it was, how dangerous she knew it could be, she needed the time alone and away. She took the long way back to her apartment, going over several residential streets. It wasn’t the smartest thing she ever did but she needed to work out at least some of the energy or she’d never be able to sleep.
She didn’t like lies. Diego knew that. He’d been by her side the day she’d found out the truth from her father. He’d held her while she cried and promised that as long as she wanted him around, he would be there. Yet there he was, lying to her himself now, and she had no arms to run to. The one person she wanted to comfort her was the exact reason she needed it. How terribly that all worked out. Her boyfriend committed crimes and she was the one left to pick up the pieces of it on her own.
It might have been the copious amount of wine she drank or how late in the night it was, she’d never been a good decision maker when those two things combined together in her brain. She never cheated on a single partner in her life. It had been the one thing she said would completely break a relationship for her, even if they were ten years deep with a mortgage. But her fingers were already going through her phone; she was already moving through the contact list to find his name.
She called him. He answered on the second ring. He agreed to come over ten seconds later and her night was spent tossing around naked in her bed with a man who wasn’t her boyfriend, though he had been once, long ago. She pushed the thoughts of Diego’s betrayal out of her mind, humming another man’s name, feeling another man’s skin, and letting another man see all the vulnerability she let run wild in the moment she orgasmed.
It felt like a fitting punishment. But in the morning, all she wanted was Diego and the clock to reset.
Charles had been her first boyfriend in college. He’d also been the first man she ever slept with. He’d been so kind then, asking her several times if she was okay, if she needed anything, if he was hurting her. Afterwards, he bought her two bouquets of flowers and a box of chocolates, and walked her to and from class the rest of the week, even on days when he had classes of his own. When Diego first asked her out, there had been no competition there. Charles was all her eyes could see in any direction, even when they were closed.
But they had been too young for a fairy tale ending. All it took was one summer away from school and back at home for things to come crashing down in the form of a tantalizing ex-girlfriend and Andrea’s apparent “over-focusing” on her career too early. They hadn’t drifted apart; it had been a bombastic breakup. There had been shouting and tears and one would have thought they’d been married for fifteen years with the way they carried on to each other. Her mother said it was a testament to how much she cared looking at how angry someone could make her. She was sure from this fight that she was in love with Charles.
But she sent him out the door and he gladly followed orders.
A few months later, Diego was right there and she asked him out on a whim. Charles had started to message her again and she feared what would happen if she gave in. She did give in, once or twice, while she still decided how serious she was about Diego. She hadn’t slept with him in years and it was fascinating how easily he answered, how much they remembered about each other’s bodies, and how easy it was to fall back into the rhythms they’d once known.
“You break up with Saenz?” he asked when they were both laying on their backs, looking up at the ceiling.
She didn’t answer. She just got up to use the bathroom, wash herself off, and then walk out into the kitchen where she wouldn’t have to look at Charles or smell what they’d done. He didn’t follow her out, choosing instead to fall asleep in her bed. By the time she got back into the bedroom, he was snoring loudly, face down into the pillow, leaving a familiar spot of drool where his mouth hung open. She almost missed it. But then she caught sight of Diego’s t-shirt hanging over the door knob from the last time he’d been here and the spell of pretending was over.
Despite the discomfort, she got back into bed with him instead of sleeping on the couch. She refused to be forced onto the couch in her own house by the awkward afterwards of a booty call. She put a fair bit of distance between them. She refused to cuddle. This wasn’t some sentimental night where they’d rediscover their love. She needed someone to leave scratches on, someone to command, some pleasure to receive. And she needed to know it was something that would hurt Diego if he knew. She wanted to make him hurt.
In the morning, she woke up earlier than Charles as well and went out into the kitchen, making coffee for herself — a sign to him to find his post-coital breakfast elsewhere. She poured out the steaming mug and didn’t add any of her usual almond milk or fake sweetener. She needed a real kick in the pants right now. So she cringed as she swallowed the bitter taste of hot coffee. How did Diego drink this stuff? One year when she’d been over his place for Christmas Eve, his grandmother made hot chocolate the way they had it back in Mexico City. It was bitter and spicy, and it was all Andrea could do not to throw it all up.
She needed to get Charles out of there. She promised to meet Diego at noon and if she didn’t shower by eleven, she would never make that time. Though she thought he would deserve her showing up a bit late, she just wanted to get this over with at this point. And she wouldn’t delay it because Charles slept like a rock most days.
She walked into her bedroom, slamming the door, and watched him jump up and out of bed in a confused whirl. He groaned, let out a yawn, and ran his hand violently through his bedhead. He blinked at the sunlight she let stream through the room when she ripped the curtains open.
“Morning,” he said.
“Time to go, Romeo,” she said. “I have plans.”
He didn’t say anything at first and she looked over at him, seeing traces of true hurt on his face. She wouldn’t feel bad for him. She wouldn’t let the puppy dog eyes of two men cloud her judgement.
“I should have known,” he said, getting up and she purposely turned to avoid seeing him naked all over again. “But I pick up the phone anyway.
He always would pick up the phone too, that was his problem. She could do this to him five times in a row and he would still answer when she called and come running if she asked. He slid on his clothes, slowly and pensively. She wondered if he was truly thinking or just wanted to see what sympathy he could play out of her by moping his way through leaving.
And then he was out the door and she didn’t have time to be overly guilty about it, jumping into the shower and turning it up as hot as it would go to fill the bathroom with steam. She let the mirror fog up so she couldn’t see herself and turned it back down to just short of scalding as she stepped in, watching her skin redden from heat and irritation as she worked the soap over her body, scrubbed the shampoo in her hair, carded her hand through her strands of hair with conditioner all over her fingers. She took her time, giving herself a few moments to think.
It wasn’t the wine headache that made this morning difficult. She wanted to be swallowed up into a blackhole and never come back out again. She wanted to eat her weight in ice cream and pizza, and watch Netflix for several days. She wanted a lot of things that weren’t a reality right now. She needed to get a grip on a new take on a once familiar world. Things were different this morning than they had been yesterday. That was the way life went sometimes and no matter how long or hot of a shower she took, that wouldn’t change.
She stepped out of the shower, the bathroom still awash with steam. She wrapped a towel around her and granted herself a few more moments of contemplation by dripping dry a bit on the bathmat before she set to work at really getting her body dry enough to slip on clothes. She walked out into her bedroom and received a rush of cold air in contrast to the cocoon the bathroom had been. It was certainly a wakeup call, but she needed several more of those if she would get through his day.
She put on the first clean things she could find. There was no use getting dressed up. There was no use trying to impress him or make him feel bad. She’d already slept with another man and kicked him out of her apartment only hours before meeting him. Knowledge that she’d done that would be punishment enough for him. If he got too difficult to deal with, she’d level him with that information and let him wallow in some more self-pity.
She stepped outside into the mid-morning air, still chilly from the remnants of the evening but warming up as the sun moved to heat the ground. Summer was nearly in full swing now. The time had come to sleep with the window open, allowing a midnight breeze into the room. She often found herself kicking the covers off her body as she slept in nothing but short gym shorts and a tank top. Usually this time of year brought forth some kind of excitement. But all that was sucked out of her. She’d been stood up by her boyfriend less than twenty-four hours ago. She couldn’t exactly get into the carefree summer spirit.
She elected to walk. The bus was there on the corner, perfectly timed to pick her up as a passenger, but it was a nice day out. She wasn’t exactly itching to get there on time. So, she shoved her hands in her pockets and made her way walking to the Starbucks she’d told him to meet her at. Several people were already out and starting their day. One mom she passed pushed an expensive-looking sporty stroller down the street as she jogged her way down the sidewalk in pastel-colored running gear with the familiar-looking logo.
There were several dogs just happy to be out and about in the sunny air, and even some children ready to play their day away now that the last remnants of winter were gone completely from their minds.
She walked on, wishing she could take in the most of this nice weather as they were, but there was so much blocking her mind from seeing the goodness in absolutely anything. Hands in her pockets, shoulders slumped, head down to avoid talking to anyone, she made her way across town and to the place where she was sure she would end up breaking up with her boyfriend.
She opened the door to the Starbucks and slipped in. He was already there. Of course he was. He sat at a table in the corner looking just as sleep deprived and crazy in the eyes as he did when she last saw him. He tapped out a rhythm on the table, looking around wildly for anything to occupy his gaze or anywhere to put his attention.
Then his eyes settled on her. He looked like a kicked puppy. She wouldn’t let that affect her though. She wouldn’t let him win that way. He’d always been good about drawing her pity right out of her and making her feel like she owed him some sort of apology for reacting to absolutely anything he did. But not today.
“Diego,” she said with measured politeness, like a stranger on a business meeting.
“Hey,” he said.
She didn’t say anything back. She didn’t want him to be comfortable. She wanted him to know the exact type of pain and awkwardness she’d felt waiting all night for him to never show at an expensive restaurant they’d planned out for weeks. He didn’t get to be the victim here, no matter how sorry for himself he felt.
“You’ve got five minutes,” she said. “Convince me to stay longer.”
He took a breath. Then he began. “Okay, so — clearly I’ve not been honest about some parts of me. I’m a shifter. Wolf. I was taught all my life not to tell anyone because shifting in public was illegal and my parents thought I wouldn’t make any friends. I was adopted, you know that part and it’s true. I never met my real parents and my mom and dad were saints for taking in a shifter kid like me. It was like Clark Kent and his Kansas family or something — ”
“Okay, spare me the part where you compare yourself to Superman.”
“Anyway. I felt alone and scared, and my parents taught me to hide myself. Repress everything, you know? So I did and I never told anyone. Not my best friends, never my girlfriends, not even my family, like cousins and aunts at Christmas. No one knew. So, don’t feel like you were the only one in the dark.”
“And here I was hoping I was special to you in some way.”
He cringed. “At a certain point, I got tired of hiding it. I mean puberty hit and all I wanted to do was shift. My parents didn’t even like me doing it at home in the backyard or at night; they were afraid the neighbors would see. All that stuff starts to get pent up, like a shaken soda bottle. I ended up just letting out all that tension in the wrong way,” he said, taking a breath and leaning back.
So there it was. A repressed teenager who went rebel in a wrong way and was now dealing with the consequences. Somehow, she felt there had to be something illegal about being a shifter and not telling your partner. She knew there wasn’t. They hadn’t yet progressed so far in the country as to say that shifters needed to wear some kind of badge identifying them. It’d come up once or twice and several shifters argued that nons (the name they used for non-shifters) should be the ones wearing badges. The argument there, of course, was that violence against shifters was a lot more prevalent than the other way around and they were the ones that needed protection.
Would knowing Diego was a shifter change anything for her? If he’d told her on the fifteenth date or after a year of dating, would it have mattered? Probably not. But now he sat in front of her, spilling his secrets about how he lied the entire time they were together.
“So tell me about your little heist,” she said, crossing her arms and leaning back.
His eyes widened, just for a second. His face paled and he cleared his throat. “We’re not looking to hurt anyone. We just want attention. Every time something happens to shifters, they distract everyone in the news with some kind of story about a cat up a tree for God’s sake.”
“So you robbed a place of combustible materials?” she said. “That certainly sounds like a ‘we come in peace’ move.”
“We’re not like the extremists.”
“We want equality. Not to be better. The extremists want revenge. We just want to be people. There’s a professor I’ve been in contact with at a university in California. Drake Tekkin. A lot of his writings have inspired me on the kind of man I want to be in this world, the kind of shifter.”
Somehow, she knew this was more honest than he had been in years of knowing him. He looked a little desperate, a little childish. Whether or not the harmlessness of the organization was the truth, he believed it. He wanted it to be true. She knew, deep down, he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. Even if he was lying, even if things weren’t exactly what they seemed, he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He could very well be surrounded by people who wanted to hurt others, but he himself wasn’t a bad person. She knew that about him.
“So,” he said. “That’s all I have.”
She thought about her plan to break up with him. She still thought it was the smart thing to do. He was a liar and now a wanted man. He was potentially dangerous and no doubt surrounded by dangerous people. But could she really abandon him? He looked ready to cry at any moment, a grown man in public. She could see years of desperation hiding there. His sob story about his lonely shifter adolescence was a true story. What would she be in the story if she abandoned him after finding out the truth?
But she needed time away from him. She needed to sort through all these feelings and all this strangeness. She needed to know that he was capable of giving her space and letting her make her own decisions, not just throw puppy dog eyes her way — God, literal puppy dog eyes.
“I need some time to think,” she said. “I don’t know what’ll be waiting on the other side of me thinking. But I will take the time and I need you to give me that space.”
He nodded. “Right. Sure.”
“I mean it. Even if it takes me three months to talk to you again, I need you to back off for a while. I will get back to you, I promise. I just need to do it on my own terms.”
“Yeah. Of course. Let me know.”
She didn’t just fill her time with thinking and pining. She filled it with research. She decided she would learn everything that she had ignored over the years about the shifter culture. She went back to the beginning, to the first evidence of shifters in society, all the way back to the time of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of western civilization. They had existed there, according to hieroglyphs and cave drawings and recordings on stone tablets alongside stories like Gilgamesh and tales of the gods. Many of them were shamans and warriors during this time.
It wasn’t until the medieval time and the Renaissance that opinions on shifters turned into something far less positive. They were once seen as contributing members of society but now they were outsiders. Something had snapped during this time. She saw a word in the glossary of the one book she was reading: Knights of Sang.
She googled them.
“The Knights of Sang — roughly translated to the Blood Knights — were a group formed in Romania in the sixteenth century after an unknown wolf shifter attacked a local village. The Knights formed as something of a rudimentary neighborhood watch for the small village. They were the first anti-shifter organization in history and, as a result, grew in popularity with many unofficial ‘chapters’ popping up in villages across Europe. The organization grew rapidly over the next fifty years and became an officially sanctioned group by the Holy Roman Empire in 1670, tasked with keeping order specifically among shifter populations. As a result, several hundreds of shifters were rounded up in European towns over the next decade in what many consider to be the shifter equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials — ”
She stopped reading after that. As dense and fascinating as ancient shifter history was, she was more interested in what was going on now. These groups seemed bent on creating a culture of fear. Diego said that extremists were something else, people who wanted shifters to get vengeance, to use their abilities to subdue the ones around them they viewed weaker. She read up on that too.
Several news articles talked about one man: Damien Orlando. He spoke at several shifter rallies that showed up on YouTube when she looked up extremist groups. He had hard, dark eyes, a heavy, sharp brow, and a long scar across his left cheek. He was like the poster child for how the far right wanted shifters viewed by society. She wondered if he knew that and he effected his look as a result. He was an eloquent speaker, she’d give him that.
“I have been hopeless,” he said in one video. “As you all have. But knowing there are others out there who feel as you do, who see as you see, makes us stronger. You are not one in a million, you are one of a million. Together, we rise.”
Something about him unsettled her. Did Diego buy into his particular brand of propaganda? He seemed like a much angrier man than what Diego’s soft eyes could ever be capable of. Who was that other one? The professor he mentioned.
Drake Tekkin. She googled him too. He was an early-thirty-something man who dressed like he was the bad boy in an eighties teen movie. He taught several classes on shifter culture and had been involved with several projects over the years for shifter awareness. He seemed as clean as they could come. But there was something in those eyes as well, something like a quiet rage. It was ambition waiting to strike, like a coiled snake.
She read one of his papers, “The Shifter as the Everyman.” It was smart, it was impressive. There wasn’t a hint of Orlando’s rage in the words. In fact, he even spoke against the terrorist movements on the shifter’s part, claiming they weren’t truly human if they were willing to kill their fellow man to get what they wanted. She had to imagine that was met with a fair bit of anger when it was first published.
By the time the sun had gone down, she felt like she’d filled her skull right up to the brim with shifter knowledge and it was ready to burst. What to do with it then? Tell Diego that she now had a working knowledge of his life? Tell him that she read enough articles to talk with him analytically about his goals?
She would never know his life. For all those college papers and speeches told her, it didn’t tell her what it was like to hide oneself, to feel incredibly . Diego had been adopted when he was young and it was a spot of softness for him for as long as she knew him. He didn’t like to talk about it. Though he claimed he didn’t remember his real parents, she was certain he must have some memory of them for all the ways his eyes grew hollow and a little bit scary looking when they were mentioned. And on top of that, he was seen as some kind of monster by the world, even by Andrea, for a time.
So what should she do? Coddle him and tell him everything would be okay and she forgave him for the heartache of the past day, for all the lying he did the entire time they were together? She couldn’t make excuses for him. If he wanted to be treated like any other person, then she needed to respond to what he did as if he were any other person, tragic backstory be damned.
Her choice on what to do came a lot sooner than she expected. She’d gone several days without a word from Diego. He’d respected her boundaries and her need for privacy which she honestly found surprising considering he was never so attentive about her telling him to back off before. But the six o’clock news was faster.
“Believed to be the same group responsible for the break in last week, another store has been vandalized and robbed…”
Andrea felt her stomach curdle just a bit. So that was that. Diego had taken their several days apart to plan more heists to steal more things. This time, it was from a sporting goods store and Andrea was more than a little terrified at the possibility that they would report they’d stolen firearms or bullets. In fact, she expected that to be the case. But when the news came back, it was nothing more than hiking equipment and some leftover snow gear. It wasn’t good, and it didn’t bode well. But it was better than nothing. And better than the worst possible scenario.
She watched the newsreel several times and wondered what she should do. She could call the police, tell them she knew the identity of at least one of the men responsible, and that there were others. She could call Diego and tell him to knock it off or she would call the police on him. She could ignore the whole thing, invite Charles back over, and never speak to him again. While she sat there and waited to figure out what to do, the newsreel just kept playing and playing, and she felt more and more helpless.
In the end, she went out for a jog; something about the movement helped her think. She managed to get almost three miles in with all the churning and cog turning her mind was doing. It certainly distracted her from the burn in her legs by the end of the second mile, and the way her lungs were ready to give out by the end. She found herself jogging by his apartment, looking in from the outside and wondering who he was there with. What he was planning.
And then suddenly, she was angry. Didn’t he know that he could get hurt? Didn’t he know that it was so ungodly dangerous? Didn’t he care that he could die doing this, that it would hurt his mother, his family, her? All that running had worked her up a great deal and now she glared at the window she knew led to the kitchen. She recognized the small Mexican flag hanging in the window. Before she could stop herself, she walked over to the door and hit the buzzer on his apartment for several long seconds, far longer than a polite stranger might.
Naturally, it didn’t warrant a response. He was a fugitive, an anonymous fugitive, but one nonetheless. He wouldn’t answer his door for even the pizza man. So she kept going, buzzing and buzzing until he’d have to do something — unlock the door, send down security, whatever.
“What?” he spat from his end of the communicator on the wall.
“Let me up.”
She didn’t need to say more. There was only about five seconds of a pause between the end of her sentence and the door clicking unlocked in a familiar way. She pushed it open quickly before he could change his mind and let it shut and lock again on her. She went up to his apartment. She thought about all the things she would say to him, all the ways she would yell at him. A few of these sentences were ways in which she would convince him to knock it all off, to stop everything he was doing and let it go.
She would rip him a new one over all the things that had been building up over the past couple of days. She would make him her punching bag.
“Are you alone?” she asked when he opened the door.
She stepped into the apartment. He closed the door behind him. Then he was up against it. She was flush to his body, pushing him into the solid wood of his own front door and not letting his lips get an inch of their own traction as she controlled every part of their kiss. At first, he was stiff, not responding, but then he loosened up, and allowed her to move all over him. Her hands pressed against him hard but felt across every muscle and every valley of his body that she could. She wanted to push him through the wall, but she’d settle for this.
Eventually, she started the biting. She started first with forcing her tongue in his mouth, pushing his own back and forth like it was her own pliable toy. She was in charge here. Once he gave her access and didn’t fight back, she moved her teeth forward to work on his body lip, worrying with her teeth so hard she thought it might bleed. Part of her wanted it to. She wanted to draw blood, to taste it, to make him see the error of his ways.
She’d never been one for the punishing kind of angry sex people had in books and movies. They’d never fucked their way through an argument. But this was a new level of disagreement. He’d lied the entire time they were together, and now he was planning God knew what with an illegal terrorist organization. If anything warranted hate sex, it was this. And it had been building up in her for so long that it wasn’t too difficult to just let it out.
He was entirely willing, allowing her to demolish him from every angle she could get at. He let her sink her teeth into every part of him, leave marks across his usually flawless caramel skin. It was mixed with the red and raw color of irritation now. She’d left marks across him that he couldn’t hide, at least not easily. She’d both marked him and warned him. This was what happened when he lied. This was what became of her without him.
She wanted to tell him then about Charles. She wanted to talk about how she’d fucked another man all night, but this was so much better. But even in her euphoria, she knew that would ruin the mood, ruin their current trajectory. Nothing would be a buzz kill more than admitting to her partner — well, still officially her partner — that she cheated on him out of anger a few nights ago. Who knew all it would take was one missed day and an apparent few years of complete lies to result in Andrea breaking her one rule with relationships.
They went at it like that all night until they fell asleep on different ends of Diego’s bed. Andrea would fuck him, but she couldn’t bring herself to cuddle with him after. He was still a liar, still made her angry. He was still doing the awful, dangerous things she’d yelled at him for days ago. He was still… something else entirely underneath his skin and in the very instincts of his core. So she kept away and swatted at his hands at the one attempt he made to touch her after he’d reached out for her. Never mind that those hands had just been all over her breasts, inside her. That was impersonal, anyone could do that. But she wouldn’t fall asleep in bed with just anyone, and right now he wasn’t one of those people.
Andrea’s mother had always told her that life had a way of making sure that when it rained, it completely poured. All bad things came in twos and threes. She never just had a bad morning or one bad day; it was a stretch of events designed to test her patience to the most she possibly could take before she just broke down completely. And, for Andrea, that was the police knocking down at Diego’s door at six a.m. the next morning.
“What the hell?” she murmured out, groggily, her throat still constricted from sleep.
“We need to leave,” he said, whispering inches from her face. “They don’t know we’re in here, but I’m willing to bet they have a warrant.”
“Oh, what the hell.”
Right. Everything came crashing back down. Diego was a felon, a criminal and Andrea had made the poor decision of going to his apartment for a booty call the night before. Now his antics had finally caught up with him. The men on the other side of that door had guns and Tasers and badges that said they could do whatever the hell it was that they wanted if they so desired. Diego was a shifter, and a non-white male to boot. There was no way anyone would listen to stories of brutality when he had so much stacked against him.
At that moment, she could kind of understand why he didn’t tell her about his nature. Not that she was just anyone, but there was a certain amount of fear to everything he was. He was the son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up poor, and he was a shifter. Very little about his existence had promise and his was the exact type of demographic that ended up in the news as a youth suicide. For him to get this far in life was a miracle, in many ways.
“So, how are we getting away from the cops in your apartment with one entrance?” she asked, getting out of bed with several huffs, looking around for her clothes. He gave her a desperate, annoyed look as she slipped her legs in her pants, one at a time. “I’m not going anywhere naked, don’t even think about it.”
He rolled his eyes and walked away. She would have taken it even slower, made it that much more stressful on him, if she wasn’t totally implicated in all this too. The emotions of last night were gone. She was back to being incredibly angry with him. Go figure.
“Fire escape,” he said.
“And you don’t think the police thought of that too?”
“Not if they don’t think we’re here. So far, we’ve been quiet. Keep it that way.”
She bristled at him giving her orders, but kept it to herself. He had a point. The longer they stayed quiet and anonymous in the apartment, the easier their escape would be. That didn’t mean, of course, that the escape would be easy at all.
Diego moved to the window with care, avoiding the famously creaky board in his kitchen that he claimed every week he would fix and then promptly ignored each time. She stepped over it as well, moving with as much grace as she could muster for herself with how tired and frazzled she still was. She followed behind him where he gently worked at unlocking the window. It would squeak when they opened it, there was no doubt about that. So once he got it unlocked and lifted, they would have a very short window to jump out and get down the fire escape before the police realized what they were doing.
One lock clicked open. Then the other. Now Diego turned to look at her as if asking for permission. This was the last moment she could be passive. If he opened that window and if she crawled out after him, she would be an accessory, a guilty party. She’d be abetting a criminal and obstructing justice. They’d probably find several other sentences to throw at her before they were done. It would be nothing compared to Diego’s life sentence for his terrorist activities. But she’d get a very short end of an already crappy deal. She also had a choice here, to turn back and give herself up. If she stepped forward and said she had nothing to do with it, that she was willing to open the door, give them any information they needed, cooperate fully, she’d probably go free. He’d lied to her, she hadn’t known what was going on. She could easily claim she didn’t come forward with information before because she was scared. She could easily get free of this, go back to work, continue her life and budding career.
But God help her she actually felt something for that man looking at her with pleading eyes, trying to make a getaway as a wanted terrorist. She finally understood those women who stuck by serial killers or married death-row prisoners. Sometimes she just couldn’t help who she loved, who her heart decided she would risk her life and livelihood for. She wouldn’t give herself up and she couldn’t bring herself to abandon him. Not now.
God, she hated herself. She nodded. He turned back to the window and lifted his hands, pulling the window up with him. The dreaded whine from the ungreased window frame came after about five seconds of movement. It never seemed to be a bother in all the years that Andrea had dealt with it. Sure, it could be annoying and rouse someone from a nap. Now it was her worst nightmare, her biggest enemy. As soon as it went off, it sounded like that fabled shot heard around the world must have.
It went off. And then they were out the window. Diego went first, scrambling through it with such grace, she was sure this wasn’t the first time that he’d made an escape like this, which didn’t exactly comfort her but she ignored it, for now. She followed after. She wasn’t exactly quick or good at it, but she was small and limber enough that she could move through the gap without too much trouble. On the other end, he waited with open arms to pull her through. Once her feet were firmly planted on the metal grate of the fire escape, his hand stayed on hers.
The banging from the front door was loud and angry now. They’d heard. They yelled. Time to go.
Diego pulled Andrea’s hand hard, yanking her arm and the rest of her body with it. They moved across the metal platform until they got to the first gap in the floor. He kicked at the ladder until it dropped. They moved down quickly to the second landing. One more to go. They performed the same ritual, kicking the ladder down and practically sliding down it to freedom below.
Their luck, naturally, ran out at the last ladder. It was stuck.
“Dammit,” Diego hissed, kicking at the ladder, but it refused to drop.
“We’ll just jump,” Andrea said, shoving him out of the way and moving to the gap.
“And break our legs?”
“Maybe but we know if we stay here, we get arrested and go to jail for life.”
He didn’t argue. She slid through the gap and hung down off the bottom rung, as far as she could go to the bottom. The fire escapes were designed to prevent anyone at ground level from reaching the bottom and crawling up. That left her with quite a bit of room between her and the ground, even as she hung at her most stretched and straight. She took a breath. She dropped.
She didn’t break her legs. In fact, the only thing that really hurt was the brush burn from the sidewalk she could feel already working its way across the skin of her palm. She hadn’t exactly landed gracefully, but her feet were firmly planted on the solid concrete underneath. She took off, hearing a thud of Diego jumping down behind her. He yelled after her but she just kept running. She was running from a lot of things, more than just the police. Maybe she was even running from Diego. She wasn’t sure. She just knew it was like last night, running was the only thing that made her feel safe.
So, she took off into the early morning air, making wind around herself as she moved, legs already burning from the forced effort so early in the morning and without an ounce of calories in her system to help sustain her. Diego was still behind her, not far.
“Andrea, stop!” he called.
She didn’t. She was petrified. Her life had been turned completely upside down and she didn’t know what to do except run away from it. That’s what everyone did when things got rough. She ran away from her problems and didn’t look back at all. That was adulthood, right?
Her great escape was cut short when Diego used the last of his energy to sprint up to her and launch. He tackled her. Now that hurt. She had a few more rashes from the ground thanks to that and turned around wildly ready to smack him for it, but he was on his back, huffing and puffing as his chest fought to get air in his lungs. He coughed quite a bit.
“We’re safe,” he said. “You ran like a fucking bat outta hell.”
“Yeah well, when it was clear I might go to jail for associations with a terrorist, I kind of gave myself a kick,” she said.
He didn’t say anything, he just kept gasping for air, laying there on his back. He was never the athletic one and now she felt a little smug for all those times he made fun of her when she asked if he wanted to go with her for a run. Joke was on him now.
“Well, that was an exciting wakeup call,” he said, rolling over to his side and pushing himself up.
Andrea sprang to her feet. She dusted herself off and checked to make sure nothing looked permanently damaged. She’d have a far bit of scraping to explain to her friends and work, but for the most part, she was put together well. So, she started walking away.
“Where are you going?” Diego asked from his spot on the ground, now struggling to get up.
“Away,” she said. “We did our miraculous escape but now it’s time to go.”
“But — wait — ”
“This wasn’t a make-up night, Diego,” she said. “I was angry and it manifested a little differently than how I imagined it in my head, but now we’re back to normal. It was a one-time thing. No breakfast the next morning or cuddles.”
“You can’t just walk away.”
She spited him by doing just that, moving down the street and away from him. Behind her, she heard him groan and force himself up to his feet. She heard him scrambling behind her, still out of breath, but now up to a standing position and trotting behind her. She rolled her eyes. This was exactly how things always went with him, persistent and hard to shake. He said it was a trait he inherited from his Mexican immigrant parents who had to toil every day to get the things they wanted. Andrea just thought it was his way of being frustrating.
“Diego, I’ve got a lot to do today — ”
“This is more serious than just running from the cops because we got caught egging someone’s house,” he said, catching up to her and holding onto her shoulder tightly. “You won’t be able to just waltz back home.”
“Why? It’s not like it was me they were after.”
“It won’t take them long to connect the dots. They’ll look into my family, my relationships. One of the cops from today could have ID’d you.”
She was very quickly losing her patience. She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed loudly. “All right, what do you propose I do then, smart guy?”
“Come with me,” he said. “I can take you somewhere safe. You want to leave after a while, we can. But at least give me the chance to get you somewhere safe.”
She wasn’t in a position to argue.
He led her across town. He insisted they move on foot because they would be harder to track. And where they were going required stealth. Andrea knew as soon as he said that she regretted going with him. This was just getting deeper and deeper into a hole she already dug for herself. She could still take off running, still get away from Diego and all the lunatic things she’d learned he was up to over the course of the past few days. Or she could dig deeper and see how far it all went. She knew very little about shifters, about their world, about their life.
But was curiosity worth the price she could pay in the end? Plenty of people were curious about North Korea but that didn’t mean they went tunneling across the fence just to see what there was to see.
“We’ll be there soon,” he said as they crossed yet another dirt road. They’d left the main street long ago.
“That could mean literally anything.”
“It means before next week, for sure.”
“You’re an asshole.”
She heard him snort and was sure she could even sense the roll of his eyes. But she ignored him. She was in the position of power here. She had less to lose if they got caught and he knew that. She wasn’t entirely willing to go to jail just to mess with him. But she also wasn’t above milking this for all it was worth.
This was where the regret set in. This was where she cringed a little too much at how she had lost all sense of control and not only fell into bed with him. She completely pushed him into bed herself. She really couldn’t blame that on bad planning or even impulse. She’d made a poor choice. He wasn’t about to pull at that thread though and she was grateful, but she’d never show it.
When they finally stopped walking, it was in front of an old shed. Fantastic. She stood there with her arms crossed and sighed loudly while Diego walked forward and performed an odd sort of knock on the door. Then, like something out of The Goonies, the door opened. Someone awaited inside. A gatekeeper.
“You know we don’t allow outsiders.”
“There’s been a situation.”
“Damien won’t like it.”
“He’d like it even less if we let her get away after what I have to tell him.”
Let her get away. That was a phrase that Andrea didn’t exactly appreciate. Diego had taken on a different tone, a different way of carrying himself here. He stood up straight, spoke louder. He didn’t shrink away as he had with her. They were outside a hideout of his shifter buddies. That much was clear. This certainly was digging much deeper into something incredibly dangerous.
“This won’t be on me if he’s pissed,” the man in the shed said.
“I know. If he’s pissed, we’ll both end up dead and all you’ll have to worry about is burying our bodies.”
Nope. Definitely not something that Andrea was interested in. She wanted to back away. She almost stepped back to move and do just that. But then Diego was right there and the man in the shed looked at her as well. She was trapped under their gaze. She had no idea what could happen if she ran. Maybe they’d have guard dogs. Maybe these guys were the guard dogs. Maybe instincts completely took over when Diego let out his wolf. Maybe the last thing she would ever see would be the shine of his white teeth, the bare of his gums, the smell of raw meat on his breath, and the look in the eyes of a man who didn’t recognize her at all.
She stepped forward because she had to. She had no choice anymore. Maybe she never did.
The shed, like any hideout, led down into the ground. They’d dug out a network of tunnels, the entrance to which was covered by the shed. They walked into the small structure and met with a hole in the ground attached to a ladder. They made Diego go down first. Then the gate man looked at her and nodded sharply for her to follow, closing and locking the shed door behind them.
It was the descent into the underworld. She was poor Persephone, dragged down by Hades into his underground world and winter would sprout up on the earth above while it waited for her return. The question was, of course, if spring would ever return after this.
She knew that name but she dared not trick herself into thinking there was a chance that it was the same one she read about. That man was terrifying and powerful even in YouTube videos. She could only imagine what he would be capable of in person. She swallowed down a tacky gulp in her throat.
The tunnels were carved out as if by a large animal. They were lined with various types of lights: fairy lights, emergency lights, virtually anything they bought at a store and strung up on the walls. She wondered how far it went, how deep and complex they were capable of digging. But they were shifters. Of course, they could tunnel themselves something big and hidden. She heard the claw reach of a dragon could measure over a foot. She imagined it as a shovel and it wasn’t that hard to imagine.
She tried so many times to catch Diego’s eye. She had so many questions she wanted to voice but she was so afraid that if she so much as coughed, then it would be the last sound she ever made. She had gone from her smug lording over him to completely reliant on his good graces and friendship with her. His protection might be the only thing that would rescue her from God knew what down below. She was more than out of her element. She was in another world entirely. This wasn’t a place she was welcome to nor was it friendly to her. She was a stranger in a strange land. Who knew that strange land would be right in her own backyard?
They led them into a room, segmented off by thick curtains that pulled to cover the opening. That gave Andrea a little bit of comfort. She wasn’t so completely locked in. It wouldn’t be her tomb. Nothing about the curtain stopped anyone from hurting her or killing her. But, in her mind at least, there was an escape. Though she knew, realistically, there was absolutely no escape for her. If she wanted to try to run, they would take her down. They would shoot her, maybe someone would maul her.
But a curtain was better than a steel door.
They were brought into the small room with garish lights and nothing in it except two chairs sitting in the middle of the space as if they had been waiting for them. They walked in and their escort left without a word, snapping the curtain shut behind him. They were left to sit there alone. Diego immediately dropped into the seat, but Andrea was less than willing to so quickly turn over.
“It’ll be easier if you just take a seat and calm down,” Diego said, sighing and brushing his sweaty palms out on his pant legs.
“Yes, that’s what I want, to make my imminent death a little more convenient for everyone,” she huffed and he made another face.
She wanted to ask if this man was the one she feared he was, if it was Damien Orlando waiting to bust in on the other side of that curtain. She didn’t know if it would be better or worse for her if it was someone else. Perhaps someone even worse waited to stick nails under her fingernails or burn her with cigarette butts or all manner of torture that she could imagine.
She paced. It was easier that way. Andrea couldn’t exactly go for a jog in the tunnels so she paced her way around the room, despite Diego’s glares and constant huffs trying to tell her to stop. She didn’t care. If she would die, she would figure out how to do it on her own terms and with her comforts. She was a pacer. She needed constant movement. She thought better when her legs were in a steady pace and she felt better too. It was like when death row inmates requested their last meal and it was always something crazy like their mom’s homemade chicken or some other things. It was creature comforts. Things from home. She could work with this.
That was, until, Damien entered the room. He wasn’t quick nor was it like a snap of the curtain to tell them that he was here. He entered slowly, quickly, like a cat. Perhaps that was his shifter. The news outlets and YouTube videos never talked about what he was. Andrea knew dragons and wolves were most common, but there was no way this man wasn’t some sort of large, predator feline.
“Diego,” he said. “How are you?’
Even with Andrea sitting next to his chair, the man didn’t acknowledge her at all as he strode into the room and stepped in front of them. He looked only at Diego, stared at him heavily, wore the kind of smirk that wasn’t obvious. This was part of the game too, Andrea realized. Psychological warfare in the eyes. This man was good at being dangerous, and being perceived as dangerous. He excelled at it and it scared her to think that he didn’t just derive his power from making people think he was capable of scary things. She felt as though he’d be able to snap her neck in a heartbeat, without ever acknowledging that she had been there in the first place.
“I’ve been better,” he said.
“You got caught.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I should hope not.”
Now it was Damien’s turn to pace. He did it so much better than Andrea ever could. He moved like something gliding over water and looked sharply at his target: Diego. He mentally separated them, dealing with them one on one. They couldn’t stand together because, as far as Damien was concerned, they wouldn’t be guilty of the same crimes, nor would he accuse them of anything they could agree on. He was both good cop and bad cop, sympathetic jailer, and harsh judge.
“You know the rules about getting caught,” he said, his hands clasped behind his back.
“I got away.”
Damien turned back. His eyes were the sharpest shade of green that Andrea had ever seen. She didn’t even know it to be a color but she’d go to the Crayola factory and invent herself if she ever got out of here. Sharp green. Damien green. Danger green.
“I’m here now.”
“And how many did you bring with you besides the girl sitting right here?”
“I’m not a cop,” Andrea said and realized her mistake of speaking almost immediately.
Those dangerous green eyes turned to her. The full effect of his face was jarring and terrifying. He was the epitome of what she imagined a super villain to look like. He was Lex Luthor in the flesh, ready to pump her full of kryptonite and drop her in the river with some rocks tied to her ankles. The organized crime circuit for shifters was intense, brutal, and controlled most of the unorganized crime at this point, depending on the city.
He didn’t say anything. He just let his gaze linger on her for a bit before turning back to Diego. He looked and then sighed, shaking his head like he was the coach of a losing baseball team trying to talk to the locker room about how they could improve, knowing that he’d said the same thing several times already. Then he bent down, brought himself to kneel and keep eye level with Diego. He put a hand on Diego’s shoulder and squeezed to the point where Diego cringed at the sensation. He squirmed under the grip but Damien held it.
“I’ve got a rally to get to downtown,” Damien said. “You’ve delayed me and now you’ve distracted me. All I will be thinking about is the danger you’ve put us all in. So, if I manage to stumble over my words, something I haven’t done since I was ten, then that’s on you and I won’t be happy.”
He released Diego and got back up. He nodded to two men standing behind them at the entrance of the room.
Suddenly, hands were on Andrea, shoving her roughly at the shoulders into the chair that she hadn’t occupied, next to Diego. Once her bottom connected with the seat, they kept their hands on her, forcing to her to stay still. She could feel the heat from them. Dragons. They had to be dragons. And they tried to intimidate her. It was working. She’d give them that much. They held her there as Damien walked to the back of the room.
“Separate them,” he said, giving instructions to the men holding them down. “I’ll talk to them separately when I get back. Put them in rooms with TVs.”
Andrea thought at first that he was doing it to be funny or to intimidate them, offer them some kind of entertainment or comfort from home, only to have it snapped away. She wouldn’t put it past the man to pull something like that. Then he was gone. The curtain let out the swooshing sound of a ruffle and they were left alone with the thugs in the room, the energy of Damien Orlando was gone.
They were allowed one moment of stillness before the men dragged them to their feet and immediately yanked back. She didn’t see Diego as they separated, though she heard him call for her. She didn’t have the mental presence to call back. She was too busy trying to keep track of where she was going, what hole they dragged her to. They took her deeper into this labyrinth and she needed to figure a way out. She could never escape, but she needed to know the path if she could. She needed to know there was a way to do it, that things weren’t completely lost to the void of darkness. Her feet dragged across the dirt floor, creating rifts behind her.
They threw her into this room. It hadn’t been like before. This one had a cot and bars attached in place of the curtain. They slammed shut behind her and she heard the click of a lock. When she turned, their sneering faces were gone from her sight but the TV clicked on. It was colder here, damper. She was farther underground, she was sure. They’d dragged her to a cell and left here there with a blank TV screen.
She’d seen Clockwork Orange, she knew this had to be a part of their game too, but she wasn’t sure how. She should avoid looking at the TV, stare at the floor or out her cell, or try to curl up into a ball on the cot. She would do whatever she could to not play their games.
The TV had been turned on to a live stream of Damien’s speech. Even if she could look away, his voice would be booming throughout the cell. It was a powerful voice, one incredibly hard to ignore.
“Things like this often start with ‘my fellow Americans,’ do they not?” came the sound of Damien. “But none of us seem to be fellow Americans to each other, not while half the country is forced into hiding. There have always been the haves and the have nots, and the have nots have always managed to be louder, even with all the money and power that the haves try to throw at us.
“Our country is divided. This is true, and it sickens me and hurts me. I don’t want to see anyone hurt, not Christians or Jews, or shifters or nons. All creeds, all lives, all races, all religions are important to me and important to our cause. We understand the struggle of everyone; it’s what’s made us such capable leaders of ourselves and each other. But there is a storm on the horizon and we have a choice — run from it or head straight for the eye.”
Andrea felt her blood run just a little bit colder at that. Whatever storm was brewing, he would be making it, of that she was sure. Damien would reap what he would sow and it seemed like nothing would please him more than taking inventory of the amount of blood he managed to spill along the way.
“Collateral damage is regrettable and not something I ever want to accept,” he said and Andrea thought him the biggest liar in front of a podium. “But sometimes, there are sacrifices meant to be made in the world and we’re the ones to see it through. It takes a considerable amount of courage to be willing to face these challenges.”
How noble it was of him, to be willing and brave enough to sacrifice other people for his cause.
The speech went on like this. It was all inflammatory, all propaganda and buzzwords and rhetoric. She ignored most of it; it was white noise like on any news station. But his voice, the sound of it, the coldness to it, the way it seemed to be everywhere at once like a magician capable of throwing his voice every which direction, that was what stuck with Andrea. She couldn’t shake the sound or the shiver that he managed to send through her, even through a live streamed video on a slightly outdated TV. It didn’t really shock her. She’d been in his presence, she knew what he was capable of with just a look.
Eventually, the TV went silent and she’d never been more grateful in her life. But that didn’t keep the sound away. She could still feel him, as if he were talking right into her chest, reverberating there. His was a voice that would haunt her dreams. If she got out of this, she would have nightmares of him each night, and think of the darkness of this cell. He was so much smarter than she realized. And she realized quite a bit about him.
So there she was left, waiting in the dark and alone. She had no idea if he came back, how she would know when he did. She heard no sounds around her except for the constant drip from some leaky pipe somewhere down the dug-out tube. She imagined that must also be a part of some psychological warfare to try to break her. Especially since this place had a keen way of making it impossible for her to figure out how much time had passed. With the live stream turned off, she had no access to any way to measure the time via a clock. So, she was left to sit there with the sounds of her own breathing and the dripping in the distance, which she refused to start counting to try to keep track of time.
She wondered, after a while, if Diego was still alive. His face had been grim the last time they saw each other and Damien didn’t seem the type to shed too many tears over the need to kill off some comrades. But was Diego getting caught really worth all that punishment? Or was it that he brought her there with him? He’d done that to try to keep her safe, and now he very well could be paying a very, very harsh price for it. Would they torture him? Would they give him a quick death since he was one of their own? Her biggest hope was that he would go free, they’d somehow find it in their ranks to let their once brother in arms go.
But she knew that was a fallacy. This wasn’t a US military branch where there was due process and court marshalling and the most you got was a dishonorable discharge. This was a place run by people who dug out underground bunkers and robbed local stores for fire arms and explosives. These weren’t the type of people to be convinced into a democracy, no matter what anyone tried to say to them or what stories you tried to spin.
And what did that mean for her? If they were willing to completely abandon and even kill one of their own, was there anything truly stopping them from tossing her mangled and unrecognizable body into a ditch somewhere at the slightest cough or sneeze? Maybe they’d forget about her down there and she’d starve. Maybe she could tunnel her own way out, if she tried hard enough. Or maybe she was just full of hopeful wishes that would never come true because into her cell strode Damien, like smoke.
He always seemed to glide, wherever it was that he went. And now he was in front of her, like an apparition appearing out of thin air. Like any ghost, he brought with him an aura of cold air and death. He looked pale, he looked dangerous, he looked like the light of the world would never shine again. She tried to imagine how he’d once been a child, someone’s son. Maybe somewhere in the world, there existed baby pictures of this man, something human and frail.
But he was a statue before her, burgeoned into existence by his own anger. He was nothing but raw energy, horrifyingly piercing eyes, and untested power. He was used to walking into a room and getting exactly what he wanted right away. So, Andrea decided that if she would die, she would make sure that she fought him as much as she could.
“You don’t scare me.” A flat-out lie.
“It’s not my intention to scare you.”
“Then what is?”
“First, to find out a little bit more about you. What’s your name, my dear?’
He sat on the chair she wasn’t using, resting his elbows on his knees like he might be a school counselor or a doctor asking if she had her flu shot yet. She ignored it. It was an act, it was a distraction. She needed to remain focused on the curve of his lips and how hard his brow seemed to stare at her.
“Andrea,” she said because she felt like not being honest would allow him to win, letting him trick her into lying, admitting that she was, in fact, too scared to tell him truths about herself.
“What do you do, Andrea?” he asked. “Have a nickname? Andi perhaps? I’ve never been one for using someone’s full name.”
“Call me whatever you want.” Was that giving him too much power? If anything, it was taking it away. She knew he would call her whatever he damn well pleased so the least she could do was grant herself the agency of pretending like she gave him permission.
“So, what do you do?”
“I want to be a lawyer.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question, does it?”
She forced herself to look at him because, if nothing else, she absolutely hated condescending men. She hated being talked to by professors and colleagues like she was inherently inferior, unintelligent. She could focus in on that, she could harness some anger that way. She could grind an axe against hyper masculinity, after all, she did it often in her undergraduate classes.
But his face was stronger. Scarier. It was a lot more real than the pictures of dudebros in a textbook. This was real danger, not just the possibility of someone saying her outfit was too revealing or that she should smile more.
“I work in the DA’s office as an aide.”
“A glorified secretary.”
“I make a difference.”
He snorted. It seemed almost too juvenile for him to do it and it made things all the more scary. He was versatile, capable of several things. He could stare into her soul, he could make her feel two inches tall, and he could snort at her like she’d said some asinine thing about the nature of his favorite sports team.
“Have you ever seen a shifter in full form?” he asked.
“You fucked one for years and not once? Most shifters need to let off a little steam, as it were, after a round or two.”
So he talked to Diego first. He’d gotten that information from him. Had they hurt Diego to get it or was he simply that willing to give her up? She didn’t know which idea scared her more. She stared into those cold, piercing eyes.
“No,” she said. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Would you like to?”
He came so close to her. She was terrified of where he may be going with it all. She imagined him shoving her against the wall and her own tears as she screamed out for help that would never come. But he didn’t get any closer to her. He didn’t even touch her. He just stared at her from inches away and kept on smirking and smirking.
“He’s a wolf, you know,” he said. “It’s impressive, I’m sure, for people who don’t know a thing about shifter lore. But it’s far from the most powerful. Do you know what is?”
She knew better than to answer. She knew better than to give in. She was shaking now, breathing heavily through her nose, her chest rising and falling with breakneck speed.
“The dragon,” he whispered into her ear and then backed up.
She could feel the heat. It was as if she was in a furnace, surrounded by fire and the rippling of the air as his eyes changed in front of her. They went dark like the heart of a volcano, the very core of the earth. It was the glow of embers at the very base of the bonfire. It was hell itself. He cackled but his mouth and throat didn’t move at all. It was like he was inside her head as the heat pushed and pushed against her. It was like it wanted to break her bones and rip at her skin. It was suffocating.
“Please,” she gasped out.
He wasn’t even transformed. He stood there, giving off heat, staring into her very soul with eyes that seemed to drag right out of a wad of brimstone. She was terrified of what it would be when the full dragon stood before her. When he was there in all his might and all the terrifying glory.
“Please, don’t,” she whispered.
His smirk remained, but the heat and energy of the room died down as he took a long sigh of a breath.
“I’ve got a plan for you, Miss Andi.”
She spent several days, at least she imagined it was days, in the dark after that. She received no visitors, heard from no guards or Damien. She was left to sit there and ponder her fate. She thought heavily of whether or not Diego was still alive. They’d gotten the nature of their relationship from him. No matter how they got it out of him, it had been he who gave that up, she was sure. It could have been an integration tactic, but she knew better than that.
The question was: did they torture him or did he give it up willingly to save his own skin? Could she blame him if the latter was true? After all, she had shown up at his apartment, fucked him completely emotionless, and then told him she was leaving after that. She hadn’t exactly given him a reason to believe that anything was worth salvaging in their relationship. But didn’t their feelings count for something?
Even if he had given her up to Damien, she’d still love him. She couldn’t stop that.
Then there was the matter of what Damien seemed to have planned for her. It wasn’t to starve her out because she received food and some water in the form of a plastic bottle and a Power Bar every so often. They didn’t want to kill her in the cell. At first, she didn’t eat it, fearing there might be some kind of poison laced inside the food and water. But after a while, she was unable to stop herself from eating with the growls of her stomach and the severe pangs of pure, sharp pain radiating from her torso from the lack of food.
She didn’t die, so the next time they dropped off food, she ate it again. It became her pattern. She ate food and drank water and measured the days that way. She figured they were giving her two a day, one in the morning and one at night. It certainly wasn’t enough calories to sustain her long term and she was sure the next time she looked into a mirror, she would see something gaunt and unrecognizable staring back at her. If she ever got out of here, it would be very hard to explain where she’d been when she emerged looking exactly like the prisoner of war she seemed to be right now.
It wasn’t until several days in that someone finally returned to the cell and she realized how much she’d missed and craved human attention from someone, the ability to communicate with someone. It was a guard, someone she’d never seen before who looked angry and unfriendly, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to know that she wasn’t the last human left in the universe, even if her only other options were the ones imprisoning her and putting her in danger. She’d take it. Maybe that’s how people fell into Stockholm Syndrome. They wanted attention and contact so much that they’d take it even from the maniacs who imprisoned them.
He silently walked up to her and opened the gate with a loud creak of the metal. It swung open and he stared at her, stepping back and gesturing for her to step out. She, at first, thought this had to be some kind of trick or test. There was no way that they would let her walk out of the cell of her own accord. And even if they were, it wasn’t to anywhere good, she was sure. She didn’t know in what way but it was clearly a game, clearly some kind of trick.
“What’s going on?” she asked, hearing her own voice for the first time in so long. It was rough, scratchy, almost unrecognizable.
“You step out of that cell or I go in there and drag you out. Your call, lady,” he said back.
She wouldn’t get answers. Honestly, what did she expect anyway? She’d come this far with absolutely no one giving her anything to go off of, why should right now, the time when it seemed they would force her to walk to her death, be any different?
She stepped out, because what else could she do? She had no desire to fight this anymore. Their designs on keeping her locked away in that cell with barely any food and water to go on, with no one to talk to, had done its job. She was obedient, submissive. She was willing to do whatever they asked because she had no other desire or intention to live for, nothing to want for on her own. She had nothing she needed, she was no one. They’d broken her completely.
So, she stepped out of the cell and stopped where he told her to stop, and stood there, waiting for her next instructions. She walked down the hall where she was told to walk, turned when she was told to turn. She was nothing. She was their puppet, their slave, their ghost sliding through the halls. The lawyer to-be, the runner, the daughter, the girlfriend, the everything that Andrea had been before this moment was gone completely. She was over, there was nothing left of her to put up a fight. So she wouldn’t. She would prolong the existence she had left for as long as possible with obedience and silence and go from there.
They lead her to a room she hadn’t been in yet. That wasn’t a surprise. There were also people here she didn’t know, men and women she hadn’t seen before. They looked at her with the same unfamiliar and unkind expression everyone had given her thus far. They stood around a table. It was a meeting room. She didn’t see Diego. There was no friendly face. She wondered what all their animals were, how she would die.
“Welcome, Miss Andi.”
If she ever got the chance to dream again, that was a voice that would haunt her in her sleep. Damien stood there with such a coolness, like the cold and dark of the world itself came from him. She shivered thinking about what his dragon form must look like in its fullest. She imagined a demon with those all too human eyes. That’s what made evil so terrifying, of course. Evil was human at its core. You couldn’t be evil without eyes like Damien’s that had once belonged to a child, a son, a newborn baby that, somewhere along the way, had turned into something awful.
She didn’t say anything, though there was a pause that she was fairly certain she was meant to fill. She had nothing to say to him. What could she possibly say? Sentences wouldn’t form. She was a shell. It didn’t even occur to her to be sad, to cry, that Diego might be dead already. She would never see her mother again or her father. Her family would wonder for years and years what happened to her because she doubted her death, and the nature of it, would be made known to the world. Damien would make her disappear from the world.
“You will do a favor for us,” he said. “And then you will go free.”
The words just sort of bounced off her at first. She took that at face value. She would perform a service for Damien. Then he would set her free. Fair enough. He looked at her though with a cocked eyebrow and a frown.
“Didn’t you hear me, Andi?” he said. This time she couldn’t get out of speaking.
“Doesn’t that excite you? I will let you go free,” he repeated.
He lingered on the word free with a measured hiss. He made the syllables stretch out and mean something. Free. He would let her go. She would do something for him and then she would walk away. She’d be able to shower, she’d be able to sleep in her own bed. She’d see her own apartment again and her parents. She’d be able to hug her mother and she’d never let her go. She’d apologize for every single time she’d said something inconsiderate or wrong.
She’d be out of this hellhole. This entire world she’d been forced to create in her mind, with her own imprisonment, it’d be gone. It would be a memory. And memories couldn’t hurt you, not really, not when they were over. Damien would linger, but she could escape him in the light of day.
“Yes,” she answered him finally, breathlessly. “It does.”
“Good,” he said. “Because you need to do your job correctly or you won’t be able to get anywhere, you understand? You follow our instructions to a T and you do your job and you get to leave. If you don’t, you come back here and it’s a lot less pleasant. Understand?”
“Good,” he said. He walked around the table and toward Andrea, smelling sour, like a snake. He pointed to the screen that showed a park. “That’s where you will be going. It’s a nice place. Lots of people will be there, lots of eyes, and lots of cameras. That’s good for us. We want you to be seen by as many people as possible, understand? Everyone needs to see you.”
“Okay.” She’d go naked if she had to, if it meant she would get out of here.
“You will wear a special vest for us. Pretty easy, right?” Sure. Easy. Perfect. “And when the time comes, you will push a button… then the vest will explode.”
Every single dream she had up until that moment crumbled. She watched the images of her mother’s face, the distant smell she could remember of her childhood living room at Christmas, then it was gone. It was stolen from her like a drowning man being dragged farther and farther below, watching the sun get dimmer and dimmer as the pressure around her increased. She wasn’t going free. They were letting her go because she would die.
“If you don’t press the button,” he said. “If you choose to run. We will blow it up for you. I will be a lot less happy, but you won’t have to worry about that too much.”
So that was that. This was how it ended, not with starving, not with torture. They would use her to make their points. They would force her to publicly do something that would get a lot of people hurt. Would her mother watch the news and wonder where she went wrong? Why her daughter would do something so heinous and awful? She wanted nothing more than to let her mother know that she wasn’t doing this on purpose. She wasn’t doing it willingly. She didn’t want to hurt anyone.
“Where’s Diego?” she choked out. She needed to know there was at least one good thing in the world, that Diego was alive, that he could go on, go home to his family.
“He’s around,” Damien said and she wasn’t sure if she could trust his word play. “Would you like to see him?”
“Yes,” she nearly gasped, trying not to sound too desperate or terrified.
She needed to see Diego. She needed something. She needed to touch something familiar, soft, anything that might lead her home from the darkness she was trapped in. She nodded fervently and prayed it wasn’t a trick. She prayed he was alive, that she wouldn’t be shoved into a room with a body when they claimed that they would let her see him.
“Well then, since you’re helping us out so much, I can’t possibly deny you one last request while you’re our guest, can I?”
She didn’t say anything. She was out of words. She imagined a world where she ended up with Charles. The heartache and irritation would have been worth being allowed to live now. She desperately wished she had that foresight. But, at the same time, she couldn’t imagine a world where she didn’t know Diego. She was meant to, she needed to. She would live the rest of her life with a gaping hole if she hadn’t met him and she’d never know why. Of course, at least she’d be living.
They took to her to another cell, not unlike her own, but on the other side of the complex. They’d kept them as far away from each other as possible. She was led up to one and made to stand in front of it and wait. The guard unlocked the small gate and called at the person on the inside to wake up, that he had a visitor. She could see the outline of something inside the cell but she wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking at. Diego seemed to be lying down, maybe they’d broken him too.
But when he rose, she made out the outline of fur. She saw pointed ears that didn’t look human. He was in his wolf form. Suddenly, she rushed into the cell and looked at him closely. She reached out her hands to place them on his body and feel everything she could. He was large, larger than a normal-sized wolf. His fur with messy, almost dangerous looking in the way it stuck out in all directions like in spikes. She wondered if it was from the dungeon or if he always looked so rugged. She wouldn’t know. She’d never known him before now.
His eyes though. His eyes were exactly the same as she always remembered them. And that’s what pulled her in, pulled her back to the present. She held his head in her hands and he looked at her so tired and so sad that she wasn’t sure how she wouldn’t cry. She needed to be strong, for both of them.
“Hi,” she whispered. “You’re beautiful like this, you know.”
Diego didn’t respond; he just kept looking at her, watching with eyes that were far too human. She pressed her forehead against his, letting the warmth from his body touch her own. It would be the last time she ever saw him. She prayed and prayed he’d get to go home, at least one of them should be able to go free, to live life.
“I think I love you,” she said. “I know I do, actually. Even with everything. I’m just glad I got to see all of you. I don’t think we will see each other after this and I can’t tell you why. But just know that I’m always thinking about you and I’ll always have a part of you with me.
“I don’t know why you didn’t want to tell me. I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand that, but I want you to know that I forgive you. I’d never blame you for being exactly who you are and I think it just makes you that much more beautiful. I want you to never stop being that gorgeous man I know you are, whether you’re walking on two legs or four.”
She pulled back to look at him. His eyes were sharp and focused on her and he lunged forward to hook his furry head around her neck. It was a hug and a kiss in the best way he could. She held him as tightly as she possibly could before someone came in and dragged her away to her fate.
They’d call the bombing several things after that in the news and in debates in college classes. But she’d remember it as the worst day of her life and hoped that, one day, someone could make all of this right.