pink in the night @moreloev
pink in the night

pink in the night

When Saya had first laid eyes on Maria across the halls of King’s Dominion, her gaze had been caught by the girl’s bright eyes and wide smile as she had laughed at something someone in her presence had said. It had seemed so out of place at a school like this one, where the only smiles that could be seen were malicious smirks and back-stabbing grins.

The second time Saya had seen Maria, and the first time she spoke to her, she had found her sobbing hysterically in the bathroom stalls. Maria had hurried to try and cover up her vulnerability to the stranger entering the bathroom, but Saya could see the evidence from the swollen eyes and mascara running down her cheeks. She hadn’t noticed the capsules in her hand then, her mind too focused on the terrified girl’s breathless stance. She had finally understood how she belonged at King’s Dominion.

The second time Saya had seen Maria, and the first time she spoke to her, she had found her sobbing hysterically in the bathroom stalls. Maria had hurried to try and cover up her vulnerability to the stranger entering the bathroom, but Saya could see the evidence from the swollen eyes and mascara running down her cheeks. She hadn’t noticed the capsules in her hand then, her mind too focused on the terrified girl’s breathless stance. She had finally understood how she belonged at King’s Dominion.

She knew Maria would have already heard whispers about her, how she was Master Lin’s jockey, just a spy present among the students to advise Lin to the going-ons.

Saya didn’t think Maria had even heard her soft murmur of “are you okay?”. Yet the distressed girl had paused abruptly at the door, hoarsely whispering a sarcastic “so fucking amazing” without looking back and disappeared.

That night, Saya had dreamed of both the cheerful girl in public and the one with black tears running down her eyes.

Saya acted like she was so benumbed and tough, but she secretly harboured a softness deep in her heart, existing almost exclusively for pretty girls in peril. She would learn about Maria’s fluctuating moods, how to console her in her darkest moments and how to get that reckless smile on her face. She was there for her at the anniversary of her parents’ deaths, Maria sobbing into her shoulder with such deep agony, crying out each howl like it was painful, and no matter how badly she wanted to take her hurt away, all she could do was wrap her arm around her trembling torso.

Saya looked up at Maria now, the girl radiating exhilaration in her animated state. Maria closed the door to Saya’s room behind her, and danced all the way to Saya, shimmying her hips and shoulders to non-existent music. As she reached Saya on her bed, she reached out her hand and pulled Saya beside her. Saya let Maria sway them together to echoes of the loud ruckus happening outside. Maria giggled as she twirled Saya around, “Want to go to the indie rock concert happening down the road tonight? I feel like screaming along to some nonsensical lyrics.”

Creasing her eyebrows in confusion, Saya asked, “Weren’t you supposed to be on a date with Chico?”

“Yes, I was,” she dipped Saya, her eyes glinting as she winked at her, “but how am I supposed to be eating dinner with him if he’s in Mexico?”

“Mexico?” Saya repeated, staring up at her dumbfound.

Unconsciously nodding, Maria replied, “He’s there to meet some rising family. His father isn’t too happy to share the city, but apparently the new family is popular so they’re trying to deal with this as tactfully as possible.”

There was a beat of silence. Then Saya’s frown disappeared and was replaced with a small smile. “Just the two of us,” she murmured, peering up at Saya. 

Maria rolled her eyes at Saya’s words, seemingly unaware to the true feelings behind Saya’s words. “, us two and, like, two hundred sweaty drunk teenagers.” She picked Saya back up and let her go, falling onto her bed. Her face softened into a warm beam as she gazed up at Saya. Despite the conflict of emotions within her, Saya couldn’t help but smile back at her.

 

Head heavy and thumping from a lasting hangover, Saya slumped against the closed door of her locker, hoping the coolness of the locker metal could somehow chill her forehead and the ramble of noise behind it. Her intense headache had caused her to skip breakfast, forcing her to attend first period starving. Some Preps eyed her pitying stance as they walked by. She had half a mind to make them regret their looks, but decided she was too preoccupied with standing upright.

The concert had been everything Saya enjoyed about them. Loud music blaring from the speakers that would make it almost impossible to hear your own thoughts, let alone another person. Sticky sweaty bodies all around you. If you were drunk enough then maybe you wouldn’t be able to figure out where you ended and the person beside you began. The bass had been heavy in her lungs and heart, like her arteries were carrying the musical chords around her body instead of blood and oxygen.

Through it all, Maria had been by her side, quicks skims of fingertips teasing her like always. Saya knew that sooner or later she would have to consciously admit to herself how she would like nothing more than to be near Maria for the rest of her life. Yet she was too apprehensive when it came to things like love, and too restless when it came to people like Maria.

Part of her tried to convince her it was wrong, that she was only weakened with thoughts of yearning and fondness in this degree, but she was already a family disappointment and her life was a text book application of adversity. She didn’t think she truly cared for anyone’s opinion of her anymore, but Maria's.

There was a crash and Saya peered sideways to see Marcus, collapsed on his knees, with Billy hovering above him. Billy’s repetitions of “Marcus? Marcus, bud, hey, are you okay?” didn’t seem to do much help as Marcus started coughing hoarsely like he was internally hacking away at his lungs.

She narrowed her eyes onto the scene and gaped with shock at the sight of blood dripping out of his mouth. Scanning the hall for the monks, she noticed that all conversations had stopped and everyone’s focus was on the school’s favourite Rat. Her eye, however, was cut short in its search by Willie’s horrified expression that seemed almost too personal to be just plain repulsion at the sight.

The monks arrived and carried Marcus away in a stretcher, leaving behind a concerned Billy, a tormented Willie, and a shaken corridor of students.

 

Saya peered down at the various colourful vials placed before her, each filled with a different serum. The new poisons teacher had thought it best to declare his presence by providing them an assortment of lethal concoctions and getting them to attempt to decipher which was which. Her eye got caught by an especially pink one as it was handled by a manicured hand. The hand dragged it closer to their face as they squinted into it. Maria mumbled, “Nothing this pink can be any less than toxic.”

Saya rolled her eyes and focused on the notes in her textbook, searching for any clues to help them out of their predicament. Poisons Lab had always been her worst class and it was no surprise - she was raised to believe that killing someone through poison was a coward’s way and did no honour to your family. “I have seen you wear pinker.” She looked up at a grinning Maria.

“It’s true,” she said, quirking her eyebrows, “I do have a muy sexy lingerie that is incredibly pink. Chico hasn’t seen it yet, but I was thinking of using it with Marcus.” Saya twisted her head back down to bury her face in the textbook, struggling to maintain an apathetic face. “What do you think, Saya? You know him best. He likes pink?”

She was staring at the words intently, but Saya wasn’t able to pull apart any meaning from the sentences with Maria gazing at her like that. “I think you will have to wait for some time to show Marcus your pink lingerie,” Saya muttered, keeping her voice as casual as she could handle. “He was sent to the nursery this morning. Started choking on his own blood in the hallway.”

Ah díos.” Saya peered up to see Maria wearing a worried expression. “Are you going to check up on him?”

“Have to. He’s my pledge. I have a free next, so it’ll be right after this period.”

Maria nodded sombrely. She bit her lip, as if in hesitation of her next words. Saya let her eyes linger for a moment, but then tore them away. She mentally reprimanded herself.

“Saya,” she heard Maria softly utter beside her, sounding almost fearful and distressed, “there’s something I need to do. And I know you will try to change my mind, so I’m going to first say that there is no way you make me not do this. To not,” her voice drifted, unsure of how to phrase her following words. “You have to know why I’m doing this and I hope you can support me.” Maria let out a deep breath, which Saya found ironically amusing since she hadn’t been able to breath the second Maria had started her ramble. “I’m leaving King’s Dominion.”

Saya tore her eyes away from the book in shock, staring right into Maria’s eyes in disbelief.

“Everything’s already planned out - a safe route to the other side of the country, an unmarked car to get there. I’m leaving in three days, while Chico’s still gone.” Maria’s eyes darted away from Saya’s locked stare, and continued. “Saya,” she felt that ache in her gut that persistently occurred whenever Maria said her name, but this time it was more of a punch than the usual pinch, “you are my best friend and maybe the only person I have truly cared about in the past few years. But this my one way away from all of this death and turmoil, and closer to having a normal life, with a family and kids. I know you can never understand my want of that life, but you know how much it means to me.” Maria finally wavered, biting her lip. She raised her line of sight and met Saya’s gaze. “I’m so so sorry, Saya, but I need to go.”

Saya nodded numbly, her eyes dropping to eye the wooden details of their desk. “I know.” And she did, and she also knew it would be selfish of her to ask Maria to stay, face more grief and torment at the hands of the cartel, only to remain close to Saya.

Her entire life she had been taught to be selfish, both from her family and King’s Dominion, to put herself and her survival above those around her. She may not be good at openly resisting Lin’s code as Marcus was, but her feelings for Maria had always been her silent rebellion. Saya was terrified of what Lin could do to her if that was taken away from her.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Maria quickly rushed, and, oh, the heartache returned and Saya realised maybe she was never strong enough to keep these emotions hidden from Maria. This was when all the illusions would crack and then she would be losing the girl she loved so much in more ways than one. “We could run away from all of this, have a normal life and a normal family.”

“Maria,” Saya sighed, “there can never be any normal after this. You’re too smart to believe otherwise.” She finished pouring the pink vial into the beaker. “Besides, Master Lin has expectations of me. Duties he requires me to fulfil. And state of my family back in Japan… It’s not possible for me to run like you.” That didn’t prevent any false hope from rising within her mind, though, like maybe she could manage to get away. Maria and her would be on the run for the rest of their lives, unable to remain in a city for longer than a month without Lin’s men or the Yakuza syndicate, or maybe even armies of people that have an even larger amount of power than the two of them, catching up to them.

And maybe, just maybe, it would all be worth it if she would be by Maria’s side the entire time.

Maria’s hand grasped Saya’s and she squeezed tightly. Saya could feel Maria’s gaze burning into her with its intensity and finally gave up. She twisted around to meet it. As she gazed back into Maria’s eyes, she could see the tenderness and vulnerability she knew was only reserved for her. How selfish must she be if all this love she got from her best friend was not enough for her.

Maria lifted their grasped hands and raised them to her mouth. She gingerly kissed Saya’s hands while maintaining eye contact. The rest of the classroom ceased to exist. The sounds of students bickering and the teacher gruffly noting the dangers in their actions dulled. Time halted and it was just her and Maria.

Saya wished she remain in that moment for ever.

Then Maria lowered their hands, but Saya could still feel Maria’s warm breath, and more importantly, the imprint of her lips.

“Could you at least think about it?”

Saya’s breath wavered.

“Por favor.” Maria whispered, her eyelids drooped low, almost avoiding Saya’s eye contact like she was ashamed of all that she was asking her, and Saya wanted to wipe that insecurity and despair off her face. 

The question echoed in her head. Please.

She couldn’t. She’s so sorry, but she couldn’t.

“Okay.”

 

Peering into the room, Saya saw Marcus sitting up on his bed, looking a lot less pale than he was that morning being carried away by the monks. He was deep in a hushed conversation with a student seated on a chair beside the bed. The expression on Marcus’s face conveyed that he was probably on one of his long winded ethical monologues about how fucked up their generation was, yet there was an intimacy present, like the content was currently directly affecting him and the student he was sharing it with.

Suddenly, the student stood up harshly. Saya whipped her head back around the wall so as to avoid being seen. There was another minute of muted discussion, then silence. A body turned the corner and Saya met Willie’s eyes. His eyes flicked back into the room, and Saya read slight vulnerability and panic in them. Willie blinked and the emotions disappeared. He gave her a small nod and strolled past her. 

Saya walked into the room towards Marcus. He gave her a gentle smile as she sat down. “Are you okay?”

“Never felt better. My insides still feel they’re trying to crawl out of my mouth, but one of the ever-quiet monks gave me this drug which has at least numbed out the worst of the pain.” Marcus grinned bemusedly at her. “Have to keep as much blood as I can inside my body, right?”

Saya quirked an eyebrow at him. “A monk told you that?”

“The nurse. She may not be a monk, but even she doesn’t speak much either.”

“Did she tell you what she thinks caused the attack?” Saya asked.

“Poisoning,” he leaned back on the raised crown of the bed as if the shock of the word instantly fatigued him. “Intake by the mouth.”

“Metalheads gave you bad drugs?” she sneered.

“The school’s still dry, Saya. I thought of all people, you would know, what being Lin’s right hand man and all,” Marcus grinned at her, but the sentiment wasn’t bitter. It was sarcastic. Like Marcus was amused and unbothered by his current situation.

Saya exasperatedly rolled her eyes at Marcus’s nonchalance. She had found it normal, even charming a few times in the past. It was obviously his go-to coping mechanism in hard times. You can’t let the world fuck you around if you’re out of fucks to give. However, like all fucks, it was only a self-centred momentary impulse that never helped anyone.

“You really don’t care about your own self-preservation, do you?” she asked him, unsure herself if the question was rhetorical or not.

“Wouldn’t Master Lin be on this?” he queried, ignoring her question.

“I thought you were smarter than this, Marcus. Lin doesn’t care what the students do to each other as long as we don’t kill each other.”

Marcus paused, eyes unfocused and looking off into the distance. Saya slumped back onto the seat, rolling her head back. She closed her eyes and let herself enjoy the peaceful moment.

“And what about themselves?” Saya squinted her eyes open in confusion at Marcus. He was staring intently at her.

“What do you mean, ‘themselves’?”

“You know what I mean,” Marcus huffed.

“Well,” Saya faltered, trying to piece together words to make sense. She remembered seeing Marcus on the edge of the building that night, staring down at the abyss below him. Death from that height would be instant and painless. An easy way to end an ultimately insignificant life. “In my knowledge, if there has ever been, they’ve been kept secret from the students. Probably covered up.” Marcus continued staring at her, one eyebrow raised like he thought she was hiding something. “Fine, there is one I heard murmurs about. Three years ago, a Rat, like they all there, was having trouble adjusting. She was from a poor immigrant family from Sri Lanka. They had to flee because of the civil war back home.”

“Lack of contact with her family and isolation from all the heritage students here - never good for mental health. Then one day, a photo was passed to her. It was of her family, slaughtered in their sleep. Some motherfucker from the school had been behind it. Lin tried to push her towards revenge, against the student who had committed the murder, against the Singhalese back at home, but it was no use. She was found one morning, only two nights after the photo, with a gun in her hand and a hole through her head.”

The atmosphere was muted as Marcus processed the story. Saya felt she was getting used to the silence they were beginning to share, despite not expecting it in the first place.

Marcus whispered something so quiet Saya almost missed it. “I need to get out of here.” Saya chose not to comment on it.

 

Saya jumped over the bench and dropped into the serving area. Brushing the striped curtains out of the way, she entered the kitchen. She heard some rough shuffles behind her and her hand immediately reached for the dagger by her thigh.

Swiftly twisting around, she held the wakizashi by the person’s neck. Willie. He had a gun pressed against her forehead. They held eyes for a tense moment, warily assessing the situation each had found themselves in. It was very apparent that neither was expecting the other, or anyone else really, spending the late hours of the day in the school kitchen.

“I’m assuming you’re here about Marcus as well?” Saya brusquely offered, if only to break the silence.

“Nah, I’m here for the other dude that got poisoned today,” Willie retorted, but it lacked any of the menace Saya could tell he wanted to embody. There was another beat of stillness, both students unmoving from their activated positions, until Willie slowly pulled back and pocketed his gun in his back jean pocket. Saya retracted and placed her wakizashi in its sheath by her left side. “Didn’t expect you here breakin’ the rules,” he taunted.

“I could say the same to you,” Saya claimed. She recalled the aghast look on Willie’s face at seeing the initial sight of Marcus’s affliction, and the turmoil of emotions she had perceived between the two boys at the nursery. “He’s my pledge. All the shit he gets himself into is my business.”

“So this is just you being Lin’s lackey? Doing his dirty work?”

“Precisely,” Saya quickly sniped. “So what’s your excuse?”

Willie’s expression closed off at her words, his mouth forming a thin line. “He’s a friend.”

Saya sneered at his response. “Right.”

He scowled at her, almost daring her to say more, but while Saya was a lot of things, she wasn’t someone who mocked people for trying to figure out the shit behind their head. Especially to those who didn’t deserve it, and Willie definitely didn’t deserve it.

Willie scoffed at her silence, and walked further inside the kitchen, brushing past her shoulder.

Saya bit her tongue and turned around to continue scanning the kitchen. It was a surprisingly ordinary kitchen, with cooking utensils hung up and empty pots and bowls lined up across some edges.

While it was not irregular for Kings Dominion students to sneak out in the middle of the night, after Marcus and Willie’s little stunt with the homeless man - if murdering someone could be called a ‘stunt’ - Lin had decided to enforce the rules vigorously. It meant more monks wondering around, ensuring that the students weren’t in the hallways after hours, a minimal amount of drugs were within the school walls, and classes were being run efficiently.

Saya hadn’t seen any students on her way to the kitchen, besides an indignant Brandy Lynn being escorted by two monks back into her room. She had been yelling loudly about how the monks had no right to touch her, as Saya had watched in the shadows, patiently waiting for the commotion to finish.

Unlocking the door to the pantry, Saya remembered the first time Brandy had approached her, walking up beside her in the bathroom to retouch her makeup.

“Ya seem like a smart gal, Kuroki, so I’m here to make ya a valuable offer.” Saya had immediately  noticed her strong Southern drawl, a malice seeping through that screamed the superiority she crowned herself with. Then Saya’s eyes had clocked the confederate flag tied up as a bandana framing her face. “Yer a smart gal, ain’t ya? Reck’n you would take me up on it?”

Saya had silently raised her eyebrows at her in the mirror. Brandy had sharply grinned back. “I’ll take that as yer at least interested in what I aboutta say. We could ‘ave an alliance between our cliques. Japanese an’ the South. Even get some Germans into it.” Saya’s brows drew together, turning to face Brandy directly, scowling as she listened to her continuing her crude speech. Brandy had appeared oblivious to her distaste, fluffing her loose hair. “We could be the Axial Powers two-point-oh, make the school our bitches. What do ya say?”

Scoffing, Saya had stepped forward into Brandy’s space, causing her to pause her actions. The puzzled look at Saya’s behaviour going directly against her told Saya everything she needed to know about Brandy already. “I’d rather team up with the Jersey Kings than your inbred cult of white supremacists.”

After a pause, Brandy glanced at Saya from the corner of her eye, a slow leer growing onto her face. Pulling out a stick, she applied a dull red lipstick onto her lips. Saya could roughly see a print on the side spelling out ‘Appleshine’ in capital  letters. Brandy had popped her lips once, then spun to face Saya. “Hope you enjoy ya decision, Kuroki,” she had hissed and strutted off.

Saya now eyed the labels of the containers on the shelves. “I can’t read these. They’re written in Chinese,” she muttered under her breath. Peering down the rack, Saya noticed a jar of some familiar looking seeds. “Hey, Willie, uh,” she turned around to see Willie by a sink, pouring out the dish washing liquid onto the tabletop. “What exactly are we looking for?”

He didn’t turn to face her, eyes still trained on the thick translucent liquid flowing out. “You’re the smart one here,” Willie duly noted.

“You’re telling me you came to the kitchen, risking getting caught by the monks while you’re already in deep shit in Lin’s books, and you didn’t have a plan.” Saya retorted.

“Yup,” Willie scornfully quipped. He turned to face her, placing the dish washer bottle back onto the tabletop, looking worn out. Absentmindedly dipping his finger into the liquid, he said, “I don’t know. I guess, I was just hoping for something to appear suspicious - like out of place or something.” He buried his head into his hands and leaned back against the kitchen bench. “I don’t know. Think I was just hoping to find a bowl with a label sayin’ ‘Poison - do not touch’,” he mumbled through his fingers.

Saya gazed across at him, eyes careful. People got so vulnerable the later in the night you talked to them, and there Willie lost the hardened shell he had always held up. She never judged him, aware that at this school, the weak were so easily found and picked apart. And Willie was an heir for his family too. It just seemed so tiring.

Saya had Maria for her escape. Who did Willie have?

“I think the people Marcus potentially pissed off are smarter than that, unfortunately.”

Willie grunted, “Marcus is one dumb son of a bitch - and I’m sure you know that more than most, he bein’ your pledge and all.” He scoffed, removing his hands from his face, but his gaze didn’t lift from the ground. “Moron has a hell of a death wish when it comes to protecting those he thinks are wronged.” His gaze focused off into the distance, and he creased his eyebrows into a frown. “Yo, is that a lipstick tube?” He walked in the opposite direction of her and bent over to pick a small object from the ground.

Confused by Willie’s sudden change in stature, Saya followed him and saw the lid of a lipstick tube between his fingers. It was gold with a red smudge towards the side. Saya bit her tongue, as her eyes narrowed. She recognised the colour all too well.

“Lin doesn’t allow no one but the monks back here,” Willie started, unaware of Saya’s realisation, “unless they do some weird-ass shit in their downtime, it’s got to be someone else’s.”

Saya quirked her eyebrow. “And you expect me to know, because?”

Willie shrugged. “You’re a girl. You’re into all that girly shit like makeup.”

Shaking her head, Saya scoffed at his words. Still, she walked towards him and took the lipstick lid from his hands. She gazed down at the print on its edge. Capital letters spelling out ‘Appleshine’ were printed in bold on a bright red sticker.

 

The next morning Saya shoved into the breakfast line behind Willie. One of the gangbangers sneered at her, but didn’t protest to get his spot back.

Beside her, Willie smirked. “Damn, Kuroki, what got you so worked up this early in the day?”

“Shut up, Willie,” she said, her eyes dropping to the canned fruit jelly that looked all to similar to sludge being poured onto her tray. “Just one day I wish we could get something fun like pancakes.”

“Under Lin’s authoritarian rule? Never.” He walked away slowly, letting her follow behind him closely. “Come on then, Kuroki, what did you want to tell me? We both know you ain’t got time for no one ‘cept your sword.”

“It was Brandy who poisoned Marcus,” Saya hastily stated. Before Willie could react, she quickly cautioned, “Willie - don’t. I know what you’re thinking. Unless you want to get expelled, ‘cause this will get you more than put in the Ditch,” she reached out to grab his arm, but changed her mind halfway. Her hand wavered for a moment before she pulled it back. “You can’t do shit, especially not now or here.”

Willie was tense beside her, and she could see his hands grip tight on his tray. It snapped and his meal fell to the ground. Some students nearby looked over with curious looks, but for the most part the action was ignored as part of the ruckus of breakfast at Kings Dominion.

“How d’you know?” His voice was tight, like it was physically hurting him to keep his emotions bottled inside.

“I had some suspicions last night with the lipstick,” she followed his gaze towards the table where Brandy was seated, “and then this morning I heard one of her Nazi groupies gloating about poisoning a Mexican.” Willie gazed at Brandy with such pure hatred burning behind his eyes that Saya was surprised she didn’t burst into flames on the spot.

“Marcus ain’t even fuckin’ Mexican,” Willie muttered under his breath.

“You think they care?”

Willie unconsciously shook his head and croaked, “I need a blunt,” as he rushed past her and exited the hall. Saya stared at his back warily, forehead furrowed, before following.

As she pushed open to door to the outside, she saw him trodding up the hill towards the graveyard. He stopped and leaned against the first gravestone. Fishing for something in his pocket, he pulled out a roll and lit it with his other hand.

“I thought the school was dry,” Saya announced as she approached him. She read the name of the grave’s owner behind him. A Jason Smith. She wondered how much he would detest the idea of two teenagers smoking weed on his grave.

If Willie was surprised she had followed him, he didn’t show it. “It is,” he said, placing the blunt between his lips.

After an intake, he passed blunt to her. Taking it from his hand, she said, “You should tell him,” before raising it to her mouth and taking a pull.

“Tell him what, Kuroki?” He murmured as he blew smoke into the frosty air.

She held it in for as long as she could, until everything around her started to soften slightly, then she let go of it with a sigh. “Everything.”

Willie was quiet for several moments before providing a non-answer. “It ain’t that simple,” he scoffed, shaking his head.

Saya passed the blunt back to him. Her thoughts wandered to Maria. Her playful smile and flirty hips. Her shrill screams of agony and sharp nails. “It never is,” she softly mumbled.

 

Flexing her fingers in her lap, Saya tried to maintain a composed posture. Showing too much weakness in front of Lin was as dangerous as showing one to a merciless foe, though she’s pretty sure he may fit into the category. She wasn’t feeling self-aware enough at the moment to analyse it.

“You know I detest fidgeting,” Lin stated in his usual slow drawl, “takes away concentration and wastes energy that could be employed elsewhere, like in a fight. Shows a lack of control over oneself.” He was seated behind his desk, and despite his height, she could feel him spiritually staring down at her. It was easy to fear someone like Lin, so shrouded in an all-consuming secrecy, with only whispers of his past permeating through. One followed the tale of a tenacious and cruel young boy who, once hearing of his family’s heritage, slaughtered his older brother to minimise competition in front of his parents. Another revolved around the brutal bloodshed of a mother’s secret lover, committed not by the oblivious husband, but by the heartless son. “As for your accusation towards Brandy,” he continued, returning to the situation which placed Saya present in his office, “do you have any evidence? Besides a lipstick container that you claim belongs to her,” he articulated.

Saya protested, “Technically, no, but she has both motive and opportunity-”

“Which are not enough to prove someone of guilt, Miss Kuroki,” Lin interrupted, clearly disappointed in Saya’s babbling. “Attempting to kill another student at King’s Dominion is a highly punishable offence and any claims of such will not be taken lightly. If I am to decree the appropriate punishment towards the student, as you wish, then I do require more proof.” He raised his eyebrow at her, critical as to her competence. She was too, these days.

“Yes, Master Lin,” Saya obediently replied.

Lin hummed. “Is there anything else?”

“No, Master Lin.”

“Good,” he paused, his gaze lingering at something behind her. It was impossible to figure out what he was thinking. “And before I forget,” he dragged his eyesight back to Saya, “Chico’s returning from Mexico tomorrow morning.”

There was no longer any breath in her lungs as Lin’s words washed over her. Maria’s plan. She wouldn’t be able to get away from Chico and the cartel in time. She clenched her fists under the table, trying to force her features into a mask of perfect indifference.

“Business in Mexico was handled more quickly than he expected, and he is preparing his journey back,” Lin continued, seemingly unaware of Saya’s increase in discomfort. Maybe Saya had finally managed to deceit Lin. Or perhaps, more likely, he was more conscious of it than she liked to think. “I am telling you this because of your close friendship with Chico’s significant other.”

Saya smiled a hollow smile at Lin. “Thank you for the update.”

 

Across from her, Saya could see Brandy and Maria bow to each other, Brandy with a sly smirk on her face. Miss De Luca barked orders in the background, some advice as to how to best handle different attacks.

She focused herself onto the student in front of her - Shabnam. Saya was unable to recall his first name, never really noticing him around school too much besides occasionally trailing behind Marcus, and once shoved into a dumpster at last year’s school dance.

Shabnam bowed to her and lowered himself in a stance Saya recognised from Judo. Squinting her eyes curiously at him, she copied his stance and flexed her fingers at him, gesturing for him to make the first move, thinking maybe she had misjudged him and his sparring abilities. Unfortunately, he seemed to drop any possible martial arts knowledge and rushed forward in an awkward grab for her face. Saya easily sidestepped his flailing hand and instead took ahold of his shoulder and pushed him towards the ground, applying pressure at the joint. Shabnam cried out in pain as he hit the floor.

Saya lifted her pitying gaze away from Shabnam and to the other side of the room, where Willie and Lex were circling each other in boxing stances, not making any advances besides slight jumps of their wrists towards each other. Behind her she heard, “Mr Lewis and Mr Miller, if neither of you makes contact with the other in the next few seconds, I will come over and personally make sure both of you leave this class with bruises.”

Lex grinned slyly and whispered something to Willie, causing him to snort, but he quickly punched Lex in the shoulder when he sensed Miss De Luca beginning to approach. It was a hard enough punch that Lex instantly recoiled and rubbed his shoulder.

“Uh, hey, Saya? I don’t think I’m going to be able to get up anytime like this,” Saya returned her gaze down at Shabnam still struggling below her, “do you think you can get off me so we can try again?”

She released Shabnam and got back to her feet. Not wasting any time, he came at her again, wrapping his arms around her waist and pushing her backwards. She let herself fall and quickly flipped Shabnam beneath her, taking advantage of his surprise at her drop, and pinned his arm above him in another easy victory. Shabnam squeaked something about his hamstrings, but Saya was distracted at the sight of Brandy in a chokehold under Maria’s legs.

Mascara ran down Maria’s face and Brandy was spluttering spit between her legs. She looked like she was trying to say something but wasn’t able to due with Maria’s legs around her neck. Miss De Luca sharply yelled at Maria to get off.

Maria squeezed her thighs together for a second longer, making Brandy gag and go further red in the face, before letting go. Brandy’s hands immediately went to her neck, massaging the red marks while panting heavily, trying to get some air back into her lungs. She raised her sharp gaze at Maria and screeched, “You, fuckin’ beaner, are dead,” she spat at the ground, “you after your Rat beaner boyfriend.”

Brandy’s words seeped into Saya’s mind and she clenched her fists. She could feel all her feelings bubble up within her, moments away from boiling over and burning those around her. The noises of the room faded away as she stalked towards Brandy’s irate figure. Icy blue eyes stared up at her. “What you looking at, cunt?” Brandy sneered at her.

Saya socked her in the chin. Brandy’s palm immediately went to cradle her face, clearly shocked at Saya’s sudden attack. “What the fuck is wrong with you, you stupid fucking,” she was interrupted as Saya grabbed her by her collar, lifting her head from the ground, and smashing it down again. Brandy cried out at the impact. Saya prepared another punch, but this time Brandy was braced for it. She kneed Saya between her legs before the fist could connect.

Saya fell beside her, groaning through squinted eyes. Two faces appeared in her blurry vision. Before she could recognise them, a heel jammed into her gut, and she gasped for breath as pain erupted through her body. She tried to compose herself, to prepare a block so she could start attacking again, but another foot stomped down at her, this time aimed at her chest.

She knew she only needed a moment to gather her wits, but there were suddenly too many and they weren’t stopping either. As she started to lose consciousness, she could hear someone distantly cry out her name.

 

Saya mumbled into consciousness into a white room, tasting bitterness at the back of her throat. She looked beside her at Marcus sitting on a chair. Behind him was his empty mattress. “How come you’re not in bed?”

He shrugged, throwing a hard candy in his mouth. “Was feeling a lot better,” he professed nonchalantly, sucking on it. “Why the fuck are you here? Saw the state I was in and got jealous?”

Saya stretched her back and shifted in a more comfortable position, groaning as pain erupted throughout her body. “Hitler’s Youth got me.”

“You start something?” He peered at impaired state, and mumbled, “you okay?”

“Actually, Brandy did.” She tried flexing her fingers, choosing to ignore his latter question. He wordlessly offered her a candy and Saya shook her head in declination. “Willie and I found out that you were, in fact, poisoned by the Dixie Mob, and-”

“Wait, Willie as well-”

“Although we don’t know why - don’t interrupt me,” she said, too exhausted to apply any pressure behind her words. “We don’t know why they did, but then again, it is King’s Dominion and here the students do those kind of things for fun.” Staring at the bandages on her knuckles and the mess of purple over her body, Saya grunted. Her current state was failing to do her any favours. She peered up at Marcus, who didn’t seem to have heard her last sentence. “What are you thinking about now?”

He absentmindedly shook his head, saying “No, I just thought, but, it seems,” he sighed at his unfinished line of thought, “don’t worry about it.”

Saya didn’t stop gazing at him for another few moments. She wondered if either them would ever understand the messy tangle of emotions that tugged at their hearts. Shuffling over, she managed to sit up on the mattress, ignoring the pangs of pain swimming around in her gut. She dropped her legs over the edge and let her toes touch the cold tiles.

“Excuse me, Miss Kuroki.”

Both Marcus and Saya almost jumped out of their skin at the proximity of the scratchy voice. No matter the amount of times Saya has been bandaged up by her, she could never get used to that uncanny sound.

“It really isn’t fit for you to be getting out of bed,” the nurse continued. Two Monks were standing silently behind her. “And Mr Arguello, for the third time, please get back to bed.”

 

The next time Saya awoke, she could feel the looseness within her muscles and was relieved that at least whatever the nurse and the Monks were giving her were helping. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a head of dark long hair.

Her eyes locked into Maria’s, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. There was a look of unveiled worry in Maria’s deep brown eyes, and it chilled Saya to her bone. Maria, immediately noticing Saya’s conscious state, leaned forward and clutched Saya’s hand between hers like she was fragile, and Saya was suddenly transported to their laboratory class the other day when her world had started shattering.

“Are you okay?” Marcus had uttered those same words to her, but they contained a world of difference when they were leaving the lips of Maria. “Why did you do that before? You know I can handle Brandy.”

There were a hundred things she could have said in reply to that, but she just said, “I know.”

“Saya,” Maria tried to smile at her, but her eyes gave away her concern, “what’s going on in that head of yours?”

Saya bit her lip, wondering what she could say that would hurt herself the least. “Chico’s back tomorrow.”

Maria furrowed her eyebrows. Her grip on Saya’s hand loosened as she sat back on the chair. “Tomorrow,” she murmured, so quiet that Saya almost mistook it for a deep sigh.

“Maria,” Saya started, almost grimacing in pain for the next few words she would utter, “you need to go tonight if you’re going to get away from Chico and the cartel.”

Maria stayed in the same position, but she still managed to stare deep into Saya’s eyes, as if searching for an answer. Saya had to physically stop herself from coiling into herself under her gaze. There were times when she caught Maria looking at her, feelin g like Maria could tell who she was down to the ugliest parts of her heart, and it made her want to run and hide. “You don’t want me to go, do you?”

Squeezing her eyes shut, Saya tried to hold back any tears. She finally turned her head away from Maria, unable to withstand her heavy gaze. “I don’t,” she said, shaking her head, “I’m so so selfish, Maria. This could be your one chance to get out, be safe away from Chico, his family, and the entire cartel. You deserve a better friend.”

“Out of everyone I know, you’re definitely allowed to be selfish, Saya,” Maria’s voice was stern, and Saya looked back at her in astonishment. “Not after all the shit you’ve been through with your family. You’ve been nothing but an amazing friend to me the entire time I have known you, but you don’t get to tell me what I deserve and what I don’t.” She leaned forward and captured Saya’s hand in both of hers again, face soft. The contact was so warm and comforting, sending a warm rush of yearning through her veins. Saya had to shut her eyes, trying to close a faucet before the sink was about to leak. Her immense desire scared her all too often.

Maria softened, her thumb beginning to gently graze tiny circles on Saya’s fist. “Why aren’t you coming with me?”

Saya continued shaking her head. “I can’t. My family will come after me, and they’re so much more dangerous than the cartel can ever be. They won’t stop until they find me, and they will find me,” she swallowed a sob. “They’ll find you,” she hoarsely whispered. “I can’t let them get you, because then I’ll-” Be lost, she didn’t say. Maybe lose any wish for survival, she didn’t say.

“Then we’ll keep running,” Maria softly murmured. She rubbed Saya’s hand between hers, before lifting it up to her lips and kissing her bruised knuckles softly. “Us against the world, Saya, forever.” The words were so cheesy but Saya couldn’t help but let out a small smile. She would truly not like anything more than to be by Saya’s side for the rest of her life, but admitting that to her heart was difficult enough to do, let alone to the girl who wandered her dreams constantly.

But maybe she could allow herself a taste of her dreams, even if only momentarily. “Okay.”

 

Maria threw a dress at Saya to change into. In the corner of Maria’s room, Saya stripped and slipped on the light blue summery dress, the cut showing off her tattoos in a way she hadn’t noticed before. The skirt was so Maria that Saya was almost comforted by the soft fabric against her skin. The intimacy of sharing clothes, a little glimpse into a domestic life with Maria that Saya could only fantasise about.

Except maybe not anymore.

She threw her scuffed and slightly bloody clothes in the trash can besides Maria’s desk.

Maria peered up from a note with a short message lazily scrawled onto it. She caught Saya’s curious glance and replied, “It’s letter from my dad. He had to miss my birthday one year, so he wrote a letter apologising.” She laughed bitterly. “I was so mad that day, I cancelled my party with my friends and refused to talk to him for a whole week when he came back.” She choked out a sob, and Saya noticed the tear track running down her cheek. “I wish I could have that week back now. I have so much to tell him.”

Saya dropped onto the bed beside her. “I get it,” she tenderly smiled at Maria. “I can’t count the amount of times I was mad at my dad when I was younger, and I wish so often I could take it all back if I could.”

Dropping her head onto Saya shoulder, Maria whispered, “you think they’re out there somewhere watching us anyway?”

Saya bit her lip, partially because of the question’s contents and partially because Maria’s proximity always got her dizzy. “Not really,” she answered truthfully.

Next to her, Maria hummed. “Sometimes I really hope he’s not, for his sake.”

 

They walked down the hall past everyone’s dorm rooms. It was late enough that the students were all passed out in their dorms and the monks wouldn’t be strolling the corridors to maintain a semblance of peace at the school. Still, Maria and Saya were cautious.

Leaving the building, the two girls were met with Marcus seated on the statue boundary with Willie laying down, his head on Marcus’s lap. Marcus muttered something softly to him, causing Willie to let out a joyous and loud laugh, and Marcus grinned down at him as if he didn’t have a care in the world, as if nothing else mattered other the pretty boy he was gazing at.

Saya felt like she was intruding, felt like she should apologise for her presence and walk off into the opposite direction.

Then Marcus looked up, his breath getting caught in his throat as he saw Maria and Saya standing there.

“What are you two doing up this late?” Maria inquired.

Willie noticed the intrusion and lifted his head off Marcus’ lap, sitting up properly on the cement wall. Saya noticed, though, that he didn’t move too far away from Marcus, their shoulders bumping against together. He rolled his eyes at her bluntness. “We could ask you two the same thing.”

Saya hesitated at a reply, but Maria bet her to it. “We’re leaving King’s Dominion.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow at her words. “Like, a short road trip?” he asked.

“No,” Maria stated, “like, forever.”

Willie wrinkled his nose in confusion at Maria’s words. Marcus drifted his gaze towards a quiet Saya. Many times before, people had looked to her for a set of instructions, a detailed plan that she would be able to follow through with successfully every single time, but the plans were never hers, the agendas never hers. She had always merely been someone else’s subject, filled to the brim with their intentions and their commands. Her family’s heir. Lin’s lackey.

Now she was physically present, about to undergo a plan with no conceivable details. This time, the motives were hers. The thought made her feel slightly less sick to her stomach.

“Should have done it months ago, but we’re doing it now,” she announced. The reason went unsaid, but undoubtedly intelligible, floating dense above their heads. It had followed them since they had started at Kings Dominion, intangible and hiding, waiting to be acknowledged.

King’s Dominion bred nothing but damaged teenage psychopaths with a knife in their hand and a bloody agenda in their mind. They lulled the students in with promises of control and ability to shape the world and their lives as they wished, when the truth was that most graduates didn’t even make forty. Those who did were rendered useless, struggling with PTSD and physical complications. The lies never ended when it came to King’s Dominion and its Master Lin.

Everyone was quiet for several seconds, clearly contemplating her words. Marcus broke the silence first. “We’ll come with.” Willie whipped his head towards Marcus, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape, exposing his confusion. Marcus tilted his face towards Willie, his gaze on the ground as if he were too scared to face the dissent. His voice low, he murmured, “What do you have here to stay?” He gingerly locked his eyes into Willie’s, almost daring if not for the slight tremble of his mouth.

Maria shared a look with Saya, both aware they were encroaching, and decided to step away to let the two have the conversation in solitude.

 

Willie and Marcus found them a tense half hour later, Maria opening and closing her folding fan, staring intently at the small daggers threatening to spill from the edges every time she opened it, and Saya fiddling with her wakizashi on her palm, playing with applying pressure at irregular junctures. They were seated in silence, neither saying a word to each other while waiting. Perhaps it was that neither knew what to say. Or maybe it was that they didn’t need to say anything anymore. Not in that moment.

“I know a guy who can make us some fake passports,” Willie started, offering a hand to Saya to help her up. The pain in her ribs from before was numbing, but still present. “Then we could fuck off this continent. Might be safer that way. Instead of trying to get down to Mexico or up to Canada.”

“East Asia would likely be a bad idea,” Saya commented, grasping his hand and letting him pull her up, “because of my family.”

Willie shrugged. “We’ve got time to choose a destination.”

The four of them strided through the flower shop. The lights were off, making the bushes of floral appear menacing in the shadows. Shutting the door behind them, they walked out into the street. Marcus breathed in heavily and sighed. “Never realised escape would smell like tobacco and actual shit.”

Maria chuckled at his remark. Even Saya and Willie managed to crack small smiles, uneasy as they were.

The moment was short lived.

Saya’s feet staggered to a pause at the scene in front of her. At this time of night, the moon was noting its disappearance in a few hours, the dark blue currently at its darkest. The streets should be deserted, bar from a scattered number drunks and addicts.

Instead, there was a crowd of people dressed in black spread out on the road. Saya immediately recognised them as part of the Yakuza syndicate. A man pushed through to the front. He looked up and smirked maliciously at her. She felt her heart drop at her recognition. It appeared her brother had finally found King’s Dominion and had decided to procure revenge.

“Hello sister,” Kenji simpered. “Haven’t seen you in a long time. Thought it was time for a family reunion.”

Saya took a step back, lifting her arm in front of her friends as if it were an impenetrable shield that could protect them indefinitely, prevent them from getting hurt. It wasn’t the first time she had wished for such a thing. “Kenji,” she brusquely offered.

His leering smile widened. “Come on, now, Saya. We all miss you at home. We want you to come back. I’m sure your friends,” his eyes flickered behind her, “would feel the same way.”

Mierda.” Maria firmly brushed Saya’s hand down. Her mouth was set in a firm line, but Saya could see the ire burning behind her eyes as she stared intently past her. “I don’t know what kind of friends you have had, but we don’t let our friends be taken by evil family members.”

Kenji only smirked at her words, visibly amused. “Are you sure?”

“Of course we are,” Marcus barked, nose flaring. “It kind of looks like you were expecting a fight anyway.” He gestured to the mass amount of Yakuza behind Kenji. It couldn’t be much more than a dozen, but Saya knew the way the Kuroki syndicate trained their men. They would be lucky to get out of there alive.

Saya shifted her gaze to a panicked Willie, eyeing the swords and machetes and firearms with an alarmed look, standing very still as if any minor movement would cause the Yakuza to narrow down to him. She clenched her jaw. Willie’s distress could lose them any likelihood they could survive.

Marcus noticed Willie’s demeanour and immediately leaned into him to whisper something in his ear, a careful hand gentle on his shoulder.

Kenji, no longer looked entertained by their digression, narrowed his eyes. He nodded to one of the Yakuza beside him. The Yakuza walked up to Saya, and grabbed her upper arm, nails biting into her skin. “Don’t make it any harder than it has to be, Saya. You could save everyone’s lives here if you just come with me.” Kenji declared, final.

She faltered at the opportunity to save her friends. What’s a few years of torture if the knowledge that Maria is safe somewhere remains within her the entire time? Then Saya felt Maria grip her pinky and her words rang inside Saya’s head.

Saya smiled at Kenji. She unleashed her wakizashi and stabbed the Yakuza in the gut. Kenji’s face fell as the Yakuza dropped to the ground. He lifted his rifle and roared. Maria shoved Saya and she fell, narrowly missing the bullets firing at her.

Another Yakuza rushed forward and Marcus stepped in front, kicking him back after tearing his machete from his hands.

Quickly pushing herself off the ground, Saya was met face to face with a katana. Dodging the first swing, she crouched to rip the wakizashi out of the body and sliced the Yakuza’s ankles before jumping back up. He gritted his teeth in pain and aimed with the katana again, steering for her arm. The blade sliced at her elbow and Saya yowled. Evading another attempt on her side, she drove the wakizashi into his forearm. This time the Yakuza screamed as she pulled it back out, but the howl was hidden beneath the sounds of guns firing and bone hitting skin happening around them. She gripped the edge of the katana, the blade cutting her palm, and snatched it from his fingers. Tossing it into her other hand to clutch it with the handle, she aimed and plunged it through his skull.

That one was easy, but she was expecting the Yakuza to go easy on her. Kenji didn’t want her dead.

Who she was with on the other hand.

Behind her she saw Maria with a glock, firing while ramming her foot into a Yakuza’s stomach. As he fell, she twisted to shoot him twice in the chest. Saya saw a Yakuza approaching Maria with an axe and launched herself onto him. They fell together. Narrowly avoiding the axe to her face, she clamped her bloody hand over his face. Lacking vision, he wasn't able to do anything as Saya gained control of his arms and thrusted the axe clean into his neck.

Breathing heavily, she crawled off of him. He laid limp on the ground, blood oozing from his neck and mouth.

Marcus had a bullet wound in his shoulder and blood splashed across his face. He was swinging the machete in his hand and smashing Yakuza members across the face. Willie was nowhere to be seen. A chill ran down Saya’s back.

Her eyes still searching, Saya tightened her grip on the axe and approached a Yakuza struggling to get up, previously hit by Marcus’s machete. She swung the axe into his forehead. He immediately stilled before collapsing back, mouth ajar and eyes rolling back into his forehead.

She felt a blade run across her side and cried out in anguish. Stepping back away from the Yakuza, she tripped over another body. He attempted to plunge a katana down into her. Saya dodged, rolling herself over a few metres away from the Yakuza. Her arm hit something sharp and she hissed before plucking it out. It was one of Maria’s fan blades. The Yakuza tried again and she kicked his hand, causing the katana to go flying and pierced another Yakuza approaching her. He stopped in his path, choking on blood erupting from his mouth, before sinking to the ground.

The first Yakuza threw himself at her, wrapping his hands around his throat. Maintaining steady breaths, she brought her knee up and kneed him in the groin. Gasping in pain, he lowered his head. Taking her chance, Saya pierced Maria’s blade into his eye.

The Yakuza let out an ear-shattering scream and Saya felt her head bang. She shoved him to the side of her, where he continued to howl. Pushing herself to her elbows, Saya prepared to get up.

A heel square on her chest pushed her back. She peered up at Kenji, his mouth curved into a fake smile. “Saya, what are you doing?” Saya eyed the katana gently placed beside her neck. She recognised the inscriptions carved into the blade, immediately knowing it to be their father’s. Saya felt an emptiness at the pit of her gut. “You knew there was no way you were getting out of this. If you join me now, your friends may still survive and you might be in less trouble at home.”

Saya’s mouth set in a hard line. She spit at him, though it only landed on Kenji’s pants. His lips drew back into a snarl as he looked down at her. “I tried to warn you, Saya,” his clutch on the katana tightened and Saya forced herself to look deep into Kenji’s eyes in dreaded anticipation for the final blow, “but you never have listened, have you? Not to me. Not to Dad.”

Clenching her jaw, Saya fought down the fear threatening to show on her face. She refused to let Kenji see her scared and vulnerable.

From the distance, she heard the roaring of an engine. Kenji furrowed his brows and turned round to detect the source of the noise.

A car crashed into him, knocking him to the ground. It braked inches from Saya and she jumped up. Willie was seated in a Chevy, hands gripping the wheel tight, knuckles whitening, and Saya was partially expecting it to snap off. His distressed gaze was upon the body he had just caused to go flying. Saya hesitantly ambled over to Kenji.

He was choking up blood, his katana pierced through his stomach. His gaze was almost soft as his eyes registered Saya’s presence above him, but it wasn’t tender. Not the way their father had looked at Saya once upon a time, though the hue of brown was shared.

Kenji’s eyes dimmed and all his movement stilled.

Willie uttered, “Sorry for coming late.” His gaze finally moved from Kenji’s body as he eyed the many others lain across the road in a bloody art project. “Hadn’t hot-wired a car in a long time.”

Saya lifted her gaze and saw Marcus twisting the last Yakuza’s neck. An audible snap was apparent, the sudden silence almost deafening after the thunder from the war occurring only moments before.

Maria stood behind him, panting slightly as she met Saya’s eyes across the road.

“It’s fine,” Saya mumbled.

 

The sun was starting to rise, painting the sky in a rich pink. Marcus was snoring quietly in the backseat of the stolen Chevy, sleep deprivation from the activities from the past few days enveloping him as he finally got to rest. Maria and Saya stood leaning against the side of the car, watching the world regain colour while waiting for Willie. Willie was currently inside the building Saya was staring intently at, slightly paranoid, getting their passports made.

Turns out getting fake passports was more of a hassle than Saya had expected. Earlier, they all had been shoved into a chaotic garage, rushed photos snapped. The photographer had been irked by all of them, each of them inattentive to her instructions and disturbed by recent events. She and Willie had had a grumbled conversation in the corner after she had noticed a splash of blood on Saya’s left cheek that Saya had forgotten to wash off. It shouldn’t have mattered. Their clothes were too bloody for any attempt to be discreet to be successful anyway.

“I can’t believe we’re finally out,” Maria muttered, breaking the silence. Saya turned to gaze at her. She looked astonished and relieved, eyes sparkling as they looked heavenward. She raised an eyebrow at Saya’s look of doubt. “Come on, Saya, at least for this moment,” she nudged her with her shoulder, “give yourself a break. We did good.”

Saya peered down at Maria’s blood soaked clothes and then her own. Her entire life she had been taught that wars never ended. Once one was over, it was time to prepare for the inevitable next one. She was taught to hold down hope, for with hope there was room for lies to bloom and next failure would be unavoidable.

With Maria though, she could be different.

“Maybe, yeah.” Her eyes drifted back to the building. A scattering of windows had their lights on, even fewer with heavy humanoid shadows on display. She wondered which one Willie was in, or if the light would even be on in the first place. He had refused to tell them where within the building the apartment was, fully aware that if he did, they would be crawling behind him if he were gone too long. The friend’s delicate, he had explained. Doesn’t like strangers walking in acting like they know shit. Willie should know that Saya would happily crash through every apartment in this building if it meant saving him and getting all four of them safely out of the Kuroki syndicate’s hands. “But we need to get away from here quick if we want it to remain that way.”

Maria softly scoffed at Saya’s words. Her gaze flicked towards the ground then back up as she bore her eyes deep into Saya’s, but her posture was nothing but gentle and sincere. She looked like a dream, ethereal and tinged in wonder, and Saya wished so badly she was brave enough to tell her how extraordinary she was. Instead she just grasped her hand tightly and hoped in another life they would be able to be together, untroubled and content.

Her eyes dropped to Maria’s lips, suddenly open as she breathed out a soft gasp. Maria squeezed her hand as a warning to her following actions, and when Saya didn’t move, she leaned in.

Saya could feel Maria’s warm breath fanning her lips, and she licked her lips nervously. Maria grazed her fingers against Saya’s cheek for a brief moment, the touch making her heart beat faster, before closing the distance.

Their lips caught and it was careful, as if Maria thought that if she pressed too hard, the girl beneath her would break. Her palm created a steady pressure caressing Saya’s cheek, and the kiss went deeper. Saya gingerly held onto Maria’s arm, like she needed a reminder that this was happening, one more tangible than Maria’s lips on hers.

Then Maria pulled back and Saya softly groaned as she mentally feared the ensuing aftermath from their kiss.

She didn’t have to worry, though, she noticed as she opened her eyes. Maria’s cheeks were flushed faint scarlet and her eyes full of adoration, and all of this love and warmth and softness was for Saya.

A noise behind them interrupted them and they saw Willie walking down the road towards them. In his grip were four passports. He held them up so they could have a clear sight of them and grinned. “Wherever we want to go,” he exclaimed as he approached the Chevy.

Saya let herself smile, teeth showing and face bright at him, because it was hard not to. Not when the relief of being free from the school and her family and the fear that came from both institutions had finally washed over her. Not when her feelings for Maria had just been reciprocated. Not when Willie was looking at their group like he had finally found a family with people he loved, and she couldn’t help but agree.

Maria slid into the driver seat and Willie allowed her. He opened the door to the backseat, disturbing Marcus’s slumber. Marcus blinked his eyes open, his face lighting up at the sight of Willie. Willie beamed back at him, his eyes crinkled. He wordlessly pressed his body against Marcus’s, head resting on his shoulder, stealing his body heat, and shut his eyes.

After a fond gaze at Willie’s tired state, Marcus turned forward to Maria and Saya, seated in the passenger seat. “So where are we heading?”

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