Kelly tuned herself into the metal beneath her clothes. It had been months since she’d been in a real fight. But the instincts all exploded back. Amber surged forth into her sector, and Kelly dashed into hers, using her metal-magic to help her make a sharper turn. Despite her readiness, part of her expected there to be nothing. A false alarm.
Not so lucky.
Shadows obscured the shapes of whoever it was that charged in. Amber opened fire on the three figures. The airsoft pellets barely staggered them. Kelly lifted herself into the air and launched forward at the target in her section of the room. Expecting enemy fire, she kept her sword forward and concentrated magic into a vortex around it. Her target stepped back and smashed a foot into the ground. The room shook. Concrete fissured and burst up around her. She grit her teeth and stayed loose as a boulder of flooring spiked up. It caught her before she could dodge, and knocked her out of flight. Gunshots thundered around the room, reverberating against the concrete and weighing down with deafening force. Kelly rolled as she landed, coming up on one knee, with her sword in front of her. Her magic remained.
A stream of bullets twisted in the air around her katana and orbited it. Once the firing stopped, Kelly pushed herself into a backflip. In the air, she swept forward with a horizontal slash, sending the collected bullets away in a cone. One of the other assailants stabbed two hands into the air. The floor cracked again, and a short wall rose to block the projectiles. Kelly bounced on the balls of her feet. I can’t let anyone get hurt.
The barricade burst open. A chunk shot forward at her. She swore and rolled sideways. As she moved, she noted Amber and Brand in the corner of her eyes. Unharmed. Good. Amber seemed at ease in her practiced form. Brand, though, nearly wobbled. “Brand!” she shouted, “give us some field control!”
The boy looked over, blinking. “Right.” He swept his longsword up, releasing the stored waves revolving around the steel. The water roared into the air as Brand slashed back and forth several times. The water he’d gathered had been deceptively compressed—fully unleashed, it swamped the room. That done, Kelly leapt into the air again, dodging another flying rock. She flipped over the remains of the barricade and struck at one of the figures. Their shoulder cracked against her armoured knee. Kelly stumbled into her landing, sliding on her heels. Just as she stabilized, a geyser of stale air punched her torso. The wall smashed against her back as the wind pinned her to the brick.
One of the attackers yelled over the chaos. “Get down, now! Get on the ground!” Hints of a southern drawl tugged at his voice.
Kelly clenched her teeth and shut her eyes. Dust and decades-old stink rushed over her. The shouts she’d heard had come from whoever was maintaining the air-magic. I have to get out of this! The attack shook her concentration, but she still sensed some control over the metal in her armour. Her energy wavered as she pushed herself down, against the force of the wind. One way or another, the tension would break, and something would go flying.
More gunshots—an entire handgun clip, by the sound of it. Another stone barrier shot up, dividing Kelly and the air-chosen from the rest of the battle. Tides of water splashed over the wall. Just a little bit more, Kelly thought, still struggling. She opened her eyes to see her opponent approaching. The wind intensified as he neared. Who are these guys?
Kelly flexed her hand, fortunately outside the wind blast. The littered bullets she’d redirected before still sat on the floor. She felt them like static, pulling and prodding her with tiny strings of energy. They rose at her will. She made a fist, and—
“Aren’t we, though?”
—dropped them. Her eyes opened wide. No. No, that’s not real. The voice pushed in at her consciousness. The few spots of light on her attacker’s face twisted into McTavish’s smile. No! Her heart raced, with her breath struggling to keep up.
“Aren’t we, though?”
She closed her eyes. The room shrunk. The world condensed to a singularity, spinning around her and the man closing in on her. The walls barely existed. “Get away!” The volume scraped her throat. As she screamed, her energy boiled within her, venting to the surface like lava. Nails, bullets, casings, nuts and bolts and other scraps—they lifted, swirling like sand. Instinct compelled her to attack. She flailed. Her magic, more than her muscles, drove her. The man grunted and clutched his stomach as Kelly’s boot collided with him. The wind stopped. Kelly fell.
“Captain!” Amber shouted, from over the wall. Kelly spared a glance in that direction, but quickly focused back on her enemy. Her whole body heaved with her breath. Blood ran hot. Nobody gets hurt. Not this time. Nobody. She lunged, grabbing the air-chosen by the collar.
“Who are you?” She spun around, tossing her opponent at the wall.
The building rumbled, and the concrete wall shattered, leaving room for a smaller pillar of rock to erupt and smash Kelly in the side. It knocked her away.
“Get down!” the man said, getting his footing. He drew a pistol from a belt holster and pointed it at Kelly. “UNGC! Get down, drop your weapons!”
Oh no. Oh God.
Kelly opened her mouth to speak, but her words were drowned out by a thunderous roar of flame. An inferno burst through the doorway, lighting the room harsh orange. The two other figures, their UNGC uniforms now clearly visible in the embers, jumped away from the attack. Hana appeared in the doorway, blazing hands up as if holding a rifle. “Let them go!” She stomped forward twice, loosing another torrent of fire on each step. Flames rolled up in the corners of the room like waves.
“Lieutenant!” Kelly said, panting. She coughed. “Stand down. Squad, stand down.”
“Squad?” the air-chosen asked. “Lieutenant? What’re you playing at?” He put away his weapon, then wrenched his arms about Kelly’s shoulders to lift her up. “All y’all, get out here so we can see your faces.”
Kelly craned her neck to check on her team. Brand was at gunpoint, but otherwise fine. Amber stood grappling her opponent, frozen at Kelly’s command. They made eye contact. Kelly nodded to her. The attackers guided them through the building and into the sunlight. As soon as the shadows melted away, Kelly recognized her captor. Captain Yancy November, Byzantium Black.
He laughed when he saw her face in the light. “Hell. Captain Rose? No shit.” He dropped her on the pavement and wiped his brow. “Now, one of the two of us is going to be in deep shit for this. The hell are y’all doing out here?”
“Training,” Kelly said. The gravel bit into her hands as she forced herself up. “What’s your deal? Why’d you attack us?”
Yancy crossed his arms. “Y’all realize this is a hazard zone, don’t you?” He sighed. “Y’all are being stupid. Don’t think I don’t realize why you’re out here.”
Kelly looked away. “Then you should understand.”
He shrugged. “I suppose I understand. Doesn’t mean I approve.”
Her teammates remained silent. Amber was stoic, but Brand seemed dejected. “I guess you’re here looking for him, too.”
Yancy nodded. “We are.” He gestured north. “Rest of the squad is scouting the docks. We heard signs of activity out here, so my lieutenants and I came to investigate. Don’t suppose that activity was you?”
She hunched her shoulders. “I guess it was.” A growl built up on her lips. “Are you going to stop us from going after him? After McTavish?”
“This isn’t your place, Captain,” he said, pointing at her with two fingers. “You’re a soldier, aren’t you? You do not go out on your own chasing petty revenge.”
“Petty?” She turned on him, grabbing him by the wrist. “Petty revenge?” Her breath caught in her throat. “This is not petty. It’s—”
He bared his teeth. “Y’all got hurt, and you want to get him back. I get that. But you’re out of line, Captain.”
Kelly ignored him and listened to the wind, swooping between crumbling buildings. Everything in the Snarl was grey. Grey and quiet. She took a deep breath through her nose and released it through her mouth. Her blood still ran hot. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Excuse me?” His eyes bore into her.
Her pulse rattled her. Where is Madi? she thought. I knew she shouldn’t have come. God, why did I let her come? Her grip tightened around Yancy’s wrist. “You think you can stop me from getting to him?” She yanked her hand away.
“Careful, Captain. You’re walking a fine line.”
“Hana!” she called out. “Where did you and Madi hide?”
Her lieutenant made a move as if to gesture, but stopped. “In a garage,” she answered.
“Go get her.”
Hana raised her eyebrows, but nodded. Kelly stared at Yancy. Go ahead. Stop her. Nobody stood in Hana’s way as she ran off.
Yancy tilted his head. “Y’all aren’t thinking of doing something stupid, now?”
Yancy’s two lieutenants, one woman and one man, eyed her. They focused on Kelly more than her team. If she was right, they were both earth-chosen. Would they be stronger or weaker in an open environment? Kelly could maneuver easily outside, and Amber wouldn’t have to worry about ricochet. Brand, though—he’d spent the water he gathered around his sword. He’d be at a serious disadvantage. Kelly tapped her thumb on the hilt of her blade. I don’t know what to do.
“Captain,” Amber said. “It might be obvious, but this is a really bad spot for us right now.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong yet.”
“No. Not like that. Tactically,” she said, eyes hard. “The rest of his squad could come up on us from any angle. We wouldn’t see them.”
Yancy glanced over at Amber. “Always the soldier. Vinier’s right. You know, I’d take you. You’re good.”
Kelly clenched both her fists even more. “You’re not taking Amber from me.” Did Hana get the idea? Is Madi safe? “Did Maxime talk to you about that? Transferring her?”
“He mentioned it.” Yancy turned back to Kelly. “And I’m willing to play ball with him on that front. I’ve spoken to Lieutenant Carter about it. He’s due for a promotion, you know. Captain Carter.” He put on a smug smile. “See, I think Captain Carter will go on to found his own team. Lieutenant Jay will be promoted to first lieutenant. And I can take Lieutenant Sorrel on as my second lieutenant.” A chuckle rolled out of him. “That’s what you are now, isn’t it, Sorrel?” he asked, turning to Amber. “And that redhead is first lieutenant. Trust me, Sorrel. You work with me, you’ll see your efforts rewarded.”
Kelly lifted her sword, point leveled at him. Reflecting light shone down the blade. “Your turn to be careful, Yancy.”
“Y’all used to be good. We all looked up to you, you know.” The venom in Yancy’s voice gave way to something else. “Don’t y’all know that? We all respected you.” He turned to his team, who hung their heads. “When we heard about St Kilda, you know we were devastated? The brightest star in UNGC. Just—” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
Kelly’s gaze darted between Yancy and her team. She wanted to talk. But what to say?
“We thought y’all’d come back from it. Thought y’all were so strong.” The lines in his face tightened, sharpening his dull features. “But nothing happened. Y’all sat still for months. Sure, eventually you hired Ranger Ladykiller here, but that’s it. And judging by how he fights, he’s never seen action outside a bedroom.”
“What point are you trying to make?” Kelly asked.
Yancy laughed. “You know, I’m not even sure. I just can’t believe you, Captain,” he said. “You were my hero. But you gave up. And I hate you for it, just a little bit.”
Kelly swallowed back a lump in her throat. “If you underestimate me, you’ll regret it.” Her eyes shut against her will, holding back tears. She struggled to make it look like intense focus, rather than emotion. “I protect them. They are my family. And I will always fight for them.”
“This,” he said, calmly, “this is what I’m talking about. Empty promises.” His voice brushed past her, a whisper. “He beat you, Kelly. And I don’t think you’ll ever come back from it. You say you’re still fighting. And that’s fine. But he beat you once, at the top of your game. How are you gonna beat him now?”
Kelly’s eyes closed again. Her breath spat out through clenched teeth. No. I’m not taking this. A void pulled her whole body toward her heart. Opening her eyes, seeing through a blurry veil, she reared her empty hand back.
The slap echoed for miles.
Yancy rubbed his cheek, grimacing. He raised his voice with a growl. “I was gonna cut you some slack. But you’re out of line, Captain!” He took a few steps back. “Squad!” Whatever emotions had run through him before were gone. There was only the shrill pierce of a drill sergeant left in him now. “Take them down! We’re bringing them in!”
Kelly and Amber snapped into action together. Amber’s magic energy pushed at the edges of Kelly’s. They both reached toward Byzantium Black and pulled at their weapons. Sidearms jounced up out of pockets and flew into waiting hands. “Clear away from buildings!” Kelly called out. “Two earth-chosen, don’t let them collapse anything on you!”
Yancy leapt back from them and propelled himself into a midair roundhouse kick. A sweeping tide of air blasted out from him. Kelly lifted herself up by her armour, but Amber and Brand took the full force and smacked into the ground. Upon his landing, Yancy followed through into an axe kick, dropping a pillar of air onto Kelly.
The side of the blast clipped Kelly’s arm, catching the flat of her katana. She spun off-center, opening her up for another air-slice from Yancy. This one cleaved into her, dead-center, and hurled her back. The asphalt tore her shirt when she hit the ground. Stay in the fight. She shook her head and hopped up. Shards of rock cut her skin. In the thick of the battle, Brand and Amber evaded splintering chunks of pavement and sidewalk. Judging by the fresh bullet holes in the walls, Amber had stolen her opponents’ live weapons for herself. Kelly noted that her lieutenant aimed most of her shots low. Right, she thought. We just need to push them back and get away. We’re not killers.
Kelly stayed on the ground and dashed. She pinned her gaze to Yancy, following his moves. When he telegraphed an attack, she leapt up, or rolled to the side. He kept his distance, backing away as she approached. They wove themselves into a circle, with their teams clashing in the center.
In the melee, Brand took an opportunity to rush to the edge of the road. What’s he doing? Kelly pushed her focus back to Yancy. She was gaining on him, but slowly. Moments later, a rush of water erupted from the street. The ground shook. Kelly hesitated. Oh. The sewers. Brand danced back into the fight, twirling his sword to guide the water around him. He jumped up, deer-like, and executed an aerial cartwheel. The water spun around him before exploding in a jet at Lieutenant Carter. The man brought up a stone to block, but the water destroyed it. Carter yelped at the hit, and the water carried him into an alley, out of sight.
That’s an opening! Kelly shouted at her team. “Squad!” She reoriented herself, holding her sword behind her. “Brand, defend! Amber, boost me!”
They nodded. Brand took his water back and created a tidal wall between Lieutenant Jay and the Dragons. Kelly threw herself forward, on foot at first, then with magic. Her speed faltered against Yancy’s air blasts. Then Amber’s power kicked in. Her energy laced itself on top of Kelly’s, wrapped around her armoured bands, and pushed. Kelly pierced through the wind.
“This is ridiculous!” Yancy said. He ducked beneath Kelly’s striking elbow and clawed at her leg. His hands clenched around her calf. “Get down here!”
Before Yancy could drag her down, Kelly stomped her free foot down. The hit forced him out of the grapple and let her float free. “We’re done here, November,” she said, running out of breath. She released her katana and sheathed it with her magic. No use for that right now. “We don’t want to fight UNGC.” She bit the inside of her lip. “We just want to make things right.”
“You’ve already gone into a hazard zone without clearance.” The man rolled his neck. “And I know y’all are planning on interfering with my squad’s mission.” Kelly wasn’t sure, but he looked as winded as she was. “Not gonna lie, there’s a little bit of grudge in this. But mostly, y’all are being stupid and breaking the rules. And you’re likely to put my team in danger out here.”
Bouts of wind tossed her hair over her face. Stray locks prickled her scar. “Neither of us wants to fight.” Part of her wanted to smile. “You started it.”
“Don’t give me that shit, Captain.” His face rolled up in a snarl. “You realize my lieutenants and I left the rest of my squad alone because we thought you were hostiles?” The area quieted down, save Yancy’s voice, as the rest of the teams stopped fighting to observe. “What if they run into danger out there? And we’re all the way out here, and we can’t respond in time?” He relaxed his body, then sighed. “Nevermind the fact that you started it. You attacked me.”
“I slapped you.”
“You’re not going to get away with this. Just since y’all weren’t in uniform? That doesn’t make you civilians all of a sudden.”
Why can’t he just stop being right? A pit dug itself open in Kelly’s gut. “Yeah,” she managed. Yeah? That’s it? Idiot. “You don’t understand what this is to me.”
Yancy crossed his arms. “You want to know another reason why Vinier won’t ever put y’all on this mission?”
“UNGC wants McTavish alive.”
“What?” Kelly’s mouth hung open. “How? Why? They’ve killed people for far less than what he did.”
“Orders are orders, Captain,” he said. “And if you’re planning on killing him, then—hell—it’s my job to keep him alive.”
Kelly lunged and smashed Yancy in the forehead with her armoured bracer. “Squad! Disengage! Let’s get out of here!”
Brand whipped the water around and pushed a wall of it toward Byzantium Black. Kelly joined up with Amber, then Brand as he fell in step. They followed the street, sprinting along the decaying pavement.
Why aren’t they attacking us? Kelly thought. Whatever. That wasn’t important. They needed to run, get away. “Somebody call Hana!” Kelly led the team around a corner and into a shallow alley. There, they paused. “We need to know where she and Madi are.”
Amber snapped her fingers at Brand. Once he took out his phone, she turned to Kelly. “Captain. I—I’m sorry.”
So out of breath. God. “What for?”
“I—I don’t know. This was my idea.”
“Amber—it’s okay. No, I screwed up.” Her stomach lurched, as if she had to throw up her words. “This is so stupid. What we’re doing. I just messed up all our lives.”
The woman seized her in a hug. “Chica,” Amber said, thick breath heating Kelly’s neck. “Whatever. Family is family, okay? This team is family. We take care of each other, no matter what happens.”
“I’m sorry.” Kelly nuzzled her face into Amber’s collar. She held there until the tears stopped threatening her. “What was I thinking?”
Amber grabbed her by the chin and tilted her head up. They locked eyes. Kelly expected anger or disappointment. None of that. Amber remained soft, affectionate. What sunlight reached the alley revealed the deep hazel of her eyes, set carefully in her heart-shaped face. She’s serious. She’s okay with all this.
“Kelly,” she said. Something else in Spanish slipped out. “We’ll get through this. Some way or another.”
Why do I not feel better? Kelly shoved herself away. “No. This isn’t okay. You guys are my responsibility.” She turned to the wall and stared down at the bricks. “And I just ruined your futures.” Her lips pulled in what must have been the ugliest frown. A hot frisson worked its way through her skin, peaking in a swell at the top of her chest. “Fuck me. You all trust me for one week, after we think we’re all okay again.” She slammed her weak arm into the masonry, fist first. Her knuckles went numb. “I don’t even know how I was supposed to kill him. Who do I think I am? I’m not like that.”
As she cried, her voice scratching her throat, something disconnected. Though seeing through her own eyes, she somehow watched herself, as if she were a mote of spirit trapped in her own skull, clumsily swatting at the controls to work the body attached to her. Sensations took their time. Her knuckles bled. Painless.
Arms around her. Warm, soft, wrapping around her stomach. The smell of Amber’s sweat reached her, unevenly mixed with blackcurrant cologne. The girl’s chubby stomach and chest squished against Kelly’s back. What the hell is going on? She felt the fine brush of Amber’s lips and nose against her shoulder. Who even am I? Hamanashi Kaori, apparently. Sure. This is what it’s like to be a Hamanashi. Goddammit.
“Chica,” Amber said again, swaying gently. “You’ll be okay. We’ll all be okay.”
“I can’t believe myself.” She punched the wall again, other hand this time. “And where the hell is Brand?”
Amber lifted her head. “English, Kelly. We don’t speak each other’s first languages, remember?”
She’s just trying to calm you down. Kelly gave up the resistance and collapsed into Amber’s arms. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Tears on her face, blood on her hands, and sweat all over. “Where’s Brand?”
“Right here,” his voice came. “I didn’t want to—uh—” He stopped. Kelly turned to see his face. And she’d never seen him make that face before. No sarcasm, no wit. Sympathy. “Shit. Come here, girl.” He ran over and threw his arms around Kelly and Amber both.
Why are these people so tall? Kelly hugged Brand and pulled him in tight. He feels good. Not soft like Amber; strong, but still slender, flexible. She never realized the boy had proper muscles. Even seeing him shirtless days ago, he seemed soft, skin like snow. Why am I thinking about this? What’s happening with me? Her mind scattered between the swamp of sensations. Amber and Brand both had unique scents that struggled to overwhelm her. And they were both touching her, closely, warmly. She shut her eyes. Adding vision to this mess would start a short-circuit.
Her heartbeat bounced against the tight embrace. How long did they hold her? And where were Hana and Madi? And Yancy and his team? Make it stop. I want this to stop. Sparkles eased themselves into the edges of her vision. And a ring in her ears, louder than her breath. Contact faded. Reality became the texture of static.
/ / /
Kelly woke up. Warmth surrounded her, but not her own. The warmth of blankets, pillows. Beneath her swaddled cocoon, she drowned in cold sweat. Her hair and clothes plastered themselves to her skin. Faint grumbles trickled out of her.
“She’s waking up a bit,” someone said. Someone small, girlish.
“Kel!” That was Madi’s voice, no question. “Kel, are you—” Her volume faded. “—I, uh, is she responsive, do you think?”
“We’ll see,” the other woman said. “Can you hear us?” It was close to her.
She worked her eyes open. She forced a nod. Layla Darwin, the paramedic, knelt beside her. Brand must have called her. “Can you tell us your name?” she continued.
Her eyelids drifted down again. “Hamanashi Kaori.”
There was mumbling. Then, Madi’s voice. “It’s her Japanese name,” she said, quiet. “She thinks in a mix of English and Japanese.”
“She might be defaulting to her first language, then. Let’s give her some time, yeah?”
Kelly shook her head, smearing sweat across her brow. “No, I’m okay. I’m fine,” she said. She struggled to get the words out. Opening her eyes took just as much effort. Madi and Layla sat beside her, next to a couch. Where am I? The room, something on the ground floor, spanned as much space as Kelly’s entire apartment. Ornate carpets stretched from a fireplace at one end to a hallway at the other. Between the hearth and hall sat a huge window, with the world outside blocked by curtains. “Where the hell am I?”
Madi wheeled herself closer. She leaned down, pushing Kelly’s damp hair away from her face. “English, sweetie.” Her fingers came to rest on Kelly’s cheek.
She stared at her friend’s eyes. Grey-flecked green. Like soft rain over fields. What a dorky thought. I’m not fifteen anymore. “Okay.” Switching languages felt like a gear shift in an old car. “Yeah, I’m okay. Where are we?”
“Amber has a friend who let us come here.”
Kelly sat up, pushing past the resistance in her back. “Why didn’t we just go to one of our places? Brand’s, mine? We’re both close.”
Madi shook her head, casting her gaze somewhere into the hall. “Because UNGC’s probably going to be looking for you guys.” When her eyes returned, they were full of disappointment. “I would offer my place, but it’s not big enough.”
Kelly covered her eyes. “I’m sorry, Madi. I should have listened to you.”
“Yeah,” she answered. They sat quietly for long seconds. “I don’t know what you’re going to do next.”
“I don’t know either.”
Madi almost smiled. There was a hint of it. “What about going after McTavish?”
A twitch happened across Kelly’s eye, on her scarred side. “Yeah.” She nodded. She barely convinced herself. “Yeah. What else is left?”
“Kel…” Madi bowed her head and put her fingers to her temples. “Kel, you’re not getting this. It’s a bad idea. It’s such a bad idea. Look what’s already happened!” She gestured around, as if there were a crowd about them. Just the walls and their paintings—Layla had wandered off some time during their conversation.
“I thought you would understand.” How can she keep putting me down? She doesn’t get it. Sparks tickled at Kelly’s chest, bouncing in frustration.
Madi grabbed Kelly’s hands. “You’re the one who needs to understand me, Kel.” She leaned in, almost touching noses. “This is bad for you. And it’s not important. What happened happened, okay? You need to get that through your head.”
Kelly’s lips quivered and she backed away, taking her hands out of Madi’s fingers. “That’s not how it works. Not for me.”
“Why not?” Madi balled her hands into fists. Her voice stayed small, but the words carried ferocity. “Tell me, Kelly. Why is it so different for you? Why can’t you just let it go? Accept it?” Madi ran her hands through her hair and leaned back. Her gaze traced the ceiling. “Tell me.” Back to Kelly. “Look at me. Look at me. I’m never walking again. Never, okay? You get it? I can’t feel a goddamn thing below my waist. Jesus, Kelly. You think that doesn’t affect me?” She grabbed Kelly by the shoulders, fingers digging into her. “Tell me how it is that, somehow, I’m over this, and you aren’t? My career is over. I’ll never play soccer again.” A blush spread across her. She rolled her eyes. “You realize I haven’t even had an orgasm in an entire year? Using the bathroom is a nightmare. I’ll go weeks without a bath just because it’s such an ordeal. I’m probably never going to have sex again. Not only because I can’t feel a thing, but—God, who’s going to go after me now?” Her fingers trembled against Kelly’s collar.
Why isn’t she crying? Kelly thought. The two stared at each other, locked. Only Kelly’s eyes were wet.
Madi took her her hands back and let out a harsh breath. “Look at my legs, Kel. You know how much I loved my legs. By far my best feature.” She grinned a bit. “I had a soccer player’s body. My legs were gorgeous.” The grin turned into a light laugh. “And you can’t deny that I had the most perfect butt on our whole team.” She laughed more, looking back up at the ceiling. “God, Kelly. How is it that, despite everything I just told you, somehow, I’m over it? And you’re not?”
How am I supposed to answer that? Kelly let herself look down. Madi was right. Before St Kilda, she never wore jeans. Just leggings, to show off the body she loved so much. She had pride, back then. My golden girl, Kelly thought. So pale now. In the glory days, Madi glowed in a constant bronze, her golden mane flowing in waves along her muscles. So sickly now, so slight. The gold all faded to rusted yellow.
“You’re not me,” Kelly finally answered. No shit. “You’re—you didn’t grow up with the people I did.” She met Madi’s eyes again. The sparks inside her died down. “You don’t know my culture. This is something you can’t understand. You haven’t lived it.” When Madi said nothing, she continued. “People joke about Asian honour a lot. There are stereotypes about it, you know?” She sighed. “In Japanese culture, family is everything. Absolutely. There is nothing more important. And I consider you all my family. You know that.” Madi stared, scrunching her face up. “The honour of my family is more important than anything you can imagine. You—look, I don’t want to sound mean, or condescending. But you’ll never understand it, not completely. You didn’t grow up with it.” She shook her head and pushed hair away from her eyes. “When McTavish defeated us? When he—when he killed Ryker, Victor, Avery?” Muscles twitched in her chin. “I dishonoured all of you. I couldn’t protect you. I brought shame to the team. To my family. My mistake cost three lives. And everything that’s happened to you. It’s—”
“It’s not your fault,” Madi offered.
“It is my fault.” The air lay stale. Kelly had never said it out loud to herself. “I promised to protect everyone. I failed. I showed weakness. Weakness that reflects on all of us. This entire family. Dishonour and weakness. That’s been my legacy ever since.”
“Come on.” Madi reached for Kelly’s hand. “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
She tensed fists. “No. Please, just do me a favour, and respect my culture, just for a minute?” Her jaw clenched. “For me, this isn’t just revenge. This is about honour. I have to earn it back.” She took in a long breath through her nose. “I grew up in an immigrant family. We were Japanese, alone in a Western place. For my parents, that meant we needed to preserve our culture. We needed to exemplify it. To bring honour to the Japanese as a whole.” After a pause, she hung her head. “These values are part of me. This is what I’ve been taught my entire life. Even if I changed my name. Even if I strayed from my family. This defines me.”
Madi looked down. “I guess I don’t understand.”
“No.” Kelly shook her head. “You don’t,” she said, hauling herself to her feet. “Amber is the only one who gets it.” She checked her hands. Stained bandages absorbed blood from her knuckles. “Family is everything.”
The girl behind her drew a ragged breath. “Kel… Don’t I count as your family, too? Seeing you lose yourself like this—it hurts.”
“I’ve been lost for a year,” she answered. “This is me finding myself again.”