The dreams escaped her. Fleeting notions of a nightmare swam in her head, but Kelly couldn’t recall it. From the few fragmented dreams she had, she only remembered being afraid. Nothing concrete. Her eyes drooped from sleep. With only three spare beds in the house, Kelly had elected to sleep on the couch. Morally, she remained confident in her decision. But everything else about her regretted it. Reluctantly, she pushed herself up and turned on the TV.
The news wasn’t good. As always, seeing her face on television weirded Kelly out. At least they didn’t have any newer pictures of her. If the whole city thought she still had long hair and Seinaru Guntai tattoos, it’d be easier to pass without trace.
She groaned. Nobody else would be up yet—of all the people she knew, Kelly woke the earliest.
At a commercial break, after the anchors described Dragon Saffron’s “sudden and dangerous turn of allegiance”, Kelly broke away from the couch to put on coffee. In the kitchen, Juliette huddled at the table with tea and a newspaper.
“Morning,” Kelly said, sliding over to the coffee maker. Wow. Someone else does get up this early.
Juliette raised her eyes. “Buenos días.” She cut herself off with a yawn. “Did you sleep well?”
“Not really. I woke up a lot. Couldn’t stop thinking.”
“What were you thinking about?”
What else? “My mission. Our mission, really.” She wiggled her fingers. “Thinking about the consequences. About the fact that we can never turn back, now.”
Juliette looked down and folded up her paper. “That realization hits hard, doesn’t it?” She ventured over to the sink to stand by Kelly, shoulder-to-shoulder. “I understand.”
Kelly opened her mouth, but stopped herself from speaking. How can you understand? “The others look to me for leadership. I don’t want to let them down.” A spring breeze caught her from the window. “I made a decision, and everyone else has to live with it.”
“I think it’ll be all right.” Juliette smiled and washed her cup. “I’m here to help take care of everyone.”
“I appreciate that.” Kelly tapped her foot, not entirely consciously. “Do you need any help with anything around the house?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s fine. Oh—by the way. You can borrow my truck, if you need to get anywhere.”
Kelly blinked. “What, really?” She tilted her head. “Juliette, are you sure?” A breath escaped her. “You must be the most generous person I’ve ever met.”
The girl only shrugged. “If I can help, why not? It’s no trouble to me.” She toed over to the fridge and stared at her food for a minute. “I don’t leave the house much, honestly. I go to school, I visit Yessi. Then I come home.”
She and Madi would get along. “I owe you, Juliette,” Kelly said. “Seriously, anything. Any favour. I’ll do it.”
“Sure. I’ll call on you if I find out the world’s about to end or something.” She laughed and produced her keys. “Here. I feel like you could use these today.”
Kelly stared. What a girl. “Thank you. So much,” she said. “I know Amber and Hana were planning to go for a stakeout, see if they can find anything. The truck will help.”
Juliette placed her keys on the counter. “And I’ll be at school most of the day. So it’ll just be you and Brand here, with the place all to yourself?” With a wink and a smirk, she trod down the hall. “He’s handsome, isn’t he?”
“Uh—” Kelly watched Juliette leave and ascend to her room. “I mean, yeah. I guess.” What a strange girl. I owe her, though. The coffee bubbled on, scenting the kitchen. Sigh. The disconnection from the day before still lingered about her. Like glass separating her thoughts from her body. Actions and sensations felt delayed. Am I going crazy?
The coffee took its time. Would that make her feel better? It always seemed to. She still couldn’t smoke at Juliette’s, though. I guess I can live off of one addiction. The more she stood in silence, arms hugging her chest, chin tilted down, the louder her thoughts got. She fought to wrangle them into order, into any semblance of sense. Imagined conversations between her friends came through in blips. Please tell me I’m not going crazy. I don’t need that right now. Forming her own thoughts—well, she supposed they were all her thoughts, but to form thoughts on purpose—took effort. It was like she had to dig through the muck of anxious chatter before grasping at anything real.
She must’ve just been tired. The coffee would help. Fresh air, too, maybe. After pouring and mixing her cup, she slid through the backyard door and took a seat on the patio stones. For a teenage girl who lived alone, Juliette sure knew how to take care of herself. The yard carved itself out in a triangle, meeting a gate at the farthest corner. A lurching oak presided over a garden near the house. Juliette grew several rows of plants, though Kelly couldn’t identify them. Beyond the stone-bordered garden and the tree, the grass stretched out for a while into an open lawn. Kelly sniffed and sipped her coffee. That’s enough room to practice. Practice would be good for her. Lucky day, too—the Crush had been overcast for the past week. Finally, it was sunny out. Warm, too.
Kelly balanced her cup on the ground and wiggled her way out of her hoodie. She bundled it up and rested it by the door. That’s nice, she thought. The coffee spread through her like a blush, starting in the chest and flowing with her blood to the rest of her. Sun and spring air hugged her. Taking off the sweater was a good idea. It had been too long since she’d let herself sit under the sun in a tube top. Feeling the light and heat across her skin gave her room to smile.
Once she’d finished her first cup, Kelly wandered back inside. Before refilling, she sauntered to the living room and dug into the bag of supplies she’d brought. Time to practice. She found her two bokken—hickory, with steel in the hilt for magic. The wood weighted her hands comfortably. More awkward than her live blade, but much safer to practice with. Especially when practicing for the sake of exercise.
Back outside, with more coffee, she lay the two wooden blades across the stones and sat to finish her drink. Nature made good company. Kelly had birds by her windowsill out in Harrier, but rarely. She envied Juliette and her garden. What would she give for a yard with chipmunks and flowers? Maybe some day. She’d gone rogue, after all. She wouldn’t be able to stay in Peregrine City. None of them would. Maybe somewhere out there. In the wilds. Somewhere past the walls, past the Greys, and even past that. Somewhere they could hide. Settle down after making things right. That sounded nice.
After finishing her coffee, Kelly took up both bokken and did quick stretches in the open lawn. On the way, the idea of taking her socks off struck her. She obeyed with a smile, and found herself thankful she did. Grass and dew tickled her. I’ve needed this. She rested one sword on the ground. Technique first, then muscles.
Her fingers sank into the grip. A kind of tension—almost good, eager—plucked her limbs like harp strings. In her neutral stance, sword resting about her thigh but still ready to strike, the world slowed back to normal. She felt tuned in to the life around her, as if the birds would fly forward as she struck, or sing as she wove through her guards. That sounds so silly. Childlike optimism—it filled her with determination.
Right foot forward. The sword glided up, signaling perfect edge alignment with the audible whip of air. Her feet secured her in her next guard. High, blade forward, like a lunging beast. Left foot, step, twist the sword, edge down, diagonal strike. Thwip. End in low guard, blade forward, right side. She lifted the sword in an arc, anticipating a thrust or vertical strike to capitalize on her low guard. The fan motion would push the enemy blade to the side, and leave her in a left-side guard ready to move in on the opportunity. Step, rest the blade against their shoulder.
At most, that took three seconds. The art moved through her, desperate to get out. Kelly smiled and pushed herself harder. She wanted to feel her heart pump, feel her lungs push against her, feel her legs and arms burn. When the pain set in, she would switch to both swords. A useless endeavor in proper combat, but good for building strength. And, above all, it was fun.
Some twenty minutes into her training, the door slid open. Brand stepped outside, loose t-shirt and tight jeans and no socks. His hair hadn’t agreed with his bed, but the look suited him. Kelly vaulted into a resting stance, then turned to him. “Hey,” she said, catching her breath, “Brand. Hey.”
“Practicing is a good idea.” He stretched out and moaned a bit. “Mind if I join you?”
After a shrug, Kelly tossed him one of the swords and gestured him over. “You study German style, right? Longsword?”
The boy twirled the weapon, grimacing and fumbling to find its balance. “I started there.” He held his arm out and maneuvered the blade until it balanced across his wrist. “It sort of devolved into my own style, though.” He frowned. “That’s not entirely true. I copied my sister’s style. So the way I fight is her invention.”
“Good to know.” A few paces took her to a reasonable distance. “I won’t use any magic to trip you up. Sound good?”
He tilted his head. “You wouldn’t be able to anyway, with my sword. Brenna taught me a good trick.” Moisture condensed in the air and spun around his sword as water. “Ever tried to pull my actual sword when I’m fighting?”
“No, actually.” She grinned and raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t sabotage you.”
“As long as I have this water charged with magic, your energy can’t break through mine. Not unless I want it to.”
Kelly scrunched her face. “Really?” With a flick of her finger, she extended her power out to him and grasped at the blade. Sure enough, his energy—though a different element—bounced hers away. “No kidding.”
“My family fights with swords for more reasons than just style.” He winked. “We do have some surprises, you know.” Brand bowed his head and moved into a more modern stance: sword held in one hand before him, with his off-hand folded behind him and resting at the small of his back.
Kelly engaged first. His stance suggested either a thrust or a grapple. When she approached, she side-stepped back and forth. Will he do something? He pivoted to face her, but nothing else. So she attacked, drawing her sword across to dismantle his guard. Then, once she pushed his blade away, she would twist and strike diagonally down with the follow-through.
But she didn’t get that far. During her opening, Brand pivoted and took a step back. The momentum launched his left hand forward, where he grabbed Kelly’s hilt. Then, with his foot planted, he stepped forward. Kelly, yanked ahead, tripped over his extended foot, and tumbled onto her face. The grass felt good against her stomach, at least. But the press of a wooden sword against her back reminded her she’d lost. “Damn,” she said, getting up. “That was obvious in retrospect.”
Brand spun the sword and leapt back to a starting position. “You haven’t practiced in a long time, huh?”
“No.” He could be less cocky about it. This time, Kelly chose an aggressive guard, sword resting on her shoulder. It was a German guard, called roof guard. Her uncle would have killed her for mixing European swordplay with Japanese, but—why not? It helped. From her stance, she dashed forward and launched a diagonal strike. The wrath strike, thrown from roof guard, as the German manuals would describe it. Brand knew how to dismantle that. She hoped so, at least.
Sure enough, Brand answered by transitioning into his own roof guard and throwing an opposing strike. The swords clattered in a bind. He’s stronger than me. Kelly relaxed her strength and proceeded with the martial weak force. Brand’s parry pushed her sword down, into a resting tail-like guard. Kelly moved with her sword, pivoting on her right foot to drive her left knee up into her opponent. The boy disengaged and jumped back. On the way, he swiped a horizontal cut and smacked Kelly across the shoulder.
“Shit. I’m sloppy.”
“That, or I just have good moves.” He chuckled. “Remember what I said. My sister taught me.”
It would bruise, but Kelly could deal with that. “What’s your secret? Her secret?”
The wind tousled his hair as he took a two-handed guard. “Move like water.” He twirled the sword. “Your opponent is the tide. When the waves come, you move with them. If you push against them, you drown. Flow, and be water. Change with your enemy.”
“My uncle taught me pretty differently.” Kelly took her stance up. “The main branch of our family is metal-chosen, so that’s how we fight. We press the attack, we remain solid. Resolute. A show of force. We don’t show weakness. That’s the Hamanashi way.”
“It’s not weakness if you win.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I’m slowly climbing my way out of that mentality. But I grew up with it. I was raised to commit completely to everything, even the motions of a cut.”
“Then let’s learn and un-learn from each other.”
Kelly launched offensive after offensive. Strong, edge-aligned strikes, cutting the air. Her footwork was perfect. She knew that. But Brand had a way to whirl and flow with every attack. If she attacked from above, he would block, move in beyond her reach, and disarm her. On a horizontal cut, he would side- or back-step, then jump in as Kelly recovered from the power she put into the attack. He’d suggested using stabbing attacks, but Kelly dismissed it. She fought with a katana. A slashing blade—not a cutting one. Even with her MINERVA-made sword, a strong thrust against something too tough could bend the sword beyond repair. Brand’s longsword was built to bend. Her sword wasn’t. Seeing Brand thrust the bokken like a rapier made her wince. Still, Kelly couldn’t argue with the results. Defeat after defeat.
The more bouts they went through, the more that pleasant tension alighted into frustration. Anger crept into Kelly’s muscles and fueled her attacks. The odd strike would clip the grass and send dirt flying into the air. Then, inevitably, Brand would grab her by the wrist—every time, the same goddamn place—and twist her back, or toss her over his knee, or otherwise show her how bad she’d gotten.
She didn’t know how long they’d been practicing. But they both sweat and panted. At a lull, they stood at sword’s length from each other and stared. He knows what he’s doing. Part of her expected Brand to be distracted by her exposed midriff, or her leggings. But he wasn’t, in the same way his body didn’t distract her. Until she thought about it. Shit. No. Eye contact. When she met his gaze again, he smiled. Instead of punishing her for it, he allowed himself the same type of look. Kelly saw his eyes flick for barely a moment: down, then up again. Good man. We’re even.
“You’re taller than me,” Kelly said, punctuating with a cough.
“Much taller.” He smiled. “My reach is a lot longer than yours. And I’m stronger. Plus, I’m heavier, so there isn’t much risk in me grappling you.” A cocky shrug. “I don’t think you’d be able to knock me over.”
Kelly grit her teeth. Oh yeah? The challenge stung her. It sank deep into her, joining the ball of tension in the pit of her stomach. A hot wash pulled over her. No way. I’m not taking this. This isn’t the Hamanashi way. She could beat him. In essence, Brand was weak force incarnate. He yielded to his opponent’s strength, and used it against them. It seemed counterintuitive, but the only way past such obnoxious weak force was even more stubborn strong force. A parry, no matter how masterful, would still falter against a strike strong enough. That’s the way in. Overpowering strength.
“One more!” Kelly charged, trailing her sword behind her. The burn had settled in to stay long ago, but she willed past it. Later, she could suffer. For now, she had to win. Every painful step would fuel her attack. Brand adjusted his feet. Parry this, prettyboy. The rage and fire spiraled through her, into every muscle. When she got into range, Kelly brought her sword up as if to throw a middle cut. Brand moved his sword like a wall to his left. The smart move.
But Kelly feinted. As much as she could feint, at least, with her emotions running like they were. Her sword spun around his, in an overhead arc, until Kelly held it in a guard on the opposite side. Brand’s eyes flared as Kelly surged into him with a crushing uppercut. Her right obliques speared up with pain at the awkward angle. She clenched her teeth through it, pouring all her strength into that attack. The boy brought his sword over in an attempt to block, but Kelly’s bestial strike smacked it aside. Her hilt drove into his shoulder. When Kelly felt that resistance, she pushed off the ground. Both legs sprang as hard as they could. Brand tried to backstep to balance.
Go down! Kelly growled and let her brain switch into its animal core. Every ounce of anger went into that pounce. Kelly bulldozed him into the grass. Both their swords jumped out of their hands at the impact. Before he could roll and reverse the pin, Kelly reoriented herself to straddle him and grab his upper arms.
Brand groaned and stared. Sweat trickled from his temple. His hair fell across him in wild angles, simultaneously boyish and rugged. Kelly saw her face in the blue of his eyes. Her own sweat crawled down her arms, her chest, her stomach. The muscles in Brand’s arms, smooth but solid, pushed against her palms. She shook with tension. With stress, with frustration. Her senses marched on in overdrive. Intense awareness of touch registered with her. Not only with his arms in her hands, but also with his thighs pressed against hers.
The sweat on Kelly’s palms led her pin to slip forward. Her hands jounced up, and she latched onto his shoulders to stop from falling. As she had moved forward, her straddle moved, too, up from his thighs. The breath caught in her throat. The ball of stress in her stomach fell lower, lower, lower.. She couldn’t clench her teeth, no matter how hard she tried, and could only pant. Warmth rose from that mess of tension and frustration, climbing up through her stomach and into her chest. A wiggle settled into her hips before she could stop it. The caught breath came out. A blush grew at the sound she made.
His scent surrounded her. A heady, hard-earned sweat, mixing with day-old cologne. “Brand—” She finished her pounce with a kiss.
The tension pushed her toward him like gravity. Somehow, she expected Brand to be cold. But his lips were warm, soft, full. He didn’t answer the kiss at first. Kelly leaned in closer, tighter to his chest, pulling against his lower lip. She only let it end when he finally reciprocated. “Sorry,” she said, breath heavy. “Ah—” Her eyes shut. This is so against the rules. Her hair bounced out of her face with a flick of her head. “No—no I’m not.” Whatever. Screw the rules. “To hell with it. Just kiss me, okay?”
He didn’t, not right away. “Do you for sure want to do this?” he asked, bringing a hand up to cup her cheek. His thumb brushed her ear.
“God, yes.” She took his lips again, letting a moan roll out of her. “Look, I don’t have feelings for you, okay?”
He nodded along. “Okay.”
She blushed and bit her lip. “I just—I’m tense, I’m turned on, I really want to hook up with you. Like, right now.”
Brand chuckled. The dulcet baritone shivered into her. “Right here?”
“Just please tell me if you want to do this, too.”
The boy rubbed her earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. Finally, he produced his youthful smirk. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I want this too.”
Another kiss. “Then carry me upstairs, Ranger.”
/ / /
For the first time in a week, Kelly found some mental peace and quiet. Her muscles, too, thanked her for the release. Between the anxiety, fear, and the limits she pushed herself to in training, she needed relief. And, even better, she still felt the breeze and heard the rustle of nature from the window. God. That was a good decision. She wiggled closer into Brand’s embrace and tilted her head back against his shoulder. “You doing okay?” she asked, grinning more honestly than she had in days.
He answered with a squeeze around her middle. “Oh yeah. I’m pretty good.” A laugh rumbled out of him. “I was worried I’d hurt you, honestly.”
“You did anything but.” Kelly reached back and ran a hand through the boy’s hair. So soft. “I—” She cut herself off to turn over, pushing him so she could lay on her side and face him. “I didn’t—you know—take advantage of you or anything, did I?” Smooth, as always. “I mean, I outrank you. I hope I didn’t pressure you into this.”
Brand devoted his attention to his fingers, which traced along old and half-visible scars on Kelly’s side. “No,” he said, brushing over to her chest and caressing her there. “No, I really wanted to do that.” He laughed. “You intimidated me too much. For me to hit on you, I mean.”
His fingers felt good against her. Rougher than her hands, but still gentle. “I’m not that scary.”
“Not like that.” He shook his head and met her eyes. “You have presence. Like the things going on in your head are more real, more serious, more important, than what’s going on in mine.”
Kelly nabbed a kiss. “And what goes on in your head? The rest of us like to joke that you only think about girls all the time.”
The pads of his fingers tickled down her torso. He felt out the curves of her waist and hips, squished her stomach with his thumb. I wonder if Hana is better than me. “That’s sort of true.” Another long scar came under his inspection. “I never realized you had so many of these.”
“Doesn’t freak you out?”
“No.” A smile. “The cuts on your back look like they hurt. But those are still fresh.”
Well, that makes me so much more confident. “Maybe I’ll get some new scars out of them.”
His eyes roved a bit. “I don’t have any scars. I like how they look. You have a story on your body.”
“I guess. It’s not really a pleasant one. All of these scars are because I fight the hard way.” With a soothing warmth on her cheeks, Kelly took Brand’s hand and guided it lower. “Hey. Would it be weird if I asked you to tell me about yourself?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think so. You want me to?”
Kelly took in his scent again as she hugged him. A strong sweat enveloped the two of them—one they’d earned together, making it pleasant in its own way. These shoulders. Brand was narrow and slender, but strong beneath the elegant finish. It made him easy to hug. “Yeah. Tell me something. I’ve sort of realized I don’t really know you that well. Even though we’ve worked together for half a year.” She squirmed up to kiss his cheek. “So tell me what goes on in your head.”
The boy’s gentle massage bought time for him to think. His gaze avoided hers. “You might be surprised. I’m spaced out a lot.”
“It’s—I don’t know.” Sparks of life drained from his expression. The corners of his lip twitched. “I’m going to sound crazy if I explain it.” His voice wobbled.
“I don’t think so.” Kelly nuzzled in so their cheeks brushed against each other. Heat radiated out from him.
Both his arms circled her again, pulling her close. His lips touched her collar, but not to kiss. The fluff of his hair wrapped up with the silk of hers. In the quiet between words, their hearts drummed a call-and-answer. Brand lifted his head and whispered. “I don’t feel real.”
Wasn’t expecting that. Kelly didn’t expect the choked sniffle, either. No, no. Please don’t cry. What did I do? “Brand?”
He burrowed back into her shoulder, mumbling against her skin. “Yeah?”
She held him tighter. “How often do you get to open up about things? Like—how you feel?” Good job. That sounds professional. Dork.
The boy shook his head. “I don’t.”
Kelly swallowed, eyes flitting about, scanning the blank wall. “I don’t know how to give advice,” she said. “But I can listen. And I’m right here.”
A teary whine came out of him. “I’m sorry.”
“What about Layla? Or Hana?” A shock of envy went through her at the idea of Hana and him. Simple, animal instincts, she knew, but she still cringed. “They’re good to talk to.”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t feel right.”
“What would feel so weird about it?”
He adjusted position and took a deep breath. “Because I see them for selfish reasons.”
What did I do to prompt all this? “What do you mean?”
Kelly squeaked as Brand rolled onto his back, pulling her to lay across his chest. His closed eyes were puffy. “I’m sorry. You just asked me to tell you about myself and my answer was to start crying.” He strained to hide the emotion in his voice. “I guess I am a little crazy, huh?”
“No,” she said, running her hand back and forth across his chest. “I just think you have a lot of stuff you don’t talk about it. I’m okay with listening.”
“I trust you. Literally with my life. We’re teammates, right?” He sniffed. “We should have each other’s backs?”
She nodded. “Like I said. I’m awful with advice. I mean—” A laugh came out before she could stop it. “Just look at my life decisions recently. But I’ll still listen.”
“Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
He faced away from her, staring at the wall, just as she had been earlier. “I promise.”
/ / /
After having sex and a shower both in the same day, Kelly wanted to sleep for a week. It wasn’t an option, of course. Amber and Hana had just returned, and were ready to brief the group on their watch. It took effort not to let her legs go limp and fall down the stairs instead of walking. Fatigue gnawed at her, bodily more than mentally. After the past week, Kelly found herself wound into a tiny little ball, like dangerously-compressed steel wire. Best to undo that knot peacefully before she snapped and took it out on somebody who didn’t deserve it.
She sent Brand downstairs first. I’ll never live it down if they find out I slept with him. To kill time, she styled her hair in something other than a loose bob or a lazy topknot. A couple strands served as rudimentary bangs, drooping between her eyes. At the back, Kelly popped in a short ponytail, bound with her green elastic. More strands had frayed out since the day before.
The group gathered in the kitchen. Brand settled in next to Hana. I hope that doesn’t go badly. His face hid all the truth that came out earlier. Amber, seated across, analyzed the pair. Kelly heard that her lieutenant gave Brand a hard time about his promiscuity. He obviously didn’t listen—not that Kelly minded.
“So,” Kelly said, taking her spot at the head of the table, “what did you guys find?”
Hana dropped a fist. “Not a damn thing.”
“Sitting and watching isn’t going to get us any results.” Amber leaned back, arms crossed. “We need to be more active. Screw what I said before.”
“What do you recommend?” Kelly asked.
“I’m okay with anything,” Hana said. “As long as we can get to McTavish before Yancy does.”
After a while of thought, Amber rapped her hand on the table. “That gives me an idea.” Her brows quirked. “What if we let Byzantium Black do our work for us?”
Kelly scratched her hair. “What do you mean?”
The lieutenant clasped her hands. “They’re going to be looking for him a lot harder now that they know we’re going for him too. So, what if we keep tabs on them? Steal their intel?”
“How are we going to do that?”
Amber shook her head. “That, I’m not so sure about.”
Brand chipped in. “What about communications at Guardian Tower?”
“No way.” Hana scoffed. “We can’t get in there. We’re rogues now.”
Maybe we can. Kelly leaned on her hand and exchanged a look with Amber. She knew the look of an idea in Amber’s eyes. The trouble with that look, though, was that she never knew if she would agree with the idea or not. “What’re you thinking, Amber?”
She twirled hair around her finger. “We have to completely commit to being rogue, though.”
“As if we haven’t already,” Hana said. Curiosity filled her expression. “Does this involve us doing something big and public?” An eyebrow raised. “And exciting?”
“Yeah.” Amber smirked and nodded. “Yeah, I think it does.”