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Chapter 9 First Taste

  I spent nearly the entire weekend hanging out with Kyla. Most of it was spent at Drizzle, where I'd become a new regular fixture. I would play Kyla, or when she needed a break, I'd jump to playing against someone else interested. None of them came close to beating me, but most of them hadn't played a round of Riposte in their lives. It wasn't the flavor of the year anymore, but long-past. If not for Kyla and the League, I'd be in the same clueless boat.

  As Sunday rolled around, we got a bit of a shock. I spotted someone else with a commitment in Drizzle. It was a college guy, mid-20s, twitchy and out of breath. I couldn't tell if he was on something or just had nervous tics, but as soon as I spotted the faint outline in his backpack, my eyes never left him. To my relief, he never looked our way, never spotted Check's matching outline on the table.

  I wasn't ready to fight a stranger yet in a League game. With one penalty under my belt already, an easy win was the menu item of choice… if I could find one. I wasn't sure how I'd find one, but I figured Rana and Robin could point me in the right direction. Somebody more on my level. Whatever that was.

  Between the games at Drizzle, Kyla and I took walks around the area. She showed me her favorite places to hang out—parks, watching games at a retro arcade, a library, the miniature zoo, places she could enjoy without spending a dime. We went out to eat at her usuals, and I picked up the bill every time on Lloyd's card. Kyla started to protest after the first one, but I just paid without a word. I had the resources and she clearly didn't, even if she wanted to pretend otherwise.

  I'd been in her shoes. I knew what it felt like to hate needing money from more affluent friends. Insisting you could cover it was an instinct. When I was in her place, I'd done exactly the same—and every time as soon as I got home, I regretted my pride staring at my empty wallet. I'd save Kyla that same pain.

  She caught onto what I was doing pretty quick, thankfully. After how our weekend started, I wanted to make sure she knew she had someone who cared, and it showed. As Sunday evening hit and it was time for Carolyn to take me to the mansion, she took me aside.

  "Look, Noël," said Kyla slowly, glancing around. She dropped her voice. "You know you don't have to buy my friendship, right?"

  "Course I don't," I said. "Just your thoughts, they're expensive."

  Kyla grinned. "I'll pay you back someday. Promise."

  I shrugged. "It's not my money."

  "So I'll pay Lloyd back, whatever. This is a loan."

  "I owe you as much as you owe me," I said quietly. I was thinking about the League and the opportunity she'd given me. Kyla didn't know it, but she was crucial to my plan to bring my parents back to life. I had a practice partner, someone uninvolved who I could bounce anything off of. That felt like a huge advantage. "Trust me."

  Kyla cocked her head to the side. "...Ooookay, grasshopper. See you at school tomorrow?"

  "You know it."

  Of course, to see Kyla at school, I first had to endure the rest of the day. It should have been an easy day, but we all know how my life works.

  It started with rumors online. I heard vague mention of something that happened over the weekend, but I was so caught up in Riposte strategy boards and memorizing character moves that I didn't bother checking the news. My mistake, for sure.

  The news and I had a pretty adversarial relationship. Even before I ended up on them, the feeds were dry and boring, while the videos were exaggerated bloodhounds. I never tuned in. My parents watched occasionally, but both preferred to 'live in the world', as they said, and ignore the greater sociopolitical sphere. I wished I had that luxury now. After the accident, the news came to me.

  These days, it was a matter of survival to pay attention. Watching the feeds gave me advance warning on the next verbal attack I might get, or the next tear-jerking story someone might try to pull from me. If they managed to actually drop some of the bombs they intended, I'd have broken down on camera, fed right into whatever narrative they desired. Proliferation from the internet had created so many amateur journalists, so many potential avenues that I might become viral, the attempts just never let up.

  They came to Lloyd's place more than once. He eventually had to hire security, but it still wasn't enough. Somehow though, they'd yet to follow us up to the mansion. It wasn't exactly private where we'd moved, but not broadcast either. I assumed the legitimate news had long-since moved on—and they hadn't been the problem in the first place, anyway. All the amateurs didn't have their resources, and didn't know where to find us. Even if they did, it was a gated neighborhood. They didn't have access.

  Problem was… they didn't need it. We lived in the 24/7/365 news world, and the Pacific Northwest loved to make a big deal out of anything.

  My first hint was another surge of protestors on the way to school. Carolyn engaged the privacy screens as usual, and I didn't see my face anywhere, but I could tell right away that something new had happened. The crowd had more fervor than usual. They were on a mission. I initially decided I didn't want to know. It wasn't anything to do with me, surely. They must have moved on by now, right?

  At the last minute, stepping out of the car, I changed my mind and pulled out my phone—too late.

  A reporter had been lurking at the corner where Carolyn usually dropped me off. That was our first mistake. I was too notorious in school for someone not to give them the heads up. More importantly, we'd chosen somewhere deliberately off school grounds, so I wouldn't endure so many stares. That left me wide open.

  "Noël! Noël Sullivan!"

  I grit my teeth, both at the name and the reporter doggedly pursuing me down the street and around the corner.

  "How do you feel about the city's proposal?"

  My phone was out and I was scrolling through the news as fast as I could. Something about a new zone being considered by the city, and something to do with automated vehicles. I was having trouble reading with the reporter still dogging my footsteps. As long as I didn't turn, they wouldn't be able to get anything, right? Who wants to watch someone's back as they walk into school without a word?

  "Don't you think this is a huge risk for more collisions like the one which killed your parents?"

  I winced, and prayed it didn't show up on camera. He didn't have to say killed. The guy did that specifically to get a rise out of me. Most reporters wouldn't even mention it, or just called it 'the collision'. Never 'the accident', of course, since that implied nobody was at fault. The law might say nobody was at fault, but the court of public opinion was another matter—and it was split right down the middle. Either way, somebody was at fault, it was just a matter of who.

  Having nobody be at fault terrified people. The world hated that. 'Nobody at fault' was reserved for natural disasters, force majeure. This was purely man-made, therefore someone must be culpable.

  Maybe my wish would include getting everybody to shut up about it.

  "Noël! The world wants to know! We don't want more orphans, right? Your parents would've died for nothing!"

  Two steps. Just two steps, and I'd be on school grounds. The reporter would be legally required to leave me alone. Even the craziest of the amateur tubers didn't dare break that law. Lloyd's legal team made it clear they would pursue violators every single time.

  All I had to do was take two more steps.

  "They did," I growled, rooted in place. A small crowd of students on-campus watched in a half-circle, phones in hand. Some were recording.

  The guy stopped dead himself. I didn't think he actually expected me to say anything. I hadn't spoken on the record in nearly two years. I turned to face him. He had a camera attached to a self-stabilizing headband, one of the nicer models. The classic entry-level amateur reporter wear.

  I cleared my throat, trying to suppress the rage boiling through my blood. "They died and nobody's done anything on either side. Everybody needs to stop screwing around, figure out what they want to do, and leave me alone."

  "But they're talking about making half the city into a death—"

  "Seriously," I snapped. "I. Do. Not. Care. I'm not part of this."

  "You don't care that people might die?"

  Ugh. I knew as soon as I said it, the guy would turn it around on me. I didn't have a good answer, but I did have an exit. I was already regretting this conversation. It was time to get out. "I'm late for class."

  The reporter shouted something else, but I was already headed inside. My head felt like it was on fire, my veins lava. Memories of tearing metal, of my parents ripped from their seats… I could smell the blood, the burned plastic.

  I tore inside, hyperventilating. Students surrounded me on all sides, watching, murmuring. The nearest bathroom, ASAP. I needed out of there.

  To my relief, it was almost empty. Just one other girl, someone else having a nervous breakdown before the first class. We took stalls on opposite ends, each in our little world, each trying to build up the courage to face the day. If this were a happier story, she might have reached out to me, or vice versa—two rebels against the world, fighting against all the cruelty trying to break us down. Maybe we'd even become best friends.

  Not a chance. We both worked through the panic and left, just as alone as when we came in.



  ***



  I texted Kyla as soon as I sat down in math, a good fifteen minutes late. Of course, my teacher—and everybody else—knew about the reporter ambushing me outside school. Nobody confronted me. I heard a few students grumbling far away that famous people got away with everything.

  They made it really difficult not to snort aloud. If those kids wanted this kind of fame, they were more than welcome to swap out with me.

  I didn't feel like laughing though. If anything, I was miserable, and the day was just getting started. There's a sensation when you know a day's gonna be terrible. It's similar to the electricity in the air for an impending storm, or the sinking feeling in your stomach before everything falls out from under you. I was pretty familiar with it, as a survival instinct, and it was firing on all cylinders now.

  Worse, Rana wasn't there. I had hoped for at least one friendly face off the bat, but all I had was Reylon. If anything, the opposite of friendly. I didn't know why the guy had it out for me, but from day one, it was obvious he had a problem with my mere existence.

  A threat? Was there something to do with Rana? The only things I knew about the guy were his football stardom and his mutual devotion with that girl. Worse, those two attributes were total contradictions. Rana hated violence, abhorred toxic masculinity, and wasn't much for competition. Her participation in the League was solely for the prize.

  Why were they so close?

  Mysteries for another time, as the bell rang. Math was over, and Reylon was heading my way.

  "Looking for attention, Súileabhán?" he grunted as he rolled by. "Better not trip over yourself again."

  I flushed. The brief confusion that he actually pronounced my name correctly disappeared under the embarrassment at the memory. "Because you were so graceful and balanced at twelve, huh?" I shot back.

  "I didn't do anything stupid enough to get reporters hating me."

  The classroom had already emptied. Even the teacher was gone. It was just the two of us. I balled up my fist, though I didn't dare raise it. Reylon was over twice my size, and I wasn't exactly blessed with upper body strength to begin with.

  "Nope, they all love you." I rolled my eyes. "So amazing at standing in place."

  Reylon shrugged. "I got the competitive edge. You're barely in the game and already getting trashed. Stay in your lane, girl."

  Now I was angry. Reylon knew? So Robin told… well, I didn't mind him bragging, once I thought about it for a moment. It wasn't worth getting mad at a kid because he was happy to win. Robin earned it. Pissed off at Reylon though for being an ass about it? Absolutely.

  "It was my first match," I shot back. "Like you've never lost."

  Reylon shook his head. "Not on my own skill. Can't help a team not keeping up. But you can't blame anybody besides yourself. Take a hint and get out while you can."

  "Like you have a clue what's going on," I muttered, thinking of my trip with the Moderator to the other side. "This is way beyond a stupid pigskin."

  "Don't say I didn't warn you," said Reylon as the warning bell rang. We only had a few minutes left til we needed to be in our next classes. He shouldered his bag and headed out with a final parting shot. "You're gonna get rolled, and ain't nobody left to clean up the mess when you're done and gone. Save yourself the pain, or I'll do it myself."

  I fumed as I headed out. He was threatening me now. Reylon and I didn't have class together next, to my relief—not even near each other. Still, I wasn't about to let it go that easily. I didn't have a retort, I just wanted to follow him for some reason. Maybe I hoped I'd come up with one, or maybe I just needed to see where he went next. Get some clue on why he seemed to hate me so much.

  Was he genuinely trying to warn me, or was that just being an asshole? Reylon had cautioned me off the League before I'd even joined, before I even knew what it was. Now I was in… did that make me a threat to his precious Rana? Was her wish something for the both of them? Rana didn't seem to think Reylon was involved in the League at all, from the conversations we'd had. She'd talked about him a few times over text, but only as a friend. Never as our competition.

  What was his deal?

  Reylon was on his way to the guys' locker rooms by the gym. I snuck past, glancing into the depths without ever crossing the forbidden threshold. As I passed by, I spotted it—buried deep in a locker, but still visible when he opened the door. A glowing rectangle, shining through his books.

  Reylon was in the League for himself.

  He didn't spot me. I wondered what he would have done if he did. It was pretty obvious he didn't want to be discovered, with how deeply buried his commitment lay. I would never have noticed had I not followed him out to the gym lockers, peeking inside somewhere I wasn't ever supposed to be.

  Did Rana know? Would I tell her myself? I'd want to know, but I didn't know what she'd want. Our friendship was still budding, a fragile thing built atop a secret tournament with lives on the line, where we stood as competitors. If I told her Reylon was involved, whether she knew or not, she might lose some trust in me. Either I was trying to disrupt their friendship for my own gain, or I was a tattle to whom secrets couldn't be trusted. The chance she'd take it as a gesture of goodwill, when they'd been close for years and we'd only known each other a couple weeks…

  I couldn't chance it.

  As lunch rolled by, I was eager to finally escape to Kyla's little hideout on the grounds. Anything to get away from the unrelenting whispers. The school had seen the video by now of my angry retorts, my confrontation with the reporter that morning. It was starting to leak into the larger media outlets. Sullivan Speaks, one headline blared, while another decried my technophobia and paranoia.

  I had no idea where they got that. Hadn't I basically given them carte blanche to pass whatever they liked? Against my instincts, I opened that story. Of course, they'd twisted my words about nobody doing anything into an indictment of progress. I was the enemy of corporations, simultaneously champion of the people and oppressor of freedom.

  Wrapped up in the story and my chameleon-esque role, I didn't notice where I was walking—or what had changed. I nearly tripped over the planks of wood strewn across the grass. My phone flew from my hands and clattered to the dirt. To my relief, I didn't fall again, but as I finally looked around, it didn't last.

  Kyla gave me a weak smile from where she sat in the dirt. "Did some remodeling."

  Our table was a wreck. It looked like a tornado had rolled through. The benches were splintered and cut in half, tossed about the clearing, while the table itself looked like someone had taken a chainsaw to it. It was totally destroyed. Even beyond that… one of the bushes shielding our little space from the rest of the world was reduced to roots. If we wanted to sit anywhere, it'd either be pressed up against a wall of thorns, or in the open dirt for the whole school to see.

  You're in it now, Noël.

  Someone had destroyed our place, wrecked it completely. Didn't take a genius to guess who.

  "What now?" asked Kyla, glancing around.

  I glanced back at the school. "Screw 'em. Let's eat out."

  "Works for me," she said, to my surprise. I guess I'd finally broken her reluctance about money… or no, she was just as demoralized as I was. Kyla was looking at the place like it was her home—her real home, not the place we'd visited Friday. She was on the verge of being crushed, and I needed to get her out of there.

  No public transit though, not with my face fresh in the news. At the same time, I didn't want to overdo it and have Carolyn arrive in one of Lloyd's upscale rides. I'd split the middle and call a rideshare. It only took a few minutes to set up, and thankfully my profile didn't provide a last name up front. Kyla started to object, but I insisted on paying over her protests. She was proud, and frustrated, and I wished I could do more for her.

  "You good?" I asked quietly.

  She nodded. "Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em right?"

  "You're trying to beat someone?"

  Kyla grinned. "All about that uprising of the proles, grasshopper. You gotta get back to your roots."

  "Where are we headed?" asked Kyla, glancing around curiously.

  Where were we headed? I didn't want anything on this side of town—the more distance from school and Kyla's home, the better—but I also didn't want anything well known or nice. Couldn't go too far into the rich-girl world. Likewise, any of my favorites were out, as the press might ambush us. There was just one place I knew which fit the bill of obscure, delicious, and moderately-low-end for the sake of Kyla's pride.

  Don't do it. It's an unnecessary risk.

  "West of Downtown," I replied. "We're going to the Question."

  "What's the Question?" Kyla asked.

  I smiled.



  ***



  Kyla and I strolled in with the sun at our backs, escaping the growing evening heat. I'd expected to see at least a few customers, but to my surprise, the place was totally empty. Kate gave me a wave as we walked in, which eased my worries at least a little. We'd still get good food, even if the atmosphere was a bit lacking.

  Not that Kyla minded.

  "All right, this place is pretty chill," she said, plopping herself onto a corner couch as the proprietor walked up.

  "Glad you approve," said Kate in her best deadpan. She flipped open her notepad. "What'll it be?"

  Kyla glanced at me. "My date's in charge, I'm just here for the ride."

  "Date?" asked Kate, glancing at me with a raised eyebrow.

  I rolled my eyes. "Ignore her. We're just friends."

  "Yeah, I'm not good enough for mighty Noël," Kyla sighed. She grinned. "Surprise me, whatever's your favorite."

  "You got it." Kate glanced at me. "You?"

  "Coffee."

  "House blend with cream, right?"

  I nodded. "And a couple of those pastries Rana got last time."

  "Same coffee for me, that sounds great," added Kyla.

  Kate nodded and walked away, as Kyla's face lit up. She nudged me with her elbow. "You and Rana went on a date here, eh?"

  "No," I said firmly. "It was a bunch of people, we just went there."

  "Went together?" Kyla added, smirking.

  She wasn't gonna let it go. I sighed. "Yeah, sort of."

  "See? Progress!"

  "You don't give up, do you?" I asked, leaning back and turning to stare out at the street. I enjoyed watching the people and cars go by, as long as I was invisible to them. It was my only chance to see how the world normally worked, without my tragedy throwing everyone off.

  Kyla frowned, and her tone dropped. "Hey… if I'm being too pushy, I don't mean to. Just thought…" She was serious now, which brought my eyes back around just in time for Kate to return with our order. I dove into my coffee right away, doing my best to keep my eyes off anyone in particular. "You do, right?"

  "Do what?"

  "Like her."

  After a long moment's hesitation, I nodded. "Yeah. I really do." And it was way more complicated than Kyla could ever know. Of course, she still managed to surprise, like she usually did. Too smart for her own good.

  Kyla nodded. "And you're worried about all the stuff that might get in the way."

  Again, I nodded. Even without knowing the situation, she was on target. "Plus I don't want to screw up the friendship we do have. The moment she sees me like that… you know? Not as gay, everybody knows that, but—"

  "As someone romantically interested in her." Kyla sighed again. She leaned close and put her arm around me, pulling me into a close hug. "Oh, young grasshopper…"

  "You're not that much older than me," I muttered, but the hug was nice all the same, so I stayed put.

  Kyla laughed. "Respect the years, girl. I'm an old junior whose parents started her a year late. You're just a little sophomore. But seriously: I've been where you are. Not exactly," she added, as I opened my mouth in protest, "but there was a guy in freshman year who I liked. Liked-liked. But we were total opposites, right?"

  "He was funny?"

  She slapped the top of my head. "You like getting hugs from a hot chick like me? Watch yourself."

  I rolled my eyes. "Go on."

  "Shameless, Noël. Absolutely shameless. Anyway, he ended moving to Tacoma last year, so more shame to him. But for all my freshman year, we were close friends, and I kept a huge crush buried. About halfway through the year, I decided I'd go for it."

  "And he shot you down?"

  "Au contraire, ye of little faith," Kyla shot back, "we went on three whole dates! And you know what happened afterward?" Before I could make another quip, she barrelled onward. "We stayed good friends! Because screw all that crap of never talking to each other after you break up. Sometimes stuff just doesn't work out."

  "So you think—"

  "I think," said Kyla, hugging me tighter for a moment, "that you're a young girl with the hots for a seriously cute junior, who's probably interested in you too if I'm reading the room right. And as the sensei who taught you how to read people…"

  I shook my head. "Too many complications."

  Kyla shrugged. "Life's short. If she shoots you down, things get awkward for a little bit, and then you go back to being friends." She let go and leaned back against the couch, letting her arm droop lazily over my shoulder. "And no matter what, you're still gonna have me here as your wingwoman for life."

  "...Thanks, Kyla." I wasn't gonna take her up on it, to be clear. I just liked the idea. It was a fantasy and I was happy to indulge a bit.

  "Also, this is delicious," Kyla added as she bit into the pastries, with me still leaning right into her. "We gotta come here more often. Why haven't you mentioned it before?"

  "Well—"

  Kyla didn't bother waiting for an answer. "Ahh, your secret hangout with your crush, right?"

  "No. I dunno if she comes here at all outside of the thing we went to."

  "Think you're gonna find you're wrong there…" murmured Kyla, her voice suddenly quite low. She suddenly pushed me upright. "Today's your lucky day, grasshopper."

  I glanced around, a bit disoriented by the shove. The tiny bell above the door jingled as it opened wide. Clad in a new hijab, dark purple and stippled with stars, Rana strolled in. She was digging through her bag, not looking where she was going in the slightest. A halfhearted greeting to Kate behind the bar as she wandered forward, headed straight for the corner we currently sat.

  "...and some tea, please," Rana added absentmindedly, still rummaging around. As her hand dug, I watched her glowing commitment shift around inside. "Thank you, Kate."

  "No need for any more pastries," added Kyla, with a pointed grin my direction. "I'm not gonna eat these, I gotta get going."

  Rana froze in place. Her eyes shot up to meet mine. I felt a curious urge to wince coupled with a little thrill at her gaze, equally embarrassed and pleased she'd locked onto me despite Kyla being the one to call out. Rana finally glanced between the two of us after a long few seconds, stumbling over her words.

  "Oh, I didn't— I wasn't—" Rana cleared her throat. "I didn't know you'd be coming by. Did you need something?"

  Kyla got to her feet. "I'm outta here, Noël was just giving me the tour. I'm pretty sure she needs something though," she added. I could tell Kyla was desperate to hold a straight face. "Noël, hit me up later?"

  She practically bolted out of the place before I could manage a half-hearted yes. As Kyla disappeared around the corner, Rana shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. "Were you—"

  "Just needed to get out of school for a bit," I said with a shrug. "Figured nobody would come looking for me here."

  "No reporters, you mean," said Rana with a slight nod.

  I sighed. "You saw the thing this morning, then."

  To my surprise, Rana took the spot Kyla had just vacated, rather than sit across from me in the empty chair. She didn't throw her arms around me or anything, much to the disappointment of the imaginary Kyla lurking in my head, but Rana looked nonetheless sympathetic and willing to listen.

  "You miss them," she said quietly.

  It wasn't quite on target, but I didn't feel like launching into another rant. Not here, not with her. "Every day. And they just… keep refreshing it, you know?"

  "How are you supposed to resolve your feelings when everyone keeps throwing you back into that moment? It seems like all they want to do is keep you in tragedy."

  As Rana fell silent, Kate snatched the opportunity to deliver her tea. I'd noticed the proprietor was excellent at only delivering orders during a safe lull in conversation, when nothing sensitive might be overheard. Rana took a sip before she went on.

  "They are vultures. I wish there were more that could be done."

  "World's done enough," I replied, despair evident in my tone as much as I tried to suppress it. "It's my own fault for letting myself get provoked."

  "No," said Rana firmly.

  I looked up, surprised. Rana wasn't the confrontational type, even in Riposte.

  "Perhaps things might have been easier for you, but that does not put you at fault. They instigated. They pushed you and pressured you. It's like self-defense. You reacted in a way to defend yourself."

  "But—" I said, beginning to protest despite myself.

  "Did you say anything cruel or to disparage the person specifically attacking you? Was any violence done? Did you lie?" Rana shook her head. "Your words might've sounded callous to some ears, but to anyone who knows you, the meaning was perfectly clear. I think that's all that matters."

  "The world'll see it differently," I muttered. "I'll get more reporters on me every day for a while."

  "So change the story."

  I glanced up from my coffee, surprised. "Huh?"

  Rana began to cut up her pastry with a knife and fork, in stark contrast to Kyla digging in with her hands. "You want them to talk about something else, but the world demands a never-ending stream of content. Everybody gets bored quickly, so if you give them a new story, they'll move on."

  "Yeah, of course, but what am I supposed to give them?"

  Rana hesitated. "If it were me… the return of your parents. You'll be there, sooner than you think if I'm right. That story will crush anything else they could possibly write, if it even becomes a story."

  "Not off to a great start," I grumbled.

  She shook her head. "I spoke with Robin. From what he told me, you took a game off him, and even more than that, you held your own for a long time. It was much closer than we expected."

  "He just tells everybody, doesn't he?"

  Rana smiled, but it was a bittersweet, melancholic thing. "He doesn't have anyone else to talk to. Robin's never fit in well with his own grade."

  "Really?"

  "You and I see him as a smart, ambitious kid with a lot of heart. Other kids see him as sucking up to the adults, or weird, or nerdy." Rana took another careful bite before continuing. "Trust me, Robin didn't mean anything by telling."

  I sighed. "Yeah, I know. He's just excited to win."

  "As I'm sure you will be too," added Rana, finishing off the pastry. "Soon enough. Maybe even…"

  "Even what?"

  Rana paused, hand on her phone. "Jack Marburn is looking for someone to duel today. I was thinking of dueling him myself, taking another win off him, but… perhaps you'd like to duel in my place?"

  "I dunno…" I shook my head. "This whole penalty thing is seriously unsettling."

  "'Penalty' thing?"

  Rana seemed genuinely unaware. I had to remind myself she'd never lost. "Right… the Moderator told me after Robin left, on my walk back. Since I lost, I got a penalty. I have to work it off at some point, whatever that means. And I'm guessing if I get too many, I'm out."

  "Hmm…" Rana frowned. "I suppose there needed to be something so we didn't all just throw matches to each other. What does the penalty entail?"

  "No clue. Haven't messaged him back yet."

  Rana glanced at her phone again thoughtfully. "Well, Bradley's lost a bunch, and both Jack and Jill have as well. They're still in the League, and none of them seem put off. I'm sure it's nothing too terrible."

  "If you say so…"

  "You will win against Jack. I'm certain of it," said Rana. She smiled, and again with the smile… knocking the wind out of me, as joy lit up that beautiful face, and the stars in her eyes sparkled in tune. "What do you say?"

  Well, I had to get back into the game sooner or later. What Rana said rang true. The other people in this whole League didn't seem perturbed by the penalties, and they all must have received some. People couldn't be winning without somebody else losing. Rana was a fluke, but Jack and Jill, Dash, Bradley all seemed in good health and sound of mind.

  My parents, on the other hand, were still very much deceased.

  I stood up. "...I'll get us a ride."

  "No, that—" Rana paused, as I hesitated in mid-step. "...Okay," she added quietly, changing her mind.

  This girl is hiding something and you know it.

  We're all hiding something. I don't know it's sinister.

  Be careful, Noël.

  We paid Kate and headed out, right as Carolyn pulled up to the curb. Rana climbed into the back, and I followed. Carolyn didn't say more than a couple words as Rana read off the address and thanked her for the ride, polite and professional as always. As soon as we sat back, Carolyn raised the privacy screen and kicked off.

  Within a minute, we were headed north, merging into some slow and painful traffic through the city center. It couldn't be helped, what with the protests out in force again. Didn't matter too much, since the duel with Jack wasn't for hours. I didn't realize that until after we were already in the car.

  "So what did we leave so early for?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

  Rana hesitated again. "I thought you might want to just… hang out for a bit."

  "...Uh-huh…" Hope surged back into my heart.

  She blushed. "Look, I—"

  "I like you," I blurted, against all sense of reason and caution.

  Rana froze. She took a good ten seconds to say anything, as the blush redoubled in her cheeks. "...What?"

  Oh god… if this didn't go well, I was gonna let Kyla have it. Between her pep talk, Rana's own encouragement, the nice end-of-summer air outside, and everything about the way Rana was, I just couldn't help it.

  "I… like you," I repeated. My own face was starting to heat up. I refused to look away though. If nothing else, I was gonna hold to my confidence. I had that in spades.

  "Oh…" Rana's eyes fell to the seat between us. "Noël, I…"

  My heart fell. I winced as I sat back, crestfallen. "You don't like gir—"

  "I do," Rana interrupted. My brain took a couple seconds to realize she'd just come out. Rana looked back at me, eyes hard. "But I…" She trailed off again, awkward as I felt.

  "You do?" I asked, feeling a bit stupid as I did. "But… Reylon—"

  "He's been my friend for a very long time," said Rana. "He knows the truth of our relationship." Her smile returned, but it was a different one than what I was used to. This was a calm, warm smile of friendship. Distinctly not the burst of joy I saw whenever she smiled at me.

  Did I dare to hope…?

  "I can't," said Rana. "You know that, right?"

  "Because of your family?"

  "Yes…" She sighed. "And more than that, but… yes. I'm sorry. They're very important to me."

  I nodded, still disappointed, but no longer the devastation of what I'd feared. How could I blame Rana for wanting to keep her parents around, when I was so desperately trying to get mine back?

  "This right here," I said, gesturing to the back seat of the car. With the privacy filter up, tinted windows and the gentle hum of the engine as we rolled through downtown, we were as alone as we possibly could be in the city. "You can be yourself here, if nowhere else. Okay?"

  "...I really admire you," said Rana. She shifted in her seat. I couldn't tell if my mind was playing tricks on me, but I could've sworn she moved closer. "It doesn't matter what happens, what comes up. You just don't break. You always keep going."

  Glancing out the window over her shoulder, I spotted my young, scarred face on a poster in the distance. I leaned over, realizing I hadn't put on a seat belt, and took the chance to slide across and point myself out. "Don't have any other choice," I replied. "I do break… just… I learned how to hold it. Save it for when I was alone, with nobody who could slap it on a poster or throw it on the evening news. Control the story, choose what happened next when I could."

  "And what's our story?" asked Rana. She turned to look at the current me, a curious look in her eyes. "What happens next?"

  "Well… if it's all right with you," I said, as my head pounded and my chest thumped so hard there was no way Rana couldn't hear it, "I'd really like to kiss you."

  Rana froze up again, a statue on the backseat. Her eyes sparkled, the stars forever dancing in the shifting light all around us. Slowly, with the barest hint of a tremble, she nodded.

  "Okay," Rana murmured.

  "Are you sure?" I asked, somehow more nervous than I was only a moment before.

  Without warning, Rana threw herself forward. Her arms wrapped around me, her head flung forward, and in a moment that took both hours and no time at all, our lips met.

  An instant later, her front teeth plowed straight into mine.

  "Ow!"

  Despite every effort, I winced away, a faint sting somehow reverberating through my entire skull.

  Rana, meanwhile, could not have turned a brighter shade of red even with all the paint in France.

  "Noël, I am so, so sorry. Are you okay? Did that hurt? Should we go find a doctor? A dentist? Maybe a—"

  The pain was already gone, and at her endless fearful outburst, I couldn't help but laugh. This, of course, only made things worse, as Rana suddenly looked mortified. She sat back, wringing her hands.

  "Did I… was that…" She shook her head again.

  "Probably my fault," I said finally, getting my laughter under control. "I gotta remember, you love the surprise attack."

  "I do not!" she shot back indignantly.

  I grinned. "Well… I do."

  Rana frowned as I sat there patiently. She'd get it, I was sure. In the meantime I could wait. The ever-changing look on her face was more than enough to keep me going. Rana was beautiful.

  It only took three blocks before she tried again.



  ***



  Carolyn dropped us off at the park hours before it was time to meet the Marburns. Rana and I spent the rest of the ride on the same side of the car. I had no idea if Carolyn realized we were kissing, but I didn't mind if she had. If there was anyone in the world I could trust to know about our budding relationship, it was her.

  It was a relationship, too. After a cheerful, sunny hour or two where we took far more risks than we should have, Rana finally pulled me out to a field underneath one of the blooming cherry blossoms and sat me down for a talk. We had to figure out what we were going to do, now that we'd dived into an ill-advised relationship on top of our already complicated one.

  The ill-advised bit was my own joke. Rana's fears were genuine and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I could see how much she suffered staying closeted to the world. Meanwhile, I lived totally alone in a massive house with two people who wouldn't ever breathe a word, and I had the resources to get us whatever we needed.

  To me, it was a no-brainer. Rana, after some more hesitation, agreed. We'd meet after school, and Carolyn could give us rides to places her parents would never be. No public transportation, no risks we might be seen doing anything untoward. Her parents granted her enough independence for the League, so a girlfriend wasn't too far removed from the equation.

  Girlfriend. Just thinking the word made me feel bubbly and warm inside. I was her girlfriend. She was my girlfriend. Either way you phrased it, I just loved hearing the word, especially in her voice. I'd never had or been a girlfriend before, though I'd come close before the tragedy. We were too young to call it anything though, and I was too nervous to come out yet.

  No such reservations anymore, obviously.

  Still, as the evening wound down, the knot of anticipation in my stomach grew. Rana wanted me to duel Jack. I was on board now, especially with her at my side, but… what if I lost again? I still didn't know what penalties were. It felt like a huge risk, stacking up a second penalty when I hadn't rid myself of the first yet.

  Rana reminded me that was fatalistic. If I went in assuming I'd get another, I was more likely to make a mistake. Confidence was key, both in reading people and being read in turn. I couldn't let my mind get wrapped up by fear.

  "Hey, Rana!" called Jill as we walked up. Jack was unfolding a portable card table under a shaded tree, the trunk of their SUV open nearby. Jill, meanwhile, had set up a few camp chairs already and was lounging in one, strawberry lemonade in hand. "And company! Hello again!"

  "Hi yourself," I replied, a little nervous. At this point, of course, Rana and I were walking as friends. The spaces between my fingers felt distinctly empty.

  "Ready to lose?" asked Jack, twirling a card in his hand. His commitment, no doubt, from the unnatural way it shined in the shade.

  "Actually," said Rana, glancing at me. It took some honest effort not to plant a kiss on her smile. "Noël's going to be the one dueling tonight."

  "Hang on—" said Jill, frowning.

  Jack shook his head. "Doesn't matter to me, my love. A win's a win!"

  "Uh-huh," I said, rolling my eyes.

  "One game?" he added, cocky as all get out.

  "Sure." His confidence boosted my own, in a weird paradoxical way. It was the same with the reporters and the protestors and everybody else who believed so much they were in the right—I loved wiping the smirks off their faces. "You got the grounds?"

  We sat, Rana at my side and Jill at his. Jack dealt out the six grounds, and we began striking almost right away as I won the coin flip. I wanted a win, craved it, but I wasn't going in blind. Dangerous grounds were out again, as I struck the Battle of Ravenhead. Jack smiled and likewise took out Talvela's Grief, so we weren't going whirlpool diving. Next, I struck the Charge of the Winter Battalion with a silent apology to Kyla for avoiding her favorite book's famous battle.

  That left the Olympic Forest, a Nature ground that gave me an evasion bonus, along with the Lair of the Hunger and the Deathbot Factory, both of which gave a penalty to my ranged attacks. I'd taken out the real threats, but either of the Indoor grounds sounded particularly unpleasant.

  There was no way the Olympic Forest made it to the end. Jack's duelist was Kalleddor, who didn't have a significant bonus or penalty from any ground type. He'd remove my own bonus without a second thought. I was choosing where we fought with my last strike. After some consideration, the choice was obvious—no way in hell was I going into the Hunger's home base. Rana had been to the Deathbot Factory before, and she was right at my side.

  As the telltale pulling sensation began building in my chest, Rana gently took my hand underneath the table where no one could see. I could barely hear her over the rushing sound.

  "Fee amaan Allah," she murmured. I squeezed her hand tight as our vision blurred into the kaleidoscope of the transition. As suddenly as it began, it stopped, and I got my first look at our new surroundings.

  A factory, but unlike any I'd ever seen on TV. It seemed as vast as a city. For a moment I got a similar impression as the endless subway which I'd ridden with the Moderator, but this factory did have an end. It looked like it was miles away, but it was there. Between us and the far wall, rows upon rows of conveyor belts and machines assembled deadly robots, tracked monsters laden with missiles and laser swords ready to hunt down the Nightblade himself. They'd never succeed, but they'd destroy half the city in their mission, justifying his own bloody response.

  I read the first book while doing some Riposte research. Don't judge me. It was trash, but I could see the appeal.

  Jack and I sat at a metal work table, directly embedded in the conveyor belt. As we sat, the belt moved us along, though curiously without any real sense of momentum. It was more like the rest of the world was moving around us. My physics teacher would have had a ball with it, no doubt. Personally, I was just worried what we might run into down the way.

  Check was there. She glanced down at me, then at Rana. A slight smile curled the edges of her mouth.

  "What?" I asked, then felt immediately stupid for it. Check still wasn't real, no matter what my senses were telling me.

  Except Check had just shrugged. She could understand me. Hadn't she done the exact same at the end of my first match, when I asked if she was okay? What were the limitations here?

  "Do you ever talk to Norad?" I murmured to Rana.

  "Sometimes…" she replied. "He's a good listener."

  Jack was likewise muttering with his wife, while Kalleddor stood in stony silence next to them. His duelist was a medieval warlord, a shrewd commander of men who grew up in a thieves' guild. The deadly combination of a seasoned soldier born of a cutthroat childhood. The two duelists were affected by the conveyor belt as it stopped and started. They shifted their weight at each station in the assembly line, maintaining a cautious balance.

  Without warning, Jack whipped around and laid down his first card. "You're up, kiddo," he said, and managed not to sneer in the process. Rana fell silent, as did Jill. A requirement of the duels? Were we not allowed to have assistance? I didn't know, but I didn't feel like asking either. My mind was moving in a direction I hadn't ever been before.

  It felt like I'd just exited my own body, in a way. I was on a line floating above it all, watching myself and Jack, our reactions and body language. I knew, without quite knowing how, that Jack must have played something defensive. He was a tricky one like his commitment, keeping me off my toes. The quick drop of his first card was a mirage to lure me in.

  As my metaphorical self fell back into my body, less than a second had gone by. It was a rush, reading someone and being read in turn, each of us trying to figure out the opponent's move. Hundreds of thoughts poured through my brain like rapids into a waterfall—his background, his physical reactions, his character's strengths and weaknesses, tendencies. So much data, so little time to decide.

  I didn't know much about Jack Marburn, but even the little I had pushed me to a decision. I'd call his bluff. Adrenaline already pumping through my veins, I smiled as I placed down my own card.

  We flipped. Jack's Block versus my Prepare. He got nothing, I got some free cards.

  Good start.

  Our duel picked up steam fast. I could tell Jack was ticked off by my opener win, and wanted some payback. He did a chain of three attacks in a row, which caught me off guard as Kalleddor took easy swipes at Check with his blades. I'd done another Prepare, along with a Block, and finally my own attack.

  Kalleddor swept forward, almost seeming to vanish and reappear as he moved like smoke across the conveyor belt. His knife struck first, and then the sword, catching Check in the leg. She winced, but her own sword answered in turn. I had played an attack myself, and Check delivered a twirling slash across Kalleddor's midsection.

  The duel continued like that, attack on attack, neither of us wanting to give the edge up. It was a problem for me—if I moved off attacking, I'd fall even further behind in HP. Kalleddor started with 140, while Check had begun with only 120. Worse, this was an Indoor ground, so her ranged attacks were diminished. So far, it seemed like we were headed straight for another loss in the first game.

  I couldn't allow that. Had to play the one advantage I'd picked up—my support cards.

  To get them out, I had to win a bout first. Jack had been non-stop attacking, with a couple Charges tossed in as mix-ups. We had to get back to neutral, and that meant playing defensive. He'd just played a Charge, and Jack had yet to play it twice in a row. I'd bet on that.

  Dodge on the table, we flipped. He'd attacked.

  Phew. Time for the combo I'd scraped together.

  "I use my free basic to attack," I started, laying the card down. Check drew her pistol and fired a single shot, striking Kalleddor in the shoulder. It was the first time she'd used her gun, and right as I was about to play the card related to her gunwork… sometimes the League really creeped me out.

   Jack nodded, about to pick everything up, but I was already laying down the next card—and another atop it. He paused, surprised.

  "Since you took damage, I play Double Tap, and combine it with another Double Tap." On cue, Check twirled and fell to one knee, firing another two shots through Kalleddor's opposite shoulder.

  The cloaked man grunted in pain, clutching at his shoulder as blood seeped through and sprayed the conveyor belt. Another crack of grinding gears shoved us forward, and we reached the next assembly line station in the factory. Huge machines all around us thumped down, stamping out metal into shapes. Massive welders pelted the sides, sending sweltering heat waves over us as the metal was curved and melded together.

  "That how you got burned?" I murmured.

  The welders did get uncomfortably close to us, though never near enough to get burned. Still, what else could have caused it? Rana nodded, which only brought more questions, but I had a combo to finish.

  "In post-bout, I play Suppressing Fire," I finished, with yet another support card. As I did, a machine gun opened up from somewhere behind me. We all instinctively ducked. Bullets sprayed through the twisting gears and machines of the factory, pinging off the metal. The gunfire raked the whole belt. Kalleddor ducked and took cover as best he could, but a few bullets still managed to strike him. More blood splashed to the belt, dripping down into the depths of the factory.

  My gamble worked. Jack had been easy to read. I'd gotten a huge burst of damage in a single round, propelling me back into the lead. Jack looked frustrated, and that meant he was on my turf again. I had him down, and screw the ranged penalty.

  This round was mine.



  ***



  The first round went to Check, the second to Kalleddor. Jack had managed to start surprising me again, and narrowly eked out a win. We were down to the final round though, and I had my confidence back.

  Time for another trap. I'd been attacking non-stop, parroting his first round strategy. It was costing me a lot, and if I kept it up, I'd surely lose. Like I said, Check just couldn't match Kalleddor's endurance. I'd noticed though that Jack barely ever used Prepare. Support cards seemed to be out of his wheelhouse for some reason. It wasn't a character restriction or anything, I think he just didn't like complications. He was a straight arrow, through and through.

  I could eat him for breakfast.

  He'd Charge, I was sure of it. I'd left myself wide open, with barely any basics on-hand and a clear exhaustion of my attack moves. I only had one Support too, so I couldn't be planning another huge damage burst like round one. My Blitz was even off the table, since it required he be unable to damage Check so she could charge her pistol. He should have been in the clear.

  I put down my card. He played his.

  We flipped.

  A huge hole opened beneath Kalleddor just as he began to move, black as the darkest starless night. The cloaked warrior's eyes went wide, almost like a cartoon. A moment later, he'd fallen into a magical pit. Charge versus Portable Hole Trap.

  "God damnit," Jack growled.

  I smiled. "You're trapped. No attacks, charges or evades, and your next basic is wasted to climb out."

  "I know the stupid card," he muttered. Rana nudged me slightly, reining in my boasting.

  We cleaned the board. Jack threw down a card lazily, knowing it was pointless. I declared my Blitz.

  Check pulled out her pistol and fiddled with the settings. It began to glow, bright cyan and crackling with energy. She levelled it at the pit, waiting patiently. Her long jacket fluttered as the conveyor belt shoved us forward once more, then ground to a halt. Kalleddor climbed out of the pit dripping in sweat, sword in hand, ready to fight.

  He never got the chance.

  A massive explosion of energy lit up the entire factory. Deafening blasts punched our eardrums, draining the world of sound for a minute. Check's pistol released a huge burst of light, an unstoppable crackling beam of energy that pierced Kalleddor with a sizzling burn. He roared in pain and collapsed to the belt.

  As the energy subsided, Check's pistol was still crackling and giving off pungent blue smoke. She dropped it back into the holster. It was useless for a few bouts, but that didn't matter. Nothing Jack could play mattered either. Kalleddor would be dead next turn, and we all knew it.

  "Do you concede?" I asked, consciously echoing Rana in tone and delivery. In the corner of my eye, I saw her smile. Her hand found mine once again under the table, squeezing tight. She knew what was coming.

  After a long, frustrated glare at his cards, Jack slowly nodded. He flipped his commitment over.

  "Congratulations," Rana murmured.

  I waited. Every fiber of my being, every synapse and nerve ending, all the neurons of my brain and the hairs on my skin anticipated what came next. I'd fought for it, and I'd won. This was earned. Even the round victory was nothing in comparison. As the huge, impossible voice echoed through the vast factory floor, my euphoria was like nothing in the universe. An explosion trembled through my body, a tsunami cresting with impossible force. I'd never been so alive in my life.

  CHECK HAS WON THE DUEL.

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, IT girl, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of good stories.

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