Soundtrack for this post is here.
So this is what it’s like. I lifted my hands to my face, to the numbers carved into my cheek. My wrists illuminated my face. Red.
How many times had I seen this glow reflected on my own skin? The times I’d laid in their arms watching the stars spiral overhead and their light wash over me in time with their heartbeats? I had always been the shadow to their light, the dark one. I could go where they could not, and yet I am drawn to their warmth like a snake to sunlight.
But not tonight.
Tonight I am no creature of darkness. The dye had lightened my black hair to flame and gold. The paint and chemicals lit up my skin a rosy pink. I twitched down the hem of Tes’ old tunic, checked the blade at my side, distinctive flower pommel swathed in cloth.
Tonight I am #3297
We sat in the middle of the Kill-de-Sac, waiting for our contact to show. Sal, Hammers, Butters, Rudy, ‘Cecil’, ‘Snow’, Tes and I. Tink kept us company.
I knew who was coming, but it was not the first time he’s startled me, stepping out of the shadows while my heart pounded in my ears and my blade shot to my hand. Tink fled into the dark.
I whispered his name to Tes.
We were going to Liberty Hollow. The last bastion of slavery. Where they carved up lives and sold them to the red mist addicts and the flesh-eaters. We were going to cover them in their sins and light them ablaze. Choke them with their own chains and manacles and shattered lives.
…and then suddenly we weren’t.
“We are going to destroy this Washborne outpost… and then on to the next… and the next…” Robb’s sibilant, dry rasp curled my fists. “On into the sunset.”
I watched Sal carefully. Did she sense the manipulation? How he sublimated her passion and hatred with his own?
Slowly she nodded, lips a thin, tight line.
We were locked and loaded, a gun in the hand of this undead marksman, pointing us at his targets, not ours. No matter, I had no love for the Washbornes, a slaver was a slaver. Tes wore their brand on his cheek still. We would kill and kill and kill. A wildfire rolling across the Lonestar.
Slink and I hoisted the Texas Tea barrels between us and we headed out of the slums.
“Turn back.” The Washborne guards shouted at us as we approached with our ‘delivery’ of Texas Tea. “Follow the proper channels!”
No. We would not.
The Irons spread across the field, pummeling them into the dirt. Snapping their necks.
Slink and Rudy and I rushed forward with the barrels. Poured the pungent Texas Tea around the foundation.
“In here.” Robb waved us over. He held open the door and I spilled the liquid across the floor. He tossed the match, and we slammed the door.
And then the screaming started.
We threw our weight against the doors. The cries ringing in our ears. We barricaded them inside as the smoke seeped out around our fingers and we listened to the scrabbling of their fingernails on the wood.
“This frees NO ONE.” Tes was sobbing. He refused to step near. He who had every reason to hate. Oh my sweet broken Tes. Did he not remember? A day cool and windy. A group of slavers dying beneath my blade then too?
This is who we are. This is our legacy. Sal claimed her birthright with blood and fire, but Tes shrank from it. He who scuffled with Netflix in the dirt and spat the Washborne name with vitriol. Now he screamed his rage and horror and withdrew from my touch.
One day he would have to choose. Claim his freedom with every breath and every bloodied blow. Keep his demons in his pocket and his morals on the shelf, as we had learned to.
I stared at Sal as I leaned on the door listening to Tes’ pleading. Rudy sniffling. Slink and Nasatya grim faced but compliant. Our eyes met in the firelight, resolute and numb. What was a little more death to us?
We clustered in a semi-circle as the embers cooled.
“On to the next and the next.” Robb repeated. “Leave your friends behind. Never come back here. On and on and on until Liberty Hollow is gone and they’re all dead. All of them. And we ride off into the sunset.”
This was everything she’d fought for. I watched his words coil around her. Seduce her. It was time for goodbyes.
I understood. We clasped forearms.
“I respect your decision. I am glad I knew you.” Maybe if I was stronger, I would be going with her. But not yet.
“What is happening?” Tes shrieked. “Where is she going?”
Hammers’ lean form was taut with worry. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We can do this our way! Keep fighting! Come back with us, Sal!”
She was handing her belongings to Slink. They were sobbing into each others arms. Not for the last time that night I stepped back to give space. Sought out my own crew.
But he wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t hold my hand. Judgment a chasm between us.
“I’ll meet you in town.” Sal promised. I was convinced it was a lie but I nodded and let them have their false hope.
We left her on the hill behind us as we faded into the forest.
“What did that solve? Nothing!” Tes was shaking with emotion.
“It was her choice. You’ve never picked so don’t take it from her now.” I didn’t have answers for him and my tongue was sharp. Yeah, it wasn’t who we wanted to kill, but I wasn’t going to mourn dead Washbornes. Why was he? Did I need to pretend to care that I felt something when I didn’t? He’d had his freedom handed to him every step of the way. No wonder he didn’t understand those of us who had chosen our paths and cut out our hearts to pave them.
Tink approached. She had been crying. What she had valued above all else had been broken, trampled into the ground by an uncaring Iron who had sold his honor for blue paper. The harm to our crew far less than my concern for herself. Just last month she had listened to the man she loved talk casually about his own death, as he coughed blood into his sleeve and overlooked the pain in her eyes. Now I had to tell her Sal had left without a goodbye.
She chirped out her tears. Fluttered her hands. Broken voice and broken wings.
We sat and waited. Blinked with surprise when Sal strode out of the trees, all swinging arms and resolution. Hammers by her side.
“I have to decide by 2am.” she informed us matter-of-factly.
“Don’t do what he wants.” Hammers growled. “We can get to Liberty Hollow on our own. It won’t be as easy, but we’ll do it.”
“EASY?!” Sal rounded on him. “None of this is easy!”
Yes. There had to be a better way.
“Don’t be his tool, Sal.” I joined in. “Otherwise what’s the point?” Become a slave again to free others, the implication there in the quiet darkness of the slums.
“You don’t know what I did to get here!” she whirled on me now.
“I know where the Rosie came from.” I replied coldly. Yes, there was legacy here. But if she did what he wanted, then was it hers? Or his?
We retreated back to town. Slowly I scrubbed the dye out of my hair and washed the numbers off my cheek with Jed’s hand mirror.
“If Sal goes, I go too.” I heard Moody’s voice. Suddenly the foundation of Bravo felt like it was slipping under my feet.
What would she choose?
Fucking Hat Game.
I heard Tes’ laugh, saw him illuminated by the lights of Kiva in a group of merry people, Astor’s hat on his head. I waltzed up, plucked it off and dropped it on my own.
“I’m Astor and I loved Rajah right up until I married her. I didn’t love her again until we divorced. Then I hit on her sister.” I mocked as he watched me with a frozen smirk. The crowd crowed at the savagery and I fled, it was too much truth for my Vegasian lips to speak.
I wandered the dark trails of Bravo alone.
I probably should have felt afraid. I was supposed to be hunted, after all. But all I felt was numb as I paced through the night.
“Don’t you ever touch a hair on Netflix’s head!” Sal had screamed at me, less than an hour after I had shook her hand and thought I felt the respect flow between us. He had tried to slit Tes’ throat and what would I have done if he had?
Would I become a creature motivated by vengeance the way she was?
I looked to the left and the right. No Tink. No Tes. Crewless.
Everyone was surrounded by those they loved. Those who fought to keep them here. What did it mean that I was out here alone?
Tink and the Hedons and the MC had retreated to the solitude of the lake to cry and reminisce and persuade Sal to stay. Tes had disappeared to help with the missing nuclear core. Chum and R were back with the Rosie, and far far away in Hayven there was a printer with ink-stained fingers who never told me he loved me because I begged him not to.
“I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t know how we are supposed to lean on each other.” I had whispered to Tink at the crossroads.
“I feel like that all the time. Trust me, they don’t know either.” she gestured at the circle of people gathered around Slink and Sal, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Sunday morning Tes lifts my hat off my head and drops it onto his own.
“I’m Rajah and I push everyone away then wonder why they aren’t there for me when I need them.” he softens the cut of his words with that cheeky grin.
Fucking Hat Game.