“People are starving. If we don’t act now, it’s just going to get worse. Winter is far from over, and it’s going to be hard enough as it is.”
“Whatever you decide, know that I’m here for you. Like I said before, I’d go to hell and back again for you, darlin’.”
“I hate this.”
“This—what I do. Making these decisions.”
“It’s your choice.”
“I guess it is.”
Hunger isn’t something you can dismiss. It constantly gnaws at your insides and turns your stomach. It claws at your strength so that moving seems difficult. All you want to do is sleep as you drink water just to make it feel like you’re full. You find yourself mechanically going through the motions of day-to-day life—not thinking, not acting. Your entire mind—your entire being—is focused on the possibility of a meal. You chew on twigs and bark just to give your mouth something to do. Even then, you’re never satisfied.
And when you see food? Any food? Well, let’s just say that rationality goes right out the window with common sense.
Alexa stood in the rain, the damp clinging to her hair and slipping down the back of her neck and beneath her armor. She gritted her teeth as she glanced around at the others, assessing the body language of each—how they all leaned forward with predatory eagerness and with a bit of desperation. Shit. Shit. Shit. Things had gotten out of hand.
The two groups stood in the middle of the large open field in front of the Doubletap, the main building in town. Alexa could see the faint glow of candles glimmering at the dingy windows, casting their dim light outward into the fading winter afternoon. Clouds roiled overhead as water continued to pour downward, the patter of freezing raindrops drowned out by the harsh, gravelly voice that sounded out in the crowd.
“This is my fucking territory. You think you can come in my territory without asking me? This is Old York. Don’t pull this shit with me. I know Old York.”
Uncle Chuck was practically shouting at this point, his face twisted in anger. His grizzled brows were lowered over hard, brown eyes, and he held a notched blade in one of his veined hands. Alexa watched the Yorker carefully, trying to keep her face neutral as she glanced from him to the people he was shouting toward—the caravan of mercenaries with a large crate. Their faces were grim, unyielding. They were there to do a job. And they’ll probably see it through to the end.
Alexa’s eyes shifted to the others with Uncle Chuck. TJ stood near him, the Merican’s normally cheerful face now desperate and angry. His brown hair was damp, water falling into his eyes. Bastion was nearby, her cropped, reddish hair framing impossibly dark blue eyes that flickered from one person to another. Assessing which is the largest threat, most likely. The Remnant held her shield up, ready to defend.
“We’re just doing our fucking job! We’re the Iron Cross. We’re on the road. Now get out of our fucking way!”
The voice demanded Alexa’s attention. She quickly glanced toward the man speaking, the head of the group of mercenaries. His bearded chin was thrust forward in defiance. His armor was already scratched in places where the Hayvenites had struck him, and a trickle of blood seeped down his temple.
Alexa grimaced. The Iron Cross. There was no way she could do anything other than defend them now that they had announced themselves. The price of being part of D.O.C. I’m bound in contracts tighter than a fucking noose.
She shifted her weight slightly, turning to face the Hayvenites as she lifted her blades. She kept her face neutral as she watched TJ’s face fall; it was like watching a child being hurt for the first time—watching someone being betrayed.
It’s the best option currently. And you can fall easily—make amends.
At least, that’s what she told herself.
The sound of rain pattered down on the roof above, muffled as people clustered together within the small space. Bunks were spaced in even rows, pushed against the back wall. A table stood in the front of the room, strewn with small bits and pieces of metal and other odds and ends. The hum of conversation sounded through the small space, the voices of those who called the Kennel “home.”
Alexa remained sitting on a trunk shoved against one of the beds, green eyes roving over the faces in the room. She was too tired to stand at this point, too tired to do more than slump in her armor as she tried to remember to stay alert. Never let your guard down.
Someone sat down next to her and Alexa quickly jerked her head to look at the arrival. Dark, shadowed eyes stared back at her, unblinking. A hat perched on his head, casting part of his face in shade.
She felt her stomach twist slightly as she nodded her head in greeting before quickly looking back toward the front of the room, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular, “Barnes.”
“I have a Christmas present for you.”
Her stomach twisted more; it felt as if a dagger had been shoved into it and someone was slowly turning the hilt. She turned her eyes to look back at him, noting the calm way he observed her. As if nothing had happened. Anger bubbled upward before quickly receding once more—washed away by control. Instead of saying what was on her mind, she replied, “I have one for you, as well.”
A faint smile touched the corners of his lips as he reached into his bag. Alexa watched him, noting the care he took before pulling out a small, glittering object. He placed it into her hands as she stared at it. It was gold with five points. As she turned it between her fingers, some of the shine came off on her hands.
“There you are. Now you don’t have to run off into the dark to look at the stars.”
Alexa closed her eyes briefly before continuing to stare at the object. Her thoughts whirled, unable to form anything coherent.
“I have one more thing for you as well.” A pale hand suddenly came into her line of sight and handed her a small bag. Alexa swallowed hard as she took it from him, unable to meet his gaze.
“Merry Christmas, Alexa.”
Noise and laughter and warmth filled the room. The smells of cooking food still hung in the air, even though every last morsel had already been eaten. The entire party crowded around the wooden table at the center of the room, strewn with now-empty bowls and dishes.
House with her long dreads and piercing blue eyes sat at one end of the table, a very faint smile tilting the side of her mouth as she watched a young boy with dark hair excitedly show off one of his new toys. Aladdin was near them, the Rover’s many scarves standing out bright against his patchwork clothes as he chatted with Tex. The southern twang of the Merican’s voice mingled with Aladdin’s polished accent.
Alexa found a smile crossing her face as she listened, her eyes focused on her pale fingers spread against the dark wood of the table. A copper-colored ring flashed on her right hand, glimmering faintly in the dim light. It’s nice—relaxing for once. She glanced up at the others once more, watching as they laughed. It’s a pity it can’t last.
She turned her head to look at the profile of the man next to her. His dark hair was tucked up under a black hat, and his brown, hard eyes twinkled faintly as he grinned and joked. He’s as good with a mask as you are, Rook. For once, he had taken off his armor, a dark shirt and trousers lying beneath. She briefly noted that they looked far less worn than his usual clothing. Trying to impress? Or has he just had a windfall lately? She studied him for a bit longer as a faint twinge of guilt tugged at her chest. You shouldn’t overanalyze this—any of it. Can’t you accept that you’re not being used?
She lowered her gaze again to look at her hands. It had been a long few months—and they had barely seen one another. He didn’t know what had happened—didn’t know what the costs would be. You should tell him—even if you want to enjoy a few more minutes. It’s the right thing to do. You don’t know when you’ll see him again.
She could sense him turn toward her more than anything else; she could feel his eyes on her, watching her. She continued to stare at her hands, twisting the ring on her finger absentmindedly as she spoke, “I have something to tell you.” She paused for a moment, hesitating. How do I even say this? Don’t be such a coward, Alexa. “I…died again.”
There was only silence. Alexa fidgeted slightly as she heard a sharp intake of breath from Mickey. She felt a burning sensation on the back of her neck as an icy trickle of dread raced down her spine. Mickey finally spoke, the single, quiet word shaking the air with barely-restrained anger.
She couldn’t look at him. Coward. She instead continued staring at her hands, swallowing hard, “I was in a situation where I had to fight to the death—or Barnes would die. I fought, and wasn’t strong enough.”
There was more silence from Mickey. You should give him a way out—if he wants it. It’s only fair, after all. Alexa turned her gaze to look at the wood of the table, closing her eyes for a moment, “I’m going to see about potentially doing a surgery. I need to speak with House first. Because not everyone makes it out, I…understand if you no longer want to continue this.” She gestured with one hand weakly, feeling her face go warm as she hurriedly finished.
Again, there was silence. Then she felt Mickey shift slightly, his head lowering near hers, “If we weren’t under the rules of hospitality, I would punch you right now. If you die…”
The rest of the words didn’t matter. Alexa lowered her head, still unable to look at him. How could she? You kill people, Rook—both outside and inside. You’re a killer—always have been, always will be. Creation was never for you.
She closed her eyes for a moment more, exhaling slowly.
Well maybe it’s time to change that.
“Here. This is for you. I thought you’d appreciate it.”
He handed a wrapped package to her. The faint scent of flowers hung in the air.
“Do you have everything settled to go in?”
“I need to explain why I’m worth it to House.”
He leaned forward, gently taking the sides of her face in his hands and kissing her on the forehead.
“What was that for?”
“I might not get another chance.”
She hid the disgust that roiled in the back of her throat.