I hate this, Chastity thought. This isn’t what I’m good at.
Her boots struggled to find traction on the sloped, ice-crusted concrete. With a gloved hand, she reached into a pocket, dug for some sand, and sprinkled it down around her feet. Somehow, grit found its way into the glove, through the seams of the fingertips, in beneath her nails, and into the folds of the glove itself. She was hyperaware of it. Hyperaware of the wet and sand that had fallen into her boot earlier. Hyperaware of how cold she was, the sweat, the dark.
The slope of concrete was an exterior wall, part of a prefab segment for a building that had caved in when the building had been partially demolished. Below her were floorboards, equally prefab, churned out by factories with barely an examination, laid out and then coated in resin. Those floorboards were littered with glass, with rubble big and small. The building interior was dark, cold, miserable.
She saw a picture, what could have been a guy and his brothers, if he had very diverse parents. It was more likely they were coworkers, she told herself.
People had lived here.
There was a chance people had died here. She didn’t smell it, but the cold played a role in that.
She slid down until she reached the window in the fallen piece of wall.
“Hostie,” she swore. The window wasn’t broken.
“What?” the call came from above.
“Window!” she called out.
Grit rolled and scraped against fingertips as she quickly undid fittings. Despite the fact she was chilly, she could feel sweat roll down her back.
Sacre. Why am I doing this? To win points with people who don’t even care?
Because you’re filth. Everyone who knows you thinks it when they see you. Where you come from. People were always going to see you as the worst humanity had to offer, and that was decided while you still swam in your mother’s womb. Because you are that man’s daughter.
The interlinked catches undone, the frame came undone. Chastity carefully moved each individual panel of glass to the container she carried, rectangular and flat, with individual subsections for different panes of glass. She picked big ones for the larger panes, then moved on to picking out the pieces of the broken panes, and collecting them in one of the later partitions.
She had to be careful in handling it, but she also wanted to be fast. This glass was glass, and glass was sharper than most knives, if more fragile. She had already cut herself once, earlier in the day, and one of her fingertips throbbed where she had jabbed it on a splinter of glass on a surface she’d rested her hand on.
It hurt as she fought to pull some more stubborn pieces free. Metal scraped against glass, hurting her ears.
“Tabernac,” she swore.
Desperate slut, grubbing in ruins. What do you look like now? Filthy. Filthy. Filthy.
The refrain of her own voice turning in her mind, she finished removing the glass, and closed the partitioned container, clasping it shut. There would be more windows, and she would hate every single one. They were so fiddly. It wasn’t just glass; the frame had its own way of being put together, and there were two points she had to press the point of a blade into it to make them separate.
The best you can hope for is pity. Pity or a boner from a guy you’ve distracted enough that he won’t think about who or what you are. Where you come from.
Deftly, with smooth and practiced motions she’d picked up over the morning, she disconnected the frame from the mounts, gathering up the individual lengths of it into one hand, then slid them into another tube she had slung over her back. She capped it, then leaned into the wall, stomach pressing against the base of the window as she poked her head down and through. With the way it leaned against the remaining wall at an angle, it formed a lopsided ‘A’ shape. She looked beneath, and spotted the wire that had run into the window.
Solar windows. They didn’t pick up a lot of power, but they picked up some, and the wires that fed into them had copper at their core.
Pulling on the wire hand over hand, moving away from the wall, over to the other side, she removed the wire from the place where wall met baseboard. It had been painted over, and flecks of paint came away. She formed loops, coiling it around the back of her elbow and her palm, moving into the next room.
The room was an office, and it had three windows, largely intact.
“Crisse de câlisse de sacrament de tabarnak d’osti de ciboire!” she swore.
“What happened!? Are you hurt!?”
She turned her head. “Non- No. Frustrated!”
“Don’t scare me like that!”
You like the attention. How many times today have you thought about letting yourself slip while scaling a tricky surface? Not enough to do any real harm, but enough that someone has to carry you. Take you home. Make sure you get clean. They’ll pamper you.
I won’t do that.
She loosened the first frame, then removed the glass. It was at the point where the container was getting heavy. Glass wasn’t weightless, and the glass of four medium sized windows was a lot. Then there were the pieces of the frame itself, the coil of wire, and the winter clothing she wore.
All you have to do is let the glass cut you. It doesn’t even have to be a bad cut.
“I’ll need a hand!” she called out, as she got the last of the glass from the third window. “There’s a lot here!”
“Great! I’ll be down as soon as we have a spotter!”
She extricated herself from the strap and put the satchel of glass down on the floor, leaning it against the wall.
She finished dismantling the frames, bundling the lengths of metal together, and slid them into the tube she had slung over her back.
There was other stuff. A computer desk with a monitor but no actual computer. The owner had taken it with them. She began sorting through it, pulling out a clear plastic bag and then doing what she could to organize it inside that bag. In the process, she found a laptop, old and disused. A backup.
Picking over the bones of a city that had grown up on scavenged bones and handouts itself.
It reminds me of home, she thought, and felt sour at the notion that she still thought of the various Vasil households as home.
Everything secondhand, everything just a little bit shitty, and when it’s not shitty, it’s because it’s stolen. Nobody, whether they were family or people outside the family, ever thought we deserved nice things. Nobody thought we deserved a space of our own. Nobody thought we deserved kindness.
Hate? Oh, sometimes. Especially from women.
If you want kindness, Chastity Vasil, the closest you’re ever going to get is from a man with a hard-on and an urge. That’s all you get, and that reality was decided before you were born.
Chastity turned, surveying the room. There were three more spots to check- the bookshelf, the computer cables and peripherals, and the clothes.
She found herself gripped by paralysis. The bookshelf was valuable but the contents were heavy, the cables would be a mess in the moment, untangling them, but that stuff was always sought after. Even though the clothes were men’s clothes, she found herself wanting to go collect that stuff, because it was soft and she could take her gloves off without her hands getting too cold, as she sorted through it all.
Caught between the three decisions, she did nothing at all, except feel pressured, tired, sweaty, and gritty.
Piteous, disgusting, her own mental voice supplied the words.
She inhaled slowly, and the intake of breath came with a hitch.
The exhalation was interrupted by the thought.
Aunt Rachel loves me, she reminded herself. She wants me around.
She uses you. You have powers, you’re useful.
Candy loves me.
Candy doesn’t understand you. She pushes the memories and moments out of her head. She’s young enough that most of it is like a bad dream to her. Only a few moments really stuck, only a few rules and limits and buttons that someone could push, that make her start acting out.
You resent her for it. You resent that she only had a few years where she was old enough to know what was going on, only a few years where father felt like she was worth paying attention to.
By the time he had her, he was bored enough with children that he didn’t pay her much mind. You broke that ground, he got bored because he paid that attention to you. You, Cherie, Jean-Paul, Valentina, Guillaume. Trying to break you, trying to make you trigger. Trying to make you soldiers. Or just the days he was an asshole who wanted to hurt someone and you were the first person he saw after the impulse crossed his mind.
You had five more years in those houses and hiding spots than she did. Five more years with Papa. That’s why she will heal, she’ll hang out with friends and laugh and there will be days or weeks even where she doesn’t think of him.
And you won’t. You resent Candy for that. So no, she doesn’t count.
Up to this point, she’d been able to manage. To push forward, do what she needed to do, and
“Cassie’s here! I’m coming down!”
Cassie, she thought. Cassie’s here.
No thoughts sprung up, no doubts, no contradictions.
She heard the scuffle.
“Be careful!” she called out. “It’s icy!”
There was a skid, sharp and swift, boots rolling over the sand instead of finding traction in it. Her head turned sharply, expecting to see the crash.
Rain stopped himself in mid-air, then let himself go again. His boots hit the floorboards, and the container of glass she’d collected and set down near that spot rattled with the nearby impact.
He bent down, grabbed the strap, and gave it a test lift.
“Oof, good collection.”
“Thank you,” she said. She gave him a smile.
“And you got a bunch of stuff over there. This is great.”
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a curtsy, picking up the sides of her jacket.
He smiled, and walked past her. She could feel him there, her power telling her that he was there. She could sense the totality of him, proportions, like how he’d put on muscle but lost weight, to the point he was rangy. She knew he worked the jobs where people got extra servings, because they needed the extra servings, but he ate like someone on rations. That he was tired, in part as a consequence of diet, in part because he worked harder than many of the other people out there.
She knew, through the dull sense of his physicality that her power provided, that the smile and proximity to her went along with the faintest of good feelings flushing through his body.
She wasn’t sure how to interpret that, except that most of her male family members didn’t do that. It kind of disappointed her, and she had no idea if she was being unfair, or if she’d be more hurt if he didn’t feel anything at all.
He went straight to the tech stuff she’d grabbed, lifting up the bag to peer inside. Because of course the tinker would be curious about that. She leaned against the doorframe, still trying to quiet the anxieties that had leaped into her chest, and studied Rain as he studied the tech.
His nose had been broken once and hadn’t healed quite right, and with the light shining in through the holes where the windows had been now open to the elements and letting the chill wind through, she could see spots on his face where there were faint lines. The faintest of scars. He hadn’t cut his hair in the last few weeks, and she kind of liked it better like this. Medium length, instead of being so short that nothing could be done with it.
She walked past him, then stopped at the end of the desk, just a couple feet to Rain’s left. She leaned on it, arms folded and resting on the desk, fully aware she was giving Rain a good view of her cleavage. He noticed, and she felt the rush run through him. There were no details, there was no nuance, only broad strokes painted through his body in shifts in heartbeat, blood flow, blood distribution, and hormones. Like the hit of a drug, running through him.
She felt physically good, getting that reaction, but her thoughts were mired in disappointment.
Or… she felt cold, lonely, just a little bit skeeved out that it was that easy, on a purely physical, reactionary level, at the same time her thoughts were warm, happy that she’d made his day a bit better, because she did like him.
It was never both at once.
Should be neither.
“How is it?” she asked, waiting a beat before pointing at the bag.
“Good,” he said. “Do you want me to carry it?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “There’s no rush, Rain. We could hang out.”
“We’re hanging out all day,” he said.
“I mean, there’s a bedroom just through there,” she said, her eyes locked to his. Searching, studying-
She saw doubt. A fraction of it, hesitation.
Smiling, she gave his arm a push. “Just kidding. Désolée.”
He smiled, but he was studying her, studying her face. “Are you okay?”
“You use more French when you’re stressed. You’re more…”
He made a hand gesture, like he was wafting perfume toward himself.
She straightened, adjusting her coat, still smiling a bit.
He stopped using his power, withdrawing the effect he’d cast out and into the apartment area. The difference in the ambiance hit her, making her blink a few times.
“I’m fine, you can keep using it.”
“I watched how you were when you were working before, you came up, I had doubts. Now seeing you, hearing the swearing…”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, smiling, giving his arm another push. “Really. You’re sweet, but I’m fine.”
He shook his head.
“I can take it.”
“I don’t like making you unhappy,” he said.
I’m unhappy most of the time.
“I want to get stronger. I’m working faster, oui?”
“Faster than some of the people who’ve been doing this for a week.”
“Then keep it up. I’m resistant.”
“You’ve been enduring it most of this morning. I… think I shouldn’t, anymore.”
“You were using it on those men who work for Aunt Rachel, while Roman was training with them.”
“This is different.”
“I don’t see how. It is miserable, but… misery teaches. It is the misery of struggle, condensed into minutes, instead of days.”
Rain sighed. She felt a bit of hope.
“No,” he said. “No, I don’t want to make you unhappy. I have to trust my instincts here, and my instincts are… no. Sorry.”
“Not again. At least for a year.”
She turned, raising a gloved hand to her head to fix one strand of long, wavy black hair that was blowing across her face.
They’ll all leave you the moment you start depending on them or stop being useful.
The thought crossed her mind, less sharp than it had been when she’d felt Rain’s power.
“I came today because we thought I could benefit from this power of yours. Is this the end of our reasons to spend time together?”
So needy, so desperate, clutching for him.
He frowned. “Do you want it to be?”
“You answer,” she pressed.
“I kind of figured we were friends, at the very least, and that’s enough reason to hang out.” An expression crossed his face. Worry and insecurity. She could feel it in his entire body, in his gut, painted with a fat brush better suited for painting walls than nuance.
She felt the exact same thing that was plain on her face, but she was much better at hiding it. She reached out to touch his hair, running her fingers through it. “Good answer.”
“Oh. Good,” he said. She could feel his anxiety.
“You sure you don’t want to retreat to the bedroom?” she asked. It was a reactive thing, in response to that anxiety, and one she kicked herself for. “Cassie will keep an eye out. I’m sure she’d be happy for us.”
You sound desperate, the thought flickered through her mind.
“It’s not fair to leave her waiting in the cold,” he said.
“You’re a good man, Rain. Thank you for being so considerate of her.”
“She’s cool,” he said. “And she’s important to me.”
“My platonic life partner.”
He just smiled, still anxious, still with blood pumping, still awkward.
“Come,” she said. She’d put him on the spot so many times in the last couple of minutes. Tested him. It was fundamentally unfair. To make it up to him, she took the lead, made things easy for him. She pointed out some things like more wire near the windows, some of the books.
It was five minutes of busywork, of distraction from the awkwardness. She could sense it in him, as tensions eased and heartrate slowed.
He took the bag of components and the satchel of glass panels, using extra robotic arms from his sleeves to help hold and position everything.
She walked over to the slope of fallen wall, and gave Cassie a small wave. Cassie wore her jacket, covered in patches, with its heavy fur-lined collar, a dog at her side. Her hair was such a mess, and the hairband she wore was a dog collar fixed to something more rigid, another dog collar around her neck.
Chastity detached her whip from her waist. Flicking it out, she caught a bit of concrete. Cassie stepped forward, and set her boot down on it, to help keep it from slipping.
The climb wasn’t too bad, and the grit from earlier helped- it seemed like Rain had applied some too. Chastity took her friend’s hand for the last big step.
Rain used the rope to haul himself forward, pausing twice to use his power and adjust his grip while suspended in space.
Cassie touched Chastity’s arm, and Chastity turned away from watching Rain.
Cassie held out her arms, the universal signal for a hug. Obediently, Chastity hugged her friend.
“What’s that about?” Chastity asked, after she pulled away.
“Your eyes looked sad,” Cassie said. “What’s going on?”
There was a momentary glance in Rain’s direction. Chastity shook her head in response.
No, not him. He’s not why.
“What do you need?” Cassie asked.
“I-” she almost lied. “A shower. Clean clothes. I hate being dirty.”
Cassie gave her arm a squeeze, then joined Chastity in helping Rain make it over the upper edge of the slope. They had more bags waiting. They’d taken turns as spotter, because those were the rules. One person keeping an eye and ear out for collapses and problems as the other two investigated apartments and took the essentials.
They made their way down the rubble of fallen buildings. Toward the center of the block was a set of tents, including a tent over a series of tables and benches, an administration area for signup, a place with supplies, another place consolidating and sorting stuff.
Rain lifted some of the bags onto the table by the sorting bench. He kept the thing of glass, then dug a few things out of the big plastic bag of computer components. Chastity took out the laptop, then signed the papers necessary to request it.
The way this worked, people could pay for a certain building or part of a building. They were then free to go through the ruins, always with spotters, and with rules. The coordinating areas would buy stuff, but if they wanted to keep stuff, there were rules about requesting it, giving the original owners some rights, especially for anything that held data or anything with possible sentimental value.
If the owner didn’t want the laptop, the contents would be backed up on a major server as a just-in-case, and then it would be sent to Chastity.
Chastity bent down to pet Doon, giving him scratches behind the ears. He tried to lick her face, and she fended it off.
“That’ll be it for us. We only got to half the building,” Rain said.
“What?” Chastity asked, raising her head. Doon took the opportunity to lick the side of her face. “There’s still the rest of the day, and the building.”
Rain exchanged a look with Cassie, then made a face. “Let’s go back. It’s been a long morning.”
Chastity couldn’t really bring herself to argue the point that aggressively. She went with them to the bus stop, and put an arm around Cassie’s shoulders, while Cassie rested her head on Chastity’s shoulder.
The bus arrived, and they loaded their stuff into the guts of it before filing in through the front door, heading straight to the back seat. Chastity was sandwiched between her best friend and the boy she liked, and it was nice. She could feel the entirety of both of them, and the fact that they were calm and okay helped her to feel calm and okay.
The internal voice that had chased her all morning still felt like it was there, but in this, sitting on a bus, and seeing the extent of the ruins, things were okay.
The city was a mess, borderline unsalvageable. The cracks were still there, even if they weren’t glowing ominously anymore. The Titans were gone. The Machine Army had been briefly placed on pause, but it had adapted.
The plan, it seemed, was that Gimel would belong to capes, and to the people closest to the capes. The refugees would settle just past the portals, in corner worlds that would become central hubs and settlements.
The Machine Army would be a problem. So would Cheit. Capes themselves would be a problem.
But it was okay.
She nuzzled Cassie’s head with her face. “You smell like wet dog.”
Cassie laughed. “Not a lot, I hope.”
“Just a little.”
“Are you sure that isn’t Doon?” Rain asked.
“It’s me,” Cassie said, at the same time Chastity said, “it’s her.”
Saying the dog’s name had got its attention, and Doon rose from its sleeping spot at Cassie’s feet, going to Rain.
Just petting the dog seemed to lower Rain’s blood pressure, doing away with the distraction that Chastity herself provided. Cassie was just a naturally happy, calm person.
It soothed. Vicariously, she could take that peace and happiness, and-
She nodded off, her thoughts dipping into the incoherence that came with approaching sleep. Cassie adjusted, leaning in closer.
She was safe here, with her people. Not from the other people on the bus, or from attacks, or from anything of that sort. But from that nagging, horrible, hateful voice in her head.
Freshly showered, dressed up in a black blouse with a low-cut V-neck, embroidered black pants with a flower lace pattern, and a nice coat that was leaps and bounds different from the rugged coat she’d worn for scavenging. Her boots had raised heels.
Aunt Rachel’s wasn’t a place for nice clothes, but nice clothes did a lot to give that inner voice a little less ammunition. So did being showered, so did having her hair perfect. There were dogs milling around, the occasional dog barking, and signs of horses. There were people pulling together with unloading trucks and getting temporary shelter up.
It was funny, but Aunt Rachel’s had been one of the further-flung settlements, for a certain type of person with certain skills and tolerances. Now it was expanding. Thirty thousand people in all, and they were people content to stay on Gimel, to be cape-adjacent.
She navigated the winding path down the hill.
Rain was out there, talking to someone, and it didn’t look like he had backup. Beside him was the greenhouse they were building, using the glass they’d collected while scavenging.
She didn’t recognize the person Rain was talking to. He looked like a lawyer, old, wearing a suit with muddy doggie footprints on it, from an enthusiastic greeting.
She tensed as she saw the others. People in Patrol uniforms, geared up for a fight. Light power armor, laser rifles. They didn’t look like they were planning to shoot, so the situation wasn’t tense.
But it was still strangers, still weapons, still battle-readiness.
She was halfway to him, when she saw Cassie in the stable. Cassie beckoned.
She entered, and saw that Aunt Rachel was there too, as were Lily and Sabah.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice quiet.
Lily’s expression was sad. Cassie looked worried.
“He’s leaving?” Chastity asked.
Lily explained, “It’s someone from the legal system. They have a prison. They’re checking on some of the people who didn’t accept the sleeping death for humanity’s benefit-”
“What? But Rain-”
“-And the escaped prisoners, from when the prison was opened. Deciding on a case-by-case basis what they’re going to do.”
Chastity looked, studying Rain from a distance.
He looked… happy. Or maybe that was the wrong word. Relieved. Like a weight had been lifted. He looked a year younger, almost.
He wanted this. It weighed on him all the time, and now he wanted to go to jail, to atone.
Stop them. Say something.
She took Cassie’s hand, and squeezed it, hard.
He’s good to you, Chastity. He’s one of the only people who is.
Rain nodded, the smile dropping away. His expression was so serious.
The soldiers in armor approached. One pulled out a set of handcuffs.
You can hook him in. Give him your virginity. Play on his natural heroism. You can do something. Anything. Before he leaves and becomes someone entirely different.
I have to be good to him too. I have to let him go.
A hand settled on Chastity’s head, and she flinched. Her hair, which she’d just gotten right…
It was Aunt Rachel, because of course it was. The woman walked past Chastity, out of the stable, and toward Rain.
“Rachel,” Sabah called out. “Don’t cause a scene!”
Lily and Sabah pushed past Chastity on their way out of the stable, following. It was only after Cassie started following and pulled on Chastity’s arm that Chastity pursued.
One of the soldiers pointed his laser gun at Rachel.
“Don’t point a gun at me while you’re in my territory,” Rachel said, ominous. Some dogs were approaching.
“It’s okay, Rachel,” Rain said. “Guys, it’s okay. There’s no need for a problem.”
“What did you do?” Rachel asked.
“It was a while ago. I- the trial already happened. But the punishment was suspended. I still have years of my sentence left.”
“You told me you’d build my greenhouse,” Rachel said.
“I- I’m sorry.”
“I want him,” Rachel said. “He works hard, he can build stuff, he has skills.”
“This isn’t a negotiation,” the man in the suit said.
“I don’t care. I want him.”
“Excuse me,” Lily said, pushing past Rachel. “Um, it’s my understanding that Rain has been doing a lot of what he’s been doing out of a self-imposed community service.”
“He mentioned that. It’ll count for a great deal when it comes to the parole hearing, which would be in two years. I will make a note of it.”
“This is meant to be considered on a case by case basis,” Lily pressed. “Is there any leeway?”
“He’s accepted the terms. He pled guilty, he’s cooperating now.”
“He’s a minor,” Lily said. “He’s still under eighteen. He has no guardian. We could argue this.”
“I would have to stress… the ‘we’ is part of the concern here,” the lawyer said.
“Speak plainly,” Rachel growled.
“You’re- I’m sorry to say, you’re criminals. Villains. If you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I do what’s necessary. Nothing more, nothing less,” Rachel said.
“Even if we were to take a more probationary approach, which is one other possibility… someone on probation can’t associate with villains. I’m sorry. You could push for it to go to tribunal, it would be argued, but…”
The man trailed off.
Either way, I lose my friend, Chastity thought. The boy I like.
“I’m not a villain,” Lily said. She reached out for Sabah’s hand. “It’s already been established with the Wardens. My partner and I are leaving tomorrow. We’ll be bringing others with us, to establish ourselves in the city itself.”
“As heroes, with oversight. If it keeps Rain out of jail and keeps him in a place where he’s healthy, productive, and still working off his sentence by contributing to the community… jail won’t make him a better person.”
“Contributing to the community… but not as a cape.”
“Not as a cape,” Lily said, firmly. “For… how many years?”
“It would be until he turned eighteen. A year and a half. We’d consider it,” the man said. “I’d have to check. And of course, it would have to be okay with Rain…”
Rain looked at the collected Undersiders, at Chastity, at Roman, who stood off to one side.
The man addressed Lily. “Give us your contact information. If you’re moving tomorrow, we’ll come meet you in two days, after checking with the Wardens.”
Lily walked away with the man, pulling out her phone.
Sabah remained behind.
“You’re really going?” Cassie asked.
“Yes,” Sabah said. She smiled. “For too long, I’ve pulled Lily after me. To dark places even I hated going to. I think that’s what scared her, more than anything. I… I was making compromises to stay connected to the Undersiders and help support New Brockton, and I think it’s time Lily do what she needs to do. I’ll support her. Roman’s coming too. So are several of the other locals without powers.”
Erin and Lachlan were present, helping Rain with getting everything together. They were among the cape-adjacent, but they would be staying near Aunt Rachel’s.
Rain had worked late to help build the last of the greenhouse. Scavenged metal fit into framework made of the metal panels. Wood to brace it and keep it from blowing over. The windows would be openable as required.
“You should go talk to him, say goodbye,” Cassie said. “You’ll regret if it you don’t.”
“Is he happier, not going to jail?” Chastity asked.
“I think he’s happy so long as it’s recognized. He doesn’t want it to be glossed over. Do you want to be with him?”
“I can’t. I’m a villain,” Chastity said.
“If you went with Lily, you could be like Roman, and rebrand as a hero.”
“But then I wouldn’t have you,” Chastity said. “And that’s so much worse.”
“I kind of talked to Rachel,” Cassie said. “If you wanted to go, I could come with. We need ethical dog breeding and dog care in the city. Some of the dogs are trained for search and rescue. There’s room for me to apply what I know.”
“But then you’d be leaving Rachel.”
“She said she’ll be okay without me. That I’d have to come back regularly anyway, for dogs and dog things. Vet care.”
Rain was smiling, as Lachlan and Erin leaned against a fence, side by side. They were talking so casually.
“You just need to figure it out,” Cassie said. “Talk to him, tell him what you want.”
“I’m a mess of a person,” Chastity said. She thought of yesterday, scavenging. The thoughts that had chased her. Rain’s power had brought them to the surface, but they were ideas and thoughts that were always there.
“A lot of us are,” Cassie said.
“How can I ask him to like Chastity Vasil if I can’t bring myself to do the same?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think you figure it out by standing here and watching him pack up from a distance.”
Cassie gave her a push.
The muddy footpaths of Aunt Rachel’s camp sucked at Chastity’s boots, which really weren’t for this climate or environment. Her whip banged at her hip, all coiled up.
The confidence she wore was something she could use to hold herself up, even when she felt low, small, and scared.
Rain saw her and smiled. More easygoing and- she got close enough to feel his physicality with her power -more relaxed than he had been in a while.
Because he had a place to go to.
“Can I steal you?” she asked.
They walked away, toward a fenced-in area, where puppies were running around. Seeing them peer over the fence, some of the puppies bounced up, tails wagging beneath them.
“I was thinking I might come,” she said.
“That would be great.”
“Because of you,” she said. “As complicated as that is.”
“Doesn’t have to be,” he said.
She smiled, leaning into him, her shoulder against his arm. “Buying into Aunt Rachel’s philosophy of relationships? Some of those poor guys she takes back to her cabin…”
“Not like that,” he said.
“What a shame,” Chastity said. She was nervous.
“I think you’re cool,” Rain said, then he made a face. “That’s the wrong word. I’ve thought about what I’d say before, and… it’s completely disappeared from my head now that I have a chance. You’re so good to the other kids, Chastity. They’ll miss you, I know that. They look up to you, for good reasons. Because you’re admirable. You have qualities I wish I could have myself. You’re stylish. You’re loyal. You’re brave. You’re fierce when you need to be. You pick things up fast, even without my power helping, and you pick really cool things to pick up, like the whip. You…”
Her heart was warm with the praise, her head aflutter with the doubting words and contradicting sentiments. She mostly hunkered down, leaning against the barrier, and looked down at the puppies.
“I want to be friends,” he said.
She looked at him, a slight smile on her face, even as her heart hurt.
“Not- not as a rejection,” he said. “As a prelude. I’ve got to at least serve my sentence, do the community service. I need to be in a better place, first.”
“Me too,” she said, quiet.
He nodded, taking that in stride, as if it wasn’t the biggest red flag ever.
The hurt was gone, now. There was now only the uncertainty. The open path before her.
He reached down for a puppy as he spoke. “Friends first. For a year and a half at least. Then we revisit the topic, or we let what happens happen, after that.”
She nodded. “I’m a natural tease, you know.”
“I know. But we could draw the line at doing what you’d do with Cassie.”
“How bold. You do know we cuddle naked?”
She could feel the short circuit run through his body.
“Kidding, kidding,” she said, smiling. She was. “This will be fun.”
“This will be interesting. But I’ll be glad to have someone along to help me make sense of Roman…”
He stepped away from the fence, and, her heart light, she stepped back as well. As they walked back toward the truck, she beckoned Cassie.
Cassie knew her well enough that she could read her mind. Approaching at a run, Chastity’s best friend practically tackled her with a hug.
She could feel the excitement, feel the new comfort, with less walls up, despite the new boundaries and rules dictating this friendship-prelude.
The rest of the winter wouldn’t be easy, but it would be warm.