Chapter 7.8: Reality


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Chapter 7.8 of The Absolutely Crazy Matriarchy

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Chapter 7.8: Reality

  1. 1. Previously, in The Absolutely Crazy Matriarchy:“I’m in love with you.”
  2. 2. “Hello to you too, Rissa,” said Will mildly. “Have you met my date? This is RobertAusten. Robbie, Rissa.”
  3. 3. Fire smiled slowly as she cottoned on. So… your plan is, nobody is going to knowexactly where you’ll be for the next two years.“’Zactly. Not you, not my mother, and sure not any crazy assassins.”I actually like this plan. Little bit risky, but brilliant. Rissa, you’re a genius.“Damn skippy I am. Did you see my test scores?”Fire laughed. Not at all modest, are you?
  4. 4. “Why the HELL didn’t you call me?” she yelled. “I spent months waiting for a call!Months!”“You never gave me your number!” Theo snapped.
  5. 5.
  6. 6.
  7. 7.
  8. 8. “Ugh. That’s one way to start the day.” Rissa grimaced as she padded out of thebathroom. “Your cooking doesn’t taste any better on the way back up, just so youknow.”
  9. 9. Theo wrinkled his nose. “Charming. You’re just sore that you can’t make cerealwithout burning it.”“Dream on, Julia Child.” Rissa eyed Theo, sitting peacefully on the couch with abook, and decided that she just had to disturb him.
  10. 10. “Whatcha reading?” she asked, leaning over his shoulder to see.“Funny you should mention it. I was planning on having chili tonight, so I’m checkingthe recipe, making sure we have all the ingredients.”Rissa grinned wickedly. “Chili, huh? Something that looks the same going down ascoming back up.”“Rissa, that’s disgusting.”“Aw, you love it,” said Rissa cheerfully, vaulting over the back of the couch to sitnext to him.
  11. 11. “Yeah, I do, despite your blatant disregard for the proper uses of furniture. More foolme.”“I thought that was the part you liked best,” said Rissa with a slow smile.
  12. 12. Theo closed the book. “Are you okay? You don’t usually start the mornings bybarfing.”“Mm-hmm. Just food poisoning, I think. That yoghurt I ate last night was a bit out ofdate.”“I did warn you not to eat it,” Theo chided.
  13. 13. “And you know I can’t resist a challenge.”“What are you, a teenage boy?”“What I’ll be is late for work if you don’t move your admirable ass. Come on. I’m allready to go, and I’m not even the morning person in this apartment.”“Someone was hogging the bathroom,” Theo said, deadpan.“Feeling the compassion and love here, Theo. Hurry it up. I have research students totorture.”
  14. 14. Rissa had spent twelve months on Plunder Island, and they’d been wonderful.Her job was amazing. After the first project she’d worked on had wrapped up, she’dbeen given a new one of her very own – creating synthetic versions of the popularlycanthropy and vampirism treatments. Rhys gave her two research students to bossaround, to her eternal delight. After seven months on the project, progress was beingmade towards a final product, which made her even happier.
  15. 15. As for her personal life? Well.She’s moved in with Theo. It made sense, since she ended up waking up in his bedevery morning anyway. Somehow, despite everything, they just fit. Rissa couldn’tcook to save her life, but Theo actively enjoyed cooking. Theo went to pieceswhenever anything electronic broke down, but Rissa was always able to coaxtechnology to start working again.
  16. 16. The rest of the time, they were either fighting like cats or holding each other untilthe rest of the world fell away.For the first time since she’d been found up a tree at her brother’s wedding coveredin pond muck, Rissa felt free. There were no walls to keep her restricted, nobody totell her what to do. She could finally be who she’d been waiting to be for so long.Naturally, something had to give.
  17. 17. “Morning, B,” Rissa said as she and Theo walked in the door.“Hey, Riss. Rosemarie was looking for you – something about an explosion?”Rissa groaned.
  18. 18. “I told them not to put methanoic acid in. What’s the betting that that’s exactlywhat she’s done? Stupid.” She shook her head.Barbara shrugged. “I just work here.”“Right, then. Let them know I am displeased. They can squirm for a bit before I reallyget mean.”Barbara cracked a wry grin. “You’re such a nice person.”
  19. 19. Rissa gave Theo a quick kiss on the cheek. “See you at lunch.”To their credit, nobody at the lab seemed to care that Rissa and Theo were clearly ina relationship. Rhys in particular had been utterly unsurprised, and was not abovethrowing innuendo at them when the opportunity arose.
  20. 20. Rissa almost ran into the man in question as she walked into the main room.“Rissa. Rosemarie was…”“Looking for me, I know. If she did what I think she did, she’ll be scrubbing test tubesfor a week.”Rhys nodded. “I wouldn’t expect any less.”
  21. 21. “Banged Barbara yet?” Rissa asked casually. She asked the same question at leastonce a week.“Not yet. I live in hope.”
  22. 22. “Dream on, Rhys,” said Barbara as she walked past, carrying some old textbookthrough to the archives.“Someone has to screw the receptionist, Barbara!” Rhys protested. Barbara snortedand kept walking.
  23. 23. “Aw, poor Rhys got shut down,” Rissa snickered. “Whatcha gonna do now, sulk in youroffice and read ONTD all day instead of doing actual work?”“I’m the boss,” Rhys pointed out. “I can do what I like.”“Except the receptionist, clearly.” Before Rhys could come up with a witty retort,Rissa slipped away into her lab, just to annoy him. He hated not having the last word.
  24. 24. “Good morning, my lovelies!” said Rissa cheerfully, a dangerous glint in her eye.“Time for a first-year chemistry lesson. Somebody tell me the chemical properties ofpotassium nitrate.”
  25. 25. The four research students stared at her like deer caught in a headlight. Exasperated,Rissa picked one of them at random.“Zsa Zsa, you’re up.”
  26. 26. “Ah, um. Potassium nitrate. It’s an oxidizing agent. Mostly used in fertilizers,fireworks, and rockets. Can be used as a preservative, and in the human body itlowers blood pressure.”Rissa nodded. “Right. Ten points for you. Now, Harry, tell me what happens when itcomes into contact with a reducing agent.”
  27. 27. “It explodes.”“Bingo. For the grand prize, tell me all you know about methanoic acid.”“It’s the simplest carboxylic acid. Occurs naturally in ant and bee stings.”“And?”“It’s a reducing agent.”
  28. 28. “So, Rosemarie,” said Rissa, rounding on the dark-haired student at the front, “whatexactly possessed you to put methanoic acid into the samples to which I vividly recalladding potassium nitrate only yesterday?”
  29. 29. Rosemarie quailed under Rissa’s furious glare. “I-I thought it would be the b-best wayto make the e-ethyl methanoate we need.”“So you added methanoic acid and ethanol? Sheezus, Rosemarie. You’re lucky it wasonly a small sample. You’re on cleanup duty for the rest of the week, to remind youto think before you do something stupid.”Rosemarie nodded, eyes downcast.
  30. 30. “Right. Zsa Zsa, you put together a new sample. One that’s not gonna explode on us.Eamon, you’re free to go back to Theo. Harry, has Rhys got you doing anything today?I know you’re waiting on that mass spectrometry result from VIS.”“Just paperwork, but that can wait.”“Good. You’re with me for the rest of the day.”
  31. 31. Rissa felt a sudden, unexpected wave of nausea. She shoved it back ruthlessly.“Ah, we need to make up some ethyl methanoate. Outside the sample. Should beeasy enough.”Zsa Zsa peered into Rissa’s face. “You okay, Rissa? You look kinda pale.”
  32. 32. “Yeah, I’m good. After you’re done making up that ester, you can… you can… why isthe room all spinny?”The students all stared at Rissa in alarm. Rosemarie and Eamon, who’d beenpreparing to head off and do their assigned jobs, turned back to eye her fearfully.“Maybe you should sit down for a bit,” Eamon suggested.“I’m fine,” Rissa snapped.
  33. 33. Then, she fainted.
  34. 34. “What a lot of goddamn fuss over nothing.”Rissa was back at the apartment, and decidedly not happy about it. Rhys had sent herstraight home with Theo to keep an eye on her, after her vehement refusal to let himcall an ambulance. She was even less happy about the fact that Theo was not lettingher do anything but mope on the living room couch.
  35. 35. “I wouldn’t say ‘nothing’, Rissa,” Theo said dispassionately. “You did keel over andscare the life out of the research students.”“So? It was probably a gas leak. Gas leaks happen in labs.”Theo shook his head. “Rhys had the lab evacuated and checked. There aren’t anyleaks. You are not getting out of seeing a doctor about this.”
  36. 36. Rissa clicked her tongue. “I still think you’re overreacting. I probably just have avirus, or something.”“So we go to the doctor and get you some antivirals. Stop glaring at me like that. Iwant to find out exactly why you’re suddenly fainting all over the place.”“Don’t forget the throwing up.” Rissa blew out a sigh. “Theo, it’s probably somethingso minor… it could be low blood sugar. It could be the ‘flu. It could be…” Rissasnorted. “Nah. Couldn’t be that.”
  37. 37. Theo tilted his head. “What?”“Nothing. It’s so ludicrous… but, then again…”“Rissa, if you do not start making sense, I’ll have to do something drastic.”Rissa actually giggled. “I could be pregnant.”
  38. 38. Theo stared at her, then began laughing himself. “You? Pregnant?”“I know! It sounds so stupid! But, it’s not like we’ve been actively avoiding it, havewe? So it’s a possibility.”
  39. 39. Theo stopped laughing abruptly. “Really?”“Theo, we’ve been at it like rabbits for the past year. Didn’t they teach you in highschool how babies are made?”Theo gaped. “You. Pregnant. A baby.”
  40. 40. “Whoa, whoa.” Rissa held up a hand. “Don’t go counting your eggs before they’rezygotes. I should do a test first.”
  41. 41. Theo swallowed, forced up a smile. “Okay. I’ll go get you one.”“Y’know, I could go do that. Not that it’ll make much of a difference on this island.Gossip travels too damn fast.”“Oh, no. I am not letting you get up. You’ll fall over and hit your head.”Rissa scowled. “Fine. Be like that.”
  42. 42. “Don’t be such a pain. I’ll only be ten minutes. I might swing by the bakery and get usa decent lunch while I’m at it.”“Whatever,” said Rissa dismissively. “Overprotective pain in the ass.”
  43. 43. Theo laughed and kissed her on the head as he stood up. “Insufferable recklesschild,” he retorted.“Whiny scruffy know-it-all.” Rissa smiled slightly.“I hate you too.” Theo ran a hand through Rissa’s bright hair. “See you soon.”
  44. 44. “Well?” Theo called from outside of the upstairs bathroom door.“Hell, Theo! It’s gotta season!” Rissa yelled from within.“How long’s it going to take?”“Long enough!”Theo started pacing. “Gah.”
  45. 45. Rissa opened the door. “Stop doing that, you’ll make me dizzy.”Theo whirled around to face her.
  46. 46. “So?” Theo couldn’t help but press for an answer.Rissa smiled a bitter, crooked smile. “It’s positive,” she said simply. “I’ll have to do afew more tests to be sure, but… well.”
  47. 47. “Okay.” Theo enveloped Rissa in one of his bear hugs.Rissa stopped trying to be flippant, stopped trying to keep up her air of casualdisinterest.“What are we gonna do about this, Theo? We can’t raise a kid here. We can’t afford ahouse yet. You can’t come back to Veronaville with me. I don’t know what to do.”“Shh. We’ll find a way.”
  48. 48. “I don’t know what to do.”
  49. 49. Two weeks later“Rhys, my love,” said Rissa, casually enough, leaning against the doorframe of Rhys’office. “We need to talk. And not about the atrocious government-issue wallpaper.”
  50. 50. “Have you finally decided to ditch Teddy and come to me? Good choice,” said Rhyscheerfully.“To borrow a phrase from your favourite green receptionist, dream on,” said Rissadrily. “Are you capable of being serious for five minutes?”“I’m always serious.” Rhys gestured at the couch in the corner of his tiny office.“Take a seat.”
  51. 51. “So, what’s the problem?” he asked, as he turned his chair around to face her.“I’m gonna have to ask for a transfer back to Veronaville. To VIS.”
  52. 52. At the look of surprise and mild hurt on Rhys’ face, Rissa hastily backpedaled. “It’snot because I don’t like working here. Gods, never because of that. I’m pregnant.”Rhys smiled wryly. “Can I say that I’m unsurprised?”“Hah. Yeah, we shoulda seen it coming.”
  53. 53. “Anyways,” Rissa continued, “Theo and I can’t raise a kid in that crappy littleapartment of his, so we decided it’d be best if I went back home to Veronaville. I wasalways heading back there, I guess. Hazard of being heiress, getting dragged out ofthe life you want to live.”Rhys blinked. “You’re a legacy heir?”“Not by choice. Why? It’s not a big deal. Kind of a pain in the ass, to tell you thetruth.”
  54. 54. Rhys’ jaw tightened. “I would have given a lot to be my family’s heir,” he saidshortly. “I find it hard to understand your attitude, how you could treat anopportunity like that so lightly.”
  55. 55. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Rissa held up a hand. “Look. I don’t mind it. I wouldn’ta pickedit myself, but seeing as my sister went and got murdered, there’s nobody else for thejob. Most of the problem’s with my mother.” She rolled her eyes as she said‘mother’. “She’s all kinds of crazy controlling, and I’m really not looking forward tomoving back in with that.”She shot an accusing glare at Rhys. “You choose now to start worrying about who Imight or might not be? I’ve been working for you for a year. You ain’t got my measureyet, you’re doing it wrong. You don’t need to poke around in my past to do it – I sureas hell ain’t poking in yours.”
  56. 56. Rhys’ face softened. “Hm. Parental problems. I can understand that. I’ve had issuesthere in the past myself.”
  57. 57. Rissa narrowed her eyes. “You’re avoiding the issue.”“Yeah, I am.”She could’ve pressed for an explanation, or for an apology, but there was somethingin Rhys’ expression that made her back off.“Fine. Whatever. I trust you enough that I’ll leave that alone,” she said deliberately.“Now, can we please get back to the part where I’m pregnant and moving back toVeronaville?”Rhys exhaled. “Sure.”
  58. 58. “Okay.” Rissa smiled slightly. “VIS offered me a job at the same time as you did,which means they’ll either get all patronizing when you ask about the transfer, orthey’ll be too eager to get a twenty-year-old genius on staff to care. Since theywanted me when I was nineteen, I’m betting on the latter.”Rhys nodded. “VIS has a habit of wanting the very best on their staff. They wantedme to work for them, a few years ago.”
  59. 59. “Get outta town.” Rissa snorted. “I thought you said they wanted the best.”Rhys shot her a mock-glare. “Thanks, Rissa.”“Aw, I love you too,” said Rissa between chuckles.
  60. 60. Theo leaned against the wall outside Rhys’ office, waiting patiently for Rissa to finishup so he could drag her home. She’d promised not to get too caught up in anything,but he didn’t trust her to keep to her word. Particularly since she had a track recordfor getting distracted by science.“You’re in late.”
  61. 61. Barbara dropped the file she’d been carrying on top of the file cabinets and walkedover to Theo.“I’m not the only one in late,” he observed. “I’m just waiting for these two to stopgossiping.”
  62. 62. “Hah. You’ll be here a while,” Barbara snickered. “You might actually have a rival,Theo.”“Yeah,” said Theo with a heavy sigh. “She’s probably admitting her undying love forhim right now.”
  63. 63. Barbara’s face fell. Theo chuckled.“I’m not serious, Babs. They’re just friends. You, on the other hand, have to make upyour mind about him. Either stop freaking out every time another woman looks athim, or jump him.”“I have my reasons for staying away,” said Barbara.
  64. 64. “Are they anything to do with the fact that he has a trans-dimensional history?” Theosmiled lopsidedly at Barbara’s look of surprise. “I know his reputation. The thingabout the multiverse is, that you can’t live everywhere at once.”“I don’t understand.”“Where you are now is all that matters. I could spend my whole life wondering aboutwho Rissa is, who she’s with, in other ‘verses. But I don’t. Because here and now,where it matters, she’s mine.”
  65. 65. “And for me? That’s all I need.” Theo patted Barbara on the shoulder. “Something foryou to think about.”
  66. 66. “Am I interrupting y’all?” Rissa eyed Theo and Barbara suspiciously. “Or were youdone lurking outside Rhys’ office?”“Speak of the devil,” said Theo mildly. “You all finished up?”
  67. 67. “Not exactly. It’s gonna take a while to push the paperwork through – somebureaucratic bullshit or other. Rhys reckons it’ll take a couple months, but I shouldstill be able to travel. Even with the inconvenience of hauling around a few extrakilos.”Barbara raised an eyebrow in confusion. Rissa sighed.“I have to go back home, to Veronaville. I… we… I’m sorta kinda pregnant.”
  68. 68. Barbara squealed. “Congratulations! Yay! Baby!”Rissa smiled uncomfortably. “What is it with chicks and babies?”“You say that as though you aren’t one yourself,” said Theo, amused.
  69. 69. “Well, if you’re leaving…” Barbara paused deliberately as though consideringsomething. “You need a farewell party! Can I organize one? Please? Can I?”“Absolutely n…” Rissa began, but Theo cut smoothly across her.“Of course. She’d love you to,” he said firmly.
  70. 70. “Yay!” Barbara jumped excitedly. “Oooh, I have to book a venue, and make a guestlist! I love lists.”“You can take the secretary out of the office…” murmured Rissa.“Shh, let her have her moment.” Theo grinned. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Babs.”“Sure. Whee!”
  71. 71. “Why’d you have to go and do that?” Rissa grumbled as she and Theo left the lab forthe night. “If VIS drags its feet on the transfer, I’m gonna be several months pregnantfor this party. No alcohol, no dancing. No fun.”Theo squeezed Rissa’s hand. “It’ll be your last chance to see everyone. Rhys, Babs,the students…”“Hah! Like the students are gonna care. They’ll be glad to see the back of me, seeingas how I’ve been breathing down their necks for the best part of a year.”
  72. 72. “You’re more fond of that motley crew than you admit,” said Theo sagely. “Mostpeople would’ve fired Rosemarie by now, you realise?”“Rosemarie’s a good scientist,” Rissa admitted grudgingly. “She just needs to learn tothink things through, and stop assuming I’ll jump on her for asking questions.”“You’re such a softie,” said Theo.“Shh, they might hear you.” Rissa glanced quickly behind herself warily.
  73. 73. “The students have gone home for the night, and cannot possibly hear you.”“They’re not human. Give them an inch, they’ll swarm all over you. Like… bats.”“Bats do not swarm.”“Swarming bats do.”The two continued to bicker amiably as, hand in hand, they walked home.
  74. 74. It took six months for the transfer to go through – six months of bureaucratic pencil-pushing that Rissa would have much rather gone without. The paperwork, on top ofher usual workload and the bonus of a pregnancy that was rapidly becoming obvious,made things just that little bit trickier to manage.The worst part was that Barbara got a whole six months to plan the party.
  75. 75. “I hope this is okay,” said Barbara. “I know it’s not ideal, but it’s the best place to goin the islands, and we all really need the chance to let our hair down. Literally, in mycase.”
  76. 76. The bar Barbara had dragged everyone out to was the very same one Theo had firsttaken Rissa to when he’d first met her. The few years since she’d been there haddone nothing to make the décor any more bearable – if anything, it was worse now.Rissa didn’t even have the opportunity of using the amazing pina coladas the barmanmade to make the wall-to-wall bamboo bearable. She was drinking strictly mineralwater, and was already bored with it.She was determined, however, to have at least some fun. Even if it meant personallymurdering every single person in the building.
  77. 77. “Yeah, it’s okay,” Rissa admitted. “I’d rather be alcohol-free in a crappy bar with abunch of crazy people from work than a baby shower or some girly shit like that.”Barbara chuckled. “Glad you’re being positive for once. Better this than scary womencomparing stretch marks and telling you stories about 36-hour labours.”“Hell yes.” Rissa poked Barbara in the arm. “That’s the only reason I’m not going totake any kind of vengeance on you, even when it’s your turn to have the kids and thestretch marks.”
  78. 78. “I have to find the right guy first,” said Barbara.“Oh, please,” Rissa snickered. “If you don’t have a guy in mind, why have your eyesbeen glued to Rhys’ ass for eighty percent of the night?”Barbara flushed a deep emerald. “I have not.”“Well, if it ain’t been Rhys’ ass, it’s been Theo’s since those two are so friggin’bromantic and inseperable it makes my teeth hurt. Now, if you’ve been staring atTheo’s ass, I’m gonna have to punch you until your spleen ruptures.”
  79. 79. “Rhys… it’s complicated.” Barbara went an even deeper green.“B, I don’t know a whole lot about you, but I’m gonna hazard an educated guesshere. You’ve got an older sister, who likes men a lot. You don’t like her, so you try todistance yourself from her by being independent. When someone like Rhys comesalong, you’re head over heels but you’re scared that having him in your life’s gonnamess all that independence shit right up.”Barbara blinked. “Oh. No. That’s not it at all. He’s the father of my mom’s bestfriend’s oldest son, who’s pretty much a pseudo-brother of mine.”
  80. 80. Rissa drew back a bit. “Huh. That’s kind of really fucked up.”“Tell me about it.”“How old is he, anyway?”“I don’t even want to think about it.”
  81. 81. Barbara sighed. “I need another drink.”“Psh. After that, I think I need a drink.” Rissa poked her pregnant belly. “Sadly, Ican’t. The lump here makes complicated news like that harder to cope with. Alsosleeping and walking.”“At least you’ve got the support of a decent guy,” muttered Barbara.“Rhys is a decent guy,” said Rissa teasingly.
  82. 82. “He is not,” sighed Barbara. She glanced over to Rhys and back again. “But… this isprobably the alcohol and the stress talking. Fuck it.”“Huh?”“Fuck it,” Barbara repeated.
  83. 83. She stood up, walked over to where Rhys and Theo were talking, and tapped Rhys onthe shoulder. He turned, and was about to say something when Barbara grabbed thecollar of his shirt, pulled him down to her level, and kissed him.“Told you so,” he said when they came up for air.
  84. 84. Over at the bar, Rissa started slow clapping.
  85. 85. Barbara shot a dirty look at Rissa, punched Rhys and then went straight back tokissing him.
  86. 86. Theo, by now totally forgotten, shrugged and walked over to join Rissa at the bar.
  87. 87. “Having fun?” he asked her.She smirked. “Most entertainment I’ve had all week,” she said cheerfully, and flaggeddown the bartender for another mineral water.
  88. 88. “I don’t want to leave.”“I know.” Theo breathed in the smell of Rissa’s hair. It was a somber purple, a colourshe told him she’d worn when she left home. Wearing it again, now, was ‘all symbolicand shit’.“Son of a bitch.” Rissa held Theo tighter.
  89. 89. “I don’t get emotional over shit like this.”“No.”“You’ll be there when the kid’s born.”“Yes.”“And whenever you can bribe Rhys to give you time off.”“Yeah.”“I’m okay with this.”
  90. 90. “You don’t have to be,” said Theo. “You don’t have to be in control all of the time,Riss.”“Yeah, I do.” Rissa sighed. “I always do.”“I love you.”
  91. 91. Rissa drew back. “What the hell am I supposed to say to that? Holy shit, you suck.”“Usually, you say ‘I love you too’,” said Theo drily. “I expected nothing less than thisreaction from you, though.”“Jerk,” Rissa muttered.
  92. 92. A horn sounded from outside.“That’s your taxi. You should go.”“Yeah. Probably. I…” Rissa tried to get the words out, but they choked her. Shesettled on “I’ll miss you.”“I know. Go on, now,” said Theo, wanting this over before he had the chance to hurtmore.
  93. 93.
  94. 94.
  95. 95.
  96. 96.
  97. 97. Back at Sim State University…University security detail was always the worst, mused Brandon Wentworth as hepaced along the boundary fence of one of the fraternities. Drunken students,streakers, and mascots who thought the masks made them invincible weren’t exactlythe highlights of the job.Never mind that he was stuck guarding this one fraternity thanks to a call from somestuck-up woman who had more political clout than his job, or his boss’ job, wasworth.
  98. 98. On his fourth sweep of the shift, he spotted a young raven-haired woman walkingtowards the gate with a slightly tentative air. He didn’t recognize her as one of theresidents, so he called out.“Excuse me, miss. Annya-Nagard-Cham’s restricted to authorized personnel only.”
  99. 99. “Oh my gosh, I had no idea!” said the woman, looking slightly intimidated and veryapologetic. “I was just told by Rish – you know, Rishell Hamilton – to come here tostudy and stuff, because the library’s always really, really packed right before finalslike this, and she said everyone was gonna be fine with it since I’m friends with Opal,who suggested it in the first place because they have a ton of textbooks here that thelibrary doesn’t even have because people have been leaving books here for, like,ever…”
  100. 100. Brandon’s head spun from the speed of her speech. “Uh. Okay. Could I just get yourname, then, miss?”“Oh, sure! I’m Fee. That’s Fiona Ashley Kinsey Stafford – Kinsey’s my mom’s maidenname, isn’t it funny having that as a middle name? Ooh, do you want my student ID?”She started digging in her pockets.“Ah, no, that’s fine,” said Brandon, desperate to get rid of this overly chatty student.“If you were invited by one of the residents, you’re clear to go in.”
  101. 101. “Thank you!” said Fiona brightly. “I don’t know what I’d have done without beingable to come here – I’d go fair crazy trying to study in the library what with all thepeople and the lack of textbooks and stuff.” She gave the guard a dazzling smile andbreezed through the gate.
  102. 102. Brandon watched her go, scratching his head. “Students these days,” he sighed,before starting on his fifth sweep.
  103. 103. Once inside the gate, Fury allowed herself a small, smug smile. This had been far tooeasy. Clearly, her wonderful double had run out of intelligent staff, or had perhapsput them on duty at the main house rather than here.How foolish of her.
  104. 104. As she looked up at the house, she felt the comforting weight of her gun tucked intothe waistband of her jeans, and felt positively cheerful. She may have overlookedClarissa Chandler once before, but now? The girl was as good as dead, and when thedeed was done, Fury would be smoke in the wind.Today, I think, will be a good day.
  105. 105. Even though finals were just around the corner, the occupants of Annya-Nagard-Chamwere doing anything but studying. Lora had gotten tired of everyone sniping at eachother for small things, and had declared today to be textbook free.Nobody really complained. They didn’t feel like doing much, though, so everyone justgathered in the lounge and variously flaked out on the floor and couch.
  106. 106. “I dunno, guys,” said Rishell restlessly from the floor. “It feels kind of weird to not best…”“Ah-ah!” snapped Lora from the couch.
  107. 107. “There will be no mentioning of the s-word,” she continued, her voice full ofunspoken threats. “You will not break my zen calm. We are officially an academia-free zone until tomorrow morning.”
  108. 108. Will mock-glared at Rishell. “No questioning the day off. You’ll teach your stray overhere bad habits. We can’t have her thinking you’re supposed to study in university.”“Watch who you’re calling a stray,” said Opal mildly. Opal had been recruited byRishell three weeks ago – she was a freshman in the tutorial Rishell taught. Everyoneliked having her around because she made amazing cupcakes and refused to put upwith Will’s shit.“I tell it like it is,” said Will innocently.
  109. 109. “Tsh, like it is on your planet, maybe,” Opal retorted, before switching her attentionto Lora. “Hey, if we’re having a book-free party, can I invite my boyfriend over?Having him around might make dealing with Scruffy here a bit easier.”
  110. 110. “Sure. The more, the merrier.”“Awesome.” Opal stood up and pulled her cell out of her pocket. “He’ll just begetting out of class over in the Scott Building, so it’ll take him a while to get here.”
  111. 111. “Can I call Robbie, then? Can I, can I, can I?” Will put on a pleading face.
  112. 112. Lora kicked him. “Don’t be stupid, of course you can.”“Ask Will not to be stupid? Might as well tell him to stop breathing,” Matt quipped.
  113. 113. “Matthew, did you actually just make a joke?” asked Will, delighted. “I think that’sthe first time you’ve ever said anything funny.”“I, uh…” Matt went red and clammed up.“He’s been hanging around with you for too long. You’re a bad influence on him,”said Lora acidly.
  114. 114. “An insult to my honor!” cried Will. “Were you not a lady, I would stand posthasteand slap you with my riding glove!”“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said a bored voice from the doorway.
  115. 115. Fury smirked at her astonished audience. “I do love a good entrance. The bunnies-in-a-headlight looks always make me feel so warm and fuzzy inside.”
  116. 116. Everyone lurched to their feet as Fury walked in slowly, like a cat stalking somethingsmall and tasty.“Now,” she said, “none of you is Clarissa Chandler. Clarissa Chandler is taller,blonder, and frankly prettier than any of you. Am I to take it that I was misinformed,and that this is not her place of residence? How disappointing.”
  117. 117. Always a quick thinker, Lora decided to try lying. “Who the hell are you, lady? I don’tknow any Christina Chandler.”Will followed suit. “You gotta have the wrong fraternity. There’s heaps around here.Maybe try asking at Tri-Var, but I’d do it without the gun. Just an idea.”
  118. 118. “Hmm. Nice try, Lora. William.” Fury said their names very deliberately, letting themknow she was not going to be fooled by anything they said. “I give you credit forquick thinking, but I am far too meticulous in research to make an error of thatmagnitude. I was merely being rhetorical.”
  119. 119. “Who the hell are you?” Opal demanded.“That’s none of your concern. What is of your concern is the current whereabouts ofClarissa Chandler.”“What, you barge in here with a gun and expect us to sell out someone we know?You’re deluded.”
  120. 120. “I expect you to sell her out because I will most certainly kill you if you do not. Donot think for a moment that I will not leave every person in this room dead if I do notget what I want.” Fury clicked her tongue in mild exasperation. “I will as you a finaltime: where is Clarissa? Clock’s ticking.”
  121. 121. “We don’t know,” said Rishell. “Nobody knows.”“I so dislike liars. I thought I had made this plain by now.”“She’s not lying,” said Matt. “Rissa graduated about eighteen months ago. She tookoff to go backpacking or something.”
  122. 122. “That is not possible. Clarissa is not even twenty-one yet. She cannot havegraduated.”“She was on an accelerated program,” said Rishell quietly. “Left as soon as she couldand rode off into the sunset.”
  123. 123. “Probably to find that guy,” Matt muttered.“Psh, Rissa? She’ll be heading in the opposite direction. She holds grudges,remember?” said Lora.“Clearly,” Fury interrupted, “I am not keeping you entertained enough. One wouldthink that my aiming a loaded gun at your friend here would discourage small talk.”Matt and Lora immediately shut up.
  124. 124. “Thank you. So, there is nobody in the room who truthfully knows where ClarissaChandler is?”“Nobody in anywhere,” said Will. “She didn’t even tell the Simself who came to seeher just before she left.”“Which Simself?” asked Fury sharply.“Jeez, I dunno! I just heard them talking! I was hungover!” Will shrugged. “They justtalked about Rissa leaving, and something about a fire, then they both left.”
  125. 125. Fury tilted her head. “Interesting. She must be far more intelligent than I gave hercredit for.” She sighed deeply. “What a pity. I did so want to meet her. We havemuch to discuss, her and I.”“I’ll bet,” muttered Opal.“This is all so dreadfully untidy,” Fury continued. “So many witnesses. I suppose Icould let you all go, but I came all this way. It seems such a waste of an afternoon.”
  126. 126. She smiled suddenly, brilliantly. “Oh well. I suppose you can all be some use to me.They say dead men tell no tales, but I think you can make a pretty story for yourfriend and her Simself protector.”
  127. 127. “Yes. I think this will work. I want you five to send a message for me."
  128. 128. “Oh, God, Parker.”Parker tightened his arms around Suze. “It’s not her. We’d know by now if it washer.”“Five of them, Parker. Fire told me that she was living there with her four friends.”“That doesn’t mean it was her.”“I know it’s her.” Suze cried harder into Parker’s shoulder. “Both my girls, gone.”
  129. 129. “Hey, now.” Parker pulled back and looked Suze in the eyes. “You’re being irrationalagain, Suzie. We can’t assume anything until Fire comes and tells us. I know it’s hard,but we can’t start grieving yet. Okay?”Suze sniffled. “Okay.”There was a knock at the door.
  130. 130. Suze yelped and started breathing faster. “It’s Fire.”Parker sighed. “Or it’s the post. Calm down, Suze.”“I don’t think I can handle this, Parker.”“I’ll answer the door then,” Parker said, slightly impatient.“No. No, I’ll do it.” Suze squared her shoulders. “I’ve handled worse than this.”
  131. 131.
  132. 132.
  133. 133.
  134. 134. “Hi, Mom.”