Chapter 7.5: Fragments


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Chapter 7.5 of The Absolutely Crazy Matriarchy.

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Chapter 7.5: Fragments

  1. 1. Previously in The Absolutely Crazy Matriarchy: …“Faceless pretender dims a light Legacy continues bright Prophecy that no-one hears Event that every family fears The empty heart, the dying day One who bleeds shall fade away.”…
  2. 2. …Parker was indeed running up behind them. “Get the hell away from my girlfriend, you creep! I don’t care if you’re delusional or not, she’s not yours any more, so get the hell out before I throw you out. A window. THAT IS CLOSED.”…
  3. 3.
  4. 4. …Lindsay was thrown back by the impact of the bullet into her abdomen. She crumpled to the ground next to Zack…
  5. 5. …Maia began to howl… And now we return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast.
  6. 6. Ten minutes later… Slow down, Suze. One word at a time. What’s happened?
  7. 7. The war room was fairly empty, as it usually was when there were no meetings. Simselves were dotted variously around the building, most researching or trying to track down a certain errant criminal. Lark and Cee, who were in the war room, listened intently as a panicked voice filtered through Fire’s cell phone speaker.
  8. 8. Okay. Okay. Suze, I’m on my way. Try not to touch anything, okay? We’ll be there soon. Fire hit the disconnect button and shoved her phone in her pocket with shaking hands.
  9. 9. Cee leaped out of her chair and crossed the room. “What was all that about?” Code black. Fucking code black. Cee froze. “What?” she whispered.
  10. 10. At this, Lark also jumped off her seat. “Who’s dead this time, Fire? What’s happened?” I need you and the others at the main house as soon as possible. I want you there five minutes ago.
  11. 11. “That didn’t answer my qu-” Lark’s next statement was cut off as Fire mumbled something under her breath. When she next spoke, her voice echoed through the whole house, making Lark and Cee yelp. Code black, everyone. Drop everything. Get to 50 Pearl Road as soon as humanly possible. When she’d finished speaking, Fire began to dematerialize.
  12. 12. “Fire. Who. Is. Dead?” snapped Lark. Lindsay. And Zack. And maybe Rissa. Damn it. She vanished entirely.
  13. 13. The others were out the door and running before the sparkles faded away.
  14. 14. Five minutes later… Fire crouched down next to Lindsay’s still form. If it weren’t for the gaping bullet wound, she might have been sleeping. How could she look so peaceful? She shook herself and examined her crime scene more objectively. Lindsay had a single bullet wound to the abdomen. Zack’s wasn’t visible but it was probably somewhere similar. The gun was probably small-calibre since Zack had no noticeable exit wound, which matched Fury’s MO from Justin’s death. Zack also had small scorch marks on his clothes, but Lindsay’s did not. I could have stopped this.
  15. 15. “If you’re beating yourself up, stop it,” Gaara said as he came downstairs to stand next to Fire. “You could have done something, sure, but you can’t any more. You need to focus on the living, not the dead.” Fire sighed and stood up.
  16. 16. You can’t expect me not to blame myself. I should have done something to protect these people when Justin died. I don’t know why I didn’t. “You were distracted.” That’s no excuse.
  17. 17. “It isn’t, but it’s understandable. You’ve got an insanely scary evil twin out there who’s deliberately targeting the people you love. Your brain just clicked into ‘must find and stop evil twin’ mode instead of ‘must protect other loved ones’ mode.” Fire sighed. I guess that’s what I do now. Lock the barn after the horse is gone.
  18. 18. Gaara shook his head. “We’re just working with a different heir now. She needs protection now that she’s the last one left.” You know what flips me? Why didn’t Fury kill Rissa? It’s not like her to skip over someone because they’re young. “I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t know about Rissa. Maybe she assumed Rissa was with Suze. Either way, she’s made a mistake.” And if Fury can make mistakes, she’s beatable, mused Fire.
  19. 19. Okay. I think we’re done with the scene. Grab Spike and get him to help you move the bodies. The city police are outside – we’re working with them this time, even though supernatural crimes are outside their jurisdiction. They’ll take Zack and Lindsay to the morgue. When you’re done, maybe start working on fortifications. Get a builder in – I want walls around this place, and robots, and anything else you can think of. Gaara nodded. “Should I tell the others to pack up?” No, I’ll do it. I need to check in with them, but I want to see Suze first.
  20. 20. Gaara’s face softened. “How’s she holding up?” She was pretty incoherent when I arrived. Cee’s been taking care of her, and Remus was watching Rissa. “I can’t imagine what she must be going through. First her brother, now her daughter.”
  21. 21. All the more reason for us to find Fury and kick her skanky, lopsided ass. “You’ve been spending too much time around your husband,” said Gaara drily as he left.
  22. 22. Fire headed upstairs to the nursery. Cee was in there, her arms around Suze. How’s she doing? Fire asked Cee quietly.
  23. 23. “As well as can be expected,” said Cee, patting Suze on the shoulder as she cried. “I don’t think she’s going to be coherent for a while.” Not really surprising. Look, I’m going to stay here for the night once… we’ve got things downstairs sorted. Could you stay as well? “Yeah. I think a few of us are, actually. I mean, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to pull Rissa away from her new friend.” Cee gestured over to the corner of the nursery as Suze continued to cry into her shoulder.
  24. 24. Remus was playing with Rissa, who seemed completely unfazed by the deluge of strangers. “We think she was asleep the whole time. Probably a good thing. If she’d heard, or made a noise, she’d be traumatized or dead. Poor kid.” Yeah. She’ll have a lot to deal with when she gets older.
  25. 25. Fire pulled Suze into a hug. We’re not going to stop until we make Fury pay for this, okay, Suze? Suze sniffled into Fire’s leather jacket. “She killed Lindsay.” I know. And it’s my fault. I’m so sorry. “Not your fault.” said Suze shakily. “Her fault.” Fire sighed. Thanks, Suze. I have to go downstairs for a bit. I’ll leave you with Cee.
  26. 26. Downstairs, the lounge had been turned into an impromptu incident room. The couch had been shoved aside and Simselves were scattered variously around working on laptops. “Hey, Fire. What’s the situation?” asked Lucy, looking up from the lab report she’d been reading. We’re about done. You guys can pack up shop if you like. That from the Andrews case? asked Fire. “Yup. Got a lot of similarities to this one.”
  27. 27. I’m not surprised. “Come look at this,” said Lark. Fire obediently sat on the floor next to where Lark was sprawled with her laptop. What can you tell me? “I sent some hair samples to Tempe about five minutes ago. She works really fast – she’s just said that not all the blonde hair was Zack’s. Some was dyed, blonde over brown. She’s running a DNA analysis, but I’m willing to bet it’ll be a match to yours.” Well, that tells us she’s a blonde… Oh. Hang on. Lightbulb moment.
  28. 28. “Hmm?” asked Lark, but Fire was distracted by a sad whuffing noise from behind her. Hey, dog. Fire looked over her shoulder into the liquid eyes of the wolf. Yeah, I know you did your best. There’s only so much you can do while you’re looking like that. “Uh. Fire? You do know that’s a dog you’re talking to? And what was it you were going to say?” But Fire was standing up and looking out the window as though someone had called her. What? Oh, I’ll tell you later. There’s someone I need to speak to first. “She’s mad,” Lark sighed to the dog as she snapped her laptop shut. The dog yipped in what sounded like agreement.
  29. 29. Fire walked out to the front of the house, where Death was standing (floating?) patiently, waiting for her. You’re late. Usually you’re all over a scene like this. HUMANS. ALWAYS ASSUMING THAT THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT ENTITIES IN THE MULTIVERSE. I HAVE A VERY BUSY SCHEDULE, AND IT WILL NOT BE SLOWING DOWN ANY TIME SOON.
  30. 30. Is that a hint? Am I supposed to expect more people dying? AS ALWAYS, MY ANSWER IS THAT I CANNOT ANSWER. NO MORTAL IS MEANT TO KNOW THE INTRICACIES OF LIFE AND DEATH. I’m not a mortal. BUT YOU ARE NOT A GOD YET, EITHER, Death said cryptically.
  31. 31. Talking in riddles isn’t going to make me any less pissed off. In any case, you are late. My colleagues are in the process of moving the bodies already. GOODNESS, I AM BEHIND SCHEDULE. I DID HAVE A RATHER STICKY SITUATION TO DEAL WITH IN VIPER CANYON. CALLS AT ALL TIMES OF THE NIGHT. I’d heard. I don’t care. I want answers here and now. Why can’t I find her?
  32. 32. BECAUSE SHE HAS PART OF YOU. That’s helpful, said Fire, voice dripping sarcasm. THAT IS THE BEST THAT I CAN GIVE YOU.
  33. 33. AND NOW THAT WE HAVE SPOKEN, I HAVE A JOB TO DO. YOU DO, ALSO. A scythe appeared in Death’s bony hand as he continued on towards the house. Yeah. I do. No thanks to you, said Fire bitterly. Death did not reply.
  34. 34. Two days later… Adam was back home at last. The bachelorette challenge had been fun, but Adam just hadn’t been attracted to the girl in question. He did like her as a friend, though, and hoped he’d be able to keep in contact with her. He’d sent a text to his mother telling her that he was back, but she hadn’t replied. He figured she was probably at work and was wandering around downtown waiting for a reply.
  35. 35. He was completely lost in thought while he wandered. He missed Anne and the others he’d met during the challenge, and wondered who would win. He’d left early, so the challenge was probably still taking place.
  36. 36. He was so totally oblivious to his surroundings that it wasn’t a surprise that he walked straight into the blonde woman in front of him.
  37. 37. “OHMYGOD I am SO sorry,” said Adam in a panicked voice. “Are you okay? Did I hurt you?” The blonde giggled. “Oh no, I’m fine. I don’t object to cute guys running into me.” She blinked, then blushed scarlet. “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to go outside my own head.”
  38. 38. “Uh, it’s okay,” said Adam, blushing a little himself. “I’m not going to object to being called, ah, cute.” She grinned. “Hang on, haven’t I seen you before? You look familiar.” “I have one of those faces, I guess…”
  39. 39. “Oh, waitwaitwait! I know! You’re the guy behind the counter at the art gallery! Wow! Where’ve you been? I’ve been hoping to catch you at the gallery again but it’s always been a woman with brown hair behind the counter, not you.” “You’ve been trying to find me?” asked Adam, slightly embarrassed. “Oh. Oops. Another thing meant to stay inside my head. I always babble when I’m nervous!” said the blonde.
  40. 40. “Don’t worry, it’s sweet,” said Adam. “I’m Adam Chandler, by the way.” The girl nodded. “I’m Naomi. Naomi Carter.” “Pretty name,” said Adam, trying to think of something intelligent to say. “Not for a baker. Bakers need interesting names for their bakeries, and Carter’s Bakery sounds kinda… eesh. Being a carter used to be a profession all on its own.”
  41. 41. “Wow, you’re a baker? I love baking! Pies are the only way I could get my sister and her boyfriend to eat fruit and vegetables in college. I swear those two survive on linseed oil and paint fumes.” “Oh, it’s so great to meet someone who loves baking too. I’ve got a little shop a few streets over, maybe you could come and check it out? I’ve been told I make really good cheesecake, but I can’t get the base quite right.” “Well, have you tried…” Adam was interrupted by his cell phone ringing.
  42. 42. He pulled it out and checked the caller ID. “I’m so sorry, Naomi, it’s my mother. I really should take this.” “Hey, that’s fine,” said Naomi cheerfully.
  43. 43. “Hey Mum.” … “Oh. Fire? What are you doing at my house?”
  44. 44. … “…Sorry, what’s happened?”
  45. 45. Three days later… Fire let herself into HQ. As loath as she was to leave the main house for long, she couldn’t simply stop working. Her plan was to get in, grab a few files, tell everyone when the funeral would be, then get back to the main house before Suze got home from work.
  46. 46. Hey guys, I’m home, but I won’t be here for…
  47. 47. Fire was stopped midsentence when she nearly tripped headlong over a pile of suitcases and boxes in the doorway. Someone planning a trip? she muttered, rubbing her shin.
  48. 48. Lucy popped out of the war room. “Hey, Fire! We weren’t expecting you to be back.” So you planned to head off on vacation? asked Fire, arching an eyebrow. “Not exactly.”
  49. 49. Elaborate, please, Lucy. The suspense is killing me. “See, Remus and I just got some rather bad news from home. One of my Sims has gotten himself into an apocalypse, and we’re sort of needed.” Ah.
  50. 50. “We were planning on telling you, but travel to apocalypse universes gets cut off pretty quickly, and the last flight out’s leaving in about three hours.” Fire nodded. I understand, Lucy.
  51. 51. “It’s actually more like two and a half hours now, Luce,” said Remus, appearing from the library. I’m glad I caught you in time to say goodbye, then. “You’re not angry?” I can’t say I’m glad you’re leaving, but I wouldn’t hold you back if I could.
  52. 52. “I know it’s the worst possible time…” Stop feeling guilty about things beyond your control. That’s my job, remember? Fire smiled. Have a safe trip, you two.
  53. 53. “Thanks for everything, Fire.” Remus pulled Fire into an impulsive hug. No, thank you. I know you didn’t get what you bargained for here. “Doesn’t matter. We were glad to help out.”
  54. 54. Fire and the others watched the Obsessions leave, then Fire glanced at her watch. Oh, crud. Guys, war room, now. Super quick meeting.
  55. 55. Right. First of all, Suze has organised Lindsay’s funeral to be in two days. I want as many of us as possible to be there, but I also want a double guard on the main house since Rissa will be there with just a nanny.
  56. 56. “Me and Gaara can be the guard dogs,” said Spike. “And I’ll hold down the fort here,” offered Jeremy. “So you and the girls can go to the funeral. Great. Solved. So we just have one more thing to tackle. Lucy and Remus leaving us is understandable, but leaves us without numbers, and that’s something we can’t afford.
  57. 57. “If you like, I can send out the word that we need reinforcements,” said Lark. “There are a few nearby apocalypse ‘verses which are close enough to completion to be able to spare a Simself or two.” And apocalypses tend to make for fairly hardy Simselves. Great.
  58. 58. Lark got up. “I’ll do that now. No point wasting time, since we don’t have a lot of that to spare.”
  59. 59. All right, I think that’s it. I’m still staying with Suze indefinitely – I just meant to swing by and pick up a few things and then visit Tempe. Guess things didn’t work out that way. Keep things ticking over, guys. Over at the computer, Lark pouted. “Can’t I go visit Tempe?” Last time you did, she wouldn’t come out of the tower for days. You know you scare her. And threatening her with cookie cutter sharks does not help matters. “That’s the fun part.”
  60. 60. As Fire headed out the door, Spike stopped her in the hall. “Hey, wait up a second, Fire.” ‘Fire’? Not ‘pet’, or ‘love’?
  61. 61. Spike touched Fire’s cheek. “I haven’t forgotten that you do have a name, love. Come home soon, will you? We need you here.” Aw, that’s such a sweet way of avoiding saying you miss me. “You caught me,” he said. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I miss you, too.
  62. 62. Spike watched her go, a bitter, sarcastic smile on his face. “Always got to be the hero, don’t you?” She didn’t hear.
  63. 63. Ten minutes later… Hmm. Tempe’s done a fair bit of remodeling, Fire muttered to herself as she knocked on the new front door of Tempe’s home.
  64. 64. Tempe’s robotic companion, Fr4nk opened the door. “Welcome, Ms. Eternal. Miss Chandler is expecting you.” Thank you, Fr4nk. Where is Tempe, by the way? “Miss Chandler is in the laboratory. Please follow me, I will direct you to its location.”
  65. 65. Tempe’s lab turned out to be on the roof of her house, overlooking the greenhouse tacked onto the side for her cowplant, Agnes. “Please excuse me, Ms. Eternal. I have duties I must perform now.” It’s okay, Fr4nk. I’m capable of opening a door on my own. “Good.” Once Fr4nk had left, Fire allowed herself a quiet chuckle. Tempe’s programming genius evidently hadn’t extended to sarcasm recognition.
  66. 66. I like what you’ve done with the place, said Fire once inside the lab. The room was tiled in perfect white, with various complicated apparatus scattered around. Tempe herself was seated at a computer desk, examining a string of letters on the screen. “Ah, Fire. Your timing is excellent. The DNA results from your hair sample are finished.” She gestured at the screen. Since I’m not fluent in gibberish, I’ll assume it’s a match to mine? “They’re base pairs, not gibberish. And yes. It’s a match. 99.99%, with a 0.01% error margin.”
  67. 67. She shut down the program and stood. “This indicates a substantially altered modus operandi for the second murder, assuming Fury was also the perpetrator of the first crime.” ‘Assuming’? And I don’t see a substantial difference. Same gun, same accuracy, same coldness. “There was no physical evidence as to the perpetrator for Justin’s murder. No hair, skin cells, nothing. Fury is becoming sloppy.” So she’s making more mistakes than we thought. This is interesting.
  68. 68. Tempe leaned in a little, and said excitedly, “I actually have a theory about this. Being a Simself of a kind, Fury is bound to have access to supernatural abilities, akin to your own. She appears to have the ability to avoid leaving physical traces, but she may only have partial control over this phenomenon.” Fire raised an eyebrow. This was the only time she’d ever seen Tempe this animated. Tempe reddened slightly. “I do apologize. Your visit was not for the sole purpose of hearing me babble. What can I help you with today?”
  69. 69. The main house needs sentries, and you’re the best in the robotics business. I’d like to order two of the best you can make, as soon as possible.
  70. 70. “Certainly, I can make some souped-up robots for you. What sort of system specifications are you after?” Something big and zappy will suffice. Tempe gave a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll improvise. I can add facial recognition and more powerful stunners to a standard sentry.” Facial recognition? Doesn’t that mean I’ll be recognized as a hostile?
  71. 71. “You will not.” Tempe indicated Fire’s cheek. “Your adversary did you a favour of sorts by giving you a distinguishing mark.” That’s one way of looking at it. “I can have them to you by tomorrow. Is there anything else?”
  72. 72. Ah, Lindsay’s funeral is in two days. I know you don’t usually like family events, but… “I will be there. My niece will need my support.” Fire smiled slightly. Fr4nk’s having quite the effect on you. I remember when you refused to leave the house unless there was an apocalypse. Tempe coloured a bit. “You, ah, noticed. He’s been making me wear my hair long, and spend time outside the laboratory. It’s a little uncomfortable.” I think I like your robot, said Fire with a slight smile.
  73. 73. Fire turned to leave. I have to get going. Suze will be home soon, and she panics if she gets home without anyone else there. “One moment, Fire?” asked Tempe. Hmm?
  74. 74. “Watch your back. If my psychological profile on Fury is correct, than members of my family will not be the only ones she will target.” I’ll keep that in mind.
  75. 75. Two days later… On the day of the funeral, it rained. Nevertheless, a small cluster of people stood within Veronaville’s one and only cemetery, farewelling the young couple who had died too young.
  76. 76. The decades disappear like sinking ships But we persevere, God gives us hope But we still fear what we don’t know Castles in the sky sit stranded, vandalized
  77. 77. With drawbridges closing Saw Cinderella in a party dress But she was looking for a nightgown I saw the ending when I turned the page
  78. 78. I threw my money and I ran away Straight to the valley of the great divide Out where the dreams all hide Out where the wind don’t blow
  79. 79. Out here, the good girls die And the sky won’t snow Out here, the bird don’t sing Out here, the field don’t grow
  80. 80. Out here, the bell don’t ring Out here, the bell don’t ring Out here, the good girls die
  81. 81. Now Cinderella, don’t you go to sleep It’s such a bitter form of refuge Why don’t you know, the kingdom’s under siege And everybody needs you Lyrics adapted from A Dustland Fairytale by The Killers.
  82. 82. After the service, the attendees milled around the cemetery, talking quietly to one another. Suze and Parker stayed a little back, and surveyed the gravesites. “It was a good service,” said Suze finally. “Sad, but nice.” “It was. Do you want to go over and visit your brother’s grave now? You mentioned something about it earlier.” “Yeah, it’s been a while since I… hold that thought.” Suze’s gaze was caught by a man standing by Lindsay’s grave.
  83. 83. “Oh no. You are not going over there,” said Parker firmly. “Parker, it’s okay. I just want to talk to him. If I start screaming at him, you can come running.”
  84. 84. Parker frowned, but eventually acquiesced. “Go on, then. If he makes so much as a wrong twitch…” “I get it, Parker.”
  85. 85. Alejandro turned as Suze approached. “Alejandro.” “Susannah.” “I’m surprised you had the nerve to show your face today, after the little incident last month.”
  86. 86. “I may not have been the perfect father, but,” Alejandro said coolly, “Lindsay was still my daughter. I do wish I’d had the time to get to know her.” “You had all the time in the world. You just didn’t take the chance because you were too busy trying to manipulate me.”
  87. 87. “I know.” Alejandro sighed. Suze was slightly surprised to see that he looked… defeated. “I’ve made mistakes. Many of them. The way I treated you was probably the largest, and I am paying for that now.” He looked away from Suze. “I do not stand any kind of chance with you now, do I?” “No. You don’t.” “I was foolish to believe I ever could. I guess I just… wanted back what I’d lost.”
  88. 88. “Yeah, well… how does that song go? You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. What we had was good, but now it’s broken. And there isn’t anything strong enough to put it back together like it used to be.” “I know that now. Don’t worry. I’ll be keeping my distance from now on… unless Adam decides to invite me to his wedding. He seemed awfully close to that pretty girl he brought today.”
  89. 89. Suze glanced over at her son and his girlfriend. “I wouldn’t count on it. You never won any Father of the Year awards.” “Painfully succinct, as always.” Alejandro raised his hand as if to touch her, but thought better of it. “I believe this is goodbye, then?” “Pretty much. Goodbye, Alejandro.” “Goodbye, Susannah.”
  90. 90. Suze turned as if to leave, then changed her mind. “Alejandro… why do you always call me ‘Susannah’?” Alejandro looked mildly confused. “Isn’t that your name?” “Most everyone calls me Suze. Even my mother. So why not you?”
  91. 91. “I never felt the need to. It’s a beautiful name, like the woman who wears it. It never needed to be anything other than Susannah.” With that, he quietly turned and walked away.
  92. 92. Parker joined Suze as Alejandro left. “You okay, Suze?” “Yeah.” Suze turned to Parker, and kissed him.
  93. 93. “I’m as okay as I’m going to get.”
  94. 94. As they approached the cemetery gate, Suze paused. “Wait a second. I need to speak to Fire before you take me home.” “Oh, right. She’s living with you now, isn’t she?” “That’s what I need to speak with her about.” Suze left Parker at the gate and walked over to where Fire was standing.
  95. 95. Hey, Suze. Ready to head back, I guess? I won’t be a minute. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Suze smiled wanly. “You’ve been living with me ever since Lindsay was killed. It really isn’t practical.” I’m not sure what you mean. “You’ve got a husband, and a life that doesn’t revolve around me. I know time works differently for you than it does for me, but it’s still been an awfully long time for you to spend away from all that.”
  96. 96. Fire nodded. So, you’re proposing…? “I want your permission to break a rule, and let Parker move in with me.” Fire considered this. That’s a good idea, actually.
  97. 97. I don’t want you living on your own, and it is a little impractical for me to be away from HQ right now. Though, if you wanted me to, I’d still stay. “Breaking a rule doesn’t bother you? Would RealFire mind?” To be honest, I don’t care what she’d think. She’s not calling the shots around here any more. If she can’t handle living with Parker, too bad. “You mean, if she can’t handle me living with Parker?” asked Suze. Yeah. Sorry. My tongue and my brain don’t communicate as often as they should.
  98. 98. Ask Parker to move in. You’ll have help with Rissa, and you won’t have to live on your own. We’ll keep up the patrols, which will be easier once our reinforcements arrive. The robots Tempe made will help, and once the wall’s finished you’ll be pretty secure. “I’m planning on warding the house, too. The local coven’s been giving me a hand since I’m not a particularly powerful witch.” Good idea. In light of this, I think it’s safe to say that you guys can’t have too much security.
  99. 99. “Yeah. She’s… she’s gotten in once, and I don’t want her waltzing in like that again.” She can’t, because we’ll be there. I know it’s hard, but we have to learn from this. Lindsay’s death was awful, but it’s helping us to protect her sister. “I think she’d be happy with that.” I know she would. She loved you guys too much to let you get hurt. Now go ask Parker to move in. He’ll be thrilled.
  100. 100. Fire watched Suze hurry over to Parker, then embrace him. Things weren’t okay, and they wouldn’t ever be okay while Lindsay stayed in the ground before her time. But they could pick up all the fragments and glue them back together as best they could. There would be cracks, but they were reminders of lessons learnt. Lark and Cee had also been watching Suze and Parker’s little exchange. “Coming back to HQ with us, then?” asked Lark.
  101. 101. Yeah. I have some decisions to make, and it’s about time they started being good decisions. “I think you just made a good decision,” said Cee. You know, I think I did.
  102. 102. Four hours later… Having Parker in the house didn’t make Suze feel any less alone.
  103. 103.
  104. 104. Three days later… “You sure this is the right place?” Marina asked Rose as they stood on the pavement outside Simself HQ. “The address is right. Why would you think it isn’t the right place?” Rose is the simself of RoseFyre, author of A Buffyverse Apocalypse Marina is the simself of smoothiequeen87, author of A Villanous Apocalypse If you haven’t read their stories, you really, really should.
  105. 105. “Well, Lark never said the place had a tower.” “True.” “Meh, let’s just go in anyway. Can’t hurt to knock on the door.”
  106. 106. They didn’t make it to the door, however, before Fire opened it and wandered out to greet her friends. Hi, guys. Glad you could make it here. How was the trip? “Same old, same old. Interdimensional travel never gets much more exciting.” “Speak for yourself. I had to pry Rhys away from the taxi. He’s always too eager to find dimensions with women in he hasn’t slept with.”
  107. 107. Heh. I’m glad you did. I have enough Sims running around unchecked as is. “We heard.”
  108. 108. Rose dragged Fire into a hug. “It’s so good to see you again! Even if your voice is weird and there’s a crazy woman on the loose.” “Uh-oh. You’ve been caught by the Hug Monster, Fire. You’re doomed now.” “Is it a crime to like hugs? No.” Fire laughed. Come on, you two. Do you want the grand tour, or not?
  109. 109. Fire led Marina and Rose into the house. I’ll take you upstairs first, since that’s the floor with the bedrooms. “It’s kinda… huge,” commented Marina. We do have an unlimited budget, Fire said with a slight smile. “I’ll bet,” said Rose.
  110. 110. So, we have two vacant bedrooms. One’s in the corner there, and is part of the tower. The other one… “I call tower!” said Rose immediately. “Hey hey hey, that’s not fair!” “Are you trying to subvert the power of the dibs?” “Yes… no… uh… grr.” Marina glared at Rose.
  111. 111. Fire sighed and watched the two of them bicker. If they’re meant to be our reinforcements, we’re in deep trouble.
  112. 112. Shortly afterwards, the Simselves all congregated in the war room for Marina and Rose’s first briefing. Now, I know you guys mostly know what the deal is in this ‘verse thanks to Lark, but do you have any questions? It’s a lot to take in at once.
  113. 113. “No, I’m pretty good. Your evil twin is out and killing people. Pretty open-and-shut.”
  114. 114. “IS she an evil twin? She seems to be a bit more than that.” We don’t understand exactly how she came to be. It’s got something to do with a glitch in the multiverse. Tempe’s studying it as we speak – hopefully, she’ll find out something useful before Fury does her thing again. “So we don’t know exactly what we’re up against.” In a nutshell.
  115. 115. “I have a question,” said Lark. “When we were at the main house on the day Lindsay and Zack were killed, you had some kind of epiphany, but you ran off before you told any of us what was going on in your head. Care to explain?” Oh! That. Well, I guess this is a good time to bring this up.
  116. 116. Fire stood up. We’ve been more or less in the dark for a while since Fury’s probably in disguise and could look like anyone. But at the crime scene, we found a few dyed blonde hairs which matched mine genetically. “So, Fury’s a blonde?” asked Gaara. You betcha. Which reminded me of something.
  117. 117. Fire flipped on one of the wall TVs. This is a detail from one of the paintings we recovered from Lindsay’s gallery. She’s been known to paint odd things before, including a painting of her dead uncle. “That was unusual,” commented Gaara. “Lindsay was only ever known to see the future.” I’ll get to that. I believe that this is what Fury looks like now. “Lindsay saw this coming?” In a manner of speaking. Fire sat down again.
  118. 118. My suspicion is that she painted this while in a trance. Trances had the downside of not being stored in Lindsay’s memory – that is, she never remembered what she saw after the trance was over. “So she did see her death, but forgot it.” Precisely. This gives us a basic physical appearance of our perpetrator. “She has stupid hair,” remarked Rose.
  119. 119. Marina craned her head around to see the screen. “Is that a tattoo on her shoulder?” I think so. It gives us something to identify her with, which is another mistake on her part. Once we clean up the image, that is. “Awesome. So we round up the whole ‘hood and tell them to take off their shirts.” That’s probably not going to work, Fire said through the peals of laughter from the others.
  120. 120. “And the painting of Justin?” asked Jeremy, once the chuckling had died down. Well, we know that time is kind of complicated. Sometimes, the past can get muddled up with the future. When Lindsay saw into the future, she saw the past of someone with the same fate as her. Basically a big misinterpretation for those of us who don’t see into the future. “So it showed her future, not his past,” summarised Cee. That’s the theory. Fire smiled slightly. It’s the best Tempe can give us.
  121. 121. Okay, guys. We have a new lead. You know what that means? “More work,” groaned Cee. Aw, come on. We’re a step closer to beating the bad guy! “A step which requires wading through papers,” pointed out Spike. If all you’re going to do is complain, then I think this meeting is done. “Thank god for that,” muttered Spike. I heard that.
  122. 122. Three years later… Patrolling sure doesn’t get any more fun, thought Rose as she made her third sweep past the main house. Always the same – no Fury, no killer robots… not even a dog knocking over the trash can. “Are you a Simself?”
  123. 123. Rose yelped when the small voice interrupted her train of thought, and looked around suspiciously for its source.
  124. 124. There was a scruffy young girl sitting on top of the wall. She had a long blonde plait with twigs poking out of it, and grubby blue overalls. Her feet were bare. “And what exactly are you doing up there?” asked Rose, more calmly than she felt. “Climbin’,” said the girl casually, swinging her feet. “I can see that. What happens if you fall from all the way up there?”
  125. 125. “Not gonna fall,” said the girl. “I’m good at climbin’. The hedge makes it real easy to get up and down, and I can just do this anyways.” As if to prove it, she pushed off the wall and landed lightly in front of Rose.
  126. 126. “Well, now, it’s obvious how good you are at climbing,” said Rose, wryly. “I’m Rissa. What’s your name? And are you a Simself? Mom says there are always Simselves patrollin’ behind the wall. What’s a Simself?” Rose sighed inwardly. This was going to be fun.
  127. 127. “I’m Rose. Yes, I am a Simself. And you really should be back on the other side of the wall. It’s there for a reason.” “Inside is boor-ing. There’s nobody to play with. Will you play with me?” “I’m not sure I should…” “Pleeeeeeease?” Rissa gave Rose a pleading look. Rose melted.
  128. 128. “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. We can play until the end of my shift, as long as we stay inside the wall. At least if we’re on the inside I can still do my job.”
  129. 129. “Yay!” Rissa clapped her hands eagerly. “We can play swings, and play on the slide, and on the monkey bars? Can you do flips? I can’t yet. Can you show me how?” “Uh…” Rose was lost for words as Rissa pelted her with questions.
  130. 130. Then, before she could blink, Rissa was scrambling back over the wall. “Come on, Rose!” Rissa called as she landed on the other side with a thump and the sound of breaking twigs.
  131. 131. “I did think we’d use the gate,” muttered Rose.
  132. 132. Two years later… “Why do I have to wear a dress? Dresses are icky. ‘Specially when they’re lacy and itchy and pink.” Suze sighed. “You have to wear a dress because we are going to your older brother’s wedding, and for weddings you have to look nice.”
  133. 133. “Aaaw, Adam wouldn’t care if I showed up in a dress or in my overalls. If I did, he’d just muss my hair and call me a little terror.” “He wouldn’t be wrong,” muttered Suze.
  134. 134. “Parker, are you ready yet?” she called. There was a muffled curse from the bedroom. “Not quite. Why are bow ties so damn complicated?” “I did offer to help…” Suze started, but was cut off by another string of curses.
  135. 135. “I never heard some of those words before,” Rissa said mildly. “They sound like fun.” “If I ever catch you repeating any of those, Clarissa, I will make you wear pink lacy dresses for the rest of your life,” said Suze, equally mild.
  136. 136. Rissa huffed out a sigh and sat down on the couch. “This is gonna be boor-ing. Everyone’ll be older than me.” “Your cousin Eva’s only a little older than you,” Suze pointed out. “All Eva ever talks about is makeup and boys.” Rissa perked up a little as she thought of something. “Will Rose and M’ina and Cee and Lark and Fire be there?”
  137. 137. “And how do you know the Simselves?” asked Suze suspiciously. “They’re all real nice to me,” said Rissa happily. “They play with me when they’re patrollin’ the house. Rose says it’s to keep me from climbin’ the wall. I dunno why, acos climbin’s fun. But they push me on the swing, and tell me stories.”
  138. 138. Suze rolled her eyes. “I ought to bake them a cake, or something. Goodness knows how hard it is to keep you out of trouble.”
  139. 139. With that, Parker emerged from the bedroom, tie lopsided but definitely bow- shaped. “Right. We ready to head off?” “Can we go on your broomstick, Mom? Can we can we can we?”
  140. 140. Suze shuddered. “I can’t think of anything more dangerous than you on a flying broomstick. No, Fire and her husband are picking us up.” Rissa pouted. “This already sucks.”
  141. 141. Two hours later… Forever can never be long enough for me To feel like I've had long enough with you Forget the world now we won't let them see But there's one thing left to do
  142. 142. Now that the weight has lifted Love has surely shifted my way Marry me Today and every day
  143. 143. Together can never be close enough for me Feel like I am close enough to you You wear white and I'll wear out the words “I love you” And “you're beautiful”
  144. 144. Now that the wait is over And love and has finally shown her my way Marry me Today and every day
  145. 145. Promise me You'll always be Happy by my side I promise to Sing to you When all the music dies
  146. 146. And marry me Today and every day Marry me Say you will Lyrics adapted from Marry Me by Train.
  147. 147. Once Adam and Naomi had finished saying their vows, all the guests stood up and cheered. Adam blushed a little at finding himself the centre of attention. “Uh, thanks everyone. The reception’s in the house, so if you want to stick around, we’ll feed you.”
  148. 148. Family and friends chattered earnestly as lunch was consumed and congratulations were issued to the happy couple. But there was someone missing.
  149. 149. “Where did Rissa go?” asked Adam. “I saw her during the ceremony, but not since.”
  150. 150. “Isn’t she over at the smaller table with Marina and Cee?” said Suze, not particularly concerned.
  151. 151. “No, I can see the table from here and she’s not at it.” “Oh goodness, she hasn’t run off, has she?”
  152. 152. “Probably,” sighed Adam as he stood up. “I’ll be back in a moment, dearest,” he said to Naomi. “I need to help hunt down my baby sister.” Suze rolled her eyes. “Literally, hunt. With a tranquilizer gun. She never slows down, that girl.” “Must be from your side of the family,” muttered Parker. Suze somehow managed to accidentally jab him with her elbow as she pushed her chair in.
  153. 153. “RISSA!” “CLARISSA? Where could she be hiding?” “Anywhere. It’s a big house, Mum. Look, we should probably split up – it’ll make looking easier.”
  154. 154. Adam didn’t have to look long before he spotted a pair of mud-splattered pink shoes dangling from one of the trees in the garden. “Aren’t you meant to be inside?” he said casually to the muddy little girl in the tree.
  155. 155. “Are you kidding me, big brother? It’s so fun out here! You got a pond! There’s tadpoles, and fishes, and lily pads, and…” “Mud?” asked Adam, eyeing the now-ruined pink dress. “That’s the bestest bit,” said Rissa happily. “It squishes.” “You’re a little terror,” said Adam fondly. “Mum, I’ve found her,” he called.
  156. 156. “Clarissa Hadley Chandler, you are a mess,” said Suze as she came over to the tree and saw the state of Rissa’s clothes. “Well, uh, kinda? I only got a little muddy,” said Rissa, flicking a bit of grit off the lacy hem.
  157. 157. Suze cracked a smile. “What am I going to do with you, Riss? Come on, hop down. There’ll be cake in a few minutes.”
  158. 158. “Yay!” Rissa hopped out of the tree eagerly. “What kind?” “Chocolate,” said Adam with a grin. “Oh, excellent. More opportunity for her to get her dress dirty,” sighed Suze.
  159. 159. “Relax, Mum. She only gets to be a kid once, y’know? Let her get covered in mud and climb trees. She’s only got so long to be a kid before she has to be a grown-up.” The trio headed back inside, Rissa scuffing absently at her shoes in a futile attempt to scrape off the mud.
  160. 160. Five years later… “Suze, come to bed. It’s nearly midnight, and Rissa’s party is tomorrow,” said Parker with a yawn. “Just a minute. I think if I tweak this spell, I can make the wards on the house even stronger.” “Don’t you think what you’ve done with the coven’s enough?”
  161. 161. “Rissa can’t ever be too safe,” said Suze, flipping the page. “Hm. I could substitute some ground nutmeg here for the lizard’s tongue, that’d probably work…” “Are you making a spell, or a lasagna? Suze, let it rest.”
  162. 162. “Just another minute, Parker.” Parker sighed. Suze had really delved into her magical nature since Lindsay had died. He worried, sometimes, that he was going to lose her to the magic, or that she would go so overboard with the protection spells that Rissa would be essentially wrapped in cotton wool. Whenever he tried talking about it with Suze, she just shut him out.
  163. 163. Twelve hours later… “Hey, big sister. I’m gettin’ big today.” Rissa gazed up at the pictures of Lindsay hanging in the hall next to her college diploma. “Jus’ thought you’d like to know, acos you’re not gonna be there.”
  164. 164. All her life, Rissa had been told all about how wonderful Lindsay had been, how she’d called her Rissy Bear, how she’d been a talented artist and a generally great person. But that was all she had of Lindsay – what she’d been told by her mother. She couldn’t remember Lindsay at all, and that made her sad. Sometimes, too, she resented Lindsay for still holding such a large part of her mother’s heart. But she always felt kind of bad afterwards.
  165. 165. As had become all too common in recent years, the Chandler family and friends found themselves jammed together for a special event – this time, Rissa’s birthday. There weren’t quite so many people here as had been at the wedding – Tempe had declined the invitation but the Simselves all came. The little kitchen was still pretty packed when it came time to blow out the candles.
  166. 166. “You all paying attention to me, yet?” asked Rissa. The chatter from the guests died down and everyone clustered around the cake. Thought of a wish yet, Rissa? asked Fire.
  167. 167. “Yuh huh.” Rissa bent down and blew out the candles. “But I can’t tell ya, acos then it won’t happen.” Everyone backed up as Rissa hopped down triumphantly. “Hey, this means I don’t need to climb the fence any more! I’ll be big enough to reach the lock on the gate!” Over in the corner, Suze shivered.
  168. 168. One sparkly twirl later, and a teenaged Rissa was examining her transition clothes with mild amusement. “Pink? Yep, that’s gotta go, real fast. And I think the hair needs a little something- something.”
  169. 169. “But, elsewise?” Rissa grinned, a gesture on her which never failed to look mischievous. “I think I’m pretty dang sexy. ‘Scuse me, people. I need to go slip into something a little less girly.”
  170. 170. For a good two hours, the guests mingled with one another, while Rissa upheld her habit of going missing at family gatherings. “…still haven’t had any luck, but we’re trying…” “…really still convinced that I’m evil?” “…don’t know where she’s gotten to. What could she be doing…” …and she’s just sitting there, perfectly calm, on top of the wall… Finally, the door opened and Rissa appeared in the kitchen.
  171. 171. There was a brief silence, then everyone started chattering even more loudly than before. Rissa grinned, and waited patiently for her mother to turn around and see her new look. This was going to be even better than being found splattered in pond muck at a wedding.
  172. 172. Suze turned, saw her daughter, and froze. Everyone else started subtly migrating to other parts of the house. “Clarissa Hadley Chandler, what on EARTH have you done to your hair?” demanded Suze. “Cut it. Dyed it. Duh. Pair of scissors and the leftover bottle of dye in the bathroom cupboard and this chick is ready to roll.”
  173. 173. Suze glared at her daughter. “Thanks ever so, Mother,” she muttered. “Rissa, you can’t honestly think I’ll let you leave the house looking like that?”
  174. 174. “Jeez, Mom, lighten up. It’s a little hair dye. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not like I got my nose pierced, or a tattoo, or something. Though a tattoo wouldn’t be a bad idea…” “Over my cold, dead body.” “Aw, fer… Mom, it was a joke. Come on. Life doesn’t have to be boring. Live a little.”
  175. 175. “Tomorrow, when all our guests are back home,” hissed Suze, “you are dyeing your hair blonde again.” “Way to overreact, Mom!”
  176. 176. “And, unless I’m really, really wrong here, we’re discussing my hair here. Not yours. So I think I can do whatever I damn well please with it.”
  177. 177. “Fine.” Suze turned and stalked towards the door. “Do whatever you like. I don’t care.” “Reverse psychology ain’t gonna work on me, Mom!” yelled Rissa, scowling after her mother. “I don’t do guilt trips!”
  178. 178. Two years later… The phone rang in the early afternoon. Parker was at work, and Rissa was at school, so Suze answered. “Chandler residence.” “Ms. Chandler? This is Brianna Macklin, administrator at Clarissa’s school.”
  179. 179. “Oh, yes. What can I do for you?” “I’m afraid you’ll need to come in and speak with the principal, Ms. Chandler.” “What on earth for?” “Clarissa has been involved in several incidents at the school recently, and we believe that the disciplinary notes we’ve been sending home with her have not been reaching you.”
  180. 180. “I see. Thank you. I’ll be along shortly.”
  181. 181. Fifteen minutes later… “I want a lawyer,” said Rissa stubbornly, glaring at her principal.
  182. 182. “Rissa, I’m the closest you’re getting to a lawyer,” said Suze tiredly. She smiled apologetically at the principal. “I’m sorry, Mr. Harrison. Please go on.” Mr. Harrison, an elderly, balding man only three years from retiring, nodded. “Thank you, Ms. Chandler. Clarissa has been behind several recent disturbances at the school, and we’d like to discuss them with you, and her, and decide upon appropriate disciplinary actions.”
  183. 183. “Y’know, it’s not really discussing them with me if you act like I’m not here,” muttered Rissa rebelliously. “Rissa, for once in your life, close your mouth.”
  184. 184. Mr. Harrison coughed, then began. “The first incident was comparatively mild. The senior homeroom was covered in yellow sticky notes.” “At least you can’t say I have no attention span,” Rissa grumbled, slouching in her chair. “Then,” Mr. Harrison continued, as if Rissa hadn’t spoken, “Clarissa liberated a number of costumes from the school production and staged an, ahem, zombie invasion in the school cafeteria. This mostly consisted of a lot of thrown spaghetti sauce.”
  185. 185. “I was advertising! Aren’t we doing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies this year?” “It’s Emma, but that’s beside the point.” Mr. Harrison sighed, and continued. “The coffee in the teachers’ lounge was spiked with Jell-o.” “I’m trying to cure their caffeine addiction,” Rissa countered. “The slide show during the senior valediction was sabotaged and a popular song was played instead of the national anthem.”
  186. 186. “I maintain that Rickrolling will not go out of style. And how was that malicious? All the seniors got up and started dancing!” “Clarissa, will you shut up?” Suze snapped. “She created an oversized smoke bomb in her chemistry class which forced the evacuation of the entire science block.” “That was an accident. Mostly. It was meant to be bigger.” Suze rolled her eyes.
  187. 187. “A dairy cow was let loose in the quadrangle.” “That was my science project! She kind of, um, escaped.” “All of the frogs in the biology lab were released into the school.” “Well, how was I supposed to know they’d head for the boy’s locker room? Though, I have to admit, hearing all the jocks scream was hilarious.” “And finally,” said Mr. Harrison, “an entire locker bank was filled with chocolate pudding.” He and Suze looked expectantly at Rissa, waiting for her rebuttal.
  188. 188. Rissa just giggled. “Yeah, that one was fun.”
  189. 189. “The thing is, Ms. Chandler, Clarissa has excellent academic records. Her grades are perfect, and she’s an excellent candidate for valedictorian. But, I feel that schoolwork is too easy for her, and isn’t keeping her entertained.” “Got that right,” said Rissa. Suze glared at her.
  190. 190. “What I’m proposing is that we put Clarissa in an accelerated program. She’s currently a sophomore, yes? She could graduate in two academic years, rather than three.” “You’re putting me in with the juniors?” “Essentially, yes. But this is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. You’ll be expected to make amends for the damage you’ve caused. And Coach Ditka is pushing for you to receive several weeks’ worth of detentions.” “Not my fault his players are a bunch of sissy ranidaphobes.”
  191. 191. Suze nodded. “I’m inclined to agree with your suggestions, Mr. Harrison. If it keeps Clarissa from being destructive…” Rissa rolled her eyes. “Pfft. I’ve been doing senior level maths homework since I was a freshman. This won’t keep me occupied for long.” Neither her mother nor her principal heard her. “Precisely, Ms. Chandler. Thank you for coming in today. You can take Rissa home now.”
  192. 192. “Thank you, Mr. Harrison. We’ll have a lot to discuss when we get home. Especially when her father gets back from work.” She rose from her chair. “Come on, Rissa.”
  193. 193. Rissa smirked as she followed suit. She knew very well that her father would be a lot easier to handle than her mother had been.
  194. 194. Two years later… “For god’s sake, Mom, it’s just one date!” “Absolutely not,” said Suze, resolute. “I don’t want you out unsupervised at night!” “If this is because you think you can’t trust me after the detention thing…”
  195. 195. “It’s not. But don’t think I haven’t heard about your latest escapade. Making a catapult in wood shop and instigating a food fight with it is not the best way you could have celebrated your early graduation. I don’t blame Mr. Harrison for banning you from the actual ceremony one bit.” Clarissa rolled her eyes. “It was a trebuchet, mother. There is a difference.”
  196. 196. “Don’t be cute, Clarissa Hadley Chandler. Disciplinary issues aside, this is because you just aren’t safe out there on your own.” “So have one of the Simselves chaperone or something! Jeez!” “No. You are not going out at night with someone I don’t know.”
  197. 197. “Damn it, Mom. You can’t keep me under your thumb for the whole of my life. You have to let go eventually,” said Clarissa, frustration evident in her voice. “I don’t want you getting killed like your sister!” “You’re being neurotic! Going out to the movies for a couple hours with a guy I like from school isn’t gonna end with me getting a bullet in my chest! You flip out over the littlest things!” “Your safety is not something little, Clarissa!”
  198. 198. “So send me with a frickin’ bodyguard. It’s not rocket surgery, Mom. I need to get out and experience stuff, not spend my life under… under fucking house arrest.” “Language, Clarissa Hadley.” “Oh, don’t Firstname Middlename me, Mom. You know I can’t stand that shit. Stop changing the subject. We’re not sweeping this under the damn rug like we always do. I feel smothered. I’ve been living behind a freaking wall ever since I can remember, and it’s killing me.” “It’s for your protection. The Simselves…”
  199. 199. “The Simselves have a notion of what is reasonable and what is not, Mom! A wall is reasonable. A bodyguard is reasonable. Not letting me out of the house for anything besides school is punishment.” “Which you have more than earned in recent…” “Right, and what about before I earned it? I’ve only ever been here, and to school, and to Adam’s house for my entire life. I want to be normal, Mom. I want to be able to go to birthday parties and ice skating and everything Lindsay got to do when she was a kid. I want a damn childhood.”
  200. 200. “Everything is secondary to your safety, Clarissa! I do not want to bury another one of my children!” “Okay, so everything’s secondary to my safety, is it? Falling in love, going shopping, leaving this house? So how does my leaving for college fit into grand game of Let’s Control Every Aspect of Clarissa’s Life?” Suze was silent.
  201. 201. Rissa stared at her mother. “You didn’t even think of it, did you? You just assumed you’d be able to keep me locked in here like frickin’ Rapunzel for the rest of my life and that I’d never want to do anything for myself.” “No, Rissa, of course that’s not…”
  202. 202. “Keep lying to me like that, Mom. It’s worked for the last seventeen years, so why stop now?”
  203. 203. Rissa shoved past her mother and stomped upstairs to her room, slamming the door behind her. Suze stayed exactly where she was for a long time, her heart aching.
  204. 204. Rissa slouched in her desk chair for the best part of two hours, sulking. It’s not fair. It just isn’t. Lindsay got to go off to college, so why can’t I? Then, a thought struck her. Why couldn’t she go to college? She’d graduated, hadn’t she? Not officially, of course, but who needed a piece of paper these days?
  205. 205. Suddenly, she knew what she had to do. If Suze wouldn’t take her to college, she’d just damn well take herself. She opened her bedroom door, very quietly, and slipped out into the darkened hallway.
  206. 206. Getting down the stone steps was a challenge, since her stompy boots threatened to make plenty of noise whenever she was the slightest bit careless. But the light in Suze’s room never switched on, and Parker wasn’t due home for another three hours, when his night shift ended.
  207. 207. Halfway down the hallway, Rissa paused and looked at the small shrine to her older sister that Suze had created so many years ago. “Don’t look at me like that,” she whispered to the painting on the wall. “If you hadn’t have gone and died like that, I wouldn’t be in this mess right here.”
  208. 208. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, Rissa continued to sneak down the hallway and out of the front door.
  209. 209. Just like when she was small, Rissa scrabbled around on the hedge for the few sturdy branches she knew were there, and hoisted herself up on top of the wall. She allowed herself a brief moment of triumph – I’ve still got it – before dropping nearly soundlessly to the pavement below.
  210. 210. Of course, nearly soundlessly isn’t quite soundlessly enough to escape the notice of an alert Simself. “Rissa. What are you doing outside at this hour?” Marina strode over from somewhere near the gate where she’d been standing before she’d heard the click of boots on concrete.
  211. 211. “Oh, you know,” said Rissa nonchalantly. “Out for a walk.” “At midnight? I’m finding this story a little tricky to swallow, Rissa.” Rissa rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay. I’m sorta kinda maybe running away.”
  212. 212. “Oh, Rissa…” “Come on, M’ina. I’m a freaking prisoner in there. I want out. ‘Specially since Mom as good as told me she never wants me to go to college ever.” “So you want to run away to college.” “Well, yeah. I’ve been accepted already, I just haven’t had to stand in front of my high school class in a hideous graduation robe. I wasn’t going to be allowed to, anyway.”
  213. 213. Marina sighed. “I can see where you’re coming from. But you can’t go to college tonight.” Rissa pouted. “But M’inaaaaaa…” she started, a petulant whine creeping into her voice. Marina cracked a grin. “Only because it’s midnight. You think any college admission offices are going to be open at midnight?”
  214. 214. Rissa grinned sheepishly. “Never thought of it.” Marina nodded. “Didn’t think so. Okay then. I’ll get someone to send over a taxi, and you can hang out at HQ for the night. Someone can take you to college in the morning.” She paused. “Is all this because you had another fight with Suze?” Rissa nodded, a little sadly. “A big one. I think we need to spend some time apart. Maybe a couple years. And Dad… well, he’s not back from work yet. But he’ll understand.”
  215. 215. “Well, if it’s what you want, I won’t hold you back. I’m sure Fire will know how to handle your mother once she finds out and hits the roof.” Rissa chuckled. “Yeah. Big bonus of running away is that you don’t have to deal with the fallout until you feel like it.” “True.”
  216. 216. Marina pulled a tiny cell phone out of her pocket. “Hey, Cee. Could you send a taxi or something over to the main house? We’ve got a guest for the night.”
  217. 217. The taxi was there five minutes later. Rissa turned back and smiled hugely at Marina as she clambered into the back seat. “Thanks for this, M’ina. Really. I’m not gonna forget this.” “Make sure I don’t regret it,” said Marina fondly.
  218. 218. As the taxi pulled away, Marina smiled to herself. She’d seen Rissa grow up – it was nice to be able to help her start making her own decisions about her life.