Change came to Banlieue 13 as gradually as Parisian winter melting into spring, but still it came. Tao leaned against the brushed steel railing of the mezzanine and gazed down into the cavernous space that would someday become the lobby of a new high-rise apartment complex. Where the projects of the old banlieue had been decaying warehouses of human misery, this new building would be the cornerstone of a true community, with affordable and well-kept units for rent, small businesses on the ground floor, and a park and school just around the corner. But corruption and bureaucracy alike could still slow the progress of even such an admirable project, and for now, the building remained an incomplete skeleton of concrete and steel.
In the interim, the inhabitants of the banlieue made the most of what they had. A few days ago, word had started to circulate that a massive party was in the works - a good old-fashioned warehouse rave, taking place on the ground floor of the unfinished building. It seemed to Tao as though the whole neighborhood had turned out to dance, to carouse, to see and be seen. The organizers of the event had set up a makeshift stage in the center of the lobby. They had patched in electricity from somewhere outside to power the lights that cast vibrant colors in all directions and the enormous speakers that blared electronic music. Everywhere that Tao looked, people danced ecstatically, sipped from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags, or slipped into dark corners together in search of a little privacy. With Tao and other gang leaders turned community leaders clearly present and watching, everyone seemed to know better than to openly do anything more illicit than that.
Everyone, that was, except for the tourists. Tao had picked them out of the crowd as soon as she started to really look at the revelers. Their clothing was practically a costume, a clownish idea of what banlieue residents would wear out on the town as theorized by people who had never lived outside the arrondissements of Paris. A few of them were passing a joint around with what they thought was stealth and discretion. One of the women in the group kept vanishing out a side door and then returning, sniffing and rubbing at the skin beneath her nose as she writhed and shimmied wildly. It was a small mercy that they seemed only to be using drugs and not dealing them. For that reason, Tao had originally planned to ignore them and leave them to stew in their own bourgeois stupidity - until the fight broke out.
Tao didn't see how it started. She glanced briefly away from the dance floor to greet some of Molko's people, and when she looked back, a shoving match had erupted between one of the tourists and another man. Judging by the way the other man dressed, he was probably a hanger-on with Little Montana's gang, although Tao didn't recognize him. Both combatants' friends had lined up behind them, exchanging insults, threats, and obscene gestures. Tao didn't really want to get involved, but she didn't want a fight to ruin the party for everyone else, either. What would Leïto do? she asked herself, which was something she found herself wondering all too often lately. With a sigh and a roll of her eyes, she stepped away from the railing and descended the stairs.
By the time Tao reached the dance floor, someone else already had a head start on the process of getting involved: a young, petite, dark-haired woman in a pink top and a very short skirt. The other woman had interposed herself between the tourists and the locals with her arms out, holding them back from each other, as she spoke intently to the tourist. Tao stood up straighter, pulling on the invisible mantle of her gang leader authority, and tapped the local on his shoulder. "Is there a problem?" she shouted over the music.
The local's response was to spin around, wild-eyed, and throw a punch directly at Tao's face. Her reflexes were as fast as ever, and she dropped into a defensive stance just in time for her forearm to absorb the blow instead of her nose. From this distance, Tao could see that her attacker's eyes were red and glazed and that his movements were erratic; he was clearly under the influence of something illicit. His unprovoked attack on Tao suggested that he'd come to the party looking for a fight, and that the tourists had simply presented an obvious and tempting target. All of these conclusions flashed through Tao's mind in the split second between the local's fist making contact with her arm and her leg lashing out to sweep his feet from under him. He tumbled to the concrete floor.
His friends were upon her then, just as eager for a brawl - yet they were equally intoxicated and mostly ineffectual. Tao found it easy to keep them at arm's length, and to land painful kicks and punches on any who came within her reach. She was surprised to realize that the other woman had joined in, fighting back to back with Tao. Judging by the way that the other woman lashed out with every limb in every direction, moving almost as chaotically as her opponents themselves, she lacked any real, formal training - yet something about her style still got the job done. Together the two of them steadily drove the locals back, keeping them away from the gawking, cowering clump of tourists.
But the first man that Tao had hit wasn't finished. He stood up clumsily, and a knife appeared in his hand. As he lunged forward, Tao reached behind her head and unbound her braid. "Get down!" she called to the other woman, who wisely complied. Tao rolled her neck around once, twice, and the blades tied to the end of her braid bit into her attacker's flesh. The first strike made contact with his knuckles, and he dropped his knife, crying out. The second dragged the blades across his forehead and his bloody hands flew up to his face as he fell to his knees. Tao spun around, making eye contact with each of his companions in turn. "You see that? Come any closer, and you get the same."
The other locals backed away, dragging their injured friend along with them. Behind her, the other woman rose slowly to her feet. "Get the fuck out of here," she added. "We don't want anything you assholes bring." They must have hesitated for longer than she considered appropriate, because a few seconds later, she screamed, "I meant now!" The locals turned and staggered away as fast as they could manage it.
Tao looked back at the tourists, who were staring at her and the other woman with something resembling awe. "We don't know how to thank you..." one of them began.
"I know how," said Tao. "You can get out, too."
"This isn't your fucking playground," said the other woman, planting her hands on her hips. "Or a zoo. So fuck back off to Paris and don't treat us like we're here for your amusement." Whatever the tourists had expected to hear, that definitely wasn't it. Soon they had vanished into the crowd as well - probably riding the RER back home to tell their friends about how they braved a banlieue party and almost got stabbed by thugs for their trouble, Tao thought with a wry smile.
Tao's hands shook with adrenaline as she wiped the blades in her hair on her shorts, then reached behind her neck to coil her braid back atop her head. Her heart was pounding. Fighting always wound her up more than she liked to admit. She realized that the other woman was still standing next to her, watching curiously. "Thanks for your help," Tao said. With her braid secure once again, she extended a hand for the other woman to shake. "I'm Tao."
"I know who you are." The other woman took her hand and squeezed it briefly. "I'm Lola."
Tao couldn't disguise her surprise. "Then I know you, too. Or at least, I've heard of you. Leïto told me a lot about you."
Lola grinned. "He told me about you, too. I always wanted to meet you. I'm glad I finally did. You're everything I thought you would be - and more." To Tao's astonishment, Lola was looking her up and down, making no attempt to disguise her lascivious interest as she took in Tao's lean and muscled body, her tattooed face, her skimpy suggestion of a shirt. Tao was accustomed to this sort of attention from men, but not from women, and certainly not from Leïto's baby sister. She hoped the lights were dim enough to disguise the blush that had risen to her high cheekbones.
"Where is Leïto tonight, anyway?" Tao asked, trying not to let on how pleasantly flustered - and how unexpectedly aroused - she was.
"Home. With Damien. A party like this might be Damien's scene, but I have a hard time picturing my brother dancing."
"Yeah, me too."
"What about you? Do you dance?"
"Yeah. I love it. I wouldn't be here otherwise."
Lola took a step closer. "Then do you want to dance? With me?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Tao got the feeling that both she and Lola preferred action to words, and she was ready to see where their actions might take them next.
Lola grabbed Tao's hand and led her out to the dance floor, plunging them both deep into the crush of people. The music pulsed and swirled around them until it enfolded them within its deafening roar. The bass line took hold of their senses and they began to move to the rhythm, separately at first but then together, their fleeting glances becoming sustained eye contact as they undulated and swayed. Lola reached out to grip Tao by the waist, pulling her in until their churning hips were only centimeters apart. Tao rested her hands on Lola's shoulders, feeling her usually cool and collected exterior slipping even further. Lola's chin was tilted upward, her lips slightly parted, her eyes half-closed as if anticipating pleasures yet to come.
Tao couldn't be sure which of them initiated the kiss. She only knew that suddenly their mouths were on each other and their hands were roaming over each other's bodies. Lola kissed the way that she fought, all feints and unexpected thrusts and raw, unfocused aggression. One of her hands snaked up to trace the tattoos on the left side of Tao's neck and face as her lips mirrored its path on the right. A moan escaped Tao's throat, which only made Lola redouble her efforts.
Not wanting to completely lose control of herself in public, Tao slipped a hand behind Lola's neck and gently yet firmly turned her head back to meet Tao's lips. Still Lola's fingers stroked every part of Tao, teasing up under clothing to brush over any inch of bare skin they could find, pulling their bodies closer together with each caress. Tao was certain that people were starting to stare at them, and she was even more certain that Lola didn't care. Seized by a sudden and uncontrollable urge, Tao moved her hand from Lola's neck and ran it down along the curves of her still-swaying torso and up under her skirt to meet the hot hidden place there. Lola made a sound that was half gasp and half laughter and pressed herself harder into Tao's touch.
With her fingers still moving, Tao put her lips up to Lola's ear and said as quietly as she could manage while still making herself heard, "I want you. Alone. Let's go to my place." Lola's only response was a hungry, eager nod.
Somewhat reluctantly, Tao pulled her hand away and motioned for Lola to leave the dance floor with her. Lola wrapped her arm around Tao's waist and the two of them ran away together into the shadows, the music receding into silence behind them as they made their way toward whatever awaited them. Passion knocked this banlieue down, Tao thought with a glance at Lola's dark, shining eyes. It's only passion that will build it back up again. And tonight, for once in her life, she was more than ready to let her passions lead the way.