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+

There are some worlds in which it’s Richie Gecko’s gun to her temple that puts Kate on the path to hell, to that abstract, mysterious thing her father calls ‘sin’. It’s his gun against her temple that derails everything she wants and plans to be, sends her skidding across the border and straight into damnation with no chance of looking back.

In far more worlds, though, it’s Seth’s gun, cold against her skin, and his nails, digging into her shoulder even through her shirt, it’s his sweat she tastes at the back of her mouth, his chest she’s pressed against as everything comes tumbling down in a shower of blood and secrets.

In those (most) worlds, Ranger Gonzalez finds a moment, somewhere, somewhen, to put a hand to her shoulder and say, “He’s a bad man, Kate. He’s not going to save you.”

Sometimes, he talks about Richie. Usually, it’s Seth, because it’s Seth Kate clings to, it’s Seth who whisks her away, it’s Seth who lays his soul at her feet and then tries to fill up the empty spaces with a syringe full of poison.

In all of those worlds, people look at her, at the older, taller, darker man (men) at her back, and they think she was pulled. They think she must have been dragged, forced, coerced into this life, into the gun callouses and the scars and the scent memory of blood that doesn’t leave her for years.

They’re wrong.

(“I am nobody’s victim,” Santanico snarls and if Kate heard her, she’d agree.)

Because Kate Fuller is many things, but she is never a victim, not in any world, not in any time. When Seth wraps his arm around her shoulders to haul her to him as the firing starts at the Dew Drop Inn, she should twist away, should run towards the cops, not away. What she does instead is clutch at that arm and yank, pulling him with her, toward Richie, the stairs, freedom, safety.

Kate chooses her own path, her own way. She lies and she cheats and she kills and she steals and her circumstances are shitty (yes) and the men at her back are monsters (literally, sometimes), but the choice is hers.

In some of those worlds, it’s Seth who ends up with a mouth full of fangs, Seth trapped in the tunnels of the Twister till dusk and she waits with him, her palm sweaty around a stolen weapon and both their brothers dead behind them.

(Seth is a worse monster than Richie could ever be, because Seth has never had any self-worth to begin with and no compass except keep Richie safe. Seth with fangs is nothing but hunger and rage. Kate never cares.)

“You should get the hell out of here, Princess,” he snarls around a mouth full of teeth and Kate glowers at him and answers, “And go where, exactly?”

Her family is dead. He made it so. She still follows him into dusk.

+

This world is not that world. This world is not any world where hell is a literal place, spitting out monsters and broken girl goddesses, hellbent on revenge or death.

(Or is it?)

This world has only metaphorical demons and they aren’t enough to drive Richie Gecko over the edge, aren’t enough to make him stupid.

The Gecko brothers slip away from their last job the way they always have – smooth and fucking cool – and a rickety old RV crosses the border hours later, containing only three passengers.

(The trap still snaps shut at the Titty Twister, because it always, always, will, but Kate is not there to see Seth Gecko’s devastated face as he understands that El Rey has always been a lie.)

Instead she follows her father all the way down to Acapulco before they run out of money and patience. She swims a lot, those first few weeks and her father drinks away his wife’s ghost while Scott’s rage builds and builds.

Eventually, her sunburnt skin turns a shade darker than it ever has been and Kate finds a job because the motel manager is making noises about ‘alternate payments’ in broken English and even in Mexico, booze isn’t cheap.

Scott watches, sulks, and eventually explodes. She wakes up in the morning and his things are gone.

(His rage blows him across the country twice over, blows him into danger and out of it and finally backwards in something akin to homesickness. Kate isn’t there anymore, then.)

It’s just her and her dad, then, and her Spanish gets better in leaps and bounds as she waitresses and learns to smile at men inviting her to be fucked over that table. The girls titter with her behind the counter and most of them manage to hide the pity in their gazes when Jacob Fuller comes to check up on his Katie-Cakes with a three day bender on his breath and Jenny Fuller’s ghost firmly perched on his shoulder, whispering self-loathing at him.

She bears it, for weeks and months and maybe even a year (Kate has always been too patient). She bears it until she stands in the supermarket one morning with her wallet in hand, about to pay and finds it empty. The humiliation of having to put her purchases back burns, but not as badly as the pity of the old man behind the register, not as badly as knowing that her father, her own father, the man she admired all her life, stole her food money from her purse to buy more alcohol.

Her boss is a grizzly beast of a thing, but after she explains, in halting words and stoppered, angry tears, he agrees to hold her wages for her, for a while.

She expects him to keep his own share for the service, but when she finally asks him for it, he even drives her to the used car dealership and tells her to be careful.

(Three days later, Jacob Fuller wakes to an empty apartment, a fridge full of food and no message from either of his children. Scott’s been gone for months, but Katie, Katie - he climbs back into a bottle.

At least in this world, his only daughter doesn’t have to live with his blood on her hands. At least in this world, there’s time still for amends.)

+

Kate drifts back north for a while with vague notions of going home, of finding Scott. Both feel like steps back, like retreat, though, and she can’t imagine herself sitting in a pew back in Bethel Baptist, hands folded in prayer.

Here, Kate stopped praying gradually. First, she started asking for things more than thanking for others. Then her requests became orders and in the end, she was shouting at the starry sky to give her back her mother, to pull her father out of his hole, to bring her brother back, fuck you.

She pawned her mother’s cross to pay rent and watched a neighbor beat his wife hard enough for her to need stitches, only to go back to him the next morning and at some point, she just stopped.

(Without a literal hell as proof, Kate starts to quietly, wordlessly, doubt in the existence of anything more than human imperfection.)

She runs out of road, turns sideways and meanders along the border to tinny pop songs from an ancient radio and weather reports in Spanish that always sound the same.

She has a flat in the middle of nowhere and the closest man-made thing she can find for miles is a temple turned bar called, aptly, the Titty Twister.

She asks for a tow, or even just a phone, gets a shot slammed down in front of her instead and, eventually, the terrifying beauty with the snake comes slinking up to her and asks, in accented English, “I heard you need a little help?”

+

Kate gets a room in one of the buildings scattered out back of the bar, flung there like an angry giant’s toys, and a job slinging drinks six nights a week. The sourly bouncer with the tattoo on his arm fetches her car and someone else fixes the tire and they tell her she can work it off.

“Not like that,” Santanico mutters with a smile as Kate blanches and starts looking for exits. “It’s not for you, I think, si?”

“¿Por qué?” Kate asks, because she has learned, already, that nothing is free.

“Call it part of a greater scheme,” Santanico’s shadow, the tall one with the glasses and the American accents, says.

The woman rolls her eyes. “Idiota,” she chides, but she sounds fond. “Ignore him. He talks too much.”

She never answers Kate’s question, but she also never asks her to take off her clothes for the customers or to take any of them to one of the backrooms, so Kate learns to live with it.

+

The Gecko brothers are a hurricane inside the ancient walls of the Twister, loud and crass and dangerous.

Kate tries to ignore them, because they scare her. Men with weapons worn openly still do that, in this world. (Her hands have never held a gun, here, or a crossbow, or a chainsaw. They have once held a little foil packet full of heroin, which is a weapon, too, but that story is a different one.)

Richie is off-beat, a little left of center, a loyal dog that follows Santanico everywhere and spends long minutes staring at people, just to see if they’ll run or pick a fight. He drinks like a fish and only eats health food, sprouts random, disturbing facts and smiles like a boy with a cookie jar full of sugar and sweetness in his clutches.

He likes Kate. She thinks. Santanico says so, but Santanico also thinks cuddling a Boa Constrictor is a fun way to spend her day off, so Santanico’s opinions on dangerous creatures are to be taken with a grain of salt.

He has decent taste in books, though, and they start their own little book club, just the two of them, over late night clean-ups and the occasional day spent lounging outside, flipping through old paperbacks and drinking his contraband horchata.

He hates Catcher in the Rye. After reading it, so does Kate.

Seth is just... Seth. A mixture of charm and utter psychosis, of violence and depression, anxiety and ego. He drives her up the wall during her first week, to drink by her second and has her cursing like a sailor in two languages by week three because it’s either that or try to claw his face off.

“How the hell did he make it to adulthood?!” she snaps at some point, slinging a shot toward Richie as he slips into his customary seat for Santanico’s act. “How did your parents not drown him out of sheer frustration?”

It’s a mean thing to say and she’ll regret it in a moment, but right now, she’s still fuming over the way he ruined a perfectly good tip by coming over to bully the customer for fliting with her, then turning around and calling her a kid, offering to help cure her daddy issues with his dick and give him a beer while she’s at it, will she?

Richie shrugs. “Mom bailed and the old man is dead.” He downs his drink, hums and watches her hands dance over a frilly cocktail with ever more practice. She slips an extra umbrella into the orange slice on the rim before shoving it across the bar. He sips with a pleased hum.

“I think one of our foster parents tried,” he adds and yeah, now she’s regretting it.

+

The thing is, there’s no cure for Seth Fucking Gecko.

If she’s nice to him, he throws it in her face.

If she’s mean to him, he takes it as vindication of some sort and is even meaner in return.

If she tries to ignore him, he’s so obnoxious that she’s back at the clawing-his-face-off thing.

Her mother is, undoubtedly, spinning in her grave. But then, she’s probably been doing that for months.

(She still has her old phone tucked into the bottom of her bag. She turns it on once a week. Scott never calls. Her father stopped before she ever reached the Twister. Her mother, she thinks, would have tracked her GPS, found her and hauled her all the way back to Bethel by her hair, by now. But her mother is dead and Kate chooses her own path.)

Sometimes, when they’re sniping at each other, she thinks she can see something akin to respect in his eyes, but it’s always gone before she can be sure, replaced by something ugly and broken and god, those boys would break her heart if she let them, wouldn’t they?

“How do you stand it?” she asks Santanico one day. It’s noon and they’re sipping coffee with cinnamon outside by the kiddie pool someone set up behind the parking lot and Santanico is dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and her name is Kisa.

(It isn’t always when she’s wearing clothes and lacking make-up, because Santanico is a mask she’s worn for too long to ever be rid of it, but sometimes, Kate wakes up to a knock on her door and a girl called Kisa offering coffee on the other side.)

“Stand what?”

“Richie and Seth and their-“, she waves a hand in vague zig-zags to encompass all of them.

Kisa laughs.

Then she turns serious. “They’re the best at what they do.”

“Yeah, and what is that exactly?” Because Kate has only been here for a month, and even she is aware that throwing out drunks and occasionally breaking a nose or a finger in defense of the girls is way below their skill level.

Kisa shrugs and buries her nose behind her mug. “They’re here to set me free.”

+

Chet Pussy is a terrible name for a terrible person and Kate does her level best to avoid their doorman. Always.

The girls call him El Mono behind his back. Monkey. For his hat, Kate hopes, and doesn’t ask, just tries to avoid his grabby hands and loud mockery. He refers to the ladies as ‘flavors’, for god’s sake.

When Santanico notices Kate cringe away from him, she purses her lips and nods, once, tightly. “I know,” she whispers, under the guise of a flirtatious hug. “We’re working on it.”

Kate has no idea what that means, or why the older woman doesn’t just fire the man, but a week later one of the girls stumbles in from the back, crying and bleeding.

Santanico (always Santanico when her eyes are this cold and her lips this red) goes to her, wraps her in a blanket that appears out of nowhere and Kate closes in with a bottle of water and a first aid kit just in time to hear her say, “We have the excuse we need now. Gracias, chica.”

Richie shoulders past her, then, bangs elbows with his brother and the two disappear out the main doors. When they return shortly before dawn, their boots are dusty and their hands suspiciously clean.

Seth sits at one of the far tables after stealing a rag from behind the bar and starts methodically taking apart his gun, cleaning it, putting it back together, over and over again until Richie, no longer wearing the suit jacket he sported earlier, lost somewhere in the intervening hours, goes over there with a bottle and two glasses.

“Stop,” he says and Seth ignores him.

Kate pauses in wiping down tables to watch.

“Stop, Seth.”

He makes no move to interfere with Seth’s automatic, precise motions, though, just gets a helpless, frustrated look on his face as he tries again, “Look, brother,” –

“If the next words out of your mouth are ‘We did what we had to do’, I will fucking shoot you myself, Richard.”

“We agreed that – “

“We’re bank robbers, Richie,” Seth snarls and there is something desperate in his voice Kate has never heard before. “We’re thieves. We’re not Satan’s fucking assassins!”

He finishes assembling his gun for the last time, smacks the glasses out of his brother’s hand to shatter on the floor, steals the bottle and blows out of there with a face so dark, not even Razor Charlie dares to meet his eyes.

+

Kate tries, and fails, to not contemplate the fact that somewhere, out in this desert, a man named Chet Pussy is buried in a shallow grave, probably with one of Seth Gecko’s bullets in his brain. (He touched Maria. But Maria winked at Kate, barely an hour after sobbing hysterically into Santanico’s arms, and Kate isn’t sure she likes what she’s seeing.)

She tries and fails all the way through to dawn, gives up on sleep and marches over to Casa Del Gecko in her sleep shorts, with a vague notion of getting some answers out of the brothers.

Forgets, conveniently, that Richie lives with Kisa in all but name.

Seth opens the door after five minutes of her making a racket and his glare almost sends her skittering back to her room.

“What,” he enunciates clearly, “the fuck. Princess.”

No question mark in sight.

“You killed Chet,” she blurts, because the word ‘pussy’ still won’t easily cross her lips, even if ‘fuck’ and ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ do, now, often.

(She still feels a little naughty thrill every time, remembers the one time she told Kyle about how maybe, after graduation, they should fuck, just once, just to see – and he blushed so hard she was afraid he’d run to church right then and there and tell on her.)

He hauls her inside hard enough to bruise.

(There is a world, somewhere, where Freddie Gonzalez sees bruises just like those on her upper arms and Seth gets a bullet in his skull in vengeance and Kate is left to mourn him alone, because no-one understands why she’s not grateful. This is not that world.)

She smacks him in the chest, pointedly ignores that he’s in boxers and a wifebeater, his hair a mess, obviously woken up, booze on his breath, still. “Ouch.”

“Shout it from the rooftops, why don’t you? And if you have a problem with the severance package around here, take it up with Queen Satan, will you?”

There are so many things wrong with that sentence, so many questions she wants to ask, Why do you hate Kisa so much, what has she done to you, is this what will happen to me if I try to leave, why did Maria play up being attacked, what is going ON?!, but none of them make it past her lips.

She folds her arms over her stomach, hugs herself and lets her gaze slide away from the angry man in front of her sees –

“Is that my book?” she says.

His eyes follow hers, find the battered paperback copy of Lolita she lent Richie weeks ago.

“And here I was giving Richard shit about the Hello Kitty bookmark,” Seth drawls and she blinks, confused for a moment, until she notices her own bookmark tucked in the front, two others marking place within the book.

Two.

She gapes at him.

“What? Surprised the high school dropout knows how to read?” he snarls.

Kate rolls her eyes. She’s seen Seth help out behind the bar, adding up prices in his head faster than even Kapo, who is their most seasoned bar tender. Stupid is something Seth hides behind. It’s not something he actually is.

“I didn’t know you liked books,” she corrects, then adds, “Why did you drop out?”

After a beat of startled silence, he laughs. “You know, you’re the first person to ever ask me that. Everyone else just assumes – “

That he couldn’t cut it and maybe, next to Richie, he might not look like a genius, but that’s just, well, stupid.

“So why did you?” she repeats.

He shrugs. “Uncle Eddie had an accident, no-one was earning any money, and Richie needed fed. Grew like a fucking weed that year.” He motions with one hand, raising it until it reaches his brother’s height, shakes his head.

And Kate thinks, of course. Of course he did it for Richie. Everything Seth does is for Richie, or at least close enough to make no never mind. She thinks of Scott and then pointedly doesn’t, anymore.

(This is the same in all worlds, at all times. For all four of them.)

“You should tell me how you liked it, when you’re finished,” she offers, instead.

“What’s to like?” he sneers. “That fucker strips that poor girl of every scrap of her humanity just to justify his own damage.” Then, unexpectedly, he gets back to the point. “Look. You wanna know what’s going on, talk to Santanico. I told her letting you stick around was a shit idea, but fuck knows no-one around here listens to me.”

With a nod and a wave he turns and wanders back into what is, presumably, his bedroom, slamming the door.

Kate lets herself out.

+

“I want to know what’s going on,” she tells the room at large when Richie lets her in. This time, she waits until the door is closed, though.

Richie and Kisa exchange looks and then he wanders back into their bedroom and Kisa motions for Kate to follow her into the kitchen, where she makes them both tea and they sit.

“Did you know,” the older woman asks after a long silence, “that I was born here?”

Kate frowns.

“My mother was a whore.”

“And your father?” She knows it’s a stupid question as soon as it leaves her mouth, but, but, but. (She can’t help that she grew up in a place where children had a mother and a father apiece and deviations weren’t tolerated.)

But Kisa smiles, unoffended. “I have called a lot of men ‘daddy’. Some of them might even have been actual candidates.”

Kate blushes scarlet and her friend laughs. “But… you don’t… you don’t sleep with patrons.”

Some of the girls do, that’s what the backrooms are for, but for those that only dance, Seth, Richie or Razor Charlie are always close by to enforce their ‘no’. Even Rafa has stepped in a time or two.

“Not anymore,” Kisa agrees.

And then she tells Kate. Tells her how she runs the Twister but doesn’t own it, how the Nine Lords, the biggest cartel on this continent do. How she has been replacing their people with her own for years, how she has been making things better, has been gathering money and weapons and loyalty, how soon (soon), they’ll all be either free or dead.

That’s the stakes.

Freedom or death.

(In all worlds, in all ancient temples, in all stories, that is always the stakes. Freedom or death. Even with Xibalba opening and the fate of the world hanging in the balance, with hero brothers descending to defeat gods, those are always the stakes.)

“Is that why you took me in? So I’d be loyal to you?” Kate asks, even as she wonders, because what could she possibly contribute to this? She’s a preacher’s daughter. Cannon fodder at best, in this war her friend is planning.

But Kisa smiles and shakes her head, mug hiding half her face. “You I took in because I wanted to,” she explains, calmly. Surely.

Kate believes her.

“Seth and Richie?”

Again, Kisa nods.

“Is that why Seth hates you?”

“Seth hates me because I led him and his brother to my door with lies and promises of El Rey. I need them. I need los hermanos Gecko, so I got them.”

“You lied.”

“No. I just didn’t tell them that they would need to build El Rey with their own two hands, first.”

El Rey. Paradise. And Kate is abruptly reminded of Seth cleaning his gun, of Richie’s jacket, abandoned somewhere, probably covered in blood. This thing Kisa has them build is made from blood and corpses.

No, not Kisa. Santanico.

“So why don’t they leave?”

Kisa puts down her mug and averts her gaze. It’s the first time Kate has ever seen her ashamed. “Richie loves me,” she whispers, a confession. Louder, “And Seth loves Richie.”

(These boys walk into hell for each other. Of course, of course, they love each other.)

“Do you love Richie?” Kate demands, because that, if anything, might absolve her friend, at least a little.

“Yes.”

(She does, in this world, in ways she’s not capable of in others anymore. Here, a millennium of slavery hasn’t whittled her down to bleak bone and razor blades. Here, Richie’s hands on her body make her feel safe and beautiful instead of hunted.)

Kate nods. Then she places her untouched mug in the sink and turns to leave, shivering in her thin clothes and the post-dawn desert morning.

(In some worlds, this is where Santanico does to Kate as was done unto her. In some worlds, one once-innocent girl condemns another to share her own hell. Santanico never wants anyone to die for her, but in those worlds, people have and she has learned to live with it. Here, though, here…she is only a girl and not a goddess. Maybe that makes her kinder.)

“Kate?”

“Mhm?”

“You’re free to leave, if you want to. You… I never meant for you to be part of this.” Kate is a victim of random kindness from the wrong people. Nothing more.

She nods again. Then she walks out.

+

She sends Kapo a text, takes one of the cars that are just there and don’t seem to belong to anyone (it was weird before, now it’s suddenly sinister) and drives.

Finds a town, a shitty ice-cream vendor by a dusty street. Eats her weight in strawberry flavored… something, has a horchata because Richie kinds of rubs off on you, then a beer, then tacos for breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Then she drives back and holes up in her room wearing a sweater and thick, woolen socks she hasn’t touched since she crossed the border. She curls into herself and she tries to decide whether she wants to be part of a war.

+

Seth comes the second day, walks in without invitation, sits at the foot of her bed and drops a revolver down between them. She jumps, scowls, curses him as she scoots away.

His grin is sharp. “Be cool, princess. It’s a gun, not a rattlesnake.”

“Exactly,” she hisses, wants to nudge it away from her, doesn’t dare. With her luck, it’d go off.

“If you’re staying,” he says, unperturbed, “you’re learning to use this.”

“I haven’t decided yet if I’m staying,” she reports, primly.

He snorts and she looks up from the gun to find something soft in his eyes. “If you haven’t run yet,” he tells her, like it’s a secret, “you’re not going to.”

“Is that why you’re still here? Because you didn’t run on day one?” She doesn’t think Seth is the kind of man to feel obligated, to have a sense of duty, or honor, or… anything. If he didn’t want to be here, he’d be gone so fast, they’d all be left eating dust.

With a cock of his head, he throws a grin at her, careless and wide and Kate looks at him, really looks.

“Oh,” she says, very quietly, because she never realized that beneath the anger, beneath the rage and sharp barbs, Seth Gecko is made of sadness.

(It’s the sadness of a mother who abandoned him, a father who hurt him, a brother who didn’t need him anymore, of everyone leaving, always and forever and the realization that if he died today, no-one would care, least of all himself. It’s at the heart of what he is, in every world and every life, because Seth Fucking Gecko is a worthless piece of shit and he’s known it all his life.)

“You’d die for him,” she whispers and blushes scarlet, averting her gaze and reaching for the revolver, if only so he won’t answer.

He lets both of them down easy, lets it go when he grabs her wrist and takes the gun. “Not like this. You never, ever point a gun at someone unless you’ve damn well triple checked yourself that it’s unloaded. And that means clip and chamber, for a semi.”

He twists both their hands sideways, starts explaining parts as he points at them and once she can repeat the names by heart, he pulls a rag from is back pocket and spreads it over the mattress between them.

He shows her how to clean it. And then they repeat the process with the Beretta from his holster.

Again.

Again.

+

Kate doesn’t leave that day.

Or the next.

+

She slings drinks and spends her mornings with her feet in the kiddie pool, watching Richie and Santanico bent over a table strewn with papers. The wind rips at them and the dust gets everywhere but they plan in the open now, unafraid.

With El Mono gone, they are certain of the loyalty of all who remain.

“We’re almost ready,” Santanico says, one morning, her lips painted scarlet.

Before that, Kate slings drinks and watches Seth prowl the floor like a caged animal, watches him clock the exits, one after the other, scan the VIP area, the girls, the poles, the exits, in turn. Watches him twitch with the need to check his weapons and barely resist.

Watches him watching her with a look that’s half grateful half terrified. He starts dropping hints, after the afternoon with the guns, about her family, her home, her roots.

Trying to remind her she has things to live for, probably.

But Kate… Kate didn’t run the first day and she didn’t run the second and somehow, while she wasn’t looking, she stopped checking her phone for Scott, for her dad, stopped praying and started developing gun calluses and a foul mouth instead.

Kyle would be appalled, she thinks as she pulls her feet from the water and plants them, firmly, on the sand. It clings to her skin, pinpricks of pain as she walks over to Richie and Santanico, to Seth prowling in the shade of a nearby trailer.

“Tell me what you need me to do,” she says.

+

The first step (in any world and any plan) was the money. Los Hermanos Gecko with their balls screwed on tight, gun in hand, a plan at the ready.

The second step was loyalty. El Mono in the desert, wrapped in Richie’s ruined suit jacket, Seth Gecko’s bullet in his head and another on his tongue, as a warning, because Seth isn’t a motherfucking assassin, but he plays one on TV sometimes.

The third step is betrayal. Carlos isn’t someone Kate has a lot to do with (he takes her brother and makes him something terrible, in some worlds, but even in those, Kate never really knows him. He is a negative space in the lives of the people around her, but to her he never means anything. Until he kills her. This is not that world. She hopes.), but Seth likens him to a rabid Chihuahua, and from what she has observed, he isn’t wrong.

(In this world, Carlos Madrigal is a whore’s son as much as Kisa is a whore’s daughter and they grow up together, playing between dumpsters, empty bottles of booze and broken dreams. He loves her, fiercely and absolutely, for seven long weeks when he is eighteen and she fifteen and then it fizzles out and dies, like everything at the Twister must.

Kisa takes her first client and paints her face in shades of blood and baptizes herself anew: Santanico is born. And Carlos can’t love the thing that killed his sister and wears her face.

(But he can’t not love her either.))

He flits in and out of the Twister, dealing in drugs and money and information, spinning the threads of Santanico’s net farther than she could reach alone. Richie hates him, but Seth only laughs, tired and too loud, when Kate asks about it.

“Carlos used to tap the ass Richie considers his. Be glad they haven’t measured, yet.”

She grimaces, pauses in wiping down the counter to lean over and asks, very quietly, “Is he on our side?”

Because she trusts Kisa and Richie, but somehow, somewhen, Seth has become her measurement, her compass.

(Elsewhere, she says, “Be cool,” as she robs people at gunpoint and even after years of it, she can still only pull it off right, can still only do it just right if she imagines she’s Seth Fucking Gecko and you can be fucking cool.

Freddie Gonzales stares at her face on surveillance camera footage and shakes his head over how lost she’s become. He never gets it.)

Seth digs a nail into a long scratch in the bar top, pulls up slivers of tequila-drenched wood. Eventually he shakes his head.

“He and Satan are solid,” he finally judges. “He knows where he stands with her and he’s still here, so chances are pretty good he’ll stick this shit out, yeah.” He shrugs, then suddenly raises his dark gaze to nail Kate in place. His beard is getting out of control and there are new flames licking up his neck, like they’re consuming him. “Don’t let him into your head, though, Princess. He’s still a snake-faced piece of shit, got that?”

She nods. She does.

He quirks a grin and stands. “Good. Find me after I’ve had some decent sleep. We still need to teach you to actually hit anything with a gun.”

He leaves with a finger wave over one shoulder and Charlita, a red-headed Texan with an improbable accent watches him go with a gusty sigh.

“You are so fucking lucky, Fuller,” she grumbles, not entirely kindly.

Kate rolls her eyes, says nothing and tries not to imagine getting to follow Seth into his bedroom. (She’s fallen far, far from grace, but there are still things she thinks she should hold on to. If she’s going to have sex, if she’s going to fuck someone, she wants to be in love with them, at least a little.

Kate is not in love with Seth Gecko.)

+

The hostess is a sweet woman named Ana. She used to dance, she tells Kate, late one night, but Malvado, the lord who owns the Twister (and all of the people inside it, because that never changes), broke one of her legs, once. Santanico saved her life and Kisa found a new place for her but she can’t face him.

The thought of it alone makes her shake and shiver.

She says she’d give away the game within moments, she’s so sorry. Kisa hugs her. Kate takes a deep breath and channels something (a queen bitch of hell, maybe, a displaced goddess’ desperate rage and bid for freedom) and announces, “I’ll do it.”

She spends the last two weeks before the summit learning the ropes from Ana, who starts calling her hermanita.

On the last day, less than thirty hours before it all ends (begins), Seth extracts her from her tutelage and says, “You need to look the part, princess. Now get in the car.”

+

He drives them for hours, gas station Slurpee and chips for both of them, radio cranked up on Spanish rock, staring fixedly ahead before Kate says, “You know, Kisa had a dress picked out for me. We don’t have to drive all the way to, like, Mexico City to get me one.”

He doesn’t answer, just nudges the needle up a little more. Shakes his head. There’s grey at his temples that she never noticed before. Was it there a few months ago? (It isn’t, in some timelines, until he thinks she’s dead and the very last trust he had in his brother broken.)

“Hey, Seth?” she tries, different approach. Sometimes you can get him sideways, lull him and convince him that you’re not out to hurt him. She figured it out watching him fight with Richie and then, later, watching Kisa sidle up to him, beer in hand and just sit next to him for half an hour. They don’t hate each other nearly as much as they pretend they do. Mostly, Kate thinks, they’re just the same damn person.

So Richie tries head-on and they scream and Kisa sidles up and somehow, Seth lets her stay there. Somehow, he’s less afraid when words come quietly and he doesn’t have to meet anyone’s eyes. (There’s so much fear in him, it sometimes awes Kate, how he can function at all.)

“Mhm?”

“How old are you?”

He snorts. “Too old for you, kid.”

She rolls her eyes. “One, I’m twenty, not twelve. Two, if I decided I wanted to be with you, I would be, three, not why I asked.”

He looks at her, a little flick of lashes behind his sunglasses, shakes his head. “’M not good for you, Katie. You should stay away.”

Before she can answer, the biggest town in a two hundred mile radius finally comes into sight and Seth steers them around and then inside, straight toward –

A bus station. He pulls the car to a halt, turns off the engine. Hooks a thumb over his shoulder. “Your shit’s in the trunk. Get it, get out. Go.”

She stiffens. “What? NO!”

“Kate. This is going to be a shit show. People are going to die. A lot of people are going to die. And I thought you were smart enough to get your ass out of there when Satan spilled the beans, but you’re too damn, I don’t, loyal, or stupid, or brave, but it ends now. You’re getting out of this car and you’re leaving. Now!”

He slams the wheel with his palm for emphasis. As if that still impresses her after months of him blowing through her life, weapons in his waistband and rage in his eyes, beating up anyone who gave him an excuse, just because he could, or maybe needed to. Wanted to.

(“Who’s the monster now, brother?” Somewhere. Somewhen.)

“And go where?” she screams right back at him.

“I don’t give a fuck. Just go! Before you end up buried next to El Fucking Mono!”

“No!”

He hits the wheel again. And again. And again. A man passing in front of the car stops, shoots her a worried, questioning look. She smiles, shakes her head. She’s not afraid of Seth Gecko’s rage. Even now, he’s only trying to protect her, the stupid idiot.

He slumps, abruptly, spent. The circle under his eyes have been getting darker for weeks at the exact same rate Richie’s eyes have been getting brighter with anticipation. “Kate, please. Just. Go.”

She swallows, shakes her head again. Quiet Seth, unlike raging Seth, scares the shit out of her. “Then come with me,” she says, on impulse. “We could go to a beach, somewhere. Swim in the ocean. Have cocktails I didn’t have to make.”

She smiles at him, puts a hand on his wrist, where the flames cover needle marks all up and down his veins. They’re old and puckered and they feel like braille under her fingers whenever he lets himself be touched.

He sighs, twists out of her grip only to come back and lace their fingers. “You know I can’t, sweetheart.”

Because of Richie. And because of Kisa and all the people he pretends to hate at the Twister but really loves desperately. Razor Charlie and Rafa, whom he plays poker with on slow nights, Charlita and Ana who he always shakes his booty for, just to make them laugh, even bitchy Sonja, who always refuses payment for touching up his ink but never turns down the little gifts that show up at her workstation. Because of all the promises Kisa makes that he actually, somehow, against his will, believes.

(Because Seth Gecko, in any world, never quite manages to purge himself of the idea of El Rey. Of a happy ending. Even though he tries. Oh, he tries.)

She squeezes his hand in hers, the stupid gloves warm against her tacky skin. “Well, neither can I. I already lost one family, Seth. I’m not losing another.”

After a long, long minute, he nods. Puts the car back into drive and turns them toward the shopping district.

“I had to try,” he says, halfway there, almost too quiet to hear.

“I know,” she answers, fingers back on the braille map of his arm. He lets her. “Thank you.”

The dress he gets her is a soft, dark turquoise with black lace along the edges. It makes her pale cheese skin look elegant instead of pasty next to all the tan beauty she is surrounded by. It clashes terribly with the color scheme of the Twister and it fits her perfectly, even though the price tag makes her gag.

He rips it off, spirits it into his pocket and steals the dress with a little sleight of hand, a little flirting and not a single tell.

Kate follows his lead, horrified and giggling despite herself and outside, she hugs him, impulsively, and blurts, “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me!”

“Seriously?” he laughs, twirling her. “I kind of expected you to start whaling on me the second we were out of sight.”

She rolls her eyes. Hard. Doesn’t say that they’re planning multiple counts of murder and stealing a dress she really wants seems kind of small fry next to that. Just giggles a little more. Wiggles her eyebrows and offers, “You know, I need shoes to go with that.”

He throws his head back and laughs.

+

They should go back, go over the plan one more time, but neither of them really seems to want to. They steal her new shoes and then just walk, bags in hand. Find a small restaurant to have dinner in and then buy some drinks from a vendor and meander into a park through gates that haven’t held anyone out since the late nineties, broken down and rusting.

“Nice,” Seth comments, as he steers her toward a bench facing the sunset, dropping into it, his arm along the back of it. She slips into the unconscious offer of an embrace and his hands locks onto her hair moments later, playing with it. She’s never really sure he even notices he’s doing it, but she’s afraid he’ll stop if she asks.

Somehow, between shouting at each other and plotting murder, she’s gotten used to Seth Gecko in her space, immature and stunted and hurt and trying so hard to be better.

As they watch the sun set, she asks frankly, “Are you scared? Of tomorrow?”

He snorts a macho laugh. “What’s to be scared of?”

“You could die.”

He laughs again at that, but it’s a deeper sound. Bitter. “I’ve known that I’m going to die ugly since the first time my old man broke my ribs by kicking too hard, kid. Dying doesn’t scare me.”

There is so much hurt in that, so much old hate, that Kate doesn’t know how to even begin acknowledging it, so she doesn’t. Counters instead, “We might die.”

And there it is, the thing he’s afraid of. Richie might die. Kisa might. All of their friends might. She might. Kate might die tomorrow. She doesn’t want to. She thinks that terrifies Seth almost as much as it does her.

“Don’t you fucking date, Katie, don’t you dare. You just remember the plan, hit the deck when the fighting starts, and don’t you fucking dare get so much as a scratch on you, got it?”

He hauls her in too close, hugs too tight, and all she feels is safe. Her daddy hasn’t protected anyone since the day her momma died and Scott is long gone, but Kisa offered her a place and Richie offered her friendship and Seth offers this, whatever the hell this is, and she’s never felt as safe, as protected as she does right now, less than a day away from risking her life in a cartel turf war for people she has known only a few months.

“Only if you promise the same,” she counters, finds his hand on her shoulder, squeezes.

He opens his mouth and she can tell he’s going to fib her off, make a crack about how he’s always fine, how he doesn’t matter. Downplay the fact that the plan leaves him and Richie to pretty much clear out the main floor on their own, with only a few others to help them.

“No,” she hisses. “Promise me, Seth.”

He sighs, like she’s a chore. But eventually he offers, “No bumps or scrapes for either of us. Deal?”

“Or bullets,” she adds. “I’m really more worried about the bullets.”

+

The plan is fairly simple, really.

The Nine Lords come, once a year to the day, to check the books and indulge in the tribute owed to them. They meet at the Twister because it’s one of the oldest and biggest places they have, firmly in their control. They feel safe there.

Kate, as the new hostess, will greet them and bring them to the hidden conference room deep, deep below the tunnels of the old Temple.

(Some of the girls say people get lost down there, and their ghosts haunt the secret rooms and passages. They say that somewhere, deep, deep inside the labyrinth, there is a doorway leading straight to hell. Sometimes they’re even right.)

There, Santanico and Carlos will play the good underlings. Santanico will entertain and Carlos will serve.

As she leaves, Kate will lock the doors.

They will stay locked until the sedatives in the drinks kick in and Santanico and Carlos have done their gruesome deed.

Upstairs, meanwhile, the bodyguards and entourages of the lords will be entertained. When the signal comes, Richie and Seth will start picking them off, with the help of anyone who feels up to fighting. Razor Charlie and Rafa are explicitly ordered to get anyone unwilling to fight to safety.

It will be a bloodbath.

By dawn, the heads and torso of the entire cartel will have been cut off.

Kate expects that she’ll have nightmares for the rest of her life, but the plan itself is fairly simple, really.

+

She’s not nervous. That’s the strangest thing. She’s about to lead nine powerful, evil men and women to their deaths at the hands of people she considers friends, and she’s not even nervous.

All she’s worried about is that someone she cares about will get hurt.

(Even when Kisa’s revenge costs her her brother and her father, and, eventually her own life, Kate always understands why the other woman does what she does. After months of living among the silent, untold stories of pain and loss and abuse, she doesn’t think she could do anything but exactly this.)

She smooths her hands down her new dress, wiggles her toes in the matching heels and hears a knock at the door. Seth enters without waiting and stops short as he sees her, middle of the room, trying to finish zipping herself up.

He blinks. He’s in jeans, button up shirt and a vest, all in black of course. Gloves and guns and the flames licking up his neck make him look like a hitman, like something deadly.

(He is. Even human and breakable, he is.)

“You look amazing, Princess,” he finally manages and motions for her to turn around. She does and he zips her up, arranges her curled hair neatly.

“Are you nervous?” she asks, an echo of their conversation last night, distorted. (In any world, Kate never really gets to use all the SAT words she learns for good grades. She tries to apply them elsewhere.)

It’s a bad way to phrase what she wants to know, but he gets it anyway. “Not the first time I’ve killed. Not the last.”

When she says nothing, he grunts, angry. “I’m not a good man, Kate.”

She turns, smacks his shoulder. “I know that, drama queen. I don’t care.”

Because she isn’t in love with Seth Gecko, doesn’t think anyone can ever look at him and see candles and romance and rose petals. If he dies today, she’ll mourn him and probably try to avenge him, but she’ll move on. She’ll be strong and brave and still Kate. Still whole. Because Kate Fuller is not in love with Seth Gecko.

But she does love him.

It’s a slow thing, that love, unwillingly shaped and kind of lopsided, but unhurried and bone deep and soft enough for the kind of person they both are, she thinks.

She loves him.

(She might regret it, if they weren’t at the precipice of something much bigger than them. But they are, so she doesn’t.)

She stands on tiptoe and holds onto his shoulders to keep him in place and presses her lips to his, warm and soft and sure.

He inhales sharply, holds very still and then sighs out the breath he held, right into her mouth.

(He always hates being her first, being her anything, because in his eyes, it’s just another thing he’s taking from her, but in this world, here and now, she thinks he’s okay with it. This time, it’s not his fault her life is a shit show. This time, she came to him already damaged.)

“Stay cool,” she whispers as she drops back down onto her heels.

“Be cool,” he corrects, hands on her waist, thumbs drawing circles. “It’s ‘be cool’, Fuller, pay attention.”

“Sorry,” she giggles and then solemnly copies, “Be cool.”

+

She recognizes Malvado from Kisa’s and Ana’s stories, and one of the two sole women is Venganza. Carlos knows her, does business with her. There is a small, squat man with a friendly grin who introduces himself with a kiss to her hand. He says his name is Oculto.

He seems nice, friendly even. She titters at his charm and tries to remember what Rafa told her, about the mass grave behind his home town. The locals call it el campo de las mil almas. The field of a thousand souls. And the nice old man in front of her is the one who, over decades, planted every single seed there.

Malvado asks about Ana. He sounds friendly. Like having shattered her knee in a fit of pique was a small misunderstanding. The other female lord just smiles at Kate like a snake.

She makes small talk, leads them the long way around, points out changes they made, new features. Sonja’s setup in one corner. They take twenty percent of her dailies and she does fake papers on the side. The lords approve.

They leave their entourage, at least thirty strong, to enjoy the floor. Free everything, of course, and a subtle recommendation to not make use of the private rooms just yet. There’s a show coming.

Downstairs, Santanico and Carlos wait, shoulder to shoulder, as they have been all their lives. Her lipstick is the color of blood and his gloves are a matching shade.

They bow and scrape and Santanico smiles like venom as one of the men grabs her ass and hauls her in to grope her chest like it’s his right. She lets him, compliments him into his seat.

Carlos pours drinks while Kate cues up the music and Santanico climbs on the table for the last dance she’ll ever dance as a whore’s slave daughter.

She smiles at Kate and Kate nods.

The lock of the door sounds incredibly loud as she turns it, carefully and slowly, and hides the key in a crack in the wall. Only a few other people know where it is. There will be no easy way to open this door, if anyone tries.

Carlos and Santanico are on their own.

Kate prays, for the first time in months, brief and to the point. Please Lord, keep the people I love safe and whole. Amen.

Then she fetches the gun Seth hid further down the hall for her, undoes the safety with one hand and picks up her phone with the other. Waits.

Fifteen minutes later, over the sounds of the throbbing baseline, the screams start.

Kate hits send.

A few seconds later, she hears gunshots from upstairs.

+

The noise is muffled, down here, but she hears screams, hear gunshots. Hears a stampede of people rushing past a few tunnels away, once. The non-combatants getting to safety. Most of the girls, the barkeepers who don’t want to fight and all the guests they could easily grab.

Inside the conference room, the shouting is dying down. Or maybe the music is getting louder.

Then, suddenly, something incredibly loud and heavy slams against the solid wooden doors, breaking the lock and sending the double doors flying open with a mighty crack.

Kate hears Santanico scream, catches a glimpse of Carlos with blood streaking down his face and she drops her phone, tries to bring her gun to bear, but Malvado hits her like a cannon ball, kidding along the table he used to break the door, and grabs both her and her weapon in a single move.

The barrel feels very cold against her temple and his arm, tight about her neck, is slippery with blood when she tries to gouge at it.

“Stop!” he roars.

Carlos groans. Santanico immediately freezes, gun in hand.

“You’ll die for this, Santanico. And I’ll be sure to make it last.”

Her lips purse, eyes full of hate. “Will you? You won’t leave this place alive, Malvado.”

“Oh, but I will. And this pretty little thing will make sure I do.”

He jostles Kate for emphasis.

“What makes you think I won’t just let you shoot her?” she tries, but there is Kisa peeking through the cracks. She stopped when he told her to. The game’s already up.

He tightens his grip on the gun, inches one finger tighter on the trigger. Kisa, and she is Kisa now, doesn’t move a muscle.

He nods, satisfied.

“Let’s go, little bird. If you try to follow, I’ll shoot her in the knees.”

Kate starts walking as he kicks at her calves, trying to catch Kisa’s gaze, to let her know it’s okay, it’ll be okay, he needs her alive, it’s not Kisa’s fault that he got out. Any plan can fail. And they got eight out of nine, they did so good. And they’ll get him, too. It’ll be okay.

(Better Kate than the people she loves. Always. Anywhere.)

The last thing she sees before they turn a corner is the other woman mouthing a soundless, “I’m sorry,” to her.

+

Upstairs is pandemonium. It’s less of a pun and more a gruesomely true statement.

There are bodies everywhere and screams and blood but it’s still far from over. As Malvado shoves her into the main room, Kate’s eyes automatically find the Geckos, back to back at the center of the stage, shooting, punching and kicking anything that comes at them. Richie is favoring one hand and Seth looks like someone took an old fashioned mace to his temple, but they’re both upright.

All the doors are locked and guarded. Sonja is in the far corner with two of the girls, all of them snarling, spitting and stabbing. A cluster of bodyguards has banded together, makes a run for the front entrance. Charlita and two of the bouncers are there, guns aimed and steady. The floor is littered with bodies with unfamiliar faces.

(Thank you, Lord.)

They’re winning.

Right up until Malvado lets out a roar that deafens Kate and has everyone else freezing in their tracks.

Seth cries her name once, in shock, in surprise, before he locks down into an icy statue of himself, bringing his gun to bear, steady as a rock, on Malvado.

“Try it, and your little chica here dies,” comes the threat.

Kate doesn’t react to the steel pressing even tighter into her temple, just stares at Seth. If she only looks at him, then it’s all okay. (She wonders if Malvado can see the fear she sees lurking in his dark eyes. She hopes he can’t.)

After a long moment of tense silence, she nods, very slightly and very carefully, at Seth. She sees Richie’s eyes widen a split second before she moves, but Seth got it, she knows he did, he’s already pulling the trigger, pulling, pulling, and Kate doesn’t drop so much as she simply draws up her legs into her chest to make herself fall like a rock.

Malvado lets go of her with a shout and a second later, warm stickiness rains down on her and then Seth is there, cradling her face, frantically checking her over for injuries.

“I’m okay,” she tells him, over and over as she tries to still his hands and the fear in his eyes. “I’m okay, I’m okay.”

(He grieves alone, in so many worlds, grieves her and never even gets to bury her body, never gets to say goodbye, never gets to protect her because he loses her and then she’s just gone. She’s gone. But not here.)

He’s so focused on her that he completely misses the big, tattooed guy coming at them and it’s only Kate’s blind grab for the gun Malvado dropped that saves them. The recoil sends her onto her ass as the big man falls and Seth rounds on him, quickly finishing him off.

“Damn, Princess,” he drawls as he straightens, the fear and panic tucked away again, too look at her. “That was some smooth shooting.”

She hit him right in his chest, center mass, just like he taught her. She rolls her eyes. “Murder is not something to be proud of, Seth,” she chides, ignores the warm blush of pride on her face and the fact that her hands are rock steady. She actually spares a thought for her ruined dress and how she really liked it.

Reading her thoughts, he promises, “I’ll steal you another one,” as he offers her a hand up.

She takes it, straightens her skirt and then accepts the gun he picks up for her.

They march back into the dying fray side by side, weapons in hand, and Kate can taste blood on her lips and smell death on the air and her hands aren’t shaking.

(Here’s a secret: they never do.)

+

Afterwards, all she wants to do is wash off the blood.

Someone else is responsible for the clean-up, Ana with a mop and a roll of trashbags, an army of grim-faced but giddy girls behind her. Carlos will be okay, Kisa is apologetic for not killing her old boss fast enough (he didn’t drink as much as the others, always too careful) and Richie has a hole in his hand that he refuses to let anyone bandage. He says he likes looking through it.

Eventually, Seth holds him down while Kate tapes it up.

After that, she’s done.

“I’m washing off the blood,” she declares and stalks from the room in a whirl of red and blue skirts, barefoot, heels lost in the mess.

Seth follows after a moment later, through the back door, across the back lot, toward Kate’s small apartment. Inside and through the bedroom, into the bathroom. She considers asking him what he thinks he’s doing, but she knows. And she likes it.

So she strips, ignoring how she can steadily feel her face growing hotter, cursing her fair skin and avoiding his gaze. He takes his cues from her, strips quickly and starts running the water, steps into it icy cold to sluice off the blood and guts all over him.

Kate, finding a well of bravery inside of her, kicks off her cotton panties and steps into the stall next to him like she’s been doing it for years.

He helps her wash her hair twice, wordlessly and without a single dirty leer or joke, and then draws her under the spray with him just so he can cling to her like a child.

“I thought he’d kill you,” he whispers. She doesn’t think he means for her to hear.

“He didn’t,” she counters. “You killed him first. My brave knight.”

She winks because she knows it makes her face scrunch up weirdly and he laughs at it, like always.

Then he kisses her and doesn’t let go until dawn.

(She’s not in love with him, but she loves him and she thinks, here and now, that might be even better.)

+

Hours later, naked and with her legs thrown across his, lounging on the bed, sheets long since tossed aside, his hands on her calves, kneading, she asks, “What now?”

“Round three?” he offers. Seth has been very, very thorough in ridding her of her virginity.

“Technically, I think that would be round five, for me,” she counters, then kicks at his thigh when he stops massaging.

“I meant in general. What happens now?”

“Well, considering Satan just started a war, I guess there’ll be more where this came from until a new pecking order is established. Richie is practically salivating over the concept of setting himself up as a mob boss. Idiot.”

“And you? Off to El Rey?”

He stops kneading again, but this time she lets him, because he’s looking at her, eyes dark and for a moment she’s terrified he’ll say yes. Pack his bags and leave her.

(As if any Seth Gecko, in any world, ever truly manages to do that.)

Leave this, their messy little family of thieves, whores and murderers.

“Kisa says El Rey isn’t found,” he tells her, quietly. His hands are large and warm and still on her skin. It’s the first time she’s heard him refer to Kisa by anything but her stage name or an insulting nickname. “It’s built.”

“Here?” she asks, and her voice sounds like the meek church mouse she never really was. She hates it. Hates that she needs the answer to that question to be yes. She knows she’d be fine without Seth Gecko in her life. But she doesn’t want to be. He’s a bad tempered hurricane, but she’s come to love the storm of him.

He shrugs. “Dunno. But first, I want to see the goddamn ocean Richard promised me before this whole shit show started.” He grins, hands climbing slowly further up her legs. “So?”

She wiggles away from him, giggling. “So what?”

“Do you own a swim suit, Princess?”

She makes a so-so motion with one hand, using the other to run through his hair and then haul him in for a kiss. “I think I might be able to scrounge something up.”

+

There are worlds where Kate Fuller’s world is blood and death and venom, where she loses her entire family and clings, desperately, to a man with his own venom in his veins and blood speckled across his worn, tired face, because he’s the only thing she knows anymore.

There are worlds where two bullets in the back are a true ending and she never sees him again after he curses her name and disappear into the night, trailing blood and cigarette smoke.

There are worlds where she is so alone that she tilts her head to one side, gathers her hair and leans into his fangs, breathes, “Do it. Come on,” just so he won’t ever leave her.

This world is none of those. In this world there are blood and death but no venom and no gods, no gateway to hell and no queen of the underworld.

There is still redemption and revolution and maybe, somewhere, El Rey, because some things never change, cannot change, but here, Kate Fuller has options. There, there are roads for her to walk without Seth Gecko by her side, in her shadow, ahead of her.

The choice is always hers, gun to her temple or no, culebras or humans, the choice is hers.

But here, now, she doesn’t need him to save her life, keep her sane, help her fight the monster within. Here, she could just as easily choose to walk away from Seth Gecko forever and she would be fine.

She doesn’t want to.

She thinks that matters.

+

“So,” Kisa drawls, days later, feet stuck in the kiddie pool, looking more relaxed than Kate has ever seen her. “You’re staying?”

Kate, sipping cinnamon coffee gone cold, stares into the dawn and, more sure than she’s been of anything since she put down her bible and left Bethel behind, says, “Yes.”

+

+