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***This story should only be published on Wattpad.com, FictionPress.com, FanFiciton.net, and Inkitt.com under the account "Tanya3231". It can also be found on ArchiveofOurOwn.org under the account "JustMe3231". Please report this story and alert me if you see it posted elsewhere. Thank you!***

 

Inside a small suburban home in upstate New York...

"You're crazy! Get away from me," the terrorized 18-year-old Tina shrieked with widened brown eyes. The slender 5'6'' woman shook her head in denial, her black curls dusting her shoulders in the process. As she hid behind her living room’s big, cozy couch, fear swam through her veins, flushed her healthy, pecan brown skin of its color.

"Idiot Woman, it's only a worm." In his outstretched white hand, the amber-eyed Brandon, Tina's cause of distress, dangled a slimy arthropod wiggling for dear life. From behind his dark brown bed hair, the ghostly 20-year-old flashed his signature look, a shiny toothed smirk revealing a single pointed canine tooth and deep twin dimples.

"Brandon, I'm not joking! Stop!" Tina howled in disgust as she tried to force her body to meld with the blessing of smooth leather.

The creeping male ignored his target's pleas. With writhing creature in tow, he continued his trek.

"I said STOP!"

With the teen's command, her tormentor immediately halted his actions. Brandon stood completely still as if placed on pause, stuck in an awkward position that couldn't have been comfortable. The irritated Tina eyed the treacherous hand.

"Jesus! You're fucking ridiculous." Brandon heard exhaled through puffed out cheeks. "Now walk away, toss that disgusting thing outside, and remain silent," Tina ordered.

With a look of agitation, the older in the pair unwillingly, and almost mechanically, did as he was told. He opened the sliding glass door that connected the living room and back patio.

When Tina saw the 6'2'' male toss the wriggling animal a good way off with those lengthy appendages he calls fingers, she found that she could breathe again. Her arms crossed in annoyance and her eyes drifted to her new home's favorite spot of plush carpeting.

As she got up, Tina took notice of her friend, Roscoe, and his poor attempt at stifling an amused, gravelly-voiced chuckle. As she took up a half prone position, supported her upper body with her forearms atop a decorative pillow, she glared. "Don't you dare start. Everyone knows how I feel about bugs."

From his spot on the couch's matching recliner, Roscoe sat snuggled with his lover, his Ashley.

The couple's constant hanging over each other is nearly insufferable. Even at a time like this, with plenty of places to sit, Ashley curled in her beloved's lap like a common house cat.

With a playful pout and squint of his storm-like gray eyes, Roscoe just couldn't help himself, "T, you just met the man two weeks ago and have barely spoken to him since. How would he know that you despise bugs? Not to mention, worms are not bugs."

Tina glared at her friend.

"What?" he inquired in his rough Brooklyn accent. "I find it difficult to hide the fact that you amuse me by using your power in such a trivial way, getting Brandon to cease the action of grasping an annelid... I say the following because I care, that is quite pitiful."

The well-meaning but overly analytical man strained against another chuckle when he saw his friend turn quite red. Unsure whether the change was triggered by anger or embarrassment, Roscoe decided to play it safe. He swiftly composed himself, clearing his throat and rubbing the straight, sandy brown hairs at his nape.

___________________________

Narrator here...

Upon hearing him speak most people quickly identify Roscoe as a know-it-all and in reality, he is such. For example, by the tender age of 10, the modern-day genius gained fluency in Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese. By his twelfth year of life, he had become proficient in both Italian and German, and by his thirteenth, he had begun grasping Russian.

Having obtained five college degrees by the age of 16 is what put the now 20-year-old literature nut on the map. He’s been identified as someone of great merit, has drawn attention from a variety of scholars and notable organizations who’ve gifted him a smorgasbord of academic achievement awards. At 17, due to his literary contributions, Roscoe was even approached as a potential laureate for a Nobel Prize.

___________________________

Rubbing her temples in frustration, Tina huffed. "Firstly, don't be a traitor. You're my bestie, remember? I'm the one that's known you for years, not him. Second, you-"

"Secondly," the high IQ man corrected as he habitually cracked his neck, made the blue-tinted veins beneath his fair ivory skin visible.

Another sound of exasperation. "You're so lucky I like you," Tina grumbled and stared the big man down. "Listen, I had to use it. You saw. He doesn't listen. You swore I was joking. 'T, stop making your consociation with Brandon more negative than it is in reality. A Guardian refusing their Protected's direct wishes is unheard of.' blah, blah, blah. I had to do a goddamn internet search for what a consociation even was."

Ashley chuckled. "A plus impression, babe." The long-limbed female appeared at total peace with her legs fluttering freely, her bottom half spilling over the side of her bulky, boyfriend-shaped perch.

"Disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus," the 6'4'' gentle giant smiled more with his eyes than his mouth. As smart silver met puzzled chocolate Roscoe explained, "It's Latin. It means-"

"Pause, as in the dead language?" Tina interjected. Roscoe clarified with a simple head nod. "Why am I not surprised?" she rolled her eyes.

"I have become quite engrossed in the popular classical language. It is the newest of my linguistic intrigues. Anyway, what I said translates to learn as if you're always going to live; live as if tomorrow you're going to die."

"Sleep with books under your pillow every night as Ross does and you'll learn things you never could've imagined." Ashley chuckled.

"Promise?" Tina jested, batting her eyelashes and lacing her fingers together in a praying stance.

"I wish I were joking. He really does that," Ashley sighed and thumbed the wiry beard before her. "Sometimes I ask myself why I love this nerd."

Roscoe dipped his head, kissed his girlfriend’s probing fingers before he stared, what Tina had once expressed as googly-eyed, at her pools of lime green. Ashley, Roscoe’s goddess in humanoid form, had bewitching eyes. Her naturally red lashes were a constant tease, especially when they brushed against her seductive bangs. Placing another gentle kiss on the back of his girlfriend’s hand the man mumbled, "Love often doesn't make sense."

___________________________

Ashley is Roscoe's Guardian.

She's a tall 21-year-old with a carefully sculpted athletic frame developed over her many years in competitive gymnastics. As a toned beauty with tanned olive skin, all-encompassing freckles, and waist-length hair the color of fire, it is no wonder why Roscoe was instantly love-struck.

___________________________

"Bleh, get a room! Jeez!" a male voice echoed off the walls, originating from somewhere near the kitchen.

With a soft snort, Ashley continued playing with her Protected. "Going back to the command thing, babe,”—she looked toward Tina—“I know that you know that Ross is right. Doling out commands isn't cool. Think about it. He hasn't ever used that skill on me"—she flicked her lover on the button nose that she found adorable—"and we've been partners for going on three years now."

Tina inwardly groused to herself, No duh. If he did, I'm pretty sure that would constitute abuse.

Half strangled words struggled to make their way through an absent-minded yawn, "I hate to admit, but I gotta say it's the same with me and the derp." A half-listening and lackadaisical Dee, Guardian to "the derp", better known as Denzel, informed from her position on the aforementioned brown couch. Staring at the drywall ceiling above her with her hands in a crossed position behind her head and one of her socked feet crossed over its opposite knee, she looked immensely comfortable.

"See, T? Dee, how long have you been paired with Denzel?" the redhead asked.

"Dunno. Just know that he hasn't used his power over me in years. Pain's one hell of a teacher." The Guardian cracked her knuckles and licked her lips at the pleasurable memory.

___________________________

Dee is 19 and of average height for a woman her age. Her skin mirrors toffee, and her round-framed tortoiseshell glasses dull her otherworldly blue eyes with their distinct limbal rings of yellows and greens.

___________________________

"So, d'you all go back and forth like this on a regular?" the stout Guardian rolled her body to face the group, tucked some of the wavy, flaxen hair that had come loose from her braid behind an ear.

Having the good sense to look a little embarrassed, Tina lifted her shoulders in a gentle shrug. She had nearly forgotten that she'd only met Dee and her Protected, the pair so flawlessly blending into the chaos, two weeks ago via a video group chat.

Just as she was about to say something, Tina experienced a sudden chill, her body seemingly remembering what her mind did not. In a flash, she realized that she was unguarded and unsure of Brandon’s whereabouts. Tina twisted with purpose until she pinned the man with her eyes, found him stood with his shoulder leaning against the sliding glass door from earlier. As he stared into the backyard, the young woman caught a glimpse of the man’s reflection. If looks could kill, she was pretty sure she'd be dead.

In an attempt to lessen her senior's anger, the brunette sighed against her better judgment, "You can talk now."

Brandon crossed his strong arms in displeasure. The muscles in them twitched.

"Suit yourself." The teen looked at the ashen, ironclad grasp he had on a forearm before she was interrupted by thunderous shuffles and stomps.

Monáe and Hailey made their exit from the hallway bathroom sound like a damn parade. The pair took nearly twenty minutes to change out of their club uniforms. How the two ever showed up to anything on time still baffled Tina.

Tina sighed loudly, knowing the duo rounding the corner would successfully dampen any self-defense she created.

As if on cue and a mind reader, Monáe verbally charged her friend. As she all but bounced over to Tina, almost landing on top of her, the smaller being squealed in a sugar-sweet voice that gave way to her native French accent, "Ma Chérie, you finally mastered your ability of command. Congrats!" The tiny girl wrapped her arms around Tina and performed la bise on her.

"Took you long enough," Hailey friskily added. Her pierced eyebrow raised in a mocking gesture, made her violet, Elizabeth Taylor likened eyes appear even larger than the dinner saucers they already resembled. The metal lobe piercings in each of her ears and the industrial one at her top right sparkled in the room's light.

"Hush," Tina playfully barked at the two she knew a bit better than Dee and Denzel.

She shifted, maneuvering herself to sitting cross-legged as she remembered how she met the best friends. Unsurprisingly, she had hit it off with Monáe immediately. Who couldn't get along with the overly friendly, constantly affectionate, must have been a Golden Retriever in a past life girl? And to her surprise, the Wiccan was just as much fun as her new friend said she would be. Texting Hailey once a week for the past two months was sometimes the highlight of Tina's day. Between her study abroad program's shitty service in Amsterdam, constantly dropping her calls at the worst possible moments to leave her in compromising positions, and her brutally honest way of telling people how she feels and what she thinks, Hailey kept Tina in stitches during their first group chat.

___________________________

Monáe Rose, who interchangeably goes by both Monáe and Rosie, is the Protected of Hailey.

The vertically challenged woman has smooth skin the same color as her favorite drink's origin, dark unbrewed coffee beans. She possesses some of the blackest hair her friends have ever seen and her sockets house light brown eyes the color of whiskey.

With a minuscule stature of 4'11'' Monáe, who looks like she couldn't break 90 pounds soaking wet, often takes people by surprise when she states that she is 17 going on 18 years of age. A while back someone even called Child Protective Services on her parents after seeing her tattoos, the black, professionally done geometric pattern on the right side of her ribcage, the small red heart located on the inside of her left wrist, and the three simple birds composed of black lines on her left ankle.

The good samaritan thought that Monáe couldn't have been more than 12.

With events like Tattoo-Gate constantly occurring, the fun-sized teen is always looking for the next great thing to prove her age. A few months ago, she got her earlobes and daith pierced, and her latest endeavor, courtesy of flipping through a few popular magazines, was her getting her already short hair cropped into a textured pixie. However, unbeknownst to Monáe the cut actually regressed her features.

Hailey is Monáe's Guardian.

Taller than her Protected, standing at 6'0'' with a curvaceous body type, Hailey more often than not finds herself in the precarious situation of being hit on by men... and women much older than her 19-year-old self should attract. Her skin is a glowing champagne rich in expressive color and her coily, bra strap-length, oil-colored afro usually gets done up in some intricate braided style.

This month's winner: individual gray box braid extensions that reach her backside.

___________________________

"I mean, Hails ain't wrong," Denzel, the male voice from earlier, pointed out, his head so lost in the kitchen's refrigerator that his close-shaven, strawberry blond hair was unobservable.

___________________________

At the ripe age of 22, the pierced-eared Denzel, a lithe male with almost no visible muscle definition, barely breaks the height of 5'5''. Although praises for his physical attributes are few and far between the man's one saving grace, the thing that makes him conventionally attractive, would be his blessing of beautiful orbs. His eyes are like ever-changing hazel balls.

___________________________

Feeling victorious with a cold hot dog and leftover macaroni and cheese in hand, the acne-scarred man put the two together and perched himself on one of the granite countertop's barstools. From his new vantage point, the mahogany skinned male could see inside the living space's open floor plan. An Asiatic descendent, Denzel scanned the room with angled eyes, eventually making contact with a displeased-looking Tina.

In between bouts of chewing, the unperturbed Denzel choked out and around metal braces, "Stop that. Ain't ya heard? Ya don't kill the messenger."

"Tsk." Tina sucked her teeth. She looked away just in time to miss crushed nachos topping off the science experiment in her kitchen.

With vexation behind his words and a squint to his peepers, Brandon cruelly thought to the woman that had essentially sentenced him to a timeout, "I'm gonna get you."

"I highly doubt that," Tina said. She scooted around, unwavering confidence in her expression as she faced the man with whom she shared a telepathic link.

Shifting her line of vision to the reflective window, Tina was able to make out that Brandon was watching her, studying her as much as she was doing him. At the sight of the older man's intense stare, Tina’s throat went dry. She forced her body to swallow around a nervous lump. Albeit he no longer wore the purely menacing look of earlier, Brandon still likened a pack of hungry wolves in the middle of winter ready to devour the first meaty thing to cross their path.

With her nearly short-circuited senses, the Long Island native nearly missed Monáe's latest utterance.

In the lilt she normally took on when switching from English to French and vice versa, the small being spoke, "Ma Chérie, you and Brandon are sharing a precieuse moment, yes?"

"Really, precious? Precieuse?" Tina tried imitating her friend's accent with far less accuracy than her Roscoe impression.

The polyglot chimed in, "I think what she meant to say was private, as in Brandon and you were engaging in personal dialogue before the group-"

"Rather rude if ya ask me," Denzel spat around the food stuffed in his oral cavity.

"That's why nobody asked you," Dee bit back, throwing one of the couch's heavy decorative pillows at her Protected. She hoped that it would clock him in the forehead.

"And you asked about me with Ross and Ash?" Tina turned to Dee. "Those are some serious tantrums you throw."

Ignoring the commotion of the two he wasn't concerned with at the moment, Roscoe continued, "T, please tell me you two are not quarreling once more."

Eyeing Brandon carefully, she answered, "Something like that."

Brandon miraculously leveled with her, grumbling around clenched teeth, "Aye, something like that."

The muscled man couldn't help but be amused.

As she picked at her chipping black nail polish, elbows balanced on the back of the former roadblock, Hailey stated, "Rightttt... Well, while y'all fight everything out, Mo and I are gonna leave for a date night. Anyone wanna tell me why we're meeting again? Not that I don't just love hanging wit' y'all, but class doesn't start 'til tomorrow and I've got shit to finish unpacking. I did just get back like a day ago if anyone cares to show me mercy." She shot Roscoe a smile, silently asking his permission to leave.

"Don't complain, Hailey, we needed an excuse to get out the house," Monáe teased before adding in a confused manner, “Also, we're not dating.” Her high-pitched voice abandoned its French beauty in favor of a northern New Yorker accent, a result of the teenager having lived in the state for over half her life.

Placing her hands on her hips, forcing the colorful tattoo of the four corners often used in Wicca at her right tricep to momentarily flex, Hailey mumbled something under her breath.

"Our motley crew assembled like a goddamn robot because our professor decided to put the overachiever in charge." Tina cut her eyes at Roscoe. "What I want to know is why we're using my place."

"I prefer to think of us as superheroes." The overachiever chuckled.

"He just wanted to see our beautiful mugs." Denzel picked a piece of hot dog skin from between his teeth before ducking, avoiding another pillow doing an aerial act. When he popped back up, he slyly added, "But, dude, for future reference, text, call, hell, carrier pigeons."

Further ignoring the foolery surrounding him, Roscoe answered Tina seriously this time, "I thought the reason for my choice was obvious. You have the largest abode, a whole rental home with three bedrooms and two baths to yourself and Brandon. You better thank your folks before they go back on their word, leaving you high and dry to pay for all this yourself."

"Nah, I think they'd raise Ashley's half of the rent first, meaning she'd be "paying" almost double what she's "paying" now. Tina smiled slyly. “Tell me, how much interest is on a loan from Roscoe's Piggybank Incorporated?"

Ashley interjected, "Tina, don't tease him. Remember, it's you who came up with that convenient lie in the first place."

The brunette took a moment to reflect on the truth in her crimson friend's comment. Tina remembered how both her parents and grandparents pitched in to help her rent her current home, a congratulations-on-graduating-and-getting-into-a-prestigious-university-now-make-us-proud present if you will. However, there was a catch, the elders didn't want their baby staying by herself.

As she remembered not wanting to admit to her family that she wouldn't be living on her own, Brandon being required to stay with her, but her refusing to have that conversation with her male relatives, a shiver ran down her spine. The brown-eyed youth still remembered how brilliant she’d felt when she came up with a believable solution to her problem. Her parents already knew that both Ashley and Roscoe planned on attending the same university as she, so when Tina brought up the idea of having Ashley live with her and, in turn, go half on the rent, the older Franklins couldn't find any reason to argue. Having their daughter live with someone both they and she knew seemed like the perfect idea, especially since she would be moving hours away.

Little does Tina's family know, Ashley isn't paying her half of the rent, hell neither is Tina since the home she's occupying was bought by her university before the Franklins invested in it, meaning the youngest Franklin gets free housing until she graduates.

Eh, what they don't know won't hurt them, Tina thought about the savings account she opened to store all the rent money she’s received thus far in. After all, it's not like I can just give it back without anyone asking questions, she thought similarly to how she did before.

Leaving her memories for the present, the teen overheard Hailey explaining her previous statement to her bestie. "Whatever, sis. Dating, girl's night out, they're the same to me. Either way, we gotta get outta here now if we wanna make the movie on time and not get our asses kicked by your helicopter parents."

"Shoot!" Monáe checked her watch for the time. "Ugh, I hate staying home for university. I swear, my parents still think they own me. For God's sake, I'm almost 18 and I graduated from high school early, yet they still don't think I'm responsible enough to take care of myself-"

"Probably because you put tin foil in the microwave a month ago," a smug Hailey interrupted.

"One time!"

"Once is enough!" a cacophony echoed through the room.

With an exhale of defeat, the pixie-like creature removed her rear from the room’s centered coffee table. "We've got to be going, so we'll see you beautiful people at next week's meeting. Whose place again?"

"Ours," Roscoe smiled before kissing the top of his girlfriend's head.

As Hailey gently rushed Monáe in the direction of the exit, backpacks in tow, she shouted before slamming the downstairs door, "Alrighty. Copy that. See y'all."

"Heh, funny. I thought Hails and Lil' Bit weren't hittin' up their movie 'til 8:00 tonight," Denzel spoke in that lazy but velvety smooth voice he usually reserved for flirting with females he was interested in, like Monáe. He had purposely waited for her to be out of earshot before using the endearing nickname he finds adorable, but she hates since it directly references her height.

Lifting his gaze, the rainbow-eyed youth met the kitchen's hanging wall clock and nearly choked on his third hot dog. "Crap it's 7:30! Dee, we hafta get home! It's time for din din!"

"So? And really, din din? How old are ya?" the female mocked her Protected with another absentminded yawn and a dismissive wave of her hands.

With a knowing look, Denzel's features suddenly shifted to mischievous. In a sing-song voice, he hummed, "Ma said she's makin' her special spaghetti sauce tonight."

Upon hearing the words "special spaghetti sauce" Dee, like a bolt of lightning, was already waiting at the bottom of the steps that led from the living room on the second floor to the front door.

"Why didn't you say she was cooking that tonight?! I would've been dragged your sorry ass out of 'ere if I knew. Come on, fatty, move it!" She rolled her rounded shoulders, ready to apply force if necessary. "So help me God if all the sauce is gone..."

"Rude." The skin and bones man frowned, looking utterly ridiculous as he hopped about the living room, his attention and efforts split between putting on his shoes and chewing the last of his yellow coated dog. "Which one of us practically just flew to the door at the mention of food?” he questioned under his breath.

"I guess this meeting is over since everyone is leaving," Roscoe said, a smidge of annoyance in his voice.

"Calm." Ashley tucked herself into her love's wide chest, forcing him to release a contented sigh and snuggle his chin in her hair.

Tina spun, took in the lovey-dovey gazes of her confidants, and couldn't help but begin her theatrics, reminding them that they weren't alone. "Uh, the love! It burns!"

In playful retaliation, Ashley threw one of the nearby couch cushions at Tina’s head. The object landed with a resounding thump, a sound that the light material shouldn't have been able to produce.

"Human, remember?!" a wide-eyed Tina playfully glared the ginger's way, scooching from the line of fire when she saw Ashley pick up another cushion.

"You'll be fine. Ross survives everything I throw at him."

Gaping, Tina retorted, "Look at how the linebacker's built and then look at me! Lord! Anyway, you cuties staying for dinner?"

"Regrettably," Roscoe started to say something when he felt the gentle connection of an elbow to his ribs, "I meant, fortunately-"

"That's better." A lively Ashley smiled.

"We have plans to attend the gym tonight." The man huffed. He sounded less than enthusiastic.

"Yeah, and I'm not letting a certain someone talk his way out of going for the third week in a row."

A clear eye roll could be seen behind Roscoe's closed lids. "Ash, you know I was suffering, bilious all that time."

"What the hell is-"

"It means sick," the spindly female translated for the other as she climbed from her boyfriend's lap, a disappointed frown on her face.

"Actually-"

"Vomiting, whatever. Ross, you can't really expect me to buy that crap. Last month you blamed your research."

Dee and Denzel’s departure was made clear by the slamming of the front door and Dee’s peeved off shouts from the front lawn.

"I swear, your mother's meals are the only upside to you being grown as hell and still living at home!"

"Ya bein' a grouch 'cause ya hungry, right? Here. Ya can have some of my trail mix."

God, they're loud, Tina thought when Denzel’s pained screech reached her ears.

"God, they are loud," Roscoe echoed his friend's sentiments while massaging his temples. "T, I will tell you how bad this one"—he pointed in Ashley's direction—"made the workout for me tomorrow."

He winked in Tina’s direction before leaving hand in hand with Ashley.

Hearing the gentle click of the large oak door in her now silent home, Tina exhaled. She massaged her scalp, tried to ease a sudden headache. "And... They're all gone." Then, the hair at the back of her neck stood in warning. Tina froze. The sound of a slow exhale from behind terrified her.

"Now then, it's just you and me, together and all... alone." Brandon sounded evil from his place behind the frightened woman.

As he took deliberate steps in Tina’s direction, she audibly gulped, not knowing what to expect. With no one to act as a buffer, her normal cockiness was nowhere to be found.

Stopping with his feet at Tina’s rotund rear, Brandon’s leaned down. In his deep, masculine voice he whispered in her ear, "Be very worried."

___________________________

Where's help when you need it? A guardian of sorts?

___________________________

Unfortunately for Tina, her Guardian is Brandon.

Chapter Text

Cue narrator's ramble...

Upstate New York, near the Catskill Mountains, is home to a special university. It started to flourish when those in power began donating it money, determined to understand the odd phenomenon of Guardians and Protecteds. For their attendance, G/Ps have been bribed with everything from free tuition to the promise of future success. On the outside, the university appears normal, its secrets well-hidden  behind its multicultural students, vast course variety, and wide campus involvement. It’s only to those on the inside, the "Advanced" students and their specialized staff, that the house of education shows its true colors of being a training ground, a place for G/Ps to master relieving the world of paranormal maladies.

Tina, Roscoe, Monáe, and Denzel are Protecteds, humans with psychic abilities who between the ages of 16 and 18 are assigned a Guardian, a sort of animal-like bodyguard. Every Protected has a minimum of three skills, their unique gift and two abilities that directly impact their Guardian, the latter being Telepathic Communication and Command, a spoken order that a Guardian cannot fight.

Majorly Guardians look human, making them indiscernible to the layperson. In line with their surnames, as all Guardians share the name of the creature they represent, their identifiers are their animalistic traits and behaviors.

The critter a Guardian personifies represents their Protected. In simple terms, Guardians are a Protected’s spirit animal come to life, hence most pairings get along. They are two sides of the same coin, like day and night or black and white, what one lacks the other possesses, and when they come together, they become whole.

Notice the word,  most .

Research has discovered five Guardian/Protected statuses. The personalized, unable to change type or partners once established connections are known as Mutual, Friendly, Lovers, Enemies, and Abuse.

In Mutual G/P pairings, participants are more or less indifferent to one another, usually working in tandem once they realize their partnership is advantageous. Denzel and Dee are in a Mutual relationship. With their union akin to being co-workers, oftentimes the pestering panda Guardian and her Protected of over five years forget how long they've been together.

G/Ps in the self-explanatory Friendly range look like Monáe and Hailey. This Protected and her sheep Guardian are the best of friends, their almost two-year-long partnership sturdied by their five-year-long friendship.

Lovers, the kind of relationship Roscoe and his lynx protector, Ashley, share is one in which parties complete each other and, by extension, fall in love. Lovers can be a difficult classification to shoulder due to a majority of the Guardian/Protected community believing that these Guardians’ personal biases regularly clash with their intended purpose.

Rarely are G/P duos incapable of getting along, behave like fire and ice, water and oil. However, when pairings do not mix, are not complementary, like Tina and her wolf Guardian, Brandon, labeling them is easy. Enemies. Though, the attachment style is befuddling to G/P scientists since it conflicts with what they know of the mystical matchup or G/P process.

Lastly, there is the category of Abuse. In this bond, Guardians are at the mercy of their Protecteds. It’s within the Abuse Protected’s nature to forget that Guardians are living beings, consequently, they’ll regularly and selfishly misuse them. Guardians trapped in these exploitative situations often find them lethal…

___________________________

Back at Tina and Brandon's rental home...

Tina screwed the shower knob in place, the warm stream cutting to a trickle as she stepped on the cool tile of her nippy bathroom. Her body trembled from the air conditioning Brandon refused to turn any higher than fifty degrees. He didn't seem to care that Fall was in full swing, the autumn leaves a myriad of color and the rest of humanity breaking out their precious peacoats, shearling jackets, and the good old-fashioned leather monstrosity.

A single glance at the decorative wall’s clock confirmed what the raven-haired beauty felt, it was late, a little past 11:30 at night. As she dried herself with a fluffy towel and wrapped her sopping hair in one of her dingy t-shirts, Tina began pondering some of the day's events. Backtracking, she experienced an uncontrollable fit of the giggles, remembering something a character from her newest anime obsession said, that is, until she recalled the scene in its entirety, recognized vague parallels between her and the character’s situations. As she harked back to the whispers her heretic of a guardian made before leaving for his nightly shower, her mind ran wild.

Now overthinking and smelling of lavender lotion, Tina focused on the sink’s aloft mirror. When her fingertips stroked the top of her nearby basket hamper instead of the soft sleep material they’d expected, she nearly chipped her teeth, chomping on her toothbrush.

In her atypical absentmindedness, Tina hadn't realized that her bra lay forgotten in her room. "Stupid Brandon. Stupid modesty," she muttered as her inner monologue took on her father’s voice, preached words of propriety.

Resigned to reach for the cheap, ugly robe her mother had insisted on buying, Tina paused when she noticed it was no longer behind the door.

Damn it, mom, she thought, recollecting the woman putting it in the wash. Stupid germophobia!

Releasing an irked huff, the teen pulled on her favorite-because-they're-comfy black panties and wiggled into her skintight leggings. She slipped on a pair of socks from her collection that bordered hoarding and shimmied into a flimsy nightshirt, the thing so oversized that the beauty mark adorning her right collarbone could be seen.

Once dressed, Tina began straining her ears. She searched for footsteps, tried to pinpoint Brandon’s location, but gave up when she heard nothing but the full blast of a television, the sound of her erratic mother on the phone, and something slamming.

"Screw it." Reaching for the door’s lock, Tina was momentarily stunned by something out the corner of her eye.

Damn. She saw her reflection on the left wall. Air conditioners suck.

Annoyed, the woman did up the bottom two buttons of her nightshirt. With haste, she pushed on the door’s handle and launched her arms across her chest, the final action a futile attempt to cover her protruding ladybits.

This is why the stupid robe stays behind the stupid door, Tina inwardly murmured before she registered an ache in her side and her face nearing the floor. As she stumbled, her arms shot out, and the t-shirt atop her head fell with a wet splat.

What the hell?

Throwing her head back, Tina’s lengthened curls moved from her sight, and she took in Brandon, clad in a plain t-shirt and plaid pajama pants. Looking at him, the girl realized that he was cradling her head with his hand, cushioning it from the hardwood floor.

After all, Brandon wouldn't have any fun if Tina went unconscious.

As the man hovered above his target, she shook away her confusion. Focusing her vision and moving to support herself on her elbows, Tina shot the looming guy a furious glance. In return, Brandon acted swiftly, placing his hands and knees on either side of Tina’s shoulders and legs, effectively trapping her. Brandon grinned triumphantly, and Tina’s breath hitched at the alien of something other than a contemptuous smirk disguising cruel intentions on his face.

Realizing she forgot to breathe for a moment, Tina pulled herself out of her head. She cleared her throat. "What the hell, you actual creeper?! Why were you hiding?” When she got no reply, Tina tried another tactic. “Alright, you got me. We're even now." She bent at the waist and tried pushing on one of her Guardian's solid forearms. It didn’t budge. As Brandon’s fierce grin grew, the woman allowed annoyance to creep into her voice, waver it slightly. "This isn't funny. Get off. Now." When Brandon still refused to move, Tina played her trump card, her drying throat turning the words into a near whisper, "Hurry up. I don't want my parents coming out their room and getting the wrong idea. You know my dad'll kick your ass if he sees this."

Brandon’s oddly sultry shushing washed the teen in prompt truth.

She was alone.

Her face fell, Tina taking in that the slam of a door she'd thought she’d heard earlier must've been just that, her philanthropic parents peacing out on her. She’d forgotten that they’d told her and Ashley they’d be leaving earlier than expected due to a surprise of last-minute gala invitations.

With a look of disbelief and her jaw nearly unhinged, Tina came to terms that she was stuck in her current predicament, immediate rescue no longer an option.

"I heard your people leave from the basement, you know, that place where you hid all my stuff," Brandon said in his unique, Brandon-toned annoyance. “Bringing those boxes up was a damn pain.”

Tina inhaled, relieved, and slightly calmed that her parents didn't see Brandon, a guy they thought was a friend she had made on one of her university’s forums, strolling about the home like he legitimately lived there.

Then, remembering her current circumstance, Tina flushed, dissatisfaction coursing through her veins. Anger spread from the apples of her chubby cheeks down to what was visible of her chest and caused the veins at the side of her skull to pulse wildly. The scenario of her being alone with a less than pleased Brandon wasn’t something the woman thought she’d have to endure so soon. She especially never would've guessed that he'd trap her with no way out.

No.

Brandon enjoyed his games too much, enjoyed the chase too much to leave his prey with no route of escape. With this, Tina knew that there must be something she wasn't seeing. She had to think fast.

Noticing his brightening Protected, the man took a large hand and guided her back into a lying position. Tina recognized Brandon’s noiseless command for what it was. She put up zero fight, needing all of her mental faculties to come up with a safe and speedy solution to her situation.

As soon as the teenager below him stilled, the Guardian returned to his caging position.

With Brandon towering over her, Tina craned her neck to see from her new angle. She easily saw the man’s sculpted torso, his deep breaths making it prominent, and forcing her to focus on steadying her breathing. As her eyes traveled up, Tina saw how Brandon's explored her, read both her facial expressions and overall body language.

For half a second, startled browns strolled over addled citrine, and Tina quickly turned her head, evading the tempting gaze.

As time ticked on, stretched into minutes that felt more like hours, the Protected's anger slowly transformed into self-consciousness. Her mind immediately recognized the need for distraction, gifting Tina the ease of something tedious. Suddenly, her focus was on the dust trapped between the always freezing floorboards.

Ugh, that's disgusting! I wonder how...

As the woman below him busied herself with thoughts on how to eliminate even the teeniest of dust bunnies, Brandon's devilish nature took over. His golden spheres twinkled with an idea that his gut told him would further ruffle the smaller girl's figurative feathers.

Hunching himself to reach her ear, Brandon asked in a low and rough voice, "What's this? You giving up that easy? Where'd all your fight go?"

Hands that had been nervously fiddling with the hem of her nightshirt slowly began to ball into frustrated fists, but still, Tina held fast. Instead of playing into her Guardian's hands, she bit her tongue, focused on if a toothbrush or knife would work best between the floor's planks. As she explored the intricacies of each choice, Tina found her thoughts interrupted by an unknown yet delicious scent.

What was that? She was pulled from the moment by a bitter sound, the annoying click of a tongue hitting teeth.

Upset that his goading didn't produce the desired response, Brandon's brows furrowed. "You're really not gonna speak?" he asked, uncharacteristically unaware that he’d let his bewilderment seep into his voice.

Tina collected herself. "I want out." Hearing herself, she made a mental note to down a glass of water and some cold medicine for her dry throat. She watched as the male above her backed away a bit. With a touch more room, she returned to pushing on the same forearm from earlier, Brandon's discontentment with the action evident by his low growl.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. That won't do," a condescending tone reached feminine ears.

Fuck, not good, an abruptly languid Tina thought while catching another whiff of the unusual scent.

With some force her arms were jerked above her head, Brandon pinning her wrists to the planked floor with a single hand while he used his other to balance himself.

Another waft of the appealing smell.

Out of the blue, Tina put two and two together, reasoning that the pleasant odor had to be the reason she’d started feeling lightheaded and loopy. Yes, that had to be it, the reason she was losing it, and a tiny pool of liquid had formed between her thighs.

No, no, no, her inner thoughts rambled as she squirmed, and the man over her wriggled his nose, took in her peculiar perfume.

Having never smelled this specific aroma escape his idiot woman before, Brandon couldn't place it. With a tilted head and quizzical eyes, he looked at Tina, noticed how she bit her bottom lip in an almost unconscious way. Another glance at how her body reacted to him and a lightbulb flickered on. The fragrance seemed painfully obvious once he’d pinpointed it, arousal.

The contrived situation the entrapped Tina had found herself in made her a puddle. However, abruptly bringing her back to reality was the well-built man above her, making his next statement not with his mouth but with his mind. "I can smell you. I smell your pheromones. Now, tell me. Why are you giving off pheromones?"

As Brandon brought his face closer to his counterpart's, her heart skipped a beat, her pores opened to his minty breath. She couldn't help but feel unnerved at their distance, couldn’t help but make out the pointed, white smile that constantly teases her, the sharp eyes that often look at her with condemnation, and the cruel voice that mocks her regularly.

"I... I don't know why you think you smell pheromones. Your nose must be broken. Now get off. I'm not... I'm not... I won't ask again," Tina's voice betrayed her best efforts at sounding strong. She only received a snicker in return.

"You'd never get me to move with that kind of order. There's no power behind it," Brandon commented on her failed command. "You're too weak, have to concentrate to get your power to work." With a sneer, the 20-year-old continued, "Now, answer the question. Why are you exuding pheromones? It's a simple enough question that even you'd know the answer, so tell me."

Tina's heart pounded to the point that she thought she'd have a heart attack. She shut her eyes tight, turned away from her persecutor. "Yo-Yo-You can't order me around."

She was breaking.

"Ha! First blushing and now stuttering. I'm learning more about you in these few minutes than I have in the last two weeks." Brandon noted Tina’s tightly clenched her fists, how her decently long, perfectly manicured nails bit into her skin, leaving angry crescent-shaped marks in their wake. "C'mon, it's so obvious that you know," he snapped, deciding to apply more pressure as he grew bored with his Protected refusing to give in.

If Tina would simply answer him then he'd let her go. For her to admit something so embarrassing to a man she's repeatedly stated to loathe, well that would be enough torment to sate said man.

Feeling like she was burning from the inside out, Tina had a desire to tear her clothes off. She needed to cool down but knew her wish wouldn't come true anytime soon because that meant having to surrender to Brandon. She was too stubborn to submit, supply him with the information he sought. She wasn't going down without a fight.

Looking back to the shadow above her, Tina acknowledged that she’d been zoned out, hadn’t registered anything he’d said. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she confessed that she was sending herself into a panic. She struggled to take deep breaths, all of them remaining shallow. All of a sudden, her lungs felt a few sizes too small.

Everything is alright.

Tina's captor immediately knew something was wrong when her hairline broke out in a sweat.

Everything is wrong.

"Hey. Hey, Idiot Woman." Brandon moved himself to sit up, his hips positioned above Tina’s knees and his hands on her boiling cheeks.

I'm okay... I'm not okay!

After receiving no response, hearing Tina’s breath quicken, and her heart liken the drumline section of a marching band, the Guardian began to worry. When Tina’s eyes fluttered in both rapid succession and slow-motion, Brandon mumbled, "Shit, I'm dead!"

Tina went limp, unconscious. Her fingernails were no longer biting into her palms, her body no longer wiggled for freedom, and her soul's windows rolled to the back of her head before her lids closed for good...

___________________________

...

___________________________

"...wo-m-!" Tina registered being yelled in the recesses of her mind. The word sounded gurgled, sounded like it was being spoken underwater.

"Idiot!" the same voice shouted a bit clearer this time.

Tina rubbed her eyes, tried to shake the fog in which she felt trapped. Her body seemed stable, but even so, she experienced the strange sensation of being moved about.

"Idiot Woman!" the now familiar voice Tina couldn’t quite place resounded.

Opening her mouth to speak, the brunette hurriedly realized that her vocal cords wouldn't yield. Taking note, yet mulishly refusing to freak out, she looked around her blackened void, her thoughts trailing off.

Where am I? It's so dark... I don't want to be here... I can't see...

And then, as if Tina had somehow willed it a cherry wood door magically appeared before her. Seeing no other way to get from where she found herself, she walked through it, ending up in an abyss-like hallway in which a pinprick of light sat at the end. As Tina moved, she felt a cautionary tingle trample her spine. She halted. A crippling but natural feeling toying with her, the desire for self-preservation.

Nope, nope, nope, nope. My black ass has seen too many horror movies for this bullshit.

Turning back, the teen saw that the red door had disappeared. Now she was freaking out. Her heart rate hit overdrive as her breathing turned frantic, and her vision blurred. As her body threatened to crash, Tina threw her head back dramatically. She wouldn’t allow her pooling tears to fall. As she waited for her sobs to lessen, she wrapped her arms around herself in comfort.

As her muted cries stalled, Tina swore that she heard someone say, come back.

"Come back." Tina felt cross her telepathic link.

Without thinking she responded in a daze, hiccupping between her tears, "Huh? Bran-Brand-Brandon?"

"Fuck, that worked?! Get your ass back here," Brandon said with urgency, refusing to get his ass handed to him by a G/P higher-up.

Not knowing what the man who she newly remembered to be her Guardian meant by his words, but knowing that wherever she was frightened her, Tina followed his familiar voice, no longer worried about walking toward the light. Somehow, she knew that the path before her had turned safe. She left her dark cocoon of memories behind.

When she regained consciousness, Tina’s pulse immediately returned to skyrocketing, seeing how she was sat tenderly in a concerned-looking Brandon's lap. She was shocked, her brain taking instant inventory, ensuring that everything was as it remembered. Her clothes were the way she had left them, her body remained with the same soreness at one side from being plowed into, and... oh yeah, that, that annoying, damp pool between her legs had begun to dry up.

A small blessing, Tina inwardly groaned before glowering in her cross-legged Guardian's direction. She swore she saw something unreadable in his expression as his blank mask returned.

The two stared at one another for a moment, Tina unsure of what had happened. Surprising the teen, when she moved to stand, was Brandon drawing her back to his lap, his tight hold of her upper arms possessive. She shot him a cutting look.

With his emotionless guise, Brandon wondered, "How you feeling?" He put a calloused hand to Tina’s forehead, assessed her body temperature, and let the limb slide down her neck and skim her upper chest once satisfied. Tina flinched, her honest, yelping reaction earning her a famous, toothy smirk.

"What do you think you're doing?" she managed with a clearer head.

"Shh."

"Don't you shush me. I asked, what do you think you're doing?" She swatted the male's hand away, her calm demeanor quickly cracking.

With a disgruntled sigh, Brandon said, "Well nothing now."

The woman squinted with death in her eyes.

"I was trying to check your temperature and heart rate. Both those and your breathing went up before you passed out. I refuse to lose my head because you can't deal with life," Brandon growled. "Trust me, I hate this just as much as you do, but unfortunately it doesn't matter how we feel about each other. As your Guardian, if something happens to you then that's it for me," the male continued before finishing, "But if you can fight me then you're obviously fine." He gave Tina a rough nudge from his lap.

The girl planted her hands on the ground, caught her body before it could be pushed completely.

Of course, she thought to herself, remembering her bond with Brandon and its many intricacies. Her cheeks pinked slightly, the knowledge that Brandon put aside their differences to help her, no matter his reasons, made him admirable...

"Thank... Thank you, Brandon." Tina floundered her appreciation before she was caught off guard by the room turning topsy-turvy. She touched her throbbing forehead, a film over her vision.

"You are feeling better, right?" Brandon noticed how his Protected's heart had yet to normalize. It still flitted about her chest like a wild bird trapped in a too-small cage.

Tina conceded to her pain, knowing that the smartest thing to do in her current situation would be to remain still. She did her best to relax, allow her spinning head to settle. She leaned back into her Guardian, somehow managing deep breaths this time around. Then, as she began regaining her wits, the ever-vigilant woman noticed something odd. In but a microcosm of a second, she realized that the attractive smell from earlier had dissipated.

Forgetting her dizziness for a moment, the teenager turned to Brandon at a speed she'd quickly regret. "Hey. Ouch. Fuck." She held her pulsing head and took some more deep breaths. "Did you smell anything... out of the ordinary earlier?"

"Besides your arousal, you mean?" Brandon responded with pure confusion.

Instantly aggravated and recognizing her question as out of left field Tina sighed, "Nevermind."

Brandon turned away, something else catching his attention.

I must be tired and losing it. Tina continued to rub her forehead. She leaned forward, the desire to plop face down on her bed almost overwhelming.

The movement in his lap forced Brandon back to the present. He grabbed the previously panicked girl's tiny wrist as her dizziness and glazed over vision cleared. He pulled her back to him and secretly measured her pulse. "You'd tell me if something was up, right?"

It took Tina a moment to nod. "Yeah."

No.

"Yeah, of course," she forced a minuscule smile, hoping that it was convincing.

Hell no.

Brandon opened his mouth to speak, but at the last moment decided not to. He noticed that Tina didn’t realize her body and thoughts weren’t in sync, how every time she said yes, her head shook no. "Woman, just-"

"I need to go to bed, so do you. We have class in the morning." Whatever her Guardian was about to say, Tina didn't want to know. She tore her wrist from Brandon’s grasp and stood, eyeing her room at the corridor’s end. Brandon watched as the woman paused in reaching for her doorknob. With her back still facing him, she whispered solemnly, "Thanks again. Goodnight."

As the lock to Tina’s room clicked in place, Brandon scraped his almost nonexistent fingernails against the floor, a desperate attempt to regain control. He lifted his hand when he felt a splinter embed itself in his skin.

Scanning his new wound and then looking at its cause, the Guardian thought aloud, "Dust bunnies... That's nasty. I wonder how you'd get them from between the boards..." As he worked the splinter out with his sharp teeth, the man reached in his pocket. Pulling up his cellphone’s camera and flipping it to front-view, he grumbled.

He knew it.

Tina's room - 03:00 A.M.

Ugh, I can't sleep, Tina thought. She'd been tossing and turning ever since her body hit her mattress.

"...This is bullshit," she muttered, finally swinging her legs off the bed. She took a second to stare at the robe now hung on her bedroom door. It mocked her until she snatched it off the hook with a sigh. She opened her door and peeked down the hall.

No answer? Tina thought after a gentle knock to her Guardian’s room.

Another knock, a bit louder this time.

Maybe he’s asleep.

Accepting defeat, the girl dragged herself back to bed.

If I’m not getting sleep, neither are you. She sent Roscoe a flurry of texts she was more than sure he’d kill her for in the morning.

Brandon's room - 03:05 A.M.

"Damn it!" Brandon's frustrated shout was muffled by one of the many pillows he kept on his bed.

He’d ignored the earlier knocks at his door in favor of jerking himself off, the same fruitless activity he'd been engaged in for the past three hours. His irides had remained red ever since Tina left him for the sleep that he knew eluded her.

Masturbation, the easiest thing the man could do to revert, was refusing to get him off. By this point, he was dangerously close to starting a fire with the amount of friction he was using.

This is fucked, he thought, finally releasing his abused member.

Brandon had been taken aback by his partial transformation when it happened. He, like all Guardians, knew his triggers, so he couldn't pinpoint what had prompted his change. He hadn't gotten angry, scared, or horny, so what the hell?

The man was determined, refused to sleep until his eyes reverted. He looked to the clock on his bedside table, next to his cellphone's charging station.

It’s late, he thought and growled as he put aside his pride.

Texting his trusty "Plan B", Brandon was reminded that beggars can't be choosers. Scrolling through his contacts, he found who he wanted. "You better be up, I swear."

The man took a quick snapshot of his eyes, deciding it’d be better to show than tell.

Brandon: dont get the wrong idea but remember that offer u made me? i wanna take u up on it. now.

The man almost snickered, the instant typing icon on his screen funny before it disappeared, and he hadn’t received anything. He frowned, yawning sleepily when the bubble reappeared.

Vendor: *Yawn* Ur lucky I'm a night owl. Do I want 2 touch the reason with a 10 ft. pole?

This time Brandon let his snicker loose. He knew the woman on the other end was asking for the reason for his eye change.

As he glanced at his special contact's name, one he thought was pretty creative, he thanked his past self. After all, she had been like a vendor, giving him all the reasons that he should take her up on her "services" over others. As naturally convincing as she was, he was surprised she didn't go to business or law school.

Brandon’s phone dinged a second time, the classic sign he was taking too long to write back.

Vendor: Do I look like a booty call 2 u?

Brandon: was casual sex not the agreement?

Vendor: Shut up.

Brandon rolled on his side, let out a sexually frustrated groan as he returned his phone to its charging station and got ready for another round of jerking himself off with the hope of orgasm. Then, another ding.

Vendor: Since I'm already out I guess I'll swing by. Pick u up in 15. Text u when I'm outside. U totes owe me dinner and a movie 4 this.

Before Brandon could respond, another message followed its predecessor.

Vendor: U best be as good as last time. U were a beast ;).

Brandon took a moment to gather his thoughts. He couldn't help but think of the questions he’d face in the morning if Tina saw his unfinished transformation. He hoped his connect could help him, prayed that everything would work out.

"As much as one-day shipping cost, those contacts better be made from fucking diamonds." Brandon reviewed his order.

Brandon: k.

Chapter Text

Brandon sat with three generations of Franklins around a dining table. Sitting beside Tina, he watched her sidestep a few dozen questions about himself and a supposed exchange program, some convoluted story to explain his living with her.

As Tina’s grandparents badgered her on why she shouldn’t have offered the program her spare room, Brandon, sly as a fox, placed a hand atop one of her knees. Tina stilled. She shot the man a look, feeling embarrassed even though she knew the table hid them from view.

Beginning his explorations, Brandon slowly hiked up the brown-eyed’s skirt. Surprising Tina, his touch was pleasurable, made a zing shoot through her, and her legs part.

At her mother questioning the food’s taste, having noticed she’d barely eaten, the teen scarfed down some chicken and green beans. She battled a moan of pleasure, biting her fork hard. Craving more of Brandon’s skillful affections, Tina eagerly lessened the gap between her clothed core and his tantalizing digits.

With light pants, the woman wriggled in her seat. Brandon remained stone-faced, held back his smug satisfaction when he moved Tina’s damp undergarment to the side, heard her shocked gasp, and felt her shiver at the cool air’s kiss. Being played like a fiddle, Tina found it hard to control her squirming, the intensity soon drawing the attention of her grandmother. With her quick wit, the teen provided her granny an excuse for her behavior. Brandon smirked, somewhat impressed that in her glassy-eyed state, Tina remained articulate; he sensed her want, tickled her mound of soft curls before massaging her bountiful thighs. This was Brandon’s fun, witnessing Tina’s reactions, how her feminine body sang for him.

A few more teasing strokes and the heated woman tensed. Again, she stifled deep moans with her fork, knowing she couldn’t last much longer. If Brandon didn’t act soon, touch the teen directly, then she felt like she’d have no choice but to take matters into her own hands, family be damned.

As she edged into a whimper, Tina felt suddenly sharp nails leave her. She pouted at the loss of contact, looked to Brandon with unfocused and desperate eyes before sobering up at his horrific transformation, hairy, disfigured, and giant, his stature forcing his back to curve against the ceiling.

With her breath caught in her throat, Tina looked to the lumbering… thing’s eyes. She saw it snarl, gaze focused on her larynx before it lunged… Everything cut to black, the grating screeches of the Franklin dinner table a blaring and bloody symphony…

Waking with a start, Tina gasped for air. Sweat trickled down her forehead as her fingers anchored themselves in her bedsheets. She groaned, disgusted, “Never again...”

Tina refused to question the meaning behind her — dream, nightmare?

___________________________

 

Narrator here again…

Hey, fantasies don’t need to make sense.

That is all.

___________________________

 

Ignoring her rapidly firing mind, the teen stretched and swung a leg out of bed. “FUCK!” She winced, her arms flying to her side faster than she remembered Dee doing a week ago for a piece of gum.

Bad idea!

With care, Tina lifted her shirt. Angling to face her closet’s mirror, she saw her left side patterned purple. She flinched as she stroked the bruise, the delicate ridges of her fingertips enough to make her hiss. Then Tina tensed. Realizing what she had to do, she let loose a string of curses that could cause a sailor to blush.

SHIT, THAT HURT! She held back tears. Flinging herself from her queen-size bed wasn’t Tina’s smartest decision.

Shuffling her aching body, Tina noted the eerie silence. She closed the door to the bathroom, guessed Brandon was still asleep. “Must be nice.” She rummaged through a cabinet for a compression bandage.

After freshening up and wrapping her torso, the Protected found herself face-to-face with last night’s closed door. She was about to knock on it when she stopped to inhale a familiar scent. Her mind worked double time, thinking.

…My parents aren’t here. Brandon’s asleep… Who the hell’s cooking?!

Jumping into action, Tina rounded the hall, landing in a fighting stance she’d seen in Hailey and Monáe’s latest movie recommendation. However, what she saw wasn’t what she’d expected. For once the girl’s kitchen slabs weren’t occupied by questionable concoctions, but an impressive spread.

As Brandon’s sight shifted to the corner, he couldn’t help the upward curl of his lips. Seeing his Protected’s pathetic defense brought entertainment to his cooking.

Tina’s eyes devoured the scrumptious meal before them, buttered toast, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a few strips of crunchy bacon. “He cooks?” she asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. Relaxing her limbs, the woman got two glasses from a cupboard. She filled them with cold orange juice, placed them beside a bowl of fruit salad before stealing a few cherries.

“He does,” Brandon said with a scoff. “I refuse to call that boxed shit breakfast.” He yawned and gazed with reverted eyes at Tina’s cereal corner. “The rest of the good stuff will be ready in five.” He yawned again, inwardly cursing the hallway light he’d recently discovered was incapable of turning off.

With a pout, Tina threw her hair in a messy top bun. She made a mental note to go grocery shopping soon, already tired of the frozen foods her mother had stored in the freezer like a building blocks champion. “You didn’t poison anything, did you?”

Brandon fiddled with the searing pan, stared at it like a lifeline. “Not necessary, my meat is killer on its own, guaranteed heart disease. Now stop asking questions, woman.”

Eating a cherry, Tina took in her Guardian’s dress. Even if they didn’t get along, she still had to praise the man’s fashion sense. He always matched, something she didn’t know his sex was capable of from her experiences with family and Roscoe pre-girlfriend.

A plain t-shirt, some black jeans fashioned with a few rips at one of the knees, and a pair of well-worn sneakers were Brandon’s go-tos. The thick sleeves of his navy blue and white pullover were scrunched up, making the fancy, darkly inked clock on his right forearm, its time stating 11:00, visible.

Blue’s his color, Tina admitted before shuddering at a sudden memory of Angel, her eldest sibling who’d worn an atrocious suit to his twin’s nuptials. That feels like so long ago.

Tina remembered how beautiful Shawna’s big day was, how she’d spent thousands, and prayed it would go smoothly, apparently forgetting who Angel was. Against everyone’s advice, the best man dressed himself, earning disapproving stare after disapproving stare. At the time, Tina didn’t know what was worse, the satin pinstripes of her brother’s red and purple dress shirt, the gargantuan suspenders of his powder blue pants, or the Oxfords he wore in clashing orange and purple.

Blue was not his color. Tina shook, still horrified by the man’s rejected prom pants. God, the stares.

She had a flashback to the wedding reception, when she’d told the attention hog that she’d rather see him in a pair of assless chaps than attend another social event where people would know they’re related.

As she cleansed her mind of the terrifying fashion faux pas, Tina noticed something strange about the man whose messy locks hung uncharacteristically low on his face. “You’re missing one.” She ate another cherry.

“What?” Brandon questioned, eyes still on his bacon.

“Your earrings. You’re missing a stud.” Tina popped another cherry.

“Ah. Guess I must’ve lost it somewhere,” the Guardian said, knowing exactly where the stupid accessory had to be if not on him.

“Damn!” Tina exclaimed before she could edit herself.

“Hm?” Her Guardian spun back around, plate in hand.

As Tina reached for the man, he shifted. If she didn’t know any better, she would’ve sworn that the devious mastermind flinched. “What happened?” Tina pulled her hand back, voice thick with concern.

Understanding crossed masculine features. “Ah, this.” Brandon stroked the large bandage on his right cheek gingerly. “You gave me the good old one-two when you flailed back to life.”

“I punched you?!”

“Aye. Twice.” The Guardian chuckled, amused by his Protected’s shock.

“Twice?!”

Brandon stared at Tina, knowing he didn’t stutter. At the man’s lack of articulation, the woman cringed, remembered an early encounter where he explicitly stated he hates repeating himself.

“Shit,” Tina said, looking down at the ground she decided a knife would work best on. “I’m horrible.”

The Guardian tilted his head with a child-like curiosity. “Okay, I’ll bite.” He decreased the stovetop’s flame and turned toward Tina, his slender fingers tracing patterns on the nearby granite. “Elaborate.”

Gaping, Tina crossed her arms meekly, grasped the elbow of her uninjured side. She looked up. “What’s there to elaborate? I punched you without provocation. That has to be fucked up even in your book.”

Brandon read the room. After last night, he felt unusually cautious. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, knowing an early write-up wouldn’t be a good look.

Shocked, Tina retorted on instinct, “You say that, but you still took care of me after I treated your face like a punching bag.” Brandon suppressed an amused snort at the comparison, turned back to his precious meat. “And I’m mad at myself for not noticing the damage yesterday,” Tina muttered, crossing her legs to lean on a pillar that separated the kitchen and living room.

“Nothing showed until this morning,” Brandon paused before adding, “I got to give it to you, though. Under this, my cheek is as pink as a baboon’s ass.”

Tina’s eyes widened. She groaned disbelievingly into her hands, “Ugh, I’m so shit.”

Wait a second! Why do I feel bad? All those times I wanted to knock Brandon’s lights out, and I finally got to do it. What the hell, Conscious?

Watching his bacon sizzle, Brandon released an annoyed sigh. “Listen, just don’t let it happen again, and I’ll call us even.”

Tina dropped her hands, about to argue but stopping when she interpreted the look Brandon gave her.

Guess he’s done entertaining me. I’ll take what I can get.

Freeing herself of negativity, Tina’s inner cockiness, once more, bubbled to the surface. “At least now I know I can do some damage. Mess with me if you want to.” She made a stereotypical fighting sound and struck another poor pose she’d seen in that action movie, her silliness causing her to laugh before she winced.

Brandon watched Tina entertain herself in his peripheral. He rolled his eyes at how she stroked her ego, so, of course, he noticed when she’d hunched over in what seemed like pain. “You hurt?” he asked as he transferred the hot bacon to the plate he’d dug out.

Tina froze for a second before purposefully straightening herself. She refused to give her Guardian more ammunition, more reasons to harass her.

Brandon groaned. “Remember how I bit a second ago? Indulge me.”

Tina scoffed.

Bad decision!

She couldn’t help but grip her side and scold herself. “Fuck.”

Reaching the counter his Protected stood near, placing the meaty cholesterol and a cup of juice down, Brandon looked at her. “Any time now.”

“I’m fine,” Tina lied, knowing better. One of her Guardian’s eyebrows shot up. “Cramps.”

“Cramps?” Brandon inquired, his twitched brow lowering a fraction.

With a nod, Tina grabbed the citrus he slid her way. “So, are we supposed to be waiting for the food to get cold or…?” She used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth clean.

Brandon huffed before going to retrieve his glass of orange liquid.

Sipping on her drink, Tina returned to her room for her phone. She needed her daily fix of funny videos, a new tradition of her siblings’ group chat. Her family’s identical twins, the jokesters and her older brothers, Bailey and Quentin, Bailey Boo and Quin to her, maintained the thing like clockwork. In fact, the first few videos they’d sent were what got the youngest Franklin into mimicry.

Returning to the kitchen, Tina took a seat beside Brandon at one of the island’s barstools. She noticed him wince slightly, inwardly agreed that the sound the metal feet made as they scraped the tile was ugly. The two ate in relative silence, minus the sound of someone on Tina’s small phone screen telling a bad joke in a fake accent every now and again.

“Wow!” Tina’s eyes grew the moment crispy meat flakes met her tongue. She turned her attention to Brandon. “This is really good. I never knew that pre-cooked bacon could taste like this.”

“It couldn’t. I threw that shit out as soon as I found it yesterday and bought the real stuff. I can’t believe you ate that crap.”

Tina paused midchew. “If you threw away my bacon then you owe me three dollars”—she glared and then softened—“I’m like my mom, no good at cooking. If something has too many steps, I get them mixed up. And I’m scared to get popped by grease, so pre-cooked bacon has always been my go-to. But you, Brandon, you can truly cook.”

Instinctually, the Guardian rolled his eyes, disregarding the compliment. “Just how were you planning on surviving? Surely cereal, hot dogs, and pizza rolls couldn’t have been your plan.” He scowled at the packed freezer and colorful disaster in the corner.

Tina pushed on, ignoring Brandon’s dazed expression. “I’m serious. Is this going to be a regular thing? Because I could get used to it. And you know noodles and delivery servic-”

A distinct ringtone cut Tina off, her knowing exactly who was on the other end. She picked up.

“Morning, Ross. What’s up?”

“Wrong. Ash. My phone’s already dead.” Ashley’s tone made her pout apparent.

“That’s what you get. Stop playing that silly game on your phone. All it does is eat up your data anyway.” With her delicious food in hand, Tina glanced at the kitchen’s clock, noticing it was only 7:05 A.M. “What’s going on?” She knew something had to have happened for Ashley to be calling her this early in the morning. The girl loves sleeping in.

As she basked in her flavorful meal, Tina suddenly heard shouting.

“Hello! Babe, are you even listening to me?”

“Huh? Of course.”

A pause on Ashley’s end and then an annoyed demand. “Repeat back what I just said.”

“Yeah, sure. You said… you said…” Tina wracked her brain before admitting defeat. “Okay, I wasn’t listening.”

Ashley let out a tense exhale. “Wow, babe, you’re a true space cadet. Short version then. We’re picking you and Brandon up. Ross keeps saying he’s got a bad feeling about your car, so you know, take no chances.”

“Welp, I know better than to tempt the universe Murphy’s Law style,” Tina mumbled with a mouthful of bacon. “Thank God for claircognizance.”

___________________________

 

Claircognizance is the ability to acquire psychic knowledge by utilizing intrinsic or tactic knowledge, knowledge that’s difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it; one simply knows things without knowing how they know them.

Basically, Roscoe just knows stuff, and nobody, not even him, really knows how.

___________________________

 

“We should arrive in ten minutes. Be outside,” Roscoe shouted into his phone from the driver’s seat. “And stop messaging me at witching hours!”

“Mr. Smarty-pants, Hailey told me a while back that the witching hour ends at 2:00. I texted you after 3:00, thank you very much. See you.” Tina ended the call before either of her friends could respond.

As the Protected informed Brandon of their impending ride, she practically inhaled the rest of her food, throwing her dishes in the sink on the way to her room.

“Wonder what’s wrong with the moving death trap,” Brandon grumbled and cleared the rest of the counter.

Giving herself one last look, Tina felt good. Her outfit of the day was a pair of high-waisted blue skinny jeans, a dark green crop top, some ashen riding boots, and a gray, long-sleeved, waffle knit cardigan with knee-length cream and charcoal tassels. As she hid her compression bandage by doing up her slightly too big garment’s large center buttons, Tina’s silver ring, her right pinky finger’s staple caught the light.

As she left the safety of her room, Brandon tossed Tina her purple backpack.

Locking their shared home, the duo walked toward Roscoe’s idling car, Brandon informing his Protected that her third-hand sport utility vehicle refused to start.

Even through her sarcasm, Tina sounded defeated. “Poor Ol’ Sarah’s dead, huh? I’m having a great week.” She rubbed her forehead, her treacherous mind looping the previous night and early morning for her.

Maybe I’ll call Harley, see if she can come fix the thing, Tina thought of calling her middle sibling, a backyard mechanic who she knew would love to leave their hometown for some days. Regularly seeing that piece of shit after breaking off a five-year engagement can’t be healthy.

“Hiya!” Ashley sang over some Latin Reggaeton, her enhanced hearing picking up footsteps.

Tina bobbed her head to Roscoe’s native tongue.

Ashley’s joyful demeanor, keeping tempo with her white shoes and threading her fingers through her ponytail, careful to avoid her pinned back bangs, flipped to concerned when she looked out her rolled down window, performed a hasty once-over of the pair nearing the car.

“Oh, what sweet hell…” The feline familiar took in fresh battle scars. She couldn’t help her sigh, the rise of her chest noticeable in her lilac, off-the-shoulder, velour tracksuit that framed and accentuated her deep-set collarbones just so.

“Hey, Tina, you look nice today. Thanks, Ash. You look good too, love the minimalist makeup,” the Protected teased.

Ashley blinked. Her pristine eyesight missed nothing. “I would say that if you two didn’t look like you just came from a… what, boxing match?” Ashley looked to her boyfriend for confirmation.

“Two?” Brandon asked, his signature, curious eyebrow raising.

Angling his head above his beloved’s, Roscoe smirked with crossed arms, focused on the couple he dubbed fools stood on the cobbled driveway. Sitting tall, he unlocked his black doors. “Everything finally came to blows?” The man wagged his finger back and worth, from Tina to Brandon and vice versa.

As he moved, Roscoe’s muscles rippled under his leather jacket and tartan shirt. The green and black quilted thing looked ready to burst at the seams, unlike Roscoe’s baggy cargo pants that required a belt to fit properly, and nearly ate his tan, military-style boots.

Finally, looking toward the driver’s seat, Tina smirked, recognizing the tan scarf Roscoe wore as the one Ashley had gifted him last Christmas. “You picked the hunk’s outfit today, didn’t you?”

“Forget him.”

“Ouch, love.” The sharp man mocked offense.

Ignoring her boyfriend in favor of more information, Ashley pointed at Brandon’s face with one finger and Tina’s stomach with another. “What happened?”

Noticing his Protected’s heartbeat increase, Brandon’s eyes followed the line of Ashley’s finger. Until she’d pointed it out, he hadn’t noticed a sliver of the giant elastic Tina wore peeking out of her clothing.

As her lady friend’s pulse increased, Ashley squinted suspiciously, an unspoken question forming in her mind.

“Nothing.” Tina shrugged her way in the compact car. “I just fucked up my ribs being stupid.”

Brandon spoke now, “Wai-”

Ashley chimed in, “How-”

“Ribs?!” Roscoe ripped his car key from the lock cylinder and began pulling at Tina’s cardigan.

“You know, most men usually buy me dinner first,” Tina smirked. Roscoe frowned.

“You triggered the protective, big brother instincts. Deal with it.” Ashley huffed, seeking support on the doorframe for the elbow supporting her head as she watched the scene unfold.

As Roscoe pulled the elastic loose, it pooled around his friend’s hips. “You simpleton,” he grumbled, having pulled the sides of Tina’s pants down a smidge.

Brandon looked at the woman’s angry bruise, the one he knew he’d left. Ashley remained quiet, off to the side. She watched as Brandon's features momentarily colored with shock and squinted deeper when she saw his mask of indifference get clamped back on.

Crossing her arms indignantly, Tina pouted and grumbled at Roscoe, “And wh-”

“You never wrap an injury like this.” The self-proclaimed doctor sulked. When Roscoe poked around for damage, it took everything in Tina to silence the screeches of pain clawing at her throat. “At least nothing seems to be broken.”

“No more playing doctor for her huh, hun?” Ashley asked, sounding amused.

“Definitely not,” Roscoe grumbled. He locked scowling eyes with the brown-skinned girl. “How did you even… You know what, nope, I would rather be ignorant.”

With a light growl, Tina snatched the bandage roll. She held it for just a second before it was commandeered again.

“Give me that, you dense woman! What did the Einstein just say?!” Brandon looked at Tina like she was blind, deaf, and dumb. She was really about to rewrap herself!

Tina pouted. “I like the pressure.”

“You could be killing your nerve-endings, genius! Ever think of that?” Brandon roared back.

Roscoe opened his car door before slipping the spare key Tina had given him when she’d first moved in off his key ring. He left for a few moments, reappearing with an ice pack. “Put this on your bruise.” He gifted her a tender smile. “It will hurt like hell at first, but you should start feeling better by the time we get to campus.” Tina thanked her friend while Brandon stuffed her almost tourniquet deep in his bag. Watching Tina wince at the sudden cold, Roscoe sighed before his light and innocent laughter broke the car’s tension. “Now that our little operation is over, T, I do believe that I promised to give you an update, the gym massacred me.”

By this point, Tina knew better than to giggle, laughter and her ribs were behaving like newly separated exes, hurting each other whenever they get together. She gave Roscoe a playful punch in one of his well-defined arms. He gave her a wide smile.

Finally, Ashley broke her silence. “Hey, we got an hour to kill before that new student orientation with Professor Kim. Anyone want coffee? Because I could totally go for one.” The fiery Guardian shot Tina a look through the rear-view mirror. “Babe?”

“Ew. How many times do I have to tell you that coffee is nasty before you understand?”

“Coffee is a main food group.” Ashley spouted her strange belief like it was instead a known fact.

Rolling her eyes, Tina forfeited the last bits of her sanity. “No coffee, but I will take a smoothie.”

“Whatever gets me to my vanilla latte faster.” Ashley squinted with high spirits.

“You and your weird daily rituals. I swear, I don’t know how you’ve yet to drive Ross to financial ruin,” Tina teased.

Chapter Text

Inside the campus café…

“Ridiculous! Ross, why’s it that the one time I expect you to drive like a speed demon, you decide to be an old woman and follow all the rules of the road? Did you really not want me to get my latte?” A bratty Ashley stuck her tongue out before getting in line. “Ugh. Now there are only twenty minutes before orientation.”

As he watched his fellow Guardian attempt to gain Roscoe’s attention, wave a hand in his face, and snap her fingers, Brandon sneered. “And, he’s dead to the world.”

“Ross?” Tina noticed her friend doing his compulsive neck rubbing thing, saw him square himself and look a few paces ahead, toward a 5’7’’ guy with a short, dirty blond pompadour. She listened to the hefty, buttermilk-skinned man’s complex order, saw how he stuck out like a sore thumb with his youth a stark contrast to his business casual garb, pressed pants, silk shirt, tailored, plum-colored sweater, and cordovan shoes.

___________________________

 

The man before the group is best described as an acquired taste. He’s the youngest member of the university’s specialized class, the recently turned 17-year-old, Kyle G. Union, also known as a walking stereotype for the preppy rich kid.

___________________________

 

“Money.” The brassy voiced teenager called to his lackey. After a few seconds, Kyle realized he didn’t hear the cashier get paid and stopped texting. He looked to the side, his russet eyes blazing as his naturally ruddy cheeks reddened further. “Goddammit. Where’s that little asshole?”

Suddenly, a loud slam rocked the glass eatery. Tina’s attention turned to a prematurely graying man with golden-yellow eyes that the sun would envy.

“And where the hell were you?” Kyle belted condescendingly. “You know you’re not supposed to leave me.”

Alexander, 19, with deep sesame-shaded skin, rushed to his Protected’s side. He hunched his skinny, 5’11’’ frame as he tried to catch his breath. “You… you… God! These are heavy,” Alexander croaked out, dropping the bags he carried with a loud thud.

___________________________

 

Alexander or Alex lives a sad life.

___________________________

 

The exhausted Guardian collected himself, blinked back the prescription contacts the longer hair near his forehead had nudged out of place. Alex rolled his shoulders, his black turtleneck and straps of his faded overalls moving with the motion.

“Don’t you remember, Mr. Union? You sent me to get your books after forgetting them.” Alex supplied whilst looking at the ground.

“Are you testing me?” Kyle righted an imperfectly buttoned cuff.

Tina heard Roscoe groan. She looked his way, saw him clenching his fists and grinding his teeth. It looked like he wanted to jump in the situation, but Ashley blocked his path, stood before him defensively.

“You’d better not be trying to embarrass me,” Kyle thought to his frog Guardian, an inflection of hate in his words. “I thought you’d know better than to disobey.”

“No, Mr. Union. I’m not trying to disobey you, Mr. Union. I would never.” Alexander hastily thought back, knowing better than to have this conversation verbally.

Kyle grumbled, placed his phone in his pocket. “The incompetence. Tie your shoe, you cretin.”

While Alex raced to retie his short, off-brand-looking boots, his Protected, with renewed vigor, laid into him.

“Um, sir, could you please-”

Kyle glared at the cashier. “Don’t you see me speaking here?”

“Buddy, if you’re not gonna pay your bill, then scram. We have a line full of customers that needs to keep on movin’,” one of the male baristas finally chimed in, momentarily interrupting Alex’s belittling.

“Do you know who I am, you obese fuck?” Kyle shot back.

Tina flinched. He’s an ass… Makes Brandon look like a saint, she thought.

Frogger, pay the help and then get Rocky's cold brew to her before it loses its zing,” Kyle demanded. “Her grad class ends in ten minutes. She’s in that pharmacy one in Darwin Hall.”

Though he visibly shivered at the command, Alex smiled. After placing the amount owed on the counter, he made his way to where the drinks were being distributed. As he waited, he heard his Protected in his head.

“Disgusting. Wipe that dumb smile off your face. Your ridiculous attraction to my sister will never be reciprocated. She’s cut from the same cloth as me, and you’re… you.” Alex stilled.Also, abstain from doing your creepy frog shit around her. Remember, she doesn’t know the true nature of the special classes.”

Seeing the Guardian suddenly pale, it dawned on Roscoe what was happening, Kyle and Alexander were conversing telepathically.

“You’re just a ball of sunshine.” Roscoe heard Tina’s sarcastic wolf guardian interject himself in the drama.

Kyle moved to the counter’s side, coifed his already perfect hair. “Ah, Coco, and, I’m guessing, friends.” Kyle smiled, taking pleasure in Roscoe’s annoyed face, a result of his sudden nickname.

With her group suddenly busied, Tina found herself stuck with the task of ordering everyone’s drinks.

“Are you cosplaying as a barbarian, George?” Roscoe approached the younger man with Ashley in tow.

Now, Kyle was annoyed.

“I still wonder if how you discovered my middle name was legal. For your sake, I sure hope so, as I’d hate for you to get expelled.” The teen crossed his arms and legs, leaned against the clean butcher block.

“You refuse to stay off social media. You post everything, including photos of your driver’s license that one time.”

The brute looked bored. He inspected his immaculately groomed nails for flaws. “I deleted that years ago, so try again.”

Roscoe huffed, amused. “Have you not heard that the internet never forgets?”

Kyle pulled back a sleeve, already over the conversation. “Whatever,” he dismissed the other man as he looked at his gold, designer watch.

The frog Guardian hobbled over to his partner, lugging both his own and his Protected’s crap behind him. “Here you go, Mr. Unio-” Kyle snatched his intricate drink, effectively shutting the Guardian up.

“He’s not a slave, you know.” Brandon’s eyes flashed angrily.

Chuckling, the rich boy answered, “He’s whatever I tell him he is. Look.” He turned to Alex. “You’re a duck; quack like one until I say stop.”

Upon request, Alexander proceeded with the loud and embarrassing action, looking like a nut.

“See how easy that was?” The man smiled wide, pleased with himself.

“Quack! Quack! Quack!”

“Let me rephrase that then. Get your own fucking coffee and carry your own shitty books.”

“Quack, quack!”

“And why would I do that? This is so much easier and more fun.”

“Quack!”

“Stop that quacking. You’re annoying me. The abusive Protected took a swallow of his drink. “Alright. I’ve played with you all long enough. I’m going to be a good student now and head to orientation. Frogger, get that drink to my sister. Remember, if you screw up then we’re going to have problems.” An eerie smile graced thin lips, its false innocence was uncomfortable.

As Tina approached her people, drinks in hand, a familiar voice spoke up. “So, who’s the jerk and why are we all stabbing him in the back wit’ our eyes?”

Ashley sighed, already exhausted from a day that had barely begun. “Fuck, I’m definitely going to need this now.” She chugged her emergency caffeine and turned to face her friend. “Morning, Hailey.”

Tina also turned, admired how Hailey, who’d entered the café via a back door that faced the grassy courtyard, effortlessly looked like a bohemian grunge goddess, all smokey eyes and purple lips. “Someone’s dressed to the nines for a simple day of classes.” Tina eyed the girl’s heeled booties. “Are you actively trying to put the rest of your witches to shame?”

“Wiccans.” The curvy girl pulled off her beanie. “But yeah.” She donned a wool shawl and muted, tie-dye dress. A silver zipper decorated the shift’s front and side slits, one of which was undone, showed off the athame housed in a thigh sheath, part of Hailey’s fishnet stockings and garter belt combo.

“The jerk, as you put it, is named Kyle.” Roscoe began filling in the blanks. “To make a long story short, he and his Guardian, Alexander, are in an Abusive type relationship, something I quickly discovered after researching who the program’s other G/Ps were.”

“For someone so active on social media he sure hated being found,” Ashley muttered.

“Damn. That’s rough,” the Amazonian chick replied before noticing something strange. She turned to Brandon, cutting off his path. “You’re more quiet than usual today, B. What’s wrong?”

“B?” Brandon outwardly wondered.

“You know, for Brandon.” He snorted at her uncouth. “You tired or something?”

“Very,” the Guardian mumbled.

Chapter Text

Nearing the grounds of Genesis Hall…

“God-”

“Damn,” Brandon cut Hailey off.

“This place is huge!” said Tina.

“From your reactions, I take it that neither of you read my email last week.” Roscoe exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Shoot! I knew I forgot something,” his Guardian whispered and nursed what was left of her precious stimulant.

“Genesis Hall, huh?” a tenor-like voice questioned toward the back of the group. “Someone was a bible-thumper.”

Tina pivoted, took in a nearly unrecognizable Denzel. He had his hair and unicorn eyes hidden by a white cap, assuring Tina that she wouldn’t have noticed him if he hadn’t spoken.

Though his markers help.

Tina bypassed Denzel’s layers of a woolly long-sleeve, patterned t-shirt, and tapered jogging pants for the small cross and stack of ornamental bracelets she has yet to see him without.

As the ex-athlete raced over, Roscoe transformed into a tour guide.

“Genesis Hall is where incoming students take their classes, where their academic journey begins, hence the moniker.”

Tina spoke aloud, “So, we-”

“Negative.”

Ashley jumped in after her boyfriend. “Since we’re in the Advanced program we take classes separate from everyone else. We’re over in the, what’s the name again,” she wondered, “De- No that’s wrong, D… Desi Hall? No. Didi Hall? Wait, no.”

“Dje-Dje-Djedi,” Roscoe stammered between hard inhales.

“Glad I could entertain you.” Ashley scowled.

With a smile, Roscoe pulled himself together. “It is Djedi Hall.”

“Who?” asked Hailey.

“Djedi,” Roscoe answered. “Though there is no archaeological or historical evidence that he ever existed, Djedi is believed to have been a commoner of extraordinary age, a man who was endowed with magical powers and talented in making prophecies. The fourth story of the Westcar Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian text that contains five stories about miracles performed by priests and magicians, notes him as having hailed from Egypt in the B.C.s.” With each sentence, the human encyclopedia became giddier. “Djedi has been an object of interest for many historians and Egyptologists. His magic tricks have been thought to be connected to later cultural perceptions of King Khufu, the pharaoh who commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”

“You know you light up when you talk about your tomes, Mr. Bookworm?” His curly-haired friend poked fun at him.

“A magician, huh?” Hailey crossed her arms. “Someone’s got a sense of humor. It’s messed up. They’re tryna say we don’t exist, that what we experience isn’t real, right?”

“Bingo.” Ashley nodded and continued walking the overly flowered maze she’d found herself in.

As they traversed the path, the group began hearing live music, a jazzy beat riding the cool breeze that also swayed colorful balloons.

“At least someone knows how to get down.” Hailey bobbed her head.

“Because of its population and the fact that the university works on a cohort and Fall semester-only enrollment model, Genesis Hall is the largest building on campus.” Roscoe ran through more superfluous information until he felt a tug on his arm. He turned to see both Ashley and Tina taking a literal moment to stop and smell the roses.

“Rose colors are emblematic; did either of you know that?” Roscoe queried. “Yellow roses are said to represent new beginnings. Oftentimes they are used in welcoming someone’s return, or to be remembered, one will give a yellow rose.” Roscoe saw the two women share a confused look. “The university wants students to realize this formation will be their genesis, the beginning of a new life. It wants students to feel welcome every time they attend class and, in the end, remember where their learning began since graduations are held in the expanded courtyard out back.”

Hailey snickered. “Where we start, we end…”

“I find it acutely morbid”—Roscoe smiled—“a parallel birth and death.”

“Or an evolution,” Brandon groused.

“Point taken,” the lynx Protected commented. An impressed smile graced his face before his gaze returned to the wide erection of Genesis Hall. Its historic, delicate ledge stone, great cathedral-like windows, and lengthy staircase and ramp combo looked goofy outlined with floating spheres and banners.

Alright, now those are cool.

Tina looked upon impressive double doors. As she spun to ask Roscoe about the lion-shaped knockers, the brunette saw that he was preoccupied, his hands full of all kinds of free crap Ashley apparently couldn’t turn down.

Suckers, Tina thought with a smile, remembering a few moments earlier, when they’d all been swarmed by diligent welcome committee members who were distributing pamphlets, sweets, and goodie bags.

Following her friends through the limestone entryway, Tina’s mouth hung open at the building’s directory. It was huge and advertised the Information Center, something akin to a library with plush seating, the Relaxation Lounge, a popular socialization area, and the Grub Spot, a small collection of eateries. Moving in awe of everything around her, Tina noticed small details like people traveling with purpose and the one-of-a-kind, biblical artwork filling Genesis’ walls to the brim.

“These lions are inescapable,” the freckled redhead whispered, looking at the silhouette paintings the landings of the stairs and the doors of the elevators sported. Two full-bodied kings of the jungle, one black, one white, faced their left and right, respectively. Sat in the middle of them was a roaring, golden face.

As her group inched to the building’s center, Tina made out the floor’s colorful mosaic, abstract animals, a reflection of the above stained-glass dome. As her eyes traced the vinyl’s creatures, the brunette eventually came upon a whistling Dee. She appeared to have traded her everyday comedic tees, leggings, and combat boots for something a bit classier, knitted thigh highs, a partially frayed sweater top that she’d tucked in a black skirt, and still, combat boots, but this time, combat boots with a tiny heel.

“Hilarious.” The obnoxious panda Guardian rolled her eyes at the impossible to miss Noah’s Ark. The graffiti was massive, the animals nearly to scale and covering two of the building’s five floors. As Dee cocked her head, the chunky braid at her crown and long peacock feather around her neck swung. She tied her distressed jean jacket around her waist, drawing attention to the jingling, inspirational messages around her wrists.

“Dee!” Denzel disrupted her peace, circling a splendid glass fountain, home to a variety of freshwater fish, to reach her. “Where’s the orientation?” he continued yelling.

Dee grumbled, looked pass the fountain's impressive hourly show to point at a corridor where colorful arrows were taped. "Stupid," she murmured.

Inside Genesis Hall’s Announcement Center…

The group sat together near the front in a row of black auditorium seats that were embedded with the university’s lion logo. Before them, on a swollen stage, was a black podium, golden microphone, and row of white, leather chairs rimmed with gold studs, above them was an over-the-top sound system that any techie would drool over, and off to their side was a polychromatic flag wall.

With the orientation due to begin soon, Tina looked around.

There’s a lot of students here…

Roscoe, seemingly reading his friend’s mind, got close to her ear, made his voice the one she’d focus on with all the nearby shouting. “I heard this year’s class is a vest-pocket, barely one thousand.”

Hailey huffed. “This is just a glorified auditorium. Why call it an announcement center?”

“Sounds classier,” Denzel chimed in, smacking away a feline decorated beach ball a hyper welcome committee member had thrown in the crowd.

“Yo, Mo, over here,” Dee attempted to shout over the room’s commotion when she noticed Monáe’s head on a swivel, searching for the group in the sea of party decorations.

“Monáe! Looking good.” Denzel smiled wide, loving the fashionista’s attention-catching get-up, a formfitting bell sleeve top and loosely cuffed denims with embroidered roses. Moving his messenger bag from his lap, the man stood and preened. “Whaddya think of my fit?”

Dee pulled Denzel toward her so Monáe could slide into the saved seat between him and Hailey.

“Girl, you’re sooooo late to everything without me,” Hailey teased her Protected.

Removing her pink corduroy jacket, and vintage sunglasses, Monáe’s mouth fell open. She placed her designer tote at her moccasined feet. “You left me!”

“I told you I had to pee.” Hailey looked up with confusion. “And I thought you did too… Next time stop flirting long enough to listen.”

“Flirtin’?! Lil’ Bit, tell me it ain’t so.”

“Oh please,” Monáe responded to Denzel’s astonishment. “And you’re one to talk,” she chastised Hailey. The Guardian cracked a tiny smile.

“Why d’you still try with her?” Dee leaned into her armrest and shook her head at a deflated Denzel.

“I can’t help that I like what I like.” He pouted and slouched.

“You sad, sad man.” Dee rolled her eyes. “You don’t know how to take rejection.”

Denzel sprang to life. “Ya know, she hasn’t ever actually said no to me. That means I’m not benched yet. There’s still a chance, Dee.”

“Mo’s inability to directly refuse you doesn’t change the fact that you’re still a sad little man.” Dee let out a bitchy smirk.

“Harpy,” Denzel absentmindedly grumbled and turned to some scholarly-looking people taking the stage.

Chapter Text

Outside Genesis Hall…

“I swear y’all have it out for me, dragging me to that boring shit for an hour and a half.” With a yawn, Hailey stretched and squinted, allowed her eyes to adjust to the bright sun. Fighting another yawn, she heard a sleepy Monáe respond to her in French. “Mr. Interpreter.” She pointed at Roscoe.

“This gap in your knowledge is questionable.” Roscoe rose a judgmental eyebrow.

“Sue me,” Hailey replied cheekily.

The linguist sighed, an unamused expression taking hold of his features as he mumbled something in Spanish. “Basically, she was surprised that you could stay awake.”

“The main guy, what was his name again? He just kept dronin’ on and on, took him forever to shuddup,” Dee said with a screwed-up face.

“The main guy? Are you serious?” Roscoe groaned. “Mr. Yarbrough is the university president. How am I the only one who read the handbook?”

“Um, teacher’s pet?” Tina elbowed Ashley in the ribs.

Watching his girlfriend stifle a chuckle, Roscoe grunted, “I heard that.”

“It was meant to be heard,” Tina said, sticking her tongue out in a puerile display.

“Whatever”—the intellectual teased his nape—“Our first class will begin soon.”

Tina spun about. “And where would that-”

“In the direction that Brandon is already headed,” Roscoe cut her off.

Inside Djedi Hall…

“We’ve been walking for twenty minutes. How big is this place?” An exhausted Monáe threw her hands up in frustration.

“And whose bright idea was it to build headquarters so out of the way?” Ashley chimed.

“Betcha it was the same genius who put it on a mini-mountain,” Dee supplied as she bypassed the main floor’s greeting card, an artificial waterfall behind which a portrait of Djedi hung.

“In its entirety, the campus is approximately six hundred acres,” Roscoe informed.

Hiding in plain sight, my ass. Surrounding this place with a six-foot fence just screams secret.

Tina turned another confusing corner, passed one of Djedi’s colossal frosted windows.

“Are we even heading in the right direction?” Monáe asked, her bladder near bursting as she eyed an inordinate plank of cherry wood. The red thing was tacked above an archway and beautifully inscribed.

“According to the map I studied”—Roscoe emphasized his solidarity, and looked up, toward the glorious, elephantine crystal chandelier that bathed the walls in iridescence—“our lecture hall should be around this next corner.”

“Lil’ Bit,”—Denzel rushed to Monáe’s side with a perverted smile and eagerly flexing digits—“wanna piggyback ride?”

“Don’t be a creep,” Dee groaned, passing some more framed runes, hieroglyphs, and mythical paintings.

“Merci,” a nettled Monáe sighed more to herself than to the grubby-handed man, “but I’m okay.”

Hailey snickered at the bilingual’s thanks. “Your Lil’ Bit”—she wagged her eyebrows at Monáe—“will be alright. She used to do track you know.”

“Over five years ago, and my horrible endurance was why I was a sprinter,” the small teen retorted.

As Monáe spied a bathroom and showcased her speediness, a sight to behold came into view. Stood outside the group’s lecture hall was a slightly plus-size and statuesque figure with moderately tanned skin, enlarged features, and dark brown eyes that crinkled with kindness at the corners. The ageless woman’s bright and welcoming smile was a perfect match to her dainty pearls, and her half-tied, brown and blonde dreadlocks cascaded down the back of her velvet skirt suit like turbulent waves.

Entering the hall, the group noticed hanging tapestries. They displayed enchanted words and sigils. A white, marble desk sat to the left of the room, nearest a wall lined with bookcases. They housed an assortment of religious texts and scrolls, some in ancient and even extinct tongues. Decorating the chalkboard at the front of the room was a fancy and bold script. Written was Dr. Jade and G/P Intro Class.

___________________________

 

Dr. Jade’s hall is a nerd’s dream come true.

___________________________

 

Ash I would like to stay after class to-”

“Ross.” His girlfriend interrupted, shaking her head as she transitioned from linoleum to carpeted steps. “You can’t. We have more classes after this.”

Sitting in between a bickering Dee and Denzel and behind the impossible to separate pair, Tina poked the slumped brainiac in his back. “Ash, I think he’s depressed now. You know this library is his nirvana.”

Playing on her phone, Ashley retorted from her front-row seat, “He’ll live.”

“Savage.” Hailey smiled from the back of the room, even farther back than Brandon.

As everyone chittered, Hailey placed her bag in a nearby seat, saving it for Monáe. Making herself comfortable, she placed her feet atop her swiveling desk.

“Excuse me! Remove your feet from there, young Ms. Sheep!” an authoritative, piercing voice echoed. Understandably, Hailey jumped a few inches.

“How the hell does the woman already know our names,” the sheep Guardian whispered so only her fellow Guardians could hear her.

Not our names, your name, Ashley mouthed.

As Brandon’s lips curved a rare fraction, Dee snickered and covered her mouth and amusement with a theatrical cough.

Dr. Jade cleared her throat and, once more, cut the air with her peculiar dialect. “Everyone is to sit in the first two rows of the middle section!”

___________________________

 

Dr. Helena Jade, nicknamed Dr. Hell by students in the G/P community, a play on her first name, is known for having the appearance of a royal, the personality of a drill sergeant, and the sense of humor of an executioner.

___________________________

 

Having walked in during Dr. Hell’s announcement, Kyle and Alex sat by Brandon who’d begrudgingly moved to sit beside Dee. Hailey, now sitting beside Roscoe, placed her bag in the free seat next to her, again for Monáe.

With a dramatic flair, the hourglass-bodied doctor pulled back one of her berry red sleeves. Looking at her sorority-colored watch, Dr. Jade mouthed a steady countdown, and just seconds before slamming her doors stalled at a small shadow.

Locking her hall, the aggravated woman cleared her throat in the way of nobility, gained her students’ attention. Her cadence was measured, her enunciation overly pronounced. “Good morning, pupils. I am Dr. Jade, and you shall all address me as such. Let me begin by saying that I despise tardiness.” Descending the stairs, Dr. Jade stared the embarrassed-colored Ms. Dubois down. The already petite Monáe got smaller under the heeled woman’s gaze. “My duty”—she paused and sunk her manicured claws into an empty seat—“is to assist you all in advancing your G/P relationships.” Approaching her desk, Dr. Jade continued, “With that said, I suggest you all take my advice, abandon your morals. In our line of work, they speedily turn burdensome.”

Picking up her leopard print briefcase, Dr. Jade scribbled something on one of the many papers underneath. “Now, we have many topics to cover. We shall begin wi-”

“Pardon me.” Kyle interrupted with an entitled cough, making his lazily raised hand irrelevant. With all eyes on him he began, cocksure, “Professor.” He saw the elegant woman turn stern and apologized before correcting himself with an amused squint. Dr. Jade resumed rummaging around her briefcase. With a predatory stare, Kyle turned to Roscoe and Ashley. “Isn’t it true that Lovers G/Ps are an abomination, that the relationship shouldn’t even exist?”

Dr. Jade paused. She looked up, made her way to Kyle, pen, and well-worn writing pad in hand. “Young Mr. Union, I believe?” The snob nodded. “Please share how you reached your conclusion.” The woman looked to her wrist.

“My conclusion”—Kyle looked to the doctoral graduate as he emphasized the word—“is grounded in facts. Lovers, as we know them, are an overcharged relationship. They’re a defect, the screwed-up result of someone trying to fix the coding error of naturally occurring Enemies G/Ps.”

Silence stretched between Kyle and his elder. The two simply stared at each other until Kyle finally bobbed his head, added, “That’s all.”

“Are you certain?” Dr. Jade asked, spying Roscoe’s twitching lips and Kyle’s look of contempt. “You strike me as if you are… Mr. Union, your decision appears to be based on hodgepodge evidence.” The woman looked at her watch, scribbled something in her notepad. “Forty-five seconds.”

“Forty-five seconds?” Kyle asked, flabbergasted.

The doctor deadpanned coldly. “That is how much of my lecture time you borrowed to spout your ludicrous theory, and I expect you to stay after class.”

The rarely confused Kyle went red-faced, his mouth wide.

“Mr. Union,”—Dr. Jade pinned him with her eyes—“always remember that light cannot exist without darkness and vice versa. You are just beginning your journey, and with this being your first year in the program, you have much to learn. Forget what you believe is correct and open your mind to knowledge.” Dr. Jade turned to face the rest of her class. “Any other interruptions?” She did a quick sweep of the room before heading back to her briefcase. After retrieving a pocket-size Bible and a pair of red spectacles, she made a small noise of victory. Positioning the religious text behind her, the pedagogue added to her previous question, “None? Lovely.” She adjusted her glasses. “Then let’s begin with the basics. Mutual, Friendly, Lovers, Enemies, and Abuse, by this point, you should all know are the five types of connections G/Ps can experience. Now, I want to somewhat explore what Mr. Union just sputtered on about.”

Kyle briskly retorted, “I did not-”

I am speaking now, Mr. Union,” a glacial Dr. Jade cut in. “As I was saying”—the woman sweetened her tone—“When G/Ps were first discovered, scientists were curious why age played a pertinent role in building a G/P link. They ran a multitude of studies over many years. These involved people aged 19 and older, seeing if they could manifest psychic abilities or be assigned a Guardian. They could not, hence for some time there has been a pet theory involving puberty.” Dr. Jade took a second to check for understanding. “In the beginning, there were only two known Guardian/Protected categories, the strictly amicable ones of Mutual and Friendly. But eventually, with more research, the absolute power Protecteds hold over their Guardians was uncovered, and the category of Abuse was named. Next was Lovers, which scientists were curious about because of its scandalous nature. For years Lovers were studied fervently, and then they took a back seat to the discovery of Enemies. Currently, G/P scientists are working with the hypothesis that Enemies is a throwback or unevolved type of relationship, a failed Abuse bond if you will.”

Her interest piqued, Tina chanced a glance at her teeth grinding, leg shaking Guardian.

Guess this is news to both of us then.

“Although all G/P types are naturally occurring, Guardians can now be created via genetic modification,” Dr. Jade kept on, “This means that rare pairings like Lovers and Enemies are increasing, but not without arising consequences. The process is still man-made, and just as all man-made processes can fail. Failure is mainly due to contamination.” The doctor kept her focus for raised hands, puzzled faces. “In order to create pairings like those of Enemies and Lovers specific errors must be made. Whenever modifications go awry, the process involving the Guardian organism fails to take correctly, Enemies are created. However, whenever the process involving the Guardian organism does exceptionally well, the organism begins to include particular concepts, evolve, Lovers are created.” Dr. Jade paused again. “Questions so far?”

Roscoe’s hand shot into the air before lowering just as swiftly. Dr. Jade looked Mr. Tyler’s way, watched how he mechanically scrubbed his beard and silently muttered to himself as if lost in thought. After a few more seconds, she turned her attention to Mr. Gates, Denzel, who’d shouted a question regarding the decisions behind G/P spirit animals and pairings.

“I am not at liberty to disclose such information,” she answered with a modest smile.

___________________________

 

Stupid confidentiality.

___________________________

 

“Seriously? That’s like the one thing I was interested in!” the skinny man whined.

“I can tell you that other methods of understanding and connecting G/Ps were scrutinized prior to spirit animals… Mr. Gates, if you reframe your question then perhaps you will gain the clarity you seek.” The doctor continued smiling. “Any other questions?”

Catching the pristine woman’s eye, Tina raised her hand. She noticed Dr. Jade’s nod. “I get that you can’t tell us specifics, especially about our G/P pairings, but surely you can tell us more about our abilities and how they work.”

“Ms. Franklin, you are curious about the abilities you possess that awarded you access to this university, is that correct?”

Tina nodded. “Well, yeah. I mean, some of us have more than one power.” She pointed at Monáe who possesses the abilities of aura reading and energy medicine, the ability to perceive energy fields surrounding people, places and things, and the ability to heal with one’s own empathic, etheric, astral, mental or spiritual energy. “And some of us have abilities could be dangerous with a lack of control,” she shared and pointed at Denzel, thinking of his ability to manipulate objects with his mind, psychokinesis or telekinesis, as some call it. “Most of us don’t understand our powers.”

“Speak for yourself, newbie,” Kyle jeered, extending his hand to touch the back of Tina’s neck just as his wrist was seized by Roscoe’s death grip.

“I dare you,” the burly man ground out with stoic eyes.

Less than bothered by the stare-down, in fact, almost gleeful, the young Protected got lost in a momentary trance. His eyes attained slit pupils as he employed his gift of psychometry or psychoscopy, the ability to obtain information about a person or an object by touch. After a quick moment, Kyle pulled away with a hiss. “Seventy-two hours is not enough time!”

“Ah. So, Mr. Union, it seems that currently, you are only able to see the past seventy-two hours of a subject’s life. Quite interesting.” The unfazed educator scribbled some more notes in her tiny book. “With proper training your ability could be impressive, potentially allowing you to learn everything there is to know about a subject from its inception.”

“Professor,” Kyle began, only to begrudgingly grind his teeth and correct himself when he noticed the doctor’s stern look from earlier resurface. “This is fucking bull,” he spoke at a low volume. “Dr. Jade, are you really going to allow one of your students to manhandle another before you? The fee-fi-fo giant could’ve broken my wrist. Are you not concerned?! Hell,”—Kyle shifted his eyes and wagged a finger at Ashley—“how are you not disturbed by this? It’s strange is it not? The bore who only read for the last seventy-two hours became a knight to protect a woman that’s not his girlfriend.”

“Mr. Union,” Dr. Jade called from near the board, “you’re adding additional time to your sentence.”

“Seriously?!” Kyle screeched his resentment to which a fearful Alex reacted by turning away. He worried about his lack of response, what his Protected would do to him later for it.

After a few more moments, Dr. Jade had diagrammed some complicated map to show her students how their psychic gifts can grow if they truly apply themselves. She answered a few questions before describing the benefits and hindrances each type of G/P relationship has on a Protecteds’ psychic progress.

As the doctor described how the abilities of a Lovers Protected could potentially develop, she overheard a snide whisper, a male with a Bostonian accent questioning her and calling her a dude. “Young Connor Alexei III,” Dr. Jade clipped and clucked her tongue as a glint formed on her glasses. At the call-out, an average-looking, blonde bearded man’s head snapped up. “Just this once, I shall let you know that I am not a dude, I am a doctor in three different fields of academia.”

“Oh, I think I like ya now.” Connor smiled and pulled at his jersey as laughter bubbled from him. “Ma’am, me and ya, we can play House anytime ya like,” he said, almost drooling.

“I can assure you that you would not like my version of playing Daddy.” Dr. Jade sighed. “You’re the Protected of Mr. Casey Spider here, correct?” She looked at the overly hairy person beside Connor that more closely resembled the creature he was named after than a human.

“Yeahs. So?” Connor replied.

“You have the ability of telesthesia or remote sensing, correct?”

“I call it remote viewing, but yeahs. Why ya ask?”

“Could you please explain what your ability entails?”

“Ugh, I can see far away things…”

“Using extrasensory perception, you have the ability to see a distant or otherwise unseen target.”

Connor seemed confused. “Ya just repeated what I said…”

“I simply wanted to ensure that I had memorized your ability correctly because you seem disillusioned about a future with me.”

At Dr. Jade’s response, her hall rumbled with both stifled and wild chortles.

“I frigging love you!” a tearful Connor forced out as he pounded on the table before him.

“Dumbass, she just burned you.” Francis Boyle, a lazy speaking holder of clairofactance, the ability to access spiritual or mediumistic knowledge through smell, Justine Bee’s Protected, and friend to Connor, howled through his laughter.

“I know! That’s why I’m saying I love her.”

As the educator listened to her cackling pupils, her arms shook behind her with the rapid flipping of pages. Upon stopping, Dr. Jade’s scowl was rapidly replaced with a faint expression of relief. Corralling her students, she returned to her lesson plan, explaining how, when in the field, Guardians are to act as their Protecteds’ clipeum.

“I’m sorry. We’re their wh-”

“Latin for shield.” Roscoe aided the puzzled Dee.

Thirty minutes later…

“So, let me see if I got this straight,” Monáe’s started, “You’re saying that Guardians were created as, what do they call it again-”

“Test-tube babies.” Hailey assisted through clenched teeth. “They call us test-tube babies.”

“Yeah, that, test-tube babies, and that their one purpose in life is to fully commit themselves to their Protected. Is that right?” Monáe was unable to mask her disbelief.

The plump Dr. Jade crossed her stocking-covered legs, got comfortable. “As cruel or harsh as it sounds, that is the wide belief. Guardians are to assist their Protected in honing their psychic abilities, ensure their Protected’s safety, and act as sacrifices if necessary. Meanwhile, Protecteds are to use their skills, gifts, and brains in a way that’s preventative, keeps their Guardians from having to sacrifice themselves.” Dr. Jade paused for a second. “Think back to what I said earlier, about the chemistry between a G/P pair being consequential to the survival of each member. Bonded pairs find themselves unexplainably drawn to their partner. This draw is as natural and a part of G/P survival instincts as telepathic communication. It’s also why some of you may find that your ability or abilities grow at an accelerated rate, as they strengthen alongside your relationships.”

“Codependency is so not all the rage,” Hailey muttered before getting swatted by Monáe to hush.

After taking some more questions, Dr. Jade noticed that her three-hour lecture was almost over. Decidedly, she used her last few moments to explain the freshmen’s year to them, explain how their class is compiled of four teams, each with four G/P pairs, and how as the teams advance, they will be sent off on missions.

“However, until the time comes for duo and eventually solo missions, everyone will be assigned groups, and hopefully nobody will die.”

Francis spoke up, “Um, not funny?”

Dr. Jade smiled and plucked her glossy frames from her face. “It is often said that there is strength in numbers, I say that every hypothesis should be tested.”

“That’s my brutal wifey.” Connor beamed.

Chapter Text

Inside Djedi Hall’s Student Café - 01:10 P.M.

“Dr. Jade’s class was way too long. I’ll be forever thankful for coffee,” Ashley said as she alternated between playing on her phone and burning her tongue with the scalding liquid.

Taking a swig of water, Roscoe made a toast to the circular table. “Thank you, Kaldi, the 9th-century Ethiopian goatherd who discovered coffee.”

Hearing smacking lips, a mortified Dee looked at her Protected. “Close your mouth! Jesus!”

“Hmmm?” Denzel continued chomping on his poorly prepackaged delicacy, some lopsided egg rolls he’d obtained from the back of an open café freezer. Disgusted, Dee chopped the man in the back of his head. “What the hell, ya tryna to kill me?”

“Were you raised by animals?”

“Mmm-be,” Denzel grumbled and coughed. “Judgy much?” he asked after clearing his airway.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, you beast! And what are you doing to your poor rolls?!”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it,” he said as he sprinkled his food in a hot sauce and salt blend. “Just think of them like those deviled eggs we had last summer. And who are ya, my ma?”

Dropping her head to her hands, Dee sighed, “I need a nap.”

“Remember ya manners,” Denzel chided when he saw Dee go slack-jawed with a yawn. She flipped him off in return.

“Our 1:30 class is centered on the occult, right?” Hailey’s resting head rose from the table, effervescent eyes shining as they devoured their literary feast, a newly published magic work.

“Yes, partially.” Roscoe nodded. “We are appropriately placed in the Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim hallway.”

“That’s a long name.” Ashley looked at her boyfriend.

Roscoe smiled, grabbed his girlfriend’s hand beneath the table. He read her eyes, knew the question she was silently asking. “He was a lot of things, including an occult writer.”

“Ah. Cool.”

“Ugh,” a sideways sitting Monáe groaned, and finally looked up from her sketchpad. Another tingle at her spine alerted her to an increase in strong negative feelings, those of the Enemies pair sitting opposite each other. She shivered, feeling like the air was slowly becoming too thick to breathe.

“Mo, you know I love you”—Hailey, woozy and beginning to see double, hung her head in defeat—“but please get a grip. You’re giving me a wicked headache.”

“Sorry. Trying,” Monáe said detached, focused on controlling her gift’s strength to lessen both her own and her Guardian’s discomfort.

Suddenly, Ashley got up and headed to the bathroom with Tina following shortly behind.

When the girls reached the multi-stall lavatory, Ashley did a preliminary check of the premises. Deciding the coast was clear, she locked the main door.

As the woman backed her into a corner, one of Tina’s eyebrows rose. “You know this is starting to resemble the beginning of a bad porno, right?”

Ashley looked her friend over, stared her down. Looking into dark eyes, the Guardian could no longer fight her instincts. “Spill. Now.”

“What are you-”

“Cut the bullshit, babe. You know what I mean, you and that man, what happened?”

“Now which man are we-”

“I’m not doing this with you right now.” Ashley retaliated.

“Then don’t. You texted me to meet in here, not the other way around,” Tina snapped, recognizing the bite in her words and Ashley’s stunned face a few seconds too late. She uttered an expeditious apology. “Just stop worrying. Everything’s fine.”

“Oh, fuck me.”

“I’d rather not.” The brunette smirked at her friend’s absentminded turn of phrase.

Ashley glared, crossed her arms, and jutted one of her hips to the side. “You know damn well what I meant.”

“I mean, if you were my type and I swung that way-”

“Focus!” Ashley began rubbing her throbbing temples. How her friend could break a bone without flinching but fight tooth and nail to escape a sympathetic hug was beyond her. “I’m not buying that you’re fine. Earlier your stomach was bandaged like a mummy, so if you think that I’m going to let this go, you must not know me very well.”

Tina knew her friend well enough.

“You’re no fun.” She looked the Guardian up and down with a moue of annoyance. “Honestly”—Tina paused for a moment, remembered her fainting spell—“I’m not sure what happened.”

With Tina talking, Ashley knew she’d gotten her way. She stepped back, sat on the powder pink countertop wedged between the main door and a hand dryer. Then, signaling for Tina to continue, she leaned back on one of the lengthy mirrors.

“Some drama went down, but I don’t really want to get into it right now.”

“Babe, you and Brandon are always in drama, but this…” Ashley took a moment to think her thoughts through. “This just seems… different. Like shit hit the fan, you’re both hurt. I still remember when you guys met in our first virtual meeting. You both said that you’d keep a healthy distance, and per your G/P pact, it’s known that you two don’t get along, so this”—she pointed at Tina’s stomach—“is concerning. Humor me, let me in.”

The brunette smiled. “You’re a regular junior detective.”

“Girlie, that’s not the point and you know it.” Ashley ignored a fervid knock at the bathroom door. The redhead couldn’t help how her serious façade broke down at Tina’s playful smile. She smiled back.

Leaning on the wall, Tina sighed, knowing Ashley wouldn’t back off if she wasn’t fed a few crumbs. With a deep breath, she vomited a highly redacted version of the previous night’s events, only including how Brandon had jumped her outside a room and fucked with her to her irritation.

“Okay, first off, that’s hot as hell”—the bondage-loving Ashley fanned herself—“but back up real quick.”

Tina winced as she fought back bile. “Thank you for that scarily vivid look into your sex life.” She shook away the mental image of a naked Roscoe.

“Sorry.” Ashley tittered.

The Protected sighed at a series of speedy knocks. She knew she and Ashley had to leave the restroom soon.

“Babe, tell me, do you feel safe with Brandon around? Living together must make you uncomfortable, right? Is he actively trying to harm you?” the older woman interrogated. “Just give the word, I know a few good places to hide a body.” Tina gave her friend a questionable look. The Guardian shrugged. “Ross went on a serial killer fact binge about a month ago.”

The Protected giggled girlishly. “I’ll remember that for when it gets really bad.”

Ashley stared her friend down, her expression suddenly serious again. Another crescendo of upset knocks and poorly muffled curses hit the bathroom door.

“I’m fine. Brandon’s… innocuous.”

“I’d use any other word but that one.”

Tina rolled her eyes, continued, “We just got out of control with our… expressive natures.” She raised one hand as if taking an oath. “I swear you won’t see me on any real-life crime shows.”

With a quick look at her friend, Ashley slumped her shoulders. She was out of ideas, and from experience, knew that Tina wouldn't talk if she didn't want to. Before unlocking the bathroom door, the feline-like woman sighed, “Babe, just… let me know if you’re ever in danger. You know you can always count on me.”

With a gentle smile, Tina nodded.

“It’s all yours, ladies.” The tall, skinny woman stepped aside as her gaze met those of the madwomen who’d been locked outside. She noticed how their evil eyes and stank faces traveled from her to Tina.

“Locking it wasn’t my idea,” an innocent-looking Tina said as the angry trio briskly become a duo with the youngest-looking female darting to a toilet. “After all, I thought making some lesbian voyeur shit would be cool, but nooooo,” she dragged the last word out as she simultaneously raised her phone that had “somehow” switched on its video mode.

Ashley couldn’t help but chuckle at the senior-aged women’s shocked and disgusted expressions. “You’re too much, babe. Let’s go. The others are probably looking for us.”

Inside Occult 101…

As soon as Tina crossed the darkened room’s threshold, she noticed its pleasant scent. Looking to a stack of shelves in one corner, she saw the source, jarred plants. They were sat between colorful vials, shiny trinkets, and a few brightly burning candles.

“Umm, are we in the right place?” Dee’s voice quaked as she inadvertently clutched Denzel’s sleeve.

“Hold up. Don’t tell me ya scared of a lil’ poor lightin’.” Denzel grinned.

Tina looked around. She couldn’t blame Dee for being a bit put off with their hellish surroundings, a heavy granite gargoyle in each corner of the room, pictures of occult activities on the walls.

Teenage angst, check. Tina laughed as she looked at unknown symbols, skulls, and nightmarish creatures.

Spying a poorly lit wall with newspaper clippings, Dee saw headlines referring to spontaneous combustion and abductions. As she did a scan of think pieces that twisted logic to explain away “unrealistic” creatures of the night, she jumped. “Asshole!” she yelled at Denzel who’d scared her by pinching her side. The Protected laughed as his Guardian ignored the room’s creepy wall shadows to shove him.

“My gorgeous souls, good morning,” an unknown but buoyant voice welcomed the class. “I apologize. It seems I lost track of time.”

“So, a talking curtain is our new professor?” Tina chuckled.

“I assure you. I’m human,” the disembodied voice spoke again. “Forgive me, my mobility isn’t the best.” Getting up from their silent prayer, the 38-year-old flicked on the room’s overhead lights. As they moved the curtain aside and limped into the open with a black cane, the professor introduced themselves, “Anywho, I’m Bishop.”

Tina took in the slender, 5’9’’, androgynous in appearance ordained priest. Before she noticed Bishop’s traditional black attire and wooden rosary, Tina noticed their shortened chestnut hair, and beauty marked visage with heterochromatic blue and brown, almond-shaped eyes that were nearly engulfed by long lashes.

___________________________

 

Bishop, a priest who opts for gender-neutral pronouns, like they, them, and theirs, holds generally unorthodox beliefs.

___________________________

 

To start class, the priest gave their credentials. They explained how they were raised in Germany but learned their trade of exorcism in Rome’s Vatican City. Every now and again, Bishop would traverse the room with their fabric chair, weave around the fluffy pillows their students sat upon, to write an important point on the whiteboard.

“Anna Elisabeth “Anneliese” Michel was a German woman who underwent Catholic exorcism rites the year before her death.” Once their class seemed to be on one accord, the priest spoke with their hands to provide more context. “She had been previously diagnosed with epileptic psychosis and had a history of psychiatric treatment that was overall not effective. It’s believed that Anneliese’s treatment was impotent because she is thought to have been possessed by multiple evil demons…”

As class went on, questions were answered. At a particular question of Roscoe’s, it was explained that the freshmen would begin with simple lessons. “To start, you’ll learn prayers, meditation, and the use of certain tools.” With their smile, Bishop made the gap in their front teeth visible. “Oh, shoot”—they snapped their fingers—“I almost forgot I need to see who’s here.”

As they took attendance, Bishop successfully butchered everyone’s name, and when they came across Monáe’s, their bushy brows knitted together. After repeated complaints of her name not being pronounced Mona, the clergyperson innocently resorted to calling the minuscule madame Doll and Dollface.

At the development of Monáe’s new nickname, Denzel started his angry muttering, and Dee, sat beside him, relished in his misery. She nearly lost it when she heard the short man say something about fighting off a lolicon-loving priest for his woman.

Two hours later…

“That class was borin’, stupid! I don’t get why we hafta take it!” Denzel complained, his normally jocular mood nowhere to be found.

“Was it? I was thoroughly entertained.” Dee squinted.

“Any class with that guy, Connor, is a highlight for me.” Ashley giggled.

“Honeybun?” Roscoe frowned before Ashley kissed his cheek.

“Disgusting,” Denzel blurted out.

“I just meant that he’s entertaining. ‘Yo, what is ya, a chick or a dick? Ya confusing me.’ Poor Bishop.” Ashley stifled her chuckles.

“His libido does seem to be quite high.” Roscoe scrubbed his beard in contemplation.

“Just one more class,” Dee cheered.

“Thank God!” Tina was ready for the day to be over.

“I hope you remember a week of non-G/P classes is still ahead of us. I expect for you to be a stalwart student,” Roscoe chimed in.

“Of course, Dad,” Tina said with mock irritation.

Monáe sighed. “At least our non-G/P classes will be easy. It’s these other ones twice a week that are going to kill me.” She shivered. “Ugh, the occult class is my literal nightmare.”

“True.” Hailey threw her arm around her bestie’s shoulder. “You can barely boil water, so how you can be expected to get a protection potion together, the world may never know.”

“Was that necessary?” Monáe sighed, momentarily defeated.

“Hey, you can draw your butt off, so making wards will be your forte.”

“Speaking of drawing, I can’t do my duties as the secretary of animation club if I can’t attend the meetings because we have some assignment due in Dr. Jade’s, who side note, I’m pretty sure hates me.”

“Ridicule,” Roscoe piped in with his friend’s native tongue.

“How’s anything ridiculous? Did you not see how she looked at me?”

“C’mon, Ms. Pouty Pants.” Hailey tugged Monáe along. “Let’s get to you to the next class before you drown in a puddle of your tears.”

Inside Djedi Hall’s secret gymnasium - 03:45 P.M.

Monáe gasped. Denzel shot to her side. “What’s wrong? Did you see a bug or something?” He looked around her feet frantically.

“What? No.” She shook her head before querying in Roscoe’s direction, “Is Dr. Jade teaching this class too?”

Hailey stopped dead in her tracks. “I can’t do the hard-ass twice in one day,” she nearly shrieked.

“Howdy, partners!” said a raspy, southern drawl. “The name’s Mr. Raven and I’ll be your sensei for this year’s tactical trainin’.”

Monáe paused. “Hmm. That’s strange.”

“Rosie?” Roscoe questioned the young teen.

The girl took a second before responding. “I thought… I thought that I felt Dr. Jade’s aura, but it seems I was wrong”—she pointed at Mr. Raven—“because she’s not the man standing in the center of the room.”

“Hallelujah, miracles do happen!” Hailey nearly jumped with joy.

Roscoe continued, “Are you saying that the doc and this professor have the same aura?”

“No. No two people can have the same aura because they’re like fingerprints, unique to each person,” the human mood ring clarified.

Tina shrugged. With a pat to Monáe’s back, she said, “We’re all trying to get a handle on our powers, so it’s understandable that you got confused.”

Monáe nodded and put the weird mix-up to rest as she climbed the lion decorated bleachers.

As his young’uns filed in, Mr. Raven, a trim-limbed and craggy Guardian of 45 years, smiled, his mottled, sunken cheeks and cinnamon, bag riddled eyes apparent even at a distance. He looked like a ranch hand in his studded, western-style hat, faded bootcut jeans, white t-shirt, and spurred cowboy boots.

“Whoo, we gon’ have a good time levelin’ up together.” The native Texan exuded a boyish charm with his hands on his hips.

Taking a seat, Tina looked upon the rather large but nearly bare training ground, spied its oversized, centered sandpit and off to the side obstacle course. Looking at the lengthy partition on the room’s left side, the girl was reminded of her old middle school gym.

“Tell me,” a cavalier Kyle said in his smarmy voice, “why do those of us with superior powers need tactical training? I don’t even think you’re qualified to teach us, MacDonald.”

“Oh, give us a break, man,” Francis chided the younger Protected.

Mr. Raven was slightly flustered, clearing his throat and playing with the small brass hoops in his ears. “Believe me, Frog,”—he regained his composure as he fiddled with his leather belt, an embossed silver buckle with the words Never 2 Old 2 Game on it—“evadin’ and fightin’ spirits is my specialty. I got the proper stats, and plenty of experience.” Mr. Raven pointed to the scar on his chiseled jaw, the row of slashes that’d been a distraction for Tina.

The rich teen looked at the man’s warped right side. “So impressive,” he remarked snidely.

At Kyle’s comment, Mr. Raven pulled a small remote from his back pocket. With the push of a button, the bleachers’ railing engaged. Previously concealed bars rose to the ceiling’s wards from small, holy water-filled lines in the ground. When secured, the bars jingled with silver and gold charms.

“Never leave home without it.” Mr. Raven, for good measure, poured a semicircle of salt around the seating. He returned the mineral baggy to his front pocket and detached the braided bullwhip at his belt.

Once everything was in position, Mr. Raven pointed his remote at the room’s sizeable partition. A shadowy section of it ground open, and an intimidating, black, snake-like being slinked from its captivity. For a moment, it looked around, confused. Then, it laid eyes on its captor.

As the creature before him reverted to its original, dog-like form, the seasoned Guardian quickly stored his remote. “This here is what’s called a Nalusa Falaya,” the nimble Mr. Raven began, dodging the creature’s strike with ease. “It’s an evil, devious shapeshiftin’ creature believed to be a demon or wood spirit.” Mr. Raven and the Nalusa Falaya began circling each other. “The creature’s existence was discovered by a Native American tribe, the Choctaw people.”

When the professor evaded another fast-paced attack, the prowling beast erupted with an ear-splitting growl, but as his students grimaced, Mr. Raven kept his focus.

“Nala, as I call this one, and its kind are humanoid in a sense, bipedal, and extremely tall. Their anatomy is covered in black fur made of shadows, and the sharp spines protrudin’ from their back are as recognizable as their small eyes and pointed, elf-like ears.”

The professor did a slight twirl, giving his whip some air before cracking it on the wooden floor, close to where Nala had skidded to an emergency stop.

“At their maturity, Nala’s kind enjoy hidin’ in swamps, marshlands, and forests. They call areas like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida their home. Their preferred victims are travelers.” Mr. Raven contorted himself as Nala swiped at his torso. “The damn things call out to ‘em at night, then jump and scare ‘em into a state of unconscious, you know, fix to eat ‘em.” When the lumbering creature lunged, the man somersaulted underneath it. “Sometimes they’ll curse a victim by stickin’ ‘em with a small thorn that’ll make ‘em commit horrid acts.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” a bored Kyle sounded. “Your Nala is nothing but an overgrown puppy. Now teach us something useful!”

The Nalusa Falaya looked Kyle’s way. It made a rasping noise, ignored the whistle Mr. Raven made for it.

Watching Nala stalk toward the teenager, the Guardian jumped into its line of sight. “Nala, hey, over here!” he chirruped. The creature responded with a reedy huff, started to circle and survey its options.

In the momentary calm, Mr. Raven peaked at his troublesome student. “Listen, you damn fool, save your sorry self, and stop talkin’.”

“Why? It’s not like that thing can reach me in here.” Kyle smirked, crossed his legs, and rested his chin on an upturned hand.

“He doesn’t learn.” Dee leaned back in her chair.

With her inner Guardian ready to pounce at any moment, Ashley’s hairs stood on end.

“Something bad is about to happen.” Tina stiffened when she saw Hailey mirror the fiery Guardian.

Kyle, undeterred by his professor’s warning, kept on. “Stop toying with your ugly pet. Get to the point, kill it already.”

Suddenly a scraping sound echoed through the room. Looking down, Mr. Raven saw Nala’s deadly, clawed feet burrow into the floor. Then, quicker than he could blink, Nala was charging at Kyle.

For a second, the frog Protected tasted dread, but then he remembered his ace. Though his legs trembled, and his teeth chattered with fear, Alexander did as he was told. He threw himself in front of his Protected as Nala screeched and swung at the bars, ignored its pain as blisters formed on its skin.

Dee snickered, ready to see Kyle get his ass handed to him. She feigned worried shouting, “No! Bad freaky hybrid thing!”

“Seriously?” Tina pondered from her seat. “You couldn’t be a little more convincing?”

“Shit!” Mr. Raven darted to mount Nala from behind. As he used his whip to suffocate the creature, he growled, “This is why, ugh”—he tightened his grip—“we don’t taunt”—he tightened some more—“them.” When the sneaky Nalusa Falaya tried to shift its shape, it was met with teeth, Mr. Raven biting its dark shoulder. “Not today you don’t,” he grunted around Nala’s odd flesh. After a few more bloody gurgles, the shadow figure finally went slack.

“Christ,” Mr. Raven tumbled with the creature to the ground. He quickly dismounted it, unraveled his whip from its neck. The man took off his hat, revealing a tiny bun of frizzy, black waves. He wiped his brow.

Placing his hat back on his crown, Mr. Raven dropped his whip and dragged the unconscious shadow back to its darkened den. As he locked the beast’s cage, the older Guardian grumbled to himself, and clicked some more of his all-powerful remote’s buttons, lowering the students’ guard gate.

As Kyle lifted his hand to strike a sweat-soaked, goosebumps-covered Alexander, his professor stomped up to him. Hoisting the dapper teen up by his collar, Mr. Raven growled, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch. You tellin’ your Guardian to sacrifice themselves for you is beyond despicable, you novice.”

The fire in Mr. Raven’s eyes pissed Kyle off. “Isn’t that your purpose, raven man?”

“Fuck off, asshole.” Brandon said, annoyed.

“Seriously, you have a problem,” an exhausted Ashley added.

“Clam it, Lover,” a still dangling Kyle retorted.

“George,”—Roscoe jumped to his girlfriend’s defense—“your being a dick is going to get someone hurt!”

“Can it, Coco. We were safe behind the bars. The idiot clearly doesn’t know how to kill the thing, so he knocked it out.”

“You donkey, if you would’ve let the lesson play out, then you would’ve learned there are no known ways to kill the beast,” Mr. Raven squawked.

His ass of a student gaped. “If you know there’s no way to kill the thing, why would you let it loose? Are you stupid? How can you guarantee your students’ safety?”

“Kiss my go-to-hell,” the man scolded, his southern accent stronger than before as he practically threw Kyle from the aisle.

Distorted but persistent growls penetrated the partition behind which Nala had been tossed.

With an annoyed sigh, the professor trilled, “We barely got through the prologue.” Retrieving his whip, he twittered, “Today’s class is terminated. Return to your spawn points. I must retrain Nala.”

Stumbling from the harsh shove, Kyle shouted, “You can’t cancel class! I pay good money to get a full day of education out of you!”

“We’re all here for free, jackass. Ya forgetting it’s ya fault he’s canceling.” Connor pushed the preppy man aside.

Ignoring the clear beginnings of a scuffle, Mr. Raven put his hands on his hips and gingerly made his way to the false wall.

Sometime later…

On the ride back to her place, Tina dodged Ashley’s interrogating glances as if she were getting paid to do so. For each of his girlfriend’s sketchy and concerned looks, the teen pestered Roscoe with a question.

___________________________

 

Who knew you could learn about landscaping and architecture when you asked about a water fountain?

___________________________

 

As Tina unlocked the front door, Brandon noticed a white package haphazardly tossed to the side of the steps. How it ended up in the bushes when the mailbox is on the other side of the door, and there’s a porch one can see from the driveway, he had questions.

“Who throws a box labeled fragile in the bushes?” He picked the small thing up.

Inside Tina and Brandon’s home - 06:45 P.M.

“You’re bothered by something and it’s slowly aggravating me,” Brandon said, annoyed that he had to break the silence he’d grown accustomed to.

Tina’s forkful of rice and pork her Guardian had whipped up paused at her lips. “What makes you say that?” she inquired.

“Your murderous glances.”

“Maybe your annoying face just gets under my skin.” Tina entered full brat mode as she continued stuffing her face.

“Nah.” Brandon didn’t take the bait. “I can tell it’s something else.” He tapped his head, referencing the shared G/P connection. Pushing his plate away, he placed his elbows on the table. As he leaned into Tina, she backed away a bit. “So, are you gonna tell me, or are you still deciding on my cause of death?”

The teenager pushed her plate away, taking her Guardian up on his challenge.

“If you need ideas, I have a few ways I’ve always wanted to go out.” Brandon smirked.

“Morbid, but duly noted.” Tina giggled adorably, slowly learning that her asshole Guardian could give her a good laugh or two.

After a few long seconds of silence, Brandon finally spoke, “Listen, if you’re not gonna tell me what’s up then you’re doing dishes tonight.”

Rolling up her striped pajamas sleeves, Tina smiled. “That’s fine.” Doing dishes was actually one of her preferred chores. Pretty full already, she stood, started tidying up, but when she turned, her side gave out. “Fuck,” Tina groaned painfully. She tossed her small pile of dishware on the countertop.

“Come again?” Brandon turned her way.

Tina tried to curb the pain in her abdomen with a slow exhale. Lifting her nightshirt, she inspected her bindings.

“You fucking idiot,” Brandon growled and gawked. He got on one knee, grabbed Tina by the hips, “Why didn’t you listen to the poindexter?” The woman leaped at her Guardian’s touch. “In the short time I’ve known you, I thought I learned all the stupid shit you were capable of, but this, really?” The man spun Tina around, inspected her from all sides.

“Stop ogling, it’s weird!” Tina blurted out.

“You wish,” Brandon automatically responded.

“Why does everyone insist on touching me today? Ah!” Tina flinched when Brandon grazed the dimples in her back. She was ticklish.

At the alarming sound, the man jerked away. He got up and walked to the stove.

Tina pulled her shirt down, ignored the lingering heat in her abdomen. “Don’t do that again!”

“Tch. I gathered.” Brandon pushed his tresses from his eyes. “Damn.” He felt a pain in his chest and took a deep breath to center himself.

Feeling a sudden headache, Tina maneuvered around her Guardian, getting a glass of water. “Should I ask why you just got paler than normal?” She turned to the older man.

“I was born pale,” Brandon answered as he took the box he’d previously tossed on the couch to his room.

Tina, hot on her Guardian’s heels, stopped in his doorway, caught off guard by how clean and organized everything was. Since he hadn’t finished moving in until late last night, Tina hadn’t seen what Brandon had done to his space.

I want that chair, ooo, and that rug, Tina thought as she eyed some of Brandon’s things. Interior decorating, something else she didn’t know men were capable of before now.

“Why are you following me?” Brandon asked as he headed to his large walk-in closet. When the woman didn’t respond nor leave, he changed tactics. “Actually, I have a better question, why didn’t you snitch on me? I’m the one that caused your… issue, so I’m surprised that you didn’t rat me out. You could’ve told the professors, or spilled the beans to the two giants, but you didn’t.”

“You really do think I’m stupid.”

For a moment, Brandon held his tongue. “Why didn’t you tell me you got the bruise when it happened?” He continued to rummage through some boxes.

“I know better than to reveal when I’m weak to my enemy. We’re literally in an Enemies partnership, so even if there are shadows of calm between us, like this morning’s peace offering”—Tina chuckled to herself—“I’ll never forget what we are.”

“So, you’re saying my trying to make amends failed?” Brandon looked over his shoulder at Tina. “Don’t they say the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach?”

“I’d prefer if you came nowhere near my internal organs. Stay out.” Tina squinted. “Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.”

Backing away, Tina realized she’d have to sort out the new information regarding Enemies relationships on her own. She shook her head.

It is what it is, I’m still an independent woman, dammit.

Chapter Text

Inside Roscoe and Ashley’s high-tech duplex...

Snarls transcended exotic honey and pale blue walls, swung the vaulted roof’s planters to and fro.

“Cat. Dog. Stop it,” Dee interrupted another fight of the Enemies pair from her place on the curved, lemon sofa. “Geez, you guys stay at each other’s throats,” she plopped back dramatically, her face into some long vine inhabitants, and the sunlight of the bay window.

From his place atop a double-sided chaise lounge, Brandon’s all-too-knowing yellow eyes pinned his Protected’s bum to the gray floor. His sensitive ears perked up, took in his human’s ever-increasing litany.

“Hate him, hate him, hate him. Bad dog!” Tina wailed.

“I’m a wolf,” Brandon barked.

“Whelp!”

“Bitch.”

“The pair of you are insanity personified,” Roscoe commented, peeked up from his cramped nook and the papers he was sifting through.

Sat beneath some vibrant cacti and framed proverbs that would be better plastered on cheap mugs, Tina roared her stress. Pulling her hair and turning to the side, she saw herself in the room’s floor to ceiling reflectors. She eased her grip when she overlooked her image for the background, a fringe of shelves lined with trophies, family photos, and memories of a road trip.

Looking back to his documents, Roscoe mumbled to himself, “Suum cuique, to each his own.” He cracked his neck, and went on, “However, T, Dee’s words have merit.” Turning to the rest of his group, the genius glowered. “Now listen, I need to submit these packets today, and with you all having made it clear that you cannot be trusted-”

“Ugh, dude, it’s been a week, drop the stupid email already,” Hailey grumbled from the furry sack that threatened to swallow her, Monáe, and Denzel whole.

“Here we are,” Roscoe continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted.

“This’s one helluva way to spend our day off,” Denzel groaned. “Only you would give us homework when our classes got axed for a G/P faculty meeting.”

“I’m wit’ the dork,” Hailey spoke over Monáe’s shoulder, watched her work on an outline. “Our regular classes don’t even start ‘til Monday.”

More repetitive, angry muttering that likened a demon’s summoning.

“Knock it off, T.” Roscoe checked her as he passed his electric fireplace and reached for the sheer curtain hiding one of his many libraries. Though, none top the well-insulated and soundproof one on the duplex’s opposite side, where Roscoe’s office and the majority of his academic escapades are located.

Sitting in his ergonomic chair, the man used the light from a nearby bank of windows to search his antique desk for a pen. Uncapping one, he kicked a storage bench holding an overflow of books askew, revealed a heap of wires that aid the home’s artificial intelligence system.

“T, you need to reign in your bellicosity. Stop allowing Brandon to take you out of your character,” Roscoe admonished in a low voice, not wishing to wake his napping, fleece-covered lover. She hung a few feet away in an egg-shaped swing chair.

“I can’t help it.” The teen’s pout matched her childish tone of voice and arm-cross. She watched Roscoe make a motion to the living space’s ovate bookcase ottoman that doubled as a supersized, stainless-steel table.

“T, play ni-”

Brandon smirked. “She just called you a ‘fucking goody two shoes know-it-all’.”

“How”—Tina gasped, and quickly closed the accidentally opened Guardian/Protected telepathic link—“…Snitch.” She snatched a hefty stack of papers off the table.

Back at Tina and Brandon’s place – Friday afternoon

Wiping her sleepy eyes, the teen reached under her pillow for her cell. Toggling her notifications on, Tina retrieved a backlog of messages, most of them Harley’s uppercase-only writing.

The girl dressed at record speed, burst from her room in a pair of leggings, a pink sweater, and some house socks. As she washed up and detangled her nest of hair, Tina registered the absence of breakfast smells.

In the background, Brandon overheard his housemate. Sitting at the bar top, working on his laptop, and eating some grilled quesadillas, he concurrently made out Tina’s location, her less than graceful movements a great help.

“Be quiet,” the man rumbled.

“Christ!” Tina startled and slammed the cupboards she’d opened. “Don’t scare me like that!”

Brandon paused for a second, watched the dubbed idiot woman lower her plastic cereal dish, and palm her jolted chest before moving to clean her accidental spill. “I’ve been sitting here,” he said. “You disrupted me,” he added and wiped his crust-covered hands clean.

“Oh, no”—the girl extended a warning finger—“You will not damper my mood today, sulky man. I’m eating in the living room.”

Sometime later, no sooner than Tina had devoured her “nutritious” meal and placed her dirty dishes under the tap, did she hear an obnoxiously loud, familiar sound she’d be able to identify anywhere.

“Finally!” Tina bolted by Brandon for her room.

A few seconds later, the Guardian watched the dummy race to the front door, her phone abuzz, and her face fighting a peculiar twitch that made her look like a smiling catfish. For a brief moment, Brandon considered inspecting what had his Protected so excited, but then his phone chimed.

“Harley!” The teen practically ripped the front door off its hinges.

“Sis.” The woman whose complexion was a touch darker than the juvenile’s grinned widely, her alabaster teeth on full display as a demanding hug wretched her t-shirt and sweatpants draped body from an apple red convertible. “Calm down. You’re acting like you didn’t jus' escape the fam.”

“Am I not allowed to miss my favorite sissy?” Tina asked, her words muddled with her face pressed to the slightly taller woman’s bosom.

“I won’t tell Shawna.” Harley gave a wink of her dark brown, burgundy flecked eyes.

“You texted me that you wouldn’t be here-”

“Until tonight? Yeah, screw that. I needed to get away, so I called off work. You know how it is, claimed food poisoning.” Harley smooshed her sibling’s poof.

“Of course,” Tina chortled, and let Harley go. “Sorry that I called you all the way up here.”

“Don’t apologize. Any reason to take Cherri out is good ‘nough for me. God knows I don’t give her ‘nough drive time.” Harley walked to the front door. When she spied the welcome mat’s shoe-free home message, she discarded her steel toe boots caked with mud. “Before I check on the scrap metal you have the nerve to call a car, I’mma use your bathroom.”

Though she knew the offense was playful, Tina couldn’t help the way her cheeks puffed up. “I’m sorry that truck was the only thing I could afford?” she said like a question.

“So am I.”

The teen rolled her eyes. And the ribbing begins.

“This place is nice, love the decor. I still can’t belie-”

When Harley stopped short, Tina rammed her face into her robust back, never more thankful for a staircase railing.

“Oooooo. Well, what do we have here?” Harley stepped to the side, pushed her pressed hair behind her pierced ears. She grinned a little too wide for Tina’s liking. “Yvet-”

“No!” Tina flushed. “Don’t call me that”—she peeked at Brandon—“not in front of him,” she attempted to whisper.

“Sure”—Harley peaked at her sibling—“Whatever you want. But,”—her exploratory gaze returned to the undeniably attractive man faster than she cared to admit—“when were you going to tell me that you got a boyfriend?” Harley clocked Brandon’s plate of crumbs. “And did you finally learn to cook? You’ve been holding out on me,” she accused.

Brandon scoffed. He got up to clean his plate, and after a short pause and turn of the faucet broke the sudden silence with a guess, “Yvette?”

Shit.

Tina inwardly cringed at the mention of her middle name, knowing a pin would put in it for later.

“If you guys don’t mesh”—the intuitive, black-haired lady speedily read the room—“then why’re you together?” She leaned on the banister of the staircase.

“Long story,” the forced partners shared simultaneously before glaring death at each other. “Very long story,” they said in tandem once more.

“Make it short ‘nough to fit in my visit. I leave Sunday.” The doe-eyed Harley slyly scanned her kin.

“…I’ll do what I can,” Tina worked out, knowing damn well she wouldn’t be able to disclose anything.

Momentarily satisfied by that response, the older woman monitored the strange man in the kitchen. “So, if you’re not Tina’s boyfriend, you’re who exactly?”

With a sideways glance, Brandon scrutinized the woman referencing him. Something about her implored him to be forthcoming. “Brandon.”

“Brandon,” Harley repeated.

Tina observed the rare, civil exchange with broad eyes.

Did she just get him…? Did he just…?

With an amicable smile, the older Franklin marched Brandon’s way, extended her hand for a shake. “I’m Harley, Tina’s older sister.”

Brandon paused his dizzying typing to grin and return the familiar gesture. “Nice to meet you, Carly.”

And it’s nothing but downhill from here, Tina thought.

Harley squinted, pulled her hand back. “I’m sorry, I believe you misheard me. It’s Harley,” she said through a clenched jaw, her dulcet tone suddenly denser.

“That’s what I said. Carly.”

Very bad!

In a flash, the hothead yanked the heavy Guardian from his seat. “I know you heard me say Harley, smart-ass.”

“Harls, put him down!” Tina shrieked, watched unsuspecting amber eyes round to a steely glare.

“Harley,” the elder Franklin growled between bared, sparkling canines. “Try me again, dick, and you get yours chopped off.” She pushed the man away.

As he kneaded where his sweater’s drawstrings had dug in uncomfortably, Brandon heard his phone chime. He ceased the darting his eyes were doing between his Protected and her sister to, instead, gather his possessions. “I’m going out. Don’t,” he emphasized, “need me.”

Harley ponytailed her long hair and knotted the front of her shirt. As she got to work, she updated her sister on all the family drama.

“Really, another one?” Tina interrupted a hilarious story of the clown-like twins’ latest dinner visit. “How many is that now?”

“She’s Quentin’s fourth fling this month.” Harley chuckled. “Her personality, if you can even call it that, actually made me miss the last ditz, Courtney.”

“I’m talking about the playing card,” Tina clarified, still staring at her bent over sister’s new lower back ink.

“Ah.” Harley looked over the jalopy. “I always tell you, small tats are like a puzzle, part of a bigger picture.”

“How many?” Tina was unyielding.

“Ten?” Harley half-answered, not quite sure of herself.

“Ten?!”

“Jus' about, maybe a few more, like I said, they tell a story.”

“Yeah, of a few drunken nights and bad breakups.”

“Cute,” Harley snarked back.

“Mom and Dad are going to kill you,” Tina groaned.

Yanking an all but dilapidated toolbox and jack from her trunk, Harley snickered. “Y’know I’m an adult, right? I can do what I want.”

“Is that why you still don’t have a sleeve?”

“Shut up,” Harley snickered again.

“You know I’m right.”

“They would have to find my tats first. Why do you think they’re only in”—Harley cleared her throat—“intimate places. Barely anyone sees them.”

“Yeah right. You expect me to buy that?”

The older sister smirked. Popping out a hip with various wrenches in hand, she inquired, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

With a waggle of her eyebrows, Tina grinned, “I know how you like to flaunt your nudity.”

“Perv.”

“Says the nudist.”

The mechanic rolled her eyes. Using a ratcheting wrench, she dug into the car’s bits and pieces. “So,” she changed the convo, “where’re Ross and Ash at? I thought they’d be over here keeping you company since you and Ross are peas in a pod, and Ash is all but glued to his hip.”

Caught off guard by the question, Tina sputtered, “Oh, yeah… um, they’re… at the library! Studying! I’m not conducive to quiet environments.” She smiled sheepishly.

For a moment Harley took up a pensive stance, stopped all movement.

She’s totally about to call me out. Shit. Shit!

“Stop leaning on my baby.” Harley sighed.

Oh, thank God!

Unlocking her passenger door, the woman hooked up a diagnostic scanner. “Well, hopefully, I’ll see the rugrats before I leave.”

Sometime later…

“Alright, Evie, bad news,” said the grease monkey.

“I don’t like the sound of that.” Tina straightened from where she’d nearly dozed off.

Placing one blackened with filth hand on her hip, Harley squinted. “I can fix the thing-”

“That’s great, doesn’t sound bad at al-”

“Let me finish.” The older Franklin wiped her sideburns, effectively replaced her sweat with car grime. “The hunk of junk’s not even worth the money you’d sink into it for parts.”

“Not worth,” Tina blanched before retaliating, “It’s the original model from 1986!”

“Yeah, and it’s because of that I’m still surprised someone sold it to you, shit’s sorta an icon, could be a collector’s item. But listen, the car’s damn near prehistoric, its frame is rusted to hell, and your trans is shot”—Harley paused when Tina looked at her as if she were speaking in tongues—“Your transmission. It’s kinda integral to your hooptie running properly.”

“I thought you loved the classics.”

“Exactly, classics, not something I now know can barely pass for a tin can.”

Tina glowered. “You were saying shit’s wrong?”

“In simple terms, your car’s old as hell, and way over its ideal mileage number, making the cost of repair or replacement for the trans alone crazy, more than it’s worth.” Harley rubbed her forehead with a closed fist. “I’m getting a headache jus’ thinking about the service.”

“Harls,”—Tina crossed her arms defiantly—“if you don’t fix Sarah then what am I supposed to drive?”

“Whoa now. Cool your tits.” Harley stroked her chin. “How much do you have saved up?” She looked toward the sky impishly. Tina couldn’t help but titter at her sister’s self-drawn transmission fluid beard. Realizing what she’d done, Harley grumbled and grabbed a towel from her mechanic’s box. “Come on, Yvette, I know you,” she said in a lowered voice, “sometimes better than yourself.” At Tina’s intense look, Harley raised her voice, “Emergency stash?”

The rental home money…

The look her sibling gave her told Harley all she needed to know. “Lemme get a shower and then we’ll head to a used car lot.”

Thirty minutes later…

As Harley dressed, her out of tune singing penetrated the bathroom’s walls. “It’s a small world after all. It’s a small world after all…”

From the living room, Tina recognized the mantra for what it was. She muted her mounted flat screen. “Oh?”

“I jus’ got off the phone with a dealership I have in mind, and it turns out the owner and I went to undergrad together.”

“That’s cool,” the junior stretched her voice.

“I’ll probably be able to snag you a deal. I know for a fact this guy used to have a crush on me. We’d lost contact for a while, but his social medias say he’s currently single.”

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire?”

“Oh, so it’s like that?” Harley gave her improved reflection one last look.

Tina turned when she heard the bathroom door swing open. Seeing the more mature, dolled-up version of herself come skipping into view, she was unable to help the stain on her cheeks.

“Ahhhh. I always feel so much better after a hot shower.” Harley turned her sister’s way, showed off her five-minute makeup routine results of lengthened this, blushed that, and nude lips. “Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies,” she puffed up, drew attention to her gray jeans and frilly top with transparent, lace sleeves.

At her sister’s words, Tina purposefully cleared her throat.

“Don’t get left,” Harley sounded over her wingtip platforms. “Let’s aim for something one-toned.” She grabbed her slightly puffy jacket and small, black backpack off the couch.

Tina rolled her eyes at the jab. “I’m surprised you were able to get that black gunk from under your nonexistent nails.”

Harley chortled and rolled her eyes. “Some of us bite our shit.”

Tina giggled and grabbed her gray peacoat off the rack at the bottom of the steps. “Don’t get left,” she echoed earlier sentiments.

“I’m sorry, but do you really think your hardcore flirting with that Campbell guy was necessary? I’m pretty sure he still got me for all I was worth.”

“You truly are a naïve little girl. This silver baby is beautiful and actually from this decade!” Harley said, pleased with herself. “Because of my dedicated innuendoes, you got to say bye-bye to that tricolor horror show and Estelle’s price was slashed.”

“You used your womanly wiles on the poor guy.” Tina turned her face up disapprovingly. “And did you just name my car for me?” she questioned in an afterthought.

“Hey, Nevin’s choice to buy your piece of crap was his own, and yes I did.” The older woman winked.

“I spent eight thousand.” Tina sulked. “You said I’d only need four thousand.” She looked at her abused debit card. Harley clucked her tongue. “If you would’ve taught me how to drive manually when I asked at 16, I could’ve saved a fuckton more,” Tina grumbled.

“I thought I told you back then, you’re never allowed behind the wheel of my precious after what you did to dad’s car. Cherri’s made for drag racing, not crashing.”

“There’s a difference?” the teen asked, knowing just how to push her sister’s buttons.

“Yes, you uncultured dunce!”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

Once the pair reached a stoplight, Harley peeked at the passenger seat. “You know it’s your own fault. Like I said, I know you. With your expensive tastes, anything you chose was going to be pricey. Must I remind you it was a used car dealership?”

“Turning up the music now.”

Chapter Text

Saturday evening…

As he rounded the bend from the unfinished basement, Brandon hit something. “Shit. I forgot you were here. You’re loads quieter than the idiot.” The man, still dripping from his shower, caught a closed-eyed Harley by her blanket draped upper arms.

“Ow.” The greaser dressed in a Victorian nightie dropped her ornate pillow and winced. “Ugh, if you don’t want to meet the wrong end of my boot,”—she rubbed her purpling forehead—“you’re going to start being nicer to my sister. I see how you treat he- Eek!” Harley squawked, her overprotective speech dying on her lips when she opened her eyes to Brandon’s masterfully carved upper body.

“Like what you see?” The bare-chested studmuffin puffed up, a small smirk playing at his lips while his limp tresses did their best imitation of a mophead. With the Guardian’s cocky voice breaking her from her daze, Harley came back to herself just in time to feel her sides being squeezed. “Well, do you?” Masculine hands continued to graze full-figured hips as feminine thighs rubbed together. Brandon flexed his fingers when Harley chewed her bottom lip much in the way of her sister.

“Do you?” The dame flipped the question as she got on her tiptoes and craned her neck, looked Brandon in the eyes challengingly. After a few seconds of silence, she continued, “Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by males, and I’ve got to say, you’re one of the interesting few who’ve shown me such restraint.”

“Maybe I’m just not interested in you,” he boasted.

“And maybe,” the attractive, blown pupils woman emphasized the word as she stepped closer and said with conviction, “that’s a crock of shit.”

“Hmph.” Brandon smothered a snort.

“Tell me, what if I do?”

“Hm?”

The woman pressed her spry and supple body against lean muscles and hard planes. Her hands wandered over Brandon’s cloth shrouded hips and tickled his Adonis belt as she neared his distinctive happy trail. “If I do like what I see, what’re you going to do about it?” she whispered beside his ear before licking it.

As he suppressed a shiver, Brandon saw Harley reach to card his disorderly hair and ducked out of range. “Acts,” he finally answered her and tightened his grip.

“Like what?”

Silence.

“Well? I’m waiting.” The temptation cocked her head to the side.

More silence.

“You might want to hurry; I’m not going to stand here forever.” Harley raked a row of titillating scratches down Brandon’s chest. “Sharing is caring.” She peaked at him through her lashes. “Acts?”

The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed at his husky admission, “Acts that would surely break you.”

Harley smirked as she put on her best seductive voice and massaged the man’s inner thighs, “Try me. I assure you, I’m not a blushing virgin.”

Upended, the Guardian visibly shivered until girly guffaws splintered the bewitching atmosphere and the beguiling creature was pushed away.

“Pfft. My lord! You really bought that?! You should see your face.” As she wiped away tears, Harley swore she heard Brandon growl.

Upon hearing the tell-tale click of the man’s door, Tina came out of hiding, and dear God did she now wish she’d stayed in her room. Having watched a majority of the sexy exchange, the girl no longer wondered what had distracted her sister from retrieving an adapter from the basement.

Shuffling across the floor as noiselessly as she could, the younger Franklin whispered and pulled her keeled over sibling to the home’s lower, concrete level.

“Wha-what?” A still doubled over Harley could’ve passed as a witch with how she cackled her little heart out.

“I asked how you got the dickhead in line.” Tina huffed.

“I-I-I- Wait.” Harley tried to contain her wheezing.

“Don’t die,” Tina said, worried that she might see her kin hack up a lung.

Still on cloud nine, Harley finally caught her breath. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’ve never seen anyone put Brandon in his place.”

“There’s a first time for everything, but I’m sure he’s had blue balls before.” Harley swiped away more tears to see her sister watching her like a hawk. “Listen”—she cleared her throat—“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen Brandon do nothing but act funny toward you, and I’m not down”—Harley paused—“Men like him, who think they’re all big and bad, usually reset when called out on their shit.”

“I prefer step-by-step solutions,” Tina grumbled.

Leaning on the chrome washing machine in the corner, Harley chuckled, scrunched up her face, and stretched one tired arm until her bones made an ugly popping sound. “Yvette, there’s no magic formula.” Gazing at her sibling, Harley partially acquiesced. She snuggled her long cloth and tutted. “Maybe it’s my disposition… Remember, it’s to blame for why I never became Mrs. Reese Blair,” she spat venomously. “The fucker always reminded me toward the end of our relationship that my assertiveness was a turnoff.”

“Ugh, I still remember how he said you repeatedly emasculated him.” Tina cringed at the flashback.

“Yeah, because I’m in engineering.” Harley wrapped herself even tighter. “Which Christmas was that again?”

“The freezing one, where he mixed green and orange coolants without asking you first.”

“Yes! I was so pissed!”

The two laughed twin laughs before Tina calmed and got lost in her thoughts once again. “I just don’t get why Brandon took a sudden liking to you.”

Embodying her sister’s confused mannerism, Harley quirked an eyebrow and grinned. “You want to screw him.”

Tina blushed hard as her sibling’s entertained laughter rose a few octaves. “Ick! Ew! Hell no! God, I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Oh, stop it and come on. I mean, I have my eyes on Nev, but I’m not blind. In all seriousness, as arrogant as he is, Brandon’s a nice tall glass of milk.” Hugging her pillow to her chest, Harley licked her lips dirtily and winked. “Y’know, Vitamin D is essential.”

“Disgusting,” Tina said queasily. “I practically saw you two undressing each other with your eyes,” she gagged.

“Well, there wasn’t much left to undress.”

“Revolting.”

Surveying her immature sibling, Harley finally got the courage to ask her what she’d meant to since she’d arrived. “Yvette, I’ve been wondering… How’re you holding up here?”

“Uh.” Tina recalled her last few days for a moment. “The property’s alright, real roomy. School’s good too.”

“No, I’m not talking about the rental prop or school; I meant how’re you doing up here, in the Catskills?”

“Oh.” Tina’s features took on a downturned position.

“It’s alright, y’know if you’re struggling a bit.” Harley approached her sister and put a hand on her shoulder. “After all you went through-”

Tina hissed and pulled away as if she’d been burned. “Can you not? It’s been four years, let sleeping dogs lie…”

“Yvette, you called me after an enviable disappearing act.” Harley huffed with squinted eyes. “I still can’t believe that shithole was as poorly managed as it was.”

“Stop.”

“Stop? For a week, two teenyboppers were able to trick a bunch of adults into thinking your ass was with a different one whenever someone brought you up.”

“Brit and Mel can’t be blamed. They were just doing what I asked them to.”

“First, stop? Now, can’t be blamed? Are you serious?” Harley paused. “Why won’t my baby sis let me be concerned about her?” Another pause. “I jus’… I jus’ never understood your juvenile intention of staying with that half-grown… Ugh! Do you understand how aggravating-”

“I-”

“Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say what I know you’re going to.” A bitter Harley’s hand transformed into a gingerly swaying fist at her side, ready to launch at any moment. “Although I went away for a bit, I know things weren’t great back then, and yes, the house was a mess, but I still can’t believe-”

“Harls,”—Tina sniffled, fought silent sobs that tried to wrack her frame—“please…” With a swallow and lick of her lips, the teen gulped down foreboding feelings. “It was a mistake,” her voice warbled, heavy with emotion. “I called you because you’ve always been my safety net, the older sister who wouldn’t snitch on or chastise me… Please,”—stressed brown eyes hardened as they looked to their near match—“don’t make me a liar.”

Harley stomped her foot like an angry child before rattling the machine behind her. “Fine. I’ll drop it.” The teen voiced her thanks as she flinched with each of the rough strikes. Repeated pounding of the metal allowed the flimsy firecracker to calm. Taking deep breaths, she watched Tina robotically maneuver her cramped corner and mutter something inaudible.

Harley’s bookmarking of the youngster’s defenses was near natural now.

With her temper tempered, the older Franklin looked to her cracked phone. It was getting late, and she needed to get on the road in a few hours if she wanted to make her upcoming early shift. With a sigh, the older girl examined her scuffed-up hands and the cleaning appliance’s new dimples. “Hey,” she started her request, “hit up Ash and Ross. I want to try seeing them at least once before I head out.”

“Sure,” came Tina’s brief and stiff answer.

Sunday morning – way too early

“Crap!”

Shortly after Tina’s pained yodel, gentle footsteps pattered her way.

“Damn instincts,” the Guardian cussed when he reached the kitchen. “What’s got you waking me”—he yawned and turned to the darkened glass door—“before the sun is even out?” Looking to the cold ground, where his Protected knelt, Brandon scented fresh blood, and his irises flashed red. “The fuck did you do?” He cleared his head with a shake.

“Cle-clean up,” Tina shrilled. She held her lacerated left hand to her chest, an attempt to curb the blood trickling down her digits. She winced as she tried to collect her bearings. “Well, attempting to.”

Looking at his Protected’s injured manus, the Guardian took a seat, rested himself chin-first on a closed fist. “Why’re you up so early?” he asked.

“Really?” Tina squawked as she painted the nearby sink crimson. When she was met with restless, narrowed eyes, she huffed, “Couldn’t sleep.” She put her hand under the tap and nearly howled. “Could you maybe, I don’t know, help”—the girl sucked her teeth—“Bring me the first aid kit?”

“Hmph.” Brandon barely shifted.

“Please?” Tina turned in on herself. “I’d rather not bleed out.” Worrying her lower lip, the teen could still taste the leftover quesadilla she’d found in the fridge.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, you hypochondriac,” Brandon said, amused by his human’s vicious snarl.  As he assessed the injury with tenderness, Brandon noticed Tina’s strong flinch. He grumbled, “As long as you’re not spurting like a fire hydrant, you’ll survive.” After a quick analysis, the Guardian surmised that Tina’s palm wouldn’t need stitches. “Favorable, but this needs to be tended to quickly. You don’t want it getting infected. Apply pressure to stop the bleeding. How’d this happen again?” he rattled off.

“Dropped some glass.” The Protected scoffed. “There’s a reason all the dishware was plastic before you moved in with your expensive fine china.”

After retrieving the first aid kit, Brandon let something like playfulness flavor his words. “I’m quickly realizing how accident-prone you are.”

“Tch, whose fault is that?”

“Hmph.”

While her Guardian dug through the kit, Tina remembered the last time he’d cared for her, a few days ago, when she’d awoken in his arms after blacking out.

“Are you blushing?”

Fingers stickied with lifeblood twitched. “Shut up. No.”

Intrigued gold pursued crafty brown. “You were.”

Was I really blushing?

The girl’s treacherous psyche made itself known for the umpteenth time this week before she found a short, stinging distraction in cotton doused in cleaning solution. By the time Brandon turned for fresh cotton, most of Tina’s aches had subsided, so she decided to vet the damage herself.

It doesn’t look as bad as it feels, but still, it’s nothing compared to stitches.

As her Guardian worked, Tina’s eyes roved his dark branding.

Protected and Guardian stared at each other for a few tense seconds, each unblinking as Tina’s wrist was held captive. “Can I help you?” Brandon asked coldly.

Tina reeled in her limb, slightly self-conscious about what she’d done before she remembered why she’d done it. “Sorry,” she apologized in a tiny voice, tried to ignore the pitiless eyes staring her down.

“Why?”

“For grabbing your arm?”

“No, I mean why’d you grab me, idiot.” Brandon slicked back his mussy hair.

“Oh.” The girl turned coy. “I-I’ve always liked tattoos, but nobody in my family has any, well Harley does, but they’re a secret.” Tina licked her lips as she continued to steal glances. “I’ve heard the forearm doesn’t hurt as bad as other parts of the body, but surely something that large wasn’t comfortable?”

A leer.

“I don’t like pain, so I’ve always been on the fence about getting something myself.”

“You were fine with the pain in your side,” Brandon retorted.

A scoff. “I said I don’t like pain, not that I can’t handle it.”

“It’s way too early to play semantics,” the exhausted Guardian interjected.

As the man resumed his squatted position, Tina couldn’t help but compare him to the being she’d first met, the one who’d gotten chewed out by the Guardian/Protected researchers for his unsocial behavior.

He was like a mute who only knew how to communicate by death stare, she thought before yelping, the second pass of alcohol a lot for her raw skin to handle. Ass!

“Tell me,”—Tina coaxed her voice to be sickeningly sweet—“do you think tattoos should have meaning?” In response, Brandon let loose a quiet chuckle. “Should I take that as a no?” She looked to the exposed ink again.

“Take it however you want,” the Guardian said through a sinister, plastic smile. He turned the sterilized hand in his about, double-checking it.

As curiosity overtook sanity, Tina cautiously asked the clock’s meaning.

Collecting some gauze, Brandon’s chest rumbled. “None of your business. Stop asking dumb questions.”

A bit rattled, Tina turned flippant. “Jeez, don’t bite my head off, Mr. Hyde.”

“Want to try again?” Brandon gripped the teen’s hand tighter than necessary and earned a loud whimper.

“Ouch!”

A smirk.

“Fine, if you promise not to do that again, I’ll let you be the doctor.”

“Don’t frustrate me,” the man blustered.

“What do you have against the classics?” Tina put on her own smirk.

“I don’t like these nicknames I’m getting. First the sheep, now you. My name is Brandon.”

“I can’t speak to the name Hailey bestowed, but I think mine do you great justice, embody you, in fact. One second you’re hot, and the other you’re cold. You have more intense mood swings than a girl approaching her period.” When Brandon screwed the cap on the near-forgotten bottle of alcohol tight enough that it cracked, Tina knew she had him. She quirked a brow. “Do you prefer Master of Whiplash?”

Another commonplace growl.

“You like it?”

“Of course not!” Brandon bayed.

“Not the names, dumb-dumb.” Tina changed tactics.

“Don’t push your luck.”

The girl rolled her eyes as she filled out her question.

After an explanation, Brandon responded with how he’s making out in his new surroundings, answered that he’s faring. “Aren’t you pleased?” he asked after a moment.

The man’s added conversation shocked the teenager, so much so she’d instantly replied, unable to contain her truth for something euphonious. “No.” Tina looked away, missed Brandon’s interest pique.

While cutting through thick gauze, the Guardian heard his Protected break the few minutes of silence with another question. “One more time?”

“I said, care to tell me why you hate me?” Tina repeated, this time without stumbling over her words.

The wolf protector gave a momentary pause. “No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have to.”

“Don’t be a baby.” Tina sighed, refusing to give up. “Come on, how about we take turns? I’ll ask you something, and then you ask me something.”

Brandon balked for a moment before retorting, “What is this, an inquest?” Tina perked up, knowing she was working the man’s last good nerve.

The partners rapidly exchanged words, their heated argument growing to a boiling point, Tina’s prying admittedly nearing aggressive.

“Time out,” Brandon bellowed, his biological need for air far outweighing his mind’s need to be heard.

Swimmer lungs for the win! Tina thought before readying herself for another round, that is before Brandon put a stop to the insanity.

“Enough! Why’re you so concerned with my thoughts?”

“I think I deserve to know what you think about me. I’m your Protected. The two of us need to find a common ground, a place where we can communicate freely, and reach understandings.” As she shared her thoughts, Tina had an idea. “Name your all-time favorite food. Go!”

At the bizarre abuse of power, abrupt shock mixed with a bit of ire. “That creamy white stuff on top of ice cream.” Brandon ground out his answer.

“Um, what?” Tina chuckled softly. “Creamy white stuff? On top of ice cream?” The teenager wracked her brain. “You mean whipped cream?” She looked for confirmation and guessed she saw a nod. “You know, Denzel would have your head for not knowing what that stuff is.”

With Brandon’s chest still heaving from the verbal onslaught, it hurt to chuckle. “It’d be entertaining to see him try.”

“Why whipped cream?” Tina looked her Guardian up and down before chuckling to herself. “My, my, does the big, bad wolf have a sweet tooth?”

“Careful.” Brandon squinted.

At the man’s ineloquent articulation, Tina’s smile turned to a frown. “I figured… It’s just… I… Maybe-”

“You’re babbling. Spit it out.”

Tina flinched. “I just figured if we got to know each other better, maybe some of our issues could be resolved…” At her Guardian’s calculating stare, the Protected jumped. “You know what, point taken. You don’t have to answ-”

“On special occasions… my mom used to give me some.”

For a split second, Tina was taken aback. “So, the taste holds sentimental value?” she questioned.

The man shrugged dismissively. “I like the feeling of it melting on my tongue.”

After another awkward beat, the teenager decided to turn up the heat. As her hand was wrapped, Tina grilled Brandon on his favorite television shows and music.

Although the guy maintained an air of indifference, and his voice kept its control, his grip on the stretchy fabric slackened. “Why are you suddenly speaking to me as if we’re friends?”

“Wow, way to kill the mood.” Tina snickered and looked to the corner with eyes that took pride in conveying little. Brandon continued wrapping her limb as he listened to her blabber on, whisper, “Harley truly was able to tame you before me.”

Hearing the threatening snap of dangerous jaws, Tina didn’t dare look up, and before she knew it, she was back to one piece and her Guardian was cleaning up.

"...It was worth a shot,"  she said to Brandon through their telepathic connection, jarring him before she left for the sanctity of her room, the only place she could sulk in peace.

Sunday afternoon…

“Is this going to be a regular thing with you and Brandon staying together?” Ashley asked, eyeing her babe’s new bandaging.

Suddenly, Tina was second-guessing inviting the couple to catch up on their latest comedy obsession.

“Tina Y. Franklin, do I want to know why there are dents in your new washer?” Roscoe sauntered over with the needed cable extension.

“Damn you two are nosy,” the teenager groaned.

After Dr. Jade’s Monday class…

Tina stayed back as her group went to grab lunch.

“Dr. Jade, what’d you mean last class when you said some, I forgot the word you used, complications or something like that, came from the artificial creation of Enemies?”

After a particularly long session, which included having to dismantle more ridiculous arguments a heated Mr. Union made to his peers, the doctor wore a particularly exhausted expression. She adjusted her tuxedo dress, and the periwinkle ascot at its lapels before clearing her throat. “I nearly forgot that I had stated such a thing.”

Tina waited patiently as the woman turned her back to her.

“You’re staying?” Colored heels sounded on the linoleum as Helena reorganized her many tomes.

“Well, yeah. I’m waiting for my answers.”

Seeing her student’s stubbornness, the doctor looked for her next lesson’s citations. “I believe the words you have forgotten were more similar to ‘Although all G/P types are naturally occurring, Guardians can now be created via genetic modification. This means that rare pairings like Lovers and Enemies are increasing, but not without arising consequences.’ Correct?”

“Yes, yes, that’s it! You said something like that!” Tina more or less squeed with joy.

“Not ‘something like that’. Those were my exact words, Ms. Franklin, word for word.”

Tina swallowed a gloomy cry. “Dr. Jade, I don’t hate that you’re a stickler for some things, but please, could you throw me a bone by being a little more helpful, less secretive?”

For a moment the doc looked tentative. She questioned with an uncharacteristically lighthearted air, “I suppose you would like me to treat you with kitten gloves because you are a freshman?” When the older woman received no answer, she continued, “Tell me, what is it that you thought I meant when I supplied your class with my message?”

“That Lovers and Enemies pairs are on the rise because science has perfected how to make their Guardians.”

“Anything else?” Helena, sitting upon her opulent throne like a monarch, narrowly bulldozed Tina with her intimidating stare.

“And that”—Tina thought for a moment, searched her mind for the right words—“that”—she sighed—“All I got was that there’s something wrong with manufactured Guardians. You didn’t elaborate any further, which is why I’m here. You also said it’s believed Enemies are failed Abuse pairings.”

“Indeed, I did state that.” Dr. Jade smiled before looking at her chiming watch. “It brings me immense joy to know that you have been attentive, Ms. Franklin, but unfortunately, I cannot delve into this matter any further. I have another class.”

“Could you just-”

“I want you to keep thinking. I can tell that you are on the right track, and I believe that you will be able to sort out many of your questions on your own.”

“But-”

Tina was cut off by the hall’s sudden activity, students from the next class entering.

“Dr. Jade,”—a gangly, square-jawed man with a hoarse voice, beautifully melanated skin, and a shiny, bald head descended the steps alongside some others—“is what I’m hearing about you giving us a history test on G/Ps today true? We just got back.”

“Mr. Bridges, you should know me by now. You are a senior, after all.” The woman stood to prepare the board for her lesson.

“Jonah, when have you ever known the lavish doc to let her plans of torture slip early?” a woman with sharp cheekbones, and a thick Arabic accent Tina couldn’t quite place asked the man a few paces in front of her.

“Ms. Vulture, must I remind you of my name at the beginning of each year?” Dr. Jade cracked a piece of chalk in half.

Jonah grumbled, “Akilah, co-”

“Oooo, who’s the little cutie?” Akilah clapped her hands in a tizzy when she finally registered Tina’s presence. “Is she a freshman? Wait, no duh, she has to be. It’s still too early for the exchange to happen.”

“I just finished with Tina’s class,” Dr. Jade said. “She was just leaving.”

Knowing how to take a hint, a famished Tina silently grabbed her bag and headed to her next class.

Chapter Text

“Ross pushed our meeting back an hour, said he and Ash are running late,” Tina told her Guardian. She basked in the kitchen’s yummy scent. “Whatever you’re making smells divine.”

“Pancakes.” Brandon quirked his lips.

With a faint smile, Tina reminisced on the past two weeks. Ever since her sister’s visit, and her pitiful attempts to understand Brandon, the lass found that they could be rather… neighborly. Now, her Guardian even allowed her in the kitchen to help with simple side dishes.

Food, the great equalizer, she thought.

“How are the lovebirds not gonna be on time if the meeting is at their place?”

With a dainty shrug, the girl threw a cup of syrup in the microwave. “No clue, but Ross wants me to open for him, so I’m heading over early with my key.”

Whilst the Protected claimed some butter for her pancakes, the Guardian busied himself with scrolling through his newsfeed. He sat at one of the remodeled stools whose feet were wrapped in felt, Tina’s creative solution to stop their painful drag.

After a few bites of food, the woman let out a shallow sigh. She tuned out her comedic video for worry, concerned about an upcoming test in Dr. Jade’s. As Tina thought, a memory was sparked, one where her annoyed professor pinched the bridge of her nose as Kyle ground his teeth and called the G/P breeding program that they’d learned of a waste.

A huffing Dr. Jade leaned against her desk. Sitting her red spectacles atop it, she clipped back, “Breeding has very little to do with love, Mr. Union” —the doctor crossed her legs at the ankles— “The propagation program was initiated nine years ago to creat e Guardians and Protecteds with increased talents.” The dreaded dame ignored Connor’s sly request to be her breeding partner as she gathered a lens cleaning cloth from her desk. “To date, no copulations have produced atypical children.”

“Well, that’s stupid,” Dee mumbled. “Who sinks money into something that doesn’t work?” She tapped her fingers against her chin.

“It’s been speculated that natural-born Guardians and Protecteds are more powerful than engineered ones,” the professor expanded, “hence the program remains, and compatible pairs continue to be explored.”

As she gobbled more of her pancakes, Tina introspected on the containment center conversation that had triggered Hailey to shudder and call the shelters isolated hell holes.

“I’m aware that several Guardians disagree with the centers’ methods.” The umber-eyed bible-wielder took on a sympathetic posture. “Protecteds, have you ever wondered where your Guardians originated , where it was that they lived their lives prior to your meeting them ?” After a few seconds of silence, the refined woman answered her query , “The answer is the containment centers, where Guardians remain until the age of thirteen . Once teenagers, they are acquainted with the outside world as part of their socialization prep.”

Tina remembered the instant she put two and two together, the instant her academician’s truth reminded her that Guardians don’t have blood-bound families. His favorite food is whipped cream because it was one of the few things that his primary G/P scientist, the one who’d cared for him and been like a surrogate mother, was able to sneak him from the outside.

As she moved for a drink, the teen recalled Denzel overzealous slurping of soda and his passive question of how the centers have remained unexposed.

Dr. Jade scoffed. “Mr. Gates, our government has had many a myth proven true.” Placing her frames back on her face, she kept on, “Ensuring ignorance is what our leaders do best. Take us as an example, as G/Ps we don’t even exist.” Pointing over her shoulder, to the board behind her on which some letters were scribbled , Dr. Jade asked if anyone recognized them.

They are an acronym for the G/P parent organization,” Roscoe speedily chimed in .

“Correct, Mr. Tyler. Our parent organization aims to secure, control, study, and, where appropriate, eliminate anomalous existences. Now, someone tell me, why would these be the organization’s goals?”

“If left uncontained, these oddities pose a threat to human life and civilizations’ perceptions of normalcy,” Ashley shared.

“As G/Ps , we have a duty to maintain order, ” Roscoe added his two cents.

With another deep exhale, Tina finally accepted that there was too much to review. Placing her long-empty cup on the counter, the girl eyed her paused phone. Turning her Guardian’s way to ask him why he didn’t pull her from her stupor, the sharp-eyed Protected hastily flushed. “So that’s what you’ve been disappearing to do.”

An addled Brandon looked Tina’s way before cheekily responding, “Wouldn’t you like to know what I do in my spare time.”

Registering the previously missing stud, Tina cleared her throat and clarified, “Fair”—she smirked—“I’ll just ask for the vampire’s name next time.”

With a string of expletives, the disheveled-haired man quickly cupped his neck and scurried to his room.

“Oops.” Tina bit her lip to stop her sarcastic smile. “Was it something I said?”

Returning to his seat, now clad in a sweatshirt and scarf, the stone-like guy coolly responded to his Protected’s chuckles, “Quiet, woman.”

“But-”

“I’m getting angry,” growled the Guardian.

“Yes, right there! That’s the spot, right there!”

You’ve got to be kidding me. The fuckers put me on welcome duty, so they could CANOODLE?!

Cutting her eyes at the trio of Guardians whose body language told her that they’d known the couple was in their back bedroom, Tina began boiling. “So, none of you were going to say anything?”

Playing with the runs in her tights, Hailey sniggered from the bean bag. “Hey, they’re busy. Who are we to interrupt?”

When hypnotic bangs began, Monáe nearly choked on her juice.

“Damn, the big man’s gonna break some shit.” Hailey beamed.

Tina looked at the time and grumbled, “We’re scheduled to start in five, and dammit for once we’re all here on time.”

“God!” Ashley’s breathy moan echoed off the walls. “So good!”

“They know we can hear them, right?” A disapproving Denzel licked his fingers clean of candy. With a smirk, Brandon thumbed through a book he’d snatched from Roscoe’s private library.

“I don’t think they care.” The sheep Guardian smiled as the lynx’s sexy mewls rose in octaves.

“Trust, they don’t.” Tina stood from the steps.

“Hey,”—Dee, from her sun-doused seat, shot upright and chuckled—“don’t be a party-pooper, let the kitty-cat get scratched.”

Shivering at the mental image the panda’s words conjured, Tina said a silent prayer and ventured the hall.

“Hmph. Don’t get your eyes clawed out,” Brandon warned darkly.

“I think I liked it better when you didn’t talk.”

Wholly ready to give the bonded pair a piece of her mind, the Protected slammed the bedroom door so hard that the handle bounced off the wall. “Jesus!” She jumped back and shielded her eyes.

“Good-”

“Lord-”

“Knock!” Tina heard the couple ping-pong back and forth as they maneuvered the blanket to cover themselves.

Peeking through her fingers, the girl managed a glare. “I swear to God, I’m two seconds away from hurting you both.”

“Mrow.” Ashley performed a yoga stretch, looking like the cat who got the cream as Roscoe remained on his knees behind her.

“Ya damn voyeurists,” Denzel yelled as he neared the doorframe. Once there, he was shocked by what he saw, unable to stop himself from commenting, “Wow, Ross, backshots? And, Ash,”—he blushed—“that arch-”

“PERVERT! GET SOME DIGNITY!” yelled Dee from the living room.

Roscoe sighed, sat back. “Voyeurism is not-”

“Can it,” Tina said, already done with the day. She pouted and put her hands on her hips to make herself wider, block the couple who’d earned her ire from Denzel’s view. “And,”—she turned to Denzel for a moment—“contrary to popular belief, Roscoe is a hot-blooded male. Anyway,”—she finally located Ashley’s earlier divested shirt and threw it at her—“the rest of us would like to start, so if-”

“Nah! We’re good! Take your time!” The panda Guardian’s smile was almost audible.

Rolling her eyes, the teen continued, “Like I was saying if you two could please”—she rapidly motioned to the door with random movements—“And continue this later.”

“Oh, come on, just two more minutes?” Ashley whined.

“You two can get it on later. Get your asses in here, so we can wrap this up!” Brandon threw his voice from the living room.

With a pout, Ashley ceased rubbing Roscoe’s rough handiwork, bruises forming at her waist and lower back, and draped her sheer top over her athletic bra.

“I think we should call it a night,” a half-listening Tina interrupted another report Roscoe had felt the need to divide into monotonous points.

“What? Why?” the man questioned, his sex kitten sat astride him with a laptop in front of her to keep the meeting’s minutes.

Tina quirked a brow before looking around the room, quietly showcasing the exhausted crew. Over the hours, nearly everyone had grown irritable; she, herself, was dangerously close to finding somewhere to dump Denzel’s body if he uttered another complaint about his low snack provisions.

“Fine.” The redhead’s noticeably flushed beau relented. “Meeting adjourned.”

They owe me, Tina thought with inflamed cheeks from witnessing Ashley’s spastic bum wiggles and Roscoe’s evident… desire.

Chapter Text

Monday - Mr. Raven’s class…

After a month and some change of brutal physical training, the crazed tactician’s suit up order hadn’t come as a surprise.

Emerging from the women’s locker room, Tina winced when she smoothed   her hair into a bun. Her crown was still tender.

Trifling wolf.

“Still hurtin’?” Denzel asked from the doorframe of the men’s locker room.

“I should be asking you that.”

“They’re evil, man.” Denzel rubbed some of his fading bruises. He’d gotten them from the last tolerance training, where he and Tina had iced beside each other after their Guardians had let them become intimately acquainted with the floor. “Guess I should-”

The sound of scraping metal drew Tina’s attention to the indoor obstacle course. In the time it took her to change, it had expanded and looped about the gym.

Looking at the barriers, Tina noticed they began with a rubber track and tall ladder. Attached to the ladder was an overhead jungle gym, and parallel to that was a body of water with an assortment of steppingstones. A short strip of land and an angled trampoline just big enough to fit two people sat at the water’s end. Suspended above the trampoline was a trail of rings, and below was a long patch of sand.

Well, that’s a landing , the obsidian-haired teen thought as she spied a large foam pad past the rings and rolling log contraption.  The nutty professor’s up to something.

She put her hands on her hips, and drunk in the maze’s lengthy sandpit and stretch of back-to-back hurdles, thinking it looked  too  easy.

As she made her way to the bleachers, the Protected got flashbacks to high school with the subsequent rope climb to an inverted wall that likened ground-mounted solar panels. Squinting to see a platform, Tina noticed a downward ramp that led to the last obstacle, a type of warped wall at least twice Roscoe’s height. With its landing up top, the thing reminded her of those ramps she used to see her out-of-state cousins do tricks on at their neighborhood skatepark.

“Today the name of the game is Think Fast or Die.” Mr. Raven, with his lopsided smile, leaned against the ropes of the boxing ring-like center. “These babies are your enemies.” He patted the side of one of the course’s many animatronics. “Their job is to kill you, so unless you’re some type of sadist, evade ‘em.” Doing some last-minute drone calibrations, the fit man gazed at the bleachers. “Hop-Skip-Jump, you and your Guardian are up first.”

Kyle snorted and ran a hand over the field’s outlining.

“Oof”—Monáe winced—“Il va détruire ses Jimmy Choo.”

“Seriously?” Roscoe regarded. “‘He will destroy his Jimmy Choo’?”

“It’s good quality.” The French beauty wrinkled her nose in an adorable scowl.

“Not to mention, pricey,” Tina added.

“…You two have questionable priorities.”

“You’ll have thirty minutes to run the track as many times as you can,” Mr. Raven shouted. “On my mark.” He used his handy remote to project a sizeable countdown on the far wall.

“Frogger,”  Kyle rumbled his psychic order,  we better make it to the end.”

“Three!”

“Yes, Mr. Union,” Alex mumbled.

“Two!”

Kyle smirked and glanced at the bleachers. “Watch.”

“One!”

The countdown chimed and the students took off. Reaching the ladder, Alex carefully surveyed his surroundings as Kyle crouched and crossed the liquid passage with a few leaps of the stones.

The roly-poly’s quick on his feet.

Roscoe nudged his friend. “His Guardian is a frog.”

“Oh God,”—Tina pulled away from the railing she’d been leaning over to gape—“Did I say that out loud?”

“No.” Roscoe winked before turning his attention back to the field. “I just know you.”

“And here I thought you were some type of mind reader.” She crossed her arms.

“Ah!” Alex screeched and jerked his foot from the water it’d slipped into. “Something just grabbed me!”

What could’ve grabbed-

“Alex, behind you!” Roscoe warned.

The youth whirled around just in time to see some splashed androids drop their cloaking. “Shoot!”

“The log up there needs to be counterbalanced!” Kyle yelled from the trampoline.  “Hurry up!”

“Coming,” the Guardian managed before he was tackled by one of the faster animatronics, a reptilian-shaped one that fought to keep him pinned until its comrades could catch up.

“I said, hurry up!”

“Right away, Mr. Un- Ow!” Alex felt serrated teeth pierce his shins and wiry nails, his ankles. “That hurt, you bag of bolts!” He kicked the metal, and it went flying along with a part of his sweatpants.

“Frogger.” The rich teen whistled and looked over his shoulder. “Don’t make me repeat myself a third time.”

Spinning about, Alex bit the inside of his cheek. His bleeding wound throbbed.

“About time.” The Protected groaned when his Guardian reached his side.

As the whirring behind them resumed, the duo used the momentum from their trampoline jump to easily cross the rings and near the log. They mounted the wood like flying squirrels.

Alex’s vision went blurry as he tried to ignore the pain in his lower limbs. He blinked a few times before rocking back and forth, the chunky man’s impatience and the obstacle’s ugly tangle of wires working in chaotic harmony.

Unnatural barks and growls drew Kyle’s attention. He peeked behind the log and his Guardian. Spotting their pursuers, he gave Alex an order that had his eyes glaze over.

“Yes, Mr. Union.”

Swaying the log with violent jerks, Kyle huffed. “At least you’re good for something.”

Great , Tina thought sometime later whilst looking to the teens who’d landed on the mat knees-first.  Motion sickness .

“Filthy,” Kyle growled through clenched teeth when his world stopped spinning.

Alex jumped at the feeling of hands on his back. Turning, he saw his Protected’s look of disgust strangely focused on a single spot. Stretching the back of his shirt to the front, the gangly teen saw two brown handprints.

Tina admired the Abuse Guardian’s tenacity. During his run, she’d found it hard to look away.

Surveying his leg, she cringed. It was still oozing blood from when he’d saved his Protected from two nasty sandpit traps, a crater that swallowed a section of the tiny desert in the blink of an eye and a stretched, hair-like string that’d cut him deeply, almost carved him. Watching Alex work the hurdles, Tina could only imagine his pain.

“Get those things off our tail,”  Kyle yelled. He sounded winded.

Looking to the clock, he became more frustrated, realized he had a little under fifteen minutes remaining. Due to his improper heel technique, he’d spent more time on the inverted wall than he’d liked.

Tina went wide-eyed as Kyle swung the rope climb to toe the landing. When he made his way down the ramp, she opened her mouth to say something, but first, a grunt and the sound of flesh ripping demanded her attention.

“No.” Monáe covered her terrified gasp with her hand. Hailey, seeing her tear up, put a comforting arm around her, told her to look away.

Before Alex could escape the automatons that he’d been fighting, they’d gotten the better of him, shredded his lower half with their blades and gears.

“How’s he still standing?” Tina whispered.

Kyle gagged when the taller man neared. He could barely look at him.

“Mr. Union, we’re-” Alex coughed roughly like he was going to expel an organ or two.

“Cover your mouth!”

“Sorry”—the Guardian coughed into the crook of his elbow—“Sorry, Mr. Union”—he covered another cough—“But we’re close to the finish line. The bots will be on us soon if we don’t keep moving.”

The Protected chuckled. With clenched fists and a scowl, he said, “Those things are closing in on me because you’re ineffective.” Backing up to eye the curved wall, he spoke telepathically,  “I want to run again, so you better get your shit together, you goddamn inept frog.”

“How the hell?”   Tina’s jaw dropped. In a single and surprisingly graceful prance, Kyle had shot to the platform’s top.

“Frog,” Roscoe reminded through clenched teeth before he heard Alex scream again. He looked back to where he’d last seen the Guardian and saw that he was now in the iron grip of a humanoid machine. “One caught up to him.”

“He can’t outrun them.” Tina frowned. “He’s been dragging his legs this whole time.”

“Let go!” Alex punched the droid. It released him after taking a few good swings to some circuitry in its neck. As the thing sparked dangerously, Alex hobbled away.

Rushing to the wall, the Guardian felt his hand swell, and when he looked down, he was sure he’d broken a finger or two.

Then, just when Alex thought things couldn’t get any worse, a trapdoor gave way.

“That’s cheating!” Kyle, red-faced, screamed at Mr. Raven.

The Guardian shrieked as his attackers hissed and bit him. Injected with snake venom, his body’s defenses activated, his eyes became shinier, showcasing their aposematic coloration, his bloodstream overrode with a unique brand of toxins, and his fingertips produced a clear, shiny mucus.

Controlling the sticky substance much like a frog controls its prehensile tongue, the lanky teen slashed the serpents away. Many of them writhed in pain from his poison while others slithered to the hole’s dark recesses for safety.

“Frogger!”

His Protected’s voice reminded the Guardian that he had to finish the course.

Finding his strength, he climbed out of the hole with the help of his tendrils and less mangled leg. Turning back to the wall, Alex gasped at the trench the trapdoor had created. Reaching the platform now looked impossible.

Kyle stomped about as he dabbed away his skin’s disgusting dampness. He cursed when he glimpsed at the holographic timer. With less than ten minutes left, the Protected yelled to the skies,  “FROGGER, GET YOUR ASS UP HERE! NOW!”

As the order took hold of him, the viscosity of Alex’s mucus increased.

Roscoe caught the Guardian’s pained look. “He has to check his bloodstream.”

“Why?” Hailey played with the bar in her ear.

“You missed him flinch,” Brandon said, finally awake from his nap.

“Ah, B, so nice of you to join us in the land of the living.”

“Alex has to do an internal check before his adrenaline wears off.” Roscoe frowned. “The poisons the snakes injected him with could interact with his own negatively.”

“Guys,” Tina called the group’s attention, “What’s he doing?”

Ashley turned around, confused. “He’s whistling.”

Reaching a crescendo in his low tune, Alex measured the jump, aimed his fingers, and prayed.

“Goddammit!”

Though he’d used his goo, the Guardian still slammed into the ramp rather hard. He climbed the remainder of the structure until his blunt nails clawed at the top, and he flopped onto his back to breathe air not laced with blood.

Using a ladder in the wall’s scaffolding, Kyle made his way back to ground level.

Seeing the young’un rush to the starting line, Mr. Raven addressed him. “Hippity Hop, take a knee, you’re done.”

Kyle rolled his eyes at the nickname. “No. I’m not.” Quenching his thirst with some water he’d left near the front of the track, he added, “You said I could keep going as long as there’s time on the clock.”

“Time on the- Look at your Guardian. He can barely stand.”

“He’s fine!” Kyle waved off the raven-haired man’s concerns. “I want to go again!”

“Stand down! You can’t run the course on your own.”

“Says who?!”

“Me.”

“So, you’re going back on your word?”

The sharp-nosed professor ignored the slight and smoothed back his untamable hair.

“Bleeding heart.”

“Take a seat and care for your Guardian. Check and make sure he’s not knockin’ at death’s door.”

Irate, Kyle sucked his teeth and punched the route’s metal skeleton. Then, when his Guardian finally made it over to him, the stuck-up teenager started spouting all his faults, stated that his weaknesses were to blame for their early removal from the track.

As the Abuse pair passed her to take a seat, Tina spied Alexander’s welts. His skin looked gruesome, raised and red in some areas, and split and purple in others.

When the woman overheard Kyle say the words  embarrassing  and  failure , it took all her willpower to not turn his berating against him. Instead, she advised Alex to visit the health room.

“Don’t meddle,” Kyle warned without looking from his laptop. “He’s fine.”

Pompous ass.

The girl clenched her fists as Alex got some wipes from his bag. He started cleaning his eyebrow that’d been crusted in blood, the result of him defending Kyle from a drone.

“I’ll be alright.” He tried to assure through a blood-riddled cough.

“Next up, Miss Mountain and Dexter.” Mr. Raven pointed to Ashley and Roscoe.

“Yes!” Mr. Raven whooped as the athletic pair dodged some nasty hidden punji sticks. “You two have excellent survival stats!”

Tina nodded her head in agreement. In twenty minutes, her friends had already run the course twice.

This is child’s play to them. Ash has keen senses, and the egghead is too smart for his own good.

“Alright,”—the older Guardian plugged his ears—“max out.” He pressed a button and closed his eyes. Overhead, a drone released something.

Roscoe looked up, finding he was blinded by the space’s lights. His face scrunched together. “What is-”

“Grenade!”

“Fuck!” Ashley tackled her dearest, hitting the deck just as the flash bomb erupted.

Roscoe rubbed the back of his head. He’d hit it pretty hard. “Eso duele,” he grumbled in his native Spanish before translating, “That hurt.”

Ashley evil-eyed Mr. Raven. He shrugged.

Tina watched Connor and Casey make decent time on the track. “How are they missing every trap?” 

“Enviable eyesight.” Roscoe adjusted his glasses. “I assume they can spot minor irregularities in the foundation.”

Jumping from a ten-foot rock wall that’d erected itself before the warped wall, the silent spider Mutuals exited the course.

Tina smirked after seeing how far they’d made it.  Maybe they’re not slackers , she thought.

“Franny-boy, Black and Yellow,” Mr. Raven called, “you’re up.”

“Finally!” Francis hollered before practically carrying Justine, his Mutual partner, and Casey’s cliché skater girlfriend, to the starting point.

Seeing Justine get seized by a grappling hook trap, Mr. Raven warned her to keep going. “Buzzers,” he shouted, “watch your six! Keep your enemies apart! Team-ups are dangerous!”

“Yessir!” Justine replied.

“Come up with a plan! Think of how you would survive an attack of flyin’ heads!”

“Severed heads?!” Francis screamed his vexation as he rubbed a knot starting to form on the back of his head.

Hearing a snap and whoosh behind her, Justine spun about. “Bro, watch ou-”

“Why does this always happen to me?!” Francis flailed inside a net snare.

“Too late.”

“Wait!” Francis screamed when Justine started to make her way back to him. “I got this”—he fought to get in an upward position and plucked the rope—“It’s string, not a fortress. Don’t worry about me.”

The dark-haired woman looked torn before taking off at the sight of robots in her peripheral. She dodged the things with deftness, caused them to go out of commission by slamming into each other.

“Two down, five to go,” Hailey said, her eyes glued to the above drones in an attack formation.

Seeing the flying machines imitate the bee Guardian’s circular pattern, Dee chuckled and shook her head. “Now they’re all chasing their tails.”

Speeding up as she raced to the inverted wall, Justine lowered her body and, out of nowhere, dropped into a slide. Skidding across the plane, she was stopped by her feet connecting with the wall. Then she heard plastic crack and metal warp. Looking around herself, she saw the remains of her pursuers, the drones that’d been unable to recalibrate fast enough to miss the slanted terrain.

With those things off her back, the Guardian continued toward the unforgivable scent of old metal. She set off a series of mechanical crossbows. They unleashed a volley of razor-sharp bolts.

“I told you to leave me.” Francis pouted as Justine slashed him free of his web with a quarrel she’d borrowed from the deadly trap.

The loyal Guardian held up a tally of fingers. “Five.”

Francis huffed and looked off to the side, took some time to process the embarrassment of his Guardian having to save him five times. Looking back at the pinkened girl, he ruffled her hair. “Looks like you won that bet. No chores for a week and you get that board you’ve been eyeing.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As the Guardian led her trap magnet by the arm, he grumbled about their professor’s tips being useless.

“Like when would we ever see flying heads?!”

“The Flyin’ Head, also known as Big Head, or the Great Head is real. Iroquois and Wyandot mythology. Don’t be ignorant swine, look it up.” Mr. Raven hit the track’s emergency stop button. He turned to the rest of his class. “You all must culture yourselves. How can you expect to defeat the final boss if you can’t even navigate level one monsters? Even my spawn of nine moons, Delilah, knows this.”

“Nine moons?” Denzel queried from the bleachers before Dee called him an ignoramus and hit him in the sternum, explaining that Delilah, Mr. Raven’s daughter, was nine years old.

Denzel swore as he soothed his sore back, the place where an accidentally triggered bamboo whip had lashed him. Exiting the gym, he glowered Mr. Raven’s way.

“That bad?” Tina cocked an ebony brow.

Denzel snorted. “Kindly toss me under a landin’ plane next time. It wouldn’t hurt as much. Ya two should count yourselves lucky we ran out of time.” He looked between Tina and his diminutive love.

“C’mon, what you wouldn’t give to see Mo glisten.” Hailey let her innuendo-laced words hang in the air.

Denzel chippered up. “Hehe. Next week,” he said, his eyes far away in la-la land.

Chapter Text

After Mr. Raven’s class, inside the campus café…

Tina and her party sat at a large booth, each doing their own thing. They were all starved after having missed their regular lunch for meetings, the Protecteds for a special info session, and the Guardians for the first of their weekly evaluations by G/Ps scientists.

Dee’s fidgeting drew Tina’s attention. The cobalt-eyed Guardian was perched beside the Lovers, discussing a hazy strategy to get through the obstacle course on her next attempt.

“So, Ma Chérie,” Monáe said, tearing Tina from her ear hustling, “we’re on Friday. You ready?” The brunette smiled halfheartedly, watched the younger girl chuck some of the breakfast bagel she’d been picking at Denzel’s way. He caught it with his mouth.

“Don’t stress,” Hailey piped in. “You’ll do fine.”

Tina chuckled through her skepticism.

“You actually pay attention in class.” Hailey paused fixing her lip stain to reference the open books Tina had cocooned herself with. “And with B by your side, you’re sure to make it to the end.” Brandon chuffed. “Anyway, Mo, we gotta go if you want to get any practice in tonight.”

“What are y’all doing?” Tina asked, facing the twilight beyond the window.

“Someone promised Denzel help with stabilizing his telekinesis. She thinks she can troubleshoot him with her aura reading.”

“A compelling theory.” Roscoe rubbed his chin.

As her group filed out the booth, the Franklin girl packed her things and brought up the rear, some books she wanted to focus on as soon as she got home at her hip.

Before the glass doors, the girl fumbled with the texts when she heard her phone chime. Realizing she couldn’t fish the thing from her back pocket, she looked for a friend to discover they’d all left.

Suddenly, Tina felt something solid collide with her.

“Oops, my bad,” a man apologized in an ethereal voice. “I wasn’t watching where I was going, sorry.”

“No, no. It was my fault.” Tina felt her face flush. Retrieving her scattered belongings, she felt like everyone’s eyes were on her.

Dummy, w hy’d you’d stand in front of the door?

The guy stooped down, picked up a red notebook that’d tumbled his way. Standing, he apologized again, “I’m really sorry.”

“No hard feelings.” Tina straightened and reached for her book when the man suddenly seized her right hand.

“Excuse you!” The teen reclaimed her limb.

The man recoiled and apologized.

“Just give me my-” Tina looked up, into piercing azure eyes, sapphire morning glories that immediately simmered her temper.

The bronzed stranger continued his profuse apologizes, finally finishing with, “…I was just surprised.”

Tina cocked a brow, watched the man blush a warm peach.

Weird o.

“It’s just, your ring”—the man smiled forlornly—“It’s beautifully crafted, unique.”

Tina examined her hand. Though the years had worn the engraved heart and staggered lines on either side, the jewelry still sparkled with love. It remained a memento of someone kind, a best friend, a first crush.

“Thanks,” Tina said, truly touched. “It was a gift, customized.” Offering her hand again, she expected the guy to finally return her notebook.

“A gift? Customized?”

Tina squirmed uncomfortably as the man squinted, examined her.

Alright, definitely a creep…

Scrutinizing the silver piece’s one-of-a-kind arches closer, the man gaped like a fish, asked, “Tina?” The girl startled. “Tina Franklin?”

It was only when Roscoe spun to tease Tina on her unusual silence that anyone noticed she was missing. At Monáe’s suggestion, the group sans Brandon, who’d said something along the lines of Tina got herself lost, circled back to the café.

Returning to the building, the friends watched Tina’s interaction with the odd stranger.

Able to hear parts of their quiet conversation, due to the propped open door, Ashley and Roscoe whispered to each other while Monáe kept reminding Hailey of her bearing and need to swallow her drool.

Dee clapped the dust off her hands after yanking her half-asleep Protected opposite the eatery, to a brick wall he could lean on. “Goddamn food comas!”

Tina stepped back. “How do you know me?”

“I’m wounded.” The mysterious guy cocked his head to the side, brought attention to his twisted mane, a dark brown ponytail with golden-brown ends. “You really forgot about me.”

Tina’s confusion showed. She couldn’t put her finger on anything, not the man’s face, his voice, his mannerisms, nothing.

“Jamie.” The man chuckled. “I’m Jamie Aiden.”

“Wait…” The cogs in Tina’s brain turned, and her eyes got huge. “Jasper?” she asked. “Jazzy Jazz from down the street?”

Jamie winked his ocean-hued pools. “I no longer go by my middle name, but yeah.”

Stepping closer to her childhood friend, Tina’s eyes watered. Jamie opened his arms to her, and she hugged him tightly.

“It’s been so long! How have you been?”

Snuggling into firm pecs, and inhaling a scent composed of sandalwood and fire on a winter morning, Tina couldn’t help but compare the strong-jawed, mouth-watering male before her to the scrawny, sickly boy that would often stand up for her when she was bullied.

The years appeared to be good to Jamie. He’d filled out nicely, grown a few feet, grown a goatee, and ridded himself of his signature shark teeth and braces.

“I’ve been well.” Jamie smiled. He gazed at Tina’s ring, at his compromised heartbeat. “It’s held up nicely.” Tina grinned. “How about you?”

The question made the woman remember the devastation she felt as a pre-teen, when she’d learned Jamie’s parents, a sweet interracial couple that’d practically helped raise her, were selling their house. She remembered overhearing her parents say the Aidens were moving to be closer to the private research facility where Jamie received his medical care.

Crossing his arms and tapping a foot, Brandon looked through the café’s glass with ochre eyes. He swallowed a sudden inhumane growl.

Ashley smirked, asked, though she already knew the answer, “Protective instincts kick in?”

“Shut it.”

“I’m glad to know some things never change,” Jamie said. Tina looked quizzical. “Like usual, you were quick to anger, but instantly changed your tune once flattered.”

“Hey,”—Tina rested her hands on Jamie’s forearms—“I already feel bad enough for not recognizing you right away.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jamie said, his silken voice and a wink that was anything but innocent turning Tina’s insides to mush.

“Ahem!” Some throats cleared in the background.

Ah, they came back for me, Tina thought. Turning to the sidewall, she saw amusement twinkle in some eyes whilst confusion made its home in others.

Brandon approached his Protected, shot his hand out before pausing and pulling back. Though a crease worried his forehead, the Guardian remained conscious of his voice that wanted to warble. “Woman, we’re all waiting-”

“Tina”—Hailey used her wide hips to chuck Brandon to the side—“Aren’t you gonna introduce us to your… friend?” She looked Jamie over with predatory eyes as if debating which yummy piece of his lean musculature she should lick first. “Your very good-looking friend.”

As Hailey ran the tip of her tongue across her lips, Tina silently staked her claim with her eyes.

Peeling away from Jamie, the teen cleared her throat. “Sorry. Where are my manners? Everyone, this is Jas- Jamie. We’re childhood friends…”

Jamie put an arm around Tina’s shoulders and gave his pleasantries. “This campus is colossal, so it’s nice to know Tina’s met some cool people.”

From his place wrapped around Ashley’s middle, Roscoe fought a grin, and teased, “She is a handful, but somehow, we manage.”

Tina rolled her eyes. “And, the Most Annoying Award goes to…”

A gust of cool night air chilled the building occupants. With another smile, Jamie brought Tina’s attention to his plump, pink lips in a way that should be criminal.

“Hey, it’s getting late, but let’s exchange numbers. I’d love to catch up more.”

“Sure!”

After the old friends took each other’s info, Jamie finally returned Tina’s red notebook. Pinching one of her chubby cheeks, her past heart reminded her of old times. “Chipmunk.”

“Vous rougissez,” Monáe mocked her friend when Jamie left to join what looked like a study group of fellow upperclassmen.

“I am not blushing.” Tina brightened, and at Monáe’s shocked expression let her in on a secret. “Your slick talk is repetitive. I’ve grasped enough to translate your sass.”

“Intelligente”—the baby-faced woman grinned—“But you’re still red-cheeked.”

In the parking lot, Tina found Hailey at her ear.

“You better snatch Jamie up quick.”

“Huh?”

“Seriously, I have a sweet tooth and he looks… delectable”—Hailey winked, clearly fantasizing—“But, it’s clear y’all vibe, and I think y’all would be cute together. Shoot your shot.”

Tina and Brandon’s abode – later that night

After another cupboard slammed loud enough for the door to her room to shake, Tina took a break from her texting marathon with Jamie to check on the kitchen.

“Alright, Grumpy Pants, what’s gotten into you?” she asked, entirely too merry. “Dear God, what ran over you three times?” She took a seat at the counter.

Brandon was leaning against a pillar, drinking a ginger ale. He looked sick, which was weird since Tina hadn’t so much as seen him sneeze since living together.

“Hmph.”

The man guzzled more of his carbonated drink, and after a long stretch of silence, the kind Tina loathes, she questioned him a second time.

“I don’t like that kid’s name,” he mumbled at an almost inaudible volume.

Tina balked and crossed her arms. “Now that’s just rude”—she followed her pacing Guardian around the kitchen with her eyes—“Jamie’s not a kid, in fact, you two are the same age, so if he’s a kid, so are you. And why don’t you like his name? What’s wrong with it?”

Choking down some more of the fizzy liquid that burned his sensitive tongue, Brandon deadpanned, the golden flecks embedded in his eyes conveying an uncertainty of sorts. “It’s too close to mine.”

One of Tina’s brows raised. “Jamie and Brandon are not at all similar.”

Brandon sighed, obscured his eyes that flickered scarlet as something carnal registered in his voice, deepened it. “My middle name and that kid’s first name. I’m James, he’s Jamie. I just… don’t like it.”

Overdramatic much, Tina thought. Then it hit her, Brandon was answering her questions without snapping. What’s gotten into him?

“Okay, so-”

Before she could press her luck, Tina heard her phone chime in her room. Hopeful that it was another text from Jamie, she sighed girlishly.

“Well, James,”—she giggled until her Guardian sent daggers her way—“I’m going to bed, so you and your issues can have the whole house to yourself.”

“Hmph,” Brandon grunted.

As Tina skipped down the hall, back to her virtual prince charming, the aggravated man took another sip of his drink. As his lips set into a tight line, his earlier desire to punch something returned.