Actions

Work Header

Snowdrop

Chapter Text

   A chill fall breeze swept across Ariah's path, blowing a miniature cascade of leaves over her feet. Ariah, slightly irritably, shook a stray leaf out of her shoe, and hurried onward, her backpack shifting around uncomfortably on her back. She had somewhere to be today.

   It was her parent's anniversary was her night. Ariah touched the small star around her neck as she swallowed a bitter lump in her throat. The pendant was made of interlocking pieces of silvery metal, but they came apart to form two separate necklaces. They had been her parents', before… Ariah shook her head, and walked on, her face becoming a blank, emotionless palette. Just as she'd trained it to be.


   Her apartment was only a few blocks away from school. It was part of a series of complexes that ran all over the city. Ariah soon reached her building, absently tracing her fingers over the small railing that bordered the miniature porch in front of the entrance. She liked to imagine sometimes that two figures stood there, the first tall and the second just up to the other's shoulder, blond hair tumbling in a waterfall over the first's shoulder.


   Ariah dug a key out of her pocket and slid it into the door. It opened smoothly without a creak, casting sunlight onto a smoothly worn staircase that climbed upwards. Ariah mounted the staircase, running her hands over the wood, the material weathered to a fine polish by the caresses of many people over the years. She silently counted the steps as her feet landed on them. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…

   When she reached thirty-one, she stopped in front of a door. It was a very nice door, with mahogany wood, and a dark bronze-colored doorknob. Ariah fingered the second key on her key ring, and fitted it to the keyhole, twisting it sharply until she heard a small click. She slid the key back out, and let herself into the apartment, breathing in the scent of home.


   Home was the faint scent of lavender, of old used books, of wood and instruments. The carpet was soft and plushy under Ariah's feet as she tugged her boots off, leaving them by the door. Ariah shrugged her backpack off her shoulder, breathing out a small sigh as the weight lifted away. She considered herself still alive after the amount of tedious finals she had to endure. After that, high school would soon be coming to an end. Ceremonies and extra paraphernalia were the next day, and a few weeks of packing and planning later, Ariah would be all on her own. The relief of being away from the crushing environment, full of bullies with hidden faces and grabbing hands and sneering mouths, was an audible burden she was glad to have off her shoulders. She highly doubted that she would have survived another year of that.


   Ariah's stomach growled, sounding almost like the dog she used to have when she was little, before she had to leave it in her grandparent's care while she went to college. It had been a beagle, as her family had a long tradition of raising the breed, and she missed it every day. Ariah padded over to the kitchen and grabbed a granola bar off the shelf, ripping the wrapper away and tossing it into the trash.
Walking into the living room again, absently fiddling with her necklace, Ariah traced her eyes over the pictures on the wall. Her mother and father smiled back at her from their prisons of glass and wood, holding books or instruments, or sometimes even herself. Ariah drifted over to the picture closest to her; her father was holding a cello in the photo, the dance of the bow and his wide grin frozen in time. Ariah remembered when the picture had been taken; it was his at concert, three years ago. He performed for a dance company, one of the best in the country, and in Ariah's opinion, there had been no other cellist that could truly weave their personality and his spirit into each note as he once could. Each note that sung sweetly from the movement of his bow was so beautiful, yet so much like water; so sweet that you wanted to hold it and cherish it forever, but it would spill through your hands and away from you until the next rivulet came. Ariah wished she could coax the notes out as gently as he could.

   She turned to face her own instrument, which lay in the same place as it had for nearly two months now- on a stand, the wood faintly brushed with dust. Slowly, she moved forward, until she was resting one hand on the wood. Closer now and reaching for the wooden bow hanging on the peg beside the stand. Closer still, as she reached and picked up the cello, carrying it to a stool beside the window. Ariah took a deep breath and put her bow to the strings.

 

   Papa's concert was on a stormy night. He and the dance instructor had argued long and hard over the phone, but regardless of his sharp tone, she had told him that he was essential to the ballet. "Just one song," she pleaded with him. Finally relenting, Papa had packed up his cello and slung it into the backseat of his car, rain speckling his dark suit.


   "Are you going out in that weather?" Ariah asked, from the doorway. From her position beside the window, rain pounded against it as though it were a beggar, desperate to be invited in. Papa shut the car door and walked back through the storm toward her, his smile gleaming through the rain like the sun through the clouds.


   "I have to, my little lotus flower," he said. "I need to be there for the ballet. They can't do it without me, and it's one of the biggest nights of their lives."


   "Can I come with you?" Ariah asked. "You know how I like to watch you play. I want to see." Papa shook his head.


   "Too dangerous in this weather," he replied. "You could get hurt-"


   "But what if you're hurt?" Ariah interrupted. "I could call someone for you. Please, Papa." Papa sighed, running one hand through his rain-soaked hair.


   "Fine," he relented. "But if there's danger, you have to go, okay?" He cupped Ariah's face in his palms and bent down on one knee, his steady brown gaze fixed Ariah's. "I love you, and I don't want you to get hurt." Ariah nodded into his hands, and Papa allowed the smile to creep back over his face. "Then get your rain-jacket and boots, and let's go." Ariah grinned as she grabbed the slicker and boots that were waiting on the stairs and followed her father out the door.

   The drive through the storm was hard. Rain lashed the truck's windows, and droplets the size of hail thundered onto the roof. Ariah hunched lower in her seat, as if to shy away from the storm raging outside. Papa's hands were clenched on the wheel in a death grip, and his brows were scrunched together in concentration. Ariah sat up when she saw a light flash in the distance- the bright lights of a theater.


   "Papa! Look! The theater!" Papa murmured a thanks and steered the truck toward the lights blazing in the distance, lighting up the night through the rain like a lighthouse. Ariah could now faintly make out the starchy-white walls of the theater, and the smoothly paved path that twisted through the gardens around it. Papa pulled up in front of the building, where he was greeted by an anxious woman holding a black umbrella in one hand and a flickering lantern in the other.


   "Thank goodness, I thought you'd never make it," she breathed in relief, helping Papa out of the car. Ariah swallowed back a flash of irritation- you made him drive through this storm to get here! Papa took his cello out of the backseat, and after checking for any openings that could let water through, slung it onto his back and followed the woman toward the theater.

   Ariah sat nervously in her seat, her boots and dress still drying after their recent flight through the storm. The red curtain was still swept over the front of the stage, hiding whoever danced behind it, for now. The orchestra was assembling, too; Ariah could faintly make out her father's dark head as he took his position among the other cellists. She breathed a sigh of excitement when she saw the lights of the theater gradually begin to dim, until it was almost pitch-black, except for the illuminated patch that was the musician's section. The orchestra started up slowly, a soft, beautiful melody that sounded purer and sweeter than the angelic choir girls at the church drifting through the air. Their sound grew louder, until it had reached a crescendo that spoke of power and strength.


A single spotlight fixed on the stage, shedding a beam of light on a lone figure standing in pink on the stage. The figure began to dance, every movement as fluid as water and graceful as a cat. Ariah leaned closer and smiled when she saw the trademark blue highlight in the girl's dark hair. She didn't know the girl's name, but after each performance, the girl would run up to Ariah's father, praise him for his beautiful playing, and turn to Ariah to give her a smile. She couldn't have been any older than Ariah, who was fifteen, but she could have been seven or seventeen, with her ageless beauty.
The music swelled and rose, following the girl's movements as she moved across the stage. Other dancer had slid from the wings to join her and danced silently behind her. Their outfits were simple; flowing gold sleeves that swirled like bird's feathers when they twirled, skirts that rippled with each movement of the dancers' legs. Ariah was so entranced by their performance that she was almost taken by surprise when the music flared up and ended with a dramatic flourish. The notes were still echoing in the theater's silence before the audience started clapping, drowning out the tempest that still howled outside. Ariah was still frozen in her chair, awe racing through every part of her body, when a tremendous crash shook the theater and the skies above let themselves in with a roar.

 

   Ariah didn't realize how hard she was sawing the bow on the strings until the last few strings snapped, causing a horrible screech of wood-on-string. Shocked, her eyes flew open and she was greeted to the sight of her bow, now completely hairless. She was holding the cello in a death grip, the rock stop dug into the floor as though she had buried it there. Breathing hard, Ariah forced herself to stand up and put the cello back on its stand. The strings were liberally dusted with rosin, and looking at her fingers, the marks of strings were imprinted all over Ariah's fingertips. There was nothing she could do about the bow; she would have to find a new one later.


   Ariah pulled back the curtain of her window and saw that the evening was beginning to creep up on the day, the sky slowly fading to a peachy pink and streaked with purple. She stood at the window, still breathing hard. What had she just played? A quiet knock at her door shook her out of her stupor, and Ariah dazedly moved across her room to greet the person. A college-age boy stood at her doorstep, still looking a bit-shell shocked. Internally, she sagged with relief; this was Jackyll (though he preferred to be called Jack), and his presence was what had carried her through a lot. Ariah was no extrovert, and in high school, getting through the claustrophobic hallways was nothing short of a struggle. Though she was reluctant to admit it, Jack was one of the few she could consider an ally. And most importantly... he doesn’t look beyond what I don’t want him to.


   "Umm… can I help you?" she asked, her voice hoarse from not speaking. She cleared her throat in embarrassment, but Jack didn't mind, and was already rushing over his words.


   "Did you- are you- are you the cellist?" he managed out clumsily. Ariah nodded, her mind still in a half-daze. "That-that was amazing. You played for a solid hour- there's nothing wrong with that-" he added, seeing Ariah's face, "but that was amazing! You really- how- I've never heard you play like that before-" Ariah gently shushed him before his sentence deteriorated into cave-man speech.


   "Thank you," she said. "I'm sorry if I kept you awake-"


   "It was fabulous!" he insisted. After a few moments of calming breaths, he regained the ability to speak. "It really was. Your music… it brought back feelings inside of me that I didn't know I had." He tugged one hand through his hair. "I'm sorry if that sounds weird." Ariah blushed a little.


   "No, you're fine," she assured him. "Though… I didn't know I could play like that." Jack held up his phone.


   "I came here to ask something," he said awkwardly. "So, uh, I recorded you playing, because I thought you-it- was really beautiful- is that okay?" he finished. Ariah decided not to comment on how he had slipped and said "you" instead of "it" before he corrected himself and nodded.


   "Of course," she said. "Do you mind if you send it to me? I- honestly, I had no idea what I just played." Jack turned a bright shade of red.


   "S-sure, what's your number?" he stammered out, brushing his dark hair away from his face again and dragging his fingers through it. Ariah was pretty sure that this was a nervous reflex; for heaven's sake, he had messed up his hair at least three times during the five minutes they had talked. Ariah smiled and pulled out her phone and handed it to him. His fingers were surprisingly agile as they sprang over the keyboard of his own phone. A few moments later, Ariah's phone dinged and a text from him popped up on top of her screen. A link to the video was attached.


   "Thanks," she said, smiling gratefully at him. Jack turned an even brighter shade of red and babbled out a ‘you're welcome’ before murmuring a goodbye and fleeing. Ariah stood in the doorway for a moment, watching his retreating back as he hurried down the stairs to his room. Eventually, she closed the door, a smile creeping over her face. Somehow, she knew that this wouldn't be the last time she saw him.

Chapter Text

   An incessant chirping outside Ariah's window was the first thing that parted her veil of sleep. With a groan, Ariah tried to bury her face in her pillow, but the chirping continued, keeping to an unrelenting rhythm of tweeting every five seconds. She counted.

   Finally, Ariah could stand it no longer and rolled out of bed, stumbling over to the window to scan for the feathered nuisance. The flurry of feathers from her windowsill told her that this bird was quite experienced in the art of bothering people and knew when to turn tail so as not to be thrown forcefully off the sill. Ariah sighed and looked at the clock; it was seven-thirty on the dot. Grumpily muttering to herself and cursing the bird, she grudgingly started her morning routine: taming her hair, pulling on some jeans and a t-shirt, and dragging out her toaster. Soon, the smell of cooking toast and coffee wafted through the apartment, and Ariah sat down wearily at the table to wait.

   She unlocked her phone and opened the text the boy had sent her; the video was an hour and a half and showed only black. Ariah supposed the boy was too anxious to lift the phone, in fear that he might film himself doing heaven knows what. She plugged in her earphones and clicked the play button. It was silence for a little while, the sound of a TV faint in the background, until a sweet sound pierced the air. Scuffling noises could be heard, and the chattering of the TV quieted as the music grew stronger. Ariah barely heard the toaster or the coffee pot go off as she listened, breathless. The notes spoke of a gentle rain, a long, winding road, a gentle beacon of hope… the middle was so quiet that Ariah could hear the boy's breathing, but she knew that this part was one of the deepest parts of the play. Within the soft piano, she could hear the sounds of anguish and beauty and pain, all delicately weaved together in an enchanting spell. Ariah bit her lip. She knew exactly what she was playing now.

   She heard the boy gasp suddenly as the volume rose sharply, moving from a soft pianissimo to loud, strong, fortissimo. This was powerful and bold and carried a dark beauty with it; as though the cello's notes were painting a picture of art, but terribly beautiful. A tragic scene. The music continued on for a little while, quietly dimming to a piano before fading into silence. Ariah could hear only silence, as if the whole world was holding its breath. The video ended a few seconds later. Her toast long forgotten, Ariah remembered, bitterly, exactly what her music had described.

   Her father was always skilled in the art of creating masterpieces with a bow. Each note that sang out sweetly from the cello was another stitch in the canopy, another brushstroke to the painting that Papa made. Each piece he played told a story. Ariah remembered listening to him while she was little and thinking how she didn't need any books to understand. Ariah never needed books when she could hear Papa play. That night, when the skies had broken down onto the theater, the roof had decided that its back, heavy with rain and swaybacked under the lashing torrent, could bear its burden no longer, and caved in. The memory itself had been a fuzzy spot in Ariah's mind for several years- perhaps from the post-traumatic stress of it all- but now, hearing the scene played back to her, she remembered it vividly.

   She remembered being nearly swept away, holding onto a red-velvet chair for dear life as the current swept her into a wall and slamming her into a pillar. The entire theater was virtually a sea; Ariah couldn't make out who was who. The dancers had fled into the wings, no doubt to save themselves, but Papa and the musicians were nowhere to be found. Ariah remembered clinging to a pillar, her breath coming out in ragged, harsh, sobs, when she saw a familiar dark-haired head bobbing on the far end of the room. Her father was swimming toward her, and in his hand, his cello. Ariah nearly cried in relief, but she couldn’t relinquish her hold in fear of drowning. The pillar that she had a death grip on suddenly plunged toward the wall. Ariah screamed as the soaked velvet paneling caved inward, gashing open a wide opening into the night. She heard a distant shout- her father? - as the pillar crashed into the road with a sickening crash, the plaster exploding around her. She couldn't even hear her own shrieks of terror amidst the chaos; shards of the pillar were sunk into her arms and legs and abdomen and everywhere she could see, the blood mixings with rain. For a while, she lay on the unforgiving asphalt, begging for the pain to be over, when she felt two warm bodies crouch beside her.

   "Ariah!" two sets of voices cried. Mom and Dad? "Ariah, hold on sweetie, we'll get you to an ambulance- god, Terrence, she's bleeding all over-"

   "Hold on," came the deeper voice, high-pitched with desperation. "You can do it, my little lotus flower- don't close your eyes, it'll be alright-"

   Ariah fought to keep her eyelids from closing, despite the pain that only wanted to suck her under. Distantly, she could see the glare of vivid headlights; she tried to move her mouth, to tell her parents to get out of the road. They seemed to hear her, their heads whipping around, and faces bathed in a pale glow. Ariah could feel strong hands lifting her up, throwing her-

   She was lying in the debris beside the road now, pain raging through every bone in her body. Make it stop, her mind pleaded. Let me die! She managed to turn her head to the road, and before she blacked out, she heard a horrible screech, twin screams of agony, and the wailing of sirens in the distance.

 

   Ariah laughed softly to herself as she gazed at the same cello her father carried on that terrible night, finding it ironic that only a wooden instrument had been spared, rather than the people whom she had cared for the most in her life.

   In the silence of the recording, Ariah gently tugged her earphones out of her ears and went to remedy her forgotten breakfast. It was nearly ten 'o' clock now. Ariah gingerly picked the rock-solid toast out of the toaster and dumped the cold coffee, wondering if it technically counted as ice coffee while she watched the brown liquid swirl down the drain. Remaking her breakfast, Ariah tried to push away the memories that came flooding back: the rain, coming down in droves; her desperate grip on her only anchor to life; that terrible promise that fate had snatched away and broken it with its cruel hands. Her hands shook on the coffee mug, threatening to spill it, and Ariah set it down, intent on saving her second attempt at breakfast.

   She breathed in and exhaled with a sigh. She couldn't lose herself in memories now. Ariah's phone buzzed loudly, startling her out of her thoughts. Ariah picked it up, her finger hovering over the answer button. The name Peach Fuzz popped up on the caller's ID, and Ariah grinned, answering the call.

   "Ariaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" came the excited cry from the other end. 'Peach Fuzz,' also known as Kalani, was one of Ariah's closest friends. Kalani had gotten her nickname from the old anime series that she used to like in elementary school, and with her bright and chipper attitude, Ariah could almost imagine that Kalani was the living Peach Fuzz. "How are you?"

   "I’m fine," Ariah laughed, shrugging off her memories into a distant corner. For now. "How are you? How's your job going?"

   "Amazing. I get to meet and help so many new animals!" Kalani was an animal care specialist, and though she wasn't out of college yet, she poured her heart and soul into caring for her patients. "And guess what? I'm coming over for the weekend to see you!"

   "Kalani, that's great!" Ariah exclaimed. "I'll get the guest bed and stuff set up-"

   "Nonsense, I'll help you do it later. Calm down and keep chilling. I'll be here in an hour or so. Don't worry, I'm a proactive college student who knows how to organize." Ariah didn't doubt that; Kalani was one of the most organized people she knew. "Anyways, I got to go," Kalani said. "Blowing you a kiss, and I hope I get there before it does!" Ariah gave her a quick goodbye and Kalani ended the call.

For a few moments, Ariah stared at her phone, gazing at the Recent Calls screen. Maybe Kalani, the constantly cheerful one, could drive away Ariah's constant flashbacks for a while. Maybe the source was PTSD, or maybe she had too little on her mind not to think about it. Whatever the cause, Ariah needed all the help she could get.

 

   Bang! Bang! Ariah stood up in shock, a feather duster still in hand. Warily approaching the door, she peered through the peephole. Kalani's excited form bounced in front of it. Smiling, Ariah opened the door. A flash of brown and pink darted forward, enveloping Ariah in a hug that squeezed the breath out of her.

   "Peach… you're choking me," wheezed Ariah. Kalani bounced away from her, an apologetic grin on her face. Kalani had shoulder-length brown hair, the ends dyed pink. She was wearing a white jacket that day, which went surprisingly well with the hot-pink tee and blue jeans. Meeting Kalani's sparkling brown eyes, with their signature flecks of gold, Ariah couldn't be gladder to have a friend staying with her. Kalani was the exact type of mental support she needed.

   "How have you been?" Kalani asked, more seriously. Ariah shrugged, her mind racing to change the subject, but the oily, seductive voice who she'd sworn was stuck in the back of her mind was already creeping back to tap her on the shoulder. There are a million things you could say. Do you want to keep lying to your closest friend? 

   “Better, I guess," Ariah said aloud. Kalani would worry to death until Ariah said she was fine; sparing her the details would make this visit so much easier. Yet she still looked unconvinced.

   "Do you still play?" Kalani said finally, changing the topic. She jerked her head towards the cello, its wood speckled with sunlight and restarting its process of gathering dust. Ariah dug her phone out of her pocket and thrust it at her friend, Jack's video still fresh on the screen. Kalani took the phone from her and began to listen. About thirteen minutes in, her friend paused the video and looked up. She had lost her skeptical look and seemed sympathetic.

   "This is beautiful," Kalani said softly. "Is this what you do, when you're…?"

   "This is the first time," Ariah explained. "I broke a bow while doing it, too." Quieter, she added, "Did you get a message from the music? I know that sounds weird, but-"

   "I understand," Kalani broke in. With a small, sad smile, she looked toward the framed picture of Ariah's father with his cello. A silent understanding passed between the two for a few heartbeats. After a little while, Kalani hesitantly broke the silence. "So, uh, where are the good restaurants around here?"

Chapter Text

   The slick plastic of the booth felt like chilled, sticky ice cubes against Ariah's legs as she sat there, occasionally rising and unsticking her legs from the seat. She and Kalani were sitting in a local diner booth, sipping iced tea while waiting for their food. Harsh bright lights glared down from plastic lamp holders strung high above their heads, casting odd patterns of light on their table. Ariah absentmindedly traced her fingers along one of the designs etched into the side of the table; a love letter was carved into the wood, made by some S + L. The diner was famous for date nights, so Ariah was hardly surprised when she saw couples kissing passionately in the corner or over a plate of French fries. Kalani had guided her over to the closest restaurant she could find- which happened to be this one- after their awkward talk back in the apartment. Now, they sat in silence, the tension prickling through their bodies like pins and needles.

   "How were the last days of high school?" Kalani tried. Ariah shrugged. "What about your music and art?"

   "Still need to fix my bow," Ariah replied distantly. "I draw occasionally when I feel like it; there's a few new drawings in the green folder on the coffee table, if you want to see. Nothing much, though."

   "They're very good," Kalani said warmly. "I even have a few in my house that I got framed last month. I love the addition to my house." Ariah smiled at her, though the expression only tugged the corners of her mouth upwards a little bit. She could sense that Kalani was growing frustrated; when Ariah didn't want to talk, it was difficult to get a word out of her, much less a show of emotion.

   "Hey," Kalani said suddenly, nudging Ariah. "Isn't that the guy who lives on the floor below yours?" Sure enough, Jack was walking through the door, his hands shoved into his jacket pockets and hair flopped over one eye. "He's the one that took the video for you, right?" Ariah nodded. Almost as if she had cued him, the boy's head shot up and he met Ariah's gaze like a deer in the headlights. His face turned bright radish pink and he hurried over to a booth in the corner. Kalani sniggered.

   "You didn't tell me that you had an admirer on the floor above yours!" she accused. Ariah smirked as she watched Jack exchange a few words with the waitress and then sit back back, face still flushed. "He's a hopeless romantic, you know. How long will it take for him to ask you out?" Ariah buried her face in her hands as Kalani laughed. Her friend loved finding about people's love life— she knew very well from the familiar coy grin Kalani always adopted when the subject of romance came around. 

   "Just because he's a guy and gets ridiculously embarrassed whenever he sees me doesn't mean-" Ariah began, but Kalani shushed her.

   "You'll hurt his feelings if you outright say you don't like him," she chided. "Be nice to him, and maybe…" She left the thought hanging there as Ariah groaned.

   Much has to her relief, the waitress soon arrived with their food and set the tray down at the end of the table. Ariah thanked her as she moved away, skirt swishing and tray already armed with another order. Once the waitress had gone, Kalani grinned, making that face as swirled a french-fry around in ketchup.

   "I know that smile," Ariah warned. "Don’t get started with the relationships, Kalani…" Kalani giggled.

   "Middle school happened and you'll never forget it," she snickered. Ariah, for what felt like the thousandth time, facepalmed her best friend. "Do you have anything else to say other than sticking me in a relationship with the guy a floor up?" Kalani brightened at the query.

   "That's right!" she exclaimed. "Tessa, do you know her? Your best friend since fifth grade?"

   "Of course," Ariah scoffed teasingly.

   "She's embarking on the author's career," Kalani announced. "May the publishers have mercy on her when she rolls up high off caffeine—“

   “But with excellent manuscripts,” Ariah finished, stabbing a fry in Kalani’s direction for emphasis. The two nodded sagely; both knew very well how wild their friend Tessa was. Though her name suggested a calm, perhaps bookish, demeanor, said girl’s attitude was always ramped up to full blast and she had little hesitation in blurting out what she thought. More often than not, it had landed her in trouble, but on the rare occasion, she was able to venture to some foreign journey and come back with practical volumes on the topic.

   "Speaking of which, maybe you should start a career as a professional cellist," Kalani suggested. Ariah froze, her food halfway to her mouth. "Think of it. You're an amazing player who's been playing since you could hold an instrument. Your pieces- they're so-so soulful. Whenever you get rolling, you can hear a story played through it. Happy, sad, or just thoughtful, I understand your pieces and I feel my heart moving along with the music. You were born to do this, Ariah." Ariah couldn't speak for a little while; while most of her pieces were performed in the throes of some depressive haze, they turned out coherently pretty (surprisingly). Though Ariah doubted that she could muster up such sentiment for each performance, the thought was appreciated.

   "Thank you," she breathed out at least. "Maybe-maybe I will." Kalani smiled supportively at her.

   "So, about Tessa's work… She's created an amazing storyline called Wolf Saga…"

 

   Night had fallen like a silent black blanket, gently enveloping the sunset colors of the sun's retreat and speckling the air above with stars. Ariah released a soft breath as she looked up at the constellations slowly forming.

   "It's a beautiful night," Kalani said quietly, turning, her wide brown eyes luminous and reflecting the starlight. Ariah always thought of her as an angel, who held stars in her eyes and the world in her heart. For good reason— Kalani had been there for everything. They’d met in preschool, and though Ariah’s parents had seemed oddly hesitant at first, Kalani made herself known as a bubbly and extremely fierce spirit who’d always protect Ariah with her blazing glare and tiny but unmoving stance. She’d been there when the accident happened, the funeral, the shift in custody, the long nights of frustrated ranting about Ariah’s inattentive aunt. And Kalani simply absorbed, and listened, and hugged, and whispered it was going to be ok

   “Yeah,” Ariah said softly in reply, letting a small smile curve over her face and letting the stress of the day loosen its grip on her shoulders. 

   Just as Ariah began to drift off into her own thoughts, the gentle notes of a violin began to float through the air. Ariah listened closely; the piece seemed to be coming from a floor or two above hers. Most would object to a violin at nine-thirty at night, but it was a sweet song, a soft lullaby to the night. Kalani raised an eyebrow and mouthed a name. Jack? Ariah shrugged. The violin piece— she fondly recognized it as Au Claire De Lune—continued on for a few more minutes before softly climbing down from its crescendo into silence. She could hear the sound of a window closing soon after.

   "Aw, that's so sweet!" Kalani whispered. "I didn't know he was a violinist!" Ariah, in response, huffily abandoned her friend at the window and escaped to her bedroom. Kalani's laughter pealed through the apartment, before it died away as her friend left to go find the guest bedroom.

   Once Ariah had found her pajamas (they were hiding in the tangled mess of her bedsheets), she pulled them on and returned to the window in her room, gazing out of the wide expanse of the city. In the distance, she could make out the lights of a marble-white theater. THe building had been repaired after the accident of course, but the memories tainting that place hovered like a dark cloud around it, tainting whatever beauty it had.

   Heaving a deep sigh, Ariah massaged her temples and retreated to bed, pulling the covers over herself and submerging herself in a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

   Kalani's squeal practically shattered the windows of Ariah's apartment that morning. With a muffled groan, Ariah sat up, pawing a few strands of loose hair away from her face. Not even a second later, Kalani came charging into her room, a wide grin plastered all over her face and a mischievous look glinting in her brown eyes.

   "Kalani, what happened?" Ariah asked warily. Judging from her friend's look, it clearly wasn't a life-threatening situation, though Kalani did look like she was about to burst with excitement. In response, she dragged Ariah out of bed and thrust her finger at the door.

   "Yes, it's a door," Ariah said, bemused. Kalani huffed out an impatient sigh.

   "And what do you do with doors?" she asked.

   "Open them...?"

   "Exactly," Kalani declared. "Very good. Now do whatever the hell you do to doors- open it!" Ariah, still baffled, crossed the room to open said apparently magical door. A slightly crumpled envelope with admittedly nice calligraphy on the back greeted her innocently from underneath the door jamb. 

   "It's mail, Kalani," Ariah sighed. "What's the big deal about a letter?" Kalani looked to be near cardiac arrest as she vigorously gestured to the sender’s address, which was marked simply with:

a neighbor

4th floor 

   “Oh look, it’s the ghost of my old professor telling me that student debt is headed my way, and that I failed my exams,” Ariah tried weakly. Kalani scowled.

   “Think,” she said impatiently. “Who lives two floors above yours, and has a certain attraction to you?” 

   “Nobody-“ 

   “Fool,” Kalani moaned, tugging the envelope from Ariah’s grasp and thrusting a finger at a scribbled-out bit before “a neighbor” was written. “This looks to be about the space to fit four letters. Guess which star-struck idiot has four letters in his name.” Carefully, so as not to rip the fine lettering, Kalani tore open the envelope and brandished the piece of paper inside of it at Ariah. 

   “Read that, and don’t talk to me unless you’re done,” she ordered, backing away to flop onto the bed. Ariah raised one eyebrow as Kalani put her feet up on the pillow and pulled out an iPod, suppressing a smile as the familiar notes of a saxophone began to flow through the apartment.

   “Dream A Little Dream of Me, Ella Fitzgerald?” Kalani nodded and vigorously gestured again to the letter. “Okay, okay, I’m reading it!” 

    Ariah had always prided herself on being a quick reader, and she'd mentally braced herself for some long sappy love declaration. Instead, in shaky black print, she read: At 9 pm tomrrow, the night is yours and mine. Eight months late, but will you be my Valentine? 

   “That’s it?” Kalani exclaimed as Ariah turned back to her. “Wait, no long sweet confession? No ‘please give out with me I’m lonely?’” Ariah smacked her arm in response. Kalani looked indignant for a few moments until she noticed the faint blush coloring Ariah’s cheeks. “No... really? What did he say? Oh my gosh, Ariah, I’ve never seen you blush before-“

   "It wasn't anything much," Ariah insisted, furiously trying to get her cheeks to cool down as she handed the letter back to Kalani. "You can read it yourself."

   "He isn't very poetic," she commented after a few moments, raising an eyebrow. "That's the best he could do? Girl, you should go for a better man than that. Hell, I've never personally met him and he already seems like a doofus." 

   "It's fine," Ariah insisted, her voice coming out more higher-pitched than she'd like. "It's really sweet and all, but-" Kalani raised an eyebrow. "Kalani, read it again." On Ariah's second pass over the letter, she'd finally registered what he was asking-- and where he wanted to go. The theater. White walls, red seats, a steak of blue hair, dancing, crashing, falling—

   "Oh," Kalani said softly, all enthusiasm fading away to be replaced with a sympathetic, soft tone that Arirah hated whenever she used it (of course, she'd never tell Kalani that, but she already knew by her own traitorous wince that Kalani already knew). "Ariah, I'm sorry, you don't have to go. You can come with me to the shelter for my late shift tomorrow night if you want." 

   "It would be rude to decline, since he already worked up the courage to ask after four years," Ariah said stubbornly, forcing down the small jolts of worry fizzing through her. You'll be fine. Man up already, it's just one date. Nothing bad will happen. Kalani released a sharp breath, indecision warring in her eyes. 

   "Okay," she said slowly. "But, Ariah, if you need help, call me and come home at once. Do you understand?" Ariah nodded. "Look, it's tomorrow night. Go ahead and tell him, and then you can work things out. And remember, if you can't handle it, then you have to come home. Got it?" A second nod and then Kalani was there, clasping Ariah into a strong embrace. Her familiar scent, of faint coconut and fresh peaches, wreathed around Ariah comfortingly in a snug cocoon, bringing her back down from that terrible cracked white pillar. 

   "You're so strong," Kalani whispered, her breath brushing Ariah's ear softly, like the first gentle rain of spring. "So beautiful." Ariah leaned into the embrace, not having the heart to remind her that she wasn't even close to being either of those things.

 

   The next day passed all too quickly. Ariah had slipped her reply under Jack's door that night, and then proceeded to flit around her apartment fretting about what she was going to wear. Without Kalani, Ariah would have still been in her pajamas by 8:30, but her friend had narrowed her eyes and purposefully marched to Ariah's clsoet, shuffling through it at an incredible pace. When she finally came up for air, she was holding up a simple but elegant dress with long flowy sleeves and the shoulders open. It reached down almost to her ankles, but comfortably allowed a wide range of movement. 

   Finally, after one (frankly overwhelming) makeup and accessorizing session later, Ariah was finally able to relax. Slumping back against the couch, she absently flicked on the jazz station, noting with some delight that said music was currently hailing from the 1920's. Despite Kalani's teasing, she knew that they both liked to listen to the sweet notes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington trotting jauntily through the apartment. 

    "It's 8:15, I've got to head out now," Kalani said apologetically, slinging her bag over one arm as she walked over to Ariah, giving her face one final lookover. "You'll do great, honey. Text if anything goes wrong, but you and Jack are going to have such a great night." With a cheerful wave, she straightened and unbolted the front door, cheerfully waving goodbye as it swung closed behind her. Leaning back slowly, Ariah released a slow sigh and sat back, waiting for her nerves to stop tingling.

 

   When the knocks came, Ariah nearly bolted out of her seat in surprise. You idiot, did you forget already? Huffily shoving down the  bits of anxiety threatening to creep up, she crossed the room to the door and twisted the knob (admittedly, with shaking hands; she needed to fix that) open. 

   Ariah was embarassed to say that both she and Jack stood there in an awkward silence for a few beats. Jack was wearing a full three-piece tuxedo, the collar and seams edged with gold thread, and his hands were nervously fidgeting with his cufflinks.

   "You look great," was all he managed to say before the signature red flush was sweeping rapidly over his cheeks, making his otherwise handsome face resemble a tomato. Ariah stammered out a reply (something along the lines of "you too"— even she wasn't sure what came out) before stuttering back into silence again. "Do you want to, uh, go?" 

 

   Once they were both safely in Jack’s car, cheeks still flaming a brilliant red, Ariah mustered up the courage to try and initiate conversation. That’s a first for me.

   “How long did it take you to come up with that poem?” she tried. Jack hemmed and hawed for a few moments before mumbling something Ariah couldn’t quite catch. “What?” 

   “Half and hour,” he finally muttered, briefly taking his hand off the wheel to muss his carefully groomed hair in embarrassment. Ariah couldn’t resist a small laugh. “I get it,  I can’t write poetry! Don’t laugh!” 

   “It’s like saying don’t fall,” Ariah countered, rolling her eyes. “Of course I’m going to.” Jack scowled at her, but turned his eyes back to the road. 

   “I remember high school,” he said after a while, tapping his hands absently on the wheel. “It was hard, but you and I got through it.” Ariah suppressed a barely from escaping her tongue, but Jack seemed to know anyways and his tone softened a little. “I’m sorry that I didn’t reach out until tenth grade.” 

   “Freshman year wasn’t that bad,” Ariah brushed off. That was true. Apart from a tremendous amount of homework, tests every other week, and general peer pressure, ninth grade had been relatively calm and drama-free. Granted, that had all gone to hell when tenth grade and new classmates came in, but with them had also come Jack and his stupid little smile after he took a punch in the face for her.

   “You took a punch in the face for me first time we met,” Ariah voiced aloud. Jack grinned sheepishly. “You had a black eye for weeks.” 

   “It was worth it though,” he replied, ducking his head slightly. “I mean, I got a new reputation as-“

   “Little underdog who can’t stay out of trouble,” Ariah finished, smirking. “You’d stumble in beat up every other day. What did your parents even think?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized she’d hit a nerve; Jack’s face sobered for a few minutes and his hands tightened slightly on the wheel. You idiot. He’d mentioned that his family situation wasn’t great, she should have remembered that earlier— dang it—

   “They probably wouldn’t care,” Jack said lowly, making Ariah feel even worse. You insensitive fool! “It doesn’t matter, though. I’ll be...” he struggled for a word— “free soon. College, you know?” Ariah nodded mutely and silence fell like a blanket over the car again. 

   By the time they reached the theater, a bit of the tension had loosened, as both parties had seemed to notice that they were making the other uncomfortable. Jack swung the car into a parking spot and turned off the ignition. Ariah reached for the door handle, but Jack grabbed her hand instead. 

   “Let me?” he asked, eyebrows raised slightly. “After all, I’m taking you out, after all.” Ariah was stunned into silence for a few moments, enough time for Jack to climb out and cross around to open her door, extending a hand with mock exaggeration. 

   “My lady?” he said formally. Ariah laughed and took his hand, a warmness creeping through her face, and together they walked into the theater.

Chapter Text

Ariah swung her legs back and forth against the seat as she waited for the lights of the theater to dim. Though it was hardly practical, she found it easier to take her stress out on objects, which resulted in several destroyed stress balls and very distressed pillows (said pillows were discreetly flipped over so visitors wouldn’t notice the pummeled fronts). 

“Hey. Calm down. You’ll be fine, alright?” Jack reassured, leaning a little closer and giving her hand a squeeze. “If we need to leave, we can—“ 

“I’m fine,” Ariah assured, plastering on what she hoped was a believable smile. Jack said nothing and turned back, reclining slightly in his chair. Ariah was saved from ensuing awkwardness as the stage lights flickered to life and the theater ones dimmed. 

Little moon, little moon, shine so bright 

I hope we dance a fine tango tonight 

Take my hand and lead me under the moonlight 

And the stars will glow for us,  big and bright

Little moon, little moon, here comes the rain 

Drowning our sorrow and loss and pain—

 

Ariah caught her breath as the familiar notes of the nursery rhyme hit her, the crescendo rising with the horror sparking to life in her chest. Any moment now, the ceiling would fall open, rain pouring in, the sky falling, everything falling—

 

                       ————-

 

Ariah!" a voice said urgently.

Ariah resurfaced from the water with a gasp, one hand probing her stomach for the shards of wood that were stuck in there. Why wasn’t the fabric wet? She was bleeding, right?

Everything came crashing back in an instant as she finally recognized the voice. Jack was grasping her hand, wide-eyed. 

"Ariah, are you alright?" he repeated. Ariah eased her mouth into a smile and gave a tight nod, a flush of embarrassment rising in her cheeks. Why did I let him see that? 

She tensed as she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to meet Jack's steady brown eyes. For a moment, they almost seemed to be glowing gold in the dim theater lights. A blink later, however, the gold was gone. So I’m hallucinating as well as having a mental breakdown. Yay.

"Ariah. You're not okay," he said firmly. "Let's go back to our building, and you can calm down there." Gentler, he added, "I know this place doesn't have the best reputation for you. You need to leave before it makes your anxiety levels worse." 

“No, no, I’m fine,” Ariah protested, but Jack was already standing up and apologizing quietly to the people around them as he tugged Ariah towards the exit. Grateful that no one could see the red flaming across her cheeks, Ariah followed him, burying a silent scream.

Idiot. You could have just stayed, and kept it all on the inside. Now look what you’ve ruined. 

 

                         ———

 

The drive back was a silent one. Jack glanced at her every so often, worry crossing his face, but he didn't prompt her to speak. Ariah kept her head turned to the window, watching the cars flash by, their red and yellow headlights highlighting the road around them, and tried to steady her breath. As much as she hated to even look toward Jack, terrified that she’d see thinly veiled disgust though, she was so tempted to. She couldn’t keep herself in suspense, guessing, forever. 

A knock on her window surprised Ariah out of her thoughts; they had already stopped at the apartment complex and Jack was waiting at the window. Ariah shot him a shaky smile and let him help her out of the car, leading her to the building. 

The car stopped, briefly interrupting Ariah's thoughts. Jack stepped out and opened Ariah's door, gently slipping his hand into hers and leading her to her building. The trip up the stairs was silent until they reached Ariah’s floor. 

”Are you going to be okay tonight?” Jack asked. “I can stay if you’d like, or if you want to talk—“ 

“I’m fine, thanks,” Ariah said quickly, sounding a bit harsher than she meant. Jack simply nodded and started the trek up to his floor, throwing a “goodbye” over his shoulder. With a soft sigh, Ariah dug her room key out of her purse and unlocked her door. 

An empty apartment greeted her as she stepped through the door; maybe Kalani’s shift had gone on a bit longer? The lack of extra moral support was disappointing, but she’d have to make do for now. 

Venturing into her bedroom, Ariah stepped out of the dress and let it pool around her feet. The exchange of fresh pajamas (Kalani’s, they stole each others’ quite often) for the dress was a welcome change and a comfort to the touch. 

For a few moments, she considered staying up for Kalani, but the exhaustion tugging at her eyelids prompted otherwise. She stumbled into the bathroom to get ready, her hands catching her just in time as she slumped against the counter, sighing deeply. When she raised her head to look into the mirror, she could see the dark shadows under her eyes, and groaned faintly.

"I'm a mess.” Her brain hesitantly prompted her to reach for her toothbrush, but the rest of her body didn't compute; it was as if she was suspended in water, everything silent and still around her as she floated, motionless. For a long while, she stood there, gazing at herself in the mirror through half-lidded eyes, feeling lost in all the great folds of reality.

 

                        ———

 

Ariah woke slowly to a pounding headache and bright sunlight. A quick examination of her surroundings revealed that she was lying on a couch of sorts, a fuzzy blue plaid blanket tucked around her. Jack was dozing on an armchair beside her, his dark hair falling over one closed eye as his chest rose and fell. When he heard Ariah stirring, his mouth cracked into a small grin. 

“Good morning," he greeted. Ariah sat up, looking around in confusion. The apartment was unfamiliar, and she never remembered falling asleep on a couch, much less this one. She tried to stand and—

A sharp, jagged pain stabbed through Ariah's forehead, nearly turning her vision white. Her hand shot up, feeling her head, and she froze when she felt the rough outline of a bandage.

"Hey. Take it slow," Jack said, gently moving her hand back down. "Do you know what happened?” Ariah shook her head. “You must have been in the bathroom or something, because hit your head on the counter and were lying in a pool of blood when I found you. I hope you don't mind me unscrewing your door to get in. Oh, I took you to my apartment because I had first aid supplies there." Ariah blinked, her mind slowly processing the information dump. She never recalled falling, exactly, but  short-term memory loss was certainly an effect. 

"You’re fine," Ariah replied. “I’m sure the neighbors had questions— wait, how did you even here me fall?” 

“Thin walls, and good hearing,” Jack said simply, tapping his temple. Rising from the chair, he headed toward what she assumed was the kitchen. “Want waffles?” 

“Sure. I can make coffee?” 

“Let me,” Jack called back, reappearing briefly with a spoon and a stern expression. “No straining yourself until you can get proper medical care for that.”

”Fine,” Ariah shot back, leaning back against the couch as the rich scent of waffles and coffee began to mingle. 

When the food was ready, Jack beckoned her over to the table, a plate of waffles in one hand and whipped cream in the other. Ariah raised an inquiring eyebrow at the whipping cream; he made a shushing gesture and squirted a generous amount onto his own waffle. Ariah stifled a laugh and poured herself a cup of coffee, tipping in a bit of sugar and gratefully taking a sip. 

"You play violin, right?" she asked, taking a bite of her waffle. Jack looked surprised for a moment, and slightly embarrassed. 

“You heard me?” Ariah nodded and he flushed for a moment. 

“Kalani... ah, figured,” she explained. Jack snorted. “It was really nice though. Can I heard you play?” Jack’s cheeked reddened even more.

”I’m not as good as you,” he insisted, but stood up to retrieve a case from a shelf beside his couch. Ariah looked on in interest as he began to rifle through a thick folder, coming up for air about a minute later with sheet music. A few more technical setups later, Jack began to play. 

Ariah smiles as she recognized the piece— Concerto No.1 in A minor. Jack’s body swayed slightly in time with the music as he focused more intently on the song, playing with such fervor and passion that Ariah was sure that the whole apartment complex could hear. When the final notes died away, she only just remembered to close her jaw. Jack set down his embarrassment and rejoined her, ruffling his hair with one hand. 

“It has a cello accompaniment," Ariah offered, breaking the silence left behind by the violin. "Sometime later, maybe?" Jack nodded, smiling back as he absently checked his watch. It must have been late into the morning, as his head shot up like a deer as he read the numbers.

”It’s late,” he proclaimed. More seriously, he added, "Are you able to go back to your apartment alright, or do you need to stay here?" 

“My head’s feeling better, I think I’ll be fine,” Ariah replied. “Thank you, though.”

"No, thank you for last night, and today," he insisted. "Whatever happened, it was still a great night. I'd be happy to play Concerto No. 1 with you, anytime. Keep that bow rosined." Ariah nodded he thanks and stood, taking her plate to the sink and crossing back to the door, waving farewell as she stepped out.

When Ariah reached her room, the apartment remained empty. Kalani never took this long to come back; surely, she would have said something? 

Ariah padded into her bedroom, retrieving her phone from where she’d left it on the nightstand before. A “have fun on your date!” greeted her from Kalani, dated 11:32 p.m. last night, but nothing since. 

Sitting down with a sigh onto her bed, Ariah scrolled through her previous conversations with Kalani, checking if she had missed anything. The AC turned on a few minutes later, making the room a few degrees colder, which Ariah hardly noticed, but what she did notice was the tiny scrap of notebook paper blown into her lap as the air conditioner awakened. Looking over, she saw an unfamiliar scrawl— and her friend’s name. With bated breath, Ariah picked up the note, dread closing up her throat as she read. 

Kalani is not who you think she is. For her protection— and your own— she has been taken to the Pack. If you value her life, then you will do well to stay away. Come, and you may become one of us.

Chapter Text

"So you're saying that she vanished after sending you a text that she'd be at home, and neither of you heard any sounds regarding the kidnapping?" The officer looked over her papers at Ariah and Jack suspiciously, looking slightly irritated. Jack nodded; Ariah learned quickly that her voice tongue faltered and stuttered whenever she discussed Kalani whenever she tried to recount the event, and had given up midway through her third attempt when a lump in her throat choked her. "In accordance to what you’ve told me, your friend also has a job, correct?” 

“Yes.” The officer sighed, as if this made everything crystal-clear.

“She has a life outside of yours,” she said, forced gentleness in her voice. “I suggest that you wait for him, try calling her job. She probably stayed for a late shift.”

"She would have told Ariah," Jack insisted, rapping his knuckles on the desk for emphasis. The officer still didn't look convinced but sighed and scribbled a few notes down.

"I'll send an agent over to your place," she said flatly. "We will examine the evidence you received. In the meantime, please stay away from your own apartment, for your safety. Thank you." Her tone implied a clear 'please leave' message. Jack gritted his teeth but forced a smile and led Ariah out of the police station.

"I can't believe that woman," he growled once they were out of earshot from the station. "It's a missing person case, for heaven's sakes. If anything, a police cruiser should have been driving out of there twenty minutes ago!" He began to pace, worrying his hair. "I guess we're just worrisome young adolescents who don't know when our friend goes missing." Ariah let her breath out in a long sigh.

"If the police won't do it, who will?" she asked. "Will we have to take the case to her?" Jack continued to pace, the frustration clear on his face. 

"What did the note say again?" he asked instead. Ariah pulled out her phone and showed him the picture of the note she had taken earlier that morning. He took the phone and studied it closely. "Who are the Pack?" Ariah shrugged. "Well, whoever they are, they seem to know more about Kalani than you do. Either they're trying to lure us into a trap, or they genuinely are trying to help her."

"If that were true, they'd explain what was going on, and why they took her," Ariah snapped, wringing her hands together. She instantly regretted her harsh tone, but Jack shook his head slightly in a relieving think nothing of it gesture.

"Come on, let's go back home," Jack suggested. "You can relax there, and we'll figure out what to do next." Firmer, he added, "We'll get Kalani back. I promise." Ariah forced a smile and let Jack walk her out of the police station. A thousand questions were hurtling through her mind at a headache-worthy speed. Who took her? Why did they take her? How did they get in so effortlessly? Is it my fault?

"Hey," Jack said softly, tugging her out of the torrent. "Whoever they are, we'll figure this out. Don't you have any faith in me?" he added jocularly. Ariah cracked a smile, but didn’t reply.

When they reached the apartment, Jack followed her to her door, a mask of worry settled across his face. Ariah slowly unlocked the door, warily cracking it open, but nothing big or hairy sprung out. 

Jack began stealthy journeys to the bedroom, eyes narrowed and hand held out in front of him. Ariah stifled a laugh as he seemed to snap out of it when he reached the door, a blush coloring his cheeks. 

“Is it— can I go in there?” he asked, ruffling his hair awkwardly. Ariah nodded, hiding her grin behind one hand as she’s followed him into the room. 

Everything, from first glance, appeared stereotypically normal, but Ariah had a sinking suspicion that there was a new note. A sickening bile rose in her throat as she spotted the deceptively innocent paper lying on Kalani’s pillow.

Jack sucked in a sharp breath as he spotted the note, and dug his phone out of his pocket, carefully taking a picture of the note. Ariah leaned over his screen, reading the new note with bated breath.

The police cannot help you. If you have any sense, you will keep quiet . A second line of text, scrawled smaller at the bottom, read: Kalani is with the Pack for her own safety. We will neither bring her to you nor explain why she has left, as it may very well endanger our society as well as yours. We know you care about your friend. But you cannot help her now.

"Their 'society?'" Jack repeated, half-incredulous. "Are they like, a cult or something?" Ariah rubbed her temples.

"Who knows," she replied tiredly. "Shady stalkers who run around kidnapping your best friends and leaving cryptic notes at your door are definitely on some kind of crack." Jack grinned, but sobered slightly.

“Where are your plastic bags? We need evidence.” Ariah pointed him to the kitchen; he returned to a few moments later and picked up the note with his coat, sticking the note in the bag.

"If the police can't help us, we'll do it ourselves," he declared. "We can search for fingerprints, look for any signs of disturbances. And whoever this Pack is, we'll find them." Adopting a suspicious expression, he dramatically glanced around the room and began to prowl around it. Ariah couldn't help but laugh as she followed him on his search, but the small prickle of doubt simply wouldn’t vanish as the note’s words repeated over and over in her mind. You cannot help her now.

                        ———

As Ariah had thought, they‘d found nothing over their two hour-long search. Ariah sank wearily onto her bed, exhausted from bending over and inspecting each item in the room with scrutiny. Jack was in the living room, talking on the phone with someone in a hushed voice. She supposed that he was being quiet, so he wouldn't wake her up, but all the same, her curiosity has been stoked. It was, without a doubt, rude to intrude on other’s conversations, but maybe he’d found a lead, or a matching fingerprint. Pushing  the nagging reluctance to back of her mind, she padded over to the entryway of her room and listened.

"I’m telling you, she isn't ready," Jack was insisting. "Kalani's disappearance has already shaken her hard." Quieter, almost unintelligibly, he added, "She's had past trauma that's heightened her nerves. It would be unwise to take her as you did with the other one. I might return in my spare time to give another status update, but Moonclaw's daughter should be approached with caution." Moonclaw's daughter?

Jack paused, listening closely to the caller’s reply, and his fists clenched slightly. "I told you, she's not ready," he repeated firmly. "I will bring her myself. But in the meantime, stay patient and do not let Kalani know that she is coming. The Bloodmoon pack would love nothing more than to bring a Moonclaw into their ranks. It would be a damaging hit to us." Whoever he was talking to evidently replied in a satisfactory fashion, and Jack murmured a yes before hanging up.

Ariah slipped back into her bedroom before Jack would notice her standing at the door. Quietly climbing into her bed, she pulled the covers over her shoulders and closed her eyes, slowing her breath. The telltale creak of the door betrayed Jack's presence, no doubt checking if she had been listening. Ariah forced her breath to steady as he stood there for a few moments.

After a beat or two of scrutiny, he seemed convinced, closing the door gently and retreating to the licing room, probably to camp out on the couch. Ariah released the breath she’d been holding, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling. Without a question, she knew that it would take a long time for her to fall asleep tonight. 

 Who is Moonclaw's daughter?

Chapter Text

When Ariah woke again, Jack was passed out, asleep in a chair near Ariah's bed, his phone fallen on the floor beside him. His conversation last night, about Moonclaw's daughter, had stoked a fire of curiosity inside of her, and though she hated to admit it, she was intrigued about who Jack had been talking to. Part of her itched to know who he was talking about, another part scolding her to remain within her boundaries, but as her fingers reached for the phone, her guilty conscience slowly fell silent. 

Jack had seventeen (seventeen!) missed calls from someone simply listed under SP, and another three answered ones spread out over the past week. The most recent one matched up to last night’s time, around eleven p.m. It was too risky to bother trying to listen to the transcript; she’d have to deal with the information she had before she was caught. Dropping the phone, she retreated to her closet and pulled out an outfit at random. As she headed toward the bathroom, a shiver traveled down the small of her back, and Ariah turned slowly to see Jack staring piercingly at her, his normally brown eyes an odd gold color. 

“Good morning,” he said, running one hand up and down the armrest of the chair, fingers dancing curiously over the fabric. “Care to explain?” 

“Explain what?” Jack sighed, drawing his fingers away from the chair and standing. Ariah instantly took a step back, all instincts warning her that what she’d done was bad, he was angry, would he hurt her? 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Jack said, his voice softening a fraction. “I just want to know why you’re so curious about my business.” Ariah began to protest, but he held up one hand, the other one jamming a couple of buttons on his phone. A beat later he held up the Recent Calls section,where the SP glared clear and black up and down the screen. 

“You’re probably wondering why I have so many calls from them,” he said. Ariah nodded hesitantly, her shoulder still refusing to lose their tenseness. “Let’s just say my parents are very inquisitive on the matter between you and me. I haven’t answered a lot because-- well--” he broke off awkwardly-- “you’re really nice, and I haven’t had many good ones.” 

“Many?” Ariah repeated. Jack nodded. 

“Just one other,” he tried, his tone suggesting that he’d tried to make it sound joking, but failing. Clearly an unpleasant ex, then. “I’d-- rather not discuss, if that’s alright?” 

“What about your eyes, then?” Ariah found herself asking. 

“The light.” 

“You're a horrible liar.” 

“Drop it.” 

“You can’t expect me to not question this,” Ariah argued, dropping her clothes on a nearby chair and pacing forward. “You’ve known me for the entirety of high school, but you’re living in an apartment on your own, which means you probably want to get away from your parents, but they have to had come visit you sometime, so they should have seen me at least once. And I don’t believe a whit about your eyes and the light ..” There was an awkward beat. 

“I live in this apartment precisely because I don’t like my parents,” Jack said shortly. “I pay for rent myself and stay here because high school is closer than home. They-- my dad, anyway, he’s the only one I’ve got-- are too busy to concern themselves with visiting me, and I’m glad.” 

“You… don’t miss your dad?” Ariah repeated slowly. “At all?” 

“Why would I? He’s not very nice,” he said, gaze trailing to some odd spot on the wall. Ariah tried to catch his attention again ( how could he not want a father? It was all she’d ever wanted ), but he seemed very fixated on the wall. Clearly, she was going to get nowhere with this conversation. 

“The wall is white, thanks for noticing,” she finally snapped, turning to grab her clothes again, and marched towards the bathroom. “Get out of my parent if you’ve got nothing to do except rub the fact that you have a dad in my face. And for god’s sake, take out whatever holo-contacts you have. It’s not safe to sleep in them.” 

Ariah relished the slam she heard from the bathroom door as she closed it behind her, and the quiet click of the front door a minute later. 

 

------

 

Thud. Thud . Ariah irritably tossed her hairbrush on her bed, her frustration from the morning rearing its head again. This was-- what, the fourth time?-- she’d heard knocks in the past two hours. The past three were polite, but this was harder. Jack had clearly gotten desperate, then, when she hadn’t responded to any of his calls. Was the only way to tell him that he wasn’t welcome to give him extra door slam in his face? 

Ariah stood, crossing to the door with her arms ready to slam the door, hard, in his stupid face. She threw back the deadbolt and opened the door, her mouth already opening to give him a stern talking-to, maybe about how to respect women, but the words abruptly dried in her mouth when she saw that her visitors weren’t even close to Jack. 

A well-built man, who looked to be in his thirties, was standing at the door, a slightly shorter but equally well-built dark-haired man shadowing him. Both of their eyes, like Jack’s had, were glinting a dangerous gold. 

“So this is who Jack was talking about,” the taller man mused. Like Jack, he seemed to like to keep his hands in motion; one hand was gripping the spear, which seemed to be an extended cane, and the other was tapping out some kind of Morse code on his leg. 

“What does Jack have to do with anything?” Ariah asked, taking a step backward, and grabbing for the door, but the dark-haired man moved to grab it, slamming it back against her apartment wall. 

“We’ve heard that he’s got a very enticing little flower hidden away,” the tall man said, smiling slightly, “so of course we wanted something pretty for us, too.” Ariah’s gut was practically throwing itself her insides, begging for her to get out of the situation, but she was paralyzed, except for the harsh breaths clawing themselves out of her throat. This was just another hallway fight, they wouldn’t really hurt her (but they had weapons). She could just tell them no, that would be fine, right?

“Come with us,” the dark-haired man said, sliding a dagger from his belt and beginning to trace the wood of the door with it, “and no one gets hurt.” 

“If I don’t?” Ariah dared to ask.

“Then you’ll see that I quite like to pick the petals off little flowers,” he replied. In a single, swift, movement, he slashed a few quick lines in succession across her door, marring the dark mahogany. “This is the Chinese character for flower.” He then dragged his dagger through the character, messing up the pattern of strokes. “And this is my hobby. Would you like another demonstration?” 

“I-- no,” Ariah stammered. She knew she was supposed to be focusing on the men-- they were advancing slowly and she couldn’t run-- but all she could focus on was the formerly elegant character now etched permanently into her door. She could practically feel the door’s pain, could see how it cried and tried to staunch the wounds that were carved too deep, and her breathing didn’t steady as visions of a rainy night and slick pavement began to roll across her vision.

Distantly, she heard a few short curses, before hands lifted her, a sharp pain flashed across her temple, and then there was nothing.