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Are you afraid to die?

Leo still didn’t know how to answer that question. Death? She forgot what she had answered many years back. It was her recklessness fighting her human instincts, like a beat-up hacky sack being kicked back and forth, between yes and no, right and wrong. She didn’t care too much for the question now. It was the person asking it.

She could almost taste the lavender and cucumber on her lips. Damn him, entering her mind uninvited at sporadic times of the day. She ran her tongue over her teeth. She couldn’t afford distractions right now and the flowery aroma, following the thin veil of memories, was bound to mess her up.

Nevermind philosophical questions; she had things to do, places to go.

Leo focused on what was in front of her instead. She didn’t bother to mutter an apology as she shoved a man aside, trying to weasel her way across one of the busiest streets of Upper Okham. A few called out as she pushed them away, but quickly realized there were no such things as manners in a drabby place like this. Winter weather came early this year, casting the entire place in a clouded compromise; too cold for strappy dresses but too hot for wool coats just yet.

Leo watched jackets the color of mud and dust meandered around, mixing with worn leather boots and the scent of cigarettes and musty rain. Puffs of mist appeared near the horses' muzzles as they snorted, their hooves clopping loudly against the cobblestone roads. Crows cawed in the distance, their deathly wings beating against the severe wind, leaving an acrid taste in the back of her throat.

Leo looked almost out of place; her dark clothing could be easily passed off for a wealthy merchant’s choice of wardrobe, but a quick assessment of her face would tell you otherwise; her hair that desperately needed a trim matched with her smooth chin and full bottom lip. Tattoos that crawled up her neck and down her arms were questionable, the lone polished pearl dangling from her left ear would raise eyebrows. People would ask what business she had in men’s clothes, yet no one was quick enough to ever catch her. Okham was a place where every face was a stranger’s, where the best way to blend in was to be forgettable.

Her best bet was to wear a high-collared shirt in hopes that it would cover up the designs on her neck and tuck her hands into her sleeves so her rings couldn’t catch the sparse daylight. Be forgettable, stay forgettable. And quickly move through the crowd, so no one could snake their arm out and demand for an apology. Anyone who visited the country of St. Ethel knew that as soon as you lost sight of a stranger’s eyes, they were gone for good.

Her face betrayed no emotion as her eyes set onto a familiar sign, hanging above the main boulevard with a creak of metal chains. Ivory Inn, written in a cursive Isla constantly talked about. Ivory, like the sharp tip of a lion’s fang, was a reference to the White Woods, the entire region they resided in and the forest on the east side of the city. The woods consisted of only sycamore and birch trees, their trunks as pale as the gray skies. Isla had helped Conan paint the sign’s letters, how they crisscrossed against the dark green wood.

Leo barely heard the screams of the battered boy as she slipped inside, ducking under an arched doorway, stained a dark brown with a grid-like window. The door jangled close as she turned towards a new type of boisterous chaos. Gone were the cold streets and the whispers of ladies, instead was the stuffy yet golden atmosphere, full of red-filled cheeks and smudged dirt.

She pushed past scruffy beards and loud laughs, her lips twitching when she firmly shoved a man to the side, making him nearly topple over onto his table. Slurred words followed her twisting boots like an imperceptible trail, like pesky flies searching for food, always hungry for more. The people were warmed by fur blankets and a musician playing the guitar, nodding whenever someone was kind enough to drop a few lapis or gold baubles. The smell of alcohol mixed with the clink of glasses and one too many conversations made her head suddenly feel a little too heavy.

Leo scooted along two kegs of beer and weaved around a rounded table, before finally reaching the long counter, painted in the same drabby brown shade as the door. Her fingers tapped against the rim of the bar as she stared at the shelf behind filled with colorful bottles, containing the sweetest nectar known to man.

She watched the bartender impatiently as he served a group of men a round of whisky, making small talk with them. She caught snippets of conversation, but didn’t have the diligence to keep up with the gossip. Instead, she stayed still, calmly waiting for Conan Malcolm to slowly notice her.

Conan pushed the final glass of blazing liquor towards the men and grinned at them, clapping the closest on the back before they left to find a table. He was almost a year older than Leo but looked like a grown man now; his once-lanky body filled in nicely, with a slight stubble from a long day of work.

“Lee,” he greeted, his dark eyes finally reaching hers. She didn’t bother a reply as she watched an out-of-place curl on his head bounce up and down as he prepared her a drink. “You’re late,” he said, twirling a green bottle in his right hand. Leo watched vivid paint splatters on his shirt along with the dirty white cloth that was draped over his forearm. He served her a cup of absinthe, pouring the green-tinted liquor into a tall wide-rimmed glass, before resting an ornate spoon across and placing a sugar cube on top of it all. He turned around to run water over the drink. Conan looked at her over the shoulder. “You could always ask for a simpler drink, sweet cheeks.”

Leo rested her elbows on the counter, waiting for him to finish her absinthe. No matter if the drink was hard to make, she had a long day of surveillance and Conan knew it. Soon enough, he slid the drink across the smooth surface of the bar and turned off the tap. “I’ll join you in a second. Go first,” he said, jerking his head towards an arched doorway pressed against the back wall. Leo remained silent, grabbed her drink and slid the spoon down into her glass. Conan’s head of curls disappeared as she pulled away, ducking under swinging arms and chortles of people.

She slipped into the quieter spot of the bar. Large, oval-shaped tables surrounded by benches that curved perfectly around rested in wide sitting booths, with burgundy curtains for much-needed secrecy. Groups of men spoke in low tones, cigars in hand, dipping the entire room into a smoky haze. She walked down the rickety aisle, passing a narrow flight of stairs and another inconspicuous door, finding the very last booth, pressed against the wall and right across the back door for the quickest escape.

The curtains were pulled back when she arrived. “Leo!” exclaimed Isla Laurier, grinning at her. She sported a brown overdress, with a green flowery long-sleeved tunic underneath, her delicate hands smoothing along the pages of her notebook. “You’re late.”

“A first,” remarked June Ashford, tapping her earrings in the shapes of butterflies, hidden under a mass of golden waves neatly pinned up into a braided bun. “How come I didn’t receive an excited greeting?” Isla’s shoulders rose as she curled her hands around the bind of her book. “Leo doesn’t steal my food.”

June let out a light laugh as Leo slid in the seat furthest away from them, right on the edge of the bench, the gun at her waist digging into her hip. Her back was flush against the cushions, her legs spread wide in an almost lazy manner. Leo was facing the door, as always, one tall boot sticking out onto the aisle so she could spring onto her feet at any moment.

She set down her absinthe onto the table. Isla scrunched up her nose, her eyes usually filled with caramel curiosity quickly turning into mild disgust. “How could you drink that devilish poison is beyond me.” June raised a cup of wine to her dark red lips, her gloved hands whispering against the glass. “Stop complaining about alcohol in a bar, dear. This place is quite literally built for drunk men.”

Isla closed her notebook and pushed it to the side, obviously empty-handed. “I’m not complaining,” she complained, bouncing her leg under the table. “Anise tastes abominable.”

“Why don’t you tell Sasha that? He loves a good pastis,” June replied dryly, her gaze flicking towards the door Leo came through. “He’s even more late than you, Leo.”

Leo’s lips twitched a little as her mind went back to the thought she had earlier. “It’s his job,” she said, her tone low and raspy. Isla laughed and June snickered along. “Conan is going to force him to bring us luncheon, I presume.”

“Oh, he’ll devour all our plates before he even reaches us,” Isla giggled, pressing her fingers to her lips. Leo watched their banter as she brought her drink to her mouth, sipping the inferno. June ran a finger along the golden chain of her necklace as she twirled her drink, holding her wine glass by the dainty stem. “Saints, it’s nearly four. If our meal isn’t coming soon, I might as well make one myself.”

“You’re a terrible cook,” Isla said, tucking her notebook behind her so it rested comfortably against the small of her back. A troubled look crossed her face before it bounced back the easy smile that crinkled the corners of her large doe eyes. “I would be terrified of whatever you might come up with.” Isla picked up a strand of her own hair and twirled in around in a fidgety movement. “You’re probably the worst cook of this entire country,” she accused, tilting her head at the door on the other end of the room, leading right into the kitchen of the bar.

As if on cue, the door creaked open, revealing the very two people they were waiting for. “Ah, finally,” June murmured, putting down her glass and the swishing hem of her yellow dress. Conan reached them first, two plates in hand, putting a platter of mutton in front of June and a plate of vegetables in front of Isla. “Ladies,” he presented. He smiled down at Leo and she suddenly felt a little grateful that he didn’t address her the same way.

Sasha, his auburn hair disheveled as usual, grumbled as he set a plate of roasted chicken in front of Conan before tossing one singular apple into Leo’s extended hand. Conan quickly untied the white apron from his waist and sat down, right across from Leo.

“What is it this time?” June asked Sasha in a sing-song voice. She neatly folded her legs draped in expensive silk over each other, her spotless heels pointing in the air is if the shoes themselves were asking a question. “You started another fight? Or perhaps a bird relieved itself on you?” She smiled sweetly, her white gloves folding neatly under her chin. “I’m eager to know your evasions this time.”

Isla laughed. “Bird excrements? How disgusting of an excuse.” Conan didn’t wait for anyone as he dug into his chicken with his silver fork. He elbowed Sasha’s shoulder through a mouthful of food. “Oh, this one’s great.”

Sasha crossed his arms, his lips pressed into a grim line but didn’t offer a response. “Oh, it’s trivial, I was just mocking you,” June smiled, quickly realizing the teasing had gone too far. “No matter.”

Leo watched everyone without a word, her deft fingers wrapping around the apple and spinning the fruit in a lazy circle. Her friends started digging into their own plates of food, filling their booth with sweet aromas. We’re lucky to have Conan and his father, she thought as she twisted the apple around again. Or else we’d all be starving right about now.

Leo wasn’t ashamed about how she got her clothes, her weapons, her various knick knacks to slip into the darkest alleyways. In fact, the trench coat and trousers that she wore at this moment were picked off the laundry line of the local merchant. It always bothered everyone else, but Leo didn’t shy away from the dark. It wasn’t half as bad as everyone around her made it seem, it wasn’t like she stole everything. She accepted it, accepted that, perhaps, yes, stealing was a sin, lying was a sin, greed was a sin. Her fingers were sticky and black with crime.

The tar, she didn’t mind; it reminded her more about her tattoos than her sins. She knew whatever the afterlife held, there was no promise of paradise. But as long as her friends could eat and sleep under a roof, she was willing to pick the pockets of pompous men and nick the brooches of snooty women. As long as they never starved and never fell ill, Leo Knight was willing to break Earth itself to bring whatever little she could offer, including herself.

She knew she was stalling as she rotated the red fruit around in her hand. With an inaudible sigh, she whirled it so the shiniest, cleanest part met her lips and teeth.

Her mind told her instantly to spit the portion back out. Fighting the strong urge to disregard table manners and do so, she instead let it sit on her tongue before swallowing it, barely wincing with the movement. She knew she needed the energy as her stomach was painfully empty, but something stronger than logic forced her to put the apple back down. Another bite meant another moment of weakness.

She let the bile that threatened to rise up her throat settle before dipping her fingers under the table, seeking out a certain tattoo that brought a strange comfort. Her left hand brushed over her knuckles of her right, fingernails grazing the slightly faded ink of an intricate dragonfly. Conan designed it, many years ago, by carving out a wooden block of the rough shape, dipping it in pen ink and stamping it on Leo’s hand as a guide. Then came the arduous part; Conan meticulously cleaning a sewing needle and pricking her skin, one tiny dot at a time to bring her dragonfly to life.

She cried after he was done, but the embarrassment that ensued was more crippling than the pain itself. Her fingers that rested on her lap twitched with the thought. It became a bit infected a couple of days later, something Conan profusely apologized for. His next couple of tattoos were clean, so she thought he felt terrible enough to clean his homemade equipment furthermore.

Conan hadn’t asked questions about the significance of the bug on her hand, something she never vocalized but appreciated nonetheless. Only one other person in the entirety of the White Woods knew, and that was someone she never wanted to see again. Leo was sure Conan had theories; he was surprisingly good at reading people’s minds.

She never cried over a tattoo again.

“Oh, dear, that absent gaze,” commented June. Conan pointed his fork at her, scratching his shoulder where a blotch of red paint had dried. “Leave Lee alone. I’m sure she has a lot on her mind.”

“About tonight?” Sasha asked, dragging his hand along the lip of the table. The tiny white scar above his left eye creased as he furrowed his eyebrows. “And yes, I was wondering. What are we doing tonight?”

Isla shifted in her seat, stretching out her legs. Conan’s cheeks reddened when their knees brushed. “Weren’t you around yesterday?”

“He was tardy,” June mused, picking up her wine glass once again, flicking one disguised hand in his direction. “How customary.”

“Jameson,” Leo answered huskily. She placed her apple on the table as she leaned forward, letting her forearms fall neatly against her chest. The tailored sleeves of her coat brushed against the buttons. “He’s been a nuisance recently. I presume he’s been bored if he’s willing to go such lengths to bother us.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure he is,” tittered Isla. “I confidently know that he has no more unfortunate women to exploit now.” Leo nodded at her words. “Yes, I believe he’s having...a hard time. But he’s been causing havoc on the streets, screaming and yelling for us.”

“Throwing a tantrum like an unruly child?” June offered, tilting her head towards Isla’s plate. She raised her silverware, her pinky finger sloping up gracefully as her fork dived towards her friend’s plate like a hungry seagull. She plucked a piece of asparagus. “Crying for his mother in a candy shop?” She inspected it’s steamed, impaled form on her fork, before popping it into her mouth. Isla gave her a knowing look before soundlessly returning to her food.

Leo nodded again. “Precisely. And he turned towards narcotics.” Of course he did.

“Narcotics?” Sasha questioned, grimacing. Leo knew why. “Reihe. That’s never the answer.”

“Your last name’s Sharpe yet you’re as dull as dishwater,” Conan muttered.

Isla stifled a laugh and Conan returned a prideful juvenile grin in return. Sasha scowled at his friend. “You clearly know their consequences, Conan. Don’t be daft.” Conan stuffed another piece of food into his mouth. “Oh, I was proposing to have fun, not get absolutely devoted to stimulants, Sash. Who doesn’t want to have just a little bit of pleasure from time to time?”

“It’s not the narcotics you’re referring to, Conan,” Leo cut in quietly.

Conan’s face fell. “Oh.”

Tense silence fell over the table. They all knew what that meant; Jameson gave into tenebris. He was as good as a dead man, as deserving as a lost cause. Taking tenebris was like tipping over a cliff; even the strongest soldiers and the greatest galiant men with hearts of gold could not clamber over the pure addiction it offered.

“He’s addicted to tenebris?” June asked. “Impossible. How could he get a hold of something so illegal?”

Leo knew the answer. It was two words, two blighted words she knew all too well. “If it’s contraband, it’s been passed around,” she answered instead. “The forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, after all.”

Sasha gripped the edge of the table, his knuckles bleached white. Another unspoken silence permeated the air as his friends watched him cautiously. “How long?” He managed to smother out.

“A couple of days, but take my words with a pinch of salt,” Leo said, picking up her drink. She brought the alcohol to her lips and felt a twinge of empathy as Sasha looked away. “So what shall we do?” he asked stiffly.

“Since we’re having this conversation, we can all safely assume giving him another talk-to will not help. Perhaps more drastic measures should be put in place.” Leo responded gravelly. “I propose we bring him to the Almshouse.” She looked into Sasha’s sorrowful eyes. “He’s no friend, but we’ll try to help him as best as we can.”

No one deserved the aftereffects of tenebris. It was dehumanizing, and the final days with such an addiction, one mutates into a monstrous creature whose only goal was to have more. Nothing could change it’s vicious cycle except death itself.

Almshouses, giant nursery homes for poor families, was barely a better option than the streets. Brick walls and concerned nurses weren’t going to stop an addict. Sasha was lucky to have met Leo, because he knew it would’ve ended like that for him if it weren’t for the people he was sitting next to right at this moment.

He stabbed a piece of chicken in front of him but didn’t lift the utensil to his mouth, watching June out of the corner of his eye as she spoke. “I agree that is the best course of action,” she clasped her hands together, the various bangles on her wrists clanging together in a harmonious rattle. “But I doubt he’ll let us close to him. How should we accompany him?”

“He’ll be paranoid,” Sasha swallowed, but it didn’t alleviate the choking sensation that seemed to settle tightly in his windpipe. His grip tightened on his fork, the metal cold and unforgiving in his hands “There’s no way he’ll let anyone near him.”

“Which would make the task of tracing him more difficult,” Isla cut in. “He won’t be in a gambling club or another bar then.” Leo’s mouth thinned grimly. “He’ll be in alleyway of sorts,” Leo guessed, except it came out as certainty. Sasha looked back up towards her eyes that were the color of smoke. “We must wait until midnight to find him. It will be harder in the dark, but that means it will be harder for him to see us as well.”

“Sasha and I will approach him first,” she continued. Sasha perked up at his name. “We shall see if he acknowledges us well. In the best case, we can bring him to one of the nearby nursery homes. Worst case, we’ll bring out the true criminal.”

June flushed but quickly frowned, looking down at the scratched table instead of meeting Leo’s gaze. “Of course,” June mumbled. Leo’s mild amusement turned into a wicked smile, so tiny that Sasha barely caught it in time before it smoothed out.

Sasha thought a smile fitted her much better than the stone-cold statuesque mask she wore. He briefly wondered if she stayed ever-so collected even in her sleep. “Good. Isla and Conan, unless you oppose, wait near the nursery home in case anything wrong happens.”

Conan sighed to Sasha’s right, putting down his fork on his near-empty plate. “Alright, it’s settled then. Sash and Lee do all the fun bits while the rest of us linger around and watch them prevail.”

Isla laughed and June smiled, the blush on her cheeks receding. “It isn’t half as bad as you make out to be,” she reasoned.

“Unless you’ve suddenly gained strength?” Leo asked, raising one eyebrow. Sasha always liked that expression, demanding opposition, as if daring anyone to defy her. Conan tucked his lean arms under the table. “Unfair. I just choose to stay thin. I don’t need a bulk of muscle.” He elbowed Sasha’s sturdy shoulder, earning him a sharp scowl. Leo downed the rest of her drink in one gulp and slammed the cup down onto the table. Isla flinched at the noise. “Then do not lament about it. You can start complaining when you’re as capable as Sasha.”

“Rude,” Conan muttered.

“I have more things to attend to.” Leo stood up in one fluid movement, her hair bouncing up and down over her shoulders, always reminding Sasha of the bark of cedar trees after a drizzle. “I suggest you all settle in by the time I get back. Sasha, don’t stray too far from here. We cannot afford delay.”

He nodded absent-mindedly, his eyes momentarily trailed to her inked skin that peeked through the sweater underneath her long coat, the wool as bleached as bones. “I’ll come to fetch everyone as soon as the sun sets.” She shot June an indescribable look over her shoulder, a look of fleeting disapproval crossing her face when she noticed her white shoes. “And in something a bit less extravagant.”

The jangle of the bar door seemed too loud compared to Leo’s footsteps. “Be prepared,” she warned everyone before slipping out.

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17 Apr, 2021
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