Life didn’t give Vince a five-second head start. It pounced as soon as he opened his eyes. He took a deep breath and sat up, pulling his quilt around his shoulders. He’d slept out on the balcony again like he always did when he needed to think. It helped in some mysterious way.
Above the buildings, the sky was barely turning orange. He drew the blanket tighter against the chill in the air. Somehow, it burrowed through his layers, washing into his bones and settling in his ribcage like mist. One thought emerged from the fog with crystal clarity.
This is it.
Even though the fog tried to keep him still, he picked himself up and went inside, the blanket dragging behind him like a cape. He moved slowly and quietly, picking out his favorite sweatshirt and the sweatpants he’d worn until they became butter soft. Before he left, he stopped to tuck the bits and pieces of his projects into neat bundles on his desk. A small smile drifted across his face as he worked.
It’s nice to see the tabletop every once in a while.
As he stepped out onto the street, the sun was barely rising. The city was much quieter in the morning, still enough that his footsteps sounded loud against the concrete. He took his time as he walked. The streets would have made a beautiful photograph, he realized, painted in light and shadow like this. He needed to hunt around for some more film one of these days.
When he turned onto the market’s street, it looked like a much less vibrant version of itself. The brightly colored tables and chairs usually set out in front of the vendors were stacked beside stands shrouded in cloth. The space felt practically deserving of reverence, so Vince passed through quietly, keeping his hands in his pockets like he would in an antique shop.
The gesture brought back an unexpected memory. As Vince sat down at their table and pulled out his latest project, the moment came to life in his head.
He’d tagged along on one of Hrida and Tracey’s thrift shop outings. They hadn’t been looking for anything in particular, but he clearly remembered how Tracey’s face lit up when she found an incomplete tea set in a beat-up cardboard box. She and Hrida had a tradition of sharing their finds, so they both took a teacup.
Vince walked Tracey home afterward. He wished he could remember what they’d talked about. When she came through the door, Tracey put her bag down hard, not thinking, and the sound of breaking china echoed in the silence. He’d never seen Tracey that close to tears. She almost threw herself to her knees, pawing through the bag until she reached the bundle of tissue paper at the bottom. Just looking at it, Vince could tell it had broken by the way it folded in on itself.
When Tracey unwrapped it, the fragments opened up in her hands like a tragic version of a flower.
“Hey, it’s okay.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead and held her hands and the broken teacup in his. “Let me fix it.”
He stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, reconstructing the cup piece by piece. At some point, he must’ve dozed off; he woke up to sleepy wrinkles on his face and the finished teacup lit from within by the morning sun.
“It’s a Japanese tradition,” he explained to Tracey later. “When a dish breaks, they fill in the cracks with gold. Even though it’s broken, it’s still beautiful.”
Tracey smiled at him and rested her head on his shoulder.
When Vince looked up, he was still in the cafe. The room had filled in with customers, and Tracey, Hrida, and Derrick had arrived without him noticing. No one spoke. Across the table, Hrida rested her head on Derrick’s shoulder, eyes closed. Tracey stared into her black coffee like it held the answers to all their problems.
Even though Vince tried, nothing came to mind. What was there to say on a morning like this? Before he knew it, Tracey’s coffee cup was empty, and the three of them kept looking at him as if waiting for his cue. He sighed, then stowed away his tinkering in his pockets.
“You guys ready?”
“As we’ll ever be.” Derrick gave him half a smile. The deep brown of his eyes felt like a fortress against what they were about to face.
Vince let everyone go ahead of him, following along at the back behind Tracey. Once Hrida and Derrick were well ahead of them, lost in conversation, he reached out and gently grabbed Tracey’s arm.
When she turned around, she looked seconds away from punching him, yet confused enough to hold back. Standing this close, Vince noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes and the blonde starting to show through at her roots. Before he could overthink it, he leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. He didn’t dare linger.
Tracey didn’t say anything when he pulled away, only stood looking at him.
“Just in case.”
She seemed to consider his words for a moment before she spoke.
“Don’t talk like that.” She offered him a brave smile, but it was watered down with something else. Before he could figure it out, she was gone.
Kol sat in the doorway of the restaurant, waiting for them. Vince noticed how nonchalance was etched into every line of his body, from his casual posture to the lazy smile that appeared when he saw them.
He stood up and stretched, then cracked his knuckles. Vince refused to let the gesture intimidate him.
“Hope you brought your A-game.”
“Oh, there’s no need to worry about that. Follow me.”
He slipped into the shadows of an alleyway, leaving the four of them glancing at each other. Finally, Vince led the way, squaring his shoulders against the invisible weight pressing down. After a few twists and turns, he felt good and lost. Kol continued to wander along ahead of them, unconcerned.
Eventually, they left the alleyway and stepped into a clearing of sorts. It looked like the beginnings of an apartment complex had been there, but the deep claw marks in the scorched concrete were enough to fill in the blanks.
Monsters did this.
A chill ran down Vince’s spine at the thought. The weight of someone’s hand on his shoulder shocked him. When he turned around, Tracey’s green eyes glowed back at him. She gave him a short nod of support, then led Hrida and Derrick to the shelter of one of the hollow buildings.
“Alright, Kol.” Vince’s voice rang out across the broken landscape. “Here I am. Let’s finish this.”
Kol’s grin widened until he couldn’t contain himself.
“Oh, you poor thing.” He turned on his heel and flounced off. An involuntary flame burst from one of Vince’s hands.
“Just like you said.” A blonde woman Vince hadn’t seen before melted out of the shadows of one of the buildings still left intact. “Your best against ours.”
Two glowing yellow eyes appeared in the darkness above her head, and Vince’s heart dropped into his stomach.
We walked right into this.
The monster stepped into the light, fangs bared. It towered over the woman, who barely came up to the joint between its legs and body.
Without warning, it planted its feet and roared. The sound raced through Vince’s body, shocking him like electricity and shaking him awake. He looked the beast in the eye and found he wasn’t scared.
As though he stood outside his body, he watched his hoodie hit the ground. One deep breath and his form became engulfed in flames, fire spreading across his shoulders and along the backs of his arms, pooling in his hands. He came alive with energy.
Show me what you’ve got.
White-hot pain smashed into the right side of Vince’s body. He risked a glance down and saw a weeping red line. When he tried to move his arm, it screamed. The beast pushed its advantage, swiping a paw full of dagger-sharp claws at his stomach. Vince answered it with a fireball aimed at its eyes and ran. An otherworldly scream told him his shot had connected.
The buildings and their empty windows blurred as he ran. He didn’t know where he was headed. Thunderous footsteps shook the ground behind him, and he pushed himself faster.
There isn’t much time.
Eyes racing, he skidded around a corner and tucked himself behind a wall. His heartbeat rattled his ears, punctuated by his raspy breathing.
Be still. Be still. Think.
He risked a glance around the corner. The street was empty for now, and at its end-
A roar blasted his ears. The shockwaves knocked him to his feet and sent him stumbling into motion. He could feel his feet flying over the ground. One glance back told him the void had turned the corner and was quickly gaining. In his head, he wrapped a fist around the energy coursing through him and brought it to his fingertips.
The fire roared to life, glowing red then yellow. When it burned white enough to blind him, Vince let it run to his other hand.
A man-hole gaped in the middle of the street in front of him, bouncing closer as he ran. He threw himself into a jump. For a moment, he felt weightless, an astronaut soaring through space, laughing at the impossibility. Then his feet hit the ground, and he turned to face the monster barreling toward him.
His mind went calm. He thought of Derrick’s laugh, Hrida’s smile and amber eyes, and Tracey, bold and fabulous as her neon hair.
Just in case.
The monster’s eyes glinted like gold coins against its dark fur. It had almost come close enough for Vince to reach out and touch it. He planted his feet, took aim, and hurled his white flame into the waiting mouth of the sewer.
Fire looks like marble.