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Drown Your Lovers

Chapter Text

 

"Why don't you two get married?"

Both Rey and Ben froze. They barely knew each other and even though they were now accomplices and shared a bond, marriage, even a fake one, was too much for them.

"Yeah! Think about it! It is far less complicated than changing your legal name and you both can enjoy a lot of benefits."

Ben pondered the suggestion. He looked at Rey. Her new haircut made her look both more mature and adorable. He smiled and she smiled back. Her eyes were no longer empty when she gazing at him and she seemed to feel rather safe in his presence. After all, she was the one who pursued him in the first place. And all because she was alone and he was alone too.

He cleared his throat and spoke.

"Well... right now you are nobody. You come from nothing, you have nothing..."

"Yes, I know that!"

She was visibly upset.

Ben pouted.

"But not to me."

Rey's frown lines were getting softer. Ok, that was good! He looked at his long fingers and at his father's ring. He took it off and bit his lip, then he knelt in front of her.

"Rey, would you like me to share my last name, health insurance and belongings with you?"

 

***

 

Six years ago

 

Only twelve minutes.

That was the estimated time to get out of the elevator, sneak into the lab, do the deed and then get out without being noticed. The other white coats were too busy ignoring each other and probably thinking about lunch. He counted at least eleven in the elevator, which meant that whereas his face was hidden from the cameras by the figures of the much taller men and women, there was still a chance for the elevator to crash and keep him from fulfilling his mission. One would think that such bright minds would not be this irresponsible to risk getting stuck in that tiny machine.

The green light announced that they have reached the fourth floor. The white coats hurried out and he followed them - it was safer to stay closer and not draw any attention. He glimpsed at the small metal plaques next to the white doors as he was starting to become more frustrated and desperate. Those robots were getting closer to the dining hall and he was getting closer to desperation. No sign of the bloody lab. In fact, why would they even have a dining hall on the same floor as the main lab, unless… damn it! One sudden move to the left and he escaped the crowd unobserved stepping right into a storage room. That twelve-minute deadline was already out of question. He had lost too much time and failing this mission meant risking losing too much money and perhaps his own life. Like most people, he had his own soft spot for elderly people, but that old man who hired him was wicked and he was able to sense it right from the start. After all, the old man used to be a politician and nothing good ever comes out when a politician is involved, especially when sneaking into a pharmaceutical lab is included. But that was none of his business in that specific moment. His business was to deliver the damned vials and he could not risk getting caught, nor misplacing them.

He sat on an icebox and listened closely to any noise coming from behind the door. Of course, all the white coats were supposed to enjoy their lunch break for another twenty-six minutes before going to the lounge for another thirty minutes of coffee and cigar break. However, that meant nothing for his own mission, which was conditioned by too many factors, especially by luck. If only the old man had known what he hired. He himself was already too old for this sort of… did something just break?

He stood up quickly and looked at the icebox. Fortunately, nothing actually broke. Even more fortunately, it was unlocked and his weight had just put too much pressure on one side of the box. He opened the box cautiously and peeked at its insides.

Vials.

Dozens of vials.

Vials like the ones he was carrying. He bit his lower lip and pondered. The old man told him to replace the vials in lab #050618 with those he was carrying, but he was already in an actual laboratory and there were dozens of vials right in front of him. It was not like he was throwing them in the trash can. It was just a matter of details.

He picked five random vials and replaced them with the five he was carrying under his shirt, in the small plastic box taped to his lower abdomen. He carefully placed the stolen ones in the plastic container, taped the box back to his lower abdomen and closed the icebox, checking once more for scratches or cracks. Once everything seemed in order, he opened the door and spied on the dining hall entrance. His wristwatch was telling him that he was almost seven minutes late and could not wait for the break to be over. The man sneaked out of the storage room and checked both sides before crossing the main hallway. He knew by the robotic screeching sound that the cameras had caught him on tape and that he had to think fast before the guardians would notice and come to interrogate him.

Think fast, boy! he urged himself, before blindly stepping inside the storage unit of the dining hall. He bit his lip nervously and looked at all the jars and cans, before instinctively stealing one apple from a crate and eating half of it in one bite.

“May I help you, sir?”

He turned around with a dumb look on his face and stared at the young boy carrying one large crate full of red cabbages.

“Yes… Yes, actually! You see...I am a transferee and the other guys don’t quite like me. This is why they won’t help me with a new pair of pants.”

The boy glimpsed at his black uniform pants and blinked confused.

“Why would you need a new pair, sir?”

“Why?... well… are you asking me why do I need a new pair of pants? Well… that’s a great question. You see… my son has left one of his toy spiders inside my flask of coffee and when I drank out of it, it fell in my mouth. I got startled and spilt the coffee all over my pants. Now they are a bit dryer, but I would still need to change.”

The boy nodded still visibly confused.

“And what exactly would you need me to do, sir? I can’t give you my overalls.”

“No, no, of course, you can’t! You see…” he stepped closer and put his large palm on the boy’s shoulder, dominating him with his presence, similarly to how he used to do with his son, back then when he was not his mother’s spitting attitude.

“Can you please help me get to my car? It is parked outside. I have a spare uniform in the trunk.”

 

The wristwatch was telling him that this whole charade had cost him thirteen more minutes, but at least he was out of the building.

“Thanks, boy!”

He patted the young lad on his shoulder and then ran away fully aware of how suspicious he still seemed. “Sir, why didn’t you use the parking lot?”

He stopped for one moment and turned around with an embarrassed grimace on his tired face. He opened his arms largely and shrugged.

“You see? They don’t even like me enough to give me a parking pass!”

Saying this, he went right, sneaked behind the food truck and searched for the black van that had dropped him earlier that day.

No black van.

No van.

Not even an average car.

Han shook his head all frustrated and crossed the street, sitting on the steps of an abandoned old building. He took off his glasses and coat, but not before retrieving a can of peaches out of the large pocket. He took the lid off with a loud grunt and drank the syrup. His son used to love this dessert back when he used to take him on weekends, despite not being able to afford more than the air they were breathing. Of course, the cans were stolen like the one he was holding, but he needed his son to love him despite all the reasons he shouldn’t. That ordinary dessert was something his mother was not letting him have, but he was and that made his son happy enough to go back to his mom and tell her each time how awesome his poor old dad was and how he wanted to go back next weekend.

He swallowed the peach he had been chewing when the clicking noise by his ear announced him that there was a gun pointed at his head. He wiped the syrup off his mouth, using his sleeve, and sneaked his hand underneath his shirt. He ripped the taped box off and lifted it in the air. The gunman took it hastily and he was able to see him out of the corner of his eye reading the stamped codes.

“You said twelve minutes.”

“Your boss said lab #050618. There was no such lab.”

“That’s none of my business. You seem to have managed quite well and you completed your mission.”

“Of course. I am the best.”

“Has anyone seen you?”

“Many and none.”

“Well then… here is your money.”

The man took the leather envelope and counted the bills.

“This is not we have agreed on. It is not even half.”

“You said twelve minutes. We removed a bill for each extra minute. Time is money, old man.”

He tried his best not to turn around and punch him in his smug face, but he was smart enough to acknowledge the unfair difference in size, age and training. Also, the guy had a gun and perhaps other hidden weapons as well. He used to have his own weapons, but his boy needed that transplant after his own lackey attacked him most savagely. His ex-wife had told him that it was the least he could have done in order to avoid the restraining order, but as soon as the boy was out, he was not allowed to visit him for more than twelve minutes, let alone take him on weekends.

“Are you better now?”

He remembered his last words as a cold grown man, full of frustrations and resentment.

“Are you better now?”

The image of his son was rapidly metamorphosing into the one of the young boy who helped him escape.

“Who is that?” Asked the gunman all angry.

“Nobody. He must be confusing me for someone else.”

“Sir” he came closer, “the guardian asked me about you and…”

He was getting ready to tell a lie or use the ‘transferee’ card again, but as his mouth was opening, a loud bang deafened him and his eyes grew wider with the image of the blood and brains splattering in the air. He stood up, breathing heavily. The boy was now missing an eye, but, unlike his son, there was no life left inside his body. The young body fell on the ground, in a pool of blood and brains.

“Bull’s-eye. The next one is for you Solo.”

As people were gathering to see what happened, the news report coming from the small TV inside the food truck was announcing the great news. A vaccine for the plague that had been decimating the population of the planet had been under development ever since the polluted waters had been found as the reason such a deadly virus ended up spreading and causing havoc. The men had created the virus with their recklessness and now the men were finally ready to release the cure.

Chapter Text

The ticking of the clock was making the thumping inside his head and ears more painful than ever. Something has been off lately and it was not necessarily related to his disdain for the man who stole his project idea. Thankfully, the man was only a thief and not a thinker, meaning that his project was not developed properly and the mistakes were more than obvious. But the main difference between himself and that guy was that he had reached a point long ago where he no longer cared about impressing anyone, not his co-workers, not his supervisor, not even the big boss. When he graduated, he had high hopes, but so far, his life was nothing like the one he envisioned for himself.

“Solo” his supervisor called him visibly upset by the clicking noise made by his finger constantly pressing the pen’s button.

“Thank you very much for sharing your idea with us, Armitage. We need one more idea before voting for the new advertising campaign. I think it is time Ben Solo shared his designs. You know…”

Mrs Scyre checked her gold wristwatch and smiled caustically.

“I think you will have enough time by Monday morning.”

Ben blinked slowly trying to hide his frustration. Each employee of his department had one entire week before presenting his idea for the new campaign. Maybe he could have managed to come with an entire project even by Monday, but with Armitage stealing his idea, he was in need of something new and innovative and two days were not enough even if he was willing to sacrifice his routine and sleep hours. He needed more time. He needed Phasma to change her stubborn mind and give him time until Friday.

“Actually” she added as she was standing up and grabbing her notes, “I think by Monday is too soon. I will let you present your project on our Friday meeting like everyone else. I wouldn’t like you to come here all tired and with a poor design.”

Wow. Maybe he misjudged her. Good thing he did not protest at all and just let her change her mind on her own. Too bad she didn’t also consider asking Armitage for more details regarding his research process only to catch him with a lie.

He stood up and headed to the door when Phasma turned around and seeking someone.

“Hux, I would also like to see your notes regarding the research process.”

“But I…”

“But I don’t care. I want them on my desk before 5 o’clock.”

Ben chuckled. Either Phasma was a mind reader or he had underestimated her. He left the room with his mood slightly improved and went to his desk. He sat down and looked at his computer screen for a while. The PharmStar logo and its 5-Star Health slogan were slowly growing before exploding into colourful fireworks. According to one of his co-workers, the screensaver was carefully designed to induce a state of calm and trigger creativity. After six years working for PharmStar, he could safely admit that that statement was pure bullshit. If anything, the screensaver was just causing him to have a painful static noise stuck in his head.

5-Star Health. What a ridiculous pun. It was more suitable for that spa resort his girlfriend was going to weekly. The entire company was in need of a new logo and slogan, but that was a little bit too much for now. It was already difficult enough to come up with an idea for a product that was still being kept a secret. Why were they even willing to waste so much time on all the projects and ideas and risk ending up with a poor ad campaign when they could have everyone work together as a team and come up with an amazing campaign.

“Hey, Benjamin! Benjo! Benny-boy!”

Ben rolled his eyes and pretended and he was busy… watching his screensaver and contemplating the meaning of life.

“Look, Solo. I was wondering if you could help me out with my project.”

“The one you’ve just presented in front of the board? It is not exactly my responsibility to provide feedback for anyone.”

“I know that” Hux laughed forcefully “But you see… you are the one who inspired me to come up with such a great idea. When I saw your ring, all I could think of were Healing Hands, Beating heart and I…”

Ben looked at his Claddagh ring. An old vendor tried to sell it and its matching pair using a ridiculous story about a curse and some queen to excuse the even more ridiculous price. His father and then-girlfriend ended up stealing the two rings and wore them each day for the rest of their relationship. When they broke up, she got to keep the house and his dad got to keep the rings, the dog and the car. Considering the poor state of the car and the dog being an ordinary stray, one could say he drew the shortest straw. He eventually regifted the ring to his next girlfriend and later wife. The aftermath was the same though, except this time he decided to pass on the rings to his son. Ever since, Ben kept wearing his father’s ring, whereas its pair was in a small box in his safe box. Maybe one day he would get to gift it to his own girlfriend. After all, their seven-year anniversary was nine days away and she was supposed to return the night before the anniversary. But maybe he was still not good enough for her and maybe he was rushing. They were both still young and he had seen the mistakes his parents made. Yeah… that ring was not ready to have an owner just yet.

“So what are you saying, Benny? Benjamin? Beeenloooo?”

Gosh, if only he could punch him in his stupid face. He spun around and gazed without any clear expression on his rather blank face. He gathered his thoughts in order to tell him in the most polite manner that he was not going to help a pathetic thief.

He did not just come up with that idea. He simply stole it from him.

He did not see that ring. He saw him drawing the two hands holding the heart and heard him mention its origins.

He did not have an epiphany with that slogan. He heard him repeat it over and over again after changing the words a couple of times until he found the perfect mix.

And his name was not Benjamin-Benjo-Benlo-Benny-boy or whatever. It was just Ben. And considering their relationship, he would prefer SIR. If he were at least one quarter the decent person he pretended to be, he would go to Phasma and tell her what he did. No! He should tell the entire department and board that he is an ordinary thief, who seeks climbing the ladder ahead of any other hard-working employee.

“I’m sorry, Sir.”

What? Ben blinked confused and parted his lips.

“I am so very sorry. Truth be told, I stole your idea. I am so ashamed to tell you this, but I am jealous of you and I wanted this opportunity so much. You know what? I am going to tell Phasma that it was your idea and that you deserve all the credit and praise. Are we good?”

“…What?”

“Great! Then see you later!”

Ben faced his computer again and sighed. This day was the weirdest.

“Mr Solo? Mrs Scyre is waiting for you in her office.”

Ben nodded a silent thank you to the young secretary and massaged his forehead. He had been looking at various images awaiting for that spark inside him to ignite the flame of inspiration, but… nope. Nothing happened. His mind was empty and the static noise was killing him. He put all his sketches and notes inside a folder and hid the folder between two ring binders. Whatever made Hux suddenly act all nicely did not convince him enough to still keep his things lying around. He glimpsed at Hux sitting at his desk. He seemed busy, so he stood up and left his own desk knowing that even if he had the guts to attempt to steal anything ever again, he would find nothing but mess and chaotic ideas.

Phasma Scyre’s office was dark with some gold accents. Except for a fake Fabergé egg, it looked sterile and sad. But then again… his own life at home was the same, so he was not the one to criticise the office of a pharmaceutical company employee.

“Welcome, Solo. Glad I managed to get to talk to you before you left. I hate bothering people after work hours. Listen… I am going to be brief. Hux told me what happened with the project and everything. He was mature enough to admit that he found his inspiration in your own work, so I decided to not be too harsh on him and to continue using his name on this project.”

Ummm… excuuuse me? Ben furrowed his eyebrows.

“You see… it is not good for our department and the company’s reputation in general to have such conflicts or any conflicts at all. Hux made a rookie mistake and after all, he worked hard to complete the project and make an incredible presentation, so we both are going to forgive him and the three of us are going to keep it a secret. Ok?”

“I…”

“Besides, I am sure you are going to come up with a much better idea next week. Take it as your chance of outshining him and proving who is the better man.”

Ben tried his best not to snort. Phasma’s attempts were pathetic and did not fool him at all. He had gotten used to not having any expectations, so he obviously had no expectations regarding getting the credit for that idea. But this was already too much. He sighed again and shrugged.

“Thank you!” Phasma smiled. “You can go back to your desk and get ready for the weekend.”

“Thank you!” added Ben with the fakest enthusiasm, but did not move.

“May I help you anything else?”

Hmm… let’s see… perhaps he could tell her to take that damn project and shove it somewhere or maybe he could ask her to stop kissing Hux’s dumb ass and act more like a responsible supervisor. Or maybe he could be all passive-aggressive and insinuate reconsidering whose project deserves to be picked. Or maybe he should be a jerk and demand for financial compensation or hush money.

“Solo?”

She was getting impatient, but he could not have cared any less. His anger was justified. The least she could do was tell him what the hell he was supposed to represent with that damn project.

“You know what, Ben?”

Gosh, she stood up so swiftly that she startled him. Maybe he was about to lose his job without even insulting her in the first place.

“I still can’t risk a conflict, so the least I can do for you is tell you this: vitamins.”

So much drama for some stupid vitamins ?

“I know what you are probably thinking! So much drama for some stupid vitamins?

Wow! That was oddly accurate.

“It was supposed to be a new vaccine, because the one released six years ago was an innovation, although it had its flaws. Besides, people are so sceptical when it comes to vaccines, so whereas the old one has been gradually improved, we don’t want the people to know that we didn’t sell them the best product. Of course, they all know that nothing is perfect, but you get my point, right? However, these vitamins are no vitamin C. They are so concentrated that in time, they are both going to enhance the immune system and balance some of the vaccine’s adverse effects. I wish I could tell you more, but this is all I have been told myself. The only reason the board committee has unanimously decided to keep it a secret is that we don’t want any rival companies to use this against us or steal our idea. Get it? Thank you!”

Ben’s feet were beginning to hurt, but the static noise in his head was already numbing.  The entire day had been too much for him. He was not sure how to take all the information and events. On one hand, he was beginning to consider going to the company’s therapist for a talk. On the other hand, he was beginning to consider quitting his job. His mother once told him that if signs keep showing you toxicity, then maybe you should leave the hell out of that place. Or in her case, of that relationship.

Damn, that pain was getting so intense! His head was exploding! And all the damn noise coming from the people surrounding him was like thousands of needles stabbing him when least expecting. Why were people so keen on chatting all the time? Did really no one have the minimum respect for silence and other people in general? His vision was starting to get blurry and his legs were failing him. Was the stress taking a toll on him? But he was still conscious. He could think clearly enough to not stand the noise anymore and SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

Was he unconscious already? The noise was gone. Maybe he had already fainted in the sub and now was waking up. He opened his eyes. No. He was still in the same place, surrounded by the same people. The thing was that everyone was silent. They were all minding their own thoughts… in silence. The only noises were coming from some music players, the voices of those on the other line of the phone and the subway itself. No… it couldn’t be. His mind was playing tricks on him. He must have imagined all the voices as a side effect of the bloody static noise that was still persisting.

He took a deep breath and got out at the first stop. He needed space and fresh air. He wandered for half an hour on the busy streets until he reached a park. Ever since he moved in that city, he’d never really had the time to just stop and smell the roses, or, in this case, enjoy a walk in the park. There was something about the freedom of the imperfection found in nature that was making him feel more than comfortable. The noise inside his head was slightly dimmer now and his thoughts were also getting clearer. Maybe this project was a test, a challenge for him to change his life. Most people seek comfort and are complacent. He is no one to judge, but was that really what he wanted? Maybe he could get a couple of days off after this whole mess. He and his girlfriend deserved a decent vacation and especially now that the weather had improved, but not enough for the resorts to be overcrowded. He could even visit his mother or maybe her parents. He had never met her parents and she never even told him the slightest thing about them or her childhood. She had been so secretive about her past. Of course, during their first two years of dating, they were mostly drinking and partying buddies. He had been so alone in this new city and she had been so damaged that they just decided to hang out as ‘together-alone buddies’. Then, he started being more into his work and she fled the country for her MA program, so for almost three more years, they had been buddies. Things had only gotten more serious the following year, as she was trying her best to accommodate back in this city. She had her issues and struggles and he tried to be both supportive and give her space, which she appreciated, especially once she got her dream job as a reporter. Except for the type of reporter she was implied being away too much and too often. Ben had always had a special chest of drawers and half of his wardrobe for her things, but truth be told, all that space was barely used and mostly empty. Like his heart.

He stopped once stepped outside the park back into the crowded streets. He jumped into a taxi and gave his address to the driver, who was a small man full of energy… and stories to tell. Ben had listened to the first one about the young lied student who gave birth on the backseat when the blizzard kept them from arriving at the hospital. The second one was about how his brother married the niece of a drug lord and fled the country to get away from them. By the third one, he already knew that the only thing keeping him from falling asleep was the cadence of the little man’s voice. This and some of his interjections.

Can you please stop?

He tried concentrating hard enough in order to get the same result as before, but the man kept on talking and talking. He never shut up and the traffic jam was giving Ben no hope of ever stopping his headache. Maybe he shouldn’t have left the subway. All he wanted was peace and quiet and maybe some soup and then lots of sleep.

“Can you please turn on the radio on? Preferably play some relaxing music?”

“The radio ain’t working, my boy, but I’ve got some cassettes here. Is Modern Talking good?”

Ben nodded and fell asleep as soon as the song reached its chorus. His muscles were hurting so badly, that he couldn’t help entering that state of numbness and oblivion. He only woke up when the car stopped so abruptly that even his massive body ended up landing between the two front seats. The man cursed at another car, whose driver was obviously drunk, then turned right and stopped in front of Ben’s building. Right on time, although allegedly thirty minutes later.

Ben paid the man and even left him the change too. Maybe he was to consider trying to save money for a new car and if not for a new car, maybe for a new radio.

As Ben was getting out of the car, the driver added cheerfully:

“You know, young sir? Maybe I should save some money for a new car. But with seven kids, it is almost impossible. Maybe I should just save enough for a new radio.”

Ben chuckled and murmured a goodbye, then headed to the restaurant across his building for soup.

Chapter Text

The static noise inside her head was killing her. She touched her head and felt the wetness of the mixture of sweat and blood on her forehead. Her knees were weak, her hands were tied, her ankle was probably broken, as well as some ribs. But she was seeing light for the first time in a long time, a time that could have been days or weeks or months. It couldn’t have been years, because she knew she would have been long dead by now.

She laid on the floor and used her elbows to push herself and roll until she fell out and on the ground. Fresh air and some sort of warmth. Her body was so cold and fragile that all that pleasure was hurting her. She whimpered like a bantered animal and tried to gather all her energy to move. She opened her eyes to find a dark sky full of stars and a full moon. It was all so… beautiful. So beautiful that it kept her from listening to her instincts and held her on spot for too long. The beautiful sky was soon replaced by the shadowy figure of a massive man. She yelled as he grabbed her by her hair and threw her on his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She tried to fight him and at some point, she felt her knee hit something hard and heard the sound of something cracking. One moment of silence and then she was grabbed by the neck and smashed into the side of the truck she had escaped. Her vision turned blurry as the pain was growing stronger. The man repeatedly smashed her frail body into the truck until she could no longer see. He dropped her on the ground, probably leaving her to die, but she was still conscious despite all the alarm signs her body was sending. Maybe her mind was fuzzy and maybe it had been like that for that long time she could no longer estimate, but it was still working properly enough to tell her that she was alive and to allow the static noise grow louder until it finally happened.

Something inside her snapped. She was being lifted once again, but no actual hands were touching her, so she gathered all the courage left in her tiny body and opened her eyes. It was not the man as he was a few meters away from her, getting inside the truck. He had noticed the movement, as he stopped and hurried back to her. She was ready to feel once again the excruciating pain as he lifted his fist in the air to punch her with all of his manly strength. Yet the fist froze in midair and the man’s face gradually changed from expressing sadism to anger to confusion to fear. His arm was suddenly twisted and it broke in such a brutal manner that the bone tore through his flesh and skin. He screamed like a slaughtered animal as his entire body was being torn apart, his screams only stopping once the same invisible force started strangling him. All he could see was the face of his victim and her empty eyes. Until he stopped breathing at all and the body was thrown in the woods like the peel of a banana in the trash can.

Relaxing entirely for the first time, her feet touched the ground once more, feeling the grass and tree bark crush tickling her soles. However, her legs were still too weak to allow her to stand properly and that made the anger inside her ignite once again and spread through her entire body like a virus.

She hobbled behind the truck and looked inside. It was too dark to see anything, but the same entity that killed the man dragged out a girl, who was in a better state than her. She looked at her and tilted her head with a small crack coming from her neck. She was supposed to hug her and feel joy, but she was empty like the carcass of an animal. She exhaled and felt once more the entity enveloping her.

The other girl blinked trying to understand what was happening but was soon pushed to the front of the truck. She climbed in the driver’s seat cautiously and trembling, waiting for the entity to join her in the passenger’s seat. She was not sure whom was she supposed to fear more: her situation or whatever that thing was.

She peaked in the mirror, seeing it secure the back of the truck and then stopping to read the writing on the side. With a vicious growl, the entity jumped by her side and ordered the departure with a huff. As she was starting the car, she began wondering if things were indeed about to finally get better, after months since she had lost her last hope of ever seeing the sky, let alone be free. On the other hand, things might have been on the verge of becoming worse, because she had no idea what had happened to her old cellmate in that forest.

Chapter Text

“Good morning, Mr Solo” the barista smiled. “The usual?”


Ben nodded and waited patiently for his coffee. This thingy was getting more and more fun. His stress and worries about this whole project thing had been easier to cope with once he learnt how to channel his energy. Ok, he was not entirely sure what was going on or how or why, but each time he nailed it, it was bloody fantastic. The food delivery guy was forty minutes late and he could have let it pass, considering that he was well aware of how nightmarish the traffic was in that city, but the guy just ended up being plain rude and unapologetic. He was too hungry and tired to have an argument with an entitled brat, so he simply focused enough and the boy changed his frown into a gentle smiled. He offered an apology and the food free of charge. Ben accepted the apology with much pride, though he was feeling uneasy accepting the food for free. In the end, he paid the meal but refused to tip - after all, his lasagna and crepes were cold and his stomach had been demanding the damn food for too long.

At work, however, he had been rather reluctant to use the trick. He had made Hux and Phasma do his bidding that one time, but it hadn’t been on purpose. Therefore, he had avoided everyone for the entire week, using the project as an excuse to just ignore everyone and not cause any drama. Thankfully, his department consisted only of a handful of people and they were all busy minding their daily tasks. And, boy, they were all busy.
With summer approaching, the high temperatures were helping the virus spread more easily and faster. Each summer there were a couple of outbreaks that ended up causing too many casualties in the poorer regions of the country or in the industrial ones, where the pollution levels were higher. Even the capital was not safe, as people were constantly coming and going and all the cars, buses, trains and planes were creating the perfect environment for that virus. Things seemed a little bit better when PharmStar released that vaccine, but it was only a temporary cure. Of course, for their company, all the cash and the lack of competition was making them all filthy rich; it was an honour to work there, but cashing on a tragedy was anything but honourable. The honourable thing to do would have been donating a significant sum of money to some of those organisations responsible of cleaning the polluted waters, or at least reducing their own chemical waste because PharmStar was a polluter on its own.

“Anything else?”

Ben shook his head and took a sip of coffee. He had barely got any sleep lately and this caffeine abuse was going to mess him up for a while. When was even the last time he ate something? He had that soup on Friday and then some pretzels over the weekend, but for the past few days, he hadn’t actually had any proper food except for a bagel now and then. Speaking of bagels…

“Lilah, do you have some of those smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers bagels?”

The employee shrugged with compassion.

“No, sorry.”

And that was a lie. Phasma had them delivered to her office every Friday and it was not yet lunchtime. All the supervisors and bosses and, for some unknown reason yet, Hux too were eating them at lunch, whereas the other employees were served the day-before-weekend-leftovers. Ben turned his nose up at the Greek salad and yesterday’s turkey with coleslaw and mashed potatoes. He was hungry, but he could also not stand the smell of onions and reheated meat. He would have asked for just mashed potatoes with coleslaw, but he had his doubts regarding the freshness of the mayonnaise and he already knew that Friday mashed potatoes were made of those disgusting flakes. He should have ordered some food from the nearest restaurant, but his lunch break was almost done. Unless he got his hands on some of those bagels.
“Are you sure, Lilah? Because I do know you have a couple of large trays full of them.”

Lilah’s eyes grew wider and she smiled hypnotised.

“How many do you want, Mr Solo?”

 

***

 

“Where did you get those?”

“I made them.”

Ben hid a smile and just enjoyed Hux’s flabbergasted face. He ate what was left in one bite and stood up to go wash his hands. Unfortunately, his second shadow followed him.

“Look… about the project…”

“I don’t care.”

“I just want to be sure that things are alright with you. Your project is the last one to be presented and in case I win, it wouldn’t be nice for you to… you know… throw a tantrum or anything like that.”

Ben snorted. Wasn’t that little boy a little bit too confident?

“You do realise that I don’t need to win? I’ve been working here for years. They know what I am capable of. Unlike you, I don’t need to impress anyone.”

He turned around and left the restroom. He grabbed his belongings off his desk and entered the meeting room. Some of his colleagues were there and Phasma and other board members had just entered the room and were chatting nonchalantly. He took a seat and listened carefully to the discussion about labels, new ads, feedback from the public, some backlash in the wake of a new plague outbreak and export.

Ben didn’t care about any of those things and he was becoming impatient.

“Now about the next product launch” Phasma spoke, “Ben Solo will show us his idea and I think that we can already decide which route to follow.”

Ben stood up and turned on the projector. He took his time presenting his analysis of the market and some of the past campaigns that helped him support his choice in terms of ad suggestions, name and slogan. He had his charts perfectly researched and he even went over the top with his sketches and samples for the main ad.

“Alderaan: Let the Force Awaken.”

Everybody remained silent as the projector entered in stand by mode. It felt as if no one had the courage to speak up and instead of this worrying him, Ben felt the anger build inside him. It was embarrassing and humiliating as if they were trying to coddle him with that silence. He knew that his presentation was far from perfect, but it was slightly better than some of his colleagues’ projects and he had never intended to participate in this campaign more than required.

“Soooo…” one of the board members broke the silence. “Alderaan.”

“Alderaan? Why does it sound so familiar?”

“It is my mother’s hometown and I…” attempted Ben to explain.

“Isn’t Alderaan that city that was almost wiped off the map during the war? And it eventually was wiped off the map when the canal was built.”

Ben nodded.

“Yes, but it used to be the heart of modern medicine and for 200 years, Alderaan had provided the best plan-based treatments. Alderaan was the one responsible for curing some of the most dangerous diseases. It is an honourable nod.”

“Sorry, Ben, but it sounds too much like painkillers and we don’t want to mislead the public.”

Ben fought his urge to roll his eyes, so he coughed and came up with a new title.

“How about Corellia?”

“Corellia? Now that sounds better.”

“Yes, but Corellia is that industrial city. It is a strong name for a great economic power, but do we really want our product to be associated with a place that pollutes? I mean… PharmStar is the only company that managed to come up with a vaccine that cured the plague caused by pollution.”

“Why not mix them? Something like Ald...ellia. Aldellia!

“Aldellia is too… feminine. Sounds more like a cheese spread or butter.”

Ben sighed.

“Aldcore?”

One board member stood up all excited and pounded his fist on the table.

“It’s perfect! Aldcore!”

He should have felt proud, but he was just tired and in need of a vacation, so he went back to his seat and waited for all the murmuring to cease.

“Alright now” a board member took over the discussion. We have decided unanimously to declare Armitage Hux as the leader of this campaign. His project has impressed us the most. We are going to use the name Aldcore as suggested by Mr Solo, considering that he is the runner up. But we did have to consider the unfair advantage some of you had.”

Ben tilted his head. He had never expected Phasma to tell anyone about that incident and less alone allow them to bring up intellectual theft. Yet, the wording was making him feel uneasy.

“Mr Solo’s project was very good, but he did know more details about the product than his colleagues.”

Ben was shocked. The entire room was suddenly full of whispers and he was able to sense the outrage of his colleagues. Phasma used his own trick against him! She looked at him smugly, defying him with no shame. She had forgiven Hux, but she had turned him up. Ben glared at her, feeling a wave of energy invading his body, then leaving it like a bunch of radiations.

“Congratulations, Mr Hux and everybody else. We are going to email you all the details regarding your responsibilities for this campaign. And we…”

Phasma looked at Ben again, who was still glaring at her. She cleared her throat and continued:

“And we… umm… we demand the same level of confidentiality as usual. As the campaign leader, Mr. Hux will be able to guide you best as he is…”

People were beginning to notice her lack of self-control and they were getting slightly worried. It was unusual for her to be overwhelmed by emotions, let alone not be consistent. Maybe she was sick or maybe…

“As he is my lover and spy. He stole his idea from Mr Solo and I had to cover him up because I needed my Armie to work so close to me. I didn’t discredit Ben Solo just because he knew about the product. To be honest, I told him myself all he needed to know, but I had to make him look untrustworthy… preventively.”

No one was saying anything and it felt as if no one even dared to breathe. Ben relaxed his muscles and shifted his angry gaze on the water jug. He had wasted too much time there. Too many years and too much effort for nothing. He stood up and took off his name tag, throwing it on the table.

"You will have my resignation on your table on Monday morning.”

Chapter Text

“We can’t possibly go back there!”

The little driver threw the wet towel on the floor and grabbed a clean T-shirt. They had been travelling for days and breaking into store after store and house after house. Now they were in a vacation house they found by a lake on their way to nowhere. It was already difficult travelling with eleven other women hidden in a truck, but not having any real place to go was making their escape even more difficult. They had already decided that going to the police was out of the question, because their abductors were influential and rich. Many girls could not even remember where they used to live or their full names. Even going to the emergency room was dangerous, especially considering what their abductors had done to them when they ‘misbehaved’. And now the rescuer was suggesting going back to the place they where they had been held captive.

“They will kill us or worse - sell us again. The girls would rather kill themselves right now than go back there. We need another plan.”

The little driver was trying her best to seem brave and fearless, but her old cellmate already knew that it was just a facade. She was even more afraid than the ones she was protecting.

The rescuer finally spoke.

“I don’t want you to come with me. I am the one who needs to go back. You and the girls can stay hidden until you find a safe place to go. The meds and food I stole won’t be of much help for too long.”

She caressed the head of one girl whose left arm was paralysed after all the torture she had endured. Now she was sleeping with her belly full and with the hope that she was finally safe. Safe from all those men using them, abusing them, torturing them… She felt the same wave of energy invading her body like before. The pain. All that pain and suffering.

“I am going to leave tonight. You stay here with the girls.”

“You can’t drive.”

“I will find a way to reach Jakku on my own.”

The little driver pondered her pal’s plan still not being able to understand what was she going to do once she reached Jakku. She left the living room and entered the kitchen. She grabbed a chocolate bar and ate it enjoying every single bite. Their abductors had fed them well, but only enough to survive whatever they had in plan for them. And then, when all thirteen of them started ‘misbehaving’, the portions had diminished significantly. That’s why they had decided to sell them and send them across the border once they were no longer of use to them. She looked at her scars. Now she was able to see that they were all names. The names of those who had raped her for the past months. She knew that there were girls there who had survived for years before suddenly disappearing. They just happened to plan their exit much quicker.

She threw the wrapper in the garbage can and went back in the living room. Some girls were asleep in the bedrooms upstairs, but some were sleeping on the sofa under he friend’s care.

“I am coming with you.”

The other girl shook her head.

“It’s my mission. Besides… the girls need you.”

“You all need me. We all need each other right now, including you yourself. If we leave now, I will be able to return by lunch.”

“No.”

“I don’t think you get it. I am not asking for your permission.”

Chapter Text

“And as I was saying…” Ben took another bite out of his spinach lasagne.

 

“I’ve already written my resignation and tomorrow I will drop it there and then I will mind my own business. I have enough money to live comfortably for a long time and I have my side projects as well. They should thank me for not suing them.”

 

His mother laughed and he knew that she loved him being all passionate about something, even if that something meant quitting the job he had since he was a college student.

 

“What about you, my star?”

 

Leia sighed and he knew that she was working too much. Again.

 

“We rescued the mother of eight children last week. She was doing great, but she ran away back to them and her husband. Today, the police found her dead by the lake. They’ve arrested her husband, but those eight tiny souls… Amilyn and I are considering opening an orphanage too, but the paperwork is killing us. Unless…”

 

Ben already knew what she was about to say.

 

“Unless my beloved son would finally use that degree of his instead of wasting it on promoting coughing drops.”

 

She was… quite right.

 

“Mom…”

 

“Ben, you’ve worked so hard to become a lawyer. That internship at PharmStar was nice and everything when you were a student, but you are not an actual public relations specialist or whatever you’re doing there.”

 

“Actually… after six years, I’ve learnt more than I would have in college. Besides, starting tomorrow I am not going to be their employee anymore. And I am going to spend my free time wisely.”

 

“Like taking and passing your bar exam for example and joining The Resistance?”

 

Men chuckled. He admired his mom’s dedication and everything she achieved, all the souls she saved, but she tended to be so dramatic. She was his mother after all.

 

“I will consider it.”

 

“And maybe you will consider visiting me as well?”

 

“That too. And I won’t be visiting you all by myself.”

 

“Any news from your girlfriend? Wasn’t she supposed to be back already?”

 

Ben chewed slowly. His heart was sort of hurting him each time he remembered his girlfriend.

 

“Yeah, but her phone has no reception. I am starting to get worried.”

 

He heard a faint knock on the door. He ignored it at first, knowing that some of his neighbours always had something to complain about, but the person knocking was insisting a little bit too much.

 

“Mom, I’ll call you back tomorrow. Bye.”

 

He jumped over an ottoman and opened the door without even checking who was visiting him. He had been attacked before and had had his share of arguments with his nosy neighbours, so he was ready to face anything and anyone. Or maybe almost anyone…

 

He stood there surprised for a couple of moments and then he smiled like a child, before hugging his girlfriend tightly. He spun her around his living room and kissed her hungrily. Her presence there and their bodies touching was almost too much to believe. 

 

“I’ve missed you so much.”

 

“So have I…” she smiled shyly, which was not exactly her style.

 

“Anything wrong, my love?”

 

He was genuinely worried. She was finally there, yet she seemed so uncomfortable.

 

“I need to talk to you, Ben.”

 

He put her down, her hands remaining on his wide shoulders. She stood quietly, then caressed his cheek, feeling the stubble tickling her palm. 

 

“I’ve been waiting for you. Where is your luggage?”

 

“At my friend’s place. She picked me up at the airport and let me crash…”

 

“You know you could have asked me to come to pick you up with flowers and all that.”

 

“There was no need, Ben” she chuckled. He was always so dramatic.

 

“I know you are busy.”

 

“Not too busy for you. And in fact, I am not busy at all anymore. I am quitting my job.”

 

She analysed his proud face not exactly willing to believe him after years of saying the same thing and always ending up wasting more time at PharmStar.

 

“Are you finally going to become a lawyer?”

 

Ben said nothing and just rolled his eyes amused. 

 

“I just want a break. This way I will have more time for you and our relationship.”

 

Her face turned serious again.

 

“Yeah… about that…”

 

“Do you want to eat? I have lasagne. Or maybe some tiramisu?”

 

Ben’s enthusiasm was too much to handle.

 

“I would like some tiramisu, thank you.”

 

She did accept his invitation but was still behaving somehow awkwardly. She was avoiding his gaze and she was rubbing her hands together as if anticipating something. However, Ben was not too eager to ruin his happiness and entire with questions.

 

“So why are you quitting your job if not because you want to take your bar exam?”

 

“I had some unpleasant moments I couldn’t get over.”

 

His girlfriend was not impressed nor satisfied with his answer. He shrugged and gave her his tiramisu cake, then sat at the dining table with her. He only used the dining table when she was there.

 

“Long story short: the new co-worker I told you about is Phasma’s lover apparently and he felt entitled to steal my idea and present it as his. Then Phasma sabotaged my other project and admitted in front of everyone. I… I think I’ve been wasting too much time working for PharmStar.”

 

“Honey, I’ve been telling you this for years.”

 

“I know” he shrugged again looking like a scolded child about to be grounded.

 

“But I had high hopes. The salary and benefits are great, but I don’t think I am willing to let myself be treated like this anymore. I am just… done.”

 

She took his large hand into hers. Her eyes were telling him that she was pitying him. However, Ben couldn’t see or feel any love or romantic affection coming from her. His heart was beating faster than ever and he was getting hot. He stood up and opened the largest window, letting the breeze enter his apartment. 

 

“So how’s your job? I’ve seen your coverages and they were amazing.”

 

“Thank you” she smiled flattered, which was also something unusual to her, as she was rather a woman full of pride. Of course, she was justified to be proud of her achievements after all.

 

“I am back for good” she added after a long silence.

 

“I am staying here. I already discussed this with my boss and I am going to get a less dangerous job and host my own TV show.”

 

“That’s amazing.”

 

Ben knelt in front of her and kissed her. She did not kiss him back. Ben looked into her eyes and laid his cards on the table.

 

“Do you still love me, Renee?”

 

She blinked slowly as if pondering the answer, then she exhaled and shook her head.

 

“You fool. Of course, I love you. You are the love of my life.”

 

She touched his hair, playing with his black locks and pressed her forehead against his. Ben grabbed her by her thighs and pulled her off the chair and onto his lap. They both giggled and kissed each other hastily. Renée began unbuttoning his shirt, while his hands were pulling down her black leather pants. They had months to make up for.

 

***

 

Ben woke up on the sofa hours later, with Renee underneath him. He kissed the space between her soft breasts and got up. His phone was vibrating, announcing him that he had some missed calls and unread text messages. He rubbed his eyes and threw himself on the bed. The bedcover was cold and it felt good against his bare skin. 

 

He checked the missed calls and did not recognise any of those numbers. It was Sunday evening and no one was working at that hour to just call him. He opened his inbox and deleted the messages announcing him that his online purchases had been confirmed and were ready to be delivered in a couple of days. Another one was from his mom asking him about Renée’s arrival, whereas the last one was from Phasma asking him to check his email. He was about to open the email app when Renée showed up at the door, wearing nothing but her crumbled white shirt. Her hair was messy, her lipstick was all over her face and she seemed troubled.

 

“Sorry, did I wake you up?”

 

“Mmm yes. But it’s fine. I think I should head back to my friend’s place. Now I’d just like to use your shower.”

 

Ben admired her long legs and the crossed swords she had tattooed on her thigh. He looked at his phone and turned it off completely, shoving it later under the pillow. 

 

“Don’t you want to stay here overnight? You know… like before?”

 

He was still naked and visibly ready to make up some more for all those months spent all alone, just him and his responsibilities. Renée lifted her chin and then, like an Android, moved awkwardly and joined him in bed.

 

***

 

Monday morning, Mr Solo entered the PharmStar headquarters wearing casual clothes. The front desk clerk looked at him with disgust and Ben rolled his eyes. Jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt were apparently too much to handle for some. He used his badge to access the elevator and went to his department’s floor. As soon as he stepped out of the elevator, there was an awkward silence soon followed by whispers. They were all avoiding him, yet they were all talking about him as if he was too stupid to figure it out. He ignored his co-workers and headed towards Phasma’s office. He knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an invite. 

 

The office was empty.

 

“Mrs Scyre?”

 

“She’s not here. Sit.”

 

He turned around to look at the man who had just entered the office. He knew him from the board meetings and he was the one who liked his project the most. However, he did not know his name.

 

“Hello, Mr Solo. Mrs Scyre won’t be here, but I am going to attend you and... Why are you dressed like that? We do have a dress code, you know?

 

“I am not an employee anymore.”

 

“You are not fired.”

 

“I know. I am the one resigning.”

 

What the hell? He had heard Phasma and was well aware of what had happened.

 

“No. You don’t get it. Phasma was demoted and the board has decided to give you her office and job.”

 

“What?”

 

The man sat on a chair and waved his hand, but Ben was not having it. The man sighed and Ben eventually accepted his invitation.

 

“The CEO found out about the entire… let’s not call it a scandal, but an incident. Of course, the entire company found out, because gossip spreads quicker than the plague virus during summer. It’s not my job to tell you this, but she wasn’t fired, because, as well know, her uncle was one of the founding fathers of this company. However, both she and Hux were sent to other departments. Now, this office is empty and the only candidate for this position is you.”

 

“But I am resigning.”

 

“Look, Benjamin…”

 

The man touched his shoulder reminding him of his father’s manipulative ways.

 

“May I call you Benjamin?”

 

“No.”

 

“Ok, then. Mr Solo, we need someone who knows how things are around here and you are the only one left who has been working here for years. The CEO wants you, the board wants you and I am sure we can get you an apology from Mrs Scyre and Mr Hux.”

 

“No.”

 

The man sighed again at Ben’s stubbornness, though he was beginning to appreciate him and his strong character.

 

“Think about it. The CEO loved your project… actually both of them. He did say that ‘The Force Awakens’ was too much like a Viagra slogan, though we might use it later if we decide to launch such a product.”

 

That wasn’t even the slogan.

 

“But he wants us to use the logo from your first project and the rest from the other, except for the name, which he also agreed it needs to be changed to Aldcore.”

 

Ben said nothing.

 

“The salary will be of course much bigger, your health insurance will cover more potential health issues and so on. I don’t know them by heart, but once you will get the contract, you can read them. It is a great honour and let me tell you this: after what Phasma did to you, it is also the best revenge you can get. So… what do you say?”

 

***

 

“It does sound like viagra, baby.”

 

Renee kissed his cheek as she was playing with his dark locks. She was disappointed at first, but after she saw his enthusiasm, her heart softened and she felt like she had to offer him her entire support. Now his naked body was crushing her, but she didn’t mind it. His usually gloomy aura and apathy were being overshadowed by his enthusiasm and excitement. 

 

“So what did you want to tell me last night?”

 

Renee listened to his words and felt a sharp numbing pain. She hadn’t drunk anything the previous night, so there was no chance of her having a hangover.

 

“I can’t remember right now. Probably nothing important.”

 

Ben kissed her and then stretched his arm over her, reaching his nightstand. He took out a weird looking key and then got up and went to his wardrobe. He pushed one of the sliding doors and bent over. Renee tried to peek, but all she was able to see was rather inappropriate, had she ignored what they were doing just a couple of moments before. Ben returned by her side with a small white box.

 

Renee blinked all confused then looked at him.

 

“My mother taught me to not ignore the signs when I see them. All these changes and you coming back for good… maybe it is fate trying to tell us that everything has settled down for us to take the next step.”

 

“Ben, I…”

 

He ignored her pleas and spoke further.

 

“Do you want to be my wife?”

 

Renée’s eyes were watery and she was feeling a huge conflict building inside her.

 

“I don’t know what to say.”

 

“How about yes?”

 

She froze for a couple of moments and then bent over and kissed him.

 

“Yes. I do want to be your wife.”

Chapter Text

It was as if nothing had changed. The heat was overbearing and the mosquitoes and other disgusting bugs were as annoying as they both remembered. At least some things never change. The marshes were a tad stinky from all the dead fish and because of the drought, whereas all of the Jakku islands and marshes were nothing but a wasteland.

The two girls turned off the boat’s engine and used the oars to approach the docks. They tied the rope around a pole and then got off the stolen boat after hours spent in the scorching sun.

The island was dead silent.

They climbed up the stairs to the main street and looked left and right for any living being. However, except for some crickets and toads, the place was empty, as if deserted.

The little driver followed her friend, whose gaze was wild and similar to the one of a vicious beast. They walked down the main street – the only street – until the girl stopped and lifted her arm. The driver stopped and felt her heart beating faster than… actually, her frenzied heartbeat was as rapid as it was that night. She exhaled loudly, feeling the anxiety overwhelming her.

It was too much.

She was going to get caught, beaten, raped over and over again and then sold to some even sicker owner. Just like the last time.

She sensed her knees getting weaker and at some point, she felt the hot ground touching and burning her skin. She didn’t want to disappoint her friend, but, at the same time, she didn’t want her to face their enemies all by herself.

“Mei!”

Her friend hugged her and let her cry on her shoulder. It was actually great that there was no one there to bother them. When the sobs ceased, Mei felt her lifting her in her arms and carry her for a while, as if she was nothing but a feather. He friend from before barely had any strength to walk on her own, but ever since that night, she had the strength of thousands of men.

She smiled.

She deserved all that strength, regardless of how weird it made her look and behave.

When Mei finally dared to open her eyes, they were in an orchard. That scented aroma of plants and earliest fruit to ripe… it was as if she was a child all over again. 

“I feel it too.”

“Where are we?” she asked while tears were streaming down her face once again.

“It’s too beautiful to be Jakku.”

Her friend caressed her head, feeling the scars left by all those months of abuse they’d both endured. She looked at the trees and bit her lip.

“This used to be my home. I’m surprised they’ve left my trees intact. But there is nothing else left. There is a huge hole where our cellar used to be and some metal poles from the stables. The rest is gone.”

Mei looked where the girl was pointing at and sighed.

“Maybe we should go see my home after we put an end to this.”

“Of course.”

It was a little bit ridiculous to even question her sanity after everything she had witnessed and experienced, but Mei was now wondering if her mind was playing tricks on her. But no. Her friend was trying her best to make her feel better and even attempted to smile. It was more of a painful grimace, but she was still grateful. 

“Now what?”

“Now we wait.”

 

***

 

And so they waited.

They took off their shoes and walked holding hands, on the warm grass, protected by the foliage of the fruit trees. Mei was listening carefully to all the stories about what used to be there, finally seeing glimpses of what her friend was referring to back then when she was trying to survive on her memories of her past life. As time passed, the cold breeze and engine noises were slowly announcing that the fishermen were returning home.

After all that time they spent isolated, the noise coming from the main street felt as if it was coming from another realm. They both were feeling like outsiders and knew they were outsiders. They had been abducted from their families and sent to something worse than prison. The Jakku islands had their own fairy tales and all of them were about ungrateful or misbehaving children being punished for not appreciating the treasures of Jakku or the life their parents were offering them. The girls knew they were those children from the stories, except the wicked water spirits, the evil forest lady or the half-human, half-coyote beings they encountered were not actually supernatural. No… their punishers were living and breathing human beings. Or at least for now.

They snuck out of the orchard and went down the street to a large wooden house with reed covering its porch. The fence was also made out of reed, which made it easier for them to make a hole in it and sneak into the backyard. Some old boats were lying around as containers for empty bottles of alcohol, and a filthy sofa as a replacement for a normal garden bench. Mei remembered the improvised bed from her first prison and she knew her friend was having flashbacks as well. The difference was that her knees were shaking, whereas her friend was giving off that weird energy as before. She watched her sneak into the shed, while she stayed there. The buzzing noise coming from the water was eerie as if announcing a countdown to a tragedy.

At some point, she approached a window and checked what was going on inside. The three little pigs were there. They were visibly drunk and barely awake, with only the TV keeping them from not snoring.

The youngest had probably felt her presence, as he looked straight at her, his face changing gradually from relaxed to the most terrified.

“A GHOST!”

Mei was lucky for once. The other two pigs did not even flinch. However, the youngest stumbled out of the room and she was sure he was about to come out and get her. She ran back to the hole in the fence and hid. She could hear the door being flung open with a long creaking sound. She kept her eyes shut, focusing only on the noises, being too afraid to face anything or anyone that was coming to get her.

Some frogs and crickets and footsteps.

That was all for the moment.

She exhaled trying to not make a noise.

“You!”

She heard him say.

“You should not be here. Are you a ghost?”

He was obviously too drunk to panic properly, but that was not making her any less anxious.

“You killed me.”

That was her friend’s voice!

Mei opened her eyes and looked around. She could scarcely see the man kneeling and pleading.

“Please… please forgive. I didn’t want to. You know I never wanted.”

Mei saw his body being lifted in the air by an unseen force and slowly getting contorted. She got out of her hiding place to come closer and see his face all scared and in terrible pain. His mouth was wide open, but no sound was coming out. It was fascinating. The bones breaking and penetrating the flesh and tanned skin, and the deformed face. She could not help but smile at the entire scene. She was impatiently waiting for his heart to stop beating. She was maybe a bad person, but he was worse.

He suddenly fell on the ground and seemed to be struggling with breathing. She was confused. Why was he still alive? She looked at her friend or at what was once her buddy, now turned into a beast-like entity with empty eyes. She could not wait any longer. She grabbed the first thing she could find and hit the man. She groaned as she heard the skull breaking under her fierce blows. She kept on hitting him and bashing his brains in until her arms were too tired to carry on. It didn’t matter anyway as all was left of him was a mass of blood, shattered bones and flesh. For one moment, she felt sorry for the guy, but it was just for only one moment, just like he showed her mercy only for one moment.

She wiped some of the blood off her face and looked for her friend. Yet she was not there anymore. She crawled to the door and peeked inside. She was expecting her friend to be there, torturing the others, but there was no sight of her or the others. She suddenly heard a gasp and a scream, then she felt the floor shaking under heavy steps until she was almost stepped on and squashed like a bug. The other two hugged their brother’s remains and wept. She wasn’t aware that such creatures could feel pain. She watched them suffer without any bit of remorse. Only later the eldest pig noticed her. He squinted his eyes slowly recognizing her and then, with a demonic gaze, he screamed and jumped at her. For the first time, she did not close her eyes nor turned away. She was ready to feel his heavy body crushing hers when he noticed him stop and float. She chuckled knowing her guardian angel was still there.

“YOU!”

The entity joined Mei and lifted the other pig as well, throwing them inside the house like a pair of filthy old shoes. She helped her stand up and stepped inside together. The two were trying to get themselves together, yet had not even the tiniest chance against the entity. Just like she and Mei had no chance against them a long time ago. 

***

There was too much happiness.

No.

Happiness was something pure and devoid of all evil. No… this was just demonic pleasure she was feeling. No decent human could feel such excitement and fulfilment watching two people being tortured in the worst possible manners. Her family was humble and religious and they all would have felt shame watching her soaked in her enemies’ blood and knowing how much joy was in her heart. But the thing was that she had no idea where her family was and what happened to them after her disappearance. Maybe they thought she had run away. Maybe some of them were gone or went mad after not knowing her whereabouts.

She stabbed the eldest pig’s stomach with a fire poker and watched him die like the worthless piece of trash he was. Her friend insisted on leaving him alive so that he could suffer more by experiencing at least a tiny part of what they had and knowing that he was responsible for the others’ gruesome deaths. But no. And it was not because she was merciful, but because she had to be selfish one last time.

She was feeling free.

She knew she was not entirely free, at least from her friend’s point of view, but for now, it was more than enough. Going to jail seemed like heaven on earth compared to where they had been and what had endured.

“Is it over?”

She dared asked after her anger was no longer burning her soul.

“Is it finally over?”

Her friend looked at her and blinked calmly. It was indeed over for now. She took a step forward to hug her like back then when they were caged, but a sharp pain in her neck stopped her. She grunted and massaged that place, feeling with the tip of her fingers something under her skin. The electric wave of her fingers appeared to have crushed whatever was there as a final pain went through her body. She shook off the shivers and then looked again at her friend. She was smiling, but Mei wasn’t. She had a blank stare and was trembling.

“Mei?”

Mei began to convulse as blood started pouring out of her mouth, nose and ears. The girl managed to catch her before falling to the ground. She called her name and tried to make her come back to her senses, but as the final convulsion shook her body, Mei was dead. All that was left of her was a malnourished scarred carcass.

The girl held her tight and wept her sudden departure until the poignant smell of blood was already too unbearable, even for her. She looked around her at the mess she created and wiped off her tears.

Her revenge had only just begun.

Chapter Text

“...The bodies were found weeks after the disappearance of the three brothers was noticed by their neighbours. The three had been living alone since last year when their father passed away. The neighbours reported that no one saw their disappearance as something strange as most people living on the Jakku islands often leave their homes for days or even weeks to go fishing in the legal areas. The brothers had their own boat and were often heard about their success and contracts. Now what is actually strange is that the men were not just murdered, but mauled so badly that they were difficult to identify even by the people who saw them grow up their entire life. There is no chance an animal was responsible as their remains were analysed found to not have any bite marks, but actual wounds inflicted by weapons and physical torture. Two of them even had their gen…”

Ben went to the water dispenser and grabbed himself a glass of ice-cold water. Things were already a little bit too tensed and he didn’t need to listen to such gruesome news. He took a sip and counted to one hundred, then he returned to his seat from the waiting room and looked at the flat screen. The field reporter was no longer on the screen, her image having been replaced by one of the two news anchors. 

“This is the second crime scene involving torture this month, the first one being the discovery of the eleven women, who had broken into a vacation house. We remind you that they were found there by the owner’s cleaning lady, who was there to clean up the place before the arrival of her boss. The eleven young women were identified, despite the severe deformations their bodies had suffered and the stage of decomposition. Fortunately, their families were able to claim their remains and bury them. Most of them stated that the women had been missing for years, some for up to five years, whereas some were not even aware that their beloved ones had been missing. So far, there hasn’t been found any connection between the victims, and the cause of death was not revealed by the authorities, at the request of their families.”

“Man, you can’t even go out anymore.”

Ben ignored the man sitting next to him. He understood his indignation, but actual people died and it was such a selfish gesture to think about trivial things. Jakku was an isolated area that people barely remembered during Geography lessons, let alone on a daily basis. The other area was usually mostly abandoned except for vacation season.

“Poor children...” added an elderly lady with big glasses and amended cane. Ben heard her when she was talking to the nurse and mentioned her age. She was 98 years old and the oldest of those girls was only twenty-three. His heart was hurting. For the past weeks, ever since he was promoted, he had been plagued by horrible nightmares. 

He could feel the pain, his blood boiling, the electric shocks, the beatings, the abuse, the sadness, the anger, the madness, the desperation.

He could smell the blood, the fluids, the meds, the burnt flesh, the rotten fish, the filth.

He had had his share of nightmares back when he was attacked by some guy from his father’s entourage. He felt powerless and weak back then, but now he was still powerless, yet angry and ready to fight.

But that was only the dream realm. What was he supposed to do with that vision he had while working? One moment, he was analysing some photos, the next one, all he saw was blood and corpses. And now this. There was no actual proof or even reason to consider this possibility, but something inside him was telling him that his vision and the murders were somehow related. Now the question was why did he see those things in the first place? He looked at his hands and clenched his fists. The pity he felt for the victims and disgust for the criminal was slowly changing into disgust for the victims and pity for the criminal.

“Done.”

Ben flinched and looked at Renee, who was pulling her wallet out of the bag. He stood up and put his large palm on her back, touching with his index finger the tips of her long dark blonde hair.

“What did the doctor tell you?”

“The blood tests are going to be out in a couple of days, but so…”

“Renee!”

Both Renee and Ben turned to look at the man who came running and hugged the young woman by surprise. Ben took a step back and crossed his arms over his chest. His fiancée seemed lost and confused as if she was fighting against herself. She did not hug him back at first, but eventually, put her arms around his neck as if…

Ben cleared his voice and even though the two ignored his presence, they stopped hugging. The man cupped Renée’s face.

“Wha… where have you been these weeks?”

“I…”

Renee looked at Ben and licked her lips.

“I have been busy. Sorry for disappearing like that.”

Disappearing?

Ben cleared his voice again and came closer to Renee. 

“Hey, I’m Ben.”

“Yeah, I know you.” 

The man told him in a bitter tone.

“Ben is my fiancée.”

All she wanted was to leave that place and escape the embarrassing situation, not put herself in a more difficult one. Why did she even bring up her engagement?

“Ben, this is my most trustworthy coworker. He is the reason why all of my stories ended up being so amazing.”

The man suddenly looked uncomfortable and out of place. He let go of her hands and sighed miserably.

“I need to go now, but call me, please. We really have to talk.”

“Sure.”

Ben waited until the man left and only then he had the courage to look at his fiancée. She was sad. What on earth was going on?

“Sweetheart?”

“Can you, please, drop me downtown?”

“I thought we are going to eat breakfast together… or brunch at least at this hour.”

Renee shook her head still visibly distressed.

“I don’t want you to skip work the entire day. Thank you anyway for coming with me here.”

“Of course. I am always here for you.”

Renee smiled, but Ben knew that she was only miserably trying to make him more comfortable. He waited for her to finish with all the paperwork and then took her downtown. His beloved was too pale even considering her fair complexion and he was not sure if it was safe leaving her all alone. It was already too hot outside despite the early hours and she was so fragile.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“Kiss me.”

She hesitated.

“Renée? Kiss me.”

She blinked and then bent and kissed him. She got out of the taxi and Ben watched her head towards the old town hall now turned art museum, but he knew she was not actually going to the museum. Behind it, there was a tall building and the map on his phone revealed to him that it was a private clinic. Now what was she hiding and what had happened on Jakku before she came back?

“To work, young sir?”

“Yes. But take your time.”

 

***

 

Inside PharmStar, the silence was deafening. Of course, order and quietness were typical of that place, but there was something more, something that was suffocating. It was as if the entire balance of their small universe had been disrupted.

“Hello, Talla.”

The young receptionist took his pass checked it manually.

“Hello, Mr Solo. Reason for arriving this late?”

Ben sighed at his company’s policy of being indiscreet for the sake of safety and order. 

“Medical reasons. So what’s new around here?”

The woman shrugged, but her eyes were revealing something more. She touched a loc and looked at the screen.

“The big boss is here and everyone is going crazy.”

“Why so?”

“I obviously have no idea, but the others have been whispering around and acting as if something bad happened.”

Ben said nothing and just nodded a thank you when she returned his badge. He took the elevator up to his floor and hid in his office before the others even noticed him. He wasted no time and turned his computer on. Some of Phasma’s files were still in that office and the email address still had all the emails saved in perfectly organised folders. At the previous board meeting, he was still the new guy and barely understood any of the things that were being discussed there and only minded his own files. Except for the plans for Aldcore’s promotion and official launching event, he was just an extra. An extra that was carefully analysed by the curious eyes of the big boss. Mr Snoke was a weird man if he even was a man. His visage was closer to one of the lab rats he spotted when he took a tour the first time he was hired there as an intern.

Once the computer was finally turned on, Ben accessed the email address and started reading them. At first, he read every single word and looked for keywords or secret messages, but, after a while, they were all too repetitive and redundant for him to keep on focusing. The files weren’t of much help either as they were just simple archives full of projects he had already been part of. Everything was so clean that only a fool would believe there were no secrets.

He sighed all exasperated and accessed the common folders. He introduced his username and password being completely aware that everything was being recorded. Why was he even so desperate to ruin everything for himself? It was as if he was longing for disaster and misery. Why not just enjoy his new position, fancy lunches, Hux’s stupid face each time he saw him sit with the other important guys, and his overall relationship with Renee?

Gotcha! 

For just a couple of seconds, a satellite image of a PharmStar truck abandoned in an arid area was shown on his screen. Were they facing attacks and people were trying to steal their products or sell fake ones using their brand? Was there a traitor?

“Solo?”

Ben jumped off his chair and wiped his sweaty palms on his blazer. His only actual connection with the rest of the board was there with an assistant pushing a file trolly full of folders and rolled up posters.

“We have a small emergency and we need you to look over these files. After the boss sends you his requirements, please tell your team to get on it as soon as possible. I know the Aldcore project is the most important thing right now, but this might be as important or maybe even more.”

“Anything wrong?”

“I can’t tell you anything for now. But you might have to write a statement for the press.”

 

He promised himself one thing and that was to leave his office as soon the clock showed 6 pm. But now it was getting closer to midnight and his work was not done yet. At least no one could complain about him arriving so late that day. He barely had time to get through half of those files even by skipping lunch and staying over hours. Of course, he did not dare ask his subalterns to do the same. So far, it was his responsibility. He did dedicate an hour of his time to writing a statement for their social media platforms and noted down some possible questions and answers in case he had to be interviewed by the press. It seemed that that truck was not a small deal and that his suspicions were somehow true.

A stack of folders feel on the floor and Ben grunted. He was too tired to even bother picking them up. He needed coffee. The cafeteria was closed at that late hour and Phasma had a no coffee policy, which he hadn’t thought about yet, but he knew the night shift had a large coffee machine somewhere. He stretched his arms and yawned as he left the office. He took the elevator down to the lobby and headed towards the guardian’s office. He was about to knock when he heard voices coming from the room. Something about a fire. A fire? But no alarms were announcing a fire. No. It wasn’t about PharmStar. It was about a house. A house burnt down. Truck. He heard the word loud and clear. It was surely the same truck he saw abandoned in that photo. What was going on?

He ran back to the elevator, maybe a little bit too fast, and went to his office. He picked up all the folders and stacked them on his desk, then grabbed his things and left. The guard was patrolling as if he were a lion in a cage.

“May I help you?”

His voice was the one he heard before.

“I am leaving.”

He gave him his badge and the man handed it to the other guard sitting at the front desk. 

“Reason for leaving this late?”

“Some extra assignments.”

The guard mumbled and focused on whatever was on the screen. He was not as fast or prompt as Talla, so Ben wasted no more time and placed an order for a taxi. He was not feeling safe around those men, though they seemed harmless. Maybe harmless enough to ask them about that truck and the fire. After all, his position in that company was much higher than theirs and yet he knew nothing. 

“You can go now.”

“Thanks…”

He turned around and left pretending he was ok and unaware of anything. It wasn’t as if he were aware of at least one thing in the first place, but he knew that it was not healthy nor safe to have any suspicions in that place. Even going through all those files was a foolish thing to do and he was a fool, just like his father, but not careless. His father was a sly fox, but he had his mother’s wit. Therefore, he knew that at such a late hour, a group of teens heading towards a guy wearing a fancy suit and a briefcase was not a mere coincidence, or at least not in that city and with people needing money for the upcoming plague outbursts. The teens laughed at each other and began distancing from one another, one of them touching his chest for what surely was a weapon. Their eyes met and the teens were full of arrogance and amusement. Ben noticed one of those who left the group trying to sneak by him, probably to attack him by surprise.

Leave .” 

He clenched his fist and hissed at the boy.

He took a step back when he heard someone honking at him. He got into the car and closed the door.

“Can you play some of your cassettes tonight?”

He asked instead of saying hello.

By the time Send Me An Angel had reached its chorus, he was already half asleep. He opened his eyes much later, awakened by the green light coming from the pharmacy next to his building. He paid his favourite taxi driver and left him something extra for the kids, and then dragged his feet to the entrance. The cold breeze felt great on his skin and for one moment he could sense the scent of fruit trees and grass, although he knew very well there were none. There was no space for such things in that concrete jungle. Except for the parks, residential neighbourhoods on the outskirts and that fancy cherry tree boulevard where retired politicians and former royals live, that city barely had any nature to remind them that they are humans and not robots. Artificiality came as a full package.

When he entered his apartment, everything was dark and he could only hear the air conditioner and the fridge buzzing. It wasn’t that late after all, but with all that tranquillity, he was expecting Renee to be asleep in his… their bedroom. He entered his bedroom like a sneaky cat and went into the bathroom. He took off his clothes a took a warm shower. His shower gel bottle was empty, so he used Renee’s almond, milk and honey flavoured one, yet the scent he kept on smelling was one of grass and fruit trees. He was in the capital city, surrounded by tall buildings made of glass, steel and concrete. He was either going mad or just projecting his needs. He still had to take a vacation and visit his mother. He used to hate the damned cold and snow when he was a child, but for six months each year, the weather would be whimsical. Of course, her mother’s centre for abused women was not the most romantic, but they could rent a cabin close by.

He got out of the shower and wiped his body with a white towel. He put on a bathrobe and sneaked back into the bedroom. He tried to make no noise when getting in his bed, but the bed was strangely cold and he could not hear Renee breathing. He stretched his arm out to touch her shoulder but found nothing.

He stood up as if the place was suddenly burning his skin and turned on the lights. Renee was still not there. He stormed out of the room and entered his large living room. There was a bluish light coming from his coffee table. He approached the light and found Renee on the floor, between the sofa and the coffee table, hugging her knees and looking at the screen.

“Hey…”

“Hey, Ben.”

“I thought you were in bed. Did I wake you up?”

“No… I didn’t even hear you come in.”

He sighed loudly and threw himself on the sofa. She didn’t react at all, so he began playing with Renee’s wavy hair. It was still wet and it smelled like coconut, though it was not as prominent as the persistent scent of grass and fruit trees.

“How was your day?”

He tried to initiate a dialogue between the two of them.

“Did you know that over sixty hospitals from this country deny women the right to have a safe abortion in a hospital? That is almost one third. And one quarter refuses to do so because of religion. And not to mention that 36% of the women in need of abortion are 15 years old, whereas 12% are 17 years old, meaning that they end up getting pregnant once they become high school students or before becoming adults from a legal point of view. It is not even a coincidence. They are the perfect victims for cold-blooded predators.” 

Ben blinked confused. Such a speech was not usual coming from his mother’s mouth, but Renee? Her special reports were usually about people being either unaware or indifferent about various topics of public concern and he could see why she was suddenly interested in this. It was not related to uncovering any illegal activities in some remote parts of the country, 

“Is this why you went to that clinic today?”

She froze. She turned to look at his tired face and squinted at him.

“I was not spying on you.”

That was mostly a lie.

“So?”

“Not really. After I left, I decided to... investigate some stuff and time just passed, while I kept on finding more and more.”

“It can make a nice topic for one of your coverages.”

“Yeah…”

Ben began playing with his bathrobe sash while keeping his eyes on Renee. She wasn’t just focused. She was totally distressed and obsessed with reading and finding out more about that topic.

“Renee? What is bothering you, my love?”

“Nothing.”

That was a lie.

“Renee?”

“Tell me about your day and I will relax.”

She caressed the hand cupping her shoulder but did not turn around to look at him. Ben was sure that she was truly avoiding him, but hid his scepticism and worries and told her about how he suddenly had a lot to read, research and write without no proper explanation. There was no need to worry her even more than she already was with details about his other suspicions. Besides, he was not sure himself about what was going on, except for that fact that his curious little fiancee would be mad enough to want to investigate on her own.

“Are you still sure about staying there? You are wasting your potential.”

“I am fine. Now, what did the doctor tell you?”

“Nothing much. I am ok.”

That was another lie.

“Are you sure? You know that if you caught the virus I can help you get the vaccine in time.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I can afford it myself, Ben.”

“Then what?”

“I… there is something that made me reconsider my life and all the choices I’ve made so far and I will make.”

Ben saw her hands trembling while she was trying to type on her laptop. 

“Have you seen the news about those murders?”

Ben nodded and let her continue.

“I’ve been trying to reach my contacts from the media. They didn’t know much about it, because the special agents are involved, but what they do know… it is so horrible. Those girls were raped and tortured . They had been experimented on like some sort of lab rats. They were marked… branded like cattle. They had their nails, fingers and teeth removed. One even had her tongue cut off. Their bones had so many fractures… Some of them had given birth and their families were not even aware of the existence of any babies, so it is quite possible that they were also used for breeding. Do you even realise the implications? If there are such victims now, there are other girls, who are alive, and the people who did this are probably ready to use them as replacements for the dead ones.”

She was so affected that her voice was trembling with emotion and indignation. Ben had heard of such things before, but they were isolated cases - boys like the ones he saw outside PharmStar, who was not satisfied only with wasting their own lives but wanted to cause more pain and havoc just for kicks. Family members inflicting pain upon other family members. Had he been a lawyer, he would have fought against such people to defend their victims. Yet, it seemed better to just sit at a desk and plan ads for expensive medicine.

“Do you think the other guys were involved somehow? They were also tortured.”

Renee shrugged.

“I have a feeling that these two cases are involved somehow, but not in the same manner. Whoever attacked them, knew about the girls. If the aggressors were the same or if it was revenge… I don’t know this. And I don’t know how I am going to raise a baby in this world.”

Ben was thinking about his own nightmares and the things Renee told him about the eleven girls. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Somehow, he knew… he felt what they had been going through. 

But how and why? He didn’t think he knew of anyone from his circle of friends or former classmates to have gone missing. Also, there were no pieces of evidence, or at least they were not made public, regarding whatever those girls had in common before becoming victims. Were they even from the same city or they were just at the wrong place and at the wrong time…

“Wait… what?”

“What?”

He moved closer to her.

“Hypothetically?”

“So far… yes.”

He relaxed a little bit.

“But I am sure the police will find out something. I mean… my instincts are telling me that these murders are too messy for both parties. Maybe there are gangs involved?”

Ben shook his head.

“No. Not this. What is with the sudden baby planning? I know we’re engaged, but you’ve never mentioned wanting to have kids.”

Renee said nothing.

“We haven’t made any plans for our wedding yet. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be a father, but you worrying about the safety of…”

“Ben. We need to talk.”

He let himself slip next to her.

“I know and I understand your point, but it is something that concerns me right now.”

Ben looked again at her trembling hands. Why was she even so agitated? Was she really that afraid of what was going on in the world? She had been fighting against these dangers and exposing them for years. Did their sudden engagement make her consider having children and her tendency of over analyzing every single aspect made her a paranoid? Being a parent was terrifying, yes, but wonderful. It was not exactly healthy from his point of view to start a family with so many doubts and fears. It was understandable, but…   

“Ok… so… I don’t know. Do you want me to stop using protection and just to try it for a while?”

“There is no need actually.”

He was just too confused and tired to even try to understand her anymore.

“So we wait.”

“No… what I mean is that I am already pregnant.”

Chapter Text

Mei was gone.

The girl looked at her dirty hands and nails. She had dug up a hole in the orchard and buried Mei’s body for quite a while, but she was not yet eager to leave her. She barely left to feed and drink some water every couple of hours or so. A few times, she snuck in her neighbours’ homes and stole whatever she found – fresh food, almost rotten fruit, but ever since she found the latch and door leading to the basement, she just ate the jams, canned fruit and preserved food her mother used to stack there for the harsh winters or times when they couldn’t leave the island. It was nice as if she still had a part of her old life untouched and just for her to enjoy. But even the jars of food were supposed to end and then there would be no more food and no more nice memories of those nice times. She used to hate that part of her life, but now she was longing to have it back. But she knew that clinging to such insignificant things would not help her keep her memories alive or even her own soul.

Maybe she was gone too.

***

After many dawns and dusks, she had a wakeup call on a warm day, one that fooled her into believing that she was in her old bedroom. She was even expecting to hear her mother’s voice calling her to grab a bite before taking the boat to go to school. But when she heard the helicopters and boats, she was reminded that her mother was no longer alive and all that was left of her bedroom and the entire home was the ground she was sleeping on.

She also knew that the people had found the three brothers or what was left of them.

So much care and concern for those disgusting slugs? None of the people taking samples and investigating the crime scene had the slightest idea what was actually going on behind the scenes. All they could possibly see was a gruesome image, but what was even worse was what she and the other girls had experienced.

She chuckled, but there was something in her smile… something showing her desperation and exasperation. Her eyes were wet and she was so tired.

She could have gone to them and tell them everything. Tell them that those three were not poor victims, but actual monsters. To tell them that she had lost everything because of them and that her friend was dead and buried in the orchard. Maybe at least Mei’s parents were still alive and looking for her.

She stood up and ran to the gate. There were huge crowds of people – she didn’t even remember seeing there that many people in her entire lifetime – but not even one single soul paid the minimum attention to her. It was as if they hadn’t seen her grow up there her entire life. But at least them ignoring her presence allowed her to sneak unnoticed and go to an officer and tap him on his shoulder. He ignored her too and she should have known in that exact moment that she should have stayed hidden. Yet, she tapped him one more time. 

Nothing.

She insisted.

“Touch me one more time and I will arrest you.”

She took a step back.

“I need to talk to you or any other policeman if you are so busy.”

He turned around and looked at her, a filthy girl, tiny and skinny, pale and with a strange glare, similar to a wild animal or maybe to a mad human. Perhaps she was both. She was obviously nuts from his point of view. Probably a religious fanatic or someone with some absurd conspiracy theories.

“Twenty seconds and it better be about these guys.”

Of course…

“It actually is. They were involved in the kidnapping and raping of many girls.”

The policeman took off his glasses and look at her as if she were some piece of gum stuck to the sole of his shoes. Yet she did not step back this time. She faced him, willing to give a chance to the authorities.

“Any proof?”

Was he trying to intimidate her? Too bad for him.

“I can testify and many other girls can too.”

“And what?”

“Pardon me?”

She clenched her fists inside the pockets of the stolen hoodie. Her nails were digging deep in her skin and flesh, but she felt as if that was the only way the force inside could be kept under control. There was no need to see a police officer fly above those large crowds.

“And what do you want me to do?”

“I don’t understand.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Am I supposed to give you the instructions?”

She was already quite angry and baffled about his attitude. If he wanted her to be rude, she could be rude.

“No, girl. I know how to do my job. What I am asking you is what do you want me to do now? They are dead.”

“But they kidnapped and raped me. And they...”

“That’s sad, but you should’ve pressed charges back then.”

She tried to keep calm and not cry or yell at the officer.

“I. Was. Kidnapped.”

He shrugged and turned his back on her.

“I can’t help you.”

She’d noticed, yet she still stood there looking at him in distrust, not being able to understand the situation. She already knew from all the stories she had seen on TV that the authorities were often incompetent, but when she saw them all implicated and interested in whatever had happened to those three, she had a glimmer of hope. Maybe if she had confessed her crime, they would have paid more attention to her. After all, she was the one who dared to murder in cold blood three poor abusers instead of allowing them to abduct more girls. 

“Wait!”

She looked at the policeman, fighting the urge to punch him in his smug face, if not torture him the same way she did to those whose remains so many people were trying to scrape off of the filthy wooden floor.

“Do you or any of the girls you mentioned have anything to with what happened here?”

She tilted her head.

“Do I look like I could even move a crate of fish on my own?”

He smirked.

“Maybe some friends of yours?”

“There aren’t many people on these islands, sir. No one to pay attention to some poor girls getting kidnapped and raped. I could say that some even protected them.”

He shrugged again.

“Shit happens.”

Her fake smile vanished and she felt again that violent urge. She snuck back into her orchard and hid behind a tree. She waited there for a while, worried that anyone might come looking for her. When the sun began burning the ground, she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. She hadn’t showered ever since she and the other girls had broken into that house. There was no water source except for a broken tap covered in rust. She had already risked enough trying to talk to that policeman. Even with those three dead, she was not yet comfortable with the idea of being exposed again. Maybe one of them was also involved in their kidnapping and helped the brothers cover up their crimes. They were all…

A branch fell at her feet and by the look of it, that force inside her was responsible. She needed to learn how to control herself. Her newly found powers had been helpful, but she needed them for important matters, not have them wasted on random outbursts. She focused on the branch and managed to lift it a couple of centimetres up in the air.  Maybe… 

She peeked at the large group still crowded in front of the crime scene and went to the fence. She jumped in her neighbour’s garden, stepping on a couple of strawberry sprouts and looked around. She had seen the old man talking to some person, probably giving information about those guys, and his daughter and wife were in the crowd, trying to get a glimpse at what she had done.

The house was empty.

She passed by their old dog and patted him. The poor creature was too old to sense her or any other stranger anymore. It barely whimpered, reminding her of her own self. The difference was that she had time. Plenty of it. And she was going to use it the right way.

She entered the house and looked around. There were no other pets except for a lazy cat sleeping on a chair. With the entire house all to herself, she checked all the rooms until she found a bathroom. The cosiness seemed so out of place after all those months she had spent locked up. She undressed and got in the bathtub. For the first couple of minutes, the water ran cold on her warm skin.

Flashbacks of early punishments were trying to get out of the most hidden corners of her mind.

Flashbacks of the three holding her head under cold water when she was ‘misbehaving’.

Flashback of the others when she couldn’t take it anymore and had to fight back.

And then she noticed all the bottles floating in the air.

The water was getting warmer, so she exhaled and tried to suppress her anger and fear. The bottles slowly returned to their places right on time. She grabbed one and poured some shampoo in her palm. She massaged her scalp and took out all the twigs, bugs and leaves entangled in her hair. The old man’s daughter also had some nice shower gels, much softer than the homemade soap her parents preferred. Of course, she was in no position to complain about anything, but still…

That girl was so young. She was barely a teenager. Just a couple of years apart from being the target for those who ruined her and Mei’s lives. She could have ended up just like her, had she not killed those three. She could still end up like that. The others were still there and she needn’t forget her mission.

She rinsed her hair and body, then took a towel and wiped the water off her scarred skin. She grabbed her clothes off the floor and went into the girl’s bedroom. She opened the drawers and found a large T-shirt and a pair of socks, then put them on and searched for more clothes, but even for her slim figure, they were still too small. Eventually, she got out of there, flinching when the cat jumped off the chair to go outside, then snuck into the parents’ bedroom. There, she did manage to find some large pants and underwear among all those ethnic costumes. Only then did she remember that the old man’s wife used to be her folk dances teacher years ago. She hadn’t even noticed that most of her memories, except for those when she was captive, were rather fuzzy. Of course, she had suffered so much and all those beatings must have left more than scars on her skin and anger.

Was that force also the product of her being tortured?

Was there something in those things they had injected her with?

Was there anything to eat in that house?

In the kitchen, there was a pot on the stove. She could smell the tomato sauce, garlic and roasted meat and vegetables. She took a bowl and filled it with stew, then opened the oven and took a slice of chicken roast and some vegetables. She couldn’t find the cutlery, but there was a basket of freshly baked bread rolls ready to dip in the tomato sauce. She climbed on the table and used her toe to press the on button on the small TV on the counter. She couldn’t even remember the last time she watched the news.

“We are live, reporting from Jakku right from the crime scene.”

The reporter was on the main street with the house of horrors behind her.

“It seems that the bodies were found weeks after the disappearance of the three brothers was noticed by their neighbours. The three had been living alone since last year when their father passed away.”

Their father was dead? But she had seen him just a couple of months before. She saw him chat with her dad on the day of her kidnapping.

“The neighbours reported that no one saw their disappearance as something strange as most people living on the Jakku islands often leave their homes for days or even weeks to go fishing in the legal areas. The brothers had their own boat and were often heard about their success and contracts.”

She snorted. That was a very nice way of referring to kidnapping girls and selling them like cattle.

“Now what is actually strange is that the men were not just murdered, but mauled so badly that they were difficult to identify even by the people who saw them grow up their entire life. There is no chance an animal was responsible as their remains were analysed found to not have any bite marks, but actual wounds inflicted by weapons and physical torture. Two of them even had their genitals removed as the forensics team declared after a first investigation.”

She chuckled. They were very much alive when she used her power to maul them. She could have probably covered up everything and made them disappear without a trace, just like they did with all of their victims. But she had to have the others find out that they were going to pay. Yes, the media drama was not part of her plan and she hadn’t even thought about it, but now she was sure that the others were aware and if not scared, at least uncomfortable and maybe in shock. And they couldn’t actually know exactly who the killer was.

Even out in the crowd no one even noticed her. Perhaps it was better that she was still just a ghost, yet she was disgusted with everyone being so ignorant and acting as accomplices by pretending to be blind, mute and deaf.

“...the second crime scene involving torture this month, the first one being the discovery of the eleven women, who had broken into a vacation house. We remind you that they were found there by the owner’s cleaning lady, who was there to clean up the place before the arrival of her boss. The eleven young women were identified, despite the severe deformations their bodies had suffered and the stage of decomposition. Fortunately, their families were able to claim their remains and bury them. Most of them stated that the women had been missing for years, some for up to five years, whereas some were not even aware that their beloved ones had been missing. So far, there hasn’t been found any connection between the victims, and the cause of death was not revealed by the authorities, at the request of their families.”

She felt her body slipping on the floor. The bowl fell too and shattered into pieces, the sauce splattering all over the place. She had been so focused on her revenge on her Mei’s death that she had totally forgotten about the other girls she had released. It wasn’t even about her being entirely confident that they were fine in the first place, but it was Mei the one who was supposedly responsible for taking care of them and returning them to their families.

And now it wasn’t just Mei who died, but all of them. Moreover, her friend hadn’t died because of exhaustion or whatever other reason that made her feel guilty. She was sure that they all died at the same time because of that pain in the back of their necks. They knew that the girls had escaped and they had chips implanted inside their bodies. No one stood a chance… except for her. And now they were most likely sure that there were no survivors. With both crimes having occurred around the same time days ago, they would probably feel safe in their white prison. Yes, they had lost their Jakku providers, but there was presumably nothing pointing at them.

She looked at the scratches she got from her fall and stood up. She grabbed a kitchen towel and started cleaning the mess. It was already enough for her soul that she had broken into another house and stolen from her neighbours, she couldn’t also lea… 

“Are you a ghost?”

She jumped and looked at the girl as if the other one was a ghost.

She shook her head.

“But everyone said you died.”

“You remember me?”

The girl nodded with a big smile.

“Yes! You used to let me pet your bunnies. You gave me one and I still have it. I named it after you.”

“I…”

She was so conflicted. She didn’t know how to manage those feelings. Besides, the plates on the counter were shaking alerting her about her powers going out of control.

“Honey, did you leave the door open?”

The younger girl sighed and grabbed her by the arm.

“Go to my room and hide under the bed.”

She listened to the younger girl and went into her bedroom. She hid under the bed and waited there for a couple of minutes until she heard the door open and saw her feet. Around her ankle, she had a silver anklet with starfishes and dolphins. She felt the urge to touch it. Where had…

“My mom went back to the horde of nosy old people. There are policemen and reporters outside, so she will probably hang around for a while. My dad goes to every single reporter to tell them about those three pigs.”

What an interesting choice of words.

“You hate them too?”

            She asked while getting out.

            “You have no idea. Now… tell me about you. Where have you been all this time? Everyone thought you were dead.”

            It was not as if she hadn’t tried or wished she had died.

            “I am sorry.”

            “For what?”

            “For…”

            She moved her arms frantically and pulled the margin of her T-shirt.

“Is that mine?”

“Sorry.”

“No worries.”

The girl threw herself on the bed and showed her the anklet.

“This is yours. I found it and kept it. So you can keep my clothes as an exchange.”

“Ok... “

She looked around again for a longer while, listening only to the ticking of the basket-shaped clock and then sat on the margin of the bed.

“Sorry.”

“For what now? For the bowl? I break one every couple of weeks.”

“No… I don’t actually remember you or your name.”

“Oh!”

The girl got closer and looked at her. She could sense her eyes analysing the scars, healing lip and the wound on her head from the last beating. Sometimes they were healing slower than usual. But what was even usual anymore? Being injected with various substances that kept her awake to feel the excruciating pain?

“I am Esma.”

She told her with a big smile.

“You are older than me, but we used to play when you were not busy helping your parents. My mom was your teacher.”

“I remember that.”

She almost sounded proud, making Esma relax and go back to the same question, hoping that she would finally get an answer.

“So… What happened to you?”

She looked at her feet and the pink socks with cats, then at the rustic furniture with nice touches. Esma’s parents had moved to Jakku to stay away from the pollution from the big cities. They must have felt disappointed in the end, but they did manage to raise Esma better than she was raised.

“I was taken.”

She mumbled trying to clear her mind and avoid making anything fly across the room.

“Like in the movie?”

She wasn’t sure about what was Esma talking so she just shrugged. There was a tiny TV on a chest of drawers. She went closer and pressed the power button. That channel had a soap opera on, so she changed the channel until she found one reporting the news.

“Everybody is talking about those three.”

Said Esma getting on the floor and crossing her legs Indian style. For a while, the older girl had thought that Esma was being childish, but she was actually just trying to make her feel comfortable. There was so much maturity in those hazel eyes…

“They did this to you. Right?”

She looked at the girl again. Her hazel eyes were now full of compassion and understanding.

“How do you know?”

Esma chuckled.

“You disappear for two years and just when these guys die, you come out of nowhere full of scars and beaten up. They tried to take me once too and kept telling me… stuff. My parents forbade me from going out without them, which you know… sucks, because they are always busy and I just want to enjoy my summer vacation.”

She blinked and stopped breathing. It wasn’t even because of the anger she felt even thinking about the possibility that a child such as Esma would be exposed to the same atrocities she was. It was the first part. Those first words.

“I did what?”

She looked at the TV screen and read the date on the banner. No… it couldn’t have been two years! No! She was kidnapped on New Year’s Eve and kept hostage until spring and then… She had fought so much and yet she still ended up losing two years of her life. Two years which were supposed to be her first college years in the big city, not two years spent as a sex slave on a remote island.

“Whoaaa! What is going on?”

She needn’t look around her to know that Esma was most likely referring to some of her plushies and books floating in mid-air. She had sworn Mei that she would get revenge and now, with the other dead girls and with her knowing how much time they had stolen from her, she was done mourning and was ready to fight. Screw her plan of having those people fear her! She was not going to waste any more time.

“Esma, do you think you can get me some gas for my boat?”

 

***

 

The police and press were still there investigating and questioning people when she left with her stolen boat. Esma helped her a lot with the gas. She couldn’t have asked her to lend her her father’s boat as she didn’t want them to be the next ones targeted just because of her recklessness. What it did surprise her was that the island was not guarded. It gave the impression that it was abandoned at that time, but she knew that while it was quiet on the outside, the inside, especially the underground levels were full of people and girls like her. She looked around for surveillance cameras. Even though those in charge of that place did not want to have any proof of their criminal activities, the place was some sort of prison for some and hidden lair for others. At least the outside had to be under surveillance. And the hallways too. She had seen the cameras moving and following her when she was being moved to other chambers to meet the clients, or rapists as she preferred calling them, and each time she was taken to any other room to get punished for her misbehaviour.

She jumped out of the boat and hid behind a bush. The last time she did that, it ended up horribly. She sighed and looked for an entrance, other than the main one, but there was none. The main house had only tall windows and that main entrance which was obviously guarded and locked from the inside.

She snuck behind another bush to get a look at whatever was behind the house. When she and the other girls, now dead, got officially sacked, they had been taken out of their cells and the main house via a cellar door. The docks where the boat was were not the same as those she saw when she was brought on that island by the three pigs. There were stairs and many cottages as if it were a camp.  That side of the island gave the impression that it was small and only occupied by that gigantic white house, but no… there was much more behind it. 

She ran behind a tree, then behind a trash can and kept sneaking until she finally saw the cottages. Their shape and white colour reminded her of the cupcakes her mother used to bake for Easter. She promised she would give her the recipe when… when? She felt a sharp pain and closed her eyes for a moment. Everything was getting dark and her consciousness was drifting away. She tried to breathe, but it was as if a mix of mud and smoke was clogging her nose and mouth. Her knees were weak and she felt them hit the ground. The last thing she heard was the raspy voice demanding to know how she got out.

Chapter Text

The idea of becoming a father was fascinating – the coos, the first steps, the first words, those big eyes full of admiration, the giggles and smiles, the achievements, even the tears and the failures.

The actual thing was both terrifying and exciting – the helplessness, the lack of experience, the mistakes, the pain, the lack of proper control, the blame and the guilt.

He perhaps needed to chill, but why not enjoy every single moment be it unique or absolutely ordinary?

Ben heard steps behind him and smiled. But it was a rather sad smile. Whereas he was getting more used to the bundle of cells he was already imagining grown up and with Renee’s blue eyes and his black hair, the future mom seemed to be less… happy. Of course, unlike her, he had nothing to sacrifice except for maybe his apartment and some of his habits, and it was also in his advantage to have a child. Births were still such rare events and with that virus so many people were still dying, not being able to afford PharmStar’s vaccine or basic treatment. So, in order to encourage people to have children, the government had begun offering more benefits for those brave enough to become parents.

However, Renee’s job was more demanding and pregnancy meant putting her TV show on hold right before its actual premiere. She still had a lot of time before the pregnancy would show off and perhaps she could work even heavily pregnant and then return after having given birth, as soon as it was safe for her and the baby. Though, in her industry, she wasn’t the one to make the choice. Not to mention her constant paranoia. She was still so concerned about safety in general that it made him feel like an idiot for being so confident and not at all worried about the baby becoming sick at some point and being in danger. But he was not the one carrying it and experiencing the actual process of creating a human life, despite being partly responsible for it.  

“You’ve been staring at those socks for exactly twelve minutes.”

He smiled again trying to cheer up Renee. She was wearing a tank top and a large unbuttoned beige shirt. She was also wearing flats and some baggy pants, whereas her hair was up in a messy bun. She was moody and nauseous and he loved her. 

Ben threw the pair of socks in their shopping cart and grabbed a pack of diapers.

“No!”

“Please?”

“NO!”

Ben’s smile vanished and Renee’s angry features became softer. She took a step closer and laid her head on his shoulder, inviting him to hug her.

“It’s going to be alright.”

“I’m sorry, Ben. I just… I am not ready to buy these things yet.”

He cupped her cheek and kissed her on the forehead. She seemed so tiny and vulnerable. It had been barely one week since they had found out and he knew that he was pushing her a little bit too much. After the death of those girls and the three brothers from Jakku, another tragedy had stricken their country. The same night Renee told him about the baby, a large mansion from Jakku burnt to the ground. But that was not the problem. The actual problem was what the authorities had found inside. And the bigger problem was that he had seen the insides of that mansion and the people before.

“Promise we won’t buy anything yet?”

He looked at Renee and nodded.

“I promise.”

He took the socks from the cart and looked at them once more. They were white with lace trim and very very tiny. They were much smaller than his index finger. Hell! They were smaller than his pinky finger.

Renee sighed and grabbed the socks herself and threw them back in the cart.

“We can keep these. But nothing else, ok?”

Ben put on a puppy face and pointed at the Winnie the Pooh he had hidden under some toilet paper. Renee pulled it out and hugged it.

“I like him. I will keep it for myself.”

They both giggled. Maybe their tiny family was not doomed to failure. No one said it would be easy, but it didn’t mean it had to be impossible.

Ben pushed the cart letting his fiancée carry the plushie in her arms. She was holding it as if she was holding an actual baby and the image was surely making his chest feel warm. 

“Do you think it is going to be a boy or a girl?”

She was actually asking him that?

“I would like a girl, but I think it is going to be a boy.”

She nodded.

“I hope it is going to be a boy too. It would be much easier for him.”

Ben stopped and watched her walk in front of him. She took a bar of chocolate and a pack of gum and placed them on the conveyor belt. After the cashier finished scanning the products and Ben paid, they went to the car. He was not very comfortable driving in that city, but ever since he found out about the pregnancy, he finally accepted the car from PharmStar and considered saving up to eventually buy one for himself. Renee’s was a sports car and it was not exactly suitable for a family. Besides, he was too tall to get in it and even she didn’t use it all the time, as she was mostly travelling by van. 

“So…”

He tried to get her to pay attention to something else other than that Winnie the Pooh.

“Should we make a list of names?”

“I like Kyle.”

She said with a soft voice.

“Or… Ron. No! Ren.”

“Like that guy from that anime?”

She squinted and made a weird grimace.

“You know… the one with the nice music? The one with nananaaaa nanaaaa? No?”

“No, Ben!”

She laughed! She was finally laughing.

“Ren as in a mix between Renee and Ben.”

He smiled.

“Do you want to name the babo after me?”

She rolled her eyes amused.

“Yes, I want to name the ‘babo’ after the both of us.”

Ben felt proud. Prouder than when everyone called his project the best or prouder than the first time his proposal was accepted or prouder than even when he got the current position in PharmStar. He knew he would feel only prouder the first time his baby would call him ‘dad’.

“My love, do you think we should move somewhere else? My apartment is large, but not exactly family-large. Ren could sleep in our bedroom for a while, but he will need his space. Or… maybe I could move my things from my home office and make that room a nursery?”

Renee wasn’t listening to him anymore. She was once again absent and had a tormented look on her face.

“Or maybe we should worry about this later and just… perhaps plan our wedding?”

She flinched.

“Why?”

“Because we are engaged? And because we are going to have a baby?”

She turned to look outside on the window. Damn it. He was pushing her again.

None of them said anything until they got home. As soon as they entered, Renee ran and Ben heard her throw up in the bathroom. He took a jug from the fridge and poured a tall glass of mint ice tea with ginger and lemon, then he put some slices of bread in the toaster. He turned on the TV on the news and took the tea and bread and placed them on the coffee table. Renee returned with a new tank top and laid on the sofa.

“It better get better.”

Ben chuckled and sat on the floor, pressing his forehead against hers.

“...the girls have returned to their families, but each of them will have to give a declaration. So far, it was revealed that the eleven girls found dead after breaking in a vacation home were also victims of the same prostitution ring. The girls who have given their declarations so far told the authorities that those who left the house were usually sold to other rings from across the border. They have also revealed that they all have chips in the back of their necks and if anyone escaped, their captors would activate the chips and kill them on the spot. Moreover, the three brothers were accomplices. They used to kidnap, abuse and sell the girls to this ‘White Ring’ as it was unofficially dubbed. Even though there was no official statement, it is believed that their death was part of the revenge of one of their victims, as it was the destruction of the ‘White Ring’ lair.”

“What do you think?”

Ben asked a very tense Renee.

“I spoke to some of my colleagues. The only survivors were the 314 girls. All the employees were killed in the same manner as the three brothers were.” 

“The men had their genitals removed and then their bones were shattered to pieces, whereas the women were strangled?”

Ben immediately regretted his smug remark as Renee looked at him all suspicious.

“How do you know that? On the news, they’ve only said that they died in the fire.”

“I… ummm… you just said that they were killed in the same manner as the three brothers were?”

She was not convinced.

“But there were no women in the previous murder case.”

He shrugged. He couldn’t tell her that he saw them in his nightmares. He couldn’t tell her that he felt the sick pleasure the killer felt. He couldn’t tell her that he felt the entitlement and righteousness the killer felt.

“Ben?”

“I don’t know, love. I must have read some comments online. These things spread quicker than the actual virus killing the entire fucking planet.”

She was still not entirely convinced, but she was now looking at the TV screen showing the house as it was before and how it was now.

“I was there.”

He said suddenly.

“How come?”

“I was there with a couple of colleagues when the vaccine was launched on the market. Because there is so much water there and the mosquitoes also help to spread the virus, we gave a couple of free samples. I took a preventive shot myself. We had a party in the backyard and slept in the cottages, but never saw more than the parlour of the house and the kitchen. Though, I think the big boss himself was there. I don’t remember seeing him, nor could I imagine him sleeping in one of those cottages, but I know he was there.”

“Oh yeah… I remember. And you know what else I remember?”

“What?”

She stood up and took a sip.

“A house burnt down two years ago on one of the Jakku islands. I did try to investigate again and open the case once more when I returned from abroad, but the people didn’t know much. I mean… they were less talkative than they’ve been with the murder of those three. But one girl told me that the house burnt down on New Year’s Eve just… without a reason. The owners used to host people during vacations and the place was similar to a hostel or holiday venue. Most products were homemade and they were quite popular. That night the place was fully booked by a few families and they all were celebrating and stuff like that. The police thought that perhaps they were drunk and set some fireworks in the wrong place or left some candles lit and went to bed. The thing is that the girl told me that everyone on their island was quite sure that it was no accident. Everyone just died. Not one survivor. Not even one pet or farm animal. And no one even bothered investigating properly.”

“So you wanted to do it yourself?”

“Yeeees, but the thing that bothered me the most was that -”

She took another sip.

“-the owners’ daughter was not found. The police just supposed that she might have been among the scorched bodies, but no. The families of those who were on vacation there knew all the victims, each adult, each child, and there were also the remains of the two owners. But where was the daughter?”

“Maybe she set the fire and ran away?”

Renee shook her head.

“No, Ben. She just vanished. The online photos posted by some of the tourists who died had her in them. She was there serving at the tables and helping her parents. And then she was gone.”

“Maybe they just didn’t find her? There are many animals there too.”

“Or maybe…”

She pointed at the screen still showing the burnt down manor and the teams investigating the place.

Ben rolled his eyes smiling at her sudden energy and passion for the truth, but then he turned serious.

“Renee, what exactly were they doing to those girls?”

“Forced prostitution. They were mostly sex slaves.”

“And anything else?”

“Well… we know from the dead ones and from what we’ve seen on TV that they were also tortured. Other than being constantly raped, because none of them consented to be there and do that… even the living ones had horrible scars, wounds, blisters all over their bodies… paralyzed or removed limbs.”

She felt nauseous again.

“It’s horrible, Ben! I am happy they got out, but those who actually did those things to them are not necessarily among the dead employees. And I can’t even imagine how many other girls must have been there, but died long before or ended up getting sold and are still suffering locked up in a cage. But even the rescued ones - they could never heal properly. No matter the treatment and the therapy sessions, they won’t be able to heal.”

She was cupping her still flat tummy. She wasn’t worried about herself, as someone who was investigating and uncovering such things. She was once again worried about her unborn child and its future.

Maybe she wasn’t just overprotective and paranoid. Maybe he was the one living in a plastic bubble and unaware of, or perhaps purposely ignoring, the dangers of their sick society.

He went to the grocery bags trying not to think about his nightmares and about what he knew. There were so many wrong things going on… especially with his own sorry self.

He let Renee eat her toast and continue watching the news while he sorted out the groceries. Just as he was unpacking a carton of eggs, he found the pair of baby socks. He stuck his fingers inside them and moved them imitating a baby’s feet. Baby Ren or baby girl was going to be safe. He was going to make sure of it. 

“Maybe we should keep it a secret for a while.”

He told Renee when she dropped the plate on the kitchen counter.

“You know… tell everyone only after the first trimester passes and use this time to just get used with the idea. I know that it is al-”

“Well, we are already halfway there, so… as you wish.”

“-ready so difficult for… Wait… what?”

Ben stopped and squinted his eyes. 

“Isn’t the first trimester like twelve weeks or so?”

“Yes, and I am around seven weeks pregnant.”

Ben smiled and continued unpacking the groceries. Maybe he could get a day off or at least a couple of hours to join her at the next ultrasound. Everything was still so unbelievable and he could not imagine himself as a father yet. His father hadn’t exactly been an example, but he did teach him some tricks. And he had his mom. Oh, his poor mom! He had promised her he would visit her and aunt Amilyn right before Renee came back…

“Almost four weeks ago…”

Ben dropped the chickpeas can and felt his legs suddenly become weak. His entire body was numb and everything inside his head was sending him alarms.

“Renee...”

He whispered trying to control his anger and the energy growing inside him. His hands were shaking and a deafening buzzing noise was pushing him closer to the edge. He cooled down a little only when he saw her lift the can and putting it on the shelf.

“Are you ok?”

He ignored her question.

“How far along are you?”

“What?”

“How far along are you?”

“Around seven weeks. I just told you.”

“And can you also please tell me how can you be six… almost seven weeks pregnant if you came back only three almost four weeks ago?”

She said nothing, but her gaze was starting to change and he knew that his power was out of control again. He had forgotten about his power! She was going to tell him the truth.

He shook his head trying not to cry.

“It’s obviously not my baby.”

“No, Ben.”

“And you obviously had an affair with another man or… did something else happen? You were on Jakku where all those terrible things happened.”

She bit her lip and shrugged.

“It was the cameraman. You met him.”

That boring mumbling idiot?

“It was a onetime thing or…”

“We’ve been together since high school, but broke up before college and rekindled our relationship just now.”

He could not believe his ears. When did this happen? One moment they were discussing baby names and now… 

He clenched his fist with his nails digging deep in his flesh hoping to wake him up from that nightmare.

“Why did you even accept my marriage proposal if you love him? Why are you here?”

“I don’t know…”

She frowned and blinked confused before huffing full of indignation.

“I actually came here to break up with you. You are an amazing guy, Ben, but all things must come to an end. You’ve been my friend for so long and we had great sex, but I never loved you as I should.”

She shook her head finally relieved of the burden of lying to him.

“It was never meant for us to stay together this long, but you were lonely, I was lonely and we needed each other for a while. I care about you and I am grateful for you having me here and supporting me, but I should have never misled you. I was just so angry with him for leaving. That’s why I started dating you.”

Ben turned his back on her. He didn’t want her to see his tears and tortured face. His entire world and plans were falling apart, breaking into tiny pieces, just like his heart.

“Ok, I get it. But why are you still here? You wanted to break up with me and here you are as my fiancée and naming our… your baby after the two of us. What was even the point? It can’t be pity.”

“I told you I don’t know! I came here to break up with you and then… everything I did and said was to please you. I do love you, but only as a friend.”

“You don’t have sex with your friends and accept their marriage proposals, Renee!”

No matter how much he was trying, his anger was out of control and something was blinding him, making everything dark and his surroundings foggy. But Renee was standing strong in front of him and he was glad that she was not crying, nor making him feel worse than he already was feeling.

“That’s what I am trying to say, Ben! It was not pity! Not this time! You asked me if I loved you and I had to say yes, you asked me to kiss you and I had to kiss you. I just had to, but it wasn’t what I wanted!”

Oh my…

His eyes grew bigger.

“It was as if some sort of force was controlling me.”

He stood there one step from fainting. It was his own fault. He wasn’t even sure if he was still controlling her. He had never been aware of the fact that he had been controlling her. She was guilty of misleading him for so long, but he was even guiltier for keeping her pretty much hostage and… maybe the only reason he didn’t share her worries and he had those nightmares was because he was just like them…

No one said a word for a couple of minutes. Both of them were feeling a mixture of anger and guilt. It was his responsibility to make her forgive herself, but he wasn’t sure how to tell her that he had developed a strange power that allowed him to control people’s minds and that everything was his fault.

“What do you want to do, Renee?”

She looked at him angrily chewing her bottom lip.

“I don’t even know. I should go to the baby’s father and tell him… what can I even tell him? That I was gone for almost a month, fucking the guy I wanted to break up with, while he was waiting for me? That I almost married another man and had his baby registered as someone else’s? How can I face him? I can barely face you without screaming at my own self for being such an idiot. There was no force telling me what to do because there is no such thing. I must have been just a coward and loved the comfort of being with you. I thought I could be your friend and still play pretend with you.”

It was all so wrong. A part of him, the bitter, angry and selfish part of him, was happy that she was blaming herself, but he knew that there was actually a force and that she was not a coward nor the one responsible for all that mess.

“Please, stop…”

She shut her mouth.

“No! I mean… stop blaming yourself. You are not a bad person. Yes, we were both two stupid kids when we started dating, but I can’t blame you for loving someone else. You wanted to do the right thing.”

“Ben…”

“I won’t lie and tell you that I’m fine. I’m not.”

His voice was trembling although he tried to seem cheerful for her.

“I do love you, Renee. Not right now, no.”

He chuckled overwhelmed by sadness.

“But I do love you. And it breaks my heart knowing that you don’t and that everything is nothing but a lie. It breaks my heart that these-”

He showed her the socks.

“-won’t be for my child.”

“Ben, I…”

He didn’t let her interrupt him.

“But I love you enough to wish you well and to want you to be with the one you truly love. You deserve to have your beautiful family just the way you want.”

She was touched and could not understand his selflessness.

Ben knew that he was lying with each word he spoke. He was just done and full of hatred for his own self.

“I will pack my things immediately.”

 She quickly wiped a tear off her cheek.

“You can take your time. If you don’t have where to go or if your baby’s father can’t or won’t have your back, you can stay here for as long as you need. I promise I will sleep on the sofa.”

“Thanks, but there’s no need.”

He waited for her to go into their… his bedroom and then he sat on the cold floor. The last time he felt so confused, angry, sad, betrayed and unworthy was when he was attacked and spent a lot of time in hospital. He had been taking his gift for granted and had been abusing it, but now he was tasting his own medicine. It all ended up so badly. And what was the worst part was the fact that he still wasn’t sure when he was accidentally using the power. Everything was a mess. He was a mess.

His entire body was numb when Renee kneeled next to him. She pressed her forehead against his, just like he used to do to her each time she was not feeling well. There was a struggle inside him between wanting to pull her in his arms and kiss her and make love to her on the floor as a goodbye, and pushing her away and throwing her things outside. But he was neither desperate nor a douche.

He let her hug him and tried to stand up.

“No need, Ben. I already called a taxi.”

He nodded.

“Ok.”

He watched her take her spare key out of her purse and dropping it in a bowl full of flyers and business cards.

“One more thing…”

“Yes?”

“Do you know the name of that missing girl from Jakku?”

“Yes. It’s Kira Reyvon.”

Kira Reyvon

He kept on repeating that name in his mind while Renee was getting out of his home and his life for good. Once the door was closed, he got up and ran to his laptop. He typed the name and pressed enter. The search results were showing up when something else distracted him. His huge TV screen was now showing new footage from Jakku. In a garage, the police had found the trucks used to transfer the girls across the country and borders. And all of them had the PharmStar logo on them.

“Fuck…”

Chapter Text

Kira Reyvon was born in a year not too many children were, the early stages of the virus being to blame for many cases of infertility. Therefore, her birth made her one of the few, yet less special. She was born in a small remote town where everyone knew everyone and no one knew anything at all. She had no siblings or friends as she was unlucky enough to not have any of those born in the same year as her life in that forgotten corner of the world. This also meant going to school a little bit earlier and only after leaving the small town for an even smaller village. Her parents had inherited a small house on a rather large property in the middle of the marshes, which was to be reached only by boat. Beginning with May and ending with the middle of October and also during most official holidays, the place was roaming with tourists from all over the country. The small business bloomed in time enough for Kira to feel less isolated and less of an outcast. She was learning more from the tourists than from the actual small school and the two old teachers that were teaching all the subjects regardless of their actual degree. Sometimes their teachers were learning matters of mathematics alongside them. 

The stories told by the tourists, the photos she had been seeing her entire life and the isolation made her crave for more and she was willing to fight to escape that place. Maybe it was unfair wanting to abandon her parents, but it had been even more unfair for her to be robbed of so many things. That’s why she applied to almost all the universities in the country. She had no actual plan, no taste for anything, no passion, no preference, just the desperate need to leave that place. But being accepted by any university required more than a desperate need.

It was the middle of July and the inn was fully booked. But she took her time to answer to their calls for more iced tea, towels and bandages for those who had no idea how to ride a horse or pony but insisted on riding without any protection. Kira rolled her eyes when she heard her mother call her to help her with preparing dinner and kept pressing the refresh bottom.  There were no incoming emails and at some point, she had to go help her mom cook her former pet chickens now turned into seasoned lifeless meat. Maybe it was the internet connection? The damned place was so far away from civilisation that they were lucky to even have electricity and tap water.

She snuck outside to feed the horses and pigs and took her time to play with the remaining hens and their chicks. It was so cruel that she wasn’t actually allowed to get attached to the animals as they were all meant to turn into food at some point. Even the horses, except that the coyotes were the ones to eat them from time to time.

She sighed and looked at the large group made of five families. They were all laughing and drinking her dad’s homemade alcoholic beverages. They were also eating Suzanna for lunch, her favourite duck, and the vegetables she grew. It was so tiresome to live in that never-ending circle of working to please others and earning money that would only be invested again in stuff to please others.

She ran inside ignoring the demand for more beers and checked the computer taping her fingers nervously on the old desk. As the screen was loading, so were the emails coming one by one. She smiled all excited and began reading them while making scenarios inside her head about where she would live and whom she would meet.

The first email was concluded with “We are sorry to inform you that your application has been rejected.”

Oh… ok. It was to be expected to have some reject her. After all, she couldn’t have entered all of them.

She clicked on the second email and scrolled only to find the same line. “We are sorry to inform you that your application has been rejected.”

Same with the third one and the forth and the fifth and the twelfth and… not a single one had accepted her. Even those that had required an entrance exam or project didn’t want her. The results were good, but they said that her portfolio was unimpressive and that it was missing some essential documents. She couldn’t contest their words and observations regarding her education, but it was still so unfair. No one was willing to take a chance with her. Of course, she still had a chance to apply the following year, but it was still breaking her heart to know that she was not good enough and that the odds were against her anyway. What could she even do stuck there? And high school was over, so she had no opportunity to make her portfolio any more interesting.

That night she cried herself to sleep. It did not help her parents’ lack of empathy. Her mother was happy that she was going to stay there and told her about the neighbour’s three sons, who were all willing to take her as her wife, the choice being hers regarding which one she would choose. Her father was bitter about all the money she had spent on the entrance admissions and the trips for the exams. However, she was more than ever decided to leave that place. She was going to work for one year and try again the next one. Even they were going to reject her again, she was still planning on leaving and going to the city to find a job. She was no longer willing to be her parents' employee.

On Christmas Eve, she counted her secret stash of money. Unless the fees were about to change, she already had enough money for almost all the entrance fees and one trip to the capital. She had even put to use her experience as a do-it-all in her family’s inn by opening a blog and promoting them with nicely written articles and stories about Jakku’s history, folktales and cuisine. Maybe she couldn’t make her portfolio seem that professional and university worthy, but adding her intention letter, she was sure that she was going to be accepted.

On New Year’s Eve, her money was gone.

“Mom” she cried. “I think there was someone in my bedroom. All my…”

Her mother looked at her with a soothing gaze and pushed Kira’s hair behind her ear.

“Oh, no. Don’t worry sweetheart. It was your father. The coyotes attacked again and we need the animals to survive this winter and to keep our customers and the rest of our animals actually.”

Kira blinked appalled. She could not believe her mother’s serenity and normalization of that betrayal. Her own parents had stolen from her. Not only had they not supported her enough, but now they had also taken her for granted and deemed her too unimportant to be asked for her permission to lend them money. And by her mother’s tone and attitude and her father’s overall behaviour, she was sure that the money was gone for good. No chance to get it back or at least part of it to help her with the fees.

She was livid.

“You could have explained this to me and asked me to lend it to you! When are you going to give it back? Are you even going to give it back?”

“Oh, sweetheart...”

Her mother shook her head in disappointment, though Kira was feeling she was the one supposed to be disappointed.

“What do you even need so much money for? You have all you need here. You need to be less selfish and think about our needs too.”

She couldn’t believe her ears.

“Really? But have you ever thought about my needs? And no, I am not referring to the needs you imagine I have, but the ones I truly have. I’ve always accepted the fact that my opinion is irrelevant and all because I am just a child, but I am almost an adult now and I want to choose my own path. I don’t want to marry any of the guys you are trying to shove down my throat and I am going to leave this place.”

Her mother stopped from chopping carrots and bell peppers and sighed visibly bored by the conversation.

“Sweetheart, you have already seen that you are not college material. We’ve supported you enough, but you must admit that it is a waste of time. Besides, you are not yet eighteen, so as long it concerns me and your father, you will not go to college or leave this place.”

Kira crossed her arms and tapped her foot on the floor. She was trying her best to seem mature, but she could barely keep herself from crying and throwing a tantrum.

“Why so? Why don’t I get a second chance to prove myself?”

Her mother put the knife down. She was angry and done with her daughter’s stupid and very unrealistic ideals, but she still faked a smile. One that would only anger her daughter more by making her feel like an idiot.

“Because we need you here! You already had a chance and every single university has rejected you. Not even one single university. That’s a sign! Why would you even want to have your heart broken all over again?”

Kira shook her head and tried to prevent her tears by looking at her cats playing with the tassels hanging from the tablecloth. Indeed. Why was she so willing to get disappointed again and feel that heart-wrenching rejection again? Why leave everyone and everything? She exhaled and glared at her mother before lashing out at her.

“Because I want to leeeaaave, mother! I hate this place and if I am going to stay here one more year, I am going to drown myself.”

Her mother shook her head again making Kira feel even more frustrated and ignored.

“You are too dramatic for your own good. This is your reality and we are part of it.”

The girl turned her back against her mother.

“Too bad. I still refuse this reality.”

“You will change your mind. Now please go take these appetizers.”

Kira had previously tried her best not to look like a bratty child, but she was well aware of how unfair the situation turned out to be for her. She took the appetizers and stole some cheese and dry sausage. It was not as if those annoying guests were not going to feed half of the appetizers to their own dogs, so considering her parents treated her like one of their horses, she deserved her treats.

“One more thing, mom.”

She added without looking at her mother, knowing that her attitude would make her snap again.

“Please tell me if you had anything to do or at least know why my files were supposedly incomplete.”

She heard her mother groan.

“Look, I am telling this just because I am sick and tired of this conversation. You were sixteen, Kira. You needed our approval to enrol as you are still a minor.”

The girl closed her eyes and let a cry escape her. She knew about her situation and her parents had promised to sign the papers. Them fooling her all that time meant that she still had one year left as their slave. She was not going to turn eighteen soon enough to not need them anymore.

She left the kitchen without saying anything else and went to check on the guests. The sun had not even set and those drunk idiots were already a mess and the dining room was a mess as well. The dogs had been chewing on the furniture, the children had been finger painting on the walls and some of the older teens had been playing catch with her mother’s ceramic collection. She was serving the roast, trying not to remember the time the two piglets, Stan and Bran, were sitting in her lap, playing joyfully. Now they were about to feed a bunch of rich douchebags. She placed the trays in the centre of each table, then started pouring some more homemade wine. She hadn’t even finished pouring in one glass when another three were being shoved in her face.

“I need to bring more wine,” she told a lady whose makeup was smudged all over her face. She turned around sighing exasperated and then she felt the slap. She flinched. The guy was laughing and so were his friends, even his wife. Kira felt the need to cry out of anger and humiliation, but she was so done with everything and everyone that she just stormed out of the room and left the jug on a wooden table by the entrance, before putting on her winter coat and leaving the house without telling anyone. She went to the coop to check on her birds or whatever was left of them. They were sleeping peacefully and for one moment she wanted to be a bird herself. It was ridiculous, because they were not exactly bright, nor were they free or safe. But she wasn’t free or safe either. The thing that made her envious was the solidarity and the naiveté of those little birdies. She still had no friends and she knew the outside world, so she had no reason to just stay in her cage and wait to be devoured by the mentality and traditions of her small community. Maybe she was indeed ungrateful, but maybe she was just right to rebel against her situation.

She put on her hood and got out on the only street that was surrounding half of the island, the rest being left to the wilderness and its mysteries. Although the island itself was tiny and populated by barely a dozen families, that night the street seemed to be never-ending. It was also the lack of electricity and the fact that most rentals were empty during wintertime, so the entire place seemed deserted. At some point, she decided to return home and just hang out in the stables, but the fireworks had already begun, forcing her to stay there and admire them. Her island had no finances for such things, but the larger southern islands were usually hosting the elite of the country and got fireworks for each event. This time they had outdone themselves with the fanciest and largest fireworks. They were something normal people would normally see only on TV, not in that remote area. She took a deep breath of cold air and exhaled watching the steam coming out of her mouth. She smiled. As long as she was breathing and was healthy, nothing was stopping her from finding her place in that world. That outside world.

A growl startled her and she flinched. A coyote. Ok. Maybe if she was going to ignore it, it would leave her be. And another one. And another. Where were all those coyotes coming from? The other islands had no coyotes or dangerous wildlife. Even the snakes were small and non-poisonous. It was as if all the rich owners across the marshes were moving the coyotes to their island because they were the only ones who did not entirely get rid of the wilderness. Oh! Well, damn it.

The coyotes came closer and growled at her. By their body language, she knew exactly what their intention was - to jump on her and lacerate her. Now it was time for her to jump. She took a couple of steps backwards then she turned around started running. The thin layer of ice was not helping her as she was slipping and tripping now and then. She considered trespassing some property, but she had already reached the deserted area and if she was about to reach the bridge too, she would only head towards the woods and towards more coyotes and maybe some wild boars too.

She took a sudden turn to left and hid behind a weeping willow. The coyotes did not stop her chance and continued running after her, although she was out of their sight. She breathed all relieved. She climbed down reaching the docks and stepped carefully between the boats. The bad weather had ruined the stairs leading to the main only street, so she had to climb it using her winter boots and hands. She grabbed a root and pulled herself up enough to reach a rock. She put her foot on the rock and grabbed another root. She was almost there. One more step and she would reach the street.

“Ah!”

Her foot slipped and the root ended up being a rotten one. She gasped and for a moment the time felt as if it had frozen. Then her body felt the water swallowing her up. 

Chapter Text

She was alive. Good. 

She coughed and opened her eyes slowly, trying to adapt her eyesight to the light. Her skin was feeling weird, as if it was about to crack, probably from the cold polluted waters. She took a couple of deep breaths and blinked, then licked her dry lips. They tasted like mud and rotten fish. She coughed again feeling her stomach revolt up to the point of throwing up all the filth she must have swallowed. 

“You fine?”

She looked to her left and found three men sitting at a table. She was too dizzy to make sense of their faces, but their voices seemed slightly familiar. 

“Water,” she murmured exhausted from the battle with death.

“Yeah, you fell in the water.”

Ok, she could not roll her eyes, all because of that terrible headache and because they were burning from when she tried to open them underwater. But she could guess who those dumbasses were.

“Drink. Water.”

One of them stood up and lifted her head enough to pour some beer down her throat. Beer. Freaking beer.

She coughed again feeling the cold bitter beverage trying to get out of her body through her nose. 

“Anything else, princess?”

She shook her head or at least she thought she did. It felt so heavy anyway that even lying on the floor made her head spin.

“How did ya even wind up in the marshes? Late-night swim with your tourists?”

She ignored the mocking tone from the last question and tried to gather her strength to answer.

“Coyotes. They were chasing me.”

“See? Jogging at this late hour sucks.”

She tried again to not roll her eyes. Mostly because her head was still hurting like hell and eventually because those guys had saved her. Maybe this was the final sign from divinity and the rebirth she had been expecting. She made a mental note to go to the church with her mother as soon as possible.

“Thank you.”

The three shrugged as if it was no big deal. The silence was a bit tense, so she stood up and started walking around. After a few tries, they seemed to no longer tremble and to actually listen to her will.

The place was a boathouse or something like that. She turned around. An old one she had never seen before. The roof was made out of reed and woven willow branches. No surprise that the place was cold. It was even snowing inside in certain parts. 

“I am cold” she mumbled.

“You will feel better soon.”

She doubted it. Her stomach still felt as if she was about to throw up everything she had eaten.

Gosh, the silence was so annoying, especially knowing that those three were following her with those weird gazes of theirs.

“How did you find me?”

One of them coughed.

“We… we were just passing by.”

“Yeah… watching the fireworks and stuff.”

They were lying, but she did not really care.

She looked at the cloudy dark sky. No more fireworks or smoke. Just clouds and stars.

“How long have I been here?”

“Not too long.”

Their evasiveness was starting to bother her and to make her feel even more uneasy than their gaze.

“Is this far away from home?”

She got closer to the indoors deck and the boat. Everything outside was dark, except for the white snow falling rapidly in what seemed to turn into a blizzard.

“I should go back now. They might need me.”

A laugh.

“Come on, Kira! Sit with us! Have a beer! Enjoy the new year.”

She shook her head trying to get affected by her irritation, nor by sudden distress.

“Yeah, you work all the time! Take a break!”

She said nothing. The blanket covering her was damp and her clothes were still soaking wet. 

“So tell us...” attempted one of the brothers to start a conversation. “Have you considered our proposal?”

Kira took her time to respond. They were her saviours, but they were no princes, nor charming. Besides, she had other plans.

“I want to leave Jakku. I want to find my place in the capital.”

“We have a dreamer here, don’t we?”

The brothers laughed and Kira figured they were indeed mocking her.

“Why don’t you want to marry one of us? We have our land and animals.”

“And boats!”

Yeah… she had all of these and she cared only about the animals, which always ended up as food.

“You would make a great mother too.”

A what? Kira snorted and the eldest brother put down his beer. She noticed his gaze, so she pretended that she was having a bad cough.

“Maybe we could move to the capital during wintertime!” proposed the youngest.

“One can’t run a business only when the weather is nice.”

The eldest was visibly angry and Kira was beginning to feel nauseous and slightly terrified.

“Maybe I should really leave now.”

“You can’t. This is not Jakku. This is one of the inhabited islands.”

Why did they even take her there? It would have been much closer to drop her back at home. Unless they had other plans. 

Her heart was beating too fast and she could sense the panic attack approaching.

“I’m cold.”

“We can warm you up.”

“You have no heat here.”

“We weren’t talking about that.”

Kira had been too afraid to face them for more than a couple of moments, but now she could feel their unpleasant stench behind her. She slowly turned around and noticed that they all had unzipped their pants. She gasped and took a step back.

“I really need to go. My parents must be worried.”

They didn’t even bother saying anything else to soothe her or convince her that they were not dangerous. They grabbed her by the wrists and threw her on an improvised bed. She tried to fight them and scream for help, but they were three gorillas and she was one frail girl lost in the middle of the marshes. Her screams were only amusing them, making the entire assault more exciting. She had foolishly hoped that they would stop this sick game the entire time and had prayed until the very last moment, but once the eldest brother pushed himself into her, she wished she had drowned.

Chapter Text

She was floating. Maybe she was dead. Maybe she just had been dreaming the entire time. A dreadful nightmare that she could easily wash away with some of her mother’s winter special pastries and a mug of warm milk. But that pain was more alive than she was and even though the cold was numbing her wounds, she could feel all the cuts and bruises. Not to mention the pain down there.

Why was she even alive?

She opened her eyes and looked up. She was covered with a bunch of empty burlap sacks and fishing nets. She took them off groaning with each movement, even if it meant enduring excruciating pains. Once she was almost done, she was hit by the heatwave and smoke.

She squinted her eyes.

She was on a boat, close to some decks, but there was no fire close by.

She tried her best to stand up, but the soreness and the open wounds were tearing her psyche apart. She had cried until she passed out, but now her body was not willing to shut down so easily. No. It was going to keep her awake to feel every single bruise, cracked bone and cut. At least she could make use of her agony. Once she finally took the first step out of the boat, she had to ignore the semen and blood between her legs, as she did not want to throw up and waste any more time. It was very cold and she was wearing only what was left out of her sweater and her high knee wool socks.

She immediately recognized the steps leading to the main street. They were the only one that had survived the November flood. She climbed them and began to stagger. The heatwave was getting closer and warmer and warmer, whereas the smoke was making everything harder to breathe.

She had passed only by three properties when she finally saw the fire. She tried to approach it, but she fell on the ground. This time, her hurt knee and ankle were not to blame, but her poor heart and the shock it suffered.

Her entire home was nothing but ashes.

The blankets laid on the ground were covering scorched corpses, but a tiny part inside her still hoped her parents were alive. She tried to crawl and call for help, but her voice and strength were gone. They had been long gone. She wept silently with the hurt inside her chest burning stronger than the physical wounds. Even her head… there was something inside her head like a claw scratching her brain. But she knew she was strong because despite what happened to her, she was still alive and willing to fight. Maybe her parents were fighters too and maybe the sky was willing to give them another chance to be a family. But even if her parents might have still been alive and there to find each other, she could not reach them. She was so close, yet so far away.

She laid there in the cold, letting the snow cover her in a thin layer.

She was later picked up and even opened her eyes full of hope, but only to meet her rapists.

“Now no one will be worried about you missing.”

“Yeah! Look at the bright side! They will never ever be cold again!”

 

*

 

It was quite obvious that time itself and her concept of time were different things. Once the snow stopped falling and the weather became somewhat warmer, she knew that only two or maybe three months had passed. Two months of being raped every single day by the three men who killed her parents and took everything away from her.

It felt like an eternity.

It felt like hell. 

“Kiiiiiraaa!”

She took a deep breath and did not bother saying anything. She had pleaded, she had threatened, she had promised to marry one of them, she had starved herself, she had attempted to drown herself, she had attempted to slit her wrists, she had tried killing them, she had tried stealing the boat while they were asleep. Nothing worked. She had been violated over and over again, humiliated, degraded, beaten… yet the skies were still denying her any mercy.

“Kiiiiiiraaaa!”

She closed her eyes. There was no point in pretending she was asleep, as it had never mattered before. She just didn’t want to see any of their faces.

“We have to say goodbye, my queen.”

The youngest brother kissed her on the forehead and picked her up. He took her to the bed and began violating her for the second time that day. Kira stared at the reed ceiling the entire time, waiting for the time to pass and for everything to be over. Or at least for a while.

“So are you going to kill me?”

She was staring at the wall this time, as her abductor was putting his overalls back on. 

“Why would I hurt you?”

She snorted at the irony of the situation, as she was trying her best to not cry.

“No… You see… spring is here and more fishermen are going to come here. We can’t keep you anymore. I would have liked having you home with us, but people think you… you know… died in the fire with your family.”

“So if you won’t kill me, then what?”

The man sat down on the improvised bed and caressed her shoulder.

“Two years ago we started working for this guy and doing deeds for him. His people are going to get here tomorrow. They have that huge mansion on Jakku 6. Don’t worry. You will make friends there.”

Chapter Text

The boat trip was a silent one. The brothers were not happy with the fact that they had to give her away, especially after all the hard work they put into setting her home ablaze and murdering her family. And she had no reason to make small talk with any of the three. She was pensive. She couldn’t imagine anything worse than what they had done to her, but she knew that they were not going to give her up that easily just like that.

Besides, the three wearing dark clothes and taking her by boat to someplace she knew nothing about reminded her of another tale told by the Jakku elders. The maiden and the three messengers of death crossing the water to the netherworld only after she paid the price. But if she was to die, then why was she tied? Why keeping her from another suicide attempt? Probably because what was waiting for her was once again worse than death.

They arrived on the island and she guessed correctly that they sold her for that thick envelope full of cash. She wondered what her price was and the criteria used to establish that price, but not out of arrogance, just out of pure curiosity – was in the end all worth it?

The henchmen took her to a dark cellar that smelled like mould and bleach. They let her have a hot shower, which was a blessing after months of using just a washcloth and a bucket of barely warm water to clean herself. Later, they gave her a teal nightgown and a matching pair of shorts. At least she was not going to be covered just by a dirty blanket. But she was still well aware that all that care was nothing but a process of seasoning her like a piece of meat for something worse or similar to what she had endured before.

And she was right again.

They took her to a cell where another girl was sobbing hiding in a corner. Kira said nothing, sitting quietly on the cell bed. It was cleaner than the boathouse and she could smell food that was not dried fish, but she had learned the hard way about the two sides of the coin.

She waited patiently until a masked man came in with a tray carrying two plates with two stakes and some roasted vegetables.

“Share!” the man ordered.

Kira waited until he left and took the two plates. She ate the vegetables like the famished animal she was and then took a couple of potatoes and some peppers from the other plate. She could have eaten her stake, but the mere smell suddenly reminded her of what was left of her home and family. She licked her fingers then glimpsed at her cellmate. She had stopped crying. Maybe she was supposed to show some compassion, but the only emotions she was able to feel anymore were anger and, occasionally, fear and disgust. 

She eventually took the tray and pushed it on the floor until it touched the other girls’ feet. The other girl lifted her chin telling her with no words that she could take her food. Kira did not wait to be asked twice or for her cellmate to change her mind, so she devoured the vegetables. 

“How did you get here?”

Kira looked up surprised that the girl’s voice was so calm despite the anger in her eyes.

“I was kidnapped and held hostage in a boathouse until just a couple of hours ago.”

Was it even normal to speak like that? Every time she thought about her traumatic abduction, rape and the murder of her family, she was angry and sad. Now she just felt broken. And it was due to the sudden kindness and the state of awareness that nothing was actually fine.

The other girl snorted.

“Unkar, Plutt and Crul?”

Kira had never even bothered learning their names, but she was sure they were talking about the same slugs.

“You too?”

The girl shrugged.

“My boat stopped working in the middle of the marshes. They just happened to be there and offered me a ride to Jakku 3. Of course, we never got there. They hit me with something and when I woke up, it was too late. They kept me there for two weeks.”

Kira bit her lip. She could no longer sense their stench and her mind seemed to be willing to reject the memories. And her cellmate seemed to be sort of fine too, talking about the abduction and everything. Whatever was the reason she had been crying, it had to do with the new place.

“I was there for maybe two months or more. I lost the track of time.”

The look in her cellmate’s eyes put some sort of pressure on her and she felt a pain in the chest. Good thing she said nothing because she didn’t want to abandon that state of pseudo-serenity. The awkward silence continued until the girl stabbed the stake with a fork and started chewing loudly.

“So... “

“Mei. My name is the only thing I still own.”

“So… Mei, what is going on here? I assume it is not an ordinary brothel.”

“How you’ve figured out so soon?”

Kira looked around. The bedsheets were clean and of nice quality. The food was great. The toilet was clean. She had spent half of her life in much worse conditions. 

“They seem to spend too much on… everything to just buy us from those three.”

“They want us broken. It saves them time. Like this, we no longer fight their clients and we see these conditions as a blessing compared to whatever place we came from. …And then there’s the West wing.”

Kira tilted her head.

“I’ve just returned from there. You see… we are many and they push our limits until we all break. Some end up as mere puppets, some end up mad. The mad ones are punished… or tamed as they call it. They take them to the West wing where they perform experiments on them.”

“So what…”

She was too afraid to finish her sentence. The more Mei spoke, the more she was starting to see that place as the witch’s gingerbread house.

“This is just a part of it.” 

She stretched her arm and showed her the burns and cuts that were running up on her body like a pattern, even underneath her teal nightgown. They seemed to stop only bellow her knees.

“I could not take it anymore so I grabbed the cigar and left a burn mark on one of them. The guards took me immediately to the West wing and some doctor injected me with something. It felt as if my blood was boiling in my veins and melting through my flesh. It was horrible.”

Kira shook her head in disbelief. The disbelief that people were that insane and cruel.

“But why?”

“I don’t know anything else. All I am sure of is that we are disposable and you will soon learn it yourself.”

It was too much to process for her already broken mind. She was beginning to doubt that she was going to survive that place, but maybe she didn’t want to do it in the first place. Allowing them to sell her body and rape her for the rest of her life for some clean clothes, a nice bed and good meals, or sabotage everything right from the start and put an end to her misery before enduring more than she already had? You had to be a masochist when picking either of those options. But the desperate scream of a girl being dragged by two guards helped her make up her mind.