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Ballad For Fallen Angels

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The warehouse was shaking from roof to foundation with a bassline like a heartbeat, and Blake loved every minute of it. It was one thing for RWBY’s album to top the charts, but it was another for it to have stayed there their entire virgin tour, fighting off heavyweights until the bus pulled in back home. Emerald City Records had immediately thrown a party, making sure the bash was far enough out of the city that a lot of noise and alcohol wouldn’t attract attention, even if they had invited a guest list as long as she was tall. At this point, there was probably someone doing coke in the bathroom, but as long as the band stayed clean, the brand didn’t care.

Blake watched in awe as their leading single played across a dozen screens anchored around the room, echoing from all directions as reflections of Weiss sang, her melody backed by the bass she knew so very well, Ruby’s lightning-fast riffs, and Yang beating the drums until they nearly bled. It was unreal. Her wrist had ached from signing so many autographs at the start of the night, but thanks to the beer people kept shoving into her hand, it dulled to a faint twinge.

Inside the collective motion of the crowd — the dancing, laughing, singing on-and-offkey crowd — she was at peace. Blake was used to a restless jolt in her blood; never keeping still, never sleeping enough or the right hours. This was so much better, a warm wave of sound drawing her in, famous yet anonymous.

“Someone didn’t slip you a little white pill, did they?” A voice came from Blake’s left, low and sultry. The timbre was like a strip of velvet had just been rubbed up her spine. “Or are you just having a really good time?”

Even under the rainbow cover of club lights, Cinder Fall’s eyes were a hazel so bright it could only be called gold. Blake had seen them framed by a hundred magazine covers, hailing her band Crime as a success that just wouldn’t die, despite genre-hopping like it was a sport. A bloodsport, maybe, since Cinder had started out in the punk scene, swerving into metal and industrial when it suited her tastes, with just enough rock to make her a Rolling Stone darling.

Critics called Crime a shallow imitator, but fans treated Cinder like an innovative goddess, the kind with the pull to turn mosh pits into a wall of death with the crook of her finger. Just six months ago she had been banned from Dubai after daring to premiere a new song, Feed the Poor the Rich, right in front of an audience of millionaires, oil barons, and tech kings. Cinder and her crew had slipped arrest for ‘inciting a riot’ and taken it in stride, renaming their tour to EXILE and selling out every following show. Looking at her now, stare burning like a pair of trapped suns, it was easy to see why people set fires at Cinder’s feet.

Slender fingers cupped Blake’s cheek, tilting it up by degrees. “You look like you’re riding high, sweet thing.”

She jerked back, drawing in a ragged breath. “I’m fine. You’re—you’re Cinder Fall. What are you doing here?”

“The one and only.” A smirk tugged at carmine-painted lips. “And a little bird told me the new blood was having a party, Blake. How could I miss out on someone’s first?”

Blake couldn’t decide which hand to keep her beer in, the condensation leaving her palms damp. “I hope you’re having a good time. Usually we just kick back on the roof of the bus.”

“It just got better, anyway.” Cinder’s eyes flickered to the closest screen and back. “Once you’re a sure thing, when they know you’re not a one-hit wonder, that’s when you’ll see how much privilege they’ve got stashed behind the curtain.”

Crime had over half a dozen records to their name, not to mention enough covers and collaborations to fill a hundred playlists. Blake remembered hearing Pins and Needles off the Pure Midnight album when she was twelve, fumbling with bass strings and soft calluses. Maybe she was buzzed, maybe it was being starstruck. “We’ve got time. I mean, how old are you?”

The question earned a laugh from Cinder, teeth bared in too broad a smile to be offended. Lacquer-tipped nails clicked against the side of her beer bottle. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”

“Does it really matter?” Blake huffed, warmth rushing up the back of her neck before she mumbled, “twenty’s close enough.”

“It was close enough for me too.” Cinder’s hand withdrew, brushing a strand of wildly-arranged black hair behind her ear. It was the kind of effortless style that took hours to make right, even if looked like she had just fallen out of bed. “Where are the rest of your friends? You were hard to find.”

Ruby had been on a phone call with her dad a minute ago, and it took only a moment of Blake’s mouth knit in concentration, listening for the rapid tumble of Spanish over the sound of dancing and howling guitars. She waved until silver eyes snapped wide in recognition and Ruby started pushing through the crowd, still talking into the speaker while trying to salvage her undercut with her other hand. Between a night full of sweat and failing hairspray, the black-dyed-red locks were now a hybrid of a mohawk and being stuck like glue to her brow.

Nos vemos, Papi! Te quiero!" Blake watched Ruby mash her thumb on the bottom of the screen and nearly drop her phone, coming to a halt in front of Cinder with a yelp of protest. As soon as it was shoved back into the pocket of her shredded jeans, sticking out like a thick black wedge, she straightened up and smiled. “What’s up, Blake?”

“This is Cinder Fall.” Blake cleared her throat and took a quick swig of her beer. “She wanted to meet the band.”

“From Crime?” Ruby’s eyes went wide when she received a nod. “You guys are sweet. Sustrai does things with the guitar I didn’t think were possible.”

“Emerald’s a perfectionist, on top of many other things.” Cinder demurred.

Ruby nodded, reaching over to give her free hand a tight squeeze. Blake squeezed back; their fingers fit together so easily, and it wasn’t like half the known world hadn’t already guessed they were dating. “Where’d Yang and Weiss go?”

“In the bus.” She rolled her eyes. The label had rented them a post-party hotel room to crash in, but apparently that didn’t have the same feel of fucking on grimy vinyl seats.

“Already? Man, I don’t want to sleep in the front cab again.” Stowing the grumbling for a moment, Ruby brightened her smile in Cinder’s direction. “I think our lead singer’s busy warming up her voice. Sorry.”

Cinder’s burst of laughter made Blake shiver, ending on a note like a purr. “That’s fine. Don’t tell anyone, but guitarists are my favorites.”

Her mouth tensed into a tight line. “Is it the fingers or the fact that we can keep our mouths shut?”

“Blake—” Ruby coughed.

“Oh, I knew there were some thorns under there.” Cinder shoulders rose, the shrug exaggerated and fluid. “You don’t write music like yours without something sharp pushing up against your heart.”

“Yang said it’s because she watched too much DBZ as a kid and still wants to go Super Saiyan on the world.” Ruby’s thumb ran over Blake’s knuckles, and it was hard to keep frowning. “There’s a lot to yell about, you know?”

“Don’t you two make a passionate pair?” She felt golden eyes settle on her again, and it was like the air shimmered around Cinder, a mirage. It was just the lights, Blake knew, but she couldn’t shake the feeling. “You deserve more than five dollar beer and concrete floors tonight. Somewhere with bottle service, really. My treat.”

“Somewhere else?” Silver eyes widened a degree. “I mean, they threw this party for us. It would be kinda rude to leave.”

“Yang and Weiss already did.” Blake murmured.

Ruby pulled a face at the reminder. “Yeah, but we’re like twenty miles out of town so the cops don’t complain about turning all this up to eleven. We don’t have a car and they’re…in the bus.”

“I brought my own car.” Cinder interjected, wearing that same cunning smile. “I don’t have chauffeurs cart me around like some do.”

They shared a look and Blake finally shrugged. The party seemed content to carry on without them already, singing an echo of whatever song poured out of the speakers, and it wasn’t every day that a musical legend gave out an invitation for drinks.

“Alright, we’re in.” Blake said. “As long as we’re back by sunup so Weiss doesn’t have a fit.”

“She’d have a fit over me,” Ruby groused, “because I’m the baby of the band.”

“I was seventeen when I signed my first deal, darling. You’re as old as you act.” Cinder turned on her heel, beckoning them to follow with a quick hook of her fingers. “And you’re a rock star now. Own it.”

The silence was almost deafening when they walked out to the parking lot, the door sliding shut with the grind of steel on steel. Blake remembered there being a bouncer at the start of the night, but if the tiny orange glow in the distance and smell of ash was any sign, he had gone off for a smoke break and never come back. Cars were sprawled out across the gravel without any rhyme or reason, convertibles and hummers side-by-side with jeeps and equipment trucks. On the very edge was their tour bus, curtains drawn over the windows to black them out. With the abandoned plastic wine glass and empty forty near the side door, there was no question Yang and Weiss had slipped inside for some personal time.

Cinder had a sports car that was blood red and all liquid, smooth lines. It made a soft chirp when she pulled out the key, and another button made the doors ease open with the nearly silent whisper of hydraulics. Ruby whistled under her breath, and Blake saw Cinder’s smile slice through the shadows before she let them climb into the back seat. The leather was cold against bare skin, but their leather jackets were somewhere in the bus, and Blake slid her arm around Ruby’s shoulders when she shivered.

When the engine roared to life, heat immediately poured through the seats, as did a raucous scream from the speakers, backed by a pure cacophony of sound.

“Sorry about that,” Cinder said, tapping a key on the steering wheel to kill the volume, “we’re doing a collaboration with Neo for our next album. That girl can shatter glass if she puts her mind to it.”

Ruby perked up at the name, surprised. “Is it true she doesn’t talk?”

“Not outside the sound booth.” Cinder said, swinging out onto the main road. “It makes sense to save her throat, even if it drives the media wild. Death growls aren’t for amateurs and she throws her voice up and down the scale with every song.”

A moment later, Cinder turned the music back up, but it was still low enough for them to hear each other over a beat that seemed like a car crash meeting a bass drum. Blake had heard Neo’s style described as a ‘rave turned slaughterhouse’, but this felt like it was clawing at the inside of her skull as sugar-sweet tones descended into an ear-piercing howl, calling for any listeners to bathe in the blood of the innocent.  She couldn’t even imagine what this disaster would be like mixed with Crime’s raw, rebellious sound, especially when an electronica interlude suddenly transformed the song into a cartoon-pitched nightmare.

“She’s got that kind of mad genius that pisses off critics. You know, the kind of guys who look at scrap metal sculptures in art museums and insist they could have done it first, but they didn’t.” Neo’s screech fell to a low chant while Cinder’s fingers drummed over the wheel in perfect time. “There’s nothing like making a song that everyone hates but can’t stop themselves from buying.”

“You like making music people hate?” Blake asked, brow raised.

“No one’s going to love you all the time, sweet thing. I make whatever I damn well please because I have enough saved to take a hit without looking back.” Golden eyes met hers in the rear view mirror. “Your label will tear out your fangs by the roots if you give them the chance.”

She ground her teeth together. “Like hell.”

“Anger’s cute for girls until they become women, you know. All the anarchist punk boys who jerk off to your posters will start calling you a bitch when they realize you won’t tone it down for them personally. Same with the magazines when you won’t take your clothes off.” Cinder sighed, more amused than irritated. “Make them eat it and smile when they swallow.”

“We don’t really need boys for anything.” Ruby murmured.

“That’s the best way to go about it.” City lights appeared over the edge of the windshield and Cinder eased off the gas, the little red needle of the speedometer dropping from a hundred to fifty. “Mercury and Torchwick aren’t so bad, although I think Roman’s trying to find the balls to run off solo.”

Blake frowned. “He plays bass too, doesn’t he?”

“Mm, so he says. He’s a lot more flash than technique, honestly.” Cinder’s smile was tight, barely showing any teeth. “You might be able to give him a run for his money, Blake.”

Shallow as it was, she was hard-pressed not to blush, especially when Ruby looked up at her with a proud smile. Sure, she wrote and sang too, but Blake was most proud of her hard-won skill on the bass, pouring everything she had into that battered instrument at a time when it was almost all that could be claimed to her name. For a split second, she wished they were alone, so Cinder wouldn’t stare if she whispered in Arabic instead of English, watch Ruby mouth the syllables back as best she could. Of course it was here, sitting in a car probably worth more than the house she grew up in, that Blake couldn’t forget where she came from.

It didn’t matter. Adam was long gone, anyway.

“How far’s this place?” Ruby asked, snuggling up against Blake’s shoulder.

“A few more minutes.” Neon glow and the blur of streetlights fell over Cinder’s face, blotting out her expression. “It’s called the Glass House.”

The club was set back from the street, nearly nondescript from the other slabs of brick and steel, if not for the pair of bouncers idling in the front. They were matched down to the shoes, crisp linen suits and sunglasses with a designer’s name etched in gold along the temple, and one approached as Cinder slowed to a stop by the sidewalk, engine idling while the passenger side window slid down. He looked at her over dark lenses before casting his eyes to the back, and Blake returned the stare in silence.

“Pickup or dine-in, Ms. Fall?” His voice was a low rumble, warm with familiarity.

“We’ll be inside tonight, Aschen, thank you.” Handing over the keys with a pair of crisp fifty dollar bills, Cinder smiled. “Half for you, half for the valet.”

As soon as the money disappeared into his jacket, Aschen opened the door to let Cinder out, and after a second’s hesitation, Ruby followed, tugging at the ragged edges of her denim vest as if they could be straightened out. Blake rolled her shoulders back, head held high; they performed and did photoshoots in t-shirts — well, except for Weiss, sometimes — so what difference did it make if she wore one into some exclusive club. Despite the cash she was throwing around, Cinder hadn’t even commented on their clothes.

“Are we supposed to have an ID?” Ruby asked under her breath.

“I hope not.” Blake muttered back, following Cinder’s lead through heavy wooden doors. “Yang keeps the fakes in the glove compartment, I didn’t grab them.”

She hadn’t given the name of the place much thought until they stepped past the threshold, only to have to try and keep her jaw from dropping. Ruby gasped too, stopping short. Everything was glass and light, from the see-through bar to the stairs that curved up to the second story with edges hard and sharp as diamond. Some of it was painted or stained, reflecting candy apple red across the opaque floor, almost like a splash of blood, and too many sculptures to count draped from the ceiling by delicately spun threads. The soft rush of air from the door opening sent several of them spinning, refracting a pattern of silver and crimson all over the walls.

“Showy, isn’t it?” Cinder asked aloud, guiding them to a clear dais where a hostess was waiting. With earrings made of quartz and red-tinted glasses, she looked like another decoration in the club. “Fragile and expensive, but sometimes that’s what it takes to impress.”

“Ms. Fall,” the hostess said, giving a small smile in greeting, “could I trouble you for your membership card?”

How Cinder kept anything in a pair of leather pants that tight, Blake couldn’t guess, but the older woman pulled a black card out of her back pocket and handed it over for inspection. After a quick examination, it was returned, and the hostess tapped something into the tablet resting by her hand.

“Two guests tonight.” Cinder said, and Blake felt the weight of red-cast eyes on her and Ruby, curious. If they were recognized, no comment was made. “I was hoping the booth in the back might be open.”

“It is, ma’am. Would you like drinks brought to the table?” The hostess asked.

“Please.” After a moment’s consideration, Cinder added. “How about a bottle of the Brut Rosé and a champagne Blanc de Noirs?”

Two fingers swept across the screen of the tablet, highlighting the selections in red. “They’ll be brought to you momentarily. Mind your guests, Ms. Fall. You’re responsible for their damages.”

Irritation made Blake’s shoulders rigid, but the heated look Cinder cast back their way was anything but patronizing. “Don’t worry. I plan on minding them quite closely.”

Without another word, she stepped past the hostess and into the club proper. It wasn’t crowded, per se, but there were more people than Blake had seen at first glance, dazzled by the dance of glass. Some she recognized, like the A-list actress sipping vodka with a boy half her age and his shirt undone far enough for a trail of dark hair to show, but the rest were anonymous except for the wealth flashing around wrists and throats to prove they belonged there. Considering the only jewelry Cinder wore was in her ears — and a bolt of silver Blake caught glinting in her tongue — they stood out like sore thumbs, but no one seemed to notice, all caught in their own private worlds.

The booth was lined with plush leather seats, stark white surrounding a crystal table cut an inch thick, its facets sparkling and sharp. Ruby sank into the back corner with a happy sigh, kicking her legs out against the pole in the center, laces hanging loose from the knots of her shoes. A teasing kick to the calf from Blake earned a squeal as she shifted out of the way to allow them both to sit side-by-side, with Cinder content to take the far edge so she could rest her heels on the opposite seat. It had the secondary effect of keeping them locked into the booth, but it was so effortless it looked more like indulgent habit than a trap.

“How much does it cost to get in here?” Ruby asked, eyes focused on someone at the bar who seemed to be trying to fish a ring out of their cup.

“For me? Nothing. It’s invite-only.” The black card was flipped between Cinder’s fingers and back again, as if she was going to do a trick with it. “Of course, they mark up everything in here twenty times over once you’re inside. You don’t become a member if the club doesn’t think you can afford it.”

True to the hostess’ promise, the drinks came as soon as they were settled, three glasses set on the table in between a pair of bottles, one made from rose-tinted glass and the other so black it was impossible to see through. Cinder waved away the offer from the server to uncork the champagne, pocketing her card before stripping away the foil topping each bottle via a quick slash of her nails. A tiny cage of metal held the corks in place and she pried them away with the delicacy of a surgeon, setting the pieces aside. Gripping the body of the Brut Rosé, Cinder eased the first cork out, a satisfying pop following the sharp twist of her wrist.

“I wasn’t sure which sort you two would like.” Pink bubbles frothed as she filled Ruby’s glass halfway, lapping at the curved sides. “Champagne can be an acquired taste.”

“You know we’re not, um—” Ruby started.

An amused hum escaped between Cinder’s pursed lips. “If I threw in another grand to fly you to Europe tonight, this would be legal. And no one here cares, trust me.”

The blanc de noirs was opened next, and Blake was surprised when it poured out into her glass with a golden tint, rather than resembling the ink-black bottle Cinder wielded with practiced grace. Gold as their eyes, almost, briefly reflected in the third — and empty — glass that remained.

“Which one are you having?” Blake asked, keeping her hands in her lap.

“I was trying to decide that.” Cinder’s head tilted curiously. “The last thing I’d want is to be accused of playing favorites.”

“You could have both.” There was a soft hiccup as Ruby gulped down her first sip a bit too fast. “Oh, this is really good.”

“I’ll take that recommendation to heart, then.” Rosé splashed along the inside of Cinder’s glass, the quick pour forcing the bubbles to pop and vanish.

Reaching out for the noir, Blake couldn’t help giving it a sniff before she took a drink. It was harsh and sweet all at once, nothing like the stale aftertaste the beer had left on her tongue, but the champagne was oddly hard to swallow under Cinder’s approving stare. A slick shine clung to the older woman’s lipstick, but the flute she drank from was clean, unmarred.

“Do you like it, Blake?” Another subtle sip moved down Cinder’s throat like a serpent, and she let out a pleased sigh, lips parting enough to show bleached white teeth. “I could always order something else.”

“It’s growing on me.” Strange as the mix of tastes was, Blake couldn’t say she hated it. Ruby’s glass was already halfway gone, sipped as easily as soda. “Why did you bring us here?”

One dark brow raised. “As opposed to somewhere else?”

“Anywhere at all.” She could barely taste the alcohol, even with the bubbles dancing on her tongue. “We could have talked at the party.”

“Because I prefer not to sit on concrete blocks or shout over your lead singer crooning ten times over, no matter how nice her voice is.” Cinder flicked a piece of foil towards the twisted metal in the center of the table. “And it’s surprisingly difficult to find anyone worth talking to in this business.”

Ruby frowned, and her other hand found Blake’s under the table, giving it a light squeeze. “Really?”

“There’s three ways to go out when you’re famous.” Pointing to another table where a trio of men were playing cards, one sweating far more than the rest, Cinder continued, “either you gamble it all away,” her hand flicked back towards the bar where several people were nursing drinks, and it finally clicked for Blake that they weren’t patrons, “you marry someone who only wants you for your money,” golden eyes pointedly rolled up towards the second floor, “or you put it up your nose and in your veins. Finding people who haven’t done any of that isn’t easy.”

“You can get drugs here?” Silver eyes blinked quickly and Blake squeezed Ruby’s hand back. She and Yang sometimes had a joint on the road, but Weiss would pitch an utter fit if she knew. It made sense, considering that Papa Schnee watched her like a hawk, even if they had quit talking months ago.

“Anything from Oracle to black tar, darling. That’s why underage drinking is the least of their concerns.” Cinder finished her glass and refilled it with the noir, gladly doing the same with the rosé when Ruby nudged hers over. “I’ve found it’s best to choose one vice and stick with it.”

“You still didn’t answer my question.” Blake protested, pushing her glass over to be filled. “Not really.”

“Because I’m a selfish rock star who wanted company and your album’s been making the rounds in my studio enough to make me wonder what the band behind it was like. Does that satisfy you?”

When the flute was returned full of champagne, Blake nodded, and some of the tension bled out of her shoulders. Blunt or not, it sounded like an honest answer. The second glass went down even easier than the first, and so did the third. A side comment from Cinder about the lyrics to Red Like Roses made Ruby immediately perk up, and Blake tossed in her commentary here and there, but it was always nice to hear the younger girl talk about music, watching her eyes glow bright with excitement.

By the time the rosé was gone, Cinder split the rest of the noir between their glasses, and even absent a flush on Ruby’s face, Blake could tell she was halfway over buzzed and into drunk. The room was sparkling on the edges for her too, but her tongue didn’t feel like lead yet, and every time Cinder laughed, she felt the sound like a coil of heat wrapping around her spine. Inches between their bodies had become centimeters while the hours slipped by, and there was no complaint when Blake slung her boot over Cinder’s calf in an idle stretch.

“So you two are dating, aren’t you?” Warm with intoxication, the older woman’s voice was low and full, liquid enough to bottle on its own.

“Dating?” Ruby blushed then, shyly casting her eyes towards Blake. “Well, we’re together.”

“It’s hard to go out on dates when we’re busy all the time, but that doesn’t mean she’s not my girlfriend.” Placing a lazy peck on Ruby’s brow, Blake stifled a sound of surprise when the younger girl tipped her head up, just enough for their lips to meet.

It was a slow and messy kiss, but she liked the sweet taste on Ruby’s tongue, chasing it until there was a teasing suck and bite to her lower lip. Blake let go of her glass, about to tease her fingers along the soft fuzz of Ruby’s undercut, tug at one of the silver loops in a sensitive ear, when she was reminded of Cinder’s presence by an amused ahem. They broke apart in an instant and Ruby spluttered, promptly downing the rest of her glass with both eyes squeezed shut rather than daring to look.

“Don’t stop on my account.” Cinder said, rubbing her thumb up and down the stem of the champagne flute. “Young love’s a precious thing.”

“Love’s not what’s on your mind.” Blake retorted, but she couldn’t hide the breathless edge in her voice. The kiss had felt good — really good.

Ruby hiccuped again, but the worst of the blush faded. “Maybe she wants to try.”

“Do you?” Eyes narrowed to thin slits, Blake kept them locked on Cinder’s, which hadn’t dulled a bit from their drinking, despite her matching them glass for glass.

“If I say no, what would you think of me?” There was a sweeping gesture towards her open lap. “You know what they say about curiosity.”

After a quick glance at Ruby, who shrugged and smiled, Blake shifted around the curve of the booth, one hand gripping the table to keep her steady. She had her teeth bared when she straddled Cinder’s hips, waiting for her fire to be answered, but there was only a patient calm, hiding the devious glint in perfect gold. Their mouths met more like a crash than a kiss, hard enough to bruise if Cinder’s jaw hadn’t gone slack, keeping teeth from knocking together. Blake hadn’t really expected reciprocation until there was warmth and give, the slow and controlled tease of the older woman’s tongue making her melt, their bodies suddenly flush together, denim on leather.

“I’m not your prey, little tigress,” Cinder whispered against Blake’s lips, “but you’re certainly welcome to try.”

“Wow,” Ruby’s soft gasp was a salve, a distraction so she could break contact with those damned eyes, “you two look like um, what’s that music video? Except you actually kissed.”

“Sorry, Ruby.” Blake murmured. She wasn’t even quite sure what she was apologizing for, not when an auric haze was still clouding her vision, filling her lungs.

Cinder extended her hand across the table, palm up. “We are leaving you out, aren’t we?”

Before Blake could speak, Ruby shuffled over on her knees, energy nearly sizzling off her skin. Rather than claim a kiss on the mouth, however, Cinder laid on top of Ruby’s head, more like a gesture of praise than anything else. The muted protest that followed was answered with a gentle stroke over Ruby’s cheek, one she leaned into, fitting like a perfect notch into Cinder’s palm. A breath Blake hadn’t known she was holding escaped her chest in a hiss, the soft tap of lacquered fingernails on her back steady as a drumbeat.

“I think we should go upstairs.” Cinder announced. “I have a room reserved here for when someone goes over their limit.”

Her pulse skipped before bouncing up to her throat, but Blake let out a small noise of consent. Something about the idea of being caught in four smaller walls with Cinder sent her head spinning, but it seemed better to have the privacy rather than have whatever this was happening in front of an entire club of people. Extricating herself from Cinder’s lap was harder than she thought, but the world didn’t bob or spiral out when Blake put her feet back on the floor. That was a good sign.

Getting up the stairs was a different matter with Ruby clinging onto her arm, but she followed the click of Cinder’s heels up glass steps until they made it to the second floor. It was darker than the light show below, stale and acrid smoke filling the air, the scent covered over with incense and heavy perfume, but rather than linger, Cinder took them down a long hall to the right, pulling out the black card again. It slid like a key through a slot in the second closest door, and she shepherded them both inside. The deadbolt falling shut echoed in Blake’s ears, plunging the room into darkness until Cinder struck a switch.

Everything was just as outrageously expensive as the rest of the club, although the most prominent feature was a king-sized bed nearly drowning in pillows. Ruby leapt onto it almost immediately and sank into the thick comforter, spreading her arms out wide and waving them like it was made of snow. Her laugh was light as the champagne bubbles, and Blake joined her after a second’s hesitation, not caring if the thick soles of her boots ground into the fabric. Faint beeps drew her attention back to Cinder, who was standing in front of what looked like a small safe. Its steel door creaked open and she reached inside, pulling out a small black case.

“What’s that?” Blake asked. Making out the finer details in the dim light was impossible.

“A camera, darling.” Cinder slid a battery into the bottom of it before taking a test shot that cast a lightning-bright flash across the wall. “Such a handy investment.”

Ruby’s giggle was distant, as if she hadn’t registered the words at all, but Blake turned on her side, trying to focus on the bulbous, clear lens. “Turn it off.”

“I’m not going to blackmail you, Blake. No one cares about drunk teenagers unless they destroy something expensive.” With one knee on the bed, Cinder’s finger rested atop the camera’s shutter. “You two look so lovely together, it’s like catching rare birds mating on the wing.”

There was a click and flash, blinding Blake until she blinked past the light. “Why, then?”

“Inspiration.” Golden eyes loomed from above, pinning her like a butterfly to a corkboard. “That’s all art is, swallowing something whole and then spitting out something else.”

“Why don’t you get in bed instead of spouting shit from the back of a pop-psych book?” Blake growled. “We can all take pictures together.”

She blinked, and Cinder was there, an inch from her. Breath thick with champagne, hot enough for Blake to feel as the older woman said, “If I were ten years younger, you’re the exact type I’d choke on cigarette smoke and fuck in a back alley after a show.”

The words were dizzying, a shot to the gut like she’d just downed a glass of whiskey without stopping to breathe. “You’re being a tease.”

“I’m being professional, even if not a single part of me wants to.” Another click turned off the camera, and Cinder cupped Blake’s cheek, leaning even closer to whisper, “but let tonight serve as a reminder how easily you can be bought and drawn under, sweet thing. That way when a producer or some aging has-been makes the same offer I did, you’ll know you’re worth more.”

Bile coated Blake’s tongue as Cinder pulled away, followed by another empty laugh from Ruby. Just a glance over her shoulder was enough to see silver eyes completely glazed over, far too drunk to consent to anything. It sobered her like having her head shoved into ice cold water, enough that she gently moved a pillow under Ruby’s head and started to rub her back, hoping it would soothe her into sleep.

“The room’s yours for the night if you want it.” Stripping the film from the camera — it wasn’t digital, Blake realized, she couldn’t send it anywhere — Cinder tucked the little canister into her cleavage and out of sight. “When you want to leave, just ask the hostess up front and she’ll get you a taxi. It’ll go on my tab.”

“I don’t understand.” Her eyelids felt heavy too, nausea colliding with the slosh of champagne that seemed to linger in her throat. “This was just to make a point?”

“I do think your music has a lot of potential, Blake. I’d hate to see you get exploited. And it wasn’t like I’m leaving empty-handed.” Striding to the door, Cinder cast one last look over her way. “The hangover will be a touch of tough love. Take care of her.”

Laying there, half in the darkness and too stunned to do more than lay there and breathe, Blake gathered the pieces of herself back together, enough to wrap her body around Ruby’s and collapse again, consciousness slipping free.

 

 

It was more than a month later when Yang called her over to see something on her laptop, balanced between her wide-spread thighs with a can of soda nearly about to topple off the edge of the keyboard. Tugging off over-sized headphones, they were offered to Blake with a quick comment of, “you have to listen to this song, I think it broke my ears.”

She fit them snugly over her head, watching as Yang hit reset on the video that had been playing. It was impossible to read anything on the site with the language set to Mandarin, but that didn’t matter if she was just listening. Several seconds of silence passed, though, and Blake frowned. “I can’t hear anything.”

“Piece of shit headset.” Yang yanked the plug out of the side of the laptop and took them back, but as soon as she did, a harsh roar of guitars and drums poured out of the speakers, screeching up into a higher octave as the beat got faster and faster. “That dude’s got to be going a million strokes a minute.”

CRIME flashed across the screen in crimson letters and Blake froze. FEATURING NEO followed after in a neon pink splash before flickering out of view, the dark background fading to show an empty, plush bed, one she would have recognized in her sleep. Cinder appeared a second later, wearing a studded vest with nothing underneath and a pair of leather pants that looked poured on, a necklace of golden feathers draped lazily around her throat. She had her fingers wrapped around the microphone like she was giving penance with it, angled between both hands towards her lips.

A horrible shriek overcame the strains of guitar and driving beat, dropping into a death growl so low Blake felt hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and a pair of mismatched eyes — Neo’s signature — overlaid Cinder’s for a moment, pink and silver smearing gold. Behind her and Yang, she heard a loud huff, the sound of Weiss’ pen slapping against her notebook. “Are you two watching that garish video again, Yang?”

“Just one more time, babe, I wanted to show Blake.” The door to the tour bus swung open and Ruby came inside, wiping sweat from her brow as she sucked the last of a slurpie through a bright red bendy straw. “I’ll show Ruby too. Mèimei, ven aca!”

With a bounce in her step, Ruby chucked her cup into the trashcan and smiled at Blake. “What’s up?”

“Crime’s new video came out.” Blake said, trying to keep her voice even.

Any answer Ruby might have had was cut off by the start of the vocals, Cinder practically purring into the mike, “I took two angels to my bed, tore them down from grace.”

By the last word, a pair of women appeared alongside her in the bed, and Blake’s jaw dropped nearly to the floor. The one on Cinder’s left looked like her, down to the exact skin tone, rich and dark, hair flowing in a liquid black wave. Wings the same color jutted from her back, a trick of CGI to be sure, but they moved and fluttered like they were real. It wasn’t until the would-be angel rolled onto her side that Blake saw the Arabic inscribed around her throat with flowing script: the word for fury cast in white ink.

If she was shocked by the first angel, the other was just as alarming as a mimicry of Ruby, red hair thrown back and wild, covered with piercings from brow to chin. Her wings were grey with a silver undertone, glittering with every shift, and joventud was emblazoned across her chest, the letters carved out in black. Blake blinked over and over, thinking it was a trick of her vision, but she quietly asked, “that’s Spanish, isn’t it?”

“It means ‘youth.’” Ruby whispered back, tone distant with awe.

“I named them Youth and Fury,” Cinder howled into the microphone, feigning a gasp when she was enshrouded by a pair of wings, “they filled every hollow place.”

“But we—” With a cough to lower her voice again, Ruby murmured, “we didn’t, right?”

“No, we didn’t.” Blake had given Ruby a replay of that night after they’d spent the latter half of the evening returning the champagne with bursts of dry heaving in between, as everything after the first bottle had been a blur. When Cinder had said inspiration, she had expected something else entirely.

“What are you two mumbling about back there?” Yang grumbled, fussing with the volume.

“Nothing.” Ruby said quickly, plastering a broad smile on her face.

Reaching for Ruby’s hand, Blake gave it a light squeeze while they watched the rest of the video. As suggestive — and ear-piercing — as the song was, Cinder didn’t mention them or the band by name once, despite her ‘angels’ performing any number of unholy acts on screen with her and one another. Ruby’s face was bright red by the time it cut to black, but neither Weiss nor Yang made comment. In fact, her sister seemed more occupied with fixing the headphones than anything else.

“Dodged a bullet there, didn’t we?” Blake couldn’t help a brief, dry chuckle.

There was a thoughtful hum before Ruby’s thumb tapped her knuckles. “Blake.”

She frowned. “What?”

“I know what we’re doing for Halloween costumes.” Ruby proclaimed proudly.

The chuckle burst into a full-throated laugh, and Blake leaned over to lay a soft kiss against her lips. “Count on it.”