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                                                                                                                           ***

      “Don’t fucking test me,” Serena said, brandishing the crowbar. The bastard criminal in front of her, a burly, tattooed white guy bound hand and foot to an old wooden chair, blubbered and shook like a child as he begged her for his life.

She smiled.

“P-p-please. P-p-please, I didn’t do it, I never touched that girl!” the man sobbed. “She’s a lying bitch!”

SLAM. Serena whacked the crowbar into the ground with all her strength, just centimeters from the asshole’s foot. He shuddered, leaning as far away from her as possible and screwing his eyes shut.

“Tell. Me. The truth,” Serena demanded, getting right up in his vile face. “Unless you want me to take another swing at you. And this time, asshole, I won’t miss.”

      The thug was silent for a moment, fixing her with a bloody, insolent glare. She lifted the crowbar, ready to swing, and lunged towards him-

“Alright!” the man shrieked. “I gave the bitch what she was asking for and left her for dead! I did it! Please!”

But Serena had had enough. She dropped the crowbar and used her fist to clock the man hard in the exact right spot on his head, sending him slumping forwards, unconscious.

“Luke! Deena!” Serena called. “Get him out of here.”                           

       Her friends rushed in to pick up the tortured man and bundle him and his cell phone full of incriminating evidence off to dump on the police’s doorstep. Serena didn’t like or trust most cops- except for one. Brett, her inside man on the force, would make sure this bastard got what he deserved, and that his injuries were never traced back to Serena. Her work here was done.

                                                                                                                           ***

      She showered in the basement warehouse’s tiny bathroom, the cold water pounding pleasantly against her skin. Dressing in fresh, blood-free clothes, she headed out, sending a text on her untraceable burner phone. The deed is done. Second half of the payment due by tonight, or you know what happens.

     Serena Berg had not intended to get into the business of vigilante justice. In fact, she had started out as a college girl in a co-ed fraternity, the only out trans lesbian on campus, majoring in Criminology to hopefully join her Big, Brett, in putting criminals behind bars.

It hadn’t taken long for her to become extremely disillusioned with the justice system, however.  

The horrors in her past had already made Serena strong, marked her with the scar that reminded her of her mission whenever she looked in the mirror. Seeing her friends in the frat become victims of racialized and sexualized violence and get no justice at all- that had made her hard and pragmatic and very angry. She’d taken up a second major in journalism as a cover career and a way of gathering information about her marks without suspicion. And then she and a few other would-be criminologists had founded the Circle, as a means of making certain that justice would be served, one way or another.

                                                                                                                           ***

       “Rox? You in there? I’m home,” Serena called, as she walked through the door of the apartment she shared with her lifelong best friend. Roxanne Roberts was sweetness and light and everything good in the world. Serena was her rock, protector and confidante- and yet, Roxanne had no idea about the other girl’s secret career in the business of revenge.

“Ree!” Roxanne’s happy voice called out, and she poked her head out from her bedroom. “I’m in here, Skyping Chris! Want to come say hi?”

Chris was Roxanne’s ex-boyfriend from back in college. Their breakup had been a disaster, but once he’d moved back to his native Canada, the two had managed to repair their friendship, at least. Serena thought he was a bland, spineless moron. To Roxanne, she said only, “Sure.”

       The conversation with Chris ended pretty quickly, and then the girls decided on dinner and a movie, something light, because Roxanne was tired from a long day at the astrophysics lab. She did literal rocket science for a living. Serena couldn’t be prouder of her.

Roxanne was quiet as she moved around the kitchen, preparing dinner for the two of them. Serena was a terrible cook, so it was her job to set the table and then keep herself occupied until Roxanne was finished cooking. That was fine by Serena, who would sit and watch her roommate, observing the careful movements of the other girl’s hands, the way her face went just a little bit soft and melancholy when she wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

At the moment, though, her brow was furrowed, and she was biting her lip. Something was wrong. Another depressive episode? A problem at work? Or was she still missing Chris, who hadn’t visited in a while? (He was too scared of Serena to come here. She liked it that way.)

“Rox? Are you okay?” Serena asked, rising to join her at the stove, her hand finding its way to the small of Roxanne’s back, supporting her.

“I’m fine,” Roxanne insisted, shooing Serena away. “Just let me do this for you, it’s almost ready.”

Serena shrugged, stepping back. “Whatever it is, I’m here if you need me.”

“I know,” Roxanne said, forcing a smile.

        They spent the rest of the meal in companionable silence, Serena knowing her friend would speak when she was ready. But her mind flashed back to heavy ropes and bloody lips and crowbars, the business of revenge. Whoever was hurting Roxanne deserved even worse, and she wanted nothing more than to give it to them.

Maybe her natural instinct towards protecting Roxanne was the reason Serena didn’t see or hear even a moment of the movie they put on after dinner, one of those cute animated talking animal stories. She was too busy worrying and wondering what was going on.

As the end credits rolled, Roxanne leaned in close, resting her head on Serena’s shoulder as the taller girl wrapped a thin arm around her, burying her nose in the clean, sweet smell of Roxanne’s hair. It wasn’t often that they got to be close like this, and Serena treasured it, every moment.

“Do you want to talk now?” Serena murmured. “I mean, not that you have to, obviously.”

“No, Ree, I know I don’t have to. But you’re my best friend. I just need you to promise me you won’t get angry and do something crazy if I tell you this,” Roxanne said.

Serena laughed. “Have you met me?”

“Come on, Ree,” Roxanne cracked a smile. “I can handle myself. I just wish men could learn to take a hint, that I’m not interested.”

“Is someone bothering you?” Serena snapped, fury and hatred towards the unknown quantity building low in her gut. “Let me take care of it.”

“Tony is harmless, Serena, he’s just annoying,” Roxanne admitted. “He still won’t stop hitting on me.”

“I will kill Tony Grayson for you, if you want,” Serena said darkly, holding Roxanne tighter. “I swear to you, I will.”

“Serena-”

“He deserves it.”

“He’ll give up on me eventually,” Roxanne yawned. “I just hope it’s soon. I’m tired of boys, and dating is overrated anyway. I’d much rather be right here, with you, Ree.”

“Yeah,” Serena sighed, defeated. “Yeah, me too.”

She fell silent again, succumbing to the warmth and the flutter in her heart at Roxanne’s words. The feeling was something unfamiliar to Serena. It was something like hope.

        Roxanne fell asleep first, her dark head pillowed on Serena’s bony shoulder, somehow still comfortable despite their position. Serena knew she might be sore in the morning, but she couldn’t bear to disturb the beautiful girl in her arms.  

To Serena, Roxanne Roberts was worth enduring all the pain in the world.

***

        Serena knew, but couldn’t admit, that she was maybe just a little bit in love with Roxanne. Did she wish, sometimes, that Roxanne could know the truth, without hating her for it? Yeah, of course. But it was fine, really. It was better this way.

It was better that she stayed focused on the most important thing- their friendship. And friends don’t let friends get harassed by men who can’t take no for an answer.

Which is why, even though Roxanne had said she was fine, Serena and the Circle immediately launched an investigation into Tony Grayson, the rich young playboy with underworld connections who kept dropping by Roxanne’s home and workplace with his entitled demands for a date. He was exactly the kind of smarmy asshole that Serena and her crew were regularly hired to deal with.

She would dearly love the chance to mess up Tony’s stupid face. Until that day arrived, though, every thief and abuser Serena beat up, every punch she threw, it was all for Roxanne. She thought of Roxanne, and it gave her new strength, kept her from losing all humanity in the face of the dark job she had to do.

        Between her other clients, and her secret efforts to protect her best friend, Serena was working overtime. There were always women who needed to be protected from asshole men. There were always young queer and trans kids who needed looking out for. Down every alleyway was a monster, needing to be brought down. There were always clients, in the business of revenge.

But Roxanne was the most important.

        At first, the Circle seemed to be chasing shadows. Serena couldn’t prove anything against Tony Grayson, except that he was arrogant, idiotic, and gave her a seriously bad vibe. But someone with his power and connections could never be touched without proof.

Luke was assigned to tail Roxanne, make sure she wasn’t being followed by anyone else. Serena had wanted to do it, but apparently her emotional connection to the job made her a liability. Bullshit, she’d thought when Deena brought this up. After all, Rags had gotten to help out on the case against Lissa, and look how that turned out.

Fine, so Deena had a point.

      But Serena still made sure that anyone caught showing interest in Roxanne was brought directly to her for questioning. When Luke caught a strange guy hovering near the astrophysics lab, Serena was the one who persuaded him to talk. Serena was the one who kept eyes on Tony, who made phone calls warning him to back off and sent industrial-grade glitter bombs with cryptic letters attached, to his home and office addresses. A first line of defense in the revenge game, to bother or intimidate the person into leaving her client alone.

The glitter had been Rags’ idea. Glitter really pissed Serena off- but then, that was sort of the point. And she wasn’t allowed the more heavy-grade explosives, so she had to make do. Simply doing it the old fashioned way and beating people to a bloody pulp required proof. Unfortunately.

                                                                                                                             ***

     Roxanne was still getting creepy messages, too. Somehow, Tony had gotten ahold of her cell phone number and started texting her. He would threaten her job, saying he had power in the city and pretty girls shouldn’t spend their days locked away in science labs anyway. He would send her compliments, tell her she was beautiful, an angel, a possession he just had to have. Serena really, really wanted him dead.

But the fucker was smart enough not to sign any of these messages or leave voicemail or do anything that could be traced back to him.

When flowers mysteriously appeared on Roxanne’s desk at the lab, it had taken Deena no time at all to find the flower shop- and realize Tony must have ordered the flowers online. Serena was good at her job, but even she couldn’t trace credit card numbers. And Brett couldn’t take the risk. Not until they were sure.

       Time went on. Roxanne grew more and more panicky and restless, until she could barely sleep at all, she was so scared. Serena ended up lying in bed with her most nights, talking quietly until Roxanne was calm enough to close her eyes.

There would be hell to pay if anyone found this out, but some nights, seeing Roxanne suffering like this- it was all Serena could do not to cry for her. It was just too much.

So she lay in the dark with the girl she loved in her arms, and she repeated her solemn promise.

Don’t worry, Roxanne. I won’t let them touch you. I won’t let them dull your light. Not for anything.

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       Serena spent more and more time at home with Roxanne, whenever they were both off work. She took her turn to cook dinner (frozen) and pick out a movie (The Princess Bride). Serena and Roxanne stayed up late, talking and laughing, and it was wonderful. When it was the two of them, it was always wonderful. It would’ve been just like any other time spent together- if it wasn’t for the specter of Tony following their every move, and the feeling that more than anything, they were hiding out in their own home.

Whatever this was, growing between them- it was infuriating, that it had taken something so horrible to get the two girls to slow down and really see each other.

      “Ree, can I ask you something?” Roxanne said one day as they were walking to their respective offices. She seemed perkier, like she had actually managed some sleep last night. That was good.

“Uh, sure,” Serena said, only half-listening to her roommate. Her senses were, as always, trained on her surroundings, trying to catch someone following them.

“Why are you so jumpy?” Roxanne asked.

Serena shrugged. “No reason. I’m just looking out for you, with the whole Tony thing. I mean, what are friends for?”

“You’re sweet,” Roxanne smiled, taking her hand so that she could swing their joined hands back and forth as they walked. “I have the sweetest best friend.”

“You’re five,” Serena snarked. “Are you going to whip out some sidewalk chalk for hopscotch too?”

“Shut up, my youthfulness is charming,” Roxanne said. “Oh, hey, we’re here. Have a good one, ace reporter.”

“Thanks- uh…” Serena blushed bright red as Roxanne went up on tiptoes to kiss her on the cheek.

They stood there, staring at each other, Roxanne daring Serena with her eyes to react the way she wanted to.

“My turn?” Serena said softly, and when Roxanne nodded, she leaned in. The second kiss was a quick, chaste press of Serena’s thin, serious mouth against Roxanne’s full lips, gentle and sweet, and it was the happiest Serena Berg had felt in a long time.

“I’ll see you after work, Ree,” Roxanne said, with the tiniest and most secretive of smiles. And then she walked away.

Serena’s heart felt like it was about to explode. She pushed aside her guilt, touching her lips in wonderment as she passed by the newsroom and headed for the Circle’s warehouse instead.

                                                                                                                           ***

      This was their dynamic now. Gentle touches, soft smiles, Roxanne tsking at Serena when she wasn’t taking better care of herself. They were becoming downright domestic, and Serena almost couldn’t believe it. She felt sick with herself for the thought that if it wasn’t for the continuing harassment that hounded Roxanne, this new side to their relationship would be a dream come true.

Serena still couldn’t prove anything against Tony, couldn’t get enough evidence to turn him over to Brett after she was done with him. Couldn’t protect the most important person in her life. It was killing her, so much that she got reckless.

So much that one day, she gave up.

      She was coming back from an… appointment with another client’s tormentor, walking past a seedy bar, when she saw a man out front, smoking a cigarette.

Her face was hidden by a black hood, and it was getting dark outside, so hopefully the bastard wouldn’t recognize her.

It was like her mind had lost control over her body entirely, had stepped out of itself to watch while her body pummeled Tony Grayson as hard as she possibly could. It felt good, smashing him up, laying into Roxanne’s tormentor to hurt him as badly as Roxanne had been hurting. It should have seriously concerned her, how good this felt- but then she hesitated, and Tony got the jump on her.

“Fuck you,” he growled. “This isn’t over. You tell her I said that.”

 He left Serena with a fat lip and bruised pride, escaping in far less pain than he deserved. And worse- he’d seen her.

                                                                                                                            ***

       “Serena, oh my God!” Roxanne flung her arms around the thinner girl. “What did you do? I was so worried…”

“Hey, I’m okay, all right?” Serena pulled back to look Roxanne in the eye. “I promise.”

“Good,” said Roxanne. “Because we need to talk.”

Lying on their kitchen table, two different folders, obvious as anything. One, labeled ‘Story Ideas’. The other, labeled ‘Clients.’

Roxanne knew about the Circle.

        “Oh, God.” Serena sank into a chair, head in her hands. “Roxanne, you have to understand-”

“No. This is not about me,” Roxanne snapped. “You just came home covered in blood, and I'm supposed to let you do the talking? What even is this? By day you're my best friend the mild-mannered reporter-"

"Mild-mannered?" Serena snorted, but Roxanne was not amused.

"Shut up, Ree, just shut up and tell me this isn't real! Putting yourself in danger like this, for me- you can't. I won’t let you do this," Roxanne said, fire in her eyes.

"It's sort of my job," Serena said, throwing up her arms and forcing a smile. "Serena Berg, everyone's favorite transgender vigilante."

"You're just so proud of yourself, aren't you?" Roxanne spat, shaking. "You rushed right into danger even when I told you I was fine, and you kissed me, and you lied to me, Serena."

"I did it to protect you! I had to. You… you’re everything, Roxanne." Serena's voice had dropped to a desperate, pleading whisper, but Roxanne heard her all the same.

She stared at Serena, tears glistening in her eyes. "And if you got hurt, what am I supposed to do? Did you ever, even for a second, consider that you might be everything to me, too?"

      Serena gaped, lost for words, an unbelievable joy rising up in her chest. The kiss hadn’t been a fluke or a mistake after all. Roxanne liked her back. It was real.

"I thought not," Roxanne said coldly, shattering the silence. "You are so selfish, Serena Berg. No wonder you're alone."

"Rox- no-"

"I need to go," she said, all the fight seeping out of her voice. "I'll be at Deena's."

"Roxanne!" Serena cried, but it was too late. Roxanne had reached the door, and disappeared.

                                                                                                                       ***

      It took a while before Serena felt ready to see another human being again. She spent that night and the next day holed up in her room, punching her pillow and blaring the angriest music in her collection at top volume, eating marshmallows right from the bag.

She didn't know what was going on in the outside world. In here it was loud and dark, and she was alone as she deserved. Let the others protect Roxanne. Serena knew when she was unwanted.

She'd been so close to happiness, and she’d let it slip away. Like she always did.

      Eventually, though, she reached the end of the playlist. The apartment was quiet, lifeless, without Roxanne in it.

Serena tried to resist temptation. It was Roxanne's decision to walk out, to stop answering her apology texts, to reject her.

She'd only been trying to help, to take care of Roxanne, the way people in love were supposed to do. For the first time, Serena wondered whether they should've gone right to Brett, filed a harassment complaint against Tony, and leave the Circle out of it.

But Serena had a skill here, one that Roxanne needed. Why not use it?

Lying about it wasn't great, but now that Roxanne knew the truth, she might just decide to let Serena's Circle help her. She might forgive Serena if she could just explain herself better. If she had another chance.

Serena remembered the feel of Roxanne's soft hips beneath her hands, Roxanne's arms around her neck, the first time they’d kissed. Her dark eyes, swimming with joy and reassurance that it all would be alright.

Serena was better with Roxanne around, even as a platonic friend. She knew what she had to do.

                                                                                                                         ***

     "Hey, it's Serena, can you put Roxanne on the phone? I know she's mad at me right now, but if she'd just give me a chance to explain, I-"

"Serena," Deena cuts in calmly. "Slow down, I don't understand. Isn't Roxanne with you?"

Cold dread pulsed through Serena's gut. "What? No, she- we had a fight, she told me she was going to see you- you haven't seen her?”

"Roxanne hasn't been here in days," Deena said. "Serena, do you-"

"Oh, God," Serena gasped, dropping the phone. "No. No, ROXANNE!"

     I'll find you, she thought wildly, blinking back desperate tears, running outside as though a clue might be lying in the street in front of the empty apartment- but there’s nothing.

I swear to God, I’ll find you, she promised. I'll find you and I'll make you safe again. I love you, Roxanne. Please be okay. I love you.

I'll kill him. 

                                                                                                                          ***