Emma sat with her back against the tower, trying in vain to calm her racing heartbeat.
Mud streaked her face and clothes. The day was blisteringly hot, and a bead of sweat rolled down the back of her collar. She listened intently to the conversation happening behind her. Trent’s knee pressed into the side of her leg as he crouched next to her, out of sight from the enemy.
She could only hear snatches of what was being said. This wouldn’t do. If she wanted to find out their plan, she’d have to get a better vantage point, and then maybe she and Trent could take out as many of them as she could in the process.
Emma turned to face her comrade. She gestured upwards with her gun, signalling for him to start climbing. He nodded solemnly at her, shouldering his own gun as he worked on getting a secure foothold on the wooden structure of the tower.
It was only about ten feet high, and a relatively easy climb, but it was still tough to stay silent. As Emma neared the top, she felt her adrenaline spike. She could make out the voices clearer now; instructions being given by their leader. She fought the urge to hold her breath in anticipation.
“Watch each other’s backs,” their leader was saying, talking to the three soldiers before her. “Work as a unit. They’re outnumbered, so we have the advantage. But don’t get cocky.”
Emma glanced at Trent, the two of them just below the summit of the tower. It was time.
Trent nodded, pulling himself up and over the top with a flourish and a cry. Emma scrambled after him, just in time to see his gunfire take down one of the soldiers. She fell backwards with a cry, hitting the ground hard. The other two soldiers slowly looked up, twin expressions of horror on their faces.
One made to reach for his gun, but both Emma and Trent pointing theirs in his direction stopped him. The leader, who had her back to them, turned around. She was beautiful, Emma thought. A shame she would have to die like the rest of them.
The leader sighed in exasperation. “What the hell, Emma?”
Emma fought to remain stoic. “Sorry, Alyssa, but all’s fair in love and war.”
“But this is paintball,” Alyssa stressed. “And you just shot Dee Dee.”
“She’ll be fine,” Trent assured her. “She’s just very committed to her role.”
Sure enough, Dee Dee was silent and motionless. The only thing that gave her away was the steady rise and fall of her chest.
“Trent, what happened to ‘love thy neighbor’?” Barry asked.
“The battlefield is a godless place, my friend,” Trent said.
“At least let’s have a proper battle,” Angie suggested. “Where nobody has the high ground.”
“Fine,” Emma sighed. “Set your watches for sixty seconds. Then we fight to the death.”
She and Trent half-climbed, half-fell back down to the ground and ran into the trees for cover. Emma allowed herself a grin. When she’d suggested paintballing to the Broadway actors who had almost become her surrogate parents over the past couple of months, she hadn’t actually expected them to agree.
So far, it had been a pretty great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Summer vacation had only begun a few weeks ago, and Emma didn’t know when they’d all be going back to New York, so she intended to make the most of her remaining time with them.
She and Alyssa would visit, of course, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Once the minute was up, Emma heard the tell-tale sign of the three remaining opponents coming their way. She picked out Alyssa’s footsteps at the front of the pack, quick and light. Being a cheerleader, Alyssa always moved with a certain grace, and Emma knew the sound of her footfalls by heart.
Trent zeroed in on Barry, running ahead to cut him off and force him into a one-on-one duel. That left Emma with Angie and Alyssa. She was outnumbered, but she knew she wasn’t outmatched.
Emma waited for them to pass her, no doubt thinking she’d gone with Trent, before she struck. It wouldn’t be fair to just shoot them in the back (and besides, Alyssa had already made her promise that she wouldn’t), so she made enough noise to get their attention.
She aimed for Angie first, firing the gun at her before ducking behind a tree as Alyssa’s volley of paintballs came flying towards her. Emma could tell from Angie’s scream that she’d found her mark. Alyssa’s best efforts had missed this time, much to Emma’s relief. She knew from previous paintball excursions that her girlfriend was an incredibly accurate shot.
Suddenly, Trent was beside her. He was puffing hard, but still paint-free.
“Target eliminated,” he confirmed.
“Just Alyssa left standing,” Emma said. Trent nodded.
What followed was a battle of immense proportions, with nobody landing a blow. Emma reloaded using the spare bag of paintballs in her pocket while Trent covered her. Once Alyssa ceased firing, he sprung out from behind the trees.
Alyssa was reloading, an expression of frustration on her face as she did so. Trent cleared his throat, and Alyssa’s head snapped up. Her eyes widened as she saw Trent’s gun trained on her.
“I am sorry, my dear child,” Trent said.
“If you shoot me, then you’re a homophobe,” Alyssa said quickly. Trent paused, clearly conflicted.
“Don’t fall for it, Trent,” Emma whispered to herself.
“Have you heard of the bury your gays trope?” Alyssa continued, apparently trying to buy herself some time while she finished reloading. “It’s a real issue in the media. Surely you don’t want to contribute to a harmful thing like that?”
Emma could see that Trent wasn’t going to shoot. Coward.
Alyssa had almost finished reloading. For a second, Emma considered letting her take him out, but if it came down to a one-on-one finale, she knew her odds against Trent would be better than her odds against Alyssa.
Emma aimed and fired quickly through the trees, hitting Alyssa just before she could pull the trigger. Trent, knowing what would come next, ran. Emma shouldered her gun and jogged over to where Alyssa now lay.
She dropped to her knees beside her girlfriend, propping her torso up so that she could hold her. Alyssa looked at her with those soulful eyes of hers, reaching out a hand to cup Emma’s cheek. Out of the corner of her eye, Emma could see Barry, Angie, and even Dee Dee approaching them.
Knelt on the forest floor, Emma cradled Alyssa close.
“I’m sorry, my love,” she said. “I’m sorry it had to end this way.”
“It’s okay,” Alyssa whispered. “You did what you had to do.”
Emma looked up at the canopy of trees above them, sunlight streaming down through the gaps in the branches. It was beautiful.
“Look at the sky,” she said quietly. “It’s so peaceful. It’s going to be okay.”
“Emma?” Alyssa asked. “I don’t want to go.”
Emma shushed her gently. “I know, baby.”
“I love you,” Alyssa said, tears forming in her eyes.
Emma leaned down and kissed her, committing the feel of her lips to memory. When she pulled away, Alyssa’s eyes remained closed.
“Safe travels,” Emma murmured.
“Do they know this isn’t real?” Barry asked. Angie and Dee Dee shushed him loudly, enraptured by the performance in front of them.
Emma gently laid Alyssa down, and got to her feet. She took her gun back in hand. “It’s time to finish this.”
“Go get him, sweetie,” Barry said. Emma grinned, and took off in a run.
It took her only a few minutes to find Trent. She didn’t shoot him instantly, but rather came to him with an idea. A duel. Ten paces, taken together and counted aloud. One shot. Trent agreed straight away, and they only paused so that Emma could find some dramatic music on her phone to set the mood.
She and Trent stood on the battlefield, back to back. “One,” they said in unison, taking a step apart.
“Two, three, four,”
Emma’s palms were sweating. She clutched her gun tightly.
“Five, six, seven,”
The music faded into the back of her mind.
She was ready.
Emma whirled around, locking onto Trent and firing. She hit him square in the chest, his own paintball veering wide of her in return. Trent fell to the ground with a thud, signalling Emma’s total victory.
“Alas,” Trent lamented. “I have been mortally wounded. Bested by a mere child.”
“You better believe it,” Emma grinned.
“If I might soliloquise for but a moment…” Trent began.
Emma shot him again. “No, you may not.”
Trent carried on regardless, launching into a speech that Emma was pretty sure was ripped off from Shakespeare, although admittedly, she didn’t know enough about the works of Shakespeare to say for sure. Regardless, it was clear that Trent would be lamenting for several minutes to come.
“I’m hungry,” Emma said, talking over him. “I think Alyssa brought the snacks, so I’m going to go find her.”
She left him still rambling. Emma shook her head with a smile. She really did love these idiots.
Sure enough, Alyssa had moved from where she’d fallen; she and the others had set up camp at a picnic table in the courtyard of the venue. A single employee sipped from a soda can ten feet away.
“Hey, babe,” Alyssa greeted as Emma set down her paintball gun on the table before taking a seat next to her. She kissed Emma lightly. “Did you win?”
Emma scoffed. “Are you kidding? Trent never stood a chance.”
Across the table, the adults laughed. They’d clearly noticed Trent’s absence and had probably guessed what he was currently doing.
“Do you have any fruit snacks?” Emma asked, poking around in Alyssa’s backpack.
“No,” Alyssa said quickly. Emma pulled an empty packet out of the bag. “Well, not anymore, I don’t.”
“Alyssa,” Emma whined, jutting out her bottom lip. “You know they’re my favorite.”
“Well maybe if you hadn’t shot me, I would have saved you some,” Alyssa shrugged.
“You’re evil,” Emma shook her head. “My girlfriend is evil.”
Alyssa smirked. “And yet you love me anyway.”
Emma pouted, but allowed Alyssa to drape her arms around her neck from the side. She felt Alyssa press a kiss to her cheek, and she couldn’t help the way the corners of her mouth lifted in response.
“Stop, I’m going to be sick,” Barry said dryly. Dee Dee smacked him on the arm.
“Shut up,” she said. “I’m still mad at you.”
Barry looked nonplussed. “Why?”
“Did you see the death scene those two acted out?” Dee Dee exclaimed. “Why didn’t you do that for me?”
Barry rolled his eyes, looking for a second like he was going to start an argument. Angie intervened quickly.
Sure enough, Trent was approaching them across the courtyard; gun dangling from one hand. He sat down next to Emma on the end of the bench, reaching straight for the bags of potato chips that were among the food spread on the table in front of him.
“Well, I think today was a definitive success,” he announced.
He, like the rest of the adults, looked a little tired. Emma wondered how she and Alyssa were going to break the news of round two to them. One thing was for certain, though – she and Alyssa would be teaming up for the pairs game.
“Hey,” the employee said slowly, with dawning realization. “Aren’t you that guy from Talk to the Hand?”
Emma snorted. She turned to hide her face in Alyssa’s hair, although she suspected that her shaking shoulders would give away her laughter. Alyssa slapped her thigh lightly underneath the table to reprimand her, but Emma knew she was laughing too.
They would definitely be coming here more often before summer was over. Many, many times.