What the hell was that? The girl opened her eyes just a crack. The man who’d been leaning over her was still doing so… but was now headless.
She screamed. And as she screamed, the figure crumbled to dust.
“Shh,” hissed someone above her-another man, holding a gun. He reached a hand down to help her up, and she accepted shakily.
“Wh-what was that?” she asked, taking a step towards the man and falling onto his chest. She knew he could be just as scary as the other thing, but right now she didn’t care. Anyway, he was warm, and both the night and whatever had just accosted her were deadly cold.
“Hostile file two-six-four-oh. There’s been a massive uprising in the area; I don’t know why. I sure hope you don’t live around here, kid.”
“I… I do,” said the girl. The last words came out as a whisper. “Right over there.” She pointed to her house.
The figure’s shoulders slumped. “I hate to have to tell you this,” he said, “But that was one of the houses that was attacked. The people inside at the time… They’re all dead.”
The girl gasped. “No. No, they can’t be dead, they can’t be!” She ran to her house, looked in the window. On the floor was broken glass, stuffing from the furniture, and-oh god, was it? It was.
Her parents’ bodies lay on the floor, as surely dead as whatever it was the man had just shot.
“Please, Erin,” said Mary for the umpteenth time, yet more desperation creeping into her voice. “Just go to a confession. I’m sure my dad will forgive you, he knows you’ve been a good Christian, just let him absolve you!” Why did Erin refuse to go to confession? Mary’s New Year wish of Erin getting a new start could not come true until Erin let herself be washed clean of her sins. Sin, Mary corrected herself. Just one. She’s been fine other than that.
“Mary, I don’t need your dad to absolve me,” Mary said, a hint of spite in her voice. “The Lord has seen everything I’ve done, and He has forgiven me.”
“But how can you be sure?” asked Mary. “Wh-what if He missed it somehow and didn’t wash it away and then when your Judgement comes there’s still this big black spot on your soul and you can’t get into Heaven?”
“Have I ever been wrong before?” asked Erin wryly. She did have a point there.
“I just… I would feel a lot better if you told him,” said Mary.
“There you go again!” Erin cried. “Always making everything about you! You would feel better if I went to confession, you don’t know I’ve already been absolved by the Lord! Well, you know what I think? I think you’re just jealous of what Riley and I shared. You’re not supposed to covet, Mary.”
Mary hung her head and said nothing. While Erin had been wrong about the jealousy part, she was right that it wasn’t for purely unselfish reasons that Mary was so desperate for her friend to be absolved. The idea of living forever in Heaven while her best friend burned eternally in Hell was too much to bear.
Erin crossed her arms smugly, as if she’d just proved a point. “Mary, you don’t need to worry about me,” she said. “I’ll be fine. What you need to worry about right now is how to get that Brian boy to notice you!”
And with that, the two friends left the murky waters of their previous topic to dive into the clear, sweet ocean that was boy talk. They went on about Brian’s beautifully seductive smile, the way his shaggy hair fell into his eyes but still couldn’t cover up their amazing blueness, and why, oh why did he never notice Mary?
“Maybe you should cut your hair,” said Erin. “I bet he would notice that!”
“No, I couldn’t do that,” said Mary quickly, shaking her head. Her father always said that she looked just like her mother, with her hair hanging so far down her back. And she liked it that way.
Erin didn’t seem to notice Mary’s consternation. “All right,” she said. “How about a makeover then?” Her eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face. “You’ll look fantastic in makeup, Mary! Come on!”
And so it was that a slightly off-balance Mary was led down the hall into Erin’s room, where she was covered in blushes, mascaras, eyeliners, lipsticks, and who knew what other makeup of all sorts. When Erin had finished, Mary hardly recognized the girl she saw in the mirror. Astonished, she turned her head to the side, admiring her painted face from all angles.
“Erin… Wow. How did you do that?” asked Mary. Her skin, already pale by nature, had been turned almost porcelain white. Blush was dusted ever so lightly over her cheeks, off-setting the pallor of the rest of her skin and keeping her from looking like a corpse. The palest of pink glosses was brushed over her lips. Her eyes were outlined in a light dusting of blue, bringing out their natural color.
She thought she looked beautiful.
“Oh, it was easy!” Erin said, beaming at Mary. “When you’re a pro like I am, a job like this is no problem.”
Mary wanted to reach up and touch her face to see if it still felt like skin, but was afraid to smear the makeup. “It’s amazing,” she said finally.
“You’re too much,” gushed Erin. “I can put some on you again tomorrow. Then if you come by early on Monday, you can go to school looking like that. Everyone would notice you then!”
Mary wasn’t sure how much she wanted everyone noticing her, but Erin seemed enthusiastic about the idea, so it couldn’t be all bad.
“I’ll come by if I have time,” she said. The safe answer. Safety was something Mary rather valued.
“Oh yeah,” she said vaguely as the realization hit her. “School starts again the day after tomorrow.” The last two weeks had felt so blissful, so all-encompassing, that she had completely forgotten about the return of school until that moment. It was a lucky thing that none of her teachers had given her any homework over Christmas break.
She lost the thread of conversation after that. Erin started talking about something Carlisle had said a day or two ago, but Mary found concentration impossible. Instead, she let Erin ramble and her mind wander. She thought of Brian, who was alone at home with his mother right now-his dad was doing some business thing in Cleveland. Maybe she and Erin should pay them a visit tomorrow. They could bring over some cookies or something. Did Brian like cookies? Why had she never thought to ask him about that? She’d have to make sure to do that.
Brian was, in fact, an enormous lover of cookies. Which was why he had invited Hugo over for an all-night cookie baking party.
Unfortunately, James was leaving town that night, and Hugo had to stay home to watch the house.
It was for this reason that Brian was now crouched behind some bushes near the Holden household, watching for when Hugo’s stepfather would leave. His father’s less-than-regular church attendance and his own lackluster performance had made him unpopular with the pastor, and he doubted that Father James Holden would want him watching the house with Hugo. So he hid behind the bushes, waiting for Holden to leave.
It was kind of fun, actually. He wondered if this was what his dad was doing on his mission in Cleveland right now. He didn’t think it was, though. The phone call had sounded more urgent than it would have been for a simple recon mission.
Hostile sighted, he thought, his eyes snapping to attention as the front door of Hugo’s house opened and James walked out. Brian focused on the man, imagining he was wearing some sort of high-tech info-goggles. James Holden. Status: Hugo’s stepfather. Danger Level: unknown. Projected to be high when agitated. This one’s a real whopper, Maggie. He’d only met Margaret Walsh once, but he knew she was the head of the whole Initiative, and being able to call her by her shortened name was a privilege given only to the top agents.
Father Holden opened the car’s trunk and placed his suitcase inside of it, then walked to the front of the car. Hostile is entering desired transport unit, Brian thought. Prepare containment systems. In his mind’s eye, he saw people back at the laboratory-the top-secret Initiative headquarters in Sunnydale-preparing a containment cell for Holden. He couldn’t help smirking at the thought.
Target in sight, his brain warned him as Hugo appeared in the doorway. Captive of Hostile. Do not injure. Rescue at all costs. Not for real, though. At least not this time. One of these days, though.
Holden was saying something to Hugo that Brian couldn’t make out. He made a mental note to work on long-range hearing sometime soon, then focused back on the other two. Holden was getting in the car now and closing the door behind him. Brian watched silently as he drove away and Hugo went back into the house.
Mission accomplished, he thought, imagining himself blowing smoke off a pistol like James Bond. He grabbed the bag next to him, which was full of cookie-making supplies, and headed towards Hugo’s house.
Hugo was surprised and a little scared to see Brian at his doorstep. “Is something the matter?” he asked uncertainly.
“Not really,” said Brian with a smile. “I just thought, since we can’t have a cookie party at my house, we can have it here instead!”
Hugo blinked a few times. “Um, Brian, I don’t think you got the point. James wanted me to stay at home so I could watch the house, not have cookie parties.”
“I know that,” said Brian, rolling his eyes. “That’s why I waited until he was gone.”
“Oh,” said Hugo. “You mean like he’s not supposed to know about this?”
“He can be taught!” Brian exclaimed, throwing a hand in the air in an exultant gesture. “You wanna let me inside now? I’ve been sitting out here for, like, half an hour.”
“Oh. Uh, sure!” Hugo said, standing aside for Brian to come in. “So. Cookies, then.”
They baked cookies all evening. Privately, Hugo wondered what they were going to do with all of them. But making them was fun, and Brian looked so happy, and he just couldn’t rain on that parade.
Several hours, two flour fights, and five batches of cookies later, Brian was zonked out on Hugo’s couch. Hugo shook him gently, telling him he couldn’t sleep there, he had a bed right upstairs. Brian mumbled sleepily for him to get off, but Hugo was insistent.
They slept together that night in the most innocent sense of the phrase. Curled up next to Brian, Hugo felt completely at peace. He drifted off to sleep to the sound of Brian’s even breathing, blissfully unaware that the meeting in Seattle where James had gone was at that very moment wrapping up early and his stepfather would be home in a few hours.
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