“Where are the others?” asked Bee.
“Yeah, I thought there was supposed to be a whole squad?” said Poppy.
“We are meeting the others at the gate.” Ana sounded as calm as I felt, but I doubted she was that collected. “If all of us arrived at once it would draw too much attention. Two are already there, the others are on their way.”
“Be careful, you hear?” said Bee. Ana smiled, and nodded.
Then Poppy threw her arms around me, and I was tempted to stay behind after all. But there was too much at stake; the mission was too personal.
I nodded into her neck. Her hair smelled good, a warm mixture of apricots and honey.
“Promise me, Mel.”
“I promise.” I hoped I could live up to it.
I realised too late that she was pulling away. My hand stayed on her shoulder, and our eyes met. How could it be that she made me feel the nerves the coming battle should have provoked?
“Hmm?” Her lips curled up in a small smile, as they always did when she was curious – and Poppy was curious a lot, about everything. She tried to hide it and look indifferent, but I saw it.
I sighed. This wasn’t how I wanted to do this. What if she said yes and I died? It wouldn’t be fair on her. She’d been through enough.
“We’ll talk when we’re back.”
“Yes.” Her deep red eyes were brimming with tears. Surely a small promise, to give both of us something to look forward to, couldn’t hurt? “Maybe we can talk over–”
Ana interrupted, and I froze mid-sentence. “We need to go. Don’t worry, Poppy. We’ll be home before dawn if everything goes according to plan.”
It was probably for the best that I didn’t get to ask; although, Poppy had blushed a darker shade of crimson. Did she know what I had been about to say?
I pulled away, and followed Ana outside. By the time we got there, everyone else would already be there.
It seemed quiet on the other side, but that didn’t mean anything. Our group was too small to have spies, but we were up against a military division. They had other ways of realising that they were about to be infiltrated.
“Excellent, then we can get started,” said the yellow woman. Her brighter-than-normal eyes and mark on her neck told me she was a vampire.
“Give me a status report,” said Ana.
“No movement,” said the purple berry with the dreadlocks. “It’s too quiet, Ana. I don’t like it.”
“It’s too late to turn back now. The aliens need our help.” Ana turned to the blue fairy. “Can you open the locks?”
I should have learned their names before tonight. If they died and only I lived in an unfair twist, would anyone remember their names? Did someone know they were here tonight, risking their lives, or would their deaths go unnoticed?
I watched as his magic seeped into the locks. Seconds later, it clicked open undamaged.
“Good work. We’ll split up when we reach the building.”
She didn’t look me in the eyes when she addressed me.
“Excuse me?” I couldn’t have heard her correctly. What was the point of me being here if I waited outside?
“I can fight,” I said, knowing very well that there was no convincing Ana. “I can help. We’re outnumbered as it is, I can’t–”
“You can, and you will.” She turned to face me. “What’s the whole reason we’re doing this?”
I sighed. This wasn’t fair. “To save them, and keep them safe thereafter.”
“That’s right. If you walk in there and get killed–”
“Then what am I doing here? I could be–” It didn’t matter now where I could have been, because I wasn’t there.
“I know this is frustrating,” said Ana, “but if reinforcements arrive or any of the prisoners escape in this direction, someone needs to know.”
“Fine. You’re right. I’ll stay here with Olive.”
Now I knew how Poppy must have felt. Just, Poppy had no reason to fight in the first place. She wasn’t as intricately connected to this mission as I was.
I watched Ana and the others enter the grounds, cursing the bad feeling in my gut.
“See this light?” Olive asked as tiny stars danced in her open palm. I recognised it; Ana had used the same spell to ward her house. “It’s a protection spell we cast over our group. They’re as safe as we can make them.”
“I know they’ll be fine.” My stomach twisted with the lie. “I just don’t like waiting here while they put themselves in danger.”
“You’re the reason we’re here at all, Mel.”
“Don’t make it sound like you’re just doing all this for my personal benefit. You’re making me feel all important.”
Olive grinned. “A girl?”
“Since when do you joke?” She tapped the end of her nose with one finger, and winked. “Must be a girl involved. It’s good to see you lighten up.”
Her words were meant to be kind, but they were like a punch to my gut. Tonight was too important, too serious. Now wasn’t the time.
“I’m sorry, Mel. I didn’t mean it like that.”
I turned back to Olive. “I’m just worried for them.” I was worried for Poppy. There were too many things that could go wrong tonight.
“They’ll really be fine, Mel. They’re excellent soldiers. We’ll–”
Two gunshots tore through the night. I spun towards the gate, but it was hard to make sense of what I was seeing. Who had fired first? Us, or the enemy?
Bile rose in my throat. Ana was lying on the floor, and she wasn’t moving.
“We have to help them!”
“Ana said to–”
“Mel, we can’t just walk in there. What if the aliens are escaping right now, because the enemy is distracted? What if they come this way? We have to stay.”
“Fine.” I didn’t have a gun, anyway. “You go in, I wait here. But I’m not just pretending they aren’t in trouble, Olive!” They were only here because of me. If Ana hadn’t found me that day, she wouldn’t be lying unconscious on the ground now.
“Yes, just go help them.”
Olive turned herself into a little whisp of a fairy, and disappeared behind the fence. I didn’t take my eyes off the fight outside the building. The purple berry was lying next to Ana now. Even in the dark of midnight I could tell that the floor around them was darker than the rest of the grass. The soldier had disappeared, probably to search the perimeter. I hoped Olive would be able to catch him by surprise, or maybe the yellow vampire could lie in wait somewhere. But there had to be more staff. It couldn’t just be him.
Something hard and cold pressed into my back.
I knew it had been too easy. Had this been their plan all along? To isolate me?
“Come with me.” Her voice left no room for argument. She wasn’t used to being told no. “I’ve got some questions for you.”
“Is that so?” She smirked. “Everyone has a limit. I wonder just how high your pain threshold is? The others lasted surprisingly long.”
I didn’t need a gun to hurt her before she killed me. My fist connected with her jaw before she had a chance to realise what was happening. The crunch that followed made me feel sick, but it sounded like she deserved it.
I was fast on my feet, so her first two attacks missed. But the third pummeled her gun into my neck, and forced me to my knees.
She shoved me into the ground until I sat slumped over on the grass. My ears were ringing, stars danced in front of my eyes.
I saw her lips move, but I couldn’t hear anything. I thought I saw a green light beneath the leafs of a nearby tree, but I didn’t have time to wonder if it was Olive or if I was losing my mind. The soldier kicked me, and I lost consciousness.
Bee, Mara, and I sat down on the sofa, with me in the middle. Mel and Ana had only left ten seconds ago, but the house seemed too quiet already. Like something was missing. As if it knew that its owner wasn’t coming back to look after it.
“Now what?” I asked. I was desperate to think about anything but all the things that could go wrong tonight.
“You’d better be joking.”
Bee laughed. “Obviously. I’m so done with revising vocabulary!”
“You never told me about your tattoos. Why the cat and the mermaid? Or is that too personal?” From what I understood, people got tattoos of things that meant something to them. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked, but I didn’t want silence.
“These?” Bee held up her wrists, and I nodded. “I got the cat because I’m playful and cute, and I got the mermaid because they are sexy.” Bee winked at me, and I smiled.
“You know they are half fish, right?”
“Yeah, but I bet they can do wicked things with those tails!”
I blushed, and Bee laughed. This was far better than worrying in silence, and I was glad I’d asked. If anyone could distract me, it was Bee.
Which was odd, considering there was an alien prostitute sitting next to me. I bet she had some interesting and possibly very disgusting stories to tell.
“How come you understand English, anyway?”
“My people are fast learners.”
I snorted. No fudge. I doubted I could learn half of her language as quickly as she’d picked up on mine.
I checked the time on my phone. Only one hour had passed, and I already couldn’t sit still. Where were Mel and Ana now? Were they all right? I felt sick. I didn’t want to think about it.
“I hate that I can’t do anything.”
“I could call my other half. She could bring a TV, some popcorn, and some trashy chick flicks. Would that–”
All three of us sat up. There was a slam from the kitchen, like a window had fallen shut, or maybe a door. But everything was shut tight, we had checked before Ana and Mel had left.
My heart was hammering hard in my chest. So much for a frustrating night of inaction. Suddenly my previous problems of worrying in silence didn’t seem so bad.
“It’s probably a cat,” said Bee. “Sit tight, ladies. I’ll go shoo it off.”
Mara and I sat in uneasy anticipation while we waited. Those were the longest two minutes of my life. After two and a half, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Why hadn’t Bee come back? How big was that cat?
You should probably run. Take Mara and run.
I ignored the voice. If someone had found us and Bee had run into them, I couldn’t just leave her.
“I’ll have a look. Be ready to run, okay?”
Mara nodded. My heart was pounding. Just when I was about to push open the door to the kitchen, someone pulled it open for me.
I didn’t think. I stepped into the kitchen and slammed the door shut, trusting that Mara was on her way out.
“What the– Get out of the way, kid, before you get hurt.” How could he sound so fed-up? How many houses had he broken into – how many people had he kidnapped – that this was boring to him now?
My heart beat so hard it hurt, my mind was racing from fear, but my feet were solid on the ground. I’d never been this sure about anything in my life.
He was here for Mara, and I wouldn’t let him take her.
I was amazed at how calm I sounded. Did that mean I was brave? Who knew!
“Kid, I’m not here to hurt you. There’s an alien in your house, I’m here for her.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this angry.
How dare he break into Ana’s home and speak of Mara like she was some object to be traded off to the highest bidder?
He sighed. “Look, just move, okay?”
I crossed my arms, hoping I looked confident.
From the corner of my eyes I saw Bee twitch. She groaned, and I smiled. She was fine; I just needed to buy a little more time and it’d be two against one. Two girls against one trained soldier, sure, but still. It had to be enough.
Again he sighed. “I don’t have time for this. The boss can deal with you.”
It happened so fast I didn’t see what he hit me with, but something heavy bashed into my head and I slid to the ground. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t see. Everything was dark.
But I thought I heard Bee scream at him, and that was enough to let me fall asleep in peace.