8.20

Ana’s house felt wrong without her in it. Mel had moved back in temporarily to clean it and put it up for sale, but it didn’t look right with the furniture packed up and Ana gone. It was less than empty – it was like its soul had been sucked out of its walls, and had left it devoid of life. This wasn’t the home where I’d met Bee and Mel for the first time, and it definitely wasn’t the same place as where we’d discussed war strategy and the existence of aliens on the sofa right fudging next to me.

When Mel had told me he was selling it I hadn’t been happy about it, but now I could see that it was for the best. It simply wasn’t the same without Ana.

Mel’s own belongings were packed in three suitcases, each smaller than the last. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but how much did he own? Had they expected to go back to their planet after a while? Everything he owned, the people he cared for, his memories – none of that was here, on Earth. I couldn’t imagine leaving Earth and ending up stranded on another planet; my family here, my friends back on Earth. He had to be lonely.

The bathroom door opened, and Mel joined me in what used to be Ana’s living room.

“I’m glad you could make it. I’m sorry I can’t really offer you anything to drink.”

“That’s all right. How’s everything going here?”

I’d offered my help, but I was in the middle of finals at school, and Mel had insisted I focus on that. It seemed like a silly priority to have after everything that had happened, but I still had no idea how to explain everything to Mum and Dad, so I studied my butt off. I’d been lucky with the concussion. Bee had covered for me at the hospital, and we had told my parents that I’d stayed over at hers before she moved to Bridgeport. But I was a pretty bad liar – or I had been before all this – so I didn’t want to push it.

“I’m almost done. I’ve just finished packing up her bathroom stuff, but I have no idea what half the things even are. Do you think it’s okay to throw them out?”

I shrugged. That was really a question for my sister more than me. “Probably. Hygiene, and all that.”

Mel looked so different now, but really it was just the colours that were different. His features were still there, his personality was unchanged. The hair dye had almost washed out completely now, the rest of the tan had disappeared, and he no longer bothered with brown contact lenses, but Mel was still there. The colours were trivialities, and with them gone I felt like I was finally seeing the real Mel.

“I see you kept some brown in your clothes.”

“I guess I’m just used to it now.”

His sad smile made me close the gap between us, and pull him into a hug.

I grinned when he hugged back.

“I’m glad you’re okay. How are you feeling?”

“Better now,” he said, and for some reason I blushed.

“I’m sorry you’re stuck here. On Earth, I mean. Not this town.”

“That’s okay.” The look on his face told me it wasn’t. “It’s something else to get used to.”

“Is Earth very different to your home?”

A wistful smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes. It is. But not necessarily for bad reasons. There are good things here, too.”

I desperately wanted to know more about his world, but I decided to wait. He’d been through enough; I didn’t want to add to it.

“Where will you go?”

He looked so lost. “I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters, they’ll find me sooner or later. I need time to prepare more than anything.”

“You said Ana had plans should she–” Nope, I still couldn’t finish that thought. I knew she was gone. That didn’t mean I had to say it out loud.

He nodded. “There are a few other people willing to fight. They’ve taken in the people we rescued, and they’re building their numbers. Olive and the vampire went there, too. They want to help.”

Just like that, my mind was made up. “Then I’m coming with you.”

“Poppy?”

“I want to help, Mel. We can fight and survive together. I can–I can write! I can slowly get people used to the idea, maybe we can win over some people that way. And if they find you anyway, we’ll figure something out.” I had never felt this much purpose in my entire life. This was what I wanted. This was what I needed to do.

“I don’t know. I can’t ask you to do this.” But his voice had lost all conviction, and I smiled. He wanted me to come with him.

“You’re not asking, I’m telling you. I’m coming with you, like it or not.”

His smile met mine, and my stomach erupted in nervous giggles. Who knew that was even possible? “Thank you.”

I wasn’t stupid enough to think that Earth could ever replace the home he’d lost, but if I could help I would. Bee had moved to Bridgeport, but maybe she could join us when she had finished her degree. We had both lost Ana, and I wasn’t sure how well he knew the others who had survived the raid, but I didn’t think he was close to any of them.

In a way, I was all he had.

“Listen, Poppy, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

“Oh?”

“I was wondering… Maker, this was easier when I was on painkillers in the hospital.”

Well, I never! Mel was lost for words! He was cute when he was speechless.

“We haven’t had a chance to really get to know each other. You’re willing to give up a lot for me, and I really am grateful. I want to get to know you better. Maybe over coffee?”

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I’d no idea Mel could be this adorable. “Like a date?” Just saying it out loud did funny things to my legs.

He smiled. “Yeah. Like a date.”

“I’d love to. I have my last exams on Tuesday, but after that I’m free.”

“Then I’ll pick you up Tuesday evening. We can celebrate.”

I loved how his arms felt around me. I knew there was a lot of danger waiting for us, but I felt safe when he held me.

In that moment soft footsteps walked down the stairs, and I smiled when Mara joined us.

Her hair was growing back, and she looked healthier.

“I thought I heard your voice. It’s good to see you, Poppy.”

“And you!” I gave her a quick hug in greeting. I never thought I’d be a hugger, but here we were. “What are your plans now?”

“I will join the others. Ana rescued my friends from the facility, and I miss them. I’m excited to see them again.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“I means make sure you let me know you’re all right from time to time.”

She smiled. “I can do that.”

“I’ll be leaving with Mel. Perhaps we can invite Bee, too. We could all catch up together.” It sounded too good to be true, but right now I had the overwhelming feeling that I’d miss them before the week was over.

“That’s excellent news. I’m glad neither of you will be alone.”

I looked at Mel. “Me too.”

“How long do you have?” he asked. Mara asked me to check the time for her–it was almost 2pm.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked. I knew she said she’d join the others, but I hadn’t thought it’d be so soon.

“Yes. One of Ana’s friends is coming to take me to my friends. I’m sorry I can’t stay longer. It feels like such a long time since I’ve seen them.”

We said our goodbyes when we saw a car pull up outside, and promised to see each other again soon. Then it was just Mel and me.

For the first time ever, I was truly excited for the future. Humanity wasn’t quite ready to hear the whole truth just yet, but we’d get them there. In the meantime, we’d protect Mel and Mara’s people and fight for them. I was thrilled to be a part of it. I didn’t care that it was dangerous; it was important, and that was all that mattered.

Whatever was coming for us, we’d be ready, and we’d face it together.

The End

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8.19

I fudging hated hospitals.

Fortunately, I’d only suffered a mild concussion myself – I really had to stop getting whacked over the head with heavy objects – and Bee had beaten the fudge out of the military guy. At least that’s what she told me – I doubted he’d crawled out with broken ribs, too injured to kill us and go after Mara, but I could believe that he hadn’t been prepared to attack two girls in one night, especially when the second girl could hold her own much better than I could, and when his real target had run away.

But the latter didn’t sound heroic, so Bee stuck to the first version.

I sighed, got up, paced up and down the empty corridor, and sat back down again only to shove my hands in and out of my pockets.

“He’ll be fine, Pop. He’s strong.”

“And if he’s not?”

She squeezed my hand. “He is. Olive brought him here fast enough, and she healed him as much as she could on the way.”

I frowned. The world had gone mad. “I still can’t believe a fairy took out a seasoned soldier.”

Bee laughed. It echoed in the otherwise empty waiting room until the sound turned cold and hollow.

“I told you they’re more resourceful than that.”

“Yeah.” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “I wish Ana had been a little more resourceful.”

“I know, Pop. Me too.”

Her funeral was tomorrow. Bee had been brilliant, making all the arrangements and organising everything like the boss lady she was. I hadn’t even fully accepted it yet. Ana was dead. The fairy who had rescued Mel – Olive -, a vampire, and Mel were the only survivors. And the prisoners. They managed to escape when a wizard wreaked havoc on their defences, apparently.

Mel’s doctor came out of his room, and shut the door behind him. I was on my feet within seconds.

“Is he all right?”

He nodded, and I sighed in relief. “He’s awake now, and ready for visitors.”

“You go on ahead,” said Bee. “I’ve a feeling he’ll want to talk to you alone first.”

“Are you sure?”

I didn’t really care if we went in together or not. I just wanted to see for myself that Mel was okay.

“Yeah, I’ll wait. You go on ahead.”

I nodded, and closed the door behind me.

Mel was sitting up on his bed, and smiled when he saw me. Berry. He was pale.

“Hey.” Smooth, Poppy.

“You came to see me?” He grinned, and I felt better. He still looked ill, but he sounded like himself. “How are you? I heard you were injured.”

I shrugged. “It’s fine, barely even a concussion.”

I sat down on a chair next to his bed, and tried not to let my shock show.

Was this really Mel? He had never been tanned, exactly, but he was almost as white as the rest of the room. His hair looked thinner and pale. Even his eyes had lost their warmth.

“Fudge. Are you okay?” I didn’t want to be rude, but I couldn’t help myself. I had expected visible injuries, bruises, cuts, not this. If it wasn’t for his features I wouldn’t have recognised him in passing.

“I’m fine.” His smile disappeared.

“Poppy, I owe you an explanation and an apology. I didn’t want to lie to you, but I thought it was for the best. To keep you save. Ana disagreed. She wanted me to tell you.”

It was warm in the room, but I shivered. I was glad I was already sitting down.

“Tell me what?”

“When her ship crashed, Mara wasn’t the only alien who was stranded. There were ten others, eleven in total. Ten of them were captured.” He frowned, but didn’t look away. “I was the only one who got away. Ana found me.”

My lips were dry. I didn’t even realise I was talking until it was too late.

“Wait, you’re an alien prostitute, too?”

Yeah, real smooth, Poppy.

Mel laughed, and I blushed. I had so not meant to say that!

“No, but I am from the same planet as Mara. We came here to learn about humans, about your culture, your history. Some of you are white, like us, so we knew we’d blend in.”

I knew I should have been shocked, or angry. Instead I felt numb. Somehow this had been easier to accept with Mara.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I wanted to, Poppy, but the fewer people knew I’m not human the better. The military was looking for me. If we had become friends and they had seen us around town together, they could have questioned you to learn where I was. The only reason I stayed hidden this long is because Ana cast a spell over me. Even the doctor looking after me here is a friend of hers. That’s the only reason it’s safe for me to be here.”

“Is that why you were so harsh with me when I first joined Ana’s lessons?”

“Yes. Bee was there first, I couldn’t ask her to leave, and she wanted to help. But you didn’t need to get involved. I thought I could keep you out of this.”

“I wanted to help, too.”

“I know, but I didn’t like Bee the way I liked you.”

Everything stopped still. Mel liked me? Liked liked me?

“Is everyone from your planet so straight forward?”

“No.” He smiled. “Is it making you uncomfortable? I can stop, if you’d rather.”

Fudge. What did I want? I’d never done this before. He wasn’t even human, for fudge sake. But then neither were fairies, werewolves, vampires, and all those other people who shared this planet. The only real difference was that Mel had lied to me, sort of, and he had only done that to protect me.

“No, that’s all right.” I blushed harder. “What now? Will they keep coming after you?”

“Probably. Ana and I had a few plans, in case she– In case things went wrong at the facility. I need to go over them again, but I have options.”

“Can I help?”

“Maybe. I don’t know, Poppy, it’ll be dangerous.”

“I don’t care. I want to help.” And I meant it. If I’d been too involved to turn around now I probably deserved to be an official member of the club now. I’d been hit over the head twice, for fudge’s sake!

In that moment, the doctor stuck his head in through the door. “Visiting hours are over. You can come back tomorrow.”

I nodded, but didn’t take my eyes off Mel.

“Can I get you anything?” There wasn’t even a TV in his room. He had to be bored.

“Thanks, Poppy, but I’ll be fine. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do. I shouldn’t need to stay much longer, anyway. Another few days, and I’ll be out.”

“Where will you go? You can’t stay here, Mel.” The military knew where we were now. They knew were Ana had hidden him, and Mara. Her house would no longer be safe.

“I haven’t decided, but I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.” I wanted to make him promise, but I just said that I’d be back tomorrow and left, hoping he hadn’t lied to me.

If he left in the middle of the night without telling anyone where he was off to, I’d track him down. I wouldn’t let him disappear. I wouldn’t let him do this alone.

8.18

Mel’s POV

It was odd how calm I felt. I had been part of smaller fights and heists before, but never anything of this scale. There was too much that could go wrong. All of us could die.

“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.

“Be safe.”

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?

I swallowed. There was one thing I could say. Maybe it would help me once we were inside the facility, too. Something to live and fight for.

“Poppy, I–”

“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.”

“Promise?”

“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.

Ana drove, and parked the car at the edge of the forest. We walked the last twenty minutes, neither of us saying a word. When we arrived, the others were already inspecting the gate.

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.

“Guys, Ana is here!” said Olive. She was the only one I actually knew. The others turned around.

“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’m on it.”

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.

“Mel, stay here with Olive.”

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t have heard her correctly. What was the point of me being here if I waited outside?

“You’re staying here. I’m not letting you walk inside this facility.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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 turned my attention back to the gate. Ana’s group appeared to have split up. They were too far away for me to see properly, but it looked like they were trying to break into the garage.

“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.

The wizard – the purple man – was casting a spell on an enemy soldier, who still had his gun pointed at the wizard’s head. Someone was shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“We have to help them!”

“Ana said to–”

“Look at them, Olive! Ana is injured!” I didn’t want to consider anything worse. “We have to help!”

“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.

“Okay, okay. I’ll go. But you don’t move, Mel, you hear me?”

“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.

“Turn around slowly.”

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.”

“I’m not telling you anything.”

“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.

“Why, you–”

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.

Poppy’s POV

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.

“I could test your vocab,” said Bee. “How’s your French coming along?”

“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.

“Perhaps I could teach you some of my language,” said Mara, and I sat up straighter. I hadn’t even considered learning an alien language. I wasn’t any good at French, but this was different.

“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.

“They’ll be fine,” said Bee. “They all know what they are doing, and some of Ana’s friends have done similar things before.”

“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.

“What was that?”

“Erm…”

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.

Someone in uniform. Bee was lying face-down by his feet.

Run!”

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.

“No.”

I was amazed at how calm I sounded. Did that mean I was brave? Who knew!

“Move, now.”

“No.”

“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.

“Her name is Mara.”

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.

“No.”

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.

8.17

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“Mum? Dad? I’m home!”

I felt terrible. At the very least I could have sent them a text message to let them know I was all right. I hadn’t had a signal in the forest, but we’d left that three hours ago. I’d had plenty of time to tell my parents where I was, that I was fine and at Ana’s.

“Poppy?” Mum stuck her head around the corner, and ran when she saw me. “My baby is home!”

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“Are you all right?” Dad asked when he joined us. People really needed to stop asking me that. I had no idea what to say.

“I’m fine,” I said, hoping they’d buy it.

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“Where have you been? Your father and I were worried sick!”

I felt awful. “I was over at Ana’s. Bee came over before she moves to Bridgeport, I lost track of time.”

I hated how easily the lie came to me. I’d never lied to my parents before. It shouldn’t have been so easy.

“And you were there all day?”

“Yeah. Sorry, I should have called.”

Mum pulled me into another hug, but I didn’t miss that her eyes were brimmed red and I hated it. I’d done this to them. This was my fault.

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“You don’t need to call, just send us a message.”

“We were going to call the police, Poppy,” said Dad. “We thought something had happened to you.” Berry, if only they knew the half of it! But I couldn’t tell them. They’d ground me eternally otherwise, and I’d never be able to help Ana and Mara.

“I’m sorry.”

It seemed like days since I had last been home, even though I had only sneaked out this morning. It was warm, familiar, and comfortable. Had everything in the forest really happened? The chat at Ana’s? It all seemed like a bad dream now that I was home.

Dad hugged me, and I held on. Was I really considering joining Ana and the others in that prison break-out-heist-thing? Bee had said that people would die. What if I died? What if all of us died, and my parents never found out why I didn’t come home? I’d only just put them through a huge scare. I couldn’t keep doing this to them.

“Am I grounded?”

“No, honey, you’re not,” said Mum, and hugged me again. “We’re just so glad to see you well and home. Just text us next time, okay?”

I nodded, and pulled myself free. I needed to be alone. I needed to think. All of this had made so much sense at Ana’s, odd as that was. Now that I was home…

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I took a long, hot shower and changed into my PJs.

I’d wanted to find the voice and help her, I’d just never thought I’d get imprisoned in some underground facility or that the voice belonged to some alien prostitute.

A sob escaped my throat, and I sank to the ground. I couldn’t make this fudge up if I wanted to. No one would believe it even if I turned it into a sci-fi novel.

Eventually, I fell asleep on my bedroom floor. When I woke up again the sun was just starting to rise, and all of me was sore.

I was terrified of what was going to happen. I couldn’t be going to war against some secret military division, but I felt like I was. Scared as I was, turning back now just wasn’t an option. I’d never done anything important in my life, and my attempts at being an author had failed miserably. But if I helped Ana free some aliens from torture and experiments, then my life would have meant something. I knew I was in over my head, but at the same time it felt right. My instincts knew that Ana had been telling the truth.

This was where I wanted to be.

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“Last night after you left I got in touch with some contacts of mine,” she said when our little war council assembled in her dining room. “They are all willing to help and on their way now.”

“And then what?” I asked. “Do we have a plan?”

Ana nodded. “Yes. The aliens and Mara are our top priority. We need to keep them save. Mara will stay here, with Poppy and Bee, and–”

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“You mean we won’t help?”

“Staying here with Mara is important, Poppy. Nothing can happen to her. We can’t leave her alone in case someone comes looking for her.”

“I know, but–”

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“Absolutely not, Poppy. You have no combat experience, it’s too dangerous for you to go.” Mel nodded to Bee. “You, too.”

“And I suppose you do?” Just coming here had elevated my adrenaline levels. I wanted to help, not sit here and watch TV! Not that Ana had one. The fudge were we supposed to do while we waited for the fatality report to come in?

“Yes, actually, I do,” said Mel. “How do you think I broke into that facility and got you out?”

I blushed. He had a point.

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“We need to protect Mara, Pop. Otherwise what you did in that facility will have been for nothing.”

She referred to the man I killed. Low blow.

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“I don’t want any of you to risk your lives,” said Mara. Ana had gotten her some white clothes, and Bee’s wig still lay abandoned somewhere, hopefully the bottom of a bin.

“And what will you do?” I asked as I turned to Ana. Fairies weren’t the most vicious of fighters in my mind, I couldn’t see how a small group of them sprinkling fairy dust everywhere was going to make a difference.

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“I’ve got some magic of my own, and my friends know what they’re doing. We’ll get in, disable the defences, and get the prisoners out.”

“That simple, huh?” Berry, I had a bad feeling about this.

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“Just stay put, Poppy. Please? We’ll be back before you know it.”

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“It’s better this way, Pop. Trust me, we’d only get in their way.”

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“Then it’s settled,” said Ana. “Mel, we leave in an hour. Be ready.”

“Already am.”

My stomach tightened. This wasn’t right. What if Ana died? Or Mel? I owed him big time for getting me out of that facility. Not lifting a finger while he did all the dangerous work wasn’t how I wanted to pay him back.

But there was no point arguing now. I’d killed a man once in self-defence, and I didn’t want to do it again. I definitely didn’t want to be the one who fired the first shot.

So waiting was all I could do. And I hated it.

8.16

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Somehow, illogically, arriving at Ana’s house was the most surreal thing of the night. The sky was black inside the town due to the streetlamps being too bright for the stars. There were some crickets chirping somewhere nearby. A light breeze felt nice on my skin and played with my hair. I had killed a man, and apparently the world didn’t give a fudge.

I felt like everything had changed. Standing in front of Ana’s front door, surrounded by her flowers which she tended to with great fairy care, everything felt the same.

Bee knocked on her door – a secret code, for all I knew – and Ana opened moments later, urging us inside.

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“Thank the Goddess you’re safe! Is she outside?”

Bee nodded. “Yeah, she’s just coming. I don’t think she’s had a chance to stretch her legs properly in a while. She’s a little shaky but unharmed.”

“That’s a relief. I’ve reinforced the spells all around the house. You’ll be safe here.”

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“What the fudge is going on?”

I felt out of place. Everyone seemed to know what was happening but me, and I wasn’t going anywhere until Ana had given me the answers I’d been promised.

Ana smiled, but I thought she looked sad behind it. And tired.

“Have a seat, Poppy. I’ll explain everything once I’m sure that our friend is safe.”

“Your friend? You two know each other?”

“No. Forgive me, that wasn’t the right word to use.”

“What the–”

“Sit. Please?”

I sighed but nodded, and took a seat on one of her sofas. Bee sat down on the other one, and Mel joined her until we were all sitting down. Ana’s ‘friend’ was sitting next to me.

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“This isn’t how we wanted to tell you, Poppy. ”

Something nervous twisted inside my gut. “Tell me what?”

Mel looked uncomfortable, but Bee was excited.

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“The woman you found in the facility is an alien. She’s from another planet, and she’s not the only one. Our group is committed to saving the ones captured by government splinter groups.”

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“Right.” I scowled at Bee. “I thought you said Ana would make sense of this? I shot a guy tonight. I’m so not in the mood.”

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“It’s true.”

Well, fudge. If Mel said so, it couldn’t be a joke. Mel didn’t do jokes. I doubted it was completely true, too, though, so I was conflicted.

“Have you never suspected that there’s more out there?” he asked. I had, but I never–

I be damned. I believed them.

“The universe is bigger than humanity is ready for, Poppy. Years ago an alien ship crashed on Earth. Our new friend here was on board of that ship.”

“So who’s after them? Area 51?” I couldn’t believe I was actually asking this, but maybe I could catch them out this way. I wanted to believe them so badly–Mel was right, I had always thought that there was something more out there. I just never thought I’d meet one in my life time.

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“It’s some military splinter group. We don’t think they’re anyone official, but they kidnapped everyone on the ship and held them at a facility not that far from here.”

“Then why was she here and not with them?”

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“Because of my standing on my home world.”

I jumped when she spoke. I’d completely forgotten the alien sitting next to me.

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“Are you their queen or something?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound disrespectful if she was.

“I’m the Elder Companion.”

“The what now?”

“Here on Earth people have so much spare time. Enough to nourish relationships, get married, and raise a family. On my planet we focus on sciences. Most people don’t have the time or the desire to cultivate a relationship the way you do here, but they still crave physical contact. Love. When they do they come to me. I’ve been trained to satisfy anyone’s every need since I was fourteen years old.”

A whore. The alien next to me was a whore.

Fudging great. How much more messed up could this night get? There had better be a camera crew ready to shout Surprise! You’re on TV! hiding in the kitchen.

“Is that why you were locked up on your own? So they could–” I felt sick just thinking about it.

She nodded. “I give myself freely, because I want to and because it’s my purpose.” Her eyes glazed over. “I’ve never been forced before.” Did aliens have happy places they went to when life was too dark? “Thank you, Poppy Joy. I’m sorry I involved you.”

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It still didn’t seem real that one of my two voices was a real person, and that she was sitting next to me. Or that she was a prostitute from another planet. An Elder prostitute.

Wait, so that reward she promised me– I blushed, grateful for the change in topic.

“I’m just glad you’re safe now. I’m sorry I didn’t find you sooner, I didn’t think–”

“It’s all right. I knew you were trying.”

“Why did you contact me? Why not someone with more power and influence?”

“You were the only one I could reach. I thought you’d be like me, someone who escaped when our ship crashed.”

“Nope, I was definitely born on Earth. Not a drop of alien blood inside me.” I remembered that I didn’t even know her name. “What should I call you? We can’t keep calling you ‘guest’ or ‘friend’.”

“My name is Mara.”

“Huh. Seriously?”

“Shouldn’t it be?” She smiled. She looked so much like…like… a human, but then there were her face tattoos, her large eyes, and– Fudge! I’d known her boobs were unnaturally big!

“I always imagined aliens to have ridiculously long names no human could pronounce.”

“My full name is Zaveeyera Xiomara.”

Yeah, that made more sense. “I’ll stick with Mara.”

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“She’s taking it well, wouldn’t you say?” said Ana.

I’d completely forgotten that the others were still here.

“She is,” said Mel. “I didn’t expect you to be so accepting.”

“I freaked out when Ana first told me what she was doing,” said Bee.

That was a good point. Why wasn’t I freaking out?

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“If it’s a joke it’s a bad one and you won’t be able to keep it up. If it’s true there’s nothing I can do about it.” I was many things, but never a racist. Or a xeno-racist. I supposed that was a thing now. “So, what’s next?”

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“We fight,” said Bee. “It’s about time we did something instead of just talking about it.”

“I found a memory stick in the facility,” said Mel, and handed a small black USB to Ana. “I had a quick look while Mara stretched her legs. The location of their headquarters is on there.”

“Then it’s time we made our move.” The careless laughter had left Ana’s voice. There was something darker hidden beneath it now, and it made my skin crawl. “Poppy, you don’t need to join us for this. Go home. Don’t tell anyone what you know, or Mara will be in danger again.”

“No, I want to help.” I also needed time to think and progress all of this, but if aliens were held against their will somewhere nearby and I could help, then I would.

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“There’s a good chance that people will die, Pop. You don’t have to do this.”

“Then that’s all the more reason for me to help.” I was surprised by how much I meant this.

“Thank you,” said Mel. “But at least sleep over it. We won’t hold it against you if you’ve changed your mind in the morning.”

I nodded. A moment to think on my own was exactly what I needed, but I had a feeling that it wouldn’t change anything.

“We’ll meet back here tomorrow at 1pm,” said Ana. “I’d rather you’re safe, but if you truly want to help I won’t turn you down. Goddess, we could use the extra hands.”

How the fudge was I going to explain this to my parents?

I froze.

Fudge.

My parents.

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I’d completely forgot to tell them where I was. They had to be worried sick by now.

“Gotta go. Tomorrow at 1pm, yes?”

I didn’t wait for confirmation. I jumped up and ran.

8.15

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“Hey, Bee. You haven’t moved yet, right? … Great, I need a favour.”

I was grateful to be outside again. It was dead silent in the middle of the forest, and would have been pitch black if it wasn’t for the moon. Mel had guided us to a small clearing, and I could see the stars above.

When I was a child and Mum tried to explain death to me because my hamster had died, she said that stars were the souls of our loved ones. Did the military guy’s family look up tonight and see a new light sparkle back at them? How long would it be before they knew?

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“So your name is Poppy?”

Her voice was like silk, instantly likeable. I couldn’t fathom why someone would lock her up.

“Yeah. Poppy Joy Lace.”

Give her your address while you’re at it, why don’t you?

“Thank you for helping me, Poppy. I’m sorry I had to use telepathy. I know humans don’t always understand what’s happening, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

Humans? What?

“I’m grateful that you came to help me. When we’re safe and if you’d let me, I would like to reward you.”

I had so many questions I didn’t know where to start, so I shrugged.

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I couldn’t shake the worry that I had made a horrible mistake, and freed a killer instead of an innocent. Persistent as it was, she didn’t seem like the type. There was something comforting about her, something loving. Her voice was soft, forever patient and gentle. She hadn’t grabbed my wrist and demanded I come with her.

No, she wasn’t the bad guy here. The people down below had been bad. I clung on to that thought with all I had.

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“That’s all right. You’re welcome, I mean.” I blushed. “I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.”

She gave me the warmest smile I had ever received, and the last of my worries melted away. How the fudge did she do that? It was insane how much one little smile affected me – and I was probably the authority in Sunset Valley on insanity. I knew my madness pretty well.

“That you did at all speaks highly of your character.

I wanted to ask her about her tattoos. I wanted to ask her how she had ended up in this place. I wanted to know what she meant by humans, like she was something else. I needed to know if her boobs were real.

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“Are you all right? Are you sure they didn’t hurt you?”

“Sure as I can be.”

I had so many questions for Mel, too. How the fudging fudge had he broken into this secret facility, taken out the guards, rescued me and this woman, and made it look easy? This wasn’t the grumpy Mel I knew. This was the real Mel, and I wasn’t sure if I preferred him.

“Bee is on her way. We’ll drive to Anna, and she’ll explain everything. We can make sure you’re not injured, too.”

How could he be so calm? The voice had said that he had done this before, but how many times were we talking exactly? Was this what he did when we weren’t studying the supernatural at Anna’s?

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“How did you know where I was? How the fudge did you just walk in there, take out the guard, and rescue her? I shot someone, Mel! I. Shot. Someone!”

Could a good person shoot someone? Even in self-defence? I had forever taken a person out of this world. He had threatened me, true, but did that give me the right to take his life?

“I’m a monster, Mel.”

“Why would you say that?” He stepped closer and spread his arms, presumably to hold me again, but I moved away. I didn’t deserve hugs. Only good people deserved that comfort.

“I killed someone! That’s pretty self-explanatory!”

Mel reached out again and I didn’t back away this time; I didn’t have the energy. He didn’t hold me, but he held my hands and made me look at him.

“Monsters kill for fun and the thrill, Poppy. They don’t feel remorse afterwards. So, by definition, you can’t be a monster.” I wanted to hug him. Berry, in that moment I wanted to kiss him. But, fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to regret either. “Bee’s here.”

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I was relieved to see Bee. For some reason I thought that her joining us in this clearing would make sense of everything. Like she had all the answers.

A backpack was hanging over her shoulder and came close to slipping off several times as she ran to us.

She let it fall to her feet the instant she reached us, and pulled me into her arms.

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“Oh, Pop, are you all right?” I really wished people would stop asking me that. I killed someone, I wasn’t supposed to be all right. “Mel told me what happened. Come here.” She crouched down a little, her fingers running all over my face, bending me every which way. “Are you injured?”

“No.”

“Good. We need to get them to Ana.” She turned to the woman whose name I still didn’t know.

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“So, is this our guest then? Hi, I’m Bee.”

Why the fudge wasn’t she more freaked out by the lady with tattoos all over her face we’d just rescued/helped escape from some weird underground dungeon? Berry, had everyone done this before but me?

“Here.” Bee handed her the backpack. “I’ve brought some clothes for you. I had no idea what size you were so I hope they fit. There’s a wig in there, too.”

The tattoo lady thanked her and disappeared behind some thick bushes to get changed.

“A wig?” Mel asked.

“Yeah. A bright green one.” Bee shrugged. “What? I figured it’d help her blend in.”

“Why do you have a bright green wig laying around?” I couldn’t help myself, I wanted to know.

Bee sighed. “It’s a sex thing, okay? My girlfriend likes to role-play. Don’t worry, it’s clean.”

Mel blushed, and I choked on my laugh which burst out as a snort instead.

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The woman came back before either of us could think of a worthy response.

“Thank you, Bee. They fit perfectly.”

“We should get going,” said Mel. “We don’t know if reinforcements are on the way.”

I scowled. “I’m not moving until someone gives me some answers.”

“We have to move, Poppy,” said Mel. “It’s not safe here. I promise I’ll answer all of your questions just as soon as we’re at Ana’s.” He didn’t even wait for me to respond. He just walked off.

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“I’m sorry, Pop. I know this is confusing, but Ana can make sense of everything. I promise.”

I very much doubted that, but I’d come too far to just go home now.

8.14

screenshot-685Fudge. Fudgefudgefudgefudge!

“Poppy? What the hell happened?”

I turned around to stare into Mel’s shocked face. The woman stood behind him, her face blank.

I tried to speak, but my lips were dry and the words died in my throat.

screenshot-687“Oh Berry. Poppy, I’m so sorry. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody. I made sure it was safe before I came down here, I swear!”

How did he sound more distressed than I did?

“It’s not–” I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, because I seriously coudln’t see how it could be, but the words were swallowed by a sob. Then the tears burnt my eyes, and my body was shaking.

screenshot-688“I killed him, Mel!”

“It’s okay, Poppy. You defended yourself, right?”

I nodded. The movement stained his jacket where I rubbed tears into the fabric.

“Ssh. It’s all right.”

How could he say that? Why was he so fudging calm? How had he collected himself so quickly? None of this was all right!

I told you. He’s used to it.

I didn’t care if the voice was right. I just needed to be held.

screenshot-690“I’m a monster.”

“You’re not. That guy would have tortured you if you hadn’t done something, Poppy. You did the right thing.”

I killed him!”

“He was a bad person, Poppy. I can explain everything, I promise. But not here. Right now I need to get you out of here.”

I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to stand here, safe in his arms. I also desperately wanted to leave and never come back to this place. Would I go to prison? Would they execute me for having killed someone?

screenshot-691“No one’s going to lock you away, Poppy, I swear it,” Mel said like he’d read my mind. “They won’t find the gun. You’ll be safe, okay? I’ll keep you safe. Trust me. Please?”

I wanted to believe him, but I failed to see how he could promise me something like that.

He said he’d be able to explain everything later. I’d come to rescue the woman who had invaded my thoughts for the past few months, and it looked like she was okay. What if we didn’t leave now and more military guys showed up?

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“Okay. Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”

My body felt like someone had poured lead all over it. I wasn’t sure how I could move; I just knew that I had to. I could always break down later, in my room, with my parents none the wiser to what I had just done.

A nervous, sobbing mess of a giggle escaped my throat.

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“Do you think you can walk?”

I nodded. Anything to get away from this dungeon.

I had a feeling I’d have nightmares about tonight for the rest of my life.

“Are you okay?” I asked the woman. Her arms were scratched in a few places, but she didn’t look injured otherwise. She was the reason I was here – if I could just focus on that, I could have my meltdown later.

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She looked at me then, and I was lost for words. Her smile was small but genuine, her eyes shining bright in the darkness of this prison. Everything about her looked perfect. Maybe I’d rescued a model? A rich one? Maybe there was a reward for her or something – enough money to pay the lawyer I’d no doubt need.

“I am fine, thank you. Are you hurt?”

“No,” I lied. Physically I was fine. I didn’t want to go into it right now. Berry, I didn’t even know her. She could still be a serial killer. Maybe the military guy I’d shot had a loving family, a just reason to lock her up. And in swoops Poppy, ready to ruin everything.

I shivered. Mel went first, and the woman took my hand and pulled me after her. I didn’t resist. I didn’t hesitate. All of me just felt numb.

If this was a nightmare, after all, I was ready to wake up now.

***

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get these out, friends You will now get two chapters a week – one on Tuesday and one on Friday – until this rainbowcy has finished 🙂 The last chapter is 8.20 😉 Six left to go!