Kingsburgh, California, Conclave Headquarters
The ambassador and I parted ways after leaving the council chambers. She had, in her own words, “personal affairs to conduct in all due swiftness”.
It was late by the time the council was done with me, and as I stepped out into the pale moonlight, the silence of an empty street greeted me. A bit spooked by the late hour and the eerie glow of the streetlight, I glanced around, taking quick yet furtive steps. I was never so aware of how miniscule I’d become, but clenched my jaw and shook it off. I may be vertically challenged, but I was not someone with whom most folks would care to tussle.
When I stepped away from the exterior door, a tall figure appeared, entering the empty street from the door behind me. My heart skipped a beat, but then he turned to me and smiled.
I met his gaze and smiled back, letting out a long sigh of relief. What can I say? I was spooked. “Grey? What the fuck? You didn’t spend your entire night waiting for the meeting to get out, did you?”
Grey winced and scratched his neck, his cheeks a little red, as he stared down at me. “Yeah, about that. Can I get a ride?”
My eyebrows shot way up, but I nodded and stepped forward, only pausing long enough to ensure he followed. He stepped in line with me and we walked in silence.
“What about your grandmother?” I asked after several long moments.
He paused and took in a long breath. “She was a little miffed with me after I admitted to her I told you about the meeting tonight.”
“Oh? She didn’t want you to contact me?”
He shook his head. “She never said so, but I can read between the lines. She said it was inappropriate and that Kell’d already sent an invitation through official channels, but I heard her and Kell talking last week. They never outright said it, but I figured if I didn’t say something you wouldn’t have found out about it.”
I stopped dead in my tracks, all the pieces coming together into a cohesive whole. Kell Seymour and Reyna Feldstone were conspiring to reshape the Conclave in their image. I had no doubts that whatever invitations they sent to prospective candidates arrived late, if at all. They could always claim some clerical or network error and no one would be the wiser. They tried to do the same to me, and would have been successful if not for Grey. It must have chapped Feldstone’s ass to realize her own grandson had foiled her.
“Thanks,” I said and resumed walking.
Grey hadn’t just risked his grandmother’s displeasure. Reyna Feldstone ruled over her family with an iron fist. She expected nothing short of absolute obedience and got it since those who dissented faced the prospect of being put out on the street penniless. Because the only family in Kingsburgh wealthier than the Feldstones were the Briggs, you rarely heard about any member of the family going against their matriarch. Grey made an enormous sacrifice for me, and I had no idea how I could ever repay him.
It baffled me why he would go to such length to help me. I’d been a poor friend. I left town without telling him and quite literally dropped off the face of the Earth. Of course, a part of me understood why he helped me, but the very prospect of it scared the shit out of me. You know that little thing about him having feelings for me and all.
I marveled again at how much Grey had changed. The boy I knew had been a lot more self-involved, and wasn’t the type to “moon over” a single woman. The Grey I grew up with took what he wanted and moved on. We’d already fucked, so there was no damn reason to stick around. He wasn’t a boy any longer. He’d become very much a man, but what had prompted such a drastic shift?
When I moved forward, I watched my friend out of the corner of my eyes. I was looking for some insight that might help me understand what the hell was going through his thick skull. Tanner slipped through my fingers, but if Grey had a thing for me, maybe the two of us should hook up. Okay, yeah, I didn’t exactly have any romantic feelings for him. There was lust, of course, but would the other stuff come with time? Try as I might, I didn’t see us in a deep and lasting relationship.
Good Lord, why couldn’t anything be simple?
We were almost to my car, when Grey paused. His head turned sideways, and I followed his gaze. A large dark truck, the type used by off-road enthusiast, with the big old-world-style rubber tires, was speeding through the intersection. Right toward us. It moved fast, faster than any car in a residential area had a right to move. Grey and I shared a look, and with no prompting, took off toward my car.
“Get in!” I yelled, unlocking the doors and slipping into the front seat with so much force I left an indent in the door handle.
The car whirred to life and rose into the air. Moments after, Grey slammed the passenger-side door shut. I stomped my foot down on the accelerator, but it was already too late. The truck slammed into us before the car could do more than lurch forward a few inches.
There was a screech of metal and a flash of brilliant white pain. The hover car, already off the ground, spun, twirling in the air on its side and crashed into a streetlight before the hover drives sputtered and failed. The car careened forward and slammed into the ground with an ear-splitting shriek and a deafening thud. Another flash of pain followed, this time from the crest of my nose as it impacted the steering wheel.
The world took on an almost dream-like quality from there on out. Everything seemed so bright, which I don’t suppose was a good sign considering how dark it was outside, and my ears wouldn’t stop ringing. My head turned, seemingly of its own volition, and my mind registered Grey’s unconscious form hanging upside down beside me.
My head wobbled sideways, my hand touching the door handle, but my numb fingers couldn’t grasp hold of it. Khala and Lexa’s voices were both screaming in the back of my head, but as the darkness closed in, all I made out was a shrieking chorus of disembodied voices.
There was another screech and a loud groan, and a gust of wind touched my face. A bright light followed, and a voice said amongst the chorus, ‘he’s still alive.’
That sounded so wrong… I wasn’t a he… anymore… had I ever been a he? Oh God, it hurt so much.
The world slipped away and what followed would change everything for good… and bad.
A voice echoed in my mind, one that belonged to my mother.
“Little girl, what’s wrong?” She spoke, though I didn’t see her. Warmth and compassion filled her voice. How I missed her, how I wanted her to hold me and tell me everything would be all right.
There was so much pain.
An image resolved itself before me, supplanting the darkness and growing brighter with each passing second. The surroundings were familiar, but the decor had changed more than I’d realized in the intervening years. I was in a bathroom at the family estates, the same one that adjoined my bedroom. My mother knelt in front of me, a giant towering over my pint-sized frame.
It took a moment to process everything. I attempted to look around, but it was a memory, nothing more. If I hadn’t turned my head then, I couldn’t now. I didn’t, at first, realize she’d been speaking with her usual mix of Spanish and English. Pequeñita or little girl, had been her pet name for me. Somehow I had forgotten.
A sob escaped my child lips and I buried my face in my mother’s inviting arms. I didn’t have to speak. My mother somehow understood. “It was that Jax boy again.”
When I replied in the affirmative, my mother pulled away and looked me in the eye. “What did he say this time?”
“He said that his daddy said I was a freak raised by freaks and that I shouldn’t pretend to be something that I’m not!” I spoke the last few words with such force that my mother jerked back.
She touched my chest and smiled. “What does your heart tell you?”
“I’m a girl!” I yelled, my lips quivering as warm tears dribbled down my cheeks.
My mother smiled and wiped the tears from my eyes. “Then that’s what you are.”
The memory faded away, dimming and dwindling into the darkness before another replaced it as bright and clear as the last. Another supplanted it and another and another until I lost count. Each came from a different time in life and none in any recognizable order. After the first, I saw my grandmother; we were arguing. Nothing made it stand out from any of our other disagreements, but I knew it was one of the last we’d had before I left. Thanks to the rather gaudy brass dragon earring dangling from my left ear, which I saw reflected in the mirror behind my grandmother.
In the next, I was six, perhaps seven. I don’t think my mother had been missing for more than half a year, and I was nursing a bloody nose given to me by none other than Jax. He called me a sissy freak and hot tears stained my cheeks as more slurs followed. Memory after memory flooded through my consciousness and as each one came, understanding dawned on me.
A picture of a small child assigned male at birth, but who insisted she was a girl. A mother who’d gone through the same experience and was more than willing to help her daughter along in her journey. Then, my parents split, knowledge gained as an adult filled in the gaps of what my family refused to tell me at the time. My father strayed, and it devastated my mother. She left for the Endeavour expedition, hoping to get her head on straight, and a few months later the ship and all its crew disappeared.
After she left, the desire to see my mother again supplanted all my dreams of my body matching my mind, especially as things at school got worse. Jax became relentless, calling me names, telling me what freaks my family was, and it wasn’t just a casual thing he demeaned and bullied me. Had I spoken out, I know it would have come to a rather swift end due to my family’s wealth and influence, but I didn’t.
I became withdrawn, afraid to go out, even when it wasn’t a school day. I broke. My grandmother grieved the loss of my mother and later my father and was distant, even at her best. Without my mother to support me, it seemed the easier option to give in and be a boy. The sudden reversal baffled my grandmother, at first, but as time went on and I buried my feminine side deeper and deeper, she convinced herself it had been ‘just a phase.’
Unable to reconcile being trans, I buried those feelings deep, and even those early memories, significant as they might have been, faded away. As I got older, and my family pushed me to follow in Lexa’s footsteps, I became resentful of her legacy. I saw what Khala had done to my great-grandmother, transformed her against her will, forced her to join the resistance when all she wanted was a quiet life and, well, it left an impression.
To be joined with a symbiote was to have a life forced on me I didn’t want. In my sub-conscious mind, I think that I’d convinced myself the only way I would ever become a woman was by bonding to a H’ra. Oh sure, I knew I could undergo re-sequencing, but it wasn’t about rationality. For too long, I’d let fear control me. No longer.
“Find her, set her free.” For the first time in my life, those words weren’t a source of confusion. There was one more flash revealing, one last memory, this one more disjointed than the rest, but it was the most revealing.
I was a child again. My mother towered over me, even taller than she had been before or, I corrected myself, I was shorter. Everything was blurry, even my mother’s voice seemed muffled, but then she paused and spoke with a quiet yet forceful voice. Everything snapped into perfect clarity.
“Jellfree, if you feel that way and there is a little girl lurking inside you screaming to be let out, find her, set her free, for your own sake.”
With that single memory burning bright in my consciousness, I gasped and my eyelids slid wide open as my consciousness was hurtled back into the waking world.
I took in air in short, jagged breaths, each accompanied by a sharp burst of pain. I coughed, spitting up blood, which splattered on my face as it mushroomed from my mouth. My eyes popped open, and brilliant luminescence greeted me.
I lifted my arms to block it out, but I shrieked when something came down hard on my right wrist. A figure hung over me, blocking out enough of the light that I could only make out the shape of a man. I turned my head, trying to take in my surroundings. The truck that had smashed into my car’s headlights casting an eerie glow over the scene of the crash, but there was little else to see aside from a few scattered bits of debris.
The figure hunched over, and though shadows framed most of his countenance, enough details were visible to form a clear picture of his face.
“Jax,” I said, panting and heaving, sweat dribbling down my face. It was an enormous effort just to get that single syllable out.
He grinned down at me and produced a slender coil pistol from inside his jacket. “Well, looks like the sissy freak is awake.”
I gritted my teeth, squaring my jaw as a burning rage coursing through me, but not for the same reason it might have only mere hours before. How dare that bastard demean me by calling me a fucking sissy! I’d listened to his bullshit all my life. It was because of him I’d been making myself miserable and pretending to be someone I wasn’t for all these years. My rage gave me the extra push I needed. I whipped my hand out, latched onto the pistol and Khala fed, draining it dry.
“You little bitch!” he yelled.
I pulled and forced the weapon out of his hands. When I tossed the pistol at him, he jerked back and it clattered to the pavement.
I groaned, gave a feeble effort at getting up, and while the tiny amount of energy Khala had drained from the pistol seemed to restore a good bit of strength, it didn’t much help when another man stepped forward and let off a half a dozen shots at point blank range.
Fiery white bursts of pain blinded me and I groaned as each struck. I fell, twisting on to my side before my body hit the ground. It was damn hard to miss at so close of a range, so if his intent had been to kill me outright, I’d probably be dead. Either way, the results were the same, six bullet wounds in my chest. The accident had done so much damage already, hell I’d come within inches of death. Khala could heal me with enough energy, but she must have been tapped out. I just kept on bleeding.
‘Khala?’ I called out, hoping for some little glimmer of hope, but her response did just the opposite.
‘Do me a favor, and avoid getting yourself riddled full of holes, okay? Keeping you alive with these injuries is hard enough as it is.’
Jax knelt beside me, his grin growing even more gruesome as he looked me over.
“Why?” I asked, coughing up blood. “What did I ever do to you?”
“You need to ask? I was raised in a conserver home. It’s because of freaks like you that my parents never found work. How many businesses turned down my father for a job because he didn’t have an IDEC or my mother because she had no access to the latest news feeds without an implant? We lived like paupers!”
“Not my fault.”
“Isn’t it? How many of those businesses did your grandmother own? How many conservers has she hired in all the years you’ve been alive? It’s because of your family and others like them that people like me have to make compromises to survive in this world. When we graduated, they forced me to get an IDEC just so I could go to college, and because of it, my own fucking parents wouldn’t even talk to me. They said I’d betrayed our beliefs all because of a tiny little implant. Do you have any goddamned idea what that’s like?”
“I think you’ll find, I have real problems sympathizing with people who bully me and try to murder me.”
Jax backhanded me, and he sure as hell didn’t hold back. It hurt like hell. I guess when a joined host gets as injured as me, some things like enhanced strength and those little niceties like a symbiote’s pain-blocking abilities just go right out the window.
“You know what, Briggs? I bet you have a really tight pussy, am I right?”
He reached down, unclasping my skirt, and tossed it away from my body. I shuddered in revulsion, and clawed at the ground, attempting to crawl away, but with none of my enhanced abilities and my injuries, an infant could have held me in place. He pulled my panties down around my ankles and I forced my eyes shut, waiting for him to defile me.
Instead, he let out a bloodcurdling scream and my eyes snapped back open, just in time to watch Jax get flung flat on his ass. A figure zoomed past, dropping something heavy beside me, and slammed into the nearest of Jax’s cronies.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’ Khala called out, a moment before brilliant white energy rushed into every pore of my body.
Within seconds, Khala began to work her magic. I shrieked as bones cracked and fused back together. Bullets popped out of bloody holes, landing with a soft ping when they hit the pavement, and I grunted, sitting upright as my flesh mended. Had she been able to finish, I think, she would have healed me in minutes. The power cell dropped by my rescuer didn’t have near enough juice to get the job done. It did, however, give Khala enough to heal some of the more grievous injuries. Which, in turn, granted me the strength to get up and get moving, albeit with a fair bit of pain and a whole hell of a lot of stumbling and lurching about.
With a grunt, I turned my bare ass around so that I stood teetering on my feet over Jax. I didn’t dare retrieve my skirt or panties from the pavement. I’d topple over just trying to bend over.
When I stood over my childhood bully, I clutched my hands at my side, a slow burning rage burning within me. Just keeping my hands closed was an effort, but I managed, if only just barely. Here was the person who’d made my life hell more than half my life. I stood there shaking with what someone might mistake with anger. It was a fight just to remain standing. My muscles were on fire, ready to give out at the slightest provocation. Somehow I held on.
“What are you waiting for, Briggs?” Jax craned his neck up at me.
“What exactly is it you think I’m gonna do, kill you?” I took another step forward, almost stumbling over my feet, but somehow kept myself from toppling onto him. Either I looked a lot more intimidating than I realized or else Jax has psyched himself out because the closer I got, the more frantic he seemed to become, clawing at the pavement much like I had when he’d been trying to rape me.
“It doesn’t feel so good, does it? Having someone leering over you, threatening your safety and making you feel tiny and insignificant.” I lurched forward and this time, when I stumbled, I fell face forward.
The next thing I knew, we were grappling. Weak as I was, the bastard had both hands clasped around my wrists and I was flat on my back in mere seconds.
“What’s the matter, Briggs? Maybe you really do want me inside of you.”
“I hope you get gang raped by pack of randy Dre’ks you mother humping prick,” I said between gritted teeth and spat in his face.
I had almost no strength left, but I mustered just enough to knee the bastard in the groin. His eyes widened and somehow I slipped out of his grip and rolled away. I pushed myself up, attempting to get enough leverage to climb back to my feet, all the while eyeing Jax. It didn’t take him long to recover, and I swallowed hard, knowing that if he came for me again, I wouldn’t be able to put up a fight.
Jax was on his feet and moving toward me, but stopped at the sound of footsteps crunching against debris from my car. He turned, a tall and very familiar figure stepped into view, my rescuer from before. A huge grinned stretching across my countenance as Grey zoomed forward, slamming into Jax and sending his ass sprawling into the pavement, unconscious.
“Kayde,” he said, kneeling down next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you gonna be alright?”
“Yeah.” I stared past him, not daring to take my eyes off Jax.
“Did he, I mean, did he do anything to you?” Grey forced eye contact.
I shook my head and closed my eyes. “Less than he might have, but enough to give me some pretty shitty nightmares for a while.”
My feet lifted from the ground as he tucked one arm under my knees and another around my back and lifted me into his arms. I didn’t object. I couldn’t have walked if I wanted to. When he set me back down, I opened my eyes and watched him strip off his shirt and drape it across my naked lap. I tried to point out where my missing clothes were located, but I gave up when I realized how big of an effort it was.
“The police should come soon. Rest and in the meantime I’ll see about finding you another power cell.”
I clenched my eyelids shut and drifted off, without even meaning to. I didn’t mind though, after what I’d just been through a little unconsciousness was just what the doctor ordered. Especially since there weren’t any of those pesky nightmares I spoke of just a few moments before. Those would come later.