(Been feeling a bit wobbly today, and on top of that I have surgery tomorrow – expect more prose and weird babblings on…I dunno. Whatever my drugged up mind comes up with when I get home. In the meantime, let’s have Jak’s story, as well as the introduction of Orchard’s main antagonist.)
I don’t love this city, and this city doesn’t love me.
But it used to.
I had just woken from a dream of an orchard painted in spring colors to find I’d killed a woman. I thought I loved her – or might have, anyway – she was beautiful, and soft, and had a smile that made my knees go weak and she was dead and her blood was all over my hands and my brain kind of went on instinct and I ran.
I wasn’t thinking much about it, or very hard about it – just running, in any direction that seemed appropriate, hoping that in the shithole of a city that I loved, bloodstains on a white shirt wouldn’t seem too bizarre – when suddenly a hand grabbed me, dragged me into an alley, and without thinking I shifted my bodyweight and pressed the person grabbing me up against the wall by their throat –
The blade that sprung from my arm stopped just before the Adam’s apple.
“Ah,” said the beautiful man I’d grasped, “I see I was correct.”
I stared. Lacey, intricate tattoos trailed from his eyelashes to his eyebrows – but those couldn’t be tattoos, could they? Just very intricate makeup, surely. He was lithe, and thin, with messy dark hair and deepset eyes.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“My name is James. For now, anyway.”
“Why did you stop me? Why shouldn’t I kill you?”
“Because you don’t. You don’t ever.”
I stopped. The certainty in his words stopped me dead.
“You’re running because you have found the Orchard and it’s terrible, awful gifts. Allow me to help you. If you run with me…you will not run into the band of police who are, even now, searching Ms. Martinez’s body and drawing the not unreasonable conclusion that you have killed her in a crime of passion because she was a whore.”
“Don’t call her that!” I snarled.
“As you like. Come with me, Jak. Let me save you.”
Something in those pale, ethereal eyes was impelling. I allowed him to save me.
My gift – my curse – are twin blades that are forever entangled with my heart, my soul, my being. They are unbreakable – as far as I know, anyway.
My new employer’s gift was less stable, less solid. He saw all that was never to occur. From that, he could extrapolate what would occur.
“You’re saying this is all predestined?”
“As far as I am concerned, yes.”
He was, naturally, due to his ability, quite mad. You can’t watch visions of yourself dying every day, and an equal number of visions of yourself living a happy, fulfilling life elsewhere and not go mad from sheer despair.
Our rivals were the gang the Tats. We were the two secret gangs in town – I had long belonged to the Punks – and my employer wanted me to go deal with the Tats head assassin, some Hoodie by the name of Jo.
“She will be at the Ave tonight.”
“Mm-hmm. Have you eaten?”
“Eating is a distraction.”
“I’ll fix you up a distraction before I leave, then.”
5. the ave
The first thing that struck me about her was her coldness. How apart from everyone else she was. The second that struck me was her perfection.
The third that struck me was the liter bottle of Asahi.
“Big bottle for a tiny woman,” I commented, reaching for the poison James had given me.
“Well, you aren’t getting any,” her voice was rough with smoking. I noticed the line of a shoulder holster pressed against her hoodie, and the press-release for kunai in both palms.
“Like guns and knives?”
“You did notice the way I’m dressed, right?” she said. Her eyes were large and dark, “But I prefer blades. You know, up close and personal, feel the blood on your hands.”
I watched her warily. Something about the phrasing seemed like it was designed to annoy me. However, at that moment a guy grabbed her, and I was able to slip the poison in her drink – too late, it turned out, for she grabbed the half-full bottle, smashed it over his head then turned, giddy to me, as the whole club started to spoil for a fight, and dizzily said three words.
“Dance with me,” she said, and I felt my heart pound.
6. six months later
The morning was early, cold, and thin as my phone went off. I didn’t really want to get out of bed, but I was pretty sure I knew who it was calling.
“Hi, mate,” I said to James, rubbing sleep out of my eyes.
“The shipment of weapons that we’ve got being brought in tonight is going to be disrupted, but I haven’t yet figured out by who.”
“I’ll be there.”
“…there’s a chance it’ll be her, Jak.”
“I know. I’ll do my job.”
James hung up, as he always did, without farewell. Maybe he felt he didn’t need one. I turned back to my bed, to the Jo lying, still asleep in it and mostly-naked, and smiled. I reached over and brushed a lock of her dark blonde hair out of her eyes and felt her stir.
“Wha…?” she mumbled.
“Don’t get up,” I told her, “I’ve just got a job to do. It’s appallingly early – get some sleep before Jess gives you someone else to murder.”
“Assassinate. Not murder. Key difference.”
I felt myself chuckle in spite of myself. I pressed a gentle kiss to her bony cheek, and left.
7. dance with me
It was late, and I had been at the docks all day, surveying the movements of the various weapons shipments we had coming in. It was our last shipment, being moved to our warehouse, when suddenly four of the men associated with our gang, the Thorns, dropped dead from sniper fire. Another two sprouted kunai in their throats.
“No – ” I managed to get out.
The last three dropped from sniper shots and the final one, standing beside me was sliced down by a kunai, before a knife was held at my throat.
“So this is what you do all day?” said a breathless voice in my ear.
“I never lied to you.”
“Only about your allegiance,” snarled Jo, kicking me away from her as I drew my blades, “You’re not with the Punks, you’re with the Thorns.”
“If you know who the Thorns are, then you knew that from the beginning!” I spotted Jo twitch slightly at that, a quiet tell I’d learned to notice, and furious, I started to slash at her, cutting her kunai to ribbons, but never landing a blow near her, until, frustratingly, she managed to get my arms in a pin.
“I hoped,” she whispered.
“Hoped what? That I’d join your side? The side of the Manipulator?” I spat.
“Oh, and your Madman is any better! He’s got you spouting the rhetoric like a good Christian boy! Don’t forget who tried to kill who at our first meeting!”
I remember how my face paled, how I thought the brawl had been an accident, an expression of mutual bloodlust, and how now I realize it was a way to get rid of the poisoned beer.
“Was anything real?” I spat, pushing her away, “Anything?”
“Heartbroken?” she snapped, “Did it pain you to tell your leader you were still seeing me?”
With a delicate jump, she was over me again, and her kunai was back at my throat.
“Do it,” I hissed. I felt her muscles freeze, “Do it, you coward, do it!”
She slammed the kunai into my hand, shattering it on impact with my blade, and ran.
“You coward!” I yelled at her.
“Is that what you think?” she asked.
And it was then I noticed the grenade.
The warehouse, and all our goods, blew up. I managed, just, to save myself.
“You knew,” I spat, when I confronted James that night, “You knew.”
“Yes,” he said simply, “I did. But I also knew you loved her, and that it would take a great betrayal of hers for you to stop seeing her so that we could move forward with our plans.”
There was silence.
“Did…did she love me?”
James was silent for a long moment. When I looked up, he was studying in the wall, in the way that meant he was examining the future. He then looked down, and at me, with open honesty on his face.
“There is no answer I can give you that will not cause you pain, so I will not answer.”
I sighed, heavily, and collapsed on the nearest seat.
“She did recently advertise for a flatmate.”
I looked up, puzzled.
“What…what do you mean?”
“In this…warmish war between ourselves and the Tats, it would be useful – no, useful is not the right word: it is necessary for us and the Tats to be able to communicate with a level of trustworthiness and silence.”
“So…you want me to work as a sort-of diplomat?”
“You know her best.”
“I hate her.”
“Exactly. You’re perfect for the task. Oh…I understand that Jo is forgoing female pronouns these days. Going by ‘they’ and soforth.”
I was skeptical.
“Well,” said Jo, irritably to Victor, “I hope you’re happy. He’s applied.”
“As I anticipated,” said Victor with a smile, “Cheer up, Jo.”
“Cheer up? I’ll be having an over-romantic zealot in my house. No thank you.”
“You were in love with that over-romantic zealot.”
Jo’s face closed off.
“I’m not capable of love. Remember that.”
She left, brutal as ever, and Victor sighed.
“Which is why your story is all the sadder for it.”
I never saw the girl, or the city, who loved me again.