Episode 31: At the Gala

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“Please keep still Mr. Lay, you’re making these finishing touches quite difficult,” the tailor muttered, from where he kneeled. Tom stood on a stool about a foot off the ground, three mirrors in front of him, showing him from several angles, and the tailor – an aging gentleman with a white handlebar moustache – at his feet. He wore a smart, well fitted jacket, and matching pants, currently having the finishing touches added as they needed to be taken up a few more centimeters, despite having already been taken up once.

“Sorry,” Tom said. “I guess I’m not used to being manhandled,” he added under his breath. He felt his opinion was valid, the tailor seemed to enjoy sticking him with pins, and Tom had come away with bruises on his legs from several of the fittings.

When Rose had mentioned this designer store that she frequented, she had not mentioned that the store had now split off into two separate specialties - custom made designer dresses and clothing for women, and next to it, a tailor for men’s suits specifically. Each time he and the others had visited, they had all been jostled into the right place, and not been allowed to leave until each fitting was complete and all the alterations had been noted down.

He had to give the tailors and seamstresses credit though, they worked immensely, and had managed to make up several new suits and dresses (he assumed) in a few short weeks. Obviously the Divine name carried some weight. Today was the last day of changes and alterations, and also was going to be the longest. The ball was that evening, and all changes were being done today and then the clothes were being taken away and put away until that evening.

Invitations had arrived shortly after the meeting with Rose, stating that each person was ‘cordially invited to attend the annual Atlas Corp charity ball’. The invitation had been more like an instruction list, stating that no casual clothes were allowed that women were to wear dresses or formal suits as attire and men had to wear either a bow tie or tie, with a waist coat or blazer at all times.

Tom had never worn a bow tie in his life, not even to his prom. He’d worn a tie, and that had wound up wrapped around his forehead like a ninja band after about a hour. So a bow tie, which was what all the boys had opted for (if just to resist the temptation to turn them into ninja headbands) was going to be a whole new experience.

“All right, thank you Mr. Lay.” The tailor stood up. “If you could carefully take the pants off and put your own back on, I’ll start the adjustments.”

Tom did as asked, and reappeared from the mirrored area dressed in the pants he had arrived in. He, James, Reyez and Hunter were the only people in the store and none of them looked especially happy. In fact, they looked bored. Hunter, who had obviously done this before, had brought along a book to read, Reyez tapped at his D-Touch, the sound of a game screaming from it, and James stared at the rows of bow ties that were laid out in glass cabinets looking confused.

James had been the one who had found this whole experience the most unnerving and strange. Tom could handle the fittings and the manhandling, James just found the whole thing weird. Always used to buying things cheaply, he was shocked at the prices of the suits when they were completed.

Tom sat down in a spare seat and crossed his legs, relaxing. Somewhere in the back of the shop, a sewing machine was whirring as changes were made to one of the suits.

“How long are we expected to wait?” Tom asked, looking at Hunter for an answer.

“Depends,” Hunter looked up from his book. “Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it’s a lot longer. Last time I had a suit made was about four years ago. They still had my measurements, but I’ve grown a lot since then… it took about three hours for all the finishing touches.”

Tom groaned and slumped back. “Now I wish I’d brought something to do.”

“Just download Angry Birds or something,” Reyez said. “Should pass the time.”

“Helpful, Rey,” Tom retorted.

“So,” James piped up, finally dragging himself away from the rows of bowties and sitting down in the last remaining chair, “what do these functions entail, exactly? I guess you’ve been to them before?”

“Yeah,” Hunter nodded. He closed his book, leaving the bookmark in place, and slipped it beneath his seat. “Really depends on the person. It’s a lot of networking for a lot of people. Meeting new people and prospective business partners. No one actually goes for the charitable aspect, everyone who attends these things is a selfish moron, out for themselves.”

“Okay…” James arched an eyebrow. “You’re not a fan of these events then?”

“No,” Hunter remarked. “They’ve always been dull and boring, for me. Rose is a better mingler than I am and can work a room. I’m more… sit it out, watch everyone and disappear as soon as possible to go and relax.”

“Or find a girl,” Skollmon’s voice popped out of Hunter’s D-Touch. “Remember that year with the Mayor’s daughter, Christine? I thought his head was gonna explode!”

Hunter released an awkward laugh, smacking his D-Touch in his pocket, as if the hit would somehow impact on Skollmon… which it didn’t. He cleared his throat. “Anyway! It’s mainly a lot of people talking, mingling and drinking. There’s some dancing, not proper professional stuff, but not the kind of thing you’d get away with at Prom either. There’s a certain… etiquette to follow I guess.”

“Like?” Tom asked, intrigued. Reyez said nothing, but had put down his D-Touch and seemed mildly interested.

“Like,” Hunter sighed, trying to recall all the rules he had gone through growing up, the rules he’d been forced to memorize and properly demonstrate before being allowed to set foot in one of these events. “Okay, always pull a chair out for a lady, date or not. You don’t sit down until all the ladies at the table have been seated first. The normal rules: don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t interrupt someone when they’re talking. Don’t gulp your drink, sip it properly. When dancing you always keep arms length away from any other couples, and there’s no spinning or ‘exotic’ dance moves.”

“So…no grinding?” Reyez asked with a smirk.

Hunter laughed. “Grinding is definitely out.”

“Shame.”

“When asking someone to dance, you have to bow to do so first. If you want to dance with someone who is already dancing with someone else, you ask the person they are dancing with, not the person themselves. Waiters are there to wait on you, don’t strike up a conversation with them. Uh…”

“I think that’s enough to go on,” Tom interjected, before Hunter could continue.

Hunter grinned and leaned back in his chair. “Honestly there are so many rules, that you’d never remember them all. Just try and be polite and you’ll be just fine. Most people don’t know the ‘rules’. Just those brought up with them.”

“Is there anything else we should know?” James asked. “Like, do we have to buy anything for the girls or…?”

“What, like a corsage?”

“Yeah. Or… flowers. Or something.”

“It’s not… necessary,” Hunter explained. “It’s not like a Prom or anything. You can buy Frankie flowers. If you really want to. But a corsage is… pushing it. Its more normal for a guy to wear a flower in the lapel of the jacket.”

“Frankie doesn’t really like flowers that much anyway,” Reyez said, picking up his D-Touch and resuming the game he had been playing. “She gets hay fever from certain ones.”

“Oh,” James said, sitting back and wringing his hands anxiously. “Can she dance?”

Reyez tilted an eyebrow, regarding the brunette lazily. Tom was tapping at his D-Touch too now, and Hunter had gone back to his book. Neither were paying much attention to the other two men for the moment. “Sort of… she can do your typical sensible dancing. Just don’t expect her to be able to waltz or something.”

James nodded. “That’s okay. I wanted to know if I’d be making a fool of her. I can’t dance very well. I’ll give it a try for her but…” he trailed and shrugged. Reyez shifted and found a more comfortable sitting position. The chairs supplied in the tailor’s were leather, nicely cushioned so they weren’t actually that uncomfortable, but because of their rigidity it made slouching quite difficult.

“I hope the girls are having as much fun as we are,” Tom said, breaking the silence suddenly, causing the other three men to start laughing quietly. Tom smirked. “Eva says that she got yelled at by the seamstress because she got pricked by a pin and nearly got blood on the dress.”

“I guess that means her dress is white?” Hunter asked.

“I have no idea,” Tom said. “She’s keeping shut about it, which is really annoying.”

“Piper’s the same,” Hunter admitted.

James nodded. “Frankie too.”

Reyez snorted. “Don’t I feel left out, not having a date.”


“You can take Rose,” James suggested, grinning. “She’s stabbed you once, and you’ve already slept together. I figure you’re about a step away from being an old married couple.”

Hunter and Tom laughed, while Reyez joined in sarcastically. “I think I’d prefer to have no date, than go with Rose.”

“Ah, she’s not so bad,” Hunter said.

“She stabbed me,” Reyez retorted. A moment’s pause, Hunter shrugged and smiled. Reyez had made his point, and Hunter didn’t intend to say anything much else about it.

“Did you and Frankie ever go to anything like this ball, thing?” James asked Reyez, rubbing his hand back through his hair and staring up at the ceiling.

“Nothin’ fancy. Few family occasions, she came to my sister’s wedding this year.”

“Yeah, she told me.”

Reyez continued, “but we never really got invited to any like big events or anything. Normally it was just the normal clubs, that kind of thing. Why?”

“Just curious,” James shrugged. “I kind of want this evening to be… special. Y’know? I know we’re going there for a specific reason, but there’s no reason we can’t enjoy ourselves too.”

“What, you planning on asking her to marry you, or somethin’?” Reyez looked away from his D-Touch.

James scoffed. “Hell no. I haven’t even told her I love her yet.”

“But you… intend to?” Reyez asked, his voice still wary and an eyebrow quirked on his face.

“Eventually,” James confirmed, nodding his head. “I mean… at some point. When I don’t choke. I’ve tried already a few times but I wind up chickening out, and saying something lame, like ‘Frankie, I need food’. It’s embarrassing.”

Tom laughed softly from his chair, causing the other two men to look at him. “You’re probably trying too hard to say it at the right moment. If you let it come naturally, it’ll be easy.”

“Like you’re an expert,” James muttered.

“Who’s been in a long term, healthy relationship the longest here?” Tom asked, smirking. “Trust me, stop trying so hard. You must have told Frankie you loved her at one point or another, right Rey? How’d you do it?”

“I’m not discussing this,” Reyez commented, returning to the game on his phone. Tom shrugged, as did James.

“If it makes you feel better Jay, I haven’t said the ‘L word’ to Piper yet, either,” Hunter told him. “Not because I can’t find the right moment or anything, there have been plenty… but I think it would freak her the fuck out if I did tell her.”

“Why’d you think that?”

“She’s a jumpy little thing,” Hunter explained, “doesn’t like change all that much, and saying that I loved her would be a big change to Piper.”

“But you do,” Reyez spoke up, “right?”

Hunter shrugged. “I… guess.”

“You do, or you don’t,” Reyez stated firmly. “There ain’t an in between on it. You can’t just be sittin’ on the fence about it.”

A little surprised by his outburst, Hunter regarded him for a moment before nodding slowly. “Then yeah, I do… but she doesn’t have to know that yet. I like our relationship the way it is. Plus, I wouldn’t want to say it and have her not say it back. My ego has already taken quite a battering, thanks to Kitten, and I think that would be… kind of devastating for her to not feel the same.”

“Like asking someone to marry you and them saying ‘no’,” Tom added. He didn’t seem to have realized he had spoken as he was staring at the wall of blazers opposite him. “That gives me nightmares.”

Reyez laughed slightly, nudging Tom with his elbow. Tom startled from his apparent trance and looked, bewildered, at the others around him.

“What?”

“You wanna talk about your nightmares concerning Eva saying ‘no’ when you eventually ask her to marry you?” Reyez said quickly, his mouth falling into a smirk. James looked almost amused, while Hunter sat back in his seat, half smiling.

“I…” Tom struggled, “well, its cropped up.”

“And you intend to ask her,” James stated.

“At some point. I don’t really know when,” Tom admitted, “but I know I want to. Eventually.”

“When?”

Tom shrugged. “Haven’t decided. I don’t even know if it’s what Eva wants. She might say no, after all.”

“What happened to ‘long term, healthy’ relationship?” Hunter asked, his tone slightly mocking.

Tom scowled. “Just because the relationship is those things, doesn’t mean that the people in the relationship will ever tie the knot. Some people just don’t marry, no matter how long they’re with someone. And that’s fine. It’s the worry that she will say no when I finally ask her, that is… a worry.”

“Why would she say no?” James asked.

Reyez agreed, though his tone was still somewhat sardonic. “Yeah, she’s crazy about you. It’s obvious.”

Hunter laughed beside the three of them. “This is without a doubt the least manly conversation I have ever been part of.” He surveyed the three other with amusement, for a few seconds. “Let’s get away from the overly feminine topics and talk about manly things! Like wrestling bears.”

“Who the fuck wrestles bears?” Reyez shot Hunter a bored look.

-----------------------------

The gala itself started promptly at eight o’clock in the evening, and the main event was situated inside City Hall, which had been decked out appropriately with decorations lavish enough for the evening and what it represented, but not so lavish that it was gaudy.

Naturally, the press had been lining the roads to City Hall since the morning, hoping to catch small glimpses of anyone and everyone who was attending. The Atlas Corp function was kind of like the city’s personal Oscars, the outside pavement had been covered with a red carpet, and to keep the public and press at bay, large metal grates had been set up around the area, complete with bulky security guards.

Rose was already waiting just inside the door when she saw Hunter arrive alone. A lot of guests had already arrived but more entered in pairs or small groups after giving short interviews to the press and delivering their invitations to the waiting men at the door.

“You couldn’t have not worn your dog tags,” Rose chided, “just this once?” She marched towards Hunter holding up the front of her dress to prevent falling over. Rose’s dress had been ready for weeks, she’d only picked it up that morning. It was pretty, a sleek form-fitting dress, all white. The design of the dress was like that of a toga, as one strap was thin and the other was wider across, coming together in a way that it ruffled under her bosom. It touched the ground exactly at length, not showing her flashy heels under it when she released the front of the dress. She’d kept her hair down, decorated with small pearls.

“Never,” Hunter retorted, stepping to one side as a small passed him. “I don’t take them off. You know that.”

“Then at least tuck them under your shirt, you look untidy,” Rose explained, waving her hand at Hunter’s attire.

Hunter rolled his eyes, but did as she requested. “Any sign of Bella?”

“Nothing,” Rose replied, glancing to one side. Tom had arrived, with James and Reyez in tow, all dressed in smart suit tuxedos. “You know the Thompkins’ are here.”

“The who?” Hunter asked, waving the other three over to where they waited. They saw, and made their way over, by passing another group of people who had all stopped to talk.

“You know, the Thompkins. Harrison Thompkins, his wife Mila and their daughter, Katrina? She’s doing some side work for Atlas now, even though she’s only sixteen.”

“Whoop-dee-doo,” Hunter sighed. “So, what does it matter?”

“I thought it might interest you, considering Harrison offered to take you on in his attorney’s office,” Rose snapped. “So sue me.”

“Is that an invitation?” Reyez said cheerfully. Rose rolled her eyes.

“Never mind. I’ll see you all in the main ball room,” Rose said, before turning and swiftly sashaying out of the entrance foyer and into where the main events would be taking place. Over the murmurs of the people, one could hear the string quartet playing, welcoming all the guests.

“Frankie and the others are just coming. Some kind of disaster with Eva’s hair,” James explained, shrugging his shoulders and stuffing his hands into his pockets. The four of them drifted into quiet conversation, grabbing drinks from a passing waiter.

Frankie was the first to enter the main foyer, clutching her compact purse in her hand. The black dress itself was about calf length, and the back came down like a cape. It was boat-necked as the fabric gathered around the shoulder area and crossed over in the front giving it a thigh length slit across the front. While the dress was made of thin Rayon, it was still form fitting. There were gold patterns used as accents around the neckline, and she kept her hair down and over one shoulder while her bangs covered her forehead. She turned in the doorway, oblivious to the four boys off to the side and waved her hand as Eva and Piper followed after her.

“Why do you always wear pink?” Frankie asked, her tone amused.


“It’s not pink,” Eva responded, poking her tongue out, “it's salmon.” It was salmon, made of pale thin fabric, and one-shouldered, with a gather and ruffles on one hip, accentuated with a detailed bronze-jeweled belt. She touched her hair, which had been the cause of concern, but it now seemed sturdy. It was put in a small bun at the base of her head, pointing the rest of her hair upwards, flicking out of the top. “Besides, Piper’s is pink.”

“It's nude, actually,” Piper corrected.

“And Piper doesn’t always wear pink,” Frankie added. Eva pouted, and lightly nudged the blonde girl who had been the odd one out, opting for short dress, above her knees with a black petticoat barely visible below the hem line. The dress itself had a black sash around her waist, and one strap, crisscrossing from one side of the dress across Piper’s opposing shoulder. Piper’s hair was still too short to do anything ornate with, so Frankie had opted to straighten it for her, and French braid it.

“Ah, if it isn‘t Cinderella and her step sisters.” Reyez took a sip from the glass of champagne in his hand, smirking as the three girls approached them.

“Always the charmer, Rey,” Frankie retorted, taking James’s proffered arm. “Where is your bow-tie?” she asked.

“It was uncomfortable so I took it off,” Reyez said. He slid off his shades and placed them in his front blazer pocket. He rolled his eyes as each couple connected in one way or another, and shrugged. “Well, don’t I feel like a seventh wheel.”

“Poor Rey,” Tom grinned. “I’m sure Rose is around some place.”

“Funny,” Reyez countered, he shrugged and walked to the ball room. The remaining six followed after him, entering the large ballroom to the growing noise of chatter and classical music played by the quartet up on a main staircase, which had been for the moment turned into a platform for them to perform on.

Immediately everyone was splitting up. Frankie dragged James off in one direction, while Hunter was spotted by a friend of the Divine family almost immediately, and was forced to make polite conversation, while Piper nervously stood beside him. Realizing that they should probably enjoy this evening as much as be alert for any plots from Bella, Tom swept Eva up into the part of the room reserved for dancing, which was relatively unoccupied.

Eva giggled nervously, placing her hands on Tom’s shoulder and waist – appropriate places, This wasn’t like at prom where you could get away with having your arms around someone’s neck. She noticed, being suddenly face to face with Tom, that they were at the same eye level, an unusual experience as Tom was an inch short. Eva has purposely not worn high heels because they hurt her feet, and she didn’t think them especially sensible if there was to be an attack and she would be required to run. She looked at him quizzically, leaning back a little.

“What?” Tom smiled at her, an eyebrow quirked on his face.

“You’re taller,” Eva commented. “Are you wearing insoles or something?”

“No,” Tom shrugged. “Maybe I’ve grown.”

“You haven’t grown an inch in the four years I’ve known you,” Eva retorted. “What have you done to make yourself taller?”

“Maybe your eyes are going funny. Rey does think you need glasses,” Tom teased. Eva retorted by poking him sharply in the ribs. “Why does it matter, don’t you like me taller?”

“It’s not that,” Eva responded. “It’s just different.”

“Lots of things are different now, Eva,” Tom explained with a small shrug.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Eva. Tom didn’t respond, listening to the change in tempo of the music, and slowing their movements down. They weren’t dancing in the proper sense. Not like one or two of the couples were, but they were going with the flow and it was enjoyable.

“It means what it means,” Tom said eventually. “Lots of things are different. We’re different people… we’ve grown up, I guess. And our Digimon have grown up a lot too. We’re not the way we used to be when we first met, remember?”

“Indulge me,” Eva remarked.

“Well, when we first met we didn’t have any of the major… pressures we have now. I used to spend all my time at the arcade, and you would spend as much time just hanging out with your friends. And we didn’t think anything of our Digimon.”

“Oh, I remember when I first met you,” Eva said slowly. “You were hogging the DDR machine and wouldn’t let anyone else on until you’d completed every song. You had a massive crowd and I just wound up sitting down and watching, because I’d lost my friends.”

“I remember,” Tom confirmed, “and you sat there, even after most of the arcade had emptied out. And I invited you up to have a go. Which was… entertaining, at least.”

“Who’d have thought a simple bonding over a video game would get us to where we are now?” Eva mused out loud. “It’s kind of strange to think how far we’ve come.”

“Yeah, and with Digimon in tow,” Tom added.

“We can hear you.” Poemon’s voice echoed up from Tom’s pocket, startling them both. While Tom grabbed his pocket with both hands, Eva looked at the others around them to see if anyone had heard or was watching. Nothing had changed, they had attracted no attention, so she relaxed, and Tom stuffed his D-Touch back into his pocket. He had asked Poemon – as Eva had asked Irbimon – not to talk at all, to avoid getting unwanted attention. It wasn’t like Poemon to not do as he asked.

“Hey, you remember the day you met Uncimon?” Eva asked, lightening the mood, instantly grinning as Tom’s face moved into a grimace. He remembered. “You remember what he said?”

Eva had been living at home when she and Tom had first started dating. So, most of the time her family were around and they had a rule that if Tom came over, and they were in Eva’s room, the door had to be open.

As soon as Tom had started visiting, Eva had always shoved Uncimon into her closet, and convinced him to be quiet, if only on the bribery of food when Tom had gone home. The first time they had met, Eva’s parents had been away for the weekend, and as the rule for keeping the door open wasn’t in effect because there was no one to instill it, Tom and Eva had taken advantage of the situation.

The noises Eva had made, had spurred Uncimon into action – him not being in full knowledge of what was happening, and assuming that Tom was attacking her, he had leapt out of the closet and bounded onto the bed. At which point Tom yelled and fell off, Eva shrieked and Uncimon didn’t fare much better. It only got worse as he chased Tom around the room, threatening to frostbite his calf.

“‘My eyes, my eyes. Help, my eyes’,’” Tom said slowly. “Words forever etched in my mind. And he completely killed the moment.” He sighed, “and it made living with him … seeing him, really awkward to begin with. I’m very glad we brought in the bathroom rule.”

Eva laughed. “He’s never quite gotten over me bringing you into our lives as a permanent addition.”

“And poor Corvimon, didn’t know what to think when she met you. Remember how she would keep puffing and reappearing in random places whenever you went near her?”

“Or touched her, or talked to her. Or moved,” Eva smirked. “Jittery little thing.”

Tom nodded in agreement. “She thought she was being replaced. And then meeting Uncimon… I don’t think she came out from under my bed for a day at least.” Tom sighed softly, as Eva relaxed, and leant her head against his shoulder.

We got around it.”

“Eventually,” Tom added, “we’ve been through a lot, you an’ me.” He said, suddenly taking a serious tone.

“Yeah,” Eva agreed, “but I don’t think I’d change any of it.”

“Well, that’s good.” He cleared his throat, “Eva-“

“You know… I was thinking the other day,” Eva said, interrupting Tom, and standing up straighter. Tom swallowed whatever it was he was going to say. The moment gone. “I was thinking about what James did.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I was thinking about what I would have done in that situation, if I was Frankie I mean,” Eva explained. Tom looked confused, his eyebrows furrowed a little. “You stay like that, you’ll get worry lines.” She teased.

“Were you putting yourself in Frankie’s shoes if James left?” Tom asked, trying to clarify exactly what Eva was trying to explain in a round-about way.

Eva shook her head, smiling. “No. Silly. I was putting myself in her place if it had been you, you had turned on us. Honestly, I thought I would have to make the choice back in the Digital World, between Irbimon and you. And I don’t know what I would have done. But I know that if it had been you who had turned, I don’t know… I don’t know how Frankie held it together and was strong after James turned on us.”

“What would you have done?” Tom asked, keeping the trepidation out of his voice.

“…probably would have seriously considered following you,” Eva admitted. Tom hated to own up to the sense of relief, and the tiny swell of pride he felt to that confession. “I’m not as strong as Frankie is.”

“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit,” Tom murmured, tilting Eva’s head towards him with a hand and kissing her forehead. “You’re a lot stronger than you think. Just see what you achieved with Irbimon. And with me.”


Eva ‘hmm’ed softly, replacing her head on Tom’s shoulder. They drifted back into a nice, comfortable silence; listening to the music, and just enjoying the time they had to each other, without the Digimon around, and without their friends in the direct vicinity. They shared time together in the apartment, but it wasn’t easy to get time to themselves with Poemon and Irbimon always vying for their attention. So little moments, especially ones like this, where they were able to steal even the fewest seconds of times together, just the two of them were precious. And the silences were golden.

“I almost forgot,” Eva said slowly, almost dreamily, “your mom called. Something about us going to visit?”

“Oh,” Tom remembered, “that.” He had called home a few weeks ago to check up on things and his mother had suggested visiting as soon as he and Eva got a chance. She had been worried after hearing about all the Digimon attacks. Something about her tone of voice told Tom she wanted to talk. He had meant to discuss it with Eva, see if they could go down for a weekend, but it had slipped his mind entirely what with recent events.

“You don’t want to go?” Eva asked, judging Tom’s tone.

“Hm? Nothing like that,” Tom replied with a small grin. “I just completely forgot about it. I should call her and we should go down and see her soon. I’m pretty sure she’d be happy to see us both.”

“And the Digimon. You know Irbimon loves your mom’s cooking.”

“Well, Irbimon likes anyone who feeds him,” Tom explained with a smirk. “Except me.”

Eva rolled her eyes.

-----------------------------

Hunter had been at enough of these functions to know how to act and to how to pass off like he was listening intently when he wasn’t. How to make it seem like the person speaking at him had his full, unbridled attention, when really it was somewhere completely different. Mainly figuring out how he could get out of this conversation without offending anyone.

He hadn’t realized just how many people knew of him, especially people with eligible daughters who they wanted to marry into the Atlas Corp ‘family’. And since Logan was out of the scene, Hunter was the next best option, even though he had no interest in marrying anyone, ever. Let alone when he was only twenty-four and all people saw when they looked at him was his family name.

The Mayor was alright though. A little dull, but a good conversationalist at least. It was his wife, who he couldn’t stand, every time he tried to get away from one conversation, she was there ready to block his path prompting him into a new conversation with someone else he had no interest in, but would have to pretend to. He couldn’t even make little side comments to Piper now, because she’d been jostled out of a group of people, and afraid of making a bad impression, was now standing at the side of the room, on her own like a wallflower. Which only made Hunter feel bad.

“And that’s why we’re making headway with the current economic changes, there should be some really impressive statistic released over the next quarter.” One man was speaking, someone from the banking world undoubtedly, and trying to kiss up to the Mayor about something. Hunter could hold his own in conversation with these men, but didn’t like to. The world of finance went completely over his head. Glancing around, he couldn’t see the Mayoress anywhere, ready to pounce on him and push her daughters at him, so Hunter decided to chance it.

“Excuse me, gents.” He nodded, turned on his heel and started weaving through the mingling people making a bee-line for the corner Piper occupied. She smiled weakly at him, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. He didn’t give her a moment to greet him, before he tugged her head back, and kissed her fiercely. Finding he liked Piper wearing high heels, because he didn’t have to bend as far. Piper’s fingers curled into the lapels of his jacket as he pulled back, easily tracing the back of her neck with his fingers.

Piper’s cheeks were pink.

“I would really like to get out of here with you, right about now. Like you wouldn’t believe,” Hunter explained, one arm slipping around her waist, the other keeping its place on her shoulder so his fingers could continue to tickle her neck. “Because I know the kind of underwear that’s required to wear a dress like that.”

“You are such a pervert,” Piper chided, trying to sustain a serious expression, which she found was quite difficult with Hunter so close, and with the ministrations he applied to her neck

“Why you standing here all on your own?” Hunter asked, smiling.

“You were busy, I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Bother me. Please, bother me,” Hunter exclaimed. “You’re much more interesting than anything or anyone else here,” he added, biting the cuff of Piper’s ear. She squeaked at the action, stiffening. Piper had learned quickly, that Hunter liked to push boundaries, not to the point where Piper felt uncomfortable, but liked to push them. Especially in places where it wasn’t appropriate. He wasn’t big on public displays of affection in mundane, every day environments like the grocery store. But here was perfect, and he was learning quite quickly exactly what buttons to push.

“Even that girl over there glaring daggers into your back?” Piper asked, breathing out to calm her stomach which was at this point somewhere around her knees. She pointed discreetly over Hunter’s shoulder to a dark haired girl who had been watching Piper, and now was watching the pair of them.

“Oh,” Hunter choked on something in his throat, and his fingers ceased to move. “That’s uh, that’s Samantha. She and I… kind of… hooked up a couple of times,” he explained.

“Uh-huh.” Piper arched an eyebrow, “and how many other women in here have you hooked up with?”

Hunter squeezed a small noise from his throat that sounded like a bleat. He made a quick view over the room. Not including Samantha, he could see another four women. But Piper really didn’t need to know that, and Hunter was not that stupid. “Are you jealous?” He asked, turning the conversation onto the blonde.

“What? No!” Piper retorted. “I was just asking a question.”

“Kitten, you’re jealous.”

“What do I have to be jealous about?” Piper queried making a face. “I mean she’s just… tall, and has impossibly long legs, well everything else about her is impossible unless its surgically enhanced. But it’s probably not and she probably just wakes up looking that that, and doesn’t have to worry about looking pretty or anything. Or making sure she looks pretty. I bet she was one of those really, really popular girls in college, who didn’t have to work and got the geeks and nerds to do her work for her.”

“Piper…” Hunter’s tone came out weary sounding. Piper stopped mid-rant and looked at him sheepishly.

“Sorry, I guess I’m just feeling a little insecure.”

“How come?”

Piper bit her lower lip. “It’s silly.”

“Come on,” Hunter coaxed her, “tell me…”

Breathing to settle her stomach again, Piper rolled her shoulders. “All these people, they’re people you knew before… everything. I guess I’m a little concerned that you’ll remember everything you’re missing and just decide that we’re not worth it,” Piper explained.

“We’re not worth it?” repeated Hunter, “or you’re not worth it?”

A pause. “That I’m not worth it.”

Letting out a short breath of air in the form of a chuckle, Hunter smiled lop-sidedly at Piper’s admittance. This was the first time she’d really questioned his loyalty, more to herself, than to the whole group of them. And he found it amusing that it was now, surrounded by people that she chose to have this relatively private discussion. It was cute too though, how she was insecure, and needed that reassurance from him. In the same way he needed it from her from time-to-time.

“Listen,” Hunter started, facing Piper squarely, “I am not going to suddenly remember how great everything was before I met you, and the others because it wasn’t great. When I think back to how things were before, I just remember getting daily berating from my mother, and wanting to do something to get back at her. I wouldn’t ever consider those times good.”

“Oh…”

“Besides, I’m crazy about you. Why would I screw that up?”

“Crazy about me?”

“I thought it was obvious,” Hunter smirked. He relished the feel of the shorter blonde in his arms as her own wrapped around his middle. She interlinked her fingers as he kissed the top of her head. “I like waking up next to you every so often, on the nights you don’t have to study and can stay round. I like having you falling asleep on my shoulder when we’re watching a movie. I like watching you pick the stuff you hate off a pizza and throw it onto mine. I like it when you’re in the kitchen doing something and hearing you hum along to a tune on the radio. I like it that you’re small, and compact, and I can pretty much smother you when I hug you because I like the feeling of protecting you. I love all these little quirks and things that are just… you. How could I not be crazy about you?”


Piper’s face was practically burning, having not expected all these admissions from Hunter, who wasn’t exactly the most readable person when it came to how he felt, and how he viewed their relationship. And despite how heartfelt everything he said was, she still found one niggling doubt chewing at the back of her mind.

“Because I haven’t said the ‘L word’ yet.”

“So?” Hunter asked, smirking. “Neither have I.”

“Yeah, but-“

“No ‘yeah buts’,” Hunter stopped her, putting his hand over her mouth. “Do you like where our relationship is now?” Piper nodded. “Do you care about me?” Another nod. “Do you feel ready to say if you love me or not?” A long pause, and Piper shook her head slowly. Hunter dropped his hand from her mouth, “and that’s okay.”

“Really?”

“Of course!”

“It’s just that, other people say it within a couple of weeks. I just don’t want you to feel like I’m… like I’m holding back, or something,” Piper explained, nervously rubbing her arm.

“Piper,” Hunter sighed, and nudged Piper’s forehead with his own, “other people do what they want. We don’t have to compete with anything, or anyone. You an’ me can just go at our own pace. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Hunter said more firmly, kissing the bridge of Piper’s nose and then her mouth. “Feel like dancing? I’ll let you stand on my feet.”

She nodded. “Sure.”

-----------------------------

Reyez stood calmly, flicking his Zippo lighter in one hand with a whole new glass of champagne in the other, watching all the comings and goings of the people and the crowds. So far nothing much had happened, he hadn’t seen Bella apart from the one time she had entered the party and been given a round of applause by all the guests for organizing the event. She had swiftly disappeared to mingle with her patrons and everyone who had arrived with her had disappeared as soon as they’d gained entrance to the main party.

He had occupied himself for a short period, making joke bids on some of the auction items, and talking to the one or two people who had given him the time of day. A couple of times he had caught glimpses of the others, but as soon as he’d seen them, they had disappeared. Reyez wasn’t one to feel sorry for himself, and he didn’t now, but he did feel like he was a bit of a third wheel. How everyone was paired up. He was willing to admit he was the tiniest bit jealous of them.

He sipped down the last few dregs in his champagne glass, leaving it on a free table, and picking up another from a waiter walking around with a tray. Most people were now helping themselves to the buffet. The Camden Bonnetts were playing a more upbeat set, and as this wasn’t exactly their usual gig, it wasn’t surprising not many people were up dancing to the music, like they had been before when the classical string stuff had been playing.

Reyez had spotted Frankie once, when the Camden Bonnetts had started playing, dragging James out onto the dance floor, while he looked extremely apprehensive. He was kind of glad that wasn’t him, he could be a stick in the mud when it came to things like that, like going crazy over a band. He liked music, but wasn’t as exuberant about it as Frankie was. James obviously handled it much better than he did.

Reyez joined the short queue for food, realizing when he smelled it that he was actually quite hungry, having not eaten much throughout the day due to being sat in the tailors with the others. Spooning a bit of whatever was on offer onto his plate, Reyez returned to the table he had been occupying to eat on his own, and continue to watch everyone else. Only to find Rose had taken one of the chairs and was looking at him expectantly.

He debated for a short period of time whether or not to sit down. He was still pretty pissed off at her over everything, the stabbing incident in particular, but unless she was hiding a knife under her dress – highly unlikely – she wasn’t likely to be much of a threat. He sat, and ate a couple of forkfuls silently before either one of them decided to talk.

“How’s your evening?” Reyez asked, being the one to break the silence. Not because it was awkward, but just because he didn’t see the point of them both sitting there and not saying anything. It would look… odd. Besides, the question was pretty innocuous, so it wasn’t like she could get offended by it.

“Terrible,” Rose admitted, her face sour. “Hate it. I just wish whatever was going to happen, would happen.”

Ignoring the last part of her sentence – Reyez didn’t really want anything to happen – he responded, “same.”

They went silent, Rose snatched a glass from the tray of a passing waiter and downed it quickly. Reyez chuckled around a mouthful of food, ignoring the glare from her. “So… What are you doing later?”

Rose eyes narrowed, glaring at him from a side glance with her arms crossed. “Are you high?”

“I wish,” Reyez replied with a quick, sarcastic smile.

Rose shrugged a shoulder delicately. “I’m not going to become a number in your little black book, you can forget that. What we did was one time and only one time.”

A quick catch of one another’s eye from across the table.

Reyez quirked an eyebrow. “I asked what you were doing later, I didn’t ask if you wanted to fuck. Obviously someone is a little flustered over there, you sure stabbing me didn’t have more of a personal meaning to it?”

Rose released an irritated huff, glaring, then calming herself down. She closed her eyes and looked off into the distance when she reopened them.

Returning to his food, Reyez expected Rose to disappear now that they had nothing else to say to one another. He wasn’t going to pursue conversation with her, but when she didn’t leave after a few minutes, he grew curious. She was looking out into the crowd, and he followed her gaze, seeing what it was she saw. Bella, barely ten feet away, speaking to one of the guests, shaking hands and being every inch the perfect hostess.

Reyez had never seen Bella close up before, only in papers and on television, and the television didn’t really paint an accurate portrait. She was quite tall, only made more apparent by the high heels she obviously wore, and she held herself high, her shoulders back and totally rigid. She didn’t look like she ever relaxed. She looked alert, and like she was constantly alert. Like she was someone who never, not even for the slightest instant, allowed herself to be seen as vulnerable or with a guard down. Her face was sharp, like her facial features, and her eyes intelligent, and always watching, working things out.

Aside from that though she looked… a little strange. Like there was something wrong with her. Her dress was sleeveless and backless, so Reyez had a view of her skin, which looked almost grayish-white in places. And she, herself, looked tired.

Reyez looked away, fishing his D-Touch from his pocket and starting to tap out a message to the others that Bella was about. He could feel a certain unease radiating off of Rose opposite him and noticed she hadn’t looked away from Bella. He nudged her leg under the table with his shoe.

“Stop. Staring,” he told her.

Rose glared at him for a moment, before she looked back.

“Hello, Rose.” Bella’s voice was like a soft purr, and despite how friendly it sounded, Reyez didn’t miss the threatening under tones. He sent the message, placed his D-Touch back in his pocket and regarded Bella with a short glance. “Have you seen your brother? The press want a family portrait for the morning papers.”

“The last family portrait we had was before father died,” Rose replied, her tone equally as friendly, and a smile on her lips. A portrayal for those watching and eavesdropping on the conversations nearby. “And I don’t think Hunter considers you family, any longer.”

“What a shame,” Bella replied, her smile firmly plastered on her face. “And who’s this… one of your new… friends?”


“Don’t get me involved,” Reyez spoke up for the first time, snatching himself away from Bella before she could touch him.

Undeterred, Bella laughed softly, hooking her fingers under Reyez’s chin, forcing him to look at her. “Oh but you are involved,” she explained, her tone soft, barely audible to anyone who wasn’t right beside her. Or in front of her. She still smiled, almost eerily so, the kind of smile a person had when discussing something nice. Reyez hadn’t ever considered how good of an actress Bella was. “You are more involved than you could ever imagine. Run away, little boy, before you start tackling something you could not possibly comprehend. Before you get in over your head.”

“Is that a threat?” Reyez asked, keeping his tone and expression indifferent.

“More a guarantee,” Bella replied. “You have no idea what powers are laying dormant here.”

“Humor me,” Reyez inquired, letting his mask of indifference fall just a little. Letting slip a tiny amount of rage. Bella dropped her hand from Reyez’s chin. He sipped his champagne.

“Oh.” Bella looked puzzled for a moment, a false expression, which was quickly replaced by her smile when she looked at Rose. “My, my Rose, what little lies have you been telling this time?”

“Lies, mother?” Rose asked softly. “I know you’re going to do something here. I intend to stop you.”

“You intend to be the hero, do you?” Bella almost laughed. “How ironic. Rose, who could never save herself, saving everyone?”

“I don’t want to save anyone. I want to stop you. For myself and for everything you put me through. Expose you as the fraud you are,” Rose explained fiercely, though her voice still remained soft and inaudible anyone by Bella and Reyez.

“You’re still a selfish and mindless child,” Bella said, exhaling softly, standing up straight. “Perhaps you’ll learn, eventually, everything I do…everything I have ever done, has been for the benefit of you and your brother.”

“You are such liar.” Rose crossed her legs, smiling.

Bella smiled, straightened her dress and without another word, turned and walked away from them, rejoining a group of older men, who all greeted her exuberantly. Rose had one hand on the table which clenched the table cloth, scrunching it up into her fist.

“Nicely handled,” Reyez commented.

“Argh,” Rose growled, releasing several more frustrated noises as she rose from her chair and stalked off. Reyez went back to his food, but found he suddenly had no appetite for it. Shoving the plate away, he was on his feet, meandering through the crowds again.

-----------------------------

James had been dragged around the party by Frankie all evening. Since they had arrived, in fact. She had been more excited about the event than she had let on, and once she was inside, didn’t want to miss anything. James didn’t mind too much, apart from the fact his shoes kept pinching his feet, and his jacket was so heavy he was starting to feel quite over heated and wanted to go outside onto the balcony but he couldn’t deny Frankie some more time to take everything in.

Since they had arrived, they had watched some of the charity auction, and James had been astounded at the prices some of the items were going for. He was glad everything was going to a good cause, and even though he now had money to use, he still couldn’t come to grips with the amount of money people spent on… things.

After most of the auction items had gone (and Frankie had bid on the Camden Bonnetts prize before being massively outbid by over a thousand dollars) they had moved on, eaten something before the Camden Bonnetts had their forty-five minute set, during which time they, and the handful of other young people were the only ones up enjoying the music. James wasn’t as big of a fan as Frankie, but enjoyed the music enough to dance along. He enjoyed not being squashed by other people more though, like he had been at previous gigs he had attended.

Now, the music had been replaced by the string quartet again, and the dance floor was almost totally full now other people had had something to drink and had lost some of their inhibitions. Frankie appreciated that James was an absolute failure when it came to dancing properly, so settled for light and easy swaying where no one could stand on his feet and where he couldn’t trip over his own.

“I know we’re on the lookout for some kind of big bad thing,” Frankie was saying, “but I really have enjoyed myself. I feel like it’s the first night in a while I’ve been able to be relaxed – despite impending doom. Is that weird?”

“Probably not. I think we deal with impending doom most days,” James explained, tilting his head to one side. “No one can blame us for wanting to enjoy ourselves.”

“Maybe Rose was wrong, maybe nothing will go wrong,” Frankie proposed happily.

James made an uneasy face. “I’d really like you to be right, honestly. But… I know Bella enough to know that if Rose thinks she’s got something planned that’s bad, she’s going to have something bad planned.”

“I know.” Frankie’s face fell. “I just wanted to … hope. You know?”

“Hmm.” James nodded and kissed Frankie’s forehead. “I know what you mean. It would be nice to not have to keep looking over our shoulders. And this waiting for something to happen. It’s killing me.”

“I’m trying not to think about it,” Frankie admitted. “Instead I keep thinking about how we’re going to get all these people out if something goes down. There are so many of them it seems inevitable that something would-”

“Shh,” James hushed her, his mouth quirking into a half-smile. “We’ve managed to save plenty of people in the past, without planning ahead. This shouldn’t be much different.”

“I guess…” Frankie didn’t believe him, and James didn’t believe himself either, but he felt it necessary to say something in an attempt to put the thought that people might die if an attack occurred out of her head. It wasn’t really something that any of them considered when they fought. Sure, after every fight there had been people injured, in the hospital. Even they had all wound up in the hospital at one point or another for injuries sustained during the fighting – that was something they expected.

But the thought of someone, anyone, dying made things a little too real. A little too hard to imagine, or handle. After all, if someone died that meant anyone could die. Any of them could die. James didn’t want to have to face that.

He unconsciously tightened his grip on Frankie at the thought of it, and she noticed. She tugged lightly at his bowtie and smiled up at him. “What’re you thinking?” she asked cutely, tilting her head to one side.

She was trying to distract him from the thoughts she knew plagued his mind and he appreciated that. He appreciated all her efforts to keep his spirits up, and told her so constantly. She knew how much she meant to him, if not because he told her, but because he showed her, or at least he thought he showed her enough. Maybe not with lavish gifts or anything like that, but little gestures that were personal to the two of them.

“Just…” James started, “it’s lame.” He smiled awkwardly.

“Tell me,” Frankie persisted, kissing his bottom lip lightly.

James swallowed. “Just, how lucky I am,” he admitted, glancing at her shoulder for a moment, feeling embarrassment creep up his neck. “Look, Frankie, I should have told you… forever ago, but I didn’t because I was an idiot. But I want you to know that I- -” James paused, the words couldn’t come out. Now felt right, felt perfect to tell her, to say the three little words that had plagued him for days and weeks. To let her know that she was important, probably the most important thing in his life, that he loved her. And his voice was failing him. His nerve was failing him. She looked at him expectantly, big eyes wide and quizzical and all he could do was make a choked sound. “I—”


“Yes…?” Frankie coaxed.

“I…” He couldn’t do it. “I—have to go get a drink. Do you want one?”

Disappointed shadowed Frankie’s face immediately, and James felt like something had punched him. “Sure… yeah, that would be great.” James nodded, released her and quickly fled across the dance floor, cursing himself under his breath.

Frankie left the dance area too, taking up a seat at the side, to wait for him to return. The seat beside her was occupied swiftly, Frankie tapped at her D-Touch. She, Eva and Piper had been sending each other messages during the evening, keeping tabs on each other and any goings on.

“What’s the face for?” Reyez’s voice startled Frankie for a moment, and she closed her D-Touch, slipping it back into her purse.

“What face?” Frankie asked, plastering on a smile. “This is just my face.”

“C‘mon now, Frank,” Reyez said gently, standing next to her playing with his Zippo lighter once again. “What’s wrong?”

Frankie deliberated for a short moment, whether or not to tell Reyez what was on her mind. She wondered if James would be offended, but he had told her earlier that evening that he and Reyez had been discussing her, so it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

“James keeps chickening out on telling me he loves me,” Frankie admitted. “I know it’s silly, I shouldn’t rush it. But he keeps going for it and choking. And I am so ready to hear him say it and to say it back.”

Reyez rubbed his chin. “I see…” he said thoughtfully.

“Am I crazy?”

He smiled a little. “No.” He paused for a moment and nudged Frankie’s hand. “Can I borrow you for a minute, just want to have a word in private, that okay?”

Frankie looked a little skeptical for a moment, cast a look towards where James had disappeared off to and couldn’t see him. She would be back soon enough, he wouldn’t miss her for a few minutes. “Sure.”

“Good.” Reyez placed his empty champagne glass on the table and grabbed Frankie by her arm, in a bit of a rush. He grabbed another glass from yet another tray of a Waiter who walked by.

Reyez held her arm, not tightly, but tight enough that if either one of them got bumped into he wouldn’t be letting go, and Frankie could barely keep up with his longer strides in her dress and stilettos. "Reyez! Wait a second."

He had led them out onto the balcony. It was cold now, and immediately Frankie’s bare skin rose in goose bumps. Reyez looked serious, the spotlights that shone down from the side of the building, illuminating specific parts of the balcony adding more severity to his expression that Frankie had seen in some time. She had been willing to come with him, but now she felt a little uneasy.

She regained her composure, leaning against the railing that surrounded the balcony and turned around to face Reyez. "What is with you?!"

Reyez held up his finger as a signal to hold on, he gulped down the entire glass of champagne like a simple shot glass but said nothing, he pulled out a slip of paper out from his pocket, presenting it too her.
It was a receipt, from some time ago. Frankie scanned the description of the receipt and gasped softly, looking from it to Reyez and back again, trying to figure out what he was trying to say, or do, by presenting this to her.

It was for a ring.

She noticed her had used White-Out on the price, something Reyez often did with his gifts. That's how he was, he wasn't trying to impress her. He wanted her to see the date of the purchase -- two years ago. He had been holding onto the ring for a long time -- a year before they had broken up.

Reyez's eyes were intent in their constant contact which Frankie kept breaking under the intensity. "I never asked you before. I was afraid of what your answer would be." His gaze lowered slowly, he shrugged. "I wasn't ready to hear that. I wanted you to see that I could be so much more to you. At times I thought you did."

Frankie was finding it difficult to breathe. Reyez was rarely so open and bare about the way he felt.

"Sometimes, I still sit and think about it… hell, a lot more recently." His green eyes pierced her, reaching into Frankie's soul. Trying to put across anything and everything he felt for her, felt then, and still felt now. "Before we broke up, you'd treat me like a husband: loving me, listening to me, caring for me, cooking dinner for me every night, making sure I had everything I needed for work." He smiled. "You didn't have to do that, but, I needed it. I needed you. It's hard to find a woman with the right combination of everything… I had to do this, Frankie. I had to make things right. You've always been…" He paused like he was trying to find the right words, "my life."

Reyez's deep, resonating voice penetrated Frankie's very being in a way that made her speechless, emotional.

"I'm an asshole, I admit… but ya'know our time in the Digital World did something. I know I said I forgave you for what happened… I never really did. It took a while, it really did… but it was when you were dealing with Ms. Lynn's death and still trying to keep a positive attitude that I realized how much I appreciated you… and you being at my sister's wedding even though you didn't have to come, that sold me. This is where my heart is. You're holding it hostage. You always have, but even you've been too stubborn to see it."

Reyez kissed the back of her hand, sending shivers through Frankie's body.

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind sharing just a small part of you with me… but ya'know the old saying, if you love someone, let them go right?” Reyez inhaled deeply, and cleared his throat, like he was trying to get back up his guard, put a stop to this vulnerability. “I don't expect you… or want you to come back. I'm not admitting that I love you to pull you away from James. I want you to be happy and I expect to see you happy… with anyone, not just me."

Reyez’s sudden smile left as quickly as he came. He dug in his pocket for a cigarette. "And if James doesn't keep you happy I'm going to rip his throat out…" It was almost like his emotions did a 360, back to the old Reyez with his bored expression and gruff tone.

Through the range of emotions, Frankie found her smile, but was still speechless. She never realized how the simple things she did meant so much to him. Well, of course she didn't because Reyez never opened up. She did them naturally, she thought, for everyone.

Reyez lit his cigarette, parting it from his lips. "Now, go back in there before we look like a plot device for a love triangle in a badly written fan fiction." He allowed her a small, wry smile, exhaling smoke from his mouth and watching is dissipate in the air. He placed his shades back over his eyes, just in case.

“Rey…” Frankie murmured, finding her voice and no words to say in response to what he had just disclosed. How could she. What words could compare? Anything she said would just sound… foolish, or insignificant. “Rey, I-”

“Hey, there you are.” James’ voice stopped her, as he appeared in the doorway, looking confused. He cast Reyez an uneasy glance, and took a few steps towards them both. “Something… happen?” he asked slowly.

Reyez regarding him lazily. “Frankie was feeling a bit faint, so I brought her out here for some air,” he explained reasonably. “My bad, would have told you, but we didn’t see where you went.”

“Oh,” James replied. He covered the distance between himself and Frankie in a few short strides, and was checking her over with concern. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Mhm… yeah,” Frankie advised, applying a happy tone to her voice to not cause James any more worry or suspicion that she could already tell he felt. “I just felt a little dizzy for a minute, I’m fine now. I bet it’s these heels!” She laughed.

James tilted his head, the explanation was reasonable enough, so he took her word for it. He had no reason to doubt her, after all. “Okay. There’s some kind of speech about to happen, we should get back inside.”

“Sure thing.” Frankie walked beside James, as he steered her with his arm around her waist. She glanced back at Reyez, who she noticed was still in the same spot. “You coming, Rey?”

Reyez blew out another puff of smoke, partly obscuring his face for a second. Still with that wry smile on his face, he shook his head. “I’ll be in in a minute. Just want to finish this first.” They left him, went back indoors. Reyez stared after them both, before lowering his eyes to the ground. Hopefully they could put this behind them. Put this whole saga to bed. He had said everything he wanted… everything he had needed to say. There was nothing left.

-----------------------------

People were gathering in groups in the main ball room. The string quartet had stopped playing, and on the stage where they had been performing, a podium had been set up, where Bella was standing waiting for the guests to congregate.

Eva and Tom were in the group, being jostled by other attendees. Hunter’s head was visible across the room, so they assumed Piper would be with him. Frankie, James, Reyez and Rose though were still nowhere to be seen. But as all the doors to the room were closed by waiters who then stood beside them – to prevent anyone from leaving it seemed – it was more than likely they were in the room somewhere too.

The lights in the room dimmed to a low wattage, apart from a spotlight that illuminated Bella, only. There was shifting and the lull of voices eventually became silent as Bella waited patiently.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” she began, speaking clearly and her voice resonating around the room. “I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for coming to this event, which is for such a wonderful cause.”

She began to applaud, and was politely joined in by the crowd of people below her. A shifting at each side of the platform caught Tom’s attention from Bella. The string quartet had disappeared and two men had appeared on either side. Both well dressed in suits and older than Bella by a few years. Though the light was not good, and neither were illuminated especially well, Tom stared at them both intently.

Something felt… off.

“I cannot disclose yet how much we have raised tonight for the hospital, but will obviously update you with the Atlas Corp newsletter. Suffice it to say, the generosity of the people of the city knows no bounds, when its citizens are in desperate need of help and goodness, in such a dark time.” Bella continued.

Eva shifted beside Tom. He glanced at her and saw she was looking at the two men, as she was. They had not moved from their places, not blinked. They just stood perfectly still like statues, with their arms behind their backs, and facing the crowd with blank expressions. Tom was suddenly frustrated he couldn’t see them better.

Bella waited for another round of applause to cease as she continued her speech. “Our city is, sadly, experiencing such a difficult time, and with the attacks that happen at random, it is so good to know that at the heart of the city, we are all able to band together and help those who need it desperately. I am sure I speak not only for myself, but for the city as a whole when I congratulate you all for being here, and putting on such an impressive and brave face in the path of adversity.”

Tom nudged Eva gently, making a motion with his head that he wanted to get closer. Eva shook her head, holding her temples with her fingers. She looked like she was struggling to breathe, and her skin had become quite pale suddenly.

“What’s wrong?” Tom whispered.

“I don’t know,” Eva replied. “I just feel… weak, suddenly,” she explained. Tom wrapped an arm around her waist for support, though he suddenly felt uneasy on his feet.

“It is sad that our beloved city is in the grip of such destructive and inexplicable terror. That we are clutched every day by the possibility that we may have a monster, lurking somewhere in our midst. But, since the first attack so long ago, Atlas Corp have been working hard to find some kind of remedy for it, a way to protect this city and its population the way it should be protected. As it is our responsibility, and the right for the people who live in this city to feel safe and protected from these threats.”

Tom groaned, clutching his head. It felt like his mind was on fire, like something was squeezing his brain, making it pulsate in agony. His body felt weak, and his legs were shaking under the weight of himself and of Eva, who was practically a dead weight against him. It hurt to keep his eyes open even a little. But he forced himself, the men who had been standing had moved a little, coming into the light. They didn’t look normal. From afar and shrouded in darkness they looked like normal, older men. But even with the tiniest sliver of light to illuminate them, it was clear there was something wrong. Their skin was pallid, and illuminated in a strange way, like it was plastic. And their eyes saw without seeing. As if they were blind.

Eva slumped against Tom, and he struggled to remain upright. He noticed, looking around slowly that not only were he and Eva affected, but everyone was. Slumping against each other, quietly moaning and clutching their heads. Some people had already collapsed in heaps on the floor, limbs askew. Everyone was affected, except Bella.

Bella stopped speaking, becoming aware to the guests crumbling at her feet. Her eyes narrowed, and she simply watched, her eyes flitting from one person to another, settling for some time on a few people – probably Hunter and Rose.

Tom’s D-Touch vibrated in his pocket, and while he fumbled for it with his hand, beginning to lose feeling in his limbs, his chest tightened, constricting it felt, around his lungs. His knees hit the ground, and Eva hit the floor beside him. Barely anyone was on their feet any longer, and Bella stood above them on the platform like some kind of overlord. The two strange looking and stoic men also still standing, unseeing.

In a flash of green, Poemon had appeared at Tom’s side, and in different places, flashes of light appeared as the Digimon manifested themselves from the D-Touches. Poemon immediately checked Tom, who was barely able to keep his eyes open, and had his head on the floor. Irbimon checked Eva, his face marred with worry.

Poemon’s entire body quivered with energy, and not in a good way. She saw the other Digimon, checking their partners who were curled up or collapsed on the floor. Poemon looked around the room at the bodies littering the ground, and then up to where Bella stood. She saw it, like the Digimon saw it. Invisible to the human eye, but to her it was like a translucent black cloud, a vision wafting off of the two men standing at the platform.


“Th-th-that’s–” Poemon stammered, pointing wildly and then shaking Irbimon.

“I know what that is,” Irbimon replied with a snarl.

Voices and colors suddenly filled the room, as each Digimon was engulfed in light, one by one, forcing Bella to shield her eyes.

“Irbimon, warp evolve to… Hyrokkimon!”

“Siberimon, warp evolve to… Byakkomon!”

“Poemon, warp evolve to… Kinnarimon!

“Odocomon, warp evolve to… Oisinmon!”

“Ailurmon, warp evolve to… Mistresmon!”

“Caesarmon, warp evolve to… Aureliumon!”

“Skollmon, warp evolve to… Terasumon!”

“Hatimon, warp evolve to… Tsukuyomon!”

The glowing of each of the Digimon ceased, leaving the eight Ultimates towering over Bella, the two men, and the barely visible cloud. Bella stood with her arms folded behind the podium, staring at each of the Digimon in turn.

“How wonderful it is to meet you all in person,” Bella said, her tone mocking.

“What have you done?!” Byakkomon demanded, pointing his sword directly at Bella, who stood firmly in place. “How dare you do this, to these people!”

“I have done nothing,” Bella replied softly. “None of this is my doing. You brought this on yourselves.” She sneered. “Isn’t that correct, Mason? Richard?” She looked at each of the men in turn.

Both men opened their mouths, speaking the same words in perfect unison, though it was the hissing voice of the Parasite that was heard. “Yes, you have no one to blame but yourselves.”

“That voice…” Oisinmon gasped. “I know that voice…” her hooves pawed the ground.

“It’s hard to forget the one who was your undoing.” The Parasite spoke. The cloud swept around the room, enveloping each Digimon in its vapor as it seemed to travel over and around each of them. “How much you have all changed… how… weak you have all become.”

“We defeated you once, we shall do so again!” Aureliumon bellowed. It seemed that was all that was needed as each of the Digimon launched themselves forward.

Byakkomon’s sword rushed down, ready to impact Bella, but ricochet off a shield created by the Parasite’s dark vaporous body. Byakkomon, undeterred, snarled and leapt into the air, slicing through a trail of the vapor with his blade.

“Wedding Lust~!” Mistresmon’s call echoed up from somewhere, as petals sprouted up from the ground, surrounding Richard. They closed in around him. Richard thrust out an arm suddenly, and clenched his fist, forcing the petals to scrunch up like pieces of paper. Mistresmon yelped, appearing from the ground forcibly, wriggling in a panic. She was thrown across the room, and kicked off from the wall to right herself.
“Lunar Barrage!” Oisinmon yelled, as dozens and dozens of light arrows short down from the ceiling light falling stars, cutting through the carpet of black, only to see it remerge together. Mason turned towards her, like a sickening marionette, and threw out both his arms. Oisinmon found her body enveloped around the middle, held by an invisible hand that squeezed. She shrieked, trying to manifest some power between her hands, her legs kicking furiously.

“Glacial Saber!” Hyrokkimon cried, dicing through the black vapor which released Oisinmon immediately and she fell to the ground in a heap. Hyrokkimon rounded on Mason, his eyes glowing blue. “Piercing Hail!” He slashed his claws down, towards Mason, sending a heavy rain of icicles down on top of him. Mason rose one arm above his head, creating a shield, on which the icicles exploded on impact with. Hyrokkimon growled and launched himself at the man.

“Piercing Hail!”

“Lunar Barrage!” Oisinmon’s call echoed his.

“Blazing Mirage!” A Terasumon copy joined the fray, one attacking each person. The attacks from the three Ultimates impacted together, forcing Mason to his knees, under their pressure.

Manora’s Dance!” Kinnarimon’s voice was one inside everyone’s head as she attacked, with kicks and punches, raining them down upon Richard, joined by vine whips from Mistresmon’s back flower. Richard seemed to groan under the unrelenting attacks from the Digimon, a shield also protecting him from most of the damage. He, like before, threw both his hands out, creating a shockwave of energy which blew both back, causing them to crash into nearby walls.

Tsukuyomon charged as they recovered. “Winter’s Blade!” She yelled, sweeping her blade in a grand arc as she continued on her path. The trail of ice created by her sword surrounded Richard, creeping up over him, freezing him in place for the moment. Tsukuyomon turned quickly as she past him, and howled to the sky.

“Endless Hailstorm!” Immediately the room was awash with tiny pellets of hail, smacking everyone, driving the humans back under the protective shield they hid behind.

Byakkomon raced forward with Aureliumon in step, both with their swords poised and ready. Bella was the only one who had not moved a muscle, just watched the Digimon attacking, safe behind her cloudy barrier.

“Roma Victor!” Bellowed Aureliumon, bringing his blade down in a giant sweep.

Byakkomon replicated him, crying, “Full Moon Divide!”

Both attacks hit against Bella where she stood, she stepped back only a little, smirking proudly at the obviously frustrated Digimon. The black cloud had stopped their attacks in mid-air.

“Volcanic Pillar!” Terasumon howled, the Ultimates retreated for a moment, as in the centre of the platform a giant cylinder of fire rose up, engulfing the three people, and creating a singe on the ceiling. Each Ultimate fell back into a defensive stance as the flames ceased, waiting, barely breathing to see if their attacks had been enough.

They still stood, the three of them, erect, and facing the Digimon defiantly.

“Impossible,” Oisinmon murmured softly.

The Parasite’s voice echoed, bouncing off the broken and battered walls like surround sound. “How weak you all are. How pathetic. You honestly believed your petty attacks could defeat me!?” It almost sounded insulted at the thought. “Shall I show you true power? Shall I make it so you beg me for mercy?”

An almighty scream went up, sounding otherworldly and in pain, as Mason and Richard both cried out the Parasite’s voice, throwing their arms out and their hands open. Bella watched, triumph playing upon her lips.

In a sudden explosion of power, the Ultimates scattered, dashing one way and leaping another, trying vainly to dodge the vaporous tendrils that shot at them, following each of them around.

The first yell of pain came from Kinnarimon, as the Parasite snatched her by her wing, and wrapped around her in coils like a snake. Hyrokkimon snarled.

“Kinnarimon!” He bellowed, leaping off the side of a wall towards where she was captive. “Glacial-!” He stopped mid-yell, as an intense grip came around him, holding him in mid-air, forcing him to drop the two sabers partly formed in his claws. He struggled, snarling and hissing like a feral cat.

Byakkomon sliced through the trail that followed him intently. He landed against the ground and, crouching for only a moment, leaped and bounced off the walls, trying to land in different places and avoid his pursuer. He turned quickly, his muscles bunching, ready to leap again. He yelped, feeling his legs get caught up, like they were in some kind of net. He struggled against the binds, roaring as they ascended higher, until his chest was constricted and his arms held to his sides, his feet flailing wildly. Aureliumon was brought to his knees in a vain attempt to fight off what he could not hit, close to Byakkomon.

Mistresmon thrashed around, kicking back against any of the shadowy tentacles that tried to attach themselves to her, until several impaled down on her as she landed lightly on the ground, ready to move again. They converged on her, melding around her body. Oisinmon bucked close by, rearing onto her hind legs in an attempt to get away, only to have her back legs knocked from beneath her, and them wound around in coils of darkness.

Tsukuyomon and Terasumon backed themselves each into corners, snarling and snapping their jaws even as their bodies were wound around.

Each Ultimate Digimon was held in place, forced into submission by the energy that trapped them, squeezing around their bodies, securing their limbs. Pained groans and cries of anguish echoed from each of them as the grips around them tightened.

It felt like they were being crushed, like some almighty forced weighed down upon each of them individually though there was nothing. At the same time it was like their very life force was being stripped from them, ripped away like a second skin being peeled off. Soon they all stopped flailing and resisting, becoming limp like rag dolls. In flashes of light, each Digimon dropped to the ground, returned to their champion form but much weaker, barely able to stand and hold their own weight.

Bella laughed from where she stood, and it was a haunting sound. “You see how futile it is for you to fight me?! I have everything and you have nothing!” she crowed, her smile manic and distorted. She had lost her previous composure. It was almost as if someone else was in her place. Her laughter erupted into screams and shrieks. Cackles one would have expected from a comedy witch. Despite her being human, it made her seem more formidable to the weakened champion Digimon.

“We have to get out of here…” Vespasmon said gruffly, shakily getting to his feet.

Skadimon rumbled something inaudible in reply, rising to his forepaws, before collapsing back down onto the ground.

“Come on,” Hurakamon grumbled, nudging his brother. “Get up.”

“We can’t retreat,” Bambusmon argued weakly.

“We can’t fight,” Rusdramon replied, shakily forcing herself upright. Bambusmon struggled for a moment, but found no apt response. She struggled to remain upright, crossing to a group of people. They needed to find their partners and get out of there. But in the masses of collapsed people it was impossible to see one person from another, and the Parasite remained, wafting around them like an ominous presence that lingered.

“Run, little Gods,” the Parasite cooed over them, “I have made my presence known and I will wait until you become stronger so that your deaths will be much… much… more enjoyable.”

The champions, while weak, still managed to snarl and growl. Not only were they weakened by their enemy but taunted and spared their lives. A feeling that felt worse than defeat itself. The dark cloud vanished, as well as the two men, leaving Bella standing at the podium with a twisted smile on her face.

“It’s been fun, thanks for coming.” Her leveled tone returned, walking away from the podium and disappearing into the shadows of the City Hall.

Her taunting laugh still lingered.

-----------------------------

The following day, everyone was still feeling the after effects of what had happened to them, but they had agreed to meet up regardless of how they felt, more on the insistence of the Digimon. They all remembered the point up to where they simultaneously began to feel weak and fainted, but then their next memories were waking up in their own beds with what felt like the worst hangover in the world.
Frankie nursed a cup of black coffee, leaning on the Welsh dresser in James’s dining room. He had congregated them all in the room, with the Digimon and closed the doors on the rest of the house as the others took care of themselves, with tea, or food, anything that would make them feel more alert and awake.

James yawned, and sat down in a chair, surveying the group of Rookies on the floor, who all showed the aftermath of a battle none of them recalled.

“So what was so urgent?” he asked, speaking to Odocomon who had been elected to talk.


“Bella has the Parasite,” Odocomon said.

Silence kept the room filled with a heavy veil, which she let settle, as if allowing everyone to understand, and let the severity of her statement sink in.

“The Parasite?” Reyez repeated after a while. “The one you guys fought and supposedly destroyed?”

“We didn’t destroy it, not totally!” Poemon said urgently. “Part of it survived and it’s been recuperating, building up its strength and its abilities. Bella has it, we don’t know how, but she does! And those two men, they control it!”

“I thought they were more like vessels,” Siberimon said. “They didn’t talk, or move after all, unless it was the Parasite speaking through them, or the Parasite moving their limbs to defend them.”

“And what about Bella?” Hunter asked.

“It protected her,” Skollmon explained. “It acted like a shield and nothing any of us did could penetrate it. We could barely get near them.”

“It’s strong,” Irbimon added. “Stronger than anything we’ve seen or witnessed before. We were all fighting as hard as we could and we didn’t even make a dent. And when we let our guard down, it attacked us.”

“How?” Eva asked seriously.

“I don’t think it has a full form yet,” Caesarmon said. “It’s more like it a giant… cloud. But only we can see it. You guys couldn’t, no one else saw it but that’s what it looks like, a giant, black, semi-see through cloud, and it can manipulate itself, grow ‘limbs’ to lash out with.”

“It sucks energy!” Ailurmon added. “Really sucks it. Almost like it sucks away life force, or years. That’s what happened to you all… it was taking the energy from everyone in the room! And anyone who was old or sick, it took all of their energy! That’s why on the news it’s saying about people dying.”

“What?!” Piper gasped. “Who died?”

“A few people,” Hatimon said, “but because the building was so badly damaged from the fight, and the bodies were made to look like they had been mauled or singed, we are getting the blame for it.”

“This is awful,” Frankie said softly.

“We have to fight it,” Tom stated.

Poemon shook her head. “We can’t! We’re not strong enough. We gave it our best shot, and were batted away like flies.”

“Then what do we do?”

“I think hiding for a while sounds like a plan,” Reyez commented from his seat.

Frankie rolled her eyes, and James shook his head. “This is serious, Rey.”

“Well, shit,” Reyez replied. “What are we gonna do, force our Digimon to get killed by something that obviously we can’t see and they can’t fight?”

“Aren’t you an optimist!” Frankie chided sarcastically.

“Oh shut up, both of you,” Rose snapped. “Instead of entering some pathetic squabble, perhaps you should focus on the matter at hand. This… Parasite… thing, what do you know of it?” she addressed her question to Hatimon, who looked back at the other Digimon.

Siberimon stepped forward. “The Parasite tried to take over the Digital World when our past selves ruled there. It took them… us… extreme measures to stop it.”

“What extreme measures?” Hunter queried.

“According to the scrolls Ryudamon gave me, they sacrificed themselves,” Piper explained solemnly. “And even then, all they could do was seal it away.”

“So it was released?” Rose asked. Piper nodded, keeping her gaze down. “Who released it?”

“Ryudamon didn’t know,” Siberimon answered. “There was no record of who released the Parasite, or how it got released, but it was.”

Rose made a thoughtful ‘hmm’ noise and tapped her lower lip for a moment, sweeping her hair over one shoulder as she tapped her foot. “Maybe that’s a good place to start,” she suggested. “Perhaps finding out who released the thing, will give a clue as to how to destroy it?”

“That’d be a great idea,” Tom said, “if we knew where to start.”

He waited silently for someone to argue with his point which didn’t happen. He was right, they didn’t know where to begin looking to find an answer to who released it. After all, they didn’t even know what ‘it’ was. Just that it was dangerous and had been unleashed and was already killing.

The silence of the room was deafening.

There were no answers. Just a wall that they had hit.

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