warning: this chapter includes coarse language, mild sexual references, themes of crime and domestic abuse. please do not continue reading if these topics may trigger or offend you. it is recommended you read this chapter in my blog, not reader, for the best quality.
3 ½ YEARS AGO
Pancakes, Luc decided, were much harder than they looked. How Lilith effortlessly flipped and fluffed the pancakes escaped him; the heavy iron skillet was temperamental and liked to burn anything that it touched. He carefully spooned the batter into the sizzling pan, trying his best to spread the batter in a perfect circle. The pancakes roughed up at the edges, but when Luc arranged the apple pancakes on a plate, they were soft and golden, and a tiny flower of pride bloomed in his chest. “Good morning.” He looked over his shoulder to smile at Ebony, who had just padded into the kitchen — she looked beautiful, like always, even in a baggy hoodie and messy hair tucked into a beanie. While he drizzled the pancakes with maple syrup and fall-market blackberries, she perched on a barstool, scrolling through her phone. “Here, I didn’t burn them this time.” Luc slid the pancakes to Ebony. “Wow. Congratulations.” Sarcasm dripped from her words like honey, and he felt his pride wilt. Her sarcasm was a different brand to Raphael’s — while the latter’s washed over in a bored, harmless wave, Ebony’s stung, her coy smile hiding a sharp thorn. Luc tried to ignore the prickle of hurt, and as he poured coffee into two cups and sat beside his girlfriend, he silently chided himself for being too sensitive.
Luc sipped his coffee as Ebony shifted between bites of pancake and typing on her phone. There was something he wanted to ask, but every time he opened his mouth, the words faltered and he swallowed them, trying to figure out what to say. He drummed his fingers on his knee, anxious. For the thousandth time, he cursed his awkwardness, something he had discovered in the month of his first relationship, and something Lilith and Gabriel never inherited. It was off-putting, realising he had no idea how dating worked, but he tried his best to do what Ebony liked — she was the one who initiated their relationship, after all. “Hey, so… I’m off work today, and I was wondering if you want to stay in and watch a movie?” There was quiet before Ebony sighed deeply. “I’ve already made plans.” “Um, that’s okay.” He raised the coffee cup to his lips, for the sake of something to do in the stretched silence, but discovered it empty and hurried off to wash it. Questions bubbled up in his throat as the soapy water warmed his hands. “Who are you going out with?” Luc asked, once he returned to the stool. “Why are you asking?” Her brows pointed in annoyance. “I’m just curious.” “I’m going out with my friends, if you can understand that concept.” Ebony said slowly, and he felt his cheeks burn. “Maybe… I could meet your friends some time.” “They wouldn’t like you.” “Oh. Right.” Luc glanced down at his clasped hands, where the sleeves of his hoodie were frayed from pulling at the edges. He only looked up when Ebony curled her fingers around the back of his neck, and leaned in to give him a brief kiss. “See you tonight.” She ran her hand over his shoulder as she left, and Luc smiled softly. “Have a good day.”
The day passed in a slow ache. The penthouse was still knotted with broken pipes and dying lightbulbs, so he spent his lonely free day like usual — slowly fixing things up, brushing away spiderwebs, in the dark spare rooms that lay untouched. The home was empty save for his own tinkering, for Lilith and Gabriel and Raphael were all working, so he pottered away in silence until his back protested. It was only in the evening when Luc showered and retreated to his bedroom, heaving a pile of books onto the bed. He laid out the books on the blanket, crossing his legs and fiddling with the slim black frame of his reading glasses — a new pair, when he got tired of squinting at the pages. The books he gathered were random, fossicked from the dusty bookshop on the way back from work, or inner-city garage sales. Evangeline had kindly given him several manuals on Muay Thai techniques; now, he mulled over them, absentmindedly folding and unfolding the corners of the pages. Reading was something Gabriel had the time for during those first belly-ache years on the streets, but it was just recently that Luc could finally settle down and begin to catch up on his lost education. It was frustrating at times, especially trying to work through tattered mathematics textbooks, but he liked this — spending quiet hours drinking in knowledge, filling the strange, empty ache inside him.
The page he was currently reading detailed ti khao techniques, and Luc tapped his fingers on the inked diagrams. The attack techniques were a struggle for him to learn, a lot more difficult than defense. He sighed and rubbed at his forehead. Gabriel had learned them in a snap, just by observation and with perfect execution, and Luc always wondered why it took so much longer for himself. A ping from his phone pulled him out of his confused thoughts. He set aside the book and leaned forward to fetch his phone, brow furrowing at the single message notification. ‘there’s a work party at five tomorrow. do you want to come? – karla’. The invitation was from a co-worker at the harbour storage warehouse where he worked, a friendly woman who he felt comfortable enough to chat with during breaks. Luc typed out and deleted responses before settling on a simple ‘sounds good, thanks for the invitation’. He propped his chin on his hands after sending the message, happy. Partying was something he’d shied away from, but this was a good chance to socialise and perhaps make some friends, to break this awkward, quiet shell.
Ebony came into his room around eleven, tearing his gaze away from the Muay Thai manual. “How was your day?” Luc greeted her as he gathered up the books. “You look like a dork,” Ebony snapped in reply, and he quickly slipped the glasses off his nose, embarrassed. “You should have a read of this.” Luc tapped the thin book. “It’s really interesting, it has a nice section about the origin legend of Muay Thai, and-” “Are you going to spend time with me or what?” Ebony interrupts. “Sorry, yeah.” He bit down on his excited words and carefully stacked the books on the floor. Luc relaxed as his girlfriend climbed into his lap to kiss him, her hands scorching across his muscles, sharp nails skimming along his collarbones. It was like this almost every day; the sunlit hours empty of her presence, but when the stars began blazing in the sky, she did too, burning her way into his room.
After they pulled their clothes back on, Ebony nestled into Luc sleepily and they rested together for a quiet while, Luc comfortably basking in her warmth — these moments of peaceful cuddling were what he craved the most, in his girlfriend’s fleeting presence. They lasted for maybe an hour before she pushed him away and slunk off to her own room, but tonight, the bliss was cut by another chime from his phone. Ebony grabbed the phone before he could, a storm gathering along her brows as she read. “Who is this?” “A co-worker.” He sat up, leaning over to look curiously. “A female co-worker.” “Um, yeah… what are you doing?” Luc frowned, confusion eddying in his stomach, as Ebony deleted the contact and pushed the phone off the bed. Luc winced as it clattered onto the floor. “Ebony-” “Why were you talking to her?” Her voice was calm, but spiked with quiet venom. “She just invited me to a party.” Luc gently touched her shoulder, but she turned away from him, the curve of her back stiff and angry. “And what were you going to do at that party? Hook up with her?” “What? No. You know I wouldn’t do that,” He whispered. “I don’t trust you.” Ebony tucked her head away, words muffled and trembling. Luc blinked at her, and guilt pricked across his skin at the tears in her voice. “Don’t talk to her again.”
There was a beach that barely anyone visited, where the sea went on for infinity. It was hidden away from the city; Maria had stumbled upon it several years ago, and today she had brought Gabriel. The sky was bright and clear, and the sea in a peaceful slumber, still and glassy except for the waves that rolled gently into the bay. It was beautiful, and Maria ran down to the sea, kicking off her heels happily.
A boulder sat among dry golden rushes. Gabriel perched on the weathered rock, in the cool shade of the pine tree, dappled by sunlight. The beach was so quiet that he could hear the grass whispering behind him, rustling with each soft breath of the wind. Maria dipped her toes in the water, yelping in shocked delight at the cold. He smiled, then, quietly awed by the life that sparkled in her eyes, much like the winter-gold sunlight that was playing on the sea. Maria spun, her skirt flaring out from her hips. “Come on!” She called, her voice bright with laughter, and Gabriel shook his head. He was comfortable here, the rough stone under his palms, happy to just watch her lightly hop over the waves.
Ever since that rainy night, Maria had come to every one of his classes, and it wasn’t long before they began spending more time with each other. Gabriel always felt energised with her, being around such a lively, determined, and rather hyperactive personality. Her innocent joy was infectious, although that initial worry still lingered in the shadows of his mind. The memory of her bruised eye and gasping voice darkened over time, the longer he spent in her sunlight presence. Gabriel was shaken out of his thoughts when Maria called again, giving him a pleading look, so he rolled up his jean cuffs, took off his shoes, and stepped into the cool, salty water. “It’s nice, right?” She smiled, splashing at him, and Gabriel splashed back with a grin. It was nice, to forget about the city smoking and coughing across the bay. Bridgeport tended to drain the life from him at times, with the cruelty that ran wild in the brutal grey skyline. Here, though, they could forget everything: it was just the wind and sea and gulls and them.
Afterwards, they flopped down together on the sand, tired but happy. Maria tucked herself between Gabriel’s knees, much to his quiet surprise. Her sweet, floral scent — one that was now pleasantly familiar to him – mixed with the saltiness of the ocean. He shifted his legs so she could lean into him, and she did so, wrapping her slender fingers around his hand. They sat there for a moment, drinking in the serenity of the bay, before Maria’s curious eyes wandered up to the sky. She pointed at the clouds that drifted over the sea. “That one looks like a cat!” Maria exclaimed, and he tilted his head to find the cloud. “More like a dog,” He laughed softly, much to her indignation. “No, it has pointy little ears! See?” They argued for a little while, the argument only settled when the wind tugged the cloud apart. Both of them were happy to while away the sunny afternoon, half hunting for more shapes, half laughing and talking amiably.
It was perhaps four in the afternoon when they finally fell into a comfortable quiet. Maria twisted around to face him, her blue eyes shimmering. “Today was so much fun!” “It really was,” Gabriel said gently, counting the freckles on her cheeks to distract himself from how close her lips were to his. He failed when Maria bit her lip, and he noticed her slight change in mood, the pink blush flowering on her cheeks. “Can I kiss you?” She blurted out. Gabriel smiled at her. “Of course.”
“I have a proposition,” Lilith announced, to the only person at the table, which was Gabriel. “Yes?” He murmured, not really listening. “Quit your love-struck daydreaming.” She snapped her fingers in front of his face, but she couldn’t help smiling; it was nice to see her baby cousin so happy, in love for the first time, she assumed. “Sorry. What’s your plan?” Gabriel turned his attention towards her. There was a big notebook ready in front of her, and with the excited air she spoke in, he knew it must be something important. “I want to steal from a mansion.” “Whose?” “Maya Schnauzer.” Lilith tapped the pen on the table, hard and deliberate. “She is a business tycoon who recently moved to Sunset Valley.” “That’s pretty far away,” Gabriel said slowly.
“Yes, I know. I read about her in the newspaper, and she is horrible –– besides, I have not been in a large-scale robbery yet.” Lilith’s silver eyes were alight, and he understood; though her stealing had initially been her own tiny doses of revenge, she had grown to enjoy it. “Alright. Who is coming?” “Raphie,” Lilith said immediately. “Of course, he agrees with everything you say, right?” “That is literally the opposite of what he does,” Lilith sighed deeply. “Okay, and what did Luc say?” “He wants to stay away from crime.” The two were quiet for a moment, both relieved that Luc had broken ties with the drug business. “Tell me about the police situation.” Gabriel clasped his hands. “It is quite good,” Lilith admitted. “I did some research and found that Sunset Valley has one of the highest ranking police departments in the US. Their chief is a woman, actually. If I am remembering right… her name is Briar Kingston.”
Several days after the robbery — that went successfully, despite a few hiccups — Gabriel was resting in the penthouse, something that had happened in Sunset Valley drifting at the back of his mind. The memory was pushed away, however, when there was a sharp buzz: the sign of someone wanting to come into the apartment. Carefully, Gabriel took the call. “Hello?” “Gabriel!” The voice on the other end was gasping, terrified. “I’m coming down, Maria.” He darted down to the old lobby, where his girlfriend was shaking. Something in his chest wrenched when he saw tears dripping down her cheeks, and something hot and bitter sparked at the bruise on her eye. “What happened?” Gabriel grasped her shoulders, and her hands scrabbled at his shirt in a blind panic. The last time he had seen Maria this scared was a few months ago, on that stormy, wild night — when she had been bruised just like this.
“I- I just- my father was drunk and-” Her voice shattered into gasps and Gabriel pulled her close. “You’re safe now, it’s alright,” He said soothingly, fighting down his own anger at the realisation of who had hurt her, both then and now. Maria’s breath shuddered, but she managed to calm down a little, pressing desperately into him. “Father was drinking and- and he hit me, so I hit him back with that move we learnt and I didn’t mean to but he fell down the stairs and oh god-” She cried, and Gabriel felt her becoming hysterical again, losing control. “You had to defend yourself,” He reassured her. “But he fell so badly and I just ran out of there so I don’t know if-” “Maria, take a deep breath,” He said softly. “Stay with me, okay? You’ll be safe here.” She nodded, the movement jagged against his chest, and he tightened his grip protectively, pressing his lips against her sweat-slicked forehead. “I promise.”
Ugh, so I ended up completely rewriting half the chapter and barely touching the other half. Lazy me. I have only two pictures to finish up with this time: Ebony, because I still think she’s pretty, even though I despise her…
…and baby Luc in glasses. I really need to bring this look into modern day!