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In Edenridge 6 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay
TIMESTAMP: Monday, July 19th, 2021; After ‘Not Your Fault’

A @metanoia, @LovelyComplex & @Venus Collab || Featuring Mikhail Zima, Danilo Belmonte & Caitlin Cleary

The moment the sound of the metal doorknob being manipulated from outside of Cece's bedroom echoed across the room, the heartfelt scene between the former lovers came to a screeching halt. As Caitlin shot up from the bed and away from Mika, the young man had lost his balance at the sudden sound of the doorknob shaking. Right as he had turned around, he clumsily slid off the bed and had fallen face-first to the floor next to him, hitting the ground with a loud thud sound and muttering “fuck that hurt” as his mouth was in the hardwood.

Mika struggled to get up, holding his head with his right hand, using his left to prop himself against the edge of the bed. His hair was already a mess to begin with, but now it was even more disheveled. He was trying to make sense of what just happened. From the blow to the head after he made like a monkey and fell off the bed and his head on the ground, internally he was grateful Cece wasn’t like most people who had a nightstand of sorts on both sides of her bed. But he still wasn’t sure what caused it. Then he heard the doorknob get even wilder with how fast it shook.

“Shit!” Cece cursed under her breath, anxiously tapping her foot as she tried to come up with a solution to her dilemma while the rattling of the doorknob turned into knocks on the door. She couldn't send Mika out the balcony out of fear someone might spot him climbing down or running away, she couldn't tell him to leave through the front door for obvious reasons, and there weren't many good places to hide in her bedroom besides the--

"One second!" Cece called out to the visitor as normally as she could before turning to Mika. "Get in the closet!" she hissed at him, pointing to the door a few steps away from her.

“Say what now?” Mika blinked at her as he rose to his feet. He understood the situation they were in. Technically speaking, Mika wasn’t even supposed to be here. Or maybe less so, he was in the room of someone who he previously was involved with-- not to mention she was technically a taken woman, and he used the express way to get to her room, not using the front door like a normal person.

Right like there was anything normal about any of this. Still, he had time, right? “No worries, I’ll just go down the way I came up,” Mika stated casually as he went around the bed and was heading towards her balcony window, passing the closet.

"Are you crazy?!" she hissed at him again, rushing over to Mika and grabbing him by the wrist closest to him to prevent him from going any further. "The whole neighborhood is probably up and going at this point. Do you think nobody's going to notice you sneaking down my balcony like some thief?!" The knocks on the door grew more insistent, and Cece let out a small shriek of desperation. "Just please get in the damn closet. Please."

Mika didn’t know why he was having such a problem with this… urgent request. The balcony was literally right there, but looking at the way Cece had that panicked expression on her face, like it was literal life or death, whatever problems he may have had with the idea of getting into the closet (and they might’ve been juvenile), he still grumbled something under his breath, seemingly accepting this as his fate for the time being.

“Okay, okay--” Before he would get the chance to finish that thought, he felt Cece’s unreasonably forceful hands push against his back as the knocks and the rattling of the doorknob grew louder. It kind of reminded him of the bold, assertive Cece he knew by the creek. Maybe an inappropriate thought, but damn it if he wasn’t smirking as he was in the closet (never thought he’d ever say that). In a whisper (and before the door closed), he said, “Jeez you need a bigger closet. Or less clothes. Barely any room in here.”

"Shhhhh! Be quiet!" The redhead shushed him harshly, wasting no time in shutting the closet door, rushing to the bedroom door, unlocking the knob and swinging the door open to finally reveal her new unexpected visitor: Danny Belmonte.

"Danny… Hi."

Holding the copy of the love letter that was sent to the Belmonte residence, the muscular figure of the Hound on Scott Street came barging in, glaring at his best friend, “Who was that? I heard something. Someone.” His eyes darted around to see anything that was off. Something that did not belong. A piece of clothing, a note, a person. Anything that just wasn’t right. He came to see Cece because he was worried but when she took minutes to answer the door he knew something was off.

With the stress he was going through at home and this, Danny was visibly livid. If he ever found out who sent these letters, he would beat the living shit out of them himself. He hated that his best friend was hurting but you know what he hated more than that? He hated being lied to. Alert and focused in, trying to catch the slightest of noise or pick up the faintest of smells, Danny growled, “Cece, what’s that?” His nostrils went up as he picked up on a scent. Something that he knew was very unlike Cailtin Cleary.


"Huh?" Caitlin, who had been trying to remain calm in the midst of the abrupt mood changes she was experiencing, was quick to respond to Danny's inquiries with non-committal answers. "What are you talking about?" she asked her friend, pretending to look around the room like he was. In reality, she was ensuring that there were no traces of Mika's visit in their vicinity-- for hers and his sake.

When Cece had told Danny about her breakup with the Southie, to say he was upset was an understatement. He had been against her and Mika's liaison from the very first time he'd heard about their conversation by David's grave, concerned that it was too soon after David's passing and overall a bad idea waiting to happen. Much to her delight, he'd ended up supporting her decisions like the best friend he was, but no amount of convincing attempts could get him to change his mind about the relationship. As fate may have it, his suspicions were proven to be right in the end. And after seeing how much Mika's actions had hurt Cece, Danny had sworn to give the Zima male a gift of his own the next time they came face to face. So if he found him hiding somewhere in her bedroom right now…

Dear God, please don't let him go in the closet…

“I’m talking about the smell of sweat, Cece, and not just any sweat…” Danny marched toward the balcony to see if someone tried to make a great escape during the brief intermission of him waiting and Cece opening the door. He didn’t see anyone hiding on the balcony or running in the yard. The balcony door was also locked so that was a plus. So far everything was clear. Maybe he was overthinking this. Maybe Cece was being weird because of her grief. Then again… he turned on his heel looking at her once more. His green eyes were burning holes in the front, the back, and the side of her head.

Danny didn’t like this. Not one bit. His gut never failed him and what his gut was telling him right now was to keep looking. The odor was strong enough for him to be able to tell that it could not come from Cece’s always pleasantly scented, tiny body. It was strong, musky… definitely gave him the vibes of a man. Did he miss Niles on his way here? Did her boyfriend have the same thought as him to check up on her? His mind was going a mile a minute. He didn’t want to drop his guard just yet. Maybe he should check under the bed.

Cece swallowed hard and discreetly took a deep breath. As bad as it was to admit, she was an excellent liar in regular circumstances-- she had to be, considering she'd been successful in keeping two long-term relationships under wraps for the entirety of their duration. But Danny knew her. Danilo could recognize the subtle signs of her deceitfulness. Still, it was worth a try to divert his attention elsewhere.

"Does it? I don't smell anything. Maybe it's that new diffuser Mom got for my room when I was away," she fibbed, trying to remain nonchalant as she took a seat on her bed. "I'll get a different scent the next time I'm in town, then. Wouldn't want my room to keep smelling like sweat."

Raising his eyebrow, Danny carefully watched his mousey best friend explain the reason behind the smell. Sarcastically, he asked the air, “A new diffuser, huh?” When they locked eyes and he could see the hint of sadness behind all the worry, the Italian man sighed. Just this once, for her, he would drop it. If she said her room was clear, then he would believe her. “Well, it's awful. Reminds me of the boys’ locker room when I used to play ball.”

Danny's candid comment brought out a snort and Cece's first attempt of a smile for the day. Even with the grief and heartache governing the majority of her emotions, the thought of Mika listening to how 'awful' he apparently smelled and not being able to defend himself like she was sure he wanted to provided a much needed moment of comedic relief. Personally, Cece couldn't smell anything awful like what her friend was going on about, but considering how congested her nose was after she had spent most of her morning crying, maybe she wasn't the most reliable witness.

Easing the tension in his body, trying to push his Danny senses in the back of his mind, Danny approached his friend and pulled her into an embrace, “Sorry, I just… worry. How are you feeling?”

Caitlin allowed herself to sink into Danny’s strong, caring embrace, instantly finding a comfort and safety that soothed her soul. She should’ve called him as soon as she found out about the letter. "About as well as you can expect," the girl admitted in response to his question. She took in and letting out a deep breath, as the weight of her guilt settled back on her shoulders once more. "I've spent all morning trying to figure out a who or a why, but I can't think of anyone I might have upset enough to do this besides Natalia getting back at me for dating Niles.”

“Nah, Natalia wouldn’t do that,” Danny defended his sister, but not in a way that meant she had honorable ways of handling her emotions. He continued, “If anything, she’d go to Niles and tear him a new one.” Whether it was his twin sense or he simply knew his sister, Danny believed wholeheartedly that sharing love letters from Cece to a dead guy was beyond low, and unlike Natalia. It wasn’t a forward method, which was not the Belmonte way of doing things. Sure, they all had their secret lovers but they would never out someone or get back at someone like that. His sister was a bitch not a snake.

To add to his twin’s defense, Danilo knew for a fact that the past two weeks Natalia barely left her room which was concerning. Danny had tried to check up on her but she just told him she was fine, just a little tired. “I don’t think right now any of my family has the mental capacity or care to find David’s secret stash, photocopy it, and mail it to every house with the motive to hurt you. We’re barely keeping it together as is.”

“I know-- I’m sorry,” the redhead apologized profusely, instantly regretting making any mention of Natalia or alluding to her involvement in this situation. That had been very self-centered of her. “I know it was a far-fetched thought, but she was the only person I could think of that has ever admitted to not liking me. Even still, I’m really sorry for bringing her up in the first place. ”

When Caitlin apologized, Danny wondered where Natalia was emotionally, ever since Edenrdige shifted for the worst. Part of him felt like Natalia was taking Niles' relationship to heart since Danny knew she loved him. Even to this day, she loved him-- though she’d never admit it. Part of Danny felt Natalia was grieving and feared the coming loss of their mother, which only made her loss of Niles even worse, seeing how their relationship was rooted in a similar grief. And part of Danny felt his sister was lonely, so very lonely, and seeing everyone get in relationships, like Niles, like Vivia, like Tiff, like himself did not help. She wanted support but support in a way only a lover could do.

There was no clear answer for this but one thing he felt at his core was Caitlin was an unintentional victim. Whoever was doing this was hurting and with the previous Charlie letters, it seems like they liked the idea of a ghost haunting the town. “I’m sorry you’re going through this Caitlin, I wish I knew how to help.”

As soon as Danny occupied the space next to her in the bed, Caitlin rested her head on the man’s broad shoulder. “Thank you, Danny. Really. Just being here and checking up on me helps more than you’ll ever know.” she reassured him in a soft voice, holding the hand closest to her.

“I’m glad,” Danny softly replied, interlocking their fingers and going the extra mile of lifting it up, giving her hand a tender kiss, “I’m here for you no matter, Cee. You’ve dealt with me at my worst, when all I could think about was my pain, and I want to be the same for you.” At the mention of his own issues, Danny realized he hadn’t told her about his recent resolution. He hadn’t told her about Marco.

Danny still didn’t think he had enough strength to come out to his father. His father was a whole other obstacle for him to face, in time. But he knew from this point on, no matter what, he would never compromise his relationship with Marco. He loved that boy and it was time he started to show that.

As quick as his wonderful thoughts came, they took a quick exit to the left. Was this the time or place to tell her? She was in pain. Her love letters were being showcased to the whole goddamn town bringing her worst trauma to surface. He could only imagine what she was going through, how much pain she felt. Telling her about his happiness, while she was clearly suffering, felt more selfish than not. Instead of disclosing his relationship with Marco, and how he was coming out to all those that mattered to him, he asked, “Has anyone tied the letters back to you?”

And just like that, the compassionate moment being shared between the two friends was once again clouded by the original nervousness that held Caitlin hostage since hearing those knocks on her door a few minutes before. “Funny you should mention that…” Cece began, letting go of his hand and rising from her bed. She began pacing the length of her room back and forth in front of him, trying to find the best way to ease into the news of her and Mika’s rekindled ‘friendship’. Deep down, she knew that Danilo would be upset about the news regardless of how she worded it. 'He broke your heart, Cece. He doesn't deserve you.' But she also knew he would take it better if he heard it from her instead of finding out a different way. “There is, um, someone who put two and two together. They actually dropped by to check in on me as soon as they connected the dots.”

God, you are going to hate this…

She was nervous. He didn’t like that. Everything about Cece’s aura from her pacing to her dragging her words out felt suspicious. Whoever this person was that put two and two together was someone she knew he wouldn’t like. At the moment, he couldn’t think of who in Cece’s life annoyed him to no end. What he did know is he hated waiting. “Caitlin,” Danny said under his breath, trying to keep his annoyance at a bare minimum. She needed him. He had to keep his irritation under control. “Spit. It. Out.” He commanded, not liking this game she was playing. They were supposed to be friends but somehow it felt like she was having a hard time being honest with him and he did not like that.

At Danny's command, the redhead looked up at him with nervous eyes, took one last deep breath to cope with the anticipation, and nodded towards the closet door.

At the same moment, there was an ominous sound that came from the closet, the sounds of some slight shuffling, like hangers falling onto the carpet floor, muffled cursing from someone or something inside, and the doors rattling and shaking. The noise itself wouldn’t have been bad or suspicious if the sound elsewhere in the room hadn’t been nonexistent.

And Mika knew he fucked up and tried to safe himself some grace. He peered open the door about a few inches. He saw the path to the balcony was clear. He might be able to make a run for it, but he heard voices. Cece’s and some male’s voice. It was a somewhat deep voice, but he couldn’t tell who it was. So that’s why he was peeking through as minimally as he could, but such a small exposure made him realize one crucial thing.

Mika couldn’t see shit.

As he was going to close it, Mika wasn’t aware that he was leaning against the door to the point where he lost his balance. He had been in such an uncomfortable position for so long that his legs momentarily went numb and his falling body forced the door to slam at the other end, almost coming off of the hinges. That was avoided, but what wasn’t avoidable was Mika not only coming out of the closet, but he fell face first onto Cece’s floor, bouncing in a way where he was on his shoulder.

“Son of a bitch that hurt.” To make matters worse, his legs were pulsating in an almost static-kinda way. It was all prickly from shin to toes, but he looked at whatever was in front of him. He saw a borderline panicked Cece as his eyes went up, but what he wasn’t prepared, what Mika didn’t anticipate, was seeing Danilo fucking Belmonte. So that’s who the other voice was.

Yeah, that shouldn’t be a problem at all.

He tried standing up but only managed to get up on one knee. “Oh Captain my Captain!” Mika saluted him. Was it a smart idea? Maybe not, but at times of pure intensity, all Honey Badger could do was joke.

Danilo’s physique, expression, and aura completely shifted the moment Mika came to view and suddenly, it all clicked. Caitlin was anxious and worried because she was guilty-- guilty of hiding her ex in her closet. The logical reason was there: Mika saw her handwriting in the letter and came to see her, thinking this would be a way to ease back into her heart. But logic didn’t matter when you were pissed. All Danny could see was his best friend’s ex, the one that broke her fucking heart, knowing well enough she was still grieving the death of David, was in her room, alone with her. All Mika ever did was add more grief into her life and now she was happy with another man and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like that Mika thought he could slither his way back in, like the damn snake he was.

Danny could feel the tightness in his chest, his muscle tensing, and his palms sweating. If there was a moment he was just like his dad, the infamous Tasmanian Devil of NYC, this would be one of those moments. Danny took pride in his self control. Out of all his siblings, ‘side for Mira who was more apathetic than not, he had chill. So much chill. He was coolheaded, he didn’t get into fights, that would break his mother’s heart, and yet right now? In this instant, he could only feel the burning heat of wanting to murder someone.

His energy to fight the side of his brain, the part that controls himself and his emotions, depleted. Repressing anger required careful thought and Danny did not have that. He was not going to cool himself down, all because the people in this room had poor communication skills. There was a reason why basketball was so important to his routine. It helped him release, gave him inner peace while he built his endurance, stamina, and strength, and it taught him: self control.

Even without basketball, Danny exercised and trained himself to be stronger. Taz raised him to be a fighter and there was no way in hell he would let this bullshit slide. Someone had to show this asshole he couldn’t enter his ex’s bedroom like she was his property. Someone had to show him that some people didn’t forgive easily. Someone had to show him to not fuck around with someone that was precious to him.

“Danny, please don’t do it…” Cece pleaded with her best friend, hoping she could persuade him against what she knew he wanted to do.

But it was too late. Aggressive and territorial, Danilo stood up, cracked his neck and strode to the guy on his knees. In his rage, he was blind to anything and anyone else. There were no words spoken. Instead, Danny threw his right fist into a curved punch straight at Mika’s temple. He had waited for this day since Cece had been crying in his arms all goddamn night. There was no way in hell Danny would forgive this piece of shit. Those tears could never be taken back. She cried so much.


Mika’s body whipped when the force of Danny’s hand hit the side of his face on the temple. He felt a wave of whiplash come over him, losing all sense of whatever equilibrium he had in the moments before when he saw Danny approach him. He was on his back now, looking at his former captain. “Gotta admit, you still have a good right hook,” Mika remarked with a half-smirk on his face, looking at the towering Italian man who had more anger in his face than Ley ever did when he ate her cake…again.

It didn’t take long until Danny had pulled him to his feet, almost tearing the collar off his shirt. He could feel the temptation to continuously bash the Southie’s face in until he was unconscious or dead. With absolute force, the Italian boy pushed forward, using his full body and hold to slam Mika against the wall by the closet and pin him. “You have sixty seconds to explain yourself,” Danny seethed, and whether he could feel Cece or not, he growled, “And you better stay the fuck back, Cece. This is between me and the fuckface that hurt you.”

His legs felt like jelly still and maybe a bit lightheaded on account of getting suckerpunched and forced to his feet faster than he ever had been before. It was at that moment Mika noted just how strong Danny is. It’s been close to three years since he had any sort of interaction with him, at least on a personal level. They haven’t been this close or at each other’s throats like this since their personalities clashed when they were still on the basketball team. Back then, it was more in the rivalry sense, but this wasn’t it. There was anger and almost hatred in Danny’s eyes. Mika had seen that one too many times whenever he looked in a mirror after Hyde reintroduced himself into the Russian man’s life.

“Fuck face? I see you’ve expanded your vocabulary.” Mika, again, couldn’t help himself. “Maybe elaborate for this fuckface, because I’m not sure what you want me to explain for you, Danilo.”

"Mika, stop it!" Caitlin hissed at the Southie, knowing full well that poking the bear that was Danny when it was already raging was a foolproof way of getting punched a few more times. "Danny, do you really have to do this? Can we all just go downstairs and have a civil discussion about this?"

Yeah, no. This was not going to be a fun ride for either of the boys in the room. Instead of responding, like a calm natured man would, Danny let his primal nature take over him and with reckless rage slammed Honey Badger into Cece’s wardrobe. He didn’t care if the whole neighborhood could hear him beating the living shit out of this guy. Danny was irritated and there was no way in hell he was coming down from this.

Not giving Mika a chance to stabilize himself, Danny aimed for his nose and connected, causing blood to splatter onto his fist. And that’s when all Danny’s restraints were gone. There was nothing holding him back, not the fact that a terrified Cece was helplessly watching or the fact that the sight of him now would make Marco cry. Danny was going to kill someone tonight, he felt it. With his fists, he slammed into the other boy’s face, again and again and again. With his knee, he made sure Mika’s rib cage took a blow. Regardless how many times Mika winced, the Belmonte boy would not stop.

Hell hath no fury like a Belmonte’s scorn.

And when it was all said and done, Mika was barely standing. He was using his arm on the wardrobe dresser to hold himself up while the other gripped his ribs that hurt like a motherfucker. He knew Danny was strong. It didn’t take a genius to figure that much out, but he didn’t know he had this much rage in him. It was like looking into a taller, more toned, slightly darker complexion reflection of himself. And with better hair (Mika would never admit that to anyone). He hated that, at this moment, the only thought that went through his head was how this beast of a man would make a killing at fight club. Probably not the best thing to prioritize right now but it’s what he was entertaining.

“Jesus and I thought Viktor hit hard…” Mika spat up blood, aiming it at the wall. Mika tried to breathe and it fucking hurt. God, how deep did Danilo go with that knee of his? “So you wanted me to explain why I’m here? That's what you wanted?” Spitting blood out of his cheek some more, Mika glared at the former captain of the Celtic basketball team. “Well, you human wrecking ball, I’m here for her.” He pointed his head at Cece, making a mental note of how terrified she was. He wondered if that was for him, Danny, or just in general. “I read that damn letter and rushed here to see if she was doing okay.”

Shooting Caitlin a death glare, processing all this information thus far that she went out of her way to hide from him, Danny balled his fists, digging his nails so deep into his skin that he pierced it and it started bleeding. He wanted to keep going. He wanted to bash Mika’s head in until the other man was knocked unconscious but that wouldn’t accomplish anything. That would only make Cece’s room more of a mess. Stepping back, giving Mika the space to breathe, Danny glowered at the sight before him. Frustrated that Cece’s ex was here, carrying no ounce of remorse for his wrongdoings, and disappointed at Cece for allowing this to happen. She really was a doormat. “What made you think that was okay?”

Danny glanced from Mika’s face to the blood on his own hands. Was this some kind of stupid joke? “Unless you two aren’t telling me something, I don’t understand why the person,” Danny’s eyes grew dull, his anger turning into an entirely different beast now, “that broke your fucking heart to the point that… it doesn’t even matter because I’m the one that lived through it.” Not finishing his initial statement, Danny's attention was back on his fist. He wanted to break something. He wanted to punch a hole in the wall. He wanted to scream. Did his friendship to her mean nothing?

“I find it fucking funny,” Danny was starting to understand why Natalia never liked Cece. Was he so dumb to think that he actually meant something more to her than the men she fucked? Through all the bullshit, all the pain she went through because of David, because of Mika, and he was sure she was going through issues with Niles because if Niles can mentally fuck Natalia, Danny was sure he could do the same with Caitlin, he was there. Danny was still there. “All this… and for what?”

The anger in Danny changed into hurt. He was tired of Cece not owning up to her feelings. He was tired of… being her diary and with what reward? What did he get from this? Danny knew one thing for sure, if they got back together he would not be there. No more would he listen to her sobs late at night and try to comfort her when no one else would. No more would he carry her through her pain because she really had a type and they always took her for granted. No more would he check to see if she was okay. No more.

She was doing fine anyways on her own, leaning on a good dick that would let her down. “So you guys could fuck?” Danny asked the two in the room and then laughed, “I don’t even care about the fact that you have a boyfriend,” He shook his head while he talked, making internal decisions the more he expressed himself. “There is no ounce of self respect in you, Cece, and that I hate seeing,” he criticized, completely and utterly fed up.

As Danny went on his tirade against her, the terrified Caitlin tried to remind herself that his words were coming from the place in his heart that cared fiercely for her. She could understand why he was angry, upset and even disappointed in her for allowing Mika back into her life again with the way things had ended between them. He had every right to feel this strongly, and maybe there might even be some truth to his harsh words. She was a liar, a sneak, a cheater, and a spineless excuse of a woman.

But even with these things in mind, Cece couldn't help but consider his reaction the slightest bit hypocritical. Sure: the circumstances that had brought together and torn her and Mika apart were entirely different from the ones that had brought Danny's relationship with Marco to its demise all those years ago. But if Danny had been awarded a second chance by Marco, even after being the one to break the boy's heart in the first place, why couldn't Mika be awarded the same opportunity?

There was nothing Caitlin wanted so desperately at the moment than to bring these observations to the forefront. She wanted to look Danny right in the eyes, raise her voice and demand an explanation of what made one case worthy of forgiveness but not the other. But instead, the young woman merely stood there in silence and shame, blue-green eyes locked on the floor as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks and pooled onto the hardwood beneath her feet.

“Just hold it right there, Belmonte--” As Mika spoke, he grimaced in pain from the damage that Danny’s fists did to his face and his knee did to his ribs. Nothing was broken in the rib area, but he could estimate something was bruised. He made sure to get as comfortable as he could before he continued. “You can do whatever the fuck you want to me. Kick me in the shin when my back is turned, but Cece didn’t do anything. You’re right: I broke her heart. I hurt her in ways I can’t even begin to excuse nor will I, but, no, I didn’t come here so I could fuck her.”

As he stood there, trying not to kneel over from his own excruciating pain dealt by the man-beast himself, something that might’ve been tolerable if he was feeling boiling anger for what Danny said to Cece, Mika contemplated whether or not if he should mention what happened a couple weeks ago when he essentially apologized to Cece. Was it his place? Maybe not, but he had to do something because things weren’t getting better at this point and she wasn’t exactly in any state to say anything. “I know you don’t like me. You have every reason not to and I don’t know if this will help or hurt my case, but I understand I hurt her. If you think you hate me for breaking her heart, then I must loathe myself for it, right?” He let out a low chuckle and grimaced again. “I know nothing I could say or do can make up for what I did to her. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I deserve any forgiveness, but I’m trying to be better. And it starts with her.”

Although her eyes remained on the ground, Caitlin had listened closely to Mika’s small speech. Any discussion of how the couple’s breakup affected Caitlin was yet to be had. When they had spoken about Mika’s reasons to end their ‘relationship’, the focus of the conversation had been on Cece reassuring the Zima man that his secrets would be safe with her. She could tell it had taken a lot of courage for him to share the sensitive information, so the last thing she wanted was to invalidate, dismiss him or shame him by shifting the narrative onto herself. That meant that there were still many questions left unanswered, like whether Mika was aware of the hurt he had caused her, or whether his actions came with any ulterior motives. His words so far proved that this wasn’t the case, but only time would tell if his actions would back them up.

The tension in Danny’s stature eased when he saw Caitlin cry. His flash of anger had protected him, momentarily, from his issues but now seeing his best friend cry and knowing he was the cause of it, the guilt came in, like an arrow straight to his heart. Just like when Marco told him to not leave when he was so certain he was going to end things for good with him. Danny was back in this place where he could see himself in the mirror and hate the part inside of him that could only think of the self and not the people around him.


Grumbling to himself, Danny made his way to Mika, not in a hurry, and offered his hand, “We’re not so different, Fourteen,” As he waited for Cece’s ex to take his hand, Danny sighed, “Let’s go over there,” He gestured to Cece’s bed, “So we can get you cleaned up.” As much as he wanted to justify his behavior, he knew he was hurt not only because of this. Honestly, this was only an excuse for him to act like a child. He was hurt about so much more but his mother raised him better than this and if he left Cece in a place where she felt alone, with no one to lean on, that was more guilt to add to everything else he carried on his shoulders. He needed to fix this. Starting with his former teammate.

Letting his former captain take the lead as he slowly moved away from the wardrobe dresser, which was the only thing that was holding Mika up, he leaned on Danny more than he ever had in all the time he had known him. It might’ve not been the longest distance, but his ribs hurt and his face -- as well as head -- felt like they were on fire. When they got to her bed and Mika sat down as slowly as he could, still grunting from the pain, at least he didn’t have to worry about it getting worse.

“Not trying to judge whatever hidden skills you might have, but how experienced are you at cleaning wounds?” Part of him wondered if he knew anything about it. Not that it was a hard skill to acquire, but nobody could blame him for being a little on edge.

“Depends on how bad it is,” Kneeling down in front of Mika, Danny examined his former teammate’s face, “Looks like you mostly need a couple of ice packs. But first, I need to apply pressure to that open cut on your lip and clean your face,” His green eyes scanned down Mika’s body until it went to the rib cage area, “Lift your shirt up.”

“If that’s what the good doctor ordered.” Mika laughed, causing just a slight surge of pain to go through his body. He took off his jacket first, as close as he could, setting it on the bed behind him, and lifted his shirt from the fabric. Even doing this, no matter how thin the fabric was, it still hurt. Nevermind the fact that Cece was about to see just how more muscular Mika had become since the last time she saw his bare chest. And why was it that was where his mind went? Get a hold of yourself, Mika!

With his shirt lifted, he looked at his former captain. “So what’s the verdict, Doc?”

Rolling his eyes, Danny took a quick glance over the damage he did before bringing himself up and lightly tapping Mika’s face a couple of times, “You’ll live. Like I said. Ice packs should do the trick.” Crossing his arms, he peered down at Mika and sighed, “I don’t hate you. But I can’t say I’m a big fan of you either.”

Danny pedaled back to the door, the door that led him to the shock of his life, and grabbed onto the doorknob, “I’m going to assume I interrupted a much needed conversation between you two so I’m going to get the first aid kit. Just don’t do anything stupid, please,” his eyes rested on Cece when he said his request.

The young woman nodded, and waited until Danny had exited the room before kneeling in front of Mika. “Are you okay?” she asked him softly, gently cupping Mika’s face with both her hands as her eyes searched for any signs of distress. It wasn’t hard to notice that her ex had toned his physique significantly since the last time she had seen it, but her attention was currently on the bruising around his ribcage and the swelling starting to develop in his face.

Mika rolled his eyes at Danny’s comment. When he left and it was just him and Cece, alone, he relaxed a bit, sighing out as slowly as he could. Still hurt like a fucking bitch, but not as bad. Looking at his ex, there was a moment where he did have a certain amount of stress in his eyes but the minute focused only on her, it seemed to disappear. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks.” That was obviously a lie, but Mika didn’t want her to worry, especially because this day had been bad enough for her. “No worse than I was dealt with growing up. Viktor hit harder than Danny ever could and Danny at least had a good reason.” But that didn’t make the bruised ribs hurt any less. “What about you, though? How are you holding up? I mean, on top of everything else that’s been happening, I know that couldn’t have been easy for you to see.”

The young woman shook her head and looked away, not wanting Mika to see how her eyes were being blinded by tears once more. “This day has just been so overwhelming, you know? Having my letter being blasted for everyone to judge, seeing Lizzie break down over David's passing becoming the talk of the town again, making Danny upset to the point of lashing out on you…" she trailed off, wiping away at the corners of her eyes. "It always feels like I'm hiding things. I keep secrets from people not out of malice or ill-intent, but because I’m scared that telling them the truth will hurt, upset or disappoint them. But then something happens that the truth comes to light, and I end up hurting people even more when I was trying to avoid it in the first place. It makes me feel like a terrible person, and I can't even begin to say how so, so sorry I am about the pain I cause people.”

Mika could see how much anguish that Cece was going through. Having to go through it and go through it silently was a feeling he could relate to. With as much strength as he could muster, Mika grabbed Cece’s hands, squeezing them until she was looking at him. “Look at me: this isn’t your fault. I’m sorry you had to witness Lizzie breakdown like that. I can’t imagine how you must’ve felt, but please don’t blame yourself, Cece.” He could feel her hands almost tremble. Mika’s heart was literally breaking for his ex. It was hard to watch her go through this pain. No amount of beating could ever compare to the one she’s doing to herself. “Look at me--” Mika squeezed her trembling hands until they no longer were and that she was looking at him. “This…none of anything that’s happened, the letters, David’s mom breaking down, Danny’s anger -- none of it is your fault and none of it makes you a bad person. You are single-handedly one of the most compassionate people I know. You have never shown yourself to be selfish. It’s something I’ve always admired about you. The fact you’re so worried about everyone else just proves my point. You, Caitlin Cleary, are an amazing person. And you’re funny, too!” In typical Mika fashion, he follows heartfelt up with a complimentary quip.

Mika's kind words soothed Cece's aching heart, and his last comment brought about her first laugh of the day. "Not as funny as the guy cracking jokes before, during and after getting a beatdown. He is such a hero." she joked with a smile, playfully squeezing the young man's hands.

After a brief moment of silence, the redhead spoke up again. "Thank you, by the way. For standing up for me, coming to check in on me… You didn't have to do any of that, and you still did. It really means a lot to me."

It was nice to see her smile. For her to laugh, joke, and return to the Cece he adored and admired so much. The light in her eyes was still clouded by the pain and stress of everything that was going on, but Mika could see the storm over her soul start to clear up. Was that his doing? Maybe but maybe it was the fact that he and Danny were no longer at each other’s throats anymore. Whichever it was, Mika was just happy that she was starting to feel better.

“And I’d do it all over again. Even getting pounded on by the only Northsider who hits almost as hard as ReyRey. I’d climb that fucking trellis again just to make sure you were holding up alright.” A return of a grin was on Mika’s face, though it hurt to smile that much due to the cut on his lip.

Before Caitlin could do anything other than smile wider and brighter, Danny’s voice reverberated across the Cleary house.


The former lovers exchanged complicit looks that morphed into small, discreet laughs. “Let’s go downstairs before he starts freaking out again,” the redhead told Mika, assisting her guest in standing up, wrapping her arm around his waist and helping him half-limp out of her room.
In Edenridge 23 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay
TIMESTAMP: Monday, July 19th, 2021; After Mika and Caitlin’s Solo Posts
TW: Mentions of Suicide, Loss of a Lover, Death

A @metanoia & @Venus Collab || Featuring Mikhail Zima & Caitlin Cleary
At the end of the world
Or the last thing I see
You are never coming home, never coming home
Never coming home, never coming home
And all the things that you never ever told me
And all the smiles that are ever gonna haunt me
Never coming home, never coming home
Could I? Should I?
And all the wounds that are ever gonna scar me
For all the ghosts that are never gonna catch me


Just a block away from the Cleary home on Prairie Court, Mika Zima sat in his truck. He had been for nearly ten minutes, just thinking about what he should do. It’s been close to half an hour since he put the mystery of that letter together. He couldn't believe just how obvious it was. All of the conversations they had about family, including that first conversation that he ever had with Blossom.

Her talking about family, expectations, and just how angry she got about David — Mika’s cousin! The cousin he never got to know even on a ‘hello my name is’ basis. And that’s something he wished he at least got to do. In all this time that Mika had spent with his mother’s family -- his family -- and getting to know him. From getting to know Coach even if just as a player (and one of his best ones, at that), he never got the chance to meet David. This was something he’d forever regret because he was a coward.

But knowing that Cece was someone who knew David. Not just on a friendly basis, but as someone who probably loved him. Mika didn’t feel betrayed. He sure as hell was still keeping secrets from her, something he probably should have divulged when they met at O’Halloran’s Creek. That was something he’d have to own up to eventually, but Mika wasn’t a block away to talk about that. No, he was a block away from her house trying to decide what he should do with the current information he was sitting on.

Weirdly, he heard Ivan’s voice in his head. The words he spoke to him just before Mika hung up on that bastard he has for a father.

Don’t forget to love and live.

At the time, he didn’t want to hear it, but could that old bastard be onto something?

With a deep sigh that followed him leaning back into his seat, he spent another ten minutes trying to make up his mind. In doing so, he saw something in the back seat behind the passenger side. “Is that what I think it is?” Mika reached back and yanked what he saw. Holding it in his hand, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Guess she left it here.” Mika held one of Cece’s old scrunchies in his hand. Smiling, he thought about just how long it must’ve been in his truck. No doubt since before they were seeing each other before their…relationship went to crap.

“Must be a sign.”

Shaking his head, Mika left his truck, walking around the corner and made his way to the front of the Cleary household. He thought for a moment. Going to the front door was obviously a no-go, so Mika had to get creative. He hopped the side fence and made his way to their backyard, hoping nobody outside or weird, nosey neighbors saw him effectively commit a crime by trespassing. Oh well, that’s something he would need to worry about later. Regardless, he found what he was looking for.

He was literally outside of her bedroom so to speak. To be more accurate, he was in front of the floral trellis that looked climbable. It wasn’t safe, but Mika never was about doing things safely. He took in a deep breath and started to climb his way up the thing that felt like it was going to break under the pressure of his weight, but he eventually made it to the balcony of her room.

And with another sigh, Mika tapped on her French door a few times. When he didn’t get any answer, he tapped again, but this time a little harder. “Yo… Cece!” He tried to whisper but also spoke loud enough so that she would hear him. “You’re in there, right? Please tell me you’re in here...” He hoped to fucking God it was her and not someone who could probably kill him by just pushing him over the ledge.

Seriously, what were you thinking, Mikhail?

Caitlin didn’t know how long she had spent in that closet, clutching her tattooed wrist against her broken heart. All she knew was that she cried until there were no more tears to spare, and only then did she find the strength to trudge across the room and collapse onto her bed. Although her body had remained motionless, her glassy-eyed stare locked onto the spinning blades of the chrome ceiling fan, her mind was going a million miles an hour.

Who would be capable of doing such a despicable thing? Cece never spoke ill of anyone, wronged anyone, caused anyone harm, or even tried to draw attention to herself in any way. She didn’t have any known enemies-- with the exception of Natalia Belmonte, who could immediately be excluded since she was as close to David as Cece was to becoming a millionaire. A personal vendetta against her seemed unlikely, which could mean that whoever posted her letter had another goal in mind.

But what could that goal be? Was there even a goal to be had? What could possibly justify publicly publishing the handwritten letters of a smitten fourteen year-old girl for the whole town to judge? Was it anger? Was it jealousy? Was it someone’s sick, distasteful idea of a joke? What was the need to bring up one of Edenridge’s most infamous scandals of the 2010’s? Why would anyone want to make those close to David re-live their pain again? The young man had been gone from this world for over three years. Why couldn’t they just let him rest in peace?

Lost as she was in her thoughts, Cece failed to notice the first gentle taps on her balcony door. But when she heard the second round of louder, insistent taps accompanied by a voice she could recognize in her sleep, the bewildered young woman leaped from her bed and opened the balcony door to find an unexpected visitor awaiting to be allowed entry into her chambers.

“Mika?” Cece tentatively called out to her visitor, a frown of confusion settling on her face. There wasn’t much time to dwell on it, though-- not when he was out in plain view of the highly observant Scott Street neighbors. She placed a hand on his shoulder and quickly ushered him inside, making sure to look around for any witnesses in the vicinity before closing and locking the balcony door behind her. “What are you doing here?” she inquired once inside the safety of her bedroom.

Not even two seconds after being guided in by a clearly upset and panicked Cece, Mika began to reacquaint himself with her room. “Sure hasn’t changed much,” he commented as he casually walked around. “Wait the bed--” Mika pointed from where it was now to the opposite end of the wall. “It used to be over there, right?” He muttered, turning his head back and met Cece in the eyes. He had a half-grin on his face and she had the complete opposite. “Sorry. I guess I got caught up in the moment.”

Mika parked it on the edge of her bed, taking an extra moment to get a feel for the bounce factor. It still had the same amount of spring as he remembered. He reached into his pocket, pulling out her hair tie which, even as he sat there on her bed, was the weakest reason to climb up to her balcony and see her in person. He could have just mailed it to her and be done with it. Or even have Ley return it to her on his behalf. But Mika needed a reason, so here he was. “I found this in the backseat of my truck.” He extended his open hand to her. The old hair tie that she never got back from him, before their heaven became hell. “Figured you’d want it back…even if it’s been a few years.”

Caitlin's bloodshot eyes were directed to Mika's hand to the item in his open palm, and she found herself getting momentarily distracted from the affliction she'd been wrapped up in since learning about the letter. The red velvet scrunchie had been missing for over two years now, ever since it had slid off her ginger hair one chilly December day in 2018, at the peak of hers and Mika’s ‘relationship’. The young lovers had driven out to the creek to spend time together as they usually did, but the temperatures had dropped below freezing, forcing them to stay nestled inside the vehicle instead of partaking in their usual truck bed hangout. The cold temperature outside, along with the truck's heat and the one emanating from their passionately intertwined bodies, had fogged up the windows of the Tacoma, shielding them from the eyes of the outside world. After all was said and done, Cece had noticed the missing scrunchie, and together with Mika made her best attempts at locating it. But considering she had been too preoccupied with their exploit to pay attention to where it had landed, the task had been unsuccessful. She and Mika had shared a good laugh about it in each other's arms, joking that it would show up when they least expected it. What were the odds that their joke had been a prediction, and that the scrunchie would appear today, of all days?

"You came all the way to my house, climbed up the trellis and snuck into my bedroom just to give me this?" she asked Mika, collecting the hair tie from his hand before taking a seat next to him in the bed.

Was it the only reason he took such a risk? No, most definitely not, but destiny had a hand in pointing it in his direction. It was the excuse he needed that would justify him climbing up the unstable trellis to get to her balcony. He wasn’t as light as he was a few years ago when he would climb up that thing all of the time (or whenever she’d sneak him up into her room.) He was heavier. He had more muscle mass (and some fat if he was being honest), so it could have snapped.

“Technically, I just snuck onto your balcony. You’re the one who snuck me inside.” Mika chuckled and then he saw Cece’s face. Not so much the lack of her laughing at his jokes. She always did, but there was something so clear as day that he immediately realized it when he focused on her face. From how red her eyes were, the slight puffiness around the edges, and other little things that were clear evidence that Cece had been crying.

“Have you been crying?” He asked, but he knew the answer. Of course, she has been crying. That letter, the one that probably not many people who knew her handwriting inside and out would know that it was her handwriting. Mika realized it when he put some of the dots together - but knowing and mentioning that were two different matters entirely.

Mika had to give it a shot, though. “It’s…about the letter, isn’t it? The one about David…”

He knew.

Of course he knew.

She wasn't surprised her ex had been the first person to connect the dots. With the exception of Danny and his full knowledge of the illicit affair, it was Mika who had the majority of the pieces to put the puzzle together. There were only a handful of people who could recognize the letter's handwriting as hers: her parents, her siblings, Danny, and Mika. If he tied that to the location in which they had first interacted and the topic of their first conversation, it wouldn't be difficult to figure out. And clearly, Mika had been astute enough to do so.

At the mention of David, Cece didn't even attempt to hide the tears clouding her turquoise eyes. Instead, she locked eyes with Mika and nodded, feeling as if her heart was being squeezed to death by an invisible hand.

Without hesitation, Mika grabbed her hand, squeezing it as tight or as gently as she needed. He might’ve come here with the intention to get the confirmation and even though he had it as clear as a glistening emerald in the form of Cece’s watery eyes, his only focus was to be her support system right now. “Hey, it’s okay.” He said reassuringly as he squeezed her hand and fixated on her eyes. “This all must be incredibly hard for you. I’m so sorry I never realized it sooner, Cece.. Ever since that first day, I should have seen the signs, seen what you’ve been keeping inside this whole time.” The whole time he spoke, Mika just kept his hands locked with hers, stroking the top of hers.

The reassurance and kindness in Mika's voice made Caitlin's chest hurt with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and guilt. Gratitude, by the way he seemed to be devoid of any judgment or ill feelings even after coming to know the haunted truths of her past. And guilt, for keeping such a big secret from him throughout the course of their relationship. David had died without revealing her identity to the world even in the face of the town's potential wrath, so Caitlin had chosen to not let his sacrifice be in vain by ensuring their secret remained just that. But at what cost?

Overcome by emotion, Cece buried her face in her hands and began to sob, succumbing to the weight that had been crushing her shoulders for over three years. ‘I’m sorry’ was all she could repeat over and over again, her voice muffled by the small hands covering her face.

As she sobbed and apologized in repeated succession, Mika sat there, feeling confused as to why she was apologizing. Mika didn’t completely understand what was happening right now. He didn’t have all the facts. She was with David, that much he knew, but did he know the full story? Did he understand everything that happened between her and his late cousin? Absolutely not. He wanted to, though. He wanted to know but only if she was comfortable telling him.

“You did nothing wrong, Blossom…” Mika slowly took her in his arms, wrapping them around her, letting Cece sob in his arms if she wanted to -- whatever she needed from him right now, he’d give it to her. All of it. “I hope you know that, Cece. You did nothing wrong but love someone. It was your secret to tell if you wanted to. Don’t ever forget that!” Part of Mika was angry -- no, furious -- that someone took that away from her.

"But it's all my fault! Every bad thing that happened to him is because of me!" Cece lamented to Mika in between sobs, her arms holding onto him like a lifeline. "If I hadn't left the party with him that night, none of this would've happened, and Davy would still be alive. I'm the reason he's dead… And on days like these I just wish I would have drowned with him."

There was so much Mika didn’t understand. As close as he may have gotten to Coach and as many stories as he may have heard through the grapevine, this was all new to him. He never heard any of this, which made sense because nobody but Cece would know. But when she said she wished she was dead, something in Mika snapped and, in a gentle but firm manner, he made sure she saw his face when he said, “No, don’t think like that!”

As he spoke, it was clear she wasn’t the only one who had puffy eyes. Just the thought of her not being here made him go mad. “I don’t know even a fraction of what happened. The only thing I know is David was labeled something he wasn’t. I didn’t know him and I stand by my original opinion I had the day we met: he wasn’t a pedo and you had nothing to do with any of that. You hear me, Cece? You’re not to blame!” Mika was gripping her shoulders with trembling hands and his forehead pressed against hers as it, too, trembled. His gut felt twisted like it had turned itself over and under itself multiple times.

A fresh wave of guilt washed over Caitlin as she witnessed Mika’s reaction to her words. She hadn’t meant to upset him with what she said-- rather, she was just being open and unfiltered about her feelings for the first time in her life since David’s passing. As positive as she often presented herself to be, losing her first love had brought up the darkest thoughts that had ever crossed her mind. In all honesty, the first two weeks after Dave's passing, Cece was sure she wasn't going to make it. She toyed with the idea of . But little by little, the pain and the days became more bearable, and the circumstances had set the scene for her to meet the man in front of her now. Then came days like today, when the stitches holding her broken heart together were cruelly ripped away, leaving her crippled with grief and agony.

"I'm sorry… It’s just… If you knew the whole story, you’d understand why I can’t live with myself," she whispered apologetically, her eyes closed as their foreheads remained against one another.

“Okay…” Mika said in a somewhat low, hoarse voice. “I want to know, Cece. Tell me everything.” He squeezed her hands and smiled not just for her comfort but for his own, as well.

And for the first time in her life, Caitlin embarked on the voyage of revealing her tragic love story.

“The night Allison Davies passed away, I was one of the cheerleaders that went to that party at ReyRey’s house in the Southside, and some Pinehurst guy was harassing me. He had me up against a wall trying to kiss me at one point when David came in, said something to the guy and got him off me. He offered me a ride home and I said yes. But instead of driving back to Scott Street, he drove us out to Mulligan's Clearing. I was nervous at first, but mostly I was so excited… I’d had a crush on David for years at this point, and this was the first time we were going anywhere just the two of us. We talked for a while: about Edenridge, our families, what we wanted out of life… He asked me if I thought he was good enough for me. I told him he was perfect. We kissed… And that was it. That was all it took. That's how everything between us started…” she trailed off, replaying the lakeside scene on a loop in her head.

“We started meeting in secret after that for obvious reasons-- like you and I used to do. Two months later, he asked me to be his girlfriend and I said yes. Three months after that, we were together for the first time. Every time we met, we would spend hours dreaming about how different things would be when we could finally go public: how we would go on all these dates to show each other off, how we'd get married in this big ceremony and reception with all our family and friends, how we'd get a nice house in Eastbrook and fill the rooms with of kids and a pet or two…" Cece's voice broke the same way her being had been since that fateful day. She and David had so many hopes and dreams for the future, and they had all been destroyed by what happened next.

"A few days before he died, Dave told me someone had found out about us. They never said who it was, and we never found out, but this person told the police that they’d seen David with a girl who looked younger than him. The cops looked into it, but because David was Coach’s son and they didn’t know the girl’s name, they dropped it. Edenridge High got wind of it, and they decided to fire him to avoid any trouble. He was so upset, Mika… He was so embarrassed John and Lizzie and ashamed that he'd lost his job like that, that he decided to go out to the Hole that New Year's Eve. He sent me one last text at midnight, wishing me a happy new year and promising this would be our best year yet because we’d … And next thing I know, I'm being woken up by Mom and Dad telling me that David… That David was gone."

The grim looks on her parents' faces as they told her the news. Watching Rhett sobbing like a baby for the first time in her life. Hearing the gut-wrenching wails from Lizzie and Jamie next door. The way a part of her soul left her body after seeing David’s lifeless body in the casket when they’d been in each other’s arms just two days before. How her legs gave out from beneath her in such a way that Gary had to carry her out of the room. The way she ran to their secret spot at the clearing and fell to her knees-- crying, sobbing, screaming until her throat was raw-- at the realization that the man she had loved so fiercely was gone forever… They were scenes that continued to haunt Caitlin to this very day.

When she finished laying it all out there, telling him the full story about not only how she and David became involved, but detailing her truth. It left Mika feeling something he couldn’t put to words. Angry at the person who reported a half-truth and sad that his cousin couldn’t see any other way out. That he felt like he couldn’t lean on anyone, but when the whole town decided to paint you as something you weren’t, Mika understood that feeling all too well. Whispers of a town talking about David O’Hara were no different than the looks he got because he was the son of Ivan, a gangster. People treated you differently. They made you feel like you were lower than them, so Mika could understand that.

In the back of his mind, he wondered if his cousin had someone who saw him and wouldn't let him drown in his own despair -- like Big Rey did for Mika -- then maybe he would have been saved. Cece wouldn’t blame herself for any of this. All she did was love someone.

“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Before Cece could say anything, Mika continued, reinforcing what he just said, “I mean it, Cece! You did nothing wrong. All you ever did was love someone. I’m positive that he didn’t have any regrets either. I know I don’t have the memories you had with him, but everything I’ve heard about him up until this point, it all points to him being the kind of man that never did anything he didn’t want to. The kind of love you described is one that couldn’t be stopped even if you knew what was going to happen.” Maybe that’s why Mika sought after Cece after all the shit he put her through. “The only person to blame in any of this is whoever told the cops.”

"But it was my fault too,” Cece argued back, shaking her head. “All I ever did was love David. I loved him so much it made me selfish. I had so many chances to stop things, but I didn't. He took so many risks because of me-- because of us-- and that cost him his life. I didn't stop it and now he's dead."

Mika reached for Cece, once again pulling her into a hug. He wrapped his arms around her petite figure by the waist while she surrendered to him in the same way, making sure she was secure in his arms and holding her as close as he could without hurting her. She was so close to him that he felt her heavy heartbeat against his own chest. “Listen to me: it’s not your fault, Cece. None of it is your fault, okay? It’s not a bad thing to be selfish if it’s for the right reasons. You loved David-- you loved him so much that nobody could’ve stopped you two even if they wanted to.” He didn’t realize it immediately after, but it wasn’t just Cece’s love for David he was talking about. A few seconds after, he realized that he was talking about his own for her.

"If I just hadn't gone to that party like Rhett asked me to, or if I had said no to him when he offered to drive me home, then none of this would have happened. John and Lizzie would still have their son. Jamie would still have her brother. Rhett, Clay, Francis and Russ would still have their best friend. And I'd still have Davey in my life-- even if not in the way I would have wanted him to be," she lamented in between sobs. "I just hate myself…"

It killed him, hearing her say this, feeling her shake in his arms, against his chest -- it was like he could feel his cousin’s anguish pulse through him as Cece described her immense guilt. How could he help her see that it wasn’t her fault? Everything he has said and done until this very moment has been from the heart. Coming here knowing full well that he had no right to, Mika was taking risk after risk and he didn’t care if it came to bite him in the ass. She needed him and most of all, he needed to be there for her because clearly nobody else was.

He held her tight to his chest, the sobs and vibration of her shaking persisting and he guided her back with him as they started to lay down. With the way they were laying, Mika’s head was against the mess of pillows at the head of her bed and she was against his chest. “Cece… Blossom… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you can’t see that this isn’t your cross to bear. Loving David and him loving you, that wasn’t anything to feel guilty for. I need you to understand that you can’t help who you fall for. From everything you’ve told me, David saved you from some Pinehurst asshole and what happened from that point was just a natural attraction.”

The more he spoke, Mika could feel himself relating to what she and his cousin went through. Just like his cousin before him, Mika developed intense feelings for the redhead in his arms. Just like David, Mika felt that natural attraction. Maybe he didn’t know David’s feelings, but he knew Cece’s feelings. He hurt her so badly and yet they were right back to where it all mostly started: in each other’s arms. Perhaps it was just a little wrong because she was with Niles, but he couldn’t help it. He knew she needed him and after hearing everything, Mika was starting to understand her feelings clearly. And maybe…

He gently kissed her forehead and held her closer. “Cece…" He hesitated for a second. "Cece... I lo--”

Before Mika could finish his sentence, the sound of the doorknob being turned in an attempt to gain access to the locked bedroom echoed like a gunshot across Caitlin's bedroom.
In Edenridge 27 days ago Forum: Casual Roleplay

A @BrutalBx and @Venus Collaboration
Featuring David O’Hara and Caitlin Cleary

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Another day gone.

It had been two months since Allison Davies’ death, and the town of Edenridge, MA still seemed to be in a deep state of mourning. Not only that, but there seemed to be a giant shift happening within the context of the people in David O'Hara's life. As many lamented the loss of the town’s golden girl, others were busy looking to the future and their potential place in it. College admissions. Career opportunities. What comes next? Those were the words haunting the O’Hara boy and his friends.

Where did David fit into all this? He didn’t know.

Down by the lake in his truck, with the powerful words of Foreigner’s ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ ringing out through the speakers, Duke sat with his arm out of the driver's side window as he watched Caitlin Cleary dance in front of the water. They had been meeting up in secret ever since the night of the Shining Star competition and Ally’s death. A lot of thoughts had drifted through his mind since that evening, not all of them good.

At first it was guilt. David had kissed Caitlin, the baby sister of literally one of his closest friends, and he kept it hidden. He wondered if maybe this whole thing was just his way of dealing with Allison’s death; throwing himself at the first girl he saw in some twisted need for love and dependency. Then her age factored into his thoughts. She was a freshman, he was a senior. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t legal! He tried to rationalize it that they were both in high school and that it was fine but in a court of law, if what they were doing carried on beyond his graduation then he would be jailed immediately and probably shanked in the showers. Of course he told Jamie, and his twin did what she could to reassure him-- she always did. But she would be gone soon as well. Everybody he needed was leaving. For once, The Duke had to make a decision on his own.

The problem of it all was that in spite of his clear thoughts, the young man didn’t want to stop. David had been the one to name the girl CeCe when she was young, to the point that few called her Caitlin anymore. He did that. The girl he had known forever had very swiftly become such a big part of his life. They texted almost constantly. They stole away brief hours together down by the lake in a place that only two other people knew about. Looking at her in that moment, the moon bouncing off the water and her bright red hair, he was in awe. She danced where angels feared to tread and it was intoxicating. He loved it… And he loved her.

So long
I've been lookin' too hard, I've been waiting too long
Sometimes I don't know what I will find
I only know it's a matter of time

When you love someone
When you love someone
It feels so right, so warm and true
I need to know if you feel it too
Maybe I'm wrong
Won't you tell me if I'm comin' on too strong?
This heart of mine has been hurt before
This time I want to be sure

I've been waiting for a girl like you
To come into my life
I've been waiting for a girl like you
A love that will survive
I've been waiting for someone new
To make me feel alive
Yeah, waiting for a girl like you
To come into my life

You're so good
When we make love it's understood
It's more than a touch or a word we say
Only in dreams could it be this way

When you love someone
Yeah, really love someone
Now, I know it's right
From the moment I wake up 'til deep in the night
There's no where on earth that I'd rather be
Than holding you tenderly

I've been waiting for a girl like you
To come into my life
I've been waiting for a girl like you
A love that will survive
I've been waiting for someone new
To make me feel alive
Yeah, waiting for a girl like you
To come into my life

I've been waiting
Waiting for you
I've been waiting
I've been waiting, yeah
Won't you come into my life?
My life?

Climbing out of the old Ford, Davey held open the door and used it to hold himself as he watched the flame-haired young beauty in all of her glory. “I’ll convert you into a rock goddess yet, kid.”

While David had been agonizing over his secret meetings with her, Caitlin had been floating on cloud nine since that night he kissed her for the first time. After four excruciatingly long years, her darling Davy had finally seen and treated her like an equal, and Cece couldn’t be more thrilled. The hours they spent together on their own had helped them discover that even with the years that separated them they weren't so different after all, and only accelerated the process of strengthening their bond and bringing them closer. In her mind, age was nothing but a number. A three year and nine month gap wasn’t that big of a deal. There were plenty of couples at Edenridge High composed of a senior and a freshman, and nobody said anything about it. Hell, some of the most respected adult couples in town had similar or even bigger age gaps as them! What was the big deal if she and David were to be one of them?

Cece knew what was the big deal. Or, more exactly, who the big deal was. In their particular situation, the real problems had a shared first and last name: Garrett Cleary Jr. and Garrett Cleary III. While her father wasn't a strict man that would prohibit things, he had been very clear in his stance about his children not dating until they were at least sixteen, and had been even clearer in his expectation that they were to at least finish high school before they reproduced. Gary had it easy with his first two kids-- with Rhett not being even remotely interested in dating and Brogan coming out as gay on top of her sole focus being her sports. In Cece's case, even with her crush on David, she had been certain she could live up to her father's expectation. She wasn't interested in any other boy, David wasn’t paying attention to her in a romantic way, and Rhett had been fantastic in assisting his father's cause by not letting any potential prospects penetrate the defenses he manned so well. The thought of what they would do to David, someone that they knew and trusted and who was older than Caitlin, if they found out he'd slipped through the cracks to cause the third-born child to steer away from the set family expectations was slightly terrifying… But not enough to deter the redhead from wanting to stop their liaison.

She loved David. Plain and simple. And her love would always be stronger than her fear of disappointment.

David’s comment about turning her into a rock goddess brought a smile to the dancing Caitlin’s face. "I don't think anyone can turn me into anything other than a Swiftie, but I can appreciate your taste in music," she said with a loud laugh, allowing herself one last twirl before prancing over to the lone audience member watching her body movements. “Did you bring me over here so you could just stand there and watch me make a fool of myself? Or are you going to come dance with me?” the short girl inquired playfully, wrapping her smaller hand around the young man’s larger one and looking up at him with those bright blue eyes that shone with the excitement of first love.

“I don’t dance unless it’s air guitar,” David chuckled as Caitlin held onto his hand. She really did have a way of easing all of his stresses and his fears with but a glance from her baby blues.

“That is a lie,” Cece retorted, playfully tugging at his arm. Even when he was sober, David always had a knack for being the life of the party. But when he was tipsy? It was truly a sight to see. “Four beers into whatever party or barbeque we’re at, and you put Mick Jagger to shame with your dance moves,” the girl teased, going as far as to imitate the moves he’d become so famous for.

“I will neither confirm nor deny this,” David laughed along with Caitlin before his smile fell into a more serious face.

“The truth is, I brought you out here, CeCe, because…” The words were there on his lips, while she looked at him expectantly. “I wanted to ask if--” The Duke had the words-- he had them. They were there, but he was struggling to say them. His heart knew exactly what he wanted to speak but his mind was preventing it. Davey was in a constant battle with himself, especially when it came to Caitlin. Life had thrown him a curve ball, and he was struggling to make the hit for a home run. Jamie understood; but who else would? Would anybody else even care? Maybe they’re relationship wasn’t as big a thing as he had made it out to be in his head? Perhaps everyone would understand? After all, in today's society, love is love: no matter the gender, color or credence, right?

He looked out across the water at the Elder tree and thought of the forbidden love that was the impetus for the founding of the town itself. It ushered a level of faith into his soul that previously hadn't been there. One must fight for the one they love. “CeCe, I want this to be real. I want it all. Be mine? Be my girl?”

The way David was tripping over his words and the anxiety exuding from him initially made Caitlin nervous. She knew he had doubts about what was happening between them, but she didn’t think they had been that serious. Had he brought her here for one last night of fun to put an end to their involvement? Had someone found out about them and was advising, blackmailing or threatening him against it? Had he realized she wasn’t as great of a match for him as he’d thought before? Had he found someone else he liked better than her? Another girl who was older, prettier, smarter, funnier, more extroverted than she would ever be? God, she knew she shouldn’t have gotten so attached so quickly... It was too good to be true. She had held onto this far-fetched fantasy of becoming his girl for so many years, and now that he had thought about it he was getting ready to pull her back to reality. How could she have been so stupid and naive?

But it turned out that Cece’s panicked thoughts were mere figments of an overactive imagination and deep-rooted insecurities. Because when the O’Hara boy’s words finally came out and reached the redhead’s ears, they were what she had dreamed about hearing all along.

David didn’t have to wait long for Cece’s reply. The young woman released an excited giggle and wrapped her arms around his tall frame, burying her face in his chest. "Of course! Of course I'll be your girl!" she shrieked, happy tears rapidly flooding her eyes as she succumbed into jubilant sobs, without a care in the world about how positively pathetic she looked. After so many years of silent prayers and wishing upon stars, her greatest desire had finally materialized itself.

“I’m sorry for getting so emotional like this. It’s just… This is like a dream come true for me...” she began to explain as she pulled away from David, taking deep breaths to steady herself while wiping her flushed cheeks to make way for more tears. “There were so many nights that I would lie awake crying because I'd heard that you were seeing someone new. I was terrified to think that you would find love in one of those girls, and that I'd have to watch you be happy with them and pretend to be okay while I was left having to take care of a heart torn to pieces. Knowing that you're choosing me out of all the other girls you can have makes me feel so lucky and special and just…" she trailed off, shifting her eyes to look into those that belonged to her boyfriend. “I prom-- no, I swear: I’ll do everything that I can to love you, take care of you and make you happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for me, and all I’ve ever wanted for you..”

Hearing her words caused butterflies to rise in the pit of his stomach. She said yes! David still had his concerns, and they would still have to keep it a secret. But his heart wanted what his heart wanted, and it wanted Caitlin. God, it wanted her.

David gently placed his hands on her face and just looked at her, starting into her beautiful blue eyes and smiling. “Then I guess we’re doing this.” He smiled widely, “You’re my girl.” Duke leaned in and pressed a kiss to the young girl's lips, pulling her body close to his.

The redhead nodded in agreement. “Till death do us part,” she declared with the utmost conviction, resting her forehead against his for a moment before locking her lips with his. It was quite a strong statement to make at fourteen-- some might even call it clueless or even downright ignorant. But one the very few things Caitlin was sure of in her life was that the day she stopped loving David was the day she drew her last breath in this world.

The newly formed couple stood together embracing tightly under the moonlight by the lake, a warm breeze carrying electricity and fate through the air. She was his. He was hers.

In the end, it’s her and I.
TIMESTAMP: Monday, July 19th, 2021; Minutes Past Noon

A @LovelyComplex & @Venus Collab || featuring Tiffannie Taccone & Tiziano Belmonte (with a little bit of TNT sprinkled in)

For someone who had woken up in the middle of the night to care for her aunt and have a conversation with her Edenridge bestie, Tiffannie Taccone woke up feeling very well rested and in the best of spirits. She’d had a good sleep full of dreams of her and Chase confessing their love to each other and living happily ever after like the fairy tales she watched she read about, and now she was looking forward to meeting his family and friends for the first time. It was poised to be a nearly perfect day… Until her eyes fell on the clock in her phone's home screen, and she let out a shriek of horror.

11:07 AM

An hour and seven minutes later than what she had planned.

She was going to be late!

OH NOOOOOOOOOO!” Tiffannie wailed dramatically, unceremoniously throwing the covers off herself and racing out the door. In regular circumstances, the LA native’s going out routine required a minimum of two hours. Every minute of those two hours, plus an extra ten minutes for final touch-ups and to build anticipation, were dedicated to ensuring she looked as perfect as she possibly could. Her failure in not setting her alarm and waking up when she did meant Tiff now had less than an hour to prepare herself for what was probably the most important date she'd have with Chase as of yet. She had no clothes picked out, no hairstyle selected, no determined accessories and nothing envisioned for her makeup look. In all honesty, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this sorely unprepared for a date.

It was a nightmare.

Once inside the bathroom, Peach took what seemed the quickest shower of her life (doing a two in one by brushing her teeth inside the shower and skipping the full-body exfoliation), rushed through the skincare routine that usually soothed whatever nerves she could have, wrapped a towel around her body and raced back to her bedroom straight in the direction of the closet. She scrolled through hanger after hanger, desperately scouring the space for any outfit that made her look cute and presentable, but coming up with nothing. Jeans and T-shirts? Too casual. Tops or a dress? Too cropped, revealing or flashy. Skirts or shorts? Too tight, short or provocative. By the fifth scroll of the closet, through the panicked tears that were beginning to blur her vision, Tiff’s eyes landed on a matching white skirt and top ensemble that was just the right amount of casual, cute and presentable for the outing in question. Sniffling, she snatched the items from the rack, quickly paired them to a small pink purse and pink wedges and tossed them onto the bed. The girl then proceeded to select the appropriate undergarments, put them on and take a seat in front of the vanity to begin a very rushed hair and makeup routine.

While blow-drying her blond locks with the help of her Dyson Airwrap, Tiffannie allowed some of the pent-up tears to stream down her face. She knew crying was a bad idea-- it would make her face red and puffy and icky and overall harder to do her makeup. But holding her feelings in wasn't an option: rather, a way to hopfully make her feel less gloomy than she already did. Thankfully, the moment was over quickly, and she was able to sober up to perform a very quick makeup routine to go along with the selected outfit.

Once makeup was done and her hair was as smooth as she could get it after skipping her deep condition, the young woman tied back her locks into a low ponytail, pulled out a few strands so they would frame her face and decorated it with a pink ribbon tied into a bow. Selecting the jewelry was easy: a glance at the drawer was all she needed to pick out a gold necklace, small gold hoop earrings, small gold studs for her three additional piercings, and a few matching rings. She gave herself a final once-over in front of the full-length mirror before stuffing her belongings into the purse and rushing out the door.

The young woman all but raced down the stairs, skipping a few steps and taking a left at the bottom of the foyer. As soon as she reached the kitchen, Tiffannie flung the refrigerator door open and began to scan the stainless steel appliance for anything she could bring to the picnic. Immediately, her eyes landed on the very last shelf, where a tray of heavenly tiramisu sat patiently, as if waiting to be rescued by her gentle hands. Finally, something was going right in the middle of all this mess! Letting out a sigh of relief, Peach grabbed the tray from the fridge, closed the door with her hip and made her way out the front door.

With how happy she was knowing that she was able to contribute to the picnic and hopefully excuse the lateness, the blonde failed to remember the small dip between the front door and the beginning of the pathway to the sidewalk. When wearing her regular shoes, this wouldn't be an issue. But the combination of wearing wedges, having full hands, and being distracted proved to be a dangerous one. Before Tiff knew it, the sudden change in altitude caused her to stumble. And in an attempt to regain her balance, the young woman let go of the tiramisu tray.

Tiffannie watched in horror as the tray fell out of her grasp, flipped once, and hit the floor with a bang, sending pieces of cake flying everywhere-- all in slow motion. The wide-eyed girl stared at the floor in shock: taking in the sight below her, processing what had just happened. The tool to regain any sympathy she might have lost during her lateness was now in pieces all over the concrete floor. When it finally dawned on her that she was now going to completely disappoint Chase and his loved ones by being late AND by showing up empty-handed, her glossy lower lip began to wobble dangerously... And without warning, the young blonde started to cry.

Tiziano had been away from the house thirty minutes doing a little grocery shopping and a quick errand of getting more meds for his wife. Nina hadn’t texted him that she needed help at the restaurant so today was a good day to focus on his wife. He didn’t want his kids to think too deeply about Silvia's health. The only other person who knew about her recent diagnosis was his eldest daughter.

Between him, Cat, and the nurse, they would all cycle in throughout the day to take care of business, especially changing Silvia’s bedsheets and piss pads. If his kids knew more about cancer, just the way she looked and how she breathed would cue them of how long she had to live. He was glad they didn’t let worry take over them. They were young and still had so much life to live.

Carrying a few brown paper bags filled with mostly produce, Taz whistled from his car, down the driveway, to the pathway that led to the front patio, only to come across a tragic sight. His devastated niece was crying over spilled cake. “Cosa sta succedendo?” Once he placed the bags on the front patio furniture, Taz made his way to Tiff to investigate this issue. Why was his half eaten tiramisu from last night’s goodbye party (for one of the staff members at Palermo) all over the place and why was his niece crying over it like she had just seen a puppy get run over? “Tiffannie, wipe those tears and tell me: why are you like this?”

As if the flood gates had opened, Peach went on to explain her ordeal to her concerned uncle, utilizing hand gestures to assist in the process. "Last night Chasey had asked me if I wanted to meet his family today, so I said yes and set my alarm so I could have enough time to get ready, pick something up to bring to the picnic and make it to Lyon Park on time. But it turns out I did not set my alarm; so I woke up late, rushed through my self-care routine, my hair and my makeup and took forever to find an outfit that was appropriate enough. I was already late when I was coming down the stairs, but I knew I needed something to bring, so I saw the tiramisu in the fridge and decided to take it. But I forgot about this stupid step--" she pointed an accusatory finger at the step in question, as if it had tried to assassinate her. "--and I tripped, and when I was trying to steady myself I let go of the cake and it fell on the floor and landed everywhere. And now I'm late and empty-handed and Chasey is going to be so disappointed in me… And I don't want him to be disappointed in me! I like him sooooo much, Uncle Tazzy! I like Chasey so much, and all I want to do is make him happy and I'm scared he's going to hate me for this!" she wailed dramatically, succumbing into inconsolable sobs at the mere idea of Chase reverting to treating her like the first day they met.

“If this boy hates you for this, he doesn't deserve you,” Taz remarked before going to her and gently commanding, “Go give this boy a text or call, tell him you’re running late. That is where you can start. I will clean this up and we will stop at the store to get something sweet. I’m sure he won’t mind and if he likes you, like you like him, he is nervous himself.” There was truth laced behind every word. “Trust me, Tiffannie: we men when we care, we care a lot.” And if this was the Warren boy that visited Palermo when his wife was not sick, helping her out with deliveries and errands, then Taz knew this boy would not be mad about this. His anxiety, though, might cause him to fear Tiff no longer wanting him which is why communication was essential during this pivotal time in their relationship. She is only human and that he cannot fault her for.

After a long moment of Tiffannie alternating between loud sniffles and taking deep breaths, the young blonde composed herself long enough to fish her phone from her pocket and swipe right on Chase’s number. She placed the device against her ear and awaited an answer, anxiously tapping her foot against the concrete. With each ring that went unanswered, Peach’s panic grew in intensity, and she was nearly in tears again by the time Chase answered on the fifth ring.

“Chasey?” Tiffannie sniffled, trying to self-soothe just long enough to convey her message. “My alarm didn’t go off this morning, so I woke up late and everything has just been going wrong and I dropped the cake all over the floor and I’m going to be late and I just feel so bad about it--” she whimpered before starting to weep again.

There was a pause on the other end. A long pause and a subtle breath in, and out. “It’s going to be okay,” TNT calmly responded on the other end. “Don’t worry about it. It’s good. You’re good. I’m good. We’re both good.” There was another break. When Chase took long breaks, long breaths, and long pauses, it was because he had something on his mind, “We’re going to be okay. Understand, Tiff?”

Peach shook her head as if he could see her. "It is not okay,” she whined in disagreement, wiping her face along with part of her makeup. “This is the first time I’m meeting your family and now I’m giving them the worst impression by showing up late and empty-handed. This is so embarrassing and disrespectful and I’m just really really sorry about it.”

“I’m sorry too,” There was a slight shake in Chase’s tone. Her words were hitting him hard and at this moment, this specific moment, he was doing his best to not let it show, “It’s my fault for making you worry. It’s also my fault for keeping you up. We don’t have to do this.”

Nooooooooo!” she shrieked back, losing whatever minuscule grip she had on her feelings and bursting out into full-blown sobs. “That’s not-- This isn’t your fault, Chasey! It’s not! I don’t want you to feel bad about this! I just want to make you happy!”

“Then come. I don’t care that you’re empty handed. I just want you.”

His last sentence brought her weeping to a screeching halt. Had she heard him correctly? Was all this crying affecting her hearing, or the part of the brain that interpreted the messages she heard? Was she imagining things? She had to confirm that she wasn’t crazy.

“What did you say?” Tiff asked in a small voice, as if afraid that bringing attention to the statement just declared would nullify it.

His breathing was growing heavier. He needed to go, but first he needed her to understand that this would be for nothing if she gave up on him. “I. Want. You.” He said matter-of-factly before begging, “Please, come…”

Peach gave one last, final sniff, and took another deep breath to compose herself while she wrestled with the urge to cry for a whole different reason now. “I’ll be there soon, I promise,” she vowed, looking over at her uncle and giving him a thumbs up to let him know things would be okay. “And, Chasey?”

“Yeah?” Chase responded with a low undertone.

The blonde’s cheeks grew warm and pink, and she covered her mouth with her hand while turning away from her uncle before she spoke again. “I… I want you too, okay?” she admitted in a hushed tone.

“Good, see you soon,” And on that note, TNT hung up.

Once the call was over, Tiffannie turned back to speak to Taz. “He says that it’s okay and he still wants me to come,” she summarized, wiping away her tears and with them the rest of her makeup. “So I guess he doesn’t hate me after all.”

At this point, Taz had brought in the groceries, instructing Mira to put it away and that he’d be gone around thirty minutes to an hour, and for her to watch her mother with the nurse. He had also cleaned the tiramisu to the best of his capability, the rain would get the rest. Having gone in and out, in and out, he returned outside one last time, Tiff’s call with her boyfriend ending. He gave a small smile, “He’d be an idiot to hate you. You are a diamond, Tiffannie, and if he does not see this? His loss.”

Cracking the first smile of the day, the blue-eyed girl skipped to her uncle and wrapped him in a tight, affectionate hug. “Thank you, Uncle Tazzy,” she mumbled appreciatively, nuzzling her face in his chest. Considering the current standing of hers and her father’s relationship, she was grateful that she had her uncle as a father figure to comfort and guide her in situations like these.

Too much sentimentality. Taz let his niece give him affection before straightening up, trying to get out of her hold, “Okay. We have a picnic to get to.” Her uncle’s expression returned to stoic and strong as he gestured to his black SUV. His morning had already been long and it seemed that a common theme this lovely day was comforting the women in his life. First his daughter, Natalia, now his niece. He wondered, would his wife be proud of him?

Peach released her uncle from her grasp and nodded at him. “Okay,” she breathed out, straightening up to her full height. “I’m going to go back inside really quick to wash my face, and when I come back out, we’re going straight to that picnic.” In reality, she was going to wash her face and reapply her makeup (she was already late anyway, so at this point it didn’t matter whether she took an extra ten minutes to make herself look presentable), but Taz didn’t need to know that. “Does that sound like a plan?”

“Yes, now go. Don’t want to keep your boyfriend waiting.” Taz shooed his niece away and strided to his car. He needed to start the AC. The sky might be predicting rain but it sure was humid. “And Tiffannie?” He looked back, over his shoulder.

Tiffannie had opened her mouth to retort that Chase wasn’t her boyfriend when Taz turned around and addressed her again. “Mhm?”

“You’re a beautiful girl, inside and out. He is a lucky boy to have you.” After Taz said his peace, he waved at her to go do her thing, freshening up, and he’d sit in the car cooling it off, cooling off, waiting for her return.

With a glowing smile, a small shrug of appreciation and her mood now completely opposite to the one she had started her day with, Tiffannie turned on her heel and skipped back into the Belmonte home.

No matter the setbacks, it was still going to be a perfect day.
TIMESTAMP: Monday, July 19th, 2021; Around 7AM

A @LovelyComplex & @Venus Collab || featuring Natalia & Tiziano Belmonte

While the four weeks after her conversation with Danny had been full of hope for the future, the two weeks that followed the incident at the Sinclair household had effectively crushed any positive outlook she’d once had. It had all started when, while scrolling through her social media accounts, she’d come to find out that she hadn’t been the only person her darling brother had patched things up with. Jillian O’Brien was once again back in the picture as a friend of Danilo’s, now flanked by that insufferable pitbull she called a girlfriend. His interactions with Caitlin Cleary also seemed to become more frequent, much to his twin’s delight. To top it all off, Danny had patched things up with Marco as well-- and while it made her ecstatic to see her brother start to embrace his truth and be so happy, it also made her feel lonelier than ever before.

Everywhere she went, even in her own house, Natalia was haunted by the persistent reminder that she was now the only member of her family without someone else to lean on. Sure, Caterina was getting a divorce. But she had her high school friends-- and with the way she was suspiciously acting and sneaking around, Tal knew she must already have someone to replace her future ex-husband. Nina and Elisa had loving children and doting, adoring husbands. Vivia, although in a war with her father, could count on ReyRey to be there for her. Danilo had Caitlin, Jill and now Marco in his corner, as did Mirabella did with Marcela and her fellow acapella group members. Even Tiffannie, a literal stranger to the town, had already found a guy who she couldn’t stop smiling and gushing over.

Yet what did Natalia have? What was she left with?

Nothing but her own, washed-up, sad, pathetic, sorry self.

Maybe it was karma’s way of getting back at her after so many years of pretending to be superior to everyone else. Or maybe it was the compartmentalized demons deciding this was the perfect time to make a reappearance. Or perhaps watching her mother slowly fade away but putting on a brave face for everyone else and not talking to anyone about it was finally catching up to her. All Natalia knew was that she hadn’t felt this downhearted and worthless in years.

So for these last two weeks, the fifth born Belmonte had been locked away in her bedroom: purposely isolating herself from those around her while spending her days in an endless loop of nothingness. Her social media accounts had been deactivated in an attempt to prevent being contacted by others or triggered by the actions they so proudly posted about. She hadn’t left the house in fourteen days-- the furthest traveling done being to the front door. She slept until well past noon, and left her room just long enough to use the bathroom, shower, visit her mother and grab some food before returning to her chambers. A half-empty Valium bottle sat hidden underneath junk items in the top drawer of her nightstand, while her vaporizer never seemed to leave her hand or her lips. Doubling up on her medication while taking incessant pulls from the vape’s THC oil meant that Tal felt lethargic and drowsy no matter how many hours she slept, making it even harder to find motivation to do anything besides lay in bed. The sudden lack of exercise was having its effects on her, too: namely, in the handful of new blemishes around her face and the light layer of extra pounds beginning to settle in her once slim stomach. The soda cans, candy wrappers and bags of chips (now empty and littering the floor) she’d procured using Instacart helped explain this phenomenon, too. And all throughout, the flat-screen television mounted on the wall had been stuck on Jersey Shore-- their voices filling the hollow silence in the room while she either half-watched or surfed the web until just moments shy of sunrise.

This Monday had been somewhat different. Sleeping the majority of the day Sunday had meant that she’d been as wide awake as someone high on Valium and weed could be when the afternoon came. The afternoon hours slowly bleeded into the evening, then the dawn; and all Natalia had done was keep her glassy-eyed stare on the television, taking puff after puff from her vape while fantasizing about leaving a town that had nothing to offer her in favor of somewhere like Italy. Before she realized it, a hint of sunlight could be seen trying to peek through the blackout windows into the disheveled bedroom, and Tal cursed out loud.

Another sleepless night.

Oh, joy.

Letting out a deep sigh, Natalia mustered up the strength to bring her sluggish body to a stand. Her hair was a tangled mess tied up in a bun, her oversized pajama T-shirt bore an assortment of stains of past night’s snacks, and her bloodshot eyes were accompanied by a pair of matching dark circles. She raised her arms over her head and stretched her sore, tight muscles as best as she could before unlocking her bedroom door, trudging down the steps and into the massive, empty kitchen. Her timing seemed to be impeccable, because just as she was opening the fridge in search for her next meal, her stomach protested against its emptiness in the form of a loud grumble.

Another person who hadn’t gotten much sleep was that of her father. The daunting reality that his wife only had two weeks, at most, to live was setting in. Tiziano Belmonte already suffered sleepless nights since he kicked Vivia out in a reckless rage. He was a man whose pride was so unyielding that he knew even if he tried, he would only make the situation worse. He wanted his middle child to apologize for the secrets and speak to him maturely of her intentions. If she wanted to be with R2 he could learn to live with that, but how she went about it was disrespectful. For all he knew she’s been sleeping with the Kingsnake since she was underage. If his paranoid assumption was true, that would surely get the Tasmanian Devil out of retirement.

The past month had forced Taz to look at himself in the mirror and come to terms with how awful of a man he was. The ghost of his father, Amadeo, the one who left him to his fate of being the bastard boy of the notorious Esposito crime family, was appearing in his day-to-day life more than he liked. The insufferable man and the cause of all his trauma wouldn’t disappear. Even now as he parked his car in front of his Belmonte estate he could hear his father’s voice.

The heart of his family was weakening all because Silvia was dying and he was lost. He didn’t know how to fix this. He could build a house, he could cook a five star meal, he could push his children to aim high and never settle for less, but he couldn’t emotionally connect with them. There was no compassion towards the people that needed it the most. His family. All because he feared they would starve and get eaten in this dog eat dog world.

Broken nights.

Bitter ends.

The only solace he had was prayer. He lost all control. Something he hated to admit. Something that was hard to swallow and hard to accept. Everything he built was crumbling before his eyes. Things like the safety net to keep his family away from the constant wars happening in the City or the support and discipline he’s provided for his children, to guide them through life so that they can have thick skin, an open mind, and a heart of steel. He’s spent so much of his life trying to provide for his family that in return, he was hated and despised.

Taz realized he ended up in the place he was trying to avoid. The place he thought he could steer clear of by moving to Edenridge. He was becoming just like his father. Silvia saw more in him than he ever would. He wasn’t a family man. He wasn’t even that good of a husband. Even back home, he spent most of his life trying to prove his worth. First to his father and his siblings, then to his wife, and now to his children. There wasn’t enough bourbon in the world to help him through this and he swore he wouldn’t touch the bottle until Silvia was better but everyday it became harder and harder to look away from his once great escape.

God, he needed a drink.

Entering his house, with a bag full of bagels, Taz made his way to the kitchen only to find his Natalia, who hadn’t left the house in days, scavenging for food. Instead of interrogating her to get to the root cause of her depression, Taz lifted the brown bag and shaked it a little, “Want a bagel sandwich?” Like father, like daughter, both Natalia and Taz were restless and fighting their own personal demons. Like father, like daughter, their sleepless nights left them both starving. Like father, like daughter, they both hit rock bottom. Taz simply covered it up better. “Whatever you want on it, I got you, Biscottino.”

As focused as she was on gathering whatever items she could find to make a hasty return to her bedroom, Natalia didn’t notice the man’s arrival until the sound of contents rustling inside a paper bag echoed across the kitchen. She whipped around instantly, bracing herself for the agony of having to make painful small talk with one of her siblings or their partners. But as soon as her eyes recognized the individual as her father, Tal’s body relaxed as her demeanor visibly softened. Here was the one man she would never regret being open, honest and vulnerable with.

“Buongiorno, Papa,” the young woman greeted her father, grabbing a water bottle from the fridge before closing the door. She made her way to where her father stood, pausing long enough to kiss his cheek and wrap him in a tight hug before taking a seat on one of the stools by the granite kitchen island. “I swear, you have the best timing. If you’d been five minute later, you would’ve caught me scarfing down a third of that tiramisu straight out of the tray,” Tal joked with a small laugh-- the first one she’d had in days. Contrary to the rest of her siblings, the mere presence of her father usually helped calm whatever storm she was facing. “I’ll take you up on that bagel offer. I’ll have a sausage, egg and cheese one, and I’ll let you surprise me with the other one.”

“Hungry girl,” Taz smiled as he maneuvered around the kitchen to collect his supplies and ingredients. The first thing he did was cut the bagels in half. From poppy seed to garlic to everything bagel, he had an assortment of them all and they were the best bagels in town. Edenridge had a bagel food truck, Schmear is Here, in Westwood that got passed down from father to son. It was a good joint and way back when, Taz remembered that Decker kid coming in frequently, faithfully for his bagel fix. From their small interactions they shared in town, especially at the bagel truck, he seemed like a good kid. It’s sad Charlie didn’t have the resources he needed to get his head right. Taz was sure he wasn’t the only one who felt guilty for turning a blind eye to Rhonda and Charlie’s situation. The Belmonte Patriarch worried for his own family, about his kids and their mental health. He wonders if he’s pushed them too far. Too overbearing and strict. The last thing he needed was one of his children becoming murderers. None of them needed blood on their hands. He would know since he was still working on his own trauma from his New York days.

Calmly, Taz started to breach his concern by asking, “How are you?” Once he grabbed his and his daughter’s preferred bagel choices, he started cooking and making them their sandwiches. For him, he’d make smoked salmon, for his daughter sausage, egg, and cheese, and for both of them, Romesco breakfast. He would indulge this morning. He likely wouldn’t have time to eat any other time anyways. Unfortunately when he did try to eat after 11, he always got interrupted. He certainly would try having three consecutive meals in one day but he wasn’t going to count on it.

“Good.” Natalia answered instinctively, falling into her old habits of lying about her mental and emotional state. A common, toxic trait that all Belmontes shared was the ability to bottle up and/or deflect from their feelings in an attempt to avoid causing worry to their loved ones while their pride remained unscathed. Confessing the need for help wasn't something they did often. “You?”

Was it too early to drink? Focusing on the task at hand, Taz continued fixing their breakfast sandwiches and nodded, “Yeah, I’m good.” He knew she was lying and he assumed she knew he was lying but like the stubborn mule that he was Taz didn’t say anything more. Instead, he cooked and let the silence take over. He took a quick glance at her, gave a half smile, and flipped her sausage in the frying pan.

The dark-haired girl smiled back at her father. Natalia and Tiziano were two peas in a pod: for better or worse. They shared as many positive qualities as they did negative ones, which worked in the fifth-born’s favor. Much to the chagrin of her siblings, sharing similar personalities meant that Tal was able to read her father easily, and thus stayed in his good graces the majority of the time. Because she knew him like she did, it was clear to her that he was following her lead by lying about how he felt. They were both proud and stubborn; admitting defeat, weakness, flaw or defeat was not something they did often. But because she knew him like she did, Nat knew the trick to get her papa to discuss his and her thoughts and emotions without making things awkward.

“Sooooo…” the young woman began, unscrewing and removing the cap of her water bottle and taking a sip before continuing. “Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that you felt like you were stuck in this... rut. Feeling like you’re all washed-up, alone, unloveable, undesirable, like you fucking suck… That, no matter how hard you try to crawl out of that rut, you just seem to be stuck in a really miserable place, while everybody else around you seems to be thriving and glowing and finding their happiness. How would you approach the situation?”

Onto the eggs now, Taz listened to his daughter in silence. He might not be the best one to go to for advice but he had to be honest, especially to Natalia. The one that saw beyond the veil. “Your mother would say, this too shall pass and beg us to turn to the Word, and prayer.” As Tiziano talked about his wife, his eyes grew distant and he went with the motions of making Natalia’s sandwich, “Those who walk in darkness will see great light. It’s in these times we gain clarity. It’s where we center ourselves and not focus on all the things we do not have control over. All the background noise. All the bullshit.”

Finishing her sausage, egg, and cheese, Taz placed it on a bagel he had toasted minutes before and cleared his throat, “Life will always have seasons of enduring faith… hard, painful, difficult… not worth the battle. But your mother--” He enunciated his words with his pointer finger and continued, “She is a woman of great faith and would say every single fight ends in a positive outcome.” Placing the plate in front of his daughter, Taz looked into her eyes, coming back to the present, and shook his head, “But that is your mother’s word, not mine. I, Natalia, would get angry.”

As she accepted his offering with a wink of appreciation, Taz went to the next sandwich, his sandwich, and explained, “Anger has been my strongest trait. Drive. Flaw. Whatever you want to call it. It gets me where I need to go. It might not be the healthiest way of handling things but it does bring out truths I need to hear. I lose the hold I have on this family. I hurt people-- my kids, for that matter, and I see how awful of a man I am. Clarity. Not because of prayer but because of anger. So, hypothetically, you’re in a rut? Do something about it. Go fight something. Scream. Take it out on your brother. But don’t let that fire go out. Not you, Natalia.”

The young woman couldn't help but smile to herself as she ate and listened to Tiziano's words. Their lack of faith in religion and anger being the driving force behind their actions were more traits shared between father and daughter. When she felt like Danilo was outshining her back in their childhood days, it had been anger that motivated her to do things just as well if not better than he did. When she had lost Niles sophomore year, it had been anger that drove her to expand her social circle and eventually become the school’s queen bee. When she was named the volleyball team’s captain, it had been anger that drove her to push the team to the necessary limits to achieve those back-to-back national victories during junior and senior year. When she had lost Kylee, it had been anger that drove her to forget about relationships and focus on enjoying her single life instead. Just like her father, anger had been a strong motivator in achieving plenty of her goals in life. And yet, anger alone hadn’t been enough to keep her from falling into the clutches of self-doubt and the other negative spaces in her mind.

"As long as you have the money for bail and lawyers if I get caught busting someone up out of anger, then I guess I can take your advice.” Natalia joked with a chuckle in an attempt to downplay the situation and lighten up the mood. He was absolutely right, of course. Laying around doing nothing other than staring out into the void wouldn't get her anywhere. But what was the point of letting anger be her guiding force, when there was no end goal to drive towards both professionally and personally? "See, I don't think that my problem is lacking the fire to get me where I need to go. The problem is that there's nothing going for me here-- there’s no direction. Does that make sense?" she attempted to express in between bites. "I'm going to college to get this Business Management degree, but for what? All of our businesses are covered in that front, so that means I have to go somewhere else to build a career. And don't even get me started on trying to find a partner in this town-- with my rep and the people available, there's no hope for that shit either. So what does that leave me with? With the idea that perhaps, maybe, possibly moving to Italy with Mamma's family would be the best thing for me to do. No cleaner slate than one in a whole different continent, right?"

Taz poured his whisked eggs into the buttered frying pan and began stirring continuously. His bagels would soon be toasted, and he could dress it with cream cheese, eggs, smoked salmon pieces, grilled asparagus, and pickled red onions. While his facial expression didn’t say much, his eyes were all she needed to see to show he was attentively listening to her. “Is that what you want? Go to Naples or Rome to start new? With family you don’t know? Actually, no, don't answer that. Think about it…” He looked up from the eggs to see her carefully watching him. She wore a look that told him she had more to say. “Yes?”

“I hope you know: you’re not an awful man, Pappa. All you’ve wanted for us was the best and to not go through the hardships you went through. Your only issue is how you went about it. Having a hold over something isn’t the problem: it’s gripping it so hard you suffocate the shit out of it, so the only way to breathe again is by fighting back in some way," she explained matter-of-factly, taking a pause to both eat a bite of bagel and let her words sink in before continuing. "I can't say that I've ever felt like that, because the only pressure you’ve ever put on me has been to build me up into the best version of myself-- even if I’m a hot mess right now. But-- without telling any names because I'm not a snitch-- I can definitely say that some of your other kids do feel that way. Mamma’s always been there to soften the blow, but what will happen when she's not around?"

“I won’t have my buffer so you’d have to call me out, even if it isn’t something I want to hear,” Taz sighed to himself and turned off the oven. From there, he started putting his ingredients on one bagel end. She was right though, as much as he hated to hear it. He was exactly how his younger self never wanted to be. He was just like his father. The bastard son of Amadeo Esposito hated the thought that his need to protect his children was turning into him being an unyielding asshole they were afraid to turn to, for anything. The Belmonte 7 were growing up, becoming independent women and man. They didn’t need their father anymore and maybe that’s what made him want to be so involved in the decisions in their lives. How they lived. He liked feeling needed.

As soon as the words left her mouth, the young woman winced at the sharp twinge in her chest. Bringing attention to Silvia's imminent death was not something Tal wanted to do, but it was necessary to get her point across to her stubborn father. As much as they all hated it, Taz would soon be the Belmonte children’s sole living parent. If he truly wanted to keep their family together, then conversations like these needed to be had. It was the only way to ensure he was made aware of his flaws enough to make efforts to better himself. "Listen, Pappa: all any of us kids of yours want is to know that, no matter how hard we screw up, you'll be there for us. That we don't have to live terrified of disappointing you, because in the end, we can count on you to love us unconditionally."

Smearing cream cheese on the other bagel piece, Taz admitted, “When I react, I don’t really think through what I say. Your mother is the best thing to happen to me because she calms my spirit. I know I can’t rely on her forever. I know.” Placing the butter knife down, he grabbed his sandwich and went to sit beside her. He’ll cook the other two sandwiches after, if they’re both still hungry. “I can’t say I’ll be what this family needs when…” Taz stared ahead toward the entry which led to the stairs, which led to their mother. “... she dies. But I will try.” That’s all he could do, was try. “But, if I make an honest attempt to not let my anger cloud my judgment, I need you to build and rebuild bridges: here. Not burn them. You understand, Natalia?”

Although Natalia understood where her father was coming from, she let out a snort and shook her head. "It's a little bit more complicated than that, Dad," the girl confessed, pushing her empty, crumb-filled plate away. Tal's mind immediately went through some examples of individuals that Taz's words could apply to. Her ex, Kylee Grimm, and how easily she had bulldozed the bridge of their relationship as if their months together had meant nothing. Her thoughts then shifted to Niles, who had been quite eager to light the match that set their bridge ablaze on one winter night. Then she thought of Caitlin and Jill, who she would rather be caught dead trying to build any bridges with. And that was just the first four that came to mind. "There are some bridges that don't deserve to be rebuilt, there are some that were burnt for a damn good reason, and there are others that I didn't even tear apart in the first place-- so why should I be the one to fix them?"

Realizing how aggressive she might have come across, Natalia shook her head and let out a deep sigh. "Sorry about that. I guess I still have some shit to sort through before I go off to play construction worker, huh?" she apologized with a bitter laugh.

Instead of responding Taz took a bite of his sandwich and chewed in silence. With tired eyes, he sat there thinking about god knows what. The patriarch of the Belmonte family would have these moments where he sat there, mid conversation, and got lost in his mind. When he swallowed his food, he put his sandwich down and leaned back in his seat. Looking over the calendar on the fridge, his gaze fell on a date that had no notes on it but seemed to be on his mind. “It’s easier to burn. But the consequences…” Taz pondered out loud, as he wiped his hand on his napkin. “This town is too small to hold grudges. If you’re not going to try to get yourself closure, then you need to not look back. We learn, we move on. We keep going. Live, girl.”

The young Belmonte remained quiet, thinking about what her father had just said. The problem, of course, wasn't living. Living had never been an issue for Natalia: with both the consequences of her burnt bridges and the lack of real closure she’d received from people like Kylee and Niles. But finding something worth living for, something to live for, and coming up empty-handed? That was the root of her latest life crisis.

Taz grabbed his plate, with his sandwich, and got up from his seat. Briefly, he observed Natalia, sitting there and watching him with love, adoration, and a twinge of mild annoyance. “Live now. We’ll worry about the future later.” He walked to the exit of the kitchen that would lead him upstairs to his wife and asked, “Have you seen your mother yet?”

Natalia shook her head. “Not yet. I was gonna drop by after I showered and got some sleep,” she explained, following Taz’ lead and standing up from her own seat. “But I can come with you if you want. Maybe she’d like to see us together.”

“Yes… she’d like that very much,” Taz said in agreement. The sinking feeling of despair in the pit of his stomach, knowing well enough his wife only had two weeks to live. The nurse should be here soon. “Your mother loves you very much, Natalia. She loves all you kids.”

The young woman offered her father a melancholic smile. “And we love her too. Just like we love you very, very much. I hope you never forget that,” she reassured her father, wrapping her arms around the older man and pulling him into a hug that she knew he needed as much as she did.

Tal let the embrace go on for a long moment, finding solace in the stern comfort Tiziano provided. She felt Taz plant a kiss on the top of her head and, before she could help it, tears momentarily blurred her vision at the affectionate gesture. Natalia wasn’t one to cry easily-- in fact, she actually hated to do so. But when self-deprecation was eating you alive, your mother was dying and your father (the rock in your life) was gripping with his own self-worth, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. She wouldn’t let Taz see her cry, though-- she had to be strong for her dad.

The third youngest Belmonte girl ensured the tears were rapidly blinked away before their hug was broken and she locked her eyes with his. “We’ve got this, Pappa. Anche questo deve passare. ”

Even if they didn’t believe it, it was something to hold onto.
TIMESTAMP: Monday - Around Lunchtime



It was going to be a good day. The sun was shining, the yacht engine was purring like a dream, he had his babies with him and Esteban Montero was about to start a grand new business venture. He had made his millions through the Encanto Hotel and Casino chain that he had begun way back when with his beloved. With locations in Las Vegas, Sydney, Havana, London amongst many others, the Encanto is a name revered across the world. Some would question why then that “El Capitan” had decided to open a new location in Edenridge, MA of all places. Surely it would’ve made more sense to do so in Boston itself? Little did many understand, Esteban didn’t make moves lightly. He had a plan. And this time, he was bringing the kids with him.

Ivelisse would be so proud.

They had lost her last year, and if ever there was a pleasant way to go, she did not get it. Young Salvador was the most torn up about it. Esteban knew this, but he had never really had an open line of communication with his son in order to help him grieve. They were two very different people, and most of the time he had relied upon Ivelisse as a mediator for them. She knew how to speak Sal’s language. The tragedy of Sal being the one to find her body at the foot of those stairs was not lost on the businessman. Salvador had never been the same since.

His sweetie, Cassandra, on the other hand, was too much like Esteban himself. The flash of emotion was just that, a flash, and soon it disappeared like a candle flame being blown out. She grieved privately and after they buried Ivelisse, it was business as usual. She was strong, smart and ready to tackle the future and find her place in la familia.

At the helm of the boat as it entered Edenridge waters, Esteban looked behind him briefly. Cassie was probably below deck as all he could see was Sal reading one of his comic books with his AirPods in. His boy was supposed to be going to college, getting his education so that he could, like his sister, find his feet in the business. But, alas, there he was: in the bow of his father’s boat about to start work as a bricklayer on the new hotel. Esteban wouldn’t dare call Sal a disappointment but he wasn’t far off.

El Legado (the “legacy”) of the Montero’s in Miami was legendary. They were hands down the biggest, strongest and most successful outfit in the state. They had their fingers in just about everything and had connections with many other organizations in the US and across the world. Edenridge was no different. One of Esteban’s sisters, the darling Lupe, was married off to a local player by the name of Reynaldo Gonzalez. Originally, it was all part of his father Raul’s early expansion scheme, but it had blossomed into a true love that even Este could not deny. The deal had always gone well, with only a few hiccups that needed outside attention. Unfortunately, now was one of those times.

Reynaldo had abdicated his throne to his son, Reynaldo Junior; and business, whilst still very profitable, had taken a turn for the more violent and messy. Add in these mysterious letters, and it left a sour taste in their collective mouths. It was never any wonder then why Raul felt the need to send some more familia to Massachusetts or back up. Esteban had brokered a deal with the Mayor of this shitstain town-- Grimm his name, a serious player in the New England territory-- to build a new hotel in exchange for it becoming a gun-running Mecca.

Easy job. Great payday. What was not to like?

“Sal? Salvador? SAL?!”

Jumping out of his chair, Salvador fell onto the floor with a mighty thump. He dropped the latest Spike Langley story and pulled out his air pods to look towards his father. “Jesus, Dad, a tap on the shoulder would’ve been fine.”

“Go and find your sister-- we’re nearly there. And clean yourself up a bit. No son of mine needs to look like he hasn’t slept in three days.”

“I haven’t slept for three days…” Sal muttered as he dragged himself to his feet and began to grumble as he walked down the stairs to the lower decks. “CASS! PUTA SUCIA! WHERE ARE YOU? WE’RE HERE!”

One could say that Cassandra Montero was a workaholic-- and they would be fairly correct in that statement. Even as a child, Cassandra had always been determined to put the effort and energy into being the best at what she did, and not spending time on things that could be perceived as unproductive. Any other young woman her age would probably be up on the family yacht’s deck, reading a gossip magazine while tanning in a skimpy bikini and sipping on a frozen drink. Instead, the woman that Salvador Montero was so bluntly calling for was nestled in a plush leather desk chair, typing away on her Macbook Air with her AirPods in the solitude of the yacht’s office. The heiress to the Montero dynasty was buried deep in her work: going over spreadsheets filled with graphs, numbers and documents outlining the business plans for her new endeavor. Not a moment was to be wasted in the pursuit of success-- especially not when she was about to take on her biggest challenge yet.

After so many years of hard work and education, Cassandra’s big break had finally arrived: becoming the Revenue Manager of the Boston branch of Encanto Hotel and Casino. In her new position, Cass would be in charge of defining and executing a hotel revenue strategy that optimized Encanto’s revenue and profits across channels. The eventual end goal, of course, was to take over her father’s role as the head of operations for the Encanto chain as a whole. But every legacy had to start somewhere, right? This was just the first step up the ladder to greatness.

“Don’t be so vulgar, Salvador,” Cass chastised her younger brother, taking a moment to pause her music, remove her AirPods and shut the lid of her MacBook to ensure her brother had her full attention. “What are you yelling about?"

“Dad said that we’re about to dock.” Sal brushed a hand through his growing dark locks as he gazed upon his older sister's head formerly deep in her PC. Their choice in distraction material was just as dismissed as the two Montero siblings were themselves. She loved to crunch the numbers, to think, to see the mathematics that make up the world. Salvador read stories of heroes and villains, epic fantasy and futurist drama. One was rooted to the Earth and the other was flying high in the sky.

“You ready for this Cass? Starting over?”

The dark-haired woman nodded solemnly. "I think the opportunity arrived at the perfect time," she responded in earnest, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Being around the house without her there, feeling that emptiness she left behind… It was suffocating. Moving to Edenridge wouldn't have been my first choice, of course-- you know I would've picked a more prestigious town or city. But maybe it's what we need right now. What's best for us at this time."

Ivelisse's passing had been a swift reminder that life was short, and that family was all you had. She had spent so many years absorbed in her own goals and aspirations that she had lost sight of just how valuable it was to have a relationship with her baby brother. So ever since their mother's death, Cass had been actively trying to be a more open, present, honest and compassionate sister to Salvador. Sure: she could never replace their mother. But she could make sure he knew he could count on her always.

“I mean, we have family here, Cass. Uncle Rey, Aunt Lupe, Ley, ReyRey.” The last name spoken causes a smile to cross Salvador’s lips, a rare occurrence these days. Sal loved R2. His older cousin to him was cooler than the other side of the pillow. ‘Too much machismo’, Papa would say. All bravado and no brain. But to the young Montero, ReyRey lived like there was no tomorrow, he lived his life his way. For someone like Sal, whose entire life had been controlled by the Montero name, whatever Reynaldo Junior was doing seemed like a freer way to live. “Plus, all the conspiracy sites online say this place is cursed. I’m into it, a town that dreads sundown.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes, but offered her brother a half-smile to show she wasn’t annoyed or displeased. Leave it to Sal to get himself immersed in the ghost stories of Edenridge before they had even set foot in town. “Remember what I always tell you, hermanito: believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” the woman reminded the young man, hoping her advice would somehow stick to his developing brain. Salvador was as sweet as he was impressionable. Now that their mother was gone and since their dad had the weight of the business on his shoulders, it was her responsibility to ensure Sal kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. “And I know we have family here. I love them dearly. It still doesn’t change the fact that living in Milan, Barcelona or Rome would be a lot better than living in Edenridge, Massachusetts...” she told him, the displeasure of the city chosen as their new residence ringing clear in her voice. “But beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity just because I wasn’t a fan of the location.”

Sal rolled his eyes at his sister. ”Typical Cass, money first right? Gotta make that profit.” It was a funny thing. When it came to Cass, Salvador almost naked her Gekko because in her eyes, greed was good. Yet from the minute they were born they had always had whatever they wanted, their papa had seen to that. Still, she always wanted more. More seemed to be a mantra for this family.

“It's not about the money, Sal: it's about what the location has to offer," Cassandra calmly explained to her little brother. “The cultural diversity, the entertainment options, the healthcare system, the quality of life… I've done my own research of Edenridge, and it doesn't seem like it has a particularly strong offering in any of these categories. But at the end of the day, I trust Papá's judgement. If he decided to open a hotel in this place and put me in charge, then there's bound to be a good reason for it."

As both of them walked towards the porthole, the siblings looked out to the shore to see their yacht fast approaching. They would arrive at Edenridge in mere moments. ”Game face time, sis.”

Walking down the parking lot to meet with the Mayor and his subordinate, arms crossed as her hips swayed from side to side, Esmeralda “Belladonna” Montero spoke into an earpiece. One can only assume she was speaking to an older male figure that had a lot of her respect. The Deadly Nightshade surveyed her surroundings the closer to the pier she got, having walked past Theodore Grimm’s car with his bodyguard, Sebastian, waiting and playing on what seemed to be a nintendo switch.


“I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s going to be fine, tío,” As she reached the pier, she met the gazes of Teddy and Phoebe. She waved at them with a half smile before continuing her conversation. “Papá means well… things will go without a hitch. I’ll make sure of it.” As she listened to the voice on the other end, Esme took out her box of cigarettes from her inside jacket pocket and started hitting the top of the pack against the palm of her hands several times.

“I just worry, mija. Los Montero are a big business outfit. This is not a town for them. They will take its soul-- your Papá, mainly.” Big Rey took a final mouthful from his latte before waving his old friend Beau over for a refill. As the owner of the best cafe in town complied, Reynaldo continued. “This is my home. The last thing we need is his crew of psychopaths getting involved. When you see him or when you get the chance, let him know that the Serpents will be providing the labor for the hotel. We won’t be denying my guys the opportunity to make some money for their families. Give the bebes my love.”

“I will and I’ll keep them in check. See you soon.”

Looking fixedly forward while pressing on her earpiece to end the call, Esme took in the beautiful view as she saw her family coming closer and closer. She missed Esteban. She missed the man that took her and her sister in after her parents were brutally murdered in their own home.

It’s been too long.

Ever since Hyde got out, her work day was never over. On top of doing little jobs here and there for both the Monteros and the serpents (specifically R2 and jobs that required a careful hand on), she had to keep an eye on Ley and baby Rafael. The patrols picked up so that Hyde wouldn’t slip through the cracks but that wasn’t good enough for her cousin. He wanted Ley to have someone with her at all times. Better yet, he wanted family to protect her. Unfortunately, having Esme constantly at Ley’s side was unrealistic. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t protect the baby and Ley. Like any busy, high-on-demand, working woman, Esme prioritized and made time for her family.

Thankfully, Ley had Creed and some of R2’s other lackeys to post up, but there was always some part of her day she would relieve them of their duties. Sometimes when Ley worked at the salon. Sometimes when it got dark and Ley was suffering from panic attacks. Sometimes when Ley didn’t even know she was around. Esme made time for family. That’s just how she’s always been. With the cigarette in her mouth, she searched for a lighter before cursing, “Fuck,” when she realized she forgot it.

The Mayor stood resolute like the elder tree by the lake, resolute and strong with his hands in his pockets as his dark eyes watched the incoming yacht dance across the water towards the dock. He wondered if bringing in an outside player like El Capitan would be dangerous. Teddy had already had some prior dealings with their kin and his last with the Serpents did nothing to convince him really. This was a good deal: for him, the town, for the other shareholders like the Espositos. A safe haven for those of their kind, a place for guns and money to go in and come out clean. It was all trumps but he did wonder, how he always wondered. Alas, there was a plan if it all went wrong. The Mayor always has a plan.

“Miss Phoebe?” Teddy turned to his companion. “Please make sure that we rent our equipment for this evening's announcement from Absolute Sound. Give them a decent sized cheque. It only looks good for us to be sourcing from local businesses.”

“Yes, sir,” Phoebe was already on her phone texting Georgie, the Town Hall’s intern, the assignment. Perks of her position was she could delegate duties to others if they didn’t require a delicate and precise touch. If she didn’t think the job was easy, she’d handle it herself. All Georgie would need to do was drop the Grimm name and they’d get exactly what they needed from Uncle Eddie. Of course, it would be Valentina’s job to write the check since she was usually the one stationed at Town Hall as the welcoming face and the person the townspeople expressed their concerns to. It made sense for her to have a hand in the town’s finances.

Everyone under Teddy had their own specific duties and as far as Phoebe was aware, they were all exceptional at taking care of business, in the way he expected it to be done. Efficient with no loose ends. For the most part, they were treated well, but piss him or Julian off? That never ended well for any of them. While Teddy was like the king of this town, Julian was his proxy. The rest of the Iron Five and the other worker bees helping them maintain the Grimm brand were just that: worker bees. Sebastian, Valentina, herself? They were glorified soldiers, but soldiers nevertheless, all working in the same hive.

Bringing her attention from her phone to her boss to the poisonous enchantress searching for her lighter, Phoebe slipped her phone in her inside coat pocket. Strolling forward, Phoebe approached the dangerous woman and pulled out a lighter. She didn’t smoke; however, it was convenient to have for this exact reason. Sliding her thumb downward, quickly turning the wheel to strike the flint, her elegant gold zippo lighter, with a Phoenix design etched on it, sparked, ready for Esme’s use. “Need a light?”

“Yeah… thanks,” Esme eyed the other woman, placing the cigarette in her mouth. Bending over, she lit the butt and then leisurely straightened herself, taking a deep drag. With a heavy exhale, the smoke seeped out, away from Phoebe’s face, and there Belladonna smiled, “I like your lighter. A Phoenix, huh?”

“It was my grandfather’s. He was big on the whole rise from ashes, symbolic thing,” Phoebe admitted, having a fond attachment to the mythical beast herself because of him. Bash did say she was a fire brand. Maybe in her own little way she was acknowledging that the Phoenix was part of who she was. Maybe in her own little way she was keeping her grandfather alive by believing in his ideology. Maybe in her own little way she thought a Phoenix was a breathtaking mosaic of the battles it has won. To her, she kept close to the heart the idea that a Phoenix stood for the power of believing in oneself and one’s abilities with absolute conviction. That power which allows him to rise and soar. Maybe that’s why Theodore Grimm gave her the job because he saw her burning and he liked it.

Flicking the ashes away from them, Esmeralda carefully observed the curious and highly attractive woman (she wasn’t afraid to admit that Phoebe Masterson was hot) talk about her grandfather with so much passion. She made a mental note on Ms. Masterson before her eyes and ears fell on the boat. Taking a step forward, Esme took another quick drag before doing away with the cancer stick. Smiling from ear to ear, Belladonna waved at her family.

It’s been too long.

As the Motor Yacht Tranquilo made final preparations, the deckhands jumped onto the docks to officially tie the gorgeous beast to the Edenridge harbor. Esteban released both the wheel and a deep breath at the same time. He glanced out to the shore and could see his little Esme waving at him. She was such a gorgeous creature, who reminded him so much of his darling sister Steffi, her mother. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.

Departing the bridge, El Capitan took the jacket he had hung over a nearby chair and placed it around his shoulders to complete the combination of his beautiful, white three piece suit. Esteban had no fear of standing out as a beacon in the wretched hive of scum and villainy that was known across the universe as Edenridge, Massachusetts. He descended the steps of El Tranquilo and took his first step onto the foil soil of this cursed New England town.

“Theodore! Cómo estás? My friend, it is good to see you!” With a charming smile on his mustachioed face and arms wide open, Este reached forward and shook the Mayor's hand, sealing it with his other hand atop it.

Teddy shook his new business associate's hand with the warm grin that had earned him the votes of the populace. “Esteban: welcome to Edenridge. We are very happy to have you here,” He glanced at the two youngsters climbing off of the host behind their father. The girl carried herself gracefully-- Cassandra? She was going to help with the hotel management. She had the air of authority about her: strong like her father. The boy, Salvador… Not so much. He fumbled with all the bags, almost tripped over his own feet and nearly ended up in the water. If the deal with the Monteros went sour, those two would be Teddy’s aces in the hole. If they crossed him, no one was getting out of this town alive.

He could hear the car door behind him close as Bash climbed out to survey the area and so his job of protecting them. Teddy released his trip from Esteban and turned to the beautiful young lady standing to his right. “This is Miss Masterson. If you need anything during your stay, please don’t hesitate to contact her.”

Already tired of carrying all the bags, Sal dropped them onto the floor and collapsed on top of them as if he had been carrying the weight of the world. He looked towards Esme and have been a soft wave. “Hola prima.”

“Hey you,” Esme’s brown eyes lit up as she rested them on Sal’s goofy face. Her eyes matched her captivating smile. Warm, inviting, and mature. She glanced over to her other cousin, the cutthroat one that never liked her, and gave a polite nod, “Cassandra, it’s good to see you.”

“Always a pleasure, Esme,” Cassandra acknowledged through gritted teeth, putting up her best polite facade to mask her lack of excitement. It wasn’t a secret that Esteban’s oldest had been less than thrilled when her father had decided to adopt her two cousins after the deaths of their parents. Initially, she had thought it would be great to have two more girls in the family: sisters she could relate to and confide in. But it didn’t take long for Cass to notice the negative effects these two new additions had in the preexisting relationships of the Montero household. Her father, whose time with the family was already limited enough as it was because of the business, now spent those moments managing Esperanza’s condition and treating Esmeralda like the new heiress to the legacy. Although Cass tried to remember that these were two girls who had just lost their parents, bitterness and jealousy were quick to set it, resulting in the reluctance to create anything other than cordial bonds with the sisters. It didn’t seem fair to her that she’d worked so hard to prove her worth to Esteban, that they had a plan for her professional development, and Esme was able to just waltz in and take up the time meant for Cass. She kept her mouth shut about it, of course: because whining has never been her style, and her accomplishments spoke louder than words. But it didn’t take a genius to sense the tension in the air whenever the girls were within each other’s vicinity. Let’s just say that Cass wasn’t too crestfallen when Esme moved to Edenridge and Espie got sent away.

Belladonna wasn’t going to interrupt her uncle while he talked business. At least not right now. She did need to tell him to use the SSS as his labor crew. That could wait, though. Istead of inserting herself verbally in their conversation, she went to Esteban and gave him a swift kiss on the cheek before aiding her younger cousin with his belongings. “I hope your travels weren’t too rough,” Esme looked between Sal and Cassandra, before bending over and grabbing some of Sal’s bags.

“It was what it was, just glad to finally be on dry land.” Sal looked over at his sister who had been a nightmare the entire trip. He really hoped this would be a new start for them but he couldn’t help but feel like he was the problem. Father and Cass had already gotten over his mother’s death. Sal was struggling, really struggling. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was her at the foot of those stairs, her neck twisted and the blood seeping from her mouth, nose and eyes. He shook out the memory as he walked towards the waiting car.

Phoebe stepped forward offering her delicate hand to the Montero kingpin. “Pleasure to meet you,” the beauty with smooth caramel skin glowed in the sunlight as she put her best professional face on, “I’ve forwarded all the necessary contact information, which includes our whole team. If you have more pressing matters that need to reach Mr. Grimm, Julian Knight is your point of contact. Anything you want, I can get you. The heart of Boston is only an hour drive so if our home doesn’t have everything you need to accommodate your stay, making it feel more like home, I’m sure the city will. If you haven’t eaten yet, I’d suggest the Godmothers. Her sandwiches are to die for.”

Esteban leaned forward and kissed the top of the young woman’s hand that she had offered. “Well thank you, chica hermosa. I look forward to working with you.” He released her and returned his attention to the Mayor. “Señor Grimm, I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to take my family to our home swiftly. Our journey has been long. We can discuss the matters of business at your announcement tonight?”

“Of course. Understandable.” Teddy nodded his head as he and Esteban shook hands again. “We will see you this evening. Come, Miss Masterson. Let us allow the family to enjoy their reunion.” The Southside Reaper brushed a hand across her back as they walked back towards the waiting Bash and the car. “Keep your eyes on him. We shall give him an inch but she shall not take a yard.”

Esteban watched as his new associates walked away with a smile upon his face. Onto new business, he turned and made his way towards his children and his niece. He opened his arms a little as he greeted Esme. “Hello sweetie.”

Having situated Sal’s bags in an organized fashion, Esme turned to her uncle and went into his open arms, “It’s good to see you.” She let his warm embrace hold onto her for a long minute, realizing how much she missed his tender affection. In her mind, Esteban was the last reminder of who her parents were as people. The last remnants of their memory that faded from her mind the older she got. “Are you excited to be in the Bay state? It’s not Miami, but it has its charm. I will say Edenridge especially is full of… excitement.” Especially with the development of the letters haunting the whole town. Someone was digging the past out of Edenridge soil and they were having a blast doing it.

’Excitement’? Cassandra expertly suppressed a snort. That’s one way to look at it…

If he was perfectly honest, New England would not be Esteban’s first choice but it was his job to follow the money and right now that trail of green led him to the home of the Celtics and the black herd of sheep in his family that they called the Gonzalez. Were it not for his darling sister Guadalupe’s marriage to one Reynaldo Gonzalez many years ago, the Montero would have no connection to this place and El Capitan definitely would not have sent Esme to this infierno. When he took her and Espie in upon the death of their parents, he promised to do everything he could to protect them, to support them and to love them. Not that they needed it. Both girls had grown into extraordinary young women and he was so very proud.

“I’ve heard of this excitement,” Esteban smiled. “Salvador has been keeping us updated by following local news outlets. Like I’ve always said, el conocimiento es poder.” He tapped the side of his head before wrapping his arm around the ever-impassive Cassandra. He looked to Esme and Sal and then turned his attention to the Edenridge skyline. A storm was coming. “Shall we go? We have a lot of work to do.”

Mornings in the Cleary household were usually a quiet, peaceful affair. Gary Cleary would be the first to rise from his slumber, wiping the dregs of sleep from his eyes and heading straight to the bathroom to start off his day. Deidre, the matron of the family, would follow suit, trudging to the kitchen to start the coffee pot and prepare whatever breakfast sounded the most appealing. While Deidre occupied herself with the meal, Gary would make the trek down the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the family’s correspondence, maybe wave at a neighbor, and return to the kitchen just in time to watch his plate and mug be placed in front of his seat at the dining room table. Eventually, the Cleary children would file in and serve themselves portions of whatever items they favored at the time before taking their own seats by the table. Snippets of small talk and conversation would be exchanged before all family members finished their meal and set off on their respective endeavors. Rhett, having dropped by to enjoy his mother’s breakfast and company, and Gary would leave to start preparations at The Hole. Rowan, when not at soccer camp like she was, would leave a few hours later to hang out with her friends. And Cece, depending on the day, would either return to her bedroom to read a book or leave the house to hang out with Danny or whoever she was seeing at the time.

The morning of July 19th was different. Rather than the scent of coffee and bacon, it was the sound of agitated voices that nudged Caitin Cleary awake. With how deep she had been sleeping, it took her a second to decipher whether the voices she was hearing were coming from her dream or real life. But once she established they were very much real, the alarmed young woman tossed the covers off herself, slid her feet onto her slippers and carefully stepped down the stairs. The sound of the voices led her to the living room, where Cece was met with a distressing sight. Her father stood tall in the corner of the room, a concerned look on his face as he watched the scene currently unfolding in his home. Sitting on the couch was her mother, with her arms wrapped around an inconsolable strawberry blonde woman that the girl had known all her life.

"What's going on?" Cece heard herself asking with worry, taking turns to study the expressions of her mom, her dad, and their guest. The last time Lizzie O’Hara had been over at their place looking this distraught was to inform them about David’s passing. Whatever this was, it wasn't good news. Cece didn’t have to wait long for Lizzie’s reply.

“The psychopath sending the Decker letters is gunning after Davey now!” she wailed in between sobs, wiping the mascara-stained tears off her face. Although she had remained a timeless beauty throughout the years, her suffering wilted her youth away anytime she was forced to relive the pain of her son’s death. “The phones have been ringing my ear off all morning. Everyone’s been calling and texting John, Jamie and I about it: talking about how they got this goddamn letter in the mail today, asking whether we’d seen it yet, telling me that people are speculating that it was from the girl he got accused over…” she trailed off, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to calm down while her friend and neighbor rubbed her back.

“We got the letter too, Caitlin,” Deidre informed Cece, shifting her gaze from the woman in her lap to meet that of her daughter’s. “It was with the mail your dad picked up from the box this morning.”

Something about this wasn’t quite right.

The Cleary matron’s facial expression filled Cece with a sudden sense of unease. The way her mother was looking at her was the same way she used to whenever she told a lie or broke a rule and got caught when she was little. Her father’s was as impassive as ever; but the way he refused to meet her eyes, like whenever he was forced to be the bearer of bad news, spoke volumes. It was he who, without a word, handed his daughter the Cleary’s copy of the letter in discussion.

As soon as her gaze landed on the piece of paper, Caitlin’s blue-green eyes widened, and she felt her blood turn to ice. The words of her fourteen year-old self were staring right back at her: in red ink, perfect cursive and impeccable penmanship. The date at the top right of the photocopied letter read December 4th, 2016: the night Allison had died and the night David and her had shared their first kiss at the clearing. While the party attendees and those closest to Allison were dealing with the first waves of shock and grief, the Cleary girl (blissfully unaware of the news) had been restless with excitement. In the sanctuary of the clearing, David and Caitlin had shared a few more kisses after the first one, engaged in additional conversation, and snuggled as close as they could until the cold became so unbearable they were forced to call it a night. No sooner had she arrived at her house, the redhead had rushed up the stairs straight to her bedroom, locked the door behind her and settled herself behind her desk to write both the letter currently in her hand and a lengthy diary entry with all the details from her outing. She had poured her heart and feelings into every word, every phrase, every sentence, every punctuation mark. Her late arrival, although unaddressed that night, had gotten her in some trouble the next day, and she’d been forced to lie and say she’d been at Jill’s house to avoid suspicion. Of course, she would have done it all over again if she had to. It had all been worth it.

The original letter came to be in David’s possession the Friday after the championship game. During study hall, Caitlin had exited the library with the age-old bathroom excuse, and snuck around just long enough to slide the letter into David’s locker. When they met again that afternoon, he was quick to voice his appreciation, and reward her in the form of plenty of kisses. He’d promised her that he’d keep the letter safe, in a place where he could read it whenever he pleased while at the same time be hidden from prying eyes.

In all honesty, the redhead had never considered what had happened to the letter until today-- but that wasn’t the scary part. If someone had found David’s hiding place, what else had they found? Or, worse yet, what else did they know?

It was Lizzie’s raised voice what tore Cece away from her own panicked thoughts. "I know my son was a heartbreaker-- I will never deny that part. But I know my son, and David was not a pervert like they say he was! John and I raised him better than that!" she cried, turning her attention to the young woman who had grown up alongside her children. “You knew him, Cece! You knew him all your life! You know Davey would never do anything like that!”

Caitlin nodded, trying to swallow the huge lump stuck in her throat that made it so hard to speak. “You’re right. He would never do something like that,” was all she could croak to Lizzie without her voice breaking and exposing the fear rising inside her. Although her blue eyes remained stuck to the ground, she knew Lizzie was crying, and that pit in the middle of her stomach doubled in size. It was hard to look the heartbroken woman in the eyes and try to offer her words of comfort when the guilt of knowing she was the reason behind her son’s death was threatening to consume her whole.

Thankfully, Deidre had decided that it was time to wrap up the subject so she could tend to her friend. “Come on, Lizzie. Let me make you a chamomile and lavender tea cup. I’ve heard it really helps soothe and calm down,” she murmured softly, helping Lizzie up from the couch and guiding her to the kitchen.

With long strides, Garrett closed the distance between himself and Cece, wiping his face with a heavy hand. “Christ… This is a damn nightmare,” he muttered to his daughter as soon as the women were out of earshot. “This town doesn’t need that mess to be brought up again. I loved David like I love my own son. I watched that boy grow up. I helped raise him. I know he wouldn’t hurt anyone like that. They didn’t find anything then, so why would they find anything now? I stood for him then, and I’ll stand for him until I die: everyone else in this town be damned. And spreading out these letters like that-- for what? I’m sure the poor girl who wrote them is already tormented enough. She doesn’t need to be reminded about what happened.”

When she heard the way her father spoke about David and ‘the girl in the letters’, Caitlin couldn’t hold back the silent tears that began to stream down her cheeks. Her father was absolutely right: the girl in the letters was tormented by her past every single day of her existence. So many people had loved the O’Hara boy, looked up to him with high hopes for his future, cherished him fondly… But he was gone, and it was all her fault.

Realizing his daughter was crying, Gary’s expression softened into one of compassion. With how close they had been to David and the rest of the O’Hara family, it made sense that Cece would be distraught about this whole thing. He was a stern man, but he wasn’t heartless or indifferent to his children’s feelings. Right now, his third-born needed him. So without warning, he wrapped his arms around Caitlin and held her close, affectionately kissing the top of her head for good measure.

Ever grateful, Cece welcomed the sympathy Gary was offering. She wrapped her own slender arms around her father’s taller figure, and dug her face into his broad chest. As much as she wanted to cry and wail and scream, her age-old habit of suppressing emotions in order to avoid worrying her loved ones went into full effect. She didn’t want her father to see just how shaken the news had left her, so she only allowed herself to be held for a few moments before slowly pulling away.

“You gonna be okay, Cait?” Gary asked her once released from their embrace, resting his hands on her shoulders.

The blue-eyed girl nodded. “I think I just need a moment,” Cece sniffed, wiping her face. “Thank you, Dad.”

Garrett shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what I’m here for, sweetie,” he said with a soft smile, ruffling the girl’s red hair until his eyes fell on the living room clock. “Shit… I gotta get to work, C-- but call me if you need anything, okay?”

“I will.” Cece said with another nod, forcing herself to offer her father a closed-lipped smile.

“Love you, Cece.”

“Love you, Dad,” the young woman called out to him, giving her father one last parting wave before he walked out the door.

With the parents now gone, Cece turned on her heel and rushed up the stairs to her bedroom, locking the door behind her. Once she was inside, the young woman dashed to her closet, flinging its door open and diving into the narrow space. A small dresser rested inconspicuously against the left side of the far end of the room, which she moved away to reveal a vent on the wall. She removed the metal grille in one sweeping motion and, holding her breath in anticipation, quickly took a look inside the newly exposed space. Her David memory box sat exactly where she’d left it hidden inside the duct, the light layer of dust on its lid confirming it had remained untouched since the last time she’d seeked its comfort. It was a small relief to know that her belongings of that time remained undisturbed. But it was not enough reassurance to calm the storm of feelings raging through her.

With her back against the right wall of the closet, Cece let her drained body slump down to the floor and began to sob, releasing the overflow of emotions as she held the “23” tattoo on her left wrist against her chest over her aching heart.

A @metanoia & @Venus Collab
Featuring Mikhail Zima & Caitlin Cleary’s First Interaction


M A R C H 2 0 1 8 | S P R I N G T I M E

Clear, blue skies with rays of warm sunshine balancing out the chilly breeze were gracing the small town of Edenridge during this lovely March afternoon-- and Caitlin Cleary was taking full advantage of the favorable conditions to indulge in a little outdoor reading. Wearing a pair of white leather combat boots, black leggings, a charcoal gray sweatshirt tunic and the denim jacket with the fur-lined neck that had matched David's, and her slim legs tucked underneath the plaid sherpa blanket she and David used to share, Cece was more than ready to enjoy her time in solitude. She sat under the shade of a tall oak tree near David's grave, her back resting against its thick trunk while all of the girl's attention was captivated by the pages of, of all books, Romeo and Juliet.

Ever since the passing of her boyfriend David O’ Hara in the winter of 2017 on New Year’s Day, Caitlin’s afternoons had undergone a major change in routine. What was once time spent at cheerleading practice in the Edenridge High’s gymnasium and football fields was now occupied by near daily visits to the cemetery in which her boyfriend’s body had been laid to rest. Cece would make sure that his gravestone was clean, his flowers watered, and that any weeds starting to grow around the area were removed from the soil by her own hands. She’d spend hours sitting in front of the young man’s grave dealing with her grief in her own strange, therapeutic sort of way. Sometimes, it was by speaking out loud to catch David up in what was going in her life or through her mind at the time. Other times, like today, it was just sitting in peaceful silence, taking advantage of the soothing solitude to do things like study for a test, complete her homework, or simply to admire whatever nice weather the town had on that particular day.

Could Cece partake in these activities somewhere else besides the town’s dreary cemetery? Of course she could. But no other place, or person, would provide her with the same level of comfort, safety and protection as David did, even after his passing. The solace of the moments spent at his graveside served to ease the pain of knowing that this was the closest she would ever be to her beloved again.

Unbeknownst to her, there was another in the cemetery and he was approaching closer to the very tombstone the redhead was sitting in the vicinity of. Mikhail Zima had decided to come on this day because, well, it was about time. For a while now, he has been getting to know his mother’s family. Slowly but surely, he was earning their trust and maybe even enjoying the feeling of not being judged. To them, he was just a rising star on the basketball team. He wasn’t the shooting guard or the captain, but he put in so much effort for the team and whenever he could, he’d grow closer to his family (even though they didn’t know he was part of it). It was a dangerous game, but in his head, it was worth it.

David O’Hara.

He only knew the little that his mother told him. Over the years, she would hear things about him and the only person who she would ever tell was Mika. Maybe that’s why he was finally here. But as he approached it, he noticed someone else was here and it wasn’t some stranger either.

“Cece?” Mika walked up to the oak tree she was sitting under. “Sure as hell didn’t expect you to be in a place like this.” Mika laughed somewhat, hands in his jacket pocket.

As engrossed as she was between the pages of the tragic story of two lovers separated by death that was Romeo and Juliet, Caitlin failed to notice the newcomer’s arrival. It was only after she heard her nickname being called out that she looked up suddenly, eyes wide with panic and her heart racing at the thought of being caught where she was and having to explain herself in any way. But when her brain registered the identity of the person approaching her, Cece’s fight or flight responses were ushered back into their cages.

“Hey Mika,” came the girl’s feeble response as she folded the corner of the page she’d been reading and placed the closed book in her lap. She was afraid to say anything else in case Natalia Belmonte suddenly appeared from the shadows and tried to strangle her for purposely carrying on a conversation with her new best friend.

So much for conversation, huh? Mika couldn’t remember if Cece was normally this quiet. He didn’t have it in his mind that she was ever a chatterbox like some of the other girls at Edenridge High were, but she seemed unusually mute - even for her. “So what’s going on? I didn’t take you for someone who liked to spend their afternoons at a cemetery. You aiming to join a cult or something?” Mika chuckled. He was hoping his bad jokes might lighten her lack of engagement to at least give him more than a simple greeting.

His terrible joke managed to turn the corners of her mouth upward, and motivated her enough to reply with one of her own. "I'm actually trying to be the cult leader. One of the requirements is learning how to summon dead bodies in case of emergency, so I thought this was the best place to study the subject."

“Is that right?” He kept chuckling as he leaned on the side of the oak tree, looking down at Cece, trying his best to not accidentally look down her shirt. From the angle he could if he wanted to, but he didn’t, so he wouldn’t. “What’s the name of your cult?”

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," she replied, in a feigned sinister tone before letting out a little chuckle and offering him her first soft smile. "What about you? What brings you over here?"

Earning his first smile was actually kind of satisfying in its own way, but all good things must come to an end. And when he thought about why he really was here, Mika didn’t have an answer that made any sense. “To tell you the truth, I have no fucking idea” which wasn’t the total truth.

In recent weeks, he’d been really trying to process all of the thoughts in his head. Maybe ever since he and Natalia stopped fooling around, Mika had been attempting to process everything and especially when it came to the O’Hara’s. “I guess to see if being in front of this tombstone would give me a better answer.”

Mika's answer raised alarm bells in Caitlin’s mind, and she felt her body tense up. Shortly before his death, David had been incorrectly branded an abuser of minors. After his passing, there had been a wave of vandals defining his grave with awful slurs, insults and messages, which Cece had scrubbed clean each time. If she discovered that Mika had been one of these awful people, the redhead wasn't opposed to engaging in confrontation-- him being a Serpent and over half a foot taller than her be damned.

Before she jumped to conclusions, however, Cece decided to get more information about what could possibly have brought the young man to the gravesite of the son of one of Eden's founding families. "What do you mean?" the girl inquired, a frown settling between her ginger eyebrows. "I'm sorry for prying, but very few people that come to visit this specific tombstone do so with good intentions."

Mika half-chuckle and smirked, looking forward at the tombstone that read David O’Hara. It wasn’t that Mika didn’t know David, but he didn’t have enough time to know him better. “Nah, you’re not prying…” Mika muttered. He thought about what his mother told him, though limited, versus the supposed rumors about him. Something didn’t add up. She told him about her family and how good they were. She lamented that hindsight allowed her to see that, but since he moved to Edenridge in the past couple of years, he saw that and the rumors about David in the past few months didn’t align with that.

“I don’t doubt that some come here with disrespect on her mind. There are some pretty nasty rumors about him, aren't there?” Mika never once believed them, but he also didn’t know David well enough. He wished he did. He only had a few months when David was the assistant coach and even then, he didn’t ever feel like he was in a position to ask all of the questions he wanted to ask David and John.

The mention of the disgusting, incorrect rumors that had been a factor in David meeting his premature demise brought a wave of hot, burning tears to the young woman’s blue eyes. Everytime she thought she was moving on, something happened to remind her the pain was still as present as ever-- like sprinkling salt on the freshest of wounds.

“Typical Edenridge behavior: people running their mouths and tongues about things they don’t know,” Cece stated in an unusually blunt manner, the hurt and bitterness dripping from her voice evident with each word she had uttered. The redhead turned her face away from Mika just long enough to wipe the tears from her cheeks with the cuff of her sweater before shifting her attention back to him. “It’s all crap, you know? I knew David like I know the back of my hand. He’s nothing like what they say he is.”

He couldn’t help but look at Cece as she went on her mini-rant. He didn’t disagree with any of it -- at least, from the place that people who ran their mouths didn’t know who they were talking about. It was how Mika got into a majority of the scrapes he did. At least, in his case, if he heard someone was running their mouth about him, he had the choice of finding them. Maybe that was what Mika didn’t like. David was dead, so he couldn’t speak for himself. Whether it was true or not, it was pretty shitty to run his name through the mud when he was already six feet deep.

“So, I take it you and David were pretty close, then?” Mika asked. Her anger about the rumors seemed to point at that.

Caitlin nodded, wiping more tears away from her face. “Our ancestors came to this country together, hoping to escape the famine that was tearing Ireland apart. Our families founded this town; with us Clearys and the O'Haras remaining tightly-knit to this very day. David and his sister Jamie basically grew up with my siblings and I.” Of course, there was another BIG reason for her closeness to David, but she wasn’t in a place where she could disclose it yet-- much less to someone she didn’t know well.

“Wow..” When she told him the history of her family and the O’Haras, which was his family technically-speaking, Mika didn’t know how to process it. All he knew or remembered was they were important to his mother’s hometown, but knowing the exact importance was something Mika needed time to process. But that wasn’t now. “So your family and his are pretty much Edenridge royalty, huh? Are there others?” Mika asked her. His curiosity came from a genuine place. “I mean, I’m from the Southside, so nobody has ever bothered to tell me shit about…what did you call yourselves? Founding Families? Did I get that right?”

The young woman nodded, but couldn't help but smile a little as she remembered something her former boyfriend used to say. “David used to call us Foundlings,” she admitted with a small giggle, rolling her eyes at the absurdity of the nickname. “Meaning us children of the four Founding Families: the Clearys, the O’Haras, the Callahans and the O’Briens. But there are a few more family names that have become pretty relevant to the town in the last few decades: the Sinclairs, the Belmontes and the Grimms. As grateful as I am for my family and their accomplishments, I can’t wait for the day these new families become the ‘royalty’ of the town. Living your entire life under a microscope can be exhausting and hard.”

Mika listened to all of what she had to say, but it was her last comment that stood out because he could relate to that more than she would ever know. It hit hard, mostly because of his father and his brother, Viktor, too, but mostly from Ivan himself. To be the son that he was constantly reminded he didn’t want (or that’s how it seemed to Mika, anyway), that feeling of being judged for every little thing you did took its toll. He didn’t know if it was the same in this town for those who lived here all their lives, but for him, it just made him have more anger he knew what to do with.

But that was almost three years ago and he’s been able to control it a lot more. “It’s hard to meet people’s expectations of you when they never tell you how high they are. It’s like climbing Mount Everest with no clear view of the top and having shitty fucking equipment.” Mika’s tone took a rather sharp, almost angry turn. His hands were in his pockets still but he was tightening his fists to not appear so full of ire.

“I’d say it’s just hard to meet people’s expectations regardless of whether you know what they are or not, because they’re ultimately not your own,” Caitlin mused, thinking back to how the situation Mika was describing and her own were both rooted in the same concept: people expecting things from them with no care or importance given to what it was they really wanted. “You can’t grow and blossom into your own person or the person you want to be if you’re constantly being stifled by those around you. I think that’s a concept a lot people misconstrue-- be it with the assumption that they have your best interests at heart, or because they desperately want to live through your experiences.”

Mika chuckled at her last comment. “Isn’t that the truth?” And that was a truth that Mika never quite accepted, even in the short time he’s been able to truly live outside of the shadows of people who tried to form him into the man that they wanted him to be. For dreadful or worse, he was starting to finally feel like he could be someone other than the evil blood that runs through his veins. “It’s not always easy for everyone to get out from under the thumb of those kinds of people. And, sometimes, life creates circumstances that allow imperfect seeds to flourish in a different soil-- like some twisted flower that is actually kind of attractive in some lights.” Again, Mika laughed more because he wasn’t sure if he just insulted himself or not.

Mika’s metaphors struck a chord with Caitlin. Before the start of her relationship with David, her biggest goal was to leave the sheltered cocoon that was Edenrige to build a life on her terms. Becoming David’s girlfriend had shifted her mindset, of course, as her new dream soon morphed into becoming his wife and dedicating her life to cultivating their relationship and raising their future children. But now that Dave was gone, there was nothing tying her to the town anymore. Her parents were healthy, well and financially stable. Her structured brother would take care of the business. Her determined, go-getter sisters would be successful in anything they set off to do. All that was left for Cece was a world to discover beyond the borders of her hometown.

“Maybe that’s what I need to do for myself someday: create the circumstances I need so I can leave Edenridge and become that ‘twisted flower that's actually kind of attractive in some lights’.” Caitlin teased lightly with a small laugh before getting serious again. “It’s not an easy thing to do to stand up for oneself in order to grow, but when being utterly unhappy with your life is the other option, I’d rather take my chances and at least give it a try.”

“Do or do not, there is no try--” Mika muttered, hearing himself a half-second later after Caitlin’s giggle. Damn Katie and her one guilty pleasure of Star Wars. “Sorry, just a little something that came to mind. But it fits, doesn’t it?” He glanced at Cece with a smile. “I mean, if you want it bad enough, no amount of a safety net of the small town where you literally have decades of family history will stop you from going off on your own.” Somewhere in him, Mika wished he wasn’t born into the circumstances that created him, but it was kind of too late for him.

The redhead grimaced at his words. She knew Mika meant well, but she hadn't thought about it in that way before. The words he used made her goal of starting over somewhere new sound so daunting. "It sounds so scary when you put it like that…" she admitted earnestly. "I always get so caught up in the fantasy of how it would be that I forget about what I'm leaving behind."

"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that." Having realized he may have messed up or said the wrong thing (a habit Mika had down to an artform at this point), he tried to go back a bit. To her, even in the hypothetical scenario of going her own way, it was painfully obvious to Mika that leaving was something she wasn't sure about (or why else would she do all but panic about what he said?)

"Maybe don't think about that then. The people in this town will still be here. If you wanna go to fuck-knows-where for a while, then do it!" That was much better. "That's what I was trying to say."

Caitlin nodded with a smile. Mika was absolutely right. When the time came, her sole focus should be solely on herself.

Before silence could settle between the two, Cece’s phone rang. “I’m sorry. Let me just check this real quick--” she excused herself, pulling the device out of the bag next to her and glancing at the screen. It was her alarm, signaling that it was time to return to school before her ride got there. “That’s my queue to leave,” she informed the young man, placing her book and blanket inside of her messenger bag before standing up and sliding the bag’s strap onto her shoulder. “You know, it was really nice talking to you, Mika,” the redhead said softly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she gave him a genuine smile. “I never would’ve guessed that you and I could have something in common. Just goes to show how you can’t judge a book by its cover, huh?”

He had to admit that he felt the same way. For as long as he had been in Edenridge and had been at EHS, he never thought that Caitlin Cleary was someone who also identified the same way he did with his own family. The reason he came here might’ve been selfish. Mika wanted to know if he could feel closer to the cousin he never got the chance to meet would make him feel better about some of the things he was going through, but he ended up having a solid time with the person he least expected to. Caitlin wasn’t anything like he saw at school. “Yeah, guess you’re right about that.” He found himself smiling, watching her pack up her stuff into her bag. “I’ll linger around for a bit. Kinda just want to spend some time alone. Maybe...”

Mika bit the inside of his lip and looked forward to David's grave. He looked at it for what probably seemed way longer than he should have. He searched for…something at it. Maybe some silent guidance from one O’Hara man to another. Or maybe it was just to take it in one last time, but Mika took a deep breath. “Maybe we can do this again?” He looked at Cece, half-smiling. The right side of his lips were curved up and the muscles twitched out of a new-found nervousness he was experiencing. “I mean, maybe not here, but somewhere else. Just to talk or hang or whatever.”

The young woman’s smile widened, and she nodded in agreement. “Sounds like a plan,” she conceded shyly. Sure, Natalia might kill her if she found out about this potential friendship. But hopefully volleyball and her newfound popularity would keep her occupied enough to not notice.

“Cool!” He said without even thinking. Internally, part of Mika was punishing himself for actually saying that, but externally, he just smiled. “Well, guess I’ll be seeing you…friend.”

Now beaming, Caitlin gave Mika a parting wave and went off on her way. “See you around school!” she called out to the young man over her shoulder, that warm smile still in place.

A new friend… Maybe this was what David thought she needed right now.
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