Afterword

Good news: Ren is as much of an unlikable twit at the start of the book as I had intended for them to be. Jesus, they’re a certified prick. Bad news: I now have to write Ren as a huge assmunch again for the second draft. Not looking forward to that.

Okay, I might have lied a little bit. I didn’t really intend for Ren to be a huge, unlikable prick at first. I had actually intended for Ren to be more aware of how shitty things are. Fortunately, this gave me the chance to make Ren actually grow as a person and stop being such a prick. Honestly, I’m super glad that happened.

Even more, I’m glad that I figured out that I couldn’t just write this story once and say “Ah, good. Perfect. This story is now complete and perfect and will never need me to look at it and revise it again.” That would have been a huge mistake. Seriously, this version of If By Fire was a mess up until the last 3rd. I absolutely did not have this planned out as well as I should have, and that last third was when I really figured out what I was doing. Hell, the two prologue sections weren’t even intended to be prologues. They were two connected short stories I wrote two years ago, and I was just kind of writing chapter one without ANY idea of what the story should be when I thought “Oh! I know! Just jam this on top of those two other stories!”

That created issues, for sure. First things first, those two short stories were try-hard versions of a dystopia. I was barely beginning to find my political footings, and I was frustrated about a lot of things. So, of course, I wrote about it. Unfortunately, I realised later that I wasn’t a very good authority to be writing about these topics in a fictional setting.

If By Fire still has something important that it wants to say. The core theme of the story is that “You have to care about things. If you don’t, nothing ever changes or gets better. If you don’t care, you are part of the problem.” This is the main theme that is prevalent throughout the whole story, and the main trait that changes for Ren as they progress through the story. This is going to remain consistent in the next draft of the story.

However, the second draft is going to see HUGE shifts. For one, I highly doubt the genre will still be dystopia. For two, I’ll be changing Ren’s perceived gender fluidity to just a consistent nonbinary. All the love in the world to my fluid babies, but I want Ren to use they/them pronouns exclusively.

Oh. Right. Um. While I’m talking about gender, I want to get this out of the way: the way that I introduce Claire as being trans is REALLY BAD. Like, there are a million better ways I could have done it, but little 16 year old Kay who didn’t even know they hated their name yet thought “Oh, yeah, this is perfect! Just imply that Ren, a genderfluid individual, just clocked the fuck out of Claire. Perfect, lovely, my readers will ADORE that!” It’s rough.

Oh, Claire will still be in the second draft. Don’t you worry your precious little nose about that. She’s sticking around. So will Shelby. And, obviously, So will Ren. However, in what might be a surprising turn of events, Jade will become a more prevalent character! And she won’t be killed shortly after she’s introduced! In fact, there will be a lot less death in the second draft!

I don’t think I’m going to totally cut the political tones out from the story, though. Just the ones involving many of the characters being police officers. It’ll also make it so that my race commentaries that were included in the story aren’t so… off base. Like, they were not very good in this draft. All of them were pretty heavy handed, and abandoned halfway through. So, you know, look forward to a better story.

One more wild thing you might like to find out about: I actually had intentions to merge the universe of If By Fire with that of my Horror Stories. You remember those chapters where the mother character, Asilynn, was mercy killed by Ren? Well, canonically, she was possessed by the same entity that possessed Luke in Night Terrors. Subtle, right? As in, you probably just assumed she was mentally ill? Nope. Turns out it was an actual demon. Wild, right?

That specific section in the story served three purposes: One was to show Ren begin to grow something of a conscious in what they were doing. The second was to tie If By Fire in with the horror stories. The third? Well, while I don’t remember the specific details, but this section of the story was somewhat of a joke at my actual friend Asilynn. For her bogus Child Development class she took in 11th grade, she made some book about a mother and her children. I don’t remember exactly what the story was about (this was over a year ago), but I remember vehemently making fun of it because there were some themes that made it easy to imply that the mother was murdering her children. I told Asilynn that I was going to write her as a mother and make her kill her kid in a story. Well, I committed to the bit. I don’t think she ever actually read it, funny enough.

So, here’s where the tie to the horror stories was going to become especially apparent: There was going to be a seperate story, posted in the Horror Stories page, starring Claire. Claire was going to have some supernatural experiences, where she would be harassed by some entity, before she eventually confronted the entity, and it revealed itself. This entity was to be known as the Keeper, and he was responsible for ensuring that the various monsters out in the world remained able to hunt people. Claire was to inherent that role from him, and become the new Keeper. Of course, I eventually decided against linking any of my stories with one another wouldn’t be worth my time. Although, I still really want to link some of my horror stories with one another. Seriously, imagine a kaiju-esque fight between the doll from A Porcelain Lover and the chest monster from Matters of the Heart. I have dreams. But that’ll stay tucked away until another day, if I ever choose to act upon it.

If By Fire’s ending was hard for me to write. As in: forcing Ren to learn something was difficult for me. Ren seemed so confident in themself that forcing them to actually move on with their life and become better felt like a monumental task. It felt like something that I would never be able to achieve. Yet, I did make it happen. It was kind of wild to me that the one thing that kept me from finishing this story for a while was googling “how do i make characters change.”

Just kidding! I didn’t google that! I actually was given a couple of lectures by Brendan Reichs, a Young Adult author, at a writing camp. He basically helped pull me out of my stutter and figure out how to write some more. So shout out to Brendan Reichs for being a cool human being!

Anyway, that’s all I want to say in this afterword. If you want to see the entire google document where I keep all of my plans for the first draft of If By Fire, then go hit up my Patreon! For just three dollars a month, you gain access to a special document detailing the creation of all of the stories that I put out, which will include If By Fire.

Anyway, thanks for reading! I love you!

37 – Epilogue

Previous Chapter

“So you made news, Ren,” Shelby said, cooking like usual.

“Yeah, I did. A huge business mogul dies in a flame. Unfortunately, his heir won’t have a top floor office until the building is repaired,” I said, stirring the tea in my cup.

“Either way, I think he deserved it. You made the right move there.”

“When his first eye that I ever met gave me that bicycle, I kind of loathed it. I guess I never trusted him from the start.” Shelby laughed at hearing that.

“Talk about intuition. You knew that whole time to not trust him.” She stirred her pan, and shook it around.

“Not always. There was a very short period where I wasn’t sure. Even in front of him last night had me rethinking. The things he did were things I once did.”

Shelby shook her head at me. “No, not all. Everything you did lead to something better. Now that Donovan owns Ikram corporations, things can get better.”

“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t really have anything else to add. I wanted to just stop doing anything, for a while at least.

“What were Hassan’s last words? Anything profound?” Shelby asked.

“Probably just swearing at me for shooting his leg, then screaming. You know, because he was on fire.” I shrugged.

Shelby laughed again. “Serves him right. Bastard.”

“You seem more joyous of this than I thought you would be,” I confessed. Shelby looked at me and cocked her head.

“Hassan did other illegal things besides fund the horsemen. It was becoming a hassle as an officer, especially since he could just pay his way through any real accusations.”

“The legal system in this state is shit. Seriously, I can’t think of a time in history when it was ever good.”

“That’s why we have to try and make it better. It only goes up from here, right?”

“I guess.”

Shelby served up a couple of plates and brought them over to the table. “Dinner’s done.”

“Thanks.” I tasted what she made. It was good, as usual.

“What will you do if this leads back to you?” Shelby asked.

“Nothing, honestly. It won’t come back to me. There isn’t any footage of me, because I disabled all of the cameras. I’m not a suspect in any other way either.”

“Huh. You thought ahead, didn’t you?”

“No, not really. That would make this a first degree murder. I didn’t premeditate. I had actually disabled his security because I didn’t trust him. I didn’t know what he might do to me, and I didn’t want to risk it.”

Shelby smiled. “It still worked out. I’m glad.”

“I’m not sure if I am,” I replied.

“Don’t worry about it,” Shelby comforted me, “It’s already done. There isn’t any reason to be upset. Everything will be alright.”

“I hope you’re right, Shelby.”

“I am,” She said. She was so steadfast in this.

“You know, Shelby, you’re infatuated with someone who has killed quite a few people, right?”

Shelby shrugged, again. “I’m an officer, too. I’ve killed people. That isn’t going to put me off.”

“Well, alright. I should trust you on this matter; you’re probably more experienced.”

“Yeah, I am, Fifteen. I am your superior, after all.”

“That’s Miranda, currently.”

Shelby laughed. I realised after the joke I had accidently made. “Yeah, Miranda. I think she’s getting close to her retirement age, actually. I could get another promotion.”

“That sounds promising,” I said. “You know more about how to handle high ranking circumstances. I just light the one rich man I know on fire.”

Shelby laughed once more. “Do you think you could be a Commander?” She asked, suddenly much more serious.

“I could. I don’t want to, however. Is that what you meant?”

“Not really,” Shelby replied. “There’s a good reason you’re only an officer. You can actually do field work, and that’s valuable. Commanders do too, but usually not as much. Once I get to a high enough rank, I might just hire you out of the police force, for myself.”

“Mercenary work is illegal, Shelby.”

“Not as a mercenary, as a bodyguard. That’s legal. What would be illegal are the things I might tell you to do after the fact.” She laughed.

I laughed, too. “I really don’t have any room to criticise. I do my share of illegal things.”

“I think everyone is going to step away from illegal acts, actually. With Donovan in the spotlight, he can’t afford to run an underground rebellion anymore. I think he wants to take the group out of the shadows, give us a new name, and try to push and pull politically more than violently.”

I laughed again. “Too bad politics aren’t my strong suit.”

Shelby smiled. “Depends on the kind of politics you might be into.” She giggled.

“That still isn’t legal,” I pushed.

“Oh come on, how are you allowed to lecture me on doing things legally?” Shelby laughed.

“I’m really not,” I said, a smile on my face.

Neither Shelby or I said anything for a while. Once a couple of moments passed between us smiling at each other and eating, Shelby broke the silence.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“You have that effect on me,” I say. I quickly realised what came out of my mouth.

“I’ll count that as a confession of your undying love for me,” She said. There wasn’t a hint of humor or sarcasm in her voice.

Afterword

36 – Lighthouse

Previous Chapter

I turned Death’s business card over as I walked. HASSAN IKRAM, C.E.O. OF IKRAM CORPORATIONS. Something about his card seemed more ominous today than when I looked at it yesterday.

Again, I was at the payphone I had used to call him last. I wanted to make this call quickly, because I could see my breath. It was 11:40, and I wanted to go to bed. I dropped quarters into the phone, then punched in his number.

Three tones later, Hassan answered. “Hello, Hassan Ikram of Ikram Corporations. How can I help you?”

“It’s Fifteen. I’m calling to talk about the deal.”

“Ah, perfect. I have an opening tonight. Can you make it here by 1?” He replied.

God fucking damn it. “Fine, I’ll be over as soon as I can be.”

“Perfect. Same place as last time. I’ll look forward to seeing you.” With that, he hung up the phone.

“Hassan, you son of a bitch,” I whispered. Fog left my mouth. “Fucking damn it.”

I ran home. I wish I could drive up there, instead of fucking biking.

 

I went down into my basement, opened all of my locks, and immediately started typing away. I got onto Hassan’s site, and punched in his username. The usernames were easy to access, because they were literally just the last name followed by the first name. What I needed was for my algorithm to figure out his password. I knew he wouldn’t pay attention to my attempts to sign in. I didn’t trust him, so I was going to take every action I could to prevent him from harming me.

I got upstairs, and grabbed a match box, one of the ones that I stole from the first crime scene. I opened it. There were still four matches inside. Those were all that I might need.

The algorithm was working away when I checked on it. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but I was willing to wait for as long as it needed.

I went back up stairs, and tried to find the nicest clothing I could. Shelby had some solid advice about dressing well for formal events. Unfortunately, my closet is pretty barren. I ended up just putting on a flannel and jeans. I suppose it would also be fitting, considering how cold it was that night.

I continued searching around my house for whatever resources might be helpful. There were no others. Everything that might be useful to me was at the police station. It looked like I was going to be making a stop before I left to meet Death.

I returned to the basement and waited for my algorithm to succeed in its task. After about thirty minutes of waiting, the algorithm had finished. “Welcome, HASSAN,” the screen showed me. The second big break for my algorithm. Perfect. I started searching through all of his options and settings, looking for his security.

Of course, I found options to scan the cameras. I could look at his facility and see everything he had in place for security. For the most part, it was just cameras and an alarm that goes off if you break any windows, or any locks. Currently, the motion alarms were turned off, most likely in anticipation of my arrival.

Perfect. I was in. Lastly, I went and looked for his account security. It was also an easy find. Within, I changed his password. I was able to look through my algorithm’s log to find the last password used, and used it to allow me to change the password to a long string of random digits and characters. He wouldn’t figure it out before I showed up, and I’m certain he wouldn’t be willing to tell me about the vulnerabilities, either.

I stood up, stretched, and shut down the computer. Death wouldn’t be able to see me arrive, and thus I would have an advantage there. I left the house, and walked back to the police station.

Hero was at the front desk for the night. It seems like Shelby must have changed his position. “Hey, Fifteen. Forget something?” He asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ll be in for a while, though, so don’t be too surprised if I don’t come out soon.”

Hero nodded. “Sure, take your time.” I continued past him, and heard him say “Must have forgot a report or something.”

I quickly got into the locker room, and pulled my gun and its holster out of the locker. Then, I headed back to the garage. Luckily for me, the garage was empty. This was just the opportunity I needed. I took a set of keys and got into a car. It started without a hitch. I left the station.

Swiftly, I drove to Hassan’s office building. I was there by 12:57. “This had better be worth my time,” I muttered to myself once again. I opened the door and let myself in.

My heart raced as I climbed the stairs. I was actually going to be placing myself under Hassan’s thumb. I knew I didn’t really plan to serve him, but this still felt so very wrong. I found myself doubting this decision again, but it was a three to one vote. I had to follow through.

I stood at Hassan’s door for longer than I would like to admit. Eventually, I convinced myself to open it. I knew I was safe, I had disabled all of Hassan’s security measures.

Hassan was at his desk, typing furiously. Once he saw me, he immediately stopped and pushed his keyboard away from his hands. “Ren, welcome. You’re right on time, I just finished up what I was doing.” Hassan had bravado, for sure, but he still looked slightly nervous. He was probably trying to get his security back online.

“Yeah. Let’s talk, Hassan.” I took a seat in front of his desk. “I’ll accept your deal, but under one more condition.”

“Go on, I’m listening,” He said.

“I want to know what you’re planning. How do you benefit from the horsemen’s rebellion?”

“Hm. Well, I do suppose that is only fair. I’m gaining market. You remember Mr. Brown, correct? Well, after his and his family’s passing, his store went on sale. I bought it, and rehired everyone who had been working there. This gave me a business advantage.

“That’s the biggest reason why you attack people with money. Often, they’ll put their businesses up for sale, and I’ll buy them. Even if they don’t put their business up for sale, they’ll be in such a state of turmoil that their business will suffer.

“You don’t share the same morals that every other horsemen does. You’re ruthless. A true renegade. That’s exactly what I want. Someone who won’t stop at any boundary to get what they want done. You fit that role perfectly, and I have seen as such. Personally, I’m glad that you’re accepting my deal.” Hassan smiled, and it seemed like his nervousness went away.

“Wait, you don’t actually care about changing the social standing in our country today? The huge divide between rich and poor?” I asked.

Hassan shook his head. “Frankly, I’m profiting greatly off of said class divide. The frustrations of the poor allow me to utilise it. Not to be rude, but my father always told me to utilise whatever resources were available.”

“I see. So what happens if our rebellion does cause a huge social change?”

“Well, I would hope that Ikram Corporations is remembered for their generous donations to the cause. I stay in business, and gain even more opportunity to increase my reach.”

“What if the other horsemen all vote against you?”

“I have the money. They don’t. Frankly, they won’t have a choice when it comes down to it. I will still hold more sway than the three of them combined. Democracy doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked for many years. They don’t know what’s best for the country, anyway.”

“You and War are friends, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. A long while before I inherited my business, War took me in. My father told me that I needed to live on the streets and learn the real value of money before he let me have the business. I spent four years out there, with War. My father died, and I was left with the business. I took it. I appreciate what War did for me, but that isn’t going to stop me. I can’t let anyone get in the way of my business. It will always come first.”

“So the rebellion was just… an investment?”

“One that’s paid off thus far, yes.”

I was silent for a moment. Hassan didn’t have anyone in mind but himself. Really, did I have any room to criticise? I never cared for anyone else, so why should I expect Hassan to? Business was business, right?

“So when will be done expanding your business?” I asked.

“When there’s nowhere else to expand, or I die. Simple, really,” he replied.

“What if you die young?”

“Well, despite everything I just said, I left War everything in my will. If I am to die before him, then he can consider my debt more then repaid. Although, I already consider my debt repaid. Either way, someone has to have the business, and I do trust him more than anyone else.”

“I see.”

Again, I didn’t have any reason to criticise Hassan. I never cared. I only ever looked out for myself, too. I stood up.

“Well, this was a nice talk, but I have work tomorrow morning. I assume we can discuss more at a later date?”

“Of, course, Ren. Have a good night.”

I walked away from Hassan, but stopped in the doorway. There was one thing I was missing.

“Hassan, I just realised why this felt off for me. I’ve been missing something.”

“What’s that?” He asked in response.

“You literally don’t care about anyone else at all. They are all just means to an end.”

“Now hold on-”

“You just admitted to me that almost everyone in the country is just a resource for you to utilise!” I took a step back into the room.

“I think you-”

“I’ve spent the past week, at least, learning a few things. I used to not care about anyone else, either. Sometimes, I still don’t think I care. But I know for a damn fact that I do care about others, even if I don’t think I do.” I took another step.

“Ren, this isn’t to say I don’t care about anyone else. I just-”

“Every other one of the horsemen told me to take this deal to find out what the hell you’re up to. Even Pestilence did, and he hates me. Well, at least distrusts me greatly. They put their trust into me, and I am not going to let them down. That’s how I know I care about them and what they want done.” Quickly, I approached Hassan’s desk.

“I’m still sympathetic to the cause-”

“Shut up, Hassan. You aren’t sympathetic to anyone. You’ve been lying between your teeth to everyone this entire goddamn time. I sick of it.”

“Ren, don’t you dare accuse me of things you aren’t aware of! You don’t have the full picture!” Hassan stood up from his desk, and began to shout at me.

“Fuck off,” I replied. “You are entirely selfish.”

“No. I refuse to be-” I drew my gun and pointed it at Hassan, interrupting him.

“Ren, hold on now. Put the gun away, and let’s talk. There has clearly been a misunderstanding between us.”

“There has been no misunderstanding, Hassan. Your death means that War will inherit everything you have. I know that War won’t betray everyone who believes in him.”

“Ren, that isn’t my intention.”

“Shut up.” I shot Hassan in the leg, and he quickly fell.

“Fuck! Ah, shit! Fuck!” He cried in pain.

I took a step over to his alcohol cabinet, and tore it open. I took out bottles, and threw them around the room. They shattered and the liquids spread. I took a couple and poured them out over Hassan’s desk and his chairs.

“Ren, what the fuck are you doing?” He demanded.

I didn’t reply. Instead, I tore his phone off his desk and threw against the opposite wall, away from him.

“Ren, what the hell?” Again, I didn’t respond.

I took one last bottle from his cabinet, and poured it over Hassan himself. “You made it clear that if you died, War would inherit everything,” I took the matchbook out of my pocket, “I’m making sure that happens.” I struck one match, and tossed it on top of him. The alcohol caught quickly, and Hassan shouted in pain, writhing on the floor.

I dropped another match onto his desk, and the last two I dropped onto other spots of alcohol. The flames spread quickly. I left Hassan’s office, and went back downstairs. The top floor was totally aflame.

I got back into the car, and drove away. Slowly, it began to snow.

Next Chapter

35 – Metanoia

Previous Chapter

I left my computer room downstairs, and went back upstairs. I was productive down there, time that I will not regret.

Well, until I got upstairs and saw my cold, half-eaten dinner. I sighed. I needed to reheat it and finish it. So I microwaved the meal and sat back down to finish. I lifted the fork to my mouth, before hearing a knock at my door. I sighed again, put down the fork, and answered the door.

It was Claire. “Hey, you’ve got a meeting with the horsemen. Famine wanted me to remind you.”

“I know. I was the one who told her we needed a meeting,” I replied.

Claire crossed her arms. “So? She still wanted me to remind you. Be happy about it.”

I smiled a bit. “Thanks, Claire. I’ll just finish my dinner, then I’ll head over.”

She smiled. “It’s a good thing you answered the door. Otherwise, I would have just picked your lock and waited inside. It’s kind of chilly out here.” With that, Claire turned and left.

“Goodbye, Claire!” I called after. She turned and waved as she walked away.

I shut my door and sighed one more time, for good measure. I went back to the kitchen, stuffed a couple of bites into my mouth, threw away the rest of the food, and walked outside to get to Famine’s home.

Claire was right. It was pretty chilly out. It was nine o’clock, the sun was down, and a cold wind blew. I was glad I never took off the jacket I had been wearing. However, even with that jacket, the walk was still cold. I jogged to get to Famine’s and out of the breeze quicker.

Once I arrived at the small home, I just let myself in. As I expected, the horsemen were waiting for me, chatting away. The only thing out of place were that there was no Eye of Death.

“Sorry I’m late, I only recently got your message,” I proclaimed upon entering. Everyone quieted down as I walked in. War gave me a slight smirk. Pestilence scowled at me. Famine looked a bit unsure of her expression towards me; that was what I found the oddest.

“Renegade. Sit down, will you? We have things to discuss,” War said, motioning to one of the seats at the table they were all seated at. I did as he asked.

“We were informed that you visited Death himself. Is this true?” He asked. I nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Famine asked.

I shrugged. “Other things kept coming up. It must have slipped my mind after a while. Sorry about that.” Famine still seemed a bit apprehensive, but that seemed to give her some ease.

“Alright, that’s good. It’s also good we have other sources.” Famine pushed her hair aside, and returned to a more natural expression.

“Ren, what did Death talk to you about?” Pestilence demanded.

“Well, he told me I was very useful to him. He mentioned various instances that I took action despite what anyone else had said, and he told me I would be useful for him. He offered me a deal, and told me I would have plenty of time to think it over.”

“Details. What specific things did he offer you?” War asked.

“Let me recall,” I replied. I sifted through my memory, recalling every detail I could about the night. “Okay, here’s what I remember: He offered me a partnership with his company, which would come with stock and employment. He told me he wouldn’t require much more from me than what I already do. Beyond that, he made it very clear that we could discuss more once I decided to agree. He told me I would have as much time as I need to make that decision.”

War leaned in, with a grave look on his face. Pestilence was shocked, and Famine regained her look of concern.

“I see,” War stated. The rest were silent. “You haven’t made any decision on this yet, have you?”

I shook my head. “The only thing I’ve done is ask to use his website to test an algorithm I had been working on for a while.”

“Ren shouldn’t take the deal. That makes her an even bigger liability to us,” Pestilence said.

“Or an even greater ally,” War replied. “If Ren can get close to Death, we will have a greater sense of his motives.”

Pestilence chuckled and shook his head. “You really seem to want to undermine your friend. Don’t you trust him?”

War glared at Pestilence. “You know as well as I do that I can’t trust him anymore. He might provide us with funding, but that doesn’t mean his heart is really in our cause. At least, not anymore.”

“None of us trust Death, Pestilence. We haven’t for a long while. That’s why we’re having this meeting,” Famine said.

Pestilence sighed. “Right. Look, I don’t like this man being able to affect us and control us so heavily. We four are supposed to have equal weight in decisions, but Death seems to think that he can just take his funds and put them wherever he wants.” He scratched his chin. “Either way, this puts someone who we’ve known do dangerous things even closer to someone we trust. We can’t trust her, either.”

“I’m still here,” I replied. “You can just refer to me.”

“You aren’t a part of the discussion, Ren,” Pestilence informed me.

“Not this time,” Famine added.

“But this is ultimately my choice to make,” I said. “No matter what you say, I can do whatever I please. I am still an individual with my own goals and priorities. None of you can change that.”

Famine looked to the other horsemen. “He’s right. We really can’t do much more than make a suggestion.”

Pestilence sighed.

“Then you can vote as well, Ren. All four of our votes will determine what you do. Does that sound fair?” War asked. He always did seem to be the quickest to think.

“That sounds much more fair. Now, where were we?”

Pestilence mumbled something before Famine reminded us of the topic. “Ren has never lied to us about anything. Hell, the bastard knocked on my door and told me he was an officer with the intent to just entertain himself with our cause.”

“And that’s why Ren’s a risk,” Pestilence responded. “She’s motivated entirely by her own wants and needs, and could easily ignore anything we request.”

“So could any of you,” I said. “All of you could easily do something that the others disapprove of, and yet you still trust each other. I am a risk, just like every single member of this organisation.”

Pestilence was quick to respond. “That doesn’t mean that we should just let you run free. You are a greater risk than the other members, because you have ignored several orders in favor of your own agenda. Other members haven’t done so.”

I shrugged. “That’s true.”

War tapped the table. “That doesn’t mean that a risk couldn’t pay off. Ren hasn’t done anything that didn’t technically benefit us. Even if what was done might go against our own moral compasses.”

Famine nodded. “Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what Ren should do. Ren, what have you thought about this deal so far?”

I cast aside the thoughts of does Death care? aside, to give my most honest answer. “Death sees me as an asset to his company. I didn’t accept his deal yet because I knew he might simply want to take advantage of me. However, I didn’t outright deny him because it is very true that he has resources that can heavily benefit me.” I paused. “Although, he gave me a bicycle I’ve essentially refused to use, if that makes you feel any better.”

Pestilence sat up and laughed. “That does make me feel just a little better. So petty.” He shook his head and sat back into his chair. “Doesn’t mean I think you should take this deal, though.”

“Personally,” I continued, “I think taking the deal might help me reveal his motives. If I discover his motives, we can determine what it is he’s really after. I also don’t think his goals align with,” I motioned to the other horsemen, “yours.”

I continued, “Death has eyes everywhere, and he can watch you anywhere he pleases. For him, it’s a one-way mirror. We just see shoddy reflections of ourselves when we try to look at him.”

“Yeah,” Pestilence agreed, “That’s true. But if we send you to the other side of the mirror, how do we know you’re coming back?”

Famine shook her head. “We don’t. But we also don’t have any other chances of peeking behind the mirror without Ren. As of now, I vote that Ren takes the deal.”

“I don’t!” proclaimed Pestilence. “It’s been made very clear by Ren herself that we can’t keep her in check. We can’t trust her.”

“No, we absolutely can’t,” War agreed. “We can’t control Ren. However, I can trust Ren. Ren has stuck their neck out for us multiple times. Despite actions we may disagree with, they have ultimately benefited us. We should trust them to do the right thing. I vote Ren takes the deal, and spies on Death for us.”

Pestilence shook his head. “One to three. Alright, Ren, looks like you should be taking the deal.”

“I haven’t voted yet,” I responded. Pestilence chuckled at that.

“Okay, Ren, what is your vote,” Pestilence said. Despite seeming like a question, it really wasn’t one.

“I’m still undecided. Taking this deal with Death puts me at a greater risk in my job as a police officer. It’s a conflict of interest, and being a part of this organisation is conflict of interest enough. Taking a second conflict could easily put me at greater jeopardy.”

Pestilence scoffed. “Death knows exactly what kind of risks you’re involved with when you take his deal. He knows the value of having you. He won’t make you do anything that would lose you your job. You have nothing to lose by taking this deal.”

I shook my head. “Honestly, I feel like I do. When he offered me the deal, he was just so damn conniving. There’s something wrong and I can’t put my finger on it. I vote that I do not take the deal.”

War cocked his head at me. Famine gasped and then sighed. Pestilence just laughed.

“This is an unexpected turn of events,” Pestilence said. “That means it’s a tie. How do we plan on tie breaking this? A coin flip?” He laughed again.

“I’m not sure how we should break this tie,” War stated. “Typically, Death’s vote would have greater sway in ties. Here, we don’t have anyone with greater sway but Ren.”

“Perhaps he shouldn’t take the deal, then,” posited Famine. “It is still his choice, isn’t it?”

The room was silent. No one knew how to handle the situation presented. I sort of had hoped that the vote would decide for me, but now I have to make the final decision again. Damn it.

Pestilence broke the silence, “No. Ren, take the goddamn deal. I don’t trust you, but your reservations about this situation is nothing compared to our reservations that we’ve had for years. You are going to take this deal, discover exactly what Death wants, and then you are going to listen to us when we tell you what you should do next. Three votes to one. Take the fucking deal.”

Famine and War simply stared at Pestilence. He looked back and forth between the two of them. “I’m breaking the tie. There has never been a rule against changing votes, has there?” War shook his head. “There hasn’t.”

“Good,” said Pestilence. “Then it’s decided. Meeting adjourned.”

War shrugged, stood up, and left. Pestilence said he’d go out for some air before he came back in, and Famine simply stayed in place.

“I recruited you. I don’t know what to do with that.”

“I don’t either,” I reassured her.

She sighed. “Fuck it, whatever. I don’t need to regret our choice. For some god forsaken reason you managed to get Pestilence closer to us, and had us vote unanimously. Whatever you did, it was genius. I’ve gotta give you credit for that.” Famine leaned back in her chair, regaining the confidence she usually had. “I should have recruited you a year sooner. Ha!”

I shrugged. I hadn’t done that on purpose. I also didn’t know what to say to her. “I suppose that’s why you’re one of the horsemen, and I’m not.”

She shrugged in kind. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Skill- no, competence only had so much to do with my position. We have much more work to do if we’re going to change anything. Good luck, Ren.”

I stood up from my chair, and slid it under the table. “Goodbye, Famine. I’ll let you know what Death’s plot is.”

Famine waved me off. I exited her house. Pestilence was outside, waiting as he said he would.

“Don’t fuck this up, Ren. I’ve put trust into you for this. Don’t make me regret it,” he said as I walked by. I stopped walking.

“You really care about the others, don’t you?” I asked.

He laughed, once. “That’s what happens when you work with people for so long, and have an important cause to fight for.”

“That’s admirable, Pestilence. Putting others before yourself.”

“What are you getting at?” He asked. He was glaring at me now.

“I’m not quite sure. I’m… learning some things. I might learn more.”

Pestilence shook his head. “I’m heading back in. Stop being a nutjob, alright Ren?” True to his word, Pestilence went back inside, laughing the whole while.

“I think I’ve actually learned less from that interaction,” I said to myself after he had already walked back in.

Next Chapter

34 – Little Orphan Anna

Previous Chapter

I finally got off work, and I was finally home. Zoe and I performed one arrest on an individual caught shop keeping. Besides that, the day was empty. I’m willing to believe that I used to be put in more dangerous routes before Shelby became commander. Was this her way of telling me she cared? I couldn’t tell, and I felt strange asking.

Either way, I wanted to just sit down and have dinner. I had quickly heated up a small meal in the oven, and was at my table to eat it. However, when getting comfortable in the chair, I heard the crinkling of paper.

I reached into my pockets, and pulled out a slip of paper. Unfolding it, I found out it was a note.

You’re better than you think – Shelby.

I suppose that’s a pretty clear way for her to tell me she cares. When did she find the time to slip this in my pocket without my knowing? Maybe that doesn’t really matter, does it? Maybe what matters most is that she believes in me.

Again, I found myself having these thoughts. Who else cares, though? What about some of those who maybe don’t care? How do I tell the difference between the two? I know that Shelby cares. I think she’ll be my basis for this. Despite how clear it is he wants to use me, is it possible even Death cares?

Hell, that complicates things. Maybe I should go back to thinking specifically about people who care about me. There’s Shelby. I think Zoe? Definitely Annabelle.

Annabelle! That’s exactly it! With that thought, I leapt out of my chair, abandoning half of my dinner, and rushing downstairs. With ease, my door was open and my computer was being turned on. I only had to wait a couple moments more for my computer to be online and running.

Once it was ready to go, I got straight to work. I was tearing through all amounts of documents, and trying to find a specific username. I had an algorithm to break the password, so there wouldn’t be any issues there.

It took me a couple of hours, but I was able to find a username. Once the algorithm had guessed the password, the next step was just to get Annabelle registered as a citizen.

I realised while filling out the information that there was a lot of information missing about Annabelle. I didn’t know her birth year, but I was able to figure it out by knowing her age and birthday. She didn’t have a last name, so I gave her the last name “Maria.” Zoe could change it once she adopted her. She didn’t have parents, so I couldn’t fill that out. I simply had to list her birth as undocumented. Well, I guess that part wasn’t much of a lie.

It took a lot longer than I anticipated, but in the end, I was able to input Zoe’s address to have a birth certificate and social security card mailed to her.

I sighed after I was done, and logged out of the account. No one was going to track me, that much was certain. After hours of work online, Annabelle was now a citizen ready for quick adoption. Zoe needed to only fill out a few papers, and Annabelle would be hers.

“You’re right, Shelby,” I said to the empty air. “I am better than I think I am. Let’s hope I don’t fall into a relapse.”

I reached underneath the desk and hit the power button.

Next Chapter

33 – Only a Mother Could Love

Previous Chapter

Zoe and I got into the police car. She was driving, and I was in the passenger seat. I didn’t feel a need to talk with her, and she seemed to feel the same way toward me, for the time.

However, once I noticed that Zoe has gone off-route that was when I decided it was time to speak up. “Zoe, where are we going?”

Zoe shook her head. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. There is literally nothing for you to be concerned about. We’re the police.”

“Zoe, we still have a job to do. Just because we’ve had infractions and gotten away with them before doesn’t mean that we should just start breaking rules again now.”

She laughed. “Yeah, whatever. One more won’t hurt. You’ll thank me later. Really, this is more like a small detour than anything else. It’ll be alright.”

I sighed. “Fine. Let’s be quick.”

Zoe kept driving, and I tapped my fingers along the side of the car door.

Eventually, we arrived at a house. Zoe parked and turned off the car. “Alright Fifteen, come along with me.” I got out of the car, and followed Zoe to the door. Zoe fiddled with the lock for a second, before opening the door. “Come on,” Zoe said.

I followed her in. There were already lights on inside of the house. “Why are we here, Zoe?”

“Because I’m here!” A small voice shouted. I looked around for the source of the voice.

Then, I saw Annabelle. She ran down the hallway toward me, before leaping at me.

“Fifteen! I missed you!” She exclaimed. I lifted the child up, like she seemed to want me to. She felt heavier than previously.

“She’s already gotten used to being here. She just plays while I’m not here, and sometimes cleans, too. I usually have to ask her to clean up, though,” Zoe informed me.

“I see,” I responded. “How have you been, Annabelle?”

“I’m good!” She responded. It was very clear that she was overjoyed to see me.

“That’s lovely to hear, Annabelle. You aren’t giving Zoe a hard time, are you?” I asked her.

Annabelle shook her head. “Nope. I’m being a good girl.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Zoe, everything is going well, correct?”

Zoe nodded, before looking away for a moment. “Well, mostly. I’m trying to get her legally adopted, but she isn’t even in the system. She doesn’t have a birthdate-”

“July twenty-fifth!” Zoe cut in. “My birthday is July twenty-fifth!”

“Well, not one that’s legally recognised by a birth certificate, anyway,” Zoe continued. “She also totally lacks a social security number, and a last name. I spent hours trying find something that I could use to identify her and get legal documents. There is just nothing.” Zoe stepped over to me and stroked Annabelle’s hair. “You can see why this would be an issue.”

I nodded. Annabelle nuzzled into my shoulder. “There isn’t any proof she’s a citizen. How do you plan to get her registered as one?”

Zoe shook her head. She mouthed I don’t know. We’re lucky Annabelle couldn’t see her.

“Alright, Annabelle, I think that it’s time for Zoe and I to get back to work. It was… Nice, seeing you.” I put Annabelle down. “I’ll see you another time.”

Annabelle nodded. “Goodbye, Fifteen. Goodbye, Zoe!”

The two of us left Zoe’s house, and returned to the vehicle. Zoe started it up, and we drove away.

“Anna is getting healthier,” Zoe said.

“I could tell. She weighed more then I remembered.”

“I’m just way too worried for Anna. I don’t think she could get deported, but she could just get taken from me and put god knows where. I really don’t want to try and keep a secret kid around. Well, only that secret part. You know what I mean.” Zoe sighed. “It was made pretty clear a long while ago that children in the U.S. didn’t matter unless they were clearly from the U.S. Even then, they often don’t care.”

I nodded. I remembered my lessons in laws and upholding them. “This is a problem.”

Zoe just shook her head again. “I don’t know what I should do.” The only thing that really bothered me about this was that I also didn’t know what she should do.

“We’ll figure something out, Zoe. We’ll figure out something.”

Next Chapter

32 – What Matters to Me

Previous Chapter

My hands shook as I knocked on the door. I hadn’t visited Shelby in far too long. I wasn’t sure if I should run before she got to the door or stay in place, stoic and brave.

It turns out, I didn’t have a lot of time to begin with. Shelby opened the door before I had finished my thoughts. “Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” I replied in kind, “Do you mind if I come in?”

“Not at all. I was just going to make dinner. I could make more for the two of us.” Shelby guided me in, and had me seat myself at her table.

“You looked incredibly stressed a couple of days ago. Are you doing alright?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Superior is just running me up the wall. What about you? We haven’t talked in awhile.” Shelby was cooking a couple of things within a pan.

“I don’t know, if I’m going to be honest. A few things have been concerning me,” I told her. “I just find that I don’t know where I should be going next.”

“Why might that be?” She asked.

I leaned back in my seat. “Well, did you hear about the last house we tried to burn down?” Shelby shook her head. “It didn’t go well. Famine didn’t plan ahead very far, and the house had a security system. Everyone had to flee, and many of us were put at risk.”

“Hm. Famine has never done anything like that before. Odd.” Shelby tossed some seasonings into her pan.

“Odd is putting it lightly. We got into an argument afterward about it. Claire had to split us up.”

Shelby sharply turned to look at me. “Claire split the two of you up? Well. That’s new. She would barely speak up to anyone before. You’ve sparked confidence in her. How’s it feel to be a parent?” Shelby chuckled to herself.

“That’s just another thing, though. I’m being confused by more now than before.” I said.

Silence hung in the air for a moment. Shelby broke the silence. “Well, go on, Ren.”

“Oh, right. Well, let me think about how to put this.” I leaned a little further back to think. “Well, people have been treating me different recently.” I stopped to give Shelby a chance to respond. She didn’t.

“People haven’t been giving me general fear and distaste. I’ve been receiving respect, and… Something else. I think people around are starting to legitimately care about me, including you.” I finished my statement, then waited for some response.

A few seconds passed before Shelby sighed and spoke up. “Yes, I care about you. So does Claire a bit. So do Zoe and Annabelle. Don’t worry, I heard about that from Zoe. Your secret is safe with me,” Shelby winked at me, “but my point still stands. We do care about you, for various reasons. Claire cares because you gave her the will to be confident. Zoe cares because you are helping take care of Annabelle. Annabelle cares because you’re the first person to give her a real meal in weeks, without getting angry,” Shelby lifted the pan off of the fryer, and smelled what was cooking. She put the pan back down.

Without saying anything else, Shelby turned off the stove, served two plates, which she brought over to the table. I waited for her to say something else, before it became clear she wouldn’t.

“Okay, so I can believe you when you tell me why all of those people care. But why do you care? You never told me why and I still don’t understand,” I said. Shelby put down her fork, and held her head in her hands.

“Ren, you aren’t going to understand everything. You don’t need to understand everything. Hell, if that were the case, you would be incredibly underqualified for the things you do. Let me put it this way: I care about you, and at some point you may figure out why. If you never do, then I’ll move forward with my life, and you can try the same.” Shelby picked her fork back up and took a large bite.

“Right. So what does that mean? You care, but I don’t get to know why? Everything you just said seems very contrive. Maybe I don’t need to understand it, but never explaining it won’t help me learn anything. I- nevermind. I don’t know how to follow that up,” I poked my fork around in my food, then took a bite myself.

Shelby sighed a heavier sigh at me than any of her previous sighs. “Renegade, you need to think about yourself and where you are going before you try to worry about me and where I’m going. You might have reason to be concerned over me, but I have a million more reasons to be concerned over you. Take a few steps back from where you are, and look at the bigger picture.” Shelby had already prepared her fork before finishing that statement, and had it in her mouth immediately after finishing.

We ate for a while longer in silence. I was unsure. I ate my food, but I also spent a decent amount of time chewing it for longer than I needed to. Shelby was finished by the time half of my plate was gone.

“Ren,” Shelby began, “You should go home tonight, and just sleep. You need a bit of time to think about yourself, and I can’t help you do that, even if I try. What I said about understanding goes for me, too; I don’t totally understand you. That’s something we’ll have to work on and live with, both.”

I spent a second in silence, thinking about her suggestion. “You might be right. But, I think you might also be wrong,” I said. I hoped she wouldn’t deny my next suggestion. “You care about me, and I don’t know why. Sitting alone and trying to think about those sort of things just creates paranoia.”

Shelby nodded in acknowledgement.

“I think I want to stay with you for tonight.”

Shelby leaned back in her seat. “Why do you think you want to stay here tonight?” She asked. She had a sly smile on her face, as if she knew something I didn’t.

“I, erm…” I began. I needed to think about it. If this didn’t matter, why would I care about being alone tonight? Clearly it did matter to me. Our relationship was confusing, but I didn’t want to let it go.

“I know,” I began, “I think I care about you, Shelby.”

She grinned at me, a wide grin. “I know you do. You can stay.” She kissed me, then rolled over.

Next Chapter