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In The Beginning

    The memories of her early childhood were hazy, viewed in her mind's eye like old shows watched on an ancient television set in desperate need of a good cleaning. She thought she might have been happy then. There were faint images of a pale woman with kind blue eyes and a pretty voice, of a man with golden hair, as tall to her child mind as a mountain, and gentle as a lamb. If she focused, she could see herself cuddled on the woman's lap, reading a story, or dashing about atop the man's shoulders underneath bright sunshine. She was never sure if these people were real, or if she had conjured them later on to make believe that her life had, at one point, been more than misery.
    A distinct line separated those blurry memories from the stark reality of the life she had been forced to go through: the day the police came to her home to fetch her, a man's deep voice telling her babysitter that her parents had been killed in a boating accident, and their daughter was to be given into the custody of her nearest relative, an uncle on her father's side who lived across the country. She remembered her babysitter vividly, the motherly arms that wrapped around her, holding her just barely out of arm's reach from the police officer, protecting her through a cloud of dark brown hair and a scent that had always reminded her of sleeping in fresh sheets. She had spoken in hushed tones, as though that would keep the child she held from hearing what she said to the officer, words that the young girl didn't understand then, and wouldn't understand until years later, but she had come away with the feeling that her babysitter did not like this uncle she had never met. The officer wouldn't listen, though, and only after threatening arrest did the woman hand her over to him.
    It was then that the cherubic child made her first sound since her house had been invaded by these outsiders, these people intent on taking her from all that she knew. She threw her head back and screamed, her tiny body flailing, white blonde hair whipping around her face as she fought the man holding her, carrying her away from her babysitter, her house, her life. Arms swung, legs kicked, connecting over and over again with flesh until she was all but thrown into the backseat of the patrol car. She screamed all the way to the Child Services office, beating on the backseat's windows, throwing herself across the seat and onto the floor, and she was still screaming when she was carried inside and placed in a stark white room, empty but for a couch that could have been softer. Eventually, her voice became hoarse and raspy, but still she screamed, even if no one could hear her.
    When her uncle arrived, she was asleep, curled up on the couch, her face red from exertion. There were no tracks of tears, even through all of the screaming and flailing, she had not once cried. Most of her clothing and some toys that the babysitter knew the girl favored had been packed up and brought to the office to be taken along when she was fetched. Her uncle was made aware of the situation, of his niece's obvious distress, and a number for a grief counselor in the area where he lived was given to him. He spoke kindly, shaking his head, lamenting on the waste of the lives of two good, loving parents, and the hardship of their loss for their only daughter. There were sympathetic nods and pats given to his shoulder while the girl's things were taken out to the rental car he had driven there, and then came the moment that no one could put off any longer. Her uncle entered the room and crouched by the couch, shaking her gently to try and wake her, but she was too deeply asleep. So he lifted her in his arms, cradling her to his chest, and those who had guided him through the paperwork smiled to see the obvious care he had for his niece, content that she would be well-cared for once she got past her shock.
    She woke some time later in a room she didn't recognize, with a man who looked almost familiar, but she knew she didn't know him. He sat in a chair across the room, staring at her with probing eyes, a glint in there that prompted a hint of fear in her young mind, a sort of fear that she'd never experienced before. She had never felt the need to be afraid of another person until that moment.
    Then he rose, and closed the distance between them.
    Then her nightmare began.

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Chapter 1

    Her name was Christelle.
    For most people, it would take years of trials, trauma, grooming, repressing, to be molded. For Christelle, it took one night, at the tender age of five years old. The single night that divided happy memories and harsh reality, a mere handful of hours that changed her life forever. Hours of being pinned under a body far larger than her own, with no one to come and save her, unable to even save herself, forced to endure things children should not even be able to fathom, let alone experience.
    It wasn't that she had been a strange child before that, as most would say in soft, whispered tones about children who later grew into adults who were not...normal. Christelle had been a happy, well-adjusted little girl once, with parents who had loved and cared for her, and extended family made of both blood and friends who had adored her. She was beautiful, inside and out, with the face of an angel and temperament of a saint. Everyone said she was the very image of her mother, a woman of quiet, reserved beauty, but she had the soul of her father, a man known for his kind, thoughtful ways.
    The day her parents died, though, the girl their daughter had been died as well. Christelle was a born survivor, she had simply had nothing up to that point in her life that she had needed to survive, and on that night, she was reborn into a world vastly more real, more bitter, than the one she had been living in.
    Her uncle was a man named Darren Amity, her father's estranged brother, but as the only kin Christelle had left, her guardianship had fallen to him. Unknown in those times was the reason for the brothers' estrangement. If the authorities had known, they might have hesitated before giving her care to a man she had never met before that day. Darren had formed an unhealthy obsession with her mother when her parents had first begun seeing each other, at one point holding her against her will for several hours while trying to convince her, first through pleading, then through anger, to leave his brother and be with him instead. After his brother discovered them, and several hours of intense fighting, shouting, arguing, they had agreed not to pursue anything that would go on his permanent record if he left the area and never bothered them again. Several months later, they had married, and a year later, their daughter was born.
    In the years since Darren had left his hometown, he had settled in Washington, D.C., becoming a power broker to make a name and fortune for himself. He was popular, charismatic, but held a dark side that none of his friends in the debonair upper circles of the nation's capitol ever saw. Unknown to those around him, he had diverted resources for years to watch his brother's family, his obsession with his sister-in-law never abating. Then his world came crashing down when he got the call alerting him to their deaths, as well as the knowledge that they had left their only child behind, a little girl who now needed a family guardian to avoid going into the system.
    The woman he had wanted to own above all others was dead, but she had left a piece of her behind, with no one to claim her but himself. Even he had been surprised to see just how much his niece resembled her mother, and his plans had shifted, changed, solidified into something dark and terrible in the first moment he saw her. 
    In the years that followed, Christelle learned how to survive with her uncle. The toys that had been sent with her had been put in her room, but never touched again, the time that might have been devoted to playing instead given to learning the many secret places of Darren's large house that could be used for hiding. The only exception was a soft, white rabbit she had had since she was a baby, this toy becoming her constant, only companion. It was the only comfort she turned to on the nights that her uncle came to her room, often drunk and muttering what sounded like nonsense to her.
    On the surface, Christelle's presence in his life had lifted his stature, a show made of his kindness at taking in his orphaned niece, her angelic appearance and manner charming all who met her. It had been made clear to her that if she made any sort of scene anywhere that he happened to take her, that she would later pay for it in pain that she had not yet experienced. She was not sent to school, but instead was given tutors, and had arranged playdates with carefully selected children from families in Darren's circle of friends. When she showed aptitude for the piano, she was given lessons, and then began performing in recitals to further enhance Darren's sphere of influence. At every opportunity, she was reminded that to make any attempt to expose him would only fall back on her.
    What Darren never came to understand about his ward was that she had no wish to expose him. It wasn't for shame or family duty or some misguided sense of love. Her faith in the world's ability to protect her from harm had been shattered the night she had been given to someone her parents hadn't even wanted her to know, who had destroyed her innocence with a single touch. At five years old, Christelle possessed knowledge that it took most a lifetime to understand: she would have to protect herself...and, if and when it came to it, avenge herself. That night, Christelle made the decision to recognize no authority but her own, and that every move and choice she made from that point on would lead to the reckoning she would mete out when all the pieces were in place. All she needed to do was bide her time.

    Years passed, and the child grew into a young woman whose beauty was as bold as her mother's had been quiet, with pale blonde hair that fell in soft, loose curls to her waist and blue eyes that seemed capable of piercing straight to one's soul. Only a few people had ever gotten close enough to see just how hard those eyes could be when they settled on something, how calculating their gaze was while deciding if something, or someone, could eventually be useful to her. All that most people ever saw was the charming, quiet woman that Darren Amity had taken in all those years ago when his brother and sister-in-law had died, whispering as gossips would how Christelle had certainly done right by her uncle's kindness. She was intelligent, accomplished, and had to be destined for great things.
    Out from under prying eyes, above all those of her uncle, Christelle had learned things that Darren never had any intent of teaching her. She had developed a voracious appetite for reading, but not for any actual love of the written word, but more for what it could do for her, what skills it could give her. She learned meditation and yoga from one, the basics of self-defense from another. The most influential had been several books that she had swiped from a friend of Darren's, a computer scientist whose leering gaze Christelle put up with for little other reason than it usually somehow pushed Darren into a protective mode he never had at any other time. She never got visits from him on those nights. Reading these helped her discover an affinity for computers, understanding what the books were saying even without having had any prior knowledge. Smuggling computer parts to Darren's house and into one of the few hiding places he hadn't yet found had been difficult, but rewarding when she put her first computer together and connected it for the first time to the world wide web. Code became second nature to her, and by the time she was fourteen, she was selling her services under an assumed name and hoarding the funds she collected in a secret account she had managed to set up right under her guardian's nose. At sixteen, she had funneled enough away that she could leave if she wanted to, she could disappear and make sure that her nightmare never caught up to her. It wasn't her plan, though. It wasn't what had gotten her through years of pain, torment, and misery, what gave her the strength to go on through night after night of enduring his hands on her, his body over her.
    Christelle had hundreds of nights in her memory, hours that were spent planning, plotting, waiting for her moment.
    Her moment came sooner than she intended. Darren stumbled home one night, drunker than he usually was, shouting her name at the top of his lungs, while she was squirreled away in her hiding place, so focused on the work she was doing that she paid no mind to the shouts. She had hidden there many times without his discovering her, and found that she could usually wait out his drunken bouts until he fell asleep. This time, though, she was given away by the pale light her computer screen gave off, with just enough of a glow to shine through the crack a loose plank in the wall made. The roar he gave as he tore the hidden door off of its hinges startled her, and as she jumped up, her desk toppled over, smashing the computer monitor and tower to the floor. She had no time to note its loss, though, as he was on her in an instant. His hand found her throat and squeezed, then he yanked her viciously to him, so that all she could see was the pulsing vein in his forehead, the bloodshot rims of his eyes. Snarling in her face, he pulled his hand back and dropped it swiftly, slapping her across her face, the first one hard enough to make her ears ring, the second blurring her vision and giving her the taste of her own blood, the third smashing something in her cheek. Christelle fell to the ground when he released her, landing near her damaged tower, and she screamed as he kicked her, his booted foot ramming repeatedly into her stomach. Curling up to try and protect herself, she didn't feel the scattered, broken pieces of her computer beneath her, the tiny pricks they made in her skin nothing compared to the bombardment of fists and feet determined to make her suffer. Then she screamed again, and she felt something push...out of her. Something that slammed him back with an unearthly force into the wall across the hallway. Her eyelids fluttered as she tried desperately to stay awake, blurring as she watched him slump to the floor, but as she wondered why the air suddenly felt so dry, so...prickly, her body gave away to blessed unconsciousness.
    When she woke, for a moment, she was five years old again. The room she was in was just as blindingly white, just as bleak and austere. Her throat burned from dryness, and she remembered screaming until she could not longer hear herself, unsure if she had gone deaf or simply screamed her voice away. Her gaze darted around and landed on the malicious stare of a man piercing her - but where she didn't know him before, he was all too familiar to her now. The memory of his attack rushed into her all at once, and she was no longer that child - but she remembered her. She remembered the crushing weight of his body, that searing moment of pain when her innocence was destroyed, pain that never went away, even after he left her. Pain that had haunted her for all of the years since. Most of all, Christelle remembered the moment something inside her had snapped, leaving her terrified but refusing to show that terror in the face of one who had wanted - needed - her cowed. And when she looked at him again, she saw that same man beside her bed, that same stare cutting into her - no, not into her. Just slightly away. Only now did she realize that ever since that night, he had not been able to look her directly in the though he was afraid of what he saw there. As though he was afraid of what lurked within the child that have her the strength to face the demon coming for her. As though he knew that, someday, she would be coming for him instead.
    For the first time in her life, as she met his stare unflinchingly, she realized that he was afraid of her. Every time Darren had threatened her, every time he had touched her, it was a measure of control over her, to keep her from using the power that she'd never known she had against him. But even he knew it couldn't - wouldn't - last forever. Staring him down now, she felt...powerful. The fury of it raced through her like a swift river, spreading until she felt like it was bleeding through the cracks of her skin. Something inside her had changed, and that something told her that her time had come.
    She could see it in his eyes. He knew something was different, and he could no longer hide his fear of her. She was missing something, though. There was something that she wasn't remembering clearly, something that had given his fear a blinding edge and made him unable to ignore it any longer.
    It was such a small thing, the clearing of her throat, to force his gaze to meet the one eye she could see out of, for just a shade of a second, but it was enough for him to see Christelle's smile, a curve of bruised, swollen, cracked lips, and that smile was enough to make him shrink in his seat, hands gripping the ends of his chair's armrests until his knuckles whitened as he stared at her, into the abyss of her eyes. Her face ached, but she didn't feel it, not through the sheer glory of seeing the mask of power he had worn for years finally crumbling, revealing him for who he truly was.
    She knew he had been waiting for her to wake, thinking he could pounce on her while she was disoriented, threaten her and put her squarely back under his thumb. They both knew the truth now, though. Christelle had never truly been under his control. For her, she had always known it was a matter of time. For him, he had been running from the inevitable from the moment he had first laid hands on her, but there was no longer anywhere to run. Her gruesome eye and smile followed him when he got up out of his chair, skirted around her bed, and left the room.
    It was the second night of her life where she could feel a distinct change in who she was. The last time, her nightmare had begun.
    Now, she would become the nightmare.

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Chapter 2

    Time in the hospital was a blur. Christelle barely registered the faces of the doctors and nurses who came in to check up on her, rattle off the various things that were keeping her trapped in bed. Fracture of her jaw, and her orbital rim and floor. Some internal bleeding. Snapped arm. Burnt patches of skin on her hands and forearms. When she did focus long enough to listen, she learned that Darren had brought her in when he came to and realized he had broken bones. He had spun a story about coming home from a business meeting to interrupt the attack that left her broken and bleeding on the floor, her assailant throwing him into a wall before running from the house. The hospital staff seemed to be under the impression that her uncle was horrified at what had happened to her. She could barely keep from rolling her eyes as they made sympathetic comments about how deeply he seemed to care for his niece, how much they admired his attempt to protect her.
    Christelle didn't bother telling them what really happened. The law had given her to Darren. She wasn't going to trust it to punish him now.
    The closest that she came to letting her anger rise and consume her was when the doctor very delicately told her that she had been given a rape kit when Darren had described how he had found her, but no DNA had been found. She was then shown a sketch of the man Darren claimed to have found over her and fought off. Some of the features were off, but she clearly recognized his friend, the man from whom she had swiped the books that had started teaching her computer science. Her blood ran cold with anger. That man had always leered at her, made her think he was picturing her naked, but he had never touched her, never even spoken more than a handful of words to her. It was the thought that Darren had raped her, again, while she was out cold from blows he had given her, being careful enough to leave nothing of himself where it would cause concern, and now was using the opportunity to rid himself of a perceived rival that made bile rise in her throat. He had to have thought that there was something more going on between them, that his territory was being moved in on...and now, he wanted to use his own attack to get his revenge. 
    To the doctors, she said nothing of what was on her mind. They asked her if she recognized the man, if she had seen him when she was attacked, and she shook her head. Let Darren stew on that, she thought.
    She was given a steady dose of morphine to keep her pain at bay, and she was thankful for it, since it gave her enough clarity to think. What she had seen in Darren's eyes when she woke told her the dynamic between them had changed. But why now? There was something that she was missing, that she couldn't put her finger on. She stared down at her bandaged fingers, the gauze taped over portions of her unbroken arm. Burnt skin, the doctor had said to her. That was the part that didn't make sense. There had been no fire that she could recall, or that she was told of. She tried to focus, to remember something said that struck her as strange when she heard it in passing, but it seemed just out of her reach. It held the answers, though. If she could figure it out, she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she would have Darren at her mercy. Whatever it was, one thing was certain. Her uncle's days were numbered, it was only a matter of how far he made her go to see them dwindle down to an end.

    She was in the hospital for over a month. She was told it was for monitoring, and for her protection, as well as making sure that she was healing well enough. Apparently, if the blows she had suffered had been a little bit worse, she could have lost her eye, she could have bled out, she could have simply died of shock. She was told that she was 'lucky' - lucky that her internal bleeding had been caught in time, that her burns would basically heal on their own with almost no scarring. Christelle felt more bothered than lucky. Every day that she was held here was a day lost for her, a day gained for Darren. She had to wait weeks for her broken arm to heal, for the swelling in her face to reduce enough for surgery to repair the broken bones there. She used the time to think, to remember.
    Waking one night from a sound sleep, she sat up and blinked. She had been dreaming, vividly, and she closed her eyes, her nose wrinkling as she tried to push past a strange feeling the dream had left her with, something like tingling in her skin. Then she remembered. She had felt that tingling before. She could see Darren being thrown away from her, that unnatural force slamming him into a wall. Before that. She felt the dryness of her throat, remembering screaming in pain, in frustration, trying to protect herself. After that. The tingling. Pinpricks in her skin. Like being shocked by an electric fence. Volts coursing through her, searching for an outlet. Then - thrusting out of her hands, a faint blue tinge, an invisible explosion, and a body flying away from her.
    What had she done?
    The next night, she woke again, coated in a thin sheen of sweat. This dream had been different. It didn't show her what had already happened, but, she thought, perhaps...what could come. Herself, ringed in a pulsing, crackling white-blue light, her fingers sparking. Machines surrounded her, and as she touched them, they spoke to her, rewrote themselves at her bidding. Bodies lay strewn at her feet, and she could see their faces...Darren, the authorities responsible for giving her to him as a child, those who she knew had suspicions of what was done to her and looked the other way. She glowed, and where she pointed, there was destruction. Then - beside her, there was a person, someone she just knew was standing with her, not against her. She needed to see their face, but when she looked up and tried, there was a flash of bright, white light and she was jolted awake, the sheets beneath her soaked, strands of her hair matted in wet tendrils to her face and neck.
    Shifting her weight, Christelle gingerly slid out of her bed and drew her damp hospital gown over her head to change into another from the linen cabinet. Clumsily tying the strings of the gown behind her, she looked around and her gaze was drawn by the blank TV in the upper corner of the room. In her dream, she had spoken to machines, and they had responded. It had to just be a dream, but it felt too...real. And she couldn't ignore the tingling that kept rising just under her skin. Reaching up to the TV with a shaky hand, her fingers stretching out toward it, she thought, Turn on.
    She dropped her hand, pursing her lips. Of course it was nothing. Machines couldn't speak to people. People couldn't tell machines what to do with their minds. There had to be some other explanation for what had happened. She took a step toward her bed, then paused as cold filled her. Her eyes narrowed, and she turned around to face the TV again. She drew in a deep breath and raised her hand again, and this time, she could almost sense her mind shoving the thought out. Turn ON!
    The tingling in her fingers burst suddenly, and she gasped in surprise and pain, falling back against the bed, watching as a flash of blue like lightning struck out from her palm and lashed at the TV set. It flashed brightly, a loud noise spitting through the speakers before the set sparked and fizzled out with a snapping sound.
    Turning her palm over, she brushed it with her fingers, and her panic slowly gave way to marvel. There was nothing there. No burn marks, no fried skin. She had thought for certain that her hand would be burnt, since she'd had burns all up and down her arms when she'd been found. Maybe it was just debris, she thought, pressing her thumb against the very center of her palm, where the burst had come from. There wasn't even any pain.
    Looking back up to the busted TV set, her brows furrowed together, trying to remember what she had done in the dream. When she had directed her hands the way she had...things were destroyed. But when she touched machines...
    Christelle stood up and dragged one of the heavy chairs from against the wall to place it just under the TV set. Aware of just how shaky and weak she was from her time laid up in a bed, she was careful as she stepped onto the seat, holding onto the back while she brought her other leg up and anchored her foot next to the other one. She straightened and eyed the set warily, then she reached up with both hands, closing her eyes as she grasped both sides.
    Voices burst through her mind in a language she tried to listen to understand, but she couldn't follow it. She gasped, holding onto the TV tightly, fighting to make some sort of sense of it. The voices rose to a fever pitch, drowning out everything else, and as it overwhelmed her, she yanked her hands away, nearly toppling out of the chair. Barely catching herself before she fell, she crouched, holding her temples in her hands. Those few seconds had set her head throbbing, and she climbed down from the chair, groaning inaudibly. "Shit," she moaned aloud, sliding back into her bed, uncaring that the sheets were still damp from her sweat. She fell back into a fitful sleep, but the dream didn't come again.
    Slowly, the days began counting down as she healed well enough that the doctors let her know that she might be able to leave soon. She had had more dreams, but nothing that had helped her to understand more of what happened. Her fingers itched to expend the energy that she knew was building beneath her skin, but she didn't dare release it, not when it would bring more questions than just her TV having to be replaced had. Her cast was removed one day, the bone in her arm mended, and a few days later, a nurse stood by her bedside, carefully prying the tape attaching the bandages to her face away, offering her a mirror when she was done. She took it, held it up, stoically eyeing herself in the reflective surface, fingers gingerly probing tender skin, red where it had been irritated by the tape. One fingertip cautiously traced a barely visible scar, a thin white line an inch below her eye, while she tuned out the nurse clucking over how well she'd healed, and how quickly. She gave the mirror back to the nurse, then uttered the first words she'd said to anyone since waking up in the hospital.
    "I want to leave now."
    The nurse blinked at her for several moments, surprised to hear her speak, then shook her head. "Miss Amity, the doctor hasn't cleared your discharge yet. And as a minor, you can't check out on your own. We need your guardian for that. Do you want me to call him?"
    Knowing there was little point in arguing with the woman, Christelle nodded, and the nurse left the room. After waiting a moment to make sure she wasn't going to come right back in, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and lowered herself down carefully. She already knew how weak she was after her exertions several nights past, when she'd barely done more than climb a chair and found herself sore and weary the next day, and she had no idea what that burst of energy that had shot out from her hand had cost her. Holding onto the edge of the bed, she carefully put her weight on her legs, confident that they would keep her upright, but she didn't want to tempt fate, not when the goal was to leave before Darren was summoned.
    So far, so good.
    Her nose wrinkled as she hurried as quickly as she could manage to the doorway, the floor almost too cold against her bare feet. She stuck her head out to look both ways, taking stock of anything that might be of use, not that there was much. The coast clear at least for now, she knew she would have to be quick if she wanted to be gone before the nurse returned. All that was left of the clothing she had come in with was her shoes, and she shoved her feet into them, then looked around for anything in the room that she could use as clothing, but there was nothing but her bed linens. Wrapping herself in a blanket or sheets would be just as attention-grabbing as her hospital gown, so she nixed that idea. Knowing there wasn't much that she could do for her hair, she searched around for anything that she could use to pull it back, eventually settling for ripping off a length of her sheet and using it to tie the wound-up mass of her loose waves up into a bun. Moving back to the doorway, she glanced out to make sure that she was clear, then edged into the hallway and walked in the opposite direction from the nurses station, her gaze darting around until they landed on a sign. Locker Room.
    She pushed the door open warily, sure that someone was inside, someone who would end her bid for escape before it had even begun. Miraculously, it was empty, and she wasted no time searching for open lockers, looking for something, anything, that she could use for clothing. When she finally found one with a set of scrubs hastily folded and shoved inside, she took them out and yanked her hospital gown off, thrusting it into a nearby trash can before hurriedly tugging the scrubs on. Stepping back into the hallway, she took a cursory glance to make sure that no one was hovering outside of her room, that her disappearance hadn't yet been discovered.
    She hadn't yet been caught, but she could see the nurse walking back toward her room. It was now or never. Christelle turned, walking toward the other end of the corridor, where she could see a sign for a stairwell.
    By the time the nurse discovered that she was gone, Christelle was two flights down and still moving. At the same time that the staff begun looking for her in earnest, she walked right through the front doors and out into the city, making her way toward the streets to blend in with the crowds.

    Problem A had been getting out of the hospital. Problem B was getting back to the house when she had no resources. Rubbing her arms through her thin shirt, she cursed herself for forgetting that it was February and not searching for a coat before rushing out into the cold. Her stride carried her as briskly as she could manage until she found a cafe, and then she ducked inside, groaning inwardly as she felt the rush of warmth surrounding her. Christelle approached the counter and offered the cashier, a boy who couldn't be more than nineteen, the most charming smile she could muster, keeping her hands wrapped tightly around her arms to impress upon him how cold she was.
    The boy goggled at her for a moment, then stammered out, ", how can I help you?"
    She tilted her head, turning her smile on a little more. "Oh, God, I hope you can help. Do you have a phone I can use?"
    His eyes slanted to the side, where the cafe's phone rested, and she could see him trying to form an answer. "Er...we're, um, not really supposed to let customers use it. I mean, unless it's know, like an emergency, or whatever. Somethin'."
    She nodded emphatically, her eyes widening. "My boyfriend just left me stranded. Well, ex-boyfriend." Her gaze lowered for a moment, her smile fading before she looked back up to him, her smile a little pleading now. "He was driving me to work, and we got into an argument. I told him I didn't think we were going to work out, and he just...made me get out of his car! He has my jacket, and my purse, he didn't even give me time to get them out of his backseat. I just...I really need to call my work and let them know, and get home. Please, can I use your phone?"
    She could see his Adam's apple working overtime the moment she had mentioned that she was now, apparently, single, and giving him a chance to play the hero. It wasn't a ploy that would work all the time, but...sometimes, it was a guaranteed hit. He nodded almost before she had the last words out, and waved her around to the edge of the counter. "Just...don't, like, take too long. My manager will lose his shit."
    Beaming at him, Christelle circled around to where he pointed and pulled the phone toward her as he nudged it over. "Thank you so, so much. You are a lifesaver." She took the receiver off the hook and after weighing her options for a moment, she dialed the number to Darren's house, counting the rings until the answering machine picked up. Either he wasn't home...or he knew she'd left the hospital and would be on her way there soon.
    As a woman with a monotone voice answered, she took a breath. "Hello...I need to know if you can send me a cab, but charge my credit card over the phone. I was just mugged and my cash was stolen, and I have no way to get home."
    There was silence on the other end for several moments, until the woman finally responded. "I'm sorry, we don't take cards. Cash only."
    The operator hung up on her, and she cursed under her breath, holding the phone against her ear until the dial tone began to buzz. 
    She stood up and put the receiver back on its base, then smiled at the cashier again. "Really, you are so great. Thank you." She tilted her head and made her smile turn a bit shy. "So I'll, um...see you around." She turned to make a quick exit, but was stopped when the boy called out to her.
    "Um, maybe you can give me your number? Or I can give you mine. Whichever. I mean, if you want to. Oh, and - here. You look like you need this."
    Sighing inwardly, she made herself smile again as she turned back around. Her eyes met his hopeful gaze, then shifted to the jacket he was holding out toward her. "Um...sure, give me your number." It was easier than dealing with the dejected look or the potential cajoling a rejected look might get her...and he was offering her a coat, which he didn't have to do. She took it from him, and then he grinned and scribbled his name and number on a napkin, handing it out to her. She grinned back, shrugging into the coat before taking the napkin, looking down to read it. Alec, he'd written above a series of numbers. Well, at least he'd been more helpful than anyone else in her life. "I'll try and give you a call later...Alec."
    She waved as she left the cafe, waiting until she was toward the end of the street before she tossed the napkin into a trash can. Nothing against Alec, he'd been kind, even if he'd had his own motives, but he was just a means to an end.
    Christelle shoved her hands into the pockets of the jacket, stewing in frustration at her inability to do something as simple as get somewhere. She had money, she had means, she simply didn't have it on her. Crossing the street to cut through a parking lot, she tripped a bit and looked down to see her shoe had come untied. Cursing under her breath, she bent to retie it, then looked up, an idea forming the moment she saw the car she was next to was unlocked.
    What was a car, but a large machine?
    She was slightly uneasy as she circled around to the driver's side, looking around to see if anyone was paying attention, if anyone would stop her. Opening the door slowly, she slid inside and closed it swiftly behind her. Her fingers stretched out toward the ignition gingerly, and the voices from before flooded her mind the second she touched it, discordant, loud, overwhelming her again. She started to pull away when one of the last dreams that she had had flashed before her eyes, and in that moment, she understood. It wasn't voices. It was code, presenting itself as she'd never seen it before. She couldn't understand it when trying to listen like she would to a voice because code couldn't be heard, but it wasn't on paper or on a screen, so she couldn't read it. It simply...was. And now, it was a part of her, as much as her blood and bones. Once she understood it for what it was, the screaming din in her mind quietened, and her mind shaped it into something she could use, that she understood. A string of code running in front of her mind's eye, parts of it glowing, pulsing. It was the car's onboard computers speaking to her, offering what she might need. Ignition, she thought, and the code sped rapidly, slowing as it approached a softly glowing green portion. Start, she said to it silently, and she felt the car turn over.
    "What is this?" she said to herself, smiling in wonder as she sat there, hands on the steering wheel, before she remembered her next problem.
    She didn't actually know how to drive.
    Closing her eyes, she leaned back against the headrest and sighed. She couldn't drive. She knew the basics because she was observant, but she'd never been behind the wheel. She knew where she was, knew it wasn't that far of a drive, but things could go wrong. And what if she got there just fine? That wasn't the end. She knew she wasn't at full strength, and doubt weighed heavy on her mind. What could she really do? She had taught herself how to relax and focus, but none of what she had learned was coming to her. Practicing self-defense against nothing but air while hiding in her room or one of the tiny cubbyholes that she had found over the years was a far cry from actually defending herself against someone bigger than her, stronger, more capable. Darren had years of practice manipulating her, getting under her skin. She had never fought him...she hadn't wanted him to expect it, she wanted him to underestimate her. She had always known the time would come for her to turn the tables. But now that the time was so very close, she found that the one underestimating her was her own self.
    There was nothing to do, though, but try. Christelle knew this for fact. She could either sit here and wait for the car's owner to come back and probably call the cops, and then she would certainly be in trouble...or she could take the plunge.
    "You can do this," she said softly, her hands gripping the wheel. One went to the shifter and pushed it into reverse, and she carefully backed out of the spot, watching the mirrors fearfully, waiting for the thump that would tell her she'd hit something. But none came, and she realized she was clear to move forward.
    "Here goes nothing." She took a deep breath and shifted into drive, then put her foot on the gas.

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