Paper Moon

 

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Author's Note

Hello, all.

This story is a bit of a complicated one to tell. I started writing it almost six years ago now, when I was 16 years old, and before I began to feel inadequate as an action writer. It was left behind after a few chapters, even though I absolutely loved the story, and most importantly the characters. For the last couple years, I've written exclusively realistic fiction driven by emotion and character development, which I feel much more confident with. 

Still, Paper Moon is always one of my favorites, so recently, I decided to start writing it again. 

So, here we go again. After many, many tries at picking up where I left off with this story, I'm starting from scratch. From the first word, I'm rewriting everything. 

Here's to hoping this try is the one that sees this story through.

Please enjoy.

 

Ashley

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Prologue

"She was the entire night sky, and all I was was a paper moon."

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Chapter One: Six Minutes

“Kai!”

The word disappeared the second Brian uttered it, the way words do in the most critical moments. In the middle of a shoddy baseball field without so much as a fence or a dilapidated dugout to return the sound, Brian’s voice was absorbed into the immense nothingness. It was like his cry, or perhaps he himself, didn’t exist at all.

For that, there was Kai.

She responded right before the world swallowed him up every time. Before he could begin to doubt himself, a blur of darkness flashed in his peripheral, and he watched as his partner darted toward home plate. The lean muscle beneath her jeans tensed as she propelled herself weightlessly across the dusty landscape. As the sun broke through the dark clouds overhead, it caught the surface of one of her curved swords, blinding Brian and their enemy in a seemingly coincidental but meticulously planned attack.

The stage was set. Time to perform.

As he rose confidently to his feet, Brian thrust his arm out beside him, spreading his fingers as a tingling heat shot up his arm. The air around his hand thickened and grew hot as the leather hilt of a long sword materialized in his grasp. Although brief, the instance of magic surging through his body brought him to a quick high, hitting him with the sudden, overwhelming euphoria that would have brought him to his knees as a child.

It passed, and Brian took off.

The feigned poise on the young woman across the field crumbled slightly under the intensity of Brian’s gaze, wrinkling as she tried to control her posture. Kai had predicted that their target was a fledgling witch, and she was never wrong. The young woman withered as the reality of the attack sunk in.

Overhead, the wind howled through the valley as the witch let out a horrible cry and released her first level of defense. From every available surface on her torso sprouted long, powerful arms, many times the size of her natural ones and far more invulnerable. The arms shot out away from her, racing toward Kai and Brian as they drew into range.

With one frighteningly graceful swing of a sword, Kai tore one of the arms in half. Brian shielded his eyes as the severed arm drew an arch across the sky, blocking the sun for a moment before hitting the dirt with a thump. There was nothing the young witch could do to defend herself; Kai’s movements were too fast to touch, and any arm that sought a fight was promptly cut off. Huddling behind her, Brian ducked and weaved in her shadow, waiting for her to open the witch’s defenses.

It didn’t take long. As soon as there was enough of a gap between arms for him to slip through, Brian sliced past the witch’s true arms and planted the point of his spear in her only fatal point: her throat.

The scream was deafening. Her arms shot out spastically in every direction, and Kai encircled herself and Brian with her blades, cutting down those that reached for them. Together, the two hunters leaped a few steps back and watched in silence as the witch collapsed, her many arms flailing as they tried to pry the sword from her neck. For the longest minute, the empty baseball field was filled with her screams and, eventually, the sputtering of her last breaths.

Silence came.

“You’re being careless,” Kai said finally, her boots crunching in the dirt as she approached the lifeless witch. Planting one foot on the witch’s face, she pried Brian’s sword out of the body and pointed it at him.

“We won, didn’t we?” Brian asked, smiling sheepishly.

“This isn’t a game,” she replied, shoving the sword into his hands. “You can’t underestimate the hunt just because we do it all the time. This is dangerous.”

Brian chuckled, throwing his arm around his partner’s shoulder and giving her a squeeze. “Did you see her face when she saw you?”

Kai bit her lip to hide a smile. “I didn’t notice. I was working.”

“Well, I did,” Brian said, grinning that crooked grin that Kai tried to convince herself she hated. “She was terrified! I mean, I get it. You’re pretty terrifying. But man, she really looked like saw a monster.”

Kai rolled her eyes. “Monster. Right.”

“Ah, don’t take everything as an insult,” Brian sighed, jostling her shoulders. She shrugged him off, letting her swords dissolve in her hands as she turned toward the dirt road where their motorcycle waited.

“Always in such a hurry,” Brian lamented, reluctantly following her as she began to walk. Kai ignored him, heading straight to the motorcycle and stopping only to retrieve her phone from her pocket once she’d reached her destination. After taking a quick picture of their fallen foe in the center of the abandoned baseball field, she quickly straddled the bike and kicked the engine on.

Brian scowled. “Move over. Daddy’s driving.”

Kai grimaced, scooting toward the back of the bike as she said, “Only if he promises not to call himself ‘Daddy’.”

Brian revved the engine. “I’ll take it into consideration.”

Without wasting any time, the sound of the engine broke up the silence as the two hunters peeled out onto the dirt road that lead back to the freeway. Kai linked one arm around Brian’s torso as she checked her watch.

“We’re not late. You just checked the time,” Brian said simply.

“Six minutes ago,” She reminded him. “You know we can’t tell time well when hunting. We have no idea how long we were in there.”

“Six minutes, I think.”

Kai buried her face in his back. “Please shut up.”

He laughed loudly, disturbing the silent landscape around them as they flew toward the freeway. Kai huddled behind her partner as wind funneled around him, pulling at her short hair as she tried to tuck it into the collar of her jacket. Around them, the dry fall air sent dried leaves skittering across the dirt.

“Dude, you’re thinking so loud even I can hear it,” Brian said, his eyes on the road as they neared the highway onramp.

Kai rolled her eyes. “Stop listening, then.”

“Someone’s gotta listen to your crazy ideas, right?” he asked. “What’s up?”

Kai sighed. “That witch was barely turned. We’re not going to get anywhere hunting witches like that. We need more powerful prey.”

“And we’ll find it,” he assured her. “There’s no rush, right? I’m not going anywhere, and either are you. We’ll make it.”

Kai closed her eyes, the wind whipping wildly at her hair as they sped onto the freeway.

“I know you’re in a rush, but you don’t have to beat your mom all the time. We’ll become Travelers soon enough. Just try to enjoy the process.”

Kai nodded, leaning her forehead against Brian’s back.

After only a moment of silence, Brian spoke again. “Are we done now? Play some music for me.”

She sighed in exasperation, digging her phone out of her jeans pocket and selecting the first song that appeared. With one arm wrapped around her partner, she used the other to hold the phone to his ear, playing whatever music he most recently added to both of their phones. Kai couldn’t hear it well with the intensity of the wind, but she didn’t exactly care.

It was only a twenty-minute ride across town before the motorcycle’s engine cut out and the two hunters jumped onto the sidewalk. Overhead, shadows fell from short buildings as the sun slipped behind them, shading the one way road that twisted up a steep hill. Their feet were silent as they passed over the dark cobblestone that ascended the hill, lined with small shops and family-owned businesses. A block away from where they parked, Kai and Brian pushed through the wooden door of a short brick building, ducking under the overgrown ivy that hung in the threshold.

Kai inhaled a long, deep breath of the musty air, flavored with cinnamon and espresso from the machine that hummed quietly behind the counter. Weaving between the few wooden tables and scattered chairs, they stepped up to the old counter. In the cramped space behind it, a short, red-headed girl sat on a crooked wooden stool, hunched over a textbook and nursing a cup of dark coffee. When the bell at the front chimed as Kai and Brian entered, the young woman looked up, smiling from beneath a pair of thick-framed glasses.

“Just in time,” Emma said, closing her textbook on a bookmarked page. “Anything to drink before you head in?”

“Nothing we can’t make ourselves,” Kai replied with a smile.

Emma nodded. “Have a good meeting, then. Give me a holler if you need any snacks.”

When she turned back to her studying, Kai and Brian headed behind the counter. Kai grabbed a couple tea bags and a jar of honey to add to her hot water as Brian poured some freshly brewed coffee from the kettle Emma kept on the back shelf. After getting their drinks, the two waved to Emma and ducked through the heavy red curtain that lead to the back of the shop.

The back room was nearly three times as big as the front, and lined with old couches and arm chairs that the shop had collected over time. Near the back door that lead to the alley behind the shop, there was a tiny, gutted bathroom with the door hanging ajar. Where there used to be a toilet was now a heavy metal desk and a leather chair that squealed whenever it swiveled. The middle-aged man who sat at the desk nearly touched the old sink with his elbow as he comedically crouched in the small space.

In the back room, people had already began to gather, eager to stake their claim on open bean bags and couches before the meeting started. Kai and Brian made their way to the long couch nearest the entrance to the room, where two girls were already seated with hot drinks. Like usual, Kai and Brian slid onto the right side, leaving a sliver of room between them and the other team as they all exchanged greetings.

Marley smiled as Kai sat down next to her, scooting to the side to make more room. “Hey, guys. How was your week?”

Kai shrugged. “Nothing exciting to report. What about you guys? Any good hunts?”

Marley shook her head, dark hair falling out of her ponytail and onto her freckled face. “Nope. Dry week, I guess.”

“It’ll pick up again. It always does,” Brian reminded them as he leaned back, stretching his arms over the back of the couch.

Kai sighed, leaning back with him and taking a sip of her drink. People continued to fill the room as she checked her watch, counting the minutes until the hour. When the short hand hit the seven, the middle-aged man rose from his chair with a creak and limped into the room with the support of his cane. The chatter naturally died down without instruction, and he looked over the group of gathered hunters.

Oar’s sharp eyes narrowed. “Where is A2?”

Silence. Everyone knew the answer. Before he could speak again, though, the curtain flew open and two last hunters entered the room, headed for the final empty couch. Vyka flicked her long pink hair over her shoulders as she collapsed onto the cushions, crossing her legs at the knee to display the sharp heel of her boot. Stretching her arms lazily behind her, she pretended not to notice all of the eyes on her, waiting for her to speak.

“Vyka, Jesse, thank you for joining us today,” Oar said, watching her display with no sign of amusement.

Her challenging gaze met his. “You’re welcome.”

“Maybe next time, we could shoot for a timely entrance,” Oar continued.

“I’ll run it past the committee,” she replied, a familiar smirk sliding across her wicked features. Oar took a deep breath and crossed his arms behind his back as he turned to the rest of the group.

“I’ll keep it nice and short tonight. I’m sure you’ve all noticed the lull in activity these last few weeks, but there are reports of some stronger witches spotted heading in our direction, so we can expect lesser witches to follow. Get your rest now so you’ll be ready when they arrive.” Slowly, he glanced toward the couch where Kai and Brian sat with another A Team. “This would be a good time for new teams to reach out with any questions or problems. I trust the A Teams to make themselves available.”

A chorus of hummed agreement buzzed around the room.

“Don’t forget to turn in your headcounts. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs a word. Before we finish up, I’d like to step outside with the A Teams,” he concluded, pointedly glancing at the couch again and then at Vyka.

Vyka smiled, shrugging as she lazily stood and slowly began to walk toward the back door, saying, “If you insist.”

Without protest, Kai and Brian followed the other A Team into the alley behind the shop, pulling the door securely shut behind them. In between their building and the next, the wind seemed a bit colder, funneling through the alley and carrying the scent of dumpsters further down the street. Kai and Brian leaned against one of the brick walls, watching Oar expectantly.

“I’m sure you were able to read between the lines,” Oar began, his voice quieter now, but more serious. “But I trust you six to handle these more powerful witches when they show up. Since the last recruitment was recent, I don’t want new hunters to be caught up in it while they’re still getting their bearings.” His eyes flitted toward Vyka, who actually appeared to be listening intently. “Witches aren’t a social species, but they’re inherently cooperative. Where there are powerful witches, others follow. You’ll need to prepare yourselves to handle the influx of witches in the coming weeks.”

Oar glanced at each of the six hunters. “It would probably be best to leave weaker witches to the other teams. You’ll want to be in top condition when we locate the source. Like usual, there will likely be one who sparked it all. I want the six of you to communicate so that when you find her, taking her down won’t be a problem.” He slowly leaned down on his cane, breathing out a long exhale. “We don’t have any good information on what’s coming yet. Let me know if we need to call in some local Travelers. For now, we’ll operate under the assumption that you guys can handle it.”

Everyone nodded in understanding.

With a deep breath, Oar straightened again and offered a strained smile. “Nothing to worry about yet. Just be aware and take care of yourselves in case of a situation. I trust you all to handle it without a problem, or let me know.”

Again, muttered agreement.

Oar nodded. “That’s it, then. Have a good night off, everyone.”

With an exaggerated sigh, Vyka stretched her arms above her head and headed back inside. Brian greeted Jesse as they filed back inside throwing an arm around his friend’s shoulders and grinning as they caught up on things Kai couldn’t quite hear.

Inside, chatter filled the air as the other six teams relaxed over hot drinks and a delivered pizza that had appeared. Still, the couch by the door was empty, so Kai returned to it. After grabbing a slice of pizza and reclaiming her drink, she parted ways with Brian and collapsed onto the couch.

“Are you guys sticking around tonight?” Marley asked as she and her own partner joined Kai.

Kai glanced toward Brian, whose smile glowed from the other side of the room as he caught up with friends. “For a little while.”

“You guys need to relax more,” Marley said with a smile, squeezing Kai’s shoulder. “We only get a few hours a week off the job. You should try to enjoy it.”

Kai nodded, leaning her elbows on her knees as she watched him. “I know.”

Brian caught Kai watching him and smiled.

On the other side of the couch, Marley sighed, grabbed Kai’s hands and pulling her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get something cold to drink.” As she began to lead Kai toward the shopfront, she called out over her shoulder, “Tori, Nita, come help us with drinks!”

Two girls on the other side left their spots on the ground to follow Marley as she lead the group past the curtain and into the shopfront. The light was dimmer in the front room, only illuminated by an old lamp that sat on a shelf behind the counter and bent over Emma, who was hunched even further over her homework. On the front door, a “closed” sign hung behind curtains that blocked any passersby from seeing inside the shop. The smell of Emma’s lemon-scented cleaning products temporarily masked the aroma of stale coffee, the same way it did at the end of every day.

Marley waved for Kai and the other two girls to find seats at one of the small wooden tables while she began to dig through the refrigerator behind the counter.

“You girls have any nice plans for this week?” Marley asked, her dark hair glowing by the light of the fridge.

“Nothing much,” Tori replied. “I’m going out with my boyfriend on Thursday, but other than that, just patrolling.”

“I can’t believe you still have a boyfriend,” Kai said. “It seems impossible to have a relationship like that when they don’t even know you’re a hunter.”

Tori shrugged. “It’s not that bad. I have to lie a lot, but he doesn’t really push it. He doesn’t ask a lot of questions when I have to leave in the middle of dates, so I think we sort of have an understanding.”

“I think that’s great,” Marley said with a smile, bringing four cans of soda to the table and passing them around. Kai glanced at the curtain to the back room, squinting at the light that streamed through around the edges of the fabric.

“Yeah, I don’t know any other hunters with human dates. It’s so nice that you guys can keep it up!” Nita added.

Tori beamed. “It’s not easy, but it’s nice to have someone outside of the hunter world to talk to.”

“Do you ever worry about his safety being around you?” Marley asked, taking a sip of her soda.

Tori shrugged. “Not really. I haven’t really ran into any witches with him, so I don’t think he’s any more at risk than other humans.”

Beyond the curtain and the scent of lemony cleaning products, the rowdy voices of the other hunters were heard, chattering and laughing. It was only once a week that the city’s hunters all got together, and with the stress of the job, it was necessary for them to reconnect whenever possible.

Most of them were only kids, after all.

“What do you think, Kai?” Marley asked, tapping on her soda can.

Kai smiled stiffly. “I think it’s really impressive. I couldn’t keep a relationship like that.”

Tori laughed. “You could if you spent time with anyone but Brian!”

“He’s my partner,” Kai chuckled, rolling her eyes.

“For now,” Tori said slyly.

Kai’s smile faded, and she glanced back at the curtain.

“What are your plans, Nita?” Marley asked.

The lamp on the shelf flickered.


 

***


 

The apartment that Brian and Kai shared wasn’t much, but they didn’t need much.

Late at night after IACW (International Association for the Containment of Witches) meetings, it was all too comfortable to go home to. The living room and kitchen blurred together despite the line of linoleum and shag carpet dividing the shoebox-sized space. On nights like these, the only light came from the blinking green numbers on the microwave and the open window, illuminated by the moon. The smell of microwave dinners and strong coffee lingered even once the sources were gone, clinging especially to the old couch that occupied the empty living room.

There was a tiny box TV on a cheap end table near the front door, although Kai and Brian had assured the landlord they didn’t need it, and even tried to sell it when the landlord gave an okay. Between the TV and the couch, the coffee table was always clean, despite Brian’s efforts to fill it with clutter whenever he had time. Beyond the front room, a narrow hall held doors to the tiniest bathroom and two bedrooms, big enough only to hold beds and a few personal items.

After so many years of living together, the apartment probably looked pathetic to outsiders. Still, though, history slept in the walls of the place Kai and Brian had shared for the last seven years, and no one could deny that.

“Tea?” Brian asked as they stepped inside, kicking his shoes off at the door.

Kai nudged them into a neat line with hers against the wall. “We just got back from the coffee shop,” she said with a chuckle.

“So, only a small cup?” he asked, rummaging through the cabinet for their one overused tea pot.

Kai laughed. “What are you drinking?”

“Tea, it sounds like,” he replied as he started the stove. It sparked a few times before lighting the kitchen slightly as the fire flicked on.

“I can drink coffee,” Kai offered.

“And I can drink tea,” he said, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Why would you drink something you don’t like?” she asked.

“Because I like to please my partner for some reason,” he said simply.

Kai sighed, opening one of the cabinets to find some instant coffee. Once she’d grabbed some and left if next to her tea bag on the counter, she retrieved a lighter and lit a few candles around the room, giving them a bit of light. When they first started living together, Kai had hated that Brian always wandered around in the dark at night. Over time, though, she began to understand what he found so relaxing about the relative darkness after the sun went down. Cheap candles were their go-to these days when they got home late from meetings or patrols.

Kai and Brian sat in silence as the water slowly warmed to a boil.

“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” Brian asked, hunched over one of the stools at the tiny kitchen island.

Kai pursed her lips. “What do you want to do?”

“Don’t act like you don’t have a plan.”

Kai smiled sheepishly. “Morning training sesh with Nita and Jace, then grocery shopping and a patrol.”

“Ah,” Brian said, slowly nodding. “We have the evening off, then?”

Kai shrugged. “I guess. What were you thinking?”

Brian was silent for a moment. “Training, I guess.”

Kai chuckled as she headed toward the stove to check the water. For some reason, after all these years, they still talked about the free time in their schedules as if they weren’t going to spend it hunting or training. Maybe there was something liberating in acting like they had a choice.

In the end, though, they were hunters. It was in their blood, whether they liked it or not.

They couldn’t ignore the draw to hunt anymore than they could ignore the sound of water boiling on late meeting nights.

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Chapter Two: Dark Blood

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