LeBlanc

 

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1 - egg theft

LeBlanc / l'illusionniste manipulatrice
a pulp scenario by QDesjardin

1 – egg theft

In the city of Vancouver, the Lehmann art museum holds numerous exhibits for the visitor's eye to behold. Impressionist paintings by the likes of Monet and Gauguin, elaborate clockwork models of hands and wings, and the hall of illusions where you might be awestruck by light distortions, quasi-3D images and that sign which says YES from one angle, but NO from a different angle.

Tonight, it will be robbed. Specifically, a recently imported, basketball-sized egg from Mesoamerica. The Egg of Xephon.

For the Societie de Black Rose, the egg holds an esoteric power that they can use as a gateway into heaven, to communicate with the unseen angels of another dimension. This can be done with the right incantation and use of adjacent objects – four candles, camille flowers, an altar, and the scrolls of the Dead Sea.

It will make the group a true presence to be reckoned with. With the angels by their side, they can ascend to the isle of Avalon, where the mythical figures of history and legend come to rest, and where the origins of all magick lie.

/

Now LeBlanc is striding alongside the harbour, alongside Lulu. They're both dressed in painter's garb, the white overalls, carrying empty buckets and bags. It's actually just a disguise, so they can sneak into the club building beside the Lehmann museum – the club is doing renovations on their third floor, and Jericho Swain has decided to use that as an opportunity to sneak into the museum, at an entry point that their security won't be expecting.

All the boats are alight in white lights, casting shimmers over the sea. LeBlanc imagines their owners exchanging polite words over cups of coffee, and maybe they'd sit out on the deck and gaze westward at the ocean's darkness. Perhaps even have fishing rods out to catch the seafood.

Maybe it would be nice to enjoy, but there's an egg that needs taking.

Petite Lulu skips along, humming a ditty tune to herself. She's only around half of LeBlanc's height, and looks like a child (it was a little hard to find the right-sized overall for her, actually).

"Are you sure we'll make it to our show in time?" Lulu goes. "I'm a tiddy anxious, Emmy.."

The way they have the security set-up in the museum, it is when they transition to late-night shifts (11:30 pm) that there are the fewest guards to deal with – leaving the bulk of their surveillence up to the cameras and sensors. Nobody really likes staying up that late, except for the night owls who don't have much to do during the day.

All the guards have to do is lounge around in the observation room, watching the monitors, and that can get tedious and boring by itself. (Thank God for TV and Nintendo.)

Swain has the theft plotted out such that they should accomplish the actual stealing in half-an-hour, with a window of 50 minutes to arrive at their performance in the circus. Showtime starts at 1:00 am.

"I'm not really sure," LeBlanc says. "We can only try."

Assisting in the theft is Heimerdinger, who monitors Lulu and Emilia from a disposible van, and Twisted Fate, who will be their getaway driver.

"Just turn right at the next corner and you'll see the club building," Heimerdinger tells them. "Good luck!"

"This night, Lady Luck is a smilin'," Twisted Fate quips from the driver's seat, as he deftly flits with a card in his fingers.

"Luck is nice," LeBlanc goes. "Butvolition is essential."

They approach the club building's entrance, where in the lobby, they introduce themselves as the painters to the bodyguards.

"Your licenses please," the bodyguards say.

Lulu glances to LeBlanc.

"Pocket," LeBlanc mouths.

And they pull out their papers to show the guards, who eyeball through the fields and posed photos – there is always that inkling of doubt LeBlanc has, for even though she's done this routine many times before, she always imagines that minute chance where that something, something she's forgotten about, it just gives her away.

"Okay," the guards go, nodding. "Follow us up."

They lead LeBlanc and Lulu up the elevators to the rather empty third floor, where the hallways are filled with plywood, bundles of metal rebars strewn over the linoleum. Over to a large, bare room that is intended to be a swimming pool one day.

The pool needs to be repainted from grey to white, and the job is only partly done.

"If you need assistance, you know where to look." Thus, the guards leave them alone to their duties, which they don't do.

Instead of that, they leave the paint buckets and head up the stairs to the roof, where they can see the third level of the art museum. It's just right beside, the museum's balcony, except for a gap that needs to be crossed.

A gap that will take a little more than a running long jump to do.

With a flick of her wrist, LeBlanc shoots out a chain that latches onto the balcony's balustrade, and tethers her end of the chain to the nearest lamppost.

"Okay, you first Lulu," she goes.

Lulu hops onto the chain, walking delicately on its thin substance like a tightrope, and she deftly clambers down on the other side.

LeBlanc nods to herself. "Hm." She has a hard time doing a balancing act herself as it is, carrying this bag. She gives the chains a tap, and they disappear like smoke into thin air.

Instead, what she does is imagine her new position, right beside Lulu – and in a blink, she is there already. The dust poofs up from her feet, as if she had just landed after a giant fall.

They quickly strip out of their painter's attire, stuffing them both into one of the bags.

The other bag will be for the egg.

/

In the antechamber holding the egg in a display case, Big Stan is sitting beside, supposedly guarding the new import on a petite blue chair. Except he isn't really awake; he has on those fake 'I'm Awake' glasses that make it look like his eyes are open, yet you can hear him snore.

"Hey, check out Big Stan!" Jeremy tells everyone in the observation room.

Neal is busy racing Jim on the Rainbow Route – they're head to head with each other, Bowser and Toad respectively, and it just seems like Bowser is going to ram poor Toad off the gay track into the depths.

Luckily, Toad manages to run into a powerup, and he gets the banana, which he shoots just ahead of Bowser's kart to make him swivel away, and Toad manages to win first place.

"Damn you!" Neal tosses his wiimote onto the coffee table, stretching his wrists. "Lucky bastard, if that power-up wasn't there..!"

"You gotta take what opportunities come," Jim retorts. "Sucka."

"Big Stan!" Jeremy points out on the monitor.

So Neal and Jim head over to see what the fuss is about.

"Guy's sleeping on the job.." Neal goes, suddenly getting an idea. "Hehe, watch this." He reaches for the announcement microphone, and presses the on button. "BIG STAN!"

Neal's voice booms through the entirety of the museum – corridors and halls, and as if someone has just tossed a firecracker beneath his bum, Big Stan rockets out of his chair, only for him to slip and tumble and splinter the poor chair into shards.

("Hehehe!" Everyone is giggling.)

The audio-triggered alarm screeches for a second, before it gets dismissed.

"Aaaaugh! You dumb pricks!" Big Stan gives the cameras his finger. "That ain't funny, what the hell." Big Stan grumbles as he decides to waddle over to the observation room, maybe to give them a piece of his mind better.

/

LeBlanc and Lulu cringe, hearing the second's alarm from inside. Have they triggered something by accident? Non.. it doesn't seem like it; the alarm disappears just as instantly as they hear it. If that were a real alarm, it would have continued blaring.

Pixy has just carved out a circular hole in one of the windows. (He's Lulu's faerie pet, if you're wondering. He looks like an obsidian butterfly, and he rests safe and comfy in her pockets until he's needed.) That hole should be big enough to squeeze through in.

With her little fingers, Lulu delicately lifts the selected glass from its place, placing the sheet just beside. This will be their entry point, as well as one of their possible escape routes; if they try waltzing in through the closed doors, they'll set off the alarm.

"Let's go," LeBlanc says. "You first."

Lulu pokes her head through the hole. Inside, the hallway is littered to the brim with portraits, framed sketches of artists from the 1970s. It's dark, only lit by the outside lights through the windows or the faux-candlelights hung by the alcoves.

She notices the security cameras – they are just on the ceiling, made obscured under opaque domes that you'd easily dismiss as ceiling decoration if you didn't know better.

"Pixy..!"

Her faerie companion can see the cameras' viewpoints. Right now, the camera by the left corner of the hallway is pivoting between this hallway and the next, while the other camera (at the right end) remains still, its viewpoint lingering over the hall and its portraits.

Pixy whispers all this into Lulu's ears, and Lulu tells him to freeze the still camera.

So with all his might, he fades into invisibility.

Lulu hands LeBlanc a pair of special glasses – allowing them to see the IR (infrared) beams the cameras project. The beams look like white, sparkling dots which rapidly flash in and out of sight, like floaters in your eyes.

It takes a little while before they see the beams from the still camera disappate away, leaving just the pivoting camera to face.

"Which way do we go..? Cecil?" Lulu asks in a whisper.

"Ja, you are by one of the third-floor balconies?" Heimerdinger's voice is a comfort in their ears. "Hmm.. the egg is on the fourth floor, by the occultic artefacts section. So you should be heading right, and follow the signs that point you to the elevators. But first and foremost, the security! Or else it will be a big pain to run through undetected."

Luckily, the server room that manages all the surveillence feeds is just a corridor away – also down the same way to the elevators.

"Got it," Lulu goes. She waits until the pivoting camera turns the other way, before hastily tip-toeing to the nearest alcove, where she can hide from its gaze.

LeBlanc holds her position by the hole, waiting for another fresh 2.5-second period of being unseen – she brushes by the drapes and gets together with Lulu, where they weave out and in the gloomy alcoves, until they pass underneath the frozen camera and round the corner.

Pixy emerges from the camera's dome, fluttering down to perch on Lulu's shoulders.

"Good job," Lulu says, petting him.

The next hallway doesn't have cameras for some reason, but there, the server room is just beside the handicapped washroom. Its door is locked, only openable by the petite IDentiCard scanner by the door handle.

Lulu gets Pixy to connect with the scanner.

"Okay.. I gots a reading," Heimerdinger goes. "It should take only a second.." He is running an algorithm where it attempts to brute-force through the lock, conjuring up many combinations of a 512-bit 'key' that matches up with an existing key from someone's card.

The only thing is that it is taking a bit longer than he expected. He's had to update his program to deal with the latest IDentiCard protocols, where the scanner now sends a notifying signal back to the observation room every time an access attempt is made. His program blocks those signals, but at the expense of the efficiency needed to go through each and every combination.

"Aaaggh, drats!" Heimerdinger says. "I've only gone through 6% of the keys.. 7%!"

"This is taking far too long," LeBlanc sighs. While she doesn't know much of the technical mumbo-jumbo behind the scenes, it gets really frustrating when something doesn't work, especially under time pressure, and there is little she can do about it.

Except.. hm. What if..

LeBlanc focuses her new position at a spot just behind the door, and channels her energies. Suddenly she finds herself in a realm of total darkness, except for the LED server lights, flashing red and green.

She hears something collapse in her wake. Whenever she blinks, she displaces the material that is there, and once, it led her into being trapped in layers of concrete – and it would just exhaust her, to try to summon the will to blink out of there.

Her hand searches for the light switch- there it is. She flicks it on, and sees in the sterile white room that she has split a Ronald McDonald statue into plaster chunks. His head and legs across the floor, while his torso is near-limbless.

Oh dear.

Supposedly, Ronald is there to guard the room, surprising anyone not privy to the guards' inside joke.

Luckily, LeBlanc didn't break any other equipment in the process; she opens the door for Lulu to come in.

"Thanks, Cecil," LeBlanc goes. "We're in the room now."

"Oh, it worked?" Heimerdinger is staring at his monitors, puzzled about the 'DOOR OPENED' status when his program didn't report success.

"Non – I worked, hehe."

The servers line across the walls, numerous coloured wires which protrude from the ports, connecting one server to another in parallel. (LeBlanc would call it a very 'technical' room, made with dorks like Heimerdinger in mind.)

"Now, would you kindly get Pixy to the hub?" Heimerdinger goes.

The hub is where all the servers are connected to, and where you can issue direct commands that will relay to each and every server. What does the hub look like? It's just another server tower, at the end of the room, that happens to have a monitor and keyboard at the ready, at chest height.

Lulu gets Pixy to flutter over and hook up with the hub. She herself though is a little too short to see the monitor, let alone reach the keyboard.

There happens to be a nearby chair though, which Lulu hauls over to the terminal.

Once Heimerdinger gets the connection, he quickly types in commands that prevent the alarm from sounding off over foreign Pixy. Then he sets his fingers to work, typing rapid keystrokes, his keyboard clacking noisily.

To him, it is a sweet sound of tactile feedback.

To Twisted Fate though, it is just noise that signifies progress – and he pulls out his harmonica and blows a few notes, just to pass the time.

What Heimerdinger does is disable the aural sensors (set to trigger upon sounds exceeding 40 dB, the volume of mere footsteps and slight chatter), and freeze the live feed of the security cameras. For the guards in the observation room, they might notice a subtle flick of all their screens, if they weren't busy getting ready to confront Big Stan once he comes.

"Okay, we're set!" Heimerdinger tells them. "Oh, just one more thing.." He sets free the emergency stairway, so that the doors are unlocked and won't make a peep. "Take the stairs, get some exercise!"

"I should stay here," Lulu goes. Pixy needs some looking after.

/

On the fourth floor, LeBlanc emerges from the stairway into a room of blue statues and splashed paintings. Light streams down the oculus hole on the ceiling, from the skylights on the rooftop outside. She hears the dim hum of the ventilation, keeping the air as cool as a brisk autumn.

She resists the urge to shiver.

Once she's glanced at the level's map, LeBlanc strides down the byzantine halls, passing by the stone carvings, swords and spears of a bygone era. To be honest, they're not really interesting to look at.

But at last, after wandering through the rooms, she discovers the antechamber with the egg behind a glass case. It's lit by a dim blue spotlight.

The egg is guarded by a three-stage security setup; first is the motion sensors, which will fire off if she makes even the slightest movements inside the case. Second are the lasers overlaying the egg, and third is the pressure-sensitive plate the egg rests on.

"I'm at the egg," she tells Heimerdinger. "Can you do something about its security?"

"I cannot, I'm afraid," he goes. "I can only handle what's connected to the servers, and apparently the egg is running on its own system."

LeBlanc takes a walk around the egg, amused by the sight of a splintered chair on the ground. She is examining the base of the podium. Maybe there is something inside she can tamper with.

She kneels down and knocks on the hardwood. It seems to resonantly echo, suggesting it is more than just solid wood.

From her bag, LeBlanc fumbles through her items until she finds an X-acto knife, and she extends its blade about two centimetres, and stabs the podium with it, sawing a square hole she can fit her hand though.

She pulls out the cover, and sees inside a host of wires connected on a circuit board.

If Heimerdinger were here, he could easily pick off the right wire, much like anyone can press the right buttons on a TV remote.

But to LeBlanc, it's a jumble. A circuit board is such an intricate thing, where if you touch a component, it can affect the entire system. (It's sort of like being a surgeon, and you're doing a heart surgery – perhaps someone smoked one too many cigarettes, and you have to clean out the arteries while keeping the blood pumping properly through the rest of the body.)

Okay. Where to even begin?

She'd probably make a bad surgeon. The human body is actually very complicated, to think of it, not like dissecting a frog in her biology classes. Non, concentrate!

There isn't much time left; 8 more minutes until they have to pack ship.

"Hey, Cecil?"

"Yes darling?"

"Can you tell me if yanking out all the wires on a circuit will make it stop?"

"Ehem. That depends on the kind of circuit. If it's a simple circuit, like a serial or parallel one, then of course yes-"

But before Heimerdinger has finished explaining, LeBlanc reaches her fingers in and yanks hard on the wires she finds. The wires don't quite give though – she pulls the entire circuit board along from its holster, and suddenly the alarm goes off.

A metal cage emerges around the vicinity of the podium, enclosing her inside, and misty gas billows out of the vents, rising over her feet.

Merde!

"LeBlanc! Schisse, what did you do?!" Heimerdinger is panicking, hastily typing, trying to stop the triggered alarm.

"I thought I could.." If only Swain could have given her pointers about getting it out, or if Heimerdinger were here with her.

No point in subtlety anymore. LeBlanc throws chains at the display case, yanks the glass into pieces, and she takes the egg by her side.

The gas enters her nostrils, and she starts to feel drowsy, as if the urge to sleep threatens to overwhelm her awareness.

(fight it)

Concentrating on the whining alarms, LeBlanc wills herself outside of the cage, and she poofs, hauling the bag by her shoulder and putting the egg in it.

"Emmy, what's happening?" Lulu glances at Pixy for a bit, before she skips off out of the room to find LeBlanc, leaving Pixy alone.

"I tried taking out the security circuitry," LeBlanc goes. "But I messed up real bad."

She is retracing her steps back to the third floor, sprinting through the hallways, remembering the landmark swords and stone carvings passed.

("Oh, time to make a movin'-" Twisted Fate sets his timer to 3 minutes; that's the time they have until the police arrive on scene. He starts the van's engine, and sets the frequency of the radio to the police scanners. "All units, please be advised.. a possible break-in at the Lehmann museum..")

Then LeBlanc sees ahead the flashlights, the bright beams which converge directly at her face, blinding her.

"Hey you!" one of the guards go. "Freeze! Put your hands up and get down on your knees!"

She squints, getting a better outline of their forms.

"Hands up! Down on your knees!" they go. "We will not tell you again! You will be tasered if you fail to comply!"

There are about two, maybe three of them she sees, bunched up together. Maybe more.

LeBlanc fires a chain at the guy at the back, and upon hitting his shoulder, she yanks him towards herself, bumping the two guys in the front and knocking them off balance.

("Holy hell-")

She leaps at their disorientation, her chain dusting away into ashes, and runs past them to the stairwell, where she finds Lulu clambering up for her.

"Emmy!" Lulu goes.

"I have the egg, let's go-!"

Behind LeBlanc, the fourth level door opens, and this time the guards are more wary, coming down the steps in staggered formation.

"Jeremy!" she hears. "Seal the emergency doors! We've got them!"

By the third-floor door, Lulu tries to push the handle, but it doesn't budge – the red light is on.

"Merde..! Cecil!" LeBlanc goes, seeing the guards round the bend. "Get the doors open again!"

The light turns green with an unlatching click, and Lulu gets the door open. They run, and LeBlanc shoots chains, attaching them by both sides of the stairdoor – right before the guards attempt to push though the blocked door.

The chains will only hold as long as LeBlanc is in vicinity, so it will only buy a small escaping distance.

"Is Pixy with you?" LeBlanc goes, lingering by the stairdoor.

"I left him in the server room!"

"Go get him! Vite, vite!"

The guards have given up banging the door, having noticed the chains through the window. "Jeremy!" Jimmy goes. "We're stuck! You're our only hope now, get them!"

"What the.." Jeremy says, noticing how nothing seems to be happening on the monitors. "Alright, I'll get those bastardos, don't you guys worry." He grumbles as he takes one last bite of his donut, before getting to his locker, readying his .44 carbine. He's never imagined how anyone would want to break into this unremarkable museum – except.. maybe that recent egg import has something to do with the robbers. He's heard that it cost the museum a hefty amount of its finances to obtain from excavators, and the egg is going to be such a marvelous attraction, even to the ordinary Joe.

He's not about to let the egg slip away from their hands.

At the server room, Lulu plops Pixy from the server hub and puts him safely in her pouch. When she heads back out, LeBlanc hurries after her to that hallway where they've entered.

Alors!

There is Jeremy, approaching from the other end of the hallway. He's always admired the cowboy shootouts from the oldies when he was a kid – now's his chance to use his carbine!

He aims, focusing at their legs (for a non-lethal takedown), and fires-

"Waaah!" Lulu squeaks, the bullet erupting by her feet.

LeBlanc notices the gun in the guard's hands; she hastily runs past Lulu, drags her along by her hand, looking for the entry hole.

A drift gently nudges the drapes, and LeBlanc brushes the drapes away, thrusts Lulu through the hole, and she feels another loud crack whizz by, where the bullet shatters a porcelain pot by the window.

Jeremy has only fired his carbine months ago, when he was trying it out for practise shoots at the range. He's forgotten how much he needs to hold himself steady, compensating for the massive recoil that throws off his aim.

Now LeBlanc throws her bag through the hole, then takes one last glance at the guard who is now taking another aim at her, before squeezing through.

"Lulu – hold onto me," she tells. So Lulu does. "Tighter.."

Lulu's arms are wrapping around her waist.

LeBlanc focuses at a point higher than the clubhouse's ledge, and immediately, they tumble onto the ground, while behind them, the balcony doors get opened, and Jeremy comes out.

They head back down to the swimming pool before he can squeeze another shot at them.

"Drats!" Jeremy shakes his gun in angry frustration. But there is.. one more thing he can do. He knows the bodyguards at the club, and he has their radio frequency number.

/

LeBlanc and Lulu quickly dress up into their painter's garb. Maybe the bodyguards here haven't come back up yet; painters don't usually need checking on every once in a while.

"TF, get the van by the club entrance!" LeBlanc orders.

Before they head off, Lulu gives a twirl of her hand, shouts "Transmogulate!" and the pool is now a neat, alabaster white.

They reach the elevator, head down to the first floor, and while passing through the midst of the clubgoers, they notice the bodyguards who are tuned in to their radio headsets, intently listening, talking to someone as they're walking by the reception desk.

Then, it is as if that someone has flicked a switch in the guards' brains – they sprint towards LeBlanc and Lulu with stupifying speed.

"Run Emmy!" Lulu skips to the revolving entrance, while LeBlanc narrowly avoids being tackled by a bodyguard, whirling around and shifting her body posture so to be deceptively out of reach.

She pants, managing a burst of sprinting to the revolving doors, where she waves bye-bye to the bodyguards who are one-quarter rotation late.

On the streets, they hear the screech of a van turning, as well as the distant sirens of police cruisers.

The club's bodyguards are rushing from the doors.

LeBlanc and Lulu run down the sidewalks, in the direction of their van.

The bodyguards are closing in.

Lulu pulls a white bunny from her pouches. "Flashy stun!" she tells the bunny, and she throws the petite animal behind in the general direction of the bodyguards.

LeBlanc instinctively shuts her eyes.

None of the bodyguards expect the bunny to do something more fantastical than hopping fast and looking cute, and so they feel the impact all the more when the bunny erupts in a dazzling explosion of blinding light, sparks and smoke.

It's deafeningly loud, and LeBlanc's ears ring uncomfortably after the fact.

The van approaches them, followed by the flashing blue and red sirens. Heimerdinger sweeps the side door open, and the van doesn't stop as Lulu and LeBlanc leap inside to safety.

LeBlanc sees the guards, they're sprawled over the sidewalks, before she slides the door closed.

"All units, be advised," the police radio goes. "Museum suspects seen to have entered a white, plain van. Engage suspect vehicle in pursuit."

The van rattles – Twisted Fate pushes the van to acceleration, the engine roaring. Heimerdinger is busy packing up all his equipment; his monitors, wireless modems, keyboards all into a duffel bag.

Twisted Fate swerves a corner, and through the back windows of the van, you see the two police cruisers easily come around, moving in closer.

Ahead, the downtown street is mostly clear at this time of night, save for a few cars on midnight errands. Using the other lane, Twisted Fate drives past those cars, running through a red light at the intersection.

"Okiies.." Heimerdinger just has his tablet, with a custom GPS program that provides secondly updates on their location, as well as the police vehicles who are tuned in to the scanner's frequency.

Their main objective now is to elude pursuit, find a suitable area near a train station to abandon the van, and ride the train over to the Pattaya Circus, the east side of town.

It's 12:13 am.

Only 47 minutes left.

Twisted Fate turns right at the next intersection, where he notices plenty of cars parked by the curbs. He slows the van down, driving in the middle of the road, allowing the cruisers to catch up to him – checking the mirrors to keep track of their relative positions.

When one of the cruisers try to approach by his left, gradually sliding up to being side-by-side, Twisted Fate swerves left, the van's mass bumping the cruiser off onto one of the parked cars.

This leaves the other cruiser.

The van turns left into an alleyway, where the cruiser follows.

"They're going down the alley by 29th avenue! Block off the south end!"

Upon hearing that, Twisted Fate jams hard on the accelerator – he sees two cruisers parked ahead, their lights strobing.

"Stop! This is the police!" their bullhorn goes. "STOP YOUR VEHICLE!"

"Like I care!" Twisted Fate mutters, before proceeding to smash their cars out of his way, this battering ram of a van – it jolts everyone, clattering Heimerdinger's bag on the floor. The van turns right.

"Dispatch, this is Officer Adamson, requesting immediate air support."

"Air support is en route. You are cleared to use level-2 force."

Up ahead is a bridge. The choppy reverberations of a helicopter in the distance. Twisted Fate drives the van to high speed, as the helicopter turns its spotlight on, quickly zeroing in on the van.

"Folks!" Twisted Fate says. "Get those cruisers off my back!"

"Mm hmm!" Heimerdinger toddles over to the driver's seat and puts his tablet by the dashboard, before he nods to LeBlanc and Lulu to open one of the back doors.

A burst of breeze catches LeBlanc off guard, tussling her hair.

The cruiser is swerving just behind, weaving through the traffic – about a car's length away. The elongated barrel of a shotgun protrudes from their passenger-side window. The officer's aide is in the midst of aiming it.

Lulu pulls out another bunny from her pouch, and she tosses it out at the car.

The aide blows his shotgun; the buckshot hail hitting the bunny, the van's doors and bumper, and through Lulu's hand.

"Owwiee-!" She clutches at her hand, gushing blood out through her palm. It is a very mean-looking wound, where the pellet barely juts out of her wrist.

LeBlanc hauls Lulu behind the closed door, out of their line of fire.

"It hurts.. Emmy.."

From Lulu's pouch, Pixy emerges, swiftly attending to her hand's wound.

"This is Officer Adamson, engaging armed suspects in vehicle!"

Another eruption from the shotgun, and pellets slam the closed door – the impacts denting through the sheet metal.

And another, shattering the glass.

"Get him off!" Twisted Fate shouts.

So Heimerdinger heads to the back door, where he picks a CH-2 grenade from his pockets, arms it to detonate in 1.25 seconds, and throws it out at the pursuing cruiser.

The grenade explodes in a burst of electric static, catching the police cruiser in its wake, frying whatever electronic systems in the car, the computer drive control. The cruiser uncontrollably fishtails, losing any semblance of actual driving, and crashes onto the side of the bridge, where it tumbles sideways onto its top.

"What a reaction!" Heimerdinger giggles.

Twisted Fate notices on the tablet that the red blip chasing him is gone. He also sees that a few blocks away ahead, more cruisers are approaching the other end of the bridge.

He thinks of something.

The van is descending down the bridge onto the streets, and Twisted Fate accelerates, pretending to head straight through the intersection – and then he switches off the headlights, shoves down on the brakes, veers sharply right, a U-turn onto the road beside, hugging the bridge.

The helicopter's spotlight continues chasing after nothing.

"This is Air 3! We've lost visual on suspect."

Twisted Fate drives the van to a shadowy point beneath the bridge, hiding from the helicopter that is frantically aiming its spotlight everywhere, over houses and roads.

You hear the helicopter's blades rushing past, as well as a kaleidoscope of sirens approaching.

"Base to Air 3 – all units, all units. Possible gang shooting in progress. Proceed immediately to Walbash and 12rd street."

"Roger that, I'm out.."

The sirens and helicopter disappear into the fabric of the night, and Twisted Fate checks the tablet, seeing all the police blips heading off to a different area, down west.

"I'll take that back, danke," Heimerdinger goes, nabbing his precious tablet from the dashboard. "Hmm, let's see now. Take a left, head down Irving Avenue, and-"

Twisted Fate doesn't wait for him to finish; he revs up the van and pulls out onto the roads.

"All Westbound units, please advise, suspect white van last seen near 7th street and Irving Ave."

It's a relatively calm drive; Twisted Fate drives the van normally, just without headlights on, and then he turns down an unlit alleyway as a shortcut, slowing down.

And then he sees it.

Two police cruisers, slowly passing by the other end, the flashlights out of their windows, their light beams shining over the detritus, dumpsters, fences, and..

"Dispatch, this is Glenn; possible suspect vehicle sighted in alleyway. Stand by."

"Roger."

Twisted Fate holds his position, watching the cruisers manouver themselves into the wide alleyway, side-by-side. Their sirens start to whine.

Then he jams down the accelerator pedal, switching his headlights on.

The van's wheels screech on the asphalt.

He's on a collision course with the two cars.

"Hey, TF – what are you do- TURN AROUND!" Heimerdinger yelps, instinctively clutching the seats. "We're going to crash!"

The officers start shooting at the van, putting holes on the windshield and hood.

"Turn around! ACHTUNG!"

LeBlanc holds onto Lulu, bracing for impact.

Twisted Fate continues forth, without mercy, and soon enough, the two cruisers have to swerve off aside – each of them crashing into the dumpsters and fences into people's backyards.

"Gets 'em every time," he quips, grinning.

/

The van is left outside of a multi-level parking lot, where Heimerdinger plants a timed explosive in the van while everyone else gets a safe distance away, and then the van's interior is shredded into flames.

"How's your hand, Lulu? Okay?" LeBlanc goes, seeing how Lulu's injury is now a scar, a dim memory.

"I'm keeping this-" Lulu has the deformed pellet at hand. "I'mma put this in my meanie souvenirs."

They hurry down the streets, rushing to the Avinu Station, a building where all you see is the neon sign, a map showing all the stations, and the stairs leading down to the sub-surface levels.

There's hardly anyone in the station, except for a drunk bum by the benches, sitting cross-legged on the old newspapers and plastic bags, meditating. Twisted Fate puts in spare change, buys tickets for everyone, and they head down the escalator into the bright platforms where an Eastbound train arrives, right on time.

The ride is long and solemn, and it feels like being in limbo as the environments just pass by, out the windows. The tunnels, the outside streets – the trees silhouetted by the light-polluted night. The high rises, still the lights on and people tirelessly toiling in their offices, even this late.

LeBlanc wipes the sweat off her face. She gets herself and Lulu out of their painters' clothes, and everyone is busy making themselves up, dabbing powder, lipstick, brushing the dust off their attire.

Lulu puts a neat nightcap on her head, while Heimerdinger puts on his scientific goggles, and Twisted Fate his cowboy hat.

LeBlanc gets her face white like a mime's, and puts noir lipstick on, with some light eyeliner.

They get off at Montana Station, where just in the distance is the circus, the skylights wavering its presence next to the rivers, and all the cars littering a concrete field.

It is 12:58 PM.

They have to sprint through the entrance, all the way to the performers' hallways, where Swain is tapping his foot, checking his watch.

"You guys are almost late," their maester goes. "What is the dawdle? You are here now though, that is what counts. Did you successfully retrieve the egg?"

LeBlanc hands him the bag, where Swain unzips it, cradles the egg in his hands. "Aahhh.. 'tis a beauty." He nods at the backstage entrance. "You know your routines. Impress the crowd, and wow them into our submission."

As they enter the darkness behind the curtains, they hear the crowd hush, the introductory music dim, and the announcer say, "Madames et Monsieurs, les hommes et les filles.. welcome.. to one of the greatest pleasures you will delight in the world!"

Lulu wraps her fingers around LeBlanc's.

Twisted Fate nudges his hat.

"Pattaya Circus is proud to present.. le Societe de Black Rose!"

And the curtains spread open.

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2 - Renton

2 – Renton

Amidst the crowd watching, there is a boy named Renton Thurston, by one of the middle rows. He's been alive on this Earth for 17 years.

You'd call him a withdrawn boy, the one who zones out and daydreams in school, during class lectures when the teachers would pace back and forth over the whiteboards – as if their side-to-side walking would be like a pendulum that hypnotises the students to pay attention to "During October 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.. Quebecois seperatists.. government had to enact martial law.."

Renton would want to stare out of the windows instead, out at the trees and the weather that ever-so-gradually changes. Or he would doodle the robots from Gundam SEED, dogfighting and taking potshots at each other in the margins of his notebook – during the pauses in which his Math teacher would digress about his cute Bengalian puppy, adopted and in loving care for about a month now. ("I taught him to shed his fur over the litter box! Isn't that cool?")

Just imagine.. if real life were more like all the anime shows he could stream online.

He could be the boy who will play a decisive role in saving the world's fate from evil magicians, surfing the LFOs (Light-Finding Operation, a kind of organic mecha) in the skies, and even.. fall in love with a nice, shy girl who he'd want to bring out of her shell.

That is, if there is someone else at school who's willing to bring him out of his. Most of the pretty girls he'd see, who he'd imagine would be the leading ladies, femme fatales in a good story – they have been taken by the jocks, and charismatic class clowns who like making the most asinine remarks about the infamous middle-finger "Trudeau salute."

The rest of the girls, while they are nice to talk with casually, they just look okay to him. The sort of girls who lack a certain 'spark' that would pique his interest, who just have bubbly faces and round or lanky figures.

A year ago, his innocence was shattered. His father, Adrock Thurston, the modest founder of Thurston Associates, the company that heralds civil engineering projects for the desperate corners of the world – Renton saw the life fade out of his father's eyes. It was a massive car accident, where they had gone on a hiking trip by the hills, and on their way back home, Adrock did not see the crashed car around a sharp corner.

It wasn't the initial collision that did him in; Adrock's Hyundai was flipped over onto its roof, and apart from a few scratches, he would have made it out alive.

If not for the red truck that also turned around the corner, slamming onto the side of Adrock's Hyundai. (The truck's driver hurriedly put up a makeshift hazard sign after the fact, making sure no other following cars would befall the same fate.)

And even though the ambulances came, Adrock was already dead by the time the medics pulled the stretches out.

It tore a numbing hole in Renton's gut.

Where there was the cheerful joviality whenever his father was at home, now there is just the silence, shared between him and his mother, and the occasional visits by his friend Fabrizio.

Oui, Fabrizio. Renton's one and true friend he's made at school. He's so amiable compared with Renton; the thing Renton likes about Fabrizio is how he is able to get along, and bring smiles and laughter to nearly everyone around him, and still stay closely connected with Renton. It's the kind of unspoken relationship Renton cherishes.

When Fabrizio heard of Renton's tragedy, he would often make visits to Renton's home and help break up the sense of monotony, of solemnness in the air that Renton's mum seems to project out in her mood.

("I wish you would actually cheer up, for once," Renton tried telling her.)

("Cheer up? But Renton, I'm already happy..")

(Non, you aren't happy. You just put up a fake smile whenever I bring it up, and I see it in your sluggish movements, the way you sigh when you pick up something of Dad's. It's like you always feel like wanting to sleep from the pain, taking a nap on the couch whenever you aren't busy with work or doing the chores, just to drown yourself out in happy dreams with Adrock. I hate it.)

And if there's any way Renton has of expressing gratitude to Fabrizio, it is allowing the liveliness to spread through his being when they skateboard by the Skate Plaza.

Renton isn't so bad himself – he's able to skimp around on the sloped ground, practising the very tight turns by leaning back on his board, pivoting it by the back wheels.

Fabrizio though, he's like a God. He can jump down the entire set of steps with one leap, slide over the thick fences, and even breakdance without the board ever leaving his feet. How long has Fabrizio been skating? (Renton picked up the sport somewhere around 4th grade.) It makes all the girls go "Ooh" and "Aah" and squeal at his unreal stunts, and even gets him admiration from the professional skateboarders who frequent the area.

The times without Fabrizio, it is an endurance test. Renton would stick to being in his room otherwise, on his computer, the internet as his other friend. He has to keep it down, unable to blare out music except through his headphones, lest he anger his mum, disrupting her lofty sense of peace.

He misses driving his RC cars around freely. Adrock got him quite familiarised with the mechanics of cars – how to tweak the car's engine, and troubleshoot whenever the car breaks down – and by extension, also showed Renton how to customise the RC's electric motors so as to blow everyon else out of the water in RC races.

Now, Renton could only just sit and stare at the petite RCs that gather dust on his shelf, and dream of the day when he could bring them up to speed again. Someday, maybe. His mum doesn't like the thought of having to buy a replacement RC if Renton ever crashes his cars into irreparable pieces.

"Why don't you give me the money if that happens?" Renton would ask. "I can buy the RC myself!"

"Non.. oh non, non. Your RC cars are toys, you should be outgrowing them! I'll save money for something more useful, later."

As if Adrock's absence needed to be more painful than it is already. When his father was still alive, his mum was so different; she was very kind and caring then, full of that joie de virve, comforting Adrock and Renton whenever they'd get upset.

And that wellspring of joviality in her seems to have all but soaked up.

If there is something that Renton could do, could say to flick that light switch in her on again.

In recent months, Renton has been overhearing the rumours and news about a group of magicians who want to visit Vancouver. The Societe de Black Rose, coming to his city. The last time any group of magicians have came here was back in 1986 – La Renaissance, a band of three pyrotechnicians who were based from Italy.

Until then, Renton wasn't really that interested with the magician phenomena. He viewed magicians much like he viewed the popular boy bands and sports teams; it's just hogwash, like glorified magic tricks that happen to have heated controversies surrounding them, spicing up the view count and ultimately their profit margins.

He only got to see magicians in action over the TV, and that was when he was young – when Adrock managed to tune the receiver to a bootleg international channel, which broadcasted live performances at astonishingly low quality transmissions.

It just looked like static to him, but he saw things like sparkling spheres being manipulated in mid-air, or large bubbles that can carry up to two people at once.

Something happened back then – Renton doesn't remember exactly what, but Adrock had gone on a brief business trip, and then returned home in a very depressed mood. And that time, Adrock told Renton that the magicians are just fake, ego-inflated jerks; they're really using wires, hidden contraptions, or computer effects (the same kind Hollywood uses on their Blockbuster movies).

Adrock didn't really want to say, but the big renovation project he'd been hoping to launch in India had been terribly thwarted, apparently by a very influential, sly sect of magicians who were performing there at that time.

So to Renton, magicians were just like prima donna politicians; besides wowing the audience with fakery on stage, they would also perform petty deeds that worked to their advantage, even if it meant murder and sabotage.

It is a little strange though that very little has happened in the city of Vancouver, relating to the magicians. He never got to see their performances live; they would travel all around the world, except for Canada in which they limited themselves to the province of Quebec, and sometimes Ontario. To him, the magicians felt as tangible as the avian flu outbreaks an ocean away.

He'd hear about their performances and occasional exploits in the news, but he'd rather watch Dragon Ball Z than listen to another word about.. how New York police have been baffled by the reservoir lake turned to ice in Central Park (during Summer), or the mysterious vanishings of artefacts from safes and museums.

So perhaps to Renton's curiosity, when he's heard that the Societe de Black Rose were coming to perform in Vancouver, he felt a pang of interest hit him. At last, he could go see what the big fuss is all about.

He looked up the Black Rose over the internet, and from what their official website says, they're based in France – a five-man group consisting of their manager Swain, their illusionist LeBlanc, their polymorphist Lulu, card maestro Twisted Fate, and technician Heimerdinger.

Renton discussed it over with Fabrizio; they'll try getting tickets for the event.

But much of the seats had been sold out already, and the price of a seat is $75 dollars.

What they did was reserve seats that were by the middle rows online, in close proximity to each other (if not right beside) – and promise to pay up the full price by the time the actual performance came about.

Thus, Renton saved up his lunch money; his mum gave him $5 every school day, but he would secretly prepare himself a sandwitch and some fruit from home instead. In 15 days, he managed to accumulate enough money for the seat, which he hid in his pillow, and bought his lunches normally afterward.

Fabrizio asked his dad for a part-time job at his company, and he landed the role of being the second-floor receptionist, which paid modestly, yet still enough to get the $75 dollars in time, and then some to spend to his likings.

On one of Renton's last days at school, he was in M. Fourier's French class, and it was time for oral exams, where everyone had to give an improv speech on whatever subject M. Fourier thought of. Be it on molasses (how M. Fourier loved the sticky syrup!), the French influences on Canada, or even Justin Bieber and his contribution to music history.

Renton didn't really like the class, and he especially didn't get along well with M. Fourier – that eccentric, bigoted fat old man. He's so patriotistic for his native Quebec, wanting the province to separate from Canada and become its own region; he brings the topic up every class or so, in the hopes of some students flocking over to his side, supporting this notion – but that is the least of it.

Whenever someone arrives late to his class (even a second late!), M. Fourier would have him stand up for the entire class as an example, not allowing him to sit down on a chair until class is over.

He also wouldn't allow anyone to leave for a washroom break, unless they swore a solemn vow, en Francais, not to smoke marijuana in the stalls. Because one time, it almost cost M. Fourier his teaching career when two boys went to the washroom at the same time, to smoke, and they were discovered to be from his class.

And he'd throw the chalkboard eraser at anyone caught sleeping, or not paying any attention in his class.

Like with Renton then, during Patrick's turn trying to explain why Dogs ought to be better than Cats.

"So, Renton," M. Fourier went, "think you can stay on Planet Earth long enough to tell everyone your plans for the two wonderous.. summer months ahead?" 

There was a lump in Renton's throat, that he couldn't swallow. "Umm.."

"Patrick, you may go-- come on up here Renton, so everyone can see you."

It felt like there were lead weights on his legs, as Renton dragged himself over to where Patrick was standing.

"Summer months, Renton--" M. Fourier was milking the sweat out of Renton for all it's worth. "Tell me about what you intend to do. Play video games in your basement? Watch the upcoming magic show?"

"Summer months.." Renton searched for French words, anything to begin with; his mind churned out blanks. "Ermm.. Pour mes vacances d'été, je veux alle--"

"Aller! Enunciate, for pete's sakes!"

".. aller le bowling?"

"Pétanque! 'Le bowling' is what they say in France, those lazy bums – not in civilised Quebec!" It just felt like M. Fourier only wanted to grind Renton's gears, with every correction.

Renton couldn't continue any longer. He was quivering, the eyes of everyone in class absorbing his growing embarrassment.

M. Fourier grinned. "Et pourquoi, Renton, voudriez-vous aller au pétanque pendant l'été? Lorsque vous pourriez faire beaucoup d'autres choses plus intéressantes à la place?"

"I.. I don't know what you just asked me.."

"Did you even study for the orals?"

".. I guess not."

"Hm." M. Fourier sighed. "You guess not..? Tsk." He approached Renton, walking around the boy, eyeballing him up and down. "Look at you, Renton. Who do you think you are? You come in here today, unprepared, unenthusiastic about knowing French.. the whole time you were in my class, I always see you waltzing off in your own spinning mind, galavanting off God-knows-where. Even after I told you a thousand times over to be here, and listen. Now tell me, give me one good reason, why I shouldn't just fail you, right now?"

Renton didn't want to look him right in his beady eyes. He looked away, but the other kids gave him no assurance.

".. what would your father think?" M. Fourier went.

And Renton just snapped – he slammed the son-of-the-bitch in the eye, and saw him tumble down hard onto someone else's desk. Some people even clapped.

It might have been the best moment in Renton's life so far.

Except that Renton had to show up in court, in an uncomfortably pressed suit, his mother beside him in shame, to face assault charges against his teacher.

"You're four months shy of 18," the judge said. "That means the assault charge you've plead guilty to carries a maximum of one year in juvie."

Renton wanted so badly to bury his face into his hands.

"But Renton.. I know losing your father isn't easy on you, and your mother. So I will.. reduce your sentence to two months of house arrest. I'm cutting you a break, son. Don't push it."

At home, his probation officer instructed him and his mere on his new electronic ankle bracelet, tracking his every movements.

"You're all set to go nowhere," his officer said. "Now if your bracelet lights up green, you're good, you're still in the safe zone about a 30 metre radius from.. this guy--" She tapped the Dualtrak modem installed on the kitchen counter. "It's like a radar, always on the alert. It gets a constant GPS signal from Mr. Bracelet, that goes through your phone line to the monitoring systems downtown. So they know where you are, where you've been, 25/7."

"What if he accidently goes beyond--" his mother asked.

"The red light flashes, and you've got 10 seconds to get your butt back to green, or else."

"The back-breaking squad shows up?" Renton went.

"They won't be using Nerf bats," his officer said. "Your bracelet is tamper-proof and water-proof, so don't try to stick your foot in a bucket of water and hop across the line. You'll just end up looking stupid. And listen up Renton-- house arrest might sound like a breeze, but I've seen many a folk get a bit loopy after too long. Some after just a day or two. So find constructive things to do to keep yourself busy."

It seemed like attending the circus was entirely out of the question.

Renton could only sigh as he spruced up his room, putting old clothes into the laundry basket, making his bedsheets, and slumped on the bed afterward, staring up at the ceiling. How he hated M. Fourier and all the legal nonsense! An entire summer vacation, ruined!

His mother grew a little stricter, making Renton do the dishes, the laundry, and house cleaning as discipline. It was very boring and monotonous to do, and the sight of all the kids playing out on the street was a very big taunt to him.

The house's air grew stifling to breathe, and when his mother would leave for work, he opened all the windows and felt the fresh breeze blow through every room.

Luckily, he still had his computer and internet, and when he wasn't busy with chores otherwise, he would go through the entirety of his backlog of anime (to watch), and to his surprise he would watch through all 26 episodes of a series in a single day or two. And the next series.

Fabrizio would come and visit too, when he wasn't working. "Hey, Renton, sorries you got busted by your French teacher. Everyone's still talking about it, and they look to you like you're some sort of hero! I guess everyone must not like him very much, right?"

"I really wanted to see the show.." Renton said. "But I suppose some dreams just aren't meant to be."

"Hey, know what I learned? That ankle bracelet you're wearing – I had a cousin who had one on like it; he got in trouble for marijuana possession, and you'll never guess what we've discovered!"

"What?"

And Fabrizio leaned in and whispered, "You can fool the modem."

Did Renton hear him right? "You mean.. you can fix it so my ankle bracelet won't go off? Damn.. you have no idea how itchy this thing is--"

"That's right. You heard it here first meng. Come on here, I show you."

Fabrizio went over to the kitchen, where the modem was. "Do you have screwdrivers or something?"

"Yeah.. hold on--"

After Renton got his set of screwdrivers over, Fabrizio unscrewed the modem's cover.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" Renton asked. "I mean, if this sucker goes off--"

"It's simple really. All you do is.." Without really explaining, Fabrizio's fingers fiddled with the wires of the modem's circuit board, quickly re-routing connections with the deft hand of a card dealer, almost like he's hotwiring a car to start. Some sparks flew, and afterwards, Fabrizio closed the modem's case.

Renton glanced down at his ankle bracelet. The light was still green.

"It didn't go off, right?" Fabrizio went. "Take me outside, to as far as you can usually go. It won't change colour, I guarantee you or your money back."

So Renton went out with his friend in the blistering sun, the sky a pure blue. The bracelet's maximum radius went all the way to the end of the driveway, on the street.

Step-by-step, Renton advanced to the curb. When he took another step forward, and saw that the bracelet light hadn't changed, his heart leapt. He was free--!

"Ohhhh, thank you thank you thank you!" So eager with delight, Renton did a rabid tap dance, and the other kids who were biking around almost fell over from laughing way too hard. "Except.. my mum still expects me to be at home.."

"Don't worry; you just go out when she isn't home!" Fabrizio went.

"I mean.. when the magic show starts."

"That's going to be very late at night.. or very early, depends on how you look at it. It's a 1 am showing. Me, I'm telling my mom I'm staying over at a friend's place that night for a sleepover. And you Renton?"

"I.." Renton glanced aside. "Actually, maybe I could sneak out, when my mom's sleeping."

"That's good! Great of you – you haven't lost it yet."

"What?"

"Your liveliness. I'd hate the thought of you going all limp and deathly, cooped up at home. You don't just live by merely breathing, you know. You need to have some fiirre!"

One Saturday, when Renton's mama was stripping bedsheets from the beds, Renton's stash of money fell out when she pulled out his pillows.

"What is this, Renton? Can you explain?" She pointed at all the bills over the carpet. "Where did you get this amount of money?"

He figured it would be good to be honest with her, lest she think he stole the money somehow and decided to be a full-time criminal. "I saved up my lunch money," Renton explained. "I made my own lunches at home while you didn't notice."

"For what? What for? You want to buy something.."

"Listen Mom, there's.. there's going to be a magic show at the circus. Next week. The money is to pay for my seat-- oof--"

He said too much.

"Your.. seat..? Renton.. don't you remember you're still tethered to this house? For the rest of July and August!? Have you gone mad!????"

Renton was at a loss for words – it was like all the steam pent-up inside his mother was bursting out the kettle, and her face was scrunching, as if trying to restrain the anger. She went and picked up all the money, not caring if the bills got crumpled in her grip.

Then she told Renton to stay in his room until dinnertime, where she turned eating a turkey salad into a lecture of massive proportions. How dare Renton lose his sense of correctness! What has gotten into the boy? When Adrock was around, Renton was everything but someone who would punch his teacher in the face, and.. and..

Maybe if his mother could emulate Adrock, with his cheery, can-do attitude, she could command the same degree of goodness from her son he once did, and everything will be alright.

But to Renton, her attempts at being Adrock was so off the mark, and so wrong – it was like seeing a caricature of his father come to life, and she'd try thrusting Renton into new interests, like cooking food and mowing the lawn.

"Gee, your mum sure is acting swell," Fabrizio commented, during a game of H-O-R-S-E on the driveway.

"I can't bear it much longer--! I know she's trying to get me to be her perfect son, like pretending to be my father would work." Renton tossed the basketball at the hoop, the ball just bouncing off the rims. "This is driving me insane. Moreso than the fact I'm supposedly under house arrest."

Fabrizio took some dribbles between his legs, and did a slam dunk manouver like Jeremy James, Chicago Bulls #47, shooting guard.

"And she took all my money away..!" Renton went, staring off at the west, where the sun must eventually dip down towards. "I can't go to the circus anymore. I'll just forfeit my seat--"

"No.. no wait!" An idea hit Fabrizio. "I'll give my seat and ticket to you, and you let go of your seat, how's that? I've already got mine paid."

"But.. I can't accept that-- you'll miss out.."

"No I won't. You've got your phone, right?" Fabrizio winked. "Just download Synchro-Cam, the app! It'll stream what your phone sees through the camera online, and I can go watch it with a few friends of mine back at home. It'll be a total piece of cake, si signor?"

The only remaining thing to do was to sneak out, the night of the showing.

Renton's mother though, she seemed to have abandoned her habit of taking naps – even sleeping altogether, and during midnight and after, Renton could hear her jumping up and down in the first floor, exercising aerobics to YouTube videos of Magic Mike's fitness classes.

Upon learning this, Fabrizio snuck Renton a free sleeping aid sample, a small packet with liquid, guaranteed to knock out a fully-grown adult for up to 10 hours.

At dinner, Renton snuck the sleeping aid onto his mum's meal, while she was distracted by a phone call from Adrock's company. He watched her eat the broccoli, sausages, and rice.. Soon afterward, she started yawning, and reluctantly got herself to the couch where she passed out into snores. Call it a well-deserved rest.

Then Renton went to his room, got his phone out of its USB charger – went downstairs to the closet, pulled out a $20 bill from his mum's purse (in case he needs to buy snacks and a drink), and last but not least, tucked his mother under a cozy blanket with a pillow.

He switched all the lights off, and took his skateboard outside. By the end of the driveway, he took a cautious step outside the boundaries to see if Fabrizio's hack still worked.

It did.

And the bracelet still lit green, even as Renton skated out of his neighbourhood, holding onto the backs of moving cars, Marty McFly style. He had Fabrizio's ticket in his pocket, originally mailed to Fabrizio's household, but given to Renton during a visit earlier.

It took Renton about two full hours to get to the Pattaya Circus, where he had to consult the GPS map on his phone whenever he got lost, ask directions from people, find cars and trucks he can latch onto without their drivers flipping out.

And at the circus, he rolled down his pants to hide the bracelet – no chance of it flashing red, even now, and people might get suspicious of it.

It would be another 3 hours before the show actually started, and that gave Renton time to setup the app on his phone, and call Fabrizio who's brought his cousins and two other friends with him, sitting by his TV, waiting for the signal to come from Renton's phone cam. The app didn't seem to work for some reason, and there was fiddling around on both Renton and Fabrizio's end, double-checking the IP address / receiver settings, trying to connect with a different Synchro-Cam server, etc.

In the end, it took an hour before they got the app to work, and even then, another half-an-hour tweaking the transmission settings so that the video feed looked clear enough without it lagging. Renton's phone was down to 74% battery charge, and perhaps it was better he saved his phone's power for the actual performance.

Renton was starting to feel quite hungry; he went to the refreshments section of the circus, where they had a whole buffet of Italian, French, and Chinese cuisine freshly made to serve. He paid the $16 price, with an additional $2 for a soda pop bottle (with free refills).

It was so filling! The way the food tasted on his plate, the Escargot and Pizza and the Sweet n' Sour Noodles, he regretted that he only had one stomach to take it in with. He was bloated now, and he had to go pee a few times from the Ginger Ale he drank. (Don't you know? Ginger Ale is especially good for the tummyaches.)

But then, the person he least expected or wanted to see – M. Fourier was also eating at the buffet! Renton's French teacher, seated at a far table down. "Tell me about what you intend to do. Play video games in your basement? Watch the upcoming magic show?"

Renton snuck out of the refreshments section as quickly as he could, and went over to the auditorium, where the crowd was gathering.

It was a vast field of seats, stretching down to the massive stage, the red velvet curtains curled over, incubating the Societe de Black Rose until their presences were ready to be revealed, to be shown in front of the eyes of many thousands.

There were numerous balcony seats too, that went all the way up to the ceiling, and Renton saw that some of the audience have brought themselves binoculars to see it all up-close.

Renton's seat was somewhere by the very middle, and he had to "Excuse me, pardon me" several times to get himself past the other families, the plump entrepreneurs, magician enthusiasts, critics and news reporters who are covering the event from all angles – the popular figures who are attending, like Sylvester Stallone and the mayor of Vancouver.

His heart is beating – it would really be the first time he'd see the tricks with his eyes, and not just through second-hand reports or a crappy TV channel. Because what is the difference between watching a movie on your petite phone, compared with the atmosphere of the movie theatre where you sit in the immersive darkness, the smell of buttered popcorn lingering in the air, the audience of other moviegoers around you who clap and cheer and cry at the moments depicted on the big screen – the sound and music pouring out the THX-verified surround sound speakers? Everything. Even if the movie is the exact same, the experience can be a grandiose one, or a small one, depending on the scenario you watch the movie in.

There is only a couple minutes to go, so Renton pulls out his phone and gives Fabrizio a call. "I saw M. Fourier, he's also here!"

Fabrizio spits out the Coca-Cola from his mouth. "What, really?"

"Yeah. I was eating at the buffet, and there he was – I don't think he saw me though."

"You better hope not," Fabrizio goes. "I hope he isn't right by my.. err, your seat. If he catches you, you'll be in deep doo-doo. And that's an understatement. You know what the penalty is for breaking house arrest? Five years in prison – and real prison at that, not juvie!"

"Yeah.."

It's Renton's first time at the circus, and he has to fear for the consequences. What if his mother miraculously wakes up back at home, and finds out he's gone? Or if the bracelet starts to beep under his pants, and people find out about it?

In a strange way though, it's actually exhilarating – it is the feeling that he's stepping out into the real world, with his own two feet. No longer is he coddled by the invisible safety nets, the rules set by his mother, or the school.

"Renton, you here?" Fabrizio goes.

"Yeah, I'm fine, I'm right here – was just thinking, it would be so much better if you're actually here too--"

"It's alright – never mind me now, I'm right beside you." Fabrizio hands his cousins the bag of BBQ-flavoured chips. "Turn the app on. I think it is about to start any second."

Renton does. "It's not the same.. I just.. I feel a little lonely here, by myself."

Then he notices the lights in the auditorium start to darken. All the seats have been filled up, and the crowd hushes down.

"Madames et Monsieurs, les hommes et les filles.." the announcer shouts over the loudspeakers. "Welcome.. to one of the greatest pleasures you will ever delight in the world!"

An expectant drum-roll plays.

"Pattaya Circus is proud to present.. le Societe de Black Rose!" 

And the red curtains spread open.

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3 - performance

3 – performance

First, there is the spotlight, hung over Swain. He gives a polite bow to the audience, his pet raven (Beatrice) squawking to everyone's delight, before he bursts into a flock of ravens that scatter over the entirety of the auditorium, the spotlight following their general path, where it finally lingers over the entrance doors where Swain rematerialises, and promptly exits.

But just as Swain leaves, Twisted Fate waltzes through the doors, and the audience cheers as he tap-dances down the carpet, before pulling out his dark of cards, tossing the Aces and Jacks into the air that make dazzling flashes of coloured poofs – people get distracted by the flashes, and Twisted Fate pops up onto the stage before they know it.

Then – Lulu comes in and turns Twisted Fate into a squirrel! She nabs the little critter by its tail, and pets it in front of the cooing audience.

"Let's go for a twirl!" she goes. She spins round and around, holding petite squirelly Twisted Fate by his paws. "Whoa, whoa- whoaaa!" Poor squirrel, he is flung out onto the audience, and they give a loud, audiable gasp before-

LeBlanc poofs along his trajectory and grabs him safe and sound as she backflips onto the aisle, and lets a cool smile out her lips, no sweat.

"Are you seeing this, meng!" Fabrizio goes over the phone. "Are you seeing it? That's so fricking awesome!"

"Waw..!" Renton says.

An usher comes by, notices Renton. "Excuse me, monsieur..?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry, but we don't allow phones on during the performance."

Renton can only frown. "Oh, right.. I'll just put it away.."

"Actually, I will need to take that – you can come and get it after the show, front desk." The usher has his hand out.

"Nonn..!" Fabrizio is slapping his TV screen, shocked of the scene unfolding before him. "Renton, whatever you do, do not let him take your phone away-"

But Renton has turned off his phone already, and hands it over to the usher. Little does he know that it would be the last he'd see of Fabrizio, for a while. Or his mama and home.

The crowd is in a roar over the introductory theatrics, and LeBlanc takes a swift bow by the bare stage, before the curtains close.

Behind the scenes, Lulu poofs Twisted Fate back into normal, so he can perform for his portion that is starting right next. The stagehands are hurriedly preparing the Wild West background, with a saloon, a horse stable, and the evening canyons.

"Going live in 5, 4, 3.." Heimerdinger counts, mouthing the last two numbers. (He has the double task of overseeing the technicalities of the performance.)

Everyone flocks out from the stage, while Twisted Fate poses himself, riding on a cow.

Then the curtains pull back.

"Mooo!" the cow goes! Twisted Fate trots his cow over to the stables, where he unmounts, parks the cow's reins over the hooks, and there is someone waiting by the Saloon steps. For him. It's Sheriff Lulu!

"Reach for the sky, Twisted Fate!" Lulu goes, her wood staff aimed at him. "Your outlawin' days are over! Why don't you throw down your cards and come in with me peacefully – I'll buy you a drink!"

"Says who?"

"Says this wanted poster right here!" Lulu points to the poster that's just appeared on the wall. Twisted Fate, wanted dead or alive, reward: $9,001.

"Oh yeah?" Twisted Fate puts his hands in his pockets.

"Hands out of your pockets!" Lulu pips, shaking her staff. "Or I'll blast you back to kingdom come!"

".. only two jokers in the deck, and I get dealt you. Let's play 'em hot." Then he throws a card in Lulu's direction, which pops and sizzles by her feet, and rolls out of the way just as Lulu blasts where he was with glittering light.

As Twisted Fate strafes, he tosses more cards at Lulu, smoke and flares erupting around her. Because it's a show, the effects he puts into these specific cards are more designed for flamboyant eye-candy than lethality. Lulu just hops and skips as her Pixy erects a shield bubble around her, protecting her from the dust and flying splinters while she fires more bolts at him – the audience dazzled by the lightwork.

Soon, they vary up the routine, where Lulu is pulling bunnies out of her pouches, and they skitter towards Twisted Fate, leaping onto him with great ferocity, and he is struggling to rid himself of bunny fever.

"Harrggh!" he goes, staggering, as he manages to fling a brown bunny through the windows of the Saloon, and an explosion of white smoke there.

"See," Lulu tells the audience, "I can apprehend outlaws just fine!"

Twisted Fate throws a bunny into Lulu's face.

"Owiee!"

The bunny explodes and Lulu is covered with grey soot. "Meanie! I'll show you true justice! To arms, my dearies!"

Suddenly, the cute critters come pouring out of the saloon. Squirrels, puppies, hamsters, and kitties! They threaten to swarm and pile dive Twisted Fate – luckily, he's able to whirl out his entire deck of cards; the cards flutter over him, and he is gone.

The critters are at a loss as to where Twisted Fate is.

"Oh my!" Lulu goes. "Where did he go?"

Renton looks up and about – the audience is having a gathering commotion. His first thought is that Twisted Fate went down a trap door.

Then, the spotlight hinges by the entrance doors, and there is Twisted Fate, waving his hat, a snicker escaping his lips. "Always on the run," he says.

And everyone bursts into massive applause. Renton is awe-struck – how did he do that!? That's like less than a few seconds.

"I found him!" Lulu pips. "You're not getting away from the law!" She mounts her wooden staff like a broomstick, and she glides off of the stage, "Vroom vroom!" – hovering over the audience, chasing after the card outlaw who is jigging a wild dance to taunt.

They continue their chase out of the auditorium, leaving the whole audience in an uproar.

Renton can't help clapping along too; this is so good.

Then Heimerdinger pops into the stage. "Hmm.. what an untidy mess! This looks like a job for my new Clean-a-Tron 3000!" He shooes the critters away, and then claps his hands, summoning his entourage Bertha to help dust away the debris with a broom.

"While we are getting ready for the next act.." Heimerdinger goes, the curtains falling behind him, "let me tell you a story about Science. You see, Science is a field that helps make objective understanding of phenomena possible, and it is through Science that you have your cars, your computers, your tablets and virtual eyewear that you all take for granted today! A hundred years ago, all of that would have been thought impossible, just only fiction that could be dreamt of by idle daydreamers and Jules Verne.

"But now that all of this is here – can you even imagine how your world will be like in the next 10 years? 50 years? A 100 years? The realm of future possibilities is a tantalising.. and should I dare say, even a frightening thing! Who knows what people will come up with next?

"Will it be jetpacks? Bubblegum stress balls? Specialised knowledge that you can eat in pill form, and you'll instantly grasp it like in 'The Matrix?'

"In my travels across the world, I have seen many wonderous and weird things, you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched.. C-beams, glitter in the darkness near the Tannhauser gate. But the most wonderous and weirdest thing of all, I have managed to bring to this stage, before your very eyes!"

The red curtains rise, and there is a lush aspen forest – a clear pathway, golden leaves scattered, that meanders through the white tree trunks. You can hear the birds chirping, and the breeze of a crisp wind sharing the sweet scent of the forest through the auditorium.

"Over a thousand years ago," Heimerdinger goes, "in the heavens, there lived a giant inside his gorgeous castle. The giant was a selfish man, who hoarded all the riches he could find in his travels. All the would-be thieves who desired the treasure were quickly discovered, and eaten by the giant – cooked in a meaty stew along with cabbage and onions.

"For hundreds of years, the giant stayed awake, day and night. He never slumbered.

"Then one day, sometime during the 1700s, the giant grew tired and sleepy. For you see, while a giant can stay awake for such a long time, he must eventually slumber for approximately 300 years to recover his wakeful gait.

"And to protect his home, he had placed upon his castle a protective spell that would expel anyone and anything who would dare attempt to intrude.

"Madames et Monsieurs.. what you are about to witness," Heimerdinger says, fetching a seed from his pocket, "is the first ever successful attempt at taking the giant's treasure! Because the difference between me and all the others, is that I have devised a counter-spell that could break through the giant's barrier! Mwahahaha~! For great Science!"

Then Heimerdinger puts the seed down onto the pathway, and covers it with soil. The seed bursts out and grows into a towering beanstalk that seems to reach far beyond the ceiling.

"Hmm-nngh!" That is his grunts of effort as he steadily climbs the magic beanstalk, and everyone watches him climb higher than the stage – hearing everything that goes on up in the 'heavens.'

The wind gales.

You hear the zap of the barrier being broken, and the clatter of rich treasure hauled into a bag.

Heimerdinger clambers back down the beanstalk, with a bloated bag over his shoulders, and people start cheering at the sight of a scientist with lots of goodies in tow.

He's on the ground now, and has his hands ready to untie the bag-

"FI FE FUM FO-!" the giant bellows from above. "I SMELL THE STINK OF A SCIENTIST. HE HAST STOLEN MINE TROPHIES, WITH THE HELP OF THIS TASTY BEANSTALK."

The beanstalk violently rustles, as a giant shadow is cast over the stage; it is Swain, over-sized! He's wearing a beard. "I'LL GRIND THINE BONES TO MAKE MINE BREAD."

"Oh noes!" Heimerdinger seems to panic, looking at the audience as if to ask them for any suggestions. "What shall I do? He'll kill me!"

"COME HERE, LITTLE WORM," Swain booms. "YOUR DEATH WILL BE SWIFT AND PAINLESS IN MY HANDS."

Then Heimerdinger has an idea. He gets a buzzsaw and tries cutting the beanstalk down – but Swain jumps down onto the forest, landing with reverberations. Heimerdinger stands just about as tall as Swain's knee.

"I WON'T DIE LIKE MY COUSIN DID," Swain goes, glancing down at the petite scientist.

"Well.. err.." Heimerdinger twiddles his fingers.

"I'M SURE YOU'LL GO EXCELLENTLY WITH HEALTHY GREENS!"

Heimerdinger raises his wrench, ready to defend his very existence. "Back you filthy, giant ape! You won't be eating me! I am a man of Science! Great Scientists shouldn't ever die to their experiments!"

And Swain is raising his foot, about to stomp the Scientist.

"Oh, I remember now!" Heimerdinger pulls out a shrink ray from his pocket and zaps Swain down into normal size. (Lulu had cast a spell on Swain to make him big beforehand.) "Try this on for fair size!"

"Aarrghgh!" Swain seethes in frustration. "You'll still be mine! Com'mere!" He swipes his arms inward, attempting to clasp Heimerdinger's oversized head. "Stay still, why don't you!"

"Mwahahaha!"

It may not look it, but Heimerdinger has perfected the art of dodging anyone trying to take advantage of his big head. He leaps left and right, Swain just too slow.

Heimerdinger leads Swain right into a trap – a net catches Swain, suspending him high from a tree, dangling upside-down.

"Ho ho!" Heimerdinger grins, while the audience laughs too hard. "To the spoils go the triumphant!" He heads over to his bag, where there are lots of lumps inside. "Let's see what we've caught.."

Unzipping the bag, instead of the golden trophies, LeBlanc pops out – she shoots out a chain, wrapping Heimerdinger by his arms, and soon rooting him stuck to the floor.

"Too late, dearie," LeBlanc goes. "I applaud you for your efforts, but the trophies are all mine now. Hehe." She kisses him on the cheek, and smiles at the audience who is making an absolute thunder, as the red curtains drape, closing over the stage.

"Stay tuned for Act Two after our 15-minute intermission!" the announcer goes.

Renton could only swoon over what he's just seen. It's what's on his thoughts while he makes his way out into the foyer, with the rest of the audience swooning over what's to come.

Amidst everyone else, Renton feels like the odd one out. There's families, friends, even intimate couples who have each other; Renton has no one, no one to share it all with – and he has the urge to slap that damn usher's face and nab his phone back, so Fabrizio can join back in.

While he makes his way to the washrooms, he overhears the conspiracy nerds who are debating the logistics of Twisted Fate, being able to make such a 50 metres leap in a second.

He's tempted to stay and listen to the interesting possibilities – most likely, it has to be a 'double' who stands by the doors, or for the ones who believe that the magic is real, Twisted Fate actually did teleport all that way.

But there's only so much time left.

And Renton has been holding it in the whole time; that's what you get for drinking so much ginger ale. He needs to make it to the washrooms, fast!

He goes into the 'Hommes' room, where all the urinals have been taken by fat guys, so he finds one spare stall that isn't being used, and feels the immediate relief from his bladder.

Phew..

Man, it smells so nice in here. It's like cherry blossoms.

So Renton flushes the toilet, and by the sinks, he splashes his face with helping doses from the faucet. It clears his senses.

By the corner of his eye, he notices the sweet blue glow of the aquarium on his right - the fish tank, where the fish seem to jolt and dance to the kids' tapping on the glass. Renton is caught by its submarine beauty, the serene piano which plays over the speakers.

He walks up close to the tank, pulling from a nearby towel dispenser.

A moustached catfish – it swims over the corals and past a snow globe..

Then, he notices through the glass, he can see clearly into the women's washroom. The ladies who have finished using the stalls, and are helping their hands to grape soap and cleanliness.

Even the kids are now bored of making the fish dance, and they're oogling at the vibrant, sometimes outlandish dresses the ladies have on, like they've discovered a Playboy magazine littered by the playground.

Renton chuckles at the sight – probably he'd do the same too at their age.

He's about to turn around and head out, when he sees her come out of the stalls.

It's LeBlanc, in her garb and ornate cape. There's no mistaking her. She's brushing her hair aside, and heading to the sinks' mirrors, she is re-applying white powder to her face (because some of it got smudged when she was hiding in the trophy bag).

"Ooo-aaahwow!" a little boy goes, cooing.

To Renton, he is only starting to see her now, as if for a first time. Up close, there's something delicate about her, that he can't put his finger on. Like if you were to suddenly leap upon her and glomp her figure, she could just crumble under your weight, disrupting the sheer fineness and grace in even the littlest of her gestures.

And while he can't see clearly the colours on the other side, he remembers the way her dress seems to glitter by the outlines, on the stage. One of her legs is covered by stockings, the other is laid bare. He sees the contrast of her noir lipstick against her white face.

And most of all, in her eyes.

Yes, she seems content, intent on her reflection in the mirror – her eyebrows light yet defined.

But if Renton could describe it, it almost seems as if her eyes were a shimmering pool; pretty and reflective on the surface, yet concealing a kind of depth.. a feeling that's akin to if you were listening to contemplative music, and your eyes are closed, and you're sifting through the images that surface from your memories.

Like a longing.

And it hits him, that across that watery world, she must be one of the most exquisitely wonderful beings he's ever laid eyes upon. His eyes are widening in wonder. He doesn't want her to go.. just stay here so he can keep gazing upon her form.

But she leaves anyway, putting away her powder, a fresh lick of her lips.

He's left staring at the door she leaves through. The anodyne intermission music continues on from the speaker, and the kids are rushing out now.

"5 minutes until Act Two!" the announcer goes. "5 minutes."

When Renton heads back out into the foyer, M. Fourier is walking to the washrooms – he catches sight of him! Oh non!

".. Renton?" M. Fourier goes. "Well, well, what are you doing, straying out of your house arrest? I guess you couldn't resist the magic tonight, huh? Does your mum even know you're here?"

Renton tries to run away, but M. Fourier grabs him by the collar, and hauls him over – pinning him to the wall.

"I got your ass, Renton Thurston," he hisses, glancing down at Renton's ankle, noticing the bulge of the tracking bracelet. "Ahh.. you've managed to circumvent their security system, huh. No matter; from this second on, you're playing by my rules tonight! I'll watch where you're sitting, and after the show's over, you're coming straight with me – I'm driving you back to your home, so you can explain to Maman what you've been up to.

"And if you even dare try to run away from me.." The grin on M. Fourier. "I'll call the police on you so hard, it'll make your head spin!"

It's like a big gaping pit has formed in Renton's gut, and all he feels like doing is wanting to collapse onto the floor, here and now. Where M. Fourier will have to drag Renton along to get anywhere. See how the bastard will feel.

"Oh, are you not happy anymore?" M. Fourier goes, seeing Renton's face. "I'm sorry.. I've ruined your fun! Just like you've made me a total embarassment in class!" He thrusts Renton out in front of him. "Now get along, back to your seat!"

And Renton recalls that day, everyone was staring at him when he had no French words to give.

He makes his way to his seat in the auditorum.

Somewhere behind him, he imagines M. Fourier, chewing his buttery popcorn, grinning to himself in smug satisfaction. (Ugh.)

Renton just shrinks into his seat.

"Our dearest patrons of the night," the announcer goes, "the show will resume in one minute! One minute. The second act is so immersive that all the doors will be locked shut until the end!"

Everyone is in such a rush to get back to where they were sitting, that you'd imagine that even missing one second of the show would be a let-down. Someone, a tall man in a top hat almost gets knocked over.

Then the lights darken, and the entire theatre is plunged into almost an absolute darkness. Everyone's murmurs hush to diminuendo.

And graceful, melancholic music starts to play.

It seems like a minute or two passes, before you start to see a lone, blue spotlight gradually illuminating a figure – LeBlanc.

"Madames et Monsieurs.." she goes. "Tonight, out of everyone here, I will invite one of you to the pleasure of a dance in my arms." Her smile is cool and captivatingly alluring, and in her delicate hands, she has a long and silver staff that has white gems at the top.

The crowd is whispering amongst themselves, sitting by the edges of their seats. Of course, they want to be with her, each and every one of them! Renton included, especially wanting just to be up close with that beauty.

"How will I pick, you must be wondering?" LeBlanc goes. "That is simple – I will send out one of Swain's ravens, who will decide upon one of you by pure.. chance. No judge of your character, no judge of what clothes you may be wearing. Are you ready?"

And she gestures – another spotlight shows a black raven, darting out of the shut curtains, its wings beating and fluttering as the bird flies over everyone's heads.

The shadow of the bird epilipticly flickers over the audience, as their eyes try to follow the bird's path, eagerly and wildly anticipating just who the bird will land on.

To Renton, it has the same odds for him as winning the million dollar lottery – none whatsoever. You're duped into something, taken in by that intangible chance that you could be the one. He lowers his head in a quiet, sullen disappointment, where he can only glance at that random lucky winner, who'll be up on the stage by LeBlanc's side, and imagine what their tango would be like.. with that grace she so possesses.

(imagine what she smells like)

Maybe he'll leave the circus with a memory of what could have been.

Staring at the carpeted floor, with bits of popcorn on it, the cheers of the crowd starting to sound like a torture to his ears, as if mockingly saying, "We're so excited to see someone like us on the stage! But not you! Oh non, not you!"

Renton sighs.

Then he notices the flash of the spotlight, engulfing him – he half-expects it to move away somewhere, but it doesn't stray. He feels a light pinch on his shoulders; the raven has landed on him. He blinks, and the raven's still there, its head cocking around.

It's like he could float away into heaven.

"Alors.." LeBlanc goes over the clapping audience. "Young boy, I think the bird likes you! Why don't you come down here to the stage with me?"

The aisles light up, a glowing pathway down to the stage, and Renton makes his way past people to the aisles, his feet feeling like they're walking on feathers, and at the back of his mind – if only Fabrizio were here, because this is something he won't believe if he told him in words.

Renton walks down the aisle, the spotlight concentrating on him, and he finds himself climbing onto the stage floor, where LeBlanc stands only a few steps away.

"Tell me, boy," LeBlanc says, holding her staff to his face like it's a microphone. "What is your name?"

"Uhm, Renton." He tugs at his collar.

"Renton? Oh. Such a lovely name!"

Behind them, the curtains pull open. Velvet light streams through the gap, and on the blank stage, the background resembles a clock face, the red and purple roses that partially cover the numerals, the minute hand spiralling around and around, as if a merry-go-round in its throes of maddening frenzy.

The light and shadow of it all play over their bodies, over the audience in the auditorium.

"Where are we going, you might ask?" LeBlanc plays with her staff, rubbing her fingers over the smooth pole. "Into a distant future, when humanity is all but gone, and only the barest elements remain on this Earth."

She slams her staff onto the floor, and the clock freezes – it fades away back into darkness, and another light comes into play; a dusk, violet sky over a landscape where nature has been allowed to ferment over the manmade elements. The ruins of a city (you soon realise), where the trees grow from out the high rises, and the roads have cracked, the weeds and grass protruding out of them.

But the plant life looks sickly. Where the leaves are supposed to be green, they look ghastly pale.

Renton is woozy from the sight – it just feels almost too real for his liking. He can even smell the heavy ozone, from the moments before a rainstorm pours.

"What year is this..?" the first question Renton asks.

"98,765 AD," LeBlanc goes, facetious. "This is what will happen once we drain our planet of its vitalities. Not even the cockroaches would survive. The fact that you and I are able to take in this atmosphere is because I cast a protective spell, so we breathe in the toxic air as comfortably as we could the air we take for granted today."

She takes Renton's hand, and together they walk down the desolate streets.

"Where's everyone..?" Renton asks.

"Oh, they're watching us safe and sound from their seats.. mm, if you mean this future-" LeBlanc snaps her fingers – nothing seems to happen. She snaps her fingers again. "Heimerdinger..!" she whispers. "Vite, vite!"

Off-screen, Heimerdinger gives his hologram machine a kick.

Then a video is projected for everyone to see: it is of starships launching out into space, emigrating towards a destination unknown.

"They've all left," LeBlanc goes. "Their planet to colonise, they call 'Nova Prospekt' in the Alpha Centauri star-system. But they left behind something very important.. that's why we're here."

She leads Renton to a vast meadow, of wildberry thatches which waver in the breeze. There, you see a square patch of bare soil, where LeBlanc gets Renton with her to dig away the soil, their bare hands feeling like ripping away at dried, hardened dough.

There they find it – a metal box. The lock has been corroded so much that LeBlanc easily tears the hook apart, and inside the box, the vinyl records are still intact.

"In 1992," LeBlanc goes, "a woman fell in love with a man, and she wanted him to cherish her love so. Thus, she bought the music she'd listen to everyday from the record store. The snatches of melodious sound she'd hear, he will listen to too, one day.

"So they made love, and a child grew in her. A boy.

"She buried her vinyls into the meadow, letting the man know of the day her child would be born, when she'd take him to this spot, and uncover her music, and he'd finally listen to the songs with his own ears.. and cry much like she would too.

"But the man left before she managed to give birth to her boy, and having no one left, she'd decided to leave her vinyls buried until her boy grew old enough to understand love.

"Her boy was taken from her as well, and for the rest of her lifetime, she avoided coming back to this very spot – it simply brought her too much grief.

"Now.. Renton," LeBlanc says, "shall we dance to the music everyone's forgotten?"

He is almost on the verge of choking up; he nods anyway, and LeBlanc picks a vinyl out of a faded jacket. She looks around, as if expecting something to have shown up already. "Heimerdinger! Where's my record player!"

The audience breaks into a laugh, and LeBlanc has to hide her blush of shy embarassment as the record player pops into existance – a bit too late for her likings, but oh well. She pops the vinyl onto the turntable, putting the needle in its start position.

Then the music plays.

It starts off modestly quiet, piano chords, and then it bursts into an up-cheery beat; LeBlanc is bopping up and down on the floor, and Renton is sucked into dancing along to it too –

Sun is shinin' in the sky
There ain't a cloud in sight
It's stopped rainin'
Everybody's in a play
And don't you know
It's a beautiful new day –

Even the scenery starts changing into something more amicable; it turns into a bright blue sky, and the meadow is rich with intoxicating yellows, greens and reds of roses. LeBlanc and Renton are now skipping across the fields, an idyllic moment, and everything is alright-

Until from out the ground, zombies rise up and groan towards the two.

"Oh non! Zombies!" LeBlanc has her hand up to her mouth in faux shock. The scenery quickly reverts back to its dilapitated state – oui, she knows it is such an overblown cliche nowadays to feature zombies. There's tons of books, movies, and memorablia on that already. But in the end, it must have struck a chord with her, because there's no other satisfaction like pitting her accumulated individuality against a horde of once-human beings who have long since surrendered their own individualities to a hive mind.

The zombies look the way they usually do in most fiction, like slow rotting corpses, with worn-out clothing and glowing eyes. (The stage actors don't get paid well enough for this – usually, they play roles like Laura and Tom in 'The Glass Menagerie.')

Renton puts his hand up to his mouth – he is giggling, like he can't believe he's in the scene straight out of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.' He begins miming the Thriller dance, with the moonwalk and all, and the people in the crowd are hooting.

A particularly lanky zombie raises his arms, about to cudgeon Renton – LeBlanc pulls him back just as the zombie swings.

"Attention!" she shouts. "This is no time for laughs; just stay close behind me boy, and tell me if they're closing in by my back!"

Then she shoots out a chain, which connects with one of the zombies in the back, and she gives a hard yank – the hauled zombie tumbles forward, colliding with his other comrades, and they all tumble to their tummies in a chain reaction.

Renton stutters; there's a very giant zombie, and he's decided to pick up one of his friends like a rock, getting ready to toss him. "Watch out behind you-!"

LeBlanc turns her face, seeing the flicker of rapid movement of the thrown zombie, and she tugs at Renton – she blinks the both of them just out of harm's way.

"Phew, that was close.." she goes.

"Aaghh, that hurt!" the poor thrown zombie says.

LeBlanc gives the zombie a pat on his head. "There, there." And then she turns to face the hulking giant, who's actually a professional bodybuilder. She shoves Renton to the side, as she backsteps from the bodybuilder's swings, managing to dodge all but one of his jabs at her face.

She is sent spinning to the ground, and the bodybuilder makes his best evil laugh he can muster. (Damnit, you're a zombie, not a super-villain.) Her attempt to roll away from his reach fails when he catches her by her legs, and raises her high, upside-down for everyone to see.

"You are mine now!" the bodybuilder zombie says. "You belong to me! Who's your Daddy now? I am!"

Renton tosses a nearby pebble at the bodybuilder – it strikes his head, but he doesn't even flinch. Instead, he turns to Renton and smiles. Come and try me kid.

"You big bastard!" Renton shouts. "You let her go!

The bodybuilder starts walking towards the boy; LeBlanc sees an opportunity to trip him, and she fires chains from both wrists that attach onto the zombie's ankles and root him to the ground. He falls, face-first, and LeBlanc is sandwiched under him.

She has to have Renton hauling her out by her arms.

And then, to the roaring audience, she nods, and holds Renton's arm up high in a celebration of victory. But they stop cheering – there's another horde of zombies, entering the foray. Around 30 of them, surrounding the two of them on all sides.

When it seems like there's no hope, suddenly – a great burst of light, and an electric explosion! The time-travelling DeLorean car bursts onto the scene, skidding from its 88 miles per hour to a halt. The zombies turn their attention to the dainty car, where out the doors, there's Heimerdinger (as Doc Brown) and Lulu (Marty McFly).

"Great Scott!" Heimerdinger exclaims. "This is what our future looks like!? The year 98,765!?"

"Hey! Save us!" LeBlanc waves at them.

"Great Scott! We've encountered intelligent life forms! And two of them look just like us!"

The zombies turn back to LeBlanc and Renton, getting ready to devour the two of them with impunity.

"Doc!" Lulu goes. "You better do something quick! They'll be fish food any second!"

"Right-o!"

From the car, Heimerdinger pulls out one of his H-28G turrets, customly modified to shoot out custard pies for this performance. He arms the turret next to his car, and the turret immediately spits out pies, rapid fire, splatting the zombies all over.

LeBlanc and Renton quickly run to the car, and she has to blink themselves both out of the turret's targeting – everyone gets inside, and Heimerdinger sets his destination time to 20th July 2015.

The turret keeps blasting zombies until it runs out of rounds, as the DeLorean begins to rise up into the air, the wheels turned into turbojets, and swerving around to face the audience, the time machine blasts off right into the ceiling!

In a bright flash, the DeLorean disappears!

And on the brightly lit stage, there is every member of the Black Rose – Renton included with them, standing side-by-side in a bout of euphoria.

He can hardly believe the wonderful thing he's just experienced! In those moments on-stage, he felt.. he felt involved and truly alive with LeBlanc, that woman. The crowd crescendos, and Renton finds himself smiling more and more, as the people in the front rows toss out bouquets of flowers, and Swain steps forward, picking one of the bouquets up.

It's the last moments before it's entirely over..

Swain hands Renton the roses, winking at him – they're his now.

"We are L'Societe de Black Rose," Swain goes, "and we graciously thank you for your attention and hospitality. Vancouver City has been such a delight to visit tonight, and although we cannot guarantee any promises, we'll do our best to make another visit soon! Au revoir-"

Then a streak in the air.

A burst of blood from Swain's shoulder – an embedded silver arrow; Twisted Fate swiftly pushes Swain from his spot, as everyone but Renton dives away.

Another streak.

It cuts through Renton's sleeve, narrowly missing his skin, and the arrow lands next to Swain's head.

Upon the horrific sight, the crowd is screaming, abandoning their seats, so fearful for their own lives as they are clawing and scrambling their way through out of the three entrances.

"Where'd it come from?" Lulu squeaks. "Our Swain's hurt – oh non..!" Pixy emerges from her pouch, attending to Swain. The silver arrows evaporate, and just the holes they've caused remain.

Renton shakes himself out of his stupour; he quickly comes back to his senses as he looks around, seeing the blood drain out of Swain's shoulders, and the crowd who runs away.

He even sees M. Fourier at the back, glancing at Renton, pointing at him in a gesture to get out of there with him – his teacher will still be calling the police, no matter what.

Twisted Fate peers at the high balconies; he spots a flicker of movement, someone darting away with a crossbow. "I got him, he's way up there! Lulu, can you give me a hand?" So Lulu hands him her wooden staff, and taps it – "Zippy!"

Twisted Fate rides off on the petite broomstick, flying up to that balcony.

"Guys, give me a hand," LeBlanc goes, grabbing Swain by his wrists. Heimerdinger and Lulu are quite small, so they wind up carrying each of his legs, and they head out onto backstage.

And Renton?

He stares out at the nearly empty auditorium, at the doors.. there's nothing much left for him back home, except for more years of dullness at school, with his mere.. the record of his house arrest, and a disgruntled teacher. A brief bout of sadness comes over his heart; he'd be leaving everything behind.

But he glances at the trail of blood droplets, leading over..

Her beautiful, seductive musk still lingers in the air, if only faintly. It's like cinnamon apple, with cedar and traces of lemon. Earlier in that futuristic wasteland, he thought it was only his senses quacking out when he first caught whiff of it in the ozone.

The smell drives him to a rush.

So Renton too follows them backstage.

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8 - frosted cake

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9 - preparations, pt. 1

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10 - preparations, pt. 2

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11 - preparations, pt. 3

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12 - snake eyes

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~

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