Disclaimer: I do not own Vampire Knight or its characters. I do however own Annabelle Locke.
I awoke to the sound of the repetitive alarm clock singing away on my nightstand. For a moment, disoriented and confused --sleepy, of course-- I struggled with finding the off button, but eventually I shut it down and angrily got out of bed. The room was empty; Kohana's bed was a mess and her night clothes were slung against the end corner as if she had been in a rush. I guess she forgotten to wake me up in her panic. But maybe she hadn't.
She hadn't spoken to me when we got back in the Dorm room, and instead of flustering about what she did all night, she chose to go straight to bed, murmuring something about how tired she was. I hadn't questioned. Obviously she was angry at me. Now I could just tell when the atmosphere changed between the two of us. Since last night it had turned hostile, and I knew it wasn't because I chose to sit out all night.
For the next ten minutes I got myself ready. I was already late for first class, so I decided to skip it completely and just head straight to second period. My time table had been re-modified a week earlier, so today I had a physical education class instead.
Great. Sports weren't exactly my forte. Last year in high school I had seriously injured a girl from slap shooting a volley ball --the sad part was she had been on my team.
I wandered the Dorm for about half an hour before leaving to get to the next class on time. Unfortunately it wasn't being held in the Academy --which was still being tidied up from last nights scream fest-- but instead outside near the stables. That could only mean one thing: Horses.
The last time I had been near them was when I was drunk and stupid and talking to myself --and them-- about pointless things. That night was now an official blur, but it still brought up bad memories. At that point I may have thought them enjoyable, but now I was nervous. To be completely honest, I had never ridden a horse in my life and now I was regretting the low budget horse back riding offers my grandmother had found in the newspaper when I was eight.
By the time I reached the stables I could already smell and hear them out on the field. Somehow I had managed to be late for this class too, and was barraged by the horse instructor who thought my lateness was a weakness of my mentality. She sniffed me off and told me to get into riding gear. Which I didn't have. So instead she gave me an old pair of stretchy pants and a helmet that didn't quite fit right on my head. Then she saddled up a auburn horse and told me to join the players in the field.
At that point I thought this lady was crazy --with her low quality make-up and cherry red lips. It was far too cold to go outside in these pants. But she just muttered something in Japanese and stalked out of the barn, warning me that if she didn't see me in fifteen minutes I would get the boot.
I was all set to try and get onto the horse when someone stepped beside me and tapped my shoulder. It was a petite brunette with shoulder length hair, and she had a few freckles spotting over her nose. "Hey, uhm… You kind of stole my horse." She said timidly.
"Oh…really?" Dumbfounded, I looked from the girl to the giant animal, with my one foot still in the stirrup.
"Yeah. See, I just went to the bathroom…and…"
"It's alright. Here." I untangled myself quickly and clumsily.
She thanked me and swept up onto the horse with no issue at all. In awe, I watched her apply pressure to the beasts stomach until it moved. She stopped just at the exit to the barn.
"Uhm… You could always try riding Lily. She's the only horse left, and she's out here in the field by herself."
I smiled. "Thanks. I guess I better get to it then, or else the teacher will be shooting me down permanently."
The girl laughed and left quickly, breaking into a swift trot. I frowned.
Great. The teacher gave me an already claimed horse.
I moved out of the barn slowly, still slightly confused at what just happened. A fence stretched out beside me and circled a small golden green field. On the other side students were walking and trotting to the instructors voice. I turned to the field, expecting a horse I could ride.
Instead I found a monster I would rather run away from. The drunk night may be vague and obscured, but I did remember an evil horse eyeing me with a killing intent. The same horse was eyeing me again, with its white head raised, fixing me with one large black eye.
I took a step back, immediately thinking that I should just skip this class too. Run now while the instructor was still busy with teaching the rest of the class. But the idea came too late.
"Excuse me, how come you are not on a horse?"
I turned to regard the teacher unappealingly, bitter even. "I can't ride that." I gestured to the white horse with my thumb. "And the horse you gave me before was someone else's."
"You can ride that horse, and you will. Maybe next time you will think twice about being late for my class." The teacher moved to the wooden gate and unlocked the black hatch. It swung open with a creak. "Let's go. Inside. Round her up."
"But I've never--"
She cut me off with a snippy grunt. "Enough excuses. Inside now."
In silence, I groaned and slipped into the field. The grass crunched under my booted feet as I cautiously moved my way to the horse. I could have sworn that I saw its upper lip tremble, almost as if it had just hissed or growled. And it looked like it was ready to snap a neck or something. I raised my hands in a mock interpretation of a movie villain being cornered by the police, and slowed my steps down as if I was approaching Godzilla babies.
The horse took a step back and snorted. I stopped for a minute, then continued.
It raised its head, looking down at me, and clopped further back. Again I stopped, and this time turned back to see the instructor watching me.
"See?" I shouted. "This horse is crazy. It's going to kill me."
"Proceed, Miss Locke."
I scowled and turned back to the enemy, with its white fur gleaming with sweat in the crisp autumn sun. With a large breath, I moved forward again. And finally made it beside the horse. Surprisingly it just flinched when I pressed a hand to it, and it didn't run or try to kick me like I thought.
There, finally, the fear washed away from me with a single breath, and I patted down the animal with one hand.
"This isn't time to admire the horses." The teacher snapped; somehow her annoying voice made it across the field. "Let's go."
I would have thrown something at her if I had been completely unoccupied, but right now learning for the first time how to get on a horse was pretty time consuming. At first I tried putting the wrong foot in the stirrup, when that didn't work, I switched feet and got my ankle stuck. I was almost cursing out loud by the time I twisted my foot free, and then tried again, this time more frantic and panicky. The whole time the teacher just watched, with her arms crossed, a stern, unresponsive tone setting her lips low.
As soon as I made it up properly, with a little more fussing over how the reins were supposed to be, and the saddle being tilted from me grabbing onto it so hard, I wiped a hand over my forehead to clear the cold sweat that had broken out. The teacher nodded her head and unlatched the gate again, letting it swing open to allow me entrance to the training field.
"Alright, now walk over here." She ordered, and I obeyed instantly, copying what I saw the other students do on their horses.
I kicked the horse in the ribs, hard, too hard, and pulled back on the reins, feeling like I was going to tip over. But the animal didn't like that, not one bit.
For a moment everything was quiet, just for a second, and then everything around me erupted into chaos. The white horse reared up on its hind legs and let lose an enormous sound from its throat. While I struggled to stay on it, it kicked out its back feet and bucked its head, making me go all loopy on the inside. I could barely even hear the teacher yelling for help; my blood was singing in my ears. Then the horse twisted, snapping me forward onto its neck, and took off like a rocket.
Students shouted out things from behind me, and I could barely hear the rickety clopping of other horses. The wind slapped me in the face, cold and sharp, and suddenly I felt sick. Very sick, like I was going to throw up.
The big animal jostled underneath me, and I forced my eyes open when I felt the muscles bunch up. There was a fence in front of us, and this mad horse was heading straight for it. I shrieked a sound, and tried to pull back on the reins, finally having some kind of control kick back into my body. But the crazy thing wouldn't listen and before I knew it, it's feet moved off the ground and I soared, literally, sailing through the air on the back of this animal, until it landed with a harsh thud and I painfully crushed my pelvic bone against the saddle.
That was going to bruise.
The horse didn't stop there. Instead of calming down afterwards, it took off again, this time heading towards the cobblestone walk, where some students sat idly chatting to one another. Once they saw me, their mouths popped open, and they fled like rabbits and watched from afar as my thrill ride continued. First the hooves clattered on the walkway, the horse paused for a short minute, gauging which direction to go in, then it turned left, reared again, and moved quickly. At this point I had given up trying to stop it, and was just frantically trying to find a safe way off before I got killed.
Either I jumped or…I jumped. Either way was going to get me injured, but if I stayed on this crazy animal there was no doubt something worse was going to happen. I braced myself for impact, readying myself for the sheer fall that was no doubt going to happen. I would have to roll of course, least I want to break anything. The ground flew by beneath my feet, but I wrenched my eyes closed and steadied my breathing, counting down loudly in my head.
Something fell from above, and it wasn't just a little thing. It was large, and heavy, and made the horse whinny loudly as whatever it was that had fallen straddled its flank behind me. Arms came out from underneath my own, and hands that weren't mine took a hold of the reins. They pulled, hard, and the horse's head went up. A loud sound tore from its throat, something like a strangled cry and a growl of anger. Yet magically the beast slowed in its canter, returned to a bumpy trot, and lazily pulled to a halt beside an overgrown willow tree.
At this point I didn't know what had happened. My heart still thrilled to the adrenaline whizzing through me, and my head spun with exaggerated twirls.
"Whoa…" I whispered, breathless.
I looked around to see Zero sliding off the white horse, his stark white hand gliding over its flank. His violet eyes were on me as I too untangled myself from the saddle and took a step back from Lily the horse. There was a bit of silence that I broke with my jagged breathing, but then I turned to him and nodded. "Thanks. I thought I was a goner." I stared at the white horse that was watching me with one black eye. "And I would have been. I was just about to catapult myself off this joy ride."
It snorted at me.
"Next time you should learn how to ride a horse before you get on one." The prefect said, picking up the reins. "You're lucky you weren't hurt this time."
I shrugged. "The teacher was bothering me. She wouldn't take no for an answer." I watched as Zero tugged the horses head down; his lips were moving, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. The horse began to eat grass. "I uhh… How did you do that?"
He looked at me. "Do what?"
"It was like you fell from the sky." I tried to explain; I knew I must have looked a little crazy. With my hair wind blown, my makeup smudged from the water in my eyes. Now I was proclaiming he crashed landed on his way to Mars by falling on the crazy horse I had been riding. "I mean, well, you weren't there and then you were." I gave up on that second shot. "Never mind. How come she listens to you and not me?"
The horse seemed to be completely at ease around Zero. Whenever it raised its head it fixed me with an iron glare.
He hesitated, and patted down Lily's mane. "You must have spooked her."
"Oh right, blame me."
He watched me for a moment, a dead silence winding through us, and then gave the reins a gentle tug and began to walk back to the walkway we had sheered off from. The horse obeyed willingly, but it took me a little longer to oblige going back to the Academy. Lily grunted when I came up beside Zero, but I was too distracted to notice enough to respond.
"So I've been doing some thinking." I stated as our feet met the stone path. "Did I tell you that the Chairman invited me to become a prefect like you and Yuuki?"
I wasn't surprised that Zero faced me with wide, violet saucer-like eyes.
Before he could say anything, I continued. "Yeah, I know, crazy right? I denied of course… but I don't know, I've been a little bored lately. And I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how things work with you guys. You know, other than staying up really late making sure no girls sneak in. Is it any fun?"
Again there was a hesitation in his answer, but this time it was longer. When I looked at him, even though his eyes were in front of him, I could see the pained expression that had suddenly flared up in them.
"Zero? Is something wrong?"
He stopped abruptly, and the horse followed suit. I was the only one that was a little slow, but when I did stop, I was alive with curiosity. He made it so hard not to ask questions. The blanket of secrecy around him was extremely confusing, and undeniably impenetrable.
"Zero?" I tried again, quieter this time.
"You think it would be fun?" He said under his breath, his silver hair covering his eyes. "Every night protecting humans from being eaten by vampires? Every night seeing the things you hate most?" When he looked up, his eyes were cold. "No, it's not fun."
I was too frozen to respond. He began to walk again, the horse clopping beside him, snorting as it passed me. This time, though, I didn't follow him. I just watched him with wide eyes, understanding now that yes, Zero hated vampires. And he hated them with a great passion.
I thought about it for a minute or two, and wondered what he had gone through to get so bitter. There was a slight push in my mind to go after him, but before I could think anything through, three students on horse back came trotting over to my side. I watched as they dismantled and walked over, their horses in tow.
"Are you alright?" asked a blonde-haired girl.
"Yeah I'm fine." I assured her.
"That horse is a little crazy. Maybe next time you should try another?" Said a tall skinny boy. He was already saddling back up at the sign of no trouble.
"Trust me," I said, looking off into the distance. "There won't be a next time."
That night I was called into the chairman's office. Randomly, out of the blue, just after I had gotten back, safe and sound, to my dormitory. Kohana hadn't been there. I hadn't seen her since the Halloween dance. I had a strange feeling that I was being avoided, yet I took it upon myself not to hunt her down and demand a reason why.
I was tossing off my pack when there was a knock at my door. It was Yuuki, with a message from the Chairman. From the way she was staring at me, I was pretty sure she already knew that I had been invited to join the Prefects. Although, I wasn't sure if it was excitement in her eyes, or a disappointment.
"Right. I'll be right on my way…once I've finished up…around here. Doing homework." I explained, poorly of course. The truth was I wanted a cigarette first, but I wouldn't tell her that. Not unless I wanted an ear load of law jabber in my ear.
She left, and I went back into my room and dug my cigarette box out of my closet. Two left. I had managed to distinguish my addiction --but it wasn't really an addiction, I told myself. I never got addicted to anything. Strong willed, duh. I opened up my window, pushed the curtains aside, and lit the end of it up, so that it was bright orange and warm. I inhaled, the smoke burning on the way into my lungs, and exhaled out through the open window. Last thing I needed was some deep concern from the Chairman on my smoking habits.
Although I was almost positive he knew I did it.
Then afterwards I sprayed myself with a floral tube of perfume I had gotten on my birthday last year. Second-hand. My grandmother never spent actual money on gifts; it would take away from the fake nails fund she'd dip into every month. But I had to admit, long cat-like nails did suit an unfashionable woman like her. Those bright pink claws with a horizontal striped sweater.
I slipped on my shoes and left the room, languid, sore. My back was already feeling the effects of a tight back on a crazy horse. Tomorrow it would be worse. Most likely I'd wake up to a bone-crushing agony, a searing hot pain that tore through my insides. Well, not overplayed like that, but still bad. Like waking up after you've slept the wrong way. Your bones hurt like a bitch after that. Sours your mood too.
Sunset, already. I was getting used to this thing. The vampires, I mean. Them escaping their confinement of their dormitories to pounce around with pretty faces, while young female, hot blooded humans pranced around them, flashing their teeth, fluttering their eyes, sweeping their hair back and exposing their necks. I made sure to pass by that long road on my way to the Academy.
By now it was obvious the chairman didn't fear for my life around the vampires. Clearly I was incapable of dying, therefore needed no protection. Besides, the vampires were just going to be wandering the halls. Nothing wrong with that. I was an open lady. I was a human. But I was also on throne chair to becoming a prefect. A small sense of power for a creature like me.
Well, if I decided to take it or not.
And I knew it was going to be about this. This prefect business that is. He hadn't brought it up for a month or more --I lost track after the first week-- and now that he was inviting me to his office for a 'chat' , I was more the sure it was to reform me of that business proposition.
I knocked on the door, waited for a response. It was almost instant. The chairman said from the other side, "Come in!" And I obeyed.
I hadn't been in this office for awhile. I remembered when I first arrived at the Academy, how I always seemed to whined up here, somehow, through some sort of mischief, sitting on that couch. I sat there now, with my hands on my lap, leaning back into the cushion, getting comfortable. The chairman was behind his desk, scribbling on a piece of paper. When he looked at me, he was smiling, and his glasses glared in the minimal sunlight filtering through the window.
"Good evening!" He said. By now, I was used to his hyper attitude. "I heard about your fall today. You should watch out for Lilly. She's far too experienced for a rider like you."
I wondered then, how I had become so used to everything. It seemed like just yesterday when the world was so heavy, so thick, that it squashed me down like a bug. When had I started to understand things? When had I started to accept things? It was a slow and gradual process. How far was I into it? No, I still had doubts. That surreal feeling after something terrible happens; after you wake up, you can't really believe it. Like a dream.
I still felt like I was dreaming --it just had a new sense of reality to it.
"Before you say anything," I cut in. "I don't know."
His face grew still, his mouth turning into a curious line. "Don't know?" He asked.
"You called me in to discuss this prefect business, right?" I wasn't stupid. I wasn't going to let him hide his ulterior motive behind small talk. "I still don't know."
He leaned back, raised a hand, adjusted his glasses. Seriousness replaced his mirth. "It would be very helpful to Yuuki and Kiryuu-kun if you decided to join them. I don't want to burden you with anything you won't enjoy. That's not my intention. I just thought that since you knew about the vampires, you would want to help."
There was a humour that bubbled up in me then. A dark humour. I smiled. "Why would you think I'd want to help? Why do people always forget that I'm here for a crime that I committed? I shouldn't be asked to be a prefect. I don't understand it. I'm sure there are plenty of other students out there that wouldn't mind filling in for one of the prefects."
The chairman laced his fingers together. "I know the other students would be very happy to help. But I don't know how they would react to knowing about the Night Class."
"Don't you think --no, didn't you ever think-- that maybe they should know that they are drooling over vampires?"
There was a small silence.
Then he said, in a quiet voice, "I don't know if they' would understand what I'm trying to do."
"Pacifism doesn't apply to everyone, Chairman. I understand why you wouldn't tell them. But if something goes wrong--"
"All my vampire children know the rules to this Academy."
"Kept in line by who? Kaname?" I took in a breath. Conversations seemed to flutter like butterfly wings with me. Now I was discussing the chairman's mistakes. Was I trying to avoid the question? Or was I really curious? "The head vampire?"
"Having a pureblood vampire does help a great deal. I trust Kaname with regulating the rules with the other students."
Pureblood. That sounded important. When I get back to the dorm, I should Google that.
"What if he decides to go on a rampage then? What would you do then, Chairman?" There was an anger in my voice that I didn't understand. Underlying the curiosity, far below that, I was upset. Was it fair that the human students didn't know about the vampires? Or a better question --was it better not knowing? If I didn't know about the vampires, would I be in a better place?
Curiosity killed the cat. Is there, deep and far inside those words --because that's all they are, is words-- an actual meaning behind that phrase? Is it telling us that when we want to know something, we should just forget about it? Move on? Would it be better to do that, then, than to actually know the truth? Would we fair better with an illusionist lie?
I looked up at the chairman, now curious for an answer. Had he even thought about the consequences if Kaname decided to turn psycho vampire?
He regarded me quietly. Opened his mouth, was answered by another voice.
"I believe the in same thing the Chairman does. His cause will benefit not only the humans, but the vampire population as well."
I blinked, and turned my head. Kaname was standing on the threshold of the door, his long fingers slipping from the doorknob as he closed it behind him. His eyes were dark, turning from me to the Chairman, back again.
The humiliation of being caught by the person you were talking dirty about crept through me. I turned my head away, sighed.
"Kaname-kun!" The Chairman greeted, standing up from his chair. The vampire, pureblood, deserved a standing welcome. I, a human, deserved what?
"It seems I came at the wrong time." He observed smoothly.
By the looks of it, with the door closed, he didn't plan on leaving either.
"No." I answered. "We weren't talking about anything important." I turned back to the chairman, smiled a bit. Fake of course. "I don't think I'll take that offer. Being a prefect is…too much of a responsibility. I'll screw it up, believe me."
The Chairman blinked, seemed to regain some sort of understanding as to what I was talking about, sat back down. "Will you think about it a bit more?"
"It's been over a month." I pointed out.
Kaname shifted from the corner of my eye. He came around the opposite end of me, sat down in the opposite couch, cross one leg over the way. His eyes were closed, as if keeping to himself silently. Patiently; he must be waiting for me to leave.
The Chairman sat up and got out of his chair, went around the desk, brought back a glass with water. Two glasses of water. And set them down on the table.
I hadn't planned on staying long.
His mouth was turned up; a silent ignorance to my answer.
"Erm… thanks. I'm not thirsty."
Ulterior motive? Or just being nice?
The chairman went on to ask, "Are you hungry then?"
"No." I answered, watching as Kaname pulled a small pack from his breast pocket. Without a word, he withdrew a small tablet, a circular white pill, and plopped it into the water. The pill started to dissolve, turning the water red. And when I looked back up, I saw him observing me too. Just more…uncaringly. I was, after all, just a human.
The Chairman returned to his desk, turned on the lamp beside it.
"What does that taste like?" I asked suddenly. A burst of new curiosity. It couldn't taste like blood; it was too transparent. A replica? A transparent illusion that helped the vampires get on with their lives, without the need for blood. It was almost like the students here. They lived their transparent lives, and the truth was just out of reach.
The chairman fell silent; Kaname glanced up from the glass, which he was now holding between his perfectly manicured fingers, twirling it, mixing the contents.
"I mean, does it just satisfy your hunger or something? It can't taste that great, can it?"
"Sacrifices had to be made to accommodate the human students here." He answered simply. "It will satisfy the hunger, for awhile."
The chairman coughed, I turned to look at him, Kaname closed his eyes again, sipping from the cup, putting it back down, waiting.
"Annabelle," The Chairman said. "Will you think about it more? It would really help out the other prefects."
"I'll try. But I won't promise anything."
I turned back to Kaname, just staring, still curious. A pureblood? Seemed powerful. Obviously powerful. I didn't see any of the other vampire students sitting casually in the Chairman's office, waiting to speak with him privately.
I stood up, cast my eyes to the door. "Kay, I'm leaving" I announced. I wanted another cigarette. "I'll… think about being a prefect. But I'm not really sure if it's the right thing for me. Vampires and I…" I glanced at Kaname. His eyes were open again, on me, just watching, observing. No threat. "Don't mix well. Although…if there were benefits to being a prefect…"
The Chairman absently scratched his cheek. I grinned. Maybe a little wickedly. Hey, if I could get special treatment, I may as well milk the situation. It would definitely give me more incentive to become a prefect.
"We try not to put our authority figures above our students." The chairman said lightly. A slight squirm. "It would be unfair."
I shrugged. "Whatever you say. Any who, I'm tired." Actually, I just wanted to escape. "Night."
Then I left. Just after another glance at the pureblood.
The Academy was dark, but familiar. I found my way to the bottom; my heart barely skipping a beat. It may be infested with vampires…but I was used to it. No matter how strange that sounded to me, it was actually a happy thing. It made me smile.
My dorm, however, was eerie and quiet. More uncomfortable then the Academy after dark. A sinister darkness in front of me as I moved through the halls, made it to my room.
Kohana was probably asleep.
I turned the knob and entered quietly. But she was awake, sitting on the bed, staring in front of her abstractedly. She must have heard me, her eyes turned, taking me in. It was a gaze I hadn't seen from her before. A protective, primal look. In these brown eyes, there definitely was a threat, a warning.
'Back off,' they seemed to say at me. 'or I'll tear you apart.'
I sat down, opposite her, stayed quiet. She was wearing a green nightgown, her hair was down, wavy from the braids, and her glasses were on the nightstand.
Awkwardly, I thought I'd start first.
"Hi…" I said. "It's like I haven't seen you in---"
I sealed my mouth closed.
She continued, her voice strangely apathetic. Almost like she had done this before, this silent war. Her eyes rose to my face, and she wasn't smiling. "We have to talk."
"I agree. I've been trying too--"
"No. I have to talk." She looked down at her lap. "I saw you…at the dance. How could you do that to me? You knew I liked him."
So I was right. It was about Ichijou.
"Look, it was nothing. Just a friendly--"
"I would have danced with him too. But you just had to take him first."
"What?" I couldn't believe what she was saying. It was ludicrous. "Seriously," I added desperately, "It was just a friendly dance. Nothing more. Besides, it's not like you were even going to ask him."
She glared at me then; darkly. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know what it means Kohana." I said, although I knew I was just screwing myself deeper into this pit. Kohana was going to hate me. It almost seemed inevitable. "You're too shy! You wouldn't have asked him. Stop blaming me for this!"
"You danced with him!" Her voice rose.
I quickly shushed her. Last thing we needed was the prefect to show up and lay out the law.
Her voice quieted, but it was still angry. "I trusted you! I can't believe you went behind my back and did something like that. I thought you were my friend!"
"I am your friend. There was nothing behind our dance."
"Don't give me that. I saw his smile!" She looked back down at her hands, fiddling with them. "I saw yours too…"
"Oh give me a break!" I complained. "You're putting this far beyond the truth here! It was just a friendly dance. That's it. I swear."
Her eyes flickered. She looked up beneath her eyelashes and whispered, in a voice like slate ice, "How can I believe someone that stole a car?"
I swayed back, stunned. Was she really saying this to me? Was she really not listening to anything I was trying to tell her? It seemed no matter how many times I tried, she shot down my attempt. She wouldn't let me explain.
Then she stood up, her hands clenched at her sides. I hadn't seen her so upset before. A stray thought entered me at this moment, of that blonde haired girl at the small party we had in this room --of when she warned me of Kohana's behaviour regarding Ichijou.
Was her obsession really that bad?
I blinked, looked up, shocked. "What?" I breathed.
"I want you to leave." She took in a deep breath. "Tomorrow I want you to get out of this dorm room. Permanently."
I'm sorry guys, for not updating for like... two months. It's been a few troubling months, I can assure you. So I haven't been able to dish out my writing as frequently. Please forgive me! 3