Author's Note: If there's anybody left to read this, go ahead and say it, because it's true…I'm a HORRIBLE updater. No, really, I am. The last time I posted anything to this was springtime two years ago, so…there you are. Heck, I'm not even sure I'll have the patience to finish, especially since I've let this go to pot for too long already.
Anyways…maybe one more chapter might help me, maybe it might not. Either way, it's here.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…
Amber had never smiled so much as tonight, or even tried to force a smile half so well as she did now. Tonight had been almost like an official coming-out party, because she finally had two accomplishments to be proud of as well as a large-scale introduction to the rest of Crucifixus' society. From the moment of her appearance in the courtyard, the applause had almost been deafening, and the flashes of cameras one step away from blinding her. It was the first time in her life that she felt the audience was truly applauding for her, and not just because her father expected them to. She had seen many approving looks and excited glances right from the start, along with hundreds of pairs of eyes following her graceful path to the ballroom's doors. There had even been a handful of older women who nodded and smiled at her bulging belly, almost as though to wordlessly relate to her experience and hope that all went well.
How long had she dreamed of such a night happening to her? How long had she wanted all of these people to recognize her for doing something good, and not for her ever-growing list of failures? For all of her life, or at least as far back as she could remember. Tonight had been the perfect night to do so, and tonight was only just beginning.
Take it easy, now. There won't be any fucking up for Amber Sweet tonight. Everything is going to go according to plan…
Even with Luigi at her left side and Pavi at her right, however, somehow she managed to feel completely alone. She'd known only a handful of faces here in the ballroom thanks to their constant coming and going through her life, beginning when she was a child and continuing well into her adult years. Only a fraction of those had ever been introduced to her or the others by name, and even now when some of them tried to speak to her, she would have to take a minute or so to get it right. The rest of the masses were strangers, and try as they would to make themselves known to her, she would most likely forget them all in the morning as they returned to their day jobs, activities, and other aspects of their various lives that they tried to lead out from under GeneCo's shadow. It was likely a lot of them might forget her as well some time after the celebration ended, and doubly so if they chose to drink too much Italian wine tonight.
What they might not have forgotten so easily would be seeing Shilo Wallace reappearing out of thin air, and for that she would have to keep an eye open. Maybe even both eyes, if the fact of that brat's disappearance for four months was a clue of her stealth and brilliance at living undetected. If she had gone about her business, no matter what it was, without the attention of a single camera or reporter; then how easy would it have been for her to pass through all the crowds and not have a single person stop her to ask her what face was hiding behind her mask? How easily would she have entered the party and not been caught by any of the usual bodyguards or other security officials of the mansion?
There was no question, then, of what she herself would have to do all through the festivities. She smiled and behaved graciously to the few people she recognized and knew quite well. For the many others whom she did not recognize or whom she was meeting for the first time, she took a few minutes to hear their names and offer her welcome before moving on to the next well-wisher to cross her path. Every five minutes or so, however, she did not hesitate to look over her shoulder just in case some mysterious waif happened to sneak up behind her. Neither, also, did she waste any time glancing in between the gaps of the crowds, hoping to herself that she might catch a glimpse of anyone trying to avoid her attention on purpose.
And so it came to pass that, in scanning the crowds for any sign of Shilo Wallace amongst them, she instead saw someone in black drifting far beyond all the others, moving from one group of visitors to the next in the safety of the shadows. They were much too tall to be a seventeen-year-old girl, let alone any sort of teenager judging by their height and adult build. A loner, maybe…? It was natural to have at least one at every party, and as long as they didn't cause any trouble, she wouldn't plan to cause any sort of trouble for them. In fact, keeping to themselves might just be the best thing for everyone, never mind the safer course of action on a night like tonight.
Count yourself lucky, she thought with a smirk, only to barely catch her breath in time as she noticed the figure cocking their head in an all-too-familiar way.
The mask she had sent him covered his face perfectly, keeping him anonymous from the handful of GeneCops that stood out in their blue uniforms at certain intervals within the crowd. Anyone who had seen a wanted poster recently or who also might have worked to create them would not notice him either, not even if he happened to speak to them briefly in passing. She, however, had noticed his mask and his black ensemble as soon as he'd looked her way…but she would not let on so fast, oh no, not yet. She merely gave him a small nod and pretended to turn to the person beside her, all the while watching from the corner of her eye as he disappeared once again into the shadows. Graverobber would be safe here until midnight when the Big Unmasking occurred, and so until the time came for her to help him find a safe exit off the grounds, just about anything could happen.
Anything…such as her giving the excuse of needing some open air to those closest to her, repeating the same words to Luigi and Pavi, and finally traveling into the darkness on her own with only a few curious whispers and glances, but no one daring to follow her path. She found him waiting in the shadows of the family chapel, a place illuminated only by the moonlight and far from any prying eyes. He seemed more at home here in these walls then in any other part of the grounds, for he'd been sitting on the altar-table as though it were a lounge chair, sipping something dark from a champagne flute and most likely without a care in the world.
Knowing him, she wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I see you're all right."
All her worries vanished in an instant as she stepped inside, leaving a small stone behind her to keep the door propped open. There truly had been no need to fear for his life, hadn't there?
"I see you're not," he joked, his black lips moving sideways in his signature smirk. "What's wrong, Sweet? Kid been giving you trouble?"
"Ha ha," Amber said sarcastically. "What's the matter, Graverobber? Never seen a knocked-up lady before?"
"Nope, just my own," he snickered, offering her his free hand. "Care for a drink?"
"Grim, I…" She was halfway to accepting both him and the drink when she suddenly remembered herself. "…That's probably not a good idea right now…"
"Oh, I know all about that. It's not that kind of a drink."
If she hadn't been so thrilled to see him, she might have playfully slapped him across the face. There would be lots of time later on to do that, though. Right now, all she wanted to do was get closer, and so no time was wasted in her sitting by his side.
"You had me going for a minute there," she admitted, feeling herself blush slightly. "I thought you might want to see me drunk on New Year's like everyone else would do tonight."
"Why don't we save that for after the kid's born, Sweet?"
The kid. She would have to start figuring out some good names besides Giovanna, or else she might get so wrapped up in calling him or her a one-syllable word that it would eventually stick.
"If you insist."
The bottle of sparkling juice was opened and split between them, and soon Amber found herself enjoying the tang and fizz of it as the moon glowed quietly overhead. There was a slow symphonic piece playing in the ballroom by now, the strains of which she could barely hear over the rush of the wind against the chapel door. If she had been back there, some daring male well-wisher might have asked her to dance by now…or maybe even some plastered GENtern mistaking her for one of her brothers. Out here, it seemed much better to have a chance to enjoy some peace and quiet. Out here, it felt as though she was no longer the head of the most important company on the planet, but rather just a normal woman enjoying the evening with her lover beside her. There was something strangely comforting about that concept.
She must have enjoyed the moment a little too much, because she'd allowed herself to go into a fog right until Grim snapped her out of it. Clearly, all that time spent behind Dad's old desk was starting to affect her mind in a very bad way. Then again… perhaps the sight of him offering a hand to her as though he wanted to share a dance with her looked even more inviting than sitting still and remaining silent.
She had almost expected him to be angry with her, even unwilling to look her in the eye, yet there he was and here she went, stretching her own hand out to join his and rebuild whatever connection between them had been lost before. No one could hope to interrupt them now, because it was only the two of them and the starlit sky.
"You…you won't mind if I stumble around, will you?" Amber asked quietly, feeling just a tiny bit awkward. "I haven't danced a whole lot since high school."
"Me neither," Grim snickered, beginning to lead her in a slow waltz. "And that was just if the goth girls had no dance partners."
"You had goth girls at your school?"
"What, like you didn't?"
He broke the usual pattern on purpose just to help his partner twirl; then rejoined hands with her as they came together again.
"Ha, ha. Everybody knows my school was filled with nothing but preps and wannabes."
"You make the education system sound so dismal."
There was a sad catch to her voice now, something which might or might have not guided her to lean in a bit closer to him, resting her head against his left shoulder. Hello.
"Ever attend Miss Bloom's etiquette class?"
"What, you mean as in Crucifixus' Preparatory Academy?" All money and no brains. "Sorry, can't say I ever did."
That must have been the right answer, because the next thing Graverobber heard was the sound of faint laughter spilling from Amber's lips.
"Good. You would have hated it there; they'd treat you like a mutant if you didn't know the difference between your salad fork and your dinner fork."
"I know. It's a miracle I got through the final exam at all with half the staff staring at me."
Not wanting to spoil the moment, he decided that now might be a good time to place an arm around her waist, if only to let her know he was just fine with her being this close. Unfortunately, he found himself using both arms instead of just his left or right, and that made him feel as though they were hugging. He'd never been much of a hugger, not even when he was a kid. On the other hand…
"What else did you have at your high school? Besides those goths, I mean?"
He hadn't expected to go reliving his teenage years tonight, but he also couldn't pass up the opportunity for some decent conversation. Funny how all this reminiscing was making for a very interesting evening.
"Well, let's see here…leaky ceilings, graffiti on the back entrances, smoking in the boys' room…I'd say everything that your Miss Bloom would have frowned upon, we had. Good thing there was nobody around to complain about what fork we used, though…otherwise, we wouldn't have had any fun."
"Really?" I wish I could have gone there! "Sounds like it was a blast."
Now it seemed to be his turn to get closer, because the next thing she felt was his face pressing against her hair. Bella sera, mi amore. Even when they'd come to know each other on intimate terms, and most often on a repeated basis, it was as though tonight was the very first time they'd ever allowed themselves to behave like innocents. Come to think of it, tonight was her first time that she had ever been alone with a man who didn't stutter, blush heavily, or glance up at her warily as though he feared she might bite him at any minute. How was this possible?
How was it that not a single male guest had ever worked up as much backbone as Graverobber had done all those years ago, if only just to spend more than five minutes with her? Had her father and brothers kept them away before, or had they deemed her completely untouchable because of her status as Rottissimo Largo's youngest child? Had they been worried about how their parents or other family members might react…or had they all just been already taken, thus making her worries insignificant against them avoiding the jealousy of their spouses or girlfriends?
She wondered about this for just a moment, oh yes, she wondered…only to bid that thought a silent farewell as she breathed in those familiar scents of pine trees and cold air that never seemed to leave his skin. None of those questions really mattered now, did they? Those other men had made their choices, whether or not it would make or break them all in the end…and she had already made one of her own. Hopefully it would be just one in a long line of decisions that resulted in positive outcomes, not just for herself, but for others around her.
The music might have stopped, yet she found herself continuing to move alongside him in a fluid circle, each of them matching each other's steps to some secret melody only their hearts could hear.
"I…I think I've had a thought just now."
Let's hope it's not a break-up…
"Oh, really…? What's that, Sweet?"
Graverobber almost expected to hear the name of some new man who'd snuck into the romantic mix behind his back, and who had also recently enjoyed what Amber had to offer.
"Could we…do you want to do this again?"
What he got was just the opposite.
"What, like another New Year's party?" I've had two before, why not a third one? "Kinda hard…we'd be waiting a year for that, right?"
Her eyes widened in shock before she blew it off with a quick burst of laughter, almost as though trying to hide something embarrassing.
"Oh! I mean, no! No, I meant, um…"
Was it his imagination, or could the 'untouchable' Amber Sweet actually be blushing?
"…Could we meet in secret again, you know…like we did tonight, and…and at the summer villa?"
"Are you kidding me?"
He'd felt one second of revulsion to this idea before spitting out his reply, and in the next second watched Amber's expression go from hopeful curiosity to sudden guilt.
"Seriously, Sweet. It's a little too damn funny for me that you'd wanna go there to see me, when barely four months ago you couldn't wait for me to leave. What the hell changed your mind?"
For one short moment, he found himself enjoying the shocked, painful look in her eyes that he hadn't thought twice about putting there. In fact, he half expected it would get even more enjoyable the moment she tried to slap him like she'd done in the alley all those months ago. Maybe they'd even get a good argument or two in before the big countdown to 2057 started, one thing he definitely would not mind doing to her after she'd so willingly turned her back on him.
Then, with a quick, fluid motion on her part, he found himself regretting all of it soon after. He didn't have to worry about acting strangely by hugging her, because instead, she'd gone and hugged him. Tightly.
"You don't know," Graverobber heard Amber start chanting under her breath. "You don't know, you don't know…"
"Hey, hey, cool it, will ya?"
Thanks to those telltale scents of lavender and facial powder, she was just a little too close to him for comfort now, and so he tried to break the closeness between them by nudging her away just a few inches.
"It was a simple question, okay? I don't really need a whole soul-search—"
"—You don't know about the news lately…?"
"News?" He felt a chill in the air, but it sure as hell wasn't from the winter weather.
"Someone's killing grave robbers."
She stopped for a moment and looked bewildered with herself, almost as though she hadn't expected to get word of this to anyone, then:
"I thought it was just the one by the coast before, but then the GeneCops found two more bodies to the south, and…"
"And…you thought one of them was me?"
She didn't have to answer yes or no to answer that question for him. The fearful, nervous look on her face was enough to answer it, as well as several other questions he might have asked of her tonight. As annoyed as he still felt about that summer villa idea, it was nevertheless a little bit consoling to know how worried she'd been.
"All right, Sweet," Graverobber said after taking a deep breath in and out. "Now that we're here, let's talk. What do you think we should do about it?"
Lowering her eyes—maybe out of respect, deference, worry, she didn't know what—Amber took one last breath in and out before moving in close, this time just enough to whisper into his ear.
"Grim, I thought you'd never ask…"
…I wanted to carry on with this for another several pages to get to Shilo's part, but that would mean getting it out a lot later than I intend to do from now on. Instead, I'm splitting the next three chapters evenly between Amber and Shilo, if only to reach a cliffhanger point a lot quicker after so long a time of inactivity. After that, I'll keep pressing onward in a Volume 2 for Chrysalis, because let's face it, Quentin Tarantino knows how to make movies and it would be too much for even me to keep this in just one giant installment. Anywho…if there's anybody still reading, feel free to leave me some feedback. Thank you, late but welcome commenters for inspiring me to try and continue this, and goodnight.