1 pkg unknown yogurt fillets, thawed

Omg omg omg omg omg omg.

Kenzie had done well to keep her composure the entire time she masqueraded as Secretary Sam. She maintained her poise all through the halls but the closer she got to the exit the more her heart rate accelerated. Still her steps were even and her face relaxed as she started down the side walk. Not too far though and her stoic professional look started contorting to an excited grin that she just could not contain, and any effort to do so merely caused comical expressions. Her steps quickened and she practically started to prance and bounce as she went along. She kept trying to check herself, lest she draw attention, but even at her most composed, she was still wiggling and grinning like the cat that ate the canary — and really, did she not just?

Omg omg omg omg omg omg!

This was more money than she had ever seen before. Her best heists had netted her hundreds not thousands. In those days she would have scammed her partner out of their share and disappeared to another zip code. Such a thought did not cross her mind at all with Fletch. She couldn't wait to get out of the neighborhood and find a sensible place to call him, to see the look on his face when she handed him more than three times the amount he was expecting.


Once free of the well-to-do residential area, Kenzie pulled out her phone. Her hands were shaking, but at least time it was from a bounty of excitement instead of debilitating anxiety. She dialed up Fletch and jigged up and down on the balls of her feet as it rang, her eyes lifting to a billboard advertising a local attraction just a couple clicks down the road. Soon as he answered, she blurted out:

Fletch, Fletch, Fletch! I GOT IT! There's a thing here, with the fishes, uhh, like a zoo with fish-ohhhhfucking aquarium! There's an aquarium. Oh. I guess there's a zoo too. JUST. Doyouwanna pick me up here? I mean there. I'll be there. I'm not here yet. FUCK you know what I mean. HEHehehehehe we got gas money!

She had wanted to play it cool... but... well...


When Fletch had no pressing demands for either his time or attention, he would normally rejoice; kick back with a four-count of beer and a packet of fags, a view and a copy of the crossword. The morning of, the crossword lay abandoned, and the eggs he'd had for breakfast now swam in a sea of restless energy brought on by anticipation and too much nicotine.

Ten o'clock came, and went. Half past. His phone lay cold and quiet on the bed beside him, as he relayed the minutes that crawled by like snails. Fletch jumped when the screen burst into life shy of quarter to; failing to connect the call twice and swearing in ham-fisted excitement.

She was buzzing. High as a kite. Her energy fed into and ignited his own, burgeoning glee, and in absence of suitable outlet he was off the bed and crowing at the top of his lungs.

Oh you little belter - you gem! Hah-HA!

He fumbled his keys off the counter, slamming the Sprinter's side door closed and barrelling into the driver's seat. The van spluttered into life as he wheeled off the dirt and onto the road. Aquarium. Larkspur. Yes, absolutely. He had the phone jammed between his cheek and his shoulder as he floored it, nodding even though Kenzie couldn't see him.

I'll meet you there in forty minutes, tops.

In the end, he pulled up outside the Aquarium over an hour after that; a few wrong turns and a personal reminder to calm down dialling up his original estimate. Outside, he crawled the curb in search of a good pair of legs, and when he didn't spot his pixie-haired PA, or indeed any sign of a pencil skirt and heels, he called her back.

Fuck are you?

He pipped the horn for good measure. Her carriage awaited!

She could do no more than laugh as Fletch echoed her excitement, chirping a delighted okay! as he agreed to meet her at the fish-zoo in forty. One step toward that destination and she paused, realizing she hadn’t grabbed her bag on her route here.

She had time, she decided, and doubled back a bit to retrieve her belongings. Into the bag she deposited her notebook, pen, and the cash. Her fingertips grazed her glasses, about to remove them, as her eyes found her usual clothes and she thought to change. But here she paused too, and with an impish chuckle to herself, decided to keep her Secretary Sam look.

Mwaha! I’ll show you pencil skirt and heels!

Carried on her high, Kenzie was at the aquarium in good time, expecting Fletch in ten or so. There was a bench outside, one of a number perched along the sidewalks. She settled down there with a long exhale, relaxing, basking in her own happiness. Fletch was late, but she hardly noticed as she thumbed through a brochure for the aquarium and zoo.

She spotted the Sprinter coming down the road. She grinned and tittered, waiting to see if Mr. Isle would spot his assistant. Kenzie could see Fletch looking and saw him lift his phone, the gesture answered with a buzzing in her pocket. She was on her feet and headed toward him as she answered.

I’m not far! In faaaact...

She giggled, coming up to the side of the van. Kenzie leaned down to the open window, grinning in at her friend and wagging her free hand in a silly wave. Her tongue poked out in teasing.

"I’m right here."

Even on the phone to her, Fletch continued to scan the crowds. He was looking for what he recognised; jeans, boots and a black leather jacket, dressed up with bangles and a faded brown backpack. Failing that, he looked for the mental picture he'd painted in fantasy. Kenzie hadn't much in the way of curves, but a tailored shirt and a hip-skimming skirt would create the illusion. Neither silhouette matched that of the boy that stood up from the bench, whom Fletch saw but instantly dismissed. Even his stride differed from the one he remembered. He did not notice the bag.

Thus, by the time Kenzie reached the van window Fletch was still peering at crowds, and when she spoke, he startled.

'Oh, so y'are!'

Force of habit broke him out in a grin, despite his sinking heart. No heels. Not even a skirt. He ended the call and jerked his head toward the driver's seat. 'You hopping in then?'

... where were her tits?

She caught him off guard. She laughed, pleased that her disguise had made her unrecognizeable to Fletch. That was the point after all — to hide her true self. It was a tactic familiar to her, used more than once to keep her safer.

"Course." Grinning, Kenzie scurried around the front of the Sprinter. She didn’t get into the passenger seat though; Kenzie climbed into the back and closed the door behind her. She dug the cash out of her knapsack — she had placed it in a ziploc bag that used to have beef jerky in it. Leaning forward, her hand braced against the driver’s seat, she handed the take to Fletch. Her grin stretched to her ears as she hung in the moment, awaiting his reaction to how much was there.

When Kenzie didn't do as instructed, Fletch moved the stick into neutral and gave it a wiggle. Then he tugged the hand brake.

'What you doing, fannying around back there?' He twisted, only to find her at his back, grinning like a fox and dangling a bag that still smelt of beef. Mollified, he took it from her as one might a toy from an over-playful dog, the polythene crinkling gently beneath his fingers. The take. It weighed heavy in his hands as he settled it out of sight in his lap.


He wet his thumb and began to count, not only to measure Kenzie's share, but to check she hadn't swindled him. But as he hit a grand, he paused. Recounted. Frowned.

'Stupid twat give you everything?' He asked, pushing past the thousand mark and up into the doubles. Triples. A small, weak laugh bubbled up from his chest. 'There's four grand here.'

She grinned, and grinned, and grinned as Fletch counted, her shoulders wriggling from side to side with her glee, a quiet giggle the soundtrack to the moment.

"That’s half." She said, pressing her knuckles to her mouth, as if by doing so she could contain an even louder giggle (it didn’t work). Kenzie grabbed Fletch’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze and shake. "Half!" She repeated with a squeak. "That damned fool tripled the amount! I hope you can find yourself within 5 days because that’s how efficient I told him Mr. Isle could be."

Laughing, she stepped back to her bag and started pulling out clothes. "Oh and, you can drive. I just need to change. I’m done playing as Sam for now." She winked at him over her shoulder as she plucked out her jeans.

'I -'

Air escaped him in a soft and bewildered sigh. The money lay fanned in his lap, all four thousand dollars, and already his thoughts tripped over the possibilities. It left him cold.

'Right now I'm not sure I could tell my arse from my elbow,' mumbling, scratching his beard, Fletch fell back to the comfortable monotony of counting. Kenzie's share, all sixteen-hundred dollars, was placed carefully in the zip lock. The rest he stashed inside his coat.

'How'd you convince him to triple it?' Spoken around a cigarette, Fletch lit up. He adjusted the rear view mirror just a fraction to the left. 'He take a liking to Sam or something?'

She laughed, hauling her boots free of the canvas. "Well, like I said. You have 5 days to figure out what’s your arse and what’s your elbow."

Change of clothes taken out, Kenzie took off her glasses and stashed them. The tie came next. "I think his mind was elsewhere," she answered Fletch. "It seemed he had forgotten Sam was even coming, and his apartment was a mess, and he was a mess, tearing up and such." Her voice became muffled as she hauled her top over her head part-way through her reply, revealing the white compression shirt that was hiding the little gems Fletch had been wondering about. Those sprang free when she pulled that shirt over her head too and then rolled and stored both. "I didn’t have to convince him of nothing. He asked how fast you could be found if he tripled the payment, and I told him doing so would make him the highest bidder and buy his case’s priority."

She had no concern about Fletch being there as she undressed. This was a man who had first met her when she was naked, standing beside a dead deer; who had seen her deteriorate into a stuttering, choking mess; who had held her while her bones broke through her skin, dislocated and contorted, to the sound of her wailing and groaning. Fletch had seen more of her than most, had seen her at her absolute worse, and he had been nothing but good to her. Why worry, why hide? The thought to be uncomfortable simply never crossed her mind.

Kenzie plucked off the oxford shoes and shoved them in the bag. Standing there in just her dress slacks and socks, she pulled on the first piece of her clothes: a simple black bra. She undid her belt and pulled it through the loops, buckle jingling as it went. The pants were off next, replaced soon after with black jeans and the same belt. Then she chucked on a black tank top with ‘SCREAM’ printed in red lettering across the front, and secured her boots to her feet. Her last action to restore herself was to ruff up her hair a bit and lift it off her head.

Kenzie climbed up over the console then, and took her proper seat with a relieved sigh and a happy wiggle, leaving her bag in the back. The seatbelt clicked as she popped it in, and she grinned at Fletch as her hands slapped down on her thighs.


She was going to say something, but just giggled and squirmed instead.

The cigarette went some way to settling his thoughts. Slouched behind the wheel, his elbow resting on the lip of the open window, his attention flicked between the comings and goings of the Aquarium, and his rear view mirror. ♠️

'Sounds about right,' he muttered, swallowing and taking another shaky drag on his smoke. 'Total nutter, that one.' It was something of a relief as Kenzie climbed the centre console, depositing herself in the passenger seat and handing him her glee. He passed her the ziploc without delay, a dangerous smirk on his face.

'So. Lady Penelope.' He wanted to eat until he was sick. Get trashed on whisky and fight someone. Fuck the girl beside him. It was nearing half past twelve, and already his veins buzzed with the desire to do something stupid and reckless and drag Kenzie with him. Whether down to the coyote writhing in the back of his mind or giddy elation they had pulled the plan off, now almost two-and-a-half grand richer, Fletch was consumed by irresponsibility. 'How'd you want to celebrate?'

He handed her the ziploc with her share, and she grinned, sinking into her shoulders with a wiggle and squeezing the bag — all the pent up excited energies animating her a bit more than usual. But when he called her Penelope for a second time she shot him a look that dared him to call her that one more time.

She raised a stern finger, but it was plain on her face that she was teasing.

"I’m warning you."

Kenzie leaned back, digging her small hand into her pocket to retrieve her wallet. From the ziploc she pulled out a few hundred dollars without bothering to count it all first, and she deposited those bills in the ragged leather folds before re-zipping the bag. Stretching and craning a bit, tongue poking out the side of her mouth, she struggled to reach her knapsack before just managing to hook it by her fingertips and haul it close. The ziploc containing the rest of her cash was hidden in a side pocket.

Settled back into her seat, she hummed over Fletch’s question. Kenzie’s mind was notorious for churning possibilities, with a inclination toward fixating on all the worst ones. For once, in all this jubilation, she had been anchored in the present. Her mind was a child bouncing about a colorful ball pit, just a buzz of good feels, no cares, no worries — nothing but delight in her surroundings and self.

"How about... hmm." She scrunched her nose, tapped her chin, and turned her eyes up in a silly, theatrical display of thinking hard. Glancing at the smirking man beside her, Kenzie’s mind came loose from its dock and started to drift; a pang of hurt and guilt soon thrusting it back in place like a rogue wave. "I know!" She chirped, her intense happiness fortifying her against the rejection still fresh in her breast. "Stop at a supermarket. I want some cookie dough." She giggled.

She followed up with a softer answer a heartbeat or two after. "Really though, any way you want! So long as I can spend the day with you." Kenzie bit her lip and took to scratching idly at the seatbelt laying against her neck, her gray eyes lingering on Fletch. That had sounded sappier to her ear than she meant it to be. But it was honest. The things she wanted most could not be bought; a day in the company of a good friend among them. That was how she ultimately wished to celebrate.

'Cookie dough.'

Of all the doors open to her, all the avenues she could explore now she was flush, Kenzie wanted sugar. Thrown by the innocence of the request, not to mention the soft statement that followed, Fletch met that grey gaze for a moment or two longer than necessary before starting up the engine.

'As her ladyship decrees.' Cookie dough and a day in his company. His head ticked toward her in deference as he pulled away from the curb, considering that it would be an idea to restock his fridge and fill up the van now he had the cash to do so. But even then his mind pulled him toward fillet and porterhouse steaks, racks of lamb and pork tenderloin. His mouth watered. 'I'm starving,' he announced, quite suddenly. 'Fancy finding the first all-you-can eat we come across and going nuts?'

"Cookie dough," he echoed. "Cookie dough," she parroted back with an affirmative nod. Cooke dough was her favorite treat and she could not recall the last time she had any. Kenzie hadn't been living paycheck to paycheck, she had been living meal to meal, and like the Pepsi that Fletch had bought her some time back, cookie dough was among the things she had done without.

She bit her tongue as he referred to her as her ladyship, rolling her eyes, exhaling through her nose and giving her head a shake — all in good humor. But she was absolutely going to get him back for all these terrible addresses sooner than later, preferably when he wasn't behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.

His announcement had her cocking her head in his direction. His suggestions had her mouth watering as her stomach answered with a gurgle. She grinned. "Uhm. YEAH?" Why hadn't she thought of that? She had barely thought of the cookie dough. "Hell yeah." Kenzie emphasized, pumping a fist. "We can do that first if you want? Get cookie dough after for dessert?" The sides of her boots tapped together audibly in an excited fidget.

"...if we can walk," she added as an after thought with a happy hum and a smile.

'If you like.' He grinned, the end of his cigarette arcing away from his fingers as he flicked it. 'Might see if we can change your mind about that later.'

Larkspur did not strike him as the sort of city that catered to down-and-outs looking for a feed. Kenzie aside, he had spent the last few months living exclusively in a van. With neither patience or inclination to tidy up before they hit the town he headed deep into the heart of Cordova; happy to accept the first place that wouldn't turn them both away at the door.

This, and an itching compulsion to leave the scene of the crime. The chance of their indiscretion being uncovered was slim-to-none. But with his luck, they'd encounter Wee Willy Weasel whilst stuffing their faces on the proceeds of his wallet. There was something to be said for getting lost in a crowd.

He reached between them, dialling down the radio to ease conversation. Kenzie had promised news on her impending visit to the Head Bitch and had so far offered nothing, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, he let that particular dog lie.

'Bumped into one of your lot earlier in the week, you know,' he announced, readjusting the rear-view mirror as they pulled up at some lights. 'All the way down in Red Rock. Liza, her name is.'

Hmm? Did he not like cookie dough? Did he think she ought not to have cookie dough — that he was one of those deviants that tried to suggest cookie dough not be eaten raw (because fuck those people)? Perhaps he had another idea. It occured to her that she still owed him cake.

"Oh? You did, did you?" Liza. That was... ah. The chipper chick who enthusiastically greeted her that morning she started work at the brewery. In the midst of all that, and running the scam, Kenzie not had the chance to tell Fletch of the developments in her life.

"I met her too," she said, leaning back in her seat for better comfort but also fidgetting because she worried Fletch would be mad she hadn’t brought this up sooner. "I also met Head Bitch McCoy." She shifted her mouth. She probably shouldn’t call her that any more. Alina was stony, but she had done good by Kenzie, who sighed before she continued. "Alina. I texted her, met her at some Chinese place. She... was not happy I had been afoot in Cedar Creek. Heh." Kenzie laced her fingers together in her lap, brushing her thumbs against one another as she turned her head to regard Fletch. "I thought she was going to run me out of Mountainside. But. Next thing I know she’s laying down the terms, telling me to show up at the brewery the next morning to help out, and also telling me I’m going to go live with this other girl."

Her mouth quirked in a half smile, apologetic and happy and unsure all at once.

"So here I am, suddenly a pack member, with kind of a job? And an actual address and bed to go to at the end of the night. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this but... uhhh... there’s an extra parking stall that I have no use for... so..."

She heh’ed with the same sort of mixed feels she was half-smiling with, shrugging her shoulders a little out of her own awkwardness in trying to extend a simple offer to her friend.

There were three things Fletch took away from Kenzie's news. The first was that she had indeed gone to meet with the Wolf Queen of Cedar Creek, but was only telling him this now, presumably after his question prompted her to confess. Whether he would have ever become privy to this knowledge, or whether Kenzie would have slipped away with her money to start her new life among the pack without breathing a word was an imponderable he chose not to dwell on.

Secondly, her life was on the up. True, when you hit rock bottom the only way to go was up, and even a park bench in the middle of Union Square would have been preferable to a fictional friend's house (see: needle-infested doorway). But she had her own space. A roof over her head. A proper bed to sleep in at the end of every day. Somewhere warm and safe, in the company of someone else just like her. With this, and a steady job, she stood a chance of getting back on her feet.

He offered up the brightest smile he could muster.

'That's great news,' nothing less that utmost sincerity coloured his tone, though her offer made his smile twist to a look of faint regret. One finger scratched at the side of his mouth. 'Not sure its such a good idea for me to pitch up in your parking spot though.' It sounded too much like the illusion of a favour for him to take seriously. The kind that was offered freely because she knew he'd never accept. Cedar Creek had given him the creeps since day one. 'If - Alina - was set to run you out of town for so much as breathing, practically one of her own, what do you reckon she'd do to me? I'm worse than a poor relation.'

He wasn't mad. He was genuinely happy for her, which had her grinning, but — oh. Her heart clenched when he declined her offer, and the grin was swept away. He had a point and yet she felt it had little to do with his response. Rather, she felt he declined as a means to push her away, to keep her at a distance because she had confessed to wanting more of him than she believed he wanted of her. It hurt but also... it disappointed. She wanted to repay his kindnesses and true to that, more than half her excitement over the success of the first phase of their heist was feeling that she had been able to give back to him in some way. She had benefited as well, but she never counted the cash he handed to her for a reason: it did not matter. It did not matter and besides, he had offered her only hundreds in the deal and she knew when she took the bag there was more than that in it. But she would have helped him for no share at all.

"I don't think she'd..." Kenzie pursed her lips with a hum as she glanced out the window. She really didn't know the full extent of the pack's rules and couldn't say what she wanted to say with absolute conviction. "I think she was only mad because I was one of them and didn't say hi. I don't know." She shrugged and set her jaw as she looked back to Fletch. "But listen." There was a firmness to her tone, and a look that bid him to take her at her word... a look that quickly softened to more of a plea for him to accept her friendship and not hold her at arm's length because she admitted her attraction to him. "Offer stands. If you need somewhere to retreat to, you can come to 1300 Barachois Lane, apartment 201." Maybe it was a bad idea for the both of them. The thought that she might get him into trouble for the offer had her biting at her cheek, and it eclipsed her concern for herself. More quietly, after a soft sigh, she added, "I get it. If you don't ever take me up on that. But for what it's worth... I'd go to bat for you. Because you were my pack first."

She wanted to reach over and squeeze his arm but kept her fingers threaded together, feeling the bit of rejection too keenly and also feeling insecure in thinking he meant more to her than she did to him, that he would think her foolish — or worse, needy — for these earnest efforts.

'1300 Barachois Lane, apartment 201.'

Fletch echoed her address with a nod that carried far more conviction than he rightly felt. The giddy elation of before was crashing hard, now; dragged down by the weight of world-weary cynicism resting on his shoulders. It was all well and good extending the offer of a safe house, but where the Head Bitch was concerned, Kenzie didn't know. Just like he didn't know Gobshite, not really, or the rest of those aloof and prickly coyotes.

She might just as well have invited him to jump from frying pan to fire.

He reached across the centre console, his hand warm as it settled on her knee. There was something sweet and sad about her sincerity that deserved to be recognised, before he tarnished it with mistrust. So for that reason, he delivered a firm squeeze in thanks. It was a nice idea in principle.

'So what kind of work they have you doing, anyway?' He settled his hand back on the wheel, looked ahead at the road. The reckless desires that seized him felt all the more volatile now. The kind of impulses that made him itch to floor the accelerator. 'What kind of operation are these wolves running?'

It was as much as acceptance as she was could hope for; a simple squeeze of his hand against her knee that said thanks. She smiled and nodded and left it at that, eager to return to more uplifting conversation. Kenzie was all too aware that once again she had brought the mood down, and she had more than a few choice words for herself in her head.

"Bussing tables and helping out back in the kitchen. It's a brewery and restaurant. Red River Brewery it's called. I stopped there when I first arrived in Mountainside and had steak. Really good food actually." She unhooked her hands and gave her fingers a flutter to cast off tension before she leaned an arm against the arm rest and settled in more comfortably. "Liza works there too. She is super friendly, made us some coffee. She told me that Alina and Trick saved her one night when things went bad for her." To this, Kenzie hummed thoughtfully. The wolf leader had a hard exterior but Kenzie was getting the impression she had a good heart. "Maybe they'll teach me to make beer sometime. Or other drinks. I think I could have fun doing that."

The thought of learning to brew and mix alcohol caused an idea to spring into her mind, one that had her turning toward Fletch again as she conjured up a mischievous grin and slapped her thighs. "I think we should add drinks to our plans."

While Kenzie inwardly berated herself for dragging the mood down, and fought to rid herself of the tension that caused her, Fletch was only aware of a more confident, self-assured version of the young woman he'd first met by the side of the road. Quiet for the most part, a wistful smile played across his expression; allowing her room to speak for the most part, and offering a glance or a raised brow at interval to demonstrate he was listening. He tried to feel happy for her. Liza seemed the kind of buoying personality that would do her good. Keen company in a job that was likely to be stressful at times, but that would provide the necessary leg up to catapult her on to bigger and better things.

Plus, she had done it off her own back besides.

By this point he was scanning road signs for the nearest long-stay multistory, the suggestion of drinks earning a hum of agreement. 'Can't remember the last time I drank anything other than coffee,' he confessed, as he indicated to change lanes. The car park he pulled into advertised twenty-four hour availability, and idly, Fletch wondered how well it was staffed. 'Could even pick up a bunch of spirits and mixers and let you go to town.' He grinned, 'I'd be your guinea pig.'

"I've had a couple beers here and there," she commented idly, running her tongue across her upper lip in thought as she sought to remember the last time she had drank. She dimly recalled being disappointed that she never got drunk the last time she tried some years ago.

His suggestion had her grin broadening and expression twisting into one of even more devilry. She drew her shoulders up, raised her hands to just in front of her face, and made a show of rubbing them together impishly. "I like this idea. But you might regret it." She laughed. Kenzie hadn't the first clue about mixing drinks beyond a few basic things. "Maybe I'll come up with something awesome and we can name it after you." She winked.

Fletch selected a lot in a barren corner, about as far from proper exits as he could be and so out of the way of the heaviest traffic. Kenzie unclipped her seat belt and went to the back to retrieve a zip-up black hoodie from her knapsack. It had no print on it. The strings trailing from the hood were ratty. The cuffs were tattered and frayed and there were thumb-holes in each that shouldn't be there, but which she made good use of as soon as she put the hoodie on. She considered for a moment if there was anything else she needed, or if she should bring the bag itself. No, she decided.

Bright-eyed and smiling, she chirped at Fletch. "Okay, guinea pig of mine, lead the way."

The slam of the van door echoed in the stark, concrete lot. There were several levels down, in the bowels of the place, where few people bothered to find parking space. Fletch saluted the camera en route.

'What would you name it?' The mood he was in called for no less than a full twenty-four hour ticket; while he expected he would crawl back here in the small hours of the morning, it was just as likely he could end up in a ritzy hotel. Or even Red River itself. Over two-and-a-half grand sat hot and heavy in his coat, begging to be spent in a manner befitting the man. Fast, frivolous. Foolish. 'Old and Scruffy? Sex on the Rocks?' He wheeled 'round to face her, pushing open the door to the stairwell with his shoulders. 'The Bellend?'

Of course he had those sorts of names to offer. Funny though they were, she bit back the mild irritation that rose along her spine. She normally enjoyed this sort of jest but perhaps not so much after he freshly discarded her interest in him. In a way, it felt like a cruel tease at her expense. But her mood was buoyed, and so her response to these salacious suggestions was to brush past him as she went through the door, reaching a hand up to tap his cheek twice as she delivered her suggestion with a sly grin.

"Coyote Got His Cock."

She started up the stairs ahead of him.

Tongue-in-cheek, a humourless huff of laughter followed Kenzie through the door.

'Bit below the belt, that? Bit brave?' Even by his questionable and grubby standards the comment rankled, and Fletch generally considered himself as resilient as a rubber ball. He turned sideways to skirt past her on the stairs, flipping back as he reached the landing and higher ground. 'Hey, runaway? Piss off in fear at the first sign of a wank joke?'

His tone remained nonchalant and bright; quite at odds with the prickling hurt her thorny comment left behind. 'Still not convinced you'd know what to do with it,' he beamed as he carried on up, his voice echoing in the stairwell, 'You say you play cards - you even know how to shuffle?'

Whether he deserved it on some level or not, Kenzie felt a twinge of regret at having struck him low like that. It was apparent to her that she had nicked him where it hurt. Fortunately or unfortunately, Fletch was nothing if not swift with his wit. He had it turned around on her in a blink; his remarks swept away the regret and had fresh irritation and embarrassment bleeding into her breast as he stood up there on the landing, looking down at her. She felt like a mangy peasant at the foot of her king, judged harshly for a petty crime that belied the seriousness of the reason she committed it.

His bright tone and beaming smile — frustrating though it was to her in this context — served to goad her to rise to the challenge. She smirked at him. "This mouth and these hands," she said, holding them up in front of her for emphasis. "Have paid for most of my meals, buddy." These words had went unsaid the last time she thought of them because it wasn't a pleasant thing to admit at all. But she said them now because at her core, Kenzie hated how he teased her with what she could not have, dangling it just out of arm's reach, and she wished she could give him a taste of that, perhaps by letting him know what he was missing out on: experienced hands and a practiced tongue. That foolish desire eclipsed the shame she tasted in the wake of her admission.

Or it did for a moment, until Kenzie cringed inwardly and was seized by a slew of self-deprecating thoughts about how he would want her less for knowing she had knelt in front of so many men. Filthy. Whore. She swallowed those thoughts down, doubling down on her determination to go toe to toe with him, to hold her ground as they broke out of the stair well on to the ground level. There were more cars parked here, but no one was afoot around them, just a few pigeons cooing and pecking at grit and garbage.

Fletch did not miss a beat.

'And the rest?' He said, as they crossed the ground level. It felt wrong to make mockery of her hardship; a young woman pushed into prostitution was no laughing matter. But in that moment, his shortcomings and loneliness dragged out and derided, Fletch felt neither generous or good. The pigeons took flight in alarm, the soft whoosh and clap of wings carrying above his words as they exited onto the street. 'You ever get asked for a refund?'


This is what you get, Kenzie, when you attack a man below his belt like you did. She was as unaware of the wounds that she was carelessly pitching salt into as he was unaware of the ones he was doing the same to in return.

She couldn't hide the look of hurt that crossed her face briefly, one that caused her mouth to shift to the side in a partial grimace. "Nah. I've been asked for more. Had a number of repeat customers." She shrugged, feigning indifference when she was feeling anything but. Kenzie had a metaphysical hand held up in her mind that was holding and shoving back a whole lot of awful memories and feelings, and owing to that, she opted not to say anything more on that subject. Not here, not right now. Not when they had festivities to get to, and she couldn't bare to let herself sour another fucking day with Fletch. She felt a surge of aspiration to make this a goddamn good and fucking fun day okay!!

"Come on!" She said cheerfully, skipping up to him and grabbing his hand as she flitted past a step, pivoting to give him a playful tug toward her and down the sidewalk. "Let's find that buffet and get some drinks! I bet there's something nearby." Kenzie grinned at him, giggled a bit even as she focused on recapturing some of her previous elation. Her eyes met his before she let go of his hand and metaphorically crossed her fingers that he would follow her lead and spare them both further torment. "What are you in the mood for, anyway?" He had indicated going to the first buffet they came across, but, she was sure there'd be options, and anyway, conversation.

There was no sense of triumph in what he'd said. No smug satisfaction at having given as good as he got. Fleeting though it was, her look of hurt only told him he'd crossed the line. You started it, he wanted to tell her, his smile tightening as he watched with a closed and cool regard, don't dish out what you can't take back.

But she caught his hand as though her game of barbs didn't matter; a bright and sunny smile imploring him to forget his punctured heart. Fletch followed, but his hands tucked away in his pockets. He was glad of the change in topic.

'A feed, a fight, and a fuck.' He muttered beneath his breath, choosing to avoid the girl in black who careened along the pavement. 'Not necessarily in that order.' Pensive, his sights were above them; scanning the frontage of shops and eateries in search of one he fancied. If he had patience at all, the faff of waiting to be seated and served was now beyond him. He wanted to sink his teeth into something. Who or what hardly mattered.

'Here looks good,' he called to her after a moment, nodding at an all-you-can-eat Chinese. 'Don't know about you, but I want something neon red and packed with MSG.'

She never missed that he had tucked his hands back into his pockets. She took it as a not so subtle way to discourage her from grabbing them any more, and the thought caused goosebumps to rise along her skin with the cold feeling it caused her. It was chased by a feeling of dirtiness, but she anchored her sights and her mind to the sidewalk and stores ahead of them and did her best to ignore it. Nope, nope, nope, they were going to have a good day and—

She heard that mutter. SIGH. Kenzie wanted to raise her hand and drag it across her face in exasperation. Instead, she curled her fingers tightly into her palms and let herself feel her ire for a moment, before she took a deep breath and relaxed her hands, letting the anger drop were she holding it like two fistfuls of mud. Nope, nope, fucking nope. They. Were. Going. To. Have. A. Good. Day. GOD. DAMNIT.

Oh nice he picked a place!

Oh crap it was Chinese.

She liked Chinese. Just maybe not on the heels of having met Alina at such a place.

"Sounds good to meeee!" She smiled at him. It would work. She would make it work. It was taking an awful lot of digging and effort but nonetheless she was managing to maintain her sunnier diposition even if she could feel the flight or fight hum beginning in her chest telling her that she was honestly uncomfortable and uncertain and—


She headed into the restaurant. It truly smelled delicious and her stomach bubbled its approval. "I bet I can eat more plates than you," she challenged with a grin cast over her shoulder at Fletch. There was no waiting before a prompt waitress lead them to a booth for two and asked if they would like something to drink besides water.

She ordered a Pepsi.

Two straws.

This early in the day, the Yang Sing was quiet. A chequerboard of tables filled the open-plan space; white against crimson, set with silverware and napkins that flagged like sails. Large enough for two chairs, these islands could be pushed together in a pinch to accommodate groups ad hoc.

But this was not where the waitress took Kenzie and Fletch. The booths were set away from the main dining area, set up on a raised platform. While this afforded them privacy, it also meant they were out of the way. Fletch chose not to comment. There were advantages to being deliberately forgotten, out of sight and mind.

He took up the rear; a genial wave motioning both the waitress and Kenzie ahead of him. Following at an easy pace, when Kenzie turned his brows hiked in answer. 'Dangerous words.' One of the starched folds of material was plucked from a nearby table, considered, and tucked away in his pocket when her back was turned. 'They called me hollow legs at school.' Several more napkins disappeared on the way to the table, but by the time they arrived, his faint smile betrayed nothing of his crime.

'But, if you fancy going up against the Eating King of Cranhill -' with airy resignation he settled across from her, ordered a beer. TsingTao was a little too hoppy for his tastes, and unlikely to touch the sides. But he intended to start as he meant to go on. The van had been parked for a reason. 'Name your stake. What we playing for, here?' There was sixteen-hundred dollars to her name. That was a start.

She was small but Kenzie could always eat. She had been able to eat even more since the attack and resulting condition — though she seldom had the chance to test those limits. Her challenge had been made in good humor however and less out of confidence that she actually could clean off more plates than Fletch. It was for play, she wanted them to have some fun and laughs.

"Oh hoh, mister here with the fancy title." She grinned. Kenzie had been something of a recluse at school and had never participated in any eating competitions, so she had no title to offer in return; but she did have something of a boast that she could share all the same. "Dad used to say, 'Little Crow, you could out-eat the flock.'"

Name her stake he said. She hadn't considered making this an actual bet and so hummed contemplatively. "Hmmm." She had never been much for gambling. She certainly had a bit of spare change to gamble with now. But she neither fancied wagering her new-found monies nor thought it would make for a particularly fun or clever bet. She suggested instead the most ridiculous thing she could come up with on the fly:

"If I win, you have to dress in drag and read to me from a book of my choosing in some public location over a couple of pink lemonades on ice. If you win..."

Elbows on the table, she rolled her hands toward him with her palms up, passing the baton and opening the floor for him to decide her fate should she be the one to lose, all the while she sat there grinning brightly. Kenzie immediately figured this was probably a terrible idea, but she dared to hope he'd be on board with the outrageous betting game she had initiated, and that he would stick to wagers that were silly and mostly benign.

The waitress slipped by with their drinks and told them to help themselves. On offer were: two islands each with two rows of steaming foods housed in silver trays beneath sneeze guards and overhead lights; a salad and sushi bar perpendicular to those which also featured chopped fruits and green jello; and a dessert table opposite of that with coffee-flavored cake squares, cream puffs, and other sweets.

Kenzie noted with a frowny-twitch of her mouth that there was only one straw with her Pepsi.

To her tease, Fletch grinned back. Unbeknownst to Kenzie he had invented the title on the spot, and as grand as it sounded, it was nothing more than a callback to the appetite of an ordinary teenage boy. These days, the coyote often reminded him of that visceral hunger. He had no doubt that he could plough through plate after plate of food without pause or problem, just as he had forty years ago.

What he might claim as his prize was another matter. The drinks arrived as she rolled the betting across to him, and Fletch was pulled from a study of her wrists to note her fleeting dissatisfaction. He flagged the waitress back.

'My friend asked for two straws,' he said on a smile, committing his beer to an angled glass. If the server balked at the appellation it was masked by her apology, and she soon whisked off to correct the mistake. Fletch twisted in his seat to watch her walk the length of the floor to the bar. His eyes were on her rear.

'If I win, you're dressing up in a pencil skirt, heels and suspenders, and we're going to Union Square,' he continued, lifting his gaze to hers and kissing his glass against her Pepsi. 'I'll get my glad rags on, take my guitar and we'll have a wee sing song for a couple 'hours. Cheers.'

TsingTao was exactly as he remembered; cold, fizzy, and a little too forward on the hops. Fairly bland, as beer went. Not bad for a lager. 'You coming then, Little Crow?' Placing the perspiring glass to one side he slipped from the booth, inclining his head toward the islands of food. The aromas of meat and steaming vegetables were making his stomach complain as much as the dog in his head. 'Where'd that name come from, anyway? All that black you wear?'

Kenzie would not have bothered to ask for the second straw. She would have sipped on her single one begrudgingly because she didn't want to interact with the waitress more than she had to, or come across as some nuisance kid who had to have two straws. That Fletch made sure she would have her preferred number of drinking instruments warmed her significantly. She smiled at him, but his gaze was travelling elsewhere and he was shifting in the booth. Kenzie turned her head and followed his eyes to the waitress' backside. He raised brows, head tilt and hum read: not bad.

He had chosen his wager. "Of course!" She laughed, clinking her Pepsi against his beer. "Couldn't let the pencil skirt and heels go, huh? Sorry, I must have disappointed you when I showed up the way I did." Kenzie winked. "But you haven't heard me sing, I could sound like a crow as much as eat like a flock of 'em." She knew he would not be swayed into letting her off the hook with singing, but in the name of the game, and all the good fun she was determined they would have, she would cross that bridge when she got there; because let's face it, he was more than likely going to polish off more rounds than her. If she got to see and hear him play his guitar, though, she'd take that loss with a smile.

Fletch used her childhood nickname as he rose from their booth, garnering him an amused grin. She followed, sliding out and up onto her feet. "Dad gave me that," she replied as she scanned the rows of food briefly before taking a plate between her thumb and fingers and simply starting at the end of one island. "Our last name is Crowther, see, and I really am a runt compared to the rest of my family." She heaped fried noodles and chow mein onto her plate. "But I mean I always wore a lot of black and I used to hang out in trees a lot too. I collected shiny rocks and whatever else I could scavenge when he took me camping. So I guess it fits in more than one way!" Kenzie chuckled and smiled fondly, her gaze distant as she focused on the memories in her mind's eye. For a moment, her look softened into sadness, before she resumed gathering up her meal with nary a trace of that fleeting melancholy.

By the time she returned to her seat, beef and broccoli had been nested against the chow mein, and several chicken balls draped in neon-red-and-packed-with-MSG sweet and sour sauce occupied the remaining quarter of her plate. One egg roll sat atop her noodles. There were also now a second straw butted up against the first. Kenzie was pleased at this and wiggled her shoulders in approval. Foregoing the glass provided to her, she spun the tab around on the Pepsi can and stuck both straws through the small gap at the back, such that the tab secured them from floating up. Happy and content in the moment, she looked across to her companion.

"Did your mother actually name you Fletch or is that just your preferred handle?"

Fletch reserved comment on his wager. He had heard her sing. Fleeting though it had been, there had been nothing wrong with those two notes she'd tuned into. In fact, he'd go so far as to say she sang well. She could tease about his dogged determination to see her dressed up, but in truth his interests lay less in making his fantasy real, and more in pushing Kenzie to get over herself; whatever hang up she had that crippled her self confidence.

And if he didn't manage to win their game, well. His legs looked great in heels.

On approach to the islands he took up two plates. His approach was much the same as hers; working his way clockwise around the spread, and picking out anything that appealed to him. Chicken, beef, ribs; all glistening with brightly coloured sauces, some fried in batter. All the while he listened to the story of Kenzie Crowther, picturing a scrawny girl not so very different to the one piling food on her plate, climbing trees, building campfires and pitching tents. An idyllic, American childhood. He wondered what had changed. Why her dad had never fought her corner.

They returned to the table with plates brimming. To his satisfaction he saw she had also been furnished with straw number two; Kenzie's wriggle of delight enough to make him smile. When she turned the question back on him, however, the expression turned thoughtful and inward. In the end, he decided she deserved as much as she'd given.

'Nah, my mother named me Dylan, actually. She's from the Rhondda, a little ways north of Pontypridd.' His tone became deliberately slow and ponderous, in a close approximation of the soft, Welsh valleys drawl. 'Dad put his foot down when it came to naming my brother and sister - they got trad Scots names - but when mam found out her first born was a boy, she was adamant he'd be Dylan. Named for the poet, apparently. Dickheads at school used to call me Taff.' Or sheep shagger. That was one name he chose not to share. 'Fletcher's my last name. Fletch is just -' he shrugged, 'easier.'

'You've not got any brothers or sisters, no?' From the way she spoke he suspected not; Kenzie had made no mention of siblings thus far, but as curious as he was about her, he also wanted to know more about her family. Why it was she looked faraway and sad whenever the subject arose.

Dylan. She cracked a smile at that, cheeks puffed with a mouthful of noodles. She hardly glanced at her plate as Fletch continued talking. He must be accustomed to this by now; her eyes resting on him as she attentively absorbed every charmingly-accented word. She wondered what constituted traditional Scots names, and what sort of insult Taff was meant to be. The word brought nothing to her mind except colorful chewy gobs of sugar wrapped in wax paper.

"I like Fletch." She said simply, fondly. She liked Dylan too but... Fletch suited the man before her. Somehow; if asked, she'd struggle to articulate why her ear found it more fitting.

Her turn to answer another question. Instead of aversion to such a thing, she found she welcomed this chance to get to know Fletch and for him to get to know her. "Actually," she said, using her napkin for once to wipe sweet and sour sauce from her mouth. "I have a sister. Or, well..." she paused. "I had a sister." Her mouth quirked sideways as the tip of her tongue anxiously probed at the coarse bottoms of her molars. She regarded her friend with a thoughtful look, considering, before she went on. "She died when I was a kid. She was older than me by two years." Kenzie cleared her throat, prompted by a tickle of tension there. She reached for her Pepsi, and took a long, slow drink of that.

There was more to that miserable story she didn't offer up freely; but if there was anyone she'd disclose it to, it was Fletch. Her brows lifted upward and her lips pursed as she provided a clue without really intending it as such. "Jessica was Mom's favorite." It was just a carelessly tossed out statement, but one that intense bitterness wreathed entirely. "But. I like to think I was Dad's." Kenzie grinned smugly, then jabbed her fork in another chicken ball and held it to her mouth to bite off a chunk. Cause why use a knife like a civilized person, Kenzie. Once that piece had been chewed enough to talk around it, and she had taken the moment to consider the many things she wished to know, the metaphorical talking stick was handed back to Fletch.

"What was your life like before... you know?"

Fletch wasted no time in setting about his food. Barehanded, he took up some ribs, gnawing along each curved bone in a manner not dissimilar to the canine inside him. His gaze flicked between his food and his friend, though he listened all the while, and as was the way when Kenzie chose to share he was left with a hundred questions. How old Kenzie had been when she lost her sister, for example, and what she remembered of her. What family life had been like with the four of them, and how it changed in Jessica's absence.

Inevitably the conversation turned back to him, to the murky, mucky topic of his life before the road. The thought of divulging made him hesitate. But if Kenzie was willing to talk about the painful subject of family - not least of all her older sister - he felt obliged to share in turn.

'Before I got dogged?' He prompted, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Lurid red sauce, already staining his beard, smeared across the back of his hand. He sucked it clean. 'Great. I was married. Nice house up in Connecticut. Two daughters. My wife was a doctor, and I -'

He speared a chicken ball with his fork.

'- was a journalist.' The sticky morsel was held up for inspection, glimmering as he turned it this way and that. 'Look at that. It's like they got a piece of chicken and thought, how can we make this more exciting. I know. Let's make it bright. Make it bright, like a wee sun we can all gather 'round for warmth. Fantastic.'

He stuffed it in his mouth a moment later, chewing stolidly and continuing to talk around it. 'What was Jessica like?' More chicken followed. 'She ever go camping with you and your dad, or was that more of a just you two, thing?' Fletch noted that Kenzie had not supplied much of an opinion of her sister, except the sorrow she felt for her absence and the bitterness of her mother's favouritism. But it struck him that the difficulties she faced with her mother could well have been triggered by the golden daughter's death. Quite unexpectedly, Fletch felt his heart twinge; sympathy and guilt momentarily dimming his appetite. When it came to your kids you were never supposed to pick favourites, but much as you could deny it, you did.

Her eyes reached for his — or tried. He was analyzing the chicken and supplying a rather amusing opinion on his affection for it. Kenzie smiled but her thoughts were quietly with what he had said: that he had had a great life, married with a family, and what she presumed to be a good job. In summary, he had had it all, and now he was here, afflicted with a condition he didn't ask for, living out of his car, and with not much more than that to his name. Her heart hurt for him.

She wanted to know more.

So did he. He asked about her sister.

"She was beautiful." Kenzie answered softly after swallowing some of her beef and broccoli. "Long blonde hair. Green eyes. Tall." The antithesis to the Crowther daughter sitting across from him. "She had that bubbly personality and everyone loved her." Kenzie, in contrast again, had been shy, disliking crowds and keeping to herself while her sister soaked up the attention. "She didn't like the country much and neither did Mom so it was usually just Dad and me. Jessica would rather go shopping with Mom, and they would get their hair and nails done together and all that other..." Kenzie screwed her face up in distaste. "...stuff." Those stereotypical girly pursuits were not for her. "She was in ballet and gymnastics."

More of her chow mein disappeared. She reasoned what he would be asking next. Rather than wait for the question, she went ahead and offered it, spurred to open up to him by his willingness to share in return. "She was killed in a car accident when I was ten." Kenzie drew a deep breath and sighed, reluctant to tell the tale because of the grimness of it. "Then at the funeral... I went to hug my mother, but she pushed me away and screamed at me." She squeezed her fork and bit her lip. "She said, 'it was supposed to be you in that car. We should be burying you.'" Kenzie took another long sip of her Pepsi to soothe her throat. "I was catching frogs down by the pond and forgot I was supposed to be going with Mom to some stupid play. So Jessica went instead, and every day after she died Mom made sure that I knew she wished Jessica were alive instead of me. I'm not the daughter she wanted. I was not even supposed to be born — she told me that too, that day."

Kenzie rolled her shoulders as he drew in another deep breath. Though she disliked dampening the mood with her story, part of her was relieved to have told it — for Fletch to be the first to hear it.

"Where are your wife and kids now?"

'Um, Connecticut, I expect. Cat's parents live in New Haven.'

His answer was a footnote; a distracted mutter supplied with a shake of his head. Fletch's thoughts was no longer with the family had left back up north, but the story told over chow mein, beef and broccoli.

'Heather wasn't planned,' he offered, as though this small fact could make up for heartache of being an unwanted child. 'My eldest. Cat and I were working, uh - abroad - when we found out she was pregnant.' He tried to imagine losing Alison and blaming it on Heather. Losing Heather and blaming it on Ali. He tried to fathom how a mother could cling onto her grief and fling it outwards for eight, long years, to the point at which her own flesh and blood felt compelled to leave. He came away grasping at straws.

Seized by a sudden impulse to set right, he abandoned his fork to the table and reached for her hand. 'Jesus Christ, Kenzie.' Ten years old, and painfully aware of her failings. That her mother did not value her in her own right, rather compared her to the daughter she lost. 'You blame yourself for what happened?' His gaze was on hers, bright with a vague hope of being proven wrong. Surely not. She'd been a kid. Ten. 'What about your dad, what'd he say? Your mum hit her head in that accident or something, I mean -?' What the fuck.

Kenzie was startled when he suddenly took her hand, all her thoughts and questions about his family shaken from her mind for the moment. She tensed reflexively, but quickly relaxed, meeting his eyes. Setting her fork down, she took her now-free hand and rested it atop his, her thumb gently caressing the back of his hand in reassurance. "I did." She admitted. "I understand now that it wasn't. But I believed that it was for far too long." This subject was a sore one but she smiled gently. "Dad always tried to assure me it wasn't my fault, and told me that Mom was just grieving. That she never meant the things she said." Kenzie chewed at her lower lip and shrugged one shoulder.

"She meant them though. She never liked that I was a tomboy. She always wanted me to be more like Jessica. She wanted me to dress like a lady and act like one too. That got worse when she had no proper daughter left to raise." But Kenzie wasn't the only one to be on the receiving end of her mother's hateful grief. "Dad left when I was fifteen. Divorced her because he caught her having an affair and she was miserable to him anyway because, ah..." Kenzie huffed a humorless laugh. "Because he convinced her to keep me in the first place. Because he encouraged me to be myself and catch those frogs. So her hate for me spilled onto him." She shook her head. Older and wiser, Kenzie realized how ridiculous her mother had been. The damage had been done though, inflicted on a child who hadn't known better and took it to heart, who grew into an adult that was still stitching together those wounds and more, and searching for herself beneath her collection of scars.

"Sorry, my past is a terrible story. So I don't talk about this stuff. In fact, I've never talked about this stuff before with anyone but." She patted his hand and smiled tenderly. "I trust you."

Fletch had reached out to Kenzie in a bid to comfort and soothe. What happened felt more like the reverse; the motion of her thumb easing the troubled thoughts that rose in response to her tale. She was tough, he realised, and had reconciled her hurt and insecurity long before he came along.

Left with a guilt he was loathe to explain, he let go of her hand with a parting squeeze and dug back into his food. But he struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat, and the meal weighed like lead in his guts. He did not deserve her trust.

'Why didn't you go with him?' Even fifteen years old, world-weary and hardened to her mother's neglect, he did not like to think of the trauma and upset it would have caused for her dad to up and leave. The man who had taken her camping, encouraged her to catch frogs and be true to who she was. It struck him as more than passing odd a man like that would leave his only daughter, when he knew it meant abandoning her to a monster. His gaze dropped down to his lunch. Despite being armed with alibis, the topic sat too near the knuckle of his own angst to be comfortable. 'Could he not get custody?'

She missed the contact as soon as he let go of her hand. The air felt degrees cooler on her skin in the absence of his warmth.

Kenzie picked up the egg roll between her fingers and took a bite, chewing before she answered Fletch’s next question. "I didn’t know he was going and he never tried." She took another bite, smaller, one she could talk around. "He drank a lot in the end. Left without a word one night. Divorce papers came in the mail some time later. He left it all to Mom — the house, their savings. I know he did that for me." She reached up with her unoccupied hand and scratched the back of her neck with the tips of her fingers, sighing. "Looking back, I think he had fallen into a terrible depression. I don’t think he believed he could take care of me. Last I heard of him was a card when I turned 18. He had found one with silhouettes of birds in the sky. Inside, it just said ‘Fly, Little Crow. Love you’."

She finished her egg roll, the remaining bite of beef and broccoli and the last forkful of chow mein. She was aware of how her tale was affecting her friend, and her heart ached for it.

"Round two?" Kenzie half-smiled, still holding on to her own questions about Fletch in favor of letting him ask whatever he wanted, if he had any questions left on his tongue.

Where Kenzie was left cold by the absence of his touch, Fletch was left chilled by her words. As she spoke of her father his skin crawled with a sense of wrongdoing, which neither fidget nor clearing his throat could relieve.

Her smile, weary and half-formed as it was, held so much trust and belief in the good that he wanted to reach across and slap her. Instead, he shovelled another forkful of rice in his gob, painfully aware of himself; the monster in the tale she had kept to herself until now. He was glad of her efforts to change the subject.

'Not been to many all you can eats, have you?' With a grin several shades brighter than his food, Fletch motioned to the second plate of two he'd brought with him, still untouched. 'This is your game plan, right here. More time eating, less time ferrying. Go on.' To the islands he gave a nod, 'knock yourself out. I'm good with this for now.'

Her eyes glanced over to the second plate of food. It had been neglected in her periphery, attention so focused on him as it were. She was happy to see that bright grin of his return in the wake of her heavy words, and she mirrored it. "Fine lesson from the Eating King of Cranhill. I'll take it." She winked as she rose to her feet.

Kenzie took two plates. On one she heaped more fried noodles and chow mein, but she she found them some new neighbors: sauteed garlic green beans and fried wontons. Much as Kenzie missed cookie dough and other such treats, she also missed her vegetables and carbs in her prioritization of proteins. But, the second plate she stacked with just that: spare ribs, another helping of chicken balls with a generous coat of sweet and sour sauce, and some sesame pork bites. She still loved her meat even if she ate more of it than ever.

She returned to the table. Spreading her hands, she glanced from her two-plate take to Fletch and grinned. "Better?" Kenzie set into her ribs, holding them in her fingers not unlike Fletch had done with his. Her first few bites of these had her humming approval. Mmmmm... She should have gotten these first. They were even better than the chicken balls.

Bringing her eyes up from her food to Fletch, she was about to ask one of the questions on her mind, but thought better of it. Digging into a person's past was a dangerous game, and he had been upset enough by her recount of hers and he hadn't even heard it all. Instead, she smiled contentedly, and asked something lighter.

"Do you play your guitar in public a lot? Is that how you make a living when you're not investigating yourself?"

Fletch waited until Kenzie was well and truly absorbed in loading up two plates before he set to work. His fork clattered on his plate, a flash of white revealing the first of several napkins he had filched from the tables on their way in. Beef, chicken, and bits of pork from the second plate were meticulously wrapped into parcels before he stashed them in the greatcoat's voluminous pockets. Then, he took up his fork again to transfer the contents of one plate to another. For all intents and purposes it would look as though he'd simply finished his first and begun the second.

It wasn't cheating, he told himself, it was forethought and strategy.

'Aye, you've got the idea there,' he said on her return, nodding in approval at the pile of meat she had acquired. Kenzie seemed to have gone for more vegetables and filler this time around; the green beans catching his curiosity in particular. He pinched one to test whether it tasted as good as it smelt. To his faint surprise, it did.

'I suppose I have been,' this comment came with a touch of his own surprise. He realised he had been hanging around Mountainside for around about two months, with little to show for his efforts save today's take. This on the back of his assurance to Kenzie he had travelled here looking for work - he offered her a smile. 'Wouldn't say I manage to make a living from it, I'm not that good. Just a quick bit of cash when I'm skint, you know?' He was skint quite a lot.

'No, I do a bit of everything, same as you, I'm sure -' he motioned toward her with his fork, before spearing a piece of pepper, 'pulling pints, stacking shelves, labouring, gardening - you know how it is. Whatever pays cash in hand.' Mostly work that didn't require him to think too hard or deeply, with managers who cared not to notice the regularity of his absence. 'I'm not proud.'

In the back of his mind lingered a worry that the sudden and unexpected vitality he'd come to know as a coyote was temporary. Able to keep up with men much younger and much better built than himself, he wondered if perhaps there would come a time where he would find himself unable to ply the honest, hard graft that formed the bulk of his income now. Even if he never ailed physically, he expected there would come a time he'd be turned away on account of his age. He preferred not to dwell on it.

'Not found anything long term yet, but -' He shrugged, 'Gobby - er, Alex - mentioned there might be work for me when things come good for the band. Seems to me that's several months away at the moment.' Ergo, it was not money he could rely on in the here and now.

'Let me ask you something,' he finished up the last stray grains of sauce-soaked rice and set his fork aside for the time being. All the while the impression of grave error had weighed heavy on his heart, and loathe as he was to dive back to the topic, Kenzie remained the sole person he now knew with first-hand experience of his dilemma. 'What'd you think, when your dad sent you that card on your eighteenth? You'd not heard from him for, what, near enough three years?'

She presented him an amused look when he helped himself to a green bean. Onto her fork she levelled four more and reaching across, she slid them onto his plate.

"I really hope things do come good." She felt that sentiment keenly in her heart. Part of her was almost guilty for her good fortune in obtaining a pack, a bed (in an apartment no less), and a job. For obtaining even that bit of security when he hadn't. Kenzie was about to ask what sort of work the band might have him up to but Fletch had something on his mind, and she mmhmm'ed with a nod, setting her fork down as well so that her attention, and her warm gaze, belonged entirely to him.

It was a concerning question. She exhaled softly, sensing that her tale had touched near and dear to Fletch's heart. It did not take much for her to wonder if Fletch, who could only assume where his wife and kids were now, had left home without a word himself. "I cried," she said. "Because that card meant that he still thought about me and still cared despite me not hearing from him for so long — about three years, yeah." Kenzie glanced away for just a moment, distracted by the clatter of a dish falling in the kitchen. "I didn't understand how he could leave me. He had been so good to me. There was a time when I blamed myself for that too, and I was hurt, and I was scared, and I was sad, and I tried to reason all that away and tell myself that he always did his best and he must have had a reason to leave like he did." Her brows knitted and her eyes were distant as she focused on her memories. "It got harder to argue in his defense the more time went on. I don't know." She shook her head and sighed. The emotions surrounding her devastation over that were complicated and difficult to articulate. "The card just... helped me believe once and for all that I had been right to think he still cared and that he only did what he felt he had to do. Like I said, looking back at it now, I believe he was quite ill in his mind." It didn't make what he did right but at least she could reconcile it.

"That card is what gave me the courage to stomp on Mom's ultimatum and... fly."

She fell quiet, eyes gently upon Fletch. There were unspoken questions written there in her soft expression as she afforded him the space to feel and speak what he may.

Every word of Kenzie's answer hurt.

He knew the foolishness of the question before he gave voice to his thoughts. Yet like a lifting scab, the compulsion to pick until it came loose and bled was an itch he failed to ignore. For what she told him, it could just as well have been her sat across the way, blue eyes turning faraway and wistful instead of grey, struggling to put to words the particular pain of losing her father.

Four beans lay ignored and cooling on the edge of his plate. A kindness he didn't deserve. As she spoke Fletch disappeared his hands beneath the table to rub his palms hard against the seams of his jeans. Cold, clammy skin sloughed against denim too old and soft to offer reprieve. Even as Kenzie reconciled her loss with the understanding the man had been ill, his mind argued - quiet, and poisonous. Lunacy be damned, he was still sane.

'It's Heather's birthday next month,' he told her, as though this fact would help explain his reason for asking. Those soft, grey eyes almost wrung the answer out of him; wordlessly imploring he speak. 'She'll be eighteen.'

Kenzie's heart felt squeezed and torn as though it were being constricted in the dagger-ended talons of a hawk.

There were no words for this. Nothing she could think of sounded like anything more than worthless sounds in her mind. She could not simply offer to help him find a card to send to Heather either; that was not some tried-and-true solution that promised to mend the hurts and griefs in his heart and soothe the thoughts she imagined must be going through his head. To say nothing of his daughter. The card had worked for Kenzie because of herself and her specific circumstances. It may or may not benefit Heather as much as Kenzie liked to think it would.

Lost for a spoken reply, she chewed at her lip in deliberation and then quietly got up from her seat. The benches were not intended for two people to sit side by side but there was enough room for what she sought to do. Hands on the table, she guided herself around and slid in by Fletch, nestling herself in close to him. Her cheek leaned on his shoulder while her arm tucked around his arm and embraced it in the crook of her elbow, and her leg fell against the length of his. She didn't know what else to offer him besides this heartfelt effort to comfort him, this wordless support and her unyielding companionship.

Support, forgiveness, comfort; Fletch couldn't be sure what Kenzie meant to convey as she settled beside him. What he knew was her warmth soothed the tangled knot of thoughts in a way he struggled to explain, in a manner he was certainly unworthy of.

But, selfishly, he made no move to deter her. Instead he scooted flush against the inner wall of the booth to grant her a little more space.

'I picked up something for her. From that market, in Red Rock. Thought I'd have a shot of it reaching her if I sent it to New Haven. You know, the grandparents. Stick my phone number inside. Just in case.' He scoffed. A cheap polyester blanket and a dime-store card wouldn't fix seven years abandonment. 'Stupid.' A silly, sentimental idea. Fletch voiced a heavy sigh as the beans caught his eye again; bright green shoots against the crimson, sticky mess of his plate. He reached for one.

'You giving up down there?' Between thumb and forefinger he twirled the bean in her face, its blunt-chopped end brushing the underside of her nose. He poked it against her lips. 'Come on, open wide for the aeroplane.'

"Mmm... that's not stupid, Fletch." She murmured, giving his arm a squeeze with her own. "That's sweet. It's the thought you know... erh. Not to use a tired cliche but." She sighed. Kenzie understood why he thought it was stupid. In matters of the heart like these, nothing would seem adequate. Her father probably thought his card was stupid too.

He reached for a green bean and in a beat started to twirl it in her face. Kenzie laughed, tilting her head back to grin and gaze up at him; all too happy to go along with the silliness to break them both out of the low spirits of their conversation. "Nuh-uh!" She snatched the green bean between her front teeth with an audible click of tooth against tooth. She let it dangle, and then slurped it up were it a strand of spaghetti. The residual butter found its way onto her sleeve when she brushed her wrist across her nose and mouth, her thumb stuck through the hole in her cuff. "Gonna be here a long time if you insist on feeding me green beans one by one," she quipped as she reached for her plate and pulled it toward her.

She could have went back to her seat; however, he had shifted in earlier to afford her more space, accepting her closeness much to her relief, and while he may have thought it selfish on his part to accept it in the first place, it was selfish on her part to linger there against him. She desired closeness and contact to a degree that ached, having been deprived of anything of the sort for so many years. If he was going to let her stay then she'd stay, and soak it up for as long as he would permit her to. It made eating a bit more awkward but she could not be less concerned about that as she reached for piece of sesame pork using her free hand.

"Here." She giggled, eyes shimmering brightly as she held the saucy pork up and pressed it against his mouth. "Tell me if this tastes good."

In a fit of uncharacteristic self doubt Fletch had bundled the gift in an overhead locker above his bed, still in its carrier bag, the blank birthday card nestled within. There the dilemma had lurked, out of sight and mind, as he invented excuses not to tackle it. The nearest post office was half an hour's drive into Red Rock, and too far to stand the cost of petrol. There was every chance Cat's parents had moved, despite them having settled quite comfortably in a suburban bungalow over a decade before he'd left. They would probably withhold the parcel, even if he sent it, recognising his handwriting and destroying it out of spite.

The longer it festered, the more he convinced himself the window of opportunity had closed.

But Kenzie told him it was sweet, and offered up a sentiment that had no business chasing off his pessimism. Yet, regardless of the arguments he'd stacked against the idea, he found himself reconsidering. Beneath the table, he searched for her knee to deliver a fleeting squish.

'What's the rush?' He teased, as the string bean disappeared with a pop. 'You got anywhere better to be?' Little by little, the sadness eased; swiped away much like Kenzie cleaning butter off her chin. His chest had eased considerably when she latched onto his humour and laughed, her bright eyes and a broad grin doing much to lift the spirit of their afternoon. Crammed together in one half of the booth they at constant risk of elbowing one another and their plates fought for space on the table. But there was comfort in the closeness. For now, Fletch buried the thoughts of Heather as deep as he had her gift. Kenzie was giggling, and pushing something warm and sticky to his mouth.

With a hum of assent, he accepted the morsel; tongue and teeth brushing her fingers in the process. 'This count as helping you out?' He asked, taking another piece of pork as a sign of his approval. 'Here.' Her turn, the third piece he took finding its way to her lips instead. 'Get your gob around that.'

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