Alex let the door slam shut behind her as she entered the dim interior of The Gradient the next day. She blinked as her eyes adjusted. Wrinkling her nose, she almost gagged at the smell of stale smoke and beer that wafted past her. The Gradient was by far her least favorite place to hang out, but it was the meeting place of choice for those looking to do a little business. They offered food, beer, and best of all, anonymity.
She scanned the room, looking for Fredie. Bookies weren’t known for their punctuality, but Fredie was usually pretty good about being on time. She’d done business with others before, but she preferred dealing with him when possible. Maybe it was a case of the devil she knew or something. The bet she planned on making was a big one, so she wanted to make sure it was done right. She knew she could count on Fredie to handle it.
She made her way to an empty booth, and settled in to wait. She signaled to the bartender to bring her a beer. While she waited, she thought about Dreyfus, the fighter she intended to bet on. He was a friend of hers, and wicked good with his fight skills. Good thing too, because she had expenses. There was no rent to pay, because after the Purge, people just staked out a property and claimed it as their own. So the little homestead she chose and fought to keep was thankfully rent-free. She’d heard that soon they might have to start paying for electricity, now that the power grids were back up and running. Someone was obviously controlling it and looking to line their pockets.
But, they still needed money for things like food, clothing, and other necessities. Making the occasional bet allowed her cover those expenses and then some, like providing little things here and there for Jericho. Things he needed, and sometimes, things he didn’t. It made her happy to make him happy, so she did the best she could. She knew he missed their parents, they both did, and she was all he had left now. Well, except for Cat. But as far as blood relations, she was it.
To compensate, she tried to make their new life as fun as possible, even when things looked their worst. It was hard sometimes. She could see the sadness that lingered in his eyes. Heck, he still had nightmares at night. Losing everything and everyone you care about in one fell swoop could break even the strongest of souls. But somehow, they’d survived and managed to carve out some semblance of a life in this unstable and uncertain new world they found themselves in.
Jericho even made a few friends. They seemed to make things more bearable for him, so she didn’t protest too much. She vetted them as best she could, and they seemed like good kids. At least good enough. Besides, she trusted Jericho and his judgement. He had to grow up fast since the Purge, but the core of him, the part that was good and kind, still remained. Even if he hid it beneath angsty teen bravado once in awhile. Alex snorted to herself. At least that part of him was normal enough.
She’d been worried the changes to their DNA and their shifting abilities would go all haywire during his hormonal teen years, but other than the initial growing pains that came with both of them getting used to their new “enhancements,” he seemed stable enough. She worked with him almost every day, training them both to keep themselves under control. It was imperative they keep their Jag instincts on a tight leash.
Once a week they went out late at night roam the area in their beast form. Sometimes they did a little hunting. Turns out, Jags have sharper instincts than most in the cat family and there’s nothing they enjoy more than a good hunt. Except maybe a good prowl. She thought the excursions helped. It allowed them both to release some of their pent up energy and created a stronger connection with the feline inside of them. She really wasn’t sure how any of it worked, but she knew something had happened during the Purge that was both science and magic.
Their DNA changed, but something else changed too. Something deeper, more spiritual in nature. It was almost like they had two souls living in their bodies. One human. One cat. Both intricately tied to the other. And at times, one more dominant than the other. That’s what scared her most. It’s what drove her to be so tough on herself and Jericho when it came to self-discipline and self-control. If they didn’t have discipline and control, she worried the wild thing inside them could take over completely. She was determined to hang on to every tattered shred of humanity she could, even if everyone around her seemed bent on doing the opposite. What was there to keep fighting and living for, if they were all just reduced to a bunch of animals and instincts? Not her, and not her brother. They were human, first and foremost, and she vowed after her first painful and terrifying shift to never forget that.
Alex looked up when a shadow fell across her table. Her pupils dilated in surprise, and she grinned, laugh lines appearing around her eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
Catalina slid into the booth across from her and tossed her long, red braid over her shoulder. “Same thing as you, apparently. You heard Dreyfus is fighting this week?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah, I’m waiting on Fredie now. I thought about coming to find you, but figured you’d hear about it sooner or later on your own.”
Cat grinned and tapped her temple. “Great minds!”
Alex stuck out her tongue. “I’m pretty sure my mind is greater. I’m the brains, you’re the beauty, remember?”
Cat rolled her eyes. “Whatever, cat-breath. You’re just as gorgeous as I am.” She sniffed and lifted her pert nose in the air, giving Alex a sideways glance. Alex snorted. So humble her friend was. But she wasn’t wrong, she was gorgeous. Alex always felt more like her shadow. Not bad to look at, but not real exceptional either, in her opinion. Which was fine with her, she liked to blend in. Made her job a lot easier, most days. Cat however, drew attention no matter where she went, and loved it.
The door across the room opened again, and Fredie finally ambled in. Alex waved, catching his attention. He ducked his head down and started in their direction. Glancing around the room, he slid into the booth next to Cat. She shot him an arch look, but he only grinned and wiggled his brows. He’s had a crush on her forever now, but Cat wasn’t even the tiniest bit interested, and Fredie knew it. Still, he liked to get under her skin and needle her every once in awhile, just for kicks.
“How goes it, ladies?” He sniffed the air and a contented purr rumbled in his throat. Fredie was a partial-shifter, bobcat or sphinx or something. Or so she’d heard. Maybe that was why she preferred dealing with him over most of the other bookies. At least he was in the “cat” family, so to speak. Whatever the reason, he was the only bookie that didn’t get Cat all riled up and ready to fight, and he was the only one Alex didn’t get any skeevy vibes from, which was a win in their world. Since the Purge, there were plenty of people that seemed to enjoy giving in to their baser, more animalistic instincts. Alex had to put them in their place on the regular, and beat them off Cat, too. Totally exhausting, if she was honest. But it was the world they lived in, so she got used to it quick.
Fredie took out his little notebook that he kept track of bets in, and fished around behind his ear for the ever-present pencil he kept there. “So, who you bettin’ on today? Lemme guess… that Dreyfus fellow?”
Alex and Cat nodded and quipped in tandem, “You know it!”
He grinned a toothy grin and gave us both a sly look. “You know, you two could get in the ring this week, too. Everyone loves good girl fight. I know people who would lay down some big money if you did.”
Alex shook her head. “No thanks. You know we don’t like to fight unless the winning pot is worth it. I happen to know, this one ain’t. Good try, though.”
Cat snickered and shot Alex a look. She bobbed a slight nod in agreement. They both knew it wasn’t worth it to expose themselves so publicly and risk accidentally revealing they were full Jag. Every time they fought during training, they had to exert tons of self-control just to not accidentally shift. The upside was their self-control had increased by leaps and bounds since the Purge. But if they were shift or use their powers and someone from NuGen happened to be watching, it would be a dead giveaway. Their strength, speed, and instincts were exceptional, and definitely not those of a partial-shifter. So unless the winning pot was crazy big, they refused to even risk it. But that didn’t stop Fredie from trying to convince them every chance he got.
She and Cat were content to place smart bets, if there was such a thing, then sit back and collect their winnings. They took some losses, but not too often. And they never risked more than they could afford to lose. They had to make extra cash somehow because tending bar and cocktail waitressing at the Renegade just didn’t cut it. Most of the people that came in to that place were there to watch the fight and cheer on their fighter. Few were in a position to tip much, if at all.
The service industry was nothing like it was before the Purge. Bartenders and cocktail waitresses made bank in those days, because money was there with plenty to go around. Now, people were doing their best just to survive. If they could squeeze in a little entertainment along the way, even better, but she and Cat learned early on not to expect anything spectacular. They made do with what they could get their hands on and tried to bet on at least two good fights a month to keep things interesting.
Fredie scribbled something in his notebook and glanced up with squinty eyes. “How much you puttin’ down on your fellow this time?”
Cat and Alex looked at each other with raised brows. Cat turned back to Fredie and spoke up first. “Put me down for $500.”
Alex nodded her agreement. “Same.”
Fredie’s eyes lit up and he scribbled in his notebooks some more. “Youse guys must be pretty sure of your fighter this go round. That’s a hefty chunk of cheese. I’d be careful, word on the street is his opponent is pretty nasty.”
Alex shrugged. “What fight isn’t nasty? Isn’t that the nature of a good brawl?”
Fredie clucked his tongue and nodded his head. His eyes twinkled with sly merriment. “True, true.” Alex could practically see the dollar bills dancing in his pupils.
Cat piped up. “Besides, Dreyfus is pretty nasty himself. I’m not worried. He can handle his own. You know we never make bets we can’t afford to lose.” She puffed on her nails and buffed them on her shoulder in a show of exaggerated confidence. Alex only rolled her eyes. Her friend was so over-the-top sometimes.
Fredie leaned back in the booth. He tucked his pencil back behind his ear and his notebook back into his front pocket before running his thumbs up and down his suspenders and smiling. “Hey, you ladies can bet on whoever you want. I’m not here to judge. You know I make money either way.”
Alex and Cat smirked at each other. Didn’t he though. Sometimes Alex and Cat debated whether or not they should take up being a bookie as a trade. Then they thought of some of the questionable characters they’d met the last couple of years and shuddered. No way did they want to join their ranks. Fredie was tolerable, but the rest… no thanks!
Alex picked up her mug of beer that sat untouched for the last half hour, and took a deep swig. She grimaced and wiped her mouth. Kinda room temp, but she guessed that’s what she got for letting it sit and perspire on the table. She clunked it back down and slid out of the booth, tipping her head in Cat’s direction. She lifted a brow. “Ready to get out of here?”
Cat nodded and slid out behind her. They both stood and gave Fredie a casual salute.
“Thanks Fredie. See you soon.” Cat sauntered across through room to the exit, and Alex trailed after her. She almost smiled at the way Fredie’s gaze stayed glued to her friend’s bottom. Some things never changed. Clearly, the male libido was one of them.
Alex glanced up as she stepped outside, and noticed the sun sinking fast. She didn’t realize the day had passed so quickly. She needed to get home to Jericho. She touched Cat’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I’m going to head home, Jericho will be getting back soon.”
Cat nodded. “Sure. I just have to take care of a couple more errands before dark, and then I’ll meet you both there.”
“Sounds good! Bring your cards. I’ll provide the grub.”
Cat snickered. “Will do. But maybe let me bring the grub too. I’ll pick up something on the way.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “Fine. I won’t argue.” They both knew her cooking sucked. Cat bringing dinner was a kindness to them all, really. She knew Jericho would be especially appreciative, the finicky little brat. They parted ways, and Alex picked up her pace, eager to get home and check in on her baby brother.
Jericho still wasn’t home when she got there. Alex flipped on the lights, chasing away the shadows that lingered in the corners. They might not have running water yet, but at least they had lights and power. That meant they could cook and store food and stay relatively cool during the hot, muggy summer months. She opened the door to his room just to be sure, but saw no sign of him. He must still be running around with his buddies. She knew he would be home soon though because they had a rule on how late he stayed outdoors after dark and a rule about eating the evening meal together.
She started prepping for dinner, pulling out plates and silverware and setting the table. It was a habit that was ingrained from her childhood, and it gave her peace to continue the tradition, even though everything was so different now. Somehow, it made her feel more connected to her human nature, and in some weird way, her parents. As if by doing an activity as mundane as setting the table for dinner, it canceled out how crazy life became that horrible day. Plus, it made her feel closer to the family they’d lost, like her mom and dad might walk through the door at any moment and tell her this had all been a crappy dream.
Alex snorted. Fantasyland, she knew. This life was no dream, and dead people didn’t magically come back to life. At least, she didn’t think they did. That would be some very black magic indeed.
The door slammed and Jericho blew in, his chocolate hair tousled and his dark eyes crinkled with laughter as he shouted bye to one of his friends. He glanced up and met Alex’s gaze. Hers softened. “Hey there, slugger. You made it home.”
Jericho shrugged. “Yeah, safe and sound. See?” He twirled in a circle just for Alex’s benefit, and she shook her head. A smile tugged at her lips. Smart butt.
“Cat should be here any time, why don’t you get cleaned up?”
His eyes lit up. “Ooh, is she bringing dinner?”
Alex stuck out her tongue and made a face, mimicking his tone. “Yes, she’s bringing dinner.”
Jericho released an audible sigh of relief, and Alex resisted the urge to throw a plate at his head. His eyes glittered with an amused expression. “Don’t do it, sis!”
She pressed her lips together and tipped her nose in the air, donning a mask of innocence. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” She continued to set the table and made a big show of ignoring him. He just laughed and headed into the bathroom to wash up. Alex finished her task and opened the fridge to see what they had on hand to drink that evening. She frowned, disappointed at the selection. What she wouldn’t give for a nice, cold glass of sweet tea right about now. Sadly, sugar was too much of a luxury item these days, so all they had was unsweet tea. Resigned, she pulled out the pitcher and set it on the counter, along with three cups.
She knew Jericho was getting more sensitive to her thoughts and moods. She supposed it might be a natural evolution of their abilities. When they changed into Jag form, they found they could communicate telepathically with zero effort. At first, they couldn’t do it in human form. But now that they’d become more adept at shifting and using their magic, she figured their talents must be getting stronger. That was the only reason she could come up with to explain the weird, telepathic link she’d begun to feel with her brother and with Catalina. She wondered if maybe it was a shifter thing, or if it was something unique to felines.
She’d read up on cats in the wild and Jaguars in particular at the town library after the Purge. Her dad always said knowledge was power. The more she knew about Jaguars in general, the better she’d be able to understand her own inner Jag. From her studies, she knew they didn’t typically live in groups or prides like lions. Jaguars tended to be loners except when mating. So that right there was one thing different about her and Jericho and Catalina. They all three preferred being together over being alone. She supposed that could be due to the vestiges of humanity they still clung to. They clutched at them like like a well-worn blanket. Honestly, she didn’t know much about their new nature, or what their future held because of it. Everything about what happened to them in the Purge was a huge question mark with WTF hanging over their heads. But it was a question mark she was determined to find answers to.
She heard a tap on the screen and the front door opened. Cat stepped in, loaded down with bags of food from the only place in town you could get take-out from. Alex had no idea where the guy got his supplies, but somehow he managed to stay open for business and feed half the local population too, on the regular. She didn’t question it though, because Jarvis had saved her bacon (like literally, saved her some bacon), on numerous occasions. He was the only thing that kept her, Jericho, and Cat from starving due to Alex’s atrocious cooking skills. And sometimes, he even threw in a treat to spoil them all. He had a soft spot for Alex and Jericho because he’d known them as kids. He lost his entire family in the Purge, so she suspected it made him feel needed to help her and Jericho out. If she was honest, it made her feel good too, knowing he was around and looking out for them.
Alex sniffed appreciatively. A low growl rumbled in her throat and she snatched the bags out of Cat’s hands. Cat widened her eyes and held her hands up.
“Hey, now! I know you’re hungry, but jeez… I worked hard to get the last of those!”
Alex sniffed again and her body vibrated with a deep purr. Ribs. She could hardly believe Cat brought home ribs! She hadn’t had a good rack of ribs since before the Purge.
“Jarvis made ribs? Where did he get them? Oh my gosh, these smell amazing!”
Cat nodded. “Yeah, and they were about gone too. Lucky he’s got a soft spot for you and Jericho, or we’d all be out of luck. He set some aside for us. He said he figured we’d be by this evening at some point, and he wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out. I guess he got some new delivery in today, and the ribs were a treat he didn’t expect.” She shrugged and inhaled too, her lips curving in a mischievous smile. “Who am I to argue when a man wants to give me treats?” Her pupils dilated and glowed briefly, her inner feline making an appearance as she all but purred that last part.
Alex laughed and shook her head. “Who indeed? Never mind Jarvis is old enough to be your grandfather!” Cat snickered and sauntered to the fridge. Her sound of disgust when she looked inside mirrored Alex’s from earlier.
“Sorry. All we’ve got is unsweet tea and water. But hey!” Alex held up the bags and shook them enticingly. “We’ve got ribs!”
Catalina sighed and grudgingly poured herself a glass of unsweet tea. “You’re right, I know. Thank God for small favors, right?” She tipped her glass in Alex’s direction in cheers. Alex finished tidying up and setting the table, and unwrapped the food. She could have died and went to heaven right then from just the smell, but managed to contain herself. She peeked in another bag and found crusty rolls of bread and some kind of mashed something. She thought it might be potatoes, but she wasn’t sure. Jarvis liked to experiment. Potatoes weren’t always readily available so sometimes he mashed up other veggies as a stand-in. Alex had no complaints, everything he made was a gazillion times better than her cooking on her best day, and she didn’t have many of those to begin with.
Jericho came back out, smelling much more fresh than when he first arrived. Thank God. His man-child smell was almost debilitating at times with their newfound abilities and extra sensitive noses. She was grateful puberty didn’t last forever. He sniffed and his own eyes lit up. “Is that—?” Alex grinned and nodded before he finished his sentence. “Ribs!” they yelled in tandem. They both burst out laughing.
Cat just chuckled and shook her head. “So are we going to eat these racks of dead carcass any time soon, or just admire them from afar?”
Alex grabbed a big spoon for the veggies and tongs for the ribs, then motioned to Cat and Jericho. “Go on, dig in. Make your plates. Everything is ready, I just have to pour Jericho a drink.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Tea is just “dirty brown water” to you without sugar in it.” She rolled her eyes, but Jericho only shrugged and gave Alex an innocent look.
She poured him some water and set it down in his spot. “To each their own!”
They all made their plates and settled down at the table to eat. Catalina busted out the cards and they played a few rowdy games of War and Go Fish, bantering, talking smack, and polishing off every last bite. Alex licked her fingers, sitting back in her chair with a contented sigh as she watched Cat and Jericho fight over who was winning. She only had one thought in her head.
Man, I sure missed ribs.
It was getting late when Jericho headed off to his room to crash for the night. Alex and Cat curled up on the couch for some girl talk. It seemed like such a normal activity, even though their lives were nowhere near normal. But it was the little things, like setting the table for mealtimes or curling up on the couch to chitchat that made this new life of theirs tolerable. Cat wrapped her fingers around her mug of tea and cast Alex an arch look.
“What?” Alex picked at an invisible piece of lint on the couch, studiously ignoring her friend’s piercing gaze. She knew the minute Jericho went to bed, Cat would be all over her about the mystery fighter from the other night. But that was just it. He was a mystery. She didn’t know him. And she definitely didn’t know enough about him to warrant the level of attraction she felt watching him fight.
Cat waved a hand in the air and brushed off her attempt at deflection.
“Don’t “what” me, Alex Ravane. Have you seen him? Mr. Hottie from the cage the other night?”
Alex shook her head. “No, of course not. Why would I have seen him? I don’t even know the guy.”
“Oh, give me a break, Lex! I saw the way you were looking at him, don’t play dumb.” Cat teased her, “You mean to tell me, you didn’t even ask Dreyfus if he knew him?”
Alex rolled her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding. Dreyfus would never let me live it down if I went asking him questions about some dude. Beside, you know how territorial and protective he can be. No need to get his lion’s mane ruffled over nothing.” She glared at her friend, giving her a warning look, “And it is nothing.”
Cat raised a hand in a placating gesture. “Hey, whatever you say, woman. You know me, I’m all about not facing reality and ignoring our feelings. Things are so much more intriguing that way. So you saw a hot stranger at the club. So what? I personally think you could use a little distraction in your life. Don’t read so much into it. Cut loose and live a little. Try having some fun for once.” She wiggled her brows suggestively and Alex laughed.
“I’m pretty sure your definition of fun and my definition of fun are diametrically opposed.” Alex unwrapped and popped a piece of gum in her mouth. She felt a twinge of sadness when she did. It was the last stick from the stash she brought from their old home. It also happened to be her Dad’s favorite flavor. She shook off the melancholy thought and held the pack out to Cat with a lift of her brow. Cat shook her head.
“Speaking of opposition, when are you going to stop fighting me and move in already? Don’t you think it’s time to ditch that dive apartment you call home and stay here with us? You know Jericho adores you, as do I. You’re family now. Besides, you already hang here most the time anyway.”
Cat laughed. “Yeah, yeah, but at least I have a place I can go back to if I need to. I know it’s a dump and my neighbors are—shall we say—questionable. But, it’s my dive. I like having my own territory, my own space.” She lifted a shoulder in a shrug and tossed her long red braid to one side.
Alex shook her head, but let it go. She’d been trying to convince Cat to move in with them for months now, to no avail. She understood, Cat wanted her own space she could retreat to when necessary. But she didn’t have to like it, the place really was toxic. It was a ratty, one story apartment complex on the lakeside of the state streets, which normally would have been one of the nicer areas. But since the Purge, some questionable partial-shifters had taken up residence there. A few staked their claim on several of the surrounding properties, too, and to make matters worse, not all of them got along, which made the fact that they were neighbors interesting, to say the least.
But Cat seemed to get along just fine with most of them, and flat out refused to move, so Alex gave up trying to convince her. It didn’t stop her from extending the invite every week though, in case her friend changed her mind.
They bickered and bantered back and forth for a few more minutes, before Cat yawned a jaw-cracking yawn and stood, stretching her fingers to the ceiling.
“Alright, girl, I’ve got to get out of here and get some sleep. You’re working tomorrow, right?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah, day shift. Meet after to hit up The Underground?”
Cat grinned. “You know it.”
Alex stood up too and walked her friend to the door. “Be careful on your way home.”
They hugged and Cat walked out, her flame red hair swallowed up by the darkness in seconds.