Zack fumed silently as he waited for everyone to arrive. They weren’t bothering with the formality of a hidden vote – everyone knew the identities of the others anyway, and trying to keep opinions anonymous was stupid – for which he was incredibly grateful. But the fact that they were here now, panicking and racing about like headless chickens, irked him.
It was that idiotic female’s fault. Actually, it belonged to both of them. Olivia’s mistakes couldn’t be helped, it was a part of who she was, but that girl just had to be a perfect target, didn’t she? Was she just too stupid to mind her own damn business?
It really didn’t help that he was currently supposed to be calming down Blake’s aunt. He was more in the mood to join her, in fact. Zack almost wished he’d been able to land a nice, solid blow and wipe the helpless look off her face.
“I told my brother this would happen. I warned him that fool of a girl would be the death of us,” Vijf ranted, doing her best to wear a track through the floor. “But did he listen? No! Of course not, because she had connections to four of us. Like that makes a difference in her mental faculties!”
“Drei was my sister’s best friend. Leave her be.”
“Yes, and it’s her fault we’re stuck with this dead-weight!” Zack ground his teeth together to stop from strangling the woman. God damn him, but he wanted to so very badly. Part of the family or not, she grated on his nerves. “What use is that girl anyhow? All she does is bring trouble on us all!”
“Hatred ruins your looks, Vi. Careful how you use it, or you won’t be any use either.” That shut her up, finally. It was true, too, which made the reminder all the more stinging. Vijf knew that her place was safe, as long as she brought in useful information. She’d built herself a strong foundation, gathering a network of informants who brought information in trade for a little extra cash, but some of the best info came from the men she slept with. Vijf used her body as her weapon, but it was her ears that you had to watch out for.
The silence was depressingly short lived as, only a moment later, the door to the meeting room opened and Dix came in. Zack winked at her, and the older girl rolled her eyes. She was only two years older than he, but in their world that counted for a lot. The fact that she’d been with Deuce steadily for seven only made her more confident. Sometimes, it almost seemed like she’d been a member of the family for three years rather than three weeks.
The others filed in after her – Saith and Wyth, the twins, Akera, the little boy practically bouncing with excitement, Neuf, making his rare appearance from his desk, and Vier, coming to sit beside Zack.
Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve. Only three more, and the vote could begin.
Ace, Deuce and Drei came in together, the last oddly subdued.
Finally, all gathered, they took their designated seats around the table, in order of number rather than seniority. This, unfortunately, put Zack – Sixth – between the still-fuming Vijf and Saith, distinguishable from his brother only in that he openly wore his sneer, while Wyth seemed to at least attempt to disguise his contempt.
“By now I’m sure you have all heard,” Ace began without preamble, for which Zack was grateful, “that we have a candidate for Tera. While the circumstances are… less than optimal, we must still follow procedure. Drei, as you are the one recommending her, please argue your case.”
Zack felt sorry for Olivia as she slowly stood, clearing her throat. The red palm on her cheek was clearly visible to everyone, a testament to Vijf’s rage. “She said she would be a mushroom because they grow on dead things and are poisonous.” And then Olivia sat down.
There was a moment of deadly silence, and then Vijf laughed. It was harsh, full of malice and disgust, and sent chills down Zack’s spine. He’d never liked Blake’s aunt, and was finding that he liked her less and less lately. “If that’s your argument, we should just start the vote now!”
“Vijf, enough. We follow protocol, even if you don’t like it. So shut up.” Ace turned to the rest of the table. It was rare to see him openly hostile, and somehow that bothered Zack. Ace was falling apart, and that meant something was very seriously wrong. “Does anyone else have anything to add?”
“I would like to vouch for the girl,” Bara said, rising. Zack was surprised, sure the doctor had never met her before. Why would he advocate the worth of a complete stranger? “I examined her only a few moments ago, and found signs of severe abuse. Malnourishment, scars, bruises. Some appear to be only a few days old at most.” He looked around the table. “The girl has no emotional connection to her family, no one she could trust with our secrets. She is, in every sense, quite alone.”
“Anyone else?” Ace asked softly. Zack knew he was thinking, could practically see the wheels turning in their leader’s mind, but where those thoughts went, only god knew. Or the devil. “Then we will begin the vote now. Bara?”
The child looked suddenly nervous. Zack could understand. He was Bara and Vijf’s son, but in this he couldn’t follow their example, because they had taken clearly opposite stances. Considering that this was his first major decision, it was an unfair burden to entrust to a child. “Yes,” he finally squeaked, looking down at his hands. Zack could feel Vijf’s rage radiating through the air.
“Yes.” Dix didn’t even wait to be asked. Ace nodded and moved on without comment.
When his turn finally came – two yesses and a no later – he didn’t pause. “Absolutely not,” he replied, voice tightly controlled. Vijf followed his example. Drei voted to induct the girl. Zack felt a twinge of betrayal as Blake nodded too, although he’d expected it. Blake, unlike most of the others, already knew that, if they chose to reject her, the girl would die.
Deuce took the longest of anyone to answer. With three denials already, any more would doom the girl, and he had to know that. He looked at Ace, trying to read the expression in those eyes, before finally nodding wordlessly.
“Congratulations, everyone. We have filled our ranks at last.”
And that was the end of it. No more arguing, no more dissent. There was no taking back a decision like this, no do-overs. But the family had decided, and now she was bound to them with ties stronger than blood, stronger than friendship. Now she was bound to them in a way even Zack still couldn’t comprehend.
But that didn’t mean everyone was happy about it. He wasn’t the only one who stormed from the room, although he was the quickest. Blake followed after wordlessly; worry clear in his expression and haste. He probably thought Zack would do something stupid, maybe kill the girl, but he was wrong. Zack was simply going to blow off some steam.
It was easy enough to ditch his friend, considering all he had to do was lock the car doors before Blake could climb into the passenger seat, then drive off. And Zack knew exactly where he was going, because there was only one way to stop the adrenaline pounding through his veins.
Someone had to die, and if it couldn’t be a family member, well, there were others on his list anyway.