Important Note:

It's been a really long time since the last chapter.

If you have been following this story and reading this update, thank you sincerely for your support for all these years. ❤️ I would appreciate it greatly if you could go back and read the previous chapters as they've all been edited and improved drastically (at least, I think so).

If you are new to this story, ignore this and enjoy. :D

7 - A Marshmallow with Pretty Eyes

It's already Saturday before I know it, and even though all I want is a full day's worth of sleep, I know that's not going to happen because that asshole Esau has promised fake-ass Kate that we'd go to her fake-ass party that I know she's only set up to get in Esau's pants. I really don't want to be there to witness that, but so far I haven't been able to come up with a good enough excuse to get out of it. Esau, being the idiot he is, hasn't even clocked the fact that I would much rather spend the weekend in a pit of cockroaches than spend it anywhere near that plastic bitch.

"Seriously, if you make me go, I'm going to go ballistic and stab everybody there and you'll have to explain to the cops why you brought an insane murderer to the place," I threaten him in one more attempt to get out of going. Nothing else seems to have worked so I have no reason to believe that this one will do the trick, but hey, I've got to try anyway.

Esau looks up at me, his mug of coffee almost at his lips. He pauses so it gives me time to stare at the pattern on the mug. It's decorated with fluffy little bunnies all along the side. When I'd first seen it, I thought it must have been a prank gift from someone, but he'd explained that he'd actually picked it out for himself. I'd given him endless taunts for that, but he'd only laughed and shrugged and said that he liked it because it's 'cute'. 'Just like you, sugar-bunny,' he'd said, winking at me. I shake the memory out of my head and focus again on Esau, the bunny mug still hovering half an inch from his mouth.

"Look, if you really don't want to go, I can't force you. I just figured it'd be a good chance for you to go somewhere new for once," he says finally. He's sounding all too reasonable all of a sudden and it makes me doubly suspicious that he's got something else up his sleeve.

"I don't care for parties, and I especially don't care for that one," I growl at him. "You just want me to go because you like to torture me."

"I really don't," Esau replies instantly. "I wanted you to have some fun, though. But fine, if you really don't want to, you don't have to. You're free to make your own choices." He smiles at me, but it's not as broad as his usual ones. Those words sound vaguely familiar but I'm too relieved by the fact that he's finally given in that the thought is swiftly pushed out of my mind.

I blink. "What, really? That's it? You're gonna let me stay home then?" I ask, just to make sure that he's not bullshitting. "And you're not going to whine and be all clingy about it?"

Esau shrugs. "Like I said, I can't make you. I would have liked it if you'd have gone with me, but…" Finally he takes a sip of bunny coffee, then sets the mug down. "Anyway, I'm sure you'll miss me within the first five minutes. Just call me anytime and I'll come home for you," he chuckles and winks at me before heading toward his bedroom.

A surge of rage at his words brings me to my feet, but I take a deep breath to calm myself. Just let this one go. At least I don't have to go to the damn party after all. I'll get back at him later, when he least expects it. I grumble to myself before heading over to the living room and plopping down on the sofa. Maybe I'll finally be able to beat that game, now that I have all day to myself without Esau prodding at my nerves the entire time.

I've already gotten partway through one map when Esau comes out of his room, having changed into more party-appropriate clothes and (I'm guessing) having done up his hair. I toss him a glance as he comes up behind me to peer at my in-game progress. His face is a lot closer to mine than I'd expected and I give a small jump. "Jesus Christ, don't sneak up on me like that," I snap at him and quickly turn my attention back to the game. "You almost made me die."

"Can't believe you're so much better at this game already than I am," Esau chuckles. He leans farther over the back of the sofa and puts his face right into mine. I manage to press the pause button just in time as I give him a death-glare. I'm on a pretty good streak right now and I'll be damned if I let him ruin it.

"Last chance. You sure you don't want to come?" he asks. His face is so close to mine that I get a big whiff of his cologne. I can't help but stare into his grey eyes, considering we're so close. For some reason, it takes me a moment longer than I would have liked to scrunch up my face into a sneer.

"Dead sure. Now get the hell out of my face so I can finish this damn map."

Esau straightens up and ruffles my hair with a chuckle. "Okay, okay. Don't play too much and make sure to get your assignment done for Kyle."

"Yes, mom."

"Don't wait up for me, sugar-bunny." He's got that dumb shit-eating grin on his face when I whip around to chuck a cushion at him. He damn well knows I fucking hate that stupid-ass 'nickname', so he should also know perfectly well that a pillow to his face is actually me going easy on him just because I'm distracted by the game right now. "But call me if you miss me, and I'll come home right away," he adds after catching the pillow and tossing it back to the other end of the sofa.

He finally leaves with that comment and an accompanying wink. I turn back to the TV in a huff, and when the front door closes just a little after that, I mash the Start button to un-pause the game.

I've probably been playing for a few hours straight now, and I've been so caught up in the game that I neglected all bodily functions. Just as I finish a map, I instantly make a wild dash to the bathroom to relieve myself of the three cream sodas I've chugged. Just as I finish shaking off and go to wash my hands, I hear the front door opening. What the hell? There's no way Esau could be back already. Quickly rinsing my hands and drying them off, I yank the door open and walk out into the hall. "What the fuck? What are you doing back so—" I stop short and stare at the stranger, who also freezes in the middle of dropping her handbag on the floor.

Our silent stand-off continues for half a minute before finally she speaks first. "Are you Ian?" There's a hint of loftiness in her voice that puts me a bit on edge. Who does she think she is? She's the one who barged into this place unannounced. How the hell did she even get up here in the first place? There's no way she got up the elevator without a key fob, and I know Mr. McMaster wouldn't have let her up if she wasn't supposed to be here.

"Yeah. Who the fuck are you?" I demand, narrowing my eyes at her. Is she Esau's girlfriend or something? No, there's no way. She knows my name, and I seriously doubt even Esau would be dumb enough to tell his girlfriend that he's secretly been harbouring a random teenager he picked up off the streets, let alone the name of said teenager. Besides, I would hope that at least Kyle would have told me if Esau had a girlfriend this whole time.

To my surprise, she actually gives me a smile now. "I'm Esau's manager. Kaliah Bryant. Guess he hasn't told you about me," she introduces herself and extends a hand to me. I hesitate, but eventually shake it. For some reason, I'd been assuming that his manager was some straight-laced old fogey, so I'm still not quite sure if I believe her. Then again, if she wasn't, how else would she have been able to get up here?

"Where's the idiot at?" she asks after I pull my hand away. She swivels her head to peer first over my shoulder down the hall, then the other direction toward the living room. My apprehension toward her softens a bit at that. If she calls him an idiot too, she can't be all bad. Besides, if I remember correctly, she was the one who picked out the F458 for Esau, and anybody with good taste in cars is good in my books.

"He's at some party," I answer, but she's already started walking down the hall without even waiting for me to say anything. She opens all the doors and pokes her head into every room as she goes, as if she's expecting to find Esau hiding from her in any one of the rooms. "Uh, you want me to call him or something?"

"Nah. Idiot probably won't pick up anyway if he's at a party," she mutters as she steps out of the last doorway. Apparently finished with inspecting the place and satisfied that there's no trace of Esau, she finally turns to me again properly. "Besides, I came to talk to you."

I only realise that I've been trailing after her when I stop short in my tracks at those words. "Me? About what?" I blurt out. Is she here to tell me to get the fuck out of the apartment and that I need to go home or something? Some tiny part of my subconscious has been thinking that eventually someone was going to call me out on this whole staying-at-Esau-Reiner's-penthouse-for-free-with-no-kickbacks-whatsoever situation, and maybe the collectors have finally come a-knocking.

"Chill, Marshmallow, I don't bite," she says, waving a hand at me airily. "You want anything to drink?" She turns and walks toward the kitchen. I frown at this as I continue plodding warily after her. She must be really close with Esau if she's comfortable enough to go around treating this place like her own.

I lean an elbow against the kitchen bar counter, still watching her with a cagey gaze. "No, I'm good," I mutter as I watch her open the fridge, examine the contents, and eventually pull out a carton of apple juice. She helps herself to a glass from the cupboards and pours some juice into it, not even bothering to give me a second glance. I'm getting uncomfortable again at her casualness. "So uh… You're his manager? What did you want to talk to me about?" I prompt, hoping to put some of the mounting pressure I feel back onto her.

She takes a few sips of juice, still completely silent. After a while, she puts the glass down on the countertop and leans forward onto her elbows toward me. The intensity makes me want to tilt away, but I stand my ground. I'll be damned if I let some rando get the better of me.

"Ah. I get it now," she finally declares with a grin. Lifting the glass to her lips once more, she drains the rest of her juice before turning to place the empty glass into the sink.

"Uh, get what?" I don't know why, but rather than getting pissed off at her like I would with other people being all cryptic like this, I'm actually getting even more uneasy.

Turning back again, she leans over the counter farther this time so that her face is closer to mine. "You got real pretty eyes," she says, but this doesn't clarify anything worth a damn. In fact, it just makes me even more confused, and frankly, a little creeped out.

"Not to be rude, but what the fuck are you talking about?" I demand, finally giving in to her seemingly invisible pressure and leaning back a bit. "Why the hell are you here?" I add for safe measure. If I'm going to be a little rude, might as well go all out.

"Don't you be givin' me no attitude," she warns me, cocking an eyebrow at me and lifting her hand with the pointer finger straight up. "Just paying you a compliment, kid."

My brows furrow at her. "Doesn't really sound like it," I mumble. "What do you 'get' then?" I still have no idea what she's even going on about, and here I was under the impression she wanted to talk to me. "I really don't know—"

"So you doing the movie thing?" she cuts me off. She's still staring me down that makes me feel like I'm the size of a mote of dust. "That idiot texted me but he didn't give me any details so I had to go around asking Willis and Carter."

"Oh. Well… Yeah. Was I not supposed to?" I ask, taken aback slightly. Her tone isn't accusatory or anything, but I still feel like I'm being interrogated for a crime that I'm being framed for. "I mean, I did tell O'Connell that I'd only do it as a trial and I haven't signed—"

Inspecting her fingernails briefly, she shakes her head. "No, no, no. I don't mean that. I mean, do you actually want to do the movie?" she cuts me off with her question. "The idiot didn't blackmail you or anything?"

At this, I finally feel less uneasy and actually get a little irritated. "Look, I'm not some pathetic loser who can't look after himself. I don't let anybody force me into anything I don't want to do. And I definitely don't let people blackmail me into anything," I bristle at her. I don't tell her the obvious fact that unfortunately it does seem that Esau somehow manages to get me to do things I don't necessarily want to, but at least it's true that I did choose to do the movie myself. "If you're going to tell me that I can't because I don't have my parents' permission or some bullshit, you can save your breath because—"

"You're a lot smarter than I thought, kid, but you're still just a kid," she sighs and shakes her head again. "I wasn't saying you're a loser if you let Esau drag you into this shit. I'm just saying—ah, forget it. You wouldn't get it anyway."

My temper flares and I straighten up again to my full height to glare at her. "You calling me dumb?" I snarl at her indignantly. "Cut the bullshit. If you're not going to actually talk to me, then I'm not going to stand here wasting my breath." Shooting her one more glare, I turn and head to the living room to get back to the game that I had left on while I had gone to take a piss.

To my annoyance, she sits down next to me on the sofa a few seconds later. She doesn't say anything though, even as I press the Start button for a new game and continue playing. In fact, she stays quiet while I play. Pretending like this doesn't bother me, I keep my eyes forward on the TV screen instead and ignore her. Why can't there ever be a normal day in my life when I can just enjoy playing video games (or ogling sports cars) in peace?

"Is this all you do with the idiot then? Play video games?" she finally asks after a while.

I get to a loading screen so I can spare a few seconds to toss a sidelong glance at her. She's on her phone and not even looking at me. I shrug and turn my attention back to the TV. "Sort of. Not like there's a whole lot else to do."

"Don't you go outside?"

At the mention of 'outside', my mind flashes back to a nearby park bench where a crowd of people is staring at me, and I balk. Shaking my head roughly to push that thought out, I utter a curt, "No." Why the hell did she have to go and make me think of that time again? Too bad science hasn't advanced far enough yet to be able to permanently remove memories from people's brains. I'd use it frequently if only the technology existed.

"Scarred from the last time you went out?" she asks so casually that it grates hard on my nerves. I have half a mind to throw the controller at her, but I resist the urge and just mash a bit harder on the buttons instead. My game gets worse as a result, but I'm going to blame her for it. "We should get you some new clothes for next time," she adds, and this time I jab my finger on the Start button before glaring at her.

"There isn't going to be a next time." It had been a mistake when I had gone out last time, but it's a mistake I've damn well made sure to learn from. "Are you just here to nag me or something? He already does that enough and I don't need two moms."

She finally looks up from her phone and straight at me. One eyebrow is raised as she sizes me up and down. "How old are you, Marshmallow?" Apparently she's here to ask me questions but not answer any of mine. That's just frickin' great.

"Old enough. What's it to you?" I'm pretty fed up with her now and I'm hoping that she'll take the hint from my voice and leave me alone.

"Are you giving me attitude again, Marshmallow? " she says, sitting up straight and putting her fist up against her waist again.

"What if I am? You're all talk so far, why should I believe you're going to actually do anything about it other than blab my ears off?" I snap back at her. I lower the controller into my lap as I shift one arm up to the back of the sofa so that I can glare at her full-on.

We glare at each other in silence for a minute before she cracks a grin and busts out laughing. "You're alright, Marshmallow. But seriously, you okay here with that idiot? He's not doing stupid shit? I mean—" she smoothly adds when I open my mouth, "—other than the stupid shit he already does."

I clench my teeth in a grimace before slowly turning back to the TV. I've had enough of this. I'm going to finish this goddamn game if it's the last thing I do. I un-pause yet again and start jamming the buttons of the controller so hard it starts squeaking and clicking dangerously. "Not like I've got any other choice, do I?" I grumble at her after blowing up some in-game aliens. "Don't know how much you know about how I ended up here in the first place."

Out of the corner of my eye, I see her turn her attention back down to her phone and sigh heavily. "Obviously, the idiot was too scared to tell me straight up, but I got the story from other sources," she says, sounding sort of pissed. As long as she's not pissed at me, considering I haven't done anything wrong, I don't really care either way, so I just keep my attention on the game.

A lightbulb goes off in my brain all of a sudden when I finally finish this map and get to a loading screen. "Wait. I've heard your name before. You know Kyle, don't you?" I narrow my eyes at her and frown as I jog my memory from the first time I met Kyle (and his beautiful cars) and what he'd said when we'd first stepped into his place.

'Is it true what I heard from Kaliah? Are you guys really hooking up?'

"You were the one who said to Kyle that Esau and me are—" I explode. This time I actually do throw the controller down, and it bounces off the rug and clatters a few feet away. "What the fuck! Why the fuck would you say shit like that?" Twisting around to face her on the sofa, I clench my fists and try extremely hard not to punch something. "Wait. What exactly did Kyle tell you?"

Kaliah looks up from her phone, and just to make me even angrier, she's fucking grinning at me. I furiously get to my feet to kick her ass but she says, "You're cute when you're pissed off, Marshmallow, but sit your ass back down and chill out. I didn't say shit to Kyle, and he just told me the facts." She drops her phone into her lap and turns to me, propping her elbow up on the back of the sofa. "So yeah, I know you don't have anywhere else to go right now. But if you really don't want to stay here, you don't have to, you know. I can find you your own place."

Her words stun me into silence. Is that really possible? Did Esau never tell me this because he knew I'd jump at the chance? But then again, how the hell would that even work? I furrow my eyebrows and frown at her. "Believe me, if I could have gotten my own place, I'd have done it long ago. But how the hell would you even get me a place? I don't exactly have any cash. I can't even afford a goddamn bike shed, let alone a place like this." I sweep my arm in a semicircle to gesture at the apartment. Even saying the words makes me feel like shit. Am I just taking advantage of the fact that Esau is loaded?

Seeming to catch onto the fact that I'm starting to feel weirdly uncomfortable about freeloading off Esau, Kaliah's face softens a little. "Yeah, I know, but there are some options. It's all up to you. If you really hate it here, I mean." She pauses. "I can tell Esau's not telling me shit because he knows he's doing something not completely right."

"So you think he should have just left me there in the ditch."

"I ain't saying that, Marshmallow. Anyway, a cute kid like you, I'm sure somebody else would have helped you out eventually."

"That doesn't make me feel any better," I tell her with a scowl.

I haven't actually thought about what would have happened to me if Esau hadn't brought me here that time I got mugged. Would somebody else have done the same? Call me cynical, but I get the feeling that not everybody in this dog-eat-dog world would be a crazy lunatic who would take home some random kid from the street, no questions asked. Even still, I guess I'm kind of glad that he did what he did, otherwise I'd probably be dead in a dumpster right about now, rather than being interrupted from playing video games on a massive TV screen in a penthouse apartment.

When I zone back in, I realize that Kaliah's been watching me intently, her chin resting on her palm. "Do you usually daydream like that?" she asks.

"So what if I do?" I retort, bristling a bit. There she goes, getting on my fucking nerves again. Even if I wanted to kick her out though, I kind of doubt I'd actually be able to. She's got her own keys, for one, and for another, it's not exactly my place to kick her out of. But I have to do something to get her out of here so that I can have some peace and quiet on my own. I managed to convince Esau to go to that damn party alone, and I'm not going to let this time of freedom go to waste. "Seriously, what the fuck are you here for? You said wanted to talk to me but all you've been doing is spew bullshit at me. Are you legit going to get me my own place if I want to move out of here or are you fucking around with me?"

She silently drums her brightly-painted fingernails lightly on her chin, eyes never leaving my face. I have to try my hardest not to squirm because I'm starting to feel uncomfortable again. What the hell is up with her? How the hell is she both getting on my nerves and making me nervous at the same time?!

"I'm not fucking around. If you really want to get out of here, I'll help you find your own place. You don't have money now, but it's not like you're doing that movie for free. But I want you to think about it real carefully," she finally says, lowering her hand to grab her phone from her lap. "Esau might be an idiot, but he's not a bad guy. It might help you to hang around him while you get used to your new life, too."

I snort at this. "Why, so I can learn how to be all pretentious and fake like him? No thanks."

Yet again, she doesn't say anything. I annoyedly watch her while she quickly taps out a message on her phone and then drops it next to her. But then to my surprise, she leans forward and picks up the second controller from the coffee table and turns it on. "Come on, let's see how good you are at this game, since that's all you two seem to do around here," she says and gestures toward the controller that I'd chucked onto the floor earlier.

Snorting again, I roll my eyes at her. "Please. Bet you don't even know how the controls work," I mutter, but still get up to grab my controller. I quit the map that I'd been in the middle of so that she can join a new one.

"You're gonna regret that, Marshmallow," Kaliah says with a haughty smirk as the game starts.

Before I even know what the hell's happened, my character's already died. "What the hell?" I inhale and glance sideways while the respawn timer counts down. The moment my character respawns, I dive right back in. No more playing around. I'm going to— "The fuck?! How are you doing that? Are you fucking cheating?"

"That the best you got?" She's got a smug yet bored look on her face when I glare at her the next time she slaughters me in-game. "So what else have you been spending your time doing? Obviously you haven't actually been playing much since you suck this bad."

I let out a growl through gritted teeth and throw everything I've got into the game now. Except this time, I only last maybe half a minute longer than before. The urge to throw the controller again is welling up in me, but I won't let her get under my skin like that. I've got too much pride to give in so easily.

When the game ends, I've barely made a dent on her character and died so many times, I want to quit the game and never touch it again. Huffily, I throw the controller onto the sofa next to me and cross my arms over my chest. Sure, it's a pathetic and immature way to react to losing, but god damnit, I'm not used to losing so badly.

Kaliah reaches over a hand to pet me on the head as she croons, "Aww, cheer up, Marshmallow. You did alright, you know. Just don't get so cocky next time and maybe I'll let you win one."

For some reason, even though it pisses me off to no end whenever Esau ruffles my hair, I'm not nearly as pissed off as I thought I would be at the feeling of her fingers gently combing my hair. What does piss me off is the fact that I'm actually kind of liking it. I don't know why, but it somehow feels…comforting. Almost like a gesture that an older sister would make.

"Fuck off," I eventually mutter and knock her hand away, although it's a bit reluctantly.

"So, let me ask you again. How old are you?" she asks as she pulls her hand back and rests it on top of her leg. "And if you give me attitude again, that game won't be the only place I kick your ass."

My eyes shoot daggers at her and if it's even possible, my scowl deepens even more. I probably look like a turtle going into hiding, the way my shoulders are hunched up so high that my neck is barely there. "Eighteen in a few months. Why do you even fucking care?" I finally mutter through tightly-gritted teeth.

"Well, first of all, I need to know how bad my idiot client fucked up. If your parents ever claim that he kidnapped you—"

"Lucky for you, that's not going to happen," I growl darkly. "My only surviving parent was given a nice bit of hush money by your client."

Kaliah sighs. It sounds like she's suddenly got the weight of the world on her shoulders, but I don't exactly feel very sympathetic right now. She's starting to dig into some really sore topics that I wish could just be wiped from existence. "Yeah, I heard about that from Kyle," she says, "But honestly… I don't even know if E did the right thing or not." Her eyes scrutinize me so hard that it feels like they're shooting straight through my head. "If you had it your way, what do you wish he would have done?"

I don't have an immediate answer. All I can do is gawp at her blankly. If I had to make the choice, what would I have done? What would I have asked Esau to have done? At the time, I'd told him over and over to just leave me out in the ditch, but obviously I'm grateful that he didn't because I'd probably be dead now, or at least pretty damn close to it. But what if that drunk bastard had come looking for me? Then again, that would have been near impossible, considering there would have been no way he'd know where I was. Really, all that shit went down only because Esau forced me to go back to talk to dear old 'dad'. If we hadn't gone in the first place, he wouldn't have known where I was, and there wouldn't have been a need to shut him up with a wad of cash.

"He shouldn't have made me go back to talk to that old bastard," I finally say in a low tone. "Then he wouldn't have known any better and I wouldn't have been bought off him like some useless, filthy object."

"And you think everything would have been okay now?" she asks, "You think you would have been able to lay low, and shit wouldn't have been worse if your father had found you?"

"There's no way he'd have known where I was. I bet he's never even set foot in this part of the city. So yeah, I'd say it would have been infinitely better."

Kaliah tilts her eyebrow at me skeptically. "He wouldn't have found out about you being in a big movie production?"

My mouth opens to make a snappy comeback, but I come up a bit short. As much as I want to believe that the drunk bastard wouldn't have found out because he doesn't care about anything except his vices, it's still hard to imagine that he wouldn't have eventually seen something in a magazine, or tabloid, or poster, or trailer, or wherever the hell else advertises the movie. I don't know exactly how much money Esau gave him back then, but it sure as shit wouldn't have been enough if he knew he could have gotten more. Feeling defeated, my shoulders sag and I glower down at my knees.

"Look, Marshmallow, I know this is a shitty situation you're in. I really am sorry you had to go through all this, y'know. But, what's done is done, and all you can do now is make the best of what you've got," she says when I don't say anything for a minute or two. Her tone is so gentle and kind that even though the words are pretty cliché, they make me feel a little less tense. My neck unfurls a little from my shoulders when she pets my hair again.

With a heavy sigh, I close my eyes briefly and wrinkle my nose. "I just wish there would have been an easier way," I mumble. "It's like the universe just won't give me a goddamn break. Ever."

"You kidding me right now?" Her voice is suddenly intimidating again. "Living rent-free in a penthouse, brand new clothes on your back, making an acting debut in a huge production, and spending the weekend playing video games?" She scoffs derisively. "Yeah, sounds like you just can't catch a break, kid."

Instead of relaxing a little, now I'm even more tense and apprehensive than before. She's totally right—there's no two ways around that. I guess that was a selfish thing for me to say, all things considered. It really could have been much worse than Esau having thrown money at the problem—well, mainly my problem of having a deadbeat single parent—and he definitely didn't have to do everything else for me that he's done since then. Maybe I have been a little too much of a bratty little ingrate to him. Even just thinking back to the things I'd said to him before he left for Kate's god-forsaken party earlier makes me suddenly ashamed.

I glance up at Kaliah, who's watching me calmly, but with a muted intensity that makes me feel even smaller still. How the hell did she do that? She didn't even yell or anything, and yet here I am, feeling like I just got the scolding of my life. Turning my gaze away from her, I sheepishly pull my hood up and over my eyes. "I get it. I'm an ungrateful, entitled, selfish little piece of shit," I mumble at her after crossing my arms tightly over my chest again.

"Maybe a little. Doesn't mean you're a bad person though," she says. Like a pendulum, her voice is back to that calming softness again. Normally, it would have driven me crazy how her mood swings so quickly, but I'm still a little too absorbed by my own guilt to pay that too much attention.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see her look at her phone again and then swear under her breath. "Shit. Sorry, Marshmallow. I'd love to stay and play games with you a little longer, but unfortunately I've got a lot of work to do." She gets to her feet after patting my head one more time.

Frowning, I lift my head up to watch her stride to the kitchen. As she pulls a bottle of soda from the fridge, a question suddenly pops into my head. "What does a manager for an actor do, anyway?" What I really want to ask her is whether she could get me a sweet-ass car too once I'm legally allowed to drive, but I figure that's probably not going to fly with her right after she chewed me out for being selfish and entitled.

Kaliah is already halfway to the front door, so I twist around and lean over the back of the sofa to continue watching her. She picks up her handbag from where she'd left it on the floor earlier and pierces me with calculating eyes. She looks like she's about to say something, but then decides against it. Instead, she just shakes her head and says, "Don't got the time right now, but I'll be back. Ask me again next time, okay, Marshmallow?"

I scoff and roll my eyes. "Just asking. Not like I actually care all that much," I mumble with my chin on the back of the sofa.

The door is already opened and Kaliah pauses with her hand on the doorknob to peer at me again. "Let's hope you get over your obnoxious teenage angst once you're eighteen," she sighs. "Oh, and let's keep it between us that I asked if you want to move out on your own. Don't want the idiot freaking out about you wanting to break up with him," she adds just before heading out the door. It closes behind her with a low thunk, leaving me no time to snap back at her.

My ego, shattered from being repeatedly and soundly beaten by Kaliah, keeps me from playing that stupid game anymore, so I shut off the Xbox and instead flop back on the sofa with the TV remote in hand to flip through channels instead. Nothing. Absolutely fucking nothing of interest. How is it possible that there are over two hundred channels and nothing good on any one of them?

I just about turn the TV off in annoyance when a movie trailer comes on. A painfully familiar face shows up on the large screen. Who else would it be but Esau fucking Reiner? With a scowl, my finger reaches again for the power button on the remote, but something stops me before I press it. The camera pans to a close-up of Esau's face, just an inch away from some brunette actress that I should really know the name of, and they exchange a few cliché words in breathy voices before the screen goes dark with just the title splashed in the center of it.

For a couple of minutes, all I can do is sit and stare as a commercial for a life insurance company comes on, but my eyes aren't even close to focusing on the 3D-animated cartoon animals prancing across the screen. That last image from the movie trailer is still burned into the back of my eyeballs, like it's being projected straight into my retinas. Up close on a large screen, it's hard to deny that Esau Reiner's very photogenic—or at least, that the hair and makeup people are exceptional at their jobs. And it's this tangential musing that makes my mind flash back to that excruciatingly embarrassing time, the first time I was on-set and the wardrobe people had trolled me with that stupid underwear prank. I don't know if it's possible to have second-hand embarrassment for yourself, but I feel something like that now as my face starts to burn at the memory and my hands clench up into tight fists.

Right when I'm about to throw the remote at the TV to release the aggravated tension in my body, I hear the front door open. I drop the remote as if I'd been caught red-handed in doing something I'm not supposed to, and whip around to face the door innocently. The moment I see Esau, a startled scowl plasters my face. For some reason, I'd been expecting Kaliah to come back in to say she'd forgotten to tell me something. I mean, I really shouldn't be surprised that it's Esau, considering he obviously lives here, but a teeny-tiny part of me is disappointed for some weird reason I can't seem to grasp.

"Aren't you back a little early?" I ask snidely, glancing down at my phone to check the time. "Struck out with the girls at the party or something?"

Esau looks up at me after dropping his keys on the side table next to the door and, for a fraction of a second, my body freezes as he locks me with those grey eyes that had rooted me in place from the large screen behind me just a few minutes earlier. His signature grin stretches over his lips and he quips, "Jealous, are we?" Chuckling at his own lame 'joke', he comes over to the sofa and throws himself down on the long sectional part of it. "Did you miss me, Ian?"

"Fuck no. And why the fuck would I be jealous?" My scowl deepens as I turn around to face the TV again. Maybe I should play that video game some more and get some practice in, so I can kick Kaliah's ass next time she comes over unannounced again. I'll be ready for her then.

As I wait for the Xbox to boot up, there's suddenly a face in front of my own. I glower at Esau and use the full force of one palm to shove his simpering mug away. "Get out of my face. I'm trying to focus here," I snap at him as I grip either side of the controller with hands tightly clenched.

"Didn't you beat this game while I was gone?" he teases me. Somehow it digs in like a dull knife in my side.

"No. Your stupid manager came by and ruined my winning streak," I seethe at him as I mash my fingers on a couple buttons to get a new game started. I had my previous place saved, but I don't want to show him the pathetic score from when Kaliah had whooped my ass less than an hour ago, so I start fresh as if I'm only just getting to this level now.

As the loading screen sprawls over the TV, Esau sits up abruptly and locks dark, indecipherable eyes on me. I catch him out of the corner of my eye and even though I'm a little put off by his abruptly unsmiling face, I pretend I haven't noticed and keep my attention on the video game.

"Kaliah was here?" he asks in a deadpan tone that is completely devoid of his usual playfulness. "What did she say?"

Taken aback by his sudden seriousness, I just stare at him.

"What did she say to you?" he asks again when I don't answer for almost a minute.

Getting over my momentary speechlessness, I shake my head and say, "Nothing important. We just played games for a bit and then she left."

Esau's expression finally softens into one that's much more recognizable and he cracks a grin. "She kicked your ass, didn't she?" he says as he glances sidelong at the TV.

The game's done loading but I'm suddenly so enraged again that the urge to throw the controller swells up in me again. With every ounce of self-control I can muster, I carefully press the button to turn the console off and place the controller down next to me on the sofa, glowering at the screen the entire time. Even though I haven't said anything, I know that Esau knows that he's right, because he busts out laughing at me.

"Don't worry, it doesn't mean you're bad at the game. She would have been a pro gamer, you know, but she decided she didn't want that lifestyle," he explains as his laughter trails off.

"So she decided to be your manager instead?" I snort at the mere thought. "She's obviously insane, then."

He laughs again. "Yeah, she definitely is," he agrees with a nod. "Guess that's the only way she could put up with me, though."

I don't say anything, but all the things that Kaliah had said to me–especially what she'd said about helping me find my own place if I really wanted to–reel around in my head as my eyes linger on the barely-visible reflections of me and Esau on the blackened screen.


Holy fucking shit, there are no words for how difficult it was to write this chapter. And it wasn't because of the characters because Kaliah's one of my favourites. It was just hard to think of something in this section that would line up the previous chapters with what I had in mind for the next ones.

Basically this was a sort of exposition chapter that was really fucking hard to write and I'm still not sure it does the job, so it'll probably be re-written again very soon if I could just come up with something better.

P.S. Parts of this story have been modernized. It's not meant to be noticeable, but it does make me realize exactly how old the damn thing is. This story's basically a teenager. It was born when flip phones were still a thing. :\